Tag Archives: Martin Seligman

My Nerd Dream Team

I discovered my preferred form of intellectual hedonism by staying up past my bedtime one evening in late 2006.   I was a junior at Houghton College and hanging out with intellectual heavyweight classmates Alicia Walmus (now Clifton…bam!), Brent Chamberlain, and Chris Fiorello in the basement of Wesley Chapel.  They had just read a draft philosophy manuscript of mine and, before I knew it, Chris came out swinging, Alicia disagreed, Brent nuanced, and they were off debating whether I was right, what I had meant, and whether I was being brilliant or a totally inept monkey typist.  

At first, I was trying to jump in to lay down some wisdom.  But, thank goodness, stuttering slowed me down enough to be distracted by the conversation itself.  It riveted me.  Hours flew by.  I found myself adopting an observer role with occasional questions (remarkable only for being uncharacteristic), and something clicked:

There’s nothing more fun and weirdly addictive than listening to smarter better-informed people wrestle with your own ideas.   

Don’t get me wrong, I’m into being super virtuous and all, but the current topic is straight-up selfish infantile pleasure.  Whether it’s bashing, praising, building off my ideas, connecting them to other ones, etc., I love it when smarter people discuss my ideas and find them interesting.  (Finding them accurate is good too I guess).  Years later, I would learn that my top two strengths, according to the VIA strengths survey, are Creativity and Bravery.  Basically, this means that I like coming up with crazy shit and putting it out there.  My life can be generously described, therefore, as one sustained effort to gather smart people and hog discussion topics. 

Ten months ago, all my nerdiest dreams came true in the form of a three day event at the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvannia.  I meant to blog about this sooner but I’ve been irrationally fearful.  Frankly, I have a hard time believing it happened.  In short, my tombstone will read,

Here lies Jer, who had an idea, made a top-ten list of the world’s scholars he’d most enjoy talking to about it, got them into a windowless conference room, didn’t let them leave for three days, made them talk about nothing else but the idea, and they seemed it find it super interesting.

These scholars are worth knowing about.  I want to introduce you and share a quote that gives a flavor of their thinking about primals.    

Dr. Carol Dweck
Stanford Professor Dr. Carol Dweck is considered by some to be one of the most influential psychologists alive today. Her research focuses on how to foster success by influencing mindsets. She has held professorships at Columbia and Harvard, and her bestselling book Mindset has been widely acclaimed and translated into more than 20 languages. I highly recommend it. Carol is very involved in the primals initiative before and has been deeply kind to me, inviting me out to stay with her and spending hours talking to me about primals. Prior to the retreat, Carol is putting some thought into how we might organize primal world beliefs.

Stanford Professor Dr. Carol Dweck has held professorships at Columbia and Harvard and is considered by some to be one of the most influential psychologists alive today.

Carol’s research focuses on how to foster success by influencing mindsets.  In particular, the belief that abilities can be improved is critical to actually improving–we pursue what we think can be caught.  Her bestselling book Mindset has been widely acclaimed and translated into more than 20 languages. I highly recommend it.

The picture above cracks me up because Carol is an incredibly kind person.  She was also one of the first to buy into the primals concept, inviting me out to stay with her in California, spending hours talking about primals, and continues to shepherd me through this crazy time.  I’m proud to call her my friend.  She says,

Beliefs are at the heart of motivation, personality, well being, and much pathology, yet this is not widely recognized. To the extent that studying primals (or core beliefs) can bring this to the fore, it could have a tremendous effect on how we conceptualize and study human nature.

Dr. Alia Crum
Dr. Alia Crum received her PhD from Yale, her BA from Harvard, and is now Assistant Professor of Psychology at Stanford. Her research focuses on how mindsets—the lenses through which information is perceived, organized, and interpreted—alter objective reality. Her research has won several awards, including the Thomas Temple Hoopes Prize, the William Harris Prize, and has been featured in popular media outlets. I adore Alia. We struggle with having conversations that last less than 3 hours. Prior to the retreat, Alia is putting some thought into meta-beliefs (beliefs about beliefs) and how primals relate to health.

