Saturday, 6 September 2014

Redefining Success

What springs to mind when you think of success? What about when you think of a successful person? The images that come forth probably involve the themes of money, status and power; or more generally, individual achievement. In the same way, the exemplars of success that you think of may be people at the top of their sporting or performance endeavours and those who are rich and famous. At an everyday level, perhaps as a university student, success means getting straight H1s and securing a dream job at graduation. Or, if you're a high school student, perhaps success means getting into an Ivy League university. 

But is that really all there is to it?

I distinctly remember a conversation I had with one of my teachers when I was back in high school, deliberating whether or not I should "aim for the top" and apply for top US universities. He reflected that he'd had the opportunity to take more "successful" pathways, but he'd seen the sacrifices that had been made by people who had gone to the top and achieved amazing things, and wanted a more balanced life.

At the time, I was one stressed out student, and that conversation left me with a firm belief in a tradeoff between success and balance - having time and energy to invest into other things you value, like family, wellbeing, helping others, and activities that enrich your life.

Being a hopeful optimist, however, a part of me still wondered, isn't there a way to be successful and have balance? After all, doesn't positive psychology tell us that happiness leads to success, not (only) the other way around (Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005)? As long as we're enjoying the process while striving for goals, and not stuck in a rat race, living only for the future (Ben-Shahar, 2007), shouldn't it work out? And if you follow the advice of all the productivity and lifestyle bloggers (e.g., Cal Newport, Ramit Sethi, Tim Ferriss) and are smart about how you go about it, surely it's possible to have your cake and eat it too?

As with many of these difficult questions, I think the answer is yes - and no. It depends on how you define success. If you take a "traditional" accomplishment-based or "narrow" definition of success, then the answer may be no; at least for a substantial part of the journey. It's probably a reality that performance at the highest level requires disproportionate and sometimes "superhuman" levels of sacrifice and self-discipline that in no way resemble a "normal" life.

I am not at all condemning "traditional success", or saying that it's necessarily bad to pursue it. Given various combinations of values and personal circumstances, some people thrive under these conditions, and indeed, accomplishment is a component of the PERMA model of flourishing (Seligman, 2011). However, for the most part, I would suggest that it's misleading to believe that success will necessarily make you happy. Why not? I think this quote from a recent blog post criticising "the myth of the Ivy League" is illustrative:


"Even talking to my peers who were the most “successful” by all external standards — snagging scholarships, winning awards, landing coveted jobs — I heard undertones of emptiness and sadness that suggested they weren’t truly fulfilled."

It's this sense of enduring fulfilment that seems to be missing from the pursuit of "traditional success". The pesky thing about being human is that we adapt to our successes. As we reach new levels of success, get a raise, buy a new car, win an award, publish in a top journal, and reach our various milestones, our expectations rise so that we're starting at baseline once again and always hungry for more, more, more. It's called the hedonic treadmill because we have to constantly work to maintain a certain level of happiness.

So where does fulfilment come from, and what's the alternative? As I said, it's about how you define success. I would argue that it is legitimate and adaptive to broaden our definitions of what success means, so that we're measuring success with the right metrics. 

Here's the really cool part: being a thinking, self-aware human being, you get to decide on what success means to you and what metrics to use. And if you choose to incorporate the idea of balance into these metrics, then yes, you can have success and balance because balance is, after all, an integral part of what you consider to be success.

Try it now. What's your personal definition of success? 

Write as much or as little as you'd like; whether it's a few keywords, a sentence or two, a few guiding principles, or a full-blown personal manifesto. I would love to read these in the comments! If you need some guidance, here are a few questions that might help you decide what to include:
  • From the perspective of your ideal future self at age 90, what would you like to say about your life - for example, what you've contributed to the world, and what you would like to be remembered for?
  • What qualities do you admire in others?
  • What makes life meaningful for you?
  • What are your top values?

It's not a problem at all if your personal definition of success changes over time, and it's expected that it will evolve as you grow and encounter new experiences. It's just useful to have a roadmap at this stage to help reconnect you with what matters to you in life. Also, it's totally ok to have elements of "traditional success" in there too - this is not intended to replace existing aspirations, but to broaden them. It can be helpful to keep this in a handy, easily accessible place (e.g. your phone, desk, or wall) where you can be regularly reminded of what matters.

To conclude on a personal note, what does success mean to me (in 2014)? I do have career aspirations - I'd like to be an academic, but I want to go about it in a certain way and for certain reasons, in a picture that is grounded in a commitment to collective wellbeing. So here are a few of my personal metrics, in no particular order:
  1. Conduct research that actually makes a difference in promoting human and societal flourishing.
  2. Be an academic who genuinely cares about students - in particular, be approachable and generous with my time in mentoring students and opening up opportunities for them.
  3. Be a mindful, loving and authoritative parent who prioritises family.
  4. Be kind to all beings.
  5. Live with less and give more every year to effective causes.
  6. Walk the talk: maintain my personal wellbeing and health, because this forms the basis for all of the above. Mindfulness helps a lot, so practice is important to me.

