Up@dawn 2.0

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The future of happiness

Technology is the biggest disrupter of happiness in human history. This is the conclusion so many have come to in our world. In fact, in 2005, the MIT Tech Review, one of the centers of the technological revolution, posed a question: “Is technological progress merely a treadmill, and if so, would we be happier if we stepped off of it?"
Knowing that technology is here to stay, we need to learn how to live with the complexity..." 

(Amy Blankson, continues)

Also of note:

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Strong correlation between purposefulness and happiness

Joseph Carter: "Keys in hand, I took a deep breath. I flipped the ignition and the memories of my Papa rushed back, just as the familiar rumble of his Thunderbird kicked in.

After a series of painful events in late 2016, I struggled to understand how almost everything around me went wrong so suddenly. If anything, I felt aimless. That is, until the moment I inherited my grandfather’s 1972 Ford Thunderbird. Immediately, it reminded me of the best memories of him — birthday fishing trips, playing with his model trains, learning to make animal balloons (he was a Shriner clown), and my brother and I lounging in his hammock by the shore of Lake Murray, S.C. Kitschy as it sounds, restoring his T-Bird gave me a new sense of purpose.

Purpose is a universal human need. Without it, we feel bereft of meaning and happiness.

A recent ethnographic study draws a strong correlation between purposefulness and happiness. Purpose seems beneficial to overcoming substance abuse, healing from tragedy and loss, and achieving economic success. Businesses and organizations champion goals as ways to unify employees and customers under the banners of brand strategy, community, and well-being. America, in fact, is founded on the idea of purpose: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. One election cycle after another, Americans rally around candidates personifying deeply rooted ideals of what our country is supposed to be.

But, where does purpose come from? What is it? For over two millenniums, discerning our purpose in the universe has been a primary task of philosophers.

Aristotle believed that the universe is saturated with it, that everything has an intrinsic drive. Our word purpose comes from the Greek telos, a goal that stipulates what and how something needs to be. For Aristotle, the universe and everything in it has an essential directive. Any deviation from it belies truth and reality. Teleology concerns order, stability and accomplishment. The goal of my grandfather’s T-Bird, for example, is to function successfully as a form of transportation. From cars, trees, animals, all the way to the cosmos itself, Aristotle argued, each thing has an inherent principle that guides the course of its existence.

What about human beings? In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle tells us that our purpose is happiness or eudaemonia, “well-spiritedness.” Happiness is an ordered and prudent life. Good habits, a sound mind and a virtuous disposition are some of the steps that lead us there. For Aristotle, nothing is more fundamental for us.

In many ways, we still think like Aristotle. Most everyone strives for happiness. Today, the standing dogma is that purposelessness and disorder are nihilistic. Whether you’re mulling a major life change or healing from trauma, being told that there’s no purpose in life might be particularly devastating. The chances are better that you’re looking for an ultimate explanation. Or you could simply be searching for that something or someone meant for you — God, a soul mate or a calling of sorts.

I’m certainly no Aristotelian. Not because I reject happiness. Rather, as a materialist, I think there’s nothing intrinsic about the goals and purposes we seek to achieve it. Modern science explicitly jettisons this sort of teleological thinking from our knowledge of the universe. From particle physics to cosmology, we see that the universe operates well without purpose.

The laws of physics are inherently mechanistic. The second law of thermodynamics, for instance, states that entropy is always increasing. Entropy is the degree of disorder in a system, for example our universe. Physical disorder is all about equilibrium — everything resting randomly and uniformly. Leave your hot coffee on the desk and it will cool to ambient temperature. The coffee molecules are more organized because they are moving faster and working harder to sustain a higher temperature than the surrounding air. But heat transfer results as the coffee molecules expend more energy. As energy is expended, the temperature of the coffee drops and equalizes with the air. Entropy increases since the molecules in the system are now less organized as the overall temperature becomes more uniform.

Now, imagine this on the cosmic scale. Just as the temperature of the coffee and air equalizes, the Earth, our solar system, galaxies and even supermassive black holes will break down to the quantum level, where everything cools to a uniform state. This process is known as the arrow of time. Eventually everything ends in heat death. The universe certainly started with a bang, but it likely ends with a fizzle.

What’s the purpose in that, though?

