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Section III: Positive Emotional & Cognitive States

In this section we’ll examine many of the topics one thinks of when thinking about the field of positive psychology:  love, hope, compassion, humor, flow, forgiveness, etc.  These are the emotional and cognitive states we experience when we are enjoying life or when we need to let go of pain and suffering so that we might move on (and hopefully enjoy life once again, when the time is right).

In other words, these states are not simply about the good times.  Unfortunate things happen during our lives, and whether or not we can overcome them depends on whether or not we can achieve a state of mind that allows us to deal with difficulty.  So, whereas humor and leisure may be entirely enjoyable (as long as we or some other vulnerable person/group aren’t the target of someone else’s bad jokes), forgiveness and compassion, for example, represent the good within us during challenging times.

You may ask yourself, why not simply focus on the good things and ignore the bad?  The answer is quite clear:  our lives are complex, and we must understand both the good and the bad to deal effectively with those challenges that test our psychological strengths.  Indeed, the first topic we’ll consider is just such a complex challenge!

Love

There are few topics in psychology that can be as confusing as love.  It can make us feel wonderful in ways that nothing else can, and it can lead to horrible emotional pain.  What’s worse is that the same relationship can result in both extremes, such as a love gone wrong or the death of a child.  Nonetheless, most people devote a great deal of time and effort throughout their lives seeking love.

There is no shortage at all of perspectives on love, with literature, religion, and the fields of psychology and psychiatry being replete with examples and studies.  In the Western world, where Christianity is the most common religion, the very basis for that religion is love:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
     John 3:16; Holy Bible

Also, when Jesus, the son of God cited above, was challenged to identify the most important of the Ten Commandments, he surprised those listening by saying:

Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel:  The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’
The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  There is no other commandment greater than these.”
     Mark 12: 29-31; Holy Bible

Of course, many people are not Christian (and world-wide most are not), and a growing number are not religious in the least.  Regardless, I’ve not known an atheist who does not believe in love.  So what is it about this emotion that proves to be so powerful, and at times so all-consuming?  We may never truly know the answer to those questions, but plenty of people have tried to express some understanding of love.

Defining Love

One of the problems with love, and the very thing that dooms many relationships, is that people fall into one kind of love but never develop the type of love than can be sustained over time.  So what kinds of love are there?  Let’s take a look at some classic categorizations.

The existential psychologist Rollo May talked about four types of love in Western tradition:  sex, eros, philia, and agape (May, 1969).  Sex and eros are closely related, but they are different.  Sex is what we also call lust or libido, whereas eros is the drive of love to procreate or create.  As changes in society allowed the more open study of sex, prompted by the work of people like Sigmund Freud and Wilhelm Reich, May noted three particular paradoxes.  First, our so-called enlightenment has not removed the sexual problems in our culture.  In the past, an individual could refrain from sexual activity using the moral guidelines of society as an explanation.  As casual sex became common, even expected, individuals had to face expressing their own morality as just that:  their own!  This also created a new source of anxiety for some, namely the possibility that their personal relationships might carry an expectation of sexual activity, and that if they did not comply they might not be able to continue dating someone they liked.  The second paradox is that “the new emphasis on technique in sex and love-making backfires” (May, 1969).  Emphasizing technique (or prowess) can result in a mechanistic attitude toward making love, possibly leading to alienation, feelings of loneliness, and depersonalization.  Finally, May believed that our sexual freedom was actually a new form of Puritanism.  There is a state of alienation from the body, a separation of emotion from reason, and the use of the body as a machine.  Whereas in the Victorian era people tried to be in love without falling into sex, today many people try to have sex without falling in love.

Philia and agape are also related to one another, as with sex and love.  Philia refers to feelings of friendship or brotherly love, whereas agape is the love devoted to caring for others.  Friendship during childhood is very important, and May believed it was essential for meaningful and loving relationships as adults, including those involving eros.  Indeed, the tension created by eros in terms of continuous attraction and continuous passion would be unbearable if philia did not enter into the equation and allow one to relax in the pleasant and friendly company of the object of one’s desires.  Harry Harlow showed that the opportunity to make friends was also as essential in the development of young monkeys as it appears to be in humans (cited in May, 1969).  In the West, however, given our highly individualistic and competitive society, deep, meaningful friendships seem to be something of the past, especially among men.  May cautions, however, that since the evidence shows the importance of friendship during development, perhaps we should remember the value of having good friends.

Finally we have agape, a selfless love beyond any hope of gain for oneself.  May compared this love to the biological aspect of nature in which a parent will fight to the death in defense of their offspring (May, 1969).  The love of a parent for a child is often cited as an example agape, as is the love of a god for his/her people amongst those who are religious.  In either example, agape is something we want to receive; we want to be loved completely.

author and his young son hiking in winter

Agape is exemplified in the bond between a parent and their child.

In the foreword to Love and Will (May, 1969), May acknowledged that some of his readers might find it odd that he combined the two topics in one book, but he felt strongly that the topics belong together.  He considered both love and will to be interdependent, they are processes in which people reach out to influence others, to help to mold and create the consciousness of others.  Love without will is sentimental and experimental, whereas will without love is manipulative.  Only by remaining open to the influence of others can we likewise influence them, so love must have an honest purpose, and purpose must be taken with care.

Love was a very important topic for May.  Simply put, “To be capable of giving and receiving mature love is as sound a criterion as we have for the fulfilled personality” (May, 1953).  He was certainly not alone.  Harry Harlow, best known for his studies on contact comfort (see below), described love as “a wondrous state, deep, tender, and rewarding,” and Abraham Maslow said “We must understand love; we must be able to teach it, to create it, to predict it, or else the world is lost to hostility and to suspicion” (Harlow, 1975; Maslow, 1975).  However, there are “a million and one” types of relationships that people call love, so it remains a perplexing issue (May, 1953).

The main problem with May’s categorization of the types of love is that it is based on a very old perspective.  What we needed in modern times was a theory that fit within our modern perspective of psychology, a more dynamic definition of love that could explain something about the types of love in relation to one another, while also accounting for both subtle and gross differences in how we approach love objects.  Just such a theory was provided by Robert Sternberg:  the triangular theory of love (first proposed in the 1980s; see Sternberg, 2006).

According to the triangular theory of love, love consists of three components:  passion, intimacy, and decision/commitment (note:  decision and commitment are not necessarily the same thing, but we’ll dispense with that technicality and just focus on commitment – as does Sternberg himself).  Each of these components interact, and the type of love that results is based on their balance (or lack thereof).  For example, friendship is the result of intimacy alone, infatuation is the result of passion alone, and empty love results from commitment alone.  When intimacy and passion arise together, we have romantic love; intimacy and commitment together lead to companionate love; and passion and commitment provide us with fatuous love (e.g., a childhood “crush”).  Finally, if we have all three components, there is consummate love.

From just the basics of this theory we can see the source of many failed relationships.  For example, we are routinely enculturated in our society to seek a romantic love that will lead to marriage.  However, romantic love lacks commitment, the very thing that Carl Rogers listed first as essential to a successful marriage (Rogers, 1972).

Sternberg (2006) also suggests that there are multiple triangles involved in the structure of love.  What is described just above is the basic structure of love itself, but there are additional layers, including the amount of love (i.e., the overall intensity of a given love structure) and possible ideal triangles.  In other words, although love must exist as it does, we may also be comparing it to how we wish the loving relationship could be.  Consequently, our actions in relation to our love may not be consistent.  This, obviously, can create problems within the relationship.

Having updated his original theory, Sternberg (2006) now refers to a duplex theory of love.  The first element, the triangular subtheory of love, is the basic structure we have just examined.  The second element, the subtheory of love as a story, suggests that each love relationship is based on, you guessed it, a story about love (or how love ought to be according to some preconceived notion[s]).  Sternberg offered a tentative list of 26 love stories, with his research addressing a variety of potential stories.  As examples of types of stories:

  1. Addiction: “If my partner were to leave me, my life would be completely empty.”
  2. Art: “Physical attractiveness is quite honestly the most essential characteristic that I look for in a partner.”
  3. Business: “I believe close relationships are partnerships, just like most business relationships.”
  4. Fantasy: “I think people owe it to themselves to wait for the partner they have always dreamed about.”
  5. Game: “I view my relationships as games; the uncertainty of winning or losing is part of the excitement of the game.”
  6. Garden: “I believe a good relationship is attainable only if you are willing to spend the time and enery to care for it, just as you need to care for a garden.”
    (pg. 195; Sternberg, 2006)

The story with which each person enters into a relationship is important.  When the story each person has is the same, they are more likely to achieve a satisfying relationship, whereas having different stories is more likely to lead to dissatisfaction.  Malaptive stories are also problematic.  For example, love as a game, or horror (in which a relationship is interesting when you terrorize your partner), or as a police officer (you must keep an eye on your partner, i.e. a lack of trust) predicts dissatisfaction.

So, for a loving relationship to have a good chance of working out, according to Sternberg (2006), there must be two people who experience passion, intimacy, and commitment (consummate love) and who have the same expectations regarding the nature of their relationship (similar stories).

Johnson (2001) has also offered a tripartite definition of love, focusing in what he calls care-love, union-love, and appreciation-love.  While this theory may loosely correspond with that of Sternberg (care > intimacy; union > passion; appreciation > commitment; these being my own loose associations), of particular interest is a discussion in Johnson’s epilogue on the ideals of spiritual love.

The Judeo-Christian ideal of love typically falls within Johnson’s care-love, with the golden rule being to love one’s neighbor.  There is an inherent aspect of self-sacrifice in this love, i.e., you must give of yourself to help others.  In contrast, Buddhism holds to the ideal of metta (or loving-kindness).  Metta practice often begins with loving oneself, so that you are then free (unburdened or unencumbered) to love others (see Johnson, 2001).  He goes on to compare several other spiritual love ideals, not the least of which is his appreciation of how Zen Buddhists appreciate each moment of daily life without attachment (a profound appreciation-love, according to Johnson).

Continuing in the Buddhist tradition, the renowned Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh describes true love as being comprised of four elements: loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity/freedom (Thich Nhat Hanh, 2004, 2007a).  Loving-kindness is both the desire and the ability to bring joy and happiness to a beloved person.  Compassion is the desire to ease the suffering of others.  Joy is perhaps the measure of a true love, since if there is any pain or suffering the love cannot be true.  The outcome of a true love is then equanimity/freedom.  According to Thich Nhat Hanh, the ability to truly love in this way is not easy, and it takes practice.  Most importantly, you must be present in the relationship:

To love, in the context of Buddhism, is above all to be there.  But being there is not an easy thing.  Some training is necessary, some practice.  If you are not there, how can you love?  Being there is very much an art, the art of meditation, because meditating is bringing your true presence to the here and now.  The question that arises is:  Do you have time to love? (pp. 5-6; Thich Nhat Hanh, 2004)

Some Early Psychological Perspectives on Love

Alfred Adler described three life tasks:  work, communal life, and love.  These tasks are not unrelated, since each one depends upon the successful pursuit of the other two.  Given this interrelationship, Adler believed that how a person approaches each of these tasks, through their style of life, reveals a great deal about what they view as the meaning of life.  It is necessary, of course, for there to be balance.  For example, a person in an unhappy marriage might spend a great deal of time at work.  This represents a mistaken style of life (Adler, 1931, 1964).  Worse still, is someone who fails to pursue any of the life tasks:

Suppose, for example, we consider a man whose love-life is incomplete, who makes no efforts in his profession, who has few friends and who finds contact with his fellows painful.  From the limits and restrictions of his life we may conclude that he feels being alive as a difficult and dangerous thing, offering few opportunities and many defeats. (pg. 7; Adler, 1931)

When Adler referred to the third task of life, love, he was primarily talking about choosing a partner to bear and raise children.  When a child is first born, the love of its mother is the basis for the child’s development of social feelings.  If a child is neglected, they do not learn how to relate to others, or if they are spoiled, they do not need to relate to others.  An early challenge for the child is found in the nature of the father, and then any siblings who may be a part of the family.  They typically do not approach the child with the same tender love as the mother.  If the mother protects the child from this, spoiling and coddling the infant, a disordered style of life develops, but if the mother leaves the child to face this new challenge on its own, they must rely on their creative powers to adapt to these different social relationships.  Children readily have this capacity, if they are allowed to utilize it.  Later in life, each person must choose a mate in order to have their own children, and their ability to adapt to relationships with love interests will, obviously, depend on their own development earlier in life.  Active, friendly members of a community will have more opportunities to meet someone they are truly attracted to.  Individuals who are successful and productive in their work will be better able to provide for a family.  And of course, the ultimate existence of each member of the community depends on continued procreation of the species.  Thus, work, communal life, and love come together within a healthy society for everyone’s benefit (Adler, 1931, 1964; Lundin, 1989; Mosak & Maniacci, 1999).

Abraham Maslow believed that human behavior is driven and guided by a set of basic needs:  physiological needs, safety needs, belongingness and love needs, esteem needs, and the need for self-actualization.  Throughout the evolution of the human species we found safety primarily within our family, tribal group, or our community.  It was within those groups that we shared the hunting and gathering that provided food.  Once the physiological and safety needs have been fairly well satisfied, according to Maslow, “the person will feel keenly, as never before, the absence of friends, or a sweetheart, or a wife, or children” (Maslow, 1970).  Although there is little scientific confirmation of the belongingness and love needs, many therapists attribute much of human suffering to society’s thwarting of the need for love and affection.  Most notable among personality theorists who addressed this issue was Wilhelm Reich, one of the founders of sex education (see Reich, 1973; Sharaf, 1983).

Sex is an important aspect of love and affection.  Although sex is often considered a physiological need, given its role in procreation, sex is what Maslow referred to as a multidetermined behavior.  In other words, it serves both a physiological role (procreation) and a belongingness/love role (the tenderness and/or passion of the physical side of love).  Maslow was also careful to point out that love needs involve both giving and receiving love in order for them to be fully satisfied (Maslow, 1943/1973; Maslow, 1970).

Now let us consider the perspectives of two renowned psychoanalysts who were themselves intimately involved:  Karen Horney and Erich Fromm.  Horney struggled with relationships throughout her life, and it showed in some of the interesting theories she developed.

Horney (1932/1967) suggested that, during the Oedipus stage, boys naturally judge the size of their penis as inadequate sexually with regard to their mother.  They dread this inadequacy, which leads to anxiety and fear of rejection.  This proves to be quite frustrating, and in accordance with the frustration-aggression hypothesis, the boy becomes angry and aggressive toward his mother.  For men who are unable to overcome this issue, their adult sexual life becomes an ongoing effort to conquer and possess as many women as possible (a narcissistic overcompensation for their feelings of inadequacy).  Unfortunately, according to Horney, these men become very upset with any woman who then expects a long-term or meaningful relationship, since that would require him to then prove his manhood in other, non-sexual ways.

For women, one of the most significant problems that results from these developmental processes is a desperate need to be in a relationship with a man, which Horney addressed in two of her last papers on feminine psychology:  The Overvaluation of Love (1934/1967) and The Neurotic Need for Love (1937/1967).  She recognized in many of her patients an obsession with having a relationship with a man, so much so that all other aspects of life seemed unimportant.  While others had considered this an inherent characteristic of women, Horney insisted that characteristics such as this overvaluation of love always include a significant portion of tradition and culture.  Thus, it is not an inherent need in women, but one that has accompanied the patriarchal society’s demeaning of women, leading to low self-esteem that can only be overcome within society by becoming a wife and mother.  Indeed, Horney found that many women suffer an intense fear of not being normal.  Unfortunately, as noted above, the men these women are seeking relationships with are themselves seeking to avoid long-term relationships (due to their own insecurities).  This results in an intense and destructive attitude of rivalry between women (at least, those women caught up in this neurotic need for love).  When a woman loses a man to another woman, which may happen again and again, the situation can lead to depression, permanent feelings of insecurity with regard to feminine self-esteem, and profound anger toward other women.  If these feelings are repressed, and remain primarily unconscious, the effect is that the woman searches within her own personality for answers to her failure to maintain the coveted relationship with a man.  She may feel shame, believe that she is ugly, or imagine that she has some physical defect.  Horney described the potential intensity of these feelings as “self-tormenting.”

In his classic book The Art of Loving, Fromm (1956) suggests that love is “the answer to the problem of human existence.”  He believed that our self-awareness, our awareness of ourselves as separate entities, leads to the anxiety of feeling alone.  Consequently, we seek not only intimate personal relationships but also relationships with our community and society.  To this end, Fromm pursued an overall integration of the person and society.  He believed that psychology cannot be divorced from philosophy, sociology, economics, or ethics.  The moral problem facing people in the modern world is their indifference to themselves.  Although democracy and individuality seem to offer freedom, it is only a promise of freedom.  When our insecurities and anxieties lead us to submit to some source of power, be it a political party, church, club, whatever, we surrender our personal power (Fromm, 1947).  Consequently, we become subject to the undue influence of others.  The solution may be as simple as love, but Fromm suggests that love is by no means an easy task, and it is not simply a relationship between two people:

…love is not a sentiment which can be easily indulged in by anyone, regardless of the level of maturity reached by him.  It [Fromm’s book] wants to convince the reader that all his attempts for love are bound to fail, unless he tries most actively to develop his total personality, so as to achieve a productive orientation; that satisfaction in individual love cannot be attained without the capacity to love one’s neighbor, without true humility, courage, faith and discipline. (pg. xxi; Fromm, 1956)

An individual’s capacity for love is a reflection of the extent to which their culture encourages the development of the capacity for love as part of the character of each person.  Capitalist societies, according to Fromm, emphasize individual freedom and economic relations.  Thus, a capitalist society values economic gain (amassed wealth) over labor (the power of people).  And yet, such an economy needs large groups of people working together (the labor force).  As individuals become anxious in their pursuit of life, they become psychologically invested in the capitalist system, they surrender themselves to capitalism, and become the labor force that leads to the wealth of those who own the company.  Fromm believed this alienated us from ourselves, from others, and from nature (or, the natural order).  In order to regain our connection to others in a healthy way, we need to practice the art of love, love both for ourselves and for others.

The concept of love for one’s self is usually seen as problematic in psychology.  However, Fromm considered it entirely illogical to separate loving others from loving yourself:

If it is a virtue to love my neighbor as a human being, it must be a virtue – and not a vice – to love myself, since I am a human being too…  The idea expressed in the Biblical “Love thy neighbor as thyself!” implies that respect for one’s own integrity and uniqueness, love for and understanding of one’s own self, cannot be separated from respect and love for another individual. (pg. 49; Fromm, 1956)

From a Buddhist perspective, Thich Nhat Hanh (2007a) agrees with Fromm that self-love is essential.  He adapted a love meditation from the profound Visuddhimagga (The Path of Purification, c412 by Bhadantacariya Buddhaghosa; translated by Bhikku Nanamoli, 1956).  It begins with:

May I be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit.
May she be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit.
May he be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit.
May they be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit.

…he then adds this exercise…

May I learn to look at myself with the eyes of understanding and love.
May he learn to look at himself with the eyes of understanding and love.
May she learn to look at herself with the eyes of understanding and love.
May they learn to look at themselves with the eyes of understanding and love.
     (pp. 19 and 29; Thich Nhat Hanh, 2007a)

In order to be of any help to others, we must first learn to love and care for ourselves.  There are greater implications here, however.  For Buddhists, this is love on a deeper spiritual level.  Loving oneself is the first step on a path to loving everyone, even our enemies.  Thich Nhat Hanh shares a poignant story here.  A Brahman once asked the Buddha if there was anything the Buddha would agree to kill.  The Buddha’s response?  Yes, he would agree to kill anger!  All the wise ones would agree to kill anger, since killing anger would remove suffering and bring peace and happiness (see Thich Nhat Hanh, 2007a).

Love and Marriage

One of the most important, and hopefully meaningful, relationships in anyone’s life is marriage.  Carl Rogers was married for 55 years, and as the end of his wife’s life approached he poured out his love to her with a depth that astonished him (Rogers, 1980).  As relationships became more and more meaningful to him, he wanted to study the extraordinary relationships that become more than temporary.  Although this is not necessarily synonymous with marriage, it most typically is.  So he conducted a series of informal interviews with people who were, or had been, in lengthy relationships (at least 3 years).  In comparing the relationships that seemed successful, as compared to those that were unhappy or had already come to an end, Rogers identified four factors that he believed were most important for long-term, healthy relationships:  dedication or commitment, communication, the dissolution of roles, and becoming a separate self (Rogers, 1972).

Dedication, Commitment:  Marriage is challenging:   love seems to fade, vows are forgotten or set aside, religious rules are ignored (e.g., “What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.”; Matthew 19:6; Holy Bible, 1962).  Rogers believed that in order for a relationship to last, each person must be dedicated to their partnership.  They must commit themselves to working together throughout the changing process of their relationship, which is enriching their love and their life.

Communication:  Communication encompasses much of human behavior, and it can be both subtle and complex.  Communication itself is not a good thing, since many negative and hurtful things can be communicated.  However, Rogers believed that we need to communicate persistent feelings, whether positive or negative, so that they don’t overwhelm us and come out in inappropriate ways.  It is always important to express such communication in terms of your own thoughts and feelings, rather than projecting those feelings onto others (especially in angry and/or accusatory ways).  This process involves risk, but one must be willing to risk the end of a relationship in order to allow it to grow.

