The Age of Social Comparison: When Self-Involvement Makes You Unhappy

We live in an age of entitlement and self-involvement.  A Metra train conductor offered an example last summer:

I was taking tickets and the train was getting pretty crowded. I noticed a middle-aged lady standing near an empty seat. I could tell she was asking a young woman to move a package so she could sit. Apparently, to no avail. So, I walked over to smooth the situation over. The younger woman was gorgeous, maybe 25 or so, and attending to her phone, not the person hovering over her. When I asked her to move the stuff she ignored me. I tried again, same result: head down, as if I didn’t exist. OK, now I bent down so I was harder to ignore and told her she needed to let the woman sit; said the other person had a right to a seat. Finally she talks, in a kind of astonished and disrespectful voice, ‘You don’t understand, I’m beautiful!’

Does her beauty make her happier, I wondered? Are her gorgeous selfies (I’m sure she has a ton) the path to everlasting bliss? Taking them, making them, reviewing them, sharing them, comparing them?

The back-to-back hardships of the Great Depression (1929-1939) and World War II (1939-1945), contributed to a more modest and realistic view of a life worth living: a selfie-less and more selfless life. In 1931, James Truslow Adams coined a soon famous expression capturing something now lost and redefined, “that the American Dream of a better, richer, happier life (be available) for all our citizens of every rank.” Not fame or Midas-like wealth, but “enough” in the reach of all.

Granted, he didn’t include blacks in his vision, but at least his view was independent of constant social comparisons, Kardashianized aspirations, and the belief more is always better: a bigger residence, finer clothes, and social status. Where happiness is somehow attached to what you buy and the ability to turn heads until they swivel. Where college is intended not to enlighten you to the glorious natural world, man’s loftiest thoughts, and responsibility to his fellow creatures, but to learn enough technique to receive special treatment for you and your wallet.

I believe a good part of today’s unhappiness, not including the genuine want suffered by so many, is that a large number of those doing pretty-well want more and more with no end to their wanting. Want for themselves.

Perhaps no limit exists because there is always someone with more. We envy greater beauty, infinite wealth, a bigger house, a superior job when they are not ours. Envy assumes “my life would be better if only …” according to Joseph Epstein. TV, not to mention the internet and other vehicles of voyeurism, show people flaunting their prosperity. We know how much they make for a living, where they reside, and what cars they drive. The “information highway” and its attendant loss of privacy fuels our desire and our frustration.

The question then becomes not how can I get more of what they have (and thereby grab on to more happiness), but does this path lead to my goal?

Christopher Boyce, Gordon Brown, and Simon Moore, in a 2010 article in Psychological Science, provided data from 12,000 British adults which supports the notion that comparing ourselves to others is a problem. The authors found that “the rank position of an individual’s income within his reference group dominated the explanation of life satisfaction. “In other words, “satisfaction is gained from each ‘better than’ comparison and lost for each ‘worse than’ comparison.’” Moreover, their subjects tended to make comparisons to those above themselves in income 1.75 times more than they made those comparisons to those below them.

Following the same logic, even if your wage increases by a substantial amount, your sense of well-being might not substantially increase unless the extra salary changes your rank within your comparison group (or unless your paycheck is relatively modest, as noted below). If all incomes go up without changing your rank you would be no happier.

All this envy-induced pain might be justified if it motivated people and led to the prosperity needed to unlock the door to serenity. The problem is, the key doesn’t work. Indeed, international ratings of life satisfaction put the USA high, but not as high as you’d think given our superior wealth. We rank 19th of the 34 OECD countries in the 2017 World Happiness Report.

Psychological research suggests that beyond $75,000 in annual income, you don’t get much hedonic bang for the additional buck. In other words, all the things you would buy with the extra money your neighbor has won’t make your moment-to-moment experience of life much more pleasing unless your income was unexceptional in the first place.

What does this mean at a practical level? In the December 23, 2010 issue of The New York Review of Books, Thomas Nagel wrote:

When I was growing up, if you wanted to see a movie, you had to go to the local movie theater, and you saw what was playing that week. Now I can see almost any movie from the entire history of cinema whenever I feel like it. Am I any happier as a result? I doubt it.”

Sound familiar? Similar to kids who are thrilled with their long yearned-for Christmas gifts, we adults put most new material acquisitions on the shelf or use them with little delight after a small passage of time. Warning: if shopping is the way you fill yourself up, this is your future.