Dr. Alia Crum received her PhD from Yale, her BA from Harvard, and is now Assistant Professor of Psychology at Stanford–one of the youngest ever.

Alia’s Mind & Body Lab focuses on how mindsets—the lenses through which information is perceived, organized, and interpreted—alter objective reality.  For example, our beliefs about the effects of stress changes the effects of stress and beliefs about fattening foods makes some foods more fattening.  

I adore Alia.  We struggle with having conversations that last less than 3 hours.  We talk about examining the influence of meta-beliefs (beliefs about the usefulness of a belief), how primals relate to health, and how to navigate academia.  The main difference between our focus is that she studies beliefs that are more specific than primals (e.g. beliefs about stress rather than beliefs about everything), and she focuses on how they impact physical health.  She says,

Although some may be confused—or even overwhelmed—by the premise that we have implicit assumptions about the nature of the world and that those assumptions play a powerful role in shaping our experience of the world, it makes complete sense to those of us who study mindsets and beliefs…Primals, as Jer has defined them, are the most general beliefs of all. As such, they have the greatest potential to assert a biasing influence into our lives, for better or for worse.

Dr. Alan Fiske
Dr. Alan Fiske is a famous anthropologist from UCLA.

Dr. Alan Fiske is a famous anthropologist from UCLA.

Alan received his BA from Harvard, PhD from the University of Chicago, and has done fieldwork in Malawi, Congo, Bangladesh, and Burkina Faso.  He’s well known for his theory of social relationships which breaks down all human relationships into four basic types.  He’s just written a new book, Virtuous Violence, in which he suggests that much violence is pursued by a genuine desire to be moral.  He helped us at the retreat by voicing some cautions.  In particular, he wants us to be careful when it comes to applying primals theory and research to other cultures.  He says,

The concept of primals is stimulating…as was evident from the animated discussions….[but] my claim [is] that concepts about the world are culturally embedded: they don’t make sense in isolation.

Dr. Rob DeRubeis
Dr. Rob DeRubeis was chair of the psychology department at the University of Pennsylvania at the time of the 2014 retreat. He has authored more than 100 articles and book chapters on topics that center on depression treatment. He is a recipient of the Academy of Cognitive Therapy’s Aaron T. Beck Award and the Senior Distinguished Career Award from the Society for Psychotherapy Research.

Dr. Rob DeRubeis is a depression expert, having authored more than 100 articles and book chapters on the topic.

Rob was Chair of the Psychology Department at the University of Pennsylvania at the time of the retreat, so we were lucky to have him.  He put some thought into how primals relate to depression and has also had some advice for me on how to pursue measuring primals.  

In clinical psychology, we do not adopt a hands-off attitude when one has a belief such as “I am worthless.”  We try to help the patient re-evaluate such beliefs, as they lead to poor life outcomes and nearly always are exaggerations or simply untrue.  Jer and Marty want to study the belief “the world is worthless.”  It’s imperative that we find out if this belief is also connected to poor life outcomes.

Dr. James Pawelski
Dr. James Pawelski is Director of the Master’s of Applied Positive Psychology Program (MAPP) at the University of Pennsylvania and author of The Dynamic Individualism of William James.

Dr. James Pawelski is Director of the Master’s of Applied Positive Psychology Program (MAPP) at the University of Pennsylvania and author of The Dynamic Individualism of William James.

James is a mentor.  I love him.  We share an affinity for facial hair, philosophy, goofiness, scholarship, and we both grew up overseas the children of Christian missionaries.  He was my Master’s capstone advisor and helped launch all this.  James is one of the world’s experts on William James, a philosopher important to both psychologists and philosophers, and is building projects exploring how the humanities can be used to explore and advance subjective wellbeing.  Also, he recently figured out what “positive” means in “positive psychology” (he would hate me for saying that).  He says,

It appears that most people, most of the time, do not know their primals, even though it seems likely that they influence us in a variety of ways.  Given the promise primals research has for yielding life-changing insight and for facilitating profound individual and cultural transformation, I eagerly await the results Jer’s research will uncover.  

