Posts tagged Positive psychology

ABCD and the Existential Givens


Long-time readers of this blog will be familiar with my ABCD model of psychology whereby I parse phenomena along 4 dimensions- Affective, Behavioral, Cognitive and Drive/Dynamic in nature.

I have also posted elsewhere about the four major goals of life. To recap, I believe that all humans are driven by these four major goals- Happiness, Success, Meaning and Integrity. If the parallels to ABCD are not obvious let me make it explicit.

The route to Happiness is via maximizing Positive Affect and minimizing negative Affect. Success is achieved by actively indulging in Behavior and by being engaged with the task at hand; Meaning is cognitively constructed and Integrity or morality at its core is about motivations or Drives.

All the above is more or less situated in the positive psychology paradigm, and the new Positive Psychology 2.0 looks beyond positivity to include existential concerns.

Now, I have been fascinated by the existential philosophy for quite some time, and have also explored its application to psychotherapy by Irwin Yalom etc. As per Yalom, we all must face up and try to resolve these four existential givens: Death, Isolation, Freedom/ responsibility; and Meaninglessness. All these are facts of life and we have to come to terms with them.

Death is inevitable; we can never truly get into the skin of the other, so existential loneliness also has to be dealt with; we are free to choose how to respond and that places a heavy burden of responsibility on us- we have to take ownership for our actions/ inaction;  finally given the cosmological perspective, our lives are perhaps meaningless- if anything we are burdened with providing an essence to our life(existence) , rather than otherwise.

Existential thinking is heavy stuff; but I guess all of us, start pondering such questions even when we are a small child; and continue revisiting them again and again, refining our tentative answers and resolutions to questions like these.

In the British school of existential therapy (cooper/Van Deurzen), these givens are seen as predictable tensions and paradoxes of the four dimensions of human existence, the physical, social, personal and spiritual realms (Umwelt, Mitwelt, Eigenwelt and Überwelt).

I find that fascinating. To me there appear to be two dimensions- one personal (Freedom/responsibility) vs interpersonal/ social (Isolation/ loneliness)  and the other Material/ physical (Death/ finitude/ embodiment) vs Spiritual/ psychological ( Meaninglessness/Un-Known). One has a focus on self , the other focus on others; the third a focus on the physical world, while the fourth is concerned with the spiritual realm.

And its easy to relate it to the ABCD/Four major goals of life:

The thoughts about Death (Physical) lead to embodied affective responses that can impact Happiness. Your behavior with others, whether you are able to connect authentically or not, determines your existential Isolation and loneliness (interpersonal) The interpersonal domain is also where you are able to taste your true Success/ Status. The drive towards personal Responsibility and freedom (personal) makes you moral and retain integrity. The recognition of oneself as a being striving for meaning, and impact in the real world, makes you paradoxically a spiritual person.

I like this marriage of Positive psychology and Existential Psychology and wish more and more people are driven towards the PP2.0 movement!

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.

Join me for a session on Positive Psychology on 21st Nov!

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Come 21st Nov and I will be delivering my first ever talk on ‘positive psychology: The science behind happiness and well-being‘ at the local (pune) Symbiosis Center for distance learning.  The event will happen in Pune and there is a small and negligible ticket fees to cover expenses. More details can be found on the FaceBook event page or the page.

Those who follow me on twitter or have been reading the blog for some time, would have noticed that I have been more and more inclined towards Positive psychology for quite some time. I recently also completed a certificate curse in Foundations of Positive Psychology from university of Pennsylvania, form none other than Tal Ben Shahar whose courses in Harvard on happiness and well being had record attendance. this will be the first , but not the lats!  I think of these speaking engagements as a natural outgrowth of my blogging and my desire to share what I have learned with others.

It would be really gratifying if as regular readers of this blog, you either attend the event (if you are based in Pune) or at least spread awareness about the event in your friends and contacts that might be based in Pune.

