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Ch-7: Harmonious Functioning Creates Peak Learning, Performance, and Happiness

Part 3:Delayed Effects of Harmonious Functioning

Tom G. Stevens PhD
Psychologist/Professor Emeritus, California State University, Long Beach
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Chapter 7,  Part  3, from You Can Choose To Be Happy,  Tom G. Stevens PhD
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How does harmonious functioning affect self-esteem, health, and motivation?

Section Contents:


Harmonious functioning increases liking and motivation for activities 

 Harmonious functioning and love
 Examine activities where you lack motivation



The three immediate outcomes of harmonious functioning--peak learning, peak performance, and peak happiness--are usually followed by three delayed outcomes. These delayed outcomes are less certain, but can have powerful effects over time. These delayed outcomes include increased liking for the activity, increased self-esteem, and increased physical health. Increased liking for the activity per se causes us to want to do it more. [This increased liking for the activity per se is called intrinsic motivation).

HARMONIOUS FUNCTIONING DRIVES LIKING UP--overstimulation and understimulation drive liking down

For any activity, experience, object, or person, harmonious functioning increases our liking and overstimulation or understimulation decreases our liking. This is one of the most important principles of motivation and is at the bottom of most of our likes and dislikes.

Harmonious functioning increases our liking and intrinsic motivation. When we enjoy doing something we will probably want to do it again. If we don't enjoy it, we probably won't. Enjoyable and meaningful activities become self-reinforcing or intrinsically motivated. We do them because we enjoy doing them. Research evidence from many types sources support this general hypothesis (Staats, 1968; Brehm, J. W. and Self, E. A.,1989).

PRACTICE: Compare activities you like to those you dislike. Think about something with which you are fascinated. It could be watching a TV show or movie, listening to music, solving a puzzle, participating in a sport or interesting conversation, or it could be almost anything. Compare your motivation for doing one of those activities where you have functioned more in the zone to an activity that has been too confusing or too boring in the past.

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Harmonious functioning and love. Harmonious functioning causes us to love its perceived causes. What activities do you love? What activities do you dislike? Compare the relative amount of time spent "in the zone" between those you love and those you dislike.

Sometimes the activity is more exclusively mental. We may be appreciating a sunset or be in tune with it. It may seem that we are being passive, but actually our mind is active and functioning harmoniously. Many passive activities we enjoy are like that--music, reading, TV, concerts, absorbing nature, or people watching. We can come to love nature, art, music, or any of these events or activities associated with this mental activity of appreciating, learning, or absorbing.

Our feelings for another person can also be caused by our harmonious functioning when we are with them or thinking about them. When we are in harmony with the other person--having fun together, appreciating something about the other, communicating harmoniously, or having harmonious sex--then our feelings of closeness and attachment grow. These short-term feelings of closeness contribute to an overall feeling of love.

Why do people fall out of love? Clients often wonder why they no longer love someone they once adored. The cumulative effects of many small disharmonies can undermine a feeling of love--especially when they are not offset by positives. When we are in disharmony--feeling controlled, arguing, getting in a rut, being frustrated, feeling hurt, or feeling guilty--our feelings of distance grow. ("Distance" is another word for resentment.) Our overall feelings of love decrease.

Sherry and I have learned to pay careful attention to these little weak, daily feelings of closeness and distance. We know that over the long run they have a powerful effect on our overall feelings of love that we feel for each other. Whenever we feel distance (resentment), we usually take immediate steps to resolve the problem and get the closeness back. These daily feelings of closeness nurture our love and marriage. It really works! We have a marriage that is so special and feels so good, that we are both willing to be cooperative in order to keep that feeling alive.

We also teach our clients how to monitor and correct this emotional distance. Clients with relationship problems have often found this lesson to be one of the most valuable insights they have obtained from therapy.

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Many of us believe that people are born to like or dislike math. Yet, math interest--like all interests--is essentially learned. How? Look at your own experience. Do you like or dislike math? What experiences have you had that caused you to like or dislike math? I have often asked my classes these questions. Typically, half my students say they dislike math. They almost always tell of many bad experiences with it. Often the original cause was being in math situations which were too challenging for their current knowledge. Often the cause was never giving math a chance because they had heard others make negative comments about math or about their math abilities. By never getting involved, they remained bored and unskilled at math. Disharmonious functioning can produce a strong dislike of math even though it was not the math itself which caused the bad experiences. It was the lack of optimal learning conditions and optimal challenge.

I have often asked my classes how many people had radically changed their degree of interest in math. Many students had formerly disliked math and now love it. Usually, these students tell me that they began liking math as a result of one class in which they started doing well in math. In that class the challenge was more optimal than in the past.

