Tami Simon:You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today I’m speaking with Andrea Polard. Andrea is a German-born author and clinical psychologist with an extensive background in psychodynamic therapies, meditation, and Ericksonian mind-body work. She’s the founder of the Los Angeles Center for Zen Psychology and is the author of the new book with Sounds True called A Unified Theory of Happiness: An East-Meets-West Approach to Fully Loving Your Life.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Andrea and I spoke about exactly what happiness [is]. We talked about the role of relationships in happiness and what Andrea calls “the wings of happiness”—the two modes of happiness which she refers to as the Basic mode and the Supreme mode. We also talked about ambition and how ambition can be a source of unhappiness, but also a source of happiness. And finally, we talked about why happiness is actually a commitment. Here’s my conversation with Andrea Polard.
Tami Simon: Andrea, you’ve spent 12 years of your life researching the subject of happiness. What’s interesting to me right off the bat about something like happiness is that it seems like it’s a hard subject to define, that people can’t even agree on what it is necessarily—you know, this person’s happiness looks like this, this person’s happiness looks that. So how did you research a topic like this that is so hard to define, and how do you define it when you talk about happiness?
Andrea Polard: Happiness is really a very big subject, and all people have different associations with it. It’s a very new subject. So we think we talk about the same thing, but really we’re not. So some people, a lot of authors, avoid that question. You can research authors—they say, “Oh we kind of know what happiness is, and so we don’t define it.” But I felt that it was very important for us to find a common language, and then people say that we can’t really talk about it because everybody has so many definitions. I disagree because I think we have as many reasons for happiness as we have people. So you have a lot of different causes of happiness. But the phenomenon is very similar to people.
When I did my research on happiness, I looked at hundreds of explications of happiness in literature and in my sample group of people who had an expressed interest in happiness. And I realized that there was a common thread about the way that they talked about happiness or wrote about happiness and that somehow they all pointed to the full life—to the good life, to a life that made them fully alive, full of vibrancy, something that I call the experience of participation. So that’s how I ended up defining happiness: an experience of full life participation.
That is described from many different angles. Again, you have different groups of people who talk about how they get to that experience of participation in a different way. So I realized that there was one kind of people who were talking about happiness as if it was a relationship with life that had to be just discovered, just realized. We didn’t have to do anything for it, but it was right now, in the here and now. And so, I call that the “non-active way” of participation in life.
That’s when we are feeling serene and when we realize our already existing connections in life. And then there are other people, and I described that more from the Western point of view, who feel that they always have to do something in order to be happy. So they’re in an action mode, which I call the basic mode of consciousness, and that leads them to feel fully alive, to feel that they are really participating in life—when they are connected with something outside of themselves, not something within, like our consciousness or the life that’s within us, but with something concrete on the outside—a goal or a concrete person. And that’s a very different way of getting to that experience of participation.
So in my understanding of happiness, happiness is really a combination of these two ways of the non-active way of participation and the active way of participation.
TS: Very interesting. So from your interviews with people as well as what you read, these two categories emerged: what you call the basic mode and the supreme mode, the being, the non-action mode. Did this categorization emerge to you as an original observation based on what you were reading and the interviews that you did with people?
AP: That to me is probably my only original thought I’ve ever had? Yes?
AP: I think so. I think that—because the synthesis is basically—leads to the synthesis. This observation leads to the synthesis of Western and Eastern thought. So as the Westerner, we want to explain everything from our perspective, from our worldview where we are separate from life, from the things, or from God. We are separated. And in the East, of course, very different world view—we feel that we are—you see I identify with the Easterners here—we feel that we are a part of life, we are part of God. So they want to explain happiness only from their perspective, like when you are serene, you automatically become a capable person who can tend to business and make relationships work. And then the Westerners would say, “Well, when you know how to generate flow,” you then want to do that with another person. You feel connected, and you contemplate. It’s been explained in contemplation slash meditation from that Western worldview.
I felt that that really doesn’t work for a great many people. The truth is that I think we need to come to a balance of the two worldviews, bring them together in our practical experiences with our skill level.
TS: Well, of course, now the idea that there’s an Eastern way and a Western way—I mean, here we are—you’re a Zen psychologist, and I’m a meditating businessperson.
