Taylor: We are what we think

Judgers can become Learners and Learners can become Judgers.

A few years ago, I took part in a community survey through a process called Appreciative Inquiry.

Until then, I had never heard of Appreciative Inquiry. But the concept behind it was simple. People find it too easy to find fault. Houses are too big, too expensive. Roads are too narrow. Parking is too limited. Elected representatives are too narrow-minded. Kids are too sassy, too preoccupied with their phones, too obsessed with sex….

Lists of that kind can go on and on forever.

Appreciative Inquiry tried to reverse the attitude, by learning what people valued and wanted to enhance. Instead of looking at the negatives, it asked them to consider the positives.

The process worked amazing well. Most participants could identify what they liked about living in the community. Only a small number of people seemed hardwired for negatives.

I had almost forgotten that experience, until I heard a talk by Wendy Creelman, representing the Canadian Positive Psychology Association.

Positive Psychology? Isn’t psychology about diagnosing what’s wrong with you, so that you can be straightened out?

That’s certainly the notion behind DSM-5—the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychological Association, fifth edition, with almost 1,000 pages listing mental disorders.

In the 1998, a somewhat controversial psychologist, Dr. Martin Seligman, was elected president of the APA. In his inaugural address, he told the APA that their “psychology was half-baked, literally half-baked. We have baked the part about mental illness…The other side’s unbaked, the side of strength, the side of what we’re good at.”

Seligman focused his own studies on the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive, on what can go right, instead of what can go wrong. Thus was born Positive Psychology. Its theme—like Appreciative Inquiry—is that attitude is everything. We are what and how we think.

So if we think we’re helpless, we will be. Seligman’s experiments on dogs would probably not be allowed today. But his learnings helped military personnel resist torture if captured. His work with severely depressed patients enabled them to break the spiral of sinking into hopelessness.

I was intrigued by Positive Psychology’s division of people into two classes—Judgers and Learners.

Judgers, according to these categories, have a fixed mindset; when their views are challenged, they get defensive. They find fault. Blaming someone else protects them from having to change.

Learners, by contrast, have an open mindset; when their existing views are challenged, they welcome the chance to learn. When things go wrong, they ask, “What actually happened here? What can we learn from this?”

But no one is locked into those categories. People can choose to change. My friends include a Judger who moved (if hesitantly) to being a Learner, and a formerly avid Learner who hardened into a Judger.

Don’t think it’s all “in your mind.” Physical, mental, and emotional health work together to create our well-being. But all three fall within our own control. Nutrition, sleep, and avoidance of harmful habits influence physical health. Social relationships shape emotional health. One of the mantras of Positive Psychology is that self-care is not selfish.

Like Appreciative Inquiry, Positive Psychology starts with choosing an attitude. And that attitude determines what we will become.

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