June 23, 2012

Accept failure! Accept half-empty glasses!

Boy, a great column here from The Guardian, and what looks like a book that might be even better at undercutting the New Agey myths about the unstoppable power of blind optimism than Barbara Ehrenreich's "Bright Sided."

With a column title like "Happiness is a Glass Half Empty," followed by references to Stoicism, among other things, we've got real meat.

And, the book title, by the column's author, goes even further than Ehrenreich, in noting such potentially harmful thinking must be fought. Indeed, we need an "antidote" for such ideas.

The column delivers a good foretaste of this, including noting how it's OK to fail, and better than OK to accept the idea of failure.

The Museum of Failed Products
The column starts with a great "hook": a visit to a museum of failed products. It then notes that many companies, fearful of accepting failure, don't keep such products themselves.

But, Burkeman notes, products fail even more often than small-business start-ups. So, why can't we accept these and other failures?

He says that it's in part because we've forgotten some good wisdom from the past.

He doesn't specifically say this is connected to the relative ease of modern life, but maybe it is. Anyway, here's his dive into Stoic ideas:
Behind all of the most popular modern approaches to happiness and success is the simple philosophy of focusing on things going right. But ever since the first philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome, a dissenting perspective has proposed the opposite: that it's our relentless effort to feel happy, or to achieve certain goals, that is precisely what makes us miserable and sabotages our plans. And that it is our constant quest to eliminate or to ignore the negative – insecurity, uncertainty, failure, sadness – that causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain or unhappy in the first place.
If you know philosophy, you know his idea, though he doesn't use the actual word: "ataxaria." It's more, less and different than detachment or dissociation. The idea of "acceptance" might get closer.

And lest one draws the wrong ideas from Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus, he steps in:
Yet this conclusion does not have to be depressing. Instead, it points to an alternative approach: a "negative path" to happiness that entails taking a radically different stance towards those things most of us spend our lives trying hard to avoid. This involves learning to enjoy uncertainty, embracing insecurity and becoming familiar with failure. In order to be truly happy, it turns out, we might actually need to be willing to experience more negative emotions – or, at the very least, to stop running quite so hard from them.
Indeed. And, with some variations, beyond his hangups with sex and repression (while ignoring sexual abuse's connection to hysteria!) Freud talked about this to some degree. So, too, in yet another vein, Miguel de Unanumo arguably did this in "The Tragic Sense of Life." (To me, every Gnu Atheist who wants to bash religion in general should have Unanumo on his/her required reading list.)





Anyway, what about recent claims that blind optimism can improve one's actions in life? Not so fast, Burkeman says. Research shows that things like visualizing positive outcomes can actually backfire, by practitioners often refusing to do the work to get to those outcomes. Ahh, magical thinking, new variety.

And, there's other twists from the glass half empty. Here's one:

Psychologists have long agreed that one of the greatest enemies of human happiness is "hedonic adaptation" – the predictable and frustrating way in which any new source of pleasure we obtain, whether it's as minor as a new electronic gadget or as major as a marriage, swiftly gets relegated to the backdrop of our lives: we grow accustomed to it, and it ceases to deliver so much joy. It follows, then, that regularly reminding yourself that you might lose any of the things you currently enjoy can reverse the adaptation effect. Thinking about the possibility of losing something you value shifts it from the backdrop of your life back to centre stage, where it can deliver pleasure once more.

Burkeman then morphs back to the failed products. He says the flip side of not being realistic about failure is being unrealistic about the causes of success, including believing we have a lot of control over causing success when that's often not that true.

Or, if you want more reason to try to change your viewpoint, here's one:

Perfectionism is one of those traits that many people seem secretly, or not-so-secretly, proud to possess, since it hardly seems like a character flaw. Yet, at bottom, it is a fear-driven striving to avoid the experience of failure at all costs. At the extremes, it is an exhausting and permanently stressful way to live: there is a greater correlation between perfectionism and suicide, researchers have found, than between feelings of hopelessness and suicide. 

That ... the last part ... I did not know. Being somewhat pessimistic and a "negative" thinker, yet a bit of a perfectionist at times, that's words to take to heart ... accept failure! Failing at something doesn't make me a failure, does it?

There's plenty more ideas like this salted through this long column. Here's a good short one for conclusion:

Happiness reached via positive thinking is fleeting and brittle; negative visualisation generates a vastly more dependable calm.

Go read the whole thing and, like me, keep an eye out for this book.


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