"One ought, everyday at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture and speak a few reasonable words." --Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Happiness: Failure and Self-Delusion

“We’ve done three seasons of American Idol and by now it is safe to assume that most people know that you have to be able to sing. But people turn up who can’t sing a note and yet they believe they are the Second Coming.”
--Simon Cowell

I haven’t written anything about Happiness lately. Maybe that’s because life has been a little rocky for me and I’m in survival mode. My mantra: Slap a smile on your face and fake it ‘til ya make it, girl! I’ve been grinning and bearing it for so long now, that I’m really starting to see that failure and self-delusion can play a vital role in Happiness. Because mysteriously enough, I do feel a general sense of happiness, despite all the bumps in the road.

This reminds me of Iceland. Did you know that Iceland produces more artists and writers per capita than any other nation? It's true! How is this possible, you ask? Well, in part, the tiny island nation experiences that much success by cultivating an atmosphere of – you guessed it – failure and self-delusion.

Failure is admirable in Iceland because it means you tried. And an atmosphere where trying is applauded – regardless of result – is fertile ground for creativity.

In The Geography of Bliss, one of my favorite non-fiction books off all time, Eric Weiner observes, “We Americans like to think that we, too, embrace failure, and it’s true, up to a point. We love a good failure story as long as it ends with success. The entrepreneur who failed half a dozen times before hitting the jackpot with a brilliant idea. The bestselling author whose manuscript was rejected a dozen times. In these stories, failure serves merely to sweeten the taste of success. It’s the appetizer. For Icelanders, though, failure is the main course.”

Interesting! If you remove the stigma of failure, people feel free try things. And the more people try things, the more success will be found. It is inevitable.

I think one of the reasons American Idol is so wildly popular is because the American culture despises self-delusion as much or more than failure. You know that chick that is convinced her singing voice is worthy of a record deal and fame, but really sounds like an elephant in labor? Yeah. We love it when Simon Cowell dashes her hopes and dreams with witty quips such as, “If your lifeguard duties were as good as your singing, a lot of people would be drowning.” Yes, in America we like our delusions tempered with strong doses of reality.


“The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote in his book Flow, ‘It is not the skills we actually have that determine how we feel but the ones we think we have’ (emphasis added). When I first encountered that sentence, I reread it four or five times, convinced that it must be a misprint, or perhaps Csikszentmihalyi was strung out on consonants. He seems to be advocating a delusional outlook on life. If I think I’m a violin virtuoso but in fact I’m tone-deaf, aren’t I fooling myself? Yes, but it doesn’t matter, Csikszentmihalyi argues. Either way, we experience flow, a state of mind where we are so engaged in an activity that our worries evaporate and we lose track of time. Likewise, Martin Seligman, founder of the positive-psychology movement, discovered that happy people remembered more good events in their lives than actually occurred. Depressed people remembered the past accurately. ‘Know thyself’ may not be the best advice after all. A pinch of self-delusion, it turns out, is an important ingredient in the happiness recipe.

“It works for the Icelanders. There’s no one on the island telling them they’re not good enough, so they just go ahead and sing and paint and write. One result of this freewheeling attitude is that Icelandic artists produce a lot of crap. They’re the first to admit it. But crap plays an important role in the art world. In fact, it plays exactly the same role as it does in the farming world. It’s fertilizer. The crap allows the good stuff to grow.” 
--Excerpt from The Geography of Bliss, by Eric Weiner

1 comment:

  1. I don't have anything profound to say or anything, but the part about the bad Iceland art reminded me of an article I read last week about the Museum of Bad Art. You should take the tour. Awesome. I especially liked that an artist who donated her work called it "regrettable adolescent surrealism".