Monday, May 28, 2012

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

“It’s really frightening.  People need to read a book on how to be happy? It’s completely an American thing.  Can you imagine people in Naples sitting on a bus or in a trattoria reading a book on happiness?                                                                                                     Charles Simic

“Melancholia pushes against the easy ‘either/or’ of the status quo. It thrives in unexplored ground between oppositions, in the ‘both/and.’”                                                     Eric G. Wilson

“Melancholy is at the bottom of everything, just as at the end of all rivers is the sea.  Can it be otherwise in a world where nothing lasts, where all that we have loved or shall love must die? Is death, then, the secret of life? The gloom of an eternal mourning enwraps, more or less closely, every serious and thoughtful soul, as night enwraps the universe.”                                                        Henri Frederic Amiel

Americans are obsessed with happiness.  I have read at last count 16 books on the subject; if you prefer magazine articles to books, take a look at the cover stories of Time, Oprah, and the Economist. I recently published a four part blog with my reactions to an art exhibit titled Stefan Sagmeister The Happy Show ( Governments in places as diverse as the UK and Bhutan are trying to pass laws to make their citizens happier, and economists are creating happiness indexes to complement the gross domestic product.   Motivational speakers and therapists are telling us how to become happier and how to raise happy children.  In Part I of this blog I tried to understand why this movement, which I find fascinating and useful, is also troubling.

Recent research has revealed that too much happiness can be detrimental.  In Mark Alan Davis’s 2008 meta-analysis of the relationship between mood and creativity, intense amounts of happiness were correlated with decreased creativity.  Barbara Fredrickson has studied how too much positive emotion makes research subjects inflexible in the face of new challenges.  An older study by Howard S. Friedman found that highly cheerful school-aged children had a greater risk of mortality in adulthood; people who are too happy disregard threats and engage in risky behavior like excessive alcohol drinking, binge eating, sexual promiscuity, and drug use.  (

Shigehiro Oishi studied people over several decades of life and found that the happiest individuals had lower levels of income, academic achievement, job satisfaction, and political participation than those who reported only moderate happiness in early life.  In the same study, the happiest research subjects had more close friends, were more likely to be married, and more likely to volunteer in their community.  Oishi concludes, “It is generally difficult to simultaneously have an extremely high level of overall happiness, intimate relationships, and achievements.” (

Oishi’s finding that the happiest individuals do not participate in the political process worries some.  In response to the popular happiness advice, “see life as it is, but focus on the good bits,” one blogger wrote, “we should resist the tendency to shy away from certain difficult questions, and to simply roll over and let our stomachs be tickled in a frenzy of feel-good sentiment.”
If we really care about happiness and well-being, of course we should care about the good bits; but we should care also about the bad bits: about the obscene extent of the global military investment, for example; or about the pervasive problems of poverty and the scandal of the fact that there are people in this country who do not have a roof over their head; about the ever-widening gulf between rich and poor; about the way the very richest and most powerful individuals and institutions across the globe, with the support of our elected or unelected representatives, often act to the detriment of the collective good. (

There is some recent research that supports the conclusion that happiness is not suited to every situation, especially the difficult ones described in the above passage.  Maya Tamir of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Boston College has found that happy people perform worse in a competitive computer game than angry people.  June Gruber of Yale University has found that people who experience happy moods in inappropriate contexts such as watching a film of a young child crying are at greater risk for developing mania.  (

In Part I of this blog we encountered Eric G. Wilson who worries that our current interest in happiness may lead to undervaluing sadness and what he terms melancholia; for Wilson there must be a balance between these two emotions in order to authentically live in the world as it really is.  Allan V. Horwitz and Jerome C. Wakefield in The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sadness into Depressive Disorder ( examine how depression is over-diagnosed in patients who are experiencing normal intense sadness in response to life events. 

On a larger scale, the misdiagnosis of depression creates the impression that Americans are becoming more depressed (an internal condition) rather than suffering greater social problems (an external condition), two problems that call for completely different solutions (medication versus changing social policy). (

Whether striving for happiness is good or bad for you depends on how you define happiness.  Differentiating between “hedonic well-being” and “eudaimonia” might be useful.  Movies, big California cabernets, and Philadelphia Phillies baseball victories all make me happy, and they are probably best understood by the former term.  Aristotle wrote that humans can attain eudaimonia (well being or flourishing) by fulfilling their potential by graduating from Case Western Reserve School of Medicine, successfully raising two children, and volunteering at Philabundance.