Reproduced below is a blurb from the website elaborating on what I plan to cover in that talk, though that is just an initial though and my thoughts have evolved since then as I worked on my presentation.

Today we want everything to be perfect. A perfect job, a perfect spouse, perfect parents, a perfect house, perfect kids, perfect gadgets, the perfect speed of life… The list is really endless. Our restless struggle is to achieve that perfection in everything we have around us. In this everlasting anxiety, we forget totally about our deeds, our attitude, and our mind. How will we find true happiness? Still the pursuit of happiness never ends… Let’s start it all over again in a new direction… with Sandeep Gautam.

In his session on Positive Psychology, Sandeep Gautam tells us what positive psychology is all about, and how it can help us in our everyday life. As he unfolds the research done on happiness and well-being, we will realize the benefits and characteristics of positive emotions. We will become more aware of the positive thinking styles, optimism and hope, that are already within us.

Let us learn with Sandeep how healthy our self-esteem is. Or how to measure our happiness. Yes, it can be measured. And not only that, it can also be increased using scientific methods. This session promises to introduce us to a more self-actualized, creative and motivated self of ours.
The natural fallout of a higher self-esteem and positive persona, is a more flourishing you. Be it your personal life or professional, you will find yourself more available to success and happiness. It’s not a miracle. It’s a science of happiness and well-being. Let us learn it and spread the joy!

Come with a child-like open and curious mind, and open doors to pure bliss!


Do join me for an engaging two hour session at 3 pm on 21st, or at least spread the word! The details of how to book your seats are available at the page.

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Creativity-psychosis linkage via reduced white matter /myelination
I have been following, and am passionate about, the positive psychology movement for quite some time, but was surprised to discover that there was something called positive neuroscience also in place. I recently came across this new scientist article about the research paper of Rex Jung et al and was pleased to discover that Jung was working on the frontier of applying latest in neuroscience research to Positive brain states and substrates like that involved in creativity.

The article is in PLOSOne, an open access journal and is lucidly written , so you should go and read it now. I’ll anyway like to summarize their study results. First a bit of background about creativity psychopathology linkage.

Some research reports positive correlations between various definitions of creativity and a diagnosis of psychopathology [1], [2], [3], [4]. Other studies report that psychopathology is rarely, if ever, associated with creative insight, capacity, or productivity [5]. When artists are studied more carefully, certain personality characteristics appear to reside upon a continuum of both normal behavior and psychopathology. For example, creative expression in the visual arts and poetry has been linked with the overlapping personality traits of schizotypy and Openness to Experience (Openness), and particularly to self-reports of “unusual experiences” and “unconventional nonconformity”, but not the “introvertive anhedonia” characteristic of schizophrenia [6].

This is inline with what we have been covering at mouse trap regarding association of creativity with the psychotic spectrum especially the creativity that is artistic or revolutionary in nature rather than scientific and methodical in nature. This is how the authors distinguish between types of creativity inline with my views that one type of creativity is autistic (cognitive) in nature while the other is psychotic (emotional) and these are on a continuum.

First, there does not exist one “creativity”; rather, this construct is hypothesized to reside upon a continuum between cognitive (i.e., scientific) and emotional (i.e., artistic) behavioral domains [41], [42]. Thus, when comparing scientists and artists directly, researchers have found lower lifetime rates of psychopathology for: 1) scientists compared to artists, 2) natural scientists compared to social scientists, 3) nonfiction writers compared to fiction writers and poets, and 4) formal artists compared to “expressive” artists [3], [4], [43]. These findings have led researchers to hypothesize a hierarchical structure of creativity across disciplines [42], which echoes the notions of “paradigmatic” (i.e., a fundamental model of events) versus “revolutionary” (i.e., rejection of doctrines) approaches as applied to the sciences [44]. The benefits of working within the lines of a given field appear to be lower levels of psychopathology; alternately, individuals with lower levels of psychopathology may be attracted to such endeavors. Similarly, there is increasing evidence that the cost of “revolutionary” approaches to creative endeavors, whether it is in the arts or sciences, may be associated with increased levels of psychopathology although, again, causative links are weak at best.

