Thursday, December 25, 2014

Nonfiction RC #21

I read this book for the Nonfiction Reading Challenge 2014.

The Pursuit of Personal Happiness - Albert Ellis

Albert Ellis (1913 - 2007), a psychologist, developed Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT).  Central to this approach is Hamlet’s idea, “There is nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” That is, our beliefs and judgments about events bother us, not the events themselves. By disputing our irrational beliefs and judgments, we reduce the intensity of negative emotions and thus think more clearly and skeptically, increase the frequency of positive emotions, and feel more satisfied with life. 

The basic message is that we can pursue happiness rationally. When we are fearful, anxious, frustrated, or angry, we had better convince ourselves that it's not "logical" to be angry over this issue. When something goes wrong, we had better feel disappointment or regret, otherwise stoking our own anger or demanding the impossible will just keep us overgeneralizing, seeing things as worse than they are (the cruel world fallacy) and unable to tolerate ambiguity or frustration.

I don’t read much in the self-help genre. For one, the same ideas are repeated time and again throughout the book, though as a teacher I realize the importance of repetition in the business of changing behavior. What I like about Ellis is his challenge to use logical evidence to strike down irrational beliefs. I like his faith that we can challenge our thinking through self-questioning and positive thoughts.

Of downsides, we live in an imperfect world indeed. Lots of self-help advice just seems like common sense. Defeating the natural human tendency to be irrational also seems as far-fetched as loving one’s neighbor as deeply as one’s self. Assuming the problem always lies within ourselves also lets a screwy world – especially the world of work – off the hook. I once attended a safety and security workshop in which the presenter mantraed that I had a personal responsibility to know what to do in case a shooter starting blasting away in my workplace. I thought, how weird that I, the master of my own fate, become the irresponsible one if I’m unlucky enough to be caught in the lobby, where there’s no door to lock and barricade, and get my negligent ass riddled with bullets.

As Johnny Cash sang, “I don't like it but I guess things happen that way.”

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