I began understanding the significance of this when I read what Martin Seligman (positive psychologist at UPenn) wrote about mental wellness and illness in his book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being.
He relays a lesson he learned when he first began practicing psychotherapy. Working with folks who struggled with mental illness like depression, he found that when he succeeded in treating the depression, that didn’t automatically yield a happy, mentally well patient. It yielded something more like a blank canvas. The process of eliminating depression, he concluded, is different from the process of cultivating happiness and flourishing. Hmm.
As I carried this idea with me, I started to associate directions with each of these two processes. The process of elimination, or rooting out the unwanted is a backward facing process that draws on history and “what is and has been.” The process of cultivation, or creating the wanted thing, is a forward facing process that requires imagination of “what could be.”
I noticed, too, that individually and collectively one of these is getting a lot more attention and use than the other. So often we are only looking in the direction of the unwanted thing we’d like to eliminate. It’s so pervasive that it’s easy to take for granted. Consider the following:
- The diet industry focuses on losing weight (eliminating fat) rather than on cultivating healthy bodies. Healthy bodies aren’t often part of the conversation at all, though attractive bodies might be. This is paralleled by our healthcare system, which aims to eliminate or treat illness without similar efforts to cultivate wellness, health or enhance wellbeing.
- Many folks are endlessly looking for ways to deal with stress rather than working with cultivating more harmony and ease.
- When something is broken—from cars to relationships— we try to fix it (eliminate the problem). But rarely do we spend time maintaining or cultivating improved versions of things that are basically in working order. This is evidenced by the phase, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” However, strengthening and improving things that aren’t broken, decreases the chances of them breaking in the future. Just because something functions, doesn’t mean it’s highly functioning.
You might be thinking, “These are the same thing. If you’re trying to eliminate stress, you’re trying to cultivate harmony.” To be clear, one thing suggests the other, but they are quite different. Don’ts and do’s, elimination and cultivation are two sides of the same spectrum. But just because we know what we don’t want doesn’t mean we always know what we do want. We are so well practice in the former and so lacking in the latter. Since we haven’t exercised these muscles of imagination individually or culturally, they are weak. I, for one, am ready to start working them out.
Try it now. What is your vision of an ideal life? A perfect community or world? Is it as vivid as your image of the world as you see it everyday? As the world you don’t want to see (and fear might come to pass)? Which of these do you see most clearly and feel most deeply?
If you’re at all like me (and you are ‘cause you’re human 😉 ), thinking in this way will take some practice. And I’d encourage you to practice because the shift in focus itself is incredibly powerful. Having a vision of what you do want to see (the clearer and more detailed the better) forms the foundation of inspired action. Because acting from inspiration feels good, it provides a sustainable form of motivation. The further you align with your vision, the better you feel, the more inspired you are to act, the more you align, and so on. It’s what I like to call the vivacious circle.
Contrast this with working from a place of self-discipline and self-control in an effort to root out the unwanted. While I’m all for cultivating more of both of these, it ain’t nearly as easy or motivating for the lot of us as working from a place of inspired action. And when we fail or fall off the bandwagon (as we inevitably will) it feels bad. If we feel bad and then beat ourselves up then we feel worse and so on… the more familiar vicious circle.
Beyond this, having a vision of the wanted thing helps to bridge the gap between our existing (undesired) behavior or situation to the desired one. When you’re trying to change a habit, for example, saying, “I will not eat the cookie,” not only brings your attention to eating the cookie (which, let’s face it, is delicious and wanted on some level even while being unwanted at another), it also doesn’t suggest another activity to fill the void.
Imagine anew. Fill the void. Don’t eat the cookie. Create the life you want.