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Happy in a crummy world: Implications of primal
world beliefs for increasing wellbeing through
positive psychology interventions
Jeremy D. W. Clifton
To cite this article: Jeremy D. W. Clifton (2020): Happy in a crummy world: Implications of primal
world beliefs for increasing wellbeing through positive psychology interventions, The Journal of
Positive Psychology, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2020.1789703
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2020.1789703
Published online: 07 Jul 2020.
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Happy in a crummy world: Implications of primal world beliefs for increasing
wellbeing through positive psychology interventions
Jeremy D. W. Clifton
Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, USA
Primal world beliefs: are a recently-identied set of basic perceptions about the general character
of reality (e.g. the world is boring) thought to have many psychological implications. This article
explores implications relevant to wellbeing and positive intervention research. After summarizing
the supposed general function of primal world beliefs, I specify ten hypotheses concerning
gratitude, curiosity, optimism, trust, self-ecacy, positive emotions, engagement, meaning, life
satisfaction, and overall wellbeing. Each variable may involve behavioral patterns that present as
trait-like personality characteristics while actually being context-specic reactions to underlying
(and malleable) perceptions. Experimental research could test these hypotheses by (a) examining
whether primal world beliefs partially mediate the wellbeing impact of established interventions
such as Three Good Things and (b) creating novel interventions specically targeting primal world
beliefs. To foster the latter, I discuss elements that novel interventions might incorporate, illustrat-
ing with an example called the Leaf Exercise.
Received 29 May 2019
Accepted 14 December 2019
Primal world beliefs; positive
gratitude; curiosity; hope;
optimism; trust; self-eﬃcacy;
engagement; meaning; life
Being happy in this sh**hole of a world we live in is f**king
impossible. – Anonymized blogger, 2019
Clifton et al. (2019) recently introduced a set of vari-
ables with theoretical implications for several disciplines
but did not unpack those implications. This paper aims
to correct that for those who study positive psychology
interventions (PPIs). After discussing the general theore-
tical signicance of these new variables, I will illustrate
their relevance to wellbeing via ten specic hypotheses,
ending with a discussion of how hypotheses might be
The general theoretical signicance of primal
Whether a beautiful vacation spot or dangerous war-
zone, humans are responsive to beliefs about the gen-
eral character of the circumstance they are in. For
example, perceiving one’s surroundings as crummy
should impact wellbeing directly by, say, decreasing
positive emotions, and indirectly by inducing behaviors
known to lower wellbeing, such as neuroticism. High
reactivity to such perceptions are typically adaptive,
helping organisms capitalize on opportunities and com-
pensate for threats. For example, an organism’s percep-
tion of a barren environment is thought to play
a determinative role in deciding when to move on
from a food patch (Charnov, 1976). Yet, psychologists
have never seriously considered the vast ramications if
humans had dierent beliefs not only about places
within the world but also the global character of the
whole world as one giant place.
As Clifton and Kim (2020) note, when an organism’s
behavior is observed in a single context, like a dog in
a dog park, it is dicult to judge the extent to which the
behavior is context-specic (i.e. a state-like reaction to
that park) or organism-specic (i.e. a trait-like expression
of that dog). Likewise, if an organism has beliefs about
a place the organism never leaves, then these beliefs
would drive many patterns of behavior that would man-
ifest as seemingly trait-like personality characteristics
while actually being context-specic reactions to an
underlying perception. Moreover, if this place was popu-
lated by other organisms who also never left yet viewed
the shared circumstance dierently, all would likely mis-
interpret the behavior of others – and themselves – as
stemming from dierences in character rather than mere
dierences of opinion. In other words, these creatures
would commit the fundamental attribution error on
a massive scale.
To explore the possibility that this scenario
describes the human condition, Clifton and colleagues
(2019) (Clifton, 2020) conducted the rst broad-based
eort to empirically derive all major fundamental
CONTACT Jeremy D. W. Clifton firstname.lastname@example.org
THE JOURNAL OF POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY
© 2020 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
beliefs about the world as a whole, which we called
primals or primal world beliefs, and validated a Primals
Inventory to measure them. We discovered that indi-
viduals indeed disagree about this world we share,
and do so along 26 normally distributed dimensions.