Dissolution of Roles:  Culture provides many expectations for the nature of relationships, whether it be dating or something more permanent like marriage.  According to Rogers, obeying the cultural rules seems to contradict the idea of a growing and maturing relationship, a relationship that is moving forward (toward actualization).  However, when individuals make an intentional choice to fulfill cultural expectations, because they want to, then the relationship can certainly be actualizing for them.

Becoming a Separate Self:  Rogers believed that “a living partnership is composed of two people, each of whom owns, respects, and develops his or her own selfhood” (pg. 206; Rogers, 1972).  While it may seem contradictory that becoming an individual should enhance a relationship, as each person becomes more real and more open they can bring these qualities into the relationship.  As a result, the relationship can contribute to the continued growth of each person.

For Erik Erikson, who viewed life as a progression through a series of psychosocial crises, the period of young adulthood was marked by the crisis of intimacy vs. isolation.  Those who successfully formed an intimate relationship developed the human strength of love (Erikson, 1968; see also Erikson, 1950).  With the onset of adulthood, the most significant social factors become partners in friendship, sex, competition, and cooperation.  Once an individual has consolidated their own identity, they are capable of the self-abandonment necessary for intimate affiliations, passionate sexual unions, or inspiring encounters.  According to Erikson, sexual encounters prior to fulfilling this stage are of the identity-confirming kind, rather than the truly intimate sexual relationships based on love.  Love is the mutual devotion of two people.  Individuals who are unsuccessful in making intimate contacts are at risk for exaggerating their isolation, which brings with it the danger of not making any new contacts that might lead to the very intimate relationship they are lacking.

Cultural differences also come into play in love and marriage.  In America, passionate love tends to be favored, whereas in China companionate love is favored.  African cultures seem to fall somewhere in between (Belgrave & Allison, 2006).  When considering the divorce rate in America, as compared to many other countries, it has been suggested that Americans marry the person they love, whereas people in many other cultures love the person they marry.  In a study involving people from India, Pakistan, Thailand, Mexico, Brazil, Japan, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Australia, England, and the United States, it was found that individualistic cultures placed greater importance on the role of love in choosing to get married, and also on the loss of love as sufficient justification for divorce.  For intercultural marriages, these differences are a significant, though not insurmountable, source of conflict (Matsumoto & Juang, 2004).  Attempting to maintain awareness of cultural differences when relationship conflicts occur, rather than attributing the conflict to the personality of the other person, can be an important first step in resolving intercultural conflict.  However, it must also be remembered that different cultures acknowledge and tolerate conflict to different extents (Brislin, 2000; Matsumoto, 1997; Okun, Fried, & Okun, 1999; for a brief discussion of intergroup dialogue and conflict resolution options, see Miller & Garran, 2008).

As noted above, Adler considered two of the three life tasks to be work and love.  Work and love interact, or don’t, depending on the nature of individual cultures.  For example, in America we compartmentalize our lives.  We tend to have clearly defined career paths, and our personal relationships exist primarily outside of the workplace (Smelser, 1980b).  In contrast, the Gusii in Kenya have not traditionally had “careers,” but rather a domestically based economy.  They also practice polygyny (each man having many wives, but not vice versa).  Thus, a husband must balance the resources at his command between his different wives and their children.  As such, although love plays some role in marriage, it can actually become a problem for that man who cannot maintain fair and equitable treatment of each wife and her children.  This is handled by maintaining a certain distance from each wife, including having his own house, and visiting each wife on a rotating schedule that is acceptable to everyone (LeVine, 1980).  Such a concept of love and marriage is extraordinarily alien to the symbolic and mythic nature of the love ideal that lies at the foundation of American culture:  a man and a woman committed to one another in a way that ennobles and transforms them both (Swidler, 1980).

However, the romantic vision of love in American culture is not without its drawbacks.  The romantic, passionate, committed love that Americans envision completes one’s identity.  In Erikson’s terms, it stands in opposition to isolation.  However, it is all too common that most marriages, as well as other long-term relationships, eventually come to an end.  What then happens to each person’s identity?  Love also provides a basis for rebellion, such as when a person “marries for love” in spite of the objections of one’s family and/or friends.  Love can also lead to conformity, such as one sees in the term “settling down” or when women, in particular, are expected to take on the primary responsibility for the household as an expression of their love, even if they also have a job outside of the home as their husband does.  When one partner, more so than the other, must engage in self-sacrifice, what happens to their opportunities for self-realization?  If it is possible to find fulfillment through the love of another, then self-sacrifice can be self-realization (Swidler, 1980).  If not, we might see high divorce rates.  And a high divorce rate is the reality in America today.

So, whether love and work are intermingled or separate, whether simple or complex, whether fulfilling or a necessary social expectation, they dominate the years of early and middle adulthood.  No one period in adulthood is more likely than another to result in change, as different stressors impact each age differently.  Work related stress is particularly likely for the young adult, but older adults face the challenge of preparing (both financially and psychologically) for retirement, and unexpected changes can occur at any age.  Love, particularly as it relates to marriage, causes stress throughout adulthood, but in different ways.  Younger couples are more likely to experience separation and/or divorce, middle-aged adults experience their children leaving home and possible career transitions, and older couples are more likely to experience illness, disabilities, and perhaps the loss of a spouse.  Each of these different forms of stress brings with it a need for coping mechanisms, and if those coping mechanisms fail, the likelihood for psychological distress becomes very real (Pearlin, 1980).  Perhaps the most challenging stressor in our lives, one that ultimately cannot be overcome, but that may be transcended and accepted, is old age and our inevitable death.

One popular book on love and marriage that earned a spot on the New York Times Bestseller list is The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman (2004).  In this self-help style book for married couples he talks about, you guessed it, five ways of communicating with your mate.  Unlike books which focus on fundamental differences between men and women (e.g., the famous Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus [Gray, 1992]), Chapman focuses on how individuals communicate within a relationship.  By understanding how they communicate with each other, couples can hopefully improve both their communication and, ultimately, their relationship.

According the Chapman, each type of love language is a positive action.  They involve actually doing things which will improve a relationship.  They are:  words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch.  When you understand your mate’s love language, you can choose to do those types of things they will appreciate the most.  What better way to show your partner how much you care?

Thich Nhat Hanh (2004) also talks about the importance of communication.  Through meditation, one can learn to look deeply into their own suffering and their own joy.  If one then keeps mindfulness and concentration alive, they can learn to speak with love again.  If, however, a relationship is already damaged, a critical first step may be the need to develop deep listening.

He suggests we may call upon the name of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion, who has the ability to understand the suffering of others (remember that compassion was one of the four elements of true love, according to Thich Nhat Hanh; see above).  Through the practice of mindful meditation, we can cultivate calmness and compassion, and open our heart to deep listening.  By listening calmly and understanding, our compassion will help to ease the suffering of the other person in the relationship.

So, we’ve seen that love and marriage are both complex and culture-dependant phenomena.  Also, there are many different types of love, and marriage is just one type of relationship involving love (if, indeed, love is involved in a given marriage).  So, can we say something about whether or not love and/or marriage are good for a person?  It appears that we can.

Positive Psychological Perspectives on Love

Healthy relationships appear to be essential for the development of well-being throughout our lives.  John Bowlby originally developed what we know of today as attachment theory, and Mary Ainsworth played a valuable role in advancing Bowlby’s theory (see Jarvis, 2004; Mitchell & Black, 1995; Rothbaum et al., 2000).  Bowlby proposed an evolutionary basis for attachment, a basis that serves the species by aiding in the survival of the infant.  In other words, the attachment between an infant and its primary caregivers helps to ensure both that the infant stays close to the parents and that the parents respond quickly and appropriately to the needs of the infant.

Motivated in part by reports made by Bowlby, though he preferred to stick with the term love rather than attachment, Harry Harlow (1975) undertook to investigate the nature of an apparent need for what he came to call contact comfort.  He demonstrated that infant monkeys prefer a soft, terry cloth “mother” to a wire mesh “mother,” even if the wire surrogate is warm and provides food.  Although these studies were conducted with monkeys, it is easy to see similar behavior in humans.  Most of us had blankets and/or stuffed animals which were very dear to us, even if we had adequate (or, perhaps, truly loving) parents taking care of us.

young boy with security blanket * teddy bear and stuffed toy gorilla

On the left, the author’s son John is cuddling his blanket.  To the right is John’s other
important transitional object, his gorilla HaHas, along with the author’s old Teddy bear.

Tiffany Field has also shown that touch is a very important element in the care of premature infants.  Gentle physical contact (massaging or stroking) by the parents typically results in the babies gaining weight more rapidly and being more active (Field, 1993).  This helps to create an essential bond between the child and its caregivers.  Infant massage is quite popular in many countries around the world, and it is part of the total approach to therapy recommended by the enigmatic Wilhelm Reich (Field, 2000, 2001).

As people grow older, they cite close personal relationships as one of the most important sources of happiness.  Indeed, those who have formed and maintained healthy relationships are happier than those who have not, and those who are in love are even more happy (Berscheid, 2003; Hendrick & Hendrick, 2005).  Love also leads to more satisfaction in a relationship (Hendrick & Hendrick, 2005).  In one study of very happy people, all but one of the people in the top 10% of happiness was currently in a romantic relationship (see Seligman, 2002).

When asked to identify someone with whom they discussed important matters, people who could identify five or more friends were 60% more likely to describe themselves as “very happy” than those who could not name such a close friend.  People with close and supportive relationships experience greater social support, deal better with stress, and tend to be in better health – both mentally and physically (see Myers, 1999).

Conversely, there are significant associations between loneliness and unhappiness and between loneliness and a variety of mental and physical illnesses (see Berscheid, 2003; Myers, 1999).  Myers (1999) cites a number of studies with poignant results:

  • people with few social ties are more likely to die prematurely
  • people living alone have twice the likelihood of a recurring heart attack
  • people with broken social ties (e.g., divorce) are more likely to become ill
  • high-IQ children of divorced parents die at a younger age than their counterparts

The benefits of close, loving relationships appear to be magnified when they become the most significant relationship of choice many of us will ever experience:  marriage.  Married people are happier than those never married, divorced, or separated (Hendrick & Hendrick, 2005).  This is true for both men and women (Berscheid, 2003; Myers, 1999), though marriage may be somewhat more beneficial for the physical and mental health of men (see Argyle, 1999).  As it turns out, marriage is a better predictor of happiness and well-being than age, gender, money, community, or job satisfaction (Myers, 1999; Seligman, 2002).

When it comes to the buffer that marriage provides against mental illness, we see something interesting in the data.  Married people have the lowest levels of depression of any group, which stands to reason if they are also the happiest group (Argyle, 1999; Seligman, 2002).  But the numbers reveal something fascinating.  Married people may be the happiest group, but the difference between the groups tend to be fairly small, something on the order of 5% compared to single people and up to 15% compared to divorced people (see Argyle, 1999), although in some other studies the difference may surpass 20% (see Myers, 1999).  However, the differences seen in depression among those who experienced a stressful life event or, perhaps most significantly, lost a spouse can exceed 30% (see Argyle, 1999).  Thus, the psychological buffer of a close, loving relationship (esp. marriage) against mental illness appears to be more profound than the benefits to happiness and well-being during otherwise routine periods of life.

So, why is marriage beneficial, both in terms of enhancing happiness and well-being and in buffering against psychological distress and disorder?  While the answer certainly varies somewhat, given differences between people, significant factors appear to be social support, psychological contact (perhaps as a continuation of our childhood need for attachment), and a source of positive emotion in our lives.  Interestingly, marital satisfaction varies throughout the family life cycle, with highest satisfaction being early in the marriage (a time of romantic love) and later in the marriage (a time of companionate love).  The low point for marital satisfaction is during the child-raising years (a time of stress and challenge, as any parent knows; see Argyle, 1999).

One of the challenges we face regarding the nature of much of this research is that it is correlational.  So, if we find a positive correlation between marriage and happiness, is it the case that married people become happier or is it that happy people are more likely to get married?  Fortunately, for those who are married, it does appear that marriage pays emotional dividends.  Reasons for this include marriage being a source of self-esteem (as both spouse and, perhaps, as a parent) and providing a close, personal friendship (i.e., a buffer against loneliness).  Furthermore, such a close relationship provides an opportunity for sharing, both the good and the bad events that come with living a life (see Myers, 1999).

Finally, let us consider the other side of love:  the capacity to be loved (Seligman, 2002; Vaillant, 1977, 2002, 2012).  In his studies of men in the Harvard Grant Study, George Vaillant has examined the consequences of having a childhood devoid of warmth, stability, and affection, resulting in what he referred to as a bleak childhood.  These children were then referred to as the “Loveless” children, and often ended up lonely as adults.

For lonely men, there are a number of ways in which they fail to adjust well to life.  They are more likely to be distant from their families, including their children.  They are more likely to have been labeled as mentally ill during their life, much more likely to utilize immature defensive styles (i.e., ego defense mechanisms such as acting out or being passive aggressive), and they are more than 10x as likely to be chronically ill by the age of 52.  Perhaps the most disappointing aspects of the lives of lonely men (and we can assume this may be similar for women, though the female group in this study was separate and not all the same data were available) are that they find it difficult to play, to take full vacations, and they are more likely to abuse alcohol and other drugs (Vaillant, 1977).

When Vaillant (2002) examined the lives of loveless children in old age, once again there was dramatic evidence that love experiences in early childhood, both loving and being loved, is essential to successful aging.  Since these men were essentially the same group as the lonely men (literally, since these same men were studied for many years; one of the longest studies of its kind), we see many of the same results regarding mental illness, drug abuse, and the inability to enjoy life as measured by playing games or taking enjoyable vacations.  Indeed, cherished children were 5x more likely to play both competitive sports and games with friends and to take full, enjoyable vacations.

Of greater concern, perhaps, is the actual effect of a loveless childhood on life itself.  Half of these men who met criteria for mental illness by age 50 were dead by age 75, whereas only about 1 in 9 of those who were relatively free of psychological distress/disorders had died by age 75.  In addition, those men classified as loveless children were several times more likely to die prematurely (e.g., accidents, suicide, cirrhosis of the liver or lung cancer).  One of the key reasons for these problems was a significant lack of friendship or other forms of social support in old age.

On the other hand, a warm childhood led to a sense of comfort and acceptance of one’s life as old age approached.  Cherished children with two loving and supportive parents were likely to appear charming, extroverted, and energetic in their 30s, and they were rich in friendships in their 60s (Vaillant, 2002).

Play, Leisure, & Recreation

Play is something typically associated with children.  Indeed, when adolescents or adults engage in play they are often referred to, in a negative manner, as being “childish.”  But what is filled with more unrestrained positive emotion than children engaged in active, fun play?  Why is it that adults are often restricted to moderated forms of leisure and recreation, as opposed to simply being allowed to play?  Either way, escaping from the demands of reality seems to be a valuable and positively healthy activity.

Indeed, in 1938, the cultural historian Johan Huizinga wrote a fascinating thesis on the role of play in human culture (Huizinga, 1950).  Huizinga suggests that play, including adult variations of play as ritualization, is so essential to human culture that our species should be called Homo ludens – the playing man (as opposed to Homo sapiens, the wise man).  Amongst the earliest interactions between parents and their children, parents use playing to teach their infants about human agency:

For example, a parent will move her hand slowly toward her baby’s face and utter “Boop” as she touches the child’s nose.  In this and countless other instances of “play,” the parent is seeking to communicate, “I’m doing this to you on purpose.” (pg. 320; Schulman, 2005a)

Oddly enough, in making his argument, Huizinga (1950) also challenges his argument.  He points out that play is actually older and more ubiquitous in nature than culture itself.  There is no question that other species think and have emotion, and there is now evidence that some dolphin species actually have names for one another.  However, there is scant evidence of what we would properly call culture in other species.  Play, however, is observed widely throughout the animal kingdom.

By the way, here’s an interesting tidbit.  One of my favorite bands from days gone by is Thin Lizzy.  There best album was definitely Jailbreak, and there’s a song that relates to this discussion.  In the song Emerald, they talk about a town being attacked, and they end the second verse with the worst of all possible outcomes!

Down from the glen came the marching men
With their shields and their swords
To fight the fight they believed to be right
Overthrow the overlords

To the town where there was plenty
They brought plunder, swords, and flame
When they left the town was empty
And children would never play again
     Emerald, on the album Jailbreak, by Thin Lizzy

Early Psychological Perspectives on Play

Psychiatrists and psychologists have long been interested in play, but typically from a therapeutic perspective.  In order to conduct therapy with children, who do not have the verbal skills and experiences of adults, therapists need some way to delve into their minds other than the traditional methods involving some sort of conversation.

Melanie Klein pioneered the use of play analysis in psychotherapy (particularly in psychoanalysis).  Klein acknowledged that some psychoanalytic work had been done with children prior to 1920, particularly by Hermine von Hug-Hellmuth (who, tragically, was murdered by her nephew in 1924).  Hug-Hellmuth used some drawings and play during psychoanalysis, but she did not develop a specific technique and she did not work with any children under the age of 6.  Klein’s interest in play analysis began with a 5 year-old boy known as ‘Fritz.’  Initially Klein worked with the child’s mother, but when his symptoms were not sufficiently relieved, Klein decided to psychoanalyze him.  During the course of psychoanalysis, she not only listened to the child’s free associations, she observed his play and considered that to be an equally valuable expression of the child’s unconscious mind (Klein, 1955/1986).  In The Psycho-Analysis of Children (1932/1963), she described the basics of the technique:

On a low table in my analytic room there are laid out a number of small toys of a primitive kind – little wooden men and women, carts, carriages, motor-cars, trains, animals, bricks and houses, as well as paper, scissors and pencils.  Even a child that is usually inhibited in its play will at least glance at the toys or touch them, and will soon give me a first glimpse into its complexive life by the way in which it begins to play with them or lays them aside, or by its general attitude toward them. (pg. 40)

Anna Freud (Sigmund Freud’s daughter) acknowledged that Melanie Klein had contributed to our understanding of how children might be observed, but she felt that Klein had attributed too much to what Klein and her colleagues observed.  Klein allowed children the opportunity to play with toys in her office, a situation in which the child’s imagination can run wild.  Klein believed this was the same for a child as free association was for an adult.  However, Anna Freud countered that an adult is aware of their goals in psychoanalysis, whereas a child at play is not aware of being in therapy.  As a result, Anna Freud viewed the play of children as fundamentally different than an adult’s free association:

The play technique worked out by Mrs. Melanie Klein is certainly valuable for observing the child.  Instead of taking the time and trouble to pursue it into its domestic environment we establish at one stroke the whole of its known world in the analyst’s room, and let it move about in it under the analyst’s eye but at first without his interference…

Mrs. Klein however…assumes the same status for these play-actions of the child as for the free associations of the adult patient…if the child’s play is not dominated by the same purposive attitude as the adult’s free association, there is no justification for treating it as having the same significance.  (pgs. 28-29; A. Freud, 1946)

D. W. Winnicott was a pediatrician who later became an analyst, having studied with Melanie Klein, among others. His interest in analyzing children was sparked by watching the playful interactions between children and their mothers, in much the same way as Klein used her play technique.  Winnicott developed a procedure he called the Squiggle Game, a technique that makes use of drawings by the child and the analyst, including the opportunity for each to make changes in the other’s drawings.  Winnicott believed that this process provided a special opportunity to make contact with the child, in which it felt to him as if the child were alongside him helping to describe the case (Winnicott, 1971).

Erik Erikson was an analyst who studied with Anna Freud and her father.  He borrowed Sigmund Freud’s famous line regarding dreams as the royal road to the unconscious mind, saying instead that play is the royal road to understanding the young child’s ego and identity development (Erikson, 1950).  With very young children there is a unique challenge for both experimental psychologists and therapists:  the child’s limited language development.  Not only does observing play allow for insight into ego development, it can also show us the capacity for the ego to find recreation and to cure itself, if necessary.

toddler showing toy truck to infant * 2 young boys playing cards, one is cheating and smiling

When Samuel and John were young, Samuel was excited to share one of his favorite toys (a toy truck).  As they got older and games got more complex (here they are playing poker), the desire to win sometimes led to excessive competition.  Here, you can see Samuel has some cards under the table, so he is clearly cheating – and very much enjoying it!

Erikson studied childhood play extensively, publishing articles that included clinical notes on how and why children build things or choose the toys they play with (Erikson, 1937), psychological factors behind and effects of disruptions in play (Erikson, 1940), gender differences in play (Erikson, 1955), and ethnic, racial, nationality, and socioeconomic status differences in play (Erikson, 1972).  Ultimately, Erikson published Toys and Reasons (Erikson, 1977), in which he argued that childhood play provides a basis for ritualizing our life experiences, and that ritualization continues throughout the stages of life.  Whether play serves to help master and resolve traumatic experiences, or provides catharsis for pent-up emotion or surplus energy, or whether it has a functional role in which a child can exercise new faculties and potentials in preparation for the future, Erikson argued that play is an act of renewal and self-expression, one that can be an expression of inventiveness and abandon.  Play provides a means for connecting with others, in order to cope with the challenges of life (Erikson, 1977).

Alfred Adler, whom we encountered in the section on human strengths and virtues, also had something interesting to say about play.  Having acknowledged the usefulness of play in assessing the motivations of a child for therapeutic purposes (especially with regard to aggression), he also viewed play in a very positive light.  Overall, since he considered all behavior to be reflective of some goal (i.e., the fictional finalism), he considered play to be preparation for the future.  By observing the type of play and/or games that a child prefers, and how they act during play or while playing games, you can learn a great deal about the child’s plans for the future, even though the child may not be consciously aware of those plans (Adler, 1928 and in Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1956).

