Reality Isn’t a Particularly Good Guide to Happiness

As we bounce through the proverbial pinball machine of experience, it is easy to lose track of our own agency. Recently I watched Rory Sutherland’s “Perspective is Everything” Ted Talk. The title is a slight embellishment (and he admits as much) but nevertheless he raises a number of powerful points. In any problematic situation, be it a business conflict, failed social venture, or a personal funk, the framing of the situation effects not just how you feel about the situation at hand but also the real and measurable outcomes you can take away from it.

As a naturally left-brained person, it is easy for me to nod in agreement with economists, engineers and analysts about the grim state of our reality. Like many left brained people, I naturally lean towards the assumption that most things can be “mechanized” and that emotion and psychology hinder progress. However, viewing our lives according to a to a measured series of rights and wrongs more often than not misses the point, and it damages productivity and happiness. Compared to many of the people I’ve worked with in my short life, I won’t pretend that I’ve been dealt a particularly difficult hand. However, roughly five years ago I suffered several setbacks and traumas that led me to a point where I would continuously pick apart all aspects of my situation. It made me brutally cynical, and it got me nowhere. The downfall of traditional analysis is that it fails to grasp the critical human component to both interpersonal and systemic issues. Sutherland points out that in the industrialized west, there’s “an imbalance in the way we treat creative, emotionally driven psychological ideas, versus the way we treat rational, spreadsheet driven ideas.” Our society largely operates under the mistaken impression that the psychology of things is unimportant, that the way that something makes us feel (or the way we feel about something) is an irrelevant weakness that should be discounted, bottled up and ironed out.

That cynical person no longer resonates with the person I am today. I took off on a bout of travel and saw a lot of cool shit, but it was really a reframing of a not too dissimilar reality that improved my outlook and my trajectory in life. Some things are framed in an unavoidably negative light. Some situations just suck. Sometimes people become exasperated with one another and cannot find common ground. Some circumstances are downright atrocious. I do not intend to marginalize the suffering of any group, but I think that in a vast number of situations reframing can lead to significant improvements in the eventual outcome. Studies have shown a three-fold increase in creativity of people whose outlooks have shifted from negative to positive. These people have reframed their reality, and seen a dramatic increase in productivity as a result.

Human centered design in social innovation is a beautiful example of a successful use of reframing in a systemic context. A problem is proposed, and uncomfortable questions surrounding the problem are asked. Quickly prototyped solutions are thrown at that problem, and heavy, immediate feedback from users leads to end products that are often much different than what the innovator originally expected. The questions are often surprising, and the game is won or lost in the end user’s emotional response to the solution or product. Reframing problems and asking these critical questions enables a measurable increase in the success rate of the resulting solutions. Ironically enough, applying the psychological aspects of problem solving to the technological and economic domains improves outcomes in all areas. Some philosophers believe that we are passive subjects of experience and that agency is a myth. I am thrilled to point out just how wrong they are. If they were correct, misery would be not only commonplace but unavoidable. In a free country such as ours, we have a dominant degree of agency in our lives. As the contemporary personality Chris

Hardwick says, regardless of anything else, “You absolutely own your mind. It’s yours.” Now go do something with it.

By Derek Bednarski, Taylor Event Planning Fellow