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6. Bringing Out the Best in Ourselves
Throughout these chapters are applications of the Reasonable Person Model (RPM) designed to bring out the best in people. The focus is generally on other people. Yet, fostering our own reasonableness is essential if we are to engage effectively in personal and shared challenges. Doing so requires seeing the RPM needs for model building, being effective, and meaningful action not only as others’ needs but also as our own. When these needs are not met, it is not enough to simply acknowledge the occasional bout of unreasonableness—it would be helpful to recognize when it occurs, ponder what precipitated it, predict when it may occur again, and decide what we would do differently next time. In other words, we need to build a mental model of our own needs as well as the sensations, thoughts, and behaviors that impact them. Just as our mental models help us find our way around the external world (R. Kaplan, Chapter 2), self-knowledge gives us a map of our internal world that can guide us toward bringing out our best.
The Challenge of Knowing Ourselves
Yet, such self-knowledge is not easily gained. The ancients recognized this—of all the admonitions beseeched by the Oracle at Delphi, one of the few inscribed on the walls of her temple was “Know Thyself.” Current psychological research also recognizes these challenges, casting doubt on our capacity to know ourselves (Dunning, 2005; Wilson, 2002). When rating our skills, the majority of us think we’re better than average (which Garrison Keillor has satirized in his mythical town of Lake Wobegon where “all the children are above average”). In fact, our self-estimation is poor enough that others can sometimes predict our behavior better than we can predict our own (Dunning, Heath, & Suls, 2004). Additionally, in order to make sense of our own behaviors, we concoct stories that are far from the truth. In one striking example, researchers stimulated wide-awake patients’ motor cortices, causing them to move their hands. When asked why they moved their hands, the patients responded with answers like “I was waving at the nurse” (Lickerman, 2011).
Why is it so hard to know ourselves? One possible explanation arises from the divided architecture of our brains, with one part conscious and the other subconscious (Dijksterhuis & Nordgren, 2006). Both parts process vast amounts of information. However, the 40 bits per second for the conscious part is trifling relative to the subconscious part, which processes nearly 11 million bits per second (Nørretranders, 1998). The fact that our subconscious automatically processes this information without requiring our conscious direction relieves us of a heavy cognitive burden (Bargh & Chartrand, 1999). At the same time, the fact that its work is done outside of our awareness means that we often act in ways unpredictable and inexplicable even to ourselves. Were we able to pull back the veil from our subconscious minds, we might better know ourselves, but for better or worse, our conscious was not built to spy on our subconscious.
Reframing Self—Knowledge in Terms of Informational Needs
Given these challenges, the reader may wonder whether there is any possibility of gaining useful knowledge about oneself. In fact, it is not only possible but common to become aware of ourselves. However, there is also a common confusion that puts the emphasis on knowing one’s personality. Personality is an abstraction of innumerable thoughts and behaviors over our life span. Knowing whether we are courageous requires experiences that exemplify courage (or lack of it). Without such experience (and sometimes even with it), it can be very difficult to make an accurate assessment of personality. Alternatively, instead of guessing who we are, we could look to the conditions that bring out our best.
RPM posits that we are at our best when we are satisfying our informational needs for model building, being effective, and meaningful action. A needs-based approach to self-knowledge could have some advantages over a personality-based approach. First, instead of identifying abstract personality characteristics, assessing needs gives us something concrete to track. As a result, we can see how well we are doing over time and better understand influencing factors. Second, we can work to bring out our best not by changing our personality but by finding or creating environments to better support our needs.
The remainder of the chapter proposes some ideas for fostering our own reasonableness using a two-part needs-based approach. The first part covers the pattern-recognition process central to developing mental models of ourselves and using those models to assess our own RPM-based needs. The second shares some approaches to creating more supportive environments for ourselves.
Assessing Our Needs
Self—Assessment as Pattern Recognition
Assessing how well we are meeting our needs involves recognizing patterns in our thoughts (what do I think about my neighbor?), feelings (am I bored or engaged? focused or distracted?), actions (am I rushing to judgment?), and even others’ reactions to us (are my friends avoiding me?). Fortunately, our brain is prolific at recognizing patterns. It transforms a seemingly random mixture of lights, sounds, and smells into recognizable objects (S. Kaplan & Kaplan, 1982). And just as it extracts salience from the chaos of the external world, it can also find meaningful patterns in the sensations of our internal world.
As R. Kaplan (Chapter 2) describes, experience plays an important role in our ability to recognize patterns. First, we are more likely to remember things we experience more frequently. A pattern is not a pattern if it only happens once. Our brains are not wired to pick up on a single instance that may neither repeat itself nor reflect reality. It is unlikely we know that a Danaus plexippus is a monarch butterfly unless we happen to be a lepidopterist whose specialty utilizes such details. Second, by experiencing a variety of examples instead of the same one every time, we are able to extract the essence of the pattern so that we are not led astray by less salient features. Seeing a variety of butterflies would help us better identify different species. Put a different way, more and varied life experiences provide more input to the pattern-recognition process and improve its capability. This implies that we might facilitate our learning process by exposing ourselves to a variety of different experiences. Exploring a concept in different ways can be a source of both multiplicity and variety. For example, reading a book, watching a video, and talking to a colleague about a topic may reinforce learning. Likewise, diagraming, categorizing, reformatting, and rewriting in one’s own words all introduce variety into our exposure to ideas. Conversely, if our environments lack variation, we may want to seek out alternatives.
Being able to recognize patterns helps us make predictions. As we are exposed to our sequential patterns of thoughts, feelings, and actions, we learn to see what leads to what. Such prediction is by no means perfect. We sometimes see patterns where none exist (Kahneman & Tversky, 1972). We can have trouble predicting how we may feel in the future, tending to overestimate the magnitude of our feelings. For example, lottery winners do not feel nearly as good about their newfound wealth as they would have guessed before they had it. Our estimations can be equally bad in the other direction—professors who fail to achieve tenure don’t find it as terrible a situation as they thought it would be (Wilson & Gilbert, 2005).
Yet, prediction is essential to our functioning. Hawkins and Blakeslee (2005) have described prediction as “not just one of the things [our] brain does. It is the primary function of the neo-cortex, and the foundation of intelligence.” While not infallible, past patterns can help us begin to learn our behavioral tendencies and predict what we might feel or do in a variety of circumstances. Reflecting on our prior behaviors can help us recognize when we are acting “out of character” (e.g., a deliberate person making a hasty decision). When we feel like we’ve “seen that before,” we can better anticipate our reactions and decisions (e.g., first-time parents handle themselves very differently than they do when they have their second child). Being able to predict endows us with confidence about our assessments.
Editors’ Comment: Ivancich (Chapter 5) describes these sensations as pleasure/pain or pushes/pulls. Whatever the description, affect guides pattern recognition and, in turn, model building.
Making these many assessments may seem like a lot of navel-gazing; in fact a great deal of pattern recognition is happening outside of our awareness. What we are aware of is when an important match is made. This match elicits a sensation of familiarity about that pattern and may span a wide range of cognitive and emotional states. For example, based on some patterns of neural activity, our brains may elicit a sense of confusion, while different patterns may result in a sense of boredom. Such feelings can be thought of as the conscious outputs of our unobservable subconscious pattern-recognition process.
While we can’t control what’s going on in our subconscious, we can feed it with certain inputs or at least put ourselves in the right conditions to let our brain resolve the issue subconsciously. Such inputs might come in the form of the thoughts we nurture, activities we engage in, and the places we choose to visit. For example, when tackling a difficult task, one could consciously consider some alternatives and allow time for them to gestate. When the subconscious has finished processing, the answers bubble up to our consciousness. Such a mechanism underlies Boice’s (2000) recommendation to new faculty members to start before feeling ready and quit before feeling done. Different types of inputs may also be helpful. Problem solving may be aided by a long walk to take a break in a natural setting (Ivancich, Chapter 5; Sullivan, Chapter 4). Sometimes, providing less information may be an effective approach (Johnson, 2012; R. Kaplan, Chapter 2). Since the subconscious is out of our control, it may feel risky to rely on it. A helpful framing may be to imagine yourself not as a controlling dictator of our mental processes but instead as a playful participant.
