Positive Psychology at Work: A Book List for the Layman [updated]

Here, I´ve compiled a list of books that apply Positive Psychology to the realm of “the organization”, leadership, management etc. As always, I see the list as work in progress and will be happy to include your suggestions. When making suggestions, please stick to books that have a clear link to Positive Psychology and are (by and large) backed by research.

Positive Leadership Books

Being a better Leader by managing organizational Energy [Video]

A couple of days ago, I wrote a post about Positive Organizational Capital as introduced to the Positive Psychology community by Fred Luthans. Today, I´d like to point you to another concept based on Positive Organizational Scholarship (POS), precisely: (Positive) Energy. I´ve already touched upon that topic quite a while ago – when introducing some of the work of the marvelous Jane Dutton.

Below, you´ll find a 3-minute video of Kim Cameron, one of the founding fathers of POS. He talks about the concept of (Positive) Energy, and how to assess and manage it – and why it´s crucial when being in a leadership role.

And it´s not that complicated after all. We should ask ourselves:

  • Is it an uplifting experience when working with colleague XYZ?
  • Do I feel elevated when being around this person?
  • Is this relationship live-giving?

The goal is too have as many people “on board” where you can answer those questions with “yes”. You can read more about the concept of energy in Jane Dutton´s book Energize Your Workplace. And please also check out the work of Esa Saarinen on Systems Intelligence.

Barack Obama vs. Gordon Brown: Are you “holding back”? And what if you wouldn´t?

If you´re not here for the very first time, you probably know about Esa Saarinen and his theory about Systems of Holding Back. More precisely, they are defined as “mutually aggregating spirals which lead people to hold back contributions they could make” (“because others hold back contributions they could make”). You can read more about this topic here.

Recently, someone pointed my attention to this short footage of Barack Obama visiting former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. It´s a perfect example of Esa´s theory. Now ask yourself: How many times a day am I Obama – and how often am I Brown?

The James Bond Philosophy of Life – in 007 Chapters

007 LogoIf you´ve visited Mappalicious before, by now you will probably know who Esa Saarinen is – as I´ve written about his work several times. During his MAPP lecture in December 2013, he also initiated us to a slightly more informal area of his teachings: the 007 philosophy of life. Unfortunately, that day Wharton´s recording equipment didn´t work that well – so there´s no account of that lecture (and I´m a lazy note-taker…). Hence, I´ll give you my own – heavily Positive Psychology influenced – interpretation of his “theory”, mixed with the bits and pieces I do remember. As a philosopher, I think Esa would approve of this method. You can see the overview in the following picture:

Esa Saarinen - 007

Don’t get irritated

James Bond is always “cool” – at least that´s the impression he makes on other people. He focuses on the situation at hand and the overarching goal of his mission and never gets sidetracked, except for the occasional tête-à-tête – but even those often serve a purpose, e.g., irritating one of the evil guys. At the end of the day, this is a lesson about mindfulness.

Take immediate Action

Bond is not much of a planner. He makes up his mind and improvises a lot of his moves on the spot, relying on his wits and physical abilities. He knows that the life as a super agent is full of surprises and events that one cannot really prepare for. Therefore, he sticks to a few big goals and decides on the next-best move “then and there”.

Self Respect

James Bond never questions his abilities, he never falters or hesitates. While a real-life person cannot (and maybe shouldn’t…) be equipped with an equal level of self-confidence, this is probably a lesson about self-efficacy, the “power of believing you can”. Self-efficacy is the scientific version of Henry Ford´s aphorism: “Whether you think that you can, or that you can’t, you are usually right.”

Always carry a Secret Weapon

When in desperate straits, Bond always has one more trick up his sleeve, usually a tiny gadget given to him by the armorer “Q”. Seen through the lens of Positive Psychology, I think this part refers to the very unique set of signature strengths that we all have – and that we should rely on when to going gets tough. Additionally, it shows that other people matter. Even a lone wolf like Bond needs other people´s support at times.

