|Day 28: Seizing 9 Golden Meaning Opportunities
This series supports the free Future of Mental Health virtual conference I’m hosting from February 23 – 27, 2015. Please get your free ticket to the conference now by visiting here. And plan to attend!
Each day in this series of 30 days to better mental health I want to propose one simple idea and one simple strategy in support of that idea. If you’d like to view other posts in this series, please visit here:
You might like to ask a friend to join you for these 30 days. The two of you can chat about the ideas I’m presenting and support each other in your efforts to try out some new strategies. You might even want to get a whole group involved!
Today we look at the following.
Our mental health depends on us having a good sense of what promotes the experience of meaning in us—that is, a good sense of what sorts of things give us the subjective psychological sense that life is meaningful.
This array—or menu of meaning opportunities—is naturally different person by person. What would you put on your menu of meaning opportunities? Consider the following nine possibilities:
1. One meaning opportunity is love
We are built to experience love as meaningful. Unless life has harmed us to such an extent that we have stopped daring to love or unless we’ve become so self-involved that all the love we need is self-love, love is a golden meaning opportunity. You could love today—all it takes is a softening of your heart and an object of affection. If you bestow some love today, your life will feel more meaningful. Think of any of the words in the family of love, words like affection, kindness, generosity, and intimacy. They paint a picture of what loving means. You can take today as an opportunity to invest meaning in loving someone or in loving something.
2. A second meaning opportunity is good works
Action makes us feel more alive. So does living our principles and our values. When we marry these two ideas we get the idea of “good works”: real work of our own choosing that reflects our principles and our values. Maybe your everyday work feels short on real value but you must continue with it because it pays the bills. So be it. Try to supplement that everyday work with some good works of your own choosing. Your life will feel more meaningful if you pick “good works” as one of your meaning opportunities.
Creativity is a rich, large word that stands for the way we make use of our resources and talents. We can approach anything creatively—creativity is not reserved for certain pursuits like writing a novel or inventing software. Life feels richer when we turn on that inner tap and allow our natural creativity to flow. Creativity in this everyday sense is an excellent meaning opportunity. You can choose to approach some challenge at work with grudging energy and a feeling of boredom or you can decide to invest something of yourself in meeting the challenge, bring to bear your inner resources and talents, spend a little of your passion, and attack it creatively. Life feels more meaningful when you approach it this way.
As children we start out with two energies, both of which appeal to us greatly: we love to experiment and we love to excel. Soon, though, because we’re pressured to get things right, we start to lose our taste for experimentation; and because much of what we do doesn’t rise to the level of excellence, we begin to fear that excellence isn’t in us. Out of this dynamic arises a middle-of-the-road approach to life. Still, excellence remains a golden meaning opportunity for you. You can decide to bite into something and do it really well. Maybe you’ll flounder at first; maybe you’ll make some heroic messes. But if you apply yourself and if you persevere, excellence is waiting. And how good it will feel! Give excellence a chance and add it to your list of meaning opportunities.
Protecting our individuality requires that we remain separate: We can’t think our thoughts or dream our own dreams unless we stay in our own skins. But while separateness and solitude are precious, relationships remain golden meaning opportunities. They are the place to love and be loved; the place to befriend and be befriended; the place to make work, business, and career connections; the place to be human in the presence of other human beings. Some of these relationships are rather like traps; others are the very beauty of life. Consciously decide where you want to relate, choosing the riches and avoiding the traps, and put relating high on your list of meaning opportunities.
It is reasonable enough to focus on our own survival needs, appetites, and desires. Evolution has built that primacy right into us. But nature has also provided us with a sense of right and wrong and an understanding of ideas like responsibility, mutuality, and shared humanity. Therefore we feel better if we aim ourselves in the direction of stewardship: in the direction of care for and attention to the world in which we live, the creatures of this world, and the ideas and institutions that maintain civilization at its best. We can aim to steward our children, civil rights, democratic institutions, the environment, or anything small or large that we think is worth our concern. It could be the stream at the edge of town; it could be the freedom of one person to speak. Stewardship meets both our ethical and psychological needs. Pick something to steward—a person, an ideal, a resource—and life will feel more meaningful.
