Book Reviews: The Sweet Spot and 4,000 Weeks, on Happiness and Meaning and Time Management

I’m quite interested in the literature on happiness and meaning and yet I usually pass on reading new articles or books on the topics. I liked Paul Bloom’s explanation for why he’s the same, from his new book The Sweet Spot:

There is a famous remark by the physicist Wolfgang Pauli, dismissing the work of another scientist: “He isn’t right. He isn’t even wrong.” I often think about this line while reading about meaning and purpose. The problem isn’t usually that I disagree with what I read—it’s that it’s too fuzzy and vague and general to take seriously.

“He isn’t right — he isn’t even wrong.” I’m going to have to start using that line!

I don’t know Bloom personally though I’ve been an avid consumer of his podcasts and writing over the years. Around the same as I read The Sweet Spot, I also read my old friend Oliver Burkeman’s new book 4,000 Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. I’ve been reading Oliver’s stuff for years, have recommended his books widely, and was delighted to discover a few years ago that he’s as engaging and pleasant in person as he is on the page.

Both Bloom and Burkeman offer sophisticated and provocative perspectives on timeless questions about how to construct a happy and/or meaningful life.

Burkeman’s falls under the guise of “time management” but it’s really about relinquishing your desire to be productive in all areas of your life in order to achieve higher levels of peace and happiness. He advocates for “strategic underachievement”: to be intentionally bad at things you care little about. Give up the idea you can get everything done you want to get done in your ever-so-short 4,000 weeks on this planet. Burkeman presents a sort of a manifesto for coming to terms with the fact that you’re not going to put a dent in the universe, and given that fact, he makes a case for smelling the flowers in the here and now.

Burkeman’s diagnosis of what ails unhappy high achievers starts from their fear of death and their lack of belief in an afterlife: “When people stop believing in an afterlife, everything depends on making the most of this life. And when people start believing in progress—in the idea that history is headed toward an ever more perfect future—they feel far more acutely the pain of their own little lifespan, which condemns them to missing out on almost all of that future. And so they try to quell their anxieties by cramming their lives with experience.”

He argues there’s no way you’re going to accomplish all that you want to accomplish. Find peace in that, somehow. “You begin to grasp that when there’s too much to do, and there always will be, the only route to psychological freedom is to let go of the limit-denying fantasy of getting it all done and instead to focus on doing a few things that count.”

The advice reminds me of something a wise man once told me in a breakout session on the bucket lists. He said that the art of the bucket list as you get older is removing items from your bucket list, not adding them.

One especially provocative image from Burkeman’s book — somewhat unrelated to his core thesis — relates to the shortness of history. I had never thought about the past in this way; in how recent the past actually is:

In every generation, even back when life expectancy was much shorter than it is today, there were always at least a few people who lived to the age of one hundred (or 5,200 weeks). And when each of those people was born, there must have been a few other people alive at the time who had already reached the age of one hundred themselves. So it’s possible to visualize a chain of centenarian lifespans, stretching all the way back through history, with no spaces in between them: specific people who really lived, and each of whom we could name, if only the historical record were good enough….

by this measure, the golden age of the Egyptian pharaohs—an era that strikes most of us as impossibly remote from our own—took place a scant thirty-five lifetimes ago. Jesus was born about twenty lifetimes ago, and the Renaissance happened seven lifetimes back. A paltry five centenarian lifetimes ago, Henry VIII sat on the English throne. Five! As Magee observed, the number of lives you’d need in order to span the whole of civilization, sixty, was “the number of friends I squeeze into my living room when I have a drinks party.”

Burkeman’s book was super and I highly recommend it.

Paul Bloom’s book is more directly about happiness and meaning and what it takes to achieve either or both. Happiness is great but meaning may be better, he argues, and there’s some amount of suffering that’s actually helpful for leading a meaningful life. He approvingly quotes Jordan Petersen: “The purpose of life is finding the largest burden you can bear and bearing it” and Slavoj Zizec says “the only life of deep satisfaction is a life of eternal struggle.” Want a meaningful life? Sign up for struggle.

