happiness

4 Answers to the Purpose of Life

People sometimes ask what is the purpose of life? Why should we exist or chose to continue existing? To them I typically pose a counter question, what purpose would *you* like to have for life and can you live your life ‘as if’ that is the purpose of life?  See an example answer I provide here about the meaning/ purpose of life.

 

However, this post is not about such philosophical questions.  Instead it builds on my previous posts about 4 major goals in life worth striving for. To recap the four major goals are 1) Happiness 2) Success 3) Morality 4) Meaning.

Sometimes you come across a blog toward which you feel a natural affinity and know where the blogger is coming from. I recently came across the blog Qualia Computing and was fascinated by some advanced common understanding about psychological issues that the blog author shows. For example, in this post the author asserts that purpose of life is

  1. To Understand the Universe

  2. To be Happy, and Make Others Happy

Also, later, the author asserts that any experience is valuable to the extent that it answers in affirmative to one or more of these questions:

  1. Does it feel good? (happy, loving, pleasant)

  2. Does it make you productive (in a good way)?

  3. Does it make you ethical?

Taken together with the earlier formulation about the purpose of life, one can add a fourth question 4) does it lead to better understanding (of the world) ?

Thus, imho, all actions should be guided by answers to the questions ‘would it make me happy, make me productive , would make me a good person or would make me understand things a bit more clearly? ‘

So how does all this relate to psychological concepts? For starters, there is a big debate in psychology about the difference between happiness and meaningfulness and also as to which one is a legitimate aim to strive for? While some would like us to believe that happiness is the ultimate currency, new research suggests that Meaningfulness in life has its own importance and that both are valuable outcomes in themselves and predict other valued outcomes.

Moving beyond a narrow focus on oneself- whether to be happy or lead a meaningful life; one is also hounded by the desire to make a positive difference or contribution to the world around us.  Some of us want to put a ding in the universe and leave our marks, while others are much more OK living a mediocre life , that is, content creating and leaving some small ripples around them.

The desire to create an impact leads us to the interpersonal sphere- where traits of competence and warmth are important. If someone needs our help we can either provide them practical help (similar to problem focused coping) based on our competence, or just be there for them (similar to emotion focused coping) based on our warmth and again create small ripples of kindness around us. Or we can also create a big impact by being outstanding in our field using our competence or becoming a  paragon of a character strength by using our warmth.

In either case, one purpose of life may be to increase productivity to become more and more successful (in helping others) and the other may be to become more and more ‘good’ or moral and doing the small, everyday right things that make a difference.  This is the contrast between being great and being good. This is also the contrast between being characterized mostly by doings or by beings.

In the happiness literature itself, there is a contrast between feeling happy (measured by presence of positive affect and absence of negative affect) and knowing that you are happy (life satisfaction etc), so the point being that there is also a contrast between feeling and knowing just like there is a contrast between doing and being.

In sum, the following four are the purposes of life:

  1. to be happy by feeling preponderance of positive emotions
  2. to be successful by doing a lot with a lot less (being productive)
  3. to be moral by being good and caring about others
  4. to be purposeful by knowing that what you do has value/ meaning

If we keep these four goals top of our minds, it is much more likely that our lives will turn out to be beautiful lives and we will feel less the need to ask the purpose of our lives!!

Research Summaries: Positive predictors of teacher effectiveness

If you have ever wondered what goes on to make an effective teacher, this research paper by Angela Duckworth and colleagues, throws some light on the issue.

English: LaPlace, La., October 8, 2005 - Dan W...

