Positive Psychology

Rethinking The Growth and Care of Organizations: A Proposal

As The Workologist Newsletter subscribers know, I recently "gave myself permission" (it's complicated) to look for a full-time job in addition to continuing to run and develop everything I'm doing with The Workologist. In a nutshell, I've been entirely entrepreneurially focused since quitting my high school teaching job and coming to graduate school in 2011. There's nothing wrong with that kind of single-minded focus but I've realized that it has limited me from other potential opportunities that might be just as rewarding as trying to develop my own company.

All that is to say I've been perusing cyberspace over the past few weeks in an effort to see what kind of job opportunities are out there and even dipping my toes in the water when I've seen something I like. There are a handful of positions with companies I admire out there but unfortunately I have seen nothing that 100% matches what I'm visualizing someone with my skill set (or a similar one) could bring to an organization.

I'm writing to propose a new position that companies should be hiring for. I don't have a good name for it yet (I'd love to hear your ideas.) I'm also 95% sure this position doesn't already exist in most companies but if it does exist in yours then props to you. From what I can tell not many companies are thinking about what an organizational development/positive psychologist/coach/personal productivity expert/researcher could bring to the table.

Firstly, let's lay out what someone in this position would need in order to do this job well (in no particular order): insatiable curiosity around what it means to do great work on an individual, team, and organizational level; a deep knowledge of productivity best-practices and the contextual factors that limit or enhance each; coaching expertise; a working knowledge of foundational positive psychology, organizational psychology, cognitive psychology, and leadership theories and concepts; the interpersonal skills to facilitate small group discussions, workshops, and one-on-one conversations; a deep appreciation for the power of scientific experimentation and the willingness to use those principles in the quest for more efficient, meaningful and productive work; and a dedication to uncovering the best processes, systems, and approaches to helping an organization operate as efficiently and meaningfully as possible.

Easy as pie, right?

I think the benefits of having someone on the team who is constantly thinking about how to amplify everyone else's impact on an individual level ("making people better"), at the group level ("making teams better"), and at the organizational level ("making systems and processes better") would be huge. That's not to say this is the only person who would be thinking about these topics. However, hiring someone whose express job it is to think about and act on this stuff not only ensures that someone is thinking about it, but it frees up everyone else to use more of their cognitive ability for the substantive work that justifies the organization's existence. The pace of work in most companies is accelerating and being responsive, agile, and innovative may be buzzwords but they also ring true for many companies striving to make an impact in the world. Someone in this position not only frees people up to become more fully engaged in their primary work tasks, but also ensures that everything else that can be done to amplify the effectiveness of the organization is being done.

This isn't a general HR position or a short-term consulting gig or even a training and development specialist. I'm talking about someone who is much more baked into the everyday processes and interactions in an organization and whose only job is to make sure everyone else can be even better in their roles. One person could cover a ton of ground if their primary responsibility was to simply ensure that the organization was firing on all cylinders (and to maybe find cylinders that aren't even firing yet). Obviously, a small organization needs everyone to be operating at full capacity at all times in order to be successful. However, small organizations and startups often quickly grow to the point where questions need to be answered about organizational structure, norms, culture, etc. that often get (not) made by default (to everyone's detriment) instead of being consciously and deliberately decided. The person in this role would be expected to notice when this is happening and step in to facilitate the process of making these decisions consciously.

Hopefully I've been somewhat clear for what this position might entail. To make it even clearer, here's an extremely partial list of job responsibilities and actions this person would need to do:

  • Figure out what training/development/support individual employees need and either develop or find the appropriate resources.
  • Figure out what training/development/support teams need and either develop or find the appropriate resources for them.
  • Assess communication (how we email/text/Slack) and operating norms (how we schedule meetings, run meetings, do our daily routine work, make time for non-urgent but important work, how we keep track of who is doing what and by when, etc.) of the organization and suggest/facilitate tweaks where necessary.
  • Work with managers to develop their ability to successfully coach their employees.
  • Work with employees to develop the psychological resources (self-efficacy, hope, optimism, resilience, grit, self-leadership, etc.) to thrive at work (and beyond).
  • Work with members of the leadership team on developing leadership capabilities.
  • Assess and facilitate tweaks to physical workspaces given the best environmental psychology evidence.
  • Stay up to date on organizational psychology research that may be relevant to the organization and translate/synthesize findings into useful information for all members of the organization.
  • Be constantly thinking about how the organization goes about getting it's work done and note areas for improvement.
  • Support all members of the organization in the quest to make work a meaningful growth experience through the way each person approaches their work and makes sense of their role in the organization in an effort to support job satisfaction, engagement, and ultimately organizational performance.

Many of these responsibilities are currently offloaded to a hodgepodge of training and development specialists and consultants or thrust upon already overworked managers. The psychological health of an organization is too important to spread across disparate departments and individuals. It needs to be treated holistically and managed intelligently. I'm convinced bringing a positive organizational psychology trained, personal development and personal productivity obsessed, experienced coach and generally insatiably curious person into the fold of an organization would have huge ramifications.

The best way I can think of to describe this position is as a catalyst that is constantly circulating through an organization to make sure all the chemical reactions that need to be happening are happening. That areas that need a little boost are being boosted, that areas needing a little cooling get cooled, that by coordinating all the disparate reactions that are happening across the entire system the overall effect can be more explosive and productive than anyone ever expected.

Photo by Marcus Peaston

The List #12

No full articles this week and I'm late on publishing The List. Can you tell the semester just started? Even though I've finished my class requirements as a student (woo!) I'm serving as a teaching assistant for two classes and it seems like all my research deadlines all came to a head in the past few days. Those are my excuses and I'm sticking to them.

Anyway, today I'm at a conference about positive psychology/celebration for Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's 80th birthday on the campus of my university. In honor of Csikszentmihalyi's birthday I figured I'd share some of the books/talks of a few of the individuals I'm watching speak today.

1. Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (book)

Mihaly is turning 80 this year and the event I'm at today is in celebration of his career. The book that really put him on the map is Flow but Good Work, The Evolving Self, and Creativity are also all worth your time. He has also given a TED talk and has written a boatload of academic articles. He's a good dude and Flow was a book that changed my life so I'm not really sure how to recommend it more than that.

