A Case for a Daily Reflective Practice

We all have our routines each day: brushing our teeth, dressing ourselves, exercise perhaps, making our coffee. Those routines are largely around caring for our physical selves.

Some may also have a cognitive routine, such as reading the paper, watching the news, reading their book, or a relational practice, such as checking in with a loved one or playing with the dog.   Many have a spiritual routine, such as prayer, meditation or even enjoying being outdoors, or an environmental routine such as tidying the kitchen, checking the weather, closing a window.

In other words, our lives have many facets, and I imagine that few of us actually attend to each domain on a regular and frequent basis. Fortunately, each domain probably does not need daily attention – I’m not going to check my checking account balance every day – but perhaps our routines merit some consideration. For example, we all attend to our physical health every day. Why not our emotional/psychological? Isn’t that equally important?

I never really gave a reflective practice, one where I check in with myself on a psychological, emotional and spiritual level, much thought until the last few years. I was fiiinnne, until I wasn’t. Now I find that some kind of reflection at least 3-4 times per week is not only SOP but also necessary for my psychological well-being. It’s not so much I need my happy-exercise. I find reflection is also important for my learning and processing.

In the old days, I was pretty much in my head 24/7, thoughts whirling constantly.   Now I try to stay present with my mind clear most of the day, with periods where I am still and quiet, and just invite thoughts to enter. Some thoughts I will reflect upon, others I will discard. That reflection time allows my inner thoughts, ideas, and connections to be recognized and processed.

Modern best practices also incorporate reflection into the education process. Part of my education was recent enough to include reflection but part was not. Though the content was vastly different in each case, I do feel that reflection does impact my ability to learn, process and integrate both academic and personal lessons alike.

Those personal lessons may not necessarily come in the form of books and lectures these days. But my life lessons are equally important: What did I learn about myself/others/our world today? How do those lessons impact me or others? What can I do differently or better? What’s a more constructive or productive perspective? How can I help?

I know in our busy lives we don’t have time for one more thing on our To Do list. But I argue: What is really more important than psychological and emotional housekeeping and maintenance? You don’t want your physical (house), financial (bank account), or physiologic (your body) homes crashing down upon you. They each deserve your time and attention. And so does the inner you.

The New Mythology

If you’ve ever felt lost or directionless, you’re not alone. According to Joseph Campbell, author of the Power of Myth, modern man has lost his mythology or guide to life, and it’s no surprise that we sometimes feel like we’re missing something. Campbell is a comparative mythologist who has studied stories from across time and culture. He says that man’s stories are remarkably similar across different religions, fables, and myths, and have served as man’s guide to life for millennia.

But today, according to Campbell, modern man has lost its mythology and so has lost his way. Religion seems less relevant in our modern age (“eye for an eye” seems archaic), and we’ve not found a suitable replacement that will help us find the path to the good life.

Or have we?

As a society, it seems to me that we’ve turned to science as our new religion. The scientific method allows us to ask questions and find answers to them instead of attempting to interpret God’s will from a book or our clergy. But does the scientific method teach us about the good life and finding meaning and purpose?

A decade ago, I would’ve said No. But today we have positive psychology. Positive psychology is the scientific discipline that studies well-being.   It’s not just the ‘happy science’, but studies the utility of all emotions, ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and creating satisfaction in all domains of life.

Many theories exist about what constitutes well-being, but as a graduate of the Penn MAPP program, I tend to go with the father of the discipline, Martin Seligman, and author of Flourish. According to Seligman, well-being is comprised of PERMA, positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and achievement. In other words, we can create personal well-being by developing each of these aspects in the various domains of our life. Tom Rath, author of Well Being: The Five Essential Elements, states that the 5 domains of our life include career, social, community, financial, and physical well-being.   Five components, 5 domains. Roughly 25 areas to improve one’s life. You can almost make a grid and start filling in the squares for things to do to improve your life.

Don’t mind if I do:

 

  Career Social Community Financial Physical
P Plan a get-together
E Blog
R Walk with friends
M Donate to charities
A Use my strengths

So just going down the Financial column, I can ask myself, “how can I create meaning through the financial domain?” Donate to charities that I feel can create the impact that I’m looking to support. “How can I create positive emotion and engagement with or through my community?” Write my blog!

You may not be able to figure out how to put something in every square. Or maybe you can. If you can’t figure it out, ask a friend or family member, and you can improve your relationships just by starting with the exercise itself.

Science. Data. Tables. Method. Experiment with your life! You might like the results.