The temporary “high” of a new purchase is diminished because of “hedonic adaptation.” Put simply, we get accustomed to things. The momentary excitement of the new possession soon wanes, like the smell of a new car.

Ah, but hope is not dead. The ancient moral philosophers of Greece and Rome recommended less concern with status, wealth, and material things. Instead, they suggested personal contentment would come from knowing yourself, performing social acts of virtue and public good, and friendship. Researchers now recognize the important part friendship, doing good, and being grateful can have on well-being.

The psychologist Csíkszentmihályi offers another path to satisfaction. He points to the capacity of productive and engaging work to produce a sense of “living in the moment:” unmindful of past and future because of being pleasantly engrossed in the present. This is called the “flow” state, one in which you are completely focused at a maximum level of performance and untroubled, positive experience. “In the zone” as athletes describe it. A different path to living in the moment, of course, is the mindfulness meditation of those master meditators who are among the happiest folks on earth.

Social scientists also remind us that married people are happier than those going solo, although it is unclear whether this is due to the positive influence of marriage on well-being, the possibility individuals who are relatively happy are more likely to marry, or some other cause.

Last point: data analysis by Christopher Boyce and Alex Wood in their 2010 article in Health Economics, Policy and Law found a short-term course of psychotherapy is at least 32 times more effective than monetary awards in improving a sense of well-being among those who have experienced some form of injury or loss.

I’ve said enough. I imagine you are scheduling a therapy appointment already.

The top Foto is the work of Catarinasilva25 and is sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The four paintings also come from Wikimedia Commons and are described in this way on Wikipedia:

The Four Freedoms is a series of four 1943 oil paintings by the American artist Norman Rockwell. The paintings—Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear—are each approximately 45.75 inches (116.2 cm) × 35.5 inches (90 cm), and are now in the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The four freedoms refer to President Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s January 1941 Four Freedoms State of the Union address in which he identified essential human rights that should be universally protected. The theme was incorporated into the Atlantic Charter, and became part of the charter of the United Nations. The paintings were reproduced in The Saturday Evening Post over four consecutive weeks in 1943, alongside essays by prominent thinkers of the day.

Can Morton Feldman’s Music be a Key to Meditation?


We cannot escape the press of worldly events, expectations, and anxieties — the noise, the computers and the pressure to be the best. Indeed, to talk about the drivenness of the world only adds to the inescapable tension. Too many of us feel like a child’s old-style wind-up toy, impelled along a track we did not choose until finally we stop moving at day’s end, awaiting the next morning’s rat-race and another twist of the key to the clockwork motor. The world wins, stress wins, and we lose. And performers lose especially, by the anxiety that precedes and impedes their performance.

Enter Morton Feldman, composer, who has not been with us since 1987, when he died at age 61. A man who worked in the garment industry until he was 44. Feldman was no therapist, but his music just might add something to the much commended and researched antidote to the crazy-making nature of contemporary life: mindfulness meditation. I can offer no scientifically validated proof that his music makes a focus on “being centered in the moment” easier, but offer my anecdotal observations for your consideration.

For too many, mindfulness meditation is an elusive solution, despite its well-documented benefits to overall well-being. As meditation newbies we sit quietly and concentrate on our breathing, nothing more. We are told that it will be hard and that it should be done daily, usually shooting for 30 minutes at a time at the start. Eventually — so the research tells us — our brains will be retrained.

The object of such a practice is to permit us to live in the moment, alert to (but untroubled by) the single instant in which we are immersed. Its practitioners claim that it is a path to seeing the world as it is, accepting it without judgment. By doing that, they indicate, we stop ourselves from adding to the internally generated interpretations and pressures — and the self-consciousness — that can make life unbearable. We are advised that true mindfulness does not look back or forward. Nor is it freighted with worry, regret, or rage. They remind us that the past is gone and cannot be changed and the future is unknowable. The only thing we have with certainty is the present instant of time and our ability to really “live” in it.

Ah, but mindfulness meditation is difficult, more than you might think. The mind wanders from the breath. We are distracted by small noises and random thoughts: How much time has passed? What about today’s doctor appointment? What did my voice teacher or boss really mean when she talked to me yesterday? Anything and everything intrudes, including troubling dead-end ideas. We are instructed to expect this; and then, when we notice that our focus on the breath has been lost, to gently return our attention to that target. Our attention and focus will, with enough practice and dedication, get better — so the experts say. Until then keep practicing.

