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When it comes to predicting the future, humans have always been befuddled by uncertainty. From our cave-dwelling ancestors, for whom misreading the weather could mean a failed harvest and death by starvation, to a unit commander in Afghanistan responding to an insurgent attack, we all use our larger-than-average brains to try to guess, predict, model, hypothesise and bet on events up ahead. For ancient civilisations, it was the gods who knew what the future held, and the trick was to use divination and oracles to uncover the truth. Nowadays, in our post-Enlightenment world, we like to think our judgments are based on reason, but when it comes to the future, the truth is we’re often hugely irrational.
Most of us, for example, think we will live longer than average, even though, by definition, only half of us will. We are hopeless at comparing risks: flying is scary (chance of death: one in 29 million) but it’s fine to use our phones while driving (chance of dying on the roads in any one year: one in 47,000). And when it comes to crazy scientific claims, we’re simply dismissive. No one really believes a coin could land the same way up 10,000 times in a row – but mathematically that’s perfectly possible. We love to think we live in the age of reason, but inside most of us there is a mediaeval peasant clutching a lucky charm.
Natural scientists like to sniff about this, and they have a point. Disciplines such as maths, physics, biology and chemistry have given us a world in which we live longer, more healthily and more happily than ever before. But using maths to predict the future only gets us so far (just ask an investment banker), which is why it was good news when science finally turned its attention to confidence.
Confidence is the tool that protects us when we are anxious about the future. For a long time it was one of the vague things “proper” science didn’t like to go near: hijacked by the self-help industry, it seemed to be too tainted by scented candles and self-affirming chants. But, in 1998, a US psychologist called Martin Seligman founded the Positive Psychology movement, dedicated to looking in a scientific way at human strengths (psychology had previously focussed almost purely on weaknesses and failings), and the proper study of confidence began. Using testable and rigorous research tools, Seligman and others started to pin down what makes one person confident and the other timid – and, most importantly, showed that confidence is a skill that can be learnt like tennis or Photoshop.
The background to this is an insight from another US psychologist, Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. Dweck points out that many of us labour under what she called a “fixed” mindset. We tend to think that, by the time they become adults, people are pretty much set in their ways. There’s an advantage in this: we know where we are with people – this one is fun, that one’s shy, she’s good at sports... and they’re not likely to change. But the drawback to that worldview is that it means we can’t change either. So if we’re not confident now, we never will be.
Dweck advocated the opposite way of thinking: we are all constantly capable of change. With enough effort, motivation, training and support, she said, we could all get better at anything, including how confident we feel in stressful situations. All we need to do is give it a go.
Out of the many approaches to becoming more confident that Seligman, Dweck and others have advocated, a kind of three-point plan starts to emerge: Know what your strengths are and build on them. Try new things, and move step-by-step out of your comfort zone. Finally, see setbacks as temporary hitches rather than catastrophic failures.
These are not easy demands. They involve effort and a certain amount of resilience. But they create a virtuous circle. As we try, for example, standing our ground when a passive-aggressive friend tries to bully us into something we don’t want to do, the fact that it works (it usually does), gives us the confidence to risk something new another time. And even if it doesn’t work, and we give up another evening to listening to them whinge, seeing the setback as a temporary hitch gives us the strength either to end the night early or to refuse next time.
As psychologists, Seligman and Dweck are concerned primarily with positive mindsets. A researcher who has focussed instead on the physical aspect of confidence is Alex Pentland, director of the Human Dynamics Laboratory at MIT. In 2002, Pentland and his colleague Tanzeem Choudhury wanted to investigate the non-verbal signals that confident people seemed to give off. They developed a small wearable device, called a sociometer, equipped with a microphone and an infrared transceiver, which could record a person’s speech quality, tone and rhythm, and also their body movements (though not the actual words they said). In a series of experiments, they gave groups of people sociometers to wear and used them to see how they interacted. They found that, although unable to hear anything of the conversations themselves, they could predict with strong accuracy the likelihood of people ultimately agreeing.
What Pentland and his team found was that the most confident groups were those that unconsciously echoed each other’s body language and pattern of speaking. In doing so, they built a close-knit network that allowed them to take risks, collectively agree on strategies and actions and feel comfortable with setbacks.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Pentland’s research, though, comes from his investigations into charisma. Closely bonded groups tend to be conservative in their decision-making as they usually have to reach a consensus. Creativity, though, comes from thinking differently. Pentland wanted to investigate the role of charisma in persuading people to adopt unconventional ideas, the kind displayed by people who are extremely good at pitching business plans or building high performance teams.
In two experiments, both involving business executives, the team were able to predict which of several business plans would be adopted by a panel of investors. In the first, in which people wore the sociometers while making their pitch, the “winners” were those whose voices were fluid and who were energetic and excited. In the second, Pentland found he could predict whose pitches would be accepted at the end of a week-long residential seminar just by analysing the signalling behaviour of delegates during the opening-night mixer. The most successful participants circulated through the crowd, listened intently to others, spoke fluidly and drove conversations with questions.
Commenting on the findings in an article in American Scientist (vol. 98, 2010), Pentland speculated on why he believed business pitches seemed to live or die on the basis of these “hidden signals”:
“Imagine you are listening to a business-plan pitch on an unfamiliar topic. Although you don’t know much about the subject, the speaker’s presentation is fluid and practiced... Your habitual mind says to itself, ‘Well, I may not know much about this, but she is clearly an expert and she is excited … so I guess it must be a good plan.’”
Seligman’s Positive Psychology, Dweck’s growth mindset and Pentland’s findings on charisma – each of these has advanced our scientific understanding of confidence and made it more of a skill we can learn than a trait we may or may not have. And the best thing about this understanding is that it opens up a thrilling new world, one in which we can face the randomness of the future with real excitement. Unlike the ancients and their oracles, none of these approaches promise to predict the future itself. Instead, each of them offers a way of accepting that the future is often unknowable, and that we are capable of using our brains to rise to its challenges.
This decade, the world will change more rapidly than it ever has in the whole of human history. Moore’s Law shows that, technology is now developing so fast that no one can reasonably predict what computers will be capable of in three years’ time, let alone five – or which of our jobs they’ll have taken over. In this context we have no choice but to embrace unpredictability with a rational and research-based confidence. In doing so, we will still often have setbacks, of course, but we will have the skills to learn from them and make them part of our experience.
This piece first appeared in Ideas Illustrated No.5, published by YCN.
When people hear that I’ve co-written a book called The Mindful Manifesto, they sometimes approach me with questions about the title, such as: “Manifesto? Do you mean that meditation is a party political act?,” or “Isn't a manifesto all about action and meditation all about sitting still?”
These are good questions, and there is an interesting relationship between the practice of mindfulness, which involves making space to observe the patterns of experience without getting caught up in them, and living life in an engaged and compassionate way.
In the book, Jonty Heaversedge and I argue that practicing meditation is a skillful way to cultivate well-being—both personal and social. If we can learn to watch the flow of our own thoughts, feelings, habits and biases, seeing them with ever-greater clarity, then we are in a good position to bring that understanding to act more wisely in our lives. By taking time out to do less, our actions are more likely to be skillful. It’s a bit like the instructions to put your own oxygen mask on first in an airplane emergency—that apparently selfish action allows us to help others more effectively.
The word “manifesto” derives from the Latin verb manifestare, which means “to show plainly.” In English, to manifest means “to become apparent.” Our suggestion is that by learning how to be, we might start to release a wisdom that can show us plainly how things are, and that this might form the ground for knowing what to do.
By using the word manifesto in this way, we are hoping to reclaim its true meaning—not so much a plan of action, but a call to being. So it isn’t the usual kind of manifesto—there’s no great scheme to solve all our problems instantly. Instead, it’s an invitation to let go of doing, at least for a time, and learn how to be. This, we suggest, could make a real difference to our well-being, not just as individuals, but as couples, families, communities, nations—and as a planet. Whether it’s relationship issues, an unhealthy addiction, or the threat of war, we can create space for choices to emerge.
By working with meditation, we deliberately and gently bring more awareness to our experience. Gradually, as we pay attention, we begin to notice how we get caught up on automatic pilot, unconsciously playing out patterns that create stress and suffering. We learn to tolerate our impulse to follow patterns that don’t serve us. We cultivate a gap between thought and action, and gradually, as we become more skilled in our practice, the ability to dwell in this gap grows, and we are impelled less and less into knee-jerk reactions.
Mindfulness is simple to learn, and a growing body of scientific research shows it can help with many different issues. From working with stress, anxiety and depression and helping us look after our physical health, to letting go of unskillful behavior patterns and nurturing our relationships with others, as well as fostering greater health and happiness in our schools, workplaces and other community settings, there doesn’t seem to be any situation in which more mindfulness wouldn’t be useful.
It can be practiced on the bus, in the supermarket, at your desk, or in bed. You don’t need special equipment—just your mind and body. And while proficiency takes work, you don’t have to spend years meditating in an ashram or monastery to make a difference—according to one study, less than a week’s practice of 20 minutes a day can be enough to start producing measurable shifts. This then, is what we mean by a mindful manifesto—not a pre-defined program of action, but an opportunity for wisdom to manifest in each moment.
Ed Halliwell is a writer and mindfulness teacher . He is co-author of The Mindful Manifesto: How Doing Less And Noticing More Can Help Us Thrive In A Stressed-Out World (2012). Ed will be leading our Mindfulness One Day Workshops on 23 June and 28 July, for more information and to book click here.
This piece was previously published on www.mindful.org
"What Europe can learn from America: failure!" That title appeared on the cover of Wired magazine last year and it has stuck in my head. Not a month goes by without business magazines like Wired and Fast Company reminding us that failure isn't always bad, ugly and painful. It can also be good for us. To prove their point, these magazines often tell the story of people like Sir James Dyson and his best-selling vacuum cleaner. "It took me 5127 prototypes before I got it right", he once said in an interview. "And I learned from each failure."
Embracing failure seems a popular topic lately, not only in the creative and entrepreneurial world where 'fail early and fail often' seems to be the core principle. In his new book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman writes that we have come to overvalue success and optimism in a world where we're forced to always look on the bright side of life. Burkeman, who calls himself a natural born pessimist, argues how and why we should let failure, insecurity and pessimism back into our emotional menu as part of an alternative 'negative' path to happiness.
My favourite parts of the book are where he writes about techniques like 'visualising the worst-case scenario' or 'deliberate self-humiliation' – techniques borrowed from psychology and ancient Stoic wisdom. What's the worst that can happen to you when taking a specific action? How would you tolerate embarrassment?
"Negative visualisation generates a deep calm", Burkeman writes. In his book he tries to reach this calm by undergoing one of the most terrifying moments of his life on London Underground’s Central Line. "As we approached Chancery Lane Station on an ordinary Spring morning, but before the automated voice announced this fact, I had planned to break the silence and proclaim loudly the words 'Chancery Lane'. As the train continued to Holborn and beyond, it was my intention to keep announcing the name of each station."
Burkeman is aware that this is not the most frightening thing imaginable. Yet the fact remained that his palms were sweating and his heartbeat was accelerating.
His experiment is funny even though the outcome is pretty predictable: hardly anyone pays attention to him talking out loud. It underlines the main conclusion of his book. That sometimes it's only about changing your default settings and realising that preparing for the worst-case scenario might be more productive than positive thinking.
Of course negative thinking might not be helpful when you experience real trauma. Burkeman's point is not that we should always look on the dark side of life, but sometimes it might help to get a sense of perspective on the small stuff. Overcooking the pasta or having a bad job interview is not the end of the world.
In a way it reminded me of the brilliant commencement speech the author David Wallace Foster once gave at the Kenyon College class of 2005. In his speech, This is water, he reflected on the ordinary difficulties of daily life, the many little unsexy situations no one ever warns you about at your graduation party (traffic jams, queues at the supermarket, putting out the bins). And how changing your default settings – of course you're stuck in a traffic jam at eight in the morning! what did you expect? – could help you through life without wanting to punch the wall.
I think the Olympics should have medals and a podium for the most beautiful losers.
Elke Lahousse is a Belgian journalist. Oliver Burkeman will be speaking with Paul Watson on 'Is failure and alternative Olympic value?' at The School of Life on Wednesday 20 June 2012. For tickets click here
Why is it so easy to go in search of the wrong thing?
There are two reasons. First, cool is highly contextual. What is cool on one occasion will not be cool on another. Second, there are many ways of nearly understanding cool which look temptingly like explanations, but in fact fall short of being complete. The combination of such a fluid notion and so many blind alleys makes cool tantalisingly elusive.
Take one popular and instinctive view of cool that people often ask about in the class ‘How To Be Cool’, which I call the Contrarian View of Cool.
The Contrarian View of Cool is simple. Cool people appear to always be doing something ahead of and apart from the lumpen uncool mass. Could the simple rule of cool to just go against the crowd?
This does seem to align with the observation that cool is highly contextual. However, to see why this is so tempting but also so wrong we need to understand why it is the wrong response to the context.
The formula for cool action is simple. Cool actions are timely and effortless. For the purposes of undermining the contrarian view we only need gain a proper understanding of what ‘timely’ really means for being cool.
Being timely part means we must act in the here and now, fully aware and responsive to the situation.
To have confidence to stand out from the crowd, and to do so in a timely (and effortless) way, is cool. This gives us the icon of the cool outsider. If one chooses to stand out from the crowd by simply doing the opposite, by the law of averages, you will end up looking cool some of the time.
But not always.
What is more, sometimes, you will look very foolish.
For, sometimes the most timely thing to do is to not stand out, to be part of the crowd, to feel common cause with those around you and to go with the flow and not against it. Sometimes even the cool outsider must join in to stay cool. To be cool is to react to the situation, not to follow a simple rule of zigging when others zag.
To be timely and cool means not only being of the moment, but flexibly so. The problem with the contrarian view is that it is too rigid. So while it looks like a tempting short cut, it ultimately fails.
However, we should celebrate the complexity of cool, for it proves that cool is worth taking seriously and worth cultivating. The cool moments that make life rich and worth living come from our accomplishments, friendships, acts of courage and acts of generosity. Cool is far from a trivial and surface notion, but contained in the very attitude and response we take to living life. As such, the desire to be cool is remarkably akin to that first philosophical question – to discover how to live the good life.
Nick Southgate is a faculty member at The School of Life and leads our class 'How To Be Cool'. The next date is on Thursday 21 June, for tickets click here
At the age of thirty, I was offered the tenancy of a cottage high in the hills of mid-Wales for just a peppercorn rent; a cottage with no electricity, gas or running water. I had no plan when I went there. I was just curious to see what I would make of such an extreme way of living, and saw it an an opportunity too good to resist. In the end I would stay there alone for five years trying to live a life of the utmost simplicity: watching the birds, gathering and growing food, choosing to have no vehicle and no phone, living by candlelight and cooking over a log fire.
I was not consciously following in the footsteps of HD Thoreau, even though I had read and loved Walden when I was still at an impressionable age. Walden, or Life in the Woods, is Thoreau’s account of how he moved out of town and built himself a log cabin in the woods beside Walden Pond where he remained, living alone, for a little over two years. It is full of insights into the human condition, and is as relevant today as it ever was, an inspiration to generations.
And, although I was not really aware of his influence on me, it was Thoreau who had paved the way, for Thoreau is the great-grand-daddy of everyone who has ever dreamed of jacking it all in and living in a hut in the woods. Of course there was a long tradition of solitaries dating back for hundreds of years before him, but their motivation was different – these hermits and anchorites were leaving the world of men behind in order to get closer to their gods. Thoreau was the first to teach us that living the way that most people choose to live is an option, not a necessity, and that stepping out of society can be a rational choice. What Thoreau found in the woods of New England still resonates today, and challenges us to consider what we really value most in life. What he did was to question what truly matters; to reduce life to its bare essentials.
When I first moved to the mountains of Wales I had barely spent a day alone in my life, but found, like Thoreau, that solitude freely chosen is the opposite of loneliness. I had no idea how I would cope with the privations of the lifestyle I had chosen, but found my days filled with the practicalities of everyday life; with chopping logs and fetching water and growing food. There was certainly little time for introspection as is perhaps the goal of many of those who go on retreat – in fact what I found was almost the reverse; that as time passed I became more and more immersed in the natural world around me and became less and less self-aware, with a contentment that comes from forgetfulness.
Neil Ansell is an award winning journalist and writer, his book Deep Country: Five Years in the Welsh Hills, is an account of the five years he spent in the hills, and learnt to become self-sufficient in every sense of the word. He'll be leading 'A Picnic With Thoreau' at Camley Street Gardens on Thursday 5 July, for details and to book click here
In 2009 I travelled to the tiny island of Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia to fulfill my lifelong ambition of coaching a national football team.
The reason I chose Pohnpei was simple: they were semi-officially the worst football team on the planet. They had never won a match and were beaten 16-1 in their last outing to near neighbours Guam, hardly footballing giants themselves. I reasoned that even a player of my modest abilities could be a football leader there on an island of unadulterated sporting failure.
The result was 18 months of battling torrential rain, toad-infested pitches, lethargic government officials, sunburn and boils, which culminated in leading a Pohnpei team to Guam on a mission to win their first ever game.
Back in England, the Pohnpei experience stayed with me and I have been researching the experience of failure in sport. My main interest is not the occasional disappointment but regular, persistent failure and how it influences self-esteem.
This summer the nations of the world go head to head at the Olympics. How will their athlete’s performances affect each nation’s collective psyche and sense of identity?
It is likely that not all nations will respond in the same way to losing. After cruelly falling short of the Tour de France title in 2009 and 2010, Australian cyclist Cadel Evans was dubbed a ‘whiner’ by his countrymen. In contrast, England’s most popular snooker player of all-time is Jimmy White, famed for losing six World Championship finals and never winning one.
Since 1966, English football history has been a catalogue of noble failures with no greater example than the penalty shootout. While David Batty, Chris Waddle, Gareth Southgate and Stuart Pearce may have been haunted by their personal failures from 12 yards, England’s defeats on penalties have been mythologised and embraced to the point that they have come to represent a very facet of Englishness.
The English have made a virtue of failure, taking barely disguised pride in being ‘unlucky’. What’s more, this identification with failure extends to suspicion towards those who are more regularly a success. Nations like Germany, who fare much better on penalties, are unjustly portrayed by English football fans as cold, ruthless and efficient.
What is it that drives this national identification with sporting failure? Does it extend to other areas of life? Why don’t other nations indulge in it? And is there any virtue in embracing failure? These are the questions I’ll be discussing with my co-speaker, Oliver Burkeman, at The School of Life on 20 June. Oliver will be sharing insights from his new book The Antidote, where he argues for an alternative, ‘negative path’ to happiness and success that involves embracing failure, pessimism, insecurity and uncertainty.
So, if England is eliminated from Euro 2012 on penalties shortly afterwards, will you take a secret pleasure in it?
Paul Watson is a journalist and the author of 'Up Pohnpei: A quest to reclaim the soul of football by leading the world's ultimate underdogs to glory' (Profile, February 2012). Together with Oliver Burkeman, he'll lead our event 'Is Failure an Olympian Virtue?' on Wednesday 20 June. For more information and to book click here
TV chefs teach us how to cook better. Cutting edge sports equipment makes us run faster. And with a combination of the words 'how to' and an internet connection, you can learn pretty much everything. The amateur is getting more professional. But are we still having fun?
There was a time when, if someone had said "I'm going to run a marathon", you would have replied, "You're mad." But nowadays -- with the 'start to run' hype, better shoes, heart rate monitors and your Facebook friends as cheerleaders – more and more of us are taking on the challenge. The status of amateur sports is evolving to the extent that triathlon is the fastest growing amateur sport in the UK.
