The Edge of Impossibility - John C. Wunsch, P.C.
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The Edge of Impossibility

“The first discipline is to focus your finest effort on the one or two goals that will make all the difference, instead of giving mediocre effort to dozens of goals,” write Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, and Jim Huling in their book The 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals. A contested case will derive benefit similarly––focus as a means of paring away the extraneous, the inessential. Yet a checklist of essential elements will only be as good as your evaluation of the strengths of your case as well as finding non-obvious ways of refuting defenses.

Such evaluative skills can be trained, but at times, within the confines a particular case, we have to self-train. Let’s take, for example, a seemingly impossible skill set. Develop the skill to gain an inch in height or to change at will the color of your hair. We immediately, and all too rationally, conclude there’s no natural way to accomplish these. We can purchase items to assist, but there’s no innate method for the human body to achieve these ends, at least not at present. But we see at some point in the future this may change. Once we know more about how the human body works––at the atomic and cellular level––it may in fact be possible to gain height or change hair color.

Fourth, the practice of gratitude is an effective coping mechanism. Wood et al. (2007) showed that gratitude relates to three broad categories of coping (Wood et al., 2010): People who are more grateful tend to use more social support, to actively solve their problems, and to avoid denying the existence of the problems. These coping strategies may help individuals to better face and solve various life problems, thus increasing their life satisfaction. To support this, research has shown that grateful people are better able to appreciate difficult situations, promoting better coping strategies with stressful circumstances, which is associated with long-term SWB (Watkins, 2004). In other words, “gratitude may give one a helpful perspective on life that assists in mood repair following a stressful event” (p. 179).

Impossible tasks remain impossible, but what’s most interesting are those tasks just at the very edge of impossibility. Those human potentialities that are potentially within reach, but not typically thought of as within human grasp. Not at the limit, but just beyond the limit. There’s not a rigid dividing line––there’s a grey area between that which can be accomplished and that which cannot. Something never before seen, not previously accomplished. Typical advice will include: “Take measure of where others have traveled and determine if somehow they can be outdistanced.” “Look for new methods/techniques others have missed.” “Find out if there’s a way to break through your natural self-imposed barriers.” “Train, become trained, in new far-flung areas, beyond your area of expertise.” “Ignore the limits and boundaries set by others.”

Sixth, gratitude may increase life satisfaction by enhancing a person’s social benefits. Indeed, whereas research has shown that gratitude is significantly associated with better social relationships (Wood et al., 2010), social relationships are strongly associated with higher life satisfaction (Unanue et al., 2014). Further, gratitude may increase life satisfaction through the mediational role played by social contacts and the satisfaction of the need for relatedness (Watkins, 2004).

That’s the problem with most self-help advice––it’s too simplistic, too realistic, too practical. Who was the person who determined a particular task to be impossible? Chances are: no one. Most likely, blind adherence to social norms explains what’s considered to be within the range of human possibility. For young people, there’s also the problem of stasis and inertia. Something has been done by those older in a certain way for many years, and it will take too much time and trouble to change it now.

Our findings complement previous experimental and cross-sectional studies, thus providing critical evidence about the benefits of both gratitude and life satisfaction for improving people’s quality of life. Gratitude may help to increase life satisfaction, which is a key element of people’s wellness and functioning. However, the power of life satisfaction also goes beyond what is already known (Diener et al., 2017; Diener and Tay, 2017) as life satisfaction also predicts gratitude. This is the most novel aspect of our paper, as by linking life satisfaction to gratitude over time, our results open the possibility for enriching life satisfaction conceptualization. Besides being understood as cognitive evaluation, life satisfaction would be an experience in itself, full of thankfulness, emotions, and positive ways of living our lives.

Close to the line, then a fraction beyond. Purposefulness, realism, and grim intentionality may not be the best way to achieve this. A rough sketch of some counterintuitive components would include:

Naiveté. Considered to be a negative value, naiveté actually frees up considerable mental space. Without a predetermined boundary set by others, a naïve outlook puts every possibility as potentially within reach.

Simplicity. Simplemindedness as well is a value derided, ridiculed. There are too many variables, we are told, things are too complex. Simplemindedness may in fact be just what’s needed to visualize the path necessary to achieve a first–time breakthrough.  In most instances to reach this level more, not less, mental energy is required.

Self-deception. Finally, self-deception. Self-deception is looked upon as noxious, entirely without value. Yet a certain degree of self-deception works quite well in certain contexts, particularly those which can best be categorized as “otherworldly,” “mirage-like” or “illusory.”

Our findings yield practical implications, e.g., for organizations, as our participants are all working adults. Companies may start a reciprocal process of happiness and flourishing by creating the necessary conditions for fostering either employees’ gratitude or life satisfaction. Previous research has found a significant association between job satisfaction and life satisfaction (Unanue et al., 2017). Thus, by improving working conditions, leaders may increase worker satisfaction, and thus, life satisfaction. This process may naturally lead employees to feel more grateful, thus reinforcing life satisfaction and allowing an upward spiral in human wellness.

In sum, our results show that gratitude and life satisfaction are both prospectively and positively related to each other over time. Higher levels of gratitude may lead to an increase in life satisfaction, which in turn may increase gratitude, thus enabling a spiral of human flourishing. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first research that has shown these patterns of results, thereby allowing a better interpretation of previous cross-sectional and experimental findings.

Naïve, simpleminded, self-deceiving––surely nothing good can come of these, until we realize they may work to unlock that very last door, the one nearest the outermost edge. At the beginning of each year write down those goals well within reach and at least one or two goals that are “impossible.” (Remember: “focus your finest effort…”). Surely a waste of time, fanciful, after all, it’s never been done before––until you set about to test (realistically, practically) those very limits.

All quotations from: Wenceslao Unanue, Marcos Esteban Gomez Mella, Diego Alejandro Cortez, Diego Bravo, Claudio Araya-Véliz, Jesús Unanue, Anja Van Den Broeck, The Reciprocal Relationship Between Gratitude and Life Satisfaction: Evidence from Two Longitudinal Field Studies, Front. Psychol. 08 November 2019/