Happiness and Denying Negative Information

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Summary: Trying to feel happy may actually make people unhappy because it can be an unrealistic approach to experiencing contentment.

Key Take Aways:

- Setting huge goals and suppressing information that seems 'negative' may actually make failure more likely.

- Happiness may result more from small things we practice on a daily basis, rather than obtaining large external things like material objects or social approval.

Oliver Burkeman is a British journalist who studied self-help books and positive psychology in order to write his own book called The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking. One of this conclusions that many people may find surprising: "The effort to try to feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable." (Fortune.com)

In some of his videotaped lectures about his work, he mentions a number of examples to illustrate how trying to focus on being happy exclusively can be detrimental.   One about the peril of setting very large goals stands out. In 1996 a disastrous expedition on Mt. Everest resulted in a large number of hikers dying.  A businessman named Chris Kayes who had nothing to do with it, became very interested in what went wrong and why so many hikers died during the attempt to reach the top of the world's highest mountain.

He wound up studying the accident and then wrote a book called Destructive Goal Pursuit: The Mt. Everest Disaster. Part of his explanation for it was that the climbers had made the goal of reaching the summit part of their identity. As a result of this over-identification they couldn't tolerate new, disruptive information during the trip that indicated they should probably stop, or they might get hurt or die. Chris Kayes came from the business world and he believed he saw the similar errors being made in that realm. (He is now a professor of management George Washington University.

In business contexts the scenario unfolds when a very large goal is announced by a CEO or another leader within a company and then employees buy into it and the leader tries to motivate everyone to achieve the goal. However, as the project is implemented new information which indicates that there are problems arising is ignored, and then the project fails.  One thing that causes people involved in the very large effort to ignore new, contradictory information is overidentifying with the project. In other words, they attach their sense of identity to the huge goal, and so they reject negative information because it seems threatening on a personal level.

The Harvard Business School site published an analysis of the Everest situation which references the suppression of information that may have helped to avert the disaster, "I would argue that the groups developed a climate that was hostile to open discussion and constructive dissent. One expedition leader went so far as to say, 'I will tolerate no dissension...my word will be absolute law.' Not surprisingly, people suppressed their concerns and doubts about some of the poor judgment and choices that were made during the climb."

So Burkeman uses the Everest disaster to talk about the strategy of allowing spontaneously arising negative experiences and information to occupy their place in order to co-exist with them and for the purpose of learning as you go.

Meditation is one practice he says can work, because it is about observing all thoughts and emotions. One can let them appear and yet not believe they are objective reality, so as to learn detachment.  He interviewed a number of entrepreneurs and noticed they adapted to what was happening and didn't deny the negative things but kept accepting them and responding in a flexible way. They were also constantly revising their strategy and actions according to what was happening, rather than trying to force the achievement of very large goals.

Image Credit: Loicwood, Wiki Commons

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