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Dr. Anthony Ahrens

Emotions and Positive Psychocology Lab 4400 Massachusetts Avenue NW Washington, DC 20016 United States

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Emotions & Positive Psychology Lab

Flowers near AU Hall of Science.

Current Research Directions

I continue to have an interest in gratitude and mindfulness. But my main efforts these next years will take some new directions. As these directions are relatively new, I describe them in some detail below:

 

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Professor Anthony Ahrens is the director of the Emotions and Positive Psychology lab.

If you are interested in gaining research experience though volunteering in the Emotions and Positive Psychology lab, please contact Professor Ahrens at ahrens@american.edu.

Eudaimonic Well-Being/Virtue

I am struck by the degree to which psychological work on well-being has focused on subjective well-being, such as happiness or life-satisfaction. This contrasts with what is sometimes called “eudaimonic well-being.” (If you are interested in this latter, I highly recommend the Handbook of Eudaimonic Well-Being (HEWB), edited by Vitterso.) What if we thought of well-being as living our lives as excellent humans rather than as a subjective state?  There are obvious problems with this, such as disagreement about what it means to be an excellent human. (Valerie Tiberius writes about this in her HEWB chapter.) But has a research focus on subjective well-being led to a popular forgetting of human excellence as an ideal? I am struck by work by Iris Mauss, Brett Ford, and others suggesting that the pursuit of happiness can sometimes undermine happiness.

Other psychologists are working on eudaimonic well-being, and, in particular, virtue. But the work on virtue mostly focuses on what distinguishes people from each other (typically located in trait theory) rather than on the intra-personal dynamics of virtue. I believe that an intra-personal approach, rooted in social cognitive theory, is essential for understanding virute. David Cloutier and I write about this in our Social and Personality Psychology Compass piece. I currently am working on a Templeton grant with the Lubuto Foundation in which we take a first empirical stab at applying Dan Cervone’s KAPA approach to assessment to the study of virtue, that is, being an excellent human. 

Contemplative Science

Different ancient traditions have different understandings of what it means to be an excellent human and have constructed exercises designed to help humans toward the traditions’ ends. For example, mindfulness activities are typically derived from Buddhism, one type of exercise embedded in a larger set of exercises geared at attaining enlightenment. Mindfulness practices have received considerable attention and I find the practices of interest (though I highly recommend van Dam et al.’s paper on Mind the Hype to place this in context). But this work on mindfulness has largely examined it in isolation and to the exclusion of other contemplative traditions. I think two of the next key steps in contemplative psychology are (a) seeing what effects mindfulness practices have when done in the context of other Buddhist exercises (vs. when done in isolation); (b) examining exercises from other ancient traditions geared to other understandings of the purpose of being a human. Just as there are different workout regimes to be a marathon runner vs. a swimmer vs. a baseball player, different traditions will have different sets of contemplative exercises aimed toward the varied ends sought by those traditions. I believe non-Buddhist contemplative exercises are largely understudied. 

As a first step in this direction, my student Milly Curlee and I have recently had accepted for publication a paper on the Ignatian Examen, a practice of reflecting on one’s day coming from Catholicism’s Jesuits. In a daily diary study, we found an increase in experience and valuing of self-transcendent positive emotions from practicing the Examen for a week. I look forward to continuing to study the psychology of Ignatian exercises and to studying other non-Buddhist contemplative practices as well.

Moral Injury

If contemplative practices are designed to help people become virtuous, however virtue is construed, we can also think about circumstances that can inhibit movement toward virtue. In this light, I have begun work studying moral injury. While much work on moral injury has focused on acute moral injury, such as is experienced on the battlefield, I am drawn to study chronic moral injury, such as seeing others in the workplace act in small ways that violate one’s moral sense. Does the chronic experience of seeing others act immorally (per our understanding of morality) make some less likely to pursue eudaimonic goals? My student Ryan Smout and I have begun to collect data on chronic moral injury.

The Psychology of Interdependence

Humans are interdependent, yet many messages in contemporary Western culture convey that humans are, instead, independent. I am interested in ways in which overemphasis on independence can cause problems. One line of this work examines autonomous interpersonal style, that is disliking either depending on others or being depended on by them. In a first paper on this (with my students Suzanne Parker, Haseeb Majid, and Kate Stewart) we found that this style is associated with reduced valuing of and experience of gratitude. My lab has a follow-up paper on this in process. We also study interpersonal relationship goals, derived from work by Crocker and Canevello, who distinguish compassionate and self-image goals as part of their distinction between egosystem and ecosystem. A paper with Kate Stewart and Kate Gunthert examined the relationship of mindfulness to these relationship goals. 

I am very likely to accept a new doctoral student and a new MA student for Fall 2023.