In this first section we will examine differences between happiness and well-being, the latter term being preferred in the field of positive psychology. Seligman (2002) has used the terms interchangeably at times, for convenience, as do many of us who teach and/or study positive psychology. However, there can be important differences, as we’ll see below.
Both happiness and well-being are the goals of positive psychology, or rather, learning something about how to achieve them. They can refer to feelings or actions, some of which are oriented toward the past (having enjoyed something, like a tasty dessert) and some of which are oriented toward the future (e.g., either optimism or hope). Happiness will contribute to well-being, but not everything that contributes to our well-being makes us happy, and therein lies something of a difference.
Defining Happiness and Well-Being in the Western World
Some 2,500 years ago, Western civilization began with the ancient Greek city-states. From the beginning, there were profound Greek philosophers who, among other intellectual pursuits, attempted to determine what defined a “good life.” However, they were unable to come to an agreement, and we are still trying to make that determination today.
Roughly speaking, there were two major views on how to actively approach the good life, hedonism and eudaimonia, as well as a third view that seems to oppose any active pursuit, that being stoicism. More recently, Seligman and others (see below) have focused on several different approaches to happiness that ideally will be found in balance, but differences in which (due to one’s personal orientation) help to explain individual differences
Hedonism, Eudaimonia, and Stoicism
Many psychology professors will tell you that psychology has its roots in philosophy. I tend to disagree, since those very same professors will point to the beginning of modern psychology as being the establishment of Wilhem Wundt’s psychophysiology laboratory in 1879 in Leipzig, Germany. Sigmund Freud, like many early psychotherapists, was a neurologist first, and believed he was applying solid experimental techniques to his study of psychological disorders (though today we considered his approach not quite scientific in its nature). Consequently, in my humble opinion, the true roots of experimental and clinical psychology are grounded in neurology and biology.
However, there are two areas of psychology that quite clearly have their foundations in philosophy. The first is existential psychology, with its two most notable theorists being Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning (1946/1992), and Rollo May, author of Man’s Search for Himself (1953). Both Frankl and May considered the key to psychological health being the challenge to find meaning in one’s life (we’ll address meaning below). The other area is positive psychology, since philosophers have been struggling with what it means to live a good life for thousands of years.
For hedonists and epicureans the way to a good life was simple, it was to be found in sensual pleasures. The founder of hedonism, Aristippus of Cyrene, began with the supposition that all people seek a final goal in life, that the knowledge of that goal is only what is true to each person, and the nature of the goal is individual pleasure (Watson, 1895). Not only does every person seek pleasure, but they cannot really strive for anything else in life, since all pleasure is good and all pain is bad. What is important, of course, is that hedonism recognizes that what is pleasurable must be measured in context: something can only be pleasurable if a person finds pleasure in it. In other words, pleasure is ultimately defined personally. Nonetheless, it is still the highest good to make the most of each moment, and to live intensely in each pleasure as it arises (Feldman, 2004; Watson, 1895).
Generally viewed as being within the hedonistic school, the philosophy of Epicurus continued the focus on seeking pleasure, but with some modifications. For Epicurus, some short-term pleasure can lead to suffering (e.g., overeating can ruin a good meal). In addition, pleasures of the mind are superior to sensual pleasures, so it is best to pursue a pleasurable intellectual life (Frost, 1962).
The Epicureans were measured in their pursuit of pleasure, especially since they considered all forms of pleasure to be of potentially equal pleasure, be it fine wine, music, or a good book. Rather than engage in Bacchanalian revelry, they were known as the “garden philosophers,” combining relaxation, moderate pleasure, the company of good friends, etc. (Compton, 2005; Feldman, 2004; Frost, 1962; Watson, 1895). Among the principal doctrines of Epicurus we find:
II. Death is nothing to us: for that which is dissolved is without sensation; and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us.
III. The limit of quantity in pleasures is the removal of all that is painful. Wherever pleasure is present, as long as it is there, there is neither pain of body nor of mind, nor of both at once.
V. It is not possible to live pleasantly without living prudently and honourably and justly, nor again to live a life of prudence, honour, and justice without living pleasantly…
VIII. No pleasure is a bad thing in itself: but the means which produce some pleasures bring with them disturbances many times greater than the pleasures.
XXVII. Of all the things which
wisdom acquires to produce the blessedness of the
complete life, far the greatest is the possession of friendship.
(pg. 35-37; Epicurus, in Oates, 1940)
Epicurus was not the only one to consider friendship of great value. Some 100-200 years earlier, in northeastern India, Gotama Buddha (who many people refer to as the Buddha) had this to say (as recorded in the Itivuttaka):
Bhikkhus, in regard to external factors, I do not perceive another single factor so helpful as good friendship for a bhikkhu who is a learner, who has not attained percection but lives aspiring for the supreme security from bondage. Bhikkhus, a bhikkhu who has a good friend abandons what is unwholesome and develops what is wholesome. (pg. 122; Ireland, 1997)
The eudaimonic approach to a good life shifts the focus from sensual pleasure to fulfilling one’s potential. At his trial for being a corrupter of youth and subverter of the Athenian state religion (which led to his conviction and death), Socrates said to his jury:
Best of men, Athenian that you are, member of the city that is greatest and most renowned for wisdom and strength, are you not ashamed to care about maximizing your wealth and fame and status, but not to care or give thought for intelligence and truth and to making your soul as good as possible…All I do is go about persuading you all, young and old, not to care for your bodies or your wealth with the zeal you should devote to making your soul as good as possible, by saying that it is not from wealth that goodness arises, but from goodness wealth and everything else become beneficial for human beings both in private and in public. (pp. 94-95; Socrates, in Long, 2015).
Plato, Socrates’ most noted student, furthered this idea that people who honed their intellectual and rational faculties would approach a divinely favored life, which is what Eudaimonia actually means. In other words, if we turn away from pleasures found outside ourselves (those things which provide sensual pleasure) and focus instead on our divinely given and innate powers of reason then we will approach that most ideal life possible – the life of the divine (Long, 2105). When a person is living a complete life of reason, according to Plato, such a life will be noted by wisdom, courage, and self-control, and such a life will be a happy life (Frost, 1962).
Aristotle, the best known student of Plato, continued in the same philosophical vein, referring to what he called the golden mean. Although reason is the highest pursuit, people also experience feelings and desires. The golden mean refers to a balance between reason and pleasure. When we achieve this balance, and fulfill the potential of our rational faculties, it feels good and we’re happy (Compton, 2005; Feldman, 2004; Frost, 1962).
Finally, we turn our attention briefly to the Stoics. The Stoic philosophers did not trust human emotion, since they believed those emotions were likely to lead to unhappiness. They considered the pursuit of reason above all, with the ultimate goal being the realization that the human mind was one with the divine mind of the gods (see Compton, 2005; Long, 2015, Oates, 1940). This latter perspective is quite similar to Yogic/Buddhist perspectives (which we will return to later).
How shall we describe ‘progress?’ It is the state of him who having learnt from philosophers that man wills to get what is good, and wills to avoid what is evil, and having learnt also that peace and calm come to a man only if he fail not to get what he wills, and if he fall not into that which he avoids, has put away from him altogether the will to get anything and has postponed it to the future, and wills to avoid only such things as are dependent on his will. For if he tries to avoid anything beyond his will, he knows that, for all his avoidance, he will one day come to grief and be unhappy. And if this is the promise that virtue makes to us – the promise to produce happiness and peace and calm, surely progress toward virtue is progress toward each of these. (pg. 230; Epictetus, in Oates, 1940)
One particularly interesting Stoic philosopher was the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. He began the first of his twelve books of meditations with a list of important things he had learned from his family, including:
From my grandfather Verus I learned good morals and the government of my temper.
2. From the reputation and remembrance of my father, modesty and a manly character.
3. From my mother, piety and beneficence, and abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts; and further, simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich.
17. To the gods I am indebted for
having good grandfathers, good parents, a good sister,
good teachers, good associates, good kinsmen and friends,
nearly everything good…
(pp. 491-495; Marcus Aurelius, in Oates, 1940)
Marcus Aurelius goes on to say that pleasure deceives us, because it is not in accordance with nature (i.e., that which we require). He considers magnanimity, freedom, simplicity, equanimity, and piety to be more agreeable with our nature. After all, “what is more agreeable than wisdom itself, when thou thinkest of the security and the happy course of all things which depend on the faculty of understanding and knowledge?” (pg. 520; Marcus Aurelius in Oates, 1940). Marcus Aurelius believed that we can live a life of happiness if we live our life in the right way, and “think and act in the right way.” But we must understand that what is right is something far beyond mere human existence and sensual pleasures. In his fifth book of meditations he writes:
33. Soon, very soon, thou wilt be ashes, or a skeleton, and either a name or not even a name; but name is sound and echo. And the things which are much valued in life are empty and rotten and trifling, and like little dogs biting one another, and little children quarrelling, laughing, and then straightway weeping. But fidelity and modesty and justice and truth are fled – Up to Olympus from the wide-spread earth. (pg. 524; Marcus Aurelius, in Oates, 1940)
Approaches to Happiness and Well-Being
As it stands today, we still have not decided that one particular approach to happiness/well-being is the right one for each and every person. As noted above, Seligman (2002) described positive psychology as resting upon three pillars: positive emotion, positive traits, and positive institutions. Do we need all three, or perhaps some balance between them? Adler (1931, 1964) also referred to three factors, his so-called life tasks: work, communal life, and love. Adler said that all three are definitely needed, in a reasonable balance with one another.
Yet not only is the overall approach difficult to define, even what we assume at first to be simple words describing something that makes up happy can get complicated when we try to define it for actual research purposes (what psychologists refer to as an operational definition). For example, most of us would agree, at first, that pleasure and enjoyment are basically the same thing. However, Csikszentmihalyi has distinguished between them. He defines pleasure as the good feelings coming from satisfying needs and meeting expectations, whereas enjoyment encompasses pleasure and then goes beyond it to create something higher. Positive psychology strives to identify both those things which lead to pleasure and then how to incorporate them into truly enjoying life (Compton, 2005; Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
At this point, it would be helpful for you to leave this book for a few minutes and go to Martin Seligman’s Positive Psychology Center website (positivepsychology.org). There are some wonderful online tests you can take, and the following discussion is based on my own results. They may seem confusing at first, but in the end they make perfect sense (thus, validating for me personally that these are good tests).
As long as I can remember, I have had depression. I don’t say that I suffer from depression, usually, because I have worked with it in a variety of ways over the years (psychotherapy, antidepressants, and these days mindfulness). When I take tests that measure happiness (e.g. the Authentic Happiness Inventory [~25th percentile] or the General Happiness Scale [my score barely registers]), the results show what is expected. I score very low because I’ve never been happy, I’m not happy, and I don’t expect to ever be happy. However, when I take the Satisfaction with Life Scale my score is fairly high (~60th percentile).
How can one be satisfied with life while not being happy? There are at least two possibilities. First, it may be that I’m simply satisfied that I’m not dead. Despite a lack of happiness, being alive is in and of itself satisfactory. That would be a reasonable possibility, but a rather bleak one. The second possibility is that being satisfied with one’s life is not dependent on happiness. There is one more test of relevance here: the Approaches to Happiness scale. Before sharing my scores from that test, let’s take a look at these different approaches.
According to Seligman and his colleagues (e.g., see Schueller & Seligman, 2010; Seligman, 2002; Seligman & Royzman, 2003) there are three approaches to happiness: the pleasant life, the good life, and the meaningful life. The pleasant life involves pursuing positive emotions and that which is pleasurable. It is essentially the same as the hedonistic approach to happiness. The good life refers to utilizing one’s strengths in order to achieve gratification in life. In other words, it involves satisfying one’s desires, and can be referred to as engagement (in the activities of one’s life, and the pursuit of a good life). Finally, the meaningful life, which is more subjective than the other approaches, involves using your own personal strengths in service of some goal greater than yourself. More recently, these three approaches are referred to simply as pleasure, engagement, and meaning (Schueller & Seligman, 2010).
Before moving on, let’s take a quick look at Objective List Theory, an important consideration should we happen to ask, “Just what gives meaning to life.” Making lists of what is meaningful may seem like an objective approach, but it has been criticized for easily failing. In other words, if you fulfill someone else’s list, but don’t find yourself happy or satisfied, then what is the true value of the list (Feldman, 2004)? Therefore, some subjective view of what is meaningful in life must remain a consideration in judging an individual’s well-being (also see Seligman & Royzman, 2003).
Nonetheless, there are some classic lists. For example, there are the cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, and courage) and the theological virtues (faith, hope, and love). Another list of virtues I remember well, even after many years, is the one developed by the Boy Scouts: that a scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. The Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger emphasized a life marked by wisdom, tranquility, withdrawal from the world, master of the passions (emotions), and ultimately ataraxia (Feldman, 2004). In the field of psychology we have Abraham Maslow’s short list of what it means to be self-actualized: such individuals are aware of their own self, able to concentrate, make growth choices, show good judgment, set aside ego defenses, continue their self-development, enjoy peak experiences, and they are honest (Maslow, 1971; we will examine this concept in more detail in Section II).
