flowing motion

Posts Tagged ‘happiness

I want to follow up Gaye’s comment

“ I’ve not seen happiness or sadness as fixed points. My own experience told me long ago that both come and go. While I’m not that good at going with the flow, I remind myself of that old Quaker saying “this too shall pass”.

However, I find it hard to be so accepting of grief and hurt and sadness and pain, and I am surprised at the anger I feel in the cold-blooded way that many casually brush all those feelings aside with this quote from Gibran, as if one compensated for the other. Contrast yes, but compensate no.”

I don’t disagree with Gaye. I would like to extend the thinking.

Empathy

Discussions about happiness become complicated when we are entangle questions about the nature of happiness and sadness with our ability to understand the happiness and sadness of others.

We vary a lot in our ability to empathize with others. We are also more empathetic in some situations and less in others. I suspect that we find it easier to be empathetic when we have been in a similar situation to the one we are observing.

Quite often we look for empathy from people who are simply don’t understand. They are out of their depth.

Belonging

If someone does not have experience to understand our distress, it does not really matter. What matters is that guiding them may be an extra task when we are already strained.

What really matters is when they are in power in some way. Their lack of empathy denies our reality and we experience rejection on top of grief. In theory, the two together could be sufficient to spin us out of the natural butterfly loop of life and out of the natural recovery from grief as time passes.

Appreciation

Almost in contradiction, but not completely so, close relationships such as marriage are more likely to flourish when one partner helps the other partner elaborate good times. Yes, listening in bad times is important. But of more importance is drawing out positive stories in positive times. Recounting good stories deepens our understanding of how good things work and our capacity to come back into the butterfly loop of flourishing when we have spun out of the orbit is widened.

In plain language, when we are struggling with the awfulness of life, we need the good times as a map to find our way back into the natural cycle of happiness and sadness. Becoming trapped in either is illness.

Semantics of happiness

The real issue is the ‘theory’ that we brought to the discussion. When we define happiness and sadness as separate and different, then we ask how much of one should we have and how much of the other should we have.

If we had a word in English to define happiness and sadness and the seasons of our life as one thing, stretching in a straight line or in that looping butterfly shape, we would ask different questions.

If someone is sad, then we act accordingly knowing that there will also be a time when they are happy and we will act accordingly them too.

I like Khalil Gibran’s words because he illustrated this notion of oneness. We find it hard to grasp the idea because of the words that we begin with.

If we had started with a different kind of word, we would have a totally different understanding. What that word should be, I don’t know, but flourishing and thriving are good starts. Languishing is the opposite of flourishing.

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4 puzzles of positive psychology

I forgot to finish my series on the 4 puzzles of positive psychology, but I was reminded by lines I read in Khalil Gibran.

The maths of happiness

Old school

Much of the time we forget that everything written about psychology is based on an underlying mathematical model.  Psychologists like measuring things and as soon as they do, they’ve made an assumption, whether they realize it or not, about the shape of the thing measured.

Much of our work uses as straight line like the ruler we used as school.  We fill in questionnaires. We get points and we get a score. We think of intelligence, for example, as being a straight line.  We have more. We have less.   And we can describe our intelligence as a point on that line.  A point.

New school

Positive psychology tosses that assumption out of the window.  Mostly.

We stop seeing something like intelligence or happiness as more or less.  We discard the line.  We definitely discard the point.  Points will now signify illness. Serious illness requiring hospitalization and round the clock care.

Now we see psychological phenomena in terms of “flourishing” or “languishing”.  Are we moving around the world freely, or are we stuck in the mud unable to move in any direction?

The mathematical model that we now use describes what is means to be flourishing.  It is a model of movement, not stillness.  It is a model of action & reaction and how we change from one moment to the next, not how we stay the same.

Kahlil Gibran came to my rescue to explain the combination of happiness and sorrow  in poetry.

“The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.

Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?

And is not the lute that soothes your spirit the very wood that was hollowed with knives?

When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.

