Honoring the Forefathers: Abraham Maslow and the Quest for Self-Actualization

Abraham_MaslowA couple of days ago, I shared some memorable quotes coined by Viktor Frankl whom most people consider to be the biggest influence on research related to meaning in life (and work).

Today, I´d like to honor another luminary, the person who actually coined the term Positive Psychology in the 1950s: Abraham Maslow, probably best-known for his hierarchy of needs framework (mostly depicted as the “pyramid of needs” you´ll find in a lot self-help and management books).

Here are some of his most intriguing thoughts:

Abraham Maslow on Self-Actualization

It looks as if there were a single ultimate goal for mankind, a far goal toward which all persons strive. This is called variously by different authors self-actualization, self-realization, integration, psychological health, individuation, autonomy, creativity, productivity, but they all agree that this amounts to realizing the potentialities of the person, that is to say, becoming fully human, everything that person can be.

—–

We fear our highest possibilities. We are generally afraid to become that which we can glimpse in our most perfect moments, under conditions of great courage. We enjoy and even thrill to godlike possibilities we see in ourselves in such peak moments. And yet we simultaneously shiver with weakness, awe, and fear before these very same possibilities.

Abraham Maslow on Purpose in Life

A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What a man can be, he must be.

Abraham Maslow on Other-Orientation

The needs for safety, belonging, love relations and for respect can be satisfied only by other people, i.e., only from outside the person. This means considerable dependence on the environment. A person in this dependent position cannot really be said to be governing himself, or in control of his own fate. He must be beholden to the sources of supply of needed gratifications. […] He must be, to an extent, “other-directed,” and must be sensitive to other people’s approval, affection and good will.

—–

The great lesson is that the sacred is in the ordinary, that it is to be found in one’s daily life, in one’s neighbors, friends, and family, in one’s backyard.

Abraham Maslow on Perseverance and Post-Traumatic Growth

Not allowing people to go through their pain, and protecting them from it, may turn out to be a kind of over-protection, which in turn implies a certain lack of respect for the integrity and the intrinsic nature and the future development of the individual.

—–

One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.

Abraham Maslow on Appreciation, Awe, and Gratitude

The most fortunate are those who have a wonderful capacity to appreciate again and again, freshly and naively, the basic goods of life, with awe, pleasure, wonder and even ecstasy.

Abraham Maslow on Mindfulness

I can feel guilty about the past, apprehensive about the future, but only in the present can I act. The ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental wellness.

Positive Psychology News Digest on Mappalicious | No. 19/2016

My favorite pieces covering Positive Psychology and adjacent from (roughly) the last seven days.

Guardian: Is grit the true secret of success? by Paula Cocozza


Quartz: The key to happiness at work isn’t money–it’s autonomy by Bell Beth Cooper


New York Magazine: Don’t Believe the Hype About Grit, Pleads the Scientist Behind the Concept by Melissa Dahl


NPR: How To Teach Children That Failure Is The Secret To Success by Tara Haelle


Scientific American: Review of ‘Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance’ by Scott Barry Kaufman


Greater Good Science Center: Why Do We Feel Awe? by Dacher Keltner


Atlantic: Self-esteem doesn’t work. Try self-compassion instead by Olga Khazan


Greater Good Science Center: Happy People Don´€™t Need to Feel Superior by Kira M. Newman


The Positive Organization: Adaptive Confidence by Robert Quinn


New York Magazine: You Could Probably Lift a Car, If You Really Needed To by Cari Romm


Harvard Business Review: Creative Job Titles Can Energize Workers, no author, yet feat. Adam Grant

News Digest - Mappalicious

Life is amazing. And then it’s awful. And then…

Nico_Mika_ParkWord.

Life is amazing. And then it’s awful. And then it’s amazing again. And in between the amazing and awful it’s ordinary and mundane and routine. Breathe in the amazing, hold on through the awful, and relax and exhale during the ordinary. That’s just living heartbreaking, soul-healing, amazing, awful, ordinary life. And it’s breathtakingly beautiful.

