I don’t agree with its analysis, but it has some interesting points about using what vs why can have a significantly different effect.
During my stint in psychiatry, I learnt perhaps the most helpful question: what makes you say that? Notably, not a why question even though it asks about the same thing.
I also remember a brilliant psychiatrist giving a patient advice. The patient had a personality disorder and started reading about them to understand why she has it. He told her that at that point reading that could make it worse – and that interventions such as mindfulness and therapy were superior.
As for my disagreement. The article suggests introspective people are unhappy. It assumes and, with a very simple experiment, shows that asking why causes people to be sad. I think that introspective people aren’t sad because they are introspective, but sad and poorly self-aware people turn to introspection. And Negative Capability is still a thing.
“It’s never as good as it looks and it’s never as bad as it seems.”
The 16-17 year old students I work with often ask me how to get more motivation. They believe that it is some kind of fairy dust capable of turning you an accomplishment-machine, realising all your potential and aiding you in changing the world.
Perhaps. They forget that motivation resembles hunger. You may feel energetic but also increasingly agitated, nauseous and sore. Your mind is focused on getting your gullet filled, that’s it. You feel unsettled and uncomfortable. You feel anxious as you mightn’t last long enough to find food. You think of all the different ways to satisfy the hunger – doing nothing is just not an option.
Being motivated isn’t pleasant.
Sometimes, we all feel excitement at a new beginning, at how much we are going to accomplish. This pleasant sensation differs from what I would call motivation. We all need such an elated state sometimes to carry us through, but we borrow it from the emotional bank and will have to pay it back with interest. This loan covers over the obstacles that will get in our way and helps us to get started. If you want to feel elated, all you need to do is ignore reality.
Not a sustainable solution.
I think all productive people oscillate between feeling hungry and transiently being satisfied with what they accomplished.
“Those who live under the self-imposed pressure to be optimal in their enjoyment of things suffer a measure of distress” – Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Is that because those who put try to optimise for happiness are miserable to begin with – or because optimising is a curse?
Happiness seems to be on everyone’s mind.
Yes, we’re on a quest to be happier and we’re trying to game the system.
No, it may not actually be helpful to overall happiness, who knows.
I decided that I will start this post as my one stop shop for all the quality neuroscience on happiness. I am sure it will be elaborated on, but so far, here is what we all have to know.
Lottery winners aren’t happier right now
Back in 1978, Philip Brickman published a study that has since been replicated many times. Its finding are so significant that if I had my way, it would be on the school curriculum. It’s a deeply unsettling study on many levels, yet it is so fundamental for anyone who has an interest in understand how human beings function.
They had three types of people:
those who recently won a lottery
those who recently lost the ability to move their legs
those who haven’t had any major life events recently
The researchers gathered the happiness ratings for the above groups. The main lesson is that there was no statistically significant difference between the the lottery winners and the control groups in terms of their present happiness.
The accident victims were less presently happy than the controls, but their ideas of their future happiness weren’t significantly different.
Daniel Kahneman described further insights into “What proportion of the day do paraplegics spend in a bad mood?” His answer appears to be that over time, people’s attention is drawn away from the negative change. Exceptions include exposure to loud noise, pain and severe depression.
It seems that the strongest emotions of the winners were also quite short-lived:
“Both contrast and habituation will operate to prevent the winning of a fortune from elevating happiness as much as might be expected. Contrast with the peak experience of winning should lessen the impact of ordinary pleasures, while habituation should eventually reduce the value of new pleasures made possible by winning.”
The scary thing about this research is that it attacks the fundamentals of our culture. When the prince rescues us from the tower or the princess breaks the curse by kissing us (underline as required), after a while, we won’t feel much different than we did before. In general, things may be different, but they probably won’t feel different unless you actively pay attention.
So what’s the point of chasing after achievements if they won’t make you happy? Well, I wouldn’t put it quite like that. They will make you happy every time you think of them: which for most of us isn’t that often. They are meaningful (well, I assume they are meaningful) regardless of how much dopamine they fill you with. So don’t give up just yet.
This brings me to my next point, that happiness is less dependent on reality than it is on constant, internal factors.
Long-term happiness is on a thermostat
There is beautiful symmetry in the brain as it relates to happiness – or at least I ill simplify things to look this way for our purposes today.
The right prefrontal cortex is associated with anxiety, anger and unhappiness.
The left prefrontal cortex, it seems, is active among people who report high levels of happiness.
Measuring the ratio of right to left prefrontal cortex activity is predictive of a person’s happiness level. That’t it. That’s your level of happiness.
So are we doomed? Is this it? Our happiness level is set and that’s it? Thankfully, no. The most effective answer is… drumroll… mindfulness training.
Daniel Goleman has written about Richard Davidson’s research for The New York Times if you want more detail.
Money is somewhat related to happiness still
So does this mean money has no bearing on happiness? Not quite. There was a clear positive relation between income and happiness. Importantly, it is subject to diminishing returns – and earlier than you might think.
