Home All The Measure of Your Powers

Denise Clegg, MAPP 08, is Program Officer for the Positive Neuroscience project at the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center. She also serves as a facilitator for the Penn Resilience Program and is a daily editor for Positive Psychology News Daily.

Denise writes on the 20th of each month, and her articles are here.

Flamenca Dancer

Flamenca Dancer

How do you want to feel in your life? In your work?

Can you describe how you want to feel – viscerally, emotionally, energetically – as easily as you can list your goals?

Doug Newburg (2002) interviewed hundreds of world-class performers, including athletes, business leaders, artists, and surgeons, to find out what made them tick. A consistent pattern emerged from their stories. Newburg distilled his research and created the Resonance Performance Model (RPM), which is one of my favorite tools for positive change.

A Model For Momentum

As you would expect, these high-level performers spoke about goals, extensive practice, and preparation. But what distinguished their drive was a deep sense — and passionate pursuit – of what it felt like to be at their best.

According to their descriptions, a peak experience is one of wholeness, energy in harmony, and effortless fulfillment. They were willing to work hard to feel that way again and to make it the centerpiece of daily experience. Newburg calls that feeling, which each person defined uniquely, the internal or experiential dream. This experiential dream was critical to maintaining motivation, cultivating personal freedom and self-regulation, and surpassing serious obstacles and setbacks – fueling an upward spiral of performance.

Newburg’s RPM defines resonance as a seamless fit between external and internal environments. His model builds on positive psychology theory and research, including Czikszentmihalyi’s flow and Deci and Ryan’s (1985) intrinsic motivation and self-determination.

Cultivating Resonance
perspicuus.jpg The RPM outlines high performance as an ongoing, cyclic process:

1. Defining the dream by exploring how you want to feel and what conditions, people, and experiences enhance versus drain your energy. Newburg asserts that the dream drives the goals.

2. Preparing by doing the hard work. This includes practice, training, strategic pursuit, and cultivation of conditions that help you embody the desired experience and reach goals.

3. Negotiating obstacles and setbacks. They are inevitable and may be external (injury, rejection) or internal (fear, anxiety). In the face of adversity, high performers carefully managed their energy by:

4. Revisiting the dream. Top performers report that reconnecting to how they want to feel helps them surpass obstacles, re-energize, and re-engage in preparation.

As a coach, I am attracted to RPM because it is an elegant model and useful foundation for a number of positive interventions with clients.

Newburg (2002) doesn’t reference Fredrickson’s (1998) research, but it seems clear that positive emotions help create resonant performance. Top performers intuitively cultivate core positive feelings in the embodied experience of their dream. After setbacks, they re-engage with positive emotions and recharge before jumping back into preparation. They work very hard, but they don’t spin their wheels chasing down problems. Instead, they broaden and build to capture their dreams.

Attunement and the Proactive Mind
magic-apples.jpgHelping people attune to limbic and somatic experience is effective in practice and intriguing in theory. Research in neuroscience suggests that limbic areas of the brain imbue objects and experiences with meaning prior to cognitive awareness.

In a review of research, Soon, Haynes and colleagues (2008) conclude that the unconscious brain engineers decisions milliseconds before conscious awareness registers them. They assert,

“Our brains make decisions based on emotions and assessments that we’re not aware of; only later, after the decision is actually made, do we explain our decisions and actions to ourselves.”

Their research may one day reveal the biological basis for psychological findings, such as Jon Haidt’s work, which shows that people rationalize decisions already made intuitively.

I use the RPM to help clients get dreams (metaphorically) out of their heads and into their bodies  — or vice versa– so that they can better marshal and integrate their energies. Their experience is beautifully captured in George Santayana description of happiness:

To be happy you must have taken the measure of your powers, tasted the fruits of your passion, and learned your place in the world.



Britton, K. (2008). Motivation and Self Determination Theory. Blog posting that summarizes Deci and Ryan work and includes links to online versions of their papers.

Csiksentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience.. New York: Harper Perennial.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior (Perspectives in Social Psychology). New York: Plenum.

Fredrickson, B. L. (1998). What good are positive emotions?. Review of General Psychology, 2, 300-319.

Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive . New York: Crown.

Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books.

Newburg, D., Kimiciek, J., Durand-Bush, N. & Doell, K. (2002). The role of resonance in performance excellence and life engagement. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 14, 249-267.

Soon, C., Brass, M., Heinze, H. J., & Haynes, J.D. (2008). Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain. Nature Neuroscience, 11(5), 543-545.

