What Matters Most

What matters most?

When I was in college, my answer to that question was God, my mind, my friends and family, and my health, in that order.  While in some ways I still like that answer, I’ve got to tell you that those priorities did not by themselves enable me to live well.  In fact I was a pretty miserable person.

I suppose every person has to answer that question subjectively.  Still science is beginning to be able to tell us objectively what it means to live well.

One of the founders of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, has come up with an acronym for five essentials to well being, PERMA: positive emotion, engagement (i.e., of our attention), positive relationships, meaning, and achievement.

Where is your practice taking you?  What do you practice, and why?

From the time we begin our formal education till the time we’ve finished with it, the focus of our practice tends to be on the last piece of well being, that is, on accomplishment.  We study hard to get good grades, to go to a good school, to get a good job.  We run and lift weights to be stronger and faster, to be the best at our position on the team, etc.

Competition can make us better.  It can make us beautiful, and it can make us ugly.  It can lead to a win at all costs mentality epitomized by Lance Armstrong.

Remember your humanity.  Your practice should in some way touch on all the five essentials.  Take care of your emotions, pursue those ideas and skills you are passionate about, cultivate positive relationships, and build meaning from your faith into your work and community.

By so doing your practice will make you a blessing to those around you, and you in turn will be blessed as well.  You will have transcended success, and discovered happiness and significance.

The End of Practice

Why do we practice?

I first began to learn to practice when I began to play football.  I was skinny, weak, and slow.  I didn’t play much, and didn’t play well when I did.

The shame of it drove me to exercise, and the anger of the shame made me work hard.  I got bigger, stronger, and faster.  I played more, and played better when I did.

My best friend got kicked off the team for smoking at the end of my junior year in high school, and I quit out of despair.  I decided I wanted to be a Jedi Knight, and practiced yoga and karate.  I suppose I wanted power.

I went to college.  All the things I was interested in were very mathematical (besides writing of course.  I couldn’t possibly earn a living as a writer.).  The only problem was I wasn’t very good at math.  I hated math through grade school and junior high.  It seemed the most tedious subject on earth.

I decided I’d better get good at math, so I could learn the things I was interested in.  I discovered mathematical beauty, and changed my major.  I worked hard, did well, and made some friends with others so enamored.

One of my math buddies turned me on to the Russian authors, and I fell in love with books.  Ten years later I discovered audio books, and I spent the rest of my mundane moments in the ether of words.

My practice hasn’t made me an expert; it hasn’t even made me a master.  But it has made me happy.

Virtue: the Practice of Well-being

Well-being is that state of wholeness, meaningfulness, and connectedness we associate with happiness, the good life, or a life well lived; a life that aims to fulfill its potential.  Virtue is the practice that leads to well-being.

These ideas of well-being and virtue have been discussed and debated by philosophers and theologians down through the ages.  But it is only recently that science has begun to investigate them.

In 2004 Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman published Character Strengths and Virtues, an attempt at a scientifically derived catalogue of the healthy human character.  They made “a comprehensive literature search of lists of virtues critical to human thriving” that was both interdisciplinary and cross-cultural, and made a determination as to whether those lists converged.

Their research strongly indicated an historical and cross-cultural convergence identified by what they describe as six core virtues:

  1. Courage: the capacity to overcome fear; the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition.
  2. Justice: that which makes life fair; broadly interpersonal, relevant to the optimal interaction between the individual and the group or the community.
  3. Humanity: relating to others, interpersonal strengths; positive traits manifested in caring relationships with others; dispositions to tend and befriend.
  4. Temperance: moderation; positive traits that protect us from excess.
  5. Transcendence: meaning or purpose larger than ourselves; that which allows individuals to form connections to the large universe, and thereby provide meaning to their lives.
  6. Wisdom: hard fought knowledge used for good; exceptional breadth and depth of knowledge; creativity, curiosity, judgment, and perspective; positive traits related to the acquisition and use of information in the service of the good life; cognitive strengths.

If well-being or happiness is our aim in life, then it behooves us to find one or more practices to inculcate each of these virtues into our lives.  I will be inquiring into what the nature of these practices might be over the next few days.