But the trend towards professionalism also shows up outside the field of extreme sports. According to the British think-tank Demos, we now live in the era of the professional amateur: we want to be judged by professional standards when we engage – even during our leisure – in activities that we’re passionate about.
Take technology and food: two other sectors where achieving expertise is the amateur’s goal. Nowadays everyone with an SLR camera (or Instagram app on their phone) is a photographer. And while we used to drink our instant coffee with a quick stir of milk, now a whole new generation of professional baristas is redefining how we want our caffeine hit each morning.
We live in a do-it-yourself age. According to Demos, this has to do with a new set of social and demographic factors. Not only is the world more competitive than twenty years ago, there's also our expanding life span, growing levels of education, a more open society in which people can seek individual fulfillment, and the trend towards second careers later in life. Not to forget the impact of the digital revolution – just look at how blogs and social media are changing journalism.
It's worthwhile that amateurs are learning from professionals. It makes society more fluid and varied, and individuals more fulfilled, even in difficult economic times. As Jack Hitt writes in A Bunch of Amateurs, "the cult of the amateur is the soul of America. It's really in our DNA that you can walk away from everything and start again in your metaphorical garage. Just think of Steve Jobs as one of the most iconic amateurs turned superstars."
But while we're busy competing and comparing, and setting the bar ever higher, are we still having fun in our spare time? Getting up at 5am in the morning to train for a marathon before going to your office job is not everyone's idea of a leisure activity.
On the eve the Olympics, when it will rain numbers and personal records while the whole world is watching, I find it a fascinating thought that until very recently only amateur athletes were allowed to participate in the Games. Amateurs! Those who were in it for fun, not for the money.
Big contracts and sponsorship have changed the rules over recent years. But today the professionals can still learn something from amateurs: enjoyment. It's precisely that careless joy, in combination with vitality and passion, that sometimes lets the underdog win against their betters. As Intelligent Life wrote recently on the dangers of over-thinking, "experienced athletes and artists often complain that they have lost touch with what made them love what they do in the first place." Sometimes we need to train ourselves to get more skilled at ignoring information in order to get that pure joy back.
Dusting off the roots of the word amateur (the Latin for 'lover of') could relieve some stress in our professional and personal life. Running for gold while also enjoying yourself – a little wink at the camera, a joke after the finish line – isn't that when professionals become gods?
Elke Lahousse is a Belgian journalist. The School of Life is holding the event Is Failure An Olympian Virtue? with Oliver Burkeman and Paul Watson on Wednesday 20 June. For information and tickets click here.
Love triggers dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. That's why it's so motivating. But happy chemicals come in spurts. They do their job by turning off after they turn on. When your happy chemicals dip, you might interpret it as a loss of love. That turns a natural fluctuation into a crisis. You are better off knowing why love makes happy chemicals go up and down.
Love triggers dopamine
Dopamine is the great feeling you get when you find your missing keys. It's the neurochemical that evolved for seeking and finding. Animals sniff around for food and mating opportunities, and when they find something that meets their needs, dopamine surges. But the surge is short. Dopamine does its job by dropping after it rises, so it's ready to alert you to the next chance to meet your needs.
When you find your keys, you don't expect that great dopamine feeling to last. But when you find "the one," you make so much dopamine that you assume you will soar forever. When the dopamine finally subsides, you wonder what's wrong. You might even blame "the one" for having changed. I am not saying we should keep seeking new mates to stimulate dopamine. I'm saying we did not evolve to be on a dopamine high all the time.
Love triggers oxytocin
Oxytocin is the neurochemical that causes trust. It's released during orgasm, and in smaller amounts when you hold hands and when animals lick their babies. Oxytocin is the good feeling of a common cause, from a political rally to a football huddle to honor among thieves.
Reptiles release oxytocin during sex, but mammals produce it all the time. That's why reptiles stay away from other reptiles except when mating, while mammals form attachments to relatives and herds. The more oxytocin you release with a person, the more attached you feel. More touch, more oxytocin, more trust. But trust gets complicated in the human brain. You trust a person to live up to your expectations, and don't realize how complex your expectations are. Eventually, your loved one fails to meet your expectations, and you fail to meet theirs.
To your mammal brain, any loss of trust is a life-threatening emergency. When a sheep is separated from its flock, its oxytocin dips and its cortisol surges. Cortisol is the feeling we experience as fear, panic, or anxiety. It works for sheep, motivating them to re-connect with the flock before they're eaten alive. In humans, cortisol turns disappointed expectations into emergencies.
Love triggers serotonin
Getting respect feels good because it stimulates serotonin. In the animal world, social dominance brings more mating opportunity and more surviving offspring. Animals don't dominate because of conscious long-term goals. They dominate because serotonin feels good.
Your love is pure and untainted by social status, of course. But in other people, you can easily see that status magnifies the neurochemical power of love. In yourself, you have to admit that the romantic attentions of a higher-status person trigger strong feelings. And if you fall for someone who just happens to raise your status, you can't deny that it feels good.
But your brain always wants more respect to get more serotonin. Your loved one may give you that feeling at first, by respecting you or helping you feel respected by others. But your brain takes the respect you already have for granted. It wants more respect to get more good feelings. That's why some people constantly make more demands on their loved ones, and others constantly seek out higher status partners. We'd be better off if we understood the origins of our neurochemical impulses.
Animals are surprisingly picky about who they mate with. Free love is not the way of nature. Sex has a preliminary qualifying event in every species. Animals only have sex when the female is actively fertile (except bonobos). Female chimpanzees only have sex every five years. The rest of the time they're pregnant or nursing, and without ovulation the males aren't interested. When opportunity knocks, it's a big deal. Brains good at navigating such hurdles got passed on, and natural selection produced a brain bent on doing whatever it takes to reproduce itself.
Happy chemicals evolved because they get us to do things that promote reproduction. That doesn't make sense in our world of birth control and sustainability pressures. But in the state of nature, lots of babies died, and you had to really focus on making babies to have a few that survived. You may not care about making babies, but your brain is inherited from those who did. Natural selection created a brain that rewards reproductive behavior with happy chemicals.
Love promotes reproduction, so it triggers a lot of happy chemicals. Sex is just one aspect of reproductive behavior. It's important—love motivates you to move mountains in order to be alone with that special someone. But the survivability of your offspring is what mattered to evolution. And that depends on building bonds of attachment, and competing for top quality mates. Of course, your love is above such biological banalities. But happy chemicals feel so good that your brain looks for ways to get more. Neurochemicals do their job without words, and we look for words to explain the crazy motivations they create in us.
Happy chemicals give us information that's hard to interpret. For example, if I watch a football game and burst with excitement when my team scores, I see thousands of others share my reaction. It feels like they understand me. Why doesn't my partner understand me when thousands of others do? The answer is simple. Spectator sports trigger oxytocin, as do politics, religion, and other group activities. You get a good feeling of trust. Of course, trusting a large number of people in a limited way is not the same as trusting one person in a comprehensive way. But to your mammal brain, it's all the same oxytocin.
We want all the happy chemicals we can get. You expect some from romance, and some from other aspects of life. But no matter where you get them, happy chemicals sag after they spurt. When you know why, you can manage your behavior despite the confusing neurochemical signals.
There's good news here. Don't blame yourself or your partner if you're not high on a happy chemicals all the time. Maybe nothing is wrong. You are just living with the operating system that has kept mammals alive for millions of years.
Loretta Breuning writes for Phychology Today her new book ‘Meet Your Happy Chemicals’ is out now MeetYourHappyChemicals.com.
Each of us is always changing the world in some way or other all the time. So John-Paul Flintoff starts out his answer to ‘how to change the world’ with a theory of history. Where Carlyle saw history as the work of great men, Tolstoy saw it as a vast cumulation of the incomprehensibly infinitesimal details in everyone’s lives. John-Paul takes after Tolstoy. He asks us to look not to great lives, but our own lives. Changing the world then means being honest and critical about what matters to each of us, and then being realistic and specific about what we can do to act on it.
We have to start with ourselves, and acknowledge not only that there are better and worse ways for history to unfold, but that we have an intimate role, however small, in that process. We can actually read this book’s title as a proxy for two other titles: “how to see the details of your own life set against the canvas of unfolding of history” and “how to lead a life infused with energy, humility and meaning”.
If one of the universal insights of feminism is that the personal is the political, then John Paul is a fantastic feminist. It is humbling to think that whatever we may say in public, however we may vote, however we shop and consume, whatever our professed allegiances, values and careers, it is our domestic arrangements that speak most powerfully of our own politics. The economic, cultural, moral and behavioral patterns that mark our home lives are the building blocks of the wider world. Our true politics are but our home lives writ large.
This is a whole new way of working from home. Don’t think you always have to go out into the world to make a difference: in your domestic arrangements - whatever they may or may not be - you will find a clear message about what matters to you, and you simply cannot help always being connected to the wider world anyway; just think food, energy, relationships and technology for a start. Change, like charity, starts at home.
So John-Paul’s conversational, accommodating, warm-hearted, erudite and panoramically rousing book speaks like an old friend who cares how we live; it has both the humblest and the highest aspirations for us. It is feminist in this sense; and so Tolstoy was a proto-feminist - please correct me on that someone - for history is but the daily details of whatever each of us does. Do not then fret about never having won a landslide general election; live your vision of a better world at home first, and see what it takes from there.
Here is John-Paul’s message of liberation: we do not have to be leaders. Try by all means, but remember we do not necessarily have to inspire the masses, live saintly lives, galvanize revolutions, reverse climate change, stop wars, save the children or stamp out malaria. Rather, we can bring the big ideas home. Small changes matter; history is nothing but small changes happening everywhere all the time, and the world we might wish to change is but a tangled mass of the details of everyone’s lives. So we are freed from thinking top-down, which can be dispiritingly daunting. This is an ode to domesticity; albeit with a health-warning: as misanthropic philosophers the world over have often found, it can be easier to love humanity than to keep loving specific people.
So keep giving to charity, and keep voting and shopping to support the organizations you believe in, but take a little time too to think about what kind of life you hope to be able to look back on. ‘Changing the world’ is such a nebulous phrase that it is hard to pin down: Whose world? Which bit of it? How much? What John-Paul asks is a rather more personal set of questions: What really matters to you? What is there in your own life that jarrs or violates your own sense of what matters? Once you know, start with one do-able and realistic act to put that right. Be the change. Inspired.
I know my favourite places to eat, drink and shop for any eating occasion, any Londoner worth their salt (Maldon, of course) knows that we have available a plethora of ever-evolving worldwide cuisine choices, suitable for all pallets and pockets. So what could An Adventure in Good Taste teach me?
After cooling down in the basement Games Room of the Zetter Townhouse in Clerkenwell with water drawn from the old Clerks' Well, we set off to tour the Zetter Townhouse restaurant and rooms, proprietor Tony Conigliaro showed us a building crammed with upholstery and objects collected by the travelling eccentric (and imaginary) Aunt Wilhelmina, looking not unlike Vivienne Westwood in her portrait. The aesthetic questioned the idea of taste as something more than Dr Johnson's 'gustatory', defining the faculty of tasting with the mouth. The Latin gustus, meaning taste, fits pleasantly into the zest and vigour of 'gusto', which the house was certainly full of. It’s not surprising it’s been voted as amongst the coolest hotels in the world by Condé Nast Traveller.
After seeing the depths of the medieval priory walls in the shell of the building, we headed out over to St John's Gate to begin a walking tour on a history of taste. The painter William Hogarth lived here, and his well-known prints 'Gin Street' and 'Beer Lane' were responsible for turning the predilections of the masses away from ruinous Dutch gin towards the merits of English beer. This piece of propaganda, created to boost beer sales, suggests Hogarth as an early tastemaker, capable of polarising taste into definitions of good and bad. And doing so via the medium of alcohol rather than food.
We walked through sunbathers in hidden Islington parks, looking for Hogarth's 'line of beauty', an aesthetic s-curve to define a pleasing sight, on our way to meet Tony again, this time at his experimental laboratory. The award-winning 'bar with no name' at 69 Colebrooke Row, provides the perfect clandestine spot for cocktail aficionados, transporting you once again through historical narrative like at the Zetter Townhouse. All creations begin in the lab, with equipment and machines adopted from various non-catering industries; a centrifuge spinning the life out of organic matter destined for pure assimilation, a bubbling still which harvests the liquid the NHS classifies as the waste product.
These are not just drinks, these are stories hoarded from personal experience, narrative dioramas like the Woodland Martini, utilising processes from perfumery as layers of taste are manipulated via flavour, effect and aroma. We're each handed the dramatic Prairie Oyster, a fusion of the original cocktail crossed with the recipe of a bloody mary. I picked up the 'egg yolk' suspiciously, painstakingly created from clarified tomato juice, reformulated to resemble a real egg yolk. The horseradish vodka, Worcester sauce, shallots and red wine vinegar surprised me as I trepidatiously gulped it down in one as instructed, and the 'egg yolk' popped in my throat. This synergy between food and drink left me unsure whether I'd just eaten or drank for some time.
Later at the bar, we gathered to watch Tony's team create the Barbershop Fizz for twenty people. A flurry of arms mixing pine gin, birch syrup and patchouli-infused mint, the precision process seemed at odds with large drinks brands who tailor their products to appeal to the masses. In such a way taste as in trend becomes defined by mass appreciation, not the unique experience created here. Tony's prized drink took two years to hone, infusing a sugar cube with essential oils which when dropped into a glass of champagne, lends The Rose the air of walking through a rose garden. After questions and samples and demonstration martinis and margaritas, my notes suddenly become a bit sparse...
We headed back out onto the sunny street, passing essayist Charles Lamb's cottage at the end of the row. Shrouded by disreputable familial histories, the writer's popularity has been resurrected by way of The Charles Lamb Pub. This renamed pub, standing on Elia Street (named itself after his best known essays), was the perfect place for a conversation meal hosted by curator Cathy Haynes, to expand our hazy thoughts. Yet more drinks arrived as landlord Hobby Limon told us all about "the London lush" that was Charles Lamb. Over dinner of Scotch broth and rhubarb Eton mess, followed by manchego and piccalilli, we argued whether refined appreciation in both food and aesthetics can sometimes be restrictive, if rarity directs taste, and how good taste has become a formula for the uninventive. I was very pleased to make it through the day without mention of the dreaded ‘foodie’.
Zoe Langdell is a writer and manages the shop at The School of Life. Details of our upcoming Conversation Meals and Drinks events can be found here, including Midsummer Drinks With Tove Jansson hosted by Esther Freud, on 18 June.
In his 2010 Booker-shortlisted novel, In A Strange Room, the South African author Damon Galgut plays an unsettling trick with perspective. The book is a triptych of stark, stripped-down fictions about travel, each centred on a character named Damon. For the most part, Damon’s actions, thoughts and feelings are described from an observer’s point of view, in a conventional third-person narrative. But at various points the author shifts perspective to show that the ‘he’ of the narrative is actually the ‘I’. The Damon to whom things are happening is the same as the Damon writing the book.
"He sits on the edge of a raised stone floor and stares out unseeingly into the hills around him and now he is thinking of things that happened in the past. Looking back at him through time, I remember him remembering, and I am more present in the scene than he was."
The author’s trick is to separate out two kinds of self: the one that experiences an event through his own eyes, and the one who is observed, from some removed position, as an actor in the scenario. Galgut uses this device particularly to trace the gaps in his story, which are the gaps in memory:
"They disappear into darkness, and into a hole in memory too, the next picture I have is of the two of them, in stark daylight again, climbing through the mountains."
If you stop to think about it, this separation of observer from observed is actually a common feature of memory. Particularly in early memories—memories of childhood—we are sometimes the ‘I’ and sometimes the ‘she’ or ‘he’.
Here’s an example from one of my own earliest memories. I’m two or three. I can see a small child down on the floor of a family living room, pushing a forklift truck across the carpet. The small child is me. I don’t particularly trust the memory, partly because it hails from such a young age. But one feature in particular intrigues me. If this is a genuine memory, how come I’m an actor in it? Why am I seeing myself in the third person, rather than re-experiencing the scene as it would have appeared to me? Why is the kid with the forklift truck not looking out at the world through his own eyes?
Psychologists use the term observer memories to refer to this third-person species of memory, and they contrast them with field memories, in which we look out at events from our own point of view at the time. Observer memories are a puzzle in memory research: they should not exist, but they do. They intrigued Sigmund Freud, who saw in them evidence that memories are reconstructions. The truth of the event has to be hidden, perhaps because it is damaging to the ego. And so a façade is thrown up, in which some details may be accurate but this telling shift in perspective remains to undermine confidence in the memory.
The difference between field and observer memories also gives us tantalising clues to how memories are shaped by emotions. In one study from the 1980s, researchers asked participants to focus on either the emotions or the objective facts of the events they were recalling. When the task was to think about feelings, the memories that resulted were more likely to be field (first-person) memories. When objective facts were the issue, more observer memories resulted. One thing this study shows is that the way we are asked to do our remembering shapes the memories that result. Memories are about the demands of the present almost as much as they are about the facts of the past.
This link between emotion and perspective makes sense of author Damon’s flips between ‘I’ and ‘he’. Telling his story in the third person allows the teller some emotional distance from it. When the Damon-in-the-scene hears the news of his lover Jerome’s death, the shock jars the authorial Damon back into the ‘I’. In contrast, there is a kind of dissociation at work in a harrowing scene about an overdose, in which the ‘I’ remembering looks down on the ‘he’ in the scene as it would on some helpless victim of a trauma.
Observer memories are particularly common in recollections of early childhood. As we get older and our self-narratives become more established, our memories are more likely to preserve the original field of view. The slippery processes of remembering, though, continue to find ways to objectify us, as the authorial Damon keeps discovering:
"But memory has its own distances, in part he is me entirely, in part he is a stranger I am watching."
Charles Fernyhough's book on autobiographical memory, Pieces of Light: The new science of memory, will be published next month by Profile Books. He'll be leading our event on Memory on Thursday 7 June, for information and to book click here
Although one might dispute that societies have always progressed, they have certainly always changed. The Digital Age brings changes to our society on a daily basis. The speed and extent of this change seem to divide commentators into two camps. There are those that are breathlessly excited by the possibilities of digital living, the size of social networking sites, the new ways we will work and play – and all the rest. In the other camp are those who issue stern warnings about the future of digital living. They are wary of, well, the size of social networking sites, the new way we will work and play – and all the rest.
What makes How To Thrive in the Digital Age so engaging and useful is that it finds a way between these extremes. Tom Chatfield is, of course, aware of the debate. He acknowledges and discusses the disappointed dystopian views of Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget and the lament that the internet should really be able to do better than provide us with a half-baked amateur encyclopaedia and an evangelist like Clay Shirky’s theory of cognitive surplus, the hope that the internet will harness all our extra intellectual efforts to produce a fully-baked amateur encyclopaedia. However, what he does is pull a neat side-step to avoid this debate by shifting his focus not from what the technology is capable of, but what experiences it will give us.
The difference is crucial. The technology poses its own questions, its possibilities are untapped and unknown. Yet, we remain relatively constant: human beings looking to belong, feel happy, improve ourselves and thrive. Humankind is already growing up fast in the digital age. The questions we will need to ask will be best answered by understanding what experiences we want, not merely by devising what technology can do and hoping we will have a use for it.
