Mappsterview No. 7: Jessica Amortegui, Positive Business Champion

I was in the ninth cohort (2013/14) of the Master of Applied Positive Program at Penn – and the program is going strong. Consequently, there are tons of brilliant MAPP Alumni out there who have fascinating stories to tell: About their experience with the program, about Positive Psychology in general – and about themselves of course. I really want to hear those stories. That´s why I started Mappsterviews.

Jessica_Amortegui.jpgPlease introduce yourself briefly:

I am an introvert masquerading as an extrovert who still gets deathly shy meeting new people. Luckily this all dissipates when speaking to large groups (the bigger the better!). I have spent the past five years working in Silicon Valley and seeing my uber active boys, age 7 and 4, grow up way too fast.

What did you do before joining the MAPP program at Penn?

I started my career in consulting, first as an external consultant and then moving in-house. I dabbled in different kinds of consulting, from management to organizational development, to change management and human capital. After about seven years, I made the move to inside a company, and really enjoyed it. Besides the reduced travel load, I was able to build deeper, more meaningful relationships with employees. I also loved the awesome employee discount perks (Nike and Victoria Secret were my favorites!) After three years at a software company I am grateful to back at a product company building cool tech gizmos that I can procure with the coveted an employee discount. 🙂

What got you interested in Positive Psychology in the first place?

I was actually an unconscious, quasi-competent practitioner for a few years without even knowing it! I was delivering these two-day culture shaping workshops that applied many concepts of positive psychology in powerful experiential learning exercises – gratitude, positive emotions, strengths-based perspectives, etc. I became so passionate about the content and delivery that I began to read more about the work. I serendipitously stumbled on the MAPP website in 2007. I was pregnant with my first child at the time and thought I would never be able to squeeze the program into life. In 2013, six years later, I finally made it happen!

You now work for Logitech. What´s your role there?

I lead the Global Talent Development function. I joined a little over a year ago, and started development at the company – they didn’t have anything for employees. It has been awesome to create and build from scratch. The foundation has very much been inspired by the MAPP program. I have had the most amazing sand box to test, learn, and apply what I learned. The company is just over 2,500 employees globally, so you are able to see and feel the systemic change. That has been the most rewarding part of my job – to work at scale and see the impact.

Very recently, your company was awarded with the grand prize at Ross School´s Positive Business Project competition. What´s your project about?

I think of the project like my MAPP capstone – it was nine months worth of work that came together in a variety of mutually reinforcing initiatives. I knew if I was going to imbue positive practices into the organization I would need to pull many levers, and do them simultaneously. I created a two-day workshop that provides all employees an entrée into positive psychology. Participants experience vulnerability and connection, create a team purpose statement, and uncover their character strengths, to name a few. This is what we called our signature Logitech program. In one year, we had nearly 800 employees around the globe go through it – all by word of mouth.

I believe investments like that – in the whole person – will never backfire. It breeds a kind of loyalty that no cafeteria and ping pong table can ever deliver.

This intensive experience was complimented with 90-minute positive deviant workshops that we ran globally. We also rolled out job crafting to the entire organization. Together, employees got hit with tools and techniques that began to build different ways of thinking about themselves and their jobs. They began to reflect on themselves as people – not just employees. I believe investments like that – in the whole person – will never backfire. It breeds a kind of loyalty that no cafeteria and ping pong table can ever deliver.

What are the future plans for your initiative?

We want to build more relevant touch points with our employees. Our first phase was broad and now we are trying to go deep. We are working on producing more custom experiences for different employee segments that can meet them where they are and then take them to where they want to be. We have some cool new tools we are piloting to make that happen; tools that will give every employee one-one-one support and encouragement so they can truly flourish. This story is being written now, so stay tuned!

Given that you’ve successfully implemented Positive Psychology practices at your workplace: What´s the most important piece of advice for HR colleagues who´d like to do the same?

Oh wow – I feel so humbled by this question. I am the one who is always needing the advice! I think, in general, I have to reveal a dirty little secret. I have found some Positive Psychology words can really turn people off – to say you are taking a strengths-based approach, can make some, sadly, immediately shut down. I actually shy away from using a lot of the positive psychology language (this feels like a shame, as I do believe that words create our worlds, à la David Cooperrider!).

