Happy Thoughts: Here are the Things proven to make you Happier

I´m a little bit lazy with writing these days – or rather, I´m busy busy busy with other pleasurable issues. So instead of writing something myself, I´d like to point your attention to a nice overview article on Positive Psychology on Time Magazine. It´s contains lots of links for further exploration…

Enjoy!

Happy_Thoughts

 

Slideshare Presentation: “What and Why is Positive Psychology?”

For German speakers:

Yesterday, I gave an introductory presentation about Positive Psychology at a business club in my hometown in Germany. I´ve uploaded the presentation to Slideshare.

Enjoy!

 

A little Kindness goes a long Way: heart-warming Short Film about the Power of being a Giver

No time for writing today. But I´d like to share a video with you that powerfully transports the upsides (and to a much lesser extent: the downsides…) of being a “Giver” in the spirit of Adam Grant.

It´s a commercial, alright. But it´s still beautiful…

Enjoy!

 

 

Using Art to Cultivate Mindfulness – or: A pleasant Surprise with Rousseau´s “Unpleasant Surprise”

As I´ve told you before, part of the second MAPP semester is focused on exposing ourselves to different forms of the humanities and art. To this effect, we went on a field trip to the Barnes Foundation in Philly last Friday. It´s an educational institution that is centered around a collection of (mostly) modern art (displaying more that 2,500 objects, among them +800 paintings estimated at $25 billion; lots of paintings by Renoir, Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, Monet, and many others).

The founder, Albert C. Barnes, had a very special take on art. Instead of displaying each work of art on its own (or in it´s own right), he commanded they be displayed in what he called ensembles, arrangements of several paintings, oftentimes covering the entire wall of a room. Additionally, he mixes paintings with pieces of African art, or masterfully crafted everyday objects, such as door handles, large keys, and candlesticks. What is more, there are pieces of classical furniture (mostly chairs) beneath a lot the paintings, giving the whole exhibition the intimate touch of being in someone´s living room(s).

Another important difference compared to traditional museums is a distinct “lack of explanation”. You´ll find the painter´s name on a little metal plate on each picture, but otherwise, there are no displays and no booklets helping the visitor to interpret or understand the paintings. Barnes wanted the visitor to find his/her own approach to the paintings.

I’m not a “museum guy” at all, having rarely visited one after those inevitable 8th grade field trips. As such, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to this part of the class. And at first, my precautions were confirmed: the Barnes collection can really be overpowering. There are so many pictures in so little space that it’s hard to focus. I also felt that all this outstanding works of art would somehow be “wasted on me” because of my lack of education in these matters.

Fortunately, our professor, James Pawelski, had us complete a special task: we were to pick one piece of art that we felt particularly drawn to – and stay with and behold that painting for at least half an hour.

So I ended up spending almost 90 minutes with the painting you’ll see below:

Rousseau: Unpleasant Surprise

Its name is “Unpleasant Surprise” (Mauvaise surprise) and was painted in 1901 by Frenchman Henri Rousseau (whom, quite frankly speaking, I had never heard before…). Now, when you look up interpretations on that painting, most will tell you that the guy on the left is shooting the bear to rescue the naked woman on the right. Additionally, it is inferred that the woman does not really feel threatened by the bear; and that therefore, the man really is the “unpleasant surprise”, depicting man’s growing estrangement from nature as a downside of the increasing use of technology (as signified by the gun).

While I agree to some extent with that interpretation, here I´d like to share with you my own take on that painting – what came out of “wrestling” with it (that´s what it felt like…).

The Fear of Embracing our Divine Nature?

The first thing that struck me upon investigating the scene: to me, it does not really look like the man is shooting the bear at all. It may be hard to see from the picture on the screen – but when you´re standing right in front of the actual painting, it has a more three-dimensional quality. And that gave me the impression the man is really shooting past the bear, right into the ground in front of the women´s feet – as kind of warning shot to keep her from coming closer.

Looking at the overall composition, there´s a clear bisection between the earthly colored left/lower part of the painting including the man and the lower part of the bear, and the colorful right/upper part including the woman, the upper part of the bear, and the lake scenery in the background. The shape of the woman is larger than that of the bear and especially that of the man. While the bear displays long claws and jaws, he does not seem to be particularly dangerous. He rather appears to be an oversized teddy bear that is craving to petted. And even though the man carries a large rifle, he is almost dwarfed by the sheer size of the woman.

