The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life - Tal Ben-Shahar (2009)
Part III. MEDITATIONS
Chapter 11. Fourth Meditation: A Perfect New World
To foster a society of total happiness is to concoct a culture of fear.
Aldous Huxley in Brave New World described a future in which emotional pain is eradicated through the use of a wonder drug, Soma. Less than a century after its publication in 1932, Huxley’s chilling account of an emotionally sterile world does not seem that far-fetched.
It is a natural and healthy part of our constitution to seek pleasure and avoid pain, but technological advances that provide us a glimpse of a brave new world are taking this healthy drive to an unhealthy extreme. We have become a culture obsessed with perfect pleasure, and we believe that a happy and fulfilling life is devoid of painful emotions. Any discomfort that breaks, or threatens to break, the flawless flow of positive emotions is taken as a sign of some inherent fault, one that must be fixed quickly.
The blame for this misunderstanding of what human happiness means lies, at least in part, with the medical establishment. Too many in the medical profession have taken the notion of “seek pleasure and avoid pain” to its simplistic extreme and dispense medication at the slightest hint of emotional discomfort. The ease with which psychiatric medication is dispensed today communicates, in deeds more than in words, the prevailing belief that all painful emotions should be done away with.
While there are certainly situations in which medication is appropriate—lives have been saved thanks to advances in psychiatry—there are far more situations in which it is not. Last semester one of my students was devastated after he received his first-ever B, and after thirty minutes in the doctor’s office—the first time he had ever visited a psychiatrist—he was prescribed an antidepressant.
Barring extreme situations when, for instance, suicidal thoughts and feelings are involved, painful emotions should not be so readily medicated away. A student who is miserable because he failed an exam does not need to be put on medication; he needs to learn to deal with failure (or perceived failure). A person who has just been through a breakup does not need antidepressants; he needs to grieve. An employee who just lost her job is not helped in the long run if her emotions are suppressed by chemicals; she will benefit a great deal if she works through her painful feelings. In a manner of speaking, emotions are the printout of the soul. Over time, we can learn to read them, to understand the message that they contain, and to take appropriate action.
To give a personal example, over the years I have come to realize that when for no apparent reason I experience deep sadness and a sense of futility, it is usually because I have too much on my plate. I push myself to the limit, taking on too many responsibilities and not letting go of anything for fear that I might miss out on something. And then I get a message of sorts, through my emotions, telling me to stop, to slow down, to simplify my life, to recover. I could, of course, medicate away the sadness and continue working just as much or more, which is what many people today choose to do. But the voice of my emotions is too important, and to mute it would ultimately hurt me and those around me.
Think about a painful emotion that you are currently experiencing or one that you have recently experienced. What can you learn from the feeling?
In The Matrix, Neo, the movie’s protagonist, is offered the choice between a red and a blue pill. The red pill would reveal the truth—a painful truth—about human existence. The blue pill would leave Neo in a state of happy oblivion, not knowing that he is in fact living in a make-believe world where he is kept sedated by the forces that have taken over our world. Neo chooses the red pill, faces the harsh reality head-on, and embarks on an odyssey that includes the pain of grief and failure, as well as the joy of discovery and development.
Would I have chosen a life without perfectionism had the choice been presented to me when I first became aware of the price I was paying as an athlete, a student, a writer, a partner? Possibly. Would I have chosen a life without perfectionism had I known what I would gain by struggling through it, the growth that would take place alongside the real emotional pain? Absolutely not.
Today, advances in the development of psychopharmaceuticals are making this sort of choice a reality. In Against Happiness, author Eric Wilson writes, “Soon, perhaps, with the help of psychopharmaceuticals, we shall have no more unhappy people in our country. Melancholics will become unknown.”1
Sometime in the not-too-distant future we, our children, or our grandchildren will be given a quick and easy option—in the form of a pill or through genetic reprogramming—to do away with the fear of failure, to circumvent painful emotions, and to inject our lives with a sense of accomplishment. I hope that future generations will choose the red pill or, better yet, no pill at all.
In the second meditation I discussed cognitive therapy and its potential benefits. Research has shown that when it comes to dealing with the psychological fallout of perfectionism—be it anxiety or depression—cognitive therapy interventions are as effective as, and at times more effective than, medicine. The following simple exercise, if done on a regular basis, can change the way we interpret events and thus our emotional reaction to events.
Create a table with three columns. In the first column, briefly describe an event that elicited a painful and intense emotional reaction. In the second column, write the perfectionist interpretation of the event and, next to it, in parentheses, the emotion that that interpretation elicited. In the third column, cognitively reconstruct the event by writing an alternative, more appropriate or rational, interpretation—the way an Optimalist would interpret the event. Next to it, in parentheses, write the emotion that you are experiencing or hope to experience alongside this interpretation. Here is an example:
This exercise is not a quick fix, and sometimes we need much more than cognitively reconstructing an event to shift from anxiety to hope, or from depression to determination. However, if done regularly, this exercise can significantly reduce the emotional pain associated with perfectionism and provide a healthy alternative to medication.