Of course, it won't be easy; realistically, with the vicissitudes of life and ambition, I fully accept that there will be days and even weeks when I lose sight of what matters. But if I can live in line with these principles as best I can, most of the time, then I would feel that I had truly succeeded in my career and in life.

References 

Ben-Shahar, T. (2007). Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. New York: McGraw Hill Professional.


Grant, A. M. (2013). Give and take: A revolutionary approach to success. New York: Penguin Group.

Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin, 131(6), 803-855.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and wellbeing. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Meditation gives us the tools to persist on the path of full human development


In his chapter, “Meditation develops full human beings”, Jon Kabat-Zinn (1994) introduces the concept of what it means to be a full human being, what is required to develop into a full human being, and how meditation helps with this process. In this reflection, I will explain and elaborate on these ideas.

Kabat-Zinn suggests that there is a time in our lives when we will be compelled to contemplate our lives and reflect on existential questions. This is a natural extension in the process of human development, a logical and even inevitable next step. If we do not take this step, then we let our development arrest, because there is a fuller potential that we can develop towards. This potential, of a full human being, involves rediscovering the good, the true, and the possible within ourselves, what Kabat-Zinn calls our “radiant selves”, what is “healthy and strong and golden within you”, and a source of wisdom and sense of inner mastery that will help us to live happy, peaceful lives, defined by really living in the here and now. While the term “full” implies a destination, I would suggest that this may be better conceptualised as a continual path and process, rather than a stage or a destination, given our endless potential for growth. Perhaps, then, to be a full human being simply means to be travelling the path of continual development.

This isn’t a pretty process, however. We must face, and indeed, embrace, and work with, the aspects of our psyches and our different mind states that we may not always like and usually try to turn away from or suppress through experiential avoidance. We can only develop by facing challenges and exercising courage to confront fears, even when we don’t know all the answers and we’re plagued by uncertainty. In this sense, it involves being comfortable with being uncomfortable. Moreover, it helps if we recognise that uncomfortable or “dark” mind states are not “bad”, “negative”, or “enemies”; rather, we can embrace them if we realise that they are helping us to develop our understanding of ourselves and of the human condition, and to develop compassion for ourselves and for others, who we realise also house inner demons and dragons, just as we do. In other words, all of the characters in our stories, especially the challenging ones, are teachers and good friends, the ones who actually dare us to grow.

Besides facing emotional discomfort, it turns out that we also have to put in a lot of effort and do the grunt work for our own development. This inner work takes discipline, to come back to the practice, over and over again, even if we’re bored, tired, in pain, have other stuff to do, or are otherwise uncomfortable. Nobody said it would be easy, but I cannot think of a more important task than to work towards becoming the best person I can be, so that I can live a life that is both good for myself and good for others.

The good news, at least, is that the practice itself helps keep us on the path, by equipping us with some very helpful tools. If we try as best we can to embody the attitudes of mindfulness, then we are empowered with the equanimity to face and embrace whatever is already here, and the perspective to step back and make choices from a position of greater awareness. Therefore, in a perfect synergy, the practice will do its work, as a roadmap to development, if we are willing to do our work of actually travelling along the path, which may well be bumpy and uphill, but ultimately is what it is, and this realisation can liberate us as we persist on the unbounded journey of full human development.

References

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Meditation develops full human beings. In Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life (pp. 81-86). New York: Hyperion.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Mindful Communication


Can you recall a time when you felt like you were truly listened to? What was that experience like? How did it feel? How about a time when you just listened? What qualities of attention and presence did you bring to the task? How would your relationships, both personal and professional, be different if people just listened more to each other?

More and more, we seem to live in a society where we don't have much time for each other. Efficiency and agendas seem to be two watchwords that characterise at least professional relationships, and even in personal relationships where we genuinely care about the other person, we aren't always the best listeners.

What does it mean to listen mindfully, or to just listen, then? It means to avoid the temptations to:
  1. Interject
  2. Comment/reflect
  3. Advise
  4. Console/fix
  5. Criticise
  6. Redirect
  7. Question/probe
  8. "Uh-huh"
  9. Plan your next response in your head
…before the speaker has first had the opportunity to fully say what is on their mind and to talk about what is important to them at that moment, or to just finish a train of thought. Later, some of these conversational tools may be useful and helpful and can then be used more accurately and skilfully, but if unleashed too early, can create barriers to the deep understanding that is enabled by the pure attention to what is being said, and the space that is created in which the speaker feels the respect and security to take the conversation where it needs to go.

