While positive psychology itself is only 30 years old, it benefits from hundreds of years of psychology research and tens of thousands of years of philosophy research. One aspect of positive psychology that has particularly benefited from this long history of research is that of character strengths. Character strengths, according to the VIA Institute of Character, are a “common language” of personality traits that (Niemiec, 2018):
The importance of character strengths is evident in the definition alone – impacting our personality, our relationships with others, and overall benefit to the world’s well-being. There are 24 character strengths in total, classified into six distinct virtues: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. The complete list of character traits and their definitions can be found in Appendix 1.
Before diving into the application side – how to determine and leverage character strengths in everyday life – it’s important to cover a few definitional points (Niemiec, 2018):
Martin Seligman (2011), the founder of modern day positive psychology, defines well-being using a multi-pronged approach known as PERMA which stands for Positive emotion (P), Engagement (E), Relationships (R), Meaning (M), and Accomplishment (A). Seligman’s research suggests that the 24 character strengths underpin all five of these elements of well-being. He goes on to explain that deploying one’s top strengths can lead to improvement in each element. In other words, identifying and leveraging your character strengths can make you happier across a bunch of different domains.
Importantly, while character strengths are somewhat stable, research demonstrates they have the capacity for development (Niemiec, 2018). Perhaps most exciting is that deliberate focus on improving a character strength can yield empirical changes in personality. While this is not a new concept – Aristotle in 4 BCE emphasized that virtues could be acquired through practice – we now have empirical evidence to support the idea of developing character traits through sustained deliberate practice and effort.
A natural reaction to learning that character strengths can be developed and that developing character strengths leads to improved well-being is a desire to understand our “weakest” character strengths and devise a strategy to improve them. While not inherently a bad strategy, evidence suggests that deliberate use of one’s signature strengths may actually provide a more significant increase in well-being (Niemiec, 2018; Seligman & Peterson, 2004). Seligman and Peterson (2004) define signature strengths as the character traits that you most frequently exercise and appreciate of yourself. They tend to be one’s top character traits.
Ok, ready to uncover your character strengths and start putting them to use? It’s as easy as taking the free character strengths questionnaire on the VIA Institute on Character website. Feel free to post your top strengths in the comments section and reach out with questions. Here’s to your improved well-being!
Appendix 1: Character Traits
(Source: 2018 VIA Institute on Character)
Niemiec, R. M. (2018). Character Strengths Interventions: A Field Guide for Practitioners. New Boston, MA: Hogrefe.
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification (Vol. 1). Oxford University Press.
Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
This post covers the research and planning phase designed to enable a successful implementation of a Positive Team strategy within your organization.
While there are many factors involved in creating a Positive Team – and some will work better in some organizations and for some leaders than others – this specific strategy focuses on applying the latest research on High-Quality Connections (HQCs) and Prosocial Behavior as part of a larger, cohesive positive leadership approach.
What’s the value of High-Quality Connections?
High-Quality Connections are interactions between pairs that are positive in both subjective experience and the structural features of the connection (Stephens, Heaphy, & Dutton, 2011). These types of connections have been shown to drive benefits for individuals, groups and teams, and organizations as a whole (Stephens et. al., 2011; M. Worline, personal communications, March 3, 2018). Within teams, HQCs can drive better learning, more adaptivity, and more creativity. Within organizations more broadly, the results of HQCs include enhanced cooperation, increased adaptability and organizational resilience, higher levels of psychological safety, and greater employee attachment.
How to generate more High-Quality Connections?
According to Worline (personal communications, March 3, 2018) and Dutton (2003), there are four primary pathways for building HQCs: 1) Respectful engagement: engaging the other in a way that sends a message of value and worth; 2) Task enabling: helping in another person’s successful performance; 3) Trusting: conveying to the other person that we believe they will meet our expectations and are dependable; and 4) Playing: participating in activities with the intention of having fun.
How to apply this research to your team?
1) Respectful engagement: you can make presence a priority, withhold judgement and always give the benefit of the doubt, and make an effort to be an active listener; 2) Task enabling: you can deliberately focus your energy on teaching, helping, nurturing, advocating, and accommodating the people on your team; 3) Trusting: you can work to consistently seek input, share resources, use inclusive language, and be open and vulnerable with your team; 4) Playing: you can foster a culture of fun, making time for playful connections and storytelling. In addition, leaders’ behaviors tend to model and influence appropriate conduct for teams (Dutton & Spreitzer, 2014), so you can focus on transparently modelling and clearly valuing HQC building within you own style of working with colleagues.
What’s the value of Prosocial Behavior?
Evidence suggests that prosocial motivation, the desire to have a positive impact on other people, can help employees to take initiative, assist others, persist in meaningful tasks, and accept negative feedback, in addition to a slew of other benefits (Grant & Berg, 2010). Moreover, Grant (2013) has shown that employees who are givers, people who look to help others without any strings attached, disproportionately end up at the very top and the very bottom of many business success metrics. While this demonstrates the potential benefits of being a giver (rising to the top), it also highlights the risk associated with it. One of the key strategies recommend by Grant (2013) is to set careful boundaries, ensuring employees take care of themselves (including saying no to things), as opposed to exclusively engaging in unconditional giving and running out of energy and resources.
How to generate more Prosocial Behavior?
Research has established that receiving expressions of gratitude can increase the likelihood for prosocial behavior (Grant & Gino, 2010). Specifically, when people experience an expression of gratitude they feel an increase in social worth, or sense of being socially valued, leading to an increase in subsequent prosocial behaviors. Additional research by Grant (2013) suggests that focusing on how the work employees are doing impacts the lives of others can lead to higher rates of productivity, especially when compared to simply thinking about themselves or extrinsic rewards. For example, simply meeting a real person whose life was positively impacted by their work can shift one’s mindset and motivation to work harder to drive more positive impact in the world. Grant (2013) goes on to promote the value of assessing one’s own giving style in various contexts and focusing specifically on the kind of giving that is most energizing and productive.
How to apply this research to your team?
You can utilize a three-pronged approach to embed prosocial behavior into the team. First, you can create a culture of gratitude by transparently expressing gratitude to members on the team and across the company. Second, you can ensure your team members have a chance to interact with your end customers, both in the onboarding month and on an ongoing basis. Third, you can encourage your team members to use your product themselves. The more experience employees gain with their organization offerings, the more they can internalize the customer’s perspective and understand their impact (Dutton & Spreitzer, 2014). Additionally, you can set model behavior for successful giving and based on Grant’s (2013) advice and focus on coaching your team members on how to find their own giving style to create a culture in which they help others succeed while maintaining their own energy and resources.
Aronson, E., Willerman, B., & Floyd, J. (1966). The effect of a pratfall on increasing interpersonal attractiveness. Psychonomic Science, 4(6), 227-228.
Dutton, J. E. (2003). Breathing life into organizational studies. Journal of Management Inquiry, 12(1), 5-19.
Dutton, J. E., & Spreitzer, G. M. (2014). How to be a positive leader: Small actions, big impact. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Grant, A. M., & Gino, F. (2010). A little thanks goes a long way: Explaining why gratitude expressions motivate prosocial behavior. Journal of personality and social psychology, 98(6), 946.
Grant, A. M., & Berg, J. M. (2012). Prosocial motivation at work. In The Oxford handbook of positive organizational scholarship.
Grant, A. M. (2013). Give and take: A revolutionary approach to success. New York, NY: The Penguin Group.
Stephens, J. P., Heaphy, E., & Dutton, J. E. (2011). High quality connections. The Oxford handbook of positive organizational scholarship, 385-399.
The world is objectively getting better. Over the past 40 years alone, the percentage of people in absolute poverty, living on less than $1.25 per day, has decreased from over 50% of the population to around 15% (Diamandis & Kotler, 2012). 30 years ago, 12 million kids were dying every year, but thanks to vaccines and work in public health, that number is down to around 5 million today (Garfield, 2018). We’ve eradicated entire diseases – cases of Guinea worm, a parasite that affected more than 3 million people 30 years ago, is down to mere thousands thanks to advancements in medical technology. Infant mortality is down. Crime rates are down. Child labor is down. All incredible things, and yet humanity isn’t flourishing. How can that be?
In recent years, psychologists have come to realize the absence of illness alone does not equate a life of well-being and flourishing. The field of psychology has historically focused on addressing problems in clinical populations, resulting in significant advancements in our ability to better understand life altering ailments, like depression and anxiety. On the other hand, the field contributed much less to advance our understanding of how to cultivate well-being and build lives full of positive emotion, meaning, and achievement. As Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000) put it, “the exclusive focus on pathology that has dominated so much of our discipline results in a model of the human being lacking the positive features that make life worth living.” In 1998, Seligman was elected President of the American Psychological Association, and the direction of psychological research took a turn northward. The central theme of Seligman’s presidential term? Positive psychology. In this new era of psychology, the absence of illness was not going to be the end of the story. Psychology was going to begin researching and understanding what it means to flourish and how to create more well-being. In the year of the election, 20 years ago, there were 53 publications on Google Scholar that mentioned ‘positive psychology’ and just over 1,000 that mentioned ‘subjective well-being.’ In the year 2017, the same searches on Google Scholar reveal over 16,000 and 20,000 publications related to each topic respectively. The era of positive psychology has officially begun.
Although sometimes colloquially referred to as the study of happiness, the psychology community refers to positive psychology as the scientific study of well-being. It is generally recognized today that happiness is an inadequate term to define the “good life,” in part due to its lack of a clear definition (a requirement for effective research) and its close, narrow association with positive emotion and pleasure. The construct of well-being has existed throughout history with ever-changing definitions, and there are still competing theories today on the proper definition. In the fourth century BC, Greek philosopher Aristippus supported the notion of hedonic happiness, suggesting the goal of life was to experience the maximum amount of pleasure (Ryan & Deci, 2001). This hedonic view, equating well-being with pleasure, has a long history and clearly still has some influence today. Aristotle considered hedonic happiness to be an unpolished and crude outlook on life, instead referring to happiness as Eudaimonia, a term that goes beyond pleasure and is centered on the process of living well (Melchert, 2002). Today, Seligman (2011) defines well-being using the PERMA model, suggesting a multi-pronged approach of well-being that encompasses Positive emotion (P), Engagement (E), Relationships (R), Meaning (M), and Achievement (A). Also a strong proponent of the multi-dimensionality of well-being, Diener (1984) introduced the concept of subjective well-being, defined as people’s overall evaluations of their lives and their positive and negative emotional experiences.
Regardless of the precise definition used, the value of scientifically studying well-being is largely tied to its ability to actually drive improved well-being and flourishing in the world. Lyubomirsky et al. (2005) suggest a person’s happiness level is determined by three factors: a genetically based happiness set point (roughly 50%), life circumstances that affect happiness (roughly 10%), and intentional activities and practices (roughly 40%). While eating well, physical activity, and getting enough sleep are naturally important components of human flourishing, positive psychologists have discovered additional, simple mechanisms to measurably improve well-being. These mechanisms are called positive interventions: evidence-based, intentional acts designed to increase well-being by growing a positive element of human flourishing (J. Pawelski, personal communication, October 7). And research suggests they really work. A comprehensive meta-analysis of 51 positive interventions conducted by Lyubomirsky (2009) demonstrated significant well-being enhancement (r = 0.29) and decreased depressive symptoms (r = 0.31) from the application of positive interventions.
To better understand positive interventions, it’s valuable to break down its definition into the three defining components: 1) evidence-based, 2) intentional, and 3) designed to increase well-being by growing a positive element of human flourishing. First, positive interventions are evidence-based. There are many ways to increase well-being, and what works for one person might not work for the next. Just because Bob or Amy find something that increases their well-being, does not by default make it a recognized positive intervention. To qualify, the positive intervention must be capable of having its impact measured and be shown to produce an improvement in at least one facet of well-being. This is not to say that non-measured activities are not worthwhile, just that they do not officially qulaify as positive interventions. 2) Positive interventions are intentional. To be counted as a positive intervention, the activity must be completed with internal agency. Although experiencing a sunny day may lead to empirically improved well-being, sunny days themelves do not qualify as a positive intervention. 3) Positive interventions are designed to increase well-being by growing a positive element of human flourishing. There are many important psychological interventions that are not designed specifically to increase well-being; these interventions tend to focus on lessening the negative. For example, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is designed to treat problems by modifying dysfunctional emotions, behaviors, and thoughts. While this can drive positive impact on well-being, it is primarily designed to decrease the negative as opposed to specifically grow a positive element of human flourishing.
Fortunately, the positive psychology community has methodologically developed many positive interventions to cultivate well-being. In the Three Good Things intervention, participants are asked to write down three things that went well and why every night for two weeks, improving well-being by shifting focus to the positive and fostering a mindset of gratitude (Seligman, Park, & Peterson, 2005). In the Best Possible Selves intervention, participants are asked to write about what their ideal future would look like, improving well-being through increased optimism and positive emotion (Peters, Flink, Boersma, Linton, 2010). Positive interventions also have the capacity to improve marital quality, a major contributor to well-being and physical health (Finkel, Slotter, Luchies, Walton, & Gross, 2013). A 21-minute reappraisal writing intervention for couples, in which participants think about conflict from the perspective of a neutral third party, protected the participants against declines in marital quality over time. There are now a wide-array of positive interventions designed to foster various dimensions of well-being, ranging from gratitude and positive emotion to resilience and optimism to love and transcendence (Fredrickson, 2009).
This sound great, but why should we care? If you ask a group of people what they want most in life, a common response is some version of “happiness.” Well-being in of itself is a goal many of us have for ourselves and those around us. But evidence suggests that well-being can also result in a variety of additional beneficial outcomes. First and foremost, people with higher well-being tend to be healthier and live longer on average (Diener et al., 2017). High well-being has also been shown to improve social relationships, result in more pro-social behavior, and improve job productivity and earning potential (Diener et al., 2017). Barbara Frederickson’s (2009) broaden-and-build theory posits that positive emotion alone broadens people’s ideas about possible actions they can take, while also helping people discover and build new skills to help them thrive.
To keep it simple, the more well-being we cultivate, the better our lives and the lives of those around us can be. Positive psychology is dedicated to systematically understanding, cultivating, and spreading well-being throughout world, ultimately creating a world in which we truly flourish.
Diamandis, P. H., & Kotler, S. (2012). Abundance: The future is better than you think. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
Diener, E. (1984). Subjective well-being. Psychological bulletin, 95(3), 542.
Diener, E., Heintzelman, S. J., Kushlev, K., Tay, L., Wirtz, D., Lutes, L. D., & Oishi, S. (2017). Findings all psychologists should know from the new science on subjective well-being. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne, 58, 87-104.
Finkel, E. J., Slotter, E. B., Luchies, L. B., Walton, G. M., & Gross, J. J. (2013). A brief intervention to promote conflict reappraisal preserves marital quality over time. Psychological Science, 24(8), 1595-1601.
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking research reveals how to embrace the hidden strength of positive emotions, overcome negativity, and thrive. New York, NY: Crown.
Garfield, L. (2018, Feb 14). Bill Gates says the world is objectively getting better – in spite of Trump’s ‘America First’ policies. Business Insider. Retrieved from: http://www.businessinsider.com/bill-gates-world-is-getting-better-despite-trump-2018-2
Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success?. Psychological bulletin, 131(6), 803.
Melchert, N. (2002). Aristotle: The reality of the world. The good life. The great conversation: A historical introduction to philosophy, 4, 186-198.
Peters, M. L., Flink, I. K., Boersma, K., & Linton, S. J. (2010). Manipulating optimism: Can imagining a best possible self be used to increase positive future expectancies? The Journal of Positive Psychology, 5(3), 204-211.
Ryan, R. M. & Deci, E. L. (2001). On happiness and human potentials: A review of research on hedonic and eudaimonic well-being. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 141-156.
Seligman, M. E., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychology, 55, 5-14.
Seligman, M., Steen, T.A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410-421.
Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
Sin, N. L., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2009). Enhancing well‐being and alleviating depressive symptoms with positive psychology interventions: A practice‐friendly meta‐analysis. Journal of clinical psychology, 65(5), 467-487.
The first iPhone was released by Apple in June 2007. Just over 10 years later, there are more than 2.3 billion smartphone users in the world (eMarketer report, 2017) and 94% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 own a smartphone (Pew Research Center, 2018). This rapid development of technology has significantly altered the way we live our lives. With smartphones, we are more connected than ever before. We can look up information and learn new skills without leaving the house. We can communicate around the world with immediacy, spreading messages and ideas faster than ever before. And beyond smartphone development, we have seen significant technological improvements in health care, energy consumption, robotics, virtual reality, business, and transportation.
The Unintended Consequences of Technology
However, these wide-ranging benefits of technology come at a cost. The Global Wellness Institute (2018) has found substantial evidence supporting adverse effects of technology on a) social relationships and loneliness; b) sleep; c) inactivity, obesity and physiological health; d) mental wellness; e) distraction and safety; and f) productivity. Although all important factors of well-being, this post will focus specifically on the impact of technology on social relationships and loneliness. The influx of smartphone usage and persistent connectivity has rapidly altered the way people interact with each other and form relationships. Throughout this change, we are learning that not all connection is created equal, and the result of losing substantive connections for superficial ones can be devastating. Countries around the world are declaring epidemics of loneliness as people struggle to create meaningful connections (Hafner, 2016).
While technology itself is neither good or bad, the way we use technology can have significantly positive or negative effects on our well-being.
Consider for a moment our ability to connect with others through technology. At the touch of a button, we can spend 20 minutes on Apple FaceTime or Google Hangouts with family members around the world to share positive life updates over video chat. Similarly, we can spend hours scrolling through Facebook newsfeeds, idly monitoring the curated online lives of our extended network. While both activities include technology and forms of social connection, they can have drastically different results on our lives – the latter being associated with increased envy and decreased well-being (Verduyn et al., 2015).
Research is starting to catch up to the rapid development of technology and the results are concerning. Young adults with high social media usage tend to experience more perceived social isolation than their counterparts with lower social media usage (Primack et al., 2017). This is a problem. Social isolation, both perceived and actual, is associated with increased risk of early mortality, even more so than other known risk factors, including obesity (Holt-Lunstad, Smith, Baker, Harris, & Stephenson, 2015). Additionally, Cheng & Li (2014) report that global internet addition, defined as excessive use to the extent that time spent on devices impacts relationships, work, daily activities, and physical and mental health, has reached a global prevalence estimate of 6%. Unsurprisingly, they found that internet addiction is inversely associated with quality of life, as reflected by both subjective (life satisfaction) and objective (quality of environmental conditions) indicators. As internet continues to be more ingrained in our lives, through smartphones or otherwise, it would not be surprising to see the rate of internet addiction, and the associated negative outcomes, to continue to increase over time.
Like other addictions, however, fault does not reside exclusively with the individual. Technology companies have seemingly neglected their impact on well-being when designing and launching new products. In fact, their incentives are often completely misaligned with well-being. Consider Facebook, a company that makes more than 98% of its revenue through advertising (Facebook, 2018). Facebook is responsible to its shareholders to steadily increase revenue, and steadily increasing advertising revenue equates with finding ways to get people to spend more and more time on their platform (to see more ads). This does not bode well for human flourishing based on the known association between social media usage and decreased well-being (Primack et al., 2017). Of course, it’s not just Facebook – Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube all operate under the same business models and are equally innovating to capture more of people’s time.
To understand how these leading technology decision makers think, consider the sentiment expressed by Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, stating that one of Netflix’s biggest competitors is sleep itself (Snider, 2017).
This poses a serious threat to our well-being, especially considering the significant reach of these leading technology companies in today’s connected world. Once again, it becomes important to remind ourselves that technology itself is neither good or bad; rather, it’s how we design and consume technology that influences our well-being and ability to flourish.
Righting the Ship: Designing for Well-Being
Let’s revisit the example of Facebook and its impact on well-being. As highlighted above, Facebook is designed to maximize time on site and advertising revenue. Accordingly, for years Facebook has been developing mechanisms to draw their customers in for hours on end, resulting in the enticing world of endless news feed scrolling we often find ourselves in today. It’s exactly this type of passive Facebook usage that leads to decreased well-being (Verduyn et al., 2015). On the other hand, evidence suggests that actively interacting with others on Facebook, i.e. through direct messaging and reminiscing about past interactions, is actually linked to improvements in well-being (Verduyn et al., 2015).
In other words, Facebook itself is neither inherently good or bad, but how one uses it can make all the difference. If we can agree that well-being should be the primary objective of technology, and align incentives accordingly (easier said than done), we can begin designing technology products with a deliberate focus on increasing well- being.
Encouragingly, in Facebook’s most recent investor report (2018), founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerburg, noted “we are taking a broader view of our responsibility and investing to make sure our services are used for good.”
Will this actually translate into Facebook updating their product and design to encourage more active usage, even if it comes at the cost of less passive usage and advertising revenue? Only time will tell…
Cheng, C., & Li, A. Y. L. (2014). Internet addiction prevalence and quality of (real) life: a meta-analysis of 31 nations across seven world regions. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 17(12), 755-760.
Facebook Reports First Quarter 2018 Results. (2018, Apr 25). PRNewswire. Retrieved from: https://investor.fb.com/investor-news/press-release-details/2018/Facebook-Reports-First-Quarter-2018-Results/default.aspx
Hafner, K. (2016, Sep 6). Researchers confront an Epidemic of Loneliness. The New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/06/health/lonliness-aging-health-effects.html
Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta-analytic review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 227-237.
McCarthy, J., Bauer, B., Sood, A., Limburg, P. J., Goodin, T., Malleret, T. (2018). Wellness in the Age of the Smartphone. In Global Wellness Institute. Retrieved from: https://www.globalwellnessinstitute.org/global-wellness-institute-blog/2018/4/10/new-report-wellness-in-the-age-of-the-smartphone
Mobile Fact Sheet. (2018, Feb 5). Pew Research Center. Retrieved from: http://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheet/mobile/
Primack, B. A., Shensa, A., Sidani, J. E., Whaite, E. O., yi Lin, L., Rosen, D., … & Miller, E (2017). Social media use and perceived social isolation among young adults in the US. American journal of preventive medicine, 53(1), 1-8.
Snider, M. (2017, Apr 18). Netflix’s biggest competition? Sleep, CEO says. USA Today Retrieved from: https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/talkingtech/2017/04/18/netflixs-biggest-competition-sleep-ceo-says/100585788/
Verduyn, P., Lee, D. S., Park, J., Shablack, H., Orvell, A., Bayer, J., . . . Kross, E. (2015). Passive Facebook usage undermines affective well-being: Experimental and longitudinal evidence. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 144(2), 480-488.
Worldwide Internet and Mobile Users: eMarketer’s Updated Estimates and Forecast for 2017– 2021 (2017, Dec 1.) In eMarketer Report. Retrieved from: https://www.emarketer.com/Report/Worldwide-Internet-Mobile-Users-eMarketers Updated-Estimates-Forecast-20172021/2002147
Title: Commitment Devices
Activity: Use a commitment device to help achieve an important, difficult goal.
Background: A commitment device is a tool set in place by individuals in the present to help their future selves achieve goals that otherwise would be difficult to accomplish. When talking about achieving goals, in economics we often refer to Time Inconsistency, a concept explaining how our future selves do not always agree with or act in accordance with our current self beliefs. More specifically, our current selves tends to value long-term benefits, while our future selves are more easily influenced by our immediate surroundings and short-term cravings. This often results in us failing to successfully execute against our goals, no matter how excited or confident we were in setting them up. And that’s the beauty of commitment devices — a tool our current self can leverage to ensure maximum chance of success when it’s time for our future self to execute against our plans.
For example, let’s say you decide it’s time to start going to the gym regularly again (go current self!). You look at your calendar and choose to go every Tuesday and Thursday after work. It’s a good plan that fits in perfectly with your schedule. Then Tuesday comes along and you find yourself extra busy at work. You need to stay late to finish a project and are exhausted afterwards, so you decide to skip that day (classic future self move). It’s OK, you will make up for it on Thursday (great idea, new current self). But on Thursday you get a call from your friends who want to try that new restaurant around the corner for dinner. You haven’t seen your friends in a while and decide that would be more fun than a day at the gym (come on, future self!). Not to worry though, you commit to making up for it over the weekend (hmm getting harder and harder to trust current self).
I think it’s safe to say we’ve all been there before. If it’s not skipping a gym session, it’s failing to eat a healthy meal, getting distracted while trying to finish a project, going out instead of saving money, or hitting snooze instead of waking up early. This is why it’s critical to understand this economic concept and to help your current self to put safeguards in place to avoid future self slip ups.
There are many examples of commitment device strategies. Some common examples include: buying a gym membership, cutting up credit cards, buying small packets of snacks and not keeping alcohol or dessert in the house. For this month’s activity, I focused on two specific types of commitment devices:
Results: The results of leveraging commitment devices were successful in both cases. After months of trying and failing to get back into Spanish, knowing I had prepaid for 10 Spanish classes finally encouraged the continuous studying and learning I had been wanting throughout the month. Meanwhile, my friend, who had failed at sticking to these two exact goals for some time, had the most successful month in terms of eating well and exercising he’s ever had. By acknowledging the power of time inconsistency, we were both able to put safeguards in place to help our future selves stick to our goals.
Next Steps: It’s exciting to see the power of commitment devices come to life — I plan to continue to explore various commitment devices to accomplish other, difficult to achieve goals. I’ve already started buying less junk food and more vegetables for the house when grocery shopping so that my future self is more likely to eat healthy and avoid sweets (sorry future self – love, current self).
“Save Me From Myself.” Audio blog post. Freakonomics Radio. N.p., 26 Dec. 2013.
Bryan, Gharad, Dean Karlan, and Scott Nelson. “Commitment Devices.” Annual Review of Economics 2.1 (2010): 671-98. Web.
“Bestiary of Behavioral Economics/Commitment Devices.” Bestiary of Behavioral Economics/Commitment Devices – Wikibooks, Open Books for an Open World. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 July 2017.