Category Archives: positive psychology

An Idiot’s Bill of Rights

If blogging has taught me anything, it’s that the universe cares deeply about my every thought and feeling.  

If I would have fallen asleep a year ago, and had a dream about what my life would be like now, waking up I would have pressed myself, “Jer, you really need to work on your pride issues.”  Details be damned: basically, I’ve won the people-pleasing Super Bowl and I want to talk a bit about what life is like on the other side.  

In short, its not much better.  In fact, I noticed that my initial euphoria quickly melted into your run-of-the-mill stupefying fear.  Effort has become an opportunity not to live up to my potential.  Because there seems to be no available trajectory but down, it feels like a good time to abandon all meaningful pursuits and join the circus.  (I ‘ve day-dreamed about becoming a full-time bike messenger.)  

Alicia and Jer in Puerto Rico the day after Christmas 2013.  We went on an all-day snorkeling trip with unlimited free alcohol.  I had to document my first time having a pina colada at 9AM for posterity.

This is a pic of Alicia and I in Puerto Rico the day after Christmas 2013. We went on an all-day snorkeling trip with unlimited free alcohol on a sailing catamaran and I documented my first time having a pina colada at 9AM for posterity.  My point: don’t take these reflections too seriously. Life is  good.

My problem?  Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford, might call it a “fixed mindset.”  She’s done a great deal of research unveiling the effects of implicit beliefs about where one’s talents and abilities come from.  In the first option, we see our talents and abilities as largely set in stone.  We don’t want challenges, as they are opportunities for failure.  And if at first you don’t succeed, give up quickly cause you clearly don’t have it.

Alternatively, we can adopt a “growth mindset.”  In this view, failure is not failure.  Everything is an opportunity for growth.  Results are not defining because things change, and if you work hard you can get better, grow, and learn more and more.  Fixed mindsets have been tied to a whole bunch of stuff nobody wants, like struggling in school, and growth mindsets are generally helpful in your professional and personal life.

Carol Dweck has been working on implicit beliefs for decades.  I'm thrilled that she has taken an interest in my UA work.

Carol Dweck has been working on implicit beliefs for decades. I’m thrilled that she has also taken an interest in my UA work.

One of the ways we get fixed mindsets, ironically, is from  praise.  Praise for ability seems to actually undermine how persistent we are in our efforts (“Johnny, you are so smart!”).   Meanwhile, praising effort and strategy encourages trying and trying hard, at least in school-aged kids (Mueller & Dweck, 1988).

Check out Dweck's book at

Check out Dweck’s popular press book for more info.

Are you fixed or growth?  I think I’m likely somewhere in the middle, but lately I think I have been seduced by lavish praise into a fixed mindset.  I remember after the subway thing how everyone and their mom was calling me a hero for a few weeks.  Then it stopped.  Believe me, I understood those guys who go out and push people onto subway tracks themselves so that they can save someone again.  Extravagant praise of talent and ability is addicting, and, if Dweck is right, corrupting.

Some of you are probably thinking, “hah!  Woe is Jer!  It must be so hard that everyone likes you.”  I would say, “absolutely!  Ridiculous, right?” and then kick you in the shins (as loving friends do).  Stop being small!  Winning the lottery ruins people’s lives (overstatement of Brickman et al, 1978 and other studies).  Winning the lottery of public opinion can as well.  Take it from somebody who has somehow made it to the top of magic mountain (of people-pleasing…not money…I have a ways to go in that other rather worthless pursuit).  The view is not as satisfying as I thought it would be.

One symptom of my hardening fixed mindset (and probably other stuff like being busy) has been blog silence.  I continue to have interesting ideas (I designed a company over Christmas break that would be a full-service fake vacation provider), but are they interesting enough to raise people’s opinions of me?  A dollop of paralysis is sometimes all one needs to avoid trying.

So get rid of it!  I think the first step is to boldly declare my rights, not only as a learner, but also a buffoon.  Dweck’s research, blah blah blah…I really miss allowing myself the freedom to be an idiot.  The guy who will occasionally accidentally pee in the trash can instead of the toilet, who will bike with his arms out like he’s flying, who will unknowingly put the car in park and turn it off at a traffic light if the conversation is interesting…I like that guy and people who are like him.  Thus I solemnly declare that idiots everywhere have  fundamental human rights:

  1. To not know.
  2. To say dumb shit.
  3. To disagree with ourselves without warning.
  4. To pour our heart and soul into a project we later think is silly.
  5. To fail magnificently — so bad that everyone notices.
  6. To fail uninterestingly — so small that it hardly affects anyone’s opinion about anything.  (This one is really scary for me.  I love epic failure.  It’s the mundane disappointing performance that freaks me out.)
  7. To appear foolish.
  8. To learn.
  9. To value growth over other people’s esteem.

Ahh…what a wonderfully freeing exercise!  Thank you internet for your cathartic caress.

But for me utility of this exercise is not just augmenting a present emotional state.  I’ve observed that time and time again what has helped me get over myself, whether it be negative feedback (having a manuscript rejected by 50 publishers) or positive feedback (being the highest-rated speaker at a conference),  is not to ignore feedback or stop caring what other people think–that’s mental illness–but to refocus on the work itself.  Declaring my rights as an idiot helps me do that.  Declaring my rights as an idiot gets me back to content.  Fortunately my work is  damn fascinating.  Usually all it takes is a reminder.

Some people use alarm clocks.  I use my wife.  After five years of marriage, Alicia continues to amaze me, not only because she lovingly kicks my ass with verbal reminders (my masters thesis was languishing before she stepped in), but is herself an example of growth mindset everyday.  While we were in Peurto Rico, I took her boogey-boarding for the first time.  Now, she would be the first to admit that she is not terribly athletic.  True to form, at first she was horrible, really quite impressively bad.  Then she got better.  Then she got good.  And boogey-boarding became a meaningful daily laugh-fest for us.  On the final day, she wore me out, and as the sun set I watched her ride waves and reflected on how lucky I was to have her.  She knows her rights as an idiot, I realized, and those same rights protecting her can protect me (and you) too.

Alicia is the tiny silhouette on the right.

Alicia with her boogey-board is the tiny silhouette on the right.

All are free to be life-loving fools.

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The First Philosophy Debate Ever

In previous work, I traced the history of the concept of universal assessments (overall judgements of the world) in German philosophy back to Immanuel Kant in the 18th century.  But this week while listening to the lecture series “The Story of Psychology” by Todd Daniel, I realized that UAs go back way WAY further than I thought.

But I am skeptical of me.

