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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Four Ways to Be Positive with Your Spouse--Your Words, Your Prosody, Your Nonverbal Behavior, and Your Actins

I have written before about being positive with your spouse and establishing positive reciprocal behaviors (if you give out positives, you are more likely to get positives back from them.)

I have come to understand that our communication with other people is multichannel.  (Translation:  There are several ways that we can be positive with our spouse, and there are several ways that we can be negative with our spouse, simultaneously.) 

There are at least four channels on which we are communicating at any one time:

1.  What are we saying?  What is the verbal content?  If it was written down, would it be positive or negative?

2.  What is the tone in our voice?  This is our prosody.  Think of it as the melody in the voice.  It can be friendly or mean, inviting or critical.

3.  What is our facial expression saying, and what is our body language saying?  Are we smiling, grimacing, or frowning as we deliver our message?

4.  Finally, what are we actually doing?  Are we doing something nice for the person (e.g. preparing them food) or something mean (throwing something, slamming things, breaking things, hitting them)?  Do we follow through on the things we have promised?  Do we remember the special dates, birthdays, and anniversaries?

These four ways of responding to our significant others would seem to exhaust the multichannel communication.  But they don't.  We are also communicating with our pheromones.  These are "invisible scents."  We don't know that they are being emitted by our bodies, but they are.  And the other person does not know that their brain is receiving them, but they are.

And there is probably at least one other type of communication going on, although perhaps less established scientifically--our pupil size.  When we see something we like, our pupils get larger.  the other person's brain may be able to pick up on that, and in turn, the second person's pupils may adjust.  This can be another type of back and forth communication.

But let's stick with the first four because we can't control our pheromones and our pupil size.

As we attempt to reverse the flow of negative reciprocity in a relationship to positive reciprocity, something which can be difficult, words alone are unlikely to be able to do it.  Compliments and positive observations about our partner are a good place to start, but more is needed.

We need to remember that we are communicating with the nonverbal behaviors--the look in our face, out body posture (are we turned towards them or away from them when they are talking to us).  What is our body language saying?  Is it positive or negative?  Are we pointing a finger at them?  Are we avoiding eye contact?

Then there is our prosody (pronounced PRAW-suh-dee).  Prosody is defined by the online Merriam Webster dictionary as meaning "3. the rhythmic and intonational aspect of language."  I think that this is often overlooked in our marital communication.  Words can be positive but if they don't have a certain melodic sound, the full positive quality of a message can be tempered or totally lost.

I have to pay close attention to my prosody when I am going to the hospital to test a new patient.  They don't know me.  Why should they open up and trust me?  I have to use every aspect of communication when I introduce myself to convey that I am there to help them, through my words, my nonverbal behavior, and my tone of voice.  Unfortunately, I think that after years of marriage, people simply don't put out the energy to use a friendly, pleasant tone with their spouse.  Their voice with their spouse can become flat--or even grouchy.  Watching the words we use is a fairly obvious way of being positive.  But we communicate with more than words.  The lilt or melody of our voice is our prosody.  Sometimes I think that our tone may be even more important than the words we use.  If you watch a mother talking to a newborn, she uses very exaggerated prosody.  It is a friendly prosody.  The infant hardly needs to understand the words.  The tone says it all.  It is warm.  It is friendly.  It is loving.

Finally, what are our actions saying?  It is said that men often express affection by doing things for their wife--mowing the lawn, taking care of the house and car.  I often like it when my wife offers to bring me a cup of hot tea when I am at the computer.

So, when trying to create a positive atmosphere in a relationship, remember these four things--words, body language, tone, and actions.  Give your partner something which is really positive.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

The Symphony Orchestra--Finding Happiness

In his recent book, Flourish, Martin E. P. Seligman puts forward the idea that while happiness is one worthy goal in life, it cannot be the only goal  According to him, well being is constituted of five things, which can be put into the acronym of PERMA.

P--Positive emotion, happiness.  Seligman does list happiness as part of the goal of life and part of the measure of well lived life.  In his previous work, it was the capstone of life.  Now he lists it as one worthy aspect of living.

