Serenity and Inner Peace: Lifestyle

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Serenity and Inner Peace: Lifestyle

Live for Today

Living for today is a recommendation that follows from several of the approaches discussed in this series. Some people assume that the recommendation advocates a light-hearted, carefree, devil-may-care attitude and complete avoidance of any thought about yesterday or tomorrow. Others are inclined to think it includes learning from the lessons of the past, and planning for the future, but not wasting time and emotional effort worrying about them. Several measures of time perspective or time orientation have been developed. For example, the 28-item Temporal Orientation Scale has been used in several studies with traumatized individuals (adult victims of childhood incest, Vietnam war veterans, and residents of California that were devastated by fire), and past temporal orientation (focus on past life experiences) predicted elevated levels of distress long after the traumatic experiences.

Zimbardo’s Stanford Time Perspective Inventory appears to be the most widely used assessment of time perspective. Empirically developed, the scale includes 56 items that clustered into five factors:

Past-negative (past experiences still have the power to upset the individual, which can lead to regret and bitterness)
present-hedonistic (dominated by present pleasurable impulses; reluctant to postpone feeling good now for the sake of greater gain later)
future (ambitious, focused on goals, busily creating “to-do” lists)
past-positive (nostalgic about pleasant experiences in the past, close contact with family)
present-fatalistic (feel trapped in the present, unable to change inevitable bad future)
One study in Scotland of Zimbardo’s time perspective and correlates of well-being is of special interest to those interested in serenity and inner peace. Mindfulness was measured with the MAAS developed by Brown & Ryan; subjective happiness was assessed with a widely-used 4-item happiness scale developed by Lyubomirsky. Past-negative time perspective was strongly and negatively associated with both happiness and mindfulness, past-positive perspective was moderately but significantly and positively associated with happiness. However, they also analyzed for a “balanced time perspective” (defined as moderate to high scores for past-positive, present-hedonistic, and future perspectives; relatively low scores for past-negative and present-fatalistic perspectives). Those with a more balanced time perspective were significantly more mindful and happier.

The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That will Change Your Life (Zimbardo & Boyd, 2009) is the latest and most thorough update concerning the Time Perspective Inventory and related research. You can now take the Time Perspective Inventory on the web (see More relevant to serenity and inner peace, and after decades of time research, Zimbardo and Boyd now emphasize the value of a “balanced time perspective” (again, high in past-positive, moderately high in future-time and present-hedonistic, and low in past-negative and present-fatalistic). The latter part of the book focuses on research and examples supporting the value of such balance, as well as practical advice for promoting it. As noted above, many in AA are similarly inclined to focus on learning from the lessons of the past, and planning for the future, but not wasting time and emotional effort worrying about them. In short, a balanced time perspective involves being high in past-positive, moderately high in future-time and present-hedonistic, low in past-negative and present-fatalistic, learning from past mistakes, and positive planning for the future.

Pursuit of a simple life

As I examined balanced positive psychology and serenity and inner peace in more detail, I started thinking a lot about being thankful for what I already had, and about not always trying to accumulate more. The “simple life” seemed more and more appealing. Whenever thinking about acquiring something else, I asked myself if I really needed it, or if the novelty would soon wear off and I’d start pursuing something else. Most of the time the pursuit of yet another acquisition was forgotten. A recent search of the psychological literature for “simple life” yielded precious little of note. There is a fairly active movement in the general population promoting “voluntary simplicity”, but a search of the relevant literature indicates that it involves much more than one might be interested in pursuing in regard to serenity (among other things, recycling, limiting TV viewing, composting, eating organic foods, and living a spiritual life). Elgin (1993) appears to be the guru of “voluntary simplicity”, contending that it involves living more deliberately, intentionally, and purposefully — in short, to live more consciously. One couldn’t help but notice the similarity in some ways between simplicity and mindfulness.