I try to describe what I want to do in language that I know matters to the organization. What do they want to see happen? Even if I don’t agree, I know it’s what they need to hear to support my cause. I then craft experiences that have an equal amount of pathos and logos. The employees and leaders the experience and embody it. They begin to talk about gratitude, strengths, connection, autonomy, and purpose – not me. I think there always needs to be a sense of co-creation despite knowing our larger agendas. Sometimes my ego wants to “prove” that my way is the more “enlightened” way. I step back and remember that what’s important is that I am not proving myself, but rather improving my craft.

Where can I get a University Degree in Positive Psychology?

Nico Rose - Martin SeligmanIf you have been following Mappalicious in the past, you´ll know that I was part of the 9th cohort of the Master of Applied Positive Psychology Program (MAPP) at University of Pennsylvania. To my knowledge, this program has been the first to offer a full-blown master´s degree in this specific area of psychology. And I guess it is save to say that – to this date – it is also the most renowned one, being (in part) taught by Marty Seligman himself, together with some of his closest co-workers.

Ever since running this blog, people have approached me to get info on alternative educational opportunities in the field of Positive Psychology. Accordingly, below you´ll find a list of university-based programs that offer an “official” degree (such as a Master´s) in or closely related to Positive Psychology.

If you are interested in obtaining additional information on alternative learning opportunities, I highly encourage you to visit Seph Fontane Pennock´s site. There, you´ll find a multitude of other programs, such as summer schools, graduate courses, certificates offered by private institutions, and online courses.

Positive Psychology Programs

Master of Positive Psychology at Aarhus University, Denmark: The information given is available in Danish only.

MSc in Applied Positive Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University: You’ll be introduced to research and interventions around topics like positive and negative emotions, character strengths, motivation, resilience, creativity, wisdom and other conditions shown to make a difference to the lives of individuals, groups and organisations. You’ll constantly test your skills and apply them to real-life situations, coming to understand which tools and strategies to use in delivering meaningful, high-impact interventions. The course is taught in Cambridge and Paris. The program is offered as a full-time program (12-15 months); or part-time (28-33 months).

MSc in Applied Positive Psychology at Bucks New University, Buckinghamshire (UK): The course will be of interest to individuals in a range of professions and occupational roles that include (but not limited to): teachers, human resources, organizational development, coaches in different disciplines (such as management or sports), psychologists, psychotherapists, counselors, and medical professionals. It´s a full MSc and can completed part-time over two years, though you may choose to study over three years and devote your final year to your dissertation.

M.A. Positive Developmental Psychology/M.A. Positive Organizational Psychology at Claremont Graduate University, California: Claremont offers several concentrations focusing on Positive Psychology as part of their M.A. program in psychology. For more info, please follow the link.

MSc in Applied Positive Psychology & Coaching Psychology at University of East London: The program fully integrates positive psychology and coaching psychology to create an innovative training programme for those promoting wellbeing. From the point of view of positive psychology, the course will have a strong foundation in cutting-edge theory and research relating to wellbeing. The coaching element will feature advanced training in working with clients and groups in professional capacities. The program is offered as a full-time program in one year; or part-time in two years.

Executive Master in Positive Leadership and Strategy at Instituto de Empresa (IE), Madrid: This program is designed for experienced executives interested in achieving outstanding business results via the proven, hands-on methods of positive leadership. By gaining a deep understanding of the hard science of positive psychology and human behavior, participants learn how to optimize overall strategy and business functions, architect new work processes, and design organizational structures to achieve optimal performance in themselves and the people they lead. The program is offered part-time over 13 months.

Executive Master in Applied Positive Psychology at University of Lisbon: The information given is available in Portuguese only.

Master of Applied Positive Psychology at University of Melbourne: The program will equip you to apply positive psychology principles in your professional and personal life, with a special focus on creating and evaluating positive and meaningful change, and promoting optimal leadership within organizations. Learning and assessment will take place through a range of tasks, including debates, case studies, role plays, videos, journal entries and research activities. In addition, you will be encouraged to apply positive psychology principles to your own life and to critically reflect on these experiences. The program is offered as a full-time program (12 months); part-time options are available.

Master of Arts in Positive Psychology (MAPP) at North-West University, Potchefstroom, South Africa: I´m not sure if the program is still offered as the link seems to be broken.