Being aware of our feelings (or outputs), particularly those that are recurring, could be a fruitful approach to understanding our needs. A confluence of studies suggests that a mindfulness-based approach could be beneficial (Carlson, 2013). A key characteristic of mindfulness is to attend to one’s thoughts and feelings without evaluation. While this can be difficult to learn, doing so can help us overcome our desire to protect our egos and, in turn, see ourselves more clearly. Likewise, training in mindfulness may improve our capacity for self-awareness. This can have many benefits, as exemplified by Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Römer’s (1993) finding that aspiring violinists who practiced regularly and mindfully—recognizing and analyzing their mistakes and tinkering with possible solutions—were more likely to achieve virtuosic levels of playing. Such mindful tinkering not only applies to hobbies but can also be used to learn about ourselves.
Assessing Model Building
The first domain of RPM addresses our needs to understand, explore, and build mental models. Here we consider how recognizing states of clarity and engagement can provide clues as to how well we are meeting this need.
CLARITY, CONFUSION, AND BOREDOM
One of our fundamental patterns is our desire for clarity. As Ivancich (Chapter 5) explains in his chapter, we are drawn to contexts where we gain clarity and are repelled from situations where we lack it. We also tend to avoid situations that afford us little opportunity to extend our mental models and gain clarity. Recognizing these three states—clarity, confusion, and boredom—can give us clues as to whether our current conditions are supportive of model building. For example, when we are learning something difficult and experience the pain of confusion, it might serve as motivation to help us explore and allay that confusion. Knowing that confusion can give way to clarity helps us maintain our efforts. While such persistence can be beneficial in some cases, knowing when to say enough is also important. Unyielding confusion or boredom is often a good sign to move on. Finding the right balance between persistence and moving on is refined by our awareness of our state over many learning experiences.
These sensations often blur the line between cognition and emotion. Confusion is familiar not only as a cognitive state but also from the frustration that often comes along with it. Boredom is a distinct sensation from confusion but is also accompanied by negative affect. On the other hand, achieving clarity can be a thrilling, if short-lived, moment. The conscious feeling of suddenly having all the pieces of the puzzle fall together is familiar to many as the “Eureka!” or “Aha!” moment.
Yet, since our brains are working subconsciously, clarity often arrives undetected. Indeed, many of our mental models got there without our awareness. In such cases, we may not experience a visceral reaction associated with clarity, but we may recognize discrepancies—things that are discordant with the models we already have—when they arise. These might lead to a feeling of confusion, but the resolution could happen over an extended time without much notice. For example, the author felt quite confused on his first visit to Cairo because there were no street signs. To his surprise, a week later he was giving directions to the pyramids.
Though the process of achieving clarity may go undetected, the resulting clarity can still be detected. First, our level of clarity is often revealed by our attempts to communicate our ideas either orally or in writing. If these do not raise our self-awareness, we can also be mindful of the verbal and nonverbal feedback from our audience, which can make it (sometimes painfully) clear whether our ideas are getting across. We may also know when we’ve achieved clarity when we are able to recognize real-world instances of previously abstract concepts. Finally, clarity may be noticeable by what typically follows it—a desire to solve more elaborate problems that build on our newfound clarity.
ENGAGEMENT AND FLOW
Cognitive engagement is another factor that may provide us useful information. While Duvall (Chapter 20) describes engagement strategies focused on the external environment, the same principles could be applied in designing inward-looking engagement strategies. Is our current problem mind-filling? Does the problem keep coming back to our thoughts without any effort on our part? How interested are we to explore something new? If we see ourselves procrastinating, it may indicate a lack of engagement or a need for a reframing of our current problem.
A sense of engagement shares much in common with the peak experience that Csíkszentmihályi (1998) described as Flow. It is characterized by activities that have clear goals that foster complete focus on that activity without awareness of one’s physical needs. Time seems to fly by when engaged in such activities. Some classic examples include mountain climbers and computer programmers who spend inordinate amounts of time on their craft without feeling the task has been effortful (however, as we’ll discuss later, this may only appear to be effortless). While we may not be adventurers or interested in software, we can probably think of other activities where we’ve experienced being “in the zone.” Recognizing what fosters this state can help us identify activities that engage us in model building.
