Act As If…

In the early 1900’s, the German philosopher Hans Vaihinger wrote, Die Philosophie des als Ob, or The Philosophy of As-If. He proposed that people can never really know the reality of things and therefore they create systems of thought and then act as if those thoughts match reality.

Vaihinger pointed to the study of science at the time and observed that no one had seen protons, electrons or electromagnetic waves, but scientists pretended as if they existed, and in doing so, they were able to create newer, higher order assumptions about the underlying reality of the world.

In the years that followed, psychologists such as George Kelly, Alfred Adler, Viktor Frankl, Abraham Maslow (Positive Psychology) and the developer of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) Albert Ellis,  as well as Aaron Beck who developed Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), all continued, in part, using this principle of as-if in developing psychological theories aimed at helping people function more fully.

Most of us navigate through our daily life using an as-if philosophy of some kind, even if we are unaware of it. We make assumptions about the world around us. When I leave the house in the morning, I act as if I am going to arrive at my office, work with patients, go home, have dinner and spend some time with my wife.

According to the United Nations World Population Prospectus report, about 151,600 people die each day in the world. Each day. Wow. Each day, 150,000+ people don’t go about the routine activities of their daily life, because for them, life is over.

The ancient Stoic philosophers are reported to have had a daily reflection practice of ‘momento mori,’ translated, ‘remember death.’ By remembering we are mortal, we become aware of the preciousness of being alive. We can begin to see the actionable wisdom in Marcus Aurelius’ exhortation,”Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.” It is interesting to me that he didn’t say feel good, or think good. He said, be good. Act as if you were good.

We may start to see the value of acting as-if this might be our last day, (it’s hard to argue with the data of the World Population Prospectus report). In doing so, we give ourselves the gift of contacting the present moment, of being aware of being alive in the only moment there is…this moment. We might give ourselves over to the possibility of living a vital and engaged life right now, not at some point in the future when all the stars align and all our problems are resolved. We might begin a practice of rising in the morning and realize, “I’m still alive!” and this realization can rejuvenate us. We stop waiting and start living. We are able to say ‘yes’ to what matters and ‘no’ to what doesn’t.  In the words of the German poet Christian Furchtegott Gellert, “Live as you will wish to have lived when you are dying.”

William James, the father of American psychology, said, “If you want a quality, act as if you already had it.” This, too, is a helpful idea. William James, it might be noted, comes from the other direction. Rather than creating a system of thought (beliefs, attitudes, etc.) to act upon, he says start acting as if you have a quality and you’ll develop it and have it as part of who you are. Action first, feeling second. Embracing this idea, we can reflect on our life as it is right now and consider in what direction we want to grow. We may notice people who exhibit a quality we admire, something that has some resonance for us. We might experiment with modeling their behavior, acting as if  we had that quality, and notice what happens next.

William James went on to say, “Human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind. By regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not.” In other words, the more I continue to act as if I have a quality, the more I start to have the feeling of it. I can cultivate courage in myself by acting as if I were already courageous. What would that look like? How would I be behaving? I could become more peaceful and calm by acting as if I were an unperturbed person. What behaviors might other people see me doing? Instead of trying to make myself feel a certain way, I act in a certain way, which in turn ‘alters the attitudes of the mind.’

Most everyone has heard, “Fake it ’til you make it.” This is an aphorism that expresses the same principle. Unfortunately, many people associate ‘fake’ with being inauthentic. Nobody wants to be more inauthentic than they already are! Same with ‘pretending to…’ We don’t want to be perceived of as being inauthentic, or worse, a fool by pretending our way through something. We may get caught up with insecure thinking that we are putting on airs, or coming across as a wannabe. We hear ‘fake it ’til you make it,’ and we immediately move in the other direction, and in doing so, stay stuck. Maybe looking at what the aphorisms are pointing to, examing the underlying intent, is worth consideration.

After I graduated medical school and started my residency training in a hospital setting, I would hear, “Doctor…can I ask you something?” I would look around until I realized the person was actually addressing me. Like many people, it took awhile for me to integrate an expanded identity. I would catch myself occasionally glancing down at my name embroidered on my long white doctor coat and see my name followed by MD, and I’d feel sort of disoriented. Yes, I had worked long and hard to learn and put into action the health promoting principles of being a doctor, so why did it feel not quite real? Through time, (and many overnight calls), the more I acted like a doctor, the more comfortable I became with the feeling and experience of being a doctor. As you might guess, I still look to the doctors I admire and continue the daily work of cultivating the qualities they possess by acting as if I already had those qualities.

How about you? Is there a yearning within you to be more, or do more? Do you spend time worrying if you are good enough? Are you waiting for things to get better? If we were able to wave a magic wand and all of the things you consider to be a problem in your life vanished, how would you be living your life? What kind of actions would you be taking? How would you be relating to other people and situations? What kind of person would you be?

Let’s join with the philosophers and psychologists throughout the ages who encouraged us to act as-if you already had the life you really wanted.

Starting today, act as if you matter. Get up in the morning and act as if you are, in the words of Marcus Aurelius, good. Bring yourself back into the present moment as often as you can today, and every day you wake up alive, and act as if you were committed to living each and every moment of this one precious life you have.

Here’s an interesting science based example of the Act As If principle from Harvard’s Amy Cuddy:

What do you think about this Act As If principle? Have you ever had the experience of not knowing how to do something, but acted as if you could, and you did? Have you ever acted as if you were strong, even when you felt maybe a little shaky inside? What happened? What more might be possible for you if you decided to act as-if?

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below! Act as if you might inspire someone with your example!

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