Many Paths, Many Ends

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Aum symbol in red

Aum symbol in red (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Human beings are driven by many different goals throughout their life and though the goals of one individual would be different from other, the major goals of life can be classified as striving towards finding happiness, success, integrity and meaning in life. I have blogged elsewhere about how the latest research in positive psychology is explicating these four different legitimate aims via which one may lead a good or flourishing life. Also, a rider is in place here- its not as if one needs to, or is indeed, driven by one major goal to the exclusion of others, but a normal human life involves balancing and trading off one major goal with the other, depending on the need of the hour, the stage of ones life and one’s proclivities.

While psychology of motives and major goals has taken so many years to identify and contrast these goals, the seers and mystics of ages gone by, had been equally eloquent and discerning while coming up with the list of what should be legitimate aims of life- Hinduism defines four Purusharthas- Kama, Artha , Dharma and Moksha. I see a close parallel between Kama or being driven by passions or striving towards pleasure and happiness; between Artha or being driven by materialistic pursuits and towards success and achievement; between Dharma or striving towards living an ethical life and towards integrity and finally between Moksha or striving towards finding meaning and purpose in life (remember existence precedes essence).

To me the association looks too good to be true; but there is no reason to doubt that seers of yonder times may have been able to grasp these subtleties based on their acute mediation on human nature in the jungles.

Similarly, much of psychology is the study of ABCD- i.e Affect, Behavior, Cognition and Desire/ Dynamics. The ABCD model of psychology that I subscribe to tries to carve all human psychological phenomenon using the ABCD prism- identifying the underlying emotional components (Affect) , the behavioral components (Behavior) , the cognitive components (Cognition) and the motivational components (Desire/dynamics) . A (psychological) human himself may be thought of made up of emotions and feelings (affects), actions and reactions (behaviors), thoughts and beliefs (cognitions) and motives and drives (desires) – for some individual emotions may be in driver seat and for some other individual thoughts or intellect may be in the driver seat.

You can probably guess where I am going from here. Just like there are four major goals of life (the four purusharthas) ; so too there are four major ways or paths to achieve the ultimate aim of life (reunion with God) – the four Yogas – The Bhakti Yoga, the Karma Yoga, the Jnana Yoga and the Raja (ashtang) Yoga. To me these four pathways are again very psychologically based- Bhakti Yoga being useful to those who are predominantly emotional in nature; Karma Yoga for those who are more action oriented; Jnana Yoga for those more intellectual or cognitive in their outlook and Raja Yoga for those wanting to purify their motives/ habits using mediation etc.

Again just like a focus on either success or happiness or meaning or integrity may not be fruitful, so too for ‘normal’ humans a predominance with the Bhakti marg or the jnana marga or the Karm Marga or the Raja yoga marg may not be entirely healthy or salutogenic. We need to walk the path of all the margs simultaneously and depending in the need of the hour, or our stage of life be conversant and adept in all of these- be a good bhakt, a good karmayogi, a jnanai and a Raja Yogi.

While the later branches of Hinduism have overemphasized the importance of Moksha to the exclusion of other purusharthas, IMHO, a more balanced pursuit of all major goals of life and a more flexible adoption of the all the four major ways would go a long towards making the life flourishing and beautiful for all!

While to many of you the equating of psychological goals with spiritual goals may appear confusing, suffice to say that thee has started accumulating evidence at the level or neural circuits and brain areas about the dissociation between say happiness and meaning dimension for a good life or between economic (success) and moral (integrity) domains in general. Similarly there is enough evidence that the ABCD model of psychology is a good prism through which to see and study psychology. The fact that ABCD model/ findings from neuroscience/ psychology corroborate ancient insights is surprising but also reassuring in way. It was anecdotally known that Hinduism is so resilient because of its profound psychological basis- new finding are just confirming some of that.

Here is to whatever major goal and path you align your life with!!

emotions and personality: take 6

Cover of "Personality Disorders in Modern...

Cover of Personality Disorders in Modern Life

 

Today I learned that Theodore Millon died. I started reading ” personality disorders in modern life” as a tribute to him, but the monkey mind that mine is, ended up writing this post instead.

 

To recall, Theodore Millon’s model talked about four fundamental evolutionary problems faced by all humans: 1) existence 2) adaptation 3) replication and 4)  abstraction. There were also two polar ways of approaching each fundamental problem; that of pleasure-pain; activity-passivity; self-other and I added to it the fourth polarity of broad-narrow. Anyway those polarities need not concern us for this post.

