Sunday, January 29, 2012

Hedonism and Happiness

The Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) in London recently published the results of a large scale research study on happiness.  The publication, entitled "And the Pursuit of Happiness: Well Being and the Role of Government" can be downloaded from the IEA website here:  (Click on the link that says "download publication for free").

The publication is divided into different sections with different authors.  One particular section, written by Marc Devos, is called "The Unbearable Lightness of Happiness Policy."  Devos talks about the fact that Western societies tend to promote hedonistic happiness.  This is, Devos asserts, reflected in how happiness research is conducted, namely by measuring the level and frequency of positive emotions against the level and frequency of negative emotions.  Efforts to increase the overall level of happiness in society focus on promoting activities that offer immediate pleasure: relaxing, watching television, going out to dinner, taking a vacation, socializing, or shopping.  Devos argues that this is a very superficial approach to happiness.  I agree.

A society dominated by consumption and materialism breeds desire.  For most people, desire is an insatiable state.  We see something we want and we buy it.  Immediately, we experience positive feelings associated with our new purchase.  These feelings, however, are always transient.  Over time, the novelty wears off.  We may still like what we purchased but it no longer generates the same degree of positive emotions it once did.  Eventually, we see something else we desire and the process beings again.  Desire can never be permanently satisfied.  No matter what we acquire or even what we achieve, if we do it for the sake of pure personal pleasure we will eventually find ourselves wanting more.

Pursuing hedonistic happiness encourages people to seek out things that make them feel good.  Success becomes measured by having the means to obtain goods and experiences that stimulate positive emotions.  In Western cultures, this means that people with the most money are considered the most successful.

If hedonism leads to desire then desire, being insatiable, leads to greed.  We constantly crave more, more, more in our efforts to experience positive feelings and to avoid experiencing negative ones.  There is no enough; we always want more.  The more we want more, the more we are willing to do anything to get it; greed flourishes.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The relationship between mindful participation and "flow"

Most people are probably familiar with the concept of "flow."  "Flow" falls under the realm of "positive psychology" and was formulated as a psychological theory by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as a state of consciousness that occurs when a person's attention is completely absorbed by a given activity.  During a state of flow, all sense of time is suspended.  A person becomes fully immersed in a given experience; he is no longer conscious of himself.  His actions and attention are completely in sync.  In a state of flow, a person is not conscious of external distractions.  Neither does he experience any internal distractions; "mental chatter" does not occur in a state of flow.

According to Csikszentmihalyi, only certain activities can stimulate flow.  To enter a state of flow, a person must engage in an activity that is challenging, but within his ability.  Challenging activities, Csikszentmihalyi asserts, require our attention.  Simple tasks, on the other hand, are frequently performed on auto-pilot.

It seems to me that a lot of people tend to think of flow as something that just "happens" when you find the right kind of challenge.  I am sure this is sometimes the case.  We start doing something; we become so immersed in it that when we next look at the clock we are shocked to find that hours have passed.  So to a certain extent, the experience of flow does seem to depend upon finding the right activity.  It is not, however, a given that once you find the "right" activity, flow will just come naturally.  There is also no guarantee that it will be easy to find the activity that compels you to fully immerse yourself in it.  For these reasons, flow depends upon more than just finding the "right" challenge.

If we leave it to chance, flow is likely to be a state of mind that we achieve spontaneously, but infrequently.  Flow is the type of experience that allows us to fully engage in our lives; as such, it has the potential to enrich our quality of life and to add to our sense of purpose or meaning.  Why leave something like that to chance?

When I teach mindfulness to my patients, I use the model designed by Marsha Linehan, Ph.D., creator of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).  The DBT manual distinguishes between mindfulness "what" and "how" skills.  The three "what" skills are observing, describing, and participating.  I see the skill of "participation" as the sort of culmination of mindfulness practice, i.e., as something you work towards.  The more you practice observing and describing the world around you (and within you) without judgment, the better able you are to participate mindfully in whatever is happening in the present moment.

The practice of mindfulness is concerned with process, not outcome.  Flow, too, is about process.  Flow is achieved through mindful participation and is its own, intrinsic reward.

