Finding the Good in Lousy People

harry-grout-783336-unsplash.jpgPhoto by Harry Grout on Unsplash

It’s 9am on a Monday morning, and the meeting room is filled with the yawning, bleary-eyed faces of a dozen employees, lazily blinking into the iridescent glow of their laptops. As the meeting commences, the usual topics are discussed, lofty goals proposed, and innovative methods outlined. Things are going smoothly, until suddenly, the guy in accounts who seems to thrive on conflict opens his mouth to speak, and his audience inhale the quietest of gasps, taut with the potential of yet another heated discussion.

Though he raises great points, he does it in such a way that grates on people. His choice of tone and level of volume suggest marginal aggression, conveying a desire to control the situation and steer it in his preferred direction. He seems to treat disagreement as a personal affront; an attack on his intelligence, rather than an attempt to achieve a good outcome. His depressing cynicism and compulsive nit-picking has a tendency to stifle the creativity of the group, though he’ll view these aspects as positive—a realist in a world of blinkered idiots. There’s repeated moments of pointless rudeness, which are either failed attempts at humour, or just outright hostility.

If he were to take a personality test, he’d probably score highly on the dark triad of personality traits, particularly narcissism and Machiavellianism—a combination of highly heritable, unfortunate genetics, a flawed upbringing, and plenty of shitty circumstances. His personality might also be labelled as high-conflictan adversarial disposition that carries a tendency for extreme behaviour, and lack of culpability. Though he shares our unwavering freedom and responsibility to be a good person—to treat his fellow humans with agreeable kindness and compassion—the circumstances of his life make it extremely challenging. For this reason, regrettably, and unsurprisingly, most people don’t like him.

Our evolution, and the evolution of every single living thing, was made possible through our attuned sense of danger, increasing our chances of survival and procreation. This has instilled us with a negativity bias, in which events of a negative nature have a stronger effect on us—great for survival, but less desirable when trying to get along with someone cursed with insufferable narcissism. When we’re evaluating someone, negative traits make a stronger impact than positive ones. We might be faced with a character who is consistently kind, fair in judgment, and highly scrupulous, but those favourable attributes can be outshone by a rare, lackadaisical moment of rudeness, which wedges itself into our memories and hooks our attention during future encounters. When a consistently cantankerous, arrogant character comes along, positive traits can be dulled to the point of becoming imperceptible, making it easy to righteously dismiss them as awful people, and while this may be great for our survival (disagreeable characters can cause us damage), it’s a depressingly narrow, biased view.

There’s good in everybody, but sometimes, it’s extremely well-camouflaged. The unbearable character from your workplace could be a shining example of kindness in another environment—a charitable soup-kitchen volunteer on weekends, or an exceptional, unerring role model to his children. The impossible hag at the post office whose grimace could curdle fresh milk might be exhausted after months of nursing her cancer-ridden husband. Your father’s exasperating irascibility—developed from years of inability to be vulnerable, including a warped sense of men don’t cry—is occasionally cut through with moments of quiet tenderness. There’s good in everybody, no matter how small.

ea02af48d9b289e289354f59370f3ba1.jpgPeanuts cartoon — Charles M Schultz

Evolutionary game theory reminds us that the indiscretions of selfish, negative people should be remembered, so that we can display caution towards them in future. Caution is the appropriate, compassionate response because it includes the benefit of the doubt—a person has wronged you in some way, but you’re willing to look past that because they’re a flawed human, just like you. Though they may carry more objectionable traits than you’d like, you’re able to overcome your negativity bias and identify their inherent goodness, however small—a beautifully kind, humanising act, with the power to alter their personality. Kindness begets kindness.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.” — Plato

Focusing on the good parts of a person’s character transforms them before your very eyes, from a potentially dark, malignant character to be kept at a distance, to a regular, impaired human who deserves to be treated with decency, just like everybody else. Blatant, repeated bad treatment is obviously something that shouldn’t be tolerated—sometimes you need to communicate your distaste, and walk away. Argument or punishment rarely has the power to change people for the good, but compassionate kindness does.

Seeing the good in other people has the potential to evoke the warm and expansive feeling of elevation, which creates an increased sense of appreciation and affection for the person in question, bolsters the original intention, and creates a happier encounter for both parties. It also generates an optimism towards humanity—a necessary antidote to the incessant doom and gloom that appears in the daily news. The good and admirable aspects of a person’s behaviour are examples of moral beauty, and focusing on them can help to break down overly-protective, negative barriers that we previously wedged between us. Aspiring to see the good in other people can cause ourselves to improve, with an increased motivation for compassion, kindness, altruism, and other forms of prosocial behaviour.

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”—Leo Buscaglia

There’s also our Reticular Activating System (RAS) to consider, a function of the brain whose many operations include the ability to tune in to a desired goal. By consistently remembering to look for the good in others, we’re more likely to identify little nuggets of goodness that we might have previously missed. Our Reticular Activating System is the powerful engine behind the law of attraction, which rather than being a wishy washy, pseudoscientific concept of positive and negative energies, is actually just the improved ability to identify and attract something when we make an effort to look for it. Search for goodness, and you’ll probably find it.

“When you stop expecting people to be perfect, you can like them for who they are.”—Donald Miller, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years

Everyone is just trying their best to make it through the day. Some unfortunate souls may have been born with hostile personality traits, had neglectful or abusive childhoods, or just made a ton of terrible choices. Our natural reaction to such people is dislike and separation—vigilant self-protection, but an inhumane lack of compassion. Most people deserve the benefit of the doubt, and though the task can be exceptionally difficult, overcoming our negativity bias by forcing ourselves to focus on the good aspects of a person’s character makes the world a more gracious, kindhearted and tolerant place to live.

