I Just Wanted to Thank You for Teaching me about Well-Being

Laying on her bathroom floor sobbing, my former student cried out, “I have low-well being…My PERMA is shot to hell!” She then dragged herself up and wrote me an email entitled “I just wanted to thank you” and thanked me me for being the only professor who ever taught her what her well-being is. Sara’s email [I changed her name for confidentiality] astounded me for how it expresses how much many young adults–even high-achieving ones –struggle to build strong relationships, find meaning in their lives, and do work that is engaging. Sara’s determination to make positive changes in her life also amazed me–in fact, writing a gratitude note was a tip we learned from Martin Seligman’s Flourish. When we read Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project, I asked students to blog about their own gratitude journal and see what difference it made in their happiness, and Sara has kept up this practice.

Here’s the email:

“Dear Professor Mooney,

First, let me thank you for an amazing class last semester. I’m really sad that you’ll be leaving UNC. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed any other class at UNC as much as I enjoyed yours. Anyways, I wanted to let you know how much of an impact you had on me last semester, and not just my well-being but my life. I’ve never met someone as passionate as you are and you’ve inspired me to find something I am passionate about and that I love doing. I hope to also make a career out of it, but we will have to see about that when the times comes.

On Monday night, I returned to Chapel Hill from a vacation to Boston and New York. I actually got back on Saturday but took an extra day off my internship to do some things that I had been putting off during the entire month of May. Anyways, when I got back to Chapel Hill I felt so bad…almost miserable. It was a feeling I felt like I couldn’t shake. The next thing I know, I’m on my bathroom floor in tears… This is weird for me because I’m not one to cry. I don’t see the point in it and once I cry about one thing I could cry for hours…so I just avoid it. But this time, I couldn’t avoid it or stop it or pep myself up. I sat there trying to figure out why I was so unhappy…probably the most unhappy I’ve been in a really long time. I realized I was unhappy because of where I am and what I’m doing. I feel forced to do a lot of the things I am doing right now, I have a lot of financial stress, and at a time when I need family and friends the most I am isolated from them because of my responsibilities here. In the middle of this fit, I screamed out “well-being, I have low well-being.” And that’s the truth. My PERMA is shot to hell, among other things and I could go into further detail about why I’m unhappy, but I think you’ll take my word for it.

The point I’m really trying to make is that I wouldn’t know what PERMA was if it wasn’t for you. And that is what I wrote in my gratitude journal last night. I’m not any happier today than I was Monday, but I can identify why. I can also take myself back to your class and bring small bouts of joy and inspiration. So I just wanted to thank you again for teaching about things that you care about and making it easy for your students to care too. Yale is so lucky to have you. I hope your summer is going well and wish you the best of luck at Yale.”

What is the well-being Sara is missing?  Martin Seligman uses the acronym of PERMA to describe his theory of well-being, identifying 5 things necessary (in some measure) for a fulfilling life: Positive emotions, strong Relationships, Engagement (flow), Meaning and Achievement. As a recent college graduate from a top public university and with an internship upon graduation, she is high on achievement. But her problems are ones I heard many students express. Sara’s work is not meaningful, and does not provide for flow. To make it worse, she’s far away from her social support network. She’s financially strapped. And although she doesn’t mention it in the email, a close friend of hers died over spring break.

As part of my current research project, I will be interviewing young adults all across the United States who, like Sara, have high levels of stress but nonetheless have a positive outlook on life (such as being grateful and having a sense of purpose,  and are altruistic (such as volunteering time or donating money). We will be using data from the National Study of Youth and Religion, which has followed nearly 3,000 youth from all over the US for the last 10 years. We know about their relationship with parents as teenagers, their religious lives, their friendships, and numerous elements of PERMA.

So much of sociology is about inequality but I’m interested in resilience–people who are high on PERMA despite having had difficulties in life. Sociology often presumes that high-achievers in school are doing all right, but achievement is only one dimension of well-being. One can be successful in the eyes of the world but miserable inside. Finally, sociology rarely studies downward mobility–people who have lots of opportunities but don’t take advantage of them. We have already analyzed survey data to find people who fit into these different groups, and we plan to interview some from each group. What distinguishes resilient people from those whose lives are on a downward trajectory–either because of financial stress, illness, a death of a loved one, or for no discernible reason? We think that strong relationships with family, friends and God can not only help people cope with stress, but make life’s purpose clearer. So one could be going through hard times but have a sense of determination.

