Tag Archives: Positive psychology

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),

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Remember me?

I’ve not posted in months.  I blame it on the Templeton Religion Trust who 15 months ago gave me and Marty Seligman (former president of APA, founder of positive psych, one of the most influential psychologists alive today, [insert further accolades here]) a couple hundred thousand dollars to explore an idea that I’ve been obsessed with for the past decade.  That grant just ended in a raucous celebration of sleeping.   For the next few weeks, I’m writing a series of posts with three purposes:

  • summarize everything we did
  • summarize what we plan to do
  • announce that these are my last blog posts until 2017

The series won’t make much sense without knowing what primals are.  So, for those who don’t know, post 1 is a quick recap on the idea I plan to spend my life studying and why funders have been interested.

Primals in a Nutshell

primal (ˈprīməl/) adj.

1) essential; fundamental.

2) relating to an early stage in evolutionary development; primeval.

“What sort of world is this?” is the oldest question in Western philosophy. I want to study how our gut-level answers to this question, what we call “primal world beliefs” or primals, influence our lives.

Primals are an individual’s simplest and broadest understandings of the world’s essence. They serve as automatic assumptions that provide a framework—a lens—by which we filter and interpret millions of bits of information we receive every day. Like all assumptions, primals involve a claim about something.  In this case, the claim is kinda weird because it’s (almost literally) about everything: what most things are usually like most of the time.  Individually, primals can be expressed as propositions like “the world is dangerous” or “the world is beautiful.”  Together, primals describe one’s cosmic situation, forming an implicit world which feels like “the real world” for each individual.  Philosopher William James described these worlds as, “our individual way of just seeing and feeling the total push and pressure of the cosmos.”

Primals theory has three basic tenets that are really quite simple.  First, every day, most people operate under the assumption that other people, including family, friends, and strangers walking down the street, live in the same world we do. They don’t. Though many details may be the same, we often perceive reality’s essential character differently. For example, I might see the world as sinister and ugly, and you might see it as benevolent and beautiful.  These worlds feel like totally different places.  The first tenet of primals theory holds that though we all grew up on the same planet, we live in different worlds.

The second tenet holds that different implicit worlds encourage different behaviors, resulting in many different outcomes over a lifetime.  Why work hard, for instance, if life’s not fair and will not reward you for what you do?  Why be curious if the world is usually boring and around every corner, as you guessed, is more of the same?  We suspect primals influence personality, politics, pathology, and parenting, as well as strengths, success, and split-second decision making—really any behavior or thought pattern that involves the world around you and some degree of ambiguity.  For example, the world is dangerous may influence a police officer drawing a weapon on a suspect, an entrepreneur starting a business, a nervous boy asking a girl out on a date, or a toddler exploring a room.

A third tenet holds that millions of us may have unwittingly imprisoned ourselves in maladaptive implicit worlds that lead us to act in ways that support fear, injustice, and suffering.  For example, by seeing the world as a dog-eat-dog world, we create a more competitive and cruel environment.  Moreover, millions could also benefit from understanding the implicit worlds of ourselves, family, friends, bosses, and employees.  For example, Sarah, one of my interns this year, noted that she struggles to get along with her sister because while her sister tends to see the world as super safe where things naturally tend to work out, Sarah sees a place where things naturally tend to get worse and that’s just the way things are.  My hope is expressed by philosopher and psychiatrist Dr. Chandra Sripada,

Right now, primals seem to form in people largely without our awareness. If this project can give nothing else to the world, I hope it affords the opportunity for all of us to form our implicit worlds with eyes wide open and make conscious choices about what we want to believe and what we want to pass on to our kids.

I find that many people don’t “get” the primals concept until we start talking about what beliefs about the world they want to pass on to their children.  Often people want to pass on the view that the world is beautiful, fascinating, and improvable.

Why Funders Are Interested

From the perspective of a research foundation, primals research is in the funding ‘sweet spot’ of being new(ish) and super promising, but not super risky.  I’ll explain.

Three primals have already been explored by psychologists enough to know that they can be measured and they matter. Belief that the world is fair, for instance, is unsurprisingly connected to working harder, being nicer, trusting people, and bouncing back.  In a particularly cool study on the belief that the world is dangerous, scholars found that cops who see the world as dangerous are more likely to shoot innocent people in shooting simulations. Seriously, those who scored high on a self-reported sense of general danger made more automatic reflexive decisions within a 0.63 seconds time window to shoot members of a perceived “out-group.”  In other words, at least some primals seem to matter.

