This is surely also true of Diwali, that great Hindu festival of lights when everyone wears new clothes, and of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights originating in the dedication of a restored temple and, from a preserved single vase of oil, the future availability of sacred light. Ramadan, at the other seasonal pole (summer in the UK), celebrates the holy revelations to Muhammad and the future of humanity, worshipping God. There are Ramadan lights since Muhammad’s revelations were at night. In January Sikhs have a celebration of their 10th Divine Light, their tenth Guru. A Guru is someone who leads others out of shadows and carries the lamp.Across the world and across religions, light matters. This seems obvious, given day and night and given seasons. It is easy enough in our light-polluted cities to disparage sun worshipers and to underestimate how lives were dominated by darkness and fears of the darkness of night, of forests, of deep seas.
Positive Psychology and the Light
Offer points out that our wealth has evolved much faster than our well-being, than our capacities to sustain loving relationships over a life-time — and indeed than our spirituality as George Vaillant so eloquently argues. Positive psychology has an interest in why this is so even though its main focus must be on helping pull us into the future.
In launching the field of positive psychology Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi wrote in 2000:
Entering a new millennium, we face an historical choice. Left alone on the pinnacle of economic and political leadership, the United States can continue to increase its material wealth while ignoring the human needs of its people and that of the rest of the planet. Such a course is likely to lead to increasing selfishness, alienation between the more and the less fortunate, and eventually to chaos and despair. At this juncture the social and behavioral sciences can play an enormously important role.
That has proved to be the case, though by no means only through positive psychology, we witness the development of behavioral economics and other fields. Remarkably our knowledge and understanding of well-being, flourishing, happiness, and hedonic psychology have changed dramatically. Moreover, instead of being afterthoughts for policymakers, leaders, and managers, and indeed in life generally, these concepts have come center stage. They have implications for all, not just those who are already well and seek to become even better, for the many, not just the few. The world faces hard times. As Seligman wrote in 2003, “hard times are uniquely suited to the display of many strengths.”
Light and Dark in Earlier TimesThe world has seen major turning points before. After centuries of plague and death across all classes, some Renaissance thinkers thought that ‘The light has gone out of the world.’ That thought dominated much of art, not least that of the elemental Caravaggio who brought chiaroscuro (light-dark contrast) to personal and religious representations. Seligman refers to 21st century developments in behavioral science as analogous to the Renaissance, which saw the end of the medieval dark ages and a focus on beauty, not war. Aesthetics were also central to the 18th century Scottish Enlightenment and especially one of its founders, Francis Hutcheson, whom Seligman has informally described as perhaps the first positive psychologist. Hutcheson’s work was influential in the formation of America and intriguingly, his Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy was a textbook at the then College of Philadelphia, now the University of Pennsylvania, a present-day home of positive psychology. The Scottish Enlightenment emphasized reason in the best conduct of human affairs, but also the vital centrality of emotions, of passions, and crucially of compassion in the formation of moral judgments. Essentially atheistic, if not always openly, their question was, “From where if not from God does our sense of good, of virtue come? And why our compassion, our love?” Christopher Hitchens, the British writer and polemicist who died this month in a Texas hospital, wrote in 2007, “Human decency is not derived from religion, but precedes it.”
Loneliness versus LightAdam Smith and David Hume, those key figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, would have readily agreed with and indeed much enjoyed Daniel Kahneman’s epic Thinking, Fast and Slow (which I look forward to finishing over the period). But I doubt they would much admire the way the world has developed. The groundbreaking Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh is currently presenting a play, The Tree of Knowledge in which Hume and his friend Adam Smith return to life in the modern world. With some amazement at material progress they are appalled at the society they encounter, and especially its lack of tenderness. They feel responsible for having led the world astray but, justifiably, feel deeply misunderstood. Their theories of fellow-feeling, of the inevitability as well as the centrality of sympathy, they find disastrously neglected. They sought to enlighten the world through the application of reason, while recognizing the importance of emotions. They found our new world a dark and lonesome place.
Loneliness is indeed often the scourge of our modern societies with alienation rife in cities and rural areas. We see more and more people living alone, increased emphasis on personal and individual experiences. Cacioppo shows how damaging this can be with evidence from neuroscience as well as evolutionary psychology. Loneliness can be felt most acutely at Christmas and other festivals, and so it is especially important to make sensitive efforts to reach out. We have known this for millennia. Now we also have the science to show us why. In 2002 Tim Kasser and Ken Sheldon set out the centrality of relationships and of spiritual values in their article, What Makes for a Merry Christmas ? Science will lighten the ways into a more fellowship-based future.
Being Pulled into the Future
In addition to the science there are other great signs of being pulled into a better future. In PPND Miriam Akhtar writes movingly of the value and growth of communal singing. In the UK we have been privileged to watch an inspirational series on the development of choirs to address a range of socially problematic situations. Perhaps the most moving is that of the wives of soldiers in Afghanistan. Talk about resilience! Maybe singing should become part of resilience training.
These and other developments across the arts and media may yet herald the hope for the future that E. O Wilson wrote of in Consilience. Consilience means jumping together. Wilson argues that one of results of the extraordinary information and communication revolutions we are privileged to be living through will be a jumping together of the arts and science “not seen since the Scottish Enlightenment.”Centuries after the Enlightenment, Nehru wrote of Gandhi’s death that “the light has gone out of our lives,” but later that the light Gandhi had shone would be eternal for it came from deeper spirit than religion. Modern neuroscientists locate spirituality, through responses under brain scans, at a different, non-verbal, and earlier evolved part of our brains than organized, verbal religion, a fact that Vaillant links with the centrality of love to flourishing lives.
In the light of day, of understanding, science, and engagement with others, of dancing, singing, loving, and laughing together, of appreciation of art and of each other, how can we fail to build a better future?
I wish you light, love, and laughter. Let’s celebrate the future.
Cacioppo, J. T. and W. Patrick (2008). Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. New York ; London, W. W. Norton.
Hitchens, C. (2007). God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. London, Atlantic Books.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. London, Allen Lane.
Kasser, T. and K. Sheldon (2002). What Makes for a Merry Christmas? Journal of Happiness Studies 3.
Offer, A. (2006). The Challenge of Affluence: Self-Control and Well-Being in the United States and Britain since 1950. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Seligman, Martin (2004), Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.
Seligman, M. E. P. and M. Csikszentmihalyi (2000). “Positive Psychology: An Introduction.” American Psychologist 55(1): 5-14.
Vaillant, G. (2008). Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith. New York: Broadway Press.
Wilson, E. O. (1998). Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge.
Ukranian American Christmas Eve courtesy of Jan Rosenberg
Hanukkah Lights courtesy of Elana Amsterdam
Diwali lights at City Mall courtesy of Barry Pousman
Caravaggio, David with Goliath’s Head from Wikimedia commons
Frances Hutcheson from Wikimedia commons
Adam Smith courtesy of surfstyle