Esencia Flamenca by teresawer, Perspicuus by woodleywonderworks,
Magic Apples by h.koppdelaney

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Kirsten Cronlund 20 March 2009 - 9:21 am


I love this article! It’s so inspiring to hear about work that addresses what goes on beyond a pat goal list. There’s always been something jarring to me about the process by which goal-setting usually occurs, and this article points to exactly what’s at the heart of that for me.

I don’t have a written list of goals, but I am constantly revisiting my dream(s), listening intently to my own inner voice as well as the messages from the world and others around me. Sometimes I don’t know exactly where I’m going, but at the end of the day I have usually made progress towards the life I know I want (even if I can’t clearly articulate it).

I am definitely adding Newburg’s book to my list of must-reads.


Kirsten Cronlund 20 March 2009 - 9:35 am

Actually, I see now that it’s not a book, but an article. I’ll have to get my hands on that.

Denise 20 March 2009 - 9:53 am

Hi Kirsten,

Thank you for your comments! In his publications you’ll find some more information about applications and practices he uses w/ the model. And I referenced his research, but he does have a book out as well: The Most Important Lesson No One Ever Taught Me (2005).

Senia Maymin 20 March 2009 - 11:33 am

This is a beautiful article! I, too, like Kirsten want to read this asap.

This component of Jon Haidt’s writing on the dual brain always intrigued me – that the automatic brain often makes the decision first, before the rational brain.

These people do sound passionate. It’s interesting – it sounds like it’s visualizing the full experience – how you will feel, etc. – and not at all just the end goal. Very interesting.


Senia Maymin 20 March 2009 - 11:33 am

p.s. These images are incredible!

Denise Clegg 20 March 2009 - 1:15 pm

Thank you, Senia. How we’ve come to so strongly believe we have a ‘rational’ brain at all is an intriguing question … with a long intellectual tradition but much less real-world evidence :). Haidt’s work does a beautiful job of shining the light on brain/belief/behavior mysteries. Here’s a really interesting related discussion: the “experimental philosophy of others’ intentions: http://www.mindhacks.com/blog/2009/02/experimental_philoso.html

Christine Duvivier 20 March 2009 - 2:07 pm

Denise, Fabulous article, thank you for bringing this to light! For a number of years I’ve been working on myself and with clients on the feeling-state of a visualization, so it’s terrific to learn about Newburg’s work. Like Kristen, I have found extrinsic goals to be much less valuable than the steps inherent in bringing out the best in you through integrated energy.

You articulated it all so beautifully, Denise, thank you!

WJ 20 March 2009 - 4:46 pm

Denise – The comment “Our brains make decisions based on emotions and assessments that we’re not aware of; only later, after the decision is actually made, do we explain our decisions and actions to ourselves” has important implications. It forms the basis of the resilience work that I do – calm the emotional brain (the amygdala) and everything else is easy.

Haidt’s comments also fit with Kirsten’s article on mindfulness https://positivepsychologynews.com/news/kirsten-cronlund/200903151652 where research suggests that mindfulness makes it easy to reframe.

This whole concept of Haidts has profound implications for PP which is largely based on CBT – any thoughts?

Denise 20 March 2009 - 8:27 pm


Your good questions inspire many thoughts. For now, I’ll just say I find it important to consider the brain and its functions as an integrated, dynamic mass of networks, matter, chemicals, and energy – and the boundaries of the mind/brain, as well as boundaries around function and facets of consciousness is awfully murky. It might be metaphorically useful to describe our ‘rational’ brain, ‘emotional’ brain, ‘unconcious’ mind, etc., but it’s one brain, sitting in a body that has numerous portals for numberless transactions, interconnected to ever-shifting conditions.

I think you are asking whether or not ‘top-down’ interventions can be effective if research suggests a powerful ‘bottom up’ influence on conscious awareness (and much of that process happening outside of conscious awareness). I would have to ask back, what is conscious awareness? When you have worked with people to have a deeper affinity with emotional experience, would you say they have an expanded conscious awareness, and more access to modulating their experience of awareness?

I’m not sure I agree that PP is largely based on CBT, but I do think there are many ways to step into the stream, and no matter how you get wet, both you and the river are changed.

WJ 20 March 2009 - 8:45 pm

Denise – all good points. I guess I’m suggesting that we tend to overlook the impact of the emotional brain on cognition – probably a shortcoming of PP. For example Seligmans explanory style is all about CBT. And I know Fredricksen focuses on the impact of emotions on thinking – but most interventions are still cognitive.