Master of Applied Positive Psychology at University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia: The original, so to speak. The program was the first in the world to offer a degree in this rigorous field of study. Dr. Martin Seligman, founder of the discipline of positive psychology, created the program to educate and train students at the cutting edge of the field. The program’s hybrid model allows you to explore the theory and practice of positive psychology without relocating to Philadelphia, so you can continue working full-time. The program consists of nine courses, completed during one year of full-time study.

Specialization in Positive Psychology & Technology as part of the MsC program in psychology at University of Twente (Netherlands): The information given is available in Dutch only.

Certificate of Advanced Studies in Positive Psychology at University of Zurich, Switzerland: The information given is available in German only.

Do you want to become a UPenn Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP)? This way, please…

Right now, the 11. cohort of Penn´s MAPP program is well on its way. I was in cohort No. 9 (here you can find a summary of my experiences over the two semesters in 2013/14). Our alumni association asked us to pass on this information to potential students:

1) There will be a live information session in Penn´s Huntsman Hall on November 5. For more info and registration:

https://www.applyweb.com/fixie/form/s/T8413mk

2) There will be a virtual information session on December 3. For more info and registration:

https://www.applyweb.com/fixie/form/s/T8513ml

3) You can now apply! Deadline is March 1, 2016. Info on the application requirements can be found here:

http://www.sas.upenn.edu/lps/graduate/mapp/admissions/application

Nico Rose - Penn Commencement

March 20 is International Happiness Day! Join our virtual Conference feat. +30 Positive Psychology Experts

International_Happiness_Day_2015Ever since 2012, March 20 is UN´s International Happiness Day. All around the world, people will celebrate and host events to educate their fellow human beings on all things happiness, well-being, and flourishing.

And I´m in as well – as part of a Virtual Happiness Conference. 32 fellow Penn Mappsters were interviewed on their favorite Positive Psychology subject, among them a lot of people you might already know because they were featured on Mappalicious in one way or the other, e.g. Emilia “Queen of Sisu” Lahti. All in all, there´s more than 24 hours of video material available.

All content will be online for free until March 26. After that, you can purchase the videos. Every cent will go to the Christopher Peterson Memorial Fellowship which helps future students to afford attending Penn´s MAPP program.

As for my part: I was interviewed by the fabulous Lisa Sansom on the role of Positive Psychology in coaching, the subject of Self-Permission, and the “German way” of Positive Psychology. This is the link to the conference site.

Enjoy – and please share to good news!

International Happiness Day Experts

Expressing Appreciation made easy: The Gratitude Bucket

Gratitude BucketWant to say thank you to somebody and don´t know how? Do not fear, for Gratitude Bucket is with you! Gratitude Bucket was created by Zack Prager, a fellow MAPP alum. It´s an easy-to-use website that let´s you create a personal “gratitude space” for a specific person where you (and all the people you invite…) can openly express your gratitude and thereby share it with the world. E.g., this is a bucket for “Sensei” Esa Saarinen after he was injured with a knife earlier this year…

Why should you make another person happy by expressing gratitude? Because it´s one of the most accessible pathways to your own happiness!

Godspeed to MAPP 9! I Love Myself so Much More Because of You…

The Master of Applied Positive Psychology program 2013/2104 at University of Pennsylvania (MAPP 9) is history. While the graduation festivities are still up and coming in May, it´s been the last time for us to come together as a full group since not all of us will come to graduation. It´s been a very emotional weekend with lots of special treats – but I promised not to divulge any details. I don´t want to be the spoiler for the future Mappsters. Let´s just say that some wise person brought a pack of Kleenex for each person in the room…

I´ll just share one thing with you, and that is a sentence that my classmate Guang Zeng said to our group at one point (and which may well be the most beautiful thing I´ve ever heard…)

I love myself so much more because of you!

Before coming into class on Sunday morning, I took this photo of Penn´s Locust Walk that runs across the core campus. It perfectly captures the mood of that weekend as we were frequently reminded of the fact that the end of MAPP 9 is the beginning of our journey in/with Positive Psychology – and not the end.

The Road goes ever on

As Bilbo Baggins sings:
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way,…
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
Is this the end of Mappalicious?
Is this the end of Mappalicious?

