Human Development: The Oceanic Feeling

I’ve already written about the Oceanic Feeling on several occasions. Indeed, I have mentioned how it is the ideal psychological state. It is nirvana. It is the zone. It is flow. It is all the supreme states that enlightened individuals strive to attain.

The Oceanic Feeling is not only for the enlightened, however. It can happen to anyone at any moment, but most often when there is perfect adaptation to one’s context. This sounds reasonable, except that it is also possible for adaptation to occur to maladaptive states, and therefore one can adapt perfectly to an extremely negative context. Psychoadaptation posits adaptation to contexts is necessary for equilibrium; it says nothing about the nature of the contexts.

Now, in an earlier chapter, I discussed how the mesosystem is the collection of one’s microsystems. Further, I noted how consistency in values amongst one’s microsystems is necessary for the individual to avoid stress. Yet, one can also imagine a mesosystem that is so far removed from mainstream cultural norms that one never encounters disequilibrium. For, in order to experience disequilibrium, one must be confronted with the failings of one’s behaviors and conceptions. If one is not confronted with one’s failures, there can be no disequilibrium. Let’s look at some examples.

Gang members belong to gangs. The gang is a microsystem. If all of a gang member’s microsystems embrace the gang lifestyle, it is very unlikely for the gang member to experience much disequilibrium, other than that which is related to gang failures. Microsystems the gang member could belong to besides the gang are the family, drug dealers and other criminal enterprises, along with addicts. It is highly likely that within this context that the gang member experiences nearly constant equilibrium, as there is likely much support for gang-related criminal behavior. Experiencing equilibrium, the gang member can also experience the Oceanic Feeling, as the Self’s behaviors and cognitions are completely aligned with the contextual constraints. Thus, despite the gang lifestyle being far outside mainstream social norms within the United States (the extreme tails of the normal distribution), there is ample opportunity to avoid disequilibrium and even experience this ultimate psychological state.

A second example is the addict. Cigarette smokers are addicted to nicotine. Cigarette smokers tend to spend much time with other cigarette smokers. They also tend to come from lower socioeconomic status neighborhoods, shop in the same stores where they purchase their tobacco, drink alcohol and coffee, and work in similar jobs. Let’s imagine a smoker who is a man in his 40s, and works as a contractor. His fellow contractors are smokers, as are his wife and son, his parents and his in-laws. For this individual, the majority of his microsystems and his resulting mesosystem involve smoking. Thus, he rarely experiences disequilibrium. Like the gang member, he is likely to have much equilibrium and is therefore apt to experience the Oceanic Feeling.

The savvy reader is likely to point to this counter intuitive result as a flaw in psychoadaptation theory. For, how is it possible for a theory of health to allow for such negative developmental outcomes to be associated with an amazing psychological state that is the Oceanic Feeling. The truth, though, is that this theory was designed to explain behavior, whether positive or negative, or something in between. Psychoadaptation is not about ideals alone. Used appropriately, it can help explain and even promote epic developmental states. However, it also permits for explaining why individuals fail to achieve such epic states. Adaptation is adaptation, and it requires exposure to the mainstream to permit one the chance to develop appropriately. If one has little exposure to mainstream cultural norms, one is likely to be influenced by sub cultural norms, whether those norms are positive or negative.

In essence, there are two sides to psychoadaptation; science and the clinical. From the scientific point of view, the goal is to explain behavior. In my own research, I study the subjective importance of smoking to the smoker. Because I accept that smokers adapt to their contexts, and do their best to avoid disequilibrium by eschewing mainstream settings, they tend to give cigarettes an almost spiritual significance. Studying the subjective importance of smoking from the psychoadaptation perspective is in no way an acceptance of smoking as an alternative lifestyle, or a capitulation to smokers. Actually, by understanding smoking from a psychoadaptation perspective, we gather the necessary information to generate appropriate interventions to help smokers quit, or at least help prevent the intergenerational transmission of smoking.

Clinically, once we understand smoking’s subjective importance to the smoker, we can tailor interventions to meet the needs of today’s smoker. Smokers tend to be lower socioeconomic status individuals who affiliate with other smokers. As smoking is normative in the smoker’s contexts, and most of a smoker’s peers smoke, we must identify ways to help smokers quit smoking while acknowledging that quitting will most likely result in a loss of the smoker’s social support structure.

Imagine for a moment, my trusty reader, that you are a smoker and that most of your friends are smokers. Imagine now that you have decided to quit. Perhaps you attended a counseling session for smokers interested in quitting, or your doctor told you that you should quit. Whatever be the motivation, you have decided to quit. Now, imagine that you still live in the same neighborhood, surrounded by the same smoking cues (triggers for smoking), and the same peers, most of whom smoke. Your peers are not all going to support your effort to quit, particularly since support would be an indictment of their own smoking behavior. Thus, as a former smoker, your task is to now find new friends who don’t smoke. Imagine what an impact that would have on you psychologically. Essentially, you are abandoning your best friends. Who I ask will be considered the bad person here from you peers’ perspective, you or your peers? I will bet that in the eyes of your peers, it is you whom will be considered the bad person here.

For me as a researcher, psychoadaptation permits me to understand this and to tailor intervention strategies around the negative implications of quitting for the new former smoker. This is an extremely difficult state filled with vulnerability. Former smokers will be ostracized by their peers and left with little social support. As a researcher whose research aims at curbing smoking and its negative consequences, my suggestion is for the creation of a new social group (microsystem) that will help the new non-smoker adapt to the loss of her social support structure. Perhaps we can create a clique of former smokers, with t-shirts and all 🙂

In addition to the loss of her former peers, the new former-smoker will now be encouraged to engage in novel contexts, contexts that do not involve smoking. An interesting consequence is that these novel contexts would not only preclude smoking but would also be inhabited by individuals of higher socioeconomic status, who although share many similarities, are very different from lower socioeconomic status individuals. Thus the former smoker is not only asked to abandon her former smoking peers, but join an alien world that is extremely different from her on many levels besides smoking. Is it any wonder I ask, that many former smokers go back to smoking? It’s not the nicotine that drives them back in my belief; it’s the loneliness and the constant disequilibrium faced that’s exhausting.

Returning to the Oceanic Feeling. Imagine living different lives. In one’s present context, one can experience the Oceanic Feeling from time to time. Although the cost is avoiding a better life in general by eschewing disequilibrium, the Oceanic Feeling is the Oceanic Feeling, whether it’s experienced after smoking or after hiking a mountain path. Psychoadaptation can explain both scenarios. However, there is an important qualitative difference in the two, one that is often not perceptible. For the person avoiding disequilibrium, the Oceanic Feeling only occurs in very specific situations, whereas for the true seeker (the person committed to psychoadaptation) the Oceanic Feeling can occur at any moment, even when writing about the Oceanic Feeling, or while reading about it on some beautiful beach in Southern California.

I live psychoadaptation. In the vernacular of this science, living psychoadaptation means seeking disequilibrium and overcoming it. As such, when I experience the Oceanic Feeling I actually earn it. The Oceanic Feeling experienced by those avoiding disequilibrium is certainly real, but in my view it is not as intense as that felt by one who challenges her status quo. I may not be correct as I’ve never lived the life of the non-seeker, the one who eschews challenge. Yet, I will purse an avenue to initiate all of those willing to join me into this lifestyle, for I ask you my beloved reader, is it only for me to enjoy. I think not.