In Part 8 of Status Society Alain de Botton argues that the benefits of a meritocratic system have been extraordinary. People who for generations were held down in a caste like hierarchy have finally been allowed to fulfill themselves in whatever ways their talents allow. Race, class, gender and age have all stopped being obstacles to advancement. An element of justice has been introduced into the distribution of rewards. Alongside meritocratic educational reform has come efforts to promote equal opportunities in the workplace. We are repeatedly told that through effort and diligence we can make it to the top.
There is a pride in the way many people speak about how they got to the top, a pride that would have been impossible in the days before meritocracy when you only got places because of who your parents were. Earning good money and having an important job title say more positive things about you than they ever used to. Unfortunately in a meritocracy having no money or no impressive job title say many more negative things about you than they used to. There’s a darker side to meritocracy: if the successful merit their success it then logically follows that the unsuccessful merit their failure. In a meritocratic age an element of justice seems to enter into the distribution of success as well as failure. Financial failure becomes associated with a sense of shame that the unsuccessful of old were fortunately spared. Now the question of why, if you are in any way clever or talented, you are still unsuccessful, becomes a more difficult a question to answer. The rich come to seem as though they are deserving of what is going right for them. Watch the video to see what conclusion Alain de Botton comes to about those for whom meritocracy has not delivered the status they desired. He claims that we have ended up with a curious paradox that our wealthy, opportunity-filled societies have had the odd effect of raising our levels of status anxiety.
Happiness at work is big news. Take a look at this new video by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) who have worked together with Zappos to create a new happiness at work survey. This new tool which was launched recently gives companies a simple way to measure happiness and well-being in the workplace and to implement improvements to create a happier workforce. According to the article below from the Guardian Sustainable Business section, having a happy workforce actually makes good financial sense.
A happy workforce is more engaged, creative and more focused, increasing the overall productivity of a company, says Tim Smedley
The link between happiness and productivity at work is increasingly understood. Photograph: Alberto Incrocci/Getty Images
How happy are you at work? Maybe you’re reading this at work right now? Which could indicate that you work in a friendly workplace culture where you’re empowered to do as you see fit and read whatever you want online. Or it could mean that you’re bored out of your brain, whiling away the hours until the clock clunks to home time. The former suggests that you’re a happy and productive worker; the latter, quite the opposite. And this link between happiness and productivity at work is becoming increasingly understood.
Nic Marks, of the New Economics Foundation (Nef), has spent the last 10 years of his life working in this field. It used to be known as ‘well-being economics’ until it was discovered that “normal people didn’t know what that meant”, says Marks. Happiness is what it’s really all about.
“People who are happier at work are more productive – they are more engaged, more creative, have better concentration”, says Marks. “The difference in productivity between happy and unhappy people at work can range between 10-50%. That’s 10% for non-complex repetitive tasks, or up to 40-50% in service and creative industries.” And that’s an awful lot in terms of business revenue.
The current poster boy for happiness in business circles is Tony Hsieh. A beneficiary of the dot-com boom he became a multi-millionaire in his early 20s by selling his web company LinkExchange to Microsoft for $265m. He then took over fashion start-up Zappos in 1999 because he missed working in a happy environment. “It began selfishly for me”, he admits. “I was in the financial position of not having to work again… so if I’m going to go back into an office it better be around people I would choose to hang out with. Otherwise, what’s the point? But it actually turned out to be a good business strategy.”
By 2005, Hsieh decided that a happy company culture was Zappos’s number one business priority, from which everything else would grow. In an ironic echo of the General Electric CEO Jack Welsch who advocated axing the bottom performing 10% of managers each year, Hsieh removed the 5-10% of employees who did not buy into the same vision. “The best way to make [a happy culture] stick is to get rid of the whatever percentage of people who aren’t living up to the company values”, he argues. “What we found is that short term pain was totally worth the long-term gain of strengthening the relationships with everybody else.”