Could it be that well-being is knowing where you want to go, even if you aren’t there yet? Sara’s first paper for my class was on Christian Smith’s forthcoming book on flourishing, in which he describes flourishing as having a life-project. Sara was particularly intrigued by the element of time in Smith’s theory: flourishing is a life-time pursuit made up of baby steps, like sending a gratitude email and making a resolution to pursue a dream. Sara’s email reminded me that perhaps as professors, mentors and friends we need to not only tell youth to finish school, but teach them more about what a fulfilling life is, and yes, even show them how to get there through our own passion for our work and our own willingness to forge meaningful relationships with people around us.

Thank you, Sara, for helping me understand the young people I teach and write about, and for your positive example of determination. You’ll get your PERMA soon. For those of you who want to increase your PERMA, you can start by taking the character strengths test on the website of the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center. I scored lowest on appreciation of beauty, so I visited Yale’s art museum 3 times my first week of work here. And I went out of the way to visit friends and family nearby, and I kept up a regular writing routine, which helps both my achievement and my flow. One can’t have too much PERMA, right?

Flow: Let’s Get Serious about Leisure

Do you take your leisure seriously? If not, you aren’t going to get flow which I described last week. Contrary to popular belief, flow is not the easy-peasy feeling you get when plopping down on the couch to watch an old movie or the NBA Finals. Flow also is not the exclusive property of musical or spiritual virtuosos who seem to just forget the world around them as they wrap themselves in beauty or prayer.  Flow happens when your work or leisure expand your consciousness, producing and optimal psychological state fundamental to happiness.

Why do we need to be serious about flow? Positive psychologist Martin Seligman convinced me that if you don’t get flow most days, you probably will never be happy. Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, states that if you know how to flow, you can expect to be happy practically no matter what, including during times of  serious adversity.

Robert Stebbins

In reply to my blog last week, I heard from a leading sociologist who studies leisure, Robert A. Stebbins of the University of Calgary, whose researched has focused on ‘serious leisure’, ‘casual leisure’, ‘project-based leisure’ and ‘optimal leisure’. Stebbins properly cautioned not to think of flow as just another name for leisure, pointing out in his email that “most leisure activities allow for instances of flow, but that flow is only part of what their participants experience.”

In the November 2010 issue of the Leisure Studies Association Newsletter, Stebbins lists the 8 components of flow as defined by Csikszentmihalyi and examines how various forms of leisure do or do not meet those conditions of flow. In order to meet Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of flow, an activity must meet these 8 criteria:

1. sense of competence in executing the activity;

2. requirement of concentration;

3. clarity of goals of the activity;

4. immediate feedback from the activity;

5. sense of deep, focused involvement in the activity;

6. sense of control in completing the activity;

7. loss of self-consciousness during the activity;

8. sense of time is truncated during the activity.

One important ‘serious leisure activity’ that does not meet the strict critiera for flow is what Stebbins calls the liberal arts hobbies. What is serious leisure? Stebbins defines serious leisure as:

“Serious leisure is the systematic pursuit of an amateur, hobbyist, or volunteer activity sufficiently substantial, interesting, and fulfilling for the participant to find a (leisure) career there acquiring and expressing a combination of its special skills, knowledge, and experience” (Stebbins, LSA newsletter, November 2010).

Surfing or volunteering is certainly leisure, but it’s not serious leisure by Stebbins’s definition. What are liberal arts hobbies, which is serious leisure? According to Stebbins, in liberal arts hobbies, “their goal is acquisition of a body of knowledge and understanding of, for example, one or more arts, sports, foods, beverages, languages, cultures, histories, sciences, philosophies or literary traditions.” Liberal arts hobbies are not mastered for another purpose; the topic is pursued as an end in and of itself.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

For example, my father collected 2,000 books in his lifetime on a variety of specialized topics, including chess, archeology, classical music and languages. Whenever I traveled to a foreign country, my father asked me to bring him chess books written in foreign languages. Although he was an avid chess player, my dad didn’t want to learn about chess in different languages so he could compete with someone from another country. Rather, he just found immense enjoyment studying languages and chess together—something that really puzzled me until I read about flow. My father definitely was what Stebbins calls a liberal arts hobbyist, and he had what Csikszentmihalyi calls an autotelic personality, understood as someone with a innate curiosity to master things just for their own sake and the ability to concentrate on those things for long periods of time.

