Why Our Willpower Sucks

Photo by Charles Deluvio 🇵🇭🇨🇦 on Unsplash

When it comes to non-habitual behaviours, most of us are terrible at sticking to our guns. Science has revealed routines that are proven to make us happier (exercise, meditation, a healthy diet, etc.), and yet we repeatedly fail to put these into practice, despite fully comprehending the long-term benefits. Why do we screw up so much?

There’s a few reasons, and most of them aren’t our fault.

As with every other living thing on Earth, we’re the products of evolution. Over the course of 4 billion years, our two main concerns were surviving, and procreating. These have been of vital importance for billions of years, and our brains have evolved to respond fiercely to them. Nowadays, when we see a pretty girl with a muffin, it’s a wonder we don’t trample her to death.

The pre-frontal cortex is the part of our brain that regulates behaviour, developing during the later stages of our evolution. Our brains are less a single, coherent unit, and more a collection of tacked on improvements, which explains why we often feel so conflicted. The ancient, primal parts of our brains want to eat and fuck everything in sight, and the modern parts attempt to remind us that those things aren’t always our best options. We have two minds, pitted against each other in battle, with psychological distress as the consequence. Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt created a fitting metaphor for this, in his book The Happiness Hypothesis:

“The image I came up with for myself, as I marvelled at my weakness, was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.” 

Jonathan Haidt

The elephant is very much in control. We shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves after failing to resist a glistening cream-filled doughnut.

In addition to battling against a burly, be-trunked mammal, we’re also up against the brain’s tendency to form habits. Repeating an action and having it ingrained into your mind as a habit is a wonderfully useful technique, until it happens for an undesirable action, such as consuming a fistful of Lindt balls. Every time our willpower fails and we do something harmful to our long-term health, that destructive habit becomes a little stronger. This is probably the biggest cause of failure for us. Even when we do have a moment of strength and hold fast against our habituated primal desires, we’re using a precious reserve of willpower which depletes over the course of the day. The cookie that we defy in the morning takes on an especially delicious glow by afternoon.

The internet and social media are also to blame. We live in an age of instant gratification — social media apps are designed to hack our reward system, turning us into twitching addicts who crave our quick-fix daily memes. We want a million delightful things at once, and we don’t want to put any effort into them. As a result, resisting what’s harmful is becoming much more difficult.

It’s not all doom and gloom, we just need to learn how to build better habits. This is one of the most important skills you can develop; Leo Babauta offers immensely helpful advice on in his blog Zen Habits. He suggests starting extremely small, and working your way up. You won’t develop a running habit if you tell yourself you’re going to run 10km every day. Neither will you be able to completely stop eating sugary treats. This is setting yourself up to fail. You need to give yourself a lot of leeway to begin with, and make slow, incremental improvements. Remember that the elephant is in control most of the time.

Another suggestion is to only focus on a single habit at a time. Figure out what it is that bothers you the most — the one thing that you’d love to start doing — and put all of your effort into that sole habit. You won’t be able to change ten things at a time; you’ll flounder and then feel terrible afterwards because you’ve failed again. Once your new habit is embedded, move onto the next. This is a process that might take years—prepare yourself for a lot of hard work. Realise that you’ll still mess up from time to time, and all that is required is to pick up where you left off.

Lastly, celebrating your success is key. Instead of focusing on what you’ve failed at, look to what you’ve achieved. Illuminate your accomplishments; remind yourself that you’re triumphing over something that you’ve flopped at for years. This will give you the motivation you need to continue.

By slowly building good habits, we can all gain a little more mastery over our elephants.

The One Reason to Complain

Image from Pixabay

Complaining is mostly a toxic behaviour. Many of us can bear witness to the gloominess that washes over us when we’re in the company of a serial whiner—we’d tear down walls to escape the situation. Every self-righteous word seems to vanquish a little bit of your soul. Suggesting a fix for the thing being complained about is futile, because that isn’t the desired outcome. Incessant whiners just want to whine, making the mustering of our own empathy nigh on impossible. People of this kind are often infected with deep-seated bitterness—their lives don’t match their expectations, and instead of having the courage to fix what’s bothering them, they relinquish the responsibility and complain instead. It’s much easier, after all.Th

There’s lots of reasons that people complain, with most them being counterproductive to our mental health. For many of us, the hardest one to resist is physical pain. Hurting is horrible, and it comes with a tendency to vocalise the experience, whether it be groaning, grunting, or divulging to our partner in monotonous detail about every unpleasant sensation. Emotional pain is just as extreme, and carries similar effects. Others may grumble for its bonding power—many a friendship has been forged in the fires of Mount Gloom; our judging and whining is met with nodding heads, and we become a little bit closer. We simply can’t believe that so and so would do such an awful thing, and by stating this fact, we’re elevating ourselves above them, dismissing the possibility that we’d ever act in such an animalistic way. Nothing is more self-congratulatory than a high horse. We’re recruiting an army of like-minded whiners—together we can set this crooked world straight!

Being spoiled is another major factor. A hungover barista forgot to put chocolate sprinkles on our cappuccino, and we can’t find the words to express how much of an idiot he is. He has one job to do. Later on our flight is delayed by an hour, and it’s literally the worst thing to happen to anyone, ever. Never mind the fact that air travel is one of the greatest of human inventions, and we’re incredibly fortunate to have it. This type of spoiled demeanour is often paired with a lack of control, fuelled by our desire to direct everything so that it works out exactly as we want it to. The instant our expectations aren’t met, a complaint flies from our lips.

Uncomfortable silences can also act as complaint enticers. If you’re with friends and an extended spell of silence falls over the group, it’s common for someone to whine or gossip about something in order to extinguish the awkwardness, particularly for older people, who tend to mop up complaints like leftover gravy. Whining feels good—it’s infinitely preferable to the tension of silence. Every complaint strengthens the neural pathways dedicated to complaining, making the road more likely to be travelled. Before you know it, you could be a serial whiner.

So should complaining be avoided at all costs? Not entirely. We all experience strong negative feelings from time to time, and bottling them up isn’t a good strategy. You may be depressed about your tedious career, and need to talk about it with your partner. If we’re to retain our sanity, we absolutely must talk about such things. Our position the most important consideration— are we playing the role of the victim? The poor helpless individual who can’t get ahead in life no matter what we do? Or are we venting our frustrations in order to make things clearer to ourselves, and our partners? Are we having a conversation which leads us down the path to a solution? If you’re complaining about something and you have no desire to improve it (or it’s outside of your control), your whining will probably make you feel worse in the long run. The next time it pops into your head, you’ll be more likely to complain about it again, because you’ve trained yourself to do so. 

The next time you catch yourself opening your mouth to complain about something, you might want to consider your position. Do you actually want to fix what you’re whining about? Or are you just assuming the role of a whimpering victim? The difference is crucial.

