Is happiness a choice?

Statue staring down a large building

Is happiness a choice?

We’ve all got a friend who sees the world through the lens of half-empty. A friend of mine has gone to all the right schools and has been super-strategic in his career. Yet something’s always wrong.

A few months ago, we hooked up for a coffee and he went on an epic rant. He rattled off how his employer (a very large bank) had it all wrong. The culture was not adapting to our new forms of communication; the marketing department was blind to the shifts in Millennial values; leadership was too focused on protecting the status quo and not playing the long game. This friend is really smart, so the list of transgressions was well reasoned and precise.

I listened calmly, but was giddy inside. No, I wasn’t looking for a take-down. But I did have a pair of pocket aces and couldn’t wait to play my hand.

“I got something exciting for you,” I said once his tirade had ended.

“Oh yeah,” he responded, his his ears perking up.

“The chief-of-staff of the CFO is a good friend of mine. If you write up these critiques, I can personally deliver them to him.” Now knowing that he may be scared of any repercussions, I added “And I promise you, I’ll give you cover. I trust the Chief-of-Staff and I promise he’ll simply route the critiques to the appropriate departments.” And to further head off any hesitation, I told him I’d edit the message before sending it off.

“OK,” my friend said — his demeanor a bit more agitated. “Give me two weeks, I want to make it good.”

Months went by. I even ran into him a few times. He never sent me the email.

It was as if we’d never had the conversation.

Do people really want to change their situations? Or are excuses, rants, and finger-pointing just a cozy blanket for complacency? People talk a big game when it comes to changing jobs, ending a bad relationship, embarking on a new adventure, or launching a new venture yet become paralyzed by indecision, uncertainty, and the fear of failure.

The psychology of courage

Changing a mediocre situation is hard, so instead we preserve the default option. We stay the course. We stall. We complain. We linger and labor in a life that may not be working for us. And like my friend, we shun opportunities to rightsize our situations – and it grinds away at our potential. And ultimately our happiness.

Is happiness a choice that we make for ourselves? We sought to answer this question in our inaugural RadReads book club by picking The Courage To Be Disliked: You How to Change Your Life and Achieve Real Happiness by the Japanese philosopher Ichiro Kishimi and writer Fumitake Koga. This text was rich in explanations about why my friend ghosted me. Specifically, why my friend lacked the courage to be happy.

An Introduction to Adlerian Psychology

The Courage to be Disliked is a Socratic dialogue between (i.e. a conversation) between a Philosopher and a young man. The young man resembles my friend: bitter, envious, and insecure (and not to mention, whiny AF). The Philosopher is a practitioner of Adlerian psychology whose forefather, Alfred Adler, was once a peer of Sigmund Freud. Adler eventually left the group due to irreconcilable differences and went on to create his own theory.

The heart of Adlerian psychology is Teleology, which studies “the purpose of a given phenomenon, rather than its cause.” According to the North American Society of Adlerian Psychology, here’s the theory on goals:

[Adlerians view] goals as being an important part of motivation and the cause of behavior. Certainly our past has a role in exposing us to possibilities and learning opportunities but our choice to move in a particular direction reflects our goals and our ability to direct our own lives.

Are we shaped by our past?

This is directly at odds with the Freudian view of Etiology, or the study of causation. Let’s translate this psycho-mumbo-jumbo into layman’s terms: Freud believed that the past shapes who we are. Adler takes the opposing view that the past doesn’t matter, and therefore cannot influence your future happiness.

So let’s return to my friend’s complaints:

  • My parents were divorced, so I’m not going to be able to have a healthy marriage
  • I have social anxiety, so I’ll feel lonely
  • I didn’t go to HBS, so I’ll never be a partner at a PE firm
  • I don’t have enough free time, so I’ll never get to write a book
  • Joe’s parents paid for his college tuition; I have student debt, so I’ll never have financial independence

Adlerian psychology would emphatically say from today onward, the past has no bearing on my friend’s future. To drive that point home, the Philosopher makes his first controversial statement: trauma doesn’t exist.

Quote: “We do not suffer from the shock of our experiences (the so-called trauma) but instead we make out of them whatever suits our purposes.”
Adler disputes the argument that trauma shapes our lives

Wait, what? Trauma doesn’t exist?