Looking specifically at the woman, she may activate a Venus or Eve archetype (the end of the right strand of hair even resembles a snake´s head), being naked and sporting the long hair. Obviously, she has just emerged from the paradisiac lake in the background. She´s staring heavenwards, raising her hands in a kind of “hand´s up” gesture. But it could very well also be alluding to the way priests hold up their hands when blessing the congregation. Putting all these clues together (size, pureness, connection to paradise and the heavenly sphere) I figured she symbolizes the divine and numinous part of human nature. What´s notable in addition: despite the beauty of her body, the distinctly female shape of her contour, her face clearly a masculine touch. Her facial expression could be anything from being sad, disappointed, or maybe unnerved – but she is definitely not scared.

Looking specifically at the man, the most striking feature is that he´s really eyeing the woman when firing the rifle, not the bear. To me, that´s another strong indication for the notion that he´s not shooting at the bear at all. Otherwise, he´s barely visible, blending in with the earthly background. He´s small, earth-bound, and appears to be somewhat frail, thereby signifying the fleshly part of human nature.

Now, the bear seems to be the connecting piece between those two realms. In his rising motion, he tries to escape from the earthly sphere, lifting his upper part into the heavenly domain, eying the woman with (what to me seems to be) an admiring gaze. In mythology, the bear is often depicted as a protector, teacher, and also as a powerful agent of healing. Additionally, he is metaphor for the reconnection with (one´s?) nature.

Overall, the painting is a composition of (more or less) obvious opposites. The “goddess” has a female body but a masculine face. The man is a weak figure but carries a tremendously dangerous rifle. The bear is supposed to be fierce but looks like a plaything at the end of the day. And finally, there´s the divide in the landscape.

But the bear holds the key to overcoming and reuniting was is separated…

————–

I´m going to stop at this point. I feel I´m 80% there. But then, it feels like something constantly escapes my attention and that prevents me from grasping the picture to the fullest. Very interesting. I´m going to come back here once in a while over the next days to look at the picture. Very likely it still has got something (more) to tell me – otherwise, it wouldn´t have picked me (that´s what it felt like…) to stay with it.

Now, has exposing myself to art enhanced my well-being? I´m not sure yet. And I fear I´m still not a museum guy. But for what it´s worth: it has been a powerful lesson on the effect of mindfulness. Without the explicit instruction to stay with one picture I clearly would have missed all the nuanced perceptions I tried to convey in this text.

I was there.

P.S.

I´d really like to hear your take on the painting…

Bibliophilia: How Reading and Writing can Save our Soul

MAPP 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…

Library - Mind - Hospital

I´ve visited the center of the earth. I´ve travelled 20.000 leagues under the sea. And I´ve toured around the world in 80 days. Three times, actually. And most of that journeying happened while sitting in the bathtub of my parent´s home. When I was a kid, I used to be a semi-professional tennis player. Upon returning home after long weekends of tournaments, I would head straight to my parent´s bathroom and into the bathtub – to stay there for hours and hours, until my skin would be all shriveled. Most of the times, my companion (and therefore, first literary love) would be Jules Verne, or rather, those heavy editions with linen covers of Verne´s most famous novels that my grandpa gave to my father – and my father to me. Ever since that time, I have been an enthusiastic reader. My taste in books changed, obviously. In came Stephen King, Jostein Gaarder, Nick Hornby, Douglas Adams, and even Joanne K. Rowlings Harry Potter, among others. And out they went again. For several years now, I have been reading non-fiction for the most part. But the pleasure of reading remains. For me, it is an act of uttermost hedonic value. But that is not what this essay is all about. Instead, I will try to convey how literature informs our understanding of (psychological) well-being, and how reading and writing can have a therapeutic effect and build psychological acumen and resiliency.

In the Beginning was the Word

There are many descriptions and analogies for the unique quality of the human race. Common wisdom from biology holds that we are “homo sapiens (sapiens)”, the knowing (or discerning) man (Semino, Passarino, Oefner, Lin, Arbuzova, Beckman, …, & Underhill, 2000). But that is by far not the only description for the “pride of creation”. There are researchers who argue the most important feature that distinguishes man from his mammalian ancestors is our ability to create, remember, and narrate stories – that we are “homo narrans”: the story-telling men (Niles, 1999). Through the narration of stories, man used to recollect and still does recollect his own history, interprets it, and transfers it to the future generation(s), thereby shaping Hegel´s “world spirit” that strives to recognize itself (Hegel, 1822).

