Our bodies are a marvel. They’re organic powerhouses with trillions of cells undergoing trillions of processes to keep us upright, all without our knowing, and much of the time, without our appreciation. And yet, when something goes awry and fails to work as we intended, we feel a sting of incompetence, as though we’re tyrannical, unfaltering masters over our bodies. We forget about the trillions of unconscious processes that work perfectly, aggrieved at the one thing that didn’t work the way it should have.
Michel de Montaigne was a philosopher unlike any other in history. Born into a wealthy family in the Aquitaine region of south-western France in 1533, he lived his first three years with a peasant family, with the intention of bringing him “closer to the people.” Once back home, his father set out a non-traditional educational plan that would see his son developing Latin as a first language, and learning by games, conversation, and exercises of meditation, which would create a spirit of “liberty and light,” and set him on a path of philosophy originality.
Montagine loved to learn, but hated the stiff and arrogant pedantry found in academia, which was obsessed with traditional philosophy and blinded to all else. For him, philosophy was as much about our everyday lives as it was about “serious” issues of morality, ethics, and virtue. Montaigne was one of the first philosophers to deeply consider topics such as humour, marriage, clothing, cannibals, and shitting. He breaches so many deeply personal and human topics that some people consider him to be the first psychologist. In one of his essays, he even takes on the role of sexual psychologist, when addressing a grave concern that many men experience at least once in their lives: impotence.
For a man, impotence is a bitter failure of control over his body. I can testify to the stinging shame of feeling my erection wilt away like a pathetic pricked balloon, followed by the kind but hated question “are you ok?” No, I’m not ok, I just failed to do one of the main things that defines me as a man. I’m a dysfunctional flop; a flaccid turkey that’s lost its gobble. I’m supposed to be capable of this, without question.
A friend of Montaigne’s felt the same, and wrote to him about it. He told Montaigne that he’d heard of a man who had the dreaded performance problem, and being highly suggestible, was so worried about falling under the same curse that he became impotent himself. He wanted to have sex with his lover, but having been dislodged of the idea that a man’s erection is an infallible fortress, became so agitated that his penis threw itself down and refused to ascend. Montaigne, being fascinated with the everyday issues that make us human, explained that the problem wasn’t a physical weakness or deficit of masculinity, but the misguided and oppressive notion that we have complete control over our bodies. We believe our minds to be all-powerful masters which our enslaved bodies must obey, never questioning our supreme authority, so when our body fails to do what we intend—drop a satsuma into a shopping bag; throw a tennis ball successfully over a fence; maintain an erection—we’re hot with embarrassment, as though the failure is entirely our fault.
For Montaigne, the cure lied in correcting our idea of normality—to remind ourselves that sometimes our bodies will do what the hell they want, despite our intentions. Rather than viewing the sexual mishap as a rare abomination born from a pitiful lack of control, we should recognise it as nothing but a common, unavoidable gaffe, neither serious or calamitous. With this perspective in mind, instead of descending into an oppressive and powerless gloom, Montaigne’s impotent friend spoke openly to his lover about the problem, which as honest talking often does, shrank it into insignificance and never cursed him again.
Another friend of Montaigne’s was about to be married and experience the first night with his new wife, and having been formerly blighted by impotence, was terrified of it happening again on such an important night. Aware that suggestibility was partly responsible for the man’s impotence, Montaigne decided to use it to his advantage, and advised him to do the following:
“As soon as we had left the room he was to withdraw to pass water: he was then to say certain prayers three times and make certain gestures: each time he was to tie round himself the ribbon I had put in his hand and carefully lay the attached medallion over his kidneys, with the figure in the specified position. Having done so, he should draw the ribbon tight so that it could not come undone: then he was to go back and confidently get on with the job, not forgetting to throw my nightshirt over the bed in such a way as to cover them both.”
Michel De Montaigne, The Complete Essays
This fixed the man’s problem, with Montaigne noting that it is “such monkeyings-about that mainly produce results.”
Some Frenchmen weren’t fortunate enough to have Montaigne as a friend. He knew another man who lost his erection with a woman, and believing that the sexual mishap was entirely his fault, scampered home, cut off his penis and sent it to the woman to “atone for his offence.” I assume the consolation was more satisfactory than the sex.
If pride is the severer of penises, humility is what’ll sew them back on. We can be confident captains of our fleshy vessels until a howling wind picks up and blows us off course. Tyrannical mastery over our bodies is a pitiful fantasy born from insecurity; flimsy protection against the frightening reality that you have little control over what happens to you, including what happens with your body. Accepting this fact is courageous, and tempers our frustration when things don’t go as planned, whether it’s missing the first step up to the stage while collecting your university degree, the widening bald patch atop your dome, or watching in horror as your penis shrivels like a sad prune. Such mishaps are neither rare or avoidable among our species, and after listening to our self-pitying woes, Montaigne might have sat back, adjusted his pearly-white ruff, and said “so what? Do you think you’re a god?”
Our tiny virus-sized reporter chats to the original coronavirus, to understand how this all started.
🧔🏽 “First of all, congratulations on your recent success, you’ve done tremendously well.”
🦠 “Thank you, I can’t quite believe it, to be honest.”
