What is the ‘good life’ and how can human beings achieve it? Scholars since Aristotle have been trying to answer that question. Melchert tells us Aristotle believed virtue to be more than simple emotion. Happiness results from virtuous actions (2002). William James postulated that happiness results from the cultivating of proper habits through conscious attention and effort. Furthermore, attention and effort are “two names for the same psychic fact” (1892, p. 137). Csikszentmihalyi focuses on the mechanics of consciousness and controlling the conscious mind in pursuit of happiness (1990). Lastly, Pawelski integrates the philosophy of William James and current positive psychology research to explore how humans flourish and generate well-being (2003). Based on these authors, I will argue that a positive intervention is a direct result of conscious control of attention.
Aristotle argued that happiness is not possible without excellence or virtue. Happiness is not simply a state of being but an “activity of the soul in accordance with reason” (as cited in Melchert, 2002, p. 189). Virtues are actions not emotions or feelings. These virtuous actions result from habits or dispositions. They are learned and not innate. Therefore Aristotle believes that we create virtuous and happy lives through our actions (Melchert, 2002).
William James discusses habits in his Principles of Psychology: Briefer Course (1892). He believes that habits have a physical basis and are actual pathways through nerve centers. He suggests that new habit formation requires a number of steps: first, launch it with a strong initiative; second, make a public pledge; third, never allow an exception until the new habit is firmly set; and fourth, take the first opportunity to act according to this habit. Each action presents an opportunity to deepen old paths or to make new ones. Changing a habit requires attention and effort (James, 1892). Since habits by definition persist we must be careful which ones we cultivate.
In his Talks to Teachers James demands that we focus attention on our actions, since they are easier to regulate than our feelings (1897). Also, dwelling on difficult emotions fixes them in the mind. James argues that our acts and attitudes create the “currents of sensation” that drive our inner states rather than the other way around (1897, p. 119). Both Aristotle and James support my thesis that positive interventions are a direct result of the control of attention. James equates attention and effort and both maintain that we must focus on that effort (i.e. action) in order to achieve happiness.
Csikszentmihalyi supports the ‘conscious’ part of my thesis. He believes that by self-directing our consciousness we can live a happier life. Intention is a core component of Csikszentmihalyi’s definition of consciousness (1990). When we align our consciousness with our goals we experience a state called “flow” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 40). He says “a person can make himself happy or miserable regardless of what is actually happening ‘outside’ just by changing the thoughts of consciousness.” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 24). Without consciousness we react in a reflexive way (1990). William James would call this reflexivity habit.
Pawelski integrates current writings in positive psychology with William James’ theory of healthy-mindedness. James defines healthy-mindedness as “the tendency which looks on all things and sees that they are good” (as cited in Pawelski, 2003, p. 2). James divides healthy-mindedness into involuntary and voluntary (also known as systematic) healthy-mindedness. Involuntary healthy-mindedness encompasses the immediate experience of happiness. Systematic healthy-mindedness describes an abstract and intentional choosing of those actions and feelings believed to be good. (Pawelski, 2003). Systematic healthy-mindedness also compliments James’ thoughts about habit formation and Csikszentmihalyi’s conscious control of attention thesis. Even though a healthy-minded point of view failed to address the realities of evil, James believed that it could be extremely effective (Pawelski, 2003). In addition, systematic healthy-mindedness closely approximates our contemporary concept of optimism.
Positive interventions are a way of helping us cultivate optimism and happiness for ourselves. From the ideas discussed above, we know with a positive intervention we manage our habits through attention and effort which Csikszentmihalyi believes we control through our consciousness. As a result of the effort we exert in controlling our conscious attention, we can create positive interventions in our own lives. The current positive psychology research helps us analyze and cultivate our strengths and use those strengths to create greater happiness and well-being. Our fundamental desire to understand and to shape our environment requires action. In one of the 20th century’s most popular books, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie quotes William James: “Action seems to follow feeling but really action and feeling go together; and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not” (1936/1981, p. 70). Step by step, habit by habit, positive interventions can lead us to happiness and the good life.
Carnegie, D. (1936/1981). A simple way to make a good first impression. In How to Win Friends and Influence People (pp. 66-73). Rev. Ed. New York: Pocket Books.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Chapter 2: The anatomy of consciousness. In Flow: The psychology of optimal experience (pp. 23-42). New York: HarperPerennial.
James, W. (1897). Selections from Talks to Teachers.
James, W. (1892). Selections from Principles of Psychology: Briefer Course.
Melchert, N. (2002). Aristotle: The reality of the world. The good life. In The great conversation: A historical introduction to philosophy, 4th ed. (pp. 186-198). Boston: McGraw-Hill.
Pawelski, J. O. (2003). William James, positive psychology, and healthy-mindedness. The Journal of Speculative Philosophy (New Series) 17, 53-67.