(L.R. Knost)

No Pain, no Gain? Think again! We are able to experience Post-Ecstatic Growth, Science says

Post Ex GrowthOriginally coined by German philosopher Nietzsche, the following quote has become a piece of common knowledge: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger”. Most people have – at one point or another – made the experience that going through really tough times may render us stronger than before, and not shattered as one would initially expect. In psychology, this mechanism is labeled Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG; here´s an overview of the idea).

Some people might even claim that there is no gain without pain. Turns out, that this view may be wrong, or at least incomplete. In a 2013 article published in the Journal of Positive Psychology titled Gains without pains? Growth after positive events, Ann Marie Roepke, Ph.D. student at Penn´s Positive Psychology Center, presents evidence for what she calls Post-Ecstatic Growth, based on a survey among some 600 people. Basically, Roepke had people name the one experience in peoples lives that they remember as the most positive (e.g., the birth of a child). Then, she asked people to specify which category best characterized their positive event, based on Seligman´s PERMA framework and which positive emotions had been evoked by the event (e.g., in awe, inspired, uplifted, joyful, content, fascinated etc.). Additionally, she assessed the outcome of that event, for instance, feelings of personal growth or “doors opening up” for new possibilities in life.

In short, Roepke found clear evidence for the existence of Post-Ecstatic Growth. Here are some excerpts from the discussion section of her article:

Positive events can, in fact, catalyze growth. Although hedonic happiness levels tend to return to baseline after positive events, important changes in eudaimonic well-being and in worldview may remain. Four domains of growth are particularly important after positive events:

  • new meaning and purpose in life;
  • higher self-esteem;
  • spiritual development;
  • and better relationships.

Some positive experiences are more likely to lead to (self-perceived) growth than others. […] Events that evoke stronger positive emotions are more closely linked to growth. This is consistent with Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory: positive events can provide opportunities to expand one’s thought-action repertoire, and this expansion can be perceived as growth. Indeed, participants who reported that a positive experience opened their eyes to new opportunities, goals, roles, and values also felt they had grown more. […] Inspiration, awe, and elevation are especially important positive emotions for growth. […] In contrast, more hedonic positive emotion (e.g. feeling joyful and content) predicts less growth.

Inspiration is related to meaning, a sense of connection to something greater than the self. Meaning, like inspiration, is closely tied to growth: meaningful experiences are associated with more growth than experiences of accomplishment, engagement, relationship, and hedonic positive emotion.

Roepke´s conclusion:

Our best moments can inspire us, connect us to something greater than ourselves, and open our eyes to new possibilities, ultimately giving rise to growth.

Hence, there is gain without pain. If we seek out the right positive experiences, we are able to experience gain from previous gains, possibly entering into an upward-spiral of growth.

There´s a Lack of Positive Words in the German Language

A couple of times in the past, I´ve written about how immersing yourself in Positive Psychology is somewhat hard when you´re German – because it seems to be a slightly “Un-German” topic. Today, I´d like to explore this topic from a slightly different angle – that of language. Oscar Wilde supposedly said “Life is too short to learn German.” And he may have been right. It´s pretty complicated and therefore awfully hard to learn as a foreign tongue. Yet, it is the language of Goethe, Schiller, and Rammstein – that´s something to explore.

Speaking of the metal band Rammstein: there´s this thing about German pronunciation that makes just about everything sound like a declaration of war – even if you say something like “I love you”. There´s a funny video about this on Youtube. The guys overdo it a little, but then, this may just be what it feels like to a non-German ear:

But I digress. What I really want to talk about: I feel there´s a lack of positive words in the German language. Positive Psychology was (sort of…) invented in the U.S. – and most research papers and books are written in English. When I came to Penn, obviously I had to study the subject in English, too. But now that I´m back in Germany, I try to “sell” the topic over here, which has to be done in German of course. And that´s where the problems begin.