Is this the end of Mappalicious?

Certainly not. I´m going to continue blogging on Positive Psychology topics. Maybe not with the same regularity (as other exciting projects are waiting…) – but I will…

How a little Give and Take can get you a Mention on Forbes…

You know, sometimes life is just plain good. This morning, Lisa Sansom, a MAPP alumna, posted a link to the Facebook group on Positive Psychology that she runs. It´s a piece on the Forbes website that discusses the impact of Positive Psychology on psychotherapeutic work and mentions the websites of some other MAPP alumni, e.g., Emilia Lahti and Samantha Boardman.

Will Digital Technology Disrupt The Psychotherapy Market?

So I put a link to that article on Twitter:

Will Digital Technology Disrupt The Psychotherapy Market?

And a couple of hours later, I found this reply by Giovanni Rodriguez, the author of that article:

You´re on Forbes!

That´s how it goes! I guess Adam Grant would be very proud of us… 🙂

Mappsterview No. 3: David Yaden on Self-Transcendence and “Well-Being for the Dying”

I´m in the ninth cohort of the Master of Applied Positive Program at Penn. Consequently, there are tons of brilliant MAPP Alumni out there that have very fascinating stories to tell: about their experience with the program, about Positive Psychology in general – and about themselves of course. I really want to hear those stories. That´s why I started to do Mappsterviews* with my predecessors.

 

In Mappsterview No. 3, you´re going to get to know David Yaden who was in MAPP 8 and is now an assistant instructor in the current program. David is a very special person because he always gives me good grades …well: just read for yourself!

David Yaden - PPC

Please introduce yourself briefly:

I study self-transcendent experiences (which are basically peak or spiritual experiences), meaning and purpose in life, and death. Currently, I work as a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania at the Positive Psychology Center and in collaboration with UPenn’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. I also work as a consultant and public health educator with Lourdes Health System and I serve as a Humanist Chaplain for Rutgers University. I primarily study the psychology and neuroscience of self-transcendent experiences, but I am also interested in end-of-life issues.

What did you do before MAPP?

I was more of an entrepreneur. After undergrad, I started a health and wellness practice (Integrative Mind-Body Health) to teach people about relaxation techniques, wellness, and well-being. My practice has been sub-contracted by Lourdes Health System for several years. I also started a healthcare consulting practice (Psychosocial Consulting), which initially served medical practices but the work has moved into more technical healthcare business consulting, my primary account is now a medical imaging engineering firm.

My main reason for applying to MAPP was to determine whether I was more of an entrepreneur, a clinician, or an academic researcher. It turns out that of these three I’m best suited for academic research. Ideas light my mind on fire – they move me on an emotional level – so working in this area excites me on a daily basis. My research feels like a real calling.

What got you interested in Positive Psychology?

My journey to positive psychology began with a spontaneous “mystical” experience of self-transcendence. In one instant, my life seemed to go from mild despair and meaninglessness to absolutely overflowing with a joyful and loving sense of meaning and purpose. Much of my adolescent angst was resolved in one overwhelming moment. I’m not alone in this – experiences like mine, which William James describes in The Varieties of Religious Experience, are surprisingly common. Research suggests that today about 33% of cross-cultural samples report something like them. This means that about 1 out of every 3 of your readers will be nodding their heads in recognition when they read this. One scale, the “Mystical Experience Questionnaire” gives a sense of the experience through its items:

  • “Experience of the insight that ‘all is One.’”
  • “Awareness of the life or living presence in all things.”
  • “Feeling that it would be difficult to communicate your own experience to others who have not had similar experiences.”

My attempts to understand this experience led me through academic studies and “real world” experiences that I would not have had otherwise. My studies include comparative religion, philosophy, psychology, and cognitive neuroscience. Experientially, I graduated Marine Corps. Boot Camp and participated in Zen meditation retreats to study rites of passage. I have also traveled and taken psychedelic drugs (legally) to learn more about how certain triggers and circumstances can facilitate self-transcendent states of mind. While these experiences never re-captured my initial experience, many came close. I now believe that many group rituals and contemplative practices have tremendous value. I still meditate and go on retreats, for example. I also promote the on-going psychopharmacology research on psilocybin (a psychedelic substance) at John Hopkins and NYU, and I believe that we will see a return of immersive interventions similar to rites of passage in psychology’s near future.

