Category Archives: happiness

Extending Ikigai: The 6P framework

Most people are familiar with the Japanese concept of Ikigai or what makes you jump out of your bed in the morning and enables you to look forward with joy to the work activities of the day.

In a nutshell, its finding the sweet spot between what you are good at, what you love doing, what the word needs and what the world can pay you for. Today I want to extend this framework when it comes to thinking about why one works and why one should, or indeed does, choose one career over another.

Before proceeding ahead I will like to quickly recap the job, career, calling distinction made by Amy Wrezesnewicki when it comes to attitudes towards work. The particular orientation one has towards work has implications for motivation etc a succinctly summarized in image below:

Now, what I propose is a 6P framework of thinking about what factors should or do affect career choice: Pay, Pleasure, Power, Potential, Purpose and Passion. I claim that people with a job orientation would be driven by Pay and Pleasure; those with career orientations by Power and Potential ; while those having primarily a calling orientation would be driven by Purpose and Passion.

But to appreciate that claim we need to drill down into what the 6P’s stand for.

Pay is about providing for the basic necessities of life: in an ideal career choice, it should provide enough so that basic necessities are taken care of and money in not the top-of-the-mind concern. When you are primarily motivated by Pay to the exclusion of other needs than it becomes problematic. But while you are driven by Pay for your career choices you are primarily in job orientation and do not derive that much satisfaction/ happiness form your work.

Pleasure is all about having a comfortable and relaxed work schedule and atmosphere; one wants to do stress free work as far as possible; viewed from another angle you want to do work you enjoy on a daily basis. Your guidance for selecting or remaining in a career would be whether you love what you do. I would argue that one is still in job orientation and focusing on hygiene factors or at best perks that do not lead to lasting fulfillment.

Power is the desire to wield influence over others and to be recognized by others as being a person of high status. One looks forward to roles sand responsibilities which are prestigious and provide opportunities to showcase one’s skills and abilities. Having power does lead to more satisfaction/ better health as evidenced by the ill health and unhappiness amongst those who are not in a position of power in an organization. Many people get a real dopamine boost from thinking how big a team size they manage or how many people report to them.

Potential as I refer to it here is the ability of the job to tap into your inherent potential and capabilities and provide growth opportunities. Some jobs are dead end jobs- may give you good money, be comfortable and even have power associated, but they do not grow you as a person/ professional. How one can char a personal career roadmap where one is growing is top of the mind for many people while choosing / sticking with careers. Here they are functioning primarily in career orientation as they do when driven by Power.

Purpose is all about finding the work meaningful and being able to feel useful and contributing. Meaningfulness arises form working towards a cause bigger than oneself where one make a difference in the real world around them. People who are guided by purpose, its my thesis will be primarily having a calling orientation for work and assume a higher purpose behind whatever they choose to devote their time to.

Passion is about being driven by things that are aligned with your deepest values and motivations and which again you feel called for. You are so invested in those activities and have become so passionate about them, that that work has become your second nature. Passion that you have cultivated, and which is aligned with your values, makes work energizing and deeply rewarding- it may not be fun always but you will persevere and see it through and have a satisfaction when done.

You can also see that while Pay, Power and Purpose are focused on the outer world and slightly dependent on external factors, Pleasure, Potential and Passion are more related to our inner world and more in our control.

So what do you think of this extended framework? Would it guide your career choice henceforth? Which factor do you prioritize as of now? Which would you like to prioritize in the future?

4 Life Goals, 4 Selves

I have blogged previously about the 4 major goals of life: Happiness (H), Success (S), Meaning (M) and Morality/Virtue (V). Each goal is important in itself and a healthy human being constantly balances all four goals for optimal outcome.

Some people group all of these major goals of life under the umbrella term of happiness, differentiating between say Hedonic happiness (H) from Eudiamonic happiness (V). I recently came across an excellent article by Paul Wong about Positive Psychology 2.0 (PP2.0) in which he adds Prudential happiness (S) and Chaironic (M?) happiness to the mix. To quote:

2. Prudential Happiness

Feelings of satisfaction that come primarily from living a fully engaged life. It often includes the “flow” and the intrinsic joy of doing something one does best and enjoys doing. It refers to a person’s doing well in what she is good at and what delights him without moral considerations (Haybron, 2000). It represents the active pathway to happiness, because it fills one’s life with activities and content as an antidote to boredom and inner void, and it also provides satisfaction for a job well done.

From the above, its clear that Hedonic happiness goal is mostly about reducing negative emotions and increasing positive emotions (the P of PERMA) while Prudential happiness is about increasing engagement/ accomplishments (E/A of PERMA). Similarly, while Eudiamonic happiness is about building up virtue via say close relationships (R of PERMA), while Chaironic happiness goal may be to increase meaning (M of PERMA).