The second RPM domain tells us that a clear head is required not only to build models but also to use the resulting knowledge competently. It also tells us about our limitations. Being clearheaded requires directed attention, a finite and depletable resource. Not only do we use our attention to focus (for example, as you’re reading these words), but the resource also plays a vital role in our ability to show restraint, delay gratification, exercise willpower, and make decisions (S. Kaplan & Berman, 2010). Recognizing when we are depleted is necessary in order to take the measures that Sullivan (Chapter 4) describes to replenish it.
One way to assess our level of attention is to track the symptoms of directed attention fatigue (DAF) (S. Kaplan, 1995). Feeling distracted or being unable to focus are the most obvious of these. We can also consider how efficiently we are getting our work done, how much time we are wasting, or how often we are making careless mistakes. Likewise, the feeling of burnout is often associated with DAF. Less obvious symptoms are those that result from our inability to exercise restraint, such as being irritable, impatient, or uncivil. We may also be unable to prevent ourselves from eating more ice cream, pry ourselves away from web surfing, and other such failures of willpower. Paying attention to a confluence of such factors may help us recognize DAF as the common cause. If so, a walk in the woods may be in order!
Editors’ Comment: As Sullivan (Chapter 4) describes, attention is an inhibitory process. That is, attention is not a spotlight on the object of interest but instead acts as a blinder for everything else. Thus, distracting environments can be costly.
Diminished attentional resources can also be linked to recent behaviors. For example, engaging in attention-demanding tasks such as writing a paper or teaching a class could lead to a distracted state later on. Likewise, making a decision sometimes requires eliminating undesirable options. Making too many such decisions can use up our attentional resource and reduce the capacity for self-control (Vohs et al., 2005, 2008). While it is often difficult to be aware of the role that recent events play in our current outlook, knowing the cost of our behaviors may help us use our attentional resource more wisely.
Since powers of concentration vary greatly between people, it is helpful to establish what we consider a baseline of our own normal amount of focus. Then, as we traverse the focus-distraction spectrum, we can have a better sense of our level of directed attention fatigue. Remembering such details can be difficult, so it may be helpful to keep a log of our self-assessments or use a tool such as those available at http://www.quantified-mind.com, which uses psychological tests of attention (e.g., digit-span backwards) and keeps track of your results over time. Having such a record can help us answer questions we have about our own behaviors (e.g., Does watching TV make me less attentive the next day?). This small experiment-based approach is discussed further at the end of the chapter.
The third domain of RPM suggests that we derive satisfaction from using our knowledge and skills to make a difference. We are likely familiar with moments in our lives when we have engaged in something bigger than ourselves. Equally familiar is our sense of being helpless, hopeless, and alone. Paying attention to these senses is one way to assess whether we are engaged in something meaningful. A sense of purpose in our activities can provide us the impetus to engage in challenging works. Often in the context of a community, such efforts may involve developing relationships with others and both giving and receiving help. However, meaningful action need not be large or complicated; doing a small favor for a neighbor can be deeply satisfying.
Editors’ Comment: This nicely shows how model building and meaningful action are mutually supportive. Making a difference is aided by predicting one’s impact, while model building requires feedback about the difference one’s actions make.
Our sense of meaning is likely to wax and wane—we may feel deeply satisfied one day but question our endeavors on another. Yet, purposeful efforts require perseverance. As Bardwell (Chapter 7) points out, engaging in meaningful action requires good vision and clarity around “where we are going.” Part of the challenge is our inability to predict whether our efforts today will make a difference tomorrow. However, since prediction is aided by past experience, reflecting on prior endeavors can help us build a model of which pursuits gave us a sense of meaning and how long it took for such efforts to come to fruition. When possible, getting explicit feedback about the impact of our actions can both motivate and help us alter our path as necessary (Bollich, Johannet, & Vazire, 2011). Clarifying our own narrative solidifies our sense of purpose and improves our well-being (McAdams, 2001; Pennebaker & Seagal, 1999). It also can have the added benefit that a clear story could help others struggling with similar issues.
