For much of its history, psychology has focused on solving emotional problems. It started with Freud, and his hilariously cynical goal to convert his clients “from hysterical misery to common unhappiness”.
Even more optimistically minded people like the jovial Carl Rogers and his introduction of “unconditional positive regard”, still focused on finding the best ways to heal people of the many ways our minds can make us suffer.
Thus, copious amounts of different techniques were developed, each tackling the issue of alleviating human suffering from a different angle.
It was only in the late 90s that a new school of thought was introduced by Marty Seligman, then the president of the American Psychological Association: positive psychology. Positive psychology’s goal was ambitious, and makes a lot of sense in theory – we spend so much time figuring out what makes us unhappy, and trying to address it, why not spend our efforts figuring out what makes us happy? Let’s focus on the positive. Let’s figure out what works.
The ironically funny thing though, is that over two decades of research, there have been very little findings of things that can be proven to make us happy. Most of them can be summarized in one sentence: investing in strong social networks, journaling about gratitude, writing thank you letters to people who’ve influenced you. This is an over simplification, but the list is not long.
To me, this phenomenon is an expression of the deeper reality of what it currently means to be alive, the inherent negativity bias that lives in our brains, and provides a lot more ways to be unhappy, than to be happy. Our brains are here to keep us alive, not keep us happy, and in the short term and for most of existence, being alert, not happy, is what prevents you from being a predator’s lunch.
Science may one day find a cure for suffering, as this video eloquently argues. And we should probably be investing a lot more resources to that end, because in my view that would be the only justification for bringing more life into the world. I make my anti-natalist views very clear, and suffering is my underlying reason for fighting against more sentience being inserted into this world that’s full of at least 50% suffering (more, I would argue, because of the aforementioned negativity bias).
Until we find the biological cure for suffering, I think it’s naïve to focus too much on positive psychology. Positive psychology is like the icing on the cake, but if we’re being realistic, the average person (or the kind of like-minded person who reads my blog posts) still needs to spend a lot more time and effort focusing on not-suffering than on being happy.
A Pragmatic View
With this more realistic view in place, I propose a new school of study and focus: one that acknowledges the realistic, suffering-infused nature of reality, but still aims to address this issue in a more fundamental way. I call it preventative psychology.
Inspired by the adage that ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’, preventative psychology essentially asks “what can we do to prevent trauma from occurring in the first place, and, if it does a traumatic event does occur, how can we empower people to effectively process it immediately so that it does not become endemic later on”?
Since so much of our trauma stems from our formative years – childhood and adolescence, it follows that disproportionate focus should be placed on reaching and empowering this age group.
Theoretically, schools should be a perfect place to reach them, if schools did not do a generally abysmally job of preparing children for life (another area I do not mince words of criticism towards).
Similar to how children can be in school for 12 years and still not understand the basics of personal finance (another personal passion of mine), it would come as no surprise if zero emotional intelligence skills are transmitted to kids while they are in school.
Another angle might be through youth programs, such as scout or church programs. (With religious programs, we should keep in mind that many religious ideas are psychologically damaging in their own way, thus creating some sort of net zero experience where children are both hared and helped, and we all know how that goes)
I believe the best bet though will be through educating parents, and through dedicated 3rd party organizations that administer programs on behalf of schools and communities. It’s also worth noting that many adults would still benefit greatly from preventative psychological resources, it’s just that with children we stand to see disproportionate benefits.
Another thing I’m confident about: this education, regardless who the audience is, or what exactly is being thought, must be experiential. No more presentations, fucking 10 tip blog posts, or classroom discussions. This is something we need to learn to do, not think about doing. The exercises should likely feel weird at first, and gratifying and empowering in the end. That’s how you know it’s working.
Enough about who preventative psychology is for (everyone) and how it would be transmuted (creativity is key here), what would preventative psychology actually teach?
I’ll list some ideas below, but It’s worth noting that if we devote ourselves to researching new discoveries and aggregating finds for what already works, we might find this list becomes a lot longer. As always the goal should be a focus on the 20% of techniques that lead to 80% of the impact, whichever they are.
- Teaching meditation – thankfully, meditation is catching on, albeit in a mcmindful sort of way. Nonetheless, this is a social step in the right direction. We should continue to drive experiential meditation programs for all ages. There’s no reason why every child should not have tried several hours of meditation, with guided meditation being the easiest to try, by the time they graduate high school.
There are several core principles that are part of the Hishtalmoot healing modality that I believe serve as the core resources for increased emotional intelligence. They can be summarized as:
- Discussing attachment and impermanence – mindfulness can be simply observing your thoughts. There is specific benefit in exposing people to the fundamental Buddhist teachings, that attachments whether in the form of cravings or aversions, are the root of suffering, and that remembering the impermanence of all things is the antidote to this. This simple idea alone can have a profound effect on people, and we don’t need to wait for people to be 50 and visiting an ashram during a midlife crisis for them to learn this idea.
- Embracing discomfort – jumping off the previous point and the general theme of this article, life is full of uncomfortable emotions. We must teach people that relief comes not through avoidance, but through processing of these emotions, and provide them with the tools to do so. Even simple prompts like “what happens when you let your fear get as big as possible, and you imagine each breath in feeds the fear?” can be illuminating when the person experiences just a few minutes later that the fear gets stronger – and then dissipates.
- Embracing contradictions – we are part monkey part lizard, with a fancy brain placed on top that doesn’t fully run the show; it sort of staggers around like a drunken toddler – it goes places, but it leaves destruction in its wake. We beat ourselves up for not being perfect, for not being totally aligned with our goals, and yet one of the ideas that can provide us the most relief is the understanding that we’re wired for contradictions. It’s not good versus evil, it’s freedom vs. security. It’s not you being “such an idiot”, it’s the six year old that still lives within you. This understanding lies at the root of compassion, and our openness to discover deeper parts of ourselves that may have very different needs and agendas than what we’d ideally like.
- Embracing the body and intuition – the western world spends a lot of time in its head, and cognitive behavioral therapy enjoys living there as well (thankfully, the psychological community is starting to move towards more holistic approaches). Our emotions and choices though, come from our body and our subconscious motivations, and learning to listen to them can be transformative. Dedicated meditation exercises can be helpful here, such as finding what parts of the body different emotions reside in, or exploring decision making from an intuitive instead of an analytical place.
Any of the ideas above, when practiced and internalized, can profoundly affect the way day to day life hits us. It changes the way we experience life’s challenges, has the potential to mitigate a lot of the suffering that reality has in store for us.
Let’s keep adding to this list, and let’s share it with the world, as widely and deeply as we can.