Different permutations and combinations are possible. Subjective well-being (SWB) for eg. is the result of H (happiness as measured by +ve emotions) and S (Success as measured by life satisfaction); Paul Wong extends the construct of eudiomnia to include both Meaning (M) and Virtue (V). H is an affective component of well-being while life satisfaction (correlated with S) is an evaluative component.

Now consider the multiple selves that we are made up of. One framework that I had elaborated earlier extended the experiencing self- remembering self distinction of Kahneman here.

There I had posited that behind the unitary self lies a materialistic self, an experiencing self, a remembering self and a prospective self. Today I want to modify that model a bit and posit that the four selves are:

  1. Experiencing Self: the self associated with momentary moment-by-moment fleeting emotions and feelings. If the moment to moment feelings are of positive valence then one would be happy as per this self’s perspective. Neurally this is anchored in the ‘like’ system anchored in the endogenous opioid system. This self would anchor the H (happiness) life goal. This is used for perceiving the present.
  2. Remembering Self: the self associated with retrospective evaluations of ones experiences and relying on say memory of event. Here Kahneman conflates it with the narrative self, but there are important differences. Despite the reconstructive nature of past, this self reconstructs what happened to the subject rather than what the subject did. If the event is interpreted as being positive (say goal has been achieved) feelings of success and contentment happen. Neurally this is anchored in ‘want’ dopamine system as posited by Berrdige. This retrospective memory drives our many decisions and makes us want what we may not like. This self would anchor the S (success ) life goal. This is used for reconstructing the past.
  3. Prospective /Agentic Self: the self associated with goals, virtues and character strengths. One strives forward in an agentic fashion based on anticipatory images of future. Agency and Communion as basic social motives are both important and part of this moral agency stance. While the experiencing self is a more-or-less passive recipient of experiences, and which basks in the positive experiences when they happen; the agentic self as an actor which has imbibed habits of acting morally so as to feel good by doing good. This self anchors the Virtue (V) goal. This is used for imagining future.
  4. Narrative Self: the self associated with fitting the earlier selves into a coherent, integrated narrative or story so that we have a unified experience. The self is created by weaving a narrative around perceived present, reconstructed past and imagined future. Meaning making is important here and this self anchors the Meaning (M) goal. This differs from remembering self in as much as it narrates or interprets the active elements – oneself as the hero of ones story. While the agentic self may make some (intuitive) moral choices , the interpretive/ narrative self justifies and rationalizes it. This is very much apparent in the case of split brain patients which led to left-brain interpreter findings.

So my basic premise is that these four types of self are behind the four major types of striving or goals. As an aside, the Happiness (affective), Success (evaluative), Virtue (moral) and Meaning (cohenrnce) also align well with pathos (emotions), logos (reason), ethos (conscience) and mythos (plot) respectively as used in ancient Greece to persuade people. Hope you are persuaded by the above model:-)

The Pursuit of Happiness

Would we be more happy if we pursued happiness vigorously? Or would we be more happier if we let life flow as it happens and enjoy the journey rather than focusing on a destination where we would be happy? From an abundance of positive psychology research we know that instead of thinking about and planning for being happy in the future, say when we get that coveted promotion, its better to enjoy the process and journey and be present in the moment.

However, many positive psychologists, including myself, do place a high premium on doing things or making choices according to the principle of whether that will lead to more happiness or meaning in life. Tal Ben Shahar goes to the extent of saying that happiness is the ultimate currency and we should be evaluating all actions and rewards as per that currency. Michael Fordyce , who had given fourteen fundamental principles to be happy, included VALHAP or Valuing Happiness as one of the principles. There was a ratio in psychology proposed by Barabara Fredrickson as well as others like at Jon Gottman lab that proposed that one flourishes when one has say 6 positive interactions or emotions to each negative emotions or interactions; the idea being that one should try to increase positivity in ones life. There is an entire self help industry based on the premise that its better to be happier than otherwise and that there are strategies and tips and tricks one can and should use to become happier.

So does focusing intently on happiness lead to more happiness or does so intense a focus on pursuing happiness paradoxically leads to reduced happiness and well being? There is some research that suggests exactly that- too much focus on pursuing or prioritizing self happiness leads to paradoxically more loneliness, and becoming unhappy.

What could be happening here? A recent study has looked at one possible mechanism, basically concluding that a relentless focus on pursuing happiness might lead to feelings of time scarcity which in turn lead to feelings of disappointment and unhappiness. As per the authors, when you set happiness as an end goal, and believe that achieving happiness will require some time commitment, and if you haven’t already achieved your ideal happiness state, you are likely to feel burdened in the sense that you don’t have enough time to achieve that ideal state and that leads to feelings that time is slipping away. This feeling that you are not able to become happy and need to invest more time and that time is slipping away leads to subtraction from your current level of happiness.