In an intriguing and related study, Schwartz & colleagues developed a 13-item “Maximization Scale”. “Maximizers” attempt to maximize their outcome in any choice situation (and may experience regret if they don’t feel they made the best choice out of many), while “satisficers” simply seek an outcome that is “good enough” (that is, beyond some threshold of acceptability). Maximizers are more likely to agree with statements indicating that they never settle for second best; when they watch TV they channel-surf, often scanning through the available options even while attempting to watch one program; and that they treat relationships like clothing, in that they expect to try a lot on before they get the perfect fit. Several additional studies then indicated that maximizing was negatively correlated with standard measures of happiness, optimism, self-esteem, and life satisfaction; and positively correlated with measures of depression, perfectionism and regret (note: most of these correlations were between .40 and .70, which is not bad). Further, maximizers were less satisfied with consumer decisions, more likely to engage in social comparison (“keeping up with the Jones’s”), more adversely affected by upward social comparison (keeping up with Bill Gates?), and more likely to experience regret following participation in a bargaining game. So, don’t worry, be a satisficer and as a result be relatively serene.

Appreciating Nature/Pets

Responses on the Serenity Inventory related to nature, the outdoors and sunshine correlate moderately well with overall serenity score. Appreciation of nature is especially central to Native American spirituality, healing and wellness. Apparently many Native American elders contend that native people were spared annihilation so that they can be the driving force in saving Mother Earth (with whom they do have a very close relationship).

Research concerning “seasonal affective disorder” (“SAD”) clearly indicates the mental health benefits of exposure to sunlight, especially during the winter months. Barbara Fredrickson’s book “Positivity” includesan interesting discussion of being outdoors and connecting with nature, which was reminiscent of our recent research at Viterbo relating serenity to time spent outdoors. From the nursing perspective, Hansen-Ketchum, Marck & Reutter suggest that contact with nature has direct health benefits, including more effective stress management, improved cognitive functioning, sense of community belonging, and accelerated recovery from illness. From the perspective of environmental psychology, Herzog & Strevey surveyed 823 college students in a complex study of contact with nature, sense of humor, and psychological well-being. Such contact was best associated with “effective functioning” (attentive, focused, alert, flow experiences, etc.). In addition, contact with nature was moderately but significantly related to positive affect or mood, personal growth, and being “at peace” (satisfied, relaxed, comfortable, and positive). Further, the combination of contact with nature and sense of humor best predicted overall psychological well-being. So get outside more…

In the earlier version of the Viterbo Serenity Survey, responses to the statement “having a dog or a cat hanging around is a good thing” also correlated moderately well with overall serenity score. Numerous studies indicate the potential benefits to health and well-being associated with having a cat or a dog (lower blood pressure, more rapid improvement from cardiac disease, ability to handle stress, the proven benefits of therapy dogs, etc.). On the other hand, there are some disadvantages to having a pet (slight risk of getting diseases from them, they insist on getting in your face when you’re trying to write, somebody has to change the cat litter, etc.). We have two dogs and a cat, and it works for us. However, the benefits and risks of having a pet depend on the individual, and it’s a decision to be considered carefully. Having a few plants around might be worth considering as well. It works for us.

Social Serenity

Since I really couldn’t find exactly what I was looking for in psychology (information regarding social and interpersonal competence that I could link to serenity and inner peace), I started thinking about other sources of relevant information. The phrase “how to win friends and influence people” popped into my head, reminiscent of a book of the same name by Dale Carnegie (1937, reissued in 2009). It’s somewhat surprising how many people today have never heard of it. Considered a self-help motivational book primarily from the business perspective, it is one of the most popular self-help books ever written, having sold roughly 15 million copies to date. It’s packed with practical information concerning ways to:

“Handle people” (don’t criticize, condemn, or complain about them; give honest and sincere appreciation, not simple flattery; arouse in the other person an “eager want” by focusing on what they want, not what you want)
“Make people like you” (become genuinely interested in other people; remember that a person’s name is the sweetest and most important thing to them; be a good listener, encourage others to talk about themselves; talk in terms of what the other person is interested in; sincerely make the other person feel important)
“Win people to your way of thinking” (the only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it; respect the other person’s opinions, never say “you’re wrong” as that will automatically shut down meaningful discussion; if you are wrong, admit it emphatically; begin in a friendly fashion; get the other person to say “yes” immediately; let the other person do most of the talking and feel that the ideas are their own; honestly try to see the other person’s point of view and be sensitive to their ideas and desires; appeal to nobler motives and dramatize your ideas; throw down a challenge to reach a successful resolution to the problem)
In short, it’s relevant to many of the characteristics of social and interpersonal characteristics outlined above. In fact, and just for the record, I just re-read it and found many bits of useful advice. I’ve summarized the key points above, but one probably needs to read and re-read the book to understand and appreciate it.

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