“See if you can catch yourself complaining, in either speech or thought, about a situation you find yourself in, what other people do or say, your surroundings, your life situation, even the weather. To complain is always nonacceptance of what is. It invariably carries an unconscious negative charge. When you complain, you make yourself into a victim. When you speak out, you are in your power. So change the situation by taking action or by speaking out if necessary or possible; leave the situation or accept it. All else is madness.” 

Eckhart Tolle

The Friendship Threat, and How to Beat It

Photo by Austin Pacheco on Unsplash

Of the billions of people on our little blue planet, scattered across each and every craggy landmass, there’s only a tiny selection that you’re likely to label as friends. Not merely social media “friends” with whom you’re yet to engage in a meaningful conversation, but genuine companions, who you’d trust with your deepest, darkest secrets—the select few who perceive the very substance of your soul; the people who recognise, appreciate, and love you in your most honest, unfiltered form, and with who you can be unequivocally, unapologetically, and unashamedly you.

“A friend is someone who knows all about you and still loves you.”

Elbert Hubbard

As social animals, immersed in an existence with no inherent meaning, friends such as these can provide the treasured value that makes life worth living. And yet, the people who are most important to us, with whom we share the deepest connections, are the people we’re most likely to take for granted. Our knowledge of their love, grounded in an unshakeable confidence, can lead to the perilous assumption that our effort is no longer required in order to maintain the relationship. We assume that our mutual affection for each other, developed over the course of many years, has gained enough strength to claim itself indestructible—an everlasting, unbreakable bond, joined with the hardiest of glues. This is an insidious notion, working as a passive, covert corrosive, which when harboured for enough time, slowly weakens the bond until it’s nothing but a measly thread.

Trite as it may seem, it’s worth repeating that all relationships require effort, especially those that we hold closest to our hearts, as these are the relationships that are most likely to suffer from the corruptive forces of unchecked complacency. The more comfortable we become with someone, the more likely we are to take them for granted, whether it’s a romantic partner, a close friend, or a beloved family member, and though they’re often quick to forgive us for our sloth-like apathy, their clemency doesn’t excuse our behaviour. These beautiful relationships can become the very reason for our existence, permeating our lives with priceless meaning, to be reinforced with frequent, determined effort, and a watchful eye on our inflated self-assurity. Though it can be tempting to arrive home from work and spend the entire evening staring open-mouthed at Netflix, offering only a few words to your wonderful partner, such negligence will only be tolerated for so long before your eventual separation, relegated once more to the throes of the ruthless Tinder battlefield, where people appear as dispensable as a used condom. To avoid re-entering such a dire situation, we can take cues from our behaviour at the start of the relationship, when we were eager to demonstrate our desirability, charm nob twisted to the max.

“Do what you did in the beginning of a relationship, and there won’t be an end.”

 Tony Robbins

The contented comfort that accompanies a solid relationship is undeniably tremendous. A calm, relaxed ease can be felt in each other’s company, with the stresses of life temporarily abated, for the good of both souls. But the universe in which we live obeys a fundamental rule—all things must change. Relaxation gradually warps into boredom, with thumbs that were previously still now twiddling madly. Comfort becomes agitation, and your favourite sunken spot on the sofa, shaped perfectly to your arse, doesn’t feel quite right anymore. This situation seems all too common, and can be abated simply by putting in regular bouts of effort. Isn’t your partner worth it, after all? Every wonderful aspect of a relationship develops from the willingness to show that you love them, which could be something as simple as putting your phone in your bedside table before they arrive home from work, and just listening to them as they tell you about their day. There’s nothing quite as precious as our own time, which when wholeheartedly committed to another person, is a testimony of our appreciation. It tells them that they’re worth every single second.

“The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.”

Carl Gustav Jung

All personal relationships have the potential to be good, but that goodness can only grow from constant and repeated effort—a willingness to show the other person that they’re worth it. Even lifelong friendships need cultivation, lest they wither and die. Effort is what turns strangers into acquaintances, acquaintances into friends, and friends into lifelong companions. This is by no means a one-way process. As our love grows for the other person, so does the likelihood for complacency; the danger of becoming relaxed to the point where we assume that our friendship is secured forever. 

The people whose death would utterly crush you, their dazzling, illuminating vibrancy forever lost, are the people who you’re most likely to be complacent with, and though we’re sometimes too tired to be the perfect companion, only a smidgeon of creative energy is required to sustain the treasured closeness; to remain as affectionate confidantes, bonded in such a way as to make our stressful, obligation-packed existence worth it. Priceless, cherished subjects such as these couldn’t be more deserving of our efforts.

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

Helen Keller

How to Find Hidden Beauty

Image from Pixabay

Beauty is typically reserved for the exceptional—the chiselled, masculine jawline of a testosterone-fuelled male; the gorgeously undulating curves of a heavenly, chestnut-haired female; the lustrous, delicate interior of St.Peter’s Basilica, sparkling vivid gold and blue, or a formidable, soaring snow-capped mountain range, spanning the distant horizon. Such things harness the power to take our breath away, and their proclamation as beautiful seems both natural, and right. We may even be tempted to label such things as “perfect”, relegating all else to the sorry state of “imperfect”, and forgoing the need to commit any of our precious attention towards them.

But beauty, far from being confined to the extraordinary, can be found in the most unexpected of places, in the most unexpected forms. It’s the fumbling awkwardness of two teenagers trying to interact; the overly-macho construction worker paying for his workmate’s lunch, without the need to nudge him and call him “bro”. It’s the long, drawn-out purr of the single mother at the end of her day, as she stretches out on her threadbare chaise-lounge for some well-earned rest. Beauty is all around us, and if we have any interest in appreciating it, we’ll require an attitude of open receptivity, willing to receive that which would usually be met with an upturned nose. Nothing destroys beauty more efficiently than a negative preconceived notion, as illustrated vividly in cinematic masterpiece American Beauty, when Ricky Fitts swells with emotion while describing his favourite homemade movie: a plastic bag swirling in the wind.

“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
Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), American Beauty

Trash, by its very definition, is the last thing you would consider to be beautiful. But Fitts is anything but conventional. His slow, deliberate receptiveness equips him with incredible clarity of perception, bringing into focus a world of breathtaking beauty, hidden from those whose default approach is judgment. Our penchant for rapid assessment allows us to navigate life quickly and efficiently, but the trade-off is a decreased appreciation of the sublime. The faster we go, the harder it is to perceive the majesty of our astonishing, improbable existence. Our scope for beauty is reduced to the grand and spectacular—the “perfect” landscape, the “perfect” architecture, or the “perfect” face. The result is a tragically diminished sense of awe. The emblem of American Beauty is the red rose—society’s typical symbol of perfect beauty, but instead consistently used throughout the movie’s most contrived and ugly of moments, and absent during scenes of flawless, graceful honesty. The rose teaches us that there’s much more than superficial appearance would suggest, and that we must look closer to appreciate underlying beauty.

