Pursuit of Happiness

Dilbert - Happiness

 

“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

One of the best mission statements ever crafted 235 years ago today. The clarion call to the American Dream. Our chief founding officers got that one right back then, but today is America on track?

The American Dream itself is in question. And our balanced scorecard is not doing so hot. It turns out that a in recent OECD study on “life satisfaction” and “happiness”, the United States failed to make the top ten.

Some lessons for pursuing happiness do come from embracing failure. Appreciating the gritty realities and problems, failures if you will, of life are clinically proven to make you happier. Does that mean that you spend all day wallowing in whatever misery you can find? The yin and yang of happiness is accepting shortcomings while dreaming of possibilities. Like all balancing acts, this one is hard to maintain. The forces of aspiration and hope that dreams inspire hazardously detract one from remaining grounded, while the forces of realism undermine lofty dreams and hopes. In fact the OECD highlights ‘balance’ as a critical determinant in the Happiness Index: “The happiest countries seem to be places where there is a good balance of work and leisure time.”

So I really mean it when I wish America a HAPPY birthday.

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Embracing Bad Feelings

Mikaela Shiffrin embracing failure

Life’s beauty is inseparable from its fragility.”

Susan David gives a superb TED talk “The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage” about embracing your emotions no matter how “negative” they seem.

  • “Normal, natural emotions are now seen as good or bad. And being positive has become a new form of moral correctness. People with cancer are automatically told to just stay positive. Women, to stop being so angry. And the list goes on. It’s a tyranny. It’s a tyranny of positivity. And it’s cruel. Unkind. And ineffective. And we do it to ourselves, and we do it to others…Research on emotional suppression shows that when emotions are pushed aside or ignored, they get stronger. Psychologists call this amplification… I started to do away with feelings of what I should be experiencing. And instead started to open my heart to what I did feel. Pain. And grief. And loss. And regret… Research now shows that the radical acceptance of all of our emotions — even the messy, difficult ones — is the cornerstone to resilience, thriving, and true, authentic happiness…When you feel a strong, tough emotion, don’t race for the emotional exits. Learn its contours, show up to the journal of your hearts. What is the emotion telling you?”

One of the tricks I learned when I was quite young was assuaging physical pain with mindfulness. Rather than fighting or reacting to it, I actually focused on the discomfort and found that it dissipated much more quickly with mindfulness. Similar to a mediation technique of not rejecting thoughts and sensations that enter your mind during practice, but observing them and letting them go.

Emotions don’t run much more intense than at the peak of athletic achievement. Often a lifetime of dreams brought to a single moment of truth. This past week has been full of the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” with the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. But Olympic champion skier Mikaela Shiffrin eloquently conveys how the emotions are a bit more subtly textured than that. She articulates a brilliant display of embracing even the adverse emotions as part of the rich tapestry of feelings:

  • "I’ve gone over it a thousand times in my head, and I don’t think I could have done it differently even if I got a second chance. I keep thinking that maybe if I was able to control my emotions more after the Giant Slalom, I would have had more energy for the Slalom and maybe I could have put more into that race, maybe I would have had better control of my nerves, maybe… But after 5 days of schedule changes and waiting to race, and without the day between those races to reset and recharge, I wasn’t able to manage it. And you know what? I wouldn’t change that for the world. It’s the Olympics, and for me that’s about showing heart and passion as much as it is about medals. So I wouldn’t take back my emotions or excitement after the GS in order to have better shot at a SL medal too. You know, it’s not necessarily the medalists who get the most out of the Olympics. It’s those who are willing to strip down to nothing and bear their soul for their love of the game. That is so much greater than Gold, Silver, or Bronze. We all want a medal, but not everyone will get one. Some are going to leave here feeling like heroes, some will leave heartbroken, and some will have had moments when the felt both- because we care. That is real. That is life. It’s amazing and terrifying and wonderful and brutal and exciting and nerve racking and beautiful. And honestly, I’m just so grateful to be part of that.”

