Humans are one of the few species on earth capable of consciously experiencing happiness.
Neurologically speaking, happiness is classified as an evolutionary imperative for procreation and survival. Most animals lack the ability to anticipate the beginning and end of the process—by design.
Our advanced, mammalian awareness of pleasure’s limitations is often cited as a double-edged sword but a new paper published in The Journal of Positive Psychology attempts to blunt the other end of the blade. The authors motion that those who make a concerted effort to acknowledge the ebbs and flows of well-being are able to optimize periods of happiness while remaining secure in the face of misfortune.
“Differences in timing and conceptualization of outcome assessments, however, complicate interpretations regarding the practical significance of these effects,” the author wrote in the new paper. “To address this issue, we conducted a systematic literature search and included 34 randomized controlled trials into several meta-analyses. The best-possible-self intervention might be thought of as a mood/expectation induction procedure.”
In other words, when we’re realistic about outcomes we’re better equipped to visualize our best possible future. Unfortunately, the utility of this method is short-lived.
The tragic miracle of consciousness
The new study, co-authored by Johannes Bodo Heekerens and Michael Eid of the Freie University in Berlin, wanted to identify any potential self-intervention tactics that might work independently of pharmaceutical measures meant to mitigate psychological disorders. Since self-intervention is all about assessing the future, it has been suggested in the past as a powerful tool against chronic dejection. It’s a koan of sorts — sit and think about all of the things that can go wrong until all of the things that can go right become more and more feasible.
The perpetual “state of becoming” coined by John Steinbeck and Ed Rickets describes an existential counterbalance. There’s the person “we hope to become” and the “fear of becoming the person we dread.” Heekerens and Eid believe that by meditating on all of the elements integral to our aspirational self, we can actually promote a provisional state of well-being.
The meta-analysis, comprised of a total of 1,840 participants, took 34 different studies into account. Seventy-seven percent of the pool was female and the respondents ranged in age from 18 to 51, with the median age being 27.
None of these individuals were drawn from clinical populations to honor the paper’s abstract.
Participants involved in the control group were tasked with visualizing and documenting positive outcomes for varying lengths of time. Even though followup trials successfully demonstrated that “inducing an optimistic outlook encourages positive emotions,” this effect was not long-lasting.
Participants who were generally unhappy or pessimistic remained that way after the study period ended.
“Similar to other studies showing the benefits of emotion of such interventions as positive self-affirmations, the best-possible-self intervention isn’t one that will change your life forever. If done right, though, it could help you feel better for perhaps as long as a week. You will not, however, experience a “lasting change in well-being,” explained Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., ABPP, a Professor Emerita of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in response to the new study.
When you take the prevalence of mental diseases, the frequency of misfortune and the looming promise of death into account it’s simply unrealistic to rewire a developed mind into an everlasting state of optimism. The best shot we have to remain relatively adjusted is to remove the agency from tragic events. When we accept the fact that heartbreak, disease, and discomfort are just as unthinking as satisfaction, pleasure and contentment either set feels like a wash—which is a better alternative to a never-ending worry that the next good or terrible thing is just about to end or begin.
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