At this point, many people give up in frustration. Here is the opening through which Morton Feldman enters, this unlikeliest of composers: a man of 6′, approaching 300 pounds; a non-stop, cigarette-smoking talker with a strong New York accent. Alex Ross described his music this way in The New Yorker issue of June 19, 2006:

The often noted paradox is that this immense, verbose man wrote music that seldom rose above a whisper. In the noisiest century in history, Feldman chose to be glacially slow and snowily soft. Chords arrive one after another, in seemingly haphazard sequence, interspersed with silences… In its ritual stillness, this body of work abandons the syntax of Western music… Legend has it that after one group of players had crept their way as quietly as possible through a score of his, Feldman barked, “It’s too fuckin’ loud, and it’s too fuckin’ fast.”

Feldman requires us to listen to music without the expectation of conventional melody fit into a recognizable musical form and provides a kind of experience that creates that new way of listening.  Unlike most Western music, Feldman’s does not seem to be leading us anywhere. We do not come to anticipate the next note or chord, as we do in a popular song or symphony. We have entered an unfamiliar space with nothing ahead of us, nothing guiding us, no forward or backward. Lacking “landmarks” we can be certain only of where we are right now. We are simply “in the moment” with the delicate sound he most often provides us — and the decay of that sound, as can be heard in this example from For Bunita Marcus:

The importance of being neither judgmental nor critical, just experiencing what is present, is crucial. It is easier to listen to Feldman’s music with this type of “accepting” attitude than almost any piece of Beethoven, Brahms, or The Beatles. Their music “leads us” to judgment — too loud, too slow, too fast — once we have established even a bit of familiarity with it. For purposes of enhancing mindfulness, however, music like Feldman’s that provides us with no map is actually more beneficial. It does not “progress” and is harder to know than that which presents a formal structure that can be grasped and notes that can be anticipated, leading our thoughts to interfere with our attention and the mind to drift away from the sound.

Much of Feldman’s work can magnetize our focus so that the pull of external or irrelevant thoughts (including self-criticism) is vanquished, but only if we give up the conventional expectations built from years of listening to “tunes” and apply ourselves to the task he requires of our ears and our brains. With this new attitude, judgments about ourselves and about the music no longer gain an easy point of entry to the mind.

The compositions he offers us don’t seem to make headway except by extraordinarily subtle and quiet changes that are riveting. We are drawn in. To give a visual analogue, it is like looking at a kaleidoscopic image that is changing almost imperceptibly (much slower and without the formal structure of the example just below) with the slightest rotation of the tube, barely enough to be noticeable.


As T. S. Elliot put it in Burnt Norton, Feldman finds “the still point” without which “there would be no dance.” But it is a dance in excruciatingly slow motion that can sound boring as described, but is absorbing when experienced and heard; where background silence is as important as foreground, ever-so-careful sound.

With or without Feldman’s music as an alternative to focus on the breath, mindfulness meditation (with sufficient practice) is able to reduce the “chatter” in the brain — all the extraneous and debilitating ideas and judgments inside our head. And to accept life’s inevitable discomforts without so much of the suffering that we seem to add by our anxious anticipation, over thinking, hand wringing, and the belief that things must change in order to create a state of satisfaction.

The regular practice of that discipline attempts to assist us in finding contentment in the terms that life allows, not by virtue of some dramatic achievement or the elimination of all that most of us might wish were different. And, by helping anyone who frets about his own performance to focus on what is being performed (the music or the play or the speech he is giving) rather than the self, the actual execution of that work may reach the state that athletes describe when they are “in the zone” (or in a “flow” state*), fully captured by what they are doing (and achieving the best of which they are capable) rather than observing themselves doing it, or painfully aware that others might be watching critically.

Does Morton Feldman’s music have therapeutic value in the mindfulness enterprise or in dealing with performance anxiety, beyond its shimmering, otherworldly beauty? There is a Ph.D. dissertation or two waiting to be written on the subject, I’m sure. And wouldn’t it be ironic if a man who once said “Where in life we do everything we can to avoid anxiety, in art we must pursue it,” wrote music that might help refocus our troubled souls.


*For a further description of the “flow” state, see my response to the first comment below.

