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{ Creativity & Happiness } An Overview of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience …*

{ Creativity & Happiness } An Overview of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience ...* | rethinked.org

Screen Shot from Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi’s 2004 TED talk – Flow: The Secret to Happiness

 

As I’m nearing the end of the Positive Psychology cycle of the rethinked*annex project, I have decided to include two additional ideas–flow and growth mindset–before moving on to the next and final cycle. Because the meaningful happy life is so deeply dependent on the successful and recurring deployment of one’s signature strengths in as many of life’s arenas as possible, I have decided to turn to Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi‘s concept of flow for some additional guidance on how to nurture and cultivate my pursuit of what Seligman terms, “the gratifications.” And because the nurturing and deployment of strengths and skills can be so radically improved by the cultivation of a growth mindset, I have decided to reread Carol Dweck‘s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. I’ll share a couple more interventions to experiment with based on these two ideas in the coming weeks.

For now, I invite you to watch Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi’s TED Talk – Flow, the secret to happiness, in which he gives some context to his research around the core question of “what makes life worth living?” and gives an overview of the flow experience.

Learn to Identify, Cultivate & Deploy Your Unique Character Strengths to Live A Full & Authentic Life …*

Learn to Identify, Cultivate & Deploy Your Unique Character Strengths to Live A Full & Authentic Life ...*  | rethinked.org

“Herein is my formulation of the good life: Using your signature strengths every day in the main realms of your life to bring abundant gratification and authentic happiness.” -Martin Seligman, 161

Last week we looked at the idea set forth by Martin Seligman in Authentic Happiness, that engaging in experiences that produce flow may be a way to build psychological capital. You might recall that achieving flow depends on several factors, key among which, the matching of a challenge to engage your unique and personal strengths. Today, let’s look at what Positive Psychology has to say about these strengths –how we identify, cultivate and exercise them.

CREATING A TAXONOMY OF CHARACTER STRENGTHS 

Given the importance of deploying one’s character strengths in as many situations as possible throughout life to live fully and authentically, Seligman identified the need to create a comprehensive taxonomy of good character. He assembled a team and together they started poring through hundred of ancient texts from various times and cultures -“we read Aristotle and Plato, Aquinas and Augustine, the Old Testament and the Talmud, Confucius, Buddha, Lao-Tze, Bushido (the samurai code), the Koran, Benjamin Franklin, and the Upanishads–some two hundred virtue catalogues in all.” (132) What they found were some ubiquitous virtues, valued across time and culture. These virtues, of which there are six, are: wisdom and knowledge; courage; love and humanity; justice; temperance; spirituality and transcendence. (133) Seligman and his team use the word ubiquitous rather than universal because there are some rare exceptions.

It is true that very rare exceptions can be found; the Ik, for example, do not appear to value kindness. Hence we call the strengths ubiquitous rather than universal and it is important that examples of the anthropological veto (“Well, the Ik don’t have it”) are rare and glaring. This means that quite a few of the strengths endorsed by contemporary Americans are not on our list: good looks, wealth, competitiveness, self-esteem, celebrity, uniqueness and the like. These strengths are certainly worthy of study, but they are not my immediate priority. My motive for this criterion is that I want my formulations of the good life to apply just as well to Japanese and to Iranians as to Americans. (140)

Of course, all of these virtues can mean many different things to different people and there are many ways of achieving them. Since Positive Psychology is based on empirical and scientific study, Seligman and his team had to push further and establish a system by which to identify the measurable and acquirable routes one takes to achieve the virtues–the strengths of character.

