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Saturday, July 02, 2005

The steam in self esteem, or how positive psychology gets it wrong

We are living in sensitive times, where the common cant is that if people were treated delicately, and with the proper affirmations,  they would become like happy busy beavers and spin off with the frenzy of a whirling dervish all sorts of creative and useful things. In a phrase, it's all about building self esteem, that 'can do' attitude that comes from constant encouragement. 

Of course, discouragement is the most prevalent element of the school of hard knocks, or life in the real world.  But no matter, as the 'happiness' or positive psychology movement insists, adaptability to the vicissitudes of the real world requires one to be steeped in the positive illusions bestowed by a lifetime of uninterrupted success. A continuously rewarding life that makes every effort good enough, and a twelfth place finish a cause for praise makes for a feel good paradise for children who live in a familial world that shadows reality. It certainly builds self esteem. Nonetheless, like a stock market bubble inflated by the proxy of demand, a sudden gust of reality can deflate all hopes, and be more crushing to the spirit than a lifetime exposed to the constant bite of reality. Whether man or mouse, the story is the same, as a mouse can certainly relate.  Give a caged mouse his cheese to follow continuously every press of a bar, and he will expect to have cheese forever.  However, if the schedule of reward is shifted to a bit of cheese after on average every fifth bar press, then the mouse's behavior would halt, unprepared as he was to the vicissitudes of fortune. On the other hand, if the mouse was always exposed to such variable schedule of reward, or inoculated by the fickleness of fortune, then he would be prepared to press the bar for much longer periods before he would get his cheese. 

Ultimately, self esteem is not about moving the cheese, but being prepared to at times not having any cheese. That is, a confidence about your prowess in prospering in a difficult world depends upon intermittent failure, that bar press or sales call or job interview that produces nothing. Self esteem in other words depends upon having your self image deflated from time to time, so that your point of view is always tempered by reality. Of course, it will make for transient happiness, but as our mouse would attest, it's necessary to prevent us from becoming permanently miserable. Ultimately, to dissent from the pabulum of popular psychology, happiness is not the point, but an exclamation point that follows the frequent drudgery and heartbreak of being alive. 

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