Here is a short example of Feldman’s music, the first 15 minutes of “For Bunita Marcus:”

Here is a 20-minute talk by a monk and master meditator about the benefits of brain-retraining that can come with meditation: Matthieu Ricard: The habits of happiness

The top image is a photo of Morton Feldman taken at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam on May 31, 1976 during the Holland Festival. It is the work of Rob Bogaerts. The second image is a Digital Teleidoscope Animation by nadjas. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Work-Life Balancing Act*

256px-Adi_Holzer_Tightrope Walking

Do you “live to work” or do you “work to live?”

Psychologists call for balance between your work and your “life,” but this is like a tightrope walk on a high wire. We struggle to give equal honor to personal industry as well as friends, family, and recreation. We strain to avoid a big fall.

Goldilocks might have said that we are looking for the kind of combination of work and life that is neither too hot nor too cold, but “just right.” Once it is found, even the best of us have to adjust to keep that tenuous balance, to pull back from “too much” or “too little” so that we can get to the point of “just right” for a bit of time, before we again lose our balance and recalibrate.

We serve different masters in the office and outside of it, one to the right and one to the left, both pulling at us for attention. Thus, the first lesson to achieving equilibrium is to realize that it will be a challenge for as long as we are employed, requiring regular monitoring and refinement.

The dangers implicit in work are clear at each extreme. If you stress too much over your job — work too hard at it — you will be burned-out or burned up; unable to sleep well, anxious and depressed.

In some circumstances, of course, you don’t have a choice. But few people on the death-bed have been heard to say, “You know, I should have spent more time in the office.” Still, care too little about your vocation and you risk being unproductive, bored, boring, and adrift; dependent upon others and struggling with unhappiness.

Before you can begin to rejigger your work-life tension, it might be useful to think about what work means to you. It probably has more than one of these meanings:

  1. You work because you need to make a living.
  2. You work because you want to create jobs for others.
  3. You work because you enjoy the act of working itself, not the product of the work.
  4. You work because you relish the learning (how to understand or do new things) that comes from work.
  5. You work because you hanker for competition (with coworkers or other companies).
  6. You work because you want to achieve recognition and/or wealth.
  7. You work because you hope to create something (a better mouse trap, a scientific discovery, a masterpiece of art, etc.).
  8. You work because you wish to attract a mate (who will be drawn to your competence, your ability to make a living, or your status).
  9. You work to improve your self-esteem.
  10. You work to pass the time and avoid sinking into negative (anxious or depressed) feelings when not otherwise occupied.
  11. You work to make the world a better place.
  12. You work to “find yourself,” as suggested by the protagonist, Charles Marlow, in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:

No, I don’t like work. I had rather laze about and think of all the fine things that can be done. I don’t like work — no man does — but I like what it is in the work — the chance to find yourself. Your own reality — for yourself, not for others — what no other man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means.

Sisyphus mural_russia_03

Some of these valuations hold risk. If you only work to make a living (which is certainly a necessary goal) you are in greater danger of being bored (or frankly hating what you do) than if you are looking for something that captures more than money. If you labor to create jobs (for your kids or strangers) that responsibility can be a burden and, in the former case, can even rob your offspring of the initiative to make their own way. If you work to better your children’s lives, but neglect them because of your work, you might well defeat the project that motivated you in the first place.

One more peril occurs when you see your job placement as just one step up a never-ending ladder toward higher status or money. This trip to the top is usually called the “rat race” and you are in danger of turning yourself into a rat in order to get ahead, only to discover that paycheck doesn’t buy as much happiness as you expect it to. Or perhaps you do it for “show,” to get others to admire you. But, if you are very concerned with what friends and neighbors think about you, consider these words of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher, in his Meditations:

I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others.

If you love the work itself you are a lucky duck. If you lose yourself in the process of making the task-oriented effort, unconscious of the passage of time because of your absorbing focus, you may even attain the joyous frame of mind called “flow.” Flow is the word given by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi to the state that athletes call “being in the zone.” But, you needn’t be a sports hero to get there. It happens whenever you are fully engaged and single-mindedly immersed in the job at hand, generating both a peak in your performance and a state of positive emotion.


How important is work according to the experts? Freud thought that “love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” But, while work can drive you crazy, work failures might not be as devastating as you think. Daniel Gilbert and colleagues found just that in an experiment published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1998.

The authors looked at how happiness might be affected by work disappointment. Specifically, they studied assistant professors at the University of Texas at Austin who either succeeded in getting tenure (a promotion that guarantees a permanent position) or failed to get it (which usually means you have to leave for a different college or a different line of work).

