My Certificate in Positive Psychology course began online a month ago, and this past week I completed the first of two 5-day residential immersion at the Kripalu Center in Lenox, MA. “Immersion” is a good word for it, as we spent over 6 hours a day in class, drinking in as much wisdom and information as possible, though it often felt like trying to drink from a fire hydrant. It was very difficult to turn my brain off at night, besides the fact that I was in a dorm room with 21 other women, so I would have to say that sleeping wasn’t the highlight of the week!
At any rate, I am still dripping from the water, finding puddles in my shoes when I walk, hearing the water sloshing in my ears when I turn my head; so I’ll try to give you just a few sips for now, with no promises about how organized or coherent this sounds.
“Wisdom has built her house,” we read in the book of Proverbs. “She has hewn her seven pillar. She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table. She has sent out her servant girls, she calls from the highest places in the town, ‘You that are simple, turn in here!’ To those without sense she says, ‘Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.”
The Wisdom tradition runs through all of the great world religions, wisdom about how to live, gleaned from what works, what seems to help people successfully make their way through life with its inevitable times of difficulty and ease. Here in the book of Proverbs, Wisdom is personified as female–Sophia–a take-no-prisoners–don’t-be-stupid kind of woman. She is not to be messed with. Thus, the hewing of pillars, the slaughtering of animals, the mixing of the wine and setting of the table, the piercing call from the highest places in town–”Hey, you! Don’t be fools! Come have dinner with me! Give up your foolish ways. Learn to live wisely.”
Within the Christian tradition, Jesus is seen as the incarnation of Sophia, a wonderful infusion of the feminine into the masculine, the Word–God’s Word of Wisdom–become flesh. And doesn’t Jesus sound a bit like Sophia in Matthew 11, as Peterson paraphrases it– “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life…Walk with me and work with me–watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (The Message, Mt. 11:28-30)
The Wisdom traditions uncover the universal in the particular, the sacred in the flesh. Positive Psychology both learns from and informs these religious traditions. In 1998, Martin Seligman & colleagues, at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote that before World War II, the field of American psychology had 3 objectives: 1. Cure mental illness, 2. Make relatively untroubled people happier, and 3. Study genius and high talent. After World War II, the first objective–to cure mental illness–was the only one getting funding or research. As noble and compelling as that objective is–making the troubled less miserable–that still involves only somewhere around 30% of the population. Seligman urged his colleagues in the field to remember the other 2 objectives–to make relatively untroubled people happier and to study genius and high talent. Thus, the field of Positive Psychology, which of course built on the work of others who had come before, came into new life, standing alongside and enhancing other forms of psychology.
So, how do we become happier? What is happiness, as defined in Positive Psychology? Seligman writes that it is pleasure, or positive emotions, plus engagement, plus meaning. (Seligman, Parks, & Steen,  Balanced Psychology and a Full Life. The Royal Society, 1379-81). We all know plenty of people–much of western culture, in fact–who pursue happiness through pleasure. They seek that pleasure through money, power, possessions, celebrity, food, drink, that sort of thing, all of which can make you happy–for a while, but it does not last. Engagement adds intention, mindfulness, a sense of being present, and meaning can give us connection to something greater than ourselves, a sense of purpose. All three, these positive psychologists say, lead to a “full life.” (Ibid.)
“I came that you might have life,” Jesus said, “and that abundantly.” “The glory of God is the human being fully alive,” Irenaeus said back in the 4th c. CE. “Fully alive.” Positive emotions and negative emotions, as we talked about last week. “Be angry,” as Paul said, “but do not sin–do not let it separate you from God or one another.” Anger, grief, discouragement, jealousy, all the range of what we might call “negative emotions” are part of the human experience. As I mentioned last week, and as our teacher Tal Ben-Shahar says, the only people who don’t experience these are the psychopaths and the dead. Emotions are not right or wrong, they just are; they are a-moral. It’s what we do with them, our behavior, that can be moral or immoral. The human being fully alive experiences the full range of emotions, just like Jesus did, and in fact research shows that allowing ourselves to experience negative emotions rather than denying or suppressing them actually helps us to fully experience the more positive emotions. They all come through the same pipeline, so to speak.
