The four hijackers of Life - Part 3 of 4
We now arrive at Part 3 of this 4-part series delving into the four factors that stand in the way to living a rich, full, and meaningful life. The four factors break down into acronym ‘FEAR’:
2. EXCESSIVE GOALS
3. AVOIDANCE OF DISCOMFORT
4. REMOTENESS FROM VALUES
We have now covered the first two factors and find ourselves at the third which I believe is the most powerful yet perhaps also the most subtle barrier to living a rich and full life, that is, our ever-enduring endeavour to avoidance discomfort.
AVOIDANCE OF DISCOMFORT
To best understand how the avoidance of discomfort stands in the way of living a full life, we need to first explore one of the primary roles of our mind; to keep us alive - survival.
Through the early years of life, our minds gather information from our environment regarding the various things that may cause us harm or jeopardise our safety and security. Fear is learned very early in life and is a product of the mind’s attempt to protect us from what it considers may be dangerous or threatening to our wellbeing. Thus, the mind has a primary role as our protector, a metaphoric ‘alarm system’ alerting us to any potential threat to our wellbeing, security, or survival.
The protector within (i.e. the mind) then teaches us to move away from things that could cause us harm (such as a lion) while concurrently leading us to move towards things provide us with pleasure, comfort or safety (such as a piece of cake). Let us call this phenomenon The Towards and Away Rule. The Towards and Away Rule is rational. It makes logical sense to move away from what is harmful and instead move towards what is pleasurable or safe. In fact, the Towards and Away rule is upheld by most animal species who actively move away from threat or danger (such as a predator) and move towards ‘pleasure’ (such as food, comfort, shelter, etc). So how does the Towards and Away rule then stop us from living a full life? The answer is found when we consider how human beings extend this rule on a deeper level.
The mind’s Towards and Away Rule makes intuitive sense for anything happening in the external world. However, we also have an internal world, which is comprised of our thoughts and emotions. Human language is what we use to represent or symbolise our internal world and through language, the mind extends the Towards and Away Rule to our internal world. That is, it defines certain emotions as ‘bad’ and others as ‘good’. Now, under this rule, the mind then tells us to move away from ‘bad’ or uncomfortable feelings, such as doubt, uncertainty, or anxiety, and towards ‘good’ or ‘positive’ feelings such as excitement, pleasure, and relief. You may be thinking, “So, what’s the problem with that? Isn’t it a good thing to feel more positive feelings and feel less negative ones – isn’t that what happiness is all about?” – let’s answer this question by taking a slight tangent to turn our attention to one of the world’s current leaders in the subject of Happiness – Professor Martin Seligman.
HAPPINESS – What is it really?
Professor Martin Seligman is a renowned researcher of Positive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. His niche area of interest and research has for over 20 years been focused on the topic of Authentic Happiness. In 2011, in his book Flourish, Seligman concludes that there are five elements to well being which fall under his mnemonic PERMA:
He defines each of the components as follows:
· Positive emotion—The subjective feeling of enjoyment or pleasure
· Engagement—The state of being immersed in something completely where time almost stands still. This is often when one is utilizing and developing their personal strengths.
· Relationships—The presence of friends, family, intimacy, or social connection.
· Meaning—Moving towards and acting in line with something bigger than one's self.
· Achievement—Accomplishment that is pursued even when it brings no positive emotion, no meaning, and nothing in the way of positive relationships.
Of relevance to this topic, Seligman highlighted that of each of the 5 components above, Positive Emotion is the smallest contributor to overall well-being and authentic happiness. Even prior to the publication of Flourish in 2011, Seligman expressed that positive emotions, which can be described as a fleeting and transient state of euphoria, cannot themselves account for a quarter of the measure of authentic happiness. Put in other words, positive emotions such as pleasure or enjoyment are like a firework, they are bright and attractive, however they do not last very long. Many people therefore spend their lives seeking to re-create these fireworks day after day, however, without the other 4 elements of PERMA also being sought, they never attain happiness. In fact, the ever-enduring and overarching search for such transient pleasure (i.e. positive emotion), can facilitate despair and depression in the long term.