Act with Style

James Bond understands that style is mostly about simplicity. Similar to the real-life George Clooney, he´s always dressed and groomed extremely well – which means they stick to time-tested essentials. The suit, the hairdo, the car, the handgun, the drink – they all seem to say: Don´t get carried away by fashion, don´t get lost in unnecessary details – no frills. This is also a lesson on efficiency: Bond knows that sticking to certain defaults is the most intelligent way of avoiding unnecessary decision-making – thereby saving up mental capacity for more precarious moments in life than choosing what to wear for dinner.

The true significance of the current mission will become clear later in the Bahamas

I think this point has a lot to do with the “connecting the dots”-part of Steve Job´s Stanford Commencement speech. Life can only be lived forward, but the sense-making happens looking backward. Hence, we have to embark on the journey without necessarily knowing where it will end – or what it all means. We have to get moving. Anyway. Otherwise, we won´t even make it to the Bahamas.

In Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Now, this may be the most important part – even though it doesn´t seem that straightforward. I guess that´s why Esa saved it for last. Even though James Bond seems like a cynical, ruthless, and at times even nihilistic person – he´s definitely not. He´s an agent in Her Majesty´s Secret Service: he fights for the safety of his country and “the free world” in general; he´s not in it for himself. That is his true higher purpose. In his lectures, Esa often refers to this part of our lives as “finding the Queen”: We all have to find a queen we can and want to serve. We´re not on this world only for ourselves. Until we´ve understood this crucial point, we´re only living half a life.

Esa has more in common with 007 than he probably wished for

There´s is a pretty incredible twist to the aforementioned deliberations: About three months after his lecture in Philadelphia, Esa was stabbed with a knive by a presumably mentally deranged young man when being on his way to a lecture in Helsinki. He sustained a wound on his hand when trying to fight off the assailant and another, more severe, to his abdomen before the attacker could be overpowered. By now, Esa has fully recovered and the young man is on trial for his deeds. Esa has lived through this ordeal with admirable equanimity and does not even demand a punishment for the aggressor.

Below, you´ll find the full recording of his glorious return to the lectern in Helsinki. The lecture is in Finnish but has English subtitles.

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…

Positive Psychology: Standing on which Giants` Shoulders?

The MAPP program 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…

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

Standing on a Lego GiantThe aforesaid quote from the Bible reminds us that we all are standing on the shoulders of giants in one way or another. While Positive Psychology as a science is a fairly new development within the greater framework of psychological science (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000), its roots can be traced back at least 2,500 years in time. In this essay, I intend to express how the research and practice of positive psychology has been and still is continuously informed by philosophy. I will do so by way of three examples: first and most circumstantial, the notion that our thinking is a powerful intermediary between the “world out there” and our experience of that world; second, the idea that living a life according to certain virtues is accompanied by an elevated level of psychological well-being; and third, the framework of positivity ratios in human development.

Is Buddha the architect of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)?

We are most likely the only mammals alive that can develop symptoms such as a depressive disorder (Sapolsky, 1998). Our superior ability to remember the past (Baddeley, 1998) and unique capability to prospect into the future (Seligman, Railton, Baumeister, & Sripada, 2013) have made us a very successful species – but also prone to psychological malfunctioning in case these “tools” are used improperly. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (Beck, 1995) posits that “the poison and the cure” for many of these malfunctions can be traced back to our thinking processes. In his seminal book “Learned optimism”, Seligman (1991) writes: “The way we think about this realm of life can actually diminish or enlarge the control we have over it. Our thoughts are not merely reactions to events; they change what ensues” (pp. 15-16).

This notion can be traced back (at least) all the way to Siddhartha Gautama, the first Buddha. In the Dhammapada (1. verse, 1. chapter, n.d.) he is cited with the words: “All mental phenomena are preceded by mind. Mind is their master, they are produced by mind.” Similar phrases that either point to the notion that the “thing itself” acquires its meaning only via the human mind, or that man is the master of his own fate by controlling his thoughts, can be found in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy (Epictetus: “In a word, neither death, nor exile, nor pain, nor anything of this kind is the real cause of our doing or not doing any action, but our inward opinions and principles.”; from Discourses, chapter 1, n.d.; similar quotes by Marcus Aurelius can be found). About 1,500 years later, Shakespeare (n.d.) puts equivalent words into Hamlet´s mouth in the second act of the second scene: “[…] there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” Another 300 years later, there is a related quote by Gandhi (n.d.): “A man is but the product of his thoughts. What he thinks, he becomes.” And finally, before becoming part of the scientific discourse in clinical psychology, the idea of “mind over matter” was propagated by new-age and self-help writers such as Dale Carnegie (1981): “It isn’t what you have or who you are or where you are or what you are doing that makes you happy or unhappy. It is what you think about it.”

