Up@dawn 2.0

Thursday, June 22, 2017

American Philosophy: A Love Story

John Kaag's American Philosophy: A Love Story is also a happiness story. 

In 2008, a young University of Massachusetts Lowell philosophy professor named John Kaag set out on a fateful road trip. He was driving to Chocorua, N.H., to help organize a conference on William James, who had owned a home in the nearby White Mountains. Stopping for coffee in town, he admitted to a 93-year-old local what he did for a living.
This old man had grown up on the estate of another philosophy professor, William Ernest Hocking, a once powerful and wealthy pillar of Harvard in the early 20th century. On Hocking’s property still stood his private library, a custom-built free-standing pile. Kaag, invited to look in, instantly recognized the early publications of the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, on whom Kaag had written his doctoral dissertation — books inscribed by Peirce himself. He found William James’s reading in preparation for “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” with James’s marginalia and annotations. He found signed gift copies from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman and Robert Frost, which had ended up in Hocking’s hands. Then there were the masterpieces of European philosophy since the 17th century: Descartes’s “Discourse on Method” in a first edition; the first English translation of Hobbes’s “De Cive”; and first editions of significant works by Kant. The books were moldering under inches of dust in an unheated, uncooled limbo.
All this would be a wonderful event in the life of any professor, especially one as gifted and skilled as Kaag in the history of 19th-century philosophy. (One of his previous works concerns Ella Lyman Cabot, “one of the few women of classical American philosophy.”) It would not seem to make for a popular book. But Kaag used the discovery of the library as an excuse to transform his own life... (nyt, continues)
Robert Richardson:
There is a strange daylight magic in this book. It is part memoir and part flyover of American philosophy, which, says Kaag, “from Jonathan Edwards in the eighteenth century . . . to Cornel West in this one, is about the possibilities of rebirth and renewal” (66). The book is also clearly and beautifully written. I picked it up for a quick look and couldn’t put it down. Not since Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance have I read such a mesmerizing confluence of personal experience and formal thought. A young philosophy professor dangling at the end of a failed marriage, depressed and not at all sure life is worth living, stumbles upon a magnificent abandoned stone library deep in the New Hampshire woods. The lost library is crammed with old rare incredibly valuable books — all the classics of American philosophy and its German, English, and French antecedents. As the narrator struggles with his life (and with the problem of what to do about this hidden treasure) so he struggles with the main lines of American thought from Transcendentalism to Pragmatism and beyond. A female colleague, a Kantian, joins him in his strange mission and in the string of personal experiences that follow, the narrator takes us back and forth from learning to love until he can answer the question is life worth living with a sly “it depends on the liver” (8) and a modestly rapturous “maybe” (235).
Kaag’s notion of philosophy is not technical or academic in the usual ways. Heidegger once started a class on Aristotle with a disdainful dismissal of the biographical. Of Aristotle’s life he said “He was born. He thought. He died.” 1 Heidegger had more reason than most to avoid biographical illumination, but his low view of the subject is fairly common in some quarters. Not, however, with John Kaag, who writes “Royce’s lectures on German Idealism began where all philosophy does, in biography” (166). That is to say, in life. And if philosophy couldn’t help us lead better lives, most of us wouldn’t care two pins for it. American Philosophy: A Love Story is saturated with William James’s thought and life. Even so, Kaag is, I think it fair to say, a Roycean; he is drawn more to a life with others — to community — than to individualism, however splendid. But he gives equal time to Emerson, Thoreau, James, Hocking, and so many others (Descartes, Hobbes, T.H Huxley, etc., etc.) that I would advise a beginning student to read this book rather than those of Father Copleston or Will[iam James] Durant for an overview of American thought. And beyond overview, Kaag has many new things for us, the relationship between Emerson and Henry Lee, that between William James and Pauline Goldmark, and that between Ernest Hocking and Pearl Buck. There is a fresh bit on Royce’s last words, another on the origins of Shady Hill School, a reappraisal of Jane Addams and much, much more.
American Philosophy: a Love Story is then a brightly written, thoroughly accessible, sometimes moving account of a young life in philosophy. (It is also an adventure story about the discovery of the lost library of Ernest Hocking.) Kaag teaches courage, risk-taking and above all reading. He would, I think, agree with the comment attributed to Borges that “you are not what you write, but what you have read.” And his book goes on my shelf with other books in which philosophy lives, with Jacques Barzun’s A Stroll with William James, Margaret Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, Louis Menand’s Metaphysical Club, Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, Richard Rubenstein’s Aristotle’s Children, Mary Renault’s The Last of the Wine and Simone de Beavoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter.
Kaag leaves us with what Goethe, Emerson, and William James all agreed on. In the beginning was not the word, but the deed, the act. The way forward is not twelve steps, or ten or three. It’s just one. Don’t sleep on it, sit on it, stand on it, or take it for a trial spin. Take the step, You have to do what you can, and you have to do it right now.