Since studying UAs, I’ve started seeing them everywhere.  I’m currently reading through all of my childhood Calvin & Hobbes books and finding tons.  For example, here’s a strip from It’s a Magical World (the title itself a UA) the last image of which is the cover of another of Watterson’s books:

treasure

As I go through life talking to people, watching movies, and reading books, I find myself constantly writing down UAs and a new universal assessment is growing in me faster than bamboo.  It says “there’s UAs (subset of treasure) everywhere.”  But the mark of a mediocre theorist is that they form the UA that there theory explains everything all the time.

So I’m skeptical.  I might be seeing things.  But I think I’ve made an important connection: the first debate in philosophy was over universal assessments.

In most survey history books, western philosophy begins in Athens, where Socrates taught Plato, Plato taught Aristotle, Aristotle tutored a young Alexander of Macedon, Alex conquered the known world becoming “Great,” and Greek culture spread and dominated. The focus of these early thinkers was on how one should live.  But, outside philosophy students, many do not realize that this focus on people and society was a somewhat new topic in philosophy and represented a transition away from a prior discussion among an eclectic group now called the Pre-socratics.

These guys are overlooked for good reasons.  We know very little about them, they left behind scant literature — fragments really, and, instead of being part of a single story based in the important city of Athens, they lived in far-flung parts of the greek-speaking world.  Perhaps the biggest reason of all that we don’t talk alot about the Pre-socratics is because their major topic of conversation, and most of the conclusions they draw, strike us as silly/irrelevant.  But their not.  This week I have been thinking about the possibility that philosophy was birthed out of a desire to use reason to form UAs.

“What all the pre-Socratic philosophers have in common is their attempt to create general theories of the cosmos.”  — Donald Palmer in Looking at Philosophy, 2001, p. 11

Really?  The first inkling of philosophy as we know it was about characterizing existence as a whole?  To investigate, I created the following short summary of all the major Pre-socratics and all their big ideas.  These are not just their UA-related ideas.  Rather, all their big ideas seem to be UAs.  Its nuts!

Step back: the reason I thought of UAs in the first place is that I observed humans may at times treat existence as one big fat object and our relationship to that object could be both causally independent and connected to our relationship with individual objects within the universe.  It turns out that when we emerged from the cave of pre-history, we sought first to understand the wide world as one object, and only later to turn our attention to individual objects within it (after UAs, I believe the other three components of worldview are the self, others, and nature) when our initial project failed.

Locating UAs even bigger font.001

If you really want to understand how UAs fit in with other big concepts, here is Figure 1 (from my thesis) entitled “Locating Universal Assessments.”  The diagram categorizes belief types in order to visualize where UAs fit. Schemas are the largest subset; they consist of beliefs regarding any number of objects and object types, some of which can be composite. For example, a schema regarding New York City apartments might incorporate specific schemas about component parts, such as New York City bedrooms and balconies. Because the world is an exceptionally large composite object, worldview is a schema with a large number of sub-schemas regarding component parts, the four most important of which are assumed to be the self, other people, the natural world, and existence as a whole (UAs). Also, please note that because worldviews are comprehensive, no complete examples can be provided. Nonetheless, religions, historical narratives, and moral philosophies are examples of traditions or voices that can at times effectively describe much of a worldview or its major components.

Thales of Miletus, the first ever western philosopher (about 580 BC), lived on the coast of what today is Turkey.  He argued that the universe is characterized by change.  However, there is also an underlying unity, which he conjectured might be water because it is the element that is most conducive to change.  He writes, “the first principle and basic nature of all things is water” (Wheelwright, The Presocratics, 1966, p. 44).  For Thales, water is literally the underlying element of everything, but it is the foundation of everything because of its more abstract qualities — because, like all things, water changes and yet remains the same.   This conceptual blending of material and its associated poetic qualities is common among the Pre-socratics.  Thus their pursuit of UAs had a quasi-scientific feel to them.

Thales of Miletus

Thales of Miletus

Anaximander of Miletus, a student of Thales, thought that there was something bigger and better than water underlying the four elements which he called “the boundless.”  It was unlimited, unspecific, and sought balance.  Creation itself was an imbalance that would eventually “correct” itself in the destruction of all things.  In my original thesis, I  identified “the world is declining/improving” as one of 13 UAs likely conducive to the ‘good life’ (explored non-academically in the recent post “Once upon a time there was a universe…“).  Anaximander put forth a story of  existence: everything is doomed to devolve back to “the boundless.”

Anaximenes (545 BC) and others thought “the boundless” was a useless concept — to abstact– and instead put forth air as the element underlying all things.  Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes constitute the major thinkers of the Milesian school and sought simple understandings that made sense of the universe’s complexity (Palmer, 2001).  In so doing they established a UA most of us believe to this day: the simpler answer is probably more reflective of the true nature of existence (Ockham’s Razor).   Sadly, when Persia conquered Miletus in 494 BC the Milesian school ended.

Pythagoras (572-500 BC) of Samos (island in the Aegean) thought that, instead of a physical substance, all things are numerical in nature and the universe functions according to laws and principles that is ultimately understandable and expressible through mathematics.  For example, he is attributed to have discovered the pythagorean theorem which we all learned in middle school when finding the lenghts of the sides of triangles:

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Who would have thought that the relationships between sides of triangles were so mathematically exact?  The discovery of this theorm is likely an early example of how a specific UA led to a positive outcome, in this case advances in geometry.  (Throughout history, if the reflections of the great scientists themselves are to be believed, the belief in universal orderliness and comprehensibility seems to aid, and even drive, scientific advancement.)

Pythagoras also thought that the universe was saturated by music so loud we cannot hear it.  It was produced by the movement (the idea was that all movement produced sound) of the biggest things he knew about: the 10 planets.  Usually, humans can only hear everyday sounds of individual objects.  However, sometimes we can transcend the particular and hear the universe’s vast harmonious song — the music of the spheres.  His views implies several UAs such as “the world is beautiful” and, in the case of his emphasis on mathematics, “the world is comprehensible.”  Both of these UAs I identified in my thesis as key for the development of the ‘good life.’  Another might be, “the world is interconnected.”  Pythagoras and the Dalai Lama would have gotten along I think.

Heraclitus of Ephesus (470 BC) thought fire was the basis of all things.  But his understanding was more figurative.  He thought everything was characterized by unceasing change, flux, creation, and destruction.  He writes, “Everything flows and nothing abides; everything gives way and nothing stays fixed” (Wheelwright, p. 70) and “you cannot step into the same river twice” (Ring, p. 70).  The only thing that does not change is that everything changes.  The river is different the moment you step out of it.  However, this change is governed by logos, a logic, that makes the universe less than chaotic.  In this, Heraclitus’ views can be captured in several different UAs, two of which were part of my original 13: the world is malleable/unchangeable and the world is comprehensible/incomprehensible.  Another might be “the world is bad.”  Heraclitus often bemoaned how the state of the world is constantly becoming foreign.  In other words, one can never come home.  All is unfamiliar.

