Friday, February 26, 2010

the power of positive drinking

A friend of mine sent me this talk by Martin Seligman on happiness. I don't have as positive a view on the disease model as Seligman does, though I found the rest of the talk valuable and useful. The topic of the talk is that mental health professionals shouldn't just focus on making their patients less miserable but should help them achieve happiness. To this end Seligman and other researchers have been studying the different kinds of happiness, how people achieve them, and what the upsides and downsides of those approaches are.

Seligman divides happiness into three kinds. (There are hundreds of ways to be unhappy, but there are three ways to be happy!) There's the pleasant life, the good life, and the meaningful life.

The pleasant life is the seeking of pleasurable experiences, things like good meals, good times with friends. People who achieve this kind of happiness are often very social. The problem is that these sorts of pleasures are hard to keep hold of.

The good life is the seeking to be at one with whatever you're doing, to be caught up in the "flow" of the activity. This is when you're engrossed in what you're doing, so that you're not really feeling anything at all.

The meaningful life is when you seek to be part of something larger than yourself. You're not looking for pleasure or to get lost in some activity. What's important is that your life serve a higher purpose.

I think everyone strives after all three of these to some degree, though one seems to predominate. (In my case it's the pursuit of the meaningful life.) And there are suggestions for how better to achieve your goal, depending on which path suits you best.

In general I like the idea of strategizing for happiness. Like Seligman, I don't believe the purpose of life is to simply decrease your misery. If all you want to do is decrease your misery, you'll probably succeed at that but nothing more. If your goal is to be happy, then you stand a better chance of being happy than if you never planned for it. In other words, accepting a limitation is a good indication that you'll never surpass it. It's one reason I'm against the disease model of mental health. It negatively impacts our expectations of ourselves and limits our possibilities.

It was novel to see someone approach the subject in a scientific way. Clinical and research psychology has largely been devoted to diagnosing and treating mental illness, which means that the entire field of positive psychology has been left for new agers, life coaches, and motivational speakers to address. While I don't think all of it is bunk, it has to be a turn-off for anyone sober-minded. And while I'd say I'm more into the power of positive drinking than positive-thinking, I am a pretty self-directed person, and I am interested in concrete things I can do to better understand myself and the ways in which I can succeed. So I found this talk rewarding for that reason.

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