Mappsterview No. 8: Dan Lerner introduces “U Thrive”

dan_lernerFor this Mappsterview, I´m happy to interview Dan Lerner who attended Penn´s Master of Positive Psychology program two years before me. He was a teaching assistant in my MAPP cohort and I remember him mostly for his high level of energy – and giving me decent grades on my theory papers despite my crappy German-English phrasing. Today, his book U Thrive is published, co-authored with Alan Schlechter.

Dan, please introduce yourself briefly.

Hi there! I am Dan Lerner, MAPP 7. One of the many Dans who have been fortunate enough to attend the program (although hardly the most talented…or tallest…or for that matter the oldest), I am now a clinical instructor at NYU teaching “The Science of Happiness” to over 1000 students each year. I am also super lucky to remain on staff at MAPP as an assistant instructor.

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

Oh! There was life before MAPP? I had totally forgotten. I seem to recall a decade in the music business as a talent agent for opera singers, there may have been some coaching in there as well…and…that’s right…before MAPP I enjoyed a life free of theory papers.

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

During my ten years in the music business, I saw two very different types of artists. There were those who were happy onstage and off. They loved to perform, they adored their colleagues, and they found joy in the music, but it was clear that family, faith, or meaning came first. As one of the most successful singers in the world mused when I asked how he kept the nerves at bay, “I care deeply about what I offer in performance, but if I crack a note, forget a line, or trip and fall onstage, I still get to go home to my kids and hang with my friends. And you know what? None of them care about the performance: they love me, I love them, and that’s what counts.”

Yet many artists seemed profoundly unhappy despite great success in the music industry. During my first year on the job, I watched a renowned singer give a stunning performance in front of a sold-out crowd of thousands. With deafening applause and screaming fans pleading for an encore, her radiant smile dropped into a mask of annoyance the moment she walked offstage as she looked at me, put her hands on her hips, and groaned, “Jesus, why do I even do this?” I regularly received tearful phone calls from artists who missed their families, and angry calls from others who—despite ever-growing success and fame—were clearly frustrated with their lives.

Excellence and well-being, I discovered, did not necessarily go hand in hand. It got to a point where I had seen too many people with extraordinary talent either suffer or simply burning out before they could fully explore and realize their potential. So I left.

My first stop was to dive into performance psychology. I was incredibly fortunate to meet and study with Dr. Nate Zinsser, the Director of The Center for Enhanced Performance at the United State Military Academy at West Point. Nate’s clear interest in athletes who enjoyed success not only on the field but off was reflected in the syllabus that he assigned, for it included Marty’s Learned Optimism and Mike Csíkszentmihályi´s Flow. When I realized that there was a way to study well-being and its role in expert development, I was hooked. I immediately applied to MAPP, and of course, was rejected just as swiftly. Let’s just say that a fair amount of groveling goes a long way.

u_thriveTogether with Alan Schlechter (whose last name ironically means “worse” in German…), you´ve now written a book that aims at helping undergrads thrive throughout their college career. Please tell me about that project.

Almost 4,000,000 students entered the undergrad ranks in the United States last year. These students will sleep less then ever before, eat more poorly, and spend less time with friends than anytime in college history. By the end of their first year, 30% of freshman will have dropped out. A recent study by the Gallup organization of 16,760 students found that in the past twelve months, 79.1 percent of them had been “exhausted (not from physical activity),” 59.6 percent felt “very sad,” 45 percent found that “things were hopeless,” and 31.3 percent had been “so depressed that it was difficult to function.”

Based on these numbers, for many college students, what was anticipated to be the “four best four years of their life” have begun to feel more like their worst.

College should be about thriving, not just surviving, and for the past five years, Alan and I have taught “The Science of Happiness” to our undergraduates at NYU with one sole intention: To help students thrive in college and beyond. “U Thrive: How to Succeed in College (and Life)” is our attempt to help share this information with students across the county. As a child and adolescent psychiatrist, Alan has spent more than a decade helping young adults deal with their challenges, while I have focused for roughly the same amount of time on bringing well-being into the process of human development and the realization of individual potential. He’s red cape, I’m green, and together it is with these complementary skills that we strive to address both the tough times and the incredible opportunities that abound during a student’s time in college, sharing the theory, science, and application of thriving.

From stress to relationships, willpower to mental health, purpose to passion, and beyond, we weave the most pertinent empirical findings into engaging stories and practical application, crafting experiential learning assignments to both inform and transform our students lives. We help them learn how they can turn their fear into excitement and their anxiety into possibility.

U Thrive is the book that we wish we had in college. U Thrive helps students understand how to develop mindsets of growth, success, and resilience so that they can nurture inspiration instead of fear. We know that they will have a better chance to make the most of their four years if they understand what willpower really is, how it works, how they can strengthen it, and when it is most likely to be tested. We cover how positive emotions help them be more creative and feel more relaxed, and allow them to perform better under pressure, be it onstage, in class, on the field, or on a date. We want them to be able to distinguish bad stress from good stress, learn how to set a routine that encourages more of the latter and less of the former, know when to turn to friends and family for support, and recognize when a visit to campus mental health services may be the way to go.

