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Todd Kashdan

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A Secret to Happiness? Discovering the Pleasures of Uncertainty

Posted: 12/28/09 03:44 PM ET

Being on a national radio show is often a painful experience. Sometimes you simply lack chemistry with the host (and unlike a party there is no alcohol, and nowhere to hide). They take long, deep breaths directly into the microphone, allowing you intimate knowledge of the saliva in their throat. They ask inane questions, "so you're a twin and you have twins, is that weird for you?" They toss around bewildering phrases such as "spiritual transgressions" and "metaphysical escapes" that bring conversations to a standstill. They grab pockets of time to think of their next comment by inserting low, guttural, orgasmic sounds. After a six minute show devoted to "happiness in the recession," I finally understood why people become hermits.

It started innocently enough. She asked me about my book and why anyone listening should care about curiosity when everyone else is talking about happiness, love, exercise, and dieting. I explained that whatever we pay attention to becomes our identity, our reality. Being aware, open, and curious--this is our most valuable currency. We can learn to spend this currency wisely. We can discover strengths in our arsenal that for some reason, are not been used. We can experiment with ways to put these strengths into use more regularly and in turn, feel more energized and alive. We can discover our values and interests by devoting time to introspection. We can create goals aligned with our deepest values and interests and commit effort each day to make progress toward them. By being aware and curious in what we do and who we're with, we are liable to catch happiness along the way. This was the gist of my comments on the radio show. Keep in mind that I had about 30 seconds to make my point before a Herbie Hancock song loomed louder and louder in the background, taking us into a commercial break.

After the break, the host turned into a cynical foe. She told me that curiosity seems tedious and commonplace. It lacks "spirit and soul." For her, being good enough to gain access to heaven is the meaning of life. Enter heaven and you get easy access to the mysteries of the universe. Everything that she ever wondered about will be resolved. Every creation and innovation will be at her disposal. Considering the enthusiasm, I was half expecting her to swallow a cyanide cocktail to expedite the process.

I thought about her notion of life and the afterlife for a long moment before responding, "don't take this the wrong way, but it doesn't sound so great to me." Who wants all the answers? Who wants effortless moments? Who wants to be given the warm, humble feeling atop Mount Kilimanjaro without the climb? Who wants great poetry to be implanted instead of delicately absorbed? Who wants to forgo the surprising smell of honeysuckle during a mid-day bike ride?

Not me.

It reminded me of a great Twilight Zone episode. Excuse me if I recall it from memory, instead of turning to a website to get the title and exact details. Right from the start, a powerful mob boss dies. When he wakes up, he finds himself surrounded by everything he loves. Beautiful broads surround him. In fact, every time he approaches a beautiful lady, she succumbs to his charms. Easy enough, he has an impressive sex life. Then there are pool halls and poker games welcoming him on every street corner. Each time he takes the opening break shot, balls drive straight into the four pockets as the table clears. Each time he is dealt a hand of cards, he gets a royal straight flush. And life is good. He has women, he has money, he has luck, he has control, he has everything. And then time goes on. The mob boss turns to the strange man next to him, "man, nobody every told me that heaven could be such a tiresome, weary place." The strange man slowly turns his head, "who said you were in heaven?"

For 2010 and beyond, my hope is that people resist the seduction of certainty. Hold onto ideas gently, be willing to absorb new perspectives, always remember how much you don't know, keep chiseling away at important questions, and challenge yourself and other people. Don't be complacent about what you know. Learning how to tolerate uncertainty might be one of the greatest gifts we give to ourselves and those around us.


Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at George Mason University. He is the author of Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. For more about his books and research, go to www.toddkashdan.com

 

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