Monday, 14 March 2016

Is there anything special about using character strengths?

Today we had a journal club discussion (presented by Hayley Jach) that substantially increased my skepticism about strength-based interventions. Here are a few quick thoughts on appropriate control groups in intervention studies, and a challenge to future strength-based interventionists!

Positive psychology interventions (PPIs) are intentional activities that aim to increase your happiness*. Of the different types of PPIs, strength-based interventions have been particularly well-researched. Broadly speaking, strengths can include positive personality traits as well as things that we're good at and enjoy doing (i.e., talents). The VIA classification (used in the paper I'll discuss) focuses on (moral) personality strengths, described by this taxonomy:

Importantly, although we all have all 24 strengths to varying degrees, apparently some strengths are more special than others. Signature strengths are the 3-7 strengths that best characterise us, and Seligman and Peterson (2004) have argued that using your signature strengths is invigorating, energising, and engaging. For example, if Kindness, Gratitude, and Love of Learning are your signature strengths, you'll be happier if you have regular opportunities to do things like donating to charities, writing thank-you notes, and attending talks.

In a seminal article reporting results from various PPIs, Seligman and colleagues (2005) found that participants who were instructed to use their strengths in a new way every day reported greater happiness and depression up to 6 months later, relative to a control group who were instructed to recall early memories.

Several studies** have since used this intervention and found various positive effects, but Proyer and colleagues (2015) decided to do something a bit different. Instead of just comparing the signature strengths intervention with a control group, they also introduced a second intervention group: using your "lesser strengths" (i.e., your bottom 5/24 character strengths).

They launched a large online intervention, beginning with 1,046 participants but ending up with 375*** who completed all follow-ups to 6 months, and were included in analyses. After taking the VIA character strengths survey, participants were given their intervention instructions. Participants in the two strengths intervention conditions were given the same instructions:

“We have selected five character strengths for you. Use one of these strengths in a new and different way every day for 1 week. You can apply the strength in a new environment or when interacting with a ‘new’ person. It is up to you how you want to apply these strengths. Try to apply these strengths, regardless of whether you feel like already using this strength frequently or not.”
The difference was that participants in the signature strengths (SS) condition were assigned their top 5 strengths, whereas participants in the lesser strengths (LS) condition were assigned their bottom 5 strengths (and neither group were not told which of these conditions they were in). Participants in the "placebo control" condition were instructed to write about their early memories.

The key finding was that participants in both strengths intervention conditions reported a tiny increase in happiness (but not decreased depression) for up to 3 months****, relative to participants in the control group.

From this, Proyer and colleagues concluded:

"working on the SS as well as working on the LS, is beneficial for increasing happiness."

And sure, it's plausible that maybe signature strengths aren't that special after all, and that using your lesser strengths can increase your happiness too (because it still involves acting in a more socially-desirable, or well-adjusted way).

But, the fact that we see identical effects in both intervention conditions suggests that something placebo-ish may be going on. So, before accepting Proyer and colleagues' conclusion, I think we should take another look at the intervention instructions: 

"Use one of these strengths in a new and different way every day for 1 week. You can apply the strength in a new environment or when interacting with a ‘new’ person."
Looking at these instructions, I am totally not convinced that these results provide any evidence for the effects of using strengths per se. Instead, the instructions seem to focus on getting people engaged, doing new things in life, and hanging out with new people (i.e., acting extraverted, which we also know is associated with increased positive affect). It seems to be more of a novelty and general behavioural activation intervention than a strengths intervention. Meanwhile, the "placebo control" participants are at home, writing about their early memories. It's just not comparable.

This is a challenge to the validity of all previous strength-based intervention studies that used similar novelty-based intervention instructions without an appropriate control group (including the seminal 2005 paper). 

A much more appropriate control condition would involve instructions that go something like this:

"Do something new and different every day for 1 week. For example, you can go to a new environment or interact with a ‘new’ person. It is up to you how you want to bring more novelty into your life."
So, before I can be convinced that using your strengths (signature or lesser) has any unique effect on happiness, over and above the effects of generally making an effort to be engaged in life, I want to see a replication of Proyer and colleagues, but with a control condition where participants have similar opportunities to be engaged with new and interesting things and people in life. I'd be very curious to see the results!


*more formally, "to cultivate positive feelings, behaviors, or cognitions" (Sin & Lyubomirsky, 2009, p. 468)

**of varying quality. do not get me started on various issues like power and representativeness of participants.

***huge huge attrition (typical of online studies). intention-to-treat analyses were not used.

****how plausible is it really is that a 1-week, one-off intervention could result in such long-lasting effects anyway? logically, it seems like sustained, long-term increases in wellbeing require similarly sustained, long-term changes in thoughts and behaviours, including habits and lifestyle choices. i'd be curious to know if this 1-week intervention motivated participants to get out there and be more engaged in life on an ongoing basis, beyond just the intervention week. that kind of information would make for a more compelling story! Proyer, R., Gander, F., Wellenzohn, S., & Ruch, W. (2015). Strengths-based positive psychology interventions: a randomized placebo-controlled online trial on long-term effects for a signature strengths- vs. a lesser strengths-intervention Frontiers in Psychology, 06 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00456

Friday, 9 October 2015

FAQs on Acting Extraverted and Feeling Happier

One of the most well-established findings in personality psychology is that extraverts* tend to be "happier". By this I mean that individuals who are more assertive, talkative and sociable than they are passive, quiet and reserved, tend to experience more highly-activated pleasant emotions (e.g., lively, enthusiastic, excitement).

Intriguingly, acting extraverted might be as "good" as being extraverted when it comes to increasing your happiness. This has been demonstrated over and over again in the lab, using a paradigm pioneered by Dr. William Fleeson and colleagues. I've previously blogged about one of these studies, but the general procedure is that participants are randomly assigned to act, for example, talkative, assertive, and sociable, (i.e., extraverted) or passive, quiet, and reserved (i.e., introverted), or are given no instructions. They then participate in an interactive task while following these acting instructions. 

All of these studies show that participants who are instructed to act extraverted report feeling happier than participants who are instructed to act introverted. Here's the kicker: even introverts seem to enjoy acting extraverted!

People often find this somewhat surprising, so I (and other researchers in this area) get the same questions a lot. Here's an attempt to catalogue and answer some of these FAQs!

1. Are there any "costs" of acting extraverted for introverts?

It's an intuitively appealing idea that introverts might find it stressful and draining, or feel inauthentic, when asked to act "out of character". Professor Brian Little has warned that acting against one's "first nature" for prolonged periods of time will seriously tax the individual, physically and psychologically. But since we often need to enact "free traits" to get the things we want in life, Brian Little has also theorised about the need for "restorative resources" to mitigate the associated costs.

So what does the research say about the "hidden costs" objection? To date, there's actually no evidence that introverts find it distressing or overly-effortful (i.e., cognitively depleting) to act like an extravert. Paradoxically, introverts even report feeling more authentic (i.e., more like themselves) when they are acting more extraverted.

Arguably, however, this issue has not really been tested thoroughly. Each of these studies only looked at the short-term effects of brief periods of acting extraverted. So it's still an open question as to any repercussions might emerge after long-term, sustained periods of acting extraverted. In the meanwhile, it seems that occasional bursts of extraverted behaviours are unlikely to harm introverts.

2. If acting extraverted is so enjoyable, then why don't introverts act extraverted more often?

There are several reasons why introverts—people who act extraverted less oftenstill exist. First, there's a difference between "wanting" a reward and "liking" it. So it might be that introverts are less motivated to act extraverted, even if they usually enjoy the experience. Related to this, there's also evidence that introverts are less likely to expend effort to increase their happiness. In line with the idea that individuals differ in what emotions they prefer to feel (ideal affect), this suggests that introverts may not even want to be "happy" in the exuberant sense.

Another reason, from an affective forecasting perspective, is that we are often wrong about what will make us happy. But these predicted emotions—how we expect to feel—influence our decisions. Indeed, Dr. John Zelenski and colleagues found that introverts underestimate how enjoyable acting extraverted can be, and overestimate how self-conscious and distressed it would make them feel. Given these motivational factors, it's not too mystifying that not everyone is an extravert.