When we do not have the experience to envision clearly, it is useful to turn to the wisdom of others. Those with experiences in relevant domains can expand our mental models and help us see together what we could not see on our own. This also engages the talents of the underutilized, such as the elderly (Wells & Pillemer, Chapter 10), who appreciate being involved. Meaningful actions are not accomplished in isolation—sharing, listening, and helping are necessary for both seekers and keepers of knowledge.
Summary of Assessment Approaches
Table 6.1 provides a range of questions we might ask to assess our satisfaction of informational needs. While it is a summary in terms of the three domains of RPM, the three rows also reflect dimensions that cut across those domains. First are the patterns we notice in our own thoughts and feelings. Patterns of our own behavior form the second dimension. The third category of patterns is the reactions of others.
Constantly monitoring such questions could indeed be a heavy cognitive burden, creating a source of confusion and draining the very attentional resource we seek to preserve. These costs make it a very natural tendency to avoid such monitoring. However, these queries are presented not as something to be questioned with great frequency but rather as a framework for self-reflection. We are most likely to self-monitor when we are facing some internal struggle, perhaps a lack of focus or a sense of purpose. Instead of dealing with problems piecemeal and looking for a simple fix—as many self-help books tend to do—assessing our information needs gives us a more coherent perspective of where the problems may lie and a more holistic approach to addressing them. In practice, the reader may try out a question or two and move on to others if those are not helpful.
|Model Building||Being Effective||Meaningful Action|
|Thoughts, Feelings||Are things making sense or am I confused?||How well can I maintain focus?||What gives me a sense of purpose?|
|Am I engaged or bored?||How readily am I distracted?||Am I able to participate or do I feel helpless?|
|Behaviors||Can I use my new knowledge?||How efficiently am I working?||Am I making a difference?|
|How well am I sharing my knowledge?||Am I making careless mistakes?||Am I listening and treating others with respect?|
|Can I play with different ideas easily?||Am I being impatient?|
|Reactions of others||Do people understand what I’m talking about?||Are people enjoying my company?||Are people listening to me and showing me respect?|
Creating Supportive Environments
After we’ve assessed our needs, the next step is to better meet them. An oft-attempted approach is to work hard to change ourselves for the better. Yet as Duvall (Chapter 20) points out, those who make New Year’s resolutions know that this is easier said than done. Sticking with a familiar routine requires far less directed attention and willpower than starting a new one (imagine getting yourself to start going for a run every morning, rain or shine). Furthermore, our mental models for existing behaviors are well established, whereas we have no models for our newly resolved behaviors. Lacking both the necessary mental models and attentional capacity, we find ourselves returning to our old ways.
Instead of exerting willpower to change our character or behavior, the RPM approach is designed to find or create environments that support our needs to understand and explore, maintain a clear head, and engage in meaningful endeavors (Figure 6.1). Such environments are the subject of many of the chapters in this volume. R. Kaplan (Chapter 2) discusses contexts supportive of model building (e.g., allows self-paced exploration), while Sullivan (Chapter 4) describes environments that restore our attentional capacity (e.g., taking walks in natural environments). Several chapters (Gallagher, Chapter 8; Ginsburg, Chapter 9; Grese, Chapter 19) convey the circumstances under which meaningful action flourishes (e.g., civic processes that engage and respect the participants). Let us consider how we might apply RPM principles to create supportive environments for bringing out the best in ourselves.
A few simple guidelines can help us design our homes, offices, and other physical environments. First, “less is more” applies here as much as it does to communication (R. Kaplan, Chapter 2). Removing clutter and other distractions makes things easier to find, thereby reducing the load on our directed attention. Another load on directed attention is resisting temptations. A study of office workers found that those who kept candy out of sight were less likely to indulge (Painter, Wansink, & Hieggelke, 2002). Discovering our own temptations and removing them from our environment can limit unnecessary drain on directed attention (for example, the author does not keep ice cream in the house).
Second, consistency can be helpful in reducing the uncertainty in our environments. Since mental models rely on repetition, consistent patterns in our environments mean that we don’t have to solve the same problems over and over. For example, when things are where they’re supposed to be, we don’t need any effort to find them.
