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

Positive Psychology News Digest on Mappalicious | No. 11/16

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

Greater Good Science Center: You Will Never Find Work-Life Balance by Christine Carter

New York Times: Denmark Ranks as Happiest Country; Burundi, Not So Much by Sewell Chan

Fulfillment Daily: Happiness at Work: Get a Big Boost from Small Frequent Pleasures by Ron Friedman

Psychology Today: How Can Positive Psychology Be More Open to the Negative? by Todd Kashdan

Psychology Today : Expectations, Dopamine and Louis CK by Alex Korb

Quartz: This four-letter word is the Swedish key to happiness at work by Anne Quito

Huffington Post (Education): Why Being Tired of Grit is Tiresome by Stuart Rhoden

Chicago Tribune: Stanford psychologist tells us how to fight workplace burnout by Nara Schoenberg

Intelligent HQ: Why is Positive Psychology So Misunderstood? by Ana Teresa Silva

Positive Psychology | News Digest | Mappalicious

Another 3 Positive Psychology-infused Books I´m really looking forward to

This is the magic of books: One can never have enough of them. After publishing two lists of recent and upcoming books that are infused by Positive Psychology over the last days (list one, list two) people kept pointing my attention towards more exciting stuff. So here´s another list of three books that you should definitely put on your reading list.

Scott Barry Kaufman & Carolyn Gregoire: Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind. Scott Barry Kaufman is the scientific director of the Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center and author of “Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined”. About the book:

“Based on psychologist Kaufman’s groundbreaking research and Gregoire’s popular article in the Huffington Post, Wired to Create offers a glimpse inside the “messy minds” of highly creative people. Revealing the latest findings in neuroscience and psychology, along with engaging examples of artists and innovators throughout history, the book shines a light on the practices and habits of mind that promote creative thinking.”

Jane McGonigal: SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient–Powered by the Science of Games. Jane McGonigal is a senior researcher at the Institute for the Future and the author of The New York Times bestseller “Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.” About the book:

“McGonigal reveals a decade’s worth of scientific research into the ways all games—including videogames, sports, and puzzles—change how we respond to stress, challenge, and pain. She explains how we can cultivate new powers of recovery and resilience in everyday life simply by adopting a more “gameful” mind-set.”

D. J. Moores, James O. Pawelski & others (Eds.): On Human Flourishing: A Poetry Anthology. James Pawelski is the Director of Education and Senior Scholar in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, where he serves as the founding director of the Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program. About the book:

This collection of verse brings together poems of felicity, capturing what it means to be well in the fullest sense. Presented in 14 thematic sections, these works offer inspiring readings on wisdom, self-love, ecstasy, growth, righteousness, love and lust, inspiration, oneness with nature, hope, irreverence, awe, the delights of the senses, gratitude and compassion, relation to the sacred, justice, and unity.

Positive Psychology Books - 3

“All in on Love” and other beautiful Stories…

I guess I´m suffering from MAPP deprivation. The Penn graduation ceremony seems like a long time ago – even though it´s only been three months since then. And now that I´ve handed in my master thesis I´m free to do whatever I want. But the truth is: I miss my stays in Philadelphia. And I miss my MAPP classmates.

Time to engage in some reminiscence. Below, you´ll find a collage from graduation weekend (click to enlarge; from left to right and clockwise: Martin Seligman, co-founder of Positive Psychology and me; standing out from the crowd; James Pawelski, academic director of the MAPP program at Penn, and me; a view of Penn´s stadium during commencement; commencement brochure etc.; reuniting with Linda Matesevac, my psychology teacher from 19 years ago; the “Walk of Honor” on Penn´s Locust Walk; middle: me and some MAPP cohort members).

Nico Rose - MAPP - Penn Graduation

And you should definitely check out Penn President Amy Gutman´s salutation – and the fabulous commencement speech given by Penn alumnus and Soul & R´n´B star John Legend (“All in on Love”; here´s the full text). Enjoy!

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… 🙂

Which Super-Power would You rather Possess: Fighting Evil or Promoting Good?

In order to learn more about the meaning of the word/concept “positive” in “Positive Psychology” (which the following post is all about), I highly encourage you to visit the website of James Pawelski, where he provides an in-depth analysis.

OK. So here´s a question for you: Some higher being has chosen to endow you with super-powers. You get to choose between two different profiles:


Let me elaborate a bit more on this:

  • So, you could either be Mr. Red Cape. He´s your typical super-hero. He fights “the Bad”: Kicks the shit out of the bad guys, saves people from collapsing skyscrapers, and might even have the power to fight epidemics and end the occasional war. But: he cannot create “the Good”.
  • Or, you could be Mr. Green Cape. He´s a different kind of super-hero. He has the ability to spread trust and love, and give meaning to individuals and whole communities etc. . But: he cannot eradicate “the Bad” – he definitely cannot end poverty and other calamities for good.

Mind you, this is an either-or story. You have 100% of one side – and 0% of the other. Who would you want to be – and why?

I won´t give you an answer here – because there is no single “right” solution.* But maybe, you´d like to think (or rather: feel) it through – and then share your thoughts in the comment section…?


*Although James Pawelski, MAPP´s academic director and Chief Philosophy Officer, is not too fond of simple and easy answers, he probably would have one for you here. But I´m not going to write it down – so as not to be the spoilsport for future Mappsters and listeners of his beautiful lectures in general…

Picture source: red cape, green cape

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…

Using Art to Cultivate Mindfulness – or: A pleasant Surprise with Rousseau´s “Unpleasant Surprise”

As I´ve told you before, part of the second MAPP semester is focused on exposing ourselves to different forms of the humanities and art. To this effect, we went on a field trip to the Barnes Foundation in Philly last Friday. It´s an educational institution that is centered around a collection of (mostly) modern art (displaying more that 2,500 objects, among them +800 paintings estimated at $25 billion; lots of paintings by Renoir, Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, Monet, and many others).