3. Does this finding only apply in cultures where extraversion is more highly valued?

To date, "acting extraverted" lab experiments have only been conducted in the U.S., Canada, and Australia. These are all "WEIRD" (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic) countries where extraverted traits are arguably more culturally valued.

However, a recent cross-cultural study sheds some light on this issue. Instead of instructing participants to act extraverted or introverted, this team of researchers just asked participants to report how extraverted they behaved each day, and how happy they felt that day, across 20 days. In all five countries—U.S., Venezuela, Philippines, China, and Japan—individuals reported feeling happier on days when they reported acting more extraverted, and the strength of this effect was similar across cultures.

So even though there hasn't yet been a lab-based study in a non-WEIRD country, this study suggests that the finding that extraverted moments are happier might generalise across cultures. Of course, this remains to be tested.

4. Should introverts act more extraverted?

In the end, these studies are descriptive: they just tell you how happy you are likely to feel if you act extraverted rather than introverted. No one is saying that there's anything wrong with being introverted, or that everyone should act extraverted, like, all the time. Not only would that be super annoying (and I'm speaking as an extravert!); it would also be inappropriate in many situations (e.g., at the library, on a meditation retreat, at a funeral).

There are also questions about whether experiencing and pursuing happiness is always a good thing, and whether you can have too much happiness. And in any case, most people—introverted or extraverted—are already pretty happy overall.

All this said, some of these researchers see a potential application of these findings. This is because so far, the research does suggest that acting extraverted could be a simple and effective way to increase your happiness, without any apparent drawbacks.

In the end, I personally see acting extraverted as just another strategy or "tool" that people might be able to use as a way to regulate their emotions, in times when they feel like doing so. I think people should be aware that it's out there, but the decision as to whether or when to use it is totally in your hands.


*My use of "extraversion" and "introversion" is as empirically described by the Big Five framework. Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman and Dr. Luke Smillie have both written fantastic articles describing the varying conceptualisations of "introversion" in popular culture.

The structure of this post was largely inspired by a very informative book chapter by Dr. John Zelenski, which thoughtfully addressed a series of objections about the finding that trait extraverts tend to be happier:
Zelenski, J. M., Sobocko, K., & Whelan, D. C. (2014). Introversion, solitude, and subjective well-being. In R. J. Coplan and J. C. Bowker (Eds.), The Handbook of Solitude: Psychological Perspectives on Social Isolation, Social Withdrawal, and Being Alone. (pp. 184-201). Wiley-Blackwell.
This post was also partly motivated by two examiners of my Honours thesis, who expressed curiosity about issues relating to FAQs #1, #2 and #4.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Preparing ESM data using SPSS syntax

I'm currently figuring out how to use SPSS syntax (rather than Excel) to pre-process my experience sampling data, and thought I'd share some useful (and basic!) pieces of syntax I've learned along the way. 

For those unfamiliar with experience sampling, it involves multiple participants reporting on their experiences on several occasions. In my study, it involves ~60 participants answering questionnaires on their phones 6 times each day for 7 days, which means 42 observations per participant and 2,520 observations in total (assuming 100% compliance), or more realistically, assuming 75% compliance, around 1,900 reports. That's a lot of data - a good sign that syntax will help streamline things.

I will be using MPlus to run multilevel modelling analyses, but before I can do that, I need to get the data into shape using SPSS.

1. How to Clean Data

You can compute any number of variables to flag various problems that may crop up in your data. Then, you can compute a dichotomous "valid" variable to filter out all problematic responses. I adapted this basic procedure from McCabe, Mack and Fleeson's (2012) chapter, and cobbled together other bits of syntax I hunted down via Google. For example, here are a few of the problems I'm flagging:

  • responses with no baseline data (i.e., they're not actually part of my study)
  • participants who dropped out due to technical difficulties
  • too many identical responses (e.g., if someone answered all 5s)
  • too few valid responses

Here's what the basic procedure looks like:

Compute nobaseline = 0.
If id = 'ID1' or id = 'ID2' nobaseline = 1.