By removing the cynics, says Hsieh, the remaining 90% “became super-engaged”. Empowerment policies then came thick and fast. The company moved from San Francisco to Las Vegas where they could recreate a college campus environment; the sole communication policy reads “‘be real and use your best judgement”; call centre staff are hired on friendliness – only 5% of calls result in sales but long-term relationships are built over time. By 2008 the company reached $1b in gross merchandise sales. In 2012, it is now over $2bn, with 5,000 staff. That sort of growth – especially through a prolonged recession – is hard to ignore.
The UK government is not ignoring happiness. For the last two years Lib Dem MP Jo Swinson has chaired the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Wellbeing Economics. When it started out, two people came. The last sitting in May was standing room only. “Anyone who has worked in a business knows that when colleagues feel motivated, empowered and wake up looking forward to going to work – then they will work better. We all know that”, says Swinson. “And increasingly businesses are recognising that too.”
In light of this groundswell of interest, Nic Marks and Nef have just launched an online tool to help businesses measure and manage the happiness of their employees. Marks feels that the employee engagement surveys run by many businesses are too extractive, based on what employers can get out of their employees rather than what employees want. To avoid disappearing down an HR blackhole, as Marks puts it, Nef’s happiness survey gives employees instant results – including personalised action plans – as well as collating the results anonymously for the business.
One company who trialled the Nef approach – The Works, a recruitment agency in the north of England – ended up changing its working hours and internal communications practices on the back of the survey. “It’s given employees empowerment, hopefully it’s given them more job satisfaction”, says Joanne Shires, the firm’s head of people and talent. “And for us it’s a return on our social investment.”
So can happier people at work actually lead to a happier and more prosperous society? In down town Las Vegas, Tony Hsieh and Zappos are putting that to the test. Having bought the old Las Vegas city hall to house the new company headquarters, planning the obligatory cool workplace trimmings – funky break-out areas, an internal pub – all felt too insular, says Hsieh. So Zappos set up and funded a $350m project to invest $100m in local real estate, $100m in residential development, $50m in small businesses, $50m in education, and $50m in technology start-ups.
“What started out as a new office move has actually turned out to be a project to revitalise down town Vegas,” says Hsieh. And guess what, “we’ve seen our employees become engaged on a whole new level because of this. It all feeds back into the Zappos brand… we can do well and do good.” Which has to be more than just a happy coincidence.
Article by Tim Smedley originally published in The Guardian on 20th June 2012.
In part 7 of Status Anxiety Alain de Botton looks at how living standards in the West have hugely improved in the last 200 years with major increases in life expectancy, economic opportunity and wealth generally. Despite these improvements it can be argued that we are much more status conscious and status anxious than we every were in the days of horse drawn carriages. Older societies despite all their disadvantages had one big advantage when it came to status. Before the mid 18th century, status was handed out in very particular ways: it did not matter what you did but who you were, who your parents were, what kind of background you had. People at the top of society had been handed their priveleges on a plate, secondly there was very little social mobility and thirdly people had very low expectations of the kind of life they could have. Under the old feudal system only a very few could aspire to wealth and fulfillment.
Alain de Botton claims that religion taught many people to accept their unequal treatment as part of a natural and unchangeable order. The English Christian medeival author John of Salisbury, who in 1159 published Policraticus, compared society to a body and used this analogy to justify a system of natural inequality. The ruler was like a head, the parliament like the lungs, the treasury like a stomach, the army like the hands, the working classes like the feet and the peasantry the toes. Behind this rather insulting metaphor lay the idea that everyone in society had been accorded an unalterable role.
Gradually in the middle of the 18th century a way of distributing status emerged, a way that gave hope to millions of people and dramatically changed their lives but which at the same time also brought new levels of anxiety. This new system was called meritocracy. Alain de Botton travels to America to see how the creation of the United States in 1776 fundamentally changed the way status was distributed. The constitution of this new country was based on an idea which was to affect almost every aspect of life right across the Western world – the idea of meritocracy.
