A Definition of Positive Interventions

lauren-peng-43963The community of positive psychology researchers has yet to agree on a generally accepted definition of positive interventions. While there are several definitions available that display a considerable overlap, there is still a lot of space for conceptual clarification (Parks & Biswas-Diener, 2013). I posit the following definition:

A positive intervention is an evidence-based, intentional act or series of actions (behavioral strategy) meant to increase (away from zero) that which causes or constitutes well-being and flourishing in non-clinical populations.

I will explicate the elements of positive interventions in the order they appear in the aforementioned definition.


The term “positive” in positive interventions defines the contextual and methodical framework that positive psychology operates on. On the contextual level, the target group of positive interventions are “normal people”, meaning humans from a non-clinical population (Seligman & Csíkszentmihályi, 2000). This represents a crucial difference to most therapeutic interventions that are designed to improve the condition of people suffering from a psychological disorder such as a depressive episode (Gable & Haidt, 2005). At the same time is has to be noticed that, in spite of this, there are studies that investigate the effectiveness of positive interventions for clinical populations (Duckworth, Steen, & Seligman, 2005). On the methodological level, positive interventions try to utilize positive phenomena of human cognition and emotion, such as pleasant feelings and memories, mindfulness, or the intentional use of character strengths and virtues (Peterson, 2006). Once again, this can be contrasted to interventions in clinical psychology, where “non-positive” methods such as the prescription of anti-depressants are custom. It is important to note that positive interventions (and positive psychology in general) do not prescribe a specific positive finite or ideal state of being. Rather, they can be characterized by a spirit that embraces constructive meliorism (Pawelski, 2005), the belief that humans can improve their condition no matter what. As such, positive psychology seeks to help people to reach their full potential, their individual best-possible life.


Positive interventions are based on sound scientific research, ideally double-blind experiments using adequate control groups, as well as longitudinal evaluation studies (Seligman, 2002; Sin & Lyubomirsky, 2009). This represents an important modification compared to adjacent disciplines, such as humanistic psychology. While both disciplines share a lot of common ground pertaining their phenomena of interest, values, and goals, humanistic psychologists tend(ed) to be somewhat dismissive of large-scale empirical research (Seligman & Csíkszentmihályi, 2000). It is not unreasonable to say that methods akin to positive interventions were by and large confined to the large body of self-help literature up to the onset of the third century. Through positive psychology, they have finally entered the academic discourse for good.

Intentional Activity

Positive interventions seek to foster human agency, autonomy, and self-efficacy (Ryan, Huta, & Deci, 2008). The “active ingredient” of each intervention should reside within the individual, not in some external sphere. Therefore, a certain level of willpower, self-regulation and effort are needed for carrying out a positive intervention (Lyubomirsky & Layous, 2014). This postulate can once again be contrasted to the prescription of anti-depressants, where the desired effect is created by something that is external to the individual and cannot be influenced directly. This is a crucial aspect since many researchers try to find ways to deliver positive intervention in a “self-help” style, e.g., as an online assignment (Ouweneel, Le Blanc, & Schaufeli, 2013). Hence, it is paramount that positive interventions are relatively easy to carry out and rely on whatever resources an individual already disposes of before learning how to perform the intervention.

Away from zero/non-clinical Populations

This aspect once again alludes to the contextual domain of positive psychology. Interventions in clinical psychology are designed to help people reach a neutral (non-clinical) condition when they are perceived to be displaying a psychopathology. In short: their task is to relieve suffering (Seligman & Csíkszentmihályi, 2000). In a simple mathematical analogy, their aim is to get people from some negative number to (around) zero. On the contrary, positive interventions are meant to increase human well-being in the positive direction, away from zero. Yet, while this mathematical analogy is easy to grasp, it is also misleading to a certain extent. There is reason to believe that positive states (mental health, flourishing) and negative states (mental illness, suffering) are somewhat independent spheres of the human condition. It is not uncommon to experience elements of flourishing even when severely ill; and at the same time, it is also possible to display a lack of subjective well-being in spite of the absence of any psychopathology (Westerhof & Keyes, 2010). Therefore, when drawing on mathematical analogies, at the end of the day in may be more appropriate to assign a point in a Cartesian system to each person, rather than a point on a standalone continuum.

