Positive Psychology Association Honors ‘Superstar in the Making’
Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was one of a kind—the Father of Flow and a giant in the field of positive psychology. His retirement from teaching in 2018 left a huge void at Claremont Graduate University and throughout academia. You can never replace the legendary Mike C., who passed away in 2021.
But perhaps you can identify a worthy successor.
“I was asked to find someone who not only was passionate about what makes life worth living but who could also inspire colleagues and students to come here,” said Stewart Donaldson, a distinguished university professor and executive director of CGU’s Claremont Evaluation Center and The Evaluators’ Institute, who led the search committee.
One candidate in particular stood out: Saida Heshmati, an adjunct faculty member at George Mason University who earned her PhD three years earlier in educational psychology. Her postdoctoral work took her in a different direction: Using nuanced statistical methods, she studied what well-being is and how to measure it in people’s daily lives—a quintessential transdisciplinary experience. CGU invited her to join the Division of Behavioral & Organizational Sciences faculty in Fall 2018.
“I always made sure not to frame it as Mike C.’s replacement, but rather someone who aspires to the same values to help us continue his legacy and research,” Donaldson said. “She’s taken on that challenge.”
Indeed she has, and her colleagues throughout the field have taken notice.
The International Positive Psychology Association named Heshmati the recipient of its Early Career Researcher Award, which recognizes a member of the organization who, within the first 10 years of completing their PhD, has contributed most significantly to the scientific advancement of knowledge in positive psychology. Heshmati accepted the award in July at the organization’s biannual World Congress in Vancouver, Canada.
“It provides a lot of validation, because being a new faculty member, you question yourself at times,” Heshmati said, addressing what is often referred to as impostor syndrome, a not-uncommon issue among high-achievers in many professions. “You ask yourself if you’re taking the right direction, if you’re being influential. Getting this recognition shows that I belong in this field and that I can make a difference.”
Donaldson, in his letter nominating Heshmati for the award, called her “an absolute superstar in the making [who] has made major contributions to our positive psychology programs since joining our faculty. … As a woman of color and international scholar, she is also an amazing role model for students.”
The most successful professors seamlessly meld teaching, research, and mentoring to create synergy that fuels discovery and advances knowledge. Heshmati quickly showed she was up to the task. Shortly after arriving at CGU, she founded the Well-Being and Developmental Methods Research Lab, which has become a hub of innovative research on well-being, positive relationships, and optimal development. She mentors more than 10 graduate students who collaborate on projects ranging from “Expressing and Receiving Love for Minority Youth in the US” to “Appreciation in Daily Life.”
“It’s hard to separate teaching and research because our job is an intertwined combination of the two,” Heshmati said. “As you teach, you learn, and that feeds into the questions you want and need to ask. Having the voice of mentees is important because every person brings a unique perspective and informs how you conduct research. CGU gives you the opportunity to collaborate with so many bright graduate students. It’s a big advantage.”
In addition, her research has been widely disseminated in publications such as the Journal of Positive Psychology, Journal of Happiness Studies, International Journal of Well-Being, and Applied Psychology: Health & Well-Being.
What is well-being?
“That’s the million-dollar question,” Heshmati said. “Living a good life. But what does that mean? When we want to define it, we need to contextualize it, we need to understand it in the developmental and cultural context and specific life situations. It might mean something to me at this time in my life but might be different to the next person.”