Play is indivisibly connected with the soul.  It is, so to speak, a kind of profession, and must be considered as such.  Therefore, it is not an insignificant matter to disturb a child in his play.  Play should never be considered as a method of killing time.  In regard to the goal of preparing for the future, every child has in him something of the adult he will be at sometime.  Thus, in the appraisal of an individual we can draw our conclusions more easily when we have a knowledge of his childhood.  (pg. 93; Adler, 1928)

young boy hammering nails into a board

As children are growing up, their play often involves imitating adult behavior.
This is clearly reflective of Adler’s belief that play, in part at least,
helps to prepare children for adult life.

Benefits of Play

For both humans and other species, play often involves vigorous physical activity.  This helps to build physical resources, and is associated with high-energy positive emotions like joy.  Generally speaking, happy people play more, are in better health and physical condition, and they live longer.  Play also leads to gratification.  For example, a baby does not like a rattle because it makes a noise, but rather they like the rattle because they can use it make the noise for themselves (see Seligman, 2002).

When we think about play, we often associate it with friendship. After all, who is it that we play with?  In looking at the nature of friendship over the lifespan, Hartup and Stevens (1999) found that young children describe friends as the ones they play with.  In contrast, adolescents describe friends as those with whom they share common activities, and adults focus more on support and companionship.

For those of us with an interest in evolutionary psychology, we can draw correlates between what the ethologists have to say and the perspective of Alfred Adler.  Ethologists and comparative psychologists have long studied the play of young animals.  Most of their play involves practicing the skills they’ll need to survive.  For example, young antelope, wildebeest, and zebras run and jump and kick; whereas young lions stalk, pounce, and “disembowel” everything from falling leaves to their mother’s tail (Gould, 1982).  In each species (and likewise for many others), these skills will prepare the adult lions to hunt and kill, and the adults of the prey animals to run and jump to escape, or to kick the predators who get that close.

For humans, especially in modern times, survival is more about learning one’s place and opportunities in society.  Thus, play serves an important socialization function, with analogous phenomena seen in other primate species (Cooper, 1972).  When one examines the play of primitive cultures, such as the !Kung bushmen in southern Africa, although they seem to make no distinction between the sexes among their children, play groups are almost always comprised of a single sex.  Boys spend significantly more time playing rough-and-tumble games or playing with “technical” equipment (crude hunting implements) than do the girls (Gould, 1982).

Thus, play for both humans and other animals appears to help prepare them for adult life – whether it be mere survival of the fittest or something more complex, such as pursuing an available career.  And yet, there remain questions as to the nature and role of play.  Play can occur in groups (such as with friends) or alone.  It appears to occur primarily when there is no need for maintenance activities (and wouldn’t learning to survive be the ultimate maintenance activity?).  And, most curiously of all, play often appears to serve no discernable function other than the creation of fun or pleasure (Cooper, 1972; Huizinga, 1950).

One interesting and important way in which play might help to prepare us for the challenges of life is to enhance our options.  We previously discussed Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory as it pertains to positive emotion.  Well, what leads to more positive emotion for many children than play?  Consequently, in addition to improving physical and social skills (by literally running around playing with friends), the positive emotion (the fun) associated with playing enhances a child’s (and presumably both an adolescent’s and an adult’s) cognitive activity and skills (see Fredrickson, 2005).  Thus, play is a wonderfully valuable activity for everyone.

young boys damming a stream at a lakeshore * dog wearing glasses and appears to be working on a computer

Here are my boys playing one of our favorite games on Beaver Island, MI.
Where the small streams came down to the beach we would dam them.  Once the water building up behind the dam overran the dam, we would watch it rapidly accelerate and destroy the dam.  We would do this over and over.  One of my own favorite games was to do silly things with my dog Sunny.
Here he is working on a computer 
– writing by my side, as he enjoys a warm fire.

Although play has resisted many attempts to explain exactly what it is and what specific role it “plays,” the likelihood that its primary purpose is to prepare the young child (as we now return to discussing humans exclusively) for adulthood, sets up our discussion of play in adulthood.  Since adults no longer need to prepare for adulthood (they are there, though many may not act like it!), the activities they engage in during their free time change significantly.  Thus, our terminology tends to change as well – from play to leisure activities or recreation.

Leisure/Recreation

Leisure can be defined as those activities which people do in their free time, because they want to, for their own sake, for fun, entertainment, self-improvement, or for goals of their own choosing, but not for material gain.  (Argyle, 2001; pg. 110)

Leisure is typically defined as free time, whereas recreation refers to what we choose to do in our free time.  In other words, “leisure activities” would be the same thing as recreation.  The play of children is leisure activity, but leisure activity and recreation for adults is often not what we typically think of as the unrestrained and seemingly irrational play enjoyed by young children.  So it becomes quite interesting to look at what adults choose for their activities during leisure time.

Studies have shown that leisure is something that we both have and value.  In the modern world adults have approximately 3-6 hours of free time each weekday, and 8-10 hours of free time on the weekend days.  This amounts to roughly 45 hours of free time each week (nearly the same as a typical workweek).  In the Western world at least, life satisfaction and happiness are positively correlated to significant degrees with one’s satisfaction regarding leisure activities.  And it turns out that some 37% of people are satisfied with their leisure activities, whereas some 43% are pleased or delighted with their leisure activities (i.e., 80% of people enjoy their leisure activities).  So the choice of one’s leisure activities is an important factor when it comes to enjoying life (see Argyle, 1999, 2001).

Leisure satisfaction during adolescence is predictive of adult leisure satisfaction (see Argyle 1999), and one form of leisure that often carries over from childhood into adulthood, though it may become more of a spectator sport, is actual sports.  As mentioned above, the play of children often involves physical activity.  For many, that is soon channeled into organized team sports.  For adolescents, who are at the stage of life in which they try to determine their identity, success in sports is something on which our society places a great deal of value.

young boy scoring a goal in soccer * young boys competing in a Taekwondo tournament

Recreation for children often involves organized sports.
Left:  John cut behind the defender and drove the ball with his knee over
the goalie’s head and into the goal. Right:  Samuel scores a round kick in a
Taekwondo tournament (on his way to a gold medal).

Adults are less likely to continue engaging in organized sports, but many continue to exercise.  Strenuous exercise appears to be one of the most effective activities for improving mood for extended periods of time.  A key point here is that researchers have controlled for variables such as whether or not happier/more satisfied people are the ones choosing to continue exercising.  Exercise reliably and actively improves mood, in part by leading to the release of endorphins within our body (see Argyle, 1999, 2001).  Many of you have likely heard of the “runner’s high.”

Many adults do not continue to exercise; their choice of leisure activities becomes more sedentary.  Nonetheless, what they choose to do is important, and activities which involve being part of a group have the benefit of maintaining social relationships – a particular source of happiness for extraverts.  One of the interesting phenomena that various social clubs and leisure groups create is something Argyle (1999) calls the “leisure world.”  These are self-contained mini-cultures, with their own values, traditions, skills, events, costumes, etc.  One of the best known examples might be “Trekkies.”

Having mentioned Star Trek, we must note that the most common leisure activity is watching TV.  However, this does not appear to be the result of enjoyment.  Watching a lot of TV tends to be negatively correlated with happiness (see Argyle, 2001).  It may be that people who watch a lot of TV don’t have the opportunity to do anything else.  Thus, they are not choosing to watch TV per se, but rather lack alternative choices.

For some, there are periods of time during which every day is devoted to leisure:  going on vacation!  I was in a wonderful mood during my trip out west (see the end of August in my journal).  Especially here in America many people enjoy the wilderness, as opposed to merely being outside on the beach or something similar, and I did head up a mountain after hiking out into the desert.  Sadly, there are too many people who avoid vacations, and workaholics tend to be stressed until they get back to work (see Argyle, 1999, 2001).

While I was at the BJJ Globetrotters camp (again, see my journal from early September) there were some people from England.  In Europe it is more common to take “holiday,” and to take that holiday for a longer period of time.  It’s a practice that I think many Americans would benefit from.  Having just been out west for a week, and then out east for a week, I was reminded how many wonderful places there are to visit in the United States.

the author on an alpine climb in winter * the author in Mt. Washington's alpine garden in winter

My idea of recreation often involves something exciting.  On the left I am hanging from two ice screws about 900 feet up the alpine route Pinnacle Gulley on Mt. Washington, NH.  In the picture on the right, we are in the Alpine Valley above that route.  The temperature all day was about -15o F.

The concept of leisure has changed dramatically throughout the ages.  The word “school” originally meant leisure, and the ancient Greeks considered the pursuit of knowledge to be a valuable leisure activity for adults – as opposed to the required activities of state service, war, and ritual (Huizinga, 1950).  A group known as the sophists arose and engaged in public presentations that were a mixture of education and entertainment, and the profession of sophistry was held on par with that of a star athlete.

Perhaps the most significant of the sophists, Protagoras (c490-c420 BC), taught that man was the measure of all things.  Based on this philosophy, it was proposed that man was not merely subject to fate, but rather, he was free and able to determine his own way in the universe.  The sophists questioned everything, including the existence of the gods!  They emphasized individuality, and believed that young men (at that time such freedom was open only to men) should be trained to take care of themselves in order to be successful and happy (Frost, 1962).

Consequently, sophistry became a profession, with the sophists themselves earning a living educating young men of means.  They believed that better educated men would rise higher in society, and become leaders of the people.  Indeed, the best educated, as evidenced by their public speaking skills, would become the best leaders (Frost, 1962).  One can easily imagine the haughtiness this competition would give rise to, hence the intentional playing up of the entertaining aspect of public sophistry (Huizinga, 1950).

Flow & Mindfulness

One of the results of play is often an intense focus on the ongoing activity.  In other words, the child becomes immersed in playing.  Likewise, the recreational activities enjoyed by adolescents and adults can become all-consuming.  When this is viewed in a positive light, as opposed to being an unhealthy obsession, the result is typically something described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as flow.  Flow is an optimal state in which a person is so involved in an enjoyable activity that nothing else matters, and they will continue engaging in the activity for the sheer sake of continuing (Czikszentmihalyi, 1990).

There is also an ancient concept which addresses the complete focus of the mind in a different way.  Over 2,500 years ago, Gotama Buddha came to a fascinating understanding of the human mind, and he taught a series of mindfulness exercises to train the mind.  These exercises in mindfulness form the basis for many styles of meditations. Today, cutting-edge neurobiologists are using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and other brain imaging techniques to examine brain activity during deep meditation.  Their goal is to understand the nature of the human mind and to examine whether the Buddha (as well as the Rishis and Yogis of ancient India) had discovered a way to actually alter the state of the mind.

Approximately 1,000 years after the life of the Buddha (though still some 1,500 years ago), the founder of Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma, determined that too much time spent in meditation can lead to a weak body.  So, when Bodhidharma arrived at the Shao-Lin temple, he developed techniques of physical training to strengthen the monks and to help them both defend themselves from bandits and prepare for extended periods of meditation.  This was the legendary beginning of the martial arts, formal techniques to train the body and mind.  Since the martial arts were developed with noble goals, they have throughout their history had a reputation for developing strong, admirable character traits.  In other words, those who practice martial arts with proper discipline also train themselves to conform to a personality style marked by a calm, humble, yet confident demeanor.

Flow

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi began studying the state of mind experienced by people doing something enjoyable which was going really well for them in the mid-1970s (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975a,b).  His subsequent description of what he termed “flow” is one of the best-known and most popular topics in positive psychology (see, e.g., Csikszentmihalyi, 1990 and Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2005).

…Flow denotes the holistic sensation present when we act with total involvement.  It is the kind of feeling after which one nostalgically says: “that was fun,” or “that was enjoyable.”  It is the state in which action follows upon action according to an internal logic which seems to need no conscious intervention on our part.  We experience it as a unified flowing form one moment to the next, in which we feel in control of our actions, and in which there is little distinction between self and environment; between stimulus and response; or between past, present, and future. (pg. 43; Csikszentmihalyi, 1975a)

To study this phenomenon, Csikszentmihalyi and his students interviewed a variety of people who became totally absorbed in their chosen activity.  The subjects included dancers, chess players, basketball players, music composers, rock climbers, and even surgeons (to show that flow can occur at work).  Rock and ice climbing were once my passions (before I had double-hip replacement surgery), and I can attest to how absorbed one becomes on a long climb that is going well – especially when you are on the sharp end (aka, lead climbing)!  There was is nothing quite like looking back on a long day of climbing, while perhaps having pizza and beer at a local bar, and realizing that it’s mostly a blur, but it feels so good to have done it.  It is a sense of satisfaction that mere relaxation or typical fun just can’t achieve.

the author rock climbing in New Hampshire

This is one of the few nice pictures I have of myself rock climbing.
I’m on a challenging 5.9 route at Square Ledge, NH.

There are two dimension of flow which have been defined:  the elements of the flow experience and the structure of flow activities.  The six elements of the flow experience are as follows:

  • merging action and awareness – flow is not a dualistic perspective; the person experiencing flow is aware of his/her action but not of the awareness itself
  • centering of attention – the individual centers their attention on a limited stimulus field; this is an active process of narrowing consciousness to block potential intruding stimuli
  • loss of ego – since flow activities involve freely accepted rules, there is no need to negotiate one’s role with others; i.e., the person becomes one with the flow of the activity; loss of ego also results in an altered perception of time (time seems to disappear, or pass very quickly)
  • control of action and environment – flow results in an active awareness of mastery, one does not worry about a lack of control
  • demands for action and clear feedback – there are clear, noncontradictory demands for action (i.e., what must be done is obvious) and clear unambiguous feedback to one’s actions (i.e., whether or not what you did was successful)
  • autotelic nature of flow – flow activities need no goals or rewards external to themselves

The autotelic nature of flow deserves some further comment.  Csikszentmihalyi (1975b) included surgeons in his early book because he was interested in whether or not work could ever be enjoyable.  Surgeons certainly receive significant external rewards, including prestige and a high salary.  When asked why they became surgeons, they usually reply in socially desirable ways such as citing the desire to improve their professional skills or to serve their patients.  But when directly asked “Why do you do surgery?” about one third of surgeons talk about the enjoyment, the excitement, and their love of working with their hands.  So, although there may be extrinsic rewards, for some surgeons there are also intrinsic rewards which can lead to a state of flow.

The value of autotelic activities, those activities which are their own reward, is not a new concept.  Csikszentmihalyi (1975a,b) cites one of my favorite books from ancient times (written as early as 500 B.C.), the Bhagavad Gita (“The Song of the Blessed One”), one of the holiest books in the Hindu religion.  For those who believe in such things, this book is a conversation between Lord Krishna and the warrior Arjuna, in which Lord Krishna instructs Arjuna on how to live a good and proper life.

The wise man lets go of all results, whether good or bad,
And is focused on the action alone.  Yoga is skill in actions.
(pg. 55; translation by Mitchell, 2000)

Note:  This translation is quite different from the one cited by Csikszentmihalyi, though it makes the same point.  When reading translations of ancient books like this, they can be quite different.  It makes it difficult, if not impossible, to find your favorite quotes in a different translation.  Here is the quotation from the translation used by Csikszentmihalyi (1975b):

Let the motive be in the deed and not in the event.
Be not one whose motive for action is the hope of reward.

The structure of flow activities is essential, since it requires a balance between the action opportunities that are present (i.e., the challenges) and the individual’s action capabilities (i.e., one’s skills).  If the challenges are daunting, and one’s skills are minimal, or vice versa, the result is anxiety.  To a less extreme extent, if the challenge is too difficult for one’s skill level, it leads to worrying.  Or, if one has more than sufficient skill for the challenge, one tends to get bored.  Flow can occur when the person’s skill level is adequately challenged, yet they are able to perform well by focusing on the task at hand.

The quality of a flow experience depends on where on the continuum of balancing skills vs. challenges the person falls.  Let’s use rock climbing as an example.  When Csikszentmihalyi began his work in 1975, the technical rock climbing scale ranged from 5.0-5.11.  The 5 refers to Class 5, technical rock climbing (Class 1 is a flat trail, Class 2 a rough trail, Class 3 is low rock scrambling, Class 4 is high rock scrambling where a fall could seriously injure you), and the grades from 0-11 refer to the difficulty, with 5.11 being the most difficult climb anyone could accomplish.

Note:  I’ve climbed hard 5.10 climbs, and I was good, but certainly not an elite climber.  The scale has been expanded several times, with the individual levels expanded as well.  Indeed, there is an ongoing challenge throughout the climbing world to extend the upper limit to new, more difficult levels (the top currently being about 5.16).  Climbing at 5.10 and beyond typically involves overhanging cliffs and one-handed moves (which I have done), whereas climbing at the elite level typically involves single-finger moves on overhanging cliffs (which I managed only one time in a gym).

So, if a new climber chooses a 5.2 climb, their limited skill is a fair balance for the easy climb.  Given that balance between skill and challenge, they may experience flow.  However, a skilled climber may choose a 5.10 climb.  Once again, there is a balance between their skill and the challenge, but their flow experience is more complex because the challenge is much more difficult.  Thus, as one improves their skills and successfully takes on more difficult challenges, the flow experience can become ever more satisfying.

The question now, quite simply, is whether or not a flow state affects a person’s well-being.  The answer, as you might expect, is yes (for reviews see Compton, 2005; Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2005).  In several longitudinal studies involving high school students who had an opportunity to experience flow in their preferred activities, flow was associated with commitment, achievement, and better grades.  It also appears that having the opportunity to experience flow protects against a variety of negative outcomes, including physical pain.  In addition, experiencing flow appears to be related to resilience in children, and it has been suggested that school counselors should be made more aware of flow theory as a means to counsel students who are facing challenges in their lives (Parr et al., 1998).

Not only young students benefit from experiencing flow.  College students who are high in intrinsic motivation (i.e., they are studying their major because it has meaning for them) are more likely to experience flow and, consequently, they become more engaged with their educational pursuits (Fullagar & Mills, 2008).  On the other side of the coin, teachers who are more likely to experience flow while teaching also perform better than those teachers who do not (Chu & Lee, 2012).

For people of all ages, flow experiences can lead to a higher quality of experience during their daily life.  When home life flows, adolescents are happier and more involved, and mothers who experience flow while caring for their children felt they were better mothers (see Compton, 2005).  Flow also seems to be a universal phenomenon, having been studied in a variety of countries/cultures, including Canada, Taiwan, Germany, Switzerland, Japan, the United Kingdom, China, Italy, and Spain (Asakawa, 2004, 2010; Aubé et al., 2014; Chu & Lee, 2012; Engeser & Rheinberg, 2008; Kowal & Fortier, 1999; Moneta, 2004a,b, 2012; Schüler, 2010; Zumeta et al., 2016).

Let us now turn our attention to the key question:  What is it about flow that helps to improve subjective well-being?  According to Csikszentmihalyi (1990), psychic disorder is one of the main forces that negatively affects our consciousness.  Simply put, when we don’t know what’s going on, or how to deal with challenges we face, we experience psychological distress.  This distress may be experienced in a variety of ways, such as anxiety, fear, rage, jealousy, etc.  Flow is a state in which consciousness is in a state of optimal experience.  The information coming into awareness is congruent with one’s goals, resulting in an effortless flow of psychic energy.

Following a flow experience, the self becomes more complex.  This involves an interplay between differentiation and integration, resulting in a good type of complexity.  For example, think back to Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory – positive emotion leads to a wider variety of perceived options when faced with challenges.

As noted in Section II, creativity has been identified as one the 24 basic human strengths (Peterson & Seligman, 2004), one we’ll examine somewhat more later on (see below).  It turns out that flow sometimes plays an important role in the creative process, and that role may be in enhancing the positive complexity of personality.  In Csikszentmihalyi’s study of creativity (1996), he emphasized the complexity of the creative personality.  He believes that creative individuals share a number of paradoxical personality dimensions:

  • they have a great deal of physical energy, but are often quiet and at rest
  • they tend to be smart, but can also seem naïve
  • they can be playful, yet are also disciplined
  • they alternate between imagination and fantasy on one hand, while rooted in a sense of reality on the other hand
  • they seem to harbor opposite tendencies on the continuum between introversion and extraversion
  • they can be both humble and proud at the same time
  • they transcend typical gender roles
  • they are thought to be rebellious and independent, but creativity must exist in opposition to internalized domains of culture
  • they are very passionate about their work, yet remain highly objective about it
  • their openness and sensitivity predisposes them to suffering and pain, but also to a great deal of enjoyment

Although Csikszentmihalyi (1996) acknowledges that this list may not be definitive, the key is the polarity of the creative individual’s personality.  From one pole they are capable of recognizing new ideas, and the other pole then makes it possible to develop novel ideas to the point of acceptance.  Once again, flow will lead to enjoyment and the consequent enhanced complexity of the personality.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a form of meditation that occurs throughout every moment of the day.  Indeed, it is very important to live fully in every moment, and to look deeply into each experience (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1991, 1995).  By being mindful, we can enter into awareness of our body and our emotions.  Thich Nhat Hanh relates a story in which the Buddha was asked when he and his monks practiced.  The Buddha replied that they practiced when they sat, when they walked, and when they ate.  When the person questioning the Buddha replied that everyone sits, walks, and eats, the Buddha replied that he and his monks knew they were sitting, knew they were walking, and knew they were eating (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1995).  Mindfulness can also be applied to acts as simple as breathing.  According to Thich Nhat Hanh, conscious breathing is the most basic Buddhist technique for touching peace (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1991, 1995).  He suggests silently reciting the following lines while breathing mindfully:

Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment!

Andrew Olendzki (2003, 2005), a scholar of early Buddhist tradition and former executive director of the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in Massachusetts, has done a marvelous job of trying to put the teachings of the Buddha into a perspective understandable to Western psychologists.  In very simple terms covering only a small part of what the Buddha taught, when a sense object that we are capable of detecting is, indeed, detected by one of our sensory systems, we become aware of the experience.  For example, when a sound is detected by our ear, we become aware of hearing a sound.  Consciousness is an emergent phenomenon of each of these individual moments of contact, i.e., the moment of contact between the sense object, the sensory organ, and the awareness of the object.  Since we are constantly encountering different moments of contact that arise and then fall out of consciousness, from all of our various senses, the Buddhist concept of consciousness is not a continuous one (this is in contrast to the stream of consciousness perspective of America’s preeminent psychologist William James; James, 1892/1992).  Since consciousness is not continuous, neither is the self.  Our sense of self as continuous and real is an illusion, and it is because we cling to that illusion that we inevitably suffer (the first noble truth in Buddhism).  In order to alleviate our suffering, and to understand the true nature of our self, the Buddha taught a series of mindfulness meditations to help us see ourselves as we really are.

There are four mindfulness trainings:  mindfulness of body, mindfulness of feeling, mindfulness of mind, and mindfulness of mental objects (Olendzki, 2005; Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 1996).  When meditating mindfully on the body, it is common to focus on the breath.  This can be done in a variety of positions:  sitting, standing, lying down, or walking.  One can also become very mindful of the body by performing certain martial arts as moving meditation, particularly Tai Chi Chuan or Qigong (Khor, 1981).  When meditating mindfully on feelings, one considers the pleasant or unpleasant quality of each experience.  For example, after sitting for a while, pain or discomfort may arise in a knee or hip.  There is nothing wrong with this pain, and with practice one can experience it as a sensation without the negative or unpleasant feeling that we describe as pain.  This is, of course, not easy.  All forms of meditation require time and practice.  Still, it is important to remember that if there is a real problem, such sitting on a sharp rock, you may want to move in a slow and mindful manner until comfortable again.  When meditating mindfully on the mind itself, one takes notice of the thoughts arising during meditation.  One should pay particular attention to whether the thoughts are related to one of the three root causes of suffering:  greed, hatred, or delusion.

…In any given moment, the mind is either caught up by one or more of these or it is not, and this is something of which one can learn to be aware.  Greed and hatred are the two polarities of desire, the intense wanting or not wanting of an object, while delusion is a strong form of the basic misunderstanding that gives desire its power over us.  (pg. 255; Olendzki, 2005)

One does not pass judgment on these thoughts; mindfulness teaches us only to become aware of our thoughts and to recognize their presence and reality.  Finally, there is mindfulness of mental objects (or mental qualities), a deep understanding of the content of mental experience that arises as one masters mindfulness meditation (Olendzki, 2005; Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 1996).  Mindfulness of mental objects involves focusing on the nature of desires as they arise in relation to the five hindrances:  desire, aversion, indolence, restlessness and doubt.

This conservative and traditional understanding of mindfulness may seem rather esoteric, but it is proving to be very influential in psychology today.  To be sure, meditation has been described as “now one of the most enduring, widespread, and researched of all psychotherapeutic methods” (Walsh & Shapiro, 2006).  A mindfulness-based stress reduction program has been developed and popularized by Jon Kabat-Zinn (1990, 1994, 2005), and a similar therapeutic technique, called Focusing, had previously been developed in the late 1970s (Gendlin, 1990).  Mindfulness has also been incorporated into psychotherapeutic approaches to dealing with anxiety, depression, and feelings of unworthiness and insecurity (Brach, 2003; Brantley, 2003; McQuaid & Carmona, 2004), and it has provided new perspectives on the treatment of addiction and anger issues (Aronson, 2004; Dudley-Grant, 2003).  Of particular interest to students, mindfulness has proven to be helpful in alleviating the stress associated with studying psychology in graduate school (Borynski, 2003)!  In addition, Janet Surrey, one of the founding members of the Stone Center group, has studied comparisons between mindfulness and relational therapy (Surrey, 2005).  Likewise, Trudy Goodman, who studied with Jean Piaget and now also teaches insight meditation, has utilized mindfulness in therapy with children (Goodman, 2005).

This traditional approach to mindfulness is usually associated with Southeast Asia, particularly the Thai forest monks.  Jack Kornfield, a former Buddhist monk and currently a clinical psychologist, practiced with the renowned Ajahn Chah.  Ajahn Chah’s teachings have been translated into English (Ajahn Chah, 2001), and another of his students has written two books in English (Ajahn Sumedho, 1987; 1995).  Thanissaro Bhikkhu is another interesting individual dedicated to offering the teachings of the Buddha, known as the Dhamma.  In conjunction with Dhamma Dana Publications, he has written his own book (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 1993), translated the works of Buddhist monks and nuns (Ajaan Fuang Jotiko, 2005; Upasika Kee Nanayon, 1995), and translated with commentary some of the Pali Canon, the first written record of the teachings of the Buddha (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 1996).  Dhamma Dana Publications is committed to the free dissemination of these teachings and their books, sending many copies to people in prison who wish to better their lives.  This is, of course, an active application of the Buddha’s teachings, and a way to help improve our society.

Before turning to our next topic, the neurobiology of mindfulness, let’s take a closer look at developing mindfulness.  According to Andrew Olendzki (2008), and based on the teachings of the Abhidhamma (the third section of the Tipitaka, or Three Baskets of Buddhist Doctrine; Narada, 1956; Nyanatiloka, 1938; van Gorkom, 1969), mindfulness is much more than meditation.  Consciousness arises and passes away, from moment to moment, resulting in a subjective experience of a stream of consciousness.  Other mental factors arise with consciousness, some automatically.  Included among these automatic or universal mental factors, are contact, feeling, perception, intention, attention, and focus.  When we begin to meditate we try to get in touch with each experience at the point of its inception.  However, attention and focus, which many people think are what meditation is all about, exist in every moment of consciousness.

If we move on to the so-called occasional factors, we find the likes of initial application, sustained application, and energy.  Now we are beginning to turn our mind to something (such as the breath) without interruption, and to do so with energy (the impetus to keep our mind on, say, the breath).  At this point we may be deep in meditation, perhaps doing so with determination and joy, but mindfulness is still something more.

Mindfulness is a wholesome state, during which unwholesome states cannot arise.  It has the characteristic of not letting the mind waver, the function of eliminating confusion or forgetfulness, the manifestation of confronting an objective phenomenal field, and is caused by strong perception of the four foundations of mindfulness (mindfulness of body, feelings, consciousness, and mental objects).  According to Olendzki (2008), the definitions of mindfulness “suggest an enhanced presence of mind, a heightened attentiveness to objects of experience in the present moment, a special non-ordinary quality of attention.”  Interestingly, we can have an unwholesome moment of consciousness, and then become mindful of that experience (at which point only a wholesome mental state is possible).

When true mindfulness arises, one feels as if one is stepping back and observing what is happening in experience, rather than being embedded in it. This does not mean separation or detachment, but is rather a sense of not being hooked by a desirable object or not pushing away a repugnant object. (pp. 55-56; Olendzki, 2008)

The tradition of the Abhidhamma helps us understand that we can always move forward, learn from our experiences, accept them, and try again.  Included in the wholesome mental states are self-respect, respect for others, and faith, all of which co-arise with mindfulness.  Thus, each moment of mindfulness is also one of confidence and trust (Olendzki, 2008).

While it may seem that true mindfulness is a very difficult state to achieve, Olendzki (2008) believes we all experience it in one context or another.  The key is to cultivate mindfulness, develop it, learn to recognize it, then cultivate and develop it further.  When meditating mindfully, we can create favorable conditions, such as relaxing the body, focusing the attention softly, while maintaining enough energy to remain alert yet tranquil.

A Sampling of the Buddha’s Teachings on Mindfulness

There are many books on the teachings of the Buddha, including both translations of the official teachings themselves and countless commentaries that have been written over the millennia.  What follows is a very brief sampling of those quotes, including two quotes on establishing mindfulness training, two quotes based on recognizing and establishing one’s personal domain (using amusing animal stories), two quotes on the nature of the body (hence, the mistake of feeling so attached to it), one quote on the importance of protecting oneself and others, and finally, one quote on what it means to neglect one’s practice of mindfulness.

Note:  A ‘bhikkhu’ is a Bhuddist monk, particularly those included among the original followers of the Bhudda.  In the discourses of the Buddha, he was teaching his followers.  Thus, you will see the word ‘bhikkhu’ repeatedly.

This first quote is from the Kayagatasati Sutta (Mindfulness of the Body) – Note: Nearly identical passages can be found in this sutta and the Satipatthana Sutta (The Foundations of Mindfulness).  It addresses the basic foundation of mindfulness within the practice of meditation:

“Here a bhikkhu, gone to the forest or to the root of a tree or to an empty hut, sits down; having folded his legs crosswise, set his body erect, and established mindfulness in front of him, ever mindful he breathes in, mindful he breathes out.  Breathing in long, he understands:  ‘I breathe in long’; or breathing out long, he understands:  ‘I breathe out long.’  Breathing in short, he understands:  ‘I breathe in short’; or breathing out short, he understands:  ‘I breathe out short.’  He trains thus:  ‘I shall breathe in experiencing the whole body [of breath]’; he trains thus:  ‘I shall breathe out experiencing the whole body [of breath].’  He trains thus:  ‘I shall breathe in tranquillising the bodily formation’; he trains thus:  ‘I shall breathe out tranquillising the bodily formation.’  As he abides thus diligent, ardent, and resolute, his memories and intentions based on the household life are abandoned; with their abandoning his mind becomes steadied internally, quieted, brought to singleness, and concentrated.  That is how a bhikkhu develops mindfulness of the body. (pp. 949-950; Bhikkhu Nanamoli & Bhikkhu Bodhi, 1995)

This next quote is from the Sangiti Sutta (The Chanting Together), and addresses both the foundation of mindfulness and the effort needed to cultivate it:

‘There are [sets of] four things which were perfectly proclaimed by the Lord …’

(1) ‘Four foundations of mindfulness:  Here a monk abides contemplating body as body, ardent, clearly aware and mindful, having put aside hankering and fretting for the world; he abides contemplating feelings as feelings…; he abides contemplating mind as mind…; he abides contemplating mind-objects as mind-objects, ardent, clearly aware and mindful, having put aside hankering and fretting for the world.’

(2) ‘Four great efforts (sammappadhana):  Here a monk rouses his will, makes an effort, stirs up energy, exerts his mind and strives to prevent the arising of unarisen evil unwholesome mental states.  He rouses his will … and strives to overcome evil unwholesome mental states that have arisen.  He rouses his will … and strives to produce unarisen wholesome mental states.  He rouses his will … and strives to maintain wholesome mental states that have arisen, not to let them fade away, to bring them to greater growth, to the full perfection of development.’

The next quote addresses the challenge of finding oneself outside one’s domain (or comfort zone).  However, the following quote helps to teach how one’s domain can be brought under control through mindfulness.  This first quote is from the Satipatthanasamyutta (Connected Discourses on the Establishments of Mindfulness):

“Bhikkhus, in the Himalayas, the king of mountains, there are rugged and uneven zones where neither monkeys nor human beings can go; there are rugged and uneven zones where monkeys can go but not human beings; there are even and delightful regions where both monkeys and human beings can go.  There, along the monkey trails, hunters set out traps of pitch for catching monkeys.”

“Those monkeys who are not foolish and frivolous, when they see the pitch, avoid it from afar.  But a monkey who is foolish and frivolous approaches the pitch and seizes it with his hand; he gets caught there.  Thinking, ‘I will free my hand,’ he seizes it with his other hand; he gets caught there.  Thinking, ‘I will free both hands,’ he seizes it with his foot’ he gets caught there.  Thinking, ‘I will free both hands and my foot,’ he seizes it with his other foot; he gets caught there.’  Thinking, ‘I will free both hands and feet,’ he applies his muzzle to it; he gets caught there.”

“Thus, bhikkhus, that monkey, trapped at five points, lies there screeching.  He has met with calamity and disaster and the hunter can do with him as he wishes.  The hunter spears him, fastens him to that same block of wood, and goes off where he wants.  So it is, bhikkhus, when one strays outside one’s own resort into the domain of others. (pg. 1633; Bhikkhu Bodhi, 2000)

In this next quote, from the Salayatanasamyutta (Connected Discourses on the Six Sense Bases), we see how the body can become the center of our initial mindfulness training.  This helps us to accept, and be in touch with, the sometimes overwhelming sensory input coming from the six animals (sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch, thought):

“Suppose, bhikkhus, a man would catch six animals – with different domains and different feeding grounds – and tie them by a strong rope.  He would catch a snake, a crocodile, a bird, a dog, a jackal, and a monkey, and tie each by a strong rope.  Having done so, he would bind them to a strong post or pillar.  Then those six animals with different domains and different feeding grounds would each pull in the direction of its own feeding ground and domain.  The snake would pull one way, thinking, ‘Let me enter an anthill.’  The crocodile would pull another way, thinking, ‘Let me enter the water.’  The bird would pull another way, thinking, ‘Let me fly up into the sky.’  The dog would pull another way, thinking, ‘Let me enter a village.’  The jackal would pull another way, thinking, ‘Let me enter a charnel ground.’  The monkey would pull another way, thinking, ‘Let me enter a forest.’”

“Now when these six animals become worn out and fatigued, they would stand close to that post or pillar, they would sit down there, they would lie down there.  So too, bhikkhus, when a bhikkhu has developed and cultivated mindfulness directed to the body, the eye does not pull in the direction of agreeable forms nor are disagreeable forms repulsive; the ear does not pull in the direction of agreeable sounds nor are disagreeable sounds repulsive; the nose does not pull in the direction of agreeable odours nor are disagreeable odours repulsive; the tongue does not pull in the direction of agreeable tastes nor are disagreeable tastes repulsive; the body does not pull in the direction of agreeable tactile objects nor are disagreeable tactile objects repulsive; the mind does not pull in the direction of agreeable mental phenomena nor are disagreeable mental phenomena repulsive.”

“It is in such a way that there is restraint.”

“‘A strong post or pillar’: this, bhikkhus, is a designation for mindfulness directed to the body.  Therefore, bhikkhus, you should train yourselves thus:  ‘We will develop and cultivate mindfulness directed to the body, make it our vehicle, make it our basis, stabilize it, exercise ourselves in it, and fully perfect it.’  Thus should you train yourselves.” (pp. 1256-1257; Bhikkhu Bodhi, 2000)

Although mindfulness of body may be a starting point for mindfulness, we should not make the mistake of becoming attached to our body, or of thinking that we are our body.  In this next quote, the body is put in something of a different perspective which is less than flattering, but nonetheless true.  This quote is from the Kayagatasati Sutta (Mindfulness of the Body):

“Again, bhikkus, a bhikku reviews this same body up from the soles of the feet and down from the top of the hair, bounded by skin, as full of many kinds of impurity thus:  ‘In this body there are head-hairs, body-hairs, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, bone-marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, diaphragm, spleen, lungs, large intestines, small intestines, contents of the stomach, feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, spittle, snot, oil of the joints, and urine.’ … so too, a bhikkhu reviews this same body as full of many kinds of impurity … (pg. 951; Bhikkhu Nanamoli & Bhikkhu Bodhi, 1995)

For an even less flattering perspective on the body, consider the following quote from the Kayagatasati Sutta (Mindfulness of the Body):

“Again, bhikkhus, as though he were to see a corpse thrown aside in a charnel ground, one, two, or three days dead, bloated, livid, and oozing matter, a bhikkhu compares this same body with it thus:  ‘This body too is of the same nature, it will be like that, it is not exempt from that fate.’  As he abides thus diligent … That too is how a bhikkhu develops mindfulness of the body. (pg. 952; Bhikkhu Nanamoli & Bhikkhu Bodhi, 1995)

The martial arts have long been taught, at least by most practitioners, as being exclusively for self-defense purposes, or for the defense of others who cannot defend themselves.  Although I may be taking some liberty here, by suggesting that the following quote applies to physical defense, it is interesting to see that it involves a dangerous physical act.  It is from the Satipatthanasamyutta (Connected Discourses on the Establishments of Mindfulness):

“Bhikkhus, once in the past an acrobat set up his bamboo pole and addressed apprectice Medakathalika thus:  ‘Come, dear Medakathalika, climb the bamboo pole and stand on my shoulders.’  Having replied, ‘Yes, teacher,’ the apprentice Medakathalika climbed up the bamboo pole and stood on the teacher’s shoulders.  The acrobat then said to the apprentice Medakathalika:  ‘You protect me, dear Medakathalika, and I’ll protect you.  Thus guarded by one another, protected by one another, we’ll display our skills, collect our fee, and get down safely from the bamboo pole.’  When this was said, the apprentice Medakathalika replied:  ‘That’s not the way to do it, teacher.  You protect yourself, teacher, and I’ll protect myself.  Thus, each self-guarded and self-protected, we’ll display our skills, collect our fee, and get down safely from the bamboo pole.’”

“That’s the method there,” the Blessed One said.  “It’s just as the apprentice Medakathalika said to the teacher.  ‘I will protect myself,’ bhikkhus:  thus should the establishments of mindfulness be practiced.  ‘I will protect others,’ bhikkhus:  thus should the establishments of mindfulness be practiced.  Protecting oneself, bhikkhus, one protects others; protecting others, one protects oneself.”

“And how is it, bhikkus, that by protecting oneself one protects others?  By the pursuit, development, and cultivation [of the four establishments of mindfulness].  It is in such a way that by protecting oneself one protects others.”

“And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting others one protects oneself?  By patience, harmlessness, lovingkindness, and sympathy.  It is in such a way that by protecting others one protects oneself.” (pg. 1648; Bhikkhu Bodhi, 2000)

Finally, we have a short quote from the Satipatthanasamyutta (Connected Discourses on the Establishments of Mindfulness), which very simply addresses the issue of either neglecting or undertaking the cultivation of mindfulness:

“Bhikkhus, those who have neglected these four establishments of mindfulness have neglected the noble path leading to the complete destruction of suffering.  Those who have undertaken these four establishments of mindfulness have undertaken the noble path leading to the complete destruction of suffering. (pg. 1656; Bhikkhu Bodhi, 2000)

Mindfulness in Martial Arts Training

The martial arts can bring together everything we’ve been talking about in this and the previous section:  play, leisure, recreation, flow, and mindfulness.  Although it may be a stretch to suggest that the Buddha’s teachings on mindfulness of the body carry over into martial arts training, for some time I have had an interest in utilizing Buddhist mindfulness as a coping mechanism while training in the martial arts with a physical disability (see Kelland, 2009, 2010).  We can, on occasion, find suggestions that a physically healthy body is an important aspect of being able to meditate, and therefore to achieve mindfulness.

…If the meditator wishes properly to control his body for its entry into the state of imperturbable stillness, he should, even before sitting, examine closely to find out whether or not his acts of walking, standing, moving or staying are rough.  If they are, his breathing will be coarse so that his mind will be unsettled and unrecordable, and when he sits, it will be perplexed and uneasy. (pg. 124; Lu K’uan Yü, 1964)

One of the unique characteristics of traditional martial arts training is the balanced approach to both physical exercise and spiritual/mental discipline.  Although the martial arts certainly existed farther back in ancient times, it is accepted by many that they were first formalized in the Shao-Lin temple by Bodhidharma, the recognized founder of Zen Buddhism.  Legend has it that when Bodhidharma first arrived at the Shao-Lin temple in China, after leaving his home in India, he found the monks in very poor physical condition.  He developed a series of eighteen exercises that helped the monks to achieve a good level of physical fitness, something necessary for their self-defense as well as for extended periods of sitting in meditation (Johnson, 2003a; Lewis, 1993; Red Pine, 1987; Ribner & Chin, 1978).  These exercises established the first formal practice of Kung Fu, i.e., the legendary beginning of Chinese Kung Fu (Ch’en, 1964; Gach, 2004; Red Pine, 1987).  It is important to note the role of Bodhidharma, a highly spiritual monk who had left his home to help spread the teachings of the Buddha.  Since one of the basic tenets of Buddhism is to not harm any other living being, the martial arts have always emphasized mental discipline and the intention that the fighting skills should only be used in self-defense, or in the defense of others who cannot defend themselves.

Non-combative forms of the martial arts have developed around the concept of mindfulness of the body, which can be used as forms of moving meditation.  Examples of such forms are Tai Chi Chuan and Qigong (Johnson, 2003a,b; Lewis, 1993; Khor, 1981; Ribner & Chin, 1978).  There are also various styles, such as Aikido, Jiu Jitsu, Judo, and Hapkido (Hapkido being “the way of harmony”; Chesterman, 2003), which emphasize the soft style of defending oneself that is advocated in the Tao Te Ching (Lao Tsu, c600 B.C./1989).  Similarly, the asanas (or positions) taught in Hatha Yoga serve the purpose of helping to prepare the body for lengthy periods of meditation (as well as aligning the body’s channels for Kundalini energy and prana; Bailey, 1927; Feuerstein, 2003).

