Positive self-esteem is clearly one key to happiness. But we observed in earlier lessons that a focus on self-liking must also be accompanied by a healthy dose of self-knowledge. This can make us aware of faults or deficiencies which temper our self-love. Is this good or bad? If a person's self-esteem is low, the first step is to find ways of elevating it. A person who views herself as less worthy or attractive than she really is needs to first enhance her positive view to bring it to a normal level. But should her self-esteem rise to a 100% level of positivity? Most people recognize that a person who can only find good things to say about themselves would be an unrealistic and annoying figure. Also, perfection in the self-image would leave no room for personal growth. Clearly, self- esteem must be a balance of positive thoughts and feelings about the self tempered with enough negatives to stay in touch with reality and direct self-growth. Perhaps an 80-20 positive-negative balance would be healthier than a 100 positive self-image. Even pursuing self-knowledge can lead to an excessive preoccupation with the self. Well intended truth seekers or people seeking relief from personal distress sometimes get trapped into endless self-exploration. Spiritual paths to happiness hold that the goal of self-knowledge is to allow a person to get beyond themselves and into the world of action and helping others. But many people find they go to the extreme and end up as frustrated "people pleasers" who lose sight of their own needs. An optimal self-other balance must give sufficient attention to the self with as much giving to others as possible.
This illustrates a universal law of nature that must be obeyed in the pursuit of happiness: Life requires a dynamic balance of opposing forces. We see this in the need to maintain a precise balance of elements in the earth's atmosphere or in the human need to have oxygen and carbon dioxide delicately balanced in the bloodstream. Even small shifts in the oxygen- carbon dioxide balance in humans can cause anxiety, dizziness, fainting, and ultimately death.
Throughout history, both Eastern and Western medicine has defined health as a balance and illness as an imbalance. Ancient physicians believed that an imbalance in vaguely defined "body humors" caused depression and other disorders; today's scientists have shown that specific chemical imbalances in the brain's neurotransmitters do in fact relate to emotional problems. An interesting study of 350,000 men on the controversial cholesterol question found either abnormally high or low levels of cholesterol were more likely to cause death. Moderation or balance in cholesterol was healthier. So balance within physical nature, the human body and the brain are fundamental requirements of existence. Perhaps we should be less surprised with the intriguing discovery that balance is also the rule with in the human mind. Psychologist Jack Adams- Webber and mathematician Vladimir Lefebvre has shown that the mind has an internal self-regulatory system which maintains extremely precise balances of positive and negative thoughts and emotions. This is not very different from the idea that we have feedback systems to make sure our body temperature stays close to 98.6 degrees. If a normal person gets too sad, he will try to find a way to find more cheer; if he gets too happy, someone may tell him to settle down. Extremes of mood are avoided. This is consistent with psychologist Ed Diener's finding that well-being is associated with frequent moderately positive experiences,not with intense positive highs. Extreme positive moods were followed by lows which washed out happiness whereas steady, moderate pleasures sustained well- being over time.
Some scientific research on balance, illness and health conducted with a team of distinguished collaborators at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine has supported this idea. They found that anxious or depressed people have imbalanced states of mind consisting of about 30%-40% positive thoughts and feelings. That means for every 10 thoughts, a depressed person would have only 3 or so positive ones.
Healthy people and patients successfully treated with either therapy or antidepressant medication had balanced states of mind of about 70% to 80% positivity. For every 10 thoughts or feelings in the normal mind, about 7 to 8 are positive,a healthy or optimal balance. This research has been so precise in even identifying differences between normal and optimal states that we feel we have measured something similar to "mental temperature." There soon will be offered simple and quick ways that you can take your mental or emotional temperature to find out if you are in an imbalanced, normal or optimal state of mind,a scientific answer to the question "How's your positive mental attitude?"
Although more difficult to measure, a happy life is one that maintains a dynamic and harmonious balance. Popular books such as LIFE BALANCE by Linda and Richard Eyre guide people to find a healthy balance between work, family and self, between structure and spontaneity, and between achievement striving and relationships with others. Less well-known but worth exploring is Ascent to Harmony, a classic work on harmonious balance from a Kabbalistic perspective by the distinguished French Rabbi Elie Munk. "This great ideal that gives beauty and meaning to creation is not perfection, but harmony...It is the very purpose of life, for it is man's mission to harmonize the threads of his being, his talents, his thoughts, his actions, and his emotions so that he will be in harmony with God's creation" (Munk, 1987, vii). Ultimate happiness, according to Munk, comes from unifying and balancing the seemingly opposite forces that create tension in life such as flesh and spirit, justice and love, reason and faith. Love, the great unifying force, is the key to achieving harmony.
In this age of excess, we may do well to harken back to the cardinal virtue of temperance, moderation in all things. Now science supports it.