The “Spiritus Rector” of Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman, has authored his autobiography. It´s called The Hope Circuit and was published with the imprint Public Affairs. I was able to read an early draft and can say it´s a fasninating read – not only for people interested in Positive Psychology, but also in psychology and science in general.
Philosopher William James is often portrayed as being the founding father of modern (American) psychology. Here, I collected ten of his quotes that show he’s also been an influence for many theories and practices that are among the cornerstones of Positive Psychology.
On self-efficacy and solution-focused thinking
Action may not always bring happiness, but there is no happiness without action.
On creating habits
To change one’s life:
1. Start immediately.
2. Do it flamboyantly.
3. No exceptions.
On optimism, pessimism, and rumination
If you believe that feeling bad or worrying long enough will change a past or future event, then you are residing on another planet with a different reality system.
On the value of attention and mindfulness
Each of us literally chooses, by his way of attending to things, what sort of universe he shall appear to himself to inhabit.
On belief systems and disputation of negative thoughts
To perceive the world differently, we must be willing to change our belief system, let the past slip away, expand our sense of now, and dissolve the fear in our minds.
On perseverance, grit, and sisu
In exceptional cases we may find, beyond the very extremity of fatigue distress, amounts of ease and power that we never dreamed ourselves to own, sources of strength habitually not taxed at all, because habitually we never push through the obstruction, never pass those early critical points.
On finding purpose and vitality
Seek out that particular mental attribute which makes you feel most deeply and vitally alive, along with which comes the inner voice which says, ‘This is the real me,’ and when you have found that attitude, follow it.
On meaning, altruism, and the greater good
The great use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.
On the value of positive relationships
Wherever you are, it is your friends who make your world.
On hope, best future selves, and callings
Want to lead a happier life in 2016 (and beyond)?
This list includes valuable tips, exercises and “hacks” to be happier and lead a more meaningful life. All of these recommendations are backed by psychological science. In case you are interested to learn more, I´ve included links to some research articles that have examined the corresponding topic. No. 12 – 22 are listed here, No. 23 – 33 ½ will be published soon. The pieces of advice are ordered (roughly) by difficulty/level of effort etc. Share and enjoy!
12) Sing when you´re winning
Just like dancing, singing seems to be a natural anti-depressant. Singing is enjoyable and a very healthy kind of physical activity. It doesn´t matter if you sing in the shower, the car, or for an audience. And it surely doesn’t matter if your singing is good or bad. An especially beneficial way seems to be joining a choir. In doing so, people additional profit from the social support such an environment entails.
- Choral singing and psychological wellbeing: Quantitative and qualitative findings from English choirs in a cross-national survey
- Does singing promote well-being?: An empirical study of professional and amateur singers during a singing lesson
13) Remember the good Times
Good things that have happened in the past can be a powerful mood (and meaning) booster for the present. It could be our fondest childhood memories, our wedding day, or that beautiful sunset from our last vacation: Actively remembering these events can turn today into a brighter day. Accordingly, it´s helpful to create what positive psychologists like to call a positive portfolio. This is a box or a folder (these days, probably a digital one) where you keep especially uplifting memories, such as the wedding video, the first photo of your kid, your favorite piece of music etc.
- The past makes the present meaningful: Nostalgia as an existential resource
- The power of the past: Nostalgia as a meaning-making resource
14) Buy that Concert Ticket, not the Dress
Conventional wisdom holds that money cannot buy happiness. And while the best things in life are really (more or less free), most things do cost some money. Now, a sizeable body of research shows that investing our money in experiences such as concerts and vacations will be more beneficial for our long-term happiness than buying “stuff”. First, those events are typically shared experiences, second they can be re-lived in memory (see No.13), and third, especially memorable experiences seem to become parts of our selves, an integral part of “our story” – whereas the “stuff” will mostly be gone at some point in the future.
- If money doesn’t make you happy, then you probably aren’t spending it right
- I am what I do, not what I have: The differential centrality of experiential and material purchases to the self
15) Spend Money on thy Neighbor
If you´re neither into concerts nor vacations (see No. 14), and you don´t like to buy stuff, it could be a great idea to spend your dough on other people. There´s abundant empirical evidence for the notion that giving money to others (e.g., via charity) can be a veritable happiness booster. Some studies find that spending your bucks on others is much more beneficial for our emotional wellbeing than keeping it for ourselves. If you don´t know where to start: Mashable provides a great overview of online funding sites.
- Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness
- Prosocial spending and well-being: Cross-cultural evidence for a psychological universal
16) Practice realistic Optimism
Truth is: the world is a much better place than we think it is. Our senses and our brains are gauged to pay attention to and process negative information much more thoroughly than positive stimuli (see this post for more info). News editors are well aware of this fact and select their stories accordingly. When these two mechanisms join forces, our perspective on the state of the world can become pretty gloomy and depressive. At this point, it could be helpful to practice what Positive Psychologists like to call realistic optimism. It´s not based on seeing everything through rose-colored glasses, but rather on thorough investigation of facts and probabilities. A good way to start this is to learn how to fight off unwarranted negative thoughts. For information on how to do this, please visit this post on Positive Psychology News Daily.
- Cultivating Optimism in Childhood and Adolescence
- Positive Organizational Behavior in the Workplace: The Impact of Hope, Optimism, and Resilience
17) Go with the Flow
Flow (as described by eminent Positive Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi) is a state in which a person is fully immersed in a feeling of focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of pursuing a specific activity. It´s a surefire way to satisfaction and personal growth. The experience of Flow is dependent on a set of internal and external conditions, among them, focusing on a single goal and shutting of any distractions (see Wikipedia for an overview). There´s a great article on Fast Company about companies that try to enable better conditions for Flow at work.
- Optimal experience in work and leisure
- The Effect of Perceived Challenges and Skills on the Quality of Subjective Experience
One of the hallmarks of Positive Psychology is a taxonomy of 24 character strengths. You can find out what your top attributes are (so-called signature strengths) for free when visiting the website of the VIA Institute on Character (mine are: curiosity, zest, and love of leaning). There, you´ll also find tons of information on how to use that knowledge in order to lead a more satisfying life. Generally speaking, the more we use our most pronounced strengths (e.g., in our occupation), the happier we are.
- Strengths of Character and Well-Being
19) Be a Do-Gooder
Recommendation No. 15 already touched the beneficial effects of pro-social spending for our own happiness. The same can be said pertaining to pro-social behavior, e.g., volunteering and committing random acts of kindness. There seem to be positive short-term consequences for our mood (so-called helpers high) but also long-term effects. When we help others, our life becomes more meaningful – and that´s a source of happiness in its own right.
- Doing well by doing good: Benefits for the benefactor
- When helping helps: Autonomous motivation for pro-social behavior and its influence on well-being for the helper and recipient
20) The Pen is mightier than your bad Moods
Writing is one of the most potent methods for “getting a grip” on life. It can help us to focus our attention on the goods things (see No. 11) or, alternatively, to come to terms with bad events, especially as a way of creating mental and emotional distance. If you´re not sure how to start, you’ll find advice in this article on Psychology Today.
It has been shown that humans have lived together with domesticated animals for at least 500.000 years. Pets can be a valuable source of comfort, amusement, and distraction. As such, research shows that living with pets has several beneficial long-term effects for our psychological and physiological health, especially for children. Just a word of advice: Before you bring Lassie home, please make sure that you and your family are prepared and willing to take on the responsibility of owning a pet (hint: cats are much more low-maintenance than dogs).
- The Human–Companion Animal Bond: How Humans Benefit
- Companion animals and human health: Benefits, challenges, and the road ahead
22) Friends with Happiness Benefits
Typically, our social network (the non-virtual one, a.k.a. family and friends) is one of the most important sources of comfort and satisfaction in our lives. Now, the interesting thing is: almost everything can spread through these networks by means of social contagion. E.g., if of most of your friends are fitness freaks, your risk for obesity is considerably lower than when most of them are a little on the chubby side. The same goes for things like smoking, and even activities such as getting married. And this mechanism also holds true for emotions such as happiness (as well as depression). Bottom line: if your posse is a really cheerful bunch of people, this will positively influence your own emotional wellbeing in the long run (at least statistically). Conversely, this also means it could be beneficial to rid yourself of some “forms of energy” in your life.
- Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study
- Social network determinants of depression
Science shows that you do not have to practice all of these things (at once) to be happier. Rather, you should find out which of these activities best fit your personality and current way of life – so you´ll find it easy to sustain them. Please refer to: To each his own well-being boosting intervention: using preference to guide selection.
Winston Churchill most likely was an alcoholic, and he certainly had to fight bouts of severe depression for most of his life. He called this his Black Dog. Nevertheless, this quote shows that he remained a die-hard optimist. Maybe this was the secret to his incredible success as a military and political leader?
I´ve just moved into a new home – and that means I also had to renovate my coaching office. The new office is slightly larger than my old one – so I had a little more wall space to fill. In a local gallery, I´ve found the picture you can see below. I knew I wanted to buy it right away. Though being rather calm and monotonous, I feel it conveys optimism, confidence, and exuberant strength.
A successful coaching process often involves making a leap of faith, seeing things in a new way, leaving something old behind – sometimes, without knowing exactly what will appear instead. Believing in one´s own strength and resources in crucial when pursuing this trajectory.
I hope the picture will inspire this kind of self-efficacy my clients…
Is a scientist (morally) responsible for his scientific discoveries? In a way yes, I would guess. If you help to develop the atomic bomb (knowing what kind of destruction it´ll cause…) and put it in the hand of the military, you´re at least partly responsible in case it is actually used. But what if somebody else (unknowingly…) takes your scientific discovery – and uses it in a way that is fundamentally the opposite of what you intended it to be?
Because this is what happened to the co-founder of Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman. Over the last couple of weeks, Marty was mentioned in several articles covering the “CIA torture report”, e.g., here in the New York Magazine. Supposedly, two psychologists that helped the CIA to develop “more efficient” torture methods said they were “inspired” to do so by research on the subject of learned helplessness, a framework that was first described by Marty in the late 1960s (this was his breakthrough as an internationally acclaimed researcher; here´s one of the first articles on the subject from 1967), and that was subsequently used to develop effective treatment methods for depression.
Some articles even (falsely!) claimed that Marty was directly involved in the development of torture methods. For instance, this so happened in the “Spiegel” (“Mirror”), Germany´s leading weekly magazine on politics and culture. Luckily, I was able to help Marty to some extent with my knowledge of the German media system. At the end of the day, an intervention led to a significant reformulation of central aspects of the article. The newspaper even apologized to him for having made those false claims.
If you are interested in the development of the concept of learned helplessness and its (alleged) role in torture methods (and Marty´s thoughts and feelings on this unfortunate issue): there´s a superb article on this topic by Maria Konnikova in the New Yorker.
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…