Bibliophilia: How Reading and Writing can Save our Soul

MAPP is a fulltime program – but combines onsite classes with long-distance learning periods. Part of the distance learning comprises a lot of reading (…who would have thought of that…) and writing essays about a wide array of positive psychology topics. I´ve decided to post some of those essays here on Mappalicious. Surely, they´re not the be-all and end-all of academic writing. But then again, it would also be a pity to bury them in the depths of my laptop…

Library - Mind - Hospital

I´ve visited the center of the earth. I´ve travelled 20.000 leagues under the sea. And I´ve toured around the world in 80 days. Three times, actually. And most of that journeying happened while sitting in the bathtub of my parent´s home. When I was a kid, I used to be a semi-professional tennis player. Upon returning home after long weekends of tournaments, I would head straight to my parent´s bathroom and into the bathtub – to stay there for hours and hours, until my skin would be all shriveled. Most of the times, my companion (and therefore, first literary love) would be Jules Verne, or rather, those heavy editions with linen covers of Verne´s most famous novels that my grandpa gave to my father – and my father to me. Ever since that time, I have been an enthusiastic reader. My taste in books changed, obviously. In came Stephen King, Jostein Gaarder, Nick Hornby, Douglas Adams, and even Joanne K. Rowlings Harry Potter, among others. And out they went again. For several years now, I have been reading non-fiction for the most part. But the pleasure of reading remains. For me, it is an act of uttermost hedonic value. But that is not what this essay is all about. Instead, I will try to convey how literature informs our understanding of (psychological) well-being, and how reading and writing can have a therapeutic effect and build psychological acumen and resiliency.

In the Beginning was the Word

There are many descriptions and analogies for the unique quality of the human race. Common wisdom from biology holds that we are “homo sapiens (sapiens)”, the knowing (or discerning) man (Semino, Passarino, Oefner, Lin, Arbuzova, Beckman, …, & Underhill, 2000). But that is by far not the only description for the “pride of creation”. There are researchers who argue the most important feature that distinguishes man from his mammalian ancestors is our ability to create, remember, and narrate stories – that we are “homo narrans”: the story-telling men (Niles, 1999). Through the narration of stories, man used to recollect and still does recollect his own history, interprets it, and transfers it to the future generation(s), thereby shaping Hegel´s “world spirit” that strives to recognize itself (Hegel, 1822).

But storytelling is almost never done for sheer fun of it, or for objectively reporting was has been before. Telling stories, be it in traditional oral style, in print, or some audio-visual presentation mode, almost always has some instructive, some prescriptive quality to it. Whoever creates or narrates the story oftentimes wants to instill a change in the recipient, wants him to know or even be something else when the story is over. This educational facet of storytelling can be traced all the way through the literary history, from Homer´s “Iliad” and “Odyssey” and Aesop´s fables, to early religious accounts such as the “Upanishads” and the Bible, to medieval works such as Dante´s “Divine Comedy”, Shakespeare´s works of drama (e.g., “Hamlet”), to the early (e.g. Goethe´s “Wilhelm Meister´s Apprenticeship”) and later (e.g. Dickens´s “Great Expectations”) “Bildungsroman” – all the way up to 20th century masterpieces such as de Saint-Exupéry “Little Prince” and New Age classics along the lines of Bach´s “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” or Coelho´s “Alchemist”.

Oftentimes, this educational element is conveyed by carefully depicting the protagonists´ lifestyles – in order to then confront the recipient with the outcomes of these modes of existence. By way of example, both Leo Tolstoy´s “The Death of Ivan Ilych” (1886/2010) and Willa Cather´s “Neighbour Rosicky” (1932/2010) try to educate the reader (among other things) on the value of and human need for close relationships. While Cather portrays the distinctly positive outcomes of understanding that “no man is an island”, Tolstoy´s narrative describes Ivan Ilyich as a human being that literally dies of social and emotional isolation. So, while both stories do not contain any “how-to advice” such as modern self-help books, it remains unequivocal that they try to convey some underlying and implicit understanding of human well-being, that they represent a prescription for “a life well-lived”.

It´s never too late to have a good Childhood*

A special and utmost important kind of story is the story that we tell about ourselves – to ourselves and other people. On that note, psychotherapy has long since discovered the importance of stories and story-telling. It´s not for nothing Freud´s Psychoanalysis is frequently referred to as a “talking cure”. More and more evidence emerges for the notion that being able to convey a coherent and meaningful account of one´s life is a fundamental building block of psychological well-being (Baerger & McAdams 1999). This idea is not only part of the academic literature, but also an important element of pop culture such as the “connecting the dots” element in Steve Jobs´ hugely popular Stanford Commencement Address (2005).