 

There is an influential model of emotions – the PAD model which views emotions, not as discrete basic emotions, but as dimensional in nature and thus different emotions differ from each other not as entities in themselves, but as graded multi-dimensional affects.

 

To elaborate, while the lay man may think of emotions as a few basic discrete emotions like sadness, happiness, anger, love, wonder, disgust, fear , interest etc. , as per this theory the emotions are complex graded amalgamations of a few basic fundamental dimensions.

 

As per this PAD theory, the first dimension is valence / pleasure/ pleasantness etc. which tells us whether the emotion colloquially feels ‘good’ or ‘bad’ . As we all know , no emotion by itself is bad; negative emotions have their own benefits, if invoked for a short amount of time and are situation specific; and the benefits of positive emotions is self-evident. BTW, some people consider ‘flow’ which is a sort of neutral emotional condition to be better that either.

 

The second dimension is Arousal/ energy/ vigor etc which tells us how strong the emotion is and how much it arouses us. Some emotions like courage arouse greatly (not just the person displaying courage, but also subtly the people witnessing it) while other emotions can have a calming effect (like love and compassion { depends what sort of love one is talking about :-) } )

 

The third dimension is dominance/ potency etc. and to my mind represents the ability of emotion to take control of you (/ others ? ). The immediate example that springs to mind is anger, but then so can be interest/ fascination. In either case, you empower your emotions to rule over you than vice versa.

 

The for-now-final dimension that I (and others) have added to the PAD model is predictiviness/transparency of the emotion:  whether it is hard to predict/ discern in oneself/ others or is consistently and transparently available to self/ others.

 

How does this relate to personality?

 

While reading the first chapter of Millon, I had the insight that one analogous personality dimensional structure we can talk about is as follows:

 

1) Strength/ existence of personality: whether one has ‘a personality’ / quirks in the first place. How (ab) normal one is; where one fits on the normal curve of personality traits distribution. Analogous to emotions, personality quirks have a function; those familiar with evolutionary theory will know why outliers are necessary for survival (of the species).

 

2) Fitness/ adaptability of personality : whether one can fit in with the social norms/ changing landscapes. Lay men think of people in terms of having a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ personality; in reality people are just responding to the environment and adapting. The behavior of some people is flexible, while for many its more rigid.

 

3) Centrality/ hold of personality: whether the quirks that make you unique form the average person, are central to your self-definition or have peripheral value; whether you want to shape/ influence/ mold loved others (like spouse, child etc)  as per your values or are OK with the differences.

 

4) Consistency/ integrity of personality: whether you are consistent in your thoughts, words, actions etc. or are comfortable with contradictions. (as and aside, a philosophical question is whether there is consistency behind contradictions and contradiction behind {apparent} consistency). With the cognitive revolution, much focus has shifted here. Using a information processing metaphor, much of new personality research like Daryl Bem‘s self-perception theory or Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory revolve around the idea of being consistent; either by changing your behavior or your self-image or maybe the language and words you use etc. etc. For eg. my counseling teacher used to say you can either be as comfortable as Gandhi (who he said used to sleep peacefully like a child whenever he got some time) or you can be as uncomfortable as OSHO.

 

So how does this relate to my ABCD model (or even the PAD model outlined above??) ? I’ll leave that as a homework exercise for regular readers. For now, let me just briefly touch upon the terms we use in personality research.

 

1. Temperament : more about what ‘Nature’ has endowed you with. He has an ‘irritable temperament’

 

2. Character : more about how ‘Nurture’ has shaped this character.

 

3. Personality: more about what ‘passions’ drive you.

 

4. Image: more about being ‘prudent’.

 

Let me elaborate. I have previously blogged about false dichotomies. I believe Nature Vs Nurture is a false dichotomy.  Everyone knows that. What about the new dichotomy I am introducing (Passion vs. Prudence) ?  As I mention in my false dichotomy blog post, Passion is about habits- using the power of your sub/ un-conscious mind – choosing for once , by way of habits, rituals etc. what you want to choose in times of crisis (on auto-pilot etc.). Prudence is about trying to reason, using whatever information is available at hand (including your gut reactions)- not necessarily conscious- but using bounded rationality- coming to a decision afresh at each choice point.

 

As I had mentioned in my false dichotomy post, Passion via prudence is more about making meaningful choices and a belief in choice/ free will. Nature via Nurture is all about proving the right environment to people to make their best attributes shine out. Running out of how to phrase ({Passion via Prudence} via {Nature via Nurture}) and what it is all about. Maybe you can help?