English: LaPlace, La., October 8, 2005 – Dan Waldman (left), left without a job as a high school teacher at Signature Centers High School in New Orleans when it was flooded by Hurricane Katrina, has been hired by FEMA and is now at the LaPlace Disaster Recovery Center, 160 Belle Terre, and is in training to become a DRC manager. He is a member of the “Teach For America” program that places new teachers into inner city and low-income area schools around the nation. Win Henderson / FEMA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  1. Teaching is a stressful job; in majority of cases, you are not able to see the impact of your work immediately or at all; hence the frequent teacher burnout or high attrition.
  2. Traditionally its thought that competence in subject matter or certifications would be a good predictor of teacher effectiveness. However , these measures typically fail to distinguish those performing well from those performing just bare minimal.
  3. When one looks at other factors like personality factors, extarverted or ‘attractive’ teachers get better ratings from students/ observers; however they don’t have any real impact on actual student performance when measured by gains in knowledge.
  4. This study looked at grit, life satisfaction and optimism of teachers as predictors of their effectiveness which will distinguish high performing teachers from the mediocre.
  5. They conducted a prospective longitudinal study wherein, grit, life satisfaction and optimistic explanatory style of novice Teach for America teachers was measured before they started school year. The gains in academic performance of the students they taught was used as an indicator of their effectiveness at the school year end.
  6. Grit, the ability to work hard under challenging circumstances, may be relevant to teacher effectiveness as they do face constant challenges, and so this was measured using the 8 item short Grit scale.
  7. Happy people do well in a number of different work settings as those who are in a positive mood are more likely to work towards their goals;  also they have  more resources to cope with stress and challenges, as per broaden and build theory of positive emotions. Also, the energy and enthusiasm of those teachers satisfied with life may be contagious and make students happy and thus more productive. Life satisfaction was measured by Satisfaction with Life Scale.
  8. Optimistic explanatory style may be relevant as when faced with repeated challenges those with pessimistic explanatory style may become helpless and give up, as compared to those with optimistic style who may remain resilient.  This was measured using Attributional Style Questionnaire.
  9. All three positive traits predicted teacher effectiveness.  When all were simultaneously used to predict the teacher effectiveness outcome, only grit and life satisfaction were significant predictors. It thus seems that optimism works via grit and life satisfaction.
  10. As this is a prospective longitudinal study the results do hint at causality, though reverse causality like effectiveness leading to life satisfaction cannot be ruled out.
  11. The authors conclude by suggesting that schools should perhaps hire for grit, happiness and optimism too. This is where I get a little uncomfortable; in an ideal world, I would welcome anyone who has a passion for teaching (the passion part of grit is taken care of 🙂 ) and equip them with tools like training to increase perseverance, hope and happiness to make them more effective. I am always ambivalent about measuring a trait and then hiring for it. To be fair the authors also suggest interventions in schools to increase grit , hope etc of teachers. I wish there was more of latter than former in the world that we live in.

So if you found this interesting and want to dig deep, check out the original paper here.

Research Summaries: Positive Psychology in Clinical Practice

Review articles are themselves supposed to be a summary of a field of inquiry, so it appeared queer summarizing a review article; but here I go. This post summarizes a 2005 review article appearing in Annual Review of Clinical Psychology. As it is more than a decade since the publication of this article by Martin Seligman, Angela Duckworth and Tracy Steen, I think it is appropriate to see how far the field has come since then and what still remains to be done.

