“You´re doing just fine.” On the Power of Trust and day-to-day Positive Feedback

Blind SymbolAs I´ve already told you in this post on the significance of empathy, one guest lecturer at MAPP 13/14 onsite has been Jane Dutton who is known best for her research and teaching on high-quality connections (at work).

Jane stopped her lecture once in a while to lead us through some practical exercises on that topic. On one occasion, half of the group was blindfolded and then led through the hallways of Penn´s Huntsman Hall by the other people for several minutes. Now, I´ve done this sort of thing a couple of times before in coaching seminars – but I´ve never had such a powerful realization as I had this time:

I was feeling pretty save and comfortable in the beginning. My partner guided me with her hands and simple verbal cues, telling me to go left and right whenever needed. At one point, we were walking straight along a stretched-out hallway.* All I had to do was walk straight-on – so my partner stopped giving verbal feedback.

Somewhere half-way down that hallway, there was an ever so small bump in the floor, I guess a spot where a cable lay beneath it. But it was enough to catch me off-guard and lessen my trust considerably. Upon understanding that, my partner started to behave very differently. Instead od telling me only about necessary changes, she started to give me constant feedback, mostly along the lines of:

You´re doing just fine. The way is free. Just keep on going!

What a tremendous change that was! A genuine difference that makes a difference! And a powerful metaphor for everyday (business) life…

Because, on a closer look, we´re running around blindfolded all the time. We hear, see, and know so little compared to the sheer endless amount of information that is out there and could be of value for us. What a difference it makes to just hear “You´re on the right track” from somebody who just happens to know a little bit more than you do.

So if you´re a boss, a parent, or just somebody who happens to care about other people: How about telling them that they´re doing fine at least once every day? Not because they did something special. Just because they need and deserve it…

 

*I still wonder what all those suited-up Wharton MBAs thought of our crazy group of people playing children´s games in their sacred halls…

Mappsterview No. 2: Jer Clifton, part-time Hero and Bringer of “Universal Assessments”

I´m in the ninth cohort of the Master of Applied Positive Program at Penn. Consequently, there are tons of brilliant MAPP Alumni out there that have very fascinating stories to tell: about their experience with the program, about Positive Psychology in general – and about themselves of course. I really want to hear those stories. That´s why I started to do Mappsterviews* with my predecessors.

 

Mappsterview No. 2 features Jer Clifton who was in MAPP 8, just as Emilia Lahti. If I remember correctly, he´s been the very first person ever to react to my blog. He´s just been admitted as a Ph.D. student at Penn – congrats on that one, Jer!

Jer Clifton

My wife and I hiking in Prince William Forest near where we currently live in Washington, DC.

Please introduce yourself briefly

I am an extroverted stutterer, an American raised in Taiwan, a philosopher trapped in a community organizer’s body, and my wife is awesome. Recently, I realized that philosophical ideas that I have been toying with for about a decade are empirically verifiable, and I have the amazing opportunity to find out full-time.

What did you do before MAPP?

I love applied nerdiness. While studying philosophy and history in college, the abstraction overdose drove me to join the local fire department. After graduation, I followed my girlfriend to Buffalo, New York, became a community organizer with AmeriCorps, and then a Housing Director at a small non-profit. My expertise became community-led neighborhood revitalization at the individual block level. I got to co-create a theory of neighborhood revitalization with local gangsters, a local professor, a New York State Supreme Court judge, and even a Nobel Prize winner got involved. We married (my girlfriend, not the Nobel Prize winner) and decided she should do grad school first. I joined the CEO’s office at Habitat for Humanity International as a strategic planner, finishing a national planning process in Sri Lanka days before my MAPP year started in 2012.

What got you interested in Positive Psychology?

During college I wrote a book that demonstrated (perhaps only to me) that the world was in FACT a good, worthwhile, and beautiful place. “Strange,” I thought, “isn’t the world kind of a shit-hole?” So I started systematically exploring all that was right with existence. For instance, I spent 20 minutes every day reflecting on what was right about the world. And it changed me. Instead of a war zone to be endured, I began to see it as a beautiful place to be explored. My well-being skyrocketed.

