Positive Psychology, Spiritual Practices, and Sustainable Community
by David Hawkins and Jay McDaniel
Our topic is positive psychology, human well-being, and planetary well-being. The essay is divided into two sections. Part One introduces positive psychology and offers some key findings in relation to meditation, prayer, community, hope, and forgiveness. Part Two shows how the “constructive postmodern” philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead provides a framework for interpreting these findings and linking them with a scientific and religious vision of the universe.
From a Whiteheadian perspective the purpose of such learning is not for individual well-being alone. It is for the well-being of other people, other living beings, and the larger web of life. Individual well-being, community well-being and planetary well-being are -- or can be -- three aspects of a single hope. For us, then, spiritual practices, are the practices of well-being. These practices can include traditional forms of spiritual activity (prayer and meditation, service and fasting) and also ecological practices (eating local foods, reducing energy consumption, volunteer work). In a Whiteheadian context sharp dichotomies between spirituality and everyday life are eliminated. We live and move within a universe and planet which filled with beauty and value, worthy of respect and care. Can religions help us live in this way?
We must be honest. Religions at their worst are conduits for divisiveness, superstition, escapism, arrogance, and violence. Religions at their best can be contexts for respectful living, the formation of wisdom and compassion, and creativity in daily life. We want to talk about religions at the best. Positive psychology offers a point of departure for appreciating their gifts.
Part One: The Insights of Positive Psychology as related to Religion
Positive psychology is the science of human flourishing. Historically, psychology has been mostly concerned with the nature of human dysfunction. Positive psychology takes the position that each person is endowed with certain strengths of personhood which foster adaptive functioning and even excellence. The exercise of such strengths enhances self-efficacy, promotes positive emotions, and contributes to more adaptive behaviors. Positive psychology seeks to move beyond the ‘medical model’ of mental ‘disease’ and toward a growth model of mental health. This change in focus is nothing less than a paradigm shift in the field of psychology.
Though underlying principles of positive psychology have deep historic roots, the field itself is traced to the 1990s. Since that time a vast amount of empirical science has been devoted to the study of human excellence. Research has been undertaken in almost every sub-discipline in the field of psychology. The area of the psychological study of religion is one such discipline which has received ever increasing attention.
The current psychological study of religion suffers from the twin liabilities suffered by positive psychology more generally. 1) The lack of theoretical basis or meta-theory under which individual scientific research can be organized; and, 2) an over-reliance on self-report measures as the tool of scientific investigation. Numerous calls have been made to move beyond these limitations, and initial steps are beginning to be taken to remedy at least the second of these problems.
In spite of these problematic caveats, some subjects in the psychology of religion are coming into clearer focus as scientific study progresses.
In the past, most studies of meditation focused on Transcendental Meditation and Mindfulness meditation. Each of these forms of meditation has been found to reduce stress, anxiety and depression. They have also proven to increase subjective senses of well-being, mood improvement and life satisfaction. The focus of attention and the reduction of self-absorption has been reported to produce a sense of transcendence of the ego, thus fostering a deeper sense of connection with one’s surroundings and with reality as perceived.
More recently, study has turned to loving-kindness meditation, or Metta meditation, which traces its history to ancient Buddhism. The goal of this meditation practice is to grow in the ability to offer unconditional love or compassion, ideally to all creatures. Compassion can be seen as a unilateral emotion, and is thus not dependent on the object of compassion. The hope is to move from a conceptual identification with the suffering of others toward a phenomenological experience of deep compassion. In effect positive emotions are fostered and negative emotions, e.g., depression, are abated. Practice can begin by focusing on oneself and/or a loved one, but then progresses to neutral stimuli of ever increasing breadth. Studies thus far have shown that loving kindness meditation can reduce pain and can assist in building a range of positive emotional states that can evolve into a reserve of cognitive, psychological and physical resources for coping and making life more fulfilling. Loving-kindness meditation has also been shown to increase subjects’ sense of social connectedness with others.
It should also be noted that Ordinary Mind meditation from the Chan tradition is also being used in conjunction with other psychological treatment modalities such as cognitive behavioral therapy and psychoanalysis. The goal of these therapies is insight into cognitive distortions or subconscious dynamics that may be blocking human fulfillment. Though such therapies diverge from the basic attainment of phenomenological momentary mindfulness, they are beginning to gain attention in the field of the positive psychology of religion.