“There is no exercise better for the heart than reaching down and lifting people up.”—John Holmes

Hate speech has no place in the world, even online

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New Zealand is a country often associated with postcard picturesque beauty, brimming with spectacular mountain ranges, mischievous parrots and locals with unfathomable accents. That temporarily changed this week after the abhorrent acts of a single coward, armed with a hoard of weapons and a brain infected with the virus of extreme right-wing ideology, perpetuated in part by online forum 8chan, a place where like-minded individuals come together and discuss which cross-sections of society should be slaughtered, for the betterment of our race.

A natural period of enquiry usually follows such a tragic event, in an effort to prevent similar occurrences, and given that it is exceptionally difficult to identify potential mass murderers, our attention turns to factors that we can control. Gun reform is already being discussed by the New Zealand cabinet, just four days after the attack occurred, testament to their progressive government and laudable prime minister Jacinda Ardern. The terrorist’s mental health is another consideration. In his rambling, racist manifesto he claims to be an ordinary white man, as though everyday, mentally-healthy people harbour urges of puncturing the organs of innocent people with bullets. As a native Australian, the shooter had access to discounted mental health programs via their Medicare system, providing him with a limited number of appointments with a mental health professional, though it’s unclear whether these were ever utilised, or how effective they would have been in steering him away from extreme ideology.

The third major consideration, and much murkier problem, is how to moderate hate-filled discussion boards on websites like 8chan. These are hotbeds of righteous discontent, loaded with reclusive figures whose pitiful anger can develop into violent, unbridled extremism, occasionally forming a character of such severity as the Christchurch shooter, so psychologically disturbed and miseducated that he considers his actions enough to prevent Muslims from migrating to predominantly white countries such as New Zealand.

The United States, UK, Australia, and many other countries fall under the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights treaty, which includes the prohibition of certain types of hate speech, such as inciting violence against an ethnic group. The problem is one of enforcement — given that there’s no such thing as an internet police force (thank god), is it possible to systematically and efficiently censor lunatics like the Christchurch shooter, so that their violence-inciting ideology is eliminated before it reaches more gullible and mentally-unhealthy minds?

The web is enormous — over 1.5 billion sites and growing. For this reason, websites are expected to moderate their own content in an effort to keep things in accordance with international law, often through the use of self-written codes of conduct. This method is useless for websites like 8chan, which was created as a place for people to share whatever content they wanted, regardless of its illegality. It even had chat boards dedicated to child rape. Though Google does have the power to remove illegal content from its directories (it removed 8chan after child porn was discovered), the company is understandably reluctant to ban websites that host content that isn’t categorically illegal, such as right-wing ideology. It’s up to the creators of discussion-based websites to moderate their content, including having the financial resources needed to overcome the potentially gargantuan challenges that accompany moderation. Diligent physical and algorithmic moderation of content along with constant refining of rules is needed to reduce illegal and hateful content on large websites, a mammoth, ongoing task that Facebook is gloomily familiar with. For 8chan — a website created with the purpose of allowing the most vile opinions to be shared and discussed freely — moderation is unimportant. 8chan’s owner Jim Watkins claimed that he doesn’t have a problem with white supremacists talking on his site, despite it encouraging mass murder in far-flung, usually peaceful cities such as Christchurch.

With the failure of self-moderation, one might expect the responsibility of regulating hateful content to fall to a government appointment regulatory board in the country where the website is hosted, which reviews the content of questionable sites such as 8chan, with the power to take them offline if necessary. 8chan is infamous for hosting illegal content, making it a prime target for such a regulatory board. Surely a government cannot stand by while a public, highly popular website that is hosted in their country openly discusses child rape, or advocates the destruction of the Muslim faith? While this kind of moderation will be challenging beyond belief, and probably require much free assistance from the general public, the alternative is allowing destructive, hateful ideas to perpetuate among the most depressed and disillusioned minds in the human race.

Freedom of speech is essential for a democratic, fair society in which ideas can be discussed without fear of consequence. The ICCPR tells us that the right to freedom of expression is not an absolute right. This means that platforms such as 8chan cannot have free reign to host disgusting, violence-promoting content. The ICCPR exists for this very reason.

The problem with freedom of speech is that it’s also freedom to be evil. It’s possible to protect freedom of speech and censor websites that repeatedly violate hate speech laws. The difficult part is working out how to do so. Figuring out how to regulate echo chambers of mentally-deranged hate such as 8chan is an absurdly challenging task, but also an incredibly important one, worthy of the extensive time and investment needed in order to remove the soapboxes of senseless, would-be terrorists.

The futility of punishing criminals

kyryll-ushakov-1237177-unsplash.jpgPhoto by kyryll ushakov on Unsplash

A skinny, dishevelled boy of 6 sits cross-legged on his dust-covered bedroom floor, hands clamped over his ears so tightly that his fingertips are whitened. The impassioned screams of his booze-fuelled parents permeate the house, filling every room with blackened anger. It’s no use — he cannot shut out the despairing sounds of the people who are supposed to be his role models; the people who are supposed to love him. Instead, they spend their evenings numbing their miserable existence with cold, hard liquor, expelling any remaining pain as vehement hatred. Though he craves nothing more than an evening of quiet solitude, or just a moment of peace in which this misery can be forgotten, he cannot escape the screams.

Add another twelve tumultuous years until his 18th birthday, when he officially becomes a man. At this point his upbringing has caused severe psychological damage, resulting in regular anti-social behaviour, sometimes violence. He struggles to make friends, and the few friends he does have exhibit similar behaviour, having also grown up in desperate, low socio-economic circumstances.

His turbulent life has created a consistent sense of fear and anger, and a strong desire to protect himself. He carries a knife as a result. One winter afternoon, during an escalating argument outside a pub with a former schoolmate, he pulls his knife from his pocket and stabs him through the heart, killing him.