When it comes to my own results on the Approaches to Happiness test, my scores are quite revealing. On the pleasant life scale, I score approximately at the 20th percentile, a fairly low score as expected. On the good life scale, however, my score is about average, roughly at the 50th percentile. A better score, but it still doesn’t quite explain my satisfaction with life. Finally we arrive at the scale measuring the meaningful life, where my score is quite high, around the 80th percentile! Thus, as expected, the source of my satisfaction with life are those things which I find meaningful – primarily my children and my career/students.
According to Seligman (2002; see also Seligman & Royzman, 2003), Authentic Happiness results from satisfying all three approaches to happiness. However, is there evidence that any of these approaches may be more important than the others? As it turns out, all three approaches to happiness (pleasure, engagement, and meaning) are related to subjective well-being. However, when examining objective well-being, as measured by education and occupational attainment, engagement and meaning are the two that remain positively correlated, whereas a personal orientation toward seeking happiness through pleasure is actually negatively correlated with objective well-being (Schueller & Seligman, 2010).
It may be that engagement and meaning are related to well-being by virtue of their roles in achieving goals (Schueller & Seligman, 2010). In this context, engagement would be seen as the process (the actions taken), whereas meaning is just that – the value which a given goal holds for the individual.
Carol Ryff and her colleagues have proposed an integrative approach toward human health and well-being, identifying six dimensions of well-being:
- Self –Acceptance – possesses a positive attitude toward self, acknowledges and accepts multiple aspects of self
- Positive Relations with Others – has warm, satisfying, trusting relationships, is concerned about the welfare of others
- Autonomy – is self-determining and independent, is able to resist social pressure, evaluates self by personal standards
- Environmental Mastery – has a sense of competence in managing one’s environment, makes effective use of opportunities
- Purpose in Life – has goals in life, and feels there is meaning to life
– feeling of continued development, open to new experiences, sense of
realizing one’s potential
(pg. 543; Ryff & Singer, 2005)
What Ryff and her colleagues mean by an integrated approach becomes more apparent when examining differences in the important of the above dimensions based on age, gender, and socioeconomic status. Differences exist because “well-being is contoured by larger forces,” such as biological processes (e.g., maturation and aging) or social structural influences (e.g., social hierarchies and access to resources or opportunities; Ryff & Singer, 2005). Since the interactions between these three factors across the six dimensions are complex and varied, I’ll just highlight a few that seem noteworthy.
For younger men and women, personal growth scores are highest, and although they drop as people grow older, they remain at or near the top of the list in old age (since they start out so relatively high). Purpose in life is the second highest for younger adults, but for both men and women they drop to the lowest dimension on the list by old age. For women, autonomy and environmental mastery tend to increase over the life span (especially autonomy), whereas for men the same is true for autonomy, and the remaining dimensions are somewhat more complex, with some taking a dip in middle age only to rebound later. For both men and women, higher levels of educational attainment are associated with higher well-being scores on all six dimensions (Ryff & Singer, 2005).
The critical question, of course, is whether or not an understanding of these six dimensions of well-being in adulthood (and at different stages of adulthood) can help to promote well-being. Apparently, with depressed patients undergoing therapy, utilizing an understanding of Ryff’s multidimensional model can help guide these individuals toward positive growth and away from ways in which they might undermine or curtail their positive experiences in life. Consequently, an understanding of the determinants of well-being can, indeed, provide hope among those for whom it may seem most elusive (see Ryff & Singer, 2003, 2005; Snyder et al., 2005).
There is, however, an ultimate irony. Although it may be valuable to utilize health as one measure of well-being during our lifetime, what matters most is the study of how we live our lives, because the outcome is undeniable:
To those who resonate to the ironic in life, we conclude with an amusing, perhaps perverse, twist to these efforts to capture the meaning of and promote human health and well-being: The processes we so earnestly seek to understand culminate in death. Ours is thus, in the final analysis, a doomed enterprise. Despite our status as mere mortals, there is nonetheless much to be learned about differences in how we get to death, and this is ultimately what the positive health agenda is about. (pp. 282-283; Ryff & Singer, 2003)
Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) was an extraordinary man. At the age of 16 he delivered a public lecture “On the Meaning of Life” and his book Man’s Search for Meaning (Frankl, 1946/1992) was recognized by the Library of Congress as one of the ten most influential books in America. This book describes several years Frankl spent in Nazi concentration camps during World War II, camps where his parents, brother, wife, and millions of other Jews died (Frankl, 1995/2000).
Frankl developed his own school of psychotherapy, known as logotherapy (the therapy of meaning, as in finding meaning in one’s life). As early as 1929, Frankl had begun to recognize three possible ways to find meaning in life: a deed we do or a work we create; a meaningful human encounter, particularly one involving love; and choosing one’s attitude in the face of unavoidable suffering. Logotherapy eventually became known as the third school of Viennese psychotherapy, after Freud’s psychoanalysis and Adler’s individual psychology (Frankl, 1995/2000).
The word logos is Greek for “meaning,” and this third Viennese school of psychotherapy focuses on the meaning of human existence and man’s search for such a meaning. Logotherapy, therefore, focuses on man’s will-to-meaning, in contrast to Freud’s will-to-pleasure (the drive to satisfy the desires of the id, the pleasure principle) or Adler’s will-to-power (the drive to overcome inferiority and attain superiority; adopted from Nietzsche) (Frankl, 1946/1986, 1946/1992). The will-to-meaning is, according to Frankl, the primary source of one’s motivation in life. It is not a secondary rationalization of the instinctual drives, and meaning and values are not simply defense mechanisms. As Frankl eloquently points out:
…as for myself, I would not be willing to live merely for the sake of my “defense mechanisms,” nor would I be ready to die merely for the sake of my “reaction formations.” Man, however, is able to live and even to die for the sake of his ideals and values! (pg. 105; Frankl, 1946/1992)
Let us reconsider Frankl’s description of how one can find meaning in life: through creating a work or doing a deed; by experiencing something or encountering someone, particularly when love is involved; or by choosing one’s attitude toward unavoidable suffering. Those of us who have lost someone dear know how easily it leads to deep suffering. Frankl had already written the first version of The Doctor and the Soul when he entered the Theresienstadt concentration camp, so his views on how one should choose their attitude toward unavoidable suffering were put to a test that no research protocol could ever hope to achieve! His observations form the basis for much of Man’s Search for Meaning. Both his observations of others and his own reactions in this unimaginably horrible and tragic situation are quite fascinating:
…as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of was thinking his wife…my mind clung to my wife’s image…Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun…A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth - that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. (pp. 48-49; Frankl, 1946/1992)
…One evening, when we were already resting on the floor of our hut, dead tired, soup bowls in hand, a fellow prisoner rushed in and asked us to run out to the assembly grounds and see the wonderful sunset. Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red…Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, “How beautiful the world could be!” (pg. 51; Frankl, 1946/1992)
…The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. (pp. 74-75; Frankl, 1946/1992)
Baumeister & Vohs (2005) consider the essence of meaning to be connection. We routinely connect things which otherwise would have no value. Our possessions are valuable to us because we ascribe meaning to them. Money has value only because of the meaning we give to it. For example, you can’t eat money, but you can buy food. You can’t drive money, but you can buy a car. So by ascribing meaning (i.e., financial value) to coins and special green paper it has some value to us. Such meaning can be quite removed from any physical or objective reality, as in the case of a credit card.
Curiously enough, despite lacking objective reality, meaning can be quite stable. Life is constantly changing, but the things we value can be steadfast. Thus, meaning can provide a source of stability in our lives (Baumeister & Vohs, 2005). However, it may be difficult for some to find meaning in their lives.
In order for meaning to exist, there appear to be four needs. The first need is purpose, which creates a connection between the present and the future. A purpose can be merely some goal, or it can be a more subjective form of fulfillment. Then we need values, in order to provide a sense of goodness or a positive context for our actions. Third, we need a sense of efficacy, the belief that we can successfully pursue that which we consider meaningful (our purpose and values). And finally, we need a basis for self-worth, some source of recognition that we are a good person. Self-worth can be pursued individually, but it can also be pursued collectively, by belonging to a group doing something meaningful (Baumeister, 1991; Baumesiter & Vohs, 2005).
Many people make the potential mistake of thinking that meaning can be found in one pursuit. While this may be possible, most people find meaning from a number of sources in their life. By finding meaning in multiple ways, a person is protected from failing to find meaning should one source fail to prove fruitful (Baumeister & Vohs, 2005). For example, with regard to family I find meaning in my children. With regard to my career, I find particular meaning in writing things like this OER textbook. And in my physical/health related life, I find meaning (and some fun) in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competition, and also in helping the kids and white belts begin their BJJ journey. In addition, having multiple sources of meaning can be more enriching than having one (upon which a person can become dependent).
When unfortunate things happen in life, it is possible to reappraise those events in a process known as meaning-making. When a person turns adversity to prosperity, such as feeling emotionally stronger and more resilient after surviving a tragedy, the process is known as benefit-finding. When one finds a way to attribute unfortunate events to some source, we call it sense-making. This process of making meaning out of these events (by attributing them to some external factor and finding the hidden benefits) can be either situation-specific or global. Global meaning-making refers to establishing a basic orientation toward life in which one sees the meaning in life (perhaps through a long-term belief system or a set of valued goals; Baumeister & Vohs, 2005).
One of the harsh realities of life is that we will grow old and die. Erik Erikson described the last two stages of life in terms of generativity vs. stagnation and then integrity vs. despair (Erikson, 1950, 1968). Generativity refers to contributing to the welfare of and helping the next generation to succeed, which can be done both personally (i.e., within one’s family) and professionally (i.e., making a significant contribution to one’s career). Clearly, being generative is closely associated with living a meaningful life, and leads to a sense of integrity in the final stage of life. Failure to be generative, however, results in old age marked by despair. However, as one ages, it is possible to prepare for the latter stages of life.
David Guttmann studied with Viktor Frankl, and he has examined ways in which logotherapy can help to provide the wisdom and spirit to find meaning later in life (Guttmann, 2008). A person’s fate (psychologically speaking) is influenced by three main factors: your natural disposition (genetics), your situation (e.g., family and finances), and your psychological disposition (whether or not you are actively engaged in the events of your life).
Suppose, from our discussion above, you arrive at old age facing despair (in Erikson’s terms). This creates an existential vacuum: a lack of understanding and doubt about the meaning of life, and a lack of interest in it. The first step in logotherapy is to distance oneself from the feelings of despair. The individual can then turn toward other sources of meaning which still exist in their life. One of the best ways to fight despair is to focus on some task that will lead to fulfillment, and to then pursue that fulfillment in the hope that it will lead to meaning (Guttmann, 2008).
There are, of course, a variety of sources for such fulfillment or meaning. One of the most valuable is music, which the ancient philosophers Plato and Aristotle considered to be a gift from the gods. According to Guttman:
Classical and popular music can awaken the heart, soul, and spirit and, via the beauty of the sound, give new meaning to life. The same applies to religious music, which can uplift the soul to heaven and fill the entire being with awe...Music can bring back long-forgotten feelings and memories, open new vistas, and suggest new areas for meaningful activities, even in advanced age. (pg. 105; Guttman, 2008)
Literature, intergenerational relationships, and humor are also all significant potential sources of meaning. People who may not have had much time to read (or much interest) throughout their lives have been known to become bookworms in their later years. Grandparents have much to tell their grandchildren about the places, events, and people in their family, as well as photos to share, advice to give, and love and kindness to bestow. Humor, of course, can lead to laughter, which is itself a wonderful feeling (we’ll look at humor later on). Humor and laughter are not solitary, but have important social value as well, promoting feelings of solidarity and cohesion, relieving tension, helping to overcome crises, and creating a pleasant atmosphere (Guttman, 2008).
Logotherapy also suggests a means for coping with loneliness in old age. Even if life has left us with little in terms of family, friends, money, etc., we still choose whether or not to find meaning in life. According to Guttmann, life is full of wonders, miracles, and surprises. Redirecting a person’s attention away from the negative (such as loneliness) and toward new meaning in life is the goal of logotherapy. Even in loneliness one can listen to music, read books, etc. One simply has to make a good choice regarding how to live out one’s life.
It appears that judging one’s life as meaningful is an important aspect of living a meaningful life. While this may seem obvious, judging one’s life as meaningful suggests that one has a sense of one’s place in the universe, a feeling of rightness about one’s life, and the phenomenological experience (or subjective feeling) that your life is meaningful. When a person rates their life as meaningful they tend to be more satisfied with their lives, more hopeful about the future, and they have better health outcomes (see Halusic & King, 2013).
Aging Well and Flourishing
It may seem that happiness itself is a reasonable goal for positive psychology, but wouldn’t it be better to go further? Momentary happiness, meaning, or well-being may all be wonderful when they are present, but what about one’s entire life? In addition, shortly before the end of his life, Abraham Maslow wrote about the need for what he called a fourth force in the field of psychology (the first force was psychodynamic theory [à la, Sigmund Freud], the second force was behaviorism, and the third force was humanistic psychology), a transcendent elevation of the human experience resulting in what Maslow called Being-values (Maslow, 1964, 1964/1999, 1967/2008, 1971).