As Carol Ryff of the University of Wisconsin, Madison puts it: “Sometimes things that really matter most are not conducive to short-term happiness.” In Ryff’s research, she has found that individuals who rank high on eudaimonic well-being had lower levels of interleukin-6 and a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and Alzheimer’s disease compared to those with lower eudaimonic well-being.  Another study of 950 individuals found that those reporting a lesser sense of purpose in life were more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease compared to those reporting greater sense of purpose in life.  (

There is a rich religious and literary tradition that concludes that pursuing happiness may be a fool’s errand.  Malcolm Muggeridge stated, “I can say that I never knew what joy was like until I gave up pursuing happiness, or cared to live until I chose to die. For these two discoveries I am beholden to Jesus.”  In one study participants who were told to “try to make yourself feel as happy as possible” while they listened to a piece of hedonically ambiguous music reported they felt less positive compared to a control group who received no instructions before hearing the music.  In another study the more people valued happiness the less well-being and the more mental health issues they reported.  In yet another study the more people valued happiness, the lonelier they feel on a daily basis according to their diaries. Other researchers found that leading people to value happiness more resulted in greater loneliness and social disconnect measured by self reports and progesterone levels. (

America’s current obsession with happiness is not without pitfalls and unintended consequences.  Researchers are starting to provide evidence that blindly pursuing happiness for its own sake can result in mixed results at best. 

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.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Musings on Stefan Sagmeister The Happy Show, Part IV

The last room in the Stefan Sagmeister The Happy Show in Philadelphia did not excite me as much as the first gallery.  Perhaps, I was getting tired after concentrating so much in trying to see and hear everything in the first room.  Perhaps the organizing diary statements did not resonate with me as much as those in the first room.  I might try to go back to the show and start in the second room and view the exhibition backwards. 

On one wall of the second room Sagmeister wrote: “Drugs are fun in the beginning but they become a drag later on.” (  He also revealed that he has an addictive personality that tends to overindulge alcohol, cigarettes, or cigars.

“Money does not make me happy” dominates another wall.  (  There is a graph showing that in the United States, earning more than $80,000 a year does not make individuals happier.   I found a study by Angus Deaton and Daniel Kahneman that pegged the American happiness level at $75,000 a year.  They studied 450,000 survey responses and found that below an annual salary of $75,000 people might not have the money to do the things that make them happy (,9171,2019628,00.html)  By the way, Kahneman’s new book Thinking Fast and Slow is a superb introduction to behavioral economics that I think can be applied to all aspects of one’s life ( Another article discussed the research behind the observation that money spent on experiences was more likely to result in happiness than money spent on material items (   A video near the graph explained that absolute wealth does not predict happiness as much as social rank.  Studies have demonstrated that people will pick a lower salary as long as their peers make even less than they do. (,8599,1974718,00.html)

A third wall had “I often assume an outcome of failure” as its organizing quotation.  How Sagmeister views failure became clearer to me when I watched a short video I found on the internet (  Sagmeister said he was scared of failure as a student, but he now tries to embrace failure.  He advises us to do as much stuff as possible with as little fear as possible, and he states that the fear of failure “has become less so” over the years.  It has become easier to embrace failure as he gets older because he has learned techniques to get unstuck and because he now has great people working with him.

This was my favorite part of the second room of the exhibit because it reminded me of one of my favorite Chris Argyris articles “Teaching Smart People How to Learn.” (    

Argyris distinguishes between single loop and double loop learning. “A thermostat that automatically turns on the heat whenever the temperature in a room drops below 68 degrees is a good example of single loop learning. A thermostat that could ask, ‘Why am I set at 68 degrees?’ and then explore whether or not some other temperature might more economically achieve the goal of heating the room would be engaging in double loop learning.”

Many professionals like doctors have been almost always successful and so they are not good at learning from failure. When their single loop learning goes wrong, they become defensive, screen out criticism and blame others but not themselves for the failure. They are not good at double loop learning.  Effective double loop learning depends on how we feel and how we think.  Argyris believes there is a universal tendency for us to design our actions according to four values: to remain in control, to win and not lose, to not feel negative, and to be rational.  Their purpose is to keep us feeling safe and competent and happy.

On the way out, I appreciated some of Sagmeister’s clever touches.  He added words to the Exit sign so it now read “Every EXIT is a start” and he eliminated the “F” from Fire extinguisher to create “Ire extinguisher (no more anger, no more ire).” I the end of the long hallway leaving the exhibition, I noticed one final quotation from the diary:  “Everything I do always comes back to me.”

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Musings on Stefan Sagmeister The Happy Show, Part III

We are still in the first gallery of Stefan Sagmeister The Happy Show at the University of Pennsylvania Institute of Contemporary Art, and the next organizing statement from his diary is written on the wall next to the large neon light installation. 