Still, we know very little. Though current literature demonstrates that primals are measurable and meaningful, implicit worlds remain under-examined, unidentified, and unmapped. Only three primals have been studied (we are currently trying to measure 22 more), no primals classification exists, experimental research on primals is negligible, causal relationships remain unknown, no attempt has been made to identify primals conducive to human flourishing, and this lack of classification condemns the field to inefficiency. As it stands today, a researcher will occasionally bump into an interesting primal, define it idiosyncratically, and examine it en route to understanding something else, like prejudice or trauma, and not talk to researchers in other areas. As a result, how primals ground interactions with our environment remains a mystery.

This, in our view, is silly and solvable (and super interesting).  My main contribution has been merely to convince Marty, Templeton, and other scholars that primals are cool, a separate category of beliefs, worth studying in their own right, and that understanding them could allow us to improve the human condition.

To explore this further, Templeton gave us a grant last year to figure out what to do next. At first, our task struck me as strange.  I was under the impression that research foundations give out research grants, right?  But apparently sometimes they give out “planning grants.”  Templeton does this when they think that an idea could be huge, but needs further thought.  So our job, rather than doing new empirical research, was to figure out how one might turn my little baby idea into a concrete multi-million dollar research program–a nerd’s dream.

The remaining posts in this series describe outputs from this year (i.e. what we did) and our plans for the future, starting with output 1: hosting a scholarly retreat.  

 

Participants at the 2014 Primals Planning Retreat.

Here’s the folks from the 2014 Primals Planning Retreat.  Anyone you know?  In the next post, I’ll introduce you.


The Clifton SexPlex

These days I am writing grant proposals, applying to grad schools, and reading about the history of psychology.  But I thought I would take a little break from universal assessments to add a new installment to the “Old Jer Ideas” series.

Individuals are products of their environments.  Overstatement?  Yes.  Interesting?  Not really.  We’ve heard it before.  What’s more interesting to me is how communities, and especially the nuclear family, are products of the environment too.  One factor that plays a huge role in forming our community is also often overlooked: the physical buildings  we live in.  For example, Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania thinks that French people get more exercise via walking because getting the car out involves opening manual parking garage gates.  Walking is just easier.  The physical environment encourages healthy behavior across time.

This is the main insight of Dan Beuttner, founder of Blue Zones.  He’s travelled to the happiest and longest-living communities on the planet and written books about it.  It turns out happy communities don’t read self-help books or go to the gym.  Rather, their lives are designed (often accidentally) in such a way that incentivizes routines that includes exercise, community-building, and other healthy habits.  I got to work a bit with Dan and Blue Zones last year.  They have packaged a series of customizable changes (hundreds of options) that communities can use to encourage healthy behaviors and are using them to change the world one community at a time.  Currently they are working  with the governor of Iowa to make simple changes to communities across the state. Two environmental change examples: 1) instead of encouraging people to exercise, town governments can connect all sidewalks, which is tied to X more time spent outside and X more calories burnt a year, 2) instead of encouraging people to “eat less you idiot and you’ll stop being fat,” individual families can replace their 12-inch dinner plates with 10-inch plates, which results in X less pounds of fat gained each year.  In this way, they identify heaps of super easy changes to the environment which produces effects that aggregate across a lifetime.  

This, it turns out, is the same principle my colleagues and I used to revitalize inner-city neighborhoods.  You can’t tell slumlords to be better people, but if you make the street a sensible investment, they will often want to fix up their properties on their own.  

So, can we apply this same principle of changing the human environment to the buildings in which we live?  I think so.  I think we could design living arrangements highly conducive to holistic human flourishing.  And I have.  It’s called the Clifton SexPlex!  (Note: it’s not an empirically verified positive intervention and could be hazardous for your health.)

First, its great because it has “sex” in the title.  Second, its great because I thought of this idea and told all my friends about it before I knew anything about positive psychology and the science of human well-being and they gave it this awesome name.  Third, its great because of what it is:  a small apartment building for six families intentionally designed to strike a balance between the commune and the individualist’s free-standing castle.  Several friends have already claimed spots (I’m talking about you, Dan & Grace Black).

