3 Questions for Emily Esfahani Smith, Author of “The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters”

emily_esfahani_smithEmily Esfahani Smith is a writer and fellow Penn MAPP alum. She writes about culture, relationships, and psychology. Her writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, The Atlantic, and other publications. A few days ago her first book, The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, was published. Today, she took some time to talk about her work on Mappalicious.

Emily, in your book, you propose there are four pillars of a meaningful life: belonging, purpose, transcendence, and storytelling. I´ve already come across the first three while studying Positive Psychology, the last one seems to be a very unique angle. So what´s the story with storytelling?

When people say their lives are meaningful, it’s because three conditions have been satisfied, according to psychologists—they feel their lives matter and have worth; they feel their lives are driven by a sense of purpose; and they believe their lives are coherent or comprehensible. Storytelling relates to that third prong of meaning, coherence. Storytelling is the act of taking our disparate experiences and weaving them into a whole. Rather than seeing their experiences as random or disconnected, people who feel their lives are meaningful see their experiences as part of a narrative that explains who they are and how they got to be that way. Another word for storytelling is sense-making—when we tell stories, we’re really trying to make sense of our experiences.

One of the people I interviewed for my book, for example, told me that experiencing adversity as a child ultimately made him a more compassionate person—that’s the story he tells about his adversity; that’s how he makes sense of it. But storytelling isn’t just about understanding ourselves more deeply, it’s also about understanding others. When we watch movies or read novels or listen to a friend’s story, we’re ultimately gaining more wisdom and perspective about what it means to be human.

power_meaning_esfahaniIn my day job, I´m heading a department in a multinational corporation. Therefore, I take special interest in the application of Positive Psychology in organizations. Do those four pillars you describe also apply to meaning in work – or are there additional aspects leaders should consider when thinking about their employees´ experience?

One of the most exciting trends of the last few decades has been the emergence of what I call “cultures of meaning” in institutions like corporations. Many companies are actively building cultures of meaning for their consumers and employees by relying on the four pillars of meaning.

A great example is the apparel brand Life Is Good, which sees its purpose as spreading hope and optimism around the world. It does this with its apparel, which has the words Life Is Good emblazoned on it. Many consumers have written to the company saying that its elevating message has helped them get through adversities and tragedies like cancer and losing loved ones. The leaders at Life Is Good have shared those stories with their employees, to show them that their work is making a positive impact on others. Life Is Good also has a non-profit arm that helps children facing adversities. When I spoke to several of the employees at the company—from a receptionist to a designer—they all told me that they are driven by the good that their company is doing in the world. So here, I see Life Is Good relying on the pillars of purpose and storytelling to create cultures of meaning.

It’s important for leaders to be aware of whether employees are experiencing their work as meaningful. Nothing engages or motivates employees quite like meaningful work—and research by Adam Grant suggests that doing meaningful work makes employees more productive, too (Adam´s interview on Mappalicious can be found here).

I feel my life is already pretty meaningful. I´m happily married and have two beautiful kids. Additionally, I can spend a lot of my time working on things I deeply care about and help other people. But I´m not so sure about the storytelling part. What are some steps I could take to enhance my experience of meaning in life via this pillar?

Storytelling requires reflection. I would recommend setting aside some time—maybe 15 minutes a day a few times a week—to either think or write about your life story. That may sound daunting or vague, but here are some specific things you can reflect on during that time.

1. Try dividing your life into chapters. How many chapters are there? What is the title or theme of each chapter? What makes each chapter unique? What chapters are yet to come? How many future chapters are there? What do you want the final chapter to say?

2. When you look back on your life, what were the turning points? What were the high points and the low points? How did those experiences change you? What did you learn from them? Are you still working to process them?

3. Reflect on the places in your life that played a formative role in your development—like where you grew up, perhaps, or where you went to college, or where you first met your husband or wife. While you’re thinking about these places, ask yourself: why were your experiences there so meaningful? How did they change you? What would your life have been life if you had grown up somewhere else or gone to a different school? What does it feel like being back in those places?

