Up@dawn 2.0

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Beyond Happiness

Here's a contender text for the course next Fall: Beyond Happiness: How to find lasting meaning and joy in all that you have, by Anthony Seldon. He says happiness is a trap that may block us from achieving "deeper meaning and joy." He's not against happiness as such, just happiness pursued exclusively and obsessively, to the neglect of other virtues.
"Seldon distinguishes between pleasure, happiness and joy... The pursuit of happiness can all too easily become a trap which seduces us into thinking there is no more to life than being happy. In fact, the author is highly critical of 'positive psychology' and other dominant schools of thought... we need to reach beyond [mere happiness] if we are to access the deepest levels of human experience open to us, and find our own unique path in life... Paradoxically, as this book demonstrates, stepping off the happiness treadmill will ultimately make for a happier and more fulfilled life." GR

Monday, November 28, 2016

Is the present really such a gift?

No, says Ruth Whippman, author of “America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks.”
...Perhaps the single philosophical consensus of our time is that the key to contentment lies in living fully mentally in the present. The idea that we should be constantly policing our thoughts away from the past, the future, the imagination or the abstract and back to whatever is happening right now has gained traction with spiritual leaders and investment bankers, armchair philosophers and government bureaucrats and human resources departments. Corporate America offers its employees mindfulness training to “streamline their productivity,” and the United States military offers it to the Marine Corps. Americans now spend an estimated $4 billion each year on “mindfulness products.” “Living in the Moment” has monetized its folksy charm into a multibillion-dollar spiritual industrial complex.
So does the moment really deserve its many accolades? It is a philosophy likely to be more rewarding for those whose lives contain more privileged moments than grinding, humiliating or exhausting ones. Those for whom a given moment is more likely to be “sun-dappled yoga pose” than “hour 11 manning the deep-fat fryer.”
On the face of it, our lives are often much more fulfilling lived outside the present than in it...
SciAm MIND (@sciammind)
Trending today: Americans are obsessed with happiness—but not all cultures feel that way bit.ly/2guPgK1

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

What George Eliot Teaches Us about the Life-Cycle of Happiness

...and the Science of Why We’re Happier When We’re Older

“One has to spend so many years in learning how to be happy.”

Much like creativity is a skill rather than a gift andgenius the product of work ethic rather than inspiration, happiness, too, is a practice rather than a state, one that necessitates both learning and constant maintenance. Long before the findings of modern psychology and cognitive science, beloved authorGeorge Eliot arrived at this insight one spring Sunday in 1844.

Writing in a letter to her dear friend Sara Hennell, found in George Eliot’s Life, as Related in her Letters and Journals (public library; public domain), 25-year-old Eliot reflects on the life-cycle of happiness, defying the romantic myth of the idyllic childhood and insisting instead that our capacity for happiness swells with age:

One has to spend so many years in learning how to be happy. I am just beginning to make some progress in the science, and I hope to disprove Young’s theory that “as soon as we have found the key of life it opes the gates of death.” Every year strips us of at least one vain expectation, and teaches us to reckon some solid good in its stead. I never will believe that our youngest days are our happiest. What a miserable augury for the progress of the race and the destination of the individual if the more matured and enlightened state is the less happy one! Childhood is only the beautiful and happy time in contemplation and retrospect: to the child it is full of deep sorrows, the meaning of which is unknown. Witness colic and whooping-cough and dread of ghosts, to say nothing of hell and Satan, and an offended Deity in the sky, who was angry when I wanted too much plumcake. Then the sorrows of older persons, which children see but cannot understand, are worse than all. All this to prove that we are happier than when we were seven years old, and that we shall be happier when we are forty than we are now, which I call a comfortable doctrine, and one worth trying to believe!

