Nuances Beyond Joy versus Sadness

Thoughtful ideas explicating good mental health, posted by a legit research center at UC Berkeley.

The Greater Good Science Center’s “Four Lessons from Inside Out to Discuss With Kids” by Jason Marsh and Vicki Zakrzewski (July 14, 2015) is pitched as a story for guiding conversations with kids, but the research findings in it can be insightful to all ages. Its messages are spot-on for countering assumptions about happiness and positive psychology:

Happiness is not just about joy.

It’s easy to conflate the two. As I’ve explored positive psychology in my artwork over the past six years, I’ve also noticed that people can react cynically to positivity, and celebrate negative emotions like melancholy in opposition to our current zeitgeist of happiness studies. But actually, positive psychologists emphasize that

people who experience “emodiversity,” or a rich array of both positive and negative emotions, have better mental health.

At the same time, be intentional. While you shouldn’t become doctrinaire about happiness as a goal, psychologists also suggest

“prioritizing positivity”—deliberately carving out ample time in life for experiences that we personally enjoy.

That’s what I’ve been trying to do with my work—to make space to be exuberant, think about purpose, find flow, exercise creativity, and nurture relationships.

I don’t need to make space for myself to be negative—I’m plenty good at that already. Like most people, I get anxious and stressed out. I ruminate. I replay regrets and hold pointless internal monologues about perceived slights. I get angry and sad. These are easy habits of mind for me. Via my work, I’m trying to create a counterbalance.

Lately, I’ve also become interested in non-attachment. Tackling things head-on is one strategy; letting things go by on their own momentum is another.

Mindfully embrace—rather than suppress—tough emotions…. Rather than getting caught up in the drama of an emotional reaction, a mindful person kindly observes the emotion without judging it as the right or wrong way to be feeling in a given situation, creating space to choose a healthy response.

Meta-Practice, Values

Recommended Reads on Public Sculpture and Self-Criticism

On Public Sculpture

“Best of All Possible Worlds” by Mark Lane
The Believer (Nov/Dec 2013)

Public sculpture, a well-intentioned art competition, Richard Florida-inspired development, class, gentrification, a NYC artist and an Evansville, IL neighborhood collide in this report of a true and impolitic debacle. I highly recommend it.

Implicitly, it suggests how not to redevelop a neighborhood, run an art competition, and instrumentalize public sculpture. At the same time, it offers one way an artist could ethically interact with locals.

On Self-Criticism

“Four Ways to Constructive Criticze Yourself,” by Juliana Breines
Greater Good Science Center, January 9, 2014

These suggestions are fantastic. Artists can benefit from them, especially when thinking about what we can and can’t control in the art world, our own practices, and networks. It’s easy to get down in the dumps when we’re hungry for more, or get poisonously resentful that we’re not the recognition that you deserve. For people who are really hard on yourself, take this as a reminder to practice self-compassion.


This is your Brain on Art

In Jill Suttie’s review of Elaine Fox’s new book, “Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain,” on the Greater Good Science Center blog (July 30, 2012), she shares some fascinating insights for optimism and aesthetic experiences.

I often wonder, in the course of my Irrational Exuberance projects, whether objects attract or repel viewers, how, and why. How does presenting art about happiness and pleasure impact viewers? Suttie and Fox might lend a clue:

if optimists and pessimists are exposed to pleasurable stimuli, like a picture of a beautiful sunset or a box of chocolates, both will experience good feelings in the moment; but optimists can better sustain those feelings longer, because of asymmetric brain activity in which the left side is more active than the right.

Further, I’d suspected that optimism and pessimism might be related to the trust or skepticism that viewer enact when they focus their attention on challenging contemporary works that don’t look like art.

This difference in brain activity may help explain why optimists are more likely to take risks in approaching potentially rewarding experiences while pessimists, who have greater activity in the right side of the brain, tend to be more cautious.

Researchers have also found that people who are anxious or depressed—who also tend to be more pessimistic—have less connection between the prefrontal cortex of the brain (associated with cognitive activity) and the amygdala (associated with a feeling of fear). This means that pessimists are less able to control their fear response with thoughts, making them susceptible to emotional trauma from non-threatening situations and to difficulty recovering from setbacks in their lives.

What an insightful review and promising book. I’ve been feeling cautious and anxious—yes, pessimistic—lately, so this sounds like the perfect reading to add to the mix of references this summer.

Art & Development

2012: grow your intelligence

Psychology professor Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton shares a nice thought about the optimism and pessimism of learning to carry into the new year. (Via Greater Good Science Center)

A key aspect of the “grow your intelligence message” is the implications it has for the experience of difficulty. If one believes that abilities and intelligence are fixed or wired in us, then experiencing difficulty on a task can only mean one thing: that one must not have the correct wiring, genetic makeup, or inherent ability to succeed at that task. It’s very easy to come to this conclusion in the face of failure: I received a message from a student of mine the other day who apologized for not doing well on an exam, and she remarked, “I must not be cut out for this.”

However, if one believes that intelligence is malleable and can grow with practice, then the very psychological meaning of difficulty changes: It now suggests you are activating your intelligence, that you are flexing and practicing your skills. Difficulty is to ability like water is to a growing plant; as such, you become resilient in the face of trouble.

[Note to self: Practice making art. Experiencing art. Having patience. Being kinder. Enacting principles. Reaching goals. Taking risks. Embracing adventure. Being grateful.]