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.

Kicking Ourselves Out of Suburban Nests: Building a New Kind of Levittown


Tim Burton's depiction of suburbia in Edward Scissorhands--a surreal version of the truth

Tim Burton's depiction of suburbia in Edward Scissorhands--a surreal version of the truth

We form pictures in our heads of what we dream our lives will be like in 5, 10, 20 years.  Generally, our dreams are formed by happy memories, environments that have been comfortable and safe, our parents’ dreams for us, and pop culture cues.  

When I was fourteen I had a clear picture in my head of what my dream home would look like and it wasn’t a copy of the Brady Bunch house –it was an apartment in Greenwich Village.  Coming from a Connecticut suburb, I had no idea whatsoever what it meant to have an apartment in the Village, but I had read a story which formed romantic thoughts about having a little atelier overlooking Washington Square.  

My parents had lived the post-War American Dream.   My dad had built our little cape cod pretty much on his own, since his dad had given him a new lumber yard to manage when he got out of the Navy.  My brothers and I grew up there, walking to the neighborhood school past all the other little square houses on the way.    When we played outside, all Mom had to do was call out our names, and we’d go running.   It all seemed so safe, and each neighborhood was its own nest.

So, when I told my mother that my dream was to live in Greenwich Village, she said, “Mmmm.”  A couple of weeks later, she suggested to my stepfather that we go for a drive.  “Where shall we go?” he asked.   “Um, how about New York?  That would be fun!”  So off we went down Interstate 95 and into Manhattan.   I had been to Times Square and many of the the other midtown landmarks, and they never ceased to thrill.  But we drove out of midtown and the glitz got less glitzy, the buildings slightly greyer, until Mom managed to get us to a bunch of blocks that were a far cry from any romantic idea of New York in my head. No, suddenly I was looking at iron grates strewn with graffiti, unfriendly looking people lingering in doorways.  Where were the cute shops?  Where were the tree-lined streets?   Where were the artists in the park?   

“Well, honey,” Mom said twisting her head around from the front seat so she could fully appreciate the expression on my face.  “Here’s Greenwich Village!”   To this day I don’t know what small part of the Village she had taken me to, nor how she had so carefully avoided all the other blocks of downtown New York where the place of my imagination would have been realized, but her mission had been accomplished.  My face registered bewilderment and disappointment, and I never spoke of living in Manhattan again–at least until I was old enough to see for myself that my mother had been doing her typical Mom thing, trying to recalibrate my dreams to match the ones she had for me.   

Time Magazine’s provocative cover story this week, “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now,”  Idea #2, Recycling the Suburbs by Bryan Walsh, nudged me out of any warm-fuzzy feelings about the type of neighborhood that I grew up in, and the type I raised my own children in.  Suburban sprawl may be on life-support.  Many will bid good riddance to the model of single family homes sequestered from the business side of town; double-width driveways and barbecue decks and the hum of riding mowers.  Towns where, if you decide to walk to the post office or convenience store and a neighbor passes you in their car, they assume your car has broken down and they offer you a ride.  When you say, you are doing it for the exercise and the pleasure of walking, they look at you funnily–as if to say, “Well then, why don’t you live in Manhattan?”

The reason suburbs may be doomed is because they are built on an outdated premise–that fuel will always be plentiful and cheap–and we now know that this is not true, which makes suburbia unsustainable.   But there are other reasons the suburbs have lost their luster.  The suburbs in many cases have failed to fulfill the promises they made.  The term “bedroom community” means that you’re only there to sleep because you spend so much time commuting to your job.   Isolation born out of this type of nesting has been written about in books like Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone.  

Luckily, there are all kinds of visionary urban planners and architects and others who are trying to formulate a new model for the 21st century:   one of mixed-use areas, where retail shops and residences and offices come together holistically like many of the little towns in Europe that are still like that.  I remember being in Haversom, outside of Amsterdam, where you could bike or walk anywhere–and people did.  It was not unusual at all to see septuagenarians pedaling their groceries back home on their bicycles and what’s more,  the village infrastructure supported their efforts with bike paths that integrated with the pedestrian walkways and the roads for the cars.

The point is this:   Looking to a future where the American Dream is redefined sounds nice, but will require that some of us raised in subdivisions let go of nostalgia for the American Dream of the Past.   How do we reverse the trajectory from cape code to split level to McMansions and beyond?  For many of us, I think we need to detach from dream homes in our heads and ask ourselves questions like:

  • What aspects of community am I really looking for, and how do I expect them to be realized?
  • How much square footage do I really need, and can my need for space and privacy be satisfied with less?
  • Why do I want a lawn? 
  • How much do I value my time, and do I want to spend it commuting?
  • How do I define safety?  
  • How independent do I want my children to be?  What activities will foster that?
  • What aspects of my childhood home am I looking to re-create?   What dreams did I have for a home when I was young?  Are some of these emotional drivers still valid, or do they need to be re-examined or perhaps repackaged?   
  • What specific impact will my choice for home and neighborhood have on the environment?  It has been shown that city-dwellers have much less impact on the environment than their nature-seeking neighbors in the outlying suburbs.   How do I reconcile this with my personal need for a “best of both worlds” between city and country?

 If you still get misty at the thought of the Old American Dream, Bryan Walsh makes a great case for letting go of the past in this week’s TIME.   Perhaps we can all envision a new kind of Levittown with a new kind of community life that supports the environment, as well as our need for real community.  

Perhaps someday a young girl will have a dream of living in the suburbs, and so her mother will drive her into a world of dying strip malls, a world of neighbors who live isolated lives behind their manicured lawns, who leave the development in single-lane streams before the sun is up to get to work by 9.   And the young girl will say, “Mom, please take me back home–this place is scary!”