Pleasure, engagement and meaning for a good life

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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7 videos of joy, zest, enthusiasm

During Christmas, I am going to rewatch some videos on positive psychology that I have found particularly inspiring. Here are 7 of the best.

Smile and the whole world will smile with you.

A gentle love story about smiling, validation, emotional contagion and if you look carefully toward the end, the effect of networks on happiness.

Everyone gets an A

Ben Zander speaking at TED

Positive Psychology

Martin Seligman speaking at TED

Exuberance

Kay Jamison on exuberance

My stroke of insight

Moving yet inspirational talk by,  Jill Bolte Taylor, neuroscientist, talking about her own stroke at TED

J.K. Rowling delivering the commencement address at Harvard

And continuing here.  Author of Harry Potter books talking about sticking to her passsion and the responsibilities of Harvard graduates.

Starting close in

Dr Rao speaking at Googletalk

Have a good Christmas and a joyful and unexpectedly prosperous 2009!

Buzzing with expectation?

5 contemporary concepts for understanding why some groups buzz with expectation

Self-styled vagabond, Sam Brannon, asked a good question last weekend on Linkedin.  Are we in a state of learned helplessness?

I’m an inveterate shaper so I am always asking “is what we do important and are we doing the important things?” Because I ask these questions, it is possible I sense learned helplessness more than do others.   But, I am also much more interested in the the opposite of learned helplessness.

  • I love the crowd singing their local hero to victory.
  • I love the buzz of getting a group project done on time.
  • I love the feeling of belonging to an institution worth belonging to.

Indeed my love of that community buzz is key to my professional interest in work psychology and university teaching.  Sam’s post led me to list 5 contemporary concepts from psychology and management that, I think, are key to creating the spiral of group buzz and efficacy.

1 Collective efficacy

If we believe in each other, we add 5-10% on our effective results.  Collective efficacy is a simple yet powerful idea.  When the teachers in a school believe in each other, the school outperforms other schools who have equal resources!

Rule one:  The CEO needs to believe genuinely in his or her direct reports.  That process kicks off their belief in each other and in their direct reports, etc. etc.

P.S Faking doesn’t work.  The pre-requisite of leadership is genuine, heart-felt belief in one’s followers.

2 Solidarity

Rejection is enormously destructive.  Roy Baumeister, who blogs at Psychology Today,  has shown that being rejected by a computer (not even a person) is sufficient to stop us looking in a mirror.   Someone who feels rejected is not going to be feeling efficacious!

Rule two:  Don’t just walk around!  Walk around with a mission to create a sense of belonging.

P. S.  Be hyper-alert to the small minute and accidental ways in which we exclude people.  They are devastating to moral and self-confidence.

3 Personal Leadership

Social media (like LinkeIn) has awakened our sense of being at the centre of our own network.  Everyone is a leader.  The personal leader ‘school’ supports the development of individual leadership (see poet David Whyte).  I am also interested in organizations that recognise that everyone is a leader.

Rule three:  Tell our own ‘stories’ to show how the organization fits in to our personal destinies, and write an organizational story that depends upon our differences and uniqueness.

P.S.  A story that depends on us mimicking the boss defines us as irrelevant (a hole below the waterline for the organization!)

4 Positive psychology/positive organizational scholarship.

The work of Martin Seligman and David Cooperrider has shown the power of gratitude and appreciation.  Positive whatever-whatever sounds like touchy-feely stuff but it is pretty hard core.  Basically, it is an approach where we focus on what works and works well and we discard the rest.

There are good reasons why haven’t focused on what works well as a matter of course.  Simply, if we define leadership as one person knowing what is best, and telling the rest of us what to do, then we are always focusing on a gap – on something negative.

Rule four:  Scrap all the “gap” technology on which management and HRM was built.  Pinpoint what works and do more of it! Then keep the conversation there.

P.S.  Its scary to abandon the idea that we know best.  But when we get the hang of it,  we find out all the good stuff that is happening that we didn’t know about.

5 Globalization

Globablization has changed economics and shifted where and how we can make a profit.  We have to work harder now to create value that produces a penny of profit.  Working with this constraint produces fantastic results as we see in V.J. Prahalad’s value at the bottom of the pyramid.

The principle used by large companies to rethink their process is this: abandon the idea of trying to sell more and more at a better and better price.  Rather, ask what is needed at what price, and work backwards to what we can supply.  The ability to ask questions about the world outside the organizations is a key aspect of successful business teams.

Rule 5:  Forget about being a leader!  Ask how to develop a community who are interested in what we do.

P.S.  We do need to honour the community’s needs and trust it to honour ours (complete the circle).  When we don’t have this loyalty to each other, a buzz is not possible.  We simply don’t have the conditions for a high performing organization.  This is not the day!

[CSPPG : cheerful squirrels prepare parties toGether]

Everyday use of these concepts

I use all these ideas in running everyday projects, like university courses. I know students do better when they believe in each other.  My job, as I see it, is replacing their initial dependence on me, with, a strong belief in each other, a belief in their project of studying together in this year & in this place, and a deep pride in how they came to be here and how they will move on together.

That is the buzz of expectation that the whole world feels tonight with the US galvanized to get out and vote (or is just to get a free cup of coffee from Starbucks?).  That is the buzz we get when our favourite team makes the finals.  That is the buzz we get when you couldn’t stop us going to work even if you tried!

Have a winning week!

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Agenda for the 21st century: management & leadership

Is it leadership and management ~ or ~ leadership or management?

So many people believe that management and leadership are separate, even antagonistic, activities. But I still believe that the two go hand-in-hand.  Leadership requires good management.  It is important to understand how work is organized and to shape institutions so we can make work easier, more fun and more productive.

The strategic plan for positive psychology

I’ve just tracked back to Martin Seligman’s original plans to develop critical mass for positive psychology.  It is an excellent case study of organizational leadership.  This paper was published at the outset.  It describes the inputs, outputs and processes needed to create a successful institution.  We can see the results for ourselves.

Competent positive leadership is being called for on many fronts

I couldn’t help thinking of the parallels in the Executive Summary and Barack Obama’s speeches.

“Entering a new millennium, we face a historical choice. Left alone on the pinnacle of economic and political leadership, the United States can continue to increase its material wealth while ignoring the human needs of its people and that of the rest of the planet. Such a course is likely to lead to increasing selfishness, alienation between the more and the less fortunate, and eventually to chaos and despair.

At this juncture the social and behavioral sciences can play an enormously important role. They can articulate a vision of the good life that is empirically sound while being understandable and attractive. They can show what actions lead to well being, to positive individuals, and to flourishing community. Psychology should be able to help document what kind of families result in the healthiest children, what work environments support the greatest satisfaction among workers, what policies result in the strongest civic commitment.

Yet we have scant knowledge of what makes life worth living. Psychology has come to understand quite a bit about how people survive and endure under conditions of adversity. But we know very little about how normal people flourish under more benign conditions.  .  .”

We won’t get a positive world without positive competent management too

Positive psychology is our zeitgeist.  We want a more positive world.  That doesn’t mean a “happy clappy” world. It means a competent world where we address our differences vigorously, yet with thought and compassion.

Positive psychology is an example of positive competent management

The positive psychology movement is been a masterful piece of strategic management.  Study it to see the merging of leadership and management!