Most variance was explained by three main primals –
the beliefs that the world is Safe, Enticing, and Alive –
which in turn contribute to an overall belief that the
world is Good – the general factor. Test-retests across
2 weeks, 9 months, and 19 months suggested primals
are among the most stable traits psychologists mea-
sure outside IQ. Finally, primals were largely orthogo-
nal to demographic variables yet highly correlated
with numerous personality and wellbeing variables in
a pattern remarkably consistent with the strong
hypothesis that most major personality ‘traits’ are dri-
ven in large part by normative, common-sense reac-
tions to underlying primals. A weaker hypothesis is
also possible: primals could be unique, predictive,
and interesting cognitions but typically of marginal
causal importance. Either way, further research is war-
ranted and we (Clifton et al., 2019) highlighted ques-
tions in several elds, including positive psychology.
Ten hypotheses relevant to positive psychology
This section provides ten illustrative hypotheses specify-
ing how primals may inuence ve wellbeing outcomes
and ve personality characteristics known to inuence
wellbeing. As an empirical plausibility check, hypotheses
are accompanied by pairwise correlations and the page
where it can be found in Clifton and colleagues' ( 2019)
supplement. Most of these eects are large and nomin-
ally aected when partialing demographic variables,
including socio-economic status. All reported eects
are signicant (p <.0001) and relationships are replicat-
ing (Clifton, 2020). Unless otherwise indicated, the rele-
vant sample is 524 Americans averaging 37 years old,
half female, and half college-graduates.
Personality variables (character strengths)
Lomas et al. (2014) theorize that state gratitude requires
the perception that a given situation involves (a) good
things to be grateful for and (b) someone to be grateful
to. Likewise, persistent patterns of gratitude (i.e. disposi-
tional gratitude) may never develop without the percep-
tion that this world is (a) overowing with wonderful
things to be grateful for (Enticing, r = .71, page 312) and
(b) animated by someone to be grateful to (Alive, r = .45,
page 312). If so, strengthening these primals will
People rarely search for what they do not expect to nd.
Likewise, persistent patterns of curiosity may largely
develop in reaction to the perception that this world is
full of Interesting phenomena (r = .59, page 318) and
Worth Exploring (r = .42, page 318). If so, strengthening
these primals will increase curiosity.
People are naturally optimistic in situations believed to
be inherently positive and with a natural tendency to
heal, ourish, and otherwise improve. Likewise, patterns
of optimism may develop largely in reaction to the
perception that this world is fundamentally Good
(r = .67, page 312) and Regenerative (r = .55, page 319).
If so, strengthening these primals will increase optimism.
People are less trusting in contexts perceived as danger-
ous. Likewise, persistent patterns of interpersonal trust
may develop partly in reaction to the view that the world
is generally Safe (r = .55, page 312). If so, strengthening
this primal will increase trust.
People believe they can change a situation when they
see themselves as competent enough, but also when
they see the situation as plastic enough. Likewise,
a persistent pattern of self-ecacy may develop partially
in response to the underlying belief that the world is
Improvable (r (122) = .59, page 503). If so, strengthening
this primal will increase self-ecacy.
Using similar logic, one can expect Enticing to inu-
ence Zest; Needs Me to inuence Perseverance (grit);
Alive to inuence Spirituality; Good to inuence active
destructive responding, and so forth.
Joy, contentment, and other positive emotions are di-
cult to experience in situations seen as awful. Likewise,
positive emotions may more often elude those who see
this world as awful (low Good, r = .63, page 312). If so,
changing the belief will increase positive emotions.
It is dicult to engage in places seen as boring. Likewise,
a pattern of decreased engagement may result from
seeing the world as dull and not worth exploring (low
Enticing; r = .58, page 312). If so, changing that percep-
tion will increase engagement.
2J. D. W. CLIFTON
It is dicult to achieve a sense of meaning in situations
involving trivial matters, important matters impervious to
change, or important matters that will change but with-
out needing one's help. Likewise, a persistent sense of
meaninglessness may develop in response to the belief
that the world is a place where few things matter (low
Meaningful; r = .60, page 319), little can be changed (low
Improvable; r = .40, page 319), and one's eorts are not
needed (low Needs Me; r = .63, page 319). If so, changing
these beliefs will increase meaning.