E--Engagement--This diverges from sheer positive emotion.  It is doing something which engages the person in life, whether it is operating a business, pursuing a creative activity, raising children, or something else.

R--Relationships--This speaks for itself.  Relationships are in themselves a worthwhile aspect of living.

M--Meaning--The finding of something which makes sense of life, which gives it a larger context than just doing something for the moment, and involves something more than just feeling good.

A--Achievement--Accomplishing something which has value or worth.

Now some of my definitions here may not be exactly what Seligman would approve of, but I think they come close enough.

I am not sure why he left out three other pursuits, although I guess he would say they are included in the above.  The three others which I would list are creativity, the shaping of the will, and altruistic love (referred to by Christians as agape).  Creativity might be subsumed under engagement, or even under achievement, but I would like to see it have its own acknowledged place.  The importance of the shaping of the will has been pointed out in the book Willpower by Baumeister.  I think it deserves its own place, too.  Seligman would most likely subsume agape under relationships.

However, one could probably keep coming up with more and more indispensable categories.

I don't know if the ultimate goal of life is happiness, PERMA, or altruistic love.  I suspect it is all of these.  But when I think of what constitutes a sense of life satisfaction for me, I realize that it is not just one thing.  It is the resonance created by a variety of things happening in my life.  It is like a symphony orchestra.  The musical score for my life doesn't have just violins, trumpets, and French horns.  It has a great variety of instruments and many people playing those instruments.  In a symphony, it is the diversity, unity in diversity, and overall resonance which produces such a pleasing and satisfying effect.  The total result is something above and beyond what any one instrument can produce by itself and beyond what any one musician can create by himself/herself.  It is a situation where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

On the other hand, while I am emphasizing here the importance of having a diversity of pursuits, I will admit that I have six goals listed above all others for myself.  I keep them on my Yahoo calendar "to do" list, so that I see them every time I log on to it.

I would encourage you to read both Flourish and Willpower.  Make up your own mind as to what is important in your life.  What are you aiming at?  Remember that according to Socrates (as quoted by Plato in his Dialogues, Apology), "The unexamined life is not worth living."  That may be a little harsh, but it is not far off the mark.  But I think that the point in this blog is a little different: if you have not examined your life to know what is likely to bring you the greatest satisfaction, then you are likely to accept lesser satisfactions or to use your time in less than optimal ways.

(Now I would like to point out that I do also believe in "goofing off."  But it does not bring me any deep satisfaction.)

Hopefully, you have a variety of aspects of your life that bring fulfillment, and hopefully you experience that sense of resonance which comes from pursuing not just one focus but several.  Now I don't want to be a snob here.  I know that there are many people in the world who cannot really get involved in a variety of activities because of financial reasons.  However, I think that at least in American society, there are almost always opportunities for relationships with others, hobbies, and educational advancement.  (These days one can practically get a college education online for free--not a degree but an education.) 

Now what about people who have singlemindedly pursued one major area: explorers, artists, athletes, and so on?  I suspect that even for these people, one area of pursuit isn't enough.  While they may initially channel all of their energy into one area, eventually most people seem to need a diversity in their experiences.

I asked an acquaintance of mine about how she felt about being retired.  She said it was wonderful; it was like being a third grader without parents telling you what to do.  This view of life has much to commend it.  There is so much to explore and learn about in the world.  I hope that you are successful in finding a sense of richness, well-being, and resonance in your life.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

The Colors of Optimism

I was reading the most recent book by Martin E.P. Seligman, Flourishing, which I highly recommend.  There are many interesting aspects of the book.  He highlights the research on optimism and the multiplicity of positive effects which it has in peoples' lives.  One positive effect for example is lower rates of coronary vascular disease.  (I am not going to outline all of the benefits of optimism here.  Just Google "benefits of optimism") and you will find numerous sites providing a list of the current experimentally validated benefits of such a positive outlook.)

However, reading his book, I found myself wondering just how optimistic is it realistic to be?