This is difficult. These temptations are strong and it takes mindful effort to let them go, and to bring our attention back to the person at hand, looking them in the eyes with an attitude of patience and invitation that conveys a profound respect for what they have to say and for them as human beings.

But it is extremely powerful to feel like you are the centre of the listener's world at that moment in time, to feel like someone cares enough to give you their complete time and attention, and to feel like you're being heard and that your experiences and feelings are valid.

So then, the other side is mindful speech, which follows naturally from mindful listening. Listening intently, and being comfortable with moments of silent reflection after the end of a phrase, allows you to provide more thoughtful, intentional, considered responses.

I am currently on exchange in the US, and experienced a meeting that was a cultural experience in itself. I had heard about the stereotypes of the tendency to talk just for the sake of talking, but recently actually experienced this firsthand. In this particular meeting, it was particularly hard to get a word in edgeways, because people would constantly interrupt, jump in, and interject as soon as it looked like the person had finished a sentence, or even before they had finished a sentence. Moreover, while many of the contributions were useful, some of them did not seem to add much value, and seemed almost to be a display of dominance, of who gets to talk more, or simply an enjoyment of the act of talking. Power talking, as it were, and this wasn't even a corporate or business school setting. In short, it was mildly stressful, and though it was still a productive meeting, I wonder what could have been if people were given the space to contribute in a more thoughtful way.

So I think back to this meeting and imagine what could be. What would a mindful meeting, with mindful listening and mindful speech look like? What if we listened with complete attention and respect to what each speaker is saying? Could we let each speaker finish their sentences, and pause for just three breaths, or three seconds, before mindfully responding? What if we only spoke when we had something genuinely useful and thoughtful to contribute? I believe that creating space for mindful communication would reduce the pressure for people to react immediately, and ultimately higher-quality collaboration with carefully considered, thoughtful, nuanced, creative contributions. And you may think that this sounds awfully slow and inefficient. To this, I would suggest that efficiency isn't about cramming as many words as possible into a period of time, but about saying more with less. We can embrace the possibilities of deliberately choosing to think slow.

When you get an opportunity, I would invite you to try this out with someone. Just listen. It's simple (but not easy). Then, experiment with responding more mindfully, more deliberately. Notice how your quality of attention, your engagement and your sense of connection changes. And remember that every moment, every interaction is an opportunity to practice and to engage with what and who is here, right here, right now.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Meditations on Kindness


Kindness is a virtue that I admire, value, respect, and very much aspire to. But I've come to realise that it's not always something that comes "naturally" to me all the time. Brian Little (1996) suggests though, that we have some basic tendencies, our "first nature", but we can also choose to take on characteristic adaptations, which involve personal projects and identities that can become our "second nature". This post therefore contributes to a personal project of kindness, examining the nature of kindness, why it matters to me, and how it can be cultivated.


What is kindness?


I think that kindness involves two components: kind actions, and kind feelings.

Kind actions are behaviours that are performed for the good of others, with no strings attached. In this way, kindness is inseparable from generosity, as kindness involves a giving attitude. This may involve looking after a sick friend, really listening to someone in an open, non-judgemental way, volunteering, expressing gratitude to others, and mentoring someone. Because there are no real neutral interactions, but rather, every interaction will leave the other person either a little better or a little worse, kindness is the former choice. This will mean cutting people some slack; forgiving them and letting go in any cases of potential conflict, allowing them to feel valued, respected, accurate, and giving them a chance to enhance their self-concept. This means not always having to be right, or having to make a point, but really letting go of the ego. So in a sense, kind actions are not only what is done, but what is not done and not said. In this way, kindness is closely intertwined with modesty, humility, self-regulation, acceptance, and patience. The patience to accept and respect others for who they are and what they believe, and to understand why they are who they are today. So in general, kind acts will involve giving others some part of yourself - perhaps your time and attention, your emotional capacity, or your money.

To enhance the sustainability of kind actions, Adam Grant (2013) suggests that we should be "otherish" (rather than selfish or selfless) - having high self-concern as well as high concern for others. This is reminiscent of the Buddha's idea of the "middle way" between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. Taking the middle way ensures that our energy and emotional capacity to give is at its optimum so that we can give even more in the long-run. Therefore, to continue be kind to others, you also need to be kind to yourself, so that you live a life that is good for you and good for others.

Kind feelings are usually part of the kind act. However, it is possible to perform kind acts without kind feelings, and kind feelings can also be independent of action, in principle. I think kind feelings involve a warm, unconditional positive regard for others. A desire for them to be happy, to be well, to be free from suffering. It involves love, compassion and empathy. An engagement from the heart. In this way, performing kind acts for others is not seen as a chore or obligation begrudgingly done, a source of anxiety, or a mechanical act. Kind acts are supported by kind feelings, making them if not a pleasure, at least performed with purpose and meaning and with the right intention. In this way, kind feelings make the kind actions more authentic, congruent and meaningful, enhancing their effects on both the giver and the recipient of kindness. 