Context: I grew up in Taiwan and Hong Kong.  Everyday, on the way to school, I biked past rice patties.

paddy-field1

At the center of these rice patties were often traditional Chinese compounds.  As generations grew up, farmers would add buildings around a common square until three or four generations lived not quite in the same house but not separately either.

Compounds started out looking like this.

Compounds started out looking like this.

Right next to the compound I passed each day was their family graveyard (connection to community across time) and a sacred Banyan tree (connection to community across dimensions) (that, sadly, I couldn’t show Alicia when we visited Taiwan last summer.  The compound had been knocked down and all the rice patties cleared for construction : (  On the plus side: I got some real night market food!)

Jer getting some seriously awesome sweet Taiwanese sausage at a night market in Taichung, July 2013.

Jer getting some seriously awesome sweet Taiwanese sausage at a night market in Taichung, July 2013.

These family compounds are a typical Chinese model (this guy calls it the “chinese unit”).  Often walled, they were useful in defending your family against petty banditry and wild animals.  Below is a typical layout.

chinese courtyardIndeed, even in major cities.  This arrangement, living groups of 20 or so in substantial family compounds, was the norm.

urban fabricAfter finishing college in 2007, having lived in apartment buildings, dorms, row homes, and townhouses, I became a community organizer in inner-city Buffalo and discovered the monolithically individualistic architecture of America that permeates suburban and urban space.

!!!!!!-citylife-SuburbsBy day, I was becoming an expert in catalyzing revitalization in struggling inner-city neighborhoods.  By night, I donned an intellectual cape and form-fitting spandex in order to effectively think about what sort of community I wanted to live in.  I wanted more.

The problem, as I see it, was that I was afflicted with affection for other humanoids.  I liked them.  I wanted to be with them.  But I was now a young adult doing two very mature grown-up things: 1) I was too busy and never had time for friends even if they lived just blocks away and 2)  all social interaction happened in the context of planned events that went on your calendar in advance and involved an enticing (often fattening) activity that you very well might not be in the mood for.  What happened to “hanging out,” to non-planned interactions that had the potential to be uninteresting or food-less?  They’re gone.  Now we pull on cardigans, go to non-routine special times, stay on our best behavior, drink a bit so that we don’t feel how weird it all is, and chat with nominal strangers.  The prevalence of social anxiety in modern America makes sense to me when every “community-building” activity is a stage for showmanship.  And thus we lose out on the deep desire of our hearts: the most basic awareness that a dozen or so good people know you deeply, desperately want to keep knowing you, and want you in their group.  In real community, the show has to stop sometime.  That’s kinda the whole point.  

More troubling, I was shocked at the remarkable and seemingly preventable dysfunction that pervaded my friends’ nuclear families.  Sociologists tell us that small groups are always inherently unstable (I could cite this but I’m lazy).  They have fewer connections, so when one goes bad (for example, your brother pisses you off for getting you in trouble), you have more people to mediate reconciliation.  But beyond mere group size, the modern American family lends itself to dysfunction because they often have 1) no access to the inner-working of how other model families live and 2) no feedback from outsiders bout how they treat family members and each other.

All of us fall into dysfunctional patterns without realizing it.   We need feedback.  Loving effectively depends on it.  Indeed, perhaps the most important benefit of two-parent households is the check on executive power.  One parent, who obviously really knows the situation well, can say to the other, “Honey, in all honesty, are you sure how you are treating junior is constitutional (or in keeping with our desire to avoid smothering our child)?”  To put it in another crude way, families need outside consulting.  Once, when Alicia and I had a little tiff in public, a friend told me that it was triggered by me inadvertently signaling disrespect.  This single piece of feedback helps our relationship enormously everyday when it consistently engenders in me humility whenever Alicia responds emotionally to what, I thought, was  “clearly” an unemotional question.

So, adrift without feedback for decades on end, small American families form little dysfunctional worlds.  Kids often don’t realize the extent of this dysfunction until they go to college, start their own families, or get married and gain perspective on their own family dynamics via the foil of discovering the family patterns of their in-laws.  Then they start their own family in near total ignorance having known the inner-dynamics of approximately two insular families.  This seems an entirely stupid way to design a flourishing society.  (Fortunately I am overstating all over the place.)