To be a virtuous person is to display, by acts of will, all or at least most of the six ubiquitous virtues: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance and transcendence. There are several distinct routes to each of these six. For example, one can display the virtue of justice by acts of good citizenship, fairness, loyalty and teamwork, or humane leadership. I call these routes strengths, and unlike the abstract virtues, each of these strengths is measurable and acquirable. (137)

SOME COMPONENTS OF STRENGTHS

The first step then in creating a taxonomy of good character is to define the characteristics of the strengths. Seligman starts by highlighting the difference between strengths and talents:

Strengths, such as integrity, valor, originality, and kindness, are not the same thing as talents, such as perfect pitch, facial beauty, or lighting-fast sprinting speed. They are both topics of Positive Psychology and while they have many similarities, one clear difference is that strengths are moral traits, while talents are nonmoral. In addition, although the line is fuzzy, talents generally are not as buildable as strengths. True, you can improve your time in the hundred-meter dash by raising your rump higher in the starting position, you can wear makeup that makes you look prettier, or you can listen to a great deal of classical music and learn to guess the pitch correctly more often. I believe that these are only small improvements, though, augmenting a talent that already exists. Valor, originality, fairness and kindness, in contrast, can be built on even frail foundations, and I believe that with enough practice, persistence, good teaching and dedication, they can take root and flourish. (134)

Strengths are voluntary and involve choices about when to use them and whether to keep building them, but also whether to acquire them in the first place. Meanwhile, talents are relatively automatic, involve some choices, but only of those of whether to burnish it and where to employ it. Seligman then highlights eight additional criterion by which to identify strengths:

  1. Strengths are traits (137)
  2. Strengths are valued in their own right (137)
  3. Strengths are what parents wish for their newborns (137)
  4. Onlookers of strengths being displayed are often elevated and inspired rather than envious or jealous (138)
  5. The culture supports strengths by providing institutions, rituals, role models, parables, maxims and children’s stories. (138)
  6. Role models and paragons in the culture compellingly illustrate a strength or virtue. (138)
  7. Some of the strengths have prodigies, youngsters who display them early on and amazingly well. (138)
  8. Conversely, there exist idiots (from the Greek, for not socialized) with respect to a strength. (139)
  9. The strengths are ubiquitous. (139)

EXERCISE: IDENTIFY YOUR HIGHEST, WEAKEST & SIGNATURE STRENGTHS

My favorite positive “intervention” is merely to ask you to take the VIA Strengths Survey, then think about which of these strengths are the ones you own and how you might use them every day. Quite astonishingly, your own ingenuity and your desire to lead the good life often take over from there, even if I step aside. (137) 

Head over to the Authentic Happiness website and under the tab labeled “Questionnaires” you will find the VIA Survey of Character Strengths. You will need to create an account on the website and there is a fee to take the test, I did it and thought it was worth it. You will receive a 30 page detailed report of your character strengths in rank order. You will also learn about the benefits of each of your signature strengths, ways to cultivate them and avoid the pitfalls of mismanaging your aptitudes. 

Once you have taken the survey, Seligman’s next exercise is to evaluate your results–do the strengths the survey identified feel authentic to you?

Typically you will have five or fewer scores of 9 or 10, and these are your highest strengths, at least as your reported them. […] You will also have several low scores in the 4 (or lower) to 6 range, and these are your weaknesses.

Look at the list of your top five strengths. Most of these will feel authentic to you, but one or two of them may not be the real you. My strengths on this test were love of learning, perseverance, leadership, originality, and spirituality. Four of these feel like the real me, but leadership is not one. I can lead quite adequately if I am forced to, but it isn’t a strength that I own. When I use it, I feel drained, I count the hours until it is done, and I am delighted when the task is over and I’m back with my family.

I believe that each person possesses several signature strengths. These are strengths of character that a person self-consciously owns, celebrates, and (if he or she can arrange life successfully) exercises every day in work, love, play and parenting. Take your list of top strengths, and for each one ask if any of these criteria apply:

  • A sense of ownership and authenticity (“This is the real me”)
  • A feeling of excitement while displaying it, particularly at first
  • A rapid learning curve as the strength is first practiced
  • Continuous learning of new ways to enact the strength
  • A sense of yearning to find ways to use it
  • A feeling of inevitability in using the strength (“Try and stop me”)
  • Invigorating rather than exhaustion while using the strength
  • The creation and pursuit of personal projects that revolve around it.
  • Joy, zest, enthusiasm, even ecstasy while using it.

