Trials and Tribulations: How much Negativity do we need for a Positive Life?

Positive Psychology is not only about smiley-happy faces and rose-colored glasses. I´ve already written about Post-Traumatic Growth, and the Japanese art of Kintsukuroi as a metaphor for the state of flourishing after experiencing adversity. Yesterday, my fellow Mappster and “Queen of Sisu”, Emilia Lahti, shared a study on Facebook that sheds additional light on these issues. The question is:

Is a Life without Struggles and Hardships a desirable one?

The short answer is: probably not. In a study bearing the Nietzsche-inspired name Whatever Does Not Kill Us: Cumulative Lifetime Adversity, Vulnerability, and Resilience the researchers find that experiencing a moderate amount of “trials and tribulations” over one´s lifetime may foster resilience, resulting in advantages for mental health and well-being. Have a look at this table:

Lifetime AdversityWhat you see is data on a representative U.S. sample of more than 2.000 people. It shows the relationship between participant´s “Cumulative Lifetime Adversity” (CLA; people were asked for negative events in their life, e.g., serious illnesses, bereavement etc.) and several scores for mental health (Life Satisfaction) and its opposites (e.g., signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome). Precisely, you can see several U-shaped relationships, and one inverse-U-shaped one. The U-shaped ones depicts the relationship between CLA and signs for the absence of mental health, and the inverse shows the relationship between CLA and life satisfaction.

What it means: those people that display the highest levels of satisfaction and the lowest level of “symptoms” have experienced a moderate to average amount of adversity over their lifetime. High levels of adversity can really knock us down and leave us shattered. At the same time, having (almost) no prior experience with hardships can render us vulnerable to corresponding events in the future – and less satisfied with life in general.

So basically, Nietzsche was right. There is saying in Germany:

When you fall down: Stand up. Straighten your crown. Walk on.



On Friendship, Love, and the Benefits of Aging

Aging WellFor whatever reason, I am confronted with the issues of aging (and death…) a lot over the recent weeks. My mom had to go to the hospital, and in my circle of friends, parents got sick as well – or even died. And while that is distressing and painful emotionally, I know rationally that getting old(er) is nothing to be afraid of. Because getting older (for most of us) means getting happier. We get less anxious, more satisfied, and get to a deeper understanding of the meaning of (our) life.

While being on the plane that brought me to Philly for the MAPP onsite, I watched the movie Last Vegas starring Robert De Niro, Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Kline. It´s a fun-loving, pleasantly over-the-top “geriatric” version of Hangover. Most of all, it´s a story of aging well – and the power of (life-long) friendship.

Triumphs of ExperienceCoincidently, one of the guest lecturers of this month´s MAPP onsite has been (some 80 years old) George Vaillant, who´s been the director of the world-famous (Harvard) Grant Study – which for 75 years followed the lives of 268 physically and mentally healthy Harvard college sophomores from the classes of 1939-1944, and a second cohort of 456 disadvantaged non-delinquent inner-city youths who grew up in Boston neighborhoods between 1940 and 1945. Vaillant writes about the results of this study in his books Aging Well (2003) and Triumphs of Experience (2012). There´s lots of interviews available with Vaillant – here, I´ll point you to one for the Huffington Post. Two main points that came out of the study:

Love is really all that matters.

Connection is crucial.

There you have it. The Beatles were right: All you need is love. My parents will both turn 70 next year. And by March 2014, they will be married for 46 years. I hope that my wife and I one day will achieve the same…

If you´d like to have more input, please watch this TED talk on the benefits of aging by Laura Carstensen who is Director of Stanford´s Center on Longevity.

Getting older? Do not fear! For Age brings you Happiness…

A lot of people out there are afraid of getting old. But probably they shouldn´t be. Time and time again, research shows that getting older means getting happier for most people. A couple of days ago, I posted a link to a survey that is meant to replicate an already existing study on meaning and satisfaction with life across different age groups. 100 people participated in less than three days. Thank you very much for help your help!
Now here are some of the results:

The table shows the means for different measures of our study. As you can see, the oldest group shows higher values in practically all of the positive measures (such as ‘General Happiness’ or the presence of ‘Positive Emotions’ – and lower values for negative measures (such as the presence of ‘Negative Emotions’ or ‘Depressive Symptoms’).

Meaning and Life Satisfaction

Wrinkles should merely indicate where the smiles have been.

(Mark Twain)

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!


My Direction

Why talking about the weather may make you unhappy – even on beautiful days

Today has been the second day of the MAPP´s so-called immersion week. Angela Duckworth is teaching research methods and statistics, which frankly speaking will never be my favorite subject – but that´s o.k. To learn more about the methodology of psychological research and to get an idea of how research papers are crafted, we skimmed through some articles in the classroom. I´d like to share one of those with you; it was published by Matthias Mehl and some colleagues.

Now the thing is: I am German and there is this stereotype of Germans as being rather uptight, not exactly unfriendly, but – you know – a little stiff, just not that easy to talk to. We´re the so-called “nation of poets and thinkers”, but just not very good at small-talk. Which…

…tadahhh – might explain why we´re also a rather happy nation on average!

What Matthias Mehl does as a researcher: he hooks up people with tiny recording devices that switch on automatically at certain intervals over the day. As a result, he gets these little samples of our everyday behavior, especially what we say to other people and what they say to us, respectively. Here´s what he´s found out: People that spend a lot of time in the company of other people are considerably happier on average than folks who mostly like to spend time on their own. There´s nothing new here. But: it also matters to a great extent what you talk about.

There is a considerable negative correlation between life satisfaction and small talk; and a considerable positive correlation between meaningful (“deep”) conversations and life satisfaction. Talking about shallow topics too often may be not all that beneficial to our psychological well-being. This, in turn, reminded me of that little story which is commonly attributed to Socrates – but presumably is a universal parable.

The three sieves of Socrates

Once upon a time, one of the acquaintances of Socrates came running and said: “Socrates, do you know what I just heard about one of your students?”
“Wait a minute”, Socrates stopped him, “Before you tell me, I would like to conduct the three sieves test.”
“Three sieves test?”
“Yes. Before you tell me anything, take a moment to consider carefully what you are going to say and pour your words through these sieves.”
“The first one is the sieve of truth. Are you absolutely sure that what you are about to tell me is true?”
“Well… no. Actually I heard it recently and…”
“Alright”, interrupted Socrates, “So you don’t really know if it is true or not!”
“Now, let us try the second one, it is the sieve of goodness. Are you about to tell me something good about my student?”
“Well…no. On the contrary…”
“So, you want to tell me something bad about him” roared Socrates, “even though you are not certain if it is true or not?”
The acquaintance shrugged, already feeling uncomfortable.
“You may still pass the test though” said the Socrates, “because there is a third sieve – the sieve of usefulness.”
“Is what you were to tell me about my student going to be useful?”
“No, not really…” said the man resignedly. 
Socrates continued his lesson, “Well, if what you want to tell me is neither true nor good nor useful, why tell me at all?”