Price Tags and Pink Fluff

comforting_liesDo you ever feel annoyed by the barrage of advertising that confronts us every day where someone is trying to persuade you to buy their product because they have determined that it is something that you really need? Your life will be incomplete until you purchase their product. All advertising begins with creating discontent followed by the massaging of desire.

Well, the same thing is happening in the world of people. We have been overwhelmed with a thousand techniques to add value to our lives based on beguiling premises such as “you are worth it” until finally we convince ourselves that we really are okay and are entitled to a happy and peaceful life. Catchy phrases which promise us unlimited achievement and success and assurances that nothing is impossible.  Now, I am not saying that we are not worthwhile, I am simply challenging the sell — that incessant pitch that we can change our core value by external add-ons, much like computer application plug-ins. The idea that you only have to dream something to make it happen is pure fancy. The dream may motivate and inspire but there us much more to success than dreaming. Countless dreams never get past first base when woken by reality. Highly successful people always have had a dream, but many more dreamers have fallen by the wayside, defeated by circumstances often beyond their control.

In the previous post we noted that the popularised concept of self-esteem has been built on pseudoscience. It took off in the USA and spread to much of the Western world with its tremendous feel-good appeal and promise of adding value to people through a methodology of formula-driven techniques. However it turns out to be a bit of a slick advertising sell where you get sucked in to buying something which, with time, turns out to be something quite different. A lick of glossy paint and a few gimmicks has sold us a pup.

Pink Fluff

q2Here is an example. The quote on the left is a typical popular ‘warm fuzzy’ that buzzes around social media pages. The reality is that life can unexpectedly bring any number of awful experiences. None of us can claim immunity. Life does not confine itself to bringing only good experiences. The longer you live, the more likely you are to face bad ones too. And what does it mean to be “open to new and wonderful changes”? Are you also ‘open’ to loss, grief and pain. This is pink fluff thinking. Sweet fairy floss with no substance. Flimsy quotes like this do nothing to prepare us for those ‘below the belt’ punches that life too often delivers. Rarely do we have the luxury of choosing whether shit happens or not. Ideas like this are more likely to devalue and disappoint us. It is false advertising with a suspect price tag that does not prepare us for reality. Statements of privilege and entitlement like this imitation gem sow seeds of discontent and create an undesirable desire.

The human price tag

So, lets get back to the question of how much are we really worth, and how can we fairly assess that worth. In our materialistic world we are prone to place a value on just about everything, including each other. When you stop and think about it, we all wear a hypothetical price tag. In various ways we each project a message of how much we think we are worth. Some inflate their price while others depreciate themselves. Then there are those who, like Goldilocks, get it “just right”. We are also quick to give an estimate on the value our fellow.  We all have our opinions of others, whether we actually know them or not. The more prominent the person, the more sharply defined the opinion. There is no escaping it. We put price tags on each other, and the corollary is that others place their price tags on us.

This dynamic is the foundation of social interaction. We endeavour to connect with those we deem valuable and avoid those who are not. The laws of attraction or repulsion kick in immediately we meet someone for the first time. First impressions really are lasting impressions, even if they don’t end up being permanent impressions. If we like their appearance, the sound of their voice, their wit or their wisdom, or if they come highly recommended, or are famous, we will tick the mental checklist and come up with a plus or a minus score which will determine whether to accept or reject. Not unlike shopping, we take a close look at the product and then check out the price tag. If the balance between quality, value and price is acceptable we will probably go ahead and buy. Sussing each other out is central to the business of determining the value of our fellow.

Three things to bear in mind.

  •  Price tags have a profound influence on us and once they have been applied are difficult to change. This principle applies to  the price we place on ourselves as well as the estimate that others place on us. Once in place we subconsciously tend wear the price-tag. It can be hard to shake and lends itself to being a self-fulfilling prophecy as we yield to a sense of inevitability that this is our personal reality.
  • If we don’t set our own price tag, someone else will. It is up to us to determine our core value which, of course, is the tricky bit. Do we have the capacity to do that? Are we in danger of conning ourselves and others too by pretending to be someone we aren’t? Is it even our prerogative?
  • Our estimates of others (and ourselves) are often hit-and-miss conclusions which can sometimes be remarkably accurate  and glaringly wide of the mark at other times. Not knowing all the facts still doesn’t deter us from evaluating each other, an exercise which is made all the more fraught when we often evaluate people by the masks they wear and the illusions they create. To make things even more complicated we are easily led by the strong opinions of others. Whether verbal or non-verbal, subtle or explicit their input can seriously influence how we decide whether a person is okay or not. Just look at the phenomenon of populism if you want an example.

What is our core value and how is it determined?

worth2Stand in front of the mirror, strip off  the masks, stop pretending and try to get a good look at the person in front of you. Don’t play that silly game that some people encourage you do which involves saying, “I like myself, I like myself!” over and over again until you start to like yourself. That is stupid pop-psychology and another serving of fairy floss or pink fluff. Instead try asking some tough questions like

  • Would I buy a car from this person?
  • Am I looking at a person who cheats when they can get away with it?
  • Does this person manipulate others to get what they want?
  • Is this person able to forgive and let go?
  • Is the someone who spends too much time feeling angry and guilty?
  • Is this person in the mirror a kind and considerate person?
  • Can I live with this person?
  • Is this someone who is able to see the good in others?

The exercise is not an attempt to create feelings of self-loathing or self-congratulation. It is simply shifting the focus to what makes us truly valuable. If I can genuinely add value to myself I will be a much happier person. I just want to be able to trust and respect that person in the mirror.  This is the person I live with twenty-four hours a day.

Much of what follows is a simple and practical look at how to establish and maintain a good price tag. Value adding is achievable, it is simple but it is also challenging. The social spin-off is that as you add genuine value to yourself, others will recognise it and come to respect you – a pretty good bonus. Furthermore, the loop of social feedback will confirm that you are on the right track. The price tag that you set for yourself eventually becomes the one that others will see and accept.

None of this is about perfection. Your humanity has predetermined the impossibility of that. Neither is it a competition or an exercise in comparison. It is about crafting and creating something, someone of value. It is about building and growing of character. A lifetime of choices and actions that imperceptibly will change you and make you more valuable from the inside out. It is a gradual transition to being the person you want to be, the one you are content to live with and someone you can trust and love – You. Sort that out and things will begin to sort out.


UbuntuA reverse sunset on Pittwater, Sydney

 Next: Solving the Power Puzzle

Self-esteem – not all that it claims to be.

At the risk of rocking the boat, I want to examine the very popular self-esteem movement. In principle the idea of healthy self-esteem is fine, but something disturbing has happened over recent years and it deserves our candid attention. Here are three typical examples, each making claims which need to be seriously re-worked. What needs to change?









Let’s begin by winding the clock back. Until the end of the Nineteenth Century the term ‘self-esteem’ didn’t even exist. There was the occasional philosopher or thinker who saw the correlation between a sense of our personal merit and confidence and assurance as we occupied ourselves in various projects and enterprises. It was William James who introduced it to the vocabulary of modern psychology in 1890. His timing was premature and the idea languished for over sixty years while the major nations of the world sorted themselves out over two world wars. It was a period of history when the face of humanity was at it’s ugliest. Furthermore, people simply did not have time nor inclination for introspective reflection on their self-worth and conflicting feelings while survival and recovery were paramount. It wasn’t until the 1950’s when the USA began to find its feet once more and an enormous economic boom and period of extended prosperity changed the way we think. One of the key players in this paradigm shift was a man who had a much better sense of timing than James with a message that held great appeal to both the public and the professional – Carl Rogers.

Two important things were also occuring at the same time. Firstly, the science of psychology was coming of age. Between Freud, Jung and the Behaviourists, the disciplines of psychology and psycho-therapy had been a hit and miss mix of conflicting theories, none of which could be placed on an emperical platform. There was no consensus as to how human behaviour and thought processes could be measured. The absence of experimental prediction and replication meant the psychology was seen at best a pseudo science, much in the way astrology and alternative medicine are regarded today. It required measurable facts and figures to earn its stripes as a true science. The second thing missing was subject matter to measure. In other words, people. People who would be willing to commit themselves to the scientific process and allow their thoughts and actions to be calibrated in some form of manageable data. More to the point, people who felt the need to benefit from the practice of the new science.  Ideally, a whole nation of people who would eventually subscribe to idea of therapy. After all, science was rapidly ascending the the status of a modern deity and people began to trust it and looked to it for answers.

This required a philosophical shift in the way the nation thought. The old belief systems did not gel with the new personal wealth, security, prosperity and independence, and the overwhelming sense of freedom and self-determination that pervaded America in the 50’s. Rogers came up with the perfect solution which paved the way for exalting the ‘science’ of psychology and altered the way that people regarded themselves. For thousands of years Judeo-Christian thought regarded the human estate as dark. We were “shapen in iniquity” and in “sin did my mother conceive me”. Such depravity may have spawned two horrific global wars, but this was the nation that turned the tide and was ushering in a new era of peace and prosperity. “We are going to be good from now on”. It needed ideas to match, so when Rogers suggested that people are innately decent and all are filled with enormous potential and worth, the idea went down a treat. It was just the message America was waiting to hear and the impetus that professional psychology needed. Children, especially should be raised in an environment of “unconditional positive regard”, freed from the inhibitions and restraints that could prevent them from attaining their full potential. Rogers was a product of his era, but also was instrumental in shaping the future of America and much of the Western world. And not without good reason as so much of what he says has tremendous appeal and seems to make good sense.

Interestingly, I spent about six months of my childhood schooling in America just as this influence was gaining momentum. Enough time to get the feel of things. I grew up in Malaya and was definitely a product of the ‘old school’ where children were children, seen but not heard. We were obedient, never talked back or expressed our opinions and learned to respect adults. SmorningsideIt seemed that I had walked into an Alice in Wonderland world where everyone had to be nice to each other. They could say and do what they liked, yet were unruly and running mildly amok. Strangely, it seem that somehow at a deeper level, they were angry with each other. I can put my finger on it now, but back then all I knew was that I was desperately unhappy and confused. It was undoubtedly the most miserable time in my life. Within the space of a week we left LA and I found myself sitting on a hard bench in this dour stone building in Edinburgh, Scotland (right). It was yet another remarkable cultural transition. The classrooms could be bitterly cold, I had to learn to write using scratchy pen nibs dipped in inkwells, get used to the cane and develop my fisty cuff skills. Yet these were the happiest years of my childhood. So, what made the difference? In one word – boundaries. Children need to know where they stand and lack the emotional maturity, life-experience and wisdom to know how to establish their own boundaries. Letting them off the leash before they are ready can be a serious problem.

The introduction of Roger’s optimistic view of human nature in the 60’s saw a rapid evolution towards the integration of the Self-esteem movement which was even officially embedded into the school system of America as the Human Potential Movement. It became the accepted model for just about all therapy and rehabilitation, whether professional or via self-help. It 16canberrazoosynchronised perfectly with the lightning fast changes in technology, communications and travel giving people a new-found freedom to be themselves and express themselves. The rebellion and revolution of the 60’s was no passing phenomenon but the cementing of a neo-narcissism where a person’s freedom, personal rights and need for self-expression spawned the ridiculously materialistic and self-absorbed Me Generation. The “feel good” mantra of the human potential movement became a tiger out of its cage.

In spite of the wonderful promises and appeal of the concept, all is not well in the land. The movement anticipated dramatic improvement in relationships, reduction of crime, an era of personal achievement and prosperity, elimination of bullying and abuse – in short an era of humanity on the ascent. Never have we seen a generation of people with more confidence and assertiveness who suffer more with depression  Instead we have witnessed a blow-out of crime (especially gun-related mass killings), increase in poverty, schools becoming guarded fortresses where lack of discipline is rife, out of control drug abuse, youth suicide and depression – and that is only the tip of the iceberg of a society which is become more self-absorbed and disillusioned in its pursuit of instant-gratification.


GenMeIn her recent book, Generation Me, Jean Twenge examines the question as to why “today’s young Americans are more confident, assertive, entitled – and more miserable than ever before.” An with any research there are gaps in her conclusions, but much of what she says will be very recognisable to those who have been around to observe the emergence of Generation Me. I have often wondered what would happen to our society if our mobile phones were to be rendered permanently useless overnight, revealing the extent to which we have become dependent on smart devices. Check out this short video clip I took recently in a train in Hong Kong.

What has happened? Any idea, theory or belief that is built on a faulty assumption or suspect methodology is doomed to failure. This one is no exception. The dream has dissolved and has lost most of credibility in the world of professional psychology. Yet it will not die because it is so appealing and seductive. Here are two core assumptions which will be considered in the next post

1. The methodology of self estimation. Self esteem is a measure not a feeling – a self estimate. It is impossible to objectively measure our emotional self. Any form of estimation is subjective and is a poor scientific tool which is nevertheless widely employed in questionnaires, surveys, IQ tests and the like.

The primary aim of the movement has been to bring people to the point where they feel good about themselves. There is a real catch 22 here. Think about those endless self-tests that pop up in Facebook which will tell you how intelligent you are, how socially adept you are, how emotionally strong you are . . you know the ones I mean. How many times have the results revealed that you are stupid, angry, mean, selfish, dumb and horrible? Not once, I guarantee. That is not how you want to be estimated and certainly not the way you estimate yourself. No, according these little exercises in pop psychology we are all smart, witty, balanced, wonderful, sexy individuals. That’s what we want to hear, which pretty well sums up the methodology of the self-esteem movement. It overflows with warm fuzzy messages.

2. The building of self-esteem as a technique. The underlying assumption is that successfully building self-esteem during a child’s developing years will result in improved academic performance and improved relationships. It was regarded as some form of social vaccine which would counter violence, crime, drug abuse, school underachievement, bullying, teenage pregnancy and related social dysfunctions. Much of what followed was an artificial building of self-esteem.

After extensive scrutiny and systematic research it was observed that violent, anti-social people actually liked and valued themselves too much and measured very high in self-esteem. Furthermore, results indicated that the self-esteem building activities being used by parents and teachers were fuelling the epidemic of depression and narcissism. Subsequent research has turned the self-esteem movement on its head and questions the whole process of artificially boosting self esteem through technique. Repeatedly telling a child they are wonderful, special, and brilliant doesn’t actually transform them into little wonder people. And there are enough examples of well adjusted, successful people who cope with life perfectly well who don’t really rate well on the self-esteem scales. Have we been paying homage to a synthetic construct which has diverted our attention from the processes which add true value to the individual?

To be continued.


Next: The only way to value-add


How much are you worth?

BeggarI don’t know her name. In fact I don’t know anything about her except she was an incredibly poor beggar child. I never realised when I took this photo that years later her face would still be etched in my memory.  I remember the crossing of our paths as if it was yesterday. Maybe it had  something to do with where we met – the Amber Palace near Jaipur in India – and the contrast between the indulgent opulence of the surrounds and the undisguised poverty of the child. Or maybe it was the sense of guilt that I carried no money or food and had nothing to give her. But for a few moments something happened that left an indelible impression – we found common ground as two human beings who understood and accepted each other. She seemed to understand that I was unable to respond to her desperate need and behind that shy smile and sad eyes I saw a sweet sensitive child who refused to yield to her adverse circumstances. In that brief encounter we dropped all pretenses and I saw her true value, a fellow creature whose worth was equal to mine. Whenever I look at this image I find that I regain a perspective about all that is worthwhile in life and am reminded of how much of human pursuit is waste and vanity.

Have you every calculated your worth?  Not the sum total of your assets which you can’t take with you but the actual flesh, blood and bone that is sitting in front of this screen.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Chemistry and Soils we are

Amber-Palace65% Oxygen
18% Carbon
10% Hydrogen
3% Nitrogen
1.5% Calcium
1% Phosphorous
0.35% Potassium
0.25% Sulphur
0.15% Sodium
0.15% Chlorine
0.05% Magnesium
0.0004% Iron
0.00004% Iodine

plus trace quantities of fluorine, silicon, manganese, zinc, copper, aluminium, and arsenic.

Total value, approximately USD $1. Add a bit more if you have gold in your teeth and a titanium prosthesis – but who is going to waste time extracting the metal add-ons once you have departed? Ironically a sheep is worth more since the meat can at least be sold for food and the wool used for clothing.

Of course, you are more valuable to the spare parts industry, somewhere in the vicinity of USD $650,000 for your transplantable bits and pieces – warm, and in good working condition. And if you want to maintain perspective have a look inside an urn of human ashes and you will again be reminded of your finiteness. It is all a bit morbid and bordering on being repulsive, apart from being a useless exercise. All up, it is somewhat confronting to think that you are worth more dead than alive.

We tend to use the words ‘worth’ and ‘value’ interchangeably even though by definition they are subtly different. Worth has the feel of ‘inherent’ and value is usually an assigned measure of worth. It all gets a bit circular. Whichever way you choose to define the terms, what is significant is that we all live under the shadow of the great impediment of the capitalist mindset that assigns a measurable quantity to all things, animate or otherwise. Its mantra is, “all are not equal”. Some are worth more than others. Once the idea takes hold we invent socio-economic parameters to affirm it. A refugee fleeing persecution can arrive on the shores of a secure nation only to be imprisoned behind razor wire and banished indefinitely on a remote island simply because they do not meet the essential criteria of worthiness. Legislators are able to implement laws that allow for execution of the lowest. Wealth and power begin to equate with greatness and influence, importance and privilege. Some ensure that they are above the law.  Others change the law to suit themselves. The chasms of separation which measure the relative value of all individuals are the ubiquitous enforcers of our ideas of worth.

valueIt is little wonder that so many of us struggle with self-esteem issues. Relative human worth is the warp and woof of our society – not equality and liberty as we might be led to believe. And the more a population increases the more apparent the impact of relative worth becomes as we fight to control our finite resources. There is a definite correlation between how much we  accumulate and our adopted value system which defines us by these measurable socio-economic criteria . The rich becoming richer at the expense of the poor become poorer is not a new phenomenon. Increasing power of the few is always gained at the expense of diminishing power of the many. Karl Marx was heading down this path this with his observations of the perpetual struggle between the haves and the have nots and formulated concepts that changed the course of history. The struggle to establish value and preserve self esteem has deep sociological roots.

Once we reach the stage where we measure worth by wealth, the inequality and disparity becomes self-evident, and with it comes the insidious idea that some people are actually more valuable than others. It is complex phenomenon, but like or not, we end up with labels and price tags that define who we are and the degree of power and privilege we have over our fellow (ask anyone who relies on social security whether this is true or not). With the awareness of these labels and assigned price tags comes inner discontent and anxiety to balance our personal ledger in favour of the ‘worth’ column.  This is the reality of human nature and nothing much is going to change for a long time. So rather than fight against the reality it makes more sense to learn how to live with it. It is how we go about this that is where can make it or break it.

I want to make are four observations and conclude with another personal experience.

  1. The pervasive idea of developing a healthy self-esteem is not the solution to value adding. For all its acceptance as a concept it may actually be more counterproductive than essential for our mental and emotional well-being.
  2. External affirmation and internal affirmation do not necessarily equate. We can be surrounded by family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances who all like and affirm us and still be plagued by self-doubt and feelings of unworthiness. ‘Likes’ are not a value adding tool.
  3. We may need to change our reference point for determining value. Rather than assessing human worth in terms of success, prosperity and achievement (externals) we might want to measure self worth by something more permanent.
  4. Your self-worth is ultimately decided by you, and you alone.


The people’s market in Delhi, India is not on the ‘must see’ list of most tourist itineraries but I managed to persuade a taxi driver to take me there and spent the morning getting lost in a sea of humanity. The experience is a total assault on the senses with unexpected surprises around every corner, like these three girls fighting over a red elastic hair tie that someone had lost. They were beggar children who survived by scavenging for food and anything else they could find of any value in the market place. They had obviously formed an alliance for protection, but were nevertheless the fiercest of competitors. The tall girl on the left had the agility and strength to secure the meagre trophy. The small child on the right contented herself with the crumbs that fell from the table. The one in the middle really caught my attention. She had fire and determination – look at the anger in her eyes – and was a born survivor. But she had an undeniable presence and was clearly the leader of the little pack. I couldn’t help but wonder what untapped qualities she would have been displayed in different circumstance. No, there is no slum dog millionaire ending to this story. The trio quickly melted in the crowd once more, intent in making it through another day as one of countless millions of this world’s poor. The pathetically shabby misfitting dress was her only possession, but as a person she had a grace and dignity that gave her undeniable worth.

Next: Self-esteem – not all that it seems.


Rejecting rejection

‘Rejecting rejection’ is hardly the most arresting title for a blog, but the whole process of dealing with the constant invalidation that threatens to undermine us on a daily basis is not terribly exciting either, so we will look at this huge topic in a down to earth, no frills way. For example, as you look at this video you could easily miss the hidden invalidating message. That is the way much invalidation works. In effect it is saying that we should not get too carried away with a sense of our own importance – that we are really, really tiny in the order of things and that size does matter. In effect it depreciates and devalues us to a very low level of worthlessness. Sorry, it is a clever production with mind boggling statistics but I cannot endorse its conclusion.

Surely creatures who are able to observe, measure and describe such staggering phenomena deserve to be granted a pedestal of prominence in the Universe. In the order of things we are really quite remarkable. Greatness should not be measured by size but by capacity. We could argue that we are merely an insignificant speck of cosmic dust or we could fairly reason that we are the pinnacle of the existence in all this vastness. We are the only confirmed example of highly intelligent life. Which raises the question as to why we are so quick to denigrate ourselves? The answer is to be found in our ability to make comparisons. Let me explain.

Think back over the years to infancy and childhood and you will identify the foundations of much of our deepest fears and insecurity and the origins of low self esteem. Few creatures are more vulnerable and dependent than the human infant who is totally reliant on others for everything. One of the paradoxes of development is that some of the most important bits happen when the mind is most plastic and open to a wide spectrum of impressions and influences which have the potential to remain for the rest of life. During these years most of us are repeatedly channeled messages of, amongst other things, our inadequacy. The roots of inferiority and rejection go back a long way. We are surrounded by others who are more powerful, more intelligent, more experienced, more capable, bigger, stronger, faster . . got the message – learn your place and don’t get too big for your boots. If we are fortunate we may find reassurance in messages of love and affirmation of caring parents, but generally speaking society will leave us with an clear impression of our inadequacies. One inescapable phenomenon endures – our thinking and beliefs are largely shaped by the psychological and sociological agenda of others. None is so perfect and mature as to be totally free of the vulnerability of inferiority and few free themselves completely of pockets of self-doubt. The hopes and aspirations, fears and prejudices, opinions and beliefs, preferences and persuasions of significant others become embedded and remain ‘us’ until such a time as we challenge them.

Think about it. We are given an identity the moment we are born. ‘It’ is no longer a neonate, but the first sentence each of us ever heard probably included the word ‘boy’ or ‘girl’. We give ‘it’ a name which usually sticks with us for the rest of our lives. We are taught, disciplined, moulded and shaped within a family and a community to behave, talk, think and believe in a given way. To change the status quo of how life has defined us is both challenging and unsettling, yet all of us in varying degrees are driven by the desire to discover our identity and uniqueness.

It is here that the process of comparison takes on significance. With maturity we start to separate and question much of what we have accumulated throughout the formative years. We begin to compare ourselves with others and challenge the reality of the inferiority/superiority messages we have grown up with. We also commence creating our own self-portrait – a blend of the person we perceive ourselves to be, the person we would think we would like to be, and the person we really are. Now that really takes some nutting out! The two constants in all of this are the fear of rejection and the need to be ourselves, to be different. Although individuality is king (especially in adolescence), we also understand the importance of being accepted by the mob but we also want to be substantially different in order to stand out from the mob while not being defined or controlled by the mob – quite a juggling act.

Way to go

There is no joy or benefit in living with rejection and an abiding sense of inferiority. If we can somehow turn the focus away from the negativity of rejection and focus on how to be accepted and affirmed by others as well as ourselves, we can effectively reject rejection. In other words, the more affirming messages we receive of acceptance and adequacy, the less we will feel rejected. Hopefully, the dark shadow of rejection will fade in the sunlight of acceptance. At the heart of the phenomenon of social media is the principle of ‘Likes’. For all the promises of having countless friends the artificial social context of hyperspace is incapable of effectively meeting our core belonging needs. All too often the desperate need to accumulate ‘Likes’ can back-fire resulting in increased anxiety associated with a fear of being rejected, ignored, ridiculed and disliked. Affirmation needs a face-to-face dimension to test the authenticity of the the ‘Likes’. We all need ‘Likes’, but they have to be genuine.

Here are three dimensions. They are not black and white and may merge at times, but they serve as a simple model to understand the mechanics of acceptance

_MG_8625Passive acceptance.

We learn to live with the messages of rejection and inferiority and content ourselves with a trade-off between being part of the group and being regarded as an okay person, even if we might score on the ‘average to inferior’ side of the equation. There is no stigma attached to being average and there is no rule that says we should be the brightest star in the crown. The group at least provides acceptance and allows us to belong somewhere. Inevitably water finds its own level as we engage with others similar to ourselves as we find our place in the companionship of this affinity. Don’t underestimate the power and efficacy of belonging to a group. It provides security in numbers and often shields us from the barbs of those invalidators who capitalise on our sense of inferiority. Social groups, clubs, sporting groups, workplaces, schools, churches, even Facebook, are essential havens for people seeking friendship and acceptance. While we may find that we lack the skills and the stamina to continually battle to hold the high ground on the top of the heap we discover that safety in numbers is a fair compromise. Not everyone needs or wants to be the life of the party or the stand-out celebrity.

The seriously sad situation is that of the person who is so damaged in an abusive relationship that they do not have the emotional and physical resources to extricate themselves from the black hole of rejection. There is only one path out of this hell and that is find the courage to ask for help.

Improve your approval rating.

This really works .. up to a point. Endless words of advice have been given on how to be a more attractive person. From beauty to athleticism, talent, humour, assertiveness, wit and intelligence, developing your potential, packing your own chute . . it is a long list based on the recurring principle that we can add value to ourselves and become a more attractive and likeable person. We intuitively admire and are attracted to people who scrub up well. The first of the great rewards of excellence and achievement is that we begin to feel good about ourselves. There is a justified pride in a job well done, in having purpose and making a difference. The second reward is equally important. Others are much more likely to value and appreciate us. So, why not spend time in personal growth and reap the benefits? There is no question that this journey can and does change us. We grow in confidence and approval as we think and act positively. The more skilled and proficient we become in dealing with life in its many forms, the more likely we are to realise our potential and be surrounded by many who affirm us. It is a great win-win.

But there are also a couple of snags that lurk beneath the surface for the unwary. The first is to confuse character with personality, and the second is to depend on personal growth as some form of a technique to get others to like you. The polish of personality may make a person attractive but it is not a true estimate of their value. To rely on personality and technique as a manipulative tool to persuade others to like us is to set the wheels in motion for eventual rejection. No-one likes to be conned and personality minus character eventually risks revealing itself as a inferior, transparent veneer. An while we are on it, conning yourself is not a good idea either. Gazing into a mirror and repeating a mantra about liking yourself ain’t going to work.

Value adding.

KindnessValue adding (character growth) requires thought, effort and time. It is a metamorphosis that doesn’t come quickly or easily and one never really ‘arrives’, but the inner transformation is real and the results are worth it. This theme will be developed as this blog unfolds.

At the core is the concept of coming to love yourself as you grow in character and integrity. It is impossible to truly love yourself and reject yourself at the same time. Furthermore, as you become ‘loveable’ others will accept and love you too. So the business of value adding not only resolves the problems associated with a sense of inadequacy, it also brings and abundance of love and affirmation.

The sticking point for many is that the idea of loving ourselves contradicts everything we have been taught in the past. We were brought up to consider the needs of others first and not be be selfish. In fact, the Seven Deadly Sins are all rooted in putting yourself at the head of the queue, something which we know intuitively is a formula for rejection. The self love being described here is not selfishness and it is certainly not narcissism. The starting point is simply an acknowledgement of our worth as a human being and the decision to enhance that value through growth of character. It is a commitment to ourselves to become the person we want to be and has little to do with becoming what other people want us to be. It is about being able to live with ourselves and and like ourselves . . genuinely. If you can be at peace with yourself, you will be at peace with the world.

Rather than elaborate at this stage I will suggest a kick-start. Try this short circuit and see how you go. Here it is – BE KIND. Be kind to everyone. Be kind to the cat and the dog. Be kind to yourself. Just be kind. It may take time, but if you hang there you will notice that things will change. Give it a go. You may be surprised at how difficult it is, but also be prepared to experience how transforming it is. There is much more to come.

Next: How much are you worth?



A gorilla enjoying the morning sun in the Jersey Zoo, Channel Isles, UK

Motivated by our greatest fear

Maslow in describing his hierarchy of needs mainly focused on our needs as motivating behaviour. However, he tended to downplay the power of fear to motivate us. Fear can make tigerpugus back off and run the opposite direction – fast. Conversely it can move us forward through seemingly impossible situations and make us more determined than ever to achieve our objectives. Every hero in war knows the experience of overcoming the fear of death and advancing regardless. Fear can assume many faces and often lurks in the background, not always apparent. It can be so unsettling that we may choose to ignore or deny it. Regardless of what shape it assumes it is a powerful motivator.

We all experience fear, and we all have something that we fear more than anything else. As I child my greatest fear was losing my parents. It was the stuff of many a nightmare. I also had a fear of tigers and pythons – not kidding. But it wasn’t entirely irrational as I grew up in Malaya (now Malaysia) where large cobras and pythons would crawl into our bathroom at night to cool themselves on the concrete floor, hence I learnt bladder control from an early age. I recall the family terminating an early morning walk in the Cameron Highlands when we happened upon fresh tiger pug marks in the mud on our path. With water still oozing into the imprint, our valour yielded to the retreat of discretion, not before my father took a photo of the evidence. Forget the impression of the pad in the mud, the impression on the mind of a seven year-old still endures over sixty year later in the recurring nightmare of being halfway up a coconut palm with a large python descending from above and a tiger waiting for me below. Eat your heart out Carl Yung. Of course, it wasn’t made any easier by the frequent screenings of Dad’s old 16mm movie, Jungle MarauderTigers and pythons were part of my childhood.


      A Black Hmong Child, Sapa, Vietnam

In the natural order of things, life begins with connection. In the condensed version, boy meets girl, sperm fertilises egg, egg attaches to uterus and the most amazing bond endures for about nine months. Within moments of birth the new-born attaches to the breast and the foundation for connection is laid for a lifetime. This theme is the topic of a future post, but without doubt for all practical purposes the most powerful motivator of our everyday lives is the need to connect. Once our basic physiological requirements are ticking over most of what we do revolves around connection. It is at the core of who we are. Where it is denied or restricted we will inevitably see disturbances in behaviour. Plain and simple, we are made to connect.

  • Physically, we desire the touch and closeness of others.
  • Emotionally, we need to be affirmed, valued, recognised and appreciated.
  • Mentally, we are stimulated to know more and connect with new ideas, wisdom and insight.
  • Spiritually, we need to feel that we are not alone in the Cosmos. We seek meaning and purpose in our existence. A part of us seeks to connect with a something or someone  greater than ourselves.

If connection is so vital to our existence then it makes sense to suggest that its antithesis is equally important – the fear of rejection. Any hint of disconnection or rejection will quickly betray the presence of underlying fear. Fear is such a powerful force that very few have the ability to hide its indicators, meaning that whenever people experience rejection their behaviour will reveal the accompanying fear.

Most of us are incredibly sensitive to the signals of rejection, to the point that we will even interpret partial rejection as total rejection. If we are rejected by someone who is truly significant the devastation of the rejection is akin to grief. In ways it can be worse, because it is very difficult to bury the pain rejection when the one who rejected you is still alive.

Rejection cuts at the very core of our being. All of our many attempts to add value to ourselves, to build a positive self-image and define ourselves as adequate human beings are assaulted when we are rejected. When this is re-inforced with cutting and angry words or with physical violence or punishment, our sense of worth is at risk of being shattered.

Sadly, few of us are exempt. When the words and gestures of rejection are repeated often enough we will begin to believe their messages. The feedback of others is very powerful, regardless of what brave words or slogans we might invent to soothe ourselves.

It is an awful thing to feel that you are alone, unwanted, disregarded, unloved, and unnoticed. The child who feels this way is in serious trouble. It may be a perception that doesn’t reflect reality, but kids don’t have the maturity and insight to understand what is going on. Deep damage happens when sublimation and denial become the bargaining tools of acceptance and approval. All too quickly the child becomes an adult with the attendant baggage still firmly attached. Rejection is the catalyst for so much unhappiness.

To be continued. . Rejecting rejection

Fear_01Tiger at Mogo Zoo, NSW, Australia



How our needs motivate us

Anyone who has ever sat through lectures in Psychology 101 or motivational workshops will be familiar with Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’, so what follows will be familiar territory. Common sense and sound psychology go hand in hand. The understanding of the human mind and  behaviour is not the sole domain of the professionals. Many a grandmother is truly worthy of an honorary doctorate in this discipline. In a paper, “A Theory Maslowof Human Motivation”, published in 1943, Abraham Maslow observed what most understand at an intuitive level. However, he successfully put his idea in a neat package and gave it a name, and, although his methodology was a bit suspect and has its share of detractors, in principle it has endured as an easily understood and common sense tool in understanding what motivates behaviour.

Physiological and Safety Needs

In a nutshell it proposes that we are goaded into activity (or inactivity) by our needs, starting with the most basic needs required for survival and then rising through a hierarchy of more refined and abstract psychological and ‘spiritual’ needs. At the heart of the model is the idea that we are unable to rise successfully through the hierarchy until the lower (or previous) need is met. For example, we will consider the very self-evident physiological needs. We need air and water and food to survive. Everything else we do will be put on hold until those needs are fully met. This is, of course, the ultimate argument of environmentalists who argue for the preservation of the essentials elements for life on the planet lest we all die. We can add attending to various bodily functions to this list. Sex, while essential to the propagation of the species and a powerful physical drive, does have a social and sociological dimension to it is as well. For humans it is not as compelling a need as it is, say, for the kamikaze mating ritual of certain spiders and scorpions.

Beyond the elementary physiological needs is a broader spectrum of needs associated with shelter, safety, protection as well as maintaining a secure and healthy environment. We attend to these needs in a variety of ways depending on our circumstances and where we live. Their scope ranges from basic day-by-day survival to maximising our security and enhancement of our level of comfort and lifestyle. We are not very different to most of the creatures of the natural world who spend the bulk of their time in foraging for food, nest-building, looking for a mate and raising a repeat version in the next generation till the whole show is over. If we didn’t fulfil this level of need we would be insecure, miserable and restless. In meeting our security needs we are enabled to get on with living.

need1Floriade spring celebration, Canberra, Australia

Love/Belonging Needs

Maslow developed his ideas during the dark days of WW II at a time when the world was confronted with issues of survival. Some 60 million people would eventually be killed and millions more would end up displaced and homeless. One can understand the practicality of his model. His next level of ‘Love/Belonging’ reflected the enormous disruption to family ties and relationships that war brings and the need to restore security in order to return to normality.  Whether in times of war or peace our need to love and be loved remains as arguably the most powerful universal force. So much of what we do is directed towards meeting this need.

People don’t spend hours in congested commutes, tied to a job they don’t particularly enjoy in environments that threaten their health and well-being because it’s fun. They want the money to pay for car that gets them to work so they can pay off the mortgage on the house – their family haven and retreat where peace and love reign supreme.  Why do we do it, when so often we leave for work while the kids are still asleep and return in the evenings when they are bedded down for the night? Do we risk working too hard that we run out  of quality time to connect? So many put so much effort into meeting their safety and security needs that there is limited time to devote to their belonging needs. In many instances the reality is that they have confused their needs with their wants and risk never being fulfilled at all.

Esteem and Self Actualisation

Much of what Maslow has said up to this point makes sense, though it is noticeably culturally biased towards a Western value system. The final levels of his hierarchy are more open to debate. They are certainly more abstract and harder to tie down. No one would question the importance of esteem, whether in the form of being respected and affirmed by others or self-respect. But it begs the question as to whether it is actually a need. In the same way as happiness is a state and not a goal or an objective, it could be argued that  esteem is a consequence of the healthy psychological state of an integrated or balanced individual.  There is also a ‘chicken and egg’ predicament as to its ranking in the hierarchy. Is esteem an outgrowth of our belonging/loving needs being met, or is it the other way around where the ability to establish a nurturing relationship begins with the confidence and strength of healthy self-esteem?

The pinnacle of self-actualisation is the most subjective of our needs. Maslow described it as ,”What a man can be, he must be”. It is the drive to recognise and then realise our potential. We will never be truly content till this happens. He later questioned his own idea basically because in his personal quest he found himself reaching to another level again – transcendence. But the idea of achieving one’s full potential is flawed because, firstly we are finite and will inevitably run out of time, and secondly the permutations and combinations of our potential are so fluid that reaching it is akin to predicting the shape of a wave. Finite creatures with infinite potential? Think about it. As he approached the end of his life Maslow’s began to reflect on the role of spirituality and altruism in motivation. No, he didn’t find religion, but this next-step in his journey is consistent with that of a person who spent much of his life explaining our existence in terms of a continuum of rising to the next level.


  • Maslow’s ideas are no longer taken seriously by many in the world of academic psychology, but on the other hand nothing much has replaced it as an introductory tool for the average person to understand motivation. It is not a complete framework, but much of it still has merit.
  • What is undeniable is that need is a powerful motivator – which is the primary premise of this post.
  • For all of the attempts to establish psychology as a science, it does not lend itself well to formulas and academic methodology. The essential frustrating paradox of psychology always recurs – we are all remarkable similar yet remarkably different. In real life we tend to determine our own needs and sort out our own hierarchy accordingly. The nature and intensity of many of our needs varies from one person to the next. They also change over time and are often confused with our wants.
  • The common factor of needs and wants is desire. We can get by without our wants being met, but surviving without our needs being met is much more tenuous.
  • Surprisingly, there is infrequent reference to the other major motivator – fear. It might be seen as a negative, but is actually an incredibly powerful motivator (more on this in the next blog).
  • In practical terms some of the more powerful motivators don’t get much mention in this hierarchy. We have a strong desire to be in control, to organise and add structure to our lives. We go to great lengths to achieve a level of predictability and eliminate uncertainty. Control involves much more than safety and security and is one of the most constant motivators.
  • austinWithout doubt, the most powerful motivator which has the capacity to override every other need is the hardest to define and describe. I settle for the term ‘spiritual need’ for want of a better term. It has its roots in belief and conviction but also in the experience of transcendence which cannot be effectively described or measured. It goes beyond our all other needs as we engage in the search for meaning in the journey of discovery of who we are in the big picture. More on this down the track.

In 2011 I visit the city of Hue (pronounced “whey”) in Vietnam and was shown the scorched relic of an old blue Austin. In 1963 the Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, drove this car into the centre of Saigon where he self-immolated, all for the need to respond to the power of a belief so strong that all other needs were subjugated and he forsook life itself. The image became one of those unforgettable moments of history as an indelible reminder of how needy we are as creatures and how driven we are by our needs.

need2Glenorchy Lagoon, South Island, New Zealand
motivation2Lake Fagnano, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

What makes us do the things we do

Motivation vs manipulation


I have a hunch that in recent years the notion of motivation has been hijacked by motivational speakers, motivational workshops and pretty compilations of favourite motivational quotes.  To illustrate, consider these battling bisons which I photographed in Alaska. The motivational guru would offer a plethora of insights and strategies on how to win, how to be head of the herd and how to become the greatest, most successful and richest bison in bovine history. That is what the word motivation has come to mean. It is inextricably tied into the idea of inspiring others, soaring to greater heights, fulfillment, vision, goal setting, determination, excitement, challenge, visualisation, mastery, achievement, excellence and action. What parades as ‘motivation’  is more akin to ‘manipulation’ and a distorted idea of success. You will notice that it seems to be about one person motivating or inspiring another to do something. So you end up with the scenario of a person attending a seminar in order to move up a notch in their life and the implicit expectation that someone else will provide the impetus and the inspiration. It relies on the assumption that the motivator knows what’s best for you. This definition has taken hold and many associate motivation with the process of being empowered to do something. It is a secondary meaning of the word, however, and not the direction this discussion is heading.

The primary focus of motivation is to understand why we do the things we do, not how to do them, or, even more sinister, how to get other people to do the things we want them to do. Motivation asks why these bisons are banging their heads together. What drives this behaviour? Why are the cows so disinterested? What are the forces or the stimuli that cause bison to act in this way? The secondary definition would encourage us to devise ways of controlling the behaviour for our own purposes. Manipulation implies interference and introducing an external agenda to control action or responses in a particular way. It also spends considerable time convincing people that this is what they want and need. There is a world of difference between the two. To illustrate we can turn the tables and ask, What motivates motivational speakers to conduct motivational seminars and write motivational books? Why do corporations invest so much in contracting motivational speakers to motivate their staff? Is it because they value them so highly that they want  to see them become better people or is there an agenda to make them more productive employees? Is there a profit-productivity bottom line hovering somewhere in the background? And why do people attend such seminars so willingly? Are they bothered by a sense of inadequacy or do they see attendance as a stepping stone in a career path? Yeah, but we don’t ask the boss those sort of questions, do we?

Some years ago I was invited to attend a three-day motivational seminar being conducted by one of the world’s leading motivational speakers. Before the doors even opened the hype was already seeping into the 3,000 attendees who had paid big bucks to attend. I have never witnessed such mass manipulation of so many people so willing to be manipulated. Repeatedly I found myself asking “why can’t people see the the mind games and control? ” It smacked of well-known brain washing  techniques, and I found it quite unsettling. Eventually I could see no reason to endure the pressure and I walked out.

The importance of understanding motivation

controllersThe early Behaviourists observed the relationship between stimulus and response in initiating certain behaviours in animals. Who hasn’t heard of Pavlov and his slobbering dogs? At a very base level, motivation is essentially about push and pull, avoidance and engagement, need and satiation. Call them triggers or switches, we reach a point where their force or impetus is sufficient to make us do something. If I am starving to the point of death I will eat any food I can get my hands on. If I am peckish I will open the fridge door to see what is on offer. Now it becomes more subtle and complicated – cheese, chocolate, fruit or a nutritious can of beer? Not only do we build a hierarchy of our many needs over time, once satisfied we go on to create our own preferences and options associated with those needs. This is all grass roots motivational stuff. The one factor that is at the crux of motivation and behaviour is control. The formula is quite simple. The more I am able to control my environment – my world – the more satisfied and safer I will be. We say that love makes the world go round, but consistently across the natural world it is not love (apologies to all romantics) but control. Survival, safety and comfort are all dependent upon control.


Let’s take this to the next level. Central to survival in my world is this profound need to have a high degree of control over my environment. But look who is sharing that environment with me! You, and you . .  and you . . and you. And all of yous are all eyeing off the same resources that I have my eye on, and yous all want to control your world. Since I am part of your world, you probably want to control me too, which means that we all end up trying to control each other in what has now become a shared environment. While we may be social creatures by birth and we certainly need each other, we all face this dilemma of control. Every last one of us wants some level of control. The result is inevitable – power plays, conflict, manipulation, and dominance as we all engage in the business of discovering how much control we can exercise over each other. Personal control is essential to one’s sense of autonomy and freedom and intrinsic to establishing identity. Losing control is the basis of invalidation and a guaranteed formula for conflict. We can easily find ourselves in the predicament of wanting to be functional and happy but relying on control to establish that desirable estate. Considering that one of the main reasons why people are unhappy is that they are caught up in dysfunctional  and controlling relationships, we can start to see why the subject of motivation becomes so important.

Who wins? The answer to this question is self evident. The most powerful tend to rise to the top of the heap. The theme of power will be developed as this dialogue continues, but suffice to say that this process is the breeding ground of much unhappiness. We live in a highly manipulated and manipulative society. The external barrage of demands on our attention, assets and affections is relentless. And as the world’s population increases the power of the average individual diminishes.  For all the emphasis on the importance and value of the individual, the supremacy of our rights and the uniqueness of our identity, we have become a remarkably homogeneous lot clamouring for a voice and a presence – have you noticed how Facebook pages all look basically the same and are filled with the same circulating content? The puzzling dilemma is that we convince ourselves that we are highly independent and in control of our lives, when the reality for many is the opposite. We can easily be manipulated into thinking that we are in charge while others are actually dictating terms, even determining what we think, how we spend our money and what we eat. It is control by stealth.

Here are two things that need to happen in order to make sense of this dilemma.

Awareness – Develop the skill of being aware of the power plays taking place in every significant interaction. Once you are able to identify the ways power is used (by others as well as yourself) you place yourself in a position of advantage and are better placed to choose how to respond appropriately.

Understanding – Here comes the motivation bit. It not only helps to recognise what people are doing. It helps a great deal more when you have the insight as to why they are doing it. With this understanding comes power.

Develop these two skills, add a good measure of wisdom, maintain integrity in your choices and you will become a truly powerful person. But I hasten to add that we need to learn how to use power. Using power without controlling others will be the focus of a later blog post.

A simple definition of motivation

Much has been said and written about motivation over the years – some of it being very involved and technical – but for the purpose of this discussion I will reduce it to three basic questions.

Motivation is concerned with:

  • What begins or initiates behaviour? Behaviour doesn’t just happen. There is always a trigger that starts the ball rolling.
  • What keeps it going? Usually related to the impetus that initiates behaviour is the rationale for sticking with it.
  • What stops it? We often forget about this important one. Every activity is finite and there comes a time of completion. We need to know when that time arrives, how best to let go and when to intervene.
motivation_01A narrow boat exiting a tunnel on a canal near Birmingham, UK


Happiness – elusive or illusion


Twenty-five years ago I found myself scratching around for ideas on the subject of happiness. I had been invited to facilitate some thirty groups of between 20-30 people whom I described as the most disempowered members of our society. I began by asking the most basic of questions, “What do you want from these groups?” For so many people who were really struggling with life the reply was equally as basic, “How can I be happy?” Eight years and approx 25,000 people later the same question was still on top of the wannabe list.

Context:  My introduction to group facilitation was unconventional. My mentor/tutor was a young woman with a long history of alcohol abuse and heroin addiction. A few years earlier she had been scheduled to an institution, never to be released as incurably insane. Her life was a litany of endless abuse. But she was street smart, incredibly savvy and not the slightest bit insane. After enduring endless sessions of counselling and group therapy she knew every trick in the book and maintained her ‘sanity’ by playing mind games with her psychiatrists and psychologists. She outsmarted them so effectively that they concluded that she was mad and locked her away. She actually  knew more about their profession than all of them put together. It is a long story, but she was eventually released and became a drug and alcohol counsellor.
It was in this context that we began working together as colleagues. She was incisive, blunt, crude, foul-mouthed, confronting, relentless – a total no bullshit facilitator. Excuses, rationalisation, sob stories and denial didn’t wash with her. She had been there and done that. Without doubt she was was the most intuitive but effective counsellor I have ever met. She would tackle a group of twenty aggressive, dysfunctional alcoholics head-on without skipping a beat. It was amazing to watch her in action. Most importantly, they adored her.  Beneath that rough exterior was a deeply compassionate, caring and good person. I am indebted to her for enlightening me so much about the power of the group and the facilitation process in an such a short space of time. I thank her for her genuine humanity. It was from these groups that I began to observe that the essential quest of the human is simply to be happy. It all boils down to this one simple thing – which is why I have chosen this as the starting point of this blog.
Footnote: In a lovely twist of synchronicity I was in a position to introduce her to a senior university lecturer in Behavioural Sciences who instantly recognised her talent and by-passed all the usual entry requirements for university and arranged for her to be enrolled in a Master’s degree in psychology. For someone who didn’t even complete junior high school, she became the stand-out graduate and continues as a leading professional psychologist in her own practice.

Today seminars, blogs and books on the subject of happiness are a dime a dozen. Some are formula driven – do this and you will be happy. Others suggest much more mystical roads to happiness ranging from laughing therapy to transcendental meditation. But back then it was largely an ignored subject and there was not much in the way of source material on the theme. I suspect that the discipline of psychology was too busy telling people what they should be doing in order to manage their lives and their emotions rather than discovering what they really wanted. Yet, consistently I was hearing the cry of ordinary people simply wanting a bit of happiness in their lives.

It is an elusive concept for a couple of reasons.

  • It is a fickle. Let me illustrate. Dad has just bought a new car and decides to take the family for a glorious outing to celebrate. It turned out to be a wonderful day. Driving home Dad had a warm glow inside. He had never been so happy in a long time, until Junior without warning vomits all over the seat fabric and carpet in the rear. One very unhappy parent dumps on one very upset child, “you have just ruined the happiest day of my life.” How could it be the happiest day of his life when he suddenly became so unhappy? If you stop and think it through, the happy bit was already past tense, history relegated to memory. Was he happy person or not? Was his ‘happiness’ so fleeting that it wasn’t happiness at all? Is the memory of happiness actually part of the happiness spectrum? Is there an enduring happiness, and if there is, can we be sure that we are experiencing it?
  • The word ‘happiness’ gets bogged down in semantics. Like the English word for ‘love’, it has too many shades of meanings. The state of happiness is not as easy to describe as we would might think it is.  Look at the synonyms that follow and you can see that it hard to define.

So, here we have something that feels good and everybody genuinely wants. We go to great effort to try to grasp it, and  yet we hesitate to say we have found it and in case it turns out to be an illusion –  something so elusive and transient that it can disappear in a flash. The question keeps surfacing, “How do we know when we have found the genuine article and what can we do to ensure that it doesn’t escape us?”

To start the ball rolling I decided a good place to begin my groups would be to compile the thoughts of some of the wisest and happiest people around. Keep in mind that this was before the days of Google, and the plethora of  those ‘best quotes’ web pages. The modern internet was yet to explode. I ‘scratched’ around and ended up with a single page of 38 quotes which I gave to  each person in the groups. Participants were invited to choose their favourite and share the reason behind their particular choice. I then waited to see if any common ideas floated to the surface.

What ensued was an open-ended discussion and initially I could not have predicted where it would lead. I needn’t have worried. Things did begin to take shape. Here are the quotes that were consistently chosen (to see the original list you can download this file).


What happened next was the real eye-opener. The discussion moved to a different level as each person shared the reason for their choice. We then began to look for a pattern in both the favourite choices and the reasons why the preferred quotes spoke to them.

Regardless of the profile of the group, the conclusions were remarkably consistent.

  • We all recognise the state of well-being associated with feeling happy. We know when we are happy.
  • Just as certainly, we know when we are unhappy.
  • While there are feelings and emotions associated with happiness, it seems to be something deeper.  It has more to do with an inner state of peace or contentment, or serenity,  or overall well-being, rather than the headiness of euphoria or ecstasy or excitement.
  • Happiness is a desirable state but not an essential one. There are some circumstances when it is virtually impossible to be happy.
  • The more we try to achieve happiness, the more likely we are to not find it. Of itself it is not a wise objective or a goal.

And the pattern that surfaced suggested that there are three clear dimensions to happiness.

  • Physical – there is a very practical and physical element to happiness. Activity, work, and things we do can have a bearing on our sense of well being. Good health, freedom from pain and having enough money to live on are significant contributors to one’s happiness.
  • Emotional – attitude, choice and state of mind play an important part. Depression, stress, rejection, invalidation, abuse, worry, grief and mental illness can leave people feeling very unhappy.
  • The spiritual dimension defines the meaning and purpose we place on life. It is possible to have some serious deficits in the physical and emotional world and still have a sense of peace and happiness which comes from deep within, and, for many people, from a source or power beyond the finite.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant reached the same conclusion in the Eighteenth Century. His words of wisdom remain my favourite definition of happiness.

A fishing boat stranded at low tide at Dahouët on the coast of Britanny, France

NEXT: Happiness is a balancing act, a thing of beauty and symmetry. 

Happiness – a balancing act

Happiness and Beauty

happiness_gandhiWe are off to India. The arches in this image are located at the entrance to one of the world’s most recognisable buildings, the Taj Mahal. And the words of wisdom are those of  India’s most famous son.

Anyone who has visited this famous tomb of Mumtaz Mahal, wife of the emperor Shah Jahan, will be aware of the sense of calm and beauty that surrounds it. Every day thousands of people visit the site and swarm over the grounds, yet it seems to stand serenely apart from the throng. I was captivated by the beauty and symmetry of the structure. Built on the mathematical principle of the Fibonacci‘s golden ratio, it is one of those buildings that looks stunning from any angle and is irresistible to photographers.

Interestingly, when reduced to its individual components it becomes very ordinary and no single piece stands out. Collectively, however,  the parts combine to create a masterpiece of exquisite beauty. Below is a classic shot I took at dawn. While it demonstrates the Taj’s amazing symmetry, it is actually only half an image, the left half having been manipulated to mirror itself into a composite. Roll the mouse over it and you will see the original shot – as well as an interesting optical illusion of movement created by the rising sun.

What makes it beautiful? Why do visitors describe feelings of wonder and peace when they gaze on its splendour? It is obviously more than a wonderful building. Its form and symmetry first took shape in a great mind which still speaks to us four hundred years later. Beauty, for all its elusive complexity (and often simplicity), is something we intuitively recognise and respond to. While we sense its balance and symmetry it doesn’t always play by the rules. Asymmetry and stark contrast also have power to add to beauty. The same can be said of music. The great classics were created following well defined rules of composition. Then along came jazz with the joy of discord and swing, breaking many of the established rules, but still clearly music.

ContentSo, when we think about happiness we meet the same predicament. It is tempting to include ideas of balance, and centredness, control, order and righteousness in a definition of the happy life. But when the rubber meets the road the reality can be different. Many a person who has been dealt a dud hand will attest to being happy with their lot in spite of setbacks and disharmony.

Let’s fine-tune the definition of happiness. Because the word happy covers so many shades of meaning I want to focus on the state of happiness rather the feeling of being happy. Much and all as I revel in the exhilarating and fun end of the happiness spectrum, it usually ends up being transient often with its own built-in let-down. If the exciting fizziness of feeling good is the bubbling and sparkling waters of the fountain of life, then serenity, peace and contentment are the deep, calm waters of the river of life. It is this deeper water that I want to reflect on.

The ‘Rule of Two’ for Happiness:

For all that has ever been said about the subject, it reduces down to the relationship between two things: thought and action.

There is a simple logical progression here. Our thoughts are tempered and shaped by our core beliefs. Those beliefs in turn will direct most of our behaviour – what we say and do. The higher the degree of congruency between our beliefs and behaviour, the more likely we are to be happy.

unhappy When what we do and what we believe fail to align or are pulling in opposite directions, we will be unhappy.
The more consistently we live our lives in harmony with our beliefs, the happier we will be.


  • Happiness is not a reward reserved for privilege or success. While these may bring security they do not guarantee happiness.
  • Contentment is universally achievable regardless of circumstances. In other words anybody can take hold of it.
  • Happiness is found not in doing but in being. It is an illusion to think that we can do things in order to be happy. Rather, the state of harmony and balance between the inner and outer life is what eventually determines whether we are happy or not. It is largely attitudinal.
  • Neither is it the product of perfection. For all the effort we may put in to covering our flaws and imperfections,  we still have adjust, compensate and work our way around the many blemishes of character. It is not the minutia of imperfection that matters. That is the unhappy dilemma of legalism. Rather it is the direction of life and our choices resulting in a pattern of congruency that brings the inner peace that we associate with happiness.
  • A flawed belief system works against happiness. While this might sound a bit audacious, the reality is many people have never put their belief system through the hoops. It is tempting to underestimate the importance of a healthy belief system. Without it we are like a rudderless ship sailing without a compass. Hand-me-down beliefs and cultural rules, norms and mores; fragmented ideas; popular opinion; deference to authority figures and experts;  letting others do the thinking for us – are some of the blocks to testing and owning our own beliefs.
  • Happiness is not going to happen if we don’t make the effort to sort out what we really believe. Doing so can have its share of surprises and is often challenging but the willingness to go down that path does have its reward.
  • Just because a person thinks differently to the way I do and has a different belief system does not mean that they cannot achieve happiness. Remember, the clue is in the congruency between their belief and their action. That’s what makes the difference – even if I think their belief is wrong.
  • Inner contentment does not mean that we are content with everything in our lives. There are times when discontent can actually be a positive motivator for change. To use an analogy, it is rather like the body temperature. Our body can take quite a hammering and still maintain an even temperature, day in and day out over many years. It is one of the best indicators that all is well on the inside. Few things will prompt us to see a doctor more quickly than a rise in temperature. Likewise, the person who knows inner contentment is not going to avoid the stress and strain of everyday living, but their sense of well-being is an affirming indicator of their core emotional and spiritual health.

simplicityWe already have the answers to life and happiness in the common-sense solutions within reach of all of us . . actually inside of us. Sometimes we just need some simple tools to help us make sense of it all.

a few more favourite quotes


The counterfeits of happiness

Australia’s first European murderer was also a mass murderer who also holds the highest tally of murders in the country’s history. He is virtually unknown to most Australians, and remarkably, for all his evil he only ever killed one person, an infant. Yet, this this evil man who forced others to perform his dastardly deeds makes the infamous outlaw, Ned Kelly,  quite angelic in comparison .

When the day of justice finally arrived, he was hanged on a makeshift gallows with these ‘others’ on the first structure ever to be built by Europeans in Australia. He directed more than 110 murders and indirectly was responsible for another 100 or so deaths. The story of the shipwreck of the Batavia in 1629 and the rebellion of Jeronimus Cornelisz on the Houtman Abrolhos Islands (left: scene of the rebellion, Beacon Island) off the coast of Geraldton in Western Australiais one of the darkest chapters in Australian history, eclipsed only by the extermination of as many as 30,000 Indigenous Australians but the early settlers.

Batavia_PorticoSo where is the link to happiness? When the Batavia set sail from Amsterdam with 341 souls on board she epitomised the power and wealth of the mighty Dutch East India Company (VOC). It carried one-sixth of the wealth of the Dutch colonial initiative in all manner of treasure and coin as well as troops and weapons which collectively would have provided an enormous boost to the power and luxurious life-style of the Dutch in SE-Asia. The ship itself was the C17th equivalent of the Queen Mary 2. Deep within the hold were the stones of a beautifully crafted portico which was to adorn the fortified entrance to the city of Batavia (now Jakarta) in Java. When the sip foundered on Morning Reef these stones remained with the wreck for nearly 350 years until they were eventually salvaged in the 1970’s. (Pictured in the Geraldton Museum)

In ways the Batavia story was supposed to be a journey of happiness. The majestic VOC flagship was built to bring wealth and prosperity to the Dutch colonies. It was laden with the best that a life of luxury could offer from exquisite works of art to the finest cuisine. The trade in rare and exotic spices of the Orient was flourishing and the Dutch were riding a wave of unprecedented prosperity as a result of its newfound trade and dominance of the seas. But there was one serious flaw in the whole business. It was built on the wrong foundation. The great colonising countries of Europe were motivated by greed and fueled by brutal cruelty and disregard of the value of human life. The idea that prosperity and happiness is obtainable at the expense of the happiness of someone else is probably the greatest and most repeated counterfeits of happiness. History tells its own story – there are no winners in war and bloodshed. The legacy is fear, distrust, grief and enduring unhappiness and wretchedness.

Most would agree that while power and wealth may bring prosperity as well as many other benefits, they never seriously claim to promote happiness.  The counterfeits of happiness, however, are subtly different. A counterfeit is a look-alike which promises what it cannot deliver. For example, if you were to watch the ads on commercial television for an hour you could almost believe that all those beautiful happy, successful and smiling people have reached that elevated state because of what they eat, or the car they drive, or the brand of makeup they use, even the toothpaste that whitens their smiling teeth and the toilet paper that loves their bottoms. Most of us are not convinced. We know that the promises and the expectations of the adverts do not correlate with the reality of life and that happiness is not a commodity which can bought or sold. This branding of happiness is the most shoddy of counterfeits and is largely directed at young viewers who are the most impressionable.

There are a couple of more appealing and convincing counterfeits which are more sophisticated and harder to pick. Both are perfectly legitimate pursuits and have their rightful place in life. Just realise that they are not the path to happiness. Both make appealing promises and both deliver the goods, but the goods are not ‘happiness’

Head happiness

I have just finished reading an article that proposes twenty things that we must do in order to be happy. I was challenged by the opening line which stated, “You have to do hard things to be happy in life. The things no one else is doing.” While it was a typical motivational article which underscored many of the hard things we need to do in order to be successful it missed the point in what it promised. Happiness is not an action or a sequence of actions or the result of activity. In this age of quick fixes it would be wonderful if we could follow a formula knowing that at the conclusion we would reach the goal of happiness. But that is not the nature of happiness.  Even the most meticulous execution of the twenty points would not guarantee happiness. You may feel good at the end of the exercise, but the article has still missed the point. It cannot deliver on the promise for the simple reason that happiness is not something you do and it is not something you feel. It is certainly not something you can promise. It is a consequence of something you are. Happiness is not a quantifiable commodity and it is not achieved at a head level.

The same could be said for many a religious quest for meaning and truth. The agonising hours of soul-searching, confession of sin, repentance, prayers and self-denial are every bit as much a  counterfeit formula for the same reason – happiness is not to be found in doing.

Hedonism happiness

The other very appealing counterfeit is that happiness is essentially about feeling good. It would be easy to adopt a self-righteous ‘wet blanket’ mentality and draw up a long list of no-no’s which would result in taking all  the fun out of life – you know, the old Puritan line of “if it feels good it is sinful.” Hedonism is often targeted as suspect with its self-centred formula for the feel-good life. But we should not be too quick to relegate it to the sin-bin. Its philosophy of maximising pleasure while minimising pain makes a lot of sense in many ways, especially if we temper it with a ‘do no harm’ clause.

Hedonism is great if you can get it to work and is fabulous while it lasts, but it is limited by the dynamic human state. We get old or sick. Life has a way of changing the whole game, and when there is nothing to take its place the pain will begin to outweigh the pleasure. Hedonism promises pleasure, but it needs to be constantly topped up. Also on the minus side, it draws its energy from the state of discontent with the addict always needing the next fix to maintain the feeling of of the high – and discontent is the total opposite of the contentment of happiness. The clue to the counterfeit is again found in the promise of “feel good and you will be happy”. It offers good feelings, but they are not what constitutes happiness.

Again, there is a religious hedonism which offers ecstatic, heavenly or transcendental experiences of joy and other-worldliness which leave the devotee with a remarkable feeling of euphoria and sense of well-being and a conviction that they have been personally touched and blessed by something or someone greater. The problem with this experience is the let-down. One cannot sustain the pressure of the high indefinitely and cannot avoid the inevitable flatness that comes as they return from the clouds to a dreary earth. It promises a great experience, but the experience is not happiness.

At the risk of sounding repetitive, we seem to be continually sidetracked by the semantics of a word which is used too loosely. Fun, pleasure, thrill, ecstasy, excitement, euphoria and the like, are perfectly legitimate feelings which we can all enjoy. It’s just that they are transient and lack the authenticity of that deep inner contentment which is the real substance of enduring happiness. We need to see them for what they are and not place unrealistic expectations on them to be anything other than enjoyable passing experiences. There is a certain irony that is possible to have fun and still not be happy, and you can miss out on the all the fun and still be happy. Work that out!

Okay! So happiness is not a commodity. It is not something you do. It is not a feeling. It is a state of being and a state of mind . . What exactly is it? That is what this blog will consider from many angles as it unfolds over the ensuing months. Rest assured though, happiness is real even though it may be difficult to define. This journey of understanding will take us into the same space as that ultimate of all experiences– love. It will be interesting.

A stand of trees at dusk in a ploughed field in the Mallee district between Renmark and Mildura, NSW Australia