“Self-Absorption is Actually the Most Boring Game in Town”

World Picture Journal posted a fascinating exchange between John David Rhodes, Jane Elliott, and Adam Phillips on topics including: the vagueness of the word ‘happiness’, why trying to neuter desire in the Buddhist sort of way will lead to depression, the value of frustration, escaping self-absorption, and psychoanalysis. Thanks to loyal blog reader T.C. for sending this to me a couple months ago. Favorite parts excerpted below.


John David Rhodes: In various places in your work there’s clearly a kind of skepticism about aiming to be happy or choosing that as a kind of goal, and so, as a place to start, I wonder if happiness is the wrong word for a lot of other things we talk about—like contentment, or pleasure, or joy, equanimity—and if we might be better off calling those things by what they are and disentangling them from this larger term.

Adam Phillips: Yes. I think the risk is that it’s a kind of dead word because it does too much work, and that, in a way, it only becomes talkable about if you do precisely what you’ve described: break it down into all the things that it might involve for individual people at any given moment, otherwise it becomes so vague in a way, it becomes the sort of thing that no one would encourage anybody not to be, and yet, you don’t know what you’re doing when you’re encouraging them to be happy, exactly, because it contains a multitude of sins…

Jane Elliott: One of things I’ve been thinking about is that although there is so much of a drive for happiness, obviously, in popular discourse—that we should always be wanting the next thing—there does seem to be at the moment some kind of counter-discourse that’s about somehow attenuating or getting away from one’s desire. I’m thinking of the Oprah culture, things like meditation, and yoga. As if happiness is sort of inversely proportionate to desire. It’s maybe a bastardized understanding of Buddhism, in a way. It’s as if we can somehow stop looking for the object, then we can be happy. It’s almost as if getting out of the time of desire, where you are constantly looking to the future, is going to solve things, because you can just “be in the moment.” So I was wondering what you think of this counter-discourse. Does it seem to be doing any useful work, or is it just another way of saying the same thing?

AP: It seems to me a good thing that people want to have conversations about the problems attached to desiring. I think what can’t work is being a sort of Buddhism tourist. I don’t think one is going to be able to simply appropriate, in a sort of supermarket-y way, other world religions as a solution to these problems. But I do think—and presumably the credit crunch has something to do with this—that it’s been very weird living as though there’s no such thing as scarcity, when in fact, in a way you could think there’s only scarcity. I think that people being able to have an ironic relationship to their own desire and also be aware of the fact (or what seems to me to be a fact anyway) that we don’t want what we want, in one sense, and also that we’re always going to want something else, and that satisfaction is not the answer to life, so to speak. Partly because there isn’t an answer to life, but partly because satisfaction isn’t always the point. So I think what people should be talking about is…people should be trying to produce more eloquent, persuasive accounts about the value of frustration, not the value of satisfaction. And I think that the equation of happiness with forms of satisfaction is the problem.

JE: We were discussing earlier how when you read some of these accounts of “being in the moment,” it actually sounds like what is being described is depression. Because when I think of having no object of desire, that’s like being dead.

AP: It is. Yes.

JE: It’s a strange utopianism.

AP: Yes, I agree. There’s also a strange logic to it, as well. The question is whether the problem in desiring is the object of desire. Now, logically, you think it must be. So what you’ve got to do is remove the object of desire from the picture and then we’ll be okay. But in a way, you’re left with more of the problem. Because you can’t get around the fact that you’re a desiring creature. You may have different ways of relating to an object of desire, but you can’t, it seems to me, evacuate objects of desire. It’s all about the way in which one approaches them, or what one thinks one wants from them.

JE: In a way, the inverse of thinking that the next object will fix things is thinking that getting rid of the object will fix things.

AP: Yeah, exactly.

JDR: The object, even if it’s a mistaken object, needs to be there. There needs to be an object, because it’s what happens in the movement towards or away from it that’s important.

AP: Yeah.

