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Reverse Engineering Positive Psychology

written by Orin Davis 21 December 2010

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.

Editor’s Note: This is the first article by a new author, Orin Davis. Orin recently earned his Ph.D. in Positive Psychology from Claremont Graduate University. He wrote his dissertation on microflow, and was advised by Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Dr. Jeanne Nakamura. Welcome, Orin!

One of the continual challenges of research is making it generalizable to the population at large. But, as people are quick to point out, what works for the general population might not work for a specific individual.

World-wide population growth

World-wide population growth

The surprise, however, is how many people take general findings like the Positivity Ratio and assume that they must need a 3:1 ratio of positive-to-negative events, only to find themselves unhappy. Similarly, there are those who use the exercises that Lyubomirsky described in her works, only to wonder why they are no happier for having done them and what they did wrong.

Their error was not knowing themselves!

Tailoring to fit

Tailoring to fit

Reverse Engineer to Fit

It is important to remember that, since research findings are designed to apply to a large group, they must be reverse engineered to the individual. The key to doing this is the Socratic maxim, “Nosce te ipsum” – “Know thyself!”

When you read about the Positivity Ratio, remember that 3:1 is the average across people. Some can manage with a ratio of 2:1, and others need something more like 6:1.

Think about yourself, your own needs, and how positive and negative events affect you. Are you more sensitive to one kind or the other relative to the people you know? If so, you are likely to deviate from the general 3:1 recommendation. For example, if positive events have a strong effect on you, while most negative events are like water off a duck’s back, a 2.5:1 ratio might be fine. If negative events are highly salient to you, you might need more positive experiences to compensate.

Likewise, when undertaking exercises to improve happiness and subjective well-being, remember to adapt the instructions to your life. Don’t throw them out, but remember that they are generalized and need some minor tweaking to work for you.

Your Own Way of Finding Flow

Street artist

Street artist

The same guidelines hold for finding flow. As Csikszentmihalyi pointed out, almost any activity can be a flow activity. While activities in sports and the arts are common vehicles for flow, people need not assume that they are not experiencing flow just because they are not doing activities that are typically conducive to flow.

Whenever people ask me about finding flow, my first question is always the same: “What do you like to do?” (The second question is “What activity would you be willing to do all day if I could arrange it?”) A surprising number of people have trouble answering this question, and, even though they have read all about flow, they have trouble finding it.

Cartoonist Chari Pere illustrated a great, informative comic, Gretchen Rubin and the Quest for a Passion, part of Gretchen Rubin’s blog and recent book. While it is about finding one’s passion, it also highlights the perils of letting people tell you who you are instead of finding out for yourself.

Nosce te ipsum is an important principle throughout all areas of life. It is also one of the keys to making positive psychology work. Whether it is knowing your calling at work, your strengths, or your passion, knowing who you are and how you operate will enable you to take the research findings of positive psychology and put them to work in your own life.




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

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. New York: Basic Books.

Diener, E., Lucas, R. E., & Scollon, C. N. (2006). Beyond the hedonic treadmill: Revising the adaptation theory of well-being. American Psychologist, 61 (4), 305–314.

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

Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin Books.

Rubin, G. (2009). The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun. Harper.

World Population Growth courtesy of Lauren Manning
Tailoring to fit courtesy of Jay Tamboli

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Sherri 21 December 2010 - 10:07 am

Hi, Orin-
Congratulations and welcome aboard! I agree that person-intervention fit, whether backward or forward engineered, is the key to making things work. On the other hand, Jon Haidt and colleagues’ research continually points out that we do not know ourselves and that we can be easily led by priming our emotions and by our own moral intuitions, even when we are sure that we won’t be. Then there is the confirmation bias which, if you are a pessimist, will lead you to see reasons why an intervention won’t fit (even if it would. Well done empirical research is an important start for weeding out what does not work, even when we think it ought to.

oz 21 December 2010 - 4:05 pm

Orin – Perhaps the issue is the search for happiness itself. There is a body of research suggesting that by pursuing happiness we become unhappy.

An interesting dilemma for sites like PPND and PP in general

By the the way the articles I read on flow showed that the most commonly reported situation where people experience flow is driving – driving is a passion for some people – but probably not for most people.

Marge Dukes 21 December 2010 - 4:13 pm

Hi All,
Just to let the gang know how Orin was connected to the PPND. I am a MAPP 2006 graduate who happens to volunteer at the NJ Project Managemen Institute for their monthly dinner meetings. While conversing with Orin’s Mother, who is also a volunteer, she mentioned her son had just received his PhD in Pos Psych this year and I said, “Send me his email so I can connect him up with other Pos Psych people.” I connected him up with Kathryn Britton, and she asked him if he wanted to participate/write for PPND.

Ah it’s those serendipitous moments, or as we say in career counseling, “planned happenstance.”

Orin Davis 28 December 2010 - 5:45 am


Thank you for the warm welcome!

I would argue that the fact of our knowledge being imperfect, or the fact that we can sometimes get a skewed self-view should not deter us from making our best guesses. Often, incidentally, our limited knowledge is not so much about who we are as much as it is about predicting our future responses, emotions, and reactions. Even with the limitations, it’s better than no knowledge, and likewise better than assuming that one size fits all.

Orin Davis 28 December 2010 - 5:50 am


Actually, a lot of people find flow at work. They zone out when they drive, often because it is insufficiently challenging.

I would venture that the notion of pursuing happiness leading to unhappiness is exactly the problem I was hoping to address. Far too many people try to make these happiness exercises work, and end up failing because they did not apply the directions to their lives. I think it’s not so much a dilemma for PP and PPND as much as it is a standing challenge: we must be rigorous in our research, and equally detailed in showing its boundaries and applications!

Orin Davis 28 December 2010 - 5:50 am


Serendipity, indeed! And a small world, too! Many thanks for introducing me to such a great bunch of people!

Louisa Jewell 3 January 2011 - 1:35 pm

Welcome Orin!
Thank you for your thoughtful article and for the reminder that rigidly following recommendations from research is not always effective. Tailoring is a great idea.


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