Grumps: Philosophy, positive thinking, and self-help are subjective and unsatisfying ways to understand emotions.
Positive psychology does not rely on wishful thinking, faith, self-deception, fads, or hand waving; it tries to adapt what is best in the scientific method to the unique problems that human behavior presents to those who wish to understand it in all its complexity.
Psychologists have good reason to believe that techniques that build positive traits and positive subjective experiences work, both in therapy and perhaps more importantly in prevention. Building optimism, for example, prevents depression (Seligman, Schulman, DeRubeis, & Hollon, 1999).
Christopher Peterson (2000) describes the research on [optimism]... He considers optimism to involve cognitive, emotional, and motivational components. People high in optimism tend to have better moods, to be more persevering and successful, and to experience better physical health.
You may think that psychology will never look beyond the victim, the underdog, and the remedial, but we want to suggest that the time is finally right for positive psychology. We well recognize that positive psychology is not a new idea. It has many distinguished ancestors, and we make no claim of originality. However, these ancestors somehow failed to attract a cumulative, empirical body of research to ground their ideas. 3
Optimist: Even if positive psychology has limits, philosophy is another powerful way to try to understand emotions and the world because it's also based on reason.
People are understandably confused about what philosophy is. From a distance, it seems weird, irrelevant, boring and yet also – just a little – intriguing... In Greek, philo means love – or devotion – and sophia means wisdom. Philosophers are people devoted to wisdom.
What is the meaning of life? What should I do with my work? Where are we going as a society? What is love? Most of us have these questions in our minds at some point (often in the middle of the night), but we despair of trying to answer them. They have the status of jokes in most social circles: and we get shy of expressing them (except for brief moments in adolescence) for fear of being thought pretentious and of getting nowhere.
But these questions matter deeply because only with sound answers to them can we direct our energies meaningfully. Philosophers are people unafraid of the large questions. They have, over the centuries, asked the very largest. They realize that these questions can always be broken down into more manageable chunks and that the only really pretentious thing is to think one is above regularly raising naive-sounding enquiries.
Is it really true what people say about love, about money, about children, about travel, about work? Philosophers are interested in asking whether an idea is logical – rather than simply assuming it must be right because it is popular and long-established.
Socrates developed a method (which still bears his name) by which you can learn to get clearer about what you mean by playing devil’s advocate with any idea. The aim isn’t necessarily to change your mind. It is to test whether the ideas guiding your life are sound... The philosopher Aristotle tried to make us more confident around big questions. He thought that the best questions were those that ask what something is for... The Stoics noticed... we panic not just when something bad occurs, but when it does so unexpectedly, when we were assuming that everything was going to go rather well. So they suggested that we should arm ourselves against panic by getting used to the idea that danger, trouble and difficulty are very likely to occur at every turn. The overall task of studying philosophy is to absorb these and many other lessons and put them to work in the world today. 6
Grumps: I am tormented by a flood of confusing and negative emotions.
Optimist: These thoughts may be critical clues to improve our lives.
Our minds are filled with out-of-focus feelings and ideas: we dimly experience a host of regrets, envious feelings, hurts, anxieties and excitements. And for the most part we never stop to analyse or make sense of them. It seems too painful and difficult, because there is always an extra anxiety that attends the process of thinking – whatever its eventual benefits. The weight of these unthought-thoughts grows over time, they take their revenge out on us for not giving them the attention they deserve. They wake us up in the middle of the night demanding to be heard or they give us twitches, and perhaps one day illnesses. Yet they deserve to be unpacked and sorted out, because the unthought-thoughts contain clues as to our needs and our longer-term direction. They are not merely useless clutter (as they might seem under a Buddhist lens). They are fragments of a jigsaw of a future (and better) self. 7
Grumps: I have tried meditation but the flood doesn't stop.
Optimist: Meditation suggests an emptying of the mind whereas a philosophical reflection on the mind may be more helpful.
Adherents of meditation suggest that we sit very quietly, in a particular bodily position, and strive, through a variety of exercises, to empty our minds of content, quite literally to push or draw away the disturbing and unfocused objects of consciousness to the periphery of our minds, leaving a central space empty and serene... Like its Eastern counterpart, Philosophical Meditation wants our thoughts, feelings and anxieties to trouble us less, but it seeks to sort out our minds in a very different manner. At heart, it doesn’t believe that the contents of our minds are nonsensical or meaningless. Our worries may seem like a nuisance but they are in fact neurotically garbled but important signals about how we should direct our lives. They contain complex clues as to our development. Therefore, rather than wanting simply to empty our minds of content, practitioners of Philosophical Meditation encourage us to clean these minds up: they want to bring the content that troubles us more securely into focus, and thereby usher in calm through understanding rather than through evacuation. 8
Miranda Kerr is astonishingly pretty, hugely successful as a model and very rich. She's been named the sexiest woman alive. She's also deeply interested in developing her mind. That means she's into yoga, chanting, meditation and Japanese Buddhism. She recites Nam Myoho Renge Kyo twice a day – invoking the mystic law of the lotus flower which asserts that Miranda and the cosmos are two sides of the same coin.
Kerr has had some real difficulties with loneliness and loss. Her first boyfriend died in a car crash. A later lover turned out to be a crook. She married Orlando Bloom but it all fell apart pretty quickly. Her needs are real. And she's turned for comfort and help to the East.
She might have looked elsewhere. She might have found that Plato or Tolstoy had things to teach her. Maybe she could have been touched by Bach or medieval architecture. It's not as if the West doesn't also have a deep and long engagement with the sorrows of life. But, like so many spiritually curious people, she didn't end up engaging with its culture. Instead she joined the Soka Gakkai Buddhist cult.
Miranda is deeply sincere in her longing to be educated and instructed. She's a tireless advocate of an analysed life. So how has it happened that Western culture largely passed Miranda by. It's not her fault. She needed something and the West wouldn't give it to her. So she went elsewhere. And her decision tells us something hugely important about how the Western world handles – or more accurately, mishandles – its culture.
It would be extremely strange to hear at a middle-class dinner party that the person next to you had found solace in Hegel or Aristotle. And totally unsurprising to learn that they had been to Nepal and were entranced by its traditional wisdom. Miranda was ready for guidance. She wanted someone to explain what you need to do to steer a path through life. And, because of certain deep prejudices against the idea of being useful, Western culture let her down.
Miranda's rejection of the West is the West's fault. She needed help and none was given. This isn't just a problem for one very famous model, it's a problem for all of us, in the East and in the West. We are missing out on a crucial resource. The great figures of Western culture almost all wanted culture to function as an instrument for the pursuit of a wiser life: Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Schiller, Tolstoy, Proust… all wanted culture to be not an object of academic study, but a living resource that could offer counsel and direction (for when a boyfriend had been killed) – much as the Eastern 'wisdom tradition' has always believed.
It's time to return Western culture to its rightful ambitions, not in order to win out over the East, but in order to stand as its legitimate equal in the pursuit of a path to human flourishing. 9
Grumps: I'm inherently cynical.
Optimist: The largest meta-analysis shows that psychological interventions can increase optimism in anyone:
Greater optimism is related to better mental and physical health. [...] A significant meta-analytic effect size, g=.41, indicated that, across studies, interventions increased optimism. [...] The results indicate that psychological interventions can increase optimism and that various factors may influence effect size. 10
Grumps: Optimism is just a vague and arbitrary emotion.
Optimist: Optimism has been shown to reduce the effects of heart attacks, for example.