Heraclitus was often called the "Dark One" because his thoughts were depressing.  Cough...his UAs may lead to certain life outcomes.  : )

Heraclitus was often called the “Dark One” because his thoughts were depressing. COUGH (UAs may lead to certain life outcomes).

Parmenides (515-440 BC) was the anti-Herclitus.  He said that change is completely illusory.  In fact, “you cannot step into the same river once” because you can’t do anything at all.    Only truths and concepts exist.  They are uncreated, indestructible, eternal, and indivisible — one big Being.  There is no such thing as nothing.  There is only being.  This is similar to Aristotle’s idea, “nature abhors a vacuum.”

Zeno of Elea (490 BCE) agreed with Parmenides and came up with a series of paradoxes (Zeno’s Paradoxes) to show that change was illusory.  The universe, it turns out, is fixed (a UA) and cannot be truly comprehended via the senses but through the mind (another UA that I would call a universal policy assessment which concerns how the universe should be best dealt with).

R6Fig01

Achilles and a tortoise are racing.  Achilles, being the great warrior, gives the tortoise a head start. But, to catch up, Achilles must get to where the toroise used to be, at which point the tortoise will have moved on.  But he can only ever get to where the tortoise used to be.  Thus, Achilles can never catch up. The fact that we see fast runners overtaking slower runners just means that the senses can’t be trusted.

Zeno and Parmenides convinced many and people started to question the UA assumption that all philosophers had held.  Is the universe not reducible to one thing?  If it was reducible, change seemed likely to be illusory.  So they gave it up, monism faded, and they started composing theories that assumed the universe was composed of multiple things.

Empedocles of Acragas (440 BC…and keep in mind that all these dates are quasi bullshit) was the first pluralist.  He thought that all four elements (earth, air, fire, and water) were irreducible and two forces (love and strife) moved them around.  In fact, from these UAs emerged an idea of evolution over 2,200 years before Darwin: strife and love produced all kinds of crazy creatures and mutations with three arms, four eyes, etc., “and those that could survive, did survive” (Palmer, 2001).  Empedocles put forth the UA that as a result of the cosmic war between love and strife much in the universe was left to chance.  Aristotle would later reject this notion, saying that the universe was not so characterized by randomness.

Anaxagoras of Clazomenae (500-428 BC), another pluralist, said that the world is not in some mythic struggle.  Instead, like Pythagoras, he asserted that everything is ordered according to mind and rational law (I’ve stopped noting UAs cause I feel like they all are).  These laws govern the behavior of “infinite seeds” that can be ordered in different ways to create different things.  Mind can also inhabit some of these seed constructions, which is the case with the human body.

Leucippus and Democritus (460-370 BC) were known as the atomists and they built on Anaxagoras’ idea of ‘infinite seeds.’  They said that these seeds, called “atomons,” cannot be split.  Each was a little piece of Parmedian Being (indivisible, indestructible, eternals, etc.) and the motions of these little atomons determined reality.  The universe, they thought, was fixed and deterministic.  There was no space for free will.

At this point, the pre-socratics had worn down tradition and created, on balance, confusion and uncertainty about the true reality of the universe.  In this void stepped the Sophists, who embraced the confusion, used reason to argue their points, and hired out their intellectual abilities to aid whoever could pay (they were often lawyers actually).  I’ll mention five Sophists.  First, Protagoras (490-422 BC), perhaps the most famous sophist, argued that man is the measure of all things.  Human customs, traditions, and even closely held beliefs such as UAs, were subject to expediency.  The universe should be interpreted according to the needs of humans, and that there is no ‘truth’ out there to understand except what is helpful for people.  You might say his UA is “whatever works.”  Second, Gorgias (483-375 BC) wanted to replace philosophy with rhetoric.  He argued for three truths:

  1. There is nothing.
  2. If there were anything, no one could know it.
  3. If anyone did know it, no would could communicate it.

He “proved” these points not to convince people of their truthfulness, but to convince people that searching for truth is a stupid enterprise.  If these idiotic statements can be proven, anything can.  Third, Thrasymachus argued that “justice is always in the interest of the stronger” or might makes right.  Fourth, Callicles claimed that traditional morality was the masses’ way of constraining the strong.  Therefore, the strong should throw off their shackles.  Finally, Critias, a famous tyrant, argued that fear of nonexistent gods should be used to control the masses.  (Its incredible how these ideas mirror Nietzsche’s Will to Power, nihilism, and the road to postmodernity.)  The result of the UA discussion of the pre-socratics was subjectivism, skepticism, and nihilism.  There was also a turn from the nature of the universe, which seemed out of reach, towards more immediate human concerns.  At least that might be graspable.

In this dark philosophical climate steps Socrates, who started talking constructively about what it meant to be a good person, have a good life, and live in a good society.  He talked about understanding the self (the unexamined life is not worth living) and others (Plato’s Republic).

As he reaches for the poisonous hemlock, Socrates spends his final moments discussing virtue and the importance of living well.

Even as he reaches for the poisonous hemlock, Socrates spends his final moments discussing virtue and the importance of living well.

Aristotle would also start the process of cataloguing and understanding other objects in the universe–not the forest but at least the trees.  These objects (the self, others, and nature) were tackled, it seems, only after philosophers had failed in courting their first love: understanding existence as a whole.  Of the four components of worldview, they wanted UAs first, and spent over 200 years in nearly exclusively UA-focused debate.

Of course, UAs continued to be debated.  Plato would argue that endurable and perfect ideas are the true reality and the world is a copy of it (his theory of forms, allegory of the cave, etc.) and Aristotle would argue that the world is as diverse as it appears.  And these UAs mattered: they led to different practical approaches in understanding the world (different policies towards existence are universal policy assessments).  Plato advocated for more thinking and Aristotle wanted more observation (major oversimplification of course).

But, at least for the next few hundred years, UAs became less and less important as a topic, though I can’t say much more at present.  I am now in a process, a side project, of rediscovering the history of philosophy via this UA lens and finding it fascinating.  I had no idea that understanding nature of the universe as a whole was our first philosophical pursuit and that we only moved on when we failed to find satisfying answers to the UA question.

I’ll end with this: should we ask their question again?  Unlike the sophists,  I do not believe that the universe must remain an utter mystery.  If anything I’m quite pumped to try to understand the true nature of the universe again.  Though we don’t know much, we certainly know more than we did 2,500 years ago.  (Perhaps that is how Descartes felt about his modern project.)

However, for the next few years, I’ve decided to be just Aristotle with a dash of sophism.  I want to observe and understand what UAs we hold and how they affect our lives.   This does not mean that I have given up on the truth of the matter.  Rather, thoroughly rigorous empirical research is Act I.

