Strengths gone astray: The real mental Illnesses?

One of the cornerstones of Positive Psychology is a framework of 24 character strengths, introduced in 2004 via a book written by the late Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman.

In order to be qualified as a universal character strength, an attribute must display the following attributes characteristics:

(1) A strength contributes to fulfillment and to the good life.
(2) A strength is morally valued in its own right.
(3) Displaying a strength does not diminish others.
(4) Almost every parent wants their child to have the strengths.
(5) There are rituals and institutions within a society that support the strength.
(6) Each of the strengths is universal, valued by almost every religion, politics, and culture – now and in the past.

Chris Peterson also believed that these character strengths could be used to conceptualize a new theory of mental illness, one that is fundamentally different from the frameworks presented in the different versions of the DSM. Unfortunately, he passed away before he could complete this new theory and present it to the public.

Via an article in the Journal of Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman laid out the basics of Peterson’s framework, some fundamental ideas that he left before his untimely death. In Seligman’s words:

The theory is Aristotlean, evoking the health of the golden mean: it claims that psychological health is the presence of the strengths and that the real disorders are the absence, the excess, or the opposite of the strengths.

Peterson created a tableau, consisting of the 24 strengths, and 72 terms that represent the absence, excess, and opposites of each “asset”:

Mental Illnesses according to Peterson

Seligman goes on to concede that the framework is far from perfect in its current state. But thought-provoking it is – and that’s a lot…

Positive Psychology News Digest on Mappalicious | No. 17/2016

My favorite pieces covering Positive Psychology and adjacent from (roughly) the last seven days:

Guardian: How less stuff could make us happier – and fix stagnation by Katie Allen

New York Magazine: How Neuroscientists Explain the Mind-Clearing Magic of Running by Melissa Dahl

Psychology Today: 7 Stress Relief Strategies You Can Do in 10 Minutes or Less by Paula Davis-Laack

PsyBlog: The Emotion That ‘Vaccinates’ Us Against Impulsiveness and Poor Self-Control by Jeremy Dean

Atlantic: Harvard Just Launched a Center for Happiness by James Hamblin

Fast Company: The three rules of behavioral economics that can lead to success by David Hoffeld

Harvard Business Review: When economic Growth doesn’t make Countries happier by Selin Kesebir

Atlantic: The Three Types of Happiness by Olga Khazan

Atlantic: Why so many smart people aren’t happy by Joe Pisnker

Inc: Want to Be Happier? Ask Yourself This Question Every Morning by Chris Winfield


Paying it Forward: On Generalized Reciprocity

Gluecksschweine_kleinWhat is the “paying it forward”-principle?

Basically, it´s the opposite of “paying it back”. Most theories about human nature assume that we are a pretty selfish bunch. We´re supposed to play the “tit for tat”-game – which roughly means “I rub your back, so you rub mine”. More generalized: We´re nice to people that have been nice to us – and vice-versa. Another, slightly less selfish version is: I´m nice to you because you´ve nice to someone I´m affiliated with.

Paying it forward runs counter to this intuition. In practical terms, it means, e.g., paying a coffee for a person you don´t no at all, just by leaving money at the counter and instructing the barista to tell the next customer that her tall decaf white soya moccacino has already been taken care of. Ideally, this will put the person in good/grateful mood which makes it more likely that this person will be nice to others in return, thereby creating a ripple effect of reciprocity (please have a look at this really cool video to have a glimpse at what this could look like).

In scientific terms, this process is called generalized reciprocity. Accordingly, we´re not being nice to someone specific, but rather to “the public” – because this general entity has been nice to us. If you want to see how far this principle can go, please watch Prof. Wayne E. Baker´s TEDx talk on this topic. Among other things, he talks about a long-lasting chain of kidney donations, where people gave a kidney to complete strangers – as a result of feeling gratitude because another stranger had donated a kidney to someone in their families.

Now, those scientists who think we´re a selfish bunch believe that people use the “pay it forward”-principle mainly for non-altruistic reasons, e.g., to create a favorable image vis-à-vis other relevant people. And while this may partly be true, it´s not the end of the story.

