My View on Perception

I can already tell that my master’s program in Applied Positive Pscyhology (MAPP) has changed me because when I returned to work yesterday after the five day onsite immersion, I felt like I was an alien entering a somewhat familiar but strange environment.   In five amazing days, my perspective has shifted and I am now different.

I’m having difficulty identifying the one MAPP experience has caused this shift.  Rather, I would say that it has been a series of realizations ranging from “Aha” to “Omygod!!!!” moments, both of which has occurred on a regular basis during the onsite but also beginning with the pre-immersion assignments.  They are so frequent, in fact, that I’ve started keeping a separate list entitled “Mindblowing Moments.”  These moments ranged from academic to personal.  One huge realization on the personal level was that I most definitely am in the right place.  I need no reassurance to know this.  The time, effort and expense will be worth every bit of this fantastic ride that I am on.

That being said, the academic concept that will resonate with me the most after all that we’ve learned in five days is Chandra Sripada’s theory about perception.  There are twelve levels between our retina and brain, and each level manipulates/interprets the information from the level below.  The top communicates more avidly with the bottom, telling it what to expect and believe.

This theory resonates with what I know about the relative nature of reality (it’s not just a cliché anymore) but also with the assertion in Haidt’s  Happiness Hypothesis that we make decisions based on our gut feelings, then justify it with rationalization.  This is consistent also with Paul Bloom’s notions of essentialism which serves to help us  categorize things and people in our world into good/bad categories:  a sort of mental shorthand.  In short, as Bloom states, belief drives perception.  Now there’s a scientific explanation.  The relativism of our beliefs shapes our present and future, as well as our past as we reinterpret our memories each time we revisit them.

I don’t know about you, but when an idea goes from cliché to scientifically affirmed, it takes on a whole new dimension.  How does knowing that our beliefs color a vast and enormous portion of our perception change how we interact with the world?   I guess I’m about to find out.

Positive Communication for Building Relationships

When was the last time you did something where it felt like time stood still, you feel you were at your best, you felt incredibly engaged and alive, and the outcome was amazing?

Well, you were probably using your strengths to create your version of excellence.  I’ll bet most people don’t think about these peak experiences very often, but they should.  The more we focus on our strengths, the happier, more productive, and more creative we are.  We tend to also have much better results.  So by studying our peak experiences, we can mine for clues as to the ways we can pursue happiness and excellence at the same time.

Even just telling the story of our peak experience tends to be fun and rewarding.  This is particularly true if the listener responds in an active constructive manner.    In other words, instead just of saying “that’s nice” or “good for you” (passive constructive), if the listener responds with an affirmative and specific response, it will strengthen the relationship.  Active constructive feedback also helps the speaker savor the experience.  So when my son tells me he made an A on a difficult assignment, I might ask him which part of the assignment was the most difficult, what did he do to be successful this time, was he surprised to get such a good grade?

I can get extra “brownie points” by also pointing out strengths I might hear in his story.  For example, I might observe that he used diligence by studying every night, good problem-solving skills by using multiple resources to obtain a deeper understanding of the material, and good self-control and maturity by studying before going out with his friends.  He may walk away from the conversation feeling even better about his performance and improved self-awareness of skills he may be unconsciously using for success.

The other ways someone may respond to a positive story or good news is by being passive destructive (no response) or active destructive (being critical).  The latter might be, “What? You only made a 93?  Why not a 100?”  As the labels imply, both types of responses are potentially destructive to a relationship.  Then you’ll need to say at least three positive things to make up for the damage  or even more (5 good words for every negative word) if this is your spouse and your goal is a loving relationship.

So, if you want to build your relationship, listen for and communicate strengths to the speaker, help people savor their positive emotions, and cultivate those emotions with positive constructive responses.  Just imagine how good this would feel to you if this is how your friends, family and co-workers treated you that way every day.

Would it change your relationship?

Go try it!

Source:  Martin E. P. Seligman, Flourish

Facing Fear – It Ain’t All Bad

According to actual research, or maybe just  urban legend, people fear public speaking  more than even death.    Speech class in college didn’t really bother me.  Yes I had to make a fool of myself (potentially) in front of a small group of students, but they were strangers and I had nothing at stake except my grade.  When it really became scary was when I had to give my first scientific seminar as a graduate student to my department full of illustrious scholars.   These were my friends, classmates and professors and my talk was on my proposed research.  Now it was about how smart I was and the  opinion of my entire world of peers and mentors was at stake.