According to our good friend Daniel Kahneman, by the time you get up to an annual household income of around $50K, the increases become very small. At $81K, the scores peak (2016 USD). By the way, happiness is cheaper in Alabama and more expensive in New York – just like the cost of living.
Think about – and value – time
There is something relieving about Stoic philosophy. Just like Christianity, it was popular among all social classes. Seneca basically sees death as a relief.
I always thought valuing death is nihilistic, but sometimes I just can’t quite resist the pleasure of acknowledging that death is part of life. Perhaps my happiness doesn’t stem from some strangely happy passive death wish. It seems that focusing on time makes people happier. Here is a HBR interview with the researcher.
Going outside, leaving the urban landscape and spending time in a natural environment makes people happy. Peter Aspinall spent time evading urban Scots here. A more comprehensive meta-analysis of these studies suggests there are strong links between nature and happiness.
I am always so happy when there is research to prove the obvious.
Also, hospital patients who get to look out the window do better.
Apparently, if you can’t escape the urban jungle, viewing natural settings can still help. Nat Geo Wild, here I come.
Body language signals things to the brain, it’s not just the brain signalling things to the body. One of the slickest experiments was designed in way that the subjects didn’t know they were being investigated to assess happiness.
In 1988, Fritz Strack found that people who held a pen between their teeth, which induces a smile, rated cartoons as funnier than did those who held a pen between their lips, which induced a pout, or frown.
It seems, however, that there were questions raised when someone tried to replicate it recently.
Harvard/MassGen psychiatristRobert Waldinger draws an interesting conclusion to one of the longest studies on happiness, carried out at Harvard: “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”
Under this heading, I will very briefly go over the highlights of the neuroscience of good relationships: avoiding negative things is more important than having overwhelmingly positive experiences, no dismissive behaviours and seeking new experiences together.
You’ve heard all about this before.
I won’t bore you.
Imagining being happy
I guess we become what we pretend to be. Nakia Gordon studied what happens to participants who pretend to laugh or pretend to cry.
The results were predictable: thinking about laughing made people happy and thinking about crying made people sad.
Happiness begets happiness
Happy people are more productive, have better memories and better immune function.
“Practical philosopher” Andrew Taggard disabuses founders, executives, and others in Silicon Valley of the notion that life is a problem to be solved, and happiness awaits those who do it:
“Philosophers arrive on the scene at the moment when bullshit can no longer be tolerated,” says Taggart. “We articulate that bullshit and stop it from happening. And there’s just a whole lot of bullshit in business today.”
Taggart seems to preform a sort of CBT on CEOs. This article also features the term successnik when talking about the Silicon Valley execs. What a gem.
But wait, maybe we have the secret sauce after all?
Now, before we get all excited, it is an observational study of a small-ish bunch of Boston men, so go easy on the extrapolation. But here is the said sauce:
“So what have we learned?What are the lessons that come from the tens of thousands of pagesof information that we’ve generatedon these lives?Well, the lessons aren’t about wealth or fame or working harder and harder.The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this:Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”
I asked a similar question of Dr John McBurney – and his answer was community as well. Other research points out that when it comes to relationships, the absence of the negative is far more important than any grand gestures or unbelievable highs in determining whether these relationships will last.
Given that for millions of years our very survival has been predicated on our tribe much more so than on our personal achievements, it makes sense that we weight it so highly. Evolution carved us out for survival and not for happiness.
So perhaps, somewhere between the first and second step of the Maslow pyramid (that is physiological needs and safety), we’ve been missing community. In today’s society we can pay for the fulfilment of both of those – and that’s where most people are stuck.
Why do people want to be successful? Because it solidly ticks off the bottom two steps of the pyramid. If you are more cynical, let me phrase it this way: hedonism is step one, narcissism is step two.
Maybe the hack is in the fact that having a community provides both physiological and safety cover. Furthermore, unlike money in an of itself, it also let’s us into the higher up steps of the pyramid. I am calling it a “hack” because few people consciously feel community is that important.
Why don’t more people invest into community?
1. “I want to be special”
Blending in with a community is no fun. If you didn’t figure it out on your own, is it worth the same to you? All the cool guys seem to have done it one their own. We know that’s not true, of course.
However, it is hard to have a lot of impact if all you ever do is comply with the unspoken traditions of your community. So in a sense, it does prevent personal accomplishment. It’s important to clarify that you can’t make do with any sort of community: it has to be supportive. A conflicted community (or family) is probably more harmful than being alone based on what Dr Waldinger discussed.
2. “You can’t trust no one”
Indeed, communities do have a way of ostracising people – and generally being poisonous when things aren’t going well. All of a sudden your neighbour of yesterday is making a business out of your misery. We have all heard the stories from wars and famines that illustrate people’s disregard for the life of another in extreme circumstances.