Causes or constitutes Well-being and Flourishing

Finally, positive interventions promote dimensions of human well-being, be it the psychological well-being model proposed by Ryff and Keyes (1995), Diener´s (2000) subjective well-being construct, or Seligman´s (2011) PERMA framework (or, for that matter, any adjacent concept). As such, the possible desired outcomes of positive interventions are manifold. They include positive emotions and cognitions such as happiness, satisfaction with life, autonomy and relatedness, experiences that foster engagement, e.g., the discovery and use of one´s character strengths, boosting the quality of one´s relationships, finding meaning and purpose in life, or higher levels of achievement. In addition, physical well-being should explicitly be included, since regular physical exercise is a viable approach to achieve psychological well-being as well (Fox, 1999).

The underlying Mechanics of Positive Interventions

While researchers in positive psychology have early on developed and empirically tested positive interventions (Seligman et al., 2005), the question of why and how these interventions actually work has only recently entered the academic discourse (Schueller, 2010). A current article by Lyubomirsky and Layous (2014) presents a preliminary model with regard to this question: The authors posit that encouraging people to complete positive interventions leads them to have higher levels of positive emotions, think more positive thoughts, and display more positive behaviors, which in turn results in increased well-being and improvement in life domains such as work, relationships, and health. While there seems to be a lot of truth to this explanation, it remains somewhat generic.

In this section of the article, I will therefore explicate my own outline of the mechanics behind positive interventions. This includes thinking about the underlying mechanisms as well as reporting some empirical findings on the question in what contexts and for which target groups they work best. To start, I´d like to repeat the definition of positive interventions given in the previous section: A positive intervention is an evidence-based, intentional act or series of actions (a behavioral strategy) meant to increase (away from zero) that which causes or constitutes well-being and flourishing in non-clinical populations. The most important part of this definition for the upcoming section is: “intentional act”. These words represent two of the general principles that underlie the functioning of all positive interventions: a) focusing our attention on a specific positive matter of interest; and b) getting us to actively change our behavior along the line of self-defined goals.

The importance of the first component – focusing our attention – was already proposed by the “father of American psychology”, William James (1890/1923, p. 424): “The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will […] (1890/1923, p. 424). Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that intentionally focusing our attention on the good things in life will result in an increased level of positive emotion. This relationship holds true for several variations of meditation practice, such as mindfulness-based meditation (Brown & Ryan, 2003) and loving-kindness meditation (Fredrickson, Cohn, Coffey, Pek, & Finkel, 2008).

The beneficial effect of the second component – taking deliberate action – is equally backed by extant research. There is abundant evidence for the proposition that building one´s feeling of agency and being in control is accompanied by feelings of autonomy, which over time leads to an increase in well-being (Ryan, Huta, & Deci, 2008). Implicitly embedded in the notion of carrying out an intentional act is the connotation that there has to be some kind of goal that one strives to attain. Goal-setting theory (Locke, 1996) posits that having clear and attainable goals, and receiving goal-related feedback frequently, raises the likelihood of actually reaching our goals – which in turn leads to higher levels of self-efficacy (Maddux, 2009) – which then raises the likelihood of achieving one´s goals in the future. And attaining one´s personal goals, at the end of the day, yields a sense of accomplishment, purpose, and meaning in life (Brunstein, 1993; Sheldon & Elliot, 1999; Emmons, 2003).

In summary, the mechanics that underlie the efficacy of positive interventions can be integrated as follows: completing positive interventions leads humans to have higher levels of positive emotions, think more positive thoughts, and display more positive behaviors via focusing their attention on the good things in life, enabling them to attain meaningful goals, thereby strengthening their feeling of agency and self-efficacy, which nurtures their sense of achievement and purpose in life.


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.

Brunstein, J. C. (1993). Personal goals and subjective well-being: A longitudinal study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65(5), 1061-1070.

Diener, E. (2000). Subjective well-being: The science of happiness and a proposal for a national index. American Psychologist, 55(1), 34-43.

Duckworth, A. L., Steen, T. A., & Seligman, M. E. (2005). Positive psychology in clinical practice. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 1, 629-651.

Emmons, R. A., (2003). Personal goals, life meaning, and virtue: Wellsprings of a positive life. In C. Keyes & J. Haidt (Eds.), Flourishing: Positive psychology and the well-lived life (pp. 105-128). Washington: American Psychological Association.

Fox, K. R. (1999). The influence of physical activity on mental well-being. Public Health Nutrition, 2(3a), 411-418.

Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open hearts build lives: positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(5), 1045-1062.

Gable, S. L., & Haidt, J. (2005). What (and why) is positive psychology?. Review of General Psychology, 9(2), 103-110.

James, W. (1890/1923). The principles of psychology. New York: Holt.

Lyubomirsky, S., & Layous, K. (2014). The how, why, what, when, and who of happiness. In J. Gruber & J. Moscowitz (Eds.), Positive emotion: Integrating the light sides and dark sides (pp. 473-495). New York: Oxford University Press.

Maddux, J. E. (2009). Self-efficacy: The power of believing you can. In S. J. Lopez & C. R. Snyder (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology, 2nd edition (pp. 335-343). New York: Oxford University Press.

Ouweneel, E., Le Blanc, P. M., & Schaufeli, W. B. (2013). Do-it-yourself: An online positive psychology intervention to promote positive emotions, self-efficacy, and engagement at work. Career Development International, 18(2), 173-195.

Parks, A. C., & Biswas-Diener, R. (2013). Positive interventions: Past, present and future. In T. Kashdan, & J. Ciarrochi (Eds.), Mindfulness, acceptance, and positive psychology: The seven foundations of well-being (pp. 140-165). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Pawelski, J. O. (2005). Mitigation and construction: Toward a balanced meliorism. Unpublished manuscript, University of Pennsylvania.

Peterson, C. (2006). A primer in positive psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ryan, R. M., Huta, V., & Deci, E. L. (2008). Living well: A self-determination theory perspective on eudaimonia. Journal of Happiness Studies, 9(1), 139-170.

Ryff, C. D., & Keyes, C. L. M. (1995). The structure of psychological well-being revisited. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(4), 719-727.

Schueller, S. M. (2010). Preferences for positive psychology exercises. Journal of Positive Psychology, 5(3), 192-203.

Seligman, M. E. (2002). Authentic happiness. New York: Free Press.

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

Seligman, M. E., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410-421.

Sheldon, K. M., & Elliot, A. J. (1999). Goal striving, need satisfaction, and longitudinal well-being: the self-concordance model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76(3), 482-497.

Sin, N. L., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2009). Enhancing well-being and alleviating depressive symptoms with positive psychology interventions: A practice-friendly meta-analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 65(5), 467-487.

Westerhof, G. J., & Keyes, C. L. (2010). Mental illness and mental health: The two continua model across the lifespan. Journal of Adult Development, 17(2), 110-119.

Foto credit: https://unsplash.com/@laurenpengg96

Positive Psychology News Digest | No. 14/2017

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


Penn News: Penn Researcher Awarded $2.5 Million to Study Well-being Effects of the Arts and Humanities by Michele Berger & Katherine Unger Baillie

New York Times: Turning Negative Thinkers Into Positive Ones by Jane Brody

Quartz: Knowing when to quit is as important as having grit by Susan David

Atlantic: How Loneliness Begets Loneliness by Olga Khazan

Fast Company: Want To Be Happier And More Successful? Learn To Like Other People by David Mayer

Psychology Today: Having a Religion Doesn’t Help You, But Practicing One Does by Ryan Niemiec

Psychology Today: Presidents and the Pursuit of Happiness by Benjamin Radcliff

New York Times: Check This Box if You’re a Good Person by Rebecca Sabky

Harvard Business Review: Meaningful Work Should Not Be a Privilege of the Elite by Richard Straub & Julia Kirby

Harvard Business Review: 6 Ways to Look More Confident During a Presentation by Kasia Wezowski

What´s your Favorite Positive Psychology Book? (Poll)

Today, I´d like to know which Positive Psychology Book you like best. I´ve provided a list with 10 of the most popular books (from my point of view). You can pick up to 3 books – or list other books that you prefer. Thanks a lot for your participation. Please share this post so others will vote, too!


The New York Times on Positive Psychology and adjacent: My 10 favorite Pieces

New_York_Times_logo_variationI totally admire how top psychology researchers regularly get a lot of airtime in US mass media outlets – doesn´t happen that much here in Germany. The following list comprises 10 (more or less) recent pieces from the venerable New York Times. All of them were written (or cover work) by some of the figureheads of Positive Psychology.

The world of the happy is quite different from the world of the unhappy.

