Interview 56. – Dr Roger Bretherton

CSV-WordsonWonder-RBretherton

Roger is Principal Lecturer for Enterprise in the School of Psychology, at the University of Lincoln. He is a Chartered Clinical Psychologist and Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and was the 2016 recipient of the Vice Chancellors Award for Teaching Excellence. His teaching, research and consultancy centre around Character Strengths and Virtues- the positive qualities of character related to psychological wellbeing. He works extensively in psychological consultancy in the public and private sector. Recent projects include an investigation of the benefits of humility in academic leaders, a pilot project training volunteer mental health workers, and a collaboration with Zest theatre company to teach psychological skills to young people. In 2017, he received a grant from the John Templeton Foundation to develop, pilot and evaluate a character strengths course to be delivered through church small groups.

Website: https://staff.lincoln.ac.uk/rbretherton


Describe something that has recently amazed you and how it made you feel.

At the risk of sounding weird I would say the Hungarian Parliament Building- no, really. Last Summer I was in Budapest for an academic conference. We arrived a day early and took a boat tour down the Danube. Once I’d seen the Parliament of Budapest on the river bank I couldn’t get over it. My colleagues laughed every time I repeated in a trancelike state that it was the most dramatic building I’d ever seen. There is something ineffable about that kind of awe. The architecture was imperious and beautiful, intricate and intimidating, pristine and yet terrifying. It was the coalescence of contradictory emotion in my response that left me overwhelmed by it. It made me realise why Rudolph Otto, legendary psychologist of religion, defined the holy as mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the mystery before which we are terrified and yet fascinated.  That was the amazement that struck me in Hungary, the desire to be disconcerted.

 

How would you personally define wonder, awe and curiosity? And how do they relate to each other?

If I had to split them, I’d put awe and wonder together and set curiosity apart. Awe and wonder for me carry the sense of being overwhelmed by mystery, by something bigger or more complex than one understands. It can be the immensity of the universe, the words of the poet or the supreme skill of the Olympic gymnast. It confronts me with a size or a power that is beyond me, somehow unobtainable, and before which the most appropriate response is silence.

Curiosity on the other hand is a more active state. It views uncertainty positively as something to be explored. It can end in a state of awe, as when spiritual seekers pursue a deeper experience of the divine. But it can equally lead to the discovery of a deeper truth, or a new certainty, as when scientists peel back layers of received wisdom to expose the world as not the way we thought it was.

 

Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?

To my mind, it comes from the human capacity for self-transcendence, our ability to step beyond ourselves in imagination, towards others, towards the past and future, towards nature and the cosmos. Some people would include God in this list and say it is our spiritual essence to reach beyond ourselves. Personally I would agree with that, but many of my colleagues in psychology would be happy to view themselves as spiritual without necessarily believing in a divine being. Either way, we cultivate our sense of wonder through experiences of awe in which we are inwardly moved and yet reminded that we are not the centre of the universe. The contradiction of wonder is to be personally elevated and cosmically humbled at the same time.

 

A major area of your research is character strengths and I know you use tools like VIA, can you tell me more about Curiosity? Why and how is it so strongly linked to wellbeing?

For those who don’t know, the VIA inventory of strengths is a classification of 24 character strengths, positive character traits like wisdom, hope, gratitude, self-control, persistence, fairness and so on. It was put together by a group of 55 psychologists as part of a multi-million dollar international research project, and is considered one of the major foundations of positive psychology- the study of what makes human life flourish.

In answer to your question then… curiosity is one of the strengths (alongside love, gratitude, hope and passion) which is most associated with subjective wellbeing, a sense of satisfaction with life. There are various reasons for this. One would be that when we are curious we explore the world, in exploring the world we expand ourselves, we discover new skills and develop new abilities, and these abilities make us more skilful in dealing with life, hence they set up a virtuous circle of enjoying life. Research also suggests that curious people can have better relationships with others because they are genuinely interested and are therefore better conversation partners, and can then build deeper (presumably more fulfilling) relationships. Perhaps my favourite notion of how curiosity builds wellbeing is the effect it has on anxiety. We can’t always control how anxious or worried we are, but we can increase our curiosity in response to things that worry us. Whereas worry views uncertainty as threatening, curiosity views uncertainty positively as something to be explored with benefits to be found in doing so. In this sense curiosity is the same psychological process as worry, except it embraces uncertainty rather than trying to eliminate it.

 

Does ‘wonder’ map to one of these strengths?

