Understanding Human Nature

by Alfred Adler, 302 pages, 1927 (Amazon link).

Alfred Adler was one of the three founding fathers of modern psychology, along with Freud and Jung. I read two books by him: Understanding Human Nature (302 pages, 1927) and What Life Could Mean To You (210 pages, 1931).

What I like the most about Adler is his core philosophy, which was grounded in the concept of Gemeinschaftsgefuhl which means 'social interest' or 'communal feeling'. Adler was confident that anybody could be cured of mental illness in just fourteen days if the patient agreed to do something for someone else every day for a fortnight! This resonates strongly with Eastern ideas of 'Seva' (service before self) as a means to curing psychosomatic problems. Below is an excerpt from the book Positive Discipline (384 pages, 2006) by Jane Nelsen:

Adler claimed he could cure anyone of mental illness in just fourteen days if they would just do what he told them to do. One day a woman who was extremely depressed came to see Adler. He told her, "I can cure you of your depression in just fourteen days if you will follow my advice."

She was not very enthusiastic when she asked, "What do you want me to do?"

Adler replied, "If you will do one thing for someone else every day for fourteen days, at the end of that time your depression will be gone."

She objected. "Why should I do something for someone else, when no one ever does anything for me?"

Adler jokingly responded, "Well, maybe it will take you twenty-one days." He went on to add, "If you can't think of anything you are willing to do for someone else, just think of what you could do if you felt like it." Adler knew that if she would even think about doing something for someone else, she would be on her way toward improvement.

Adler's books also introduced me to the idea that birth order influences personality. See Huffington Post article on this subject, for example.

To understand the significance of Alfred Adler's ideas of 'communal feeling' or 'social ties', one may browse through The Blue Zones (320 pages, 2010) by Dan Buettner, a book that explains why certain populations have the maximum number of centenarians (people who live beyond 100 years of age). These populations live in regions called the Blue Zones. What contributes to their longevity and quality of life? A predominantly vegan diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, fresh unchilled water, very little meat, lots of exercise in the form of farm work or walking, and rich social life through family ties and friends.

The How of Happiness
A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want

by Sonja Lyubomirsky, 384 pages, 2007 (Amazon link).

Sonja Lyubomirsky is Professor of Psychology at University of California, Riverside. She works in 'Positive Psychology', an area that received a major boost in 1998, when Martin Seligman gave a landmark speech as the president of American Psychological Association. Seligman implored researchers to investigate what makes people happy! Until then, most of psychology and psychiatry had focused on sick people, trying to make them 'normal'. Martin Seligman suggested that apart from making sick people normal, psychologists should also investigate what makes the happy people happy, and teach these skills to everybody! Seligman's speech paved the way for lots of funding for research into 'positive psychology'. Sonja Lyubomirsky's book summarizes this body of research until 2007.

Early in the book, Sonja explains that happiness is independent of many variables: being rich or poor, being married or not, having a debilitating illness or not, have no correlation with happiness. The author then goes on to explain a model of happiness that is well-accepted by the Positive Psychology community. Three factors determine happiness: set-point, circumstances and volitional activities. Set point and circumstances are out of our control. The entire book is about volitional activities, which may be categorized into twelve broad categories: (a) Expressing Gratitude, (b) Cultivating Optimism, (c) Avoiding Overthinking, (d) Practicing Acts of Kindness, (e) Nurturing Social Relationships, (f) Developing Strategies for Coping, (g) Learning to Forgive, (h) Increasing Flow Experiences, (i) Savoring Life's Joys, (j) Committing to Your Goals, (k) Practicing Religion and Spirituality, (l) Taking Care of Your Body with Meditation, Physical Activity and Acting Like a Happy Person.

Page 22 lists characteristics of happy people:

  1. They devote a great amount of time to their family and friends, nurturing and enjoying those relationships.
  2. They are comfortable expressing gratitude for all they have.
  3. They are often the first to offer helping hands to coworkers and passersby.
  4. They practice optimism when imagining their futures.
  5. They savor life's pleasures and try to live in the present moment.
  6. They make physical exercise, a weekly and even daily habit.
  7. They are deeply committed to lifelong goals and ambitions (e.g., fighting fraud, building cabinets or teaching their children their deeply held values).
  8. Last but not least, the happiest people do have their share of stresses, crises, and even tragedies. They may become just as distressed and emotional in such circumstances as you or I, but their secret weapon is the poise and strength they show in coping in the face of challenge.

Chapter by Chapter Notes for The How Of Happiness — great!

Opening Up
The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions

by James Pennebaker, 249 pages, 1997 (Amazon link).

James Pennebaker a Professor of Psychology at University of Texas at Austin. His book 'Opening Up' is a gem of a book, packed with psychological insights and references to research papers in psychology. The book summarizes Pennebaker's research into self disclosure through writing and speech. For over twenty years, Pennebaker studied healing through verbalization of traumatic experiences. Verbalization may be done through writing, journaling, confessions and speaking to strangers (cab drivers or co-passengers in an airplane).

