Wednesday, December 14, 2011

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

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.

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  1. "Jordan was such a ridiculous asshole that his former teammate, 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."

    Sam Smith was a sports-writer, not an NBA player lol.

    And yes, MJ was quite the asshole and quote-machine.

    "I hate being out there with those garbagemen. They don't get you the ball."

    "I know what's gonna happen. We'll wait until the last minute and then they'll say something like they couldn't get a deal done because of the cap or somebody pulled out at the last minute. It happens here all the time. I don't know why I'm surprised every year."

    "...I call them 'the Looney Tunes.' Physically, they were the best. Mentally, they weren't even close."

    "It's a hell of a lot easier to make Earl Monroe look good than it is Brad Sellers."

    "I hope there's a jumpshot in there." - Michael to Stacey King who was walking into the locker room with a box

    "They don't need a ticket to watch you sitting on the bench. They can go to your house for that." - Michael to Charles Davis who was sorting through his tickets for his family and friends

    "Give me the ******* ball." - Michael to Doug Collins who drew up a play for Dave Corzine

    "You're an idiot. You've screwed up every play we ever ran. You're too stupid to even remember the plays. We ought to get rid of you." - Michael to Horace Grant

    "If you [pass the ball to Bill Cartwright], you'll never get the ball from me."

    "Headache tonight, Scottie?" - Michael asks Scottie, while showing him his 2-for-16 line

    "Five more years and I'm out of here. I'm marking these days on a calendar, like I'm in jail. I'm tired of being used by this organization, by the league, by the writers, by everyone."

    "If I were a general manager, we'd be a better team." ( Wizards? Bobcats? )

    "Will Vanderbilt. He doesn't deserve to be named after a Big Ten school." - Michael on Will Perdue

    "I'm sure everything will be fine if we win, but if we start losing, I'm shooting."

    "I know what I would do if I were coach. I'd determine our strengths and weaknesses and utilize them. And it's pretty clear what our strength is."

    "Your boy doesn't want to play. I'm tired of bailing his *** out." - Michael yelling at Jim Cleamons about Dennis Hopson

    "I don't know about trading a 24 year-old guy for a 34 year-old guy." - Michael questioning the Oakley trade

    "He's causing me too many turnovers." - Michael on Cartwright's inability to catch

    My personal favorite is the Stacey King jump-shot one.

  2. I disagree on the meaning of happiness here. Based on the article, Dr. Martin Seligman also seems to equate the definition of happiness to cheerful moods - he even terms the measurement of cheerful moods as "happiology".

    Of course, when people ask, "Are you happy in life?" the question being asked is actually "Do you feel fulfilled?" and not "Do you have positive emotions all the time?"

    Also, you seem to be saying that accomplishment/achievement is the defining measure of well-being in life, when Dr. Seligman states that is it one factor of five (with another such factor being positive emotions).

    He goes further, defining "earned success" as finding meaning in life - a third factor of five in his definition of well-being.

  3. But, is Michael Jordan really happy? :) Sure, he has millions of dollars and is a global icon, but he's also divorced, and it seems like most of his former teammates hate his guts. Neither of us know the man, so we can't really answer the question.

    With that said, is our own sense of self-satisfaction the only thing that should motivate us? What if someone is only satisfied by the never-ending accumulation of wealth and power? By that measure, I'd imagine that the leaders of North Korea are some of the most satisfied people on Earth.

    Now, I'm not trying to say that Tiger Parenting will produce a world of Kim Jong-ils. But, haven't you ever met a person who was so goal-oriented that he/she made everyone around them miserable? I had a college professor who was like that. She had a wonderful publication record, but most of the people in the department couldn't stand her. I had to take three seminars from her, and about halfway through each term she would come up to the class and excoriate everyone for their laziness and ineptitude. (My grad school cohort included a 35 year-old licensed attorney, a 42 year-old naval commander, and several other colleagues who would go on to become tenure-track professors at universities all over the U.S., by the way.) While she had much to offer as a scholar, she was so strident in her critiques of her students that it was difficult to know if you were really not grasping the material, or just failing to meet her impossible standards. Was she happy? I think it's quite possible she was. But, I can assure you that most of the people around her were not.

