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

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!