Positive Psychology News Digest | No. 16/2017

My favorite news and blog articles covering Positive Psychology and adjacent Topics from (roughly) the last seven days.

Positive Psychology News Digest

Quartz: The world’s largest assessment of teenage students suggests happiness is crucial to learning by Jenny Anderson

Greater Good Science Center: Confessions of a Bad Meditator by Christine Carter

Quartz: Silicon Valley executives are hiring philosophers to teach them to question everything by Michael Coren

Psychology Today: Are You the Pursuer or the Distancer in Your Relationship? by Lisa Firestone

Washington Post: Introverts tend to be better CEOs — and other surprising traits of top-performing executives by Jena McGregor

Huffington Post: You Don’t Need Good Grades To Get An A+ In Resilience by Bowman Nixon

Psychology Today: Why Speaking Less is the Secret to Powerful Communication by Emma Seppälä

Psychology Today: 7 Must-Read Books to Change Your Life This Summer by Emma Seppälä

Quartz: Our need to feel special is making us lonely by Emma Seppälä & Peter Sims

Quartz: What is the evolutionary purpose of happiness? by Oliver Staley

BBC: Prince William says keeping a stiff upper lip can damage health, no author

The Meaning of Life according to different Philosophers [Infographic)

This is another brilliant infographic by information designer extraordinaire Anna Vital (see her simply beautiful work on self-compassion here) – where the content is highly relevant to Positive Psychology. Please check out her website to see more of her amazing work.   

Do you need an Aristotelian Friend in your Life?

A couple of days ago, I wrote a post highlighting a quote by Greek philosopher Epictetus:

The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best.

This reminded me of a concept we discussed (and also used) in the MAPP classes at Penn. Aristotelian Friendship. While the concept of Platonic Friendship/Love (a non-sexual relationship that is pursued because the other person inspires the mind and the soul) has entered everyday speech, Aristotelian Friendship seems more uncommon.

Plato_AristotleThe ancient Greeks knew four kinds of love: Eros (sexual desire), Storge (parental/familial love), Agape (divine love, also: charity/compassion), and Philia. Now Philia is closest to our modern understanding of friendship. Aristotle described three kinds of Philia: friendships of utility, friendships of pleasure and friendships of the good.

Friendships of utility are of a shallow kind; today, I guess we would call that networking – it´s more about being acquainted (and potentially useful reciprocally) in the future. Friendships of pleasure take place on a deeper level. Nowadays, we would speak of drinking buddies, or people who share a passion with regard to the same hobby.

Now, the deepest kind of Philia is a friendship for the good. This means that two people enjoy each other´s company because of a mutual admiration for each other´s characters and personalities. And it can also mean not only admiring, but caring about and strengthening the other person´s character and well-being. Therefore, an Aristotelian friend (for the good) will:

  • listen actively when you have to share something good and advise you on how to get more of that into your life;
  • give you frequent feedback on your strengths and “what´s right with you”;
  • but is also honest with you pertaining to your weak spots. Today, we would say: that friend does not let you get away with your sh.t.

Do you have someone like that in your life? Good for you. And if you don´t? Go and find somebody. Now!

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.



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.



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.



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



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.


What Positive Psychology can learn from the Humanities

Inspired by James Pawelski

In 1998, Martin Seligman was elected president of the American Psychological Association (APA). Looking back on a fruitful career in research and teaching mostly on clinical psychology, especially the causes and treatment of depression, he had an epiphany that led to the formulation of a societal need for a positive psychology, a branch of psychology that would investigate a wide array of positive phenomena in human life, such as love, character strengths, high achievement, and in general: well-being and human flourishing. He proposed these issues should be investigated exerting the same scientific rigor that psychology has applied pertaining to negative phenomena (depression, anxiety, aggression etc.) for the first 100 years of its existence as an academic discipline. Equally, the rigorous scientific approach was meant to distinguish positive psychology from the extant self-help literature that partly expounds similar topics of interest (Seligman & Csíkszentmihályi, 2000; Seligman, 2002).

The Humanities

Academic disciplines that employ empirical approaches based on “hard” methods from the natural sciences (controlled experiments etc.) are oftentimes contrasted with “softer” approaches of (academic) inquiry such as the humanities (de Solla Price, 1986). Webster´s Third New International Dictionary (1971) defines humanities as “the branch of learning regarded as having primarily a cultural character and usually including languages, literature, history, mathematics, and philosophy”; and the Random House College Dictionary (1984) defines it as “a. the study of classical Latin and Greek language and literature. b. literature, philosophy, art, etc. as distinguished from the sciences.”

