Sunday, 18 January 2015

Positive psychology and Purusharthas

Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes life worth living.  It is a new branch of psychology to help normal human beings lead happy, fulfilled lives with a sense of well-being as contrasted with the study of abnormalities and dysfunctions of the human mind. It is a departure from the Freudian focus on making life less miserable to making life more happier.  In short its emphasis is on “What is right with you mentally” rather than “what is wrong with you mentally.”   Martin Seligman the founder of this branch of psychology defines it as the branch of psychology that uses scientific understanding and effective intervention to aid in the achievement of a satisfactory life rather than merely treating mental illness.  This is reflected in an interview with CNN on the current state of psychology.  When asked to describe in one word Seligman said “Good”. When he was asked to describe in two words, he changed it to” Not good”.  The interviewer taken aback asked him to describe in three words and he came out with the reply “Not good enough”.  That is in the field of treating unhealthy minds it is good, while in the field of helping healthy minds not good, and so overall not good enough.  This study originated in 1998 when Martin Seligman was elected the President of American Psychological association and he made positive psychology theme of his term.

As per Martin Seligman good life is “using your signature strengths every day to produce authentic happiness and abundant gratification” i.e. to continuously be happy and fulfilled.   Seligman has classified happiness in three broad categories.   
1) The happiness that one derives from a “life of enjoyment”, the Pleasant life.  The emphasis here is on savoring as much pleasures as possible through the normal avenues of entertainment, relationships, hobbies etc.. Seligman says this is most transient and ranks it low.
 2) The happiness that one derives from a “life of engagement’, the Good life. The happiness comes from one’s accomplishments, achievement of goal, meeting a challenge.  This happiness ranks only average as the feeling of fulfillment or satisfaction does not last long.
3) The happiness that one derives from “a life of meaning and purpose”, a meaningful life, The happiness comes from the feeling of satisfaction, one derives, when contributing to something bigger than themselves and more permanent than themselves like organizations, social groups, belief systems etc.. This ranks high on the scale when rendered selflessly and affords enduring satisfaction. 

After this short outline of Positive Psychology, let us go to a brief study of the PurusharthasPurushartha is a word used in our scriptures to describe human goals.  Though the individual goals may be different and numerous they can be broadly grouped under four heads; Dharma, Artha, Kama, and Moksha.  Now we shall see them, though not in the same order as stated above. Artha is one that gives security, economic, emotional or social.  So it can be basic physical needs like food, shelter, clothing and health and also higher emotional needs that come from fame, status, fortune and success and from relationships.  All forms of luxury needs to enhance the comfort or for sense gratification, entertainment and social pleasures come under Kama.  Dharma lays down the code of righteousness and the moral values that must govern all actions whether of Artha or of Kama. Moksha is the goal of liberation from the cycle of birth and death which is characterized by let-go and withdrawal.  The scriptures have also clubbed together all the paths of action and called it as Pravritti marga and the path of withdrawal as Nivriiti marga.  Whatever may be the goal the end-aim of all actions is one’s happiness and well-being only.  So we can consider Purusharthas as our scriptural divisions and compare it with the modern divisions of Practical Psychology in the area of enhancement of human happiness and well-being.

Kama corresponds to Life of enjoyment, Artha to Life of Engagement and Dharma to Life of meaning and purpose.  All of these come under Pravriiti marga only and so cannot give one lasting total happiness, which can be achieved through nivriiti marga only.  Withdrawal does not mean taking to Sanyasa or total cessation of activities.  It is not even what the Positive psychologists call “the learned helplessness”,  which is resignation born of a belief, or beliefs, that one has no control over what occurs, and that something external dictates outcomes, e.g., success.  Withdrawal or detachment is not only internal renunciation of attachment to results while being active in the activities of the world i.e. family, profession, and society; but also the internal renunciation of the feeling that you are the conglomeration of body, mind and intellect by replacing it with the knowledge of your true Higher Self. So here you renounce internally even the feeling of being a doer or enjoyer.  This is as indicated by Lord Krishna  in Gita (5-13)
सर्वकर्माणि मनसा सन्यस्यास्ते सुखं वशी (Sarva karmani manasa sanyasyasthe sukham vasi)
नवद्वारे पुरे देही नैव कुर्वन्न कारयन् (navadware pure dehi naiva kurvan na karayan)
Mentally relegating all the actions to the city of nine gates (the body with nine openings), be the the embodiment of Bliss without stress of doing oneself or of getting done by others.

Positive psychology which is less than a decade old and which lists spirituality, calling it “a search for the Sacred” (Sacred can be inferred as God), as one of the contributing factors to the feeling of well being and happiness may one day move to the millenniums-old wisdom of Vedas that realizing that ‘the Sacred’ one is searching is one’s  own Higher Self  and living this Truth is the ultimate prescription for Absolute uninterrupted happiness, with a feeling of total fulfillment.