|Worrier to Warrior
“The tiny engines of flourishing” is what Dr. Barbara Fredrickson called our positive emotions: joy, contentment, love, and similarly pleasant affective states. Recent research has demonstrated that these emotions are the most accurate indicators of subjective well-being and are also important contributors to overall wellness in their own right. Additionally, contemporary work in positive psychology has identified positive emotions as one of five key components of overall well-being and as one of the three core components of happiness in particular.
As important as positive emotions are, they are only an ephemeral experience for many of us. All too often, positive emotions are merely, as Shakespeare says, “a dream, a breath, a froth of fleeting joy,” quickly replaced by negative emotions such as sadness, anxiety, or anger. In response to this, Worrier to Warrior offers a unique approach to fostering sustainable personal positivity, effectiveness, and purpose. Grounded in contemporary psychology and informed by the psychological paradigm found in Jewish literature, Worrier to Warrior welcomes us on a path to achieving positive emotions that will prove as illuminating to the seasoned professional as to the concerned layperson.
Seemingly, one’s successes should be a source of positive emotions. Yet for many, success produces the opposite emotional effect. Approximately seventy percent of individuals report experiencing intense anxiety as a result of their accomplishments. This is often due to feeling that they “faked” their way to success and are not as capable as others think they are, or they feel they are otherwise unworthy of the positive recognition they’ve received.
In today’s culture, where individuality is placed at a premium, oftentimes the biggest source of negative emotions, and the greatest obstacle to attaining positive ones, is the feeling of being inauthentic. “The impostor syndrome,” a well-documented manifestation of success, is the feeling of truly not deserving praise as a consequence of having faked one’s way to a position of status. This sense of vulnerable inauthenticity, which is estimated to affect seventy percent of the population, often engenders intense cycles of anxiety, self-image issues, and even depression.
This week’s lesson addresses “impostor syndrome” by drawing from the work of psychotherapists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, who pioneered therapeutic treatment of this syndrome. Through this exploration, students gain valuable insight into what it means to be truly authentic, how to healthily take credit for accomplishments, and also how to develop practical confidence-building techniques. This lesson also considers the psychology principles communicated in the book of Chasidic teachings, Tanya, and how these principles can further illuminate our struggles with (in)authenticity and help us cultivate a more positive attitude toward our successes.
Reframing Faults: Guilt vs. Shame
While the previous week’s lesson concerns how to best foster positive emotions in the wake of success, this week’s lesson focuses on how even our shortcomings can engender positive emotions if we approach them in the right way. To do so, this lesson draws on Helen B. Lewis’s influential distinction between shame and guilt and more recent work by June Price Tangeny that has followed.
These studies jointly reveal a critical difference between guilt and shame. While shame involves an overall devaluation of oneself and feelings of helplessness—attitudes that tend to reinforce detrimental habits and foster increasingly negative emotions—guilt focuses on the negativity of one’s actions (not oneself) and portrays oneself as a capable agent. In light of this, participants discover how adopting a guilt-based perspective on shortcomings, rather than a shame-based one, creates a more positive attitude toward shortcomings and a more proactive approach to rectifying mistakes. Perspectives from Jewish philosophy are also brought in to demonstrate how the struggle for self-betterment can itself be a source of pride and other positive emotions, despite our shortfalls along the journey.
Redeeming Guilt: The Upside of Negative Emotions
The previous week’s lesson focuses on the utility of guilt to foster positive emotions, but as this week’s lesson explains, not all guilt is good guilt. In explaining why this is so, this lesson further elucidates the fundamental distinction between positive and negative emotions, citing literature from a variety of sources regarding the affective, behavioral, and cognitive differences distinguishing them. In particular focus are the works of Barbara Fredrickson and Joseph Forgas who explain the distinct ways in which positive and negative emotions affect our cognitive processes.
With these differences in mind, this lesson shows how guilt can result in either positive or negative emotions, depending on how it is used. By exploring Tanya’s guidance on the proper role of guilt in repentance, we discover how guilt can be used to foster positive emotions, while avoiding the negative emotions that may otherwise arise. The result is a more informed and capable approach to handling guilt, using it as a tool to enhance one’s psychological well-being while avoiding its potential pitfalls.
Peering through Pain: Building Resilience
Another common hindrance to positive emotions is the inevitability of suffering in our lives. It is estimated that approximately fifty percent of individuals have experienced a traumatic event at some point in their lives, yet individuals’ responses to such occurrences vary markedly. For some, the result is a vicious cycle of debilitating negative emotions, whereas others are less affected from the outset and quickly recuperate. The difference between these two types of responses is “resilience”: the ability to adapt in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, and other significant sources of stress.
Reviewing the works of George Bonanno,and of Steven Southwick and Dennis Charny, this lesson explores the nature of resilience and how we can cultivate resilience in ourselves. The two main approaches studied are the non-passive acceptance of adversity and finding meaning in adverse events. In both cases, lessons from the Talmud and Tanya are brought to bear on both situations.
Finding Fulfillment: Getting Off the Hedonic Treadmill
It’s a common experience: We finally attain a long sought-after goal—whether it be a material possession, a position of status, or some other accomplishment. Yet the much anticipated joy disappears as quickly as it came, leaving us feeling just as unfulfilled as we felt previously. Behind this is the phenomenon of “hedonic adaptation” (a.k.a., the “hedonic treadmill”): the human tendency to return to an affective set-point shortly after experiencing positive (or negative) changes in circumstance. As a result, the positive emotions prompted by achievements are inevitably short-lived and are soon replaced by emotional equilibrium.
In this lesson, hedonic adaptation is explored through the well-documented phenomenon of income adaptation, as exemplified by Daniel Kahneman’s and Angus Deaton’s famous 2010 study on the effect of income on happiness, and the work of Sonja Lyubomirsky. However, this pessimistic outlook on our ability to increase positive emotions is balanced out by an alternative approach to increasing positive emotion in our lives by transcending ourselves to focus not on personal achievements, but on our altruistic efforts and accomplishments.
Rewarding Relationships: Including Others in Ourselves
Relationships: depending upon how we cultivate them, relationships can be our greatest source of positive emotions or a wellspring of negativity and stress. This week’s lesson sheds light on how to develop our relationships by delving into the psychology of what a close relationship is, most fundamentally. This week’s lesson examines the pioneering work of Arthur and Elaine Aron, whose “Inclusion of the Other in the Self Scale” (IOS) has become a widely used and well validated measure of relationship closeness.