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well-being

The very interesting Greater Good Science Center at UC-Berkeley has some assertive and scientifically-based ideas on wonderful topics such as well-being, fulfillment, meaning, happiness, flourishing, etc. Along with U-Penn’s Positive Psychology master’s program, these are two powerhouse schools that take the science of optimism, happiness, flourishing, and well-being seriously. It’s neat to see, since at times in the past, topics such as these, or “psi“, or values and virtues such as meaning, goodness, love, and wisdom were not considered suitable subjects for psychological science to research and investigate. In this blog, I discuss ten keys the GGSC, positive psychology, and I suggest for greater fulfillment, joy, contentment, and success.

 

Altruism

“Altruism is when we act to promote someone else’s welfare, even at a risk or cost to ourselves. Though some believe that humans are fundamentally self-interested, recent research suggests otherwise: Studies have found that people’s first impulse is to cooperate rather than compete; that toddlers spontaneously help people in need out of a genuine concern for their welfare; and that even non-human primates display altruism,” according to the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC). Altruism is one of the “values of the wise” — values that inspire and attract wise persons (for example, wisdom vs. foolhardiness, and truth vs. wishful thinking). I pair it with kindness and magnanimity, creating a mighty triumvirate of loving instinct.

A few quotations about altruistic behavior, self-sacrifice, love, and goodness:

  • “If you truly want to live up to the ideals our forefathers had in mind, if you sincerely care to embody the spirit of Jesus, Buddha, or Mohammed, stop hating and start loving. Love even when you don’t really feel it, even when you think you’re faking it. Soon, you won’t be faking it anymore, and you’ll be a better parent, a better friend, a better American, a better person.” ~ Alan Colmes

  • “Brotherhood is the very price and condition of man’s survival.” ~ Carlos P. Romulo

  • “There is no greater satisfaction for a just and well-meaning person than the knowledge that he has devoted his best energies to the service of the good cause.” ~ Albert Einstein

  • “The lover of mankind strengthens men, for he himself wishes to be strengthened; he helps men toward success, for he himself wishes to achieve success.” ~ Confucius

 

Awe

“Awe is the feeling we get in the presence of something vast that challenges our understanding of the world, like looking up at millions of stars in the night sky or marveling at the birth of a child. When people feel awe, they may use other words to describe the experience, such as wonder, amazement, surprise, or transcendence.

The most common sources of awe are other people and nature, but awe can be elicited by many other experiences as well, such as music, art or architecture, religious experiences, the supernatural, or even one’s own accomplishments,” the GGSC notes. I think of it as wonder; as vision; as radical creative thinking. Mindfulness and gratitude are aligned with seeing the world with awe. These special experiences fire our synapses and engender a greater sense of well-being.

A few quotations about Awe:

  • “The real voyage of discovery consists of not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” ~ Marcel Proust
  • “Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything that is beautiful, for beauty is God’s handwriting — a wayside sacrament.  Welcome it in every fair face, in every fair sky, in every flower, and thank God for it as a cup of blessing.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” ~ William Butler Yeats

 

Find the Good Side of Things, People & Changes

Ever heard an old person either say “Kids today!” or “Damn liberals!” or hear a young person absolutely demonize or denigrate an individual with whom they don’t agree (or, as in Dana Carvey’s impression of “grumpy old man“, just be sour and mad at the world)?

As can be gleaned from this Q&A with the engaging researcher Robert Sapolsky, political differences is a major issue nowadays — much more so than in the past. It divides us in homes, in communities, and in the United States. Add money to the mix and it’s political gamesmanship and subterfuge writ large.

But seeing differences between the self and the other is often not healthy. Tribalism, Sapolsky notes, is oh-so-easy. He says: “The easiest symbols that we grab on to in deciding if someone is an “us” or a “them” are visceral ones. Being disgusted by someone’s personal behavior—the way “they” do stuff—is a much easier entrée to hating them than disagreeing with their views on the trade deficit. Primates are hard-wired for us/them dichotomies. Our brains detect them in less than 100 milliseconds. Our views about things are driven by implicit (unconscious) processes.”

Gosh, that leaves one with a negative feeling. As Sapolsky puts it: “It’s depressing as hell.” That it is.