I’d like to add that storytelling is a pillar that takes work—sometimes we have to go over and over an experience hundreds of time before we can begin to make sense of it and understand how it fits into the broader arc of our lives. But it’s ultimately worth it, because that sense-making process brings us wisdom, resolution, and even a measure of peace.

Thank you, Emily, and best of luck with your book!

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For more info on Emily and her work, please check out her The Psychology Podcast, or recent features on The Psychology Podcast, Heleo and Virgin.

Mappsterview No. 7: Jessica Amortegui, Positive Business Champion

I was in the ninth cohort (2013/14) of the Master of Applied Positive Program at Penn – and the program is going strong. Consequently, there are tons of brilliant MAPP Alumni out there who have 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 Mappsterviews.

Jessica_Amortegui.jpgPlease introduce yourself briefly:

I am an introvert masquerading as an extrovert who still gets deathly shy meeting new people. Luckily this all dissipates when speaking to large groups (the bigger the better!). I have spent the past five years working in Silicon Valley and seeing my uber active boys, age 7 and 4, grow up way too fast.

What did you do before joining the MAPP program at Penn?

I started my career in consulting, first as an external consultant and then moving in-house. I dabbled in different kinds of consulting, from management to organizational development, to change management and human capital. After about seven years, I made the move to inside a company, and really enjoyed it. Besides the reduced travel load, I was able to build deeper, more meaningful relationships with employees. I also loved the awesome employee discount perks (Nike and Victoria Secret were my favorites!) After three years at a software company I am grateful to back at a product company building cool tech gizmos that I can procure with the coveted an employee discount. 🙂

What got you interested in Positive Psychology in the first place?

I was actually an unconscious, quasi-competent practitioner for a few years without even knowing it! I was delivering these two-day culture shaping workshops that applied many concepts of positive psychology in powerful experiential learning exercises – gratitude, positive emotions, strengths-based perspectives, etc. I became so passionate about the content and delivery that I began to read more about the work. I serendipitously stumbled on the MAPP website in 2007. I was pregnant with my first child at the time and thought I would never be able to squeeze the program into life. In 2013, six years later, I finally made it happen!

You now work for Logitech. What´s your role there?

I lead the Global Talent Development function. I joined a little over a year ago, and started development at the company – they didn’t have anything for employees. It has been awesome to create and build from scratch. The foundation has very much been inspired by the MAPP program. I have had the most amazing sand box to test, learn, and apply what I learned. The company is just over 2,500 employees globally, so you are able to see and feel the systemic change. That has been the most rewarding part of my job – to work at scale and see the impact.

Very recently, your company was awarded with the grand prize at Ross School´s Positive Business Project competition. What´s your project about?

I think of the project like my MAPP capstone – it was nine months worth of work that came together in a variety of mutually reinforcing initiatives. I knew if I was going to imbue positive practices into the organization I would need to pull many levers, and do them simultaneously. I created a two-day workshop that provides all employees an entrée into positive psychology. Participants experience vulnerability and connection, create a team purpose statement, and uncover their character strengths, to name a few. This is what we called our signature Logitech program. In one year, we had nearly 800 employees around the globe go through it – all by word of mouth.

I believe investments like that – in the whole person – will never backfire. It breeds a kind of loyalty that no cafeteria and ping pong table can ever deliver.

This intensive experience was complimented with 90-minute positive deviant workshops that we ran globally. We also rolled out job crafting to the entire organization. Together, employees got hit with tools and techniques that began to build different ways of thinking about themselves and their jobs. They began to reflect on themselves as people – not just employees. I believe investments like that – in the whole person – will never backfire. It breeds a kind of loyalty that no cafeteria and ping pong table can ever deliver.

What are the future plans for your initiative?

We want to build more relevant touch points with our employees. Our first phase was broad and now we are trying to go deep. We are working on producing more custom experiences for different employee segments that can meet them where they are and then take them to where they want to be. We have some cool new tools we are piloting to make that happen; tools that will give every employee one-one-one support and encouragement so they can truly flourish. This story is being written now, so stay tuned!

