How to Be an Optimal Human

Alto Adige

What does it take to be an optimal human being?

Throughout history there has been much speculation. For Aristotle, the highest human good was eudaimonia. For Carl Rogers, it was the “fully functioning person“. For Abraham Maslow, it was “self-actualization“. For Erik Erickson, it was wisdom and integrity. For Erich Fromm, it was about having a “being” orientation (in which you value personal growth and love) instead of  a “doing” orientation ( in which you value material possessions and status).

But are these theories right? Over the past 30 years or so, a number of contemporary psychologists (including myself) have experimentally tested various aspects of these theories, and we are starting to get a clearer picture of those who seem to be well-integrated, thriving human beings.*

In his scholarly book “Optimal Human Being“, psychologist Ken Sheldon does a nice job summarizing and integrating a large number of these studies. Grounded in the latest science at different levels of analysis (evolutionary, personality, goals/motives, self and identity construction, social relations, and cultural membership), Sheldon offers some suggestions on how to achieve integration and harmony across the various aspects of your lives in order to achieve optimal human functioning.**

I will summarize some of his science-informed prescriptions here, in the hopes that it helps you in your own journey toward greater health, growth, and happiness.


1. Strive to balance your basic needs

It turns out that Abraham Maslow was pretty spot on with his proposed list of basic needs (although he did miss a few). A large number of studies have confirmed that humans across cultures have a need for autonomy, competence, relatedness, security, and self-esteem (see here and here).

Those with high autonomy feel as though they are authors of their own lives, and feel able to freely express their values and develop their identity, talents and interests. Those high in competence and self-esteem feel as though they are making good progress toward their goals, and are receiving positive regard from others. Those high in relatedness and security feel socially connected to others and feel as though they are part of a safe community.

The key prescription here is to strive to balance these basic needs. Without balance, it will be difficult to achieve optimal functioning. For instance, think of the workaholic who is high in autonomy, security, competence, and self-esteem, but has very little social connection with others. Despite high achievement, this person will most likely be prone to feelings of alienation, sadness, and loneliness. As Sheldon notes, “obtaining much need satisfaction may be a shorthand route to optimal human being.”

2. Set and make efficient progress toward self-concordant goals

On the path toward optimal functioning, you will want to set and pursue goals as effectively as possible. It’s important that you feel as though your self is constantly in steady forward motion.

But here’s the thing: this alone will not suffice. Mindlessly setting and efficiently achieving goals will not, by itself, make you happy, healthy, or fulfilled (see here). It’s important that the goals that you set have high “self-concordance“. People with high self-concordant goals have identified goals that are consistent with their identity, basic needs, personality, and talents.

In one study, pursuing goals for self-concordant reasons (because one enjoys and fully identifies with the goals) predicted greater need satisfaction and well-being than pursuing goals for non-concordant reasons (because of environmental pressures and/or internal compulsions). Therefore, for optimal functioning, behavior must be both effective and consistent with inherent basic needs and growth tendencies.

You can imagine a situation in which a highly smart and capable person is forced to go into a field (e.g., medicine) by his parents, but he doesn’t get a sense of autonomy because of the long work hours, and misses his friends. So this isn’t the optimal condition for him in his life. Or consider the person who has the clear talent for something as a child (e.g., playing violin), but never really enjoys what she is doing and never really views it as part of her identity. This, too, will not lead to optimal health, growth, and happiness.

Which is why it’s very important to…

3. Choose your goals and social roles wisely

What kind of goals are more likely to lead to optimal functioning? The research suggests that Fromm was right. Setting extrinsic goals (such as money, beauty and status) tend to make you less happy, whereas attaining intrinsic goals (such as intimacy, community, and personal growth) tend to lead to enhanced well-being (see here). It’s also important to choose social roles that best fit your unique personality (see here).

Often we have multiple goals, however. Which is why we should…

4. Strive toward personality integration

Many of the great humanistic psychologists, such as Rogers and Maslow (but also William James and Carl Jung), frequently talked about the importance of achieving personality integration. The latest psychology of goals confirms these seminal thinkers were right.

