Happiness, Success and Michael Jordan

This (slight old) New York Times article captured much of what the Korean has been thinking about lately:
As the investigation of happiness proceeded, Dr. Seligman began seeing certain limitations of the concept. Why did couples go on having children even though the data clearly showed that parents are less happy than childless couples? Why did billionaires desperately seek more money even when there was nothing they wanted to do with it?

And why did some people keep joylessly playing bridge? Dr. Seligman, an avid player himself, kept noticing them at tournaments. They never smiled, not even when they won. They didn’t play to make money or make friends. . . . “They wanted to win for its own sake, even if it brought no positive emotion,” says Dr. Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. “They were like hedge fund managers who just want to accumulate money and toys for their own sake. Watching them play, seeing them cheat, it kept hitting me that accomplishment is a human desiderata in itself.” . . .

In his 2008 book, “Gross National Happiness,” Dr. Brooks argues that what’s crucial to well-being is not how cheerful you feel, not how much money you make, but rather the meaning you find in life and your sense of “earned success” — the belief that you have created value in your life or others’ lives.
A New Gauge to See What’s Beyond Happiness [New York Times] (emphases added)

Dr. Seligman's insight contributes greatly to the way we must think about success, happiness and -- yes it's this topic again -- Tiger Parenting. For a major strain of objections against Tiger Parenting is that it creates unhappy people. The relentless pursuit of self-enhancement will make children unhappy, because hard work is, well, hard. Children would be certainly happier if they did no hard work and did not eat their vegetables.

This objection is mistaken, and Dr. Seligman precisely identifies the mistake:  "happiness" is not equal to "positive emotions." Happiness is not the same as feeling or appearing chipper all the time. In fact, happy people may carry on their lives with negative emotions. Happy people may appear to be joyless and grim, like the bridge players described in the article.

In fact, because the Korean is a massive basketball fan, the image of a grim bridge players single-mindedly pursuing victory brought forth images of the basketball's greatest player ever -- Michael Jordan.

More after the jump.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Everyone knows Michael Jordan -- the greatest basketball player ever, a cultural icon that made basketball, Chicago Bulls and the wagging tongue a global phenomenon. But everyone but the most hardcore students of NBA history is oblivious to the defining feature of Michael Jordan's life:  that Michael Jordan is a psychotic asshole who prized winning in all situations and at all costs. People generally consider Kobe Bryant to be an arrogant, self-absorbed asshole, but trust me -- if Jordan lived in Kobe's era in which every little thing was exposed and repeated ad nauseum on the Internet, the negative public opinion about Jordan would have completely dwarfed Kobe's. Consider:

  • Jordan regularly punched out his own teammates if he thought they were not pulling their weight. The most well-known example were Will Purdue and Steve Kerr, whom Jordan punched in the face.
  • When Scottie Pippen challenged Jordan in practice, Jordan kept scoring on Pippen, at will, until Pippen pleaded Jordan to stop.
  • Jordan would throw deliberately difficult passes to Bulls center Bill Cartwright, to prove a point that Cartwright was not good enough for him.
  • When Jerry Krause, the general manager of Chicago Bulls, spoke glowingly of the talent of Phoenix Suns player Dan Majerle, Jordan torched Majerle in the 1993 Finals and screamed "Fuck you, Majerle!" at the end of the game.
  • Jordan would beat his teammates in poker on team flights so badly that the coaches told rookies to stay away from Jordan's games.
  • He bribed airport baggage guys to put out his suitcase first, then bet with his teammates that his bag would be the first one out of the conveyer belt.
  • Jordan was such a ridiculous asshole that a sports writer named Sam Smith wrote a book called The Jordan Rules, describing how much of an asshole Jordan was. The stories in the book were so over the top that many doubted the book's veracity, but later accounts largely corroborate all the stories in the book.

Let's step back and think about all this. Can you imagine Michael Jordan being "happy", if we were to think that "happiness" is no more than "positive emotions"? There is no way. As far as we can glean from his actions in public, Jordan mind must have been filled with negative emotions for most of the time. He considered every little thing a personal insult, even the things that no normal person would ever consider an insult. Did Majerle do anything to Jordan? Of course not. But Jordan's general manager thought Majerle was good, so Majerle had to be destroyed. That's how Jordan's pathological mind worked.

This is not an image that we commonly associate with someone who is happy with his job. When we imagine someone who is happy with what he is doing, we usually picture a type of idiot savant, happily grinning at every stage of his work. But that was not Michael Jordan. Having taken something as an insult, Jordan would use that thing as a figurative razor blade to make small cuts on his ego, building up the sense of unfair injury that enabled him to mercilessly destroy his opponents. For most of the time when he played basketball, Jordan was angry -- like a raging bull in a bullfight shortly before facing the matador, bleeding profusely from all the small stabs made by the picadors. Does that sound like Michael Jordan carried a lot of positive emotions when he played basketball?

Yet if his public actions were any indication, Michael Jordan was happy as a basketball player. He is the grim and joyless bridge player in Dr. Seligman's study, writ larger than anyone else. For the most part, Jordan seethed in anger that made sense only to him. Such state of mind cannot possibly be considered "positive emotion." Instead, we might consider those people who are relentlessly obsessed with success to be soulless machines who are dead inside. (Which is a charge regularly leveled against Tiger Cubs!) But Jordan achieved what he wanted, his happiness was plainly visible. His joy was the opposite of mechanical and soulless -- it was visceral and real. Just watch.

Michael Jordan is a clear example of how happiness is not the same as positive emotions. But because too many American parents have mistaken happiness with positive emotions, we have a generation of American youth who resort to therapy for a gaping hole in their hearts:
. . . what was so upsetting, she continued, was that she felt she had nothing to be unhappy about. She reported that she had “awesome” parents, two fabulous siblings, supportive friends, an excellent education, a cool job, good health, and a nice apartment. She had no family history of depression or anxiety. So why did she have trouble sleeping at night? Why was she so indecisive, afraid of making a mistake, unable to trust her instincts and stick to her choices? Why did she feel “less amazing” than her parents had always told her she was? Why did she feel “like there’s this hole inside” her? Why did she describe herself as feeling “adrift”?
How to Land Your Kid in Therapy [The Atlantic]

This is precisely what Tiger Parenting guards against. Critics of Tiger Parenting consider Tiger Parenting's relentless pursuit of success and achievement to be deadening. Not so -- it is the lack of achievement that is deadening. It is the lack of "earned success" (as Dr. Seligman put it) that kills the soul, because the lack of earned success means your life is devoid of meaning. If all we ever needed was positive emotion, we could simply hook ourselves onto a machine that is designed to eternally drip morphine into our bloodstream. But because we need true happiness -- which is more like a deep, adult satisfaction rather than a light, childlike joy -- we need more than simply floating in a warm bath of positive emotions.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.