As is often the case with history’s greatest luminaries, Eliot intuited something profound that has since been confirmed and quantified by modern science. In herbook on optimism bias and the life-cycle of happiness, neuroscientist Tali Sharot shares some data consistent with Eliot’s sentiment. This is the pattern of a typical person’s happiness over the course of a lifetime — a pattern that persists even when controlled for variables like marital status, health, and cultural climate:

The data comes from behavioral economist Andrew Oswald’s research, which Sharot synthesizes:

Happiness and the ability to learn from bad news alter with age in reverse patterns. The latter follows an inverse U shape, while the former a more traditional U shape. The behavioral economist Andrew Oswald found that from about the time we are teenagers, our sense of happiness starts to decline, hitting rock bottom in our mid-40s (middle-age crisis, anyone?). Then our sense of happiness miraculously starts to go up again rapidly as we grow older. This finding contradicts the common assumption that people in their 60s, 70s, and 80s are less happy and satisfied than people in their 30s and 40s.


All in all, Oswald tested a half million people in 72 countries, in both developing and developed nations. He observed the same pattern across all parts of the globe and across sexes. From Switzerland to Ecuador, from Romania to Singapore, Slovakia, Israel, Spain, Australia, and China. Happiness diminishes as we transition from childhood to adulthood and then starts rising as we grow wrinkles and acquire gray hair. And it’s not only we humans who slump in the middle and feel sunnier toward the end. Just recently, Oswald and colleagues demonstrated that even chimpanzees and orangutans appear to experience a similar pattern of midlife malaise.

The increase of happiness with age might have to do with the notion that attention, like a muscle, grows with training. Since happiness is so heavily anchored to ourcapacity for presence and so diminished by our mind-wandering, the ability to trulysee when we look at the world — something that takes time, practice, and awareness that youth rarely affords — is central to our sense of well-being. But if happiness is a habit to be cultivated, so is its opposite: Lest we forget, 40-year-old Eliot reminds us inThe Mill on the Floss that “one gets a bad habit of being unhappy.” Fortunately, Eliot did grow her own capacity for contentment with age.

-MARIA POPOVA, brainpickings

Monday, July 18, 2016


“Happiness. It’s winnable.” This is the dubious assertion that greets me on the Happify website, before I click “Start my journey” and sign up for the service.

I begin my journey in January. It seems like as good a time as any to try to become happier. The holidays are over. The long, bleak, shut-in months of winter stretch ahead of me. Few of the variables in my life are likely to change. There is unlikely to be a new job or relationship, or a move that would skew my happiness readings one way or another. Of course you can’t measure your happiness in a vacuum—and you probably wouldn’t be very happy in a vacuum anyway—but if there really is an app that can make you happier, I wanted to try it when my life was relatively stable. I decided to do it for a month.

Happify is a self-improvement program offered in both website and app form. It claims “your emotional well-being can be measured,” measures it for you, and provides little tasks and games to help you increase it. The company was founded by Ofer Leidner and Tomer Ben-Kiki, who previously ran an online gaming company called iPlay. About four years ago, Leidner and Ben-Kiki developed an interest in positive psychology and mindfulness, and wondered if they could pair it with their online gaming expertise. According to Leidner, they thought, “the models for delivering anything around mental health were clearly, in our mind at least, ripe for some disruption.”

Happify is technically free, but to access more advanced options, and detailed statistics, you have to pay—$11.99 a month (or less if you sign up for six months or a year all in one go)... (continues)

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

May 23, the best of the west

Our last class, already? We'll look at some of the happiness wisdom of Michel Montaigne, David Hume, William James, Bertrand Russell, and others, and we'll share our provisional conclusions on "what happiness means to me"... and I'll have a little parting gift for whoever wins our scorecard game (so post your thoughts, or send them to me).

"The most certain sign of wisdom is cheerfulness."
"Happiness involves working toward meaningful goals."
"I set forth a humble and inglorious life; that does not matter... Each man bears the entire form of the human condition."
We Should Not Judge of Our Happiness Until after Our Death... Montaigne on self-esteem: A Guide to Happiness

“Reading and sauntering and lounging and dosing, which I call thinking, is my supreme Happiness.”
"Tendency to joy and hope is true happiness; tendency to fear and melancholy is a real unhappiness."
"I possess the same ardour as ever in study, and the same gaiety in company." 