A Freightcar Named Desire

“When you are discontent, you always want more, more, more. Your desire can never be satisfied. But when you practice contentment, you can say to yourself, ‘Oh yes – I already have everything that I really need.’” – Dalai Lama

 

The story of any achiever is one of desire. All success, all achievement that is meaningful, and all success stories begin with desire. Desire grips people with an insatiable appetite for action. If you have sufficient desire to succeed, nothing can stop you from becoming a winner, a leader, or a high performer.” – Paul J. Meyer, Success Magazine

 

According to Buddhism, desire is a poison that is at the root of suffering. Yet desire seems to be what helps us to be successful. The two seem completely at odds. Do we really have to choose between contentment and success?

I think the answer to that question depends on our definition of success. We  seem to know that money can’t buy happiness.   Yet we are still pursuing the status house, car, clothes and job.  $300 billion was spent on luxury goods in 2013.  In other words, are we still trying to buy happiness despite what we seem to know, or is that stuff just coinciding with our pursuit of authentic happiness?

Regardless of whether our pursuit of happiness is occurring intentionally through or accidentally with material success, I would guess that for most people who pursue that affluent lifestyle as an end in itself, the hedonic treadmill rules their sense of well-being. In other words, that new car is nice but now I need that nicer new car. So instead of that car bringing pleasure in the long term, it only brings more desire and a sense of incompletion. That desire can develop a life of its own and somehow overrun our lives.

In contrast, if one defines success by their ability to have a positive impact in a way that is authentic to them, then desire can be used constructively without creating an inner void.   For example, I might say that I want to be a brain surgeon because then I can save lives. That’s a great goal if standing in an OR for hours on end using fine motor skills in a high pressure setting is my idea of bliss. That is bliss for some people, hopefully for brain surgeons. But not for me. The key is to identify the unique way that I want to have a positive impact on the world.   If I identify accurately identify my authentic path, then my desire to pursue my path will provide meaning, purpose and possibly success to my life.

“Everyone has been made for some particular work, and the desire for that work has been put in every heart.” – Rumi

Note that the desire to pursue my authentic path is not focused on materialistic achievements, but rather on providing a meaningful purpose. Those who have the ability and the will to pursue that path will be more naturally motivated and therefore more likely to be successful in terms of rank and salary.   Even better, a sense of well-being results from having a positive impact on the world and doing the things that you love each day.  In a strange twist of synergy, being happy is more likely to make you successful.

“I believe that the very purpose of life is to be happy. From the very core of our being, we desire contentment. In my own limited experience I have found that the more we care for the happiness of others, the greater is our own sense of well-being. Cultivating a close, warmhearted feeling for others automatically puts the mind at ease. It helps remove whatever fears or insecurities we may have and gives us the strength to cope with any obstacles we encounter. It is the principal source of success in life. Since we are not solely material creatures, it is a mistake to place all our hopes for happiness on external development alone. The key is to develop inner peace.” – Dalai Lama

 

 

End of An Era

All good things come to an end.  However, I don’t think most people would feel ambivalent about finishing a full-time graduate program while still working full-time.  Yet here I am, grieving the end of the  master’s program I’ve been enrolled in for a mere 9 months.

Perhaps it’s exceptionalist to say that I also don’t believe our program is like most programs.  Though the Applied Positive Psychology Program is designed to help us to become practitioners in positive psychology (creating well-being in individuals, organizations and communities), we had to start with well-being within ourselves as individuals and as a group.  The distance element of the program was no barrier at all since we reconvened monthly for an intense, 3-day weekend packed with class and socializing.    Think: college on steroids.  So it really did feel like a full-time graduate or undergraduate program, complete with roommates (thank you God/universe!).

I also know the program was part of a journey that for me began literally decades ago.  The journey included persistent dreams about being in school again and my personal journey leading to discovery of what I believe to be my calling.   So many people in the program, and the program itself, have changed my life and world view for the better and helped to enrich and enable my journey.  My gratitude is so vast I can’t even find it’s edges.

But now it’s pretty much over.  I’m wrapping up a couple of assignments, one of which is the write up of my capstone, which is no small task but completely within the realm of what I do in my day job.  So by and large I am done with the late nights, early mornings, class conference calls, stacks of reading.  I’ve been napping, watching TV, taking walks, trying to reunite with the friends I’ve forsaken during the year, and contemplating what to do next.   And grieving.

Fortunately for me, one of my gifts is finding the silver lining. I’m still processing my grief, that’s OK, but I’m also looking forward to the next phase.  Instead of saying goodbye to 36 of the most wonderful classmates and scores of faculty, I’m joining a larger community of positive psychologists and alumni.  Instead of my classroom being within the walls of Huntsman Hall, my job, our community, our world is my classroom, and all the world’s citizens are my teachers.  Homework will be of my own choice and design, and hopefully I can continue to write as I did during school.  And my personal journey will continue, either way.

