Anger in the Age of Entitlement

Cleaning up emotional pollution

How to Be Truly Happy II

Focus on value, not power

In the last post, I argued that we can know authentic happiness that goes beyond temporary feelings-states in two ways: By breaking the self-obsession that is the hallmark of emotional dysfunction and striving to make the world a better place in some small way.

The most efficient method of making the world a little better and yourself a little happier is to focus on value rather than power.

Psychological Suffering

Much of the psychological suffering in the world comes from substituting power for value. That is, when we need to feel more valuable, we try to feel more powerful. We have innate predilections—if not drives—to create internal states of power and value, but they're usually incompatible.

The drive for power relates to survival, status, and pleasure-seeking - no doubt it helped early humans stay alive. But in the contemporary version of our species, the primary goal of seeking power is ego defense—to feel superior in some way or to be perceived as “right.” Most of the time it’s triggered by fear or shame.

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When they feel devalued, many people confuse the loss of energy and well-being with feeling powerless and threatened. (Whenever mammals feel powerless or vulnerable, they perceive more threat.) When threatened and cornered (no face-saving way out), the brain secretes adrenalin and cortisol, which make us feel temporarily more powerful and motivates behaviors that will neutralize the threat, usually by an exertion of power, overtly, passively, or in our imaginations.

The drive to create value relates to quality of life - appreciation, connection, love, compassion, kindness. The benefits of value-creation are longer lasting than adrenalin-dependent feelings of power. They also give life meaning and purpose.

Which do you suppose is more important to self-value - feeling powerful or feeling valuable, exerting power or showing value?

As you might suspect, exerting power is more likely to lead to a violation of deeper values, producing guilt, shame, and anxiety that lower self-value over the long run. But think of your own experience. Do you feel better for a longer period of time when appreciating, connecting, being compassionate, kind, loving, creative, or when feeling right, superior, or more powerful than someone else?

Which do you think will mean more to you on your deathbed, having created value or exerted power?

Most modern life challenges, certainly in close relationships, call for greater value-creation and far less power exertion. But so many of us learned early in life that, when in vulnerable emotional states, we have to do something that will make us feel more powerful, not more valuable. Instead of valuing (holding something as important and worthy of appreciation, time, energy, and sacrifice), we devalue - lessen importance and worthiness. Our egos become fragile, with rigid defenses, as the need for adrenalin makes us perceive threats everywhere.

But there is hope. You can try, as a personal experiment, systematically substituting value for power, and see if it doesn't produce lasting happiness, while making the world just a little bit better.

For help in developing a habit of automatically choosing value over power, see the Webinar on How to be Truly Happy.

Steven Stosny, Ph.D., treats people for anger and relationship problems. Recent books: How to Improve your Marriage without Talking about It, and Love Without Hurt.

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