We’ll examine Maslow’s work later on, but for now we’ll consider the examination of what it means to lead a full life as we grow older and, relevant at any age, what it means to flourish.
According to George Vaillant (2007), there may be as many definitions of “successful aging” or “aging well” as there are people studying it. While many focus on physical and/or cognitive health, Vaillant has a different and quite enjoyable point of view:
…The heart speaks with so much more vitality than the head. Thus, successful aging is not just number of years lived with a perfect Mini-Mental State Exam. Successful aging is about the sustained capacity for joy. In the Study of Adult Development at Harvard Medical School, successful aging was associated with happy retirement and happy retirement was learning again how to play. Play provided a wonderful magic that is especially suited to retirement. For play permits a person to maintain self-esteem while giving up self-importance. Competitive play – social bridge, cribbage, shuffleboard – lets one make new friends, the same task that play performed for us when we were in the fourth grade. We forget that the word “competition” is derived from con petire, to seek together. (pg. 181; Vaillant, 2007).
In an earlier book, Vaillant (2002) suggested that “positive aging means to love, to work, to learn something we did not know yesterday, and to enjoy the remaining precious moments with loved ones.” Utilizing data from the Study of Adult Development Harvard University – three cohorts of 824 individuals selected as teenagers, including some women from Lewis Terman’s study of gifted children (at the time women did not attend Harvard University) – he identified a number of key factors regarding how our life can progress into old age:
- We are not doomed by bad events; rather, good people we encounter at any age facilitate enjoyable old age
- Healing relationships are facilitated by the capacity for gratitude, forgiveness, and becoming enriched by loving someone
- A good marriage at age 50 predicts positive aging at 80
- Alcohol abuse consistently predicted unsuccessful aging, partly because it damages social supports
- Learning to play and create after retirement and learning to gain younger friends as we lose older ones add more to life’s enjoyment than retirement income
- Objective good physical health was less important to successful aging than subjective good health; i.e., whether you feel sick is more important than whether you are sick
More precisely, factors that DO NOT predict healthy aging:
- Ancestral longevity
- Parental characteristics
- Childhood temperament
- Vital affect and general ease in social relationships
Factors that DO predict healthy aging:
- Not being a smoker or stopping young
- Adaptive coping style (mature defenses)
- Absence of alcohol abuse
- Healthy weight
- Stable marriage
- Some exercise
- Years of education
Among the key factors that keep coming up in Vaillant’s writing are relationships and social support. Individuals who experience a loveless childhood and become lonely adults tend not to fare well as they grow older (see below in the section on love and the capacity to be loved). Although the factors cited above are independently significant in predicting successful aging, they are not entirely distinct. For example, smoking often goes hand-in-hand with drinking alcohol, and alcohol abuse is associated with divorce (and loss of other friendships), and both are associated with lack of exercise and obesity, etc. (see also Vaillant & Mukamal, 2001).
Perhaps the best predictor of an enduring and happy marriage in old age (even if it’s a second marriage) is generativity. Helping to raise the next generation is a powerful source of meaning, including the possibility of helping young people other than one’s own children (such as the work of a teacher or health care professional). However, it is important to remember that generativity is about the next generation, not just about caring for others. Having to care for parents or, in the case of many women, a husband before fully realizing one’s own self can be devastating. As Vaillant (2002) puts it, biology rolls downhill!
We often view retirement as the beginning of old age. While retirement can be challenging for those who are not prepared, it can also be rewarding. How do we prepare for our retirement to be rewarding? There appear to be four key steps: replace workmates with a new social network, rediscover how to play, be creative, and maintain lifelong learning. In this vein, creativity is similar to play (on a continuum), but it’s more visceral – think of sublimation (often referred to as the successful defense mechanism).
So which comes first, successful aging or the social support that is so essential to successful aging late in life? It seems that the same protective factors that predict good physical health also predict good social support. Those men in the Harvard Study who by age 70 were the most socially isolated had by age 50 already lacked most of the protective factors: they were 7x more likely to be alcohol dependent, 4x more likely to smoke, 2x as likely to have engaged in little exercise and 2x as likely to already be chronically ill (Vaillant, 2002). Thus, it appears that social support and other factors are interactively lacking in the lives of people who as young children lacked loving and supportive relationships (particularly with their parents; again, see below in the section on love).
Somewhat surprisingly, in the work that Vaillant has done, neither spirituality nor religion were associated with successful aging. Indeed, when comparing the most religious participants in the study (based on both affiliation and participation) to the least, Vaillant found the religious participants no more successful in aging, but they were 4x more likely to have experienced depression!
I’ve referred a few times to people who had difficult, loveless childhoods, but is there more to say about children who have loving and supportive childhoods (as opposed to merely average childhoods)? Children who were “cherished,” having warm relationships with two supportive parents, were likely to appear charming, extroverted, and energetic in their 30s, and to be rich in friendships in their 60s. They felt a sense of comfort in old age, and they were accepting of their own emotional life. They were also 5x more likely to play both competitive sports and games with their friends, and to take enjoyable vacations. Finally, they were 3x more like to enjoy wide social supports at age 70.
The previous paragraph presents what certainly sounds like an enjoyable old age, a good life. In 2011, Seligman published Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being. In this book, Seligman transitions from his original theory of Authentic Happiness (pleasure, engagement, and meaning) to a theory based on well-being and flourishing. In this new theory, flourishing is a successful combination of positive emotion (happiness), engagement, meaning, positive relationships, and accomplishment (PERMA – positive, engagement, relationships, meaning, accomplishment).
Seligman’s concept of flourishing is particularly meaningful, since it adds relationships with other people (something very important in Vaillant’s work as well) and accomplishments (necessary for generativity and self-esteem) to his earlier theory of Authentic Happiness. With this new theory in hand, we can looks for ways to teach people how to pursue flourishing in their own life. One way in which this has been particularly promising has been in teaching resilience skills to school children and the U. S. Army (Seligman, 2011). We’ll examine that work below, in the section on resilience. First, however, we’ll take a look at the human expression of happiness and well-being: positive emotion.
The field of evolutionary psychology seeks to explain the advantage(s) conferred by any behavior or cognitive process. Thus, given the existence of positive emotions, they should confer selective advantages to the human species. Buss (2000) has argued that humans have evolved a variety of mechanisms to account for changes from ancient environments to modern life. Consequently, we feel happy when we experience emotions that support friendships, mating bonds, kinship, and cooperation. Feelings of attachment, empathy, compassion, love, etc. are just such emotions. As social animals, humans need these feelings to help maintain the relationships necessary for our survival.
Evolutionary psychology, of course, can be viewed both ways. If positive emotions evolved, we should be able to see their presence in a variety of species. Anyone with a beloved dog or a cat will tell you they have a deep emotional connection, but can we see positive emotion in, for example, rats and mice? Yes! Rats appear to laugh when tickled (Panksepp, 2007; Panksepp & Burgdorf, 2000, 2003), as do other species (Panksepp, 2005), and both rats and mice appear to demonstrate empathy (Meyza et al., 2016).
Alice Isen and her colleagues have found that people behave in more positive ways when they are in a good mood. When subjects had been told that they performed very well on a task, and were thus basking in the “warm glow of success,” they were then more generous and helpful, and also more aware of the environment around them. This was clearly due to the positive effect of feeling good, since subjects who were told they had done poorly had no less desire to be helpful than control subjects (i.e., there was no “hostility” or “embarrassment” effect; Isen, 1970). In a subsequent study, subjects were induced to “feel good” either by receiving some cookies or by finding a dime in a payphone when they made a call (a very dated procedure!). Once these subjects were in a good mood, they once again proved to more helpful (Isen & Levin, 1972).
As wonderful as it would be if people simply kept getting more helpful each time they experienced a positive mood, it turns out that these effects are fairly short-lived. About 20 minutes after an induced good mood increases helpfulness, people revert back to their normal levels (Isen et al., 1976). However, as we’ll see below with Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory, there may be a way for these effects to be more long-lasting.
In addition to these effects on helpfulness, positive affect also facilitates creative problem solving (Isen et al., 1987) and cognitive flexibility in general (see Isen, 2003, 2005). Given the varieties of ways in which positive affect can improve human interaction and problem solving in pro-social ways, it stands to reason that we might be able to identify an underlying neuropsychological mechanism. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that the dopamine system, well known for its role in reward mechanisms in the brain, may underlie the positive behavioral and cognitive changes associated with positive affect (Ashby et al., 1999; Isen, 2005; see also Alcaro et al., 2007; Burgdorf & Panksepp, 2006).
Building upon initial studies of the value of positive emotion, Barbara Fredrickson has proposed a broaden-and-build model for the influence of positive emotions on human behavior (Fredrickson, 1998, 2001, 2005, 2006). She began this line of research by addressing the relative lack of research on positive emotion for much of the history of psychology. For example, there is a wider variety of negative emotions, and they more clearly serve evolutionary advantages. For her initial study, Fredrickson (1998) chose four positive emotions: joy/happiness, interest (curiosity, excitement, perhaps flow), contentment, and love; more recently she used a list of 10 positive emotions (though she acknowledges this list is by no means exhaustive): joy, interest, contentment, love, awe, inspiration, amusement, pride, hope, and gratitude (Fredrickson, 2013a).
According to the broaden-and-build model, the experience of positive emotion increases an individual’s momentary thought-action repertoire, and also leads to building one’s personal resources, including physical, intellectual, and social resources. What is most important, perhaps, is that these resources appear to be more durable than the emotional states that gave rise to them (Fredrickson, 1998). Thus, the incremental advantage of positive emotions may accrue over time, providing durable resources that may later be drawn upon in different contexts and/or emotional states.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the evidence for the broaden-and-build model. In one study, Fredrickson & Branigan (2005) used short, emotionally evocative film clips to induce amusement, contentment, neutrality, anger, or anxiety. Subjects were then asked to separate themselves from the specifics of the film and list what they would like to do right then by completing up to 20 blank lines beginning with the phrase “I would like to…” Subjects in the joy and contentment conditions listed more things they would like to do than subjects in the neutral condition, whereas those subjects in the fear and anger conditions listed fewer options than those in the neutral condition (see also Fredrickson, 2006).
Positive emotions also appear to undo the lingering effects of negative emotions. For example, subjects who were experiencing anxiety-related sympathetic arousal after having been told they had one minute to prepare a speech which would be recorded and evaluated were then shown a film that elicited contentment, amusement, neutrality, or sadness (Fredrickson et al., 2000). Once again, the subjects in the contentment and amusement conditions recovered from their anxiety more quickly than those in the neutral group, who recovered more quickly than those in the sadness group (see also Fredrickson, 2006).
The preceding examples are just two of many studies which confirm that positive emotions play a valuable role in regulating emotional arousal and enhancing one’s cognitive/behavioral flexibility (see Fredrickson, 2005, 2006). But what about building personal resources? This is something that requires effort and commitment, but it is possible. Ways in which to increase positive emotion in one’s life include finding the positive meaning in events (e.g., reframing bad circumstances in positive ways), be open (positive emotion broadens attention and thinking, but you have to accept it), do good (the reciprocal of Isen’s work, but it does work both ways), and be social (humans are a social organism). In addition, it is good to practice relaxation to deal with negative emotions and stress, and increasing pleasant activities simply makes life more enjoyable and meaningful (Fredrickson, 2005, 2008).
The influence of positive emotion in this broaden-and-build theory is not merely linear, but rather it leads to an upward spiral of improved function. So, experiencing positive emotion leads to a momentary broadening of thought-action repertoires, but that broadening leads to building enduring personal resources, which transforms people, which feels good - an experience of positive emotions, and so on (Fredrickson, 2005; Fredrickson & Cohn, 2008).
* * *
There has been an interesting controversy regarding one aspect of Fredrickson’s work. In 2005, she co-authored an article with Marcial Losada suggesting a critical ratio of positive to negative emotion of 3:1. People with such a ratio will flourish in life, according to the paper, but those who do not may languish. However, the results of the paper were later challenged, and it has been partially retracted. The challenge was based on the statistical method used to calculate the 3:1 ratio – but neither the theory nor the original data were challenged (Brown et al., 2013). In her thoughtful reply to this challenge, Fredrickson defended her fundamental premise, and numerous other studies support her position (see Fredrickson, 2013b).
We were involved in a similar situation, in which we were the ones challenging an inappropriate use of statistical techniques (Pitts, Kelland, et al., 1990). It had become commonplace to use a technique called Probit Analysis to determine the ED50 (the effective dose achieving a 50% response) for studies examining drug effects in vivo on midbrain dopamine neurons (as well as other cell types in vivo). However, Probit Analysis was simply not appropriate (for technical reasons), and we demonstrated the value and appropriate application of a different technique (third-order polynomial regression). The key point, however, is that there was still an ED50, we just argued that it needed to be calculated in a different way. With regard to Frederickson’s research, there is likely still an optimal ratio of positive to negative emotion, and it’s still probably pretty close to 3:1. It just needs to be calculated in the proper way (or, if one takes a more Eastern/Buddhist perspective, one can just let it go).