There isn’t one. At least not fundamentally. Entropy is antagonistic to intrinsic purpose. It’s about disorder. Aristotle’s world and pretty much the dominant understanding of the physical universe until the Copernican Revolution is all about inherent order and permanence. But the universe as we understand it tells us nothing about the goal or meaning of existence, let alone our own. In the grand scheme of things, you and I are enormously insignificant.

But not entirely insignificant.

For starters, we are important to each other. Meaning begins and ends with how we talk about our own lives, such as our myths and stories. Sean Carroll, a prominent cosmologist and theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology, makes this case in his recent book “The Big Picture.” Fashioning himself the “poetic naturalist,” Carroll argues that meaning and purpose “aren’t built into the architecture of the universe; they emerge as ways of talking about our human-scale environment.” Even materialists can’t deny the fact that purposes somehow exist to give us meaning and happiness.

Anthropologists like Dean Falk recently suggested that goal-directed behavior is also evolutionarily advantageous. This doesn’t imply that evolution itself has a purpose, of course. (Though some have argued otherwise.) What it does suggest is that as purposeless as human evolution is, we generally benefit as a species from a belief in it.

The 20th-century German philosopher and intellectualist Hans Blumenberg, in “Work on Myth,” provides a way to explain this curious concomitance of teleology and evolution with what he calls the “phantom body” of the development of civilization: “The organic system resulting from the mechanism of evolution becomes ‘man’ by evading the pressure of that mechanism by setting against it something like a phantom body. This is the sphere of his culture, his institutions — and also his myths.”

Purpose springs from our longing for permanence in an ever-changing universe. It is a reaction to the universe’s indifference to us. We create stories about the world and ourselves as contours, “phantom bodies,” of the inevitability of loss and change. Myths appear timeless; they have what Blumenberg calls an iconic constancy. Stories pass through generations, often becoming traditions, customs, even laws and institutions that order and give meaning to our lives. Purpose grows out of the durability of human lore. Our stories serve as directives for the ways we need the world to exist.

An indifferent universe also offers us a powerful and compelling case for living justly and contentedly because it allows us to anchor our attention here. It teaches us that this life matters and that we alone are responsible for it. Love, friendship and forgiveness are for our benefit. Oppression, war and conflict are self-inflicted. When we ask what’s the purpose of the recent gassing of Syrian children in the Idlib Province or the torture and killings of Chechnyan homosexual men, we ought not simply look to God or the universe for explanations but to ourselves, to the entrenched mythologies that drive such actions — then reject them when the institutions they inform amount to acts of horror.

The purposes and goals we create are phantom bodies — vestiges of and memorials to the people, places and things we stand to lose and strive to keep. Purpose indexes the world’s impermanence, namely our own. Sure, my grandfather’s T-Bird will function well as transportation once I’m finished. But, that goal only makes sense as an enduring reminder of the stories and memories of him. Purpose is about loss, or at least the circumvention of it. And there’s nothing wrong with that. We create purposes to establish happy endings in a universe where endings are simply that — endings.

I will never see my Papa again. One day I will die. So will you. The T-Bird will decay along with everything in the universe as the fundamental particles we’re made of return to the inert state in which everything began. Entropy demands it.

So, take a moment to think about the mythologies informing your purpose. I’ll reflect on mine, too. The universe, however, won’t. And that might be the most meaningful distinction of all."

-Joseph P. Carter is a doctoral student in ancient Greek philosophy at the University of Georgia and is also the Binding Supervisor for UGA Libraries.

The Stone
A forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless. The series moderator is Simon Critchley, who teaches philosophy at The New School for Social Research.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Spend money to save time & be happy

It’s a question central to daily life: Do you spend money to save time or spend time to save money? Well, if happiness is the goal, you might consider opening that wallet.

That’s the takeaway of a study, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, whose findings suggest that spending money to save time may reduce stress about the limited time in the day, thereby improving happiness.

“People who spent money to buy themselves time, such as by outsourcing disliked tasks, reported greater overall life satisfaction,” said Ashley Whillans, an assistant professor at the Harvard Business School and lead author of the study, which was based on a series of surveys from several countries. Researchers did not see the same effect when people used money for material goods... (nyt, continues)

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