Solve for Happy

There's much wisdom and humanity in Gawdat's book. Unfortunately he labors under serious misconceptions about evolution, probability, and "randomness" that skew his comprehension of the ways secular people can also "solve for happy." But you can skip those chapters.

Here's his interview with the Guardian.

Mo Gawdat is the chief business officer at Google X – the “moonshot factory” responsible for some of the company’s more audacious projects, such as self-driving cars and a balloon-powered global internet. Before he joined Google, while working as stock trader and tech executive in Dubai and in response to a period of depression, he used his engineer’s mindset to create an “equation for happiness”. The equation says that happiness is greater than, or equal to, your perception of the events in your life minus your expectation of how life should be.
When his 21-year-old son Ali died during a routine operation, Gawdat turned to the equation, which they had worked on together, in an attempt to come to terms with his tragic loss. Gawdat’s book, Solve for Happy, explains the theories underpinning the equation and how it helped him sustain his life after Ali’s death.

To an outsider you were a successful, wealthy individual with a loving family; not an obvious candidate for someone who felt the need to devote themselves to developing a theory of happiness. You say the more money you had, the less happy you became.
That is correct and it’s not uncommon among many of my successful and wealthy friends. The scientific research will tell you that the more income you get the more happy you will become, but once you get to average income your happiness plateaus. Moreover, I found that when you go even higher, wealth starts to work against you – people start to treat you differently; you start to feel a constant disappointment.

You mention that while you were on the “hedonistic treadmill” you bought two Rolls-Royces online on a whim.
That truly was a turning point. This was again the attempt to fill that gap in my soul. When they arrived I was completely disappointed, they were pretty, I sat in them for 20 minutes but then I went back to my unhappy thoughts, and once you go back to the things that make you unhappy it doesn’t matter what’s parked in the garage. That was a turning point, that nothing material will solve this stuff.

Do you still have them?
I’ve been trying to sell them, I’ve tried giving them to charity. They are in showrooms waiting to be sold. I rent cars now.

You weren’t able to find joy in your life. Is finding joy a skill that should be taught?
Absolutely. Happiness is very much like staying fit. You start with the decision that you are going to get fit, you find out how – but knowing that is not enough, you have to go to the gym to work out and eat healthily. To me the whole topic of happiness is exactly the same. First you understand that happiness is a choice, that you can actually achieve it and that there is a method to make it happen. Happiness is not a coincidence, it is not given to you by life, it’s entirely our responsibility.

When your son died, did you feel like jettisoning your theories? Are you surprised that your equation held up in such tragic circumstances?
You know how there are five stages of grief? We started with acceptance. My wife at the time made an insightful comment when they asked to do an autopsy on Ali’s body: “Will it bring Ali back?” The realisation that nothing we could do, including crying in our rooms for the next 17 years, would ever bring him back… we started from there.

I then went through a rollercoaster. But I would sometimes imagine talking to Ali and if you knew him, his first reaction would be: “Papa I’ve already died, there’s nothing you can do about it, so what are you going to make out of it?” When I started going through this dialogue it made me realise that this can be for a reason, for good can come out of it.