By now, there exists a multitude of ways that stories and storytelling are consciously imbedded into the psychotherapeutic process. By way of example, the branch of “Narrative Therapy” (Monk, Winslade, Crockett, & Epston, 1997) distinctly focuses on those (life) stories that a client brings into the therapeutic setting. Taking on another angle, Cinematherapy (Sharp, Smith, & Cole, 2002) and Bibliotherapy (Cuijpers, 1997) use the potential healing power of existing works of literature, poetry, and film to sow the seed for desirable changes in clients´ mental models and, subsequently, behavioral patterns. Taking on a more active approach, Writing Therapy (Pizarro, 2004) offers relief for patients suffering from severe stress and psychological trauma through the act of writing one´s own account of those stressful events. While the raw facts, the objective events that happened in the past, cannot be altered any more, it is very much possible to change once rational and emotional perception of that same past. It is absolutely possible to “come to terms” with one´s life history, e.g., by consciously creating mental distance to it, by altering its emotional valence, or retroactively finding a deeper meaning in what happened to us earlier (Pennebaker, 1997). Especially the act of discovering a heightened sense of meaning and purpose in life – which is a sign of post-traumatic growth (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004) – seems to have very beneficial on our psychological well-being (Singer, 2004).

But the favorable outcomes of writing are not limited to the stories of our past. Some psychologists, especially in the emerging field of Positive Psychology (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000), stress the importance of (possible) future events for our well-being. Seligman, Railton, Baumeister, and Sripada (2013) describe the human species as beings that are drawn by the future rather than being driven by the past. As such, actively engaging in the creation of a desirable future is a sign of optimal psychological functioning. On that note, positive psychologists have tried to create interventions that help to consciously facilitate the process of optimistic prospection. One of these interventions is based on visualizing and writing about one´s “best possible self” – where subjects are instructed to “imagine yourself in the future, after everything has gone as well as it possibly could” (Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2006, p. 77). Doing this regularly has shown to boost satisfaction with life and an optimistic mindset, among other things – even beyond the time of actively carrying out the exercise.

To draw to a close, I´d like to cite Joseph Campbell, the famous mythologist who discovered that most well-known stories follow a very similar pattern, the so-called “Monomyth” (“The Hero´s Journey” in the pop culture). Campbell once said in an interview: “We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.” Campbell´s monomyth theory posits that compelling stories can typically be structured into twelve different stages (Lang & Trimble, 1988). In stage eight, the hero is supposed to find a magic elixir that will help him to overcome his enemies and bring long-desired changes to the world from which he originally came. Personally, I hope that Positive Psychology will be mine…


Andrews, D. H., Hull, T. D., & Donahue, J. A. (2009). Storytelling as an instructional method: Definitions and research questions. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning, 3(2), 6-23.

Sharp, C., Smith, J. V., & Cole, A. (2002). Cinematherapy: Metaphorically promoting therapeutic change. Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 15(3), 269-276.

Baerger, D. R., & McAdams, D. P. (1999). Life story coherence and its relation to psychological well-being. Narrative Inquiry, 9(1), 69-96.

Cather, W. (2010). Neighbor Rosicky. In Obscure destinies (pp. 1-38). Oxford, UK: Oxford City Press. (Original work published in 1932).

Cuijpers, P. (1997). Bibliotherapy in unipolar depression: A meta-analysis. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 28(2), 139-147.

Hegel, G. W. F. (1822). The philosophy of history. New York: Dover Publications.

Jobs, S. (2005). Stanford Commencement Address, retrieved from:

Lang, J. S., & Trimble, P. (1988). Whatever happened to the Man of Tomorrow? An examination of the American monomyth and the comic book superhero. Journal of Popular Culture, 22(3), 157-173.

Monk, G.,Winslade, J., Crockett, K., & Epston, D. (Eds.). (1997). Narrative therapy in practice: The archaeology of hope. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Niles, J. D. (1999). Homo narrans. The poetics and anthropology of oral literature. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Pennebaker, J. W. (1997). Writing about emotional experiences as a therapeutic process. Psychological Science, 8(3), 162-166.