Act II: The Return to the Pre-socratics – what is the true nature of the universe?  Give me a decade or so and I’ll get to it.


Top 10 Questions on Positive Psychology

Because a bachelors in philosophy was overly practical, I decided to get a masters in something most people have never heard of before.  These are the questions I get most often.

1)  What the hell is positive psychology?

Good question!  Psychology has historically sought to identify the symptoms of mental illness and treat disease — a focus on problems.  In fact, the goal Freud identified was to turn “misery into common unhappiness.”  Positive psych, on the other hand, uses the same rigorous empirical methods to research the symptoms of strengths, strategies for cultivating strengths, and seeks to identify how the miserable, the functional, and even those doing pretty good, can reach their full potential and thrive as human beings.  In other words, just in the last decade or two, science has started explicitly pursuing philosophy’s original question: “What is the good life?”  Findings so far have enormous implications for all of us–for religions,  government, families, the workplace, and the future of humankind.

2)  Why can’t I get happy just by getting rid of problems?  

Simply put, the absence of bad things does not equal the presence of good things.   For example, joy is not the result of simply not being sad and hope is not the mere absence of fear.  Rather, both the positive and the negative can be present in abundance, or both can be absent.  Strengths and positive emotions have unique physiological signatures and psychological effects that do not simply parallel a mental illness.  Because of this, strengths and positive emotions deserve study in their own right, and must be intentionally cultivated.  We could spend a lifetime trying to solve problems and never get anywhere.  We also have to develop appreciative intelligence — identify what is going right in our lives and build on it.

3) What is the difference between positive psychology and all the self-help-positive-thinking crap that is out there?   

Fantastic question!  Regarding topic, there is often little difference.  Regarding method, they are poles apart.  Self-help books are based on the intuitions of authors like Norman Vincent Peale, Stephen Covey, and even Donald Trump.  Positive psychology, however, is a sub-field of psychological science.  Thus “positive” is not a claim like “it is good to be positive” but simply denotes the research topic (“how does human flourishing happen?”).  Research is based on the scientific method with all its parts: hypotheses, experiments, randomized controlled trials, correlational studies, peer-reviewed journals, etc.  Positive psychologists themselves have PhD.s, work at research labs at prestigious universities, have unquestionably big IQs, criticize each others experiments, and debate theory.  But there is confusion with self-help because the massive self-help market has demonstrated enormous interest in the topic and more and more positive psychologists have been pushed to make their work accessible.  (In fact, you can often spot their books because they are some of the worst written best-selling non-fiction books ever–it’s what you get when nerds writing exclusively academic papers for 30 years try to be entertaining.)  And the public has gobbled it up.  And they should.  It helps people.  Nearly all my professors have written best-selling books and given TED talks.

This cover cracks me up : )  But the interest in speculation on how to succeed and be happy is stuns me.  "The Secret" has sold over 19 million copies.

This cover cracks me up. Tump, you might guess, was not one of my professors. But while much of self-help is crap, much isn’t. Speculation has its uses. And the interest in speculations on how to be happy is stunning. “The Secret,” for example, has sold over 19 million copies. “You Can Heal Your Life” by Louise Hay has sold over 35 million. But they are not positive psychology books.

4)  So what would you say are the three most important findings in positive psychology?  

  1. “Other people matter” — The late Chris Peterson’s (University of Michigan) famous three word summary of the entire field.
  2. Happy people use their strengths everyday.
  3. Happiness often depends more on how we interpret circumstances rather than external circumstances themselves.

5)  What general-audience books would you recommend?

  1. The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt — Very well written.
  2. Give & Take by Adam Grant — An interesting idea.
  3. Flourish by Martin Seligman — Seminal.

6)  Who, would you say, are the top 3 researchers in the field?

Here they are with links to some introductory talks they have given.

  1. Martin Seligman is widely considered to be the founder of positive psychology, he was also my professor and founded my program — an appropriate amount of Kool-Aid aide was unavoidable.  Marty’s done alot of work on optimism and co-created the classification of 24 strengths (Character Strengths and Virtues, or the CSV), a “manual of the sanities,” that serves as counterweight to the manual that everyone uses, such as insurance companies, health practitioners, government, and researchers, to identify insanity (The Diagnostic and Statistics Manual, or DSM).
  2. Barbara Fredrickson is the positive emotions researcher and has a lab at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  She believes positive emotions are both the result and cause of a flourishing mental life.
  3. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi invented the concept of “flow,” which is a state of total engagement in which a task requires every ounce of attention but nothing more.  Flow is getting lost in the music.  Time flies.  And afterwards the results are numerous positive psychological affects.
Marty Seligman

Marty Seligman

7) What is the difference between the CSV and Gallup’s StrengthsFinders?  

Both are great tools based in science and they serve different functions.  StrengthsFinders was created by Gallup and identifies strengths relevant to professional work settings (think talents) whereas CSV strengths, while still very relevant to the workplace, are more personal and core to who someone is (think character).

8)  If you could only suggest one thing that could help me become more happy, what would it be?  

via me

I’ll give the same advice I give family and friends: take the CSV strengths test online at VIA Me.  It is the only free psychometrically valid strengths test in the world.  After you find out what your top five strengths are, memorize them and design them into the fabric of your life.  You will have to register to take the test (takes 2 minutes and they won’t spam you) and it consists of 130 questions which most people complete in 15-30 minutes.  No need to pay for premium reports.  If you have any questions about your results or how to integrate them into your life, feel free to contact me.  I’d love to help!

And I sometimes get questions about me…

9)  How did you get into positive psychology?  

Seven years ago, I was in college and wrote a manuscript (later Therefore Joy) that took me on a raucous philosophical journey which ultimately forced me to concede that the world was an objectively good place.  “But the world looks like a shit-hole!” I thought.  Though I had grown up in this universe, had I never really looked at it before?

In an effort to try to understand the mass of positive reasons I knew had to exist, I started purposefully journaling about what was right about existence, writing down five things that I saw that were beautiful each day (later I would find out that this activity was nearly identical to a well-documented positive psychology intervention called the “3 blessings exercise”).  Sure enough,  day by day, I started seeing the world as a crushingly glorious and beautiful place, and I got strangely happier.  “Seriously?” I thought, “that’s not supposed to happen.  Isn’t philosophy supposed to make me depressed?”  So, in 2007, confused and intrigued, on the last day of my Senior year, I walked into the office of the head of my college’s psych department and announced loudly, “I want to study happiness.”  Dr. Paul Young looked at me, smiled, and told me about Seligman and the Applied Positive Pysch program at Penn.  I’ve been planning to go ever since.  I’ve found that studying positive psych makes me happier and the people around me happier– and its just fascinating!  My inner nerdy philosopher self and my inner practical “change the world” self has found a home.