At the same time, kind actions are a great place to start, even if the feelings aren’t there yet, because as theories of attitude change suggest, actions are important in changing attitudes and feelings. As self-perception theory suggests, humans have a need for coherence between their actions, thoughts and beliefs. Therefore, the reasoning might go something like this: “I am doing a kind act. Therefore I must enjoy being a kind person.” → increased motivation to be kind. Furthermore, by doing the kind acts, the giver would see the impact of their actions on others, the difference they have made, and this would help cultivate the feelings of empathy and warmth, as well as increasing one’s motivation to be kind in the future. Kind actions themselves then create an positive upwards spiral.

Similarly, kind feelings can also be a good place to start, perhaps through the loving-kindness meditationAlthough these appear to be cultivated outside of "real-world" actions, by cultivating compassion for all beings, kind feelings and intentions inevitably influence the real-world actions that are then taken.


Why is kindness important?


The Dalai Lama said, “The true essence of humankind is kindness.” In this same way, I see kindness as the highest virtue and what it means to be the best human possible, and I truly believe that the world would be a more peaceful and harmonious place if everyone valued kindness.

I personally value kindness because I have been touched by acts of kindness towards me, and towards others, and genuinely want to be like these givers I admire, and pay it forward. When I have been the recipient of a kind gesture, I have felt my faith in humanity increase and it has given me hope. It has helped me feel like people care and that people are good, that I’m not alone in this world and that I am worthy of another person's time and attention. I mean, surely that is what we’re here for. To cultivate kind, caring, supportive and giving relationships. To reduce suffering in the world AND promote wellbeing in each other. To happily help each other out and enable everyone to be at their best, raising one another up. To be inspired by one another and for this to create a ripple or contagion effect for a kinder world, in which kindness enables us to reach our full human potential together as a society.

So in short, I value kindness because of the way it makes a profound positive difference in people’s lives and its ability to inspire transformation in people and in society. But talking about it is not enough. I have serious work to do on my humility, patience and connecting to the emotional side of kindness in particular. It won't be easy, and I can't promise to be kind 100% of the time. But I will keep trying, meditating, looking for opportunities to give, reflecting, and biting my tongue a bit. I'll also attempt to measure my progress using something like this. And if you have any suggestions for ways to develop kindness, I would love to hear about it in the comments.


References


Grant, A. M. (2013). Give and take: A revolutionary approach to success. New York: Penguin Group.

Little, B. R. (1996). Free traits, personal projects and idio-tapes: Thee tiers for personality psychology. Psychological Inquiry, 7, 340–343.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Gratitude through Gmail

As I wrote earlier, gratitude is a vital ingredient for wellbeing, and one way to increase our gratitude is to remember and reflect on the good things that happen to us, or what went well (WWW).

Recently, I realised that I've received a lot of emails this year that have brought a smile to my face. For example, emails where people have kindly agreed to help me out, have given me positive feedback, have replied to a thank you note I've sent or have thanked me, and where I've been accepted into programs. What if we could create an easy-to-access digital repository of such good events, harnessing technology to support our gratitude practice?

I'd like to share with you a really simple system that I use, harnessing Gmail's built-in Labels and Filters.


Basic Method: Create a Label


1. Scroll down to the bottom of the left column of your Gmail. Click "Create a label". You can name this whatever you want - e.g. Gratitude, Hope, WWW, Good Things in Life, Positivity. I named mine Smiles, because after all, these are emails that made me smile!



2. Select all the positive messages in your inbox and move them to that folder.



At this point, you're pretty much done! Click through to the label in your left column, and there are all your positive messages, ready for easy access and appreciation.

Ok, so what if you have more than one email inbox, but you want all your positive messages in one location? This is the case for me, with a university email address and a personal email address. Or if you want to email yourself your daily WWWs and have them automatically stored in this folder? Here's how to extend this basic method.


Extension: Create a Filter

3. Create a filter: Settings → Filters → Create a Filter.


In the "To" box, type in: yourusername+yourlabelname@gmail.com. Then click through to "Create filter with this search".


Select the checkboxes for "Skip the Inbox", "Mark as read", and "Apply the label: Your label". Click "Create filter".

4. Forward your positive emails from your other account to your "WWW email address" (yourusername+yourlabelname@gmail.com). These emails will automatically appear in your designated folder.

5. It is even possible to use this system to email ourselves our daily WWWs, instead of writing them down in a physical journal, if that's what you'd prefer. Just email them through to your WWW email address.