Thomas Jefferson drafted these words in June 1776:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit if happiness”
Part 7 of this series continues to look at how this Declaration of Independence and the ideals of meritocracy led to the belief in the American Dream – that anyone with enough talent is capable of achieving anything. An aristocracy of talent rather than birth right emerged.
Alain de Botton postulates that the search for status is linked to something which is as essential to us as light, food and water. Once we work out how central the need for love is a lot of things become clearer, from why we go shopping to why we sometimes kill one another. Much of the reason why we go shopping is unconnected to any urgent material need. We often shop in order to persuade the world we are worthwhile, interesting people. We often shop for emotional rather than practical reasons. A lot of consumption is about acquiring status symbols, material objects whose primary use is psychological and which signal to the world that we are worthy of dignity and respect.
Why do we shop?
Thorstein Veblen, an American sociologist and the man responsible for the term status symbols wrote a witty book The Theory of the Leisure Class in 1899. Having observed the rich at leisure he became fascinated by how people acquire certain luxury goods to symbolise their high status. Many clothes were deliberately designed to show that people didn’t need to work and in fact couldn’t do so in clothes which were highly impractical.
Alain de Botton looks at why we are interested in acquiring luxury cars and what these cars say about us. He argues that perhaps it is those who strive the hardest to be successful who are most haunted by feelings of failure. Scratch the surface of almost anyone who has made it to the top of their chosen field and you will find an unusually viscous fear of being a loser. What need would there be to be so impressive if their wasn’t a fear of being the opposite? There is a sad emotionaly deprived side to the purchase of luxury cars sales he claims. People are attracted to status symbols because they want to feel valued. Rather than a tale of greed, the history of luxury goods could more accurately be read as a record of emotional trauma. It is the legacy of people who felt pressured by the insensitivity of others to impress them with material objects. The amount of love you receive from the world is dependent on the amount of status symbols you can wield.
Part 6 of this series goes to demonstrate how our extreme touchiness about our status can lead to duelling and tragically even death.
Part 5 of the series Status Anxiety looks at the rewards we seek in society. We look for rewards in terms of promotion, money and buying a nicer house. For most of us the reward we really want is attention.
Alain de Botton investigates how our anxieties about status affect every aspect of our every day lives. We worry about being made redundant and how it will affect the way others see us, we worry about passed over for promotion, we worry about being kept waiting, we worry about our colleagues and even our close friends doing better than us.
However what gives us status in a given society keeps changing throughout history in the 21st century our status comes from fashion, business, sport or all three. Although the ways we attain high status have varied throughout history the consequences of high status are familiar accross time and it comes down to being treated well, being treated with respect and with a kind of love.
It is common to assume that the worst thing about low paid work is the money just as the money is the best thing about highly paid work. There is another way of looking at this isue which puts status at the heart of the subject. It could be argued that what make low paid work really distasteful comes down to how one is treated and it isn’t about the money per se, it is about the lack of status involved. Many low paid jobs leave us feeling as though we don’t properly exist. No cares who we are and what we think. Conversely part of what keeps people working even after they have made a lot of money is the respect they receive from others, they are looked up to, held in high esteem and even photographed on the way to the shops.
The philosopher Adam Smith questioned the point of the rat race in his famous book “The Wealth of Nations”.
“What is all the toil and bustle for? What are people aiming at with their ambitions and their frenzied pursuits of wealth, power and pre-eminence? Are they looking to supply their basic needs? No. The wages of the poorest labourer can supply those. What then are they after? They want to be treated well, they want to be attended to, to be taken notice of with sympathy, kindness and approval.”
It is agonising to compare ourselves with people we consider our equals i.e. returning to a school reunion can trigger huge amounts of anxiety. “Every time a friend of mine succeeds, a small part of me dies” Gore Vidal famously said.
Watch this short video to see what further conclusions Alain de Botton comes to about our need for love and status.
