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  • Writer's pictureJosh Vaisman

3 Steps to Building a Normal-er World: Creating a Cult of Compassion

Let’s play a fun thought game. Imagine you and I are our own little tribe on the plains of Africa several thousand years ago. You’re a bit of a grump – let’s call you Realist. I’m a happy-go-lucky dude. Let’s call me Optimist.

One day we’re walking along looking for food and you trip on a rock and break your spear. It’s useless now and you curse loudly at the skies. I smile and say, “It’s alright. Let’s keep going. We’ll find you another.” A short while later we come across a dead tree with perfect branches for carving a new spear.

The next day we wake up to find our camp has been raided by hyenas who have stolen all our food. You growl and kick at the ground and I gently smile and say, “No worries, my dear Realist. I’m certain we’ll find more food today.” We head out to hunt, your new spear in your hand, and in short order catch ourselves a solid meal.

On the third day as we are leisurely strolling toward the lake you spot something in the distance. “Optimist,” you say, “I think that may be danger.” I look and respond. “Worry not, my friend. I’m certain it is your imagination.” I walk forward but you do not. I ask if you’ll be joining me for today’s swim and you say, “No. I think it is unsafe.” You return to our camp and I later fill the belly of a sabre toothed tiger.

While there are many lessons to be learned from such a tale I’d like to draw your attention to this one – we cannot be happy all the time.

I study and practice positive psychology. Frankly I’m obsessed with helping others find thriving in their lives and that’s a big part of what the field is after. I’m also constantly struggling with the name of my field – POSITIVE psychology. I believe we have built a “cult of happiness” in our world. It’s a place where

“happiness” (real or perceived) reigns and the normal human experiences of illness, pain, anxiety, sadness, depression, discontent, and the like are not only avoided, they are unacceptable. Stigmatizing a huge part of what it means to be human comes with real consequences. Again, we cannot be happy all the time.

So, what do we do? How can we shift from the Cult of Happiness to the healthier, more human Cult of Compassion? Here are three steps to get us all started:

  1. Your Struggle is Real, Normal, and Valid: In the perfectly curated world of things like Facebook and Instagram it’s easy to believe our struggles, stresses, and negative emotional experiences are abnormal and a fault in our character or who we are as human beings. I’m here to tell you, they are both normal and necessary.

Your brain evolved with a negativity bias to keep you alive. Both psychologically and physiologically we are built to respond stronger to negative things in our lives. Why? Because it kept us alive. Remember what happened to me on our walk to the lake?

Let’s embrace some realities here. We don’t like feeling like crap. We want to be happy. I get it. My point here is all of us are programmed for both positive and negative emotional and psychological experiences and ALL OF US will and do experience both. It’s normal and necessary. Otherwise we’d be celebrating birthdays and funerals in the same way.

2. Practice Empathy: Learn how to be more empathetic toward others. Just like yours, their struggle is real, normal, and valid. So normalize and validate it! One simple way to do so? Memorize and use this phrase:

I can see you are (sad/angry/upset/in pain/suffering/etc.). Tell me more.”

That’s how empathy talks and connects. Gently and with kindness, recognize what they are feeling (or offer your perception of it) and open the door for more conversation. This destigmatizes their struggle and engenders connection. Boom! Breaking down walls!

3. Build Your Resilience: My wife and I run 5k races for fun. Yes, I know (and agree) running for “fun” seems like an oxymoron. I’m still waiting for this mysterious “runner’s high” people speak of.

Anyway, running long distances is challenging. Especially since my hyper-competitive brain insists I run each race faster than the last. So, I go into every race knowing this will be hard and I won’t like it. I’ll be cranky, tired, in a bit of pain, and doubting myself the whole way….until after I finish when I’ll feel accomplished and proud. To make sure I’ll finish the race I fuel up beforehand with a smart breakfast and lots of water.

Think of the race as any negative experience or emotion in life. In that case, the fuel before hand is my resilience reserves.

Resilience is, in essence, the psychological resource we call on to help us through the challenges in our life. It’s a fuel tank that can be filled – in fact, the tank itself can be expanded. How? By building resources, such as healthy optimism, that contribute to resilience. Here’s one roadmap, an

Back on the African savannah my need for things to be happy all the time got me a one way ticket to the belly of a prehistoric beast. The Cult of Happiness may not always lead to such tragic endings but it does crowd out opportunity for some real human connection. When we can’t tolerate un-happiness we lose our empathy and compassion.

I’m proud to be part of a positive psychology program at the University of East London that is on the forefront of “Positive Psychology 2.0.” Part of this new wave is recognizing and embracing the reality (and even upside) of our dark side. With this we look at flourishing in life not as “just” happiness, but rather as an overall arching sense of living a good life. We cannot be happy all the time. But even with challenges and struggle, we can find overall well-being.

- Written by Josh Vaisman

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