How to succeed without being happy or authentic

How happy are you?

authentic happiness preview

Click to see full cartoon

It’s important to know how happy you are because happiness, according to positive psychology research, is key to well-being. And apparently, according to the Authentic Happiness website, happy people possess “strengths and virtues that that enable individuals and communities to thrive”.

For some reason, reading the Authentic Happiness website and doing the happiness inventory questionnaires made me feel really irritated and inspired me to draw the cartoon previewed on the right,  about me “failing” the authentic happiness tests on the Authentic Happiness website.

(Just to be clear, I am just making fun of the idea of “authentic” happiness and the questionnaires on the Authentic Happiness website aren’t tests to join some kind of happiness club, but are for self-awareness and self-development purposes only. Obviously.)

Happy = Virtuous? Authentic = competent?

I have a problem with both words in the name of the website, “authentic” and “happiness”.

The Authentic Happiness people seem to be asking: are you authentically happy – or just happy, in an inferior, unenlightened, cheap-imitation way? The general tone of the website makes authentic happiness sound like a hard-to-attain discipline or skill. And therefore if you’re unhappy, you must be lacking in discipline and skill.

Do you deserve to be unhappy?

While I think that our beliefs, behaviours and attitudes have a large impact on the quality of our lives, I don’t think that being unhappy means we are inadequate and lacking in virtue: it’s way too easy to blame people for their problems and to assume you don’t have these problems because you are a superior being.

Positive psychologists claim that being happy is the by-product of smart decisions and actions, and that individual or group happiness is a symptom of thriving. However, other research shows that happiness can also the be the product of positive illusion, a form of self-deception we use to feel good about ourselves and avoid feeling bad. In fact, being dissatisfied, unhappy and even depressed can be completely appropriate responses to many circumstances, and make us respond more realistically and ethically to these situations.  The research also says that an accurate perception of reality is necessary for good mental health.

Is happiness cultural?

Perhaps I have a cultural problem with the idea that happiness is something you ought to pursue, an idea enshrined in the American constitution. Life in Europe does not always have a “Hollywood ending”, and many European cultures have turned being sad into an art form. There is a wonderful scene in an episode of the Irish comedy TV show, Father Ted, in which Mrs Doyle, the housekeeper, is being shown an automatic tea-maker by a salesman in a department store. He has just told her that this machine will “take the misery out of making all those cups of tea by hand”. She replies, Well, maybe I like the misery!

Two brilliant cartoons by Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin & Hobbes, capture the American fixation with happiness. In this cartoon, Calvin and Hobbes are riding a cart down a very steep hill. Calvin tells Hobbes that he’s “happy, but not ecstatic”, and that while life is supposed to consist of peaks and troughs, he is going to devote his life to experiencing only peaks, and that he should always be saying “my life is better than I ever imagined it would be, and it’s only going to get better!”

The theme of the second cartoon is “ignorance is bliss”, and Calvin’s monologue concludes that the secret to happiness is “short-term, stupid self-interest.”

The business of happiness

Happiness is excellent for business. A happy employee is up to 12% more productive. The monitoring and assessment of human emotions – what William Davies – author of The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being –  describes as “the surveillance, management and government of our feelings” – is one of the fastest-growing areas of business science.

Boston-based company Humanyze produces ID badge monitors which allow them to listen to employees at work, measuring the number and quality of interactions between people. These devices are less interested in what we say to each other and much more in the way we say it, which can be measured from tone, pitch, body language and physiological arousal levels. They can measure what happens during successful and unsuccessful performance of a work task and this information can be used to adjust things like office layout, break-time policies and teleworking.

In one case Humanyze worked with the sales staff of a basketball team who worked in the stands during games and they discovered two things which led them to completely re-design their sales-rep training processes: the reps who spent the most time and energy in motion, through the stands and in front of customers – and who talked the least – sold twice as much as their peers.

In another case they worked with a call centre to look for ways to reduce burnout and high staff turnover. Their badges revealed that the most productive workers frequently shared tips and frustrations with their colleagues. Consequently, they abolished individual break slots in favour of 15 minutes of shared break time. This less efficient solution – no one is answering the phones – led to shorter calls and lower stress while increasing productivity by more than 10%.