If one or more of these apply to your top strengths, they are signature strengths. Use them as frequently as you can and in as many settings. If none of the signature criteria apply to one or two of your strengths, they may not be the aptitudes you want to deploy in work, love, play, and parenting. (160)

THE VIRTUES & CHARACTER STRENGTHS – A BRIEF OVERVIEW

{ WISDOM & KNOWLEDGE }

The first virtue cluster is wisdom. I have arranged the six routes to displaying wisdom and its necessary antecedent, knowledge, from the most developmentally basic (curiosity) up to the most mature (perspective). (140) 

  • Curiosity / Interest in the world
  • Love of Learning
  • Judgement / Critical Thinking / Open-Mindedness
  • Ingenuity / Originality / Practical Intelligence / Street Smarts
  • Social Intelligence / Personal Intelligence / Emotional Intelligence
  • Perspective

{ COURAGE }

The strengths that make up courage reflect the open-eyed exercise of will toward the worthy ends that are not certain of attainment. To qualify as courage, such acts must be done in the face of strong adversity. This virtue is universally admired, and every culture has heroes who exemplify this virtue. I include valor, perseverance, and integrity as three ubiquitous routes to this virtue. (145)

  • Valor & Bravery
  • Perseverance / Industry / Diligence
  • Integrity / Genuineness / Honesty

{ HUMANITY & LOVE }

The strengths here are displayed in positive social interaction with other people: friends, acquaintances, family members and also strangers. (148)

  • Kindness & Generosity
  • Loving & Allowing Oneself to Be Loved

{ JUSTICE }

These strengths show up in civic activities. They go beyond your one-on-one relationships to how you relate to larger groups, such as your family, your community, the nation, and the world. (149)

  • Citizenship / Duty / Teamwork / Loyalty
  • Fairness & Equity
  • Leadership

{ TEMPERANCE } 

As a core virtue, temperance refers to the appropriate and moderate expression of your appetites and wants. The temperate person does not suppress motives, but waits for opportunities to satisfy them so that harm in not done to self or others. (152)

  • Self-Control
  • Prudence / Discretion / Caution
  • Humility & Modesty

TRANSCENDENCE

I use “transcendence” for the final cluster of strengths. This term is not popular throughout history—“spirituality” is the label of choice—but I wanted to avoid confusion between one of the specific strengths, spirituality, with the nonreligious strengths in this cluster, like enthusiasm and gratitude. By transcendence, I mean emotional strengths that reach outside and beyond you to connect you to something larger and more permanent: to other people, to the future, to evolution, to the divine, or to the universe. (154)

  • Appreciation of Beauty & Excellence
  • Gratitude
  • Hope / Optimism / Future-Mindedness
  • Spirituality / Sense of Purpose / Faith / Religiousness
  • Forgiveness & Mercy
  • Playfulness & Humor
  • Zest / Passion / Enthusiasm

Source: Seligman, Martin. Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology To Realize Your Potential For Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press, 2002. Print.

Pleasures vs. Gratifications – Understanding & Enhancing the Various Types of Happiness In the Present …*

One aspect of Positive Psychology that I find most exciting, is the way in which it nuances our understanding of happiness. We tend to view happiness as a single, static entity– something to possess or to be. Positive Psychology frames happiness as a multifaceted and dynamic process involving a wide range of emotions and magnitudes. It is not an all or nothing endeavor, happiness is a process–the journey is the destination— and it comes in many shades and intensities. So far, we’ve examined some scientifically vetted ways to increase happiness about the past and enhance positive emotion in the future, today we’ll turn our attention to understanding happiness in the present. Positive emotion in the present is divided into two main categories, what Seligman terms the “pleasures” and the “gratifications:”

The pleasures are delights that have clear sensory and strong emotional components, what philosophers call “raw feels:” ecstasy, thrills, orgasm, delight, mirth, exuberance, and comfort. They are evanescent, and they involve little, if any, thinking. (102)

