Mappsterview No. 8: Please stand up for Dan Tomasulo

Dan TomasuloPlease introduce yourself briefly

I’m Dan Tomasulo, MAPP 7. Since graduation in 2012 I’ve worked as an assistant instructor for Marty Seligman and James Pawelski. I’m also core faculty for the “Spirituality Mind Body Institute” at Teachers College, Columbia University in NYC where I’ve designed and teach the Optimal Well-Being concentration. I also direct the Open Center’s New York Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology (NYCAPP).

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

Hmmm. Depends on how far back we are willing to look. 🙂 I’m a licensed psychologist and psychodrama trainer and work in private practice and consulting. I also have an MFA in writing and a few books under my belt. I have a daily blog called Ask the therapist at and write for Psychology Today as well.

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

I went through a personal crisis and got depressed. There is nothing worse than a depressed psychologist. People would tell me what was bothering them – and I thought, Huh – you think THAT’S bad…wait until I tell you what happened to me. (I never actually said that out loud.) My best friend took me to the first International Positive Psychology Conference and I was hooked. I started doing things that made me feel better and despite all my years of training nothing seemed to be so directly helpful. That was when I decided to go to MAPP.

While googling you, I found a NYT article from 1983(!) stating you used to be a stand-up comedian. Can you tell us more about that?

Damn, I told you not to tell! 🙂 Yep, for a couple of years I was on the circuit. If you are a fan – this was back in the time of Andy Kaufman. I was mostly at the Improv in Hells Kitchen. But it was the same time I was finishing my Ph.D. I had to choose between comedy and psychology and that’s when psychodrama came along. I realized I could blend the two into a therapeutic form. Ultimately, I became a trauma expert using psychodrama to help people unlock the part of their soul that had shut down. Being able to use humor in the right amounts at the right time was part of the gift that stand-up gave me. It helps the healing when people have to touch some dark feelings.

(There is a wonderful story I will write about one day about the night Andy Kaufman told us of how “foreign man’s” “Thank you berry much.” Came about—but that’s a tale for another time.)

As stated above, among other many things, you facilitate and teach Psychodrama. What is that all about?

It is an action-oriented for of psychotherapy where we use role-playing to understand a situation, activate emotions, and correct them. In a group we will use auxiliaries to play the different roles the protagonist is talking about. If you are angry at your mother you would choose a person to play your mother and we would enact the scenes related to the issue. We use a variety of techniques to amplify and explore the emotions. We have people take on the role of someone’s feelings, their ambivalence, their compassion, or anger. It is more than simple role-playing however. The training is long (my post-doctoral training program was 13 years!) and you learn to manage dramas at an individual level, group level, and the community level. At one point I was hired by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) to use a special type of psychodrama to heal unrest in a community. It was amazing to see large groups of people respond to large-scale group dynamics with a healing result.

And how does Psychodrama tie in with Positive Psychology? Are there any parallels?

Just as psychology focused on the negative aspects and developed tools to alleviate suffering, psychodrama followed suit. Most of the training and the work was targeted at relieving pain. But the tools are so powerful that it seems the methods of psychodrama could be used to activate positive emotions in a way that strengthens and integrates.

This past summer at the IPPA conference in Montreal I was given the Avant-Garde Clinical Intervention award for the development of the Virtual Gratitude Visit (VGV). This technique builds on the original gratitude letter Marty researched. He asked students to deliver a letter of gratitude to someone they felt they needed to thank. This was one of the first pieces of research to show that the use of a positive intervention could improve well-being while stablizing depression for a period of time. In the virtual gratitude visit we use an empty chair to have the protagonist deliver a feeling of gratitude. They then reverse roles, become the person and answer, then reverse back. This is typically a very powerful and moving experience. People can do this with those that have passed on – as well as those they are no longer in touch with. Technically, with negative emotions you get a catharsis that acts like a purging. But with positive emotions you get a catharsis of integration. The expression of the positive emotions pulls together a miriad of feelings and integrates them. This creates a feeling of wholness.

