The best skill that you will learn as a student of psychology is to “operationalise” fuzzy ideas. In plain language, we beceome brilliant at writing questionnaires. What is an extravert? Someone likes going to parties. And so on.
Warmth is less valued
The skill that you will not learn as a student of psychology is to “encourage” or “enthuse” others. You might have thought when you started your studies that that is what psychologists do. Sadly, warmth and connection will be beaten out of you as sin of “measurement error”.
And what of generativity?
So you may be really struggling with the idea of “generativity”. At least know that you are in good company. We all have to relearn what is means to help others see possibility and goodness, connection and meaning, in their lives.
To help you understand the meaning of generativity, as it plays out in our lives, here is a letter that seems to have entered the web via Harvard.
And as a good psychologist, note the elements:
The impact of chance on our lives
The effect of cutting away on defining who we are
The constant effort to broaden-and-build, nonetheless
The richness of connection to others to whom we are loyal and dreams we hold sufficiently dear to work at night and day
The vulnerability to the disloyalty and treachery of others whom we love and causes to which we have devoted the best years of our lives
And then poetically
And then read the whole. The poetic quality of language is important. I was never particularly poetic. Sadly learning to operationalise didn’t particularly help.
Read the original and then take that step of thinking generatively about your lives and the lives of those you touch.
Today the GSCE results came out in the UK. For American readers, GSCE is like graduating from high school though you can stay and spend an extra two years working on A levels for university entrance.
Huff Post interviewed 4 boys from just north of London. I was immediately struck by two observations. The richer the boy, the more disorientated he was. And how all the boys expected a vague ill-defined authority to sort out their career for them.
The two poorer boys were infinitely better off in my view. Both had had an objective or some time. Both had responded to events, which might have been crushingly disapppointing, but were brushed off by simply finding another path to the same goal. But both, of course, exited the school system – not surprising if you know anything about the rigidity of class in the UK.
Where is the vocation?
But I am not here to lament class – well not today anyway. I was struck that ‘careers advice’ was simply functional. Sign on here. Do this. Do that. I would like to see young people getting ‘to the heart’ of what interests them and defining their economic relationship with the world through a lens of their abiding interests.
Where is the abiding preoccupation?
In business, we might talk in terms of ‘vision’ and ‘mission’. But look at the way the manufacturing giant Danone puts it:
If associating health benefits with the pleasure of eating is our permanent preoccupation, ensuring that products are made available to the greatest number of people is now the Danone’s new endeavour.
First, let’s ask ~ what is our permanent preoccupaton? What do we return to time-and-time again because it is so important to us? What do we hold so dear that it puzzles us that others don’t? What are we always willing to work on, no matter the time of day or night?
And then, what is our priority right now? What is the endeavour or practical project that is needed at this moment?
Vision and mission. Preoccupation and endeavour. I like the second set of words a lot more. Don’t you?
I am arguing that we are all up-to-our-eyeballs in the mess we rail about and that we got into the mess because we abdicated responsibility for our lives and our tantrums are signs of more abdication.
Simply, to adapt Zizek words, we will start to feel good about things when we are able to put on a list what “no one else will do it for [us], that [I] have to be the change [I] want to see.”
The tricks of a psychologist
As a psychologist, I always listen for the ”I” and the “we”.
What is the person in front of me actually going to do?
Who are they doing it with or for?
Of all the things they talked about, which brought a light to their eyes?
Zizek moments and psychology
We are in a Zizek moment when we retort that we are unable to do anything because the system makes us impotent.
We are focused, in short, on the ‘not living’ rather than the ‘living’.
These moments aren’t fun and this is the psychology of getting our attention back on the ‘living’.
A small example of giving to Caesar. . .
To take a simple example, I lock my car when I leave it at Milton Keynes Railway Station. Don’t you?
I accept that there is plenty of nonsense in the world but I act sensibly.
I don’t devote a lot of time to thinking about security at Milton Keynes Railway Station but I don’t take it for granted either. Most of all I vote for people who treat the security people around the station fairly and I pay my rates so they can. Don’t you?
Do you abdicate the responsibility for the conditions under which we live?
Read what Zizek says about Greece:
“When the protesters started to debate what to do next, how to move beyond mere protest, the majority consensus was that what was needed was not a new party or a direct attempt to take state power, but a movement whose aim is to exert pressure on political parties.”
Why do we abdicate to others?
Of course, we delegate to others, yes. If there is a security person at Milton Keynes Station, I don’t interfere while they are doing their job.
But abdicate, no. I can’t say “There is no security at the station. You must fix it.” I can’t bluster and stamp my feet and say “There is no security. I am your employer as a taxpayer. You must fix it.”
