Oasis, Win-Win and Well Being

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I tell Bob that I’ve been working to change my profession, to get psychologists to work on the science and practice of building the best things in life. I assure Bob that I’m not against negative psychology; I’ve done it for thirty-five years. But it is urgent to redress the balance, to supplement what we know about madness with knowledge about sanity The urgency stems from the possibility that he is correct, and that people are now more concerned with hiding meaning in their lives than ever before.

So, Bob, I’ve been thinking a lot about virtue and about the positive emotions: ebullience, contentment, joy, happiness, and good cheer. Why do we have positive emotions, anyway? Why isn’t all living built around our negative emotions? If all we had were negative emotions-fear, anger, and sadness-basic human behavior could go on as it does. Attraction would be explained by relieving negative emotion, so we approach people and things that relieve our fear and sadness; and avoidance would be explained by increasing negative emotion. We stay away from people and things that make us more fearful or sadder.

Why has evolution given us a system of pleasant feelings right on top of a system of unpleasant feelings? One system would have done the trick.

I plunge ahead breathlessly and tell Bob that NonZero[1] might just explain this. Could it be, I speculate, that negative emotion has evolved to help us in win-loss games? When we are in deadly competition, when it is eat or be eaten, fear and anxiety are our motivators and our guides.

When we are struggling to avoid loss or to repel trespass, sadness and anger are our motivators and our guides. When we feel a negative emotion, it is a signal that we are in a win-loss game. Such emotions set up an action repertoire that fights, flees, or gives up. These emotions also activate a mindset that is analytical and narrows our focus so nothing but the problem at hand is present.

Could it be that positive emotion, then, has evolved to motivate and guide us through win-win games? When we are in a situation in which everyone might benefit-courting, hunting together, raising children, cooperating, planting seeds, teaching and learning-joy, good cheer, contentment, and happiness motivate us and guide our actions. Positive emotions are part of a sensory system that alerts to us the presence of a potential win-win. They also set up an action repertoire and a mindset that broadens and builds abiding intellectual and social resources. Positive emotions, in short, build the cathedrals of our lives.

If this is right, the human future is even better than you predict, Bob. If we are on the threshold of an era of win-win games, we are on the threshold of an era of good feeling-literally, good feeling.

Extract from Martin E.P. Seligman, Authentic Happiness (Random House Australia) p.256,7

I think Seligman is right.

So for Oasis to thrive it needs:

  • win-win management of the kind emerging from entrepreneurial start-ups and successful not-for-profits (of the ‘lean’, ‘agile’ kind)
  • win-win collaborations within the university, with community groups and with individual volunteers
  • a win-win dialogue culture for appreciative understanding among different faiths and cultures

[1] This is part of a discussion between Martin Seligman and Bob Wright, who wrote the book NonZero about the ‘win-win’ paradigm as an alternative perspective on Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection.

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