            I would much rather live now than in any other time in history.

Unlike most of the other diary aphorisms, this one struck me as something I had not really thought about before.  Sagmeister observes that unlike 100 years ago when individuals had little control over their life, we today can be in charge of the important decisions about what we do for work and where we live our lives.  He references Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature:  Why Violence Has Declined, a book that documents a decrease in crime and violence. 

Pinker’s book impressed me with how far we have come since the Middle Ages.  He quotes Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror:  The Calamitous 14th Century, which describes two of the most popular sports of that time:

Players with hands tied behind them competed to kill a cat nailed to a post by battering it to death with their heads, at the risk of cheeks ripped open or eyes scratched out by the frantic animal’s claws…Or a pig enclosed in a wide pen was chased by men with clubs to the laughter of spectators as he ran squealing from the blows until beaten lifeless.

Pinker also describes a scholarly article “Losing Face, Saving Face:  Noses and Honour in the Late Medieval Town” where historian Valentin Groebner documents dozens of accounts in which one person cut off the nose of another. These acts of private vengeance were so common that

The authors of late-medieval surgical textbooks also devote particular attention to nasal injuries, discussing whether a nose once cut off can grow back, a controversial question that the French royal physician Henri de Mondeville answered in his famous Chirugia with a categorical “No.”

In late medieval times cutting off someone’s nose was the prototypical act of spite and the source of our modern saying, “to cut off your nose to spite your face.”

Living in Philadelphia with its nation leading murder rate year after year (, it can be hard to recognize that Sagmeister is right in concluding that living today is preferable to living in the past.

Another organizing Sagmeister statement is presented as words in a spider web that changes shape as I pass by it in the first room of the exhibition. ( “Being not truthful works against me.”  Sagmeister expands on this thought by writing on the wall of the gallery:

This is true for myself. My memory is too faulty to allow me to be a successful liar. And if I don’t want people to know about something I do, maybe I should not be doing it at all. People who do not cheat are happier than people who do. Surprisingly the cheaters also do worse money wise in the long run.

Maybe it is just because I am in the middle of re-reading volume 2 of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson, but this admirable observation by Sagmeister does not ring universally true.  Caro describes in meticulous detail how Johnson lies about his acquisition of the Austin radio station that was the foundation of his personal wealth and how he steals the 1948 Texas senate race against former governor Coke Stevenson.  Johnson was a liar who became president and died a wealthy man.

Today’s Sunday Business section of The New York Times added to my skepticism with an article titled “Is Insider Trading Part of the Fabric?”  Ted Parmigiani discusses evidence he provided to the Securities and Exchange Commission showing frequent insider trading involving analyst research at Lehman Brothers, and Mr. Parmigiani concludes that insider trading has become institutionalized on Wall Street.  Despite the successful prosecution of Raj Rajaratnam for insider trading, Mr. Pramigiani says the SEC’s “widespread net has a very big hole in it.” (

“Make the first step” ( and “Keeping a diary supports personal development” ( are two more Sagmeister statements that are illustrated in the first room of The Happy Show in Philadelphia.  In discussing his attempts at meditation in Bali, Sagmeister observes that his fellow participants in the full week of silent meditation seem “sobered out and dour; the current company will not make me happy.”  He also notes that his back hurts like hell and the only pleasure is when the pain goes away during breaks in silently sitting.  I also appreciated his observation that despite all the Westerners telling him that meditation made them happy, he does not believe them for a second. 

Monitors in the room showed Sagmeister TED talks that I enjoyed very much.  His discussion of his trip and career in Hong Kong cracked me up. ( I especially liked his discussion of authentic looking fake New York City subway posters.  When I got home I googled the subject and found many more examples that made me happy ( and ( His TED talk on Things I Have Learned in Life So Far ( discusses the same themes as The Happy Show.  There is also a book by Sagmeister with the same title, but I have not yet read it.  I found another TED talk where Sagmeister discusses the power of taking time off and how he tries to take a sabbatical every seven years to recharge his creativity (

We have now finished thinking about the first gallery of Stefan Sagmeister The Happy Show.  In Part IV, we will finish this blog post by reacting to the exhibits in the second gallery of this exhibition.

Musings on Stefan Sagmeister The Happy Show, Part II

Stefan Sagmeister is a graphic designer and typographer who is best known for
his album covers for Lou Reed, The Rolling Stones, David Byrne, Aerosmith, and Pat Metheny.  Stefan Sagmeister The Happy Show is an art exhibit at the University of Pennsylvania Institute for Contemporary Art that runs through August 12, 2012.  The exhibit is organized around statements taken from Sagmeister’s diary; we have already in Part I of this blog post encountered one such aphorism:  “Everybody always thinks they are right.”