When you are sorrowful, look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”

Sorrow and joy are two sides of the same coin. One cannot exist without the other.  When our life is all one or all the other, we are ill.  We are living in a make-believe world.”

Personal, persistent & pervasive

But being what we are, we tend to think that “what is” will continue forever.  When times are bad, we tend to feel that bad times will continue forever. That whatever is is “personal, persistent & pervasive” when it is simple a natural oscillation that in this moment is giving us particular pleasure or sadness.

The danger is that in our anxiety we might bring our worst fears to pass.  The trick is to mourn that which should be mourned but not claim that everything else is also a source of sorrow.  Nonetheless, this is a trap that we all fall into sometimes.

Enough for now.  The important thing to grasp is that happiness is not a question of a mark on a ruler.  Happiness exists only in contrast to sorrow; so it coexists with sorrow.  Oscillation between the two, and all the points in between, is normal and healthy, because without sorrow, it would not be possible to be happy. It would not be possible to appreciate happiness.  If nothing changed, if nothing every changed, we would not even notice it were there.

It is not a contradiction to say that happiness includes sorrow.  It just depends up on the maths that you assumed at the beginning.

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Like so many people, I resent the paper of business. I resent the untidiness of returns that go off to government at odd times that bear no relation to what is happening in the business itself.  I hate the way it takes half-and-hour to process a bit of paper.

Other people hate other aspects of their job and probably for the same reason.  The rhythm of what they are doing clashes in some respect with another rhythm.  As I resist settling down to a task that takes far too long to orient – to work out a step-by-step process – and needs to be finished from beginning to end otherwise that settling down time will be wasted again tomorrow, I found another poem from Khalil Gibran.  We work to be in step with “life’s procession, that marches in majesty and proud submission towards the infinite.”  We need to find the rhythm of the dull parts of our job and revere them.   Not to do that is “to become a stranger to the seasons”.    That’s a more interesting way to look at the parts of our job that we find deadly.

What do you think?

Work chapter VII

Then a ploughman said, “Speak to us of Work.”

And he answered, saying:

You work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth.

For to be idle is to become a stranger unto the seasons, and to step out of life’s procession, that marches in majesty and proud submission towards the infinite.

When you work you are a flute through whose heart the whispering of the hours turns to music.

Which of you would be a reed, dumb and silent, when all else sings together in unison?

Always you have been told that work is a curse and labour a misfortune.

But I say to you that when you work you fulfil a part of earth’s furthest dream, assigned to you when that dream was born,

And in keeping yourself with labour you are in truth loving life,

And to love life through labour is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret.

But if you in your pain call birth an affliction and the support of the flesh a curse written upon your brow, then I answer that naught but the sweat of your brow shall wash away that which is written.

You have been told also life is darkness, and in your weariness you echo what was said by the weary.

And I say that life is indeed darkness save when there is urge,

And all urge is blind save when there is knowledge,

And all knowledge is vain save when there is work,

And all work is empty save when there is love;

And when you work with love you bind yourself to yourself, and to one another, and to God.

And what is it to work with love?

It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart, even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.

It is to build a house with affection, even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.

It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.

It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit,

And to know that all the blessed dead are standing about you and watching.

Often have I heard you say, as if speaking in sleep, “he who works in marble, and finds the shape of his own soul in the stone, is a nobler than he who ploughs the soil.

And he who seizes the rainbow to lay it on a cloth in the likeness of man, is more than he who makes the sandals for our feet.”

But I say, not in sleep but in the over-wakefulness of noontide, that the wind speaks not more sweetly to the giant oaks than to the least of all the blades of grass;

And he alone is great who turns the voice of the wind into a song made sweeter by his own loving.

Work is love made visible.

And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.

For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man’s hunger.

And if you grudge the crushing of the grapes, your grudge distills a poison in the wine.

And if you sing though as angels, and love not the singing, you muffle man’s ears to the voices of the day and the voices of the night.

Khalil Gibran

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Is happiness = pleasure?

Gaye Prior kindly commented on my post about poetry and positive psychology.