As important as a preponderance of positive emotion is, the sad reality is that many people grow up in very unfortunate circumstances. And yet, some of these children grow up to be psychologically healthy and relatively happy people. Thus, despite conditions such as poverty, abuse, neglect, parental psychopathology, etc., some 10% or more of these children overcome life’s challenges and thrive (see Compton, 2005). The term usually applied to this phenomenon is resilience, which “generally refers to a class of phenomena characterized by patterns of positive adaptation in the context of significant adversity or risk” (pg. 75; Masten & Reed, 2005).
Both aspects of the definition of resilience are important, so we need to ask: what constitutes significant adversity or risk, and how might we objectively measure positive adaptation? Significant risk factors include premature birth, divorce, parental illness or psychopathology, abuse, poverty, homelessness, motherhood in unwed teenagers, and the more dramatic conditions of natural disaster or war. Whereas many researchers have considered one factor at a time, the reality is that these factors can occur together and/or accumulate over time. Thus, it is essential to consider the cumulative risk of threats to the development of a child (Masten & Reed, 2005).
Positive adaptation is usually measured in terms of the successful accomplishment of age-related developmental tasks. For very young children, these include walking, talking, and obeying simple instructions, then later on learning in school and getting along with other children, including making friends. Somewhat more objective measures include staying in school, getting good grades, and being involved in extracurricular activities (including sports, for those so inclined). Once again, it is important for an individual to achieve positive gains in a variety of these areas (Masten & Reed, 2005).
Models for the study of resilience have focused on three different approaches: variable-focused (the risks and assets present), person-focused (the traits or characteristics of resilient individuals), and pathway models (addressing patterns of behavior over time). The latter approach provides a framework for comprehensive intervention efforts, perhaps the most famous being Head Start (see Masten & Reed, 2005). Another example is the effort of Bonnie Benard and Carol Burgoa to help schools and school districts across California utilize data from the Resilience and Youth Development Module in the California Healthy Kids Survey to then promote effective programs for their students, parents, and in the community (see Benard & Slade, 2009).
Beginning with student-led focus groups, they examined how (and whether) students know an adult in their school or community cared about them and believed in them. They then developed the Listening to Students Circle, where students were given the role of speaking while the school staff listened. The benefits of this program included:
1. Experiencing a process
that embodies the protective factors of caring relationships, high expectation,
and meaningful participation
2. Contributing to policy and program changes based on their needs, experiences, and interests
3. Learning that young people from different backgrounds have similar perspectives
4. Developing greater respect for similarities and differences across different groups, cliques, and even gangs
1. Learning that young
people understand how their school and community operates, and that they value
genuinely helpful adults
2. Appreciate knowing the little things within their power to make a difference in the lives of youth
3. Understanding resilience and youth development, and remembering why they became teachers of others who work with children
For the community:
1. Experiencing a
strengthening of adult and staff relationships with youth
2. Generating action plans and activities that youth believe in
3. Increasing protective factors positively associate with youth development
(pp. 357-358; Benard & Slade, 2009)
This program has been put into use in a variety of schools with positive results. In one high school, scores on caring relationships, high expectations, and meaningful participation doubled or even tripled. According to Benard & Slade (2009), these little steps are simple, possible, necessary, and meaningful to the students they impact.
Based on their extensive work with resilient survivors, Wolin & Wolin (1993) offer a simple and practical definition of resilience: the capacity to rebound from hardship inflicted early in life. Based on their experience, and in order to help teach practical resilience skills to people growing up in (or having grown up in) troubled families, they have identified what they call the seven resiliencies:
1. Insight – asking tough questions and giving honest answers about
difficult situations dispels denial, generates clarity, and provides a
springboard for taking necessary action to solve problems
2. Independence – distancing oneself emotionally and physically from trouble provides both physical and emotional safety
3. Relationships – connecting with people who matter provides friendship, support, and perhaps love
4. Initiative – meeting challenges by taking charge and looking for solutions to problems leads to solutions and a sense of competence and mastery
5. Creativity –using imagination helps to express difficult feelings in positive ways
6. Humor – laughing at yourself, finding what’s funny even in sadness or pain, introduces liveliness and light-heartedness in somber situations
7. Morality – doing the right thing, and thinking of others as well as yourself, generates a sense of being a good person
(pg. 20; Wolin, 2003)
Although these strengths are within the individual, their development and expression depends on the presence of protective factors, such as support at school, in the community, and/or at home. For those children who lack these protective factors, special services (such as therapy) may be critical. Even when some strengths are present, they often exist alongside weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Professionals who recognize this can avoid labelling a child based on an either-or attitude in the presence of some psychological problems. And most importantly, strengths can be learned. Programs designed to help struggling children should include such training, since the child may well not be getting such support at home or in the community. Learning and developing resilience can help a person to master their painful memories, accept that the troubled family history has left its mark, gain some revenge by living well, and break the cycle of abuse and put the past in its place (Wolin, 2003; Wolin & Wolin, 1993).
In The Resilient Self, Wolin & Wolin (1993) combine the resiliencies of creativity and humor. Whereas the other resiliencies keep the wheels of reality rolling, creativity and humor allow the imagination to take over and rearrange one’s life to your own liking. The most obvious examples involve playing, or pretending to be something wonderful, like a superhero or a space explorer. In this way, resilience allows one to the channel their pain, as opposed to suppressing it until you explode.
In one example they present Jack McDuffy, who was the accidental child of a prostitute who quickly left him with his widower grandfather who neither wanted him nor knew how to care for him. Keenly aware of being unwanted and unloved, Jack decided to become a comedian. In 2nd grade he presented a play:
Bobby’s Brains: written by Jack McDuffy, starring Jack McDuffy, directed by Jack McDuffy, and produced by Jack McDuffy. The kids were in stitches. And the teacher liked me too. When I saw that, I thought, “I don’t have to stick up grocery stores. I can do something else.” (pg. 165; Wolin & Wolin, 1993)
By the time he was in high school, Jack was making joke books and selling them to his friends. Later he went on to become a consultant, and on at least two occasions he won a “funniest consultant” award. In addition, he occasionally attended open-mike night at a local comedy club, telling Dr. Wolin how much he enjoyed being on stage.
In The Struggle to Be Strong, Desetta & Wolin (2000) share the true stories of 30 teens who have overcome tough times. There are 3-5 stories for each of the resiliencies, providing practical, real-life examples of how each resiliency functions. The story by Quantwilla Johnson struck a cord with me, since she has experienced something I’ve been aware of in my own life (falling under the resiliency of morality). Having been in therapy herself, and not liking it, for some reason others began to confide in her. Before she knew it, she had become something of a therapist herself. But, she remembered what she had not liked about her own therapy, it was too intrusive regarding problems, while not being at all personable. She felt that her therapist did not care about her at all. So she fell into her own approach to working with others, an approach, by the way, that is quite reminiscent of the work of Carl Rogers (see Section IV, positive psychotherapy):
With my “patients” I establish trust – whatever you want to tell me will be of your own free will. I won’t force anything out of you. I think I’m a good person to talk to because I do not pass judgment on anything you say, do, or let happen to you. I believe you must work at your own pace and let a friendship build before I start being nosy. When my “patients” and I talk, I don’t think of myself as the “professional” – we both work together. (pg. 148; Desetta & Wolin, 2000)
Like Quantwilla, for some reason I’ve always been someone who others confided in, sometimes in the most unexpected ways. I was in a student lounge studying for an exam in college, and a girl from class came over to me. I recognized her, but we weren’t really friends. She asked me if she could talk about something, since I seemed like a pretty smart guy (I was getting an A in our class). She and her boyfriend had been sexually active, but she wasn’t quite clear how far they had gone. She needed to know if she might possibly be pregnant. So, I found myself trying to explain the biology of the birds and the bees to a woman in college! Once again, we weren’t really friends, but she needed someone to talk to and felt that I just seemed like someone wise enough to help her.
I am not a clinical psychologist, my Ph.D. is in physiological psychology, and before teaching full-time my focus was on biomedical research. However, I have something of a troubled past, I used to be an alcoholic (and with that statement you can tell I’m not an adherent of the AA model), and I’ve been in therapy on more than one occasion (I’ve had some bad therapists, but in high school I had a wonderful therapist for a year, who was quite helpful). Somehow or other, like Quantwilla, I seem to radiate an air of understanding and wisdom for others in need. At the end of her story, there is a note regarding Quantwilla. Seventeen years old when she wrote her story for the book, shortly before the book was published she had moved on to college, was writing for a campus magazine, and she had volunteered at a local youth center (Desetta & Wolin, 2000).
Regarding their own careers working with children who were trying to survive in troubled families, Wolin & Wolin (1993) discuss their transition from a “damage model” to a “challenge model.” The damage model is essentially the same as the germ theory of disease: the troubled family damages the child, resulting in childhood psychopathology, the child succumbs, and proceeds with a life marked by later adolescent and adult psychopathology. However, resilient people reported that they did not dwell on the past or the damage, they did not blame their parents for their own issues, and they did not succumb to the Victim’s Trap. Instead, they built on their strengths, they deliberately sought to improve on their parents’ life-styles, they married into strong families, and they fought off bad family memories so they might build new routines and traditions of their own. This led Wolin & Wolin (1993) to propose their “challenge model,” in which the potential damaging factors and the opportunities provided by the challenging factors are interacting with one another. Thus, the troubled family threatens the child, but also challenges the child, resulting in both childhood psychopathologies and resiliencies, the child then succumbs in some ways but also rebounds in other, finally resulting in adolescence and adulthood marked by a combination (interplay) of pathologies and resiliencies. When the challenged person is fortunate enough to find some measure of support (one good parent, a caring teacher, a sound therapist), then the resiliencies can overcome the pathologies.
One such measure of support may be the broaden-and-build theory we discussed in the previous section. Apparently, resilient individuals are able to experience positive emotion even in the midst of significantly negative situations. They are not blind to the negative events, but they are able to utilize simultaneous feelings of positive emotion to regulate their negative emotional arousal and, consequently, cope with the negative situation. Indeed, although maintaining and enhancing positive emotions may help anyone to cope with negative events, resilient individuals seem to be especially proficient at utilizing this coping mechanism (Tugade & Fredrickson, 2004, 2007). In addition, concomitant increases in positive emotion and resilience help individuals to develop resources for living well, resulting in increases in happiness and desirable life outcomes (Cohn et al., 2009).
Negative circumstances should not, however, be viewed as something to be avoided at all cost. There may well be benefits from overcoming traumatic experiences. For example, individuals who have faced such challenges report increases in self-reliance and a greater willingness to address new difficulties in an assertive fashion. They also recognize and appreciate their own vulnerability. When it comes to relationships with others, they are more emotionally expressive, compassionate, empathic, and willing to put effort into relationships (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1995). Among the processes involved in this growth are rumination (in a healthy sense – thinking about and processing the traumatic event), managing the crisis (appraising the threat and reversing its negative aspects), working to make the crisis comprehensible, and finding that life continues to be meaningful. In their model, Tedeschi & Calhoun (1995) propose that traumatic events may (for resilient people) result in positive psychological growth when a change takes place in one’s view of self, this change is perceived as leading to a more profound understanding of one’s self and the world, this understanding results in proactive/protective changes in behavior, what was lost is transformed into a more valuable future, and the positive changes appear to be possible only because of the struggle resulting from the traumatic event (see also Amada, 1999; Tedeschi et al., 1998).
There is an abundance of literature on resilience, but most makes little or no mention of exercise and/or sports. However, physical exercise can be a powerful component supporting resilience, even in situations as extreme as a POW camp (Southwick & Charney, 2012). For youth, whether able-bodied or disabled, outdoor sports programs can be an important source of both self-efficacy and self-acceptance, in part through relationships with others (Willoughby et al., 2003; Wolin & Wolin, 1993). In addition, the spiritual aspects of martial arts training, such as meditation and mindfulness, can be a valuable coping mechanism for people with physical disabilities (Kelland, 2010).
A Buddhist (Eastern) Perspective on Well-Being
Just as there is not one Western perspective on what constitutes happiness or well-being, there is not just one Eastern perspective. In the previous textbook I published, Personality Theory: A Multicultural Perspective (Kelland, 2014), there is a chapter on Yoga and Buddhism. Many scholars agree, myself included, that Buddhism is a branch of Yoga. After all, the Buddha was a yogi, and he did not consider himself to be any different than other people. However, Buddhism has developed its own unique character (indeed, there are several different schools of Buddhism), and is in some ways more in line with the field of positive psychology. Thus, we will focus on the Buddhist perspective here.
Technically, Buddhism is not a religion, but rather a lifestyle which leads individuals toward healthy psychological development. Nonetheless, over time it became mixed with religious stories and myths, as people tried to fit Buddhism into their traditional culture. Consequently, it is quite difficult to avoid the obvious religious and metaphysical overtones. It should also be noted that there are many translations of the classic books on Buddhism and terminology varies from translation to translation. One must simply accept this, since the only alternative is for each one of us to learn all of the languages in which these books were written.
the end, these things matter most: How
well did you love?
How fully did you live? How deeply did you learn
to let go?” – Kornfield, 1994
People who only have a vague understanding of Buddhism sometimes make the mistake of believing that Buddhists cannot have fun or be in love. After all, the teachings of the Buddha emphasize non-attachment and equanimity. But this is a naïve understanding, not a true understanding. A Brahman (a Hindu priest or holy person) asked the Buddha what he must do to ensure that he would go to heaven to be with Brahma (the creator god). The Buddha replied that he must practice the four Brahmaviharas (or dwelling places of Brahma): love, compassion, joy, and equanimity (Thich Nhat Hanh, 2007a). As you can see, love and joy are included in this fundamental teaching.
