How you See the World – Good or Bad – Matters for your Well-being and for your Success in Life

I see trees of green / red roses too / I see them bloom / for me and you. And I think to myself / What a wonderful world – Louis Armstrong,What a Wonderful World, 1967

Arthur and Lisa realized that their divorce was the result of conflicting world beliefs which impacted their parenting. Lisa, wanted to teach their kids the world is good, embrace it. As for Arthur, he wanted to teach his children the world is bad, gear up.

We describe these beliefs as primal because they are so deeply rooted in our minds: they become certainties – mainly reflecting our perception of the world as hostile or not – which influences our behaviors, our actions and, ultimately our life path.  

A survey of 4,500 people across 50 professions was conducted by Jer Clifton of the University of Pennsylvania to determine how these beliefs play out in real life. Are those who perceive the world as dangerous more likely to spot threats, and therefore safer? If you fear that everything is going to fall apart, perhaps you'll never be disappointed? However, those with negative beliefs – that the world is dangerous, unfair and unforgiving – were on average worse off on every outcome measured: less healthy, more depressed, and much less satisfied with their lives than those with more positive views. And there was surprisingly little upside to moderation: the more positive the views, the better. What's more, their findings suggest that perceiving the world as hostile is in no way a function of harsh living conditions. Those who grew up in affluence are no more likely to view the world as friendly than those who grew up in poverty. These primal beliefs act more like invisible lenses we use to interpret the world and make our decisions, rather than mirrors reflecting our experiences – and this, unwittingly.

What is a worldview, what is it made of, and why does it matter?

We all have a worldview. It is a set of fundamental beliefs that we hold about ourselves and the world around us, forming our perspective of how we understand, behave and interact with the world. It influences our philosophy of life, our outlook on life and even our relationships with others.

One day, when my husband and I were out for a walk, we couldn't agree on the color of a flower we saw along the way. For me, it was orange; for him, it was pink. I was sure he was wrong, but then he pointed at my sunglasses.  When I took them off, the "orange" flower suddenly turned pink.

Every one of us wears "glasses"… Many of our difficulties, and in particular our automatic negative thoughts, are rooted in our fundamental beliefs. Such beliefs often take the form of general principles, such as: "People are generally unkind", "Marriage is difficult", "I'm not good enough for this job". They are generally based on childhood assessments, many of which are false. What's more, a good number of our daily life experiences contribute to their perpetuation. Like magnets, they attract the evidence that reinforces them, while rejecting that which might challenge them. Although these basic beliefs are hard to change, it is possible... Which is why identifying our limiting beliefs can help us change the way we live, so we can realize our full potential.

Our joys and sufferings largely reflect our perception of the world in which we live

Ground-breaking research led by Jer Clifton of the University of Pennsylvania, in collaboration with 70 researchers including Martin Seligman and Crystal Park, investigated basic primal beliefs on a global scale over a 5-year period.

In total, they identified 26 distinct primal beliefs, clustered under 3 disproportionately influential categories: Safe (as opposed to dangerous), Enticing (as opposed to boring) and Alive (as opposed to mechanistic), which in turn cluster under the overall belief that the world is Good.

They noted that the 3 fundamental worldviews varied from one human being to another.

·      Safe World Belief (vs. dangerous)

Safe: Those who see the world as safe see a world of cooperation, comfort, stability, and few threats.

Dangerous: Those who see the world as dangerous see a world of misery, suffering, cruelty, and dangers of all sorts.

·      Enticing World Belief (vs. dull)

Enticing: Those who see the world as enticing see it as an exciting place worth exploring, with treasures around every corner.

Dull: Those who see the world as dull see it as ugly and boring where exploration is unlikely to result in anything.

·      Alive World Belief (vs. mechanistic)

Alive: Those who see the world as alive see life as a relationship with a dynamic, active universe, which responds, communicates and needs/wants our help. Living in this world has meaning and purpose.

Mechanistic: Those who see the world as mechanistic perceive the universe as a mindless machine with no plans or desires. Humans are passive and subjected to an external force.

Their research also confirmed that fundamental world beliefs are as stable as personality traits. Thus, many people can spend decades harboring the same beliefs about the world.  

Final thoughts

Much of what we become in life – much joy and suffering – may depend on the sort of world we think this is.

— Conclusion of UPenn's 2019 article on primal world beliefs

How we view the world has a major impact on our quality of life and mental well-being. Developing a healthy, well-balanced belief system provides comfort, self-confidence, motivation and purpose. A relative sense of safety is essential to our daily well-being. A fascination and interest in the world are potent catalysts for curiosity, gratitude and happiness. Finally, vitality is indispensable for finding purpose and meaning in life, as well as for establishing constructive connections with others.

Realize that the way you see the world is important. Perhaps the right balance would be to teach children that there are specific dangers they need to be wary of, but that, on the whole, the world they live in is a good place to be. Beauty is everywhere, you just have to open your eyes to see it.  

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