Bibliophilia: How Reading and Writing can Save our Soul

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…

Library - Mind - Hospital

I´ve visited the center of the earth. I´ve travelled 20.000 leagues under the sea. And I´ve toured around the world in 80 days. Three times, actually. And most of that journeying happened while sitting in the bathtub of my parent´s home. When I was a kid, I used to be a semi-professional tennis player. Upon returning home after long weekends of tournaments, I would head straight to my parent´s bathroom and into the bathtub – to stay there for hours and hours, until my skin would be all shriveled. Most of the times, my companion (and therefore, first literary love) would be Jules Verne, or rather, those heavy editions with linen covers of Verne´s most famous novels that my grandpa gave to my father – and my father to me. Ever since that time, I have been an enthusiastic reader. My taste in books changed, obviously. In came Stephen King, Jostein Gaarder, Nick Hornby, Douglas Adams, and even Joanne K. Rowlings Harry Potter, among others. And out they went again. For several years now, I have been reading non-fiction for the most part. But the pleasure of reading remains. For me, it is an act of uttermost hedonic value. But that is not what this essay is all about. Instead, I will try to convey how literature informs our understanding of (psychological) well-being, and how reading and writing can have a therapeutic effect and build psychological acumen and resiliency.

In the Beginning was the Word

There are many descriptions and analogies for the unique quality of the human race. Common wisdom from biology holds that we are “homo sapiens (sapiens)”, the knowing (or discerning) man (Semino, Passarino, Oefner, Lin, Arbuzova, Beckman, …, & Underhill, 2000). But that is by far not the only description for the “pride of creation”. There are researchers who argue the most important feature that distinguishes man from his mammalian ancestors is our ability to create, remember, and narrate stories – that we are “homo narrans”: the story-telling men (Niles, 1999). Through the narration of stories, man used to recollect and still does recollect his own history, interprets it, and transfers it to the future generation(s), thereby shaping Hegel´s “world spirit” that strives to recognize itself (Hegel, 1822).

But storytelling is almost never done for sheer fun of it, or for objectively reporting was has been before. Telling stories, be it in traditional oral style, in print, or some audio-visual presentation mode, almost always has some instructive, some prescriptive quality to it. Whoever creates or narrates the story oftentimes wants to instill a change in the recipient, wants him to know or even be something else when the story is over. This educational facet of storytelling can be traced all the way through the literary history, from Homer´s “Iliad” and “Odyssey” and Aesop´s fables, to early religious accounts such as the “Upanishads” and the Bible, to medieval works such as Dante´s “Divine Comedy”, Shakespeare´s works of drama (e.g., “Hamlet”), to the early (e.g. Goethe´s “Wilhelm Meister´s Apprenticeship”) and later (e.g. Dickens´s “Great Expectations”) “Bildungsroman” – all the way up to 20th century masterpieces such as de Saint-Exupéry “Little Prince” and New Age classics along the lines of Bach´s “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” or Coelho´s “Alchemist”.

Oftentimes, this educational element is conveyed by carefully depicting the protagonists´ lifestyles – in order to then confront the recipient with the outcomes of these modes of existence. By way of example, both Leo Tolstoy´s “The Death of Ivan Ilych” (1886/2010) and Willa Cather´s “Neighbour Rosicky” (1932/2010) try to educate the reader (among other things) on the value of and human need for close relationships. While Cather portrays the distinctly positive outcomes of understanding that “no man is an island”, Tolstoy´s narrative describes Ivan Ilyich as a human being that literally dies of social and emotional isolation. So, while both stories do not contain any “how-to advice” such as modern self-help books, it remains unequivocal that they try to convey some underlying and implicit understanding of human well-being, that they represent a prescription for “a life well-lived”.

It´s never too late to have a good Childhood*

A special and utmost important kind of story is the story that we tell about ourselves – to ourselves and other people. On that note, psychotherapy has long since discovered the importance of stories and story-telling. It´s not for nothing Freud´s Psychoanalysis is frequently referred to as a “talking cure”. More and more evidence emerges for the notion that being able to convey a coherent and meaningful account of one´s life is a fundamental building block of psychological well-being (Baerger & McAdams 1999). This idea is not only part of the academic literature, but also an important element of pop culture such as the “connecting the dots” element in Steve Jobs´ hugely popular Stanford Commencement Address (2005).