6. Did something good happen elsewhere on the internet (e.g. a nice Facebook message)? Take a screenshot, and email that to your WWW email address. The possibilities are endless.


Try it out!


So there you have it. An easy way to set up a system for creating a digital bank of gold, ready to access and savour on the go, especially in those times when you find it difficult to think of anything that's going well in your life, or when you just want to increase your feelings of gratitude.

Let me know if you end up trying it out! I'd love to hear if you find it useful.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Does Elevation Lead to Altruistic Behaviour? Commentary on Schnall, Roper and Fessler (2010).

Today, I presented an article at the Moral Psychology Journal Club at UniMelb, Elevation Leads to Altruistic Behavior by Simone Schnall (University Cambridge), Jean Roper (University of Plymouth), and Daniel Fessler (UCLA). I chose this article because I'm really interested in positive psychology, and I was eager to learn more about the elevation and prosocial behaviour. Some really interesting discussion (i.e. critique) ensued so I felt motivated to share some thoughts on this paper.


First, the paper.


What is elevation?


Elevation, coined by Haidt (2003), is "a positive emotion experienced upon witnessing another person perform a virtuous act, principally one that improves the welfare of other people" (Schnall, Roper, & Fessler, 2010, p. 315). Typically, people experiencing elevation will report that they feel inspired and uplifted, and motivated to perform a similarly prosocial act themselves.

Does elevation lead to altruistic behaviour?


Previous research had shown limited and indirect evidence for this hypothesis, for example through self-reported altruistic behaviour (Landis et al., 2009), more nurturant behaviours towards their babies in nursing mothers (Silvers & Haidt, 2008), and increased donations to a Black charity from Whites who are high in social dominance orientation, a construct linked to anti-Black racism (Freeman, Aquino, & McFerran, 2009). 

However, Schnall, Roper, and Fessler (2010) argued that self-report is subject to impression management considerations, that helping one's own child isn't true altruism, that it was still unknown whether elevation motivates helping outside of the context of group-based prejudice, and that none of these experiments had shown whether elevation motivates helping above and beyond the effects of general positive affect. Schnall, Roper, and Fessler (2010) therefore tried to establish whether elevation actually and unambiguously produces altruistic behaviour.

Experiment 1


Method

Participants. 59 women, aged 18-26 years from the University of Plymouth.

Materials. For the elevation condition, they used a 7-min clip from "The Oprah Winfrey Show" where musicians thank the teachers who had mentored them as underprivileged youths. For the control condition, they used 7 mins of a nature documentary.

They used six self-report measures of feelings and cognitive appraisals associated with elevation: how much participants felt "moved," "uplifted," "optimistic about humanity," "warm feeling in chest," "want to help others," and "want to become a better person," on a 9-point scale (1 = didn't feel at all, 9 = felt very strongly). Using the same scale, they also asked participants to rate how happy they felt, to assess the effect of condition on general positive affect.

Procedure. Participants watched either the elevation-inducing clip or the control clip. They then spent 5 mins writing a short essay recalling as much as they could about it. The experimenter then left the room, ostensibly to photocopy another form. Before she left, she paid the participant and asked them to complete a payment receipt containing the dependent measure, a check box asking if the participant was willing to participate in an additional, unpaid study. On her return, the experimenter gave the participant the form with the seven self-report measures to complete.

Results

Manipulation check. The mood induction of elevation was successful: Participants in the elevation condition reported higher ratings on all six items indicative of elevation ("moved," "uplifted," "optimistic about humanity," "warm feeling in chest," "want to help others," and "want to become a better person"), compared with the control condition. The groups didn't differ in their reported happiness.

Intention to volunteer. As predicted, more participants in the elevation condition volunteered for the unpaid study.

Discussion

Three limitations of this experiment were:
  1. Their single measure of happiness may not have been enough to rule out the possibility that their results were driven by general mood differences, because elevation is positively-valenced.
  2. Since the dependent measure was yes/no, they couldn't assess dose-dependent effects of emotions
  3. The dependent measure only measured a commitment to help, not actual helping behaviour
Hence, enter Experiment 2...

Experiment 2


Method

Participants. After 4 participants were excluded, 32 female participants remained.

Procedure & materials. To account for the positive valence of the elevation condition, they introduced a new condition, the mirth condition, induced using a comedy clip. So they had three conditions this time: elevation, mirth and control. Participants watched one of these clips, then completed the self-report measures from Experiment 1, which also included a rating of how amused they felt. The experimenter then faked some technical difficulties that made it "impossible to continue the experiment", so told the participant she was free to leave, but would receive the full hour's course credit. Then as an "afterthought", the experimenter asked the participants whether she would be willing to complete another questionnaire, emphasising that the questionnaire was rather boring, and that the participant was under no obligation and was free to stop whenever she wanted, but that completing any number of the items would greatly assist the experimenter. Participants who agreed to help were given 85 elementary math problems and secretly timed on how many minutes they spent "helping" the experimenter.

