Treating Yourself with Kindness: On Self-Compassion

For several decades, developing self-esteem in children and adults has been the holy grail of fostering healthy attitudes towards the self. Yet, starting in the early 1990s, criticism arose, pointing towards the absence of positive consequences of having high self-esteem, and highlighting several negative consequences, such as dismissing negative feedback or taking less responsibility for harmful actions. In an influential review article from 2003 titled Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness, or Healthier Lifestyles?, Roy Baumeister and colleagues conclude:

We have not found evidence that boosting self-esteem (by therapeutic interventions or school programs) causes benefits. Our findings do not support continued widespread efforts to boost self-esteem in the hope that it will by itself foster improved outcomes.

In the same year, Kristin Neff from the University of Texas at Austin introduced a different kind of healthy attitude towards the self – which may be especially helpful in times of suffering, or when facing adversity: Self-compassion, rooted in the ancient Buddhist traditions of mindfulness and compassion, and Western adaptations such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). In the words of Neff:

[…] When faced with experiences of suffering or personal failure, self-compassion entails three basic components: (a) self-kindness — extending kindness and understanding to oneself rather than harsh judgment and self-criticism, (b) common humanity — seeing one’s experiences as part of the larger human experience rather than seeing them as separating and isolating, and (c) mindfulness — holding one’s painful thoughts and feelings in balanced awareness rather than over-identifying with them.

self_compassion_framework_neu

Furthermore:

[…] Self-compassion may entail many of the psychological benefits that have been associated with self-esteem, but with fewer of its pitfalls. Self-compassion represents a positive emotional stance towards oneself, in that one extends feelings of kindness and caring toward oneself. It helps to motivate productive behavior and protect against the debilitating effects of self-judgment such as depression and anxiety. Self-compassion, however, is not based on the performance evaluations of self and others, or on congruence with ideal standards. In fact, self-compassion takes the entire self-evaluation process out of the picture […].

In the meantime, self-compassion has shown to be a valuable tool for personal development and fighting symptoms such as anxiety and depression. Long-form and short-form scales for measuring self-compassion have been developed, an effective training program has been devised, and a recent meta-analysis finds that fostering self-compassion effectively helps to alleviate several psychopathologies (please see links to research papers below. You can find out more about self-compassion (e.g., free exercises and training opportunities) via Kristin Neff´s homepage.

Some of the core papers on self-compassion (linking to PDFs):

“Other People Matter” at Work, says recent Meta-Analysis

woman_tattoo_smilingDo you like the people you´re working with? Do you identify strongly with that group of human beings? Do you even feel that you belong to the larger system of the organization you´re working for? If the answer is yes: Good for you! Because most likely, this will be beneficial for your psychological and physiological health in the long run.

A recent meta-analysis by Niklas K. Steffens (University of Queensland, Brisbane) and colleagues concludes that

both workgroup and organizational identification are associated with individuals’ experience of reduced strain and burnout as well as greater health and well-being.

In short, liking the people we work with on the immediate level (our team) as well as the macro level (the organization as a whole) and experiencing a sense of belonging helps us to stay healthy and sane. From a Positive Psychology point of view, it´s interesting to see that social bonds do help to prevent stress, but even more so, foster the experience of positive outcomes:

Social identification feeds more strongly into the promotion of what is “good for us” than into the prevention of what is “bad for us”. These findings support previous work which has made the point that the absence of stress is not equivalent to the presence of well-being. More specifically, findings are consistent with a psychological conception of positive human health and phenomenological accounts of social identification which suggest that increases in identification capture increases in positive experiences and are therefore related particularly strongly to positive forms of well-being.

Here´s to you, Chris Peterson!

Can we teach and learn Charisma?

In past times, charisma was defined as a divine gift. Either, you had it – or you had to live without it. But not anymore. To answer the question from this article´s headline: Yes, we can.

At least, this is what researchers John Antonakis, Marika Fenley and Sue Liechti propose via an article that was published in 2011 in “Academy of Management Learning and Education”.