“There is room for beauty in every facet of existence” 

Alan Ball, American Beauty screenwriter

During the Dutch 17th-century period known as the Golden Age, Jan Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch were also trying to teach us that incredible beauty can be found in the mundane, by focusing on simple, everyday life for their exquisite paintings, such as women plucking ducks, pouring milk, or exchanging money with servants. Such commonplace activities might be considered dull by most, to be carried out as quickly as possible. But for Vermeer and de Hooch, trivial, everyday life held a fascinating allure that produced worthy subjects for their art. They realised that if we’re able to reject our preconceived notions, and offer our prolonged attention, an abundance of beauty can be found in the lives of ordinary, everyday people, elevating their chores into something almost sacred. The simple act of a kitchen maid pouring milk is as exquisite and important as the most traditionally grandiose of objects, to be equally revered.

The Milkmaid, Johannes Vermeer. Image from Wikipedia

Our world is delightfully complex—a twisting, warping smorgasbord of vivid colour, sound, texture, taste, and scent, each with seemingly infinite detail for us to experience. As we blitz through our lives like winged bats cast from the flaming pits of hell, flush with desperate ambition, a single, jutted branch can offer us the moment’s peace that we need to hang for a second, take the deepest of breaths, and open up our senses to the wondrous marvels around us. We can recognise the peculiar, humorous amble of the common domestic pigeon, bobbing its green and purple neck along the edge of a train platform; we can listen to the softly shimmering rustle of a towering oak tree, as it sways in a northerly breeze; we can pay attention to the unique texture of a limestone cliff face, as we delicately run our fingers over it; we can extinguish the glow of every screen and focus on the taste of the scrumptious, crispy roast potatoes that we’ve lovingly prepared for ourselves, or we can close our eyes as we breathe in the deliciously subtle, honey-like scent of a Balsam Poplar tree. Each and every experience is brimming with hidden beauty, waiting to be discovered with the use of our wonderful, fortuitous senses. One only has to witness a person suddenly gifted with a previously missing aspect of their senses, to realise how incredibly lucky we are to possess humanity’s full range. Every sense is a gift worthy of the gods, and using them to the fullest is the most fitting display of gratitude we can demonstrate. There’s always more detail to be discerned in the world around us, and we happen to harness five extraordinary ways to reveal it, each one providing a wholly unique, seductive experience.

“Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough… I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of god.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Time spent in our own heads—those never-ending, anxious ruminations that do us little good—is time lost for appreciating the gorgeous beauty of our world. As our focus turns inward, our senses are dampened—their sharpness dulled to allow better concentration on our internal thoughts, at the expense of noticing the comical little idiosyncrasies of your father-in-law as he tells a war story; the glistening sheen of a canal, being warmed by the afternoon sun, or the polite and orderly queue of a string of Monday morning commuters as the train pulls into the station, begrudging their obligation to work, but retaining their civility nonetheless. Our outward attention is required to enjoy such little delights.

“Life is so fast and hectic and filled with distraction that you have to teach yourself to be still, and be quiet, and allow yourself to look for what I call beauty.”

 Alan Ball, American Beauty screenwriter

Mindful, extended observation is also made difficult by those pesky little gadgets that we’re so obsessed with, stealing away our precious attention with their incessant dinging, buzzing and vibrating. Though our dependence seems entrenched (they’re useful, after all), striking a good balance is critical for our increased appreciation of the tremendous planet on which we live. As we sit in a restaurant and wait for our lunch to be prepared, we can opt for mindful sensing—to look, listen, hear, and smell the world, at risk of seeming a little socially odd—or delve into the luminous comfort of our phones, probably on some form of social media, as bad for your soul as cigarettes are for your lungs.

Beauty is by no means confined to the exceptional. It’s waiting to be discovered in the most unexpected and delightful of places, deserved of our precious attention. There’s endless fascination hidden beneath the surface, waiting to be discovered, and as we open up our senses, it’s revealed to us in high-definition, in the most dazzling, impressive, and unpredictable of ways.

The Evolutionary Phenomenon That Makes Sport so Thrilling

“Zoom in, and then tell me ‘it’s just a game’”

@CAFC_SF88

The above picture is the moment that Charlton Athletic—a English football team based in South-East London—scored the last-minute winning goal that would promote them to the higher Championship division, the culmination of a season’s efforts to climb the ranks of the country’s football leagues.

Observe the faces of each and every supporter in the photo, and you can understand the immense impact that sports can have on people’s lives—the sheer, unalloyed joy that comes bursting forth as their team secures a victory that will enhance their position. There’s nothing contrived about this photo, just a plethora of faces—fresh-faced, wrinkled, spectacled, moustached, male, and female—brought together by a team whose actions have rocketed them into the heights of a collective ecstasy. Non-sports fans might be surprised by the emotional intensity—how can something so seemingly trivial as sport create such unbridled fervor? Isn’t it just a game?

Tribalism is the phenomenon responsible for a sport fan’s extraordinary emotional reactions—the flawless rapture that they feel as their team smashes the clincher into the back of the net. In our evolutionary past, tribalism improved our chances of survival by consolidating us into groups, who we trusted, favoured, and depended on. Our tribe became an extension of ourselves, every loss and victory. When a fellow tribesman returned from a successful hunt with a delicious deer tied to the back of his horse, his achievement was our achievement, and was celebrated as such. Similarly, when Charlton’s Patrick Bauer poked the ball past the goal line in the last minute of the play-off final, even though he was the only person responsible for the act, every single Charlton fan in the stadium claimed the victory as their own, with a roar that echoed throughout the country. When we support a football team, we’re no longer a lonely, vulnerable person desperately trying to survive, but a soldier in a formidable army, protecting each other with fierce loyalty, and marching as one. When the club makes a questionable decision—the hiring of an unproven manager; the precarious signing of an expensive player, or a new unethical owner who cares little for the team’s future—the supporters sense the danger as if it were their own; a direct threat to themselves that must be staved off. The fact that the supporters have absolutely no sway over the club’s major decisions makes no difference. It’s our tribe, we’re fully invested, and it must be protected at all costs. The sense of belonging that comes with following a football club is felt in the very marrow of our bones, and we’ll never turn our back on them. After being a supporter of a team for a prolonged period, to change teams is tantamount to treason; the offender an untrustworthy turncoat. We love our tribe and we’ll support them through thick and thin, no matter how embarrassing the performances.

