Up the Down Staircase to Happiness

updownThere was a popular book by Bel Kaufman in the 60s, followed by the movie with Sandy Dennis, called Up the Down Staircase–about a new, struggling teacher who made the mistake of climbing the staircase in the school that was used for “down” traffic in order to go up.  She found herself, struggling, pushing against the tide of students pressing down on her as she fought her way to the top.

It was a great metaphor for a self-imposed struggle to getting somewhere, unaware that you are headed in the wrong direction–persisting in the struggle instead of simply finding the right path.   Instead of “going with the flow” you fight it and wind up further from your destination.

There is an article in Time Magazine this week called “Yes I Suck:  The Power of Negative Thinking,” and it highlights a study just published in the journal Psychological Science which says trying to get people to think more positively can actually have the opposite effect: it can simply highlight how unhappy they are.

The study’s authors, Joanne Wood and John Lee of the University of Waterloo and Elaine Perunovic of the University of New Brunswick, begin with a common-sense proposition: when people hear something they don’t believe, they are not only often skeptical but adhere even more strongly to their original position…

And so we constantly argue with ourselves. Many of us are reluctant to revise our self-judgment, especially for the better. In 1994, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published a paper showing that when people get feedback that they believe is overly positive, they actually feel worse, not better. If you try to tell your dim friend that he has the potential of an Einstein, he won’t think he’s any smarter; he will probably just disbelieve your contradictory theory, hew more closely to his own self-assessment and, in the end, feel even dumber. In one fascinating 1990s experiment demonstrating this effect — called cognitive dissonance in official terms — a team including psychologist Joel Cooper of Princeton asked participants to write hard-hearted essays opposing funding for the disabled. When these participants were later told they were compassionate, they felt even worse about what they had written.
Wood, Lee and Perunovic conclude that unfavorable thoughts about ourselves intrude very easily, especially among those of us with low self-esteem — so easily and so persistently that even when a positive alternative is presented, it just underlines how awful we believe we are.
The paper provides support for newer forms of psychotherapy that urge people to accept their negative thoughts and feelings rather than try to reject and fight them. In the fighting, we not only often fail but can also make things worse. Mindfulness and meditation techniques, in contrast, can teach people to put their shortcomings into a larger, more realistic perspective. Call it the power of negative thinking.

When it comes to seeking happiness, steering your focus on finding happiness or self-worth to the exclusion of activities that will actually make you happier or feel better about yourself is a case of going up the down staircase.   Forcing the issue by constantly affirming to yourself, like Stuart Smalley, that “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and, doggone it, people like me!” may actually sentence you to never-ending struggle to get to the top of the happiness staircase.

Wise people have told us, in many different ways, that the minute we stop focusing on ourselves, the struggles stop and the door to happiness appears.  All the theories about ego-consciousness points to this (read Eckhart Tolle).   Tolstoy told us this in the parable of the Emporer’s Three Questions.  All the wisdom of the saints tells us this.  That famous peace prayer attributed to St. Francis tells us that in order to get, we don’t strive to get, we give.   In finding love, we don’t demand it, we simply perform acts of love towards others.   We don’t beg others to understand us, we listen to them and we seek to understand them.

In one of my favorite Dick and Jane stories from my grammar school reader, a dad gives his son and his daughter their own gardens, and tells them it is theirs to tend.  Each of them starts with the same number of seeds, and soon both gardens are blooming.  The boy starts giving his flowers away–to the elderly neighbor next door, to his teacher, to a sick friend.  The girl refuses to cut off her beautiful blooms, preferring to keep the beauty to herself.

If you are a gardener, you can guess the end of the story–the boy’s garden flourished because when you cut one bloom, you get two back.  On the other hand, within a few weeks, the girl’s garden had spent its blooms and sat there, lifeless and sparse.

I subscribe to Self-improvement ebooks, and they recently sent me an article on “The Secret of Abounding Happiness.”  The recipe, in short:

As you rise above the sorded self; as you break, one after another, the chains that bind you, you will realize the joy of giving, as distinguished from the misery of grasping–giving of your substance; giving of your intellect; giving of the love and light that are growing within you.  You will then understand that it is indeed ‘more blessed to give than to receive.’

Lose yourself in the welfare of others; forget yourself in all that you do; this is the secret of abounding happiness.”

So instead of running to your therapist, run to your local food bank and volunteer.  Instead of buying stuff you don’t need to make you happy, give away stuff you don’t need.  Instead of looking down into the depths of your own unhappiness, get off that DOWN staircase, find the UP one and ascend with ease.

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