So that fits in with broader creativity/ psychopathology linkage, but to get back to the current study the authors had already established earlier that performance on Divergent Thinking (DT) (a measure of creativity) “exhibited significant inverse relationships with both cortical thickness in frontal lobe regions and metabolite concentration of N-acetyl-aspartate (NAA) in the anterior cingulate cortex in normal young subjects “. Thus, some theoretical relationship between creativity and underlying brain circuitry in the frontal reagion was available a priori. Also, research by other researchers has already established that ” Both schizophrenic and bipolar patients have been shown to have reduced fractional anisotropy (FA) in the anterior thalamic radiation [12], [13] and uncinate fasciculus [14] within frontal brain regions. Similarly, reduced FA was observed within the uncinate fasciculus of a cohort with schizotypal personality disorder, providing strong support for the hypothesis that similar neural phenotypes may not result in full-blown clinical symptoms [15]. Finally, in normal subjects, the Neuroregulin-1 (NRG1) single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNP’s) SNP8NRG243177 and SNP8NRG221533 were found to predict lower FA in the left anterior thalamic radiation [16]. As NRG1 has been found to predict higher risk of schizophrenia [17], [18] and bipolar disorder [19], and is linked with axonal myelination and migration [20], these authors hypothesize a mechanistic link between NRG1 within the anterior thalamic radiation and risk for psychotic disorders [16].”

Thus, from the above it is easy to see that there should be a inverse relationship between Fractional Anisotropy (a construct related to myelination of axons) in the frontal regions and creativity if one assumes that creativity and psychopathology are related and are on one end of a continuum. And this inverse relationship between creativity and FA is exactly what they found:

Our results suggest a convergence between a cognitive measure of divergent thinking, a personality measure of Openness, and a white matter integrity measure within the inferior frontal lobes. We found that normal young subjects with lower levels of FA within predominantly left inferior frontal white matter (i.e., regions overlapping the uncinate fasciculus and anterior thalamic radiation) scored higher on the CCI; similarly subjects with lower levels of FA within the right frontal white matter (i.e., regions overlapping the uncinate fasciculus and anterior thalamic radiation) scored higher on self-reported measures of Openness. These two regions of white matter overlap with those reported by other researchers who found lower FA in both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder [13], [14], [30].

They could also nail the reduced FA to reduced myelination as radial diffusion was affected more than axial diffusion. As reduced myelination has been shown as a diatheisis for psychosis, this fits in with previous research linking risk factors common to psychosis and creativity.

Whereas more neural resources are often associated with higher intellectual capacity in a parieto-frontal network of brain regions [39], studies in DT appear to suggest that less is often better in a different network of brain regions, particularly fronto-cingulate-subcortical networks linked via white matter loops [40].

One can speculate that frontal region, more concerned with executive control , when with reduced activity or functional connectivity , may not inhibit the other brain regions that much, and may thus lead to flowering of inherent creativity and cross-talk amongst different brain regions. On the other hand too much white matter/ gray matter in this region may lead to too much control and leave little room for flexibility and creativity.

However, while lower FA is commonly seen in diseases where both cognition and white matter integrity are impaired (e.g., Traumatic Brain Injury, Schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease) [45], [46], [47], evidence is accumulating that higher FA in particular brain regions may also be associated with clinical disorders including post-traumatic stress disorder [48], obsessive-compulsive disorder [49], panic disorder [50], synaesthesia [51], and Williams syndrome [52].

It is interesting to note that enhanced FA is associated with clinical disorder of Williams syndrome, which is associated with Autism; on the other end of continuum, reduced FA in particular brain region is associated with psychosis proneness, thus providing another convergent linkage of autism and psychosis as opposites.