To begin, we should ask how to recognize a charismatic person. The answer: We probably do not see it in directly when looking at an individual, but rather in the impact that person has on other human beings. Charismatic individuals manage to win other people over, to evoke certain emotions and a willingness to act. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to label somebody a leader when that person resides on a deserted island. Much in the same way, it´s not practical to call somebody charismatic when nobody is there to witness that radiance.

Charisma is process, a product of interaction.

Now, what can we to influence this process, what can we do to increase the likelihood of being perceived as charismatic? Antonakis et al. suggest charisma (at least: being perceived as a charismatic speaker) can be boiled down to a set of 12 specific behaviors – what they denote as Charismatic Leadership Tactics (CLT).

Charismatic speakers…

1) use metaphors;

2) use stories and anecdotes;

use 3) contrasts, 4) lists, and 5) rhetorical questions;

6) demonstrate moral conviction;

7) share the sentiments of the collective;

8) set high expectations for themselves and their followers; and 9) communicate confidence that these goals can be met.

On the nonverbal level, charismatic speakers…

10) use vivid body gestures and 11) facial expressions;

and 12) an animated voice tone.

Using a sample of managers from a Swiss corporation and another one that consisted of MBA students, the researchers demonstrated that these CLTs can be taught/learned in a relatively short amount of time. During a five-hour training session that consisted of several exercises and analyzing movies and famous contemporary speeches, they were able to significantly improve their participants´ post-intervention performance such that they were perceived as considerably more charismatic (and more leader-like in general…) by their peers.

I think this is fantastic news. Not everybody can be a Barack Obama. But we all could be significantly more charismatic than we are today.

Nico_Fifteen_Seconds

Top 10: Quite a lot of the World´s Eminent Scholars contribute to Positive Psychology

Positive Psychology is concerned with wellbeing and optimal human functioning, in all of its different domains and contexts. Compared to subjects such as, e.g., depression and anxiety, these may seem like “fluffy” topics to explore (Even though I would not agree – what could be more important than wellbeing?)

Yet, even if one were inclined to call this a superficial topic this doesn’t automatically mean it’s superficial science. Here’s the thing: I’ve recently stumbled upon a paper listing 200 eminent scholars in psychology, concentrating on people that are still active today or have been publishing in the second half of the 20th century (thereby excluding “forefathers” such as Sigmund Freud). The ranking was determined by aggregating several indicators, such as number of citations, coverage in introductory psychology textbooks, and prestigious awards received. Here’s a screenshot of the top 10:

Eminent_Psychologists

At No. 1, we see Albert Bandura who is most renowned for this research on self-efficacy, the scientific equivalent of the popular notion “If you believe you can do it, you can do it”. Now, Bandura created most of his work before the onset of modern Positive Psychology, but he clearly has a big influence on the field.

At No. 3, we have Daniel Kahnemann, Nobel Laureate of 2002 who, together with his late partner Amos Tversky (No. 9), has developed prospect theory. I´ve been told that Kahneman does not like being called a Positive Psychologist. Nevertheless, he´s the lead editor of the seminal book Well-Being: Foundations of Hedonic Psychology which, by all means, makes him an important contributor to the field.

At No. 5, we have Martin Seligman himself – no explanation necessary.

At No. 8, we find Shelley Taylor, who most likely would not be characterized as a Positive Psychologist. Still, she has made some influential contributions on the subject of optimism and its relation to psychological well-being.

And at No. 10, we see Ed Diener, co-creator of the prominent Satisfaction With Life Scale and major contributor to the fields of subjective wellbeing and public health.

I guess this pretty much settles the score. 🙂

Power = (Work x Wellbeing) / Time

I’ve spent the last two days at the University of Trier in Southern Germany. The university hosted the very first conference of the “German Association for Research in Positive Psychology” (DGPPF in German). I’m so excited about the fact the Positive Psychology is finally picking up momentum in my country.