It is this theme I have most sympathy for. Chatfield shows both that technology can enrich our immersion in the world – and prevent it. Email can both keep us in touch at a convenient place with people thousands of miles away, immersing us in our friends and families lives, yet its constant pinging attention-seeking can prevent us from immersing ourselves in other activities properly. It can both focus and divide the attention. To thrive we must be able to experience our world fully and deeply. The digital age helps us do this when it helps us be more human. Yet it can also ask us to think like a computer, multi-tasking between constant stimuli. Humans do not think well like this.
In the School of Life event ‘How To Make Better Decisions’ we discuss this type of decision fatigue, how an endless switching between tasks wears us down, leading to poor decisions, a sense of life out of control and ultimately to genuine sadness and depression. Like Tom, I hope we can learn to frame our lives to stop the Digital Age affecting us like this. We must realise it is not how quickly or how many emails we can respond to, but how well. We must realise that our capacity for thinking is finite and precious and learn to guard it. How To Thrive in the Digital Age arms us with the ideas we need to stop seeing technology as something that does things to us, but as something we can make choices about to build better lives.
Nick Southgate is a faculty member at The School of Life, teaching the class How To Be Cool. Tom Chatfield will be leading our class How To Live In A Wired World on Thursday 31 May, for details and to book click here.
It’s one of the most difficult decisions we can make: in order lead a fulfilling life should we conform and initiate change from within the system, or rebel against conventionalism and all the sacrifices that entails?
Even after making a decision, we can often find ourselves pining after the other option. Give up your job, grow your own food and become an environmental activist, and you may quickly find yourself lacking security, basic resources and drifting toward the margins of the socio-political dialogue. Similarly, if you continue working for corporation-X, get a mortgage and network with important people you may find your voice lost in the larger whole. It’s the classic 'between a rock and a hard place' scenario.
Is it possible to walk the line between these two paths in life? For many, it feels like maintaining one’s system of beliefs, lifestyle, friends and sense of self-worth simultaneously is an impossible task. Most of us have seen friends who have wholly embraced a particular lifestyle choice, only to become slowly disillusioned with their lot and eventually lose their grasp on the origins of their decision. Active choice becomes passive subsistence.
All this choice, all of these options (with no apparent answers) can make us feel afraid, alone and like there are no other options available to us – but contrary to popular belief there are places where like minded individuals come together to discuss such issues. This year at HowTheLightGetsIn festival in Hay-on-Wye, The School of Life is organising a series of open platform events where people can relax, lunch, and enter their own ideas into discussions on about how to lead a fulfilling existence.
Having been down both these paths and realising that neither presented a viable course for my future, I now know that the most important way to keep perspective is to surround ourselves with others who can contribute to our growth, add to our knowledge and help guide us a little further through the winding roads of life.
HowTheLightGetsIn runs from 31 May – 10 June 2012 in Hay-on-Wye. The School of Life wil be hosting philosophy breakfasts, conversation lunches and afternoon tea discussions with faculty members Cathy Haynes and Mark Vernon.
Tickets are available directly from HowTheLightGetsIn here
Tom Chatfield will be part of the Art in the Age of the Machine session on Wednesday 6 June at 5.30pm
Not so long ago psychoanalyst Adam Phillips - a man not shy of expressing complex ideas - wrote these alarming words about the definition of sanity in his book, Going Sane, ‘… it [sanity] has never been systematically studied or defined’. His argument said if we don’t actually know what sanity is, how do we know if we're sane or not? After reading Philippa Perry’s new book, How to Stay Sane, I’m happy to inform Mr. Philips he can now relax. Perry has nailed a useful definition of sanity.
In this self help book just published by The School of Life, we’re given less a scientific outline of sanity than an evocative – and mercifully simple – definition based on Perry’s extensive clinical observations from her years as a psychotherapist.
Sanity is to be found in the middle ground between two extremes, she says. At one end there’s what she calls ‘chaos’, which is being so at one with one’s feelings and emotions there is no self-awareness. These people stagger through life lurching from catastrophe to catastrophe like off-the-rail trains. They lack the necessary filters and self-awareness to self-soothe, and manage their feelings in healthy ways.
At the other pole is a kind of rigidity where a person’s feelings are boxed up and buried, inhibiting their chances of personal growth or change. The depressed, isolated and reclusive would fall into this category. Between these two poles is where sanity lies, ‘a broad path, with many forks and diversions, and no single ‘right’ way.’
Backing up her arguments with recent neuroscience - which, as a fellow therapist, I’m also pleased to report is increasingly corroborating the therapeutic world’s hunches and insights from the past 100 years – Perry usefully pins down this workable definition of sanity without head-spinning jargon. An observation you’d be pushed to offer others in this field.
The book examines four areas we should all develop to keep on sanity’s broad path. These are - self-observation, relating to others, stress and personal narrative. Stress? Yes, stress can be good, Perry argues, as long as it involves pushing ourselves to take healthy risks and step outside our comfortable self. The result is an expansion of our experience, and new neural pathways giving our brains greater adaptability to meet life’s challenges. Good stress creates a virtuous circle giving us the confidence to challenge ourselves in increasingly creative ways. Being brave enough to step into a therapy room for the first time, for instance, might give us a sense of our courage.
The other key areas require inner reflection, nurturing relationships and the positive use of stories to make sense of our lives. How to Stay Sane ends with a practical chapter of exercises to help the reader explore these ideas using their own life and experiences. I haven’t yet attempted the Genogram exercise – creating a sort of family tree based on a family’s emotional relationships to give insight into unconscious ways of relating. But it sounds fascinating – and challenging.
I spoke to Grayson Perry, the author’s husband, at the book series launch. He said reading a book about therapy isn't the same as having therapy, like being told about a work of art isn’t the same as experiencing it. Yet by acknowledging the challenges we face to keep us on the broad road of sanity, while offering us useful tools to strengthen our sense of self, How to Stay Sane is a practical, pocket-sized simulacrum of the therapeutic process.
When we stop to consider the towns and cities that we have built around us, it is astonishing how abominable most public landscaping is and how detrimental to the human spirit. How is it that we have we come to a collective agreement to accept it? Why do we make such landscapes that are upsetting and alienating, when they could be intriguing, beautiful, inviting and surprising?
To my mind a therapeutic landscape has a fluency and integrity to it that encourages the person experiencing it to feel differently about themselves. This experience is as diverse as the space and person. What makes a landscape enriching is down to each of us as individual creators. But, while I would resist advising on a particular style, there are basic considerations in creating an appealing environment.
A landscape can be therapeutic in many ways: for the owners, for nature, for the people who build them, for the wider environment and for the future. To create one we have first to consider human nature at its simplest: we enjoy safety, beauty, ease of being, ease of working – elements that encourage us rather than alienate us – and the majority of us are excited by close contact with other benign species and all the natural elements. We also need to be sensitive to our very varied human condition by considering the scope of our ability and frailty: our senses, thriving or failing bodies, complex emotional and cerebral issues.
For example, I once made a garden for a hospice for terminally ill people who had to rely entirely on other people for their simplest mobility. In tandem with the architect we devised a viewing solarium made of glass and completely surrounded by a garden of high grasses and flowering prairie plants. We could bring a person in there on a bed and let nature do the rest ... birds in the grasses could provide hours of improvised and absorbing interest: drama and poetry and intimate connection with nature. Conversations with some of the people in the space bore out that their observation of the tiny bird world transcended, even if briefly, their absorption with the weight of their condition.
Much research is being collated on the beneficial effects of landscapes by the Therapeutic Landscapes Association and others. Formal academic study is extending and validating what we understand instinctively whenever we enter a landscape that is beautiful to us. Hopefully the force of this research will influence legislation and encourage us to be less fettered and make our manmade world a more therapeutic place to be. In the meantime we are all in a position to influence our environment directly and we could be a little less passive about it. Why don't we affect simple pleasant changes? How hard can it be?
Photograph by Andrew Lawson
There's no more ridiculed genre in the literary canon – and you can see why. Most self-help books are written by Americans of the most sentimental and unctuous sort. They promise their readers eternal life, untold riches and an escape from every grubby aspect of being human, all within 300 pages of upbeat, relentlessly repetitive and patronising prose. No wonder the unstated assumption of the cultural elite is that really only stupid people read them.
What about everybody else? The assumption is that life doesn't need to be navigated with lessons. You can just do it intuitively. After all, you only need to achieve autonomy from your parents, find a moderately satisfying job, form a relationship, perhaps raise some children, watch the onset of mortality in your parents' generation and eventually in your own, until one day a fatal illness starts gnawing at your innards and you calmly go to the grave, shut the coffin and are done with the self-evident business of life.
However, most of us will probably privately admit that living isn't entirely as simple as that – and that it might be useful to have somewhere to turn. For 2,000 years in the history of the west, most of philosophy simply was self-help. The Ancients were the most adept practitioners. Epicurus wrote some 300 self-help books on almost every topic, including On Love, On Justice and On Human Life. The Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote volumes advising his fellow Romans how to cope with anger (the still very readable On Anger). It is no injustice to describe Marcus Aurelius's Meditations as one of the finest works of self-help ever written, as relevant to someone facing a financial meltdown as the disintegration of an empire.
Christianity continued in this vein, with such bestselling guides as Thomas a Kempis's The Imitation of Christ. What, then, explains the gradual decline in the prestige of self-help books that continues to this day? A key catalyst was the development of the modern university system that in the mid-19th century became the main employer for philosophers and intellectuals and started to reward them not for being useful or consoling, but for getting their facts right. There began an obsession with accuracy and a corresponding neglect of utility. The idea of turning to a philosopher or historian in order to become wise (an entirely natural assumption for our ancestors) started to seem laughably idealistic and adolescent. Alongside this came a growing secularisation of society, which emphasised that the modern human being could do the business of living and dying by relying on sheer common sense, a good accountant, a sympathetic doctor and hearty doses of faith in science. The citizens of the future weren't supposed to need lectures in how to stay calm or free of anxiety.
And so the self-help field was abandoned to the many curious types who thrive in it today: people who are reclothing the Christian message so as to promise us financial heaven if we believe in ourselves, have faith, work hard and don't despair. Or else those with a passing acquaintance with Buddhism, psychoanalysis or Daoism. What unites modern practitioners is their fierce optimism. They make the grave assumption that the best way to cheer someone up is to tell them that all will be well. They are utterly cut off from the spirit of their more noble predecessors, who knew that the fastest way to make someone feel well is to tell her that things are as bad as, and possibly much worse than, she could ever have thought. Or, as Seneca put it so well, "What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears."
To try to rectify the situation a little, I've just edited a new series of six self-help books with solid intellectual ambitions, authored by experts in their fields, including work, emotional health, technology, money and political activism. The tone is helpful but realistic. There's no earnestness or patronisation. I've written a little volume on sex, with advice on impotence, oral sex, sex addiction, infidelity and other issues.
A culture which gives a role to guidance and the self-help book stands a chance of making at least one or two fewer mistakes than the previous generation in the time that remains.
It was around this time of year, just over a decade ago, that I had a breakdown. During my three years at university, my mental health had got worse and worse. It started with panic attacks, that arose out of nowhere like tornadoes. Then came the mood swings, depression, and a general feeling that I was no longer in control of myself.
What terrified me was the prospect I’d permanently upset up my neuro-chemical balance with drugs. My friends and I had messed around with LSD and Ecstasy, and had some good times, but I’d seen friends get badly hurt and sent to mental homes. If my own depression and panic attacks were neuro-chemically determined, then perhaps there was nothing I could do about it, other than take different drugs for the rest of my life.
My literature degree couldn’t help me get a handle on what was going on inside me. It meant I could analyse the feelings of Hamlet or Madame Bovary, but my own emotions were beyond my comprehension or control. Hamlet may have been another youth ‘blasted with ecstasy’, but I think Shakespeare had something else in mind.
I didn’t discuss my problems with my friends or parents, out of a masochistic sense of shame. But finally I was forced to ask for help. The therapist I saw after graduation wasn’t much use, so I did my own research on a new invention dubbed ‘the internet’, and discovered that depression and anxiety were treatable either with anti-depressants, or with a talking therapy called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
I still clung to the old-fashioned idea that I might be able to reason my way out of my problems, so one evening, I went along to a CBT support group that met in the Royal Festival Hall in London every Thursday. There was no therapist present, just a group of people coming together to help each other. We followed a CBT audio course someone had bootlegged from the Net, practiced its exercises, and encouraged each other on.
It worked. After a few weeks, I stopped having panic attacks, and haven’t had one since. My depression also cleared up, although more slowly. The road back to mental health took many years and I’m still on it (we all are). Others, of course, find anti-depressants more helpful, but in my case I’d say CBT saved my life.
By that time, I was a trainee journalist, so, while reporting on the German mortgage-bond market (as thrilling as it sounds), I quietly started to research CBT. One day, I got on a plane to New York to interview the pioneer of CBT, Albert Ellis, on his death-bed. I did the last ever interview with him before he died, and got the chance to thank him for his work.
Ellis told me he had been directly inspired by ancient Greek philosophy. He’d trained as a psychoanalyst, but hadn’t seen much progress in his patients, despite seeing them sometimes every day for years. Then, in the early 1950s, he’d read a line from the Stoic philosopher Epictetus: ‘Men are disturbed not by events but by their opinions about them’
That inspired his new cognitive approach to emotional problems, which is based on the Greeks’ theory that our emotions follow our beliefs about the world. ‘The soul’, as the philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote, ‘becomes dyed with the colour of its thoughts’. If you change your thoughts, you change your whole experience of the world.
Almost all the philosophers of ancient Greece shared this cognitive approach to the emotions. Socrates, the Stoics, the Epicureans, the Sceptics, the Cynics and even the great Plato and Aristotle, all believed that philosophy is a form of therapy that can make people happier and more fulfilled, by teaching them how to examine and change their beliefs.
First of all, we need to become conscious of our habitual thoughts, and how they create our reality. We can do this by engaging in a Socratic dialogue with a therapist or friend, or by tracking our beliefs in a journal.
For example, I realised my emotional problems came in part from my values. I put too much emphasis on winning others’ approval, and this made me alienated (which comes from the Latin alienus, meaning ‘to make a slave of yourself’). Socrates and his followers taught that we can take back possession of ourselves, by choosing intrinsic values like wisdom rather than extrinsic ones like status or power.
Once you’ve examined your beliefs and tried to make them more wise, you need to turn your new insights into new habits. The word ‘ethics’ actually comes from the Greek word for habit.
The Greeks had many techniques for creating new habits. They made maxims, for example, catchphrases to be repeated over and over until they stick in our memories, like Marcus Aurelius’ phrase: ‘life itself is but what you deem it’. They’d also carry little handbooks around with them, so that the teachings were always with them. CBT uses these same techniques.
And the Greeks understood, perhaps better than CBT, that it also helps if you find a group or community that shares your new way of thinking, so that your ideas become a shared culture. The Epicureans, for example, left Athens to live in a philosophical commune called the Garden. Their commune was like a lifeboat of wisdom bobbing on the sea of a toxic culture.
The best modern self-help groups understand the importance of group dynamics to self-transformation – think of Alcoholics Anonymous, or Weight Watchers, or the support group I went to in London.
There was also a political aspect to ancient philosophy. Some philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, believed that, to heal ourselves, it is not sufficient to change our own individual beliefs. We also need to change our whole society, and infuse its culture with wiser values. Though of course this can be risky – our society might not want to be changed. Ancient philosophers were often getting exiled, or even executed, for criticising the ruling powers.
CBT is very careful to drop any mention of politics or culture, because such matters are controversial and hard to prove scientifically (you can’t do a randomised controlled trial for an entire society).
But today, governments are coming round to Aristotle’s idea that citizens should be taught the art of living well. Politicians’ new willingness to teach well-being to the masses partly comes from CBT, which has provided an evidence base for the ancient Greeks’ insistence that some ways of living are better, wiser and healthier than others.
Governments have started to use public policy to disseminate CBT and its younger sister, Positive Psychology, in schools, in the NHS, in job-centres, armies and beyond. Many countries, including the UK, have also started to measure ‘national well-being’. The welfare state is turning into the ‘well-being state’, with governments aiming to raise our well-being from a 7 to a 10.
This is exciting, but also risky. The well-being state could conceivably turn into an illiberal monster, where citizens must wear forced smiles or risk being diagnosed as sick. There is this dangerous idea that empirical science can ‘prove’ one model of well-being, and because it’s proven, governments can impose it on their citizens without their consent.
In fact, there’s not one path to the good life, but several. The ‘science of happiness’ is still quite crude, and its evidence mainly consists of simplistic questionnaires. And Socrates insisted that thinking about the good life for ourselves is is an important part of the good life. We shouldn’t give too much authority to scientific experts, but rather decide for ourselves what the good life, alone or in philosophy groups.
Despite these concerns, I’m excited by the new fusion of ancient philosophy and modern psychology. If I hadn’t come across it, I’d still be stuck in misery. Socrates showed us that we all have the power to heal ourselves and change our characters, at any stage of our lives. We might not become perfect sages like him, but I believe we can all become a little wiser and happier.
Focus on what you can control, accept what you can’t
Rhonda Cornum was a US Army medic when her helicopter was shot down in the first Gulf War. She was captured, assaulted, and held as a POW. She came through that situation without being traumatised, she says, because she focused on what she could control – her thoughts and beliefs – without freaking out over what she couldn’t control. That attitude is at the heart of Stoic philosophy. Cornum went on to teach resilience to the entire US Army.
Choose your role models wisely
Louis Ferrante grew up in a bad neighbourhood in Brooklyn, and imitated its leading role models, who happened to be gangsters. He joined the Mob, and was in prison by the age of 22. In prison, he came across Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, and was inspired by Plutarch’s idea that we can choose better role models by reading the biographies of great figures from history. Louis turned his life around, and became a campaigner for prison literacy programmes.
Keep track of yourself
The Greeks warned that we often sleepwalk through life, blindly assuming our intuitions are correct. So they urged their students to keep an account of themselves, by tracking their thoughts and behaviour in a journal, like Marcus Aurelius used to do. His Meditations, one of the most famous works of western philosophy, is really his personal thought journal. We can keep track of ourselves today by using self-tracking apps on our smart-phones, to track our moods, diet, exercise, spending and so on.
Jules Evans is the author of Philosophy for Life, and Other Dangerous Situations (2012). He will be leading our event The Politics of Wellbeing on Tuesday 15 May, for tickets click here.
This article was published in The Times on 8/5/12, and on Jules' blog at https://philosophyforlife.org/
Probably after a second or two of blankness a thought will pop up.
Suddenly you’re thinking again.
Our brains seem desperate to keep themselves busy. So much so that neuroscientists have defined a network of brain regions that spring into action whenever our attention lapses. They have dubbed this the Default Network. Its activity is so pronounced that our brains burn 20 times as much energy when our mind wanders as they do when we are focussing on a particular task, such as reading this post.
The Default Network activity supplies a constant stream of commentary. Most of the time this internal monologue is entirely inward-looking and dwells on the ordinary and everyday:
“Don’t forget to move tomorrow’s meeting.”
“Ooh, what’s for dinner.”
“Why did I say that to my boss?”
Sometimes, however, our inner voice throws up completely unexpected nuggets of creativity that bloom into elaborate daydreams. Indeed, a recent neuroimaging study took a direct look at the brains of musicians engaged in spontaneous jazz improvisation. The most active brain region during freeform improvisation (compared to playing learnt pieces) was a crucial component of the Default Network called the medial prefrontal cortex.
