Category Archives: positive psychology

Optimal Living: Insights From Flow Theory

What does it mean to live optimally? Is there any difference between self actualization and self-transcendence? Do peak performances and peak experiences differ? The last question was asked yesterday by Scott Barry Kaufman on twitter and it got me thinking.

The thoughts triggered were too large to fit in a few tweets, so here is the longer blog post; thanks Scott for the inspiration.

To start off, lets recall what flow is ; its typically associated with deep engrossment and peak performance during a task. When thinking about tasks two dimensions are relevant: how difficult is the task and what are the skills of the person executing the task.

When task is of high difficulty, and skills are low, it may lead to experience of anxiety in the person; when task is of low difficulty and skills are high, it may lead to relaxation/ boredom. Only when task difficulty is slightly greater or matched than skills does the possibility of flow emerges. With adequate in time feedback and no distractions, one can get into a state of flow. Another point to remember is that the idea is to keep increasing task difficulty and keep adding to you skills – thus high task difficulty and high skills are associated with flow; while low task difficulty and low skills lead to apathy.

Flow diagram courtesy Wikipedia

It is safe to assume that micro moments of flow where task difficulty/challenge is slightly greater than skills, helps in building up your skills over time leading to increased probability of peak performances in the limit. Thus peak performances are related to flow and are evident in some task related activities.

Now, one of the framework I have been using is to divide our focus of inquiry among TASK, SELF, OTHERS and LIFE. Basically in some contexts you are totally TASK focused, and your primary goal may be achieving success, in some you are SELF focused and your primary goal may be achieving eudiamonic happiness; in yet others your focus may be (significant) OTHERS and your primary goal finding meaning via connection while in yet other contexts, you be focused on LIFE as a whole and your primary goal being a moral person. Now you don’t have to believe in this framework, but I used this to derive some insights below:

First off, analogous to TASK having two dimensions related to performance, I think its useful to think about two dimensions of SELF related to expression of SELF. First is self-discrepancy operationalised as distance between ideal and actual self. The higher the discrepancy the more the ideal, sought after self differs from actual self. The other dimension of interest is self-acceptance. This is operationalised as how much at peace we are with our actual self.

Now consider someone with high self discrepancy and low self acceptance. They are likely to feel sadness; on the other hand someone with high self acceptance but low self discrepancy will be complacent as far as growing and expressing ones true self is concerned, because there is no/ little internal pressure to change. Growth happens when self discrepancy is slightly greater than self acceptance; you are comfortable with who you are but also aiming to change and become better. Analogous to flow, one maybe led into these micro moments of growth that I call flowering. Over time as you keep raising the bar for ideal self and keep accepting who you are: your strengths as well as limitations – you re likely to experience peak expressions of your self and likely to become self -actualized.

I wish I was not lazy and could make a diagram/ figure to explain this better, but if you are feeling stuck make a 2D graph for SELF with self discrepancy on y axis and self acceptance on x axis, analogous to the flow diagram.

Next up, consider the context where we are dealing with (significant ) OTHERS . Consider two dimensions that may underpin that dynamics : our mutual demandingness from/ towards others and our mutual caringness/ concern from/towards the others. Consider for example a parenting relationship: if demandingness is high, but caring is low one feels anger / irritability; if however demandingness is low, but caring is high one start taking things for granted, gets lax/ stagnant. For a mutually beneficial relationship, the demandingness has to be just slightly above the caring/ nurturing that enables one to meet the demands. When that happens one experiences moments of love/ intimacy and the relationship grows and connection is felt. Over time as mutual demands increase and mutual care increases, one feels peak experiences characterized by love and connectedness and moves towards self transcendence.

Finally, consider LIFE. The two dimensions of relevance here are life responsibilities and life supports. When life responsibilities are high and life supports (like social support, adequate income etc ) are less, one is likely to feel guilt and maybe disgust at the life one is living: life will feel a burden. On the other hand if life supports are high , but life responsibilities are low, one is likely to feel dissipated and lead a life of decadence. However, when life responsibilities are just matched or greater than ones supports , one is likely to be in a zone where life is felt a gift to be enjoyed and a privilege. These micro moments of living up to your responsibilities, may lead to peak living.

So that is my basic premise: Peak Performance (in a task) can be distinguished from Peak Experiences (in our relationships with others ), which can further be distinguished from Peak Expressions (of self) and Peak Living. Hope these lead to some insights and Scott/ someone else actually tries to elaborate/ verify the model .

A disclaimer while I am familiar with Mihaly’s original work on Flow/ peak performances my knowledge of Malsow/peak experiences is via secondary sources and readings only.

Dualistic model of Passion, Perseverance, Purpose and Persona

Some of you may be already familiar with the Dualistic Model of Passion as advocated by Robert Vallerand et al. To recap, passion is of two types: harmonious and obsessive. Both of them have different antecedents (autonomous vs controlled integration) and different consequents ( well-being vs Mal-adaptive).

I wont go deep into what an obsessive or harmonious passion is; suffice it to say that in harmonious passion you can be passionate about more than one activity, the activity is not all consuming; while in obsessive passion the activity has control over you than vice versa and you feel pressured to spend time in the activity at the cost to other important activities/ relationships.

