The Pursuit of Happiness – Part 2

Welcome back!  This week, more musings inspired by Jordan Peterson. If you haven’t already, I recommend starting with last week’s post which discusses how our perception is developed and how it can shift depending on our goals, expectations, and beliefs.

Returning to Peterson’s book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to chaos, he makes the profound claims that we are all corrupt and capable of doing damage to others. He explains that where we fall in that spectrum is a direct result of our beliefs and experiences which in turn impact our perception.

He argues that people all have the same potential; that things like nice and mean are dependent on the situations that we find ourselves.

“The problem with ‘nice people’ is that they’ve never been in any situation that would turn them into the monsters they’re capable of being.”

Peterson, with a flair for impact and drama, also makes the provocative suggestion that we should all get in touch with our “inner psychopaths”, putting a big exclamation point next to the suggestion that we are all capable of horrendous things.

I find this idea compelling because it underlines the need for compassion and understanding, both for the self and others but it also lends itself to other strategies we’ve discussed (such as the suggestion that everyone is doing the best they can, see that post here).

It is also relevant to this discussion because it has interesting implications to extreme theories involving law of attraction, like those suggested in Rhonda Byrne’s 2006 book “the Secret” which claims that anything can be manifested with the right mindset.

While I do believe there is some truth to the power of thought and that being a decent and mindful person will ultimately give you a more satisfying life, I don’t think that this is the whole story. Frankly, if that was the case, there would be no hardship in the world and we would all be living in a minimalist off-grid cabin with a Jason Momoa lookalike (insert your fantasy life here).  Unfortunately, being nice and doing good deeds does not mean that you will be without suffering, and being a tyrant won’t necessarily bring you bad fortune.

Peterson explains how this idea plays into building a life around happiness as a goal, and how that can be a problem:

“Happiness is a great side effect. When it comes, accept it gratefully. But it’s fleeting and unpredictable. It’s not something to aim at – because it’s not an aim. And if happiness is the purpose of life, what happens when you’re unhappy? Then you’re a failure. And perhaps a suicidal failure. Happiness is like cotton candy. It’s just not going to do the job.”

In the last chapter of the book, Peterson talks about his family’s struggles following his daughter’s diagnosis with a rare bone disease. For years, the family fought through surgeries, recovery, and adapting to the necessary changes that had to be made to their lives and expectations for the future. It is clear that this and the subsequent events were a great source of darkness for Peterson and his family.

Peterson also talks about how emotions like grief are a product of challenges to our perception and expectations. In his own experience, thinking that he would have a happy and healthy child only to come face to face with the reality of the uncertainty of his daughter’s health.

Imagine that you have built your life on a frozen lake. While you have a fundamental awareness of the dangers of ice, falling into the frigid water is an abstract risk and something you easily ignore. You have confidence that the lake is frozen and you can go about your life in relative security. Now, imagine that tiny fractures in the ice have been spreading under your feet for some time until suddenly it cracks and you are submerged. Not only do you need to deal with the consequences of falling through the ice, you have the shocking realization that the solid grasp you had on your situation was not so solid. The fundamental belief you had in the reliability of your situation is gone. The ice was not safe, and there was nothing you could have done to make it so.

It is no wonder that the process of grief is so challenging and cyclical. It is layered, including not only grief for the surface loss but also requires the underlying beliefs system to be overhauled.

The interesting thing I’ve found in talking to people who have navigated through these fundamental shifts in perception, done the work to process the events, and survived the ice cracking under their feet is that they appear much more calm. The acceptance of uncertainty, pain, and the temporary nature of most things comes with freedom. Through embracing the darkness there is an understanding that happiness comes and goes; it cannot be held and there are no guarantees for the future. This understanding liberates us to enjoy happiness as it presents itself and remain optimistic that it will return because we know it’s possible, we’ve seen it before.

Happiness is not a destination, but some of the scenery we get to see along the way.

The Pursuit of Happiness – Part 1

I recently finished one of Jordan Peterson‘s volumous books. For those of you not familiar with Peterson, he’s a Canadian clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto. He has a number of credits to his name but received widespread notoriety over the last few years for his controversial views on political correctness.

While I admit that I find some of Peterson’s views antiquated and not up my alley, I admire his tenacity and willingness to argue and support his viewpoints. His second book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, was not an easy read. It’s full of abstract principles supported by concepts borrowed from theology, psychology, philosophy and literature. It took me much longer to get through than most books I pick up, both because it is written in a heavy academic style (each chapter represents a rule and is an essay in its own right) and because I was trying to absorb as much as possible.