Nowadays, the influence of mental processes on our well-being is a well-documented scientific fact. It is the foundation of clinical interventions such as the “ABCDE” tool in CBT (Wells, 1997), as well as most positive (psychology) interventions (Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005). Therefore, it is safe to say that this branch of psychology was heavily informed by the aforementioned philosophers and writers of the past, especially when taking into account that Martin Seligman, one of positive psychology´s founding fathers, earned a bachelor´s degree in philosophy at Princeton before turning his mind towards psychology (Positive Psychology Center, University of Pennsylvania, n.d.).

A Touch of Aristotle

The aforementioned educational background of Martin Seligman might also (partially) explain the strong presence of another “godfather of philosophy”, namely Aristotle. One of the first hallmark projects after the founding of positive psychology was the creation of a compendium of 24 human strengths that group into 6 overarching virtues (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Aristotle is mentioned 23 times in that textbook. Among other sages of his time, Aristotle proposed that a life worthwhile of living should entail the presence of Eudaimonia which can loosely be translated into the English term “flourishing”. In Aristotle´s opinion, the key to experiencing eudaimonia is leading one´s life according to certain virtues, where a virtue is seen as the middle point between two vices (e.g., courage lies between cowardice and daredevilry). In light of the frequent references to Aristotle it can be assumed that Peterson and Seligman´s idea of character strengths and virtues was heavily influenced by the Greek philosopher. Over the recent years, some evidence on the connection between the presence of character strengths and well-being has been gathered. While not all of the 24 strengths display a distinct correlation with variables such as life satisfaction, concepts such as hope, zest, gratitude, love, and curiosity seem to be present more often in people that report high levels of psychological well-being (Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2004).

From defining “the Positive” to Systems Intelligence

In addition to standing on the shoulders of bygone giants, positive psychology is also heavily influenced by contemporary philosophers such as Schneider (2001) and Pawelski (2012). Both researchers aid the scientific study of well-being, for instance, by trying to define (and refine) important constructs in positive psychology. By way of example: when the discipline was founded at the onset of the third millennium, it was not utterly clear, e.g., what the term “positive” in positive psychology is actually referring to. 15 years later, we have made some progress pertaining to that question. Pawelski (2012) points out that the “positive” in positive psychology cannot just be the absence of something negative. (Psychological) well-being cannot be explained by looking at what is not there (e.g., unhappiness, mental illness). In recent years, this viewpoint also receives more and more empirical support (Huppert & Whittington, 2003).

Yet, philosophers do not only refine the methodology of positive psychology – they also convey valuable impulses for psychological phenomena to be explored and possible interventions in the context of these phenomena. For instance, an issue that has received a lot of attention in positive psychology is the notion of “positivity ratios”. Fredrickson and Losada (2005) argue that it is possible to enter into an upward spiral of well-being when one manages to experience a significant surplus of positive over negative emotions. While it remains unclear up to now where the exact “tipping point” lies (Brown, Sokal, & Friedman, 2013), there remains a lot of evidence for the idea that, in order for a person to flourish, he or she has to experience positive emotions considerably more often than negative feelings (Fredrickson, 2013). Interestingly, this does not only hold true for a person´s “internal emotional chemistry” but also for the chemistry between two people. John Gottman, one of the world´s most renowned researchers on the subject of marriage was repeatedly able to show that a marriage flourishes when the interactions between the spouses display a ratio of approximately 5:1 in favor of positive (micro-) interactions (Gottman, Coan, Carrere, & Swanson, 1998).

This need for a distinct positivity bias in daily life is also proposed by a contemporary philosopher from Finland, Esa Saarinen. He and his coworkers posit that one way to achieve human flourishing is the development of systems intelligence which is defined as “intelligent behaviour in the context of complex systems involving interaction and feedback” (Luoma, Hämäläinen, & Saarinen, 2010, p. 1). An important framework within systems intelligence is the notion of “Systems of Holding Back in Return and in Advance” (Hämäläinen & Saarinen, 2008, p. 824). These systems can be regarded as a downward spiral in personal interactions because “there is a bias in human mental constitution to be more aware of the contributions others fail to make to me than of the contributions I fail to make to others” (p. 824). The framework seems to mirror important aspects of the research on positivity ratios in positive psychology.