Clearly then our Default Network is capable of generating both the mundane and the sublime. If we want to harness the creative power of this system, we have to learn how to sift the tittle-tattle of our self-obsessed internal narrative from the sparklingly inventive connections of our best daydreams.
In this endeavour, like most acts of creation, perhaps it is best to start with a blank canvas. Here mindfulness-based practices such as meditation and yoga might have something to offer. A study published last year examined the brain activity of experienced meditators. Compared to meditating novices, practised subjects were able to dramatically shut down several components of the Default Network and therefore block out their inner narrative.
However, far from meditation representing a state of mental inactivity, the researchers reported significantly increased activity in several brain regions. Most prominent of these was the dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex, an area uniquely important for intense awareness and self-scrutiny. This precise region was significantly de-activated in the improvising jazz musicians of the previous study.
Perhaps then practicing mindfulness gives us the tools to quieten the staccato bursts of the self-obsessed Default Network, which are so often an impediment to creative thought. In doing this it can help to prepare the ground for the emergence of creative ideas. The self-awareness taught by mindfulness can then help us to notice when interesting ideas bubble up and therefore help us to translate our daydreams into tangible creative output.
I’ve been studying for the last few years to become a lawyer, and I feel terribly out of touch with my creative side. I used to paint, draw and dance, but now I simply don’t have time. I am worried that I will lose my ability to do these things if I don’t have some kind of outlet, but I also have no idea how I can fit it into my schedule. Do you have any advice?
I suggest you start by treating yourself to ‘One Sketch a Day: A Visual Diary’, a delightfully produced sketchbook with half a page per day left blank for your drawings. Choose a time of day that you will always create this sketch. It could be first thing in the morning, when your brain is jumbled with dreams. Or in your lunch break, grabbing a latte in a café, when you can percolate thoughts into your sketchbook. Or last thing at night, before you go to bed, let ideas float into this little book. This way, you will build up a visual dictionary of your thoughts, perceptions and dreams, which you can draw upon for paintings when you have longer stretches of time for letting out your artistic daemons.
If need a fillip to inspire you to give vent to your thwarted creativity, explore the writing and painting of Leonora Carrington. This formidable lady died only a year ago, at the age of 94, having lived a remarkable life. She was strong-willed from the first, resolutely ignoring the clamouring thong around her when she was on parade as a debutante, reading ‘Eyeless in Gaza’ by Aldous Huxley in the Royal Enclosure at Ascot when she should have been flirting with eligible bachelors. She shortly fell in love with the artist Max Ernst (who was married, to boot), and fast became the darling of the Surrealist movement. She is remembered for putting her guests’ hair into omelettes when they stayed the night, and painting her feet with mustard at a restaurant. She wrote surreal short stories and painted beautiful quirky paintings.
But when Ernst was imprisoned in France she suffered greatly, leading to a nervous breakdown. She spent six months in an institution where she was given convulsive therapy and therapeutic drugs that are now banned, and was declared incurably insane. When her family came for her, she fled for Mexico where she was to become its most famous female artist. Her sculptures adorn its public parks, with their inviting mixture of beast and human, bird and woman, deer and man. Carrington’s paintings are technically masterful and bursting with imagination. Have a look at the excellent book ‘Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art’ by Susan L Aberth. This is beautifully illustrated, showing Carrington’s masterpieces and lesser known works. They are the kind of paintings that make you want to grab your own brush.
Meanwhile, read Carrington’s ‘The Hearing Trumpet’. This is written in the voice of 92-year-old Marian Letherby, who is deaf, toothless, and bearded: “Indeed I do have a short grey beard which conventional people would find repulsive. Personally I find it rather gallant”. Her friend Carmella gives her an ornate hearing trumpet, through which she learns that she is to be sent to a sinister institution, The Well of Light Brotherhood. Once there, she loses none of her vigour, but dauntlessly scales the roofs of her fellow inmates’ domiciles, leads a hunger strike, and battles against the Brotherhood’s beliefs in self-abnegation and denial. Her tactics pay off and we enter into the realms of alchemy and surrealism at the end of the novel.
This book is written with superb dry humour; it is funny and odd, and makes you feel as if the world can indeed be created by your own hands, and that alchemy waits at the corner of domestic existence. Take a lump of clay, and make something out of it. Dance around your kitchen, feeling like you’ll live until you are 180, as do some of the ancients in this life-giving book. Grab your moments of creativity when you can, inspired by Carrington.
Ella Berthoud is a bibliotherapist with The School of Life. For more information about the service please click here. Join us for our next Creativity Workshop with Michael Atavar on Saturday 19 May, for more information and to book tickets please click here.
Why do we spend so much of our precious holiday time queuing up to see famous paintings like the Mona Lisa, even if we are not that interested in art? And why do we drag ourselves to all those cathedrals, museums and monuments listed in our guidebooks when - let's be honest - they usually turn out to be a bit boring, and we can't wait to get to the cafe? The answer lies in history. Few of us realise that we are unwittingly following an itinerary set by aristocratic tourists 300 ago.
It is time to escape their legacy and find more adventurous ways to travel in the 21st Century. Modern travel is rooted in the tradition of the Grand Tour of the 18th Century, when upper-class gents - and the occasional lucky lady - set off with their servants on a high-culture jaunt around Europe to round off a classical education. Their ultimate destination was Italy, where they would stare at faded frescoes and pay homage to one-armed Roman sculptures. All well and good for them, but it is hardly what most of us would call a great time.
So tourism took a disastrous wrong turn in the 19th Century, when the new generation of guidebooks - most notoriously the best-selling Baedeker Guides - adopted the Grand Tour itinerary wholesale, sending Victorian tourists scuttling around musty churches and crumbling palaces.Open most travel guides today and you will notice that little has changed. Apart from brief mentions of idyllic beaches and trendy nightclubs, they are still telling us to visit those very same landmarks. Going to Paris? Then you must not miss the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe or Versailles.
So what can we do to shake off this outmoded approach to travel? And how can we make our holidays more of a life-changing experience? When travelling abroad, do not waste your days visiting stone monuments. Seek out local people and discover how they really live. A good option is staying with a family, easy to organise through a homestay website. I recently stayed with a wonderful family in Palermo and my hostess even gave me Sicilian cooking lessons. My kids were thrilled when I returned with great recipes rather than a great tan. Our most memorable holiday experiences are rarely when we tick off lots of tourist sites, but rather when the locals invite us to share a slice of their lives.
We don't even need to leave our own towns to travel any more. Globalisation and immigration have brought the world's cultures to our doorsteps. We should become backyard anthropologists and cultivate a curiosity about our neighbours from different nations and communities. Have a conversation with a stranger once a week, like the woman who sells you a newspaper every morning. And make sure you get beyond chat about the weather to discuss what really matters to you, be it work or education, relationships or politics.
Amongst the earliest travellers in history were religious pilgrims who embarked on arduous but ultimately uplifting journeys to Mecca, the Holy Ganges or the Basilica of St Peter in Rome. We need to steal this idea of pilgrimage and adapt it to the modern age. This year, make a pilgrimage to somewhere personally meaningful to you. How about the village where your grandmother was born? Visit the streets she played in as a child and knock on the door she lived behind.
Travel has been at the heart of nomadic cultures for centuries. So what would it mean to have a nomadic holiday today? Rather than thinking you have to be constantly on the move, jetting from one destination to another, the essence of the nomadic experience is being outdoors in the wilds of nature. And that means camping. So pitch a tent with family and friends in a lush rural valley or on a cliff top overlooking the sea. As twilight approaches, sit under the stars and stare into the flames of a fire, in the long tradition of our nomadic ancestors.
Tourism has become an incredibly visual experience - we see the sights, snap photos and enjoy the view. But we can draw on the whole range of our senses for a deeper travel experience. Put the map away and allow yourself to get lost when visiting a new city. Follow the medieval scent of smoked fish and you might find yourself in vibrant food market, or pursue the sound of birdsong and discover a hidden park. Use your senses as a compass to create a tantalising tourist trail.
In the 21st Century, there is no need to slavishly follow the travel routes of the Grand Tour aristocrats. Stop collecting landmarks and instead collect experiences that change the way that we look at the world and our own lives.
Roman Krznaric is a founding faculty member of The School of Life. He will lead a series of five events based on his book The Wonderbox, including The Future of Travel on 19 June. For more information click here.
Article originally published by the BBC.
Let's suppose that I once had my nose broken in a practice boxing match with my trainer, and to this day I refuse to wear gloves and mistrust the entire glove industry. Anyone who does wear gloves I regard as suspect; any activity which requires gloves is absolutely out of bounds.
Not only is my life going to be somewhat circumscribed, but I'm also committing a pretty obvious error in where I put the blame. The glove, after all, is not really what hit me. The trainer who threw a punch I couldn't dodge and who did not pull the impact is probably mostly to blame, along with me for not paying attention. In fact the glove may be the reason why I didn't lose teeth.
You'd have to acknowledge to yourself, however much you might like me, that I was a bit odd. But this is very like the way we talk about technology at the moment - or I should say it's similar to the way in which some people talk about it. For example: a mobile phone rings in the middle of a conversation, and there's a cry of "it's the bloody phone". Resentment is directed at slab of plastic and rare earths three inches by two by less than half. Seriously: the phone is not responsible. It's a piece of technology with an off-switch. The person calling is responsible, as is the person who chose not to silence or switch off the phone. But both of them are in the grip of a late liberal democratic capitalist system which has come to assume constant professional availability. That assumption clashes with an older and arguably more important cultural touchstone: the hearth.
The hearth is the place where we do our real living. The things for which we work, save, and strive are inside a psychological boundary of personal life which is also very often a physical space: the hearth is the centre of the home and also of us. If you've watched an old vampire movie recently, you've seen Christopher Lee or Bela Lugosi stand on the doorstep of the heroine's home, hands raised in negation, unable to cross the threshold uninvited. If only employers and sales reps were similarly restrained. But the hearth is no longer purely inside the home - or even inside us. We've extended it out into the world with digital technology, reaching out to touch neighbours we never knew we had. At the same time, we made that vampire-proof border porous to those within certain aspects of the system in which we live.
The point is not to throw away your phone, to go pre-digital, to live on a farm (consuming more resources than a city dweller and relying on modern vaccines to live out a fantasy of pre-modern self-sufficiency). The point is to come to understand how we reached this point, and how to accept and thrive on the technologies we created to bring our fragmented society back together.
Nick Harkaway is the author of The Blind Giant: Being Human in a Digital World, published by John Murray on 10 May.
Nick will be leading our event 'Why Tech Is Making Us More Human' on 17 May. For more information and to book click here.
All we need to do is follow some simple processes, in order to surprise ourselves and take a risk.
If you want to explore this idea, try the following exercise.
Instructions: go out onto the street for five minutes and note down what you see. In your mind’s eye upend the objects or turn them 90 degrees. What kinds of shapes do they make?
Or turn yourself to see the sky or the pavement from a different angle.
Then come back. Tell me, what did you find?
Over time, after many weeks, these simple exercises, of discovery and evaluation, of experiment and chance, can help to build a practice that is genuine, unique. And after a while we can use this idiosyncratic way of seeing things to direct other people towards our singular reading of the world.
(You are now on your way to be an artist.)
The tests and challenges of the opposite are also useful for developing all sorts of mental acuity.
This is because, if you can work with materials in this way, and so be an ‘artist’ (I use this word here in a more general sense), you might be able to apply these core skills to other areas of your life:
For example, I often use the instruction ‘Do the opposite’ as a way of working with senior management, throwing them out into the upside down, to help them explore the possibilities of chance and risk.
This encourages them to cultivate the experimental as a way of doing business.
My challenge to us to do the opposite is a way of putting each of us in touch again with the free-wheeling parts of our own personality -- elements that we often haven’t made contact with for years.
If people are given this opportunity – to play in their offices, to work with materials, to make up games – they always enjoy it.
If, during this process, they also
then everyone is happy.
If all employees could be an ‘artist’ -- if they could freeze time for a moment and play with ideas for just five minutes a day -- then that environment would be full of potential, rich with nuance.
It would return the organisation to a heightened state of creativity.
Therefore, once started, ‘Do the opposite’, is a philosophy than can have impact on all of us, if we are willing to take the risk.
Artist-chef Matt Phelps reflects on the meal he designed for New Order Nosh Up, the first in our Utopian Feasts series.
The School of Life’s conversation dinners, exploring the ideas of major historical thinkers, are a chance for strangers to discuss ideas and collaborate creatively in ways they would never normally have the chance to do. In its latest Utopian Feasts series, the food itself became part of the conversation.
The first Utopian Feast was New Order Nosh Up in New Atlantis on 4 April. It was hosted by artist Yinka Shonibare MBE at his Guest Projects space, in a large white-walled East London warehouse. The event was led by curator Cathy Haynes, who introduced us to radical ideas from the history of grand social experiments by utopians from the renaissance thinker Francis Bacon to the avant-garde Bauhaus art school.
As the artist-chef for this event, my brief was challenging but exciting. Cathy designed the conversation menu to give guests the space to share with each other ideas about their vision of an ideal society, and its dystopian as well as utopian potential. So my task was to create a food menu that played on those themes and inspired conversation while also tasting really good.
The theme of “New Order” has sinister undertones. I framed my idea of what it would be by taking broad inspiration from George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's A Brave New World. I decided that my official regime recipe book would require me to serve up precisely equal rations. It would also demand that I limit any sensory excitation that might stir the nonconformist fervour of the guests. So I designed a meal of white food in standardized portions.
I also imagined that, as chef, I would want to undermine the regime as much as I could. So I smuggled in some absinthe cocktails and tins of spices “off the black market”. Yinka, too, had clearly decided to resist the regime and had curated an exhibition for the evening of brilliantly provocative artworks from his collection.
While I worked with my team in the kitchen and the guests sat down to eat, Cathy invited our guests to explore the juicy details behind these questions: Is it possible to design society? To live to the utmost, should we rebel or conform? Where does power really lie? How can we all take part in creating the future? In the process they drew up a collective manifesto, and collaborated on dreaming up their own revolutionary schemes.
At the end of the night, the paper covering the tables was marked with food and sketched over with maps of utopian islands and ideas for a better world: Make it easy to participate, Utopia should not be comfortable, If society was run along the lines of the Co-op we would all be happier and more fulfilled.
But the manifesto included a warning: Utopia has the “Virgin trains” problem – however futuristic the environment, the passengers are just people. That was a major theme of the night: utopia must always be based on what can actually be made real. And trying to make it real has risks.
But does that mean we shouldn’t try?
Photos: Stephanie Wolff
I hate being sold to. I ignore magazine campaigns, am repelled by my Google-wants, scoff at Tube ads made for fools. I buy everything on sale, and things in my basket without yellow stickers are plain fails. So on a sunny Sunday with an hour's less sleep, I hesitantly sat in a brimming Conway Hall to hear ad man Rory Sutherland deliver his sermon on Influence. I'm immune, I thought, singing along to Status Quo (Whatever you want, Whatever you like), it's nothing to do with me actually. I shall not be influenced.
Rory takes the stage – a sweetie mix-up of muted pastel suit separates, the trademark cravat poking out – and starts talking. His chat quickly surpasses his eccentric look. He's funny, and not at all manipulating. As vice chairman of Ogilvy group, and with 24 years in the trade, Rory has become one of advertising's most ingenious tastemakers. His undefinable viewpoint pours out into a column in The Spectator, and was recently published as 'The Wiki Man', a scrapbooked mash-up of interviews and letters, bound in fuchsia pink and indigo.
Rory is a fan of the arational. When wild ideas are 'policed' by rational means, this takes the fun and life out of brewing potentials before they get chance to breathe. Why should the rational have the bottom line? At what point does best influence sail into our lives? When things are explainable, set and grounded (read ‘boring’), or when things are playful, raw and wide-eyed? Luckily, Rory gets the best of both – "I can post-rationalise most of my ideas" he deadpans.
Influence has its roots in royalty and religion. Rory cites God as the first behavioural economist. Religion is able to persuade and compel by habits and rituals; feasts and fasts preceding modern 'diets'. Royal taste would affect the masses too, by making potatoes a wanted crop, or perhaps white bread seem better than brown. Rarity and exclusivity induce a certain panic, and ensure people discover a new desire. With a shift in relative value by perception alone, morals and money become intertwined, and behaviours change alongside.
But what replaces royalty and religion? Rory rolls the word 'heuristic' off his tongue like a mantra, a kind of 'punchcard', as he calls it, a sort of influence equation. Once a rule becomes formed, a now-rational thing conjured from previously irrational ideas, it becomes set, accepted, and 'imbedded' into our lives. A simple heuristic would be the mini- roundabout. We're shown a picture and yes they do seem silly. But the need we didn't know we had to calm traffic is now part of road vocabulary, and it just works.
Rory is no salesman. No undue force is being applied here. Theories and ideas pour out, global observations of daily life improved, but no tricks, no false seductions. His idealism pokes at our cynicism, our closed perceptions and ignorance, our wary eye letting us down. Perhaps it's simply a lack of post-rationalisation? Rory explains the instinctive heuristic found in sports players: their relationship with the ball is not as complicated as it looks, and is a simple rule of maintaining angle and distance. But is it still instinctive, if it can indeed be post-rationalised? It depends how you define instinct. Science would demonstrate the unconscious brain, and how it makes decisions before we're even aware of the choices at hand. Questions of ethics and free will later fly around during the Q&A, and it's clear we're a long way from advertising.
It seems I'd been stuck on the money rather than the morals – a mathematical, rather than hedonic value, as Rory put it. Cost and figures, rather than time and wellbeing, are the questions our culture tends to focus on. When Eurostar cut their journey times by 40 minutes at a cost of £6bn, they also dismissed the tangible potential for enjoyment. Why not spend the money on improving the hedonic experience so we want to stay longer, rather than shortening the time we have to endure the journey? Both are abstract measurements in larger terms. But which is more meaningful for existence?
Influence is not just marketing. It's about expanding the gaps between what already exists, to make changes. The Latin meaning behind 'advert' explains it plainly, 'turn to/toward', a readjustment to focus on what's next. We must train ourselves to take a fresh viewpoint, which is often just as impressive as inventing something from scratch. When we make new things familiar and familiar things new, Rory explains, a kind of poetry happens. And with that we munch on our re-invented Nice-r biscuits. After an hour with Rory, advertising looks a lot like art.
Zoe Langdell is a writer and manages the shop at The School of Life
Led in song by Aquilla Dunford Wood
Photography by Stephanie Wolff
Within the last six weeks, I have moved from one end of England to the other, changed my job from working in finance to teaching, and my sister (who I am very close to) has moved permanently to Australia. All of this happened very fast, and I feel completely unhinged. Everything in my world is upside down! Please suggest something to read that will restore some normality!!
When everything in your world has changed, you need to read the book of Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi , or in simplified Chinese, 庄子). The 2006 Penguin Classic edition of the Book of Chang Tzu by Chuang Tzu and Martin Palmer is a comprehensive collection of the teachings of this unique philosopher.
Chuang Tzu is estimated to have lived in the fourth century BCE and was one of the greatest Chinese thinkers. This book gathers together his sayings, his adventures, and many anecdotes about him. Chuang Tzu presents a philosophy in which changes of all kinds are embraced and welcomed, and he always reacts to transition with a light heart. He advocated the joys of making the best of a journey, not focusing on its ending. In this he is like his predecessor Lao Tzu, who wrote, “A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” You can apply this thought to your current upheaval – a certain amount of laissez-faire is what you need at present.
