Positive Psychology Speaking Tour: Martin Seligman is coming to Europe

If you are interested in Positive Psychology and happen to live in (central) Europe, you might be interested to hear that Martin Seligman is coming to Germany in the summer of 2014 together with some other big names in the field, such as Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, and Barbara Fredrickson for several conferences. This is a great way to get updated on the latest developments in Positive Psychology. The presentation will be in English and translated into German. For more information, please refer to this (German) Flyer.


When feeling good feels better than good: the Benefits of Emotional Contrasting

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…

But what if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other — that whoever wanted to learn to “jubilate up to the heavens” would also have to be prepared for “depression unto death”?” And that is how things may well be.


Mental ContrastingOne of my most important teachers while training to become a coach regularly used a metaphor in order to convey the idea that, while there are a lot of people out there that feel good about their lives, there may be separate groups of individuals that may feel equally good, but still radiate a disparate ‘energetic signature’. Using the concept of rebirth (without necessarily believing in it), he told us that, because of their karma, some people are entitled to what could be described as a ‘recreational incarnation’. After a lot of suffering in former incarnations, they now get to live a pleasant and happy life without too much pain, loss, and other turbulences – resulting in an affable, joyful, but (potentially) also slightly shallow character. On the other hand, there are people that know the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ from their own experience earlier in the current life. While they can be just as happy and agreeable as the aforementioned group, they tend to be somewhat graver or deeper.*

In this paper, I want to take a look at this distinction. At a less arcane level, the question could be: When two people display the same value on a measure that is supposed to quantify happiness – do they really feel the same when one person has been at that level for (more or less) her whole life, while the other has experienced longer periods of considerably unhappier emotional states?

Positive emotions play a central role in positive psychology (Fredrickson, 2001; Fredrickson, 2009). Because of the particular emphasis on positive affect especially during the early period of the field, some scholars criticized positive psychologists for excluding the negative side of human emotions from their inquiries (e.g., Tennen & Affleck, 2003). It is important to say that this is, in fact, not the case (Seligman & Pawelski, 2003; Peterson, 2006). Rather, positive psychology asserts that negative emotions do exist and are just as ‘natural’ as positive emotions. It´s just that the focus of researchers and practitioners, for the first 100 years of psychology as a science, has been firmly on the negative dimension of human experience, which now warrants a shift towards the opposite direction (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).

For example, one branch of research in (positive) psychology focuses on bouncing back from negative experiences (Tugade & Fredrickson, 2004), coping with unfortunate events (Folkman & Moskowitz, 2000), psychological resilience in the face of adversity (Masten, 2001), and, particularly, post-traumatic growth (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1996; Linley & Joseph, 2004; Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004). By way of example, there is considerable evidence that a person cannot only recover and get back to normal after a severely stressful event such as a potential life-threatening illness, but can actually attain a higher level of well-being and satisfaction, e.g., via finding a deeper meaning or a more profound sense of purpose in life (Helgeson, Reynolds, & Tomich, 2006; Lyubomirsky, 2008). So while, by and large, it seems difficult to sustainably alter a person´s general level of happiness (Lykken & Tellegen, 1996), there is reason to believe that overcoming extremely stressful events may result in such a shift.

But there may be other mechanisms that can explain how we can benefit psychologically from having gone through troubled times. Even if a person may not be happier than a fellow human being with regard to objective measurement, the aforementioned may still perceive his or her state as being more favorable than the latter person. For a thought experiment, let´s consider two people of similar age and other characteristics that both display scores around the 80th percentile on a measure that captures happiness or a similar variable of psychological well-being. The difference is: the first person has by and large been on that level for his previous life, while the other person has suffered from recurring episodes of depression – but has now recovered for good. Will being equally happy actually feel the same for both? I argue that this is not the case. Rather, I contend the second person will be happier on the subjective level (qualia). She will feel happier about being happy because she can still remember how it felt to be severely unhappy. Why should that be the case?

One of the earliest objects of investigation in psychological science has been human perception, e.g., our ability to discern contrasts (Heidelberger, 2004). While scholars mostly focused on contrasts as perceived on the sensory level (light intensity, loudness, weight etc.), some scientists early on investigated contrasts pertaining to the emotional sphere (Bacon, Rood, & Washburn, 1914). For instance, Manstead, Wagner, and MacDonald (1983) have shown that we tend to find humorous film content to be funnier when we were previously exposed to a horror movie (and vice versa). Obviously, the fear that is elicited by the horror movie makes the enjoyment of the comedy more intense.

