Tag Archives: Happiness

The Ways of the Fundamentalist and the Mystic

For many people, being religious means being a religious fundamentalist. From the media, this is the impression often given. However, decades of thinking and research in the psychology of religion suggest there are multiple ways of being religious, with distinct pros and cons.

Let me elaborate with a few personal stories.

About 20 years ago, I happened to be visiting a conservative Christian college when I was somehow invited to a retirement party for a faculty member – I believe a Theology Professor – who had worked at this college for many years. At one point, this man took center stage and spoke about his long and distinguished career. The Professor’s speech started as you might expect – with references to the meaningfulness of his work, gratitude for colleagues, etc. – until he took a surprising turn and honestly reflected on some of his struggles. The Professor started crying. He had a difficult time finding his words. Eventually, though, he explained how he called himself an “Agnostic Christian,” someone who wasn’t certain about religious and spiritual truths but still felt like he knew enough to make a commitment to Jesus and his interpretation of a Christian lifestyle. He discussed how the juxtaposition of “Agnostic” and “Christian” was sometimes not welcomed by conservatives at this college, but how this self-understanding felt so important to him and to his identity that he was moved to tears in sharing it.

For me, the Professor’s presentation felt like a revelation, for a few reasons. First, and most importantly, this was the first time I had ever heard someone openly acknowledge how they were both deeply uncertain about religious and spiritual truths while still being deeply committed to a faith. There was a raw honesty in this confession, and the juxtaposition created a new way for me to start thinking about my own religious and spiritual identification as well. Second, the Professor demonstrated to me the importance of adjectives in the religious world. Apparently, some people don’t simply identify along the lines of “Christian;” some identify as “Conservative Christian,” “Agnostic Christian,” “Social Justice Christian,” or “Mystical Christian.” In these cases, which of the two words is the adjective and which is the noun also can be enlightening to consider.

Fast forward a few weeks, when I found myself in a large group discussion about religion and spirituality at my public college. People were sharing their diverse ideas about religion and spirituality, and I thought I would “float” the above story and how it fit with my own self-understanding. A few people I didn’t know had joined us from a conservative Christian student club on campus, and after I shared, they walked over to me. I will never forget what happened next. One of them bent down and whispered into my ear: “you can’t be Christian and not know.”

Many people do not seem to recognize there are different ways you can be religious.

Volodymyr Hryshchenko | Unsplash

Source: Volodymyr Hryshchenko | Unsplash

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The Science and Practice of a Good Life

Two years ago today, the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic. Now, after two years of living with various restrictions, many of us are entering a new phase, with some long-neglected life options returning. We may be asking ourselves: “how do I want to live now?” As we wrestle with this question – aided by the greater perspective and wisdom that comes from adversity – we may benefit from considering what constitutes, for us, a good life.  

Psychological scientists increasingly focus on three different visions of a good life.

First, a life of happiness tends to be characterized by pleasure, stability, and comfort. (On the flip side, a life of happiness seeks to minimize pain, instability, and discomfort.) Of course, we all find happiness in different ways, but research often shows how the experience of close relationships plays a vital role in this vision of a good life. For example, in a recent study, research participants rated having a party to be the daily activity most likely to make them happy. I’m also reminded of Elizabeth Gilbert’s quest for a good life in her bestselling book “Eat, Pray, Love,” and how her pursuit of pleasure translated for her to eating really good food in Italy. If we want to focus our lives on happiness, we might do well to habitually ask ourselves, “what would I most enjoy?”

A second vision for a good life involves the pursuit of meaning, characterized by purpose, coherence, and significance. (On the other hand, a life of meaning seeks to avoid aimlessness, fragmentation, and insignificance.) People living this kind of good life often feel like they are making the world somehow better. Religious and spiritual activities often play an important role. For instance, in “Eat, Pray, Love,” Elizabeth Gilbert sought a life of devotion through yoga and meditation in India. We can concentrate on this vision of a good life by consistently asking ourselves, “what would be most meaningful?”

Increasingly, psychologists of the good life discuss a third vision: a psychologically rich life. This kind of life comes with a variety of interesting experiences that produce changes in perspective. (The opposite of a psychologically rich life may be found in a lifestyle characterized by repetition, boredom, and stagnation.) Research shows how study abroad experiences in college, for example, tend to increase feelings of psychological richness. Live music, in-person art, and many other kinds of stimulating, mind-opening experiences may play a special role in nurturing a psychologically rich life as well. For those of us wanting to pursue this vision of a good life, we might do well to frequently ask ourselves, “what would be most interesting?”