"The secret of happiness is this: let your interests be as wide as possible , and let your reactions to the things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile."

If we were to ask the question: “What is human life's chief concern?” one of the answers we should receive would be: “It is happiness.” How to gain, how to keep, how to recover happiness, is in fact for most men at all times the secret motive of all they do, and of all they are willing to endure.

"The really vital question for us all is, What is this world going to be? What is life eventually to make of itself?" 

"To pessimism and despair, the healthy-minded respond: 'stuff and nonsense, get out into the open air!'"

"The solid meaning of life is always the same eternal thing,— the marriage, namely, of some unhabitual ideal, however special, with some fidelity, courage, and endurance; with some man's or woman 's pains.—And, whatever or wherever life may be, there will always be the chance for that marriage to take place."

"There are unhappy men who think the salvation of the world impossible. Theirs is the doctrine known as pessimism. Optimism in turn would be the doctrine that thinks the world's salvation inevitable. Midway between the two there stands what may be called the doctrine of meliorism, tho it has hitherto figured less as a doctrine than as an attitude in human affairs. Optimism has always been the regnant DOCTRINE in european philosophy. Pessimism was only recently introduced by Schopenhauer and counts few systematic defenders as yet. Meliorism treats salvation as neither inevitable nor impossible. It treats it as a possibility, which becomes more and more of a probability the more numerous the actual conditions of salvation become.It is clear that pragmatism must incline towards meliorism..."

"Remember when old December's darkness is everywhere about you, that the world is really in every minutest point as full of life as in the most joyous morning you ever lived through; that the sun is whanging down, and the waves dancing, and the gulls skimming down at the mouth of the Amazon, for instance, as freshly as in the first morning of creation; and the hour is just as fit as any hour that ever was for a new gospel of cheer to be preached. I am sure that one can, by merely thinking of these matters of fact, limit the power of one's evil moods over one's way of looking at the cosmos." More James Quotes...

“It is by being fully involved with every detail of our lives, whether good or bad, that we find happiness, not by trying to look for it directly.” 

“On the job people feel skillful and challenged, and therefore feel more happy, strong, creative, and satisfied. In their free time people feel that there is generally not much to do and their skills are not being used, and therefore they tend to feel more sad, weak, dull, and dissatisfied. Yet they would like to work less and spend more time in leisure. What does this contradictory pattern mean? There are several possible explanations, but one conclusion seems inevitable: when it comes to work, people do not heed the evidence of their senses. They disregard the quality of immediate experience, and base their motivation instead on the strongly rooted cultural stereotype of what work is supposed to be like. They think of it as an imposition, a constraint, an infringement of their freedom, and therefore something to be avoided as much as possible.” 

"...one needs to learn to control attention. In principle any skill or discipline one can master on one’s own will serve: meditation and prayer if one is so inclined; exercise, aerobics, martial arts for those who prefer concentrating on physical skills. Any specialization or expertise that one finds enjoyable and where one can improve one’s knowledge over time. The important thing, however, is the attitude toward these disciplines. If one prays in order to be holy, or exercises to develop strong pectoral muscles, or learns to be knowledgeable, then a great deal of the benefit is lost. The important thing is to enjoy the activity for its own sake, and to know that what matters is not the result, but the control one is acquiring over one’s attention.” 

“...success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue...as the unintended side-effect of one's personal dedication to a course greater than oneself.”

To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself. She has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances.”

“A joyful life is an individual creation that cannot be copied from a recipe.”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
When I go out for a walk, there is so much that makes me happy to be alive. Breathing. Not thinking. Observing. I am grateful beyond measure to be part of it all. There are people, of course, heroic and heartbreaking, going about their business in splendid fashion.
There are the discarded items — chairs, sofas, tables, umbrellas, shoes — also heroic for having lived life in happy (or unhappy) homes.
Image result for maira kalman dogs 
There are trees. Glorious and consoling. Changing with the seasons. Reminders that all things change. And change again. There are flowers, birds, babies, buildings.
I love all of these. But above all, I am besotted by dogs
Image result for maira kalman dogs.