AP: That’s right.
TS: And so there is this separation, this separation doesn’t actually exist in who we are today? We’re both.
AP: Uh huh. We are both. And you wouldn’t expect the people who work for you to do a good job just because they meditate, and because they feel one, and they are kind and have compassion, and they are happy in that way, but you want them to have real skills and hopefully, for their own sake, they have good relationships. And they have the knowhow of how relationships work, and as important as kindness is and compassion—that is so important in Buddhism, especially in Tibetan Buddhism—it’s not enough of a skill to make relationships work. It’s such a big part, it can’t even be stressed enough, but it isn’t the whole story of how relationships work.
So for you, it comes naturally. So somehow, you have, if you consider yourself a happy person, which I think you do, you have these skills available to you. You know how to make business work, you know how to have relationships, I believe, and you know how to be serene and how to be in touch with your own consciousness, with your mind, and I think that make for a whole person, that makes for a whole happiness.
TS: Now first of all, I love for a moment here thinking of myself as a happy person. It’s wonderful. Let’s just take a moment! I don’t think I always was a happy person, which brings a question to the forefront, which is as you were talking and I was reflecting on “Is it true?” And I thought, “You know, it is actually true. I am happy.”
The reason, though, I would say is primarily because of the health of my relationships and my primary relationships and all the relationships in my life. And I know that’s one of the themes you touch on in your book. And I wonder if you can speak to that a little bit—about what you think the role of relationships are in happiness. And when you talk about this basic mode and the supreme mode, where do relationships fit in that?
AP: Very good questions. I think that I put relationships or connections in the basic mode category. It was a little bit tricky because it so often overlaps with the supreme mode as well, especially when we are in love, but I think that relationships are number one. You asked what the role of it—I think it’s probably the most important ingredient to happiness that we have.
TS: From your research, you think it’s number one.
AP: Oh yeah. Practically all research studies that examine that would come to that conclusion. People being in love—you ask students on a campus, “how are you?” and that was always the most important factor why they would consider themselves happy or unhappy—if they had good relationships. People live longer when they have good relationships, even if it’s a relationship with their dog. We just need relationships. We are just structured like that. We are human beings.
So relationships—they found themselves in the basic mode in my book because I think for us to make relationships work, we have to experience the other as another. You know in Buddhism and Hinduism, we want to be free of the delusion of separateness. We want to feel one and find commonalities between people and relate and have empathy and walk in the other person’s moccasins, but I think it is very, very important not to become enmeshed for functioning relationships. You need to see who you are as an individual in contrast to another person. You need to set boundaries with another person at times. You need to assert yourself. You need to see them and listen to them not as “you; this is not me.” Too many projections take place when we do that. We become enmeshed, and we don’t really see the otherness.
TS: It’s interesting that you’re coming to this because of course, as you said, you can understand relationships from the perspective of unity, but it’s interesting that you are emphasizing in terms of happiness the importance of recognizing difference in relationship. Because—I can imagine hearing someone from a different perspective saying it’s only if you know your oneness with another person that you can really be happy. But you’re saying quite the opposite here in terms of emphasizing this other point. You’re a psychologist, you work with people, you work with people who come in with relationship troubles. It’s interesting that you would underscore this.
AP: Yes, because the wonderful things that we can learn from Buddhism about relationships—they can really help our relationships. Walking away from a person, I heard Thich Nhat Hanh say, when you are in trouble with somebody, when you are having a fight. Walk away from that person and find an inner peace so that your mind is quiet so that you go back and engage with a kinder and quieter mind.
So we can learn so much from Eastern philosophies and religions about relationships. But I think psychology and positive psychology and just here in the West, we have found a great many things to say about happiness and what makes them work and what would make a dysfunctional relationship.
TS: And so this idea of understanding the difference in relationship, how does that bring me happiness?
AP: We want to—that frightens a lot of people. When you think of the other person, the person that you are with as another, then you ought to experience yourself as a separate being. That can be very frightening. Our expectations are oftentimes like this: “I want the other person to read my mind. I want them to know who I am and what my needs are.” And by seeing the other person as another, we might experience a great deal of anxiety and frustration because if the other person is really another, that means I have to come to terms with this. I have to find ways to communicate. I have to find ways to tell the other person about me. I have to listen to the other person, who could be completely different in some ways, and have to learn about the other person.
I think it actually helps us to get rid of some of our preconceived notions about the other. Especially when we are together with a person for a long time, we think “Oh, I know this person. So this is what my husband or my partner—that’s what they are going to do and feel.” We then refrain from asking questions. We lose our curiosity because we are one, and we are somehow enmeshed.
So it’s, I think, a very important aspect of functioning relationships, of close relationships, that we are coming to terms with our anxiety, accept our responsibility, need to set boundaries with the other person, and, you know, just really seeing the other person for who the person really is and really coming from curiosity and not from what I think about the other person.
TS: Now I want to make sure that our listeners are fully with us in terms of understanding your original contribution to the question of happiness, which is this categorization in these two different modes: what you call the “two wings of happiness,” the basic mode and the supreme mode. So help us understand how these are both wings and what constitutes the basic mode and what constitutes the supreme mode.
AP: The wings—I just love that metaphor because when I thought of happiness, I oftentimes associated that with birds flying. And I love that one song by Barbra Streisand, “A Piece of Sky.” Soar. If you can fly, soar. So that’s where the analogy of the wings came from. I think we do need both wings, both the basic and the supreme mode, to be fully happy. So may I start with the basic mode?
TS: Please, yes.
AP: The basic mode is, I think, is when we are, in our consciousness, focused. It always has something to do with focus, which always happens in the here and now. When we focus on something that is not within our own consciousness, that is a real thing, a form, something that—even though in reality everything is actually connected, we human beings have to see form, have to see different things around us, and when we focus our brain does that automatically and has to in order to function.
So we focus on something outside of our consciousness, and we strive towards that in the basic mode. In the survival mode, we may not strive. We just may take. We may just strive to be powerful or to be better than the other person, but in the basic mode, we focus on something else, like a goal—something concrete, something that we can define, sometimes something that we can touch, something that gives us feedback, that can talk back to us and tells us about our progress, if it’s a goal.
And that is a relationship that we are creating. It’s like that is a flow, an energetic flow that we are creating between my consciousness and the goal. So there’s something going back and forth between me and my goal. The relationship becomes more important than the goal. So the person loses a strong sense of self. It becomes more about the relationship and the pursuit, the progress, the process. Also in the basic mode, as I mentioned, would be then concrete people—not mankind, womankind, but actually really separate human beings, friends, people we work with, and, of course, our significant other.
So we need to then pursue that relationship, right? Once again, the emphasis is on focus. We focus on the pursuit. That pursuit needs time, needs effort, needs skill, various skills particular just for relationships, and we need to be able to relate to that person. So we are, once again, we are creating an energetic flow with that person, and that sometimes can go into the supreme mode. There we have an overlap. You know, you feel the oneness with another person.
So that would be one wing of happiness. That’s when our consciousness is focused fiercely in the moment on the other. And then you have, in the supreme mode, where the consciousness focuses onto itself. So the form that always exists, not just on the outside but in our mind, the form disappears, and you’re focusing on consciousness. And when the mind focuses on mind, when consciousness focuses on consciousness, the differentiation between I and another goes away. We feel a certain oneness, non-dual reality. And that is when we experience serenity, when we experience calmness and tranquility.
And that is so very, very important. It is as if we need both things in life. We need to labor, put in the work—there is this effort—we can do that in a good way, and that would be conducive to happiness, when we do that in the basic mode as opposed to a survival mode, and then we need to let go of effort. It’s more of a letting-go process, a non-action thing that happens in our consciousness and a focus onto itself, and then we kind of can harvest the fruits of our labor or feel our connection with the fruit.
TS: This is a wonderful original contribution that you’re making, and there’s a lot here—
AP: Thank you.
TS: —so I want to take it slowly. So the first thing is that you’re making a distinction between this basic mode of happiness where we go for certain goals and just survival drive in us. So what’s that distinction? How do I know if I’m just coming from survival instincts, and therefore my goal is to have dinner or just make enough money to have dinner or whatever, and when am I in the thing you call the basic mode of happiness.