Prayer is a vast topic and one sometimes overlapping that of meditation. While noting the less discursive contemplative prayer tradition, for our purposes we consider prayer more as a linguistic form of religious expression. Prayer has been called private or personalized ritual, and can be focused on a myriad of concerns, e.g. thanksgiving, petition, etc…There can be a vertical dimension to prayer, addressing God or whatever power or process that is conceived as ultimate, and a horizontal dimension, addressing every day functioning and relational issues in the human context. The horizontal dimension of prayer can focus on relational dynamics addressed through God or directly to the situation without reference to a supernatural deity. Either method of approaching this facet of prayer can be effective subjectively. The study of prayer has moved from trying to identify objective validity in prayer’s efficaciousness, to ascertaining the perceived subjective benefits of prayer. Scientific investigation has shown that prayer can assist in decreasing blood pressure, promoting cognitive coping strategies, and increasing well-being, to mention but a few positive findings.
Prayer is often a means to seek to identify the significance and/or meaning of life events, especially those of a negative nature, but those of a positive nature as well. In the face of life events that can be changed, prayer is a means of exploring possible solutions, and in the face of those events that cannot be changed, prayer can be a means of emotional coping and internal adjustment to the realities of one’s situation. To ascribe meaning to something is to gain some control over it, and even if this control is illusory, the perceived control can add to one’s ability to cope with even devastating occurrences. Thus, an individual (and/or community) can exercise interpretative control over events. Prayer also can lead one to a more positive life orientation and optimistic outlook which can also foster a sense of greater well-being and happiness.
Historically psychology of religion research has focused more on the individual than life in an embedded community. Thus, not enough attention has been paid to the social context in which the individual functions as a religious being. Research on religious communities has often focused on the church-sect distinction, where the former is more inclusive and the latter more exclusive regarding membership. Further, the research has focused on degrees of conflict between these categories and the dominant culture, with sects being in more conflict regarding beliefs and practices, e.g., supernaturalism and forbidding the consumption of intoxicating substances, gambling, etc… . Positive psychology looks more specifically at the function of religious community in fostering well-being.
Positive psychology has moved slightly in the direction of giving more consideration to religious communities, at least in the Christian context, but much work remains to be done. The field has yet to embrace the postmodern claim that all experience is relational. Mental health may have much to do with relational health, to self, others and objects. Mental illness, except in the case of biologically based maladies, may be seen as relational illness.
Religious community has shown to increase social support for participants, especially when facing life crises or celebrating life’s transitions. The inherently social nature of the human community seems to translate into the religious realm quite readily. Worship and ritual in particular have proven to be sources of social bonding lending affective and existential support to the individual. Indeed, positive affectivity is linked to sociality. Increases in health, well-being and even longevity have been positively associated with involvement in religious community. Mediating factors may include, positive health behaviors, such as proscribed diet and less risky sexual behavior, social support, and the fostering of resilience in the face of illness and life hardship.
In the Greek myth of Pandora, it is said that when she looked into the box given her by the gods, all the world’s evils were released. When she then looked in the box, all that was left was hope. Hope is indeed a great blessing among the human family. C. R. Snyder (1994) developed Hope Theory which views hope as a tripartite construct. It includes goals to approach good things and avoid the bad, pathways or routes to anticipated goals and agency, a motivational component. Goals can be specific or broad. Pathways can be one or many, and the more the better to help one overcome hindrances. Agency, with some similarities to self-efficacy, is the belief one can act on pathways to reach one’s goal. In this theory, positive emotions are seen as sequelae to the process of hoping itself, but we would contend that positive emotions are central to hopeful thinking and acting.
Hope theory sees hope as both a state and a trait of personality. Twin studies indicate that there is a positive genetic component of hope, and hope is thought to arise out of firm attachment to caregivers in childhood. Children seem biased to hope, and hope is correlated with self-reported competency beliefs and to positive feelings about the self. High levels of hope are even found in children in war torn areas, where hope seems to be a protective factor in helping children generate multiple pathways to cope with their situation successfully. Hope has been found to increase performance in academics and athletics, help with coping when faced with injury or illness, and to decrease depression and anxiety while bolstering self-esteem and a sense of meaning. There is a social dimension to hope as well in that we often need others to reach our goals, and we are needed to be a part of others’ goals.
