On this New Year's day, I’d like to recommit this blog to No-self Help’s largest vision: the greater good.
Remembrance of our no-self nature organically results in a wider perspective. At the absolute level, the universal consciousness that animates us reminds us that ultimately there is no difference between living things. Serving others is, in essence, serving ourselves.
At the relative level, in which we identify with our individual mind-bodies on a day to day basis, no-self help reminds us that we are interconnected. No one is fundamentally separate, standing alone from the rest of life. Our thoughts, feelings and behaviors influence each other and the environment around us.
I hope to pivot this blog in 2020 toward this last point, our influence upon the environment. The turn in year and decade invites us to take stock of our priorities. For me, helping inspire constructive, collective change with regard to our largest self – the planet – rises to the top of the list.
Not only is this a priority in terms of helping mitigate, if possible, the avalanching effects of climate change, but it also carries personal urgency. The dam of despair and helplessness threatens to break with each exposure to the news. Taking action helps fortify me and prevents against a deluge of paralysis and resignation.
For me, approaching the New Year with a clean slate, psychologically speaking, requires conducting an inventory of behaviors and attitudes and lifestyle choices and assessing how aligned they are with my larger values. The aim is to walk the talk. To root out denial, hypocrisy. To cease being complicit (albeit, unintentionally) with the twentieth century consumer identity my generation was born into that has contributed to the current environmental crisis.
The research has spoken, be it along the lines of positive psychology or climate science. We know what helps vs what hinders. Responsibility is simply “the ability to respond.” My New Year’s intention is for this blog to help keep me (and perhaps others – if they are interested and willing) accountable to that goal.
Identity is usually considered to be a personal thing: who am I– as a person? - as an individual?
Who am I? often gets answered in contrast with who are you? We tend to identify ourselves as essentially separate and different from others.
Not everyone, however, comes to self-knowledge with this assumption – that distinct and autonomous personhood is the defining feature of identity. Many believe, instead, that they and everything else around them is part of one fundamental entity or process. They feel an essential connection with all people, animals and nature, manifestations of the same underlying substance.
A belief in oneness has psychological implications, as a recent study out of Duke University demonstrates (Diebels & Leary, 2019). Those participants who believed in oneness were found to value benevolence and universalism more than those who did not believe in oneness. Perhaps this is not surprising – that identifying as allis correlated with an increased concern for the welfare of all, not just for the people one has immediate contact with.
Oneness beliefs were found to be associated with more spiritual themes as opposed to theistic religious views, such as an overall connection with nature and humanity. Believers in oneness tended to have more mystical experiences (such as losing the sense of having a separate self) than non-believers. Other research has found that an extended sense of connection with all of humankind and the natural world promotes concern about the environment, something the planet could use right now.
Interestingly, the study also found that belief in oneness does not diminish one’s self-interest. Self-absorption or selfish attitudes are just as likely among those believing in oneness as among those who do not. Apparently, a person can still function quite well as an individual and advocate for their wants and needs even when believing their true nature to be one with all creation!
And so, perhaps, we can have our cake and eat it too with enough to share with everyone else. That is, we can live both identities as non-competitive, simultaneous truths: being both one and Oneness.
Trying to achieve tranquility, defined as pleasant inactivity in the mind and body, is like trying to effort one’s way into relaxation. It doesn’t work.
In a recent study of college students, researchers found that tranquility was negatively associated with physical and social activities and also negatively associated with activities done for the sake of entertainment or mastery/virtuosity (Berenbaum, Huang and Flores 2019). Tranquility was, instead, positively associated with spiritual activities. These findings differ for the emotion of contentment – which was positively associated with mastery and intellectual activities.
In general, higher tranquility was found among those who tended to focus on the processof activities rather than on the outcome. Those who demonstrate higher levels of acceptance also tend to experience more tranquility.