“Pleasure does not give life meaning and purpose and love. These are more important to me than passing enjoyment and survive even in the face of tragedy, horror, awfulness and loss.”

Do positive psychologists equate happiness with pleasure?

I’ve promised to reply in four parts describing the 4 puzzles of positive psychology.  This is the first part.

Principles of positive psychology

Let’s make the 1st principle of positive psychology the study of the positive (rather than the study of the negative or gaps or deficits.)

The 2nd principle is that well-being or happiness has three parts. As Gaye says “Pleasure does not give life meaning and purpose and love.”

Martin Seligman points out that well-being is made up of

The pleasurable life

The engaged life

The meaningful life

There is a questionnaire on the Penn Uni site that anyone can do. The items on the questionnaire flesh out the concepts.  Scroll down to the bottom of the page and pick “measures 3 routes to happiness” under “life satisfaction questionnaires” (2nd last on the page as I write).

Using the ideas of pleasure, engagement and meaning to enrich your life

Here is the description of the three levels of life provided by the psychologists at Penn Uni.

Higher scores on the Engaging Life (knowing what your signature strengths are, and then recrafting your work, love, friendship, leisure and parenting to use those strengths to have more flow in life) and the Meaningful Life (using your signature strengths in the service of something that you believe is larger than you are) have been shown to lead to greater satisfaction with life. Higher scores on the Pleasant Life (having as many pleasures as possible and having the savoring and mindfulness skills to amplify the pleasures) don’t add to satisfaction. To measure your satisfaction, use the Satisfaction with Life Scale.

Keeping pleasure, engagement and meaning in balance

Few of us have our lives in balance. That is the message for people who live in abundant circumstances.  Seek balance (and stop complaining!).

Seeking pleasure, engagement and meaning in difficult circumstances

For those of who do not live in abundant circumstances, we have serious shortfalls in one area or another and these shortfalls are not under our control.

I am always uneasy about casual interpretations of positive psychology that dismiss reality. Life can be awful.

The point though is what can be done about it?  If something is not under our control, there is little point in railing about it. It it is not under our control then it is not under our control.  Focusing on what is out-of-control just makes us feel helpless.  That was Seligman’s original speciality btw ~ learned helplessness.  Continually focusing on what cannot be done destroys our ability to do anything.

What we can do is work with what we’ve got, and work with whomever will work with us, to leverage whatever we can. We may not be able to change reality but we can do what we can.

Taking control of what little is under our control increases our chances of surviving difficult circumstances

Doing what we can with people who are important to us also seems to increase our chances of survival. Those chances might be minimal, as they were for later psychiatrist Viktor Frankl who survived an extermination camp. But they improve.

The overriding rule

We must remember that we have to work with what is under our control. That is you, me, the people around us and what works. Those are our tools.

The importance of pleasure

We should also not neglect the pleasurable life. We should respect fine food, the sunset and the rose growing in the garden. Oddly, savoring and mindfulness, though nowhere near the whole story of positive psychology, start a positive spiral.

Gratitude diaries provoke a spiral of well being.  On a really bad day, feel the earth under your feet. Look at that unexciting doorway of brick and mortar as the most magnificent invitation.

The unfairness of engagement

The engaged life is easy for professional people. We work and like to. Engagement is much more problematic for young people who generally only find ‘flow’ in sports and hobbies. One of the reasons that computer games are popular is that they provide the autonomy, social interaction, opportunity to learn, and opportunity to belong to something meaningful that is often not possible in our educational system.

People in low level jobs also have trouble finding flow in jobs which are poorly designed, micro-managed, and in which they are treated with rudeness and contempt. It is common for people in low level jobs to “recraft”. Why is it that security guards in Zimbabwe are more knowledgeable than shop assistants? Why are domestic help loyal? There is an element of Stockholm syndrome, but there is also a natural tendency to create a job that is satisfying to do.

The fragility of meaning

The meaningful level is provided by being part of something larger than ourselves.