It is dicult to nd satisfaction in miserable, barren
places. Likewise, life satisfaction may be partly
a reaction to the believe that the world is generally
Pleasurable (r = .53, page 320) and Abundant (r = .47,
page 313). If so, strengthening these beliefs will increase
Finding happiness is dicult when residing in places
one abhors. Likewise, as the opening quote elegantly
states, achieving happiness in a world perceived as
a s**thole is highly unlikely (i.e. low Good; r = .66, page
313). If so, changing that perception will increase overall
Using similar logic, one can expect Enticing to inu-
ence Accomplishment scores; Safe to inuence
Relationship scores; and so on.
A key critique and how to address it
Promising theory and large correlations notwithstand-
ing, all such hypotheses are subject to the critique briey
mentioned above: primals could be mere symptoms –
not causes – of each of these variables. For example,
optimists may believe the world is Good because they
are optimists and the curious may see the world as
Interesting precisely because they are curious – the dis-
position comes rst. Though empirical clues suggest this
dismissal is unjustied, these clues require further
empirical exploration before oering much certainty.
Of relevance to understanding the current state of
primals research may be Beck’s (e.g. Beck, 1963; Beck
et al., 1979) experience convincing reluctant clinical
researchers operating under a behaviorist paradigm
that beliefs similar to primals shape depression. At rst,
despite similarly promising theory and correlational rela-
tionships, Beck’s suggestion about beliefs was dismissed
or ignored (e.g. Beidel & Turner, 1986; A. T. Beck, perso-
nal communication, 1 March 2019). This changed only
after he designed an intervention – Cognitive Behavior
Therapy (CBT) – on the premise that these beliefs shaped
depression and demonstrated CBT’s eectiveness. Half
a century later, CBT is the most widespread form of
therapy and the role of beliefs in depression is broadly
acknowledged (e.g. Field et al., 2014). With primals iden-
tied, measurable, and behaving in the nomological net
as if they play a fundamental role in human psychology,
the time is ripe for a similarly clear experimental demon-
stration revealing primals’ causal role. This will require
designing and testing interventions capable of altering
primals, a task to which those studying PPIs are uniquely
Can primals be changed?
Some may note primals' marked stability over time and
doubt if primals can be changed. Preliminary research
also suggests that, rather than mirrors that reect the
content of our experiences, primals may function more
like lenses used to interpret experiences while being
themselves largely uninuenced by them (Clifton,
2020a). Wealthy individuals, for example, do not see
the world as more abundant. Even before the stability
of primal world beliefs was apparent, similar beliefs were
considered too fundamental, implicit, and self-
reinforcing to allow for much change (e.g. Jano-
Bulman, 1989). But does observed stability really mean
that primals cannot change? Of course not. Mountains
are not unclimbable because no climbers have tried. As
far as I can tell, most people are unaware of most of their
primals and not seeking to change them (which would
explain stability) and researchers have generally not
tried to manipulate primals experimentally via targeted
Yet, in addition to CBT, a variety of inter-
ventions are already known to alter similar beliefs
(Dweck, 2017) and many anecdotal accounts describe
how primals change after, say, a semester abroad,
a spiritual experience, a transformative friendship, and
so forth. Unlike explicit beliefs, such as political views,
which become entrenched, many individuals may come
to hold their primals without deliberation or debate, and
may be thus open to alternatives if they knew of them.
Unlike undeniable beliefs dictated by sensory experi-
ence such as the sky is blue, the vast and heterogenous
dataset that is the world could be used to sustain various
contradictory perspectives. It matters where one directs
attention and attention is often controllable.
Moreover, the wellbeing impact of some established
PPIs may already be mediated by unintentionally altered
primals. Three Good Things, Counting Blessings, the
Gratitude Visit, Savoring a Past Positive Event, Savoring
the Present, and Mindful Photography all involve focus-
ing on positive aspects of an environment. Several are
THE JOURNAL OF POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY 3
explicitly premised on the notion of wellbeing change
via altered environmental beliefs or attitudes (e.g. Smith
et al., 2014). If so, why not the world environment? To
summarize, the notion that primals are impossible to
change must be tested. Experiments might either (a)
test whether a change in primals mediates the impact
of established interventions or (b) test novel interven-
tions that target primals specically.
What might a novel primals intervention look
Having spent the last few years focused on primals mea-
surement, I only recently began considering intervention
design and identifying elements that interventions should
likely incorporate. To aid intervention creation among
those who study PPIs, these reections are provided
alongside one untested illustrative example I call The
Implicit beliefs rarely change as a result of reasoned
argumentation alone. Like most PPIs, primals interven-
tions will likely involve a strong experiential element.