In spite of the aforementioned (conjectured) antagonism, the purpose of this essay is to shed light on the manifold interconnections between the humanities and positive psychology as a (comparatively) “hard” science.  Specifically, the goal is to

  1. to show how insights from the humanities have informed (and still continue to inform) theories about the antecedents and characteristics of (psychological) well-being and what makes for a “good life”;
  2. how the humanities help to refine research on human flourishing in its different facets;
  3. how the humanities inform the practice of human flourishing and help to design interventions that are based on the insights of positive psychology.

1) How the Humanities inform Theories of Human Flourishing

For many centuries now, mankind has taken an interest in fostering its own psychological well-being and helping its fellow human being to lead a “good life”. Long before (positive) psychology, there has been an abundance of religious and spiritual leaders (such as the Buddha and Jesus Christ), philosophers (such as Aristotle and Marcus Aurelius), and writers/poets (such as Henry David Thoreau and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry) that have disseminated their concepts of ethics and morals, character and virtues, and what leads to joy and meaning in life (McMahon, 2012). For the sake of brevity, in this section I will only describe how writers and poets have sown the seeds for extant theories in positive psychology.

Telling stories is almost never done for sheer fun of it, or for objectively reporting on some occurrence. Telling stories, be it in traditional oral style, in print, or some audio-visual presentation mode, almost always has some instructive or prescriptive quality to it. Whoever creates or narrates the story typically wants to instill a change in the recipient, wants him to know or be something else when the story is over (Niles, 1999). This educational facet of storytelling can be traced through the literary history, from Homer´s “Iliad” and “Odyssey” and Aesop´s fables, to early religious accounts such as the “Upanishads” and the Bible, to medieval works such as Dante´s “Divine Comedy”, Shakespeare´s works of drama (e.g., “Hamlet”), to the early (e.g. Goethe´s “Wilhelm Meister´s Apprenticeship”) and later (e.g. Dickens´s “Great Expectations”) “Bildungsroman” – all the way up to 20th century masterpieces such as de Saint-Exupéry “Little Prince” and New Age classics along the lines of Bach´s “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” or Coelho´s “Alchemist”. Oftentimes, this educational element is conveyed by carefully depicting the protagonists´ lifestyles – in order to then confront the recipient with the outcomes of these modes of existence.

By way of example, both Leo Tolstoy´s “The Death of Ivan Ilych” (1886/2010) and Willa Cather´s “Neighbour Rosicky” (1932/2010) try to educate the reader (among other things) on the value of and human need for close relationships. While Cather portrays the distinctly positive outcomes of understanding that “no man is an island”, Tolstoy´s narrative describes Ivan Ilyich as a human being that literally dies of social and emotional isolation. So, while both stories do not contain any “how-to advice” such as modern self-help books, it remains unequivocal that they try to convey some underlying and implicit understanding of human well-being, that they represent a prescription for “a life well-lived”. As such, they can be likened to a kind of ideographic research, case-studies, a deep-dive into the personal experience of human beings as individuals (Jorgensen & Nafstad, 2004). Positive psychologists can draw on these sources to generate hypotheses about the general nature of human well-being (nomothetic research). They can take those extant descriptions and prescriptions, abstract and turn them into verifiable scientific hypotheses, and conduct large-scale and longitudinal empirical research to see if they turn out to be valid propositions.

By way of example, the sonnet „An sich“ by German 17th century poet Paul Fleming endorses a multitude of concepts and recommendations that are accepted as being beneficial to psychological well-being in positive psychology and (most self-help literature as well):

Sei dennoch unverzagt! Gib dennoch unverloren! Weich keinem Glücke nicht, steh höher als der Neid, vergnüge dich an dir und acht es für kein Leid, hat sich gleich wider dich Glück, Ort und Zeit verschworen.

Was dich betrübt und labt, halt alles für erkoren; nimm dein Verhängnis an. Laß alles unbereut. Tu, was getan muß sein, und eh man dir’s gebeut. Was du noch hoffen kannst, das wird noch stets geboren.

Was klagt, was lobt man noch? Sein Unglück und sein Glücke ist ihm ein jeder selbst. Schau alle Sachen an: dies alles ist in dir. Laß deinen eitlen Wahn, und eh du fürder gehst, so geh in dich zurücke. Wer sein selbst Meister ist und sich beherrschen kann, dem ist die weite Welt und alles untertan.

Among other things, Fleming advises his recipients to:

  • retain an optimistic mindset in the face or hardships (Seligman & Schulman, 1986) and cultivate hopefulness (Snyder, 2002);
  • exert self-control (Tangney, Baumeister, & Boone, 2004) and tackle setbacks with a “gritty” attitude (Duckworth & Seligman, 2005);
  • practice mindfulness (Brown & Ryan, 2003) and “look inside” for sources of joy (Bryant, Smart, & King, 2005);
  • express gratitude (Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2006) and avoid feelings of envy and regret (Fredrickson, 2004).