In one study, Sheldon and Tim Kasser measured personality integration by seeing how much people’s goals were congruent with each other and with basic needs, and how much the goals were chosen freely and were expressive of intrinsic values such as as growth, intimacy, and community. They found that the extent to which people’s goals were integrated, the more they felt as though their strivings originated from their own interests and choices, and the more they felt engaged in meaningful activities such as helping others or pondering the future. Integrated people also reported higher levels of self-esteem, openness to new experiences, vitality, satisfaction with life, self-actualization, positive moods, and fewer negative moods. Integrated people also felt more positive about their different life roles and felt all of these roles were in harmony with one another.

Clearly, having an integrated personality brings with it a whole nexus of positive, adaptive outcomes. However, sometimes you (or others) might keep getting in the way of adaptive integration. Which is why you often will want to…

5. Work toward modifying problematic aspects of yourself or your world.

There’s a lot of advice out there to just “be yourself”, or be “true to yourself”. But this advice is really quite misguided. Not all of our potentialities will help us make progress toward our self-concordant goals. Some aspects of our personality, like anxiety or disagreeableness, can downright get in the way of making progress toward becoming an optimal human. So the advice here is to not mindlessly accommodate your entire nature, but work on bringing out the character strengths and virtues that will best help you achieve your self-concordant goals. This may require learning self-regulation strategies (see here, here, and here) and learning more about your character strengths (you can find out your top character strengths here).

To be clear: Even though your personality is influenced by your genes, this does not mean that personality change isn’t possible. In this review, the researchers make a good case that substantial changes in personality and happiness are indeed possible through changes in activities and behaviors. Such changes that can cause substantial changes in personality and happiness include setting and pursuing self-concordant goals, adopting positive strategies for coping with stress, adopting positive mindsets and attitudes, and adopting behaviors specifically known to increase happiness.

Sometimes you don’t just want to work on modifying your personality, however. Sometimes you also want to modify your culture. As Sheldon notes, “be prepared to go against the cultural grain when necessary.” Sometimes being an iconoclast may be beneficial to optimal functioning. Some of the most important revolutionaries derived great meaning and enjoyment by rebelling against the status quo of their culture (see hereherehere, and here).

Ultimately though, you need to own yourself and your decisions. Why is why it’s important to…

6. Take responsibility for your goals and choices.

A common theme of the great existential philosophers, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, is that we must take responsibility for our choices. Similarly, Sheldon argues that optimal humans take an “intentional attitude” toward life, by consciously aligning their sense of self with their life choices. Sheldon argues for the importance of taking ownership of your self-concordant goals, as only you can truly alter yourself and your life, and follow-through on your initiatives with good faith.

After making a decision about which goal you wish to adopt, embrace the goal with all of your being, and consciously align your identity with the goal (it’s the difference between “I like writing science fiction” and “I am a science fiction writer”).

However, this doesn’t mean you must be rigid in maintaining your self-concordant goals at all costs. Sometimes we take ownership over goals that end up working against our ever evolving identity, personality, talents, and basic needs. Which leads us to #7…

7. Listen to your “organismic valuing process” and be prepared to change your goals if it seems necessary.

Central to Carl Rogers’ notion of the fully functioning person was getting in touch with your “organismic valuing process” (OVP). According to Rogers, the path toward becoming a fully functioning person requires developing increasing trust in your own ability to know what is important to you, and what is essential for you to live a more fulfilling life. Rogers believed that the OVP evolved to help us evaluate our experiences and actions and to determine whether they are leading us toward self-actualization. As Sheldon notes, all of us have experienced that “nagging sense that something isn’t right”. Optimal humans listen to that nagging.

Research suggests that Rogers was right. Sheldon and colleagues assessed changes in people’s goals and values over time. They found that people tend to move toward intrinsic goals (e.g., emotional intimacy, personal growth, societal contribution) and/or away from extrinsic goals (e.g., material possessions, physical attractiveness, social popularity) over an extended period of time. They also found that decisions regarding extrinsic goals took longer, suggesting that the OVP causes people to pay particular attention when growth-relevant decisions have to be made. The researchers conclude: “People really do have some idea about what kind of goals are most likely to be beneficial for their subjective well-being, presumably because they possess an OVP.”

