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…