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.

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

Enter Positive Psychology

Breathing Happiness: New TEDx Talk by Emma Seppälä

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

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

Loneliness is a Killer! A TEDx Talk and the Story of my Life

One of the central tenets of Positive Psychology is Other People Matter, coined by the late Prof. Christopher Peterson. If you want to learn just how much they matter to your happiness and your health, you might want to watch this TED talk by Prof. John Cacioppo from University of Chicago.

My Story

Now, I perfectly know from my own life what Prof. Cacioppo is talking about. When I was 16, I went to the USA for a year to attend high school and improve my English skills. I left my family and friends behind – platforms such as Skype and Facebook weren’t available (in fact, Mark Zuckerberg probably was entering middle school at that time). I agreed to have a phone call with my parents only every other Sunday – in order not to abet homesickness. Bad idea, most likely…

For reasons which are to complex and difficult to explain (if it can be explained at all – because every person will have a very different vantage point…), this was by far the loneliest year of my life. I found it hard to connect to my guest families and the larger part of my schoolmates.* For most of the time, m closest social connections consisted of other exchange students (during school hours) and the folks I encountered during basketball pick-up games (in the afternoon). Other than that, for most of the year, I felt utterly alone and devoid of warm social connections, let alone love.

I am now perfectly aware what a situation like this does to your body and your soul. When I came to the U.S., I was a healthy and (ordinarily) happy teenager. By the time I went home, I had developed allergy-based asthma, suffered from recurring panic attacks, and was – according to what I´ve learned during my psychology studies later in life –  more than mildly depressed (including, at times, suicidal thoughts). It took me several years to shake all of this off – but I did.

Full Circle

To end this post on a high note (or rather: two high notes), I have to add that even though this was probably the worst year of my life, that doesn´t mean it hasn’t been a valuable experience. On the one hand, it´s a classic case of “What doesn´t kill me makes me stronger“. On the other hand – and that may be a strangely wonderful twist of fate – this year gave my life a whole new direction. The high school I attended offered psychology as an elective course. These two hours or so every week always were among the regular lights at the end of my tunnel. And I think my psychology teacher is the reason why I chose to pursue that profession later on in my life.

And then, there´s this other – equally beautiful and strange – twist of fate. Mappalicious exists as a blog because I was part of the ninth cohort of the Master of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania – it started as a kind of diary. So, 19 years after what I´ve described above, I spent another year in the U.S. (more precisely, several days per months as travelled back and forth between Germany and Philly). Actually, it all happened only about a hundred miles from where I went to school.

And boy, what a difference it has been. It´s been a year full of human bonding, a time of joy, and caring, and yes: love. And, in the light of my past, it´s been a year of healing. Full circle.

Nico Rose - MAPP - Penn Graduation

* I´m not blaming anybody, because it´s actually nobody´s fault. Let´s just say that U.S. high schools can be a pretty tough environment when you´re not exactly part of the in-crowd…


Positive Psychotherapy: A Collection of 5 Research Articles

Positive PsychotherapyPositive Psychology was founded on the belief that there is (or at least has been) an imbalance with regard to the amount of attention researchers and practitioners in the field of psychology give to the positive versus negative phenomena in (human) life (for some insights on this, click here). For the first 100 years, psychological science has give much more attention to the negative continuum of experiences (e.g., how to get rid of depression) than to the positive side (e.g., how to lead and sustain a happy and fulfilled life).
Nevertheless, just some years after Positive Psychology’s “inception”, some researchers and practitioners took the newly developed theories, tools, and interventions from the subclinical arena – and tried to apply them in a clinical context, e.g., to help people who suffer from depressive disorders. Thus, Positive Psychotherapy was born.*

Here, you’ll find four of the most important articles charting this territory (links lead to PDFs). The fifth article is a very recent one, there’s no free PDF available as of yet. But if you’re interested: I’ve made very pleasant experiences by just e-mailing authors and asking for a copy. Enjoy!

*Even though Positive Psychology’s official year of birth is 1998 (when Marty Seligman was elected president of the APA), the term Positive Psychotherapy has been in use long before that time. If you’d like to learn more, please click here.

Psychology is still ruled by the Disease Model. But Positivity and Strength-Orientation are gaining Ground

When I talk about Positive Psychology in Germany, I also talk about the necessity for this rather recent branch of research and practice (see the slides below), referring to the fact that most psychological research is centered around a disease model, thereby concentrating on mental illness, its antecedents, and cures – just as Martin Seligman and Mihály Csíkszentmihályi propose in their seminal article Positive Psychology: an Introduction.

Today, I wanted to check if this is really true – and if the onset of Positive Psychology at this millennium has does anything to change that conjectured imbalance. Therefore, I went to Google Scholar and searched for articles which titles` contain either the words depression, anxiety, happiness, or life satisfaction. For a first round, I limited the search to articles that were published between 1900 and 1999. For a second round, I counted all the articles that have been published afterwards. Here´s what I´ve found:

Depression Happiness Graph

A first stunning finding* is the fact that, in the last 15 years, more papers were published than in the previous 100, no matter on what subject. Whether that is a desirable development with regard to quality and impact remains to be seen.

But more importantly, the imbalance between research focusing on desirable vs. undesirable states is clearly visible in the chart. In the 20th century, papers focusing on depression outnumber those focusing on happiness by a factor of 13. For anxiety and life satisfaction, it´s factor 10.9.

Now what has changed over the last 15 years? The answer is: Positive Psychology has made quite an impact: an increasing publication rate in this branch of psychology results in a (at least slightly) more balanced ratio. Depression outnumbers happiness by “only” 5.7, anxiety outnumbers life satisfaction by “only” 5.8.

I´ve put the world “only” in parentheses since that still is very far away from a sort of equilibrium. But progress has been achieved. And there will be more…

Traditional Psychology  Positive Psychology - Dr. Nico Rose






* Of course, the overall number of publications is much higher. But I suppose that counting papers containing a specific word in the title is a pretty decent proxy for the general writing activity in a sub-branch of research.

I had a black Dog, his name was Depression

Event though this is blog about positive psychology, I´d really like to share with you this educational video about depression created by WHO. Unfortunately, even though so many people suffer from depression, there are even more people who don´t know about the typical symptoms and what it does to us, to our thinking, our feeling, how it interferes with leading a normal life, partnership, and so on. I think, the following video captures all that in a very palpable way. Please share and let other people know, too…