*note that you don't need the quotation marks if your id variable is in numerical form; mine happen to be in string form

Compute dropped = 0.
If id = 'ID1' or id = 'ID2' dropped = 1.

Count NumZeros=Var1 to Var10 (0).

Count NumOnes=Var1 to Var10 (1).
Count NumNines=Var1 to Var10 (9).
Count NumTens=Var1 to Var10 (10).

Compute tooidentical=0.
If NumZeros > 20 tooidentical=1.
If NumOnes > 20 tooidentical=1.
If NumNines > 20 tooidentical=1.
If NumTens > 20 tooidentical=1.

*this means, for example, if a participant responds with 20 "zeros" out of a possible 23 questions, the data is suspicious

Now creating a variable that will be used to filter out invalid responses, and adding the above conditions:

Compute valid = 1.
If (nobaseline = 1) valid = 0.
If (dropped = 1) valid = 0.
If (tooidentical = 1) valid = 0.

Ok, so now that you've marked various problems, how do you find out how many valid responses are remaining? First, you want to apply the filter you've created, to filter out invalid responses (i.e., valid = 0):

FILTER BY valid.

To find out how many total valid responses and participants there are remaining (for reporting, rather than data-cleaning purposes), this syntax identifies duplicate cases:

  /BY id
VARIABLE LABELS  PrimaryLast 'Indicator of each last matching case as Primary'.
VALUE LABELS  PrimaryLast 0 'Duplicate Case' 1 'Primary Case'.

The total frequency corresponds to the total valid response count, whereas the number of primary cases tells you how many valid participants there are.

What about the number of valid responses per person? We need to use the aggregate function and break it by id; this creates a new variable with each participant's final valid response count:


And we can then use it to compute another "problem data" variable:

Compute toofewtotal=0.
If responsecount < 20 toofewtotal=1.

And now add it to our dichotomous valid data variable, and filter them all out!

If (toofewtotal = 1) valid = 0.

FILTER BY valid.

At this stage, before actually deleting any data, you'll probably want to save a version of this file with all exclusions marked, but with all data still retained.

2. How to Centre Variables Within-Person

For experience sampling data, generally you'll want to centre each variable around a person's mean. This lets you separate out the trait and state effects. The state component will then have a mean of 0, where positive deviations (e.g., 1.2) are greater than the participant's average levels, and negative deviations (e.g., -0.8) are less than their usual levels.

At this stage, I'm assuming you've computed scales already from the raw item scores. Now, to centre the variables and thereby create aggregate "trait" summaries:


Now, to compute state component, just subtract the trait component from the raw scale mean:

compute Var1State=Var1-Var1Centred.
compute Var2State=Var2-Var2Centred.

3. How to Add a Time Lag

You can't really infer causality from most experience sampling data, since it's usually correlational (unless you're measuring the effects of an intervention delivered in real-time). However, it is possible to add a time lag to at least meet one of the requirements for causality - precedence (i.e., a change in the theorised cause preceded a change in the outcome of interest).

The important thing is to set the condition that the lag only applies if the id at the current time point is the same as the id at the previous time point. Otherwise, the lag will cross participants. You'll also want to mark these missing values (in this case, I've chosen -99).

IF (id=lag(id))var1lag=lag(var).
if $casenum = 1 or id ne lag(id) var1lag = -99.
IF (id=lag(id))var2lag=lag(var).
if $casenum = 1 or id ne lag(id) var2lag = -99.

For example, if the participant responded "7", "8" and "9" at T1, T2 and T3, then the lagged variable will be -99, 7, 8.

In the lagged analyses, you'll need to remove the lines of data with missing values. So, create a filter:

Compute lagged = 1.

If varlag1 = -99 lagged = 0.
If varlag2 = -99 lagged = 0.

4. Creating an Easy Filter for Level 2 Analyses

There might be some analyses where you only want to look at level 2 (between-person) variables. As an easy way to "virtually" collapse the data set (i.e., being able to select one row per participant), you can compute and apply another filter:

Compute level2 = 0.
if $casenum = 1 or id ne lag(id) level2 = 1.

