On Positive Psychology, Bullshit, and why you need a Chief Philosophy Officer (CPO)

At our recent onsite at Penn, we had a stimulating discussion on bullshit with James Pawelski – who wears the hat of MAPP´s academic director and at the same time that of Chief Philosophy Officer (CPO). Now the job of a philosopher is to sit in his/her armchair, ask you unnerving questions – and thereby shake the grounds of everything you ever believed in. Or at least something like that … which … probably … is a good thing. I don´t know.

By the way, that´s by far the easiest way to be philosophic: Just say “I don´t know” a lot. But you have to say it in a smirk philosophic kind of tone – or else, you´re just a dumbass who, well, doesn´t know stuff. Which brings me to the question: Do our schools teach us to be anti-philosophers? After all, saying “I don´t know” a lot in class will surely get you in trouble – while a decent capability in the fine art bullshitting can get you at least half-way through your Ph.D. program – and sometimes, published in first-tier journals.

So, I just wanted to write something along the lines of “But I digress…” to lead over to next section. Yet, curiously – I´m already there. Philosophy moves in mysterious ways…

When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off.

Positive Psychology = BullshitWhat is that thing: Bullshit? Well, what I like about philosophers so much is the fact that there are so many of them – and that they´ve started doing what they do (“philosophizing”…) more than 2,500 years ago. So there´s a really good chance that – whenever you have a question or a problem – some philosopher will already have thought about it. Most certainly, this is true for the subject of bullshit. Harry G. Frankfurt, professor emeritus of Princeton, has written a witty (and for a philosophical piece) pleasantly short and graspable essay on that overdue topic.

The essay starts with the skillfully crafted sentence “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.” and then moves on to explain why that could be the case; to finally define the nature of bullshit – especially in its relationship to adjacent concepts such as “truth” and “lie”. The following section represents a good synopsis of Frankfurt´s argument:

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

So where does Positive Psychology fit in here? And why is it really a good thing (I´m being honest to Flying Spaghetti Monster here!) to have a CPO somewhere at your side?

The truth is: a lot of the subjects in Positive Psychology sound like pure bullshit on the face of it. We´re all about well-being, happiness, virtues, meaning, and other fuzzy wishy-washy touchy-feely stuff. It is quite easy to get carried away in those diffuse realms of the conditio humana.* What separates Positive Psychology as a science from all that self-help literature out there is … well, that it´s a science. We give our best to approach that touchy-feely stuff with double-blind experiments, large-scale, and longitudinal research designs. We like to sell our pudding, point well-taken, but want to make sure first that there is enough scientific proof to it.

Our CPO James Pawelski really helps us to stay “grounded” while wrestling with all those new and exciting Positive Psychology concepts. He supports us in sharpening our minds while moving forward on our learning journey. He never gets tired of reminding us to be careful about what we say, how we say it, and to be aware of the assumptions our newfound knowledge is based upon.

And: he can talk for three hours nonstop just about the different meanings of the word “positive” in Positive Psychology. It´s a beautiful thing to behold.

What he does is absolutely essential. Already, there are prominent people out there that seem not to be able (or willing…) to grasp the difference between ordinary self-help lingo and the science of Positive Psychology. All the more we have to be careful. We have to know where our very own “red line” is – the one that crosses that grey area where talking about something we sufficiently know and understand turns into bullshitting. In Frankfurt´s words:

Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic.

Thus, I stop at this point. My knowledge of bullshit is exhausted.


*Throwing in some Latin or Greek in your writing makes you sound very philosophical. Especially, when you say “I don´t know” in Latin or Greek…

PowerPoint slide © James Pawelski; photographed by Katrina Calihan

It was a very good Year…

Thank You DanceOne of the oldest and therefore thoroughly researched interventions in positive psychology is deliberately focusing one´s attention on being grateful. So why not express gratitude for a whole year? Here were go … *

Thank you to Carl-Christoph Fellinger for being an awesome colleague to talk to, an awesome co-author, and an awesome person in general.

