The Tendency of Power to Corrupt and How to Avoid It

I recently completed a massive open online course (MOOC) from the University of California, Berkeley.

One of my instructors of the positive psychology course, Dacher Keltner, really inspired me with his passion and research.

I picked up one of his books, Born to be Good, and I’m fascinated with the ideas presented.

Meanwhile, I was discussing the topic of mindfulness with my wife, and she picked up the Harvard Business Review’s Mindfulness book for me. Coincidentally, it contained a chapter written by Keltner titled “Don’t Let Power Corrupt You.”

Keltner writes:

My research has shown that power puts us into something like a manic state, making us feel expansive, energized, omnipotent, hungry for rewards, and immune to risk—which opens us up to rash, rude, and unethical actions.

To avoid succumbing to the downsides of power, he offers advice—backed by research—to individuals in senior roles. First, one must reflect and develop self-awareness. Next, Keltner stresses three practices (again backed by research)—empathy, gratitude, and generosity.

Couldn’t we all cultivate a little more empathy, gratitude, and generosity?

Imagine the jen then, my friend.

The Happy Life

This past Christmas, my wife gave me things I desperately needed: socks and self-help books.

One book that intrigued me was The Happy Life by Charles W. Eliot. It was published in 1905! My 5-year-old son said, “Dad, that book smells old.”

happy life book cover
Cover of The Happy Life.
Photo by M. Fleming

I was curious to see if any of Eliot’s principles applied in 2019, more than a century after he wrote the book.

Incidentally, most, if not all, of Eliot’s insights still apply today.

Here’s one of my favourite passages:

In trying to enumerate the positive satisfactions which an average man may reasonably expect to enjoy in this world, I of course take no account of those too common objects of human pursuit,—wealth, power, and fame; first, because they do not as a rule contribute to happiness; and secondly, because they are unattainable by mankind in general.

And another:

The most satisfactory thing in all this earthly life is to be able to serve our fellow beings,—first those who are bound to us by love, then the wider circle of fellow-townsmen, fellow-countrymen, or fellow-men.

Wealth, power, and fame do not bring happiness. Loving others does. True in 1905 and still true today.