The gratifications are activities we very much like doing, but they are not necessarily accompanied by any raw feelings at all. Rather, the gratifications engage us fully, we become immersed and absorbed in them, and we lose self-consciousness. Enjoying a great conversation, rock climbing, reading a good book, dancing, and making a slam dunk are all examples of activities in which time stops for us, our skills match the challenge, and we are in touch with our strengths. The gratifications last longer than the pleasures, they involve quite a lot of thinking and interpretation, they do not habituate easily, and they are undergirded by our strengths and virtues. (102)

For those of you familiar with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work, you will no doubt have noticed that the gratifications are interchangeable with the concept of flow. Seligman devotes an entire section of Authentic Happiness to the gratifications, which we will look at next Tuesday.

For today let’s focus on the pleasures, what they are and how we can enhance and amplify them in our daily lives. The pleasures can be divided into two categories–the “bodily pleasures” and the “higher pleasures.” The distinction between the two has to do with the degree of concscious thought that they require:

THE BODILY PLEASURES These delights are immediate, come through the senses, and are momentary. They need little or no interpretation. The sense organs, for evolutionary reasons, are hooked quite directly to positive emotion; touching, tasting, smelling, moving the body, seeing and hearing can directly evoke pleasure. (103)

THE HIGHER PLEASURESThe higher pleasures have a lot in common with the bodily pleasures. Like the latter, they have positive “raw feels,” are momentary, melt easily, and habituate readily. But they are considerably more complex in what sets them off externally. They are more cognitive, and they are also vastly more numerous and more varied than the bodily pleasures. (104)

The high-intensity pleasures include rapture, bliss, ecstasy, thrill, hilarity, euphoria, kick, buzz, elation, and excitement. The moderate-intensity pleasures include ebullience, sparkle, vigor, glee, mirth, gladness, good cheer, enthusiasm, attraction and fun. The low-intensity pleasures include comfort, harmony, amusement, satiation, and relaxation. (104)

3 PATHWAYS TO ENHANCING THE PLEASURES

As Seligman notes, no one is more expert on the things that bring you pleasure in your life than you are. What Positive Psychology can offer are tools for enhancing the pleasures that you enjoy.

{ COUNTERING HABITUATION }

When I was seven years-old, my family moved to the Netherlands and I discovered a veritable passion for Gouda cheese. I simply couldn’t get enough of it and decreed, with the characteristic pomp of young children, that it was all I wanted to eat for lunch. My mother complied and everyday, along with fruits and vegetables, I would find a Gouda sandwich in my lunchbox. My love affair with Gouda lasted a full month until one day, I opened up my lunchbox and found I had lost my appetite. My beloved Gouda now looked like plasticky orange slabs and I longed for the Brie and Camembert of my homeland. I went home that evening and proclaimed the Gouda age over. The issue with all external stimuli from which we derive pleasure–whether it be cheese, the smell of lavender, or a Fragonard painting–is that we are neurologically wired to stop responding to it once we are repeatedly exposed to the stimulus.

Rapidly repeated indulgence in the same pleasure does not work. […] this process called habituation or adaptation, is an inviolable neurological fact of life. Neurons are wired to respond to novel events, and not to fire if the events do not provide new information. At the single-cell level, there is a so-called refractory period such that the neuron simply cannot fire again for a time (usually a few seconds). At the level of the whole brain, we notice events that are novel and disregard those that are not. The more redundant the events, the more they merge into the unnoticed background. (105) 

Luckily, Seligman shares two potent antidotes to our innate tendency to habituate to external stimulus: strategic spacing of the pleasures and engineering surprise.