What should happen to him at this point? How should society deal with him?

The typical answer is “prison” — he’s murdered another human being, and deserves to be punished. The public also needs to be protected. But how can we possibly justify punishing someone who has spent his entire life being punished by cruel and unjust circumstances? People who have grown up in better conditions rarely stab people. Dire situations lead to dire outcomes — the man had no control over the circumstances of his life, so as he stood before his opponent, glowering with righteous anger, to say that he should have done the right thing is tragic moral ineptitude.

Hard prison time — in which the prisoners are being punished for their actions, shielded from the public, and rehabilitated — doesn’t work. The United States — a country that boasts the world’s highest incarceration rate — re-arrests almost 67.8% of released prisoners with 3 years, and 76.6% within 5 years. Only a meagre quarter are able to make it past 5 years without committing another offence. In the UK, 65% of prisoners who served a sentence of 12 months or less ended up reoffending. These stats could be even higher, with the strong possibility that some criminals would have reoffended without being caught. While working for the Conservative party in the UK, Douglas Hurd took part in a study which concluded that “prison is an expensive way of making bad people worse“. A report from the University of Cambridge claims that imprisonment “changes people to the core”, with strong evidence to suggest that the personality adjustments will hinder the person’s chances of rehabilitation. The Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam found that even a short stay in prison can affect a person’s impulsivity and attention control. How can an inmate expect to re-integrate with society when their character has been so successfully marred, abetted by morally twisted notions of the punishment should fit the crime?

“If imprisonment were the answer to crime we would be closing prisons not opening more.”—Stuart Greenstreet, Philosophy Now

UK prisons are full of people from disadvantaged backgrounds. As children, they’re 4 times more likely to have run away from home, 13 times more likely to have been taken into care, 25 times more likely to have been a regular truant, and 4 times more likely to have left school with no qualifications. It’s also 2.5 times more likely for them to have a family member convicted of a criminal offence. Their upbringing is a long stretch of tempestuous instability, during which they gradually take on the corrupted characteristics of their hapless parents, fated for the dark, cold walls of a prison cell — a cycle of perpetual criminality, generation after generation.

Poverty increases the likelihood of mental illness—prisoners in both Australia and the US are fraught with mental health problems. In Australia almost half have a diagnosis from a medical professional, with over a quarter taking medication. There’s similar results for the US. These people are disadvantaged in myriad ways, and we lock them up in dangerous, violent prisons. Would we consider punishing a child by locking him in his room because he has ADHD?

The concept of punishment as a deterrent is a complete failure. Many of the people who commit crimes do so because of their tragic lives, making them prime candidates for empathy and support, not punishment. It’s obvious that dangerous criminals should be kept away from the public, but in an establishment whose main purpose is to help and assist them, not punish them. This is occurring in the Netherlands, which places a strong emphasis on mental health, by assessing, filtering and treating the prisoners based on their unique problems, unlike the UK or US where they’re thrown into general population. The Dutch even implemented a sliding scale of responsibilitybased on the convict’s unique circumstances, ranging from full responsibility to a total lack of responsibility. The Dutch prison system is so effective that they’ve started turning their prisons into housing for refugees. Over in Norway, the recidivism rate is the lowest in the world — just 20% — relying on a concept called restorative justice, which aspires to repair the damage caused by the crime, rather than ruthless, merciless punishment. Psychologist and prison governor Arne Wilson states the following:

“In closed prisons we keep them locked up for some years and then let them back out, not having had any real responsibility for working or cooking. In the law, being sent to prison is nothing to do with putting you in a terrible prison to make you suffer. The punishment is that you lose your freedom. If we treat people like animals when they are in prison they are likely to behave like animals. Here we pay attention to you as human beings.”—Arne Wilson

Compare the Norwegian recidivism rate of 20%, with the US rate of 76.6%. This tells you exactly what you need to know about the effectiveness of the brutal and inhumane “hard time” mentality.

Thankfully, some areas of the US are making progress. New York judges have the option of sending criminals to programs instead of prison, which like the Dutch system, are more tailored to the person’s unique needs. This program has a 60% success rate. The state of Kentucky passed a bill that encourages community-based treatment for juveniles, rather than immediate, costly detention. For the younger troublemakers, Chicago is now offering a cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) program, which has reduced arrests by up to 35%, violent crime arrests by up to 50%, and graduation rates by up to 19%. CBT teaches the youngsters to pause and reflect on their impulsive, often damaging thoughts and behaviours, in order to consider whether they should be doing things differently.

“I’d watched too many schoolmates graduate into mental institutions, into group homes and jails, and I knew that locking people up was paranormal – against normal, not beside it. Locks didn’t cure; they strangled.” — Scott Westerfeld, The Last Days

In Canada, prisoner-afflicted families are being offered family-group counselling, helping to build a closely connected support group that decreases the likelihood of reoffence. It’s believed that this solution is one of the reasons for Canada’s prison population decrease. When we treat criminals like humans and offer them the assistance that they so desperately need, they often respond with the same kindness. Back in the UK, the Midlands watched their recidivism fall to an incredible 10%, after tripling the number of officers whose exclusive responsibility is to deter former criminals from reoffending.

Dangerous criminals should obviously be kept in confinement to protect the public, but the conditions of their incarceration, and the professional help that is offered to them, are key to their successful rehabilitation and reintegration into society. We cannot maintain impotent notions of the punishment should fit the crime, or an eye for an eye — they’re grossly inhumane, and utterly useless. Prisoners need repeated long-term therapy to manage their mental health issues, and educational programs to help them with their lives and careers. But most importantly, despite their crimes, they need the sympathetic kindness of an entire host of prison and rehabilitation workers, each fully convinced that the way to repair a person’s ravaged character is through consistent and relentless benevolence — the treatment that they should have received from their parents during their younger years.