One person told me that he had hated math all his life. He had been told by a high school teacher that he would never do well in math. Later, he took a college math class with an instructor who helped him understand math. He liked it so well he took a second math class. Today that person has a PhD in engineering and is an engineering professor. He loves math and is an expert!

Once we learn the harmonious functioning principles, we can function harmoniously doing almost anything (we believe in) that we formerly disliked. We can give up the old belief that the activity is inherently too negative, too difficult, or too boring. For example, we can give up the belief that our genetic math ability or intelligence is too deficient to like the math. Math interests and math skills are learned; maximum performance, learning, and interest result from reaching a state of harmonious functioning while learning math. We can learn to like and do almost any (constructive) activity well--if we create the proper learning conditions. I may say that I don't like something or don't do it well, but I never say that I can't like it or can't ever do it well. That belief needlessly lowers my self-confidence.

Examine activities where you lack motivation. Consider the example of students who lack motivation to study. Some students are confused and overwhelmed by the material and do not know how to overcome this confusion. They experience the big three negative outcomes of overstimulation--anxiety, low learning, and low performance. Other students mentally shut down either because they reject the material as too difficult or because they already know it too well. They experience the big three negative outcomes of understimulation--boredom, low learning, and low performance.

In either case, the student experiences a negative emotional reaction which becomes associated with studying that subject. This negative attitude may even undermine the student's enjoyment and motivation for studying all subjects. Ultimately the student may come to dread studying and become unmotivated. We often call this state, burnout. Has this happened to you in some activity? We can reverse burnout by getting back into the zone.

Instead of the word "burnout," use the word "unplugged."
If you become unplugged, plug yourself back in
by making the activity challenging again.

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Use these tools to take responsibility for your own interest and learning. What do you do if something you are trying to learn is too difficult or boring? Do you take responsibility for your own interest and learning--or blame it on the teacher or book? People who have successful mental strategies for coping with too complex an input can get a more optimal match between the input and their mental abilities. Following are some methods to simplify inputs that are too complex.

We are building a cognitive tree of knowledge in our minds. The main branches are the more abstract concepts and the small branches are the more concrete concepts and sensory images. An example I often use is the biological


If you are too CONFUSED studying or trying to learn new ideas:


• Create a simple overview of the subparts--such as a diagram or outline. Try making a diagram showing the major parts.

• Break a complex problem into smaller, simpler parts. Then cope with each part, one at a time.

• Look up terms or concepts you are confused about. Often a book uses terms that the author assumes we understand--and we don't. It may be from a previous chapter or course. If that happens, look it up--it is time well spent! Or as a last resort, get help from someone who is an expert or has done it successfully already.

• If the input is too abstract, invent an example. The more concrete and sensory-related the example, the easier it is to understand. Sensory, concrete data is the root of all knowledge and understanding.

• Create a visual representation of an abstract or complex set of relationships. For example, draw a diagram or try to map relationships. Or find an analogous real life working model. A teacher trying to show students how electricity works may use a plumbing analogy of water running through pipes. Mathematical symbols are understood better when graphed–graphing is a key to intuitively understanding math.

• Use or create a story with meaning to organize and remember events occurring over time. For example, make a mental movie of historical events in which you picture yourself as the star.

• Use comparison and contrast to find the similarities and differences between two ideas you are confused about. List all of the main features of each idea and compare the two ideas on each feature or dimension.

• Relate to other theories or knowledge from other fields that you know better. Often the same principles will apply and you cannot only understand the new area better, but you will be broadening and strengthening your own general theories.

Keep relating new information to both more concrete data and a more abstract overview.

tree of animals. The concept "animal" is at the top. At the next level are "mammals," "fish," "reptiles," etc., until we get to the more concrete levels of "dog," "cat," "snake," "trout," etc. Our brain contains many knowledge hierarchies such as this; because, it is such an efficient way to learn, remember, and use knowledge. That hierarchical knowledge tree is what understanding is. Building our own knowledge trees and building our own theories at a fun rate will keep us in a state of harmonious functioning much of the time.

We can also develop strategies to generate stimulation and interest when the input is too slow, simple, or boring. These strategies often depend upon our adding internally generated input to the situation. We can create our own thoughts or activities which fill the gaps left by the understimulating activities or inputs. Choose how you feel by using one of these strategies.

If I am in a boring meeting, but cannot afford to mentally or physically leave, I follow the discussion and mentally associate it with related topics to increase my interest. I will think about the people involved, their communication styles, other approaches to solving the problems, or related topics. Viewing the situation from these other points of view not only makes the meetings more tolerable for me, but it also allows me to make contributions from these unique perspectives. When I start to get bored, I remind myself that I will stay bored only if I choose to allow my mind to remain understimulated.


If you are TOO BORED or UNINVOLVED in learning or doing a task,


• Did you tune-out because the input was too complex, new, or confusing? If so, admit it to yourself, and use methods such as those above to get yourself re-engaged with the input.