– STRATEGIC SPACING –

One key way to keep habituation at bay is to engage in strategic spacing and diversification of your pleasures:

Inject into your life as many events that produce pleasure as you can, but spread them out, letting more time elapse between them than you normally do. If you find that your desire to engage in a particular pleasure diminishes to zero (or below, to aversion) when you space it far enough apart, you are probably dealing with an addiction and not a pleasure. (106)

Try to find the optimal spacing that keeps habituation of your pleasures at bay. If you love the music of Bruce Springsteen, experiment with listening both more and less frequently. You will discover an interval that keeps his music freshest. (106)

– ENGINEERING SURPRISE – 

The second tool that Seligman proposes to keep yourself from habituating to your pleasures and losing the positive emotions that they create is one that I found particularly interesting, which is to engineer surprise for yourself and others:

Surprise, as well as spacing, keeps pleasures from habituating. Try to take yourself by surprise—or, even better, arrange it so that the people you live with or otherwise see frequently surprise each other with “presents” of the pleasures. It does not need to be on the scale of a dozen roses from the florist. An unexpected cup of coffee will do, but it is worth five minutes each day to create a pleasing little surprise for your spouse, your children, or a coworker: his favorite music on when he arrives home, rubbing her back while she is recording receipts on the computer, a vase full of flowers on your officemate’s desk, a simple note of affection. Such acts are reciprocally contagious. (107)

What an excellent design thinking challenge that is: how might we engineer more surprise into our daily lives and those around us?

{ SAVORING

Savoring, which is divided into four mechanisms: “basking (receiving praise and congratulations), thanksgiving (expressing gratitude for blessings), marveling (losing the self in the wonder of the moment), and luxuriating (indulging the senses)” (109) is about enhancing our experience and awareness of the present moment. There is a nascent field of study focused on better understanding the mechanisms of savoring, pioneered by Fred B. Bryant and Joseph Veroff of Loyola University, and their research gives us five tangible techniques to cultivate our capacity for savoring:

5 TECHNIQUES TO PROMOTE SAVORING

  1. Sharing with others – You can seek out others to share the experience and tell others how much you value the moment. This is the single strongest predictor of level of pleasure.
  2. Memory-building –Take mental photographs or even a physical souvenir of the event, and reminisce about it later with others.
  3. Self Congratulation – Don’t be afraid of pride. Tell yourself how impressed others are, and remember how long you’ve waited for this to happen.
  4. Sharpening perceptions- Focusing on certain elements and blocking out others.
  5. Absorption – Let yourself get totally immersed and try not to think, just sense. Do not remind yourself of other things you should be doing, wonder what comes next, or consider the ways in which the events could be improved upon. (108) 

{ MINDFULNESS

Much like savoring, mindfulness enables us to be fully aware and engaged with the present moment and counters our innate tendency to “act and interact automatically, without much thinking.” There are loads of available resources and articles on mindfulness and if you’re interested in learning more about its benefits and tools for enhancing your capacity for it, I highly recommend a visit to Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center website. As a preview, Seligman sites the following study from Ellen Langer on the effects of mindfulness:

Ellen Langer, a Harvard Professor and the leading academic in the field of mindlessness, had people try to butt into a line of office workers waiting to copy material. When the would-be-queue-jumpers asked, “Would you mind if I cut in front of you?” they were refused. When they asked, “Would you mind if I cut in front of you, because I have to copy something,” they were allowed to cut in. Langer has developed a set of techniques for making us more mindful, allowing us to see the present moment anew. Underlying these techniques is the principle of shifting perspective to make a stale situation fresh. Tenth graders, for example, are assigned a history chapter about Stephen Douglas and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. One group reads the passage from the perspective of Douglas, asking what he would think and feel, and from the perspective of his grandchild as well. This group learns much more than one that is just assigned to learn the material. (110)

Mindful attention to the present occurs much more readily in a slow state of mind than when one is racing future-mindedly through experience. The Eastern practice of meditation comes in many forms, but almost all of them, done regularly, slow down the speeding Western mind. (They almost all are well documented to dampen anxiety as well.) This in turn supports a mindset that is attentive to the present. (110)

HAVE A BEAUTIFUL DAY – AN INTERVENTION FOR ENHANCING THE PLEASURES

In Authentic Happiness, Seligman proposes the following exercise to practice the various mechanisms that he shares for enhancing your pleasures:

I assign you (as I do my students) to have a beautiful day. Set aside a free day this month to indulge in your favorite pleasures. Pamper yourself. Design, in writing, what you will do from hour to hour. Use as many of the techniques above as you can. Do not let the bustle of life interfere, and carry out the plan. (111)

Why don’t they assign things like that in k-12?!