“What!?” I balked, “Isn’t philosophy supposed to make you depressed?” Mystified, on the last day of class my last year in college, having never taken a psych class, I walked into the office of the head of the psych department and said, “I want to study wellbeing.” He told me about MAPP and Marty (Seligman). That was in 2007. I’ve wanted to go ever since.

I´ve been reading your blog once in a while. In the bio page you mention that you stutter. Has Positive Psychology been of any use with that?

In a word, no. Nor would I expect it to be. Alas, Positive Psychology, a mere subject of scientific inquiry, does not cure all ills. Still, going through MAPP and studying Positive Psychology helped me find my calling and new inner-calm has coincided with a small but observable decline in stuttering. But of course, plenty of stutterers stutter despite obvious inspiration. My experience means nothing for stutterers generally, but certainly I’m excited to stutter a bit less. Thanks for asking about this. I do consider myself a life-long stutterer and care about stuttering issues. In fact, it’s why I go by “Jer” and not “Jeremy” as I stutter on my name. For those interested, I’ve written a bit about this, including a blog post entitled A Stutterer’s Take on the ‘King’s Speech’. Also check out Katherine Preston’s book Out With It.

Another thing I found on your blog: What is this about you being a hero?

Hah! I was famous for about two weeks in 2011 when I pulled a guy off subway tracks in Atlanta, Georgia who was in contact with the electrified third rail and in the process I got a little shocked, too. It was a crazy experience! Police told me that I saved the man’s life and could have easily been killed. What made it a media event was a bystander posted a video on Youtube. The story went somewhat viral and local and national media got interested. It was nuts! My favorite interview was on Fox & Friends with Steve Doocey just because I totally took control of the conversation and ran with it! Good times.

You have written your MAPP Capstone thesis on the subject of Universal Assessments (UAs). What is that all about?

Quite literally, everything. Scientists have looked at how various beliefs affect life. These studied beliefs concern many things, but typically center around the self, other people, and one’s immediate situation.  “Universal Assessment” is my fancy term for overall judgments of existence as a whole – indeed beliefs about everything. In general, is the world good or bad? Is it malleable, or impossible to change? Our answers may bring us to dismiss exceptions and count supporting observations as “true” to the underlying reality, which would cyclically reinforce that UA.  For instance, if you think the world is boring, you may be more likely to be bored, which will make you think that the world is boring. UAs, in short, could generate expectancy about everything that exists and thus impact the content of our lives.

I’m not talking about attitudes or dispositions. UAs are beliefs, and, moreover, beliefs that we might not even know we have.  In my capstone (the full doc can be boring, you may want to check out a 3-page non-academic summary), I found out that especially little attention has been paid to UAs likely to lead to the “good life”, like strengths and positive emotion. So I conducted a methodical exercise that ultimately identified thirteen pairs of beliefs about the world as a whole, many of which have not been studied.

Universal Assessments

This list is far from complete. Long term, I want to identify all the UAs that play an important causal role in human life and understand their effects. If we find that certain UAs lead to wellbeing (as it seemingly did for me), we are going to create interventions that we can scale up. It’s your average “change-the-world-with-a-cool-idea” scenario.

Jer Clifton

I made this shirt for my girlfriend in college almost 10 years ago. It’s come to encapsulate the UA concept and my personal mission. However, keep in mind that believing that the world is beautiful has not yet been studied. We don’t know its effects.

So how can I assess which UAs are “at work” inside of me?

In short, you can’t. Currently, only a handful of UAs have been studied and no comprehensive UA assessment exists. Of course, you could track down an academic and get their tool for a particular UA, but yeah, nothing is that accessible. Martin Seligman and I hope to change that! I am moving to Philadelphia in April to work on this very question (just signed a lease yesterday). We want to identify all major UAs that humans hold and eventually create a single widely available comprehensive assessment tool that anyone can use online to identify their UA profile.

What would you suggest if I were to find a UA that severely limits my potential for e.g., joy or personal development?