Jung, R., Grazioplene, R., Caprihan, A., Chavez, R., & Haier, R. (2010). White Matter Integrity, Creativity, and Psychopathology: Disentangling Constructs with Diffusion Tensor Imaging PLoS ONE, 5 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0009818

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Character strengths and virtues: a 5/8 factor structure?

Tibetan endless knot
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Positive psychology is based on the premise that it is equally important to study what is good in life as it is to study what goes wrong. Positive psychology thus focuses on building and capitalizing on existing strengths of people while not focusing too much on their weaknesses, which has been focus of the traditional pathological view of humans.
Martin Seligman, the founding father of positive psychology, and Christopher Peterson, accordingly, have developed a Values In Action (VIA)-character strengths inventory and classification scheme to measure and classify the virtues or character strengths in a taxonomic system. It is a 240 items self-report measure that identifies 24 character strengths and orders them as per their predominance in a person’s life. These 24 character strengths are further classified in 6 broad virtues. I am reproducing teh 6 broad virtues and the 24 character strengths below:

  1. Wisdom and Knowledge Cognitive strengths that entail the acquisition and use of knowledge
    • Creativity: Thinking of novel and productive ways to conceptualize and do things
    • Curiosity: Taking an interest in ongoing experience for its own sake
    • Open-mindedness: Thinking things through and examining them from all sides
    • Love of learning: Mastering new skills, topics, and bodies of knowledge
    • Perspective: Being able to provide wise counsel to others
  2. Courage-Emotional strengths that involve the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition, external and internal
    • Bravery: Not shrinking from threat, challenge, difficulty, or pain
    • Persistence: Finishing what one starts; persisting in a course of action in spite of obstacles
    • Integrity: Speaking the truth but more broadly presenting oneself in a genuine way
    • Vitality: Approaching life with excitement and energy; not doing anything halfheartedly
  3. Humanity-Interpersonal strengths that involve tending and befriending others
    • Love: Valuing close relations with others, in particular those in which caring is reciprocated
    • Kindness: Doing favors and good deeds for others; helping them; taking care of them
    • Social intelligence: Being aware of the motives and feelings of other people and oneself
  4. Justice- Civic strengths that underlie healthy community life
    • Citizenship: Working well as a member of a group or team; being loyal to a group
    • Fairness: Treating all people the same according to the notions of fairness and justice
    • Leadership: Encouraging a group of which one is a member to get things done
  5. Temperance-Strengths that protect against excess
    • Forgiveness and mercy: Forgiving those who have done wrong; accepting others’ faults
    • Humility/Modesty: Letting one’s accomplishments speak for themselves
    • Prudence: Being careful about one’s choices; not taking undue risks
    • Self-regulation: Regulating what one feels and does; being disciplined
  6. Transcendence-Strengths that forge connections to the larger universe and provide meaning
    • Appreciation of beauty and excellence: Noticing and appreciating beauty, excellence, and/or
      skilled performance in various domains of life
    • Gratitude: Being aware of and thankful for the good things that happen
    • Hope: Expecting the best in the future and working to achieve it
    • Humor: Liking to laugh and tease; bringing smiles to other people
    • Spirituality: Having coherent beliefs about the higher purpose and meaning of the universe

Seligman and Peterson arrived at these strengths via an esoteric route: they analyzed the major ethical and religious teachings of major eastern (Taoism, Confucianism, Hinduism and Buddhism) and western  (Judaism, Christianity, Athenian virtues and Islamic) religions and going by the authoritative texts of these religions tried to find universal and ubiquitous character strengths or virtues.  They themselves and others performed factor analysis on their 240 item questionnaire, and data obtained from different people who answered the questionnaire, and obtained at different time 5 factor or 4 factor solutions.