Important to note is that both types of passions are indeed passions about activities as we value those activities, love to do them , they form a core of our identity and we spend an exorbitant amount of time and energy indulging in those activities: This is true for harmonious as well as obsessive passions.

Passions are nothing but motivations as they propel us to keep doing something.

Before we move ahead we will take a quick detour of Self Determination Theory (SDT). As per SDT there are 3 basic psychological needs all humans have: need for Autonomy, Mastery (competence) and Connectedness (relatedness) . To that, many, including myself, add a fourth need, the need to find Meaning.

SDT actually is many mini-theories: one of them concerns how people are intrinsically motivated to do some activities which they find pleasurable or fun to do. At other times people are motivated by extrinsic motivation like rewards, status etc and parents say motivate their child to do homework by using such extrinsic mechanisms when the activity by itself is not enjoyable or fun to do. Over time, the child may internalize such motivations and they become more and more autonomous in the sense they are driven by the child’s sense of identity (I am a student who likes to study) than say the child’s internalized guilt or pride (I have to study so that I can live upto my parents expectations) . The process of turning external motivation to more autonomous motivation is called internalization.

The process of internalization can be helped or hindered by satisfaction of basic psychological needs. Of these autonomy support by significant others is the most studied. When an autonomy supportive person is present , then the recipient (say the child) is more likely to internalize well and have more autonomous forms of motivation to indulge in the activity.

Now lets connect this back to dualistic model of passion (DMP). As per Vallernad, people may develop passion for an activity because they value it and start investing time and energy in it; however the type of passion they develop will depend on whether they choose it themselves and have autonomy supportive parents etc (in which case they develop harmonious passion) or whether they feel controlled and coerced in their choice due to overt or overt pressure by parents etc. (in which case they develop obsessive passion).

To sum up, we all need to get motivated to do things that are not fun and thus need to internalize and own up to various external motivations. Internalization of external motivation so that it approaches intrinsic motivation is thus an important part of growing up. Autonomy support aids this and leads to better and more harmonious outcomes, while controlling behaviors (by significant others) lead to maladaptive and discordant (obsessive) outcomes.

We can now extend the analogy to other domains. Consider the whole behavioral paradigm of reinforcement learning. When we encounter the world there are reward contingencies (which we should approach) and punishment contingencies (which we should avoid). While the rewards are goals that are desirable end states and hence finite; the punishments are anti-goals or undesirable end states and hence infinite. Learning is needed to make such anti-goals goals. Learning can be facilitated by either mastery experiences where tools like small wins, vicarious learning etc can be used to build self efficacy of the person; or it can be facilitated by failure experiences where you put a mouse in water to make it learn how to swim and thus by approaches like fail fast learning you make them learn. Now obviously both kinds of learning, whether building confidence using mastery experiences or building doggedness using repeated trial and error fail fast learning can result in Perseverance; the former would be harmonious perseverance while the latter obsessive perseverance. In the former you would pursue goals from a position of strength, while in latter you might be narrowly focused on one particular goal and not ready to give it up (think John Henryism). The fact that we all need to move towards and learn better form reward contingencies means we have a need for mastery/ competence.

Next let us consider relatedness/ connectedness need. Consider the fact that we can live in an other oriented environment or in a self-focused environment. We all have a desire to leave our imprint on the world or to put a ding in the universe, we can do that either by leaving a personal legacy or by having a generative impact. Self expansion where we include others in the self is a process whereby we move away from a focus on personal legacy towards generative impact. As you might have guessed other oriented / relatedness need driven environment leads to better self expansion leading to harmonious purpose; while self focused environment leads to obsessive purpose that is less fulfilling and inflexible. Our need for connectedness derives from our need to self expand.

Finally, consider need for meaning. We can either live our life such that it has a meaningful frame of reference or we can keep encountering the absurd. We all have a desire to make sense of our lives, and we can either use the narrative self to weave a story around our adventures or we can live in a stream of consciousness in-the-moment mindfulness sort of adventure. Living in the stream of consciousness mode is not feasible as it lacks coherence and we need to move that into the narrative self. Story editing, defense mechanisms of denial, dissociation etc may be operational here to move and remove materiel from the narrative self. And of course, having a meaningful frame of reference, be it religion or spirituality will aid in such story editing; while trying not to get deluded and living in the present, experiencing self will probably hinder that story editing mechanism. And the former will be associated with an integrated and harmonious persona/ personality/self; while the latter with a discordant/ obsessive one.

I know the extension of dualistic model of passion to perseverance, purpose and persona is all a conjecture as of now; but that is how science progresses. There are many a good testable hypothesis there. Hope someone actually goes ahead and tests these.

Transcend: Standing on the shoulders of Maslow

This post is a book review of ‘Transcend: The new science of self-actualization ‘ by Scott Barry Kaufman. He, and his publishers, were kind enough to send an advance copy and I think the review is just in time, as the book is formally published, and the virtual book tour gets kick-started.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book and emerged wiser and kinder for having read it. I am not sure how far I am, or my reader is, on the path to self transcendence, but whatever may be your current station on your journey, you will find some much needed guidance and help here. At least I did.

The book on the outset is about Maslow and his hierarchy of needs and how self actualization and self transcendence fit in, but its also a tour de force of all that is worth knowing about the latest advances in positive psychology, humanistic psychology and various other aspects like existential psychology. More than mere re-conceptualizing Maslow’s concept of needs, and validating his insights using cutting edge finding in psychology, it is also a culmination of Scott’s interests and expertise in a holistic book form. The magnum opus of whole person psychology that Scott has produced is indeed a ‘whole’ book (pun intended).

First off, lets clarify some misunderstandings about the hierarchy of needs. Most people believe that Maslow had himself arranged them into a pyramid of five needs of inflexible ordering , and while I myself have shown them as pyramid in my earlier posts, I have at least had the good sense of highlighting self transcendence needs early on and at the top. Scott clarifies and adds nuance by distinguishing between security/deficit needs, growth needs and actualization/transcendence needs and illustrates all this with a beautiful sailboat metaphor.

While security needs like safety, connection and self esteem make the body of the sailboat, and their purpose is to make it steady ; the sail that powers and gives direction to the boat is made up of growth needs of exploration, love and purpose.

The book elaborates on all theses needs drawing inspiration from Maslow who is extensively quoted, as well as other prominent psychologists lke Carl Rogers, Karen Horney, Eric Fromm etc ; however the book is only part nostalgia about these great thinkers, it also draws on latest research findings to make its point.

The book contains extensive self assessments to figure where you stand on each of these and other needs/ concepts and helpful tips on what you can do thereof to make sure your needs are optimally fulfilled and are not thwarted. The 2 appendices are really excellent and should not be skipped; the second appendix that lists many (positive, as well as other) psychological interventions should be definitely explored and imbibed in ones daily life.

Scott’s personality shines thorugh the book, and so does Abe’s ; While Scott wanted this as a tribute to Abe, he has indeed stood on the shoulders of that giant and come out on its own – the book integrates various strands of Scott’s expertise, interests and humanism and weaves into a very palatable feast. However , at some places I felt the integration was a bit sketchy or far fetched – for example linking hope, grit, smart goals etc under purpose seemed a bit contrived. But of course as Scott has such expertise in all these topics that one juts loves reading about them and doesn’t mind the apparent disconnect with the topic at hand.

Scott’s and Abe’s message is something that needs to be told and retold, again and again, and I am so glad that Scott took it upon himself to clarify misconceptions about Abe as well as to shine a light on such an imprtnat topic of self transcendence. Here is wishing the book all the success it deserves. Well done, Scott! You are truly a giant!

Introducing GLEO: SandyG’s Positive Tetrad

Most of you would be familiar with Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Triad also known as the Negative Triad. To recap, a depressed person is characterized by negative views about the self, negative views about the world and negative views about the future.

Guilt, shame, worthlessness, not accepting the self are all aspects of negative views about the self, which I conveniently relabel as self-loathing. It can even be conceived that these self concepts are closer to a neurotic belief system.

Similarly, being pessimistic and having a sense of hopelessness, is what can be thought of as having negative views about the future. Learned helplessness, an explanatory model of depression, is more aligned with this aspect.

That leaves us with negative views about the world. Items that measure it include “No one values me” or “People ignore me all the time”; items that talk more about negative views about other people rather than world at large. Also we know that depression is characterized by rumination or repetitive negative brooding over the past. So my humble submission is that its better to break this negative views about the world into two components: one about negative views about other people and the other about negative views about the past/ present.

So, Cynicism or cynical hostility, which is characterized by cynicism, distrust, resentment, and suspicion, would be what is dysfunctional in depression as far as negative views about others is concerned. There is some evidence that high scores on cynical hostility raises the odds of being depressed 5 times the general population.

And that leaves us with the last of factors that affect depression: bitterness or negative views about the past/ present. There is an automatic negative tendency to see past as full of regrets and losses and missed opportunities and this leads to rumination and sustaining of sad mood and depression.

This however means that Beck’s triad is no longer a triad but has become a tetrad. This needs to be empirically verified but I’m sure it will be a useful construct.

Most important, from the perspective of this post is how we can flip these unconscious, negative automatic thoughts and replace them with positive automatic thoughts/ habits so as to immunize and buffer us against depression (and other disorders) . So with some fanfare I introduce SandyG’s Positive Tetard.

Self-esteem, self-efficacy, self worth, self acceptance etc are all positive processes and indicators that one has a positive view of self. Like the other three components of GLEO/Positive tetrad, these all can be developed and are state like/ trait like and not fixed in nature. Bandura for eg. has elaborated extensively on how self efficacy can be developed. Rosenberg similarly has focused on self-esteem. The E of GLEO comes from this component (self Esteem/Self Efficacy). Developing this buffers against self-loathing and is thus a protective factor.

Optimism (generalized expectancy as well as learned optimism) and hope (wills and ways) are positive processes and indicators that one has a positive view of future. Optimism interventions like Best possible future selves exercise leads to increase in optimism and again helps buffer against depression/ other disorders. The O in GLEO come from Optimism. This protective resource can again be built.

Love, compassion, kindness and altruism all come form a place where others are trusted and one has positive views about others. Interventions like loving-kindness mediation or random acts of kindness can increase the social support one feels and thus buffer against depression/ other disorders. The L in GLEO comes from Love. Other people matter and to build social support you have to start by trusting/ loving others.

That leaves us with the G in GLEO. It stands for Gratitude. Thankfulness, feeling blessed and grateful all lead to a positive view or interpretation of what has happened in the past or is continuing to happen in present. Gratitude interventions like counting your blessings or a gratitude visit leads to noticing and appreciating the good that has happened and continues to happen. This acts as a strong antidote to feelings of bitterness and buffers against depression.