Rough roommates? It’s in there. How to cultivate healthy and awesome relationships? Yes. Is the Freshman Fifteen real? What happens when you take a fifteen-minute nap while studying? Or a fifteen-minute walk? What does research show that fifteen minutes of breathing practice a day do for your grades, your mood, your relationship, and/or your focus? And what are the steps to develop these routines during the most unstructured time of their lives to date?

Our dream (and no, not ((just)) for financial reasons) is to get this book into the hands of every college bound student/freshman so that they can deal with the challenges and make the most of their opportunities on campus.

If you could send a part of the book to a younger version of yourself, while you were in college – what part would that be? And why?

It would probably be the cover, so that I could show it to my parents in an attempt to convince them that I wasn’t actually partying my life away and that I did have a somewhat promising future.

But if we’re being honest, it would be the final section, Positively Excellent. I quit a very successful career in music to live alone in a shack on a Caribbean island, before founding (and then quitting) another very successful business in music, before bartending at some huge NYC spots, before finally going back to school and finding my way in teaching and speaking. (You can see why my parents were so confused.) Basically I quit a lot of stuff right when I was poised to have huge careers in each. I can’t lie, it was stressful to have busted my butt in each area, working 80+ hours/week at each stop, only to quit and seemingly begin again.

The final section addresses the challenges of pursuing what our hearts tell us that we should. Not only how to do it, but how to do it well, and how to do it with well-being. We discuss meaning, expert development, and the role (and science ) of passion. Perhaps most importantly, this section attempts to make clear to young people that they have a choice, that their future lies very much in their hands, and that so many paths to great success and  well-being demands that they live as individuals. I think that having known this before I embarked on my journey would have helped me stress a lot less and accept the path that I had chosen.

Hopefully now that I have done the research and written on the above, quitting and starting over the next time will be a lot easier. 🙂

From “Made to Stick” by the Heath brothers, I´ve learned that it´s really helpful to sell stuff by using insightful analogies. The script for “Alien” supposedly was pitched as “Jaws on a spaceship”. What´s the analogy for your book?

“The Shining for toddlers”?  “An underwater version of The Death of Ivan Illych”? Look, people make fun of the fact that so many studies are done on college sophomores so who the hell else do the studies then apply to, but it was perfect for us and our readers. They’re college students, they stand to benefit from knowing about their peers, and that’s what we are striving to do, so the analogy is simple: Positive psychology for college students. It’s not exactly as sticky as “An all panda bear version of The Great Gatsby”, but it’s pretty much spot on.

Thanks a lot, Dan – and best of luck with your book!

4 Ways to build a Human Company in the Age of Machines [TED Talk]

Description of Ted Leberecht´s talk:

In the face of artificial intelligence and machine learning, we need a new radical humanism, says Tim Leberecht. For the self-described “business romantic,” this means designing organizations and workplaces that celebrate authenticity instead of efficiency and questions instead of answers. Leberecht proposes four (admittedly subjective) principles for building beautiful organizations.

Positive Psychology News Digest | No. 12/2017

My favorite news and blog articles covering Positive Psychology and adjacent Topics from (roughly) the last seven days.

New York Times: Not Leadership Material? Good. The World Needs Followers by Susan Cain

City AM: International Day of Happiness: 10 things to do to ensure you live a happy life by Nina Edy

NPR: Nonacademic Skills Are Key To Success. But What Should We Call Them? by Anya Kamenetz

Wall Street Journal: Medical School Seeks to Make Training More Compassionate by Lucette Lagnado

New York Magazine: Seeking Emotional Moderation in an Age of Extremes by Cindy Lamothe

NPR: Is Happiness A Universal Human Right? by Tania Lombrozo

Greater Good Science Center: Five Ways Feeling Good Can Be Bad for You by Kira Newman

Heleo: To Find Your Passion, Take the Saturday Morning Test by Neil Pasricha

New York Magazine: Use This Technique to Make Bad Memories Feel More Meaningful by Cari Romm

Psychology Today: Are Resilient People Delusional? by Nick Tasler

Washington Post: The World Happiness Report is out and the U.S. has fallen. Sad! by Amy Wang

My new TEDx talk: “Dare to Foster Compassion in Organizations”

I´m super happy. After my official TEDx premiere at TEDx Bergen/Norway in 2014 (How to be the architect of your own fortune), as of today, my second TEDx talk is available on YouTube. It was filmed at the very first edition of TEDx EBS late in 2016. EBS University (or European Business School Oestrich-Winkel) is one of the premier business schools in Germany and, coincidentally, the place where I obtained my Ph.D.

The talk is named “Dare to Foster Compassion in Organizations”. It draws on research by luminaries such as Jane Dutton, Monica Worline, Adam Galinsky, Laura Little, Jennifer Berdahl, and the late Peter Frost (and even though they are neither mentioned nor referenced on a slide explicitly, Esa Saarinen, Adam Grant, and Robert Quinn).

