Tired of meaningless rattled-down Introductions? Try “Serious Introductions”

You probably know this thing: it´s the first day of a seminar or the beginning of some business meeting. The host suggests everybody introduce her- or himself to the other attendees (more or less succinct). Following the common social script, most of the times people will now take turns and give an account of their education, job histories, and – on a good day – their personal status. From my own experience I have to admit: I tend to forget most of the information instantaneously – except for the rare occasion when there´s some shared background with another person.

So why not do it a little differently? I have to admit this may not be the best of ideas on each and every occasion – but then I can imagine a lot of place where this feels really appropriate.

A Serious Introduction

A serious introduction consists of telling a meaningful story about a specific moment in our lives. It could be a moment that is just very important to us, or a moment that shows us at our best, thereby displaying our unique blend of character strengths. To quote my lovely MAPP classmate Patricia De La Torre: It’s a fantastic way to learn about somebody else and to instantly connect with them in the non-cheasiest way possible. So here we go…

This is September 9, 2010. I have a glass of champagne in my hands and feel a one-of-a-kind combination of exaltation and relief. My dress shirt is soaked with sweat from the room temperature of more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit – and from the 30-minute lecture I have given a couple of minutes ago. The first supervisor of my doctoral thesis at European Business School Oestrich-Winkel, has just pronounced I will be awarded the doctoral degree in business sciences with the best possible grade, “summa cum laude”. Now this evaluation consists of the grade for my thesis, which accounts for 70 percent of the total grade; and the grade for the disputation which has just taken place – which accounts for the remaining 30%. My thesis had been graded in-between the top marks – and in order to receive the overall “summa cum laude”, the disputation would have to be an absolute top-notch performance.

Let´s go back in time for a week…

During that final week before my disputation, I did something very unusual: I practiced. In fact, I practiced my ass off. I am used to lecturing regularly, either at conferences, or at the business school where I teach – which has given me a lot of confidence in that matter over the years. I typically will prepare my PowerPoint slides some days before due date alright – but I never ever really think about what to say in advance, let alone learn something by heart. That often results in entertaining but hopelessly overlong lectures. But for once, it had to be different. There are very strict regulations pertaining to the disputation process. You have exactly 30 minutes to convince the doctoral committee of your research, not one minute more, not one minute less.

So I practiced – and I learned my text by heart.

As usual, I prepared my slides. In the morning seven days before the disputation, I practiced for the first time – and went over 45 minutes. I practiced again in the afternoon, talking a little faster, and still went well over 40 minutes. So I cut out one of the slides, practiced again in the evening and finished at 38 minutes. I practiced again before going to bed and stopped at 37 minutes.

For the upcoming six days, I practiced four times a day, once in the morning, once in the afternoon, once in the evening and once before going to bed. I cut out further slides but never made in less than 33 minutes – until the day of the disputation.

I had thrown out another slide spontaneously in the morning and was a little nervous, but clearly not too nervous. I was wearing a tailor-made suit – and my wife, my parents, my parents-in-law and some of my best friends joined the audience to witness the culmination point of a strenuous 5-year period of my life.

Due to practicing hard (I believe), I was at my best that day. Speaking quite clearly, convincingly, seemingly without much effort, and most of all: according to the rules of this extraordinary occasion. I hit the mark in 30 minutes sharp.

Now all this accounts for the exaltation. But what about the relief?

The truth is: joining that doctoral program was – at least from a certain point of view – one of the worst decisions of my life. I´d had lost interest in my research topic during the first year. I felt out of place and out of tune with myself for most of the time. I knew this doctoral thesis was leading neither me (nor someone else) anyhere. I wanted to quit at least once a year but my parents managed to convince me to go on over and over again.

Now it is over. I made it. And I made it worthwhile.

Nico Rose - Disputation

2013: Top 10 Book List on Positive Psychology

Grant: Give and TakeJust a quick note: This link leads to a great book list issued by the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley, one of the finest institutions in the science and business of positive psychology.* A couple of the authors also teach in the MAPP program.

*Of course, nothing can compare to the Positive Psychology Center at Penn… 😉

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?

Savoring the Positive Moments in our Lives…

In my non-MAPP-student life, I´m (also) an HR guy. Specifically, I work in employer branding and recruiting. HR somehow has got a bad rep – a lot of people will say it´s (one of) the most boring functions in management. Well … I definitely do not agree. And here´s one of the reasons why…

On Meaning and Life Satisfaction

If you are a regular reader of Mappalicious you know that I´m currently a student at University of Pennsylvania. Today, I need your help! For our statistics class, it is our duty to recreate an already existing study – so we need to gather some data.