While the aforementioned emotional contrast is perceived when the stimuli are presented in close temporal connection, it seems likely that this process also works for stimuli that are being felt at different points in time. It is perfectly possible to contrast a current emotional state to that of past events via voluntarily accessing episodic memory. When we compare feeling good in the present to feeling considerably worse in the past, the current emotional condition can subjectively be enhanced by a kind of meta-emotion (“It really feels good feeling so much better than how I felt back in the days…”).

So while it is common sense that ‘feeling good just feels good’, we should not forget about having felt worse in the past. It just might give us that little extra kick.

* Often, he also used to contrast this ‘species’ with the mythological character of Chiron, the ‘wounded healer’.


Bacon, M. M., Rood, E. A., & Washburn, M. F. (1914). A study of affective contrast. The American Journal of Psychology. 25(2), 290-293.
Folkman, S., & Moskowitz, J. T. (2000). Positive affect and the other side of coping. American Psychologist, 55(6), 647-654.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56(3), 218-226.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2009). Positivity: Top-notch research reveals the 3 to 1 ratio that will change your life. New York: Crown Publishing.
Heidelberger, M. (2004). Nature from within: Gustav Theodor Fechner and his psychophysical worldview. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
Helgeson, V. S., Reynolds, K. A., & Tomich, P. L. (2006). A meta-analytic review of benefit finding and growth. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 74(5), 797-816.
Linley, P. A., & Joseph, S. (2004). Positive change following trauma and adversity: A review. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 17(1), 11-21.
Lykken, D., & Tellegen, A. (1996). Happiness is a stochastic phenomenon. Psychological Science, 7(3), 186-189.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The how of happiness. New York: Penguin.
Manstead, A. S. R., Wagner, H. L., & MacDonald, C. J. (1983). A contrast effect in judgments of own emotional state. Motivation and Emotion, 7(3), 279-290.
Masten, A. S. (2001). Ordinary magic: Resilience processes in development. American Psychologist, 56(3), 227-238.
Peterson, C. (2006). A primer in positive psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.
Seligman, M. E., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: an introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5-14.
Seligman, M. E., & Pawelski, J. O. (2003). Positive psychology: FAQS. Psychological Inquiry, 14(2), 159-163.
Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (1996). The posttraumatic growth inventory: Measuring the positive legacy of trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 9(3), 455-471.
Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (2004). Posttraumatic growth: Conceptual foundations and empirical evidence. Psychological Inquiry, 15(1), 1-18.
Tennen, H., & Affleck, G. (2003). While accentuating the positive, don’t eliminate the negative or Mr. In-Between. Psychological Inquiry, 14(2), 163-169.
Tugade, M. M., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2004). Resilient individuals use positive emotions to bounce back from negative emotional experiences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86(2), 320-333.

7 common Misconceptions about Positive Psychology

P.E.R.M.A.Positive Psychology is not Happyology

Ok. So there´s some truth in this. Positive psychology indeed tries to understand the role of positive emotions in the good life. But they are only one of the five key elements in Martin Seligman´s PERMA concept. I guess most positive psychologists would agree that – at the end of the day – concepts like meaning in life and positive relationships are more important for a life well-lived. Additionally, it is important to acknowledge that positivity is not (only) and end in itself. It may be a powerful way to attain other important things in life (e.g., success at work).

Positive Psychology is not Kitchen Sink Psychology

While there´s nothing wrong with kitchen sink psychology per se, it has to be noted that laypersons get things wrong a lot of times. Even though we should be all experts at living (because that´s what we do all day long…), many people bear serious misconceptions on what makes for a good and happy life. This is where positive psychology as a data-driven science steps in – and often comes up with counterintuitive findings. For instance, if you´re into social media, you´ll know all this TGIF (Thank God it´s Friday) stuff people put on Facebook and Twitter on Friday afternoon. But scientific inquiry time and again is able to show that most people are happier while at work compared to their leisure time.

Positive Psychology is not Self-Help/Positive Thinking

Now this one is so important that I may have to write it down three times. Here we go…

For sure, there are similarities in the subject matters of positive psychology and positive thinking. By way of example, both are concerned with cultivating optimism in individuals, since being optimistic (most of the time) is associated with an array of beneficial outcome variables. The difference is: positive psychology is a science. It´s grounded in thorough academic research. Of course it´s possible to arrive at correct conclusions without conducting large-scale studies – but personally, I feel a lot better when what I recommend to my clients is based on coherent theories and scientific evidence.