In light of the distinct overlaps between philosophy and the research and practice of positive psychology, it is therefore reasonable to assume these two disciplines will continue to cross-fertilize in the arena of human interaction. And one day, maybe, there will be something new under our sun.

References

  • Baddeley, A. (1998). Human memory. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  • Beck, J. S. (1995). Cognitive therapy: Basics and beyond. New York:  Guilford Press.
  • Brown, N. J., Sokal, A. D., & Friedman, H. L. (2013). The complex dynamics of wishful thinking: The critical positivity ratio. American Psychologist, 68(9), 801-813.
  • Carnegie, D. (1981). How to win friends and influence people (revised edition). Retrieved from: http://freewebeducation.org/pdfs/HowToWinFriendsAndInfluencePeople.pdf
  • Epictetus: (n.d.). Discourses. Retrieved from: http://www.bartleby.com/100/715.html
  • Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Updated thinking on positivity ratios. American Psychologist, 68(9), 814-822.
  • Fredrickson, B. L., & Losada, M. F. (2005). Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing. American Psychologist, 60(7), 678-686.
  • Gandhi (n.d.). Mahatma Gandhi quotes. Retrieved from: http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Mahatma_Gandhi
  • Gottman, J. M., Coan, J., Carrere, S., & Swanson, C. (1998). Predicting marital happiness and stability from newlywed interactions. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 60, 5-22.
  • Hämäläinen, R. P., & Saarinen, E. (2008). Systems intelligence – the way forward? A note on Ackoff’s ‘why few organizations adopt systems thinking’. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 25(6), 821-825.
  • Huppert, F. A., & Whittington, J. E. (2003). Evidence for the independence of positive and negative well‐being: Implications for quality of life assessment. British Journal of Health Psychology, 8(1), 107-122.
  • Luoma, J., Hämäläinen, R. P., & Saarinen, E. (2010). Acting with systems intelligence: Integrating complex responsive processes with the systems perspective. Journal of the Operational Research Society, 62(1), 3-11
  • Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. (2004). Strengths of character and well-being. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23(5), 603-619.
  • Pawelski, J. (2012). Happiness and its opposites. In S. David, I. Boniwell, & A. C. Ayers (Eds.), Oxford handbook of happiness (pp. 326-336). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Positive Psychology Center, University of Pennsylvania (n.d). Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman’s Curriculum Vitae. Retrieved from: http://www.ppc.sas.upenn.edu/vitae.htm#Degrees
  • Sapolsky, R. (1998). Why zebras don’t get ulcers. New York: Freeman.
  • Schneider, S. L. (2001). In search of realistic optimism: Meaning, knowledge, and warm fuzziness. American Psychologist, 56(3), 250.
  • Seligman, M. E. P. (1991). Learned optimism. NewYork: Knopf.
  • Seligman, M. E. P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: an introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5-14.
  • Seligman, M. E. P., 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.
  • Seligman, M. E., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410-421.
  • Shakespeare, W. (n.d). Hamlet. Retrieved from: http://shakespeare.mit.edu/hamlet/hamlet.2.2.html
  • Wells, A. (1997). Cognitive therapy of anxiety disorders: A practice manual and conceptual guide. Chichester, UK: Wiley.

 

Picture Source

2051: Positive Psychology, Optimism, and the Florentine Moment in Time…

Tempus fugit. The first half of the MAPP program 2013/14 is over. Actually, the second and final semester is well on its way already. New subjects, new lecturers, lots of new homework…

I guess this is a good time engage in a little retrospection – and to have a look at the future as well.

I still remember sitting in the classroom at Penn on the first day, listening to Martin Seligman´s deep and sonorous voice, where he lectured on the history of positive psychology. At some point, one of my MAPP classmates asked him about his vision for positive psychology. What should be its contribution to mankind in the future?