*flags the first case for each participant

FILTER BY level2.

5. Saving a Pared-Down Data File

Once I get to MPlus, I don't really want my raw variables getting in the way. So, here's a way to save only the variables that you need for your analyses:

SAVE OUTFILE= '/Users/Jessie/Desktop/esmmplus.sav'/KEEP= id Var1 Var2 Var3 etc... level2 lagged /COMPRESSED.

*the format of the file directory will be different on a PC

Concluding Thoughts: The Joys of Syntax

When I first started learning how to pre-process this data, I was introduced to some cool tricks and functions on Excel, including Pivot Tables and VLOOKUP. And there are still a couple of steps I'll probably use Excel for, including extracting elements from a string date to convert it into a general date format (unless there is a way to do this in SPSS?).

Overall, however, it's now clear that SPSS syntax is a far more efficient and less clunky way to prepare data. For one thing, by writing the syntax ahead of time I can simply run the syntax as soon as I have my data on hand. For another, it means that things are better-documented: I, my supervisor and anyone who wants to see the syntax and data will be able to see exactly how the data was prepared, and what decisions were made. If any errors are made during data preparation, we can trace it back to the syntax. Finally, this documentation means that the next time I need to pre-process experience sampling data or teach someone else how to do it, I can just modify, disseminate and reuse the syntax I've already written, again saving time (and the need to remember various manual Excel steps).

Sunday, 5 April 2015

A New Explanation for Why Extraverts Are Happier

Extraversion and Happiness

One of the most robust findings in personality psychology is that people who are more extraverted also tend to feel happier. And by "happier", which I'm using as shorthand, what I really mean is "high activation positive affect", e.g., feeling excitedenthusiastic, energetic and lively. Psychologists, however, have had more difficulty explaining exactly why it is that people who are more talkative, bold and assertive experience more happiness than their more quiet, reserved and passive counterparts.

One class of structural explanations suggests that it's something that extraverts have that explains their greater happiness. Perhaps extraverts just have a higher biologically determined "set-point" or fixed level of happiness. Or maybe extraverts "get more bang for their buck" and experience a stronger positive reaction when good things happen to them.

A second class of explanations proposes a role for social processes. The social activity hypothesis suggests that since extraverts are more sociable, and social activities tend to be enjoyable, their increased quantity of social activity explains why extraverts tend to feel happier. However, a particularly strong study showed that the amount of time spent in various social situations only explained about a sixth of the relationship between extraversion and positive affect.

Studies employing a "counter-dispositional behaviour" paradigm present a further difficulty for all of these explanations. In these studies, participants are instructed to act extraverted, act introverted or given no acting instructions during a group discussion task. A consistent finding that has emerged is that participants report feeling happier after acting extraverted than after acting introverted, and that surprisingly, this applies for dispositional introverts and extraverts alike! 

These studies show that the quantity of social experience can't explain this relationship because all participants spent the same amount of time interacting. And structural explanations also can't explain why simply acting like an extravert is enough to increase one's momentary levels of happiness. This suggests that it's the extraverted behaviours - in other words, what extraverts do - that cause increased happiness.

This still doesn't tell us much about how one gets from being talkative to feeling excited, but a recently published study finally sheds some light on the processes that may be at work here.

A Social Quality Explanation

Smillie and colleagues (2015) first surveyed 225 undergraduates and showed that social wellbeing, a measure of the quality of one's social life, explained a third of the relationship between extraversion and positive affect. This effect was driven almost entirely by one dimension of social wellbeing, social contribution, a person's sense of having an influence on their social world, or having something valuable to give to society.

Since the correlational design of Study 1 could not establish causality, Smillie et al. ran a counterdispositional behaviour experiment for Study 2. In groups of 3, 81 undergraduate students completed two fun problem-solving tasks. One participant was instructed to act extraverted (i.e., bold, talkative, energetic, active, assertive, adventurous), another was asked to act introverted (i.e., reserved, quiet, lethargic, passive, compliant, unadventurous), and a third participant was given no acting instructions.