All the aforementioned concepts can by now be considered “mainstream positive psychology”, as they are to a varying degree and scope building blocks of Seligman´s PERMA framework of human flourishing (2012). And while I am in some doubt whether the founding fathers of positive psychology have really been inspired by a German poet from the a 17th century, I am positively sure would they very much agree with what the latter had to say.

2) How the Humanities inform Research on Human Flourishing

As described in the introductory section, positive psychologists stress the importance of empirical research to back the claims made by this still rather new branch of psychology. While it might not be as apparent and straightforward as the insights from the first section of this paper, the humanities can also help to increase the quality of research in positive psychology. For instance, positive psychologists could draw on methods from philosophy to either improve existing methods within the field, or introduce largely new methods.

By way of example, methods from hilosophy can help positive psychology researchers to create better constructs and thus, questionnaires by engaging in conceptual clarification of central notions and frameworks in the field. Pawelski (2012) demonstrates how one of the core concepts in positive psychology, namely, the notion of “the positive” may still be severely underspecified. When the discipline was founded at the onset of the third millennium, it was not really clear what the term “positive” in positive psychology is actually referring to. 15 years later, science has made at least some progress pertaining to that question. Based on philosophical inquiry, Pawelski (2012) points out that the “positive” in positive psychology cannot just be the absence of something negative. Well-being cannot be explained by looking at what is not there (e.g., unhappiness, mental illness) – it has to look for something that is there in its own right.

In her essay, Tiberius (2012) tries to show how unique methods from philosophy can be introduced to the field of positive psychology to gain deeper insights into some topic of inquiry. For example, she demonstrates how the specific use of “intuition pumps” (short educational thought experiments) can shed valuable insight into functioning of human decision-making and moral reasoning. Schneider (2001) ultimately reminds positive psychologists not to be too sure of themselves when talking about the results of their research or judging the results of others. She insists that our perceptions and thus, knowledge, are necessarily characterized by a considerable degree of fuzziness – with all the benefits and disadvantages this entails. To that effect, philosophy can help positive psychology to stay humble – but also hungry for more knowledge.

3) How the Humanities inform the Practice of Human Flourishing

Man has been described – among many other analogies – as the “cultural animal” (Baumeister, 2005). Most people expose themselves to parts of our “cultural achievements” (music, books/writing, art, theater/films, spiritual rites etc.) on a daily basis. By way of example, listening to music is a pervasive element of most people´s lives.In a study using experiencing sampling, a method where subjects are to record what they do in their lives at certain intervals, it was found that music was present in 37% percent of the samples. Additionally, the researchers found that this exposure to music influenced the emotional state of the listeners in 67% of these events, and that this influence was oftentimes induced by the listeners on purpose, e.g., as a means to lift their mood (Juslin, Liljeström, Västfjäll, Barradas, & Silva, 2008). While other cultural practices are used for the same reasons (and several other “positive motives”) as well*, in light of this paper´s limited scope, I will concentrate on the question of how (and via which mechanisms) music may contribute to our psychological well-being.

Listening to music can lift our mood, has been shown to alleviate psychological stress as well as physical pain, and to contribute to our overall well-being (Västfjäll, Juslin, & Hartig, 2012). This may be a consequence of the uplifting effect of listening to music, but could also be a byproduct of its social aspect, since it is often performed and listened to in the presence of other human beings (MacDonald, Kreutz, & Mitchell, 2012). Additionally, making and listening to music is able to induce flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996). For all these reasons, it is also used in a wide array of psychotherapeutic settings (Västfjäll, Juslin, & Hartig, 2012).

What is more, listening to music often leads us to moving our bodies/dancing, at least pre-consciously. In an article on the benefits of pursuing different forms of dancing as a hobby, Quiroga Murcia, Kreutz, Clift, and Bongard (2010) were able to demonstrate that dancing can:

  • strengthen our immune system, thereby helping us to stay physically healthy;
  • fight stress by decreasing the concentration of cortisol in our blood;
  • improve our physical fitness, e.g., by fostering coordination, flexibility, and stamina;
  • help us coping with pain;
  • improve our self-esteem and build confidence.

In another study by Campion and Levita (2014), just five minutes of light dancing (alone) improved lateral thinking abilities of managers at work, and decreased their symptoms of fatigue.

