Positive psychology and moral philosophy in everyday life
It was Abraham Maslov in his book Motivation and Personality published in 1954 that first coined the term positive psychology, a term which probably had its origins in positive thinking in the aftermath of the Second World War.
The appearance of publications in the power of positive thinking in the following two decades, at the beginning of the self help movement in the 60’s to encourage businesses and their employees to use the power of positive thinking to boost productivity and profitability, reinforced this general attribute to use this method to lead more productive lives.
In 1998, Martin Seligman, then the President of the American Psychological Association, began to develop positive psychology, as a complement to current, by inference, negative psychology, by his theory developed in 1967 of learned helplessness – in which a human being has learned to act or behave helplessly in a particular situation. Seligman became to be more interested in what can go right with the human condition – a learned optimism - rather than with what could go wrong - the attractive idea that could make miserable people less miserable. It was based on the idea that the disease model just didn’t appear to be working and that psychology was in need of a different approach.
Seligman and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania, developed a range of exercises that analysed things like states of pleasure, values, strengths, virtues, talents, as well as the ways that they can be promoted by social systems and positive institutions. By working on strengths of each unique individual and introducing the virtues and their subsets, it was believed that the lives of normal people can become more fulfilling – it’s the science of what makes people lead happier lives, through the pursuit of meaning, engagement and pleasure, leading to a permanent state of learned optimism.
This is a welcome breath of fresh air for the normally depressing world of psychology, by bringing moral philosophy closer to modern psychology in this way and by opening a new methodology to help people to lead less miserable lives, by changing the way they see themselves.
A virtue is moral excellence – a positive character trait that has value and is deemed to be good.
The four virtues of Prudence, Justice, Temperance and Fortitude, were widely accepted in Classical Greek Antiquity and in the Middle Ages. The Theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity were later added and they became known as the Seven Cardinal Virtues.
All the virtues that were practised and taught by most religious and cultural traditions, were used to influence human behaviour for the good of all and you will find similar words or inferences used in every culture in the world, that lay claim to having a moral structure, upon which to teach human beings how to live with each other and how to use these virtues every day to make life more meaningful and enjoyable.
Even the Samurai of Feudal Japan had their own set of virtues of Courage, Rectitude, Respect, Benevolence, Honesty, Loyalty and Honour.
Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the US had his own set of virtues, which he created at the age of 20, and used to keep a note each week on how his behaviour had conformed to them.
1. "Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation."
2. "Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation."
3. "Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time."
4. "Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve."
5. "Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing."
6. "Industry. Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions."
7. "Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly."
8. "Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty."
9. "Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve."
10. "Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation."
11. "Tranquility. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable."
12. "Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another's peace or reputation."
13. "Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates."
The Sorbonne based Professor of Philosophy, Andre Comte-Sponville, wrote A Short Treatise on the Great Virtues, to encourage readers to use philosophy in everyday life. He chose 18 virtues in the beautifully written 350 page book, which he begins by writing “If virtue can be taught, as I believe it can be, it is not through books so much as by example. In that case what would be the point of a treatise on virtues? Perhaps this: to try to understand what we should do, what we should be, and how we should live, and thereby gauge, at least intellectually, the distance that separates us from these ideals”.
These 18 virtues are listed below in a chart designed to make a snapshot of the virtues or character traits that you believe you possess – and then get your best friend to check them out with you.
He leaves the best to the last and that is the chapter on Love – try to read the first 17 Chapters first though – it makes the last sweeter still.
Whilst is obviously a good thing to practise the virtues it is also necessary that they are applied to yourself – in your thoughts about and in your dealings with yourself. When there is a stream of positive energy in your life and all is well with you and yours – this will reflect in a positive you and you will be able to manage your emotions with relative ease.
When all is not well with you and yours and there is the presence of suffering in your life, that is when you need to have the Panglossian optimist at your side, that – “all is for the best, in the best of all possible worlds” mantra that is difficult to feel in the midst of suffering.
Buddhism has as its central tenet the wish to reduce human suffering through the practise and understanding of non-attachment – in which each individual, through meditation and learning, could free oneself from being attached to worldly things, such as people, material assets and emotions, for example, and could, in essence, become ‘lighter in being’ by not being burdened by them.
Whilst this is certainly possible it is not easy.
For a beautiful description of Zen Buddhism – if indeed it is to be so described – read on from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.
“Zen and Zazen (seated meditation) has been described as a special teaching without scriptures, beyond words and letters, pointing to the mind essence of man (woman), seeing directly into one’s nature, attaining enlightenment.
Zen is not a sect, but an experience.
Zen is the practice of self-searching through meditation to realise one’s true nature, with disregard of formalism, with insistence on self-discipline and simplicity of living.
The Zen spirit has come to mean not only peace and understanding, but devotion to art and work, the rich unfolding of contentment, opening the door to insight, the expression of innate beauty and the intangible charm of incompleteness.
It has been said, that if you have Zen in your life, you have no fear, no doubt, no unnecessary craving and no extreme emotion.
Neither illiberal attitudes nor egotistical actions trouble you.
You serve humanity humbly, fulfilling your presence in this world with loving-kindness and observing your passing as a petal falling from a flower.
Serene, you enjoy life in blissful tranquillity.
Such is the spirit of Zen.
To study Zen, the flowering of ones nature, is no easy task”.
Jonathan Haidt, who was awarded the Templeton Prize in Positive Psychology in 2001, has written the book The Happiness Hypothesis says “"If we rely on balanced wisdom - old and new, eastern and western, liberal and conservative - we can choose directions in our life that lead to satisfaction, happiness and a sense of purpose.”
Finding a balance of physical health and emotional wellbeing is not easy – but then whoever said that being completely and utterly content with your physical and emotional self was ever going to be easy.