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Posts Tagged ‘maths of happiness

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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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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The psychological breakthrough of the noughties

One of the most surprising yet little understood results of psychological research this decade has been the Losada ratio.  Simply, you will get depressed if you experience more than 1 minor negative event to every 3 moderate positive events.

How do we remain sane on trains and tubes and cramped uncomfortable workplaces, I wonder.  Well we don’t.  We languish.  We become inflexible.  Our creativity drops.  And all our energy goes into managing the negativitiy.

Of course, we should become resilient.  Some even say we should become ‘hard’.  But we aren’t saying we should extinguish all negative results.  When negative stuff falls below 8%, we get manic.  The flip side of the 3:1 ratio is 11:1.  We need to be somewhere in between.

We will take 17% of nonsense

The optimal rate is 5 moderate positive to 1 mild negative events.  Let’s spell that out.  People will take a mildly negative comment in the company of 5 moderately positive comments.  You can be mildly unpleasant 17% of the time without demolishing the creativity productivity and creativity of your team. Surely that is sufficient quota for you!!

A simple model of 3 factors

The amazing thing about this research result is the positivity/negativity ratio is believed to interact with two other ratios.  In addition to being positive, it is also healthy to ask slightly more questions about facts, figures and other people’s views than to put on the table what we already know.  Moreover, it is healthy to be slightly more concerned with life outside the group than with internal processes.

Groups that interact in these ratios have moments when they are positive, questioning and externally-oriented and moments when they are negative, internally-oriented and pushing their own point of view. They also have all manner of combination in between the two extremes. If we assume they are one-or-the other, they have 2x2x2, that is 8 states they can be in.

Understanding whether a group is healthy

How can we tell whether a group that is presently negative, internally-oriented and pushy is permanently in that state,  or in a natural swoop of mood?

Simply we cannot tell, until they change. Life isn’t a spectator sport.  If we want to know what  kind of group we are in, we have to hang about long enough to find out.

Funnily enough, if we are curious enough to stay, if we are willing to put our eggs in their basket, then they are more likely to swing into a more positive state.  We should remember though that emotion is contagious.  If they are in a very bad mood, take care to give yourself space to stay positive.  And don’t preach.  Ask! Or as Ben Zander says, apologize and invite. Preaching to preachers doesn’t get them to listen!

Understanding whether a group will stay positive

Also remember, that joining a positive team that seems on top of the world is no guarantee that they will stay there.  Indeed, if they are healthy, they will not stay there.  They will swoop downwards and they are probably about to begin a downward sweep.  So be sure you are happy to join them on the ride.  Be happy that you will join them  . . .

That’s the way to judge a project.  Are you welcome and do you trust this group enough to put up with the bad times?  In sickness and in health?

The question for New Year’s Eve

Remember life isn’t a spectator sport.  Who exactly are you loyal too?  That is the question for New Year’s Eve.  That’s the reason for New Year’s Eve.  To remember those to whom are we deeply committed in the year ahead.

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Image via Wikipedia

“It’s about survival, not ego”.

So said Techcrunch about Pandora’s founder.

Hmm. Losada used Lorenz equations to find 3 factors to distinguish successful business teams from unsuccessful teams.

  • Sincere requests for information slightly outnumber proposals for action
  • Positive comments outnumber negative statements by 5 to 1 (83% in other words)
  • Talk about the outside world slightly exceeds talk about the team.

So sometimes the team is complaining that the team is shite.   Inactive, negative and internal.  That’s fine.  As long as later in the day they are talking about what their customers like and the positive points they will push off from.

Unsuccessful teams get stuck in a place of gloom, or, in a place of self-congratulation.

Successful teams swoop gloriously around the whole emotional space like a happy butterfly tracing its own shadow and colouring in the outline in 3D technicolor.

Being in touch with reality in all its forms, good and bad, is what it is all about.

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