Tag Archives: Meaning

Seligman, a founding father of positive psychology

George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton. For most people in the United States and elsewhere, these names probably ring a bell. Together with may others, these man count under the Founding Fathers of the United States.

Could anybody be considered as a the founding father of happiness studies, or ‘positive psychology’ as the academic discipline is usually called? On such a list, academics like Christopher Peterson, Ed Diener, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Daniel Kahneman, and Ruut Veenhoven deserve to be mentioned. And although every movement grows as result of interaction and cross-fertilisation, Martin Seligman probably is the primus inter pares. As president of the American Psychological Association, Seligman decided to focus his term on positive psychology.

What are Seligman’s achievements?

Getting up from a 2 to a 5…

As Seligman very well explains in his TED talk, psychology from its emergence in the early 20th century has been preoccupied with curing ill people. Psychologists have aimed to get people who score a 2 or a 3 up to a 5 or a 6. As a result of the focus on misery, psychologist have developed a complex system of classification and treatment of disorders. A large amount of psychological disorders that make people miserable can now be treated: a great advance for science.

… or from a 5 to an 8?

At the same time, there has been less attention for getting people that already score a 5 or a 6  up to a 7, 8 or 9 – or to understand what a 9 in happiness actually means. Come in Selligman and other positive psychologists. Since the 1980s, many scholars have measured and modeled happiness, and researched the link with happiness. Happiness is correlated with a lot of positive things, from longer healthy life years to better marriages and social relationships, and better performance in the education systems.

What an 8 means: flourishing

One of the most important contributions from Seligman is modeling what happiness is about, and what makes people ‘flourish’ in their personal life. Flourish is also the title of his 2011 book in which explains his ideas. This model is summarised with the acronym ‘PERMA’, standing for:

  • Positive Relations
  • Engagement
  • positive Relations
  • Meaning; and
  • Accomplishment

… as five elements contributing to a pleasant, good, or meaningful life.

The PERMA model. Source: Authentic Happiness pages, Penn University

The PERMA model. Source: Authentic Happiness website, Penn University

 

The next step: positive interventions

Then, the next step of the field of positive psychology is to find out what it is that gets people up to the higher numbers. This is where we get to ‘positive interventions’, or steps that can contribute to our happiness. Dr. Seligman and his team have developed and tested some twelve positive interventions.

In his talk, Seligman describes a few of them:

  • Three good things. Every evening, write down ‘three good things’ that happen during that day. This exercise trains gratitude
  • Have a beautiful day. The concept here is to ‘design’ a day to spend in a very pleasant way.
  • Gratitude visit. Think of someone important in your life who you couldn’t thank enough for their support to you. Write down why you appreciate what they’ve done for you. And then go and visit them to tell them.

Which of these would you like to try?

 

La Grande Bellezza & the ability to enjoy our lives

I have never read a novel in my life. There are only so many hours in the day and I have decided to fill them with activities rather than made-up stories” – Paul Dolan, Professor of Behavioural Science, London School of Economics

In my posts about happiness I don’t only write about reality, sharing experiences from travels and other activities or knowledge from scientific research on how our happiness works. For me, writing about happiness also means writing about the imagined worlds of literature, arts, and movies.

Happiness in made-up stories

When I have the time, I like to read and let the stories bring me to new places and join the characters on their journey through life. I agree with Paul Dolan, quoted above, when he recommends an active life. It’s true that being active is one of the ways to well-being. But I also have a vivid imagination. Contrary to Dolan, I think that made-up stories can result in real experiences, such as a feel of calm, excitement, or even  happiness.

Anybody who has ever enjoyed a novel or a movie would agree. There are a few movies that require us to use all our senses to grasp its meaning. For me, La Grande Bellezza, is one movie that is just like that.

I recently re-watched the story about Jep Gambardella (played by Toni Servillo), at 65 years the king of the jet-set of Rome. He deserves his fame to a novel he wrote over 40 years ago. Currently, he passes his days at big parties, artistic gatherings, his rooftop terrace with hammock in front of the Colosseum, and altogether living a life of mundanity.

Jep in La Grande Bellezza.

Jep in La Grande Bellezza.

Hedonism

La Grande Bellezza, directed by Paolo Sorrentino and Oscar winner in 2014, is a story about Rome, about art, and ultimately about (un)happiness. Since the beginning of philosophy, we have been looking for the answer to the question: ‘what is happiness’?. Traditionally, two answers have been dominant to that question: hedonism and meaning.

Let’s take hedonism, also known as utility or pleasure, first. This form is very much present in La Grande Bellezza. Objectively, Jep’s life is great: he attends the big parties and shows in town, he eats when he wants, sleeps with women when he wants. Jep describes the aim of his life in Rome as follows:

When I came to Rome at the age of 26, I fell pretty swiftly into what might be defined as the whirl of the high life, but I didn’t just want to live the high life, i wanted to be the king of the high life. I didn’t just want to attend parties, I wanted the power to make them fail.