Optimistic people are much less likely to die of heart attacks than pessimists, controlling for all known physical risk factors (Giltay et al., 2004). 56
Giltay, Geleijnse, Zitman, Hoekstra, and Schouten (2004) followed 999 Dutch seniors for a decade: high optimism produced a remarkably low hazard ratio of 0.23 for CVD death (upper versus lower quartile of optimism, 95% conﬁdence interval, 0.10–0.55) when controlling for age, sex, chronic disease, education, smoking, alcohol, history of CVD, body mass, and cholesterol level. Similarly, Buchanan (1995) found that among 96 men who had had their ﬁrst heart attack, 15 of the 16 most pessimistic men died of CVD over the next decade, while only 5 of the 16 most optimistic died, controlling for major risk factors. 11
Grumps: A natural tendency towards optimism is naïve.
Optimist: Perhaps, but optimism based on reason and evidence (and therefore, necessarily, experience) may be legitimately non-naïve.
The advocates of gratitude aren't merely being naïve when they tell us to stop and appreciate flowers or a pretty sky; they know about suffering and darkness and are speaking up only because they have been to hell and back and concluded that in the end, what makes the journey worth it are a few outwardly humble but deeply significant things... To say that we should be more grateful is not to deny a role for future effort. It is to recognise that there are already at this point some very good reasons to be a little more satisfied with who we are and what we have. 12
Grumps: I feel embarrassed by unprovoked optimistic thoughts such as a warm feeling on a warm, spring day.
Optimist: An unprovoked optimistic thought, while it needs more thought and analysis, is a wonderful gift from the senses that there is opportunity for rational optimism.
Our faith in ourselves and our prospects is frequently determined by nothing grander than the number of photons of light in the sky and degrees of warmth in the air. Heat, pleasant breezes, intense sunlight and fresh flowers may play a critical role in encouraging us not to give up on things... We may look down on a sunny scene which, if it were presented to us in a museum, we would take extremely seriously. If we went on a special trip to the Musee d’Orsay in Paris to see Monet’s paintings, we would hardly think we were doing something low-brow. Yet when we look at his beautiful Wild Poppies, near Argenteuil we are – in many respects – experiencing much the same thing as when we appreciate a spring scene on our way to work. 13
Grumps: Even if I accept all the optimistic arguments as plausible, once I leave, I'll probably just revert to my old ways.
Greater optimism is related to better mental and physical health. A number of studies have investigated interventions intended to increase optimism. The aim of this meta-analysis was to consolidate effect sizes found in randomized controlled intervention studies of optimism training and to identify factors that may influence the effect of interventions. Twenty-nine studies, with a total of 3319 participants, met criteria for inclusion in the analysis. A significant meta-analytic effect size, g = .41, indicated that, across studies, interventions increased optimism... The results indicate that psychological interventions can increase optimism and that various factors may influence effect size. 14
Grumps: A primal switch is liable to be flipped in anyone, sparking the dangerous flame of anger.
Optimist: Most humans have the powerful capability of reflecting on emotions such as anger before, during, and after it occurs, allowing them to control or harness it for the best.
It’s reached the point that some people think that an inclination to anger is a sign of honesty and that all who are most subject to it are commonly believed to be most free and easy… No other passion’s features are more disturbed. It turns the fairest faces foul and renders wild those that were utterly placid. Angry people lose all sense of propriety. If their dress is arranged comme il faut, they’ll tear it off and lose all concern for their appearance. If their hair is arranged attractively by nature or by art, it bristles as wildly as their minds. Their veins swell, their chests are shaken by rapid breathing, their necks strain with the frenzied eruption of their voice; their joints tremble, their hands are restless, their whole body is buffeted as if by waves.
What do you imagine the mind within looks like, when its outward appearance is so foul? How much more terrifying is its aspect within the breast, its breathing more ragged, its assault more focused, sure to burst if it doesn’t burst forth! Like the sight of enemies or wild beasts dripping with blood or going to the kill; like the underworld monsters poets have imagined, girt with serpents and breathing fire; like the most terrible divinities that issue from Hell to stir up war, spread discord among nations, and tear peace to shreds– that’s how we should picture anger in the mind’s eye: its eyes ablaze, making a din with its shrieking and bellowing and groaning and hissing and any sound that is more hateful, brandishing its weapons in both hands (nor indeed is it concerned to shield itself), fierce, bloody, scarred, and bruised by self-inflicted blows, striding in a frenzy, cloaked in darkness, attacking, laying waste, putting to flight, stirred in its travails by a hatred of everyone and everything– itself most of all– as it seeks to confound earth and sea and sky, if it can cause harm no other way, hating and hated at once.
Some angry people, as Sextius said, have benefited from looking in a mirror. They were taken aback to see such a great change in themselves: brought, as it were, to the scene of the crime, they didn’t recognize themselves– and how little of their true deformity did that image reflected in the mirror show them! If the mind could be made visible and shine forth in some material form, its black, blotchy, seething, twisted, swollen appearance would stun the viewers. Even now, when it makes its way through bones and flesh and so many other obstacles, its deformity is enormous: what if it could be shown uncovered? To be sure, you’ll believe that a mirror could deter no one from anger. Of course: someone who approaches a mirror in order to change himself has already changed. 15
Grumps: I rarely feel very creative.
Optimist: An optimistic attitude may help spark creativity.
Positive mood produces broader attention (Fredrickson, 1998; Bolte et al., 2003; Fredrickson & Branigan, 2005; Rowe et al., 2007), more creative thinking (Isen et al., 1987; Estrada et al., 1994), and more holistic thinking (Isen et al., 1991; Kuhl, 1983, 2000), in contrast to negative mood which produces narrower attention (Bolte et al., 2003), more critical thinking, and more analytic thinking (Kuhl, 1983, 2000). 56
Grumps: What is happiness?
Optimist: Positive psychology proposes a set of features of happiness that can be taught.
‘Happiness’ is too worn and too weary a term to be of much scientific use, and the discipline of Positive Psychology divides it into three very different realms, each of which is measurable and, most importantly, each of which is skill-based and can be taught (Seligman, 2002). The first is hedonic: positive emotion (joy, love, contentment, pleasure etc.). A life led around having as much of this good stuff as possible, is the ‘Pleasant Life’. The second, much closer to what Thomas Jefferson and Aristotle sought, is the state of flow, and a life led around it is the ‘Engaged Life’. Flow, a major part of the Engaged Life, consists in a loss of self-consciousness, time stopping for you, being ‘one with the music’ (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Importantly engagement seems to be the opposite of positive emotion: when one is totally absorbed, no thoughts or feelings are present—even though one says afterwards ‘that was fun’ (Delle Fave & Massimini, 2005). And while there are shortcuts to positive emotion—you can take drugs, masturbate, watch television, or go shopping—there are no shortcuts to flow. Flow only occurs when you deploy your highest strengths and talents to meet the challenges that come your way, and it is clear that flow facilitates learning.
The third realm in the framework of Positive Psychology is the one with the best intellectual provenance, the Meaningful Life. Flow and positive emotion can be found in solipsistic pursuits, but not meaning or purpose. Meaning is increased through our connections to others, future generations, or causes that transcend the self (Durkheim, 1951/1897; Erikson, 1963). From a Positive Psychology perspective, meaning consists in knowing what your highest strengths are, and then using them to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self (Seligman, 2002). 56
Grumps: I don't know how to become happier.
Optimist: Some exercises 16 have been shown to increase happiness: using signature strengths in a new way and writing down three things that went well each day.
Two of the exercises—using signature strengths in a new way and three good things—increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms for six months. Another exercise, the gratitude visit, caused large positive changes for one month. The two other exercises and the placebo control created positive but transient effects on happiness and depressive symptoms. Not surprisingly, the degree to which participants actively continued their assigned exercise on their own and beyond the prescribed one-week period mediated the long-term benefits. 58
Grumps: It's not obvious what happiness is and how it's different from animal joy.