When the martial arts are approached properly, as a means to health, strength, and a calm state of mind, we can refer to the practice as the Martial Way, a means to living one’s life in a virtuous manner (Chu, 2003).  Since martial arts training can result in injuries it must be approached with the right attitude:

…This concept of power as the cornerstone of personal freedom lies at the bottom of all martial arts philosophy.  The recognition that power emanates from physical force and martial capability cuts both ways; it can be channeled toward constructive uses or abused as a means of destruction.  This is the reason why martial arts training must always be directed toward the cultivation of the higher ideals of discipline, humility, benevolence and responsibility. (pg. 29; Chu, 2003)

Continuing to emphasize the role that the martial arts can play in helping people to live a more satisfying life, Chu goes on to say:

The demands of work, family, finances, as well as fatigue, neglect and health all distract the martial artist from his best intentions.  Even the devoted student may be disappointed if he expects martial arts training to neatly bring his physical and spiritual condition into working order.  Nevertheless, regular training can serve as a constant, to discipline him to develop his best self even as the daily routine pulls him in different directions.  The strategies underlying training can be effectively applied not just in life threatening situations but to daily life.  (pgs. 44-45; Chu, 2003)

In order to help martial artists pursue and maintain this virtuous Way, various codes and tenets have been devised.  My family used to practice Taekwondo, so we were taught to follow the five tenets of Taekwondo: courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, and indomitable spirit.  These principles were set forth by General Choi Hong Hi, who re-established the modern forms of Taekwondo when Korea regained its independence after World War II.  He believed that if Taekwondo students lived their lives according to these principles they would become better people and help to make the world a better place (Chesterman, 2003; Lewis, 1993).

Perhaps the most famous of the martial arts codes is the Bushido code of the Japanese Samurai.  It can sometimes be difficult to translate Asian languages into English, but generally the Bushido code contains seven essential principles:  making right decisions, bravery, compassion, taking right actions, honesty, honor, and loyalty.  Although these principles seem to include states of mind, or conscious intentions, it is through the physical practice, through the body and the unconscious mind, that Bushido becomes a way of life (Deshimaru, 1982).  Only after many years of practice does this become a natural way of life, without the need for continued attention to one’s practice.  The consciousness, or mindfulness, necessary for this combined practice of body and mind is commonly found in Zen Buddhism, which is closely intertwined with Budo, the Japanese way of the warrior (Deshimaru, 1982).  As with the tenets of Taekwondo, the principles of the Bushido code helped warriors to restrain themselves from violent aggression in their daily lives (Chu, 2003).  According to Chu (2003), it is the higher ideals of spirituality in codes like Bushido and the tenets of Taekwondo that separates the warrior from the predator.

So, one way in which a person can bring martial arts training into one’s domain in life is by bringing mindfulness to bear.  Indeed, mindfulness is important in every aspect of life, and one should perform every activity mindfully.  One can be mindful of every aspect of the body while walking, whether it is a formal walking meditation such as Jongram (Ajahn Sumedho, 1987) or just taking a quiet, mindful stroll in the park (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1975).  We can mindfully be present in everything we do, including washing dishes, eating a tangerine, making tea, or cooking.  It is not the activity that determines whether or not it should be done mindfully, we should live mindfully.  This is how true masters of the martial arts can espouse non-violence and spiritual purity while practicing skills which have the potential for great harm.  Once again, it is not the skill which does harm, but the person who wields it with cruelty.  Training body and mind together is essential for a person’s full development:

…‘If the body is unmastered, the mind will be unmastered; if the body is mastered, the mind is mastered.’ (pg. 105; the Buddha, cited in Nyanaponika Thera, 1965)

* * *

Several years ago, one of my sons tried archery in his gym class.  Afterward, he asked if he could have a bow and some arrows.  I hadn’t used a bow in many years, and was never very good with one, but I had always enjoyed them so I quickly agreed.  We got him a good, children’s bow and set up a target.  At first, none of us were very good at hitting the target.  So I decided to read a classic book on archery, Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel (1999; first published in 1953).  One day, as my son and a friend were using his bow, I brought the book outside and told them they should read it, and that it would really help develop the right mindset for using the bow.  They just scoffed at me, so I asked for the bow.  I set an arrow to it, drew back the string, released the arrow, and struck the bull’s-eye.  They were surprised, but suggested it was just luck.  So I set another arrow to the bow, drew back the string, released, and struck the bull’s-eye.  They stood there, slack-jawed, as I handed the bow back to my son and said, “You really should read this book.”

Of course, I didn’t tempt fate by trying a third shot.  Herrigel, a German philosophy professor teaching in Japan, spent six years studying with the kyudo (archery) master Awa Kenzo (1880-1939).  His book is marvelous, and fairly short, making it an easy and highly recommended reading.  In one story, Herrigel challenges Kenzo to shoot blindfolded.  Kenzo has him turn out the lights, leaving only one small candle to light the hall.  It was so dark that Herrigel could not even see the outline of the target.  Kenzo shot two arrows.  The first struck the bull’s-eye, the second struck the first!  When Herrigel carried the target back to Kenzo, Kenzo claimed no credit for the success.  “I at any rate know that it is not ‘I’ who must be given credit for this shot.  ‘It’ shot and ‘It’ made the hit.  Let us bow to the goal as before the Buddha!” (pg. 59; Herrigel, 1999).

In 2007, John Stevens published Zen Bow, Zen Arrow, a collection of the teachings of Awa Kenzo.  He was struck by how similar the life and teachings of Kenzo were to those of Morihei Ueshiba, particularly their emphasis on purification of both body and mind through martial arts training.  This is not to say that training with Kenzo was easy.  When a student was relaxing, Kenzo would admonish them with an ear-shattering kiai (the classic yell in martial arts that helps to generate power) that was like the roar of a lion.  Stevens relates a number of fascinating stories from Kenzo’s life, a few Zen tales of the bow, and, of course, some of Kenzo’s personal teachings:

The First Principle is to awaken oneself.  Once that is realized you can accomplish anything with ease.

With no set form, pull the bow.  Release the arrow with no intent.  Each shot reveals your character, it shows who you are, what you can do.  Each shot must be sincere, use it to foster mind power, bring ki into your tanden, and polish your inner heart.

Each shot can make you or break you; each shot reveals you as a living Buddha or a bumbling fool.
     Awa Kenzo, cited in Stevens, 2007
     *Note: ki is internal energy, tanden is the center of balance in the belly

By the way, I can’t leave this section without a quote from an individual mentioned above:  Morihei Ueshiba.  Ueshiba (1883-1969) is renowned as an extraordinary martial artist, but even more so for being a prophet for the Art of Peace (Stevens, 2002).  In 1925, on a day Ueshiba had defeated a kendo master (kendo is the Way of the Sword) by not allowing him to land a single strike, Ueshiba had a mystical experience in his garden.  He believed he had been called to serve Miroku Bosatsu, the golden Buddha-to-come, who will bring heaven to earth.  After this revelation, even martial artists who had in the past beaten Ueshiba could not compete with him in the least.  From that time forward, he developed Aikido with sincere thoughts of peace.

Life is growth.  If we stop growing, technically and spiritually, we are as good as dead.  The Art of Peace is a celebration of the bonding of Heaven, earth, and humankind.  It is all that is true, good, and beautiful.

From ancient times,
Deep learning and valor
Have been the two pillars of the Path;
Through the virtue of training,
Enlighten both body and soul.
     Morihei Ueshiba, cited in Stevens, 2002

The Neurobiology of Mindfulness

Although Buddhist mindfulness techniques are thousands of years old, and the study of genetics and biology is fairly recent in psychology, today these disciplines have come together in some fascinating research.  Neurobiologists and psychologists are working together with advanced meditators and respected Buddhist monks (including His Holiness the Dalai Lama) to study the activity of the brain, in real time, during meditation.  These studies may also help to advance our understanding of the nature of the mind, but that may still be somewhat beyond our technical abilities.  The interest of the field of psychology, and of academia in general, is clearly evidenced by articles that have been written about these studies in venues such as the prestigious journal Science (Barinaga, 2003), the popular The Chronicle of Higher Education (Monastersky, 2006), and the Monitor on Psychology published by the American Psychological Association (Winerman, 2006).

Cognitive neuroscience has taken advantage of many technical advances in brain imaging, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), and positron emission tomography (PET) to study the activity of the brain during mental tasks.  Initially, these studies focused on identifying brain regions involved in very specific tasks.  More recently, however, some investigators have become interested in using these techniques to study broad questions, such as the nature of the mind.  Since we don’t know what the nature of the mind is, we don’t exactly know what to look for in these brain imaging studies.  So, the investigators pursuing this research must creatively examine the brain during meditation (as well as under other conditions).  It has been shown that meditation activates neural structures involved in attention and arousal (Lazar et al., 2000, 2005; Newberg, 2001), alterations in sensory processing and the sense of space (Lazar et al., 2005; Newberg, 2001), and a dramatic increase in synchronization of neural activity (Lutz et al., 2004).  In perhaps the most striking of these studies, Lazar and her colleagues have demonstrated that long-term meditation practice is associated with increased cortical thickness in brain regions associated with attention and sensory processing (see Lazar, 2005).  These effects were most pronounced in the older subjects, suggesting that meditation may have beneficial effects in terms of offsetting age-related declines in cortical thickness.  Given these dramatic changes in brain function as a result of meditation, perhaps it should come as no surprise that meditation and mindfulness have proven to be useful adjuncts to therapy for a wide variety of psychological and medical disorders (for reviews see Lazar, 2005 and Newberg & Lee, 2005; see also Cozolino, 2002; Germer et al., 2005; Siegel, 2007).

4 PET scan images of the author's brain

PET scan images of the author’s brain on the
anti-Parkinson’s Disease drug l-DOPA (for research).

The use of these brain imaging techniques to study the mind during meditation raises the possibility that they may be useful in studying other altered states of consciousness.  Indeed, Amir Raz and his colleagues (2005) have utilized fMRI and electrical scalp recording of event-related potentials to demonstrate that hypnotic suggestion reduces the activity of cortical regions in the brain that have been associated with conflict monitoring.  In other words, when hypnosis is used to alter the behavior and cognition of individuals, there are recognizable changes in brain function.  When the study of hypnosis is combined with the data obtained on alterations in brain function during meditation and under the influence of mind-altering drugs (see Mathew, 2001), it seems clear that the mind, either in its normal state or in various altered states, is reflected in unique states of neural activity.  We may be a long way from fully understanding the details of the relationship between the mind and neural activity, and there may indeed be more to the mind than simply the neural activity itself, but this is certainly a fascinating field of study on the nature of who we are as individuals.

Mindfulness vs. Flow – They are Not the Same!

It’s easy to think of flow and mindfulness as the same thing, or at least something very similar.  One might also include other states of mind in the same category, such as Maslow’s peak experiences.  Indeed, Csikszentmihalyi compares flow to a variety of such states, including religious rapture, Zen, and Yoga (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975).  However, although something indistinguishable from flow may occur in many of these states of mind, true mindfulness is distinctly different.

Consider the following quote from Csikszentmihalyi:

…for flow to be maintained, one cannot reflect on the act of awareness itself.  The moment awareness is split so as to perceive the activity from “outside,” the flow is interrupted. (pg. 45; Csikszentmihalyi, 1975)

as compared to part of a quote we saw earlier from Olendzki:

…When true mindfulness arises, one feels as if one is stepping back and observing what is happening in experience, rather than being embedded in it. (pg. 55; Olendzki, 2008)

So it’s clear there is a fundamental difference between flow and mindfulness.  This begs the question:  why is it that the human mind is not only capable of altered states of mind, but of multiple altered states of mind?  Add to that the question of why these altered states of consciousness are so enjoyable.  We may know a lot about the human brain, but we are still a long way from understanding the mind.

Also, these phenomena may not be uniquely human.  We know that other animals play, and in the case of some marine mammals (like dolphins) they have names for one another.  So perhaps other species are also capable of altered states of consciousness.  How we might test that will take a breakthrough by a particularly clever ethologist.

Forgiveness

Forgiveness has proven to be a difficult concept to define, and those who study it often say as much (see, e.g., McCullough, 2008; McCullough et al., 2000b; Worthington, 2006).  This may be somewhat surprising for two reasons.  First, forgiveness (along with mercy) is recognized as one of the 24 character strengths, under the virtue of temperance, by Peterson & Seligman (2004).  Thus, we might expect our understanding of it to be well established.  Second, as with many psychological principles, most of us believe we have an understanding of what forgiveness is, so we tend to expect others to share our understanding.

One problem with the definition of forgiveness is that it has strong roots in religion, but most situations in which it comes into play have little to do with religion, and today many fewer people are religious than in the past (and those who are often tend to be less dogmatic).  My interest in forgiveness stems from my decision to join the Roman Catholic Church many years ago, due in large part to their emphasis on the Sacrament of Reconciliation (one of the seven sacraments, more commonly known outside the church as “confession”).  Obviously, this was some years before I left both the church and all concepts of a god or gods behind (and now I am an atheist).

Given my particular interest in reconciliation (which involves confession, asking for forgiveness, receiving forgiveness, performance penance, and reconciling with god), I used to teach about it to both children and adults in our local parish.  My two primary sources are still on my shelf (Cooke, 1986; DeGidio, 1985), and tucked inside the latter were some 30 year old lecture notes (on paper from Sinai Hospital of Detroit, where I did my postdoctoral fellowship).

Alongside the books just cited was another I picked up a few years later, a book which greatly helped me with my work to forgive someone in my own life.  In The Process of Forgiveness, Meninger (1997) proposes five stages:  claiming the hurt, guilt, victim, anger, wholeness.  First, we must realize that we have been hurt (which may involve breaking down defense mechanisms such as denial), after which we often go through a period of believing that somehow we were to blame for our misfortune (guilt).  When we know we’ve been hurt, and that it wasn’t our fault, we become a victim.  If this stage goes on, the depression often associated with victimization can trap a person at this point in the process (though people can become stuck in any of the stages).  Once we choose (whether consciously or not) to no longer be a victim, we often lash out in anger.  Finally, though this final stage is not achieved by everyone, we arrive at the stage where forgiveness can occur and lead us back to wholeness (Meninger, 1997).

In a section on the tools for forgiveness, Meninger (1997) emphasizes meditation and what could be called mindfulness.  He describes three types of meditation from a Christian perspective (scriptural, compassion, and centering), and refers to a similar technique called Focusing (see Gendlin, 1990).  As we’ll see below, Buddhist concepts of forgiveness are quite similar to Eastern concepts.

In Psychology – Through the Eyes of Faith (Myers & Jeeves, 2003), there is a chapter on forgiveness by Charlotte Witvliet (2003).  She addresses whether or not there are actual physical and psychological benefits to forgiveness that go beyond the Christian belief that people should be forgiving because their god is forgiving.  Indeed, it appears that people who are forgiving, including those who have gone through forgiveness therapy, experience less anxiety, depression, anger, and grief.  Physically, students focused on forgiveness, exhibit significant lower levels of the physiological stress responses associated with classic Type A hostility, including blood pressure, heart rate, sweating, brow muscle tension, and negative feelings.  On the positive side, they are more hopeful, have higher self-esteem, and they have more positive attitudes toward those who have offended them (Witvliet, 2003).

Definitions of Forgiveness and Its Cultivation

There are many definitions of forgiveness, but we’ll focus on just two of them.  The reason for choosing these two is that they are offered by leaders in this field of research and they offer a contrast which is of considerable importance.

Michael McCullough and his colleagues attempted to arrive at a concise and practical definition of forgiveness that others could use for the purpose of comparison and continued study.  Specifically, they define it as “intraindividual, prosocial change toward a perceived transgressor that is situated within a specific interpersonal context” (pg. 9; McCullough et al., 2000b).  When a person forgives someone, it is the person who is forgiving who changes their feelings, thoughts, and behaviors toward the person who caused them harm, but that forgiveness clearly exists within the context of an interpersonal relationship.  One concern with this definition is the phrase “prosocial change,” which suggests that reconciliation will or should be part of the forgiveness process (see also McCullough & Witvliet, 2005; see, however, McCullough, 2008).

McCullough’s apparent emphasis on reconciliation as an expectation of forgiveness may have something to do with his additional interest in the evolution of forgiveness (McCullough, 2008).  As noted above, evolutionary psychologists suggest that any behavior has some basis in conferring an evolutionary advantage.  For other primates, forgiveness and reconciliation appear to go hand-in-hand, with the emphasis being on reconciliation itself in order to maintain both tolerance and cooperation.  Although primate and human social groups are complex, and conflict is inevitable, remaining within the group and cooperating in various ways (such as self-defense and food gathering) is essential for survival (de Waal, 2005).

Robert Enright and his colleagues are also well-known in the field of forgiveness studies, and they offer a definition of forgiveness that I find much more palatable.  They define forgiveness as the “willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and indifferent behavior toward one who unjustly injured us, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity, and even love toward him or her” (pg. 46-47; Enright et al., 1998).  The authors themselves point out four key aspects of this definition:

  • The offended person suffered an unjust wound.
  • The offended person willingly chooses to forgive.
  • The offended person’s new stance involves affect, cognition, and behavior
  • The offended person may offer forgiveness regardless of the offender’s current attitudes or behaviors.
    (pg. 47; Enright et al., 1998)

An important aspect of Enright’s approach to forgiveness is what’s not there:  there is no need for interaction with, or any attempt at reconciliation with, the individual who caused the harm in the first place.  If the person responsible for a very real injury (psychologically and/or physically) is still a threat, such as someone clearly abusive, it may be much better that reconciliation is not pursued.  Forgiveness can occur without reconciliation, but true reconciliation is difficult without forgiveness (see also, Coleman, 1998; Exline & Baumeister, 2000; Gordon et al., 2000; Kornfield, 2002; Witvliet, 2003; Worthington, 2006).

Enright (2012) goes on to suggest that we cultivate forgiveness within ourselves so that we might live a forgiving life.  The benefit of being able to give and receive love, according to Enright and a wealth of literature and philosophy, is the ability to be psychologically healthy and to have healthy families and communities (see Enright, 2012).  And since relationships often stumble (or worse), forgiveness is essential either for their healthy continuation or, at least, for the injured party to move on with their life.  In the final chapter of The Forgiving Life, Enright has this to say:

We have come to the end of the book, but your forgiveness journey has just begun.  It is my hope for you that you never reach the end of that journey because we never reach the end or perfection of the virtues, including forgiveness.  So, no matter what happens to you in this life, you have important work to do. (pg. 331; Enright, 2012)

What more can we say about the benefits of being a forgiving person?  First, can we help people to become more forgiving?  The answer to that question appears to be yes.  Indeed, a variety of approaches can be successful in helping individuals to develop forgiveness skills and a willingness to forgive (see Wade et al., 2005).  Consequently (as noted above), there are numerous personal and mental health benefits, including lower levels of depression, anxiety, grief, anger, and interpersonal sensitivity, as well as increases in hope and self-esteem, overcoming addiction, and enhanced quality of life and longevity in persons living with HIV/AIDS (see McCullough & Witvliet, 2005; Temoshok & Wald, 2005).  Thus, being a forgiving person does appear to confer numerous positive advantages in life.

Since it appears that being a forgiving person is beneficial to well-being, and that forgiveness can be developed/cultivated, how do we know if a person is forgiving?  There are numerous scales for measuring forgiveness.  Indeed, if it wasn’t already obvious, that’s what made the research cited above possible!  Actually, one of the reasons there are such a variety of forgiveness scales is that we haven’t settled on one clear definition of it (Thompson & Snyder, 2003).  Thus, different researchers often develop their own scale to suit their own needs.

Be that as it may, the list of forgiveness scales includes at least the following:  the Enright Forgiveness Inventory, the Willingness to Forgive Scale, the Forgiveness of Self and Forgiveness of Others (FS and FO) Scale, the Interpersonal Relationship Resolution Scale, the Multidimensional Forgiveness Inventory, and the Heartland Forgiveness Scale.  Although these scales have much in common, they differ in terms of addressing the different investigators’ conceptualizations of forgiveness itself and their research goals (Hoyt & McCullough, 2005; McCullough et al., 2000a; Tangney et al., 2005; Thompson & Snyder, 2003).

Finally, if you happened to take the VIA Survey of Character Strengths, which was introduced in Section II, you will have received a ranking for “forgiveness and mercy” among your 24 character strengths.  Remember, forgiveness (the Sacrament of Reconciliation) was the primary reason I joined the Roman Catholic Church once upon a time.  It must have been in recognition of a personal need, because I am not naturally a forgiving person.  Indeed, “forgiveness and mercy” is very low on my list of character strengths.  It ranks 22nd out of 24.  Perhaps I should take Robert Enright’s (2012) advice and cultivate a more forgiving life.  Or perhaps my interest in Buddhist compassion and mindfulness (see discussion of compassion and anger below) has led to a reasonable alternative.  One cannot say for sure.

Marriage and Forgiveness

For many people (if not most), marriage is the most significant and meaningful relationship they will choose to enter into in their life.  As we’ve seen, a healthy marriage is also strongly associated with psychological well-being.  However, most marriages end in divorce, and along the way one or both partners feel betrayed and hurt in ways that Holmes & Rahe (1967) considered extremely stressful (second only to the death of a spouse).

Given the psychological suffering that follows a divorce, it is not surprising that forgiveness is a topic often covered in relation to marriage counseling.  As the individuals in a broken relationship struggle, anger often leads to daily conflict, stress, and isolation.  Developing a regular practice of forgiveness can give the couple something positive to share in their lives, especially if tied to shared spiritual/religious beliefs (Krejci, 2004).  Guilt is also a common challenge, including being a challenge for the therapist.  Therapists do not typically tell their clients that the client is guilty of some transgression.  However, addressing such feelings (or the lack thereof) may be necessary to help the client develop empathy (e.g., Coleman, 1998).

Within marriage counseling, forgiveness can be a difficult process, one which should not be addressed too quickly.  Once the process is a possibility, however, Coleman (1998) has found that, if successful, it progress through five stages:

  • Identifying the Hurt
  • Confronting
  • The Dialogue to Understanding
  • Forgiving
  • Letting Go

Gordon and her colleagues (2000, 2005) have also found that the process of forgiveness in marriage counseling goes through a series of predictable stages.  From their perspective, there must first be a realistic view of the relationship, followed by a release from being controlled by negative affect (emotions) toward the marriage partner, and finally a reduction in the desire to punish the partner (i.e., less desire to seek revenge).  Another way to describe this process is to consider the first step as “understanding” what happened, the 2nd step as providing “meaning” to the relationship (which is essential to putting in the effort to continue that relationship), and finally choosing to “move on” (the 3rd step; Gordon et al., 2000).

In the end, however, not every marriage can be saved, and certainly there are situations where this is for the best, as well as times when forgiveness simply might not be an appropriate thing to do.  For example, forgiveness typically forgoes a process of healing, it might be taken advantage of, the person being forgiven might be offended, etc. (Puka, 2002); and additional special considerations apply when dealing with women who have been abused (e.g., they may be expected to be forgiving whether they are ready to forgive or not; see Lamb, 2002).  Nonetheless, there is often one person who wishes a marriage could still be saved, and that the parties might somehow reconcile.  When reconciliation is not going to occur, whatever the reason(s), the willingness to forgive might still play a vital role:

In a family, the effort to overcome deep hurt and betrayal often includes a desire for reconciliation on at least one member’s part.  Forgiveness is not reconciliation…it is not possible to reconcile truly without forgiving.  Consequently, forgiveness is a must in any family problem where there has been deep hurt, betrayal, or disloyalty.  If there can be no reconciliation, forgiveness is the process that enables the forgiver to get on with his or her life unencumbered with the pain of betrayal. (pg. 78; Coleman, 1998)

Additional Perspectives on Forgiveness

Fowers (2005) views forgiveness as an act of generosity, since it is something we give to others, and it can only be valued when it is given freely.  In particular, it is related to relationship commitments, especially with regard to turning negative emotion toward relationship-enhancing thoughts and actions.  While I find this notion intriguing, it is difficult to reconcile this concept with the categorization of virtues and strengths by Peterson & Seligman (2004), since they consider generosity to be an aspect of kindness, a strength found under the virtue of humanity.  Nonetheless, although forgiveness and generosity may fall under separate strengths and virtues, the concept of freely giving forgiveness can fit with most people’s concepts of generosity.  In the book on generosity I mentioned previously, there is one quote that seems to support Fowers’ notion of forgiveness as generosity:

Believe, when you are most unhappy, that there is something for you to do in the world.  So long as you can sweeten another’s pain, life is not in vain. (pg. 120; Helen Keller, cited in Bonner, 2014)

So far we’ve looked at forgiveness entirely as something aimed outward toward others.  Although we’ve considered that forgiveness is for our self, in that we let go of the past for our own well-being, it’s still directed toward the person(s) we are forgiving.  But what about our self?  There are times, perhaps particularly in therapeutic settings, when self-forgiveness becomes important as the third leg in the “forgiveness triad:” forgiving, receiving forgiveness, and self-forgiveness (Enright & the Human Development Study Group, 1996; Tangney et al., 2005).

When a person is in the role of transgressor, and this is something they are able to care about (i.e., they are not a psychopath [antisocial personality disorder]), they will experience feelings of guilt and/or shame.  Left unchecked, guilt, shame, and remorse can prove to be very debilitating (Tangney et al., 2005).  Although the process of self-forgiveness is very similar to forgiving others, there are two important differences.  First, self-forgiveness is more likely to be conditional.  For example, one forgives oneself only if one is committed to not making the same transgression again.  Second, self-forgiveness requires reconciliation with the person (yourself) being forgiven (see Holmgren, 2002; Tangney et al., 2005).

When we look at forgiveness from a Buddhist perspective, we see many of the same ideas present in Western concepts – that forgiveness frees us from an unpleasant past (Kornfield, 2002).

Forgiveness is a letting go of past suffering and betrayal, a release of the burden of pain and hate that we carry.
Forgiveness honors the heart’s greatest dignity.  Whenever we are lost, it brings us back to the ground of love.
With forgiveness we become unwilling to attack or wish harm to another.
Whenever we forgive, in small ways at home, or in great ways between nations, we free ourselves from the past.

It is hard to imagine a world without forgiveness.
Without forgiveness life would be unbearable.
Without forgiveness our lives are chained, forced to carry the sufferings of the past and repeat them with no release.
     (pp. 20-21; Kornfield, 2002)

Once again, in keeping with the perspective that forgiveness is different than forgetting, Jack Kornfield offers one of my favorite, yet most poignant, perspectives:

Forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past. (pg. 25; Kornfield, 2002)

In his book entitled Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames, Thich Nhat Hanh (2001) focuses primarily on helping people to restore damaged relationships in a Buddhist context (see also Umbreit et al., 2015).  He does not talk about forgiveness, and only briefly mentions reconciliation (though reconciliation is a common theme throughout the book), but rather encourages mindfulness and compassion.  In a typical Buddhist fashion, this begins with mindfulness of one’s own state of being (akin to self-forgiveness).  All in all, he encourages people to seek peace rather than punishment, in part because the latter will return in kind (ala karma).

The dharma [the teachings of the Buddha] can remove the heat of anger, and the fever of suffering.  It is a wisdom that can bring joy and peace in the here and the now.  Our strategy for peace and reconciliation should be based on this…We are primarily responsible for our anger, but we believe very naively that if we can say something or do something to punish the other person, we will suffer less.  This kind of belief should be uprooted.  Because whatever you do or say in a state of anger will only cause more damage in the relationship…You make the other person suffer, and he will try hard to say or do something back to get relief from his suffering…Trying to punish the other person is only going to make the situation worse.  Punishing the other person is self-punishment. (pp. 52-53; Thich Nhat Hanh, 2001)

For people living in Eastern and African cultures, which are typically collectivistic, social harmony is valued somewhat more highly than in the individualistic Western world.  When discord is present, forgiveness would certainly be a reasonable path back toward harmony.  Thus, one might expect people in places like the Far East and Africa to be more forgiving, and some research has suggested they are (Kadima Kadiangandu et al., 2007; Suwartono et al., 2007).  However, Paz et al. (2007, 2008) found contrary results comparing Europeans to Chinese and Christians (a Western religion) to Buddhists (an Eastern religion).  So it remains unclear whether there are predictable differences in one’s beliefs about forgiveness and/or willingness to forgive in the Eastern and Western worlds (see also Peterson & Seligman, 2004; Sandage & Williamson, 2005).

Compassion

Since compassion is integral to a Buddhist perspective on life, we encounter it in numerous places throughout this book.  We looked at compassion when we examined a Buddhist perspective on well-being, and we’ll address it again in the section on psychotherapy.  Nonetheless, I wanted to highlight it in this section as well, because it really is something of great value in the Western world as well.  And yet, it isn’t widely discussed in psychology (see, however, Ladner, 2004).

It’s surprising how many books on positive psychology make no mention of compassion whatsoever.  As someone with a background in studying Eastern and Buddhist philosophy and spirituality, this is hard for me to accept.  Be that as it may, I’m pleased to say there is a chapter on compassion (Cassell, 2005) in the Handbook of Positive Psychology (Snyder & Lopez, 2005), and Peterson & Seligman (2004) include it as an aspect of the strength kindness, under the virtue humanity.

Cassell (2005) considers compassion to be the word most commonly associated with how we feel when we experience the suffering of others.  He further suggests that there are three generally accepted requirements for compassion.  First, we must consider the troubles which evoked our feelings to be serious.  Second, the sufferers’ troubles must not be self-inflicted (i.e., the trouble is the result of an unjust fate).  And third, we must be able to see ourselves in the same predicament (the basis for empathy).  Cassell himself recognizes one problem with these requirements:  who is to judge the seriousness of an unfortunate situation?  Simply put, compassion is our emotion, and the person who is the object of our compassion may not even be aware that their situation is leading to feelings of compassion in other people (Cassell, 2005).

The core of compassion appears to be the process of connecting with another person (see also the quote below by the Dalai Lama).  At a deeper level, some consider compassion to be an essential component of being human.  And yet, we often fail to simply ask another person if they are suffering.  This failure to communicate can leads to problems in both directions, either assuming a person’s situation is not serious enough to cause suffering or assuming they must be suffering when, in fact, they have risen above the challenge (i.e., they are resilient; see Cassell, 2005).  Thus, our connection with others, our social interest as Alfred Adler called it (1929, 1964), is essential to our well-being.

Our knowledge of others is a central and constantly expanding feature of life.  In other words we share community – a “we-ness” where all are joined – and from which the absence of the sufferer who is withdrawn into the suffering can be recognized.  Thus, compassion is realized through all these methods – identification; knowledge of behaviors; the sights and sounds of suffering; the transfer of feelings; awareness of the change in goals and purposes of sufferers; the sense of absence of the sufferer from the group – and through their mutual reinforcement. (pg. 441; Cassell, 2005)

In Eastern/collectivistic cultures there tends to be an emphasis on harmony.  This is considered by some to be an extension of the importance they place on compassion, in contrast to the emphasis of individualistic societies in the West on one’s personal agency (Nisbett, 2003; Snyder & Lopez, 2005).  In other words, when your culture emphasizes compassion one naturally seeks harmony in order to avoid causing any suffering on the part of others.

Harmony has also not received much attention in the field of positive psychology, but it is definitely not to be confused with conformity.  Harmony does not involve surrendering one’s will to the norms of society or the social situation, but rather is a positive choice made for the benefit of all.

The Chinese were concerned less with issues of control of others or the environment than with self-control, so as to minimize friction with others in the family and village and to make it easier to obey the requirements of the state, administered by magistrates.  The ideal of happiness was not, as for the Greeks, a life allowing the free exercise of distinctive talents, but the satisfactions of a plain country life shared within a harmonious social network.  Whereas Greek vases and wine goblets show pictures of battles, athletic contests, and bacchanalian parties, ancient Chinese scrolls and porcelains depict scenes of family activities and rural pleasures. (pp. 5-6; Nisbett, 2003)

As noted earlier in this book, the religious people of Tibet believe that His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the current reincarnation of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.  Living in exile in India since 1959, he continues to seek a peaceful resolution resulting in freedom for Tibet.  He also works to deliberately cultivate feelings of compassion for the Chinese, believing that someday those who have harmed the people of Tibet will have to face the consequences of their actions (Dalai Lama, 2002).

If he is, indeed, Avalokiteshvara (aka, Chenrezig), and we do know that he received received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, we might expect the Dalai Lama to have something meaningful to say about compassion:

What is compassion?  Compassion is the wish that others be free of suffering…In the first step toward a compassionate heart, we must develop our empathy or closeness to others.  We must also recognize the gravity of their misery.  The closer we are to a person, the more unbearable we find that person’s suffering.  The closeness I speak of is not a physical proximity, nor need it be an emotional one.  It is a feeling of responsibility, of concern for a person.  In order to develop such closeness, we must reflect upon the virtues of cherishing the well-being of others.  (pp. 91-92; Dalai Lama, 2001)

It may not always be easy to exercise one’s compassion, living in a world where being self-centered seems to have become the norm.  However, Buddhism teaches us mindfulness:

With mindfulness, our natural compassion grows.  We can see that we are all carrying our own burden of tears.  You and everyone you meet are sharing in some measure of the pain present on the planet.  You are called upon to witness this pain – in yourself and others – with compassion.  But how can we do this when we live in a time where it seems we have lost contact with the power of mercy and compassion, when we have closed off to the suffering of ourselves and others? … it is necessary to learn that you are worthy of being loved.  Buddha put it quite simply: “You can search the whole tenfold universe and not find a single being more worthy of love and compassion than the one seated here – yourself.”  Self-compassion and self-forgiveness are not weaknesses, but the roots of our courage and magnanimity. (pp. 22-23; Kornfield, 2011)

Ram Dass and Mirahai Bush, in a moving book entitled Compassion in Action (1992), discuss the development of compassion in their own lives and in the lives of others.  As we’ve already seen, they believe compassion begins within ourselves, and then spreads out to others.

Compassion is the tender opening of our hearts to pain and suffering.  When compassion arises in us, we see and acknowledge what we often push away – the parts of life that cause us sadness, anger, or outrage.  The powerful awakening of our own compassion can tune us not just to the nurturing and sustaining forces of the world but to the oppressive and destructive ones as well.  When we open to these directly and become familiar with them, instead of avoiding them as we often do, we are more likely to hear ways to respond with love and support to relieve the suffering.  When the pain is our own, we want to end it.  If we can’t do this by ourselves, we long for help.  When it is not our cry, but someone else’s, compassion allows us to feel it as our own, to feel the same longing, to hear our hearts calling us to help. (pg. 4; Ram Dass & Bush, 1992)

Now let’s revisit the story of the Banyan Deer, which we covered earlier in the section on courage.  King Banyan (a deer) would not accept his freedom unless all other animals were granted their freedom from hunting as well.  What motivated his courage was his unbounded compassion for all other animals.  In this quote, the Banyan Deer is talking to the human king:

Too long have I lived with danger to let it fall so heavily on others now.  All the other four-footed animals of the forest will suffer terribly if I leave.  They will be hunted without limit or mercy.  How can I abandon them and be at peace myself, knowing that my freedom was bought at such a price?  I know the terrors of the hunt.  I, too, have lived in the midst of that fear.  Free them as well, Great King – if you really mean for me to be happy and at peace, it is the only way. (pg. 30; Martin, 2010)

 * * *

I don’t want to dwell on the following point, but something quite fascinating has happened in the marketing world.  Many of us are more than willing to have others do good works for us, and we support them with charitable donations.  We go about our busy lives, content in the belief that our money is being put to good use helping those in need (i.e., those who are suffering).

Corporations have picked up on this with slick marketing campaigns that tie their products to a wide variety of social causes.  It may have been a good idea at first, but in Compassion, Inc., Mara Einstein (2012) addresses the dangerous side of this trend:

The proliferation of cause campaigns has had negative effects on charitable giving overall.  In the short term, scholars have noted that cause-related marketing hinders further philanthropy – either through reduced financial giving or limiting volunteering – because consumers see their cause-related purchases as donations.  More broadly, there is concern that consumers have begun to suffer from “compassion fatigue.”  This term, originally applied to stressed-out caregivers, is now being attached to consumers, because shopping for a cause has become so ubiquitous…In response, people may simply tune out and say ‘no’ because they cannot process each and every request, or because they believe they have already donated enough…Thus, the ultimate outcome may be that cause campaigns desensitize us to real problems and trivialize serious concerns. (pg. 110; Einstein, 2012)

Creativity & Genius

Creativity and genius are distinct characteristics, but they are not unrelated.  In the field of positive psychology, creativity is the more common topic.  Indeed, it is recognized as one of the human strengths (under the virtue Wisdom & Knowledge; Peterson & Seligman, 2004).  Although genius (as the highest level of intelligence) is not recognized as a unique strength or virtue, its connections to both creativity and well-being are worthy of our attention.

Arthur Jensen described the interconnection of genius and creativity with regard to g (typically considered an abbreviation of ‘general intelligence,’ though Jensen considers that a wholly inadequate simplification; Jensen, 1998) as follows:

Creativity and genius are unrelated to g except that a person’s level of g acts as a threshold variable below which socially significant forms of creativity are highly improbable…Besides the traits that Galton thought necessary for “eminence” (viz., high ability, zeal, and persistence), genius implies outstanding creativity as well.  Though such exceptional creativity is conspicuously lacking in the vast majority of people who have a high IQ, it is probably impossible to find any creative geniuses with low IQs.  In other words, high ability is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the emergence of socially significant creativity. (pg. 577; Jensen, 1998)

Since we’ll pay a little more attention to these constructs in terms of creativity, let’s first address the relationship between genius per se (as in being highly intelligent) and well-being.

Genius

We’ve already examined the work of George Vaillant and his studies on the lives of men who went to Harvard University in late 1930s and early 1940s.  While those men may not have reached the actual level of genius, most students at Harvard are highly intelligent people.  Generally speaking, they’ve led good lives.  What was interesting, and a sign of the times, was that there weren’t any women at Harvard back then.  So, in part of his work, Vaillant used women who had been identified by Lewis Terman in his studies on gifted children.

Terman’s long-standing interest in the relationship between intelligence and life in general led to a famous, long-term study of children who had been identified as intellectually gifted (see, e.g., Terman, 1906/1975; Terman & Oden, 1947, 1959).  Terman stayed in touch with many of these children over the years (including outside the constraints of the study itself).  They thought of him like a godfather, and often referred to themselves as the “Termites” (Seagoe, 1975).

When they followed up on the success of these children 25 years later, on the whole they were doing quite well.  The group was well above average with regard to education, profession, income, publications and patents, and their contribution to the war effort during World War II (Terman & Oden, 1947).  A good number of the subjects had accomplished notable achievements.  However, the study at this point did not include any specific measure of well-being:

We have no yardstick for measuring the intangible achievements that make for contentment, and we venture no estimate of the success of our gifted subjects in this quest.  We do not even know whether they are more happy or less happy than the average person in the generality.  We do know that they are better fed, better housed, and better doctored than the average person, that they are in a position to care better for their children, and that they have less reason generally to be anxious about the future.  Such things cannot insure happiness, but they would seem to favor it. (pg. 372; Terman & Oden, 1947)

Ten years later, however, they did add one question to their study which, informally at least, measured well-being to some extent.  Upon publishing the 35-year follow-up, which came out shortly after Terman’s death, the gifted children as a group (now in middle age – generally 46 years old) had continued their overall success in life.  The final question that was added to their survey was, “From your point of view, what constitutes success in life?”  Among the most common answers, on 40-50% of the responses, four were clearly related to aspects of psychological well-being, with the fifth (though only reported by approximately 20% or the respondents) being an “adequate income for comfortable living.”  Those four most common responses as to what constitutes success in life were:

  • Realization of goals, vocational satisfaction, a sense of achievement;
  • A happy marriage and home life, bringing up a family satisfactorily;
  • Contributing to knowledge or welfare of mankind; helping others, leaving the world a better place;
  • Peace of mind, well-adjusted personality, adaptability, emotional maturity.
    (pg. 152; Terman & Oden, 1959)

So now we ask the question, “Were the subjects in Terman’s study merely gifted, or were some of them worthy of the title genius?”  Clearly they were gifted, but going back to what Jensen said (see above, Jensen, 1998), being a genius is something more than being very intelligent.  Indeed, the two follow-up studies by Terman & Oden (1947, 1959) leave the issue in question right in the titles of the books they published:  Genetic Studies of Genius, Vol. IV: The Gifted Child Grows Up and Genetic Studies of Genius, Vol. V: The Gifted Group at Mid-Life.  Terman & Oden refer to the subjects first as geniuses and then as gifted, without clarifying whether or not they actually achieved the additional characteristics of creativity which seem to define true genius.

Curiously, Terman & Oden (1947) do address the great challenge of achieving eminence (a word often associated with creative geniuses; see also Cassandro & Simonton, 2003; Eysenck, 1995), and they note:

That the group contains no one who shows promise of matching the eminence of Shakespeare, Goethe, Tolstoy, da Vinci, Newton, Galileo, Darwin, or Napoleon is not surprising in view of the fact that the entire population of America since the Jamestown settlement has not produced the like of one of these.  Such eminence in a given field is usually possible only at a given stage of cultural progress and can never be very closely paralleled in a different era. (pg. 370; Terman & Oden, 1947)

Robinson (2011) offers an interesting perspective on how our recognition of genius changes over time.  People who were once widely respected, might later be considered as geniuses, and vice versa.  The modern concept of genius, which refers to innate abilities or talents, derives from the Latin word ingenium, not from the Latin word genius, which refers more generally to a guardian spirit of a person, place, or thing (and is tied to fate and the rhythm of time; Robinson, 2011; see also Cassandro & Simonton, 2003; Eysenck, 1995).

More recently, given that Terman’s studies ended around the year of his death in 1956, others have continued in his footsteps (see Subotnik & Arnold, 1994).  Unfortunately, as with Terman’s studies, the focus was almost entirely on academic and career success, as opposed to well-being.  However, there were a few references to gifted students being actively involved in work, hobbies, and relationships (continuing into adulthood; Delcourt, 1994; Subotnik & Steiner, 1994), experiencing less stress and anxiety (thought they were not more curious, one of the 24 human strengths; Perleth & Heller, 1994), and the importance of father-son relationships in the development of success and potential eminence (Albert, 1994).  Although these factors are not direct measures of well-being, as noted above “they would seem to favor it” (Terman & Oden, 1947).