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Doing more by doing less!

Hepburn (band)

Hepburn (band) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I first heard of the book title ” Why Quitters Win: Decide to be excellent“,  to say the least, I was very much intrigued. Was Nick trying to say something like stop doing something mid-way if you know that it is going to fail- and ignore the sunk costs…or was it about quitting when faced with unreasonable odds- rather than doubling your efforts and commitment. I believe in sticking with the choices you make,  till you have given it your last shot, and so was slightly apprehensive.

However, what Nick Tasler means, is not about starting many things sequentially,  and then quitting them early, if they are likely to fail; but what he means, instead, in a broad sense, is not starting off and getting absorbed in too many parallel threads, in the first place- but defining a theme or decision pulse and sticking with it and let it guide your day-to-day decisions; and also actively quitting doing the million other things that are not inline with that main theme / decision pulse.

To elaborate, the book is about advice in a business/ organizational scenario,  where an organization, should spend time to spell out its one-time decision pulse- a guiding value that enables managers at all levels to determine for themselves as to whether the decision they will take will be for the good of the organization or not (is in harmony with the decision pulse or not). Seems like a reasonable and obvious advice , but only in hindsight. Practically, it’s very difficult to determine what exactly is/ should be one’s guiding value. And then what is even more difficult is to focus on that one value/ principle and *stop* doing/ being driven by other values/ value propositions.

Easier said then done. Nick proposes a three-step guiding cheat sheet: Know:( find out/ define your decision pulse); Think ( appraise action-plan  in light of decision pulse and also taking alternative scenarios and contrary views into account.) and Do (execute by getting everyone aligned with single focus and take action rather than falling into the trap of making a decision either way by stalling or not acting/ deciding). And quitting other options/ burning bridges behind is important at each step. For e.g. your vision/ decision pulse cannot be vague or over-inclusive- it has to be sharp and concrete enough and focus on one thing and consciously exclude other options- so that it is useful when decisions involve tradeoffs between competing values- as they always do in real world scenarios. .Also, while its important to have action plans, its more important to have a non-action plan: given your new priorities and direction, what are the things you need to stop doing- given that taking up something new and fitting in your day-to-day schedule would force time away from some other activities. Lastly, when executing its best to leave plan B’s foreclosed- for success of plan A, Plan B and Plan C must be sacrificed.

Nick has enough evidence based studies to back his proposition, but the way he goes around elaborating these themes is by taking use of anecdotes and business case studies, which make for engaging reading. Illustrating for e.g. , how Starbucks , whose primary value proposition was being a coffee place, was sort of getting waylaid by having cheese sandwiches as breakfast, and whose cheesy aroma spoiled the coffee aroma, and how the Starbucks founder used the guiding value to  put an end to the lucrative breakfast/  sandwich business to realign the Starbucks with its roots; is illuminating and makes the principles involved clear.

The book is full of such illuminating examples, which makes one see the power of these ‘quitting’ actions,  in action and make one appreciate the theory and ideas in light of real world historical examples.

The book is an absorbing and light read, and is sure to grip you till the end.  In the last chapter, Nick also elaborates how the same strategic framework can be applied to personal planning and self-development.  He list support for some eight universal personal values and how one should ideally choose one of those values and let all one’s personal decision be guided by that value. I could fit those eight values in my ABCD and fundamental four frameworks and would like to spell them out here for the benefit of the readers:

they are sort of eight values,  a pair slightly opposed to each other:

1. Security- Freedom  (pain-pleasure Affect based polarity)

2. Stimulation- Authority (active – passive Behavior based polarity)

3. Achievement- Relationships (self-other Drive/ motivation based polarity)

4. Power – Humanity (broad- narrow Cognition based polarity)

Of course, this is just a peripheral part of what Nick’s book is about, but it resonated with me most.

Lastly, I am at a stage in my life, where , although I do have a guiding decision pulse i.e. ” anythings and everything that helps me achieve and leverage positive psychology based knowledge and interventions in workplace and school settings” I am still too broadly spread: for e.g I am doing a  plethora of MOOCs  ranging from topics related to management and leadership , to evolution and genetics,  and to psychology and neuroscience. Also, I simultaneously manage a full-time job, read a lot of psychology books , do book reviews, am writing a psychology book of my own and have 3-4 active blogs, to which I should contribute on regular basis. I am planning on attending a 15-day cognition workshop in near future. On top of this I pride myself as  curator and share stuff on scoop.it, twitter, Facebook etc. I definitely needed the advice Nick has so timely provided- to make a non-action plan and quit doing somethings.