And besides curbing dysfunction and encouraging non-planned social time, I want inter-generational friendships.  I want adult mentors for my kids that are neither educators or family members, and a host of other benefits that come with village-like life.

So I want intentional community, but not the way weirdos do it.  I want to build the modern urban version of the traditional Chinese farm compound.

  • It would consist of a two-story building around an enclosed central courtyard containing a playground.
  • On the outside would be a large yard with many raised beds, a compost pile, fruit trees, and a chicken tractor.
  • The east, west, and north, wing would be divided up into six or seven apartments of various sizes (that could be fairly easily rearranged).  It would likely include one 4-bedroom apartment, two 3-bedrooms, two 2-bedrooms, one 1-bedroom, and a studio for guests.
  • With two exceptions, each apartment would be its own individualistic/western style apartment with a full kitchen and large dinning area.  1) It would have no living/entertaining space.  The idea is that this would encourage people out, to the courtyard and common spaces.  2) It would have no private entrance.
  • To get to your apartment, everyone would walk through the front door in the south wing into one big room complete with wood stove, a few small comfortable spaces, and one massive dining table.  
  • Passing through this room one would get to the kitchen, with easy access to the courtyard so that parents could cook while watching kids.  I imagine community life including families taking turns hosting dinner once every two weeks (meaning there would be 3 communal meals a week for 20-30 people plus guests).
  • Above the big dinning room and kitchen would be four rooms, a small prayer room, a small fitness  room, a substantial library with fire place, and a theater for movies, community performances, and presentations.
  • While the building would be owned by one of the families and the others would rent, the community would have a democratic governing structure likely more typical of the neighborhood association than the Quaker meeting.
  • I imagine that families would help raise each others kids (we would take turns babysitting 1 day of the week perhaps).  Those who love gardening would garden.  Others cook.  Others would pay more.  All would contribute.
  • Beyond that, everyone would make a living outside the community and would otherwise live normal lives.  Without trying too hard, I think this environment would foster healthy, intimate community and inter-generational relationships.

Don’t get me wrong.  Community is messy.  People piss each other off.  The SexPlex would have plenty of drama and conflict.  My solution?  I have none.  Getting along is a crucible for growth.  I need to be more humble anyway.  I need to learn to share anyway.  I need to mature.  I need to get better at loving my family.  And I need to relentlessly pursue engagement and cooperation as an example to my kids.

Obviously, most of these ideas are not new, but perhaps my specific take on it is.  The Clifton SexPlex could have something to offer the world besides the unfortunately rapey name.  Now I just need to build it.  Which is where you can help!  Please make your checks payable to…or rather just keep an eye out.  We may be moving to Philly next year.

  1. Anyone know of any buildings for sale near Penn that could be turned into something like the SexPlex?  In DC, it has not been an option because of housing prices.
  2. Has anyone done something like this before or can connect me to people who have?
  3. Most importantly, does anyone know an architecture student interested in positive psychology, positive sociology, or community building interested in translating the Chinese traditional compound into the fabric of the modern American city?  Perhaps cities of the future, wishing to build on the findings (most not yet found) of positive psychology, will be designed using community-encouraging architecture.  Perhaps we just need a brilliant first design and some successful prototype communities.

(Apologies!  The world keeps encouraging my crazy big dreaming and scheming.  I blame Jesus and Bob Easton.)


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?”  


Jer’s Thesis in Three Pages Using Non-Academic Language because Academic Language is for Silly Nits

Psychologists have found a whole bunch of behaviors that are good for you, like staying positive and being persistent.  Understandably, many people then pursue those behaviors passionately.  “Be positive!” we say.  “Keep at it!” we shout.  But, like a many New Year’s resolutions, these efforts, these sheer acts of will, fail to produce long term results.  Underlying and unaddressed reasons why you didn’t act that way before re-assert themselves.  So how do we change the underlying stuff?  Big time psychologists Ellis (Ellis & Ellis, 2011) and Beck (Beck & Weishaar, 1989) argued that emotions and behaviors are driven by a puppet-master behind the scenes: beliefs.  Therefore, a key to happiness might be having certain beliefs that effortlessly fuel these positive behaviors across a lifetime.  A type of these beliefs are universal assessments, and I focus on them.

Joe smiles at the 2nd 2012 VP debate in Danville, Kentucky.  I think they are that pearly white in peson too!