Spiritually, hope seeks unity and harmony as one seeks to fulfill one’s purpose in life. This search may include appeals to supernatural assistance and reaching out to community. Religious and spiritual practices can be seen as sub-goals/pathways to reaching one’s spiritual goals and can increase one’s sense of agency. Hope can be maladaptive when expectations are too unrealistic, when goals are based on illusions, or when poor or constricted pathways are chosen.
In the face of offence, forgiveness is basic to physical, psychological and spiritual wellbeing. This is true both of giving and receiving forgiveness. Forgiveness helps regulate negative emotions and increases positive emotions such as compassion and empathy. While not condoning or denying offence, forgiveness is key to repair of individual and interpersonal wellbeing along with community cohesion and unity. From and evolutionary perspective, forgiveness functions to reestablish balance in human, natural, and supernatural realms where discord has been introduced. Forgiveness can include the self, God and other persons and can be seen as deontological, i.e., as an overarching duty, or it can be consequential focusing on empirical results. Religion models forgiveness through the role model of personages or principles and examples in sacred texts.
While not ignoring offence or the principles of justice, forgiveness entails a forgoing of vengeance and a reduction in one’s negative stance toward an offender, which can include changes in thoughts, emotions, such as anger and sadness, and behaviors. Forgiveness benefits the one offering forgiveness and the offender. The stance of forgiveness can be trait like (consistent), applying to one’s general approach to offence, or it can be state like (fluid) and be employed in reference to particular offences.
Un-forgiveness can be viewed as a stress response with all the negative consequences of other forms of stress on mental, physical and spiritual life. Seeking forgiveness (giving or receiving) can elicit community support and community resources, such as ritual or doctrine which supports a forgiving stance. When religion and/or spirituality is important to an individual, this can add an important dimension to the dynamics of forgiveness and to the global benefits to wellbeing experienced.
In spite of all the positive benefits of forgiveness, there are times when forgiveness may be unwise, e.g., when the offender continues in their behavior. It should also be noted that though religion/spirituality has shown strong positive correlations with forgiveness, religious people have, in some studies, not always proven to be more forgiving in fact. It is hypothesized that a selective reading of religious traditions that both extol forgiveness, and also call for vengeance in some situations may be at the root of this discrepancy in expectations and behavior.
Part Two: How Whitehead’s Philosophy Interprets and Helps Integrate Insights from Positive Psychology of Religion
The philosophy of Whitehead offers a scientific and philosophical vision which helps us interpret the findings above in five ways.
1. Psyche as Developmental Process: First, it suggests that the human psyche is a developmental process – a series of concrescing experiences – which contains within it indwelling impulse toward self-actualization or self-realization in community with the wider world. This indwelling impulse consists both of the desire, on the part of a person, for a state of wholeness and a lure toward wholeness itself, which comes from a divine reality that permeates the cosmos.
2. Cosmic Lure Toward Wholeness: Second, it situates the human psyche within the larger context of an evolving, interconnected universe in which all actualities are independent yet present in one another, in a manner consonant with tradition Buddhist ways of thinking. And it further proposes that, within this larger context, the universe contains a cosmic lure toward wholeness within each and every individual, not unlike the bodhicitta mind (I菩提心) in Buddhism. This lure toward wholeness is adapted to each individual, and yet it seeks to harmonize the individual’s aims with the wider world, so that individual well-being and social well-being are consonant rather than dissonant. In Abrahamic religious traditions this cosmic lure is often called the spirit of God. It is in the natural world as well as in human beings as a kind of energy or “breathing” which animates life.
3. Image of Whole Person: Third, as developed by some process philosophers, the Whiteheadian point of view offers an image of the mature or whole psyche, thus offering an ideal to be approximated in real life. Characteristics of a whole person include:
Capacity for Loving Relationships: A whole person enjoys range and depth in its capacity for loving relationships, helping others to become freer in their diversity and uniqueness. He or she is open-hearted.
Open-Mindedness: He or she can understand a variety of outlooks on life without feeling defensive and insecure. It is open-minded.
Openness to Complexity: He or she has the power to sustain complex relationships and enriching tensions. It does not lapse into either-or thinking but is inclined toward both-and thinking.
Tolerance for Enriching Tensions: He or she can live with enriching tensions without being overwhelmed. It does not flee from constructive conflict.