This fact doesn’t stand alone of course. We’ve also all heard stories of altruistic sacrifices around those same wars and famines. And – what if you had been working in an individualistic rather than a community-centred manner: this isn’t a guarantee either because you’ve invested into things that may not have any value in extreme circumstances.
In the extreme, banks collapse, property gets nationalised, political regimes choose new heroes and scape goats… Less extremely, industries rise and fall, changing laws and regulations present new challenges.
If you want to be pragmatic about it, think of community as a diversification strategy. It seems that trusting your own accomplishments over trusting the community is a false path to success – whatever for you feel you need it.
What you label as evil essentially depends on which side of you are on.
Being directional, having a goal, being in pursuit involves labelling things and people as allies or obstacles. In pursuit of our goals, we do many things which we may think are perfectly okay, but somebody else will thinks are evil. I am typing this on a MacBook Air. If I were a Chinese person, I would probably have good reason to consider Apple evil. As I am on the consumer side here, I feel somewhat overcharged and not having a lot of options beside MacBook, nonetheless meaning that they are my ally. Good and evil, all at once.
My actions inadvertently lead to the death of the cutest and friendliest cat you can ever hope to meet. This made me see myself as someone who can do evil, even though it was never my intention to do evil. Whenever someone else did evil previously, I felt they were, well, evil. Bad. Shouldn’t exist. This experience has taught me to see things differently.
Another throwback to my 1990s Russian childhood: there were some Roma people around. They have vanished since; I’ve no idea where they’re gone. I guess that’s just part of the lifestyle of those people I witnessed. The unfortunate prejudice was that you need to hold on to your wallet when one is in sight. Indeed, on occasion, I would witness some cursing shopkeeper shouting as a Roma woman was running away. As a child, I recall wondering what stimulates these particular women to live this life. It is really quite clear and much more relatable when you are an adult.
Indeed, a lot of the the men and women whom we may regard as criminals are in pursuit of their goals: they have babies to feed, bills to pay, whatever. We may feel that it is unfair for them to rob what we’ve earned with our hard labour (as if robbing isn’t labour). They may feel it is unfair that we sit in a comfy office pushing paper (as if pushing paper is that easy). Our motivations are actually quite similar.
I really don’t like that variety of philosophy that ends up telling you that white is black and black is white. So I am not doing that. All I am saying is that good and evil are subjective and transient.
A Darwinian life
Any kind of goal-directed behaviour is likely to result in someone else’s suffering. Maybe, in fact, it isn’t even the goal-directedness of our behaviour, but the fact that nature makes us compete. Are win-win situations really that great when you consider the wider context? Tesco (a kind of British Walmart) not only allows residents of small towns to purchase goods cheaper, but it also creates jobs in the small town: someone has to pack the shelves, look after the purchasing decisions, etc. It is also well known that whenever the likes of Tesco move into a small town, for every job they create, they kill two jobs (who wants to buy from the butcher now that you can get the “same” stuff cheaper). Whether it is good or bad on balance, it is Darwinian and it causes suffering for the butcher.
Or consider my poor moths. I lived in a carpeted apartment for a while. Mid-plank I noticed that some bits of the carpet were bare and then found that there were moths living under it. I had to commit absolute genocide against them. Three rounds of poisonous chemicals. They must have “thought” I was evil. But did I really have a choice? Again, a Darwinian reality of them versus me.
In an insect’s mind, the most important life on this planet is an insect’s life. It’s all the insect has – nAot unlike us, though some of us think of life in a more abstract manner.
In a Darwinian world, is it possible to never do evil? How about a better question: is it that clear what good and evil is? Doesn’t it all depend of perspective?
Happiness and accomplishment
This is why being terribly obsessed with goals and accomplishment is so disturbing: it relies on a concrete framework of wanted and unwanted events. For those who are especially interested, the 1996 Mount Everest disaster is a great example of how being goal-directed can cloud one’s perception of good vs bad.
A lot of readers indicated that they wish to hear more on the subject of happiness. Read the fable “Blessings in disguise” in this context. Events that we see as undesirable could well be good. I sometimes look back at my failures. In what now seems like a former life, I was interviewed with McKinsey. After what seemed like 17 000 rounds of interviews, I received a phone call from the partner. As he greeted me, I assumed I had it in the bag. Why else would he call me? No, it was a kick in the stomach. I went digging and found out that some slightly younger guy with a reasonably unremarkable CV got it instead of me. I couldn’t figure out the conundrum for ages (I naively believed I could). I now feel that it was a lucky escape.
I even look back at some of the events I then labelled as successes and think: I wonder where I would be now if I hadn’t gone down that rabbit hole.
I want to simply highlight that some of our judgements about good and evil are completely off the wall.
I recall one scientist tell me that he won’t consider his career successful until he gets a paper published in Nature as a first author. Even if we ignore the needy narcissism, what a miserly contract to make with yourself! This is what I call off the wall.