With compassion, understanding, and a hell of a lot of patience, the revolving door of prison can be smashed off its hinges.

“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” — Nelson Mandela

 

The Bewitching Trickery of Language

antonio-grosz-327775-unsplash.jpgPhoto by Antonio Grosz on Unsplash

Language is a wonderful thing. It allows us to categorise, simplify and describe our complex and confusing universe, applying words to objects and actions that might otherwise remain as unusual blobs of shifting shape and colour, forever unlabelled and elusive. Language brings order, creating a beautiful, intricate structure that we use to create common understanding within our species, paving the way for mastery of our environment.

Language is magnificent, but there’s a downside to this wonderful ability. Language is so deeply embedded in our nature, and used so liberally, that we often forget that its primary function is to describe our world. We confuse the descriptive word that comes out of our mouth with the thing itself, as though the word is more real than the thing we’re describing. A cow isn’t the word cow; it’s the burly, black and white thing with the nipple-clad, pink undercarriage standing in front of you. The word cow is just a label that we use to identify something, not the thing itself.

The confusion between expression and reality was illustrated wonderfully by French artist Rene Magritte, who painted a pipe with the words “this is not a pipe,” cleverly reminding the viewer that the image of the pipe is not an actual pipe, just as the word cow isn’t an actual cow, but simply a useful noise that you’ve made with your mouth.

the-treachery-of-images-rene-magritte.jpgRene Magritte — The Treachery of Images

Another great example is from semantics scholar Alfred Korzybski, who remarked that “the map is not the territory,” highlighting the common confusion between models of reality (the map) with reality itself (the territory). The map is purely a representation of the landscape, just as the word cow is a representation of an enormous, methane-oozing animal that likes nothing more than to spend its day grazing and mooing.

Confusing the label/representation with the actual thing that is being described can have the regrettable consequence of diminishing our appreciation of it, by reducing it down to nothing but a mere abstraction. The sound that we make when we say cow can never be as wonderfully intricate as the actual thing that we’re identifying, and while language is effective at categorising our world, it can have the unfortunate side-effect of removing all sense of depth and curiosity from our observed object. In reality, a cow is a natural marvel that can weigh over 1300kg, has 360-degree panoramic vision, and can smell something from over 6 miles away. The word cow is just a useful abstraction—great for simplification, but with the downside of blinding us to the marvellous minutia of the actual animal itself. As we simplify, so we depreciate.

“Sentences are only an approximation, a net one flings over some sea pearl which may vanish.”—Virginia Woolf

One might say that the glass that I’m currently drinking out of is just a glass, but in reality it’s an invention with an almost 4000-year history, originating in the heat of India, advancing towards Europe to the mighty Roman Empire, and eventuating as a handy drinking receptacle used by billions of people worldwide. It’s much more than just a glass. By reducing something down to a single word, and then confusing the word with the actual thing itself, we’re compelled to forget its rich history and delightful features, and so take it for granted.

Language is not reality. When we realise this, we’re brought closer to reality, being forced to recognise that the sounds that we utter are a mere abstraction, with the real world right before our eyes. Words create an impressive and convincing illusion, in which we come to identify everything in the real world as nothing but a selection of muttered letters—short, compartmentalised, and boring.

“To see the truth you need to step out of the word jungle”—Bharath Gollapudi, Quora

Sam Mendes’ masterpiece American Beauty reminds us of our world’s dazzling intricacy by encouraging us to look closer—an invitation to expand on an all-too-brief, short assessment of a thing, to better understand its hidden beauty.

“It was one of those days when it’s a minute away from snowing and there’s this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it. Right? And this bag was just dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. That’s the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. Video’s a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember… I need to remember… Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.”—Ricky Fitts, American Beauty

There’s an entire life behind things—endless, fascinating detail, which we have better access to if we remind ourselves that the word is not the thing. Even something as seemingly banal as a plastic bag, dancing in the wind, can be heart-wrenchingly beautiful. We just have to look closer.

A similar theme can be found in Alejandro Iñárritu’s impressive film Birdman. During one scene, the protagonist actor Thomson Riggan rages at villainous critic Tabitha Dickinson, accusing her of mistaking words and labels for the reality that they represent:

“Let’s read your fuckin’ review. ‘Callow.’ Callow is a label. It’s just… ‘Lackluster.’ That’s just a label. Margin… marginalia. Are you kidding me? Sounds like you need penicillin to clear that up. That’s a label too. These are all just labels. You just label everything. That’s so fuckin’ lazy… You just… You’re a lazy fucker. You’re a lazy… [picks up a flower] You know what this is? You even know what that is? You don’t, You know why? Because you can’t see this thing if you don’t have to label it. You mistake all those little noises in your head for true knowledge.”—Riggan Thomson, Birdman

For Riggan, the critic who promises to “kill his play” is a fraud, failing to look past her abrupt descriptions to a deeper truth that she is too lazy and complacent to see. As a writer, Dickinson is so immersed in the world of language that she’s unable to separate words from reality, choosing to pigeonhole Riggan and his play before she’s even witnessed it. This is just one small, subtle element of a major theme of the movie—the confusion of fantasy and reality. Though Riggan frequently delves into fantasy himself, undergoing impossible feats such as moving objects with his mind, he’s aware of the beguiling potential of words, even keeping a sign at his dressing room desk that says “A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing”.

If we want to increase our world’s worth before our eyes, we must remind ourselves that the word is not the thing. This is not to say that we should spend our days wandering from object to object, mouth agape at everything we encounter. We need semantic brevity in order to get shit done. But if we pause from time to time and examine our world a little more closely, our blessed sense of appreciation will be heightened, and we’ll slowly become more grateful for this spectacular, fascinating world that we’re living in.