AP: This is probably the most important question of all questions?
TS: Really? I thought discovering that relationships were going to make me happy—that was the number one secret to happiness
TS: But let’s keep going. OK.
AP: No, I think this is so very important. I think when we take that step that we differentiate between the basic mode and the survival mode, we have come a long, long way. It is something we need in order to take the next step in the understanding of happiness and learning the different skills. It is so very tempting because we are biological beings, we have our biological nature, and within our biological nature is also our greater Buddha nature, our awareness. But we have our biological nature. It is always there, and it’s always knocking at the door, and what it wants from us is that we survive …
AP: … and not just we as people, but our genes. Our genes are supposed to survive at all cost, and that is what we do when we are in the surviving mode. That means we are going to try to be the best. Like, I’m trying to be the best right now and a little bit in the survivor mode and trying to go into the basic mode because then you don’t think of yourself as somebody who needs to be best, who needs to be better than somebody else. But when you are in the basic mode, you just enjoy being in the process, focusing on the goal—not in order to enhance your ego or to become powerful or rich, not for your own self—it’s not a strong sense of self—but you lose that, and you can focus on the goal, and you can focus on enjoying the process.
You know the difference when you’re becoming all uptight and all afraid? You’re probably in the survival mode. It’s always kind of with us. It’s always there because we need to be able to survive. If a tiger came in here right now, we need to be able to defend ourselves and want to defend ourselves. So it’s always kind of ready for us there. It can protect us and should. But then, when we are becoming focused on good goals, not just on surviving and becoming powerful—good goals are very, very important, and good relationships—then we start to enjoy the relationship and become lost in the relationship.
TS: OK, so let’s say somebody’s listening, and they’re identifying ways that they are clearly in a survival mode in their life. They have worries and concerns and probably what it comes down to is a survival about money and will I have enough? How do they shift out of that and move into what you are calling the basic mode?
AP: They may not necessarily want to go into the basic mode. You know? Sometimes when we are so wrapped up into our survival, we may need to sit down quietly and start to calm our mind. We may want to do that first. It really so much depends on the person. Some people are in the survival mode and trapped into that, trapped into their pain. They are trapped into their pain because that’s probably what happened to them when they were younger. Some traumatic experience happened, and they had to survive. And to address that is important.
It’s not bad to be in the survival mode. It’s not bad. The first thing that I think we need to do is say, “OK, here is my survival mode. I’m in survival mode. I am anxious. I’m afraid. What am I afraid of?” And not immediately judge ourselves and think, “Oh my god, I shouldn’t be in the survival mode. I should be in the basic mode, if not in the supreme mode!”—but to look at where we are without judgment and to investigate what is this all about. Do I really need to be afraid here? And if yes, if there is a threatening situation here, what can I do that’s more constructive to get out of there? Maybe I have to remove myself from a certain situation, you know, but people—for example, if you are a battered woman at home, you shouldn’t try to get into a basic mode—you should try to get out of that situation and get into a better situation.
So you want to take that survival mode seriously and look at it without judgment and with kindness and investigate and then see what’s appropriate for you. Do I need to calm myself first? Or do I need to learn certain steps of being self-assertive, of setting boundaries, of becoming my own best friend, which you do when you learn how to be confident. You become your own best friend. And these are a real skill set that you can learn.
So to know the distinction is the most important, and then to look at it without judgment and with kindness wherever you are is the next step, and then to see what skill can I learn or should I right now practice. What skills should I use and practice? That would be the next step.
TS: Now I just want to underscore one thing, because you are saying that knowing this distinction is very, very important. Why is it so important?
AP: Yes, because it is always with us. You see, we can’t shake our biological nature. If we think we can shake it, I think ultimately, it leads to hypocrisy. We deny then that we are of flesh and blood, that we don’t have a body that needs protection—that is afraid when a car comes at us and there’s loud noises, right? That’s real. I think it’s very important to know when you are in a survival mode and that that’s very important.
