Dr. Mary Grace Simcox, PA College’s President, shares weekly notes with the College’s faculty and staff to encourage and inspire the College Community. We thought this particular note was especially inspiring and wanted to share it with all of you!An old joke goes like this: a mother gives her grown son a green shirt and a blue shirt for his birthday. When he sees her next, he thinks to wear one of the shirts and chooses the green one. When she sees him, the mother says, “Why didn’t you like the blue one?”
I came across this groaner at the beginning of the wonderful book The Situation is Hopeless but Not Serious: The Pursuit of Unhappiness by Paul Watzlawick. Some of you might know Watzlawick from his work at the Mental Research Institute or his seminal The Pragmatics of Human Communication. In The Situation is Hopeless, he takes an extremely light tone to consider the myriad ways people self-sabotage themselves by framing their pasts, presents, and futures in the worst possible way. These are unhappiness experts and the book pursues their methods.
With tongue very much in cheek, Watzlawick goes through stories and metaphors and situations in order to find the route to maximum misery. Working through a breakup? Make sure to only think about the good times and by no means consider the last months of unhappiness! Even better, your ex might call at any minute, so be sure to never stray far from your phone. Starting off in a new relationship? Beware of the dangers of someone who isn’t like anyone you’ve been with before! You’d be better off going for the familiar so be sure to recreate all of those dynamics. Have a great idea? Be careful not to put too much effort into it and risk embarrassment or disappointment! Much better to place the goal out of reach and spend more time contemplating it than working towards it. The real unhappiness expert can also make others unhappy, too. The mother in the joke not only perfectly arranges her own disappointment, she steps on the son’s pride in wearing his gift for the person who gave it to him.
These examples might seem extreme, but the book makes clear how every day we are presented with endless opportunities to sabotage ourselves. Much of that work takes the form of making assumptions that corral all positive possibilities out of reach. If I assume that someone is making a suggestion to me out of self-interest, then I derail myself into trying to figure out what that self-interest is and how to thwart it. This can happen without my even thinking about it! It’s as simple as assuming a posture towards others. Often when we seek to interpret things by intentions we trap ourselves in misreadings, assumptions, and ill will. If I assume someone is acting from self-interest I can fall prey to reactions that are based in my feelings about that person or in my own self-interest. What chance do I have then of coming to a productive conclusion?
At the College we see how powerful the opposite posture can be. If I start from the assumption that my colleagues share the desire to improve things and mean well, that instantly changes how I understand anything that they propose. Of course I might not agree with what I hear, but the chances of my engaging in a meaningful dialogue that can produce a positive result start to go up significantly. This kind of mindset can truly define the culture of a place and I know how much better we are when we adopt it.
I think we all know what it feels like to be in a meeting where everyone shares a purpose and no one assumes self-interest or negativity from others. We leave provoked and inspired, energized. But even a simple hallway conversation that begins from the negative, that assumes the other person has selfish interests placed before common ones, even those two minutes can be a terrible drag on the day. We all have a little bit of unhappiness expert in us. Which means that we can all afford to make a practice of making sure we know when that expert is guiding our responses. And when he or she is, we can make a conscious choice to assume a different posture towards each other and towards ourselves.