I don’t like it said this way but I am part of the self-improvement epidemic that my generation has foisted on our culture. No, “I am part of” doesn’t convey the reality. My whole professional life has been centered on supporting the quest for improvement of person. Whether it’s been youngsters at residential camp, elementary students or retirees, I have been all about personal improvement. Just so you know, that’s the bias in front of this collection of thoughts.
The underlying activity in all this self-improvement is learning. It is a credit that there has been so much emphasis and effort placed on learning during this era. It is a discredit that the self-improvement epidemic also includes entitlement, ego-centrism, and vanity. In self-defense, the baby doesn’t need to go out with the bath water. Continued learning is a good way to live. This is especially true if the learning is in a context of opportunity rather than a context of deficit. The context of opportunity presumes prior success. The learner has an opportunity to become more successful. The context of deficit presumes prior failure. The learner is attempting to climb out of a hole.
This difference is as great as the difference between a sandy desert floor and a lush green flower garden; as great as a foul wastewater pond and Thoreau’s Walden Pond; as far apart as a healthy toddler and a cynical senior citizen. It is this difference that Positive Psychology has been defining since the early nineties. The early focus in psychology was about curing illness. Positive Psychology is about identifying and pursuing opportunity. The two are not in opposition; they are compliments in the continuum of being human.
With all that cajoling, motivating, teaching, listening, and every kind of “ing” I have been able to come up with I’ve never failed to recognize some aspect of living that a person couldn’t do better and seemed to suffer some discomfort at the deficit. 10-year olds for instance are willing to share their emotions – such as the frustration of not being able to play with older children or reading as well as classmates. They don’t like the deficit in skill level and express it clearly. Adults are not so free in disclosing. While most adults are successful enough that it is more appropriate to describe their striving as missed opportunities, it is more typically felt as a deficit to overcome. A middle school teacher who has taught for several years, earned the respect of students, colleagues and parents and still looks forward to going to work has achieved no small accomplishment. The next “new” thing that comes along for the teacher’s professional development may be viewed as a deficit in the teacher’s skill set. It is more appropriately viewed in the context of an opportunity to add to the teacher’s skills because any teacher of middle school students who has the respect of students, colleagues, parents and likes the work has earned opportunities to learn and the dignity of being beyond deficits. Yet, the opportunity point of view is the exception not the rule.
Sammy brought this home to me. He is far from perfect when compared to average human behavior. Table manners are atrocious; he always completes a meal with sticky fingers and grimy cheeks. Has no idea what a toilet is for. Little patience, let alone a sense of deferred gratification, and he sleeps a good 13 or 14 hours a day. Throws any ball he puts his hands on and many other objects, too, but range and aim leave a lot to be desired. Sammy is far from average. At 15 months, he is my new exemplar for what it means to be a whole, wonderful, positive human being:
-Everything he does is pure, as in peaceful, deep sleep; joyful eating; intent listening to the books he loves to have read to him.
- Every waking moment is about connection with the people important to him and the objects that surround him. The television is off, he is actively engaged!
- Playing and learning are one in the same. Walking with and without Mom was great fun. Making sounds for Grandma like aggeegator (alligator), cocodile (crododile) and alla-ander (Alexander) was thrilling.
- Emotions are shared openly – each is expressed and all of yours are taken in – judgment free.
- His parents wonderfully sustain a structure of routine sleeping and eating, reinforcement, nourishment and rest that frees him to be at his optimum level an amazing amount of time each day.
- Yesterday and tomorrow occupy none of his attention. He’s fully present NOW!
- He has a word when he is in flow (fully engaged in a productive pursuit): HAPPY!
Sammy’s way of living is available to all. Positive Psychology is a scientific discipline aimed at learning, or more accurately, relearning how to live whole, constructive, and positive. A life coach well versed in Positive Psychology and committed to bringing out the brilliance within, partners with someone who has a good life and wants it to be better.