TS: And knowing this distinction from the basic mode—I mean, if the idea is that we are supposed to accept that this is natural to us as human beings, and you speak about that so passionately—
TS: —and I’m happy to hear you say that. I relax when I hear you say that. I relax with my own survival instincts and recognize that that’s just part of being a human being. Good. I’m not trying to get rid of it, but then, what is the importance of recognizing that in terms of happiness? I might want to put more of my energy into this thing you’re calling the basic mode, learn certain skills, et cetera …
AP: Once again, depends on where you are. Sometimes you need to go and seek out a therapist, a psychologist who helps you with your anxiety in a different realm, but if you don’t suffer too much, I think it’s important for you to understand that there are these skills out there that you can learn, that you can apply—that you can learn how to become more ambitious in a good way. There are ways of how to become a competent person in a good way, not because you want to survive, but you really want to have a good and pleasurable time. You want to experience yourself as a …
So you learn good ways. That’s why I call it basic. It’s still similar because you’re dealing in the world of concrete, in the world of form, so there’s overlap to the survival mode, but you learn and can learn to do it in a good way—like, you can create good relationship, seek out good people for yourself—be maybe a little more selective with who you want to be with and become confident instead of angry.
TS: Now, you said something very interesting. You said “good ambition; ambition in a good way.” And I’m very curious about that because often I think some people think, “That person’s not very happy because they’re so ambitious. It’s their ambition that’s bringing them down.” And having a healthy relationship to ambition has been something that has been very important for me to inquire into, so I’m curious what is that? What do you think that is?
AP: Yes. For me it was almost like taking a risk, putting it in my book, because a lot of people would associate ambition with unhappiness. As you said, this is a very driven person who just lost him or herself in the ambition, that ambition led to murder, you know? So good ambition is when we pick goals congruent with who we are, number one. They need to reflect who we are as people. So you don’t become a lawyer just because you know lawyering makes a lot of money. You become a lawyer only when you enjoy lawyering, and you need to know exactly what that means.
So you need to know what goal you’re picking for what reason. Some people don’t really choose a goal for themselves. They just accept the goal that was given to them by their parents or by their society. That’s the goal they have, and that’s the role they play. No more questions asked. Of course, they can’t be happy, and then ambition gets bad. You just do it for the wrong reasons.
If you create a business for the right reasons, it brings out the best in you. Sometimes we pick goals that are not congruent with each other; they are opposing each other. That would bring out bad ambition as well. So the most important is to find goals that are attainable, that give you feedback, that you choose that are like following your bliss and nobody else’s bliss, and that you like the rules that you need to play by. Every goal comes with a set of rules. You need to be able to say yes …
TS: Tell me what you mean. Maybe give me an example.
AP: For example, if you are in the entertainment industry, and you hate to put makeup on, don’t be in the entertainment industry. So you need to accept that that’s part of the rule. If you are a writer, you need to accept that you need to learn computer skills. It comes in a package.
TS: Now I’m curious, to make this a little bit personal for a moment, in your own life, have you found a healthy relationship to ambition as a source of happiness, and have you also seen where ambition has led to unhappiness for you? How have you sorted that out personally?
AP: My ambition was to do something for society, to give something back to society, which I felt, in the end, I felt privileged to have been able to learn from the Western thought and Eastern thought, and find a good relationship. So that was my ambition. That was a good thing. Right? A very, very good thing. When I overdo it—and that happens to me. Good ambition can get bad anytime. You know, you have to have so much awareness. You need to really watch over yourself.
Good ambition can turn into bad ambition. Suddenly I was worried about my book and “It needs to be big. It needs—everybody should benefit from it. People should …” And suddenly, oh my goodness, suddenly I’m in the survival mode here. Does it really have to be like this? I asked myself. Is it good the way it is? I do my best and let it go. Then I re-centered myself and went back to my good ambition.
When you overdo it, and when you lose perspective, when you are too focused on your goal instead of on the process, when you no longer practice letting go, then it can turn into—good milk can turn sour. Good ambition can turn bad.
TS: One of the interesting points you make when you are describing this basic mode of relating to some kind of other, some external goal or person, and putting our attention towards it, is that this whole basic mode is in response to the fragility of life. Can you explain that? How is the basic mode a response to fragility?