Without much hesitation, Marty told us about his moonshot goal for positive psychology. “By 2051, I want 51% of the world´s population to be flourishing (according to the PERMA outline)”. Now in 2051, Marty will be 109 years old. So there´s good chance he´s talking about his legacy here. Could this be possible? After all, we still seem to be very far away from that number. War, poverty, and hunger are still raging in many parts of the world. But the truth is:

Things are getting better day by day, year by year.

Now I am a die-hard optimist. So if you feel I am not to be trusted, you may trust some experts (and their stats…).

  • Over the last 40 years, people have managed to rise above hunger and poverty by the billions. And this trend is very likely to continue. If you would like to know more, please watch this fabulous TED talk by Hans Rosling.
  • The likelihood of dying via homicide has decreased dramatically over the last century. Yes, there still are wars – and there still is murder. But the truth is: on a global scale, life on earth has never been safer. And once again, the trend is likely to continue. If you would like to take a deep dive, please watch Steven Pinker´s TED talk on the decline of violence.
  • Overall, we have very good reasons to be (fundamentally) optimistic about the future of mankind. Again, if you´d like to know more, please watch this TED talk by Robert Wright on zero-sum-games, optimism, and human progress.

Positive Psychology wants to play its part in this overall development by teaching people the art and science of flourishing – how to lead a meaningful, positive, and accomplished life while being actively engaged in our closer and larger social networks.

Positive Psychology has first been embraced by coaches, psychotherapists, and physicians. It is now entering the workplace more and more. And the next important step will be:

How can we bring Positive Psychology into education, community management, and policy-making? How can we bring it to China and India – those countries that account for almost 40% of the global population?

Marty Seligman believes that we (at least the western/developed world) now are at a Florentine moment in time. During what came to be known as the Renaissance, the Italian city of Florence became very rich via trading, and therefore at the same time developed into a flourishing center for all kinds of arts and culture because of all that affluence. So where are we – today? In Marty´s words (taken from his book “Flourishing”):

The wealthy nations of the world – North-America, the European Union, Japan, and Australia – are at a Florentine moment: rich, at peace, enough food, health, and harmony. How will we invest our wealth? What will our renaissance be?

Time will tell. I´ve decided for myself that I want to be a part of that movement and upward trajectory. Not only does it feel better to be optimistic – it´s also rational. The alternative, being a (fundamental) pessimist, doesn’t make any sense to me (and I´ve got the data on my side…). What´s the use of being pessimistic? I am a young father – and I would love to have more children. How could I want to want this without believing there´s a good (or at least: better) future ahead, without believing this world fundamentally is a good place to live in?

Once again, time will tell. The picture beneath these lines was taken at a party at Marty Seligman´s house when he generously invited the 2013/14 MAPP students and faculty to have a Christmas celebration at his house on December 7, 2013.

MAPP 9 - Christmas Celebration

The next day, final day of the first MAPP semester, it was also Marty´s part to speak the closing words. Quite obviously very moved, he cited a passage from Kim Stanley Robinson´s book The Years of Rice and Salt:

“We will go out into the world and plant gardens and orchards to the horizons, we will build roads through the mountains and across the deserts, and terrace the mountains and irrigate the deserts until there will be garden everywhere, and plenty for all, and there will be no more empires or kingdoms, no more caliphs, sultans, emirs, khans, or zamindars, no more kings or queens or princes, no more quadis or mullahs or ulema, no more slavery and no more usury, no more property and no more taxes, no more rich and no more poor, no killing or maiming or torture or execution, no more jailers and no more prisoners, no more generals, soldiers, armies or navies, no more patriarchy, no more caste, no more hunger, no more suffering than what life brings us for being born and having to die, and then we will see for the first time what kind of creatures we really are.”

Time will tell, Marty. But I´m with you…

Bad is Stronger than Good! That is why our World desperately needs Positive Psychology…

YodaLuke Skywalker: “Is the dark side stronger?”
Yoda: “No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.”

