Be Like Tigger not Eeyore: A Theory of Psychological Well-Being
Be Like Tigger not Eeyore: A Theory of Psychological Well-Being
Beyond Psychological Illness: A Theory of Psychological Well-Being
Back when I was studying Philosophy, I had been tasked with writing a paper about Abraham Maslow’s ground-breaking book “Toward a Psychology of Being”. Many of you might know Maslow because you studied his hierarchy of needs at some point in school. However, what few know about Maslow is that unlike Freud, Jung, Piaget and other predecessors, who focused on developing a theory of psychological issues, Maslow wanted to develop a theory of psychological flourishing.
I was working on my paper with a good friend of mine who was also very interested in the topic of human psychological flourishing. We were both baffled by Maslow’s insistence that positivity had some sort of deep psychological significance to the person trying to maximize their well-being. Positivity just seemed to be so shallow. The decision to just be happy didn’t seem to reflect the true nature of our minds. If we could elect to be positive, then we’d have to explain the existence of suicide, depression and anxiety. Furthermore, it seemed that pretending to be happy could in fact be the repression of true negative emotions which need to be worked through in order to truely find happiness.
Then it hit us. The way that we have been conditioned to understand positivity is not what Maslow was talking about at all. He wasn’t suggesting that we should aim to experience as much emotional elation as humanly possible. Instead, he was suggesting that to live a positive life was to endeavour to reduce your experience of negative emotion as much as possible. In other words, he suggested that the more time we spend bogged down in our heads, the worse our psychological well-being will be.
Understanding positivity in this way provides us a fascinating insight into how we all can be happier and more fulfilled in our life’s.
The Many Benefits of Positivity
Scientists have begun to study positivity to see what effects a positive mind has on our overall life satisfaction and physical health.
People who report having a positive outlook on life tend to have lower blood pressure, lower resting heart rates, lower stress levels, and tend to be biologically younger than their negatively minded counterparts. In fact, negative-mindedness was associated with pretty much every disease in the book. Some of those included, increased risk of cancer, increased risk of heart disease, increased risk of diabetes, increased risk of obesity, accelerated aging, increased risk of stroke, increased risk of sudden death, increased risk of chronically elevated stress hormone and much more.
Beyond the pure physiological benefits, positivity provides us with many auxiliary benefits as well. People with a more positive outlook on life were more likely to have robust social networks. This is in part because positive individuals are much better at dealing with interpersonal conflict in a way that preserves relationships. Considering that the number one factor in determining your life satisfaction is the quality of your relationships, this is nothing to sneeze at.
Additionally, positive leaders are more effective at producing profits for their companies on average compared to negative or neutral leaders.
How to Become More Positive
So, what if you find yourself to be a glass-half-empty sort of person? What can you do to become more positive?
Before I answer this, it’s important to mention that there is a genetic component to your positivity as person. It is estimated that about 50% of your positivity is determined genetically, which means that environment determines a great deal of your overall success in this domain.
The most effective way to change your mind’s resting temperament is a technique that comes from cognitive behavioural therapy – the only type of psychotherapy that has been proven to be effective in treating anxiety and depression. That technique is called reframing. Reframing negative thought patterns to more positive is a way that you can slowly change the state of your mind. The first step you can take to do this is to notice your thought life and understand that your thoughts deeply matter to your resting disposition. From there, challenging negative thought patterns is the path to positivity.
Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers
To more clearly make my point about reframing, we’re going to look at zebras. Zebras do not worry about the future. We know this because scientist have studied the stress hormone levels free living zebras and found that their stress levels are almost undetectable. That is, until they are chased by a lion at which point the zebras jump into the adrenaline-infused flight mode. In fact, it’s well known in the hunting community that you don’t want to kill an animal that has detected you because the stress hormones in the animal’s body will make it’s meat is far tougher than it otherwise would be.
When we contrast this to humans, who have been known to catastrophize when the WIFI drops for 2 minutes while working on an important project, we find that they are much less prone to calmness. Why is this? In part, its because we have complex thought lives that can follow long lines of complex reasoning. For instance, that 2 minute drop in the WIFI might mean that you lost some of your work which is due in 5 minutes which means you won’t be fully prepared for your meeting which means your client will be upset which will impact your reputation which could mean you won’t get your promotion which means you won’t be able to put enough money away for your child’s education in 15 years which means they will have huge debt coming out of school which will impact their life’s success… you get the point.
The journey towards positivity involves catching this type of thought pattern and nipping it in the bud before it takes control of your mind. One of the ways to do this is to catch yourself making illogical inferences. To continue with the example above, missing a few details on an important presentation may not look great to your client but chances are you can recover from that and your career path won’t be derailed as a result.
Reframing is taking a negative thought pattern and figuring out how it may be incorrect and that a more positive way of viewing the situation is just as legitimate. For example, I know a woman who has reframed her daily commute on a packed highway to be a positive experience. Her initial thought pattern was focused on the inconsiderate behaviour of the drivers around her and the irrational nature of her having to do this commute every single day. After practice though, she was able to engage with her commute in a way that was more positive. She decided to take the tact of seeing her commute as an opportunity to enjoy the sunrise and sunset every day while listening to audio books which fully engaged her for the entirety of her journey. The reframing exercise made her commute tolerable because of the change in her thought-patterns. If she didn’t do make the change to her thoughts, she may have fallen into a depression about her situation or quit her job. The impact of our thought lives cannot be overstated.
We’ve talked so far about interrupting your negative thought patterns and reframing them as positives. However, there are a few other things that have been shown to correlated with increases in positivity – and they have to do with what you care about. If you are self-focused, negative towards your fellow human beings or lack compassion for the plight of others, you will have a hard time learning to be positive. Those whom are most positive focus on building strong relationships, exhibit empathy and consistently engage in selfless acts whether that be volunteering or helping a stranger in a small way.
In closing, becoming more positive means changing your thoughts and associations towards the most common things in your life so that you can see the good in life itself. People who can see the good in life, in my experience, are more likely to try to make good things happen as well. So I encourage you to see the good and do everything you can to resist the thoughts make you bogged down and neurotic.
Thanks for reading,