As it turns out, when the ancient Greeks first emerged from the cave of prehistory, the first question they asked themselves was: “What sort of world is this?” Heraclitus, for instance, thought that the world was defined by change, and this made him sad, because home, indeed any familiarity, was an illusion. He was called the “weeping philosopher.” Heraclitus, or yourself if you come to hold a debilitating UA, have at least two basic options.

First, you can be a philomath, a “lover of knowledge.” In this option, consequences be damned. The truth is all that matters. I have great respect for this approach, and naturally tend to be a philomath myself. I also agree with C.S. Lewis when he says, “The love of knowledge is a kind of madness.” Second, you can be a philosopher, a lover of wisdom. In this option, you balance any assertion of “truth” with how the very act of assertion affects your life and the life of loved ones.

In my view, any UA is massively underdetermined by the empirical evidence and we have no hope of computing such vast datasets. For instance, is the sum total of human suffering greater than the sum total of human affection? Who knows! Utility may be of more importance if there is no truth to be discovered.  My perhaps foolish hope, however, is that what is useful to believe also can be true..

Carol Dweck at Stanford has found that merely exposing people to an implicit belief (a belief that they did not know they had) gives the individual the power of a conscious choice. They can change it. So far, I am not aware of any interventions that have been done specifically for the purpose of changing UAs, but the one’s that I am designing all revolve around a simple premise: expose yourself to those aspects of the world most conducive to the view of the world that you wish to believe. In other words, create a syllabus for yourself to understand the world’s “true nature” and teach/indoctrinate/civilize yourself like professors and teachers have been doing with students for centuries. Engage in self-formation.

You´re an assistant instructor in MAPP 9 now and have given me a really bad grade on that integration paper in January. What was that for? Just kidding… If somebody wants to “get started” with Positive Psychology: which resources (books, websites etc.) would you recommend?

Hah! All you needed was a swift kick in the butt. 🙂 You rocked it the next time. As for resources, there’s a Positive Psychology Top 10 FAQ on Positive Psychology on my blog. I would start by reading that summary and then take the only free psychometrically valid strengths test in the world.

 

Thank you, Jer, for this Mappsterview! I´d like to close with a quote from German scientist and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: “If there were no best among all possible worlds, God would not have created one.”

* If you are a MAPP alumnus and would like to have your story featured here – please go ahead and shoot me an e-mail!

Micro-Changes: What´s in a (first) Kiss?

Just a filler for today – but a truly beautiful one. It´s a video that´s just going viral right. What you´ll see: 10 couples that have just met and are asked to kiss. It´s a beautiful thing just in itself – but perceived through Esa Saarinen´s Positive Psychology lens it´s also a great story about micro-change and not holding back. Enjoy!

 

Edit

By now it is clear that those first meetings may have been not be that spontaneous. A lot of the protagonists seem to be models, actors, or musicians – so they are used to performing in front of a camera. But still: it´s a beautiful thing to behold…

Mappsterview No. 1: Emilia Lahti, the Queen of Sisu

I´m in the ninth cohort of the Master of Applied Positive Program at Penn. Consequently, there are tons of brilliant MAPP Alumni out there that have very fascinating stories to tell: about their experience with the program, about Positive Psychology in general – and about themselves of course. I really want to hear those stories. That´s why I started to do Mappsterviews* with my predecessors.

 

The honor (ahem…) of being No. 1 goes to Emilia Lahti from Finland. She was in MAPP 8 and does research on Sisu, which is a Finnish term for a special and very strong kind of determination. Supposedly, one has to be Finnish to really grasp the concept – but Emilia is here to change that…

Emilia Lahti

Please introduce yourself briefly

My name is Emilia and I am utterly intrigued by (A) how on earth you manage to keep blogging so intensely during MAPP!, (B) what enables people to persevere through extreme hardship,  (C) my amazing and utterly badass husband, and (D) caterpillars (no really, I’ll get back to this later).

What is Sisu?

