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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Yin and Yang of Affect

This article from the BBC got me thinking about an old conversation with Science Officer Alex Tokar. A few years ago Alex related an unintuitive theory to me. He explained that certain mental illnesses serve an evolutionary purpose for the species. The premise is that certain fragilities set us up to be metaphorical canaries in the coal mine. If some people are more prone to depression, perhaps they'll be the first to see that we should give up and run away from an unwinnable war. Or perhaps the more anxious among us will be the first to notice that an economy that doesn't produce anything is unstable by definition. And the most paranoid among us may be the first to notice that the government has repealed many civil liberties that we had taken for granted. All of these observations can be helpful to our society, and evolution may smile upon these traits. Those who think so far outside the norm as to be labeled "mentally ill" can serve an important function (if we listen to them) to those of us who tend to think inside the lines and may be blinded to dangerous realities.

(Please note: I am not so naive as to romanticize the disabling effects of mental illnesses. But this is a strengths-based model... so we're focusing on the upside here, not the hardship.)

The article I linked to doesn't actually mention mental illness, but it points out that "grumpiness" as opposed to "cheerfulness" actually has serious advantages. Researchers have demonstrated that people in a grumpy state of affect are able to process information more quickly and more accurately. They are also better observers and reporters than cheerful folk. However, this is not a one-sided finding. Happiness seems to promote creativity, flexible thinking and cooperation.

It would appear to me that we need a combination of both to thrive... that they fit together like white and black fields in the yin and yang symbol. Together, they dovetail and create a powerful whole. While each individual may be stuck being "happy" or "grumpy", each group of people ought to aspire to incorporate (and maximize) the skills associated with each side. It would be silly to label either side more important than the other.

An old colleague of mine, a moderately functional IT specialist named Ward, used to tell me that every good company should hire at least one crackpot... one guy that's really different. And that nutjob would provide a tremendous benefit to that company by thinking differently, predicting problems that no one else could foresee and making suggestions that no one else was likely to imagine. Ward, of course, was our company crackpot... so it stands to reason that he would have such an elegant theory at hand for his defense. Anyway, his theory holds water according to this model.

Most of what I'm saying seems like common sense and common knowledge. And yet, we still have a tendency to pathologize whichever end of the spectrum we don't inhabit. When it comes to the grumpy/cheerful continuum, those who sit in the soft blue glow of pessimistic rationality see our sanguine-hued brethren as muppet morons... While the red-cheeked optimists often look down with pity at the cranky Blue Meanies. One of the universe's laws is that of opposites attracting, and its utility seems obvious. We need to bond with other entities that complete us.

So why do we deride these potential partners? Why do we resent those who embody what we lack and need? Is it because they remind us of our inadequacies? Is it that we fear ceding power to the "other"? Certainly many of us resist allowing the "other" into our lives, preferring to find like-minded people to blend in with. It appears that "opposites attract" is directly countered by the universal truth that "birds of a feather flock together." What to do, what to do?



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