Measures of happiness taken over a period of 10 years after the tenure determination indicated that “the outcome of the tenure decision did not have a dramatic and robust influence on (the) general happiness (of the teachers).” The researchers concluded that we commonly ignore our emotional resilience and durability when we think about life’s disappointments, something that they called “immune neglect:” a failure to recognize our own psychological capacity for immunity from long-lasting devastation following events such as the temporary professional disappointment that the unlucky assistant professors experienced.

In my own working life, I honored the desire to make a good living, but also had the good fortune to achieve a “flow” state at least some of the time because of my pleasure and involvement in the therapy process. Nonetheless, the work vied with the importance of “being there” for my wife and kids.

When I erred, it was surely to work too much, even if I never missed a school event or conference. Which meant that I heard way too many performances of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” played by dozens — no hundreds — no thousands, of little out-of-tune violinists at my children’s school concerts! At least that is the way it felt. But, it was all in a vital cause.

I also tried to hold two ideas in my mind simultaneously:

  1. That the work of being a therapist was good, important, and rewarding. My patients deserved my best efforts.
  2. That, in the big picture, the world would go on without me and that I would not be remembered alongside of Freud and B.F. Skinner. In other words, I was replaceable, regardless of how well I did my work and how much I might have helped some people. That attitude saved me from reaching for something too grand and self-important — from driving myself even harder than I did. It also allowed me to feel a sense of accomplishment for what I could do for others, rather than what I couldn’t do in the realm of greatness.

I’ll grant you that holding these two ideas simultaneously is difficult. Whatever your line of work, you have to give it some significance to do it justice. You only get out of it what you put into it, as the old saying goes. But, if you make it a matter of life and death — well — you are probably going to die a lot; meaning you will not live very well or happily.

My advice would be to look for work that is satisfying in the act of doing it; that is, a process that just might get you to the “flow” state. Work should also fulfill the basic need to make a living and, ideally, command at least a little respect in the world. To my mind, subsistence is most important, keeping yourself interested is pretty important, status and wealth are less important. As for glory and immortality? Forget about them in favor of some balance, if your boss will allow it.

Unfortunately, having a good work-life balance is — well — a lot of hard work!

*This essay is not meant to dismiss the very real and desperately important work of child rearing, but rather to look at conventional employment for which you are paid as compared to the part of life that doesn’t reward you with a paycheck.

The first image is called Life is Like Tightrope Walking by Adi Holzer, sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The second picture is a recent mural done by AEC and waone, which graces the side of a building in Ekatreinburg, Russia. It is called Sisyphus. Finally, We Can Do It is a wartime poster done in 1942 for the Westinghouse Corporation by J. Howard Miller.

How To Be Happy: Information You Can Use

smiling baby

Psychologists have historically been trained with an emphasis on all that can go wrong in life. We studied the diagnostic categories of mental illness and the treatments that might put Humpty Dumpty back together after his great fall. But we missed out on something very important: how to help people be happy.

Part of the reason is that clinical psychology grew out of a medical model, one that emphasized sickness. Although it wasn’t much discussed, it seemed as though there was a basic assumption that if you weren’t “mentally ill,” then you must be well, as in “well-being.” Not so fast.

More recently, clinicians have had the benefit of a growing body of research on “Positive Psychology;” a field of study intended “to make normal life more fulfilling,” according to William Compton. And they have been aided in this by people who do research in “Behavioral Economics,” such as psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize for his efforts.

A number of interesting questions have been addressed. Here are a few, after which I will give you a link to a place where you can learn more:

  • Can smiling help you be happier and live longer?
  • Are we better off with more (or fewer) choices of what to do with our time and money?
  • A year after the event, will you be happier if you win the lottery or become wheel-chair bound?
  • Do most of us have a good idea of what will make us happy?
  • Is there a difference between happiness as defined by our moment-to-moment experience and happiness as defined by a retrospective evaluation of our life satisfaction?
  • How important are material things in producing a happy life?
  • Are you happier if you buy something for yourself or buy something for someone else?
  • Do we make ourselves unhappy by having expectations that are too high?
  • Can we be happy even if things aren’t going our way?

