Pamela Paresky to speak on ‘Habits of a Free Mind’ for happiness in relationships, democracy


Zoe Kolenovsky
Staff writer

How do we become happy? The question seems simple enough, but its answer becomes much more complicated when factoring in complex interpersonal relationships and the challenges of living in a pluralist society.

Pamela Paresky will provide one answer for Chautauquans in her lecture at 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater. She has created a program called “Habits of a Free Mind: Psychology for Democracy and The Good Life,” which offers a set of teachable habits and practices for individuals who want to optimize their happiness in a complicated world.

“It’s a psychology necessary for democracy, but it’s also necessary for relationships,” said Paresky. “To lead The Good Life, our relationships are key.”

Paresky is currently the director of the Aspen Center for Human Development and a Senior Fellow at the Network Contagion Research Institute, and her work has been published in Psychology Today, The Guardian, The American Mind, The New York Times, among other publications. She holds a Ph.D. in human development and psychology from the University of Chicago, where her work focused on happiness, relationships, and the concept of “flow.”

“I started out in clinical psychology and pretty quickly realized that although I could help people who wanted to be less depressed or less anxious, or who wanted to manage a psychological issue better, I didn’t have the tools to help people be happy,” said Paresky.

Instead of going into private practice, she decided to stay at UChicago to study with social psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who pioneered the study of “flow.”

“This was in the 1990s, before the field of positive psychology was born,” explained Paresky. “Csikszentmihalyi had realized that when creative people become totally absorbed in their creative work, they tend to describe the experience as like being the flow of something, or being carried along as if with the flow of a river.”

This feeling of all-encompassing focus is what constitutes “flow,” also referred to as “one-pointedness of mind” or the psychology of “optimal experience.”

“You’re so engaged that you lose track of time, you don’t notice if it gets dark, you don’t hear extraneous noises … you don’t have any room in your awareness for anything outside of your sole focus — no room even for consciousness of self,” Paresky said.

Once “flow” was identified as an indicator of happiness, Paresky shifted her focus to discovering the conditions necessary to make that flow possible so she could teach others how to achieve it.

She determined that the “flow condition” requires a person to be “challenged enough above your skill level that you’re not bored, but … not so much above your skill level that you become anxious.”

But while this holds true for one’s creative pursuits, it becomes a bit tricker when applied to interpersonal relationships. Paresky explained this complication in terms of marital relationships: “Challenge has a completely different meaning in marriage. … Generally speaking, we don’t tend to consider the kinds of skills we need to meet the challenges in a marriage.”

She continued, drawing the association out from the intimate relationship of marriage to the broader one a person has with their society.

“Nobody really teaches the habits of practices necessary for citizens to meaningfully contribute to and thrive in a flourishing democracy either,” she said. “In both marriage and democracy, we seem to dislike the concept of challenge. But for a marriage to be happy — and for a democracy to flourish — we need to seek challenge and hone certain skills.”

Paresky built Habits of a Free Mind as a way to service this need, teaching others what those habits are and how to establish them in order to create a more meaningful life.

Habits of a Free Mind has taken the form of two college courses, which Paresky taught at her alma mater the University of Chicago and as a Visiting Fellow of the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University. She is also in the early stages of production for her book on the subject: Habits of a Free Mind: Psychology for Democracy and The Good Life.

“Part of what motivated me to undertake the Habits of a Free Mind Project was my continued questions about the tools necessary to contribute to and thrive in a liberal pluralist democracy — and in particular, how to engage across lines of difference without feeling traumatized and without dehumanizing others,” she said.

Paresky was inspired by her work with Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt on The Coddling of the American Mind, a book that explores how negative mental habits contribute to an “us versus them” attitude and a sense of fragility. She stressed that this relationship is significant because it seems to “play a part in increased levels of mental illness among young people and a tendency to describe the feeling of confronting intellectual challenge or distasteful ideas as a feeling of being ‘unsafe.’ ”

Habits of a Free Mind counters such negative habits with positive ones, many of which Paresky will share with the Chautauqua community this morning.

Paresky’s work is relevant in the current political climate, which is often characterized as intensely polarized. She made a distinction between political polarization — “how far apart partisans are in their thinking” — and affective polarization — “how much hostility partisans feel toward one another” — noting that the two concepts are often conflated. Her lecture today will focus mainly on the latter, addressing the reactions people have toward those with differing political opinions than the opinions themselves.

“Sometimes we’re not as far apart politically as we think, but it feels like we are because people on each side of the aisle tend to overestimate the level of extremism on the other side,” she said.

Paresky is excited to join the Chautauqua community this week, both to share her research and enjoy the myriad intellectual and cultural opportunities the Institution has to offer.

“After I was invited to speak, I learned that many of my friends have spoken here, and … they describe Chautauquans as exceptionally warm and welcoming,” she said. “Everyone said what a special place Chautauqua is … and I’m delighted that I’m able to stay until Saturday.”


The author Zoe Kolenovsky