AP: When I thought of life, the whole of life, I don’t just think of one particular aspect of life. I try to see it as a kind of a yin and yang thing where you have strengths here, and you have fragility there. Life is really both. Life is wonderful, a miracle that we can rejoice in, that we can open our lives to. But it also—it’s very fragile. We can lose our lives in an accident. Things go wrong in a split second. We lose things. We die. Bad things happen. Bad events happen. Bad feelings happen.
And so to me, it was very important to see that happiness is really accepting that life is both, that it isn’t just one or the other. It’s not just “Oh my God, hard work.” It’s not just business. I have no time for happiness. It is both. It has a very, very important, wonderful strength to it. And then it has fragility to it. It has to be like this. It’s like life and death. It has to be like this. For us to be alive, there has to be death. It somehow creates the whole of life. And it’s all there. And to accept that and work with that, work with that in a positive way—I think that was so very important to me that we can work with that. You know?
TS: Once again, though, I’m still not quite clear—this relationship between this fragile part of life—I completely understand what you mean when you talk about life’s fragility, and I’m sure our listeners are also tracking with that, but how does life’s fragility relate to the goals that we set and the skills that we need to develop and this whole area that you call the basic mode of happiness?
AP: Basically, I think that fragility of life necessitates exertion. It’s a kind of happiness that we can’t get around. We need to deal with it. And we either do in a bad way, and we get stuck in the survival mode, or we do it in a good way and enter and access the basic mode. But we need to accept it as part of life. It necessitates that we are exerting ourselves, that we are seeing form.
Yes, it’s true, from the Eastern perspective and from my perspective, at all times, yes, it’s true that it really is an illusion, that there isn’t this big space between us, that we are connected, that everything is one in multifaceted life. It’s all a diamond that reflects … That is all true, but the fact that we are in this fragile world makes it so that we have to deal with it, that we have to see form, that we have to be able to relate to it in a positive way.
TS: So Andrea, I think I have a feeling at least for the basic mode. Let’s move to the supreme mode, and tell me what kind of happiness lives in the supreme mode.
AP: In the supreme mode, to various degrees, we can focus on the mind, on consciousness itself. And that is basically focusing on life itself. As life happens in our consciousness, it really is a relationship that we are having with life when we are in the supreme mode—direct experience of life. It just really gives us a sense of peace. I can even feel it now, even though I’m a little bit in the basic mode right now. I can already feel it, just by talking about it—that when we are focusing on the oneness, on all of life, it creates inner peace inside of us.
TS: What’s so interesting to me about your unified theory of happiness is—I’ve of course spoken to people and read books that say that if you want to be happy, you need to set certain targets, exercise a certain amount, do this, do that, and of course, you hear other people who say, “Look, if you want to be happy, just open your heart. Open your being. It’s right here.” Really what you are saying in this unified theory is that we can and—we actually need both kinds? Is that what you’re saying? That actually, both of these forms are necessary?
AP: I do. I think that both are necessary. And that’s why I think it’s so very important that we don’t immediately rush to judgment when we hear about one side, the basic mode or the survival mode or the supreme mode, but that we just look at it and say, “OK. This is what’s here. This is what manifests right now.” And we don’t immediately say, “This person should just be this, do that.” I think that lacks compassion, actually. “Just open your eyes and be happy.” Now, that’s a wonderful thing when you can do it. And it’s actually a lack of compassion to just throw this out and come with that much judgment to the table. So for me, it’s like this—I don’t know if that fits, but for me heaven is when I can open my eyes to life as it is, when I can really see the splendor, the miracle of life.
TS: This we could call the supreme mode, yes?
AP: Mm hmm—when I can I see it, when I am in touch with it. Now, the awareness of that can be with me at all times. It’s somewhere in the back of my mind, even though I go into the basic mode maybe, and I relate to you as a concrete person over there and that I have a goal, I have a topic, I want to expand certain particular things. But that supreme mode, that experience, is somewhat with me at all times. That’s my background that I never lose, but when people cannot open their eyes to that, that’s hell, and I cannot cast judgment on anybody who cannot open their eyes. They may live in hell for a very good reason. I used to live in hell. I know how it was. If I heard things like, “Oh, just do this, just do that,” in the basic mode or in the supreme mode, it meant nothing to me.
