Happiness in this World

Reflections of a Buddhist physician

Unconditional Positive Regard

The benefits of seeing the best in others

Photo: DonkeyHotey

As the U.S. Presidential race begins to heat up in earnest, the thing that's been mostly on my mind isn't the economy, foreign policy, or the deficit, but rather something that's not just absent between the two candidates but also among the people who support them: what psychologists call unconditional positive regard.

According to Wikipedia, unconditional positive regard was coined by the humanist Carl Rogers and is defined as "basic acceptance and support of a person regardless of what the person says or does." In therapy, the key to mustering unconditional positive regard can be summed up in one word: acceptance. Rogers believed that all people have the internal resources required for personal growth and that it's the therapist's suspension of judgment and his expectation that the client before him can change that makes change far more likely.

Outside the therapist's office, unconditional positive regard has come to mean accepting people as they are, good and bad traits together, by focusing on one's belief that everyone has inside of them the potential to improve—to become, in effect, good. Some people may seem so far away from their best selves that such a transformation appears impossible, but according to Buddhist thought, "even a villain loves his mother." That is, we're all endowed with the Buddha nature, which here is considered to mean the capacity to become wise and compassionate, as well as accepting and loving toward all people, even "villains."

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To view someone with unconditional positive regard isn't to automatically forgive them their sins, but rather to refuse to dismiss their humanity because of them. The key point about unconditional positive regard isn't whether or not someone deserves it—isn't whether or not they've so scorched whatever seeds of goodness lie within them that those seeds are no longer capable of sprouting (even the most self-centered of people will find themselves pulled in a more positive direction when on the receiving end of unconditional positive regard, especially if it comes from someone like a parent, a spouse, or a therapist). The point is that the real benefit of unconditional positive regard accrues to the person who feels it.

Mustering up feelings of beneficence toward others defends us against the view that the world is mostly evil. It not only increases the likelihood of our bringing out the best in others, but also increases the likelihood of our bringing out the best in ourselves. To become someone who consciously seeks to find the best in others is to become someone who we ourselves like; it's to become someone more likely to display the very behavior we look for in others; it's to become more optimistic. It is, in essence, a way to learn to love the world. And though many may disagree that all people deserve our unconditional positive regard, it's hard to argue that loving the world won't make us happier than hating it.

 

Dr. Lickerman's new book The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self will be published on November 6. Please read the sample chapter and visit Amazon or Barnes & Noble to order your copy today!

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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