An oldie but a goodie. 9 years ago leading psychologist Martin Seligman, Buddhist scholar Alan Wallace, and His Holiness had gathered for a Potential of the Mind conference. An interview is podcast, and I strongly encourage listening to it, and re-listening. Seligman starts by explaining how Positive Psychology had grown out of the inadequacy of his field’s relentless focus on negatives, flaws and failings. In encouraging people to truly flourish he points to the transience of happiness, when it’s so dependent upon the wheel of chance. You strive for that golden cheesy goal, but then circumstances may be against you.
Cycles of fluctuating hopes and disappointments can lead to rumination on what might have been…. if only. Returning thoughts to the past is, of course, unhelpful. It can also be informative, so as to avoid repeating a mistake, but only if one is mindful of what circumstances, choices, and alignment of planets led to the situation’s arising. This isn’t easy. Consider the Dalai Lama’s anecdote of the monk, coming to him with depression, who’d been overwhelmed by the impermanence of satisfactory things. And he mentions how that then leads to physical troubles.
Connecting is Happiness.
Lasting happiness comes from participating in greater things than can be accomplished on one’s own. A sense of tribal belonging fulfills a primitive urge, and cooperating is also more likely to result in success due to pooled talents. Connectedness is the subject of a previous post on the power of community sharing solutions to common problems. It can be chaotic, sometimes even cats are easier to herd than an online network is to moderate. But respect among fellow seekers of answers is earned by what one brings to the table. This is the beauty of positive psychology’s strengths. Aligning your contribution to what you do best is certain to be more appreciated than problems – adding to mounting piles of woe and worry.
These three visionaries give a roadmap of hope. In the meantime, a helpful starting point is to mitigate suffering in one’s own life. Breathworks ® Mindfulness for Health, addressing chronic illness, is one application of the basic principle ‘paying attention, in a non-judgemental way, to the present moment’. Pain may be an immediate concern, so notice it, and recognize the emotions accompanying this feeling. Awareness is the first step on the path of acceptance, putting down a futile struggle by the intransigent person that grew out of suffering and hijacks our true, happy nature. This means turning into difficulty, or as ‘Happiness Trap’ (linked excerpts) author Dr Russ Harris puts it, Staring Down Demons. Sure, this idea of curiosity about the darkest, most painful feelings intuitively feels wrong – and contradicts the meme affirmations that fill Facebook and LinkedIn. This isn’t rainbows and unicorns.
Since intensity is often uncomfortable, here’s comic relief. Saturday Night Live character Stuart Smalley had a segment mocking the self-help industry’s affirmations.
Comedian/actor Al Franken ended up in politics as a US Senator, as they do. And despite boldly championing issues such as human rights, recently resigned as a result of sexual harassment allegations – which didn’t take much proving, since his meant-to-be funny photo at the expense of a sleeping colleague certainly was humiliating to the victim. Self-talk of “I deserve good things”, “I’m going to do a terrific show today, and I am going to help people….” were jocular, but nonetheless wallpaper over flaws.
The mind can be a bully. Humankind’s evolved to compete, and crush competitors. Capitalism thrives on this drive. The killer instinct, if directed inward as a motivation to better oneself, harms one’s own self-worth. Avoiding your mind’s self-talk isn’t hard – medicate until numb, or reinforce positive self-images over…. and over, in an affirmative mantra. Or stand up to face this difficulty, and beat it. Bullies thrive on our fear.