Furthermore, everything is a chain of events.
If my aunt hadn’t suffered a medical negligence case, I wouldn’t have had the chance to go in on a rescue mission and reconnect with her, something that was way overdue. At the time of course, it all seemed like a bad dream.
I recall a certain Prof. T., a psychiatrist I worked with and whom I regard highly, recount how he very nearly left psychiatry soon after joining when the writers of the ye old DSM considered including happiness as a psychiatric condition, being the opposite of depression. How very understandable. Happiness is often touted as the purpose of life and the most important thing, the most important condition to fill: “Sure, so long as you’re happy“, as they say in Ireland. I am tempted to go on a rant how the goal-directed pursuit of happiness has made us unhappy, but I think everyone knows that anyway. My discussion with Terraustralis* revealed an interesting attitude:
Happiness isn’t necessarily the point, but it sure is a good survival strategy. It is easier to get through life when you can see the bright side.
It always seems like a barrier to entry and an annoying obfuscation when a person responds to a question by needing to define the terms of the question. However, as I get older, I find myself joining this school of question-dissection.
What is happiness and why do we need it?
I don’t plan to get too metaphysical here. All I want to say is that there are two things commonly discussed using this term:
The concrete sensation of being happy, such as when
a loved one gets you exactly the present you wanted for Christmas, or
you get an acceptance letter from a purchaser, an employer, a journal, etc, or
you notice the colourful sunset and feel at peace, or
you notice that your coffee is particularly nice
or indeed, you think of examples of when you were happy and your brain isn’t that sure what is real and what is a memory.
2. The abstract greater, non-provoked satisfaction, fulfilment or harmony that represents the bottom line of your emotional climate.
I will discuss happiness (1), of the concrete variety – because I feel that the abstract happiness (2) is a product of concrete happiness (1). If concrete happiness (1) is the weather, abstract happiness (2) is the climate. Abstract happiness is probably more often a subject of rationalisation and by its nature, it is more difficult to get a grip on, so we’ll start small(er).
Happiness is a chemical reaction.
Then again, so is everything else.
However, happiness is very directly a chemical reaction, unlike let’s say someone’s well-considered political views. They too are a series of reactions, perhaps even facilitated by the dopamines and serotonins of this world, but they lack the binary nature of the sensation of happiness.
Sorry for dropping the tone, but is happiness that different from an orgasm? Most of us know not to expect that to last forever.
Reason 1: Happiness only exists in response to a change
There is no happiness when there is no change, real or perceived. Lack of volatility takes away the opportunities to feel happy.
As Sigmud Freud put it: “What we call happiness in the strictest sense comes from the (preferably sudden) satisfaction of needs which have been dammed up to a high degree.”
This is why learning makes us happy: we see progress (or change). Furthermore, we get to control the change to a large degree. This enhances the happiness. This is also why ambitious people tend to be happier (my observation, do you agree/disagree?) It is like they have the activation energy to take the first step to learn something, to start on something. It is the mildly philosophical who are depressed, but they haven’t thought of the South East Indian history. Or how to start a petrol station. Expanding one’s horizons always leads to happiness (it may not be pure, but it is net positive). Some may call it distraction – and that would explain why we love clicking on stupid links shared on social media**. On the bright side, however, it is a form of learning, seeing new opportunities and changing one’s understanding of the world. Happiness comes free with that.
Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” has influenced me greatly. His economically-related theories, the ones that got him the Nobel prize, are of little interest to me. I am much more concerned of his background work on general psychology that led him to the conclusions he reached regarding our buying/selling decisions. His discussion of happiness is particularly interesting.
“For an example, take the following scenarios:
Today Jack and Jill each have a wealth of 5 million.
Yesterday, Jack had 1 million and Jill had 9 million.
Are they equally happy?
… Jack is elated and Jill despondent. Indeed, we know that Jack would be a great deal happier than Jill even if he had only 2 million today while she has 5… The happiness that Jack and Jill experience is determined by the recent change in their wealth, relative to the different states of wealth that define their reference points (1 million for Jack, 9 million for Jill). This reference dependence is ubiquitous in sensation and perception. The same sound will be experienced as very loud or quite faint, depending on whether it was preceded by a whisper or by a roar.”
According to Kahneman, there isn’t just one happiness because there isn’t just one self (the one that resides in our talkative default mode network). There is the experiencing self, a kind of present moment aware self, and the remembering self, including the ruminating sort we so dislike.
The remembering self will focus on the peak and the end of an experience, where the experiencing self, will be, well, experiencing every moment of it. Here is an example:
“People who recently married, or are expecting to marry in the near future, are likely to retrieve that fact when asked a general question about their life. Because marriage is almost always voluntary in the United States, almost everyone who is reminded of his or her recent or forthcoming marriage will be happy with the idea. Attention is the key to the puzzle.
The figure shows an unusually high level of life satisfaction that lasts two or three years around the event of marriage. However, if this apparent surge reflects the time course of a heuristic for answering the question, there is little we can learn from it about either happiness or about the process of adaptation to marriage. We cannot infer from it that a tide of raised happiness lasts for several years and gradually recedes. Even people who are happy to be reminded of their marriage when asked a question about their life are not necessarily happier the rest of the time. Unless they think happy thoughts about their marriage during much of their day, it will not directly influence their happiness. Even newlyweds who are lucky enough to enjoy a state of happy preoccupation with their love will eventually return to earth, and their experienced well-being will again depend, as it does for the rest of us, on the environment and activities of the present moment.”
Reason 2: Happiness is tied to an anchor bias
What is anchor bias?
Anchoring is a cognitive bias that describes the common human tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered (the “anchor”) when making decisions.
“If you are asked whether Gandhi was more than 114 years old when he died you will end up with a much higher estimate of his age at death than you would if the anchoring question referred to death at 35.”
My own tale is that the first “anchor” I’ve thrown was in 1990s Moscow.
I still pause nervously at the thought of the things I avoided. I was very shielded, yet the echo of the various brands of social unrest that surrounded me reached me enough to know I have to watch out. You know how your mother probably taught you to not speak to strangers and not get into a lift (elevator) with people you don’t know? Most of us use discretion with these rules and only put our guard up when something is tangibly “up”. I am used to using these rules verbatim. I still don’t speak to strangers unless I am in a crowded and well-lit place. I still move whenever someone sitting beside me is coughing a lot: you never know, it could be TB. Whenever I am in Moscow, to this day, I always have my guard up. It sounds sinister, but it’s not actually.
It is as if I am constantly anticipating that someone will try to swindle me in some minor way. In a queue, you well get skipped unless you’re paying attention. The florist will inevitably “accidentally” charge for a higher priced bouquet and reissue the invoice once questioned. The radiographer will forget to take the standing X-ray having taken the lying one unless you double check. It’s a mix of carelessness and minor fraud that arises from low wages in a cynically unequal society. This happens everywhere of course, but it is quite consistent in Moscow, or at least is was, in the very turbulent 1990s. You have to be very aware, prepared to stand up for yourself and presume the worst of people. I don’t enjoy being like that. Just to be clear, I don’t hate where I come from or have some sort of overly dramatic story. These are just observations.
Having this 1990s Moscow “anchor”, most places I go to remind me of the pages of a fairy tale book. I may be exaggerating a little, but that’s the crux of the emotion I feel every day. Every day someone is polite to me, I remember that it wouldn’t have been like that back in the proverbial old country.
Whenever things happen without me having to double check that everyone has done their job, I automatically get this wave of bliss, gratitude and a sense of that concrete happiness. It’s like drinking water after a 10 K run. It’s like escaping capture by an enemy.
Why? Because I am anchored to believe that things going smoothly isn’t the norm. Elaborating on Ray Dalio’s formula,
Happiness = reality – expectation (regarding a given event or change in circumstances).
The specific anchor I have is quite low down in the expectation ocean, so happiness is often a positive value. Does it mean I actually have low expectations and take sh*t from people? Somehow it doesn’t. It just makes it easier to be happy. The fact that this isn’t just some idea, but an actual anchor I have been fortunate enough to form makes me see everything though that filter. Biases aren’t always bad.
If I had been reading, not writing this, I would probably think: here goes, be grateful, bla bla, game your mind until you feel happy even though you shouldn’t really. It doesn’t feel like I am forcing this at all. It’s a lucky idiosyncrasy. Can it be extrapolated to other things? So that we can feel happy more effortlessly? Very soon an overzealous extrapolation approach turns into “there are children starving in <remote location>, so you have to value what you have”, which inevitably causes resentment and a feeling of pointless self-fraud over time.
The point is that looking back at our own anchors and expectations (not those of deprived children in a less-developed country) can help to explain how happy or unhappy we feel.
Understanding that happiness is only achieved through change, it helps to think of our lives as a continuum of present moments rather than an efficient emotionless journey from A to B, where B is full of yummy dopamine***. It is just another way to understand the context, gain perspective or whatever other fancy term you may want to use for all those things hidden in plain sight.
In short, happiness is fundamentally decided by:
presence of change (real or perceived)
It’s also affected by temperament (e.g. the weight one attaches to negative events) and genetics – and I will talk about this another day.
* A gentleman who comments in English, but blogs in Polish here.
** Procrastination is an avoidance behaviour, but it does make us happy in a short term concrete way. I believe it makes us happy using the same mechanism as learning, though on balance, of course, it is a saboteur.
*** Actually, it is the anticipation of B that releases the dopamine.
The recent “Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari attempts to be the meta-history book of our time. I heard that the book was excellent from a few friends who think that everything popular is excellent.
This passage on Buddhism and happiness confirmed my view that the book is politicised snake oil. I am very open to being convinced otherwise.
Harari: “For 2,500 years, Buddhists have systematically studied the essence and causes of happiness, which is why there is a growing interest among the scientific community both in their philosophy and their meditation practices.”
“Buddhism shares the basic insight of the biological approach to happiness, namely that happiness results from processes occurring within one’s body, and not from events in the outside world. However, starting from the same insight, Buddhism reaches very different conclusions.”
Me: So far so good. Happiness = reality – expectations, meaning that it isn’t only a product of the events of the outside world. The bit about the body is also pretty solid: serotonin, etc.
Harari: “According to Buddhism, most people identify happiness with pleasant feelings, while identifying suffering with unpleasant feelings. People consequently ascribe immense importance to what they feel, craving to experience more and more pleasures, while avoiding pain. Whatever we do throughout our lives, whether scratching our leg, fidgeting slightly in the chair, or fighting world wars, we are just trying to get pleasant feelings.”
Me: Thus spoke Sigmund Freud. We are all about seeking pleasure and even more so avoiding pain.
Harari: “The problem, according to Buddhism, is that our feelings are no more than fleeting vibrations, changing every moment, like the ocean waves. If five minutes ago I felt joyful and purposeful, now these feelings are gone, and I might well feel sad and dejected. So if I want to experience pleasant feelings, I have to constantly chase them, while driving away all the unpleasant feelings. Even if I succeed, I immediately have to start all over again, without ever getting any lasting reward for my troubles.”
Harari: “What is so important about obtaining such ephemeral prizes? Why struggle so hard to achieve something that disappears almost as soon as it arises? 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.”
Me: This is probably true about Buddhism (so not Harari’s problem), though it does strike me as being rather nihilistic. Feelings are biology’s way to tell us how we’re doing, so saying they are inconsequential, ephemeral and aren’t worth pursuing seems defiant of our very nature.
Harari:”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.”
Me: Well, that’s not going to happen so long as we have an intact limbic system.
Harari: “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.”
Me: Things are about to get a little meta. What if you feel like pursuing your feelings? That’s a thought. Why reject it? Why disallow yourself from craving something? Isn’t that a “wrong” thing to do when you’re meditating? Harari is leading us down the road of blissful oversimplification. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Furthermore, our limbic systems will always crave certain feelings. That’s hard wired, and no amount of cognitive machinations or meditation is going to change that. So maybe these “accepting” people sitting in a lotus position on a green moral highground somewhere should accept their own biology instead?
Harari: “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!”
Me: Miracle pill talk.
Harari: “This idea is so alien to modern liberal culture that when Western New Age movements encountered Buddhist insights, they translated them into liberal terms, thereby turning them on their head. New age cults frequently argue: ‘Happiness does not depend on external conditions. It depends only on what we feel inside. People should stop pursuing external achievements such as wealth and status, and connect instead with their inner feelings.’Or more succinctly, ‘Happiness begins within.’ This is exactly what biologists argue, but more or less the opposite of what Buddha said.”
Me: Nice summary, to be fair. However, he is calling people out on something he is also culpable of.
Harari: “Buddha agreed with modern biology and New Age movements that happiness is independent of external conditions. Yet his more important and far more profound insight was that true happiness is also independent of our inner feelings. Indeed, the more significance we give our feelings, the more we crave them, and the more we suffer. Buddha’s recommendation was to stop not only the pursuit of external achievements, but also the pursuit of inner feelings.”
Me: I am sorry, what? “True happiness is also independent of our inner feelings”? What is truehappiness? Why is that not an inner feeling? How do you define true happiness as distinct from just, you know, normal happiness? I surmise that normal happiness is a fleeting ephemeral emotion that he denigrated earlier, but I am really confused, what is true happiness?! Is this just an epithet designed to make me feel like a mere mortal not worthy of understanding Harari’s grand opus?
Harari: In Buddhism, the key to happiness is to know the truth about yourself – to understand who, or what, you really are. Most people wrongly identify themselves with their feelings, thoughts, likes and dislikes. When they feel anger, they think, ‘I am angry. This is my anger.’ They consequently spend their life avoiding some kinds of feelings and pursuing others. They never realise that they are not their feelings, and that the relentless pursuit of particular feelings just traps them in misery.
Me: What are we then? What’s real? We’re in the Matrix, aren’t we?…
It seems that the focus of many bloggers and mindfulness advocates is to promote mindfulness as yet another miracle fix on the way to flat abs and a yacht. Mindfulness isn’t a shortcut to effortless positive thinking.
The fact that the 440×220 pixel Twitter platitudes with a stock sunset background and a quote from a Buddhist have become so popular reflects the growing misunderstanding surrounding mindfulness.