Dr. Crystal Park
Dr. Crystal Park is a psychologist at the University of Connecticut, associate editor of four journals, Fellow of the American Psychological Association, and former president of Division 36 of the APA (Psychology of Religion).

Dr. Crystal Park is a psychologist at the University of Connecticut, associate editor of four journals, Fellow of the American Psychological Association, and former president of Division 36 of the APA (Psychology of Religion).

Crystal’s research explores many aspects of human life (including yoga!) with a focus on how certain beliefs influence an individual’s ability to cope with hardship.  You might say that, if there was such a thing as “primals literature,” she would be one of the world’s top experts.  She knows the studies done on beliefs which are most similar to primals, she knows how to measure them, and is now helping me figure out how to measure primals too.  She’s also become a close mentor,  a constant source of expertise and encouragement, and I am deeply grateful for her.  She says,

I am quite familiar with the literature on those psychological constructs most similar to primals, and can therefore say without reservation that focusing on primals provides an opportunity to explore a fundamental element of human experience that has heretofore been minimally examined. It may be that it is so obvious that psychologists simply overlooked it… This is one of those projects that has great potential for identifying an important piece for what it means to be human.

Dr. Paul Rozin
Dr. Paul Rozin is a well-known psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Paul Rozin is a well-known psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania.

Paul’s major research focus has been human food choice, the emotion of disgust, and cultural psychology.  It was fun to have him.  He was one of the guest professors for the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program when I was a student.  Before the retreat, he put some thoughts into how primals relate to cultural differences.  He, David, and Alan shared a concern that helped us to become more nuanced.  He says,

The problem that David, Alan and I kept returning to is that there is often no adaptive general belief that works for all situations. I will use the “world is safe” proposed primal. It is appropriate to feel unsafe in the Middle East and to feel safe in Denmark. It is appropriate to feel safe with one’s family, and less safe when dealing with strangers.

Dr. Richard Reeves
Dr. Richard Reeves is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, former director of strategy for the UK’s Deputy Prime Minister, and former director of Demos, the London-based political think-tank. He is also the author of John Stuart Mill – Victorian Firebrand as well as many articles, radio programs, and publications on politics and policy. Richard is one of my favorite people. Funny, witty, whip smart, and English, Prior to the retreat, Richard is putting some thought into primals that have dominated historical eras.

Dr. Richard Reeves is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, historian, philosopher, policy-maker, and former director of strategy for the UK’s Deputy Prime Minister

Richard’s one of my favorite people in the world to have a beer with: the smartest, wittiest (most English) philosopher/historian/policy guy I know.  Richard’s policy work focuses on inequality.  The image above is from his kickass appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart earlier this year and in the video below he explains the current state of American inequality with legos.  I recommend both.  

At the retreat, Richard talked about primals across history, looking at the primals of Sparta and Athens, which was candy for a history nerd like me.  He, James, Rob, and others, are convinced that primals have relevance across academic disciplines and for policy.  He says,

There have been a few times in my professional life when an idea came along with that feeling of freshness—like putting one’s spade into genuinely new intellectual soil. This is how I feel about primals. The idea is so basic, so simple, but I really think that is has the potential to do some really good work and influence a wide range of fields.

Dr. David Sloan Wilson
Dr. David Sloan Wilson is an evolutionist at the University of Binghamton who studies all aspects of humanity in addition to the biological world. His books include Darwin's Cathedral (2002), Does Altruism Exist? (2015), and Evolution for Everyone (2007).

Dr. David Sloan Wilson, President of the Evolution Institute, studies evolution at the University of Binghamton, examining all aspects of humanity in addition to the biological world.