2. Flourish by Marty Seligman (book)

Marty Seligman is the other co-founder of the positive psychology movement along with Csikszentmihalyi. His work on well-being is powerful and will make you think about what you can do to build more PERMA into your life. He also has a TED talk that's worth checking out. His earlier books on Authentic Happiness and Learned Optimism were some of the first ones I read as I began exploring what this whole positive psychology thing was.

3. Multiple Intelligences by Howard Gardner (book)

Gardner is a Harvard professor who is a behemoth in the world of educational/developmental psychology. His theory of multiple intelligences, the idea that cognitive/verbal ability should not be equated as "intelligence" and instead there are a series of different types of intelligence that people exhibit to varying degrees, is huge. He also worked with Csikszentmihalyi on the Good Work book and now leads the Good project at Harvard University.

What did you read/watch this week?

Photo by Dan Kasak

Reflecting on Summer Reading

Ever since I finished my last final exam in early May I've been trying to read as many books as possible. The summer months aren't quite like they were when I was in high school or even undergrad because the first thing you learn in grad school is that the work never really ends. However, I did have a little bit of extra time and have read approximately 19 books between then and now. 

I won't go into an exhaustive review of all of them, but I do want to share three that I think that stood out from the rest (a complete list of all the books I've read this summer and since 2008 can be found here).

Workflow: Beyond Productivity

This book is unlike any other productivity book I've ever read. I'm not even really sure where to start or how I can accurately describe it. It almost reads like what the love child of David Allen (Getting Things Done) and Aristotle would write. It's like a philosophy book in that words and concepts are very carefully defined and then systematically built into a coherent structure and a psychology book that tries to unravel the mysteries of mastery. This book opened my eyes to the very basic nature of what it means to be "productive." At the same time, by breaking it down to the very basics, the book can come across as quite complex. This paradox is probably what made the book so interesting to me as very few writers in this field treat the topic with such careful exposition. 

This is one of those books that I'm going to need to read again in the near future to unravel it even further. You can learn more about it and buy it here.

Upside of Irrationality

A few months ago I watched a TED talk by a fellow named Dan Ariely. At this point, I had never heard of him but I thoroughly enjoyed his talk and shortly thereafter I started seeing his name everywhere. I decided to pick up one of his latest books and give it a read. First, before I get into the meat of the book, I just wanted to share that I'm not 100% sure why Dan's speaking and writing style resonate with me so much -- but they do. I loved his talk not only for the content but for the way he presented it. His writing is very similar. Warm, understated, extremely clear and a touch of humor. 

Ariely is a behavioral economist which falls into the realm of psychology more often than not. His book is about how human beings are incredibly irrational even though most classical economic theory assumes otherwise. While irrational may have a negative connotation in every day use, Ariely shows how our irrationality can be quite positive. This book is chock full with very easy to follow explanations of clever experiments conducted by Ariely and his colleagues. This book is well-supported by academic scholarship yet Ariely's writing does not come across as stilted or difficult to follow in the least.

I highly recommend this book for an eye opening look at how your irrationality isn't as unique as you might think and how it can be a positive force in your life. Buy it from Amazon here.

Ripples from the Zambezi

This book filled me with hope and excitement regarding the future of independent work and entrepreneurship. In a nutshell, it's a description of a method developed by the author to help communities improve economically. While traditional development up to this point was a very top-down approach (meaning the government would create some kind of program in which community members could enroll -- like job training), Ernesto Sirolli completely turned the process around. In fact, while his job was to help local economies, he would never initiate any kind of program on his own. Instead, his theory was that the entrepreneurial spirit and intrinsic motivation of the locals just needed to be supported by somebody who could help them find the resources they need, help cut through red tap, and make connections among related businesses and ideas. Sirolli would come to a community and just start making it known that he was there to help anybody who wanted to start some kind of business. The progress was slow at first, but success started building on success and now the approach has been replicated in numerous communities throughout the world.

I thought the book got a little repetitive near the end but the basic idea resonated with me so much I didn't mind. I think there are huge connections between this book and this kind of economic development and my own interests in independent work, positive organizational psychology, and coworking. I'm not quite sure what the next steps might be but I'm glad to have read this.

Buy it from Amazon here. 

Honorable Mentions

I re-read Ready for Anything, as I tend to do every summer. It's always a good kick in the pants and reminder for what I need to be doing to keep my personal organization system fresh and well-maintained.

Christopher Peterson, ostensibly the third "founding father" of positive psychology and University of Michigan professor died several months ago. The book he completed just prior to his death is called Pursuing the Good Life and is a compilation of 100 articles he wrote for the Psychology Today website about positive psychology. It's humorous, incredibly insightful, and grounded in the best research. 

Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing is a dense book that will inspire you to slow down, turn off the TV, and let your mind wander. For most of us, that's something that we definitely need more of. It's well-researched and clearly written.

What about you? What did you read this summer? I'm always looking for more books to add to my queue and would be happy to add your favorites. Share them in the comments below!

Photo by Chris

The Silent Majority

"Here's why positive psychology will never make as big an impact as it should, Sam. Most people don't want to do the work to improve their life. They don't want to know where their weaknesses are and figure out ways to be better, happier, whatever. Most people aren't like you."


This was said by one of my professors during a dinner conversation a couple weeks ago. My initial reaction was to disagree -- to defend humanity. But, on a certain level, I think he's right.

This isn't the type of article you normally see on a personal development website because it deals with an issue that is completely foreign to the type of person who reads a website like this. You're like me. You're taking time out of your day to actively read articles about personal development, living consciously, etc. You've already made the decision that there is some way you can improve your life and you're taking steps to figure out how to do it.

What about the people who don't read this website or others like it? What about the people who have never picked up a self-help book or strove to better understand some aspect of human psychology? I'm sure a microscopically small minority of these people are already happy and have no need to seek more information. The vast majority of these people, though, could be much happier if they decided to do something about it. For whatever reason they resist doing the work to develop the self-reflection skills to assess what is making them unhappy. They may have a vague sense of being unhappy, but are more comfortable living with that gnawing sensation then really digging into the reason for their malaise.

For some, the resistance to dig deeper is due to an unwillingness to uncover an inconvenient truth about their lives. Maybe the relationship they're in is truly toxic. Maybe the way they've been approaching their work has been nothing but a drain for 25 years. Maybe there is a well of untapped potential that will just serve as a reminder of bad decisions made when they were younger. Whatever the reason, a huge number of people don't have personal development, positive psychology, or conscious living on their day-to-day radar.

How do we reach these people?


Positive psychology has a lot to offer people -- not just people who seek it out but anyone who is at least moderately interested in improving some aspect of their life. But if there is no interest, no motivation, to seek it out then it remains closed off. What caused you to become interested in reading articles like this? Is this just how you've always been? Or was there something that "clicked" in your head that made you realize you had more control over your daily experience than you thought? This isn't a rhetorical question. I think I've always been this way -- whether it's something my parents taught me when I was very young or if it's some kind of inborn trait, I don't know.

It's not as simple as sending a link or sharing a book or talking incessantly about the latest study I heard about. Realizing and accepting that you have more control over your life also requires realizing that you have to give up control. You have to give up a sense of complacentness, of comfortable acceptance of external conditions, of a sense of knowing who you are at a very basic level. Perhaps this is profoundly pessimistic for someone who places so much time and energy in the written word, but, I don't think writing, no matter how eloquent or cogent, is usually the answer. Sure, there are some people who "see the light" after reading a particularly relevant book -- but again, I think that's a minority.


I have two ideas for potential starting points. First, I think mindfulness is the starting point for almost any self-improvement. This may be an article in and of itself, but I don't think any kind of personal development can happen without some base level of mindfulness. However, this doesn't really solve the problem because once again you're left with the question, "How do you get somebody interested in mindfulness?" If someone isn't interested in improving their life through their own action how do you convince them to begin meditating or experimenting with mindfulness?

The second approach probably has a higher chance of success but is both very indirect and time consuming. Very simply, living in such a way that makes yourself an example of the benefits someone can get from learning about personal development or positive psychology may be the best way to convince someone to change their mindset. However, it cannot be accompanied with nagging, hounding, or really any acknowledgement that you're hoping someone will take inspiration from you. If so, you're no longer a beacon of positive living, but instead someone putting on an act to coerce someone to change their own life. It's a delicate balance.

I love helping people who seek out my writing, coaching, and experience but after the jarring conversation with my professor I'm more acutely aware that we are all a minority. Me, you, and anyone else logging onto SamSpurlin.com. We all "get it." How can we help other people "get it" too?

Predictors of Success: Growth Mindset

Our beliefs lead to our behavior. The way we think about the world and the things that happen to us affect the actions we take. Two people can experience the exact same stimulus and react in two totally different ways. Carol Dweck and her associates have developed a line of research to help us better understand the various types of beliefs we can have about ourselves and the world. She has identified a continuum she describes as having a Fixed Mindset or a Growth Mindset.

The easiest way to think about these types of mindsets is to look at them through the lens of failure. When somebody with a Fixed Mindset experiences failure they take it personally. As Dweck says, "Failure has been transformed from an action (I failed) to an identify (I'm a failure)." On the other hand, failure when you have a Growth Mindset is an opportunity to learn. Who do you think experiences the greatest amount of success in the long run?

The way we develop our particular mindsets has a lot to do with the type of praise or encouragement we were given when we were younger. Dweck has found that parents and teachers who praise a child's effort, instead of their accomplishments, help support a Growth Mindset. On the other hand, praising accomplishments or how "smart" a child seems to be can lead to the development of a Fixed Mindset. If you're constantly being praised for being smart and then run up against something difficult that takes effort then your "smartness" can take a hit. On the other hand, being praised for effort can result in a difficult task being seen as an opportunity to increase effort even further.

Effort is a key concept when talking about the difference between Growth and Fixed Mindsets. Being good at things is not the sole worry of someone with a Fixed Mindset. Instead, it's important to be good at things while also not having to spend a lot of effort. It's important to be perfect. As a result, most people with a Fixed Mindset stay firmly entrenched in what they know and what they already do well. They do not expand the boundaries of their abilities or interests because it would be a threat to their identity as a "smart" person.

As you can imagine, the Growth Mindset approach is largely the opposite. Increasing difficulty is not a signal to stop, but a signal that you're heading in the right direction. A Growth Mindset uses difficulty and setback as guideposts for where effort should be spent. In one study, children who tested as having more of a Growth Mindset had to be wrestled away from difficult puzzles and wanted information about where they could get more puzzles like the ones they were having trouble with so they could practice at home. Children with a fixed mindset couldn't get away from the puzzles fast enough. When faced with the opportunity to either complete a puzzle they had already completed successfully once, or to try a slightly harder puzzle, Fixed Mindset children were content to complete the same puzzle again.

Luckily, mindset, like any belief, can be changed. Your predilection for having a Growth or Fixed Mindset may be originally genetically set, but it appears to be able to be changed over time. An important first step is simply learning about Growth and Fixed Mindsets. Becoming aware of the difference and thinking about your own beliefs can set you in the direction of changing them to a more conducive approach. Another avenue to changing mindsets is to learn about the plasticity of the brain. Dweck has used this concept to develop a workshop and software program for adolescents that helps them learn about how the brain is like a muscle. Using your brain more strengthens it just like going to the gym and lifting weights strengthens muscles. This can help eliminate the belief that anything that doesn't come naturally or immediately is not possible.

I think one of the most interesting implications of this research into mindset has to do with happiness and success. There are lots of people with Fixed Mindsets who are wildly successful. Talent is completely separate from mindset and many people have an absurd amount of talent. There are also people with Growth Mindsets who are absurdly successful. What's interesting is that those successful people with a Fixed Mindset have expended all the time and effort into being successful because they are striving for some kind of external reward. Whether it be prestige, money, power -- a Fixed Mindset is not satisfied until it attains those. Somebody who is equally successful but has a Growth Mindset may reach the same level of success but it is a byproduct of the enthusiasm for what they do. They tend to be happier than those who have fixated on external proof of success (I wonder if obsessive/harmonious passion is related to Fixed/Growth Mindset at all?).

Looking at the way you deal with failure and success can help you  figure out what kind of mindset you have. If you're unhappy with your personal development it's possible you've been operating under a Fixed Mindset. If you can shift that to a more Growth-oriented mindset you're likely to find greater success and be happier in the process.

Carol Dweck's book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, is a great place to learn more about this idea and get more ideas about how you can improve your own mindset.


What Is Positive Psychology

I recently decided to wipe the slate and start my blog from scratch. However, there are some articles from my past that I'd like to update and reintroduce to the blog. For the next several weeks, I'll be sharing some of these articles. If you've been following my writing since the beginning of The Simpler Life, you may recognize some of them. More than likely, however, this will be brand new content to you.

Inevitably the first question I’m asked any time I tell someone I’m in a graduate program in positive psychology is, “What’s positive psychology?” It’s a logical question that I’m going to do my best to answer in this short article. Obviously, explaining any academic discipline in 1000 words or less is a tall order, but I’ll try to lay out the basics.


Traditionally, the focus of psychology has been on diagnosing and “fixing” mental disorders. Schizophrenia, phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder and other mental sicknesses are usually what psychologists are looking to diagnose and correct. This is obviously very important work that strives to improve the quality of life for many, many sick people. However, positive psychology focuses on a different aspect of human behavior.

Instead of taking people who are in the negative range of the mental well-being continuum and trying to elevate them back up to neutral, positive psychologists are interested in studying how to take people who are perfectly healthy and elevating them to an even higher level of well-being. Instead of going from −7 to −1, the aim is going from 0 to +8. This is a fairly new, and yet, ancient aim. Philosophers such as Aristotle, Socrates and Epictetus all asked the same question that positive psychologists ask, “What does it mean to live a good life?”


Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi are generally considered the “founding fathers” of positive psychology and each head up graduate programs at their respective universities (Seligman at University of Pennsylvania and Csikszentmihalyi at Claremont Graduate University). Obviously, it’s not that well-being and the other aspects of positive psychology weren’t being investigated prior to Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, but they led the charge in creating a specific subset of psychology focused on the positive approach.


The topics positive psychologists are interested in are incredibly broad. A good place to start is with the research interests of the two most well known positive psychologists, Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi.


Seligman first did work on learned helplessness. This is the idea that animals, and people, can learn to become helpless when they are placed in a situation in which they have no control. This helplessness can then be transferred to a completely different situation that is actually under their control. Because of the helplessness that was learned in the first situation, most animals then don’t even try to escape in the new situation. If you think you’re helpless, what’s the point of even trying?

However, Seligman noticed that there was always a minority of test subjects that were resistant to learned helplessness. These subjects were very resilient and led him to ask, why don’t they become helpless when most of the other test subjects do? Thus, his research into "learned optimism," the antithesis to learned helplessness, was born.


Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi is best known for his work on the concept of flow. Flow is the state of mind you enter when you’re working on something that challenges your abilities, provides direct feedback on your success, and is autotelic (you do it just for the sake of doing it). Any time you have lost track of the time because you were completely engrossed in a project or sporting event is probably an example of being in the flow state. Why can some people enter this state with nearly everything they do and others seem to never experience flow? How can work and school be structured to become conducive to flow? Can entering the flow state be taught and practiced?


These are only two of the many topics that positive psychologists cover. Other topics include motivation, mentoring, effective leadership, organizational dynamics, happiness, emotions, longevity, health, decision making, character, and developing passion. As you can see, positive psychology is truly the science of studying what is right with people and how to live a better life.

Over the next several weeks I will be unveiling a series of articles that break down some of the more important topics, issues, and introduce the most important people of positive psychology.


Is Your Passion Making You Unhappy

"Follow your passion," they say. It's one of those pieces of advice that sounds good. Obviously, nobody is actually going to tell you to do something you hate, right? Don't worry -- I'm not here to burst that bubble with some sort of counter-intuitive psychology research. Instead, I'm here to ask if you're approaching your passions in the right way. Robert Vallerand and his associates published a paper in 2007 that looks at the Dual Model of Passion and found some interesting results. The Dual Model of Passion essentially says there are two types of passion, harmonious passion and obsessive passion. As you might expect, people with harmonious passion seem to have better outcomes than those with obsessive passion. 

Passion, in general, is defined as a strong inclination toward an activity that you like (or love), find to be important, in which you spend time and energy, and which comes to be internalized as part of your identity. If you're passionate about playing guitar you're likely to define yourself as a "guitarist." Passionate video game players are "gamers" and people who feel passionately about dancing think of themselves as "dancers." That's what it means to internalize something as part of your identity. Passion is fine, as long as it develops in a healthy way.

Obsessive passion results from what is called a "controlled internalization of the activity." Basically, you tie social acceptance ("I do this because other people like me more when I do it") or self-esteem ("I'm a better person when I do this") to the activity. What develops is an unhealthy obsession to execute the activity even at the expense of your social relationships or work commitments. The real kicker, however, is that you probably won't even feel very good while you're partaking in your passion if you have an obsessive orientation to it. You'll likely feel guilty while you're doing it ("I shouldn't be doing this right now") and have trouble engaging with the activity (or entering flow).

Harmonious passion, on the other hand, is marked by "autonomous internalization" of the activity into your identity. There are no contingencies on doing the activity and you're free to choose whether or not to do it. The activity still occupies a significant amount of time but it does not overpower your identity. The real bonus is that if you have a harmonious passion approach you're likely to feel happier when you're doing the activity and be more likely to become fully immersed in the activity.

Anders Ericsson's 10,000-hours-of-practice-makes-an-expert (deliberate practice, remember) research is pretty much accepted nowadays thanks to Malcolm Gladwell. To practice something so consistently, especially considering deliberate practice is rarely fun in itself, obviously requires passion. According to this paper, it looks like both obsessive and harmonious passion can result in performance attainment (being a master guitar player, artist, or athlete, for example). Both types of passion positively correlate with deliberate practice and that is the most important factor in reaching goals. However, the path from passion to actually achieving a concrete goal is much more direct with harmonious passion.

 If you care about something deeply, strive for harmonious passion. If you have this type of passion you focus almost exclusively on mastery goals (getting good at the activity itself -- not the results of being good at the activity). When you care about mastery goals, you focus your attention and time on activities that lead to performance improvement. For example, you practice guitar because you love playing the guitar and not because you want to be a rich rock star. Mastery goals lead to deliberate practice which eventually allows performance attainment to happen. As a nice added bonus, your subjective well-being (happiness) is likely to be high and you're likely to experience flow.

On the other hand, you can care deeply about something and have an obsessive passion toward it. In this case the path to your ultimate goal is not so straightforward. You pursue a variety of goals including mastery (like people with harmonious passion) but you also care about not appearing less capable as compared to other people (performance-avoidance goal). Your focus on mastery goals will help you in your quest for performance attainment but because you're also worried about not appearing less capable than the people around you, you progress more slowly in your development as an expert. You may eventually reach whatever your ultimate goal is, but it'll likely take you longer, you won't be very happy while you do it and you won't have fully enjoyed yourself in the process of becoming an expert.  

Think about the things you're passionate about. How do you feel when you can't partake in them? Do you feel lost and irritable or are you able to move on with your day and not let it bother you too much? Do you enjoy the time you spend in your passion or do you feel guilty when you're doing it because you should be doing something else? The sign of a healthy passion is something you love to do for the sake of doing it, not because you think it will provide the path to some kind of external goal later on.  

If you're concerned that your passion is perhaps entering the obsessive realm (or already has), it's worth thinking about how you can align it to be more harmonious with your life. Not only will you enjoy the time you spend doing it more, you're likely to reach your end goal of mastery quicker. A win-win situation if there ever was one.

Do you have any stories about a passion that ended up becoming obsessive and the effect it had on your life? Have you successfully navigated the path between obsessive and harmonious passion? I'd love to hear about your experiences in the comments below.


Vallerand, R. J., Salvy, S.-J., Mageau, G. A., Elliot, A. J., Denis, P. L., Grouzet, F. M. E. and Blanchard, C. (2007), On the Role of Passion in Performance. Journal of Personality, 75: 505–534. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2007.00447.x


Predictors of Success: Grit

Over the past couple of months I've become very interested in what factors predict success. Traditionally, and according to most public schools today, IQ is the primary predictor of success. If you have a high IQ you should be set up for success later in life, right? It doesn't take too much digging to find a boat load of anecdotal and empirical evidence to refute that, though. How many intellectually powerful people do you know that haven't really achieved any measure of success? Most of us have that one cousin that could do differential calculus in his sleep but fills his days with Cheetos and pot instead of solving complex problems for NASA. There's definitely more to success than being smart. Considering it appears that a large part of our IQ is genetic, the fact that it's not the primary predictor of success should make you pretty happy (unless you're a Cheeto eating pot head).

One of the predictors of success I was introduced to this year is "grit." Grit was developed by a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania named Angela Duckworth. She defined it as "perseverance and passion toward long-term goals." She developed a scale to measure this trait and has administered it to some interesting groups of people with fascinating results. For example, she gave incoming West Point freshmen her grit scale and then observed which of them made it through Beast Barracks (the mentally and physically exhausting summer training before freshman year begins). Obviously, West Point has a lot riding on selecting students that they think will do well in the unique military environment the school provides. Selecting students that end up dropping out of school because they can't handle the environment is a serious pain for the school. Now, back to Duckworth and her grit scale. Those students who scored high on her grit scale before Beast Barracks ended up being much more likely to not drop out during or immediately after the experience. Those who scored low on the scale were much more likely to bow out in the middle of that first summer. The most interesting aspect of this study, however, was that Duckworth's grit scale predicted success much more than any of the tests West Point administers. More than SAT score, more than any IQ test, and more than any proprietary test they've developed.

Interesting, eh? However, I understand you probably aren't going to be doing anything as strenuous as Beast Barracks any time soon. The grit scale has also been given to Ivy League undergraduates and high level spelling bee contestants. In both cases, the grit scale predicted success more than anything else. In the case of the Ivy League undergraduates, scoring high on the grit scale correlated with higher GPAs when they graduated than SAT scores and for the spelling bee contestants scoring high on the grit scale resulted in greater success than even a test of their verbal intelligence. Having a high level of perseverance and passion for long term goals seems to result in some pretty excellent results.

The next obvious question, then, is how do you develop grit? From my research experience, it doesn't look like there has been a lot of scientifically rigorous studies about how to systematically develop grit in a specific population. Logically, however, it seems like having an opportunity to experience failure and then bounce back from it is a good way to learn how to stick to a long-term goal. In fact, the New York Times recently published an article about a prestigious New York private school that has made the development of character strengths like grit a cornerstone of their philosophy. To encourage this, teachers have been encouraged to cut back on the amount of homework they assign and to provide students more experiential learning opportunities with legitimate chances of failure. This can be seriously uncomfortable for highly intelligent kids (and their parents) who are used to flying through homework assignments and dominating standardized tests. More work needs to be done on specific interventions and programs that directly develop grit, but this seems to be a step in the right direction.

Everyday life, however, doesn't necessarily promote the development of grit. One of the major barriers to developing this character strength is information overload. Our attention is under unprecedented siege right now. Considering it is truly our most valuable resource, it's in high demand by advertisers, entertainment outlets, and, hopefully, ourselves. The problem with this information overload is that it's incredibly difficult to keep our attention fixated on one task or project for very long. Nowadays, when things start to get difficult there is always a plethora of other options and activities we can undertake. Particularly in an economy centered on "knowledge work" it is incredibly easy to keep jumping from one project to another. I'm sure you're familiar with the rush of motivation and excitement that accompanies starting something new. While super helpful for getting new projects off the ground, that response isn't very helpful for developing grit.

Overall, grit is a relatively newly defined construct that is still in its formative years. More work needs to be done on learning how to measure it accurately, differentiating it from perseverance, and developing empirically validated ways to nurture it in various populations. If the early research is any marker, though, it appears to be an exciting way to predict success. If future research shows that grit is more a matter of learning and development instead of genetically set, schools, other youth institutions, and organizations committed to developing employees must take note. 

For now, I'll keep my nose to the grind stone and keep working on the projects that matter most to me even when things go poorly. With a name like "grit" the name itself precludes any expectation for it to be a smooth ride in development.


Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of personality and social psychology92(6), 1087-101.


Developing an Autotelic Personality, or, How to Enjoy Everything

Imagine deriving the utmost enjoyment and pleasure out of nearly every aspect of your life.  Listening to music, doing dishes, talking to a friend, cooking a meal, or doing errands--what if you looked forward to all of these activities equally? In Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, he describes a type of person with an "autotelic" personality.  According to Csikszentmihalyi, "The term "autotelic" derives from two Greek words, auto, meaning self, and telos meaning goal.  It refers to a self-contained activity, one that is done not with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward." 

Engaging in autotelic activities is what many people describe as "flow."  Think back to a time you were doing something you loved and really got wrapped up in the project.  You probably lost sense of time and you felt challenged, yet capable, of handling whatever you faced.  This is the making of an autotelic experience and the more of these occurrences we can have, the greater enjoyment we can get out of life.


Some activities are conducive to entering this flow state.  For example, athletes and surgeons both report high levels of autotelic experiences while they partake in their professions.  The true test of an autotelic personality, however, is being able to enter that state of flow even while doing things that many people consider boring.  A person with an autotelic personality can take something as mundane as mowing the lawn and turn it into an opportunity for growth.  Therefore, the argument that developing an autotelic personality will directly impact your quality of life is quite easy to make.  Deriving true enjoyment out of every aspect of is the key to separating the quality of our lives from external (and therefore uncontrollable) forces.

Becoming somebody with an autotelic personality is not something that can be done overnight.  It must be actively practiced until it becomes part of your personality.  The rules are very simple and can be broken down as follows:

  1. Setting goals: To experience flow you have to have clear goals to strive for.  This includes massive lifelong goals to something as small as figuring out what to do this afternoon.  An autotelic personality can make these decisions with a minimum of extra effort which allows her to focus energy on attaining that goal.
  2. Becoming immersed in the activity: An autotelic personality will give all of his or her attention directly to the task at hand.  Being in control of your own attention is one of the most powerful skills a person can develop.  A wandering or constantly distracted mind is a the mercy of every passing stimulus and therefore attention is spread and diluted.
  3. Learning to enjoy immediate experience: Our bodies and minds have incredible capabilities of enjoyment.  Gaining control of your mind opens an individual to experience almost anything and derive joy.  Every taste, smell, sound, thought, and observation can be the anchor of immediate enjoyment if we take the time, focus, and effort to experience it.

We all have amazing capabilities to control our level of enjoyment in everything we do.  Practicing the steps to developing an autotelic personality is a very concrete way to improve the quality of your own life. As Csikszentmihalyi writes, "Only direct control of experience, the ability to derive moment-by-moment enjoyment from everything we do, can overcome the obstacles to fulfillment." 

What can you do today to derive enjoyment in your life? 

Want to learn more about flow? Robert Wall of Untitled Minimalism interviewed me for his podcast and we spent most of the time talking about flow. Check it out here.

The Many Paths to Happiness

How do you define happiness? It's definitely something we think we understand but is very difficult to define.


Some positive psychologists don't even like to use happiness as a measurement and replace it with well-being, life satisfaction, or some other measure that is supposedly more specific or easier to measure. Regardless of whether you're going to use "happiness" as a topic of research, I think it's important to have a good understanding of what it actually means. Knowing what it is means we have a better chance of finding it for ourselves.

To that end, there's three ways I encourage you to think about your happiness -- through meaning, through pleasure, and through engagement. Christopher Peterson, Nansook Park, and Martin Seligman developed a questionnaire that aims to measure the various paths that people take to happiness (see the paper here).


One way many people find happiness is through aligning their life with some higher purpose or meaning. Religion fits that description for some people. For others, it's the pursuit of a social ideal or the support of some type of organization. People who feel highly connected to their work and view it as a calling are likely to score highly in this subscale. Aristotle's concept of eudaimonia, or being true to one's inner self, is a concept that aligns closely with a life of meaning.

If you identify highly with this path to happiness, you probably feel like your life serves some kind of higher purpose. Your choices tend to take into account other people and how they will be hurt or benefit from your actions. You're likely to believe that your life has a lasting meaning and what you do matters to society.


Hedonic pleasure, or the accumulation of positive feelings, is another path on the route to happiness. This is the philosophy that was supported by people like Epictetus, Aristuppus and later used as the philosophical core for utilitarianism (the greatest good for the greatest number of people). A life of pleasure is concerned with the summation of all positive and negative events in an individual's life. Many people initially think of pleasure when trying to articulate happiness.

If you score highly in a life of pleasure, you enjoy doing things that excite your senses. You seek out euphoric activities and anything that will be physically pleasurable. You'd be very likely to agree with the statement, "Life is too short to postpone the pleasures it can provide."


Lastly, another path to happiness is spending time on activities that produce a sense of engagement, or flow. Flow is the timeless state that many people slip into when they're actively engaged in an activity that requires so much involvement and concentration that they lose self-consciousness and become completely immersed in an activity. Many athletes describe it as "being in the zone," but a life of engagement is available to anyone doing almost any activity.

If you identify most closely with a life of engagement, you'd agree with the statement that while you're working or playing you're very often unaware of time. You'd be likely to seek out situations that challenge your skills and abilities and you often lose yourself in the day to day activities of living.


As you were reading the descriptions of the three different paths to happiness, I'm guessing you had a gut reaction as to which one was "right." At least, one may seem "more right" than the others. However, the three researchers who developed this scale discovered that people who scored highly in all three subscales were also the people who scored highest in other life satisfaction scales. Evidently, utilizing only one path to happiness is not as effective as cultivating all three paths to as great extent as possible.

When I completed the survey for a class that I'm taking, I wasn't terribly surprised by my results. I scored highest in meaning, followed by engagement, with pleasure bringing up the rear. All three of my scores weren't as high as I'd like them to be, but the order in which they appeared made sense to me. Even though I'm non-religious, I do believe that the work I do has meaning to the world and that I try to be in the flow state as possible. However, it's apparent to me that I'm forgoing some of the benefits of a life of pleasure and therefore giving up a completely viable path to happiness. There are things I can do, such as learning how to savor experiences, that gets in touch with what it means to live a pleasurable life.

If you read the paper and filled out the scale (which is kind of confusing, but I can't seem to find an interactive version of it anywhere online), did your scores surprise you? Even if you didn't fill out the scale, what do you think your scores would have shown you? What path to happiness are you currently neglecting and what can you do about it?

A good starting point for your personal development is identifying which path toward happiness you're neglecting and to figure out ways to make it a more prevalent part of your life. Living a meaningful life, finding ways to be engaged, and seeking out pleasurable experiences are all equally valid ways to increase your own happiness.

Edit -- The lovely Lori emailed me to say that she found a resource for taking this test, and others, online. If you click this link and scroll to the bottom you'll find the "Approaches to Happiness Questionnaire," which is the one I'm referencing in this article. Thanks Lori!

Introduction to Flow

I’d like you to take a couple minutes and visualize a time where you “lost yourself” in whatever you were doing. If you’re an athlete, maybe it was during the last game or match you played? Perhaps you sat down to work on a project you really enjoy and the next thing you knew three hours had passed. During this time of intense engagement you probably felt like your skills were being used to their upmost capabilities and the task wasn’t too difficult as to frustrate you or too easy as to bore you. You probably don’t reach this state when you’re working on math problems that are above your ability to understand or destroying your little brother in a tennis match.


When you’re able to enter this state of optimal experience you generally feel really good about yourself afterward. You feel like the activity was worthwhile to have done even if it was physically uncomfortable or difficult during it. Looking at a marathon runner’s face would generally make you think that they don’t feel particularly well but most of them will tell you afterward that they were glad they did it. Everything I’ve described here falls under one heading that positive psychologists have spent a lot of time studying and trying to understand.

I just described the “flow” state.

I know I mentioned flow in the introduction to this series but didn’t go into too much detail. In this article I’m going to dive in a little bit deeper to what this psychological state is.


The name that is usually attributed to the study of flow is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Dr. Csikszentmihalyi began his research into flow many years ago when he noticed that many artists engrossed in their work would occasionally ignore personal concerns and needs like food or the bathroom. What was going on in their minds and why did working on their art seem to take precedence over everything else? Thus marked Czikszentmihalyi’s research into what he eventually came to call flow.

First of all, the name flow was given to this psychological state of extreme involvement because many of the people Csikszentmihalyi interviewed kept describing it as if they were caught up in a river or a current of water. They didn’t have to exert much energy and yet they were swept along.

As I described at the beginning, the flow state is characterized by losing track of time, being fully engaged with whatever you’re doing, and feeling like your skills and abilities are being used to their greatest ability. Because the experience seems to be so positive, it is often also described as “optimal experience.” As you can imagine, this is a highly enjoyable state to be in and being able to enter it usually means good things for the quality of your work and the quality of your life.


I have a soft spot for Csikszentmihalyi’s work on flow because his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience is what turned me on to the idea of positive psychology. Until I read his book I didn’t realize that a.) positive psychology existed and b.) that it holds many important answers for some of the world’s toughest questions. The thing that most excited me about flow is that entering and promoting it can be practiced and taught.

Think about that for a minute.

That feeling you get when you’re at your very best and doing something that you love can be practiced to the point where you can enter that state doing nearly anything. People who report entering flow regularly also tend to be happier and have higher life satisfaction. The thought of feeling like I do when I’m writing an article or playing a game of hockey all the time is exciting and powerful. I want to learn how to do that and how to teach others to do that as well.

Besides the obvious implications for living a happier and better life, think about the other myriad of applications where flow could be vital.


  1. School: Think for a moment what education might be like if most of the students spent most of their time in the flow state. Think about what teaching would be like if teachers were able to enter the flow state during their lessons and planning periods more easily. A student who is fully engaged in their work is going to learn more than the disengaged student. The teacher that is fully focused on the task at hand will be more effective than his colleague who is going through the motions. How can flow be promoted in schools?

  2. Work: Imagine going into a job every day that allowed you to use your skills and abilities to their fullest extent. Going into a job where you could lose yourself in the work will not be a drain on your psyche like many jobs tend to be. You’ll be more productive and be more invested in the well-being of the company. How can managers promote flow among their workers? How can the work environment be changed to increase flow?

  3. Relationships: Ideally, spending time with your partner and closest friends should be an exercise in flow. Deep conversations and engaging experiences with the people you care about are what strong relationships are built of. If you know how to structure your relationships so that they are conducive to flow I’ll bet they will become more positive overall.

The potential benefit of knowing about flow and being able to enter it doing nearly anything is profound. I’m continuously working toward the point where I can feel just as engaged doing laundry, going for a run, or talking to a close friend as I do during my own periods of flow (usually writing). An engaged life is a conscious life.

Flow is our ticket to that reality.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

Welcome to the first book review written and published on SamSpurlin.com. From time to time I'm going to write out some of my thoughts and observations on the books I've been reading. I'll add these reviews to the normal twice a week posting schedule that I stick to.

Positive psychology is a field that is putting out an astonishing number of new books every year. The discipline sits at an interesting cross section of science and personal development which seems to make it a very popular draw when it comes to book sales. As a blogger and coach, I’m interested in books that are truly helpful and relevant. As a graduate student, I’m interested in books supported with sound science. I will try to balance these two forces with the book reviews I write at SamSpurlin.com, just like the balance positive psychologists face when writing their books.

The book that carries the distinguished honor of being the first to fall under my gaze on this website isMindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck.

Mindset looks at the research Dweck has done over the past 20 years about how people see the world. She’s discovered that the way we view the world is not a minor personality quirk. It doesn’t change on a whim or only affect small areas of our life. Indeed, our mindset creates our whole mental environment and affects how we react to setbacks, challenges, opportunities, and learning.

For example, some people actively seek out difficult things in order to improve themselves. Other people will do anything and everything they can to avoid challenges. Our mindset also affects how we approach learning, the way we manage people, and how we raise our children. Considering how vastly our mindsets affect our lives, it makes sense to try to have the best one possible. But what does it mean to have a "good" or "positive" mindset?


Dweck has identified two different mindsets that characterize people; fixed and growth mindsets. People who operate under the fixed mindset believe that their talents and abilities are unchanging. They were born with a specific level of talent and nothing they do can change that. That doesn’t mean these people are under performing or deficient in intelligence. In fact many, many high performing people people operate under this mindset. However, the problem lies in the fact that people who have a fixed mindset believe they have to constantly prove their ability. Everything is a potential threat to their identity because failure is not an option. Failure means they aren’t good enough or don’t have the skills. Obviously, many people who operate with a fixed mindset begin to experience serious problems when life doesn’t go their way 100% of the time.

The other mindset described by Dweck is what she calls the growth mindset. People with the growth mindset believe that their talents and abilities are developed over time. These people are constantly looking for ways to improve themselves and develop their abilities. They view challenges and failure as an opportunity for growth and learning. Dweck has determined that happy and successful people are overwhelmingly more likely to have the growth mindset. Most great CEOs, teachers, and athletes use a growth mindset.


All of this information is truly interesting, but it would be fairly useless if our mindset was unable to change (and indeed, that would be a truly fixed mindset way to look at it!). As you would imagine, Dweck argues that it’s possible to change your mindset from fixed to growth. Much of her work has been in developing workshops and interventions that help people develop the growth mindset.

It’s not necessarily an easy process but by gradually changing the way we think about ourselves and the world we can learn how to operate under a more growth based mindset. I won’t go into the details here, as I don’t think I could do the topic justice in the small scope of a review. However, I will tell you that Dweck says just learning about the growth mindset and the benefits it has is a great first step to developing it.

This book is an excellent combination of theoretical and practical advice that makes it worth your time. Operating under a growth mindset is very similar to the idea of living consciously that I’ve been writing about for a long time (see Regaining Consciousness and Exploring Consciousness). This book is especially worth your time if you suspect that you might be more toward the fixed end of the continuum.

The growth mindset is a vital component to living a conscious life and this book will show you how to make it happen.


What The Future Holds

I’ve been alluding to some big “life change” for several weeks and I know you’re all on the edge of your seats, biting your lips with anticipation, as you wait for the big announcement. Sadly, this is the type of life change that is going to affect me more than it’s going to affect you. I don’t have a big giveaway planned or any huge project about to hit the shelves. What I’ve been meaning to announce for a while, and is now official, is that I will be attending graduate school in the fall to earn a master’s degree in Positive Developmental Psychology.

In August (most likely) I’ll be moving from my apartment in the northern suburbs of Detroit to Southern California’s Claremont Graduate University. CGU is only one of two programs in the United States that offers an advanced degree (and the only one to offer a doctorate) in positive psychology.


Besides the fact that they are one of two universities that offered the program I’m interested in, I have some other reasons for attending CGU:

  1. Comfort zone destruction: I grew up in Michigan, went to college in northwest Ohio and obviously feel very comfortable in a midwestern environment. I’ve traveled a little bit to places like Ireland, Hungary, and various locales in the U.S., but not for very long. I’ve never lived further than two hours from my childhood home. Moving across the country will be a brand new experience for me — and one I think will cause me to grow as a person.
  2. The faculty: One of the most life changing books I’ve ever read is Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. This book opened my eyes to the discipline of positive psychology and the untapped power that lies beneath the surface in all of us. Dr. Csikszentmihalyi is a faculty member at CGU and will be teaching several of the classes I’ll be taking during my time in the program. The opportunity to study with and learn from one of the founding fathers of positive psychology is an incredible opportunity that I can’t pass up.


Positive psychology is a fairly new academic discipline that focuses on the characteristics, habits, and traits of human flourishing. Topics like motivation, optimal experience, flow, happiness, resilience, and perseverance all fall under the umbrella of positive psychology. More specifically, my program of positive developmental psychology focuses on the positive aspects of human development and how those characteristics can be encouraged and nurtured.

As far as why I’m going to be studying positive psychology, I have you to thank. I started this blog almost a year and a half ago to fill the void of not having a full-time job. I decided to write about topics that interested me. That turned out to be how to live a simpler, more meaningful and more conscious life. I didn’t realize when I first started that there was an actual academic discipline that was interested in these same phenomenon. As I continued to write and grow this blog positive psychology slowly made its way into my consciousness. Finally, I decided that the passion I awakened by running The Simpler Life was something that I should pursue beyond my amateur writings here. I want to take my interest in helping people live more meaningful lives to a professional level. I want to contribute to the research that is being done to improve the lives of people across the world.

It seems like the ultimate goal of many bloggers is to go “professional”. For most, that means making enough money from their blog to live their life. It’s an admirable goal but one I don’t think I’ll ever meet. However, I see myself as stepping on to the scene of professional blogging in a different way. Instead of providing me with an income, my blog has provided me with an outlet to explore and develop my passion. Now, that passion and interest I developed by creating The Simpler Life is going to be fostered into a new environment, a graduate degree and hopefully a career helping people live better lives.


All in all, not too much. I don’t leave for California until August so until then I’ll have a lot of time to create as much content for the site as possible. Obviously, once I start classes my free time will be significantly curtailed. At that time I may have to cut back my posting schedule, but I won’t be closing the doors on The Simpler Life. In fact, I have a feeling that I’m going to have more ideas and “stuff” to write about than ever once I start spending my days learning and talking about positive psychology with like minded people.

Over time this blog will probably subtly shift focus from simplicity towards more specific issues of positive psychology. I still think simplicity has a role in a meaningful life, so I’ll never truly leave that topic behind. I just know that positive psychology is a broad and vast topic that will never be exhausted by my writing efforts here. My writing may take a more scientific bent over the next couple years but the focus will always be on applying those scientific principles to actual lives. I will always continue to write about my own experiences and experiments in conscious living.


Really, the purpose of this article is to thank you guys for helping me clarify my life path. Without the readers that have made The Simpler Life a success, I doubt I would have stuck with it long enough to realize this is where my passion is. Because of you I will be studying a topic that I have uncovered a true love and desire to learn more about. You guys are the reason I’ve become a “professional” blogger. Thanks for always being there. I hope my experiences at CGU will serve as fodder for creating excellent content for you guys in the future. It’s definitely the least I could do.