A Surprising Feature of the Human Condition: Do you suffer from “Fear of Happiness”?

I guess that most people would be willing to agree to a statement such as: “All humans strive to be happy.” But it turns out that might be wrong.

While most people certainly try to experience happiness (in all its different facets) most of the time, there are some individuals out there that consciously and unconsciously try to avoid being happy – at least when it happens too often and/or too long. Here´s the story…

A lot of scientists in the field of psychology readily admit that their research started out as me-search – that´s investigating a topic which is highly relevant to one´s own life. Now, I´m not a scientist (by profession), but that doesn´t keep me from conducting my own (quick and dirty) research projects on the side. And more often than not, those projects certainly qualify as me-search.

General Consent

Late in 2012, I published a book here in Germany (Lizenz zur Zufriedenheit = License for Satisfaction) that is based on a coaching study I conducted in 2009/10. Back then, I tried to measure certain “meta-themes” that frequently seemed to be perceivable with my coaching clients. I created and validated a questionnaire to assess the occurrence of these themes and then correlated those numbers (among other things) with Ed Diener´s Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS).

There was one theme that displayed a rather strong correlation with life satisfaction (.49) and it also turned out to be the strongest predictor in a step-wise regression model. Back then, I called this factor general consent. Here are two of the items I used (roughly translated from German):

  • At times I believe that somehow, I am not allowed to reach my life goals.
  • At times I believe that somehow, I am not granted to reach my life goals.

Satisfaction with life of those people who scored high on these questions was severely diminished on average – and they also earned significantly less money. That´s why – in the end – I chose “License for Satisfaction” to be the book´s title. Some people seem to have an internal permission to reach their life goals, to be happy, and satisfied. Basically, they are free to do whatever they want. With other folks, unfortunately that´s not the case.

Introducing Self-Permission

I took up the subject once again when it was time to pick a topic for my capstone thesis (Introducing Self-Permission: Theoretical Framework and Proposed Assessment) while being enrolled in the Master of Applied Positive Psychology program at Penn. I decided to explore the idea of general consent in more detail, and to ground it in extant research. I tried to explain how it is similar and/or different from well-established psychological constructs such as self-efficacy, self-determination, optimism, self-esteem, self-acceptance, mal-adaptive schemata, and self-handicapping (among other concepts) – renaming it self-permission throughout the process. This in an overview of the nomological net I set out to explore in the paper:

Self_Permission.jpg

To finish, I proposed a scale to measure a person´s level of self-permission – but I did not have the time to carry out an actual empirical study.* Here are a few sample items (some of them are framed in positive way, some point towards the other end of the continuum):

I do not have the permission to reach my life goals.

I have full approval to live a life full of purpose.

I am not granted to live up to my full potential.

I deserve to be everything that I can possibly be.

I do not have full endorsement to reach my life goals.

I have full consent to make the best out of my life.

Fear of Happiness

Sad_Dog_smallFor some reason, while doing literature research back then, I did not stumble upon a very much related strand of research: In 2012, Paul Gilbert (Kingsway Hospital, Derby, UK) and colleagues published a paper where they explore a concept by the name of fear of happiness. Consistent with my own ideas, they conjecture that some individuals experience a kind of aversive conditioning with regards to positive emotional states such as contentment and happiness during childhood – where, e.g., a child is punished for being (overly) happy, or, in a milder version, where positive states are treated with indifference, e.g., because one or both parents are severely depressed (…and this is the point where research turns into me-search…).

Gilbert et al. proposed and validated a scale in order to measure fear of happiness. Here are some of their items:

Good feelings never last.

I feel I don’t deserve to be happy.

I don’t let myself get too excited about positive things or achievements.

When you are happy you can never be sure that something is not going to hit you out of the blue.

Now, here is the surprising and, to me, rather shocking news: When the researchers gave that questionnaire to a sample of about 200 people and calculated the correlation between their fear of happiness scale and an established measure of depressive symptoms, that number turned out to be .70. That´s a huge association. Here´s part of their conclusion:

[…] We were surprised by the size of the correlation at r = .70, this indicates that clinicians probably need to explore fears of happiness in detail and in terms of enhancing well-being. We should not assume that ‘challenging negative thoughts’ or increasing positive behaviours necessarily are experienced positively. […] Some depressed people really do struggle with allowing themselves to experience positive emotions in general and can have a ‘taboo on pleasure’.

I´m excited to see how, in the future, Positive Psychology might assist in helping people with this special “condition”. I sense that this will be about creating a learning process.

Learning to allow oneself to be happy, maybe even to “bear the pain” of being happy – until it hurts no more and becomes something completely normal, just the way it was meant to be.

 

*If you are a psychology researcher in search of an interesting research topic: I would still love to see an empirical study on self-permission come to life. In my current life as a manager, I do not have the capacity to carry out a full-blown research study – but I´d be glad to provide all of my theoretical spadework, and I could even provide funding to generate a sample via, e.g., mechanical turk. Please reach out if you´re interested…

U.S. Researchers are lucky – as the top-tier Universities are very strong Brands

This is a little off-topic – but over the last days, I came to realize how much easier it appears to be for top (psychology) researchers in the U.S. to “create buzz” around their research and/or book publications compared to their German colleagues.

Over the last weeks, a couple of researchers in the field of Positive Psychology and adjacent whom I am loosely acquainted with (e.g., Adam Grant, Scott Barry Kaufman, and Emma Seppälä) or whom I would like to be loosely acquainted with (e.g., Amy Cuddy – we´re following each other on Twitter; I guess that doesn´t count…) have published new books (Congratulations to all of you!):

Because a) these are all fabulous books; b) they all probably have more than decent PR agents; and c) I follow a heck of a lot of Positive Psychology people on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn my timelines are bursting with posts about their books (reviews, excerpts, and interviews). Now here´s the interesting thing – look at these headlines:

This is a random sample. Even though – from my perspective – Adam Grant has become a sort of personal brand, and Amy Cuddy is well on her way to becoming one (there´s not too many social psychologists who get air time on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert), very often the research is marketed via the university they are affiliated with.

So, it´s clear that these institutions over time have managed to become strong brands. Their names validate and even amplify the messages publicized by their faculties. That’s a really cool thing!

Now, if you are from the U.S. you might say: Duh, tell me something new. But seen from a German perspective, this is really remarkable – because (currently) this would never work over here. You just won’t see a headline along the lines of “A Humboldt University of Berlin Researcher says X” – because the names of the universities do not really add any credibility to the message (at least not in the realm of psychology; with, e.g., engineering, it might be a slightly different story).

As a side note: I have not seen that many headlines featuring my MAPP alma mater, UPenn (with Wharton Business School being the exception). Maybe, it’s time for some more brand-building here?

Stanford_Psych

(Almost) everything you know about Happiness is wrong. Maybe…

LancetA recent study that was published in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet found that happiness (or unhappiness) does not affect our health and mortality (see The Atlantic or New York Times for coverage about the original piece). According to the NYT, the

“results come from the so-called Million Women Study, which recruited women ages 50 to 69 from 1996 to 2001, and tracked them with questionnaires and official records of deaths and hospital admissions. The questionnaires asked how often the women felt happy, in control, relaxed and stressed, and also instructed them to rate their health and list ailments like high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma, arthritis and depression or anxiety.”

The research article received a huge amount of attention as the results run counter to a large body of extant empirical evidence on the relationship of positive emotions and longevity (please see the paper Happy People Live Longer: Subjective Well-Being Contributes to Health and Longevity for an overview).

Accordingly, a reply to the Lancet article was written as an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times by Positive Psychologists Ed Diener, Sarah D. Pressman, and Sonja Lyubomirsky (Can 1 million women be wrong about happiness and health?). They provide several arguments on why the interpretation of the data about the happiness-health-relationship might be flawed.

For more detail, I urge you to read the L.A. Times article. Just my five cents: The participants were 59 years old on average when entering the study. So, whatever happened before that age was out of scope. Now, I´m not an expert on this – but I hypothesize that how happy you were in your 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s might (strongly) affect how healthy you are in your 60s and beyond.

For that reason, even though the research is based on a truly large sample, I am not willing to follow the authors´ conclusion.

Will you help me to reach 100.000 Positive Psychology page views for 2015?

Mappalicious 100.000OK, so I know this a kind of cheesy request, but here I go anyway… 🙂

I´m putting a lot of time and effort in this blog, bringing together valuable information, inspirational things, and sometimes fun stuff on Positive Psychology and related topics. I´m doing this for free – and to be honest: for fun, because I just love writing. I´m not selling anything and I even pay 80$ (or so…) a year to WordPress so Mappalicious stays free of ads.

Nevertheless, I do have goals: I try to broaden the audience of Mappalicious year by year, because I want as many people as possible to learn about research and practice in the field of Positive Psychology. At the beginning of this year, I set a goal of reaching 80.000 page views for 2015 (after managing close to 60.000 in 2014). Due to some exceptional outreach in early summer, I extended that goal to 100.000 page views – but in the fall, I was too busy working in my main job, so I couldn’t write as much as I would have liked to do. Therefore, the audience dropped for some months. Still, right now the count is at 90.400.

In really, really good months I have +10.000 page views. So, if December will be a really, really good month for Mappalicious, I will be able to reach the goal I´ve set for myself in summer. And this is where you come in to play: Only you, my cherished readers, can help me to turn December into a really, really good month for my blog. So here´s my plea:

If you have found something useful/joyful on Mappalicious in 2015, I kindly ask you to share this (again) with your friends on Facebook, Twitter etc. pp.