You’ve probably heard of David’s books.  He’s written Darwin’s Cathedral (2002), Evolution for Everyone (2007), and, his latest, Does Altruism Exist? (2015).  In a room of top scholars, David’s breadth of knowledge across disciplines stood out.  In addition to putting some thought into the relationship between primals and evolution, David had a suggestion for us,

Primals might not describe human and cultural universals. Instead, they might be culturally specific…vital for some cultures but marginal or even absent in others. [This] does not detract from the importance of the concept—especially if primals are found primarily in modern cultures, which are most relevant for improving human welfare in the future.

Dr. Chandra Sripada
Dr. Chandra Sripada holds a joint appointment at the University of Michigan in Philosophy and Psychiatry. He works on issues of human mind and agency that connect philosophy and the behavioral and brain sciences. He received his PhD in philosophy from Rutgers and completed residency training in psychiatry at the University of Michigan. Chandra has been very useful in talking about the connection between primals and values. He's also an incredibly encouraging human being, having supported me in key moments.

Dr. Chandra Sripada holds a joint appointment at the University of Michigan in Philosophy and Psychiatry. He works on issues of human mind and agency that connect philosophy and the behavioral and brain sciences.

Chandra is an incredibly encouraging human being and has supported me in key moments over the year.  He had a great deal to say about values, which he thinks are really important to consider in conjunction with primals, and what was great is that he could talk about his stuff so deeply from both a philosophical and empirical perspective.  He says,

I deeply hope that this project continues and that we come to identify these primal world views, measure them, and come to understand how they influence our lives. The results could be extraordinarily useful, not just in psychology, but also for other academic disciplines.

What Fun! 

Honestly, bringing these folks together is an honor and privilege I will treasure for the rest of my life.  Writing these posts, and seeing  photographic evidence of us in windowless conference rooms bathed in warm fluorescence, I’m starting to believe it actually happened.

In the next post, I’ll share more about what we did at the retreat itself.  Spoiler alert: Where’s Marty Seligman?  In the meantime, here’s two group shots.

This group picture we took of ourselves in the middle of our talks because Marty just got out of surgery and we wanted to send him a picture and our love.

Primals Research Retreat Participants left to right front: Dr. Alia Crum (Stanford), Jer Clifton (UPenn), Dr. Carol Dweck (Stanford). Middle: Dr. James Pawelski (PPC), Dr. Alan Fiske (UCLA), Dr. Robert DeRubeis (UPenn), Dr. Chandra Sripada (Michigan), Jess Miller (PPC), Dr. Crystal Park (UConn). Back: Dr. David Sloan Wilson (Binghamton), Dr. Paul Rozin (UPenn), Dr. Chris Stewart (Templeton), David Yaden (PPC), Dr. Richard Reeves (Brookings),

Crew left to right front: Dr. Alia Crum (Stanford), Jer Clifton (UPenn), Dr. Carol Dweck (Stanford). Middle: Dr. James Pawelski (PPC), Dr. Alan Fiske (UCLA), Dr. Robert DeRubeis (UPenn), Dr. Chandra Sripada (Michigan), Jess Miller (PPC), Dr. Crystal Park (UConn). Back: Dr. David Sloan Wilson (Binghamton), Dr. Paul Rozin (UPenn), Dr. Chris Stewart (Templeton), David Yaden (PPC), Dr. Richard Reeves (Brookings),

Advertisements

Please Rename My Life’s Work

I need to re-name what I plan to study for the next couple decades.  I asked friends on Facebook, and got over a hundred ideas in a few hours.  Thanks so much!  Incredibly helpful!  Here’s more details on what I’m looking for.

Definition: I study our most basic, highly-generalized, adjectival beliefs about the world we live in and how it works.  Examples include: the world is interesting/boring, getting worse/better, good/bad, safe/dangerous, etc.  All such beliefs answers that most basic human question, “What is this place?” on the cosmic scale.  Long term, I want to see if some of these beliefs are helpful, design interventions, and scale change.  For the past year, I’ve called them “universal assessments” (UAs).  This, it turns out, is horrible, and I’m amazed so many people have gotten so interested in the UA concept anyway.