Finally, having views of nature out the window, indoor plants, or even pictures of nature can aid focus and restore directed attention (Berto, 2005; R. Kaplan, 2001). If we are fortunate enough to have a choice, places that are near green arboreal settings make it easier for us to get outside for a restorative walk. Since such settings also attract other people (Kuo, Sullivan, Coley, & Brunson, 1998), they can offer the added benefit of engaging with the local community.
People are another important dimension of our environments. Jim Rohn (1994) claims that “[We] are the average of the five people [we] spend the most time with.” While this might be a little extreme, our social circles do influence our personalities as well as our needs. They are sources of insight and misinformation, praise and critique, inspiration and frustration, and friendship and loathing. Therefore, making informed decisions about the people in our environments can impact our reasonableness. Another factor to consider is the number of people we regularly interact with. Isolation may sometimes be effective, but meaningful action generally involves others. Finally, contexts often place us in different roles. We may be educators in some contexts and students in others. Likewise, we may be leaders or followers, facilitators or participants, or in the majority or minority. While certain roles may draw on our strengths, engaging in a diversity of roles can be a source of insight and help develop empathy for people in other roles.
Time may not be an obvious parameter for designing environments, yet structuring our time wisely can help meet our needs. As we discussed earlier, making too many decisions can drain our attentional resource. Being completely unstructured in our schedule can create many choices for how to spend our time and may be detrimental. Therefore, setting up regular blocks of times for specific activities can help preserve cognitive resources by reducing the number of those choices. A fixed schedule also increases the predictability of our schedule, thereby reducing the cognitive load that results from uncertainty.
Editors’ Comment: There has been some emphasis on the importance of unscheduled time for children, who are seen as having too much structure in their lives these days. But the concept is no less apt for many overcommitted adults as well.
Time is usually allocated for specific tasks, but we can also dedicate time to broader categories. For example, including breaks in one’s schedule (or a regular time that is designated as “unscheduled”) is a proactive way to deal with mental fatigue. Creating a daily block of time for open-ended exploration has been helpful to many creatives, from Mozart to Martha Graham (Tharp, 2003). And having time for authentic interactions with others is central not only to meaningful action but also to building models from their insights.
Deciding an appropriate sequence of events can also be helpful. As we progress through our day, we use up our attentional resources (Danziger, Levav, & Avnaim-Pesso, 2011); therefore, it may make sense to schedule tasks that require more willpower earlier in the day. Activities that are more inherently interesting require less willpower (e.g., social media) and could be left for later in the day. When this is not possible, it can at least help to appreciate one’s own patterns for when to attend to different kinds of tasks. Small experiments, discussed below, may help us to figure out these patterns.
Model building rarely happens in a single day. Both comedian Jerry Seinfeld and academic mentor Robert Boice agree that writing a little every day is a key to success in their respective fields (Isaac, 2007; Boice, 2000). Working regularly allows for the multiple experiences necessary to create a rich network of connections between our ideas. For complex problems, working a little bit every day is more likely to lead to insights and solutions than cramming many hours into a single day. Doing so may be aided by making a reasonable estimate and setting up a schedule well enough ahead of time. Keeping track of how much time we spend can improve our estimates later.
Scheduling is not a panacea. Clearly, effort is required to follow a schedule. However, setting aside specific time in our schedules requires moving and removing other activities. In other words, how we schedule our time is a direct reflection of our priorities, and the very act of prioritizing may help overcome the barriers to following a new schedule. Table 6.2 provides a summary of approaches to create environments that support our informational needs.
|Model Building||Being Effective||Meaningful Action|
|Physical Environment||“Less is more”
Reduce clutter and provide consistency to make it easier to find what you’re looking for.
|Reduce distractions and temptations to minimize wasting attention.
Provide views of nature to restore directed attention.
|Natural areas attract others and afford the opportunity to interact.|
|Social Environment||Find social circles that are regularly nurturing.
Engage in a diversity of roles to develop empathy for others.
|Seek out social circles that do not waste attentional resources.||Avoid excessive isolation since making a difference usually requires engaging with others.|
|Temporal Environment||Work daily in brief sessions.