The intense devotion that tribalism can create has obvious downsides, evidenced by the rise of British football hooliganism, when unquestionable loyalty leads to extreme violence. Football fans are taught that it’s good and proper to hate a rival team, just because they’re a rival team—an idiotic obligation in which all sense of logic is thrown out the window. Rival supporters are transformed into dark and deadly enemies, their basic humanity forgotten, and their pummelling justified. Our tribe is the epitome of everything good and true, theirs all that is wrong and false. Clear parallels can be drawn with nationalism and religion, where unbridled tribalism has the potential to create profound hatred. Though tribalism makes sports endlessly thrilling, evoking fervent emotion in its most dramatic moments, diligent caution is required to prevent us from slipping into illogical idiocy, in which other people can become objects of hate, guilty of nothing more than belonging to a different tribe than ours. The competitive nature of sports can warp games into mock battles, and though this is part of what makes them so exciting, the boundary between friendly competition and violent battle can become difficult to distinguish, especially when being swept along by an impassioned, five-hundred strong mob that screams for the blood of the opposition. Conformism for the sake of conformism is foolishly irrational, and in the realm of football, can quickly lead to hateful violence.

At their core, sports are just games, but our tribalistic nature imbues them with extraordinary passion, with the power to create joyful angels, or odious demons of us. A single kick can dispatch us into giddying euphoria, illustrated in each and every face in the photo above, or heart-wrenching despondency, dreams crushed into oblivion, until next season. It’s a rollercoaster ride of intense emotion, the highs non-existent without the lows; the sky-punching jubilance of victory nothing without the sharp sting of defeat. Tribalism is what makes sports so thrilling to experience, and as your club’s defender lurches forward and pokes the ball in the back of the net in the final minute of a game, sending your team soaring into the higher division, a temporary insanity takes over each and every supporter, flooded with fanatical, turbulent emotion. 

The team’s victory is your victory, and it feels indescribably fantastic.

The Bonding Power of Humour

The thought of being independent is appealing to many of us, to be able to act like the pristine lone wolf, roaming the rugged lands and fulfilling every need by itself. To survive autonomously is to be clothed in power, lacking the requisite of outside help. Such people are almost impossible to find within our species. We each have a stark dependency on others, whether it’s the food from our local supermarkets, the shelter of our apartment complexes, or our innate need for emotional closeness. The fields of evolution and psychology strengthen the idea of our social necessity, teaching us that in order to thrive in this world, we must get along with our fellow humans.

Of all the behavioural quirks that we exhibit as a species, there’s one that stands out as an accomplished bonder of people, an action that reduces our distance by wrenching us together in the most enjoyable way imaginable—humour. Laughter is a potent weapon in the battle for social acceptance; a razor-sharp cutlass, the nimble swishing of which makes ardent conquerors of us. It’s a universally adored behaviour with the power to turn strangers into friends, friends into lovers, and lovers into lifelong partners—the solid bedrock of many a successful relationship, and the foundational beginnings of new ones. A good sense of humour can transform our lives from a solitary and lonesome quest into a glorious fellowship—filled with playful nudges, digged ribs, and riotous laughter. With humour thrown into the mix, our dependence on each other is made not only palatable, but utterly delicious. It’s one of a small handful of things that makes life worth living.

“I love people who make me laugh. I honestly think it’s the thing I like most, to laugh. It cures a multitude of ills. It’s probably the most important thing in a person.” 

Audrey Hepburn

Some of our dearest memories are created from periods of turbulent, knee-slapping hilarity—that Sunday afternoon in a pub garden, the nip of the winter’s day fought off by the heat of amusement as your impish friends make joke after joke; an early evening spent lounging in bed with your partner, relentlessly teasing and chuckling until your cheeks hurt from smiling; the time after a festival when you used a traffic cone to mimic a cow, and the local creatures seemed convinced by your efforts to communicate. These moments are more valuable than all the sparkling diamonds of the world, and they come about by making a concerted effort to be funny.

Every attempt at humour is a gamble, with either a gain or a loss in social kudos; wide-grinned, beaming faces, in which a glorious victory has been won, or looks of hardened stone, eliciting bored apathy. A failed attempt at humour can be awfully embarrassing, and our aversion to loss can make cowards of us. But the gamble is worth it, because victory is nothing less than unbridled connection to our fellow humans; a shared sense of joyous camaraderie. Embarrassment is fleeting, but friendship is long-lasting. The only way to discover our particular kind of people is by having the courage to put ourselves out there. Jokes are friendship-detectors, which light up our future companions after every ridiculous quip that we dare to make. Who cares that our critics remain silent and stony-faced? We’ll probably never be friends with them anyway. When it comes to being humorous, the gamble is almost always worth it.

“There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.” 

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Attempts at humour can dwindle as we grow older and become more comfortable with ourselves, because we’re less inclined to impress others. This is a tragedy—our lives can become dull without regular bouts of laughter, its colour desaturated until drab and dreary; an existence of humdrum seriousness, in which ambition positions itself front and center. We forget the absolute joy we felt in the throes of a tickle attack from our mother, or the time we hit our grandad square in the eye with a snowball, with him turning up later wearing a pretend medical patch. We swap our superhero outfits for business suits, and in the process, forget what’s really important—a tongue-in-cheek crack at your friend’s new tattoo; a return from holiday with every square-inch of your desk covered in tin-foil, or an uninterrupted, no-holds-barred re-telling of your brother’s insane party antics. The confidence that age brings is an undeniably good thing, but it can be accompanied by insidious complacency, in which we’re so self-assured that we no longer see the social importance of cracking a well-timed kitchen joke among colleagues, or putting a whoopee cushion underneath your grandmother’s worn-out armchair. These are the actions that make us truly loveable—every daring quip strengthens our bond with our audience, creating a wonderful sense of belonging. Laughter is the ultimate social adhesive.

“Laughter is wine for the soul – laughter soft, or loud and deep, tinged through with seriousness – the hilarious declaration made by man that life is worth living.” 

Sean O’Casey

To laugh with another person is to momentarily love them. All cares fall away for the briefest of moments, as though we’ve been permitted temporary entry into a heavenly Nirvana, before stepping back into our anxiety-wracked bodies. There’s nothing quite as effective at bonding people than humour, and our efforts to make each other laugh can create formidable affinities, reinforced with every new joke. Our dependency on each other can be transformed from a position of hesitant obligation, to eager devotion, in which every snicker, chuckle and howl makes us appreciate each other a little more. The strenuous journey of life, in which the highest snowy peaks and lowest boggy troughs must be traversed, is made worthwhile only if we have companions walking beside us, and laughter is how we acquire them.

“Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can; all of them make me laugh.” 

W. H. Auden

The Invasion of Cheap Thrill Entertainment

Photo from Gratis Photography

Entertainment has played a significant role in the history of our species. During our primitive Stone Age, it came in the form of campfire storytelling—an edge-of-your-rock thriller, recounting a face-to-face meeting with the infamous, deathly-black Jaguar, and his phantom-like ways. Then arrived theatre, with its fancily-clad actors, weaving Machiavellian tales of rebellious, snakelike deceit, building towards a heart-wrenching tragedy. Today, we’re inundated with entertainment—TV shows that portray the lives of portly Italian gangsters, feature-length movies that depict the difficult lives of young black men living in Los Angeles, and music, games, books, magazines, sports—an astounding variety of endless amusement, offering us a temporary distraction from our responsibilities, until reality returns to reclaim us. Our sanity requires entertainment as nourishment, lest we become gaunt overachievers, unable to accommodate anything but our potent ambition while creeping ever closer to the white-washed walls of the nuthouse. Entertainment takes us away from ourselves, offering a temporary form of relief—a lightening of the gravity of existence, during which our soul can rejuvenate. 