Do you ever wonder how you would have responded to your son’s death if you hadn’t developed your happiness equation?
I would have definitely left life, I wouldn’t have killed myself, but I would have found a corner somewhere and shut the door and sat there until they came. Ali was not just my son, he was my mentor, best friend, confidante, my teacher, he truly was “it”, basically. I can’t imagine I would have handled it at all without the model we built together.

You talk about how happiness is a human’s default state. Where’s your evidence for this?
That was one of the eye-openers for me. The first observation was I was a very happy young man until around 25, and then something went wrong, and I became very unhappy. To me, an engineer, that means you have a highly optimised machine that began to misbehave. So I started to go back to all the points where I was happy. If you go back to childhood, you observe that if a child’s basic needs are met their default state is happy – they don’t need an iPhone, they can play with their toes and be happy.

You say that the voice inside your head isn’t you. If we aren’t the voices inside our heads, what are we?
We have a set of illusions. One of them is that we associate so strongly with the voice in our head when the reality is that it is just a biological function; it is exactly like your heart pumping blood around your body. It’s your brain’s way of delivering survival functions to you – its job is to scan the world around it using sensory input and then coordinate your muscle responses and take action so that you survive.

Thoughts have truly propelled our civilisation, and we think of the voice inside our heads as us. But that isn’t remotely true once you realise that you don’t have to obey your thoughts – I can accept them, I can reject them, I can ask the brain to go and get me a better one. You can do what people do in meetings: you ask me a question, I give you an answer, but you can say to me: “Mo, can you get me a better answer?”, and I go back to my brain and I say, give me a better answer. Treat your brain as a biological function and understand he is not the boss – you are the boss.

Can you explain what you mean by the illusion of time?
We deal with time every day, yet no one really knows what time is, including the master of the science of time Albert Einstein. He’ll tell you that past, present and future is nothing more than a stubborn persistent illusion. We have created machines that measure mechanical movement in such a way, yet we have no idea what it is that we are measuring and we are very happy to torture ourselves with it.

If you ask a Buddhist what time it is, their answer will be “the time is now”. Like a Buddhist, the only time you have ever lived is a moment of now. You’ve never lived in the past, you will never live in the future; when the future comes it will be a moment of now. Yet we never give ourselves the luxury of living in now; instead, we are constantly living inside our heads looking in the past and the future, and as you do that you constantly suffer.

Could you turn your equation into an app?
Absolutely. I believe that the book is just the start of a very big initiative. I am trying to create a movement that doesn’t depend on me or the book. I’ve set myself a target of 10 million people happy, and I’m hoping that everyone will set themselves a target of 25 people or 25 million happy, depending on their reach. I’m not about selling books, I believe I’ve been paid by life already.

In what sense was your quest to develop an equation for happiness informed by Google X’s moonshot philosophy, to set audacious rather than incremental goals?
Absolutely, our CEO Larry Page teaches us to set an audacious target but while you may miss it, what you achieve is greater than if you set a low target.

You are on a sabbatical from X?
I have a tremendous respect for a company that does things that make the world a better place. Although public opinion sometimes attacks Google, imagine a life without search. I am one of the top execs in Google and I can tell you it is truly not a place about the money, this is a place that is truly about changing the world.

When you go back to X what will you be working on?
I can tell you but then I’d have to flash you like the Men in Black.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Our new age of anxiety: Prozac Nation Is Now the United States of Xanax

This past winter, Sarah Fader, a 37-year-old social media consultant in Brooklyn who has generalized anxiety disorder, texted a friend in Oregon about an impending visit, and when a quick response failed to materialize, she posted on Twitter to her 16,000-plus followers. “I don’t hear from my friend for a day — my thought, they don’t want to be my friend anymore,” she wrote, appending the hashtag #ThisIsWhatAnxietyFeelsLike.