Given that you’ve successfully implemented Positive Psychology practices at your workplace: What´s the most important piece of advice for HR colleagues who´d like to do the same?

Oh wow – I feel so humbled by this question. I am the one who is always needing the advice! I think, in general, I have to reveal a dirty little secret. I have found some Positive Psychology words can really turn people off – to say you are taking a strengths-based approach, can make some, sadly, immediately shut down. I actually shy away from using a lot of the positive psychology language (this feels like a shame, as I do believe that words create our worlds, à la David Cooperrider!).

I try to describe what I want to do in language that I know matters to the organization. What do they want to see happen? Even if I don’t agree, I know it’s what they need to hear to support my cause. I then craft experiences that have an equal amount of pathos and logos. The employees and leaders the experience and embody it. They begin to talk about gratitude, strengths, connection, autonomy, and purpose – not me. I think there always needs to be a sense of co-creation despite knowing our larger agendas. Sometimes my ego wants to “prove” that my way is the more “enlightened” way. I step back and remember that what’s important is that I am not proving myself, but rather improving my craft.

Mappsterview No. 6: Louis Alloro, “The Original Cappster”

I was in the ninth cohort of the Master of Applied Positive Program at Penn. Consequently, there are tons of brilliant MAPP Alumni out there who have 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.

Louis_Alloro.jpg

Please introduce yourself briefly:

For nearly ten years, I’ve been at the forefront of human capital development by utilizing positive psychology to bring out the strengths in individuals, groups, organizations and communities. My expertise includes leadership development, team building, change management, human capital energy audits, and organizational culture initiatives including a city-wide project in Cleveland Ohio. As one of the first one hundred people in the world with an advanced degree in applied positive psychology I have had the honor of helping organizations and individuals achieve high potential using scientifically informed tools and strategies. My heart work is about helping people remember to choose love over fear.

What did you do before joining the MAPP program at Penn?

A lot of stuff – looking for my calling, expecting that when I found it, I would know. Sure enough, that day in December 2006 when I opened the New York Times to see one of the first popular press articles in Positive Psychology, I had a visceral sense through my body that this was it. I had always known I was a change-agent. As a former school teacher, I had always been called to help school communities which are often archaic and dysfunctional systems. I love the phrase attributed to Einstein that “we can’t solve today’s problems with the same thinking that created them.” Helping people think about how they think and from a positive perspective – yes, this was/is it!

What got you interested in Positive Psychology in the first place?

I had always been interested in personal development programs, ever since I was a teenager. As a young adult, I took the Landmark Forum. Impressed by its “technology” I wanted to bring it to people I loved and cared about; their model is to “enroll” others. However, I was always met with such resistance. There had to be a better way, I thought – a more positive approach to keep people in opportunity mode – as opposed to the threat response I so often got. When I discovered Positive Psychology, I knew it was what I had been yearning for/envisioning all along.

Here’s another more personal reason I am interested in Positive Psychology.

I´ve learned that you are a Fellow of George Mason University’s Center for the Advancement of Wellbeing. What kind of work are you doing for them?

It’s been more work “with” them than “for” them. I have been involved in the campus wellbeing initiative that is part of the university’s strategic plan. I’ve also done some training courses internally for their university life staff and externally for their coaching program. The center was instrumental in bringing my MAPP capstone to life in a city-wide wellbeing intervention in Cleveland Ohio from 2011-2014. I am grateful for their partnership and support. The people there really walk the talk and not everyone in Positive Psychology does.

You also work on a framework you call “Social-Emotional Leadership”. What is that all about?

It’s about being the change we wish to see in the world. It’s about taking influential (not positional) leadership in our lives – at home, work and any place in between. It’s about leveraging the contagion factor. Social Emotional Leaders stand up to say, “Hey guys, we can do better.” It’s about facilitating that positive change first for oneself and then for others. As one of my former students said, “We must drink as we pour” to signify the importance of taking care of ourselves as change-agents.

certificate-in-Applied-Positive-Psychology.jpgAdditionally, you run an organization that offers Positive Psychology education in several cities all across the USA. I´d love to hear about that.