I must act definitively. “We have seen this pattern of events. Please tell us what action you will take to change the pattern and suggest a date that we can meet to review whether the actions have been effective.”
And I must be clear what I am going to do if I am still not satisfied. What is the point of stamping my foot?
“To riot [even if it is a middle-class tantrum] is to make a subjective statement, implicitly to declare how one relates to one’s objective conditions.”
Tantrums not only accept our position of powerlessness. Tantrums say we are OK with our position of powerlessness. Don’t come to me later complaining. I will only ask you: Well what do you want to do about it?”
I can never be too enthusiastic about
“impotent rage and despair masked as a display of force; it is envy masked as triumphant carnival.”
It’s like over imbibing. You will regret it in the morning.
So what do psychologists suggest when you are feeling impotent? Indeed when you are overwhelmed with indignation at your impotence?
#1 Let’s stop thinking that this is a first in history. We are not alone in this. Read the old works and read the new like Zizek .
#2 Think back to Jesus Christ saying to his followers: Give unto Ceasar . . . Get involved in as much nonsense as you have to . . . but keep it on the periphery of your existence in the way you lock your car at the station. . . it is not your life.
#3 Learn from feminist Germaine Greer who wrote short chapters that women could read on the loo – the only place where they have peace and quiet. Find five minutes every day to be quiet. A park is nice. But be effective on this at least. If it the loo is the only place possible, then the loo, it is.
#4 Think back over the last 24 hours about what is ‘good, true, better and possible’, and do more of it. Sounds naff? Try it. When you are more purposive about what you want and take active steps toward it, it tends to move toward you. When it happens, your main reaction is going to be, “Eh? This easy?” Yes, it is normal to be suspicious but when you move toward something, it comes to you. On the other hand, if you are faking it, it will blow you a raspberry. I repeat, what you move towards will move towards you.
#5 Where you have a choice between two good things, do the one that’s better for other people too.
That’s it. Shit will continue to happen but you won’t be so directly implicated and you won’t be sitting around thinking that some vague person in some vague office should be sorting it out. That is no way to live. Your life is going to amount to what you are willing to be responsible for.
To find out what you are willing to do, because it is your choice, not mine – find five minutes to review each 24 hours. Celebrate the good, the true, the better and the possible, however small, particularly the small . . . and do more of it.
And then you will be like Zizek – watching the Zizek moments with Zen-like calm, waiting for more people to catch on. Then sociological conditions will change and we will have a new sociologist to read. Enjoy.
Zizek, one of the most important thinkers of our age, tells us that much of the time, we cheerfully go along with nonsense like – derivative trading – telling ourselves all sorts of ‘porkies’ [for non-British readers that is Cockney slang for a self-serving deceit].
We reassure ourselves (rather greedily) that we will not be the victim when the ‘house of cards’ collapses. Not for us ‘ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee’. Oh no, somehow it is OK to go along with what we know is wrong.
A Zizek moment
And when it does go wrong, when quite inevitably the scam is revealed in all its shocking-ness, we express indignation in a useless tantrum.
We tell the ‘authorities’, we tell some nameless, faceless people over whom we have no power or influence even if we did know who they are, to sort it out, or “we will be cross”.
Having abdicated our future when we joined the scam, we abdicate again by claiming that ‘someone else must sort out the mess.
Writing of the current Spanish demonstrations, Zizek comments “the indignados do not (yet) claim that no one else will do it for them, that they themselves have to be the change they want to see”.
A British example of a Zizek moment
Let’s take a British example. The News of the World tapped phone messages.
But who did not know that before this year? Pleassse.
And who did not encourage them? At least 3 million people gave them money every week. I’ve be known to read The Times when it popped up on my screen.
But what is with the outrage characteristic of a Zizek moment?
We are outraged because we knew what was going on all the time and if we didn’t actively take part, we encouraged it or condoned it.
We are outraged because we are caught out in the lies we tell, chiefly to ourselves.
And we are outraged because like an emperor with no clothes, we are caught with no life plan accept bouncing from one scandalous scheme to another.
If you like being outraged, then, please, carry on. If you don’t, psychologists have do-it-home advice
In the next post, I’ll lay out the do-it-at-home tips for you. There is no need to spend oodles of money. Indeed I wouldn’t take your money because unless you do get started at home, not even millions of dollars of professional help will get you going.
I must say that a few months, I had not heard of ZIZEK. But we all should have heard of Zizek because we are going to hear a lot more about him.
Why should a mechanic, a fireman, a hairdresser and god forbid, a member of the chattering classes, read sociology?