By now, there exists a multitude of ways that stories and storytelling are consciously imbedded into the psychotherapeutic process. By way of example, the branch of “Narrative Therapy” (Monk, Winslade, Crockett, & Epston, 1997) distinctly focuses on those (life) stories that a client brings into the therapeutic setting. Taking on another angle, Cinematherapy (Sharp, Smith, & Cole, 2002) and Bibliotherapy (Cuijpers, 1997) use the potential healing power of existing works of literature, poetry, and film to sow the seed for desirable changes in clients´ mental models and, subsequently, behavioral patterns. Taking on a more active approach, Writing Therapy (Pizarro, 2004) offers relief for patients suffering from severe stress and psychological trauma through the act of writing one´s own account of those stressful events. While the raw facts, the objective events that happened in the past, cannot be altered any more, it is very much possible to change once rational and emotional perception of that same past. It is absolutely possible to “come to terms” with one´s life history, e.g., by consciously creating mental distance to it, by altering its emotional valence, or retroactively finding a deeper meaning in what happened to us earlier (Pennebaker, 1997). Especially the act of discovering a heightened sense of meaning and purpose in life – which is a sign of post-traumatic growth (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004) – seems to have very beneficial on our psychological well-being (Singer, 2004).

But the favorable outcomes of writing are not limited to the stories of our past. Some psychologists, especially in the emerging field of Positive Psychology (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000), stress the importance of (possible) future events for our well-being. Seligman, Railton, Baumeister, and Sripada (2013) describe the human species as beings that are drawn by the future rather than being driven by the past. As such, actively engaging in the creation of a desirable future is a sign of optimal psychological functioning. On that note, positive psychologists have tried to create interventions that help to consciously facilitate the process of optimistic prospection. One of these interventions is based on visualizing and writing about one´s “best possible self” – where subjects are instructed to “imagine yourself in the future, after everything has gone as well as it possibly could” (Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2006, p. 77). Doing this regularly has shown to boost satisfaction with life and an optimistic mindset, among other things – even beyond the time of actively carrying out the exercise.

To draw to a close, I´d like to cite Joseph Campbell, the famous mythologist who discovered that most well-known stories follow a very similar pattern, the so-called “Monomyth” (“The Hero´s Journey” in the pop culture). Campbell once said in an interview: “We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.” Campbell´s monomyth theory posits that compelling stories can typically be structured into twelve different stages (Lang & Trimble, 1988). In stage eight, the hero is supposed to find a magic elixir that will help him to overcome his enemies and bring long-desired changes to the world from which he originally came. Personally, I hope that Positive Psychology will be mine…

References

Andrews, D. H., Hull, T. D., & Donahue, J. A. (2009). Storytelling as an instructional method: Definitions and research questions. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning, 3(2), 6-23.

Sharp, C., Smith, J. V., & Cole, A. (2002). Cinematherapy: Metaphorically promoting therapeutic change. Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 15(3), 269-276.

Baerger, D. R., & McAdams, D. P. (1999). Life story coherence and its relation to psychological well-being. Narrative Inquiry, 9(1), 69-96.

Cather, W. (2010). Neighbor Rosicky. In Obscure destinies (pp. 1-38). Oxford, UK: Oxford City Press. (Original work published in 1932).

Cuijpers, P. (1997). Bibliotherapy in unipolar depression: A meta-analysis. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 28(2), 139-147.

Hegel, G. W. F. (1822). The philosophy of history. New York: Dover Publications.

Jobs, S. (2005). Stanford Commencement Address, retrieved from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UF8uR6Z6KLc

Lang, J. S., & Trimble, P. (1988). Whatever happened to the Man of Tomorrow? An examination of the American monomyth and the comic book superhero. Journal of Popular Culture, 22(3), 157-173.

Monk, G.,Winslade, J., Crockett, K., & Epston, D. (Eds.). (1997). Narrative therapy in practice: The archaeology of hope. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Niles, J. D. (1999). Homo narrans. The poetics and anthropology of oral literature. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Pennebaker, J. W. (1997). Writing about emotional experiences as a therapeutic process. Psychological Science, 8(3), 162-166.