In part 4 of this series Alain de Botton argues that if you met someone very “successful” who had lots of fame, money and respect and asked them why they were successful and they said it was just luck you would think they were being unduly modest. On the other hand if you met someone who was a “failure” and asked them why they had not succeeded and they said it was just bad luck you would think they were trying to hide something. Essentially luck has disappeared as a plausible explanation for what has happened in our lives. Winners make their own luck is the punishing modern mantra.
In traditional societies high status and the respect it brings may have been inordinately hard to achieve but it was also pleasantly hard to lose de Botton argues. Modern society makes status dependent on achievement, primarily financial achievement. The nature of the economy which society has created is making that achievement ever more precarious.
For most of us our work is the chief determinant of the amount of respect and care we will be granted but the globalised economy is making that work more unstable, opening up an anxiety-inducing gap between what we need and what the world will give us.
We seem determined to remove any excuse which we might point to for our failure at a time when more and more of us are less secure in our jobs than ever. What consolations are available to the unsuccessful when the world doesn’t give them the respect they need?
This part of the the programme looks at whether religion is a consolation to those who are not successful in terms of fame and money. Take a look at this short video clip and decide if you agree with the conclusions.
Following on from yesterday’s post about the Oliver Burkeman event organised by Action for Happiness, today’s Guardian features a longer article covering some of the theories in his new book The Antidote.
Happiness is a glass half empty
Be positive, look on the bright side, stay focused on success: so goes our modern mantra. But perhaps the true path to contentment is to learn to be a loser
Are we maybe just looking for happiness in the wrong way? Photograph: Aaron Tilley for the Guardian
In an unremarkable business park outside the city of Ann Arbor, in Michigan, stands a poignant memorial to humanity’s shattered dreams. It doesn’t look like that from the outside, though. Even when you get inside – which members of the public rarely do – it takes a few moments for your eyes to adjust to what you’re seeing. It appears to be a vast and haphazardly organised supermarket; along every aisle, grey metal shelves are crammed with thousands of packages of food and household products. There is something unusually cacophonous about the displays, and soon enough you work out the reason: unlike in a real supermarket, there is only one of each item. And you won’t find many of them in a real supermarket anyway: they are failures, products withdrawn from sale after a few weeks or months, because almost nobody wanted to buy them. In the product-design business, the storehouse – operated by a company called GfK Custom Research North America – has acquired a nickname: the Museum of Failed Products.
The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking
This is consumer capitalism’s graveyard – the shadow side to the relentlessly upbeat, success-focused culture of modern marketing. Or to put it less grandly: it’s almost certainly the only place on the planet where you’ll find Clairol’s A Touch of Yogurt shampoo alongside Gillette’s equally unpopular For Oily Hair Only, a few feet from a now-empty bottle of Pepsi AM Breakfast Cola (born 1989; died 1990). The museum is home to discontinued brands of caffeinated beer; to TV dinners branded with the logo of the toothpaste manufacturer Colgate; to self-heating soup cans that had a regrettable tendency to explode in customers’ faces; and to packets of breath mints that had to be withdrawn from sale because they looked like the tiny packages of crack cocaine dispensed by America’s street drug dealers. It is where microwaveable scrambled eggs – pre-scrambled and sold in a cardboard tube with a pop-up mechanism for easier consumption in the car – go to die.
There is a Japanese term, mono no aware, that translates roughly as “the pathos of things”: it captures a kind of bittersweet melancholy at life’s impermanence – that additional beauty imparted to cherry blossoms, say, or human features, as a result of their inevitably fleeting time on Earth. It’s only stretching the concept slightly to suggest that this is how the museum’s proprietor, an understatedly stylish GfK employee named Carol Sherry, feels about the cartons of Morning Banana Juice in her care, or about Fortune Snookies, a short-lived line of fortune cookies for dogs. Every failure, the way she sees it, embodies its own sad story on the part of designers, marketers and salespeople. It is never far from her mind that real people had their mortgages, their car payments and their family holidays riding on the success of products such as A Touch of Yogurt.