Joe smiles at the 2nd 2012 VP debate in Danville, Kentucky. They are that pearly white in peson too!

Universal assessments (or UAs) are judgements about the universe as a whole.  They may not be explicitly recognized, but, so my theory goes, they express themselves through words and behaviors.  For example, Joe Biden, speaking at my graduation this summer at Penn, encouraged us to participate in the world and said repeatedly that the world is “open and full of possibilities.”  This is a UA that Joe believes should inspire certain behaviors.  As another example, here is the chorus and 2nd verse of It’s a Dangerous World by folk musician Bill Morrisey (1991).

There’s nothing you can say

That could get me up today

Nothing you have ever said

That can drive me from this bed

You can call me lazy, crazy

Call me stupid I don’t care

I ain’t getting up

It’s dangerous out there.

There’s a hunter from New Jersey

In my kitchen drinking beer

There’s a Texan out my window

With a chain saw and a leer

I can take a walk around the block

To shake me from my slumber

But there’s student drivers out today

And one has got my number

This is a perfect example of how a specific UA (the world is dangerous) is causing specific behaviors (staying in bed).

UAs are one component of worldview.  Worldview is a set of assumptions, beliefs, and values that one uses to interpret life and make sense of the world.  In my thesis, I briefly trace the development of the concept of worldview (or Weltanschauung in German), from its beginnings with Kant to its domination of intellectual life in the 20th century.  Big-time philosophers agree (like Humboldt, Hegel, Fichte, Emerson, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Dilthey, Husserl, Hiedeggar, etc.): worldview matters.  Chesterton thought that “the most practical and important thing about a man is his view of the universe” (Introduction to Heretics).  William James thought that worldview is the most “interesting and important thing about you” (Introduction to Lowell Lectures).

Thomas Kuhn

Thomas Kuhn coined the now widely used term “paradigm shift” to describe the process in which a scientific community abandons and adopts worldviews. Scientists, Kuhn argues, rely on a common paradigm that allows for progress by providing a sophisticated set of common assumptions–the don’t start from scratch. Among others, Kuhn credits Piaget, Gestalt psycholgists, and B. L. Whorf’s “speculations about the effect of language on worldview” (Kuhn, 1962/1996, p. viii) for playing an important role in the development of his ideas.

By the 20th century, the power of worldview thinking had spread to other disciplines.  I note three powerful examples: Max Weber applied worldview-thinking to socioeconomics in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1921/1958), Thomas Kuhn to scientific development in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962/1996), and Adolf Hitler to power politics in Mein Kampf (1925/1999).

Most know that Hitler's goal was Aryan dominance.  Few realize that he was just as insistence on establishing a dominate worldview, and achieving power through creating "psychically homogenized creatures" (p. 393) with one "infallible philosophy of life" (p. 455) which alone can achieve victory.

Most know that Hitler published his goal of Aryan dominance in 1925. Few realize that he was also just as insistent on establishing a dominate worldview.  His strategy for achieving power was creating “psychically homogenized creatures” (p. 393) with one “infallible philosophy of life” (p. 455) which alone could achieve victory.

Worldviews, and the beliefs that form them, are schemas.  Schemas are an important notion in psychology which developed in this world dominated by Weltanschauung thinking.  Schemas are defined as mental representations of objects and processes that generate expectancy.  For instance, if I am narrating a story about a conversation in a Manhattan apartment, and then mention that a bengal tiger jumps out of a bamboo thicket and kills the speaker, you will grow annoyed with the story.  Your schema of Manhattan apartments likely does not include tigers or bamboo thickets.  It’s just not realistic.

Schemas define what is and is not ‘realistic’ — in art, movies, and in the real world too.

We have schemas about everything from human faces to Manhattan apartments to water bottles.  We expect them to function in certain ways.  Numerous studies have shown that (beware of a useful oversimplification here) we tend to ignore things that go against our schemas.  For example, if one has a schema that poor people are incompetent, we will tend to ignore data that supports competence and highlight data that shows incompetence.

UAs, as schemas, are powerful because they generate expectancy.  This affects how we interpret and learn new data AND also affects how we interpret and remember our past.  Psychologists believe that memory bears little resemblance to data-retrieval.  Instead, ‘remembering’ is an active process in which we use bits of information to piece together what we think should be true, a process which is shepherded by schemas.  UAs, therefore, are prime candidates to play a big role in human life by creating expectations about everything we taste, touch, see, feel, and hear in this universe.