Not all entertainment is equal, however. The internet has given rise to an entirely new type of entertainment—hastily produced, easily distributed, and effortlessly consumable. These are the memes, short videos, gifs, and any other form of “quick-consumption” amusement that can be found plastered across social media. Their primary purpose is to tickle us in a way that requires zero brainpower, as quickly as possible, until we can move onto something equally as shallow and thoughtless. We might be tempted to call this “cheap thrill entertainment”, and though it does have a small degree of value (a hearty chuckle when our brains are fatigued), its proliferation in our lives has a number of negative consequences.

First, there’s our attention span. As we become more accustomed to spending our free time consuming meme after meme, video after video, and tweet after tweet of mindless amusement, when we’re faced with something valuable that requires concerted effort—a Tolstoy novel, with its 1,225 pages of sophisticated plot and bamboozling array of Russian characters—we may as well be faced with Mount Everest. We’ve become so adapted to cheap thrill entertainment, so used to being gratified quickly and efficiently, that the motivation required to read a difficult book, get through a slow-burning TV drama, or just sit and listen to a 10-minute Beethoven masterpiece, is non-existent³; our willingness to put effort into challenging forms of entertainment all but vanished. When we do muster the courage to attempt a demanding form of entertainment, the experience is tainted with an oppressive desire for our phones, skin positively crawling with a craving for something easier, as our brains become flooded with the dopamine and serotonin associated with cheap thrill entertainment. Many of us cave at this point, and the Tolstoy novel—that masterpiece of moral teaching that can teach you how to be a better person—is slotted back into its dusty position on the shelf, perhaps forever.

Our capacity for sustained concentration is fundamental to our success, whether at work, or play, and the teeming plethora of cheap thrill entertainment that pervades our modern lives is damaging it. With adorable puppy videos just a few clicks away, procrastination can become impossible to resist, particularly if you’ve built a habit of gawping at them in your spare time. As we fill our lives with the quick and easy, we impair our ability for the difficult, tough, and often worthy. There’s no doubt that watching an episode of The Wire, with its incredible storytelling, and beautiful, often subtle social commentary, has greater value that spending an hour watching corgi videos. Exceptional drama can teach us about the world that we live in, even improving our emotional intelligence in the process¹. But as with anything subtle and complex, in order for us to recognise and fully appreciate its value, our sustained concentration is required — an act that is becoming increasingly difficult for the modern internet user², more accustomed to the two-second thrill of a meme than a gradually developing six-season drama.

The more time we spend scrolling through mindless entertainment, the harder it is for us to become immersed in worthy entertainment. In our age of distraction, choosing to play a game of chess, with its requirement for gradual, thoughtful strategy, isn’t much of a choice at all, and so we’re impoverished — destined to become the consumers of imbecilic nonsense, created purely for our attention, rather than for its value. It’s as though we have an addiction to easy entertainment, and when faced with something a little more challenging, can only resist our dopamine for so long before inevitably relenting, like puppets without will.

Our intelligence is another consideration. While there’s nothing wrong with the occasional hour spent amusing yourself with Game of Thrones memes, or video clips of hilarious tomfooleries, too much of this kind of entertainment will turn you into a braindead bore. Good entertainment, on the other hand, is often brimming with valuable, educational gems—a captivating Shakespeare tragedy; a ten-part series on the Vietnam War; the closing scenes of gaming masterpiece The Last of Us—these experiences bestow us with wonderfully fresh perspectives, having kicked off the shoes of a brand-new character, recently pitted in a battle against unfamiliar circumstances, we emerge with greater tolerance and empathy. These kinds of rewards can’t usually be found amongst the insipid content of Instagram or Faecesbook, and every hour spent within their grasp is an hour in which we could be learning more about the world that we live in. This is not to suggest that every spare minute should be spent on laborious, hard-hitting drama—sometimes we’re so exhausted that puppy videos are all our brains can handle. But most of the time, we should feel energised enough to opt for more valuable forms of entertainment, to avoid the descent into asinine mediocrity—a place filled with the banal frivolities of social media memes, and the vapid “hey guys” videos of Instagram influencers. The fact that an Instagram influencer even exists is evidence of our adoration of bland, cheap thrill entertainment, at the expense of our intelligence. Immerse yourself in this kind of amusement, and it may become your whole world.

Finally, we have our mental health to consider. Social media, with its memes, videos, and fake news, has shown to increase the risk of serious conditions such as depression and anxiety. As these platforms reel us in with their interminable, flavourless content, and we remain transfixed for hours on end, we’re trading short-term entertainment for long-term happiness. The gross thrills that we’re conditioned to consume end up consuming us instead, until we come to the realisation that we’re wasting our lives on complete and utter garbage, at the expense of some truly magnificent forms of treasured entertainment, with the power to nudge us towards confidence-boosting knowledge, and greater degrees of emotional intelligence.

There’s nothing wrong with the odd cheap thrill. We can’t be forever taut, poised to conquer this and that in an endless attempt at self improvement. Relaxation is just as important as work. But in our modern world of uncountable memes, video clips, and short-form articles, the way we relax has changed for many of us, with dire consequences. After years of immersing ourselves in cheap thrill entertainment, even instant gratification can seem sluggish. Our once stellar attention becomes broken and fragmented, our intelligence stunted, and our mental health contaminated—until the day we decide that enough is enough.

References

  1. Tom Jacobs, Watching TV Can Boost Emotional Intelligence
  2. Carolyn Gregoire, The Internet May Be Changing Your Brain In Ways You’ve Never Imagined
  3. Harriet Griffey, The lost art of concentration: being distracted in a digital world

How Nature Can Improve Your Health

aerial-view-beach-beautiful-462162Image from Pixabay

By the year 2050, 70% of humanity is expected to live in cities across the globe[1]. Our already gargantuan concrete jungles will continue to grow, swollen with millions of ambitious jostlers, immersed in the higgledy-piggledy game of life.

The sheer scale of our cities can quickly become tiring; their excitement a jangle on our overstimulated nerves, as though being repeatedly zapped with a cattle prod. While there’s much to love and appreciate—delicious coffee; bars awash with friendly, tipsy faces; the soft twinkling of densely-packed skyscrapers—cities can quickly become overbearing, creating a longing for the soothing calm of the wide outdoors: an expansive wood with zigzag walking paths; a serene national park, echoing with the warbles of luminous, tippy-tappy tropical birds; or a soaring, snow-tipped mountain, so utterly glorious that it appears to have been designed with the purpose of taking your breath away.