While mindfulness does help with depression, anxiety and other difficult mental states, achieving a certain mental state – or indeed happiness – isn’t the purpose of mindfulness. While it isn’t necessary to buy into the philosophy behind mindfulness to practice it, it’s important to understand what it is one’s getting themselves into.There’s nothing at all wrong with “secular” mindfulness, the kind pedalled by corporations, promoted to children, etc. Indeed, I am in no way a Buddhist. However, I believe that hiding from this philosophy and still expecting to get experience mindfulness to the full is futile. The philosophy states that…
At the root of all suffering is attachment.
Non-attachment is a key tenet of the Buddhism. Attachment is our attempt to deny the fact that everything is impermanent, hence is causes a dissonance between reality and perception ultimately resulting in suffering. The concept seems at odds with out common view of happiness that involves the strife to get through a checklist of experiences and things – and walk of into the sunset in permanent bliss. However, the concept of non-attachment is echoed in the philosophy of Stoicism, the thoughts of Friedrich Nietzsche and modern talking therapies such as CBT and REBT. Indeed, I struggle with the concept again and again. It seem that Buddhism advocates that we live our lives a bit like plants: accept everything that comes our way and adapt.
Using mindfulness as some kind of trick to accomplish certain goals just doesn’t make sense.
Born at Google and based on brain science, SIY uses the practices of mindfulness to train Emotional Intelligence skills, leading to resilience, positive mindset, and centred leadership. In the midst of complexity, it’s about finding the inner capacity to create, to thrive, to lead. And it’s surprisingly fun. Backed by some of the world’s leading experts in neuroscience and mindfulness, SIY is changing thousands of lives in over a dozen countries.
Here’s a book they propose. I haven’t seen the inside, but if I may judge by its cover, I find it wanting.
Indirectly, insights into how to achieve goals may be precisely the result of the practice. However, a realisation of the irrelevance of those goals may also be the outcome. Being in the moment involves not knowing how it will all turn out. Barry Magid is an American psychiatrist who went against the current. He argued against using meditation as yet another vehicle en route to the conventional happiness prescription, i.e. maximum pleasant feelings and thoughts, minimum unpleasant feelings and thoughts.
Magid’s understanding of mindfulness is that it is a way to stop trying to “fix” ones’ experience of things.
His argument is somewhat routed in mythology: struggling to escape one’s demons is what gives them their power.
The fight for a vision of happiness is the cause of the problem, not the solution to it.
Freud’s seemingly basic idea of our psychology was that we seek pleasure and avoid pain (and we avoid pain much more than we seek pleasure). He argued that our subconscious was a big long list of everything we avoid. The Buddha confronted suffering, he didn’t move away – he moved into the pain – and that is how he became free.
As a doctor, I know that it’s very worrying when a patient doesn’t flinch away from a painful stimulus. I am starting to come around to the idea that for our higher cognition, the non-reflex, non-fight-or-flight, it is better to not flinch away from mental pain.
That’s how I understand mindfulness. It’s not sitting there thoughtless. In fact, trying hard to fix the busy mind is yet another trap. The way I understand it is that it is necessary to observe it without clinging or fleeing. Like I discussed with Bela,
For me the experience of mindfulness is a bit like being on a tight rope: the abyss of clinging to the left and of fleeing to the right. Sometimes of the past to the left and of the future to the right. Just like it takes a lot of awareness to remain on the tight rope, flexing the right muscles, adjusting to the wind, it takes the same kind of awareness to stay in the moment.
Seneca, Freud, the Buddha – and our new friend the living psychiatrist Magid all seem to think that flinching away from suffering is what makes it worse.
The Abhidhamma, a central text for Buddhism, teaches that the mind is a bit like a sense organ. Thoughts and feelings come in just like smells, sounds and tastes. Recently, I observed a thought that seemed completely extraneous to me: having relaxed after non-stop worrying about a sick animals, I found it strange how someone else would get so upset about a pet in hospital. Not every thought and emotion belongs to us. Why do certain songs cling to our minds? In what way are they ours?
We could consider the inescapable nature of the smell of cigarettes – or the taste of toothpaste every morning as a way to understand the presence of certain thoughts and feelings.
It gets a little bit “meta” – as we are more abstractly thinking (one may say observing non-judgementally) of regular thinking (to do list, he said, she said, itchy, hungry, Never mind I’ll find someone like you, and other assorted circular randomness) – and saying that regular thinking is just like an organ of perception. What does that say about abstract thinking? Is that the “real” thinking? Somewhat over-simplistically, I suspect that this abstract thinking is a process of the prefrontal cortex, while the regular thinking is carried out by more basic circuitry we share with many animals.
In this vein, not being able to get the motivation to do something because one’s sad doesn’t make sense. One needn’t feel pumped to do work. If thoughts and feelings are like smells and sounds, one can still muster the agency to do what needs to be done. The Stoics would argue like this also.
In a sense, this still means that mindfulness is a route to happiness, only I changed the goal posts of what happiness is. In a sense, mindfulness is a fight to stay on the tightrope of the present moment – and thus a fight for happiness. This is all difficult to state in words, but I think you all know what I mean.
