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Rivers and lakes

12 Comments

I posted the other day that I was thinking of changing the name of this blog to “Happiness is over-rated”.

The reason for the change was that I was getting fed up with the focus on happiness – just about everywhere I look everyone seems to be talking about it.

I have probably read more books on happiness than most sane people (something to do with being burdened with a negative outlook). I agree that it’s a worthy topic. But there’s something about the word that annoys me.

Don’t get me wrong. I am overjoyed that the discipline of positive psychology now exists. When I was at Uni it all seemed to be just a big battle over whether rats had minds.

But life is complicated. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad.

Happiness, by contrast, seems to me to mean a “state” (a way of being) that is just good. Happiness is something we admire, something that is better than what we have. Something to strive for.

And all that striving after getting better can be exhausting.

As a friend said the other day, it’s important to distinguish between lakes and rivers. Surely life is more like a river than a lake?

I am not talking about flow, as defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Flow sometimes seems even harder to attain. Great if you’re a top athlete or top musician. But what about me?

I just mean living life, with all its ups and downs. From beginning to end. Through the rapids, the eddies and the calmer bits too.

Accepting the rough with the smooth seems, to me, a better route.

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Author: Pete Burden

Strategy, Leadership and Organisational Coach I am an experienced strategy, leadership and organisational coach. I work with the MDs of purpose-led businesses - people using the freedom, flexibility, and practicality of business to disrupt the world in positive ways.

12 thoughts on “Rivers and lakes

  1. I don’t think happiness is over-rated – whenever I’ve experienced it, it’s been wonderful. But it is regularly misdefined. I think it’s a by-product of how we think about things and not something we aim for deliberately; if we do aim for it, it always seems to be based on false thinking – i.e. “if I get a new house, find a new partner, have another baby, get a new job, earn more money, then I’ll be happy”. What you’ll get is, possibly, a brief burst of elation or satisfaction, but happiness is more low-level and longer-lasting, less passionate or immediate, a general feeling of “rightness” mainly arising, I suspect, from self-acceptance. It’s achieving self-acceptance that’s the tricky bit. I think we can experience quite high levels of boredom, stress and even ill-health and, as long as we like ourselves, we can still be happy.
    I agree it isn’t the same as “flow”, though temporarily muffling the ego obviously helps.
    Does it have a moral dimension? Not sure, but I hope so. We’ve all worked with and for borderline psychopaths and I’d hate to think of them being happy!

  2. I love your definitions. So right.

    General “happiness” should definitely be distinguished from satori – moments of enlightenment and joy – and also from the “hit” of a acquiring a new thing or getting some prize or another.

    Maybe that’s how flow works – we forget ourselves – and even like ourselves for a bit. Because I’m sure you are right, self-acceptance is the answer.

    That’s not easy mind, especially when we are surrounded by borderline psychopaths! But who cares whether they are happy or not?

  3. Could happiness be the recognition, by you, that the bubble of your spirit-level of behaviour is hitting the spot?

    Just a natural mechanism of your body.

    Just balance……..naturally.

    Now of course this mechanism is interfered with, by manipulators – marketeers; politicians; managers; lovers and haters, who distort our management of our natural range of operation.

    Once the movement is understood, it is meaningless to even think about it.

    Oh and yes, the most sublime part is to be able to recognise and appreciate the frictionless feeling of perfect balance when you touch it…..again and again and again.

  4. I have heard Seligman interviewed, and he sounds like a man of utter integrity, deep knowledge and great communication ability. I’d hate to see him end up as a victim of unintended consequences but that is where I see him heading.

    Whatever gains the ‘happiness movement’ makes appear to me to come at the cost of some discounting of human responsibility and dignity, replacing these old values with a universal imperative to ‘be happy or do something about it’, meaning take a pill, or buy some snakeoil from somebody (preferably the person giving the advice).

    So yes, I encourage you. Go ahead and change the title. As a human aspiration, ‘happiness’ seems to about on the level of a personal aspiration to ‘eat McDonalds whenever I want to’ — nothing wrong with it, but isn’t there a biger picture?