Emiliya Zhivotovskaya and I launched the Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology (CAPP) three years ago in New York. We’re now in twelve different cities (US + Canada) offering a top-rated six month personal and professional learning journey for social-emotional leaders – change-agents who once they learn the science of human nature and behavior will become more effective in their spheres of influence. It’s a train-the-trainer executive education model. It’s a solid program. I hear all the time, “CAPP surpasses my expectations!”

We have new cohorts in Raleigh, NC, New York, NY and San Francisco CA starting this spring.

Do you have any plans for going international with CAPP?

Yes! Stay tuned. Our vision is to have CAPP cohorts in every city around the world. People are so hungry for this stuff and what an honor it is to facilitate learning, growth, and positive evolution. Right now, international students can apply for our online program.

Mappsterview No. 5: Margaret Greenberg on how Companies can Profit from the Positive

I was 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.

Today, you are going to meet Margaret Greenberg from MAPP 1, the very first group of Mappsters to be taught at Penn. She co-authored a very successful book that I also included in my Positive Psychology at Work Book List.  

Profit from the PositivePlease introduce yourself briefly:

Like all of us, I wear many hats. I’m a wife to my sweet husband Neal of 30 years. I’m a mother to our two bright and beautiful twenty-something daughters. I’m an entrepreneur, having started my consulting/coaching practice, The Greenberg Group, in 1997 after spending the first 15 years of my career in corporate HR/Learning & Development. I’m a certified executive coach, speaker, and co-author of Profit from the Positive: Proven Leadership Strategies to Boost Productivity and Transform Your Business with fellow MAPPster Senia Maymin, and positive business columnist for Live Happy Magazine. I also do fundraising for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in honor of both my mother and mother-in-law. Finally, I enjoy being outside in nature, as well as inside baking, as you can probably tell from all the photos I post on Facebook!

What did you do before MAPP?

I’m doing after MAPP the same thing I did before MAPP – coaching business leaders and their teams to achieve more than they ever thought possible. The only difference is that I now have more research and resources to draw upon, and I’m writing a heck of a lot more. We all entered MAPP with our own set of experiences and education. To prevent positive psychology from becoming just another fad (I don’t even like to use the term “movement”) I believe it’s prudent for us practitioners to view positive psychology as just one more body of knowledge that we bring to our professions and lives.

What got you interested in Positive Psychology in the first place?

I had been in practice for 8 years as an executive coach when I learned of MAPP. What was missing from my coaching certification was the science behind what we do as coaches. I’ll never forget the day an email popped up in my inbox about this new graduate program in positive psychology. I ran, yes ran, outside to share my excitement with my husband who was gardening. “Go for it,” he said. “Yeah, but what if I get in, then what?” The rest is history as they say.

I´ve noticed that you´ve written your MAPP thesis on optimistic managers. Shouldn´t managers be more the critical, discerning type of person?

Most certainly managers need to think critically to come up with innovative solutions to business challenges. The trouble arises when managers apply this same critical thinking to the people they lead. Case in point: If all I do is look for things you are not doing right, and skip over the things you’re doing well, that can be pretty discouraging. In our book  we offer several practical tools to combat this tendency. We call them “Capitalize on What’s Right”, “Find Solutions Not Faults”, and “Obsess Over Strengths, but Don’t Ignore Weaknesses”.

The title of your book is “Profit from the Positive”. Please tell us a bit more about that!

Writing PFTP with a fellow MAPPster has been one of the most rewarding experiences. Senia and I each brought different strengths to the virtual table (Senia is on the west coast of the US and I’m on the east). We really wanted to bring what we were learning from applying positive psychology with our coaching clients to a much broader audience. The book is written for business leaders, HR professionals, and coaches in particular, but we have had readers tell us they found one or more of our 31 tools helpful in their own personal life. I’m happy to report that it will be translated into Chinese next month, and Korean and Japanese early next year. People can see what we’re up to by visiting our website, Facebook page, or connect with us on our LinkedIn Pulse blogs or @profitbook on Twitter.

OK, in my day job, I´m a manager myself. Which three things should I (personally) start doing right away?

