Saturday 23 July 2016

What Does it Mean to be Resilient?

Part 1: The Meaning of Life

-Nicola Byrom

I have experienced mental health problems in my life. Big scary monsters of problems. So my first thinking about mental health focused on how to fight away monsters like Social Anxiety, Self-Harm, Depression and Eating Difficulties. With the time I’ve spent procrastinating on social media, I’ve noticed that most of our dialog around mental health focuses on how to keep mental ill-health away. But how about shifting the focus? What happens when we think about simply building better mental health? 

Positive Psychology is all about this. The science of happiness. Hearing that there are real, tangible things that we can do to be happier, I thought, “Why doesn’t everyone know this? Shouldn’t we be teaching everyone how to be happier?” This blog shares my thoughts and reflections as I stumble down the rabbit hole of Positive Psychology and try to get to grips with building better mental health.

This chap is Marty Seligman, the biggest cheese in the Positive Psychology movement. He sets out 5 principles of positive psychology: 
Positive Emotion

Here I’m focusing on meaning (more about the other components another day!) because this really threw me. You see, it seems very obvious that having a sense of meaning is important for emotional wellbeing, but considerably less obvious how we achieve a sense of meaning. I’m a massive fan of Tim Minchin’s UWA address where Minchin argues that there is no meaning.

“Life is meaningless… it’s absurd, the idea of seeking meaning in the set of circumstances that happens to exist after 13.8 billion years’ worth of unguided events.” 

This left me feeling torn: Minchin’s advice is that trying to find meaning in life is a bad idea because there is none. The Positive Psychology movement on the other hand says my wellbeing would be improved by a sense of meaning.

So, can we find meaning for our own lives in the absence of finding the ‘meaning of life’? Seligman says YES. Meaning comes from serving a cause bigger than ourselves; whether that is a specific deity or religion or a cause that helps humanity in some way. 
Some psychologists focus on the first half of this definition, arguing that one avenue towards meaning is spirituality which can be cultivated by: 
Thinking about the purpose of life and where you fit in, 
Spending time in meditation or prayer,
Thinking about the things you can do to improve the world or your community. 

In echoing Minchin’s thoughts on the meaninglessness of life, I’m not convinced that spending time thinking about where I fit in to the purpose of life, is likely to build positivity in my life. I try meditation from time to time and many have suggested that the introduction to mindfulness by HeadSpace is a simple starting place. But it is really the final point struck a chord with me: life can have meaning through its impact on the world or community. 

Specifically, Seligman suggests that we can build meaning by using our signature strengths in the service of something that you believe is larger than you. Seligman has developed a framework of 24 strengths. These are traits, valued in their own right and ubiquitous. You can use the Values in Action Signature Strengths survey to identify your own signature strengths. Once identified, the challenge is to focus on using these strengths every day in a way that does service to something you believe in.

I’ll leave these thoughts here, as I start to dwell on the seemingly equally perplexing task of pinning down something that I really believe in! 

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