I think Peterson makes some really interesting observations and suggestions about how we develop our perception of the world around us as well as our expectations for how that world will behave.

He describes the famous “Invisible Gorilla” experiment in which researchers showed test subjects a recording of a basketball game and asked them to count the number of times their team made a pass. During the game, a man dressed as a gorilla walks onto the court, pounds his chest and walks out of frame. Shockingly, more than 50% of subjects did not see the gorilla.

This study, aside from being both funny and disturbing, demonstrates the narrow field of a person’s perception. Peterson explains that perception is adjusted to your goals and reinforcing your beliefs (for more on this, please try my prior post on denial). In this case, most of the study participants are so focused on the goal of counting passes that their perception is narrowed and they are unable to see the unusual scene beyond their task at hand. This is a necessary strategy for all people. Although some of us have more capacity to take in and process external information, we all have a point where that capacity is exhausted. We need to prioritize what we pay attention to in order to be successful.

This (of course) is not a conscious process, but I think we can all think of a situation or two in our own life where perception was coloured by our mental state, beliefs, and goals at the time. For example, I’m not sure that 30 year-old Jess would find 15 year old pothead Kenny as alluring as hormonal teenage Jess did. Although some may argue that my taste of men has not changed drastically enough, with my shifting goal towards building healthier relationships my perception is focused and my tastes are slowly changing. For the first time in my life I am aware that my ideal partner does not include substance use in all their recreational experiences.

Peterson says that we are all born with an instinct towards ethics and a lust for attaching meaning to our experiences, but that it takes great courage and strength to carry the burden of moving towards those things. That is because doing this is a great undertaking that requires us to constantly evaluate and prioritize our goals, beliefs and expectations. This causes discomfort in moving our perception to meet those changes. This is part of what attracts us to underdog stories, they encourage these shifts by confirming that taking the high and long road gives us the hope and possibility of rebirth despite the inevitable suffering.

Peterson makes the point of showing the malevolence that awaits those of us not strong enough to take the torch and the higher path; we are jealous, resentful, and petty. Have you ever had the experience of sharing an off the cuff and out of the box idea with someone who immediately ripped it to shreds? While I like to believe that most of us do these things because we are trying to protect people from hurting themselves, we are effectively squashing growth and innovation as a result of our fear to a challenge to our understanding and perception of the world.

Can you imagine the reception the first guy that ate a lobster got? There is very little about those pinchy characters that look appetizing; but some guy was hungry, brave, and probably desperate enough to eat one and share it with others.

In my mind, I see his friends screaming “UGH! STEVE, DON’T EAT THAT!!” as he defiantly cracks open the shell, eventually pairing the meat with butter and winning people over by challenging their perception of what is acceptable behaviour.

… Thanks, Steve!

ANYWAY.

Approaching ideas by immediately pointing out the flaws and challenges discourages people from taking risks and entertaining change. We are not allowing them to do the work of figuring out if their idea is viable, we are dragging them back down onto the safe and flat ground with us. We are protecting our own perception at the expense of the expansion of theirs.

* * *

Next week is part two in this series inspired by Jordan Peterson.  We will examine how our beliefs, goals, expectations, and perception play into the pursuit of happiness.  I hope you will return!

 

“Are people doing the best they can?”

man holding silver trophy
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If you follow me on other platforms, you probably know I have soft spots for Brene Brown and Russell Brand. I could never have imagined the circumstances that would bring these two minds together to create, but I’m thrilled to live in a universe where this happened.. and my mind is blown by the result.

For those of you not familiar with Russell Brand, he is an outspoken comedian, actor, author, and activist. Although I did enjoy his outlandish comedy, I’ve found a new level of respect for him in sharing his experiences finding sobriety after a tumultuous and public struggle with drug addiction.

Brene got a brief nod in a past blog post, with a small reference to one of the first (and most powerful) books I read in recovery Daring Greatly. Holding a PHD in social work, she does research into vulnerability, shame, courage, and empathy. All topics that easily bring me to a cold sweat.

Although I’m familiar with some of Russel’s writings and videos on addiction recovery, I was not familiar with his podcast, “Under the Skin”. On this platform, he interviews a variety of influential public figures and the talk is anything but small. In his conversation with Brene they covered a plethora of hard topics including (but not limited to): handling tough toddlers, addiction, and boundaries.