  5. My main concern with the notion of ‘happiness is over-rated’ is that you run the risk of throwing the good out with the bad. Just because some people throw themselves into a quest for happiness at any cost does not mean that the concept itself should go with it.

    As Dick says, there is a risk of a discounting of human responsibility, and I suggest that the two are not mutually exclusive.

    Maybe hold the term – and the concept – a little more lightly. It is less a question of whether is is over-rated (I could equally argue you run the risk of under-rating it), more the intention behind the promotion of this particular state of being.

    In summary, I vote for not changing the name 😉

  6. Steve’s point on lightness is a good one. Lightness for me is the difference between the gestalt-like pursuit of happiness and flow, which is for me being happily lost in application. I’ve been in the dark often and having overcome periods of immense darkness, realised that it is indeed feelings of lightness that can lead to finding flow and thus a path or river flowing towards happiness.

    I vote for changing the title but not to Happiness is over-rated. Let the issue of name-changing emerge naturally and when the moment arrives you’ll know 🙂

  7. I agree with you about the over focus on happiness since it is not a mirror of the wellbeing of the inner soul at all. But the focus on it is a reflection of ephemeral aspects of society and media in C21, so we should embrace it. But that does not help understanding any more than 15 minutes on TV makes a star.

    Happiness is a river flowing uphill into a lake. The lake has many feeders which add to its mix. You cant live on the river because it takes too balance things, but can on the lake.

    Of course, it is not irrelevant that Martin Seligman was also the originator of the concept of learned helplessness.

  8. Above should say “takes too much to balance”
    !

  9. I liked your piece on Happiness (I agree about the blanket nature of the term). I have a matching book collection born out of similar puzzlement. Things eased for me when I saw that the pursuit of happiness is not actually my motivation. Instead I recognise a conflicting, shifting set of goals that include: fulfillment (sense that enough is indeed enough), being present, improvising in the moment (a kind of peace of mind and attention to what is in front of me), excitements and adventures (that sense of new possibilities and the unexpected), a warm family home (to ward off loneliness) and the means to sustain the above. That’s today’s list anyway.

  10. If feelings come under the four main headings of mad, glad, sad and scared then happiness represents only one part of the mix. It seems unlikely that it can be, or should be a permanent state. I can only know I am it because it is relative to my other experiences. Personally, I love an angry outburst – which, when expressed well can increase intimacy in a relationship; a tearful outpouring leaves me empty and ready for new perceptions; and I feel exhilirated by terrifying moments that I survive. So, why does happiness get all of the attention? Why don’t we spend the time talking about when we feel most alive? Isn’t life the thing that will ultimately run out? I am most alive when I am fully in my experience, whatever that might be. I like the comments about being fluid and accepting, and I love Justins list for the day. The minute I try to diminish my life, my feelings or my choices into some singular state, then I have rejected the great permission I have to be alive.

    In fact, if it was a permanant state then what kind of edited life would that be. I want to experience the full range of feelings allowed to us as human beings. and surely it must always be relative to the other experiences of being human. I like how Julian notes his ‘list for today’.

  11. “There is no happiness in the world”

    (Buddhist saying)

  12. Very interesting piece on Happiness and the resulting discussion… For me, I used to get rather fed up with what I saw as a general emphasis on needing to be seen as ‘happy’ all the time – I even tried to be ‘happy’ all the time and it was exhausting!! I now realise I put a lot of pressure on myself to be a certain type of person that I thought people wanted to see. With hindsight, I put other people before myself and their ‘happiness’ before mine – weird!!
    I now see myself as being ‘content’ – for me this is a longer term state of being and one I am very happy with. I also know that without my sad, angry, pissed off experiences I would not be the person I am today – and I like this person. She is confident enough to be herself and trusting enough to realise that people can look after themselves and can handle it when sometimes I don’t want to be outgoing and ‘happy’, I just want to be me…

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