Jennifer Michael Hecht on happiness... nyt review... @dawn

Image result for happiness myth hecht"I go for a walk through the forest near my house, just as Aristotle walked along the beach at Assos," writes Arthur Herman, recounting the bounteous profusion of nature's teeming, towering, bewildering, constantly changing flora and fauna at his feet. "This is nature, the real world buzzing and blooming around us."

Our journey through the forest struck Plato's and Aristotle's heirs, the Hellenistic Cynics, Epicureans, Stoics, and Skeptics, as an opportunity to make themselves at home there and everywhere. Initially, writes Jennifer Michael Hecht, they "felt a desperate desire to get out of the seemingly endless, friendless woods." But thanks to the applied philosophical therapeutics of their 'graceful-life philosophies' they learned to love the place. "Hang a sign that says HOME on a tree and you're done."

"Abundant blessings previously acquired"... Older, wiser, happier... Happily home

C&H on the point of living

Also worth noting, before we ring down the curtain on this class, is the writing advice of poet Jane Kenyon (it's her birthday), which doubles as good happiness widsom:
“Be a good steward of your gifts. Protect your time. Feed your inner life. Avoid too much noise. Read good books, have good sentences in your ears. Be by yourself as often as you can. Walk. Take the phone off the hook. Work regular hours.”
And, Monty Python's"Meaning of Life" secret of happiness:
Well, it's nothing very special. Try to be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations... Oh, well, there we are. Here's the theme music. Goodnight.
More seriously, Bertrand Russell again: happy people "connect with the stream of life," they don't isolate themselves in forgotten tributaries of self-obsession. John Dewey similarly spoke of the "continuous human community in which we are a link." 

And Sissela Bok on overcoming melancholy... and John Lachs's "Stoic Pragmatism," In Love With Life...

But there may just not be time to get it all in. So maybe we'll just cut to the end, that's no end at all. The last thing I say to every class, from William James's deathbed: "There is no conclusion. What has been concluded, that we might conclude in regard to it? There are no fortunes to be told, and there is no advice to be given. — Farewell!"

Talk to you later.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Next: Stoics and Skeptics

"How the Stoics can help us tackle anxiety, fury and loss of perspective - and realize that very little is needed to make a happy life."

Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius... 

"Pessimism is generally equated with a grumpy and immature kind of mood. But it is in fact at the origin of wisdom – and can even leave us feeling surprisingly cheerful."

"Arthur Schopenhauer was deeply influenced by Buddhist thought and is in many ways the West’s answer to it: he too tells us to reign in our desires and adopt a consolingly pessimistic attitude to our struggles."

"Sigmund Freud, the inventor of psychoanalysis, appreciated the many ways in which our minds are troubled and anxious. It isn't us in particular: it's the human condition."

Schopenhauer, Freud, Ehrenreich, Eric Wilson...

Friday, May 6, 2016

Frude and his discontents

It's Sigmund Freud's birthday. He'll get a mention in Happiness as one of the skeptics who doubt our capacity for genuine subjective well-being, we discontented partial products of civilization. But he doesn't doubt our universal hunger for happiness. “What do [people] demand of life and wish to achieve in it? The answer to this can hardly be in doubt. They strive for happiness; they want to become happy and to remain so.” The trouble is, our heritable nature teems with unexpressed and socially unapproved uncivilized desires whose satisfaction, hence our happiness, cannot be sanctioned.

Maybe. But as he also notes, we have it in ourselves to reconstruct those desires. We can find tremendous satisfaction in our work, for instance.