So perhaps instead of “all good things come to an end,” the positive psychologist and optimist in me believes it should say “all good things must start somewhere.”  I’m at that somewhere.  So are you.

Art and the Humanities Shift Our Perspective

The good life or well-being, also known as eudaimonia are described by Seligman (2011) as consisting of PERMA (positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and accomplishment).   The attainment of this complex but important state can be argued to be one of man’s central life pursuits.   To the degree this is true, then man’s attention and expression will reflect this pursuit.  Thus, since the humanities are a form of human expression, and our expression will reflect our pursuit of well-being, the humanities can help individuals develop a better understanding of well-being.  Lessons in how to live a meaningful and good life are evident and pervasive in great works of literature, art, religion and philosophy (for example, Pawelski, 2013; de Botton, 2013).  However, visual art forms such as paintings often use an important and effective mechanism to foster well-being, i.e. through improving perspective.

 Using the arts to change perspective may take many forms.  First, creating art can change the artist’s perspective.  As summarized by Ivanhoe (2013),  joy and self-transcendence are available to the masters when they lose themselves in their work when the work becomes of a second, acquired but spontaneous nature according to Kongzi (Confucious).  That self-transcendence broadens the artist’s perspective beyond themselves and their daily experience.

Second, while an artist is engaged in the creative process, positive emotion and mood repair may result.    Mood repair mediated by positive emotion is more effective than pathways that employ venting or distraction (Dalebroux, Goldstein & Winner, 2008).    Dalebroux also states that rumination can extend the duration of negative emotion, but when used properly, rumination can help one move forward and grow when facing a challenge.

When positive emotion such as joy and self-transcendence exist as often occurs during the creation of art, an individual’s perspective changes via a phenomenon called Broaden and Build.  According to Fredrickson (2009), with positive emotion comes a more expansive perspective, creativity and integration.   The latter creates excellence and achievement thus creating more positive emotion, resulting in a positive upward spiral of well-being.    To the degree that this wider perspective and creativity can then be conveyed through the art form itself to the viewer, listener or reader, then the artist can subsequently grow and enhance the well-being of others.

Though much remains unknown about the impact of the humanities on the viewer, reader or listener, the recipient of an art form can benefit in many ways from the broader perspective of the artist and enhance their well-being.    According to Ivanhoe (2013), Konzi says that listening to music has an enchanting power that “arises from our underlying desire to discover, fit into, and give ourselves over to something larger and more meaningful than our personal pleasures and desires.”     Västfjäll, Juslin, & Hartig (2012 ) describe how listening to music can improve physical health, create positive emotions , diminish negative emotions, and help one feel energized.   In other words, the observer’s well-being may be enhanced by art because of increases in meaning, positive emotion, feeling energized and a net improvement in health.

The broadened perspective of the artist or writer may also help the observer broaden their own perspective.  For example, cognitive reappraisal is identified as one possible mechanism by which music mitigates stress (Västfjäll, Juslin, & Hartig, 2012) . Similarly, an important philosophical tool called reflective equilibrium requires one to use an iterative approach to consider multiple perspectives in explaining as many of the facts as possible (Tiberius, 2013), thus widening the perspective of both philosopher and reader.

Perhaps this perspective shift and subtle changes in wisdom is what draws us to participate in the humanities.  How will you shift your perspective today?

Reources:

Dalebroux, A., Goldstein, T. R., & Winner, E. (2008). Short-term mood repair through art-making: Positive emotion is more effective than venting. Motivation and Emotion, 32, 288-295. doi: 10.1007/s11031-008-9105-1.

de Botton, A., & Armstrong, J. (2013). Art as Therapy. London: Phaidon Press.

Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking research reveals how to embrace the hidden strength of positive emotions, overcome negativity, and thrive. New York: Crown Publishers.

Ivanhoe, P. J. (2013). Happiness in early Chinese thought. In S. David, I. Boniwell, & A. Conley Ayers (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of happiness (pp. 326-336). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pawelski, J. O., & Moores, D. J. (Eds.). (2013). The eudaimonic turn: Well-being in literary studies. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2011).  Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and wellbeing. New York: Free Press.

Tiberius, V. (2013).  Philosophical methods in happiness research.  In  S. A. David, I. Boniwell, A.C. Ayers, (Eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Happiness.  (pp. 315-325). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Västfjäll, D., Juslin, P. N., & Hartig, T. (2012). Music, subjective wellbeing, and health: The role of everyday emotions. In R. MacDonald, G. Kreutz, & L. Mitchell (Eds.), Music, health, and wellbeing (pp. 405-423). Oxford: Oxford University Press.