First, recognize what we call the “Achoo! Effect”. Our emotions are contagious. Be sure you are spreading cheer, not fear at work (or at home). Second, if you do performance reviews at your company, be sure to preview, don’t just review Performance. Finally, I’d also recommend that you give FRE, which stands for frequent recognition and encouragement, to your employees, peers, and even your Boss. This was one of the key research findings from my Capstone that I collaborated on with another MAPPster, Dana Arakawa. Chris Peterson was our advisor and I will be forever be grateful for his guidance on this study, which is available on the University of Pennsylvania’s Scholarly Commons, and has been downloaded over 7,000 times.

And what kind of initiatives would you recommend on the organizational level?

I think there are lots of opportunities to be what Senia and I call a “positive deviant”. We’ve worked with companies large and small at the individual, team and organizational levels. Here are a few practical applications of positive psychology at the org level. To improve:

  • Strategy and Planning: Use the S.O.A.R. analysis (Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations, and Results) rather than the traditional S.P.O.T. analysis (Strengths, Problems, Opportunities, and Threats).
  • Recruiting: Revamp hiring practices to include “Hiring for What’s Not on the Resume” to get at the more intangible social and emotional intelligence skills that are most predictive of success and higher Retention. In fact, there are many HR practices that need to be revamped to focus more on what’s going right, such as performance reviews that I mentioned earlier.
  • Meetings: Start and end meetings on a positive note.
  • Leadership and Talent Development Programs: That’s a topic for a whole other interview!

Margaret Greenberg and Senja Maymin

Thanks a lot, Margaret (on the left), for this Mappsterview!

Mappsterview No. 4: Dan Bowling on Turning the Tide at Coca-Cola and Lawyer (Un-)Happiness

I was 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.

Today, you are going to meet Dan Bowling, very successful lawyer turned very successful manager turned very successful Law and Positive Psychology teacher and researcher. Actually, I´m supposed to be writing MAPP finals instead of blogging right in this moment. Such is life. Our final papers are a lot about going through our former papers and teaching notes, about integrating and “hunting the good stuff”. Yesterday, I wrote a passage about my “heureka moments” in MAPP. And since I like to link my insights to the people that are “responsible” for those insights, here´s what I wrote about Dan Bowling:

If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing it with style.

Please introduce yourself briefly:

Dan BowlingMy name is Dan Bowling. I am Senior Lecturing Fellow at Duke Law School, where I teach courses on labor law, employment law, and positive psychology and the practice of law. These classes seem to be popular among the students, maybe because I bring pizza and wine for the class every now and then. I also run a small consultancy, Positive Workplace Solutions LLC, which provides executive coaching and legal consulting for C-Level executives and professionals (I am a licensed attorney). I work with Martin Seligman’s team at UPenn’s Positive Psychology Center doing empirical research on strengths and lawyers, and have helped teach in MAPP for the past 5 years. I speak regularly at legal and/or positive psychology conferences, and write a featured blog for Talent Management Magazine called Psychology at Work. I tweet silly and irrelevant stuff @BowlingDan if you would like to follow me.

What got you interested in Positive Psychology in the first place?

I have always been fascinated by different personality traits. I started my career after graduating from Duke Law in 1980 as a labor and employment litigator and it struck me how important a role personality played in why one employee sues you and another doesn’t, even if their job circumstances are the same. I made partner in a large Atlanta law firm in 1986 but was shortly thereafter recruited by Coca-Cola to help form the new law department of its bottling operations, which it spun off as Coca-Cola Enterprises in the largest IPO in history. My interests in the psychological components of work continued during my career with Coca-Cola Enterprises, where I held a variety of jobs including President of a nine-state, 2 billion dollar operating region, as I developed a firm belief in the link between optimism and positive emotions in employee and corporate performance.

