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The Positive Approach

June 30, 2010

Witnessing a free and frank exchange of ideas between intelligent, engaged people often stimulates our own thinking about difficult issues and ideas. That was certainly the case for me with Monday’s post, which featured a dialogue between Phil Palin and Art Bottrell regarding the nature of our thinking about homeland security, resilience and public involvement.

I was as much taken by how they presented their respective arguments as what they said. Although the exchange was very positive, it still highlighted our human tendency to use deficit thinking. When confronted with difficult and challenging ideas, it is almost always easier to identify the points on which we disagree with others rather than those we share in common that might represent strengths upon which we might build a successful collective argument.

Homeland security professionlas are not, of course, alone in this respect. Psychologists have struggled for decades with the tendency of their profession to pathologize human behavior. For some, this has become such a serious weakness that they have begun to question whether anyone’s behavior can be considered truly normal much less healthy.

It is against just such a backdrop that serious thought has emerged about how to define constructive engagement. The field of positive psychology, pioneered by SeligmanDweck,Csikszentmihalyi, Haidt, and others, has sought to explain what makes people healthy, happy, productive, and engaged. I think we can learn quite a lot from these experts about how to make people safer or at the very least less anxious about the threats we all face. Without going too far out on a limb here presenting positions from a field in which I have very limited training, I would like to present what I consider some of the more promising ideas from this field.

One of the first discoveries of positive psychology was the tendency of test subjects, first animals and only later human participants, to exhibit very different responses to the same stressors. In hopeless situations, many subjects exhibit what Seligman came to characterize as “learned helplessness.” This reaction was not that surprising. What really caught his attention was the fact that a significant number of test subjects never quit trying. Despite the administration of repeated punishments, they persisted in efforts to achieve rewards. As the experiments adapted to this tendency, they did too and were rewarded for performing the same tasks that had previous produced only the potential for punishment. Those who had thrown in the towel earlier never reengaged the “opportunity” despite the possibility of achieving a different, salutary outcome.

Dweck has demonstrated that humans clearly possess different orientations when it comes to problem solving. Those with a fixed mindset view their abilities as static and limited endowments. Those with a superior self-image, when fist confronted with the reality that they may not be as unique as they once imagined themselves quikly adapt to this new realization by withdrawing from challenges and taking only the sure bets. Others, those with what Dweck calls the growth mindset, never seem to tire of accepting new challenges. They see very little downside to engaging difficult problems that might (and often do) end in failure, because such situations provide them with valuable information with which they can evaluate their positions and refine their approaches. In other words, they do not let their performance define them.

Csikszentmihalyi has helped us understand what it is about such situations that provides the encouragement to persist. He uses the term “flow” to describe the feeling of effortless action that accompanies mastery. Even in challenging and difficult situations, we rely on experience to reassure us that despite any momentary difficulties things are more likely to end well if we engage our abilities rather than focusing on our weaknesses. When we do this, our abilities grow stronger even if our weaknesses do not diminish. As a consequence, we learn to leverage these attributes and similar aptitudes in others, especially when they complement our own.

Perhaps the most helpful ideas about how we might employ these observations to encourage a more positive and productive mindset about the challenges of homeland security comes from Jonathan Haidt, who uses the metaphor of an elephant and its rider to describe the challenges we all face balancing our desires and emotions with our intellect and abilities. The rider (our rational, capable selves) has a limited ability to steer our elephant (our emotions and desires) in any direction he does not want to go. But an unguided elephant is a dangerous beast indeed!

Pathologizing homeland security does us as a nation little good. Focusing on our weaknesses has not made us much stronger.

But leveraging our strengths, approaching new conflicts without fear of failure and an eagerness to learn is, if we accept the observations of the field of positive psychology, as simple as choosing to do so. As these researchers make clear to us, we may not be able to make the world an ideal place, but we can choose how to live in the one that exists. Choosing principle and purpose has genuine merit and value even if the only minds we change are our own.

Further Reading:

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimum Experience. New York: Harper & Row.

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House.

Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books.

Heath, C. & Heath, D. (2010). Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. Toronto: Random House.

Seligman, M.E.P. (2004). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.

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