Friday, August 5, 2022

Friday Feature: Pain and Suffering

 In the last year, two of the books from my non-fiction book club have focused on the meaning of suffering.

Ugh, I though, as I took them out of the box and put them into my library donation bag. Why would I want to read about that?

I wondered (and still do) if these books were connected in any way to the pandemic. Then, after reading this article in Big Think, I wondered if they were the inevitable pendulum swing away from positive psychology.

I love positive psychology. In fact, I’m teaching it again next spring. But, so often, people hear “positive psychology” and think rah-rah, happy-happy, joy-joy and dismiss it as more delusional than helpful. 

They don’t see a place for it in the real world.

Positive psychology arose because psychology as a discipline was too focused on fixing what was broken. It was a pendulum swing away from immersion in suffering.

That doesn’t mean that positive psychology ignores the inevitable negatives in life. Instead, it focuses on resilience, raising the question of how we bounce back from horrific events. At least one study looked at September 11 survivors and found amazing strengths that arose as a result of not only what they’d been through but also the perspective it gave them.

I suppose in that way it’s not that dissimilar from the books on suffering that seem to be flooding the market right now. I’m still not convinced that I want to spend my precious reading time immersing myself in the study of suffering, but I do see the value of resilience. In fact, I joke with my students that they can’t get through a class with me – regardless of what it is – without hearing about resilience and mindset.

As an instructor of positive psychology, maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to set these books aside. Perhaps I owe it to my students, if not to myself, to see how these perspectives align. Still, I can’t help but feel that a small dose is sufficient. It took psychologists more than a century to recognize the importance of seeking positivity as a counterbalance to our natural negativity bias and, knowing what I do about pendulum swings, I have no desire to swing with this one into something that gives me a sense of déjà vu that borders on foreboding.

Ignorance, however, is not bliss, and balance is key - a conclusion I seem to be coming to a lot lately. In addition, critical thinking requires considering more than one perspective, which, in this case, means I should at least crack open one of those books before handing them off to the library.

This is not at all the conclusion I anticipated when I started writing this post. It is, in fact, much easier to disregard this information than to confront it. But, part of the beauty of our information-rich world is that we can choose our poison. I can choose to read these books or not. I might instead choose to read more articles like the one in Big Think or to watch a TED talk.

A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. So, too, can a little ignorance.

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