To Have or to Do? To Be or to Become?

A new study has recently caught the fancy of psychology journalists and is being touted as a support for renewed materialistic attitudes.

Jeff Woloson in Thailand. The birds atop Jeff'...

Jeff Woloson in Thailand. The birds atop Jeff’s head and left arm are Brahminy Kites; the larger bird on his right arm is a young White-bellied Sea-eagle. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is a well known finding in psychology that experiential purchases, or experiences, are better for your happiness than material purchases, or possessions.

However, the picture, as always, is more nuanced and complicated. For starters, happiness means all things to all people, and is likely to be multi- dimensional. Secondly, a sole focus on material or experiential ‘purchases’ detracts from other useful ways of thinking about happiness, say in thinking that happiness can also arise from gifting or helping others.

Before we go further, I would like to break down happiness into its components. Happiness/ well-being, has been traditionally conceived as made up of three components that are measured separately. The first is an absence of negative emotions; the second is a presence of positive emotions and finally the third is satisfaction with life.

Now some of you may be wondering why we need to differentiate between a lack of negative emotions and a presence of positive emotions; if that’s you go back to positive psychology 101 tenet no. 1: negative emotions and positive emotions are separate constructs and an absence of one doesn’t guarantee the presence of the other.

It has also been found that for e.g. money has a different relationship to these; if your income is below a certain level you are likely to have a lot of struggle and negative emotions; beyond a certain income you don’t derive as much positive emotions as you should with increasing income and the line flattens, and finally measures of life satisfaction are more closely correlated with accumulated wealth than are measures of positive/ negative emotions.

The components are also measured differently; while life satisfaction can be reliably gauged from self report survey, a better measure of positive/ negative emotions are achieved by the experience sampling method.

To me, this break-up of well-being into negative emotions, positive emotions and life satisfaction seems incomplete and I propose adding another component to the mix: life outlook.

Life outlook, is how excited you are about the possibilities of the future, and in your ability to make your dreams come true; it is future oriented, unlike life satisfaction which is past oriented; though like life satisfaction, I believe, it can be reliably measured by self-report method. This involves an attitude of looking forward to whatever life has to offer; to be truly considered ‘happy’ one should be hopeful and optimistic, rather than resigned or pessimistic.

So well-being= ‘presence of +ve emotions’ + ‘lack of -ve emotions’ + ‘life satisfaction’ + ‘+ve life outlook’

I now want to return to the experiential vs materialistic purchases. In my opinion, materialistic purchases are about our (extrinsic / socially conditioned) ‘wants’ while experiential purchases are about our (intrinsic) ‘needs’.

And that leads me to posit that perhaps there are different selves involved when we undergo an experiential consumption vs a materialistic consumption. I’ll call these experiential (or experiencing) self and materialistic (or material) self.

Also recall the distinction Daniel Kahneman makes between experiencing self and remembering self and add to the mix the homo prospectus (you can know more about Prospection here)  concept of Martin Seligman, which I will refer to as the Anticipatory self. So what do we get:

    1. Materialistic self: focused on fulfilling one’s wants; if wants are thwarted discomfort ensues, but if they are met, at best, you are in a state of hedonistic pleasure.  So you have a pleasure-discomfort polarity. And this is what perhaps would be the ‘negative’ or unhelpful emotions axis. If you want to be happy you want to ensure that you are as less governed by this materialistic self as possible, because whether they be emotion of discomfort or emotions of lazy pleasure, they really serve no good. Acquiring material goods does help well being on this dimension and this self as a ‘to have’ attitude.
    2. Experiential/ experienced self: focused on fulfilling one’s needs; if needs are not met, pain ensues (and that makes us focus on how we can meet the needs), while if needs are being met one is joyous and on cloud 9. So you have a joy-pain polarity. And this is what perhaps would be the ‘positive’ or helpful emotions axis. If you want to be happy you want to ensure that you are as much governed by this experiential self as possible, because whether they be emotion of pain or joy  they really are serving immense good (pain for survival; joy for thriving via broaden and build) . Acquiring experiences does help well being on this dimension and this self as a ‘to do’ attitude.
    3. Remembered self: focused on creating a coherent narrative about the self, if narrative is coherent and as per the image one wants to have of oneself, then contentment happens; else their is a sense of regret. The polarity is contentment-regret. And this is what perhaps would be the life satisfaction axis. It entails a ‘to be’ attitude.
    4. Prospective/ Anticipatory self: focused on creating new futures and possibilities, this is the prospective self. If the ideal self seems reachable and we are confident about attaining it, hope ensues; otherwise there is resignation to fate. So the polarity is hope-resignation and the axis is the life outlook axis. It entails a ‘to become’ attitude.