I had the opportunity to put my theories into practice in the latter stages of my career, when I was named head of human resources for the entire company. Frankly, the organization was down. We were under legal assault by small groups of hostile employees. Rather than aggressively defending the claims – which I found spurious – our programs and energies were focused on an agonized self-examination of what we did to prompt such claims. The halls were full of consultants and lawyers and days were consumed by meetings, all focused on what was “wrong” with us and how we could treat it. Not surprisingly, our “disease” was metastasizing, and corporate maladies previously unknown (or non-existent) were being discovered and stern remedies subscribed. Managers and employees forgot about selling Coke and spent their time instead in a variety of “workshops,” the corporate equivalent of Mao’s re-education camps.

Our new HR team decided to flip the paradigm, and look at what was right about the company – a focus on the life above zero, as Marty Seligman says. It didn’t take long to learn that the vast majority of the employee grievances were brought by a handful of perpetually complaining employees, often sponsored by outside interest groups, and were generally unfounded. We also found that most of our employees were quite happy with us as an employer. We starting asking a very basic question of ourselves: “Why is it 95% of our HR programs and initiatives are focused on the 5% of employees who hate us? Why spend our precious resources and energies on the perpetually dissatisfied few? Why not focus on efforts on those who want to build a better company and believe we can?” Eventually, we resolved our issues quite successfully, the grumblers moved on, and we spent the rest of our time in HR doing things to hire and engage people who were a positive contribution to our company. When I turned 50, it was time to move on, so I joined the Duke Law faculty teaching labor and employment law, while continuing my research into optimism and positive personality traits by receiving a masters in applied positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Your are a lawyer, you teach law, and via MAPP (at the lastest…) you know that lawyers are among the unhappiest professions. Why do you think that is the case?

That question is at the core of my current research and writing interests. First, I must challenge the premise – I think the data is not conclusive that lawyers are among the unhappiest professions, although the majority of the literature seems to suggest so. Regardless, law school and law practice seem to exacerbate depressive tendencies in persons with those tendencies, which isn’t surprising given the number of hours lawyers work in pressurized environments on things they are not intrinsically motivated to do. But as to whether lawyers as a population are significantly unhappier than other large groups of highly educated professionals, more research is needed.

Do you have plans to do anything about that?

To effect real change in the profession, it is of critical importance to establish a link between well-being and legal professionalism for the happiness of lawyers to be taken seriously, and my goal is to help provide that framework for the legal profession.

According to what you´ve learned about Positive Psychology, if I were the CEO of a company: what are three things that I should start doing right away?

1) Identify and develop leaders who are optimistic and enthusiastic about the success of others; 2) incorporate strengths-based employee assessment and development programs; and 3) use better psychometrics to support the hiring and talent acquisition process.

 

Thank you, Dan, for this Mappsterview! If you are a MAPP alumnus and would like to have your story featured here – please go ahead and shoot me an e-mail!

Mappsterview No. 3: David Yaden on Self-Transcendence and “Well-Being for the Dying”

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.

 

In Mappsterview No. 3, you´re going to get to know David Yaden who was in MAPP 8 and is now an assistant instructor in the current program. David is a very special person because he always gives me good grades …well: just read for yourself!

David Yaden - PPC

Please introduce yourself briefly:

I study self-transcendent experiences (which are basically peak or spiritual experiences), meaning and purpose in life, and death. Currently, I work as a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania at the Positive Psychology Center and in collaboration with UPenn’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. I also work as a consultant and public health educator with Lourdes Health System and I serve as a Humanist Chaplain for Rutgers University. I primarily study the psychology and neuroscience of self-transcendent experiences, but I am also interested in end-of-life issues.

What did you do before MAPP?

I was more of an entrepreneur. After undergrad, I started a health and wellness practice (Integrative Mind-Body Health) to teach people about relaxation techniques, wellness, and well-being. My practice has been sub-contracted by Lourdes Health System for several years. I also started a healthcare consulting practice (Psychosocial Consulting), which initially served medical practices but the work has moved into more technical healthcare business consulting, my primary account is now a medical imaging engineering firm.

My main reason for applying to MAPP was to determine whether I was more of an entrepreneur, a clinician, or an academic researcher. It turns out that of these three I’m best suited for academic research. Ideas light my mind on fire – they move me on an emotional level – so working in this area excites me on a daily basis. My research feels like a real calling.