We’ll begin with an examination of the life of the Buddha and two other great spiritual teachers, and then look at some of the fundamental teachings, finishing with how Buddhism can serve as a guide toward a fulfilling life
Siddhattha Gotama, Bodhidharma, and the Dalai Lama
Siddhattha Gotama is recognized as the Buddha, but this is technically incorrect. Anyone can be a Buddha, there were many before Gotama Buddha, many after, and more to come. Indeed, Siddhattha Gotama had lived many lives before he was born into that earthly identity (if, of course, you believe in such things), and this had an important impact on his life. According to legend, Dipankara Buddha foretold that Siddhattha Gotama would be born as a prince in the kingdom of the Shakyas (so he is also referred to as Prince Shakyamuni and as Shakyamuni Buddha), and that in that lifetime he would become a Buddha. Sometime around the fifth or sixth century B.C., Prince Shakyamuni was born. Not wanting his son to leave the kingdom, the king indulged his son with every sensual pleasure known to man. The king also protected his son from knowing the unpleasant realities of life (disease, death, etc.). However, the prince’s destiny was set. Prince Shakyamuni decided he wanted to see the kingdom. In order to prevent the prince from seeing the reality of life, the king ordered that everything in the city should be cleaned and decorated and everyone should be on their best behavior. However, four heavenly beings appeared to Prince Shakyamuni: the first as someone suffering the ravages of old age, the second as someone stricken with disease, the third as a corpse, and the fourth as a wandering monk. These visitors made a profound impression on the young prince, who left his wife, child, and home to seek enlightenment.
Living in India, the path to spiritual enlightenment that he followed was to become a yogi. He studied meditation, he became an accomplished ascetic (it is said he lived for a time on one grain of rice a day), but he failed to achieve anything satisfying. So finally he had a nice lunch and sat down under a Bodhi tree, vowing to remain seated until he achieved enlightenment. Finally, he was “awakened,” which is the meaning of the word Buddha. In his first sermon, Gotama Buddha revealed the Four Noble Truths and the Middle Way, the latter also being known as the Eightfold Path. Those who have followed his teachings have come to be known as Buddhists. For more on the life of the Buddha, an excellent chapter has been written by Goldstein and Kornfield (2001). The sayings of the Buddha have also been collected, and are readily available (e.g., see Byrom, 1993). In his own words, we can see the relationship between Buddhism and psychology, and how these teachings were meant to guide people toward a healthy and happy life. In the teaching entitled “Choices,” the Buddha says:
We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with a pure mind
And happiness will follow you
As your shadow, unshakable.
(pp. 1-2; Byrom, 1993)
Bodhidharma (c. 440-528) is recognized as the monk responsible for bringing Zen Buddhism from India into China. He was also present during the construction of the Shaolin Temple, and was one of the first monks there. During his time at Shaolin Temple he is most famous for spending nine years in meditation, staring at the wall of a cave. He is also credited with developing kung-fu, the well-known martial arts technique, so that the temple monks could protect themselves from bandits. Although Bodhidharma may have spent a great deal of time in meditation, his Zen teaching was based more on a sword of wisdom (Red Pine, 1987). Some of the strange practices in Zen that we will examine in this chapter can be described as almost surprising people into enlightenment. Of course, many years of practice and discipline are necessary in order to be ready for this enlightenment. Some of Bodhidharma’s writings are still available to us today (e.g., Red Pine, 1987), and in his own words (translated, of course) we can get a glimpse of just how strange a Zen understanding of the truth can be:
If you use your mind to study reality, you won’t understand either your mind or reality. If you study reality without using your mind, you’ll understand both. Those who don’t understand, don’t understand understanding. And those who understand, understand not understanding. People capable of true vision know that the mind is empty. They transcend both understanding and not understanding. The absence of both understanding and not understanding is true understanding. (pg. 55; Red Pine, 1987)
Unlike the historical figures Gotama Buddha and Bodhidharma, the Dalai Lama is alive today. Although his home is Tibet, where he was born in 1935, he lives in exile in India. He is believed to be the 14th Dalai Lama, a reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lamas, the first of whom is believed to have been the reincarnation of a boy who lived during the time of Gotama Buddha. That boy was an incarnation of Chenrezig (also known as Avalokiteshvara), the Bodhisattva of Compassion (a Bodhisattva is like a Buddha – see below), and the Dalai Lamas have served for over 650 years as the religious leader of the Tibetan people. Due to political circumstances in Tibet today, it is unclear what may happen to Tibetan culture. The Dalai Lama himself does not know whether he will be the last of the Dalai Lamas, but he hopes that choice will someday be made by a free and democratic Tibetan society (Dalai Lama, 2002).
The Four Noble Truths of Human Life
Following his enlightenment, the Buddha began to teach what he had realized. In his first lesson, he described the Four Noble Truths: 1) suffering is an unavoidable reality in human life; 2) the source of suffering is craving or desire, and the bad karma it creates; 3) the craving that leads to suffering can be destroyed; 4) the Middle Way is the path to eliminate craving and suffering (Bhikkhu Bodhi, 1994; Suzuki, 1960; World’s Great Religions, 1957; Wilkins, 1967). People often ask why there is so much suffering in the world. When this question is asked, there is usually an unspoken desire to remove this suffering from the world. The Buddha, however, taught us that we cannot escape from reality. Who has never been sick? Who never dies? Who can live without desiring something? The problem is that when our cravings are satisfied, we typically find that we want something else, or something more, we never seem to be really satisfied. And so this cycle of craving, temporary satisfaction, craving again, and so on, continues throughout our life, unless we consciously do something to break the pattern. The Buddha taught us how to break that pattern, by following the Middle Way.
The Middle Way is also known as the Eightfold Path, because there are eight aspects to it: 1) right view, 2) right intention, 3) right speech, 4) right action, 5) right livelihood, 6) right effort, 7) right mindfulness, and 8) right concentration. Some believe that each step depends on what goes before it, so that in order to reach higher levels of this discipline one must accomplish the lower levels (Wilkins, 1967). Others see the path as more circular (or spiraling upward), in that as we deepen our understanding and practice we return to the earlier steps better able to practice them, which prepares us to better understand and practice the higher levels (Bhikkhu Bodhi, 1994).
We must begin with an understanding of how things really are, an understanding of the four noble truths, impermanence, and interbeing (right view). We must then develop the right intentions, to want to be compassionate, selflessly detached, loving, and non-violent. Once we have developed a conducive state of mind, we can choose to refrain from lying, gossiping, swearing, and other misuse of language (right speech). We can avoid doing things that are immoral, irresponsible, cruel, or illegal (right action), and we would not choose a career which required us to do any such things (right livelihood). Then we would be able to focus our will on avoiding any unhealthy states of mind, and on eliminating them quickly should they arise (right effort). Finally we could become more aware of our sensations, feelings, minds, and mental phenomena (right mindfulness), so that we might focus on the discipline necessary to continue our practice of the Middle Way (right concentration). Then we return to the beginning, again and again, so on and so on…
These principles provide the basis for a practical code of conduct, which all Buddhists must follow, known as the Five Precepts. They are: 1) to abstain from killing, 2) to abstain from stealing, 3) to abstain from sexual misconduct, 4) to abstain from lying, and 5) to abstain from mind-altering intoxicants (Bhikkhu Bodhi, 1994; Kornfield, 1993; World’s Great Religions, 1957). The first four seem to follow naturally from the Eightfold Path, but the last one is somewhat more interesting. The problem with intoxicating drugs, such as alcohol, is that they cloud the mind. They make it difficult for us to make responsible choices, which is what the Middle Way is all about.
and compassion are so precious. Make
sure not to
lose them through intoxication.” – Kornfield, 1994
Impermanence, Suffering, and Selflessness
The Buddha said that “everything arises and passes away…existence is illusion” (in Byrom, 1993). The idea that nothing is permanent is a central belief in Buddhism. People are born, grow up, grow old, and die. Buildings wear down, cars break down, and enormous trees wither away. Even mountains are eventually worn down by erosion. However, children are born, new cars and buildings are built, new plants grow, and life goes on. The implications for Buddhism are quite interesting. If everything, and everyone, changes, then even someone who is enlightened will change! One cannot be a Buddha, for they will change. We must always continue to grow. Likewise, Buddhism itself will change, so most of their doctrines are not seen as static. They anticipate change over time.
For psychology, this has both good and not so good implications. For people who are depressed or anxious, they might take heart in impermanence, since things should eventually get better. Indeed, studies on the effects of psychotherapy often show that some people get better over time without treatment. However, if things seem to be going great, if you are happy and having lots of fun, those things will change too. But knowing this, we can prepare ourselves for it. An important aspect of coping with life’s challenges is a sense of being in control. Although there are a wide variety of variables that contribute to individual resilience, maintaining a positive state of mind can help, and knowledge can help to maintain that positive state of mind (Bonnano, 2004, 2005; Folkman and Moskowitz, 2000; Ray, 2004).
If we practice mindfulness and meditation, we can begin to see the impermanence of our lives. As we let go of our attachments to our self-image, our life will flow by like the pictures of a movie, each one a separate image, which only appears to flow smoothly when viewed at high speed. As we observe these fleeting images, we see how our sensations, thoughts, feelings, every aspect of our lives, change so quickly. We might then embrace the change that is truly our life. This process of letting go can be very difficult, but also very liberating (Goldstein and Kornfield, 2001).
not seek perfection in a changing world.
Instead, perfect your love.” – Kornfield, 1994
As we learned with the first of the Four Noble Truths, suffering is an integral part of the human experience. It is easy for us to think of suffering in terms of big pictures: war, famine, natural disasters, and the like. But how often do we think of suffering as an inherent part of our daily lives? Life is difficult, it is a struggle, especially the way most of us live it. A struggle can only lead to suffering. The ultimate outcome of life’s struggle, should we lose the battle, is death. If we could defeat death we would end up alone, and that loneliness might be even worse than the original suffering itself (Suzuki, 1962). Still, we do not even need to look at suffering in terms of a lifetime battle against aging and death, we can see suffering in every moment of the day. Goldstein and Kornfield offer a marvelous description of the daily challenge to be satisfied (2001). It goes something like this. Suppose we woke up on a day when we had no obligations at all. It might be tempting to stay in bed all day, but eventually we become uncomfortable because we have to go to the bathroom. Finally we go, and then crawl back into bed to get warm. But then we get hungry, so finally we get up to get something to eat. Then we get bored, so maybe we watch TV. Then we get uncomfortable, and have to change positions. Even each pleasurable moment is brief, and fails to bring lasting satisfaction. So on, and so forth. We just keep suffering!
The source of this suffering is attachment. We are attached to pleasurable things because we crave them. We are also attached to things that are not pleasant, because they occupy our mind and we cannot be free. The Buddha says, “Free yourself from pleasure and pain. For in craving pleasure or in nursing pain, there is only sorrow” (in Byrom, 1993). It may seem strange that we would be attached to our pain, but the word is used differently here than in most of Western psychology. Traditionally, psychologists think of attachment in a positive way, such as the attachment a child feels toward his or her parents. And yet, some cognitive psychologists do talk about individuals whose automatic thoughts lead them into consistently negative states of mind by disqualifying positive events, catastrophizing events, taking everything too personally, etc. (Pretzer and Beck, 2005). In Buddhism, attachment is neither positive nor negative, it is simply anything that reflects our illusion that the natural world is real. Only when we let go of our attachments to this world can we be one with the universal spirit, and only then can we end our suffering. There is also something hopeful in suffering. Bodhidharma taught that every suffering is a Buddha-seed, because suffering leads us to seek wisdom (in Red Pine, 1987). In this analogy, he describes the body and mind as a field. Suffering is the seed, wisdom the sprout, and Buddhahood the grain.
Buddhism teaches that there is no immortal, unchanging soul. All that we are is a temporary collection of attributes, made up of the body, the feelings, the perceptions, the reactions, and the consciousness of the mind (which, coming from the brain, is really part of the body). It is because we confuse our true self (the transcendental self) with this temporary collection of illusory things that we crave satisfaction, and ultimately suffer as a result. Now it may seem illogical to reject everything we are familiar with, including our own physical body, as an illusion, but Buddhists would suggest that there is a danger in choosing intellectual logic over faith. According to D.T. Suzuki (1962), “Faith lives and the intellect kills.” Try the following exercise. Consider your body. Is it real? How much food have you eaten in your life, and where is it now? How many times have you gone to the bathroom, and where did all of that come from? It certainly isn’t the same as when you ate it! Your body has been replaced many, many times. It is being replaced right now. It isn’t real, it is only temporary, ever changing. The same is true with your mind. Even when William James discussed the stream of consciousness, he described a constantly changing awareness, one in which you cannot have the same thought twice. It just isn’t possible. James (1892) realized that we cannot establish a substantial identity continuing from day to day, but concluded that our sense of continuity must reveal a functional identity. Arriving at a very different conclusion, Buddhists consider this to be maya, our inability to see things as they truly are (Suzuki, 1960).