I’ve developed several other experiential methods for use in exploring character strengths, forgiveness, resilience, best possible self, self compassion, etc. Each does a similar thing in using the psychodramatic methods to integrate emotions.

It seems like being a story-teller is an overarching theme in your life. Over the upcoming weeks, your memoir called American Snake Pit will be published. Here´s your space for some unbridled adulation.

American Snakepit - Dan TomasuloI am very excited that in April George Mason’s Stillhouse press will release my memoir, “American Snake Pit: Hope Grit, and Resilience in the Wake of Willowbrook.” This will be my second memoir and it tells the story of moving a group of very challenging people into the community. It gives a voice to those who could not advocate for themselves.

My memoir is in the spirit of “One Flew Over the CooKoo’s Nest”, “Awakenings”, and “Girl Interrupted”. It challenges the perception of mental illness and is the first memoir of its kind concerning the treatment of intellectually disabled and mentally ill patients coming from the infamous Willowbrook, a hell on earth Bobby Kennedy called a “snake pit.” But it is much more than a depiction of the horrors of the institution. It is the story of patients not just surviving, but flourishing for the first time in their lives, proving the resilience and hope of the human spirit. Their story is about what happens when intentional well-being replaces indifference.

American Snake Pit is the story of the disregarded souls who ended up in my care; of the eccentric, resilient staff who helped make such a momentous success possible; and about a blind spot in American history. Because of the success and the progress made by the inmates in group homes like these, mental health became a civil right in the United States. The Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA) of 1980, affects all Americans. It is particularly important now as the right to quality healthcare treatment, and access is so politically charged. This is the story of how it all began.

Pygmalion and the Leadership Value Chain

I´m still tremendously inspired by my time at the Ross School of Business in December 2017. Today, I´d like to share with you one of the teachings of Professor Bob Quinn (I´ve posted about his fabulous book Lift before). At one point during the training, Bob introduced us to what he calls the Leadership Value Chain. It´s a model of how (top) management´s mindsets, belief systems and values influence their behavior, which in turn influences organizational values and climate, which ultimately shape peoples´ engagement, and, at the end (and beginning) of the day, their behavior:

Leader Value Chain | Robert Quinn | Mappalicious

One of the framework´s assumptions is that change at higher levels can be blocked or at least diluted by stagnation at the deeper levels. Thus, any (hierarchical) organization will fundamentally change if, and only if there´s a change at the level of leadership values and behaviors.

This got me thinking again about self-fulfilling prophecies and the Pygmalion Effect, whereby performance (e.g., of employees and students) can be positively influenced by the expectations of others. It does make a difference if leaders believe their people:

When leaders´ mindsets are shaped by the ideas on the left, they will act accordingly. When they adhere to the conceptions on the right, they will also act accordingly. Yet, the results will be different.

The left side will lead to optimistic, trusting and, thus, empowering leadership behavior, the right side to pessimistic, mistrusting and thus, controlling leadership behavior. People will adjust accordingly, either by being engaged, inquisitive, and entrepreneurial – or disengaged, unwilling to learn, and small-minded. This, in turn, will fortify their leaders´idea of men, either way. Thus, the self-fulfilling prophecy is fulfilled.

Now, here´s a funny thing about the Pygmalion Effect: Research has demonstrated it can (by and large) not be faked. Either you believe “people are good” – or you don´t. You cannot “believe that you believe”. Which leaves us with the following conclusion:

If you want people to change for the better, you better become a better version of yourself first.

With this Calendar, you´ll start 2018 just right | Action for Happiness

I´m a big fan of the non-profit Action for Happiness and have written on their work multiple times in the past. Today, I´d like to share with you another of their awesome tools, helping to bring Positive Psychology to the general public. Enjoy!