Optimist: The pursuit of happiness is in itself a fascinating act. Here are some philosophers' thoughts:
For Epicurus, we are happy if we are not in ''active'' pain. Because we suffer active pain if we lack nutrients and clothes, we must have enough... But suffering is too strong a word to describe what will occur if we are obliged to wear an ordinary cardigan rather than a cashmere one or to eat a sandwich rather than sea scallops. Hence [Epicurus'] argument that, "Plain dishes offer the same pleasure as a luxurious table, when the pain that comes from want is taken away." 57
Friedrich Nietzsche: [We should] direct our aim not to what is pleasant and agreeable in life, but to the avoidance, as far as possible, of its numberless evils... The happiest lot is that of the man who has got through life without any very great pain, bodily or mental.
What if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever ''wanted'' to have as much as possible of one ''must'' also have as much as possible of the other... you have the choice: either ''as little displeasure as possible'', painlessness in brief... or ''as much displeasure as possible'' as the price for the growth of an abundance of subtle pleasures and joys that have rarely been relished yet? If you decide for the former and desire to diminish and lower the level of human pain, you also have to diminish and lower the level of their ''capacity for joy''. 57
Grumps: Sometimes I work so hard to get the money to buy something that gives me momentary happiness but then I feel like I'm in the dumps.
Optimist: If purchases do not solve unhappiness, then this is a sign from our mind that deeper issues must first be uncovered and resolved.
Why, then, if expensive things cannot bring us remarkable joy, are we so powerfully drawn to them? Because of an error similar to that of the migraine sufferer who drills a hole in the side of his skull: because expensive objects can feel like plausible solutions to needs we don't understand. Objects mimic in a material dimension what we require in a psychological one. We need to rearrange our minds but are lured towards new shelves. We buy a cashmere cardigan as a substitute for the counsel of friends.
We are not solely to blame for our confusions. Our weak understanding of our needs is aggravated by what Epicurus terms the "idle opinions" of those around us, which do not reflect the natural hierarchy of our needs, emphasizing luxury and riches, seldom friendship, freedom and thought. 57
Grumps: I feel that the accidents of history, such as where I was born, have burdened me with unhappiness that I can't overcome.
Optimist: Life satisfaction is not greatly affected by external conditions.
Externalities (e.g., weather, money, health, marriage, religion) added together account for no more than 15% of the variance in life satisfaction (Diener et al., 1999). 56
Grumps: What's the value of happiness?
Optimist: Happiness can have a tangible effect on a person's future, such as higher incomes.
Happy teenagers go on to earn very substantially more income 15 years later than less happy teenagers, equating for income, grades and other obvious factors (Diener et al., 2002). 56
Grumps: I have a set of haunting, inextinguishable regrets. As Joseph Conrad writes in Heart of Darkness 17:
Droll thing life is, that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself, that comes too late, a crop of inextinguishable regrets.
Optimist: You cannot change the past and regrets may be useful signs from your mind to help you avoid similar situations in the future. If regrets are not extinguishing, then this may be a helpful sign that there's no closure for the bad things they represent and that there's still something that needs to be done about them.
Grumps: Work is empty and boring.
Optimist: An understanding of how we go to where we are, what our role is in work, and how to deal with it are all in our reach.
In a perfect world, work should do so much for us: lend us purpose and a sense of achievement, offer us meaning and comradeship. But invariably, something goes wrong: our talents feel like they're not being recognised, the company seems unfit to sacrifice a life for, the day-to-day tasks are mundane and stressful and many in management are like grown-up versions of playground bullies.
You feel – often on Sunday evenings – that at some point you took a wrong turn. Becoming an architect was, in retrospect, an insane focus for your talents. It was a piece of babyish absurdity to confuse the pleasure of reading magazines with the hell of working on them. At the outset, commercial litigation seemed glamorous; now you know it is an excuse to turn your clients' entanglements into obscene sums for the partners on the 46th floor. If you wonder why you made such momentous errors, the reason is painfully simple: you simply had no idea what was at stake. Long ago, you were left alone with a decision that you had no capacities to address sensibly. And now you are trapped in a cage built for you by a blind 20-year-old version of yourself.
Most of us hover weakly between multiple possibilities; we have no sense of what we would deeply enjoy, what is available and what we would be best suited to. Panicked, we therefore choose blindly, in a hurry, under pressure – and, inevitably, erroneously. Before choosing, we are often sent to a career counsellor for a session or two – in order to decide the nature of our work on this earth for the next 40 years. We spend more time choosing a car or a holiday.
Work becomes meaningful whenever we feel in some way able to help another human being to be happier through our labour, either by reducing their suffering or by increasing their pleasure. It may be a major intervention, like repairing a heart valve. Or it could be a minor one, like bringing them a cup of tea, showing them a sunny spot in the garden or suggesting a great place for dinner nearby.
We reach the end of the working day and wonder what we have really done. We are one of 15,000 people in an organisation on three continents working on projects that will come to fruition in five years time. The vast time horizons and huge corporations of modernity contribute to destroy any tangible impression of being able to make a difference. In the olden times, it was easier on this score. In a matter of hours, the cobbler could produce the shoes that he would see other people walking about in with satisfaction for months afterwards. The baker produced the rolls in the middle of the night that were sold at breakfast time, lending him a direct feeling of the way his work impacted positively on the lives of his neighbours.
Yet, for reasons first explained by Adam Smith in the latter part of the 18th century, that way of experiencing work has disappeared from modern economies. Capitalists recognised that it would be a great deal more profitable for them to split the tasks formerly done by one person in a single day into hundreds of tasks carried out by thousands of people over whole careers. The age of specialisation had begun and with it, gradually, the mania for incomprehensible job titles: Logistics supply manager, Packaging coordinator, Communications and learning officer…
The economy is ultimately driven not by businesses but by consumers. Corporations just supply whatever customers are willing to pay for. There's a mass market in cheap eggs because so many people don't much care about the suffering of chickens and farmers. But what people care about is not a dictate of nature. It can change. We can be led to weep over the fates of strangers and feel sympathy for subjects we might previously have never known existed. Our behaviour is a cultural creation, open to education – and through education, someone might come to the conclusion that they fervently wouldn't want to breakfast on an egg from a bird that had been manhandled by a degraded workforce.
We are all easily hurt. We might not be keen to admit it, but a single cruel word or snide remark can throw us off balance for the day. In private life, we can show our wounds. We can complain, we sulk, we argue. But at work, we can do nothing. We are at the mercy of others, with very little protection against low level infringements of our dignity, peace of mind and self-esteem.
The structure of corporations writes disappointment into the contract for almost everyone. There can only be one winner in every cohort filled with potential leaders. Who will get the job won't even hinge on pure talent, there will be no race we can enter and be judged fairly in. It will be shockingly haphazard: who happens to click with a particular board member; who recently had a nice lunch with whom… These are not scurrilous factors; but they are arbitrary enough to be responsible for decades of extraordinary resentment and injury in the hearts of all those who won't succeed.
None of these problems can be easily removed. But once we understand their structural nature, we should be allowed to feel communally distraught over, rather than individually persecuted by them – and by all the agonies and stresses that work inevitably directs our way, on this long, wearying day as on so many others. 18
One of the hardest things about our working lives is knowing what we ideally want to do with them. It's simple enough to sense what is boring and soul-destroying, but identifying what would satisfy us is a greater challenge. It's a good deal less straightforward than asking oneself what one wants to eat or drink, sadly because finding one's way to good work relies (along with many other things) on having a firm grasp of our eventual preferred destination.