Together wit a colleague, the aforementioned Prof. Baker published a paper by the name of Paying It Forward vs. Rewarding Reputation: Mechanisms of Generalized Reciprocity. In an organizational setting, the researchers are able to show that people do engage in both types of behaviors: Helping other and then hoping that those who have witnessed the positive behavior will be helpful in return (rewarding reputation) – and the unconditional, more general type where we help people “just because”. They also find that the generalized reciprocity creates stronger ripple effects in the long run (here’s a nice summary of the paper).

In the words of the researchers:

We conduct the first-ever critical test of two key mechanisms: paying it forward and rewarding reputation. These are fundamentally different grammars of organizing, either of which could sustain a system of generalized reciprocity. In an organization, paying it forward is a type of organizational citizenship behavior (OCB) that occurs when members of an organization help third parties because they themselves were helped. Rewarding reputation is a type of OCB that occurs when peers monitor one another, helping those who help others and refusing to help those who do not. Using behavioral data collected from members of two organizational groups over a three-month period, we found that reputational effects were strongest in the short term but decayed thereafter. Paying it forward had stronger and more lasting effects.

Ain’t that nice… 🙂

What’s your “Ikigai”? On Purpose, Meaning, and making a Living

There’s a very popular infographic on the net. It’s been around for a couple of years in several different versions.*

The graphic is supposed to help us find our life purpose by showing the different elements it consists of. It displays several overlapping Venn diagrams, thereby distinguishing the elements of mission, vocation, profession, and passion.

Ikigai - Purpose - Meaning
In later versions, at the center of those four circles, you’ll see the Japanese word Ikigai. Just in case you are wondering: Ikigai is composed of two separate Japanese terms: iki (life), and kai, which roughly means the realisation of what one expects and hopes for.

In more specific terms, ikigai is a) used to indicate the things that make one’s life worthwhile, and b) to refer to mental and spiritual circumstances under which individuals feel that their lives are valuable.

Having found (and living according to) one’s personal ikigai seems to be associated with greater health and longevity. At least this was a finding from a large-scale study among Japanese citizens. From the summary:

In this population-based prospective cohort study in Japan, those who did not find a sense of ikigai were significantly associated with an increased risk of all-cause mortality. The increase in mortality risk was attributed to an increase in the mortality from CVD (mainly stroke) and external causes […]. 

In our study subjects, those who did not find a sense of ikigai were likely to have a poorer socioeconomic status and poorer objective health status. However, the mortality risk in those who did not find a sense of ikigai was consistently increased, irrespective of socioeconomic factors, other psychological factors, physical function, lifestyle habits, and a history of illness.

*The infographic can be found in numerous versions on a ton of websites. In case you know who created it originally, please leave a comment so I can give proper credit.

The Paying it Forward Paradox | TEDxUoM

What if the toughest barrier between us and our needs is that we don’t ask for help fulfilling them? Sociologist Wayne Baker offers insight into the concept of generalized reciprocity or “paying it forward.”

Wayne Baker is Robert P. Thome Professor of Business Administration and Professor of Management & Organizations at the Ross School of Business. He is also Professor of Sociology at the University of Michigan and Faculty Associate at the Institute for Social Research. His work focuses on social networks, generosity, and values. His books include “United America: The Surprising Truth about American Values, American Identity, and the 10 Beliefs that a Large Majority of Americans Hold Dear” and “Achieving Success through Social Capital: Tapping the Hidden Resources in Your Personal and Business Networks”. He blogs five days a week at, an online experiment in civil dialog.

