The Psychology of Optimal Experience

We all have troubles. In many ways, they define our lives. But, according to philosopher Abraham Kaplan, we can deal with them more effectively if we recognize them as either problems or predicaments.

The difference? Problems, says Kaplan, can be solved. Predicaments can only be coped with.

If you work in downtown Baltimore, for example, you may be worried about crime. This is a predicament, not a problem. You can install a security system in your car, avoid the worst areas after dark, or arrange a transfer to a different office. But these are coping mechanisms. You are not going to “fix” crime in Baltimore.

A more serious predicament we all face is the occasional death of a loved one. We can spend time grieving with family and friends, join a support group, or take up new activities to keep our minds from becoming preoccupied. But death itself cannot be bargained with.

Fortunately, most of our troubles are not predicaments but problems.

You may worry, for instance, that you haven’t saved enough for a comfortable retirement. If so, you have plenty of company. According to the 2007 Retirement Confidence Survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI), 36 percent of workers have less than $10,000 in retirement savings. Another 13 percent have less than $25,000.

Clearly, this is a problem, but one with a straightforward solution. You can make more. You can spend less. Or you can earn a higher return on your investments. (Doing all three isn’t bad either.)

Or, you may be one of the millions of Americans who struggle with obesity. If so, it is probably having a detrimental effect on your health, your self-image, and your quality of life. And for some, this is both a problem and a predicament. After all, genetics determine your basic body type. As you learned in fifth-grade health class, you were born an ecotomorph, a mesomorph, or an endomorph. You cannot change this. But anyone can eat better, exercise more, or both. Not easy, but there is a solution.

Why is it important to label the trials you face as either problems or predicaments?

According to John C. Maxwell, author of The Difference Maker, “When people treat a predicament as a problem, they become frustrated, angry, or depressed. They waste energy. They make bad decisions. And when people treat problems as predicaments, they often settle, give up, or see themselves as victims.”

Understand this and you’ve taken the first step toward dealing with your predicaments and solving your problems.

Nielsen Media Research tells us that Americans love reality shows where contestants are put in high-pressure situations and challenged to “win” by using every bit of intelligence, cunning, and resourcefulness they can muster. Why not view your own problems the same way? If you have a boring job, an inattentive spouse, or a looming financial setback, why not use all your smarts, imagination, and creativity to turn the tables?

My guess is that if you were in front of a national television audience – and in danger of being voted off the show – you’d come up with something pretty good, something that would surprise the people around you.

In fact, this is exactly what you should be doing, according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. He argues that the quickest way to increase your life satisfaction is to quit seeing your problems as difficulties and start viewing them as enjoyable challenges.

Facing your problems this way requires just two things: a bit of imagination and a positive attitude. The payoff, in turn, can be huge.

Whether you want to start your own business, lose 30 pounds, or get out of debt, you can begin by relishing the challenge. You might surprise yourself, too. Not only by achieving your goals, but by seeing how much satisfaction you get just by moving toward them in a disciplined way.

Think of it as your own reality show. (One that, ironically, actually deals with reality.) The obstacles in front of you give you the opportunity to show the world – and yourself – what you’re made of.

So why not attack those obstacles today with a fresh mindset and a new attitude? You have nothing to lose but your troubles.

Alexander Green is the Investment Director of The Oxford Club. A Wall Street veteran, he has over 20 years experience as a research analyst, investment advisor, financial writer and portfolio manager. Under his direction, The Oxford Club’s portfolios have beaten the Wilshire 5000 Index by a margin of more than 3-to-1. The Oxford Club Communiqué, whose portfolio he directs, is ranked fifth in the nation for risk-adjusted returns over the past 10 years by the independent Hulbert Financial Digest. Mr. Green has written for Louis Rukeyser and several other leading financial publications. He has been featured on The O’Reilly Factor, and has been profiled by The Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, Forbes, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, C-SPAN and CNBC among others. He currently writes and directs the twice-weekly Oxford Insight e-letter and three short-term trading services: The Momentum Alert, The Insider Alert and The New Frontier Trader, as well as the editor of "Spiritual Wealth," a free e-letter about the pursuit of the good life. Mr. Green is also the author of two bestsellers “The Gone Fishin’ Portfolio” and “The Secret of Shelter Island: Money and What Matters.”