Pizarro, J. (2004). The efficacy of art and writing therapy: Increasing positive mental health outcomes and participant retention after exposure to traumatic experience. Art Therapy, 21(1), 5-12.

Seligman, M. E., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5-14.

Seligman, M. E., Railton, P., Baumeister, R. F., & Sripada, C. (2013). Navigating into the future or driven by the past. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8(2), 119-141.

Semino, O., Passarino, G., Oefner, P. J., Lin, A. A., Arbuzova, S., Beckman, L. E., … & Underhill, P. A. (2000). The genetic legacy of paleolithic homo sapiens sapiens in extant Europeans: AY chromosome perspective. Science, 290(5494), 1155-1159.

Sheldon, K. M., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2006). How to increase and sustain positive emotion: The effects of expressing gratitude and visualizing best possible selves. Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(2), 73-82.

Singer, J. A. (2004). Narrative identity and meaning making across the adult lifespan: An introduction. Journal of Personality, 72(3), 437-460.

Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (2004). Posttraumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundations and Empirical Evidence. Psychological Inquiry, 15(1), 1-18.

Tolstoy, L. (2010). The death of Ivan Ilych. New York: SoHo Books. (Original work published in 1886).

Vaughan, S. C. (1997). The talking cure: the science behind psychotherapy. New York: Putnam and Sons.

*That phrase is most commonly attributed to Novelist Tom Robbins.

Header picture taken from the Facebook fan page of Random House, Inc.

Positive Psychology: Standing on which Giants` Shoulders?

The MAPP program is a fulltime program – but combines onsite classes with long-distance learning periods. Part of the distance learning comprises a lot of reading (Who would have thought of that…) and writing essays about a wide array of positive psychology topics. I´ve decided to post some of those essays here on Mappalicious. Surely, they´re not the be-all and end-all of academic writing. But then again, it would also be a pity to bury them in the depths of my laptop…

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

Standing on a Lego GiantThe aforesaid quote from the Bible reminds us that we all are standing on the shoulders of giants in one way or another. While Positive Psychology as a science is a fairly new development within the greater framework of psychological science (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000), its roots can be traced back at least 2,500 years in time. In this essay, I intend to express how the research and practice of positive psychology has been and still is continuously informed by philosophy. I will do so by way of three examples: first and most circumstantial, the notion that our thinking is a powerful intermediary between the “world out there” and our experience of that world; second, the idea that living a life according to certain virtues is accompanied by an elevated level of psychological well-being; and third, the framework of positivity ratios in human development.

Is Buddha the architect of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)?

We are most likely the only mammals alive that can develop symptoms such as a depressive disorder (Sapolsky, 1998). Our superior ability to remember the past (Baddeley, 1998) and unique capability to prospect into the future (Seligman, Railton, Baumeister, & Sripada, 2013) have made us a very successful species – but also prone to psychological malfunctioning in case these “tools” are used improperly. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (Beck, 1995) posits that “the poison and the cure” for many of these malfunctions can be traced back to our thinking processes. In his seminal book “Learned optimism”, Seligman (1991) writes: “The way we think about this realm of life can actually diminish or enlarge the control we have over it. Our thoughts are not merely reactions to events; they change what ensues” (pp. 15-16).

This notion can be traced back (at least) all the way to Siddhartha Gautama, the first Buddha. In the Dhammapada (1. verse, 1. chapter, n.d.) he is cited with the words: “All mental phenomena are preceded by mind. Mind is their master, they are produced by mind.” Similar phrases that either point to the notion that the “thing itself” acquires its meaning only via the human mind, or that man is the master of his own fate by controlling his thoughts, can be found in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy (Epictetus: “In a word, neither death, nor exile, nor pain, nor anything of this kind is the real cause of our doing or not doing any action, but our inward opinions and principles.”; from Discourses, chapter 1, n.d.; similar quotes by Marcus Aurelius can be found). About 1,500 years later, Shakespeare (n.d.) puts equivalent words into Hamlet´s mouth in the second act of the second scene: “[…] there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” Another 300 years later, there is a related quote by Gandhi (n.d.): “A man is but the product of his thoughts. What he thinks, he becomes.” And finally, before becoming part of the scientific discourse in clinical psychology, the idea of “mind over matter” was propagated by new-age and self-help writers such as Dale Carnegie (1981): “It isn’t what you have or who you are or where you are or what you are doing that makes you happy or unhappy. It is what you think about it.”