Meaning

The second answer to the question ‘what is happiness?’ is meaning. At the same time as being the king of the high life, Jep is an artistic soul, observing the silence, his sentiments, emotions, and his fears… As a journalist and writer, but also as an individual, he is interested in the misery of human beings.

I was destined to be sensitive. I was destined to write. I was destined to be Jep.

La Grande Bellezza is a movie from which you can extract different messages or meanings. For me, the story of Jep is one of a failure to find happiness in meaning. His artistic career kicked off with a bang over forty years ago, when the girl he loved inspired him to write a revolutionary piece of literature. But with the girl, also his ability to write these kind of novels is gone. With the meaning lost, he tries – and fails – to find happiness in hedonism.

The wisdom to enjoy our live

In a sense, Jep is the most tragic of characters in a tragic movie. At the same time, La Grande Bellezza is a story that beautifully grasps many concepts about the beauty of life. If beauty is the ability and wisdom how to enjoy our life, as I read as a comment to a YouTube video with part of the soundtrack, there is not so much beauty in La Grande Bellezza as it may seem at first.

Beauty is the ability and wisdom how to enjoy our live

Mojitos, Lego and Beyond: Work and Motivation

Is there more to work than a means to pay for your mojitos?

Post-modern times require us to have complex skills in order to do our jobs well. This also influences how we feel about work in general: it is not just about making a living but also a way of self-realisation and a potential source to bring flow, meaning and happiness to our lives. TED speakers Dan Ariely and Dan Pink share their thoughts with us on the question: what motivates us to work?

Work and motivation

Dan Ariely

Dan Ariely is a behavioural psychologist who is on his way to becoming a TED star. His talks on irrationality, loss aversion and dishonesty have been watched by millions. Two years ago, in 2012, he was a TEDxAmsterdam guest in De Stadsschouwburg.

This time, he chose a different topic: work and motivation. Ariely discards the simple theory that most people only work in order to spend their money on mojitos while sitting on a beach. Beyond mojitos, what motivates people to care about their jobs? According to Ariely, meaning and creation are the main motivators.

Meaning

Ariely tells us the story of one of his former students who used to work for an investment bank. For weeks and weeks he worked on a presentation for an important business deal. He worked overtime, did the research and put together a slick powerpoint presentation. He delivered a stellar job and received the well-earned appreciation by his boss he was looking for. Then, things changed: he learnt that the deal was off and that the presentation wouldn’t be used after all. This news was such a disappointment to him that it took away all of his motivation to work (even though his work was beyond his boss’s expectations). As a researcher, Ariely’s job is to translate similar anecdotes and theories into experiments. In this case, he came up with an experiment to test the effect of demotivation on performance. Being a Lego lover, he thought Lego robots would bring him closer to the answer.

Ariely paid two groups of research subjects to build bionicles – a type of Lego robot. The standard condition comprised of presenting the robots built by the first group. But in the ‘Sisyphic condition’, the robots were destroyed in the presence of the subjects just after they finished building them. The result: any motivation to build the robots was crushed. Even those who stated they loved Lego, actually built very few of them.

The IKEA effect

It is not surprising that meaning and purpose are an important part of our motivation at work. Creating something that is yours is another source of motivation. Or in Ariely’s words: the IKEA effect. If you spend a number of hours assembling your own IKEA furniture, it’s very likely that you will be more attached to it: labour leads to appreciation. Children are another example. You may experience other people’s children as horrible creatures. But when they’re yours, you have already invested so much time and energy that they have become valuable to you. Ariely informs us that this effect has also been studied in experiments involving origami figures made by the subjects themselves.

Dan Pink

Autonomy, mastery and purpose

Career analyst Dan Pink has formulated his own answer to the question of motivation. He argues that in the current business climate, staff management is no longer suitable for the 21st century employee. Our jobs today require a specific set of skills. We do not live in a time anymore where a task is simply being executed as ordered. As the content of our jobs has changed over time, our management has to change, too.

Engagement can be reached with the help of three factors, says Pink: autonomy, mastery and purpose. We have the urge to be the director of our own lives, both in our private lives as well as in our jobs. We want to become increasingly better at what we do and we yearn to be part of something more meaningful, something larger than ourselves.

Thus, Dan Pink argues, our working cultures should be redesigned. We should build more (software) companies like Atlassian, where people have ‘Fedex days’, giving them 24 hour to solve a problem posed by themselves. Or, we should learn from radical reformers like Google, where engineers can spend 20% of their working time on projects they believe are important. Or we can work via the ‘ROWE’ (Results Only Work Environment) eliminating fixed working hours and meetings.

Challenge is what drives motivation. And companies can do so much more to create that challenge.

This article was first published on the blog of TEDxAmsterdam, as part of my series ‘TED & Happiness’. In this series, I explore some of the about fifty talks on happiness in TED’s library.

With great thanks to Tori Egherman for editing.