Grit and Flow as alternating Stages on the Road to Achievement?

The MAPP program is a fulltime program – but combines onsite classes with long-distance learning periods. Part of the distance learning comprises a lot of reading (Who would have thought of that…) and writing essays about a wide array of positive psychology topics. I´ve decided to post some of those essays here on Mappalicious. Surely, they´re not the be-all and end-all of academic writing. But then again, it would also be a pity to bury them in the depths of my laptop. So here we go…

Grit and Flow as alternating Stages on the Road to Achievement?

Seligman (2011) posits that engagement, for instance, by regularly entering into a state of Flow (Csikszentmihalyi & LeFevre, 1989), and seeking and realizing achievement (Wiegand & Geller, 2005) on and off the job are two constitutive elements of well-being. These concepts are represented by the letters E and A in the acronym PERMA, Seligman´s current outline of positive psychology. Csikszentmihalyi (1990) characterizes Flow as a state of optimal experience. The most important features of Flow are effortless attention, absence of time awareness, and absence of emotion. Seemingly contradictory, Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, and Kelly (2007) posit that Grit, characterized as a passion and persistence for long-term goals and the associated exercise of self-control (Duckworth & Seligman, 2005), are key predictors of sustainable achievement. In this paper, I will argue that experiencing Flow and exerting Grit may be alternating stages on the same road to accomplishment – much in the same way that in- and exhaling are interchanging phases of the process of breathing.

At first glance, even though both concepts are perceived as pathways to achievement, Flow and Grit do have characteristics that seem to be somewhat incompatible. Grit is theorized as a stable character trait that does not require an immediate positive feedback loop. Individuals high in Grit are capable of sustaining determination and motivation over long periods despite experiences with failure and adversity (Duckworth et al., 2007). Their passion for long-term objectives is the principal factor that provides the energy required to keep on track amidst challenges and set-backs. Using one´s Grit may be gratifying in the end because it helps us to reach long-term goals – but is doesn´t necessarily have to feel good while still being “on the way”. Often, using Grit is the opposite of the characteristic of effortlessness. In fact, it can lead people to “torture” themselves for the “greater good”.

On the other hand, Flow is a state that is “easy” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). While it is important to have feelings of potential control and mastery in order to experience Flow, it does not feel like it is necessary to exert control – things seem to take care of themselves. In fact, most people report that feeling nothing at all is a typical characteristic of being “in the Flow”. Positive feelings only come after the task at hand is done. In addition, experiencing Flow is dependent on regular task-related feedback. It is attained most easily when a person´s skills and the challenge at hand are of equal magnitude.

I propose that the relationship of skill level and the difficulty of the task at hand may be the connection between both concepts. Flow is typically depicted as the optimal level between boredom and anxiety:

Flow Channel

Figure 1. The Flow channel (adapted from Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 70).

It seems likely that gritty persons are typically capable of overcoming the anxiety of facing challenges that seem too difficult at first. They perceive obstacles as challenges, and by conquering these challenges, the continuously expand their skill level. This, in turn, will enable them to potentially experience Flow in more difficult situations in the future. Thereby, the gratifying experience of Flow may be the reward for having pushed one´s boundaries just a little further.

To close this essay with an analogy: in my opinion, the relationship between Grit and Flow resembles the interplay of Yin and Yang in Taoism. Yin is the female, soft, or yielding principle. It can be likened to being in Flow. It´s letting go without losing control, it´s doing without doing. On the other hand, exerting Grit can be likened to Yang: it´s the male, hard, or penetrating principle. It´s holding on to preserve control, it´s doing by taking action. These principles seem to be contradictory – but in fact, they are complementary.


Csikszentmihalyi, M., & LeFevre, J. (1989). Optimal experience in work and leisure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56(5), 815-822.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper-Perennial.
Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087-1101.
Duckworth, A. L., & Seligman, M. E. (2005). Self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting academic performance of adolescents. Psychological Science, 16(12), 939-944.
Seligman, M. E. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York: Free Press.
Wiegand, D. M., & Geller, E. S. (2005). Connecting positive psychology and organizational behavior management: Achievement motivation and the power of positive reinforcement. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 24(1-2), 3-25.