  1. Positive psychology (PP), in this article, is seen through the triple lens of focusing on subjective well-being or pleasure; flow, engagement, and strengths; and meaning in life. This is as contrasted with the traditional deficit focus of clinical psychology whereby one looks at diathesis (genetic vulnerability for disorders) and stress (environment acute events like death of a loved one and chronic conditions like poverty) to figure out causes of diseases and suffering. While not denying the importance of ‘fix-what’s-wrong’ , positive psychology takes a ‘build-what’s-strong’ approach.
  2. Antecedents of positive psychology can be seen in most earlier movements within psychology. For e.g., if one were to focus on Psychoanalysis, Freud’s pleasure principle, Adler’s ‘healthy’ strivings motivated by social interest and Fromm’s productive orientation, all relate to some aspects of the new positive psychology paradigm. However, Humanistic psychologists, like Rollo May are more closely and directly related to the positive psychology movement, with conditions for self-actualization (Maslow) or fully functioning person (Carl Roegrs) laying the groundwork for PP.
  3. Its usually insinuated that humanistic psychology was not empirical or evidence based, however research showing that people grow most when they live an authentic life aligned with their values;  or the co-opting of Jahoda’s six processes that lead to mental health by Carol Ryff et al in their wells-substantiated measure of Psychological well-being suggests that humanistic psychology had enough teeth.
  4. PP tenet no. 1: positive states and emotions and factors are not merely the lack of or inverse of negative states or emotions or factors. Thus, mental health and mental illness are two separate though correlated entities. Reducing your anger will not make you automatically more loving and caring; getting out of depression will not necessarily make you flourishing and happy.
  5. The authors try to fit their new framework of the Pleasant life, the Engaged Life and the Meaningful life into the earlier conceptualization of PP as consisting of a focus on positive states, traits and institutions. Please note that this framework has been subsequently extended to include the Accomplished life and the Connected (relationships) life in the newest PERMA model.
  6. In therapy, its important to note the buffers and resources a person has and measures of well-being can indicate the actual or potential positive functioning. They can also elucidate differential predictors. For e.g. positive satisfaction with life predicts less acting out in youth when stressed.
  7. Self-report measures like Satisfaction with Life scale, need to be conjunct with informant reports, experience sampling methods (ESM) etc to get a more cohesive picture. VIA survey can be used for identifying character strengths that can be useful in therapeutic context by providing therapists an insight into what strengths can be used for planning and executing interventions.
  8. Flow or engagement states can be identified using ESM and semi-structured interviews etc. However measuring the degree of flow is challenging to this day, I believe. However identifying the activities that lead to flow experiences may aid in therapy by making the client move towards more of such experiences.
  9. To discern how meaningful or purposeful one finds life, one can use narrative techniques like asking the client to treat his or her life as a book and give chapter titles, main characters and future possible plots to that life-as-book. Existential traditions do focus on meaning as a way to diagnose and treat and their marriage with PP leading to PP2.0 is the newest thing in town.
  10. PP makes sense in therapy as positive emotions or events undo the effects of negative emotions or events. No mention is made of the (in)famous 3:1 ratio (3 positive for each negative event or interaction)  required for the same! Resilient people also typically experience more positive emotions, hence PP in clinical practice makes sense.
  11. Many therapists are already using PP stuff like instilling hope, courage, authenticity in clients and these are perhaps the non-specific factors that ensure that any therapy works better than placebo.
  12. Active PP interventions can also help in therapy.  Some of the interventions reviewed were the early Fordyce’s ‘Act like happy people’ intervention, the ‘3 good things’ or gratitude journal based interventions (which have proven to be one of the most effective interventions), writing about intense positive experiences (which nobody talks about nowadays) , the random acts of kindness interventions, Gratitude visits, At your best write-ups, bibliotherapy and using strengths in a new way everyday. Results show that while most interventions lead to short term gains in happiness, (even placebo do), for long term gains, interventions that can become habits like counting 3 good things daily or  deploying strengths in a new way daily, work better.

 

The promise of positive psychotherapy is still to be fulfilled, though progress is being made in that direction. If you are a therapist planning to include PP approaches in therapy or a mental health service user or caregiver, you probably should read a bit about this new filed. For others too, if the paper seemed exciting check it out here.

Research Summaries: Productivity Orientation and the Consumption of Collectable Experiences

Today’s research summary is once again from the Journal of Consumer Research.  You can read the original article here.

