Happiness and cognitive motivation

Todd Kashdan has been right on this topic for quite a few years now, based on his work on curiosity on which I have shared some ideas  If it is not too much to take on board, the following comments from my forthcoming book on "Cognitive Motivation" might be of interest.

An extract from Chapter 12, Identity Purpose and Meaning, of "Cognitive Motivation" by David Beswick, Melbourne Graduate School of Education:-

"The theory of cognitive motivation I have been developing … provides a theoretical account of the motivational basis of positive psychology without relying upon a short cut to innate basic needs.  As argued in Chapter 3, Deci’s and Ryan’s preference for a set of three basic innate needs (i.e. needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness) that some positive psychologists have endorsed (Kashdan and Steger 2011), is unnecessary, simplistic and a distraction.  Rather than speculating upon innate needs, I suggest that it is necessary to understand the cognitive motivational basis for positive psychology in such as way as to explicate the underlying processes.  It is necessary to go into detail on the role of conscious integration in working memory (Chapter 9), how emotions function as feedback in goal directed behaviour (Chapter 10), how goals and intentions appear in a cognitive map (Chapter 11), how personal identity is enhanced as people make sense of diverse experience, and above all how the resolution of an incomplete gestalt moves people in a meaningful way towards their own fulfilment, as argued in this chapter.   

In their introductory article Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000) called for a turn away from negative qualities that had marked much of psychology and towards more positive qualities: “Hope, wisdom, creativity, future mindedness, courage, spirituality, responsibility, and perseverance are ignored or explained as transformations of more authentic negative impulses” (p. 5). They described the alternative of positive psychology, briefly as follows:

The field of positive psychology at the subjective level is about valued subjective experiences: well-being, contentment, and satisfaction (in the past); hope and optimism (for the future); and flow and happiness (in the present). At the individual level, it is about positive individual traits: the capacity for love and vocation, courage, interpersonal skill, aesthetic sensibility, perseverance, forgiveness, originality, future mindedness, spirituality, high talent, and wisdom. At the group level, it is about the civic virtues and the institutions that move individuals toward better citizenship: responsibility, nurturance, altruism, civility, moderation, tolerance, and work ethic.(Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi 2000), p. 5

Much good work was done subsequently in research and professional practice to promote ways of making positive feelings more likely to occur in daily life and in education, business and psychotherapy, especially following the publication of Seligman’s Authentic happiness  (Seligman 2002) and major handbooks like the APA publications on positive psychology - Flourishing: Positive psychology and the life well-lived (Keyes and Haidt 2003), and Character strengths and virtues (Peterson and Seligman 2004). The original statement by Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi envisaged a much wider range of virtuous outcomes than happiness alone, but such was the strength of the happiness industry that, in reaction against it, and for more direct theoretical reasons, the question was raised of whether seeking happiness as an end in itself might be self-defeating.  It was suggested that there was a “happiness trap” (Harris 2007; Kashdan and Steger 2011; Kashdan and Ciarrochi 2013), so, for example Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, with its appeal to mindfulness and its emphasis on personal meaning, might be more effective, at least for some people than, say, a form of Cognitive Behavior Therapy which concentrated upon identifying and changing negative thoughts and feelings.  

'Most scientists and laypeople agree that happiness is primarily a cognitive evaluation that one's life is satisfying and includes the presence of frequent positive and infrequent negative emotions (Diener, Suh, Lucas and Smith 1999).  Essentially, it is a simple barometer that life is moving in a desired direction. The problem with happiness arises when people ascribe it to be the  primary objective of their life (which reflects the vast majority of people (Oishi, Diener and Lucas 2007); (Kashdan and Steger 2011). p. 10.

'A narrow approach to well-being that is circumscribed to happiness might be less advantageous than a broader approach that includes happiness as only one of several dimensions within a matrix. Other dimensions in this broad, matrix approach include meaning and purpose in life, mindfulness/achievement, life balance and flexibility, and psychological needs for belonging, competence, and autonomy, among others. There are several immediate benefits of this broadened approach to well-being. The synergy among different dimensions of this matrix offers a wide range of interesting hypotheses, such as how the immediate experience of positive emotions can alter people's judgments of meaning in their lives (King, Hicks, Krull and Baker 2006). (Kashdan and Steger 2011)  p. 11.'

In Chapter 13 I take up Kashdan’s preference, in his application of research on curiosity, for strategies that enhance a sense of meaning in life rather than making a direct pursuit of happiness (Kashdan 2009).  At various points in this work I have referred to emotions as signals that guide purposive behavior, so as Kashdan and Steger say of happiness, “it is a simple barometer that life is moving in a desired direction.”  In cognitive motivation theory, positive affect does not stand alone as something sought for its own sake. Emotions in general are signs of relationships between goals and the situations in which people see themselves; that is, as I argued at the end of Chapter 10, emotions have a function and do not exist as ends in themselves.  From an evolutionary perspective, emotions have survived as properties of organisms because they are useful. 

Although the motivation underlying the approach to well-being in positive psychology must always be cognitive motivation, and I suggest that the macro model of curiosity is particularly relevant, there are some points of tension between my theory and at least some versions of positive psychology, depending upon how far purpose and meaning rather than happiness alone are sought. I have expressed reservations, but I acknowledge that some theorists have dealt with those limitations constructively, as when Kashdan discussed the inadequacy of directly pursuing happiness rather than engaging in meaningful behaviour of which happiness may be a sign and a consequence (Kashdan 2009).  Wong has distinguished between meaning-orientation and happiness-orientation as two different visions of the good life with profound practical implications that have emerged in recent developments of what he has called Positive Psychology 2.0 (Wong 2011)."

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