Just found out that I wasn´t the first person on planet Earth to have the brilliant abovementioned thoughts (What was I thinking anyway…). Here´s a very instructive blog post along similar lines by the name of Grand Unified Theory of Mastery.

On Elevation, Admiration, the Goosebumps, and Mandela

ElevationRecently, I´ve written a post on Jonathan Haidt´s research on the emotion of awe. Closely connected to this emotion is the feeling of elevation. In fact, Haidt posits that elevation oftentimes is a result of experiencing awe. Here´s what he has to say on elevation in one of his research articles on that topic:

“Elevation is elicited by acts of charity, gratitude, fidelity, generosity, or any other strong display of virtue. It leads to distinctive physical feelings; a feeling of ‘dilation’ or opening in the chest, combined with the feeling that one has been uplifted or ‘elevated’ in some way. It gives rise to a specific motivation or action tendency: emulation, the desire ‘of doing charitable and grateful acts also.’ It is the opposite of the disgust reaction towards vice. In sum, elevation is a response to acts of moral beauty in which we feel as though we have become (for a moment) less selfish, and we want to act accordingly”.

According to Haidt, elevation can be distinguished from another ‘other-praising’ emotion: admiration. In his words:

“If elevation is a response to moral excellence that does not benefit the self, […] what is the emotional response to non-moral excellence? What do people feel when they see extraordinary displays of skill, talent, or achievement? We nominate the term admiration.”

The following 3-minute Youtube clip invokes a feeling within me that seems to be a blend of both elevation and admiration. It is an African flash mob song performed by the Soweto Gospel Choir in memory and honor of the late Nelson Mandela.* Obviously, I do not understand one word – but I googled it and supposedly it means something like “Bon Voyage” or “Godspeed”. I feel admiration just by listening to the beautiful voices – but there´s also something else. I´m deeply touched and moved to tears even though I do not know what the lyrics are about. ** But just by watching and listening, you can almost physically touch the love that those singers feel for “Madiba”.


* Actually, it´s a commercial – but who cares…
** So far, this has happened just once in my life. That time, it was the song “Kawaipunahele” by Hawaiian singer Keali’i Reichel.

TEDx: The happy Secret to better Work

This is a great and immensely funny TEDx Talk bei Shawn Achor. It has got close to 6 million views on the TED homepage. Good job. I didn´t know Shawn before – until yesterday, where he retweeted my blog post on the 7 most common Misconceptions about Positive Psychology. Good job, too. 😉

I had a black Dog, his name was Depression

Event though this is blog about positive psychology, I´d really like to share with you this educational video about depression created by WHO. Unfortunately, even though so many people suffer from depression, there are even more people who don´t know about the typical symptoms and what it does to us, to our thinking, our feeling, how it interferes with leading a normal life, partnership, and so on. I think, the following video captures all that in a very palpable way. Please share and let other people know, too…

Positive Interventions: An Angel came down

Penn - SnowOne noble duty of positive psychology is to develop positive interventions, intentional exercises that help to build positive phenomena, such as positive mood, character strength, relationships, or meaning in life. I believe that a very simple positive intervention is to listen to right kind of music. So, since Christmas is only about two weeks away, I´m going to share with you my favorite Christmas song. It´s “An Angel came down” from the first album by Trans-Siberian Orchestra, a side project of one of my favorite bands of all time, the mighty glorious Savatage.

For some reason, I can hardly listen to this song without being moved to tears – but usually, they are calm and serene tears. Enjoy…


Winter greetings from Penn (picture)…

7 common Misconceptions about Positive Psychology

P.E.R.M.A.Positive Psychology is not Happyology

Ok. So there´s some truth in this. Positive psychology indeed tries to understand the role of positive emotions in the good life. But they are only one of the five key elements in Martin Seligman´s PERMA concept. I guess most positive psychologists would agree that – at the end of the day – concepts like meaning in life and positive relationships are more important for a life well-lived. Additionally, it is important to acknowledge that positivity is not (only) and end in itself. It may be a powerful way to attain other important things in life (e.g., success at work).

