Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Downsides of Trying Too Hard to Be Happy (Part I)

“Whoever commits to paper what he suffers becomes a melancholy author; but he becomes a serious author when he tells us what he suffered and why he now reposes in joy”                                                                                            Friedrich Nietzsche

“So, therefore, that mortal man who hath more of joy than sorrow in him, that mortal man cannot be true – not true, or undeveloped.”                     Herman Melville

“There is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity”                                                                 Alan Watts

Martin Seligman’s decision as the newly elected President of the American Psychological Association in 1998 to create a new science of happiness was a welcome and necessary reaction to psychology’s historical focus on mental illness.  Seligman’s two books Authentic Happiness and more recently Flourish have influenced how I think about happiness and how I live my life.  His latest PERMA theory of happiness informs how I try to use evidence-based psychology to become happier. (

And yet, even as I devoured book after book and article after article on positive psychology, I sensed there was something wrong or perhaps incomplete about my approach to trying to be happy.  Happiness does not always seem to me to be the proper response to the world that I encounter with all its sadness, hatred, war, poverty, and inequality.   There are times and places where the proper response, it seems to me, is anger and indignation and sometimes sadness. 

I also struggled with reconciling my quest for happiness with my growing realization that I became a better person the less I thought about myself.   Don Beck and Chris Cowan’s book Spiral Dynamics, ( based on the human development theories of Clare W. Graves, convinced me that higher levels of consciousness were associated with being less and less concerned about my individual self.  I am not sure I ever fully understood the color-coded memes and the spiral nature of the levels, but the book did change my thinking.

I found Robert Kegan’s concept that the demands of modern society make most of us feel “in over our heads” useful, and his three levels of consciousness were easier for me to explain to others.  The concept of the faithful follower who seeks explicit instructions, worries what others think, and becomes anxious when he is out of synch with leaders helps me interact with my colleagues with a “socialized mind.”  The concept of the “self authoring mind” does describe others and me who become anxious when we lose control and when others challenge our solutions to problems.  The concept of the “self transforming mind” that is comfortable with contradiction and paradox and that realizes that all people are interdependent does make sense as the most appropriate level of consciousness to effectively deal with the world. (

Eric Greitens’ Tufts Commencement Address illustrated the above concept in a forceful and memorable way;

I saw the same thing later when I worked in Rwanda with survivors of the genocide, and in Cambodia when I worked with kids who had lost limbs to landmines.  In every case, those who knew that they had a purpose that was larger than themselves, those who knew others were counting on them, they grew to be stronger….

I found that what was true for the refugees in Bosnia was true in my own life and my own hardest moment; that the more I thought about myself, the weaker I became.  The more I recognized that I was serving a purpose larger than myself, the stronger I became. Having learned that lesson in college, having lived it in the SEAL teams, today, I try to share that lesson and the work we do at The Mission Continues.  (

Greitens’ tough-minded approach contrasts with many of my friends whose focus on personal happiness flirts with a narcissism ill equipped to deal with the human suffering and inequality and war that Navy SEALs encounter in the real world.

Eric G. Wilson’s book Against Happiness crystallized my misgivings about my own and America’s obsession with the pursuit of happiness.  In the introduction, Wilson states his case:

I for one am afraid that our American culture’s overemphasis on happiness at the expense of sadness might be dangerous, a wanton forgetting of an essential part of a full life. I further am wary in the face of this possibility:  to desire only happiness in a world undoubtedly tragic is to become inauthentic, to settle for unrealistic abstractions that ignore concrete situations….

Our passion for felicity hint at an ominous hatred for all that grows and thrives and dies.
Wilson believes that the authentic life of anyone who realizes they will eventually die and who sees the world for what it really is must include happiness and sadness, “growth and decay, ecstasy and agony.”

Part II will continue our exploration of the pitfalls of trying too hard to be happy.

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