I will be the first to admit that I do not experience flow very often.  As a very task oriented person, it is difficult for me to take time to engage in the process of doing something.  Often, I am so focused on needing to get things done that the process of doing brings no satisfaction at all.  Because of this, I cannot jump straight to mindful participation when I practice mindfulness.  Instead, I must practice non-judgmentally observing and describing.  Gradually, this will enable me to maintain contact with the present moment more and more frequently.  The more I engage with the present moment, the better able I am bring mindful presence to my daily activities.  Mindful presence leads to mindful participation; mindful participation leads to flow.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Name and identity

The degree to which a person's name is a significant part of his or her identity varies from person to person.  I see it, in some ways, as a matter of attachment.  If your name is integral to your conception of who you are then you are probably quite attached to it; if not, then you probably aren't.

I became interested in the role that names play in personal identity when I got married.  I did not want to change my name; you see, I had grown quite attached to it.  My name was comfortable and familiar.  When two people used my name in a conversation they mutually understood that they were talking about me.  My name connected me to my family, to my parents and to my sisters.  My name was what I used to represent myself to others.  It helped me to communicate who I was.  Most importantly, my name was a gift, to me from my parents.  My name was something special they'd given to me and no one else.

My husband had very different feelings about this.  (I believe part of it is that he is Jamaican and that his is a more "traditional," less progressive culture).  He was deeply hurt when I told him I didn't want to change my name.  He told me it felt like I was rejecting him (an indicator that he, like me, sees a strong connection between his name and his identity).

After numerous discussions (disagreements), some tears (on my part), and a lot of introspection, I finally decided to make the change.  My husband made a good point, namely that sharing the same last name was a symbol of our new family, the one we created when we got married.

So when I started looking into names, I wanted to know if other people are as attached to theirs as I was to mine.  I wanted to know more about the relationship between name and identity.  I sifted through a lot of philosophical opinions on the subject but they really didn't answer my question.  (It seems like whenever I think I've chosen an easy topic to write about it turns out to be more convoluted than I ever imagined).  Finally, though, I stumbled upon some articles that really addressed my concerns.  The most interesting of these was by Laura Heymann, a professor at the College of William and Mary Law School.  As opposed to being central to our identity, Heymann asserts a name is like a personal trademark.  If a name were synonymous with identity, she argues, then the common practice of changing one's name would be viewed as committing fraud.  Or a company, she says, that tried to modernize its logo would be accused of trying to deceive the public.  (Notwithstanding the public outcry that occurred when the Gap tried to change its logo about a year ago).

 This makes a lot of sense to me: changing my name didn't change who I am.  Rather, I'm like Starbucks when it removed the words "Starbucks Coffee" from its logo last January.  Like the Starbucks logo, my name change was merely an "update," a reflection of the changing times (i.e., me getting married).

Still, the connection between name and identity is not resolved for me.  I'll stop -- for now -- but I am almost certain to revisit the issue.  Another facet of the name-identity issue that interests me is the process of naming a child.

For now though, I'd be happy to hear what other people think about this.  Are you attached to your name?  Have you, for whatever reason, ever changed your name?  If so, was it an easy decision for you?

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Technology and Mindfulness

Recently, I've read several articles about how technology and social networking are causing us to be less present in our daily lives.  These articles were all from relatively mainstream news sources, which kind of surprised me.  (You don't typically read a lot about present moment awareness in the news).  One of the articles was by the granddaughter of Emily Post, aka "Miss Manners."  The article talked about the etiquette of picture taking in the digital age.  She advises putting the camera (or phone) away if we find that our picture taking is preventing us from fully participating in whatever is going on around us.  Yes, she says, it is nice to have a million pictures of your sister's baby shower.  However, your sister would also like you to really be there to share the special occasion with her.  A shared smile between you or an assuring shoulder squeeze could end up being more memorable and meaningful than a photograph.

Another article talked about how Facebook is "making us miserable."  The author explained how the ways we use Facebook can create a lot of unhappiness.  One of the things the article mentioned was that people no longer just use Facebook on their home computers.  Now, we use Facebook at work and on our smart phones and Blackberries.  No matter where we are or what we are doing, we can always jump on Facebook to update our status (and to check on our friends' statuses).  But what if status-checking your Facebook friends interferes with your ability to fully connect with the real-world friend sitting right next to you?  Are we so busy playing on Facebook that we miss out on what's going on around us right now?  The article's author interviewed several people for his story.  One person admitted that she was almost hit by a car while crossing the street because she was using Facebook on her phone and wasn't paying attention.  (I like that anecdote.  It shows that not attending to the present moment has real -- and potentially fatal -- consequences).

