What is "first person research" good for?
My dear friend Urban Kordes is a professor at the University of Ljubljana, specialized in "first person research". "First person research" is interested in experiential information that is available to the experiencer alone. An "outside observer" has no access to it except through the experiencer's report. For example, the experience of pain, happiness, loneliness or closeness to god.
When I spoke about it with friends of mine, they asked: But what is such research good for? What can you do with its findings? In response, I read out to them a few excerpts from a small, yellowing book I have, with the title "A Life of One's Own", by British psychoanalyst Marion Milner (who wrote it under her pen name, Joanna Field).
In her twenties, before she started studying psychoanalysis, this remarkable woman decided that she would try to find out, within her day-to-day life, what made her happy. What a research question for a "first person research"! So for seven years she wrote every day in her diary about her experience, trying to answer this question. At the end of the seven years she went over her diary and analyzed it, and her conclusions are described in that book.
Below are some paragraphs from the chapter "Retrospect". It should give you an idea about what can be learned from a "first person research".
"I now decided to look back and see what I had achieved in the seven years of this enterprise. I had set out to try and observe moments of happiness and find out what they depended upon. But I had discovered that different things made me happy when I looked at my experience from when I did not. The act of looking was somehow a force in itself which changed my whole being.
When I first began, at the end of each day, to go through what had happened and pick out what seemed best to me, I had had quite unexpected results. Before I began this experiment, when I had drifted through life unquestioningly, I had measured my life in terms of circumstances. I had thought I was happy when I was having what was generally considered ‘a good time’. But when I began to try and balance up each day’s happiness I had found that there were certain moments which had a special quality of their own, a quality which seemed to be almost independent of what was going on around me, since they occurred sometimes on the most trivial occasions. They stood out because of a feeling of happiness which was far beyond what I had ordinarily meant by ‘enjoying myself’, and because of this they tended to oust all other concerns in my daily record. Gradually I had come to the conclusion that these were moments when I had by some chance stood aside and looked at my experience, looked with a wide focus, wanting nothing and prepared for anything. The rest of my enterprise had then become an attempt to find out what this ability to look depended upon.
Not only had I found that I enjoyed different things, but I also wanted different things. When I was living blindly I was pulled this way and that by all manner of different wants, but when I stopped to look at them their clamour died down and I became aware of others which seemed to emerge from far deeper down in myself.
I also became aware that happiness in the sense I have described does matter. I was as sure as that I was alive, that happiness not only needs no justification, but that it is also the only final test of whether what I am doing is right for me. Only of course happiness is not the same as pleasure, it includes the pain of losing as well as the pleasure of finding.
My next discovery had been that although I now knew what made me happy I could not achieve it whenever I wanted to. There seemed to be endless obstacles preventing me from living with my eyes open, but as I gradually followed up clue after clue it seemed that the root cause of them all was fear. And I had only been able to discover the origins of this fear by learning a way of observing the habits of my blind thinking. I had found that there was a perpetual selfcentred chatter which came between me and my surroundings, and me and myself, and till I had learnt how to silence it I was liable to live in a world of distorted make-believe, cut off from any vital contact between my real needs and my real circumstances. When I could break through it, and only then, was I able to see clearly enough to choose those circumstances under which happiness could grow; to learn, for instance, to limit my activities, not to run after every new thing, not to expend all my energies on the effort to keep up with what other people did just because they did it, so that I had no vitality left for needs that were personal to me.
During my explorations I had also discovered something about science. I had set out by using the scientific method of observation, to find out what made me happy, and then found that it had led me beyond the range of science. For in observing what made me happy I had found something which could not be communicated, something which was an essentially private affair; whilst science, so they say, deals only with ‘whatever can be passed from one social being to another’."