So whats the answer? Should we do or be, become or have; I think we need to indulge in all of these, in moderation, but ‘to become’ seems to be the best bet for your well being and flourishing!

Lastly, we know that material purchases impact our unhelpful emotions axis as well as our life satisfaction axis; while I guess experiential purchases will help our prospective self too in addition to our experienced self as its only via accumulated experiences that we become.  But I have a feeling that there may be other ways to increase life satisfaction and life outlook and would love to hear your thoughts on the same.

To thrive in life invest in these 8 psychological constructs

We all want to excel in life and various psychological constructs have been proposed that can help us in this mission. These range from grit(mostly used in academic domain) to PsyCap (mostly used in work domain) to the concept of deliberate practice (mostly used in niche domains).

That's My Goal

That’s My Goal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Grit has been proposed to be made up of passion and perseverance; passion itself being made up of investment of time and effort regularly in activities that one finds important, loved and self-defining (i.e. one identifies one’s self with the passionate activity).

PsyCap is made up of Confidence (self-efficacy), Hope, Resilience and Optimism; Hope itself being made up of Agency (goal directed energy) and Pathways (planning to meet goals).

So with so many constructs floating around which ones are basic and which ones derivative?

I propose the following eight basic psychological constructs, which if focused upon can lead to well-being and success in life:

  1. Purpose: Everyone should start with defining their life purpose. Once defined, it provides a general direction and decision-pulse for all your decisions, actions etc.  It is the super-ordinate goal of your life and all other goals should be subordinate and aligned to this.  A firm commitment to this purpose provides the motivation/ drive to achieve and flourish. This acts as the ‘narrow’ polarity of the fundamental four ABCD model by restricting our choices, once purpose is determined and defined. This is the end goal.
  2. Pathways : If purpose is the end goal, pathways are the means or subordinate goals and strategies to achieve that super-ordinate goal.  It enables one to flexibly take stock of the progress towards the end goal and adjust or change the means goal to continue momentum towards the end goal. As Angela Duckworth says ‘ “Go, go, go until you can’t go anymore…then turn left.” This acts as the ‘broad’ polarity of the fundamental four ABCD model by expanding our repertoire of responses.
  3. Positive narratives: We all tell stories to ourselves and our view of past is not objective but actively constructed. And its better to tell positive stories to ourselves than otherwise. This is related to learned optimism. As per Seligman, one should make stable, internal and pervasive/ generic attributions about positive events and temporary, external and specific attributions about negative events. This eventually enables us to  have a positive image of our abilities in the past and leads to hope and self confidence that we will be able to achieve in future too. This is related to ‘other’ polarity: how we interpret what happens to us via others .
  4. Positive self-belief: Call it confidence, call it self-efficacy or call it even agency ; this is belief in one’s own ability and efforts to lead to positive outcomes.  This is obviously related to ‘self’ and is cognitive in nature.
  5. Perseverance: This is being in for the long haul. When set upon achieving a goal, time is not a constraint, and one would continue investing time into the pursuit; if setbacks happen, one rebounds or emerges more determined. One does not change one’s goal or strategy easily. This is also related to resilience. This is ‘passive ‘ polarity as one reacts to setbacks / obstacle when they happen, but otherwise just continues investing time and energy. This is behavioral in nature.
  6. Practice: This is ensuring that efforts are not a constraint when it comes to achieving the goal. One is willing to work hard to archive ones goals and one actively and regularly and diligently puts in that effort. This again is ‘active’ and behavioral in nature. The willingness to put in hard work can again be developed like other constructs.
  7. Passion: This is not the regular definition of passion; by passion here I mean a consistency of interests and a fascination with a subject. It includes things like not getting distracted or waylaid by competing interests and also not letting you interest wane or fade over the time. It is obviously related to emotions and is the ‘pain’ polarity as an obsessive passion may sometime lead to pain.
  8. Playfulness: This is about having a playful attitude when working towards your goals;  it includes things like enthusiasm towards the goal, enjoying the journey by having flow experiences and being engaged and curious. This too is emotional in nature and is related to ‘pleasure’ polarity.

Some other construct are a composite of these; hope is a composite and so is deliberate practice or resilience.

Similarly, there are other constructs like task commitment ( like perseverance, endurance, hard work, but also self-confidence, perceptiveness and a special fascination with a special subject) which cover almost all of these.

I believe the above has great utility and can be a good framework for studying non-ability , non-personality factors that lead to exceptional performance. I am excited and look forward to other people adopting this model for their research and conceptualizations.

Links from my #Leadership/ #PosPsy blog: 15 May 2016

Many of you may know that I am a Gallup certified strengths as well as a well-being/life coach; and l do workshop facilitation in leadership development space.

