Here is a settled thought that a lot of thinking and life experience has led me to: Making happiness your life goal is a self-defeating proposition. Indeed, if that is your central preoccupation, two unfortunate things are likely to result. First, you will gravitate toward activities that offer short-term endorphin hits – toys, games, sex, alcohol and drugs, and so on – neglecting, in the process, the more lasting rewards offered by long term, mutually nourishing relationships.
In addition, you are likely to wind up frustrated since, no matter how wealthy and privileged you are, you will inevitably encounter a slow waitress, a nasty co-worker, injury, illness and death. I am always amazed – but no longer surprised – at the levels of impatience and frustration exhibited by entitled people. Thinking that their wealth entitles them to a first class ticket in life, they so often feel instantly aggrieved when the least little things goes wrong – hardly a model of happiness.
So is there a more productive path to a happy life? The answer is, I think, yes. The key is to understand our basic biological and psychological processes and, then, to craft an approach to living that while, respecting their reality, nurtures our better nature. In this model, happiness is not the goal. Instead, it is a by-product of the choices we make.
The starting place for me is a series of interrelated orienting frames offered by three of our more generative psychological theorists: Daniel Siegel, Jordan Peterson, and Martin Seligman.
According to Siegel, if life is a river, with one bank representing safety and the other aliveness, the challenge is to creatively integrate and balance the two. An adequate level of safety and predictability is vital to avoid feeling chaotic and out of control. But, equally important, are novelty and aliveness lest we crater on the river’s other shore, creating a life that is drab and flat.
Peterson offers a more pointed, physiological version of the same concept:
Your nervous system being an evolutionary structure is evolved for a universe that is composed of the interaction between chaos and order. Everywhere you go is chaos and order. And the optimally meaningful life is to be found on the border between the two. Your nervous system tells you exactly when you are there, because you’re secure enough to be confident but not so secure that you’re bored. You’re interested enough to be awake but not so interested that you’re terrified. When you’re in that state, when you find things interesting and meaningful, time slips by and you’re no longer self-conscious.
Finally, there is Martin Seligman’s story about the famous biologist, now in his 70s, who arrives at his lab first early one morning and starts to examine samples in his microscope. Suddenly, the slides became blurry and difficult to see. His immediate, heart-stopping thought: Is my eyesight failing? Is my ability to do the thing I love the most in life at an end? Then he looks up and realizes that the sun has gone down.
This optimally stimulated, timeless, unselfconscious state, that each of these thinkers describes, seems like an excellent end point to strive for in our search for happiness. And Peterson goes on to offer a tangible, day-by-day practice to help us to get from here to there.
Beginning at a place where you don’t exactly know what you’re doing, how do you get to a more knowing place? If you follow your internal intuitions and are honest about them, a star – the thing that makes your life meaningful – will appear to guide you. You’ll take some tentative steps in that direction, get a little ways, and think “no that’s wrong.” Then your life’s meaning will appear over there, and you’ll take a few steps in that direction and see that that is wrong too. But you keep chasing it, moving forward, doing things. And because you’re honest with yourself, you learn from your mistakes and get wiser and wiser. Then, 20 years down the road, you won’t be making so many mistakes.
To the same point is this from Virginia Satir:
My growth exists in new territory, step by step. One step ahead, see what’s there, to the right or left, whatever seems to have the most space. Does it fit for me? I cannot map it out ahead of time. That’s how it is in the unknown. Take a step, then see where I can go, keeping in mind where I might like to end up. I may end up somewhere else; maybe at a place better than what I thought of. But that is the way, step by step.
Notice that, to this point, I have described a remarkably value-free approach to happiness. In theory, this path could lead to drugs, or compulsive sexual conquests, or the endless pursuit of wealth and privilege. But my gut has always told me that this isn’t – couldn’t – be true. And in a more recent lecture/podcast, “The Necessity of Virtue,” Peterson explains why.
He begins his analysis with one of Buddhism’s fundamental premises: That being – life – is suffering. He then references Cain, who railed against God for favoring Abel and, then, killed his brother.
What is Peterson’s understanding of the story? Cain screwed up. He failed to accept the fact that, living in an indifferent universe, the suffering that came his way was inevitable. Instead, he committed the cardinal “Buddhist” mistake of inflicting additional pain on himself and others in his vain attempt to deny and reverse this reality.