The authors did some clever studies to arrive at this conclusion- and as the paper is freely available – so you should read it in full. The basic procedure was initially showing a correlation between people who are seeking happiness and those who feel time is scarce (the more you seek happiness, the scarcer time becomes for you).  In later studies they showed that when study participants were actively seeking happiness and that need was not fulfilled , they felt that time was less available as compared to those who were not seeking happiness or those whose need for happiness was fulfilled. In another experiment, they showed that if participants came to believe that happiness requires more time and efforts vis-a-vis that happiness requires little effort or time , then those who believed happiness required more time showed time scarcity and reduced happiness as compared to control subjects. Also it was found that laypeople typically believe that happiness requires a lot of time and is effort-full. They could also show using mediation analysis that time scarcity was indeed the mediating variable that lead to reduced happiness in those seeking happiness.

What does all this mean for people who want to be happy or spread happiness or enable others to become happier? One take away is that one needs to differentiate between valuing happiness and actively seeking or pursuing it.  While the former is good to have, the latter may be detrimental to well being. The second take away is that while encouraging people and self to value or prioritize happiness its important to emphasize that happiness can be found in simple things that require little time or effort, like remembering to smell the roses, and not necessarily by revamping one’s life or having one or more big happiness projects.

A word of caution here, personal striving or some big personal projects , may or may not lead to happiness, but if they are meaningful, even if they lead to difficult times, they provide a direction and guide for the life and are very important to have. After all happiness is not the be all and end all of life.

But the major takeaway is that don’t feel pressured to be happier all the time, value happiness but don’t get into a rat race for being the happiest person on the earth.  Negative emotions have their own utility and in either case madly running after happiness wont make you happier by itself- it may do more harm than good!

Worldwide Happiness: Causes and Correlates

The World Happiness Report 2018 has been published today (but no e-copy is available yet), so I will wait for the e-copy to became available. Meanwhile, as I was anticipating the report and was in an analytical mood, I reread the World Happiness Report 2017 and want to share some of my thoughts and observation based around that while we get ready for the new report to take the conversation forward.


GDP (PPP) Per Capita based on 2008 estimates h...

GDP (PPP) Per Capita based on 2008 estimates (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The World Happiness reports are  based around measuring life satisfaction using a Cantril ladder and this is used as a proxy for happiness/ subjective well-being in most of the analysis. Sometimes, positive and negative affect, as experienced the day before, is also used as a measure of experiential happiness.


The world happiness report measures happiness of more than 150 countries, sampling about 1000 respondents in each country and uses data from Gallup World Poll. The Cantril ladder measures national happiness on a  scale form 0 to 10 and the top 10 happiest nations have an average national happiness level of about 7.4, while the most miserable, bottom 10 nations had an average national happiness of only about 3.4 , thus there being around 4 point gap of happiness that if bridged can make the world more happier.


The report measures six other correlates viz GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, social freedom, generosity, and absence of corruption, constructs that are theoretically and empirically linked to well-being. As expected GDP per capita and healthy life expectancy, which are indications of material prosperity,  do have an impact on national happiness, but the rest of the four factors that make up the social fabric of the country have a much larger effect.


To illustrate, social support was measured by a yes/no answer to the question as to whether one could count on someone in times of need. If one could move 10 % more people (who reported no) towards yes, then the increase in national happiness is predicted to be of the same amount that would be achieved by doubling the per capita GDP. And of course doubling the per capita GDP is much more difficult than ensuring that 10 % more population have someone they can count to in times of stress.


Similar effect, though of lower magnitude, was present for the rest of the social indicators. Also, other parameters like Gini coefficient which measures income inequality , and well-being inequality itself, were found to be associated with lower national well-being.


The case that economic growth and GDP is not the be all and end all, is aptly illustrated by the case study of China. China raised its GDP five fold between 1990’s and 2015-16, but the Subjective well- being (SWB) actually declined. The SWB during this period was U shaped with a trough in 2000-05, while the GDP was actually increasing and inflation at an all time low. As per this economic trend, SWB should have increased or at least maintained it 1990’s levels.


However, the situation becomes crystal clear when one looks at graphs showing unemployment rate and social fabric/ safety net indices (pension/ health benefits) during the same time which clearly paint a different picture of China’s economy and social method of alleviating misery structure. The unemployment rates peaked in 2000-05 while the safety net showed a trough, and this causally explained the trough in SWB much better, than the GDP story. Further analysis showed that it is those who are at lower rungs of economic ladder who are most affected in such circumstances.


The story of America is similar: per capita GDP growth which has tripled since 1960 has not lead to corresponding gains in happiness; as a matter of fact SWB is declining while GDP is growing in recent years. This is attributed to breakdown in social fabric.


An interesting fact that was highlighted by data from African nations, was that happiness depends on good governance and this can be conceptualized as both the ability to deliver services as well as democratic institutions. It was found that ability to deliver services was much more important, at least in African context, and people of Africa were willing to trade democracy for access to services.


The report also had a section on how we can best alleviate misery and increase happiness for the maximum people; increasing income, increasing years of education, reducing unemployment, ensuring people stay married/ have a partner, preventing physical illness and preventing mental illness (depression and anxiety) were all considered important as each of this predicts happiness. However, it was found that the mots cost effective is by focusing on alleviating mental illness as that impact happiness levels more than anything, including physical illness.