Positive Psychology is not headed by some dubious Guru Elite

This point is closely connected to the aforementioned one. Positive psychology is spear-headed by some of the most widely acclaimed psychologists of our time. Among them are Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, and Barbara Fredrickson. And: Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Laureate of 2002, also is among the major contributors to the literature on psychological well-being. Among other things, he´s a co-editor of the seminal book Well-Being: The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology. Yet, the crucial difference between these people and the common self-help guru is not the length of their Wikipedia articles – it´s something else that can be found in this post.

Positive Psychology is not about ignoring negative Emotions

Once again: positive psychology is not about being happy-smiley all day long. It is not trying to eradicate “the Negative”. It´s just that psychology as an academic discipline has very much focused on negative phenomena (such as fear and depression) for the first hundred years. Positive psychology wants to point the spotlight to the positive side of our emotional and behavioral continuum in order to create a more balanced view of human functioning. Actually, negative events and emotions play a crucial role in studying so-called post-traumatic growth which basically is concerned with the question: How can we profit in the long run from going through really hard times in our lives?

Positive Psychology is not only for rich white People

This concern was issued in a recent article by James (Jim) Coyne, PhD, a Clinical Psychologist and Professor in the Department of Psychiatry, University of Pennsylvania – the same university that Martin Seligman is teaching at. Again, there´s a grain of truth here. Positive psychology was coined at several high-end private universities in the U.S. As with virtually all psychological theories, they are first tested empirically using samples of undergraduate students at those universities the researchers teach at. And since these tend to be predominantly affluent white people, there´s is some truth to that criticism. But once again: that´s true for almost any piece of research in any branch of psychology out there. Positive psychologists do acknowledge this caveat and continually try to broaden their (research) perspective, reaching out to international samples and other diverse target groups.

Positive Psychology is not ignoring its Roots, e.g. Humanistic Psychology

Positive psychologists readily do acknowledge the theories and findings that came out of Humanistic Psychology, thereby standing (partly) on the shoulder of giants like Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. Additionally, positive psychology draws heavily on the ancient wisdom of some of the great philosophers. A lot of positive psychologists seem to be very fond of William James, and especially Aristotle and his conception of Eudaimonia. The crucial difference once again is positive psychology´s strong foundation in (experimental) research.

I´d really like to have your feedback on this one. Do you agree? Do you disagree? What did I forget?

Everybody wants more Work-Life-Balance – but should we want to want more free time?

If you look at all the surveys out there, it seems most people want to spent less time at work. Especially Millennials put a lot of emphasis on having a great work-life-balance – which, at the end of the day, means putting in less hours at the office. Sounds nice, huh? But is this really advisable? From the Positive Psychology point of view, I´d have my doubts.

One very important concept in Positive Psychology is Flow – which is a state of being deeply immersed in an ongoing activity, forgetting about the time and surroundings, completely being at one with what we do. Experiencing flow on a regular basis is a sure sign of being on the path of mental health and personal growth. Now here´s the nub of the matter:

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the ‘discoverer’ of Flow, used a method called Experience Sampling when first studying this phenomenon. Basically, this means giving a beeper to people and contacting them a couple of times per day over a certain period of time. When being contacted, participants are to write down in a journal what they just did, and how they felt while doing it. What Csíkszentmihályi found: people reported being ‘in the Flow’ about four times as often while at work compared to their free time. How can that be?

Let´s look at the elements of Flow:

  • Focus: Concentration on a limited Field
  • Clarity: Explicit Goals and immediate Feedback
  • Balance: Match between Skills and Challenge
  • No Problemo: Feeling of (potential) Control
  • No Sweat: Ease and Effortlessness
  • Time Warp: Altered Perception of Being
  • Self-Forgetfulness: Merging of Action and Consciousness
  • Autotelic Quality: The Journey is the Destination

The problem with leisure time is: a lot of the things we like to do lack some of the critical elements for generating Flow. Except for being asleep, watching TV is the one activity that the average person spends most time on. Watching TV does not require any skills, yet putting one´s skills to work is crucial for experiencing Flow. What´s more, you don´t have any goals while watching TV, and you don´t get any feedback (besides from: now it´s over). Csíkszentmihályi actually found that when watching TV (even a sitcom) we´re in a state that can be likened to a minor depression. Of course there are leisure activities that can generate flow, e.g., most sports, dancing, reading, and painting – among others.

