Positive Psychology – it’s not all smiles and attitude

One of my students wrote in an assignment about personal values and behaviours that he really values happiness, and is sure to wear a smile every day at work. This got me thinking: why is walking around like the Cheshire cat connected to happiness? Is it?

The Positive Psychology movement started with Abraham Maslow – you know, the guy who posited the hierarchy of needs – but the term didn’t really catch on until later. In 1998 Martin Seligman reintroduced it as the scientific study of positive experiences and positive individual traits, and the institutions that facilitate their development. Studies of resilience in children, for instance, could be considered positive psychology.

Two things to keep in mind: positive psychology is a science, and a new one at that. It is not pop psychology. It is also not about thinking positively, which is often as delusional as thinking negatively. Negative experiences are not unimportant in positive psychology, either – indeed they are an important part of life and growth.

Although happiness is a core concept in positive psychology, it warrants critical scrutiny. Research has shown that people in positive moods take more mental short cuts and are less attentive to details. It may even be associated with poor decision making. Research has shown that people who embrace their anger or sadness may be happier overall. People who score 10 out of 10 on the happiness scale do not achieve as much in education, salary or engagement in politics than those with only a moderate happiness score. Not that one must have the highest salary or a graduate degree, but it is an indication that great happiness may lead to a certain amount of complacency.

Positive psychology focuses on individualism in a mostly western context, and as noted above, is still in its infancy. But it seems clear from the studies done so far that unreflective positive thinking is insufficient and potentially counter intuitive to promoting the good life.

So, while I won’t discourage my student from his resolve to put a smile on every day, I am not going to be quick to follow his example. Nor would I make happiness itself a core value. I think I would choose freedom as a fundamental value first.


Just a song

Will you search through the lonely earth for me?
Climb through the briar and bramble?
I’ll be your treasure.
I felt the touch of the kings and the breath of the wind.
I knew the call of all the song birds. They sang all the wrong words.
I’m waiting for you. I’m waiting for you.

Will you swim through the briny sea for me?
Roll along the ocean’s floor?
I’ll be your treasure.
I’m with the ghosts of the men who can never sing again.
There’s a place follow me, where a love lost at sea,
Is waiting for you. Is waiting for you

Johnny Flynn, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q58Gm18-IMY

Hanging gardens

Environment: the force that trumps even motivation

In his award-winning book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, scientist Jared Diamond points out an obvious fact: different continents have different shapes.

For example, the general shape of the Americas is north-south. That is, the land mass of North and South America tends to be tall and thin in shape rather than wide and fat. The same is true for Africa. The primary axis runs from north to south.

Meanwhile, the land mass that makes up Europe, Asia, and the Middle East is the opposite. This massive stretch of land tends to be more east-west in shape. Interestingly, the shape of each region has played a significant role in driving human behaviour throughout the centuries.

When agriculture began to spread around the globe, farmers had a much easier time expanding along east-west routes than along north-south routes. This is because locations along the same latitude generally share similar climates, amounts of sunlight and rainfall, and comparable changes in seasons. This allowed farmers in Europe and Asia to domesticate a few crops and produce a surplus.

Meanwhile, the climate can vary wildly when you travel from north to south. Just imagine how different the weather is in Florida compared to Canada. Many crops that grow well in warm weather do not grow well in cold weather. In order to spread crops north and south, farmers would need to find and domesticate new plants whenever the climate changed.

As a result of these environmental differences, agriculture spread 2x to 3x faster across Asia and Europe as it did up and down the Americas. Over the span of centuries, this had a very big impact. The increased food production in Europe and Asia allowed for more rapid population growth in those areas. With more people, the cultures in Europe and Asia were able to build stronger armies and develop new technologies and innovations. Surplus in any economy produces ease; suddenly, there is time and materials to devote to arts and science.

The changes started out small—a crop that spread slightly more easily, a population that grew slightly faster—but compounded into substantial differences over time. While there were other factors, it is not a stretch to say the shape of the continents was an important reason why Europeans rose to power and conquered the native tribes of North and South America, and not the other way around. One group was not smarter or more motivated than the other. The conquerors simply had that material advantage, and it all started with agriculture.

We are quick to blame our environment when things go poorly. If you lose a job, it’s because the economy sucks. If you lose a game, it’s because the officiating was bad. If you’re late to work, it’s because traffic was insane.

When we win, however, we ignore the environment completely. If you land a job, it’s because you were talented and likeable. If you win a game, it’s because you played better. If you’re early for a meeting, it’s because you are organised and prompt.

It is important to remember that the environment drives our good behaviours as well as our bad ones. People who seem to stick to good habits with ease are often benefitting from an environment that makes those behaviours easier.