  4. while i agree w/ the thrust of your article, you do realize that not all of us are michael jordan? =)

  5. Perhaps the Continental Congress had the idea before Abraham Mazlow published his pyramid.

    ", liberty and the pusuit of property. Well, what do you guys think?"
    "Um, scratch that last part. I don't like it. Property is too narrow. We don't want to come of as a bunch of miserly, selfish, old men."
    "Alright John how about this ...and the pursuit of happiness."
    "Yes; I like it. Let's go with that. Thom you are a genius."

    So, with that in mind I consider Dr. Selgiman's thesis similar to an observation I made two months after arriving in Seoul. There were about two dozen ajummahs installing small squares of grass/turf at a park along the Hangang. It took them two days to cover a small hillside. I thought this was woefully inefficient, "I'd hire three college kids and roll out sod and be done in a day." A friend pointed out that full employment is more important in Korea than market efficiency measured only in won.

    So, not everybody is motivated by the same thing, nor do we respond in the same ways.

  6. I can't sincerely believe that someone who's, to quote yourself, "mind must have been filled with negative emotions for most of the time" could have been truly happy and at peace with himself. He might have been happy for short periods of time when he won, or when his 'revenges' succeeded, but I would hardly call that true happiness.

    True happiness cannot actually be defined, by any act or any achievement. There are monks who come out of 10 years of meditation in a small enclosed room and they sound and look like the most happy people on earth. There are people who give away all they have and keep on giving without ever "achieving" anything and are perfectly content with their lives.

    I would argue that happiness isn't the true pursuit in life, but the feeling of being at peace with ourselves, and the important people around you, for the majority of the time.

    After all, as someone wise once said, holding on to anger is like holding on to a hot piece of coal with the intent on hurting someone else with it. In the end, you only hurt yourself.

  7. Is happiness so difficult to pursue that people have to find new definitions for it?

  8. Blueprint, thanks, correction is made. Not sure where I got that idea...


    Of course, when people ask, "Are you happy in life?" the question being asked is actually "Do you feel fulfilled?" and not "Do you have positive emotions all the time?"

    I can't see how that is the case, at least within the context of discussing Tiger Parenting.


    But, is Michael Jordan really happy? :)

    No one other than Jordan himself can ever know for certain, but not sure if there is any indication to the contrary. (Plenty of people are happier after they divorce!)

    rl, but they can try, right?

  9. There are people who give away all they have and keep on giving without ever "achieving" anything and are perfectly content with their lives.

    How is it not an achievement to give away all you have?

  10. I'm not really certain what to take away from this article. So MJ was an a**hole... and achieved a lot in his life. Does that excuse people who are able to achieve things for treating people badly? Is he the model of how a tiger parent would want to raise their kids? As incredible as MJ was as a basketball player, he was not perfect and I don't think those attributes are excusable because he was able to be successful at a sport. He might have been happy and fulfilled by winning, but the "at all costs" moniker is not necessarily something to really be proud of.

  11. 'Wanting' is not the same thing as 'liking'. This may sound like a truism, but it does seem to be true neurologically:



    Hence, it isn't too surprising if we read of bridge players bored even as they win: they want to win, but they have ceased to like winning.

  12. @gwern
    Thanks for the link.
    Here is the real answer to this so-called happiness dilemma:
    a short version
    the full version:
    Another answer:

  13. According to that Atlantic article, people who have terrible childhoods and are unhappy conveniently have their parents to blame. On the other hand, if people who have wonderful childhoods are unhappy, first their therapists are stumped, and then they find a roundabout way to blame their patient's parents. So, the takeaway of the article seems to be that: 1) people are sometimes happy or unhappy, regardless of how they were raised; 2) Western psychotherapists try to blame parenting style for everything. This accords with my own brief experience with therapy. If you don't want to wallow in hatred of your parents, go to someone who specializes in CBT who will help you fix YOUR problems.

