In one of the sessions of the positive psychology course I studied last year, Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar presented an interesting concept. He asked us to study a poster with various shapes and items on it and instructed us to count how many geometric shapes were on the poster. We were given a time limit so I became very concentrated, counting as many squares, circles, oblongs and so on that I could. I was quite pleased that I had counted quite a few shapes. However, he then asked: How many children were on the bus? Bus? What bus? I had been so busy counting shapes, I had not attended to the actual pictures which included a bus, a clock and various other images. I had counted the windows as oblongs and the bus as a big oblong, but had not seen the children on the bus.
Focus becomes reality
Tal’s point was that whatever we focus our mind on to, that becomes our reality. My focus was geometric shapes, so my brain did not “see” a bus with children on it. It simply did not exist. There are two points I would like to make here. One is that reality does not only consist of whatever we are focusing on – even though we cannot see another reality and secondly, asking questions is a great way to help us gain a different perspective, a different focus, in order to broaden our particular view or reality at the time.
Asking the right questions
Questions actually determine where we will go to in that they create reality. It was with a very specific question that I was only able to see the geometric shapes – not the children on the bus. Similarly, if we don’t ask certain questions, then we may miss out on important information we need to make our lives better. What if in a relationship we only ask, “what is wrong, or what needs to be improved?” We wont see all the things that are going well in our relationship. If we don’t ask those questions then the good things “don’t exist” – just like the children on the bus did not exist.
Also, if the only questions we ask of ourselves are, “What is wrong or what needs to be improved?”, we wont see the strengths, the virtues, the very things we can count on and build on to get us through life. Questions like: “What is most meaningful to me?”, What is most pleasurable to me?” and “What are my strengths?” Asking these questions and finding the overlap among pleasure, meaning and strength and then identifying what we really want to do with our lives we can give us a fuller picture of not only what is going well, but where we can improve on. In the absence of these questions we fail to live to our full potential. William James said:”….the best way to define a man’s character would be to seek out the particular mental or moral attitude in which, when it came upon him, he felt himself most deeply and intensively active and alive, at such moments, there is a voice inside which speaks and says, “this is the real me.”
The right questions lead us to right action
Positive psychology sheds light on what is working by asking the right questions. Marva Collins, when she began working with impoverished black children in Chicago, who had high levels of truancy, teen pregnancy and drug use asked only: “How can I sew the seeds of greatness in these children? How can I help them be the best they can be?” By bringing her focus to the positive and what was possible, she was able to perform miracles – raising their levels of learning, self esteem and academic performance so that every student graduated from high school. (Look up her book: The Marva Collins Way).
The questions I will ask from time to time under the “Today’s Question” are designed to help you look more at what is working in your life and building on and broadening these areas. The questions will cover a wide area of life including self esteem, relationships, perfectionism, goals, change, resilience and so on. Cognitive therapy is about interpreting and reinterpreting reality – transforming the way we perceive that which is. Positive psychology suggests that we co-create reality by where we put our attention. For example, we may have great things happening in our relationship, but if we don’t focus on what is working we will miss it. Reality is both subject and object. We have little control over the object but we control the subjective interpretation. It is a choice we have It is an acquired skill we achieve over time.