I actually started this post over a year ago, while I was studying psychology in my free time. I never finished it, and that seemed like a waste, so I decided to finish it off. This is a post about the concept of ‘positive psychology’, drawing on the work of Martin Seligman, and a few ways to apply the concepts to watch collecting.
Intro to Positive Psychology
What is meant by the “positive” in positive psychology? In its most basic sense, the positive refers to what we want, for ourselves and our world. We want to feel good; we want to have close relationships with our family and friends. We want to use our unique abilities in ways that help us succeed and make the world a better place. We want our lives to have meaning. Positive psychology uses scientific methods to study these topics to try to understand what makes us flourish and to identify concrete steps we can take to increase our well-being. To understand why Positive Psychology has been such an important development in psychology, we need to know something about the context into which it was born.
As Martin Seligman and the other founders of the field observed, by the end of the 20th century, clinical psychology had come to focus almost exclusively on what we don’t want for ourselves and our world. It had come to focus on the study and treatment of mental illness. Positive psychology is based on the fundamental insight that treating mental illness is not the same thing as promoting mental health. Getting rid of what we don’t want in our lives does not automatically bring what we do want.
This basic sense of the positive is pretty easy to understand, but it is worth reminding that it is not just the absence of the negative. It refers to things we value like joy, serenity, courage, optimism, altruism, peace, perseverance, creativity, and love. These things don’t automatically come by fighting against sadness, anxiety, fear, selfishness, boredom and hatred. Instead, they have to be cultivated and nurtured.
Things do get rather complex once we move beyond the basic understanding of the positive, in positive psychology. In part, this is because it’s difficult to separate the positive from the negative in our lives. Can you think of something that happened in your life that, at the time, you would have labeled negative? Then, looking back on it today, you would now label it as positive? Even traumatic events can sometimes lead to great personal development; This is what researchers call post traumatic growth.
Conversely, can you think of something you did, which seemed positive at the time, but today, wish you had not done? I recall a story about a teacher helping out a troubled youth, saving him from early incarceration, but this youth who would otherwise have been imprisoned, went on to commit serious crimes as a result of this freedom; Something the teacher could not have predicted, given his pure intentions.
Some negative experiences lead to positive outcomes and some positive experiences lead to negative outcomes. Further, the positive space is complex because it’s on a continuum. Some things are more positive than others. For example, we might value the deep sense of connection and meaning that can arise from helping another person, more than we value the sweet (but perhaps) fleeting feeling of buying a new watch.
In our lives we often find ourselves trying to decide not just what is positive, but what is optimal. In its broadest sense, the positive in positive psychology is about helping us understand how we can lead our lives well. This requires a balance between aiming for the things we want and moving away from the things we don’t want. It also means keeping in mind that sometimes we need to choose the things we don’t want, in order to get the things we want even more. These are complex choices, and positive psychology research aims to provide us with information we can use to make them more effectively.
Active constructive responses
When Martin Seligman taught clinical psychology, he used to teach about marriage, sexuality, and similar topics, and used to have his clinical graduate students read ‘marriage manuals’. What usually happens in marital therapy is they try to get couples to “fight better”.
What they observed initially, was couples tended to have the same sort of fights every day, each time in a different guise. The therapy would then be focused on taking insufferable marriages and making them more tolerable. This is not what positive psychology says to do.
Positive psychology would be focused on taking a good marriage and making it even better, or a bad relationship and making it good instead. So, some positive psychology marriage counsellors in California stopped doing what the marriage manuals tell you to do i.e., questions focused on dissecting bad events as a couple… These counsellors instead asked the couples: How do you celebrate together? How do you deal with good events?
The technique is called “Active Constructive Responding”. Just imagine your spouse comes home and tells you s/he’s been promoted at work. What do you say? What happens next? There’s a 2×2 table of the ways in which you can respond to her, namely active, passive, constructive, destructive.
So, one spouse comes home from work, having been promoted, and the other one says, “you know what tax bracket that’s going to put us into?” Clearly, that is active destructive. The most common form is passive constructive: “Congratulations dear, you really deserve it“. Next is, passive destructive: “What’s for dinner?”
The only thing that works, and it doesn’t come naturally, is active constructive. Here, you’re trying to get them to relive the experience of being promoted. For example, it might start in the following way. “You know dear, I have seen the reports you wrote to the corporation for the last year… that last one you wrote on marketing strategy is really the most insightful document I’ve read in my 25 years of corporate life. Now, tell me exactly, what your boss said to you when he told you that you were being promoted!?” Then they tell you… and you ask, “well, where were you, and how did your boss start the conversation?” Clearly, what you’re doing is getting your spouse to relive the experience. As they start to relive it, you carry on even further… “What do you think the real reasons you got promoted are? What are the highest strengths that you’ve shown that have gotten you promoted? And let’s go open a bottle of champagne to celebrate”.
It turns out, when you teach couples to do that, love goes up, sexuality goes up, and divorce rates goes down. Bear in mind, active constructive responding to good news is not limited to couples… it is applicable to friendship and even colleagues in the workplace as well.
What does this have to do with watches?
A lot of the preamble here is more easily applied to general life, than it is to watch collecting. In the spirit of this blog and most of my previous posts, I will do my best to try and find some connection. If it seems like I am reaching, that’s because I am!
If we proceed on the basis that the ‘positive space’ is on a continuum i.e., that some things are more positive than others… we can apply this to our collecting philosophies. It is not uncommon for collectors to see other collectors continuously getting new watches and experiencing the latest releases – and this may end up leading to feelings of envy and maybe even jealousy. The issue here, is one of mindset. It is almost a gut reaction to compare to other people. However, we mostly have no clue about anyone else’s circumstances. So why do we compare at all?
I find it useful to constantly remind myself to compare my collection and collecting journey… only with myself. Do you look back on yourself two, five or even ten years ago, and foresee owning the watches you have today? I certainly do not! This makes me happy, and I think it will be the same for most others. Everyone is on their own journey, and as mentioned above: sometimes we need to choose the things we don’t want, in order to get the things we want even more. To that end, if you want an easy way to prioritise your purchase habits, try this matrix out.
Finally, I would take something away from the example about active constructive responses. While interacting with fellow collector friends, try and put this into practice. As collectors, we tend to be naturally detail-oriented, and so when we recollect a story about a watch purchase, I feel like we already go into a lot of detail about our experiences… this is a perfect starting point for a really fulfilling conversation. Embrace it, dig deep, and I’ll bet your fellow collectors will love you for it!