Here are some quotations to increase well-being by seeing commonalities, others’ perspectives, and being forgiving and humble – basically, optimism and positive thinking before judging:

  • “We spend so much time talking and judging what we think we know. . . We need to ask more questions and spend more time listening. Really listening, not just waiting for our turn to talk or be thinking the whole time how we are right and they are wrong. We also need to shift our mindset and see things from other people’s perspectives. Really appreciate and respect their perspective, not just be thinking how our’s is morally superior. We need to give more than we get in all interactions with others. Live to serve and to help make a difference in other’s lives. In short, leave this life better than we found it.” ~ Robert L. Lloyd

  • “All too often, visions of virtue or decency have been invoked to brand as immoral and dangerous anyone who is different. Such aggressive moral dogmatism — which, it is worth stressing, can occur on both the political right and left — is one of the greatest enemies of human dignity.” ~ Elizabeth Kiss
  • “Judging others takes a great deal of energy and, without exception, pulls you away from where you want to be.” ~ Richard Carlson

 

Mindfulness

The GGSC has this to say about this slightly-elusive value: “Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.

Mindfulness also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them—without believing, for instance, that there’s a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to think or feel in a given moment. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future.”

Once you get your head around it, practices that lead to greater mindfulness — including but not limited to meditation — you can benefit from the positive effects on the human brain. Here is what my old friend Laurent Grenier, an author who found some interesting ways of dealing with his quadrapalegia, counsels:

“If you lead a happy life, of which you may be to some degree unmindful, never let a day pass without reflecting on the life of misery you could be leading instead. Imagine having lost everything and everyone you love. You will be happier for the realization that you are spared this misery.” Hard to do, but good advice. A good movie can help, I think.

Here are some quotes on this fascinating skill that will surely lead to greater relaxation, health, and well-being (and who knows, perhaps happiness and success):

  • “Practicing mindfulness over time reveals and develops the qualities of wisdom and compassion, the twin virtues of the discipline. Wisdom means seeing clearly into the fundamental nature of reality. Through meditative practice, we can deeply recognize the eternal arising and passing away of all phenomena and see the unsatisfactory quality of ordinary human experience that derives from the illusion of the self as an entity separate from the rest of reality.” ~ Mark W. Muesse

  • “Each moment of the year has its own beauty, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

  • “Research has suggested that in a few short weeks, mindfulness meditation practice can bring about physiological, psychological, and social benefits in our lives. From increases in gray matter in the brain to alleviating physical ailments such as migraines and fibromyalgia, the benefits of mindfulness and meditation practice more generally have been touted for everyone ranging from executives to schoolchildren.” ~ Hooria Jazaieri

 

Compassion

Next among values and phenomena that can lead to more well-being in the lives of aware individuals is this “suffering together.” Compassion is a deep empathy, a lovingness, a true caring. “While empathy refers more generally to our ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another person, compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to help. Altruism, in turn, is the kind, selfless behavior often prompted by feelings of compassion, though one can feel compassion without acting on it, and altruism isn’t always motivated by compassion,” the GGSC points out.

As usual, when trying to figure out exactly what a particular value or virtue really means, I look to a wide array of diverse quotations to elucidate the concept. That is what Values of the Wise is all about.

Quotations about compassion:

  • “With compassion, we see benevolently our own human condition and the condition of our fellow beings. We drop prejudice. We withhold judgment.” ~ Christina Baldwin

  • “The Good Samaritan story illustrates altruism. Filled with compassion, he is motivated to give a stranger time, energy, and money while expecting neither repayment nor appreciation.” ~ David G. Myers and Jean M. Twenge

  • “We humans have the capacity to change the world with acts of love and kindness. Let’s start by teaching our children the importance of compassion.” ~ Goldie Hawn

 

Industriousness

A Buddhist proverb counsels, “If we are facing the right direction, all we have to do is keep on walking.” You may have also heard the oft-quoted, “Idle hands [or an idle mind] are the devil’s workshop.” If you’ve ever watched/read “Little House on the Prairie,” you know how deeply-ingrained hard work, discipline, industriousness, and persistence are in the American ethos. We work too hard now, considering how much of a cut of the profit workers receive, and considering that famous economist John Kenneth Galbraith predicted in the 1940s or 1950s that by 2000, we should be working less than twenty hours a week due to the awesome increase in technological capacity.

Well, a short workweek may not have come to pass, and America may be one of the hardest-working, most sober/religious of nations, but it still is a virtue — and one that can lead to well-being, contentment, and prosperity. Once one gets to about $75,000, happiness levels out, but up to that point, it is hard to be happy in the modern world if one is deprived, poor, or otherwise harried.

Industry vs. inferiority is a key milestone in human psychological development according to prominent developmental psychologist, Erik Erikson. As Lumenlearning.com points out, “During the elementary school stage (ages 6–12), children face the task of industry vs. inferiority. Children begin to compare themselves with their peers to see how they measure up. They either develop a sense of pride and accomplishment in their schoolwork, sports, social activities, and family life, or they feel inferior and inadequate because they feel that they don’t measure up. If children do not learn to get along with others or have negative experiences at home or with peers, an inferiority complex might develop into adolescence and adulthood.”