Taking a bird’s eye view, sadness driven by ruminating on past events leads to depressive disorders and can be prevented by gratitude interventions. Fear driven by apprehension of future events leads to anxiety disorders and can be buffered against by optimism/ hope interventions. Anger driven by cynical hostility towards others leads to aggression(intermittent explosive disorder)/ conduct disorders and can be protected against by cultivating kindness/ compassion etc. Finally, disgust (with self ) that may be driven by self-loathing may lead to neuroses / impulsive and compulsive disorders (OCD, personality disorders etc) and can be prevented by developing self esteem, self compassion etc. I know this is slightly conjectural, but I have good reasons to extend this tetrad beyond depression.

Finally, how this new concept of GLEO/SandyG’s Tetrad compare to existing constructs like HERO/PsyCap and the ‘light triad‘ ?

HERO/PsyCap I believe is limited by its focus on work domain. It gets the Hope/Optimism and Self-Efficacy part right but stops short. Self-concept should include more things like self esteem and adding gratitude and love to the model makes it many fold strong and in a sense equivalent to my model as Luthans is explicit that PsyCap is state like and can be developed. However, I see of GLEO as more processes than as either trait like or state like.

‘Light Triad’ on the other hand is posited as opposed to the ‘dark triad’ and is more or less a personality trait construct. Perhaps, Cynicism is a milder and passive form of the dark triad and Love/compassion/altruism is the milder form of the light triad. I think of it in these terms, but I may be mistaken.

I am excited to unveil this model; does this resonate with you? Should we all cultivate GLEO as a path to glee and happiness?

How Do I Matter to Thee, Let Me Count The Ways!

I recently came across an article by Andrew Reece, Martin Seligman, Roy Baumeister, Barry Schwartz et al on Mattering which argued that in work/organizational contexts, action-based mattering is the way to go and it is more associated with feelings of self-efficacy rather than self-esteem. That made me look up the sparse literature on Mattering and I spent a few happy hours down that rabbit hole.

What I am proposing below, however, is my own classification of how someone can matter, after taking into account existing concepts and frameworks.

Why is mattering important? Unless we have a sense that we matter, we may not have any desire to live life fully, or to live life at all. So its very important that we ensure that each person on this planet has a sense of mattering.

What are the different ways one can end up with a feeling that one matters? We can start with action based mattering, a feeling that our actions have impact on the world around us, the form of mattering that Marty et al emphasize in their article. This type of mattering is more associated with the domain of WORK or TASK. If one has healthy forms of this mattering then one believes that one can successfully accomplish tasks and that ‘I have some impact‘; if one lacks this type of mattering then the thought is that ‘I don’t have any impact‘. While the former thought leads to self-assurance or confidence or agency, the latter thought leads to helplessness. On the other hand excessive forms of this mattering, including thoughts like ‘Only I have a vast impact‘ lead to dominance/ dictatorship. While the outcome of this sort of mattering is self-assurance, the process involves having and demonstrating self-efficacy.

The second way one can matter, as per extant literature is feeling based mattering. This type of mattering is more associated with OTHERS and how they perceive us. If one has healthy forms of this mattering, then one believes that others recognize and have respect for him/her and believe he/she is a person of importance. He/she has thoughts like ‘ I am recognized by others‘ ; if one lacks this type of mattering the negative self talk is that ‘I am not recognized by anybody‘. The former leads to feelings of self-esteem while the latter leads to feelings of invisibility/marginalization/ being ignored. Excessive forms of this mattering however are pathological and one has the thought that ‘Only I am recognized by all‘. This has the signature of Narcissism, entitlement and spoiled brats written all over it. While the desired outcome is that of a healthy self-esteem, the process by which this is achieved is by receiving (unconditional) regard by others.

The third way that one can matter is by what I call motive based mattering. This is associated with the domain of WORLD or our LIFE as a whole. The important thing here is whether others are dependent on us or expect some things form us and whether that tenuous link by which others depend on us can provide us with a sense of mattering. This will be most apparent in contexts where people depend on us for some help, say our children, who may, or may not, be technically our dependents. In the healthy forms the self-talk goes that ‘I am needed by someone‘; while in the case where this form of mattering is absent, the talk goes ‘I am not needed by anyone‘ ; the former leads to feelings of being self-responsible, the latter is likely to be associated with feeling useless / redundant. Excessive forms will have the self-talk ‘ Only I am needed by everyone‘ and will have a sense of weariness and delusion associated with it. while the desired healthy outcome in this form of mattering is having a good sense of self-responsibility (responsibility internalized and not conceived of as external like duty), the process by which this is achieved is recognizing that others depend on us.

The last way, as per me, that people, can still feel that they matter is by belief based mattering. This type of mattering is associated with SELF or more specifically how healthy is our self concept. We all have various conceptualizations of how we are as a person. This is independent of whether we are contributing in the external world, whether others respect us or whether others depend on us. Some of us believe in the self-talk ‘ I am worthy, no matter what‘; while others believe ‘I am not worthy at all or was ever‘. The former will lead to mattering characterized by having self-worth, while the latter is characterized by thoughts of inferiority. Excessive mattering of this sort however will be of the form ‘Only I am worthy forever‘ and will be associated with feelings of superiority. The desired outcome of course is believing that you have self-worth, but the process by which you arrive there is self-acceptance.

