Kent Bottles: My New Year’s Resolution: To See the World Clearly (Not as I Fear or Wish It to Be)
One of my blog posts (http://icsihealthcareblog.wordpress.com/2009/12/07/kent-bottles-good-evil-niebuhr-buddhism-health-care-reform-and-twitter/) created concern about my mental state. I received a very nice Twitter direct message from @ePatientDave and my colleague at work @jtrevis noted that my dark blog posts seemed to be less popular than the sunnier ones. While I would never want to be in a “normal” mental state, I do think that seeing the world and people clearly for what they are is preferable and more effective than being controlled by our wishes or fears.
Without much effort, I just collected from my bookshelves 10 books that I have read on how to be happy (Authors: Layard, Lyubomirsky, Myers, Gilbert, Hecht, Nettle, McMahon, Seligman, Lykken, and Haidt). From these books, I have learned a lot, but I have always gone away from them vaguely dissatisfied.
There are only three books I have found that help me understand my dissatisfaction with the optimism and happiness movement that seems to be sweeping the nation. I am just naturally skeptical of the Oprah Winfrey and Tony Robbins mantra that one can make everything and everyone successful and happy by thinking positively. Although I did enjoy Sonja Lyubomirsky’s The How of Happiness (New York: The Penguin Press, 2007), I am wary of signing up for the $9.99 a month “mobile happiness boosting program” that is based on that book.
The three books that provide in my mind necessary balance to the happiness movement are Against Happiness by Eric G. Wilson (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), Happiness: A Novel by Will Ferguson (New York: Harper Collins, 2002), and Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2009). So what is wrong with always being positive and optimistic?
Wilson makes the most compelling case and concludes “To desire only happiness in a world undoubtedly tragic is to become inauthentic, to settle for unrealistic abstractions that ignore concrete situations.” He also comments that “our passion for felicity hints at an ominous hatred for all that grows and thrives and then dies.” Wilson expanded my uneasiness with positive psychology by reminding me that I hate phonies; I cherish authenticity, and to be authentic in this world requires one at times to be melancholic.
Ferguson’s novel is snarky, funny, cynical, and unfortunately true. “So people become happy. What’s the harm in that?” “Our entire economy is built on human weaknesses, on bad habits, and insecurities. Fashion. Fast food. Sports cars. Techno-gadgets. Diet centers. Think what would happen if people were ever really, truly happy. It would be cataclysmic. The entire country would grind to a halt – and if America goes, you don’t think the rest of the Western World will follow? We’re talking about a global domino effect. The end of history.”
Barbara Ehrenreich is the latest skeptic to reassure me that my not always ecstatic mental state is not only acceptable, but also reasonable. “Happiness is great, joy is great, but positive thinking reduces the spontaneity of human interactions. If everyone has that fixed social smile all the time, how do you know when anyone really likes you (http://bit.ly/5hic7o)?” Exactly, how do you know they are being genuine in their friendship with you? I grew up in California, so I know something about superficial relationships.
And not all the science is on the side of happiness. Joseph P. Forgas in the November-December issue of Australasian Science writes: “Whereas positive mood seems to promote creativity, flexibility, cooperation and reliance on mental shortcuts, negative moods trigger more attentive, careful thinking, paying greater attention to the external world.”
Dr. David Spiegel in the September 2007 issue of Cancer reported that he could not duplicate an earlier study that showed that women with metastatic breast cancer who joined a support group lived longer. Ehrenreich is a breast cancer survivor who experienced a viscerally negative response to advice to just think positively about her disease (http://bit.ly/5hic7o).
I really resonated with Ehrenreich’s advice to try “to see the world not colored by our wishes or fears, but by reality.” I wish I could trust everyone and that there are no enemies in the world. But my take on reality is that you cannot trust everyone.
I was reminded of this when I read about Brenda Tan and Matt Cost of the Trinity School in New York City who decided to test identities of several products with the Barcode of Life Database. They found supposedly pricey sheep’s milk cheese was made from cow’s milk, fish labeled smelt were really anchovies, and venison dog treats were made from beef. In their article published in the January issue of BioScience they commented, “We do not know where or why the mislabeling occurred, but most cases appeared to involve substitution of a less expensive or less desirable item, suggesting the possibility of deliberate mislabeling for economic gain” (http://bit.ly/74jKyu) They may not know about this mislabeling, but I think I do.
The high school students’ findings were hardly unique. In one of my favorite New Yorker articles (August 13, 2007) titled “Slippery Business,” Tom Mueller writes extensively about fraud in the olive oil business (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/08/13/070813fa_fact_mueller). He claims that major Italian shippers routinely adulterate olive oil for export and that only about 40% of “extra virgin” olive oil actually qualifies for that category when tested. Colza oil, Turkish hazel nut oil, and Argentinean sunflower seed oil have all been sold as Italian olive oil after being doctored with flavoring and coloring.
In another fascinating New Yorker article (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/09/03/070903fa_fact_keefe), the world of wine counterfeiting is examined in detail. Bottles of Lafitte with Th.J. on them are auctioned off for $157,000 a bottle, but close examination reveals they are most likely fakes. Rajat Parr, a Las Vegas wine director, describes how the smelling and tasting of wine are susceptible to interference from the cognitive parts of our brains which want expensive bottles of wine to be delicious. He relates some customers enjoying a bottle of 1982 Petrus at about $6,000 a bottle in a restaurant. They order a second bottle which they sent back because it tasted different from the first bottle. They enjoy a third bottle which replaced the rejected second bottle. Parr revealed the problem when he ascertained that the second bottle was the only real, authentic 1982 Petrus.
Everywhere I look I see a reality that includes trustworthy people and products and also fraudulent people and products. Be aware that the wild salmon that costs more than the farmed salmon at the deli may be a fake. Be aware that people lie, especially when they can make money at it. Life is messy. I agree with Wilson who believes that people who say they are always happy and optimistic are misguided.
“Most hide behind the smile because they are afraid of facing the world’s complexity, its vagueness, its terrible beauties.” I think one of the terrible beauties of the world is a person like Rodenstock, the mysterious European wine merchant who keeps finding rare bottles of wine that were most likely owned by Thomas Jefferson. I like meeting people like him; I just don’t always trust them. My New Year’s Resolution for 2010 is to try see the health care world clearly and as it really is (http://bit.ly/6gUVKR)
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