Thousands of people were soon offering up their own examples under the hashtag; some were retweeted more than 1,000 times. You might say Ms. Fader struck a nerve. “If you’re a human being living in 2017 and you’re not anxious,” she said on the telephone, “there’s something wrong with you.”

It was 70 years ago that the poet W.H. Auden published “The Age of Anxiety,” a six-part verse framing modern humankind’s condition over the course of more than 100 pages, and now it seems we are too rattled to even sit down and read something that long (or as the internet would say, tl;dr).

Anxiety has become our everyday argot, our thrumming lifeblood: not just on Twitter (the ur-anxious medium, with its constant updates), but also in blogger diaries, celebrity confessionals (Et tu, Beyoncé?), a hit Broadway show (“Dear Evan Hansen”), a magazine start-up (Anxy, a mental-health publication based in Berkeley, Calif.), buzzed-about television series (like “Maniac,” a coming Netflix series by Cary Fukunaga, the lauded “True Detective” director) and, defying our abbreviated attention spans, on bookshelves.

With two new volumes analyzing the condition (“On Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety,” by Andrea Petersen, and “Hi, Anxiety,” by Kat Kinsman) following recent best-sellers by Scott Stossel (“My Age of Anxiety”) and Daniel Smith (“Monkey Mind”), the anxiety memoir has become a literary subgenre to rival the depression memoir, firmly established since William Styron’s “Darkness Visible” and Elizabeth Wurtzel’s “Prozac Nation” in the 1990s and continuing today with Daphne Merkin’s “This Close to Happy.”

While to epidemiologists both disorders are medical conditions, anxiety is starting to seem like a sociological condition, too: a shared cultural experience that feeds on alarmist CNN graphics and metastasizes through social media. As depression was to the 1990s — summoned forth by Kurt Cobain, “Listening to Prozac,” Seattle fog and Temple of the Dog dirges on MTV, viewed from under a flannel blanket — so it seems we have entered a new Age of Anxiety. Monitoring our heart rates. Swiping ceaselessly at our iPhones. Filling meditation studios in an effort to calm our racing thoughts.

Consider the fidget spinner: endlessly whirring between the fingertips of “Generation Alpha,” annoying teachers, baffling parents. Originally marketed as a therapeutic device to chill out children with anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or autism, these colorful daisy-shaped gizmos have suddenly found an unlikely off-label use as an explosively popular toy, perhaps this generation’s Rubik’s Cube.

But the Cube was fundamentally a cerebral, calm pursuit, perfect for the latchkey children of the 1980s to while away their lonely, Xbox-free hours. The fidget spinner is nothing but nervous energy rendered in plastic and steel, a perfect metaphor for the overscheduled, overstimulated children of today as they search for a way to unplug between jujitsu lessons, clarinet practice and Advanced Placement tutoring.

According to data from the National Institute of Mental Health, some 38 percent of girls ages 13 through 17, and 26 percent of boys, have an anxiety disorder. On college campuses, anxiety is running well ahead of depression as the most common mental health concern, according to a 2016 national study of more than 150,000 students by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Pennsylvania State University. Meanwhile, the number of web searches involving the term has nearly doubled over the last five years, according to Google Trends. (The trendline for “depression” was relatively flat.)

(nyt, continues)

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Happiness [really Stoicism] for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking

Philosophy Matters (@PhilosophyMttrs)
Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking: On A Certain Kind of Stoicism ... buff.ly/2r2D1qj pic.twitter.com/aPqPZoL0Ta

Oliver Burkeman is a writer for The Guardian based in New York. He’s also helped bring stoicism to a mass audience with his popular book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. The book, which has a chapter based on Seneca, explores the upsides of negativity, uncertainty, failure and imperfection. In other words, instead of gushy, hazy-headed “Fake it ‘till you make it” thinking, Burkeman looks at the real psychological and therapeutic effects of realism, of unflinching self-honesty and resilience.

We interviewed him over email to find out what drew him to Stoicism and how it can help people.