I hope you will enjoy the talk! And if you do, please consider sharing the news. Thank You!

If you are interested in a (sort of…) transcript of the talk: this was published here a while ago.

Positive Psychology News Digest | No. 05/2017


My favorite news and blog articles covering Positive Psychology and adjacent topics from (roughly) the last seven days.

Forbes: Are You Using Apple’s Secret Skill At Work? by Jessica Amortegui

Bakadesuyo: This Is How To Have A Happy Life: 4 Proven Secrets From Research by Eric Barker

Fast Company: When you really want something, you’re better off thinking you won’t get it by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

New York Magazine: The 5 Personality Traits That Make for a Better Life by Melissa Dahl

New York Magazine: How ‘Intellectual Humility’ Can Make You a Better Person by Cindy Lamothe

Huffington Post: Is Positive Psychology Still Relevant in 2017? (Interview with Prof. Barbara Fredrickson) by Michelle McQuaid

BBC: The ‘untranslatable’ emotions you never knew you had by David Robson

New York Magazine: An Easy Way to Get Your Co-workers to Trust You More by Cari Romm

The Age: The science of being a hero by Annabel Stafford

Inc: 7 Ways to Stop Complaining and Feel Happier (Backed by Science) by Andrew Thomas

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!


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.

Staying Sane, Cavemen-Style

gorilla_laptopMankind is a smart bunch. We´ve learned how to put a man on the moon, how to build skyscrapers as high as mountains, and we have access to all the knowledge in the world via small devices in our pockets made of plastic, metal, and some microchips. We can travel back and forth between the continents in a matter of hours. We´ve developed sophisticated treatments for all kinds of human ailments, helping us to become as old as some of the trees. That´s impressive and utterly admirable.

Yet, all these upsides of modern life seem to take a toll on our bodies and minds. In most Western societies, the level of obese people is growing steadily, as is the pervasiveness of psychological disorders such as depression and anxiety-related conditions. Is this the price society has to pay for the comforts of the modern life? And more importantly:

Could we reverse these effects by turning to a more “primitive” lifestyle?

Here´s the thing: I´m sure, on the whole, we´re a lot smarter than our Neanderthalian ancestors. But being smart does not automatically lead to making smarter decisions. Let´s look at their way of life for a moment. Born in 1978, I´m not a contemporary witness – yet I´m an avid reader and watch a lot of documentaries. Here´s how I imagine life must have been for them:

  • They lived in tribes of several larger families with close bonds between the members of their group.
  • They had to toil hard in order to survive, but when their work was done (having enough food to sustain the tribe), they relaxed, played, created art, and made love.
  • The men hunted in small groups, sometimes for several days in a row. When doing so, they walked or even ran a double-digit mileage per day.
  • While chasing prey, they didn’t talk much. Instead, they focused on their immediate surroundings, the animals´ smells, sounds, and their tracks.
  • When the hunt was successful, they returned home, shared their game with everybody, and also shared their hunting lore by the fireside.
  • The women also walked long distances several time per week while searching for fruits and nuts. Some of them stayed home to take care of the tribe´s offspring. When not searching for food, they created tools, pottery, and clothing.
  • Whenever possible, they all slept long, especially in winter. They also took several naps over the course of the day whenever the environment was save.

Now let’s take this narration and transfer into more modern terms. What we have here are people who…

  • spend a lot of time with their friends and the ones they love (here´s some science on the psychological upsides of bonding);
  • finish the equivalent of a half-marathon three or four times a week (here´s some science on the psychological upsides of intense physical exercise);
  • spend most of their time in natural green environments (here´s some science on the psychological upsides of biophilia)…
  • …and practice an intuitive form of mindfulness while doing so (here´s some science on the psychological upsides of staying in the present moment).

Additionally, they…

Depression and anxiety as the body´s warning signs?

Compare this to what most Westerners are doing:

  • We eat too much food that we don´t have to struggle for.
  • We sit too much and walk too little.
  • We work insane hours, yet don´t sleep and play enough.
  • We spend too much time alone or among people we don´t really care about.
  • We get lost in cyberspace instead of staying with what´s at hand.
  • We focus too much on promoting ourselves instead of promoting the common good.

Put in simple terms, I think this is what our bodies are trying to tell us:

Hey man, you’re doing this wrong. You’re spending your time doing the wrong things, and I don’t feel safe and sound in these places you’re taking me. And where are the familiar faces that I love? But hey, I can’t explain this to you in a straight way, I don’t have words. That’s why I make you feel anxious and miserable. This is my wake-up call.

Let me close by saying that I don’t argue we should all return to an aboriginal lifestyle. I’m a city-boy all the way through. I like my work at the office, I love going out for dinner, and having a grocery store and a hospital in close proximity. But I also try to take care of myself and my body, I try to create meaning by helping people live more significant lives (e.g., via this blog…) – and ever since being married and having kids, I stay home a lot.

I guess, as ever so often, it comes down to finding the right balance.