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Day 22/05/2014

What If Instead of Prioritizing the Relief of Suffering We Also Focused On the Understanding & Building of Happiness?

In times of trouble, does the understanding and alleviating of suffering trump the understanding and building of happiness? I think not. People who are impoverished, depressed, or suicidal care about much more than just the relief of their suffering. These persons care–sometimes desperately–about virtue, about purpose, about integrity, and about meaning.” -Martin Seligman, Authentic Happiness

I am currently in the discovery phase of the Positive Psychology cycle of my rethinked*annex project–reading the books and getting a deeper sense of the discipline. There is a lot of information to unpack, so this is the first of several posts in the coming week about what exactly Positive Psychology is, how it came to be, and what type of impact it might provide. I am deeply excited by the potential of an empirical science that attempts to help us thrive and live meaningful, joyful and fulfilling lives. Positive Psychology was made even more special once I discovered that it started as a wonderful “what if?” and as a challenge to the status quo. In his book, Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman walks his readers through his thought process leading up to his founding Positive Psychology as an official field of study in 1998. Noting that “psychology has badly neglected the positive side of life” and that, “For every one hundred journal articles on sadness, there is just one on happiness,” he decided to do something about it.

{ QUESTIONING THE STATUS QUO } 

THE PROBLEM – 

For the last half century psychology has been consumed with a single topic only–mental illness–and has done fairly well with it. Psychologists can now measure such once fuzzy concepts as depression, schizophrenia, and alcoholism with considerable precision. We now know a good deal about how these troubles develop across the life span, and about their genetics, their biochemistry, and their psychological causes. Best of all, we have learned how to relieve these disorders. By my last count, fourteen out of the several dozen major illnesses could be effectively treated (and two of them cured) with medication and specific forms of psychotherapy. But this progress has come at a high cost. Relieving the states that make life miserable, it seems has made building the states that make life worth living less of a priority. But people want more than just to correct their weaknesses. They want lives imbued with meaning, and not just to fidget until they die. Lying awake at night, you probably ponder, as I have, how to go from plus two to plus seven in your life, not just how to go from minus five to minus three and feel a little less miserable day by day. 

THE SOLUTION – 

My most grandiose aim […] is to correct the imbalance by propelling the field of psychology into supplementing its hard-won knowledge about suffering and mental illness with a great deal more knowledge about positive emotion, as well as about personal strengths and virtues.

{ DEFINITION } 

So what exactly is positive psychology? Seligman defines it thus:

Positive psychology has three pillars: First is the study of positive emotions. Second is the study of the positive traits, foremost among them the strengths and virtues, but also the “abilities” such as intelligence and athleticism. Third is the study of the positive institutions, such as democracy, strong families and free inquiry that support the virtues, which in turn support the positive emotions.

I will unpack and get into more details about how Seligman classifies positive emotions, positive traits and positive institutions in next week’s post.

{ REFLACTION } 

This week, I am beginning Tal Ben-Shahar’s Even Happier: A Gratitude Journal For Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment, which is the companion workbook/playbook to Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment and which is a way to put into practice some of the findings and insights from Positive Psychology:

Engaging in reflection and action –what I have called “ReflAction”–brings theory to life. I have adopted the practice of reflaction in my academic classes and public workshops, and I recommend that all teachers and students in any field who are concerned with real learning do the same. 

What a splendid term reflaction is, and it so brilliantly captures what I am attempting to do through the rethinked*annex project. The playbook is divided into 52 chapters, one for each week, and grouped around various themes (see my picture of the table of contents below.) This week’s theme is “Being Grateful.”

Ben-Shahar starts by giving a brief overview of the findings of Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough’s studies on gratitude, which demonstrated that “putting aside a minute or two every day to express gratitude for one’s life has far-reaching consequences:”

Compared with the control group, the grateful group not only became more appreciative of life in general but also enjoyed higher levels of well-being and positive emotions: they felt happier, more determined, more energetic, and more optimistic. They were also more generous and more likely to offer support to others. Finally, those who expressed gratitude also slept better, exercised more, and experienced fewer symptoms of physical illness. 

He then recommends a daily gratitude exercise to be completed every day:

Each day this week, write down at least five things for which you are grateful. The key when doing this exercise is to remain mindful, not to take this exercise for granted. One way of remaining mindful is by visualizing or reexperiencing whatever it is that you are writing down. For example, as you write down “parents,” see them in your imagination; if you write down “conversation with partner,” try to reexperience the same feelings you had while conversing with your partner. 

What If Instead of Prioritizing the Relief of Suffering We Also Focused On the Understanding & Building of Happiness? | rethinked.org

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