But how much time do we actually spend on these activities (percental)? The moral of the story is: We should be careful what we wish for. I don´t mean to say that work is inherently good.* There´s an ever-increasing prevalence of burnout in western societies. But that´s another story. Burnout is typically not a consequence of working too many hours. It´s a consequence of working too many hours on the wrong things. Now we shouldn´t make the same mistakes in our spare time…

Elements of Flow

* If you´re interested in what Positive Psychology has to say about ‘good work’, you might want to check out the thesis of Dan Bowling, on of my antecessors in the MAPP program.

TV, Flow, and the Waste of Human Consciousness

A couple of days ago, I finished The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz and wrote a short article on the idea that unlimited choice can make us miserable. In the meantime, I picked up a true classic of Positive Psychology: Flow by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi* (actually, it was written about 10 years before Seligman and Csíkszentmihályi coined the term Positive Psychology). Now there are some interesting parallels in those two texts, namely on setting boundaries for oneself to enjoy more freedom and thus to experience order in consciousness (which is one definition of Flow).

By Oliver Kurmis via Wikimedia Commons

By Oliver Kurmis via Wikimedia Commons

I have a full-time job as a manager, I work as a coach on the side, teach at a business school, study in the MAPP, run several blogs and publish articles in practitioner journals very regularly – and I am a husband and a father. Therefore, people often ask me about my time management. The truth is: I may be somewhat of a workaholic (in a positive sense) and I do not regularly get those eight hours of sleep that my body craves for. But the other side of the coin is: I do not waste any of my time! There simply are a lot of things that I choose not to do – even though I know I would immensely enjoy them.

Let´s see what Csíkszentmihályi has to say on what could be called ‘fake flow’:

“[I]nstead of using our physical and mental resources to experience flow, most of us spend many hours each week watching celebrated athletes playing in enormous stadiums. Instead of making music, we listen to platinum records cut by millionaire musicians. Instead of making art, we go to admire paintings that brought in the highest bids at the latest auction. We do not run risks acting on our beliefs, but occupy hours each day watching actors who pretend to have adventures, engaged in mock-meaningful action.”

Enter Barry Schwartz:

“But if unrestricted freedom can impede the individual’s pursuit of what he or she values most, then it may be that some restrictions make everyone better off. And if “constraint” sometimes affords a kind of liberation while “freedom” affords a kind of enslavement, then people would be wise to seek out some measure of appropriate constraint.”

I intuitively threw out my game console at age 14. Back then, I spent day after night after day playing strategy games like ‘Sim City’ or ‘Civilization’, which is totally fine – for a teenager. The thing is: I´m pretty sure I´d still do it today. Those games fulfill the requirements for a flow experience to a very high extent (goal clarity and immediate feedback, high level of concentration, balance between skills and challenge, feeling of control, effortlessness, altered perception of time, melting together of action and consciousness, autotelic quality).

But it is not the real McCoy. It does not get things going in the real world. And while I would never argue that playing is not for grown-ups, as always, it’s the dose that makes the poison. Same thing with watching TV: I know there are a lot of absolutely great TV series out there. I´m positively sure I would immensely enjoy ‘Mad Men’, ‘Breaking Bad’, ‘Boardwalk Empire’, and all the other Emmy-winning masterpieces out there. That´s why I have never watched a single episode. I choose not to be immersed in those artificial worlds. I feel my life is fascinating enough.

Let´s hear Csíkszentmihályi once more:

“The flow experience that results from the use of skills leads to growth; passive entertainment leads nowhere. Collectively we are wasting each year the equivalent of millions of years of human consciousness. The energy that could be used to focus on complex goals, to provide for enjoyable growth, is squandered on patterns of stimulation that only mimic reality.”

I take my hat off to the producers of those series. It takes a lot of effort and human consciousness to create them. But how much consciousness is lost by consuming them? I don´t like to squander mine. Maybe we can all learn a lesson from Odysseus: sometimes, we need to be tied up in order to hear the music…

*If you´ve ever wondered how to pronounce his name in English: it´s something along the lines of ‘Me-High Chicks-Sent-Me-High’. 🙂