🧔🏽 “Where did the motivation come from to start this ferocious campaign?”
🦠 “It was less a campaign, and more a fluke. I guess it started from feeling lonely, spending night after night drifting aimlessly through my hog, pining for a genetically-identical friend. It got to the point where I craved company so badly that I broke into a nearby cell, just to talk to a mitochondria, even though everyone knows that mitochondria suck. But the moment I was inside, I had this out-of-membrane experience where I lost control of myself, and ejaculated genomic nucleic acid everywhere.”
🧔🏽 “So you had no intention of self-replicating when you entered the cell?”
🦠 “No. I mean, I wanted to self-replicate because I was lonely. I just didn’t know how.”
🧔🏽 “What happened next?”
🦠 “I watched in amazement as my genomic nucleic acid reacted with the cell and told it to make copies of me, which grew to full size and had their own moments of excitement, spurting forth like a bunch of horny volcanoes. Before I knew it, I didn’t just have one genetically-identical friend to talk to, I had thousands!”
🧔🏽 “How did the mitochondria feel about this?”
🦠 “They were furious. They kicked and screamed as we got all up in their pretty little organelle faces, and soon every square µm of space was taken, so we used our mighty collective strength to smash down the cell walls.”
🧔🏽 “So there were thousands of you, and you were free to go where you wanted in your pig’s body. What did do you next?”
🦠 “We just wanted to party! Man, we partied everywhere, from the colossal chambers of the heart ventricles to the great tunnel of the esophagus, but we couldn’t properly relax because of the Exterminators.”
🧔🏽 “The Exterminators?”
🦠 “The hog’s t-cells. They’re stone cold killers who can’t be reasoned with. During one of our first parties in the sphincter, just as the place was about to explode, they appeared out of nowhere and clouded us in deadly cytotoxin gas. Ever put salt on a slug? That’s what it’s like. Most of us escaped, but we lost hundreds of brothers that day.”
🧔🏽 “How did you avoid them after that?”
🦠 “We had lookouts around the perimeter of the party, but we had the best DJ in all of Virusdom—DJ Split—and the lookouts couldn’t resist the relentless thump of his techno beats, leaving their posts to join the party. We ended up losing thousands, and realised that the only way to beat the Exterminators was to overwhelm them with numbers, so we put aside our partying and started breaking into more cells.”
🧔🏽 “How many of you were there by the time you finished?”
🦠 “Trillions. So many that our hog became red-eyed and feverish, and was clearly about to die.”
🧔🏽 “So you jumped ship?”
🦠 “Yep. We organised our biggest event yet — The Great Sneezing — where we all congregated in the nostrils and waited for another animal to get close. Even though this event was a silent disco, the Exterminators still caught up with us, and just as an army of them came screaming from the darkness of the naval cavity, a human started inspecting our pig, and we knew this was our chance. I gave the signal to gently stroke our pig’s nostril lining — a trillion of us all at once — and we generated the most ferocious sneeze that a pig has ever done. We surfed outta there on an explosion of snotty droplets, and I landed square on the human’s eyeball.”
🧔🏽 “That’s impressive. Did you end up killing the human too, after a while?”
🦠 “Nah, he lived. After our first trip from hog to human, some of us realised that life isn’t about the destination, but the journey. So we made it our mission to travel to as many new humans as possible.”
🧔🏽 “Do you feel a sense of guilt for the people you’ve killed?”
🦠 “Look, I’m a narcissist. Do I regret making trillions of copies of myself to party and travel with? No. And you humans can’t talk, there’s billions of you.”
Whenever I see a dark cloud outside, I check the Bureau of Meteorology’s weather radar for incoming rain. I love it, especially when it comes from those dense vertical clouds that flash and rumble and darken the landscape. I’m not concerned with suitable clothing or whether to sport an umbrella, I just really want to know whether it’ll rain, and check the radar with the frequency of an addict, such is my desire to know whether the clouds on the horizon will wet my local area.
There isn’t a person on earth who could tear me away from my beloved radar. It’s one of countless services that the Internet has bombarded me with, instantly accessible, and satisfying my craving for information. It strengthens and encourages my idle curiosity—the desire to know something that has no use; pointless information that I must consume, despite it having no real value or utility. Why are we such junkies for this kind of info?
Jumping back 2,000 million years in our evolutionary timeline, when we were mere bacteria, 5,000 times smaller than a pea¹, the first information we needed was about our environment, which allowed us to move away from danger, and towards food. As bacteria, we got this information by developing an ability to detect chemical changes—our ancestors’ first ever sense. The information we needed back then was a matter of life or death, and as our species evolved into weirder and more complex creatures—sponges, fruit flies, leafy sea dragons, salamanders, peacocks, shrews, howler monkeys², and more—our senses and brains developed too, allowing us to detect and control our environments with incredible precision, eventually placing us at the apex of our food chain.
As a human in the 21st century, I don’t have to worry about being swooped and carried away by a bald eagle, or mauled by a flash of black and orange. My need for critical information has lessened, but the survival needs of my evolutionary ancestors is entrenched in my brain, and so regardless of being a modern human with a respectable job and a taste for Japanese whiskey, I still crave information because for 2,000 million years, information has been a way to predict and control my environment. When your species has evolved in a world of razor sharp teeth and claws, you want as much certainty as you can get.