In this sense, listening to music (and additionally, dancing) could very well be described as a positive intervention in its own right. It´s cheap, it´s available almost all over the planet, and – there are virtually no side effects. Of course, it´s important to keep in mind that different people display different tastes in music. Accordingly, Västfjäll, Juslin, and Hartig (2012) explain that the (beneficial) effect of music has to be understood as an interaction effect between the musical stimulus and its recipient: “Thus, there are no “pure” effects of music that will invariably occur regardless of the specific listener or situation. The response will depend on factors such as the listener´s music preferences and previous experiences, as well as on the specific circumstances of the context” (p. 408). Yet, assuming that most people are able and willing to choose what music they listen to at most times in their lives, it becomes clear that it is a potent ingredient of a life well-lived.

To close this section, I´d like to describe how I intend to use the extant knowledge on the connection of the humanities and well-being in my future professional life. I have been working as a management and life coach since 2008. Early on, I developed the habit of prescribing some homework to my clients in-between sessions. Once in a while, I would prescribe watching a film for inspiration, or seeding a certain idea (e.g., “The Kid” starring Bruce Willis, for the notion that it is possible to change our past; or rather, its emotional valence) by re-framing and re-evaluating certain experiences. To that effect, I also knew of the existence of “cinematherapy”, a rather recent branch of psychotherapy that utilizes the exposure to movies as a means to support the treatment of psychological disorders such as depression (Sharp, Smith, & Cole, 2002). All the more, I´ve been delighted to learn that positive psychology has also taken to this mode of delivery, namely in the form of Niemiec and Wedding´s (2008) tome “Positive psychology at the movies: Using films to build virtues and character strengths”. Over the upcoming months, I will read the book and watch as many films therein as possible to experience their impact – so as to build up my reservoir of movies to prescribe to my coaching clients. I am sure this will become a valuable addition to my “coaching toolbox”.


The objective of this essay was to demonstrate how insights from the humanities have influenced theories on the antecedents and characteristics of human flourishing, how the humanities help to refine research in this area, and how the humanities inform the practice of positive psychology and help to design beneficial positive interventions. I have pursued this objective by explaining how many of the core ideas in positive psychology can be traced back through our (literary) history, by showing how philosophy can improve research methods in that field as well as the “talk” about that research, and by illustrating how music can be used as an “active ingredient” in positive interventions.

Metaphorically speaking, positive psychology is still a very young tree, but it is a sapling with strong and far-reaching roots. These roots can be traced back in time looking into the realms of music, art, religion, philosophy, as well as oral, written, and audio-visual storytelling. In order to continue growing and ultimately becoming a strong and mighty tree, it´s of uttermost importance to get to know, acknowledge, and to treasure these roots. Mindfully exposing ourselves to the different manifestations of the humanities is such an approach to honor the roots of positive psychology.


Baumeister, R. F. (2005). The cultural animal: Human nature, meaning, and social life. New York: Oxford University Press.

Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2003). The benefits of being present: mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(4), 822-848.

Bryant, F. B., Smart, C. M., & King, S. P. (2005). Using the past to enhance the present: Boosting happiness through positive reminiscence. Journal of Happiness Studies, 6(3), 227-260.

Campion, M., & Levita, L. (2014). Enhancing positive affect and divergent thinking abilities: Play some music and dance. Journal of Positive Psychology, 9(2), 137-145.

Cather, W. (2010). “Neighbor Rosicky.” In Obscure destinies (pp. 1-38). Oxford, UK: Oxford City Press. (Original work published in 1932).

Costello R. B. (1984): Random House Webster’s College Dictionary. New York: Random House.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihály. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York: Harper Collins.

de Botton, A., & Armstrong, J. (2013). Art as Therapy. London: Phaidon Press.

de Solla Price, D. J. (1986). Little science, big science… and beyond. New York: Columbia University Press.

Duckworth, A. L., & Seligman, M. E. (2005). Self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting academic performance of adolescents. Psychological Science, 16(12), 939-944.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2004). Gratitude, like other positive emotions, broadens and builds. In R. A. Emmons & M. E. McCullough (Eds.), The psychology of gratitude (pp. 145–166). New York: Oxford University Press.

Gove, P. B. (1971). Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language: Unabridged. Springfield: G. and C. Merriam Company.

MacDonald, R., Kreutz, G., Mitchell, L. (2012). What is music, health, and wellbeing and why is it important? In R. MacDonald, G. Kreutz, & L. Mitchell (Eds.), Music, health and wellbeing (pp. 3-11). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McMahon, D. M. (2012). The pursuit of happiness in history. In I. Boniwell & S. Davis (Eds.), Oxford handbook of happiness (pp. 80-93). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Niemiec, R. M., & Wedding, D. (2008). Positive psychology at the movies: Using films to build virtues and character strengths. Cambridge, MA: Hogrefe.