Again, why is all this important? As you can easily see if anyone loses his sense of mattering and starts believing that he/she is either helpless, ignored, useless or inferior and these feelings accumulate over time and persist than bad outcomes like sub-optimal flourishing are a given and drastic steps like suicide are a possibility. Thus, our immense responsibility to ensure that people around us feel as if they matter.

Make other people matter. Period.

Psychological Haikus (#Psyckus)

5 months back, in a poetic mood, I had penned a few Psychological Haikus that explain or comment on the major research themes of some researchers in positive psychology and allied fields. I had hoped that the #Psycku trend would have picked up, with others pitching in, or at least I myself would have continued creating them, but alas that didn’t happen.

On 25th May, I penned the first Psycku:

 


This was a reference to the book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’ by Haidt in which one claim that is made is that happiness lies in neither external circumstances, nor in trying to modify ones internal mindset, but in the subtle interaction of the two. I wholeheartedly recommend the book.

Although regular readers of The Mouse Trap, will be familiar with much of the context for each of the Psyckus , for the layman’s benefit, I am providing some context with each of the Psycku:

Smiling more often, check in that tear, is it 3:1? #Psycku #BarabaraFredrickson

The above is a friendly jibe at Barb’s work with Losada on the Positivity ratio: that is their assertion that you need 5 positive emotions for each negative emotions for flourishing in life.

Partly inherited, a small part your state in life, your happiness your responsibility? #psycku #SonjaLyubomirsky

Sonja has been at the forefront of research that claims that %0 % of happiness is under genetic control, 10 % due to external circumstances like your SES while the rest 40 % is under the control of your daily habits, activties, mindset etc.

I, me, myself, my happiness my mantra, Other people matter. period. #psycku #ChristopherPeterson

Chris Peterson is one of the founding fathers of positive psychology and co author of VIA system of classification of character strengths. One of his famous quotable quotes is ‘ other people matter.’

Hopeless and made helpless, that catastrophic failure, keep it small, cut it short. #Psycku #MartinSeligman

Martin Seligman is the other coauthor of VIA and the father of positive psychology. His early work focused on learned pessimism that he turned around to learned optimism research. In a nutshell, if you fail at something, don’t make it permanent , pervasive or personal.

I’m not so smart, so I don’t work hard, You haven’t learned to grow yet! #psycku #CarolDweck

Dweck is the force behind the growth mindset theory which says that those who have a fixed mindset think that putting in hard work reflects bad on them; those with growth mindset on the other hand belive that they havent accomplished something yet,but with hard work and right strategies, can achieve it in future.

The freedom to choose, to hone my skill, not carrots and sticks. #psycku #DeciandRyan #DanPink

Dan Pink in his book ‘Drive’ references the SDT by Deci and Ryan which says that intrinsic motivators liek autonomy, relatedness and competence are stronger drivers than money or fame etc.

Balancing right, exercising all my strength, hasn’t time stopped still? #psycku #MihalyCsikszentmihalyi

The above is a reference to the Flow sate wherein time may stop still, skill levels are balanced with challenge and one is performing at ones’s best.

The ghosts of West Point or Spelling Bee, they don’t let you rest, life more a marathon than sprint?   #psycku #AngelaDuckworth

Angela , the grit queen, has been obsessed with with the construct of grit, validating that it leads to success in as diverse environments as west point or spelling bees. The above is a friendly jibe where the sprint and marathon analogy is played with; I more align with the statement that life is a marathon, but made of smaller sprints.

Orchids or Dandelions, are you sure you’ve got that right, let all flowers bloom.  #psycku #ScottBarryKaufman

One area of Scott’s research and advocacy has focused has focused on the notion of personal intelligence, which grants each person a right and opportunity to flower in his unique way. The reference to Orchid and Dandelions is to another theory by Jay Blesky et al that says that some children are quite sensitive like the orchid and require extra care but also give the best outcomes.

Down in the trenches, and on the highest rung too, givers beat takers. #psycku #AdamGrant

Adam Grant’s book ‘Give and take’ is another one of my favorites. The main premise and conclusion of the book is that Givers not only are found at the bottom of the corporate hierarchy (because they get taken advantage of)  but are also found at the top. (aside: Adam Grant actually liked this tweet:-)

Will asking the right questions, be the philosopher’s stone, lead to a positive core? #psycku #DavidCooperrider

David is the co-creator of Appreciative Inquiry method of leading change in organizations. The basic premise is that the questions you ask are very powerful and that intervention starts the moment you start asking questions.  One of the stages in AI involves finding the positive core of strengths and qualities from shared stories and best practices.

Expertise won hard, oh the lure of genius, another 10,000 hrs? #psycku #AndersEricsoon

10,000 hours of practice has been popularized by Gladwell, but the actual research is by Ericsson who has written a book too on the same titled ‘Peak’. Also important to note that subsequent research has found that 10,000 hours for initial expertise and another 10,000 hours (on average) to reach a genius level.

Resisting that cookie, I become depleted and worn out, glucose- my savior? #Psycku #RoyBaumeister

Baumeister is at the forefront on research on willpower and one of his research track shows that when people resist temptations (like not eating a cookie), their willpower on other unrelated tasks may get depleted and this is actually due to shortage of glucose in brain and can be reversed by drinking glucose!