Alesia Kozik | Pexels
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Settling Into Winter

Sometimes, after dinner, the dishes washed and the kitchen reasonably cleaned, a window of time opens. My family disperses into their various corners of our home, allowing me to settle into the living room. I switch into comfortable clothing and I wrap myself in the soft, oversized blanket my wife gave me for Christmas.

Tonight, I look outside, into the darkness, where the only light comes from the faint glow off the newly fallen snow. I listen to the breeze shaking the trees, rattling the house, causing the chimney to whistle. 

Unsplash | Takemaru Hirai

During an awful pandemic that mostly restricts, in the midst of a Minnesota January, freedom can sometimes be found. There are options for what to do I don’t remember always having.

There are times when I light a fire in the fireplace and drink some herbal tea before settling into some pleasure reading, writing, or Netflix. Occasionally, a family member joins me for a game of Yahtzee or Quirkle. Some nights I go upstairs and settle into my tub, surrounded by candles, smells of lavender, and classical music played by Alexa.

In the past, I probably would have interpreted these unstructured, unplanned, unexciting nights as “boring.” However, I’m now finding power in reframing them as opportunities to “settle.”  

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The Emotional Benefits of Sacred Moments

“The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments.” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel)

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The year 2020 will go down in history as a year of public health, economic, and societal crisis. Much less acknowledged, however, is the profound emotional and spiritual malaise* many people feel. In fact, in the United States, emotional distress is three times higher than previous years and happiness is at a near 50-year low.

For many of us, something seems “off.” Perhaps this feels like a sense that something is vaguely “missing,” or maybe we “long” for something more or different. Probably many of us have grown “numb” to these feelings over the past several months – without fully realizing it. We may not understand why we’re feeling the way we do or appreciate how much our inner lives really have changed.

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It’s with all this in mind that I’ve been reflecting on some new research published this week in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.

In this study, 2,889 participants were asked about the frequency with which they generally experience “sacred moments” in their everyday lives. Specifically, individuals were instructed to rate, on a scale of 1 (never / not at all) to 5 (very often), how often they experience:

  • “a moment that felt set apart from everyday life,”
  • “a moment… that was really real,”
  • “a moment in which all distractions seemed to melt away,”
  • “a deep sense of connection with someone or something,”
  • “a sense of uplift,” and
  • “a sacred moment.”

Results from this research show that individuals’ experiences of sacred moments predicted “higher levels of positive emotions and greater presence of meaning, as well as lower levels of perceived stress, depressed distress, and anxious distress.”  

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What is it about “sacred moments,” as defined and measured in the above study, that might be most essential, that might be most involved in predicting higher well-being? When I consider the scale items mentioned above, the one that stands out most focuses on moments of deep “connection with someone or something.” I imagine that deep experiences of connection drive the sense that moments feel “set apart from everyday life” and “really real,” for instance.

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Three Updates to Psychology Courses for Fall, 2020

According to the most recent data available, approximately 30% of American high school students take a course in Psychology. In addition, approximately 1.2-1.6 million American students take an Introductory Psychology course in college every year.

To the extent we have control over our curriculum, we who teach Psychology courses have a unique opportunity and responsibility during the fall of 2020: we can help educate a significant slice of American youth about some of the behavioral and psychological aspects of the great challenges defining this time. We can encourage greater insight and inspire prosocial change.

Below are three topics we can integrate into our fall courses that are particularly timely and important, with some suggestions for how to do so.

Julia Cameron Pexels 2

1. The psychology of group behavior.

COVID-19 spreads through droplets, yes, but those droplets spread from person to person through specific behaviors. Racial inequality is systemic, yes, but systems stem from, and are maintained, by specific behaviors. Climate change is a widely considered a “threat multiplier,” a meta-problem that increases the likelihood of pandemics and many other social problems; it also is caused by specific behaviors.

We teachers of Psychology can focus on individual differences in behavior and why individuals do what they do, and each of the above problems can be fruitfully explored from this level of analysis. However, if there ever was a time to explore the psychology of group behavior, this is it, as each of the above current problems also demonstrates how behavior is powerfully determined by the norms of individuals’ groups.

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Is Mental Health a Valid Reason to Not Socially Distance?

Even as public health experts and government authorities continue to advocate for physical distancing to minimize the spread of COVID-19, compliance appears to be diminishing. For example, mobile phone data across the United States reveals trends, beginning toward the end of April, of individuals spending more time away from their homes.