Bloom divides chosen struggle/suffering into two categories:

The first involves spicy food, hot baths, frightening movies, rough sex, intense exercise, and the like. We’ll see that such experiences can give pleasure. They can increase the joy of future experiences, provide an escape from consciousness, satisfy curiosity, and enhance social status. The second is the sort involved in climbing mountains and having children. Such activities are effortful and often unpleasant. But they are part of a life well lived.

We seek out the first kind of suffering all the time. Think of the phrase “it hurts so good”: the pleasure that comes from pain. Sometimes we even express the same thing in pain and pleasure:

We scream when we are in pain. But, weirdly, we also scream for the opposite of pain—intense pleasure, joyous surprise, great excitement. Have you seen the videos of fangirls in the sixties in the presence of the Beatles? They positively shriek…. Crying is also triggered by opposites. You might cry on the worst day of your life and on the best. Weddings and funerals; the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

Bloom talks about the difference between the inputs for happiness and the inputs for meaning:

Health, feeling good, and making money are all related to happiness but have little or no relationship to meaning. The more people report thinking about the past and the future, the more meaning they say they have in their lives—and the less happy they are. Finding your life to be relatively easy is related to more happiness; finding your life to be difficult is related to less happiness and, though it is a small effect, more meaning. Do you consider your life a struggle? You’re likely to be less happy but more likely to see your life as more meaningful. Are you under stress? More meaning and less happiness. What about worrying? Again, more meaning and less happiness.

Bloom says people who have happiness tend to also be the people who have meaning – there’s a correlation:

It turns out that some features of one’s life relate to both happiness and meaning. If you describe yourself as being bored, then you are less likely to have either a happy life or a meaningful life. Similarly, if you describe yourself as lacking social connection—as lonely—this is also bad for both happiness and meaningfulness. Indeed, one main finding by Baumeister and his colleagues is that there are correlations between happiness and meaning…

Over the years, I’ve moved more toward a focus on happiness. I’ve looked more skeptically at those who want to eat glass and stare into the abyss, to invoke a famous Musk line on entrepreneurship.

The title of Bloom’s book, “the sweet spot,” refers to finding the ideal balance between pleasure and struggle, between happiness and meaning. Practically this means: Have a ton of pleasure but not much struggle? Turn up the difficulty dial. Constantly stressed? Turn up the pleasure/happiness dial.

If you are, like me, more naturally oriented to ambitious, difficult endeavors, the appropriate counterbalance of focus would be hedonistic or leisure activities that drive happiness.

In previous writings on Buddhism, I’ve made the claim that for those of us who grew up in the West, we’re so over-programmed to Western ways of thinking that tacking a little bit more in the direction of Buddhism is helpful, and you needn’t worry about losing all your attachments or ambition overnight. At best, you will become a little more Eastern. The same applies here, in my opinion, in terms of adding sprinkles of hedonism on top of a meaning-rich — meaning-obsessed? — baseline.

Balancing happiness activities with meaning activities could be framed within “opponent-process” theory:

In modern times, many psychologists endorse an “opponent-process” theory of experience, whereby our minds seek balance, or homeostasis, so that positive reactions are met with negative feelings, and vice versa. The fear of skydiving is followed by feelings of relief and accomplishment, for instance.

This explains the unique pleasure of sauna followed by cold plunge!

One of the most interesting parts of the book is when Bloom explains and disputes one of Dan Gilbert’s theories of happiness.

Gilbert, whose writing I’m a fan of, is — by Bloom’s account — pro happiness, pro pleasure, and pro hedonism to an extent. Gilbert puts forward an example of someone whose life is empty of meaning but who’s enjoying a wonderful, unbelievably pleasurable pool. Here’s Gilbert, as quoted by Bloom:

I may be a shameless hedonist happily swimming in my Olympic size pool, feeling the cool water and the warm sunshine on my skin and my hedonic state could only be described as pleasurable. Occasionally I jump out of the pool, pause, and think about how empty my life is, and for a few minutes I feel bad. Then I get back in the pool and swim some more.