But storytelling is almost never done for sheer fun of it, or for objectively reporting was has been before. Telling stories, be it in traditional oral style, in print, or some audio-visual presentation mode, almost always has some instructive, some prescriptive quality to it. Whoever creates or narrates the story oftentimes wants to instill a change in the recipient, wants him to know or even be something else when the story is over. This educational facet of storytelling can be traced all the way through the literary history, from Homer´s “Iliad” and “Odyssey” and Aesop´s fables, to early religious accounts such as the “Upanishads” and the Bible, to medieval works such as Dante´s “Divine Comedy”, Shakespeare´s works of drama (e.g., “Hamlet”), to the early (e.g. Goethe´s “Wilhelm Meister´s Apprenticeship”) and later (e.g. Dickens´s “Great Expectations”) “Bildungsroman” – all the way up to 20th century masterpieces such as de Saint-Exupéry “Little Prince” and New Age classics along the lines of Bach´s “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” or Coelho´s “Alchemist”.

Oftentimes, this educational element is conveyed by carefully depicting the protagonists´ lifestyles – in order to then confront the recipient with the outcomes of these modes of existence. By way of example, both Leo Tolstoy´s “The Death of Ivan Ilych” (1886/2010) and Willa Cather´s “Neighbour Rosicky” (1932/2010) try to educate the reader (among other things) on the value of and human need for close relationships. While Cather portrays the distinctly positive outcomes of understanding that “no man is an island”, Tolstoy´s narrative describes Ivan Ilyich as a human being that literally dies of social and emotional isolation. So, while both stories do not contain any “how-to advice” such as modern self-help books, it remains unequivocal that they try to convey some underlying and implicit understanding of human well-being, that they represent a prescription for “a life well-lived”.

It´s never too late to have a good Childhood*

A special and utmost important kind of story is the story that we tell about ourselves – to ourselves and other people. On that note, psychotherapy has long since discovered the importance of stories and story-telling. It´s not for nothing Freud´s Psychoanalysis is frequently referred to as a “talking cure”. More and more evidence emerges for the notion that being able to convey a coherent and meaningful account of one´s life is a fundamental building block of psychological well-being (Baerger & McAdams 1999). This idea is not only part of the academic literature, but also an important element of pop culture such as the “connecting the dots” element in Steve Jobs´ hugely popular Stanford Commencement Address (2005).

By now, there exists a multitude of ways that stories and storytelling are consciously imbedded into the psychotherapeutic process. By way of example, the branch of “Narrative Therapy” (Monk, Winslade, Crockett, & Epston, 1997) distinctly focuses on those (life) stories that a client brings into the therapeutic setting. Taking on another angle, Cinematherapy (Sharp, Smith, & Cole, 2002) and Bibliotherapy (Cuijpers, 1997) use the potential healing power of existing works of literature, poetry, and film to sow the seed for desirable changes in clients´ mental models and, subsequently, behavioral patterns. Taking on a more active approach, Writing Therapy (Pizarro, 2004) offers relief for patients suffering from severe stress and psychological trauma through the act of writing one´s own account of those stressful events. While the raw facts, the objective events that happened in the past, cannot be altered any more, it is very much possible to change once rational and emotional perception of that same past. It is absolutely possible to “come to terms” with one´s life history, e.g., by consciously creating mental distance to it, by altering its emotional valence, or retroactively finding a deeper meaning in what happened to us earlier (Pennebaker, 1997). Especially the act of discovering a heightened sense of meaning and purpose in life – which is a sign of post-traumatic growth (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004) – seems to have very beneficial on our psychological well-being (Singer, 2004).

But the favorable outcomes of writing are not limited to the stories of our past. Some psychologists, especially in the emerging field of Positive Psychology (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000), stress the importance of (possible) future events for our well-being. Seligman, Railton, Baumeister, and Sripada (2013) describe the human species as beings that are drawn by the future rather than being driven by the past. As such, actively engaging in the creation of a desirable future is a sign of optimal psychological functioning. On that note, positive psychologists have tried to create interventions that help to consciously facilitate the process of optimistic prospection. One of these interventions is based on visualizing and writing about one´s “best possible self” – where subjects are instructed to “imagine yourself in the future, after everything has gone as well as it possibly could” (Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2006, p. 77). Doing this regularly has shown to boost satisfaction with life and an optimistic mindset, among other things – even beyond the time of actively carrying out the exercise.

To draw to a close, I´d like to cite Joseph Campbell, the famous mythologist who discovered that most well-known stories follow a very similar pattern, the so-called “Monomyth” (“The Hero´s Journey” in the pop culture). Campbell once said in an interview: “We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.” Campbell´s monomyth theory posits that compelling stories can typically be structured into twelve different stages (Lang & Trimble, 1988). In stage eight, the hero is supposed to find a magic elixir that will help him to overcome his enemies and bring long-desired changes to the world from which he originally came. Personally, I hope that Positive Psychology will be mine…

References

Andrews, D. H., Hull, T. D., & Donahue, J. A. (2009). Storytelling as an instructional method: Definitions and research questions. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning, 3(2), 6-23.