Thus, focusing and accepting one’s present status can help make one “tranquility-prone.” The researchers explain that “it is not so much current inactivitythat contributes to tranquility as it is a freedomfrom need/desire to try to change/control the future” (p. 258).
Check out the nation’s first commercial scale plastics-to-fuel plant in development in Ashley, Indiana. It’s designed by Brightmark Energy, an energy and waste development company in San Francisco, and is scheduled to open in 2020. It will convert 100,000 tons of waste plastic a year into reusable commercial products.
Hundreds of new zero-emission vehicles are soon to be fueled by the world’s largest hydrogen refueling station in Shanghai.
“Why bother?” This is how many people have recently been feeling about involvement in civic activities, doubting that any political or prosocial contribution on their part will make a difference.
Such understandable demoralization can darken one’s outlook and paralyze one’s sense of agency. But the opposite effect has been found to be true for civic engagement.
A recent study investigated the actual impact of four types of civic participation (pro-environmental behavior, informal helping behaviors, volunteering and charitable giving) on college students’ daily well-being as reported over the course of a week (Wray-Lake et al 2019).
The results showed that participants experienced greater well-being on days that they reported engaging in more helping and pro-environmental behaviors (charitable giving and volunteering did not have the same effect though higher overall composite civic engagement was associated with daily well-being).
Why do we feel better when we “bother” to engage as citizens?
The researchers found that the helping and environmental behaviors were associated with “psychological needs satisfaction.” According to self-determination theory, we all have basic needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness. When those needs are satisfied over time (as they were for the study participants who did informal helping behaviors and pro-environmental behaviors), the better we feel and the more likely we are to flourish.
Conclusions? Well-being is not necessarily contingent upon us having a “successful” outcome in the long-run at the systems level. The behaviors and activities that we enact volitionally and that satisfy our core drives towards connection with others and competence tend to be the ones that increase our morale and benefit our mental health.
The tech company BioCarbon Engineering in collaboration with the conservation nonprofit Worldview International Foundation has designed a drone potentially capable of planting up to 400,000 trees/day. Check out their work with mangrove saplings in Myanmar:
When having a disagreement with one’s partner, what can help bring down one’s blood pressure?
Researchers found that those couples who demonstrated “humble complementarity” reported greater relationship satisfaction after a stressful disagreement and lower blood pressure (Tongeren et al 2019). These are relationships characterized by both partners exhibiting humble behavior (as opposed to one or both exhibiting arrogance).
Even when going through periods of strain (for example, when couples transition into parenthood for the first time), humility has been found to ease adjustment and lower levels of depression. This is especially the case when both partners act in humble ways; humility reduces defensiveness and strengthens trust and overall relationship commitment.
If only one partner acts in a humble manner, the benefits of humility to the relationship as a whole are compromised, likely due to the increased risk of one partner feeling exploited by the other.
So being humble is not only a virtue but it’s also a source of relationship resilience as long as both parties are on board.
Check out the Roots of Empathy Program, that teaches school age children across the globe empathy, developing their social-emotional competence, and decreasing rates of aggression.
When we feel awe, we get in touch with something larger than ourselves. For a moment we transcend the challenging circumstances of our lives and the confines of our self-concept. We feel expanded, savoring of the present moment and, perhaps, in touch with a sense of spirituality.
Researchers recently investigated whether awe additionally helps us when we’re feeling at a loss, deprived of something that we possess (Koh, Tong, Yuen 2019). Given that we can perceive possessions as an extension of ourselves, their loss can be painful and even predict impaired mental health. Would awe buffer that?
Three experiments were conducted examining the effect of awe on real and imagined loss in laboratory and natural settings. The results: participants reported feeling less negatively about the loss of a possession when experiencing awe (as induced, for example, by viewing picturesque scenes of people exploring nature).
Each increase in the amount of awe experienced corresponded with less “troubledness” participants felt in relationship to their loss. The buffering effect of awe was significant and separate from the effect of other positive emotions (e.g., happiness, gratitude, contentment or serenity) in coping with loss of personal artefacts.