Indications of what jobs might appeal to us tend to come in garbled and indirect forms, for example, in those moments of curiosity and envy we sometimes feel when we hear what someone is up to; for example, when we learn that a friend of a friend has started up a project to take Australian high school students to climb Mount Kilimanjaro; or that someone you were at university with has become a chair designer; or when at a party someone tells you about how neuroscience is changing advertising; or there's a magazine feature on a guy who bought a chain of budget hotels, repackaged them and sold them on, pocketing a fortune in the process…
We're given little encouragement to stop and properly interpret our feelings. The urgent task should be to disentangle the underlying identity of a job from the example of the specific person who first aroused our interest in it. If we can see its nature clearly we are then able to look more actively for something else a bit like it in the world around us.
It might sound self-indulgent to talk of enjoying work when work of any kind is so hard to find, but fantasising about what we ideally want does not have to mean expecting it will be easy to secure it. Ideals are destinations. However, if we get to know an ideal, we can start to figure out more carefully what it might take to head in that direction or what a decent enough alternative might be.
The world is a chaotic place: fractured, incoherent, noisy, random. A central pleasure in a number of jobs is therefore that of being able to bring order to some aspect of life: of creating – in a demarcated space – a realm of superior logic, coherence or meaning. It is the pleasure, in the grandest and simplest of ways, of tidying things up.
Then there is the pleasure of understanding. It is present in the working life of a plumber who must pin down what precisely is ailing the heating system within a myriad of pipes behind the kitchen panels. Understanding lends its possessor a thrilling sense of power over the randomness of experience. Through understanding, we acquire one of the keys, however small, to the laws of the universe – and our anxiety and fear decrease accordingly.
People had been walking past that old jam factory for years. But you were the one who realised what could be done: you could see what others couldn't. You predicted that the area would change its character because you understood demographic and social change; you knew you could get people to buy apartments because you understood the role of marketing that you'd studied in the car industry. You, the entrepreneur, triumphed over those who were less intelligent about human nature. You can find and unlock value and the proof is the most tangible in the world, it isn't just acclaim or the pat on the back of colleagues: it is the sum in your bank account. Those motivated to make money aren't doing it just out of greed (though that might come into it of course). They may just be addicted to the intense satisfaction that a successful money-generating scheme can give off: the satisfaction – delivered via profit – of knowing that one has grasped some part of the world better than other people.
The words 'serving' and 'servant' have extremely negative connotations. They sound feudal, an insult to our independence and pride. And yet to serve another human being offers some of the most intense pleasures available in the working world. A customer has just come in to your cafe; it's breakfast time; they look a bit frazzled. It's not a mystery what they need. You're not trying to invent a new kind of coffee or a special way of cooking eggs. But it's a delight to be able to bring these well-honed solutions to this person in just the right way. You are busy, but your smile is genuine. And you know that they are grateful – a breezy hello and crisp slice of toast really do help turn a tricky day into something bearable. To serve well requires a practical application of the power of empathy. One has to start with oneself: What do I enjoy? What delights my eyes, ears and palate?
Pleasing others is a sign that we've got it right, that we've correctly read ourselves and human nature more broadly. We've turned insight into a moment of joy or solace, which in turn lends us a sense of affirmation and triumph over the forces of unhappiness. To serve gives us a thrilling feeling of power in relation to the needs and vulnerabilities of others. They are looking to renew themselves with a haircut, to repair their faulty computer, to find something to soothe their ailing dog… – and we can be the ones to deliver the solutions.
Through certain kinds of work, we have the chance to contribute in some way to the great task of turning sadness and dissatisfaction into joy. Work lends us the pleasure of being part of a team. The challenge brings out everyone's best sides: someone comes up with a suggestion you'd never have thought of, a colleague compensates for one of your weaknesses, another looks to you for encouragement and guidance that confirms your experience and authority. Collectively, a disparate group of people become more impressive than they each could be on their own – thanks to the gift of work.
Reminding ourselves of the possible pleasures of work helps to correct the misleading view that the only difficulty around employment is the part about getting hired. There's a prior, equally big challenge of knowing what the ideal position for us would actually be.
The pleasures of work are extensions of things we normally first started to like in embryonic form when we were children. In our hurry to please authority figures or impress according to the status structure of the world, we often forget to ask ourselves what truly pleases us. Job categories ('lawyer', 'IT specialist' etc.) tell us what a person does, but they don't sufficiently clearly latch on to the pleasure that's subjectively involved in the task. We need another kind of categorisation which would help us to plot our pleasures: with it, we might say 'I am motivated by Serving' or 'It's Understanding that gets me going…' 19
Grumps: I'm not just anxious at social events, but fundamentally anxious about everything, and nothing that I try calms my nerves.
Optimist: Anxiety is a reasonable emotion and can be broken down into helpful, natural anxiety and unrealistic expectations.
Today, like most days, you are anxious. It is there in the background, always present, sometimes more to the fore, sometimes less so, but never truly banished – at least not for longer than an evening. The anxiety appears to be about some very particular things: the party where you won’t know many people, the complicated trip you have to take to some unfamiliar hotels, the direction of your career, the drilling outside, the email problem, the claustrophobic interior of the plane, your digestive system…
But considered from a broader perspective, the problem for us is larger, more damning and a great deal more fundamental. Beyond any specific thing we happen to be worrying about, looked at over time, a greater conclusion is inescapable: we simply are anxious, to our core, in the very basic make-up of our being. Though we may focus day-to-day on this or that particular worry creating static in our minds, what we are really up against is anxiety as a permanent feature of life, something irrevocable, existential, dogged – and responsible for ruining a dominant share of our brief time on earth.
Tortured by anxiety, we naturally fall prey to powerful fantasies about what might – finally – bring us calm.
Perhaps we would be calm if the house could be as we really want it: with everything in its place, no more clutter, pristine walls, ample cupboards, stripped oak, limestone, recessed lighting and a bank of new appliances.
Or perhaps we will be calm when one day we reach the right place in the company, or the novel is sold, or the film is made or our shares are worth $5bn – and we can walk into a room of strangers and they will know at once.
Or (and this one we keep a little more to ourselves), there might be calm if we had the right sort of person in our lives, someone who could properly understand us, a creature with whom it wouldn’t be so difficult, who would be kind and playfully sympathetic, who would have thoughtful, compassionate eyes and in whose arms we could lie in peace, almost like a child – though not quite.
Yet despite the promises and the passion expended in the pursuit of these goals, none of them will work. There will be anxiety at the beach, in the pristine home, after the sale of the company, and in the arms of anyone we will ever seduce, however often we try.
The single most important move is acceptance. There is no need – on top of everything else – to be anxious that we are anxious. The mood is no sign that our lives have gone wrong, merely that we are alive. We should be more careful when pursuing things we imagine will spare us anxiety. We can pursue them by all means, but for other reasons than fantasies of calm – and with a little less vigour and a little more scepticism.
We must learn to laugh about our anxieties – laughter being the exuberant expression of relief when a hitherto private agony is given a well-crafted social formulation in a joke. We can laugh about the terrors of having a body... And about how easily we lose perspective on everything. 20
Grumps: I feel chaotic when I allow my mind to think about anything.
Optimist: With so much relative freedom to think and act, it's good that exercising our emotions has the opportunity to improve them.
We feel chaotic – overwhelmed by our own appetites, very unsure about what we should do with our lives, fearful of wasting opportunities and afraid we won’t accomplish anything, paralysed at times by unstructured freedom. This is therefore a highly relevant moment to reconnect with the Ancient Greek idea that living well is crucially dependent upon education: upon learning emotional skills and good habits. This particular era of history seems ready for the founding insight of Greek philosophy: that the good life is something that can be taught. 21
It's useful to accept that the opposite of chaos, perfection, cannot be achieved. Mundane hobbies can be useful, temporary antidotes to the lack of control we may feel.