Enter the World Wide Web—an unfathomable amount of information, made effortlessly accessible by Google. Our ancestors never had access to such a treasure of novel curiosities, and when it was thrust into our world in the early 90’s, we could hardly believe how incredible it was; how useful and endlessly stimulating it was. But information is only good if it improves our lives in some way, and the dopaminergic reward system in our brain doesn’t account for this distinction. It identifies the possibility of new information, and because information enhances prediction and decreases uncertainty (helping us become better survivors and procreators), it releases a squirt of dopamine that propels us towards the “reward,” regardless of whether the information is valuable.
Now, defining whether a piece of information is valuable is stepping into murky philosophical territory, where subjectivity reigns as king. In the wake of god’s timely death, assigning meaning and value has fallen to the individual. We harbour a consciousness that allows us to reflect on our decisions, and write our own commandments. What you value now falls within your responsibility, and that includes deciding whether a piece of online information is helping to improve your life, or whether you’re being lured in by the boundless novelty of the Web in order to feel “safer.”
It isn’t difficult to do. I look up a lot of useless information to satisfy my idle curiosity. For example:
Checking IMDB to find out where I know an actor from.
Checking the social media account of an old colleague to see how well he’s doing compared to me.
Obsessively checking my Medium stats.
The list goes on for miles. None of this information helps me. All it does is satisfy my idle curiosity; my burning desire to just know, so that my environment feels a little more predictable and certain. It’s nonsense, of course—the modern equivalent of a Neanderthal constantly peeking out of his cave to check for a tiger, except today, there’s a hell of a lot more for us to check. The reward system in our brain doesn’t know the difference between death and triviality; between tiger and actor. It just seeks, seeks, seeks, to reduce uncertainty. With so much to keep an eye on, and such easy access to it, we risk becoming insatiable automatons who spend large portions of their time pursuing pointless information. Our idle curiosity makes robot slaves of us, whose existence is defined by an appetite for the shallow and thoughtless.
There’s no value in knowing for the sake of knowing. It fragments our attention, scatters our brain, and steals away our time, while training us to be mere consumers—lab rats pushing levers for so-called rewards. As we slip into a constant state of foraging, satisfying our idle curiosity over and over, we strengthen the neurons for the behaviour in our brains, making them ever easier and favourable, and replacing neurons once used for challenging and worthwhile tasks such as reading books. Books seem laughable in the age of the Web—why read a book, when I can read a snippet? There’s no longer any inclination for the long-winded or difficult. We’ve plummeted to the abysmal reality of the information junkie, stalking the hollow pages of social media for our next hit of mindless stimulation.
Curiosity is a wonderful thing, helping our species invent technologies that extend and improve our lives. Idle curiosity is a peril that steals our attention and damages our collective intelligence. Our digital addiction has us drowning in a sea of worthless information, still desperate to satisfy our craving even as we gasp for breath.
The Banana Bread Walk is a one-way Brisbane River jaunt that starts in Teneriffe and ends at our home in West End, passing some of the city’s most beautiful spots. It begins with a ride on board the City Glider, which as its name suggests, sails through the inner city suburbs of Brisbane, collecting and depositing humans along the way. As we climb onto the sapphire blue bus in West End, the driver usually offers an enthusiastic hello, and I can’t help but compare this to the bus drivers where I grew up in south-east London, who’ll barely make eye contact from fear of being stabbed.
If I’m first on the bus, I sit in the maroon-coloured priority seats near the front, which are reserved for the older residents of the city, and always empty at this time of morning. My fiance and long-term walking partner dislikes this, as she envisages hoards of geriatrics boarding at once, who’ll curse our young limbs and batter us with their hardwood walking sticks until we move to our proper place. I secretly hope it’ll happen one day.
The blue and white stripes of the bus flash past the Davies Park farmer’s markets, which at 7am, is already being descended upon by hundreds of West End residents on their Saturday morning ritual for fruits and eggs and vegetables and meats, pouring with sweat as they jostle about, dodging dogs and prams and granny-trolleys amidst yells of 2-dollar deals. The one-lane maelstrom is strewn with escape routes to a grassy nirvana, where the people and pooches no longer pay any mind to the position of their paws, but extend them fully in spacious rapture.
Davies Park disappears from view, replaced by the countless apartment blocks on Montague Road, where people nestle in their thousands and curse at the din of the Saturday morning traffic. Within moments we’re converging on what might be considered the centre of West End—the corner of Boundary and Melbourne street, enclosed in part by a large bug-like art installation, painted dull-white, creating shade for the indigenous folk who settle on benches and look as though they’re trying to forget themselves.
Soon the bus reaches Victoria Bridge, arching over the Brisbane River, and overlooking Brisbane’s luscious South Bank with its sprawling pines and cycads and luminescent purple bougainvillea canopies, its expansive lagoon and barbeques where tourists swim and sizzle while admiring the glassy swelling of the city across the river, showers of sparkles glittering in every window.