I know a lot of people who never read any sociology and the live quite happily. Maybe they are happier than us too. And they probably are richer and more powerful too.
But not knowing about the sociology of your time is like not knowing that the banks deal in derivatives that are 10x the value of real assets. Even if we don’t have the big money to play on the derivatives market, we should at least understand that
liberalization of banking means derivatives
and derivatives mean a banking system that has electronic (or printed) money
that there is more than one derivative (so to speak) for each tonne of wheat or gold that they say they own
and there is not 10% more but 10x more paper than things.
90% of derivatives are what you and I think of as a pyramid scheme.
So we read sociology because we don’t want to be caught out holding useless paper assets
Any economist or financier reading this will wince at my crude explanation but you do see my point. If you willfully persist in ignoring the basics of social science, don’t cry when you are standing in a Northern Rock queue when the bank almost falls over. Don’t cry when your pension turns out to have been invested in derivatives and they turn out to be worth 10% of their face value or nothing at all.
And we are tired of the argument that there is nothing you and I can do
Many people will talk to me as if I am an idiot, and say “there is nothing we can do about the mess of our politics and economics”.
That indeed maybe true too. I am not telling you to start fixing the derivatives system. But I am explaining that knowing more about sociology will mean you will be the patsy less often.
We begin by knowing what is going on
I am pointing you here to a commentator who is worth reading, even if he writes real sociology that requires a little concentration.
At Richard Holbrooke‘s funeral today, Barack Obama quoted part of his favorite poem: The Buried Life.
I read the poem and recognized immediately the philosophy of positive psychology. I also recognized my own ignorance. I thought Mathew Arnold was a novelist – maybe he is that too.
But he was a poet and a poet talking to the changing sensibility in Victorian England in the mid 1800’s. According to Wikipedia
“Arnold’s philosophy is that true happiness comes from within, and that people should seek within themselves for good, while being resigned in acceptance of outward things and avoiding the pointless turmoil of the world. However, he argues that we should not live in the belief that we shall one day inherit eternal bliss.”
He did visit the US and he was knowledgeable about the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson, another philsopher providing roots for the positive school. I have my homework cut out for me.
Here is the poem in full. I’ve highlighted the lines Obama read at Holbrook’s funeral in green.
The buried life
Light flows our war of mocking words, and yet,
Behold, with tears mine eyes are wet!
I feel a nameless sadness o’er me roll.
Yes, yes, we know that we can jest,
We know, we know that we can smile!
But there’s a something in this breast,
To which thy light words bring no rest,
And thy gay smiles no anodyne.
Give me thy hand, and hush awhile,
And turn those limpid eyes on mine,
And let me read there, love! thy inmost soul.
Alas! is even love too weak
To unlock the heart, and let it speak?
Are even lovers powerless to reveal
To one another what indeed they feel?
I knew the mass of men conceal’d
Their thoughts, for fear that if reveal’d
They would by other men be met
With blank indifference, or with blame reproved;
I knew they lived and moved
Trick’d in disguises, alien to the rest
Of men, and alien to themselves–and yet
The same heart beats in every human breast!
But we, my love!–doth a like spell benumb
Our hearts, our voices?–must we too be dumb?
Ah! well for us, if even we,
Even for a moment, can get free
Our heart, and have our lips unchain’d;
For that which seals them hath been deep-ordain’d!
Fate, which foresaw
How frivolous a baby man would be–
By what distractions he would be possess’d,
How he would pour himself in every strife,
And well-nigh change his own identity–
That it might keep from his capricious play
His genuine self, and force him to obey
Even in his own despite his being’s law,
Bade through the deep recesses of our breast
The unregarded river of our life
Pursue with indiscernible flow its way;
And that we should not see
The buried stream, and seem to be
Eddying at large in blind uncertainty,
Though driving on with it eternally.
But often, in the world’s most crowded streets, But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us–to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.
And many a man in his own breast then delves,
But deep enough, alas! none ever mines.
And we have been on many thousand lines,
And we have shown, on each, spirit and power;
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been ourselves–
Hardly had skill to utter one of all
The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
But they course on for ever unexpress’d.
And long we try in vain to speak and act
Our hidden self, and what we say and do
Is eloquent, is well–but ’tis not true!
And then we will no more be rack’d
With inward striving, and demand
Of all the thousand nothings of the hour
Their stupefying power;
Ah yes, and they benumb us at our call!
Yet still, from time to time, vague and forlorn,
From the soul’s subterranean depth upborne
As from an infinitely distant land,
Come airs, and floating echoes, and convey
A melancholy into all our day.