There´s this myth that the Inuit have an unusually high number of words to describe snow. We have “50 Shades of Grey”, they supposedly have 50 shades of snow. Actually, this is not true. But the idea behind the myth seems highly intriguing to me. In short it says: when something is valued very highly in a specific culture this tends to influence the use of language. Specifically, people pay more attention to the subject because of its importance, thereby learning to make more subtle distinctions, that ultimately are reflected in the amount of different words that can be used to talk about the subject.

To a certain degree, this idea mirrors one of Wittgenstein´s most famous dictums:

The limits of my language means the limits of my world.

When I do not have a word for something, that makes it hard to think about that subject, because it cannot be “grasped”. And it makes it even harder to speak about “that something” to other people. That idea is (probably) embodied in another Wittgenstein quote: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

Which brings us back to my problem of “selling” Positive Psychology in German:

Where there are no words, you can´t “spread the word”.

When I first tried to talk and write about Positive Psychology in German, oftentimes I felt a lack of the “right” words. For example, the German language has the same word (ergo: a lack of distinction…) for the subjects of “Happiness” and “Luck”. Both are signified by the noun “Glück”. So whenever I talk about happiness and positive emotions in the context Positive Psychology, I have to use an awful lot of extra words to get across the intended meaning.

But it´s not only a lack of distinction. Sometimes, I even feel there are no words. For instance, the brilliant Jonathan Haidt gave a lecture on the subject of “awe” in one of our MAPP classes. This moved me very much and I wanted to talk about my experience with friends back in Germany. The problem is: obviously, there is no adequate translation for “awe”. If you type “awe” into a translation machine, you’ll get the German equivalents of “veneration” or “reverence”, “rapture” or “entrancement”. All the suggestions entail a very religious or, at least, old-fashioned connotation. They are not part of a modern, non-religious German “language game”. Therefore, talking about “awe” in German in a scientific (or just everyday) context seems awfully hard.

This bears some interesting implications. Whenever I fill in a questionnaire on happiness or life satisfaction (e.g., here on Marty Seligman´s website), there´s an interesting phenomenon when I look at the results. These will be displayed in the context of different normed groups. E.g., your scores will be compared to other people of your age, your educational background, but also your ZIP code (when provided). Now here´s the thing: Comparing my results to other people from my ZIP code (ergo: other Germans) will always put me in a higher percentile. This means: based on the same raw scores, the algorithm will display that I´m quite happy when comparing myself to other men in general, or other Ph.Ds, but that I´m extremely(!) happy when comparing myself to other Germans.

Now, there´s a couple of different explanations for this phenomenon. The easiest one would be: on average, the German respondents in that data base are not all that happy – and that´s why I score (relatively) higher vis-à-vis that group. But it may also be a phenomenon of language. What if Germans were just as happy on average as, let´s say, U.S. citizens, but were reluctant to use positive self-descriptions in an extreme specification – just because it´s not part of our “happiness language game”? Maybe, via studying Positive Psychology in English in the U.S., I became a little less German, thereby being able to mitigate the dissonance of describing my life in a very positive light?

I guess Positive Psychology has to integrate cultural perspectives more and more in order to be equally “useful” for all the people on this planet. Recently, the Scientific American published a piece by the name of “Not Everyone Wants to Be Happy” citing different studies that were able to show that the concept and meaning of happiness can vary significantly between different cultures (notably, between more Western and more Eastern cultures) – but has also evolved over time. Very though-provoking.

Which brings me to the final question for today:

Could Germany be a better place if somebody invented new positive words?

“The German” per se (as a stereotype”) is depicted as a sober-minded person. We´re perceived as being diligent, orderly, industrious, and a lot of other helpful attributes. But we´re also depicted as being rather anxious, risk-averse, and just not that open-minded (think “German Angst”). This is not just an academic discussion. The German economy has been doing comparably well over the last couple of years – but how long will this last? We´re really not that good at building and financially supporting start-ups. Forbes regularly updates a large list of all those startups that are valued at more than one billion $ in terms of private equity funding. Only one of those is based in Germany.