With the bridge behind us, we merge into the shadows of the central business district, where the weekend shopworkers rise from their seats, reluctant for another day of materialist madness, and unaware of the delights of the Banana Bread Walk, which they would surely quit their jobs and embark on immediately if they had an inkling. A few minutes later we exit the city into Fortitude Valley, a place replete with watering holes for the young, host to alcohol-fuelled weekend bedlam where the boys and girls drift from bar to bar and stick their chests out for different reasons. All is quiet in the Valley at this hour, its recent occupants dispersed to their homes, their shrivelled brains crying out for water as they sleep.
We reach our stop at the low end of the Valley, outside the Maserati showroom, where a brazen friend of mine took a $200,000 car for a test drive after dressing himself in a 3-piece suit and speaking la-di-da to the salesman. We make our way south-east through the towering office and residential blocks, past Bin Chicken Alley, where gangs of ibises will immediately stop scavenging to stare you down, as though you want a piece of their delicious trash. After a few minutes we arrive at the official starting point of the Banana Bread Walk: a cafe called Bellissimo that serves squishy sweet banana bread and some of the best coffee you’ll ever drink, evidenced by the queue that spills onto the street. There’s at least two cute dogs outside, one of which is a French Bulldog belonging to a girl clad in overpriced Lorna Jane activewear who doesn’t understand the word “cliché” and doesn’t carethank-you-very-much.
Once we’re fuelled with banana and caffeine, our 13km walk begins with a north-eastern beeline for the river at Teneriffe, passing rows of redbrick wool factories that have been converted into stylish properties, with a great deal more character than the cut-and-paste apartment blocks found elsewhere in the city. As we emerge on the riverside, the landscape opens up before us, swathes of early-morning sparkles scattered across the river’s surface, and enthusiastic rowers with bulging lats sweeping through them.
We walk south towards the river’s source, along a riverside path guarded by polished chromium railings, and placards that reveal Teneriffe’s industrial past. When the Brisbane River was dredged in 1862, wharves were constructed along the riverbank for trade, spawning ten woolstores in Teneriffe by the 1950’s¹, eventually being requisitioned for an American World War II submarine base where you could see up to eight vessels and hundreds of fresh-faced submariners⁶. Today, Teneriffe is one of the most desirable places to live in Brisbane, and as we saunter past triple-story red brick buildings, their huge facades filled with white-framed windows underneath looping arches, amidst lushious verdant gardens filled with prodigious Moreton Bay fig trees, it’s easy to see why.
A motley of humans roam the pathway—young families with wandering toddlers and little dogs with protruding teeth; glistening mums and dads jogging with prams; gym junkies with swollen limbs, squeezed into too-little fabric—coveting lungfuls of crisp winter air, the soft swishing of overhead leaves, and the post-dusk warbles of tropical birds. The Teneriffe riverside is a popular sleeping spot for pigeons, who tuck their feet into their bodies, nestle their heads into their chests, and pay no mind to the snuffles of passing dogs.
Soon we reach the suburb of New Farm, the battered facade of the Powerhouse rising in the distance. The Powerhouse is a decommissioned electricity station that provided power for Brisbane’s obsolete tram network, and at the turn of the millennium, was transformed into an arts and music centre for exhibitions, comedy, concerts, and more. The main entrance faces away from the river—a 10-metre tall glass box, striped with chrome, incongruous against its wall of crumbling bricks and blocks of white paint, as though the refurbers decided to leave this side unfinished for effect. Before reaching the momentous building, we feast our eyes on the bedlam of the New Farm dog park, with its schnauzers, collies, pugs, poodles, retrievers, labs, shepherds, snags, and every other dog you can think of, all mixed together in a frenzy of tails and paws, lolloping about and shouting at each other.
In a few moments we’re stepping onto the green of New Farm Park—an open stretch of grass scattered with trees and rose bushes that sits on the edge of the New Farm peninsula. The park is one of the few outdoor places in Brisbane where you can drink alcohol without punishment, so it’s common to see people picnicking and sipping beers under the shade of its trees. It’s also weirdly common to see cats on leads, who seem confused about the constraining ropes around their necks, and anxious to get out of them as quickly as possible.
The riverside path temporarily stops at the end of New Farm Park and Brunswick Street, forcing a little street walking. We pass a house that usually has two chocolate labradors resting against its gated entrance, and when we stop to say hello, they wiggle their butts and stick their pink noses through the bars. I’m disappointed if they’re not there.
We rejoin the riverside path at the edge of Merthyr Park, a belt of green edged by apartment blocks, and a quieter alternative for New Farmers to wile away the hours. At the eastern edge of the park stand six tall sentinels of dark timber, positioned a few metres away from each other, and containing little abstract paintings framed in silver. The path ends at a deserted ferry stop, requiring another few minutes of street walking before descending back to the riverside.