These three characteristics of existence (impermanence, suffering, and selflessness) can be somewhat unsettling. It is not very appealing to believe that we don’t really exist, that we will suffer as long as we believe we do exist, and all of it will just eventually pass away anyway. So, how does one continue in this practice? It is important to keep as our goal a true understanding of the way things are, and the practice of meditation and other aspects of Buddhism will help to deepen our realization of these basic truths (Goldstein & Kornfield, 2001). The practice remains challenging, however, because as we deepen our understanding the characteristic most often occupying the center of our greatest realization is that of suffering (Goldstein & Kornfield, 2001; Suzuki, 1962). We must then put aside our intellectualizing, we must slay it and throw it to the dogs, experiencing what Buddhists call the “Great Death” (Suzuki, 1962). Only then will we know the greatest wisdom and compassion. This is the beginning of our transcendence. It is not a separation from others, but a realization that we are all one. In other words, we are all in this together.
Interbeing - A Connection Between All People and All Things
Many people are familiar with the golden rule: do unto others as you would have others do unto you! This Christian saying also has great implications when considered from a Buddhist perspective. Based on the same philosophical/cosmological perspective underlying Yoga, Buddhists believe that there is one universal spirit. Therefore, we are really all the same, indeed the entire universe of living creatures and even inanimate objects in the physical world come from and return to the same, single source of creation. Thus, we could alter the golden rule to something like: as you do unto others you are doing unto yourself! This concept (known as karma) is not simply about being nice to other people for your own good, however. Much more importantly, it is about appreciating the relationships between all things. For example, when you drink a refreshing glass of milk, maybe after eating a few chocolate chip cookies, can you taste the grass and feel the falling rain? After all, the cow could not have grown up to give milk if it hadn’t eaten grass, and the grass would not have grown if there hadn’t been any rain. When you enjoy that milk do you remember to thank the farmer who milked the cow, or the grocer who sold the milk to you? And what about the worms that helped to create and aerate the soil in which the grass grew? Appreciating the concept of interbeing helps us to understand the importance of everyone and everything.
The value of this concept of interbeing is that it can be much more than simply a curious academic topic. The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh writes very eloquently about interbeing and its potential for promoting healthy relationships, both between people and between societies (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1995):
“Looking deeply” means observing something or someone with so much concentration that the distinction between observer and observed disappears. The result is insight into the true nature of the object. When we look into the heart of a flower, we see clouds, sunshine, minerals, time, the earth, and everything else in the cosmos in it. Without clouds, there could be no rain, and there would be no flower. Without time, the flower could not bloom. In fact, the flower is made entirely of non-flower elements; it has no independent, individual existence. It “inter-is” with everything else in the universe. … When we see the nature of interbeing, barriers between ourselves and others are dissolved, and peace, love, and understanding are possible. Whenever there is understanding, compassion is born. (pg. 10)
One of the best known cross-cultural topics in psychology today is the distinction between collectivistic vs. individualistic cultures (Triandis & Suh, 2002; Triandis et al., 1988). It is generally accepted that Western cultures focus on the individual, whereas Eastern cultures focus on society as a collective group. One can easily imagine how people whose religious and cultural philosophy focus on a single, universal spirit (the basis of interbeing) would focus more on their family and societal groups than on the individual. Both individualistic and collectivistic cultures seem to have advantages. People living in individualistic cultures report higher levels of subjective well-being and self-esteem, whereas people in collectivistic cultures have tend to have lower levels of stress and correspondingly lower levels of cardiovascular disease (Triandis & Suh, 2002; Triandis et al., 1988). In collectivistic cultures people tend to view the environment as relatively fixed, and themselves as more flexible, more ready to fit in (Triandis & Suh, 2002). The collectivistic perspective supports the value of social cooperation and social interest (something Alfred Adler would likely appreciate). Still, even within cultures there are individual differences. There are idiocentric persons (those who favor individuality) living in collectivistic cultures, and allocentric persons (those who favor ingroups) living in individualistic cultures. The best relationship between personality and culture may be the “culture fit” model, which suggests that it is best to live in the culture that matches your personal inclinations.
Another interesting example of connections across cultures are the non-violent struggles of Mahatma Gandhi, Thich Nhat Hanh, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the 14th Dalai Lama. These four men are probably best known for their commitment to nonviolence as a way to achieve political and social justice. Most importantly, they vowed non-violence while those around them were committed to terrible violence in order to deny justice to others. The two who are not alive today were both assassinated, and the other two were forced to live in exile. Gandhi was a Hindu who practiced Yoga, Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama are Buddhists, and M. L. King, Jr. was a Christian, and it was their spiritual beliefs that so profoundly determined those aspects of their personalities that demanded peace.
Gandhi (1869-1948) is considered the father of modern India. He was born when the British ruled India, and spent much of his life fighting for the independence of his homeland. Twice he was imprisoned by the government, even though he insisted that all protests should be nonviolent. Indeed, he had established a movement of nonviolence known as Satyagraha. Ultimately this movement was successful, and India achieved its independence. Gandhi, however, was assassinated less than a year later. As he died, he spoke the name of God: Rama (Easwaran, 1972; Wilkinson, 2005).
Thich Nhat Hanh (1926-present) was born in Vietnam, and saw his country dominated first by the French and then by communists. During those difficult times he helped to develop what he and his friends called “engaged Buddhism.” Rather than sitting in the temple meditating, they went out into the villages and tried to help the poor people of Vietnam. When confronted by soldiers they did their best to remain mindful, and to feel compassion for the soldiers who threatened them. After all, it was clear to Thich Nhat Hanh that many of those young soldiers were frightened themselves, and so their behavior was very hard to predict. Thus, the calm and peace that accompany mindfulness was often essential for protecting everyone in those terrifying encounters. After being exiled from Vietnam in 1966, he established a community called Plum Village in France, where he still resides today (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1966, 2003).
Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) was a major figure in America’s civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. The King children learned at an early age about the realities of racism in America. Coming from an educated and socially active family, both his father and grandfather were ministers, he vowed at an early age to work against racial injustice. According to his sister, he said he would turn the world upside down (Farris, 2003). However, he always insisted on doing so in a nonviolent fashion. For this commitment to nonviolence, in 1964 he became the youngest person to ever receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Despite the peace prize and the passage of both the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, discrimination continued in America. So did the nonviolent protests led by Dr. King. Then, in 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated (Burns, 2004; Hansen, 2003; Patrick, 1990).
The Dalai Lama (1935-present) lives in exile in India, though he also spends a great deal of time in America. When China invaded Tibet in 1950, he appealed to the United Nations, other countries, and even tried to reach an agreement with the Chinese leadership. Eventually, however, he was forced to leave Tibet in 1959. Today, nearly 50 years later, he continues to seek a peaceful resolution resulting in freedom for Tibet. He also works to deliberately cultivate feelings of compassion for the Chinese, believing that someday those who have harmed the people of Tibet will have to face the consequences of their actions (Dalai Lama, 2002). The Dalai Lama received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.
These men have more in common than simply their shared belief in nonviolence. In addition to M. L. King, Jr. and the Dalai Lama receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. King nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the same award, as Nobel Laureates are entitled to do. Dr. King had received a letter from Thich Nhat Hanh asking for help in protesting the Vietnam war, which by the 1960s involved the United States. Dr. King was impressed by the Buddhist monk, and once appeared with him at a press conference in Chicago (Burns, 2004). Dr. King was also familiar with and impressed by the teachings of Gandhi. In 1959 he traveled to India to learn firsthand about Gandhi’s Satyagraha, the basis for Gandhi’s nonviolent independence movement (King, 2000). In 1966, Dr. King delivered the Gandhi Memorial Lecture at Howard University (Hansen, 2003). Since both the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh are alive today, they have met one another and the Dalai Lama has written several forewords for books by Thich Nhat Hanh. If these men from different countries and different cultures can share so much through the simple (though not easy) practice of nonviolence, perhaps there is something special here for everyone to learn more about.
Meditation is the means by which we control our mind and guide it in a more virtuous direction (Dalai Lama, 2001). Modern brain imaging techniques have even begun to identify the brain regions involved in these processes (Barinaga, 2003). There are many different meditation techniques in Yoga and Buddhism, and no one technique is necessarily better than another. What is most important is to pick one type of meditation and stick with it. Meditation takes practice. Most of us find it very difficult to relax and clear our mind. Even when we do, it is difficult to stay relaxed and keep our mind clear. We are distracted by constant thoughts, getting uncomfortable, we have itches and sneezes and whatever… But over time we can get better at relaxing. It helps to have a well-described procedure, and it can be very helpful to meditate in a group (especially if they offer classes or lessons on how to meditate). If you try meditation, don’t get discouraged the first few times. Keep it up. As with all paths toward self-improvement, it takes time to progress in your ability to meditate.
Some of the writings of Master Dogen (1200-1253), the monk who founded Japanese Soto Zen, have survived during the 800 years since he lived (in Cook, 2002). Master Dogen recommends a very traditional form of seated meditation. Basically, sit straight up on a comfortable cushion with your legs crossed. Place your right hand in your lap, palm up, and your left hand on your right hand in the same manner, so that your thumbs touch slightly. Keep the eyes slightly open, the mouth closed, and breathe softly. Next comes the hard part: “Think about the unthinkable. How do you think about the unthinkable? Non-thinking.”
Non-thinking may sound strange, but it is a fascinating experience for those who achieve it. It can actually make a 3- or 6-hour mediation seem to go by more quickly than a shorter meditation in which you never quite clear your mind. If it sounds a little too strange, don’t worry, it isn’t the goal of every form of meditation. Some forms of meditation focus on a mantra, or in Christian meditation a short prayer. Trying to focus on God through the celestial eye (in the middle of the forehead) is also a common technique. The Dalai Lama describes several different approaches in one of his books (Dalai Lama, 2001), and Thich Nhat Hanh discusses being reasonable in one’s approach to longer meditations (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1991). Once again, there is not a right or wrong method of meditation. Whatever technique you try, whether from a book, a guru, a teacher, or a group, it is whatever works for you on your path to personal development.
In the Visuddhimagga, written some 1,600 years ago by Bhadantacariya Buddhaghosa, there are 40 subjects of meditation mentioned (Bhikkhu Nanamoli, 1956). Of those 40 subjects of meditation, two are singled out as being “generally useful.” In other words, they are “needed generally and desirable owing to their great helpfulness…” These two meditation subjects are loving-kindness and mindfulness of death. Loving-kindness is both the desire and the ability to bring joy and happiness to others. Thus, it creates a peaceful atmosphere for all. Mindfulness of death is of great value because it is the full awareness that we will die. Thus, it creates an urgency to live a good life (Bhikkhu Nanamoli, 1956; U Dhammaratana, 2011). Of course, in the Buddhist sense that would not be a life of hedonistic debauchery, but rather a good life in which one causes no suffering for oneself or others.
A wonderful resource for practicing basic meditation has been provided by Jack Kornfield, a clinical psychologist who trained as a Buddhist monk. Meditation for Beginners (Kornfield, 2004) not only briefly describes the history, purpose, and benefits of meditation, but it also includes a CD with guided meditations led by the author. Kornfield is an advocate of vipassana, or insight meditation (Goldstein & Kornfield, 2001; Kornfield & Breiter, 1985). Once again, the instructions are simple to begin with, and more detailed as one develops one’s meditation practice. In the book A Still Forest Pool, Kornfield & Breiter (1985) share these simple instructions from the venerable Achaan Chah:
Begin practice by sitting up straight and paying attention. You can sit on the floor, you can sit in a chair. At first, you need not fix your attention on much. Simply be mindful of in-and-out breathing… In this awareness of breathing you must not force… Just notice it and let it be… (pg. 81; Achaan Chah in Kornfield & Breiter, 1985)
Of course, one does not need to sit during meditation. Walking meditation is also quite popular, especially for people who find it uncomfortable to sit for a long time (I have two artificial hips, and at times it can be more uncomfortable to sit than to walk slowly and mindfully). The Buddha spoke of five benefits of walking meditation: it develops endurance, is good for striving, it’s healthy, it’s good for digestion after a meal, and the concentration won from walking meditation lasts a long time (Ajahn Brahmavamso et al., 2007).
Thich Nhat Hanh (1985, 1996, 2007b) is also an advocate of walking meditation. He talks about the value of walking to shake off burdens and worries, and to allow anger to subside (or to deal with stress; see Kabat-Zinn, 1990). Indeed, Thich Nhat Hanh offers a gatha one can recite while walking to dispel anger:
Breathing in, I know that anger is
Breathing out, I know this feeling is upleasant.
[And then, after a while:] Breathing in, I feel calm.
Breathing out, I am now strong enough to take care of this anger.