Some interventions may educate subjects on key issues.
For example, initial research suggests negative primals are
often perpetuated by demonstrably false beliefs about
primals (i.e. meta-beliefs), including the assumption that
most people see the world as we do (i.e. false consensus
bias); one’s negative experiences leaves no choice (e.g.
I have to see the world as barren because I grew up poor);
or utility demands it (e.g. seeing the world as dangerous
keeps me safe)(Clifton, 2020a, 2020b). Some interventions
may also highlight information that directly supports
a primal (e.g. low crime statistics).
Perhaps more important than information concerning
which primals are true may be information concerning
which primals are useful. Humans are talented at coming
to believe what is (or appears) useful for achieving suc-
cess and wellbeing. Even though doing so can introduce
problematic demand eects that make it harder to test
intervention ecacy, motivating a subject to want to
believe dierently may, in the long run, be the best
way of changing primal world beliefs.
Several biases – especially conrmation bias – focus atten-
tion on information consistent with pre-existing views,
thereby perpetuating primals. Thus, like other PPIs, suc-
cessful primals interventions may involve deliberate
appreciation of disconrming evidence and altering
Target a sense of scale
Primals concern a uniquely encompassing subject – the
world as a whole. Interventions highlighting a part are
unlikely to change one’s view of the whole without speak-
ing directly to how the part is typical of the whole.
Experiencing a beautiful song or part of nature, for example,
usually will not impart a belief that the world is beautiful.
Target particular primals
Some established PPIs such as Three Good Things cur-
rently target the positive in an untargeted way. The
belief that the world is Good, for example, has three sub-
beliefs – Safe, Enticing, and Alive – and only Enticing is
uniquely related to gratitude (Clifton et al., 2019).
Enticing also involves several sub-beliefs, including
Beautiful. If a subject has especially low Beautiful scores,
then, if the goal is to increase gratitude, a subject may
benet most from a Three Beautiful Things exercise
which targets the most gratitude-relevant primal most
immune to ceiling eects.
Target everyday objects
Some interventions may target everyday objects – like
what one sees during a commute – so that repeated
exposure engenders long-term reinforcement of the new
primal. I call them Homeland Tourism exercises. The follow-
ing intervention is an example that targets Beautiful by
directing attention to leaves, though many other ubiqui-
tous beautiful objects, such as snowakes, could be used.
Example intervention: The Leaf Exercise
Step 1: Go to a local park or forest, pluck a leaf from
a tree, examine it closely, and savor its beauty.
Step 3: Pluck another leaf. Repeat the savoring process.
Notice how both leaves are unique – each with beauty
all its own.
Step 4: Look up at your tree. Reect on how each of its
leaves is just as real, beautiful, and unique as the two you
hold. (An average adult oak has about 250,000 leaves.)
4J. D. W. CLIFTON
Step 5: Look around you. Realize you are surrounded by
trees full of beautiful leaves.
Step 6: Imagine all the leaves that currently exist, from
Siberia to the Amazon. (There are currently over three
trillion adult trees spread over 60,000 species.)
Step 7: Imagine all the leaves that existed in ages past,
and will ever exist.
Step 8: Then ask yourself, what sort of world is this?
The goal of this paper was to introduce a new idea to
those in the positive psychology research community
and highlight the opportunity to conduct basic research
of some interdisciplinary importance to which those
who study PPIs are uniquely suited. To determine if
primals play anything like the central role envisioned,
the pressing need is to (a) test if the wellbeing impact of
established PPIs is mediated by primals and (b) create
and test new interventions that target primals. In short,
we must discover if the blogger is right. If it is dicult to
be happy in a world perceived as a sh**hole, we must
nd ways to counter that perception.
1. Three main literatures have previously examined primals:
(a) I know of no eorts to change what political psychology
researchers have called Belief in a Dangerous World. (b)
Trauma researchers building on Jano-Bulman’s (1989)
paradigm have studied how trauma impacts several pri-
mals without as far as I am aware, seeking to alter them via
interventions. (c) The considerable experimental literature
concerning Belief in a Just World has been historically
focused on the Just-World Hypothesis – the motivational
theory rather than the individual dierence variable – and
primarily involved manipulations to temporarily alter the
belief’s salience and not the belief itself (Hafer & Bègue,
No potential conict of interest was reported by the author.
Jeremy D. W. Clifton http://orcid.org/0000-0003-3185-3105
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