And yet, as a path to happiness, work is not highly prized by men. They do not strive after it as they do after other possibilities of satisfaction. The great majority of people only work under the stress of necessity, and this natural human aversion to work raises most difficult social problems. Civilization and its DiscontentsHe wasn't speaking for himself, apparently. He took great satisfaction in his work. Many of us do. True, we've conditioned ourselves to an aversion to the word and some of its socially constructed connotations. But that's just a bad habit.

We need to habituate ourselves to a different attitude, and perhaps a different language. "Work" may be an un-redeemable four-letter-word. Why not just call what we do for fun and satisfactionliving? The problem, of course, is that too many people don't derive fun and satisfaction from what they do for money.

Barney Fife was wrong. "Frude" did not quite have it all figured out.

Action for Happiness (@actionhappiness)
Happy people are less influenced by social comparisons and more likely to be at peace with themselves as they are greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/h…

Specfic Quotes (@SpecficQuotes)
“Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if 1 only remembers 2 turn on the light.”
—Dumbledore, #HarryPotter & …Pris.ofAzkaban

Gretchen Rubin (@gretchenrubin)
The fun part doesn't come later; now is the fun part.

Agree, disagree?
#SecretsOfAdulthood pic.twitter.com/L11WC3IhQ5

Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich

“I do not write this in a spirit of sourness or personal disappointment of any kind, nor do I have any romantic attachment to suffering as a source of insight or virtue. On the contrary, I would like to see more smiles, more laughter, more hugs, more happiness and, better yet, joy. In my own vision of utopia, there is not only more comfort, and security for everyone — better jobs, health care, and so forth — there are also more parties, festivities, and opportunities for dancing in the streets. Once our basic material needs are met — in my utopia, anyway — life becomes a perpetual celebration in which everyone has a talent to contribute. But we cannot levitate ourselves into that blessed condition by wishing it. We need to brace ourselves for a struggle against terrifying obstacles, both of our own making and imposed by the natural world. And the first step is to recover from the mass delusion that is positive thinking.”

“The question is why one should be so inwardly preoccupied at all. Why not reach out to others in love and solidarity or peer into the natural world for some glimmer of understanding? Why retreat into anxious introspection when, as Emerson might have said, there is a vast world outside to explore? Why spend so much time working on oneself when there is so much real work to be done?”

“What would it mean in practice to eliminate all the 'negative people' from one's life? It might be a good move to separate from a chronically carping spouse, but it is not so easy to abandon the whiny toddler, the colicky infant, or the sullen teenager. And at the workplace, while it's probably advisable to detect and terminate those who show signs of becoming mass killers, there are other annoying people who might actually have something useful to say: the financial officer who keeps worrying about the bank's subprime mortgage exposure or the auto executive who questions the company's overinvestment in SUVs and trucks. Purge everyone who 'brings you down,' and you risk being very lonely, or, what is worse, cut off from reality.”

“In other words, it requires deliberate self-deception, including a constant effort to repress or block out unpleasant possibilities and 'negative' thoughts. The truly self-confident, or those who have in some way made their peace with the world and their destiny within it, do not need to expend effort censoring or otherwise controlling their thoughts.”

“Human intellectual progress, such as it has been, results from our long struggle to see things 'as they are,' or in the most universally comprehensible way, and not as projections of our own emotions. Thunder is not a tantrum in the sky, disease is not a divine punishment, and not every death or accident results from witchcraft. What we call the Enlightenment and hold on to only tenuously, by our fingernails, is the slow-dawning understanding that the world is unfolding according to its own inner algorithms of cause and effect, probability and chance, without any regard for human feelings.”

“Breast cancer, I can now report, did not make me prettier or stronger, more feminine or spiritual. What it gave me, if you want to call this a “gift,” was a very personal, agonizing encounter with an ideological force in American culture that I had not been aware of before—one that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune, and blame only ourselves for our fate.”