Bottom line: trust yourself to abandon a goal if it is no longer appropriate for your growth. Constantly consult your OVP when making choices about which goals to adopt. You, and you alone, have the power to revise your goals as a result of new information. When the self-concordant goals you’ve adopted become inappropriate to your evolving self, personality, or basic needs, make a change.

It should be noted that Rogers believed that the OVP doesn’t only motivate self-enhancement but can also motivate more prosocial motivations, given supportive conditions. In support of this idea, research has indeed found that a strong intrinsic goal pursuit is associated with prosocial behavors such as helping others in our everyday lives.

Which leads us to the last suggestion for becoming an optimal human…

8. Transcend your self


In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl notes that

“Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself–be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself–by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love–the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”

Likewise, during the very end of his life, Maslow proposed a new need right above self-actualization: self-transcendence. He realized that many of his self-actualizers weren’t self-transcenders, and even some of his self-transcenders weren’t even self-actualizers. (Unfortunately, most introductorily psychology textbooks don’t mention Maslow’s updated theory).

Sheldon suggests that becoming an optimal human can be facilitated by striving toward higher-level goals that allow you to serve something beyond yourself. In addition to personality integration, try integrating yourself into the larger social systems in which you are embedded. Don’t just search for things that are useful to you, but be useful to others (see here)..

What do you get when these are all aligned? 

This is by no means an exhaustive list of suggestions for how to be an optimal human being, but it’s a good start. In sum:

  1. Try to balance your basic needs for autonomy, competence, relatedness, security, and self-esteem.
  2. Choose a goal that is in line with these needs, as well as your deepest self and talents, and that helps the larger community or world.
  3. Learn self-regulatory strategies and cultivate your character strengths to make efficient progress toward your goals.
  4. Constantly listen to your organismic valuing process, and modify your goals and personality as necessary.

Work toward all of this, and you will be well on your way to becoming the person you are capable of becoming.

© 2016 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved

Image credit: iStock

Just to name a few, all of these researchers have significantly advanced our knowledge of the optimal person: Edward Deci, Richard Ryan, Ken Sheldon, Martin Seligman, Charles Carver, Michael Scheier, Carol Ryff, Edward Diener, Heidi Wayment, Angela Duckworth, Adam Grant, Robert Emmons, Dacher Keltner, and Todd Kashdan.

** To be clear, by “optimal”, psychologists are not making a value judgment, or saying you should definitely live your life a certain way. It’s up to you how you wish to live your life. Instead, what they are saying is that those who seem to have optimal health, growth, and happiness do tend to have certain characteristics, and therefore we have a lot we can learn from such individuals. 

Being an individual differences researcher is a thankless job

Being an individual differences researcher is a thankless job.

We get slammed from our colleagues (reviewers), we get slammed from the public (no one wants to hear that individual differences exist). We’re overworked (finding the right structural equation model takes eons), underpaid(compared to authors who write about how anyone can be anything, anytime), underappreciated (it’s nearly impossible to get a tenure track position as an individual differences researcher), and largely ignored (the amount of people who will ever read a paper in the journal Intelligence or Personality and Individual Differences is less than .000000001% of the general population, and that’s an upper range estimate). 

So why do I do it? Why should anyone do it? Some days I do wonder. But then, I remember how good it feels to discover something true. What I lose in so many ways, I gain tenfold by the feeling that I have witnessed some secret of the universe; I have received privilege access to the beautiful variation that must exist in order for us to continue as a species and the diversity that must coexist to make this world a better place.

The Differences Between Happiness and Meaning in Life


“Humans may resemble many other creatures in their striving for happiness, but the quest for meaning is a key part of what makes us human, and uniquely so.” — Roy Baumeister et al. (2013)

The pursuit of happiness and meaning are two of our most central motivations in life. A wealth of research in positive psychology suggests that happiness and meaning are, in fact, essential elements of well-being. Happiness and meaning are strongly correlated with each other, and often feed off each other. The more meaning we find in life, the more happy we typically feel, and the more happy we feel, the more we often feel encouraged to pursue even greater meaning and purpose.