(pg. 39; Thich Nhat Hanh,
As with seated meditation, there are many different techniques for walking meditation, including within vipassana meditation (Kornfield & Breiter, 1985). What matters most is relaxation, a clear mind, and mindfully being aware of your walking. This is not exercise; it is still meditation. Once again, Achaan Chah instructs:
Work with the walking meditation every day. To begin, clasp the hands in front of you, maintaining a very slight tension that compels the mind to be attentive. Walk at a normal pace from one end of the path to the other, knowing yourself all the way. Stop and return. If the mind wanders, stand still and bring it back. If the mind still wanders, fix attention on the breath. Keep coming back. Mindfulness thus developed is useful at all times. (pg. 85; Achaan Chah in Kornfield & Breiter, 1985)
Walking meditation can take place indoors or outdoors. The path where the Buddha practiced walking meditation is still there, and it’s 17 steps long. While engaged in walking meditation there is one meditation subject we can focus on that is not available when sitting: the walking posture (Ajahn Brahmavamso, 2007). As noted above, we can use our hand position to focus our attention, or our breath, but many people focus on the feet and/or the process of walking itself. I tend to have a little trouble with balance while walking very slowly, due to my artificial hips. When I feel a little off balance, I just use that to focus my attention on my body. Breathe naturally, adjusting the breath to match your steps if you desire. Of course, adjustments may be necessary if walking uphill and down (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1996, 2007).
And finally, we have standing meditation. Jon Kabat-Zinn (1994) suggests that:
Standing meditation is best learned from trees. Stand close to one, or, better still, in a stand of trees and just peer out in one direction. Feel your feet developing roots into the ground. Feel your body sway gently, as it always will, just as trees do in a breeze. Staying put, in touch with your breathing, drink in what is in front of you, or keep your eyes closed and sense your surroundings. Sense the tree closest to you. Listen to it, feel its presence, touch it with your mind and body. (pg. 149; Kabat-Zinn, 1994)
I often practice standing meditation together with walking meditation. While walking, I will stop from time to time and practice standing meditation for a while. There are no rules. There is also a form of standing meditation that I created for myself. Others may have done it, so I might not have been the first, but it came to me all on my own just the same.
In the middle of winter I will go out on a frozen lake, especially on very windy days, and just stand there. With my back to the wind, I experience both the wind and the inevitable cracking and groaning of the ice on the lake. The wind blowing around me creates a cocoon of energy that immerses me in nature, while also shielding me from any other sounds or distractions. Of course, I should point out that I have some very warm clothes, including a down mountaineering suit and Sorel boots. So I’m able to stand on a frozen lake in the howling wind in the middle of winter and be completely warm!
Concepts of Enlightenment
There are a wide variety of concepts of enlightenment. One concept that is somewhat familiar in America is nirvana. Nirvana refers to the extinction of all ideas and concepts, thus resulting in the end of suffering due to the craving that results from being attached to anything in the natural world. In the Theravada tradition this should be the goal of all Buddhists, and a person who achieves nirvana is referred to as an Arhat. Other Buddhists, however, seek to avoid nirvana, because it leaves all others behind.
In the Mahayana tradition, an ideal person would be a Bodhisattva, one who vows to forgo complete enlightenment until all other beings have been enlightened. According to Thich Nhat Hanh (1995), such individuals touch mindfulness, and as a result of living mindfully they can touch the Buddha and shine their light of awareness on everything they do. The desire to help others achieve enlightenment comes from the deep compassion developed by Bodhisattvas. Mindfulness leads to this compassion, as it leads one to develop Bodhicitta. Bodhicitta, which means “mind of enlightenment” or “mind of love,” is an inner drive to fully realize oneself and to work for the well-being of all (in other words, it is the driving force of being a Bodhisattva; Dalai Lama, 2001; Thich Nhat Hanh, 1995, 1999).
Curiously, some Buddhists distinguish between “bodhi” as a temporary flash of enlightenment, which can even occur following arduous meditation or by accident, and “nirvana” or true liberation, which can only result from proper knowledge and dedicated practice (Mathew, 2001). This concept is similar to what Maslow described as the difference between a peak experience and a plateau experience. A peak experience is a brief period of fulfillment, usually associated with a particular event. A plateau experience, on the other hand, is a lasting feeling of oneness with the world around us. What is of particular importance for the study of personality is the recognition that individuals with certain personality characteristics, such as being kind-hearted and open-minded, can more easily accomplish long-term fulfillment, whether we call it nirvana or self-actualization.
Compassion and Loving-Kindness
“Just as compassion is the wish that all sentient beings be free of suffering, loving-kindness is the wish that all may enjoy happiness” (Dalai Lama, 2001). With these simple words about Buddhism, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has captured the history of psychology briefly presented in the introductory chapter: that psychology focused for many years on helping to identify and treat mental illness (hopefully freeing people from suffering), whereas now there is a strong movement toward positive psychology (hoping to improve well-being for all). This recognition of compassion as the strong feeling or wish that others be freed from suffering comes from mindfulness. As one becomes truly aware of the suffering involved in human life, and if one is able to feel genuine empathy for others, then compassion naturally arises (Chappell, 2003; Dalai Lama, 2001; Goldstein & Kornfield, 2001; Thich Nhat Hanh, 1995). Compassion has described as the ideal emotional state (Bankart et al., 2003; Cook, 2002; Dockett & North-Schulte, 2003; Ragsdale, 2003), and Carl Rogers considered genuine empathy to be essential for client-centered therapy to be successful. Aside from Rogers, however, have other psychologists begun to examine the value of compassion and loving-kindness? The answer is an unequivocal “Yes” (Bankart et al., 2003; Batson et al., 2005; Cassell, 2005; Dockett & North-Schulte, 2003; Keyes & Lopez, 2005; Khong, 2003; Ragsdale, 2003; Schulman, 2005b; Young-Eisendrath, 2003)!
is so hard, how can we be anything but kind?”
- Kornfield, 1994
Obstacles to Personal Growth: The Three Poisons of Buddhism
Buddhists believe in three poisons, the great obstacles to personal development. They are greed, anger, and delusion. These poisons, or realms as they are often called, have no nature of their own, they are created by us and they depend on us. Greed flows from attachment, anger flows from our emotions, and delusion flows from maya. By following the practices of Buddhism, we can free ourselves from these poisons as did the Buddha. According to Bodhidharma, the Buddha made three vows. He vowed to put an end to all evil, by practicing moral prohibitions to counter the poison of greed. He vowed to cultivate virtue by practicing meditation to counter the poison of anger. And he vowed to liberate all beings by practicing wisdom to counter the poison of delusion (in Red Pine, 1987). Likewise, we can devote ourselves to the three pure practices of morality, meditation, and wisdom.
It is interesting to note how well this philosophy fits with the growing field of positive psychology (e.g., see Compton, 2005; Peterson, 2006a). Indeed, whole books have been written on the study of virtue in psychology (Fowers, 2005; Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Note, however, that these books are quite recent. Although the seeds of positive psychology, studies on virtue and similar topics, have been around since the earliest days of psychology in the Western world, we seem to be just starting to “discover” concepts that have been well established in Eastern philosophy/psychology for thousands of years. As we recognize more similarities between traditional Eastern perspectives and current Western perspectives, it may help to guide these developing areas of psychological research in the Western world.
Sangha: A Community Practicing Together
The concepts of togetherness, friendship, social support, etc. are certainly well known in the West, despite the fact that Western cultures are generally considered to be individualistic. Adler identified developing friendships as one of three main tasks in life, and the value of social support during times of stress and grief has been well documented. In Yoga and Buddhism these concepts have been central for thousands of years. Buddhists refer to the Three Jewels (also known as the Three Gems or the Three Refuges): the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. A Buddha is one who is fully enlightened (not just Gotama Buddha), and the Dharma is the way of understanding and love taught by Gotama Buddha. A Sangha is a community of Buddhists who practice the Dharma and seek enlightenment together (Suzuki, 1960; Thich Nhat Hanh, 1995). The Sangha is not, however, just a get-together of companions with similar interests. The Sangha can renew our inspiration and energy, and it can help us to keep practicing when our own motivation wanes (Goldstein & Kornfield, 2001). The energy and motivation we gain from being part of a Sangha can help us to develop Bodhicitta, the altruistic desire to help all people achieve enlightenment. The ceremony to actively generate Bodhicitta within us begins with a series of visualizations in which we imagine Gotama Buddha being with us, surrounded by other Buddhas, great sages, and all sentient beings (Dalai Lama, 2001). Being filled with Bodhicitta makes us a Bodhisattva right away (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1999). This is not simply a belief or devotion, however. Taking refuge in the Sangha is a practice, one that can only take place in the company of others and with their support (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1995).
The Sangha is by no means unique to Buddhism. In Yoga they refer to Satsanga, associating with the truth or with someone virtuous such as a guru (Feuerstein, 2003; Yogananda, 1946). I remember when a monk, and a monk in training, from the Self Realization Fellowship visited the Yoga retreat center I sometimes visit. During the evening they offered Satsanga, a brief lesson followed by a question and answer discussion. In this semi-formal setting we were all able to expand our understanding of Yoga and share our interests and experiences. Indeed, some people practicing traditional Yoga or Buddhism consider the guru (or lama, in Tibetan) to be a fourth jewel in which to seek refuge (Feuerstein, 2003).
Buddhism and Positive Psychology
In one sense it’s unfair to say that there is a separate Eastern perspective (with our current focus on Buddhism), since many people in the Western world are turning to spiritual philosophies like Buddhism in order to find happiness. Why? Because they have realized (either consciously or unconsciously) that the Western approach to getting happiness often just doesn’t work. Some people can’t get what they want, and those who can often find that what they wanted is unfulfilling. The Buddha taught that such things would always be unfulfilling in the end, and therefore people would always suffer. Unless, of course, they gain an understanding of the Buddha’s teaching and put it into practice in their lives.
So we have two paths we can examine: the Buddhist perspective itself, and the Western view of Buddhism. We will take a look at both, but keep in mind that the depth of understanding by Western authors varies from limited to profound. So whatever level you are at, there will something of interest if you put in the effort to find the right information.
Let us begin with a few passages from the Dhammapada:
Ah, so happily we live,
Without hate among those with hate.
Among people who hate
We live without hate.
Ah, so happily we live,
Without misery among those in misery.
Among people in misery
We live without misery.
Ah, so happily we live,
We who have no attachments.
We shall feast on joy,
As do the Radiant Gods.
(pp. 53-54; translated by Gil Fronsdal, 2005)
Positive psychology, in the eyes of some, has fallen into the trap of the Western world’s consumerism and materialism, and helped give rise to the Happiness Industry. As such, Westerners interested in Buddhism have tried to fit it into their hoped-for concept of a “religion of happiness” (Soeng, 2016). This mistake, however, perpetuates the problem: that looking without for new ways to find, get, or be happy is a fool’s errand. It will eventually lead to suffering. This may be particularly important in psychotherapy. As Jane Henry points out:
By directing attention toward focusing on the present and detaching from identification with troubles, one gives both problems and desires less attention than in therapy or self-help and perhaps avoids the danger of fanning the flames of pointless rumination and childish emotion. (pg. 125; Henry, 2006)
What the Buddha taught was a way to let go of attachments, and in this way to let go of our suffering. It is quite antithetical to Western society. Indeed, some of the ways in which it is described are rather esoteric. For example, we meditate in order to concentrate our mind. A concentrated mind leads to seeing things as they are, which leads to disenchantment, which leads to dispassion, which leads to freedom (a blissful state; Soeng, 2016 and personal communication during a BCBS course).
How can disenchantment and dispassion lead to freedom and, ultimately, happiness? The answer is based on a radically different view of reality:
The psychological life of disenchantment and dispassion, as a hallmark of Buddha’s teachings on happiness, is not an existentially negative condition. If anything, when it is built upon a long cultivation of preceding stages of joy, rapture, tranquility, and happiness, it offers a psychological matrix of completion; the feeling of being complete without seeking pleasure or gratification from external sources.
The Buddha called it the life of a noble person. This life is an antidote to the life of an ordinary, confused person, the “worlding” who sees the pursuit of sensual pleasures as a way to seek completion, to seek gratification, to become happy. (pg. 52; Soeng, 2016)
If one is able to grasp the meaning of what the Buddha taught, that letting go of the pursuit of happiness (the pursuit of sensual pleasures) will lead to freedom from all attachments (both good and bad), then one can follow a path toward true happiness. This may be particularly difficult in Western culture, since Buddhism (and related Eastern spiritual philosophies, such as Yoga) arose in a very different culture.
One of the challenges of grasping the meaning of Buddhism for those of us who have been raised in a different culture is that we think of Buddhism as a religion, and as such, we believe its focus is more on nibbana (or nirvana in Sanskrit). But the Pali canon reveals three type of benefits to be derived from the practice of Buddhism: well-being and happiness in this present life, welfare and happiness in future lives, and the ultimate good (nibbana or enlightenment; Bhikkhu Bodhi, 2005). Whereas Westerners tend to think that Buddhism focuses on future lives and enlightenment, the emphasis on being present in this moment really focuses on our present life, here and now.
What follows now are some of the Buddha’s teachings on how to live a good life. Basically, they are a set of instructions for being a good person, from a Buddhist point of view.
The Buddha teaches that we should pay homage to the six directions, and he identifies those directions as: mother and father, teachers, wife and children, friends, workers, and religious leaders. He then proceeds to offer practice advice on what to do. For example, parents should be honored by supporting them (e.g., in their old age), performing their duties for them, keeping up family traditions, and distributing gifts on their behalf after they have died. During this, the parents will reciprocate this honor by restraining their child from evil, supporting the child in doing good, teaching them skills, helping them to find a suitable mate, and in time, turning over their inheritance to them (Bhikkhu Bodhi, 2005).
