In America, we tend to see the personality characteristic of kindness (or niceness) as a weakness and not strength in men. With are jingoistic fueled capitalistic attitude we praise the notion that humans are basically selfish, self-serving creatures and revere those that make it to the top of the heap, generally stepping over everyone in their way. Altruism, kindness, and niceness are seen as fundamentally weak traits, perhaps meted out once in a while to the less fortunate, but generally not to be prized. It saddens me that we have over the last twenty years or so, have adopted this unfortunate attitude, especially with regards to men and their cultural roles.
The reality is that collaboration and kindness are basic survival skills. Without them, humankind would have been disposed of many millennia ago. Without “niceness” or the ability to put others first or the interest of the group ahead of one’s on needs, we could not have been able to build the civilization that sustained our species. This key interactive ability became the precursor to “nice.” Studies are beginning to bear out this idea that being the aggressive alpha dog is not the most efficient or effective way to succeed, lead or attract a mate. In the end, in spite of cultural biases against it, niceness is necessary and good.
HSMs are generally considered to be nice guys with our non-aggressive, gentler, kinder nature framed within a masculine exterior. Certainly, not all HSMs fit this description, but I think because of our thoughtful, considerate personalities, we tend to be lumped into the nice guy bucket more often than not. But what really is a nice guy?
Niceness is measured on personality scales as agreeableness. The characteristics most associated with niceness: are trust of others, compliance and easy going, unselfishness, easily satisfied, modest and sympathetic. All great qualities. There’s also a down side of niceness. Sometimes niceness leads to conflict avoidance and lack of problem solving skill due to confrontational ideation avoidance. It can also lead to self-effacing behaviors in the extreme, low confidence and other self-defeating behaviors.
The joke for years has been that nice guys always finish last. The reference is to dating or romantic prowess – “the nice guy dating effect”, which states that women say they prefer nice guys, but really wind up choosing bad boys. The term nice guy often is used to describe a young male that is gentle, sensitive, compassionate and vulnerable and generates other pejorative terms in lieu of masculinity.
There even some negative claims that nice guys are unassertive, dishonest, manipulative and passive aggressive. In either case, the general rule is that nice guys are weak, ineffective, unattractive and losers. This extends well beyond dating, an into other areas of life. The perception is that niceness equates to submission so that in life the nice guy never gets the prize, whether it’s an amour or promotion or to be the quarterback, nice guys always lose.
Does the research bear this out? The answer is no. Let’s begin with the idea of the Alpha male, which would be the antithesis of the “nice guy.” We consider the alpha male to be the top dog of the pack, a dominant, strong, self-centered individual that gets whatever he wants. , the dominant player in the group.
Dominance starts at the unconscious level and at the hormonal level. The hormones influencing dominance are testosterone, cortisol, and oxytocin. Testosterone is the male hormone which influences male behavior in many ways, including physical prowess and aggressiveness. Cortisol is the stress hormone, which kicks in to create active behaviors, and finally oxytocin, the love bonding hormone. Surprised? Studies have shown that most alphas are not the brash talkers and braggarts that we expect from alphas, but instead are good listeners and not always physically intimidating. They are good social connectors and can be actually mild mannered as well. They almost sound like closet nice guys with a slight more edginess to them.
Most alphas focus on accomplishment and goal fulfillment, which requires a certain degree of “niceness” to get the cooperation of others to deliver desired results. Many accomplished CEOs are considered to fall in the nice guy category, such as the founders of Costco, Starbucks, the head of IKEA and Patagonia, Ben and Jerry’s and also the founder of Zappos, creating great company cultures, leading teams into becoming successful companies and never losing the nice guy persona. So, nice doesn’t have to mean ineffectual, or weak or unsuccessful. To the contrary, it may be the only real way to achieve sustainable success via cooperation (nice guy) vs. competitiveness (bad boy).
Alphaism is not gender confined either. Alpha females are prominent in our more egalitarian society. Indications are all around of the collapse of the old line alpha male strawman that has been the dominant mode for centuries. The economic and societal implications are profound for new roles that men can and should play in society. A lot of talk these days suggests that more and more men are assuming the beta role in family and the larger society. Now let’s be clear, beta role is not the exact opposite of the alpha. The term for that would be the omega. Omegas are in effect the weak, ineffectual and women hating male we associate now with betas. Betas are complimentary to alphas. Betas (perhaps uber nice guys) are cooperative, emotionally available, relationship savvy and conscientious about everything they do. They are good team players and do not abdicate their masculinity by portraying this role.
Alpha, Beta, Omegas but what about HSMs? Where does this leave the highly sensitive males and where do we fit in? I suppose HSMs could be any of the above. Good, conscientious alphas, cooperative and team playing betas or even, distorted and warped Omegas. The environment, upbringing, and genetics all play a role in shaping personality and like the general population this individual encoding can enhance or diminish the fundamental HSP characteristics.
One of the best strategies for success for men is to adopt some of the best characteristics of the ideal alpha, focusing on what is termed the prestigious male – one who accomplishes goals in a general way. To balance that driving goal seeking behavior, there is need to add another component, that of the generous giver. In studies where females rating overall attractiveness of males, the prestigious generous male was seen as the most attractive. What this implies is that being a nice guy can and does work, if coupled with effective goal achieving. I even believe the attractiveness factor could be generalized to the overall population and this could be a new cultural norm. The nice guy Alpha, a point of strength and decency. A true leader.
Is this another leadership opportunity for HSMs? Showing the larger male population that characteristics we come by naturally are things that men can learn and practice. Perhaps, moving forward a few more studies, more “wins” for this philosophy in business, sports, entertainment, etc., can get some attention on the nice guy personality and demonstrate that nice guys don’t always finish last.
Here’s some suggestions on what we can do to promote this new male approach:
This week’s question is what is happiness? Is it static emotional state between sorrow and joy, a neutral state of contentment, or is it ephemeral and fleeting like a forest sprite, popping in and out of our lives? I know I have been pursuing this elusive butterfly for the entirety of my life, still left with questions about what I’m pursuing. I’m not sure we will figure out the correct way to find it for everyone, but I think at the very least we can attempt to define it, look at it and give it an identifying pin on the human emotional map.
Psychologists like to frame happiness as experiencing frequent positive emotions, such as joy, pride, and high interest coupled with infrequent bouts of negative emotions such as sadness, anxiety, and anger in other words a deficit of depressing feelings and a surplus of upbeat and positive feelings. I like that there is an acknowledgement of the existence of both within the definition if for no other reason than to acknowledge that there is no perpetually happy person.
Generally, though, happy people have a special penchant for processing life events with a positive spin; especially those challenging events or perceptions of such events that might take some or most of us down. I suppose it is the optimist versus pessimist viewpoint. This seems largely a perception thing, and more or less defines how individuals interpret life events.
The outcome of those perceptions could lead to a happy person viewpoint or conversely, or it could mean someone who is largely negative processes the inputs in an entirely different way leading to a neutral or sad interpretation. Hence connecting life moments dot by dot to create could either a happy life or a sad one. All in the eyes of the beholder.
Aristotle saw happiness more in the act of doing than in the being mode of perception and receiving. The Greeks believed happiness was in a life well lived -- an aspiration, not so much a state of being. Which begs the question is happiness an emotional state or is it found in a state of living or becoming, something to strive for? Nietzsche argued that the pursuit of happiness was contemptible. Instead one should endeavor to instead focus on the difficult and challenging struggles of life. Something noble in just reaching the finish line, no smiling permitted. Perhaps, Nietzsche was not a very happy person.
Modern psychology endeavors to define happiness along two lines. Both mirror some of the ancient Greek philosophy concerning happiness. One most familiar to most of the Western world is the idea of hedonia – the pleasure principle of happiness. This concept is much like the attempt often found today of connecting the dots of happiness moments to create the illusion of a continuum of happiness. It is exploited continuously by the advertising agencies to create a desire for a product, equating the acquisition of said product with a happiness moment, i.e., new car, new house, new can opener, you get the picture.
The other Greek concept copped by modern science about happiness is the notion of eudaimonia or the well lived life. This is really translated as life with meaning, living a satisfying, contented life. This idea is less focused on moment by moment acquisition of happiness, but rather a lifelong thread of aspirational living.
In reality, both of the concepts appear to live concurrently with happy people. They seem to enjoy moments more positively and over time live more satisfying happiness producing lives. This might also be described as living life in more of a flow state with more peak experiences – focused, absorbed and active. Positive Psychology even calls out the main elements associated with happiness as the pursuit of pleasure, high engagement (see flow), satisfying relationships, meaning and purpose, and accomplishments (reaching goals).
It’s no wonder that the Founding Fathers, particularly Jefferson annunciated this in the Declaration, a particularly popular notion of that time: “…of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And as the U.S. has become the poster child of capitalism, it’s fitting that Jefferson’s definition of happiness was interpreted to mean – prosperity, thriving and well being.
But what of the highly sensitive person population and happiness? Does our observant, cautious and sometimes timid natures, make us less likely to actively pursue this thing called happiness. Is it possible we are wired to be a bit more pessimistic, therefore a little less prone to the pursuit of elusive ideals? With happiness comes some of the most intense of emotions, including, love, joy, ecstasy, and are we more prone to shying away from that intensity? Does happiness create too much brain chemistry for HSPs? Yeah, I know it sounds absurd, but I wonder sometimes if we are most contented when we live in the neutral zone. I’m thinking joy suppression here to affect calm over emotional exuberance.
Positive and negative emotions have important evolutionary components. Neuroscience suggests that our proclivity towards pleasure is an important driver in survival. Our perception of pleasure which can be an affective state, essentially straddling somewhere between the lower brain/upper brain neurological connections, subliminal in nature, contrasts with the higher level state of conscious affective pleasure, which overlays conscious thought onto the neurological communication of pleasure seeking. These pleasure centers are all over the brain from limbic to cortical areas all acting in concert driving behavior. Each influencing either a “like response” or a “want (desire) response”, the former more primitive and the later more consciously influenced. Together they both move us towards the pleasure principle aspect of happiness.
So how does this filter through the HSP brain? Are we different than non-HSPs when it comes to happiness? Does our empathetic nature and deep processing of environmental inputs, put as at an advantage or disadvantage in pursuing happiness? Because of our “deep wiring” do we naturally form strong neural networks between the emotion centers and cortical regions and because we engage these almost continuously are we if given the proper environment in which to work/live are we more likely to be content, satisfied, dare I say, happier? Do HSPs live in the hedonia zone or are we more content with eudaimonia principles? If I were a betting man, I’d say the latter.
And what about being unhappy? Is it so bad not to be happy all the damn time? Does being unhappy really mean being sad or down? Can we be just as fulfilled by pursuing the neutrality of contentment? And is all this talk of happiness not especially useful for HSPs who live within the full spectrum of human emotion. Can we be condemned for not being slap happy all the time? Being more intuitive, more empathetic, more emotional and deep processors -- does that not lend us to getting stuck in one emotional state from time to time. Again, perhaps, we should strive not to connect and hold on to the happiness dots as a pleasure pastime but rather striving for a more balanced and satisfying life, with the inherent ups and downs associated with a well lived life. Wouldn’t this be a good overriding principle for HSPs?
We are at a point in human history where the idea of every human being having an inherent right to happiness is considered to be a truth. It was as if a resort somewhere in the tropics where once we visited has now become a desired destination of permanent residence, just because we were happy for a brief time there in the past. Not realizing that happiness, like resort living, comes at a price. A state of perpetual happiness is likely not possible, just like holding a moment in time, trying to make it last forever. Happiness comes and goes, flitting in our lives like the elusive butterfly. The idea of happiness as an elongated moment, that will last a lifetime is myth. We aspire to happiness as we aspire to spiritual growth. It is a journey, not a destination. Yet, all of it is good - even sadness, even the state of not happy.
I’ve been in pursuit of happiness all my life. An elusive and impossible dream. Looking outside of myself everywhere to acquire, befriend or pursuit it. I’m not sure I’ve ever found it for long. Does that mean it doesn’t exist – not likely, but maybe my personal definition is skewed? Maybe like the butterfly, happiness appears out of nowhere arriving for a fleeting moment. We that are living life, never know exactly when it will come. For the observant ones, we experience it outwardly and inwardly by a variety of uncontrollable means. Happiness is temporary, it comes and goes, just like the butterfly, it flies away again in jagged butterfly patterns. It zigs in and out of our lives, showing up like an omen, and then leaves without warning. We never catch this butterfly, for to do so will destroy it. But, maybe the illusion is that we can catch it and keep it for all time. It does seem there is a difference between pleasure and happiness. Yet, we get them confused.
Happiness is like art, we behold, enjoy it, interpret it, often misunderstand it, but somewhere within our souls we crave and appreciate it. By recognizing this, we can then quit making a living pursuing it; instead, live our lives with integrity and contentment. Know the art work of life that we are creating is flawed and gets weathered by life and yet perfect for us at a deep and soulful level. You see there are really no rules here, not for happiness. If we can say that at the end of life, that we lived a life in which happiness visited us many times, then surely we are blessed. The breadcrumbs to happiness are scattered on the ground where life was lived. Be happy to recognize when happiness finds you.
Note: It’s funny how the pronunciation of words can change over time. The word happiness is one of those words. I have noted in many films of the 30s and 40s that the word is pronounced by both American and British actors with emphasis on the “p” and the “ee” sound in the word happy is less like we pronounce it today and more flat like ”uh”, something like hap-puh-ness vs. happ-ee-ness. Every year around Christmas, I watch the Bishops Wife with David Niven, I notice this, don’t know why. Let’s just say it was an inspiration for this blog.
Thanks for stopping by, until next week…
Bill Allen lives in Bend, Oregon. He is a certified hypnotist and brain training coach at BrainPilots.com. He believes that male sensitivity is not so rare, but it can be confounding for most males living in a culture of masculine insensitivity which teaches boys and men to disconnect from their feelings and emotions. His intent is to use this blog to chronicle his personal journey and share with others.