Pope Francis, Ignatius Loyola, and Positive Psychology

Pope Francis, Ignatius Loyola, and Positive Psychology September 25, 2015

St. Ignatius, founder of psychology?
St. Ignatius, founder of psychology?

Guest post by Dr. Christopher Kaczor

As a Jesuit for more than 50 years, Pope Francis acknowledges his profound debt to the founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius Loyola. If we wonder “What makes Pope Francis tick?”, the answer is found in the spirituality of Ignatius. This spiritual path finds a surprising confirmation in the findings of contemporary psychology.
Sigmund Freud predicted, “that in the future science will go beyond religion, and reason will replace faith in God.” But the psychological sciences developed in ways that Freud didn’t imagine. For one thing, psychology now focuses not just on alleviating depression, anxiety, and inner conflicts, but in positive psychology focuses on signature strengths, optimism, and flourishing. Moreover, rather than undermining religious beliefs, in many cases contemporary psychology confirms the wisdom of traditional spiritual practices.

For example, in his classic work The Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius suggested paths to deepening love of God and neighbor. Ignatius advised people to make decisions out of a spirit of consolation rather than desolation. He understood a spirit of consolation as a sense of peace, harmony, and joy. A spirit of desolation is one of anxiety, fear, and despair. When in a spirit of desolation, Ignatius advised his followers to make no significant life decision, but rather to wait and act only in a spirit of consolation.

St. Ignatius’s advice finds vindication in the findings of contemporary psychology. Dr. Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, found that, “Your awareness narrows with negative emotions and broadens with positive ones. It is when feeling good, then, that you’re best equipped to see holistically and come up with creative and practical solutions to the problems you and others are facing. Your wisdom, then, ebbs and flows just as your emotions do.” We act more wisely when experiencing positive emotions that broaden and build our relationships with others and our perspectives on life.

St. Ignatius also recommended taking time each day for self-reflection on personal experience, “The first point is to thank God our Lord for all the good things I have received.” The founder of the Jesuits suggested that we begin with gratitude when thinking about our lives.

One of the founders of positive psychology, University of Pennsylvania Psychology Professor Martin Seligman studied a similar practice, the Three Good Things exercise, in which people reflect each day on any three good things that happened. After two weeks of practicing the Three Good Things exercise each day, 94% of moderately depressed people experienced greater happiness. By making an effort to recall the good in our life, as Ignatius and Seligman recommend, we can correct the negativity bias that causes us to focus excessively on our problems.
Sometimes, however, our difficulties are the result of self-inflicted wounds. We can be something like the man from the novel Mother’s Milk whose mistress asked him if he was his own worst enemy. “I certainly hope so,” the man replied. “I dread to think what would happen if somebody else turned out to be better at it than me.”
Rather than deny ways in which we undermine our own happiness, St. Ignatius encouraged people to keep track of them, “to demand an account of ourselves.”

Here too Ignatius’s wisdom finds contemporary confirmation. Psychologist Walter Mischel in his book The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control, suggests that we “keep a journal to track moments when we’ve lost control.” Self-control begins with self-monitoring. If we wish have greater willpower, we need greater self-awareness of how we fail in willpower. By keeping track of when we go wrong, we prepare ourselves for improvement.

We can also improve, Ignatius thought, through the practice of spiritual direction. In spiritual direction, people reflect openly and honestly about their love for God and neighbor with their director, a kind of coach for the life of the spirit. St. Ignatius taught that when we tell someone about our temptations to undermine love of God and neighbor, these temptations become less powerful.

Here too, Ignatius anticipated contemporary findings. In her book, the Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It, Stanford Psychologist Kelly McGonigal summarizes research on tempting thoughts: “Studies of brain activation confirm that as soon as you give participants permission to express a thought they were trying to suppress, the thought becomes less primed and less likely to intrude into conscious awareness.” We make our unwanted thoughts less powerful in communicating them to others in the proper context.

The remarkable overlap between Ignatian spirituality and contemporary psychology is not altogether surprising. If all truth ultimately comes from God, we should expect not a contradiction between the empirical findings of psychology and faith, but their ultimate harmony. In fact, there are many other ways in which positive psychology confirms the wisdom of traditional spiritual practices such as prayer, forgiveness, humility, and service to those in need. These contemporary psychological findings provide new impetus for putting into practice ancient spiritual wisdom. The arrival of Pope Francis in the United States brings an embodiment of this wisdom to our shores.

Christopher Kaczor is Professor of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount University and is the author of The Gospel of Happiness: Rediscover Your Faith Through Spiritual Practice and Positive Psychology (Image, Penguin Random House 2015).

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