Poems give solace, my body could use some bread, oh the tyranny of needs! #psycku #AbrahamMaslow

Maslow had famously come up with his hierarchy of needs that says that you need to fulfill lower level needs like the need to feed yourself before you can aspire to fulfill higher needs like that of self actualization.  Thsi Psycku reminds me of a hindi movie song: Ek Bagal main Chand hoga, Ek bagal main rotiya !

Stripped out of your last, what no one can take, is your attitude to life. #psycku #ViktorFrankl

Victor Frankl wrote ‘Man’s search for meaning’ a book about his experience in Auschwitz, and how he worked on his logo therapy during Holocaust.

Lego toys get me money, dismantle them later, don’t shred my meaning. #psycku #DanAriely

Dan Ariely conducted this famous experiment where people made Lego toys that were either dismantled right in front of them (a meaningless sysiphian condition) or dismantled later and found that when the activity became meaningless people did not want to do it, even in exchange for money. In a related experiment people filled a sheet with answers and the answers were either acknowledged, ignored or actively destroyed (shredded) : again ignoring or shredding caused a dip in motivation.

Indomitable will, a singular goal, multiple pathways. #psycku #CharlesSnyder

Snyder’s Hope theory talks about Agency and Pathways to achieve a clearly defined Goal. Its a very powerful theory and I use it in my work with students.

Focus on strengths, reap exponential dividends,  Achilles my foot! #psycku #MarcusBuckingham

Marcus is one of the very strong proponent of strength based development; he does caution that you need to manage your weaknesses, but anyway!

Defenses lowered, hysterical misery vents, into common unhappiness. #psycku #SigmundFreud

Freud’s famous statement that we can only hope to convert hysterical misery to common happiness (I actually meant common unhappiness only, but maybe by Freudian slip, mistyped in the tweet)

Pine for the moon, or put the sixpence in pocket, let your goals reflect you. #psycku #KenSheldon

Self-concordance between goals , as emphasized by among others, Sheldon.

Basic needs thwarted, consumption on rise, are depression and anxiety our fate? #psycku #TimKasser

Tirade against Materialism by Kasser who has shown that such striving is assocuted with worse outocmes. This is something we all need to understand. Content of our goals matters too.

 

Freedom terrifies, can you live up to the task, Man giving birth to himself. #psycku #ErichFromm

Fromm, on how we escape from freedom and what the main task of a person is.

Should I live this absurd life, the philosophical question par excellence, asks Sisyphus happily. #psycku #AlbertCamus

Camus and the Myth of Sisyphus.His treatise on the only philosophical question worth asking: way should I not commit suicide.

Bombastic and loud, they hog all the light, I usher a quiet revolution. #psycku #SusanCain

Susan and her powerful quiet revolution. Her book extols the differences and strengths of introverts.

Fight and make up, but don’t show contempt, and live happily ever after. #Psycku #JonGottman

Gottman lab has done some phenomenal work on predicting divorce from witnessing small slices of interactions between couples; if you want  a happily married life, have 5 positive interactions to every negative interaction and don’t show contempt.

Measuring the ebb and flow of emotions, you are given a simple choice, would you live this life again? #Psycku #EdDiener

Satisfaction with Life survey as created by Ed has one of the item as whether a person would chose to live the same life again.  Ed Diener pioneered the science of measuring happiness which he segmented as having positive affect, lack of negative affect and satisfaction with life.

Money does buy happiness, spend on experiences not things, better spent on others. #psycku #DunnandNorton

Dunn and Norton have written a book called ‘Happy Money’ that lists various tips and tricks to become happier by using money wisely.

What did I give, What did I receive, feeling thankful for Naikan. #Psycku #RobertEmmons

Bob Emmons is known for his work on gratitude. Naikan is a Japanese thankfulness mediation.

I got my dream job! Oh! Not another relocation!! that’s neither active nor constructive. #psycku #ShellyGable

Shelly had done a lot of work on active constructive responding which says that we shoudl not tke for granted how we respond to good news from our partners but should be more conscious and appreciative.

More creative and kind, want the doctor to treat you right, take some candy with you. #Psycku #AliceIsen

Isen, in clever experiments has shown that happiness increases creativity. as well as kindness. In one experiment, just gifting a candy to doctor before the patient visit , increased diagnosis accuracy.

Lowly toilet cleaner, or custodian of health, ain’t I called to work? #psycku #AmyWrzesniewski

Amys’s work has showed that you can craft your work and derive meaning out of even ordinary work. Her distinctions between job orientation, career orientation and calling orientation to work are very powerful.

My earnings, my grades, my future, my dates, oh the forsaken Marshmallow! #Psycku #WalterMischel

Mischel’s famous marshmallow experiment showed that a lot of adult life outcome scan be predicted by whether and fir how long a child of 4 years of age resisted eating one marshmallow in the expectancy of getting two if he waited.

Take a copy of that Monet, The fine print says you cant return, you’re much happy for it!

Gilbert, who is famous for his book ‘Stumbling on happiness’ tells about experiments that show endowment effect,  that is when you own something , you value it more, and so you are more happier with having it instead of an equivalent item.