Near the entrance is a warning:  “This exhibition will not make you happier. Low expectations are a good strategy.”  Danes always rank at the top of any survey of the happiest people on earth, and some attribute this fact to following the low expectations advice. 

Over the past 30 years, in survey after survey, this nation of five and a half million people, the land that produced Hans Christian Andersen, the people who consume herring by the ton, consistently beat the rest of the world in the happiness stakes. It's hard to figure: the weather is only so-so, they are heavy drinkers and smokers, their neighbors, the Norwegians, are richer, and their other neighbors, the Swedes, are healthier. (

In a 60 minutes episode, Professor Kaare Christensen of the University of Southern Denmark stated “Although the Danes were very happy with their life, when we looked at their expectations they were pretty modest." (

Eric Weiner writing in The New York Times describes Happiness equals Reality minus Expectations as a formula where most of us focus on the Reality factor, not the Expectations factor. Danes, unlike most of us, have low expectations and so “year after year they are pleasantly surprised to find out that not everything is rotten in the state of Denmark,” says James W. Vaupel, a demographer who has investigated Danish bliss. (

Fortified by this wise advice and having low expectations, I entered the first room of The Happy Show and encountered the first Sagmeister statement:

It is pretty much impossible to please everybody unless you are Maira Kalman.  Her blog for the New York Times is the only published venture I know that seems to elicit only positive comments.

During my visit to the art museum I did not recognize the name Maira Kalman.  It was only after googling her later at home that I realized I had seen many of her New Yorker covers (  The New York Times website revealed her And the Pursuit of Happiness blog dated December 31, 2009, 9:32 PM.

            Where is happiness?
            What is happiness?
            What did Thomas Jefferson mean?
            The pursuit of happiness.
            I visited Dr. James Watson.
            Maybe there is a genetic explanation for happiness.
            And all we need to do is take a pill
            That puts it into action.
            I asked him.
            He could not tell me because no one really knows.
            And anyway, everyone has to be sad part of the time;
            Otherwise you would be insane.
            I looked at him.
            He takes walks. Plays tennis.
            He works.
            He looks at trees.
            These are good ways to find happiness.
            To find peace of mind.
            Me? I work and walk.
            And go to museums.

After hearing David Eddy, MD, PhD, deliver a provocative lecture that challenged the conventional wisdom of evidence based medicine experts, I wrote the following in a blog post extolling those who do not strive to please everyone:

Eddy gives those of us in the evidence-based medicine world a lot to think about.  By making us at ICSI question how we develop guidelines, he is challenging us to make sure that we stay on the cutting edge.  He is also proving the point made by Tim Ferriss in a recent blog entitled “The Benefits of Pissing People Off” (

Ferriss references a Scott Boras mentor saying, “If you are really effective at what you do, 95% of the things said about you will be negative. Keep your head on straight, don’t get emotional, take the heat, and just make sure your clients are smiling.”

Colin Powell on leadership makes a similar point: “Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity: you’ll avoid the tough decisions, you’ll avoid confronting the people who need to be confronted, and you’ll avoid offering differential rewards based on differential performance because some people might get upset. Ironically, by procrastinating on the difficult choices, by not trying to get anyone mad, and by treating everyone equally ‘nicely’ regardless of their contributions, you’ll simply ensure that the only people you’ll wind up angering are the most creative and productive people in the organization.”

The next organizing quotation from Sagmeister’s diary was “Having guts always works out for me.”  This installation featured 12 minutes of an uncompleted film where Sagmeister forces himself to do things that do not come naturally to him.  He tries to give away a flower to a stranger, and he attempts to obtain the phone number of a woman he meets on the street.  He describes the uncomfortable butterflies that he feels in his stomach as he attempts to be gutsier, and he concludes they are necessary to force oneself to grow. 

When I mounted a stationary bicycle and pushed the pedals hard enough I created enough electricity to light up a huge neon sign in the museum gallery. (   I could not ride the bicycle and take notes at the same time, but the writing on the wall next to the neon sign stated:

Every single time I think I should do this or I should try that and then don’t follow through and actually do it, the uncompleted action creates a little nagging but otherwise empty space in my mind.  I’m also missing out on the satisfying feeling that comes with completion of a project.

Obviously, the Nike slogan “just do it” came to mind, but I also thought immediately about how Martin Seligman has expanded his definition of happiness in his new book Flourish.  Seligman, who teaches at University of Pennsylvania, identifies five elements of well-being, each of which exhibit the following properties:  the element contributes to well-being; people pursue the element for its own sake; the element is well defined and measured independently of the other elements. Seligman recommends the mnemonic PERMA to remember the five elements of well-being:  positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning, and accomplishment.  I was surprised that Seligman was not mentioned anywhere in The Happy Show; maybe I just missed the reference to him.    