Sisu - DefinitionSisu is a Finnish word denoting determination, courage and resoluteness in the face of extreme adversity. This means highly difficult life situations or events and is not to be confused with the angst we often bring upon ourselves by getting worked up by all kinds of trivial nuisances of our privileged lives (i.e. being pissed off because we didn’t find a parking spot near the grocery store or when it happened to rain during the run –unless it is raining something utterly crazy, like wasps or cactuses!). One could say sisu begins where your perseverance ends and you feel you have reached the end of your mental or physical capacities. One intellectual hero of mine, late philosopher and physician William James, wrote that we have hidden energy within us which we may not have access to until we really need it, and that crises often offer an unparalleled opportunity to tap into this deeper strength. He called it the ‘second wind’, and continued that most of us never run far enough to discover we have such strength. I love the expression because in some ways it describes pretty well what sisu is about.

Sisu is especially useful in creating impetus for getting started with an impossible task or taking action against the odds. I call this the action mindset. Furthermore, sisu is about honesty and integrity, and about not complaining too much during hardships. You’ll address the difficulty, yes, perhaps curse and rant a bit, but then you get to action. Sisu is about equanimity, rationality and this kind of stoically silent, relentless action in the face of a significant challenge. Furthermore, for example within the context of sports, having sisu does not have to mean you place first or annihilate all of your opponents. Sisu is more about immersing yourself in the experience with every fiber of your being and not giving up. Ultimately, it is not so much about achievement as it is about facing your challenges with valor and determination..

How did your interest in Sisu arise?

Well, I had a tough childhood. Hah, no. I’m just kidding. However, my parents indeed played a significant role in this process. They are tenacious, mentally strong people who don’t take bs from anyone. Yet, they have softness and are able to apologize when they are wrong. My parents have always told me to finish what I start, stay relentless and also reminded me to imagine myself in someone else’s shoes. Justice and fairness are elementary to integrity, and integrity is in the core of the more socially directed dimension of sisu.

However, my interest toward sisu as a research subject kind of emerged as a result of my own experiences and randomly crashing Dr. Angela Duckworth’s undergrad class where she was teaching about Grit. Other people whom I absolutely have to mention are my sweet husband, who himself is an incredible epitome of grit and sisu, and Drs. Esa Saarinen, Lauri Järvilehto and Frank Martela from Finland, who have each played a crucial role in encouraging me to dive deeper into this unexplored domain. Sometimes it’s hard to believe in yourself until someone else believes in you first, and these five people have really been a powerful enabling factor for me. For the most part, my overall sisu journey (and life in general) seems to be a mix of serendipitous encounters and random ideas powered by my never ending curiosity toward life, and the incessant need make some kind of sense of it. But isn’t that really what most of our lives are like?

Can Sisu be developed – and if yes: how?

Intuitively, I would rush to give you an excited ‘yes’! Mainly because what we know from social psychology is that words and narratives (and the meanings we draw from them) can be a hugely empowering factor in our lives. However, since I am slowly adopting this ‘wannabe-researcher’ mindset I’ll just take it easy and say perhaps, but we don’t know since no research has been conducted yet. When saying this, I am following the example of my guru and mentor, Angela. I remember struggling with my ‘budding researcher’ identity (you know, worrying whether what you contribute is useful and meaningful enough, or if you are just utterly wasting everyone’s time). Angela, who advised my master’s thesis, gave me an advice which will stick with me forever. She said, “Emilia, you don’t have to be right. You just have to be honest.” I think this is the golden rule of any research, and it applies to life in general in many ways, too.

Only after the (tediously) thrilling construct validation work, which I am involved with right now, we can begin looking at cultivating this capacity. A majority of 83% of the over 1,000 respondents to the sisu survey last spring, said that they believe sisu is a quality which can be developed through conscious effort (as opposed to being a fixed capacity). Now this is explosive! What we know from Dr. Carol Dweck’s work is that our beliefs are one of the biggest indicators of our future actions. If we believe a character trait is fixed, we are less likely to engage in activities which might modify it and are therefore less likely to change. Therefore, our beliefs in a way set the boundaries within which we operate in our daily lives.  Anyway, you can expect some epic results in the years to come. If not, I will just transform into the lone ultra-runner I always felt I was destined to become and disappear somewhere in Lapland with a sack of Vibrams! On that high note, physical activity may indeed be one of the many potential ways to develop one’s sisu…

What was the most Sisu´ish moment of your life?