Feedback on Optimal Human Functioning: The Reflected Best Self Exercise™

Nico Rose | Jane Dutton

Nico & Jane Dutton at Ross School of Business

In mid-December, I got to spend a week in Ann Arbor at the Ross School of Business, taking part in an open enrollment course called The Positive Leader: Deep Change and Organizational Transformation. It´s a formidable tour de force through the most important frameworks and applications of Positive Organizational Scholarship (POS). I´m going to write some more about my experiences over the upcoming weeks.

Today, I´d like to share with you the Reflected Best Self Exercise™, a powerful tool that helps people to learn more about their individual strengths and what they´re like when they display some form of peak performance (from the vantage point of other people). In short, the exercise is about asking a group of people to supply you with stories of times when they perceived you to be at your best. In other words, you ask people for feedback about your strengths and capacity for peak performance – and only about that.

What other people appreciate about us tends to appreciate over time.

What´s so special about receiving only positive feedback once in a while? It´s extraordinary because we typicially hear mixed messages, e.g., as part of a performance appraisal at work. What´s the point? Rick Hanson, author of “Hardwiring Happiness”, likes to say “our mind has velcro tapes for negative and teflon layers for positive information.” Even if the usual feedback we receive is mostly positive, our brain drives us to ponder almost exclusivley on the negative (= potentially harmful) information. This mode of processing has actually helped us to survive as a species over thousands of years (please see Bad is Stronger than Good for more background) – but it also keeps us from truly taking in any positive information, unless we explicitly allow ourselves to focus on that side of the spectrum, so we can learn and grow based on who we are when we´re at our best.

Learning from what´s already (more than) good

How are we supposed to improve and grow when we´re not focusing on our weaknesses? As the saying goes, “where attention goes, energy flows” (and results show). Learning about who we are when we are at our best helps us to:

The last bullet point seems especially important to me as it points towards the so-called Pygmalion Effect, the phenomenon whereby higher expectations by others lead to an increase in actual performance. When we ask people to reflect on our positive sides, we actually help them to perceive what Jane Dutton calls the “zone of possibility”, a reservoir of untapped resources and growth potential. Via authentically pointing us towards these strengths and capabilities, they help us to become more than we currently are. This is the true nature of appreciation. The typical connotation of “to appreciate” points towards a strong form of liking. But it also means to grow in value. What other people appreciate about us tends to appreciate over time.

Reflected Best Self - Nico Rose

How does the Reflected Best Self Exercise™ work?

  1. Collect stories from a variety of people inside and outside of your work. You should receive feedback from at least 10 people. By gathering input from a variety of sources, such as family members, past and present colleagues, friends, teachers etc., you can develop a broader understanding of yourself. Specifically, ask them to supply you with short stories of episodes when they perceived you to “be at your best”. Ask for specific and tangible examples, not general impressions.
  2. Recognize patterns and common themes: After gathering those stories, read through them carefully, allowing yourself to take and savor in the positive content. Then, go through them several times, making mark-ups and remarks with a pen. The goal is to search for common themes and recurring patterns within the different stories. These commonalities will serve as the base for your “Best Self Description”.
  3. Then, write a description of yourself that summarizes and distills the accumulated information. The description should weave themes from the feedback into a concise “medley” of who you are at your best. This portrait is not meant to be a complete psychological profile. Rather, it should be an illuminating image you can use as a reminder of your contributions and as a guide for future action (you can see the result of my own process in the picture on the right).
  4. Redesign your job (optional): Now that you you have crafted your “Best Self Description”, what are you supposed to with it? To start, it´s a very good idea to hang a print-out in some corner of your office so as to have an easily accessible reminder of you can be, for those times when things become stressful (and they always do in large organizations). This will help you to keep your composure and look beyond the constraints of the current situation. In the long run, it´s definitely useful to think about the larger implications of your best self:
    • To what extent is your current job playing to your strengths?
    • Can you change your current task and responsibilities so as to better reflect your best self? (please see: Job Crafting)
    • Or should you maybe think about a change of careers to realize your full potential?

I hope you will have tons of fun and insightful moments with this framework; I surely did. By the way, I´ve found out earlier this also works perfectly using social media channels such as Facebook and LinkedIn. You can read my account of this “experiment” here.