“When our children are old enough, and if we can afford to, we send them to college, where despite the recent proliferation of courses on 'happiness' and 'positive psychology,' the point is to acquire the skills not of positive thinking but of *critical* thinking, and critical thinking is inherently skeptical. The best students -- and in good colleges, also the most successful -- are the ones who raise sharp questions, even at the risk of making a professor momentarily uncomfortable. Whether the subject is literature or engineering, graduates should be capable of challenging authority figures, going against the views of their classmates, and defending novel points of view.”==
“Surely some of you have felt the same way that I do. You have turned sullenly from those thousands of glowing, perfect teeth lighting the American landscape and slouched to the darkness—the half-lighted room, the twilight forest, the empty café. There you have sat and settled into the bare, hard fact that the world is terrible in its beauty, indifferent much of the time, incoherent and nervous and resplendent when on certain evenings, when the clouds are right, a furious owl swooshes luridly from the horizon. You feel that sweet pressure behind your eyes, as if you would at any minute explode into hot tears. You long to languish in this unnamed sadness, this vague sense that everything is precious because it is dying, because you can never hold it, because it exists for only an instant.”

“To desire only happiness in a world undoubtedly tragic is to become inauthentic.”

“Creating doesn't make us unhappy, unhappiness makes us creative. To create is to live, and in living, we want only to creat more, to set our foundations depper and reach higher toward the sky. If sadness is what makes us creative, then sadness is nothing else but life.”

“Do not perceive through overly judgmental eyes, prone to damnation. If you do, you are constrained to witness nothing but your notion of perfection, either fulfilled or violated. Gaze at life rather as though you were always blessing it, consecrating it, humbly, as holy, and then your biases will be relaxed and your curiosity will be aroused and surprise; there, in your peripheral, a glimmer after which you go, and it is gone, but its absence gleams.”― Eric G. WilsonAgainst Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy

“The point is, you are most you, at your best, when you create the roles that make you feel most alive: witty, lyrical, speculative, loving, but also, and here’s the rub, cynical, sarcastic, angry, muddled, sad—for negative states can be just as vital as positive ones. Fullness is the goal, myriad-mindedness (a happy phrase Coleridge conjured to describe Shakespeare): to be as varied and capacious as the cosmos. With this bigness, containing the most sublime and the low at once, you can hope that generosity will win out over the meanness, that you will foster the democratic, merciful embrace of what is as well as what ought to be. The best actor, Hamlet asserts, uses all gently.”
― Eric G. WilsonKeep It Fake: Inventing an Authentic Life
Stoics @dawn... Skeptics @dawn... Against Happiness (10.13.09)...Vital Living (more on Eric Wilson, 10.15.09)... Reubenesque Reunion (vs. Oliver Burkeman's Stoic pessimism)... The cynical solution... Diogenes @dawn... Epicurus @dawn... Seneca @dawn... Stoic @dawn... Carpe vitam (on JMHecht, 10.22.09)... Hecht @home @dawn... The bright-sided secret of happiness (9.13.11)

Monday, May 2, 2016

Next: Matthieu Ricard and Buddhist happiness

Our first lifelong learning Happiness class went great today, I thought! I hope some of you will play our little Scorecard game and post some comments, introductions ("Who are you, & why are you here?"), thoughts on "what happiness means to you" (the Pharrell Williams question), or anything else you'd like to share. You can move up a base on the scorecard for each of those you post. At the end of our four weeks, the student with the most total bases and runs will win a doorprize - perhaps a copy of that book I waved around? If you don't want to wait, I'll be happy to sell you a cheap copy next time. (How does $5 sound?)

We'll be talking next about Matthieu Ricard, described as "the world's happiest man," and about his Buddhist approach to happiness. Here's the TED Talk [transcript] he did several years ago:

And here's his more recent talk on Altruism:

Here's a link to Ricard's book on happiness, and here's a link to the book he did with his Dad the philosopher.

The School of Life's western version of mindfulness and philosophical meditation...

Back to Ricard...
I leave you with the beauty of those looks that tells more about happiness than I could ever say...

And jumping monks of Tibet.

Flippin' happy 
See you on the 9th. Have a happy week!