There are only two types of people who do not experience painful emotions. The first kind are the psychopaths. The second kind are dead.
Tal Ben-Shahar, Happiness and why ‘happily ever after’ is a myth
Those cheerful words come “positive psychologist” and co-founder of the Happiness Studies Academy Ben-Shahar. Speaking in the video that accompanies the Big Think article noted above, Tal asserts that “learning to accept and even embrace painful emotion is an important part of a happy life.”
The article follows the video and begins this way:
And they lived happily ever after. It’s the stock ending to many fairy tales, but this bedtime lesson is as make-believe as the stories that teach it. Happiness’s true value isn’t its everlasting quality. It’s that it makes us antifragile.
Tal, who has written a book titled Happier, No Matter What!, defines antifragility as the quality of becoming more resilient emotionally and psychologically under stress and pressure in the same way that muscle tissue gets broken down by exercise and then builds back stronger. In fact, he describes antifragility as “Resilience 2.0.”
Tal’s lesson, which I seem to be stealing here, is that consciously chasing happiness (“directly” is his term) not does not make one happy and more often than not leads to unhappiness and depression. “Because happily ever after is a myth,” he asserts, “we can’t pursue happiness directly. Instead, we need to seek out conditions that trigger our antifragile systems.” He also asserts that one can become antifragile by “pursuing happiness through hardship.”
My first thought about that is, wow, if that’s true, we must all be really happy at the moment. I confess here that the term “antifragility” is new to me. The concept has been around since 2012 when Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a mathematical statistician and former options trader, published his book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. He saw antifragility as a “property of systems in which they increase in capability to thrive [as opposed to recovering from failure, which is resiliency) as a result of stressors, shocks, volatility, noise, mistakes, faults, attacks, or failures.” The concept has been applied in risk analysis, physics, molecular biology, transportation planning, engineering, aerospace (NASA), computer science, and now, obviously, happiness studies.
The idea of gaining strength by snapping back from hardship reminds me of my 2018 blog “Snap Out of It!” In it, I discuss the practice of using pain to combat rage. I counseled readers to wear a rubber band around one wrist and “snap yourself sharply whenever you find yourself ‘acting in a hostile manner’… and ‘enjoying thoughts of violence.’” I also noted the following:
The bonus is that this technique works well for other things, too — like when you start to feel blue, when you decide that fork needs to be washed three hundred times, when you convince yourself that a box of Twinkies is “wafer thin,” or when you find yourself beginning to believe the news really is fake.
It stands to reason that this method is also a quick way to build up your antifragility. So, just slip on that band and snap yourself whenever you find yourself in a state of unhappiness or in a situation that makes you unhappy. The sharp sting will jolt you out of your funk and, as the pain fades away, your sense of well-being can’t help but improve.
One caution here, though. As with any tonic, moderation is the key. Be judicious and sparing with your snapping. Think about how Woody Allen looked when he stumbled out of the Orgasmitron in Sleeper. You don’t want to go there.
Image: Woody Allen on The Johnny Carson Show in 1964. Public domain.
(Published originally on RatBlurt™, June 21, 2022.)