Wisdom is getting perspective

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The Wisdom Behind the Saying “Get Some Perspective?”

Self-immersed vs. self-distanced perspective

By Shahram Heshmat Ph.D. for Psychology Today

A perspective is defined by which value or values we are focused on, or attended to, at the moment. From a distant perspective one sees the forest, but from a proximal perspective one sees trees. A broader perspective allows us to consider multiple aspects of a situation. As we get psychologically closer to a situation, our choices are increasingly influenced by more specific concerns. Thus, distance impairs our ability to identify specific details of the choice. As the saying goes, the devil is in the details.

Thinking about an activity in high-level (lofty thoughts or long-term goals) is related to “why,” and low-level (a narrow, concrete, here-and-now focus) is related “how” questions. For example, a task like “maintaining good physical health” might be associated with high-level attributes like the joy of healthy lifestyle. When we decide on a diet, we do so because of its attractive outcomes to us. However, there are also low-level attributes associated with this task such as going to gym, avoiding our favorite snack, and so on. “Why” questions encourage long-term thinking, or desirability of pursuing an action. In contrast, “How” questions bring the mind down to the present and consider the goal’s attainability or feasibility. Thus, maintaining a new habit becomes easier when people ask themselves why they are doing an activity rather than how they are doing it.

Adopting a self-distanced perspective can help us face negative emotions without becoming overwhelmed by them. Charlie Chaplin once said, “Life is a tragedy when seen in a close up, but a comedy when seen in a long-shot.” When we face a problem in our life, they appear enormous partly because of the proximity we see them. But that narrow attitude shifts as we develop a broader perspective of the challenge and at that level we tend to see more options. It is hard to see clearly when you are in the thick of the clouds.

The self-distancing perspective has also relevance to enhancing creativity. After several years of experiences, people start to repeat themselves so that it becomes more the same-old approach. They become insiders. One of the most effective ways of cultivating an outsider perspective is to feel distant from the problems. For example, traveling or getting away from the places we spend most of our time. The distance allows one to view problems in a more imaginative way. All of a sudden our mind is aware of those considerations that were previously ignored, and those facts that should be ignored.

In sum, when our focus is too narrow, it can lead us to miss the big picture. A wider scope would help us capture and integrate important details. The passage of time normally broadens our perspective, and we feel relief because of seeing a bigger picture. Finally, remember why you are doing an activity. The "Why" questions can benefit people to keep going on maintaining a new habit (e.g., daily exercise or diet). As Nietzsche remarked, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”