You have of course heard the following definitions:
The normal optimist--sees the glass as half full.
The normal pessimist--sees the glass as half empty.

Here are some more:
The radical optimist--It is bound to rain and refill my glass.
The radical pessimist--The little bit of water that I have is going to evaporate eventually, and I will have nothing.
The pragmatist--Simply goes to the faucet and fills the glass up without thinking about it.

On a more serious note, I realized that there are many "flavors" or "colors" of optimism.

The pragmatic optimist--This person understands the reflexive aspects of optimism.  If I expect the best and act like it is going to happen, it is more likely to come true.  Being optimistic leads me to better health behaviors. The pessimist might think that they have little control over their health outcomes.  Then by not trying to exert a positive effect, they do not do what they are capable of doing--having checkups, exercising, and so on.  If I am positive and optimistic, I will try harder at tasks.  I won't feel that I am wasting my time.  I won't be putting in a half hearted effort.  If I am positive, then people will also likely respond to me more positively.   

Moreover, it is also pragmatic because it feels better to be optimistic.  If I am anticipating something negative will happen every day of my life, even if it never happens, I will be more likely to feel down and even depressed.  If the events I worry about never happen, in one sense they might as well have.  One elderly woman I tested in the hospital told me that she had been sure that she was terminally ill; she had believed this since her early 20's!  How awful this must have made her feel--emotionally and physically-- for all of those years.

The protective pessimist--Some people feel that it just hurts too much to be disappointed.  They believe that it would feel better to not expect the best and then not be disappointed rather than expect the best and be disappointed.  Moreover, they believe if they prepare for the worst, they will be better prepared.

The focused optimist.  I perhaps like this one the best.  I will start by assessing a situation for all of the possible positive and negative outcomes and preparing for the reasonable eventualities.  Then I will stay focused on the positive potential.  Better things are likely to happen if I am positively focused.

The tres chic philosophical pessimist--The undergraduate who has read too much Sartre.  This type of person believes that it is just too naive to be optimistic.  There is too much suffering in the world.  They believe that a truly sophisticated person must be more cynical and pessimistic.

The philosophical optimist, a la Alfred North Whitehead--the world is evolving and getting better.  My philosophy says so. Alfred North Whitehead and Bergson had very positive philosophical systems which stated that the world (universe) was constantly evolving into a better place.

The theological pessimist--This person almost literally believes that the world is going to hell.  There may be a belief that terrible things must soon happen in order to fulfill Biblical prophecy.

The theological optimist--This person focuses on Bible passages which says that God is in charge of the world and that He will win over chaos, evil, and despair.  There is more of a focus on heaven than on hell.

There is both personal optimism and global optimism.  In personal optimism, I believe that my life will flourish.  In global optimism, I believe that the world will continue to advance and overcome negative forces. 

One might have both of these (My life will do okay, and the world will do okay).  Or one might be a personal pessimist and global pessimist (My life is going down the drain, and so is the world).  It might be possible to have one and not the other (My life is going to do okay, but the world is falling apart; or My life is going down the tubes, but the rest of the world will do okay.)  I suspect that personal optimism and global pessimism are correlated, but I don't know that for sure.

Ultimately, we have to have something to base optimism on.  It cannot be just wishful thinking.  As a cognitive therapist, I counsel my patients to test out their negative thoughts.  If they have fortune telling thoughts, follow up on them, and see if they come true.  I continue to have negative, fortune telling thoughts (unfortunately), and I can tell you that most of mine never come true.  They are generally a waste of time and energy.  Try it out for yourself, and see if you aren't wasting time with most of your negative predictive thoughts.  If they do come true, consider the possibility that they are reflexive, that is that they are self-fulfilling prophecies. 

For the time being, I am going to choose to be a focused optimist.  I am also a theological optimist.  These two go together well for me.  In my personal life, I will consider all of the things which could happen, and I will prepare for most eventualities.  Then I will focus my energy on pursuing the positive outcomes which could happen and act as if I expect them to happen.