Sunday, September 6, 2009

If All You Have is a Hammer...

...Then Every Problem Looks Like a Nail
Over the past couple of days, Iris has been reading an amazing booked entitled Learned Optimism, How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, by Martin Seligman.

When Iris first moved to the US from the Netherlands, we began a practice of her reading aloud to me in order to improve her English pronunciation. Even today, she often reads to me and I've found this book to be really great.

One of the things that Dr. Seligman covers in his book is that there is a clear distinction between overcoming unhappiness (e.g., depression, fear, anxiety, anger) and becoming happy. In short, overcoming unhappiness doesn't result in one becoming happy; it simply results in one not being depressed or anxious or fearful or angry. To be happy is a different matter all together.

Happy Does Not Equal (Not Unhappy)
Dr. Seligman outlines three forms of happiness that one can pursue: a Pleasant Life in which you fill your life with as much positive emotion as you can; an Engaged Life in which you identify your greatest strengths and talents and then re-craft your life to use them as much as you can, and; a Meaningful Life in which you use your highest strengths and talents to be part of and of service to something you believe to be larger than yourself.

I find this distinction between moving away from depression, anxiety, fear, and anger, and moving towards happiness, engagement and meaning to be significant. I'm sure many of you do as well. One of the cornerstones of the philosophy of happiness is moving towards what we do want, rather than moving away from what we don't want.

The thing is, I had no idea what this meant in terms of some of the other tools that we have all learned to use in the context of the philosophy of happiness.

Specificity and Clarity
Perhaps the most useful tool that I've learned is the use of specificity and clarity when dealing with unhappiness.

For example, what we often call fear of the unknown is actually just fear of the vague. As we explore the object of our fear, we bring specificity and clarity to it. As the we flesh out our fear with specificity and clarity, the fear morphs from an undercurrent of anxiety and discomfort to something that seems easily manageable or nothing at all. One might start with a general fear of dying and end up with the fact that they're simply concerned about the color of a mole on their arm.

Specificity and clarity are also great tools when undertaking a new task or project, specially when the it's big and overwhelming. Specificity and clarity (combined with timing and priority) allow us to take any project (no matter how big) and break it down into bite-size chunks that can be accomplished without difficulty.

Essentially, specificity and clarity allow us to make big things small.

What If You Want to Make Things Bigger?
The thing I learned from Dr. Seligman's book, the thing that seems so obvious once you see it, is that:
specificity and clarity are not
always the best tools to use!

Specificity and clarity work great when dealing with unhappiness (e.g. fear, anger, anxiety, discomfort, depression), but they're not so great when we want to amplify happiness (e.g., optimism, confidence, empowerment, contentment). To accomplish the latter, we want to become more general, not more specific.

For example, lets say that you want to evaluate your capacity to take on a new job that involves managing lots of people. From a specificity and clarity perspective, you would consider your actual experience managing a group of similar size and character . You would want to map specific experiences to specific tasks at hand.

However, in terms of your sense of confidence and optimism, you would want to think about yourself generally as being a great manager with great skills able to manage any one and any situation.

Think about it...
Who would you consider to be more confident, the person who feels they can accomplish tasks with which they have experience, or the one who believes they can accomplish anything?
Who would you consider more optimistic, the person who believes that things will work out once they see a clear and specific path through them, or the one who believes that things will work out generally, even before they know how?

Who would you rather have in charge during an emergency, the person who will only address specific challenges that they've trained for, or the one who, based on these experiences feels capable of handling any situation that arises?
Whereas specificity and clarity make things smaller and more manageable, generalizing makes things bigger and stronger.

None of the above discounts specific training, clear thinking and experience. It's just that, if I want to make my happiness bigger! I want to take specific happy (satisfying, optimistic, empowered, successful, loving, enjoyable) experiences and generalize them.

Isn't that cool?

Happy Sunday!

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