  14. Also, re: helicopter parenting. Some children of Tiger parents can't cope with small failures either. Many Tiger moms don't distinguish between an A- and an F, and the child gets equally beaten for both. That's appropriate for a small child, but when you get to the college level, you start to run into material that relies on quick insight rather than memorization (or even understanding) of the material. Of course, the kid understands better than a helicopter kid what he can do to improve- study harder- but it can feel just as bad.
    Also, another problem with both Tiger parenting and helicopter parenting are that the student is protected from certain experiences. Many Tiger kids aren't allowed to date or even have friends growing up. Then they go to college and don't know that it's not the end of the world when your girlfriend breaks up with you. (It also doesn't help when this was your secret girlfriend, because your parents didn't want you to date in college either.)
    The helicopter model fails to recognize that most kids are resilient and ought to be challenged. The Tiger model fails to recognize that some kids aren't capable of rising to the challenges set for them, whether it is to be high-achieving or to be resilient. Under the helicopter strategy, few people reach their full potential, but everyone survives. Under the Tiger strategy, every kid who makes it through is a true success, but not every kid makes it through. Personally, I favor the Tiger model, but I do cross my fingers than my eventual child will be one that makes it through and not one that gets broken or jumps off a building.

  15. I was speaking generally, not specifically within the context of Tiger Mothers and Cubs.

    Looking at Michael Jordan, I'd like to express skepticism at the concept that Michael Jordan generally did not experience positive emotions. Just because he was a jerk (assuming he is one, I don't follow basketball and wouldn't know so I'll take The Korean's word on this), he can't be cheerful? After all the frustration and hard work, I would have believed he would have felt good after being able to blow off some steam. He also could (hypothetically) be one of the few people who actually feel joyful after playing a good card game.

  16. I'm going to resort to statistics here.

    Koreans have achieved some of the greatest advances in material and social success than any country (in korea), or minority group (in the US and Canada). If earned success equated happiness, than Koreans would be one of the happiest groups of people.

    This is not so. Koreans both in Korea and outside of Korea have one of the highest depression and suicide rates.

    So simply by looking at the statistics, I have to say I disagree that tiger parenting and earning success is a way to achieve happiness. In fact, I think it is extremely damaging.

    is it possible, that those who have centered their lives around success and achievement, and who have achieved through effort, would naturally believe this is the best path? You and perhaps MIchael Jordan might say earned success is great since that's the way you have interpreted your lives. But ask others who find joy in good relationships, friends, purposeful work (vs. achievement oriented work), and they may see it differently.

  17. I always thought Michael Jordan was an asshole. You can still see it on the Hanes commercials he co-stars in. It's llike he didn't really want to be in the commericals. I always think that if he would have been different than alot of today's basketball players wouldn't be such assholes either. I also wonder if the kids who still covet his over priced tennis shoes knew what an asshole he really is instead of what the shoes looked like would still want buy them. Has anybody ever tallied up all the people who died because they were wearing a pair of Jordans?

  18. The positive psychology research indicates that there are various components to happiness, hedonic pleasures and eudaimonic well-being. TK seems to be arguing that it's okay that "tiger parenting" leads to a decrease in the former, because it encourages the latter. But no research has shown that eudaimonic well-being alone is sufficient for "happiness," and it's almost certainly not. As others have noted, accomplished people (e.g. in top institutions) commit suicide. Ambition & pursuit of accomplishment often lead to a loss of other major sources of happiness, e.g. relationships.

    In addition, TK seems to be arguing that long periods of "unhappiness" punctuated by brief "highs" of success (e.g. MJ) is a model "happiness", and one that we should be aspiring to. But frankly, I don't want to be/live like that, and I don't want to raise children to behave/live like that.

    My sense from the research is that neither the hedonic nor eudaimonic sources of happiness alone are sufficient for "happiness," and a life integrating the two is what's encouraged. With regard to parenting, a style which helps children achieve that integration is what I would aim for.


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