Part III of this blog will continue our visit to Stefan Sagmeister The Happy Show.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Musings on Stefan Sagmeister's The Happy Show

In April I came across a New York Times article about an art exhibit by Stefan Sagmeister called The Happy Show.  ( There are more than 10 books on my shelves on happiness, and I have often blogged about how much the positive psychology movement has affected me. (  When I noticed that Sagmeister’s The Happy Show was opening at the University of Pennsylvania Institute for Contemporary Art, I vowed to go see it, even though I had never heard of him or his work as a designer.  I finally got around to going last week.

The outing started on a high note as I easily found a parking place on the street near the museum located at 36th and Sansom on the Penn campus; it probably helped that graduation was over, and most of the students have left for summer vacation.  I did note that something as simple as easy parking could put me in a positive mood.  Since I was early and the museum did not open until 11:00 AM, I took a pleasant walk around the Penn campus and was most impressed by Alexander Liberman’s massive sculpture Covenant and the red brick Fisher Fine Arts Library. 

Upon entering the museum at 11:00 AM, I was told by the two security guards that I could not see the show until I checked in at the front desk.  After waiting 15 minutes, a young woman appeared, but she was “just an intern” and could not check me in.  The guards tried to be helpful, but it was frustrating to just wait for the official person to check me in.  When he finally arrived, he was did not apologize and really only wanted to record my zip code on his computer screen:  19072.

Climbing the stairs to the second floor gallery, I was not in the best of moods, but the appearance of giant monkey balloons inscribed with “Everybody always thinks they are right” immediately took my mind off my delayed entrance.  This quotation was the first of many observations evidently taken from Mr. Sagmeister’s diary, and The Happy Show is organized around several of these thoughts.  (

The giant monkey balloons immediately made me think of David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College graduation speech.  (

The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.
Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it's so socially repulsive. But it's pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.
Please don't worry that I'm getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It's a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being "well-adjusted", which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

I wandered around the landing outside the entrance to the show, and I appreciated the Jonathan Haidt metaphor of the human brain as a small conscious rider on top of a huge unconscious elephant.  The rider cannot really force the elephant to do anything, but over time the rider can train the elephant to be influenced by what the rider wants to accomplish.  Mr. Sagmeister wants to see if he can train his mind in the same way he trained his nonathletic body to finish the New York marathon, and The Happy Show is documenting this mind training. 

Haidt’s metaphor of rider and elephant comes from his book The Happiness Hypothesis, which I had read when it first came out in 2006.  Michael Gazzaniga, when he came to Grand Rapids, Michigan to give an Autumn Health Forum lecture for me, told me to read Haidt who he greatly admires.  Haidt is best known for his describing work as job or career or calling:

·      If you see your work as a job, you do it only for the money, you look at the clock frequently while dreaming about the weekend ahead, and you probably pursue hobbies, which satisfy your effectance needs more thoroughly than does your work.

·       If you see your work as a career, you have larger goals of advancement, promotion, and prestige.

·      If you see your work as a calling, however, you find your work intrinsically fulfilling you are not doing it to achieve something else. You see your work as contributing to the greater good or as playing a role in some larger enterprise the worth of which seems obvious to you. You have frequent experiences of flow during the work day, and you neither look forward to “quitting time” nor feel the desire to shout, “Thank God it’s Friday!” You would continue to work, perhaps even without pay, if you suddenly became very wealthy. (

Haidt’s 2012 book The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion has created a stir by claiming that conservatives and liberals differ in their support of the five fundamental moral values:  care for others, fairness and justice, loyalty to your family or nation, respect for tradition and authority, and purity or sanctity.  According to Haidt liberals put much more emphasis on care for others and fairness than conservatives who embrace all five moral values. 

Two more displays caught my eye on the landing outside the main entrance to The Happy Show.  One described three levels of happiness.  Level One short term happiness listed the words bliss, ecstasy, orgasm, and joy.  Level Two medium term happiness listed satisfaction and well-being.  Level three long term happiness was described as fulfilling one’s potential and understanding the reason why you are alive. 

On the handrail by the stairs leading into the entrance of the exhibit, I read that Sanskrit has 16 words for happiness and that German has none.  Does this mean that the Indians are happier than the Germans or does it mean that Indians are just better at talking about happiness?

In Part II of this blog we will enter Stefan Sagmeister’s The Happy Show and see how he trains his mind to be happy. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Kahneman's Behavioral Economics & Medicine