Seligman and Peterson themselves identify the following five factors from exploratory factor analysis. :

  • strengths of restraint (fairness, humility, mercy, prudence)
  • intellectual strengths (e.g., creativity, curiosity, love of learning,appreciation of beauty)
  • interpersonal strengths (e.g., kindness, love, leadership, teamwork,playfulness)
  • emotional strengths (e.g., bravery, hope, self-regulation, zest)
  • theological strengths (e.g., gratitude, spirituality)

Some other researchers found a four factor structure ( Interpersonal Strengths, Fortitude, Vitality, and Cautiousness) while some others have found related four or even one factor structure.

To my mind the original character strengths seem to follow the five/eight staged developmental/evolutionary model, especially when seen from the big 5/8 personality model ,  as follows:

  1. stage 1: related to emotions: personality trait neuroticism. character strength of Courage/Fortitude. Also known otherwise as emotional strength.
  2. stage 2: related to impulses/will: personality trait conscientiousness: character strength of Temperance. Also known otherwise as  strength of restraint.
  3. stage 3: related to forming alliances and friendships and concerned with dominance/submission. the social domain and group dynamics.  personality trait extraversion. character strength Justice. Leadership, fairness and citizenship are all civic strengths.
  4. stage 4: related to close interpersonal relations. personality trait agreeableness. : the personal and interpersonal domain. character strength humanity. Also known as interpersonal strength.
  5. stage 5: related to self-discovery and cognition; personality trait openness to experience. the cognitive and intellectual domain. character strength wisdom. also known as intellectual strengths .
  6. stage 6, 7 and 8 are qualitatively different and thus might have been clubbed into the transcendence/religiosity factor, but I believe as we evolve and understand better we would be able to classify the transcendence / religiosity factor into 3 separate factors and identify the individually. For a starter distinguishing amongst religiosity (trust vs distrust the sixth stage)  and transcendence (the eighth stage) may be called for.  Also, Todd Kashandan et al found that Vitality may be an apt name for the factor representing transcendence/religiosity and by vitality they meant Zest, hope humor etc all traits that are related to personality dimension of 7th stage viz Activity. thus I propose to split transcendence in 3 factors: one religious strengths ( stage 6 consisting of gratitude, hope); activity strengths (stage 7 consisting of Zest, humor, vitality etc) and transcendence strengths (stage 8 consisting spirituality, appreciation of beauty etc)

I would be on the lookout for the astute experimenter/observer who first fits the eight stage factor model to the character strengths and confirms the eight factor structure of character strengths and virtues and also relates them to underlying personality traits.

Seligman and Peterson have themselves tried to relate the character strengths to personality traits and so have been other recent attempts, but they will remain insufficient till the eight stage theoretical model is taken as a foundation. Seligman and Peterson note, in respect of the five factor structure they discovered using factor analysis:

What we call here strengths of restraint correspond closely to virtues of temperance; intellectual strengths correspond to virtues of wisdom and knowledge; interpersonal strengths collapse the virtues of humanity and justice ; emotional strengths correspond to virtues of courage; and the theological strengths are included among our transcendence virtues.
We also note that the first three factors here correspond to the Big Five factors of conscientiousness, openness, and agreeableness; the fourth factor—emotional strengths—may correspond to the opposite of the Big Five factor of neuroticism. The fifth factor—theological strengths—has no Big Five counterpart.

I believe their attempts, and the attempts of other researchers will go futile, till the eight fold developmental/evolutionary model is taken as the theoretical bedrock on which to perform confirmatory factor analysis.

Dahlsgaard, K., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. (2005). Shared Virtue: The Convergence of Valued Human Strengths Across Culture and History. Review of General Psychology, 9 (3), 203-213 DOI: 10.1037/1089-2680.9.3.203
Brdar, I., & Kashdan, T. (2010). Character strengths and well-being in Croatia: An empirical investigation of structure and correlates Journal of Research in Personality, 44 (1), 151-154 DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2009.12.001

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