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

It is easy to 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 of positive psychology

Positive psychology tosses that assumption of as straight line out of the window.  Mostly.

We stop seeing something like intelligence or happiness as being more or less.  We discard the line.  And we definitely discard the point.  Points will now signify illness. And what’s more, serious illness requiring hospitalization and round the clock care.

The new school of positive psychology 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 a model of stillness.  It is a model of action & reaction and how we change from one moment to the next.  It is not a model of how we stay the same.  If we are a fixed point, then the new model regards us as ill.

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 humans tend to think that “what is” will continue forever.  When times are bad, we tend to feel that bad times will continue forever.  We often feel that a situaton is “personal, persistent & pervasive” when in reality is nothing more than  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 of a flourishing life is to mourn that which should be mourned but not to over-generalize and claim that everything else is also a source of sorrow.  Nonetheless, over-generalizing is a trap that we all fall into sometimes.

Happiness is not a point – it is constant movement between many points

Enough for now.  The important idea 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 ever changed, we would not even notice it were there.  It is impossible to be happy all the time because if we were, we wouldn’t notice.

Not a contraction; just maths

It is not a contradiction to say that happiness includes sorrow.  It just depends up on the maths that you assumed at the beginning  : a line of fixed points or constant movement in space.


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