3 reasons why | Inquirer Opinion
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3 reasons why

It sounds so simple I almost thought it was simplistic.

The New York Times had a recent article, “Get Happy: Four Well-being Workouts” based on the work of Martin E. P. Seligman, who is widely known for his work involving positive psychology. The four workouts are: identifying signature strengths, finding the good, making a gratitude visit, and responding constructively.

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I am familiar with Seligman’s work, which, if I might be simplistic, translates into this: Think negatively and you end up bringing in more unhappiness. But he doesn’t end there: He says there’s more than an absence of the negative; instead, we need to cultivate wellbeing.

I wanted to zero in on that workout on finding the good, which involves setting aside 10 minutes before bedtime each night to write three things that went “really well” that night, and then dissecting each by asking why this good thing happened.

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Positive psychology is fairly recent, but I find that it reflects ancient wisdom from Buddhism and mindfulness, which is constantly being conscious of the good in our lives, and transforming it into a good life of compassion and wisdom.

I tagged the exercise “three reasons why” to contrast it with a popular Netflix series, “Thirteen Reasons Why,” based on a fiction novel with the same title with an account of an adolescent who kills herself, leaving behind audiotapes about 13 people who contributed to her suicide. I wrote about the TV series last week, with some advice for parents and guardians to help young people process the episodes.

Challenging the mind

However we tag it, the workout is in choosing a mental perspective that is more conducive to wellbeing. The options are well captured in the anecdote about the pessimist seeing a glass that is half-empty and the optimist describing the same glass as half-full.

Unfortunately, it seems we are “wired” by nature to be pessimists. Pessimism makes us more cautious and helps us to survive. But being too cautious can also mean losing out because we don’t take enough risks.

Certainly, culture and our social environment are at work, too. I find, for example, that my parents’ generation tends to be more pessimistic, and I can see it as part of their having lived through World War II and the still-difficult postwar years.

Today, amid affluence, we live in difficult times and the world is in turmoil. In this situation it becomes part of a defense mechanism to expect the worst, to live on a pessimist mindset even if it brings misery and unhappiness. The “three reasons why” workout is counterintuitive, challenging the default mode of our brains.  Like physical exercise, it takes effort for this challenge.

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Quickly now, try that finding good or “three reasons why” exercise.

I had initial difficulty. But within a few days, as you do your exercise, it becomes easier to reach, and even go beyond, the three. The reason is simple (well, sort of simple): brain physiology. There’s the limbic part of the brain responsible for quick reactions of joy, sadness, anger, and, yes, maybe even pessimism—all part of our defense mechanism. Note that the more intense the feelings, the more likely they will subside quickly, even within a few minutes. Which is why when I speak at awarding ceremonies, I try to remind the audience that the joy they get from the awards and applause are fleeting, and that they must find joy more in what they did, rather than in the award itself.

As a scientist, I can be cynical about New Age, “hug a tree” advice, but this “finding good” exercise makes sense. The explanation is that we need to go beyond the limbic, and use the analytical and rational parts of our brain to find more sustainable reasons for joy.  It gets to the point where this process becomes almost “natural”—noticing, for example, the peculiar way sunshine streams in through the windows early in the morning, in different rooms. I once pointed that out to one of my daughters, and she proceeded to sit in the sun, uncovering her own good feeling of sunlight on her cheek.

Juvenile joy

People ask me if I don’t get bored attending so many long events at the university, cutting ribbons, giving out awards, meeting visitors, and I will admit I sometimes have to drag myself to such events, thinking of the time “lost” for other office work. But in the end, rare is the event where I don’t feel “well”—discovering what a college is accomplishing, or listening to a very good speaker unraveling some mystery about nature, society, people.

Learn from children: They don’t need these “three reasons why” workouts because they’re still pretty upbeat about the world and are good at, well, finding the good when they learn something new.

It’s all right to be juvenile from time to time. I recently read an article describing research from the University of California Berkeley on how to tie shoelaces better. Learning that “scientific” way to tie shoelaces was one reason for joy; not having the shoelaces unravel during the day was another reason.

Long story short, the joy from doing something that seems almost banal comes from knowing that even as a senior citizen, you can still learn to tie your shoelaces properly. We senior citizens have to be particularly careful; we think we already know everything. When there’s nothing new left to appreciate, life can be pretty miserable.

I’d modify that “finding good” exercise. At the end of the day we tend to be too tired to think, so it’s all right to postpone the workout for the next day, when you’re fresh and ready to reflect on the past day. It’s also all right to find good in events that may have happened last month, last year, or even longer back in time. Allow your mind free rein.

The other night I listened to our men’s basketball coach, Bo Perasol, talking about what life was as a varsity player in the 1990s. There was practically no support from alumni, no special privileges. He described living in the dorm and how on weekends there was no place to eat on campus. He and his teammates survived, and he is still grateful to the university and to people who kept them going.

He was doing the “finding good” exercise by going back two decades. Thinking of the good from the past can be linked to Seligman’s other workout—a gratitude visit. Recalling the good in life may not be enough: Visit someone who you feel particularly indebted to.  I’m doing that this month with my PhD adviser, who I haven’t seen in a decade and who keeps reminding me he’s now in his 80s and I better visit soon. It’s a long way to Amsterdam and I’m going for a student (and fellow Inquirer Opinion columnist Gideon Lasco) defending his dissertation.

There’s always good in our life waiting to be discovered, and appreciated.

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TAGS: happiness, happy, Mental Health, opinion, psychology
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