You can find a full description of the Reflected Best Self Exercise™, its application, and the underlying research via these articles:

You´ll find lots of resources with regard to the Reflected Best Self Exercise™ on the website of the the Center for Positive Organizations at Ross School of Business.

The Center for Positive Organizations: My Top-10 List of Research Papers

This is some stuff you should definitely check out if you´re in HR, or an (aspiring) leader – or if you want to up your game in general with regard to understanding positive organizations. All links lead you to PDFs of the respective articles.

Cameron, K. S., Bright, D., & Caza, A. (2004). Exploring the relationships between organizational virtuousness and performance. American Behavioral Scientist, 47(6), 766-790.

Cameron, K., Mora, C., Leutscher, T., & Calarco, M. (2011). Effects of positive practices on organizational effectiveness. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 47(3), 266-308.

Dutton, J. E., Worline, M. C., Frost, P. J., & Lilius, J. (2006). Explaining compassion organizing. Administrative Science Quarterly, 51(1), 59-96.

Heaphy, E. D., & Dutton, J. E. (2008). Positive social interactions and the human body at work: Linking organizations and physiology. Academy of Management Review, 33(1), 137-162.

Mayer, D. M., Aquino, K., Greenbaum, R. L., & Kuenzi, M. (2012). Who displays ethical leadership, and why does it matter? An examination of antecedents and consequences of ethical leadership. Academy of Management Journal, 55(1), 151-171.

Owens, B. P., Baker, W. E., Sumpter, D. M., & Cameron, K. S. (2016). Relational energy at work: Implications for job engagement and job performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101(1), 35-49.

Roberts, L. M., Dutton, J. E., Spreitzer, G. M., Heaphy, E. D., & Quinn, R. E. (2005). Composing the reflected best-self portrait: Building pathways for becoming extraordinary in work organizations. Academy of Management Review, 30(4), 712-736.

Spreitzer, G. M., Kizilos, M. A., & Nason, S. W. (1997). A dimensional analysis of the relationship between psychological empowerment and effectiveness, satisfaction, and strain. Journal of Management, 23(5), 679-704.

Spreitzer, G., Sutcliffe, K., Dutton, J., Sonenshein, S., & Grant, A. M. (2005). A socially embedded model of thriving at work. Organization Science, 16(5), 537-549.

Wrzesniewski, A., & Dutton, J. E. (2001). Crafting a job: Revisioning employees as active crafters of their work. Academy of Management Review, 26(2), 179-201.

rawpixel-com-250087 – Creator: rawpixel


The Center for Positive Organizations at University of Michigan: a Book List

Kim Cameron | Nico RoseI´m the luckiest guy in the world. I get to spend the week at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, more precisely: the Ross of Business. Part of the Ross School is the Center for Positive Organizations – which without exaggeration can be described as the global focal point for research and application(s) of Positive Psychology in business (Positive Organizational Scholarship). It´s home to POS luminaries such as Kim Cameron, Jane Dutton, and Robert Quinn. Additionally, some of the big shots in the field have completed their Ph.D. studies here, among them Adam Grant and Amy Wrzesniewski.

I´m going to provide an overview of what I´ve learned here at a later point in time. For today, I´d like to provide a book list of works that been crafted by faculty of  the Center for Positive Organizations. After is, Christmas is coming up soon – and you might still be looking for something for your loved ones (or yourself)…

Also, watch out for Wayne Bakers upcoming book “Just Ask”…

Martin Seligman receives APA‘s Award for Lifetime Contributions to Psychology

I haven’t posted something new on Mappalicious for quite some time – but this is a piece of great news: Martin Seligman, co-founder and spiritus rector of Positive Psychology, has recently been awarded with the American Psychological Association’s “Award for Lifetime Contributions to Psychology”, APA’s highest award – joining luminaries such as Daniel Kahneman and Albert Bandura. Congratulations, Marty!