The Awe-Based Challenge to Positive Psychology

By Chernin, Kim | Tikkun, November/December 2009 | Go to article overview

The Awe-Based Challenge to Positive Psychology


Chernin, Kim, Tikkun


THE SIGNS OF ITS INFLUENCE ARE LEGION. YOU CAN SEE THEM IN THE POPULAR press, in the burgeoning new lines of professional books by such organizations as the American Psychological Association, and on radio and television talk shows. Positive psychology or the "new science of happiness," as a 2005 Time Magazine cover story put it, has taken the public (and the psychological profession) by storm.

There are several sound reasons for this: the lack of traditional emphasis in psychology and the public on positive, that is, healthy, human experiences; the growing interest in spirituality; and the increasing desire for "solutions" to the stresses of modern life, such as the increased pace of technology, overwork, and the fragmentation of community.

Unfortunately, much of positive psychology, particularly as it has been trumpeted in the press, and even in quarters of professional psychology, is both simplistic and illusory. The great questions of life- the existential questions about who and what we are, how we live in the face of death, and what really matters to us- are barely touched by the palliatives of positive psychology. These palliatives focus mainly on techniques such as increasing one's ratio of positive to negative thoughts, redirecting one's pessimistic thoughts into those that are upbeat, and utilizing prayer and meditation to "program" positive experiences. Such techniques are now even being used with American soldiers to help them "adjust" to the war experience.

In short, despite the usefulness of positive techniques for some overt challenges, e.g., stress reduction, there are formidable problems with both the techniques and the issues they're designed to address.

For a psychology of happiness (or flourishing or vitality) to be optimal, it needs to be grounded in the blood and sweat details of everyday living, taking account of the ambiguities of life, including life's tragedies.

In my new book, A wakening to Awe: Personal Stories of Profound Transformation, I show that for many, substantive happiness requires "awe-based consciousness" or consciousness of the humility and wonder, chill and thrill of living. It is a consciousness that requires not only a positive outlook, but also a full and intensive encounter with life- in all its variegated shades. Such a consciousness is almost always precipitated by a crisis, at least in our culture. This is because in our routinized world, it almost invariably takes a jolt to shake us out of our complacency and open us to the great mysteries of life, the yawning possibilities.

All of the people I interview in the book have learned these lessons and, as a result, radically transformed their fives. Among them are a former gang leader who is now a beloved gang mediator and youth advocate; an ex-drug addict who became a communally conscious healer and case worker; and a sufferer of stage 3 cancer who evolved into a contemplative and spiritual seeker. Many other similar lives and stories are recorded in the book, and they all converge on one overarching point- awe-based happiness is achieved through an attunement to the bigger picture of life, and that picture is both humbling and grand.

To tap into awe-based consciousness, one must cultivate it at every opportunity and continually challenge the marrow-sapping forces, such as consumerism and dogmatism, that distract and divert it.

Given this situation, here are a few key steps we can take to cultivate an awe-based consciousness. In my research I've found the following 'lenses" on experience (what others may call "spiritual practices") to be essential:

The Lens of Transience

THIS LENS ENABLES ONE TO ATTUNE TO THE PASSING nature of time, the fragility of life, and its (relatively) rapid dissolution. The more we sensitize to transience, the more we can appreciate the preciousness of the moment and the mysterious background within which the moment is formed. I often peer through this lens when I'm witnessing my son at play or my family at a meal, but I can also experience it while walking a city street or attending a sporting event.

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