The Book of Joy: Ambition versus Stress and Anxiety

I recently finished The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World featuring a dialogue led by Douglas Abrams with the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop of South Africa, Desmond Tutu. The focus was on the topic of joy in the face of life’s challenges. Instead of a writing a review (although I’d recommend the read), I’m highlighting a topic touched on by the two men in conversation: stress and anxiety.

“Stress and anxiety often come from too much expectation and too much ambition,” claims the Dalai Lama. “When we don’t fulfill  that expectation or achieve that ambition,” he explains, “we experience frustration. Right from the beginning, it is a self-centered attitude.”

It’s precarious to be unrealistic about objective reality. “When we have a clear picture about our own capacity, we can be realistic about our effort,” the Dalai Lama says. “But unrealistic effort only brings disaster. So, in many cases our stress is caused by our expectations and our ambition.” It is better to focus on presence of mind.

The decentering effect is the result of a rational shift from unrealistic expectations and discrete self-identity to identifying as one of seven billion humans—nothing special. The Dalai Lama articulates, “I have tried to make people aware that the ultimate source of happiness is simply a healthy body and a warm heart.”

This typically contradicts American thinking. In The Courage to Be Yourself: E.E. Cummings on Art, Life, and Being Unafraid to Feel, Maria Papinova writes, “Every generation believes that it must battle unprecedented pressures of conformity; that it must fight harder than any previous generation to protect that secret knowledge from which our integrity of selfhood springs.” She goes on to define a “Pavlovian system” as learned conformity, “in which the easiest and commonest opinions are most readily rewarded, and dissenting voices are most readily punished by the unthinking mob.”

Papinova also cites the poet Laura Riding, who writes in the exquisite letters to an eight-year-old girl about being oneself, “To be nobody-but-yourself—in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else—means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”

I’m trying to resolve these conflicting viewpoints. If fighting for the true self is to be the quintessential lifelong pursuit, then what could too much ambition possibly look like? Abrams points out that, to someone raised in America, “ambition is a virtue in and of itself: the marriage of initiative and persistence.”

“The getting and grasping that we see as our major ambition in modern life,” Abrams continues, “might be misguided. Perhaps it is a question of priorities,” he offers. “What is it that is really worth pursuing? What is it we truly need?”

It’s all much simpler than we think.

Life is a barrage of paradoxes. I have no doubt that we are creatures of conformity, products of the “Pavlovian system.” This is, as the Dalai Lama would say, a realistic picture of our human capacity. What is most important, then, is not to work against the current of conformity (inevitably falling victim to the stress and anxiety of our expectations and ambitions), but to live ensuring that the current flows the right way.

We are agents of exceptional human change by accepting ourselves as unexceptional humans capable of change. There is no such thing as a true self—there is only a collective humanness that we experience every moment of our lives. Humans have the capacity to redirect the current of conformity, but we can’t do it alone.

“When we see how little we really need—love and connection—then all the getting and grasping that we thought was so essential to our wellbeing takes its rightful place and no longer becomes the focus or obsession of our lives. We must be conscious of how we live.”

– Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy

Featured image (book cover photograph) copyright © Miranda Penn Turin. 

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