If you are one of the few people on the planet that have not seen Star Wars: the dark side (of the Force) was not stronger. As in most Hollywood stories, the good guys win in the end. That´s why we go to the movies in the first place. We want to see an entertaining plot. That means: We want to see the good guy struggling, we want him to take on his challenge. And we want him to win in the end. And they lived happily ever after…

Unfortunately, in real life things look a little different. In real life, “Bad” mostly is stronger than “Good”. I´m not talking about a metaphysical power struggle here, of course. I´m talking about psychological phenomena. Together with some colleagues, MAPP guest lecturer Roy Baumeister has written a review article that goes by the name of this blog post: Bad is Stronger than Good. They´ve gathered tons of empirical evidence on a wide array of psychological mechanisms to lend support to this stance:

  • On the preconscious level, we pay more attention to negative stimuli than to positive stimuli.
  • Negative information is processed more thoroughly than positive information. This can be demonstrated even on the level of neural activity.
  • In terms of impression formation, negative information by far outweighs positive information (telling one lie can make you a “liar” forever).
  • Bad memories are engraved deeper in our brains and can be retrieved more easily.
  • Losing a certain amount of money feels worse than winning the same amount of money feels good. Basically, that´s what Kahneman and Tversky got their Nobel prize for in economics in 2002.
  • Bad events in our lives have a stronger and longer-lasting effect than good events. This is nicely demonstrated by the fact that we do have word for the consequences of very very bad events (trauma), but there´s no corresponding term for the positive side of the emotional continuum.
  • Negative feedback has a stronger and longer-lasting effect on us than positive feedback.
  • Therefore, we put a lot more emphasis on avoiding negative information pertaining to ourselves than focusing on integrating positive information.
  • In close relationships, one bad event can ruin everything. Yet, a lot of positive events cannot save a relationship “forever”.
  • Bad parenting has a stronger negative effect on the development of the children than good parenting has on positive development.

This list could go on forever. And: there´s hardly any exception to be found.

But is it really that bad?

Baumeister et al. argue that we may be evolutionary hardwired to put a strong emphasis on negative stimuli in our environment. At the end of the day, 10,000 B.C., it probably was far more “adaptive” (= useful for spreading your genes) to be the first person in a group spotting that saber tooth tiger lurking behind the bush than spotting those sweet blackberry growing on the bush. In other words, there is an all-pervasive negativity bias that influences our thinking and feeling at all times.

So in a sense, every single human being wears the opposite of rose-colored glasses all the time (and mostly without knowing that we do). Now, if this true, for me, there´s another important implication:

If we are evolutionary hardwired to perceive, process, and remember bad information to a much higher extent than positive information, it follows that – on a more objective level – the world actually is a much better place than we think it is.

Now the big question is: What can we do about this inherent negativity bias? How can we overcome this urge to see everything through “concrete-colored” glasses?

Because I really feel we should! While looking out for threats at all times may have been adaptive in the Pleistocene – it probably is not as helpful in the so-called developed world. We live in relative safety. With very rare exceptions, nobody has to suffer from starvation. When we´re sick, we go to the doctor and receive treatment. Most of us die of old age, not of homicide or wild animals. From more than one point of view, this is a good place to live in.

In spite of this, mental disorders, especially depression and anxiety disorders, are “booming” – for decades by now. While this development certainly has multiple causes, I believe one reason is that the negativity bias has become maladaptive in our times. We are bombarded with thousands of messages via different media outlets each and every day. And the sad truth is that most media tend to focus strongly on negative news, events, and stories – precisely because they know we tend to focus on negative events. It drives their reach and circulation. So obviously, we are constantly exposed to a distinctly negatively biased fraction of what happens in this world – using a set of cognitive tools that are distinctly attuned to the worst part of that already distorted view of reality.

We are constantly exposed to a distinctly negatively biased fraction of what happens in the world – using a set of cognitive tools that are distinctly attuned to the unpleasant parts of that already distorted view of reality.

So what can we do?

Enter Positive Psychology. A short definition of positive psychology could be: “It´s the study of (psychological) things that go well”. By its nature, positive psychology studies positive phenomena: What makes us happy (instead of sad)? How can we find meaning in life (instead of languishing)? How do relationships flourish (instead of being a source of pain)? Etc.

By now, there´s a lot of scientific evidence on those questions. One finding that has popped up in several different domains of inquiry goes as follows: Good is stronger than bad – but only if good outnumbers bad to a considerable extent. In Baumeister et al.´s words:

“This is not say that the bad will always triumph over good, spelling doom and misery for the human race. Rather, good may prevail over bad by superior force of numbers: Many good events can overcome the effect of a single bad one.”

