Problem Solving and Positive Psychology

Last week’s workshops on ‘Solution based Problem Solving’ was very interesting, although someone asked me at the end of the Tuesday night session, how it relates to PERMA theory. There was a reason why I included this workshop in the course but following the buzz of the evening, I just couldn’t remember. But I knew I had a good reason for including it. Maybe it was just too late to think, but interestingly, the exercise was related to positive thinking in the sense of focusing on solutions rather than talking about problems.

Positive Psychology emerged from the scientific branch of Psychology and while it’s not explicitly political, science is inherently political when the research flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Politics has become very interesting in the past year. Movements like the Positive Psychology movement and the Emotional Intelligence movements have been gaining ground for years. Their aim is to understand human nature in order to improve life on the planet and to create better contexts for human development. In other words, these movements are about finding out what works for people. Philosophies can prescribe how we should live but science can tell us what works, and what works best in terms of well-being, and flourishing.

Cognitive psychology research tells us that we are fundamentally irrational if logic is used as the gold standard for rationality. This exposes a fundamental flaw in traditional thinking about human intelligence. At the core of human intelligence is the ability to creatively solve individual and social problems. The natural orientation of people is towards solutions and actions. We’re natural experimenters. We like to try things out to see what works best. Yet, despite our amazing freedom, we often feel powerless to solve the most fundamental of human problems, i.e. finding homes and jobs. Too many people find the rules are not stacked in their favour and their only recourse is to appeal to the authorities for mercy. These were two of the problems we focused on in the workshops.

The problems we focused on for the Positive Psychology were mainly of a more social nature than in the Introduction to Psychology course where the problems tended to be more of a personal nature. This was interesting. I notice that in these courses on Positive Psychology there is a lot of interest from a relational and societal point of view. It seems that happiness on a personal level is related to connections with others and the kind of world we live in. Those who are most contented seem to live in fairly stable situations and tend to be quite resilient when bad things happen, as they inevitably do.

The same two core aspects of society and human life that came up in our problem-solving workshops were access to both homes and jobs. It’s a strange world we live in where the fundamentals of life are beyond the reach of some people. This doesn’t just apply to those who have major personal issues. In fact, many of the personal problems people suffer from may be directly related to how difficult it is to have either or, quite often, both. It’s true that people’s needs and expectations for jobs and homes may have changed, but nonetheless, the problem of access to both appears to be quite considerable.

When I talk to people, I frequently hear that ‘education’ is the access route to getting a job and then subsequently getting a home. This is the prescription of our society and there’s often little sympathy for deviants. Yet education seems to fail a lot of individuals. Being a school or college drop out is known to be a predictor of unemployment and homelessness. However, I have a lot of criticisms of this culture, the way young people are kept in school dependent of parents who can often ill afford to feed and provide them with the needs of contemporary life. This seems to me to be a trap, a type of poverty trap. Despite the fact that it’s possible to access education at any age and to continue to enjoy studying at times in your life when you know what to study and what you’re interested in, young people are still expected to ‘complete their education’ before taking up the status of ‘adult’ in the contemporary world. Two generations ago people could leave school at 14, with quite a good grounding in the basics, and get a job. They could contribute to the family in addition to being independent. Those days are gone. Dependence, well into one’s adult life, has become the norm for European young adults. In some European countries, it’s worse than Ireland. Yet I often feel I’m the only one who sees this as a problem.

There were a few other ‘problems’ that came up that commonly affect people in today’s world, for example, loneliness, isolation and depression. It was recognised that in addition to the problems of homelessness there was also a problem of people living on their own. Never before has there been so many people living alone, often in rural areas where people can’t enjoy the tradition of a few drinks in the pub because of the lack of public transport and the fact that drink driving is unacceptable. Finally, the problems faced by the elderly living alone, health and support, loneliness etc. were well recognised. Organisations like ‘Meals on Wheels’, which is run by volunteers, provides a much-needed lifeline for many. Volunteers can play an important role in making nursing homes and residential care more homely, plus volunteering is a great way to get involved and play an active part in society.

Overall the focus on solutions seemed to divert attention towards actions that we ourselves can take on to change our society. I was really impressed with our groups that there was no-one saying that ‘the Government should do something’ or ‘we need to attract more international investments’. Those were the rally cries for so many years especially when we busy and doing well financially in the time of the Celtic Tiger. The idea that throwing money at the problem failed as much of the money invested in community and housing in that time has had no real long term effect. Activist stunts like Apollo House caught the imagination of many but most don’t see it as a real solution. Dublin city council pulled a similar stunt of getting people off the streets a week before Christmas just two years earlier but the activists were up in arms and have been trying to shut it down ever since. So what was different? One of our small groups talked about housing the homeless in their local area. The knew the homeless people and wanted to know how they could get involved. The problem with the Dublin City Council project may have been that it relocated homeless people from other areas of the city into a neighbourhood that had a huge homelessness, drug and alcohol problem. Activists against that scheme felt that the area had enough problems of its own. It’s become politically incorrect to want to take care of ‘our own’. In our classes, the idea of becoming active locally, in the neighbourhood where you live, with Government support for sustainable projects, seemed to offer the best way forward. Even though Apollo house was far from ideal, it was the sense of solidarity and support that warmed people’s hearts, not least of all those who benefitted from the action. Participating in a caring society emerged from out discussions as something we need to think more about going forward.

One of our small groups talked about housing the homeless in their local area. The knew the homeless people and wanted to know how they could get involved. The problem with the Dublin City Council project may have been that it relocated homeless people from other areas of the city into a neighbourhood that had a huge homelessness, drug and alcohol problem. Activists against that scheme felt that the area had enough problems of its own. It’s become politically incorrect to want to take care of ‘our own’. In our classes, the idea of becoming active locally, in the neighbourhood where you live, with Government support for sustainable projects, seemed to offer the best way forward. Even though Apollo house was far from ideal, it was the sense of solidarity and support that warmed people’s hearts, not least of all those who benefitted from the action. Participating in a caring society emerged from out discussions as something we need to think more about going forward. In conclusion, politics has become more interesting in recent times and people seem to be re-thinking our involvement and participation in our society.

 

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