What’s wrong with universal assessment?  There’s trouble with both words.  First, assessments usually means ‘test’ or ‘survey’ in the social sciences.  Second, “universal” can mean ‘everyone,’ like ‘universal healthcare,’ rather than ‘everything.’  Also, “world” is likely a better approximation of the object about which we have these beliefs.  “Belief” is good, but UAs are more visceral and underlying than the term “belief” implies (or “assessments” for that matter).  Across the country, psychologists I respect have confirmed for me that my term should be changed before I’m too committed.

7 Criteria: Ideally the new term should be…

  1. Memorable
  2. Self-explanatory (e.g. I can say “I study ____” and people know what I am talking about)
  3. Works for both social scientists & a popular audience
  4. Builds on related ideas in the literature…but distinctiveness can be useful
  5. Not condescending (like “assumption”)
  6. Not making a claim I can’t yet (like “most-important-belief belief”)
  7. Not words I stutter on!

Today’s Top 7:

  1. world beliefs   –   basic…a fan favorite…safe choice…Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck who invented fixed/growth mindset likes it
  2. world impressions   –   Alicia’s idea…makes it a little more unique…then when I get to a general audience and create a comprehensive assessment tool we could call someone’s UA profile their “iWorld”
  3. cosmic outlooks   –   an idea from positive psychology founder Marty Seligman
  4. worldviews   –   lots of people I respect are rooting for this one like David Yaden, Seligman, Alejandro Adler…but there is a TON of baggage with this term as it refers to religion/moral systems/nationalism/views on abortion etc….it would have to be re-appropriated VERY strategically
  5. elemental worldviews   –  by use of the term “elemental” or something else we could distinguish from other forms of worldview
  6. worldlook   –   we could make a neologism that is similar to worldview but different (worldsense, worldgist, world take, etc.)
  7. pan-beliefs  –  maybe…”pan” or “panta” means ‘everything’ in greek…I like this one because I can see myself saying it and its fairly self-explanatory

Other options: megabeliefs, world conclusions, cosmic conclusions, world judgements, cosmic convictions, world characteristics, adjectival worldview, stark world beliefs, cosmic impression, total world beliefs, state of everything beliefs, total existence beliefs, pan-existence beliefs, existential inklings, world hunches, world schemas, totalized schemas, everything judgements, world nature, underlying world beliefs, world suppositions, habitus beliefs

Perhaps a neologism: worldset, omnitraits, ubiquitraits, omni-understandings, omni-judgments, worldjectives, omni-beliefs, omniristics, world nature, omniliefs, sublets, world meta-view, world looks, pan-beliefs, metaschema, worldschema,

Terms in the literature you would think refer to UAs but don’t quite: global beliefs, world hypothesis, world assumptions, etc.


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.   


Is the World Good, and Does it Matter?

I think I have figured out what I want to do with my life.  This post is one part autobiography, one part philosophy, and one part personal strategic plan.

I have three manuscripts my agent and I are trying to publish.  One is a collection of auto-biographical short stories called Stuttering Gets the Girls: Stories from a Life on Three Continents.  The other is about just war theory and pacifism.  The last is called Therefore Joy: A Positive Theology for the Next Generation.  The latter is the only one I really care about.  It has a genuine shot at changing the world.

Therefore Joy rides a philosophical train of thought that winds through freewill, causal determinism, divine predestination, omniscience, and omnipotence.  I find satisfying answers to many timeless questions that led me to believe in college, as I still do, that the world is objectively good.  But at first I did not see the world this way.  I saw a shit world—ugliness, suffering, and tears.

tears4

Why was I blind to the reality of a good world?  I hypothesized that perhaps humans do not see the good in the world because we are not paying attention.  To correct this, every night I started writing down five wonderful things about the universe.