Another analysis showed that emotional health at age 16 was better predictor of adult happiness than academic competence at that age. This makes a strong case for focusing on emotional and behavioral development of children and for positive education.


Another section of the report looked at work determinants of happiness and found that unemployment was again a big no-no, causing a lot of misery directly and indirectly even in those not unemployed. Of course blue collar workers had lower satisfaction levels than white collar workers and the usual factors that affect job and overall satisfaction, like autonomy at work were highlighted.


Overall, I think its a wake up call to policy makers, to focus more on social determinants of happiness and not get obsessed by economic indices like per capita GDP.  I’m hoping 2018 report builds on these earlier observation and makes a strong case for policy changes.

The Four Kinds of Happiness

I have written previously about four major goals that one pursues in life: to recap they are Happiness, Success, Meaning and Morality. I have increasingly come to regard them as forming a stage wise progression- one moves from Happiness to Success to Meaning to Morality.


Aristotle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Its important to clarify here that by Happiness I mean here pleasure or the Pleasant life, as contrasted with the Successful life, the Meaningful life or the Virtuous life. Refer the Life Orientation Profile by Paul TP Wong.

One can even say that initially as a child/ adolescent, one is primarily driven by pleasant life; then in early adulthood the focus is on achieving success; in late adulthood the focus shifts to helping others and connecting to a bigger whole (meaning) and finally in old age the focus is entirely on being moral/spiritual.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that thousands of years earlier, Aristotle too had delineated four kinds of happiness worth striving for, I am mixing that with the three levels of happiness as elaborated by Nettle in his book Happiness: the science behind your smile.

  1. Laetus: Happiness derived from material objects; this is the domain of material and sensual pleasures; its also the domain of felt emotions on a day to day basis. The idea is to maximize positive emotions and minimize negative emotions. People primarily driven by this have the pleasant life orientation. These are momentary feelings of joy and pleasure as per Nettle. I refer to this as happiness in the colloquial sense.
  2. Felix: Happiness comes from ego gratification, being compared with others and coming out on top; this is the domain of achievement and competition. There is a lot of social comparison involved; you evaluate your life with reference to the life of others. Life satisfaction is a construct proper in this domain, where you implicitly compare yourselves with others and having more money can help you feel better here. People primarily driven by this have the successful life orientation. These are judgements or evaluations about feelings as per Nettle; your life satisfaction arises from how you perceive you are feeling relative to others. I refer to this as Success.
  3. Beatitudo: Happiness comes from helping others, and making the world a better place; this is the domain of altruism and co-operation. The orientation shifts from self to others.  There is drive towards generativity,  of living a meaningful life. People need to feel that their lives have meaning and they are contributing to a greater cause. People primarily driven by this have meaningful life orientation. These represent higher level of meaning as per Nettle. I refer to this as Meaning.
  4. Sublime Beatitudo: Happiness comes from being a moral person; experiencing moral joy of being a transcendent person whose nature is unconditional love.  There is drive towards living life in harmony with ones deepest values. People primarily driven by this have a virtuous life orientation. I refer to this as morality/ Integrity.

What is interesting is that one can find tantalizing neural and chemical correlates of above four kinds of happiness, I am extending the FTI model of Helen Fisher to happiness domain:

  1. Pleasant life: Material pleasure is associated with Dopamine system. All sorts of pleasure or rewards are associated with dopamine. Thus pleasure= dopamine. On the flip side, endorphins that are anti-pain may also be associated with this system. The focus is squarely on maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. Helen fisher also calls this the curious/energetic temperament.
  2. Successful life: Achievement and competitiveness are strongly associated with Testosterone system. All sorts of aggression and active competition can be traced to high testosterone. On the flip side, when the other party is too strong (say a predator), then if one wants to do something other than passive freezing, then flight or fight system kicks in and adrenaline (epinephrine) calls the shots. The focus is on winning/ fighting and succeeding. Helen Fisher calls this analytical/ tough-minded temperament.
  3. Meaningful life: Helping others and cooperation are strongly related to estrogen/Oxytocin system. All sorts of cuddling, bonding and trusting happens as a result of oxytocin and vasoprassin. On the flip side, I speculate that excessive self-centredeness may result in endocannaboid release and may also be part of this system. Helen Fisher calls this pro-social/ empathetic temperament.
  4. Virtuous life: Morality and integrity are associated with Serotonin. Serotonin is involved in both preventing harm and ensuring fairness- the two major dimensions of moral behavior. Religion and traditionalism would also be valid associates here. On the flip side, I see anti-anxiety GABA playing a role here. Helen Fisher calls this the cautious/ social norm compliant temperament.

To me the fact that one can come to the four kinds of happiness from multiple sources, vouches for their validity and utility; and the fact that we have some tantalizing candidates of ‘happy chemicals’ that can be mapped to the four kinds of happiness is another converging evidence.