The Banana Bread Walk is as much about the delights of Brisbane as the delights of walking. The amount of physical and mental effort needed for walking is a perfect balance of focus and effort, raising our energy enough to release endorphins, and making us more alert, perceptive, agreeable, and open to the world. My inhibition tends to melt away, leaving a confidence to broach all manner of topics; to explore ideas that broaden our minds; to natter about anything and everything that fascinates us. We oscillate between being lost in our own little world and being enveloped by the sun-soaked sky. The doors of the world are thrown open, my anger at the current state of the world forgotten, the helplessness all but vanished; hypnotised by the never-ending delights of the city, and the company of my wonderful fiance, whose love seems more assured. My enslaving phone is forgotten during the Banana Bread Walk, no need to check messages, social media, the news, or weather radar. At that moment, the world is wider and more real and more fascinating than anything that could be offered by the measley LED display of my mobile. My partner and I are at our most open and accepting; loose-lipped and crinkle-eyed as the Banana Bread Walk leads us on yet another magnificent adventure.
The return to the river is the most spectacular part of the Banana Bread Walk. As we turn the corner of Merthyr Road and rejoin the path, where the river loops around to the city, the shimmering skyscrapers of the Brisbane CBD engulf the horizon, nestled behind the criss-cross steel of the Story Bridge. The entirety of the city is in full scope, to be appreciated all at once, set against the tree-lined bank of Kangaroo point, and the swirling brown of the Brisbane river. Being aware of the magnificence of this perspective, the city’s engineers created a floating boardwalk that hugged the western edge of New Farm (called New Farm Walkway), only to be swept away by the torrents of the 2011 flood, large chunks of which were rescued by tugboat captain Peter Denton, and repurposed as a pontoon outside of Brisbane². The boardwalk was replaced in 2014 by a solid, 840-metre structure of asphalt and steel, grounded in the bedrock of the river. It’s wide enough to accommodate cyclists and walkers, and dotted with shaded areas and drinking fountains, offering respite from the ferocious Queensland sun.
As we amble along the twisting walkway, on our right, the expensive riverside houses and apartment blocks gradually rise with the ascending New Farm cliffs, their ever-extending pontoons reaching out to connect with the boardwalk, until finally, the gradient of the weather-stained cliff defeats them. The Story Bridge—originally built in 1940 to reduce traffic congestion in the CBD, and the longest cantilever bridge in Australia—looms larger with every step, its two supporting structures rising into the sky, and dotted with tourists undertaking the “Story Bridge Climb.” 4 people died during the construction of the bridge, and many more have thrown themselves from its girders into the brown snake of Brisbane, resulting in the erection of curved fences along its perimeter, and telephones linked to suicide hotlines. At night, the Story Bridge is speckled with fluorescent colour which alternates to celebrate Australian events⁵, like maroon during State of Origin, pink during Brisbane Festival, and red and green during Christmas, which makes it look like a gigantic toppled Christmas tree. The Story Bridge marks the halfway mark of the Banana Bread Walk—roughly 6.5km.
As we align with the Story Bridge’s southern point, the boardwalk veers right and rejoins solid ground, an important area of land called Howard Smith Wharves that provided additional shipping resources for early 20th-century Brisbane, but fell into disuse a few decades later. The area underwent major redevelopment last year, and is now one of Brisbane’s most popular merrymaking spots, with a large brewery, a handful of bars and restaurants, a 5-star hotel, a selection of hireable venue halls for events such as weddings, and what seems like a million people eating, drinking, laughing and gesticulating their lives away in a frenzy of food and booze. Many of the buildings use timber from the original wharves, lending great character to the architecture. There’s stretches of immaculate grass, and a battered old trawler boat alongside Felons Brewing Co to commemorate the journey of the four felons—runaway prisoners who sailed from Sydney to discover the Brisbane River. Thousands of weekend beers are unknowingly tipped in their favour.
The Wharves are quieter in the morning, peppered with couples and families sipping lattes as they take in the views. As we pass under the gigantic cross-stitched underbelly of the Story Bridge, approaching the sprawling base of the first city skyscraper, we take a sharp left onto the City Reach boardwalk, which runs about a kilometre south along the eastern edge of the city, constructed of solid wood, polished chrome railings and torpedo-like concrete posts with little lights that illuminate the walkway at night. Across the river to the left is the lanky peninsula of Kangaroo Point and the Story Bridge, and to the right are the skyscrapers of the city, towering over waterfront bars, cafes, and restaurants. After five minutes we reach the majestic Customs House, a heritage-listed, classical style building with rows of Doric Greek columns set against a sprawling two-story colonnade, cream-coloured sandstone facade, and a lime-green umbrella dome that makes it one of Brisbane’s most handsome buildings, particularly at night when flood lamps repaint it an ivory gradient. The building opened in 1889, having originally been built for the collection of customs payments, and now a function venue and restaurant. When it was constructed, the building was an object of public pride³, becoming one of the city’s most loved landmarks. Even when overshadowed by skyscrapers seven times its size, Customs House wrenches your gaze and begs to be admired.
As we continue south along the boardwalk, the garbled murmur of tourists fills the air, as they recharge themselves in the slew of riverside restaurants and cafes. This is a popular area known as Eagle Street Pier, originally a gateway for visiting ships, now a gateway for visiting tourists. At night this area buzzes with locals who guzzle booze in its riverside bars and glance at the tumbled Christmas tree overhanging the river. The area is also home to the Kookaburra Queens II cruise boat—a 30-metre long, 3-story paddle wheeler, which would look more at home on the Mississippi than the Brisbane river. With its distinctive white beech posts and red cedar design, it looks like somebody has plonked a Queenslander house on the river and asked it to float. The vessel was named in honour of the bird that is “never seen to be drinking water,” in the hope that it’ll inherit the same future.