Positive Psychology News Digest on Mappalicious | No. 16/2016

My favorite pieces covering Positive Psychology and adjacent from (roughly) the last seven days:

Sydney Morning Herald: The pursuit of happiness (at work) by James Adonis

Quartz: Schools are finally teaching what kids need to be successful in life by Jenny Anderson

Quartz: Happiness is the new GDP by Livia Gershon

Today: Happiness fueled by relationships, work, something ‘larger than self’ by Susan Donaldson James

WEC: Is “Psychological Danger” killing your team’s performance? by Lauren Joseph

Fast Company: Here’s why your idea of success might be making you miserable by David Mayer

Psychology Today: What the Best CEOs on Earth Do Better by Emma Seppälä

Psychology Today: The Kafka Effect by Nick Tasler

Atlantic: Is Grit Overrated? by Jerry Useem

London Business School: Non-financial assets key to 100-year-life, no author


Pioneers in Positive Psychology — from the 1950s

Jahoda_Positive_HealthWhen thinking about (modern) Positive Psychology, people usually associated its onset with Martin Seligman’s term as president of the the American Psychological Association (APA) and his seminal paper in American Psychologist (2000, co-authored with Mihály Csíkszentmihályi).

But the first modern (research-based) sources are almost 50 years older than that. Abraham Maslow was (very likely) the first person to use the term Positive Psychology in a scientific essay. As early as 1954, he wrote about how and why psychology had gone wrong by focusing only on negative behaviors and avoiding the question of what the human experience could be:

If one is preoccupied with the insane, the neurotic, the psychopath, the criminal, the delinquent, the feeble-minded, one’s hopes for the human species become perforce more and more modest, more and more realistic, more and more scaled down. One expects less and less from people. From dreams of peace, affection, and brotherhood, we retreat.

In 1958, Marie Jahoda wrote the book Current Concepts of Positive Mental Health, a book considered to be the first on positive mental health. From the introduction:

Knowledge about deviations, illness, and malfunctioning far exceeds knowledge of healthy functioning. […] Science requires that the previous concentration on the study of inappropriate functioning be corrected by greater emphasis on appropriate functioning, if for no other reason than to test such assumptions as that health and illness are different only in degree.

It´s always good to know on which giant´s shoulders we´re standing on today…

Surprising Finding | Mental Illness vs. Mental Health: Continuum or Matrix?

A few days ago, I shared some research by Carol Ryff and Corey Keyes on the structure of psychological well-being. Today, I’d like to highlight more of Keyes’  work.

When we think about psychological health, we typically have a kind of continuum in mind. On the one end, there are states such as satisfaction and happiness, on the other end there’s (severe) mental illness, e.g., depression and anxiety disorders. And we’re also sure all people can be located on this single dimension at any given point in time. Additionally, the absence of one state is mostly equated to the presence of the other. Accordingly, an individual is perceived as being psychological healthy when there are no signs of mental illness.

Turns out this perspective may be flawed, or rather: incomplete. Using large-scale samples, Corey Keyes is able to show that we should probably see mental health and mental illness as two interrelated, yet clearly separable dimensions. The first one is about the presence or absence of mental health, the other about the presence or absence of mental illness (please take a look at his paper Mental Illness and/or Mental Health? Investigating Axioms of the Complete State Model of Health)


When creating a matrix that is composed of these two continua, we’re able to understand psychological states on a much more nuanced level. By way of example, in his data, Keyes finds there are people who portray distinct signs of mental illness (e.g., depressive symptoms) while at the same time displaying a moderately high level of psychological health (e.g., perception of meaning in life). Conversely, there are quite a few people who are clearly neither mentally ill nor particularly healthy, a state that Keyes calls languishing. In the words of the researcher:

The current study confirms empirically that mental health and mental illness are not opposite ends of a single continuum; rather, they constitute distinct but correlated axes that suggest that mental health should be viewed as a complete state. Thus, the absence of mental illness does not equal the presence of mental health.


The diagnosis and measurement of mental health […] has provided some invaluable information. First, relatively few adults (i.e., about 2 in 10) who were free of any of the four 12-month mental disorders could be classified as flourishing or completely mentally healthy. Almost as many adults were mentally unhealthy (i.e., languishing) as were mentally healthy (i.e., flourishing), and most adults were moderately mentally healthy. Second, diagnoses less than flourishing were associated with greater levels of dysfunctions in terms of work reductions, health limitations, and psychosocial functioning. Moreover, pure languishing was as dysfunctional (sometimes more) than pure mental illness.