4 Answers to the Purpose of Life

People sometimes ask what is the purpose of life? Why should we exist or chose to continue existing? To them I typically pose a counter question, what purpose would *you* like to have for life and can you live your life ‘as if’ that is the purpose of life?  See an example answer I provide here about the meaning/ purpose of life.


However, this post is not about such philosophical questions.  Instead it builds on my previous posts about 4 major goals in life worth striving for. To recap the four major goals are 1) Happiness 2) Success 3) Morality 4) Meaning.

Sometimes you come across a blog toward which you feel a natural affinity and know where the blogger is coming from. I recently came across the blog Qualia Computing and was fascinated by some advanced common understanding about psychological issues that the blog author shows. For example, in this post the author asserts that purpose of life is

  1. To Understand the Universe

  2. To be Happy, and Make Others Happy

Also, later, the author asserts that any experience is valuable to the extent that it answers in affirmative to one or more of these questions:

  1. Does it feel good? (happy, loving, pleasant)

  2. Does it make you productive (in a good way)?

  3. Does it make you ethical?

Taken together with the earlier formulation about the purpose of life, one can add a fourth question 4) does it lead to better understanding (of the world) ?

Thus, imho, all actions should be guided by answers to the questions ‘would it make me happy, make me productive , would make me a good person or would make me understand things a bit more clearly? ‘

So how does all this relate to psychological concepts? For starters, there is a big debate in psychology about the difference between happiness and meaningfulness and also as to which one is a legitimate aim to strive for? While some would like us to believe that happiness is the ultimate currency, new research suggests that Meaningfulness in life has its own importance and that both are valuable outcomes in themselves and predict other valued outcomes.

Moving beyond a narrow focus on oneself- whether to be happy or lead a meaningful life; one is also hounded by the desire to make a positive difference or contribution to the world around us.  Some of us want to put a ding in the universe and leave our marks, while others are much more OK living a mediocre life , that is, content creating and leaving some small ripples around them.

The desire to create an impact leads us to the interpersonal sphere- where traits of competence and warmth are important. If someone needs our help we can either provide them practical help (similar to problem focused coping) based on our competence, or just be there for them (similar to emotion focused coping) based on our warmth and again create small ripples of kindness around us. Or we can also create a big impact by being outstanding in our field using our competence or becoming a  paragon of a character strength by using our warmth.

In either case, one purpose of life may be to increase productivity to become more and more successful (in helping others) and the other may be to become more and more ‘good’ or moral and doing the small, everyday right things that make a difference.  This is the contrast between being great and being good. This is also the contrast between being characterized mostly by doings or by beings.

In the happiness literature itself, there is a contrast between feeling happy (measured by presence of positive affect and absence of negative affect) and knowing that you are happy (life satisfaction etc), so the point being that there is also a contrast between feeling and knowing just like there is a contrast between doing and being.

In sum, the following four are the purposes of life:

  1. to be happy by feeling preponderance of positive emotions
  2. to be successful by doing a lot with a lot less (being productive)
  3. to be moral by being good and caring about others
  4. to be purposeful by knowing that what you do has value/ meaning

If we keep these four goals top of our minds, it is much more likely that our lives will turn out to be beautiful lives and we will feel less the need to ask the purpose of our lives!!

Research Summaries: Positive predictors of teacher effectiveness

If you have ever wondered what goes on to make an effective teacher, this research paper by Angela Duckworth and colleagues, throws some light on the issue.

English: LaPlace, La., October 8, 2005 - Dan W...