Sharp, C., Smith, J. V., & Cole, A. (2002). Cinematherapy: Metaphorically promoting therapeutic change. Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 15(3), 269-276.

Baerger, D. R., & McAdams, D. P. (1999). Life story coherence and its relation to psychological well-being. Narrative Inquiry, 9(1), 69-96.

Cather, W. (2010). Neighbor Rosicky. In Obscure destinies (pp. 1-38). Oxford, UK: Oxford City Press. (Original work published in 1932).

Cuijpers, P. (1997). Bibliotherapy in unipolar depression: A meta-analysis. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 28(2), 139-147.

Hegel, G. W. F. (1822). The philosophy of history. New York: Dover Publications.

Jobs, S. (2005). Stanford Commencement Address, retrieved from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UF8uR6Z6KLc

Lang, J. S., & Trimble, P. (1988). Whatever happened to the Man of Tomorrow? An examination of the American monomyth and the comic book superhero. Journal of Popular Culture, 22(3), 157-173.

Monk, G.,Winslade, J., Crockett, K., & Epston, D. (Eds.). (1997). Narrative therapy in practice: The archaeology of hope. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Niles, J. D. (1999). Homo narrans. The poetics and anthropology of oral literature. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Pennebaker, J. W. (1997). Writing about emotional experiences as a therapeutic process. Psychological Science, 8(3), 162-166.

Pizarro, J. (2004). The efficacy of art and writing therapy: Increasing positive mental health outcomes and participant retention after exposure to traumatic experience. Art Therapy, 21(1), 5-12.

Seligman, M. E., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5-14.

Seligman, M. E., Railton, P., Baumeister, R. F., & Sripada, C. (2013). Navigating into the future or driven by the past. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8(2), 119-141.

Semino, O., Passarino, G., Oefner, P. J., Lin, A. A., Arbuzova, S., Beckman, L. E., … & Underhill, P. A. (2000). The genetic legacy of paleolithic homo sapiens sapiens in extant Europeans: AY chromosome perspective. Science, 290(5494), 1155-1159.

Sheldon, K. M., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2006). How to increase and sustain positive emotion: The effects of expressing gratitude and visualizing best possible selves. Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(2), 73-82.

Singer, J. A. (2004). Narrative identity and meaning making across the adult lifespan: An introduction. Journal of Personality, 72(3), 437-460.

Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (2004). Posttraumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundations and Empirical Evidence. Psychological Inquiry, 15(1), 1-18.

Tolstoy, L. (2010). The death of Ivan Ilych. New York: SoHo Books. (Original work published in 1886).

Vaughan, S. C. (1997). The talking cure: the science behind psychotherapy. New York: Putnam and Sons.

*That phrase is most commonly attributed to Novelist Tom Robbins.

Header picture taken from the Facebook fan page of Random House, Inc.

Grapes of Wrath: On Morality and Fairness in the Monkey House

One of the guest speakers at the recent MAPP onsite has been Isaac Prilleltensky, who is the Dean of Education at the University of Miami. His research focus is on community well-being and its antecedents. In his lecture, he elaborated on the notion of well-being as a consequence (or at least: side-effect) of perceived fairness and justice in our lives. There is now considerable scientific evidence that these issues can have a major influence on our satisfaction with life and other important measures of psychological functioning. E.g., there´s a substantial statistical connection between a nations´ overall well-being and those countries´ Gini coefficient which, roughly speaking, measures the level of inequality in the wealth distribution of a country. I do not want to take a deep-dive into this here. If you want to know more, I would like to direct you to one of Prilleltensky´s recent papers by the name of Wellness as Fairness.

What really caught my attention is just how deeply the notion of fairness is rooted in our mammalian, tribal nature. I´ve already written a post on Paul Bloom´s research on the intuitive moral judgments of babies. But that´s by far not the end of the (moral) story. In the following video clip, you´ll see a snippet from a TED talk given by Frans de Waal, a Dutch primatologist a Emory University. He shows footage of an experiment involving capuchin monkeys. Bascially, two of them are “paid” for repeatedly carrying out a certain task by receiving cucumbers. Everything is OK. But then, the researcher starts to give one of the animals grapes instead – which (very obviously…) is considered to be a higher paycheck in the capuchin society. Watch what happens…

Can you feel that little monkey´s rage? And just for a moment: Transfer this to the realm of human emotion, multiply it by 10,000,000 (or so) – and try to understand what´s going on in countries like Egypt, Syria, and the Ukraine over the last years?

 

P.S.

If you´d like to learn even more on Prilleltensky´s work on community well-being, you might want to watch his TED talk on that subject…