The Happiness of Questions: The Question of Happiness
Saturday, July 16, 2016
I woke up thinking about questions: What kinds of questions are there and how do they contribute to happiness?
Like a child I often find the gift of a question popping into my mind, and greedy to explore answers I jump onto Google as onto a roller coaster, ready for a great ride; one that might cause my stomach to flip flop or my hair to fly around me in winds of exciting or unexpected information. Curiosity, so primal, so driving, moves us to ask questions. And in the therapy room clients often brave the rocky waters of their own depths, asking themselves about their deepest motivations, their unrequited hungers, their fears and stuck places, and together we ask, how can life move out of its ruts and dark places toward lighter, freer, happier and healthier places?
When we ask a question we turn on the “electricity,” conducting it downstream toward new ways of thinking. Our inquiry may run into a knot of other questions that conduct us in new and often unanticipated directions. Sometimes our conduit leads toward greater clarity; sometimes toward greater befuddlement.
Lili is a one year old. I held her while she handled wind chimes on the deck, her finger tips asking questions: Will this thing hurt me? How does the sound happen and what are the different sounds that this wind chime can make, and what about its shapes, textures, tones? What happens when the wind blows? Babies start to ask questions with their bodies, their hands, their mouths. Is this food? Does that feel good? What is that water like to splash? What happens if I drop this bowl? The world is a fascinating supplier of cognitive, affective, and sensory stimulation. How to make sense of it all, let alone how to make sense of all of the things my baby body can do?
Many times, as adults, we forget to ask questions. Instead we make assumptions and accusations which short circuit our curiosity, our exploration, and our cooperative natures. Questions can make us happier interpersonally, as well as personally, when they lead us to a better understanding of why someone said or did what they did? Why something went down the way it did?
Curiosity is the primal drive to find answers, to understand how things work, to discover what lies beyond the next bend in the river and questioning is what curiosity does—by hand, by foot, by mouth, by reflection, by researching, and by asking out loud. Curiosity, and its iteration in those various forms, also acts as a connector. It connected us, ancestrally, with places that provided edible berries or mushrooms, or fish, or herds. Now questions lead us to food for thought, to new inventions, and into interesting and meaningful conversations with others.
Each question represents a quest. Not all questions may be answered best through verbal, explanatory methods. How does a chocolate ice cream cone taste? What does sex feel like? What kind of excitement will I derive from this roller coaster ride? Many of our curiosities and questions get revealed through our experiences in life. Parents, frustrated in their desires to protect their adolescent children from negative outcomes, often provide advice, lectures, consequences and so forth, as if that will satisfy the questioning, driven, seeking, curious young adult standing before them. It will not. We humans can acquire knowledge and we can acquire experiences and the two utilize different, albeit not unrelated channels or conduits that run between ourselves and the worlds we occupy.
Although one might categorize different kinds of questions in myriad ways, I want to borrow from some of the most basic species of questions. Start with the notion of closed-ended versus open-ended questions. Close ended questions typically have a monosyllabic answer like ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ “Did you steal the cookies from the cookie jar?” Sometimes closed ended questions seek simple factual answers, such as, “Is the laundry folded?”
But sometimes they provoke power struggles between individuals, such as when mom asks Terrence if he is lying about where he was, and he says, “No,” and thus, lies again. This can morph into mom accusing, “You’re lying!” And Terrence responding, “No, I’m not. You just never want to believe me.” They will lock horns unproductively and never get to the heart of the problem. Let’s say Terrence lied about where he was because he assumed his mother would not let him go to the carnival with one other friend on a school night. A productive line of questioning would address how the two might communicate and deal with the ever stretching cord of more maturity and responsibility going along with more freedom, or how to view school night priorities and when exceptions to the rule are allowable.
Stacked closed ended questions make us sound like lawyers, and make a good (terrifying) strategy if you want to deflate, if not to skewer someone: “Terrence, did you just lie right now? Terrence, did you lie about doing your homework last Wednesday? Isn’t it true that you also stole five bucks from dad earlier this morning? And in spite of that did I not allow you to go to the movies last Sunday with Amy? And did you even thank me for that? Etc. You get the point.” Although Terrence is your average teenager, bucking authority, wanting what he wants, not thinking about the consequences of most of his actions on his future, he is not a criminal, as this stacked close ended questioning implies.