Of the many reasons why individuals may not comply with physical distancing guidelines, concerns about mental health may be most prominent. A Gallup poll conducted in April, for instance, indicated how emotional and mental health seemed to be the strongest consideration for individuals maintaining distancing, as compared with concerns about physical health and financial hardship.

united-nations-covid-19-response-IKyhoO8giSA-unsplash_rev

United Nations COVID-19 Response | Unsplash

The pandemic clearly is not just a crisis for physical health and the medical system; it also is an enormous challenge for mental health and the mental health system. New data released over this past weekend by Jean Twenge hints at the magnitude of these problems. In her survey conducted on April 27th, Twenge asked U. S. adults how sad or nervous they felt and compared those responses with demographically similar adults who answered the same questions in 2018. She found that roughly 70% of Americans demonstrate “moderate to severe” mental distress now, during the pandemic, a rate three times that reported in 2018. Young people show the greatest distress, a group other research has also found to be most socially isolated.

And yet, even as these problems become more evident, no major mental health organization – such as the American Psychological Association (APA) – publicly opposes physical distancing guidelines. Instead, mental health and behavioral experts point to ways to maintain distancing while at the same time attending to individuals’ mental health.

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The Science of Happiness during COVID-19

Yesterday, I participated in a webinar on “The Science of Happiness During Covid-19” (the discussion begins at 16:14 below). In this program, Marina Tolou-Shams (Director of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at San Francisco General Hospital) interviews my first Psychology mentor, Dacher Keltner (Professor of Psychology at the University of California – Berkeley and founder of the Greater Good Science Center) about happiness during this time of pandemic.

Dr. Keltner summarizes much of the literature on the science of happiness by discussing three important areas of individual practice: (1) coping, (2) gratitude, and (3) awe. Each of these may play a critical role in helping individuals through the various stresses we encounter during this pandemic.

Recently, I’ve written several posts about coping with this difficult time, including one the discusses much of the stress and coping literature, one that deals with self-worth, and another that discusses the theology of Christian suffering, in particular. Given this – and reflecting more of the emphasis of yesterday’s discussion – I’ll focus a bit more here on the importance of self-transcendent experience during this time.

As Dr. Keltner notes, there is an impressive research literature on the benefits of gratitude, some of which I discussed in this post about thanksgiving. Practicing gratitude during a pandemic is not meant to be pollyanna, but rather an acknowledgement that, even though the world is in crisis and we may be experiencing many difficult emotions, there also are aspects of life for which we can be thankful. Taking a moment everyday to talk or write about these good things can help shift us toward better emotional balance. For example, my family and I are taking a moment at every dinner together every night to discuss our “highs” and “lows.” The “lows” help us to express times of struggle or dissatisfaction, but the “highs” help us to be more aware of what is good, and also to look for patterns of behaviors that might be helpful for us to be intentional about implementing in the days, weeks, and months ahead. For instance, last night, all four of us had a “high” of exercising in one way or another, and this says something about how important exercise is for our well-being now.

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The Experience of Being Emotionally Moved

At its best, science sheds light on what was previously unknown or unappreciated. For example, many of us probably have fantasized about what it would be like to be the first person to identify a new plant or animal or even fungus or insect.

This kind of discovery process also occurs in psychological science.

Recently, an international team published new research that goes a long way toward establishing a little known and unappreciated experience as a universal emotion. They call it “kama muta,” after a Sanskrit term. In several studies across 19 different countries, 5 continents, and 15 languages, this new research shows  kama muta is a distinct emotion – different from awe, amusement, and sadness – and generally expressed similarly across cultures.

There isn’t a good way to refer to this emotion simply, which says something about how undeveloped and unappreciated it might be. In English, however, people most commonly refer to this emotion when they say they feel profoundly “moved” or “touched” in a positive manner. When experiencing this emotion, individuals often become tearful or cry; experience “goosebumps,” chills, or shivers; feel “choked up” or a “lump in the throat;” have a difficult time speaking; and often leave inspired to be more devoted or morally committed. People often connect this with a “warm” feeling in the center of the chest, which is probably why so often there are reports of experiences being “heartwarming” or, as we wrote recently, related to something “soulfelt.” Depending on the intensity, situation, and person, some of these elements may be present or absent.

