Integrating my various research projects

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Problems and Solutions

A few days ago, I realised that all my research projects are linked.

My longest on-going research is in the area of fire fighting. Fire fighting is a situation where problems in organisations repeat themselves. Individuals in organisations try to find 'quick solutions' but their efforts tend to fail, as the complexity of the situation overwhelm the people who try to solve them. My research shows that most managers in Malaysia - whether Malay, Indian, Chinese, working in large companies, medium size companies or small companies - experience severe fire fighting.

The danger of fire fighting is that it naturally leads individuals in a state that psychologists call "learned helplessness". People simply give up. The problems they face at work are so complex, so multi-faceted, that people don't even know where to start. People go through the motions but deep down they don't really believe that the situation will ever get better. One way to solve this problem is by using a technique called Positive Deviance Inquiry (PDI). In a paper that I hope will be published in 2012, I explain that PDI is a very practical tool for Muslim leaders.

In any case, this fire fighting situation creates a feedback loop. Fire fighting causes individuals to become helpless. But helpless individuals are more likely to treat 'solvable' problems as unsolvable problems.

So how do we break this vicious circle? Well, my experiments with getting my students to listen to Islamic talks for 12 to 14 weeks have shown me something. First, the intervention has an impact. About 80% of students (many of which are part-time Masters students who are working full-time) report feeling better about things. The process of listening to Islamic talks gives them hope, optimism and makes them more resilient. In other words, this process can probably turn helpless individuals into individuals that are psychologically stronger. That might not make fire fighting disappear but at least it will theoretically reduce the negative impact of fire fighting on an organisation. The best part of this intervention is that it is virtually free and its impact is presumably long-term as the process involves Muslims understanding their religion better.

So what has this got to do with happiness? Well, as this blog has progressed, it seems clear that I started with a very vague project and that it has become more and more specific as I have progressed. I think that 'happiness' is still relevant (although the technical term in the literature is "subjective well being"). The work that I have read indicates that happiness is not a state where people are 'relaxing'. Too much relaxation simply leads to boredom. Happiness requires individuals to work hard to achieve their goals. They will experience many disappointments but they are psychologically strong enough to persevere until they reach their goals. In short, this intervention leads directly to psychological strength and indirectly to a more happy person. And Allah knows best.

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