What was it that motivated you to write The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking? Were you frustrated with the plethora of self­-help literature that focused uniquely on positivity? Was it a personal exploration you felt you needed to do?

I’d been writing my Guardian column on psychologyfor a while when began to see a pattern emerging. Most of the self-help approaches that seemed to actually work had something in common: they weren’t about trying to eradicate negative emotions through willpower, or steamrolling them with upbeat thoughts. Instead they were about taking a stance of interest, or even acceptance, toward negative states like insecurity, uncertainty, sadness, failure and so on. I didn’t know at the beginning that this was an old, old idea – much older than positive thinking.

Your book is well known in the Stoic community for its chapter on Seneca. What drew you to that? Why did you decide to write about such an ancient topic alongside modern ideas from people like Eckhart Tolle?

Well, to be clear, I’m a totally half-assed Stoic (though I try to be Stoic about that). I simply plundered a handful of ideas from Stoicism – mainly the ones that echoed other insights I encountered on what I came to call the “negative path to happiness”. Though there are countless areas of difference, the commonalities between Stoicism, Buddhism, “non-dual” ideas like Tolle’s, and some therapeutic techniques – like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy – are downright spooky. If deeply thoughtful people are reaching the same conclusions even when separated by thousands of miles or thousands of years, it’s probably time to conclude that they’re the truth.

Was there a particular Stoic idea or exercise that you think people would benefit most from? Is there one that has stuck with you?
By far the one that stuck with me the most was the “premeditation of evils” or negative visualization – thinking soberly about worst-case scenarios, asking yourself how badly a given choice or event could work out, rather than trying to persuade yourself everything will go fine. This is immensely reassuring, in almost every case, firstly because you discover you were fearing a scenario many times worse than any that could actually occur; and secondly because, even if things do go badly, you’ll feel more prepared and resilient. There might still be fear, but there’ll be no fear of fear on top of that. I ask myself “what’s the worst case scenario here?” multiple times a day. (Sometimes I ask other people, too, to try to be helpful, but it generally annoys them.)

Do you have a favorite stoic quote?

If I’m allowed a paraphrasing of Eckhart Tolle, who of course wouldn’t call himself a Stoic… “Do you have a problem now?” This is a tremendously powerful question, I think, and insofar as it draws attention to the role of thoughts in causing distress, I think it counts.

You’ve talked in the book about how striving with all our might to be happy essentially eliminates the possibility. This sounds very counterintuitive to most people. Can you tell us why that is so?

The most down-to-earth way to explain this is just as a matter of how we’re designed, in a cognitive sense. Trying really hard to directly alter your emotions or thoughts is bound to backfire. Tell yourself you’re only going to think positively, and you end up scanning your mind for traces of negativity, which isn’t a positive way to live. Trying to make yourself calm down makes you stressed instead. Bereaved people who try not to feel grief end up having more problems with grief, and so on. (When you think about it, if we could switch off emotions like fear through the power of thought, we wouldn’t have survived for long, in evolutionary terms.) A more “spiritual” answer would probably bring in Buddhist ideas about the self: our efforts to make everything “go our way” inadvertently reinforce the very ego that is the source of suffering.

Do you have a daily routine that incorporates any of what you studied in the book? Any chance it is something you picked up from Seneca? Tell us about your daily practices and what benefits you see from them.

My daily routine is a real mashup: meditation (Buddhism); morning pages (which comes from Julia Cameron, and probably counts as “new age”); and working in 90-minute focus blocks whenever possible (from Tony Schwartz). I think the Stoicism part is more of a flavor that suffuses all of them. So in meditation I’ll seek to be accepting of negative circumstances, like tiredness or anxiety or whatever; in morning pages I’ll often find myself exploring worst-case scenarios, or gratitude in the Senecan sense (understand the fragility and contingency of the relationships and possessions you currently enjoy, and you’ll value them more).