I should also say that I see my research through a purely psychological lens, and I work hard to keep from engaging in metaphysical speculation. While I was raised religious – and still feel generally positive about religion – I became an atheist at a young age. After my mystical experience, however, I became very spiritual – after all, “seeing is believing”, right? Well no, actually… As Dr. Jon Haidt once said to me, “seeing is perceiving.” After studying philosophy and neuroscience, I realized that I can’t know the true nature of existence or consciousness. This humbled me tremendously. Coming to terms with the fact that we lack certainty about these issues was, and is, a difficult but very valuable process. Now I consider myself an agnostic – this keeps me living in wonder at the mystery that surrounds us. This view also allows me to understand the perspective of religious, spiritual, and secular people alike, which has been particularly important while volunteering with Hospice and doing chaplaincy work. In these areas, the main focus is on helping people rather than getting caught up in debates about belief systems.

My research eventually led me to the work of Dr. Andrew Newberg, who studies the neuroscience of mystical experiences. He is best known for putting long-term meditators and nuns into neuroimaging scanners (like SPECT and fMRI) to see what is going on in their brains while they experience self-transcendent states of unity. He seemed to understand the subjective side of these experiences, was conducting useful and fascinating research on the topic, and wasn’t trying to prove any points based on a particular belief system. Rather than having a metaphysical axe to grind, he frames his work as a strictly scientific endeavor that has the potential to help people. In fact, his respectful and open-minded way of presenting his research often leads people of both extremes of belief to use his research as “proof” that their particular worldview is right.

Atheists say, “See! These experiences are only in the brain” and believers say, “See! These experiences are even in the brain!”

Of course, the data does nothing to prove either of these metaphysical positions correct, but it does advance our scientific understanding of the actual experiences tremendously.

At some point in this process, I saw that Dr. Seligman was on the board of advisors for Dr. Newberg’s lab. I recognized Dr. Seligman’s name from psychology textbooks during my undergrad training. After I learned about his positive psychology initiative, I began to hear about it everywhere. The director of the psychology lab I worked in at the time referred to his work, my Zen teacher brought up positive psychology in his talks (called “teishos” in the Zen tradition), and I remembered that my undergrad study group “Jedi Mind Tricks,” had briefly covered this topic. Once I started reading more of Seligman’s work, I couldn’t learn enough. For a few months I became a hermit in order to read books and articles by him and the other usual suspects in positive psychology (Barbara Fredrickson, Jonathan Haidt, Paul Bloom, Jane Gillham, etc…). After hearing James Pawelski discuss the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program at an info session, I knew I was hooked. I applied that fall.

As stated above, one of your research areas is the experience of self-transcendence. Can you please elaborate on that?

“Getting out of your head” is one way that I’ve been thinking about self-transcendence lately. Self-transcendent experiences (STE’s) are temporary states of unity with something beyond the self. They range from the routine, like getting lost in a piece of music, to the transformative, such as the mystical experience that I had. Other experiences fall in-between these extremes, like states of mind experienced during meditation or while making love, for instance.

I am working with a dream team of researchers to formalize the definition and spectrum on which STE’s occur – something we call “the unitary continuum.” We are applying for a Templeton grant to study how often these experiences occur, what kind of people experience them and under what circumstances, how people describe them, what biological processes are associated with them, and how they relate to outcomes like well-being and altruistic behavior. To learn more about how these experiences work on the neurological level, we are currently utilizing non-invasive brain stimulation techniques to try to elicit self-transcendent experiences at UPenn’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience.

Evidence suggests that unlike many interventions in psychology that have small effect sizes and are relatively short-lived, the more intense varieties of self-transcendent experiences can be positively transformative. Some studies show that certain beneficial effects of mystical experiences of self-transcendence, like increased well-being and altruistic behavior, can last years, decades, or even a lifetime. Many people rate these experiences among the most meaningful of their entire lives – alongside events like marriage and childbirth.

If I wanted to foster the presence of self-transcendence in my life: where, or with what should I start?

There are two broad paths to more self-transcendence that have the most evidence behind them, contemplative practices and group connection. In terms of contemplative practices, meditation, prayer, yoga, or even simple relaxation techniques are a great place to start. For group connection, attending church, going to a concert, or participating in anything that involves group cooperation can elicit a sense of self-transcendence.