“I feel really sorry for the developer on this one,” Sherry says, indicating the breath mints that inadvertently resembled crack. “I mean, I’ve met the guy. Why would he ever have spent any time on the streets, in the drug culture?” She shakes her head. “These are real people who sincerely want to do their best, and then, well, things happen.”
The Museum of Failed Products – consumer capitalism’s very own graveyard. Photograph: Kelly K JonesThe Museum of Failed Products was itself a kind of accident, albeit a happier one. Its creator, a now-retired marketing man named Robert McMath, merely intended to accumulate a “reference library” of consumer products, not failures per se. And so, starting in the 1960s, he began purchasing and preserving a sample of every new item he could find. Soon, the collection outgrew his office in upstate New York and he was forced to move into a converted granary to accommodate it; later, GfK bought him out, moving the whole lot to Michigan. What McMath hadn’t taken into account was the three-word truth that was to prove the making of his career: “Most products fail.” According to some estimates, the failure rate is as high as 90%. Simply by collecting new products indiscriminately, McMath had ensured that his hoard would come to consist overwhelmingly of unsuccessful ones.By far the most striking thing about the museum, though, is that it should exist as a viable, profit-making business in the first place. You might have assumed that any consumer product manufacturer worthy of the name would have its own such collection – a carefully stewarded resource to help it avoid making errors its rivals had already made. Yet the executives who arrive every week at Sherry’s door are evidence of how rarely this happens. Product developers are so focused on their next hoped-for success – so unwilling to invest time or energy thinking about their industry’s past failures – that they only belatedly realise how much they need to access GfK’s collection. Most surprising of all is that many of the designers who have found their way to the museum have come there to examine – or been surprised to discover – products that their own companies had created, then abandoned. They were apparently so averse to dwelling on the unpleasant business of failure that they had neglected even to keep samples of their own disasters.
Failure is everywhere. It’s just that most of the time we’d rather avoid confronting that fact.
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.
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.
In the world of self-help, the most overt expression of our obsession with optimism is the technique known as “positive visualisation”: mentally picture things turning out well, the reasoning goes, and they’re far more likely to do so. Indeed, a tendency to look on the bright side may be so intertwined with human survival that evolution has skewed us that way. In her book, The Optimism Bias, the neuroscientist Tali Sharot compiles growing evidence that a well-functioning mind may be built so as to perceive the odds of things going well as greater than they really are. Non-depressed people, research suggests, generally have a less accurate and overly optimistic grasp of their true ability to influence events than do those who are suffering from depression.
Yet there are problems with this outlook, aside from just feeling disappointed when things don’t turn out well. Over the last few years, the German-born psychologist Gabriele Oettingen and her colleagues have constructed a series of experiments designed to unearth the truth about “positive fantasies about the future”. The results are striking: spending time and energy focusing on how well things could go, it has emerged, actually reduces most people’s motivation to achieve them. Experimental subjects who were encouraged to think about how they were going to have a particularly high-achieving week at work, for example, ended up achieving less. In one ingenious experiment, Oettingen had participants rendered mildly dehydrated. Then some were taken through an exercise that involved visualising drinking an icy, refreshing glass of water, while others took part in a different exercise. The water-visualisers experienced a significant reduction in their energy levels, as measured by blood pressure. Far from becoming more motivated to hydrate themselves, people responded to positive visualisation by relaxing. They seemed, subconsciously, to have confused imagining success with having already achieved it.
It doesn’t necessarily follow, of course, that it would be a better idea to switch to negative visualisation instead. Yet that is precisely one of the conclusions that emerges from Stoicism, a school of philosophy that originated in Athens a few years after the death of Aristotle, and that came to dominate western thinking about happiness for nearly five centuries.
For the Stoics, the ideal state of mind was tranquility – not the excitable cheer that positive thinkers usually seem to mean when they use the word “happiness”. And tranquility was to be achieved not by chasing after enjoyable experiences, but by cultivating a kind of calm indifference towards one’s circumstances. One way to do this, the Stoics argued, was by turning towards negative emotions and experiences: not shunning them, but examining them closely instead.
Most of us, the Stoics point out, go through life under the delusion that it is certain people, situations or events that make us sad, anxious or angry. When you’re irritated by a colleague at the next desk who won’t stop talking, you naturally assume that the colleague is the source of the irritation; when you hear that a beloved relative is ill and feel pained for them, it makes sense to think of the illness as the source of the pain. Look closely at your experience, though, say the Stoics, and you’ll be forced to conclude that neither of these external events is “negative” in itself. Indeed, nothing outside your own mind can properly be described as negative or positive at all: what actually causes suffering are the beliefs you hold about those things. The colleague is not irritating per se, but because of your belief that getting your work finished without interruption is an important goal. Even a relative’s illness is only bad in view of your belief that it’s a good thing for your relatives not to be ill. Millions of people, after all, get ill every day; we have no beliefs whatsoever about most of them, and consequently don’t feel distressed.
For positive thinkers, this would be an argument for trying to replace your distress-causing beliefs with upbeat ones. But when thinking about the future, Stoics such as Seneca often counselled actively dwelling on worst-case scenarios instead – staring them in the face. Not only does ceaseless optimism make for a greater shock when things go wrong (and they will); imagining the worst also brings its own benefits. 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.
The second, subtler and arguably more powerful benefit of this kind of negative thinking is as an antidote to anxiety. Consider how we normally seek to assuage worries about the future: we seek reassurance, looking to persuade ourselves that everything will be all right in the end. But reassurance is a double-edged sword. In the short term, it can be wonderful, but like all forms of optimism, it requires constant maintenance: offer reassurance to a friend who is in the grip of anxiety, and you’ll often find that, a few days later, he’ll be back for more. Worse, reassurance can actually exacerbate anxiety: when you reassure your friend that the worst-case scenario he fears probably won’t occur, you inadvertently reinforce his belief that it would be catastrophic if it did. You are tightening the coil of his anxiety, not loosening it.
All too often, the Stoics note, things will not turn out for the best. But it is also true that, when they do go wrong, they’ll almost certainly go less wrong than you feared. Losing your job is unlikely to condemn you to starvation and death; losing a relationship won’t condemn you to a life of unrelenting misery. Those fears are based on irrational judgments about the future. The worst thing about any future event, the Stoic-influenced psychologist Albert Ellis used to say, “is usually your exaggerated belief in its horror”. Spend time vividly imagining exactly how wrong things could go in reality, and you’ll often turn bottomless, nebulous fears into finite and manageable ones. Happiness reached via positive thinking is fleeting and brittle; negative visualisation generates a vastly more dependable calm.
The breakfast you were spared – microwaveable scrambled eggs at the Museum of Failed Products in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Photograph: Kelly K JonesBack at the Museum of Failed Products, it isn’t hard to imagine how another downside of the positive-thinking culture – an aversion to confronting failure – might have been responsible for the very existence of many of the products lining its shelves. Each one must have made it through a series of meetings at which nobody realised that the product was doomed. Perhaps nobody wanted to contemplate the prospect of failure; perhaps someone did, but didn’t want to bring it up for discussion. Even if they realise where things are headed, there’s a perverse incentive for marketers to plough more money into a lemon: that way, they can force some sales and preserve their dignity. By the time the truth becomes obvious, the original developers will have moved to other products, or other firms. Little energy will have been invested in discovering what went wrong; everyone involved will have conspired, perhaps without realising what they’re doing, never to speak of it again.Another problem with our reluctance to think about or analyse failure – whether our own or other people’s – is that it leads to an utterly distorted picture of the causes of success. Bookshops are stuffed with autobiographical volumes such as the one released in 2006 by the multimillionaire publisher Felix Dennis, entitled How To Get Rich: The Distilled Wisdom Of One Of Britain’s Wealthiest Self-Made Entrepreneurs. It’s an entertaining read, conveying a similar message to many of the others: that to make a fortune what you need is stubbornness and a willingness to take risks. But research by the Oxford management theorist Jerker Denrell suggests that these are just as likely to be the characteristics of extremely unsuccessful people, too. It’s just that the failures don’t write books. You rarely see autobiographies of people who took risks that then didn’t work out.