Therefore, you could do me a really, really big favor: Please click on this link to fill out a short questionnaire. It´ll take you only about 5 – 10 minutes. This questionnaire is on meaning in life and life satisfaction.

Afterwards, you might want to read the original study. But please do this after you´ve filled in the questionnaire. Otherwise, your result may be biased.

Thank you very much in advance!

Nico

My Direction

Not the same! On being (un-)happy in the Past, Present, and Future

Are you happy? That´s a rather easy question to answer, don´t you think? Well, turns out it´s not that easy. Because it really makes a difference what you are thinking about while trying to answer this question. What are the standards you use while evaluating your ‘human condition’?

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In Positive Psychology, there are (at least) three different perspectives on this issue and they center on the timeframe that is used for evaluating one´s happiness. It is literally possible to be (un-)happy in the past, present, and future – and there´s considerable evidence that these perspectives are separate from each other (albeit closely related).

When talking about ‘happiness in the past’, we usually refer to the construct of satisfaction with life which is a global cognitive evaluation of one´s life (so far). To date, it is the most widely used measure of psychological well-being.*

When talking about ‘happiness in the present’, we usually refer to what you do when actually ask somebody “How do you feel (right now)?” How much positive or negative affect do you feel in this moment? In terms of measurement, the most widely used instrument is the so-called PANAS (Positive and Negative Affect Schedule).

And finally, there´s ‘happiness in the future’ which is concerned with our optimism. How happy do you expect to be at time X in the future?

Now the interesting thing is: all three aspects will to a certain extent determine how happy you are today. And they can be tackled and improved separately (but that´s not today´s story…)

For today: if you would like to find out how you´re doing in the past, present, and future, you can take tests at Martin Seligman´s homepage. They can be found (among others) in the menu questionnaires.

 

*I´ve also used that one in the study that my book is based on.

Foto credit: Pamela Moore – www.istockfoto.com

Positive Psychology: Is it about Pleasure? Or Meaning? Or both?

The silence on Mappalicious is officially over. I´ve been travelling over the last 14 days and obviously have been too busy actually living my life in order to write about it in addition. And while doing this, I´ve made an interesting discovery: you can spend your days in New York (arguably the most exciting place on Earth) with a bunch of really nice people and a great program (Broadway musical, boat tour on the Hudson, party at one of the best rooftop bars in town etc.) – and still end up crying your eyes out in the hotel room. Just because you miss baby boy so much. True story…

Mika_Nico

Which raises a question on the nature of Positive Psychology:

Is Positive Psychology about leading a happy, pleasurable life? Or is it about leading a virtuous, meaningful life?

The answer is: both aspects are important – but if you would ask Marty Seligman, he´d say the emphasis clearly should be on cultivating strengths, virtues, and meaning. While experiencing lots of positive emotion definitley is a goal in Positive Psychology (because it just feels good to feel good; but more important: because positive emotions produce lots of beneficial ‘side effects’) they are only one element (P) of PERMA, Seligman’s theory of human flourishing.

On the overarching level, it is possible to distinguish between the quest for hedonic (pleasurable) and eudaimonic (virtuous) experiences. Both clearly are important for leading a ‘full’ life, but Eudaimonia may just be a little more sustainable in the long run. When creating a 2×2 matrix with Eudaimonia on the one axis and Hedonia on the other, it will look like this:

Hedonia_Eudaimonia

  • When a human being experiences high levels of positive emotion and the presence of meaning, worthwhile goals, connection to other human beings etc., this can be characterized as ‘the full life’ or ‘Flourishing’ in the official diction.
  • The absence of both dimensions is called ‘the empty Life’ or ‘Languishing’ – a condition that is closely tied with depression.
  • If someone is high on the hedonic dimension but relatively low on Eudaimonia, I like to call it ‘the sweet life’ (‘Settling’ in the official lingo). By way of example, imagine the prototypical billionaire heir that squanders his family´s money on the French Riviera. It´ll surely be pleasurable but may also seem somewhat shallow.
  • On the other hand, when there´s a considerable lack of Hedonia, this condition can be termed ‘the sour life’ or ‘Striving’ in official Positive Psychology speak. You might want to imagine the epitome of an old unmarried lady that spends all of her time and money on ‘good causes’ but forgets herself on the way. It is admirable but may also seem a little ‘anemic’.

If you´d like to learn more: I´ve written an article in a coaching magazine on that topic about a year ago. It´s in German unfortunately – but I know that many German-speaking people are reading this blog, too…