Chuang Tzu is credited with the development of the philosophy of the way of the Tao. Tao is often described as a force that flows through all life. A happy and virtuous life is one that is in harmony with the Tao:
“Tao is the One Thing which exists and connects the Many things. Tao, Nature, Reality are One”.
Here is a famous example of how Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi) explained his teachings:
“Once Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn't know he was Zhuangzi. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuangzi. But he didn't know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi. Between Zhuangzi and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things.”
Reading the collected writings of and anecdotes about Chuang Tzu is a calming and refreshing experience. Irreverent and maverick, he was a man of great humour and wit, brilliantly using metaphor and fable, in forms ranging from dialogue to philosophical monologues. Sit with this book in the sunshine under a tree, and sanity and humour will begin to return. You will accept that all of life is Change, but you can take it in your stride. Maybe you are a butterfly dreaming you are you. “Some pursue happiness – others create it”, said Chuang Tzu.
Looking closer to your home, where better to turn to ease your mind than to the Romantic poets. The New Penguin Book of Romantic Poetry, edited by Jonathan Wordsworth, a descendant of the great poet, is an excellent volume to dip into on a daily basis. You may well be familiar with the poems of Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Byron. If you are not, you are in for a treat. Start with Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’. “This Attic Shape, this still unravish’d bride of quietness”, will serve as a meditation for your unquiet mind. Nothing can ever change on the urn, decorated with nymphs and fauns, where all activity is frozen in time forever. Ponder that thought! Would you rather be frozen forever, or feel the pulse of change?
Keats wrote that it “appears to me that almost any man may like the spider spin from his own inwards his own airy citadel.” The Romantics were masters at finding beauty and joy in the immediate world around them, and you can learn from them to do the same yourself, spinning a citadel of calm from your own meditations.
Keats was no stranger to Change himself. Having trained as a doctor, the minute he qualified, he dropped medicine to become a poet. His themes are the ageless questions of mortality, the fleeting quality of youth, and the rapture to be found in nature. If you have visited these poets before, the familiarity you will find will be of great comfort. If you are new to them, you will be entranced by the beauty of their imagery and sentiment. Move on from Keats to explore the other Romantics, reading and learning one poem a day, and you will find that you can fall back on beautiful verse to rise above the more immediate dramas of your existence. Because the Romantic poets created works that can take you to a sublime sense of reality rather than dwelling in a mundane sphere, you will rediscover awe and wonder in small matters, like William Blake, who wrote:
Now that you are feeling soothed by the contemplation of higher matters, you will feel able to relax into a novel. Pick up Marilynne Robinson’s fabulous book Gilead. This is universally praised for its serenely beautiful writing, and for its atmosphere, which is one of intense peace. John Ames is a vicar at the end of his days. Love has come to him late in life. He has a young son, to whom he decides to write a letter describing the events of the past. It’s a book in which not much happens, but the beauty of the prose is in itself a revelation, and the gentle insistence on facing the most important matters in life is remarkably understated. Dive into this book for an experience a little like swimming with dolphins.
Ella Berthoud is a bibliotherapist with The School of Life. For more information about the service click here. Our next class on How To Spend Time Alone will take place on 18 April 2012, for more information and to book tickets please click here.
On a recent visit to the college I attended as an undergraduate, I bumped into a senior porter who had worked there most of his life. We were enjoying a friendly chat, just as we used to, when he surprised me by remarking that the current students are less sociable than my generation was: “they’re always on the internet these days.” I questioned whether this could really make a tangible difference to college life, but he was adamant: “the common room is quieter now, and the students don’t talk to the staff much.” “The bar is busier than ever though”, he added.
What an oddly sinister state of affairs, I thought: in the daytime the students hide away and plug themselves into a long-distance communication machine that strips their interactions of physicality and practical utility; then in the evening they compensate for these deficits by consuming a powerful psychogenic drug to make their encounters with local strangers more satisfying.
If this were a scenario described in a science fiction book we’d all wince. Yet it’s not science fiction: it’s common fact. In many walks of life, face-to-face friendliness is quietly giving way to the face-to-screen functionality of internet-mediated information exchange
Now, I’m no Luddite. Quite the contrary. I have a practical mindset, which obliges me wherever possible to consider costs and benefits. In the case of the internet, we’re all familiar with its benefits – the most obvious and general being its incredible speed in information recovery and transfer. But what about the costs of the internet? These arguably include:
Undermining communities by reducing the amount of time people spend together in real interactions; filling our lives with more marketing than ever; forcing businesses to advertise more than is good for them; stifling entrepreneurs, who must now create a presence online as well as offline; making it harder for artists, musicians and authors to profit from their work; encouraging people to read more distractedly and less deeply; fostering banality and superficiality; cultivating narcissism; raising levels of gambling; tempting people to choose computer games rather than real activities; causing addiction in users; exposing people (including children) to sensitive content; inundating people with emails, most of which are irrelevant; subjecting millions of non-experts every day to the stresses of fiddling around with faulty computers or unresponsive programs; consolidating huge power in the hands of a few companies; making politicians more soundbyte-obsessed than ever; requiring vast investments in order to build, maintain, update and replace technologies and websites; consuming enormous amounts of energy; requiring a relentless and pervasive human effort to keep the whole system operational.
I’ve created a facebook group – a sort of ‘anti-facebook group’, if you like – to provide a forum for identifying and discussing such potential hidden costs. I hope that, in the process, the group will provide the encouragement people need to get offline and get on with their lives; hence, I’ve given it the name ‘Internet dead end’. There used to be a TV programme called Why Don’t You?, which challenged kids to “switch off the television and do something less boring instead”. Viewers wrote in to suggest fun and sociable activities that don’t involve TV – playing games, making things, learning tricks, going on trips, that sort of thing. I hope my new facebook group will provide a similar antidote to the internet.
Is it hypocritical to use the internet to criticize the internet? Not in the slightest. If people are shouting too loud, you’ve got to shout more loudly to silence them; if people are standing up in a football crowd, you’ve got to stand over them to usher them back into their seats. Sometimes you have to join them in order to beat them, and so using a medium to criticize that medium is a perfectly legitimate approach. Sometimes, indeed, the hand that feeds you is also holding you captive.
Ben Irvine is editor of the Journal of Modern Wisdom, volume 1 is for sale at The School of Life shop
It is, surely, a self-fulfilling prophecy that the more confident you are the more you will enjoy sex. This is not about arrogance - the assumption that one is God's gift will be an instant turn-off, particularly to women, if only because they know that with that sort of mental map, a man won't have bothered to learn enough to be even moderately useful. At the other end of the extreme, a partner who starts off lacking in confidence only proves delightful if they ultimately benefit from care and feeding; lasting and insistent insecurity is draining in bed and out of it.
But true sexual confidence - relaxed, knowledgeable about self, willing to learn about other, ready to ask for what's needed, happy to take charge, and unwobbled by either failure or rejection - makes for that ultimate in sexual partners, one who is able to both give and receive with equal pleasure.
This has nothing to do with looks. Nowadays almost all women - and an increasing number of men - are scared of being spurned on that count, but this is because the media manipulates body image; ignore page 3. If you don't love your body, change your mind; if your partner doesn't love it, change your partner. Note to her: men are almost always more focussed on sensation and the feelings of acceptance that sex gives than on your size, shape or lack of firmness. If he has ever hugged you clothed, he already knows your shape; if when you are unclothed he has an erection then he not only accepts but lusts after it. Note to him: women care hardly at all about shape so relax please.
He, however, may have other insecurities. He is asked to demonstrate potency in much more obvious ways than she is and the lads' mag media may have convinced him that unless he can do so, he will be rejected. But in terms of pure erection, there are always other ways - and for most women those ways are just as acceptable, certainly on an occasional basis. If generally nervous, the answer is to end up in bed only with a partner one is relaxed with and then try things out. As with all human activities, the way to mastery is through play.
Whatever one's size, experience, ability - or disability - good sex is one of the most powerful confidence builders because it places each partner right in the centre of the other's attention; after that genuine compliments, demonstrated affection and a total lack of comparison will complete the magic spell. She says "Show me you think I'm beautiful and everything else follows."; his words may be different but the message will be the same.
Susan Quilliam is a relationship psychologist and will be running our workshop on Sex & Intimacy on Saturday 14 April. She is the author of The New Joy of Sex (Mitchell Beazley, 2008), a 'reinvention' of the classic sex book by Alex Comfort, and The Relate Guide to Staying Together (2001), described by The Times as ‘the only relationship book you'll ever need’.
On Saturday I attended the TEDx Observer event. One of the talks really stood out for me. Not just because the presenter was cool enough to have a number named after him, but because what he said induced the satisfying glow that comes when proper science fleshes out the skeleton of what our common sense tells us must be true.
Anthropologist Robin Dunbar convincingly shows the vast majority of us have 150 people in our circle of acquaintance. This is true if we look at the average number of Christmas cards sent by people in the UK, or at hunter-gatherer communities in Papua New Guinea. Indeed Facebook’s own user statistics across all 800,000 Facebook accounts show that the average number of Facebook friends hits the Dunbar number spot on.
However, where do we draw the line between acquaintances and friends? For those of us who’ve ever worried about whether we do enough to stay in touch with those close to us, Dunbar also has consoling news. He argues persuasively that most of us simply lack the cognitive capacity to maintain more than about five people in our inner circle of real friends and confidants. Indeed, recent brain imaging studies have shown that those gregarious individuals who are able to juggle more than five very close friendships actually need to increase the size of regions of the prefrontal cortex which are required for maintaining social interactions.
Of course, like many of these studies, it is difficult to separate cause and effect, but it is impressive to see that something so seemingly ethereal as the size of someone’s social network is physically encoded in their brain’s structure.
So what can we learn from this that can help us to maintain more friendships of higher quality?
Unsurprisingly the time factor is crucial. You may share common histories and important memories, but sustaining and nurturing true friendships in the present requires time and effort. Secondly, there is significant evidence that talking to people face-to-face, even via Skype, is much more satisfying than text, email and Facebook. This in itself isn’t surprising – as human’s we respond to visual cues that can never be replaced by emoticons. Thirdly, you should consider what you do with your friends. Here, what pops out of Dunbar’s studies is that men and women use rather different strategies to nurture their friendships. Women really do benefit from extended and repeated communication (2/3 of time spent on Facebook each day is by females), while men get a lot more out of doing an activity. Amazingly the average man actually rate their friendships as deteriorating when they talk more to their friends! Finally, however we’re interacting with our friends, if we can work laughter into the equation then we’re much more likely to cement that bond. Laughter triggers the release of endorphins in our brains. Not only are these natural opiates somewhat addictive, but they also dull pain and play a crucial role in social bonding.
So, go out and make friends, but remember these simple tips. If you want female friends then talk to them, if you want to bond with a man suggest an activity. In all cases lubricate your interactions with laughter. And remember, if you’re trying to net that “special friend”, it comes with a sting in the tail. People in relationships tend to pay for their new partner by losing at least one close friend. Whether this comes with a shrinking of the prefrontal cortex remains to be determined.
Dr Ben Martynoga is a neuroscientist at National Institute of Medical Research.
The School of Life’s runs a regular class on How To Be A Better Friend. Details are here.
Curiosity has a reputation for being dangerous: it wasn’t just the cat that it killed. In Christian tradition, all the ills of the world follow from the original sin of curiosity, the attempt to grasp and literally to consume forbidden knowledge. “When you eat of it”, said the serpent to Eve in Eden, “your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.” Through curiosity, our innocence was lost.
Yet this hasn’t deterred us. It’s said that God created Adam only at the end of his six-day labours so that humans should not see how the trick was done. Ever since then, we seem to have been trying to discover just that. The latest effort to solve the puzzle of Creation involves smashing protons into each other in the 27-km tunnel of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN on the Swiss border. Was the media obsession with the hair-brained notion that this experiment would destroy the world an echo of the old conviction that curiosity cannot be pursued with impunity?
To publicize the LHC, CERN has leaned heavily not just on the value of curiosity but the appeal of its cousin, wonder. We might not understand what was being probed, but we could appreciate the majesty of the issue. Yet wonder was once seen not as serving science but as hindering it: as being the enemy of curiosity. For medieval theologians, the mysteries of God’s creation should be greeted with humble wonder and awe rather than with a determination to pry into them. Yet to the first scientists, emerging in the late evening of the Renaissance, wonder was the response of the ignorant bumpkin, while the philosopher’s duty was to quell such mind-numbing passions and hunt down explanations for the marvels of nature with cold curiosity – as one of them put it, ‘to make wonders cease’.
The emancipation of curiosity – its transformation from a vice to a virtue – happened in the seventeenth century, the time that spans the lives of Galileo and Isaac Newton. As a result, it became permissible to ask any question about the world, and modern science began. Some scientists defended curiosity by saying that, rather than a sin, it was a religious obligation – we have a duty to study all that God has made. Yet by the end of that century, curiosity was apt not so much to be condemned for moral reasons as to be mocked, by the likes of Samuel Butler and Jonathan Swift, for its pedantic obsession with trivia. These are battles that have not gone away: science still struggles to justify its quest for seemingly arcane knowledge, and like the early scientists, often tries to do so by promising practical spinoffs. There are still lessons to be learnt from examining how curiosity was set free.
Philip Ball is a science writer, and author of several books including his recent 'Unnatural: The Heretical Idea of Making People'. Join him on Monday 2 April for an evening looking at how curiosity has changed from a vice to a virtue and to investigate what health our inquisitive impulse is in today.
Advertising has a bad name in society, because it's associated with selling us things we don't really need: chocolate, 4 x 4 cars, diamond rings. We may appreciate the artistry, intelligence and wit that's often found in adverts – we've just got problems with what goods are being sold.
So imagine a different way of using advertising: one that would use the aesthetic talents of advertising but direct these to a really grand and noble project: that of nudging us to be the best of ourselves. Imagine an ethical advertising campaign that wanted to promote virtues of character applicable and relevant to our own lives, virtues like kindness, patience, humility, generosity, courage and humour.
In Ancient Greece and again in medieval Christianity, people claimed to know exactly what the virtues of character were. For our part, we'll never get to any concrete list, we're too far down the road of postmodern relativism, but that's not really the point. Far more important than to define the virtues is to set in motion an attempt to live by a few. It is absurd to imagine that anyone could ever hope to identify seven or eight or fifteen cast-iron rules of good conduct which would answer every question that might arise about how human beings can live peacefully and well together. But what about making a start? What about picking 6 virtues that do seem sensible and wise and then tackling the enormous challenge of making them alive and active in our minds? A lack of absolute agreement on the good life should not in itself ever be enough to disqualify us from investigating and promoting the notion of such a life.
Advertisers engaged on an ethical mission would know that their technical talents would find their ultimate purpose in calling forth appropriate ethical responses from us: our eyes would train our hearts. Militating against this mission are all manner of visual clichés. The real difficulty with the ideas which underlie virtues like love or compassion is not that they seem surprising or peculiar, but rather that they seem far too obvious: their very reasonableness and universality strip them of their power. To cite a verbal parallel, we have heard a thousand times that we should love our neighbour, but the prescription loses any of its meaning when it is merely repeated by rote. So too with bad adverts: the best virtues, presented without talent or imagination, generate only indifference and boredom. The task for advertisers is therefore to find new ways of prizing open our eyes to tiresomely familiar yet critical ideas.
Atheists tend to pity the inhabitants of religiously-dominated societies for the extent of the propoganda they have to endure, but this is to overlook secular societies' equally powerful and continuous calls-to-prayer. We're never far from a commercial message urging us to buy this or that. We should try to build a more plural system of advertising, where the traditional commercial messages paid for by corporations were balanced out by ones promoting ingredients of the good life as defined by a wide-scale poll of citizens. Advertisements for 4x4 jeeps would run alongside ones evoking the importance of listening or forgiving.
We are in need of such advertising because we simply will not care for very long about ethical behaviours when all we are given to convince us of their worth is an occasional reminder in a book – while, in the city beyond, the superlative talents of the globe's advertising agencies perform their phantasmagorical alchemy and set our every sensory fibre alight in the name of a new kind lemon-scented floor polish or savoury snack. If we tend to think so often about cleaning or cracked black pepper crisps, but relatively little about endurance or justice, the fault is not merely our own. It is also that these two cardinal virtues are not generally in a position to become clients of a top agency - until now...
What we're proposing is a new kind of Ethical Advertising Agency, which would every year run a campaign promoting 6 key virtues, as chosen by an online poll. Six very high profile poster sites would be chosen around the country, generating a wave of discussion and interest. Behind each chosen virtue, people would be directed to a host of organisations, private, charitable, and governmental, which in some ways help to foster this virtue.
The Ethical Advertising Agency would perform a trick which has eluded advertising in capitalism so far: to unite the best of advertisers' energy and artistry with the highest moral ambitions.
Money, money, money. All I think about these days is money. And nights too; I quite frequently wake up in a cold sweat as I worry about how I am going to pay my bills. How I will pay for anything in fact - holidays, kids shoes, my shoes, the future; horrifying. What can I read at 3 in the morning to take my mind off it, or even just to help a little bit?
Strapped for Cash
Dear Strapped for Cash,
The perfect reading material for money fretting in the wee hours is 'Hunger' by Knut Hamson, published in its final form 1890. This Norwegian masterpiece follows the marrow-achingly hungry unnamed hero around Oslo. The young man, who has no income, is desperate to keep up appearances, and an illusion of being a gentleman. Reading this book is strangely comforting. It is full of humour, and will have you laughing out loud with the hero, who does have a highly refined and enjoyably absurd take on the world. The narrative is entirely drawn from his complex inner monologue. This man is more desperate than most, but he often finds his situation hilarious. You will be reassured, I hope, that your circumstances are not as extreme as his, but by empathising with his extremity, you will take solace in the freedom that he finds both in his hunger, and in his new direction at the end of the book.
Another great book to have to hand for those dark hours before dawn is the selected stories of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935). She was no stranger to poverty, since her father left her and her mother to fend for themselves when she was only five years old. To protect her from suffering, her mother forbade her to read fiction, or to make strong friendships. Fortunately, her father’s love of literature broke through the walls of caution erected by her mother, and Gilman grew up to be a woman of independent thought, a feminist taking quite radical views for her time. She was uncompromising and unconventional in love, leaving her own daughter for a time with her first husband while she found romantic fulfilment for herself. Her stories are full of strong, uncompromising women, who must trust in their own resources to survive. They are frequently impoverished, but often they find a way of turning circumstances to their advantage, by creating a small cottage industry, or turning melancholy into profit, as in “The Case of Dr Clair”. All her stories are full of gentle wisdom, humour, and wit. Her most famous tale, the Yellow Wallpaper, can be saved for another occasion, as it addresses post-natal depression – it is her short tales that will help you to feel there are small ways that you can save money, or even make money from small beginnings.
On a lighter note, if you need something relaxing and funny to read, or even to listen to, the Lawrence Block series of books about Burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr will have you chortling with glee as you follow his fates through the underworld of New York. Block’s series starts with “Burglars Can’t be Choosers”, when Bernie is tempted into doing a job. Bernie is a likable, gentlemanly chap who just happens to be a burglar for a living, and in the subsequent stories he continues to end up being the sleuth and burglar simultaneously. These books will keep you entertained, the hours will fly. Bernie is a master at living in the moment, and he certainly doesn’t have a pension.
‘No thought, no action, no movement, total stillness: only thus can one manifest the true nature and law of things from within and unconsciously, and at last become one with heaven and earth.’
