by Megan McDonough
Thoughts destroy or elevate the human experience, so your mind can be your savior or your slayer. You have a choice about the morals, values, and character you want to cultivate in your thoughts, by giving constructive thoughts and ideas preference over those that are destructive.
Neuroscientist Jeffrey Schwartzs calls this “attentional density”—the weight of attention we give to each thought that passes through. Your commitment to choosing what to focus on has impact above and beyond your own experience; it influences every interaction with others. As Martin Seligman said in his keynote address at the recent IPEN conference, “There is a moral sea change happening.” He was specifically noting the change related to positive education, and he was focusing on the potential good unfolding, and the hope for a positive future.
As I sat listening to Seligman that day, and then watched the disturbing news later that night, I was reminded that my own mutable mind—and all our minds, making up the whole of society—can go either way. In my own thoughts, I can access both the best and the worst of the human experience. It’s up to me which direction I go.
We see this played out in the world every day. We observe thoughts translated into action when bombs set off sprees of violence, and we also see them when we witness the great waves of compassion that seek to heal those wounds.
There is a neutral ground of thought, one that is open to all perspectives, but most minds never land there for long. The poet Rumi wrote, “Somewhere beyond right and wrong, there is a garden. I will meet you there.” We don’t often reach that garden. It’s much easier to sway toward good or bad, right or wrong, up or down. Left to their own devices, thoughts weave together an opinion, over time creating pathways of thinking that are constructive or destructive.
Today, let’s consciously cultivate the constructive. What thoughts represent your own moral compass, and can you attend more deeply to them in the coming minutes, hours, and days that make up your life? When we stray from our intent (which happens more than most of us care to admit) can we get back up on the horse, face our failure, and muddle on once again as we aim toward the ideal we hold in our heart?
During the same IPEN speech, Seligman noted that, once every 50 years, the human condition undergoes this sea change. That captured my imagination. What supports that perspective and what can we learn from it? Turns out there is a field of study called cliodynamics (named after after Clio, the ancient Greek muse of history), which uses a mathematical modeling of the sweeping societal issues that shape our human history. I’d like to think that the science of human flourishing—including positive psychology, neurobiology, and other research-based investigations into living a good life—is indeed encouraging a global transformation. I’d like to imagine that, in a hundred years, a historian collating narratives and data will look back in time and come to the conclusion that what you and I are doing individually today did indeed foster a combined swell of positive change in society.
Wouldn’t that be a good graph to represent our legacy?
Megan McDonough is CEO of Wholebeing Institute, an educational organization co-founded with Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar. WBI is committed to spreading ideas and practices that can help individuals and groups live life to its fullest.
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