The findings suggest that the unique positive influence of awe in reducing negative feelings associated with loss may be due to the diminished attention we give to the self when we feel awe.
The self-identification projected onto our possessions may fade in the wake of being awed by something larger or more important than ourselves. Thus, we become less distressed should a possession be lost. This can be helpful in skillfully coping with future loss – that is, after initially registering and grieving the loss, we can choose to then focus on what inspires us, alleviating negative emotional aftermath.
Want to learn about something awe-inspiring?
Check out recent photographs of the legendary black leopard of Africa, last documented 100 years ago.
Check out Nature Connection, an organization founded in 1983 that brings nature to people who are unable to go outdoors. The Massachusetts organization brings nature programs directly to at risk youth and elders and those with disabilities that prevent them from accessing it outside.
Many different tools and measures exist for identifying what’s wrong with people, especially in the field of psychology. Fortunately, in recent years, people’s strengths have also begun to receive the spotlight, with instruments being developed to assess character virtues and assets.
A recent study of 2274 Israeli children investigated their character strengths (Shoshani 2019). The analyses found that strengths tend to cluster into four core factors:
1. Intellectual Strengths: e.g., love of learning, curiosity, appreciation of beauty, creativity
2. Interpersonal Strengths: e.g., teamwork, perspective, social intelligence, kindness
3.Temperance Strengths: e.g., open-mindedness, prudence, persistence, self-regulation, forgiveness
4. Transcendence Strengths: e.g., zest, hope, gratitude, spirituality
Results showed a negative relationship between the temperance strengths and socio-emotional difficulties, as well as between interpersonal strengths and socio-emotional difficulties. In other words, the more these particular kinds of strengths are developed in children, the more buffered they may be from social and emotional difficulties.
Positive relationships were found between children’s emotional well-being and the presence of the transcendence, intellectual and interpersonal strengths. The particular characteristics most associated with well-being were: hope, love, zest, and love of learning!Virtues such as modesty and authenticity had no correlation at all with emotional well-being for young children, suggesting that some strengths have stronger associations with mental health than other traits.
Perhaps, in addition to the endless corrections offered to children in fine-tuning their behavior, we would do well to reinforce their natural tendencies towards hope, love, zest and learning.
Did you know…
In New Delhi, India, 1,000 schools have added a class on happiness, starting students’ day with inspirational stories, self-care and meditation. Delhi’s Education Minister, Manish Sisodia, was inspired by Bhutan’s commitment to its citizen’s well-being through its Gross National Happiness Index, and the inclusion of a happiness-infused curriculum, now modeled after by twelve countries.
Check it out:
We can all relate to the burnout that comes with exposure to negative events, growing numb to the violence and injustice covered in the daily news, for example. But do we habituate as well to virtuous acts, feeling less elevation after repeatedly witnessing people going above and beyond?
Researchers at Seattle Pacific University investigated this question (Erickson et al 2018), specifically whether moral elevation (a type of awe and uplift experienced when watching people help each other) decreases over time and exposure. They measured participants’ responses to daily videos of people conducting virtuous acts and compared them with responses of participants who watched either neutral or amusing videos.
The results found that, as expected, those watching virtuous acts experienced immediate and sustained elevation in contrast to the other two groups. No habituation effects were found over time, after many exposures.
Another finding revealed that only those who watched the virtuous acts over time demonstrated higher positive affect up to a month later. Those participants also reported having set more compassionate goals during the same time span (e.g., trying to be supportive of others), and set fewer self-image goals (trying to get others to recognize their positive qualities).
Apparently, we do not tire of witnessing virtuous acts. Rather, they continue to move us and mobilize us to act more compassionately and to transcend concerns with our self-image. Perhaps we should take in positive news for our well-being as we do vitamins, to help us keep our minds healthy and our hearts inspired.