  

Interestingly Risky Steps

Oliver Burkeman - The Antidote

The International Day of Happiness today. Maybe the best way to celebrate is to embrace failure. That’s the bottom line to happiness guru Oliver Burkeman in his book “Happiness for People Who Can’t Standing Positive Thinking” who busts the myths of all the other happiness gurus. Five of his Happiness MYTHS are…

  1. It’s crucial to maintain a positive mindset
  2. Ambitious goals, relentlessly pursued, are the key to success
  3. The best managers are those who make work fun
  4. Higher self-esteem equals greater happiness
  5. Avoid pessimists at all costs

Burkeman advocates a following a negative path to a positive outlook…

  • “It is our constant quest to eliminate or to ignore the negative – insecurity, uncertainty, failure, sadness – that causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain or unhappy in the first place.  Yet this conclusion does not have to be depressing. Instead, it points to an alternative approach: a ‘negative path’ to happiness that entails taking a radically different stance towards those things most of us spend our lives trying hard to avoid. This involves learning to enjoy uncertainty, embracing insecurity and becoming familiar with failure. In order to be truly happy, it turns out, we might actually need to be willing to experience more negative emotions – or, at the very least, to stop running quite so hard from them.”

And part of that “negative path” to happiness is a form of pessimism…

  • “It’s what the psychologist Julie Norem calls ‘defensive pessimism,’ though its origins stretch back to the Stoics of ancient Greece. Thinking carefully about how badly things could go, the Stoics Seneca and Epictetus both recognized, saps the future of its anxiety-producing power; once you’ve figured out how you’d cope if things went wrong, the resulting peace of mind leaves you better primed for success. A similar focus on downsides informs the Principle of Affordable Loss, part of the business philosophy known as ‘effectuation.’ Instead of asking how likely some venture is to succeed, ask whether you could tolerate the consequences if it failed. That way, you’ll take the interestingly risky steps while avoiding the stupidly risky ones.”

Sort of asking yourself “how bad could it be?”

Embracing the Unreal

Gapingvoid - people who fail

This is not writing. Well, not “real writing. According to some.

Whatever it is, I have been doing it for a complete decade as of today. Recently, life has indeed seemed a bit unreal. So it is hard to determine the ‘real’ from the ‘unreal’. With the override role of cognitive bias in the human condition, the only “real” answer is constant questioning. Especially self-questioning. And whatever this blog is, it does that.

Seth Godin penned in his own blog a fine defence for the “unreal” in his post Walking away from "real"

  • As in, ‘that’s not a real football team, they don’t play in Division 1’ or ‘That stock isn’t traded on a real exchange’ or ‘Your degree isn’t from a real school."Real contains all sorts of normative assumptions and implicit criticisms for those that don’t qualify. Real is just one way to reject the weird. My problem with the search for the badge of real is that it trades your goals and your happiness for someone else’s.”

Embracing failure often means debunking fallacies (ie. failure of knowledge) and this “real writing” arrogance does sort of wreak of the “Real Scotsman” fallacy (ie. a logical fallacy that occurs when: during argument, after their favored group has been criticized, someone re-defines the group in order to deflect uncomfortable counter-examples and thus makes the group entirely praiseworthy).

Blogs get poo-poo’d by the pros as not ‘real writing. But I have been in the fraternity of ‘professional writers’ both as an overseas correspondent in Africa and commissioning work in my role at Microsoft marketing. I can tell you right now that a very large majority of ‘professional’ (or ‘real’) writing is in no way real. Rehashed press releases, anodyne stringing together of buzzwords, pay-per-word padding. Echoing Seth’s sentiments, most of this material is also written to the lowest common denominator or normality and unexceptionality.

But it is in the printed world where the embrace of failure to secure a publisher is most interesting. My mother adapted my letters home when I was in Africa into a self-published book. At first, I thought it would be a book that ‘only a mother would love’, but it kept her busy in her new phase of retirement so it seemed harmless. The book hasn’t been a best-seller, but it has been a great way to share a part my experience with not just extended friends and family, but also with other people interested in the topic. My father self-published ‘Shorelines’ and it is in many ways a culmination of his life’s work as a clergyman. Our daughter, Isley, self-published a book of poetry after getting more and more popular on the poetry recital and spoken work circuit and having people ask for a copy of her work. Our son, Chase, self-produced a field recording album “Four Points” and it turned out that the British Library wanted a copy for its archive (being an creative acoustic illustration of the British Isles).