English: LaPlace, La., October 8, 2005 – Dan Waldman (left), left without a job as a high school teacher at Signature Centers High School in New Orleans when it was flooded by Hurricane Katrina, has been hired by FEMA and is now at the LaPlace Disaster Recovery Center, 160 Belle Terre, and is in training to become a DRC manager. He is a member of the “Teach For America” program that places new teachers into inner city and low-income area schools around the nation. Win Henderson / FEMA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  1. Teaching is a stressful job; in majority of cases, you are not able to see the impact of your work immediately or at all; hence the frequent teacher burnout or high attrition.
  2. Traditionally its thought that competence in subject matter or certifications would be a good predictor of teacher effectiveness. However , these measures typically fail to distinguish those performing well from those performing just bare minimal.
  3. When one looks at other factors like personality factors, extarverted or ‘attractive’ teachers get better ratings from students/ observers; however they don’t have any real impact on actual student performance when measured by gains in knowledge.
  4. This study looked at grit, life satisfaction and optimism of teachers as predictors of their effectiveness which will distinguish high performing teachers from the mediocre.
  5. They conducted a prospective longitudinal study wherein, grit, life satisfaction and optimistic explanatory style of novice Teach for America teachers was measured before they started school year. The gains in academic performance of the students they taught was used as an indicator of their effectiveness at the school year end.
  6. Grit, the ability to work hard under challenging circumstances, may be relevant to teacher effectiveness as they do face constant challenges, and so this was measured using the 8 item short Grit scale.
  7. Happy people do well in a number of different work settings as those who are in a positive mood are more likely to work towards their goals;  also they have  more resources to cope with stress and challenges, as per broaden and build theory of positive emotions. Also, the energy and enthusiasm of those teachers satisfied with life may be contagious and make students happy and thus more productive. Life satisfaction was measured by Satisfaction with Life Scale.
  8. Optimistic explanatory style may be relevant as when faced with repeated challenges those with pessimistic explanatory style may become helpless and give up, as compared to those with optimistic style who may remain resilient.  This was measured using Attributional Style Questionnaire.
  9. All three positive traits predicted teacher effectiveness.  When all were simultaneously used to predict the teacher effectiveness outcome, only grit and life satisfaction were significant predictors. It thus seems that optimism works via grit and life satisfaction.
  10. As this is a prospective longitudinal study the results do hint at causality, though reverse causality like effectiveness leading to life satisfaction cannot be ruled out.
  11. The authors conclude by suggesting that schools should perhaps hire for grit, happiness and optimism too. This is where I get a little uncomfortable; in an ideal world, I would welcome anyone who has a passion for teaching (the passion part of grit is taken care of 🙂 ) and equip them with tools like training to increase perseverance, hope and happiness to make them more effective. I am always ambivalent about measuring a trait and then hiring for it. To be fair the authors also suggest interventions in schools to increase grit , hope etc of teachers. I wish there was more of latter than former in the world that we live in.

So if you found this interesting and want to dig deep, check out the original paper here.

Research Summaries: Positive Psychology in Clinical Practice

Review articles are themselves supposed to be a summary of a field of inquiry, so it appeared queer summarizing a review article; but here I go. This post summarizes a 2005 review article appearing in Annual Review of Clinical Psychology. As it is more than a decade since the publication of this article by Martin Seligman, Angela Duckworth and Tracy Steen, I think it is appropriate to see how far the field has come since then and what still remains to be done.

  1. Positive psychology (PP), in this article, is seen through the triple lens of focusing on subjective well-being or pleasure; flow, engagement, and strengths; and meaning in life. This is as contrasted with the traditional deficit focus of clinical psychology whereby one looks at diathesis (genetic vulnerability for disorders) and stress (environment acute events like death of a loved one and chronic conditions like poverty) to figure out causes of diseases and suffering. While not denying the importance of ‘fix-what’s-wrong’ , positive psychology takes a ‘build-what’s-strong’ approach.
  2. Antecedents of positive psychology can be seen in most earlier movements within psychology. For e.g., if one were to focus on Psychoanalysis, Freud’s pleasure principle, Adler’s ‘healthy’ strivings motivated by social interest and Fromm’s productive orientation, all relate to some aspects of the new positive psychology paradigm. However, Humanistic psychologists, like Rollo May are more closely and directly related to the positive psychology movement, with conditions for self-actualization (Maslow) or fully functioning person (Carl Roegrs) laying the groundwork for PP.
  3. Its usually insinuated that humanistic psychology was not empirical or evidence based, however research showing that people grow most when they live an authentic life aligned with their values;  or the co-opting of Jahoda’s six processes that lead to mental health by Carol Ryff et al in their wells-substantiated measure of Psychological well-being suggests that humanistic psychology had enough teeth.
  4. PP tenet no. 1: positive states and emotions and factors are not merely the lack of or inverse of negative states or emotions or factors. Thus, mental health and mental illness are two separate though correlated entities. Reducing your anger will not make you automatically more loving and caring; getting out of depression will not necessarily make you flourishing and happy.
  5. The authors try to fit their new framework of the Pleasant life, the Engaged Life and the Meaningful life into the earlier conceptualization of PP as consisting of a focus on positive states, traits and institutions. Please note that this framework has been subsequently extended to include the Accomplished life and the Connected (relationships) life in the newest PERMA model.
  6. In therapy, its important to note the buffers and resources a person has and measures of well-being can indicate the actual or potential positive functioning. They can also elucidate differential predictors. For e.g. positive satisfaction with life predicts less acting out in youth when stressed.
  7. Self-report measures like Satisfaction with Life scale, need to be conjunct with informant reports, experience sampling methods (ESM) etc to get a more cohesive picture. VIA survey can be used for identifying character strengths that can be useful in therapeutic context by providing therapists an insight into what strengths can be used for planning and executing interventions.
  8. Flow or engagement states can be identified using ESM and semi-structured interviews etc. However measuring the degree of flow is challenging to this day, I believe. However identifying the activities that lead to flow experiences may aid in therapy by making the client move towards more of such experiences.
  9. To discern how meaningful or purposeful one finds life, one can use narrative techniques like asking the client to treat his or her life as a book and give chapter titles, main characters and future possible plots to that life-as-book. Existential traditions do focus on meaning as a way to diagnose and treat and their marriage with PP leading to PP2.0 is the newest thing in town.
  10. PP makes sense in therapy as positive emotions or events undo the effects of negative emotions or events. No mention is made of the (in)famous 3:1 ratio (3 positive for each negative event or interaction)  required for the same! Resilient people also typically experience more positive emotions, hence PP in clinical practice makes sense.
  11. Many therapists are already using PP stuff like instilling hope, courage, authenticity in clients and these are perhaps the non-specific factors that ensure that any therapy works better than placebo.
  12. Active PP interventions can also help in therapy.  Some of the interventions reviewed were the early Fordyce’s ‘Act like happy people’ intervention, the ‘3 good things’ or gratitude journal based interventions (which have proven to be one of the most effective interventions), writing about intense positive experiences (which nobody talks about nowadays) , the random acts of kindness interventions, Gratitude visits, At your best write-ups, bibliotherapy and using strengths in a new way everyday. Results show that while most interventions lead to short term gains in happiness, (even placebo do), for long term gains, interventions that can become habits like counting 3 good things daily or  deploying strengths in a new way daily, work better.


The promise of positive psychotherapy is still to be fulfilled, though progress is being made in that direction. If you are a therapist planning to include PP approaches in therapy or a mental health service user or caregiver, you probably should read a bit about this new filed. For others too, if the paper seemed exciting check it out here.

Research Summaries: Productivity Orientation and the Consumption of Collectable Experiences

Today’s research summary is once again from the Journal of Consumer Research.  You can read the original article here.

  1. In the last research summary we looked at the notion of extraordinary experiences, or experiences that are rare and infrequent, and found that young people prefer them to build their experiential CV. The authors of this article refine this concept to come up with a concept of collectible experiences: experiences that are rare and infrequent, as well as novel and extreme.  An example may help clarify; while staying in an Ice hotel may always remain an extraordinary experience, it ceases to be a collectible experience if you have stayed in an ice hotel once.
  2. Extraordinary, as well as collectible experiences are targeted towards building an experiential CV. However, while the last research summary authors focused on the ability of extraordinary experiences to lead to happiness, the authors of this article focus on how collectible experiences are driven by a need to use time effectively by being productive and accomplishing things.
  3. They introduce the notion of Productivity orientation as the chronic need to use time efficiently, viewing time as a scarce resource, and being obsessed with making progress and being productive. This busy, and active, sort of life is epitomized nowadays in contrast to more laid back life. Even when on vacations or when indulging in leisure activities, those driven by a productivity orientation would choose different activities inline with their need for productivity. One form of activities, that are inline with productivity orientation are collectible experiences, that help collect diverse experiences, about which one can talk about or reflect as proud and memorable accomplishments.
  4. An example may help clarify. A person who has set for himself/ herself a goal of visiting all 50 states in US has an experiential checklist that he wants to tick off and the experiences he wants in each state would be something memorable and not just a layover. They are also more likely to take photos with landmarks in each state and collect postcards to preserve their memories. At least that is what a qualitative study the authors performed found.  The experiences of visiting each state at least once would be a collectible experience for the first time the journey to the state is undertaken.
  5. When given a choice between a pleasurable alternative like watching favorite DVDs on the airport while in layover, or exploring the city in extreme snowing weather, some people will often choose the memorable experience over the merely pleasurable one. This is because the not-so-pleasureful event is a collectible experience and will help build the experiential CV.  This preference is heightened in the case of people who have chronic productivity orientation or are primed to feel as if time should be utilized properly.
  6. Now you may be wondering how did the authors measure productivity orientation? besides self-reports on a few select behaviors, they used observational studies , like whether someone is checking smartphone or reading while waiting for the train to come. They also used the fact as to whether a person has set his watch faster that the actual time to determine productivity orientation. They also primed productivity orientation by making subjects read and think about benefits of productivity.
  7. How do you ensure that when an ice hotel in Quebec is compared to a Florida vacation, other factors like locational preferences do not contaminate your observations?  For this they used framing the same alternative as pleasurable or memorable/collectible and contrasting with a control alternative. An example may help clarify. Subjects were given choice between a regular chocolate truffle (control variable ) and a chocolate truffle with spices (experimental variable) and the chocolate truffle with spices was described as ‘delicious and tasty’ in pleasure condition and ‘unique and exotic’ in the collectible condition. Thus the choice between the differently framed alternatives will validly distinguish preference for collectible or pleasurable experiences.
  8. In all they conducted eight or so studies and reliably showed that those with a chronic productivity orientation or those rimed with a concern with productivity chose collectible experiences over pleasurable ones. in the last research summary we saw that young people derived more happiness from extraordinary events than ordinary events.  It would be interesting to see if young people, given the society’s expectations for them to be productive, also choose more collectible experiences over older people, and older people are more happy in part because they are no longer required to be obsessed by productivity and can focus more of their energies on getting happiness from and preferring more pleasurable activities.  Maybe retiring from work has  spill over effect on productivity orientation.
  9. In terms of marketing, this has important implications. For those selling time share vacation etc at malls, railway stations etc, it would help if they have two differently framed brochures that they can hand to consumers- one describing the vacation plan/ any other product as exotic/ once in a life time sort of thing and the other describing the same thing as pleasurable, relaxing etc, and target these differently based on whether someone is constantly using his smartphone etc to make full use of his time or is more laid back.
  10. For the rest of us, it would be good if we could assess our own productivity orientation and make more conscious decisions of how we use our leisure time and vacation time in the future.

