5 recent Positive Psychology Books taking a very special Angle on the Subject

By now, there are hundreds (or probably thousands…) of books on Positive Psychology. Most of them are general introductions to the subject or books focusing on the use of Positive Psychology in organizations (please see the general and organizational book lists on Mappalicious).

So today, I compiled a list of recent publications that looks a little different. All the books look at Positive Psychology from a very distinct and special angle. Enjoy!

 

Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener look at the positive value of our negative emotions, thereby challenging the assumption that Positive Psychology is all about seeing the world through rose-colored glasses.

http://www.amazon.com/Upside-Your-Dark-Side-Self–Drives/dp/1594631735/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1422713137&sr=1-1

 

Kate Hefferon sheds light on the role of the body in Positive Psychology, thereby filling a gap in the extant literature that mostly focuses on the psychological side of things.

http://www.amazon.com/Positive-Psychology-Body-Somatopsychic-Flourishing/dp/0335247717/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

 

Rafael Calvo and Dorian Peters show us the (near) future of technology, where smartphones and wearables, together with the appropriate applications, will help to foster and sustain human well-being.

http://www.amazon.com/Positive-Computing-Technology-Wellbeing-Potential/dp/0262028158/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

 

Michael Bishop aims at integrating philosophical and psychological theories of well-being and proposes a new theory for understanding flourishing.

http://www.amazon.com/Good-Life-Philosophy-Psychology-Well-Being/dp/0199923116/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1422714230&sr=1-1

 

Finally, Stephen Joseph takes on one of my most favorite subjects: post-traumatic growth. He explains how we can navigate (traumatic) change and adversity to find new meaning and direction in life.

http://www.amazon.com/What-Doesnt-Kill-Psychology-Posttraumatic/dp/0465032338/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1422714146&sr=1-3

Bad is Stronger than Good! That is why our World desperately needs Positive Psychology…

YodaLuke Skywalker: “Is the dark side stronger?”
Yoda: “No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.”

If you are one of the few people on the planet that have not seen Star Wars: the dark side (of the Force) was not stronger. As in most Hollywood stories, the good guys win in the end. That´s why we go to the movies in the first place. We want to see an entertaining plot. That means: We want to see the good guy struggling, we want him to take on his challenge. And we want him to win in the end. And they lived happily ever after…

Unfortunately, in real life things look a little different. In real life, “Bad” mostly is stronger than “Good”. I´m not talking about a metaphysical power struggle here, of course. I´m talking about psychological phenomena. Together with some colleagues, MAPP guest lecturer Roy Baumeister has written a review article that goes by the name of this blog post: Bad is Stronger than Good. They´ve gathered tons of empirical evidence on a wide array of psychological mechanisms to lend support to this stance:

  • On the preconscious level, we pay more attention to negative stimuli than to positive stimuli.
  • Negative information is processed more thoroughly than positive information. This can be demonstrated even on the level of neural activity.
  • In terms of impression formation, negative information by far outweighs positive information (telling one lie can make you a “liar” forever).
  • Bad memories are engraved deeper in our brains and can be retrieved more easily.
  • Losing a certain amount of money feels worse than winning the same amount of money feels good. Basically, that´s what Kahneman and Tversky got their Nobel prize for in economics in 2002.
  • Bad events in our lives have a stronger and longer-lasting effect than good events. This is nicely demonstrated by the fact that we do have word for the consequences of very very bad events (trauma), but there´s no corresponding term for the positive side of the emotional continuum.
  • Negative feedback has a stronger and longer-lasting effect on us than positive feedback.
  • Therefore, we put a lot more emphasis on avoiding negative information pertaining to ourselves than focusing on integrating positive information.
  • In close relationships, one bad event can ruin everything. Yet, a lot of positive events cannot save a relationship “forever”.
  • Bad parenting has a stronger negative effect on the development of the children than good parenting has on positive development.

This list could go on forever. And: there´s hardly any exception to be found.

But is it really that bad?

Baumeister et al. argue that we may be evolutionary hardwired to put a strong emphasis on negative stimuli in our environment. At the end of the day, 10,000 B.C., it probably was far more “adaptive” (= useful for spreading your genes) to be the first person in a group spotting that saber tooth tiger lurking behind the bush than spotting those sweet blackberry growing on the bush. In other words, there is an all-pervasive negativity bias that influences our thinking and feeling at all times.

So in a sense, every single human being wears the opposite of rose-colored glasses all the time (and mostly without knowing that we do). Now, if this true, for me, there´s another important implication:

If we are evolutionary hardwired to perceive, process, and remember bad information to a much higher extent than positive information, it follows that – on a more objective level – the world actually is a much better place than we think it is.

Now the big question is: What can we do about this inherent negativity bias? How can we overcome this urge to see everything through “concrete-colored” glasses?

Because I really feel we should! While looking out for threats at all times may have been adaptive in the Pleistocene – it probably is not as helpful in the so-called developed world. We live in relative safety. With very rare exceptions, nobody has to suffer from starvation. When we´re sick, we go to the doctor and receive treatment. Most of us die of old age, not of homicide or wild animals. From more than one point of view, this is a good place to live in.

In spite of this, mental disorders, especially depression and anxiety disorders, are “booming” – for decades by now. While this development certainly has multiple causes, I believe one reason is that the negativity bias has become maladaptive in our times. We are bombarded with thousands of messages via different media outlets each and every day. And the sad truth is that most media tend to focus strongly on negative news, events, and stories – precisely because they know we tend to focus on negative events. It drives their reach and circulation. So obviously, we are constantly exposed to a distinctly negatively biased fraction of what happens in this world – using a set of cognitive tools that are distinctly attuned to the worst part of that already distorted view of reality.

We are constantly exposed to a distinctly negatively biased fraction of what happens in the world – using a set of cognitive tools that are distinctly attuned to the unpleasant parts of that already distorted view of reality.

So what can we do?

Enter Positive Psychology. A short definition of positive psychology could be: “It´s the study of (psychological) things that go well”. By its nature, positive psychology studies positive phenomena: What makes us happy (instead of sad)? How can we find meaning in life (instead of languishing)? How do relationships flourish (instead of being a source of pain)? Etc.

By now, there´s a lot of scientific evidence on those questions. One finding that has popped up in several different domains of inquiry goes as follows: Good is stronger than bad – but only if good outnumbers bad to a considerable extent. In Baumeister et al.´s words:

“This is not say that the bad will always triumph over good, spelling doom and misery for the human race. Rather, good may prevail over bad by superior force of numbers: Many good events can overcome the effect of a single bad one.”

Let´s look at some examples:

Basically, raising the number of positive experiences in our lives is also one of the essential mechanics underlying positive (psychology) interventions, such as the What Went Well exercise or the Gratitude Visit. They create (or shift our attention to the) positive momentum in our lives to counterbalance the all-pervasive negativity.

The truth is: Each and every one of us has to make an effort for good to be stronger than bad.

But what about our daily lives? Who has the time to perform interventions all the time? The truth is: Each and every one of us has to make an effort for good to be stronger than bad. Good thing is: We do not have to be larger-than-life leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela do make an impact. It´s the little things that count (a.k.a. micro-behaviors) – if they come in large amounts. A smile. A thumbs-up. An affirmative nod. A pat on the back. Putting the toilet lid back down…

A little kindness goes a long way.

If you need more inspiration, watch this – again and again if you like:

 

* For the expert reader: she may have gotten the math wrong initially – but the phenomenon itself can hardly be called into question.

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.

(Nietzsche)

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’.

References

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.

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