What got you interested in Positive Psychology?

My journey to positive psychology began with a spontaneous “mystical” experience of self-transcendence. In one instant, my life seemed to go from mild despair and meaninglessness to absolutely overflowing with a joyful and loving sense of meaning and purpose. Much of my adolescent angst was resolved in one overwhelming moment. I’m not alone in this – experiences like mine, which William James describes in The Varieties of Religious Experience, are surprisingly common. Research suggests that today about 33% of cross-cultural samples report something like them. This means that about 1 out of every 3 of your readers will be nodding their heads in recognition when they read this. One scale, the “Mystical Experience Questionnaire” gives a sense of the experience through its items:

  • “Experience of the insight that ‘all is One.’”
  • “Awareness of the life or living presence in all things.”
  • “Feeling that it would be difficult to communicate your own experience to others who have not had similar experiences.”

My attempts to understand this experience led me through academic studies and “real world” experiences that I would not have had otherwise. My studies include comparative religion, philosophy, psychology, and cognitive neuroscience. Experientially, I graduated Marine Corps. Boot Camp and participated in Zen meditation retreats to study rites of passage. I have also traveled and taken psychedelic drugs (legally) to learn more about how certain triggers and circumstances can facilitate self-transcendent states of mind. While these experiences never re-captured my initial experience, many came close. I now believe that many group rituals and contemplative practices have tremendous value. I still meditate and go on retreats, for example. I also promote the on-going psychopharmacology research on psilocybin (a psychedelic substance) at John Hopkins and NYU, and I believe that we will see a return of immersive interventions similar to rites of passage in psychology’s near future.

I should also say that I see my research through a purely psychological lens, and I work hard to keep from engaging in metaphysical speculation. While I was raised religious – and still feel generally positive about religion – I became an atheist at a young age. After my mystical experience, however, I became very spiritual – after all, “seeing is believing”, right? Well no, actually… As Dr. Jon Haidt once said to me, “seeing is perceiving.” After studying philosophy and neuroscience, I realized that I can’t know the true nature of existence or consciousness. This humbled me tremendously. Coming to terms with the fact that we lack certainty about these issues was, and is, a difficult but very valuable process. Now I consider myself an agnostic – this keeps me living in wonder at the mystery that surrounds us. This view also allows me to understand the perspective of religious, spiritual, and secular people alike, which has been particularly important while volunteering with Hospice and doing chaplaincy work. In these areas, the main focus is on helping people rather than getting caught up in debates about belief systems.

My research eventually led me to the work of Dr. Andrew Newberg, who studies the neuroscience of mystical experiences. He is best known for putting long-term meditators and nuns into neuroimaging scanners (like SPECT and fMRI) to see what is going on in their brains while they experience self-transcendent states of unity. He seemed to understand the subjective side of these experiences, was conducting useful and fascinating research on the topic, and wasn’t trying to prove any points based on a particular belief system. Rather than having a metaphysical axe to grind, he frames his work as a strictly scientific endeavor that has the potential to help people. In fact, his respectful and open-minded way of presenting his research often leads people of both extremes of belief to use his research as “proof” that their particular worldview is right.

Atheists say, “See! These experiences are only in the brain” and believers say, “See! These experiences are even in the brain!”

Of course, the data does nothing to prove either of these metaphysical positions correct, but it does advance our scientific understanding of the actual experiences tremendously.

At some point in this process, I saw that Dr. Seligman was on the board of advisors for Dr. Newberg’s lab. I recognized Dr. Seligman’s name from psychology textbooks during my undergrad training. After I learned about his positive psychology initiative, I began to hear about it everywhere. The director of the psychology lab I worked in at the time referred to his work, my Zen teacher brought up positive psychology in his talks (called “teishos” in the Zen tradition), and I remembered that my undergrad study group “Jedi Mind Tricks,” had briefly covered this topic. Once I started reading more of Seligman’s work, I couldn’t learn enough. For a few months I became a hermit in order to read books and articles by him and the other usual suspects in positive psychology (Barbara Fredrickson, Jonathan Haidt, Paul Bloom, Jane Gillham, etc…). After hearing James Pawelski discuss the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program at an info session, I knew I was hooked. I applied that fall.