Matthieu Ricard

As you might know, “Ted Talks” offers brief lectures on a variety of very interesting subjects, including happiness. You can find nine of those talks, addressing some of the questions I just listed, here: What Makes Us Happy? Links to the individual talks are also found below. They are given by leading experts in the field, all of whom are entertaining speakers. The longest of the talks is about 20 minutes, the shortest less than six. You will hear a number of psychologists and one Buddhist monk, Matthieu Ricard, who is pictured above.

It might be useful, after watching each one, to ask yourself how the information presented could be applied to the way you live. There is no proper order in which to watch them and, of course, no requirement that you watch them all. But they might just change your life:

Dan Gilbert: The surprising science of happiness

Malcolm Gladwell: Choice, happiness and spaghetti sauce

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Flow, the secret to happiness

Michael Norton: How to buy happiness

Barry Schwartz: The paradox of choice

Graham Hill: Less stuff, more happiness

Matthieu Ricard: The habits of happiness

Daniel Kahneman: The riddle of experience vs. memory

Ron Gutman: The hidden power of smiling

Thanks to Phil Zawa for recommending these talks.

Do You Have a Bad Attitude?

Life is difficult enough without making yourself miserable. Those who begin with a negative, “can’t do” point of view often justify themselves by saying that they don’t want to get their hopes up; that the world is unfair and one should be prepared for it. But in so doing they can create their own misery and bring down the mood of those who are close by.

I’ll discuss below a few variations on this theme — different forms of “bad attitude” along with some potential solutions:

1. Focusing on the past. While I am a firm believer in learning from the past, one must remember that it is yesterday’s news. Short of daydreaming about a happier time in your life or doing the essential work of grieving, it can fuel sadness without compensating benefits. The past holds too many unfulfilled hopes, failures, and broken romances. It is the storehouse of betrayals — about “what might have been.” It is the place where things that went wrong can fill your mind and heart with regret. It is a wasteland of missed opportunities, lost beauty, and a nostalgia that is no more satisfying than trying to fill your stomach with the photo of a past meal. Visit the past, but don’t live there.

2. Living in a frightening future. An exclusive focus on the future can be as deadly as a preoccupation with the past. The twin dangers of living in the future are worry/anxiety and make-believe daydreaming. Most who live in the future usually live a life of dread, overpredicting catastrophe and underestimating their ability to survive misfortune.

The only thing we have in life with any certainty is the present. Any chance of happiness depends upon one’s ability to find a way to live in the moment and find satisfaction there, experiencing it and whatever it brings, accepting life on its terms. Plan for the future but be careful not to live in that future any more than you live in the past.

The goal ahead might be very worthwhile, but try to enjoy the journey to get there. Mindfulness meditation, Stoic philosophy, the Zen tradition, and ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) can help reorient you to determining what is important in life; setting aside what is inessential, distracting, or worrisome; and living according to those principles in the present moment.

3. Pessimism or the self-fulfilling prophecy. Pessimism is a close cousin to worry and anxiety over events that may never happen. It smothers spontaneity, joy, and drains energy. It renders defeat in the game of life even before the game has begun. It anticipates a guilty verdict from the jury that causes one not even to show up for the trial. Pessimism destroys motivation and generates avoidance of challenges or half-hearted effort, at best. Depression and pessimism drink from the same poisoned well.

4. Throwing a wet blanket on the happiness of others. Don’t be a buzz-killer, a kill-joy, or a party pooper. Avoid raining on someone else’s parade. Don’t be an emotional suicide bomber, someone who brings down oneself and all those around you. A bad attitude can consist of always seeing the single dark cloud on a glorious sun-lit day, especially if the sun is shining on someone else. It is the “yes, but” response to the other’s good fortune, her excitement, and her dreams. It attempts to make others suffer as much as you are. This attitude masquerades as attempting to “be helpful” or “realistic” or trying to prevent the friend or child “from being hurt.” Perhaps. But it is a cautionary or negative/critical message at the wrong time, in the wrong place, to the wrong person.

5. Rejecting the encouragement or helpfulness of others. Most people want to ease your suffering, to offer you some encouragement or hope or solace. But if you have a bad attitude, you will reject all of this. You will say “I’ve thought of that already” when you are offered a suggestion or “I’ve already tried that” or “That won’t work because…” Instead, your bad attitude may isolate you from those who only wish to offer their presence and show their affection for you; their simple desire to hold your hand in a difficult moment. In the worst case you will drive such people away, thereby increasing your sense of separation from the world and guaranteeing a solitary misfortune.