My sister is exemplary of effort and striving. She is actively a daughter, wife, mother of three, business owner, and reads and shares information passionately. She really gets a charge out of this lifestyle, and productivity is the result. I admire someone who finds one or more avocations and pursues them indefatigably — even in the absence of pay or a mandate. Indeed, as the quintessentially-American proverb has it, “People may get more tired by standing still than going on.”

Here are a few quotations about industriousness, effort, productivity, and dedication:

  • “Americans have shifted away from an energetic, purpose-driven, higher-order pursuit of value, and are instead moving toward security, insulationism, materialism and minimum-commitment thinking. Rather than building upon our history of sacrificial innovation and difficult labor, regardless of immediate or tangible personal benefits, many Americans are seizing our economic prosperity as an opportunity to slack off and opt for personal leisure, [and] short-sighted consumerism….” ~ Joseph Sunde
  • “Work saves us from three great evils: boredom, vice, and need.”~ Voltaire
  • “No ethic is as ethical as the work ethic.” ~ John Kenneth Galbraith

 

Empathy

Yet another key to well-being is empathy. The GGSC indicates that “[e]mpathy seems to have deep roots in our brains and bodies, and in our evolutionary history. Elementary forms of empathy have been observed in our primate relatives, in dogs, and even in rats. Empathy has been associated with two different pathways in the brain, and scientists have speculated that some aspects of empathy can be traced to mirror neurons, cells in the brain that fire when we observe someone else perform an action in much the same way that they would fire if we performed that action ourselves.”

Take David Brooks’ advice and don’t confuse empathy with rationality: “People without social emotions like empathy are not objective decision-makers. They are sociopaths who sometimes end up on death row.”

Here are three unique perspectives on empathy from three disparate individuals:

  • “Don’t judge anyone harshly until you have been through his experiences.” ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

  • “To separate egoistic distress reduction from empathy-based altruism, Daniel Batson’s research group conducted studies that aroused empathy. Then the researchers noted whether the aroused people would reduce their own distress by escaping the situation or whether they would go out of their way to aid the person. The results were consistent: with their empathy aroused, people usually helped.” ~ David G. Myers and Jean M. Twenge

  • “Wealthy Christians talk about the poor but have no friends who are poor. So they merely speculate on the reasons for their condition, often placing the blame on the poor themselves.” ~ Jim Wallis

 

Forgiveness

This beautiful and difficult virtue is one of humanity’s highest levels of achievement. Well-being is inextricably tied to the emotional grudges one holds, I’m afraid (I say that because I feel justice more easily than I feel forgiveness). But, it’s true. It’s tied to psychological well-being, heart health, and optimism. In fact, hostility and it’s ugly little brother cortisol is/are one of the main psychological predictors of heart disease!

Berkeley’s GGSC has this to say: “Psychologists generally define forgiveness as a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness. Just as important as defining what forgiveness is, though, is understanding what forgiveness is not. Experts who study or teach forgiveness make clear that when you forgive, you do not gloss over or deny the seriousness of an offense against you.”

Alan Scott puts this virtue in this light: “I think there is a human condition where many people assume that if we forgive others for the wrongs they do to us (or those close to us) that we are, in a sense, letting them off the hook when perhaps they should be punished. The offender gets to go on their merry way through life, while we are still suffering because of their actions. I almost felt like if I forgave someone, then I was condoning the wrong that they did! Not so. Forgiveness is a necessity for us, not vengeance. God is the true judge, not us.”

I may not see it as a God thing, but I do see the psychological research point to the benefits of forgiveness when it comes to mental health and a flourishing life.

“You hold too much anger inside. It poisons you. Do you want to carry so much pain into your next life? …You must forgive. You must let go of your pain. You must let go of your anger.” Those are the wise words of the Chinese healer who tries to get Michael Keaton’s knotted-up and angry guy character to relax before his cancer kills him. It’s a fascinating scene in a fascinating movie called My Life.