Six choices are fine, twenty-four too many, isn’t it a jam?

Sometime too many choices also lead to sub-optimal happiness. In a famous experiment conducted regarding taste sampling fo ether 6 jams or 24, 6 jams were correlated with better user experience and buying behavior.

Gather all the data you can, analyze carefully the pros and cons, but for happiness – just satisfice!

Barry Schwartz has written about the paradox of choice and how some of us are maximizers, trying to find the optimum solution or product,  while others satisfied and go with the first alternative that satisfies their requirements.

 

These are all the #Psyckus I had written then, but I promise to write more and I hope you will join me and be co-conspirators in this Pscyku movement!

What type of Self-control/Grit is More Useful?

I recently came across an article titled “More than Resisting Temptation: Beneficial Habits Mediate the Relationship between Self-Control and Positive Life Outcomes” by Brian Galla and Angela Duckworth, which argues that the positive outcomes associated with self-control have more to do with habits for self-regulation, than with in-the-moment exercise of willpower.

Self Control (film)

Self Control (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Self-control is defined by APA as the ability to delay gratification and resist short-term temptations for long-term gains.  Thus the main challenge while exercising self-control is how to take care of inevitable temptations that happen to cross our path. One approach is to build our willpower or in-the-moment inhibitory self-control that is able to overrule the impulses that drive us to engage with the temptation. This reliance on willpower will typically deplete our cognitive resources each time we use this willpower and leave us drained or ego-depleted and less able to resist temptations in the near term.

The other approach is to structure your day and activities in such a way as to minimize the temptations that you are exposed to. There is a five step process that is recommended to self-regulate. Start with selecting the situation. If you want to study , study in the library where distractions are likely to be minimal. The next is situation modification. If you cant study in library and have to study in living room, turn off the TV and put your remote away to minimize distractions. The next step is selective attention, where if you have TV turned on (due to n number of reasons) and still want to study you selectively attend to your textbook/ study notes and do not attend to the TV noise in the background.  If the earlier three stages are not available, or you don’t have an opportunity to use them then comes cognitive re-framing; maybe you can’t turn off the TV and are not able to resist watching it over say studying for math which seems hard and boring. You can re-frame studying as preparing for a better future, which hopefully inspires you; and watching TV as wasting time. The last step in this framework is to rely on brute-force willpower to turn off the TV and go back to studying. This last recourse of using willpower is to be exercised and relied on , only if all else (the earlier steps ) fail.

Thus, its evident that self-regulation is best implemented by having good habits of selecting and modifying situations to minimize temptations etc. Also, its better to use your willpower to create healthy habits like exercising everyday and letting the subconscious take care of executing that on auto-pilot, once the habit has been formed, than to rely on conscious inhibitory self-control.

From this, I propose the following structure for self control:

  1. The main challenge is resisting temptations
  2. One way to do so is by creating habits that minimize exposure to temptations or that test oneself.
  3. Another way to do so is to rely on willpower or brute force in-the-moment inhibitory self-control to resist temptations.

There is now some research available that shows that the self-report self-control we measure, and which is associated with all sorts of positive outcomes (see PDF), primarily measures the habit or auto-pilot self-control rather than the state self-control. The in-the-moment or state self-control is not such a good predictor of future positive outcomes.

Now lets think for a moment about a related but different concept, Grit, which is defined as passion and perseverance for long term goals; and which again has been shown to be a predictor of all sorts of good outcomes.

By analogy I have come up with the following structure for Grit:

  1. The main challenge is persevering despite obstacles/ failures
  2. One way to do so is by minimizing possibility of failure by careful planning (orderliness) and habits to circumvent obstacles or bulldoze through then by working hard (industriousness). Together this can be construed as the trait Conscientiousness.
  3. Another way to do so is to rely on ordinary magic of in-the-moment resilience to bounce back from failures and getting up and restarting after colliding with an obstacle.

By analogy, I believe that the self-report Grit that is associated with all sorts of positive outcomes will correlate more with trait contentiousness rather than the in-the-moment ability to be resilient. And it follows that it is better to create habits of orderliness and industriousness rather than relying on our ability to bounce back and get up after falling.

I should perhaps stop here, but I can also see parallels with what I think is the reverse of having Self-control. Too much not having self-control, or being impulse driven may be associated with the psychological disorders clubbed under addiction.

There has now been a lot of research showing that addiction is not so much about dependence on substances or biologically based but due to lack of satisfying interpersonal and social relationships.

With that in mind, and extending the analogy, here is what I propose to be the structural quality of all types of addiction, whether related to substance abuse or behavioral (internet etc) in nature:

  1.  The main challenge to remaining addicted is availability of satisfying relationships.
  2. One way to to remain addicted is habitually prioritizing one activity/ substance to the exclusion of others (salience), so that the joy from other activities like satisfying relationships is not experienced at all.
  3. Another way to remain addicted is to get so much in-the-moment high form indulging in the activity/ using the substance, that it overrules any comparisons with the satisfaction derived from relationships.

If I had to go on a limb, I would say that the former system which relies on habits or prioritizing a particular activity over others is related to the ‘wanting’ system , while the latter system which is related to experiencing in the moment highs is related to  the ‘liking’ system. And we all know that the ‘wanting’ system is more powerful than the ‘liking’ system. So most likely addiction is maintained by the former system where a habitual pattern of (mis) use has been formed.

