Written as a dialogue between a passionate but unhappy youth and a wise philosopher, this book takes on big questions like what it means to be happy, and how to live a meaningful life. It’s based on the work of psychologist Alfred Adler but you don’t need to know anything going in, as the youth asks all the obvious questions.
The most important principle is that we choose who we are in each moment. Blaming our present actions on past incidents is a way to give up responsibility for one’s life:
We determine our own lives according to the meaning we give to those past experiences. Your life is not something that someone gives you, but something you choose yourself, and you are the one who decides how you live. … No matter what has occurred in your life up to this point, it should have no bearing at all on how you live from now on. That you, living in the here and now, are the one who determines your own life.
This is a challenging way to live, and the philosopher describes Adlerian psychology as “a psychology of courage”, the courage to be happy.
One particular exchange hit me personally, where the youth wondered how his self-criticism could possibly be serving him. The philosopher answered that “your goal is to not get hurt in your relationships with other people. … Now, how can that goal be realized? The answer is easy. Just find your shortcomings, start disliking yourself, and become someone who doesn’t enter into interpersonal relationships. That way, if you can shut yourself into your own shell, you won’t have to interact with anyone, and you’ll even have a justification ready whenever other people snub you. That it’s because of your shortcomings that you get snubbed, and if things weren’t this way, you too could be loved.”
Ouch. My self-critical tendencies and my loneliness linked in one devastating critique.
And yet it’s an empowering philosophy. Rather than shifting “one’s responsibility for the situation one is currently in to someone else [and] running away from one’s life tasks by saying that everything is the fault of other people, or the fault of one’s environment”, “Adlerian psychology is a psychology for changing oneself … Instead of waiting for others to change or waiting for the situation to change, you take the first step forward yourself.”
This mental shift requires what the philosopher calls “separation of tasks”, because “all problems are interpersonal relationship problems” and “all interpersonal relationship troubles are caused by intruding on other people’s tasks, or having one’s own tasks intruded on. … do not intervene in other people’s tasks, or allow even a single person to intervene in one’s own tasks.” “Intervening in other people’s tasks and taking on other people’s tasks turns one’s life into something heavy and full of hardship. If you are leading a life of worry and suffering, learn the boundary of “From here on, that is not my task.” And discard other people’s tasks. That is the first step toward lightening the load and making life simpler.”
In other words, the only thing you control is your own actions. Take responsibility for what you do rather than blame others, but don’t assume responsibility for other’s actions.
Another key principles is that “freedom is being disliked by other people.” When “you are disliked by someone, it is proof that you are exercising your freedom and living in freedom, and a sign that you are living in accordance with your own principles. It is certainly distressful to be disliked. … But conducting oneself in such a way as to not be disliked by anyone is an extremely unfree way of living, and is also impossible. There is a cost incurred when one wants to exercise one’s freedom. And the cost of freedom in interpersonal relationships is that one is disliked by other people.”
The title of the book comes from a follow-up line that “The courage to be happy also includes the courage to be disliked”. When one can live into that courage, then one can also be free. Others are no longer enemies we can blame for our experiences and our lack of progress towards our future goals. Instead, we can treat others as comrades in the here and now, fellow travelers with whom we can choose to align or not. But to people in that way, “one needs both self-acceptance and confidence in others”.
With that confidence, though, we can choose to serve others in our community, where we choose which others we serve. Being of service in that way, to feel “I am beneficial to the community” is how one can have a true sense of one’s worth. It’s a positive feedback loop where serving others out of choice (not obligation) creates a sense of one’s own worth, which increases one’s self-acceptance, which allows for greater willingness to choose to serve others.
But if we wait for others to make us feel safe enough to contribute without being taken advantage of, we’ll never start. The book closes with a quote from Adler himself:
“Someone has to start. Other people might not be cooperative, but that is not connected to you. My advice is this: You should start. With no regard to whether others are cooperative or not.”
I wonder if this book resonated more with me than many other self-help books because I share some cultural context with the Japanese authors, as I was raised by a Korean mother. East Asian cultures emphasize duty and obligation and avoiding conflict, so it feels particularly revelatory that one could choose one’s own destiny (and happiness) by having the courage to be disliked. Rather than let your past determine your actions (as one might in cultures that value ancestor worship), decide what to do based on the present moment (an idea I’ve been exploring myself):
Life is a series of moments, and neither the past nor the future exists. You are trying to give yourself a way out by focusing on the past and the future. What happened in the past has nothing whatsoever to do with your here and now, and what the future may hold is not a matter to think about here and now. If you are living earnestly here and now, you will not be concerned with such things.
In the end, the book’s advice to be happy is simple: let go of the past, focus on the present moment, and choose who you will try to satisfy in any given interaction. Cultural conditioning makes it hard to follow that advice, and it’s still helpful to remind myself of the basics occasionally.