The most effective technique for opening up is to find a trusted confidant and to share with utmost honesty what exactly is bothering us. This is quite challenging. For the technique to be effective, the listener has to be a calm, patient, loving and non-judgmental. Finding such a person could be a challenge in itself!

“Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person; having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but to pour them all out, just as they are, chaff and grain together, knowing that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then, with a breath of kindness, blow the rest away.”
— George Eliot

In the absence of a trusted confidante, one may visit a counselor or a psychologist. Information shared with counselors is treated with utmost respect and not shared with anybody else. Confessions in church and confessions to spouses are similar mechanisms for finding relief.

If no physical person is available, journaling is effective. Those who can express themselves through art find relief through artistic endeavors.

After reading books on psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, grief recovery and meditation, I realized that there is actually a common theme to all of these healing mechanisms — all of these amount to 'opening up'! Meditation is a one-person system. Others are two-person systems which require the help of another person.

Living the Truth
Transform Your Life Through the Power of Insight and Honesty

by Keith Russell Ablow, 320 pages, 2007 (Amazon link).

Keith Ablow has over twenty years experience in clinical psychotherapy. Modern Western psychology asserts that childhood experiences, especially the family eco-system (parents and siblings), greatly influences personality. Many psychosomatic ailments are caused by burying painful memories inside us, not accepting them, not letting go of them. Through many case studies, Ablow showcases his philosophy and clinical techniques for revisiting painful moments in one's life with a therapist. By seeing one's past experiences from a third person's perspective, one gains self-understanding and gets healed.

The case studies in 'Living the Truth' convinced me that there is some truth to the idea that childhood experiences mould our personality in subtle ways that we may be completely unaware of. Also, these personality traits can be corrected. The correction technique involves revisiting the past and re-experiencing painful episodes of our lives that are buried inside us. Through this process, we get the opportunity to undo the knots that are restricting us in the present. Remarkably, I found exactly the same mechanism at play in hypnotherapy, opening up through self disclosure, grief recovery techniques, and meditation!

On Grief and Grieving
Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss

by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler, 256 pages, 2007 (Amazon link).

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1926-2004) was a Swiss-born psychiatrist. For over forty years, she worked with the terminally ill, studying them as they came to terms with their impending death.

On Grief and Grieving is a beautiful book on various facets of the grieving process. Written in a lucid informal style, the book is full of insights, examples and case studies. Each section effuses empathy. Gladly, the book stays away from quantification, reductionism and preponderance of statistics which permeate modern psychological texts. The uniqueness of individual grief journeys is emphasized — loss is inevitable and grief heals but everybody heals in their own way. It is important to grieve, to get in touch with one's pain and not to postpone.

With the exception of the first chapter, you may read the sections of the entire book in any order without loss of continuity. Each section addresses a unique facet of the grieving process. The book begins with a short Introduction that describes 'anticipatory grief', which has a character of its own.

Chapter 1 (The Five Stages of Grief) touches upon the five-stage model of loss: shock and denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These five stages are customarily described in almost all contemporary writings on grief and loss. The 5-stage model is critiqued today because these stages are not well defined and because people do not traverse these stages in a linear order. The remaining chapters do not mention these five stages.

Chapter 2 (The Inner World of Grief) covers emotional and psychological aspects of grieving. It has sections on Relief, Emotional Rest, Regrets, Tears, Angels, Dreams, Hauntings, Roles, The Story, Fault, Resentment, Other Losses, Life Beliefs, Isolation, Secrets, Punishment, Control, Fantasy, Strength and Afterlife. This chapter is quite illuminating as it offers a panoramic view of emotions that different people experience! Each section is peppered with examples and personal stories. The themes of Life Beliefs and Afterlife are fully developed in a short book On Life After Death (85 pages, 2008) by Kübler-Ross.

Chapter 3 (The Outer World of Grief) is devoted to practical affairs like Anniversaries, Sex, Body and Health, Clothes and Possessions, Holidays, Letter Writing, Finances, Age and Closure. Taking care of oneself is emphasized. Writing letters to the deceased is said to be therapeutic. Sexual feelings in men immediately after experiencing loss are explained as expression of loneliness and just wanting to be held by their partner. The last sentence of the chapter: "You don't ever bring the grief over a loved one to a close."

Chapter 4 (Specific Circumstances) sheds light on Multiple Losses, Disasters, Suicides, Alzheimer's and Sudden Death. There is a section on Children, who are mostly left out of the grieving process by elders even though they feel pain as deeply as adults.

Chapter 5 (The Changing Face of Grief) is short. It presents a sad tale of depraved modern life where one dies an institutional death instead of dying in the midst of loved ones, at home.

Who should read this book? Anybody who has lost someone, or shall lose someone in the future. In other words, everybody. For somebody in grief, the book shall provide consolation that many others feel exactly the way you feel.

The book does not address the issue of how friends and family may help constructively. Nor does the book tell us how grief counselors or bereavement groups operate.

All in all, a good book!

Further pointers: Coping with a Divorce or Relationship Breakup and Grieving Divorce are nice articles. Some grief counselors recommend watching movies to help you move through the grieving process. Two lists: by Maria Grace and by Marty Tousely. Resources for Kids who have lost someone. "On Grief and Grieving" emphasizes the significance of talking to young children and answering all their questions related to the loss. An article on Divorce and How It Affects a Child.

The intensity of pain at losing one's child exceeds all other bereavements. The top-10 results in Google query: grieving the loss of a child paint the big picture in great detail. Organizations like Compassionate Friends and Bereaved Parents of USA offer support (click on "Resources" at these websites).

The Grief Recovery Handbook
The Action Program for Moving Beyond Death Divorce, and Other Losses

by John W James and Russel Friedman, 192 pages, 1998 (Amazon link).

The book describes a specific technique for recovering from grief with step by step instructions. A remarkable approach. Recommended for anybody who has suffered loss.

What is the technique?

Step 1: Find another person who is going through grief and strike a friendship with them with the explicit goal of following up with steps in The Grief Recovery Handbook.

Step 2: Do some homework. On a piece of paper, list all previous griefs and their intensity. This step is important because many times, we have other griefs to resolve before we are ready to resolve the latest one. As part of the homework, write down positive and negative points associated with the person or event associated with the loss.

Step 3: Both friends meet and take vows that whatever will be shared will go with them to the grave! In other words, whatever will be heard will be respected and kept secret!

Step 4: The two friends take turns to verbalize the positive and negative points they listed at home. While one friend is talking, the other friend simply keeps quiet, generating empathy and calmness. This session amounts to 'Opening Up' of the hearts — it heals both friends.

My Stroke of Insight

by Jill Bolte Taylor, 290 pages, 2009 (Amazon link).

Jill Bolte Taylor is a neuroscientist who suffered stroke in 1996 at the age of 37. Eight years later, she had successfully recovered to resume a normal life. Her experience with stroke and recovery was the foundation for her book 'My Stroke of Insight'. Her TED Talk went viral and her book was a New York Times Bestseller.

Jill Bolte Taylor provides a fascinating window into own brain. She gives detailed descriptions of her experience during the moments she recognized that she was going through stroke, the moments spent at the hospital when she was going through surgery, and time spent with her mom when she was recovering.

The one thing I remember from the book is her description of two different parts of the brain — the holistic and the reductionist. These are popularly known as the right half and the left half of the brain, respectively. Jill describes how she could sense 'energy' all around her — she could distinguish between peaceful and agitated persons who came to meet her in her hospital room. At the same time, she could see the left part of her brain in action as well — the logical, rational part of the brain that cognizes, recognizes, categorizes, remembers old habit patterns and generates reactions in us, thereby suggesting plans of action to us.

On the whole, the descriptions of the right half and the left half of our brains have some similarity to experiences described in spiritual books. An interesting book to read.

Many Lives, Many Masters
The True Story of a Prominent Psychiatrist, His Young Patient, and the Past-Life Therapy That Changed Both Their Lives

by Brian Weiss, 221 pages, 1988 (Amazon link).

Brian Weiss was a hypnotherapist with an intriguing experience that changed his life. While hypnotizing one of his patients, in response to an open ended question about her past, the patient started describing herself as another person in a different time and place. Her descriptions were vivid and detailed. This phenomenon continued to happen session after session. In each session, the patient also used to describe her own dying moments, her experience after death in which she came in touch with 'Masters' who guided her to another life.

After some sessions with her patient, Brian Weiss started believing that there is some merit to the idea of rebirth. He was convinced that his patient was actually describing her own past lives! Brian encountered similar phenomena with many other patients — under hypnosis, they all described themselves as other persona in different times and places.

The idea of rebirth is controversial. Going public with his experiences as a hypnotist could possibly jeopardize his career as a hypnotist. Still, Brian Weiss went public and shared his findings through his book 'Many Lives, Many Masters'. The book was well received and Brian is now famous for doing 'past life regression therapy'. In other words, he hypnotizes his patients who sometimes start visualizing their "past lives".

The mechanisms underlying hypnotherapy are not well understood. Hypnotherapy treatment is covered by health insurance plans for deaddiction (smoking and weight loss for example), sexual problems and pain management. How exactly it works is still a mystery. 'Past life regression' adds a new twist to the mystique of hypnotherapy.

Age of Propaganda
The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion

by Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson, 432 pages, 2001 (Amazon link).

Written by two psychologists in plain English. It explains techniques employed by individuals, advertizers and mass media to influence us. Many examples from psychological studies are quoted.

© Copyright 2008—2018, Gurmeet Manku.