In conclusion, there appears to be a significant connection between genius and creativity, but that connection is essential only for the “genius.”  Highly intelligent people may achieve the distinction of being considered a genius (i.e., the achieve eminence) if, and only if, they are also creative.  As had Lewis Terman, the renowned personality theorist Hans Eysenck combined both terms in the title of his book Genius: The Natural History of Creativity (Eysenck, 1995).  However, that title is misleading, in that Eysenck was studying genius first, and considered creativity to be essential for it, whereas the title suggests that genius is a natural outcome of creativity (he does not suggest that circumstance).  Indeed, people who are considered creative need not be highly intelligent:

Perhaps we should think of a genius as a person who is both brilliant and creative at the same time.  But certainly a person can change the culture in significant ways without being a genius.  Although several of the people in our sample have been called a genius by the media, they – and the majority of creative individuals we interviewed – reject this designation. (pg. 27; Csikszentmihalyi, 1996)

Creativity

So, if genius is high intelligence combined with creativity, what then is creativity itself?  There appear to be two distinct aspects essential for the definition of creativity:  an act of creativity must be both unique/novel and it must be adaptive/practical (appropriate to the situation at hand).  In addition, it is important that the creative work is complete and valuable (Boon, 2014; Cassandro & Simonton, 2003; Kerr & Gagliardi, 2003; Peterson & Seligman, 2004; Simonton, 2005).  In other words, for a work to be recognized as truly creative, it must be both new and serve some purpose.

Given that it’s difficult to settle on one definition of creativity, it should not be surprising that there are different approaches to measuring creativity.  Three main lines of measurement have become common.  One can measure the creative process, the creative person, or the creative product (Averill, 2005; Cassandro & Simonton, 2003; Kerr & Gagliardi, 2003).

Tests of creativity that focus on the creative process emphasize divergent thinking over convergent thinking.  Convergent thinking serves to arrive at a single correct answer to some problem.  Typical intelligence tests emphasize this approach.  For example, questions like “how much is 2+2” or “who was the first president of the United States of America” do not require creative thought; either you know the correct answer or you don’t.  Divergent thinking, in contrast, suggests multiple answers, including those of considerable variety and originality.  Examples of creativity tests include the Alternate Uses test (how many ways can you use a common object, such as a paper clip or a brick) the Remote Associates Test (RAT), and the Consensual Assessment Technique (CAT; see Kaufman, 2016; Simonton, 2005).

The Guilford Battery is a classic test of creativity dating from the early 1960s (see Eysenck, 1995; Kerr & Gagliardi, 2003).  This battery of tests includes verbal and nonverbal tasks, which are timed and scored for fluency (number of responses) and originality.  The individual tests are:

  • Names for stories
  • What to do with it
  • Similar meanings
  • Writing sentences
  • Kinds of people
  • Make groups
  • Different letter groups
  • Making objects
  • Hidden letters
  • Adding decorations

Another well-known set of tests are the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT; see Eysenck, 1995; Kaufman, 2016; Kerr & Gagliardi, 2003).  Once again, there are figural (non-verbal) and verbal subtests.  A few examples of the items include:

  • Picture construction (figural)
  • Picture completion (figural)
  • Just suppose (verbal)
  • Unusual uses (verbal)

A particularly amusing set of items in the TTCT (at least from my perspective) is the “Ask-and-Guess.”  The subject is shown an ambiguous picture, followed by three tasks.  First, the subject is directed to ask as many questions as they can about the picture.  Second, they are directed to guess as many possible causes as they can for the pictured action.  And finally, they are directed to guess as many possible consequences as they can for the pictured action (see Kaufman, 2016).  Clearly this test would allow for a wide variety of answers both in terms of number (fluency) and originality.

For those who consider creativity to be primarily a cognitive process, tests of divergent thinking are an appropriate way to study creativity.  However, it has long been appreciated that aspects of personality other than intelligence were relevant.  From the early days of Terman’s research on genius, Catharine Cox found that persistence and motivation were as important as high intelligence for becoming a creative genius (see Cassandro & Simonton, 2003).  Creative people tend to possess characteristics that favor coming up with numerous and diverse ideas when faced with a problem/challenge.  They tend to be independent, nonconformist, and unconventional.  They also have a wide range of interests, greater openness to new experiences, and they demonstrate cognitive and behavioral flexibility and boldness (Boon, 2014; Kaufman, 2016; Simonton, 2005).

The popular personality test known as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator has been used to come up with a Creativity Index.  Apparently, creative people are more likely to score as introverted (as opposed to extroverted), intuitive (as opposed to sensing), thinking (as opposed to feeling), and perceiving (as opposed to judging) people.  I have good reason to know I was a pretty good scientist back in the day when my career focused on biomedical research.  As a scientist, I believe I was reasonably creative, and that it helped my scientific career.  However, on the MBTI, my profile is extroverted, sensing, thinking, and judging.  Do we have a problem here?  Actually, creative scientists score quite differently than creative artists on various measures of creativity; they tend to be somewhere between artistic people and those who are not particularly creative.  Scientific creativity appears to be somewhat different than artistic creativity, further complicating our understanding of what creativity may be.

There is one rather odd circumstance that we’ll only very briefly consider:  the relationship between mental illness and creativity.  First, it’s unclear whether such a relationship actually exists, although some investigators consider it a very real possibility (see Eysenck, 1995 for discussion, as well as Boon, 2014; Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2003).  Although Eysenck tends to favor a possible connection between psychoticism and creativity (as a causal factor and/or as a coping mechanism), he addresses a most critical issue:  if certain types of mental illness enhance creativity, would their treatment reduce creativity?  Simply put, the evidence is equivocal, and we cannot come to any clear conclusion (Eysenck, 1995).

Previously, we examined the relationship between flow, creativity, and personality.  Flow can play an important role in the creative process, and that role may be in enhancing the positive complexity of personality.  In Csikszentmihalyi’s study of creativity (1996), he emphasized the complexity of the creative personality.  He believes that creative individuals share a number of paradoxical personality dimensions:

  • they have a great deal of physical energy, but are often quiet and at rest
  • they tend to be smart, but can also seem naïve
  • they can be both playful yet are also disciplined
  • they alternate between imagination and fantasy on one hand, while rooted in a sense of reality on the other hand
  • they seem to harbor opposite tendencies on the continuum between introversion and extraversion
  • they can be both humble and proud at the same time
  • they transcend typical gender roles
  • they are thought to be rebellious and independent, but creativity must exist in opposition to internalized domains of culture
  • they are very passionate about their work, yet remain highly objective about it
  • their openness and sensitivity predisposes them to suffering and pain, but also to a great deal of enjoyment

Although Csikszentmihalyi acknowledges that this list may not be definitive, the key is the polarity of the creative individual’s personality.  From one pole they are capable of recognizing new ideas, and the other pole then makes it possible to develop novel ideas to the point of acceptance.  Experiencing flow leads to enjoyment and the consequent enhanced complexity of the personality.

Although most research on creativity focuses on either the creative process or the creative person, the true measure of creativity is its product – an actual act of creation (Cassandro & Simonton, 2003; Simonton, 2005).  To some extent, we can measure creativity by counting someone’s productivity.  For instance, inventors hold patents, scientists publish research articles, and artistic authors publish books, plays, and poetry.  However, as the old saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  In my own research, I consider some of my papers to be impressive, whereas others are more routine.  So, simply counting them seems inappropriate, as the degree of creativity varies greatly.  Did Shakespeare ever write a bad play?  Perhaps, but such a play would have been tossed aside and lost to history.  And it would do little to challenge the brilliance of his remaining works.

The relationship between age and creativity is complex.  Many creative geniuses exhibit a peak in their career, suggesting that as one gets older one becomes less creative.  However, it may be more a matter of becoming more conservative, and therefore not allowing oneself (whether consciously or unconsciously) to be as creative later in one’s life or career.  As for childhood, children are often more creative than adults, but they don’t have the knowledge and experience necessary for their creative impulses to take form until they’ve matured somewhat.  Consequently, during the lifespan, creativity grows, reaches a peak, and then typically declines later in life (Boon, 2014).

Although this pattern may be common for all domains, it appears that the age at which peaks are likely to occur is different for various disciplines.  For example, in areas such as math, chess, and musical performance the peak of creativity typically comes at an early age.  The reason for this may well be that in these clearly defined disciplines it is easier to identify the cutting edge, and then one can proceed toward creative innovation.  In fields such as literature or philosophy, however, it is more difficult (i.e., it takes longer) to define the parameters of what is routine vs. that which is truly creative (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2003).

When looking at the childhoods of creative geniuses, there is some debate as to what one sees.  It is generally agreed that they tend not to be first-born children, their families are economically and/or socially marginalized, they receive special training early in life, and they benefit from role models and mentors.  There is less agreement regarding two potential additional factors:  that they are intellectually precocious and that they suffer some childhood trauma (see Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2003).  In some cases, the interests of childhood stem from some area in which the child exhibits a competitive advantage to begin with, leading to praise and support that encourages continuing with that endeavor (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996).

Despite what is said above regarding an apparent decline in creativity in the later years of life, this is definitely not always the case.  Some individuals remain active very late in life, and both their productivity and their creativity continue unabated.  It then becomes important to distinguish between enduring engagement (staying in a field because either one needs to or it has become a habit) as compared to vital engagement.  Vital engagement refers to an absorbing and meaningful relationship with some domain (art, science, etc.) throughout one’s life (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996; Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2003).  Having forged a deep relationship with one’s domain of interest, continued fruitful activity is likely to occur until the very end of one’s life.

There are numerous topics in this book which overlap.  For example, we just re-examined flow and creativity, and earlier in this book we discussed resilience.  In The Resilient Self, Wolin & Wolin (1993) combined the resiliencies of creativity and humor.  Whereas other aspects of resiliency keep the wheels of reality rolling, creativity and humor allow the imagination to take over and rearrange one’s life to your own liking.  To some extent, this view of resiliency sounds like a distinction is being made between reason and emotion.  When such distinctions are made, in the Western view we typically favor reason over emotion.  But what about the relationship between creativity and emotions?

James Averill has noted that in our language non-emotional words typically have a positive connotation, whereas emotional words are most likely to have a negative connotation (at a rate of 2 to 1; see Averill, 2005).  However, he considers it possible that emotions can be a creative product.  When considering an emotional syndrome, such as anger, love, or grief, people typically use their emotion to fulfill some social role.  For example, people are somber at a wake or funeral.  However, this is not always the case.  The Irish wake is infamous for being a drunken party which celebrates the life of the dead person, and some cultures have something of a family reunion prior to the aged person going off to die in the wilderness.  Personally, I once watched a young child get hurt during playtime at the gym.  He looked around, walked over to near where his mother was sitting, and then began to cry.  Clearly, his emotional response was used for an effective purpose, and he had realized it made no sense to cry if his mother couldn’t hear him.

Averill suggests that we can use our emotional states and responses in creative ways to achieve some goal, particularly in the arts and with regard to the mysticism of everyday life – spiritualizing the passions as he calls it (though he acknowledges borrowing the term from Nietzsche; see Averill, 2005).  Unfortunately, this sort of creativity can create challenges for the individual (see also the discussion that follows):

Emotions embody the values of a society.  If, for example, you strip all connotations of right and wrong, of good and bad, from concepts such as love, anger, grief, and fear, you also strip them of much of their meaning…Mystical experiences tend to transcend ideological boundaries and hence pose a threat to accepted creeds.  Claims to authenticity – a hallmark of spirituality as well as creativity – only exacerbate the apostasy.  In such instances, recognition of the experience as effective may be long delayed…But if the task seems difficult and the goal elusive, that is no reason for discouragement.  Positive psychology promises challenge more than comfort; emotional creativity is part of that challenge. (pg. 182; Averill, 2005)

* * *

Although we typically view creativity in a positive light, it can become something dangerous.  For example, the Manhattan project resulted in the creation of the first atomic bombs.  Although nuclear power, another result of this line of research, has benefited mankind greatly, nuclear weapons have created a very real potential for almost unimaginable death and destruction.  And yet, those first atomic bombs have been credited with saving as many as a million American lives (the estimated cost in human lives had we invaded the Japanese homeland at the end of World War II – and that’s not counting the estimated cost in Japanese lives!).  Therefore, “negative creativity” is not bad per se, and must be distinguished from “malevolent creativity” (Kaufman, 2016).

There is an old saying that an artist must suffer for their art.  Although it could be argued that the examples of creative geniuses who suffer from psychological disorders are merely anecdotal, given that there are very few people recognized as creative geniuses and many of us are familiar with stories of their struggles, it gives one pause to think.  Without going into much detail, here are just a few examples of eminent individuals who struggled with psychological issues/disorders:

  • Charles Dickens – his writing expressed his profound feelings of inferiority as the result of living in a debtor’s prison for a time during his childhood and he railed against the injustices of society.
  • Franz Kafka – having suffered an abusive childhood, his writing often reflects the confusion of the struggle that such a child lives through.
  • Gustav Mahler and Sergei Rachmaninov – these musicians turned personal tragedies into the motivation for some of their best compositions.
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – having become fatally ill due to a heart condition, Mozart wrote his Requiem Mass knowing that he would soon die (indeed, he died before it was complete).
  • Edvard Munch – having experienced a childhood surrounded by illness and death (both of his parents, a brother, and a sister all died while he was young), Munch painted his expressionistic view of the realities of life. His most famous painting is well known in the field of psychology:  The Scream (aka, The Cry).
  • Vincent van Gogh – one of the most famous painters of all time, he is almost equally famous for his mental torment and emotional instability, much of his best work was completed during the last three years of his life, which ended in suicide.
    (for additional examples and more detail see Amada, 1999)

Malevolent creativity is typically seen in either criminal activity or terrorism (Kaufman, 2016).  During the second Iraq war, most of the casualties were caused by IEDs (improvised explosive devices).  We’ve all heard about suicide bombers wearing explosive vests (for a theoretical discussion of the psychological processes involved in becoming a suicide bomber see Moghaddam, 2005, 2006), and recently a movie was released about the 2013 terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon (where bombs were hidden inside backpacks so the terrorists could get close to their target sites).

The relationship between creativity and ethical behavior is odd.  Although research has shown that creativity cannot predict a person’s ethical behavior, it has also been suggested that creative people are more likely to feel entitled, make unethical justifications, and then behave unethically (see Kaufman, 2016).  How we might deal with this reality is somewhat beyond the scope, and also outside the domain, of this project.

Strengths Within Transcendence:  Gratitude, Hope (& Optimism), and Humor

The virtue transcendence contains several strengths which are covered in most positive psychology textbooks.  Perhaps this should not be at all surprising, since Peterson & Seligman (2004) define transcendence as “strengths that forge connections to the larger universe and provide meaning.”  That could serve as a definition of positive psychology as well.  Thus, in this section we will examine the strengths of gratitude, hope (an aspect of which is optimism), and humor.

Gratitude, hope, and optimism are not only valuable for living a good life, but they also appear to be related to living a longer life.  There has been some fascinating research done based on the “Nun Study.”  In 1930, a group of nuns were asked to write a short autobiography.  In the early 1990s, those who could be located were asked to participate in a study of longevity and health (in particular, Alzheimer’s Disease).  Danner et al. (2001) took advantage of this extraordinary group to examine whether positive emotion (as expressed in the autobiographies) was related to longevity.

When the autobiographies were scored for the expression of positive or negative emotion, some were high in positive emotion but others were low (more matter of fact, merely describing the reality of their choice to pursue a religious life).  Among the positive emotions expressed, happiness was the most common and love was third (two topics we have covered); whereas interest was second (positive engagement is related to optimism), hope was fourth, and gratefulness was fifth.  Here are the examples used to demonstrate low vs. high positive emotion:

Sister 1 (low positive emotion): I was born on September 26, 1909, the eldest of seven children, five girls and two boys…My candidate year was spent in the Motherhouse, teaching Chemistry and Second Year Latin at Notre Dame Institute. With God’s grace, I intend to do my best for our Order, for the spread of religion and for my personal sanctification.
Sister 2 (high positive emotion): God started my life off well by bestowing upon me a grace of inestimable value… The past year which I have spent as a candidate studying at Notre Dame College has been a very happy one. Now I look forward with eager joy to receiving the Holy Habit of Our Lady and to a life of union with Love Divine.
     (pg. 806; Danner et al., 2001)

So, what was the relationship between positive emotion and longevity?  Those nuns whose autobiographies were scored as highest in positive emotion were 2.5x more like to survive into their nineties than those who scored the least positive (Danner et al., 2001).  Although happiness and love were highly significant, so were gratitude, hope and optimism.  Given Peterson & Seligman’s (2004) definition of transcendence, and the nature of a religious/spiritual life, it makes sense that nuns who approach their faith in a positive way would experience those aspects of transcendence (i.e., gratitude, hope, and optimism).  What may be surprising, however, is that it actually relates to an apparent prolongation of that life!

Gratitude

Gratitude is a pleasant feeling (joyful) that we have when we realize that we’ve been given a gift.  Such gifts can be quite tangible, like a birthday present, or more spiritual/transpersonal, such as feeling grateful for a beautiful day or a wonderful life.  There appear to be three elements related to gratitude:  a sense of thankfulness toward the person (or whatever) who has given us our gift, positive feelings toward that person, and an increased desire/motivation to be more giving ourselves, both for the one to whom we are grateful to as well as to others (McCullough et al., 2001; Peterson & Seligman, 2004).

Gratitude can be viewed as either a situational mood (i.e., we get a present and we feel grateful) or as a trait (an enduring quality of thankfulness that extends over time and across situations).  Regardless, it is a complex emotion that does not arise until later in childhood (see McCullough et al., 2004; Peterson & Seligman, 2004).  Once a child has developed the cognitive capacity to experience gratitude, it can be further nurtured (as it can be in adults).  Emmons & McCullough (2003) conducted a series of experiments in which they had students (or others, in the case of their third study) either reflect on things they were grateful for in life or keep a daily journal of such items.  Heightening one’s awareness of gratitude tended to result in feeling better about one’s life (including being more optimistic about the near future), having fewer negative physical symptoms, and engaging in a healthier lifestyle (e.g., exercising more).

Although research on gratitude is still fairly new, a number of measures have been developed to measure it, including the Gratitude Adjective Checklist, the GRAT (gratitude, resentment, appreciation test), the Gratitude Questionnaire, and the use of free responses (Bono & Froh, 2009; Emmons et al., 2003; Peterson & Seligman, 2004).  For those with a grateful disposition, there appear to be four facets:  intensity (how strong one’s feelings of gratitude are), frequency (how often one feels grateful or for how many little things one feels grateful for), span (the range of things for which one feels grateful), and density (how many people one attributes their gratitude to; Emmons et al., 2003).

When dealing with children, it can be somewhat difficult to distinguish gratitude from social politeness.  Nonetheless, when school-age children were instructed to “count blessings” they soon had higher levels of optimism, life satisfaction, and they were more satisfied with school (which leads to a greater desire to attend school, better feelings about being in school, and, consequently, better school performance).  When school children were further asked to reflect on the things they were grateful for, and why they were grateful, those children often became more socially aware and empathic (i.e., they began to understand that others might not have as much to be grateful for; Bono & Froh, 2009).

The desire to form strong social ties is a fundamental need, and securing strong and supportive relationships early on can provide the bedrock for many positive outcomes in human development.  Experiencing and expressing gratitude is one way for youths (and adults) to boost their mood, strengthen their social ties, and cultivate a sense of purposeful engagement with the world. (pp. 84-85; Bono & Froh, 2009)

Overall, grateful people tend to report higher levels of positive emotions, life satisfaction, vitality, and optimism, and they report lower levels of depression, stress, and physical problems/symptoms.  Gratitude has a long and positive history in moral philosophy, so it’s not at all surprising that it is widely valued in many cultures and spiritual traditions (see Emmons & Shelton, 2005; Peterson & Seligman, 2004).  According to Vaillant, who spent decades studying the men in the Harvard Grant Study, gratitude is an essential component of a long and meaningful life:

…I wish to examine a thread that ran through the lives of many of the men as they matured, a thread of spiritual growth or, for want of a better term, religious wonder.  Others may prefer to call the process moral development… Mature defenses grow out of our brain’s evolving capacity to master, assimilate, and feel grateful for life, living, and experience.  Such gratitude encompasses the capacity for wonder. (pg. 337; Vaillant, 1993)

Hope

 There are conflicting myths as to the origin of hope.  In the classic Bulfinch’s Mythology (Martin, 1991), the first myth suggests that Zeus sent Pandora (the first woman) to the Titans Prometheus and Epimetheus (who had created man) as punishment for stealing fire from heaven and giving it to man.  Epimetheus had a box full of things of no use to man (indeed, they would become plagues), which Pandora opened out of curiosity.  After all the plagues had escaped, only hope remained.  In the second myth, Zeus sent Pandora as a gift, with a box full of wedding blessings from the gods.  However, Pandora impatiently opened the box, allowing all the blessings to escape.  Once again, only hope remained (Martin, 1991).

Peterson & Seligman (2004) include optimism within the strength of hope, noting that hope is more emotional, whereas optimism has more to do with expectations.  However, most positive psychology textbooks and handbooks treat them as separate topics (e.g., Gilman et al., 2009; Lopez & Snyder, 2003; Snyder & Lopez, 2005).  So we’ll examine hope first, and then we’ll turn to optimism and explanatory style.

Snyder (1994) described hope as the willpower and waypower to achieve one’s goals.  Willpower underlies the motivation to move from where you are toward your goals, and waypower refers to your cognitive understanding of how to actually achieve those goals.  Understanding this definition is greatly enhanced by considering what hope is not:  it is not Pollyanna optimism, learned optimism, Type A behavior, emotion/self-esteem, intelligence or previous achievement, useless, or vague.  As for why it isn’t vague, there are several scales for measuring hope (see below).

One of the advantages of being hopeful is that it helps one to cope with life.  According to Snyder (1994), individuals with high levels of hope tend to naturally cope effectively because of the following attributes:  they minimize the negative, they look outward and problem solve, they call on friends, laugh, pray, exercise and watch their health, and they age gracefully.  This appears to be true for both men and women, as well as most racial/ethnic groups in the West (with the exception of Asian-Americans, who appear less hopeful; see Peterson & Seligman, 2004; Snyder, 1994).