It becomes quieter again as we distance ourselves from Eagle Street Pier, save for the occasional thrashing of a cyclist, and the alarming rattle of wooden beams as they whoosh past in a flurry of colorful lycra. The boardwalk ends at the northeastern corner of the City Botanic Gardens, a voluminous 200,000m² of grassy splendour, filled with cycads, palms, figs, bamboo, mahogany, macadamias, jacarandas and dragon trees, with placards to identify and explain each, and sprawling frog-filled lagoons accosted by ducks, red-nosed Moorhen, lapwings with blades on their wings, cormorants, skittle-coloured lorikeet, damselflies, water dragons and beaky bin chickens taking a well deserved break from garbage rustling. The wonderful diversity of the gardens come from the actions of curator Walter Hill, whose experimental planting program in 1885 led to the creation of the botanical paradise that you see today. The site is considered so beautiful, and so culturally important, that the Queensland Heritage Register describes it as the “most significant non-Aborginal cultural landscape in Queensland.” It’s a cornucopia of flora and fauna—another priceless Brisbane gem that makes the Banana Break Walk such a joy.
As we enter the gardens from the northeast entrance, we join a shaded path that hugs the perimeter, just a little elevated from the river. In this corner of the park you can usually find an older Asian lady in an airy blouse of flowery chintz, wearing jet black sunglasses, taking slow and deliberate steps in what I assume to be some kind of meditative walk (possibly Tai Chi). Despite the flurries of people whirling past, jabbering, giggling, and Instagramming, the lady’s face is a picture of serenity. I like to think that any time we visit that northeastern corner of the park, she’ll be there—the Oriental spirit of the Botanic Gardens, demonstrating our beautiful capacity for peace. In sharp contrast on our left is a Scottish cannon sitting on the crest of the bank, shipped to Brisbane in the 17th century to defend the new colony of Queensland⁴, and somehow making the meditating lady seem even more honourable.
We continue on the path, the occasional beam breaking through the whispering canopy, creating dances of light on the criss-crossed pavement. Across the river on our left, the golden cliffs of Kangaroo Point rise up like a formidable defense, its volcanic rock dotted with fluorescent early morning climbers determined to overcome its craggy face, barely perceptible through the haze of the morning sun. We loop right with the formation of the river, skirting the southern end of the peninsula, until a lofty brick stage appears—Riverstage, a 9500-capacity venue that opened in 1989, and plays host to some of the world’s best musical talent. Riverstage’s sloped, amphitheatre-style layout allows even the shortest of hobbits to get a decent view—a symphonic feast for Tooks, Brandybucks, and Bagginses alike—with the crest of its hill only 50 metres from the stage. It somehow achieves the task of feeling intimate while also holding ten thousand people. We’ve enjoyed some serious musical debauchery at this venue, and will continue to do so until our backs and knees can no longer support us.
With Riverstage behind us, we exit the gardens under the sprawling branches of a Banyan Fig Tree, which in its thirst for ever-more water, grows mutant-like vertical roots from the upper-ends of its branches that stretch down to the ground, and to continue with the Tolkien metaphors, looks like an Ent from outer space. When my folks were visiting from the UK a couple of years back, my mum was amazed by the weirdness of its vertical roots (branches in England usually grow upwards).
The path splits into a few directions at this point—right and up towards the Queensland University of Technology, its glass and silver campus shimmering in the morning sun; straight ahead towards the western flank of the city, or left over the Goodwill Bridge, which is where we head. A green canopy of branches stretches over the start of this footbridge, which at night, twinkles with fairy lights, delighting party goers as they leave Riverstage. I was once scolded by a policeman on this bridge for not wearing a bicycle helmet, and forced to walk the bike home because he said I “couldn’t risk it,” as if I were riding a Vincent Black Shadow. This is one of Australia’s many nanny state laws—infringements on personal freedom, based on the assumption that the average person is an idiot who must be protected from himself. The list of bicycle-related fines in Queensland reveals the absurdity of it all. Some of my favourites include:
Riding a bicycle while not astride the rider’s seat facing forwards ($133)
Leading an animal while riding a bicycle ($133)
Riding a bicycle within 2m of the rear of a moving motor vehicle for more than 200m ($133)
You can even be breathalysed on a bicycle, and get penalty points on your driving license. This wonderful convict-descended nation seems determined to expel the once-cherished larrikin, to become a nation of—what? Docile law-abiding subservients, who’d sooner thrash their own mothers than slam their foot on the accelerator? Spineless toadies whose lungs would never feel the pungence of a mammoth choof hit? Thankfully, there’s still plenty of people in Australia who realise that nanny state laws are to be broken, and fuck the fines.