It´s always a crime to divorce a Wittgenstein quote from its context – but I´ll do it anyway:

Wittgenstein - HappyWhat we can definitely say today is that happy people see the world differently – and I mean literally, not metaphorically. When looking at the same visual information, happy people seem to see more of the scenery, they have a different scope. And this scope, in turn, seems to enlarge their mental scope, thereby transferring the broadening quality to the metaphorical level – which, at the end of the day, makes happy people e.g., more creative. If you´d like to know more, please have a look at these articles.

MOOC on Positive Psychology created by Barbara Fredrickson

Barbara FredricksonIf you want to learn the basics of Positive Psychology directly from one of the most eminent researchers in the field, 2015 is your time. Barbara Fredrickson is offering a massive open online course (MOOC) via the platform Coursera for free. The course is scheduled from February 9 to March 27. You´ll have to put in roughly 2-4 hours of work. This is the course´s syllabus:

Week 1: Positive Emotions: The Tiny Engines of Positive Psychology. Look “under the hood” to discover the powerful drivers of growth, well-being, and health.

Week 2: The Mindscapes and Outcomes of Positivity. Discover the roots of flexibility, creativity, and resilience.

Week 3: The Delicate Art of Pursuing Happiness. Discover the ratios and priorities that best promote flourishing and learn common pitfalls to avoid.

Week 4: Positivity Resonance and Loving-Kindness. Unveil the force of co-experienced positive emotions and practice this lab-tested meditation honed over millennia.

Week 5: The Fruits of Positivity Resonance. Learn to spot the health benefits that loving-kindness uniquely nourishes.

Week 6: The Ripples of Positivity Resonance. Far beyond you and your happiness, positive psychology radiates out to benefit your relationships and community.

For further information and registration, please visit the corresponding page at Coursera.


The Little Guru wishes you a HAPPY Day!

The P in Marty Seligman´s PERMA framework of Positive Psychology stands for Positive Emotions. According to Barbara Fredrickson´s Broaden-and-Build theory of positive emotions, regularly experiencing sentiments such as happiness, joy, and anticipation is a sign of psychological well-being, and potentially even a pathway to creativity, success across different areas of life, and overall health.

So here´s a friendly reminder from my son, the Little Guru, to stay HAPPY! Have a great day!

My Mind´s MAP(P): The 4-minute Ivy League Diploma in Positive Psychology

MAPP 9 Superhero MedalFor one of our MAPP final papers, we were asked to come up with a list of bits and pieces of insight, those “eureka moments of comprehension” we´ve had over the two semesters at Penn. I´d like to share those with you as a kind of “MAPP in a nutshell”. As I like to tie knowledge to those teachers that are “responsible” for my comprehension, I will present them to you in that way. Therefore, I´ve created a list of (to my knowledge) all the persons that have taught in MAPP 9 at one point or the other, and will name those that have provided me with an especially memorable insight. Those perceptions do encompass theoretical insights from positive psychology, its real-world application (or its contribution to real-world application of other psychological concepts), or style of (teaching) delivery…

Roy Baumeister: Bad is stronger than good (precisely: bad events and emotions create a stronger and longer-lasting impact on our brains). Therefore, we need to purposefully create more positive events and emotions in our lives to counterbalance this one-sidedness (with a tip to the hat to John Gottman…).

Dan Bowling: Everything that can be done can also be done with style. It makes the world a brighter place.

Art Carey: Has shown me how important the process of writing is for my own life – and that part of my future career should consist of getting paid for being a “wielder of words”.

David Cooperrider: Words create worlds. Accordingly, positive words will create (mostly) positive worlds – whereas negative words will create (mostly) negative worlds. So use your words wisely, especially your questions – as they tend to create the worlds within other people´s minds.

Angela Duckworth/Peggy Kern: Woohoo! Learning (and teaching…) statistics can be fun. Go figure…

Jane Dutton: High-Quality Connections (HQC) are the high-octane fuel of every organization. Suspend your judgment and try to walk a mile in your fellow men´s shoes before coming to any conclusion. Build trust via giving open, positive feedback – if possible, on a daily basis.

Chris Feudtner: Keeping an open heart while working in dark places (e.g. palliative care units for children) can grant you an enormous “aura” and tangible “clarity of the mind”. When there´s nothing left, there can still be hope. What do we hope for – when there´s no other option left but hope?

Barbara Fredrickson: Positive emotions are not a trifle. They are essential building blocks for our well-being and should be fostered actively.