Pizarro, J. (2004). The efficacy of art and writing therapy: Increasing positive mental health outcomes and participant retention after exposure to traumatic experience. Art Therapy, 21(1), 5-12.

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

Seligman, M. E., Railton, P., Baumeister, R. F., & Sripada, C. (2013). Navigating into the future or driven by the past. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8(2), 119-141.

Semino, O., Passarino, G., Oefner, P. J., Lin, A. A., Arbuzova, S., Beckman, L. E., … & Underhill, P. A. (2000). The genetic legacy of paleolithic homo sapiens sapiens in extant Europeans: AY chromosome perspective. Science, 290(5494), 1155-1159.

Sheldon, K. M., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2006). How to increase and sustain positive emotion: The effects of expressing gratitude and visualizing best possible selves. Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(2), 73-82.

Singer, J. A. (2004). Narrative identity and meaning making across the adult lifespan: An introduction. Journal of Personality, 72(3), 437-460.

Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (2004). Posttraumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundations and Empirical Evidence. Psychological Inquiry, 15(1), 1-18.

Tolstoy, L. (2010). The death of Ivan Ilych. New York: SoHo Books. (Original work published in 1886).

Vaughan, S. C. (1997). The talking cure: the science behind psychotherapy. New York: Putnam and Sons.

*That phrase is most commonly attributed to Novelist Tom Robbins.

Header picture taken from the Facebook fan page of Random House, Inc.

License for Satisfaction: German Book Trailer with English Subtitles

If you are a regular visitor of Mappalicious you may know by now that I´ve written a German book on positive psychology by the name of Lizenz zur Zufriedenheit (License for Satisfaction). Unfortunately, the book is still not available in English. But yesterday, I took some time to create English subtitles for the book trailer that we shot in 2012. I hope you´ll have as much fun watching it as we had while creating it. If you like the film, please share!

2013: Top 10 Book List on Positive Psychology

Grant: Give and TakeJust a quick note: This link leads to a great book list issued by the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley, one of the finest institutions in the science and business of positive psychology.* A couple of the authors also teach in the MAPP program.

*Of course, nothing can compare to the Positive Psychology Center at Penn… 😉

Mappalicious: The first 100 Days

100 DaysWhen a new CEO or political leader assumes an office, typically there is this special 100 day time window to deliver some first results. Today, Mappalicious is 100 days old. So I thought: why not create a first retrospective. So here´s what happened so far:

A big thank you to all my readers!

Clip art source

A book a Day (or at least: a Month or so…) keeps mental Enfeeblement away

Books

By Johannes Jansson (GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0) via Wikimedia Commons.

Sorry for this mediocre headline…

I don´t know what your home looks like – but mine is crammed with books. I have several book shelves that are way to small to harbor them all. So I just put them everywhere. There are books in my study, in the living room, in the bedroom, in the kitchen, … , you get the picture. That´s why I really enjoyed reading about this study I came across a couple days ago:

A team of researchers investigated the connection of availability of books in a household and education of the inhabitants. They collected data from representative samples in 27 countries and basically looked at the educational attainment of the children, comparing those that come from families with a lot of books (>500) versus not so many books. What they found:

Children that grow up with many books stay in school three years longer on average – which obviously has something to say on their success in later life. This finding applies across all the countries investigated. What I find most interesting: the finding is independent of parental occupation, education, and social class.

Now go and buy a book. Or ten. Or a hundred. Do it. Now!

Books are not made for furniture, but there is nothing else that so beautifully furnishes a house.

(Henry Ward Beecher)

Strong. Stronger. Signature Strengths. What are yours?

Since the onset of psychology as an academic discipline at the end of the 19th century, it has been functioning on the premise of a disease model: most psychologists were mainly interested in what´s “wrong with people” – and then finding cures for all those wrongs. Which is fine, but … just not the only way looking at humankind. It took psychology about a hundred years to take on the opposite perspective: trying to find out what´s right with people. Together with a colleague, the late Christopher Peterson, Martin Seligman published the book Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification about ten years ago, which scientifically classifies and describes 24 human strengths based on six broad virtues.