Niles, J. D. (1999). Homo narrans. The poetics and anthropology of oral literature. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Pargament, K. I. (2002). The bitter and the sweet: An evaluation of the costs and benefits of religiousness. Psychological Inquiry, 13(3), 168-181.

Pawelski, J. O. (2012): Happiness and its Opposites. In I. Boniwell & S. Davis (Eds.), Oxford handbook of happiness (pp. 326-336). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pawelski, J. O., & Moores, D. J. (2012). The Eudaimonic Turn: Well-being in Literary Studies. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Quiroga Murcia, C., Kreutz, G., Clift, S., & Bongard, S. (2010). Shall we dance? An exploration of the perceived benefits of dancing on well-being. Arts & Health, 2(2), 149-163.

Schneider, S. L. (2001). In search of realistic optimism: Meaning, knowledge, and warm fuzziness. American Psychologist, 56(3), 250-263.

Seligman, M. E. (2002). Authentic happiness. New York: Free Press.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2012). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York: Free Press.

Seligman, M. E., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5-14.

Seligman, M. E., & Schulman, P. (1986). Explanatory style as a predictor of productivity and quitting among life insurance sales agents. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50(4), 832-838.

Sharp, C., Smith, J. V., & Cole, A. (2002). Cinematherapy: Metaphorically promoting therapeutic change. Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 15(3), 269-276.

Sheldon, K. M., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2006). How to increase and sustain positive emotion: The effects of expressing gratitude and visualizing best possible selves. Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(2), 73-82.

Snyder, C. R. (2002). Hope theory: Rainbows in the mind. Psychological Inquiry, 13(4), 249-275.

Tangney, J. P., Baumeister, R. F., & Boone, A. L. (2004). High self‐control predicts good adjustment, less pathology, better grades, and interpersonal success. Journal of Personality, 72(2), 271-324.

Tiberius, V. (2012). Philosophical Methods in Happiness Research. In I. Boniwell & S. Davis (Eds.), Oxford handbook of happiness (pp. 315-325). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tolstoy, L. (2010). The death of Ivan Ilych. New York: SoHo Books. (Original work published in 1886).

Västfjäll, D., Juslin, P. N, Hartig, T. (2012). Music, subjective wellbeing, and health: The role of everyday emotions. In R. MacDonald, G. Kreutz, & L. Mitchell (Eds.), Music, health and wellbeing (pp. 405–423). Oxford: Oxford University Press.


* Please refer to Pargament (2002) for an overview of the connection of religious practices and well-being, to de Botton and Armstrong (2013) for a framework of how people use art to cultivate flourishing, to Niemiec and Wedding (2008) on the use of story-telling (especially movies) for building character strengths, and Pawelski and Moores (2012) for a treatise on the “eudaimonic turn” in literary studies.


To himself

Be yet still undeterred! Accept yet still no loss! Bend to no bad luck’s blow, stand higher than ill will. Take joy, you, in yourself and think it is no woe. If all against you – luck, place and time – have sworn.

That which afflicts or cheers, hold all as predesigned. Take what your fate declares. Let there be no regret. Do what must now be done, ere one dispatches you. What you can hope for still, that will yet still be born.

Why wails, why lauds one still? One’s hardships and one’s luck, Is each one for himself. Examine every thing; This all is within you. Discard your fond illusion. And, ere you further step, go back into yourself. Who his own master is and keeps himself in check. He o’er the outspread world and all things there does reign.

(Paul Fleming)

Picture Source

Positive Psychology: Standing on which Giants` Shoulders?

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…

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

Standing on a Lego GiantThe aforesaid quote from the Bible reminds us that we all are standing on the shoulders of giants in one way or another. While Positive Psychology as a science is a fairly new development within the greater framework of psychological science (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000), its roots can be traced back at least 2,500 years in time. In this essay, I intend to express how the research and practice of positive psychology has been and still is continuously informed by philosophy. I will do so by way of three examples: first and most circumstantial, the notion that our thinking is a powerful intermediary between the “world out there” and our experience of that world; second, the idea that living a life according to certain virtues is accompanied by an elevated level of psychological well-being; and third, the framework of positivity ratios in human development.

Is Buddha the architect of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)?

We are most likely the only mammals alive that can develop symptoms such as a depressive disorder (Sapolsky, 1998). Our superior ability to remember the past (Baddeley, 1998) and unique capability to prospect into the future (Seligman, Railton, Baumeister, & Sripada, 2013) have made us a very successful species – but also prone to psychological malfunctioning in case these “tools” are used improperly. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (Beck, 1995) posits that “the poison and the cure” for many of these malfunctions can be traced back to our thinking processes. In his seminal book “Learned optimism”, Seligman (1991) writes: “The way we think about this realm of life can actually diminish or enlarge the control we have over it. Our thoughts are not merely reactions to events; they change what ensues” (pp. 15-16).