 

The importance of a balanced life

tightrope-walker.jpgImage from Oxford Dictionaries

It can be tough trying to live a good life. Most of us want an existence that favours our own happiness and contentment, but struggle to achieve them, repeatedly falling off the proverbial wagon into gluttony, lethargy, burnout, or any other calamitous outcome. We can be way too hard on ourselves, pursuing idealistic lives that are wonderful in theory, but unrealistic in practice, with every failure followed by the harshest of self-criticism, and then dismal self-loathing. Voltaire famously said that “the best is the enemy of the good,” summing up perfectly what we should be aiming for—not perfection, but good.

This is the idea of living with balance—not an idealistic dream in which you exercise six times a week, eat only the healthiest of foods, and spend every spare minute learning, but a life in which you exercise just enough, eat healthy foods just enough, and spend just enough time expanding your brain. A balanced life is achievable because it acknowledges your weakness for couch-lounging, fatty foods and trashy entertainment, while recognising that you’re also making the effort to accomplish healthy goals. It’s the patient, sympathetic teacher that you had at school, as opposed to the cane-wielding psychopath who would happily tear shreds off you for the slightest indiscretion.

History is peppered with stories and philosophical concepts on the importance of living with balance. Greek mythology tells the tale of Icarus, a prisoner on the island of Crete whose father fashioned a pair of feathered wings in order to make their escape. He offered his son a stark warning: “don’t be complacent and fly too low, as you’ll drown in the sea. Also don’t get too cocky and fly too high, as the sun will melt your wings.” This is clear advice to maintain a balance between the two—the course in which both extremities are avoided, and survival is ensured. Icarus ignored his father, melted his wings in the heat of the sun, and drowned.

Greek philosophy offers us the golden meanadvising to navigate the desirable middle between the extremes of excess and deficiency. Socrates himself taught us that a man should know “how to choose the mean and avoid the extremes on either side, as far as possible.” Buddhism has a similar concept—the middle way (samatā)—which states that nirvana can be achieved by walking the line between sensual indulgence and withdrawn asceticism—neither too much pleasure, or too little. There’s examples from Islam too, with theologian al-Ghazali believing that “what is wanted is a balance between extravagance and miserliness through moderation, with the goal of distance between both extremes.” Even the Temple of Apollo was inscribed with “nothing in excess.”

 

A balanced life is vital for happiness, so how does this translate for modern folk? There’s a few key areas things to consider.

Exercise

Unless you’re training for an ultra-marathon, you probably don’t need to run fifty miles a week. A common reason that people fail to maintain exercise habits is because they set the bar too high, filled with excited motivation during planning, but succumbing to crippling laziness when the time arrives. Starting small is a great way to build long-lasting habits—a short run a couple of times a week, with gradual increases of distance.

Exercise needs to be balanced with relaxation. Our muscles repair themselves when we’re resting, allowing us to recover for another session. Too much exercise will result in exhausted burn-out, and too much rest in negligent, wheezing infirmity. Exercise and rest go hand in hand, and we must find the right balance if we want to maintain excellent physical health.

Food

It’s obvious that you should take the advice of every doctor, nutritionist and personal trainer on the planet, and eat healthily. But unhealthy foods are damned delicious, and by depriving yourself of them all the time, you’re missing out on a great deal of joy (and mental health benefits). Extreme, unbalanced approaches usually end in failure—95% of people who undergo weight loss diets end up regaining the weight within 1-5 years. There’s also the risk of developing a debilitating eating disorder, which is eight times more likely for weight-loss dieters.

All you really need to do is make yourself a healthy eating plan that consists of actual food instead of pre-processed garbage, and allow yourself a few delicious treat meals to satiate your natural cravings. You’ll undoubtedly fall off the wagon, but provided you’re sticking to it for the most part, you’ll have a good balance between healthy and unhealthy food, without having to become a mini-Hitler and goose-step your way to failure.

Entertainment

When it comes to entertainment, we’re spoiled as toddlers at Christmas. Netflix offers us an immense selection of movies and shows across an eclectic range of genres, wrapped up in a user interface that is ridiculously easy to use. These days, we rarely have to wait from week-to-week to watch a TV season, instead slithering into our well-worn sagging spot on the sofa, and consuming the whole lot in the course of the day, only rising to grab food from our poorly underpaid Uber Eats driver.

Our phones are also brimming with entertainment—Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Candy Crush, Angry Birds, WhatsApp, Twitter—most of them designed to trigger our dopamine response, and keep us hooked.

There’s nothing wrong with a little entertainment, but when we spend large portions of our day mindlessly scrolling through Facebook, or sit for hours staring at trashy, mindless TV shows—glistening trails of drool running down our chins—we’re sacrificing precious time on activities that allow us to grow as humans: reading, writing, cooking, spending time with friends, meditation, hiking, painting, designing, or any other creative activity that requires patience and effort.

It’s vital that we become more conscious of how much time we spend entertaining ourselves with mindless junk, in order to create space for activities that make us more compelling, complex, and fufilled humans.

Relationships

Solid personal relationships are a key component of a happy life, with the potential to proffer us with extra years, fight off stress, and improve our immune system. Lonely people are more prone to depression, pain, fatigue, and tend to have higher blood pressure in later life.

We need good relationships if we want to be healthy, but it’s crucial that we carve out regular chunks of time for ourselves, so that we maintain a sense of freedom. Being in a stifling relationship—in which your partner or friend is so reliant on you that they’d crumble into dust on your departure—can have the unfortunate effect of making us feel like a superior parent, rather than an equal. Time spent with friends must be balanced with time spent for ourselves—there’s nothing wrong with rejecting a social invite if you’d rather stay at home and finish off the bewitching book that you’ve been reading.

Work

Unless you truly love your work, or are temporarily under pressure to get something done, every additional hour spent at the office is wasted time that could be spent on activities that actually make your heart sing. You probably don’t need to work until 7pm every night in the hope that your boss with lavish you with additional riches, because believe it or not, more money can actually damage your good character.

A good work/life balance will help to keep your stress levels in check, while furnishing you with the time needed to pursue habits that are good for your wellbeing, not just your wallet.

**

A good life is achievable, we just need to construct and maintain a careful harmony between the various aspects of our lives—a juggling act that requires practice, and regular assessment. Living with balance is allowing yourself to indulge in unhealthy pleasures, comfortable in the knowledge that you’re regularly doing the right thing, and so staving off shame-inducing guilt. Instead of a rigid strictness—highly tense and susceptible to breakage—living with balance makes us softer, more agreeable, and more likely to achieve the goals that we set for ourselves, giving us the breathing room that we need to be healthier, happier humans.

Why our desire for more makes us unhappy, and how to beat it

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Many people in Western society seem to harbour the impression that their lives are somehow lacking; that their current position in the world, their numerous, shiny possessions, the relationships that they maintain, and the emotions that they feel, aren’t entirely up to scratch, as though what they’re experiencing is just a lacklustre pre-show—a taster before the main event. Though our days may be peppered with stimulating challenge, favourable encounters, and a great deal of comfort, there’s still something missing. Surely this can’t be it?

We carry within us an insatiable desire for more—a destroyer of contentment; a hankerer of stuff, status and success, that we assume will assassinate our demons, or at least muffle them for a little while, as though the fulfilment of our wants can somehow repair our yearning souls.

Where does this voraciousness come from? There’s a few culprits, each with their own part to play.

Materialism

“There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” —J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

One of the most depressing misconceptions in Western society is the idea that accumulating stuff makes us happy. Observe the terrifying fracas of a US shopping mall on Black Friday; hoards of consumers dashing for cut-price products, more than willing to thrust their elbows at anyone who gets in their way. Consider the tacky line of super-bright Lamborghinis that might appear outside a Monte Carlo casino – their gold-dripped owners assuming that admiring looks from the public will help to camouflage their deficits of character. Contemplate the ever-expanding wardrobe of the average person, every square inch of space being used, and yet nothing to wear.

Materialism is baked into our capitalist economy, driven by the nonsensical belief that every purchase carries a little bit of happiness with it, but in reality, leaves us both financially and spiritually emptier. Excessive materialism has shown to cause a decrease in personal well-being. The things that are being rapaciously sold to us—our irises continually flashing with the bright reflections of persuasive adverts—are making us miserable. A study undertaken by the American Psychological Association found that materialistic values are driven by insecurity, with sufferers buying more stuff in an attempt to assuage their harrowing self-doubts.

“Our economy is based on spending billions to persuade people that happiness is buying things, and then insisting that the only way to have a viable economy is to make things for people to buy so they’ll have jobs and get enough money to buy things.” —Philip Slater

What’s worse, our materialistic cravings are laying waste to our beautiful green and blue planet, its rock face spattered with a million factories filled with millions of underpaid workers, atmosphere and minds polluted alike. All because of the fleeting, cheap thrill that we experience when buying stuff, expecting that it’ll carry forward into the future, perhaps turning into some kind of contentment.

“When morality comes up against profit, it is seldom that profit loses.” ― Shirley Chisholm

“The point is, there is no feasible excuse for what we are, for what we have made of ourselves. We have chosen to put profits before people, money before morality, dividends before decency, fanaticism before fairness, and our own trivial comforts before the unspeakable agonies of others” — Iain M. Banks, Complicity

In his book The High Price of MaterialismTim Kasser explains that those hell-bent on obtaining possessions tend to experience fewer positive emotions every day. On the flip-side, those who report high levels of life satisfaction are liable to entertain fewer materialistic values, and have better relationships. We’re much more materially affluent than our grandparents, but are slightly unhappier, with a higher risk of depression and social pathology. Materialism not only fails to increase our subjective well-being, it causes us damage. Every happiness-promising advert that flashes before you is tainted with a sickening irony.

“For what does it profit a man, if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?”—Mark 8:36

Status/money

As social animals, status is naturally important to us. We’re anxious to stand out from the crowd—to tower over our peers so that we may win their respect, and so their love. We abhor the condescending glare that we might receive when paying for a train ticket with mountains of small change, as though our temporary financial hardship is something disgusting, to be placed at a far away distance so that it cannot infect the more fortunate among us.

Much of our craving for status is created from our inherent desire to be loved, fuelled by the assumption that we’ll be treated with benevolent respect if we’re able to show off our expansive seven-bedroom mansion, our platinum gray Armani suit, or our Instagram model girlfriend, lovely to look at, but with the conversational skills of a hyperactive parakeet. Status is compensation for inadequacy—the idea that we’re not good enough, and so must surround ourselves with luxurious wealth, creating a facade that might trick our audience into thinking that we’ve really got it together.

“By faithfully working eight hours a day you may eventually get to be boss and work twelve hours a day.” ― Robert Frost

Status cannot inoculate us against feelings of distress, or fix the nagging doubts that we have about ourselves. All the money in the world cannot make us happier, and in fact, excessively wealthy people suffer from higher rates of depression. Psychologist and author Leon Seltzer has treated various millionaire patients, stating the following:

“Having worked professionally with several multimillionaire malcontents, I can say that what they really craved were those things intrinsic to happiness laid out at the beginning of this post [supportive relationships and self-acceptance]. The transient highs that accompanied their wealth accumulation were never much more than a hormonal rush anyway. And even though in the eyes of the world they were enormously successful, continuing frustrations and insecurities gave testimony to the fact that the blast of ‘feel good’ chemicals their success yielded was all too easily exhausted.” — Leon Seltzer

Studies have shown that as wealth increases, so do destructive feelings of entitlement and notions of self interest, while compassion and empathy are reduced. Money can have the unfortunate effect of damaging our good character, yet so many of us are hopelessly locked into the rat race, labouring under the regrettable assumption that we’re doing what’s best for us.