In Psychology of Worldviews (1919), Jaspers begins the process of operationalizing the construct of Weltanschauung in what he will later consider to be the most important work in his life.  He defines worldviews as frames of reference in which mental life takes place (later called schemas) and categorizes Weltanschauung as 1) attitudes or 2) world pictures.  Attitudes are approaches through which humans experience the world and World pictures, on the other hand, are mental representations of the world that we create in our heads.

In Psychology of Worldviews (1919), Jaspers begins a process of making Weltanschauung philosophy more practical in what he will later consider to be the most important work in his life. He defines worldviews as frames of reference in which mental life takes place (later called schemas) and categorizes Weltanschauung as 1) attitudes or 2) world pictures. Attitudes are approaches humans adopt towards the world and world pictures are mental representations of the world that we create in our heads.

I identify at least four types of UAs, with potentially dozens of each type.  I base this typology on Jaspers distinction in Psychology of Worldview (1919).

  • Universal Characteristic Assessment (world picture)- What qualities does the universe have in and of itself?  For example, is the world characterized by dynamic change or rigidness?
  • Universal Policy Assessment (attitude) – What attitudes or policies do I adopt in dealing with the world?  For example, is the world best experienced alone or with others?  Universal Policy assessments are of two types: our policies towards the universe and what we percieve to be the universe’s policies towards us (e.g., the world is out to get me).
  • Universal Meta-Assessment –  These are the BIG paradigmatic assessments which take into account everything we think or feel about the universe and sums it all up–an “assessment of assessments.”  Universal Meta-Assessments were what I was talking about in my last post: Is my wife good, and does it matter?  There are at least four UMAs: 1) Is the world good?  2) Is the world worth existing?  3) Do I like the world?  4) Do I say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the universe?

However, only three UAs have been identified and studied by researchers.

  1. Is the world just or unjust?  This UA is called BJW (belief in a just world) and is about whether one believes that the universe is a place where people get what they deserve and deserve what they get.
  2. Is the world safe or unsafe?
  3. Is the world meaningful or meaningless?
Ronnie Janoff-Bulman wrote Shattered Assumptions in 1992.  Her theories continue to guide much depression and trauma research.

Ronnie Janoff-Bulman wrote Shattered Assumptions in 1992. Her theories continue to guide much depression and trauma research.

There are three big takeaways from this list.  First, three is very few (after all, there are at least four categories to fill!).  Secondly, research indicates that all three play a very important role in human life (not an overstatement).  For example, good data has tied BJW to better mental health, more positive emotions, optimism, less suspicion towards others, less depression, less loneliness, more kindness, more kindness when under stress, more productivity in the workplace, and more loyalty to one’s work place.  At the same time, BJW causes people to blame victims for being victimized!  BJW has been tied to prejudice towards the unemployed, those with AIDS, the elderly, and the poor.  Thirdly, all three of these UAs are negative in orientation.  Universal safety and universal meaningfulness, for example, were identified by Janoff-Bullman (1992), a trauma specialist, and have been studied exclusively in the context of trauma and depression.  Rape, for example, can destroy a belief that the world is a fundamentally safe place.  Many therapists feel that they must restore this belief before the person can “move on.”

I applaud all this work on trauma and depression.  However, in addition to the question, “What UAs are essential for staying sane?”  we might ask, “What UAs are essential for building the ‘good life?'”  As far as we know, I am the first to do so, which puts me firmly in the vein of positive psychology.  Positive psychology assumes that strengths and positive emotions are not merely the absence of the negative.  For example, joy is not the result of a simple lack of sadness 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.  Moreover, each strength and weakness, each negative emotion and positive emotion,  has a unique physiological signature that does not simply mirror its “opposite.”  In other words, strengths and positive emotions deserve study in their own right because they have their own qualities.