Nature can be a formidable conqueror of stress. A plodding amble beside a bubbling stream, away from the merciless chaos of modern civilisation, can do wonders for the soul—cortisol levels dampened, ruminations hushed[2], and contentment heightened, as though everything is just as it should be. The smokey topaz hue of a soaring redwood, the millions of blades of fulgent grass that encroach upon it, and the red-tailed hawks that float on the overhead airwaves, are all unquestionably perfect. Their flawlessness bathes us in appreciation, and though it’s tragically difficult for us to realise, we’re an expression of the very same universe, and share their perfection. What’s to achieve, if everything is already sublime? Nature’s sole ambition is to perpetuate into the future—a bespeckled leaf-toed gecko doesn’t dream of sitting in the boss’ chair one day, head swollen with status, nor does a mountain assume that it’ll be more attractive if it attains a gym membership, in an effort to enlarge its craggy north face for the ladies. Everything is already exactly as it should be.

“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”
—Lao Tzu

“Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
—John Muir

For entry into its realm, nature demands our ambition as payment, returned a little lighter upon exit. With our opportunism all but vanquished, there’s nothing to do but open up our senses to the majesty that we’ve gained access to—basking in the tranquility of a tulip-strewn meadow, bobbing in the gentle waves of the Spanish blue Mediterranean ocean, or doggedly trudging up the gruelling slopes of a serrated limestone mountain, offering views that would melt the heart of the most ardent industrialist.

4k-wallpaper-beautiful-bloom-1487010Photo by James Wheeler from Pexels

“This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.”
John Muir, John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir

The inconceivable grandeur of nature can have a powerful diminishing effect, reducing us to tiny specks lost in a vast landscape, and inviting us into a perspective that fills us with humility. There’s nothing quite as humbling as standing before a colossal thousand-foot granite mountain, or watching as a skyscraper-sized chunk of ice detaches itself from a glacier, slamming into the ocean and throwing up a wall of formidable water. Such things are mightier than us, and we must prostrate ourselves before them. Worthier gods couldn’t be found in all the galaxies of the universe.

“Nature is not vying for our attention or demanding anything from us (unlike the media, advertisement and the entertainment industry) but instead always remains in the background, awaiting like a long lost friend, our attention to reignite the friendship once again—for free.”
—Joshua Krook[3]

The term “humility” is derived from the Latin word humilitas, in turn related to humilis, which can be translated as “grounded” or “from the earth”[4]. To be humble is to return to the place from which we came—a homecoming that instills us with a contented sense of belonging. The vast majority of our evolutionary past was spent in the wild, rustling through swathes of elephant grass on the African plains, or darkened by the shadows of oak trees, immersed in a murky deciduous forest. It’s no wonder that we feel so at home among nature—homo sapiens have spent 98% of their history in it. There’s no denying the magnificence of modern living, with its glistening, expansive cities, but in the depths of our soul, some of us feel most at home in the wild. Our desire to “get away from it all” might be translated as a longing to return to the peace and solitude of a wide-set mountain valley, echoing with the hungry cries of circling golden eagles. We feel a profound affinity with nature not just because of our dependence on it, but because we are it. Our tendency to think of ourselves as separate from nature is a grave error. Humans are the universe expressing itself in a unique way—one single form of expression among billions.

“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
—John Muir, John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir

For those of us lacking in the faith of an almighty, monotheistic god, or struggling to identify what gives voice to our hearts, nature can provide us with the meaning that we so desperately crave. When gazing upon the rouge-painted slopes of a rolling autumn hill, reflected in the stillness of a shimmering lake, the beauty of what you’re observing is the point of everything, pacifying the need for any kind of ultimate purpose. The soaring significance of nature is often achieved in the most beautifully simple way—not an embellishment in sight, nor any need for bells and whistles, just a torrent of water suddenly suspended in mid-air, then cascading downwards in glad acquiesce to gravity, quietly dissipating until there’s nothing left but fine mist.

G6G6D0UAngel Falls, Venezuela

“Millions of eyes, I knew, had gazed at this landscape, and for me it was like the first smile of the sky. It took me out of myself in the deepest sense of the word. It assured me that but for my love and the wondrous cry of these stones, there was no meaning in anything. The world is beautiful, and outside it there is no salvation.”
—Albert Camus, Lyrical and Critical Essays (The Desert)

The immobilising awe that we can feel as we gaze through a vista in a sun-kissed coastal town, blue sea twinkling in the distance, is a connection to an astonishing universe that requires no point other than its own existence. Awe entwines us with the natural world, strengthening our affinity with this effortlessly ravishing planet that we’re so incredibly fortunate to be a part of.

“Everything seems futile here except the sun, our kisses, and the wild scents of the earth.”
—Albert Camus, Lyrical and Critical Essays

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”
—John Muir

Nature’s cadence is one of easy-going plodding—the sweeping Himalayas took 50 million years to form[5], and here we are dashing about like industrious mice, busy busy busy, hoping to achieve even the tiniest thing of significance. It’s impossible to savour something when possessed by a speed demon, hell-bent on achievement, forgoing the joy of peaceful dawdling—doing nothing more than luxuriating in the moment. When we find ourselves gawping at the sun-blistered chasm of the Grand Canyon, the sheer spectacle transforms us from madcap hares into attentive tortoises, forcing us to appreciate its majesty at a more fortuitous pace, one in which we’re less likely to become the victims of a premature heart-attack.

“Nature is a labyrinth in which the very haste you move with will make you lose your way.”
—Francis Bacon

Nature applies a much-needed brake on our ever-increasing acceleration, led astray by the belief that status-fuelled achievement can somehow offer us contentment. All of that nonsense is quickly forgotten when we find ourselves ambling down a countryside-lane, tasting berries as we go, happy with nothing more than the natural delights of the earth.

“Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

“How many hours have I spent crushing absinthe leaves, caressing ruins, trying to match my breathing with the world’s tumultuous sighs! Deep among wild scents and concerts of somnolent insects, I open my eyes and heart to the unbearable grandeur of this heat-soaked sky.”
—Albert Camus, Lyrical and Critical Essays (Nuptials at Tipasa)

Our world is truly magnificent, with so much goodness to offer us. And yet, much of this beauty is in danger of being lost to the ravages of global warming, fuelled by humanity’s unrelenting greed. It’s a tale of incomparable tragedy—as we choke the earth, we choke ourselves. We must do everything in our power to protect our planet, lest we destroy its irreplaceable delights.

It isn’t too late for us to slow the damage, but we must do our part. With collective action, we can help to protect the pristine solace of our natural world, so that we may continue to become willingly bewitched by its abundant enchantments. Our planet can only take so much abuse—the danger that we face cannot be understated.

Never before has something been this urgent. This spectacular world of ours can endure into the everlasting future, its breathtaking magnificence open for all, but only if we become fully conscious of the significance of the problem, accept that the responsibility for change lies with us, and take repeated and consistent action. If we work together, we can save this fantastic world of ours.