Amateurish? Get real.

Turning Adverse Thoughts

Gapingvoid - never give up

  • Hope is fuel, it moves us forward and it amplifies our best work.” – Seth Godin Hope and expectation

World Wish Day today. A time to celebrate your hopes and dreams and aspirations. For the skeptics out there, there is actual evidence that wishing and dreaming can provide real, documentable benefits. Robert Rowland Smith in his article “Does daydreaming serve any purpose?” explores this dynamic with its own tinge of turning adversity to advantage…

  • “Sigmund Freud argued that daydreaming is a form of fantasising, fantasising is a form of imagination, and imagination is the basis of art. Hence creative writers. He did add a proviso, however, to the effect that daydreaming is a sign of unhappiness. If you have to fantasise about something else, it means you’re not content with your life as it is. So artists and writers might produce great art, but are constitutionally miserable. A later psychoanalyst, Hanna Segal, had a more positive take. She suggested that daydreaming and imagination were ways of turning unhappy thoughts into something creative. They are signs of good mental health. They might even alleviate depression. And a third psychoanalyst, Christopher Bollas, implies that the distracted or abstracted mood we’re in when daydreaming provides the mental downtime necessary for us to be able to focus again. When the mind wanders, it refreshes itself. Daydreaming is a holiday that restores our ability to think acutely.”

Given my ongoing series on the “Death of Dreams” you might be inclined to think that my marking of this day would be muted. On the contrary, dreams occupy that duality of both upside and downside. And while my failure embracing side advocates the letting go of faltered dreams, it is only so new ones can thrive in their place. Hugh MacLeod said it best when describing his piece shown above…

  • “It’s not that you must never, ever give up on your dreams, sometimes dreams don’t happen. I once dreamt of living in Tokyo, for example. It never happened. It’s OK, I got over it. I found new dreams instead. It’s when we lose the capacity to dream, I think, is when the rot seeps in. When we stop giving ourselves permission to make the world a better place, even on a modest scale. It’s dreams that make life seem actually real to us.”

Resolving not to Resolve

Dilbert - positive attitude

I’m not the only one not making New Year’s Resolutions. For starters, Scott Adams’ book on embracing failure “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big” includes the biting aphorism “Goals are for losers” (though one could argue that people can make resolutions to change the habits, practices and ‘systems’ in their lives without the noxious goal-setting).

FastCompany’s resolution list last year went a step further with its resolution rejectionism…

11. Don’t Listen To These Happiness Myths, And Know The Power Of Negative Thinking. This might be the only New Year’s resolution list that will tell you to not “maintain a positive mindset.” In fact, we say just the opposite: it’s beneficial to feel your emotions (all of them) and more productive to “focus on behavior, not internal states.”

They linked to the piece “5 Big Happiness Myths Debunked” by Oliver Burkeman whose embrace of “negative thinking” I’ve featured a few times here.

May your all your failures bring positive consolations in 2016.

Power of Non-Attainment

 

Some else who sometimes lost is Olympic champion, Adam Kreek (thanks Ben). His TED talk above provides some great turns of phrase on the embracing failure theme –

  • Power of Non-Attainment: “If we fail happily and we fail more effectively, we gain more self-confidence, we have greater self-esteem, we have more connection to each other.”
  • Seek Failure: “Jake [Adam asked his teammate], How are you so successful?’…[Jake replied] ’I seek failure…Every week we train every day Monday through Saturday and I will willing pick out on workout where I will push myself through my known limit. And I will embrace failure. In fact, my body will fail on me. And for the rest of the week, I will know what this limit is…and I will hover below it. And in fact, the great point of growth occurs right below your limit’.”
  • Capacity Bubble: “Everyone of us has a ‘capacity bubble’. A capacity to achieve, to find success, to find fulfilment, to find happiness in life. We can choose to stay in the center of our capacity bubble and slowly let that bubble shrink. Or we can hover around the edges of our capacity bubble and let that bubble grow. And if you’re impatient and you want that bubble to grow as fast as possible, what should you do? You should be right at the edge of your capacity bubble…”
  • Happy Failure: “…And how do you know where your edge is? You fail. You don’t just fail…you’re happy about it.”