Are you happy enough to do your job?

fake it cartoonAs Greg Lindsay says in his article, “HR Meets Data: How Your Boss Will Monitor You To Create The Quantified Workplace”, referring to William Davies’ critique of these practices, “…it’s not difficult to imagine a neo-Taylorist office of continuous performance reviews in which bathroom breaks are subject to rigorous statistical analysis and unproductive office friendships are discouraged with the threat of termination.”

Terry Eagleton, in his review of Davies’ book, talks about how corporations are now employing chief happiness officers, how Google employs a “Jolly Good Fellow” to improve employees’ mood, and how specialist happiness consultants advise people who have been evicted from their homes on how to move on emotionally. A new drug, Wellbutrin, promises to limit feelings of grief after the death of a loved one, “… and is supposed to be so effective that the American Psychiatric Association has ruled that to be unhappy for more than two weeks after the death of another human being can be considered a mental illness. Bereavement is a risk to one’s psychological wellbeing.”

Happiness for corporate psychologists is about feeling good, but you are not going to  persuade people who are victims of unfortunate circumstances, injustice or exploitation to feel good just because it’s good for business.

Problems with being “authentic”

I recently came across Adam Grant’s NY Times article, “Unless You’re Oprah, ‘Be Yourself’ Is Terrible Advice. He says that “nobody wants to see your true self” and that “… deceit makes our world go round. Without lies, marriages would crumble, workers would be fired, egos would be shattered, governments would collapse.”

He describes a personality trait called “self-monitoring”: high self-monitors adapt their personas to situations, whereas low-self monitors believe that they are who they are and in being authentic. High self-monitors are likely to be more successful in their careers, and low self-monitors risk being judged as “weak and unprofessional”. Psychologist Carol Dweck’s research has demonstrated that merely believing that there’s a fixed, authentic self, a personality with defined strengths and weaknesses, can make you believe there’s no point in attempting to meet certain challenges, and seriously interfere with personal growth.

My unpresentable, authentic self

Authenticity is  the idea that we should always reveal our true selves. Ruth Whippman, author of The Pursuit of Happiness: And Why it’s Making Us Anxious, says, “My own authentic self, sadly, is a fan of pyjamas and inertia,” and suggests that a functioning society depends on us presenting an acceptable version of ourselves to the world.

How to achieve success and happiness by being inauthentic

I have a long history of “failing” personality and aptitude tests. For my statistics class at University, we did a lot of these tests to generate data to analyse. I was always the outlier in my class – in the more introverted, maths and logic-impaired tails of the normal distribution.

The Big 5 personality test, for example, evaluates you along 5 scales, in which one end is clearly the right one with the desirable characteristic, and the other end is … the wrong end. The scales are Openness (intellect), Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Emotional Stability. What I learned about myself from this test was that I was lacking in focus and self-discipline, an introvert, naïve, anxious and pessimistic: in other words, a typical, unpresentable 19-year -old.

Fake it till you make it

However, for the following decade, I adopted a strategy of “faking it”. This worked quite well, and I managed to earn a living and have relationships by convincing potential employers, partners and often myself that I was outgoing, optimistic, easy-going and completely committed to whatever it was they were proposing. It was exhausting but I faked it till I made it.

Amy Cuddy in her TED talk, “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are”, famous for her advocating “power posing” before engaging in stressful situations like interviews or public speaking, describes her research which proves that “faking it” produces desirable physiological changes and practical results.

Don’t be authentic. Be sincere.

I agree with Adam Grant’s conclusion: rather than trying to be authentic, focus on being sincere in your efforts to be your best self. This means, instead of trying to “be ourselves”, let’s think about the person we want to be, and then strive to be that person. I think happiness comes from faking it and then making it.

What do you think?

Further reading/ watching:

2 thoughts on “How to succeed without being happy or authentic

  1. says:

    Hiya! Your cartoon made me laugh! Reading your article evoked feelings of happiness as I found the corners of my mouth turning up into a smile and agreeing with you on many things, appreciating how you have written this article. Shocked to hear about the grief drug.. we need to understand more about our emotions, and feelings and not try and take control of things out of our control.This is scary.. to have grief measured for economic reasons ( ie. person should now be back at work for productivity ! ) Cold, automated, robotic, expectations.. scary stuff. This authentic happiness sounds too forced and construed like something you have to train for, there is a lot of Mindfulness theory around, which works for a lot of people… but I personally need more dicipline to keep it going!


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