I was having a conversation with a good friend not too long ago about some distressing comments I had read online in response to a posted article. Frankly, they were ugly and I chose not to continue reading. My friend’s observation: “Society has lost its sense of civility.”
I’ve thought a lot about that conversation since. I took a look at the Merriam-Webster definition of the word, which is: 1. an act or utterance that is a customary show of good manners; 2. speech or behavior that is a sign of good breeding.
Civility isn’t complicated. It’s manners, politeness, showing courtesy and kindness to others. It’s being respectful, to both yourself and others. It’s maintaining composure in difficult circumstances or with difficult people. It’s being willing to hear others’ perspectives and opinions, even if you don’t agree with them. One does not have to go too far these days to find examples of the lack of it.
I thought about how I might draw some food for thought from the science of positive psychology about how this atmosphere of disaffection and discord impacts wellbeing.
Dr. Martin Seligman, in his book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, discussed his theory of wellbeing, and what promotes human flourishing. The acronym he gave it, PERMA, stands for:
- Positive emotion
- Positive Relationships
I’m struck by how incompatible those ideas are with the lack of civility in our society today. If positive emotion and engagement might encourage and reinforce civility, what does the lack of it do to us as individuals, as a culture? What does it do to our wellbeing, our happiness, our sense of flourishing?
Make no mistake, happiness and wellbeing are important business. Research shows that happy people are healthier, live longer, have better relationships, make more money and contribute more to society. I don’t know about you, but when I hear and read some public dialogue these days, I don’t feel a sense of positive emotion, of wellbeing. I feel ill.
In case you think I’m referring to any particular brand of politics, I’m not (despite the current political climate.) At time, students – and parents – show disrespect to teachers and faculty, even though they may have a legitimate disagreement. Parents go into tirades at coaches and school-age players at sporting events. The internet provides a space for all sorts of bullying, harassment and name calling.
What has happened to respecting others’ opinions, even if they differ from your own? What role models do younger generations have to look up to, if what they have to emulate are adults behaving badly? Speaking of adults, if our homes and families are where we get our foundation what, exactly, are we passing on? What has happened to basics such as kindness, character, dignity, and acting like a grownup (assuming you are one.)
Going back to Seligman’s PERMA, I can’t help but wonder how this type of behavior impacts our mental, physical, spiritual and emotional health. One definition of flourishing is: “to grow or develop in a healthy or vigorous way, especially as the result of a particularly favorable environment.” It’s our responsibility to create that favorable environment, for ourselves and others. As someone wise once said, “We carry our own weather with us.”
The good news is that so much of this is under our control. We have the tools we need to create positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment. Research shows that approximately 50% of our happiness is determined by genetics, 10% by our circumstances (married, single, living conditions) and 40% by behavior. We get to choose who we will be and how we will relate to the world around us. We decide what kind of meaning our lives will have. Making a conscious effort to practice kindness, hope and optimism, gratitude, connection – all of these contribute to impacting the world around us. So does courtesy, respect and good manners. And those start at home, with us, and with what we teach our children.
George Washington said it well: “Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.”
What about you? What’s your take on the topic of civility? Please feel free to post a comment on my blog or share it with me in an email.
I’m taking the month of August off from writing this newsletter, for vacation and family time. Enjoy the rest of summer and I’ll see you after Labor Day!