But not always.

An increasing body of research suggests that that there can be substantial trade-offs between seeking happiness and seeking meaning in life. Consider, for instance, the “parenthood paradox”: parents often report that they are very happy they had children, but parents who are living with children usually score very low on measures of happiness. It seems that raising children can decrease happiness but increase meaning. Or consider revolutionaries, who often suffer through years of violence and discord for a larger purpose that can ultimately bring great satisfaction and meaning to their lives and the lives of others.

In his delightful book “Meanings of Life”, Roy Baumeister used examples such as these to argue that people seek not just happiness but also meaning in life. Likewise, eminent Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl famously argued that humans have a “will to meaning” in his seminal recounting of his harrowing (yet often meaningful) experiences living in a concentration camp during the Holocaust.

In recent years, a number of studies have further supported the differences between happiness and meaning. In one clever study, Baumeister and colleagues found that factors such as feeling connected to others, feeling productive, and not being alone or bored contributed to both happiness and meaning. However, they also found some important differences:

  • Finding one’s life easy or difficult was related to happiness, but not meaning.
  • Feeling healthy was related to happiness, but not meaning.
  • Feeling good was related to happiness, not meaning.
  • Scarcity of money reduced happiness more than meaning.
  • People with more meaningful lives agreed that ‘relationships are more important than achievements’.
  • Helping people in need was linked to meaning but not happiness.
  • Expecting to do a lot of deep thinking was positively related to meaningfulness, but negatively with happiness.*
  • Happiness was related more to being a taker rather than a giver, whereas meaning was related more to being a giver than a taker.
  • The more people felt their activities were consistent with core themes and values of their self, the greater meaning they reported in their activities.
  • Seeing oneself as wise, creative, and even anxious were all linked to meaning but had no relationship (and in some cases, even showed a negative relationship) to happiness.

It seems that happiness has more to do with having your needs satisfied, getting what you want, and feeling good, whereas meaning is more related to uniquely human activities such as developing a personal identity, expressing the self, and consciously integrating one’s past, present, and future experiences.

Further support for this idea can be found in a recent study conducted by Jo Ann Abe on the impact of happiness and meaning-making over an extended period of time. This study overcomes some limitations of prior research on this topic, such as the reliance on self-report questionnaires and the assessment of happiness and meaning at a single point in time.

Abe extracted measures of happiness and meaning-making from weekly journals, which were written over the course of a semester. The participants were given freedom to write about what they wanted, and were encouraged to elaborate on their thoughts and feelings. Therefore, this study allowed people to really process their emotions and integrate their experiences across time.

The journals were analyzed using a well-validated computerized text-analysis program developed by James Pennebaker and colleagues. Happiness was assessed by looking at the frequency of positive emotions words (e.g., happy, laugh).

There is a general consensus that meaning has at least two major components: the cognitive processing component involves making sense and integrating experiences, and a purpose component, which is more motivational and involves actively pursuing long-term goals that reflect one’s identity and transcends narrow self-interests. Abe assessed the cognitive component of meaning by analyzing the frequency of causal words (e.g., because, reason) and insight words (e.g., understand, realize), She assessed the purpose component of meaning by analyzing the use of third-person pronouns (which would indicate a detached third-person perspective).

What did Abe find? First, the frequency of positive emotions was only weakly related to measures of adaptive functioning at follow-up (which ranged from half a year to 7 years). In fact, positive emotionality was negatively related to optimism and positively related to emotion suppression at follow-up. This finding is consistent with other research showing that even though meaning-making may be associated with negative emotions in the moment, it may contribute to greater resiliency and well-being in the longer-term.

This finding also supports the potential downside of happiness. While happiness may make us feel good in the moment, the avoidance of negative thoughts and feelings may stunt personal development over time. After all, personal development often requires experiencing the full range of emotions (see herehere, here, here, here). There is also emerging research that over time, happiness is associated with an increased sense of loneliness and a decreased sense of well-being.

