Friday, July 17, 2015

Positive Psychology, Stoicism, and the Fruitless Pursuit of Happiness

Recently my husband asked me to explain to him why I am not a stoic. This post is my answer. Though I am excited to do this post (because I love organizing my thoughts), I think it's only fair to warn my reader that I do not consider myself an expert in either positive psychology or stoicism. I do know enough about them, however, to know that they contradict my understanding of epistemology and neuroscience.

Both positive psychology and stoicism I summarize thus: Repress your negative emotions! Repress them I say! But I don't mean repress. Repression is bad. But seriously, repress. I'm not advocating denial here but... look for the good and don't examine the bad!

Both of these psychological systems begin with the premise: The Point of Life is To Be Happy.

There is a major problem with this premise. If happiness is my highest value, if I decide that today my goal is just to feel happy, the quickest and surest way to achieve that goal is drugs. If this is the path I take, then my life will be: Moments of "happiness" while I do my drugs followed by days of drudgery while I do what it takes (for my physical survival) to get to my next day off in which I can do drugs. My life is: drudgery and drugs.

But let's say I chose no drugs. I try to pursue "healthy" happiness. It still doesn't work. How often does one pursue an evening of happiness only to find that it doesn't actually make one happy? How often does one find happiness while doing some random task that one thought would suck? Now my life is: Happiness is so frustrating! So elusive! Such a hard master! I need more control! More control over this elusive god! If I can just get enough control, then I will win! (This is the conclusions reached by the positive psych folk and the stoics.)

The problem is the premise. The pursuit of an emotion as the goal of life. To quote myself (from my book): "Most people begin with the assumption that emotions are primary, they seek ways to control and influence their emotional states. But our emotions let us know how we are doing; they help point us in the right direction; they let us know what is working and what needs our attention. Our strong emotions tell us: Pay attention to this! If we listen, our emotions can be great aids in the pursuit of our values. But attempting to manipulate them, like attempting to command what we see or hear, is just refusing to acknowledge reality. It doesn’t change reality and does not serve us." Emotions give us information and energy. They are tools for us to use. They are not neither good nor bad. They are not punishments and rewards for our behavior.

I do not pursue happiness. Happiness is what happens when I am busy pursing my values successfully. But I will only experience happiness if I check-in, if I come into the present and perceive. My consciousness has two primary modes: abstracting and perceiving. When I am abstracting successfully, I may experience flow. I sit down to write and eight hours disappear. I have no idea where they went, but I think I was happy. Perhaps if I had paused for a moment and checked-in with myself (perceived) I would have noticed that I felt happy, but I didn't. Any feeling can only be experienced when you pause and check-in (perceive). Most psychologies and religions attempt to teach this one very valuable skill: stop abstracting and start perceiving. Come into the present. Check-in with yourself.

When I pause at this exact moment I note: I feel very happy. I am full, rested, my body feels good, I hear my son chatting away cutely in the background, my home is tidy and beautiful, and the view outside my window is delightful. Hmmm... I also notice the sounds of traffic which I don't like, and I notice that I am thirsty. I will go back to ignoring the world around me and disappear into my writing again, my abstract brain, but I should really get a drink of water because that little ping, that little unmet need, is going to decrease my overall happiness.

Though the background emotion going on right now for me is happiness, I do not claim to feel it unless I focus on it. As soon as I get back to work, the truth is, I am not feeling anything. My subconscious is storing emotional information for sure, but since I am not focusing on it, it stays subconscious--it is just information. I would argue that I spend most of my life not actually feeling anything. And that's okay. I'm busy doing. For me, feelings are tools, information, they help me direct my actions to meeting my needs and values. But the emotion itself is not the need or the value.

There are times when I seem to pursue emotions. I find that I am drawn to sad music or a sad movie. Why? Why would I seek sadness? Because my subconscious is trying to get my attention, and I am ignoring it. Because that is the background emotion going on for me whether I have come into the present to realize it or not. Because there has been a build up of information now that needs to be felt/perceived. By feeling the sadness that I have been ignoring, I can release it. If I focus on it and figure out why I was sad, then I can understand it and make different choices.

Our strong emotions give us information and energy. That is their purpose. Emotions are not causeless. They evolved to be part of us because the SERVE us. No one is arguing that positive emotions don't serve us--they're fun. But if negative emotions didn't serve us, they wouldn't exist.