AP: There’s a very interesting idea that has unsurprisingly fallen out of circulation that Ernest Jones had, which was the idea of aphanisis, which is loss of desire. His idea was—and it seems to me a good one, and it’s one that psychoanalysis for some reason has dropped—is the idea that the individual’s terror is the absence of desire, and that desire might be something like the thing that Miles Davis said—that he woke up for years and years with music in his head and then one day he didn’t. Desire might be something that we wake up every day with, but one day we might not. The question would be then whether there are desireless states that aren’t depression, or that don’t need to be pathologized as a way of managing them. Because it would seem to me that it’s as though the fundamental terror that capitalism exploits is that we might not want anything. That’s the thing that we’ve all got to talk each other out of. That we really want things; in fact we want loads of things. I think, in that—the fervor of that—happiness gets recruited.

JDR: I guess what I wonder is what is the relation among pleasure, happiness, and desire, what is in that triangulation?

AP: When you said that, what I thought was that, for me anyway, pleasure has to do with absorption, and it has do with absorption in something that is at least nominally outside oneself. And absorption is the prior thing, I presume, that’s pleasure-driven, so to speak, even though the pleasure to be derived from it may not be clear at all. And happiness may be a consequence of states of absorption, but it may not be. So it would seem to me that happiness is the thing that may or may not occur, but that as an object of desire, it’s a radically misleading one. But it may be one of the good things that happens as a consequence of states of absorption.

JE: Is absorption so frequently pleasurable because it has to do with release from consciousness?

AP: Yes. Or release from consciousness as self-preoccupation. I think the project is—and actually, I think the project of psychoanalysis really is—to free people not to have to bother to be interested in themselves. What people—some people, anyway—are suffering from is self-absorption, and it’s actually the most boring game in town. There’s nothing in it, actually. The only interesting things, it seems to me, are outside oneself. Not because one is altruistic, but just because there’s nothing to be interested in in oneself, actually. Obviously it’s related to what’s going on inside oneself, but it’s to do with the external world. Happiness, if it’s going to be useful, is related to the sort of free loss of interest in oneself.

AP: …we should just accept the intractability of this, that we are creatures who hope, that the more in despair we are, the more we will hope exorbitantly, and the more there is the potential for catastrophic disillusionment. The acid test in anything is always going to be, how people deal with catastrophic disillusionment, which we’ve all had an experience of, without taking refuge in cynicism or bitterness or vengefulness. If that’s possible, then something can happen. And usually it isn’t.

“Sadness is a Lucky Thing to Feel”

Over the past couple years, I’ve become a huge Louis C.K. fan. I’m almost done with Season 2 of his show Louie, which is amazing. 20 minute episodes packed with comedy and real insight.

In his recent Rolling Stone interview (paywall), he says this:

I don’t mind feeling sad. Sadness is a lucky thing to feel. I have the same amount of happy and sad as anybody else. I just don’t mind the sad part as much; it’s amazing to have those feelings. I’ve always felt that way. I think that looking at how random and punishing life can be, it’s a privilege. There’s so much to look at, there’s so much to observe, and there’s a lot of humor in it. I’ve had sad times, I’ve had some hard times, and I have a lot of things to be sad about, but I’m pretty happy right now.

Agreed. Observing how you feel, not judging it or immediately trying to change it, is a powerful habit to develop. It’s the lynchpin of the Vipassana meditation I practice.

“Negative” emotions like sadness can deepen you. Suffering deepens you. These feelings can be instructive. They can inspire empathy. They can be darkly hilarious. And ultimately, they’re impermanent. As Goenka says, all sensations arise, pass away. Arise, pass away.

Wise people seem to know this: when bad shit happens to you, experience it. Don’t run from it. Don’t run from grief or pain or suffering. Accept it. Observe it. And then observe it leave your body, over time.

My 2007 post Do Only Negative Emotions Count for Depth? covers this theme, and the comments there are excellent. In the five years since, I’m still not sure whether joy really stretches and deepens you. But I am as convinced as ever that sadness does.

“When have you felt really sad?” is an interesting question to ask someone.

Why Are We Kind to Strangers?

