“‘The important thing about imagination is that it gives you optimism,’ said Martin Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the director of the Positive Psychology Center there.
His work is dedicated to studying human agency, which is predicated on efficacy, optimism and imagination. …
The hours spent fantasizing and daydreaming about future plans are valuable, Dr. Seligman said. They allow people to escape routine, and cultivate hope and resilience. …
‘Imagining the future — we call this skill prospection — and prospection is subserved by a set of brain circuits that juxtapose time and space and get you imagining things well and beyond the here and now,’ Dr. Seligman said. ‘The essence of resilience about the future is: How good a prospector are you?’
And that’s the case regardless of whether one’s imaginings of the future are over-the-top and unbelievable, or seemingly mundane. …
…Dr. April Toure, a psychiatrist who specializes in working with children and adolescents at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn [said] ‘Even though it’s not considered a core symptom of depression, the absence of hope is a common symptom.’ … Future thinking, or “the imagination and belief that something better is coming,” is crucial to getting through hard times.Tariro Mzezewa, “Go Ahead. Fantasize.” NY Times (January 16, 2021)
Some potentially useful skills and abilities of resilience.
I’ve been studying resilience over the past few months, and a few concepts with have been useful to me recently.
Putting It In Perspective
Seeing the bigger picture, and paying attention to those who have it worse than us, can help make our problems seem relatively minor.
For example, if you or your loved ones aren’t among the most vulnerable, and your priorities right now are non-life threatening, nor about serious economic hardship, it could be possible that they’re first-world problems. Trying to stick too stubbornly to your plans, being upset and inflexible about disruptions, and prioritizing personal gains or achievement goals might be over-investing in relatively minor concerns (over which you probably have limited control anyway).
It’s important for everyone to work together to flatten the curve of COVID-19. Personally, I’m relieved that employers, businesses, and organizations are temporarily closing to mitigate the spread of the pandemic. (This is a great example of society leading when government is flailing.) It’s a time for cooperation and making sacrifices for the vulnerable—as well as their caretakers and all health care workers.
Recognizing when to be optimistic, and what we can control.
When to use optimism
Everyday, we’re evaluating risks and making decisions.
I love optimism, optimists, and being optimistic whenever possible. Still, I recognize the limits of optimism. When grave consequences are at stake, be wary of being too optimistic. (Trump’s bluster and uninformed overconfidence are so disrespectful of people’s intelligence and the gravity of COVID-19.) If you’re making a decision that could impact health—yours or society’s as whole—err on the side of caution.
On the other hand, if you’re making a decision with lower consequences, choose optimism. For example, maybe you want to check in on an elderly neighbor but you’re worried about social awkwardness. In the best case scenario, it’s welcome and helpful, and you both feel good. In the worst case, it’ll be awkward, not that big a deal.
What we can control
As Karen Reivich, PhD and Andrew Shatté, PhD, define it in “The Resilience Factor,” being optimistic is to believe we control the direction of our lives.
There is a lot we can’t control right now—travel restrictions, closures of businesses and schools, and diverted plans.
So what can we control?
We can be creative in fostering connection despite the disruptions. For example, sharing photos of families instead of photos of empty shelves and commiseration memes (H/T artist Risa Puno).
We can try to use time at home productively, such as brainstorming ways to generate income. [Artists can work on applications, update websites and CVs, and improve art storage and inventory records. For example, I recently make boxes for art that I’ve been meaning to pack.]
Or, we can choose to see the restrictions on movement as a chance to rest, reflect, and practice self-care (such as using yoga instructional videos on YouTube instead of going to the gym), or doubling down on our support of neighbors and our communities.
For Reivich and Shatté, reaching out is both a skill of resilience as well as a use of resilience. One definition they offer is to enhance the positive aspects of life.
We are in an unprecedented time, when everyday brings scary news, anxiety is high, and everyone is coping with uncertainty. This is a recipe for poor mental health. Balance the negative with positive: connection, joy, humor, generosity. I love the videos of Italians singing from balconies, and Iranian doctors dancing. These are much-needed reminders of the human spirit and resilience.
On optimism, how we respond to setbacks, and contacting elected officials.
Kathryn Schulz’ “What Calling Congress Achieves,” (New Yorker, March 3, 2017) is an interesting, timely look at contacting representatives.
Some congressional staffers have said that calls are more effective than mail. Schulz argues otherwise:
Contrary to popular opinion, … written communications are an effective way of communicating with Congress…. “Everything is read, every call and voice mail is listened to,” Isaiah Akin, the deputy legislative director for Oregon’s Senator Ron Wyden, told me.
…According to a 2015 [Congressional Management Foundation] survey of almost two hundred senior congressional staffers, when it comes to influencing a lawmaker’s opinion, personalized e-mails, personalized letters, and editorials in local newspapers all beat out the telephone.
Im the same article, Schulz framed sustaining resistance and taking action without guaranteed results.
The deluge of constituent pressure, by contrast, is a viable long-term strategy, but only if it is a long-term strategy—that is, only if those doing it choose to sustain it. That would mean persevering in the face of both short-term defeats and the potentially energy-sapping influence of time itself.
Such perseverance is by no means impossible; here, too, political causality is complex. Setbacks can as easily stoke as sap, movements may grow as well as wither, and every critical mass has, of necessity, been built from a subcritical one. Moreover, and luckily for democracy, none of us requires a guaranteed outcome in order to act. We all do plenty of things without knowing if or when or how or how much they will work: we say prayers, take multivitamins, give money to someone on Second Avenue who looks like she needs it. So, too, with calling and e-mailing and writing and showing up in congressional offices: it would be good to know that these actions will succeed, but it suffices to know that they could.
How we respond to setbacks is what distinguishes optimists, according to positive psychologist Martin Seligman. A few drawings in my Positive Signs series are about Seligman’s “explanatory style” concept.
What this means, to me, is this: This political regression is not permanent. Take a long view—we’re at a moment in time in a long tradition of resistance. It’s our turn to continue fighting a hard-won, oft-defended march towards full equality and enfranchisement. This political chaos is not pervasive. DJT, his administration, and his white nationalist supporters are anomalies. They can continue to repeat their lies until they’re blue in the face, but most aren’t buying it. We have to continue to see the good in people—other Americans, our legislators who are resisting, immigrants, refugees, and so on. However, when it comes to personalization, I think we should manage what, how, when, and why we personalize things. We can’t internalize hate and outrage and let it immobilize us. But we must take it personally when one of us—our allies, and the most vulnerable—are attacked, to fight back while we are strong, and call upon others when we need it.
Rather than consume news and be overwhelmed, it’s empowering to focus on what we can do. Schulz underscores the relevance of exercising our agency and our Constitutional right to contact legislators.
And at this particular moment, when our First Amendment freedoms are existentially threatened—when the President himself has, among other things, sought to curb press access and to discredit dissent—we also act on them to insist that we can.
Probably only tangentially-related side note: I loved this compelling, long essay about letters written to Obama and White House mail system that handled them:
Unintended consequences of making art around recent positive psychology.
From 2013 to 2015, I designed, printed, and sewed Character Strengths Signal Flags. Each flag represented one of 24 character strengths in psychologist Martin Seligman’s and Chris Petersen’s Values in Action classification.
Recently I revisited the VIA website, and noticed that some of the strengths have been renamed. Those are listed below.
The new names relate to the old ones, but I can’t help but wonder: What is gained and lost with the linguistic updates?
Open-mindednessJudgment PersistencePerseverance IntegrityHonesty VitalityZest CitizenshipTeamwork Self-ControlSelf-Regulation Appreciation of BeautyAppreciation of Beauty & Excellence
I’m not a psychologist, but as the classification is aimed towards the public, the researchers are probably interested in accessible language. Here’s how I interpret the updates.
Some changes seem relatively minor—persistence and perseverance, and vitality and zest are phrasings many people would use interchangeably. Witnessing excellence can be beautiful; I can see the kinship in the appreciation of of the two. Psychologists might distinguish between self-control and self-regulation, but I don’t think general audiences would.
I believe the most dramatic change is from open-mindedness (withholding judgment) to judgment. In an era of snap judgments and constantly streaming opinions, I wonder why the researchers abandoned the self-assured open-mindedness, and then opted for judgment over the more measured critical thinking. Also, swapping integrity in favor of honesty seems complicated, too. To me, integrity implies a higher order of ethics and self-concordance than honesty.
The shift from citizenship to teamwork could inspire much deconstruction. The former implies geopolitics, nationhood, and the problems of inclusion, exclusion, and rights.* It’s too limiting for the meaning, which I interpret as the spirit of civic and social engagement. On the other hand, teamwork originates in sport, but is now correlated with the workplace and management. This identity shift, from a (presumably) contributing member of a (presumably) democratic society, to a (likely, immaterial knowledge) worker, hits a nerve—it appears to be another instance of neoliberalism’s pervasive effect on our identities, where the corporation overtakes the state as the primary force organizing social relations.
While I don’t mean to conflate positive psychologists’ research with pop psychology writing, I did find a passage from Louis Menand’s essay on self-help business books (“The Life Biz,” New Yorker Magazine, March 28, 2016) to be relevant:
“It’s not surprising that every era has a different human model to suit a different theory of productivity, but it is mildly disheartening to realize how readily we import these models into our daily lives. We apply technologies of the self to our own selves, and measure our worth by the standards of the workplace.”
Justin Langlois‘ comments on citizenship (in “Questioning Citizenship at the Venice Biennale: Responses and Interventions,” C Magazine, Issue 128, Winter 2016) are too good not to cite.
First, the urgency of the question of citizenship:
“The idea of citizenship, and who gets to grant it, receive it, retain it and who has to give it up, is clearly one of the most pressing issues of our time.”
Then, a call to action to practice citizenship:
“Our citizenship relies on the testing of its very boundaries. And more often, it relies on a series of small and not-so-small gestures that secure or resist it, and that help us to exercise our capacity to measure, record and produce social and civic life together. Art provides an inventory of expanded practices and poetics that might offer us clues on how to do this, but we must work to hone our own actions and activities towards more complicated expressions that can evince our agency in the world. If we await an invitation to perform our citizenship, we will never get around to producing it ourselves.”
While of course I value cooperation and the ability to work well with others, what teamwork doesn’t account for is the desire and responsibility to “evince our agency in the world.”
July 9–September 20, 2015
Bronx Calling: The Third AIM Biennial
Bronx Museum, 1040 Grand Concourse, Bronx, NY
Open Thursdays–Sundays 11–6 and until 8 on Fridays.
I’m very pleased that this exhibition, which has been two years in the making, is now open. It includes work from 72 participants in the Bronx Museum of the Arts’ Artists in the Marketplace program, who have diverse, strong practices (whose praises I sing in the Time Out article below).
On July 15, the museum held an open house for Bronx Calling as well as ¡Presente! The Young Lords in New York (recommended!). Over 1,000 people attended. See photos of the open house, which included numerous performances.
I’m debuting Character Strengths Signal Flags. This project has been three years in the making—I designed and sewed 24 signal flags in an edition of three. Each flag has a letterpress-printed label identifying the character strength and one of the six categories developed by positive psychologists Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman. The flags are installed with a legend and flagpoles. Viewers are invited to find and fly the flags of their strengths. See more pics on my website.
See Time Out New York!
Bonus: You can top off your visit with a street festival!
Sundays, August 2, 9 and 16, 12–4pm
Boogie on the Boulevard
Right in front of the Bronx Museum, Grand Concourse from 161st Street to 167th Street will be closed to cars and open to a world of fun with free music, activities, and programs hosted by artists and organizations from the Bronx and beyond. What’s not to like?
I habitually plan ahead, but there are lots of things I only learn by doing (and failing). Likewise, experiences drive home the principles I intend to remember but somehow forget.
Such was the case today, as I got to work on a new project sewing twill tape and transparent vinyl. I had a slow start, as I learned to reconcile the surprisingly stretchy twill tape with the not stretchy-at-all vinyl. It took a few hours for me to find a rhythm and start to make real progress.
So at dinner, I sang my sewing machine’s praises. It felt trusty, reliable, like a lithium ion drill driver—I finally felt like my burgeoning skills are appropriately utilizing some of the machine’s capacities, while the promise of more advanced projects lay ahead for the two of us.
It was ironic, then, when my sewing machine’s feed dogs stopped advancing. Then, the reverse lever offered none of its usual resistance. Something snapped, inside the machine first, and then inside me second. I panicked. I have a lot of production ahead of me during this residency, and most of it requires sewing. I don’t have time for the machine to sit in a repair shop!
But this is the reality, and I must conform to it. As Martin Seligman explains in Flourish, there are realities you can shape, and those you can’t. I can’t change the fact that my sewing machine needs repair. But I can work so that this setback doesn’t derail my residency.
As Martin Seligman points out, the difference between optimists and pessimists is not that optimists do not suffer from setbacks, but that they optimists weather setbacks better.
Last weekend I attended the International Positive Psychology Association’s Second World Congress on Positive Psychology in Philadelphia, PA, with the support of a Travel and Study Grant from the Jerome Foundation. It was an invigorating experience. I gained new concepts, an inspired list of books to read, and a clearer understanding of this growing field.
Positive psychology is a new realm; I’ve encountered skepticism of it based on its name only. But the conference (which I’ll call ‘IPPA,’ pronounced “IH-pah”) featured rigorous empirical researchers and practitioners across clinical psychology, education, business, and the humanities. With 1,200 whip-smart attendees from 62 countries, I felt as though I was part of an emergent domain that will revolutionize psychology as well as culture. I’ve been reading books about positive psychology since 2009; IPPA made me excited to learn more and help advance the field as it intersects with the arts and humanities.
What is positive psychology? Perhaps this is best explained via the words of its founding psychologists, Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2000), as quoted by Robert Vallerand:
“Psychology should document how people’s lives can be most worth living.”
To paraphrase James Pawelski, IPPA President as well as the Director of Education and Senior Scholar at the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program at UPenn, one of the leading centers of research and scholarship:
Positive psychology is not merely a psychology for sunny days. It is also a psychology for rainy days…. [As a young person witnessing the aftermath of the recent terrorist acts in Norway said,] ‘If one man can create so much hate and death, how much good can we create together?’
I think it was also Pawelski, in discussing the positive turn in humanities, who expressed that
We see positive psychology as balancing (negative) psychology
which for the 20th century has been fixated on trauma, illness, and pathology. As in physical medicine, it is high time to expand beyond treatment towards wellbeing. As Chris Peterson put it:
“Health is more than the absence of illness”
and so too, psychological wellbeing is more than the absence of pathology. The positive psychology view according to Martin Seligman is that
People are not driven by the past, but can be drawn to the future.
Rather than seeing the positive as simplistic, positive psychology makes the positive more complex.
What I looked forward to. Many of my drawings in the Positive Signs series, as well as some concepts in my essays on Art Practical, were inspired by Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Creativity. During my residency at Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild immediately preceding IPPA, I read Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. So I was very excited to hear Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi speak.
I was also excited to meet potential partners, especially those whose work intersects with the arts. I suspect that principles of positive psychology can be useful for contemporary artists by informing:
•processes, by becoming aware of flow activities;
•artwork, via increased understanding of relationships created in the art viewing experience and new theories of phenomenology; and
•attitudes, especially in regards to experiencing career setbacks and successes.
Highlights. I was very excited about:
Clearer definitions. University of Illinois researcher Ed Diener identified
preconditions of happiness as optimism, positive experiences, and lack of negative affect.
Gallup Scientist in Residence Shane Lopez pinpoints hope.
“Hope is goal-directed thinking (goals thinking) in which people perceive that they can produce routes to desired goals (pathways thinking) and the requisite motivation to use those routes (agency thinking).
Hope — The ideas and energy we have for the future.
High hope people believe that the future will be better than the present and that they have the power to make it so.”
Matt Gallagher, a clinical psychology researcher at the University of Kansas, distinguishes between hope and optimism:
Hope (Snyder) — Agency and pathways towards goals
Optimism (Scheier & Carver) — Globalized positive/negative expectancies
Emphasis on personal agency [is the] crucial difference
He also explained the difference thusly:
When you mash optimism and self-efficacy together, you get hope.
If a savoring process is elicited when a positive emotion is experienced, then savoring could well be the mediating mechanism through which a person’s cognitive repertoire is expanded when a positive emotion is experienced. Furthermore, when people savor, they often broaden the range of feelings they can have and contexts in which these feelings can occur.
Happiness is not frivolous. Hope can’t wait.
Lopez’s Gallup studies revealed that
Hope, engagement, and wellbeing do not correlate to income.
Clearly this is not an argument against equity, but a call to foster hope without delay. That’s because, as Lopez pointed out,
“When we link ourselves to the future, we behave better today.”
Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (1943) is a fundamental psychology concept visually represented as a pyramid. The idea is that basic needs must be met first, and in order of importance, with self-actualization as the pinnacle—and endmost—need.
At IPPA, Diener argued that
Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs can be addressed at all levels, not necessarily in the order Maslow suggested.
Edward Deci, who studies self-determination theory, focused on
three basic human needs: the need to express competence, autonomy, and relatedness, which can be intrinsic, extrinsic, or emotionally motivated. Extrinsic motivations can actually undermine intrinsic motivations for engaging activities.
I especially appreciated Deci’s point that
Autonomy does not mean complete independence; you can be autonomously dependent
because that points to how artists can be autonomous and forge their own paths with the support and encouragement of their peers.
This sentiment was echoed by Karen Skerrett, who studies qualities of resilience in couple relationships:
Resilience is not self-sufficiency.
Deci added that
To foster greater internalization, create social contexts that allow people to feel competent, autonomous, and related. But it must fit with who people are
Which seems like a worthwhile consideration for artists developing participatory and relational projects.
Diener also identified,
“The number one predictor of enjoyment: ‘I learned new things, and I got to use my new skills today.’
In advance of a positive criticality. Since even my wholly optimistic work can inspire projections of skepticism, I was especially keen to hear Pawelski share Csikszentmihalyi’s opinion that
Positive psychology is a metaphysical orientation towards the positive. In other words, the positive is just as real as the negative.
Dan Moores illustrated this with a humorous talk called Ecstatic Poetry and the Limits of Suspicion. In it, he conveyed
we have a hermeneutics [study of interpretation] of suspicion (Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud), while lacking a hermeneutics of affirmation.
Such a hermeneutics disserves
“The ecstatic poetic tradition [which] connects many cultures and reaches across vast stretches of time. It represents a positive affirmation of the values of happiness, human connections, festivities, and relatedness to transcendent sources of meaning. The tradition contains countless poems depicting peak states of being and positive, life-affirming emotions, such as serenity, awe, wonder, rapture, joy, gratitude, and love. Such poetry is written in praise of the goodness of life, the abundance of nature, and the intimate interrelation of the whole cosmos.”
Unsurprisingly, Moores shared a Romantic poem. This spurred a sense that contemporary art trends that revisit Romanticism and Transcendentalism (the “New Sincerity”) may find inspiration in this intersection of positive psychology and humanities, if the scientific approach isn’t too much at odds with the intuitive nature of such artmaking.
Elevation and awe. Jonathan Haidt, who studies moral political psychology, presented research
on emotion and elevation, correlating ‘up’ with altruism and admiration
It’s similar to the up-down cognitive metaphors in Lakoff/Johnson’s linguistics, which I diagrammed in Positive Sign #24.
Veronika Huta, who studies awe, inspiration, and transcendence at the University of Ottowa, independently confirmed that
Elevation is correlated with, and is an indicator of, virtuous, pro-social behavior.
Connecting neo-Romantic art and studies of awe was UPenn graduate student Ann Marie Roepke’s diagram relating horror and awe, similar to the 19th century view of the sublime.
Passion. Robert Vallerand, from the University of Montreal, studies obsessive and harmonious passion.
There’s a clear analogy to the arts here, where artists may develop a detrimental obsessive passion driven by extrinsic motivators, rather than a harmonious passion fueled by intrinsic motivation that leads towards increased subjective wellbeing.
Since I think emerging artists can put pressure themselves to see extrinsic rewards to their progress, Vallerand’s final message seems especially relevant.
Information graphics. What follows is a sampling of visuals which appealed to me.
The most frequently presented graphic seemed to be a flow chart whose correlations are represented in nominal tenths or hundredths, rather than the visual hierarchies I would have preferred. It might well be a data-minded scientific idiom. Perhaps visual representation would be misconstrued as non-empirical shorthand.
These graphics, indeed, the positive psychology endeavor as a whole—recall a passage from Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, in which the author responds to an engineer’s algebraic formula:
“I was struck by how impoverished ordinary language can be by contrast, requiring its user to arrange inordinate numbers of words in tottering and unstable piles in order to communicate meanings more infinitely more basic than anything related to an electrical network. I found myself wishing that the rest of mankind would follow the engineers’ example and agree on a series of symbols which could point incontrovertibly to certain elusive, vaporous and often painful psychological states—a code which might help us feel less tongue-tied and less lonely, and enable us to resolve arguments with swift and silent exchanges of equations.”
Two projects deserve special recognition for employing terrific graphic design. Both were large-scale public initiatives promoting wellbeing, thus the success of the endeavors was dependent on accessible design and copywriting.
Plus, Marks conducted a drawing exercise in which workshop attendees drew each other without looking at their papers, which enacted the five steps the public initiative promoted. I loved the exercise, as participants’ responses were immediate, hilarious, and relational.
Chris Peterson and Nansook Park, both from the University of Michigan, shared their ___ Makes Life Worth Living campaign, a university-wide year theme. Students wore t-shirts with the blanks filled in.
Conference photos. And inspired by Richard Baker’s quiet and stirring photographs in Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, I clicked a few images documenting the visual vocabulary of the conference.