In some ways it could be said that positive psychology is attempting to find the code, the initial programme that produces the most beautiful lives. Philosophers and mystics have attempted similar journeys and come to some very similar conclusions.
There is no surprise at how much research findings are mirroring some of the teachings of ancient mystics and philosophers. However, it should be remembered that all ancient writings on the practices and behaviours of those who have embodied -what has been recognised as the height of human flourishing -were written by followers in their name. Buddha, Jesus and Socrates wrote nothing. Their ‘teaching’ was given in practice and through paradox and story telling, using principles that call for reflective action in relationship to the self and others; understanding spiritual teaching is only really revealed in practice.
Human living is not an isolated experience, even within itself. Each thought, word and deed is in communion with otherness: with our environment, with others, with our own desires and needs, ambitions or fears, and with the added extra of the random feedback loop that each thought generates as it ricochets out and back like an echo-sounder.
When people are happier they are kinder, more generous, more grateful, and healthier. When people open themselves up to growth and compassion, empathy and connectedness, more lives flourish than just that of the individual. Just as micro-financing is recognised as a powerful force for change in building the economic strength of communities from within, so positive psychology is showing us how much the smallest attention to how we look at the world and those around us can affect not just our own well-being but everything around us. Positive psychology is seeking to extend this message in a way that opens up opportunities for individuals to flourish from childhood to old age. Every time you choose to learn, grow and develop personally you change more than your own abilities and well-being. The simplest change in thinking or behaviour can have a far-reaching effect.
We are complicated, and we live in a world that is complex beyond even science’s ability to grasp fully, but the complex arises from the very small and the very simple.
The butterfly effect can be seen in much of the research in positive psychology. Barbara Fredrickson tells us that there is an important ratio of positive effect that has a tipping point, 3:1 positive to negative. This is similar to the effects found in chaos theory. But just as the butterfly flapping its wings can cause a hurricane, each small change you make in your life matters. The old proverb: ‘For want of a nail the horse was lost, for want of a horse the rider was lost, for want of a rider the battle was lost, for want of a battle the kingdom was lost, and all for the want of a horse shoe nail’,224 sums it up nicely.
A small caution
A happy fulfilled life as the subject for study and understanding is important. However, looking for the key to happiness and well-being can inspire prescriptive ideals. History is littered with the casualties of putting into practice ideas that claim to lead to a good and happy life.
Positive psychology is at the forefront of a scientific approach to understanding what makes us flourish and could claim to ‘know’ the answers, but proving one thing and acting on that proof can have unforeseen consequences elsewhere. For example, 25 years ago psychological research discovered the correlation between depression and low self-esteem. Boosting self-esteem became the holy grail of psychologists. However, after more study into the concept, high self-esteem has been found to be great for the individual while not good for others. People with high self-esteem are more likely to be aggressive and bully others, are more likely to cheat and to be self-serving generally at others’ expense. High self-esteem can have negative consequences. Like our modern obsession with food, we may find that eating blueberries reduces the risk of cancer and heart disease but we also know that a diet of only blueberries would be poisonous. Time and again the research reveals the power of variety and that our strengths can also be our weakness if over-used or used too narrowly, and your talents only really grow when challenged.
The research to date, the subject and business of positive psychology, should be used to inform and guide rather than dictate. The subjective context in which happiness and well-being are experienced is a complicated and perpetual interplay of how and why we think and how and why we feel, which is both genetic and learned.The happy news is that we can affect the quality of our life and how we feel.
Creativity is the unmentioned subject of this book but is the expression of all aspects of a flourishing life. Everything we do is creative or has the potential to create. Every time we smile at someone we create a moment. Being creative is who we are in action, any action, in our work, with our family and friends, and most especially in the effect we have on our environment. Shelling peas can be a creative process and we are all performance artists like Gilbert and George; our life IS our creation and when we flourish we create better.
In comfort and luxury some people can create hell, and in the worst degradation and shortage there are people who can create heaven. It is truly your choice:
"Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will create the fact" William James, 1842–1910.
This article is taken from the afterword of Brilliant Positive Psychology