So positive psychology focuses on what contributes to our well-being, psychologically, physically, even spiritually, and does that through evidence-based research. For example, instead of asking, Why do some kids in this inner city school fail, Popsitive Psychology asked, What is it about those students who, despite all the challenges and obstacles before them, nevertheless thrive and become successful? How can we learn what works, what makes people resilient? Another study compared the ratio of the number of positive experiences to the number of negative experiences the participants had in a period of time–the “positivity ratio.” Those who had less than 3 positive experiences for every one negative experience perceived themselves as doing “ok.. But 3 to 1 seemed to be the tipping point. Anything more than 3:1–even 3.1 or .2– had a significant impact not only on how well people felt about their experiences, but also how successful they were in meeting goals, and in levels of their immune systems.
And the thing is, it doesn’t take all that much to improve that ratio of 3 to one, either by reducing the number of negative experiences–maybe by avoiding negative or critical people, taking a break from depressing news media (probably a real challenge for us in this upcoming election season), that sort of thing–or increasing the number of positive experiences, like writing down 5 things for which you’re grateful every night, listening to music, dancing, spending more time with a good friend or loved one, that sort of thing. After 3 to 1, the level of well-being continues to rise–until you reach 11:1, when you start to get manic, losing touch with reality.
“Beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things,” Paul wrote in the letter to the Philippians. What we focus on literally helps to create our reality, and when we appreciate the good, the good appreciates (just like stocks used to do).
Again, we do not deny or overlook suffering or negative experiences. But by focusing on the good, starting with the good in ourselves, we are able to find the strength and context for dealing with suffering–our own and others’.
Positive psychology is based in scientific research. The Wisdom traditions of the world’s religions are based in research in life–observing life and what works. But knowledge is not enough. “I know the good but I do not do it,” Paul moaned in his letter to the Romans. Information is not enough to change behavior, if we’re looking for transformation. Our Second Congregational Church t-shirts claim, “Changing lives since 1865.” I have no doubt that is true, but unless we not only “believe” in God or in Christ, but “believe into,” as we talked about last week, unless we connect our lives into a new way living, unless we “put on Christ,” take on the Christ consciousness, we will not experience transformation. Religion has known this–that knowledge and information alone are not enough–, and so ritual– habits– is an important part of having our lives transformed. “We first make our habits,” wrote the British poet John Dryden, “and then our habits make us.”
Our tradition has given us rituals–the ritual of coming together each week, to be reminded of who we are and Whose we are; the ritual of prayer, of sharing communion, rituals of breaking bread together around tables, rituals of regular giving of time, talent, treasure; rituals of daily reading of Scripture or other Wisdom texts. But of course it’s only a ritual if we do it regularly, when it becomes part of the flow our lives. Did you brush your teeth this morning because you thought, “Let’s see–what would I like to do this morning? Is this a tooth-brushing kind of day? Will brushing my teeth make me happy?” Or did you brush your teeth because you always brush your teeth when you get up, or after you eat, or before you go out of the house in the morning. It’s just something you do. And it actually does make you healthier (which in turn may make you happier). But it’s a ritual, something you do everyday, at certain triggers, at certain times, without a whole lot of internal debate. To be transformative, we must bring intention to our rituals.
So, positive psychology can reinforce our transformation efforts, our change efforts, by telling us what has been found to improve people’s sense of well-being, their experience of happiness. And may of these “interventions,” so to speak, these relatively small changes in the way we live our lives, can make a huge difference in the way we experience our lives. I’ll be sharing some of these with you over the course of this year and beyond.
Positive Psychology focuses on 5 areas, with the acronym SHARP–Strengths, Health, Affect (or emotions), Relationships, and Purpose. It fits in nicely with the two Great Commandments Jesus spoke of: You shall love the Lord your God with all your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength, you shall love your Neighbor as Yourself. Transformation begins with us.
So, for today, maybe you could jot down a few things you might do to increase your “positivity ratio”–the number of positive experiences compared to the negative experiences; some practice you might try daily for the next couple of weeks as an experiment. Maybe look for 5 things you’re grateful for and write them down each night. Maybe take 3 deep, full breaths before you get out of bed in the morning and thank God for the day. Maybe call or write a dear friend you haven’t spoken to for awhile. Maybe listen to some music that feeds your soul, and/or makes you want to dance–whether it’s Bach or Basie or the Beatles or Beyonce. And then dance–either around the room or just in your chair. Pick one or two practices. Try it daily for 2 weeks–that’s all it takes to begin to rewire the neural pathways.
“Beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” There is so much more to learn and share. Wisdom is calling us. Together, may we learn the unforced rhythms of grace and walk in the way of insight and transformation. I’m looking forward to taking this journey with you.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark