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Don't Curb Your Enthusiasm: The Problem With Being Cool

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People will do just about anything for it. Say things they will regret the next morning. Wear things they will regret in about 10 days. And keep out potential friends and passions they will regret by age 40. No, it's not money. I'm talking about cool, as in "being cool," the nag that lets an outside arbiter decide your tastes and desires.

True, there have always been fashionistas and the vogue of the moment--the hottest togas, powdered wigs, flappers, etc.--but our age of appearances has to be at the top of the dedicated followers of fashion chart. It's aided and abetted, of course, by tens of millions of marketing dollars playing on our weakness for social comparisons and need for acceptance. That makes it easy to get swept up in whether this shirt or that one can pass along the appropriate cachet, or whether this person or that activity might be hazardous to status. With kids we expect it, but the burden of cool is lasting longer and longer past the expiration date--deep into the loose-fit jeans era.

I happen to love Miles Davis' Birth of the Cool, cool jazz and cool drinks. The problem is that we can't afford to be cool. I don't mean that financially, though the cost factor is significant to support a cool habit. There's a big price to be paid for excess image concerns at the behavioral level. We pay every time we leave a living opportunity on the table, because we or they might not have the right--check the box: look, age, clothes, companion, car. Cool kills the full expression of life. It puts your core needs in the deep freeze by making you play to the wrong audience. It's not the nods and glances of others, particularly total strangers, that determine your status. You do. You are the audience.

Being cool is supposed to make us irresistibly confident in our up-to-the-minute blase-ness, but it actually feeds insecurity with the false belief that popularity or a certain image is needed for validation. The research shows that real self-worth comes from internal goals that satisfy values and needs that are actually your own, such as autonomy and growth, the polar opposite of the external approval circuit. It seems a waste of a lot of hard-fought shopping and cultivated distance.

Knox College's Tim Kasser and Richard Ryan, from the University of Rochester, have documented that external goals like appearance and possessions are associated with lower self-esteem, higher anxiety and lower well-being. Jennifer Crocker of the University of Michigan reports that, when self-esteem is based on external measures like appearance and approval, there is more stress, anger, and substance abuse. Whatever strokes we think we get from the coolest duds or hotspots, they're gone by the next morning, and we have to get more. External verifications don't convince, because the approval isn't coming from you. It would appear, then, that being cool is uncool for your happiness.

Let's face it, the premise of cool is a stretch: You're cool if you're copying somebody else and devoid of specialness if you are yourself. That's not going to make you feel too authentic, an overriding human need. Cool stifles authenticity, turning off the aliveness and genuineness that lead to close relationships and the best times of your life. Enthusiasm and eagerness propel you into the new activities your brain neurons demand and infuse you with the positive manner that brings people into your orbit. Cool turns those engines off. Holding back your enthusiasm has to be one of the worst side-effects of cool behavior. How lame is limiting your keenness for life?

Spontaneity is a spur-of-the-moment geyser of authenticity. Cool shuts if off for studied posing. Unselfconscious focus on the moment opens the door to optimal experiences. Cool closes that door with judgment. Whenever judgment is in the driver's seat, you're not. You're not alive to your experience when you're judging or worried about being judged.

I didn't find any image issues among dozens of life enthusiasts I interviewed for my new book, "Don't Miss Your Life." There's no need for coolness when you have a passion, as all these people do, from dancing to kayaking. There's no need for artifice when you're free to express your true aspirations as deliriously as you want.

I love to look around at the first session of a salsa class and take in the Noah's Ark of looks, ages, and types. It's a lesson in how wrong our snap judgments about others can be. A few classes later, folks who appeared to be from other planets are comrades in the dance of life. No longer are they holding back their enthusiasm or their real selves. Learning a new skill strips away the knowing facade of coolness and cynicism and replaces it with something more human, vulnerability, the great equalizer and facilitator of friendship and adventure. When you don't have to reach out, you remain in the shell where image dwells, which prevents the new experiences and social opportunities your brain wants from coming your way.

The dictates of cool are held in place by the fear of negative evaluation. What if you didn't need other people's approval for what you're doing or wearing? You don't, if you're not looking for it. That's where a key skill of life intelligence--an essential skill-set detailed in the book--comes into play: ignoring social comparisons. You can deploy it with a strong internal locus of control, as it's called in the psychological trade. It's a belief that what you do and what happens to you depends on your own choices. You don't need others to verify your decisions. The better you get at trusting your own gut, the more you'll be able to follow what it is you really want.

Look to your values and interests for that, making sure to separate them out from the values and interests that others want you to have. It can be tricky to find your authentic needs and goals amid the barrage of marketing messages about what we're supposed to want. In the confusion we pass up experiences and people in line with our real selves that we don't recognize, because they don't fit with the image we think we are about. Images are great when they're photographs, an albatross when they substitute for who you are in your bones.

The real deal is under the image, where internal locus lives. It stands to reason that, when you are acting in alignment with your true self, you're going to be a heckuva a lot more satisfied than if you're taking marching orders from Nike or Prada. Research shows that people who are able to ignore social comparisons are happier than those who dwell on them, which is what excessive cool-consciousness wreaks. Popularity can't make you happy, but a cross-body pass to a butterfly on the salsa floor definitely can.