The antacid became a twice-daily routine starting roughly 120 days in advance.  Yes, I had it that bad.

But like many things in life, the experience was actually better than I expected.  Much better.  I surprised myself to find that I loved public speaking.

Yeah, I know, I’m so weird.

I now understand that when public speaking, I’m in flow.  I lose track of time, I feel like everything comes easily and naturally to me, and people tell me I do a great job.  Furthermore, now that I have a sense of my strengths, I realize that though I’m relatively low on the Communication strength, I have other strengths that I use to compensate for this shortcoming.   I think I use Command (a commanding presence) combined with Ideation (connecting disparate ideas into an interesting outcome) and Strategic (to construct the talk so it generates interest).   I also have reasonably strong Developer (help others improve and learn) so that strength motivates me to do a good job so others can learn.

I’m not listing these strengths to illustrate how awesome I am.  Actually, everyone has their own list of “top 10”amazing  strengths that they use, each to a greater or lesser degree, to create excellence.  My point is that you don’t need to have a particular strength, such as Communication, to be good at something.  Therefore, you also don’t have to decide in advance that you’re not good at something or you don’t like something, because you might surprise yourself.  You might even be better at it than you think, even if you don’t love it while you’re doing it.  I’ve also learned that others do not judge me as harshly as I judge myself.  So, I may think I sucked but others might just think:  not bad, but room for improvement.  Believing I will suck  is more likely to make me feel anxious and nervous, resulting in a presentation lacking confidence.  In other words, I’m more likely to suck if I think I will suck:  a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Given my initial anxiety about public speaking or my even stronger fear of not being able to cut it in graduate school at all, I could’ve decided to not enroll in that graduate program to avoid confronting those fears.  However, I have developed a personal philosophy to not give up before I try. Not having the courage to try, to me, is worse than trying my best and failing.  Not that these have always been conscious decisions – sometimes they have masqueraded as ambivalence or disinterest.

I have also decided that the regret resulting from trying and “failing” was preferable to the regret of wondering if I could’ve/should’ve done it anyway.  Certainly, the former, assuming it came to pass, allows room for growth and “falling gracefully.”     The latter is certain to make me feel lousy for a long time.

So, imagine what you would do if you had no fear, that you could not fail (since you are only taking the first step on a journey of improvement), and that the regret of giving up before you start is far worse than making a mistake or just being mediocre at something.

Who would you be?

What could you do?

Money Can’t Buy Happiness, Revisited

Money and happiness

Money and happiness

“I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor — and believe me, rich is better” – Sophie Tucker

Quick:  which is more important to you, money or happiness?

Yes, this is an either/or question, and intentionally worded that way.  Why?  Because chances are, you are at a stage where they’re no longer positively correlated.  Here’s what the research* shows:

  • Wealth – societies become happier as wealth increases… until incomes reach a moderate level (roughly $65,000/year currently)
  • Mental illness – GDP has increased 3-fold but depression and other mental illnesses have increased 10-fold over the last 50 years
  • Greater divorce rate – is evident among people with rising income compared to those with stable income
  • Materialism – decreases well-being because of problems such as low self-esteem, narcissism, less empathy, increase in comparing oneself to others, less internal motivation, more conflict in relationships
  • Rising expectations – offset further increases in well-being beyond the moderate income level.  Adolescents from affluent neighborhoods are less happy and have lower self-esteem compared to those from middle class and inner city slums possibly because of higher expectations of them and by them.

I’m not advocating that you stop trying to make money, make a living, or improve your station in life.  Rather, I suggest that we stop treating money like a surrogate for happiness and just pursue happiness instead.

I know, spending money makes you happy.  It makes me happy too.  But it’s short-lived.  I get a little high from buying a nice pair of shoes or jewelry, but often by the time I’ve gotten home with it, the euphoria has worn off.  Sometimes I don’t even want to bother putting it away.

Instead, we can invest in our happiness by looking for meaningful experiences, deep relationships,  developing our religion or spirituality, helping others, and using our strengths every day in activities we find meaningful.  So maybe take some of that time you spend thinking about making more money and invest it directly in building your own happiness every day.

“Money has never made man happy, nor will it, there is nothing in its nature to produce happiness. The more of it one has the more one wants”  – Benjamin Franklin
* from Diener and Seligman, Beyond Money.  Toward an Economy of Well-Being, Psych. Sci. Public Interest,  5(1): 1-31