One of the big causes of stress is that we often face problems that can’t be solved in any reasonable period of time or indeed solved at all. It’s going to take five more years until we’re ready to start the job we really want. That big project at work will taken another 24 months before it shows any signs of real progress. The annoying colleague is a daily challenge, with no end in sight. Even now, deep in adulthood, your sibling or parent remains an ongoing source of frustration. You’ve just had the same argument for the twentieth time with your partner; it always ends in apologies, but a real advance is elusive. Your child has again damaged the sofa. In other words, our longing for control and completion is constantly being frustrated – and, as a result, calm can be very elusive. So we should seek out and give prestige to tasks that – however small – can be done perfectly. 22
Grumps: It's hard to find things to help with chaotic thoughts, especially in tough situations.
Optimist: Nature offers many soothing concepts such as clouds, trees, and streams, even as a picture on a desk.
Perhaps for a minute before lunch, we would ritually pause and look at the clouds – just as Christians have been encouraged to say a quick prayer of thanksgiving on sitting down to dinner. No week should be counted complete if it does not include three minutes given over to a tree. If streams are hard to come by, a picture of them should be a priority of interior decoration and each of us should make a point of stopping before a ‘stream-icon' to reacquaint ourselves with its benign and beneficial moral. We too easily lose touch with the better and saner aspects of ourselves. Somewhere inside us, we have the potential for calm and reason, tenderness and thoughtfulness. Clouds, trees and streams are on hand to help. 23
Grumps: I have uncontrollable feelings of envy towards other people.
Optimist: These may be helpful signs that you are still searching for who you want to be.
While envy is deeply uncomfortable, squaring up to the emotion is an indispensable requirement of a decent life. It is a call to action that should be heeded, for it contains garbled messages sent by confused but important parts of our personalities about what we should be doing with the rest of our lives. Without regular envious attacks, we couldn’t possibly know what we wanted to be. Instead of trying to repress our envy, we should hence make every effort to study it. Each person we envy possesses a piece of the jigsaw puzzle depicting our possible future. There is a portrait of a ‘true self’ waiting to be assembled out of the envious hints we receive when we flick through a magazine, turn the pages of a newspaper or hear updates on the radio about the career moves of old schoolmates. We should calmly ask one essential and redemptive question of all those we envy: ‘What could I learn about here?’ 24 25
Grumps: I envy famous people and it's unlikely that I'll become famous.
Optimist: Fame may not fulfill your deeper needs.
We don't go around saying it – but almost everyone would like to be a bit famous (and the few who are famous mostly give the impression they wish for more).
It's actually not at all weird that the idea of fame appeals. At key points in life, and maybe most of the time, we don't get enough attention from the people who really matter. Our best friend made friends with someone else; the elder sister who was the companion in all our childhood adventures started to get more interested in boys and homework and didn't want to make Lego farms or build treehouses much any more. A father changes jobs and is often away on business; a mother goes back to work and a nervous three year old spends long mornings in a nursery with eleven more boisterous children. The person you pined for through adolescence hardly knew you existed. Someone you wished you could have been better friends with – witty, gregarious and good looking – never really made you feel part of their group. The people from whom we seek intimate attention, regard and even love may not mean to leave us bereft – but that's what happens often enough.
So we seek a substitute: the applause of strangers. This is what it means to want to be famous. At the origin of the desire to be known to multitudes is a wound. This is so often missed. Wanting fame is seen as an exuberant, over-confident impulse rather than what it is: a kind of vulnerability. 26
Grumps: I feel unhappy when others succeed more than me.
Optimist: We may have a bias towards seeing failure and success in the context of our peers, rather than in broader terms of what success and failure mean to us individually.
Whereas unhappy students' affect and self-assessments were heavily affected by a peer who solved anagrams either faster or slower, happy students' responses were affected by the presence of a slower peer only [and] whereas the unhappy group's responses to feedback about their own teaching performance were heavily influenced by a peer who performed even better or even worse, happy students' responses again were moderated only by information about inferior peer performance. 27
Grumps: Depression sometimes feels like an uncontrollable emotion.
Optimist: Positive moods such as optimism may help fight depression 58.
Grumps: I feel fundamentally different than most other people.
Optimist: Our peculiarities are usually mild, give us a uniqueness that others can cling to and love, and whose weird characteristics are only amplified due to our unique perspective on ourselves.
We mostly encounter the edited versions of other people. While we are continually exposed to the unedited version of ourselves. The unfair comparison means we inevitably feel much weirder than we really are. There’s that strange sexual thing that excites you. You feel like crying when you get stuck in traffic. In groups you have the strange sense that everyone is normal except you. At work you feel the need to laugh at a remark which, in all honesty, strikes you as entirely unamusing... By being exposed as fifty times more strange, [a truly psychotic person] repositions our own lonely peculiarities squarely back in the realm of the humdrum and average. It has absolutely never even crossed your mind to cook your partner. Not once have you eyed a cauldron with murder on your mind. 28
Grumps: We are drowning in an overpopulated yet atomized, interconnected yet isolated, and advanced yet backwards world.
Optimist: We have a hunger for the opposite of these dystopian trends, as symbolized by our view of the sweet simplicity in children.
Societies get sensitive to things that they are missing. We live in a world of highly complex technology, extreme precision in science, massive bureaucracies, insecurity and intense meritocratic competition. To survive with any degree of success in these conditions, we have to be exceptionally controlled, forward-thinking, reasonable and cautious creatures. However, we tend not to identify what has grown in short supply in our lives head on. It would be rare to say: we need more flights of fancy, more innocent trust, more gleeful disregard of expectations… We have forgotten that this is what we even want. Instead, we simply find it moving – in fact sweet – to encounter these things in symbolic forms in the scribblings of a child. 29
Grumps: We are destined to be consumed by our selfish egos and unending thoughts.
Optimist: The enormity of nature and our universe may easily be queried to help balance our unquenching streams of thought.
The world will go on much the same without us, which can be a source of relief rather than distress. It is very helpful to be reduced, from time to time, in our own eyes, because this calms the urgent, disturbing (and very normal) sense that it matters so much what we do. We need hints of the unimaginable extensions of space across the solar system, the galaxy, the cosmos. The sky at night from the desert is lit up with the sparkles of a million stars. Gazing up, none of our troubles, disappointments or hopes seem to have any relevance. Everything that happens to us, or that we do, will be of no consequence whatever from the point of view of the universe. For a little while our own lives can seem blissfully unimportant. But it is not a personal affront. The same applies to everyone: it is levelling, humbling and a deep relief. 30
Globular clusters are dense bunches of hundreds of thousands of stars... It’s normally unpleasant to be made to feel small (by a boss or a waiter in a smart establishment), but to be made to feel small by something so much more majestic and powerful than we are has something redeeming and enhancing about it. The image of the globular cluster is sombre, rather than sad; calming, but not despair inducing. And in that condition of mind – that state of soul, to put it more romantically – we are left, as so often when we look at the stars, better equipped to deal with with the intense, intractable and particular problems and griefs we have to deal with.
The tensions in my marriage, the frustrations of my work, the madness of my society, they are all part of the structure of the universe. We have to accept them as we have to accept the explosion of gasses a billion light years away. 31
Grumps: I'm constantly shoe gazing, or window gazing, or naval gazing, but nothing much seems to come of it.
Optimist: You're on the precipice of self-knowledge which will help sort your issues.
The point of staring out of a window is, paradoxically, not to find out what is going on outside. It is, rather, an exercise in discovering the contents of our own minds. It’s easy to imagine we know what we think, what we feel and what’s going on in our heads. But we rarely do entirely. There’s a huge amount of what makes us who we are that circulates unexplored and unused. Its potential lies untapped. It is shy and doesn’t emerge under the pressure of direct questioning. If we do it right, staring out the window offers a way for us to listen out for the quieter suggestions and perspectives of our deeper selves. 32
Grumps: Day dreaming and fantasy are escapist and useless wastes of time.
