We tend to overlook it in daily life, but people are vastly different. Even in the exact same situations, each of us provide our own unique, subjective interpretation and respond differently based on differences in culture, background, and genes. This is especially true for the way we deal with challenges. Facing the same challenges, some people may respond with humor while others respond by controlling their emotions or by taking swift action. These unique predispositions to deal with things in one way or another define our very identity. They are our “Character Strengths”, our capacity to behave, think, and feel in certain ways that brings out the best in us.
On Sunday morning I flew back from Orlando to New York, after attending the World Congress on Positive Psychology. To my good fortune, the airplane had TV service, so I could spend the two hours staring at the screen embedded in the seat in front of me. Across all channels, everyone was talking about the US Supreme Court’s ruling about same-sex marriage. Clearly big news, summarizing a pendulum of eleven years of legislation and court deliberations, which started back in 2004 in Massachusetts. It was not surprising that this was the most-discussed topic of the hour, yet I found it interesting that it was not only reported, but almost unanimously celebrated. Instead of the typical balanced and analytical news, the programs reported outbursts of festivity in different parts of the country, weaving in interviews with senators and state officials from both sides of the political spectrum, most of which congratulated the decision and supported it.
When we meet people who seem to be both successful and happy, we tend to think that they are happy because they are successful. Many of us were brought up to think that if we worked hard and succeeded, happiness will naturally follow. In the past few years, researchers have re-examined the relationship between success and happiness, and found that this seemingly-obvious assumption of success leading to happiness is inaccurate.
I grew up in a warm country, and always fantasized about the snow. It seemed magical, romantic, beautiful, and the ultimate state of calm. As a child, snow represented the world that is outside of my small country. A world that is vast and exciting, where white flakes fill the air in wintertime and people sit by the fireplace and watch them out the window. I did not have a chance to see a single flake of snow until I was 30, when I moved to New York, already a young father of a toddler.
In a previous post, the process of dehumanization was suggested as the psychological foundation leading to the atrocities conducted by organizations like ISIS. The opposite process of humanization was then suggested as the antidote for the development of extreme, violent behavior. This idea can be summarized as follows: When violent, savage behavior erupts (as in the case of ISIS), it has to be addressed firmly and eradicated. Separately, it is important to understand the process that eventually leads to the creation of such violent behavior. If we understand the process, we may be able to stop or even reverse it before it evolves into violence. Science tells us that at the heart of that process there is a psychological phenomenon called dehumanization – the act of demonizing people from a different group, making it (falsely) appear as a legitimate target of violence. The antidote is therefore the opposite process, called humanization – where one recognizes that others share similar human qualities with them. If humanization is indeed the antidote, and if it only works at an early stage, we should seek places where the process of dehumanization is just starting, and neutralize it by reaching out to others who are starting to form the view that we are not human like them, and prove them wrong.
The atrocities we see in the news in past months raise fundamental questions about human nature. We would like to think that humans are superior to other species. When we encounter brutal acts of violence, we say that the ones who conduct them are “animals”. Yet while animals will hunt for food or defend their home, they will otherwise strive to remain peaceful. Well-fed lions rarely attack, and cobras dance to the flute of the snake-charmer, as long as he keeps a safe distance. It is, in fact, uniquely human to go fiercely against one’s own species, to engage in violence for its own sake, and to plan murder on a massive scale. Can we humans look at ourselves in the mirror today and confidently like what we see? If aliens are watching us from faraway galaxies, how would they describe us today? Are we the predators at the top of the food chain, or perhaps a virus infecting the planet, as Agent Smith in the film The Matrix suggested?
So, you’ve decided that to want to change your life for the better. Become happier. Be a better person. Find meaning. Be positive. Gain clarity. Reduce stress. Become more focused. Where do you start? It used to be that the choices were limited. Only a few decades ago, a person would turn to their religion as the sole source of information, but today the world offers a multitude of movements, strategies, and spiritual traditions to choose from, all of them holding the promise of a better future.
This Friday morning, I was walking in the snow down 1st Ave. It was 8am, and everyone was rushing to work, trying to walk quickly through the piling snow. Traffic was backed on the avenue, and drivers were honking at each other, letting out their frustration from the weather and from the TGIF that turned into a daytime nightmare. On the side streets, some people were shoveling snow and sprinkling rock salt on the sidewalk. The snow came at the worst possible time of the day, and perhaps the worst possible day of the week.
One of the things that is unique to humans is our ability to find patterns, to naturally seek and identify structure in everything we observe. Abilities like recognizing visual shapes, spotting harmonious musical arrangements, and detecting consistent concepts, all lie at the heart of human intelligence. In fact, we are so focused on finding patterns in the world, that we often falsely identify meaningful patterns in random, meaningless situations. This phenomenon, called Apophenia, is something that all of us have experienced at some point: The hidden messages when you play the Beatles records backwards, the tree that looks like a crying man, and of course the face that stares at you from the power outlet.