To make life a little easier for you, here you´ll find a list of the 10 most-read articles on Mappalicious for 2015. But of course, you can share anything that you particularly liked.

  1. Positive Psychology People and Institutions to follow on Twitter
  2. Positive Psychology Articles – a topical Collection
  3. 5 essential brand-new & upcoming Books on Positive Psychology
  4. 7 wonderful TED Talks related to Positive Psychology (Self-Motivation, Body Language, Positive Stress… and more)
  5. Do you know “Action for Happiness”? Well, you should!
  6. 7 Methods to find almost any (Positive Psychology) Research Paper on the Internet
  7. 22 Positive Psychology-infused Articles every (HR) Leader should know
  8. Positive Psychology Constructs
  9. Study: Some Languages are Happier than others. Hint: German didn´t make No. 1
  10. Positive Psychology – a topical Collection of 45 TED Talks

Thanks a lot in advance!

Positive Psychotherapy: A Collection of 5 Research Articles

Positive PsychotherapyPositive Psychology was founded on the belief that there is (or at least has been) an imbalance with regard to the amount of attention researchers and practitioners in the field of psychology give to the positive versus negative phenomena in (human) life (for some insights on this, click here). For the first 100 years, psychological science has give much more attention to the negative continuum of experiences (e.g., how to get rid of depression) than to the positive side (e.g., how to lead and sustain a happy and fulfilled life).
Nevertheless, just some years after Positive Psychology’s “inception”, some researchers and practitioners took the newly developed theories, tools, and interventions from the subclinical arena – and tried to apply them in a clinical context, e.g., to help people who suffer from depressive disorders. Thus, Positive Psychotherapy was born.*

Here, you’ll find four of the most important articles charting this territory (links lead to PDFs). The fifth article is a very recent one, there’s no free PDF available as of yet. But if you’re interested: I’ve made very pleasant experiences by just e-mailing authors and asking for a copy. Enjoy!

*Even though Positive Psychology’s official year of birth is 1998 (when Marty Seligman was elected president of the APA), the term Positive Psychotherapy has been in use long before that time. If you’d like to learn more, please click here.

Research: Linking “Positive Practices” to Organizational Effectiveness

Stones - GrowthThere are tons of books out there explaining how to use Positive Psychology for boosting the performance of organizations. But the truth is: from a scientific point of view, we really do not know very much about this link. There’s abundant research on the connection of positivity and individual performance – but it remains by and large unclear if this influence on the micro-level yields any outcomes on the macro-level. Of course, it seems to make a lot of sense to infer this relationship – but where’s the research?

A very worthwhile attempt is offered via an article named Effects of positive practices on organizational effectiveness by Kim Cameron and his colleagues. Based on prior research, they developed an inventory of what they call “positives practices”. According to the authors, these can be described as

behaviors, techniques, routines […] that represent positively deviant (i.e., unusual) practices, practices with an affirmative bias, and practices that connote virtuousness and eudemonism in organizations.

In order to do so, they administered a large number of questionnaire items to diverse groups of people. Afterwards, they clustered the answers in order to find common themes and pattern in the data. They found that all positives practices could be categorized into six distinct subgroups:

Caring

People care for, are interested in, and maintain responsibility for one another as friends.

Compassionate Support

People provide support for one another including kindness and compassion when others are struggling.

Forgiveness

People avoid blame and forgive mistakes.

Inspiration

People inspire one another at work.

Meaning

The meaningfulness of the work is emphasized, and people are elevated and renewed by the work.

Respect, Integrity, and Gratitude

People treat one another with respect and express appreciation for one another. They trust one another and maintain integrity.

Having found that structure, they gathered data from several divisions of a financial services company and one operating in the healthcare industry. They asked employees to assess their respective business unit (= the organization as a whole, not individuals) with regard to being a place that possesses the aforementioned attributes. Additionally, they obtained data on several objective and subjective key performance indicators of those business units – and finally looked at the connection of the presence of positive practices and organizational effectiveness measures. Here´s what they´ve Cameron and his colleagues found (in their own words):

In Study 1, positive practices in financial service business units were significantly associated with financial performance, work climate, turnover, and senior executive evaluations of effectiveness. In an industry in which positive practices might be assumed to carry little importance, organizational performance was substantially affected by the implementation of positive practices.

In Study 2, improvement in positive practices over a two year period in health care units predicted improvements in turnover, patient satisfaction, organizational climate, employee participation in the organization, quality of care, managerial support, and resource adequacy.