Especially the last sentence should give some food for thought to public health officials and corporate health executives alike. For decades, their focus has been on understanding, assessing, and mitigating mental illness. And while this certainly is an important endeavor, Keyes´ esearch clearly shows that it might be and equally pressing mission to help people find pathways from a state of low mental health (languishing) to high mental health (flourishing).

Enter Positive Psychology

Breathing Happiness: New TEDx Talk by Emma Seppälä

Emma Seppälä believes we already possess the tools we need to control our own happiness. She explores the science behind harnessing your state of mind and how it can ultimately lead to success.

Turns out, happiness is not as elusive as it once seemed. Using findings from cognitive psychology and neuroscience, Seppälä simplifies happiness so that anyone can enjoy it. She’s a frequent contributor to Harvard Business Review, Psychology Today and Scientific American Mind. She’s the founder and editor-in-chief of Fulfillment Daily, a news site dedicated to the science of happiness.

The Structure of Psychological Well-Being — before PERMA

Torbogen_Kirche_kleinWhen talking about the “grand design” of psychological wellbeing these days, most people (at least implicitly) refer to Seligman’s PERMA framework, comprised of the building blocks: positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement. You might also find people who add another letter for vitality, resulting in PERMA-V.

Of course, Seligman’s outline wasn’t the first attempt at developing a “theory of everything” with regard to psychological well-being.

Between 15 to 20 years before the introduction of the PERMA framework, researchers Carol Ryff and Corey Keyes presented a data-driven model that is comprised of 6 dimensions (here’s the link to one of the original papers: The structure of psychological well-being revisited): self-acceptance, positive relations with others, autonomy, environmental mastery, purpose in life, and personal growth.

Quite obviously, there’s a lot of overlap between the two frameworks, but also subtle differences.

To me, one very interesting feature of the Ryff/Keyes model is the idea that well-being is a higher-order entity. They were able to show statistically there’s a kind of “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”-effect in the data. The idea is that psychological well-being exists as a single factor on the meta-level, where the whole has more meaning than the parts – kind of like looking at a house creates more meaning than looking at bricks, a door, and windows separately.

Here are the six factors of the Ryff/Keyes model in the original words of the researchers:


High scorer: possesses a positive attitude toward the self; acknowledges and accepts multiple aspects ofself, including good and bad qualities; feels positive about past life.

Low scorer: feels dissatisfied with self, is disappointed with what has occurred in past life, is troubled about certain personal qualities, wishes to be different than what he or she is.

Positive Relations With Others

High scorer: has warm, satisfying, trusting relationships with others; is concerned about the welfare of others; capable of strong empathy, affection, and intimacy; understands give and take of human relationships.

Low scorer: has few close, trusting relationships with others; finds it difficult to be warm, open, and concerned about others; is isolated and frustrated in interpersonal relationships; not willing to make compromises to sustain important ties with others. 


High scorer: is self-determining and independent, able to resist social pressures to think and act in certain ways, regulates behavior from within, evaluates self by personal standards.

Low scorer: is concerned about the expectations and evaluations of others, relies on judgments of others to make important decisions, conforms to social pressures to think and act in certain ways.

Environmental Mastery

High scorer: has a sense of mastery and competence in managing the environment, controls complex array of external activities, makes effective use of surrounding opportunities, able to choose or create contexts suitable to personal needs and values.

Low scorer, has difficulty managing everyday affairs, feels unable to change or improve surrounding context, is unaware of surrounding opportunities, lacks sense of control over external world.

Purpose in Life

High scorer: has goals in life and a sense of directedness, feels there is meaning to present and past life, holds beliefs that give life purpose, has aims and objectives for living.

Low scorer: lacks a sense of meaning in life; has few goals or aims, lacks sense of direction; does not see purpose in past life; has no outlooks or beliefs that give life meaning.

Personal Growth

High scorer: has a feeling of continued development, sees self as growing and expanding, is open to new experiences, has sense of realizing his or her potential, sees improvement in self and behavior over time, is changing in ways that reflect more self-knowledge and effectiveness.

Low scorer: has a sense of personal stagnation, lacks sense of improvement or expansion over time, feels bored and uninterested with life, feels unable to develop new attitudes or behaviors.