The subtitle here is the hook: “Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking”. Many of the ideas presented within these pages were already aThe subtitle here is the hook: “Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking”. Many of the ideas presented within these pages were already at least vaguely familiar to me, especially those of the Stoics and at least some of the Buddhists. But, really, the word “happiness” is out of place. Even before the Stoics existed, wise Greeks had recognized “call no man happy until he is dead,” and Burkeman’s thrust here is that striving for happiness is almost certainly a bad idea.
A better goal is “acceptance”, and several variations on that are presented. This is a very good (albeit not perfect) book, illustrating several schools of thought that bear on the issue of happiness — or contentment, or acceptance; there are definite nuances.
An amusing and snarky appraisal of the world of self-help books and motivational speakers starts the book, but it starts delivering strongly in chapter two, What Would Seneca Do? If you look up “stoicism” in a dictionary, you really aren’t likely to get a good grip on the concept. The first definition Google hands out is “the endurance of pain or hardship without a display of feelings and without complaint”, but there is a fundamental flaw in that, which is that “display” isn’t the point. The second definition refers to the philosophy of Zeno, the Greek founder of the the school, and tells us Stoics will be “indifferent to the vicissitudes of fortune and to pleasure and pain.” That still seems a bit off, but that might have to do with five hundred years of evolution from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius.
Burkeman zeroes in on the same thing that Shakespeare put in the mouth of Hamlet: “for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” When you are stuck on a plane with a crying baby in the seat behind you, what makes it unbearable isn’t inherent in the baby’s act, but in your reception of it. A Stoic will observe and negate that aspect of that reception, which makes it much easier for that “hardship” to be “endured”. Not easy, no; but there’s a trick that helps. The subtitle of the chapter is The Stoic Art of Confronting the Worst-Case Scenario.
Ponder the difference between a terrible situation and a merely undesirable one, and the latter becomes much easier to tolerate. He extensively quotes the renowned psychologist Albert Ellis. “Even if you were murdered, ‘that is very bad, but not one-hundred percent bad,’ because several of your loved ones could meet the same fate, ‘and that would be worse. If you are tortured to death slowly, you could always be tortured to death slower.’” So that crying baby could have been accompanied by an older kid kicking the back of your seat, and parents who are discussing the wit and wisdom of, say, a political pundit whom you despise. And the flight could be from New York to Sydney, instead of merely to Los Angeles.
This trick comes into play later on, as well. The motivational gurus would have us only think positive thoughts, but the lesson here is that we could easily be better off by examining the negative — that worst-case scenario. After all, someone fixated on the best outcome imaginable will be disappointed much more often. It could be asserted that focusing on the positive helps one push harder to attain one’s goals, but the evidence for that is pretty weak. A later chapter (The Museum of Failure) reminds us of the effect, here, of the survivor’s bias: people that don’t succeed seldom are eager to talk about it, so we get the distorted of what conditions pertain to success.
I found the next chapter, on the Buddhist take on this problem, to be moderately enlightening. I’ve always been attracted to Buddhism, and in the past year or so I’ve realized why. When I think of Buddhism, I pretty much narrow it down to Stoicism-plus-Meditation. There are quite obviously many ways in which this is gonna be wrong, but I’m comfortable with it. There are aspects that completely repel me (“To the Buddha the entire teaching is just the understanding of dukkha, the unsatisfactory nature of all phenomenal existence, and the understanding of the way out of this unsatisfactoriness.” I mean, I just don’t think existence is all that bad. I suspect things were worse in India twenty-five centuries ago, though.)
I’m not sure how accurate he is, but Burkeman explains a key difference between the acceptance of the Stoic and that of the Buddhist.
The perfect Stoic adapts his or her thinking so as to remain undisturbed by undesirable circumstances; the perfect Buddhist sees thinking itself as just another set of circumstances, to be non-judgmentally observed.
Got it? One is saying, “Meh, could be worse. I’m not gonna let this bother me,” and the other, “Oh, observe, young grasshopper: your mind is experiencing pain because of that arrow sticking out of your thigh. Interesting, is it not, what tricks the material world plays upon us?”
