Monday, June 20, 2011

The Glass Is. . . Well, The Glass Is.

I can still recall my reflexive annoyance at seeing the cute little smiley face appended to the signature of a former colleague’s written communications – and the momentary pleasure I’d take in blacking it out. The implied ‘have a nice day’ seemed to invite an ‘I’ll have whatever kind of day I choose, thank you very much’ accompanied by thoughts of pathetic Pollyanna’s and irrepressible Ricky’s (for those of us old enough to have watched Ozzie and Harriet). Give me a good, solid cynic anytime: grounded realists all. In short, I’d always harbored a view (a suspicion) that optimism lacked gravitas, smacked to some extent of self-delusion – or, at best, naïveté; pessimism, while ‘harder to look at’, was the real deal, the unvarnished truth.

Mellowing somewhat, as I expect we must, in the past few decades – and I suppose fortunate, professionally, that psychology as a discipline has gravitated toward the middle ground – I’ve found myself a little less dark and now quite accepting of ‘balanced thinking’. Cognitive behavioural techniques, with their emphasis on rational thought and a ‘just stick to the facts, m’am’ methodology, have displaced, for the most part Freud’s sinister interpretations of our hidden compulsions as the intervention of choice. My personal pendulum had begun its inevitable return trip to the midpoint. Nevertheless I was not about to turn in my cynic’s club membership just yet and become a card-carrying optimist.

So it was with some skepticism (of course!) that I read Sarah Hampson’s piece in the Globe last weekend highlighting the findings of a recent book entitled The Happiness Advantage (Shawn Achor) associating, among other things, a performance edge going to the happy camper. Identifying a range of potential within the individual, research reviewed by Achor reportedly suggests that we operate more toward the upper reaches of that range when we are ‘happy’. In fairness (to us former cynics), he is quick to differentiate between that chronically effervescent, resilient state that so reminds me of those inflatable ‘bobo’ dolls with sand in their feet that pop right back up each time you’d whack the bejeezus out of them – a condition he calls ‘irrational optimism’ – and its more grounded sibling: rational optimism. (We didn’t all buy into The Secret and its questionable, though wildly popular contention that ‘if you put it out to the universe, it will happen’ – and if it doesn’t, it’s because you had a little doubt sneak in the side door – and neither, it seems, did Mr. Achor.)

His rational optimist is not just somebody who thinks happy thoughts (think Chicken Soup for the Soul author tacking his cheque for $1 million on the ceiling above his bed – until it showed up. Oh really!!). Rather, he/she is someone who exhibits three characteristics that Achor claims are responsible for 75% of our performance in any given situation (intelligence, skill set, etc. accounting, in his view for the other 25%): optimism (of course), a positive and supportive social network, and a positive response to stress. The last of the three is the one I found most compelling – and, in some ways, most relevant to and accessible through mindfulness practice. The author identifies, as part of the rational optimist’s tool kit, post-traumatic growth as key. He defines this as the individual’s capacity to respond to crisis, hurt, disappointment, tragedy with a readiness to incorporate these difficult, even tragic circumstances into their ongoing psychological growth – as he puts it, ‘growing because of trauma, not despite it’. I contrast this with what an acquaintance of mine calls ‘victim mode’ – the adoption of one’s tragedies as a defining element in their identity going forward. A wonderful exploration of these two polarities is contained in Rohinton Mistry’s, A Fine Balance, chronicling the undeniably tragic lives of two, poverty stricken tailors from the north of India and their infallible and personally innocent ‘instinct’ for participating in one disaster after another buoyed only by their resilience; and a spoiled relative afforded every opportunity who ultimately suicides, a ‘victim’ of his own ‘thoughts’.

In mindfulness practice, attachment represents a considerable impediment. Among its other ‘roles’, becoming attached to or entrenched in a particular state or event fails to allow us to move on. We become ‘stuck’, in the present context, ‘in victim’ – which then begins to define who we are, how we see ourselves, and even what our expectations for the future might be. (In clinical terms, we may become depressed or overly preoccupied with the past; even making ‘predictions’ about the probable negative direction we’re headed in – the ‘nothing ever changes’ or ‘without bad luck, I’d have no luck at all’ outlook.) Regular mindfulness practice, with its attendant emphasis on the basics of letting go, allowing what is, accepting that change and evolution is inevitable, can be figural in our adoption of a more fluid, tolerant (of all experiences) mindset – living with the ‘full catastrophe’, in Jon Kabat Zinn’s description. In Mr. Achor’s view, this becomes important as we sort out how we’re going to address the inevitable ‘downturns’ in our lives (he claims something of the order of 10% of what we face is externally determined and therefore unavoidable) – do we treat them as ‘confirmations’ of our ‘traumatized’ state; or adaptively, with rational optimism.

This thinking is not new. I can still recall seeing Norman Vincent Peale sitting prominently on my parents’ bookshelf (well, his book, anyway). Much more recently, and for the hard-headed scientist in me, more palatably is the work of Martin Seligman, a prominent psychologist, whose earlier research centered on learned optimism, leading to his very readable book, Authentic Happiness in 2002. In it he provides compelling evidence and manageable formulae for (in language very similar to Achor’s) ‘fulfilling one’s potential’. His listing of ‘signature strengths’ (vs. defining pathologies) – what’s right, rather than what’s wrong – reads like an index to mindfulness practice: openness to experience, objective consideration, social intelligence, perspective, integrity, genuineness, honesty, (loving)kindness, generosity, self-control, humility. . .the list goes on to twenty-four such dimensions. (Just a tad more ‘optimistic’ than reading the DSM-IV, the catalogue of psychiatric mental health disorders, prominent on our current bookshelves.)

For a full, working example of what Achor’s formula might look like in action, have a look at this morning Globe’s lead story at:

Optimism, supportive social network, positive response to stress – indeed! Maybe there’s hope for this aging cynic after all.


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