The range of topics my father studied always amazed me; now I realize it wasn’t just the topics he studied which interested him but the experience of gathering knowledge as an end in and of itself which fascinated my father. My father also knew the difference between serious and causal leisure, as he would often tell me with a big smile and excitement in his eyes, “Let’s turn off the TV and do math.” In teaching me algebra when I was 6, my dad not only taught me math, he taught me to enjoy the pursuit of knowledge as an end in its own right, which may be what led me to become an academic.

However, as Stebbins rightly points out, liberal arts hobbies don’t require control  (component #6 in Csikszentmihalyi’s definition of flow). Hence, Stebbins cautions that not all leisure should be called flow. Stebbins also points out that causal leisure, such as aerobics and game playing, may not be complex enough for flow.

Even if not all leisure is flow, could it be that leisure (in all its forms) is one important building block of flow? Although I can see the need to get serious about our leisure, we can’t be too serious about our flow all the time, can we? Doesn’t casual leisure build up the capacity for serious leisure?

Take together, Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow and Stebbins’s concept of serious leisure, such as liberal arts hobbies, reassures me that my own passion for being a professor stems from a desire to know and master a topic just because I enjoy it. I’ve always thought that being a professor was a vocation, even though to some it seems like a vacation because I enjoy it so much.

Flow: Order in Consciousness

Did you know that you can actually increase your ability to enjoy the things in life that produce the greatest satisfaction?

When I read Martin Seligman’s PERMA concept of human flourishing (Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Achievement) I simply presumed that Type-A, achievement oriented people like me are too busy doing our work to get into flow (another word for engagement). “Flow must be what creative types, like artists or actors, experience,” I naively thought. To learn more about flow, I recently perused one of the books from the reading list I developed for my positive sociology class, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Czikszentmihaly.  To my delight, I learned from Czikszentmihaly that the reason I can dedicate so many hours of solitary  reading and writing is because learning new things is the primary way I experience flow.

What exactly is flow? According to  Czikszentmihaly, flow is “joy, creativity, the process of total involvement with life” (Flow, p. xi). How do we achieve flow? By fighting against psychic entropy (or chaos in our thoughts) by striving for order in our consciouness. When we have order in consciousness, “the information that keeps coming into awareness is congruent with goals, psychic energy flows effortlessly” (Flow, p. 39).

As Czikszentmihaly describes in this TED lecture, he and his colleagues have interviewed thousands of people from business leaders, to Benedictine monks, to star athletes in order to understand what conditions lead to flow. But experiencing flow is by no means limited to extraordinary people or unusual circumstances, it’s something we can all attain if we understand what flow is and how to experience it.

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Why is flow important to well-being? In modern societies, we have nearly unlimited choices and autonomy, which, as I’ve written about before on this blog, can paradoxically lead to boredom and wasted opportunities. To make the most of our freedom, Czikszentmihaly argues that we must learn to find purpose in our daily activities and how to experience enjoyment while doing those activities. Whereas I thought only certain activities like music or sports create flow, Czikszentmihaly points out that flow is not inherent to any particular activity; rather, we achieve flow as a result of our attitude towards that activity.

We need flow to be happy  because a disordered, wandering mind is the opposite of a virtuous and happy life.

“When a person is able to organize his or her consciousness so as to experience flow as often as possible, the quality of life is inevitably going to improve…even the usually boring routines of work become purposeful and enjoyable…Flow helps to integrate the self because in that state of deep concentration consciousness is unusually well ordered… The self becomes more complex as a result of experiencing flow” (Flow, pp. 40-42).