But I don’t think that all of existence is suffering, and I plan to continue to perceive bad and good as judgmentally distinct. So, given that, I’m firmly in the Stoic camp, right? Well, remember part of that definition? “Indifferent to the vicissitudes of fortune and to pleasure and pain.” I don’t really want to be indifferent for pleasure. Next time I’ve got a dentist jabbing my mouth with sharp things, I’ll try to use the JediVulcan Stoic Mind Trick to remain unperturbed by my suffering. But next time I’m up in the mountains, gawping at the magnificence of snowmelt crashing over granite cliffs, I certainly don’t want to preceive that as merely “another set of circumstances”. To the analytically inclined, my goal would be to focus this skill more on the unpleasant side of the Gaussian distribution of life experiences.
The next few chapters engage in some specious over-intellectualizing along with some very good stuff. The central idea returns, more or less, to the introductory chapter’s dismissal of striving for happiness, although the goal being strived for shifts to “security” or “success”, etc. To strive is, obviously, not the same as to attain. And for many goals, the dilemma is that the act of striving can work against the attainment. The author interviews the security expert Bruce Schneier (whose fairly recent book I gave five stars to, and I’ll plug here) in noting that the efforts of the developed world to feel safe in the last dozen years has almost certainly rendered us objectively less safe, in addition to other costs, some of them worse. A visit to the staggeringly poor slum of Kibera (part of Nairobi) helps remind us that happiness doesn’t correlate strongly with wealth, and (surprise!) those who see wealth as a primary goal are probably among the least happy of all of us.
The bad logic comes in when he tries to make the case that we are all one. Well, he denies that precise formulation, but there’s a lot like that. I mean stuff like this: “There cannot be a ‘you’ without an ‘everything else’, and attempting to think about one in isolation from the other makes no sense.” I don’t want to belabor this review with that, though. The book is very good in spite of it, so just wade through the mystical junk and everything will be fine.
When you get to the Museum of Failure, he’s back on pretty firm ground. The chapter ends with an excerpt from the famous commencement speech J.K. Rowling made at Harvard in 2008 (text, video), in which she talks up the benefits of failure. Burkeman rightly differentiates two ideas. Those that think like our sneered-at motivational speakers will argue that failure is inevitable on the way to the top, and expecting it and getting over it is healthy. Living in San Francisco, I swear almost every time I hear an entrepreneur speak they’re touting their failures like merit badges. But that still focuses on the striving, not on acceptance, and for most of us there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The other perspective is the one that Rowling also points to: absolute failure is liberating. (Yeah, duh, it is indeed a little ironic, given that it liberated Rowling to become staggeringly successful and wealthy.) You can think of it as something like “there’s no way to go but up!”, but that isn’t the point. If your goal is still “up”, then you’ve missed the point.
The book ends well with the last chapter, Memento Mori. Death is, after all, the ultimate failure. Steve Jobs is quoted, aptly: “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked.” This returns nicely to the lessons of the Stoics; the Roman general who chose to have a slave walk behind him in his victory parade whispering “Look behind you! Remember that you are a man! Remember that you’ll die!” was probably a Stoic.
Burkeman visited Mexico during the Día de los Muertos festivities in order to witness a culture that retains greater intimacy with death. This is timely, of course, since Hallowe’en is just days away, and here in San Francisco we take this holiday very seriously. I’ve decided I’m going to visit the Mission District tomorrow and pick up some sugar skulls and maybe some tequila.
Oh, and a bit of humor: Burkeman begins his tale by studying how motivational speakers (and self-help authors) typically worship at the alter of success and optimism (and how this is ephemeral blah blah blah), and later examines how accommodating oneself to failure and eventual death can be psychologically beneficial. So I was primed and amused when this showed up within my event horizon: ...more
Check out Politics, Odors and Soap by Nicholas Kristof, over at the New York Times. He writes a very enthusiastic little review of yet another bookCheck out Politics, Odors and Soap by Nicholas Kristof, over at the New York Times. He writes a very enthusiastic little review of yet another book on the intersection of cognition and politics. No big surprise, it's by Jonathan Haidt, who's doing the pioneering research into how the brains of liberals and conservatives are wired in fundamentally different ways. Oh, also see the review in the Wall St. Journal, Conflicting Moralities. The longer, "official" Ney York Times review is at Why Won’t They Listen?, and explores the book in more detail.
Just a note, for now. I was reading about some essay on The Economist, and one of the comments quoted from deHave to eventually read this, of course.
Just a note, for now. I was reading about some essay on The Economist, and one of the comments quoted from de Tocqueville. The comment, below, reminded me of one of the reasons I’m somewhat pessimistic about America’s future as Aquinas’ “city on a hill”.