So what are the takeaways? Build good habits and do not rely on in-the-moment strengths or capabilities to tide you over in times of crises. And measures of these good habits are what would drive success and lead to all sorts of positive outcomes.

The ABCD of Human Conundrum

The Human existence is fraught with many conundrums and dilemmas, the chief among them being how to live a good life and how to resolve the various contradictions in the service of that goal.

Conundrum novel cover

Conundrum novel cover (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To start with, I noted in an earlier post that even infants are able to reason about the world and themselves and others using four cognitive frameworks:  they see self and others as animals (biological reasoning system), as agents (psychological reasoning system) , as separated individuals (sociomoral reasoning system) and finally as impartial observers obeying physical laws(physical reasoning system).  We as humans are all of these- both animals and individuals; agents and observers.

We also face significant challenges when thinking of ourselves in these domains; thinking of us as mere animals that will die one day brings existential dread of death and wants us to transcend that by asserting or cultural identities (see more here).

  1. Awareness: As an observer our primary role is to become aware. Aware of ourselves and aware of the world. Aware of our separateness from the world and the need to transcend that and become aware of us being a part of the world. There is a trade-off between being aware of one as separate and being aware of one as a part of the world. Mysticism or spirituality where one merges with the world is one thing that enters at this level.
  2. Being: As an animal our primary role is to just be…for as long as possible. Being authentic and true to our self is a prime motivator here as is the desire to transcend death and become a part of cultural milieu by playing adequately the role assigned to us by our culture. There is a dynamic tension between juts being ‘ourselves’ and fitting in to cultural expectations of norms and roles to be a good cultural animal. Culture enters the equation at this level.
  3. Choice: As an agent our primary role is to exercise choice. Being free to make choice is a keen motivator but so is the need to commit ourselves to certain values, certain moral principles that can justify our choices. Having certain moral values and principles means that we precommit to certain ways of acting and thus are not entirely free to make choices. There is a dynamic tension between freedom of choice and commitment to moral principles. Morality enters the equation in this stage.
  4. Doing: As an individual our primary role is to interact with others- to do somethings for or with others. Being proactive and self-propelled is a great motivator and we proactively interact with others for fulfilling our needs, but the awareness that they are sentient beings just like us means we start factoring in their needs and start responding and acting contingently. There is a dynamic tension between autonomous action by us and reciprocal action demanded by quid pro quo interactions.  Our need to have needs to be balanced with our need to help and connect.  Sociability enters the equation.

There is also tensions and interplay between these different functions:  Being and Doing are sometimes contrasted and so is Choice and Awareness. Overall I find the above conceptualization very interesting and informing.

While we can never hope to resolve the human conundrums perfectly, being aware of them ids a first step towards successful resolution.

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.

Self-reflective Consciousness and Existential Concerns

I am currently reading ‘A life worth living‘ and found the introductory chapter by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi quite stimulating and inspiring.

Cover of "A Life Worth Living: Contributi...

Cover via Amazon

In that chapter, Mihaly claims that human brains are unique in lieu of their ability to give rise to self-reflective consciousness (I believe that many primates and some other animals may also have self-reflective consciousness, but that is tangential to our discussion here).  This self-reflective consciousness in turn leads to some interesting psychological effects.

To begin with, the self-reflective consciousness gives rise to a sense of individuality– a sense that one is an individual separate from the nature/ environment. This sense of individuality leads to an anxiety about death. In Mihaly’s own words:

Selfishness and cruelty, which formerly existed mainly as tools for biological survival, now have become extended to protect the psychological needs of the self, for the metabrain cannot help but conclude that its own existence is the most precious thing in the world, and all other goals pale in importance compared to its preservation. The terror of nonexistence, the fear of death, has become one of the ruling motives of humans.

This fear and reality of death is one of the first and foremost existential concern. The second concern that one typically encounters in existential texts is the fear and reality of freedom or choices. Again in Mihaly’s words:

Paradoxically, self-reflection also ushers in the possibility of self-doubt. As humans realized that they were independent individuals with a short lifespan, the question of what choices would lead to a meaningful life became increasingly urgent.

The third reality and fear of isolation is also apparent from the dawning of self-reflective consciousness and a sense of individuality.

The realization of individuality brought about a sense of isolation and finitude, but it also gave the impression of autonomy and freedom.

For understanding the last existential reality and fear of meaninglessness, we need to understand how self-reflective consciousness makes us question the implicit meaning of living and makes us seek for external frames of meaning. For an (non self-reflective) animal, the question of whether life is worth living simply does not arise.

After all, if the spark of consciousness only lasts a few heartbeats in the cosmic darkness, is there really any point in hanging on to life, when so much of it involves suffering? To answer this question, our ancestors—freed and unmoored from the implicit meaning provided by biological existence—had to come up with credible reasons that life was indeed worth living. The myths, religions, and philosophies of every culture have been in large part directed toward answering that question.

With science and reductionist thinking eating up on any semblance of meaning we may derive from earlier systems like myth, religion etc its imperative to ground meaning in new secular and non-mystical terms.

I am sure when Mihaly was writing these paragraphs, existential thinking was not on top of his mind, but isn’t it great to see how even in early days existential thinking and concerns were coupled with a positive psychology focus and PP2.0 is not all that new!