- Lau Tzu
In contemporary Britain, most of us live in cities and are painfully aware of the obstacles they can throw in our paths. Roadworks, public transport, busy crowds and the daily rhythms of the rat race are a necessary side effect of putting so many people in such close proximity.
There are great advantages to urban living, but there are also losses, like the relative paucity of nature. In a poll conducted by the Natural History museum, fewer than 25 percent of Britons could identify a sycamore tree, and yet the hardy London Plane crossbreed is one of the most common in our capital. This ignorance may seem unimportant, after all, what use are the tall tress lining a city street? Yet the benefits of connecting with nature are widely established – at the most basic level, everyone prefers a room with a view.
Even the most committed urbanite has a brain that evolved to operate in the great outdoors. Studies suggest that our mental abilities – even abstract processes like arithmetic – improve after time spent in a natural environment; patients in hospital with a room overlooking a natural scene seem to spend less time convalescing.
In many ways, this is hardly controversial. Any change in our sensory input is clearly going to affect how we feel. Think of a sunny day, birdsong, or even a muffling cover of snow. Each of these elicits a response that goes deeper than words.
So, changes in our frame of mind can be achieved through changes in our environment. They can also be accessed through pure imagination, concentration, or meditation, but this is much more difficult than a change in our actions. Perhaps this is best explained by the fundamental connection between our central nervous system and movement. Our brain is an extension of our nervous system, and as Daniel Wolpert’s explains in a fascinating talk on TED, almost every thought and emotion may stem ultimately from the need to make intelligent movements, to adapt to our environment.
Rob and I travelled across Britain when writing Skimming Stones, and as a born-and-bred Londoner this was the one thing I noticed more than any other: the change in my state of mind. And this was not ephemeral. The contemplative, reflective mode that we achieved when slowing our movements and focusing our attention to track animals, or sitting in one spot carving a whistle while the daylight sank around us, may have been engendered by nature, but ultimately it was all in our heads.
Returning from a week spent fishing, skimming stones and damn building, the sense of peace stayed with me. A moment's reflection still calls up the chatter of the river and the bite of cold water around my ankles. A moment's pause is enough to remember that the trials and tribulations of a 9-to-5 are trivial compared to the rolling of the seasons. There is always another spring.
You can experience much more of this connection than one might assume in a city. Because it is a mindset as much as anything else, it is all down to our ability to draw upon internal feelings of connection. But how can you get these in the first place?
Obviously, the first thing is to get out and experience nature! A stunning vista brings an immediate sense of awe, but even a small copse can call forth the same feelings if you give it enough time and attention to work its magic. The risk inherent in the smaller green spaces you get in urban environments is that it is all too easy to believe you have taken the whole thing in, to feel you have taken its measure with one circuit and then move on or focus on other things.
This is the beauty of activities like tracking, foraging, carving and so on – they help us to spend the time required to unwind. In contrast to the attention-grabbing horns, lights, signs and crowds of the city streets, being in nature allows your attention to float freely from the backdrop to the innumerable details. A more philosophical outlook quickly establishes itself, and even when you leave the oasis of a park or garden, this can help sustain you through the urban grind.
Leo Critchley is co-author of 'Skimming Stones' with Rob Cowen. Both will be taking part in our one day escape to the Urban Wilderness on Saturday 28 April. For more information click here. Also joining them will be Gavin Pretor Pinney, founder of the Cloud Appreication Society.
Billed as a tour of the secret studios and experimental spaces of East London, it seemed incongruous that A Trip to The Future began at The Shepherdess, a greasy spoon just off Old Street. I ordered very stewed tea from the puzzled waiter, as our host Ben Hammersley zipped around tables chatting to people eating proper old-fashioned toast. As Editor at Large of Wired UK, and the UK Prime Minister's Ambassador to TechCity, our journey forward was in the best possible hands.
We began at Silicon Roundabout (named in affectionate parody of California's Silicon Valley), as Ben drew a near-enough 360-degree architectural landscape, mapping buildings as histories. From Victorian mansion blocks to The Shard, an idea of the present as the past's future; layers of meaning and stories to form Now, rather than a Blade Runner picture of slickness. The real future is messy, cobbled together, confusing. But it also talks to us from URLs everywhere on billboards to lampposts, the Smart City dictating a new way of interaction, town planning upgraded.
Our first stop was Inition, a 3D studio producing all manner of interactive technologies. The idea of 3D printing isn't new, but the name 'print' seemed loose and naive for such readymades popped out of the 'printer' with several integral moving parts -- a Bosch 'drill', a scrap of chain mail -- each print costing from £200 and taking hours to emerge. These drawings in plastic and plaster require some material development to become usable, but we had no trouble conceiving of printed food or human organs. Exciting as these things were, I felt fear for people, as machines become autonomous.
As we toured the studio, concepts that initially rendered us incredulous quickly became fathomable. We watched 3D films, saw how luxury goods are sold via shop-window participation, allowing passers-by to 'try on' watches and jewellery. This 'Augmented Reality' merges everyday and computer-simulated experience. It's a lot more exciting than mere virtual reality, because this one has real life plus extras. This evoked Ben's ideas on layering again, and how it included and engaged humans, not just wrote them off. I watched delight in peoples' faces as they hovered iPads over a patterned worktop that was programmed to show an augmented city scene, so that it appeared to be ‘living and breathing’ atop a plinth in our real world.
In stark contrast, Alex Deschamps-Sonsino at the Really Interesting Group talked to us in glorious sunshine, no Powerpoint, no props, barring a small snowman tree decoration (a conceptual collaboration with Inition, 'printed' in size-relation to the receiver’s Twitter followers - the more followers, the bigger the head). She shared stories of entrepreneurial successes and budding business ideas, proving the future is human: simply projects discussed over tea and cake. Lots of tea. The brightest minds converge at a certain time of the week at The Shepherdess apparently, and at The Reliance at other non-certain times.
As we wandered the streets of Internet start-ups past, I lost my bearings and East lost its coat of overt hipster cool, becoming both clandestine and playful. We stopped for lunch at creative ad agency Mother, a high-power outfit directing our futures. I think we all rather enjoyed the projector malfunction as we sat on the steps of their in-house cinema, provoking interesting discussion instead of Powerpoint, with digital trend writer Daniel Nye Griffiths.
The last stop came full circle, as though our day of future forecasting had neatly resolved itself into the present. London Hackspace is one of a growing number of global, community-run projects, allowing members access to tools and shared knowledge. Our tour of the ramshackle space (with its hacked Oyster Card entry system) saw an electronics workshop, a woodwork class and people deep in computer screen concentration.
Here was the future in action from the ground up, in the form of comprehensible examples of augmented reality and printed objects. A place buzzing with the real and the conceptual, it showed that however fast the future comes at us, it's still in our hands.
Zoe Langdell is a writer and manages the shop at The School of Life. If you'd like to take the next 'Trip To The Future' with Ben Hammersley then join us on Saturday 22 September 2012. For more details and to book, click here.
Photography by Stephanie Wolff. Follow her blog at https://londoninsight.wordpress.com/
For centuries in the West, there was a figure in society who fulfilled a function that is likely to sound very odd to modern secular ears. He (there were no she's in the role) didn't sell you anything or fulfill any material need, he couldn't fix your ox cart or store your wheat, he was there to take care of that part of you called rather unusually 'the soul', by which we would understand the psychological inner part, the seat of our emotions and sense of deeper identity. I'm talking about the priest, the stock figure of pre-modern western life, who would accompany you throughout your years, from earliest infancy to your dying breath, attempting to make sure that your soul was in a good state to meet its maker.
Because in many Western countries, the priesthood is now a shadow of its former self, a key question to ask might be: where have our soul-related needs gone? What are we doing with all the stuff we used to go to the priest for? Who is looking after it? The inner self has naturally not given up its complexities and vulnerabilities simply because some scientific inaccuracies have been found in the tales of the seven loaves and fishes.
The secular response to the needs of the soul has tended to be private and informal: we find our own solutions, in our own time, we construct our own salvations as we see fit. Yet there remains in many a desire for more interpersonal, structured solutions to help us deal with the serious issues life throws us. Probably the most sophisticated communal response we've yet come up with to the difficulties of what we might as well keep calling, with no mystical allusions whatever, 'the soul' is psychotherapy. It is to psychotherapists that we bring the same kind of problems as we would previously have directed at a priest: emotional confusion, loss of meaning, temptations of one kind or another and, of course, anxiety about mortality.
From a distance psychotherapists look like they are already well settled in the priest-like role and that there is nothing further to be done or asked for. Yet one could argue that there are in fact a number of ways in which contemporary psychotherapy has failed to learn the right lessons from the priesthood and might benefit from a more direct comparison with it. My suggestion is that society would benefit if therapists were more explicitly reorganised along the model set by the priesthood; that therapists should be secular society's new priests.
For a start, therapy remains a minority activity, out of reach of most people, too expensive or simply not available in certain parts of the country. There have been laudable efforts on the parts of activists like Lord Layard to introduce therapy into the NHS, but progress is slow and vulnerable. But the issue isn't just economic. It's one of attitudes. Whereas Christian societies would imagine there was something wrong with you if you didn't visit a priest, we tend to assume that therapists are there solely for moments of extreme crisis - and are a sign that the visiting client might be a little unbalanced, rather than just human. A principally physical model of the self is popular, which leads to a preference for problems to be addressed by pills rather than interpersonal relationships. This isn't to say that drugs are not important in many situations, simply to make a supplementary case for therapeutic conversation with a sympathetic other.
There's also, in a serious sense, an issue of branding here. Therapists are hidden away. You don't see them on the high street. They still aren't regulated as they should be. We don't make a place for them among other needs like those for bread or electrical goods. Imagine if the need for therapeutic dialogue was as honoured and recognised as the need for a haircut or a go on an exercise machine. Imagine if seeing a therapist wasn't a strange and still rather embarrassing pursuit. Imagine if one could be guaranteed a certain level of service. Imagine if the consulting rooms looked better and were more visible, to make a case for the dignity of the activity.
Modern psychotherapists' understanding of how humans work and what they need to cope with existence is, in my eyes, immensely more sophisticated than that of priests. Nevertheless, religions have been expert at creating a proper role for the priest, as a person to talk to at all important moments of life, without this seeming like a slightly unhinged minority thing to do. Many people may well say that the pub and a few mates are all they need; after one or two big challenges, a great many more may feel that life is sufficiently complicated that they'd benefit from regular dialogue with a sympathetic third party in a stigma-free reassuring location. For those interested in the challenge, there's a long way to go before therapy really plugs the gap opened up by the decline in the priesthood.
Alain de Botton is a Founder of The School of Life, and author of the recently published 'Religion for Atheists' . The School of Life offers an alternative psychotherapy service: an MOT for the Mind. For more details click here.
At this dinner party, set more than 2,400 years ago, Love is the night’s theme. The Symposium can still be read as one of the greatest stories of love in Western literature. Socrates is among the guests. The only subject in the world that Socrates believes himself to be the unsurpassed master of is love. ‘I cannot remember a time when I was not in love with someone.’ Socrates loves his fellow men with an overpowering eroticism, and because he believes he can look into their eyes and understand a little about himself as he does so, we are taught that it is through our relationship with the world around us that we can become whole. Socrates sees the massive power of love. We too are just beginning to unpick the complex, psychophysical parcel that love is. Socrates makes our relationships with one another his life’s work.
Socratic love is enormously powerful, it turns the world upside down. What the philosopher knows is that we love love-stories, and our love is often a love-story played out. But nowhere does he mock. Socrates’ love is literal: the point of life is to love it. He is erotic. He states that if Eros passes you by in life, you are a nonentity. All those aspects of love he approves of, as good-life glue for society, since ‘festivals, sacrifices, dances’ are motivated by Eros. And, more than that, love is a guide – a passion for what is good and a horror for what is degrading. And the genuinely heart-warming revelation of Socrates in the Symposium is that dedication to love is not a selfish pursuit. The point of love is not gratification, but symbiosis. And love, desire, ambition, hope, concord, enthusiasm, drive whatever you want to call it – if tended, if not allowed to burn itself out, plays a long game. His love is not flash-in-the-pan passionate. In Socrates’ eyes, it is honesty and a pursuit of knowledge rather than ignorance that leads to loveliness in life. For him, love has a purpose. It is the life-force, the desire to do, to be, to think. It is the thing that makes us feel great about our world, and therefore makes us be great in it. Socrates describes these ‘good’ dynamos as ta erotika – the things of love.
Bettany Hughes is the author of 'The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life' (2011). Bettany leads our event Socrates' Search For The Good Life on Thursday 1 March. For more information and to book click here
Brain science is everywhere. The ‘neuro-’ prefix has been used to jazz up approaches to self-help, ethics, aesthetics, marketing, economics, even parenting. These days, you don’t only have to look after your offspring as a developing person; you have to look after your baby’s grey matter. As the cognitive neuropsychologist Keith Laws quipped recently on Twitter: ‘Unable to persuade others about your viewpoint? Take a Neuro-Prefix—influence grows or money back.’
The sociologist Nik Rose has written brilliantly on the seductive appeal of this kind of reductionism. It’s partly down to the success of the science that neuroscientific truth is now routinely privileged above other kinds of truth. (Genetics used to have the same grip on our imaginations, but that’s a topic for another day.) If you can provide a psychological explanation of behaviour (that is, at the level of thoughts, perceptions, beliefs and so on), you might get some attention. But if you can show that certain bits of the brain activate in regular patterns while people are doing such tasks in the scanner, that explanation seems to carry greater weight. In fact, explanations at the psychological level are frequently subsumed under the neuro umbrella. A few of us curmudgeons on Twitter are often pointing out that people increasingly use the word ‘neuroscience’ when they actually mean ‘psychology’.
As a psychologist interested in mind and behaviour, I am excited by the power of novel neuroscientific techniques. The friends and colleagues who grapple with these complexities are among the smartest people I know. And yet, as with any scientific endeavour, we have to be cautious about the limits of new methods. There are some deep conceptual and technical problems about how to interpret the findings produced by, say, fMRI studies. These problems are not unique to cognitive neuroscience, and most practitioners that I know are acutely aware of them. We also have to be wary about how we communicate those findings beyond academe, when there is such a general (and perhaps sometimes indiscriminate) appetite for neuro-explanations.
As a novelist, I am interested in these appetites. I want to know whether the rise of neuroscience really changes the way we understand ourselves. I am not being critical of cognitive neuroscience research, much of which is ingenious, elegant and deeply valuable. Rather, I am questioning how we consume and respond to this new kind of knowledge.
For me, the best way of exploring these reactions is through a medium that might seem to have little to do with the realities of neuroimaging head coils and 3-Tesla magnets. Writers of fiction have always been barometers of change in how humanity has understood itself. Ideas from Darwinism and Freudianism, to take two examples, quickly permeated literary fiction in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. George Eliot’s plots are ever-conscious of Darwinian scepticism about the possibility of freewill, while Freud’s theory of the unconscious had a deliciously fertile influence on modernist writers such as Joyce and Woolf. Will neuroscience permeate fiction as rapidly and pervasively? Are the barometers already twitching?
Let’s take one example of an idea that neuroscience has brought into close focus. Writers such as Daniel Kahnemann and David Eagleman have lucidly described a new consensus about how our brains underpin our experience. Rather than being single, indivisible centres of experience, we are made up of fractionated processing systems, each evolved for different purposes. We have multiple visual systems working in parallel, different pathways for understanding others’ behaviour, even distinct simultaneously-functioning reasoning systems.
But what does that brain information mean for the owners of those brains? This week I am launching a novel which explores the implications of some of these ideas. What if you had a character who really felt differently about herself as a result of what she had learned about her nervous system? How would her emotional life change? How would she act? How would she make moral choices? If freewill is an illusion, how would she decide what to do? How would her neuroscientific understanding alter her character and personhood? The novel is the perfect forum for asking these questions because of the way it places subjectivity, character and moral action at its heart. Neuroscience makes the novel more relevant, not less relevant. You can see me talking some more about how A Box of Birds has come together, and what I hope to achieve with it, by following this link.
I am not the first writer to put neuroscience into a novel. Ian McEwan, Jonathan Franzen and Richard Powers have all given their characters interests in the workings of the brain, and of course plenty of sci-fi plots have been driven by (admittedly rather far-fetched) ideas of memory erasure and mind uploading. But in my opinion novelists haven’t yet gone as far as they can in exploring how real-world neuroscientific knowledge changes our understanding of ourselves. Fiction hasn’t really grappled with the big questions that neuroscience raises (and which earlier generations of writers tackled in relation to evolutionary theory and psychoanalysis). Is it simply a matter of the fiction catching up with the science, or are there some profound limitations on how satisfying neuro-explanations can ever be? Does this new view of humanity threaten the integrities of personhood and self? Or will we always be drawn back to old-fashioned ideas about unitary selves facing moral imperatives? These are challenges for all of us, not just those of us who write fiction: to decide whether knowing more about the workings of the brain really changes how we feel about who we are.
In any great adventure, there are always obstacles in the way. The first hurdle is just to be aware that we, as a civilization and as a species, are facing a crisis point. When looking at the mainstream of our society, and the priorities expressed or goals pursued, it is hard to see much evidence of this awareness. We try to make sense of the huge gap between the scale of the emergency and the size of the response by describing how our perceptions are shaped by the story we identify with. We describe three stories, or versions of reality, each acting as a lens through which we see and understand what’s going on.
In the first of these, Business as Usual, the defining assumption is that there is little need to change the way we live. Economic growth is regarded as essential for prosperity, and the central plot is about getting ahead. The second story, the Great Unraveling, draws attention to the disasters that Business as Usual is taking us toward, as well as those it has already brought about.
The third story is held and embodied by those who know the first story is leading us to catastrophe and who refuse to let the second story have the last word. Involving the emergence of new and creative human responses, it is about the epochal transition from an industrial society committed to economic growth to a life-sustaining society committed to the healing and recovery of our world. We call this story the Great Turning. There is no point in arguing about which of these stories is “right.” All three are happening. The question is which one we want to put our energy behind.
Chris Johnstone is a faculty member of The School of Life and co-author with Joanna Macy of 'Active Hope: How To Face This Mess We're In Without Going Crazy' which will be published in the UK on 13 April 2012. He will be leading a one-day workshop on personal resilience on Sunday 11 March. For more details, click here.
If you are interested in the 'third story' join us for our regular class 'How To Make A Difference'.
So what is Generosity Day? It’s an effort to re-boot Valentine’s Day for good.
The Generosity Revolution are rebooting Valentine's Day as Generosity Day: one day of sharing love with everyone, of being generous to everyone, to see how it feels and to practice saying "Yes." Let's make the day about love, action and human connection -- because we can do better than smarmy greeting cards, overpriced roses, and stressed-out couples trying to create romantic meals on the fly.
Instead of forging V-Day connections with one person via chocolate, candlelight and a card, we want to forge G-Day connections with as many people as possible – including complete strangers – by saying YES to every opportunity to be nice, help out, or delight with generosity.It might mean telling a colleague how much you appreciate them and agreeing to that long-delayed lunch. Or saying yes to that nonprofit asking for free advice on their website.
The Generosity Revolution has been brought into effect by Sasha Dichter and Katya Andresen. Take the Generosity Day pledge! https://www.causes.com/causes/646624-generosity-day/actions
It seems there's a general shake-up being demanded! Check out the Occupy Valentine's Day Blog here - https://occupyvday.tumblr.com/
Most of us are painfully aware of, and sad about, how highly structured our time is. Anyone in employment or with children to look after knows just how many appointments litter the diary. The weeks are filled with engagements: finance meetings, tax inspections, deliveries, school plays and so on. When we imagine a better life, it tends to be one in which there are simply far fewer stretches of time devoted to any one thing in particular. The opposite of work is a category, relatively new in history, that we are calling "free time", a period cherished for the very fact that it contains no appointments whatsoever.
