July 10, 2021
Camp Geek Warning – the following blog will contain a greater than normal amount of psychology ideas.
I big a fan of a writer/educator named Arthur Brooks. He writes on “subjective well-being”, a fancy term for happiness. He currently teaches courses on this topic at Harvard.
After listening to an interview with him, I want to share two concepts that I found particularly helpful.
The first is “post traumatic growth”. We have all heard a great deal about “post traumatic stress disorder”. This is the very real phenomenon that is described as a “mental health condition that triggered by a terrifying event” that has symptoms that include nightmares and heightened anxiety.
We know that terrible experiences can echo in the mind.
But we can also think about the Nietzsche quote – “that which does not kill us only makes us stronger.”
I do not think either approach is 100% right. I know there are some experiences that are so terrible (war, violence, abuse) that leave lasting damage. I also know that we grow through challenge, that we become more confident and competent when we do through – and overcome – difficulties.
This is the idea behind post traumatic growth. A painful breakup or a lost job or (in my case) a failed internet company become an opportunity to develop new competencies, resilience, and skills.
We fall when we ski. It hurts, but with each fall we become better skiers.
We experience heartbreak, but we learn about ourselves and how to be a better friend or companion.
I bring this up as I think about the effects of the pandemic. What are the ways we can make the challenges and discomforts and struggles into growth opportunities? Please do not think I am making light of people who experienced deep tragedy – loss of loved ones, loss of financial security or drug addiction. For these individuals, the stress may outweigh any opportunity for growth. But most people had a challenging and difficult 18 months, but we can find new strength and capability from it.
My deep hope is that camp can be part of that for our campers and counselors.
The second concept from Brooks are the predictors of happiness. On the downside, we can only control about 12-20% of our happiness (the rest is the result of nature and nurture), but on the upside, we do know what to do with that 12-20%.
Our mistake is to focus on the wrong “4 things”: money, fame, power and pleasure. What we have learned is that the best source of happiness is a different quartet: friends, family, faith and work/purpose. Faith does not have to be any particular religion, but just a belief that there is something “bigger than yourself” that you are committed to.
Work/purpose is a tricky one. Work that is drudgery makes people less happy, but purposeful work infuses life with meaning and a sense of contribution.
For myself, I have found being a camp director more rewarding than being on the trading floor with Goldman Sachs (my first job outside of college). I was good at the job, but I found I became more callous and less content doing it. I know that some people find purpose in finance, but I did not. Working with young people does have purpose for me.
Please forgive my long blog that has little to do with camp, but I hope it speaks to something that is important to all of us.
Meanwhile, we will all work on fostering our happiness here!