Personal Integrity: He or she does all of the above while maintaining a sense of integrity.
Individuality without individualism: He or she does not lose her agency or self-creativity. It celebrates diversity and delights in uniqueness, and it enjoys unique agency itself.
4. Whole person contributes to Ecological Civilization. As developed by process philosophers, the Whiteheadian point of view situates images of the whole person in the larger context of a society which seeks to become, and needs to become an Ecological Civilization. An ecological civilization consists of communities that are creative, compassionate, equitable, respectful of diversity, and spiritually satisfying, with no one left behind. Thus a whole person’s “wholeness” cannot be separated from the wholeness of other people and the earth. It is not an isolated wholeness but rather a relational wholeness.
5. Religion at its best can help people become Whole Persons who help build Ecological Civilizations. As developed by process philosophers, the Whiteheadian point of view encourages us to recognize the potentially positive contributions of religion to whole persons and to ecological civilizations. Thus it can help us appreciate and learn from the insights of positive psychology as applied to religion. It provides a context for applied positive psychology.
The question of how this is best accomplished is left to particular regions of the world and their historical conditions. Scholars of religious studies well understand that “religion” is a social and historical process, difficult to distinguish from “culture.” The very word religion is a western word, meaning something like “to bind together into a whole,” and that is how religion functions in human life. It helps people become whole persons, given the various strands of their lives. Understood in this sense, religion can be individual or communal or both. Most of the recognized religions of the world are both individual and social: Daoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity, From a Whiteheadian perspective the process of becoming whole is not simply a mental process by which a person comes to believe certain things about the nature of reality. Admittedly, on the one hand, some degree of mentality is included. The eightfold path of Buddhism includes “right understanding” as one of the eight dimensions of the spiritual path, and such understanding involves the cognitive recognition that all things are connected to all other things, that life is impermanent, and that many forms of suffering are caused by an inability to let go of things when they pass away. Religion does indeed involve some degree of thinking. And yet, as the eightfold path attests, there is much to religion that is whole-making, but that is more than intellectual assent to worthy ideas. Religion includes bodily activity in the world, including, for example, meditation and service to others: a gathering of the self in relaxed yet alert attention as is part of many forms of Buddhist breathing meditation, a coming together of body and mind and spirit in Tai Ji Juan, a folding of the hands in prayer, a slow and attentive walk in a garden as emphasized, and the lifting of a hand to help another person in need by cooking a meal for them, or simply sitting still and listening to them. When we embody religious lives, we bring our bodies with us, and they become part of the very process by which we become religious.
At least this is how things are understood in a Whiteheadian perspective. Our bodies and minds are not precisely identical, but they are not two either. They are parts of one another even as they are different from one another. Moreover, they contain wisdom in their own right. We can know things with our bodies that we may not know in our minds.
Positive psychology shows the value of meditation, prayer, community, hope and forgiveness for human life. Whitehead's philosophy offers a cosmology which places these experiences and personality traits in the larger context of a universe which contains within itself a cosmic lure toward wholeness, providing an image of the whole person which can be valuable for many people in different parts of the world. Whitehead's philosophy also lends itself to an activist approach to life, in the context of which, in the words of John Cobb, we "seize an alternative" sorely needed in our time, namely the development of local communities that are creative, compassionate, participatory, and ecologically wise, with no one left behind. The world's religions, at their best, can provide living contexts in which people can grow into whole persons, as best they can, and contribute to ecological civilizations.
Cottone, Robert Rocco. (2011). Toward a positive psychology of religion: Belief science in the postmodern era. Washington: O-Books.
Hood, Ralph W., Jr., Peter C. Hill, and Bernard Spilka. (2009). The psychology of religion: An empirical approach. (4th ed.) New York: Guilford Press.
Lopez, Shane J, and C. R. Snyder, eds. (2009). The oxford handbook of positive psychology. (2nd ed.) New York: Oxford University Press.
Paloutzian, Raymond F., and Crystal L. Park, eds. (2005). Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality. (4th ed.) New York: Guilford Press.
Plante, Thomas G., ed. (2012). Religion, spirituality and positive psychology: Understanding the psychological fruits of faith. Santa Barbara, California: Praeger.
Snyder, C. R. (1994). The psychology of hope: You can get there from here. New York: Free Press.