As part of reaching out to people who may benefit from applying positive psychology principles to their work/ daily life, I have decided recently to blog more frequently on Flourish Mentoring, my Leadership and Positive psychology based self-improvement blog and website.

This also means that any posts that are primarily related to positive psychology will no longer be posted on The Mouse Trap, but will find a new home on the Flourish Mentoring blog. But then, I also believe, some of you may benefit and will be interested in those blog posts, so I have decided to post a fortnightly links from that blog on this one.  Let me know, via comments, if you would prefer otherwise!!

With that said, here are a few links from the past 2 weeks:

  1. Happiness and good relationships at work: based on a study by BCG group and touching on Herzberg theory of hygiene-motivators.
  2. Unemployment better than holding a poor quality job: In the context of mental health, how a poor psychosocial quality job may be worse than no job!
  3. Factors underlying exceptional expertise and creativity: where I come up with the equation: Strength= Talent x Skills x Knowledge x Diligence.
  4. My CV (of failures) : On the importance of being candid and at peace with your failures.
  5. Indian parents prioritize career success over happiness for their kids:on how parents’ career-focused expectations lead to worse outcomes for their children, including in extreme cases, steps like suicide.
  6. Redesigning the experience of your (Monday) morning coffee: an experiment in creativity and design thinking.
  7. Caught in the middle: mental health of middle managers: Where I extrapolate from dominance studies in macaque to stress faced by middle managers.
  8. Blogging daily vs slogging daily: documenting my resolve (and challenges) of blogging daily.
  9. The six styles of procrastination: On procrastination, applied with an example to myself.
  10. Diversity as the defining feature of a high performing team: On the importance of diversity for the performance of a team.

That’s it for now; have a happy reading!


Practicing deliberately for excellence


Malcolm Gladwell had popularized the ‘10,000 hour’ rule to expertise in his popular book ‘Outliers’. As per his formulation, anyone who puts in 10,000 hours of effort could excel in a particular field. What one required was determination and raw effort. He had based these conclusions on the work of Anders Ericsson and colleagues and now Anders Ericsson (with Robert Pool) in his new book ‘Peak’ has tried to clear the muddied waters surrounding the 10,000 hour rule.

You can read an excerpt from peak here , where Anders himself clarifies that it doesn’t necessarily take 10,000 hours to develop expertise- for some it takes longer while for others it is much lesser. Also that the number of hours required varies form domain to domain;  and that for exceptional performance you may need another additional 10,000 hours; he adds all that nuance but the most important caveat is that not any effort will do, it has to be 10,000 or more hours of ‘deliberate practice‘.

So what is ‘deliberate practice’ and how does it differ form mere blind efforts? As Scott Barry Kaufman brilliantly explains in this article:

Deliberate practice involves a series of techniques designed to learn efficiently and purposefully. This involves goal setting, breaking down complex tasks into chunks, developing highly complex and sophisticated representations of possible scenarios, getting out of your comfort zone, and receiving constant feedback.

And this is over and above purposeful practice , which again is a different beast from mere effort or repetition and involves, well-defined specific goals, focused efforts, , feedback and getting out of one’s comfort zones. Add to that specialized learning (and teaching) techniques available in a field, learning from a coach or mentor to constantly push oneself beyond one’s limits, the use of mental representations and  conscious and intentional improvement efforts and you have a perfect recipe for deliberate practice.

However, important caveats apply.  Deliberate practice is useful/ applicable only in highly specialized domains (what a downer!).

But as they note midway through their book — and I believe this is a really important caveat— the techniques of deliberate practice are most applicable to “highly developed fields” such as chess, sports, and musical performance in which the rules of the domain are well established and passed on from generation to generation. The principles of deliberate practice do not work nearly as well for professions in which there is “little or no direct competition, such as gardening and other hobbies”, and “many of the jobs in today’s workplace– business manager, teacher, electrician, engineer, consultant, and so on.”

Important points to note here: for most messy fields, like say expertise in psychology, the 10,000 hours rule may not apply as there are no clear techniques for being a  better psychologist that one can learn from a  coach/ mentor and improve by getting instant feedback on one’s skill as a psychologist – so there is little room for deliberate practice…..moreover deliberate practice as I understand applies more to development of skills and not so much to knowledge, so many academic disciplines will likely remain out of its ambit.

I myself have been guilty of wrongly understanding and applying the 10,000 hour rule- my about page proudly proclaims that I have developed expertise in psychology by the hard way- by putting in more than 10,000 hours of self-study- however as long as the 10,000 hour is rightly applicable to domains in which one can learn under the guidance of a coach and consciously keep improving and pushing limits, my 10,000 hours of self study is unlikely to make me an expert or anything like that as per the research is concerned.