Bloom goes to paraphrase Gilbert:

He points out that in his pool example, there are two different sorts of conscious experiences, which we can see as akin to two different people. There is the Experiencer, who feels the cool water and the warm sunshine and who is happy. And there is the Observer, who passes judgment on the life as a whole and who is disappointed….

Gilbert notes that the Observer is rarely present in our lives. We spend little time thinking of our lives as a whole. When you are in the pool, with the cool water and warm sunshine, or laughing with friends (or, for that matter, undergoing a painful dental procedure or falling down a flight of stairs), you aren’t evaluating your life. You are living it—you are the Experiencer.

So, if you’re mostly in the pool, even if you feel empty when you’re sitting poolside and reflecting on whether you’ve made contributions in the world, Gilbert says if the number of hours you’re in the pool far exceeds the poolside hours — you’ll be fine.

If you’re someone who has lots of pleasure and happiness in your life, then, it’s critical to be an Experiencer as much as possible — to live in the present moment, and don’t wallow in reflection too much. Mindfulness meditation is helpful here.

Bloom supports Gilbert’s case via another thought experiment:

Would you rather that your child has a life in which she was almost always happy except when she reflected on her life, or the other way around? . . . It’s hard to imagine condemning our children to 23 hours of unhappiness every day just so they’ll be glad for 1.

Powerful. Few parents would condemn their child to 23 hours of unhappiness just so they can have one hour of deep, meaning-rich reflection. Ultimately, though, Bloom is unconvinced by Gilbert:

There is also a more prosaic reason not to spend the rest of your life in Gilbert’s pool. You will probably get tired of it. This is one reason, I would suggest, that having a life of meaning and having a life of pleasure often go together. Long-term difficult projects, for instance, provide opportunities for novelty and excitement; they avoid one of the big problems faced by hedonists: boredom.

Bloom’s right that boredom is a risk with a life too centered on happiness. But it’s hard to get to that point, at least for me. There’s so much hedonistic novelty out there. So many experiences to have. So many pleasures to experience. It’s why I’m more convinced by Gilbert on this particular point.

But I take Bloom’s argument very well too: strike a balance. Bloom wouldn’t want you on the side of the pool reflecting all the time, or running 7 marathons a week just to experience the struggle. He would suggest you jump in and enjoy the water from time to time. He’s arguing for each of us to find our unique sweet spot between pleasure and pain, meaning and happiness. It strikes me as the absolute right way to think about things.

Some other random highlights from Bloom’s book:

Pain as a way to get in the present:

Psychologists who study benign masochism like to quote a dominatrix who said, “A whip is a great way to get someone to be here now. They can’t look away from it, and they can’t think of anything else.” Rumi, the thirteenth-century Sufi mystic, agreed, asking, “Where is indifference when pain intervenes?” (Elsewhere he wrote: “Seek pain! Seek pain, pain, pain!”)

Reminds me of a technique in Zen where the teacher screams at the top of his lungs in the middle of a sit to jolt the meditators back into the present moment. It happened to me once.

Stay in the present moment and you’ll be happier:

On the whole, people were less happy when they were mind-wandering than when they were not.

When my mind wanders, it’s usually in the direction of anxiety.

It’s hard to reach a “flow” state:

Flow is wonderful, then, but it’s difficult to find—sandwiched between boredom and anxiety, hard to get started, hard to sustain.

On stories and the arc of positive vs. negative:

… another analysis chugged through thousands of works of fiction, analyzing their emotional content as the stories progressed, and found that the stories fell into six main categories, only some of which end on a happy note: Rags to Riches (rise) Riches to Rags (fall) Man in a Hole (fall then rise) Icarus (rise then fall) Cinderella (rise then fall then rise) Oedipus (fall then rise then fall) This variety holds for aversive fictions as well. Yes, many horror movies end with the monster being killed, but many don’t.

We’re all different. I loved this way of putting it:

To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion: “Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?” There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one’s opponent.

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