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Powering the Quest for Well-Being With Imagination

written by Orin Davis 14 November 2011

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.

How do we visualize our thoughts, and how can we show them to other people?

Aharon Charnov (with permission)

This is the question faced by many freelance educational animators today, including former Jim Henson Company digital artist and RIT professor Aharon “AC” Charnov. Helping educators to animate concepts for audiences young and old, he is giving academia new ways to view concepts (e.g., The Goldratt Lectures). When I spoke with him about this recently, he noted that one of the most important aspects is to enable the viewer to see matters from more than one angle, and leaving the resolution up to the individual.

I think he is on to something.

Often, we want to think of new ideas, or find ways to improve ourselves, and the hardest thing to do is to get a concrete conception, often because we are using other people’s angles, oversimplified frameworks, and/or very basic modalities like words. One of the best aspects of positive psychology interventions like Emmons and McCullough’s counting blessings paradigm, or Seligman’s gratitude letters, is that they require us to come up with our own notions of what is good, meaningful, and valuable in our lives. Through these exercises, we are building what Luthans and colleagues call psychological capital by developing the confidence to integrate our pasts, our feelings, and our ways of expressing them, and giving ourselves a composite view of the good things in our lives.

One of the key mechanisms underlying these interventions, however, is that they ask us to relive a positive experience. Think about any positive experience you have had lately, and note that you are not using just words, or just images, but rather multiple sensory modalities. As Gerard points out, even when we do a visualization exercise, it involves far more than merely visual information, and enters into the experiential realm. If we want to find a clear means for improving ourselves, finding well-being, and developing a solid self-concept, we need to use multiple perspectives to construct experiences. Many corporations have already figured this out with their use of 360° feedback to describe how a person is experienced in a firm, and therapists have been helping people understand and guide their experiences with the rising use of biofeedback, as described by Schwartz and Andrasik.

    3-D Image

It does not need to be a complex construction, either. A look at some of Edward Tufte’s work reveals that one can combine different aspects of simple picture-processing (e.g., color, number, line style) to convey complex information in a clear and concise fashion. This suggests that, by integrating individual constructs that are simply arrayed in their original sensory modalities, we can create highly complex and meaningful representations that can allow us to understand and improve ourselves. This is a lot like 3-D vision, which uses a host of visual cues to resolve a pair of 2-D images to create a full-depth view. As Charnov points out, we need to integrate multiple modes and perspectives in order to have a clear idea of the concepts we want to understand. When it comes to self-improvement, self-definition, or our own ideas, Charnov’s notion means that we need to fire up our full imaginations and bring our experiences to bear.

The author wishes to thank Thuy-vy Nguyen for her contributions to this article.


Emmons, R.A., & McCullough, M.E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377-389.

Gerard, R. (1961, August). Symbolic visualization: A method of psychosynthesis. Paper presented at the 5th International Congress of Psychotherapy, Vienna, Austria.

Luthans, F., Avolio, B.J., Avey, J.B., & Norman, S.M. (2007). Positive psychological capital : Measurement and relationship with performance and satisfaction. Personnel Psychology, 60, 541-572.

Schwartz, M. S., & Andrasik, F. (Eds.). (2003). Biofeedback: A Practitioner’s Guide (3rd Ed.). New York: Guilford Press.

Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005) Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 410-421.

Tufte, E.R. (1990). Envisioning Information. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press.

Charnov image used with permission. Please request permission before reusing.
3-D image courtesy of Plonq Snowcat

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