Dr. Paul Young, Chair of Houghton's Psych Department.  Thank you!

Dr. Paul Young, Chair of Houghton’s Psych Department. Thank you!

10)  How does your research fit into this?  

As mentioned, I discovered positive psych because I became happier after changing my overall judgement of the world.  Now, I am researching the effects of overall judgements of the universe, and I call them universal assessments (UAs).  For example, is the world a shit-hole to be endured or a wondrous place to be explored?  Answers might change daily life by affecting, perhaps, how many friends you have, how confident you are, if you are prone to depression, how much money you make, etc.  For my masters thesis, I conducted an analysis which identified 13 UAs most likely to make life better and put them forth as candidates for future research.  In the past, a handful of UAs have been identified and researched in the context of alleviating the ill effects of trauma and depression.  But, as far as we know, I am the first to consider what UAs lead to the ‘good life’ — the positive psych approach to UAs.  For more, check out Jer’s Thesis in Three Pages Using Non-Academic Language Because Academic Language is for Silly Nits.

Bonus Question:  So, if you’ve studied all this stuff, what’s the secret to happiness then?  What’s your theory of wellbeing?

This is not a simple question.

Creating the ultimate theory of wellbeing (the path to happiness) is the holy grail of positive psychology.  Marty Seligman has a theory that consists of five pillars: positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment (PERMA).  Tom Rath at Gallup has a theory that separates wellbeing into domains: carreer, social, financial, physical, and community wellbeing.  But Tom’s theory doesn’t really tell you what to do and Marty’s theory is too western and individualistic.  He’s got what I call a “happy asshole problem” in which someone could be very high in PERMA, and still be kicking puppies, polluting city parks, and hated by almost everyone who knows him.  Thus, my own theory is more context oriented.

I identify eight areas which should be optimized by those wishing to pursue the ‘good life’ — 4 at the individual level and 4 regarding context.  Like Tom’s and Marty’s theories, mine is based on research, but unlike them I am willing to get ahead of the research in a few places which I will identify.  So this makes my theory part unproven and proven hypotheses.  Overall, one should think of this theory of wellbeing as a generic strategy for those interested in fully flourishing as human beings.  You will see that it keeps Marty’s two pillars, positive emotion and engagement, as they are, combines meaning and accomplishment, and expands greatly on relationships.

At the individual level:

  1. Somatic Integration – “Soma” means body.  Evidence indicates that our bodies are not simply animated corpses that take our minds from place to place.  Instead, we are flesh.  Mental health requires bodily health and vice versa (lots of research supports this).  Human flourishing requires physical activity and engaging in tasks that integrate our bodies and minds.  Examples include gardening, cooking, sports, carpentry, sex, cuddling, sailing, swimming, hiking, or playing.  Is your body and mind integrated?  
  2. Positive Emotion – Fredrickson has found something we all know to be intuitively true: moods are self-perpetuating.  To break free from depression, there is a threshold of positive to negative emotions that establishes a virtuous cycle in the mind.  It has been suggested that it might be 3:1, but there has been much debate.  The point is, we all would do well to limit negative emotions (i.e., take down that picture that makes you sad every time you see it) and increase positive emotions (i.e., spend more time with friends).  Are there easy ways to increase your positive to negative emotion ratio?  
  3. Engagement – Flow activities are key (see above).  How can you build more flow into your life?  
  4. Wisdom – Life is complicated.  There is no simple set of black and white rules to live by.  For example, one needs to be able to accept and reject, set goals and play things by ear, etc.  Are you wise?

At the contextual or community level.

  1. Roles Within Nested Communities – “Nested” refers to layers, like a russian doll.  I think there are possibly eight layers of communities in which we need a role to fully thrive as human beings: 1) immediate family, 2) small community of similarly-aged peers, 3) primary triblet (might be a religious community), 4) secondary communities (regions, larger tribal group or other like-minded tribes, large institutions) 5) government (interestingly, the ancient Greeks believed that human flourishing was impossible without participation in a polis) 6) the community of humanity at large, 7) the community of nature and the material world, and finally, for religious people, 8) the community of the spiritual world (gods, demons, spirits, etc.).  These layers are not of equal importance, but all matter.  Do you have roles in nested communities?  (Unlike the other areas, which I think are highly based on the evidence at hand, I am ahead of the evidence on this one and making a guess )  
  2. Intimates – These are the one or two people who may know you better than you know yourself.  They are likely to be your spouse or best friend and might be considered the first layer of nested community.  However, these relationships are so distinctly important, the research is so clear, that they must be highlighted.  Do you have a best friend?  
  3. Contribution:  Seligman (2011) argues effectively for the inclusion of “accomplishment” and “meaning” in PERMA, but ineffectually, in my view, for their division.  Of course, accomplishment is important.  It leads to building optimism, resilience, self-efficacy, mastery, and many other skills and traits important to personal development.  But, in the holy words of Tyler Durtan from Fight Club, “self-improvement is masturbation.”  Eventually, one’s education and projects must lead to something bigger than the self.  If not, accomplishment stays the domain of children, the selfish, the insane–or just anyone who is not fully thriving.  Seligman himself defines “meaning” as “belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than the self” (p 17).  Therefore, I combine “meaning” with “accomplishment,” rename it ‘contribution,’ and, like Marty, forego any sort of an ethical claim (“contributing is what good people do”) and posit a descriptive one (“contributing is what flourishing people do, from Osama Bin Laden to Mother Theresa”).    Are you contributing to your nested communities?  
  4. Esteem: Individuals become full members of a community when their is mutual agreement that his or her contribution matters and that him or her is a good person.  We want to know that our accomplishments are genuinely helpful.  We want to be appreciated.  Thus, in addition to Peterson’s famous summary of positive psychology “other people matter” I’ll insert three words and say “other people’s opinion of you matters” too.

Together my theory of wellbeing forms the highly regrettable acronym SPEW RICE.  I tried for hours to come up with different words, but these were the best.  Shoot!  Well, at least its memorable.

Jer has a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania.  This post reflects a page created to be an ongoing resource for those seeking to learn more abut positive psychology.   


Once upon a time there was a universe…

Stories matter.  The stories we tell over our lives affect our health and happiness (Tomasulo & Pawelski, 2012).   Stories can be about specific individuals, but likely the more powerful ones are those which apply to big groups or time periods (meta-narratives or “big stories”) which invite us to play a small part in world-size drama.

Major religions get this–successful churches make people feel like they are a part of God’s plan of redemption.  Great movements of philosophy have this–Descartes started the modernist project by saying that we can base everything on unquestionable truths and eventually create a perfect society.  Successful politicians get this–Marx wrote a story that inevitably ended in revolution and the rule of the working class.