Thank you to Dr. Hays Steilberg, my boss at Bertelsmann. You know why.

Thank you to Bernd Rathjen and his team at Corporate Candy for making me look good as a manager (not easy …).

Thank you to the organizing team of WHU Euromasters 2013 for making me feel like 23 again.

Thank you to Annette Mattgey, Anja Tiedge und Petra Diebold (out of the journalists I´ve worked with over the year).

Thank you to the participants of McKinsey´s CEO of the Future for making me believe the future will be a good one.

Thank you to Russell Ackoff for writing the best business book of all times (most likely …).

Thank you to Arjen Lucassen (Ayreon) for re-introducing me to the art of listening to whole albums – instead of taking in whatever the “shuffle” shuffles…

Thank you to the whole MAPP gang, especially James Pawelski (Master of Ceremony), Esa Saarinen (Master of Elevation), Art Carey (Master of Style), Emilia Lahti (Queen of Sisu), and Patricia De La Torre (Mistress of elevated conversion, good food+wine, and staying up way too late…) for making my stay in the U.S. a one-of-a-kind experience.

Last not least:
Thank you to my wife for letting me be who I am. And to the Little Guru for making me better than I really am.


* Thank you for this inspiration, Christoph…


Clip art source

Was Socrates a happy Man? And if he lived today – would he be a Blogger?

Socrates - Louvre

By Eric Gaba (CC-BY-SA-2.0) via Wikimedia Commons

The topic for the afternoon of the last day of MAPP immersion week was the trial that eventually lead to the death sentence of Socrates, arguably one of the most important philosophers of all time. There are some hints in the Apology, Plato´s account of the trial, that allude to the idea that Socrates ‘chose’ to be sentenced to death – in the sense that he could have gotten away with a significantly milder punishment, if had chosen to display a different demeanor. Yet, he stayed true to his own self (being a philosopher, asking lots of probing questions, and thereby being the ‘pain in the ass’ of most of his fellow citizens), which provoked the judges and most his fellow Athenians (“Men of Athens, I honor and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy…”). Supposedly, there were some politically motivated reasons for his death sentence as well – but that is another story.

James Pawelski, Director of the MAPP program asked us an interesting question: was Socrates a ‘happy’ man? Obviously, it´s not possible to ask him any more – but the Apology contains some hints on that topic: when investigating the text for displays of PERMA, Martin Seligman´s definition of the elements of flourishing: Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Achievement. While it is not clear if Socrates experienced a lot of positive affect (P), it is save to say that he displayed a high level pertaining to the remaining four elements: He obviously had something which he deeply cared about and regularly was immersed in, e.g., teaching his students (E). He also had a wife and three children, as well as his students and followers that admired and valued him (R). Socrates definitely experienced a sense of meaning in his life. He felt that it was his noble duty to be a philosopher and oftentimes spoke of his inner daimon that protected and/or guided him. And finally, we are still able to read about his deeds today – which obviously is not true for most of the other men of his time (A). Bottom line: While we cannot be sure about the ‘P’, there was definitely a lot of ‘ERMA’ in his life.

Let us rest the case here. But what about the other question? Would he be a blogger today? First, I assume, it is helpful to know how this rather strange question came into being. Unlike James, I am a psychologist and coach by training, not a philosopher. So I asked him about the psychological contract between Socrates and his fellow Athenians. While he had a lot of students that would actively seek him out, he supposedly also used his Socratic Method (basically: asking someone lots of questions until he finds the right answer by himself) on a lot people that really did not want to be bothered by him. James answered analogously, that Socrates probably would not want to be named a ‘patron of the coaching business’ – but that today, he might be a kind of (political) blogger. He would try to be the thorn in the side of the leading political class, exposing their flaws and misconceptions.

Once again, we cannot ask him anymore – but I kind of like that thought…

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

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

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

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

Save the best for last!

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

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

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