These minutes somehow changed me.  I got happy.  I smiled incessantly.  I imagined a social movement in which people helped each other explore all the reasons why God chose to make this beautiful universe.  My hero became the tourist in their homeland, the one who flirts with the line separating enchantment and idiocy.  I felt privileged to be alive.

by Banksy

by Banksy

What the hell?  Philosophy is not supposed to make you happy, right?  But it did!  That seemed too easy.  So the last day of college, six years ago, I walked into the office of Dr. Paul Young, the head of Houghton’s psych department, and said, “I want to study happiness.”  He told me about Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology, and the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania.

LIVE.CNF_Seligman

Dr. Martin Seligman, former president of the APA, speaker, and author of Authentic Happiness, Flourish, and other bestselling books.  I had dinner with him recently and we chatted about my thesis topic.  He is excited and promised to read the final draft.

Positive psychology is the study of what it means to thrive.  It asserts that emotions like joy are not automatic in the absence of pain or fear; joy has its own substance and characteristics and deserves focused study.  Positive psych examines all positive emotions, defines strengths and identifies their symptoms, and explores what it takes for a humans to maximally and holistically flourish.  So, while Socrates pondered the nature of the good life 2,400 years ago, science, in the form of positive psychology, has only been doing so for the last 15 years.  I went to “happiness college” (as children of my classmates call the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program) to learn what has been discovered so far.

Jer, Christa Fritner, and Allison Webster graduating from “happiness college.”  (Allison’s kids coined the term.)

Jer, Christa Fritner, and Allison Webster graduating from “happiness college.” (Allison’s kids coined the term.)

I found, for instance, that our lives, to a great degree, are determined by what we choose to focus on.  Secondly, there is indeed a very, very well-established negativity bias that make people focus on what is wrong in the world.  Finally, writing down three new things that you are thankful for each night before you go to bed is a formal exercise called “Counting your Blessings.”  It has been subjected to randomized controlled trials and found to significantly boost well-being for months after the individual stops doing it (Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E., 2003 doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.84.2.377).  In fact, it turns out that my numerous and bold psychological assertions in Therefore Joy are testable and supported by a host of related theories and empirical studies.  There is even a perfect Jer-size gap in the research right where I was headed anyway.

Goofing off at graduation with classmates Bit Smith and Andrew Soren.

Goofing off at graduation with classmates Bit Smith and Andrew Soren.

This summer I am spending two months writing a masters thesis.  My title is “Is the World Good, and Does it Matter?”  The idea is that humans make quick and sweeping judgements that have a demonstrated effect on how we interact with the thing we are judging.  For instance, we often judge a whole country after a single 2-day visit, a person after seeing their skin color, or an entire book after reading one page.  I wish to explore what might be called the biggest of all possible judgements: our “take” on the whole universe.  I call them “universal assessments” (UAs).

I am interested in what UAs people make, how they are formed, and how they affect life.  Is the world a shit-hole to be endured or a wondrous place to be explored?  Can I tie universal assessments to depression, subjective well-being, divorce, spirituality, suicide, social ability, income, education levels, culture…even travel habits—it seems likely that believing that the world is a dangerous place may keep one indoors.  Finally, if UAs affect life outcomes, I want to create interventions to change them.

In short, I want to see if I can change the world by changing how we think about the world.

This is a ton of research, perhaps a career’s worth.  So, in addition to my masters thesis, the second thing I want to do is get a PhD in psychology.  I have come to this conclusion only recently, and it may surprise some of you.  I have seven major personal reasons.

  • First, universal assessments are exactly what I want to study.  At the risk of sounding overdramatic, this is apparently the big idea of my life and has been for a while.
  • Second, studying UAs is strategic.  In Therefore Joy I argue that all monotheists must assert that existence is objectively good.  But even if I could get folks to sit and listen, I would convince few.  Studies have shown that people tend to believe convenient truths — truths that we want to be true.  If I can show that positive UAs (such as “the world is good”) are not only true, but helpful, I can change the world.  Additionally, I came to believe this convenient truth before I realized it was convenient so I am not likely to be accused of bias.
  • Third, professional philosophy is super duper boring (sorry Ben Lipscomb, Carl Fisher, and Chris Stewart).  I have thought for years that a philosophy PhD was where I was headed, but I cannot stomach the notion of making fine distinctions for seven years.  Practically, I found myself avoiding getting a PhD.  I am a philosopher that struggles with academic philosophy.  Incidentally, Martin Seligman got his undergrad in philosophy, as did Jon Haidt, and my capstone advisor James Pawelski, the director of my program, was formerly a philosophy professor who wrote his dissertation on William James. In many ways, philosophy and psychology has become increasingly interconnected.  And if my topic is UAs, then I am looking at the nature of belief, its varieties, and its sources.  It’s perfect!
James Pawelski, myself, and Assistant Instructors Dan Lerner and Dan Tomasulo