It’s rare for me to proclaim books as life changing- but this book does seem to be right up the alley- I can’t vouch for you, but at least I am planning to apply its principles to my life in earnest- and am sure that it will be a life changing experience. Thanks Nick for writing this book and sharing it so graciously with me for review.  Hope many more people get to be aware of your ideas and are able to apply them to their lives.

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An infographic on schizophrenia

In continuation of the theme of May as Mental Health month, passing along an infographic received in email. Hope it helps in raising awareness.
Schizophrenia: The Broken Mind
Source: BestMedicalDegrees.com

Book review: A Lethal Inheritance

Rethink Mental Illness

Rethink Mental Illness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Today, i.e. 15th may 2013 is being celebrated as a mental health blog day by APA and in the spirit of the day I am posting a review of ‘A Lethal Inheritance’ by Victoria Costello. It is a book chronicling how ‘ a mother uncovers the science behind three generations of mental illness‘  and is an apt topic for the day highlighting the importance of public education and discourse about the topic of mental health.  this blog pots and book review is a homage to all the people who silently suffer from mental illness, most of the time undiagnosed, or even after diagnosis kept under warps due to associated stigma, and their family members who face the burden of not just care-giving but the counterproductive and unnecessary guilt that many of them either by themselves feel or are made to feel by indirect societal gestures.

 

Let me also take this opportunity to apologize to Prometheus Books and Victoria :  the book had come out a year ago and I was sent a review copy promptly, but could not review it earlier. Better late than never!

 

The book, as the subtitle reveals, revolves around three generations of Victoria’s family (this book is autobiographical) :  her two sons Alex and Sammy, which have their own mental health challenges  and  the unraveling of one of them: a first time encounter with a psychotic experience which could be quite disconcerting for everyone involved: leads her on on her journey to trace the roots of this malady affecting her family and also on a scientific pilgrimage where she  continues to search for reasons, symptoms and preventive measures for the various mental health conditions afflicting her family’s  three generations.

 

If the third generation is her sons, the second generation comprises of her and her sister Rita. While she struggles with undiagnosed/ untreated depression for most of her life, her sister is found struggling with serious substance dependence and addiction- which in the end cost her her life.

 

The first generation consist of an Irish immigrant grandpa in USA, whose claim to family fame, is that nobody wants to talk about his death: a purported accident where he feel asleep /drunk on the railroads and died. Now Victoria is a journalist and a good investigative journalist at that. Not satisfied with the account her mother has narrated to her, she undertakes an investigation of her own that leads to surprising discoveries like the fact that her grandpa had dies seven months before hew mother was born , rather than afterwards as believed. Also that his official death transcript reads as died from accidental drowning in a lake, thus casting doubts over the real conditions surrounding his death and also raising a question, could we ever really know if someone had committed suicide or died accidentally even if the incident was of yesterday and not many years before. The fact that his grandpa was an alcoholic, an immigrant laborer most probably facing economic stress and suffering from some mental illness, and likely committed suicide, based on the guilt/ disgust and many other emotions it aroused in his relatives (wife , daughter etc) points to the various ways genes (Irish inheritance) and environmental factors come together to wreak havoc.

 

The book is large part sensitive narration of one’s own story, some part thrilling investigative journalism and remaining parts informed scientific documentation of symptoms, risk factors, early signs, preventive measures and genes-environment interplay in the making and unmaking of mental health. While the scientific facts are up-to-date, they wont be path breaking as this is not mostly a scientific book- its value lies more in a first hand account of how a family deals with mental health issues and how there are common genetic risk factors that manifest in various forms- from a teen having conduct problems and eventually psychosis, to an adult in the grips of substance use and addiction, to a mother fighting and feigning at the same time that she does not suffer from depression, to a long dead grandpa who was alcoholic and probably committed suicide, to traces of violence in other relatives.

 

The book is also important as it highlights that mental illness and genetic risk does not respect diagnostic boundaries- from depression to conduct disorders to substance use to psychosis – all manifest in the same family tree and were perhaps myriad manifestations of a same common inheritance.

 

 

 

My recommendations; read it, read it as a piece of fiction , as an autobiographical account; as an educative opportunity to know more about mental illness and risk factors or just to get a first hand experiential account of what it meas to live under the weight of a lethal inheritance- read it whichever way you like, but you are bound to come out with an enhanced and more nuanced perspective that would be richer for having read this .

 

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