I’ve included Kreek’s two charts illustrating the “capacity bubble” and the “happy failure matrix” below. The “capacity bubble” echoes my own theme of “dream bubbles”. They drive you the greater things, they are meant to be broken (for happy and for sad reasons), and the greatest growth occurs not in achieving them, but just short of achieving them.

This weekend I will be up at Nottingham cheering on the best of British rowing who will be pulling hard to break through their limits at British National Rowing Championships (including Ben). If you fail, may it be a happy one.

 

Adam Creek - Capacity Bubble

 

Adam Kreek - Happy Failure Matrix

New Year Fails 5

Marlow Rowing Club Boxing Day Quads

 

A new year rolls in and once again time to recount my failures of the year. As it happens I did write down a list of about a half dozen things that I wanted to achieve in 2014. The grand total achieved…zero. The good news is that none of them are out of the running. They are all viable candidates for 2015. Have I made progress? Yes.

What do I learn looking back on these aspirations? 1. Some things take longer than you hope at first. 2. I did many things that I never anticipated last January which filled my year with unexpected new growth and experiences.

For example, this time last year. I was happily in my tenth year of coaching rowing for Sir William Borlase’s Grammar School, but an opportunity came up to help out with the new Pararowing programme at Marlow RC. Moving to MRC both introduced me to a whole new type of coaching (more individual with more advanced athletes rather than throng of very young novices) and also got me onto the water rowing myself more than I have been in years (going out in single scull sessions). In fact, I finished the year with one of the most prestigious losses of my sporting career. Our scratch quad lost to Sir Steve Redgrave’s in the final of the MRC Boxing Day Quad’s event. If you are going to lose a race, then lose it to a legendary Olympian.

In 2015, I will take a page from Katie Ledger post “New Year Resolutions (Aagh!)” for some resolutions that have some real potential for success…

  • 2. Embrace A Little Insecurity
  • 6. Embrace Procrastination–Because It Might Make You More Productive
  • 11. Don’t Listen To These Happiness Myths, And Know The Power Of Negative Thinking

Happy New Year!

It’s a Dirty Job But

  

I got it wrong about a lot of things. Not just the testicles on my chin.” – Mike Rowe.

Happy Labor Day Americans. Time to take a day off to toast hard work with a beer and hot dog. To celebrate the good…and the bad. The dirty and difficult bits that, really, makes it ‘labor’.

No better expert on the ‘dirty’ side of work than Mike Rowe, star of “Dirty Jobs”. His TED talk “Learning from dirty jobs” examines the best bits about the worst work, and underscores a premise I have written about repeatedly of embracing the failure of dreams

What would happen if we challenged some of these sacred cows? ‘Follow your passion.’ We’ve been talking about it here for the past six hours. ‘Follow your passion.’ What could possibly be wrong with that? It’s probably the worst advice I ever got. You know…follow your dreams and go broke.”

Rowe’s advice echoes similar words of wisdom I got from my university police chief (where I worked as a security guard to pay for school), “There is no perfect job.” There is always some element that is a trade-off. And part of the reason we get paid money to do the job, is because there are a whole bunch of people who don’t want to do it so badly that they will pay to avoid it.

He talks about a millionaire pig farmer. “He didn’t ‘follow his passion’. He looked where everyone was going and he went the other way.”:

“I talk about some of the other things that I got wrong. Some of the other notions of work that I have just been assuming are sacrosanct. And they’re not. People with dirty jobs are happier than you think. As a group, they’re the happiest people I know.”

People confuse “Lottery Ticket Winner” as a viable career choice. Unfortunately, “lottery ticket winner” is dressed up in the guise of legitimate work with job titles like “pop star”, “model” and “professional athlete.”

