Looking Forward and Backward: Part 2
The benefits of combining psychoanalysis & positive psychology
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First, a quick recap from the first post in this series.
Our minds are busy. Our thoughts drift into the past and future instead of remaining in the present moment. I like to think about the arrangement of our thoughts in what I call the Thought Distribution Curve.
When our thoughts remain stuck in the past, that’s where depression lives. When they are fixated on the future, that’s where we find anxiety. And when we manage to keep our minds focused on the present moment, that’s where we find peace.
It’s a remarkably simple and valuable framework for understanding the mind, but it also fits in the category of “easier said than done!”
In this series, I’m making the case that it can be helpful to intentionally spend time thinking about the past and the future to arrive at the present moment. And one way of doing so is with a two-pronged approach to therapy that utilizes both Psychoanalysis and Positive Psychology.
Psychoanalysis is about looking backward to understand the root experiences that shaped your conscious and subconscious mind, which then influence your feelings and behaviors.
Positive Psychology says to hell with the past. It beckons us to craft a vision for the future that inspires us to live in a way that harmonizes our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in service of an aspirational life of our choosing.
Looking forward with the use of positive psychology
Positive psychology began as a new domain of psychology in 1998 when Martin Seligman chose it as the theme for his term as president of the American Psychological Association.
It is a response to past methodologies, which have tended to focus on mental illness and the influence of negative past experiences. It builds on the humanistic movement by Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, which encourages an emphasis on well-being and positivity, creating the foundation for positive psychology.1
According to the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Positive Psychology, there are three pillars to positive psychology.
Positive experiences: contentment with the past, happiness in the present, and hope for the future.
Positive individual traits: the capacity for love and work, courage, compassion, resilience, creativity, curiosity, integrity, self-knowledge, moderation, self-control, and wisdom.
Positive institutions: strengths that foster better communities, such as justice, responsibility, civility, parenting, nurturance, work ethic, leadership, teamwork, purpose, and tolerance.
For example, we would aspire to families and schools that allow children to thrive. As adults, we would also seek workplaces that foster job satisfaction, allow room for creativity, and set us up to be productive.
This expands to our communities as well in the form of civic engagement. That could be as simple as picking up trash whenever you go out on your daily walks.
We also want to find mentors, leaders, coaches, or therapists that are good at helping us identify and nurture our individual strengths.
However, the concept of thinking positively about a life well lived existed well before the modern adoption of the term Positive Psychology. The Greeks contemplated the question of what makes for a good life a few thousand years prior. So much so that they developed a term for it — eudaimonia — which roughly translates to the state or condition of “good spirit.”
I combed through the academic references and the theory behind eudaimonia and found many similarities between ancient wisdom and modern evidence. I pooled the insights into the framework below for finding your way to “the good life.”
In short, we need many healthy connections with others, exercise for our mind and body, the ability to lean into our unique talents and interests, a connection to something greater than ourselves, and a regular practice of seeing the positive in life and doing positive things for others.
However, as a theory itself, this is mostly useless. It must be put into action. Begin with an inventory of each dimension and ask yourself, “How am I doing here?”
With a list like this in hand, you can look positively toward the future and create a plan to incorporate each element into a lifestyle that suits you.
The ability to transform
As I mentioned in the first part of this series, the fourth pillar of Jung’s psychoanalytic approach is what he called Transformation. For some of us who want to find an enduring sense of presence, it’s essential that they transform into the inspired vision they have of themselves.
As Jung said:
“To be “normal” is a splendid ideal for the unsuccessful, for all those who have not yet found an adaptation. But for people who have far more ability than the average, for whom it was never hard to gain success and to accomplish their share of the world’s work — for them restriction to the normal signifies the bed of Procrustes, unbearable boredom, infernal sterility and hopelessness. As a consequence, there are many people who become neurotic because they are only normal, as there are people who are neurotic because they cannot become normal. For the former the very thought that you want to educate them to normality is a nightmare; their deepest need is really to be able to lead “abnormal” lives.”
Although it can be interpreted as pejorative for Jung to claim that some people only want/need to be “normal”, it’s meant as an observation based on his clinical experience working with a wide variety of people. It’s not to be taken critically.
If you’re like me, you may find that you relate to the desire to transform into something unique and valuable to the world. If you relate to that, embrace it. You’ll find that you arrive in the present moment by pursuing your calling.
The work you do, the skills you gain, the challenges you face, and the new capabilities you develop to transform into something exceptional will require immense effort and focus. As Joshua Medcalf wrote in his book, you can fall in love with the process of becoming great.
The act of chopping wood and carrying water can bring you into a focused state where the mindless joy of presence can be found. After all, Flow is a form of meditation. It doesn’t involve sitting in one place and focusing on your breath, but it similarly involves quieting the mind to focus on a single task.