What is striking about this arrangement is how much it differs from the vision of time put forward by all the major religions. They have always pictured free time differently. For them, there is nothing inherently wrong with having an appointment. It does not, by itself, spoil time. The key detail is that we should have an appointment with something important – which for them means something related to the needs of our souls. Here, in particular, religions differ from the secular world. Most people today picture an appointment as something they might have in an office with a few people around a table talking about a spreadsheet. It is working life, and the capitalist version of it, that dominates this thinking about appointments. For religious people, however, appointments are occasions when they can reconnect with the divine; something they feel the need to do about as often as others think of watching the news.
Religions have all established elaborate calendars that let no month, day or hour escape without administration of a precisely calibrated dose of ideas. For example, every evening at 10pm devout Roman Catholics must examine their consciences, read a psalm, declare In manus tuas, Domine ("Into your hands, Lord"), sing the Nunc dimittis from the second chapter of the Gospel of Saint Luke and conclude with a hymn to the mother of Jesus. Others have ... the news.
The prestige of the news is founded on the assumption that our lives are forever poised on the verge of some critical transformation thanks to the two driving forces of modern history: politics and technology. We therefore have to catch up on new developments, for fear of being "left behind" and thus unable to function.
For the religious, there is no need to harvest updates incrementally through news bulletins. What they see as the great stable truths can be written down on vellum or carved into stone rather than swilling malleably across handheld screens. For 1.6 billion Buddhists, there has been no news of world-altering significance since 483BC. For their Christian counterparts, the critical events of sacred history came to a close around Easter Sunday in 30AD, while for the Jewish sacred calendar, the line was drawn a little after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Roman general Titus, in 70AD.
Even if we do not concur with the messages that religions schedule for us, we can still concede that it could be useful to structure not only our working lives, but also our emotional and psychological ones. Here, too, we might need a schedule, so we can bump into important concepts on more than just an ad hoc basis. It might be with Tolstoy rather than the Bible, but it should be a ritual nevertheless. Our appointments should not merely be related to money; our time should also include regular meetings with those ideas that sustain our souls.
Alain de Botton is the founder of The School of Life and author of the recently published 'Religion for Atheists' amongst other titles. You can also watch his recent secular sermon for The School of Life on our vimeo channel here. This article featured in our alternative Time Guide produced in collaboration with The Guardian.
Illustration: Marcia Mihotich (www.marciamihotich.com)
A.C. Grayling's The Good Book: A Humanist Bible is a compilation of Western and Eastern insight from thought and literature that's derived from over a thousand texts. It collects our best musings about what it means to be human from hundreds of authors who have come before us, down through the centuries.
As I've been reading, I've been particularly struck by the gap between the wisdom of the ages and the wisdom of the moment.
In the economic story -- a central story woven through our lives that passes for wisdom today -- each of us is an individual striving to surpass other individuals. We're not in it together; we're continually ranked against each other in a competitive hierarchy. The rankings tend to be based on definitions of success that are themselves derived from the economic story. The number one actor, for example, is the one with the highest box office draw. The number one blogger is the one with the most traffic. The number one artist is the one whose paintings get the highest bids. In this story, a higher ranking is, by definition, a better ranking. The number one actor is better than the number two actor. The number one artist is better than the number two artist.
Contrast this modern-day assumption with the wisdom of the past: "These reasonings are unconnected, though foolish people think them: 'I am richer than you, therefore I am better'; 'I am more eloquent than you, therefore I am better'. The true connection is this: 'I am richer than you, therefore my property is greater than yours'; 'I am more eloquent than you, therefore my style is better than yours'. But a human being, after all, is neither property nor style."
Rankings, in other words, are subject to proper and improper interpretations. The economic story, for its part, encourages us to interpret our own rankings as a sign of our significance in the scheme of things. Higher rankings in whatever we're part of mean we're more important, worth more respect, more attention.
Yet the wisdom of the ages says, "Do not allow such a consideration as this to distress you: 'I will be nobody anywhere.' Is it the meaning of life to get power, or to be admitted to the first rank?" This last, of course, is a rhetorical question, the meaning of which is supposed to be perfectly obvious; the meaning of life isn't about getting power, or being admitted to the first rank.
In the economic story though, low rankings in anything you're involved in are a cause for concern and a call to ameliorative action. We're told, for example, to reach out to each other -- not so we can connect in our humanity, but so that we can become known to others, and so that knowing can in turn be monetized. We're advised to endlessly monitor and manage our reputations -- increase our audience, enlarge our networks, and prove our usefulness and value to strangers. All of which is at odds with received wisdom: "If you turn your attention to externals, so as to please anyone, be assured that you will hinder your scheme of life."
Still, in the economic story, choosing a different wisdom seems naïve at best, foolish at worst. Traditional wisdom, being wise, has a preparatory word of advice about that too: "If you have an earnest desire of attaining wisdom, prepare yourself from the first to be laughed at by the multitude, to hear them say, 'He does not covet what we covet, or seek what we hasten after and pursue, but he stands apart.' Do not mind such rejection, but keep steadily to those things which appear best to you…"
Illustration: 'The Trailing Predecessor' by Harriet Warden
 The Good Book, Wisdom, Chapter 19, verses 5-8
 The Good Book, Wisdom, Chapter 14, verse 1
 The Good Book, Wisdom, Chapter 13, verse 9
 The Good Book, Wisdom, Chapter 13, verses 4-6
The sky is very grey and I’m feeling very low. I’m suffering from depression and am taking some time off work. What do you recommend I read to help me understand my situation, start getting well again, and also escape thinking too much when I feel overwhelmed?
There are many ways that reading can help you. You can read books to make you laugh, take you out of your current mindset and act as pure escapism, and there are books out there too which will address depression and help you to tackle it. One of the best recent books describing depression, is "Mr Chartwell" by Rebecca Hunt. You would not expect a book about depression to be funny, but it is. Hunt describes Churchill’s Black Dog as a real, fully three dimensional being, known as Black Pat to his intimates – a “strikingly hideous” version of a black Labrador, but six foot three and intensely malodorous. Black Pat is keen to make the acquaintance of Esther, who works at the House of Commons Library, and becomes her tenant. As a physical embodiment of the depression that Churchill famously battled with, Hunt uses the dog as a means of tackling this debilitating illness. It is her first novel, and it does not delve as deeply into the innermost recesses of the malady as one might hope, but it is definitely a book to help you look at your own ways of coping with depression in a different light.
A non- fiction approach to the same subject is Sally Brompton’s "Shoot the Damn Dog". This memoir by the ex editor of Elle Magazine describes a glamorous life, in which Brompton had no outward reason to be in any way discontent. With a brilliant job as editor first of Elle, then Red Magazine, constantly socializing with the rich and famous, she seemed to have everything. But nonetheless she became epically, clinically depressed, crying for hours on end to the point where she writes “ if I was an animal they would shoot me to put me out of my misery”. She was one of the thirty per cent of people who are resistant to medication, and nothing the doctors gave her worked. The talking cures were similarly hopeless, though spent months in various kinds of therapy. In the end, it was her second failed suicide attempt that set her on the path to regaining an even keel. Realising that death was not that easy to attain made her find ways of living with her depression, until she found an admittedly precarious happiness. This is a book that brilliantly describes what it feels like to be depressed, so you might then want to read something entirely for escapism. At times like this, I strongly recommend you read favorite books from childhood, ‘comfort reads’, such asTerry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, which are hilarious, gripping, and set in another world. This can be very helpful, though of course Pratchett satirizes our own world brilliantly.
Another great way for books to help you at this time, is to listen to an audio book while you do something relaxing, such as cooking, knitting, gardening, or having a bath. The stories of Sherlock Holmes have always been brilliant to listen to, and the new Sherlock story by Anthony Horowitz “House of Silk”, read by Derek Jacobi, is just as compelling an experience as the original Conan Doyles. You will be soothed by listening to a great actor reading you a story that fits in perfectly with the originals. Alternatively, listen to the brilliant Touching the Void, by Joe Simpson, which is one of the most inspiring memoirs written in the last twenty years. Describing his near fatal climb of the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes in 1985, Simpson looks deep within his soul, confronting what he believes to be his imminent death, recounting his experiences fearlessly, and living to tell the tale.
Finally, make sure you have a copy of Nature Cure by Richard Mabey by your bed. Read a few pages of it every morning, before you get up. Mabey’s own depression led him to a nervous breakdown, and this book is the cure that helped him back to life. His descriptions of the natural world beyond his window are irresistibly fascinating, and his endless curiosity will rub off on you and get you looking outside, yourself.
Ella Berthoud is a bibliotherapist for The School of Life. To find out more about the service click here.
When it comes to filling time with noise, words and images, this is an unprecedented age. Among American eight- to 18-year-olds, media usage now fills more than seven and a half hours daily – and you can add another three if multitasking is taken into account.
Today, for the first time in history, many people's daily default is to be wired into at least one personalised form of media. Consider the "quiet carriage" signs found in most trains. These are signs of our times in the literal sense, indications that the absence of digital devices must be specially requested.
If we are to get the most out of both the world around us and each other, we need to recognise that we have two fundamentally different ways of being. Our wired and disconnected states each represent a different set of possibilities for thought and action.
The greatest advantages of wired living are easily enumerated. Plugged into the world's hive-mind, we have speed, we have range. We can research and reference much of humanity's gathered knowledge – and gossip and opinion – in minutes. We have godlike capabilities and are increasingly adept at using them.
Unplugged from media's live wires, however, our originality and rigour can come into play in a different, older sense that's found in our capacity to make decisions, to act on our own initiative, to think freely, without fear of pre-emption. Much as we hunger for connection, we need to keep some sense of ourselves separate from the constant capacity to broadcast. We need tenses other than the present.
When it comes to taking action, what's required is not so much moving to a remote mountainside (although it's telling that such "off-grid" vacationing is becoming a new index of luxury) as building different qualities of time and attention into our daily lives. This can mean setting aside mornings or evenings when phones are strictly turned off; checking emails just two or three times a day in fixed slots; or insisting that meetings and personal events are sacred, and not to be interrupted. In each case, it's about creating boundaries, and learning how to push back against the always-on logic of communication systems – and the accompanying temptation to constantly broadcast your own status and perception of the world.
There are no one-size-fits-all solutions, however. What works best is likely to be individual and idiosyncratic. I sometimes choose to write longhand, in a suitably hefty notebook, to escape the inexorable multitasking that writing on screen brings. It's a welcome paradox of a digital age that the ease of virtual communication has increased the emotional impact of physical objects such as letters and journals, placing them apart from the maelstrom of other media.
There are also mental habits we can change, perhaps the most pernicious of which is embodied in the overused metaphor of a media "landscape". It's a description that implicitly turns our tools into an immutable aspect of the world, to be lived within, rather than critically examined.
We must never forget that, however pervasive technology becomes, software and hardware are made by humans and are limited by the intentions of their makers. If we cannot think critically about their histories and limitations, then we're unlikely to be able to make discerning use of them within our lives. For some people, the suffusion of the present is increasingly attended by strain and anxiety, and a sense of lost control. For all of its challenges, we live in an era of near-miraculous, unprecedented opportunities.
Above all, though, every effort on our part should begin with the knowledge that without the ability to say no as well as yes to technology – and to understand what exactly it is that we are agreeing to when we do say yes – we risk turning modernity's miracles into snares.
This article was featured in our alternative time management guide, published with The Guardian. To read more visit: https://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/series/make-the-most-of-your-time or pick up your free copy in our shop (whilst stocks last).
Our troubles started when time was first sliced into tiny artificial units, and we have been subject to their increasing tyranny ever since. Medieval clocks divided the day into mere hours, but by 1700 most timepieces had minute hands, and the second hand was turning up regularly a century later. We found ourselves handcuffed to time by the late 19th century, when wristwatches were provided to German naval officers. They soon became essential for the rest of us, and now we are colonised by clocks, on our bodies, phones,computer screens and the walls of our homes. We are addicted to knowing the time and forget it’sa modern invention: Leonardo da Vinci was not checking his watch while painting The Last Supper.
The Industrial Revolution ratcheted up the pace of daily life. The steam train and the telegraph speeded up travel and communication, while, most insidiously, factory bosses introduced “clocking in” to punish employees for lateness. We changed the way we talk and think too: phrases such as“saving time” and “time is money” transformed the stuff into a precious commodity. “Wasting time” became a sin. In the 1910s, the efficiency fanatics Frank and Lillian Gilbreth even filmed their children washing up to find ways to make them more productive.
So what have we inherited? High-stress, high-velocity living with constant deadlines, fast food, power naps and speed dating, which makes it difficult to pause and savour the passing moments of our lives. The solution that is usually put forward is “effective time management”, such as only checking emails once a day or becoming an expert delegator. But this ideology is designed to make us more productive workers for our economic masters and only serves to dig us in deeper.
Western culture has instilled in us a linear notion of time as an arrow that travels from the past, dashing through the present towards the future. We fret about tomorrow’s uncertainties and relive yesterday’s mistakes, unable to find a still place in the here and now. But that arrow would be a peculiar concept to a Buddhist monk who practises mindful immersion in the present, rather than busily filling his electronic calendar, and his future, with appointments. Doing less may be the ultimate way to bring us into the now. In the words of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh: “Don’t just do something – sit there.”
No one can miss how digital culture is further altering the social fabric of time. High-speed gadgets and social networks keep us in quick-fire contact with people and news. The result? A massive increase in the quantity of communication, but not the quality of conversation. Of the 100 billion texts sent in the UK every year, how many lead us to say things we have never said before, or take our lives in new directions?
These forces have fed our pathologically short attention span. Politicians can’t see beyond the next election, nor can financial markets see beyond the next quarter. Deep geological time means nothing to us, and we barely think ahead even a generation or two. With no long-term perspective, we have bred an irresponsible culture, squandering resources and bequeathing our children an altered climate and fragile ecology. We must liberate ourselves, as individuals and as a society, from short-term thinking. The place to start is on our wrists, by overthrowing these tyrannical timepieces. Try a chronological diet, abandoning your watch for a week and covering the clocks in your home. Then embark on slow-time activities: visit just one painting in an art exhibition, or stand in a park each morning to spot a single change and bring stillness into your day. Speak with new metaphors: give your leisure time more value by calling it “time on” rather than “time off”. This is no manifesto for inaction. If you’re procrastinating about changing careers, know that life is short and start stepping towards a different future. And if there are tensions at home, what are you waiting for? There’s no time like right now to clear them up.
In the end, we face a choice. We can embrace the philosophy that more is better, packing as much activity as we can into our daily routines. That’s the approach of author Umberto Eco, who does everything at double pace with the hope that he can live twice as much as the rest of us. The danger is that we become human doings rather than human beings, constantly trying to get things done.
The alternative is to pursue depth of experience. Here we can learn from another writer, Gustave Flaubert, who said: “Anything becomes interesting if you look at it long enough.” Take your foot off the accelerator and don’t let the world pass by in a blur. That may be our surest route to sucking all the marrow from life.
Illustration by Marcia Mihiotich
Imagine, for a moment, attempting to get through a day in which everyone told the truth to you, and you reciprocated. Over breakfast you ask your partner what he’s looking at on his phone. “Pictures of my ex-girlfriend,’ he replies. ‘I still love her.’ Having dumped a mug of hot coffee in his lap you set off for work, and bump into a friend who has recently given birth. ‘Isn’t he beautiful?’ asks your friend, as you peer into the pram. Compelled to respond truthfully, you say, ‘No. He look likes the lovechild of Eric Pickles and Andrew Marr.’ Your friend pushes off, never to speak to you again.
At the office, you attend your team’s weekly status meeting. ‘How are you, Norman?’ you ask your colleague as he takes the seat next to yours. Rather than say ‘I’m fine, thanks,’ Norman launches into a long and detailed description of his marriage problems. The boss arrives and asks why the deadline you’ve been working to has been missed by two weeks. You explain that an unusual combination of great weather, must-see sporting events and your own inherent laziness has prevented the project from moving forward. The boss nods, and says he has already made enquiries with HR about the possibility of firing you.
In the evening you go for a drink with an old friend. She tells you that you’ve put on a lot of weight recently and you tell her that last summer her husband confessed to you that he had a one-night stand with a male colleague while on a business trip to Hamburg. As the evening reaches its tear-stained end, you look at your watch. It’s gone midnight: the day of truth is over. “Well, I must be going.” you say to your friend. “It’s been wonderful to see you.”
We hate liars, and lying. “Liar” is one of the worst insults you can hurl at a person. For good reason too: lies can corrode trust and destroy relationships. But, alone amongst the major ethical transgressions, lying is something all of us practice, and on a daily basis. The psychologist Bella De Paulo found that people tell, on average, 1.5 lies a day. Another researcher established that two people will tell three lies within ten minutes of meeting each other. We hate thieves and murderers too - but at least most of us can say, hand on heart, that we don’t steal things or kill people, most weeks at least.
After half a million years of human conversation, we're not really any closer to establishing whether it's ever OK to lie to each other. But perhaps we can start by investigating why we need to lie in the first place.
Ian Leslie is a journalist and author who has examined deeply our mixed-up relationship with lying in his book ‘Born Liars. Why We Can’t Live Without Deceit’ (Quercus, 2011). His previous book, ‘To Be President’ (Politicos, 2008), was described by Adam Boulton as 'brilliantly capturing the drama and emotion of Obama's successful run for the White House' and was extracted by Granta. He regularly appears as an analyst of American politics on Sky and the BBC. He has written about politics, culture, marketing, and psychology for Prospect, the Guardian and The Times.
Memory is our past and future. To know who you are as a person, you need to have some idea of who you have been. And, for better or worse, your remembered life story is a pretty good guide to what you will do tomorrow. "Our memory is our coherence," wrote the surrealist Spanish-born film-maker, Luis Buñuel, "our reason, our feeling, even our action." Lose your memory and you lose a basic connection with who you are.
It's no surprise, then, that there is fascination with this quintessentially human ability. When I cast back to an event from my past – let's say the first time I ever swam backstroke unaided in the sea – I don't just conjure up dates and times and places (what psychologists call "semantic memory"). I do much more than that. I am somehow able to reconstruct the moment in some of its sensory detail, and relive it, as it were, from the inside. I am back there, amid the sights and sounds and seaside smells. I become a time traveller who can return to the present as soon as the demands of "now" intervene.
This is quite a trick, psychologically speaking, and it has made cognitive scientists determined to find out how it is done. The sort of memory I have described is known as "autobiographical memory", because it is about the narrative we make from the happenings of our own lives. It is distinguished from semantic memory, which is memory for facts, and other kinds of implicit long-term memory, such as your memory for complex actions such as riding a bike or playing a saxophone.
When you ask people about their memories, they often talk as though they were material possessions, enduring representations of the past to be carefully guarded and deeply cherished. But this view of memory is quite wrong. Memories are not filed away in the brain like so many video cassettes, to be slotted in and played when it's time to recall the past. Sci-fi and fantasy fictions might try to persuade us otherwise, but memories are not discrete entities that can be taken out of one person's head, Dumbledore-style, and distilled for someone else's viewing. They are mental reconstructions, nifty multimedia collages of how things were, that are shaped by how things are now. Autobiographical memories are stitched together as and when they are needed from information stored in many different neural systems. That makes them curiously susceptible to distortion, and often not nearly as reliable as we would like.