Consistent with previous research, participants who acted extraverted experienced more positive affect than participants who acted introverted, whether they were naturally more extraverted or introverted. But the key contribution of this study was in revealing that perceived contribution to discussion tasks explained 70% of the effect of acting extraverted on positive affect. In other words, participants who were acting extraverted felt happier because they felt that they contributed more to the group activities.

So, it looks like social processes do matter - but instead of the mere amount of time spent with others, it's the qualitative aspects of social experience that help to explain the relationship between extraverted behaviours and positive affect. Specifically, this study suggested that one reason why extraverts (and pseudo-extraverts) feel happier is that extraverts feel that they are contributing more strongly to their social world. A follow-up Honours thesis (not yet published) also replicated this effect and found that it extended to another mediator, social power - an individual's perception of their ability to influence others in a social context.

This is interesting - but before extrapolating further, we'll need to consider a couple of limitations. First, like all other studies using the counterdispositional behaviour paradigm, participants were university students. This means that further research is needed before it's safe to generalise that all people feel happier after acting extraverted. And it's especially important considering that the explanation for the extraversion-happiness link may vary depending on age. For example, as Smillie et al. suggest, it's plausible that social coherence, one's ability to make meaning out of social affairs, could have a stronger effect on positive affect for older adults.

A second limitation is that it's unclear whether the difference in positive affect was due to the happiness-boosting effects of acting extraverted, or the happiness-lowering effects of acting introverted. After all, it can't be much fun to be asked to be quiet, reserved and lethargic while being dominated by an extraverted participant and another participant who tends to act quite extraverted in this context anyway. Yet, there seems to be a lack of research on how acting extraverted makes other people feel ("affective presence"), compared to how it makes the extravert (or pseudo-extravert) themselves feel.

Similarly, at the Positive Psychology Interest Group Journal Club a few weeks ago, some suggested that the instructions for acting introverted were overly-negative. Maybe - but according to the dominant Big Five descriptive framework of personality, these are more-or-less the terms that describe introverted behaviours. Being introverted does not actually mean being "introspective" or "imaginative", although popular misconceptions abound regarding what introversion is.

Should Introverts Act More Extraverted?

A final few caveats on whether it's a good idea to act more extraverted. First, extraverted behaviours are most reliably linked to activated positive affect states and are unrelated to "deactivated" positive affect states (e.g., calm, relaxed, at-ease); states that some people may see as more long-lasting, valuable end-goals. 

Second, how a person feels is of course only one component of wellbeing, and this research does not say much about the effect of extraverted behaviours on, say, one's perceptions of meaning and purpose in life (although it's also worth noting that positive affect does predict an increased sense of meaning). Smillie et al. do show that extraversion predicts positive affect via one's sense of social contribution - an important aspect of wellbeing - but there is clearly plenty of scope for further research to clarify the nature of the relationship between extraversion and wellbeing more broadly construed.

Third, whereas there's been no evidence to suggest that acting extraverted incurs costs for introverts (interestingly, extraverts do seem to suffer cognitive costs after acting introverted), no research has investigated the long-term effects of counterdispositional behaviour, as it's possible that extended periods of acting extraverted could be more challenging for introverts. Brian Little has a lot more to say about the need for "restorative niches" after acting out of character.

Taken together, however, Smillie et al. contribute a valuable new perspective on why it feels good to be or act like an extravert. And despite the need for further investigation with broader samples, in everyday life, and across longer periods of time, I'm excited by the optimistic view that these studies present. It looks like happiness isn't dependent on a fixed property specific to dispositional extraverts, but is something that anyone can experience more of - and that it might be as simple as strategically choosing to act more extraverted when the situation calls for it.

-- Smillie, L., Wilt, J., Kabbani, R., Garratt, C., & Revelle, W. (2015). Quality of Social Experience Explains the Relation Between Extraversion and Positive Affect. Emotion DOI: 10.1037/emo0000047

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.


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.

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: 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" ( 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


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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