Results

Manipulation check. Elevation and amusement were induced in their respective conditions, whilst reported happiness didn't differ between the three conditions.

Helping behaviour. Participants in the elevation condition spent roughly twice as much time on the questionnaire (~ 40 mins)  as participants in the control or mirth conditions; the latter conditions didn't differ. The dependent variable, minutes spent on the questionnaire, was significantly positively correlated with 5/6 of the elevation variables, but not significantly correlated with amusement or happiness.

Key conclusions
  1. The two experiments provided "convincing evidence" that elevation leads to increased altruistic behaviour.
  2. Elevation is distinct from mere positive mood.
  3. Elevation inspired helping in spirit, not in kind (i.e. imitation), as their helping behaviours (volunteering for a study/completing a questionnaire) bore no resemblance to that in the stimulus (mentoring underprivileged youths).
  4. By eliciting elevation, even brief exposure to other individuals' prosocial behaviour increases altruism. This is a potential way to increase the general level of prosociality in society.

Now, some questions.

When I first read the paper, I thought it was great! But I totally expected that the more experienced members of the Journal Club would tear it apart somehow, and of course they did, and I am truly grateful for the chance to learn from them and develop my skills in critically reading and evaluating psychological research. So these were our key concerns:

Gender. They only had female participants in this study, because of concerns that men might exhibit more helping behaviour because the experimenter was female. However, we thought that this wasn't really justified, unless you expected that men would be so eager to help that there would be a ceiling effect. In only testing females, they've excluded half the human population in being able to generalise these findings.

Sample size. In Experiment 2, there were only 32 participants, across 3 conditions! That means about 10 people in each condition. Surely at least 20 in each condition would be considered a minimal requirement here.

Mediation analyses (or lack thereof). This was the most important issue. The purpose of these experiments, as suggested by the title, was to show that elevation leads to (i.e. causes) altruistic behaviour, but they didn't really show that at all. Rather, they showed that the elevation condition induced elevation, and that the elevation condition increased altruistic behaviour, but they didn't do (or report) any basic regression analyses to show that elevation was actually mediating the relationship between the condition and the increased altruistic behaviour. In other words, they didn't rule out the possibility that elevation may have been epiphenomenal, and that something else may have mediated the relationship between witnessing the prosocial act and helping behaviours. For example, the Oprah Winfrey clip could have simply established a helping norm, basically priming helping behaviours. (In fact, we were wondering if it would be possible to ever get past this confound - is there a way to induce elevation without witnessing prosocial behaviour, or is that by definition impossible?)

On a final note regarding the mediation analyses, it looks like Thomson and Siegel (2013) more recently established elevation as a mediator between thinking about a time when they witnessed someone performing a moral act benefiting someone else, and donation behaviours, in samples with both genders. Take this with a grain of salt though, or check it out yourself, because I haven't had a chance to read the paper in-depth yet.

Overall, we weren't convinced that the experiments established that elevation leads to altruistic behaviour. Perhaps a more accurate title would have been, "Witnessing prosocial behaviour leads to elevation and altruistic behaviour in females". I would be extremely interested to see what happens if we (1) test both males and females, (2) have an adequate sample size, and (3) ran the mediation analyses. Would it then show that elevation leads to altruistic behaviour? Given the current crisis of confidence in social psychology, it's more important than ever to ensure that studies are as rigorous and unconfounded as possible.

Having said all this, in line with a positive psychology perspective, I want to recognise the strengths in this paper. The math questionnaire dependent measure was quite clever, as it was a way to quantitatively measure extents of helping behaviour. I also liked how they introduced the mirth condition to try and match the affective valence (although I suspect that elevation may still be higher in valence and intensity than mirth). And in the end, at least they showed that witnessing prosocial behaviour inspires prosocial behaviour. If we want to increase prosocial behaviour, that is, to encourage a society where people more regularly help one another out, then that is still an important, relevant and practically applicable finding in terms of publicising morally praiseworthy events, regardless of whether elevation, or something else, is mediating that relationship.