We know this from many different sources of evidence. Psychologists have conducted studies on eyewitness testimony, for example, showing how easy it is to change someone's memories by asking misleading questions. If the experimental conditions are set up correctly, it turns out to be rather simple to give people memories for events that never actually happened. These recollections can often be very vivid, as in the case of a study by Kim Wade at the University of Warwick. She colluded with the parents of her student participants to get photos from the undergraduates' childhoods, and to ascertain whether certain events, such as a ride in a hot-air balloon, had ever happened. She then doctored some of the images to show the participant's childhood face in one of these never-experienced contexts, such as the basket of a hot-air balloon in flight. Two weeks after they were shown the pictures, about half of the participants "remembered" the childhood balloon ride, producing some strikingly vivid descriptions, and many showed surprise when they heard that the event had never occurred. In the realms of memory, the fact that it is vivid doesn't guarantee that it really happened.
Even highly emotional memories are susceptible to distortion. The term "flashbulb memory" describes those exceptionally vivid memories of momentous events that seem burned in by the fierce emotions they invoke. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, a consortium of researchers mobilised to gather people's stories about how they heard the news. When followed up three years later, almost half of the testimonies had changed in at least one key detail. For example, people would remember hearing the news from the TV, when actually they initially told the researchers that they had heard it through word of mouth.
What accounts for this unreliability? One factor must be that remembering is always re-remembering. If I think back to how I heard the awful news about 9/11 (climbing out of a swimming pool in Spain), I know that I am not remembering the event so much as my last act of remembering it. Like a game of Chinese whispers, any small error is likely to be propagated along the chain of remembering. The sensory impressions that I took from the event are likely to be stored quite accurately. It is the assembly – the resulting edit – that might not bear much resemblance to how things actually were.
When we look at how memories are constructed by the brain, the unreliability of memory makes perfect sense. In storyboarding an autobiographical memory, the brain combines fragments of sensory memory with a more abstract knowledge about events, and reassembles them according to the demands of the present. The memory researcher Martin Conway has described how two forces go head to head in remembering. The force of correspondence tries to keep memory true to what actually happened, while the force of coherence ensures that the emerging story fits in with the needs of the self, which often involves portraying the ego in the best possible light.
One of the most interesting writers on memory, Virginia Woolf, shows this process in action. In her autobiographical essay, A Sketch of the Past, she tells us that one of her earliest memories is of the pattern of flowers on her mother's dress, seen close-up as she rested on her lap during a train journey to St Ives. She initially links the memory to the outward journey to Cornwall, noting that it is convenient to do so because it points to what was actually her earliest memory: lying in bed in her St Ives nursery listening to the sound of the sea. But Woolf also acknowledges an inconvenient fact. The quality of the light in the carriage suggests that it is evening, making it more likely that the event happened on the journey back from St Ives to London. The force of correspondence makes her want to stick to the facts; the force of coherence wants to tell a good story.
How many more of our memories are a story to suit the self? There can be no doubt that our current emotions and beliefs shape the memories that we create. It is hard to remember the political beliefs of our pasts, for example, when so much has changed in the world and in ourselves. How many of us can accurately recall the euphoria at Tony Blair's election in 1997? When our present-day emotions change, so do our memories. Julian Barnes describes this beautifully in his Booker-winning The Sense of an Ending, when a shift in his protagonist Tony's feelings towards his former lover's parents unlocks new memories of their relationship. "But what if, even at a late stage, your emotions relating to those long-ago events and people change? … I don't know if there's a scientific explanation for this … All I can say is that it happened, and that it astonished me."
Of all the memories we cherish, those from childhood are possibly the most special. Few of us will have reliable memories from before three or four years of age, and recollections from before that time need to be treated with scepticism. When you think about the special cognitive tricks involved in autobiographical memory, it's perhaps no surprise that it takes a while for children to start doing it right. Many factors seem to be critical in children's emergence from childhood amnesia, including language and narrative abilities. When we are able to encode our experience in words, it becomes much easier to put it together into a memory. Intriguingly, though, the boundary of childhood amnesia shifts as you get closer to it. As a couple of recent studies have shown, if you ask children about what they remember from infancy, they remember quite a bit further back than they are likely to do as adults.
There are implications to the unreliability of childhood memories. A recent report commissioned by the British Psychological Society warned professionals working in the legal system not to accept early memories (dating from before the age of three) without corroborating evidence. One particular difficulty with early memories is their susceptibility to contamination by visual images, such as photographs and video. I'm sure that several of my childhood memories are actually memories of seeing myself in photos. When we look back into the past, we are always doing so through a prism of intervening selves. That makes it all the more important for psychologists studying memory to look for confirming evidence when asking people to recall their pasts.
And yet these untrustworthy memories are among the most cherished we have. Memories of childhood are often made out to have a particular kind of authenticity; we think they must be pure because we were cognitively so simple back then. We don't associate the slipperiness of memory with the guilelessness of youth. When you read descriptions of people's very early memories, you see that they often function as myths of creation. Your first memory is special because it represents the point when you started being who you are. In Woolf's case, that moment in her bed in the St Ives nursery was the moment she became a conscious being. "If life has a base that it stands upon," she wrote, "if it is a bowl that one fills and fills and fills – then my bowl without a doubt stands upon this memory."
What should we do about this troublesome mental function? For one thing, I don't think we should stop valuing it. Memory can lead us astray, but then it is a machine with many moving parts, and consequently many things that can go awry. Perhaps even that is the wrong way of looking at it. The great pioneer of memory research, Daniel Schacter, has argued that, even when it is failing, memory is doing exactly the thing it is supposed to do. And that purpose is as much about looking into the future as it is about looking into the past. There is only a limited evolutionary advantage in being able to reminisce about what happened to you, but there is a huge payoff in being able to use that information to work out what is going to happen next. Similar neural systems seem to underpin past-related and future-related thinking. Memory is endlessly creative, and at one level it functions just as imagination does.
That's how I think we should value memory: as a means for endlessly rewriting the self. It's important not to push the analogy with storytelling too far, but it's a valuable one. Writing about her novel, Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel has explained how she brought the protagonist Thomas Cromwell alive for the reader by giving him vivid memories. When writers create imaginary memories for their characters, they do a similar kind of thing to what we all do when we make a memory. They weave together bits of their own personal experience, emotions and sensory impressions and the minutiae of specific contexts, and tailor them into a story by hanging them on to a framework of historical fact. They do all that while making them fit the needs of the narrative, serving the story as much as they serve truth.
To emphasise its narrative nature is not to undermine memory's value. It is simply to be realistic about this everyday psychological miracle. If we can be more honest about memory's quirks, we can get along with it better. When I think back to my first attempt at solo swimming, it doesn't bother me that I have probably got some of the details wrong. It might be a fiction, but it's my fiction, and I treasure it. Memory is like that. It makes storytellers of us all.
Charles Fernyhough is a founding faculty member of The School of Life. This piece first appeared in The Guardian on Friday 13 January here. His book on autobiographical memory, "Pieces of Light: How we Imagine the Past and Remember the Future", is published by Profile Books in July. You can pre-order it here. He is the author of The Baby in the Mirror (Granta), and a reader in psychology at Durham University. You can follow him on Twitter at @cfernyhough
"Mama always said life is like a box of chocolate. You never know what you're gonna get." It's a corny film quote, but Forest Gump knew it. The many varieties in chocolate are a useful metaphor for describing the different forces at work in the world. Even scientists use chocolate images in their studies. So I discovered this week during a social psychology course at the London School of Economics.
In professor Sandra Jovchelovitch's class I learned, to my own surprise, that I'm a Toblerone bar. Before you start giggling thinking you're probably more like a Godiva truffle; you're not. You're also a Toblerone. More than that, life turns out to be a battle of Toblerones.
In 1999, two psychologists named Martin Bauer and George Gaskell published a paper in which they had developed 'the Toblerone model of social representation'. Social representation - a field of study within social psychology - refers to the values, behaviour, and ideas a group of people live by. Those ingredients together form a triangle; minimum two persons or subjects (S) who are concerned with an object or idea (O).
You can find the whole study online, but to simplify things it's enough to know that a triangle stands for an attitude of a group of people towards an object or idea. Within the triangle different dynamics are at work. To this basic triangle a time dimension is also added, the past and the future, because we might change our beliefs over time. The whole 'pack' of Toblerone demonstrates that we are not just part of one group, but of different groups at the same time.
"This model is being used by many people in marketing who study audiences", said Professor Jovchelovitch, who also directs the master in social psychology. "And by designers who want to understand how people use an object, so they can redesign it and make it more user friendly."
But could triangular chocolates also help us to understand where the Occupy movement was going? Or what the London riots last summer were really about? "Whenever you want to understand how social movements are shaped, this is a useful model", said the Professor.
She explained that the Occupy movement, or the Arab Spring, often get criticised because the protesters can't exactly express a list of their wants. On top of that, the enduring economic crisis was putting us in a state of chaos without a strong alternative. That's all scary, but according to the professor it was exactly how social movements have always emerged in the past. It's what happens when different groups with different values clash. It's what happens when Toblerones fight. "Protesters have never had a new manifesto immediately ready. They're only very unhappy with the present. The Toblerone model helps us understand that a new set of values and opinions gets produced along the way. You see that process if you would freeze a movement at different moments in time. It's about naming, adjusting, categorising."
A crisis is a war of Toblerones, then? And order is the victory of the strongest triangle? The Professor confirmed. Right now we were seeing many groups of new social actors, and their actions, without a clear set of representations, pushing old Toblerones and the old leaders. As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, she said, we're definitely leaving behind the world view created at the end of the 20th century. The old actors see this newness emerging, and find it very unfamiliar compared to what they know and want. "That's for example why the 'Occupy Toblerone' here in London clashed around Christmas with the 'Toblerone of the church of England'. The protesters were camping around St Paul's cathedral and one bishop wanted them to leave. But they're still there."
Today's changes are about the future making function of Toblerones, explained Jovchelovitch. It always requires a battle. And it takes time. "But it's extremely energising to realise and witness what's happening. Young people are asking big questions again. Our children will live in different structures."
The Professor could go on forever. Comparing Toblerones to volcanos, and how social movements of the 21st century differed from those of the 20th century because they lacked clear centres of eruption. Or about Chinese and North Korean Toblerones. Or the fact that each person is always part of different Toblerone bars at the same time. "We always relate to different people and objects simultaneously, forming triangles with them. As a Professor, I'm passionate about teaching and research. But I also love gardening, baking, or fashion."
After class I couldn't help but seeing Toblerones all over London. On the bus, on their bikes, at the sushi shop. I wanted to ask people how their Toblerone exactly looked like. That would have been the weirdest pick-up line ever.
Elke Lahousse is a belgian journalist, currently living in London. She works for Knack Weekend, the leading lifestyle magazine in Belgium. She introduced Project In-Between for The School of Life, read the previous posts here, here, here, and here.
Illustration by Sarah Vanbelle www.sarahvanbelle.be
The truth is that racing, even the purest version of racing—against myself—wouldn’t be enough to keep me running if there weren’t something about the activity itself that I found deeply satisfying. A race, after all, is focused on ends, be they victories or personal records, and how much do we ask of our ends when we ask them to bear the weight of our means? Do we really expect them to hold? I want the ends of my pursuits to be the means themselves. That’s about the best definition of happiness I know.
So what then keeps me running after all these years? It must be, I want it to be, I’m trying to convince myself it is, the running itself, the joy that comes from running qua running. I think that’s right. What else could bring me back and keep bringing me back to running?
Except, I hear the objection already, for it is sometimes mine: there’s no singular experience of running. The subjective experiences of running—what it really feels like to be a runner running—manifest in myriad feelings, and to the extent that these feelings are joyful (to the extent because so many times they are not) they ask to be understood in terms of their variety.
And what a variety they compose. The joys of running come from: self-reliance, when I complete a difficult run; self-improvement, when I go faster or farther than I have before; self-celebration, when I’m so full of life and energy I feel like I’ll explode; self-forgetting, when I run so naturally I can let go of myself doing the running; camaraderie with other runners. Sometimes the joy of running is an exuberance; sometimes it’s a peacefulness pervasive in body and mind; sometimes I earn the joy through hard work; sometimes it’s a gift that I receive just for being able to enjoy it; sometimes it’s a clarity of mind: my thoughts are as focused and purposeful as my confident stride. Sometimes it’s sort of like nothing else. And sometimes it’s painful and demanding of everything I’ve got, which doesn’t sound like it should be, but somehow is, absolutely wonderful. Any of these joys might come while I’m running alone in the middle of the night, or during the long middle miles of a marathon. They often come on trail runs or beach runs, sometimes they come when I’m just going around the neighborhood. What these joys do have in common is that whenever they present, they are always defined by the subjective joy of doing something for no reason in the world—except to do it.
Of course, to emphasize one more time, running is sometimes no joy at all. Sometimes it is painful and demanding and awful and I never want to do it again. And more often than that, it’s just running, just me out on the streets, not too much remarkable occurring. But the reason none of the contraries matter for very long is that when the joy is there, there’s just so much of it. I forget the unremarkable runs. I remember the bad runs and smile. I remember the great runs and swoon.
And so if the joy of running is what I want from running—the joys plural, really—how best to bring them about?
I think I know.
Run madly, foolishly, I advise myself. Make mistakes. Try for too much and be willing to crash and fail. Run in a state of spiritual intoxication. Don’t run unless the urge to is strong, unless compelled. And then, when compelled, don’t resist. Not because of yesterday’s run or tomorrow’s. Run only for today, for this run Right Now.
The trick I’ve learned, which is really no trick I’ve learned but a tendency I’ve observed in myself (and only subsequently tried to promote), is to not let running become a responsibility. Anything I’ve accomplished as a runner I’ve accomplished because I’m able to distinguish between love and willpower and see that Annie Dillard is right when she says, “Willpower is a weak idea; love is strong.” I don’t run because I should, not for exercise or to train for a race. I run, and I’m pretty strict on this, only when I feel like it, when it sounds fun. Luckily (luckily, I think), running often sounds fun. Particularly when it’s warm and the sun is shining and I can take my shirt off and feel free and alive, or when, in a deluge, I wipe the water from my eyes and feel like I can overcome anything—or any condition between—I don’t know when the inspiration will come. Depending on my mood, I like short runs, long runs, hilly runs, flat runs, fast runs, and slow. The only rational conclusion available to me: running must remain irrational.
Here’s another way to get at what I’m trying to say: running is my play. It produces in me the childlike absorption that comes from doing something for no reason in the world but to do it. When I run I am beholden to no one but myself. I make up the rules. I go where I want when I want how I want for as long as I want. And where I usually go is toward joy.
Scott F. Parker's memoir ‘Running After Prefontaine’ reveals and examines the subjective experiences of running, paying particular attention to a concept Parker terms the joy of ‘running qua running’, a kind of purposeless and experientially focused approach to the sport that encourages a sense of play, a celebration of body, and a spontaneous exuberance in life. Parker is also a coeditor of ‘Coffee Philosophy for Everyone: Grounds for Debate’.
Image: Steve Prefontaine
Imagine you had just received a bonus. You are debating whether to spend the sum on a vacation in Rio de Janeiro. This is a tough decision. You have never been to Rio. How do you decide if a week in Rio is the best way to spend your bonus?
Perhaps the most precise way to determine preference is to sample the options. To solve the “vacation dilemma” you may want to spend a day in Rio before buying a ticket. In some instances it is indeed possible to try out the alternatives before making a decision; most ice-cream parlours, for example, will let you taste different flavours prior to making a purchase. However, in many instances, sampling is not an option. Landlords will not allow sleepovers before you sign the lease, romantic partners will not wait around while you try out other possibilities, and no magic carpet will waft you to Rio for a sneak preview.
How then, in the absence of prior experience, do we determine which alternative we are likely to prefer in the future? One tool our brain uses to solve this problem is imagination. By using imagination we can simulate a range of future scenarios in our mind to predict the pleasure or pain they are likely to entail.
This is a useful tool in principle. However, there is an obstacle - our images of the future are inherently biased. This is in part because they are susceptible to our strong motivation to believe that the future will be bright (this is known as the optimism bias), and in part because to predict the future we rely on memories of our past. To estimate how much we will enjoy a week in Rio, for example, we will retrieve memories of previous holidays to sunny destinations. In theory this can be an effective strategy. The problem, though, is that we tend to recall the past as a concentrated timeline of emotionally exciting events. The boring bits just fade away. This leads us to predict that the future will be more colourful and more intense than it ends up being.
Our tendency to mispredict the future can lead to bad decisions. We may, for example, decide to spend a large amount of money on an upcoming vacation, believing that the time spent away will be extremely pleasurable. But studies show that people expect to enjoy a vacation more than they end up doing. If we are made aware of our biases, however, we can use that information to adjust our predictions accordingly and make better choices.
Tali Sharot is author of “The Optimism Bias” (published in the UK by Constable & Robinson). She will be hosting 'Looking Ahead' at The School of Life next Monday 16 January 2012. For more information and for tickets click here. A longer extract from the book was featured in The Guardian - to read more click here.
There are books that tickle the mind (even change lives), and books that don't. I love books that clarify intrinsic complex topics (capitalism, love, freedom) in a beautiful and original way. If this Project In-Between is a humble quest for patterns to understand our shifting society, then books are my indicators.
I first picked up Monoculture by the Canadian F.S. Michaels for its colourful cover. Then the back flap tickled my mind. "As human beings, we've always told stories; stories about who we are, where we come from, and where we're going. Now imagine that one of those stories is taking over the others, narrowing our diversity and creating a monoculture."
These words had that promising 'Once upon a time' ingredient. Although the aim of the book is to explain how something more hard-core and less fairy-tale - our economic based society - is changing our life.
In agriculture, 'monoculture' refers to growing only one single crop over a wide area, instead of mixing different crops. Monoculture in agriculture means potato, potato, potato, potato. Monocultures can lead to the quicker spread of diseases.
But monoculture can also be used in a broader sense, as F.S Michaels shows; to describe a society's dominant way of thinking. When you're inside such a master story, though, you just call it reality since you're not always aware of the forces at work.
During the Middle Ages, the dominant monoculture was one of religion and superstition. Then, by the seventeenth century, the scientific monoculture was born. Ours, as the writer argues, is a monoculture shaped by economic values, and influencing six areas of our world (work, relationships with others and nature, community, health, education, creativity).
Extract from the book; "A monoculture doesn’t mean that everyone believes exactly the same thing or acts in exactly the same way, but that we end up sharing key beliefs and assumptions that direct our lives. Because a monoculture is mostly left unarticulated until it has been displaced years later, we learn its boundaries by trial and error."
I could have (tried to) read Marx' Das Kapital to expand my economic knowledge. But that's something only devoted PhD students do. And I did read (and enjoyed) David Harvey's The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism. But Monoculture, not even 200 pages thick, did the trick in all its simplicity.
It's a talent to admire these days; being able to explain a difficult idea (one that took ten years of research, see interview) in an easy way. Writers like Clay Shirky and Jeremy Rifkin master it too. It makes us go from insight to practice.
Elke Lahousse is a journalist, currently living in London. She works for Knack Weekend, the leading lifestyle magazine in Belgium. She introduced Project In-Between for The School of Life, read the previous posts here, here, and here,
Illustration by Sarah Vanbelle https://www.sarahvanbelle.be/
Read Part Two of this post: An Interview with F.S Michaels here.