Today, I´d like to know which Positive Psychology Book you like best. I´ve provided a list with 10 of the most popular books (from my point of view). You can pick up to 3 books – or list other books that you prefer. Thanks a lot for your participation. Please share this post so others will vote, too!
I totally admire how top psychology researchers regularly get a lot of airtime in US mass media outlets – doesn´t happen that much here in Germany. The following list comprises 10 (more or less) recent pieces from the venerable New York Times. All of them were written (or cover work) by some of the figureheads of Positive Psychology.
Today, I thought it would be a good idea to check my blog stats to see who profited the most from this. All in all, the post resulted in +4,500 klicks on people´s Twitter accounts. Here´s the Top-10 (excluding the Twitter list I created to follow all of those people):
Update 2: If you´d like to follow all of the accounts mentioned below, you can do so by following this Twitter list I´ve created this morning.
Update 1: Thanks a lot for all the positive feedback to this post. Within just 12 hours, it has become one of the most-read on Mappalicious. Via your suggestions, the list is now at 90 Twitter accounts. Therefore, I´ve decided to copy/paste this post to the (permanent) Positive Psychology Resources section. Further suggestions to the list will be added there, not here.
Over the last four years, Twitter tweets could not be found via Google. Now, both companies announced a new partnership which makes sure tweets will be part of the search results again. This means Twitter will become (even) more important in the future. So I guess that’s a good reason to see what Twitter has to offer with regard to Positive Psychology. Below, you’ll find 77 Twitter accounts of researchers, consultants, coaches, writers, bloggers, instititions, associations, news outlets, and software tools. As always, this is meant to be work in progress. So if you feel you know somebody (or an institution etc.) that belongs on this list, please leave a comment below this article. If you want to make a suggestion, please stick to people that either are in research, or otherwise display an in-depth knowledge of Positive Psychology (visible through e.g., a corresponding university degree).
A couple of times in the past, I´ve written about how immersing yourself in Positive Psychology is somewhat hard when you´re German – because it seems to be a slightly “Un-German” topic. Today, I´d like to explore this topic from a slightly different angle – that of language. Oscar Wilde supposedly said “Life is too short to learn German.” And he may have been right. It´s pretty complicated and therefore awfully hard to learn as a foreign tongue. Yet, it is the language of Goethe, Schiller, and Rammstein – that´s something to explore.
Speaking of the metal band Rammstein: there´s this thing about German pronunciation that makes just about everything sound like a declaration of war – even if you say something like “I love you”. There´s a funny video about this on Youtube. The guys overdo it a little, but then, this may just be what it feels like to a non-German ear:
But I digress. What I really want to talk about: I feel there´s a lack of positive words in the German language. Positive Psychology was (sort of…) invented in the U.S. – and most research papers and books are written in English. When I came to Penn, obviously I had to study the subject in English, too. But now that I´m back in Germany, I try to “sell” the topic over here, which has to be done in German of course. And that´s where the problems begin.
There´s this myth that the Inuit have an unusually high number of words to describe snow. We have “50 Shades of Grey”, they supposedly have 50 shades of snow. Actually, this is not true. But the idea behind the myth seems highly intriguing to me. In short it says: when something is valued very highly in a specific culture this tends to influence the use of language. Specifically, people pay more attention to the subject because of its importance, thereby learning to make more subtle distinctions, that ultimately are reflected in the amount of different words that can be used to talk about the subject.
To a certain degree, this idea mirrors one of Wittgenstein´s most famous dictums:
The limits of my language means the limits of my world.
When I do not have a word for something, that makes it hard to think about that subject, because it cannot be “grasped”. And it makes it even harder to speak about “that something” to other people. That idea is (probably) embodied in another Wittgenstein quote: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
Which brings us back to my problem of “selling” Positive Psychology in German:
Where there are no words, you can´t “spread the word”.
When I first tried to talk and write about Positive Psychology in German, oftentimes I felt a lack of the “right” words. For example, the German language has the same word (ergo: a lack of distinction…) for the subjects of “Happiness” and “Luck”. Both are signified by the noun “Glück”. So whenever I talk about happiness and positive emotions in the context Positive Psychology, I have to use an awful lot of extra words to get across the intended meaning.
But it´s not only a lack of distinction. Sometimes, I even feel there are no words. For instance, the brilliant Jonathan Haidt gave a lecture on the subject of “awe” in one of our MAPP classes. This moved me very much and I wanted to talk about my experience with friends back in Germany. The problem is: obviously, there is no adequate translation for “awe”. If you type “awe” into a translation machine, you’ll get the German equivalents of “veneration” or “reverence”, “rapture” or “entrancement”. All the suggestions entail a very religious or, at least, old-fashioned connotation. They are not part of a modern, non-religious German “language game”. Therefore, talking about “awe” in German in a scientific (or just everyday) context seems awfully hard.
This bears some interesting implications. Whenever I fill in a questionnaire on happiness or life satisfaction (e.g., here on Marty Seligman´s website), there´s an interesting phenomenon when I look at the results. These will be displayed in the context of different normed groups. E.g., your scores will be compared to other people of your age, your educational background, but also your ZIP code (when provided). Now here´s the thing: Comparing my results to other people from my ZIP code (ergo: other Germans) will always put me in a higher percentile. This means: based on the same raw scores, the algorithm will display that I´m quite happy when comparing myself to other men in general, or other Ph.Ds, but that I´m extremely(!) happy when comparing myself to other Germans.