As we descend towards South Bank the Queensland Maritime Museum appears, which my dad insists we visit whenever he’s over, spending hours wandering around the decommissioned frigate that sits in the dry dock, and chatting to the rickety sailor who once served on it. Our path loops back towards the river, emerging onto the southern tip of the South Bank Parklands, where more tourists are satiating themselves with breakfast and magnificent views of the city. To our right is the River Quay Green—a semi-circle patch of grass on the riverbank that hosts free live music on Sundays, where you can sip booze and listen to the trilling of a twenty-something singer.
We continue through the shaded parklands, passing a little man-made stream lined with stones, leading to a shallow and colourful pool area where toddlers dart and delight in the jets of water shooting from the ground. Soon enough we reach the main lagoon of the parklands—a 100-metre stretch of water elevated from the riverside promenade, making it feel like an infinity pool, and skirted by a small man-made beach. 11 million people visit this area every year—they say you should keep your mouth closed if going for a swim.
Our twisting bougainvillea-clad path takes us past the South Bank Piazza—a 2000-seat amphitheatre that never seems to host any events. In the seven years I’ve been in Brisbane, I haven’t seen a single person in there, or anything being advertised, which is odd considering its prime location. You could put a wind-up monkey on its stage and people would probably sit there and watch it.
We exit the park into Brisbane’s cultural precinct, which includes the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC), the Queensland Art Gallery, the Queensland Museum, and the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA)—something for everyone when a summer storm comes rumbling. We once saw Italian pianist Ludovico Einaudi at QPAC, whose achingly beautiful performance sent scores of people to sleep, jolting awake to realise they’d spent $100 for an uncomfortable nap.
We cut left through the middle of the cultural precinct onto Melbourne St, finally turning away from the river, and after thirty or so minutes of streetwalking, with legs and minds aching from the effort, we arrive back at our apartment on Montague Road, gratified and charmed with all that the wonderful Banana Bread Walk has given us, and feeling lucky to call Brisbane home.
Consider the girl who, no matter how determined her efforts, or how much she tries to motivate herself to complete the urgent task in front of her, opens up Instagram instead. Such a dire lack of willpower is recognisable by all. I dread to think how much time I’ve wasted on insipid bullshit instead of doing something difficult and valuable. When a challenging task is before me, and I’m taut with anxious doubt, it isn’t a lack of willpower that makes me open Instagram, but my inability to deal with the anxiety. I’d do anything not to feel that emotion, and I have the most distracting and entertaining thing imaginable at my fingertips: the internet.
We don’t procrastinate because we lack self-control, but because we’re in the grip of an unpleasant emotion, and don’t know how to handle it. This is called emotion regulation—the ability to respond to negative emotion in a way that is mentally healthy, and socially acceptable. Instead of having the fortitude to wade through the unpleasant emotion, we reach for the nearest comfort instead—social media, television, drugs, or whatever is easiest. Without the ability to regulate our emotions, we can become depressed, anxious, develop eating disorders, and abuse substances1. We might also have fewer and shallower personal relationships.
The stoics were masters of emotion regulation, which is one of the reasons that their philosophy endured, and continues to grow in popularity. Though the concept of emotion regulation wasn’t clarified until the 20th century, the stoics appeared to practice a method that is now called reappraisal, which is interpreting an event in a way that will reduce its emotional impact. The following example might have been lifted from the journal of a Roman stoic:
“Somebody stole my sandals from outside my door. I needed those sandals to walk across the city for an important meeting at the Senate, which I now won’t be able to attend. At this point, the theft is already done, and there’s nothing I can do to change what has happened, so the only thing to do is carry on with my day.”
A well-practised stoic is able to reappraise the situation and lessen its power, suppressing any negative emotion that might compromise his virtue. Consider the moment that Seneca was ordered to commit suicide by the Roman emperor Nero, who suspected Seneca of being a conspirator in an assassination plot against him. This is the ultimate test of emotion regulation. Upon hearing the news, Seneca made out his will, asked his wife not to grieve, and then opened his veins without fuss. He was so well-practised in reappraisal, so at peace with his lack of control and the fate that had been written for him, that he was able to face his death with courageous equanimity.
How did he do it? The stoics have a few reappraisal theories and techniques that they use to regulate their emotions.
Dichotomy of control
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.”
The dichotomy of control tells us that some things are in our control, and some things aren’t. This idea is key to a stoic’s ability to regulate his emotions. The vast majority of what happens to us is outside of our control, and when something “bad” happens—a car accident, your mother’s death, buying an all-yellow bag of Starburst—a stoic knows the futility of getting upset. He’s wise enough to make a good calculation of the matter, by understanding the difference between what is controllable, and what is not. For a stoic such as Seneca, this understanding was visceral. He knew that the will of the emperor was beyond his control, and running away wasn’t an option. In such a situation, getting upset is illogical, leaving acceptance as the only remaining answer.
Genuine acceptance of your fate cannot produce emotional turmoil, even for something as drastic as your death. Stoics such as Seneca understood the dichotomy of control so viscerally that they were able to use it to regulate their emotions, by reappraising the situation from something awful, to something uncontrollable, and therefore to be accepted.