The founder, Albert C. Barnes, had a very special take on art. Instead of displaying each work of art on its own (or in it´s own right), he commanded they be displayed in what he called ensembles, arrangements of several paintings, oftentimes covering the entire wall of a room. Additionally, he mixes paintings with pieces of African art, or masterfully crafted everyday objects, such as door handles, large keys, and candlesticks. What is more, there are pieces of classical furniture (mostly chairs) beneath a lot the paintings, giving the whole exhibition the intimate touch of being in someone´s living room(s).

Another important difference compared to traditional museums is a distinct “lack of explanation”. You´ll find the painter´s name on a little metal plate on each picture, but otherwise, there are no displays and no booklets helping the visitor to interpret or understand the paintings. Barnes wanted the visitor to find his/her own approach to the paintings.

I’m not a “museum guy” at all, having rarely visited one after those inevitable 8th grade field trips. As such, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to this part of the class. And at first, my precautions were confirmed: the Barnes collection can really be overpowering. There are so many pictures in so little space that it’s hard to focus. I also felt that all this outstanding works of art would somehow be “wasted on me” because of my lack of education in these matters.

Fortunately, our professor, James Pawelski, had us complete a special task: we were to pick one piece of art that we felt particularly drawn to – and stay with and behold that painting for at least half an hour.

So I ended up spending almost 90 minutes with the painting you’ll see below:

Rousseau: Unpleasant Surprise

Its name is “Unpleasant Surprise” (Mauvaise surprise) and was painted in 1901 by Frenchman Henri Rousseau (whom, quite frankly speaking, I had never heard before…). Now, when you look up interpretations on that painting, most will tell you that the guy on the left is shooting the bear to rescue the naked woman on the right. Additionally, it is inferred that the woman does not really feel threatened by the bear; and that therefore, the man really is the “unpleasant surprise”, depicting man’s growing estrangement from nature as a downside of the increasing use of technology (as signified by the gun).

While I agree to some extent with that interpretation, here I´d like to share with you my own take on that painting – what came out of “wrestling” with it (that´s what it felt like…).

The Fear of Embracing our Divine Nature?

The first thing that struck me upon investigating the scene: to me, it does not really look like the man is shooting the bear at all. It may be hard to see from the picture on the screen – but when you´re standing right in front of the actual painting, it has a more three-dimensional quality. And that gave me the impression the man is really shooting past the bear, right into the ground in front of the women´s feet – as kind of warning shot to keep her from coming closer.

Looking at the overall composition, there´s a clear bisection between the earthly colored left/lower part of the painting including the man and the lower part of the bear, and the colorful right/upper part including the woman, the upper part of the bear, and the lake scenery in the background. The shape of the woman is larger than that of the bear and especially that of the man. While the bear displays long claws and jaws, he does not seem to be particularly dangerous. He rather appears to be an oversized teddy bear that is craving to petted. And even though the man carries a large rifle, he is almost dwarfed by the sheer size of the woman.

Looking specifically at the woman, she may activate a Venus or Eve archetype (the end of the right strand of hair even resembles a snake´s head), being naked and sporting the long hair. Obviously, she has just emerged from the paradisiac lake in the background. She´s staring heavenwards, raising her hands in a kind of “hand´s up” gesture. But it could very well also be alluding to the way priests hold up their hands when blessing the congregation. Putting all these clues together (size, pureness, connection to paradise and the heavenly sphere) I figured she symbolizes the divine and numinous part of human nature. What´s notable in addition: despite the beauty of her body, the distinctly female shape of her contour, her face clearly a masculine touch. Her facial expression could be anything from being sad, disappointed, or maybe unnerved – but she is definitely not scared.

Looking specifically at the man, the most striking feature is that he´s really eyeing the woman when firing the rifle, not the bear. To me, that´s another strong indication for the notion that he´s not shooting at the bear at all. Otherwise, he´s barely visible, blending in with the earthly background. He´s small, earth-bound, and appears to be somewhat frail, thereby signifying the fleshly part of human nature.

Now, the bear seems to be the connecting piece between those two realms. In his rising motion, he tries to escape from the earthly sphere, lifting his upper part into the heavenly domain, eying the woman with (what to me seems to be) an admiring gaze. In mythology, the bear is often depicted as a protector, teacher, and also as a powerful agent of healing. Additionally, he is metaphor for the reconnection with (one´s?) nature.

Overall, the painting is a composition of (more or less) obvious opposites. The “goddess” has a female body but a masculine face. The man is a weak figure but carries a tremendously dangerous rifle. The bear is supposed to be fierce but looks like a plaything at the end of the day. And finally, there´s the divide in the landscape.

But the bear holds the key to overcoming and reuniting was is separated…


I´m going to stop at this point. I feel I´m 80% there. But then, it feels like something constantly escapes my attention and that prevents me from grasping the picture to the fullest. Very interesting. I´m going to come back here once in a while over the next days to look at the picture. Very likely it still has got something (more) to tell me – otherwise, it wouldn´t have picked me (that´s what it felt like…) to stay with it.

Now, has exposing myself to art enhanced my well-being? I´m not sure yet. And I fear I´m still not a museum guy. But for what it´s worth: it has been a powerful lesson on the effect of mindfulness. Without the explicit instruction to stay with one picture I clearly would have missed all the nuanced perceptions I tried to convey in this text.

I was there.


I´d really like to hear your take on the painting…

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.


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Picture Source