However, I can think of one example from my life where I did indulge in deliberate practice. Counter-intuitive though it may seem, it was while preparing for a high stakes educational assessment called JEE (entrance test of IITs‘), and this may be applicable to other high stake testing like GRE/GMAT /SAT also.

One can consider the final exam / test as a performance and all the prior preparation like mock tests etc as practice. Now, I used to study in  a coaching class under the guidance of an expert teacher in mathematics, and the teacher (Mr Bansal) used to stretch us beyond our comfort zones by constantly exposing us to problems that were difficult to solve and also helping us see what we can do to improve and where we needed to put in more efforts. Although the whole duration of preparation was about an year, and I definitely did not become a maths expert after that, it was enough to crack the JEE, but the larger point is that if that sort of deliberate practice was continued, I might have become an expert in maths.

So having just said above that deliberate practice may not apply to academic pursuits,  on second thoughts I would grant that it may apply very well to some academic pursuits by building skills of thinking and solving problems.

Creativity of course would be a different beast and as Scott rightly notes may involve more than the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. But while everyone may aspire for creativity, and its origins still remain mysterious, Anders with ‘Peak’ had demystified how to be an expert in any field.

‘Peak’ is a much needed and timely book that will help you apply the principles of deliberate practice to all parts of your life , including your work life, and can take you to the next level- of course you will have to put n the right efforts, keep motivated , find the right coach , but the sky is the limit once you decide to achieve expertise in the domain and Anders is there to help.

Do yourself a favor, do read this book on expertise , by the world’s foremost authority on the subject and then choose a domain and stick to it. You may surprise yourself with what you are able to achieve


How Cotard’s and other phenomena throw light on the self

indexCan the Cotard’s syndrome tell us something about the self? A person suffering from Cotard’s syndrome is likely to claim that he/ she is dead- can such a delusional experience make us appreciate what self is what it isn’t – and more importantly how the sense of self can go awry in some phenomena?

Anil Ananthaswamy, in his exquisitely written book ‘ The Man Who Wasn’t There‘ beautifully illustrates how Cotard’s and other such weird and not so weird phenomena can shed light on the true nature of self (provided the self exists and there is something it is like to have a self- more about this later).

The book is beautifully written, weaving narratives of actual patients suffering from various disorders, with cutting edge research in the field and at all times tying it back to the nature of the self.

Although the eight chapters talk about eight different phenomena- ranging from Cotard’s to deperosnalisation to Autism to schizophrenia to out-of-body experiences and ecstatic epilepsy to BIID ( or having a desire to amputate ones limbs) and Alzheimer’s – there doesn’t seem any discontinuity- nor does it seem as if disparate phenomena are being talked about. With self being the focus, each of these is used to approach the self from a different angle.

I am reminded of the parable of  blind men and the elephant – whereby each blind men could only grasp one part of the elephant. Self is such an elephant in the room. The various chapters do advance our understanding of the self and fortunately, this time, the sum is greater than the sum of the parts, and we are indeed able to get a  sense of the elephant/self!

It would be naive to assume that Anil would have solved the problem of self where great philosophers or scientists of past and present have failed to do so- but he does gives tantalizing glimpses of what the answer might me and at least brings us up to speed with what is being thought of in the philosophical / scientific circles.

The power of the book comes from its very approachable and readable writings style and the humane treatment of its subjects.  Whether its the isolation felt by a BID sufferer who has no means of getting his limb amputated legally or the strangeness felt by those suffering from deperosnailsation, Anil makes the stories vivid- loud and clear in one’s mind;s eyes.

The book is also chock full of interesting facts- some of which I was already familiar with, but got an opportunity to brush up on the latest happenings in the filed, others were new to me – for example I hadn’t realized that people with Cotard’s are typically depressed or that people remember more about their life from between 10 and 30 years (the reminiscence bump) and many such nuggets.

The book is immensely readable and holds your attention from chapter to chapter.  I was almost felling bad about having finished it as I wanted more of the treats to continue.  In a week in which we lost Oliver Sacks, it takes some solace to discover that there are others who are keeping the tradition alive.

Both the erudition , humanity and narration of Anil is superb. While reading the book, I thought he was himself a prominent neuroscientist- its only post reading it I realized he is a science journalist and has also written  a best seller in physics. Surprising how brilliant people are able to make their mark in whatever field they chose to focus on. Quiet coincidentally I had also reviewed ‘Subliminal’ by Leonord Mlodinow- who is also a physicist but has written a good book rooted in psychology.

My advice to readers of this blog- if you loved Sacks, if you loved VS Ramachandran,  or even if you didn’t or haven’t heard about them, do give this book a read- you are going to love the easy style- yet a lot of substance. I, for one , am eagerly looking forward to Anil’s next read.

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