I would also point you to the research on self-transcendent positive emotions by Barbara Fredrickson, Awe by Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt, Flow by Mihayli Csizkszentmihalyi, Mindfulness by Richard Davidson and Britta Holzel, Peak Experiences by Abraham Maslow, and Mystical Experiences by Ralph Hood and Andrew Newberg. We are calling these “The Varieties of Self-Transcendent Experience” in an obvious nod to William James.

You´re also interested in end-of-life healthcare. How is that a “positive” topic?

Death is scary, dying is difficult, and in our society we don’t do a particularly good job of handling either particularly well (see Atul Gawande’s brilliant article “Letting Go”). Attempts to improve the dying process typically do so by reducing suffering, and I am a great proponent of these efforts. Hospice is one of the very few examples of truly cross-disciplinary, holistic health-care. Palliative care (or “comfort care”) has even recently become a specialty that physicians can study. We have made great collective strides in reducing the pain and suffering of those who are actively dying.

At the same time, I believe that we can do more than reducing pain alone. Hospice care provides art and music therapists, compassionate presence from volunteers, and visits from chaplains. Soaringwords is an organization run by fellow MAPPster Lisa Buksbaum that is also doing wonderful work in this area. These are just a few examples of an amazing start, and I think we can build on these beginnings. Well-being is important for people, period. The fact that someone is actively dying should not exclude them from positive interventions. The dying process is still part of life, and this experience could be improved by making options available that promote well-being. I suspect elements of well-being like meaning and relationships will be shown to be particularly valuable.

Research on mindfulness practices and psychedelic sessions at end-of-life have shown that remarkable improvements in well-being and reductions in anxiety and depression are now possible. Based on this research, I predict that within ten years, when one is pronounced terminally ill (about six months to live) they will have the option of undergoing a psychedelic session. I am very surprised to be saying this, but the evidence of positive benefit is so strong that I think policy makers will eventually be morally obligated to permit research and application in this domain. Physicians and patients will demand access to these substances, especially as research reaches a tipping point of demonstrating their potential to relieve suffering.

David Yaden with other Mappsters

David Yaden with fellow Mappsters

Thanks a lot, David, for this Mappsterview!

* If you are a MAPP alumnus and would like to have your story featured here – please go ahead and shoot me an e-mail!

March 20th is UN´s International Happiness Day: Learn about Positive Psychology from 18 MAPP Alumni – Free Online Conference

Tomorrow is the United Nations´ official International Day of Happiness.

Speaking at the High Level  Meeting on “Happiness and Well-Being: Defining a New Economic  Paradigm” convened during the sixty-sixth  session of the General Assembly the  Secretary General Ban Ki-moon  said:

The world needs a new economic  paradigm that recognizes  the parity between the three pillars of sustainable  development.  Social, economic and environmental well-being are indivisible.  Together they define gross global happiness.

To support the UN on this mission, 18 MAPP Alumni are hosting a free online conference to share their knowledge on Positive Psychology, Well-Being, and Happiness. It´s going to be a wide array of PP topics brought to you by a fascinating group of people.* Among them is Emilia Lahti which you might knwo from the very first Mappsterview.

MAPP Conference - International Happiness Day

If you´d like to have more information and join the conference, please klick here.

 

* Yes, I do sense a slight gender imbalance here. Being a male Mappster, I´m working on that…

Mappsterview No. 1: Emilia Lahti, the Queen of Sisu

I´m in the ninth cohort of the Master of Applied Positive Program at Penn. Consequently, there are tons of brilliant MAPP Alumni out there that have very fascinating stories to tell: about their experience with the program, about Positive Psychology in general – and about themselves of course. I really want to hear those stories. That´s why I started to do Mappsterviews* with my predecessors.

 

The honor (ahem…) of being No. 1 goes to Emilia Lahti from Finland. She was in MAPP 8 and does research on Sisu, which is a Finnish term for a special and very strong kind of determination. Supposedly, one has to be Finnish to really grasp the concept – but Emilia is here to change that…

Emilia Lahti

Please introduce yourself briefly

My name is Emilia and I am utterly intrigued by (A) how on earth you manage to keep blogging so intensely during MAPP!, (B) what enables people to persevere through extreme hardship,  (C) my amazing and utterly badass husband, and (D) caterpillars (no really, I’ll get back to this later).