Many of us curtail our natural desire to experiment as, during our formative years, we are instructed in school, at home, and among our peers to get things right and not make mistakes. Often we are literally punished for experimenting; and so we lose our taste for experimenting. However experimenting is a crucial core element of creativity, growth and learning. We can’t learn a new art medium unless we experiment with it. We can’t learn how to run our business except through trial-and-error experimentation. If you’ve lost your taste for experimentation, see if you can reacquire it by choosing experimentation as one of your meaning opportunities. Let go of needing a successful outcome, don’t worry whether you will get it right or wrong, and rejoice in the experimental process.
It goes without saying that people find pleasure pleasurable and a source of meaning. Yet because of familial, cultural, and religious injunctions against enjoying pleasure or because we think that pleasure is too low a thing to honor, many people reject pleasure as a significant meaning opportunity. In a well-rounded life where we are making meaning on many fronts, by creating, by being of service, by entering into relationships, and so on, pleasure ought to take its rightful place. If our life were only about garnering pleasure we might rightly feel that we had strayed too far from our principles. But if we’re living a value-based life we’re certainly entitled to include plenty of pleasure! Pleasure is not a suspect or second-rate meaning opportunity.
Self-actualization, like creativity, is a word that stands for our desire to make the most of our talents and inner resources. Instead of using only a small portion of your total being, you make the heroic decision to employ your full intelligence, your emotional capital, and your best personality qualities in the service of your meaning investments. This is hard to do. Your personality shadows may get in the way. The facts of existence may get in the way. We may want to use our full potential in the service of writing a novel, say, but that embroils us in the very real process of writing a novel, with all of its mysteries and difficulties. Despite these built-in problems, we know in our heart that we would love to “actualize our potential” and by doing so make ourselves proud.
There are many other meaning opportunities, too. Today, do the following “simple” thing. Just think a little bit about the idea of “seizing meaning opportunities” and the related idea of creating your own personal “menu of meaning opportunities.” Just do a little dreaming and thinking on these important ideas.
Today’s goal: To begin to understand the extent to which creating meaning positively influences mental health
Today’s key principle: You can create the psychological experience of meaning by seizing meaning opportunities and if you do so that will improve your overall sense of wellbeing
Today’s key strategy: Calmly considering the related ideas of “seizing meaning opportunities” and “creating your own personal menu of meaning opportunities”
Good luck today!
Dr. Eric Maisel is the author of 40+ books including Life Purpose Boot Camp, Rethinking Depression, and Coaching the Artist Within. In 2015 he will be launching a Future of Mental Health initiative. You can learn more about Dr. Maisel’s books, services, trainings, and workshops at http://ericmaisel.com. Contact Dr. Maisel at firstname.lastname@example.org. And don’t forget to attend the free Future of Mental Health virtual conference in February: https://www.entheos.com/The-Future-of-Mental-Health/Eric-Maisel
Day 28 of 30 days to better mental health
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you increase your sense of wellbeing, improve your mental health, and experience life as more meaningful when you create your menu of meaning opportunities
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|What is Your Theory of the Person?
Over the past few months I have found myself repeatedly asking the following question: “What is your theory of the person?” Most of the time this question is a private thought, and I am simply noting to myself the relevance of this question. I find it to be relevant when I am listening to my fifteen year old daughter talk about what she is learning in school about why people behaved the way they did. I find it relevant when politicians are making claims about the direction our country should move. I find it to be relevant when someone is trying to explain why a friend of theirs behaved in an unexpected way. And on and on.
The reason I normally keep the thought to myself is that when I literally ask this question out loud—for example, if I ask it when I am supervising a doctoral student who is trying to effect some change on a client—I often get blank face staring back at me. Who even asks a question like that, yet alone is working off some semblance of an answer to it?
The primary reason I have found myself asking that question is because I have come to see it as an excellent way of framing what it is that I am trying to get at with my “unified approach”. I want a working theory of people in general and of the specific person in front of me. And when I frame it that way, I realize that the unified approach is the only system I know of that is actually positioned to offer an adequate outline of an answer to the question.
