News bites

Posted on December 1, 2011 in Uncategorized by Matt

In our recent survey studies I added a few bits of news from the world of research. We had so many requests for them, that we wanted to post them for easier access. Here are three juicy news bites:

Flourishing News #1

A well-accepted truism is that people are resistant to change, especially when it comes to changing themselves. From stop-smoking campaigns to appeals for charitable donations, many groups and organizations struggle to get people to make positive changes. Recent research may offer some help. Researchers found that self-affirmation, reflecting on one’s defining personal values, increases a person’s willingness to accept and follow information that urges them to make a difficult life change. The study focused on motivating people to change their eating habits. The scientists found that people who had recently written about their core life values were much more likely to respond positively to warnings about changing their eating habits. Those who had not reflected on their life values were much more likely to disregard this information.

There are many ways that this research insight might be put to practical use, but it also highlights the potential value of religious activities. Many religious activities — worship, study, even fellowship — can provide rich opportunities for people to reflect on their core life values. Among the many benefits of this reflection is the potential that it will encourage people to make positive life change. Churches and religious organizations are uniquely positioned to help people in this way — that’s great news!

Research citation: Griffin, D. W., & Harris, P. R. 2011. Calibrating the Response to Health Warnings: Limiting Both Overreaction and Underreaction With Self-Affirmation, Psychological Science, 22: 572–578


Flourishing News #2

John Gottman is probably the world’s leading expert on marriages. He gained fame in Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink” when Gladwell recounted that, by spending less than 30 seconds with a couple, Dr. Gottman can predict with more than 80% accuracy whether that couple will be together in 5 years. Gottman has published several wonderful books on marriages. One of his research insights emphasizes the importance of “love maps” which are really nothing more than the amount of personal information we know about our spouses. Dr. Gottman has found that rich love maps are a key to having a happy, life-long marriage. Couples with rich love maps no each other stresses, life dreams, favorite things, best friends, and secret desires. They also update their love maps regularly, keeping up with growth and newness in their spouse.

In his books, Gottman provides many great exercises for enriching our love maps. One of them is a list of questions to ask each other — these questions make for rich conversation on a special night out together or on a long trip. “What kind of present would you like best?” “What personal improvements would you like to make in your life” “What was one of your best childhood experiences?” Not only do these questions enrich our love maps, the simple act of sharing builds intimacy and trust — two more keys to happy marriage!

Reference: Gottman, John, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert


Flourishing News #3

Maintaining energy at work can be a challenge even for those of us that love our work. Advertisements for energy drinks often try to capitalize on the fact that many people find themselves running short of energy on most days. Because energy drinks also many potentially detrimental side-effects, they may not be a good option. Recent research is here to help!

Scholars at the University of Michigan found that the most commonly used strategies such as switching to another task or browsing the web did not increase energy at work. However, engaging in activities related to learning, reflecting on the meaningful parts of one’s work, and to fostering and enjoying positive work relationships were most strongly related to employees’ energy. This is another in a growing body of research that suggests the importance of great work relationships and finding work that is deeply meaningful. So, next time your energy is lagging, laugh with a good work colleague, learn something new, or take time to write or think about the most meaningful and important parts of your work!

Research citation: Charlotte Fritz, Chak Fu Lam, Gretchen Marie Spreitzer. It’s the Little Things that Matter: An Examination of Knowledge Workers’ Energy Management. Academy of Management Perspectives

Men are from Home Depot, women are from Starbucks

Posted on August 18, 2011 in FiM, WaW by Matt

James Pennebaker has been studying the way people write for years and has drawn some interesting insights from the way we use language. Scientific American has recently interviewed Professor Pennebaker and two of his insights might be of interest.

Professor Pennebaker noted that

Men and women use language differently because they negotiate their worlds differently. Across dozens and dozens of studies, women tend to talk more about other human beings. Men, on the other hand, are more interested in concrete objects and things. To talk about human relationships requires social and cognitive words. To talk about concrete objects, you need concrete nouns which typically demand the use of articles.

This adds further evidence that there are interesting differences between the sexes which has me wondering about the potential implications for ministry, beyond mundane ideas such as sermons should reference humans and objects. I will certainly pay more attention to differences between male and female preachers! Maybe this helps to explain why men love power tools and home improvement stores, and women love meeting friends for a cuppa at their favorite coffee shop.

Of greater interest is what his research has shown about the journaling. He has show that writing about life can have very positive benefits for most people, including such things as helping us respond better to negative events. In a series of studies Professor Pennebaker and his colleagues explored the links between life journals and physical health. Among the interesting insights is this one:

Much to my surprise, I soon discovered that the ways people used pronouns in their essays predicted whose health would improve the most. Specifically, those people who benefited the most from writing changed in their pronoun use from one essay to another. Pronouns were reflecting people’’s abilities to change perspective.

Perhaps if we get people to write about others we will find not only that it makes them healthier, but it might also make them more helpful and altruistic. Professor Dan Batson at the University of Kansas has studied altruism for years and among the many important research insights from his work is that empathy fosters altruism. When we try to see the world from another’s perspective and seek to understand their life challenges, we tend to be much more altruistic. So journaling might make us healthier, more helpful, and it just might foster flourishing as well!

We hope that you are flourishing


Matt Bloom and the FiM team

Facebook isn’t real

Posted on August 16, 2011 in FiM, WaW by Matt

Social networks have become so prevalent in modern life that people have started to speculate about whether they will soon make face-to-face interactions obsolete. Here is the word from science on this assertion: hogwash. Humans thrive on being together and a great deal of research indicates that we communicate best when we are with each other, face-to-face or side-to-side or simply over a nice cuppa coffee.  (Jonah Leher reviews a bit of this research.)

It’s interesting to note that people made the same outlandish claims when telephones first became popular. A bunch of Chicken Little’s were running around back then claiming that, with the phone, no one would ever need or want to meet in person. We all know those concerns were overstated. Sure, the phone can be used to avoid interactions with people and it can be used for down-right nefarious purposes. But the phone can also be life-enriching, such as when it lets us speak with loved ones who live far away.

This does not mean that Facebook has no value, nor should it be misconstrued as suggesting Facebook is totally benign. Facebook, like the phone, has its light and dark sides. When used prudently, it can be useful and even life-enriching.

We also know that face-to-face interactions have their light and dark sides. When we are with someone we can care for them, support them, encourage them, create with them, play with them, pray with them, and much more.There are lots of great things we can do face-to-face. But we can also be horrid to each other in face-to-face interactions (read here about recent research on the corrosive effects of bad co-workers).

There are a few insights to take from all of this research. (1) We need to be with people. Caring for, loving, supporting, playing and many more of life’s richest activities happen in the presence of other people. (2) We communicate best face-to-face, a good reminder that being together is a precious moment. (3) All forms of communication can be used for good or evil: it’s all in how we chose to use them.

We hope you are flourishing in ministry

Matt Bloom and the FiM team

The light and dark side of self-esteem

Posted on July 12, 2011 in FiM, WaW by Matt

When my sons were in their formative years, I often worried about their sense of self-esteem. I wanted them to see themselves as people of value and worth. I wanted them to think well of themselves. Part of my concern grew out of parental love and my desire to see my sons thrive. Part of it also grew out of my understanding of research on self-esteem. I thought that studies had shown that, in general, high self-esteem was related to a variety of positive outcomes such as higher academic performance, greater ability to withstand negative peer pressure, and high levels of well-being.

At the same time, I did not want my sons to have such high self-esteem that they tipped into arrogance or narcissism. That is, while I wanted them to think well of themselves,  I also wanted them to think well of others. I thought that research suggested that self-esteem has a “Goldilocks” point and that the best kind of self-esteem was not too much and not too little.

I was right, but only partly so. To be sure, there is such a thing as too little or too much self-esteem. A good-sized portion is a very good thing indeed. It is equally good to see others as persons of worth and value. However, there is such a thing as too much. A super-sized portion of self-esteem can cause us to ignore  wise admonitions, engage in risky & detrimental behavior, and to undervalue other people.

In addition, the pursuit of self-esteem can often, as Jennifer Crocker and Lora Park emphasize, be very costly. Pursuing a sense of self-validation in the eyes of others is a natural human tendency, but too often we spend too much in that pursuit. Professors Crocker and Park note that:

When people have the goal of validating their worth, they may feel particularly challenged to succeed, yet react to threats or potential threats in ways that are destructive or self-destructive. They interpret events and feedback in terms of what they mean about the self; they view learning as a means to performance outcomes, instead of viewing success and failure as a means to learning; they challenge negative information about the self; they are preoccupied with themselves at the expense of others; and when success is uncertain, they feel anxious and do things that decrease the probability of success but create excuses for failure, such as self-handicapping or procrastination.The pursuit of self-esteem, when it is successful, has emotional and motivational benefits, but it also has both short- and long-term costs, diverting people from fulfilling their fundamental human needs for competence, relatedness, and autonomy, and leading to poor self-regulation and poor mental and physical health…We argue that in the pursuit of self-esteem, people often create the opposite of what they need to thrive and that this pursuit has high costs to others as well. People pursue self-esteem through different avenues, and some of these have higher costs than others, but we argue that even “healthier” ways of pursuing self-esteem have costs, and it is possible to achieve their benefits through other sources of motivation.

Their research suggests that we need to be very careful about whose opinions matter and also very careful about when, where and how we seek self-validation. We should value the opinions of those who love and care about us. These people act out of beneficence, seeking to help us grow, develop, and become better, more capable people. However, our tendency is to seek validation from too many people and we can become something like weathervanes, pushed by the winds of social pressures.

I also found it interesting that, in addition to strength, self-esteem has another dimension: stability. The right kind of self-esteem seems to be moderately strong and moderately stable. We need enough strength to see ourselves and others as precious and valuable. We need enough stability to be able to push forward in the face of  “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,”  but not so much that we cannot change and grow into better people.

Interestingly, it appears that narcissists may have high, but fragile self-esteem (see research by Kernis, Lakey, and Heppner). Narcissists think highly of themselves, but they must have those self-views regularly validated. They seem to need a constant source of external validation that their self-views are correct. As such, they spend a great deal of time trying to get others to tell them that they are right — “you are great!” This makes me feel a bit more sympathetic to their plight: it must be exhausting work. Of course, I wouldn’t know from personal experience…

Wishing you Goldilocks self-esteem and much  flourishing in life




Jennifer Crocker and Lora E. Park. 2004. The Costly Pursuit of Self-Esteem. Psychological Bulletin, 130: 392–414

Kernis, M H., Lakey, C. E., & Heppner, W. L. 2008. Secure Versus Fragile High Self-Esteem as a Predictor of Verbal Defensiveness: Converging Findings Across Three Different Markers. Journal of Personality 76: 477-512


Bliss is bunk or why Tina Turner was (partly) right

Posted on June 17, 2011 in FiM, WaW by Matt

When students talk about finding a great job they often use the adage of “finding their bliss.” The basic idea, which is very appealing, goes back to an older adage attributed to Confucius that if you find work you love you will never work a day in your life. The trouble with these adages is that they are only half true. To really be able to perform a job, you need the right knowledge, skills, and abilities. It’s hard to hold a job you love if you can’t perform it well.

Here is an example. I love baseball. I know, some of you hate it, but rest assured that hard science has proven that baseball is wonderful. (OK, that part about science is balderdash).  I would love to play professional baseball — that would be at least one bliss for me. Trouble is, I have no talent for baseball. I can’t hit well, throwing across the infield with accuracy is a distant dream, and I run the bases like a whirling dervish: arms and legs flailing but going nowhere fast. My deep and profound affinity for baseball simply cannot overcome the total lack of talent.

So, what’s love got to do with it? (There’s the link to Tina Turner). Well, some things we can do well we don’t particularly enjoy. For example, I have a talent for math, and with a lot of graduate courses in math, I honed it into a skill. But I don’t like math very much, so while I can do it well, it is certainly not my bliss. My youngest son has both a talent for and love of math. Talent + bliss is a potent combination.

I think that some, maybe many, people take a job that  uses their bliss-less talents. They are likely to perform their bliss-less job well, but they are very unlikely to find the job intrinsically rewarding. Instead, they will probably wonder why they don’t love something they can perform so well and this may lead to further frustrations that they will never find their bliss.

So, love has something to do with finding the right job, but so does natural ability (as long as that ability is honed and developed into a useful skill.) For my youngest son, his love of math has a lot to do with finding the right job. For me, math is a wonderful skill to have, it is one I use often as a researcher, but I am much better off studying human well-being than abstract mathematics.

The challenge  is to gently lead people to consider whether they have the talent to pursue their bliss. When we love something so much, we can easily deceive ourselves that we really do have the right knowledge, skills, and abilities to perform well.

The lesson: At least part of the recipe for finding the right job is one that you love and one that you can perform well.

We hope you find a talent-filled bliss


The truth about the lies behind “The Secret”

Posted on May 25, 2011 in FiM, WaW by Matt

Because of my research on human happiness I am often asked what I think about the book The Secret. The short answer is that I think it is potentially dangerous. The book wraps a lot of misinformation and distortion around a few kernels of truth. Like most propaganda, it plays on peoples’ hopes and fears to draw them into its web of deceit. I want to take on some of these distortions and, at the same time, try to highlight and recast the small bits of truth.

A recent research study suggests that visualizing ourselves achieving valued goals or enjoying coveted successes may actually work against us ever obtaining those hoped-for outcomes. The researchers found that people who engaged in this positive self-imagining had less energy and devoted less effort toward those goals. Heather Kappes and Gabriele Oettingen found that positive fantasies seem to induce responses that would normally accompany achievement, responses like reducing energy and relaxing, rather than motivating the energy and persistence that are necessary for real achievement.


Setting stretch goals, on the other hand, can be very motivating. The key is to visualize why the goal really matters to you, what you need to do to achieve the goal, and how you can how you can mark progress toward it. This kind of positive visualization can have powerful motivating properties which can create lots of energy that actually help you do the work of striving toward the goal.


There are aspects of positive self-imagining that can be helpful. A group of fantastic researchers at the University of Michigan describe how a method they call the “reflected best self” can help us gain important insights about ourselves and then put those insights to good use (Roberts et al, 2005). Ken Sheldon and Sonja Lyubomirsky support those claims with good science. It’s not magic, but used correctly, the reflected-best self can lead to significant growth and help us achieve important goals.


Kappes, H., and Oettingen, G. (2011). Positive fantasies about idealized futures sap energy. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47 (4), 719-729


Roberts, L. M., Dutton, J. E., Spreitzer, G. M., Heaphy, E. D., & Quinn, R. E. 2004. Composing the reflected best-self portrait: Building pathways for becoming extraordinary in work organizations. Academy of Management Review, 4, 712-736.


Sheldon K. M.and Lyubomirsky, S. (2006) How to increase and sustain positive emotion: The effects of expressing gratitude and visualizing best possible selves. [Special Issue: Positive Emotions], The Journal of Positive Psychology , 1, 73–82

The power of self-forgiveness

Posted on May 5, 2011 in WaW by Matt

Self-forgiveness might sound like new-age hocus pocus, but research is showing that it is real, and that it matters. A recent study found that students who forgave themselves after an initial bout of procrastination were less likely to repeat their avoidant behavior. Those students who did not study for a first test, but forgave themselves, were more likely to study for the next exam.

It’s probably easy to see some of the implications of this research. Those of us who are hard on ourselves might be self-handicapping. While it is good to have high expectations for ourselves [more on the Galatea effect soon], we also need to be careful about being too hard on ourselves when we do not perform up to those expectations. Doing so might be self-defeating behavior.

Of course, there is always a middle ground here. We don’t want to accommodate or excuse negative behavior, but self-forgiveness seems to involve recognizing what we did wrong, identifying how we can do better, and then stopping ourselves from ruminating on our conduct too long. We need to get it, then get over it!

Wishing you much happiness


Research citation: Wohl, M., Pychyl, T., & Bennett, S. (2010). I forgive myself, now I can study: How self-forgiveness for procrastinating can reduce future procrastination. Personality and Individual Differences, 48 (7), 803-808

Doodlers learn more?

Posted on May 5, 2011 in FiM by Matt

Today I have the privilege of presenting some of our research to a fantastic group of UCC ministers. And, it is is Boston. A double-dip of happiness. Thinking of me presenting also conjured up thoughts of boredom, and some advice I would give to those great people who will listen to me today: doodling can help you pay attention when the speaker is not captivating enough.

There is a famous story about this that involves Tony Blair, Bill Gates, and some doodles found after an important speech. The basic story is that the doodles were mistakenly attributed to Tony Blair and it was claimed that the doodles indicated that he was not paying attention to the speaker. The doodles were evidently drawn by Bill Gates, and researchers have since found that doodling can help us pay attention better. The short story is that drawing occupies part of our attention so we can more fully direct the rest toward the important, but not-so-engaging speech.

So, this might be good to remember when you see congregation members drawing during your sermon. Even if they are not taking notes, they are paying attention.


[Yes, I am an inveterate doodler]

Here is a New York Times piece on this research.

Emotion suppression and effective care giving

Posted on April 14, 2011 in WaW by Matt

Physicians, like many people in the caring professions, regularly face people who are in the midst of pain and crisis. One of the challenges they face is how to deal effectively with this exposure. Conventional wisdom suggests that, if it affects us too much, we lose objectivity and we risk burnout. But become too calloused and we cannot be effective caregivers.

A recent study found that physicians who effectively regulated their emotional responses to patients’ pain were able to “dampen counterproductive feelings of alarm and fear [which] frees up processing capacity to be of assistance for the other.” In other words, these physicians were able to provide better care.

However, the researchers also warned that the constant need to suppress their natural emotional response was stressful for physicians. They also caution that such suppression might also strain their relationships with their patients. “Physicians face the challenge of devoting the right balance of cognitive and emotional resources to their patients’ pain experience..They must try to resonate and understand the patient without becoming emotionally over-involved in a way that can preclude effective medical management.”

Turns out there really is a razor’s edge here or what I sometimes call a Goldilock’s paradox. Care givers do need to ward off responding with emotions that are too strong, but they must also maintain vital human connections as well. This is clearly difficult to do and it is one more reason that at the Well-being at Work project we admire care professionals so much.

We hope you are thriving at work.




Study details: Decety J, Yang CY, & Cheng Y (2010). Physicians down-regulate their pain empathy response: an event-related brain potential study. NeuroImage, 50 (4), 1676-82

Lenten introspection works!

Posted on April 14, 2011 in FiM by Matt

A recent study by research psychologists found that introspection can be a “powerful tool” for gaining self-insights. For many years, researcher thought they had debunked self-reflection. The basic idea is that we are either blind to our foibles or inclined to lie to ourselves. It turns out that when we approach it with sincerity and some structure, self-examination can work. Practices such as the prayer of examen have long been foundational to Christian life and now research confirms what these traditions have known for many years. It’s good to know that these forty day period of self-reflection, with God’s help, might lead to some positive outcomes!

We hope you are flourishing in your ministry


Study details: Marti S, Sackur J, Sigman M, & Dehaene S (2010). Mapping introspection’s blind spot: reconstruction of dual-task phenomenology using quantified introspection. Cognition, 115 (2), 303-13



Study details: Marti S, Sackur J, Sigman M, & Dehaene S (2010). Mapping introspection’s blind spot: reconstruction of dual-task phenomenology using quantified introspection. Cognition, 115 (2), 303-13