Read about Envision Kindness and their study showing how visual images of acts of kindness resulted in twice the amount of joy, gratitude and optimism than images of cuteness (puppies) or beauty (flowers).
Read about the new school campus designed by and for homeless children in Oklahoma City via the nonprofit Positive Tomorrows.
Read about Sloane Johnson, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, who coordinated life-changing help for the town’s local crossing-guard, Wallace Peoples, after learning of his struggles.
When going through adversity, it’s natural to focus on the fallout from it. To mention that growth can follow crisis, is to risk insensitivity towards the suffering of those in the thick of traumatic events.
Nevertheless, posttraumatic growth (PTG) is a real psychological possibility, just as is posttraumatic stress. PTG includes such positive changes as increased appreciation of life, strengthening of relationships, improvement of self-concept, among others.
How to foster PTG? A 2018 research study investigated whether the process of reflection through writing could foster PTG among a sample of adults who had recently gone through adverse experiences (Roepke et al 2018). The writing intervention used was that of prospection (as opposed to retrospection), that is, engaging future-thinking. Participants were asked to write once/week for 15 minutes about any new opportunities that may have presented themselves since the adversity or that might in the future.
Those participants who completed prospective writing (compared with those who did factual writing or no writing at all) experienced greater current PTG.
The importance of adopting a future orientation in healing from trauma is clear. It prevents us from shutting down. It allows us to identify new doors that may open in our lives after stressful events, and enables us to cross those thresholds and move forward.
Ron Robert, an 81 year old Canadian and former political journalist, decided to cope with his diagnosis of Alzheimer at 78 by enrolling as an undergraduate at King’s University College in London, Ontario. Robert reports that the diagnosis is “not the end – it’s a new beginning” and is determined to change his lifestyle to feel better, even in the midst of cognitive decline. He’s part of the Canadian “Yes I live with Dementia” campaign.
Shall we have a new relationship with the New Year? That could mean changing how we relate to our annual goals and goal-setting. Those who set new year’s resolutions are probably familiar with the optimistic lay-out of long-term intentions each January, only to watch behavioral follow-through wither away by winter’s end.
If we choose to continue setting goals, then perhaps we should implement an approach that supports us in reaching them. Simply telling oneself “Just do it,” like a Nike’s commercial, usually doesn’t cut it. So, let’s go to the research and see what it has to offer.
Woolley and Fischbach (2016, 2017, 2018) have published widely their studies of the efficacy of immediate rewards versus delayed gratification in the pursuit of long-term goals. They found that, even though participants believe delayed gratification to be the driving force behind their motivation (e.g., achieving the final outcome – such as weight loss), only actual immediate enjoyment of the activity predicted perseverance (e.g., people will only spend more time exercising if they enjoy it in the moment).
The sooner rewards are given, the more one’s intrinsic motivation increases, “creating a perceptual fusion between the activity and its goal.” In other words, rewards increase the positive experience of the activity, making it likely that one will continue investing in it.
The researchers also found that the timing of the reward matters even more than the size of the reward: getting a bonus sooner, even if it’s small, has a greater effect on enhancing performance and the grit required in follow-through, than the receiving of a larger reward later.
So whatever your new year’s resolutions are, it’s better to address them in a manner that you can enjoy NOW. Focus on the immediate benefits of the activity, in the moment, instead of waiting for some hypothetical payoff in the future at the task’s eventual completion.
Goal-oriented behaviors should include some element of fun and have treats associated with them, given that our brains are designed to respond to immediate rewards. No shame in that. Maybe we can just acknowledge (and appreciate) that part of ourselves upfront and approach our goals in collaboration with our hard-wired reward-orientation.
Have you considered broadening your resolutions, beyond the scope of improving your body or budget, or organizational tendencies? Intentions can also be set towards prosocial aims - helping a person in need, decreasing another's loneliness, cleaning up some small space outside one's home. It's a win-win, bringing gratification to the giver and receiver.