The puzzle that is being altruistic and cooperative when it does not serve our self-interest. Why do humans over-tip to a waiter they’ll never see again? Why are people nice to strangers?

Because life is about succeeding in the “repeated games” that are interactions with friends, family, and co-workers. In those games, altruism pays. It pays to be generous, to do favors, to go out of our way–we will see those people again, and the altruism may come back to help us. So, when we are in a “single shot game” — for example, deciding on how much to tip the waiter at the diner on the side of the road in a city far away from home — this cooperative instinct spills over. Our moral intuitions spring from the repeated games that matter most and we inadvertently channel them to all games/situations. We forget when we’re in a one shot game; we forget we could get away with leaving no tip and it not harming us in the slightest. We forget, that is, until we start to think hard about what the tip should be. In one study, people who start reflecting actively on an appropriate level of altruism (say, the size of the tip) tend to end up less altruistic in single shot games, because they take the time to realize their self-interest calls for them to be…selfish.

This is the argument advanced by David G. Rand, who helped conduct the studies, in this excellent Bloggingheads episode with Joshua Knobe. They cover why humans are selfish or cooperative, among other topics in the annals of human psychology and evolution.

You Learn From People Who Mostly Agree With You

There is a romantic idea about conversation, learning, and open-mindedness: “Joe and I don’t agree on much, but we respect each other, and learn a heck of a lot from each other.” If you want to learn and grow, get out of your comfort zone and spend time talking to people who disagree with you and who will challenge you. Right?

Wrong. In fact, you learn more from people who mostly agree with you.

On the Econtalk podcast, I heard this insightful argument made by David Weinberger, which I’ll summarize and riff on here.

The premise: Rarely is your worldview turned upside down in a single conversation over lunch. Rarely is your mind truly blown in an hour. Instead, most learning happens on the margins. A nugget here, a nugget there. Brick by brick you assemble a house of knowledge; you iteratively form and evolve a worldview.

The question: With what kinds of people do you have conversations that lead to an iterative, valuable insight?

The answer: People with whom you agree on 99.9% of issues already.

In order to even have a coherent conversation with someone, you need to share a language, basic values, assumptions, conversational norms. A Creationist learns little about the origins of the world from an Evolutionist. A lab scientist working on a vaccine doesn’t learn much from someone who thinks vaccines cause autism. Nobody learns anything if civility isn’t mutually valued. If these basic table stakes aren’t met — 98% of the game, in my view — there’s no productive conversation to be had.

When you have broad foundational agreement, learning in conversation happens best when there’s still further agreement on the next 1% of possible agreement. Two internet company CEOs who both speak English who are both convinced of technology’s wonders will have no problem at all breaking bread and having a lively conversation. But for learning’s sake, it’d be even better if they agreed on a number of industry-specific beliefs. If they’re aligned on the booming future of mobile devices, for example, then they can dive deep and explore possible disagreement on how to, say, best serve ads to users on an iOS device.

As Weinberger says, “It’s how culture advances. It’s how knowledge advances.” And it’s how individual intellectual growth advances, too. Some of my best, most mind-expanding conversations have occurred with good friends who agree with me on almost everything–but not quite everything.

Bottom Line: Want to learn and get smarter by talking to people? Seek out those who agree with you on 99.9% of things, and then push, push, push at the niche-y, hyper-specific areas of disagreement. It’s not about groupthink; it’s not about confirmation bias. It’s about learning on the margin.

(Photo: Search Engine People blog, Flickr. This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.)

When to Obsessively Focus and When to Court Serendipity

Cal Newport writes a lot about the importance of hard focus to produce meaningful accomplishments. I write a lot about randomness and serendipity. A reader of both of ours, Nitin, wrote to Cal to ask whether our emphases are in conflict. Their email exchange follows:

Cal: I tend to our two different foci as complementary. I tend to write about the core underlying philosophy of remarkability: mastering valuable things. Ben’s book does a good job of capturing all the tactics and strategies that orbit such a quest.

