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The Broadening Power of Positivity

Wray Herbert at We’re Only Human confirms something that I’m experiencing in my experiment with gratitude. In talking about the new book Positivity, he says:

Consider this deceptively simple experiment. Fredrickson used lab techniques to “prime” the emotions of a large group of volunteers. Some were primed for amusement, some for serenity, still others for anger or fear or nothing at all. Then she asked them simply to make a list of things they would like to do at that moment. Those who were amused or serene listed significantly more possibilities than the others, suggesting that their minds were more open to ideas, more exploratory. She ran a similar experiment with abstract shapes, and found that the positive thinkers were more apt to see hidden patterns, to make connections. Those who were angry or fearful were too narrowly focused on details to see the big picture.

This is what Fredrickson calls “broadening,” and she had shown this cognitive benefit time and again in a variety of studies. (Ode to Joy and Serenity and Curiosity and . . .)

As I’ve taken time each week to focus on gratitude, aside from feeling generally more positive, I have felt more open, more ready to take on new projects, looking forward to next semester, etc. Interesting.

It gets better.

But what is the value of such openness beyond the moment? This is where is gets really interesting. Fredrickson has shown that these moments of serenity or amusement have an accumulative effect over time. They break down the barriers between self and others, and build trust. In short, positivity creates open-mindedness, which sparks even more good feelings, creating an upward spiral of emotions. This is the “building” for the future: Over time, those with the most positive moments become more mindful and attentive, more accepting and purposeful, and more socially connected.

Time will tell.

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Mindful of the Moment

Ebonmuse provides a nice counterpoint to the idea that meaning lies in eternity with Eternal Moments. I want to point this out in light of our recent discussions on the subject.

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Break On Through To The Other Side

Letting go of God involves letting go of the stories that gave meaning and purpose to life. This can be a very dark time. When I think about this part of my deconversion, I imagine myself skirting the brink of a bottomless abyss like those swirling black holes in old sci-fi movies.

Black Hole Bob

…the person’s former faith has collapsed, but they do not yet have anything to replace it with. Unfortunately, most people are taught that only through religion can they hope to find happiness, meaning, purpose or fulfillment in life, and this belief often persists after all the other aspects of religious belief have gone, leading to a feeling of emptiness and hopelessness, of having hit rock bottom. Fear, undirected anger, and feelings of depression are common. Often a person feels overwhelmed and lost, adrift in the world without a framework to make sense of it all. (Into the Clear Air)

One day while I was flailing around for meaning in my life, I happened to be driving through northern Utah and southern Idaho on my way to a family reunion. The overcast skies and the long, scenic drive conspired to put me in a contemplative mood. I wondered why it mattered whether I lived or died since I would be dead in the end anyway. The universe didn’t care. It would go on its mindless way, heedless of my death.

Then I began to think about my daughters and my wife. My death would matter to them. I didn’t want them to be unhappy or to struggle without me. I wanted to help my family.

Then I thought about my ancestors, about all of the hard lives they eked out on this earth, about the flashes of joy and the dark tragedies in their lives. They survived and I owe my existence to their perseverance. I pondered on the countless generations of mankind who lived and died before me. A sense of deep history overcame me.

I imagined even further back to the time of my ape ancestors. I imagined the strength and tenderness of a maternal ancestor grooming her new baby, protecting it with her own life from the dangers lurking in the darkness. I imagined the strength and determination of my paternal ancestors whose lives punctuated by violence made me possible. I began to feel a sense of deep connection with all of my ancestors back to the beginning of life on earth.

Then I looked on the plants and animals around me and realized that I was surrounded by family, distant cousins trying to live according to the dictates of their own drives. I worried about the brutishness of their lives and wished I could lift them out of it. I was filled with compassion for all life.

I looked to the future. I saw obstacles and uncertainty. There was no God to help us. We could only succeed by our own wits, by taking responsibility into our own hands. Only we had the power to succor and bring equity. Only we could love each other.

I decided to live in the service of the grand experiment: life on earth. If I could ameliorate the suffering of other beings present and future, I would count my life meaningful. My heart burned within me with an intense love and connection with the world around me. I felt at peace; I had finally found a safe harbor to escape the storm. I felt an growing confidence that I was on the right path.

I had broken through to the other side.

Most people, by this stage, have learned that they are not alone, that their path is one that many travelers have walked before; that there are whole communities of freethinkers out there, glowing like galaxies through the dark veils of blind faith.… this stage is characterized by a peak as high as those valleys [of the previous stage] are deep, a joy as high and sublime as the horizon of dawn. The exhilaration of breaking through the layers of things that you believe because you have been taught to believe, of discovering for yourself what is true, and of finally knowing who you are and understanding your place in the cosmos, is something compared to which the sterile and antiquated dogmas of religion seem puny and absurd. Returning to them, at this stage, is like trying to return to life in a small, windowless room after one has seen the soaring, sunny vista that awaits just outside. (Ibid.)

Since that time, I’ve met a few believers who have had brushes with atheism. They come to the place of darkness and meaninglessness but never seem to make it through to the bright vistas on the other side. They’ve dipped their toes in the pool and decided that a world without God is not for them. Or perhaps they leapt in and began to drown like I had. While I found the other side of the pool to save me, they returned to the place from which they dove in.