James Pawelski, Jer Clifton, and Instructors Dan Lerner and Dan Tomasulo.  These are some of my favorite people!

  • Fourth, even though my stuttering has improved over the years, it is still especially awful in some contexts, such as learning languages.  Psychology PhD programs don’t have language requirements.
  • Fifth, I remain very interested in practically helping people.  I have loved working the past six years as a community organizer and at Habitat for Humanity.  I want the flexibility to do more pro-poor work, and a PhD in psychology is recognized as exponentially more useful than one in history or philosophy.  I love ideas, don’t get me wrong, but I love people more.  A PhD in psychology is relevant to my vocation and my passion for helping people.
  • Sixth, the fit is right.  I came alive during my masters program in a way that I have not since college.  I believe studying and changing UAs will allow me to use my top strengths (creativity, bravery, love, curiosity, love of learning).
  • Seventh, I need a PhD to satisfy  publishers, and it will help me build my platform.

Recently, Zondervan became very interested in publishing Therefore Joy.  We were on the verge of signing (it felt awesome, like I was being considered by the L.A. Lakers), but they ultimately declined.  They said emphatically that they loved my writing, and I should get back to them the moment I have a bigger platform and/or a PhD.  My agent, author friends, and other publishers have been telling me the same thing.

I have been trying to build my platform around being Mr. Huggies Taiwan, 1987.

My efforts to build a platform around being Mr. Huggies Taiwan, 1987 has achieved limited success.

For years I have resisted platform-building.  I thought it entailed, I don’t know, rescuing someone on a subway?  I’m not sure.  Whatever it was, it sounded like tons of self-aggrandizing or boring tweets about politics (seriously though, follow @jerclifton).  And, because I found the good news of Therefore Joy via a winding road through philosophical theology, I thought philosophical theology was the only avenue available.

Talk about a bottle neck!  Therefore Joy is entertaining, but it is still philosophy, and my arguments are complex and build on each other.  For years I have been waiting for the book to come out, so people can read and understand all of my arguments at once.  So I muzzled myself.  I waited.  I have not blogged about Therefore Joy.   I have not tried.  But now I realize that I can build a platform on the good news that Therefore Joy is all about in the first place.

So what exactly is that good news?  Eight years ago, I made a shirt for my girlfriend.  Today she is my wife (of almost five years), I have re-appropriated the shirt, and the quote I crafted for her has become my own mantra.

IMG_3872

I want the world to look up, see that the world is beautiful, and, pending future research, enjoy the benefits of this belief.  You can help me do that in four ways:

First, let me know your thoughts.  Is this crazy?  What advice do you have for platform-building or in general about UAs?  Many of you have given me great advice already.  Thank you!

Second, follow this blog, follow me on twitter, like my Facebook posts, refer friends, and tell me about people with similar interests.

Third, please send me any examples you find of universal assessments, both negative and positive, as you interact with others and with the humanities (art, religion, music, literature, etc.).  Here are three great examples of universal assessments:

“God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.”   — Genesis 1:31a (NIV)

“Life is a shit sandwich and you just took your first bite.”  — half-joking father-in-law

final-calvin-and-hobbes — Bill Watterson

Finally, reflect on your own beliefs and tell me about it.  Do you think the universe is a shit-hole to be endured or a wondrous place to be explored?  Which universal assessment do you want to have?  I will be posting polls and ideas for interventions in the future.  In the meantime, I encourage you to look up.  Turn your gaze to the trees, the sun, the blue sky, or the face of a loved one, and consider what is right with the universe.  Doing so changed my life.