Nowadays, the influence of mental processes on our well-being is a well-documented scientific fact. It is the foundation of clinical interventions such as the “ABCDE” tool in CBT (Wells, 1997), as well as most positive (psychology) interventions (Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005). Therefore, it is safe to say that this branch of psychology was heavily informed by the aforementioned philosophers and writers of the past, especially when taking into account that Martin Seligman, one of positive psychology´s founding fathers, earned a bachelor´s degree in philosophy at Princeton before turning his mind towards psychology (Positive Psychology Center, University of Pennsylvania, n.d.).

A Touch of Aristotle

The aforementioned educational background of Martin Seligman might also (partially) explain the strong presence of another “godfather of philosophy”, namely Aristotle. One of the first hallmark projects after the founding of positive psychology was the creation of a compendium of 24 human strengths that group into 6 overarching virtues (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Aristotle is mentioned 23 times in that textbook. Among other sages of his time, Aristotle proposed that a life worthwhile of living should entail the presence of Eudaimonia which can loosely be translated into the English term “flourishing”. In Aristotle´s opinion, the key to experiencing eudaimonia is leading one´s life according to certain virtues, where a virtue is seen as the middle point between two vices (e.g., courage lies between cowardice and daredevilry). In light of the frequent references to Aristotle it can be assumed that Peterson and Seligman´s idea of character strengths and virtues was heavily influenced by the Greek philosopher. Over the recent years, some evidence on the connection between the presence of character strengths and well-being has been gathered. While not all of the 24 strengths display a distinct correlation with variables such as life satisfaction, concepts such as hope, zest, gratitude, love, and curiosity seem to be present more often in people that report high levels of psychological well-being (Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2004).

From defining “the Positive” to Systems Intelligence

In addition to standing on the shoulders of bygone giants, positive psychology is also heavily influenced by contemporary philosophers such as Schneider (2001) and Pawelski (2012). Both researchers aid the scientific study of well-being, for instance, by trying to define (and refine) important constructs in positive psychology. By way of example: when the discipline was founded at the onset of the third millennium, it was not utterly clear, e.g., what the term “positive” in positive psychology is actually referring to. 15 years later, we have made some progress pertaining to that question. Pawelski (2012) points out that the “positive” in positive psychology cannot just be the absence of something negative. (Psychological) well-being cannot be explained by looking at what is not there (e.g., unhappiness, mental illness). In recent years, this viewpoint also receives more and more empirical support (Huppert & Whittington, 2003).

Yet, philosophers do not only refine the methodology of positive psychology – they also convey valuable impulses for psychological phenomena to be explored and possible interventions in the context of these phenomena. For instance, an issue that has received a lot of attention in positive psychology is the notion of “positivity ratios”. Fredrickson and Losada (2005) argue that it is possible to enter into an upward spiral of well-being when one manages to experience a significant surplus of positive over negative emotions. While it remains unclear up to now where the exact “tipping point” lies (Brown, Sokal, & Friedman, 2013), there remains a lot of evidence for the idea that, in order for a person to flourish, he or she has to experience positive emotions considerably more often than negative feelings (Fredrickson, 2013). Interestingly, this does not only hold true for a person´s “internal emotional chemistry” but also for the chemistry between two people. John Gottman, one of the world´s most renowned researchers on the subject of marriage was repeatedly able to show that a marriage flourishes when the interactions between the spouses display a ratio of approximately 5:1 in favor of positive (micro-) interactions (Gottman, Coan, Carrere, & Swanson, 1998).

This need for a distinct positivity bias in daily life is also proposed by a contemporary philosopher from Finland, Esa Saarinen. He and his coworkers posit that one way to achieve human flourishing is the development of systems intelligence which is defined as “intelligent behaviour in the context of complex systems involving interaction and feedback” (Luoma, Hämäläinen, & Saarinen, 2010, p. 1). An important framework within systems intelligence is the notion of “Systems of Holding Back in Return and in Advance” (Hämäläinen & Saarinen, 2008, p. 824). These systems can be regarded as a downward spiral in personal interactions because “there is a bias in human mental constitution to be more aware of the contributions others fail to make to me than of the contributions I fail to make to others” (p. 824). The framework seems to mirror important aspects of the research on positivity ratios in positive psychology.

In light of the distinct overlaps between philosophy and the research and practice of positive psychology, it is therefore reasonable to assume these two disciplines will continue to cross-fertilize in the arena of human interaction. And one day, maybe, there will be something new under our sun.


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