What is Sisu?

Sisu - DefinitionSisu is a Finnish word denoting determination, courage and resoluteness in the face of extreme adversity. This means highly difficult life situations or events and is not to be confused with the angst we often bring upon ourselves by getting worked up by all kinds of trivial nuisances of our privileged lives (i.e. being pissed off because we didn’t find a parking spot near the grocery store or when it happened to rain during the run –unless it is raining something utterly crazy, like wasps or cactuses!). One could say sisu begins where your perseverance ends and you feel you have reached the end of your mental or physical capacities. One intellectual hero of mine, late philosopher and physician William James, wrote that we have hidden energy within us which we may not have access to until we really need it, and that crises often offer an unparalleled opportunity to tap into this deeper strength. He called it the ‘second wind’, and continued that most of us never run far enough to discover we have such strength. I love the expression because in some ways it describes pretty well what sisu is about.

Sisu is especially useful in creating impetus for getting started with an impossible task or taking action against the odds. I call this the action mindset. Furthermore, sisu is about honesty and integrity, and about not complaining too much during hardships. You’ll address the difficulty, yes, perhaps curse and rant a bit, but then you get to action. Sisu is about equanimity, rationality and this kind of stoically silent, relentless action in the face of a significant challenge. Furthermore, for example within the context of sports, having sisu does not have to mean you place first or annihilate all of your opponents. Sisu is more about immersing yourself in the experience with every fiber of your being and not giving up. Ultimately, it is not so much about achievement as it is about facing your challenges with valor and determination..

How did your interest in Sisu arise?

Well, I had a tough childhood. Hah, no. I’m just kidding. However, my parents indeed played a significant role in this process. They are tenacious, mentally strong people who don’t take bs from anyone. Yet, they have softness and are able to apologize when they are wrong. My parents have always told me to finish what I start, stay relentless and also reminded me to imagine myself in someone else’s shoes. Justice and fairness are elementary to integrity, and integrity is in the core of the more socially directed dimension of sisu.

However, my interest toward sisu as a research subject kind of emerged as a result of my own experiences and randomly crashing Dr. Angela Duckworth’s undergrad class where she was teaching about Grit. Other people whom I absolutely have to mention are my sweet husband, who himself is an incredible epitome of grit and sisu, and Drs. Esa Saarinen, Lauri Järvilehto and Frank Martela from Finland, who have each played a crucial role in encouraging me to dive deeper into this unexplored domain. Sometimes it’s hard to believe in yourself until someone else believes in you first, and these five people have really been a powerful enabling factor for me. For the most part, my overall sisu journey (and life in general) seems to be a mix of serendipitous encounters and random ideas powered by my never ending curiosity toward life, and the incessant need make some kind of sense of it. But isn’t that really what most of our lives are like?

Can Sisu be developed – and if yes: how?

Intuitively, I would rush to give you an excited ‘yes’! Mainly because what we know from social psychology is that words and narratives (and the meanings we draw from them) can be a hugely empowering factor in our lives. However, since I am slowly adopting this ‘wannabe-researcher’ mindset I’ll just take it easy and say perhaps, but we don’t know since no research has been conducted yet. When saying this, I am following the example of my guru and mentor, Angela. I remember struggling with my ‘budding researcher’ identity (you know, worrying whether what you contribute is useful and meaningful enough, or if you are just utterly wasting everyone’s time). Angela, who advised my master’s thesis, gave me an advice which will stick with me forever. She said, “Emilia, you don’t have to be right. You just have to be honest.” I think this is the golden rule of any research, and it applies to life in general in many ways, too.

Only after the (tediously) thrilling construct validation work, which I am involved with right now, we can begin looking at cultivating this capacity. A majority of 83% of the over 1,000 respondents to the sisu survey last spring, said that they believe sisu is a quality which can be developed through conscious effort (as opposed to being a fixed capacity). Now this is explosive! What we know from Dr. Carol Dweck’s work is that our beliefs are one of the biggest indicators of our future actions. If we believe a character trait is fixed, we are less likely to engage in activities which might modify it and are therefore less likely to change. Therefore, our beliefs in a way set the boundaries within which we operate in our daily lives.  Anyway, you can expect some epic results in the years to come. If not, I will just transform into the lone ultra-runner I always felt I was destined to become and disappear somewhere in Lapland with a sack of Vibrams! On that high note, physical activity may indeed be one of the many potential ways to develop one’s sisu…

What was the most Sisu´ish moment of your life?