Only–but this is rare–
When a beloved hand is laid in ours,
When, jaded with the rush and glare
Of the interminable hours, 80
Our eyes can in another’s eyes read clear,
When our world-deafen’d ear
Is by the tones of a loved voice caress’d–
A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast,
And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again.
The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain,
And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know.
A man becomes aware of his life’s flow,
And hears its winding murmur; and he sees
The meadows where it glides, the sun, the breeze.
And there arrives a lull in the hot race
Wherein he doth for ever chase
That flying and elusive shadow, rest.
An air of coolness plays upon his face,
And an unwonted calm pervades his breast.
And then he thinks he knows
The hills where his life rose,
And the sea where it goes.
Who would have though positive psychology was buried in Victorian England? Every day is an adventure.
We have to take happiness seriously. Yes, we do! The UK government is going to measure our happiness and as we all know, what gets measured gets done!
Positive psychology has been around now, in a formal way, for over 10 years. That is not long but after all Google has been around for about the same time. And Facebook for a fraction of that.
Of course, happiness is a lot older. To make a more precise statement about ‘happiness’, academic psychologists in Western countries have been studying happiness with a sense that ‘it is right to do this’ for a decade.
So what have we learned from ten years of the formal study of happiness by psychologists?
What does positive psychology tell us?
Positive psychology is little different from other topics in social sciences. It doesn’t tell us answers. It helps us ask the right questions. Most importantly, it helps us put aside questions that are simply the wrong questions.
What are the wrong questions to ask about happiness?
Are some people more happy than others?
We love to ask who is more intelligent, who is more good-looking and after all, who is more worthy. We like to line people up with the best in front and thereafter claim they will beat the front of the line forever and because they are in the front, permanently the best, that they are worthy of more respect, more love, more care, and sometimes even more food.
We know this is the wrong question for three reasons.
Wrong question – Reason 1
Yes, some people are better and some people are worse at specific tasks and they keep this rank order for a short space of time. They are also likely to build a portfolios around their strengths of today, but they don’t stay permanently on top. A top cricketer might become a cricket coach in time, for example, but he will no longer be the top batsman or bowler. Sensible people retire from competition at the right time!
If we are going to compete in the happiness stakes, most of our lives we must be losers. Logic fail?
Wrong question – Reason 2
Being good at one thing does not make us good at everything. Indeed, learning a skill takes time (around 10 000 hours of practice as a rule-of-thumb or ten years of organized practice) and we can generally only be good at one thing.
If we think about being good at something, we are going to make a choice. Some of us can choose to be good at happiness. Others will have to make do with being good at something else. Logic fail?
Wrong question – Reason 3
Asking who is the happiest is simply not a worthy question.
For the sake of argument, let’s imagine that one person is permanently good at one thing and with great good fortune also good at two or three other things: does that make them a more important person than someone who is not very competitive at any activity?
Should one child be loved more than another? How corrupting is that for the child who is supposed to be so much better? Lets not go there for if we do it is a case of morality fail, not so?
What is the right question about happiness?
If asking who is the happiest is the wrong question, then what is the right question?
What is happiness?
All these discussions about who is happy and who is not begs a simpler question: what is happiness?
Most of can recognize happiness in the same way that we recognize the difference between a good meal and an indifferent meal. We just can without necessarily being able to create a good meal ourselves.
Partly we fail to create good meals because we don’t want to learn the skills and do the work that goes into making a good meal. We try cheating with recipes. We add ready-made sauces. We can work on one or another principle ideas – for example, buy good ingredients (would we recognize them?).
The truth is good meals are produced by many factors brought together by someone who understands the issues, who has had a lot of practice, and who is paying attention on the day. Happiness is the same.
• We work with what we have in the moment
• We understand the issues
• We pay attention adjusting as we go
What are the issues surrounding happiness?
Positive psychologists and management theorists in a related field, positive organizational scholarship, have settled on a checklist of FOUR issues to guide our thinking at any moment. The four issues have been compressed into an acronym PERMA.
• Positive emotion
Positive emotion simply means play nice – not only with others but with ourselves.
A simple trick is to review each day and after reviewing what we feel and the stories we are telling ourselves (and others), we look over our stories and highlight what we went well.
It is astonishing how negative processes are allowed to crowd out positive processes. In part, it’s a survival thing – we attend to what scares us.
The trick to restoring a positive outlook is to make a (written) checklist of what did go well and mark what we would like to repeat and expand.
We are intensely sociable animals. Even the most introverted among us like to do things that make sense socially.
Sometimes an activity done alone, like writing poetry, really is sociable, as is the commute of a person who treks long hours to earn an income for his family. We will always prefer the activity that links us to the people we care about.
