One of the most interesting subjects in the field of Positive Psychology is the science of human motivation and success. Why are some people so motivated and so successful? Why do some people not even bother to try? And how does that correlate with human happiness?
I find this all fascinating. But I also find it tends to make me crazy. The other night, for example, I listened to a lecture by psychologist Tal Ben Shahar, who explained a range of psychological studies showing that high expectations of ourselves leads to higher self-esteem and higher levels of happiness in the long run, even when we fall short of those expectations. It was somewhat counterintuitive, since I would have thought that lowering our expectations would make us feel better, because we’d be more likely to meet them. Studies show, however, that seeing ourselves try to meet our own high expectations actually changes our view of ourselves, which raises self-esteem, even if it also means we fail more often. Higher expectations, if grounded in reality, also tend to lead to eventual success.
All good as far as it goes. But the longer I listened to the lecture, the more I found myself in turmoil. Were my expectations high enough? I wondered. Had I settled for too little in my life? Should I be setting my goals higher, and if I did, what would they be?
Ben Shahar went on to explain the impact of our environment on achievement, and how we can create an environment that “primes” us for success, even subliminally encouraging and cheering us on. That’s good news. Still, I found myself in a bit of a panic: is my environment encouraging enough? Should I have more photos of friends and family on my walls? Would that feel supportive, or oppressive? And what about inspirational quotes? Would those subconsciously help me even if I tend to find them cheesy?
By the end of the lecture I felt like crap. Now obsessing about my lack of achievement, I looked up one of my favorite positive psychologists, Ellen Langer. A researcher and professor at Harvard, Langer has published 11 books on mindfulness and is an accomplished self-taught painter. I can never be as successful as her, I despaired.
The science of success wasn’t motivating me, it was deflating me.
It’s great to want to be your best self, but knowing what or who that even is can be a lifelong work-in-progress. I think the key to making that process “successful” is to learn to enjoy the ride along the way. Comparing yourself to your role model of the day, on the other hand, is a recipe for despair, depression, and demoralization.
The Beat Generation writer Seymour Krim has a wonderful essay called “For My Brothers and Sisters in the Failure Business” that encapsulates what I’m talking about.
“At 51,” he writes, “believe it or not, or believe it and pity me if you are young and swift, I still don’t know truly ‘what I want to be.’ I’ve published several serious books. I rate an inch in Who’s Who in America. I teach at a so-called respected university. But in that profuse upstairs delicatessen of mine I’m as open to every wild possibility as I was at 13, although even I know that the chances of acting them out diminish with each heartbeat. One life was never quite enough for what I had in mind. “
“That’s because I come from America,” Krim continues, “which has to be the classic, ultimate, then-they-broke-the mold incubator of not knowing who you are until you find out. I have never really found out and I expect what remains of my life to be one long search party for the final me. . . . and I don’t really think that the great day will ever come when I hold a finished me in my fist and say here you are, congratulations.”
Positive Psychology seems to arise out of that American tendency to take advantage of every possibility available to us. Which is a lot of pressure. With all this psychological understanding, now, it’s not enough merely to be successful by conventional measures, but we have to realize our truest deepest visions, too. It’s a nice goal, but trying to meet it can be exhausting.
This is where I think we can learn a thing or two from Buddhism. Unlike positive psychologists who speak of unmasking your true, best self and then succeeding wildly, Buddhism speaks of the self as a constantly evolving and changing, ephemeral concept. There is no fixed self to unmask, no core we need to improve. Sure, we have tendencies and inclinations and strengths and weaknesses based on causes and conditions in our past – whether our genes, family, society, education, or whatever. And those may or may not be helpful to us now. But the goal is not to try to remove all those to reveal some true self that you then have to shine and polish. It’s to see them all as clearly as we can and to work with them. Acknowledge their influence, and then, with the wisdom we have today, choose what we want to develop, let go of or build upon.
The purpose of mindfulness practices like meditation are to learn to see and discern the various thoughts and influences that have led you to this place, so you can make clearer and wiser choices from here. That may include choosing more helpful influences in your future.
If you approach your own efforts with heartfelt compassion for the self you have become, you’ll be much more able to take advantage of the wealth of scientific studies on happiness and success. Because only by seeing and accepting who we are now can we begin to truly consider who we want to be and where we want to go.
Success, then, means simply continuing to move in our chosen direction.