References

Freeman, D., Aquino, K., & McFerran, B. (2009). Overcoming beneficiary race as an impediment to charitable donation: Social dominance orientation, the experience of moral elevation, and donation behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 72-84. doi: 10.1177/0146167208325415

Haidt, J. (2003). Elevation and the positive psychology of morality. In C.L.M. Keyes & J. Haidt (Eds.), Flourishing: Positive psychology and the life well-lived (pp. 275–289). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Landis, S.K., Sherman, M.F., Piedmont, R.L., Kirkhart, M.W., Rapp, E.M., & Bike, D.H. (2009). The relation between elevation and self-reported prosocial behavior: Incremental validity over the five-factor model of personality. Journal of Positive Psychology4, 71–84. doi: 10.1080/17439760802399208

Schnall, S., Roper, J. & Fessler, D.M.T. (2010). Elevation leads to altruistic behavior. Psychological Science, 21(3), 315–320. doi: 10.1177/0956797609359882

Silvers, J.A., & Haidt, J. (2008). Moral elevation can induce nursing. Emotion, 8, 291–295. doi: 10.1037/1528-3542.8.2.291

Thomson, A.L., & Siegel, J.T. (2013). A moral act, elevation, and prosocial behavior: Moderators of morality. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 8(1), 50-64, doi: 10.1080/17439760.2012.754926

Monday, 26 August 2013

The Power of Gratitude

In a society where negativity often predominates and entire conversations centre around complaints, the experience of gratitude, an awareness and appreciation of the good things that happen, is refreshing and grounding. However, with the negativity bias, the human tendency to notice, remember and pay attention to the negative much more quickly than the positive (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer, & Vohs, 2001), gratitude requires conscious effort to rewire habitual patterns of thinking. Luckily, positive psychology research has empirically validated certain techniques, showing that "counting your blessings" is no longer a platitude, but a tried-and-tested way of enhancing your wellbeing and positive emotion.


Why be grateful?


Individual differences in gratitude have been linked with subjective well-being (high positive affect, low negative affect, and high life satisfaction) in 12 studies (as reviewed by Wood, Froh, & Geraghty, 2010). Wood, Joseph, and Maltby (2008) also found that gratitude predicts psychological well-being (autonomy, environmental mastery, personal growth, positive relationships, purpose in life, and self-acceptance) above the effect of the Big Five personality traits. Furthermore, gratitude has also been negatively associated with depression (e.g. Wood, Maltby, Gillett, Linley, & Joseph, 2008), perhaps because positive life orientation is incompatible with the negative cognitive biases associated with depression. Gratitude is also related to perceived quality of relationships, forgiveness, low narcissism, greater perceived social support, relationship connection and satisfaction, conflict resolution and reciprocally helpful behaviour (as reviewed by Wood, Froh, & Geraghty, 2010). Finally, gratitude improves your quality of sleep (Wood, Joseph, Lloyd, & Atkins, 2009), as grateful people are more likely to think about positive things as they are falling asleep, promoting sleep quality, instead of negative thoughts that impair sleep (Nelson & Harvey, 2003).

Not currently oriented towards gratitude? Not a problem at all - gratitude is a skill that everyone can develop, and that's where gratitude interventions come in! These are exercises specifically designed to increase your levels of gratitude, changes that can persist through practice. Indeed, Emmons and McCullough (2003) found that participants who were asked to reflect on five things they were grateful for in the past week, over 9 weeks, had more positive and optimistic appraisals of their life, fewer physical symptoms, higher levels of positive affect and lower levels of negative affect, were more likely to offer emotion support to others, had better sleep quality, and a sense of connectedness to others. Similarly, Seligman, Steen, Park, Nansook, and Peterson (2005) asked participants to write down three things that well well each day and their causes every night for one week. These 411 participants experienced increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms, with the effect lasting for six months after the intervention. Seligman et al. (2005) also found that participants who were instructed to go on a "gratitude visit", where one writes a letter to someone they are grateful to, and reads it out to them in person, reported increased happiness and decreased depression both at the immediate post-test and at the 1 month follow-up. For these reasons, gratitude interventions are seen as the most successful psychology interventions yet.


The exercises...and some reflections


The exercises themselves are deceptively simple, but as pointed out above, are effective. Here are the basic steps:


What went well (WWW)? 


Try this for a week (or more!):

  1. Write down three things that went well with your day. These can be mundane (e.g. "The sun was shining today") or important (e.g. "I got a new job!").
  2. For each of these things, answer the question, "Why did this happen?" (e.g. "Because Spring is coming!"; "I worked hard to prepare for the interview").
Easy, right? Extending this into daily life, I've decided to start asking people WWW? more often, instead of the typical "How's it going/How was your day?". So far, there have been interesting responses. When I asked a group of peers at lunch the other day, they kinda looked a bit baffled, before responding along the lines of not being able to think of anything, or "nothing much", or even "nothing at all". Another friend thought that it was a nice question to ask. Recently, and more positively, one friend thought it was "kinda touching", because she felt that asking WWW instead of the standard "how are you" shows that you care, and also that it reminded her that things actually did go well that day, despite it being a difficult day. For the most part though, people are taken by surprise when they are asked this question. For me, this just illustrates the negativity bias. I bet you, if I had asked, "What went wrong today?", the response time would have been far quicker, and people would have thought of many more things to complain about. The threshold of activation seems far higher for positive events than negative events, as even minor annoyances seem to be remembered more readily than even relatively major positive events. However, any change in attitudes or norms takes repetition (and education), so I'll keep trying!


