The Self and Optimal Functioning
While researching for a Positive Psychology News article a couple of months ago, I came across the chapter titled The Role of Hypo-egoic Self-Processes in Optimal Functioning and Subjective Well-Being. Like many of the chapters in this new book, Positive Psychology: Designing Positive Psychology: Taking Stock and Moving Forward, this chapter reminds those interested in Positive Psychology that the field is not a narrow area of research limited to just a handful of empirically validated interventions.
Under the broad umbrella of Positive Psychology, Leary and Guadagno have related research and theories of the hypo-egoic state, a “psychological state characterized by relatively little involvement of the self,” to the achievement of optimal functioning. That’s not something you would typically find in a basic book on Positive Psychology or happiness.
The chapter opens with the connection between self-awareness, self-refection, and optimal functioning. The authors suggest that healthy self-reflection is directed to the well-being and quality of life of oneself and others. This kind of reflection is not self-absorption; it is a hypo-egoic state,
In hypo-egoic states, people have minimal thoughts about themselves, their reputations, and how people perceive them. They are more focused on concrete present-moment situations and outcomes in which they are not ego-involved or personally invested. Hypo-egoic states can include flow, loss of self-consciousness, and transcendence.
“Quieting the self promotes adaptive functioning and well-being in numerous ways.”
However if self reflection occurs in egocentric or egotistical ways people become blinded to their own shortcomings. When people are ego-involved they are “focused narrowly on the implications of an event for themselves and do not take a broader perspective on how the event might also affect other people or even on its wider implications for themselves in the long run.”
Hypo-egoic states and Positive Psychology
In the remainder of their chapter, the authors touch on five areas of interest in the field of Positive Psychology, which they believe “share hypo-egoic states as a common basis.”
- Humility: Humility is a positive state or virtue characterized by a lack of self-preoccupation, a sense that one is no better and no worse than others, and an awareness that one is not the center of attention. The positive outcomes of humility include prosocial perspectives, enhanced interpersonal relationships, and a greater sense of connection to the larger world. The authors suggest that these outcomes are not just the result of humility, but are the “co-effects of having a hypo-egoic perspective.”
- Positive Emotions: Many positive experiences and emotions happen in a hypo-egoic state. On the flip side, when people are absorbed in unhelpful self-related thoughts, this can induce negative emotions. In flow, deep concentration occurs, self-awareness is reduced, and people tend to be intrinsically motivated. When people are less focused on themselves and more hypo-egoic, they tend to generate positive emotions that in turn lead to Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build effect.
- Compassion, Altruism, Love, Forgiveness, Empathy: These prosocial “positive other-oriented actions are more likely when people are in a hypo-egoic state,” where one is minimally self-focused, sees oneself as connected to others, and has a low-ego involvement in the outcome. Goals are concerned with the well-being of others.
- Wisdom, Perspective, and Open-Mindedness: Maintaining a broad perspective, developing wisdom, and remaining open-minded might be achieved more effectively if one is in a hypo-egoic state. Letting go of self-centeredness and being open to new ideas can enable self-transcendence.
- Transcendence and Spirituality: Most religious and spiritual traditions encourage people to undertake practices which quiet the self and lead to hypo-egoic states which reduce suffering and result in greater well-being for all.
The authors summarize that “many positive psychological states appear to arise when people are in a hypo-egoic state,” a state which contributes to greater well-being and optimal functioning, pro-social functioning, and virtuousness. Due to this connection between the hypo-egoic state and positive outcomes the authors call for greater research on the nature of hypo-egoic functioning. They suggest that hypo-egoic processes in fact can form an “integrative framework for thinking about many seemingly disparate phenomena in Positive Psychology.”
“Understanding how hypo-egoic processes relate to well-being and optimal functioning is an important goal for the next phase of Positive Psychology.”
Leary, M. R. & Guadagno, J. (2011). The Role of Hypo-egoic Self-Processes in Optimal Functioning and Subjective Well-Being. In K. Sheldon, T. B. Kashdan & M. F. Steger (Eds.), Designing Positive Psychology: Taking Stock and Moving Forward. Oxford University Press.
Last week, in his article The Defenders of Negativity, Jeremy McCarthy drew on chapters from this book, which is packed with contributions from 65 experts from across the broad spectrum of topics associated with Positive Psychology.
Photos by Amanda Horne and used with permission.
I find this fascinating and it ties in to a vision of humanity as evolving to be more unified socially (see “Non-Zero” or “Tribal Leadership” or the sci-fi version “Childhood’s End”.)
Amanda – any thoughts on how to move beyond the self. Sounds like dressed up mindfulness to me
Hi Jeremy-Unified socially as a fleshing out of your optimal functioning makes a lot of sense to me. I like it!
Amanda-the paradox of the need to take care of self vs the humility of selflessness looks like a nice arena for growth. To me, this is a helpful clarification. The five areas of interest are a nice recap of spiritual understanding. I refer to the Jewish Shemah and the Christian great commandment.
I appreciate your article, thank you.
Oz- Check out Stephen Ministry. Going to where someone else is in an affirmative and compassionate way is a powereful positive experience. It is overtly religious, but I think it has useful psychological ramifications. At least that is my experience.
Jeremy and Bob – thank you for the extra information and your thoughts and comments. Going to where someone is; unified socially – these are images that are indeed beyond one’s self and one’s own internally focused world.
Oz – yes yes yes: mindfulness, meditation. These are essential additions to a person’s practice if they want to cultivate high levels of perspective, awareness which go beyond themselves. The authors pointed out some aspects of Positive Psychology which could build this ‘other focused’ mindset and behaviour such as reducing overly negative emotions, generating compassion, altruism and empathy, consciously acting in pro-social ways. Fortunately, the authors mentioned meditation and mindfulness a number of times.
However, this chapter was not really about a comprehensive how-to checklist.