6. Perfectionism or the belief that things can always be better. Some of us can’t accept a grade of 99% on the test, simply because we could have done better. Short of performing brain surgery, it is useful to be able to accept the imperfect nature of life and ourselves. Do your best, prepare for the race, study hard; but realize that perfection (if it is to be found at all) resides only in the works of Mozart, Rembrandt, Shakespeare, and a few others. If you punish yourself for falling short of that ideal, you have misunderstood the nature of life on earth and guaranteed that you will be joyless.

7. Whining and complaining. Worse than those who see only the dark side of life are those who not only see it, but won’t let you get away from them before they tell you about it in malcontented detail. They tend not to focus on abstractions. Rather, their concern is not the unfairness of life, but the unfairness of their life. There is no surer way of driving people away than to adopt this particular version of a bad attitude.

8. Fighting every battle. Some people seem perpetually aggrieved and angry. They live with a chip on each shoulder, daring life to knock the wood off. Life will knock it off, but not in the way that they expect. Their anger will breed anger in others. And in fighting perpetually, they will miss any sense of contentment or joy.

No one can take on all the battles worth joining, let alone those that will produce nothing of value. As an antidote to rage, gratitude for the things in life too easily taken for granted can be coupled with acceptance of the things that you can’t change. Ideally, these two abilities will usually counterbalance the frustrations and resentments of life without robbing you of the capacity to fight the good fight when necessary. Telling the difference between those skirmishes that need you and those you should pass is crucial. If you are too angry too often, seek counseling.

9. Refusing to take life seriously. If you’ve been paying attention, there is a relatively new popular expression among teens and a few others. It is called YOLO or “you only live once.” It justifies mindless foolishness; not just ill-considered behavior, but action that is not considered at all. It can be an excuse for doing whatever you want or refusing to do whatever someone else might advise. YOLO suggests that you are not living in the future, not living in the past, and not living in any really mindful present. If you were, the thought of driving 60 miles an hour down a side street in a school zone would never be translated into actually doing it. We seem to make enough mistakes in life without adopting a philosophy of life that virtually guarantees it.

10. Too much realism. While it helps to see the world as it is, there is the risk of it being too much of a good thing. The world as it is today (or most any day) includes poverty, genocide, and betrayal; infirmity, disease, and heartbreak; stress, cruelty, and the big one: death. Everyone you know will die and that also includes you. Focus on all of this just enough to make the most of your precious and too short life. Focus on it just a little more and you will be so depressed that you won’t want to get out of bed.

If you have any of the bad attitudes I’ve described, your first response will usually be to justify it; perhaps even to see it as a strength. But I would ask you if you are satisfied with your life as it is? If not, then you may need to investigate that same attitude, especially those aspects that actually could be making the problem worse. Ask friends and family what they see in you that needs to change — if they have enough courage and love of you to tell you the truth (and you have the guts to take it). Looking in the mirror — seeing yourself as others see you — is brutally hard, but can be a first step to enlightenment and a better life.

Read Czikszentmihalyi about “flow” and those wonderous moments when one is so involved in a productive/creative action that one loses all sense of time and self. Read Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, Martin Seligman, Daniel Kahneman (Thinking Fast and Slow) and other “positive” (hedonic) psychologists about what makes for happiness and how to get there.

It can be helpful to make a list of those things for which you are grateful. Indeed, it may be of assistance to look back at the day to find what it can teach you or what was good (even on a bad day). Yes, I know that plenty that is bad does happen and has happened and will happen. But we humans must not live in these moments of misery for too long without grieving our losses and moving on, learning to accept the nature of life, and learning that the very best times are unreflecting, unself-conscious, utterly spontaneous experiences that we don’t think about, we simply are living them.

In part, our job is to pull our head out of its backward look, out of its forward glance, and play the game that is exactly where we are — right here, right now. That ultimately means more action, more experiment, more risk and less thought — swimming in the pool of life without regard to getting wet. It matters not if you start in the shallow end of the pool because most of us do — just don’t stay there.

Rear Admiral Grace Murray Harper knew more than a little about the water and about the voyage. She put the idea of living your life with a good (rather than a bad) attitude very well:

A ship in port is safe; but that is not what ships are built for. Sail out to sea and do new things.

The top image is Emotions X by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736-1783) downloaded by access. The second is Messerschmidt’s The Constipated, dowloaded by Sailko. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.