Yes. From the VIA point of view wonder (and awe) fall into a cluster usually called appreciation of excellence and beauty, the aesthetic propensity to love what is beautiful. It is sometimes also called ‘elevation’ the moral or aesthetic uplifting we experience when we see others doing something good, skilful or beautiful. Some commentators object to transcendent states like reverence, awe and wonder being lumped together with more mundane experiences of inspiration, or simple moments of appreciating something of human design, but I quite like putting them together. It allows us to recognise that wonder is in the eye of the beholder- I can find a giggling child, or sumptuous interior design just as wondrous as the most mystical of experiences or moral exemplars. It reminds me that life is littered with mini-mysteries and everyday wonders which we miss at our peril.

 

In recent years Positive psychology and mindfulness have seen a massive increase in both academia and public perception. Why do we as humans seen to naturally focus and dwell on the negative?

We are natural problem solvers. Being highly attuned to the negative has distinct survival advantages. It’s the things that scare us, shame us, defeat us, or hurt us, that pose a threat to our physical wellbeing and our social standing, so we need to spot them quickly and do something about them. The problem in contemporary industrialised society is that the kind of stresses and threats that we encounter often can’t be dealt with quickly. We carry the burden of deadlines and responsibilities for long periods of time- emotions that were designed to help us in the short-term, become damaging to us when experienced long-term. The kind of psychology I study tries to directly address this bias by creating a language, and an awareness, of good things we would be in danger of ignoring in the daily rush to get things done. My approach to positive psychology is also a critique of, for example toxic workplace practices which contribute to our misery. It has political and societal implications.

 

From recent research findings, how can we practically live a happier life?

There are multiple answers to this question with scientific backing: savour good experiences, be grateful, look after your body, practice your spirituality, show kindness… The list is long. Sonja Lyubomirsky, one of the big names in positive psychology, outlines quite a few of them in her book The How of Happiness, which is a good place to start for anyone who is interested.

From a character strengths perspective the most reliable way to increase the amount of positive emotion we experience in everyday life is to use our signature strengths in a new way every day. In other words recognise what is best in us and practice them each day with an attitude of kindness and curiosity. Completing the VIA Inventory of Strengths, a free psychometric at www.viacharacter.org is a good place to start with this. The website has an abundance of resources to develop what is best in us.

 

I’ve heard said that “mindfulness” is just papering over the cracks of hectic and stress filled lives. Would you agree? And if so, what are the root causes of stress?

You’re not the only person to be concerned about this. Many of my Buddhist colleagues are concerned that mindfulness meditation has been uprooted from its origins in a particular community and philosophy of living, and turned into an arid technology promoted to do us good. This is largely a product of how mindfulness has been popularised as a panacea by some people, I should say that most leading figures in the science of mindfulness are very thoughtful and nuanced in their promotion of the practice.

If mindfulness is compensating for anything, it’s probably the sense of disconnection we experience in an individualistic culture. The standard human response to stress is social engagement, finding strength in being with, sharing life and learning from others. In our culture people are literally dying of loneliness at home and at work, being mindful is no substitute for human community.

Having said that, with PhD student Rebecca Park, we ‘ve been conducting series of trials of Mindfulness-based Strengths Practice (MBSP) with students of various ages. The programme uses mindfulness as a way of becoming aware of one’s strengths and includes a whole session on relationships with others. It improves the ability of participants to reach out and form positive connections, and as an accidental aside often builds the participants into a little community as they share their lives with each other. So, mindfulness can, and perhaps should, facilitate connection as well as potentially paper over the lack of it.

 

What’s a mindful Christian?

Ha. If I’m not mistaken this is a reference to the book I edited with some colleagues. It was called Being Mindful, Being Christian. Ten psychologists who were Christians with expertise in mindfulness contributed to it. I was the senior editor, so I had the unenviable task of converting their beautifully eloquent prose into my chip shop English, so it all sounds like one person wrote it.

I guess the answer to the question is that I am a mindful Christian. In my teenage years I became serious about following Jesus as a way of life, and started to practice a series of spiritual disciplines. One of them involved being aware of the present moment without distraction. I called it practicing the presence of God, or being aware of Jesus, or being in the eternal now. Years later when I trained as a clinical psychologist, I was introduced to mindfulness as an intervention for personality disorder, and I realised that it was basically what I’d been doing for years without ever calling it by that name.

Admittedly Christian mindfulness has additional theological implications to more secularised mindful practices- largely that God can be experienced in the present moment. But ultimately I think mindfulness is a universal human capacity that doesn’t belong to any single religion or philosophy. Christianity has a tradition of mindful practices going back centuries, and many Christians practice mindful-like states when attending worship, reading scripture or in prayer. Often without realising that is what they are doing. Most Christians at some point are mindful Christians.


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