Make time for open-ended exploration.
|Regular, pre-planned blocks of time can reduce decision fatigue.
Including breaks reduces fatigue.
Sequence events based on your attentional changes throughout the day.
|Schedule time for interactions with others.|
Small Experiments in Assessment and Environmental Sampling
RPM suggests the kinds of environments that can bring out the best in people. Yet given human diversity, no environment can meet all needs for all people. Environments that support one person’s needs may be less effective for others. Solutions that are viable at one point in our life course may need to be rethought as we age. Since environments influence us in complex ways, we often cannot predict their impact on our needs. When impacts are uncertain, carrying out small experiments (R. Kaplan, 1996) may help us assess our informational needs and find supportive environments.
Editors’ Comment: Sullivan (Chapter 4) describes various small experiments that one could try in order to reduce mental fatigue.
Sampling different environments is central to the small experiment approach. We often do this naturally, trying out habitats, jobs, classes, and even other people (e.g., dating). We can expand on this by intentionally exposing ourselves to a variety of environments. Doing so can help us compare how different environments serve our needs. For example, we might compare the attentional costs of working in offices with and without windows.
Gaining such feedback about how the environment influences our pattern of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors is another pillar of the small experiment. Feedback may take the form of keeping track of time we’re spending on our projects, writing in a journal, taking online psychological assessments, or asking friends for feedback. All of these forms of feedback require a mindful engagement about our own patterns. As we reflect on this feedback, we can begin to distinguish between environments that support our needs and those that undermine them. Once again, recording these impacts of different environments on our needs is important not only to remember but also to make the fuzzy assessment in our minds more explicit and clear. Without some form of tracking, we have no basis for what to change.
In addition to comparing different environments, we could also make changes to our current environments to see if those changes are supportive. Often questions that start with “I wonder if” lead to useful changes without major disruption to our current patterns. The uncertain relationship between behavior and environment means that an iterative process—making a change, getting some feedback, appropriately refining the question, and repeating the process—may be helpful.
Assessing our needs and the contexts in which they occur can help us determine where we are most effective and feel a sense of purpose. Identifying supportive environments or exploring how we might beneficially alter them can help us achieve reasonableness, often at little cost. This may help us make decisions on a variety of scales. We might learn where and when to take breaks or what kinds of context make us feel more engaged. At a higher level, this approach could provide clarity on significant decisions such as where to live, choice of our work, and with whom to associate.
Helping Ourselves and Others
Though the focus of this chapter has been on bringing out the best in ourselves, many of the outcomes may be equally beneficial to others. One simple reason is that creating more supportive environments for oneself can also positively impact those who share the environments with us. For example, creating opportunities for meaningful interactions necessarily shares the benefit. Another reason is that complex problems require the concerted efforts of many, and working together goes much better when each of us has the capacity to bring our own best to the challenge.
This volume shares myriad such challenges: Bardwell’s (Chapter 7) work involves preventing burnout in highly motivated individuals, Wells and Pillemer (Chapter 10) find ways to involve the elderly in environmental projects, Gallagher (Chapter 8) fosters leadership among rural citizens who have little experience with it, and A. Kaplan (Chapter 17) helps his students see environmental issues in a nontraditional way. Each of these efforts requires both minding others (e.g., a teacher monitors his class) and helping others mind themselves (e.g., a nongovernment worker senses impending mental fatigue). By being mindful of our own needs, we can develop empathy for the needs of others and improve both. Knowing firsthand the time and frustrations of building models can help us appreciate others who are going through the same process. Likewise, recognizing our own symptoms of mental fatigue or helplessness may help us see it in others.
In this way, bringing out the best in ourselves is germane to bringing out the best in those we touch. Since each of us has common informational needs, the strategies addressed in this chapter could be applied to larger groups and communities. This matters, since each of us relies on our community for our own needs. We need to be heard and respected. We would like to get help when we need it. Yet, our communities depend on reciprocal relationships—being heard and listening, showing and being shown respect, helping and being helped. At our worst, we may be less inclined to give. Were everyone in such a state, communities would splinter. We might instead strive for a more desirable outcome where, in a virtuous circle, community helps us meet our needs and, at our best, we foster our community.
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