The Interview

MSU Denver clinical psychologist Travis Heath talks about thriving in an uncertain world.

By Mike Pearson

Publish Date: January 30, 2014


MSU Denver clinical psychologist Travis Heath talks to Mike Pearson
about what it takes to thrive. Photo: Mark Woolcott.

Q: What do you believe are the most important traits people need to help them thrive?

A: I don’t know that it’s about the specific traits as much as identifying what someone believes their core character strengths are and then matching those strengths appropriately in the world. Certainly there are important factors—commitment, knowledge, even this idea of deliberate practice toward specific goals—but before any of that you need to match your core strengths against the challenges of the world.


Q: Are people innately aware of their strengths?

A: Almost always no. I don’t know if they’re formally aware, but sometimes they pick them up through the educational process and inference. A character strength like being outgoing would lend itself to something like speaking in front of groups. When you can match those core strengths with appropriate jobs we might do, I think that’s when you see people starting to thrive. Work is important because we devote so much of our time to what we do.



Q: Are people born optimistic?

A: I don’t know that we have conclusive evidence on that. Certainly we have philosophical ideas. The humanists would argue that people are born good or at worst neutral. I don’t have a definitive answer, but I will say that from a neuroscientific perspective, some people are more inclined to be neurotic, to experience anxiety and depression. Those who are less inclined are probably more likely to experience happiness.


Q: Does gender factor into levels of optimism?

A: Research shows that men tend to be more optimistic than women. What are the reasons for that? I’m not sure it’s genetically predetermined. You start by looking at the levels of privilege and other things that allow men to behave in certain ways that promote optimism. Women have had to overcome many more cultural and historical hurdles.


Q: How do things like school shootings and government shutdowns affect our levels of optimism? Have we become desensitized to bad news?

A: That’s a tough one. In some ways being desensitized works against us as a culture, but in some ways it allows us to maintain hope. If we were to process all these atrocities at the same deep psychological level all the time, how could we be optimistic? In some ways, being desensitized can work against us, but in some ways it creates a space to cope. That’s been true of societies throughout history.


Q: What about the notion that happiness should be our ultimate goal?

A: In our culture, and I’m sure in others, you hear the classic question of ‘How are you?’ It would be really interesting if people answered that honestly, because we’d hear things we didn’t want to hear. Happiness to me is not something you arrive at; it’s something you’re continually creating. Within that will be times when you simply aren’t happy.


Q: We live in a world where a lot of people are resistant to change. Is change good for us?

A: When we’re thriving and at our best, almost always it comes after we’ve been pushed out of our comfort zone. Sometimes I think we confuse maintaining the status quo with being happy. Often when people are exhibiting peak performance, it comes after change, the death of something, and we as a culture have a lot of problems with death. I think it was Joseph Campbell who said that sometimes we get so caught up in living the life that we want to have, that we miss the life that’s in front of us.


Q: Are there psychological traits that separate successful athletes from the rest of us?

A: Yes. The first thing is passion. Think of all the physically talented athletes we’ve seen who have no passion for what they’re doing. It’s often called “grit” in sports psychology. They believe they’re going to be successful when everyone else doesn’t. Another trait is practice, getting better at specific things.


Q: Is the need to win programmed into us?

A: There are folks out there who believe competitiveness is a basic instinct in human beings. I do tend to believe there is something competitive that’s part of our being. All of us fail, but when elite athletes fail it seems to trigger something in them to want to do better the next time.


Q: Is ambition a good quality to have?

A: Absolutely, but if it gets to the point of hurting our relationships, we probably need to dial it back. But to have a lack of it causes its own set of problems.


Q: What role do you think religion plays in our ability to thrive?

A: Religion can be a core character strength. The most prominent example in the media over the past several years was Tim Tebow. I think religion can help create positive expectancy. Beyond that, when people experience religion in a healthy way, it helps them maintain perspective.


Q: Is bullying a cultural concept or is it primal?

A: That’s a question that doesn’t necessarily have one right answer. There’s physical bullying and there’s psychological bullying. Bullies are often surrounded by groups of people who won’t speak up, and if they’re not saying no, they’re standing in support. If that bully is standing on his own, it’s far less likely that behavior will be maintained.


Travis Heath, Ph.D., is assistant professor of psychology at MSU Denver. His research investigates the process of preferred identity development through the use of narrative psychotherapy. In addition to his local clinical work, Heath has served as a consultant for teams in the National Basketball Association. He is a frequent media contributor and has appeared on networks such as CNN, The Travel Channel, and many metro Denver television and radio stations. He writes a bi-weekly column about the intersection of sports and psychology for and USA Today.

FOLLOW Heath on Twitter: @DrTravisHeath