In order to make their list, a character strength had to satisfy most of the following criteria. Character strengths should be:

  1. fulfilling;
  2. intrinsically valuable;
  3. non-rivalrous;
  4. not the opposite of a desirable trait;
  5. trait-like (stable over time);
  6. not a combination of the other character strengths;
  7. personified by people made famous through story, song, etc.;
  8. observable in child prodigies;
  9. absent in some individuals;
  10. and nurtured by societal norms and institutions.

The six virtues and 24 character strengths are:

Wisdom and Knowledge

(strengths that involve the acquisition and use of knowledge)

  • creativity
  • curiosity
  • open-mindedness
  • love of learning
  • perspective and wisdom

Courage

(strengths that allow one to accomplish goals in the face of opposition)

  • bravery
  • persistence
  • integrity
  • vitality

Humanity

(strengths of tending and befriending others)

  • love
  • kindness
  • social intelligence

Justice

(strengths that build healthy community)

  • active citizenship
  • fairness
  • leadership

Temperance

(strengths that protect against excess)

  • forgiveness
  • humility
  • prudence
  • self-regulation

Transcendence

(strengths that forge connections to the larger universe and provide meaning)

  • appreciation of beauty
  • gratitude
  • hope
  • humor and playfulness
  • spirituality

What are my signature strengths?

Why should anybody be interested in his/her strengths? The rationale for finding out what our real strengths are is rather simple: Using our so-called signature strengths in daily life and work makes us happy – and most likely: successful. It makes us feel good about ourselves. It invigorates and energizes us. It´s the real deal…

You can find out what your signature strength are by taking a comprehensive scientific test on Martin Seligman´s website: the Signature Strengths Questionnaire. I´ve taken the test about a year ago – my main character strengths are:

Curiosity and interest in the world

You are curious about everything. You are always asking questions, and you find all subjects and topics fascinating. You like exploration and discovery.

Love of learning

You love learning new things, whether in a class or on your own. You have always loved school, reading, and museums-anywhere and everywhere there is an opportunity to learn.

Zest, enthusiasm, and energy

Regardless of what you do, you approach it with excitement and energy. You never do anything halfway or halfheartedly. For you, life is an adventure.

Humor and playfulness

You like to laugh and tease. Bringing smiles to other people is important to you. You try to see the light side of all situations.

Capacity to love and be loved

You value close relations with others, in particular those in which sharing and caring are reciprocated. The people to whom you feel most close are the same people who feel most close to you.

A Pain in the Ass: What Teachers and Speakers could learn from Colonoscopy

A couple of days ago, James Pawelski, the MAPP´s director, sent us a comprehensive reading list. It also contains Authentic Happiness, one of Martin Seligman´s earlier popular science books on Positive Psychology. Right at the beginning, Seligman describes an experiment that was carried out by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman and colleagues.

Before I go into detail: Since you can read this text, I assume you went to school for a couple of years. Consequently, you´ve experienced being taught by a lot of different teachers – with their teaching skills representing a kind of bell curve: most were more or less o.k., a few were superduper, and some were the proverbial pain in the ass. Basically, it´s the same with (keynote) speakers. I attend a lot of conferences and conventions. Once again, most speakers are okish, a few rock, and some, unfortunately, just waste your time.

Now obviously, not everybody can be a master of rhetoric like, e.g., Barack Obama. But even if – for whatever reason – you suck big time by objective criteria, you can still manage to make a lasting, somewhat positive impression on your audience by adhering to a simple rule:

Save the best for last!

Try to give a first-class conclusion! Thanks to the so called recency effect, most people will tend to forget your overall performance. Instead, their evaluation will be by and large based on the final minutes of your performance.

For scientific proof, let´s go back to Kahneman – and a real pain in the ass. For a study, he and his colleagues surveyed several hundred people that had to undergo a colonoscopy. By random assignment, half the patients had a minute added to the end of their procedure during which the tip of the colonoscope remained in the rectum – but without moving, which is considerably less painful than any movement. The results in a nutshell: even though they experienced more pain all in all, patients who underwent the prolonged procedure rated the entire experience as significantly less unpleasant. Additionally, rates of returning for a repeat colonoscopy were slightly higher.

Thank God, speaking skills can be improved easily – beyond just giving a nice conclusion. For inspiration, you might want check out this blog post listing 15 TED Talks on happiness, motivation, and more.