Nitin: I agree that your and Ben’s views can be complementary. But I also think there are time tradeoffs. When I think of people who are focused on creating phenomenal products (or when I read about Steve Jobs), it seems that those people single-mindedly and obsessively focus on shipping product. I cannot imagine them e-mailing strangers or seeking randomness. Those people want to ship their product and a minute focused on anything else is a minute not focused on shipping.

Cal: The counterpoint is that serendipitous networking is pretty common among super high achievers (think Einsteins frequent meetings with mathematicians). I think the occasional conversation with other experts in related fields is not the thing keeping people back from focusing on shipping. It’s more things like working on multiple projects, or spending too much time on distraction, etc…Sort of thinking out loud here.

Nitin: Yes…now that I think more about the people I know. They are strict about no distractions, but also frequently collaborate with very smart colleagues within their trusted network. (I am thinking about developers frequently asking questions on forums and making contributions to open source projects and reading academic papers in related fields to learn about the best ideas.) I think they can be complementary. :)

Spending time on hard focus and spending time on serendipity are both important things to do, but perhaps not with equal emphasis at the same time. I believe different stages of your career call for different tempos in this regard. For the past couple years, for example, I’ve been more in “focus” mode than “serendipity” mode, going deeper on fewer things and feeling less interested in meeting new people and exposing myself to randomness. That’s because the projects on my plate right now are so compelling (to me). The balance will surely shift back when I’m at a natural transition point. To be sure, I never dial down the serendipity to zero — when I’m in “focus” or “maker” mode the proactively serendipity seeking probably consumes 10-20% of energy cycles, and when I’m in explorer mode it’s more like 40-50% of cycles.

How to Make Past Experiences Meaningful

Recently, I attended a birthday party in Las Vegas.

On Saturday morning, we rented a cabana at a day-time pool party scene that supposedly is the place to see and be seen in Vegas during the day. We had a good time. The sun was out, the people watching was lively, the food and drink were flowing. It was fun, but also expensive and a bit overcrowded. When I left the party, I gave it a 6.5 out of 10 on the fun scale (taking into account the $$$ required to get in).

Then something interesting happened. Later that night, the group of guys on the trip assembled around the dining room table in the birthday boy’s hotel suite. While eating pizza, we spent 90 minutes informally sharing our memories of the day. “Remember when….?” “Wasn’t it crazy when….?” “Can you believe….?” “Check out this photo of….” We immortalized certain phrases and performed reenactments of key exchanges. Embellishment of detail served the larger mission of hilarity. “That one girl ate a lot of our chips” became “That girl who parked herself next to the bar and stuffed her face full of nachos.”

By the time the pizza boxes were emptied out, the pool party earlier in the afternoon seemed positively epic. I felt closer to the people with whom I had shared the experience. And those feelings persist today.

Happiness research is clear: buy experiences, not things. Experiences make us happy in part because experiences often generate vivid memories, and memories we can recall over and over with pleasure, whereas we quickly adapt to purchased goods like a new car or house.

At the birthday party I was reminded that buying experiences is a start, but we want those experiences to be meaningful. Humans crave meaning. And we will do what it takes — which includes deluding ourselves slightly — to assign meaning to the events in our lives.

One way to do this is through a social process of collective remembering. You can backdate meaning to experienced events by doing postmortems, debriefings, retellings, memory sharing.

So yes, buy experiences over things. (Preferably experiences involving other people.) And keep in mind that for those experiences that’ve already occurred, it’s not too late to make them meaningful: get a group of friends together, and walk down memory lane…

To Live Unseduced by Media Sirens and the Gleam of Envy in Others’ Eyes

Algis Valiunas penned an essay about David Foster Wallace last month that, for its relative brevity, is remarkably comprehensive. Here’s an excerpt from the section on “Moral Beauty” that spoke to me:

We are a nation of addicts, Wallace insists, in a chronic state of denial, craving the wrong kinds of pleasure and undone by the wrong kinds of pain. Purification is called for. By no means, however, does Wallace condemn all activity that is not undertaken purely for its own sake; that would be to condemn almost everything people do. What he does condemn is gross self-seeking ambition that cares only for the prizes and the gleam of envy in others’ eyes. In the absence of a genuine calling, which does not exclude honest ambition, whether one happens to be a lawyer or a businessman or an athlete or a writer, success is a corrosive illusion. Wallace updates Tolstoy, who labored all his life against the insidious collusion of sensuality and amour-propre. To live unseduced by media sirens or the longing for celebrity or fatuous simulacra of love or the urge for simple obliteration is the aim Wallace sets for the reader; it is the aim he set for himself as a recovering addict and mental patient and as a writer serious as he had never been before. However the world might have damaged you or you have damaged yourself, however you might believe you need your substance or fantasy of choice to make it through the day, resistance and integrity and moral beauty remain possible.

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The family-authorized biography of DFW comes out August 30. I contributed a personal anecdote about Wallace to D.T. Max, the biographer. We’ll see if it made the final book.

Arnold Schwarzenegger: Look Beyond the Mirror

Tear down the mirror and find people who you can help. That's the key to happiness, he says. Not fame or fortune.

May sound cliche, but Arnold (who's lived an amazing life by any measure) shares a poignant story of helping special olympics kids in the following four minute clip that makes the point well. It's from a commencement speech at Emory University.

Regrets of the Dying

Bronnie Ware works in pallitative care — with patients near the end of their life. In this post, she writes powerfully about the the top regrets that have surfaced again and again from her patients on their death beds. I've pasted the list of five below.

1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.

It is very important to try and honour at least some of your dreams along the way. From the moment that you lose your health, it is too late. Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it.

2. I wish I didn't work so hard.

This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children's youth and their partner's companionship. Women also spoke of this regret. But as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.

By simplifying your lifestyle and making conscious choices along the way, it is possible to not need the income that you think you do. And by creating more space in your life, you become happier and more open to new opportunities, ones more suited to your new lifestyle.

3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.

Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.

We cannot control the reactions of others. However, although people may initially react when you change the way you are by speaking honestly, in the end it raises the relationship to a whole new and healthier level. Either that or it releases the unhealthy relationship from your life. Either way, you win.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

Often they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.

It is common for anyone in a busy lifestyle to let friendships slip. But when you are faced with your approaching death, the physical details of life fall away. People do want to get their financial affairs in order if possible. But it is not money or status that holds the true importance for them. They want to get things in order more for the benefit of those they love. Usually though, they are too ill and weary to ever manage this task. It is all comes down to love and relationships in the end. That is all that remains in the final weeks, love and relationships.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice.  They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called 'comfort' of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content. When deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.

When you are on your deathbed, what others think of you is a long way from your mind. How wonderful to be able to let go and smile again, long before you are dying.

(hat tip @bfeld)

The Wisdom of Your Former Self

Andy McKenzie quotes the great Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa:

I often find texts of mine that I wrote when I was very young–when I was seventeen or twenty. And some have a power of expression that I do not remember having then. Certain sentences and passages I wrote when I had just taken a few steps away from adolescence seem produced by the self I am today, educated by years and things. I recognize I am the same as I was.

Usually people shudder with embarrassment at the prospect of coming upon writings of their youth. It's the same logic techno-skeptics use when advising youth not to blog: Your adolescent riffs will come off as naive and immature to your wise, adult self.

Pessoa in adulthood found the opposite. His texts of 17 or 20 years old display insight of a caliber close to what he could have produced as an older man.

Isn't this prospect — that there's little significant difference between your youthful thoughts and adult ones — even more terrifying?

Since few adults today have records of their youth, it's easier for them to maintain self-serving narratives about how far they've come in adulthood. This will change, as more young people publish on Twitter and blogs. 20-somethings today will one day look back at those permanent and forever Google-able writings and either shudder in embarrasement as commonly presumed, or, like Pessoa, they will find them remarkably similar to their adult expressions. In the cases where there's no significant difference, the fact that one must work to become wiser will be unavoidable.