Maslow maintained that a person’s degree of self-actualization correlates with the number of “peak experiences” he or she has. The phrase “peak experience” has been defined in many ways by Maslow and others—and sometimes used in a recreational drug context—but most descriptions come down to something like this: during a peak experience, you are using your skills and talents in the service of something you truly enjoy and feel is worthwhile. You’re “in the zone”: not blocked at all, and able to work and create almost effortlessly. You lose track of time. You forget to eat or e-mail or watch television, or whatever else it is that you do when you procrastinate. You feel great, and maybe joyful.
You want as many peak experiences in your life as possible—and if you follow through with your Mission Management, Time Management, Fear Management and Relationship Management, you will have lots of them. In fact, you want your life, as much as possible, to be filled with peak experiences and joyfulness. While this may sound like an unrealistic goal, it isn’t, even (especially) for activists. Please don’t fall into the common trap of believing that the most we humans can aspire to is the rare peak or joyful experience in a life otherwise characterized by long stretches of suffering or, at best, boredom. That tragic and defeatist view holds many people back from living a happy life. It is also, as we shall see in Chapter 7, a hallmark of conservative thinking.
Make the Shift From “Survival” to “Self-Expression” Values
Gay Hendricks and Kathlyn Hendricks, authors of Conscious Loving: The Journey to Co-Commitment (see Bibliography) identify the above-described tragic mindset as a major barrier to personal happiness:
We are programmed that we cannot feel good for very long without invoking some negative experience to bring us down. Our programming tells us that we must have fun/have a crash, get close/get sick, be close/start a fight. We have an old association between feeling good and pain, so that when we feel good for a little while we find some way to create pain. . . .
The Upper Limits Problem is the phrase we use to describe this unique human tendency. It is the only problem you have to solve . . . how to let yourself expand continuously into more positive energy. . . .
Human beings have been suffering and struggling for millions of years; we are highly skilled at handling negative energy. We believe that at this time in evolution our species is actually creating new channels in ourselves for experiencing positive energy. How to feel good naturally, without chemical assistance, is a new task in evolution.
The Hendricks are mostly writing about shifts within the individual human psyche, but the World Values Survey project (www.worldvaluessurvey.org) documents a similar shift toward positive energy that takes place across entire societies. The WVS is a highly respected, decades-long series of surveys documenting shifts in sociocultural and political thinking and mores in nearly eighty societies around the globe. The sociologists conducting the surveys have identified a key shift in values that occurs as societies become more affluent: a shift from “survival values,” such as political caution, stoic acceptance of the status quo and wariness toward outsiders, to “self-expression values,” such as an openness to new people and ideas, political activism and creative exploration. In other words: toward self-actualization and, as you will learn in Chapter 5, progressivism.
A shift from “survival” to “self-expression”—what a wonderful project to be working on, both in one’s own life and as a society. And the truth is that, absent severe disability, illness, oppression or some other very negative factor, we can feel happy and free and even joyful for much of our lives. And even in the presence of those kinds of negative factors, we can still work to feel as happy and free and joyful as possible. Recall Part III, Chapter 14, and our discussion of Christopher Reeve and Dr. Viktor Frankl.
We can even feel happy and free and joyful while knowing that there are billions of people and animals around the globe who are suffering horribly. The reason we should strive for happiness in the face of this ongoing calamity is this: our being miserable isn’t helping those suffering beings at all—not one bit. But our being happy, free and joyful will help us to become better activists, so that we can help them more. All this is not to say that we should repress or ignore our sadness and other “dark” emotions; they are often appropriate responses to what we see and experience, and we shouldn’t be repressing anyway. But it is important to not let those feelings overwhelm us, and one way to do that, besides dealing with them directly via therapy or other tools, is to work consciously and conscientiously to locate, and grow, our more positive feelings.
I discuss how self-actualization will help you be a better, more effective activist in Chapter 4. First, however, let’s discuss the work you need to do to self-actualize.