Wow, I really like the term sisu’ish! If ‘words make our worlds’, you have just expanded mine by the width of a polar bear’s paw! I think one of my first sisu’ish moments was when I was maybe four and stood up against a scary girl who was bullying some other girl at a hospital where I was waiting to have a kidney operation. On a more epic, transformative note, probably when I overcame a broken spirit caused by a violent ex-partner, and had to pretty much rebuild myself from scratch after this calamitous period in my life ended.

However, the peculiar thing about post-traumatic growth is that you don’t merely return to your previous state. Sometimes, a remarkable thing happens as a result of a life changing event or profound experience of pain: we transform. The strenuous moments which force us to reflect on the inner depths of our character, and to even ponder the very meaning of life itself, change us irreversibly and cultivate our sense of empathy for others, for the world, and for ourselves.

For me, hardly anything remained the same. I transformed during my dark cocoon period and suddenly could not look at myself, my life or even my work the same way. This explains my infatuation with caterpillars too. Did you know that the body of a caterpillar quite literally melts into this mess of tiny organs, limbs and tissue, and inside the chrysalis the little insect completely restructures itself into something unimaginably different. Well, I was that caterpillar a few years ago. (Note from the editor: Yes, I did, Emilia… 🙂 )

Nowadays I am an outspoken anti-domestic violence advocate and my purpose is to enable cultural change in the way how we speak about this atrocity. According to WHO (2013) one woman three experiences domestic violence or sexual abuse during their lifetime (and often it is in the hands of those who were supposed to protect and cherish them). These women and also men (one in eight) are often silenced by the stigma that comes with it – stigma that should always be only on the perpetrator. My life is a living example of how things can turn around when own our story, tap into our inner sisu and reach out for caring connections in our lives. It’s been a long journey but I am now where I belong. Now it’s my time to help others.

How is Sisu tied to the Finnish culture?

Sisu is tightly woven onto the fibers of Finnish culture, and it has even been said that one needs to understand the meaning of sisu in order to truly understand Finns. Why sisu became a concept in Finland in particular relates to the country’s history which includes a lot foreign occupation, hard weather conditions and invasions. Finns learned that having sisu was the way to sustain life when things got really bad. The construct is still deeply embedded within the Finnish mainstream dialogue and I am incredibly excited to examine how its full brilliance can be unfolded and possibly leveraged to bring about systems wide positive change. Language is the foundation of how we communicate, and up to this point Sisu as a construct has remained understudied and rather elusive. Reframing something from “untranslatable” and “unfathomable” (like has often been described) to a word or description which carries meaning can be a potent game-changer. It opens up a whole new world around the construct and brings it within people´s reach.

Can I profit from Sisu –  even though I´m German?

As a former employee of the Finnish Embassy, I know I have to try and give some kind of a diplomatic answer! Just kidding. Ja, yes, kyllä! Even though Finland may have the first take on sisu as a cultural construct, it is a universal power capacity for which the potential exists within all individuals. There are numerous examples of sisu in different cultures and I would love to have someone research this, since I know it is beyond the scope of my upcoming PhD. Somewhat similar constructs (though not exactly) are the Yiddish term chutzpah and the Japanese word ganbaru. It would be great to put together a repository of all these constructs as well as the narratives that relate to them. You Germans as a nation have your own powerful sisu stories, too. Hey! You even dance with Sauerkraut in deine Lederhosen! Even I don’t think I could pull off that stunt! ❤

 

Kiitos Emilia, for being my interview partner for the very first Mappsterview. I can confirm there´s a German notion of Sisu as well – but I´ll leave those words to Oliver Kahn, (in)famous former soccer goalie of Bayern Munich and the German National Team:

For those of you who can´t understand German – he says: “Balls. We need balls!”. You know, as in: Cojones…

 

* If you are a MAPP alumnus and would like to have your story featured here – please go ahead and shoot me an e-mail!

A powerful Lesson in Empathy: What if we were Mindreaders?

One of the guest lecturers at MAPP 13/14 onsite No. 8 was Jane Dutton, who is best-known for her research on what she calls High-Quality Connections (in the workplace).