The foundation of New England was a novel spectacle, and all the circumstances attending it were singular and original. […] The settlers who established themselves on the shores of New England all belonged to the more independent classes of their native country. Their union on the soil of America at once presented the singular phenomenon of a society containing neither lords nor common people, neither rich nor poor. These men possessed, in proportion to their number, a greater mass of intelligence than is to be found in any European nation of our own time. All, without a single exception, had received a good education, and many of them were known in Europe for their talents and their acquirements. The other colonies had been founded by adventurers without family; the emigrants of New England brought with them the best elements of order and morality, they landed in the desert accompanied by their wives and children. But what most especially distinguished them was the aim of their undertaking. They had not been obliged by necessity to leave their country, the social position they abandoned was one to be regretted, and their means of subsistence were certain. Nor did they cross the Atlantic to improve their situation, or to increase their wealth; the call which summoned them from the comforts of their homes was purely intellectual; and in facing the inevitable sufferings of exile, their object was the triumph of an idea. — [Page 31, Democracy In America, Alexis De Tocqueville; via google books]
What de Tocqueville recognized was the incredible exceptionalism of America’s founders, and their immediate lineage.
Beyond that, the United States has had a few other important sources of differentiation.
First, the land was — for their intents and purposes — empty (the annihilation of the native Americans is of utmost importance, but not central to this analysis). A historically unprecedented amount of land and resources was very quickly translated into a wealthy and powerful country, one still united in its self-identity, not riven by zero-sum contests of acquisition.
Second, at the same time the industrial revolution was the cause of an increasing number of those same zero-sum contests of acquisition in Europe, so the peaceful growth of the United States was even more dramatic in comparison.
In the centuries since then, the United States has become “normal”, just like other developed countries. We now fight with each other roughly to the same degree as any other developed country. In the decades since the end of WWII, the United States has spent incredible sums as the hegemon, both wisely and foolishly. Even though it should have been apparent years ago that the country can no longer afford to exercise this role — in fiscal or repetitional terms — the belief in America’s “mission” forces continuing impoverishment.
Samuel Johnson claimed that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”, but what is of equal concern today is that patriotism is beggaring the country....more
(I dunno — looks intriguing, but do I really need that deep of an education in Bayes’ theorem, for example? It should be mentioned that the single two(I dunno — looks intriguing, but do I really need that deep of an education in Bayes’ theorem, for example? It should be mentioned that the single two-star review here actually reads more like a three or four star review, and the two more detailed reviews over on Amazon are four and five stars. Hmmm.) ...more
In their new book, Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to do the Right Thing, professors Barry Schwartz and Ken
The authors were interviewed on KQED Forum:
In their new book, Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to do the Right Thing, professors Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe call for a renaissance in contemporary professional ethics based on the Aristotelian notion of practical wisdom. We speak with the authors about this “master virtue,” and gain insight into exercising and cultivating it.
I studied this while in grad school. My thesis, which never got much beyond the notes stage, used Popper and other epistemologies to examine the diffeI studied this while in grad school. My thesis, which never got much beyond the notes stage, used Popper and other epistemologies to examine the difference between "natural" sciences and "social" sciences. The basic hypothesis was that the latter rested on "essentially contested" propositions. For example, Galileo's observations of the solar system and the conclusions he drew therefrom depended on the underlying theory of optics being correct. Since both the theory and instruments were new and crude, that was originally probably a pretty formidable attack. However, there is nothing about whether or not the theory of optics is correct that is a direct affront to anyone's ideological holdings. Meanwhile, over in the social sciences, my suspicion is that there will always be unresolvable debates about the essence of things: which is more important, charity or justice? Seniority or quantifiable capability?
Popper provided the foundation for much of my thinking, and more. But my thesis advisor thought I was straying pretty far from International Relations and I was finding there was too much more recent epistemology to be read to sustain my interest.
I still think I'm right :-) but it doesn't really matter, does it? ...more
This one is beautifully poetic, but Abbey shows his true misanthropic colors in The Monkey Wrench Gang — his years of solitude in the desert might havThis one is beautifully poetic, but Abbey shows his true misanthropic colors in The Monkey Wrench Gang — his years of solitude in the desert might have given him gorgeous visions, but they ultimately made him a bad fit for civilization....more