Postmodernism itself is often defined by (Middleton and Walsh for example) as “incredulity towards meta-narratives.”  Postmoderns think that all ‘big stories’ are bullshit, so its stupid to be Democrat or Republican, Buddhist or Christian, or a part of any tradition at all.

Descartes wanted to establsih the modern project on the axiom, "I think, therefore, I am."

Descartes tried to establish the modern project on the axiom, “I think, therefore, I am.”

But there is some evidence that being story-less is not healthy.  Humans have reason to want the meta-narrative.  Positive psychologists define meaning as being a part of something bigger than yourself and have found that meaning defined in this way is a key pillar of deep and lasting happiness (Seligman, 2011).  We crave a deep sense that life has order and direction.  This passion often motivates the historian in each of us.  We want to know who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.

Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson

A skeptical moment from Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson

We know that endings matter.  Psychologists have found a phenomenon they call “peak-end theory” which maintains that the last few moments of an experience or human life (Rozin & Stellar, 2009) tend to define the entire experience (e.g. Kahneman & Wakker, 1997).  In other words, you never get a second chance to make a last impression.  One of the reasons why our meta-narratives are so important is because meta-narratives tell us the end of the story.  Then we create meaning “pro-retrospectively” (looking forward to look back).

But all this stuff about story, endings, and meta-narrative was not on my mind this summer.  For my masters thesis, I was just trying to figure out what judgements of the universe helped people live happier lives (full text here and non-academic summary here).  I called these judgements “universal assessments” (UAs) and found 13 of them that seemed particularly good for increasing people’s strengths and positive emotions.  Only after I finished the analysis did I realize that one of those 13, the following UA, is really all about the story people tell over existence:

The world is getting better vs. the world is getting worse.

Where are we headed?  Where are we going?  Will the world be renewed, or does it decay and die?  Unlike the other 13 UAs , this one has handy-dandy terms that are already in use.  A meliorist believes that the world is getting better (think bambi-eyed believer).  The pejorist believes the world is getting worse (think grumpy old man).  Together, these two positions represent the two major possible story-lines: is the universe a tragedy or comedy (as in Dante’s Divine Comedy rather than Comedy Central)?

Wether it be heaven, utopia, or just a kinder humanity, the meliorist believes that the world is getting better and the world will "...live happily ever after."

Wether it be heaven, utopia, or just a kinder humanity, the meliorist believes some variation of “…and they all lived happily ever after.”

Of course, many meta-narratives are too complex for these simple categories.  For example, many Christians believe that the world is presently declining, but God will come back and the universe will end well (e.g. Romans 8:20-21).  Other people might believe in human progress and look at how in the last decade 350 million people have been lifted out of extreme poverty (International Fund of Agricultural Development, 2011), but still believe that humans will eventually destroy themselves in nuclear holocaust.  However, for the time being, this UA is meant to encompass both ideas.  First, it is concerned with present trajectory.  Even if down the road the world is renewed, what is the trajectory now?  Second, it is asking if the story ends with “happily ever after” or “and then they all died.”

Pejorism, perhaps?

A pejorist vision, perhaps?

Out of the 24 strengths in the CSV, I found 18 that could potentially be encouraged by meliorist stories and eight by pejorist stories.  Also, out of 10 positive emotions identified by researchers, 9 might be encouraged by meliorism, and 3 by pejorism.  Here’s an example of one connection between meliorism and strength:

Hope is an important psychological strength.  It keeps people motivated and moving, even in dark times.  Empirical studies indicate that those with lots of hope tend to say certain things that sound similar to meliorism.  They include “I expect the best,” “I always look on the bright side,” “despite challenges, I always remain hopeful about the future,” and most strikingly, “I believe that good will always triumph over evil.”  Believing that the world is getting better might be tied to being a hopeful person.  Likewise, believing that the world is getting worse may make hopefulness elusive.

And here is an example of one connection to pejorism:

People who have strengths in humor can sometimes develop it as a coping skill.  Thinking that “the world is going to shit” might push some people to be light-hearted about tragedy and pursue novelty and fun in the moment.  This could be the thinking behind the popular paraphrase of Isaiah 22:13b: ‘Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die.’

Future research is needed to know for sure, but I expect that, overall, a beleif that the universe is improving helps us live better lives.  In addition to developing strengths and increasing positive emotions,  those with positive meta-narratives may enjoy other benefits too, like more close friendships, less depression, greater coping skills, and even higher incomes.  But, first things first, I need to develop an assessment tool that captures what stories people have for existence and see if it correlates with life outcomes.  Where do you fall on this UA?  I’d love to know.  Is the world getting better or worse?

I recently got to visit my brother's family in Hong Kong and meet Daniel, my nephew, for the first time.  What brings this UA home for me is the very simple question: will Daniel inherit a world which is worse or better than my own?  Politicians

I recently got to visit my brother’s family in Hong Kong and meet Daniel, my nephew, for the first time. What brings this UA home for me is the very simple question: will Daniel inherit a world which is worse or better than my own? My own personal intuitive answer: probably slightly worse.  I’m not sure though.  I have to think about it more.

What is so fun about this is that I know I have a damn good hypothesis.  Hopefully, in a few years, I’ll be able to let you know for sure about wether I am right or wrong about meliorism having good effects on human life.  Either way, it will definitely be interesting!    It will be fascinating if I am wrong! : )

This post concerns one of  13 universal assessments that were identified in my masters thesis as being possibly critical for the ‘good life.’  An abstract and full download of the capstone project at the University of Pennsylvania is available here on scholarly commons.  A non-academic summary (with pictures and bad puns) can be seen here.  Also, this is the second UA I have elaborated on.  The first was “the world is bad vs. the world is good” that I talk about in the post “Is my WIFE good, and does it matter?”  


My Segment on the Dr. Drew Show

If I had a bucket list, disagreeing with Anderson Cooper on national television would be on it.  And I would be crossing it off!

A few weeks ago, a man got pushed onto the tracks of a New York subway station.  Someone managed to take the picture below, which wound up on the cover of the Post.  You probably saw it.

121204_BEH_NYpostcover.jpg.CROP.article920-large

The next day, in the context of a national bitch session in which America heaped blame on bystanders for their inaction (including the cameraman) and their own culture for producing a population of cowards, I was asked to join a “panel of heroes” on the Dr. Drew show on HLN, a CNN sister channel, to talk about why we acted in the face of danger when others did not.  What was our awesome sauce?  Why did I reach out and grab the guy’s hand, who was getting shocked by the third rail, when I knew I could die?  (Checkout the 15 minutes of fame tab above, which I suppose now is my 15.5 minutes of fame, if you don’t know what I am talking about.)