Let´s look at some examples:

Basically, raising the number of positive experiences in our lives is also one of the essential mechanics underlying positive (psychology) interventions, such as the What Went Well exercise or the Gratitude Visit. They create (or shift our attention to the) positive momentum in our lives to counterbalance the all-pervasive negativity.

The truth is: Each and every one of us has to make an effort for good to be stronger than bad.

But what about our daily lives? Who has the time to perform interventions all the time? The truth is: Each and every one of us has to make an effort for good to be stronger than bad. Good thing is: We do not have to be larger-than-life leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela do make an impact. It´s the little things that count (a.k.a. micro-behaviors) – if they come in large amounts. A smile. A thumbs-up. An affirmative nod. A pat on the back. Putting the toilet lid back down…

A little kindness goes a long way.

If you need more inspiration, watch this – again and again if you like:

 

* For the expert reader: she may have gotten the math wrong initially – but the phenomenon itself can hardly be called into question.

Systems Intelligence: Getting to Super-Productivity via not “Holding Back”

The MAPP program 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…

Esa Saarinen´s work on individual and organizational well-being is based on a Systems Intelligence approach (Saarinen & Hämäläinen, 2004; Hämäläinen & Saarinen, 2007; Saarinen, 2013). Systems intelligence, in turn, is based on systems theory/systems thinking (Von Bertalanffy, 1968) which was introduced into organization and management sciences by researchers such as Russell Ackoff (1972; 2006). Systems Intelligence is defined as “intelligent behaviour in the context of complex systems involving interaction and feedback. A subject acting with Systems Intelligence engages successfully and productively with the holistic feedback mechanisms of her environment. She perceives herself as part of a whole, the influence of the whole upon herself as well as her own influence upon the whole” (Hämäläinen & Saarinen, 2004, p. 9). Pertaining to underlying idea of man, the approach is grounded in “a deep belief in the human potential. In its positive overtones and strive towards flourishment […] Systems Intelligence runs parallel to Positive Organizational Scholarship and to Positive Psychology” (Hämäläinen & Saarinen, 2007, p. 4).

What fascinates me most about Saarinen´s work is the concept of “holding back”. On an abstract level, this describes a situation where people choose an “inferior non-cooperative equilibrium solution even if a jointly dominating solution would also be available by cooperation” (Saarinen & Hämäläinen, 2004, p. 35). For instance, a boy and a girl both hesitate to say “I love you” out of fear that the statement could remain unrequited. In this spirit, Hämäläinen and Saarinen (2008, p. 824) describe “‘Systems of Holding Back’, and of ‘Systems of Holding Back in Return and in Advance’. The subject holds back what would benefit the other because the other first holds back from me what would benefit me.”

While I can obviously relate to this concept by way of personal experience, I believe it also markedly extends my understanding of a psychological phenomenon I investigated a while ago (Rose, 2010; 2012). I administered a questionnaire to a German sample of more than thousand people and asked them (among other things) to rate themselves on the following items pertaining to their overarching life goals:

  • Sometimes I doubt that I am allowed to reach my goals.
  • Sometimes I believe that I do not deserve to reach my goals.
  • Sometimes I believe that somehow I am not permitted to reach my goals.

Participants that answered in the affirmative displayed a significantly lower level of satisfaction with life (r = -.48) as measured by the scale of Diener, Emmons, Larsen, and Griffin (1985). Now the question arises: Why should somebody think (or feel) that she is not allowed to reach her goals? Where should this permission come from? Who could issue such a permission – or should have given it in the first place? At the present moment, my intuition is that this could be a structure of anticipatory (internalized) form of holding back: A person expects to be exposed to “holding back” via an external agency and therefore decides to evade the associated “pain” by “not trying” in the first place.

At the other end of the continuum, Hämäläinen and Saarinen (2007, p. 27) believe that “to the extent there are microbehaviours of holding back and a phenomenon of holding back giving rise to Systems of Holding Back, there is also the opposite possibility.” If there are (micro-)behaviours of holding back, there should also be occasions of uplift and elevation.

