Patient, Forget Thyself

Kids today. Still getting used to them.

Yesterday I was reading a book waiting for class to start when the girl that sits in front of me asked me, “Whacha reading?”

It’s not every day that someone asks you what you’re reading and then proceeds to make fun of it.

But it happened.

The book was Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman, and for some reason, the title prompted her to roll her eyes and collapse into giggle fits.

“Really? Really?”

Well, lady, you asked.

I explained to her that Martin Seligman is a former president of the APA and the father of the positive psychology movement, and that I was fleshing out my understanding of that field.

“I bet you’d like to have the time to read for pleasure,” she said.

I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I wasn’t reading the book for school and that psychology is my pleasure.

I finished it yesterday evening. Despite its moments of rampant touchy-feelyness (what I like to call “earth mother special”), it’s a good book with multiple take-aways.

One interesting passage in particular is when Seligman discusses the dramatic rise in rates of depression over recent years despite the United States’ increase in personal wealth over the last 50 years. Seligman blames a culture of convenience that strips away the effort of getting what we want and offers up the end result, the pleasure, but deprives of us of the achievement required to get there, a process Seligman terms “gratification.”

“The strengths and virtues may wither during a life of taking shortcuts rather than choosing a life made full through the pursuit of gratifications. One of the major symptoms of depression is self-absorption. The depressed person thinks about how she feels a great deal, excessively so. Her low mood is not a fact of life, but is very salient to her. When she detects sadness, she ruminates about it, projecting it into the future and across all her activities, and this in turn increases her sadness. ‘Get in touch with your feelings,’shout the self-esteem peddlers in our society. Our youth have absorbed this message, and believing it has produced a generation of narcissists whose major concern, not surprisingly, is with how they feel. In contrast to getting in touch with feelings, the defining criterion of gratification is the absence of feeling, loss of self-consciousness, and total engagement. Gratification dispels self-absorption, and the more one has the flow that gratification produces, the less depressed one is. Here, then, is a powerful antidote to the epidemic of depression in youth: strive for more gratifications, while toning down the pursuit of pleasure. ”

I had always suspected that introspection and navel-gazing had seriously unpleasant side effects. And one trick I used to use in the times of my deepest, darkest depressions was to chastise myself for thinking I was so important as to be terrible. I was taking myself far too seriously.

What Seligman argues for reminds me a lot of one of the core tenets of Buddhism: “Be here now.” This same sentiment was touched on in another book I read last month, Time Shifting by Stephan Rechtschaffen — there is no stress in the present moment.

Maybe one of these days, it’ll actually sink in.

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