The 7 Habits of Highly Obnoxious Self-Help Articles

Double Face-PalmIn the light of recent events, here´s my list of the seven habits of highly obnoxious self-help articles:

1) Know-what: They tell you what to do instead of how to achieve it.

That’s basically useless. People typically know what´s “good and right”.

2) Scienciness: They tell you that “science says ” (or “research says”) XYZ without further explanation or linking to the original sources.

I mean, seriously? Go and do your homework!

3) Sloppiness: They use vacuous stock photos.

That´s not a crime, but as a matter of fact, inconsiderate. If I see one more article on Positive Psychology adorned with a smiley, I´ll go bonkers (…yet I plead guilty to having done that in the past).

4) One-track mind: They claim to make you “successful” – equating success with money.

Life is complex and colorful – and success comes in all shapes and sizes. Cash is only a small part of the equation.

5) Lectio interruptus: They tell you part of the story but then require you to download/buy XYZ to get the whole picture.

Hey, if you mojo is really worth it, I´m more than happy to buy your book. But don´t force me to.

6) Megalomania: They tell you that “after reading this all your problems (in the area of XYZ…) are solved forever”.


7) Simpleness: They tell you that whatever they propose is “easy”.

Adding two and two is easy. But life mostly is not, at least not those things in life that are worth striving for. Get used to it…

A joyful Life is an individual Creation that cannot be copied from a Recipe.

This powerful quote by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi reminds us that we should approach conventional self-help “wisdom” (but also Positive Psychology interventions) with a certain amount of caution.

There will always be gurus who claim to know the way, and Facebook/Twitter are full of posts such as “These are the 7 things successful/rich/happy people do before breakfast”. These people greatly underestimate human individuality – and the power of context and timing.

Positive Psychology researchers also suggests doing certain things (such as being grateful frequently) but, in general, are very cautious when making claims about efficacy. Additionally, there’s a growing body of research investigating so-called fit models, showing that people may profit greatly from some Positive Psychology interventions, but may not do so with regard to other exercises, e.g., due to individual preferences. If you would like to find out more, I suggest checking out this research article: To each his own well-being boosting intervention: using preference to guide selection.

On Positive Psychology, Bullshit, and why you need a Chief Philosophy Officer (CPO)

At our recent onsite at Penn, we had a stimulating discussion on bullshit with James Pawelski – who wears the hat of MAPP´s academic director and at the same time that of Chief Philosophy Officer (CPO). Now the job of a philosopher is to sit in his/her armchair, ask you unnerving questions – and thereby shake the grounds of everything you ever believed in. Or at least something like that … which … probably … is a good thing. I don´t know.

By the way, that´s by far the easiest way to be philosophic: Just say “I don´t know” a lot. But you have to say it in a smirk philosophic kind of tone – or else, you´re just a dumbass who, well, doesn´t know stuff. Which brings me to the question: Do our schools teach us to be anti-philosophers? After all, saying “I don´t know” a lot in class will surely get you in trouble – while a decent capability in the fine art bullshitting can get you at least half-way through your Ph.D. program – and sometimes, published in first-tier journals.

So, I just wanted to write something along the lines of “But I digress…” to lead over to next section. Yet, curiously – I´m already there. Philosophy moves in mysterious ways…

When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off.

Positive Psychology = BullshitWhat is that thing: Bullshit? Well, what I like about philosophers so much is the fact that there are so many of them – and that they´ve started doing what they do (“philosophizing”…) more than 2,500 years ago. So there´s a really good chance that – whenever you have a question or a problem – some philosopher will already have thought about it. Most certainly, this is true for the subject of bullshit. Harry G. Frankfurt, professor emeritus of Princeton, has written a witty (and for a philosophical piece) pleasantly short and graspable essay on that overdue topic.

The essay starts with the skillfully crafted sentence “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.” and then moves on to explain why that could be the case; to finally define the nature of bullshit – especially in its relationship to adjacent concepts such as “truth” and “lie”. The following section represents a good synopsis of Frankfurt´s argument:

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

So where does Positive Psychology fit in here? And why is it really a good thing (I´m being honest to Flying Spaghetti Monster here!) to have a CPO somewhere at your side?

The truth is: a lot of the subjects in Positive Psychology sound like pure bullshit on the face of it. We´re all about well-being, happiness, virtues, meaning, and other fuzzy wishy-washy touchy-feely stuff. It is quite easy to get carried away in those diffuse realms of the conditio humana.* What separates Positive Psychology as a science from all that self-help literature out there is … well, that it´s a science. We give our best to approach that touchy-feely stuff with double-blind experiments, large-scale, and longitudinal research designs. We like to sell our pudding, point well-taken, but want to make sure first that there is enough scientific proof to it.

Our CPO James Pawelski really helps us to stay “grounded” while wrestling with all those new and exciting Positive Psychology concepts. He supports us in sharpening our minds while moving forward on our learning journey. He never gets tired of reminding us to be careful about what we say, how we say it, and to be aware of the assumptions our newfound knowledge is based upon.

And: he can talk for three hours nonstop just about the different meanings of the word “positive” in Positive Psychology. It´s a beautiful thing to behold.

What he does is absolutely essential. Already, there are prominent people out there that seem not to be able (or willing…) to grasp the difference between ordinary self-help lingo and the science of Positive Psychology. All the more we have to be careful. We have to know where our very own “red line” is – the one that crosses that grey area where talking about something we sufficiently know and understand turns into bullshitting. In Frankfurt´s words:

Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic.

Thus, I stop at this point. My knowledge of bullshit is exhausted.


*Throwing in some Latin or Greek in your writing makes you sound very philosophical. Especially, when you say “I don´t know” in Latin or Greek…

PowerPoint slide © James Pawelski; photographed by Katrina Calihan

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.

I´d really like to have your feedback on this one. Do you agree? Do you disagree? What did I forget?

The crucial Difference between ‘Positive Psychology’ and ‘Positive Thinking’

Here´s a dialogue I´ve gone through a lot of times lately – it goes a long the lines of this:

  • Friend: “Hey Nico, I´ve seen (on Facebook…) that you´re a student again. You´re at Penn, right?”
  • Nico: “Yep.”
  • Friend: “So what are doing?”
  • Nico: “I study positive psychology.”
  • Friend: “Oh yes, positive thinking. I really like that. You know, I´ve read … (substitute all kinds of self-help books by Joseph Murphy, Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, Rhonda Byrne, … , Tony Robbins).
  • Nico: “Duh…”

So, I´m not going to deny that there are a lot of 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. So where´s the difference, then?

Here I am, sitting in Jon Huntsman Hall at University of Pennsylvania, listening to some of the most widely-acclaimed psychologists of our time. And there are some sentences which I really hear a lot of the time. Here there are:

  • I was wrong.
  • I changed my mind.
  • I made a mistake.
  • I don´t know.
  • I´m not sure about…
  • We don´t know enough about…
  • We should really be careful to say…

I rest my case.