Fortunately, developing a healthier approach to failure may be easier than you’d think. The work of the Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck suggests that our experiences of failure are influenced overwhelmingly by the beliefs we hold about the nature of talent and ability – and that we can, perhaps quite straightforwardly, nudge ourselves towards a better outlook. Each of us can be placed somewhere on a continuum, Dweck argues, depending on our “implicit view” – or unspoken attitude – about what talent is and where it comes from. Those with a “fixed theory” assume that ability is innate; those with an “incremental theory” believe that it evolves through challenge and hard work. If you’re the kind of person who strives mightily to avoid the experience of failure, it’s likely that you reside near the “fixed” end of Dweck’s continuum. Fixed-theory people approach challenges as occasions on which they are called upon to demonstrate their innate abilities, and so they find failure especially horrifying: to them, it’s a sign that they tried to show how good they are, but didn’t measure up. The classic example is the young sports star encouraged to think of himself as a “natural” – but who then fails to put in sufficient practice to realise his potential. If talent is innate, his unspoken reasoning goes, then why bother?
Incremental-theory people are different. Because they think of abilities as emerging through tackling challenges, the experience of failure has a completely different meaning for them: it’s evidence that they are stretching themselves to their current limits. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t fail. The relevant analogy here is with weight training: muscles grow by being pushed to the limits of their current capacity, where fibres tear and reheal. Among weightlifters, “training to failure” isn’t an admission of defeat – it’s a strategy.
Happily, Dweck’s studies indicate that we are not saddled for life with one mindset rather than another. Some people manage to alter their outlook simply by being introduced to the fixed versus incremental distinction. Alternatively, it’s worth trying to recall it next time failure strikes: next time you flunk an exam, or mishandle a social situation, consider that it’s happening only because you’re pushing at the limits of your present abilities. And should you wish to encourage an incremental outlook in your children, Dweck advises, take care to praise them for their effort, rather than their intelligence: focusing on the latter is likely to exacerbate a fixed mindset, making them more reluctant to risk encountering failure in the future. The incremental mindset is the one more likely to lead to sustainable success. But the deeper point is that possessing an incremental outlook is a happier way to be, whether or not it leads to any outstanding success. It is a win-win proposition, for which the only precondition is a heartfelt willingness to lose.
Perhaps nobody wanted to contemplate the prospect of these products failing. Photograph: Kelly K JonesThe gurus of positivity and optimism can’t bear to contemplate that there might be happiness to be found in embracing failure as failure, not only as a technique for achieving success. But, as the Zen-influenced writerNatalie Goldberg argues, there is an openness and honesty in failure, a down-to-earth confrontation with reality that can seem lacking at the higher altitudes of success. 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. To fully embrace the experience of failure, not merely to tolerate it as a stepping stone to glory, is to abandon this constant straining never to put a foot wrong – and to relax.• This is an edited extract from The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, by Oliver Burkeman, published next week by Canongate at £15. To order a copy for £12, including mainland UK p&p, go to guardianbookshop.co.uk. Oliver Burkeman will be speaking in Edinburgh on 23 June. To book go to canongate.tv/talks
Oliver gave us a brief introduction to some of the research he had undertaken when writing his latest book, having consulted the teachings of psychologists, Buddhists, business consultants and philosphophers who are all of the opinion that “if only we stopped trying so hard to be happy we could have a pretty good time”. (A quote which according to Burkeman has been wrongly attributed to Edith Wharton)
These great teachers argue that an alternative to the pressure to be eternally optimistic and to always look on the bright side of life is to follow a more negative route to happiness and success that involves embracing failure, allowing ourselves to be pessimistic and to feeling insecure and uncertain – the very things which we traditionally spend our lives trying to avoid.
