From 2014 to 2017, I was the assistant coordinator and classroom manager at the University of Pennsylvania’s Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program. Penn’s MAPP degree was the first of its kind in the world. I was fortunate to work with instructors and guest lecturers who are the leaders in the field (including Martin Seligman, Angela Duckworth, James Pawelski, and many more), as well as dozens of brilliant, passionate students and alumni who are leaders in their own right.
What I originally understood as “simply” an administrative role (though a fulfilling one), I have come to recognize as the foundation of my journey as an experience designer for well-being.
MAPP is a rigorous academic program, but it is also so much more. At MAPP, nearly everything was thoughtfully designed around the student experience and as an extension of the positive psychology material. Great importance and attention was given to things like opportunities for social bonding, making sure students felt that they belonged and were valued, and making space for reflection and savoring.
A complete account of the insights I gained from MAPP could probably fill a book. A few of those lessons are reflected in a different kind of book: a collection of personal messages from students over the years to me, a gift I received when I left my job to pursue my own graduate degree. I am struck by the fact that everyone wrote to me independently, and yet there are a number of strong common themes among the notes. Years later, these students’ thoughts help me understand the role I was lucky to play in the carefully crafted, transformative experience that was the MAPP program. The messages in the book also recall principles of experience design which I can see with new eyes thanks to my more recent work.
The lead-up to an experience is just as important as its official beginning. In many cases, I was interacting with MAPP students before they were students, when they were “only” prospectives and applicants, over emails and phone calls. I didn’t realize it at the time, but these first contacts made a deep impression on many students. These are only a few of the messages I received about it:
“You were the first MAPP admin person I met on that very first day…all nervous and wondering, ‘Do I belong here?’ Even before [program director] James provided his assurance to the class, you gave me a personal assurance that I did. Why? Because you had taken the time to memorize our names and faces…and you greeted me by name as I approached the check-in desk. I can’t tell you how welcome your extra effort made me feel at a time when I most needed it!”
“You were the first interaction I had with this program, and because of your people-centered approach, I knew MAPP was going to be special.”
“You were my first (and for several key months, only) point of contact with Penn and the MAPP program…. Your kindness and competence smoothed my way and encouraged me that MAPP would be not only a rigorous but a supportive environment.”
Anticipation is powerful. The emotional intensity of anticipating an experience — be it positive or negative, actual or hypothetical — is greater than when recalling that experience (Van Boven & Ashworth, 2007). Anticipating something pleasurable is a form of savoring, and research suggests “much of the value of a desirable experience comes from anticipation” (Smith, Harrison, Kurtz, & Bryant, 2014, p. 53). As Priya Parker points out in The Art of Gathering (2018), an event begins not at its start time but at the “moment of discovery” (p. 146) — when people first find out about it. My interactions with students were not quite that early. But they were often when students were still forming an understanding of what MAPP is, or at a critical moment of contact which served as a culmination of all the anticipatory thoughts and feelings they’d been having since the moment of discovery. Whatever the quality of their anticipation, it becomes the first chapter in that person’s story of their experience.
Some of what students remembered about the way I welcomed them is not anything I can claim as original: for instance, my coworkers taught me to study students’ ID pictures so that I (along with other administrators and instructors) could recognize them by name at registration. Those sorts of practices that express the value of belonging were already part of MAPP culture when I got there. I readily embraced that culture, which then colored my approach to everything else at work, whether I was following established practices or not. That included communication with prospectives as much as it did with current students. It meant that in some cases, by the time someone arrived for registration or even by the time I was coordinating their admissions interview, I already had a relationship with them. It meant I strived not to treat people who weren’t students as outsiders.
My approach ended up giving prospectives important information about the values of MAPP and what they could expect from the program in general. Although I can’t say that every student had the same experience (which you couldn’t expect to happen, anyway), I believe that most really did feel welcomed and that they had found a community that valued them. First contact was and is undeniably important, but then it needed to be backed up by a culture which everyone who worked for the program was responsible for.
THE MAGIC IS IN THE DETAILS.
I tended to think that my role was to take care of things on the periphery so that the core of the MAPP experience could take place as smoothly as possible: so that students didn’t have to worry about anything besides learning and socializing, and instructors didn’t have to worry about anything besides teaching and coaching. To that end, I troubleshot classroom technology, helped instructors understand their online course portals and set them up to be standardized and intuitive for students, answered any and all questions students had about interfacing with the university, and so on. I was more than happy to make my contribution, and I knew I was valued, but I thought of it as a small contribution — especially compared to the many brilliant instructors, guest speakers, advisors, and directors I worked with. So it was often difficult for me to accept comments such as these:
“MAPPs magic would literally not be possible without a magician named Sydney. I’ve said many times that Sydney was the one that made MAPP actually happen – from her tireless work with schedules, to keeping everyone fed, to communicating the important social stuff too.”