Optimist: Day dreaming and fantasies may help deal with our pains and desires.
Day-dreaming is a remarkable achievement. The inventor of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, made an instructive observation about babies and daydreams. Imagine a baby who wakes in the middle of the night. The mother isn't there and it starts crying. It's going to take a few minutes before the mother can come along and see what's the matter. In those few minutes, the baby is alone with its distress. To an adult, it wouldn't seem a long time, but to an infant it could be devastating. In a healthy scenario, the baby is able to imagine the mother being there even when she isn't; the baby fantasises that it's not alone, that things are better than they are. And that can be enough to hold things together for a while. Fantasy comes to the rescue when there aren't better options.
Day-dreaming is a safety net that stops us going crazy from a sense of missing out. Rather than worrying only about the risks of escapism, we should be equally concerned about what happens when people don't have day-dreams – when they don't look at enough celebrity pictures. The inability to fantasise can lead people to act out, rather than, dream their wishes... Day-dreaming is a problem only when one fantasises about things that are, in fact, within one's grasp. 33
Grumps: I feel unsophisticated, especially around most art.
Optimist: We use music to sooth our souls, but most art has been abstracted to absurd lengths. The good news is that there is still plenty of truly good art.
In the solemn galleries of museums, which is still where most of us pick up cues about how to behave around art, many of us are – in our hearts – a little lost (the gift shop is more helpful; it may be embarrassingly easier to have a fruitful time with the postcard than the original). We look at the caption and dutifully learn some key dates, the provenance and perhaps an explanation of an allegory. But could this really matter to me? What should art really be for?
The second question has long felt either vulgar and impatient or else simply unanswerable. This is dangerous. If art deserves its enormous prestige... then it should be able to state its purpose in relatively simple terms... [as] a therapeutic medium, just like music. It, too, is a vehicle through which we can do such things as recover hope, dignify suffering, develop empathy, laugh, wonder, nurture a sense of communion with others and regain a sense of justice and political idealism.
But for it to do any of these things for us, we need to approach art in the right sort of way. It needs to be framed not principally according to the criteria of art history (however interesting those may be), but according to a psychological method that invites us to align our deeper selves with artworks. 34
Auction houses – just like the National Gallery, the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art – are in the habit of insisting that, in order to derive the benefit of art, we have to go and see (and in some cases own) the original thing, the actual piece of canvas worked on by the actual hand of the great artist. It's such an entrenched attitude, it's got such prestige in our society, we hardly ever notice how strange and unhelpful it really is.
When it comes to literature, we're streets ahead – and by reflex, far wiser. We don't feel that, in order to read a Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, we have to head off to the Victoria and Albert Museum every time to go through the original manuscript. We're rightly sure that we can get everything that matters from a free e-book or a paperback (£4.99).
Works of art aren't endlessly mysterious things to which we invariably have to go and pay a physical homage. The national museums want us to, and one can see why – but we don't always have to follow their call. We've been doing so long enough. Works of art are tools that can help our lives to go a little better. They influence our moods, remind us of important truths that are constantly slipping from our minds and – like Richter's Wall – lend dignity to our sufferings. These are very valuable things. But nobody needs to pay millions, or take a day off and make a trip to an art gallery, just to get hold of them. The postcard is enough. 35
Grumps: Interior design seems pointless.
Optimist: Interior design can profoundly affect our states of mind.
Interior design is a matter of deep importance for reasons first suggested by the third century philosopher Plotinus. Plotinus argued that the categories of 'beautiful' and 'ugly' aren't merely aesthetic, they are also profoundly moral and ethical. Any object of design will speak to us of a range of attitudes it supports. It isn't therefore exaggerated to speak of adjectives like 'authoritarian' or 'democratic', 'forgiving' or 'brutish' when it comes to a lamp or a desk.
Works of design talk eloquently about the moods and attitudes they support and seek to encourage. They hold out an invitation for us to be specific sorts of people. They speak of particular philosophies of life. A feeling of beauty is hence no mere indulgence, it is a sign that we have come upon a material articulation of our deepest ideas of goodness and kindness – just as a chair or plate can strike us as offensive not because it violates a private and mysterious visual preference but because it conflicts with our understanding of truth and justice. Discussions about what is beautiful are at heart considerations about the values we want to live by – not trivial waffling about how we want things to look. 36
Grumps: Feelings of defeat are easy to fall into and quickly turn into despair.
Optimist: Give time for your feelings to brew and consider what they may mean before making any long-term conclusions.
If you haven’t slept well for a few nights and you’ve been working too hard, a few not too tactful comments from your partner can leave you considering divorce. It feels as if your relationship is in tatters, that you need to take a life-changing, dramatic and risky step; that the compromises, accommodations and love of the last few years have all been wasted. The problem looks enormous. But actually it isn’t. All that’s wrong is that you are tired. It’s shockingly hard for us to distinguish between a need of the body and a harrowing emotional conflict.
Or it might be that, having skipped breakfast, a tricky work meeting leaves you determined to resign. Things will be tough, certainly, but anything is better than continuing to sell your soul to these mindless fools. The problem looks as if it is huge – one’s career has taken a calamitous turn. Yet the real cause may be no more than depleted blood-sugar levels.
Being told that one's view of existence is – at this moment – not the product of reason but of indigestion or exhaustion, is utterly maddening. Especially when it is true. We want to believe our woes are essentially all high flown – intellectual, moral and existential – when they are often no more, but also no less, than a disturbance of the body. 37
Grumps: Boredom is the daunting other half of our otherwise cozy and comfortable lives.
Optimist: Boredom, like loneliness, may be used as a time for deeper reflection, or at least relief.
We need relief from the news-fuelled impression that we are living in an age of unparalleled importance, with our wars, our debts, our riots, our missing children, our after-premiere parties, our IPOs and our rogue missiles. We need, on occasion, to be able to rise up into the air, to a place where that particular conference and this particular epidemic, that new phone and this shocking wildfire, will lose a little of their power to affect us – and where even the most intractable problems will seem to dissolve against a backdrop of the stars above us. 38
If only, like Pieter de Hooch, we knew how to recognise the value of ordinary routine, many of our burdens would be lifted. It gives voice to the right attitude: the big themes of life – the search for prosperity, happiness, good relationships – are always grounded in the way we approach little things. The statue above the door is a clue. It represents money, love, status, vitality, adventure. Taking care of the linen (and all that it stands for) is not opposed to these grander hopes. It is, rather, the way to them. We can learn to see the allure of those who look after it, ourselves included.
It's a hard message to hold on to, because we are constantly being told other things. This painting is small in a big and noisy world – but that so many people revere it is hopeful, it signals that we know, deep down, that de Hooch is onto something important. 39
Grumps: I don't have enough money to travel and it's boring where I am.
Optimist: We can make a travelling adventure out of an ostensibly boring situation.
In 1790, while he was living in an apartment in Paris, a young French writer called Xavier de Maistre pioneered a mode of travel with an intense relevance to our own times. He called it 'room-travel'. In a bestselling book called Journey around my bedroom, de Maistre announced: 'Millions of people who, before me, had never dared to travel, others who had not been able to travel and still more who had not even thought of travelling, will now be able to follow my example and have an eyeopening time in their own four walls.' He particularly recommended room-travel to those on restricted budgets or afraid of storms, robberies and high cliffs.
De Maistre's work is a shaggy-dog story with a profound and suggestive insight at its heart: that the pleasure we derive from places depends more on the mindset with which we approach them than on how far they are from where we normally live. If only we could apply a travelling mindset to our own neighbourhoods, we might find these places becoming no less interesting than foreign lands. 40
Grumps: Suicidal thoughts pervade humanity and the amount of which are accomplished is only a small sliver of those conceived every day.