The Gratitude Visit 


People like to be thanked, but tend to be under-appreciated. It means something special to people when they are recognised for their efforts, to know that they are valued. So here's my challenge to you:

  1. Think of a person in your past who has benefited you in some way and who you have not properly thanked.
  2. Write them a gratitude letter, expressing your thanks and appreciation for what they have done for you. Be as specific as you can, and try to illustrate just what impact they have made in your life. Aim for around 1/2 a page to one page of text.
  3. Make a time to visit the person, but don't say what the visit is about. (If the person is overseas or interstate, Skype is ok, but probably not the phone)
  4. Visit the person and read the letter out loud to them. Read it slowly and mindfully, with meaning, intent, and eye contact. 
  5. Give the person time to respond to the reading. This will be probably be a highly emotional experience for them.
  6. Optional, but a highly likely outcome: Hug them! :)

I personally tried this out last week (I would be a hypocrite if I was writing this and I hadn't done it myself!), and thought I'd share a few reflections, which will be a bit unspecific when talking about the reactions of the person I thanked as I guess it is a personal experience in a way. 

I'll admit it, despite being in the habit of writing thank you letters and telling people I appreciate them, I felt quite a bit of aversion to the idea of actually reading a whole letter out loud to the person. To be honest, it took me awhile to think of exactly who I would write my letter to, but once I did, it made complete sense to thank them for what they had done for me. Writing out the letter helped me to further clarify exactly what I was grateful to them for, and enhanced my sense of appreciation for what they had done. It was actually quite a profound realisation. 

Before visiting her, I felt slightly nervous and awkward, but mildly excited. When I told her I had written a thank you letter and would like to read it out loud to them, she was surprised but went along with it. The actual reading felt really natural and authentic. Afterwards, she was clearly touched, and teary, and had realised the difference she had made in my life. There were smiles all around and a great sense of connectedness, understanding, and of course, gratitude, for both of us.

Immediately post-visit, I felt enthused, excited, and just plain HAPPY that I had helped her feel appreciated and valued. I felt connected and peaceful, and motivated to spread more kindness. I also took the Positive and Negative Affect Scale (PANAS) questionnaire online at the Authentic Happiness website (it's free!) the night before and immediately after the visit, and my positive affectivity had increased from 23/50 (~30th percentile of respondents) to 36/50 (~80th percentile), while my negative affectivity remained stable (11/50, minimum = 10). While that was probably rather unscientific as I was tired the night before, the subjective experience of increased positive emotion was undeniable.

In the end, the visit reminded me of how important it is to tell people you appreciate them, and how much it means to them. It also taught me that it is important to have the courage to SAY THESE THINGS. You will not be ridiculed or rejected or embarrassed. You will make someone's day, touch their hearts, and help them feel like they matter. This is the beautiful thing about positive psychology - it not only enhances individual wellbeing; it enhances the wellbeing of those around you too, contributing to the flourishing of whole communities.


Conclusion


A growing scientific knowledge base is showing that cultivating gratitude could be one of the most important things you can do to not only insure yourself against mental illness, but to support your overall wellbeing and flourishing. Granted, this requires active, intentional effort to overcome the negativity bias and focus on what you do have (vs. what is missing in your life), what has gone well (vs. what went wrong), and the good in others (vs. what's wrong with others). However, if you can achieve this subtle shift in mindset as often as you can, the most likely outcome is increased happiness and flourishing for you, as well as for those around you. The power of gratitude is in your hands.

Try it out!


What went well for you today, or this week? Would you go on a gratitude visit? If not, what's holding you back? Let me know in the comments!



References


Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C.,, & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5(4), 323-370.

Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8(2), 377-389.

Nelson, J., & Harvey, A. G. (2003). An exploration of pre-sleep cognitive activity in insomnia: Imagery and verbal thought. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 42, 271-288.

Seligman, M. E., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410-421.

Wood, A. M., Froh, J. J., & Geraghty, A. W. (2010). Gratitude and well-being: A review and theoretical integration. Clinical Psychology Review, 30(7), 890-905.

Wood, A. M., Joseph, S., Lloyd, J., & Atkins, S. (2009). Gratitude influences sleep through the mechanism of pre-sleep cognitions. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 66, 43-48.

Wood, A. M., Linley, P. A., Maltby, J., Baliousis, M., & Joseph, S. (2008). The authentic personality: A theoretical and empirical conceptualization, and the development of the Authenticity Scale. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 55, 385-399.