One of my favorite saints, St. Ignatius of Loyola (who Czikszentmihaly discusses), taught about internal order of our consciousness through prayer and discipline. One place I most easily find flow is the Catholic Mass. The progression of the liturgy helps my wandering brain to get into flow, and in that flow, I experience internal order and peace.  Every aspect of the sacred liturgy—my bodily motions, singing, vocal prayers, and receiving the Eucharist—does exactly what Czikszentmihaly says it should—focus my attention on something else and order all of my senses towards one goal–union with God through prayer.

Mihaly Czikszentmihaly

I was relieved to be corrected in my mistake of thinking that my work is only about achievement. Part of the reason I have persevered in academia is that I experience flow in my work, which Czikszentmihaly says is crucial to a high quality of life. For academics, mastering a subject we are studying is not not unlike what others experience from climbing Mount Everest or surfing the Big Eddy—writing a dissertation, a book, or even a short (but awesome) blog is hard to do, but when it’s over, you feel like a champ.

Wait a minute, you might wonder, isn’t flow something we get through leisure? if you ask people what they want to expand their enjoyment in life, especially when it comes to something mushy like flow, they would probably say “more time off from work!”

More time off from work for leisure in theory could increase our flow, but Czikszentmihaly argues that “one of the most ironic paradoxes of our time is this great availability of leisure that somehow fails to be translated into enjoyment,” (Flow, p. 83). is also very clear that most of us use our leisure time very unwisely. Perhaps the worst thing with leisure time is to vegetate brainlessly in front of the TV or mindlessly read everyone’s Facebook posts. But Czikszentmihaly is also skeptical about only engaging in sports as a spectator rather than as a participant.

Why? Our leisure time, according to Czikszentmihaly, produces flow when we are a) challenged but also rewarded; b) feel like we have expanded our skills, our ability to experience new things. When was the last time when watching a TV show,  a movie, or even watching the finals of some sporting event, made you think, “Gee, I just grew as a person!” The entertainment of TV and watching sports is appealing because it provides immediate sensory excitement and feedback, but does little to expand our ability for optimal experiences. The same goes for for casual sex, Czikszentmihaly says. Having sex with a relative stranger or watching pornography may indeed stimulate our sexual appetite and satisfy the momentary sexual urge, but only committed love of a whole person (which can encompass the sexual dimension) expands our capacity to love.

In other words, when it comes to pleasures, it’s not just “use it or lose it” it’s “expand it or waste it.” Czikszentmihaly’s concept of flow challenges us because simply using some capacity we have without trying to deepen the experience from that activity will lead to entropy—the gradual loss of our ability to enjoy that activity at all. Our approach to any leisurely pastime or pleasurable activity should be one of expanding our capacities for experiencing flow.

So, instead of watching movies, TV or sports, this week I’m increasing my flow in various ways. In my leisure time, I turned attention away from the TV and towards Scrabble—a game that requires creating words out of letters, learning the rules of the game board, and competing with another person. I also invited some friends over to eat pizza and for a friendly match of wiffle ball—a game that is easy to master (hence people of all abilities can flow while playing) but nonetheless requires coordination, competition, and a good sense of humor.

If you want to increase your well-being through flow, I have two suggestions. First, you must see your work—whether your do manual labor, intellectual labor or household labor—as a chance to expand your consciousness. (If you are barking at me saying your work doesn’t allow for flow, please read Czikszentmihaly’s chapter on the factory worker who experiences flow. It’s not your professional work or your vocation to homemaking that is getting in the way of your flow—he says it is your attitude towards your daily work). Second, you should pay careful attention to how you use your leisure time. Don’t unwittingly dampen your consciousness by watching mindless TV shows or talking about your neighbors, but expand your ability to enjoy things like theater, music, sports, and liturgy. You may even want to pick up a great book like Flow and discuss it with your friends and family.


“No More Choices, Please!”

Barry Schwartz

Have you ever felt overwhelmed at the number of choices to buy a salad dressing at the grocery store? Have you ever failed to choose a health care or retirement option just because, well, there were so many options that you couldn’t pick one? Have you ever searched and searched for the perfect pair of shoes, the best dress for a special event, or a new car, and then made a choice but still felt like maybe you could have found something even better?

