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Tuesday, 12 July 2011

The Onward Arrow: Mapping a Path to Happiness


A standard tool in cognitive therapy is called the Downward Arrow.  We ask a client what they were thinking during an unexpectedly distressing situation, then invite them to imagine that that thought is true:  “What would that mean?  What would be the worst thing about it?”  And then we take the next thought and pull for the worst implication of that one.  In effect, we invite the client to catastrophize consciously and deliberately in order to detect what might be happening automatically.

The Downward Arrow investigates a chain of ideas and helpfully illuminates negative spirals in our minds.  Then we can examine our reasoning to see whether it’s valid, and rethink the situation if there are flaws.

We can use a similar tool, the Onward Arrow, in a positive direction.  Here’s how:

Ask someone (a friend, a client, or yourself) to identify a few goals.  “What’s something you want, or want to achieve?”

People come up with a variety of answers.  “I want to get the garden cleaned up.”  “I’d like to visit Paris someday.”  “I want more friends.”  “I want to gain my father’s affection.” “I’d like to have a Mercedes.”

Implicitly, the person has identified what they consider to be a “good thing.”  But why do they want it?  Almost always, the goals people identify are instrumental – they are means to an end.  So let’s try to identify the end.

“So you’d like to own a Mercedes.  Sounds like that would be a good thing.  If you had a Mercedes, what would happen?  What would be good about that?”

Usually the person will identify another goal that will be advanced by the achievement of the goal they first identified.  Then you can investigate the utility of that goal, in a chain very much like the negative chain we get in the Downward Arrow.

“If I had a Mercedes, I’d go on more driving trips with the family.”

“What is it about going on driving trips with the family that attracts you?”

“I’d like to show the kids more of the country.”

“What would happen if you did that?”

“I think it would cement my relationship with them more.”

And so on. The interesting thing about the Onward Arrow is that it can start out with any goal at all and almost always winds up in the same place.

“And what would happen if you had a better relationship with your kids?”

“I think I’d be happier.”

The number of steps varies, but whether the goal is to complete one’s taxes or to form a better relationship with a deity, the end result is usually the desire for happiness.  Ask people what they want and they will give you a thousand different answers.  But keep asking, and eventually they condense down to a very few outcomes – or to one: happiness.

So what?  The Onward Arrow reveals a person’s implicit “roadmap to happiness” – a series of steps that they believe will lead them where they want to go.  But just as there are usually distortions and faulty reasoning in the Downward Arrow (our map to misery), there are often flaws in our map to happiness as well.  Bringing our assumptions into conscious awareness can allow us to re-examine our assumptions and determine whether the map is valid, or whether there might be a more efficient route.

“So John it sounds like having a Mercedes is really a strategy to get other things – the respect of others, a closer family, and ultimately a happier life – and you want it because it will take you to those destinations.  Is that right?”

“Yeah.  But there are a lot of steps in it before I get happy.”

“That struck me too.  It’s a long journey.  But maybe that’s the only route to happiness available to you.”

“I don’t think so.  I’ll never afford a Mercedes anyway so I’m lost if that’s true.  I’ve tried all my life to impress other people and that feels like a bottomless pit.  But spending more time with my kids – that’s actually helped in the past.  And they don’t care much what kind of car I have.”

Sometimes the road map turns out to be a dead end.  “I’m 45 years old and my father has never said anything positive to me.  I don’t think it matters what I do, that’ll never happen.”  Realizing this, we can contemplate giving up the quest, and investing our energies in other paths to contentment.

Sometimes some parts of the chain seem valid, but others can be trimmed.  “I do think I’ll be happier if I can get last year’s taxes done.  But maybe I don’t need to overhaul my entire filing system before I get started.”

I use the Onward Arrow quite often in my practice.  People often become unhappy because of catastrophic slides in the interpretations of events, and for these situations the Downward Arrow is useful.  But often people are miserable and frustrated because they are lost on the road to a happier life, using an obsolete or faulty map.  For these situations, the Onward Arrow is invaluable.

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