 In the course of arguing why positive practices should have a performance-boosting effect, the authors conclude that

cognitively, emotionally, behaviorally, physiologically, and socially, evidence suggests that human systems naturally prefer exposure to the positive, so it is expected that organizational performance would be enhanced by positive practices.

Of course, Cameron et al. urge us to be careful not to make strong inferences from their results:

The results of these two investigations, of course, are suggestive and not conclusive.

Still, their work is one of the first and still very rare pieces of research that links positive organizational behavior to organizational effectiveness. I am very much looking forward to scholars who pick up on these findings and expand our knowledge on the positivity-performance link.

Want to be the Boss? Be Happy, Science says, and you´ll be a Good Leader

Happy BossFor a moment, think about a leadership person (a.k.a. boss) in your life that you really liked working for. How could that person be described, what kind of personality did he/she convey? Was he/she more the grumpy moaner – or rather an upbeat “Sunday´s child”?

Turns out that this question is not only about likeability but also about leadership effectiveness. In a recent meta-analysis* published in The Leadership Quarterly titled Is a happy leader a good leader? A meta-analytic investigation of leader trait affect and leadership, Dana L. Joseph and her colleagues found that – broadly speaking – happier leaders also tend to be more effective leaders. In the words of Joseph and her colleagues:

Our analyses show that leader trait affectivity, particularly leader trait positive affect, plays a significant role in predicting leadership criteria.

A happy boss is a good boss.

They also find that the relationship between leader happiness and effectiveness may not be a direct one. Rather, it seems that happy bosses predominantly engage in a special leadership style that has been coined transformational leadership. As opposed to more traditional leadership styles (telling people what to do and controlling them; management by objectives etc.), transformational leadership, according to Joseph et al., consists of the following dimensions:

  • idealized influence, or the extent to which a leader displays conviction and behaves in a way that causes followers to identify with him/her;
  • inspirational motivation, which involves communicating optimism and challenging followers to meet high standards;
  • intellectual stimulation, or the extent to which a leader takes risks, challenges assumptions, and encourages follower creativity;
  • and individualized consideration, which is characterized by follower mentoring, attending to follower needs, and listening to follower concerns.

Now, does that sound like the behavior of a boss we´d all like to work for? My answer is a clear yes. And it predominantly starts with that person´s happiness.

* A special type of study that statistically aggregates previous study results to provide an overview of a specific branch of research.

Want to stay on top of Positive Psychology in Organizations? Here are 3 Reviews for you (PDF)

Happy ManagersBeing a manager in my day job, I am foremost interested in the application of Positive Psychology in organizations – and the science exploring these issues, Positive Organizational Scholarship. While there are a couple of good trade books on the subject, I also like to read original research papers which is always a great source for new ideas to blog about. As there are so many articles out there, the question is: Where should we start?

The (or at least my) answer is: Always start with review articles, and, if there are any, meta-analyses. Both are tremendously valuable in order to get an overview of a discipline in the shortest amount of time – as the authors first scan the extant data-bases for relevant articles, and then organize and summarize the current body of research. It´s a lot of hard work which is usually rewarded by receiving frequent citations over time. So, thanks to all those diligent, hard-working review writers out there!

Here´s a list of three reviews on Positive Psychology in organizations for you – the links will lead you to the respective PDFs. Enjoy!

Study: To Belong is to Matter: Sense of Belonging Enhances Meaning in Life

Nico Rose - Meaning in LifeOne of the central tenets in Positive Psychology goes as follows: Other People Matter. It was coined by the late Christopher Peterson as the shortest possible summary of research on human wellbeing. Peterson wanted to make the point that having healthy relationships with family, friends, and coworkers turns out to be the strongest predictor of happiness (and oftentimes: health) in most studies on human wellbeing.

A recent study by Nathaniel Lambert et. al titled To Belong is to Matter: Sense of Belonging Enhances Meaning in Life sheds additional light on this relationship. Here´s a shortened version of the article´s abstract:

We found correlational, longitudinal, and experimental evidence that a sense of belonging predicts how meaningful life is perceived to be. Additionally, we found a strong positive correlation between sense of belonging and meaningfulness. Furthermore, we found that initial levels of sense of belonging predicted perceived meaningfulness of life, obtained 3 weeks later. Furthermore, initial sense of belonging predicted independent evaluations of participants essays on meaning in life.

In short, what they are saying is:

Belonging = Meaning

Or, more precisely: If I matter to other people, my life matters.

The 10 most Valuable Positive Psychology Resources on Mappalicious

Ever since the beginning of Mappalicious about 20 months ago, I´ve not only shared my own take on Positive Psychology with you – I´ve also tried to compile valuable resources that help to spread research (and knowledge in general) on all things Positive Psychology. Based on feedback, such as shares via social media, these 10 resources have been the most useful pieces of information so far:

Please share this if you like…

Positive Psychology Resources on Mappalicious