One of the reasons that I have found the question to be so helpful is that it frames for me what is missing in the field of human psychology. Not only does mainstream psychology lack a theory of the person, it is now functioning in such a way that it will never find one unless it fundamentally changes course. Rather than focusing on generating a working theory of the person, mainstream psychologists have a completely different identity. If you doubt this, check out how mainstream texts like Keith Stanovich’s How to Think Straight About Psychology characterize the field. After explaining that there is no grand theory of human behavior (i.e., the person), Stanovich explains that what psychologists do is ask questions that can be researched via behavioral science methodology and then goes on to articulate how to think like a behavioral scientist. In accordance with this characterization, the vast majority of academic/scholarly/research psychologists have as their skill set the capacity to develop empirical research programs on specific research questions (i.e., questions that can be addressed by gathering data). Even professional psychologists now largely operate via the empirical lens. A huge chunk of training professional psychologists centers on the question: What does the research say about this or that intervention for this or that disorder in terms of producing desirable outcomes?
I, of course, have no problem with empirical research per se. I base an enormous amount of my understanding on empirical research, and we absolutely need research endeavors to refine our existing knowledge, to point out errors, and to lead to new domains of inquiry. And there will always be a need for “more research”. However, the data and information gathered from the empirical method ultimately achieves its utility when it is integrated into existing knowledge systems and referenced with and against other data and information. In other words, to achieve any genuine sense of understanding, the facts uncovered by the empirical method must be integrated into a theoretical understanding of the objects and causes under consideration, which in the case of human psychology is human individuals behaving in context.
Currently, empirical facts are referenced in mainstream psychology against a bewildering array of “theories” about specific parts or particular aspects of being human or particular contexts. Thus, we have “theories” of memory and attention, learning, cognition and perception, mood and emotion, gender differences, social attraction, bias and prejudice, depression and anxiety, cognitive dissonance, dreams, dominance and minority status, defense mechanisms, implicit and explicit processing, decision making and choices, individual trait differences, the impact of trauma or rejection, the impact of culture, and on and on.
But the problem is that these are “part-level” theories, not theories of the person as a whole. And apart from my work and that of a few others,** mainstream psychology doesn't even begin to offer an outline of how to put them together to make a whole. And that is why we need to be asking this question because the current state of the field of human psychology is such that there is now a striking lack of recognition that we need work on putting the parts together into a workable model of the whole person.
It is the case, of course, that historically, many pioneers in human psychology did strive to essentially offer a holistic theory of the person. This was true especially in the first half century of psychology’s existence. Psychology’s so-called grand theorists (i.e., Freud, Skinner and Rogers) essentially attempted to work out the outlines of a theory of the person. Indeed, it was in large part because the major initial paradigms in human psychology failed to produce an adequate theory of the person that human psychology retreated to more “manageable”, mid-level, part-level, empirical questions. However, in my estimation—especially in relation to my view of the field and of people via my unified approach—that retreat to methods and researching mid-level parts has come with a whole host of new problems. To the extent that everyone is engaged in empirical research about parts and problems they themselves define and measure and there is limited or no attention is paid on how all this knowledge is connected to address the issue of how people actually work as whole entities, the field will produce an ocean of information, but will offer very limited authentic, cumulative knowledge about people. Indeed, this is, in essence what I think has happened and why I am critical of the current state of affairs in human psychology.
So next time you are hanging with a psychologist, ask them: “What is your theory of the person?”. To the extent that the question elicits a blank stare that is followed by some justification that psychologists no longer think that way, follow it up with the question, “But, when you really think about it, isn’t that human psychology’s ultimate goal?”
*I am happy to say that there does appear to be the beginning signs of a resurgence of interest in developing frameworks for understanding the whole person. Some work in evolutionary psychology (e.g., Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works) is in the ballpark, although still not adequately up to the task. More recently in the field of personality psychology folks like Dan McAdams and John Mayer and others are working toward a more integrated and unified view of personality. Likewise, Jeffrey Magnavita and Jack Anchin have offered a broad unified approach to personality and psychotherapy that moves us in this direction. And Arthur Staats has, for a long time, offered a broad vision that is congruent with the framing of the question raised here.
The task of human psychology is to develop a working theory of the person.
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Theory of Knowledge
Although human psychology started by trying to develop a theory of the person, that goal has largely been abandoned by the mainstream. But the question is an excellent one for all of us to consider, and one that human psychologists should not lose sight of.
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