Bigger PictureSuper-Productivity

One important facet of Systems Intelligence is the investigation and description of a phenomenon characterized as “Super-Productivity” (Saarinen & Hämäläinen, 2004) – which is a result/by-product of systems’ propensity for synergy and emergence. This concept signifies an optimal state of system functioning which in everyday speech is oftentimes described by the saying “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts”. It could be likened to Csíkszentmihályi´s concept of Flow (1990) – but where Csíkszentmihályi´s notion is concerned with an intra-individual phenomenon, Saarinen and his co-author refer to an inter-individual manifestation, a flow between different elements of a system, for instance, the members of a management team or an orchestra.

I am very intrigued by this conception since I have experienced it numerous times in my career as a corporate manager. It rarely happens,* but when it does, the results can be spectacular. By way of example, upon my initiative, Bertelsmann has entered in a joint recruiting project by the name of “Gap Year” (www.gapyear-programm.de) with the German branch of McKinsey, the headquarters of German financial/insurance giant Allianz, and Germany´s leading FMCG producer, Henkel. In spite of being opponents in the so-called “War for Talent” (Chambers, Foulon, Handfield-Jones, Hanklin, & Michaels, 1998), we all swallowed our (corporate) pride and created a cooperative program for recent bachelor graduates. Candidates have to apply only once, and if successful, they enter a 12-months schedule where they complete first-rate internships with three out of the four partner companies. The program has been immensely successful. Not only does it attract the best candidates the market has to offer, it was also awarded several times, and featured in more that 30 (mostly top-tier) articles in the German business press.

In the beginning, there were a lot of doubts about the feasibility and practicality of this project. All parties had to overcome the inherent “free-market egotism” and tune into the needs and requirements of the partner companies. Looking back, I believe that a high amount of interpersonal trust was the key ingredient that has led to successful execution. It would have been easy to “hold back”, to sabotage, or pull out of the project completely. But we decided to see it through – and we were richly rewarded.

* But in real life, the opposite seems to be true. At the lower end of the continuum, there has to be a kind of hypo-productivity: “Most corporations and business schools are less than the sum of their parts.” (Ackoff, 2007, p. 127).

References

Ackoff R. L., Emery F. E. (1972). On purposeful systems. Chicago, Il: Aldine-Atherton.

Ackoff, R. L. (2006). Why few organizations adopt systems thinking. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 23(5), 705-708.

Ackoff, R. L., Addison, H. J., & Bibb, S. (2007). Management F/Laws. Axminster, UK: Triarchy Press.

Chambers, E. G., Foulon, M., Handfield-Jones, H., Hanklin, S. M., & Michaels, E. G. (1998). The war for talent. McKinsey Quarterly, 3, 44-57.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper-Perennial.

Diener, E., Emmons, R. A., Larsen, R. J., & Griffin, S. (1985). The satisfaction with life scale. Journal of Personality Assessment, 49(1), 71-75.

Hämäläinen R.P. & E. Saarinen (2007). System intelligent leadership, in R.P. Hämäläinen & E. Saarinen (Eds.), System intelligence in leadership and everyday life (pp. 3-38). Helsinki: Systems Analysis Laboratory, Helsinki University of Technology.

Hämäläinen, R. P., & Saarinen, E. (2008). Systems intelligence – the way forward? A note on Ackoff’s ‘why few organizations adopt systems thinking’. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 25(6), 821-825.

Rose, N. (2010). Lizenz zur Zufriedenheit [License for Satisfaction]. Kommunikation & Seminar, 5, 12-15.

Rose, N. (2012). Lizenz zur Zufriedenheit [License for Satisfaction]. Paderborn, Germany: Junfermann.

Saarinen, E. (2013). The Paphos seminar. Elevated reflections on life as good work. GoodWork Project Report Series, 80, Harvard University.

Saarinen E., & Hämäläinen, R. P. (2004). Systems intelligence: Connecting engineering thinking with human sensitivity, in R. P. Hämäläinen & E. Saarinen (Eds.), Systems intelligence: Discovering a hidden competence in human action and organisational life (pp. 9-37). Helsinki: Systems Analysis Laboratory, Helsinki University of Technology.

Von Bertalanffy, L. (1968). General system theory: Foundations, development, applications. New York, NY: George Braziller.