If you’d like to learn more about the devastating effects that global warming is having on our planet, check out these awesome shows on Netflix:

References

1. Gregory N. BratmanJ. Paul HamiltonKevin S. HahnGretchen C. Daily, and James J. Gross, Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation
2. Jill L. Ferguson, 5 Benefits of Being Outdoors
3. Joshua Krook, Cezanne’s Writings and Finding Meaning in Nature
4. Wikipedia, Humility
5. The Geological Society, Continental/Continental: The Himalayas

Why Laughter Is the Ultimate Weapon Against Meaninglessness

melanie-dretvic-699931-unsplashPhoto by Melanie Dretvic on Unsplash

If we widen our scope from our narrow, subjective point of view, to the entirety of our colossal, shadowy universe, this species of ours, with our hairless bodies, opposable thumbs, and mounds of belly-button fluff, might be described with a single, incisive word: inconsequential.

We’re really quite tiny. Puny, in fact. There isn’t much that we can do of consequence in our lifetime—even with the lifetime of every humanbefore the steady march of time crushes us underfoot, when we return to the eternal obscurity of pre-birth. We’re all living on borrowed time, as quick as a cursory snap of the fingers, and then oblivion. Our destiny is one of triviality, authored by the fluctuating nature of the universe, whose brutal indifference lives by only a single, ironclad rule—things must change. The universe doesn’t make exceptions. Whether it’s in the next few hours, or the next few billion years, eventually, our species is highly likely to perish, lost to the eternal darkness of the abyss.

“Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of “world history,” but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche

Depressing nihilism? It doesn’t have to be. Our irrelevance can offer us a beautifully light-hearted, devil-may-care attitude. If nothing really matters, and everything we slip and strain for will eventually crumble into dust, what’s to take seriously? Is it really worth spending twelve hours a day chained to your office desk, expression of hardened-stone, assiduously beavering away to climb a career ladder that will be annihilated soon enough? Our mortality affords us the ability to be blasé—a reminder to check our overbearing seriousness in the face of obliteration.

“The life of man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster.”
— David Hume

There’s nothing quite as ridiculous as someone who takes themselves too seriously, as though their bustling ambition is their ace-up-the-sleeve against death, securing their immortality. These are the Donald Trumps of the world—ruthless, lacking in humour, hell-bent on control, and without any sense of their own pointlessness. All ego and no spirit. Can you imagine Trump actually having fun while swanning around the immaculately-kept fairways of his Mar a Lago golf resort? Excessively serious people are all work and no play, even when pretending to play. Though their efforts may help to position them atop a towering hierarchy, their humourless attitudes will wreck their ability to enjoy it. They lack the capacity to see their existence as it really is: hopelessly frivolous.

“Look back over the past, with its changing empires that rose and fell, and you can foresee the future too.”
Marcus Aurelius

Life is hopelessly frivolous for all of us, and appreciation of this fact—contrary though it may seem—can stoke our sense of humour until it becomes a blazing inferno. We can bristle and weep in the face of our impending doom, or laugh raucously in its face, fully aware of how ridiculous, magnificent, and wonderful it all is. Laughter is rebellion against the meaningless of life. A master of living carries a light heart.

When a Zen Buddhist finally attains enlightenment after decades of practice, they say that there’s nothing left for them to do but have a good laugh[1]. They’ve perceived a fundamental truth—everything that they sought was already within them, and their strivings can be considered as all but meaninglessness. How else to react to this insight? With a serious, hard-boiled expression? Or with laughter?

“I laugh when I think how I once sought paradise as a realm outside of the world of birth. It is right in the world of birth and death that the miraculous truth is revealed. But this is not the laughter of someone who suddenly acquires a great fortune; neither is it the laughter of one who has won a victory. It is, rather, the laughter of one who; after having painfully searched for something for a long time, finds it one morning in the pocket of his coat.”
—Thich Nhat Hanh

The word nirvana literally translates to “blow out” or “extinguish”, which is exactly what happens to your absurd seriousness when you realise the insignificance of it all, no longer harbouring delusions of grandeur, but instead viewing your existence as a wave in the ocean, the flap of a starling’s wing—nothing more. As our seriousness wanes, our playfulness and sense of humour increases.

“[Laughter is a] sudden relaxation of strain, so far as occurring through the medium of the breathing and vocal apparatus… the laugh is thus a phenomenon of the same general kind as the sigh of relief.”
—John Dewey

The earnest among us harbour an innate desire for control, as though we can shape and mould our world into something concrete and everlasting. The playful perceive the futility of such actions—a belly laugh that destroys all illusion of authority over Mother Nature, as if her defeat were ever possible. Good humour is the ability to sense the uncontrollable complexity of the world—an attitude which when translated into words might say “fuck trying to control that wily nonsense”.  In the frequent moments that we become lost in our lives—teeming with seriousness after having forgotten that it’s all just a game—a knee-slapping, riotous howl of laughter might be the most effective way to put everything into perspective.

“Since everything is but an apparition, having nothing to do with good or bad, acceptance or rejection, one may as well burst out in laughter.”
—Longchenpa

Part of a comedian’s job is to draw attention to people who take life too seriously, magnifying their absurdity in comical ways, and transforming gravity into frivolity. There’s no easier target than a stiff, po-faced gentleman with a head full of ambition, whose piss must be taken in the name of tomfoolery. Loftiness is only permitted when sprinkled with humility. Laughter is the razor-sharp weapon that can pierce solemnity, which is why someone like Ricky Gervais can get away with pummeling a room full of movie stars, or make light of something as tragic as the holocaust. Humour is like bottled relief—two large teaspoons taken every four hours can lower stress, reduce anxiety and depression, and lower blood pressure[2]. Comedians may as well be physicians.

“The only thing I can recommend at this stage is a sense of humor, an ability to see things in their ridiculous and absurd dimensions, to laugh at others and at ourselves, a sense of irony regarding everything that calls out for parody in this world.”
—Václav Havel

To be humorous is to temporarily abandon reason, which is rendered worthless during moments of laughter—throwing logic out of the window because it’s all so silly and pointless. When the absurdity of our existence smacks us directly in the face, and we fully regard it for the first time, all that we once deemed important—getting rich, being successful, driving a sports car, etc.—can dissipate into nothing, followed by a sublime sense of relief.

“Don’t take life too seriously; nobody ever makes it out alive anyway.”
—Van Wilder

A sense of humour is like psychological armour against the tragedy of a meaningless existence—a shining suit of Mithril, with every precious link curved upwards into a smile, poised to charge the enemy with a grin on our faces. The universe has spat us out without our consent, and to make matters worse, demands our dissolution after a few short decades. How better to respond than with unassailable mirth?

A hardy sense of humour is an effective rebellion against our absurd existence—a rightfully judicious decision that can turn our story from one of depressing, all-too-serious tragedy, to mutinous, laugh-out-loud comedy. Laughter has the power to turn us into insurgent gods, and though life will never be able to offer us any concrete meaning, during our times of cackling rebellion, for the briefest of moments, it no longer matters.

