September 28, 2007

The capacity to detect improvement

Albert Schweitzer said that the secret to life is gratitude. I think that's a powerful way of communicating that gratitude is an underestimated thing in life. But 'the secret of life'? Isn't that a bit exaggerated? There is no one secret to life for everyone. But okay, let's be a good sport and go along with the game. If we'd be playing the game of 'what's the secret to life?', I'd like to propose another candidate.

My candidate would be the capacity to detect improvement. One of the greatest aspects of the solution-focused approach is to help people identify what is going better. When people identify things that are going better they tend to immediately feel energized, they start to smile, their eyes start to shine. They rediscover hope and optimism and they often find ideas for taking next steps forward. It seems we often are oblivious to all the good things and improvement that are all around us. When looking at the evening news most of what we see is a list of incidents and problems. It would be a mistake to think that the news is a representative summary of what happened in the world that day. Rather, it is (almost) a list of what went wrong that day (who died?, where is there a war going on?, what political deadlocks were there today? etc). It is easy to see what is going wrong and what is going worse. We all seem to be automatically good at doing that. The idea that things are getting worse and worse in the world seems appealing to many. Yet, the truth may be quite the opposite.

Nearly everything in the world may be getting better and better (see for instance this book: The improving state of the world - Why we're living longer, healthier, more comfortable lives on a cleaner planet). But the thing with improvement is, it only 'counts' when we perceive it. And often we don't perceive it. One of the most important reasons for this may be that we are so extremely good at adapting to new circumstances. Whenever a situation changes we adapt quickly and take for granted what is now the new reality. This may be why an explanation why we so easily fail to see what's better. Another explanation is that the process of improvement may proceed with ups and downs (see this post on fluctuation). Finally, improvement may be hard to perceive because there will always be new problems, and sometimes severe local problems. So, in sum, improvement is hard to notice but vital.

That is why my candidate for the secret to life is: the capacity to detect improvement. Once we detect it, it is surely easier to feel grateful, which brings us back to Albert Schweitzer.


  1. Coert,

    You've proposed an interesting hypothesis. Research on goals shows us that people are happier when making progress towards a goal then they are when they actually achieve a goal. So detecting improvement - which could be defined as getting closer to a goal - makes us happier, and maybe that happiness is a form of gratitude.

    In any case, detecting improvement is definitely important.

  2. Hi Rodney, thanks. Do you have a reference for this: "Research on goals shows us that people are happier when making progress towards a goal then they are when they actually achieve a goal"?

  3. I can't say where I originally read about that idea. However, I did find a reference for it which I've pasted below.

    Wiese, B.S. (2007). Successful pursuit of personal goals and subjective well-being. In B.R. Little, K. Salmela-Aro, & S.D. Phillips (Eds.), Personal Project Pursuit: Goals, Action and Human Flourishing (pp. 301-328). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.


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