Open ended questions are freeing, and often more collaborative. As an example, one spouse asks, ‘How can we make a vacation happen? Can we work together to figure out when and how we can do this?’ This avoids the common, and unpleasant conflict that arises when one member of a couple says, “I want a vacation.” And the other says, “We can’t afford it.” While the desire or need for a vacation and the cost of a vacation both constitute important variables that impact the taking of a vacation, they are completely different fruits, like those proverbial apples versus oranges.
As a parent, and as a therapist, I’ve concluded that one of the most powerful and helpful ways to influence others has to do with encouraging and empowering them to think, think, and think some more. We all know that reactivity—just responding as one would in a reflexive knee-jerk kind of way—can produce actions that don’t always express the dictates of one’s moral compass or highest sense of self. When emotions run high, the gas tank of thought process often falls to ‘empty,’ due to a ‘disconnect’ in brain functions. Speed is the enemy of awareness. And our need to react to emergencies occurs less frequently, for most of us, than our need to respond with thoughtfulness, care and precision.
Questions that actually use the word “think” or “thought” in them, steer listeners into their own cognitive cabinets, more deeply than they might otherwise scavenge. Questions might look like these: what do you think are the options you have in this situation? What actions do you think you can live with? What do you think might be the outcome of that particular action? What are your thoughts on how that might affect your future possibilities? Or even, ‘Have you thought deeply about this?’ And for Terrence, ‘what are your thoughts about lying as a way to cope with things that might disappoint you? ‘Do you think there are alternative ways we can discuss our perspectives on stuff you want to do?’
In the world of Twelve Step programs, a useful piece of wisdom, ‘Do the next right thing,’ cues many people to think about an action step before taking it. Not just considering the value of taking a drink, buying a scratch ticket, taking a pill, or screaming at the top of one’s lungs, but anything that can have a significant impact. What a powerful process, to ask oneself, “What is my next right thing?”
Interestingly, some research on the internet suggests that teachers of school aged children ask more questions about recall than questions that prompt thinking. (Teaching center at University of Nebraska—Lincoln; http://www.lamission.edu/devcom/ProbingQuestions.htm ). In an age where we can get facts at lightning speed on the internet, how much more useful it seems for our future generations to develop capacities for reflection, problem solving, and innovation rather than rote memorization.
There are many kinds of questions that require a respondent to ponder in different ways. A short run down of some main types: There are comparison questions: How is one thing similar or different from another? Application questions: How does something apply to a context different from that in which it originated, like, “How would a democracy function in a country ruled by an autocrat for a thousand years?” Deductive questions ask, given this situation and that situation, what might we conclude from the current one? (Timmy erupted in class when there were over ten other children and he exploded at the family reunion. What might we expect if we take him on a crowded day trip to Six Flags?” Inductive reasoning questions ask someone to think through a group of specific situations, events or outcomes, and induce/figure out what explains them. Evaluation questions require a judgment or opinion such as which job someone might take, given lots of different variables. Then there are problem solving questions: Johnny and Samantha both want to have their graduation parties on the same day. Many of the invited guests overlap. How can this be worked out? Divergent questions have no absolute answers and call for differing perspectives with divergent conclusions. These are mostly higher order questions that basically ask people what they think and how they think through things.
As a therapist who asks lots of questions, I asked my past thirty years of experiences how best I might conceptualize the kinds of questions I and my clients consider that yield the most comprehensive possibilities. What comes to mind first and foremost we might call phenomenological questions: How did you experience an interaction, an event, or a comment? How did you interpret it? What is your perspective on it? How does that fit into your narrative about your relationship, etc.?
Our “reality” gets made up, largely, of the ways in which we experience relationships, situations, and events. We have no access to absolute objectivity in any way at all. All of our experiences, whether scientific or very intimate, filter through our bodies—our senses, our nervous systems, our neocortical processes—as well as our past experiences, our storehouses of knowledge, our attitudes and orientations, and even, in science, through the instrumentation and experimental setups we create. We cannot help but experience so-called reality subjectively. The only way to counteract the tension between our inherent senses of rightness about our own particular experiences of life (including relationship dynamics, what is happening in our complex world, etc.) is to develop an openness to other perspectives and filters than our own.