Meanwhile, people who struggle to succeed could be fighting an uphill battle against their environment. What often looks like a lack of willpower or talent or drive is actually the result of a poor environment.

In a culture that worships the individual, it is easy to forget this. You can act on your environment to better your chances, but the point of this post is to remind you that many forces and factors, both present and historical, are at work in your life, driving outcomes. Teasing apart how we are the author of our own misfortunes and how the system we live in may limit us is very difficult. For one thing, we are inside the fish bowl. For another, we can scarcely be objective. But keeping in mind there are many forces at work either giving us a break or dragging us down may, in the first case, keep us a bit more humble, or in the second case, keep us from despair.


text adapted from James Clear, 2016

Why do we resist happiness?

Sarah Von Bargen, whose blog is about building a happy life, tells a great story:

30 minutes across town happiness is waiting for me. 

In this case, it takes the form of a dance class filled with The Perfect Playlist,  women I like, and a teacher I adore. I HAVE ALREADY PAID FOR IT and every class I miss is a $20 bill I’m starting on fire and waving in the air. 

And yet! Even though I know this class will make me happy, even though I’ve already paid for it, instead of going I’m … not. I’m saying “Hey, Happiness! I see you over there, waving frantically. I see you and Imma opt to sit here in my dirty yoga pants and watch Parks And Rec reruns instead of hanging out with you.”

Have you ever done this? If you’re a human who is alive, I’m pretty sure you have.

Sarah is talking about why we resist happiness – in the last post, I alluded to this as  the elephant/rider parts of your brain, as per Jonathan Haidt’s model. But either construct works. We avoid doing what we know is good for us and makes us happy because it’s hard. Getting off the couch and going to the gym is hard; working on your book is hard; searching out a new recipe, walking to the store to buy the groceries with your re-usable bags and walking them home and chopping veggies and toasting spices is hard. It’s also very rewarding, but it’s hard. And sometimes it’s a hassle.

Sarah suggests that when you do make the effort, remember to say to yourself, in the midst of your hassle-filled but happy-making work, This makes me happy. It’s a little mental reminder – a small recognition that you’re glad you made the effort.



The biology of habits

Ninety-five percent of our brain activity isn’t conscious. Our unconscious brain controls a lot of things we think we are in conscious control of, like the food we stuff in our mouths or the emails we check compulsively during a meeting. Sometimes we do have conscious control of these things, but often we do not.

Once we start doing something (like flossing our teeth, or checking Facebook at work when we get bored) we eventually don’t have to think about it anymore. Our basal ganglia take over. It’s easy to see that sometimes this automatic action is a good thing (such as doing our yoga first thing in the morning) but often it is not (like biting our nails).  Good or bad, we can manipulate these habits into being.

In The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt used the metaphor of an elephant (the automatic process – our habits) with a tiny rider atop (the controlled processor – our willpower). As much as we might want the rider to direct the elephant, the rider is only the elephant’s guide. The elephant is in charge and pretty much goes where it is used to going, stopping for things that pack a reward (like food or love) and running from things that signal danger or discomfort. The rider can provide direction, but only when the elephant doesn’t have conflicting desires of its own.

The emotionally intelligent person, according to Haidt, has a skilled rider who knows how to distract and coax the elephant without having to engage in a direct contest of wills. And even when the rider is able to change the elephant’s behavior, it requires a big investment of energy.

If we want to live with the greatest ease and power, we need to invest in training the elephant, not convincing the rider. This does not mean that we give over the best parts of ourselves by focusing on unconscious habits. Your rider can do incredibly complicated, beautiful, sensitive things that habit can never replicate. But the rider is easily tired and fuel inefficient. It doesn’t have the same stamina to make decisions all day long. Moreover, the rider (conscious thought) is slow, processing about 50 bits of information per second. In contrast, the elephant (our unconscious brain) processes about 11 million bits per second.

Your brain, unlike your mother, does not distinguish between good and bad habits. Once we form a habit, the neural pathway that controls that habit exists in our brain forever. Although it is nearly impossible to eliminate a bad habit, you can conform it into a good habit.

There are three essential components of a habit. The first is the trigger – these can be emotions, times of day, sounds, smells.The next component is behavior. This is the path the elephant walks down. For instance, when you finish your breakfast (trigger), you brush your teeth (the behaviour, or the elephant’s “path”). The last component is the reward. Reward is what determines if a routine is worth remembering or repeating in the future. The rewards needs not be complicated or external, like money or food. In fact, internal and non material rewards are easier to tie to the routine and tend to be immediate, for instance, the endorphin rush after exercise.

Knowing this makes it easier to start to craft your life to build better habits. Start ridiculously small and, when you are ready to invest more time and effort into a major habits overhaul, do so. A good book to help you is Christine Carter’s The Sweet Spot.