This notion can be traced back (at least) all the way to Siddhartha Gautama, the first Buddha. In the Dhammapada (1. verse, 1. chapter, n.d.) he is cited with the words: “All mental phenomena are preceded by mind. Mind is their master, they are produced by mind.” Similar phrases that either point to the notion that the “thing itself” acquires its meaning only via the human mind, or that man is the master of his own fate by controlling his thoughts, can be found in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy (Epictetus: “In a word, neither death, nor exile, nor pain, nor anything of this kind is the real cause of our doing or not doing any action, but our inward opinions and principles.”; from Discourses, chapter 1, n.d.; similar quotes by Marcus Aurelius can be found). About 1,500 years later, Shakespeare (n.d.) puts equivalent words into Hamlet´s mouth in the second act of the second scene: “[…] there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” Another 300 years later, there is a related quote by Gandhi (n.d.): “A man is but the product of his thoughts. What he thinks, he becomes.” And finally, before becoming part of the scientific discourse in clinical psychology, the idea of “mind over matter” was propagated by new-age and self-help writers such as Dale Carnegie (1981): “It isn’t what you have or who you are or where you are or what you are doing that makes you happy or unhappy. It is what you think about it.”

Nowadays, the influence of mental processes on our well-being is a well-documented scientific fact. It is the foundation of clinical interventions such as the “ABCDE” tool in CBT (Wells, 1997), as well as most positive (psychology) interventions (Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005). Therefore, it is safe to say that this branch of psychology was heavily informed by the aforementioned philosophers and writers of the past, especially when taking into account that Martin Seligman, one of positive psychology´s founding fathers, earned a bachelor´s degree in philosophy at Princeton before turning his mind towards psychology (Positive Psychology Center, University of Pennsylvania, n.d.).

A Touch of Aristotle

The aforementioned educational background of Martin Seligman might also (partially) explain the strong presence of another “godfather of philosophy”, namely Aristotle. One of the first hallmark projects after the founding of positive psychology was the creation of a compendium of 24 human strengths that group into 6 overarching virtues (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Aristotle is mentioned 23 times in that textbook. Among other sages of his time, Aristotle proposed that a life worthwhile of living should entail the presence of Eudaimonia which can loosely be translated into the English term “flourishing”. In Aristotle´s opinion, the key to experiencing eudaimonia is leading one´s life according to certain virtues, where a virtue is seen as the middle point between two vices (e.g., courage lies between cowardice and daredevilry). In light of the frequent references to Aristotle it can be assumed that Peterson and Seligman´s idea of character strengths and virtues was heavily influenced by the Greek philosopher. Over the recent years, some evidence on the connection between the presence of character strengths and well-being has been gathered. While not all of the 24 strengths display a distinct correlation with variables such as life satisfaction, concepts such as hope, zest, gratitude, love, and curiosity seem to be present more often in people that report high levels of psychological well-being (Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2004).

From defining “the Positive” to Systems Intelligence

In addition to standing on the shoulders of bygone giants, positive psychology is also heavily influenced by contemporary philosophers such as Schneider (2001) and Pawelski (2012). Both researchers aid the scientific study of well-being, for instance, by trying to define (and refine) important constructs in positive psychology. By way of example: when the discipline was founded at the onset of the third millennium, it was not utterly clear, e.g., what the term “positive” in positive psychology is actually referring to. 15 years later, we have made some progress pertaining to that question. Pawelski (2012) points out that the “positive” in positive psychology cannot just be the absence of something negative. (Psychological) well-being cannot be explained by looking at what is not there (e.g., unhappiness, mental illness). In recent years, this viewpoint also receives more and more empirical support (Huppert & Whittington, 2003).

Yet, philosophers do not only refine the methodology of positive psychology – they also convey valuable impulses for psychological phenomena to be explored and possible interventions in the context of these phenomena. For instance, an issue that has received a lot of attention in positive psychology is the notion of “positivity ratios”. Fredrickson and Losada (2005) argue that it is possible to enter into an upward spiral of well-being when one manages to experience a significant surplus of positive over negative emotions. While it remains unclear up to now where the exact “tipping point” lies (Brown, Sokal, & Friedman, 2013), there remains a lot of evidence for the idea that, in order for a person to flourish, he or she has to experience positive emotions considerably more often than negative feelings (Fredrickson, 2013). Interestingly, this does not only hold true for a person´s “internal emotional chemistry” but also for the chemistry between two people. John Gottman, one of the world´s most renowned researchers on the subject of marriage was repeatedly able to show that a marriage flourishes when the interactions between the spouses display a ratio of approximately 5:1 in favor of positive (micro-) interactions (Gottman, Coan, Carrere, & Swanson, 1998).