Seligman draws a stark contrast to pleasure highlighting that the biggest contributor to well-being and authentic happiness of the PERMA model is Meaning. That is, doing things that are for a bigger purpose than one-self.
Taking these two points together, it becomes clear that an obstinate seeking for pleasure in life necessitates the sacrifice of meaning as pleasure prioritises the self and thus compromises the endeavour towards meaning. But can we define a meaning more completely than Seligman’s definition of doing something for greater value than oneself? – The answers to this question can be gathered from a different school of psychology developed at the University of Nevada by a gentleman names Professor Steven Hayes who created Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is modern psychological approach supported by an ever-growing body of scientific research. One of the 6-core processes of ACT is centred on defining the things that make a person’s life meaningful and rich. ACT uses the word ‘values’ to capture this, and ACT practitioners work intentionally with clients to define each person’s values; that is, the person they want to be and how they want to act. This is purposefully made in distinction to focussing on how the person wants to feel. ACT is not about learning how to feel more positive emotions and less negative ones. Instead, it is about learning to handle difficult thoughts and emotions differently; to learn ways to mitigate their impact on our behaviour so we can move towards our values regardless of our internal emotional atmosphere.
Taken together with the work of Seligman, I believe that the concept of Values in ACT gives us another way to consider the notion of Meaning where a Meaningful life both about knowing and acting out the essential qualities of who we want to be, focussing on what matters to us deep in our hearts.
Bringing it all together
Now let’s return to the topic at hand – how does the mind’s Towards and Away rule stand in the way of living a rich, full and meaningful life?
First, let us recap that that the Towards and Away rule, applied to our internal world, means that we are driven to do the things that yield positive emotions, and driven to turn away from bad or uncomfortable emotions. Now, when we consider the work of Seligman, that pleasure itself is the least significant proponent of happiness compared to Meaning and Achievement, and couple this with the literature from ACT, that meaning is found is living out our values, we can start to see how the dilemma present itself.
To illustrate, let us do an exercise together:
- Think of something you have done in your life that you are genuinely proud of, something that really mattered to you that you did, accomplished, persevered with, or got through. Something that even to this day still gives you a sense of achievement and meaning.
- Once you have got something in mind, I would like you to think about the early days or the process of that journey from the beginning and throughout.
- As you recall the entire experience, notice whether at any point any of these emotions showed up - worry, anxiety, uncertainty doubt, despair, frustration, hopelessness, confusion, disappointment, anger, loneliness, unfairness, sadness.
Now for many, if not most of us, the most meaningful things we have done, such as raising children, finishing a degree, starting a business, maintaining our friendships etc. have all come with occasional difficult emotions and sometimes entire seasons of difficult emotions.
The Avoidance of Discomfort, or in other words, an overarching submission to our mind’s Towards and Away Rule, stands in the way of a meaningful life because it robs us of the opportunity to move towards our values. When we make it a priority to avoid difficult emotions, we are blocked from doing the things that matter since these often come with inherent challenges and difficult emotions.
Our inherent need to avoid discomfort would prevent us from addressing an ongoing issue with our partner, from starting a course that we doubt we could complete, or from participating in a sport or exercise program when we fear we won’t have what it takes. It creates a life of pleasant emotions and a life that is avoidant of emotional pain. However, the avoidance of pain does not mean the presence of fulfilment. In fact, the exact opposite proves true, in the avoidance of pain, we sacrifice meaning. By being dictated by mind’s rule to avoid any negative feelings, we surrender ourselves and agree to construct a life that is at best sufficient, existing rather than living, surviving rather than thriving. We may experience great emotional highs, but these fleeting fireworks cannot hold a candle to the measure of happiness that is gained from living out our values and, in Seligman’s definition, moving towards meaning. There is far more to life than the avoidance of difficult emotions and the seeking of positive ones, and that ‘far more’ is often found on the other side of the tunnel of adversity.
If you have 3 minutes of time to understand this concept in video form, I invite you to watch this short clip which explains this concept quite powerfully and succinctly:
In the next article we will explore the 4th of the 4 factors – Remoteness from Values, which will allow us to delve more deeply in the importance of remaining in contact with your values.