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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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).
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.
The big ideas:
- It is well established that experiential purchases (like going on a vacation) lead to greater happiness than material purchases (like buying a car). However, not much is known about which types of experiences lead to greater happiness and for whom.
- A dimension on which experiences reliably differ are whether they are ordinary, meaning common and frequent, or extraordinary, meaning infrequent and rare. For e.g., sipping a cup of coffee, may be an ordinary experience, while scuba diving on an an exotic vacation may be an extraordinary experience. Both types of experiences have the potential to increase happiness.
- A dimension on which people differ is their perceived time left, that is correlated with their chronological age. A young person believes that they have a lot of life ahead of them and are future oriented, while an older person believes that time is limited and its more prudent to focus on the here and now. The perceived time left can be manipulated in the laboratory (as the authors do in one of the studies) or it may vary naturally, for example a person suffering from cancer may have a limited perceived time left.
- The authors hypothesized that experiences lead to happiness, because they are in a a way processes used by people to define their self, and having a healthy and cherished self-concept leads to happiness and well-being. Extraordinary experiences are a sort of experiential CV of a person that highlight that their experiential (and emotional) high points. Ordinary experiences are a sort of commonplace activities that define who you are and how you live your life.
- They also hypothesized that (psychologically) young people should be more obsessed with building their experiential CV and thus derive more happiness from extraordinary experiences as compared to ordinary experiences; (psychologically) older people, on the other hand, should derive greater happiness from ordinary experiences as compared to younger people, as they have a stable sense of self and self-concordant ordinary activities.
- What they found was that indeed, for younger people, extraordinary experiences are associated with greater happiness as compared to ordinary experiences. For older people, however, both extraordinary experiences and ordinary experiences carry the same happiness dividend, which is of the same magnitude as that received by younger people undergoing extraordinary experiences. Thus, while extraordinary experiences are associated with high levels of happiness throughout the age span, ordinary experiences start small and peak at life’s end.
- This has important implications for brands targeting experiential products to consumers. Brands targeted at youth are more likely to succeed if they associate themselves with extraordinary experiences; however brands targeted at older people can succeed more by associating themselves with everyday ordinary experiences.
- Beyond brands, this highlights which sort of experiences may be more crucial to have at different stages of life for optimizing happiness. If you are older perhaps savoring is the way to go. If you are younger perhaps more risk-taking, adventurous and seize-the-day sort of activities are to be prioritized.
- This can also be related to my last research summary on costs and benefits of consuming. The extraordinary and ordinary experiences are related to what Mihaly called experiential needs- it is instructive to note that they arise from a self-definition process and are likely just another form of either satisfying the need for self-esteem or self-actualization: that is this is who I am and these are experiences that validate it.
- A few notes about methodology. The authors performed eight studies in total. In most of them, they asked participants to recall a recent extraordinary or ordinary experience (in one study they used the last Facebook status update ), and then asked the participants to rate the experience on different dimensions like amount of happiness felt etc. The methodology is not without its own challenges and limitations and as the results are mostly correlational, should be interpreted with caution.
So what is the final takeaway? Prioritize experiences over material purchases, and even among them prioritize rare experiences when young and more common everyday experiences when old. If your interest has been piqued, check the original article here.
I wrote about the four major goals in life on my psychology today blog quite some time back and want to revisit it today in the light of reading Susan Wolf‘s ‘Meaning in life and why it matters’ which is a very accessible and engaging, as well as a short, read.
Susan Wolf claims that there are two usual suspects when it comes to explaining our major striving and actions. The reason why we do something may be to enhance our self-interest (the egoistic principle) or the reasons may lie in ethical and moral considerations (the altruistic principle). In the former case we are driven by an overarching goal of maximizing happiness (for ourselves) and in the latter case we are driven by moral principles that are impartial and do not lace any special emphasis on our own interests. For example, if we are utilitarian in our ethics, we may be driven by the moral imperative of maximizing happiness(utility) of maximum people/ entities.
Thus, happiness and morality are two important goals/ value systems and the corresponding reliance on self-interest or impartial moral imperatives, respectively, makes us decide on our course of action. However, she also claims that this picture is far from complete. Not all our reasons are reasons of self-interest or morality, but some are reasons of love.
To illustrate by way of an example, consider the fact that I may care for my wife when she is sick. Now, this act is neither purely due to self-interest nor can it be considered purely a moral act- there may be better ways of acting morally- maybe some other sick man deserves my help more. But I care for her out of love. And caring for her provides and adds meaning to my life.
Thus, Susan introduces a third phenomena in the mix – meaningfulness. When people act out of reasons of love they make their life meaningful. Now as per Susan this acting out of reasons of love could be love directed towards a person or towards an activity. Thus I may be passionate about psychology or blogging and may devote my life to such an activity and as that activity provides me fulfillment and also adds value to the world, it is meaningful. Her definition of meaningfulness is where subjective attraction meet objective value- you find something or some person worthy of your love (attractive) and are drawn towards it such that you engage in such a way as to make a positive contribution/ difference.
Meaning as per Susan is due to reasons of love -either for a person or an activity -she doesn’t distinguish between the two, and in my opinion causes some confusion. IMHO, its important to make a distinction between acting out of love for a person and acting out of love of an activity. Also she mentions two conceptualization of meaning- one driven by feelings of fulfillment and the other by getting involved in something bigger than oneself.
How does all this relate to the four major goals I have talked about previously? To recap, the goals are:
- Happiness (maximizing pleasure and ‘self’ focus)
- Morality/Integrity (living morally and ‘group’/community focus)
- Meaning (living authentically and ‘other’/ family focus)
- Success (making an impact and ‘task’/ work focus)
Susan has already delineated how happiness and morality are the two primary reasons for our actions, and she introduced meaning as the third major one; however, imho meaning (living authentically in accordance with ones values ) needs to be differentiated from living successfully or making an impact in the world. Meaning is intimately tied to others- our lives can never be meaningful out of context- they are meaningful only in relation to others appraisal of them as such and also our appraisal of them as such. Meaning is inter-subjective. It lies in between. If happiness can be deemed more or less subjective (only you can know if you are truly happy) and success as more or less objective (there can be objective criteria on which to measure the success of a life) , meaning is more about a common inter-subjective appraisal (whether both parties found the interaction meaningful). I caring for my wife is meaningful both to me and to my wife and its power lies in that inter-subjectivity. Morality on the other hand can be said to be neither objective nor subjective but transcending all.
Thus, while happiness can only be known from a first person perspective, and success judged accurately only from third person perspective, perhaps meaning can be formulated best from a second person perspective – that of the other!
Interestingly, while happiness is more about living in the present, and success more about what you have already achieved in the past, Meaning in my view is directed towards the future- if I am engrossed in meaningful relationship or project, I am looking forward to how the relationship or the project grows. For example, to sensitize my clients to the importance of meaningfulness, I ask them to think about their epithet or what they would like to be written on their tombstone- this exercise inevitably makes them reflect on what is actually meaningful to pursue (relationships) and what can be ignored or de-emphasized (workaholism) .
in summary, we are driven by four types of reasons or motivations – reasons of self-interest, reasons of morality/altruism, reasons of love for individuals and reasons of engrossment in activities/ projects. Thus the four major goals of life worth striving for Happiness, Morality, Meaning and Success!
PS: you may also like my Times of India blog post about differentiating happiness from meaning.