This need for a distinct positivity bias in daily life is also proposed by a contemporary philosopher from Finland, Esa Saarinen. He and his coworkers posit that one way to achieve human flourishing is the development of systems intelligence which is defined as “intelligent behaviour in the context of complex systems involving interaction and feedback” (Luoma, Hämäläinen, & Saarinen, 2010, p. 1). An important framework within systems intelligence is the notion of “Systems of Holding Back in Return and in Advance” (Hämäläinen & Saarinen, 2008, p. 824). These systems can be regarded as a downward spiral in personal interactions because “there is a bias in human mental constitution to be more aware of the contributions others fail to make to me than of the contributions I fail to make to others” (p. 824). The framework seems to mirror important aspects of the research on positivity ratios in positive psychology.

In light of the distinct overlaps between philosophy and the research and practice of positive psychology, it is therefore reasonable to assume these two disciplines will continue to cross-fertilize in the arena of human interaction. And one day, maybe, there will be something new under our sun.


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Mappsterview No. 2: Jer Clifton, part-time Hero and Bringer of “Universal Assessments”

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.


Mappsterview No. 2 features Jer Clifton who was in MAPP 8, just as Emilia Lahti. If I remember correctly, he´s been the very first person ever to react to my blog. He´s just been admitted as a Ph.D. student at Penn – congrats on that one, Jer!

Jer Clifton

My wife and I hiking in Prince William Forest near where we currently live in Washington, DC.

Please introduce yourself briefly

I am an extroverted stutterer, an American raised in Taiwan, a philosopher trapped in a community organizer’s body, and my wife is awesome. Recently, I realized that philosophical ideas that I have been toying with for about a decade are empirically verifiable, and I have the amazing opportunity to find out full-time.

What did you do before MAPP?

I love applied nerdiness. While studying philosophy and history in college, the abstraction overdose drove me to join the local fire department. After graduation, I followed my girlfriend to Buffalo, New York, became a community organizer with AmeriCorps, and then a Housing Director at a small non-profit. My expertise became community-led neighborhood revitalization at the individual block level. I got to co-create a theory of neighborhood revitalization with local gangsters, a local professor, a New York State Supreme Court judge, and even a Nobel Prize winner got involved. We married (my girlfriend, not the Nobel Prize winner) and decided she should do grad school first. I joined the CEO’s office at Habitat for Humanity International as a strategic planner, finishing a national planning process in Sri Lanka days before my MAPP year started in 2012.

What got you interested in Positive Psychology?

During college I wrote a book that demonstrated (perhaps only to me) that the world was in FACT a good, worthwhile, and beautiful place. “Strange,” I thought, “isn’t the world kind of a shit-hole?” So I started systematically exploring all that was right with existence. For instance, I spent 20 minutes every day reflecting on what was right about the world. And it changed me. Instead of a war zone to be endured, I began to see it as a beautiful place to be explored. My well-being skyrocketed.

“What!?” I balked, “Isn’t philosophy supposed to make you depressed?” Mystified, on the last day of class my last year in college, having never taken a psych class, I walked into the office of the head of the psych department and said, “I want to study wellbeing.” He told me about MAPP and Marty (Seligman). That was in 2007. I’ve wanted to go ever since.

I´ve been reading your blog once in a while. In the bio page you mention that you stutter. Has Positive Psychology been of any use with that?

In a word, no. Nor would I expect it to be. Alas, Positive Psychology, a mere subject of scientific inquiry, does not cure all ills. Still, going through MAPP and studying Positive Psychology helped me find my calling and new inner-calm has coincided with a small but observable decline in stuttering. But of course, plenty of stutterers stutter despite obvious inspiration. My experience means nothing for stutterers generally, but certainly I’m excited to stutter a bit less. Thanks for asking about this. I do consider myself a life-long stutterer and care about stuttering issues. In fact, it’s why I go by “Jer” and not “Jeremy” as I stutter on my name. For those interested, I’ve written a bit about this, including a blog post entitled A Stutterer’s Take on the ‘King’s Speech’. Also check out Katherine Preston’s book Out With It.

Another thing I found on your blog: What is this about you being a hero?

Hah! I was famous for about two weeks in 2011 when I pulled a guy off subway tracks in Atlanta, Georgia who was in contact with the electrified third rail and in the process I got a little shocked, too. It was a crazy experience! Police told me that I saved the man’s life and could have easily been killed. What made it a media event was a bystander posted a video on Youtube. The story went somewhat viral and local and national media got interested. It was nuts! My favorite interview was on Fox & Friends with Steve Doocey just because I totally took control of the conversation and ran with it! Good times.

You have written your MAPP Capstone thesis on the subject of Universal Assessments (UAs). What is that all about?

Quite literally, everything. Scientists have looked at how various beliefs affect life. These studied beliefs concern many things, but typically center around the self, other people, and one’s immediate situation.  “Universal Assessment” is my fancy term for overall judgments of existence as a whole – indeed beliefs about everything. In general, is the world good or bad? Is it malleable, or impossible to change? Our answers may bring us to dismiss exceptions and count supporting observations as “true” to the underlying reality, which would cyclically reinforce that UA.  For instance, if you think the world is boring, you may be more likely to be bored, which will make you think that the world is boring. UAs, in short, could generate expectancy about everything that exists and thus impact the content of our lives.

I’m not talking about attitudes or dispositions. UAs are beliefs, and, moreover, beliefs that we might not even know we have.  In my capstone (the full doc can be boring, you may want to check out a 3-page non-academic summary), I found out that especially little attention has been paid to UAs likely to lead to the “good life”, like strengths and positive emotion. So I conducted a methodical exercise that ultimately identified thirteen pairs of beliefs about the world as a whole, many of which have not been studied.

Universal Assessments

This list is far from complete. Long term, I want to identify all the UAs that play an important causal role in human life and understand their effects. If we find that certain UAs lead to wellbeing (as it seemingly did for me), we are going to create interventions that we can scale up. It’s your average “change-the-world-with-a-cool-idea” scenario.

Jer Clifton

I made this shirt for my girlfriend in college almost 10 years ago. It’s come to encapsulate the UA concept and my personal mission. However, keep in mind that believing that the world is beautiful has not yet been studied. We don’t know its effects.

So how can I assess which UAs are “at work” inside of me?

In short, you can’t. Currently, only a handful of UAs have been studied and no comprehensive UA assessment exists. Of course, you could track down an academic and get their tool for a particular UA, but yeah, nothing is that accessible. Martin Seligman and I hope to change that! I am moving to Philadelphia in April to work on this very question (just signed a lease yesterday). We want to identify all major UAs that humans hold and eventually create a single widely available comprehensive assessment tool that anyone can use online to identify their UA profile.

What would you suggest if I were to find a UA that severely limits my potential for e.g., joy or personal development?

As it turns out, when the ancient Greeks first emerged from the cave of prehistory, the first question they asked themselves was: “What sort of world is this?” Heraclitus, for instance, thought that the world was defined by change, and this made him sad, because home, indeed any familiarity, was an illusion. He was called the “weeping philosopher.” Heraclitus, or yourself if you come to hold a debilitating UA, have at least two basic options.

First, you can be a philomath, a “lover of knowledge.” In this option, consequences be damned. The truth is all that matters. I have great respect for this approach, and naturally tend to be a philomath myself. I also agree with C.S. Lewis when he says, “The love of knowledge is a kind of madness.” Second, you can be a philosopher, a lover of wisdom. In this option, you balance any assertion of “truth” with how the very act of assertion affects your life and the life of loved ones.

In my view, any UA is massively underdetermined by the empirical evidence and we have no hope of computing such vast datasets. For instance, is the sum total of human suffering greater than the sum total of human affection? Who knows! Utility may be of more importance if there is no truth to be discovered.  My perhaps foolish hope, however, is that what is useful to believe also can be true..

Carol Dweck at Stanford has found that merely exposing people to an implicit belief (a belief that they did not know they had) gives the individual the power of a conscious choice. They can change it. So far, I am not aware of any interventions that have been done specifically for the purpose of changing UAs, but the one’s that I am designing all revolve around a simple premise: expose yourself to those aspects of the world most conducive to the view of the world that you wish to believe. In other words, create a syllabus for yourself to understand the world’s “true nature” and teach/indoctrinate/civilize yourself like professors and teachers have been doing with students for centuries. Engage in self-formation.

You´re an assistant instructor in MAPP 9 now and have given me a really bad grade on that integration paper in January. What was that for? Just kidding… If somebody wants to “get started” with Positive Psychology: which resources (books, websites etc.) would you recommend?

Hah! All you needed was a swift kick in the butt. 🙂 You rocked it the next time. As for resources, there’s a Positive Psychology Top 10 FAQ on Positive Psychology on my blog. I would start by reading that summary and then take the only free psychometrically valid strengths test in the world.


Thank you, Jer, for this Mappsterview! I´d like to close with a quote from German scientist and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: “If there were no best among all possible worlds, God would not have created one.”

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