This parable, according to Peterson, is foundational. When we emerged into self-consciousness as a species – the very thing that makes us unique – the first thing we became aware of was our own vulnerability and, with it, the inevitability of suffering. And our instinctual move, like Eve in the Garden of Eden, was to recoil from it; to cover-up, hide, and deny it.
The problem with this approach? When we deny our vulnerability and attempt to control our destiny, we no longer view another’s good fortune and our bad luck as happenstance, to be accepted with equanimity. Instead, we envy the other’s fate and curse our own. I can – and should – have what he has. Just as it was for Cain, this mindset leads inexorably toward insensitivity and cruelty. We are primed to either take what the other person has or, in our bitter frustration, to destroy this (illusory) object of fate’s beneficence.
A journey toward happiness requires honesty about who we are and what our fate is. Failing to fully account for our vulnerability and suffering, we will be trapped in “Cain-like” habits of living: Drawn to manipulation and diminishment of others, isolating ourselves in the process, inviting retaliation. We will also brutalize ourselves by vainly seeking to suppress the fear, confusion, and sadness that so inconveniently remind us of our vulnerability.
However, when we accept our vulnerability and let go of our doomed efforts to dominate our world and control outcomes, all kinds of more hopeful possibilities emerge. And this is where Radical Decency enters to picture.
Being radically decent – respectful, understanding and empathic; accepting and appreciative; fair and just – is a perplexing and wisdom stretching challenge, even in the best of circumstances. But living, as we do, in a culture that so powerfully indoctrinates us into a fundamental lie – the myth of our invulnerability – the task is vastly more difficult. For this reason, A committed Radical Decency’s practice virtually demands an ever-deepening understanding of the life’s complexities and realities including, crucially, the vulnerability and suffering that so fundamentally define our existence.
Why? Because failing to understand these realities – so we can deal with them more effectively in our day-by-day choices – we will be inexorably pulled toward the dominating and controlling behaviors that our culture endlessly models and promotes. And in their wake will come isolation, self-judgment, and sense of failure; hardly a prescription for the happiness we long for!
On the other hand, a full throttled commitment to Radical Decency impels us toward mindsets that are less judgmental and more curious and open. Pre-occupied with the tricky and consuming task of operationalizing this approach to living, the culture’s conventional outlooks wither from neglect. And, on the flip side, attending to the demands of a committed Radical Decency practice will cultivate a deepening sense of empathy for our self and others; a state of mind will, in turn, lead to an increasing acceptance of the vulnerability and suffering that is our lot in life.
And where does this lead? To an ever-deepening sense of: Living in the present (lessening shame about the past, fear about the future, and need to control); clarity and coherence about our priorities (lessening confusion and anxiety about our choices; creating greater ease in living); and an ennobling sense of purpose (lessening hopelessness and despair; creating an increased sense of pleasure in living). See Reflection #13, Decency Is Its Own Reward.
The journey of the heart, that Peterson and Satir describe, can lead in endless directions. But so long as the journey is infused with a commitment to Radical Decency’s values, that is fine. We can trust the process, secure in the knowledge that we are moving toward a place that combines ease and vibrancy in living with that optimally stimulated, timeless, unselfconscious state of mind that is the hallmark of happiness.
In closing I want to emphasize that this Reflection deals with an aspect of Radical Decency that is personal and individual: How to create a more vibrant and nourishing life.
Focusing on this aspect of the philosophy, however, we always need to remember that Radical Decency encompasses far more than our internal, psychological world.
Equally indispensable is its effort to fully account for, and to neutralize, the indecencies that pervade our world. Why? Because, failing to do so, the values that dominate the mainstream culture will inevitably invade, diminish, and overwhelm our small, private islands of equanimity.
We need cultivate respect, understanding, empathy, acceptance, and appreciation; the “attitudinal” aspects of Radical Decency and the hallmarks of our personal journey. At the same time, however, we need to be equally committed to its change oriented “action” attributes – fairness and justice – in the choices we make, out there, in the real world. Decency to self, others, and the world need to be our lodestar – at all times, in every context, and without exception.