Negative emotions provide us with a great deal of energy to change our lives. Repression, numbing, and drugs enable us to live lives we couldn't otherwise live. Most of us have been repressing since childhood. We have never lived a life we wanted to live. We have never lived sustainably with ourselves. We have been taught to put off resting, to put off perception, to put off processing, to put off fun. We have been trained to stay in our abstract brains. Usually, by adulthood, there is so much sadness and anger that has been repressed that coming into the present is quite unpleasant. So we don't. We work (in our abstract brains) and then come home and numb. This is the life I described above in which people "pursue happiness": drudgery--or at best nonexistence--at work, while we await our next drug binge at home--which is more nonexistence. If this is your life--why live? You just want to not exist, so what are you doing?!

Those who advocate positive psychology and stoicism have a tendency to write about human emotions as the behaviorists do: we are dogs or rats and can be trained to be some way or another. "You can train your brain to be happier! Happiness is just a habit!" They say. Emotions are only habits to the extent that we are not being conscious or present. People who focus on consciousness, presence, and perception don't need to "program habits" or worry about "habits" much at all. (For more on this read Nathaniel Branden's The Art of Living Consciously.)

"What you focus on expands! Never focus on anything negative!" They say. But you have to focus on your negative feelings in order to bring them into your conscious awareness, so you can gather the information you need to make different choices. Once you are done gathering the information, the emotion disappears. Unless the problem you need to solve is a major one, then the emotion will expand exponentially--propelling you to change your life. Pain will give you the energy you need to change your life.

But what about depression? That keeps people in bed! Exactly. Depressing your emotions--refusing to feel your pain--will be so exhausting that you have to stay in bed. Stop de-pressing whatever it is you need to feel, start writhing in pain or anger or sadness, and pretty soon you will be up and about fixing the problem. (And by pretty soon I mean quite possibly two to five years depending on how long you have been repressing.)

That's what our intense negative emotions are for: they make us make better choices for our lives. If we don't feel them, if we numb out, repress, or drug out, we won't change our lives. Part of me is like: cool.  I like the Matrix. Drudgery and drugs has worked for this long. Why change now? But the other part of me knows that's just fear. And I used to be really afraid of pain. But now, eh, it's just pain.

I am so sorry to be the bearer of bad news, for those of you who got very excited by the promises of positive psychology and stoicism, but all you can do is train your brain to repress a ton of information that would have served you. Negative emotions are not bad! And neither are negative dispositions.

Many psychologists want us to make sure our kids are Happy All The Time because that way their Happiness Set Point will be set to Very Happy. This is crap. An optimistic disposition is genetic and, though it is a fine disposition, it is no better than having a pessimistic disposition. Common sense: If pessimistic dispositions were bad for our survival, they would not exist. There is a great lecture available on iTunes University called "In Defense of Pessimism" which explains that pessimistic people are just as happy, just as successful, and just was healthy as optimistic people. They just have different strengths. In An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth Chris Hadfield says that extreme pessimists are the only kind of people who should be astronauts--because the skill of ruminating on every little thing that may go wrong is a GREAT skill. Pessimistic ruminators are the safest, most detail-oriented people. There are many other professions in which the skill of being able to think of everything that may go wrong is of the utmost importance.

A few hundred years ago Big Religion switched its stance from saying that unhappiness (suffering) was a sign of piousness to saying that happiness was a sign of piousness (a reward from God for being Good). Unhappiness became a stigma, something that only happens to sinners. Pessimistic people became social pariahs and everyone quickly learned to have a "public persona." From the 1800's on all Americans had to exude absolute cheerfulness at all times to prove to their neighbors that they were good Christians. And… nothing has changed. Except that today we defend this fake cheerfulness using pseudoscience. Anyone who looks into the research will find decades of psychologists attempting to change pessimistic people into optimistic people and finding that it cannot actually be done. Pessimistic people cannot be saved--though they can learn to be fake. Sadly, the very thing that would have been their super power is the thing they were taught to be ashamed of and keep hidden.

One last note: we live a in a society in which happiness is a major aspect of relationship control. No one will follow your advice unless you are Perfectly Happy. No one wants to be your friend unless you seem happy and successful. (Lol, I mean people won't befriend you to use you unless you have what they want….) It's horrifying for people to research the lives of their heroes--Ayn Rand, Nathaniel Branden--and find that they are taking advice from people who claimed they were The Happiest People on Earth but… the proof isn't there. Alcoholism, fear of driving, loneliness and alienation, disappointment, inflexibility, angry demeanors, meanness, infidelity, repeated divorce--these are not signs of happiness!

Today the people who sell happiness to us are careful to have perfect public personas. But I worked for a lot of them. People who, to the outside world, seem perfect, happy, wealthy, and wise. It was my job to make their children as good at faking it as the parents were. One set of parents were so anxious about whether or not I would succeed, they bought drugs for a particularly important social engagement. If I failed to make the kids act like perfect, happy, angels the plan was to drug them! Almost everyone I worked for was on drugs--drugs to sleep, drugs to wake up, drugs to get through the day, drugs to deal with particularly stressful days. I came away from a decade working for the top .001% thinking: How horrible to be them!

I don't tend to believe anyone who claims to be happy (outside of a moment). They are either trying to sell me something or they are in total denial. And I know all about that because I've been there and done that. If you follow this blog you know I spent a great deal of my life being fake-happy because Good Girls are happy. At the time I had no idea that I was being fake. I thought I was disciplined, and I also thought I was happy. But the happiness was very tied to goodness, to better-than-other-people-ness. A major clue that we are repressing a part of ourselves is when we passionately hate something in other people. I look back, and I see so clearly how I hated and stayed far away from (or tried to fix) anyone remotely negative or unhappy. If you are truly happy, you let other people be.

And more importantly, people who are honestly happy and not repression-happy know it and are honest about it. They are clear that it is momentary. They admit freely that they don't always feel that way because to be honestly happy means that they feel. Which means feeling the entire spectrum of emotions.

Happiness--all feelings--can only be felt when we are in our perceptual brain. If we want to feel more happiness, we must come into the present more often. But there's a catch: coming into the present more often means we will feel more things, not just happiness. Which is why anyone--or any psychology book--that tries to promise you more pleasure without more pain… is just snake oil.

Happiness is great, I love feeling happy, but at the same time, it's not that important to me. I am far more interested in difficult intellectual problems, in creating beauty, and in people I love. These things matter to me. My feelings are just information and sources of energy that help me with the pursuit of my goals in regards to what actually matters to me.

For those of you who know more about positive psychology and stoicism than I do--have I misunderstood these ideas? Do I need to do more research?

A final note: What I have written here is what I understand based on Objectivist epistemology in which information (consciousness of reality) is valued above all. I love this epistemology, and it is the only epistemology I have encountered that makes sense without contradictions. But I think it is important to note (as I mentioned above) I do not believe the champions of this system of thought--Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden--were particularly happy people. Brilliant, yes. Happy… no. But nothing in my research has led me to conclude that those who search for truth will find happiness (I am thinking of Joseph Cambell's stuff here. Jesus and Buddha found enlightenment not happiness). According to Darrin McMahon, author of Happiness: A History, consciousness and acceptance of our emotions is one way humans at different times and in different places have dealt with "the more-happiness problem". Drugs are another way--and a valid way. Drugs as the only form of true happiness available to human beings has been supported as an idea by more than one great philosopher--Schopenhaur being one of them. Many philosophers throughout the ages have also decided that repression and rejection of all emotion is the best way to go. So, as much as I am content with my own relationship to happiness, with Objectivism, I am not claiming that it is The Happiness Maximizing Route.

Ugh, one more note: I have a hunch that positive psychology and stoicism as psychological ideals, arrive in cultures where people feel powerless over their external world. For example, the best defense of positive psychology I have read (which still didn't convert me) was Victor Frakyl's book about surviving in a concentration camp. In such a place there is no other power except over yourself, no other goal you can accomplish except the goal of controlling your emotions, no other way to experience joy. If happiness is found in our perceptual reality there is none in an ugly, miserable world. If happiness is found abstractly from accomplishing an intrinsically motivated goal, there are none one can accomplish as a slave. Which leaves abstract escape as the only way. Repression of perceptual reality, and making the goal one can accomplish controlling the abstract self.


  1. I'd like to put in a word for process over outcome. I know if I am writing a paper I feel intensely alive and excited. I don't need to stop and contemplate to experience that. My mind just loves to figure things out. The process is pleasurable even if I don't focus on that pleasure. That's why I do it again and again.

    Elsewhere you write about finding a genuine self, and how that that does not guarantee "happiness" 24/7. I am not sure how to define "happiness" but finding yourself can make you feel very alive. When things go well you may feel intensely happy; when not, intensely sad. But in both cases you can feel intensely alive. Just as life is the ultimate standard, feeling intensely alive may be the ultimate reward rather than "happiness". In grieving the loss of a dear friend you can experience your deepest values and commitments, and again feel alive.

    I think when we chose life it is not an on/off switch but a volume control. How much life will you choose? Turn it all the way up and you may live your life with the intense mood swings of adolescence (though age may offer perspective and skill in dealing with all these emotions). Or we can turn life down and seek employment in a government bureaucracy. The problem with choosing to be only 10% alive is that you will feel 90% dead.

