The Demoralizing Science of Success

063b6cfOne 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.

Bernie Sanders, the Optimist

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One of the most common criticisms I hear of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is that he’s too angry.

Americans are famous for being upbeat and optimistic. We’re raised to believe in “the American Dream” in which anyone can rise up from poverty to be a huge success. Anger –- particularly about the reality that lots of people don’t have access to that dream — doesn’t fit so well into that equation. (Unless, perhaps, it’s satisfied by scapegoating other people — the Donald Trump strategy.)

Hope, on the other hand, has always been a runaway bestseller. Bill Clinton, “the man from Hope” – his hometown in Arkansas – is still one of the most popular American presidents ever. And Barack Obama got himself elected promoting “the Audacity of Hope,” as he called his 2006 memoir. His vague promises of hope allowed the electorate to project all sorts of their own hopes and dreams onto him. Seven years later, many are sorely disappointed.

Thomas Frank, in his 2014 Salon essay The Hope Diet, cynically dismissed all the hopefulness in American politics as a way of duping the citizenry into complacency while leaders do what they want. Rather than a motivating force to engage the public, hope is something politicians “bring with them…ensuring this fanciful substance flows our way doesn’t require them actually to, you know, enact anything we’re hoping for. On the contrary, they can do things (like Clinton’s deregulation or Obama’s spying program) that actually harm their constituents, and then tell us, as Barack Obama tweeted after the 2012 election, the definition of hope is you still believe, even when it’s hard… This is the opposite of accountability.”

Perpetual war, extreme inequality and rampant injustice seem to be the norm these days, so one can be forgiven for feeling a little less hopeful. I think that’s why Bernie Sanders’ anger can seem, at least to some of us, highly appropriate.

Anger makes us uncomfortable, but it can be motivating. It signals something is wrong. And being on the lookout for something wrong may be the appropriate approach to the systems and institutions that hold so much power in our society. One can be angry at, or even cynical about, those institutions, and still be optimistic about individual human potential for change.

It’s a stark contrast to the approach of Donald Trump. Like Sanders, Trump is angry and cynical – but his wrath is aimed at specific groups of people, such as immigrants and Muslims. He’s not a cynic about our institutions, which have helped him amass huge wealth while providing only a $7.25 federal minimum wage that Trump has suggested is “too high.”

Although the media doesn’t generally tout Sanders as an optimist, it strikes me that his views are highly optimistic about human potential. This sort of view is encapsulated by the work of leading “positive” psychologists, such as the Harvard researcher Ellen Langer. In her book Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility, Langer explores how beliefs about aging affect and in some cases dictate our physical and mental experience of it. (This is also relevant to the criticism that Sanders is “too old” to be president.) Langer is not concerned with the statistical probability of something happening. She’s interested in what can happen. That’s far more motivating and relevant when you’re talking about make change. For example, I don’t really care if it’s statistically unlikely that I’ll run a marathon next year. If I really want to do that (I don’t, particularly, but you get the idea) there’s a lot I can do to make it happen.

That to me is what hope is about, whether personal or political. It’s what motivates and encourages us to improve our lives and our world.

I think it’s why I like Bernie Sanders. There’s something about his willingness to see and state clearly the powerful influence of concentrated wealth in our society and its control over all of our major systems and institutions that’s refreshing. It may come across as angry, but it’s not pessimistic. His candidacy is all about offering the possibility of a new form of governance that roots out that outsized influence.

Of course, his ability to actually accomplish that within the existing American political system is another matter – and may reasonably influence whether voters wants to place their hopes in him. Still, it’s a good example of how one can be appropriately cynical about systems and institutions, and still be optimistic about the possibility of well-meaning individuals to join together to change them.