Tag Archives: Positive psychology

Is the World Good, and Does it Matter?

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

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

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

tears4

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

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

by Banksy

by Banksy

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

LIVE.CNF_Seligman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_3872

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

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

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

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

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

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

final-calvin-and-hobbes — Bill Watterson

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

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

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Positive Theology Will Change the World

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

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

Death Reflection

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

Ruins of Irish church and cemetery.

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

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

Christ on the Cross by Diego Velazquez, 1632

Meditation 

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

The Dalai Lama

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

Ritual

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

Child lighting Menorah

Another important ritual

Definitely on my personal top 10 rituals of all time.

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

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

Pope Benedict XVI

References

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

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

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

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


Jer’s Easy Steps to Happiness #1: The Magic Scrapbook of Puppies & Sunshine & Yogasms

For my graduate program, I am on site for three 10-hour class days and then in 3 weeks of distance learning.  Each distance learning period, we will be doing a positive intervention of some kind, and I will try to share it with you.  This time we did a positive portfolio, which is not magic and may or may not have to do with puppies, sunshine, or climactic yoga experiences.

A positive portfolio is a collection of poetry, quotes, pictures, music, anything really, all designed to engender in you personally some sort of positive state.  It might be serenity, inspiration, awe, joy, love, gratitude, security, safety, pride, empowerment, ebullience, etc.  Obviously many of these emotions overlap, but, after picking one, you try to create a portfolio that creates that positive emotion in you.

It does not have to be big portfolio, and putting it together is half the fun.  Students were asked to spend 15 minutes a day for a week going over them and record how we felt.  Across the board, we expressed powerful changes to our psyche, and apparently this is typical.

The rationale behind the Positive Portfolio is Barbara Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build theory of positive emotions.  It’s a big one in the literature, so let me describe it briefly.

Positive emotions tend to cause positive emotions.  They do this by broadening our horizons (Fredrickson has done numerous studies that indicate that a positive primer, such as a video of smiling children, tends to make people more creative, at ease, mentally alert, socially aware, kinder, etc.) and building resilience.  Resilience is the art of bouncing back from any bad thing, such as a casual insult, getting laid off, or even having all your family members killed in a car crash.  (One study found that after priming speakers before giving stressful presentations, their physiological response during the speech was the same, but those primed with a positive emotion bounced back quicker.)

In order get the upward spiral working, a certain threshold of positive to negative thoughts is required.  Fredrickson thinks it is 3:1.  Currently, my own ratio of positive to negative thoughts is just over 2:1.  Some of my classmates are as high as 6:1.  Depressed people tend to be about 1:1.  You can find out what yours is roughly at authentichappiness.org (sign up and take the PANAS test).

At one level, I agree with Fredrickson entirely.  It makes sense empirically, and it is a sort of self-reinforcing spiral that we see as a typical dynamic in all sorts of different contexts.  We see it in negative emotions (e.g., insecurity engenders insecurity), in the stock market, in ecosystems, etc.  Most pronounced for me professionally is the cyclical disinvestment in inner city neighborhoods.  People do not invest in their properties because the block is going downhill, and the block is going downhill because people do not invest.  This is also true in reverse, for blocks that are improving (e.g., I’m planting flowers because my neighbor put in a fountain).

The Positive Portfolio is an intervention that injects us with positive emotion in order to jump-start the positive feedback loop.

From top and left to right: Martin Luther, David Pollock, Socrates, Plato, praying old man (anonymous man who for represents the future & the past and our connection to a community beyond our moment in time), John Adams, Jesus, Hannibal, & Winston Churchill. I also would like to add the Napoleon, the Apostle Paul, Ahmad Shah Massoud, and Alcibiades, and the list keeps growing.

Initially, I designed my own positive portfolio to effect inspiration.  I chose it because, frankly, I am swamped right now with moving (we found an apartment!) and sickness, and I thought it would be easy; I have several heroes, and for Christmas last year my wife put together pictures of 9 of my favorite heroes/historical figures.  For various reasons, I feel a connection with these people and they inspire me.  If you ever make it to my house, you will see it above my desk.  However, I have never spent any time meditating on these images, so I thought this might be the perfect chance to do that.

But this backfired for me.  My problem is that I am possibly too driven.  I can be incredibly hard on myself and those around me.  I can treat myself and my abilities too seriously, and, frankly, piss off my wife.  Three days into my “positive intervention” she kindly suggested a change, “Let’s try serenity.”  So we did.  She helped me put the new portfolio together, and it had a much better affect on me.
First, I learned that I did not really know what serenity was.  The philosopher in me immediately set about trying to distinguish what it is from other states of mind.  I thought serenity would be engendered by things that reminded of who I am, where I come from, etc.  However, it seems to me more likely that serenity is a state of mind that does not need security or identity.  It is calmness irrespective of everything.  So my portfolio included some quotes about acceptance, some Winslow Homers, Turners, a few songs, quotes…here is a sample:

Boys in a Pasture — Winslow Homer, 1874

Anonymous photo that I found on the internet a while ago that I find deeply meaningful.

Jack Johnson’s Banana Pancakes

“To be human is to give up on perfection.” – Shoshanna, Americorps Trainer

The effect of spending some time with this portfolio everyday was powerful!  So here are my tips for those who want to try this:
  1. Do it.  It’s fun.
  2. Take your time making the portfolio, and make it with loved ones.  You can do it in less time than it takes to watch a movie.
  3. No need to spend 15 minutes a day.  5-7 minutes is likely enough.
  4. Pick the right emotion.  Overly serene people should probably not do serenity…you know who you are.  And like me, overly inspired people should not do inspiration either.
  5. You might make a digital version of this to put on your smart phone.  This way you can use it throughout the day as needed.
  6. A fun (albeit cheesy) project would be to make a short personalized video (slides and video set to music) that is meant to strengthen a specific emotional state that you struggle with personally.   You could have a number of them that help reinforce or strengthen certain aspects that you need.

In sum, I think there is something to this one, and in no small part because I did this before I even knew about positive psychology (Therefore Joy led me to do something similar, and also led me to want to study human happiness because of the profound affect it had on me personally).

However, I think Barbara Fredrickson’s Broaden and build theory might be tragically flawed.  Tune in next time to “Jer Thumbs his Nose at Brilliant Research Psychologists.”  It is going to be great!


My Life is Good for You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is going to be a great year!