If this has piqued your interest sufficient check out the original paper here.

Evolution of the 4 Emotion Dimensions

PAD is a popular dimensional theory of emotions, whereby all emotions can be classified on three dimensions: Pleasure (Pleasant- Unpleasant), Arousal (Ready-Relaxed), and Dominance (Control- Lack of control). To this model has been added a fourth dimension called Predictability (Ambiguous- Certain) (please see my earlier post for why this fourth dimension is relevant).

Manga emotions

Manga emotions (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As an example, anger and fear are both unpleasant emotions, but angry person is in control (has high dominance) while a fearful person is not in control of the situation.

Similarly, both contentment and excitement are pleasant emotions, but the former is low arousal and the latter high arousal.

Thus, emotions differ on four basic dimensions. I’ll address each of these dimensions below:

Pleasure (pleasant – unpleasant). This is similar to pleasure-pain polarity as highlighted by Millon and works at the Affective level in the ABCD model. The pleasure polarity addresses the physiological needs (Maslow’s hierarchy, see here) for maintaining body, while the pain polarity ensures that we stay out of harm’s way and take care of our safety needs. If one were to measure well-being related to this dimension, the appropriate measure would be something like PANAS, a difference between your positive affect and negative affect. In a nutshell, this is characterized by in-the-moment feelings and if your needs are met here, you live a happy life in the hedonic sense. The existential challenge would be body-givennenss and what to do given the body- a potential answer being – survive and protect body integrity.

This dimension, related to feelings, may have evolved to help our bodies/genes survive. If something leads to unpleasant emotions, avoid it; if it leads to pleasant emotions, indulge and approach!


Arousal (Ready-Relaxed): This is similar to the active-passive polarity as highlighted by Millon and works at the Behavioral level of ABCD model. The active polarity, which is related to being excited/ inspired, addresses the self-actualization needs of Maslow’s, while the passive polarity, which may be related to tranquility/ calmness/ meditation etc is related to transcendence needs.  If one were to measure well-being related to this dimension, the appropriate measure would be something like Ryff’s Psychological well-being measuring things like psychological growth etc.  This dimension may be related to living authentically in this world and experiencing life to the fullest. The existential challenge relevant here would be how to cope with a meaningless/ absurd world. The answer may lie in living life fully and experiencing it deeply.

This emphasis on experience is related to the ‘experience’ component of consciousness (recall that consciousness is made up of two parts- experience and agency).  This dimension of emotion, related to energy/ experience, may have evolved to give the emotion a vibrant and vivid tone.  That vibrancy may be required if after gaining a  mind, we can retain it i.e. remain sane.


Predictability (Ambiguous- Certain): This is similar to the broad-narrow polarity as highlighted by Millon, and works at the cognitive level of ABCD model. The broad polarity, which is ambiguous and amorphous, is related to the Aesthetic and beauty needs of Maslow, while the narrow polarity to Knowledge and understanding needs. If one were to measure well-being related to this perhaps Satisfaction with Life survey might work. This dimension is related to attracting mates (both beauty and brains are attractive) and perhaps reproduction. The existential challenge here may be Death and the answer may be transcending death by leaving progeny. Cognitive abilities allow one to reflect on one’s own death and this leads to obsession with procreation. Intelligence (and beauty) associated with this dimension may be a result of sexual selection.

This dimension, associated with intelligence, may have evolved to help out bodies/ genes replicate. To figure if a mate is the best possible mate, and to attract / coax it, one may need intelligence and beauty.


Dominance (Control/ Lack of control): This is similar to self-other polarity, related to Drive level of ABCD.  The Self polarity is associated with self-esteem needs while the Other polarity with Belonging needs. Another way to conceptualize the same polarity is on interpersonal dimension of competence and warmth. If one were to measure well-being related to this dimension, the appropriate measure would be something like Key’s Scoial well-being measuring things like social trust. This dimension is related to controlling/ influencing others either via power or via love. The existential given here is Isolation and the solution is domination and control through exercising one’s ego. Agency/ ego/self may be important here. the issue whether we have control or nor makes this a part of moral domain too.

This dimension, associated with ego, may have evolved to spread the memes associated with the ego far and wide.


In essence, while Feelings and Intelligence are more closely related to evolution (survival and reproduction) of our physical bodies, Agency and Experience are more closely related to the evolution of our minds.