Helping People Find Fulfillment

Heidi Wayment wants to help people get over themselves. As a professor of psychology and the current chair of the psychology department at Northern Arizona University, Wayment is a leader in understanding how people can get past the negatives of egocentric behavior in the search for happiness. Wayment is bringing a rigorous new level of academic research to the field, a topic that was the focus of her recent book, Transcending Self-Interest: Psychological Explorations of the Quiet Ego. Her research could have profound implications in helping people to improve the quality of their lives.

"Most religions talk about how true fulfillment comes from transcending self — this is one of the most ancient ideas around — but research psychologists had not really taken it up in a systematic way until fairly recently," Wayment says.

In the classroom, Wayment applies her research in positive psychology by encouraging her students to think about fulfillment and understand that happiness requires more than just diverting attention from the self. According to Wayment, students need to develop ways in which they gain this comprehension. A key part of this, she says, begins with a basic idea - knowing what you're good at.

"Everyone is good at something," Wayment says. "Everyone can spend time developing something and the development of those skills is so important. It is also so important for understanding how humans can help each other in the long term. Our society has changed so much and I feel very compelled to encourage people to take the time to do something creative."

"Creating is so good for you and it is so sad how little time students spend doing something with their own two hands compared with the amount of time they spend online, chatting, or texting," Wayment says. "It is not that social networking is bad in and of itself, but it can take time away from these other endeavors that students could be doing. They may not be developing themselves to the point that they think they can. What is so ironic is they are engaging in that behavior for self-enhancing reasons, but it often is a very short-term high. It is an interesting dilemma for this generation."

Before earning her graduate degrees in psychology, Wayment was a pioneer of a different sort, having played professional basketball with top European teams. She had the game-winning tip-in that allowed the 1979 Women’s Olympic basketball team to defeat the Soviet Union and advance to the first gold medal in that category of U.S. Olympic history.

Athletics served as a creative outlet for Wayment - she explains that immersing oneself in a creative endeavor like athletics, cooking, or art is important for students to grow, and to help them improve the community.

This philosophy will also be a part of a class Wayment is teaching called Conservation Psychology: Psychology for a Sustainable Future. The conservational psychology class aims to get students thinking about climate change and how dealing with it requires a mental change of focus. And, Wayment says, taking a psychology-based approach to fighting climate change is a much-needed innovation.

"Everyone talks about climate change, global warming, and temperature. They talk about all these issues and then they are asked to make small everyday changes, like using compact florescent light bulbs," Wayment says. "Psychology is rarely in the discussion about climate change and what to do about it. So we are thrilled to be part of the curriculum in sustainability at Northern Arizona University. The world is changing and people have to learn to cope with whatever they have."

Much of Wayment's earlier research focused on coping with negative life events, and she feels that psychological research has much to offer about how individuals can successfully cope with the repercussions of climate change.

"I think it is important for us as educators to teach people how to learn and how to tie that learning back to the real world," she says. "I'm excited because I think this class is going to not only help students understand the impact of what is happening, but where [students] fit into that picture, and how this crisis is an opportunity for a new way of living and looking at the world. "

This past fall, Wayment coordinated the first-ever Living Compassion Conference at Northern Arizona University.  This conference brought faculty and researchers from a variety of fields to Flagstaff for a two-day conference to analyze the places from where compassion and happiness stem.

Wayment has also been involved with the Hot Topics Café meetings on campus, a place where students and faculty can meet comfortably and respectfully discuss contentious subjects. She says the idea behind the initiative is to promote students communiciation and offer a platform to exchange ideas.

“There’s a real skill to being able to see where another person is coming from,” Wayment says. “It doesn’t mean that you can’t have your own opinion, or disagree with someone, but it’s important to try to understand how a person comes to that opinion.”

Ultimately, if people want to happy, Wayment explains, they should start by connecting with others.

“People really do feel better about themselves when they’re a part of something bigger.”