I imagine more wars are created by violating this level than by anything more complicated. We are sensitive to exclusion and exclusion ‘crashes’ our psychological structures very quickly indeed (5 to 10 minutes does it.)

When we are victims of exclusion, we can create a temporary protective buffer with savoring, mindfulness and gratitude diaries. Some people use the pleasure principle badly, of course, and take to overeating and drink, both of which have their place in celebration but are ill-advised compensation for lack of  belonging. A walk or smelling a rose allow us to avoid adding a punished body to a battered soul.

Exclusion is devastating.

I hasten to add, that we shouldn’t be too judgemental about people who ‘get it wrong’ because exclusion is devastating.

There is a saying

“when someone in authority like a teacher describes the world and you are not in it, it is like looking in a mirror and not being able to see your face.”

I imagine this is why migrant who “walk both sides of the street” settle better than those who try to assimilate.

Buffering oneself from the impact of exclusion

The antidotes to institutional exclusion (that go beyond a painful social slight) are to develop empathy with others, to show solidarity, and to work on healthy political structures.

We all know the do-gooder who ‘helps’ others. I mean travel the same road as others. Suffer the same risks and share the same glory.

Solidarity is a long road but it is the best road. Mindfulness matters again but not the mindfulness of concrete pleasures. This time we want mindfulness towards the dynamism of the universe.

Simple techniques like closing one’s eyes and listening for the furthest sound can break the cycle of intense stress. Paolo Coelho’s post of today tells us to look expectantly for the magic moments that arrive unannounced and are gone in a twinkle. When we think there is only one microsecond of possibility a day, we pay attention.  Even David Whyte’s line of “everybody is waiting for you” suggests to us that we need to reach out.

In teaching, we often use Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese to show that we are part of any situation in which we find ourselves and by showing compassion to ourselves (as opposed to self-pity and indulgence), we help to feel in touch with the movement of the universe. I’ll add the poem at the bottom.

Three levels of a good life

In summary, Gaye identified the three levels of a good life:

  • pleasure ~ respect for beauty and comfort
  • engagement ~ enjoyment of work
  • meaning ~ belonging to something bigger than ourselves

With this layout, pleasure seems as if it is the lower level. It is a level that is easily abused but so to is over-identification with achievement or subordinating ourselves to readily to others.

All three are part of the good life. When life is in a mess, try doing an audit of what is going well in each area. Sometimes the map that follows is surprising.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

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At first, I was suspicious about positive psychology

I came to positive psychology some 10 years ago and like many people, I was deeply suspicious. Life is not about happiness, I thought. Life is about effectiveness. Life is about dealing with reality.

I still think that is what life is all about but I have also changed my “mental model” of happiness

Many people encountering positive psychology and happiness for the first time feel the same suspicious. And they write columns in newspapers and the speak on radio and TV about why focusing on happiness is wrong-headed.

A straight-forward summary of the puzzle of positive psychology

Gaye Prior writing from Zimbabwe, commented the post I wrote yesterday on poiesis and auto-poiesis and has captured the debates very clearly.

I realise that you write often of happiness and I wonder how you define what happiness is? It seems to me that many people might describe happiness as pleasure, which to me is more of an ephemeral thing and not happiness in the least. Pleasure does not give life meaning and purpose and love. These are more important to me than passing enjoyment and survive even in the face of tragedy, horror, awfulness and loss.

All over the web people write about happiness and often it sees to me, living here, to be more about pleasure than purpose. I know your blog is more about work and how positive psychology pertains to that and that you may have already done this and I missed it before I found you blog. Perhaps you could just [give] me the reference?

4 puzzles of positive psychology

I’ll answer her query at four levels

#1 The contribution of pleasure, engagement and meaning to well-being.

#2  Happiness at difficult times and in difficult places.

#3  The ‘maths’ of happiness and why positive psychologists agree that much of enjoyment is “passing”.

#4  How conventional psychology is a ‘straw man’.

I’ll leave this here for today and summarize each of the issues in a separate post.

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Poiesis

I learned something very interesting just now.  The Greek word for poetry is poiesis – ‘making’.