Woahhh. Hold your horses. First, as someone who’s lived a rather charmed life (and whose list of traumas include being teased in grade school, premature hair loss and a bizarre gait) I’m even uncomfortable putting Adler’s words on paper. More importantly, thinking about people whose live have been scarred by undue suffering (abuse, losing a child, mental illness) the Adlerian view feels flat out disrespectful.

Here’s how the philosopher explains his fundamental disagreement with Freud on trauma:

Freud’s idea is that a person’s psychic wounds (traumas) cause his or her present unhappiness. When you treat a person’s life as a vast narrative, there is an easily understandable causality and sense of dramatic development that creates strong impressions and is extremely attractive.

The phrase “vast narrative” was reminiscent of Yuval Harari’s primary argument in the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, that:

“All large-scale human cooperation systems – including religions, political structures, trade networks, and legal institutions – owe their emergence to [human beings’] distinctive cognitive capacity for fiction.”

Source: Wikipedia

Harari’s belief was that whether it’s “Christianity, democracy, or capitalism” Sapiens are suckers for stories (my term, not Harari’s) as they help us bring order to the complicated world around us. Or as the philosopher puts it, “easily understandable causality.”

What’s your goal?

Here’s where the Philosopher’s view of Teleology come to life. While dismissing the impact of causation (i.e. the past doesn’t matter), he’s arguing that we all have goals that subconsciously drive our motivations.

The philosopher uses the example of someone “who can’t fit into society because [they] were abused by their parents.” He argues that this person’s goal is to shut himself in his room and become a recluse. But why on earth would someone have that goal? According to the Philosopher:

“If I stay in my room all the time, without ever going out, my parents will worry. I can get all of my parents’ attention focused on me. They’ll be extremely careful around me and always handle me with kid gloves. On the other hand, if I take even one step out of the house, I’ll be surrounded by people I don’t know and just end up average. And no one will take special care of me any longer…”

The philosopher argues that by being a recluse, this person aims to satisfy his goal of always having his attention directed towards him and being handled with kid gloves.

Is being unhappy “good for you?”

Still unconvinced that the past doesn’t matter, I asked our book club for their own experiences regarding this statement. Unsurprisingly, one of our readers “felt triggered by the claim that trauma doesn’t exist” given her long personal “journey of healing [her own] developmental trauma.” However, she did identify with the philosopher’s claim that we have “agency in our own happiness.” This reader added:

The models for my own life garnered love and support through victimhood and I learned early to use my pain and eventual addiction in order to elicit attention. My unhappiness was “good” in as much as it helped me survive a challenging childhood. 

She added that this behavior continued into adulthood:

Growing older, I have always been able to explain away my faults with this troubled past. Even in my adolescence my self-awareness was precise and startling to therapists and mentors.

And as the philosopher would suggest, with age she’s come to realize the power of this self-limiting narrative about own’s self:

I have come to believe that our stories about ourselves (…) do greatly influence the opportunities we notice, the risks we take and the way we interact with others. When we are so set in our justifications it becomes easy to fall into the trap of ”saying ‘if only such and such were the case’ [as] an excuse to yourself for not changing”. We limit our awareness only to those limitations that affirm our beliefs about ourselves and the world, and therefore perpetuate the situations we claim to wish to change.

Back to my ghosting friend

Oof, that was heavy. I need a drink.

So let’s take it back to my ghosting friend. What goal motivated the lack of response to my offer? Is his woe-is-me a call for attention? Maybe his goal is maintaining a comfortable situation? Or avoiding the anxiety that comes from uncertainty? We’ll never know.

But we can look into our own situations and examine if there’s an underlying goal that’s sucking away at our agency.

The Philosopher would tell my friend that he “likes driving [his] old, familiar car” and would add:

If one chooses a new lifestyle, no one can predict what might happen to the new self, or have any idea how to deal with events as they arise. It will be hard to see ahead to the future, and life will be filled with anxiety. A more painful and unhappy life might lie ahead. Simply put, people have various complaints about things, but it’s easier and more secure to be just the way one is.

Adlerian psychology is “the psychology of courage and one’s unhappiness cannot be blamed on your past or your environment.”

Do you have the courage to be happy?

Note: The “friend” is fictional and is a mashup of examples from the book as well as collected stories from blog posts, tweets, and podcasts.

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Khe Hy
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Khe Hy is the creator of RadReads.