Sunday, October 24, 2010

Can Positive Psychology bring anything to the show?

Positive Psychology can be criticised for being too reductionist, lacking a strong philosophical base, and for being - well, too positive. Whilst these criticisms have some merit, there is a lot of good research and discussion happening in the positive psychology world, and the task is to harvest this rather than debunk it.

I'll post some more ideas on this in due course, but here are some thoughts.

  • If positive psychology can show that interventions increase subjective well-being, can it also show what interventions increase the richer notion of eudaimonia (or flourishing, or the good life)?
  • Will the same interventions that increase subjective well-being increase eudaimonia?
  • Will other interventions, for example those aimed at enhancing meaning or wisdom, have more effect on eudaimonia than subjective well-being?
  • Can the work on flow and strengths increase eudaimonia?
  • Here's one way that they might ... By knowing and focussing on our strengths, we have more chance of achieving our life goals. 
  • Here's another ... By turning the activities that will help us achieve our life goals into flow activities, we will be more motivated to carry them out
So I believe a dialogue  between positive psychology and those interested in enhancing eudaimonia is important - and yes, positive psychology can bring something to the show

Flow - how to help your clients lead a more absorbing and fulfilled life

It's sometimes argued, and with some validity, that psychology, especially positive psychology, ends up advocating interventions that are "just common sense". For example, one of the most frequently cited interventions is to count your blessings - hardly a new idea.  Proponents of positive psychology  like Martin Seligman have pointed out that there are in fact a number of  findings uncovered by Positive Psychology, some of which which are well described in this article

One of the concepts I find most intriguing that comes from Positive Psychology is that of Flow, as researched by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.   Flow is a state of optimal experience.
It’s being in the zone, it's  losing yourself in a task. I've written a more academic style post on the criteria for finding flow, so I won't repeat that here.

Here I want to consider just two ideas that may be helpful when working with coaching or even therapy clients.
The first makes use of the absorbing and enjoyable nature of flow activities. When you lose yourself on the ski slopes, or on the tennis court, or in a game of chess, a film, a conversation or a video game, you want to do the activity again. So if you can find flow in an activity, you will be more motivated to do that activity.  A key  -and perhaps under-used - life coaching exercise is to ask the client to  list their major life goals. The problem many people find though, is that, paradoxically, although the items they have just listed are at one level very important to them, they just don't feel motivated to do them - at least not now! For example, suppose you've written down "write a novel" or "get really fit" or "be a successful parent" as a life goal. Seeing it down can  just make people feel guilty that they aren't doing it already and not at all motivated to start doing the task.  One of the tricks here, as all life coaches know, is to break it big goals down  into smaller steps, make the goals SMART and so on. So you might aim not to write a novel (because that goal is too daunting) but to research the subject of your novel, and to do that  by next Sunday. That's better -but what if you still don't feel motivated to do it. Then your coach may suggest you visualize success. imagine seeing your book in Waterstones and imagine how proud and pleased you feel. Whilst this can sometimes be helpful in giving more motivation , I'd like to suggest  another approach.
 If you can find flow in everyday activities connected with your life goals, then you'll be motivated to do them and you'll take a step towards a life goal and find flow - two good things.
The trick here  is partly to match the criteria for finding flow - for example, make sure you set realistic but also challenging goals, aren't distracted and that you get feedback.  So the would-be novel-writer finds a quiet space to start their novel, having set the challenging but realistic goal of writing the first paragraph of the novel today.  The challenged parent takes their kids somewhere they are all likely to enjoy, plays an absorbing game with them, or puts on a video of the family holiday when the children were toddlers (these all work for me!).  For sure, not all life goals necessarily have the potential to produce flow - the anxiety may be just too high, or the tasks too mundane - but if you can combine the two its a great win-win.



However, by no means all flow activities are good ones. Recently, I've found myself spending far too much time playing chess on the internet. Flow theory helps me understand why. Chess is absorbing, you lose yourself in the game (even if you lose the game ...), there's feedback, there are specific goals ... it's no surprise I experience flow when I play chess. Yet I don't really want to spend that much time playing chess - my work and family are much more important and playing chess distracts me from my important life  The lesson I - and clients - may benefit from is that flow activities may be potentially addictive andso  one needs to be wary of over-engaging in them. To do this, you might need to take quite strong preventative measures e.g. asking other people to stop you doing these activities or  in my case taking the link to the chess game off my browser so it's that much harder for me to get started. Whilst chess might seem a relatively harmless addiction, I am sure that being in flow is part of the attraction of more damaging activities, for instance those concerned with alcohol and drugs. The useful insight here is that whilst flow may be part of the good life it certainly isn't the only thing that matters - and  that activities are addictive partly because they lead to flow.

These two points are really two sides of the same coin.  Flow is addictive, and if you experience it in activities that are part of your good life, then that's a double win - flow and your life goal. But if you attain it in neutral or even harmful activities, then whilst it's perfectly understandable that you keep doing that activity, it's something to be wary of.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Searching for Meaning with Viktor Frankl

Last night fifteen of us braved the heat to spend 3 hours exploring how the great Austrian existential psychiatrist Viktor Frankl could help us find more meaning in life.

I thought it would be worthwhile (meaningful even) to jot down a few conclusions.
  • The meaningless life might be one of depression (many depressives speak of lack of meaning) but it also be one of mundaneness. Both Tolstoy's Death of Ivan Ilyich and Abba's The Day Before you Came are examples of comforting to "the herd" and living an automaton-like existence more than being actively depressed.
  • Sometimes we need a jolt to awaken us from this meaningless state. It can be a brush with one's mortality or reading a book like Frankl's Man Search for Meaning
  • The YOU in the Abba song could refer to any number of possible sources of meaning, including
    • a lover
    • a union with someone or something
    • the divine
    • finding one's true vocation
    • awareness of one's mortality
    • winning the lottery
  • Frankl doesn't think there is any one meaning in life to be found any more than any one right move in the game of chess. There may be a best move in a particular position in chess and in life it's a case of detecting where meaning can be found in your life.
  • There is a responsibility for us to make our lives meaningful -just as we would feel a responsibility to save a drowning man.
  • Frankl can help us broaden our awareness of where this meaning may lie with a series of thought experiments
  • The "Rocking Chair" thought experiment helps us get more in touch with how our life may be meaningful in our future.
  • Frankl identified three areas of meaning - attitude, creations and experiences.The acronym ACE (not Frankl's! )can be used to remember these three areas.
  • The Andy Dufresne character in the Shawshank Redemption illustrates. For example in the scene where Andy gets stock for the prison library and then defies the warders by playing Mozart loudly to the whole prison shows
    • Attitudes of defiance, courage, perseverance, optimism, hope and love
    • Makes a difference to his fellow prisoner's day - both as a role model and changing their mundane grind into a special moment.
    • Gives Andy and his fellow inmates the aesthetic experience of Mozart - both at the time and when Andy recalls it when "in the whole" and also the experience of commune with each other
  • We can usefully think about what similar attitudes, creations and experiences will give our lives meaning.
  • It is important to look at this in concrete as well as abstract terms. One can do this by thinking about how one's life can be more meaningful in the next week. What attitudes, creations and experiences we can have in the next week.
  • We then need to think about what specifically we need to do and what obstacles we need to overcome
  • Some tips the group came up with to help included
    • writing down advantages and putting this list in a place we can see it
    • making a start however we feel
    • getting help from others (and avoiding those who will hinder)
    • asking what is the worst that can happen
    • recording our fears and comparing with what actually happens
    • breaking down large tasks into small manageable steps

We meet again next week, hopefully having got a step closer to living a life of meaning.