A Dangerous Happiness

For believe me: the secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is to live dangerously! Build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius! Send your ships into uncharted seas!

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Joyous Knowledge, 238

According to Martin Seligman, Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, there are three levels of happiness in life.

  1. The Pleasant Life in which we seek happiness by maximising the quantity and quality of pleasurable sensations
  2. The Good Life in which we attain happiness by achieving commitment and competence in work, play and love
  3. The Meaningful Life in which happiness flows from a deep sense of fulfillment by living for a purpose greater than oneself

I want to suggest a forth level, or better, a forth perspective on happiness.

  1. The Dangerous Life in which we strive for happiness by opening ourselves up to the excitement and opportunities of risk

Positive Psychology lists twenty-four character strengths the discovery and development of which leads to personal happiness. Three of them are: curiosity/interest in the world, leadership, and hope/optimism.

Pandora’s Box

Curiosity is dangerous. Nietzsche ‘s quote mentions exploration of the unknown. The drive to experience new places, new people, and new ideas is usually considered positive and healthy. Such an inquisitive spirit is the basic motivation behind all learning and information gathering.

Of course, exploration can be physically dangerous. But recent research has shown that the emotion of curiosity itself can lead humans to expose themselves to aversive stimulifor no apparent benefits. The human need to resolve uncertainty, regardless of the consequences, sometimes leads to trouble, as Pandora found out.

Believing in yourself is dangerous. Another study showed that believing in ourselves increases risk taking subjects who are led to believe they are very competent at decision making see more opportunities in a risky choice and take more risks. Part of this belief was due to positive feedback, and part due to strong self-belief, or, as psychologists call it, self-efficacy .

Risky Business

Optimism is dangerous. Optimists show considerably less risk-aversion than pessimists, both in relation to risk perception and actual risk taking. An uncertain environment can contain a situation of either pure chance or imprecise probability. In both counts, optimists are willing to plunge in where pessimists fear to tread.

So, even in Positive Psychology, here is no positive without the possibility of a negative. There is no happiness without the danger of pain. There is no reward without risk. If you want to grasp at more happiness, then you must relish embracing the dangerous too.


Christopher K. Hsee and Bowen Ruan. “The Pandora Effect: The Power and Peril of Curiosity.” Psychological Science 27, no. 5 (2016): pp. 659 666.

Krueger, Norris, and Peter R. Dickson. “How believing in ourselves increases risk taking: perceived self-efficacy and opportunity recognition.” Decision Sciences 25, no. 3 (1994): 385-400.

Tadeusz Tyszka (Kozminski University) and Jaideep Roy (Murdoch University). “Optimism and Attitude Towards Risk.” Kozminski Business School Working Paper Series No. 06 (2008).

All Hail the Comedians!

What kind of people do you most admire?

For me, it’s comedians. Maybe this is because I’m not naturally much of one myself, or maybe it’s because, deep down, I want to be one. Whatever the reason, I love watching them at work and going to live stand-up when I can.

Last month – March 14th – I got a chance to test myself out a little. I delivered a course at Queen’s on the psychology and practice of humour. Apart from being a blast, I think I got to give the class a new perspective of the comic side of life.

For instance, I showed the relation between joke-telling and problem-solving. According to Edward de Bono, they both require the same set of skills – the reconstructing of existing patterns of thought. Also, I talked about the place of playfulness and humour as one of the 24 ‘signature strengths’ of positive psychologist Martin Seligman. Finally, my main man Dan Pink got a mention, as the ‘sense of play’ – explained in terms of games, humour and joyfulness – is one of his six senses of out new, right-brain world. Continue reading “All Hail the Comedians!”

Pessimism, Realism and the Recession


An Australian psychologist has claimed that feeling grumpy ‘is good for you’. At least that’s the spin the popular media put on the findings of Professor Joe Forgas of the University of South Wales. What the guy actually says is a little more nuanced. His claim is that there are some advantages to negative moods, just as there are to positive moods. Continue reading “Pessimism, Realism and the Recession”

Did Positive Thinking Cause the Recession?


A few weekends ago I happened across an article called Positive thinking is positively bad for you so always look on the glum slide of life by Virginia Ironside. In it she gave a positive review for a book entitled Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. The author is Barbara Ehrenreich, an American journalist, socialist and political activist. Continue reading “Did Positive Thinking Cause the Recession?”

A Positively Brilliant Workshop

On Saturday 6th December I delivered a 1-day workshop at Queen’s University called The Psychology of Happiness: How to Grow Your Happy Skills. Its purpose was to introduce the students to the new positive psychology movement, and to the thoughts of Martin Seligman and Mih√°ly Cs√≠kszentmih√°lyi in particular. Those who read the blog will know that I’ve reviewed Seligman’s latest work Authentic Happiness before, and I’ve also captured the two of them in a fascinating conversation.

In the workshop I did four things. First, I discussed Seligman’s analysis of the three types of happy life: the Pleasant Life, the Good Life, and the Meaningful Life. Then I explored the whole notion of optimism, perhaps Seligman’s main contribution to the field of academic psychology. After lunch, it was time to check out our signature strengths. Finally, we applied all this to the area of work, that most usual and difficult source of unhappiness. Continue reading “A Positively Brilliant Workshop”

Jedi Knights – Myth and Reality


Once the publicity for the Jedi workshop started to skyrocket (or is it skywalk?) I got asked a particular question over and over again. Even if it wasn’t asked explicity, I could see it in people’s smirking eyes, and feel it in draft left by their open mouths.

“You don’t think all this Jedi stuff is really real, do you?”

It’s not as silly a question as it first sounds. After all, there are people out there who take this Jedi thing very seriously. Some have built the beginnings of a religion around it. Others talk earnestly of trying to live out ‘the Jedi way’ and of their temptations toward ‘the dark side’. Continue reading “Jedi Knights – Myth and Reality”