That wouldn’t have been too dramatic a discovery but management theorists are fond of the word auto-poesis.

Auto-poiesis

Autopoiesis literally means “auto (self)-creation” (from the Greek: auto – αυτό for self- and poiesis – ποίησις for creation or production), and expresses a fundamental dialectic between structure and function.

We like this word in management because it expresses the constant interplay between our relationships with the world and ourselves.

Autopoiesis vs allopiesis

An autopoietic system is to be contrasted with an allopoietic system, such as a car factory, which uses raw materials (components) to generate a car (an organized structure) which is something other than itself (the factory).

Management theory in the 21st century

Much of the management theory I grew up with was about allopoietic systems.  How do we turn inputs into something that we will send out or away?  X and Y.

Indeed, even allowing for the transformation of X into Y is somewhat of a novelty for a psychologist.  To have a feedback loop from Y to X is so challenging that the loop mysteriously disappears from some text books!

When we think of ourselves as autopoietic, we allow that “if organization of a thing changes, the thing changes.”  Here we are saying that every time a bolt and a washer, or indeed anything enters a factory, or a car leaves a factory, the factory itself has changed.

We are less concerned with what goes in and what goes out and more concerned with way the factory reinvents itself minute-by-minute.

An example of an autopoietic system

It’s a bit giddy-making when we switch from one idea to the other.

For the research minded

It is easier for research, stats-minded people to see the idea when they think of Losada’s work on the maths of happiness.  Happiness is made up of three things yet any one these is not happiness, or even the beginning of happiness.  The three things are a positivity/negativity ratio of around 5 to 1, slightly more curiosity than advocacy, and slightly more interest in the outside world than ourselves.  We don’t add up these three variables.  Rather, they “feed” off each other. At any one time their coordinates (x,y,z) can be anywhere in a 3D space shaped like a 3D butterfly.

Happiness means we have a big plump space and the coordinates swoop around.  Unhappiness means they have a repetitive circle or limited space.  Here we see the dialectic between structure and function.

We are healthy when we are constantly regenerating ourselves in response to the world around us and what we were a minute ago.

We become ill when we don’t look after who we were one minute ago (right now in other words) and we don’t attend to what is going on around us.  We are ill when our head is anywhere except here and now.

There is room for day dreaming, planning and reminiscing.  But as the icing on the cake.  Devoting space to what we are not is not healthy. A healthy mind is asking what is going on now and celebrating what is rather than what is not.

For the non-research minded

For the non-research minded, lets think of a cake made of flour, eggs and sugar.  We can vary the proportions, or at least good a baker can, and by varying proportions we get a good range of delicious cakes.   To have one type of cake all the time is boring.  Happiness, in this analogy, is a wide variety of cakes from plain biscuits to luscious forest cakes.   We have a plain biscuit today and we feel like a rich cake tomorrow, and vice versa.

Life becomes grim when the recipe never changes or we try to swap eggs for something else (like potatoes).  We need constant variety within broad rules.

We need to enjoy each cake for what it is.  A dry biscuit is that.  It is not chocolate cake. It never will be.

We also need to bake the cake. Happiness is the cake. Not a line of eggs, sugar and flour on the kitchen table.  It is a baked cake.  It is the product of interacting parts mixed sensibly.

Poiesis

I didn’t know that poetry means makingAuto-poiesis is the poetry of ourselves. The constant interplay between structure (me) and function (the world).

What happens when we connect strength with strength and hope with hope?

We know what happens, but we don’t dare hope.

Because we don’t believe the connecting steps at the edge of our group.

We know what happens but we don’t believe it will happen here.

Because we don’t believe the other has strength.

That’s why first and last, leadership begins with a leader’s belief in his followers.

We lead well when we believe in our followers, deeply.

When we believe, others believe.

When they believe, they connect,

strength with strength,

and we advance together.

And then we must trust ‘the other’ too.

And as each trusts each other, we are liberated from anxieties.

Unless we have a relationship with ‘the other’, we cannot believe in our success.


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