So, I conducted a conceptual analysis–an exercise in hypothesis generation–designed to identify major UAs which might contribute to the ‘good life.’  It involved a methodical process which identified relevant UAs and cross-referenced them with each strength and positive emotion that has been identified by positive psychologists.  In the end, I examined (and re-examined) 884 possible connections between UAs and the ‘good life’ and 13 major UAs emerged which may help humans live particularly happy and fulfilled lives:

  1. Is the world good or bad?  Thinking that the world is good and having a gut-level positive response was the single most relevant UA I identified.  It pays to have a little crush on existence.
  2. Is the universe interesting or boring?  It’s hard to imagine developing strengths like “love of learning” and “curiosity” without a strong belief in universal interestingness.
  3. Is the universe beautiful or ugly?  My wife’s top strength is “appreciation of beauty and excellence.”  Why would she or anyone stop to savor (which research says is good for you) the roses if one does not expect roses, or much else, to be worth savoring.
  4. Can the universe change or can’t it?  My good friend Eric is remarkably politically informed AND remarkably politically apathetic.  I think he imbibes the notion that nothing really changes in this world.   This UA may separate “believers” and those who are at their heart grumpy old men.
  5. Is the universe is getting better or getting worse?  We know stories matter.  What is the story you tell over the universe?  Where are we going?  How will this all end?  I think religion can play a big role in all of these, but especially this one.
  6. Is the world safe or dangerous?  A sense of danger causes you to scan the horizon for threats while a sense of safety is a prerequisite to feeling good and being open to new things and new ways of thinking.
  7. Is the universe to be explored or avoided?  Of course, we cannot avoid the world completely, but we can try to stay away from it as much as we can.  Alternatively, we could pursue immersion, novelty, and new experiences.
  8. Is the universe comprehensible or incomprehensible?  Why should I try to understand the world if I have no chance of doing so?
  9. Am I at the center of the universe or not?  If I do not get a job I apply for, does that mean that there is something wrong with me?  Maybe, but someone who thinks that they are the center of the universe will tend to think it is definitely their fault somehow.  Being at the center of the universe means that you are always in the right place at the right time for credit and blame.
  10. Is the universe intentional or mindless?  Is there a mind behind the scenes orchestrating events, or is it random?  This mind might be Jesus, superstition, fate, Karma, etc.  An example of this UA might be, “the world is out to get me.
  11. Is the universe best experienced alone or with others?  If the world is a war zone, we need buddies in our bunker.  If the world is a paradise, we need playmates.
  12. Is the universe as it should be, or should it change?  When we approach something new, do we assume that there is a reason for it being the way it is and it likely needs to be accepted, or is there little reason for it being the way it is and should we prepare ourselves to change it?  This might be at the core of conservative and liberal tendencies.  This is the only UA continuum that did not have an obviously “better” choice.
  13. Is the universe just or unjust?  Strengths like prudence and self-regulation would be difficult to come by if one did not beleive that his or her actions affected outcomes.
Calvin seems to think the world has intentionality, that there is a mind to compete against, and that mind is after him.

Calvin seems to think the world has intentionality (UA #10), that there is a mind to compete against, and that mind wants to win.

Some UAs relevant to the miserable life are on this list, some are not, and several of them (like the world is beautiful) seem very unlikely to have emerged without a focus on the ‘good life.’  Also, like BJW, most of these UAs had positive and negative connotations.  For example, thinking the world is good might be tied to 32 strengths and positive emotions but thinking that the world is bad still might be tied to 16.  Still, in almost all cases, there was a clear candidate for a UA that was much better for you than the other.  In other words, if Jack thinks that the world is good, interesting, beautiful, changeable, safe, comprehensible, just, intentional, to be explored, not centered on him, best experienced with others, and getting better, he is much more likely to have a good life than Jill, who thinks the world is bad, boring, ugly, dangerous, incomprehensible, unjust, can’t be changed, is centered around her, is best experienced alone, and is getting worse.  That’s my hypothesis anyway.  Each of these UAs require empirical research as all this is based on little more than my own thinking.  Psychometrically valid assessment tools have to be created, results have to be correlated with life outcomes, etc.

James Pawelski, my thesis advisor, is very excited by the new and important realms of research my work has identified.  He has strongly encouraged me to pursue running a UA-research lab.  Ultimately this would address a series of nine empirical questions:

  1. What universal assessments do people actually hold, who holds them, and what do the distributions look like?
  2. How are they held (implicitly or explicitly, compulsorily or freely, strongly or weakly, etc.)?
  3. Can certain UAs be tied to specific life outcomes, such as depression, divorce, subjective well-being, longevity, health, strengths, or even travel habits?
  4. What is the causal relationship between UAs and life outcomes?
  5. Which UAs are most likely to make people happy and fulfilled in life?
  6. Where do UAs come from, and at what age are they typically formed?
  7. Can UAs change?
  8. Can interventions be developed which change UAs into those most likely to bring happiness?
  9. Can these interventions be administered at scale (quickly and inefficiently to lots of people)?