The Buddha goes on to say things such as honoring teachers by rising to greet them, being attentive, and mastering the skills they teach. In response, the teachers will provide thorough lessons, make sure they have learned the skills, and refer them to friends and colleagues. Similarly, husbands should honor their wives, remain faithful, and give them adornments from time to time. Wives should then also be faithful, and they should organize the household responsibly and be kind to the servants (Bhikku Bodhi, 2005).
This process of treating others well so that you will, in turn, be treated well by them is none other than what we commonly call the golden rule: do unto others as you would have others do unto you (which we already discussed above regarding interbeing). It is perhaps the most widely recognized principle in history, so it’s no surprise that we find this teaching in Buddhism as well. It’s interesting to note, however, that although many think of this as a Christian principle, the Buddha was teaching this approximately 500 years before the Christian era.
A particularly interesting teaching from the Buddha has to do with Right Livelihood, one of the steps on the Eightfold Path:
“These five trades, O monks, should not be taken up by a lay follower: trading in weapons, trading in living beings, trading in meat, trading in intoxicants, trading in poison.” (pg. 126; Buddha cited in Bhikkhu Bodhi, 2005
Apparently there were a significant number of people who earned their living selling poison, enough so that the Buddha felt it necessary to include it in this list. Of course, poisons would serve only one purpose, to violate the precept against killing. Personally, I consider poison to be a weapon in this context, but still the Buddha felt it necessary to specifically identify it.
Another important passage refers to the four kinds of happiness which may be achieved by a layperson (or householder). They are the happiness of possession(s), the happiness of enjoyment, the happiness of freedom from debt, and the happiness of blamelessness (Bhikkhu Bodhi, 2005). Since most of the people who read this will likely be college students, the difficulties created by student loan debt will be familiar to many of you. The cost of education keeps rising and good paying jobs (which allow for the happiness of possession as well) are disappearing. It is a shame that our society is creating a burden that strikes directly at two of the four sources of our happiness.
The Buddha also discussed such topics as cordiality, social stability, and how leaders can bring tranquility to the land. But let us turn our attention now toward those in the West, psychologists to be more precise, who are incorporating Buddhist ideas and practices into the field of psychology.
As noted above, there are many in the west who have embraced Buddhist philosophy and practices, particularly in the field of psychotherapy. It has been suggested that Buddhist mindfulness may be the most common element across various forms of psychotherapy, and if not, perhaps it should be (see Germer, 2005a,b; Fulton & Siegel, 2005; Fulton, 2005; Pollak, 2014; Segall, 2003). It is well beyond the scope of this project to cover in detail all the work that has been done to examine psychotherapy in a Buddhist context, or to blend Buddhist practices with psychotherapeutic practices, but suffice it to say the following list of references is certainly not complete (see, e.g., Bobrow, 2010; Brach, 2003; Germer & Siegel, 2012; Germer et al., 2005; Kabat-Zinn, 1990; Pollock et al., 2014; Rubin, 1996). One of the key themes throughout these books is the value of mindfulness in creating a basis for communication, both between the therapist and the client, and within the client themselves (i.e., leading to personal insight). As extensive as this is becoming, we will revisit the topic later, in Section IV.
Please note that most of the books cited at the end of the preceding paragraph are dated in the 2000s. This is a fairly new field of endeavor, but not entirely new. Freud wrote about a certain fascination with Eastern spirituality, but felt it was beyond his grasp. Carl Jung was also particularly interested in Eastern philosophy and religion, as was the American psychologist William James. However, it was the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm who co-authored Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis with the renowned Buddhist teacher D. T. Suzuki (Suzuki et al., 1960).
In Fromm’s contribution to this landmark book, he specifically addresses the issue of well-being! Indeed, Fromm states that “the first approach to a definition of well-being can be stated thus: well-being is being in accord with the nature of man” (pg. 86; his italics). He goes on to say that humans are unique, given their sentient nature. Consequently, we have to live our lives (as opposed to merely acting on instinct), which leads to an awareness of separateness (or, as it is often called in psychology, the process of individuation), which then demands that we answer the question: how do we overcome the suffering and shame that this experience of separateness creates? Fromm recognizes two answers to this question: either we regress and do not answer the question, i.e., we fail to live our lives fully, or we choose to be fully born, to develop our awareness, reason, and capacity to love so that we might transcend our egocentric nature and achieve harmony and oneness with the world (Fromm, 1960).
If you are still paying attention to the dates, you may be wondering why the book by Suzuki & Fromm, two very well-known people, was published in 1960, but there wasn’t an explosion of interest until some 40 years laters. Many great ideas are not appreciated in their time. It took the publication of Mark Epstein’s book Thoughts Without a Thinker in 1995, which wonderfully examined the correspondence between Buddhist training and psychotherapeutic technique, to really jump start this field. Following in the footsteps of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s highly effective program in mindfulness-based stress reduction (Kabat-Zinn, 1990), the timing was right for a new chapter in psychotherapy.
As Fromm concluded his section in their book, he thanked Suzuki for making Zen understandable to the Western audience. Suzuki remains one of the best-known teachers of Zen to this day for that same reason. However, Fromm also makes another key point, and it ends his contribution to the book:
…the Westerner, if he takes the trouble, can arrive at an understanding of Zen, as far as it can be arrived at before the goal is reached. How could such understanding be possible, were it not for the fact that “Buddha nature is in all of us,” that man and existence are universal categories, and that the immediate grasp of reality, waking up, and enlightenment, are universal experiences. (pg.141; Suzuki et al., 1960)
In Martin Seligman’s (2002) Authentic Happiness, there is a brief section on mindfulness (an ongoing state of meditation, which we will examine in greater detail in Section III, along with flow), in which he discusses the importance of paying attention to what is happening in life. For example, he cites one research project by Ellen Langer in which she asked high school students to think about what Stephen Douglas thought and felt about the Kansas-Nebraska Act (Douglas is the man who defeated Abraham Lincoln in a U.S. Senate race, but then lost to him in the presidential race). The children who thought about Douglas learned more about their assignment than those students who merely read about Douglas and the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
In the Handbook of Positive Psychology (Snyder & Lopez, 2005), 55 chapters and 800+ pages packed with information, there is a brief reference to the Buddha’s wisdom leading to his compassion for others (Cassell, 2005), and a brief comparison of meditation to meditative prayer (aka, contemplative prayer; Pargament & Mahoney, 2005). However, there is also an entire chapter on meditation and positive psychology (Shapiro et al., 2005).
Shapiro et al. (2005) offer an excellent review of research on meditation and its positive effects on physiology and psychology. For example, meditation appears to facilitate profound physiological rest, increase cerebral flow and equalization of hemispheric communication, increase hormones associated with positive mood while decreasing hormone levels associated with stress, and improve immune system function in HIV-positive men. On the psychological side, meditation helps with memory and intelligence (including grades in school), improves creativity and self-esteem, increases positive affect while reducing anxiety, hostility, and depression, and it can help to provide a buffer against stress, among other positive effects. Included within these citations is the work of Jon Kabat-Zin (see Kabat-Zin, 1990, 2005).
Both their own earlier work and that of others has shown that meditation increases empathy in medical students and counselors (Shapiro et al., 2005; see also Wallace, 2005). This finding is of particular interest since Carl Rogers came to believe that a therapist’s empathic understanding of the client was the critical condition for being an effective therapist (Rogers, 1980). The Dalai Lama (2001) has said that empathy is an essential first step toward a compassionate heart. It brings us closer to others, and allows us to recognize the depth of their pain. According to Rogers, empathy refers to entering the private world of the client, and moving about within it without making any judgments. It is essential to set aside one’s own views and values, so that the other person’s world may be entered without prejudice. Not just anyone can accomplish this successfully:
In some sense it means that you lay aside your self; this can only be done by persons who are secure enough in themselves that they know they will not get lost in what may turn out to be the strange or bizarre world of the other, and that they can comfortably return to their own world when they wish. (pg. 143; Rogers, 1980)
Despite these positive results, Shapiro and her colleagues (2005) were concerned that the research was being held back by a compulsion to remove all cultural/spiritual elements from meditation in order to make a more pure subject for research and comparison. To work around this, they developed intentional systemic mindfulness (ISM), a model which brings intention back into the equation without the Buddhist overtones. ISM does indeed appear to be effective in reducing depression and anxiety, while enhancing empathy and a spiritual experience.
* * *
The connections being made between Buddhism and psychology are growing rapidly, so this section could go on for quite some time. However, I’ll endeavor to wrap it up with just a few more topics, several of which involve people I’ve had the pleasure of going on retreat with and/or taking classes from (in a retreat setting).
Andrew Olendzki (2003, 2005) has done a wonderful job of describing Buddhist philosophy in psychological terms, and he provided an article which was instrumental in helping me to understand the nature of mindfulness and teach it in psychology classes (we’ll discuss it below, in the section on mindfulness; Olendzki, 2008). Janet Surrey, one of the founding members of the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at the Stone Center, Wellesley College (instrumental in the development of a modern psychology of women), has worked to blend that group’s relational-cultural theory with the relational nature of Buddhist practice (Surrey, 2005), and Trudy Goodman has been applying the Zen concept of “beginner’s mind” to psychotherapy with children (Goodman, 2005). I had the pleasure of studying and meditating with each of these amazing individuals at either the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies or the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts.
The Buddhist literature is replete with discussions of happiness and joy. Thich Nhat Hanh (2007) discussed the need to nourish happiness. Once again, however, we must recognize that our idea of happiness may interfere with actually being happy. We must give up the fruitless pursuit of pleasure-seeking and instead nourish mindfulness, understanding, and love. Sharon Salzberg (1995), a renowned author and Buddhist teacher, entitled her first book Loving-Kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness. She argues that if we could just uproot our personal mythologies of isolation, through spiritual practice, we would not only find the radiant, joyful heart within each of us, but that we would also manifest that radiance to the world. That would lead to a great happiness beyond concepts and conventions.
There is a long tradition in Buddhist teaching about the practice being like a mirror, in which we see a reflection of who we truly are. In one of my favorite Zen stories, there was a poetry contest to determine who would become the sixth patriarch of Chinese Zen. The first poem was submitted by a senior member of the community:
The body is the Bodhi-tree,
The mind is like a clear mirror standing.
Take care to wipe it all the time,
Allow no grain of dust to cling to it.
However, this poem was considered entirely inadequate. The superior poem, and the one which earned Hui Neng the position of patriarch, is as follows:
The Bodhi is not like a tree,
The clear mirror is nowhere standing.
Fundamentally not one thing exists;
Where then is a grain of dust to cling?
This story and these poems can be found in Mystics & Zen Masters by Thomas Merton (on pages 18 and 19; 1967).
There is also a long history of the concept of mirroring in psychology, particularly with regard to the development of infants as they see themselves through the eyes of their caretakers (especially their mother) and in relation to how their caretakers love them (Winnicott, 1966/2002; 1968/2002). An important aspect of mirroring is empathy, a state in which the mother and child actually share their feelings as if they were one (Strozier, 2001; see also Jordan, 1991). It appears that there is actually a neurological mechanism underlying this phenomenon, known as the mirror-neuron system (see Rizzolatti & Craighero, 2004).
Rosenbaum (2003) has compared and contrasted the Eastern and Western perspectives on mirroring, from a therapists point of view. For most psychologists, they see themselves as the mirror, reflecting their clients issues and concerns back to the client. From a Buddhist perspective, that mirroring is quite different, it is present, yet it is nothing other than what is (i.e., it is “nowhere standing”).
In a wonderful example of how this process works, Rosenbaum walks through the various stages/aspects of a therapy session, writing first from the Western view, and then from the Buddhist view. Whereas a typical psychologist might focus on strengthening the client’s self, understanding developmental issues, and being supportive and empathic, the Buddhist-oriented therapist neither adds nor takes away self-concepts (non-self), reflects things as they are here and now, and is simply non-judgmental (Rosenbaum, 2003; though I have hardly done it justice).
Finally, I will leave you with an interesting conundrum. Mark Epstein, author of the seminal Thoughts Without a Thinker (1995), published another book in 2001 entitled Going on Being: Buddhism and the Way of Change – A Positive Psychology for the West. He begins his 2nd book with a quote from D. W. Winnicott (cited above, one of the first to study the process of mirroring): “The alternative to being is reacting, and reacting interrupts being and annihilates” (pg. vii; Epstein, 2001). Actually, the title of the book, going on being, is a term Winnicott used in an article published in 1949. He goes on to share some wonderful stories about his journey into the practice of Buddhism and the practice of psychotherapy.
In 2008, Epstein re-published this book. Not much changed, except for subtle changes in the names of chapters and sections. He also changed the subtitle, removing any reference to positive psychology. There is no explanation for this. Perhaps he, or his editor (he also published with a different publisher), was concerned that the growing field of positive psychology was something different, and they wanted to separate themselves from it. Who knows? Someone must; maybe I’ll have a chance to meet them and find out someday.