In contrast, the two measures of meaning (cognitive processing and purpose) were positively associated with most of the measures of adaptation. In particular, cognitive processing was very strongly related to grit (passion and perseverance for long-term goals), and self-distancing was robustly related to gratitude and well-being, and negatively related to emotion suppression. What’s more, the interaction between cognitive processing and self-distancing was additionally associated with measures of adaptation. It seems that meaning-making is particularly adaptive if one can maintain a self-detached third-person perspective (see here).

This study adds important nuance to the emerging science of meaning. In studying meaning, and its similarities and differences with happiness, it’s important to use multiple methods. In addition to self-report and journal writing, other researchers use peer-ratings and genomic methods. To get a fuller picture, we will need to look at the overall pattern that all of these methods reveal.

While this study focused on the differences between happiness and meaning, it should be noted that optimal well-being often consists of both. As Todd Kashdan and colleagues note, “Years of research on the psychology of well-being have demonstrated that often human beings are happiest when they are engaged in meaningful pursuits and virtuous activities.” Indeed, when we are deeply engaged in an activity that is in accordance with our best self, we often report the highest levels of life satisfaction (see here, here, and here).

In my view, further investigation of the similarities and differences between happiness and meaning can contribute substantially to our understanding of this ‘sweet-spot’ of well-being: that seemingly magical combination of happiness and meaning that sets off the virtuous cycle that can ultimately lead to a life well lived. Now, that would be really meaningful.

© 2016 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved

Image credit: iStock

Note: For more on this topic, see Emily Esfahani Smith’s terrific article in The Atlantic, “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy”.  

* Interestingly though, actual deep thinking was positively related to both happiness and meaning. As the researchers note, people underestimate how happy deep thinking will make them feel!

Flow: Instead of Losing Yourself, You are Being Yourself


This has been a major conundrum for me: Why is the flow state of consciousness so often described as “losing yourself” to an activity, when the default mode brain network is highly active while people are in the flow state? The default mode network plays an important role in self-related cognition and personal goal processing. The flow state is characterized not just by activation of the default mode network, however, but also by the relative *deactivation* of areas of the lateral prefrontal cortex that play a role in working memory and metacognition (for example, see here). So I’m thinking that the “losing yourself” metaphor for flow that is so prominent is incorrect. It’s actually quite the opposite. When in flow, what is actually happening is that you are totally BEING YOURSELF. Without self-criticism. Instead of losing yourself, you are being yourself. The key distinction here is that losing your *sense* of self is not the same thing as losing your self. At least, that’s my latest thinking about this.

STUDY ALERT: Distinguishing intellectual humility and general humility

Distinguishing intellectual humility and general humility

Don E. Davis, Kenneth Rice, Stacey McElroy, Cirleen DeBlaere, Elise Choe, Daryl R. Van Tongeren & Joshua N. Hook

Two studies provide evidence for distinguishing intellectual humility (IH) from general humility (GH). Humility involves (a) an Accurate View of Self and (b) the ability to regulate egotism and cultivate an other-oriented stance; IH is a subdomain of humility that involves (a) having an accurate view of one’s intellectual strengths and limitations and (b) the ability to negotiate ideas in a fair and inoffensive manner. First, we present a theoretical framework for distinguishing these constructs. In Study 1, with a sample of undergraduate students (N = 1097), we used confirmatory factor analysis to provide empirical evidence for this distinction. We also found that IH predicted unique variance in openness to experience relative to GH. In Study 2, we examined additional evidence of discriminant validity with another sample of college students (N = 355). IH also predicted unique variance in need for cognition, objectivism, and religious ethnocentrism relative to GH.

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Do Changes in Emotional Functioning Impact Cognitive Functioning?

It’s well known that people differ from one another in their cognitive functioning. Some people consistently have a better memory, learn faster, reason more accurately, and can understand things more quickly than others.

Our understanding of fluctuations in cognitive functioning within a person, over time, are much less well understood.

In a new paper, rising superstar Sophie von Stumm adds to this growing literature on within-person differences by looking at patterns of change in both cognitive functioning and mood within people, across time.

