The venn diagram theory on happiness

October 17, 2013 in Ignite, Provocative by Harry Key

We are highly social creatures. Rather than material possessions or personal achievements, most of our happiness comes from the moments we share with people. This is nothing new, but some people are highly social and still seem unhappy, and are often confused and hurt. Why is that?

I recently went on the Infinite Pie podcast episode #21 with Al Fawcett. He’s a great interviewer, and asks interesting questions, and we ended up stumbling onto an idea that’s been rattling around my head lately. It’s a theory about how our happiness rests upon how closely our self-perception matches the perception that others have of us; and how Provocative Style can shift that balance. It’s most effectively demonstrated as a venn diagram:


How I see me

We see ourselves through a whole variety of filters and cognitive biases – often seeing ourselves as we’d like to be, rather than how we are. This is no surprise to anyone (though we more readily admit it of others than of ourselves). That’s the first circle. Perhaps you see yourself as honest. Most of us do, even the bald-faced liars. When we lie, we make excuses, for having to protect someone’s emotions, or needing to ‘make things simpler’. We make these excuses, and they allow us to continue to clutch tightly to the pleasing delusion of honesty. It’s fine – whatever makes us feel better is good for us. Up to a point.


How others see me

The rest of the world will see us through our actions: What we do for them, what we say to them, or what we post on Facebook in attempts at ‘image crafting’. Others read these posts and watch us and hear us, and filter that back through their own biases. They will respond to you and interact with you according to those interpretations.

Regardless of how perceptive you are, most of your friends will think they’re more perceptive than you. This is not a result of them seeing you as dumb, but it’s a necessary adjustment they must make to maintain their own delusion of being better than average. Perversely, the more perceptive they really are, the more they will adjust for that. They’ll questions their assumptions, and they won’t talk about being more perceptive than others. They’ll probably also be reluctant to ‘bitch’ about people, knowing that whoever they’re talking to will see that duality and start to wonder whether they’re treated to the same back-stabbing themselves. Indeed, what many have suspected has now been proven with research: What we say about others says more about us than it does about them.

So other people’s perception of you is probably a more accurate assessment, if slightly less flattering. This ‘how others see me’ is the second circle – people looking at us through their own lenses.


How this relates to happiness

I suspect that those pleasing (and occasionally not so pleasing) self-delusions are the cause of many social problems – because as our self-perceptions skews further and further, people’s interactions with us will seem more and more strange. This is part of the perversity of it all – the weaker we get at challenging these biases, the stronger they become: A person who knows that they’re being annoying is not surprised when someone snaps at them, but someone who truly thinks they’re being helpful will get hurt.

The larger the intersection between those circles, the happier we are. We understand the world around us, and can more accurately predict and interpret the behaviour of others. We can as easily disregard someone’s bad mood as we can accommodate for it, or even change it. The world makes sense to us, and as a result, we make sense to it.

When someone gets angry at us, we can admit fault; we can apologise freely and honestly (when necessary) and move on. We can even see so clearly, that we might apologise to people even if we don’t think we should, because we can be pragmatic accept that they think we should. When someone doesn’t trust us, we can honestly look back on our past behaviour and recall times when we lied; and even if we excused it with ourselves, we can accept that eroded some trust in the relationship.

We use our perceptiveness to realise that we aren’t all that perceptive, use their intelligence to infer that they’re not that intelligent, and use their humour to laugh at the fact that they have a pretty average sense of humour. Well, perhaps we won’t accept these horrible ideas ourselves, but we’ll at least learn to check them in the presence of others. We’ll still lie to ourselves, but we won’t lie about that.

So what to do?

  • Ask: Seek out feedback from people, and accept it
  • Notice what ideas make you uncomfortable and ‘try them on for size’
  • When you get angry and feel certain that you’re right, question yourself (you should be one or the other, but not both)
  • When others get angry, question yourself before you question them


And Provocative Style?

So what we’re talking about in the podcast is how a Provocative Style can challenge people with humour so they can see themselves through someone else’s eyes. You’re offering them feedback, bluntly, courageously, and full of love – and that’s always funny. You’re using that laughter and love to nudge those circles closer and closer together (because we all know that simply stating unpalatable truths about someone doesn’t work too well).

The humourous exchange also assumes (perhaps even demands) that we also do this ourselves, because the fiery banter encourages people to bite back. Your position as a friend and equal (rather than as a coach or mentor) demands that you accept those challenges, and in doing so, exercise and demonstrate your ability to change. As you admit your faults and move on, you’re showing the way for others to follow.

There is also an inherent truth in humour. It’s hard for someone to brush off funny feedback as someone ‘just saying that’, and even harder to ascribe some dark ulterior motive. We must accept it – and do so while laughing.

That’s the idea, anyway. What do you think of it?