So I think it’s so very important that we accept that all of what we are experiencing, all the different modes that we are experiencing, have their place, have meaning in our lives, and that when we practice these two modes and understand the survival mode and help us along with the survival mode and practice the basic and the supreme modes, we’re becoming more and more flexible with these two modes.
We know somehow the supreme mode is in the back. We know we have access to the basic mode at all times. You know? So it’s going to grow basically together in our experience as one because we only have one consciousness. It’s not that the supreme mode is on one side and the basic mode is on the other. They are somewhat unified, always—and I don’t need to do that.
TS: Yes. I think an important correction that you are offering is—I really do hear this from people, people who have read a certain number of spiritual books, they’ll say things like, “Well, you know, the secret to happiness is just being or just accepting what is.” And what I hear you saying, and tell me if this correct, is not that that’s necessarily “wrong” but that it seems incomplete to you.
AP: That’s right. It’s not “No, that’s not true.” It’s “Yes, and.”
TS: And you might need to develop some skills, and you might need to set certain goals, and there may be some relationship development work that’s needed. And all of that could actually create greater happiness than just saying, “Well, I just accept what is. And that’s it.”
AP: That’s right. It is true that when we are in the supreme mode, when we have that inner peace available to ourselves, then it is easier for us to go out in the world and do the things that we must and work with our partner, however difficult that might be that day, or we may be difficult. So everything comes easier when you have access to the supreme mode. It lends itself to developing skills in the basic mode, but you still have to develop them. So it makes it more accessible, but you still need to practice the skills, and the same could be said from the basic mode as well.
So from a more action-oriented person, they could say, “Actually, when I do the right thing, when I know my stuff, when I’m competent, and I have the right connections, I am actually much more prone to sitting down and being quiet and taking the time to just be.” So you have a lot of variances. We have so many people. How can one thing, one worldview, one thing ever be true for all of us? We are all at a different place, different moment, different ways, men oftentimes want to start with action, and women may tend to be more into connection of the basic mode, as opposed to being goal-oriented. And then there are all kinds of mixes. We have a lot of just differentness, individuals.
And I think it’s important to look at the individual so the listener or the reader understands it’s all acceptable. It’s all good. I can look at it from where I am—don’t need to switch—and grow from there. Just don’t close your eyes to the other side. Don’t become so rigid, “Oh my God, all is agape. All is love. All is compassion, and that’s it. I don’t need to exert myself out there.”
TS: Yes. I’ve heard you mention a couple times this idea of skills, that we might need to develop skills. And I’m curious—if happiness, this full engagement in life, is my goal, then what do you think are the most important skills, in general, that people might need to develop? Just in general. I know it’s a big generalization.
AP: It’s a big question. So I think it’s important to be able to find your good goals in life and to be able to pursue these goals with relative skill, with competence. So you need to be able to identify areas where you need to grow and discover also the joy of competencies so that you keep on growing because growing and learning is happiness too. Just learning skills, new skills, and to stay open to that and keep practicing, is a very important skill. So to come up with a strategy for yourself—how to go about pursuing your goals—is very important, and confidence is a very important skill.
TS: Confidence is a skill, or confidence is something that the gods give me or don’t give me?
AP: Confidence is really something that comes to us when we accept ourselves as a whole person. Just like we need to accept life as a whole of being strong and being fragile, we need to also accept ourselves with all our good and the bad. So much of psychology is actually focused on that. We need to accept that there is a shadow, that there is this light, that there are all of these different facets. We have strengths. We have weaknesses. Confidence is really when we relate to us as a whole person and not just to the bad stuff that would drag us down and not just to the good stuff. Then we become grandiose and live in fantasy. That’s not very conducive to happiness either. But to relate to who we are as an authentic person and to live from that center.
And then I compare it to becoming our very own best friend who knows her very well, may give us advice and help us along with our weakness but doesn’t judge us from that perspective—just sees the strength. These are skills to become our own best friend and accept us with everything.
And then there are skills in relationships. We can see so easily when other relationships don’t work, what’s wrong with them, but when we are in it, it’s so difficult to see where we go wrong.