  1. In the last research summary we looked at the notion of extraordinary experiences, or experiences that are rare and infrequent, and found that young people prefer them to build their experiential CV. The authors of this article refine this concept to come up with a concept of collectible experiences: experiences that are rare and infrequent, as well as novel and extreme.  An example may help clarify; while staying in an Ice hotel may always remain an extraordinary experience, it ceases to be a collectible experience if you have stayed in an ice hotel once.
  2. Extraordinary, as well as collectible experiences are targeted towards building an experiential CV. However, while the last research summary authors focused on the ability of extraordinary experiences to lead to happiness, the authors of this article focus on how collectible experiences are driven by a need to use time effectively by being productive and accomplishing things.
  3. They introduce the notion of Productivity orientation as the chronic need to use time efficiently, viewing time as a scarce resource, and being obsessed with making progress and being productive. This busy, and active, sort of life is epitomized nowadays in contrast to more laid back life. Even when on vacations or when indulging in leisure activities, those driven by a productivity orientation would choose different activities inline with their need for productivity. One form of activities, that are inline with productivity orientation are collectible experiences, that help collect diverse experiences, about which one can talk about or reflect as proud and memorable accomplishments.
  4. An example may help clarify. A person who has set for himself/ herself a goal of visiting all 50 states in US has an experiential checklist that he wants to tick off and the experiences he wants in each state would be something memorable and not just a layover. They are also more likely to take photos with landmarks in each state and collect postcards to preserve their memories. At least that is what a qualitative study the authors performed found.  The experiences of visiting each state at least once would be a collectible experience for the first time the journey to the state is undertaken.
  5. When given a choice between a pleasurable alternative like watching favorite DVDs on the airport while in layover, or exploring the city in extreme snowing weather, some people will often choose the memorable experience over the merely pleasurable one. This is because the not-so-pleasureful event is a collectible experience and will help build the experiential CV.  This preference is heightened in the case of people who have chronic productivity orientation or are primed to feel as if time should be utilized properly.
  6. Now you may be wondering how did the authors measure productivity orientation? besides self-reports on a few select behaviors, they used observational studies , like whether someone is checking smartphone or reading while waiting for the train to come. They also used the fact as to whether a person has set his watch faster that the actual time to determine productivity orientation. They also primed productivity orientation by making subjects read and think about benefits of productivity.
  7. How do you ensure that when an ice hotel in Quebec is compared to a Florida vacation, other factors like locational preferences do not contaminate your observations?  For this they used framing the same alternative as pleasurable or memorable/collectible and contrasting with a control alternative. An example may help clarify. Subjects were given choice between a regular chocolate truffle (control variable ) and a chocolate truffle with spices (experimental variable) and the chocolate truffle with spices was described as ‘delicious and tasty’ in pleasure condition and ‘unique and exotic’ in the collectible condition. Thus the choice between the differently framed alternatives will validly distinguish preference for collectible or pleasurable experiences.
  8. In all they conducted eight or so studies and reliably showed that those with a chronic productivity orientation or those rimed with a concern with productivity chose collectible experiences over pleasurable ones. in the last research summary we saw that young people derived more happiness from extraordinary events than ordinary events.  It would be interesting to see if young people, given the society’s expectations for them to be productive, also choose more collectible experiences over older people, and older people are more happy in part because they are no longer required to be obsessed by productivity and can focus more of their energies on getting happiness from and preferring more pleasurable activities.  Maybe retiring from work has  spill over effect on productivity orientation.
  9. In terms of marketing, this has important implications. For those selling time share vacation etc at malls, railway stations etc, it would help if they have two differently framed brochures that they can hand to consumers- one describing the vacation plan/ any other product as exotic/ once in a life time sort of thing and the other describing the same thing as pleasurable, relaxing etc, and target these differently based on whether someone is constantly using his smartphone etc to make full use of his time or is more laid back.
  10. For the rest of us, it would be good if we could assess our own productivity orientation and make more conscious decisions of how we use our leisure time and vacation time in the future.

If this has piqued your interest sufficient check out the original paper here.

Evolution of the 4 Emotion Dimensions

PAD is a popular dimensional theory of emotions, whereby all emotions can be classified on three dimensions: Pleasure (Pleasant- Unpleasant), Arousal (Ready-Relaxed), and Dominance (Control- Lack of control). To this model has been added a fourth dimension called Predictability (Ambiguous- Certain) (please see my earlier post for why this fourth dimension is relevant).

