Often it is not really what is happening that brings us down or makes us anxious, it is how we interpret what is happening around us. The issue is not so much that we see things from a negative point of view, but that we don’t realise that this is not the only way to see things. People who can shift their perspectives and look at things from different view points often manage difficulties better, see chances where others see struggle and according to Positive Psychology research might score higher in the strengths category of wisdom than others.
At Zest Infusion we have been immersing ourselves in the world of Positive Psychology, and more specifically, in research related to human character strengths. Positive psychology and character strengths based research aims to identify what makes people happy, resilient and generally live healthy and fulfilled lives. Overall there are 24 character strengths that have been identified by Positive Psychology research to be beneficial to living a meaningful and satisfied life. This month I would like to focus on the character strength of ‘Perspective’.
In general the ability to take perspective is defined as the ability to adopt different mind sets than one’s usual way of seeing things (Hodges, 2008).
Perspective is defined by the VIA Institute of Character as the ability to provide wise counsel to others and as having the capability to look at the world in a way that makes sense to oneself and to other people. Perspective is one sub-strength that is part of the higher class strength of wisdom. This classification implies that being able to take different perspectives is a key aspect of wisdom. The same notion is also being taken by Walsh (2015) who proposes a few theories on different categories of perspective taking and how perspective taking can be practiced.
In my work I often find myself trying to help people to widen their perspective. One reason for this is that people often have unhelpful and negative assumptions about themselves, others, and their life. Assumptions are a fixed points of view /beliefs that we accept to be true. Very often people have very negative and limiting assumptions like for example, “I will fail”, “I am worthless” etc. Buying into these beliefs then often makes them act accordingly e.g. not try new things, avoiding to meet people, which then often confirms their beliefs. The combination of negative beliefs and avoidant behaviour often contributes to problematic levels of anxiety and depression.
However, if we can notice that this is only one way of looking at ourselves and our life we become more psychologically flexible, which can help us to challenge our beliefs by not engaging in behaviour that confirms our belief. We might try what we are scared of and learn that we did not fail, or at least did better than we assumed.
Walsh (2015) says that the problem with perspectives is not so much that we have them, but that they are not being questioned. Like negative thoughts or unhelpful judgments, we cannot get rid of them, however, we can recognize them for what they are and notice the limited view they provide of ourselves and the world.
According to Walsh (2015) some of the perspective taking skills of wise people include the following
• Wise people are able to notice when they or others are getting stuck in their specific perspective and they are able to recognize the limits of their perspective. Subsequently they continuously try to widen their own and others perspectives.
• Wise people are able to zoom in and out with their perspective taking. That means that they are able to look at the effect of for example a behavior on an individual as well as a bigger group, a community or even the world.
• They are able to switch swiftly and easily between different perspectives without having to identify with any of them, but being able to accept all of them as true and valid.
• Wise people also take a beneficial view. This means that wise people seek perspectives that enhance well-being for themselves and others.
• Wise people are good at reframing and use this ability as a conscious choice. The ability to reframe has shown to be useful in stressful life events when they can be reframed as a learning opportunity.
Being able to take different perspectives and to step back from one’s assumptions and not take them as the truth is an important aspect of mindfulness meditation. In fact Walsh (2015) names meditation as one specific exercise people can practice to foster wisdom and their perspective taking ability. So if you want to improve your psychological flexibility and perspective taking skill practicing mindfulness meditation can help.
Other exercises to widen our perspective taking skill could be to deliberately take another person’s perspective; travelling and getting to know different cultures; continuously educating ourselves; trying to experience new things; or having conversations with someone who is good at perspective taking and learning from them.
Hogdges, S.D. (2008). http://socialcognitionlab.uoregon.edu/files/2013/03/hodges_2008-263wmt0.pdf -rertrieved on 7/3/16
The Black Dog Institute – Fact Sheet: Positive Psychology, http://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/docs/Positivepsychology.pdf, retrived on 04/11/2015
VIA Institute of Character. www.viacharacter.org/www/Character-Strengths/Perspective. Retrieved on 12/03/2016
Walsh, R. (2015). Wise Ways of Seeing: Wisdom and Perspectives. Integral Review, 11(2).
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