Now, there´s a couple of different explanations for this phenomenon. The easiest one would be: on average, the German respondents in that data base are not all that happy – and that´s why I score (relatively) higher vis-à-vis that group. But it may also be a phenomenon of language. What if Germans were just as happy on average as, let´s say, U.S. citizens, but were reluctant to use positive self-descriptions in an extreme specification – just because it´s not part of our “happiness language game”? Maybe, via studying Positive Psychology in English in the U.S., I became a little less German, thereby being able to mitigate the dissonance of describing my life in a very positive light?
I guess Positive Psychology has to integrate cultural perspectives more and more in order to be equally “useful” for all the people on this planet. Recently, the Scientific American published a piece by the name of “Not Everyone Wants to Be Happy” citing different studies that were able to show that the concept and meaning of happiness can vary significantly between different cultures (notably, between more Western and more Eastern cultures) – but has also evolved over time. Very though-provoking.
Which brings me to the final question for today:
Could Germany be a better place if somebody invented new positive words?
“The German” per se (as a stereotype”) is depicted as a sober-minded person. We´re perceived as being diligent, orderly, industrious, and a lot of other helpful attributes. But we´re also depicted as being rather anxious, risk-averse, and just not that open-minded (think “German Angst”). This is not just an academic discussion. The German economy has been doing comparably well over the last couple of years – but how long will this last? We´re really not that good at building and financially supporting start-ups. Forbes regularly updates a large list of all those startups that are valued at more than one billion $ in terms of private equity funding. Only one of those is based in Germany.
What if all this were (at least to some extent) a consequence of a lack of the right positive words? Would we become more optimistic, less risk-averse, and more open-minded if we were able to enhance our language, if we were able to broaden the (far) positive side of our verbal aptitude? I think it´d be worth a try. In 1999, a German publisher of dictionaries (together with ice-tea brand Lipton) hosted a contest for the invention of a new word. We have a German word for the state of being “full” (= not hungry any more) – but there´s no positively framed expression for being “not thirsty any more”. As far as I know, the winning word has not made it into our regular language use, but I guess it was worth the effort.
So why shouldn’t we – for starters – find a more awesome translation for “awe”? I´m eager to hear your suggestions…
For 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…).
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?
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… 🙂
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):
Roy Baumeister, Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, author of Willpower and >500 other books and research articles (G)
Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology at Yale, author of Just Babies, his research has been published in “Nature” and “Science” (G)
Dan Bowling, Senior Lecturing Fellow at Duke Law School, Visiting Scholar at Penn, and former SVP Human Resources at Coca-Cola (A)
Lisa Buksbaum, CEO and Founder of NFP Soaringwords, former marketing executive (G)
Somewhere in an outlying district of our emotional continuum lies the emotion of awe. In one of the rare academic papers on that subject, researchers Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt write: “Two appraisals are present in all clear cases of awe: perceived vastness and a need for accommodation, defined as an inability to assimilate an experience into current mental structures”.
I repeat: perceived vastness and the inability to assimilate an experience in to current mental structures.
“Elevation is elicited by acts of charity, gratitude, fidelity, generosity, or any other strong display of virtue. It leads to distinctive physical feelings; a feeling of ‘dilation’ or opening in the chest, combined with the feeling that one has been uplifted or ‘elevated’ in some way. It gives rise to a specific motivation or action tendency: emulation, the desire ‘of doing charitable and grateful acts also.’ It is the opposite of the disgust reaction towards vice. In sum, elevation is a response to acts of moral beauty in which we feel as though we have become (for a moment) less selfish, and we want to act accordingly”.
According to Haidt, elevation can be distinguished from another ‘other-praising’ emotion: admiration. In his words:
“If elevation is a response to moral excellence that does not benefit the self, […] what is the emotional response to non-moral excellence? What do people feel when they see extraordinary displays of skill, talent, or achievement? We nominate the term admiration.”
The following 3-minute Youtube clip invokes a feeling within me that seems to be a blend of both elevation and admiration. It is an African flash mob song performed by the Soweto Gospel Choir in memory and honor of the late Nelson Mandela.* Obviously, I do not understand one word – but I googled it and supposedly it means something like “Bon Voyage” or “Godspeed”. I feel admiration just by listening to the beautiful voices – but there´s also something else. I´m deeply touched and moved to tears even though I do not know what the lyrics are about. ** But just by watching and listening, you can almost physically touch the love that those singers feel for “Madiba”.
While psychology for the first hundred years of its existence as an academic discipline has very much focused on the negative spectrum of human emotions (fear, guilt, anger etc.), positive psychology looks mostly to the favorable end of that range. On the very far side of the positive sphere lies an emotion which hasn´t really gotten a lot of attention – until one of our MAPP lecturers, Jonathan Haidt, came along. This is emotion is awe. You can see what awe looks like on the face of the Little Guru. It´s a picture I took while he was watching his first display of fireworks ever. You can sense the unique blend of joy, fascination – and fear.
The element of fear marks the crucial difference compared to my wife´s facial expression: she´s seen a lot of fireworks in her life, so she´s just delighted; the angst is missing. Here´s what Haidt has to say on awe in an academic paper on that subject:
Two appraisals are present in all clear cases of awe: perceived vastness and a need for accommodation, defined as an inability to assimilate an experience into current mental structures.
Furthermore: “Awe is felt about diverse events and objects, from waterfalls to childbirth to scenes of devastation. Awe is central to the experience of religion, politics, nature, and art. Fleeting and rare, experiences of awe can change the course of a life in profound and permanent ways”. In addition, Haidt lists five appraisals that account for the “hedonic tone” of the awe experience: