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What Am I Doing, and Why?

By on July 27, 2016 – 10:54 pm  2 Comments

Orin C. Davis is the first person to earn a doctorate in Positive Psychology. His research focuses on flow, creativity, hypnosis, and mentoring, and it spans both the workplace and daily life. He runs the Quality of Life Laboratory and is a freelance consultant. Orin's Web site. Orin's articles are here.

An undergrad (not one of my students) found out that I work in positive psychology and asked if she could meet with me over coffee to talk about a research career in the field. She had a fantastic background, a serious interest in research, and a love for positive psychology — of course I was willing to meet with her! After the initial pleasantries, I got down to business and asked her what she wanted to know from me.

She had no idea.

In fact, she hadn’t thought at all about the questions she wanted to ask or any specific way in which I could help her besides serving as a source of general information and advice. To be sure, I hold no rancor against her for this; most undergrads give me the same deer-in-headlights look when I ask them what they want. But, that meeting led me to notice a rather strange phenomenon, and call it confirmation bias if you must, but I started seeing it all over:

We have no idea what we want.

This is a problem, and not just because failing to know what we want precludes our getting it. There are any number of constructs in positive psychology that are largely, if not entirely, predicated upon knowing what it is that WE want.

Take flow, for example.

Flow, even microflow, depends upon our having a goal and some way of knowing whether we are moving towards fulfilling it. If we don’t have a task goal at work, we don’t experience flow. No clear aim to our leisure activities? Instead of flow we’ll get flump! In a similar vein, we see that the many benefits of making progress are dependent upon knowing the end goal of the endeavor.

Take self-determination theory, for another example

Self-determination is another example. Be our goals intrinsic or extrinsic, we exhibit no competence without a clear statement of what we want to accomplish. This applies to autonomy, as well, insofar as it requires a degree of alignment between the rewards for getting something done and the values that the individual holds. See Organismic Integration Theory for a more nuanced view on this. It’s rather hard to pursue rewards without defining the ones we value.

Take self-transcendence as well

Self-transcendence also requires some idea of what we want. If we fail to define what it is we hope to create and leave behind as a legacy, and if we fail to delineate the end goals that our values aim to achieve, we run the risk of stagnation in almost every area of positive well-being (see Ryff’s work in this area). Under such circumstances, we cannot engage in positive relationships, because we have undefined identities. We cannot master our environments, because we have no measure of mastery. We cannot even accept ourselves, because not knowing what we want precludes the definition of a fundamental aspect of our identities.

What we must do, then, is ask ourselves the simple question of what we want.

What do we want in the near-term?

In the long term?

What are our goals in our work, recreational, relational, and personal lives?

In this, it is important to make SMART goals, of course, but we can’t even do that if we fail to entertain the question of our desires. So let’s start with a simple question:

What am I doing, and why?


Amabile, T. & Kramer, S. (2011). The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work. Harvard Business Review Press.

Deci, E.L., & Ryan, R.M. (2000). The” what” and” why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry,11(4), 227-268.

Koltko-Rivera, M. E. (2006). Rediscovering the later version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: Self-transcendence and opportunities for theory, research, and unification. Review of General Psychology, 10(4), 302-317.

Locke, E. A. & Latham, G. P. (1990). A Theory of Goal Setting & Task Performance. Prentice Hall College Division.

Locke, E.A., & Latham, G.P. (2006). New directions in goal-setting theory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(5), 265-268.

Moss, S. (last updated 2016). Organismic integration theory.

Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009). Flow theory and research. In C. R. Snyder & S. Lopez, S., Handbook of Positive Psychology (pp. 195-206). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.

Ryff, C.D., & Keyes, C.L.M. (1995). The structure of psychological well-being revisited. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(4), 719.

Photo Credit: via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
College student courtesy of Francisco Osorlo
Where doea a ladder take you? courtesy of chrisparkeruk


  • Judy Krings says:

    Hi, Orin. Your positive psychology coaching “powerful question” post really hit home for me. As a positive psychology coach, I often get kind PP students or life learners or those on the way to accreditation who use social media to contact me. They often relate, “I just want to touch base with you.” Or, “I’d like to pick your brain.” I often wonder what they would like to pick! When I ask them how talking with me might serve them, they freeze. I remind them that often about 50% of coaching clients who originally have a coaching agenda at the beginning of coaching, somewhere along the way lose sight of it. Maybe it morphs to something else more pressing, I never know. I do ask them if they can be more specific as I want to make good use of our time. You are thoughtful to give the askers an open, flexible and sacred place to grow.Great powerful questions at the end. Much appreciated.

  • Such a crucial point! Knowing what we want is a key first step to most of life!

    One helpful exercise that comes to mind for figuring out what you want is the Best Possible Self exercise. Obviously we (at Happy Brain Science) didn’t come up with the Best Possible Future/Best Possible Self exercise, it was published here:

    What Is the Optimal Way to Deliver a Positive Activity Intervention? The Case of Writing About One’s Best Possible Selves. Kristin Layous , S. Katherine Nelson, Sonja Lyubomirsky. Research Paper. Journal of Happiness Studies. April 2013, Volume 14, Issue 2, pp 635-654.“

    But we wrote up a little template for people to use here:

    Great article Orin! Thanks!

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