Unfortunately, I was not able to attend all the workshops and lectures as I had a lot of work to do on the side. As I’m not a researcher myself, I contributed by hosting a workshop on marketing research(ers) to the press and via blogging.

The one takeaway that inspired me the most was the closing slide of a lecture given by Prof. Dr. Michaela Brohm who also happens to be the founding president of the newborn Positive Psychology association. She proposed we need a new formulation for “good work” by drawing upon a well-known formula from physics – where power (or output) is defined as the amount of work / time. Brohm referred to this as “cold work”.

She proposed to add another variable to the equation: Wellbeing. While work that is detrimental to psychological health might still lead to results in the common sense, it’s just not “good work”. Accordingly, the new formula goes as follows:

Power = (Work x Wellbeing) / Time

Prof. Dr. Michaela Brohm - DGPPFI love the notion that work and wellbeing are linked via a multiplicative function – because this implies that work which does not foster the (psychological) wellbeing of the worker potentially devalues the whole outcome of the process – whereas work that also builds wellbeing drastically increases the value of the investment. Brohm called this “warm work”.

I firmly believe we need this kind of catchy simplification because a prompt like that helps us to remember the core messages long after a talk or lecture.

Well done!

Surprising Finding | Mental Illness vs. Mental Health: Continuum or Matrix?

A few days ago, I shared some research by Carol Ryff and Corey Keyes on the structure of psychological well-being. Today, I’d like to highlight more of Keyes’  work.

When we think about psychological health, we typically have a kind of continuum in mind. On the one end, there are states such as satisfaction and happiness, on the other end there’s (severe) mental illness, e.g., depression and anxiety disorders. And we’re also sure all people can be located on this single dimension at any given point in time. Additionally, the absence of one state is mostly equated to the presence of the other. Accordingly, an individual is perceived as being psychological healthy when there are no signs of mental illness.

Turns out this perspective may be flawed, or rather: incomplete. Using large-scale samples, Corey Keyes is able to show that we should probably see mental health and mental illness as two interrelated, yet clearly separable dimensions. The first one is about the presence or absence of mental health, the other about the presence or absence of mental illness (please take a look at his paper Mental Illness and/or Mental Health? Investigating Axioms of the Complete State Model of Health)

Keyes_Mental_Health_Matrix

When creating a matrix that is composed of these two continua, we’re able to understand psychological states on a much more nuanced level. By way of example, in his data, Keyes finds there are people who portray distinct signs of mental illness (e.g., depressive symptoms) while at the same time displaying a moderately high level of psychological health (e.g., perception of meaning in life). Conversely, there are quite a few people who are clearly neither mentally ill nor particularly healthy, a state that Keyes calls languishing. In the words of the researcher:

The current study confirms empirically that mental health and mental illness are not opposite ends of a single continuum; rather, they constitute distinct but correlated axes that suggest that mental health should be viewed as a complete state. Thus, the absence of mental illness does not equal the presence of mental health.

[…]

The diagnosis and measurement of mental health […] has provided some invaluable information. First, relatively few adults (i.e., about 2 in 10) who were free of any of the four 12-month mental disorders could be classified as flourishing or completely mentally healthy. Almost as many adults were mentally unhealthy (i.e., languishing) as were mentally healthy (i.e., flourishing), and most adults were moderately mentally healthy. Second, diagnoses less than flourishing were associated with greater levels of dysfunctions in terms of work reductions, health limitations, and psychosocial functioning. Moreover, pure languishing was as dysfunctional (sometimes more) than pure mental illness.

Especially the last sentence should give some food for thought to public health officials and corporate health executives alike. For decades, their focus has been on understanding, assessing, and mitigating mental illness. And while this certainly is an important endeavor, Keyes´ esearch clearly shows that it might be and equally pressing mission to help people find pathways from a state of low mental health (languishing) to high mental health (flourishing).

Enter Positive Psychology