As stated above, one of your research areas is the experience of self-transcendence. Can you please elaborate on that?

“Getting out of your head” is one way that I’ve been thinking about self-transcendence lately. Self-transcendent experiences (STE’s) are temporary states of unity with something beyond the self. They range from the routine, like getting lost in a piece of music, to the transformative, such as the mystical experience that I had. Other experiences fall in-between these extremes, like states of mind experienced during meditation or while making love, for instance.

I am working with a dream team of researchers to formalize the definition and spectrum on which STE’s occur – something we call “the unitary continuum.” We are applying for a Templeton grant to study how often these experiences occur, what kind of people experience them and under what circumstances, how people describe them, what biological processes are associated with them, and how they relate to outcomes like well-being and altruistic behavior. To learn more about how these experiences work on the neurological level, we are currently utilizing non-invasive brain stimulation techniques to try to elicit self-transcendent experiences at UPenn’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience.

Evidence suggests that unlike many interventions in psychology that have small effect sizes and are relatively short-lived, the more intense varieties of self-transcendent experiences can be positively transformative. Some studies show that certain beneficial effects of mystical experiences of self-transcendence, like increased well-being and altruistic behavior, can last years, decades, or even a lifetime. Many people rate these experiences among the most meaningful of their entire lives – alongside events like marriage and childbirth.

If I wanted to foster the presence of self-transcendence in my life: where, or with what should I start?

There are two broad paths to more self-transcendence that have the most evidence behind them, contemplative practices and group connection. In terms of contemplative practices, meditation, prayer, yoga, or even simple relaxation techniques are a great place to start. For group connection, attending church, going to a concert, or participating in anything that involves group cooperation can elicit a sense of self-transcendence.

I would also point you to the research on self-transcendent positive emotions by Barbara Fredrickson, Awe by Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt, Flow by Mihayli Csizkszentmihalyi, Mindfulness by Richard Davidson and Britta Holzel, Peak Experiences by Abraham Maslow, and Mystical Experiences by Ralph Hood and Andrew Newberg. We are calling these “The Varieties of Self-Transcendent Experience” in an obvious nod to William James.

You´re also interested in end-of-life healthcare. How is that a “positive” topic?

Death is scary, dying is difficult, and in our society we don’t do a particularly good job of handling either particularly well (see Atul Gawande’s brilliant article “Letting Go”). Attempts to improve the dying process typically do so by reducing suffering, and I am a great proponent of these efforts. Hospice is one of the very few examples of truly cross-disciplinary, holistic health-care. Palliative care (or “comfort care”) has even recently become a specialty that physicians can study. We have made great collective strides in reducing the pain and suffering of those who are actively dying.

At the same time, I believe that we can do more than reducing pain alone. Hospice care provides art and music therapists, compassionate presence from volunteers, and visits from chaplains. Soaringwords is an organization run by fellow MAPPster Lisa Buksbaum that is also doing wonderful work in this area. These are just a few examples of an amazing start, and I think we can build on these beginnings. Well-being is important for people, period. The fact that someone is actively dying should not exclude them from positive interventions. The dying process is still part of life, and this experience could be improved by making options available that promote well-being. I suspect elements of well-being like meaning and relationships will be shown to be particularly valuable.

Research on mindfulness practices and psychedelic sessions at end-of-life have shown that remarkable improvements in well-being and reductions in anxiety and depression are now possible. Based on this research, I predict that within ten years, when one is pronounced terminally ill (about six months to live) they will have the option of undergoing a psychedelic session. I am very surprised to be saying this, but the evidence of positive benefit is so strong that I think policy makers will eventually be morally obligated to permit research and application in this domain. Physicians and patients will demand access to these substances, especially as research reaches a tipping point of demonstrating their potential to relieve suffering.

David Yaden with other Mappsters

David Yaden with fellow Mappsters

Thanks a lot, David, for this Mappsterview!

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

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!