Sorry it has taken a long time to post the video clip of my interview.  I know many of you have been waiting.  My segment is only 2 minutes and starts 12.5 minutes in. I was told the discussion with Anderson Cooper went long and they lost my feed for second.  But for what it’s worth:

While I was super pleased to be on the show and enjoyed myself, I was frustrated that I did not get a chance to share a couple of important points, especially when I felt like we were all living in a fun little fantasy.  While Cooper was right on some things, and the conversation was in many ways more substantive than I have come to expect from cable news, he is completely wrong about wider culture.  It is ludicrous to think that emergency situations are some magical prism in which our true character is revealed.  Keeping Your Head is a specific skill that is cultivated through practice.  Most of us have little.

Instead, we do what we are trained to do. The modern human, generally, is good at whipping out phones and taking pictures. We usually have no clue what to do in pressure situations.  A couple reasons might be that our lives include sitting in cubicles and exclude panicked flight from saber-toothed tigers.  But, when the modern human does have a clue (read soldiers, fireman, police officer, etc.), we almost always act bravely.

After I grabbed the guy on the subway and it was caught on film, everyone in my life was calling me a hero, and it was obnoxiously irrefutable that I was one.  I was uncomfortable with it, it made me reflect, and I came to a startlingly life-affirming conclusion that I have blogged about previously.  Here is the elevator speech:

We are a brave and caring species: you, me, pretty much everybody.  I am the same philosophizing-goofball I was when I was waiting anxiously for the train.  My actions says something about all of us, about average people.  We rise to occasions.  It would be absurd to think, for example, that the folks on flight 93, which crashed in PA on 9/11, who acted way braver than me, were by some fluke of travel planning in the top 1% of brave people in the country, or even the top 10% or 30%, and that this flight full of super duper heroes happened to be one that was hijacked. Nah.  The folks who stormed the cockpit on flight 93 were most likely a swath of regular folks.  This tells me that the average Joe can be counted on to be brave and is most likely capable of incredible human kindnesses.”

Famous psychologist and Stanford proffessor Phillip Zimbardo agrees.  He writes in  “The Banality of Heroism”:

The idea of the banality of heroism debunks the myth of the “heroic elect,”…[which ascribes] very rare personal characteristics to people who do something special—to see them as superhuman, practically beyond comparison to the rest of us.

But if incredible bravery is normal, why are we so blind to it?  Why did the country roundly condemn the bystanders who let the man die on the subway tracks?  Good question.  I’ll blog about that next time, but I’ll say this much: What struck me as I listened to Anderson Cooper and Dr. Drew talk before I went on the air is that negative news and looking down on others seems to serve an important social function that I had been reading about in Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis.  Namely, gossiping about what’s wrong with other people helps us bond to the people that we gossip with.

More later…

Oh…and here is a picture of Alicia and I at a little shin-dig that happened 20 blocks away from our house.  Thank you Derek Schwabe for getting us tickets!

Alicia and I at Obama’s 2nd Innagural.

Jer and Alicia Clifton at Obama’s 2nd inaugural, 2013


Positive Theology Will Change the World

This post is adapted from some work I have been doing for grad school.  Forgive the boring academic “I-want-to-end-my-life-by-inhaling-my-neck” tone.  To ease my readers, I will embed two inane insults directed at Thomas Jefferson.

Positive psychology is now spawning positive sociology, and is likely to produce other serial fields as well.  Currently I am imagining about 20 or so academic disciplines focusing on strengths and human flourishing, one of which is positive theology.  (Naturally, I have an interest in that.  I am trying to publish a manuscript entitled Therefore Joy: A Positive Theology for the Next Generation).  In the following few paragraphs, I synthesize a representative handful of positive psychology research for a religious context, specifically in regards to death reflection, meditation, and ritual, and then discuss a possible definition of positive theology.

Death Reflection

The work of Frias and colleagues (2011), indicates that reflecting on death can help increase gratitude in individuals, unless you are a lisping loser like Thomas Jefferson.  By fully grasping the transience of life, by being exposed to death, the reality of your own death or those around you, one can better appreciate life, prioritize, and find an enormous upwelling of gratefulness.  Unfortunately, modern America bifurcates like it’s nobody’s business.  Kids go to school, parents go to work, old people go to nursing homes, and dead people go to cemeteries.  But religion can serve to connect some of these groups, especially the not living ones.

Ruins of Irish church and cemetery.

Traditionally, cemeteries ringed churches which descendants likely attended.  On a weekly basis, churchgoers were reminded as they passed the gravestones of dead family members, of the fleeting nature of life.  Also, belief in the afterlife is important to many faiths, not only the Christian faith but also Islam and other traditions, and can lead to more reflection on death.  Within the walls of the churches themselves, many faith communities still ask practitioners to contemplate the death of others and their own impending deaths on a regular basis and act in light of those reflections.  While it is tempting for the American church to follow society’s example and also compartmentalize death and ignore it, religion has an opportunity to be one of the last major social arenas in modern society where death can be discussed, considered, and reflected on at length.

In light of this, one intervention that I have thought about doing, not in a religious context specifically, but for highly mobile individuals like myself, is having a portable family cemetery.  Specifically, I would create a chest to house the ashes of my ancestors that are not Thomas Jefferson.  Accompanying each small urn would be a picture, a short personality description and bio, and a record of their relationship to others.  In this way, death could be incorporated into the living-room of the highly-mobile.  A portable cemetery would also help individuals locate themselves as part of a collective that not only extends to those living, but also to those dead, and those that will come after, even old men not yet born—a theme I commonly rant about.

Christ on the Cross by Diego Velazquez, 1632

Meditation 

Fredrickson and colleagues (2008) used Loving Kindness Meditation (LKM) to increase overall well-being.  The mechanism put forth was that LKM increased positive affect, which increased the ratio of positive to negative emotions, which built emotional resources, which in turn increased positivity, which finally increased well-being.  While there seems to be a well demonstrated self-reinforcing dynamic inherent in positive emotions, all that we know from this study is that meditation seemed to cause increased well-being.

The Dalai Lama

Meditation has religious roots.  In fact, without religion, today we might not have the concept of meditation.  Numerous strains of the five major world religions include meditation.  However, many strains do not practice meditation, and, of those who practice, many forms of meditation are not obviously similar to LKM.  Obviously, we need to know what it was about LKM that made it successful.  If we can isolate the necessary ingredients, we can look at what religious meditations are “proven” aids for human flourishing and encourage emphasize on those practices within respective religions.