• Focus on how unpleasant and unproductive the situation is to change it. Would you rather be bored or use your mind to think of related topics?

• Think about an unrelated interesting topic. You can mentally escape by focusing on some unrelated, but mentally stimulating topic. However, you will not learn the topic at hand.

• Generate your own associations with the topic. Look at an old idea from a new perspective to immediately engage your interest or even humor. Think of a new way to use the information in your life. Or think of an interesting topic you can associate the current input with. Use the learning techniques suggested for difficult topics such as compare and contrast or generating your own examples.


Through mental skills such as these, we can create an optimal level of challenge for each task we are engaged in. This is how we can choose to be happy and effective in almost any learning situation. Once we experience these positive outcomes, we start looking forward to the activity that was formerly too stressful or too boring.

Stress and boredom are not inherent to any input,
they occur in our minds and can be corrected in our minds.

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HARMONIOUS FUNCTIONING CAN INCREASE OUR SELF-ESTEEM--prolonged negative emotions can decrease it 

How do you feel after a state of harmonious functioning? Don't you notice that you feel mentally and even physically stronger? After being in the zone during any activity, we usually feel an increased sense of mastery over the activity or task. We feel stronger after we have struggled and made progress just to know that we have met the challenge.

When we are in a state of anxiety or boredom, we tend to feel less competent. Suppose Scott spends 80 percent of his life being in (or near) the zone versus 10 percent feeling bored and 10 percent anxious. On the other hand, suppose Jason spends 30 percent of his time in (or near) the zone, 30 percent anxious, and 40 percent bored. Think of the cumulative effects on their self-esteem and their overall happiness in life.

How much time are you spending in these three different states of being more in the zone versus overaroused or underaroused? What effects is it having on your self-esteem and happiness?


SHAQ Research Results: Learning Skills


�� Three of the 14 Academic Success scales were based upon the ideas in the Harmonious Functioning (HF) model of learning (listed below). The combined scales correlated with college GPA, .29. All 14 scales together correlated with college GPA, .46.


The three Harmonious Functioning-related learning scales follow:

1. Build mental structures (theories, models,etc.). This scale correlated with Happiness, .30; with Low Depression, .13; with Low Anxiety, .20; with Low Anger-Aggr, .13; with Relationships, .19; and with Health, .12; with Income, .17; with Education, .17; and with college GPA, .25.

2. Underlying, review, mental mapping. This scale correlated with Happiness, .36; with Low Depression, .16; with Low Anxiety, .27; with Low Anger-Aggr, .22; with Relationships, .25; and with Health, .21; with Income, .20; with Education, .27; and with college GPA, .27.

3. Math, science interest underlying principles. This scale correlated with Happiness, .22; with Low Depression, .18; with Low Anxiety, .09; with Low Anger-Aggr, .16; with Relationships, .10; and with Health, .12. with Income, .09; with Education, .10; and with college GPA, .18.


�� Though most people think of academic learning and emotions as being very separate phenomena, the HF model posits that we have one brain that doesn’t radically separate academic situations from situations that people associate more with emotions. So it is no surprise that cognitive learning skills are also related to emotional well-being. Thinking well helps solve problems and improve learning of all types—including personal ones.


Note: For all correlations, p < .0001 and Ns ranged from 270 to 540.


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PROLONGED HARMONIOUS FUNCTIONING CAN IMPROVE PHYSICAL HEALTH--prolonged negative emotions can deteriorate it

Many studies have shown that prolonged negative emotions increase health risks for heart problems, cancer, and many other diseases. On the other hand, time spent in activities which increase harmonious functioning in physical systems increase health. The epidemiologist Ralph Paffenbarger Jr has studied the health of several thousand Harvard graduates for over 30 years. He has concluded that people who participated weekly in three hours of vigorous sports activities such as tennis cut their risk of death from all causes in half. Dr. James Blumenthal conducted a five-year study on 107 heart patients. He found that those who participated in weekly stress-management/group therapy meetings to reduce sadness, hostility, and anxiety had only a 9% heart attack rate compared to 21% who had daily exercise and 30% who had normal care. Being happy helps us to be healthy.

Anger, anxiety, and depression have negative effects on our immune system. We are only beginning to learn the beneficial effects of prolonged positive emotions. I believe that we will find many more. When our mind and body systems are functioning in harmony (the way they were "designed" to), then they tend to last. But when a system functions in disharmony or gets too little use, it deteriorates. "Use it (right) or lose it" seems to be an accurate summary of how every system in our mind and body works(6).



6.  See Cohen, Sheldon and Herbert, Tracy (1996); Ader, Robert and Cohen, Nicholas (1993) for reviews of psychological factors effects on health.


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