The interview is over an hour and those interested in the full experience (at the time of this writing) can find it easily on spotify, youtube, or a number of other platforms. The part that really jumped out at me was a discussion on framing perception by asking the question “are people really doing the best they can?”

Although this discussion includes references to God and religion, it could easily be approached without so I encourage you to look beyond that if it does not resonate with you.

Like Brene, I’ve spent most of my life believing that most people (including myself) could be doing better. I met mistakes and poor choices as a personal reflection of value. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time being wounded and hurt by people not living up to my expectations for their behaviour, which in turn impacted my ability to be compassionate and live a peaceful existence. I spent an embarrassing amount of time being pissed off and burning bridges believing most times that people were either lazy or didn’t care.

I recognize that approaching life in this way is not only self-righteous and douchy, it isn’t fair. Reflecting on my lowest points there were days where the best I could do was not great. I remember not too long ago where the simple act of getting out of bed and to work was a monumental achievement. During that time, I was not a great friend, relative, or human. I was in survival mode and that was truly all I had in me.

At the end of the clip, Brene retells her husbands’ take on this huge existential question. Responding to her prodding, “are people really doing the best they can every day”, he says, profoundly “I have no idea. But what I do know is my life is better when I assume they are” (mic drop).

This really hit me because it illustrates so perfectly what many of us fundamentally struggle with: what is ours to control. A common concept in recovery literature is the challenge to accept the truth that you are only in control of your own thoughts, feelings, and actions; not the thoughts, feelings and actions of others.

In this context, whether a person is actually doing the best they possibly can is irrelevant because it is out of our control; but how we frame our thoughts and perception is totally within our power. I can choose to believe that the hurt someone inflicts on me is a reflection of my value, or I can believe that, for better or for worse, they are doing the best they can and choose my actions calmly, intelligently, and compassionately.

What is “the flow” anyway?

I’ve been pretty open about my constant desire to control things around me, including *embarassingly* other people. I believe this is a reflection of my insecurity, fear of uncertainty, refusal to acknowledge my own faults, and general self-preservation. I hate surprises and find it difficult to go with the flow. My default belief is that everyone would be better off if they just listened to me, dammit!

Recognizing that this is self-aggrandizing hogwash I’ve been making a concerted effort to go with the flow when I catch myself in those micro-managing moments.

A few months ago, a medical appointment was cancelled last minute by my doctors’ office. I was annoyed because it had taken some time to coordinate the time off work. I was not looking forward to another round of juggling to reschedule. On the day that I was supposed to be out of office to attend this appointment, I was approached by my boss to take an extra ticket to an event with some key customers: a limo ride and box seats at a baseball game. In the past, living with an addict, I would have declined fearing what would have happened if I had not been at home, as planned, caretaking. In the past I wouldn’t have been able to alter my plans last minute without an enormous and crushing amount of stress.

On that day, I said “yes” and relaxed into it. I didn’t worry about the house burning down, people making bad choices without me there to intervene, or that I would be tired for work the next day. I have to tell you, if you ever get the opportunity to have a similar experience, doooo it! There was more swag than I’d ever imagined, amazing food (beyond the regular $13 hot dogs) and I got to spend an interesting evening with people that wouldn’t have normally entered my orbit.  I’d never had such an upscale sporting experience and I have to tell you, I’m now ruined for the cheap seats.

The next day, rising with little sleep, I prepared myself for a meeting that I had been dreading with someone that usually has my blood boiling in seconds and struggling to remain professional. Overtired, I did not struggle with any impatience or anger. I showed up, was professional, and left without the usual fireworks and resentments.

If you’re curious about that appointment, there happened to be an opening when I was in the doctor’s office picking up an unrelated item the following week. I didn’t have to take any additional time off work or go to any inconvenience of rescheduling. It just worked out.

A series of unrelated and unexpected events that in the past would have sent me into an incredible stress spiral and would have made everything more difficult and traumatic. This time, being open, showing up, and going with the flow altered my experience in unexpected and positive ways.

I hear you, those clichés like “everything happens for a reason” and “go with the flow” sound like total crap. I understand it seems impossible sometimes to surrender and trust that everything is going to be ok. I am the first to admit that I don’t have all the answers; but, I do know that as I learn what is “my part” and what isn’t and trust that things will work out life is getting easier.

I’m glad that I’m learning to release my iron grip on my expectations so I can appreciate and experience the things that I could have never imagined and wouldn’t have made space for in the past.