According to Erik Erikson, hope is the successful outcome of the first psychosocial crisis in development (developing trust vs. mistrust; Erikson, 1950, 1968).  If we learn as infants that we can basically trust our caregivers, who will never be perfect, we learn to hope that they will be there soon when they are not there immediately.  Hope can then provide a framework within which we face and work to overcome challenges in our lives.  Parents can nurture hope in their children by helping them to set goals and then encouraging them to stretch those goals and strive toward new heights.  The success with which we face these challenges will then largely determine how hopeful we are as adults (Snyder, 1994).

Snyder et al. (2005) have further defined hope in terms of pursuing goals through both pathways thinking and agency thinking.  Pathways thinking pertains to believing in one’s ability to generate workable paths to achieving one’s goals, whereas agency thinking refers to the motivational component of hope.  These are not separate functions, but rather work together:

In the progression of hopeful thinking in the goal-pursuit sequence, we hypothesize that pathways thinking increases agency thinking, which, in turn, yields further pathways thinking, and so on.  Overall, therefore, pathway and agency thoughts are iterative as well as additive over the course of a given sequence of goal-directed cognitions… (pg. 258; Snyder et al., 2005)

As we saw with gratitude, hope can be either a state (one’s current mood) or a trait (a general attitude of hopefulness in one’s life; see Lopez et al., 2009; Snyder et al., 2005).  Hope can also be viewed as either an emotion or a cognition (Lopez et al., 2003b).  Given these differing definitions/perspectives, there are numerous tests for the measurement of hope, including the Trait Hope Scale, the State Hope Scale, the Children’s Hope Scale, and observational measures can be used as well, such as scoring written passages for indications of hopeful thinking or actions (Edwards et al., 2007; Lopez et al., 2003b; Snyder et al., 2005).

For individuals who have high levels of hope there are numerous benefits.  Across various levels of education, hope is correlated with higher achievement test scores and better grade point averages, as well as higher graduation and lower dropout rates.  Athletes who score high on hope tend to perform better, and for most people their overall health is better if they are hopeful.  When people do become ill or injured, hope proves to be an important and effective coping mechanism.  These health benefits are not only physical.  Hopeful college students feel more inspired, energized, confident, and they have higher levels of self-worth, while also exhibiting lower levels of depression and stress.  Overall, hope is related to feelings of positive emotion, life satisfaction, and a sense of well-being (Edwards et al., 2007; Lopez et al., 2009; Snyder et al., 2005).

Optimism

Pangloss taught metaphysico-theologo-cosmonigology.  He proved admirably that in this best of all possible worlds, His Lordship’s castle was the most beautiful of castles, and Her Ladyship the best of all possible baronesses.
“It is demonstrated,” said he, “that things cannot be otherwise:  for, since everything was made for a purpose, everything is necessarily for the best purpose.  Note that noses were made to wear spectacles; we therefore have spectacles.  Legs are clearly devised to wear breeches, and we have breeches.  Stones were created to be hewn and made into castles; His Lordship therefore has a very beautiful castle:  the greatest baron in the province must have the finest residence.  And since pigs were made to be eaten, we eat pork all year round.  Therefore, those who have maintained that all is well have been talking nonsense:  they should have maintained that all is for the best.”
     (p. 18; Voltaire, 1759/1959)

Optimism and hope are both future-minded orientations, in which we believe (or wish) things will work out for the better in the future (Peterson & Seligman, 2004).  As noted in the previous section, optimism is about expectations, whereas hope is more emotional.  The book from which the preceding quote is taken, Candide, or Optimism, is a satirical work which mocks what we referred to as hope not being – Pollyana-ish optimism.  But reasonable optimism, a generally positive attitude regarding future outcomes, appears to be something of significant value.  It appears that an important factor is the explanatory style a person develops.  In other words, how do they explain what happens in life and how (or if) the events of life are connected.

Peterson et al. (1988) found that men with pessimistic explanatory styles (stable, global, and internal) at age 25 are significantly less healthy later in life, even when controlling for factors such as initial physical and emotional health.  While it does not appear that this psychological factor is critical in young adulthood, as health becomes more variable in middle age the psychological factor of pessimism comes to the fore.  This may be the result of its influence on such things as lifestyle, self-care, and social support.  Indeed, in a surprising twist, an optimistic explanatory style tends to predict depression in response to stressful events in older adults, perhaps due to their expectations that things will be OK, particularly with regard to one’s health, but then they aren’t OK because they are, in fact, getting old (Isaacowitz & Seligman, 2001; Peterson & Seligman, 2004)!

Nonetheless, most research has shown that people who are optimistic following stressful events tend to experience less depression and hostility, they have higher levels of subjective well-being and a better quality of life, and they are more resilient against distress during prolonged medical treatment and its follow-up (see Abramson et al., 2000; Carver & Scheier, 2005; Mosing et al., 2011).  In addition, for caregivers attending to those with prolonged medical conditions, those caregivers who were optimistic experienced less depression, less of an impact on their physical health, and they adjusted better in their daily lives (see Carver & Scheier, 2005).

The relationship between optimism and pessimism may have a lot to do with coping with life’s challenges.  Optimism leads to working toward one’s goals, since there is an expectancy that things will work out well.  Thus, optimistic people are more highly motivated to work toward the resolution of challenges in life.  In contrast, pessimistic people are more likely to give up, which can lead a person to turn instead to unhealthy forms of coping, such as substance abuse (Carver & Scheier, 2003, 2005; Hamvai & Piko, 2011).  Then again, excessive optimism might lead some people to ignore real problems until it is too late, merely hoping that things will work out while, unfortunately, a minor medical problem, for example, becomes life threatening (Carver & Scheier, 2005).

For students, whether in grade school or college, optimism is related to being better able to adjust to stressful situations and challenges.  For school-aged children, a pessimistic explanatory style was positively correlated with anxiety, depression, and dysfunctional attitudes.  As might be expected, these children failed to fulfill their potential in school.  There have been a few studies looking at the ability to develop optimism in children, with mixed results.  What appears to be needed are longitudinal studies to assess whether programs aimed at promoting optimism have sustained effects over a longer period of time (see Boman et al., 2009; Carver & Scheier, 2005).

There are a number of tests available for measuring optimism, including the Life Orientation Test, the Attributional Style Questionnaire, the Children’s Attributional Style Questionnaire, the Hopelessness Scale, the Generalized Expectancy of Success Scale, and the Optimism-Pessimism Scale (Carver & Scheier, 2003; Reivich & Gillham, 2003; Seligman et al., 1995).  You can go to the Authentic Happiness Website, which is maintain by Martin Seligman at Penn, and take an optimism/hopefulness test for yourself, and see how you compare to a variety of other groups (for my results see below; the site is www.positivepsychology.org).  As we saw with hope, collectivistic cultures express less optimism than individualistic cultures (although there may at times be collective optimism; Peterson & Chang, 2003), and people in communistic countries tend to be quite pessimistic (Chang, 2002; Peterson & Seligman, 2004).

Although Christopher Peterson’s early work focused on the pessimistic explanatory style, more recently he and his colleagues have shifted their focus to the optimistic explanatory style.  Although some data are conflicting, in some studies an optimistic explanatory style is associated with good health (Peterson & Bossio, 2002; Peterson & Chang, 2003; Peterson & Steen, 2005).

It is not clear where one’s explanatory style comes from.  While there appears to be a genetic influence, the role of parenting in determining the explanatory style of children is not at all clear (see, e.g., Fincham, 2000; Mosing et al., 2011; Zuckerman, 2002).  Unfortunately, one type of parenting does appear to have detrimental effects.  Having abusive parents is traumatic, and trauma can result in a pessimistic explanatory style (Peterson & Steen, 2005).  On the positive side, however, optimistic individuals tend to be more likely to put themselves in situations where more good things are possible, suggesting further that optimism and its consequent benefits, which lead to greater optimism, may be mutually reinforcing (Hamvai & Piko, 2011; Peterson & Chang, 2003).

In 1995, Martin Seligman and several colleagues published The Optimistic Child.  Aiming to counter the effects of learned helplessness and depression, and in response to the failed movement to increase children’s self-esteem (in unrealistic ways), they were interested in providing parents (and others) with the tools to help children learn “the skills of a flexible and reality-based optimism” (pg. 9; Seligman et al., 1995).  Not surprisingly, they address one’s personal attributional style (aka, explanatory style).  The general theory of attribution in psychology focuses on three main elements:  permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization (aka, stable vs. unstable, global vs. specific, and internal vs. external).  Optimistic people see bad events as temporary and good events as permanent.  They see bad events as specific, and good events as global.  And finally, they see bad events as internal in a general way (self-critical, self-blaming; e.g., I failed because I’m stupid) and they see good events as internal in behavioral ways (e.g., I did well because I studied).

In discussing the Penn Prevention Program, designed to prevent pessimism and depression, the approach taken by Seligman and his colleagues is a classical cognitive therapy design.  First they set up an understanding of the ABC’s:  adversity, beliefs, and consequences.  The program is then expanded to include DE:  disputation and energization, steps necessary to forge ahead with the program.  The also discuss how all of this can be taught to children.

Ultimately, they come to a five-step process for problem solving:

  • Slow down
  • Take perspective
  • Set goals
  • Choose a path
  • How did it go?
    (pp. 241-260; Seligman et al., 1995)

* * *

On the Authentic Happiness website you can take the Gratitude Survey and the Optimism Test (which also provides a hopefulness score).  I was recently joking with a friend about not having these attributes, and then I remembered I’d taken these test and could check my scores.  I also took the VIA Survey of Character Strengths, so where these strengths rank on my list of virtues is also available.

While talking to my friend, I corrected myself and said I was definitely grateful for certain things in my life.  Indeed, my score on the Gratitude Survey put me at approximately the 70th percentile.  In other words, I am more grateful for various aspects of my life than ~70% of other people.  Since the 50th percentile is average, I’m well above average on this measure of gratitude.

On the different aspects of the Optimism Test, I vary between average and quite pessimistic.  As for the hopefulness score, which ranges from -16 to 16, I score a -1, which is moderately hopeless.  This is not entirely surprising, since I have struggled with depression most of my life.  And yet, I don’t consider this a bad thing, necessarily.  It has been shown that mildly depressed people are more accurate, more realistic in their assessment of the connections between life’s events (Alloy & Abramson, 1979).  Since my primary strengths (as confirmed by the VIA Survey) have to do with wisdom, knowledge, and processing information, accuracy is something I value highly.  It served me well as a research scientist.

As expected, on my list of character strengths, gratitude (13/24) comes in somewhat higher than hope (19/24).  Interestingly, hope is not at the bottom of my list.  So, as my hopefulness score indicates, my life is not devoid of any hope.  That’s definitely a good thing!

Humor

At our college, like many others, we have a strategic plan.  Since we keep creating new strategic plans, many people just don’t take the plan seriously.  Recently, at a college-wide meeting, one of the presenters intended to make reference to the strategic plan, but instead she referred to the “strategic bland.”  Sometimes Freudian slips can be pretty funny!

Even those who know little about psychology have probably heard of Freudian slips.  What most people, even those in the field of psychology, don’t know, however, is that one of Sigmund Freud’s earliest books was Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (Freud, 1905/1960).  This book was not intended to be funny, or to explain what it is that makes a joke funny in any general sense.  Instead, Freud described humor as a means to release pent up tension and psychic energy as a defense mechanism against anxiety.  Consequently, he was more interested in the purpose of telling a joke than in any general principle of humor.

For example, among the so-called tendentious jokes (jokes that serve a purpose), he described four classes:  exposing or obscene jokes, aggressive jokes, cynical jokes, and skeptical jokes.  The following is an example he included of a skeptical joke.  Personally, I see no humor in this joke whatsoever.  By the way, Freud’s family was Jewish, though he was an atheist, and he included a number of Jewish jokes in his book.

Two Jews met in a railway carriage at a station in Galicia.  “Where are you going?” asked one.  “To Cracow,” was the answer.  “What a liar you are!” broke out the other.  “If you say you’re going to Cracow, you want me to believe you’re going to Lemberg.  But I know that in fact you’re going to Cracow.  So why are you lying to me?” (pp. 137-138)

Freud was not the only one to consider dark humor as an understandable coping mechanism when dealing with negative emotions and traumatic situations.  George Vaillant considered humor to be a mature defense mechanism, and Victor Frankl discussed how humor helped prisoners in the Nazi concentration camps separate themselves from the pain and suffering of their lives, even if only for a moment (see Amada, 1999; Lefcourt, 2005).  For further discussion of the dark side of humor, as well as plenty of amusingly nasty jokes (if you enjoy such things), see the chapter on humor in Amada’s book The Power of Negative Thinking (1999).

There was a time when humor was seen as something entirely negative, even evil.  In those times, even something as routine today as applause was considered a form of mocking behavior (Carroll, 2014; Lefcourt, 2005).  Freud shared one such example in line with this old way of thinking:

When on one occasion Phocion [an Athenian statesman] was applauded after making a speech, he turned to his friends and asked: “What have I said that’s stupid, then?” (pg. 67; Freud, 1905/1960)

Over time, however, physicians began to see the value of laughter with regard to a person’s physical health.  As early as the 13th century, doctors began to consider laughter as helpful in recovery from surgery, good for blood flow and the complexion, an aid to digestion, and even a form of exercise (see Lefcourt, 2005; see, however, Devereux & Heffner, 2007).  Current research has confirmed and extended these early suggestions.  For example, humor serves as a stress moderating factor in accordance with an emotion-focused coping strategy, and higher scores on humor are related to lower levels of depression and irritability.  Humor also helps people to recover from illness and injury/surgery, enhances immune system function, and helps people cope with the challenges of facing death (possible or actual death of oneself and/or loved ones; see Devereux & Heffner, 2007; Lefcourt, 2005).  Humor can also play an important role in coping with disabilities.  Making light of a seemingly overwhelming or uncontrollable situation can help to restore some feeling of control, and there appears to be a positive relationship between humor and self-concept and vitality (see Reuman et al., 2013).

If humor is, indeed, a beneficial positive asset, it would be valuable to actually define it.  However, since there are different forms of humor it has defied a simple definition; the definition has clearly changed over time as well.  The definition of what is funny is also something different than defining a sense of humor, which may actually be a personality trait.  Efforts to enhance a person’s sense of humor in a psychotherapeutic setting have proven problematic, likely owing to the fact that we can’t clearly define it in the first place (see Lefcourt, 2005; Peterson & Seligman, 2004).

Attempting to define humor from the perspective of primarily jokes, Carroll (2014) discusses several possibilities, including the superiority theory (e.g., bigotry jokes, jokes which humiliate or demean a particular group), release theory (e.g., Freud’s suggestion that humor releases pent up anxiety), play theory (e.g., jokes that are simply silly), and the category which Carroll considers the most relevant/important – incongruity theory (e.g., a twist or absurdity).

Carroll (2014) goes on to address something that others often neglect, and he uses this to support his perspective that incongruity theory is the most important way to define/identify humor.  What is the purpose of humor/laughter in the first place?  In other words, what vital human interest does humor serve?  The enjoyment of absurd perspectives encourages us to see the world, and the objects in it, in different ways.  Recognizing the incongruency, however, then serves to reinforce our concepts and schemas of what is normal, thus helping us to make sense of the world around us (Carroll, 2014).  In simpler terms, we enjoy learning how the world works!

There are numerous measures of humor available, including the Humorous Behavior Q-Sort Deck, the State-Trait Cheerfulness Inventory, the Humor Styles Questionnaire, the 3 WD Test of Humor Appreciation, the Sense of Humor Questionnaire, the Multidimensional Sense of Humor Questionnaire, and two tests developed by Martin & Lefcourt, the Coping Humor Scale (CHS) and the Situational Humor Response Questionnaire (SHRQ; see Lefcourt, 2005; Martin, 2003; Peterson & Seligman, 2004).  Each of these tests is useful in its own way, but an interesting difference was discovered between the CHS and the SHRQ.  Apparently the SHRQ is more predictive of male humor, whereas the CHS is more predictive of female humor.  The humor preferred by males tends to be more derisive and divisive (consider, e.g., the superiority theory of what is humorous), whereas humor preferred by females typically promotes social cohesion (see Lefcourt, 2005).  This is clearly an area where further research is warranted.

The most obvious effect of humor or a good joke is laughter, which also serves as a measure of how humorous or funny something is for us.  Conversely, if a joke fails to make us laugh, we don’t consider it to be very funny.  So, what is laughter and what do we know about it?  First and foremost, laughter is apparently not uniquely human – rats, dogs, and chimpanzees appear to laugh as we do (see Panksepp, 2005, 2007; Panksepp & Burgdorf, 2000, 2003).

Laughter itself is difficult to define, in part due to its multifaceted collection of facial, postural, acoustic, and physiological properties.  There are also several different kinds of laughter.  However, laughter seems to be primarily a social phenomenon, and it occurs more quickly when it is specifically social than when it is either tension release, in response to humor, or the result of tickling (in that order).  Indeed, laughter seems to be primarily for others, as a display that sets the stage for prosocial behaviors like cooperation and bonding (see Devereux & Heffner, 2007).

Devereux & Heffner (2007) argue in favor of physiological studies of laughter, because there is an inherent problem with questionnaires:  when you interrupt the situation to have a subject fill out a questionnaire, they typically stop laughing.  The may still find the situation humorous, suggesting that questionnaire measures of humor may be fine (as briefly noted above), but laughter itself is more spontaneous and short-lived.  In addition, there appear to be brain regions specifically related to the behavior of laughing, though some of these studies are suspect since the subjects were having their brain activity monitored due to the occurrence of seizures (see Devereux & Heffner, 2007).

In Section V we’ll take a look at the need for positivity with regard to stigmatized groups.  Although there isn’t anything funny about being disabled, Dietz (2000) emphasized the importance of maintaining your sense of humor while trying to cope (see also Martin, 2003; Reuman et al., 2013).  Humor provides a source of enjoyment and makes life easier for everyone (provided jokes aren’t demeaning, or at the expense of someone).  The renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease) has joked about some of the equipment he needs to communicate with others:

I have also given a number of…popular talks.  They have been well received.  I think that is in a large part due to the quality of the speech synthesizer…One’s voice is very important.  If you have a slurred voice, people are likely to treat you as mentally deficient.  This synthesizer is by far the best I have heard because it varies the intonation and doesn’t speak like a Dalek.  The only trouble is that it gives me an American accent.  However, by now I identify with its voice.  I would not want to change even if I were offered a British-sounding voice. (pg. 26; Hawking, 1993) – Note:  The Daleks are a race of evil cyborgs from the classic British science fiction series “Dr. Who.”

* * *

Personally, I like simple jokes.  For example:  A fish was swimming along, and he hit his head on some concrete.  He said, “Dam!”  After hearing this joke I made one up.  I know that at least one other person made up the same joke, because I saw it on a t-shirt on a trip to northern Michigan (yes, I bought one of the t-shirts).  Here it is:  What does a beaver say when he sees a stream?  “Dam it!”  Then I made up another joke, that as far as I know is entirely my own.  What does a beaver pray for in church?  “God, dam it!”

As promised above, here are some jokes that were included in Sigmund Freud’s Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905/1960).  Unlike the example from Freud’s book used above, I’ve chosen these particular jokes because I do find them rather amusing.  Nonetheless, they are clearly dated, and I don’t think they’d be featured at any comedy clubs today.

This joke is attributed to Lichtenberg, and is classified by Freud as a ‘stupid’ joke:  ‘He wondered how it is that cats have two holes cut in their skin precisely at the place where their eyes are.’  A related joke, attributed to Michelet, is as follows:  ‘How beautifully Nature has arranged it that as soon as a child comes into the world it finds a mother ready to take care of it!’ (pp. 68-69)

An impoverished individual borrowed 25 florins from a prosperous acquaintance, with many asseverations of his necessitous circumstances.  The very same day his benefactor met him again in a restaurant with a plate of salmon mayonnaise in front of him.  The benefactor reproached him:  “What?  You borrow money from me and then order yourself salmon mayonnaise?  Is that what you’ve used my money for?”  “I don’t understand you,” replied the object of the attack; “if I haven’t any money I can’t eat salmon mayonnaise, and if I have some money I mustn’t eat salmon mayonnaise.  Well, then, when am I to eat salmon mayonnaise?” (pg.56)

A gentleman entered a pastry-cook’s shop and ordered a cake; but he soon brought it back and asked for a glass of liqueur instead.  He drank it and began to leave without having paid.  The proprietor detained him.  “What do you want?” asked the customer. – “You’ve not paid for the liqueur.” – “But I gave you the cake in exchange for it.” – “You didn’t pay for that either.” – “But I hadn’t eaten it.” (pg. 69)

A horse-dealer was recommending a saddle-horse to a customer.  “If you take this horse and get on it at four in the morning you’ll be in Pressburg by half-past six.” – “What should I be doing in Pressburg at half-past six in the morning?” (pg. 62)

The bridegroom was most disagreeably surprised when the bride was introduced to him, and drew the broker on one side and whispered his remonstrances:  “Why have you brought me here?” he asked reproachfully.  “She’s ugly and old, she squints and has bad teeth and bleary eyes…” – “You needn’t lower your voice,” interrupted the broker, “she’s deaf as well.” (pp. 74-75)

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Tao of Positive Psychology: Personal Journal & Academic Treatise Copyright © by Mark Kelland. All Rights Reserved.

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