Optimist: In our capacity to share the experiences of others and reflect on them, we may find some consolation for thoughts, that for all we know, may recede after time, change, contemplation, or a million other things.
Sometime during the night, Karl worked himself out of the small opening in the window and fell fifty meters to his death...
It can seem very sick to be interested. It is all so sad – and we are not relatives or friends. What has this got to do with us?
A lot. Really we should be deeply interested in this story. In terms of news, it is up there with insights from Davos or the IMF’s latest report on global growth.
What happened in the hotel room was a tragically extreme version of much more familiar events. In moments of utter fury, we too will think that we can’t take any more and that it would be better if we, or our partner, were dead. Rage and despair are the universal stuff of rows. It’s only the last act that sets Kari and his wife apart.
We should treat the news like a life-simulator: it allows us to experience, in safety, at second-hand, an extreme version of life’s most distressing experiences – in order that we might learn from and avoid them. The goal is not just to read of the disasters of others, but to use them in order to be less likely to suffer them ourselves (a mission that the news too seldom makes explicit). 41
Grumps: Those plagued with insomnia have a mysterious force keeping them from what they naturally deserve - a peaceful regeneration.
Optimist: Insomnia may be a helpful sign that mental laundry has been prioritized too low for how important it is.
For very understandable reasons our culture has arrived at extremely negative assessments of insomnia. It is a curse, to be overcome by art or science, by a sleeping pill, chamomile tea or sheep counting...
The thoughts of night would sound weird to my mother, my friend, my boss, my child. These people need us to be a certain way. They cannot tolerate all our possibilities and for some good reasons. We don’t want to let them down; they have a right to benefit from our predictability. But their expectations shape us, make us who we are, and choke off important aspects.
However, at night, with the window open and a clear sky above, it is just us and the universe – and for a time, we can take on a little of its boundlessness.
We are naturally very inclined to want to be normal. Yet thanks to insomnia, we are granted a crucial encounter with our weirder, truer selves. We can learn of our own apparent strangeness. The daytime self is a misleading picture of what everyone is like. Insomnia is a gift – and a latent education. 42
Insomnia is the revenge of the many big thoughts one hasn’t had time to nurture in the daylight hours. In the rush of the day, there is no time for the higher-order questions: why do I waste my time with superficial social encounters? Why do I read the newspaper? Why was I so irrationally irritated with the person I profess to love?
At night, however, the ranking of first and second order questions is reversed. In the dark, one may investigate the meaning of work, the needs behind friendship, the mechanics of love. The topics are far from academic... It’s very often ambitions that keep us awake. What am I really trying to do? What’s my life for? We sense and are tormented by our possibilities: how does one make more money, how can one be more effective, how can one make a difference...
These questions are terrifying because, at first, there tends to be no plan of action, simply an ambition waiting to be knocked down by the scepticism and mockery of others. To be turning over such issues and yet be a mere beginner feels like the ultimate arrogance. That is why one needs the protection of the night. Night offers us safety from the scepticism of sensible others. Like childhood, it allows us time to get ourselves together without needing to be always sure or impressive... Night is a friend to the slow process of maturation that every ambitious project demands: it provides us with the cover to grow into our more complete selves. 43
Grumps: Something terrible has happened. It's not always so easy to simply balance it out with some arbitrary optimistic sayings.
Optimist: Handling terrible emotions doesn't always have to be done through careful reading and thoughts, but seeking out our personal comfort through music, art, friendship, or loneliness are our unique ways of exploring the mystery of life.
A mother has just lost her child; it is winter, and there’s no food. She knew he was in danger, she tried to feed him, she tried to keep him safe but in the end, after yet another bitter night, he succumbed. Her grief feels all the more real, all the more like ours, for being inarticulate and wordless; pure anguish. The crows are unbearably cruel. They gather when another is in agony; they sense the opportunity opened up by the problems of others. They are like the people we most fear – those who like it when we are miserable. The scene reminds us of a possibility we glimpse perhaps only in our own worst moments: that we won’t always be able to protect what we love, our children, our homes, our dignity… That they might win. 44
Grumps: I sometimes cry unexplainably.
Optimist: There's usually an explanation, often remarkably subtle and majestic, if explored.
It’s normal to think that what makes people cry are sad things; that’s certainly the way it works when you’re a child. But the older one gets, the more one starts to notice a strange phenomenon: one starts crying not when things are horrible (one toughens up a little), but when they are suddenly and unexpectedly precisely the opposite, when they are unusually sweet, tender, joyful, innocent or kind. This, far more than grimness, is what may increasingly prompt tears. 45
Grumps: I have constant feelings of insufficiency, particularly when talking to other people.
Optimist: We can learn to have better conversations, and feelings of insufficiency may actually just be useful signs that conversations are bad.
Truly good conversations come along very rarely; largely because our societies fall for the Romantic myth that knowing how to talk to other people is something we are born knowing how to do, rather than an art dependent on a little planning and a few skills. We rightly accept that total improvisation in preparing a meal is unlikely to yield good outcomes; but we show no such caution or modesty when it comes to how we might talk over the food once it has been made. Finding oneself in a good conversation can feel as haphazard and random as stumbling on a beautiful square in a foreign city at night – and realising one won't reliably know how to get back there in daytime.
Too much of what we feel can't normally be disclosed for fear that we'll be humiliated or cause undue alarm or upset. Our envy of colleagues, our disappointments in love, our true feelings towards our families, our embarrassing habits and petty fears, our wilder political daydreams… little of this ‘silent normality' has the chance to be discussed; until we find ourselves in a good conversation, by which is meant a conversation that – artfully, without prurience or judgement – manages to confirm the fundamental acceptability of hitherto carefully guarded emotions and ideas.
We get scared of opening our souls because we falsely exaggerate the difference between ourselves and others. We display only our strengths, vaunt only our successes, lay out only our conventional proposals – and bore others as a result because it is in the revelation of our weaknesses, in the display of our fragilities, in the confession of our wilder fantasies that we grow interesting and likeable. It is almost impossible to be bored when a person tells you sincerely what they have failed at or who has humiliated them, what they long for and when they have been at their craziest. 46
Grumps: I sometimes get set off by something so minor, and it tumbles out of control.
Optimist: Careful and thoughtful analysis, whether alone or guided by friends and partners willing to work with you, help unobscure the emotions lurking behind the seemingly trivial sparks that burn us deep inside.
Sunday evening, in the kitchen. Your partner asks you how the week ahead is looking for you. It sounds like a completely innocent question. But it sets your teeth on edge, you roll your eyes. You get sarcastic. Why do they want to know? It’s a moment of deep irritation. You are anything but calm. You try to keep a lid on it, but you are ready to scream. And then it gets worse. They start to get upset and point out that you are being mean and difficult. Why the hell are you SO hard to live with? You are always grumpy. The simplest question sets you off.
Or you are driving home, minding your own business and someone cuts in front of you. It was definitely not a very nice thing to do, but – in fact – no harm has been done. Yet you feel very stressed. You were fine until that happened and now you are deeply agitated. You hate the other driver. You have to restrain yourself from deliberately colliding with them or winding down the window and starting to scream at them.
We don’t like admitting it but quite often we don’t really know what it is that has caused us to get so agitated. It can feel like an insult: you are upset and you don’t know why. But really it is a helpful thought. Finding out the real cause is the key to bringing relief: unanalysed frustration is the root cause of rage.
Because we are short of time and distracted by many demands, we don’t often pay attention to the onset of anxieties. We therefore let them mushroom into anger or depression. 47
Grumps: Forgiveness can be very difficult, especially to those that really hurt us.
Optimist: Forgiveness does not need to be a weakness, but a healthy and measured amount of forgiveness accepts reality for all its complexity, in the same way that we often forgive children for mistakes.