*

Source: Seligman, Martin. Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology To Realize Your Potential For Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press, 2002. Print.

Pleasures vs. Gratifications – Understanding & Enhancing the Various Types of Happiness In the Present …* | rethinked.org

My cat, B, a natural expert on enhancing the pleasures …*

Self-Authoring & The Three Types of Happiness: Past, Present & Future …*

Self-Authoring & The Three Types of Happiness: Past, Present & Future ...*  | rethinked.org -Photograph: Elsa Fridman

As you can likely tell from our review of positive psychology thus far, happiness is a much more nuanced and layered term than we generally acknowledge. Seligman differentiates between three kinds of happiness: happiness in the past, present and future:

It is crucial to understand that these three senses of emotion are different and are not necessarily tightly linked. While it is desirable to be happy in all three senses, this does not always happen. It is possible to be proud and satisfied about the past, for example, but to be sour in the present and pessimistic about the future. (62)

Here is a quick breakdown of each:

Positive emotions about the future include:

  • Optimism
  • Hope
  • Faith
  • Trust

Positive emotions about the present include:

  • Joy
  • Ecstasy
  • Calm
  • Zest
  • Ebullience
  • Pleasure
  • Flow

Positive emotions about the past include:

  • Satisfaction
  • Contentment
  • Fulfillment
  • Pride
  • Serenity

I will write a post about each of the three dimensions of happiness as there is so much interesting research and Seligman proposes numerous exercises to translate all that research into tangible impact in your life, but today I’d like to write about a fascinating intervention which I did last summer: Self-Authoring.

Self authoring which was designed by clinical and research psychologists from the University of Toronto, McGill and Erasmus University is based on research which shows that writing exercises can help people confront their past, understand and improve their personalities in the present, and increase the chances that their futures will be meaningful, productive and healthy.

The Self-Authoring Suite is a set of four online programs, designed to help you write thoughtfully about your present, future and past. Each program presents you with a series of web pages that simplify the process of writing. Step by step, you will be presented with specific, relevant questions, each addressing some key element of your life, each accompanied by the information necessary to answer such questions.

The Present Authoring program comes in two forms. The Virtues program helps you identify your strengths and to use them more effectively. The Faults program helps you identify your weaknesses, and to limit their destructive potential.

The Future Authoring program helps you formulate a comprehensive vision of the future, three to five years down the road, and to transform that vision into a detailed plan. You will be questioned about key aspects of your life (including relationships, career, health, habits, interests), and guided through the process of considering each, deeply and practically.

The Past Authoring program helps you write an autobiography, so that you can produce a complete, well-organize account of your past experiences. It asks you to divide your past into seven epochs or stages, to identify the important experiences of each, and to thoroughly consider the positive and negative effects of those experiences.

Each program requires careful thought, and takes several hours to complete. It is better to complete the writing over several days, partly so you have time to think, but also because sleep appears to aid the process.

There is solid scientific evidence that such writing will improve your mental and physical health and help ensure that your life will follow an interesting, satisfying and proper course. 

The full Self-Authoring tool costs $30 and I highly recommend it. I found the experience to be healing and empowering. It was a wonderful tool for reflection and helped me reframe some of the narratives I had been carrying around with me from childhood in a much more productive and positive manner. It also provided a helpful framework through which to design my becoming–my growing into the person I strive to be.

Side Note: I’d like to make it clear that I am not affiliated with any of the authors and programs that I recommend on the blog, everything I write about are things I am interested in or have tried and found helpful.

Source: Seligman, Martin. Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology To Realize Your Potential For Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press, 2002. Print.

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