When I did a Google search of the terms "mindfulness" and "social media," I discovered that there are two contrasting approaches to the issue.  A few of the search results seemed to promote "unplugging" from our cell phones and the internet periodically to get in touch with the present moment; these results were, however, in the minority.  By far, the majority of hits I got from my search talked about the mindful use of social media; they also talked about using social media (and other technology) to promote mindfulness.  Some of the headings included, "10 mindful way to use social media" and "Mindfulness based social media."  One title asked, "Can mindfulness be tweeted?"  I concluded that most people have embraced technology as a means to facilitate and to promote the use of mindfulness.  Those that warn of technology interfering with mindfulness seem to be in the minority.

In my opinion, people who are motivated to enrich their lives by being conscious of their internal and external environments will find a number of ways to support their efforts, to include online sources and social media.  Those who have no desire to seek spiritual and psychological growth will approach technology the same way they approach everything else in life: without mindfulness.  Which side of the debate do you support?  Does technology help or hinder our efforts to be more present in our daily lives?

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Beginner's mind

"Nothing will ever be as exciting as it was when we were children."  That's what I was thinking the day after Christmas as I sat down to reflect on the excitement of the previous two days.  Christmas was a whirlwind of torn wrapping paper and the ecstatic squeals of children as they opened their presents.  On Christmas Eve, my stepdaughter was so fraught with anticipation that she could hardly sleep.  One of my nieces greeted me at the door when I arrived at my parents' house on Christmas morning.  "Come see my new doll!" she exclaimed, barely stopping before taking off in the opposite direction to lead me to see her new doll.  The unbridled joy of my nieces and stepdaughter made me smile again and again.  It also made me feel a bit envious.  As I reflected on this the next day, I concluded that nothing is ever as exciting to me as it was when I was a child.  But why?

Most of the world's major religious and spiritual traditions talk about approaching life with a childlike mind.  It must be the childlike mind that enables the kind of enthusiasm and exhilaration I saw in my nieces and stepdaughter on Christmas.  What is it we possess as children that makes this kind of vitality possible?  When do we lose it?  And why?

After thinking about it, I realized that it is not what a child has but what she does not have that allows her to fully immerse herself in a pleasant experience.  As we grow, we develop mental filters that help us to better understand the world we live in but that also inhibit us from fully engaging with the present moment.  Included in these mental filters are social and cultural rules about what people should and should not do and what behavior is and is not acceptable.  Our sense of self and our habitual patterns of thinking and behaving are also mental filters.  Our personal values are mental filters.  Even our memories of past experiences serve as mental filters, in that they influence how we perceive and interpret similar experiences in the future.  Most importantly, our beliefs are mental filters; this includes beliefs about ourselves, about other people, and about the world.

Mental filters explain why one person reacts positively to a given event while another person has a negative reaction.  The events are the same; the interpretations and perceptions are different.

The creation of mental filters, I believe, is an inevitable part of human development.  Mental filters serve an essential function in helping us make sense of the world we live in.  Without them, we would probably be inundated with information and stimuli from our environment with no way to decide what is important and what isn't.  We would quickly become overwhelmed.  Still, it is always useful to be aware that we experience the world through our filters and that our perceptions are not necessarily accurate reflections of reality.

How does this relate to having a childlike mind?  If we are able to recognize and identify our mental filters, we can begin to look beyond them for brief periods of time.  We can be conscious, for example, of our belief that, "Christmas is for the kids."  We can then take the time to turn our attention inward, to focus on the sensations that accompany the emotions we are experiencing.  We can intentionally observe certain aspects of our environment, mentally describing, for example, the sounds we hear or the smells of Christmas brunch. We do this without judgment.  These brief efforts enable us to make complete contact with the present moment without interference from our mental filters.  These efforts will allow us to notice and accept the feelings that arise; because we attend to the sensations associated with these feelings, we can briefly bypass the mental filters that might otherwise change our emotions.  Small steps like these, repeated over time, will gradually help us to more frequently adopt a childlike mind.

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