As part of her lecture, she showed us this video by the Cleveland Clinic. I´ll let it speak for itself…

The Upsides of Suffering: On Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG) and the Wounded Healer Archetype

Chiron_teaching_AchillesDoes a heart surgeon need to have suffered from a heart attack in order to be a top-notch heart surgeon? Probably not. Does a psychotherapist need to have suffered from depression in order to be a top-notch psychotherapist? Probably not. But in the latter case, it might still help a lot. The difference: whereas in the first case, the patient lies in the operating room, in the second case, a hell of a lot of empathy is needed.

In Greek mythology, there´s the character of the centaur Chiron. Among other attributes, Chiron is the epitome of the Wounded Healer. He is frequently depicted as one of the greatest healers of his time – but was accidently hit by Hercules with a poisoned arrow, resulting in the only wound that he could not heal. And that might have turned him an even better healer.

By now, there´s a lot of evidence that prior personal experience with psychological distress (broadly speaking) is a strong driver for people to seek a career in coaching, counseling, and psychotherapy. Very recently, a study was published that additionally suggests that such a personal wound might also make them better a what they do compared to their unharmed colleagues.

In a paper by the name of Survivor mission: Do those who survive have a drive to thrive at work? the researchers (including Penn´s Angela Duckworth) investigate this issue using samples of police detectives (with and without a history of violent victimization) and mental health workers (with and without a history of mental illness). Their results indicate that police detectives who have experienced violent victimization and mental health professionals who have experienced the same mental illness as their clients do indeed exhibit greater work engagement than their colleagues who lack these parallel life experiences. The link between firsthand experience of client’s hardships and work engagement appears to be explained by higher levels of grit among police detectives and by a greater sense of life-narrative continuity among mental health professionals. In a nutshell:

Wounded Healers seem to try harder and experience a stronger sense of meaning in what they do.

These findings strongly resonate with a broader strand of research (in Positive Psychology) that investigates the phenomenon of Posttraumatic Growth (PTG). It is true that suffering a psychological trauma leaves a lot of people shattered. But that is by far not the only possible trajectory. Many people manage to reach a markedly higher level of psychological functioning some time after the trauma then they were at before. Specifically, successfully coping with a trauma can lead to:

As Nietzsche said: “What does not destroy me, makes me stronger.” That´s part of the the sheer beauty of the human soul.

On Friendship, Love, and the Benefits of Aging

Aging WellFor whatever reason, I am confronted with the issues of aging (and death…) a lot over the recent weeks. My mom had to go to the hospital, and in my circle of friends, parents got sick as well – or even died. And while that is distressing and painful emotionally, I know rationally that getting old(er) is nothing to be afraid of. Because getting older (for most of us) means getting happier. We get less anxious, more satisfied, and get to a deeper understanding of the meaning of (our) life.

While being on the plane that brought me to Philly for the MAPP onsite, I watched the movie Last Vegas starring Robert De Niro, Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Kline. It´s a fun-loving, pleasantly over-the-top “geriatric” version of Hangover. Most of all, it´s a story of aging well – and the power of (life-long) friendship.

Triumphs of ExperienceCoincidently, one of the guest lecturers of this month´s MAPP onsite has been (some 80 years old) George Vaillant, who´s been the director of the world-famous (Harvard) Grant Study – which for 75 years followed the lives of 268 physically and mentally healthy Harvard college sophomores from the classes of 1939-1944, and a second cohort of 456 disadvantaged non-delinquent inner-city youths who grew up in Boston neighborhoods between 1940 and 1945. Vaillant writes about the results of this study in his books Aging Well (2003) and Triumphs of Experience (2012). There´s lots of interviews available with Vaillant – here, I´ll point you to one for the Huffington Post. Two main points that came out of the study:

Love is really all that matters.

Connection is crucial.

There you have it. The Beatles were right: All you need is love. My parents will both turn 70 next year. And by March 2014, they will be married for 46 years. I hope that my wife and I one day will achieve the same…

If you´d like to have more input, please watch this TED talk on the benefits of aging by Laura Carstensen who is Director of Stanford´s Center on Longevity.