He quoted American psychologist Albert Ellis who stated that “the worst thing about any future event is your exaggerated belief in its horror”. Ellis apparently advised Oliver Burkeman to try out this theory by travelling on the London underground and shouting out the name of every stop to the other passengers as the train arrived in each new station. Oliver did, in fact, try out this theory and although it was a horribly embarrassing thing to do it wasn’t nearly as bad as he imagined it would be and he didn’t die or get locked up!
Oliver mentioned the Stoic phiolsophers, Seneca and Epetitus who advocated ‘negative visualisations’ and ‘defensive pessimism’ as coping mechanisms. He also advocated experimenting with the Buddhist concept of “non-attachment” so that we learn to see our emotions as being no more significant than the weather.
He recommended building examples of our own mortality in to our life and looked at the practice of celebrating the Day of the Dead in Mexico (Día de los Muertos)which helps people to cope with the passing of loved ones as well as celebrate their lives. This point was illustrated with a well-know quote from Steve Jobs:
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” Steve Jobs
The journalist also argued that our constant striving towards a permanent state of happiness and perfection results in us perpetually beating ourselves up about our own inevitable inadequacies and failures. A quote from Anne Lamott’s book “Bird by Bird: instructions on Writing and Life” illustrated this point very well:
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”
It was a very interesting evening and I look forward to reading Oliver Burkeman’s new book with just enough negative anticipation to guarantee that I will find the reading of it a pleasurable and enlightening experience.
Until the Action for Happiness video of last night’s event goes live you could do much worse than watch this RSA talk which Oliver Burkeman gave about this previous book. I could be wildly enthusiastic and tell you that it is a very amusing, uplifting and informative talk which you are guaranteed to enjoy but then Oliver Burkeman probably wouldn’t approve of such unbridled positivity. All I will say is please watch the video and if you are feeling really enthusiastic you can also read his books and decide for yourself armed of course with just enough Buddhist ‘non-attachment’ to ensure that your judgement is not impaired.
Part 3 of this documentary series by Alain de Botton on “Status Anxiety” looks at the theory of meritocracy. Is meritocracy the route to happiness? De Botton investigates the “American Dream” and asks if such a thing is achievable. The programme cites William James, an American psychologist, who looked at the problems which societies create for themselves when they start raising huge expectations in their citizens. The formula James came up with is that Self esteem = Success/Expectation.
In order to have the healthy level of self esteem which we are all looking for we can do two things: we can either become more successful or lower the number of things we expect to be successful at. The problem is that modern societies place us under huge pressure to succeed and make self esteem very elusive. Every rise in our levels of expectation entails a rise in the risk of humiliation.
According to Alain de Botton it became possible to argue for the first time that the rung of the ladder which a person stood on accurately reflected their true qualities and conveniently for the successful this reduced the need for welfare, redistribution of wealth or even sympathy.
Take a look at the arguments made Alain de Botton in the third part of this fascinating series and decide whether you agree with his analysis. If you want to learn more you can purchase Alain de Botton’s book Status Anxiety from Amazon.
This is the second part of the short documentary series by Alain de Botton which looks at our theme of how our obsession with money and status can be a huge obstruction to our happiness. Part 2 looks at why we torment ourselves with comparisons between our lives and those just a few rungs up the ladder. It does not make us any happier so why are we so incapable of curtailing our painful aspirations? It is not just comparisons with others which make us feel discontent it is also what we demand of ourselves. We are all now expected to succeed. We ask ourselves: Should I be more than I am?
Should we follow the advice of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau who argued the case for the “noble savage”. Being wealthy is not just a question of having a lot of money, it is having what we want. Wealth is not an absolute, it is relative to desire. Every time we seek something which we can’t afford, we can be considered poor, however much money we actually have. Every time we are satisfied with what we have we can be considered rich however little we may actually possess. Rousseau argued that there are two ways to make make people richer, one is to give them more money and the other is to restrain their desires.
Take a look at the arguments made in the second part of this fascinating series and if you want to learn more you can purchase Alain de Botton’s book Status Anxiety from Amazon.