Thanks for reading this very long and personal post!  I promise I won’t make a habit of it.  Looking forward, I  plan to re-start weekly posts every Tuesday or Wednesday.  Initially many will relate to the topic, “Is the World Good, and Does it Matter?” especially in this period of thesis writing.  Thanks again! 


My Life is Good for You

Next year I am going to be studying at the University of Pennsylvania in an episode of “Missionary Kid Meets Ivy League.”  I am very excited about it for many reasons, not least of which is the topic itself: positive psychology.

You probably have never heard of it.  That’s fine.  Positive psychology is a very new field which was started by Dr. Martin Seligman when he was President of the American Psychological Association in the early 90s.  He is widely seen as the father of the movement, but there are a number of other significant figures.  The Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program (MAPP program) that I am in is the brainchild of Seligman.  Throughout the curriculum he brings in other leading positive psychologists from around the country.  Students come from everywhere, from all disciplines, and so there is great cross-discplinary discussion of application and theory.  Also, most of the students are already well into their professional careers.  At 27, I expect to be on the younger side (and possibly the poorer side too).  Finally, the books I am reading in preparation for my studies are already changing my life and making me happier.  This is because positive psychology is fun to learn about—and it’s powerful shit.

I have heard it explained in many ways, but I think this is best: positive psychology is the  neglected half of psychology.  Since psychology’s inception with Freud, psychology has been mostly about psychosis—how to get mentally sick people tolerably functional and how to identify disease and understand how and why it arises.  In truth, I suppose you could call conventional psychology “negative psychology,” because it focuses on the negative aspects of mental health.  In contrast, positive psychology is the study of how to make mentally sick people, as well as normal, even high-functioning people, thrive and acheive optimal well-being, contentment, and meaning.  Additionally, it aims to identify the symptoms of strengths and look at how and why they arise, and how they can be built on and expanded.  Strengths might include resilience (the art of bouncing back), patience (why some people are more patient than others), positivity, gratefulness, etc.

You might say positive psychology is trying to put some science in the world of self-help books, or more accurately the vast world of self-help books is a response to a felt need that academia has, until recently, been neglecting.  Not anymore.  Positive psychologists are making progress and getting loads of funding for lots of studies.  More and more, there are emerging simple strategies and exercises one can use to bolster and maintain high-levels of well-being.  These strategies have been tested scientifically, with double-blinds, placebo-controlled groups, and all the rest.

Science is finally looking at joy and it is about damn time.  I think it is quickly going to become a very very big deal globally.

Today, if I came up to you and said, “Holy nut buckets, I hate this toothache!  I seem to have cavities all the time now,” you might ask me if I brushed my teeth regularly.  If I said “no,” you would rightfully ostracize me a bit.

Brushing your teeth is an intervention that we have all come to accept as part of our routines and completely necessary for staving off important problems.  Similarly, I predict that some interventions that positive psychology is identifying will someday become as normal for society as brushing our teeth.  If someone is depressed, but is not “brushing their teeth” as positive psychologists would have us do, then rightly or wrongly it just won’t be culturally acceptable.

Over the next year, I will be describing some of those strategies and interventions.  Perhaps even more interesting to me, I will be struggling with enormous ethical, political, economic, philosophical, and even theological implications of positive psychology.  What is happiness?  What is the role of the church when science has a more reliable record of pointing people towards well-being?  What happens when rich people, who previously have not been much happier despite their wealth, now have access to education which can make them happier?  How do we apply positive psychology to my work in economic development and strategic planning?  What does positive psychology mean for inner-city streets and community organizing?

As I ask these questions, I hope to post about them, and maybe you can help me sort them out and benefit from what I am learning too.  I think you will find that my life is good for you.   I know it will be good for me.

This is going to be a great year!