Most weeks, someone mistreats us in a greater or lesser way: they overlook a commitment they've made, they let us down logistically, they betray our hopes or deceive our trust. And on a macro scale, similarly sombre dynamics play themselves out on the public stage: politicians act dishonourably, business leaders plunder and fool us, the young show no respect, and criminals bully and terrify the vulnerable.
We shake our heads and wonder how some people get to be the way they are. We use words like weirdo and pervert. The conclusion is that these people must just be ‘bad' and that it is a delusion of the liberal mind to insist on anything more complex.
One has – inevitably – told lies and hurt, deceived and humiliated, bullied and evaded; one has been guilty of a thousand everyday sins endemic to us all. A clean conscience is only a possibility for the callously unimaginative. To get by, we all need to rely on the forgiveness of countless others – ex-partners, parents, colleagues, friends – people who did not at a variety of moments exact the full revenge that might have been their due. Our survival is predicated on a great many others having – at key moments – cut us some slack.
The furious, swearing father isn't a monster; he is someone who did not gain sufficient reassurance in childhood, who is carrying untold anxieties from work, who is exhausted, who is a fool and who in his calmer moments, harbours a capacity to be deeply ashamed of his short temper and appalled at having damaged those he loves. Empathy towards the perpetrator doesn't entail that one has for even a moment forgotten the victim, simply that one is committed to doing justice to psychological reality. The roots of awful behaviour lie – far more often than the unforgiving can admit – in terror and anxiety. Faced with the antics of our species, one should be moved more to profound pity than to indignation, more to sorrow than to fury.
We know how to practise this attitude, for we already do it all the time quite naturally with children. Faced with an example of a child's violence or unreason, we know to ask at once whether they are tired or have eaten enough, whether they are worried or are being hurt by someone else. We don't need to learn the lessons of forgiveness from scratch, we need merely to expand the range of people to whom we are willing to apply them. 48
The shameful secret of adult life is that it's not just children who are child-like. We are all intermittently hysterical, terrified, pitiful and in dire need of consolation and forgiveness. Without bearing grudges, adults tend to be nice to children even when they're not at their best. Around children, we know how to offer a generosity of interpretation, and a sensitive recalibration of our expectations. No-one thinks a six year old is an idiot because she can't do long-division; we just accept that it will take a bit of time for her to learn. When children get ill-tempered in the car, we don't think they have it in for us; we recognise boredom makes people slightly desperate. We're that bit slower to anger; that bit more alive to potential.
We all deserve more of this kind of attention – but we don't generally get it. We readily offer children the sort of kindness that we are woefully reluctant to offer one another. We want a world where people are nice to their own children. But even more than that, what we want is a world where people are nice to the childlike parts of other people, including people who aren't their children, and most of all, nice to those slightly shameful, deeply human and childlike parts of us. 49
From Rusticus... with regard to those who have angered or wronged me, to be easily recalled to my usual frame of mind, and to be easily reconciled as soon as they are willing to make a move in my direction. 50
Grumps: I am too often incredibly unlucky.
Optimist: We don't know how lucky we are because bad things that almost happened, but didn't, usually pass us by without notice. Despite this, setting expectations for the arbitrariness of luck is a healthy and realistic acceptance of the randomness of reality.
Much about your fate is not your own work. You did not invent the world. You are not personally entirely responsible for your condition. The suffering is real, but remember that it is less personal than we tend to suppose... The Romans [venerated the goddess] ‘Fortuna’... found on the back of most Roman coins, holding a cornucopia in one hand and a rudder in the other. She was beautiful and usually wore a light tunic and smiled attractively. The cornucopia was a symbol of her power to bestow favours, but the rudder was a symbol of her more sinister power to change destinies, just like that. She could scatter gifts (a love affair, a great job, beautiful children), then with terrifying speed shift the rudder’s course, maintaining a chilling smile as she watched us choke to death on a fishbone, disappear in a landslide or go bankrupt in a credit crisis.
The goddess of Fortune remains a useful image to keep our exposure to accident, luck and fate continually in our minds; she conflates a range of threats to our security into one ghastly anthropomorphic enemy.
Not everything that happens to us occurs with reference to something about us. Our romantic or professional failure does not have to be read as retribution for some sin we have committed, it is not always rational punishment handed out after careful examination of all the evidence by an all-seeing Providence in a divine courtroom; it may be a cruel, but morally meaningless, byproduct of the machinations of a rancorous goddess. The interventions of Fortune, of ‘luck’, whether they are kindly or diabolical, introduce a random element into human destiny. 51
Grumps: Smiling is a vapid and meaningless action.
Optimist: Genuine smiling has been shown to reduce divorces and increase marital satisfaction.
Women who display genuine (Duchenne) smiles to the photographer at age eighteen go on to have fewer divorces and more marital satisfaction than those who display fake smiles (Keltner et al., 1999). 56
Grumps: Constructive negotiation is limited by our propensity for nastiness.
Optimist: Not only can we be nicer, but that's more likely to get us what we want.
take Paris Hilton. What’s gone wrong with the woman can’t be put right by screaming at her. Being nasty is a natural response. It just doesn’t change anything.
We should think of being nice as an expression of confident strength; it’s a show of being secure enough to examine points of view that feel foreign to your own.
Awful things won’t go away because we mock them. But if we understand them, see where they are coming from, and treat their advocates and supporters as fellow human beings, we have much more chance of dealing with them successfully – and therefore of making the world a better place. 52
‘Being’ nice gets easily confused with some worrying things, like weakness, shyness, lack of confidence and failure of ambition. But it’s an achievement that requires a lot of background psychological work. It means having a proper sense of your basic insignificance among billions of your fellow humans – as well as an awareness of the nevertheless rather notable impact your behaviour can have on the mood of others. 53
Grumps: Greed for riches is an insatiable and destructive force.
Optimist: Greed is often a misplaced desire for acceptance, and if we can change how society values humans, the ambition commonly directed towards wealth accumulation can achieve more valuable ends.
The most commonly asked question in a new social encounter is: ‘What do you do?’ And according to how you answer this, people are either incredibly pleased to see you, or abandon you as if you were plague-ridden. The company of the snobbish has the power to sadden and unnerve because we sense how little of who we are deep down – that is, how little of who we are outside of our status – will be able to govern their behaviour towards us. We may be endowed with the wisdom of Solomon and have the resourcefulness and intelligence of Odysseus, but if we are unable to wield socially recognised badges of our qualities, our existence will remain a matter of raw indifference to them.
This conditional attention pains us because our earliest memory of love is of being cared for in a naked, impoverished condition. Babies cannot, by definition, repay their carers with worldly rewards. In so far as they are loved and looked after, it is for who they are: identity understood in its most stripped-down state. They are loved for, or in spite of, their uncontrolled, howling and stubborn characters.
It can be tempting to laugh at those who buy luxury goods. But before ridiculing these types, it would perhaps be fairer to wonder about the wider context in which their ‘showing off’ takes place. Rather than teasing the buyers, we may blame the society in which they live for setting up a situation where the purchase of absurdly overpriced brands feels psychologically necessary and rewarding; where respect has become dependent on a fancy lifestyle. Next time you encounter someone driving a Ferrari, assume not that the driver is greedy, but that he or she is extremely vulnerable to insult and to being ignored.
The existence of the luxury goods industry is testimony to a trauma. It is the result of hundreds of thousands of people who feel pressured by the fear of the coldness of others to add an extraordinary amount to their bare selves in order to signal that they too may lay a claim to love. 54
Grumps: I feel angry and frustrated that other people don't understand my perspective.
Optimist: Unless their behavior is in conflict with you, what's the point of being upset? 55
Monday, Sep 04, 2017 8:19:13 PM