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Preaching to the Choir

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“As each of us goes through life, we store all our experiences in what becomes a personalized thought system, the software of our bio-computer, the brain… our personal unique operating system… the filter through which we interpret life.” —Joseph Bailey

While many of the building blocks of happiness — or at least those considered relevant by modern Positive Psychologists — make a tremendous amount of sense, there stands an active contradiction within the model: To be happy, as some conclusions suggest, means to remain complacent. As Joseph Bailey, himself a longtime psychologist, explained in his book The Serenity Principle: as we live our lives we each experience separate realities based on our unique circumstances, all of which combine in the formation of something of a personal operating system that is constantly helping to define the way we experience life. As we continue to develop this personal system we strengthen our own positions and reinforce our beliefs by selectively interpreting the world around us. To look outside of our personal ideals means to risk current satisfaction.

Unsurprisingly, those with similar thought systems tend to stick together, often times (historically) to a degree which results in confrontation with those who run on a non-compatible societal software: sort of like real life Mac and PC guys. There might be no better (or obvious) an example of this than religions when examining the idea within the context of happiness, especially when considering that simply dedicating yourself to something of personal “meaning” often grants individuals an increased sense of satisfaction in their lives. Martin Seligman’s research reveals that religion is one of the key contributors to an individual’s general happiness (although, has there ever been a more divisive, destructive tool in the history of humanity as that of organized religion?), which makes sense as surrounding yourself with others of similar beliefs is instinctive, and ultimately beneficial to an individual’s psyche as it supports their filter through which they interpret life. It’s easier to preach to the choir than it is to those whose opinions differ from your own.

“A man is occupied by that from which he expects to gain happiness, but his greatest happiness is the fact that he is occupied.” —Alain

Likewise, those seeking recovery typically look to others of the same mindset in searching for a way out of whatever it is that haunts them. And when an idea works, it becomes easy to neglect looking outside of that particular circle of thought for input that might contradict the present approach; a commonality obviously held by religions as well. Research by Dan Gilbert and Matthew Killingsworth indicates that the act of staying busy encourages happiness (“a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind”), but in combining a busy mind with a circle of complacent thinking I fear that something is lost in the trade-off: a realm of personal empowerment that Bailey speaks to with the concept of “sincere delusion.”

The idea is that a deluded person fails to realize that they are in charge of their lives, and in the chaos of daily living they neglect to use gained wisdom and common sense, allowing their surroundings to dictate how they react to the world around them. What happens then is the individual begins to further latch onto what’s comfortable in their world in an attempt to survive the day. As Bailey argues, this leads to a narrow and predetermined perspective of reality. He offers the base example of “Mondays”: we often allow pre-programming to trigger an internal response, leaving us with a variety of conclusions like Mondays suck (my words, not his) even before the day even really begins. What happens then is that you know Mondays will suck, or that treatment won’t work, or that someone else’s opinions are wrong, or that the opposing political party is comprised entirely of ignorant assholes, or that whatever else you believe is gospel because your operating system has been selectively validated time and time again by the elements you’ve surrounded yourself with. Essentially, Mondays suck because you allow them to suck.

Right and wrong are obsolete labels when referring to happiness and there is no single set of directions which will provide an accurate guide, mapping the course and setting us each on our way to “something more.” Mihaly Csikszenmihalyi uses the term “flow” when characterizing a state which captures our complete engagement: some are able to find flow deep in the midst of an engaging sermon while others find it by competing in their favorite sport, cooking, playing a board game with family members, or drinking (I’d argue that a simpler path toward finding lucid “focus” might not exist). Because of flow though, or rather because of philosophical flow, it’s easy to become trapped by perspective: when a certain way of looking at the world has consumed the mind for a lengthy period of time it becomes terribly difficult to imagine any other way to hold value. It’s cynicism, plain and simple.

The result is a tendency to remain comfortably within our ways regardless of whether or not they bring us any sense of happiness (or results!). In the world of recovery, this is why a model that was developed shortly after the discovery of penicillin is still used as the primary course of action (despite its 5% success rate, no less), and this is why wretched traditions carry on through generations: because we are so quick to act when justifying our actions or positions, yet slow to reset our operating system when personal evolution is calling. In my life I’m still attempting to let go of personal stubbornness, and this has meant letting go of a lot of nonsense that I’ve harbored for the bulk of my years and opening the door to new ideas. That said, it would be completely inaccurate to imply that I was a willing participant when this process began. Rather, my journey to “expanding my horizons” began under some rather unusual circumstances: an extended stint in a suburban mental ward.