The myth of security– Embracing vulnerability, uncertainty, and ambiguity in our relationships and in our world

“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing. “– Helen Keller

Something many of us yearn for in our relationships is a sense of security. We long to feel certain and secure in our relationships, to feel like no matter what, we will not be hurt in this love.  Where there’s doubt or insecurity, we view it as a sign that something is wrong—that something needs to be fixed.

And our desire for security extends beyond our intimate relationships. On all levels, our world appears to be increasingly focused on trying to ensure we won’t be hurt. Our federal government even has an entire cabinet department dedicated to trying to help us feel secure—Department of Homeland Security.  

We attempt to eradicate feelings of insecurity in the hope that if we can just feel secure—secure in ourselves, our relationships, our world around us—then we will be “safe” and happy.

But What If Trying to Feel Secure Actually Makes Us Less Secure?

Sometimes it can be useful to exercise more security in our lives: we lock our doors at night, get life insurance, or carry “bear spray” when camping in the backwoods. However, much of the time we are trying to achieve a feeling of security—a certainty that we aren’t vulnerable to hurt. But suppose our attempts to try to feel secure actually make us more alone, more insular, and more insecure?

Eve Ensler on Security

This is the argument that Eve Ensler, the Tony Award winning playwright, activist, and creator of the Vagina Monologues, makes in her TED talk on the subject of security. In her eloquent and inspiring talk, Ms. Ensler argues that our attempts to feel invulnerable and secure—personally, politically—are actually making us more insecure through the loss of connection with our shared experience. Ms. Ensler encourages people to willingly embrace difficult thoughts and feelings—including insecurity, doubt, ambiguity, and fear—in the service of living a life that is truly more connected, vibrant, and meaningful.

In a similar vein, but drawing from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, I help the people I work with in therapy accept their doubts and insecurities in the service of moving towards what’s important to them. As Ms. Ensler points out, sometimes our lives become very small and unsatisfying when we spend all our energies trying to be secure.

She says:

“Real security is not only being able to tolerate mystery, complexity, ambiguity but hungering for them and only trusting a situation when they are present…In the shared future… the end goal will be to become vulnerable, realizing the place of our connection to one another rather than becoming secure, in control, and alone.”

This has been my experience as well. I highly recommend watching Ensler’s entire talk.

Money Can Buy Happiness, but Hobbies are Even Better

If you saw his Ted talk, you may already be familiar with Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s research on happiness. Dr. Kahneman and a group of researchers surveyed people across income brackets in a national sample on their overall happiness.

Those who made $90,000 reported being twice as happy as those who made $20,000. However, an interesting thing happens around the $50,000 mark: happiness begins to level off.  There’s little difference between the happiness of people who make between $50,000 – 89,000 and those in the highest income groups (e.g., over $100,000).

A Key to Increased Happiness: Engage in Active Pursuits

Kahneman and colleagues offer an explanation for this trend. They suggest that higher income people, although they work more, spend more free time in active pursuits (e.g., exercise) than passive activities (e.g., watching TV). The researchers suggest the more important key to happiness is how we spend our time off.

From this perspective, money is important so long as it allows us to actively engage what we enjoy. However, once we reach a certain income level (about $50,000 a year or so), we might better spend our time focused on doing fun things than on making more money. As a more concrete example, the researchers suggest we should be working harder to reduce commutes—which people particularly hate—and spend more time in the company of people we enjoy, as people tend to rate the latter particularly high.

Think about this the next time you think about getting a new job or promotion that will earn you more money but may lead to longer hours and a longer commute. Also, consider more carefully how you spend your free time. Is it something active (e.g., exercising, socializing) or passive (e.g., vegging out)?

References

Kahneman, D., Krueger, A.B., Schkade, D., Schwartz, N., & Stone, A.A. (2006). Would You Be

Happier If You Were Richer? A Focusing Illusion. CEPS Working Paper No. 125.

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