You might find this article interesting http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?p=469

Your question “what is conscious awareness?” is way beyond my humble little mind. I’ll leave that for the philosophers to debate.

Out of interest have you read Descarte’s error (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Descartes%27_Error). This book provided the impetus for much of the work that I do.

LeanRainmakingMachine 20 March 2009 - 9:13 pm

Denise and WJ:
Interesting discussion. My recollection of Haidt’s work is that he acknowledges both meditation and CBT (including PP) as ways to help “retrain the elephant” –that is, as effective in using the rational brain (the “driver”) to alter the recations of the subconscious,emotional part of the brain (the “elephant’) So, I viewed it as complementary but important. Haidt, for example, makes the point that altering behavior is much more complex than simply rationally ‘wanting to change’ and emphasizes that, for evolutionary reasons, humans are more negative than positive. In short, PP has a lot of work to do…

Denise C. 21 March 2009 - 7:04 pm

Hi WJ and LRM,

Thank you again for this great discussion. WJ, I’m quite sure we’re on the same page; I have read Damasio’s book, and it inspired me as well. One of the most important lessons for me was to beware of false dichotomies. For me, PP is one of the rare disciplines to take emotions very, very seriously. Just can’t agree that PP is limited to CBT interventions. In a recent (2007) chapter, Fredrickson outlined 4 action strategies to increase well being — none can be described as purely or even primarily cognitive: https://positivepsychologynews.com/news/denise-clegg/200810201087. Seligman anchored the field with his work on explanatory style, and/but has been aggressive in expanding the breadth of theory and practice, including new projects on neuroscience and mind/body health.

LRM, thank you for your note … you’re right, everyone has a lot of work to do 🙂 or should simply surrender, who knows? Have to note that, while there is good research suggesting that danger, threat and negative circumstances get more airtime on the human/brain loudspeaker, that doesn’t mean humans are more negative than positive. If anything, much evolutionary theory suggests that our special species survived because of capacities to bond, sacrifice, love, and work altruistically toward group survival. A few days on the NYC subway shows that humans are far more positive than negative… to the point of millions of daily miracles.

Doug Newburg 21 April 2009 - 8:43 am

Just thought I would make another comment and suggestion. In my work with people and organizations, my “model” is constantly evolving. At the same time I was interviewing these successful people I also spent hours each night until deep in the night (usually 3 AM) for fifteen years listening to people who were stuck and that helped me understand some of the differences. One thing I see most people not doing is collecting the “data” of their own lives.

And that leads me to suggest a book called “Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees.” It has been called the best book about an artist ever written. It is about Robert Irwin. The most helpful book I have ever read and way better than anything I could write.

Jeff 21 April 2009 - 10:48 am


As this is motivation month, I think these questions will help expand the subject.

How does a person collect the data of their lives? Which data are more relevant for change? Is there or will there ever be a general formula for motivation “m” that will move people’s hearts and minds and wallets? Can we define “dreams” precisely? Can we measure a dream and its progress?

If someone is stuck, how does a dream emerge from the hardship of being stuck? There are people for whom positivity is a rare occurrence. They are the brain lottery losers for positive emotion. What is helpful in securing their dreams despite the absence of strong positivity to buoy them?

Doug Newburg 23 April 2009 - 1:21 am


Great questions and I would never try to answer these (if in fact you are asking me too) in an email.

What I discovered in my work is that the true “positives” the people I interviewed found in their lives came from their ability to use the skill of feel to find what was right about them and transcend what others might judge is wrong about them. They honed this skill in the same way people become wine tasters or experts on smell and taste and music. My belief is “feel” is the low hanging fruit in most people’s lives. I differentiate feel from feelings which are often associated with issues or baggage. To feel the way you want to feel, you have to be able to feel often and a variety of things and not confuse what you feel with past feelings that might be painting their own picture.

Here is what I believe. We are born with gifts designed for each of us to fulfill our own promise, a promise we discover ourselves. Those gifts of life can then be developed into the skills for living the life inside of us. What is the salient aspect of a dream? How we feel when we live it or dream it. So we define for ourselves what a dream is. But here’s the thing. People get it when I talk to them about how they want to feel. They don’t use the word dream. They describe the feel. For a swimmer, he told me it was Easy Speed, a dance with the water.

Anyway, my question to you is how do you answer these questions for yourself? How do you want to feel? If you don’t know, how would you go about finding out? How did today feel? Each moment of it? That is the data I ask people to start with. Then we go wherever that takes us.



Doug Newburg 23 April 2009 - 1:24 am

And for a great video check out Mike Rowe’s TED talk about work.



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