First, Sophie measured cognitive ability on five consecutive days, including short-term memory, processing speed and working memory. Second, she had participants complete daily measures of positive and negative emotions.

What did she find?

As you can see here, there were substantial fluctuations both within people and between people in cognitive functioning across the five days:

Figure 2

However, most of the differences really were evident between people:

Figure 3

Even so, within-person differences accounted for twice as much of variation in positive and negative emotions compared to the tests of cognitive ability. What’s more, between-person differences in affect were less consistent than cognitive functioning across the five days. It seems that cognitive functioning is simply more stable than mood. Also, the experience of positive and negative emotions were mostly independent of each other.

Perhaps most interestingly, at the within-person level of analysis, there was no significant correlation between daily changes in affect and daily changes in cognitive functioning.* 

These findings are a bit perplexing. After all, there is prior evidence suggesting that extreme stress and anxiety can impact cognitive functioning. The prior research on this topic, however, has focused mainly on patterns of correlations between people, not within people. What’s more, this study suggests that our normal everyday fluctuations in emotional functioning do not significantly impact the consistency of our cognitive functioning.

This study adds to a growing and important literature that is part of the new and important “person-specific paradigm“. Between-person differences can reveal very different patterns of associations than within-person differences, and this is sure to have deep implications for a wide range of personality and motivational processes.

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* With the exception of a significant association between positive emotions and processing speed. According to van Stumm, “Put bluntly, the results suggest that people who have a general tendency to be more enthusiastic and alert have faster brains but additional research will be needed to substantiate this observation.”

Beyond Born versus Made: A New Look at Expertise

Beyond Born versus Made: A New Look at Expertise

David Z. Hambrick,, Brooke N. Macnamarax, Guillermo Campitelli, Fredrik Ullén and Miriam A. Mosing

Why are some people so much more successful than other people in music, sports, games, business, and other complex domains? This question is the subject of one of psychology’s oldest debates. Over 20 years ago, Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Romer (1993) proposed that individual differences in performance in domains such as these largely reflect accumulated amount of “deliberate practice.” More controversially, making exceptions only for height and body size, Ericsson et al. explicitly rejected any direct role for innate factors (“talent”) in the attainment of expert performance. This view has since become the dominant theoretical account of expertise and has filtered into the popular imagination through books such as Malcolm Gladwell’s (2008) Outliers. Nevertheless, as we discuss in this chapter, evidence from recent research converges on the conclusion that this view is not defensible. Recent meta-analyses have demonstrated that although deliberate practice accounts for a sizeable proportion of the variance in performance in complex domains, it consistently leaves an even larger proportion of the variance unexplained and potentially explainable by other factors. In light of this evidence, we offer a “new look” at expertise that takes into account a wide range of factors.

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STUDY ALERT: How Alluring Are Dark Personalities? The Dark Triad and Attractiveness in Speed Dating

How Alluring Are Dark Personalities? The Dark Triad and Attractiveness in Speed Dating


Abstract: Dark Triad traits (narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism) are linked to the pursuit of short-term mating strategies, but they may have differential effects on actual mating success in naturalistic scenarios: Narcissism may be a facilitator for men’s short-term mating success, while Machiavellianism and psychopathy may be detrimen- tal. To date, little is known about the attractiveness of Dark Triad traits in women. In a speed-dating study, we assessed participants’ Dark Triad traits, Big Five personality traits, and physical attractiveness in N = 90 heterosexual individuals (46 women and 44 men). Each participant rated each partner’s mate appeal for short- and long-term relationships. Across both sexes, narcissism was positively associated with mate appeal for short- and long-term relationships. Further analyses indicated that these associations were due to the shared variance among narcissism and extraversion in men and narcissism and physical attractiveness in women, respectively. In women, psychopathy was also positively associated with mate appeal for short-term relationships. Regarding mating preferences, narcissism was found to involve greater choosiness in the rating of others’ mate appeal (but not actual choices) in men, while psychopathy was associated with greater openness towards short-term relationships in women.

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