Mindfulness doesn’t have a purpose, except perhaps to reconcile perception and reality – which is so obvious, it is a bit embarrassing to state as a purpose.
Seneca felt that happiness comes from within. It is impossible to be happy while relying on luck and external circumstances. In other words, happiness shouldn’t be conditional on anything outside of your control.
Do you ask what is the foundation of a sound mind? It is, not to find joy in useless things. I said that it was the foundation; it is really the pinnacle.
We have reached the heights if we know what it is that we find joy in and if we have not placed our happiness in the control of external circumstances.
Seneca acknowledges that feeling joy that doesn’t come from external circumstances may not come naturally:
Above all, make this your business: learn how to feel joy.
I do not wish you ever to be deprived of gladness. I would have it born in your house; and it is born there, if only it be inside of you. I mean from your very self, that which is the best part of you.
Furthermore, the kind of joy that arises from outside tends to lead to sorrow:
Pleasure, unless it has been kept within bounds, tends to rush headlong into the abyss of sorrow.
Every commencement speech tells you to dream big. I want to clarify that dreaming big specifically relates to who you become – not what you have. Fantasising about Ferraris doesn’t count. In this model, they are a possible side effect of delivering something valuable to the world.
Dreaming big comes naturally to those who are ambitious, but some people don’t. Why don’t they? Freud is my friend here. Not dreaming big is less painful than dreaming big. Big accomplishments come with increased responsibility, hassle and resentful friends. Nobody likes those things. I think every human being can relate to this. At the same time, convincing yourself that something that is out of reach isn’t worth it has a name. In Ancient Rome, they called it sour grapes. Literally, the expression comes from this: you cannot reach the grapes, so you convince yourself that they are sour – so you don’t have to keep reaching. It’s a form of nihilism: “it’s not worth it anyway.” Personally, I never suffered from this. Grapes are yummy. However, I have another issue.
Dreaming big focuses on the future. It stretches you. It sets a vision on what should be in your head. However, when you snap out of the big dream – it really hurts. Looking at reality will inevitably cause you to question what is responsible for the discrepancy. This may be another reason that stops people from dreaming big. Furthermore, even if you have the audacity to dream big, feeling bad about yourself in this manner hampers your chances of achieving your dream.
Happiness is most certainly a function of expectations, not reality. In fact, to make it nice and mechanical, let’s (over)simplify: Happiness = reality – expectations.
It is easy to be happy if you have no sense of entitlement. This is a nice way of saying it. It is stoicism in a sentence. Let’s try this: it is easy to be happy if you have low expectations. Hmmm. This calls into question the idea of dreaming big. It seems that reality hurts more when you have big dreams as happiness becomes a negative “number”. While there is technically a difference between a dream and an expectation, but I think for anyone who really believes in their dreams, it is kind of the same thing.
The only solution I can think of is patience. Patience means that you don’t expect is all and expect it now. I recall dreaming of being a doctor. I knew no bigger dream at the time. It didn’t hurt so much when I was 17 and on track – though the dream was still only a dream. It becomes more complex when you are an adult. When you see others who achieve humongous things at an exceptionally young age, when you start comparing yourself to others – your patience seems to die a sudden death. For me, thinking about Mark Zuckerberg or the chap who came up with Snapchat makes me feel like I am already late to the party.
Another bit of common wisdom comes to mind – don’t not compare yourself to others. Is it good advice? Comparing yourself to others is part of understanding reality. I believe that self-awareness and awareness of reality are paramount – hence my interest in mindfulness. So comparing yourself to others it’s at least in part useful. However, it has to be balanced with feeling good about yourself – I don’t think anyone ever achieved anything through hating themselves. In fact, comparing yourself to others could even be pleasant – look at you doing better than some of your classmates. Twisted, but true. Apparently, that’s the same mechanism behind people watching the Kardashians being ridiculous. I don’t know. I’ve never gone there. Looking up to a role model – our fundamental way of learning – is a form of comparing yourself to others, only here you strongly believe that one day you can become a version of this person.
I think it is good advice in the sense that in the long run, you’re only ever fighting against your former self. If you are trending upwards, it doesn’t really matter where you rank in the short term.
Lastly, it is important to get good at dealing with failure. It is my rule that if something hurts too much – a rejection, a failure, whatever – I am taking it personally. The only way to approach this is like a game. A sort of hobby. The moment you begin to take it personally, you lost. There is a temptation, especially among overachievers, to bet their self-esteem on achievements. Bad idea. Just like in negotiating – you should never put yourself in a situation where you can’t walk away from a deal. The way to do that when it comes to expectations is to remember that you are distinct from your mission – no matter how much you love it.
After all, dreaming big is about who you become. Winning is a long game, so big dreams, patience and a good understanding of reality will be required.