Finding happiness in shades of grey

and no, it's not about 'that' book!

Camus. We deceive ourselves twice

Albert Camus had some great insights on life and relationships and this one is so true don’t you think?

Our views are distorted, either by affection on the way into a relationship or dislike on the way out.

So, it’s easy to lose our sense of balance on these journeys …

And go through life with our views swinging between black and white on a whole range of issues.

We can easily miss out on a lot of happiness if we ignore the shades of grey … and NO, I’m not talking about sex, so this is not a recommendation for ‘that’ book. 😉

Shades of Grey

This is about finding happiness by looking at things differently to many others and is a truly powerful idea – grounded in solid science.

So I hope you’ll read on – and even share this with friends, they might well thank you for it.

Seeing things in black and white

Have you ever wondered what it is about the human condition that makes us want to see things in simple (black and white) terms?

Whether we’re discussing personal relationships, politics or religion, we like the idea that there’s a ‘single’ (and simple) answer.

Quite often, all we really want to know is . . .
. . .  is this thing (or person or group) good or bad?

And perhaps because we’re drawn to simple answers, many newspapers carry them. That’s what good headlines are all about.

Where did we get this behaviour from?

Well, we probably acquired it, like most things, over thousands of years of evolution. And it was certainly the case that in ancient (and more violent) times, a lot of people were killed for being able to see both sides of an argument!

It was not good for your health to pursue science or in any way search for truths; it was far safer to obey the religious or other tribal dogma of the time.

Of course, those were the ‘bad old days’, and thank goodness none of our politicians espouse this sort of tribalism today. 😉

Joking aside, the truth is that most political parties, religions and individuals have ‘some’ good ideas or something of value to offer.

Very few are all bad on all fronts, and few, if any, are right or good on all matters either.

To my mind, many of our biggest societal problems arise when we’re forced to ‘decide’ which ‘tribe’ to join or support – or when we’re forced to promote and adhere to all the rules and ideas of just one tribe.

What about personal relationships

Well, we might argue that personal relationships are different, at least when they’re not bound by a rigid set of rules which sadly, many are.

But I think that most of us are perfectly capable of disagreeing (at least occasionally) with our friends or partner on various issues without losing their friendship.

That said, we do still tend to hold rather lopsided views of our relationships. And at any given time, we may ‘like’ or dislike a number of people.

Perhaps it simplifies our lives to ‘categorise’ people as good or bad. It helps us decide whether to have any more to do with them. But it’s not healthy to take a serious dislike to someone without good reason.

By all means, let’s challenge each other on specific behaviours but let’s not play the ‘whole person criticism’ game 🙁

We can save that for the really bad folk out there who, to my mind, are really very few and far between.

Of course, the other end of this ‘black-white’ spectrum is to become infatuated with – or ‘over-attached’ to someone  – and I guess we know that this is unhealthy too.

The antidote

Award-winning journalist, Oliver Burkeman, has made a study of human happiness (and the misleading ‘self-help’ industry that surrounds it).

In his excellent book, The antidote, he observes that…

At the root of all suffering, says the second of the Four Noble Truths that define Buddhism, is attachment. The fact that we desire some things and dislike or hate others is what motivates virtually every human activity.

Rather than merely enjoying pleasurable things during the moments in which they occur, and experiencing the unpleasantness of painful things, we develop the habits of clinging and aversion; we grasp at what we like, trying to hold onto it forever, and push away what we don’t like, trying to avoid it at all costs.

Both constitute attachment. Pain is inevitable, from this perspective, but suffering is an optional extra, resulting from our attachments which represent our attempt to try to deny the unavoidable truth that everything is impermanent.

Develop an attachment to your good looks – as opposed to merely enjoying them while they last – and you will suffer when they fade, as they inevitably will; develop a strong attachment to your luxurious lifestyle, and your life may become an unhappy, fearful struggle to keep things that way.

Attach too strongly to life and death will seem all the more frightening.

Now, clearly, the extreme mood swings that come with clinging or aversion can cause us big problems.

So it’s worth understanding how to manage our mood, or at least some of it’s lower ebbs if they’re coming from misunderstandings.

Feeling good: The new mood therapy

Psychiatrist, Dr David Burns, offers some powerful ideas on this in his widely acclaimed book, Feeling good: The new mood therapy.

And Dr Burns shows us how it’s often simple errors in our perceptions that cause low mood.

He outlines 10 types of cognitive distortion (ways in which we twist the truth) that can trigger our upsets.

So, for example, we might ‘overgeneralise’ a current challenge in our lives to be a repeating problem from our past.

But then, when we stop and consider our challenges more deeply, we’ll often find that they’re not comparable at all.

Another ‘distortion’ identified by Dr Burns is what he calls our tendency to ‘all or nothing thinking’ or looking at things in absolute (black-and-white) terms.

For example, we might decide that unless we’re a total success (at a specific task or more generally in life) we must be a complete failure.

And that’s nonsense of course but it doesn’t stop many of us thinking that way.

The thing to remember is that life is not black and white – it’s actually full of shades of grey.

At times we’re all unhappy, and at times we may be intensely so, but that’s okay.

If we overly attach to happiness, we risk blocking out the useful messages that unhappiness can bring and that can make us more unhappy in the long run.

Really? What possible use is unhappiness?

Well, we know from the research* of Manel Baucells and Rakesh Sarin, that:

. . . unhappiness often comes from a simple gap

between our expectations and reality.

* You can find their book Engineering happiness’ in my bookstore

So, if we’re smart, we’ll do something to reduce or remove that gap.

And we can do that either by improving our reality or lowering our expectations (or by a mixture of both)

One thing is for sure, simply glossing over our challenges and telling everyone (and ourselves) that everything is ‘fine’ when it isn’t, is not going to help.

Read more on that … and other ideas for achieving more of what you want – in this Insight

There’s very little in life which is all good or all bad.

Life is rich because it’s full of shades of grey.

Or perhaps I should say  “all the colours in the rainbow”

Thanks for dropping in


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