Wow, I really like the term sisu’ish! If ‘words make our worlds’, you have just expanded mine by the width of a polar bear’s paw! I think one of my first sisu’ish moments was when I was maybe four and stood up against a scary girl who was bullying some other girl at a hospital where I was waiting to have a kidney operation. On a more epic, transformative note, probably when I overcame a broken spirit caused by a violent ex-partner, and had to pretty much rebuild myself from scratch after this calamitous period in my life ended.

However, the peculiar thing about post-traumatic growth is that you don’t merely return to your previous state. Sometimes, a remarkable thing happens as a result of a life changing event or profound experience of pain: we transform. The strenuous moments which force us to reflect on the inner depths of our character, and to even ponder the very meaning of life itself, change us irreversibly and cultivate our sense of empathy for others, for the world, and for ourselves.

For me, hardly anything remained the same. I transformed during my dark cocoon period and suddenly could not look at myself, my life or even my work the same way. This explains my infatuation with caterpillars too. Did you know that the body of a caterpillar quite literally melts into this mess of tiny organs, limbs and tissue, and inside the chrysalis the little insect completely restructures itself into something unimaginably different. Well, I was that caterpillar a few years ago. (Note from the editor: Yes, I did, Emilia… 🙂 )

Nowadays I am an outspoken anti-domestic violence advocate and my purpose is to enable cultural change in the way how we speak about this atrocity. According to WHO (2013) one woman three experiences domestic violence or sexual abuse during their lifetime (and often it is in the hands of those who were supposed to protect and cherish them). These women and also men (one in eight) are often silenced by the stigma that comes with it – stigma that should always be only on the perpetrator. My life is a living example of how things can turn around when own our story, tap into our inner sisu and reach out for caring connections in our lives. It’s been a long journey but I am now where I belong. Now it’s my time to help others.

How is Sisu tied to the Finnish culture?

Sisu is tightly woven onto the fibers of Finnish culture, and it has even been said that one needs to understand the meaning of sisu in order to truly understand Finns. Why sisu became a concept in Finland in particular relates to the country’s history which includes a lot foreign occupation, hard weather conditions and invasions. Finns learned that having sisu was the way to sustain life when things got really bad. The construct is still deeply embedded within the Finnish mainstream dialogue and I am incredibly excited to examine how its full brilliance can be unfolded and possibly leveraged to bring about systems wide positive change. Language is the foundation of how we communicate, and up to this point Sisu as a construct has remained understudied and rather elusive. Reframing something from “untranslatable” and “unfathomable” (like has often been described) to a word or description which carries meaning can be a potent game-changer. It opens up a whole new world around the construct and brings it within people´s reach.

Can I profit from Sisu –  even though I´m German?

As a former employee of the Finnish Embassy, I know I have to try and give some kind of a diplomatic answer! Just kidding. Ja, yes, kyllä! Even though Finland may have the first take on sisu as a cultural construct, it is a universal power capacity for which the potential exists within all individuals. There are numerous examples of sisu in different cultures and I would love to have someone research this, since I know it is beyond the scope of my upcoming PhD. Somewhat similar constructs (though not exactly) are the Yiddish term chutzpah and the Japanese word ganbaru. It would be great to put together a repository of all these constructs as well as the narratives that relate to them. You Germans as a nation have your own powerful sisu stories, too. Hey! You even dance with Sauerkraut in deine Lederhosen! Even I don’t think I could pull off that stunt! ❤

 

Kiitos Emilia, for being my interview partner for the very first Mappsterview. I can confirm there´s a German notion of Sisu as well – but I´ll leave those words to Oliver Kahn, (in)famous former soccer goalie of Bayern Munich and the German National Team:

For those of you who can´t understand German – he says: “Balls. We need balls!”. You know, as in: Cojones…

 

* If you are a MAPP alumnus and would like to have your story featured here – please go ahead and shoot me an e-mail!