“You may not have been center stage as you did your magic, but we all felt your presence throughout MAPP. I will always remember you scrambling, answering, chatting, smiling, organizing, herding, problem-solving, and handling.”
Many in the MAPP community felt there was some sort of “magic” about it, something unexplainable. (And this is a group that places high value on research and evidence-based practice!) These days, I would say that magic has to do with the “emergent quality” of experiences. Experiences are extremely complicated, composed of many different individual elements that all come together into something more. The experience emerges from these components, and at the same time “is neither entirely reducible to its underlying elements and processes nor fully explainable by them” (Hassenzahl, 2010, p. 6). At MAPP, I believe that the alignment of many seemingly-inconsequential details with the overarching values of the program is what made the sum of the experience feel like so much more: like something magical. The MAPP students seemed to understand that more deeply than I did myself, at the time.
Seeing the students’ comments, I see they recognized that my role was, in fact, to deliver the “core MAPP experience” through details that are not thought of as “core.” And now, as an experience designer, I have a new appreciation for those little details. I am sure that if the program’s experience goals had not been integrated at every level, not just the highest ones, they would not have been achieved nearly as successfully.
APPLIED POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY IS EXPERIENCE DESIGN.
One student wrote to me:
“During our MAPP year, I frequently said how [program director] James was an ‘architect of sacred moments.’ Each on-site was such a fulfilling experience with memorable ‘peaks’ and unforgettable ‘ends.’ Yet if James was the architect, you were most definitely the engineer of those sacred moments.”
His comment reminds me that I was learning rather explicitly about experience design (though without using that name for it) as I studied applied positive psychology. The “peaks” and “ends” he mentions come from the peak-end rule, a psychological heuristic students learn about in MAPP. This pattern shows that in many cases we over-emphasize the role of peak (most intense) moments and ending moments when evaluating experiences on the whole, rather than taking the average of all moments in the experience (see Kahneman, Fredrickson, Schreiber, & Redelmeier, 1993; Kahneman, 2011). It’s only one of many practical, research-based tools that MAPP students (and I) learned about so that they could create their own well-being interventions. This tool in particular shows how well-being research can overlap very naturally with experience research. I would even say that designing interventions is experience design, that applied positive psychology practitioners are experience designers, and thus that MAPP itself is an experience design program.
Not all interventionists think of themselves as experience designers, and not all well-being interventions are designed with what I could call “experiential touches.” But the potential to go there with any kind of positive psychology intervention’s design is quite clear to me. Most interventions can be described as activities of some sort: they require action. Whether it’s as short as a 5-minute guided meditation or as long as an academic program, engagement with an intervention unfolds over time, and it requires you to think or behave in some way that is different from your ordinary day-to-day. This means that, even if only to a small degree, they can be seen as distinct episodes, as stories that can be remembered and reflected upon. We can view them, then, as experiences. And just as an interventionist designs an activity with a desired well-being outcome in mind, an experience designer crafts elements of the experience with an eye towards achieving particular experiential outcomes. The student’s metaphor of architects and engineers of sacred moments highlights the kind of design work that I was participating in as part of MAPP’s administrative team. It was especially instructive to go through an iterative process from one year to the next, or even from one class weekend to the next. My coworkers and I were constantly observing how each class reacted to certain moments; trying to figure out what contributed to certain emergent experiences (Was it idiosyncratic to that year’s students? Was it the reordering of lesson topics?); and refining everything from the framing of course content to the structure of break times.
MAPP taught applied positive psychology, and it also was, in itself, designed to be an intervention. This means that it taught experience design both explicitly, in the content of the courses, and implicitly, by example. As another student put it as he was describing my role in the program, “We could study the formal curriculum, but the informal lessons were just as telling.” In my three years at MAPP, I knew I was learning about applied positive psychology both formally and informally, through both my presence in the classroom as I listened to the instructors and in practice delivering MAPP-as-an-intervention. In hindsight, I see it was also a master education in experience design.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
Kahneman, D., Fredrickson, B. L., Schreiber, C. A., & Redelmeier, D. A. (1993). When more pain is preferred to less: Adding a better end. Psychological Science, 4(6), 401-405.
Parker, P. (2018). The art of gathering. Riverhead Books.
Smith, J. L., Harrison, P. R., Kurtz, J. L., & Bryant, F. B. (2014). Nurturing the capacity to savor: Interventions to enhance the enjoyment of positive experiences. In S. Schueller & A. Parks (Eds.), The Wiley-Blackwell handbook of positive psychological interventions (pp. 42-65). Wiley-Blackwell.
Van Boven, L. & Ashworth, L. (2007). Looking forward, looking back: Anticipation is more evocative than retrospection. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 136, 289-300.