The experience of being moved often seems to be most elicited when individuals increase in closeness or intimacy with what is perceived as sacred (highly meaningful, poignant, or precious). As the international team states:

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What To Do When Stressed

A few weeks ago, while watching old episodes of Grey’s Anatomy on Netflix before going to sleep, I noticed my right eye felt drier than usual. I tried different tactics to adjust to this and fix my dry eye problem, but none really worked. Then, one morning, I woke up to find this same eye felt kind of sticky. It would improve after a few minutes of heavy blinking but, about a week later, I noticed it felt grittier when I blinked. A few days later, my left eye was starting to show some of the same symptoms, and also was bloodshot. How aggravating. I then discovered some kind of yellow-headed growth on the underside of my upper eyelid of my right eye. What was that? I found that thoughts and worries about my eyes started to interfere with my ability to be fully present in my daily life. I was distracted and less effective than usual.

My eyes are on the mend now. I went to my trusty eye doctor who prescribed a few eyedrops everyday, and the inflammation she discovered is going away. The yellow-headed growth? A benign calcification. So, everything is good, really, and my problem only illustrates a minor inconvenience. Nonetheless, this story illustrates how even one small stressor can negatively influence someone’s life.

Anything requiring a new response can be stressful. Stressors can involve loss, challenge, the anticipation of loss or challenge, or even something positive. In the classic social readjustment rating scale, stressors range in severity from minor (such as a speeding ticket or major holiday) to major (such as divorce or the death of a spouse). Traumatic life events can be even worse.

When we experience stress, our sympathetic nervous systems are activated. Our bodies direct stress hormones such as adrenaline to respond. Salivation decreases, perspiration increases, breathing quickens, heart rate accelerates, digestion slows, blood pressure increases, and immune system functioning lessens. Although this fight-or-flight response often protects us when we face an immediate, tangible danger, it causes problems when chronically activated, as typically is the case with modern stressors. This helps explain why many distressed individuals regularly experience symptoms such as dry mouth, sweaty palms, labored breathing, irregular heartbeat, nausea, high blood pressure, and vulnerability to sickness. Problems such as headaches, depression, and heart disease all become more likely as a result of chronic sympathetic nervous system activation.

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The Courage to Create

This past summer, I spent a glorious month teaching at “the most experimental college in North America,” Quest University Canada, north of Vancouver, British Columbia. One of my favorite aspects of Quest’s one-of-a-kind educational model is that, rather than majoring in something broad such as Business, Communications, or Psychology, students focus their work around one self-selected question. For example, one of many talented students spent her university years focused on the question of how creativity and happiness are related. As a part of a final project, she asked to interview me – along with about a dozen others – and ultimately created the short documentary below.

In this spirit, may 2019 bring you great creativity and happiness!

What is “Awe?”

The emotion of awe fascinates as much as it confounds. Scientific and popular attention in awe is surging, yet awe remains one of the most commonly misunderstood psychological concepts in our culture. What exactly is “awe?”

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The Quest for Meaning in Life

Part of me has always wanted to “make my mark on the world.” When I was in high school, I wanted to be a nationally ranked tennis player. When I was in college and graduate school, I wanted to publish the most cutting edge ideas and research in the most reputable scholarly journals. After finishing school, I have wanted to be recognized as a teacher that is a positive force for good with students.

As I have aged, however, I have sometimes observed that others appear to be making more of a “mark” than I am. It is particularly frustrating when others with more power appear to be using their influence to make the world a worse place. As clinical psychologist Meg Jay notes in her provocative and challenging TED talk, most of life’s defining decisions occur before the age of 35, and these early decisions both enable and constrain possibilities for the rest of life.

I don’t suspect I am alone in these feelings. As famed psychiatrist Victor Frankl observed, humans often long for meaning, and yet sometimes find this urge can be difficult to satisfy. It is easy to be discouraged when comparing ourselves with others who appear to be accomplishing more, whether they are doing so in reality or through a skewed portrait via social media.

My friend from graduate school, Mike Steger, is one of the world’s leading experts on the psychology of living meaningfully. Dr. Steger notes that individuals vary in the amount they seek meaning, with some individuals (like me and, if you’ve made it this far in this article, maybe also you) caring more about finding meaning than others. He also finds in his research that one of the keys to meaningful living is in finding opportunities for significance in daily life.

What I am learning by listening to my life and reflecting on this research is that it is difficult – if not impossible – to feel fully satisfied in the extent to which I am making my “mark” on the world, particularly when I compare my “mark” with others.’ It is unhelpful to spend much time regretting past decisions or comparing myself unfavorably to others. Still, there are many opportunities for living meaningfully today.
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