Get back to a positive attitude!
Surgeon turned psychotherapist, Thierry Janssen invites us to take another look at our perception of happiness. Using biology, neuro-scientific and psychology studies, he wants us to find renewed optimism, a link with others, and to give sense to our lives.
The challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to work out your potential for positivity, and especially, to let this shine through in all you do.
You have developed theories based on medicine, illness and this time, happiness and good health. Each time you emphasise the importance of addressing these subjects in an interdisciplinary manner.
Thierry Janssen: This seems essential to me. In fact, our way of representing reality, our way of thinking about the world, is erroneously influenced by a philosophical postulate which puts the human being outside and above nature, which is perceived as dangerous. On top of this, we have developed an analytical science which tries to understand nature in the tiniest details so as to influence it, transform it and dominate it. Modern societies are constructed on this postulate of all-powerfulness.
We innovate, produce and consume in order to protect ourselves, without realising that in ending up focusing on the details we lose sight of the bigger picture; we become disconnected from reality, becoming more and more fragile. All these crises which are taking shape on the horizon of our civilisation are born of a crying lack of consciousness of the links which exist between different elements of our analysis. We lack, quite simply, humility.
Is it for this reason that you speak of a challenge in your latest opus?
Thierry Janssen: Thinking in a universal way about the world is actually a challenge for our modern brains. However, the challenge concerned here is a more important one, a challenge that I think of as the “positive”.
Do we all have the same propensity towards the negative?
Thierry Janssen: We all actually have a natural tendency to be more interested in the negative before spotting the positive. It is inherent in our instinct for survival. It seems important to be able to arm ourselves and prepare for what could put us in danger. On top of this, we demonstrate our negative emotions as a priority, which I prefer to describe as “disagreeable” emotions (for example; fear, anxiety, anger). Our nervous emotional systems put us in a state of tension in order to react and our bodies produce what is known as a reaction to stress. In itself, this reaction to stress is a good thing; it allows us to adapt ourselves. However, if we stay “cornered” into these negative thoughts and disagreeable emotions, we end up living with chronic stress which is exhausting, weakens us and ultimately, predisposes us to a series of different illnesses.
This means it is important to be able to take stock of the situation, put things into perspective, stay in touch with reality at the precise moment in order to generate more positive thoughts and, to boot, more agreeable emotions (like joy) which are automatically accompanied by reactions of relaxation which lends itself to regeneration and repair in our bodies. Not to mention the fact that these agreeable emotions get our imagination going again and help us find solutions when faced with difficult situations. In making us pleasanter people, these positive thoughts allow us to build social connections which are precious resources in cases of adversity.
In our quest for happiness, you advise putting pleasure first. This seems paradoxical in this context, plenty of sources of pleasure and yet, eternally dissatisfied?
Thierry Janssen: It isn’t me who advises pleasure. It has been shown in the studies made by researchers into positive psychology which reveals that pleasure is one of the greatest paths to happiness for each and every one of us. The need for pleasure is fundamental. Without pleasure, we could not know the meaning of motivation. Note that the most vital acts; eating, reproducing, making social connections, are at the heart of our greatest pleasures. The problem comes from a phenomenon we call “hedonistic adaptation”. Everything may be adapted to, good and bad. On top of this, the trap is to want more all the time, especially in a society like ours which associates happiness with consumption of material goods. We can escape from this trap by learning to savour our pleasures! To do this, you need to slow down and take time to taste pleasure: to under-dose in order to experience the happiness of desiring something and above all, not saturating yourself; to simplify things. It is not about lessening the importance of pleasure, but simply about giving it some meaning.
The quest for meaning also seems to be one of the main routes toward happiness then...
Thierry Janssen: In effect, yes. The need for meaning is at least as fundamental as the need for pleasure. Without meaning and without direction, our existence can seem absurd; we could not survive... Studies show that the quest for meaning progresses through connections you make with other people. This raises questions our modern society, where the ability to maintain social links is reduced. This is because making connections is not through sending emails. Furthermore, you need to learn to get to know yourself and know the other person, to develop empathy and create an intimate distance which respects the self and the other.
However, studies have also revealed that the quest for meaning depends on the definition of our values and, especially, the application of these values in what we do. It seems essential therefore, to create an internal space in order to raise our level of consciousness. We discover and feel relaxation which triggers an emanating positive potential, built from forces and virtues that philosophers and spiritualists have talked of since the dawn of time. This potential was the object, very recently (in 2005) of an extremely nuanced and complete classification. The challenge is to actualise this potential and allow yourself to be inspired by what Aristotle called ‘Eudemon’ – the good genie in us invites us to express the best of ourselves in order to experience beneficial personal development.
Is your vision quasi-spiritual?
Thierry Janssen: Yes. In Latin the word “spiritus” means “breathing” which connects and gives life to everything - this is what I would define as links which exist between all things. Far beyond these religious concepts, spirituality can be considered as a science which allows comprehension of these links. From this point of view, each of my works is an attempt to “re-spiritualise” our world which has lost its consciousness of what connects everything. I believe that we all have a profound need of this.
- “The Solution Lies Within,” Thierry Janssen, Helmut Karle, Editions Fayard Free Association Books, 2010, £17.95
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