Rowe elaborates further in this post “A Fan Asks Mike Rowe For Life Advice… His Response Is Truly Brilliant”:

“Stop looking for the “right” career, and start looking for a job. Any job. Forget about what you like. Focus on what’s available. Get yourself hired. Show up early. Stay late. Volunteer for the scut work. Become indispensable. You can always quit later, and be no worse off than you are today. But don’t waste another year looking for a career that doesn’t exist. And most of all, stop worrying about your happiness. Happiness does not come from a job. It comes from knowing what you truly value, and behaving in a way that’s consistent with those beliefs.”

And the delusion of the “dream partner” can pose all the same problems as seeking the “dream job”…

“Claire doesn’t really want a man. She wants the ‘right’ man…She complains about being alone, even though her rules have more or less guaranteed she’ll stay that way. She has built a wall between herself and her goal. A wall made of conditions and expectations.”

Enjoy your beer for tomorrow we work.

Be Hard on Your Dreams

  

Tim Minchin isn’t shy about kicking off a quarter-life crisis for college graduates out there. He delivers one of my favourite speeches is to the University of Western Australia centering largely on the rampant destruction of young dreams…

  • You don’t have to have a dream.  Americans on talent shows always talk about their dreams.  Fine, if you have something that you’ve always wanted to do, dreamed of, like in your heart – go for it.  After all, it’s something to do with your time.  Chasing a dream.  And if it’s a big enough one, it will take you most of your life to achieve  so that by the time you get to it and you are staring into the abyss of the meaninglessness of your achievement, you will be almost dead so it won’t matter.  I never really had one of these dreams so I advocate passionate dedication to the pursuit of short term goals.  Be micro-ambitious.  Put your head down and work with pride on whatever is in front of you.  You never know where you might end up.  Just remember that the next worthy pursuit will probably appear in your periphery.  Which is why you should be careful of longterm dreams.  If you focus too far in front of you, you won’t see the shiny thing out the corner of your eye.”
  • Don’t Seek Happiness. We didn’t evolve to be constantly content.
  • Remember, It’s All Luck – You are lucky to be here. You were incalculably lucky to be born, and incredibly lucky to be brought up by a nice family that helped you get educated and encouraged you to go to Uni. Or if you were born into a horrible family, that’s unlucky and you have my sympathy… but you were still lucky: lucky that you happened to be made of the sort of DNA that made the sort of brain which – when placed in a horrible childhood environment – would make decisions that meant you ended up, eventually, graduating Uni. Well done you, for dragging yourself up by the shoelaces, but you were lucky. You didn’t create the bit of you that dragged you up. They’re not even your shoelaces…Understanding that you can’t truly take credit for your successes, nor truly blame others for their failures will humble you and make you more compassionate. Empathy is intuitive, but is also something you can work on, intellectually.:
  • Be Hard On Your Opinions – We must think critically, and not just about the ideas of others. Be hard on your beliefs. Take them out onto the verandah and beat them with a cricket bat. Be intellectually rigorous. Identify your biases, your prejudices, your privilege. Most of society’s arguments are kept alive by a failure to acknowledge nuance. We tend to generate false dichotomies, then try to argue one point using two entirely different sets of assumptions, like two tennis players trying to win a match by hitting beautifully executed shots from either end of separate tennis courts…Science is not a body of knowledge nor a system of belief; it is just a term which describes humankind’s incremental acquisition of understanding through observation. Science is awesome.”

These sentiments were echoes by a series of tweets by Marc Andreessen this past week which counselled…

  1. Thesis: “Do what you love” / “Follow your passion” is dangerous and destructive career advice.
  2. We tend to hear is from (a) Highly successful people who (b) Have become successful doing what they love.
  3. The problem is that we do NOT hear from people who have failed to become successful by doing what they love.
  4. Particularly pernicious problem in tournament-style fields with a few big winners & lots of losers: media, athletics, start-ups.
  5. Better career advice may be ”Do what contributes” – focus on the beneficial value created for other people vs. just one’s own ego.
  6. People who contribute the most are often the most satisfied with what they do – and in field with high remuneration, make the most $.
  7. Perhaps difficult advice since requires focus on others vs oneself – perhaps bad fit with endemic narcissism in modern culture?
  8. Requires delayed gratification – may toil for many years to get the payoff of contributing value to the world vs. short-term happiness.