The Unflappable Happiness of Being Average

I once gave a talk in New York to an audience of about 2,000 – 2,500 television industry people on the psychology of creativity.  They were a very energised, boisterous bunch.   But, I also knew they had exceptionally high rates of burnout due to chronically high stress. There was a lot of fear of failure in that room.

I asked the audience members to raise their hand if they were happy to be average.  About 10 hands went up.  I then suggested that probably means that almost everyone in the room was, by that measure, not happy!  They were certainly not happy with me at that point!

Of course, this was a something of a trick question that conflated what we are with what we aspire to be.   There’s nothing wrong with aspiration of course, but there is a lot wrong with believing you have to be above average in order to be happy.

So today I’m discussing, among other things, the Lake Wobegon Effect:   As you may know, Wobegon is a fictional town created by Garrison Keillor as a part of his famous, long-standing radio show A Prairie Home Companion.  The ironic closing words of Keilor’s show were “Well, that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

Of course, the truth is, all of us are average on most things, but as a rule, we don’t see it that way.  Generally, we suffer from a sense of relative superiority (the so-called superiority bias) – or as we’ll call it here, the Lake Wobegon Effect.  We have elevated views of self on most things.  Researchers have demonstrated this across many areas of self-evaluation.

Whether we are looking at Cognitive Tasks, Driving Ability, Health, IQ, Memory, Popularity, Relationship Happiness, even Immunity to such biases, people , on average, think they are better than they are.  Unless of course, they don’t.  Naturally, there are individual difference based on personality and life experience (some people have very low self-esteem; some elevated esteem).  But as a generalisation across all people, these biases are consistently found.  Just not in you or me!

To make matters worse, in the age of digital media we are constantly bombarded with the exceptional.  We can literally watch exceptional feats and stories 24/7 and this can seriously distort what we consider to be normal or average.  We’re confronted with impossible standards to emulate, be it athletic, physical appearance, musicality and so on.  Not to mention the camera angles, the airbrushing, the re-takes – and the fact that people have worked at it all their lives to make it look easy.

We forget, or perhaps don’t realise, that such performance is at the extreme end of the normal curve, and even if a person is talented, they have worked and worked and worked at it often obsessively for years. Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code is a revelation in this regard, as he examines world-class performers of all kinds.  What they all have in common is deep practice: that is, continuous hard work, mental struggle and sustained extreme attention.  Most of these world’s bests didn’t start out as the ‘most talented’ but they ended up as the most skilled.

Almost everything we value is distributed on a normal curve, the bell curve, where most occurrences cluster around the 50th percentile.  This is why, on average we are ‘average’ on most things.  But the word ‘average’, at least in Australia, has come to mean ‘no good’.  If you are feeling ill, in response to an inquiry as to your health we typically say, ‘I’m pretty average’; likewise, we describe someone’s bad behaviour as being ‘really average’.

As my unfair question to the New York audience indicated, people feel as if they have to be above average in order to be OK, or to have high status in the village – as evolutionary psychologist like to say.  This creates a very pervasive ‘ego trap’ where we are constantly at risk of painful status loss when our exaggerated claims about self are revealed as just that.

The ego trap causes untold suffering. What is this ego trap? It is the gap between an accurate self-evaluation and the higher valuation that circulates in the world. So how can we be happy if we are, in fact, on average pretty average!  Unsurprisingly, it has to do with self-knowledge and self-acceptance. I’d like to unpack one of my favourite definitions of happiness.  It comes from the evolutionary psychologist Dr Doug Lisle:

Happiness results from esteem, earned in the right way, from the people that matter.

There is so much condensed in this sentence and it is really worth unpacking.  Firstly, we do need esteem.  So, beware the person who says they don’t care what people think!

Secondly, it needs to be earned in the right way.  Ideally, what we are working on should contribute, not subtract from the total good, but more importantly it needs to be done right.  So, what’s ‘right’ mean? As with deep practice, no corners are cut; fundamentals are identified and mastered; and our internal audience knows we have been diligent.  Pride is the natural result as we recognise that we really deserve our success. 

Finally, we need to be discerning about whose esteem we take seriously.  That is, the people that matter.  But there is a problem: the world is full of pseudo-esteem – esteem from those who don’t really know us.  Think of ‘likes’ and ‘friends’ on social media, or fans of elite performers, your reputation, or a rumour that is spreading about you.   Reputation can be very valuable indeed, but it is no foundation for solid self-esteem and identity – because these people don’t actually know you!

By contrast, we should value esteem from people who know us and whose knowledge, motives and judgment we trust.   So, this is hard, because we are designed by nature to resonate to any esteem in the village.  For example, we tend to feel the sting of negative esteem, no matter the source!  Likewise, we tend to glow whenever we are praised, even if the person doesn’t know us well. So, we have to get better at parsing out the external esteem that is worth internalising.

There’s an obvious point here:  we need to better know and to better accept ourselves.  One of life’s most important tasks is to recalibrate one’s sense of self always in the direction of who we actually are, what our actual skills and capabilities are at present.  

And we should also aspire to continuously improve.  As with Carol Dweck’s now famous distinction between Fixed and Growth mindsets, we should aspire to grow and develop, but most importantly to focus on process and tasks rather than self and social comparison.

By freeing yourself from impossible standards and exaggerated self-presentation you have the possibility to relax.  You can appreciate the simple things of life.  You can measure yourself against your own continual improvement.  You can value feedback from people that matter.  You can be liberated from constant self-consciousness and social comparison.  You can discover the unflappable happiness of being average.