Positive Psychology is not Kitchen Sink Psychology

While there´s nothing wrong with kitchen sink psychology per se, it has to be noted that laypersons get things wrong a lot of times. Even though we should be all experts at living (because that´s what we do all day long…), many people bear serious misconceptions on what makes for a good and happy life. This is where positive psychology as a data-driven science steps in – and often comes up with counterintuitive findings. For instance, if you´re into social media, you´ll know all this TGIF (Thank God it´s Friday) stuff people put on Facebook and Twitter on Friday afternoon. But scientific inquiry time and again is able to show that most people are happier while at work compared to their leisure time.

Positive Psychology is not Self-Help/Positive Thinking

Now this one is so important that I may have to write it down three times. Here we go…

For sure, there are similarities in the subject matters of positive psychology and positive thinking. By way of example, both are concerned with cultivating optimism in individuals, since being optimistic (most of the time) is associated with an array of beneficial outcome variables. The difference is: positive psychology is a science. It´s grounded in thorough academic research. Of course it´s possible to arrive at correct conclusions without conducting large-scale studies – but personally, I feel a lot better when what I recommend to my clients is based on coherent theories and scientific evidence.

Positive Psychology is not headed by some dubious Guru Elite

This point is closely connected to the aforementioned one. Positive psychology is spear-headed by some of the most widely acclaimed psychologists of our time. Among them are Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, and Barbara Fredrickson. And: Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Laureate of 2002, also is among the major contributors to the literature on psychological well-being. Among other things, he´s a co-editor of the seminal book Well-Being: The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology. Yet, the crucial difference between these people and the common self-help guru is not the length of their Wikipedia articles – it´s something else that can be found in this post.

Positive Psychology is not about ignoring negative Emotions

Once again: positive psychology is not about being happy-smiley all day long. It is not trying to eradicate “the Negative”. It´s just that psychology as an academic discipline has very much focused on negative phenomena (such as fear and depression) for the first hundred years. Positive psychology wants to point the spotlight to the positive side of our emotional and behavioral continuum in order to create a more balanced view of human functioning. Actually, negative events and emotions play a crucial role in studying so-called post-traumatic growth which basically is concerned with the question: How can we profit in the long run from going through really hard times in our lives?

Positive Psychology is not only for rich white People

This concern was issued in a recent article by James (Jim) Coyne, PhD, a Clinical Psychologist and Professor in the Department of Psychiatry, University of Pennsylvania – the same university that Martin Seligman is teaching at. Again, there´s a grain of truth here. Positive psychology was coined at several high-end private universities in the U.S. As with virtually all psychological theories, they are first tested empirically using samples of undergraduate students at those universities the researchers teach at. And since these tend to be predominantly affluent white people, there´s is some truth to that criticism. But once again: that´s true for almost any piece of research in any branch of psychology out there. Positive psychologists do acknowledge this caveat and continually try to broaden their (research) perspective, reaching out to international samples and other diverse target groups.

Positive Psychology is not ignoring its Roots, e.g. Humanistic Psychology

Positive psychologists readily do acknowledge the theories and findings that came out of Humanistic Psychology, thereby standing (partly) on the shoulder of giants like Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. Additionally, positive psychology draws heavily on the ancient wisdom of some of the great philosophers. A lot of positive psychologists seem to be very fond of William James, and especially Aristotle and his conception of Eudaimonia. The crucial difference once again is positive psychology´s strong foundation in (experimental) research.

I´d really like to have your feedback on this one. Do you agree? Do you disagree? What did I forget?

Savoring the Positive Moments in our Lives…

In my non-MAPP-student life, I´m (also) an HR guy. Specifically, I work in employer branding and recruiting. HR somehow has got a bad rep – a lot of people will say it´s (one of) the most boring functions in management. Well … I definitely do not agree. And here´s one of the reasons why…

Generation Y: Why we don´t want to lead … like you lead!

I know that about half of my pageviews come from Germany – so I´d like to share with you a presentation I just uploaded on Slideshare. It´s about Generation Y and the future of leadership – but there´s a strong link to positive psychology, especially on the subject of meaning in life.*

* To all English readers: I apologize – maybe I´ll put up a translated version someday…