If you answered “yes’ to any of these questions, then you are suffering from what Swarthmore psychology professor Barry Schwartz calls “The Paradox of Choice.” As he recounts in this TED lecture, Schwartz suffered so much agony when buying a pair of jeans that he decided to write a whole book explaining how Americans mistakenly think that more choices means more freedom and that more freedom means more well-being.

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One of the first-year students in my positive sociology seminar wrote a review of Schwartz’s book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, and to my amazement my students were so persuaded by his arguments about the negative effects of too many choices on our well-being that they all shouted in a chorus at the end of class, “No more choices, please! Save us from our misery!”

One student admitted (somewhat embarrassed) that she was having trouble picking out her new glasses. She had already taken 3 female friends with her to pick out new frames; but still feeling unsatisfied, she invited 3 male friends. This same student lamented how others’ inability to choose made her miserable, “I mean, I really hate it when a guy asks me out on a date and then asks me to choose where to go!” Another student chimed in, “My stepmother always wants to buy me the perfect Christmas gift. So we go shopping for days and days and I pick out lots of things I like. But she can’t make a choice, so I end up getting nothing even though I told her I really, really wanted something!” A third student said, “No one wants to make plans when we go out with our friends because no one wants to be responsible if we don’t have fun.”

After our engaging class discussion, the student who had led the class discussion asked me, “So do you want to read this draft and discuss it on Monday? Or do you want me to revise it over the weekend and send you a new draft before we meet to discuss it?” My immediate reaction was to say, “Whichever you choose.” But when her face sunk, I quickly realized I was doing what Schwartz calls abdicating authority–when a professional such a doctor or a professor won’t tell a patient or student what to do. I corrected myself saying, “You want me to tell you what to do, don’t you?” and she nodded her head.”So why don’t you outline some revisions you think you could make, and we can discuss this draft and your plan for revision on Monday.”

Schwartz offers three main reasons for the paradox that having so many choices makes us unhappy: 1) Paralysis. We have so many options we don’t pick any of them. Just ask yourself–when was the last time you went to the store to buy something supposedly simple, like dishwashing liquid, and felt so overwhelmed by the choices you just walked out of the stores? 2) Opportunity Costs. When we have seemingly endless options,  we find it hard to be satisfied with what we do choose. Even worse, when do make a choice, we can always come up with an ‘imagined alternative’ that reduces our satisfaction with even our good decisions. Regret, not happiness, goes up when we have too many choices. 3) Escalation of Expectations. Even if we objectively make a better choice than we could have before we had so many choices, we feel worse. Why? Well, those shoes I bought last week may be the best pair I’ve  ever had, but with so many great shoes at Nordstrom’s, Macy’s, and on-line how do I know I got my dream shoes, the absolutely perfect pair of shoes I want to wear until the end of my life? To explain this regret-at-having-it-so-good-we-feel-worse, Schwartz quips in his TED lecture, “Everything was better when everything was worse.” We have become such perfectionists that we are never pleasantly surprised by what we have.

Margaret Archer

Much research in psychology, sociology and particular economics falls into this problem: our concept of the human person is a being who uses his or her reason to satisfy his or her preferences (i.e., the utility-maximizing rational choice actor). Sociologist Margaret Archer, in her book Being Human: The Problem of Agency, argues that satisfying preferences is not the same as satisfying the person. The human person, Archer persuasively argues, is driven by ultimate concerns, such as concerns for love, beauty and truth. We can’t satisfy those concerns no matter how many choices we have, as human persons ultimately are capable of imagining a better, happier, more beautiful world than any choice we have in front of us, an imaginative power Archer argues is key to positive social transformation.

Perhaps the most important lesson my students learned in positive sociology, as they told me, is that the the human person finds deep satisfaction through strong relationships with others and by having a deep sense of meaning in which one’s purpose in this life is tied to a larger narrative. Deciding where to go out on Friday, where to go out on a date, what glasses to buy, and what classes to take makes my students unhappy rather than happy. Given that I had never taught positive psychology or positive sociology before, my students ended the semester pleasantly surprised with what they got, probably because they had no idea what to expect and because they learned had many practical lessons for how to be happier.