What if all this were (at least to some extent) a consequence of a lack of the right positive words? Would we become more optimistic, less risk-averse, and more open-minded if we were able to enhance our language, if we were able to broaden the (far) positive side of our verbal aptitude? I think it´d be worth a try. In 1999, a German publisher of dictionaries (together with ice-tea brand Lipton) hosted a contest for the invention of a new word. We have a German word for the state of being “full” (= not hungry any more) – but there´s no positively framed expression for being “not thirsty any more”. As far as I know, the winning word has not made it into our regular language use, but I guess it was worth the effort.

So why shouldn’t we – for starters – find a more awesome translation for “awe”? I´m eager to hear your suggestions…

The No. 1 Secret to Standing Out from the Crowd at an Ivy League School…

Climb* on a chair! 🙂

Outstanding Pomp and Circumstance

Just came home from a fabulous Penn (MAPP) graduation and commencement weekend. Will post lots more on that shortly…

* A big thank you to my classmate Brandy Reece and her husband for the awesome photo. In that moment, I climbed on my chair to give a special shout-out to our program director James Pawelski who was passing by.

Art as Therapy: Is Mindfulness the Active Ingredient?

MAPP is a fulltime program – but combines onsite classes with long-distance learning periods. Part of the distance learning comprises a lot of reading (…who would have thought of that…) and writing essays about a wide array of positive psychology topics. I´ve decided to post some of those essays here on Mappalicious. Surely, they´re not the be-all and end-all of academic writing. But then again, it would also be a pity to bury them in the depths of my laptop…

Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer

For the sake of forthrightness, let me first say that I feel anything but self-confident and adept to write this essay. I have sort of bumbled through art classes in high-school, and I´ve avoided going to museums as effectively as possible all my life. I´ve liked art – if at all – based on its aesthetic-appealing quality (my favorite painting probably is Caspar David Friedrich´s “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog”) which most likely makes me a cretin in the eyes of every true lover of art.

This being the case, I have to say I enjoyed reading de Botton and Armstrong´s (2013) oeuvre “Art as Therapy” due to the fact that it helped me to “get a grip” on that somewhat impalpable subject. It provided me with a functional set of tools to approach a painting, something which I clearly lacked so far. So, drawing on de Botton and Armstrong´s insights (which will be described in the following section) I would like to argue that exposing ourselves to works of art can enhance our well-being, and additionally help to understand the underlying nature of well-being by providing opportunities to exercise our capacity for mindfulness.

Art as a Tool to make up for our human Frailties

Creating art has been used as a mode of psychotherapy (or at least: part of a set of different interventions) for quite a while now, especially aiming at relieving the suffering from trauma and anxiety disorders. While it remains somewhat unclear how making art is helping people to cope with difficult experiences in their lives (Kapitan, 2012), meta-analyses show that art therapy seems to be able to help people with several different psychological disorders – even if effect sizes remain rather small (Reynolds, Nabors, & Quinlan, 2000; Slayton, D’Archer, & Kaplan, 2010). Therefore, de Botton and Armstrong´s book is by far not the only book by the name of “Art as Therapy”. Yet, when taking a closer look, it becomes clear that the authors do not aim at describing “art therapy” as a means to helping a clinical population. Rather, they want to provide tools for our personal development, for finding a “medicine” for our everyday human frailties.

Specifically, de Botton and Armstrong (2013) list seven human frailties – and additionally describe how exposing ourselves to art can serve to remedy maladies. I will briefly define them here. In the absence of supporting scientific literature for this specific take on art, I´ve looked up matching quotes* from a wide array of artists and writers that point towards the same set of insights.

Forgetting. The human mind is prone to forgetting – be it everyday things or really important lessons of life. As such, art can be a way of remembering and keeping memories alive.

(Painting is just another way of keeping a diary. – Pablo Picasso)

Pessimism. We often underestimate the amount of goodness in our lives and, conversely, overestimate the prevalence of bad events. The beauty of (some) art can help us to remember and appreciate what is right with human existence – it can act as a source of hope.

(The beauty one can find in art is one of the pitifully few real and lasting products of human endeavor. – Paul Getty)

Despair. We sometimes tend to feel separated from all other human beings, believing that our joys, but particularly our suffering, is agonizingly unique. Art connects us to the rest of mankind by displaying that (and how) a certain amount of suffering is a normal (and maybe even: necessary) element of the human condition.

(Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable. – George Bernard Shaw)

Disintegration. Oftentimes, we think of ourselves as monadic entities, forgetting about the fragmentation of the human mind and soul, and that we are a process rather than a steady state. Art can help us to reacquaint with that fractal and ever-changing character of our existence.

(There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept. – Ansel Adams)

Personal Blind Spots. We do not know many things about ourselves. And quite naturally, we do not know what we don´t know. Art can help us to raise our self-awareness by serving as a mirror that reflects more that can be seen when solely looking at the person that stands in front of that mirror.

(Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time. – Thomas Merton)

Comfort Zone. We like to stay in our comfort zone, exposing ourselves to things that we already know, and people that are similar to us – thereby avoiding the risk of being taken by surprise. Exposing ourselves to art can lead us off the beaten track, guide us to find uncharted territory, thereby providing opportunities for personal growth and individuation.

(Art hurts. Art urges voyages – and it is easier to stay at home. – Gwendolyn Brooks)

Ennui. We tend to take the things (and people) in our lives for granted. Even awe-inspiring wonders of nature or magnificent works of architecture and technology can lose their magic when we fail to appreciate them in a condignly fashion. Works of art can revive that process of due appreciation, awe, and wonder.

(The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls. – Pablo Picasso)

Mindfulness as a fundamental Ingredient to the “Medicine of Art”

When trying to view exposure to art through the lens of positive psychology (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000) extracting the active ingredient, the “least common denominator” in de Botton and Armstrong´s (2013) cure for the seven human frailties, I feel they can be boiled down to the notion that exposing ourselves to art (and of course creating it) can be likened to a an exercise in (the art of) being mindful** – insofar as all the frailties have a common ground in a lack of this special state of mind (and heart):

  • When we forget something important in our lives, we are not mindful of what we (used to) know.
  • When we are overly pessimistic, we are not mindful of all that gives us a reason to hope.
  • When we give in to despair, we are not mindful of the true nature of human existence.
  • When we are overly sure of who we are, we are not mindful of the fuzziness and fluidity of “the self” – and what we could be instead.
  • When we only look at what we like, we are not mindful of what we dislike in ourselves.
  • When we always stay close to our comfort zone, we are not mindful of the possibilities and beauty that may lie beyond.
  • When we don´t appreciate the wonder of (human) life and everything it entails, we are not mindful of the improbability (and potentially: uniqueness) of it all.

Conclusion

By now I´ve realized that art can be a powerful teacher. Visiting the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia and spending more than an hour with just one painting (in my case: “Unpleasant Surprise” by Henri Rousseau; see below) has strikingly shown me how I can use art to cultivate my capacity for mindfulness. But maybe it takes a really good to teacher in the first place to appreciate art as a teacher.

References

Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2003). The benefits of being present: mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(4), 822-848.

de Botton, A., & Armstrong, J. (2013). Art as Therapy. London: Phaidon Press.

Grossman, P., Niemann, L., Schmidt, S., & Walach, H. (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits: A meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 57(1), 35-43.

Kapitan, L. (2012). Does art therapy work? Identifying the active ingredients of art therapy efficacy. Art Therapy, 29(2), 48-49.

Reynolds, M. W., Nabors, L., & Quinlan, A. (2000). The effectiveness of art therapy: Does it work? Art Therapy, 17(3), 207-213.

Seligman, M. E. P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5-14.

Slayton, S. C., D’Archer, J., & Kaplan, F. (2010). Outcome studies on the efficacy of art therapy: A review of findings. Art Therapy, 27(3), 108-118.

*All quotes found via http://www.brainyquotes.com.

**Mindfulness is “commonly defined as the state of being attentive to and aware of what is taking place in the present” (Brown & Ryan, 2003, p. 822) and is associated with a wide array of desirable psychological outcomes (Grossman, Niemann, Schmidt, & Walach, 2004).