Morality: Relative or Absolute?

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s ethics debacle may be more than an embarrassment.  His actions may be criminal and he could be facing jail time.

The once vice-presidential contender has gone from popular opinion riches to rags as the extent of his lucrative relationship with Star Scientific president Jonnie Williams has come to light over the last few months.  The issue is whether McDonnell broke any ethical rules or laws by trading promotion of Star Scientific ‘s new product for lavish gifts and “loans”.

The response from the public predictably fell along party lines.   Liberals have used this incident to point out the unapologetic greed of the top 2% and corruption of our elected officials.  Conservatives claim this is trumped up indignation – after all, McDonnell broke no laws.    How can there be such polar opposite reaction from a group of relatively homogeneous (mostly white, Christian, American, east coast-living) constituents?  Does one group lack a moral compass?  Is the other in denial?

According to Pinker (2008) , different cultural groups have approximately the same set of moral values:  harm, fairness, community/group loyalty, authority and purity.  Differences in morality tend to result from variation in interpretation and priority of these values.  Therefore, in this example, liberals may have priorities of moral fairness and perhaps an overriding belief in loyalty to the public (community) over business (group).  In contrast, a conservative’s moral compass may prioritize loyalty to the business community over the public.  Further, conservatives may argue that the Governor is a special person (authority) and deserves special privileges within limits (which were not violated here, according to them).  Both groups likely believe that their respective moral rules are universal and rule-breakers should be punished (Bloom, 2011).

Virginian, like everyone else, arrive at moral decisions based on unconscious moral principles, an intuition that guides our moral reasoning (Bloom, 2011).  But we pretty much have opinions based on our gut reactions, which are influenced by our belief systems,  and then back-justify them with “logic.”   We also tend to only pay attention to things that are value to us – in this case, perhaps justifying our gut feelings.

Who’s right?  Who’s wrong?  Both groups are basing their opinions based on their own interpretation of their moral priorities.  Pointing out each other’s hypocrisy just highlights our own.  Perhaps understanding this premise can improve the quality of much-needed discourse.   Viva la difference!



Bloom, P. (2011).  Family, community, trolley problems, and the crisis in moral psychology.  Yale Review, 99(2), 26-43.

Pinker, S. (2008).  The moral instinct.  New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from

The Gift of Listening


Talking is over-rated.  Like most things in life, I’ve discovered I have taken the role of listener for granted.  And probably like most people, I thought I was an above-average listener (note: most people think they’re above average, which of course means some people are wrong).    But listening with undivided attention is an amazing gift we can give to the speaker.   A good listener can make the speaker feel heard, appreciated, understood and valued.

Active listening is not easy, especially if our internal world is not organized for it.  Listeners often spend much of the time thinking about what they’re going to say next, how they feel about what they are being told, getting distracted by other unrelated thoughts, or trying to solve the problem of the speaker.

We listeners also interpret what we hear through our own biases and filters. For example, someone might tell me that they go to the bar to relax and I might think that this person may have a drinking problem.  For them it may be more social, seeing their friends, or watching sports on a big screen.    I shouldn’t assume I understand what they mean when they say “bar” even.  My first image was a seedy den of iniquity, but an Appleby’s is a bar too.  Or someone might have even said “barre” and is a dancer.  How is a person to know?   Ask, duh.

That’s my point.  We don’t know what it’s like for someone else. So we shouldn’t assume.

A good listener is actively engaged in the listening.  Just sitting and doing nothing does not make the speaker feel heard (think: blank expression, looking elsewhere, saying nothing).  Eye contact, little nods of the head, little affirmative sounds, an appropriate question or supportive statement sprinkled through the conversation conveys your engagement to the speaker.

Most people know this and do this automatically.  But here are some mistakes that many listeners make:

  • Jumping to conclusions – you really don’t know what it’s like to be the speaker, so don’t assume anything about them or what their words mean.  If there’s ambiguity, ask.
  • Judging – disengaging or becoming closed in the conversation because of a judgment about what was said.
  • Teaching – offering advice or an opinion when  speakers can really find their own solution.  Speakers will often feel better just being able to talk, and your curiosity about them may help them find their inner wisdom.
  • Interrupting – changing the focus of the conversation to self, instead of keeping it on the listener.  Going into teaching or problem-solver mode effectively is changing the focus to the listener.  Also, listeners may think the speaker is done with their story or thought and then jump in prematurely.  Asking “is there anything else?” is a good way to make sure they’re done speaking.
  • Supportive listening – a good listener will help the speaker savor the positive emotions and accomplishments by focusing on the best and most affirming parts of the story.

Most people are not prepared to do this level of listening  on a daily basis, myself included.   It takes a lot of effort to be totally in their world and out of ours.   I’m also not saying that we have to do this every time we converse with someone.  But consider how it would feel to a friend, loved one, coworker or even stranger for us to give them that gift.  What if the speaker is afraid?  Angry?  Hurt?  Disappointed?  Sad?  Consider how they’d feel after a conversation where we’re actively listening, versus if we are mainly interested in being heard?  Perhaps we don’t have to employ this level of listening with every conversation, but maybe after increasing our self-awareness  we might decide we want to increase our overall active listening a little bit with all our conversations.  We might be surprised what we learn when we stop and really listen to others.

Optimism, Over-Rated

I love self-assessments.  Until I don’t like the results.

You know how it goes.  You go digging deep into your psyche, and you know you’re going to confirm what you already know about yourself.  And then it’s the exact opposite.  And in an area that you’re pretty sure about.

When I was a kid, my sister always accused me of being a starry-eyed idealist.  I don’t think she meant it as a compliment, but that’s how I took it.  I always would’ve rather to be optimistic and see the silver lining and the good in every person and situation.  I even started a  blog with this theme.

Imagine my dismay when I took’s optimism test and I came out to be a pessimist.  Seriously???  And my test for positive emotions (PANAS) indicated that I am in the mere 65-72nd percentile for positivity and 46-53rd for negativity.

If I didn’t know that these tests were rigorously developed and tested, I might’ve dismissed them as being inaccurate.   So instead I contemplate the results.  In the optimism test, I scored high on the hope part of the test, but poor on the internal/external portion.  In other words, when things don’t go well, I look internally instead of externally for culpability.  Admittedly, not only do I look internally pretty much every time, but when I feel like I f**d up, I brood about it until I have figured out how to improve it next time around.  Sometimes I just drive myself nuts.

The point here is that those negative emotions of guilt and stress motivate me to improve.  If my emotions were 100% positive, what would be my incentive to change?  The same is true at the opposite extreme – 100% negative emotions would make me feel like “what’s the point?”  So maybe a somewhat positive PANAS score is conducive for growth.

Contrary to this somewhat intuitive assertion is Barbara Frederickson’s broaden and build theory (Positivity) which posits that positive emotions create an upward spiral starting with broadened awareness, exploration, expansive thinking, increased creativity and experiential learning.  So, given this theory, where is the sweet spot for negativity?  Are there any benefits to psychological discomfort?  Or, when it comes to positivity, is “more” better?

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