“Death smiles at us all; all we can do is smile back.”
Marcus Aurelius

References

1. Alan Watts, The Way of Waking Up
2. The Power of Positivity

The Psychological Driving Force That Makes Social Networks so Successful

fran.jpg

Francois de La Rochefoucauldimage from The Art of Manliness
For a poodle-haired French philosopher born in the elegance of a post-Renaissance Paris, a social network would describe the group of friends that he spends his time with, sipping tea in a lavish French salon while discussing the deepest topics of life. Francois de La Rochefoucauld is a philosopher famed for penning a short book of stinging, pithy maxims, aimed at eliminating the illusions that we have related to our own behaviours, with particular emphasis on our desperate need to impress other people.

The gargantuan, overgrown beasts that we call social networks today might be unthinkable for someone from La Rochefoucauld’s time, but despite being beyond that generation’s reach, the man himself would probably have had a lot to say about them. One his greatest skills was his ability to perceive the underlying motives behind people’s behaviour, much of which is focused on our longing for social approval—a desire that forms the foundation of modern social networks. Without the “like” button, there probably wouldn’t be a Facebook, an Instagram, or a Twitter. There may not even be a Medium. La Rochefoucauld was able to fully appreciate the power of social approval, and the extent to which it drives our behaviour.

The lives that we portray on social media can be vastly different to reality, with only the so-called positive aspects of our experiences shared, in an unconscious attempt to disguise the often banal truth of our day-to-day existences. Like actors on a stage, we slip on a more attractive mask, position ourselves in appealing situations, and carry out impressive performances to trick our audience into believing that our lives are something to be envied. We want to be adored, after all. The problem with such bombastic fakery is that the mask can become to the reality, and who we really are slips from our memory, to be replaced with society’s notion of prestige and success—the existence of an subservient toady.

“We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others that in the end we become disguised to ourselves.”
—Francois de La Rochefoucauld

“In all professions each affects a look and an exterior to appear what he wishes the world to believe that he is. Thus we may say that the whole world is made up of appearances.”
—Francois de La Rochefoucauld

A disguise is never suitable for long—eventually we’ll yearn for our heart’s true desire. We must go our own way, lest we live the life of someone else. Social networks are poison to individualism, with each member striving to impress their hundreds of friends, and selling a little bit of their soul in the process. Flattery—and the vanity that seeks it—insidiously cuts away at our uniqueness, until there’s nothing left but a shell, with social media “friends” permitted to fill it up with whatever they want.

“If we did not flatter ourselves, the flattery of others could never harm us.”
—Francois de La Rochefoucauld

“Flattery is a kind of bad money, to which our vanity gives us currency”
—Francois de La Rochefoucauld

Much of our social posting—our political rants, jokes, daily gripes, TV recommendations, social commentary, or anything else that we deem to share with the world—can be traced back to our desire for approval, eyes darting to the alluring notification icon whenever it appears, yearning for people to like what we have to say. The scope can even be widened to any interaction that we have with people. As highly social animals, a great deal of our mutterings are made with the intention to impress. How often would you make a comment that you know would agitate your audience, darkening your reputation in the process?

“We speak little if not egged on by vanity”
—La Rochefoucauld

La Rochefoucauld believed that without our own rapacious sense of vanity to spur us on, we’d be a hell of a lot quieter. But as long as there’s admiration to be had, we’ll capture it in whatever way that we can (provided it doesn’t offend anyone important).

These assertions about our good natures may arrive with a painful sting, perhaps a righteous, offended position of denial. Other people may be so insecure as to behave in such sycophantic ways, but me? Pfft. Observe your behaviour more closely, and you may discover that the French philosopher is much more accurate than you’d like to believe.

An overly-contrived person—who we might call a “suck-up” or a “try-hard”—is just someone who fails to impress surreptitiously, like the rest of us. There’s a tendency to dislike these kinds of people, because their pronounced ulterior motive shines a glaring, unflattering light on our own. The traits that we dislike about others are often the traits that we dislike (or flat-out deny) about ourselves. The unfriend button never looked so appealing.

“We have no patience with other people’s vanity because it is offensive to our own”
—La Rochefoucauld

Even the deeds that we deem the most wholesome may crumble under meticulous scrutiny. Why do you really give to charity? To help the unfortunate, or to experience the glowing sense of goodness that accompanies it, and the properly-deserved swathes of likes that attach themselves to the social share? How much of your behaviour is ultimately selfish? This isn’t an advocation to stop giving to charity—the motives behind such acts are inconsequential, because a good deed is being done regardless—but an invitation to be inquisitive about your behaviour.

“We would frequently be ashamed of our good deeds if people saw all of the motives that produced them.”
—Francois de La Rochefoucauld

Overcoming fakery in order to live a more genuine life seemed of paramount importance to La Rochefoucauld. A world in which the judgmental eyes of your fellow Facebook friends are banished beyond redemption is a world in which virtue could thrive for its own sake, without thought of reward—a desire to be good for no other reason than goodness itself. What could be more beautiful than that?

“Virtue would go far if vanity did not keep it company.”
—Francois de La Rochefoucauld

“Perfect valour consists in doing without witnesses that which we would be capable of doing before everyone.”
—Francois de La Rochefoucauld

Social networks are an inexhaustible source of fuel for our vanity—a platform that allows us to focus our efforts on getting as much kudos as possible, regardless of its obvious mediocrity, and lack of durability. It doesn’t take much to share a meme on Instagram, but damn, how good do those likes feel? Social networks are an addictive distraction from worthier endeavours—meaningful activities that actually contain the potential to improve our lives, as opposed to having our precious egos soothed with worthless virtual approval.

“Care about people’s approval, and you will always be their prisoner.” – Lao Tzu

Sadly, life is a little more complicated than just doing whatever the hell we want, without consideration of social consequences. Though we may be aching to post a caustic response to our cousin’s imbecilic right-wing social post, self-preservation stays our hand. There’s good logical sense behind our desire to impress—we need other people to survive. Sociality is a delicate balancing act, with soulless flattery on the one side, and courageous individualism on the other. Though it’s possible and infinitely more valuable to sway towards individualism, and live in accordance with our own meaningful values, survival requires us to appear favourably in the eyes of others, or risk wasting away in isolation. The social nature of our species is the reason for our innate vanity, and it isn’t going away anytime soon. Though the razor-sharp vision of La Rochefoucauld may cut through the illusion of our selfish behaviours, it doesn’t deter from that the fact that we need other people to survive, at least in some small degree. These people can be found in the world around us, not just as faces on computer screens, characterised by counterfeit tales of perfectly edited lives.

Social networks are vanity on crack, and the acerbic mind of La Rochefoucauld would probably have condemned them to the dust heap of history, where they undoubtedly belong.