They have to find their own way and happiness, but I wish I could share with them what I found.

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When I was a kid, I used to love to daydream about being really small, like the Borrowers (or the knockoff The Littles who were Borrowers with tails), only a little bit smaller. I would imagine how I would survive, what I would eat, where I would live, etc. In my mind’s eye, I would build tree forts, or burrows below the bushes, or holes in the walls. I imagined harvesting food and re-purposing human trash. Everywhere I went, I could look around and wonder what it would be like to live there as a tiny human being. My everyday surroundings assumed a new, exotic dimension.

My imaginings served no great purpose that I could see. I would never be that small, no matter how much fun I thought it would be, so my daydreams weren’t preparing me just in case I got zapped by cosmic rays or bitten by radioactive spiders. My thoughts weren’t exploring the frontiers of human thought or helping anyone to find meaning in life. My thoughts weren’t for a purpose; they were just for fun.

Now that I’m an adult, I spend a lot of time doing things. I use my thinking time to accomplish something. I only have so much time as a conscious being on this planet, so I have to learn and do as much as I can while I can. I have to do and think Important Things. I have set Important Goals. My dreams have to be about contributing significantly to the world, leaving behind a memorable legacy.

As I took a quick walk across campus (to clear my head so I could finish up some reports), I looked around and remembered those hours spent daydreaming as a child about being a little person. I wondered what I would do to survive if I lived over in those bushes below the pine trees. What would I make my house out of? How would I defend myself from the birds and the feral cats? Where would I get food? How would I avoid people?

I let go of doing and thinking significant things for just a moment. For a moment, I thought trivial thoughts just for the fun of it and felt a weight lift off my shoulders.

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Write Your Own Epic

There was a required class in the computer engineering curriculum that was only ever taught by one particular professor. This professor had a penchant for creating pointless busywork. His homework for this class consisted of one page reports on each section of the book that we read. He didn’t tell you this at first, but these were no ordinary reports. He expected you to fill up that one side of the page with as much information as possible. Margins should be as tight as possible: usually ¼” all around. The last line of each paragraph should be as long as possible: whitespace was the enemy. Smaller fonts got more points. Color got more points. Diagrams were good but should not take up too much space. None of those criteria were stated up front. The class members discovered them through trial and error over the course of the semester. This is only one illustration of his eccentricities as a professor.

His arbitrariness clashed with my sense of fairness. I had a hard time bringing myself to just do whatever it took to pass the class. I took the class four times before the professor gave me the required C or better in the class. By that fourth semester, I knew the material in the class better than he did. It wasn’t for lack of knowledge that I didn’t pass; I didn’t pass because I didn’t want to bend to his will.

I tell this story to give you the context of why I hate admitting what I’m about to say. One of this professor’s favorite sayings was that each of his students was “special, just like everyone else”. That really bugged me, but I must now confess that he was right. Each of us is unique and special, but that makes us no more special than anyone else.


Lately I’ve been feeling kind of empty. My first reaction was “Oh crap! The Mormons were right. I’m losing the Spirit!” I fell prey to the indoctrination of my youth, but only for a moment. I reassured myself that some other reason must explain the emptiness that I felt every time I thought about life. I just had to find it.

It took me a while to put my finger on the cause: I miss being part of a grand epic. Mormonism put me in the middle of a larger-than-life struggle between God and the forces of evil. It told me that I was a valiant spirit in God’s army before I was born. God took a special interest in the course of my life. Everything that happened was part of his eternal plan. My life would determine my future eternal state. My destiny, if I lived worthy of it, could be to become a god to rule and reign over numberless worlds and their inhabitants. Mormonism gave my life a greater context and purpose than the mundane appearances of my day-to-day existence. It reassured me that I was special, more special than those who had chosen not to embrace the truth.

The initial euphoria of casting off old religious demons and tasting sweet freedom and intellectual integrity has now worn off. The euphoria had anesthetized me while my sense of my own inherent, unearned specialness was being removed. I’m just now becoming aware of the hole that Mormonism vacated.


My brother recently made me aware that Maslow extended his hierarchy of needs beyond what we typically hear about. Usually the hierarchy includes five levels of need (from the lowest to the highest): physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Maslow later included cognitive and aesthetic needs in his hierarchy, but more importantly for me, he made the top of his hierarchy self-transcendence.

My needs for self-actualization are finally being met. My native self is finally finding expression outside the culture-imposed narratives of Mormonism. I am becoming self-determined. This self-actualization has come at a price. I have lost the Mormon myths that gave me a false sense of self-transcendence, Maslow’s next higher level of need.

The hunger that I feel in my heart is born of the questions “Why do I live? What greater purpose will my life hold?” I have to answer these questions on my own for the first time in my life. I no longer have a source of ready-made meaning to turn to. No one-size-fits-all story could possibly anticipate the full effect of my life. I have to write the story as I go. My purpose will be unique (just like everyone else) because my place in the universe is unique (just like everyone else).

What will I do to transcend myself? This is my story, my quest. No other hero can take my place.

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