Indeed, we care about the people when we do things together. We like the people we do things for and with. Games designer, Jane McGonigal, suggests we like people better when we play games with them, for this reason. Sports bring us together, etc. etc.?
Giving mental space to our relationships makes even the most introverted of us happy.
Life also makes sense when we are working on something bigger than ourselves. Sometimes that means commuting for the sake of our families. Sometimes we use the ‘bigger than’ line as an excuse, e.g. when we go to university because the system requires us to. But we know the difference because when we don’t care about the wider meaning, we hate what we are doing and feel exhausted.
We have limitless energy when we really care about the ‘story that we are writing’. This is a good exercise as well. Write a few lines of your autobiography each night and ask whether you are writing about who you want to be – or about someone else. In a previous post, I’ve suggested that (necessity) entrepreneurs rewrite their story nightly. Writing our story coherently helps orient ourselves to what we care deeply about.
How we love to achieve! Solving problems is lovely. Triumphing over adversity is invigorating. Dreadful jobs are dispensed with so much more easily when we set them up as little challenges that we can tick of – there! there! there!
Setting little hurdles for ourselves improves the day.
Happiness Happening near you!
If you haven’t already seen Jane McGonigal’s presentation at School of Life (sermon actually) on 26 October 2010, it follows below.
Jane McGonigal is a games designer. She explains the theory of positive psychology. She explains how she used the theory to accelerate her recovery from concussion. She illustrates the theory by replacing the dreary world of ‘to do’ lists with the PERMA checklist. She weaves her vision for the world into the template of sermons as a children’s story.
It’s fun to watch and shows you where this happiness stuff has got to and where it is going.
“What is the smallest thing you can to do improve your life?” asked engineer turned social media technologist cum psychologist, Benjamin Ellis, today on Twitter.
An impossible question!
We can never answer that question and this is why.
When “life is going well”, we don’t ask.
– Not because life is going well, but because we have no issue with getting on with life. The next step emerges, then the next, then the next. We generate ideas as fast as we need them.
When “life is going badly”, we can’t answer.
– Not because life is going badly, but because we can’t imagine the next step. And because we can’t imagine the next step, we feel the way is lost. And when the way is lost, we worry that life is lost. And then we worry about improving our life.
“Life is going badly” means we can’t tell you spontaneously the small thing that we will be doing next!
The positive psychology answer
The positive psychology answer is to restore the feeling of well-being – not by another cup of coffee, though I am guilty of that.
And not by artificial crutches of well-being like positive chanting.
1 Actively savor
But by taking a small step “in the life in which we find ourselves”. Poet David Whyte says that “sometimes truth depends upon a walk around the lake.” Bringing forward one’s daily exercise and getting out into the fresh air and nature might restore our composure.
Rule of thumb: Bring forward a task that is important that we can do with enthusiasm and appreciation.
2 Meaningfully appreciate
Failing that, we simply need to pay attention to the task in front of us and do it mindfully. Feel the keys beneath our fingers. Feel the solid floor beneath our feet.
And if we do make some coffee, do it with care and appreciation.
Rule of thumb: Become engaged again with life through the things immediately to hand.
3 Ask for help
Mentors are important not just for their practical advice and or for the bolstering of our self-esteem. Mentors are useful for the simple questions they ask.
A good mentor takes us out of the mental space of panic and helps us pinpoint what’s next. They find it easy to ask the question that leads us to answer “What is the smallest thing we can do to improve our life?” When they are skillful and not inclined to take over our burdens, they ask the small obvious question that leads to a small obvious answer. @jackiecameron1 in Edinburgh, Scotland played that role for me yesterday quite publicly on Twitter.
She really does have the touch of the simple question that is so hard to ask.
Rule of thumb: Describe our conundrum to someone we trust. They will often ask a simple question that might make us feel foolish but it will point us to what we crave – what to do next.
What do positive psychologists do?
So that’s what positive psychologists do.
They return us to the positive ecology of doing small things that matter quite spontaneously and help us stay there if we are there already.
Not knowing what to do is the bad life, and the bad life is not knowing what to do. One does not lead to the other. They are the same thing. The bad life and being out of actionable ideas are the same thing.
But the first step of getting out of the bad life is very hard to take – by definition. If we knew, we would be doing it and we wouldn’t feel life is bad.
So that is what positive psychologists do. We suggest you just carry on but acting the good life because the good life is the action you crave and action is the good life.
We won’t necessarily like the advice because at the minute we’ve persuaded ourselves that we are not in the good life. But it is here. It is present. It is with us always.
Act out the good life right now in the life that you find yourself and you will forget the question of “What is the smallest thing we can do to improve our life?”