Ritual

One of those aspects was explored by Anastasi and Newberg (2008), in a study that linked ritual relatively devoid of theological content to reduced anxiety.  This indicates that at least one “active ingredient” of meditation might be its function as ritual.  In LKM, individuals position themselves in seated or standing positions and focus their attention on breath, and then on positive feelings they have towards people that they love, and finally they are asked to expand those feelings towards a widening circle of others.  Each session is similar.  Therefore, perhaps the most powerful aspect to LKM is the ritualistic component.  Regardless, there has been a tendency in many churches in America to move away from ritualism (high-church, formal, liturgical services) and towards Pentecostalism (low-church, informal, “spirit-led” services), though obviously the two are not exclusionary.  Religious practitioners might be interested in the important function that ritual plays and could reinvigorate ritualistic elements in various ways.  The opportunities for religious rituals are endless and need not be expanded here.

Child lighting Menorah

Another important ritual

Definitely on my personal top 10 rituals of all time.

In conclusion, I think it is important to highlight two points.  First, as of 2010, religious people comprise over 88% of the world’s population (CIA World Factbook).  Religion will continue to be a powerful force for generations to come; it is arguably the world’s most influential institution.  Secondly, there is wonderful and surprising plasticity in religion.  How shall we practice?  What words shall we pray?  What beliefs shall we focus on? There exists a range of answers that fall well within the parameters of religious doctrine.  Therefore, for those religions that prefer human flourishing, why not choose those aspects of religion most conducive to human flourishing?  Finding those aspects and making those connections is the task of positive theology.  Intervention studies like those mentioned here can inform religious practice without compromising the integrity of what religious people believe.  Death reflection, meditation, and ritual are just a handful of many aspects of religious practice that may be worth highlighting.

It makes me wonder: perhaps it is through religion that positive psychology will change the world.

Pope Benedict XVI

References

Anastasi, M. W., & Newberg, A. B. (2008). A preliminary study of the acute effects of religious ritual on anxiety. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 14(2), 163-165. http://dx.doi.org/10.1089/acm.2007.0675

Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,95(5), 1045-1062. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0013262

Frias, A., Watkins, P. C., Webber, A. C., & Froh, J. J. (2011). Death and gratitude: Death reflection enhances gratitude. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 6(2), 154-162.

The World Factbook.  Central Intelligence Agency.  Retrieved at https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/xx.html


4 Ways to Fight Over-thinking & Depression

I am an over-thinker.  Typically I tend to replay my base hits that I think could have been home-runs, whether it is saying something in class or leading a community meeting.  I see how things could have gone better, and scheme and re-scheme, before and after.  This often carries over into the small details of the day.  I find myself too often on the verge of being really frustrated, even with minor setbacks (I have had no internet the past 2 weeks!).  Separate and connected to that, I can be prone to being a depressive. Sometimes things can send me spiraling into ruminating purgatory. And I peer at myself anxiously while the darkness finds greater strength from my inquiry.

Sonja Lyubomirsky teaches psychology at UC Riverside. She works on customizing positive interventions.

Sonja Lyubomirsky, a positive psychologists I am reading for school, talks about this stuff directly in her book The How of Happiness.  She mentions a number of empirically verified strategies that might help arrest over-thinking.  Here are the four I liked.  I will focus on the first.

Strategy #1: distract, distract, distract

This one may seem silly, but it works.  I can quickly descend into ruminating and the only solution is to stop.  There is no problem to solve!  Here’s a personal intervention story: 

Today I woke up late, had a ton to do, but my wife wanted a big breakfast.  I figured, “What the hell?  I don’t really have time, but it’s her day off, and I want to spend time with her.”  She’s also recently stopped being vegan so we were eating bacon!  After cooking it, I warmed the oven, put the bacon in, then turned the oven off.  A few minutes later, smoke is everywhere.  I had turned the stove on full blast instead.  I pull out the smoking charred remains of formerly gorgeous bacon.  Three alarms in our house go off at once and a familiar scene unfolds: I scramble frantically yanking them down and pulling out their chords and batteries.  But it was too late, the fire department had been notified, and we had to call our landlord.  

So we sat down to eat our eggs, with the alarm system still going off upstairs (smoke seeped through the vents we share).  My wife heroically tried my  to make conversation to pull me out of the ruminating funk I was in.  I sat listless.  I wasn’ t hungry.  I was on the verge of irrational tears.  Then I thought, distract, distract, distract, and I went to my desk and watched a Churchill movie (The Gathering Storm) for 20 minutes, and the result was complete transformation; I snapped out of it entirely and got to spend some time with Alicia later that day.  

I think it is important that the distracting activity be something that is acting on you and your mind.  Physical exercise does not work as well for me because it is not interesting enough (unless it is an activity like soccer or rock climbing).  According to Lyubomirsky and my own experience, reading takes too much effort and you end up frustrated and re-reading sentences.  I think video or audio are the best.  I already tend to have an audio lecture series on hand all the time anyway, so this is a great strategy for me

Enlist help to distract you.  I think my own friends intuitively know to try to help distract me, but their efforts are often ineffective because they are not properly instructed.  They try to get me out of a funk by trying to be interesting or asking questions, but how fun is it to engage a depressive in a bad mood?  Instead, I think I would be most helped if they turned on a movie, plopped me down, and left me alone like some comatose octogenarian/infant.  I’ll snap out of it in 15-20 minutes as I get absorbed in the movie, and then I’ll want to be productive and turn it off.  Friends can also help you turn the TV off once you are better, and thus keep you from simply being lazy.

I have a friend of mine who is smarter than me as well as more prone to depression.  I think smart people come to overestimate their ability to think their way out of problems, when they rely on that tactic when it comes to depression, it just makes you more depressed.  At some level, you just have to get out and do shit—think about other things and other people.  Churchill, a depressive, kept himself incredibly busy not because he was a genius necessarily, but to stave off the “black dog,” what he called his depression.  He painted, wrote poetry, laid bricks, etc., because he understood that there is no substitute for activity.

Strategy #2: Setting aside 30 minutes a day to over-think on purpose might seem counter-intuitive, but it gives you space to let the ruminating go because you know you can think about it later.  Also, you retrospectively realize how insignificant these setbacks were when you are in a better emotional state.  (I have not done this one yet, but it seems worth a try.)

Strategy #3: Talk to a person.  I am worried about burdening friends, but I had a great conversation with some people about this issue, so I thought I would include it.

Strategy #4: Take in the big picture.

In the context of reflecting on a couple recent deaths, as well as studying the affects of mortality salience and death reflection on gratitude, as well as the posthumous studies we have been looking at in school, made me put a message up above my desk which reads, “Prepare to die.”  It has already been helping me to put things in perspective, which is exactly what Lyubomirsky suggests.  She also suggested thinking about astronomy in moments of hopeless rumination; somehow the vastness of space calms people down.  I think I might try that too.

Personally, I believe in God and I find that recognizing that the universe is in his capable knowing hands tends to quiet me down.  He knows what he is doing and, I believe, his decision to create was not simply good because he did it, but because creation was worth it.

Thinking big helps fight bacon-induced depression.