“Are you not ashamed of caring so much for the making of money and for fame and prestige, when you neither think nor care about wisdom and truth and the improvement of your soul?” ― Socrates

Self-help gurus tell us that CEOs read a book a week, and that we can do the same when purchasing their cut-price course, eventually eclipsing the achievements of our colleagues and accelerating away from them towards career dominance, a position where our perpetual emptiness might finally be filled. It’s bullshit, of course. Status and wealth may produce admiring glances, but they cannot create what we really need—the love and compassion of our fellow humans, and patient, sympathetic self-acceptance.

“The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.” —David W. Orr, Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World

Rejection of sadness

Sadness, and its accompanying, so-called negative emotions, has a tendency to be rejected by Western society, as though there’s no place for it in our lives. We’re taught that happiness is our natural birthright, and sadness a disorder to be cured. Naturally, during our darker, melancholic moments, we suspect that there’s something wrong with us, and that the situation is somehow unnatural. We’re not supposed to be this way!

Sadness—along with the other six basic emotions—is a permanent part of our biology. This inevitable, painful emotion will appear countless times over the course of our lives, often at the most inopportune of moments, challenging us to a battle in which we have little desire to partake. Instead, what we usually do is attempt to numb the sadness in some way, whether through alcohol, drugs, shopping sprees, or any other vice that offers nothing but a band-aid with weak adhesive. Our unreasonable desire to expel sadness from our lives helps to feed an addiction to positivity, a compulsion doomed to failure. We simply cannot change our nature.

“Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or very foolish imagine otherwise.”—George Orwell

**

Now that the some of the culprits of our perpetual yearning have been unearthed, what can we do to battle them? How can we learn to become content with what we have? You might consider trying the following.

Gratitude

Gratitude is like kryptonite to our greed for more; a neutralising element that drains its destructive power. The field of positive psychology has shown that a gratitude diary can increase feelings of contentment, because it forces you to focus on what’s good in your life, rather than what’s lacking. By paying attention to the things that we love, we stumble upon the realisation that our lives contain much joy, and our thirst for more is temporarily diminished.

“You own twice as much rug if you’re twice as aware of the rug.”—Allen Ginsberg

Meditation

Mindfulness meditation is an exercise sent from the gods, offering benefits such as reducing stress, controlling anxiety, and much more. Though it certainly requires practice and patience to become an expert, the process itself is simple, and requires no equipment.

Meditation helps to fight our desire for more by forcing us to slow down and appreciate what’s in front of us, as opposed to frantic, anxious thinking which tries to soothe itself with destructive behaviours such as gluttonous shopping. Our new-found calm carries an enhanced sense of self-awareness, allowing us to catch ourselves in the act of pernicious thinking, whereby we stop for a moment, realise that we’re about to engage in a toxic act, and decide to do something healthier instead.

Self-acceptance and self-compassion

Self-acceptance is allowing, accepting and welcoming all parts of yourself, whether good or bad. It’s about accepting your shadow—the dark, grisly side of your nature that you’d rather keep locked away in a dusty cupboard. There’s not a person on earth who doesn’t have flaws, the trick is learning to accept them. Unconditional self-acceptance allows us to live full and honest lives, embracing each and every aspect of our personality.

“You are imperfect, permanently and inevitably flawed. And you are beautiful.” — Amy Bloom

As we become more self-accepting, we also become more content, which weakens our incessant yearning for more. By reminding ourselves that we’re worthy of love (from ourselves most of all), we’re instilling our lives with genuine, clear-cut value.

“You accept that, as a fallible human being, you are less than perfect. You will often perform well, but you will also err at times… You always and unconditionally accept yourself without judgment”—Grieger

This practice can be accompanied by self-compassion—being kind, gentle, and supportive to yourself at all times, even when you make the most horrifying of mistakes. Self-compassion allows you to distinguish between making a bad decision, and being a bad person. Gaffes are being made everywhere all the time, and a typical reaction is to attack ourselves for the indiscretion, creating destructive feelings of shame and unworthiness. Treating ourselves with sympathetic kindness is the favourable alternative.

“Self-compassion involves treating yourself with the same kindness, concern, and support you’d show to a good friend. When faced with difficult life struggles, or confronting personal mistakes, failures, and inadequacies, self-compassion responds with kindness rather than harsh self-judgment, recognizing that imperfection is part of the shared human experience.” —Neff & Dahm

Good relationships

Strong personal relationships are a crucial component of a healthy and happy life. Many people regard moments of close connection and communal enjoyment as their most meaningful and valuable life experiences. Developing warm, supportive, and kind relationships can increase our sense of well-being, lengthen our lives, minimise heart-raising stress, and even make us feel wealthier.

Friends make us feel loved, creating a sense of belonging and a deep-seated satisfaction, vanquishing our desire for more. Voracious shopping sprees or glistening palaces are no longer needed to make us feel better about ourselves—our friends do a much better job. Side-splitting laughter, or serious, soul-touching conversation, is no substitute for an oak-panelled corner office in a Manhattan high-rise.

“I would rather walk with a friend in the dark, than alone in the light.” —Helen Keller

**

All of the money, material goods, and status in the world cannot quench our incessant desire for more. Often, it backfires and our craving is strengthened, leaving us in a worse state than before. Our insatiable desire for more can be allayed through consistent gratitude, regular meditation, self-acceptance and self-compassion, and strong relationships. Eventually, we’ll come to realise that we don’t need a million dollars or a house full of expensive gadgets in order to feel content. Eventually we’ll realise that we have just what we need—we have enough.