In the therapy room, affective questions have vast importance. These concern how we feel about something. Some people have much more ability to articulate feelings than others. Women typically have had more encouragement and social support for the expression of emotional responses to situations than have men. Therapists can help others develop a language of feelings which serves many purposes, including the understanding of what drives us so persuasively. How many times have you or someone you know acted out in anger, when underneath it all, they felt a deep sense of hurt—diminishment, unworthiness, or unlovability?
Humans have the capacity to experience multiple feelings at the same time and this, in and of itself, can feel confusing. For example, a widow who adored her ill husband and woke at all hours of the night to care for him, feels relief, along with grief, when he dies. Then she feels guilty because of the relief. She wonders how she can remain a good person and tolerate the feeling of lightness around her shoulders. Does how we feel about something, when it sounds unacceptable to us, make us a bad person?
Feelings come and go. Some seem negative. Some positive. Some appreciative and some resentful. Still, we have this weather going on and sometimes it seems unpredictable. Still, feelings do not equal ‘doings.’ If we feel jealous of someone, we can learn to tolerate the feeling or utilize it to spur ourselves on toward our objectives. We do not need to undercut that person in order to make ourselves feel better.
Conceptual questions attempt to unpack the ways in which someone is thinking about something. Are there no exceptions? Are there any circumstances under which you would tolerate that? There is probably not a world of math in which 4 x 4 does not = 16 (major disclaimer: I am no mathematician). But is there no world in which euthanizing a consenting adult has merit?
How are you thinking about what happened to you? Getting laid off when you least expected it, or learning that your spouse wants a divorce? Do you blame your boss, your spouse, or do you turn to reflection to find your part in the situation? How does this hurt you? How does this help you? If you can’t do anything to correct the course things have taken, what can you derive from this awful situation that can move you toward healing?
And then there are action questions: What does one want to do? How can one execute a plan under chosen conditions? What are the outcomes one desires and how well might they be achieved given this course of action? How would things look if they were going better?
And then, the higher order principles/values questions: Even though you feel like punching him in the nose, what are the most important factors that will impact what you do and how important is it that your actions line up with your most cherished values?
High self-esteem has its basis in the ways in which we appreciate ourselves as we treat ourselves, and others, in our world. When we have high self-esteem we behave in alignment with our higher selves. When we have high standards for ourselves then we can function as our own worst critics when we express less patience, less honesty, less work ethic, less generosity, or less understanding and sympathy than we have the capacity and desire to express.
Values questions have potency, especially with one’s chaotic and often frustrating teenager: What traits do you have that make you a good friend? Whose interests were of concern when you insulted that new kid? How do you think a good son should act toward his grandmother? What do you think made it impossible for you to cooperate with the agreement we made?
One other kind of question that helps us to build and develop mastery—with regard to anything and everything—concerns feedback questions. Whether you are a bricklayer, a cardiac surgeon, a swimmer, a keeper of the hearth, a writer, an engineer or a player of games, feedback in the form of constructive criticism, expert coaching, good advice and the like, even sometimes unwanted criticism, when incorporated into repetitive practice, makes for expertise.
We can repeat the same mistake over and over again and get better at making that mistake. Or we can strengthen our physical, mental or emotional muscles while honing and refining our skills, focus and attitude. Asking for feedback from others might feel risky, but it will help bring us closer to the mark: How did I do this time around on filling out the paperwork? Did I improve my form in the breast stroke as you suggested? Did I get the perspective on this street scene more accurately in my picture? Did I manage to communicate my idea to you without sounding so judgmental? Did I accurately incorporate your ideas on our business plan?
Consider these questions of happiness:
Is happiness more a “being” or a “doing for you?”
In your experience does happiness flow from a positive attitude? From gratitude?
Do you experience happiness during moments of pure presence?
Is happiness experienced more as an intrapsychic or interpersonal phenomenon for you?
Is happiness an energy state that can be passed from person to person?
In your opinion, does happiness describe a group of phenomena like pleasure, utilizing oneself in fulfilling ways, and using oneself to the benefit of others?
Is happiness our default, our home, from which we often wander a long way? When do you wander off from your home of happiness? Have you thought about ways to return?