Sapient Nature

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Take Personal Responsibility, Don't Blame Others

Take Personal Responsibility, But Don't Hold Others Responsible
Sandeep Gautam
This post is a response to Does Happiness Reside in the Head? If I Am Unhappy, Is It My Fault? by Sandeep Gautam

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In his response to my recent post, Sandeep Gautam raises two interesting counter-arguments (or "quibbles," as he calls them). The purpose of the present post is to respond to his counter-arguments. But before doing so, I would like to thank Sandeep, not only for taking the time to raise the counter-arguments, but for raising them in a tasteful and intelligent manner.

In brief, I had suggested in my earlier post that, should a person wish to take personal responsibility for his/her own happiness, I recommend adopting a surrender mindset (which refers to the willingness to fully accept the outcomes you are dealt in life), since doing so will facilitate the development of the mental control required to interpret outcomes in a happiness-enhancing fashion.

Sandeep's first objection has to do with the idea of taking personal responsibility. He is worried that taking personal responsibility will lead to the tendency to "blame the victim". As he writes:

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Consider an extremely unhappy/depressed person whose sadness/depression is a result of clearly identifiable external factors, say, post -partum depression or death of a near and dear one. In the above situation, if he is sad due to external conditions over which he has little control, we, being prone to a well-known bias, may start attributing this to his disposition-his lack of responsibility towards himself-rather than be considerate of the fact that his unhappiness/ depression may be an entirely justifiable response to his situation.

An assumption underlying Sandeep's thesis is that taking personal responsibility for your happiness will automatically be accompanied by holding others responsible for their unhappiness too. This assumption is questionable; in theory, a person can take personal responsibility for his happiness and yet not hold others responsibility for their unhappiness--just as an adult can hold herself responsible for behaving maturely and yet not hold a child to the same standards. However, Sandeep's point is well taken because, in reality, people who take personal responsibility for their happiness often tend to hold others responsible for their (un)happiness.

This behavior--of blaming others for their unhappiness--is, if you think about it, actually antithetical to what a person who has truly taken personal responsibility for his own happiness would do. There are two main reasons why one would blame others: either because it makes one feel more confident about one's theory or worldviews, or because it makes one appear superior to the other person. For instance, blaming others may make one feel more confident about the theory that "happiness ultimately lies in the head," or may make one feel (emotionally) stronger than the other person. To a person who has assumed complete responsibility for his own emotions, however, neither of these benefits would be appealing, since he would realize that blaming others is nothing but a clever way of using the others' weakness to boost one's own ego and hence, a devious form of blaming the environment in order to feel happy. In other words, blaming others for their unhappiness is tantamount to shirking personal responsibility for one's own emotional state and hence, not something that a person who has taken personal responsibility for his happiness would do.

Sandeep's second counter-argument has to do with the idea that a significant determinant of happiness lies in the engagement in daily activities--hobbies, helping others, etc. Sandeep is right in noting that a number of research papers have established that engagement in these types of activities is important for happiness. But it is the conclusion to which Sandeep arrives, based on these findings, with which I disagree. Sandeep feels that, if one's happiness depends on engagement in these activities, then happiness cannot lie in one's mind.

I have a two-part response to his argument. First, I would like to acknowledge that, for most of us, in our present state of evolution as a human being, happiness does indeed depend on external circumstances. As I mentioned in my earlier post, most of are not in the position to be happy despite breaking a bone or losing a job. Most of us also cannot be happy if we are denied the opportunity to engage in the types of activities (hobbies, socializing, etc.) that give our life meaning.

But, having said that--and this leads me to the second part of my response--, the fact that most of us are currently dependent on external outcomes for our emotional well-being does not mean that the theory (that happiness ultimately lies in how you interpret external outcomes) is false. Rather, what it means is that we do not, at present, possess a sufficiently high level of mental control in order to be completely happy regardless of external circumstances. Stated differently, a major reason why most of us believe that it is impossible to be happy under extremely negative circumstances is because that is who we currently are.

But, what we currently are doesn't have to constrain what we can be in the future.

As Dweck, in her wonderful book, Mindset, argues: the single most important factor that differentiates successful leaders from unsuccessful ones is their belief about intelligence. Successful leaders believe that their intelligence is not fixed--that it can change and grow. Unsuccessful leaders, in contrast, believe that intelligence is fixed and that nothing they do or anyone else does can change it. I am raising an analogous possibility here: those who believe that they can be happy regardless of their circumstances will eventually gain the ability to be be happier than those who tend to blame others or the circumstances for their unhappiness.

To me, Sandeep's objection has less to do with the validity of the theory--that the keys to one's happiness lies in one's own hands--, and more to do with a potential danger of subscribing to the theory. There is a danger that one may subscribe to the theory at a very superficial level, without  putting in the self-work required to gain mastery over the mind. We often meet such people: they pretend as if they are perfectly happy in any environment, and that they can "go with the flow". In reality, it is clear to everyone but themselves that they are not happy at all, but just pretending to be. An important requirement of someone who has taken personal responsibility to be happy is, thus, honesty. One can't fool oneself into believing that one has evolved to a level where one's happiness lies in one's own hands when, in fact, it does not.

Sandeep ends his post with (a slightly altered version of) the serenity prayer. The original version goes like this:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Interpreted from the perspective of my thesis, the first line (God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change) is really about the surrender mindset. The "things" in this line refers to the outcomes that one is dealt. Once they have occurred, outcomes cannot be changed; but one can resist them or accept them. The prayer recommends that we accept them, as would a person who has surrendered. The second line (courage to change the things I can) refers to the option of reinterpreting outcomes; gaining the ability to reinterpret events takes courage, since it involves going against how the others around us interpret the outcomes. Going against conventional practices or habits is not easy. The final line (wisdom to know the difference) refers to recognizing the difference between what has one believes has objectively occurred and how one can re-interpret the outcome.

In closing, although I believe-for the reasons I have articulated-that Sandeep's objections are not as valid as they might seem at first blush, I would like to thank him for raising his concerns. I look forward to continuing the debate.

Interested in these topics? Go here.

Raj Raghunathan, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor affiliated with the Department of Marketing at the University of Texas McCombs School of Business.

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