    By the standard of aliveness I don't think we can judge "success" by existential outcomes like a good career or marriage. I can recall blessing a friend's marriage because of how intensely alive he felt with this equally intense but rather unstable girl. Shall we count this as success because he chose to risk all on an improbable (but real) dream, or a failure in that things did not work out in the long run? Was Franz Scubert a success because he spent his life pouring out his heart in music, or a failure because few in his own day cared to listen?

    I don't think the Stoics taught repression of only bad feelings. I think they taught never wanting much so one would not experience intense good OR bad emotions -- a life setting of 12% or so. I wonder if drugs just let us rearrange our 12% so we feel (the illusion of) 100% aliveness for short periods, at the cost of 0% aliveness between highs.

  2. My understanding of Stoicism is the following: the Stoics believed in cosmic order arranged by divine providence, or some kind of "natural" force that operated to bring order to the world. As such, they believed every person had a "role" to play in life (and they didn't mean fabricated, arbitrary identities as you've discussed in your book, but rather functional positions within the process of ordering). Metaphors of the behavior of bees and other social creatures abound in their works to highlight this relationship amongst men.

    Every person's "purpose", then, was to serve this specific function over the course of one's life. For some, it would be to be emperor, for others, to be a peasant. The greatest good in life came from embracing your purpose and using your innate talents and abilities to be excellent within your role. (We can leave aside for a moment how self-serving this philosophy was for emperors, and how psychologically restraining it might be for peasants, and just try to absorb the logical implications.)

    If this was the metaphysical state of reality, then it explains why Stoics focused so much on emotion and the subjectivity thereof. When a Stoic cautioned along the lines of, "What is harm is opinion, remove your opinion, and you have removed the harm" they are not saying "Just repress how you feel and ignore the information content", they're saying, "Examine your emotional content in relation to your life's purpose and ask yourself what good it does you to adopt desires and judgments in contradistinction to your purpose."

    Much of what the Stoics warned against seemed to be "social emotional conditioning", ie, deriving emotional reactions from the judgments and wishes of those around you, when what they saw as important was looking inward at what one was and ought to be. This is where comments such as Marcus Aurelius's "Be like the emerald" come from. MA was saying, an emerald is green no matter what people say about it or wish about it, and an emerald's only job is to keep being green in spite of these things (an awkward idea given that emeralds are inanimate but I think you can follow his analogy).

    I don't think the Stoics ever suggested anyone should "be happy" or seek happiness as "The Point of Life." Rather, the PoL to a Stoic was to unapologetically be true to one's nature, whatever that may be.

    One can certainly disagree with and criticize this viewpoint, but it is different from the idea of seeking a particular emotional state as the point of life.

    In reading through the rest of your post and reflecting on it, I have to agree that we probably set ourselves up for a frustrating existence if we convince ourself that the complexity of reality that we navigate over the course of our life exists solely so that we may attempt to achieve a particular emotional state, a majority of the time, ie, happiness. While it's definitely hard if not impossible to defend the philosophical position that "One should not purposefully try to be happy if one can control it", that is not the same thing as saying "Everything you do in life should be aimed at making you happy."

  3. (cont'd)

    I think you've beaten the dead horse at this point, that "Life is about happiness" is a fallacy. Now that you know that you don't HAVE to be happy nor seek it with every action, what will you do instead? And what will you allow yourself to feel (and accept that you feel?) given that realization.

    Coming full circle to Stoicism and whether you need to do more research... probably not. Although I don't think you accurately described the basis of Stoic philosophy, I am also not convinced that Stoicism has anything particularly valuable to offer you with deeper research. As a holistic philosophy, it is indeed lacking in many ways. But even the Stoics managed to have some valuable (to me) observations now and then, such as:

    "Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All of these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil."

    A reminder for me that is personally valuable, because I have a tendency to interpret the actions of others first as if I was the central cause of their behavior, when more often I am a bystander to error.

    "Be like the promontory against which the waves continually break; but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it."

    I like this reminder because I consider myself to be a person of principle, and for such a person there are always temptations and forces acting to try to break your discipline; I find it more rewarding to assist those around me in becoming more principled themselves.

    "No longer talk at all about the kind of man that a good man ought to be, but be such."

    This is another good reminder for me, because I often confuse talking about principle, with living it.

    You might find some of your own inspiration in such thoughts. Or you might not. But I am doubtful you will find much intellectual value in pursuing a program of deep research into the philosophy. Much more fun to create you're own, which you are clearly in the process of already!