Here are some quotations about forgiveness as a virtue:

  • “The greater you are, the more you must practice humility.” ~ Ben Sira

  • “So many of us hold on to little resentments that may have stemmed from an argument, a misunderstanding, the way we were raised, or some other painful event. Stubbornly, we wait for someone else to reach out to us — believing that this is the only way we can forgive or rekindle a friendship or family relationship.” ~ Richard Carlson

  • If one by one we counted people out
    For the least sin, it wouldn’t take us long
    To get so we had no one left to live with.
    For to be social is to be forgiving. ~ Robert Frost

 

Generosity

If there is one important thing my mom has taught me through deed and words, it is generosity. She gives, gives, gives. This doesn’t mean that she is a saint, but it does mean that she gets a great feeling from what she perceives as one of her true callings: to make a positive difference in others, in society, and in the world. She puts her money where her mouth is, as it were. I have seen a very compelling correlation in her between happiness and generosity. It’s a thing:

As Amanda L. Chan points out in this article, “Giving of yourself — whether it be your time, energy or money — isn’t just a boon to those you’re helping. A wealth of research shows that generosity can also have benefits for the giver, ranging from a better outlook at your job, to more years of life.” So give of yourself — your time, your money, your energy, your advice. Mentorship, volunteering, and charity are true ways to greater happiness, well-being, and meaning in life.

Don’t feel bad if you get a charge out of helping others and giving of yourself. That is how the brain evolved — we find certain things rewarding, such as food, sex, competition, and helping behavior. Feel good if you help another person; you deserve it! You could have ignored their need. The warm glow of givingness is something to cherish, not spurn.

Three other succinct quotes about generosity:

  • “One act of beneficence, one act of real usefulness, is worth all the abstract sentiment in the world.” ~ Ann Radcliffe

  • “I’ve never known any human being, high or humble, who ever regretted, when nearing life’s end, having done kindly deeds. But I have known more than one millionaire who became haunted by the realization that they had led selfish lives.” ~ B. C. Forbes
  • “To do good without ulterior motive is a generous and almost divine thing in itself.” ~ Francesco Guicciardini

 

Social Integration

Last, but certainly not least, social integration. Social interaction, social relatedness, inclusion, relationships – whatever you want to call it. It’s good. I should know; I have been terribly lonely and felt like a bit of an odd bird in some significant periods of my life. For a while there, I was on Prozac, living alone, doing my thesis on suicide, smoking marijuana, and wondering if life was worth living. Needless to say, I saw more of my therapist than I did women on dates. I just wasn’t in the zone, and my mental issues led to my social isolation, and my social isolation fed my mental issues. I sort of felt inferior to others; unliked; and yet superior to most others. It was quite a quandary.

Science is clear on this topic: human beings are social creatures, and though we do need some individuality and alone time, the feeling that we are alone, different, unworthy is only pernicious. It can lead to suicide, substance abuse, studying philosophy (!), and depression. Anomie is a unique version of this that has been described for some time in sociology. Yes, pets are good and helpful!

Yes, I am now married and even recently bit the bullet and started attending the local Unitarian Church! I have pets I am very fond of, I write every day, take classes, and exercise and fish oil!

On this page, Juliana Breines asks whether some social ties are better than others when it comes to contributing to well-being. She writes: “There’s no question that the digital age has changed the way we relate to one another, sometimes to our detriment, as MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle has argued in her book Alone Together. Though many of us can count Facebook friends into the thousands, research suggests that loneliness is rampant in the United States—we have fewer close friends than we did a generation ago—and takes a severe toll on our health.”

Here are some quotes about social connectedness as related to well-being. The Wisdom Archive holds other quotes about social relatedness, integration, affiliation, and connectedness, and is searchable for free.

  • “To the extent that we can characterize evolution as designing our modern brains, this is what our brains were wired for: reaching out to and interacting with others.” ~ Matthew Lieberman
  • “Social situations do profoundly influence individuals. But individuals also influence social situations. The two interact. Asking whether external situations or inner dispositions determine behavior is like asking whether length or width determine a room’s area.” ~ David G. Meyers and Jean M. Twenge
  • “Humans are a profoundly social species; our drive to connect with others is embedded in our biology and evolutionary history. It begins at birth, in our relationship with our caregiver—and the effects of this relationship seem to reverberate throughout our lives. When we’re cared for as children, we’re more likely to have healthy, secure attachments as we get older.” (the Greater Good Science Center)

 

I wish well-being, peace, and happiness for you. I will leave you with these:

I believe in courtesy, in kindness, in generosity, in good cheer, in friendship and in honest competition. I believe there is something doing somewhere, for every man ready to do it. I believe I’m ready, RIGHT NOW. ~ Elbert Hubbard

The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter. ~ Mark Twain

Optimism has an important place in some, thought not all, realms of your life. It is not a panacea. But it can protect you against depression; it can raise your level of achievement; it can enhance your physical well-being; it is a far more pleasant mental state to be in. ~ Martin E. P. Seligman

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