Detours on the Road to Happiness

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By Charles K. Poole

I am intrigued by people. What we do, how we think, what we hide. The ways that we express ourselves. How we create social hierarchies and choose to love or hate. I’m always observing behaviors, including my own. And when I’m not observing I’m applying everything I’ve learned to my own life, and my life’s work in communications and public relations.

The knowledge that I’ve gained came easily to me. Like the Olivia Pope character on Scandal, I rely on my gut. After more than 25 years in the PR business, I’ve learned a little something about what make us happy and puts us off the path to it. A few of those observations, from most important to least important, follow:

1. We would rather wear a label than define our own lives. We hold on to a lot of fear that others will find out who we really are. We hide behind generic social labels to define us in lieu of defining ourselves. These labels are a function of how uncomfortable we are with self-acceptance.

Nowhere is our love of labels more evident than in politics, where a single noun convinces folks that they know everything about you based on your political party. Folks make assumptions about us on the basis of other descriptors. Any word prefaced with “The” usually does the trick: The Immigrants…The Blacks…The Feminists…The Gays…The Racists…The Homophobes…The Un-Americans. Everyone gets a label and it’s hard as hell to escape the judgments based on your label. Many of us have simply stopped trying and that’s a shame.

2. We want to belong to groups or organizations that will improve our chances of being accepted by others. This basic need begins in elementary school and increases as we grow older. We make pledges and take vows to be exactly what others say we’re supposed to be…including redefining the manner in which we think and behave.

When I was growing up, my mama called that “going along to get along.” But do those who make this choice really get along? Not likely. Experience teaches us that when we go along with everything and everyone, we rarely end up believing in anything or anyone. Ultimately, we feel like we don’t belong anywhere.

3. We pursue “celebrity”. Everyone wants to go viral on social media. But that’s not attainable for everyone, so we pursue more practical kinds of celebrity in a desperate attempt to be somebody. We run for local school boards; take on leadership roles in our churches; advocate for ideas that we perceive to be important to “the community,” seek out the plum assignments to get noticed at work. In truth, we’re more interested in the perception that we’re making a difference than in really doing so; we’re turned on by the accolades and the recognition. We willingly subscribe to the aspirational fame game. If people don’t know who we are, who are we, really?