In other words, I am interested in changing the world by examining and then potentially changing our beliefs about it.  If interested, all 157 pages of the thesis are posted here on Scholarly Commons.  About 30 pages are references, 60 are appendices, and 60 is the paper itself.

In the near term, I am creating a real world UA-bank, and I need your help. There is great need to create a well-thought out and respected list of UAs that can catalyze independent UA-research.  In order to do that, in addition to researchers and resources, we need popular help finding and identifying UAs that people actually believe in the real world.  Please be on the lookout for UAs that you come across, like the Calvin & Hobbes comic above, and send them to me.  I just got this one from a  friend: “One of my mother’s favorite sayings was, ‘I can’t see why not!'”  This UA, specifically a universal policy assessment, is about saying ‘yes’ to the universe.  Creating and analyzing a vast real world UA-bank is the only way to identify every UA that plays an important role in human life.  I invite you to be a part of this project.  Thank you!

Many people contributed to the success of my Masters thesis.  I want to thank Bob Easton, Andrew Soren, David Yaden, Dan Lerner, Karen Warner, Bit Smith, Paul Giacomini, Marty Seligman, Kevin Lum, Brandon Allen, Clinton Montgomery, Kiran Thadhani, Hannah Lythe, Chris Major, Christa Fritner, Dan Tomasulo, Johannes Eichstaed, Amy Walker, and Judy Saltzberg-Levick, for your support and contributions to this capstone.  Also, two people need special appreciation for the enormous help they provided.  First, James Pawelski worked tirelessly on my behalf and continues to be my great advocate and supporter.  He read my work carefully and offered thoughtful insight.  On the basis of an epic three and a half hour phone conversation, I scraped a very solid draft and created an excellent one.  He was the one who initially directed me towards schemas and towards Weltanschauung philosophy.  He helped me find my voice as a promising and serious academic instead of what he hilariously identified as “a brilliant yet over-reaching undergraduate philosophy student” (the man understands me! : ) ).  Thank you so much, James!

This handsome devil is James Pawelski.  He is my professor, mentor, and friend.  He works as a Senior Scholar at the Positive Psychology Center, Director of the Masters of Applied Positive Psych program, and Executive Director of the International Positive Psychology Association.  He is also a philosopher who wrote his dissertation on William James.  We have a lot in common and it was a pleasure working with him!

James Pawelski is my professor, mentor, and friend. He works as a Senior Scholar at the Positive Psychology Center, Director of the Masters of Applied Positive Psych program, and Executive Director of the International Positive Psychology Association. He is also a philosopher who wrote his dissertation on William James. We have a lot in common, and it was a pleasure working with him!  He is possibly the most emotionally intelligent philosopher I know.

Finally, I want to thank my wife, Alicia, for her support and shaping of the project itself.  For six weeks this summer, Alicia lived with a zombie as I neglected all my relationships, my health, and other projects to focus 100% on this thesis.  I did not leave my nearly windowless basement apartment.  I ate when I was hungry, went to sleep when I was tired, and skipped a few days in the process (my body seems to like 30-hour cycles).  I often went for 10 hours straight without eating or using the bathroom.  But Alicia encouraged me to eat and got me to sleep.  She helped me brainstorm and prioritize.  She was my sounding board.  She’s  vastly intelligent and wise.  She helped us sprint towards July 24th, when we flew to Taiwan on a long-awaited trip.  It was her first time to see where I grew up, the first time for me to be back “home” in a decade, and the first time to meet our new nephew.  We had not seen my brother and his family in two and half years, my father in a year, and it was my 10-year high school reunion.  Not only was it meaningful to show Alicia my roots, not only was she ever-interested in my nostalgic musings for two weeks (pics of the trip will be up on facebook soon), she spent most of her 15-hour flight from Chicago to Hong Kong doing a final read through and edit of my paper.  It would not have been a success without her.  Her fingerprints are all over the best parts.  

IMG_1877

Alicia, my beautiful wife, hiking up Lantau mountain in Hong Kong.