Adam Grant: It is more blessed smarter to give than to receive. Being altruistic does not turn you into a doormat. It can lead to success, even in competitive corporate environments.

Jonathan Haidt: 1) There are no good reasons (at least not good enough) to be pessimistic about the fate of mankind. Judged by most empirical indicators, it´s not foolish to say that we are on an “upwards trajectory”: things are bound to get better. On that note, I would also like to thank my classmate David Nevill for giving me the sentence “We never have enough data to be pessimistic.” It continues to inspire me, even on a sort of metaphysical level. 2) Look to the extreme ends of the (positive) emotional continuum, e.g., to emotions such as awe and elevation. They may be powerful change catalysts.

Emilia Lahti: You have tons of soul mates somewhere out there. They may live at the other end of the world. But eventually, some of them will find you (especially if you start a blog, that is…)

Ellen Langer: Everything that can be done is worth being done mindful. It leads to better results and more satisfaction. Plus: Don´t fear getting old.

Daniel Lerner: Everything that can be done can also be done with “an eye for excellence”. It pushes the boundaries of human achievement.

Chris Major: A man with a true purpose is (almost) unstoppable.

Ryan Niemiec: 1) Strengths matter more than frailties. They are the key to our “true self” and the building blocks on our road to (work and life) satisfaction. 2) A movie is never “just a movie”. It´s a lesson on character strengths.

Off the Beat: Singing is life!

Ken Pargament: Even atheists value the “sacred moments” in their lives. Find them, cultivate them, and cherish them. They are valuable.

James Pawelski: 1) Trust the process. 2) It´s always valuable not to be the smartest person in the room. 3) Know which giants´ shoulders you are standing on. 4) There is nothing more practical than a good theory (and a proper definition). 5) Know the limits of your knowledge. 6) Positive psychology is grounded in meliorism (the belief that people/things can improve/be better than they are today). 7) You can be a proper scientist and nevertheless enjoy Tony Robbins.

Isaac Prilleltensky: Fairness on the community and societal level influences our individual well-being. Countries with developed democracies, a high degree of personal freedom, generous social security systems and relatively small gaps between top earners and “normal” workers are the happiest (on average)

John Ratey/Tom Rath: Move your ASS! Your brain will appreciate it.

Ann Roepke: Our life is a narrative and as such, we do have tremendous power over it by actively re-writing or pre-writing the storylines.

Esa Saarinen: Don´t hold back. Create systems of generosity. Err on the giving side. Embrace your inner (and outer!) “weird”.

Barry Schwartz: 1) Most times, “good” is “good enough”. 2) Purposefully limit the choices you have to make in life. E.g., choose not to choose by setting defaults and creating habits.

Martin Seligman: Think and dream big.

Daniel Tomasulo: Everything that can be done can also be done with a twinkle in the eye. Makes hard work feel “easy”.

Amy Wrzesniewski: Purpose and meaning (at work) are the result of finding work that integrates your strengths, passions, and values. The calling comes from within. Other people matter (at work, too).

I am deeply thankful to all of you!


P.S. Thanks to my classmate Linda Rufer for designing those MAPP 9 superhero medals. The backside says I was voted “most mappalicious” person in our cohort. Whatever that means at the end of the day… 🙂

Positive Psychology and MAPP at Penn: Doing that Namedropping Thing

Actually, I should be busy writing on my MAPP final papers right now. But then, taking short breaks is supposed to help your mind stay fresh, right?

By now, a lot of people that have read my blog also contacted me to ask about my MAPP experience. Obviously, it´s not that easy to tell a story of 10 months in a few sentences. Hey, that´s why I started this blog in the first place…* There´s also been some questions about the tuition – and to be honest, it´s not exactly a bargain. I could have not taken part without some generous support from my employer (or rather: my boss). But hey – Penn belongs to the Ivy League and that comes with a price tag.

If you´d like to know why I am convinced that it was worth each and every penny (and much more…), please read my blog front to back. Otherwise, you might be convinced by the sheer (work-)force of people that you’ll  have the pleasure and honor to learn from. So here is the name-dropping list. Please note that the guest lecturers and assistant instructors will vary from year to year (C = core faculty; G = guest lecturer; A = assistant instructor that has taught part of a class at some point):

That´s value for money…

*And to become super-duper famous, of course…

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!