And as a final question, what is next for you?
I’m writing a book about time. (Although I’d probably back away in alarm from anyone who said those words to me at a party.) Ultimately it’s about the shortness of life, and what psychology can tell us about using our brief time well. So that’s Stoicism again, really: Seneca’s On The Shortness of Life is still one of the most penetrating examinations of the matter. Life’s not really short, he insists; it’s that we go systematically wrong in how we use it.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

On sunshine & happiness

Being told that one’s view of life is – at a given moment – not the product of economic or moral conditions but of a lack of light (or indigestion or exhaustion) is from a certain angle intensely demeaning. There is an impulse to believe that our woes must be of a more weighty kind. Yet the truth is more subtle: to be happy, it seems we require some extremely large things (money, employment, freedom, love), but we also rely on a raft of peculiarly small things too

On Sunshine | The Book of Life from Alain de Botton’s Tweet 

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Cultivate well-being: Seligman

Relieving stress and anxiety might help you feel better — for a bit. Martin E.P. Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and a pioneer in the field of positive psychology, does not see alleviating negative emotions as a path to happiness.

“Psychology is generally focused on how to relieve depression, anger and worry,” he said. “Freud and Schopenhauer said the most you can ever hope for in life is not to suffer, not to be miserable, and I think that view is empirically false, morally insidious, and a political and educational dead-end.”

“What makes life worth living,” he said, “is much more than the absence of the negative.”

To Dr. Seligman, the most effective long-term strategy for happiness is to actively cultivate well-being.

In his 2012 book, “Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being,” he explored how well-being consists not merely of feeling happy (an emotion that can be fleeting) but of experiencing a sense of contentment in the knowledge that your life is flourishing and has meaning beyond your own pleasure... (continues)

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Great expectations

The glass ceiling of happiness is held in place by two stout pillars, one psychological, the other biological. On the psychological level, happiness depends on expectations rather than objective conditions. We don’t become satisfied by leading a peaceful and prosperous existence. Rather, we become satisfied when reality matches our expectations. The bad news is that as conditions improve, expectations balloon. Dramatic improvements in conditions, as humankind has experienced in recent decades, translate into greater expectations rather than greater contentment. If we don’t do something about this, our future achievements too might leave us as dissatisfied as ever.” 
― Yuval Noah HarariHomo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow
Buddhist happiness-“According to Buddhism, the root of suffering is neither the feeling of pain nor of sadness nor even of meaninglessness. Rather, the real root of suffering is this never-ending and pointless pursuit of ephemeral feelings, which causes us to be in a constant state of tension, restlessness and dissatisfaction. Due to this pursuit, the mind is never satisfied. Even when experiencing pleasure, it is not content, because it fears this feeling might soon disappear, and craves that this feeling should stay and intensify. People are liberated from suffering not when they experience this or that fleeting pleasure, but rather when they understand the impermanent nature of all their feelings, and stop craving them. This is the aim of Buddhist meditation practices. In meditation, you are supposed to closely observe your mind and body, witness the ceaseless arising and passing of all your feelings, and realise how pointless it is to pursue them. When the pursuit stops, the mind becomes very relaxed, clear and satisfied. All kinds of feelings go on arising and passing – joy, anger, boredom, lust – but once you stop craving particular feelings, you can just accept them for what they are. You live in the present moment instead of fantasising about what might have been. The resulting serenity is so profound that those who spend their lives in the frenzied pursuit of pleasant feelings can hardly imagine it. It is like a man standing for decades on the seashore, embracing certain ‘good’ waves and trying to prevent them from disintegrating, while simultaneously pushing back ‘bad’ waves to prevent them from getting near him. Day in, day out, the man stands on the beach, driving himself crazy with this fruitless exercise. Eventually, he sits down on the sand and just allows the waves to come and go as they please. How peaceful!” 
― Yuval Noah HarariSapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Happy philosophers

Have you ever noticed how dour the great philosophers look in their portraits? Martin O’Neill, senior lecturer in politics at the University of York, decided to put a happier spin on the history of philosophy...

Image may contain: 1 person Image may contain: 1 person, closeup