You are wired to be a problem solver. For survival purposes, the human brain is built to focus on what is ‘wrong’ in efforts to eliminate the issue. When we identify something as being wrong, our attention becomes directed to that problem as we seek out ways to either solve the issue or cope with it.
While this can be helpful, it can also become detrimental to the way we view ourselves and others. This can easily teach us to reframe our thinking in way that trains us to seek out what is ‘wrong’.
Many professional fields are based on ‘what’s wrong with people’, only sometimes following up with ‘how to fix it’ or ultimately simply overlooking people’s strengths and capacities for being resilient. Dr. Mario Martinez writes in his book ‘The MindBody Code’ about how neuroscientific research is heavily focused on how a brain behaves when it is damaged, rather than healthy brain function. A consequence of this becomes that researchers have collected extensive knowledge of the pathology of how trauma affects specific areas of the brain, limiting their understanding of what a healthy brain looks like. This reductionist approach causes us to be more on the look-out for an unhealthy brain, and quicker to devote time to our issues and shortcomings.
We can see this concept similarly influencing the field of psychology. Many of Freud’s theories are based on aggression, immaturities and hostility, namely ‘what is wrong with a person’. Maslow, another theorist, has criticised Freud’s work for this, stating that “if we base our findings on a sick population, we will have a sick psychology” which he believes withhold us from ‘peak experiences’.
Doctor Martinez also shares his recent findings of a study done with Tibetan monks, which have given researchers a changed understanding of how the mind can modify the chemistry, neuromapping and structure of the brain. “Some of these findings offer adaptive rather than pathological interpretations of mild forms of autism, ADD, addictions and other behaviours that are often thought of as genetic. Meaning, what we thought were ‘illnesses’ are actually adaptations to the complexities of modern life.”
Thanks to advancing technology, it is now possible to observe the brain without opening it up, allowing observation of the brain during meditation and other practices. Dr. Martinez shares his findings that brain activity shifts from the right prefrontal lobe to the left during meditation. People who are clinically depressed have more activity in the right prefrontal lobe. When antidepressants are taken, brain activity gravitates to the left, just like it does during meditation.
Isn’t it fascinating to entertain the idea that many of our illnesses and diagnoses could merely be ‘adaptations’ or even ‘coping strategies’ within modern life? Our lives are complex. And part of the complexity comes from our unmatched intensity of wanting to live a high quality life, but also our inability to see ‘the good’ when it is there. We sacrifice our valuable mental and physical health all too quickly.
My definition of health has recently been challenged. I would assume that anyone who hears the word ‘health’ has some rough interpretation of its meaning. I used to assume that ‘health’ could be defined in the most simple terms as ‘lacking illness’. However, I recently read a more detailed definition in the Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion which suggested that “to reach a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, an individual or group must be able to identify and to realise aspirations, to satisfy needs, and to change or cope with the environment. Health is, therefore, seen as a resource for everyday life, not the objective of living. Health is a positive concept emphasising social and personal resources, as well as physical capacities... Health cannot be separated from other goals.”
I appreciate this document’s straightforwardness in stating that health is less of something to work toward, but rather a vehicle for success in other areas of our lives. Further into the document, it discusses how ‘work and leisure should be a source of health for people’. Ideally, work should contribute to creating a healthy and functioning society. I go on to wonder why and how so many people’s relationships with their careers have gotten so far away from what work ‘should’ be. All too often, we hear people dreading their jobs and viewing work as a chore.
Why have we become a species whose illnesses have become a product of adapting to our complex, modern lives? How can we stop the cycle of viewing ourselves from the scope of a ‘sick psychology’, or treating life itself as if it is a collection of problems?
Perhaps many people enjoy the challenge of problem solving, as it gives us opportunities to exercise our brain’s cognition. Everybody enjoys feeling smart, and many people thrive in climates of competition and problem solving. I might even argue that some people enjoy having problems for the mere idea that it gives them something to talk about, a concept that gossipy tabloids and reality television are no stranger to.
We may never have a complete understanding of why we are so problem-focused. But if you are somebody who does seek to live a high quality life, it is likely frustrating to feel like there is always something to work on. I like to believe that we can better ourselves each day through utilising our strengths rather than focusing on our shortcomings.
One of the most revolutionary things that ever happened to me was getting my first job working in mental health. In my training, I was introduced to the concept of ‘Strengths-based Language’ where we learned how to frame the way we speak to put emphasis on a person’s strengths rather than their deficiencies. For example, instead of stating that ‘Kristen refused to go to bed early’ you could say that ‘Kristen chose not to go to bed early’, or ‘Kristen likes to consider her options‘ rather than ‘Kristen is indecisive’. The notable difference between these ways of speaking is that the power is given to the person, indicating they made the decision for themselves rather than the decision being made for them.
The opportunity for choice is often motivating for people. I cannot think of a single person who enjoys being forced to do anything. People find it important to make their own decisions. I believe that part of ‘being healthy’ is getting to live a lifestyle that you have elements of choice in. I also believe that there is a high correlation between a person’s satisfaction with their life, and getting to choose when they problem solve. Problem solving within a work context is necessary, and it is important to be able to ‘clock out’ of that responsibility.
When we approach problem solving from a Strengths-based perspective, looking at what’s ‘wrong’ with people could be reframed as ‘understanding how people work’, or ‘understanding why a person is experiencing this’. But I can see where Maslow was coming from in labelling Freud’s focus on aggression and immaturities as a ‘sick psychology’, which can become distracting from viewing people as beautifully complex, loving, creative beings.
Reflecting on my life, I can choose a handful of momentous and emotional moments - my first kiss, getting my first job, getting my license, the first time I saw the Sydney Opera House. Maslow defines these as ‘peak experiences’, but they need to be recognised as ‘peak’ for a reason. They cannot and should not happen every day, especially when we consider the amount of decision-making and problem-solving leading up to these experiences. But I refuse to believe that our identities and our lives are composed only of a series of problems to be solved. We are more than what’s wrong with us.