TS: I’m with you. Yes.
AP: It’s so hard to see what we can do, and so in my book, I laid out 10 building blocks. I dissected it so that it becomes a little bit easier to follow along—what makes a good relationship? And so I actually have ten building blocks. Part of it is validation. A lot of people who are unhappy, they can’t have intimate relationships. I was surprised to learn that there is something very small missing in their connection.
It could be as small as not being able to nod when the other person says something and making sure that the other person understands that you have understood. So it can be a very small thing, but if you miss it, your whole connection can fall apart. So you want to pay attention—these are real skills that anybody can learn if you open your eyes to them and make them accessible.
TS: So Andrea, I just have two final questions for you. One, you make a very interesting statement in your book, A Unified Theory of Happiness, that happiness is a commitment. You use this word: “commitment.” Can you explain that? What am I committing to if I want happiness?
AP: It is accepting that happiness doesn’t automatically come. It is getting away from our premise that our ultimate goal is to want to be happy. That is I don’t think true. I don’t think we all want to be happy. I think we all want to survive and survive really well. You know, during that time when Aristotle 2000 or more years ago wrote that, he did not know anything about surviving well, genes, or anything like that. There was no such thing as a biological nature that he knew of. So I think it’s very important for us to accept that we need to consciously set the goal of happiness, that we can add that to our goal of survival, and it can override our goal of survival, even. But it takes enormous commitment for us to go there.
It’s really the road less traveled. It’s not what we’re—our biological nature doesn’t give us much help with that, but at least our biological nature gave us the potential to go beyond our survival, right? It gave us that potential. We can choose. We can go down the road less traveled. We can try to see the flower instead of chasing the tiger. We can do that, but for us to realize that and to set good goals and not drift off into the survival mode, and to really become peaceful, even though we are flesh and blood, I think really takes a lot of commitment.
TS: And now my final question. Our program’s called Insights at the Edge. And I’m always curious to know what someone’s growing edge is. And in your case, in relationship to happiness, what would you say is the sort of growing edge of your life in terms of your own happiness?
AP: What does—growing edge. It’s the first time I’ve heard this.
TS: Growing edge means kind of like your own learning edge, your own edge of discovery, related to increasing your own happiness.
AP: Good question. I think for me, during my learning experience and my own research, I said “No” a lot. “That’s not true. No, that’s not right.” You know? Whenever I hear somebody speak about, used to hear somebody speak about happiness, I used to go “No, that’s not complete. That’s not the whole story. What about that person? What about this person? That’s not my experience. I remember that.”
So for me, maybe the greatest learning experience was to say, “Yes, that’s true, and something else too. This covers one area, and I can say yes to that.” I don’t have to be rigid. I don’t have to be right about one particular point, but I can still see the other side and add that to it. So it kind of freed me up. It made me feel like I can be more authentic without the fight. I can relax and say, “There’s so much out there, and it’s all good. And so much can be learned and unified.”
TS: I appreciate that answer, but I want to dig a little bit deeper, if that’s OK.
TS: I think that answer makes a lot of sense in terms of the edge of your professional life as a researcher and theorist and as a psychologist. But I’m curious what your growing edge is in terms of your own happiness factor, if you will, like where you think you might find more happiness as you grow and evolve as a person, what that edge might be like for you.
AP: My ongoing practice. I take my meditation very, very seriously. As I studied Eastern philosophies, I really, really got into practicing Zen psychology, Zen Buddhism—sitting down and really saying “OK, I do exercise, I do have good nutrition, I do have good relationships, but I really take this very seriously—to give myself this time and really try not to multitask.”
I used to try to multitask. Allegedly women are so good at it. And I just said, “No, I can’t do this.” That was a big change for me. I said I do one thing after the other. I’m not the multitasking person. I am the person who needs to do one thing after another in a serene way. Maybe really taking my time for accessing my supreme mode more seriously and really giving it the time that it needs.
TS: Wonderful. I’ve been speaking Dr. Andrea Polard. She’s the author of a new Sounds True book, A Unified Theory of Happiness: An East-Meets-West Approach to Fully Loving Your Life. Thank you so much for being with us.
AP: Thank you very much.
TS: SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.