Manga emotions

Manga emotions (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As an example, anger and fear are both unpleasant emotions, but angry person is in control (has high dominance) while a fearful person is not in control of the situation.

Similarly, both contentment and excitement are pleasant emotions, but the former is low arousal and the latter high arousal.

Thus, emotions differ on four basic dimensions. I’ll address each of these dimensions below:

Pleasure (pleasant – unpleasant). This is similar to pleasure-pain polarity as highlighted by Millon and works at the Affective level in the ABCD model. The pleasure polarity addresses the physiological needs (Maslow’s hierarchy, see here) for maintaining body, while the pain polarity ensures that we stay out of harm’s way and take care of our safety needs. If one were to measure well-being related to this dimension, the appropriate measure would be something like PANAS, a difference between your positive affect and negative affect. In a nutshell, this is characterized by in-the-moment feelings and if your needs are met here, you live a happy life in the hedonic sense. The existential challenge would be body-givennenss and what to do given the body- a potential answer being – survive and protect body integrity.

This dimension, related to feelings, may have evolved to help our bodies/genes survive. If something leads to unpleasant emotions, avoid it; if it leads to pleasant emotions, indulge and approach!

 

Arousal (Ready-Relaxed): This is similar to the active-passive polarity as highlighted by Millon and works at the Behavioral level of ABCD model. The active polarity, which is related to being excited/ inspired, addresses the self-actualization needs of Maslow’s, while the passive polarity, which may be related to tranquility/ calmness/ meditation etc is related to transcendence needs.  If one were to measure well-being related to this dimension, the appropriate measure would be something like Ryff’s Psychological well-being measuring things like psychological growth etc.  This dimension may be related to living authentically in this world and experiencing life to the fullest. The existential challenge relevant here would be how to cope with a meaningless/ absurd world. The answer may lie in living life fully and experiencing it deeply.

This emphasis on experience is related to the ‘experience’ component of consciousness (recall that consciousness is made up of two parts- experience and agency).  This dimension of emotion, related to energy/ experience, may have evolved to give the emotion a vibrant and vivid tone.  That vibrancy may be required if after gaining a  mind, we can retain it i.e. remain sane.

 

Predictability (Ambiguous- Certain): This is similar to the broad-narrow polarity as highlighted by Millon, and works at the cognitive level of ABCD model. The broad polarity, which is ambiguous and amorphous, is related to the Aesthetic and beauty needs of Maslow, while the narrow polarity to Knowledge and understanding needs. If one were to measure well-being related to this perhaps Satisfaction with Life survey might work. This dimension is related to attracting mates (both beauty and brains are attractive) and perhaps reproduction. The existential challenge here may be Death and the answer may be transcending death by leaving progeny. Cognitive abilities allow one to reflect on one’s own death and this leads to obsession with procreation. Intelligence (and beauty) associated with this dimension may be a result of sexual selection.

This dimension, associated with intelligence, may have evolved to help out bodies/ genes replicate. To figure if a mate is the best possible mate, and to attract / coax it, one may need intelligence and beauty.

 

Dominance (Control/ Lack of control): This is similar to self-other polarity, related to Drive level of ABCD.  The Self polarity is associated with self-esteem needs while the Other polarity with Belonging needs. Another way to conceptualize the same polarity is on interpersonal dimension of competence and warmth. If one were to measure well-being related to this dimension, the appropriate measure would be something like Key’s Scoial well-being measuring things like social trust. This dimension is related to controlling/ influencing others either via power or via love. The existential given here is Isolation and the solution is domination and control through exercising one’s ego. Agency/ ego/self may be important here. the issue whether we have control or nor makes this a part of moral domain too.

This dimension, associated with ego, may have evolved to spread the memes associated with the ego far and wide.

 

In essence, while Feelings and Intelligence are more closely related to evolution (survival and reproduction) of our physical bodies, Agency and Experience are more closely related to the evolution of our minds.

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