“Two men graduated from the same high school. One of them went to college and graduate school and became a professor, making a professor’s salary. The other went out and became a billionaire in the business world.

At a reunion, the two got together, and the billionaire was boasting about all the things he had accomplished and was able to buy with his billions. The professor said, “I have something that you will never have.”

The billionaire said, “How can that be? I can buy anything with the money I have. What do you have that I will never have?”

The professor answered, “I have enough.”

—Old Mountain Man, comment from New York Times column

How the Ancient Art of Wu Wei can Make You Calmer, Less Frustrated, and More Effective

22874-050-5AD45A3D.jpgPoet on a Mountain Top, Ming Dynasty

Many of us go through life trying to impose our will on the world. Sometimes it works—we finally get the promotion that we’ve been battling for, after endless late nights and newly-sprouted silver hairs; our animalistic efforts towards a female are rewarded with a wild, no-holds-barred evening in a hotel room, or our headstrong child finally gives in to our relentless requests to scrub the dishes. Often, it doesn’t work. Our snarling, snake-like manager takes all the credit for himself; the girl in the bar with the magnificent breasts sneers at our lowly attempts at flirtation, and our little-bastard-of-a-son blocks us with the noise-cancelling headphones that we paid for.

Life is – as fiery Italian footballer Gennaro Gattuso so eloquently puts it – “sometimes maybe good, and sometimes maybe shit”. It’s the messiest thing we’ll encounter, an enormous, warping ball of the most twisted and wonderful nonsense we can hope to imagine, the taming of which is difficult for even the most skilled circus performer. The world will do what the hell it wants, regardless of our sweaty exertion.

Somewhere in the undulating, gorgeously-green slopes of Classical China, in an ancient time known as the Spring and Autumn period, an insightful, unknown character saw the world’s indifference with perfect clarity, and when combined with the idea that life is easier when you go with the flow, came up with the Taoist concept of wu wei.

Wu wei, when translated literally, means “without exertion”. It’s the idea that each of our actions should be performed spontaneously, based on the conditions of the moment. The staggering number of events that have led up to this moment in your life have created a set of conditions that are almost entirely outside of your control, and by acting in accordance with these inevitable conditions, you’re giving yourself the best chance of success, and not locking yourself into battle with an unbeatable world that, quite frankly, doesn’t give a shit about you.

“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” —Lao Tzu

Wu wei can also often translated as non-action, which sounds like an advocation to be a lazy deadshit, but is actually the idea of being more effective when you’re not forcing a situation. We cannot hope to persistently control a world that is hell-bent on doing what it wants. Instead, we can take each situation as it comes, and act in accordance with the unique conditions of the circumstances. The alternative is a path to teeth-grinding frustration. The expectations that we bear, and the force that we use to impose them, are the source of much irritation and resentment.

“[Unrealistic] expectations are premeditated resentments.”—rumoured to have originated in 12-step programs

Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget discovered that kids roughly under the age of seven have a tendency to believe that they can affect the outcome of a situation simply by thinking it, as though the very thought of pushing your little brother off a revolving see-saw would actually cause it to happen. He named this magical thinking, which as adults, is exactly what we’re doing when we have unrealistic expectations. It doesn’t make a shred of difference whether we expect something to happen or not. Going with the flow—wu wei style—is a much more favourable attitude.

“I do my thing and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,
And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you, and I am I,
and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.
If not, it can’t be helped.” —Fritz Perls, ‘Gestalt Therapy Verbatim,’ 1969

Wu wei is not a call for unbridled apathy, in which we float through the world like stoned spectres, drooling and desireless, but instead an invitation to let go of our expectations, taking each moment as it comes. It’s turning your boat around and paddling with the stream, rather than against it. So much energy is wasted in trying to mould the world into our desired shape, and while we do have some success, we’re often left frustrated. Though desire, ambition and action will remain as undeniable and important forces in our lives, we must accept that our plans will often be thwarted, and that instead of descending into despair, we might consider adapting to the developing situation in the spirit of wu wei, providing us with an effective and delightful buoyancy in which we no longer have to partake in fruitless battles against an unconquerable opponent.

“If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to. If you are not afraid of dying, there is nothing you cannot achieve.” —Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

The concept of wu wei is similar to the Buddhist concept of Upādāna, which can be referred to as attachment, clinging, or grasping. When we become attached to our expectations, in our desire to dominate and regulate our world, we suffer. For the orange-clad, baritone-omming buddhist, the cessation of attachment leads to Nirvana—a liberation of the soul, similar to the feeling one might expect when you finally become free of worries, after a lifetime of carrying them. Timone and Pumbaa were probably buddhists.

Similarities to wu wei can also be seen in the Greek philosophy of Stoicism, which teaches the futility of trying to control that which cannot be controlled, as if the statement isn’t already obvious enough, and yet still dismally overlooked by so many us. The stoics believed that you should live according to your values, while preparing yourself for repeated, inevitable disappointment, because most of the time, the world doesn’t play to our rules.

“It is not the man who has too little that is poor, but the one who hankers after more.” —Seneca, Letters from a Stoic

To be a practitioner of wu wei is to bestow yourself with additional energy, usually wasted on combative, headstrong styles of thinking. You’re no longer paddling against the stream, but using its natural energy to propel yourself forward, and in the process, enhancing your own vitality. Once the unnecessary need to fight has been expelled, you can move forward with increased finesse and competency, towards a brighter, less quarrelsome future.

The East has much to teach us, with Taoism a worthy forerunner. Wu wei, and it’s emphasis on going with the flow, must surely be one of the most liberating ideas to emerge from that mysterious continent, encompassing the ability to relieve a great deal of mental stress, and move forward with an accepting, permissible attitude, in which the hardships of life are efficiently dealt with.

Hooray for wu wei!