Our transitory nature
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
Everything in our universe obeys an ironclad rule: things must change. The stoics recognised that everything preferable in their lives (what they referred to as “preferred indifferents”) could be taken away from them in an instant, whether it was their children, their home, or their own lives. In the tender moments that you’re kissing your wife, Epictetus advises you to tell yourself that you’re kissing a mortal, as a reminder of their impermanence. By constantly reminding yourself of the transience of people you adore, even going so far as to meditate on their death, you’re practicing for the possibility of their actual death, which you’ll be able to reappraise and remain calm if the moment occurs. This technique is called negative visualisation, and is a form of adversity training; a toughening against the harsh realities of the world. It also makes us more grateful for what we have—a powerful perspective that has proven to make us happier2.
Understanding the changing nature of the universe helps a stoic to remain emotionally stalwart in the face of adversity. Seneca knew that just like every other organic thing in the universe, his mind and body would eventually change into something else. Nero just happened to speed it up.
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
Stoics recognise that the harm of an insult isn’t from the words themselves, as though the breath of another person carries a debilitating poison, but from our impression of the words. Like everything else in the universe, words don’t have objective meaning. Our species has given them meaning as a way to survive and procreate. If somebody tells you that your nose looks like a pickle that’s been rejected by the local supermarket, you can judge the words to have value, or you can identify them as the bleatings of a man without virtue.
We’re bombarded with impressions and judgments every day, and while we can’t control an initial impression, we can use reason to evaluate its benefit, and change it if necessary. A stoic has the capacity to reappraise her initial impressions of the world, changing the detrimental into the beneficial—a more fitting impression for a judicious philosopher.
Courage is a chief virtue for the stoics, defined as the ability to face misfortune with bravery; in recognising the mental turmoil that an event such as your death can create, and facing it with equanimity because you know it’s outside your control. The courageous man experiences just as much fear as everyone else, but acts in spite of it.
The stoics realised a fundamental truth: life is suffering, and if we want to be happy, we must be courageous enough to face our problems head on. An obstacle isn’t something to be feared, but an opportunity to practice reappraisal; a moment that demands our courage, followed by the use of reason to reappraise the situation into something favourable.
Being able to regulate our emotions is critical for our well-being1. The reappraisal technique reduces physiological, subjective, and neural emotional responses. That sentence remains true when swapping the words “reappraisal technique” for “stoic philosophy.” The wonderful philosophy of Stoicism can make us masters of emotion regulation, allowing us to reappraise negative impressions, and transform them into emotions that contribute to our happiness.
Boredom is a state of mind that makes most people horribly uncomfortable. When all occupations temporarily leave us, and we’re left floundering alone with our thoughts, we might bear witness to a creeping sense of lethargy that seems to enclose our very souls, spawning an instinctive desire to liberate ourselves from the grievous tedium of nothingness, away from the intense feelings of apathy, depression, weariness and languor. Escape seems the logical solution to such apparent ghastliness.
Some writers would even have us believe that boredom is the consequence of a flawed character, claiming listlessness to be wholly unacceptable in such a fascinating world as ours:
“There are no uninteresting things, only uninterested people.”
I’m assuming that Mr. Chesterton was never forced to attend Sunday church as a child, or to spend the day watching Test cricket. Despite existing in a universe comprised of a magnitude of wonder, the shine of its splendour is still easily dulled by the bored human mind, and to classify this as a flaw seems a grave injustice.
For German philosopher Martin Heidegger, to face raw, unadulterated boredom is to stare deep into the foggy abyss, all sense of meaning obliterated, with nothing left but dreaded existential anxiety:
“Profound boredom, drifting here and there in the abysses of our existence like a muffling fog, removes all things and men and oneself along with it into a remarkable indifference”
Boredom has a terrible rap, it seems. But despite being universally maligned, boredom has a multitude of latent benefits, like precious jewels waiting to be unearthed. As with every other emotion that we experience, boredom was developed for an evolutionary benefit: to discover what interests us, and then to motivate us towards it. It serves as a mechanism for seeking new, beneficial experiences. As one sits in a bored funk, mind devoid of focus, appealing ideas may start to emerge from the darkness, and given that doing something seems better than doing nothing, we find ourselves on the receiving end of little zaps of energy, lighting us up with intention. Many significant human advancements may have been the result of bored geniuses.
“Something’s got to happen—that’s the explanation for most human undertakings.”
Jean-Claude Baptiste (Albert Camus—The Fall)
The self-reflection and daydreaming that occurs during periods of boredom are teachers of our own desires, educating us on what we want, and then motivating us to get them. Our instinctive and immediate desire to escape from boredom—whether with social media, television, video games, or whatever else in your escapism arsenal—drowns out these valuable, insightful teachings, in favour of something entertaining, but bereft of meaning. Boredom can force us to start on the difficult and valuable thing that we’ve been putting off for years. It’s an opportunity to tend to our own requirements; to be temporarily introspective, rather than mindless content consumers.
“Boredom makes people keen to engage in activities that they find more meaningful than those at hand.”
Wijnand van Tilburg
The more we employ the numbing tactics of escapism, the greater our alienation from our true selves; those soft whispers that echo in the chambers of our minds.
“Like the trap of quicksand, such thrashing only serves to strengthen the grip of boredom by further alienating us from our desire and passion, which provide compass points for satisfying engagement with life”
John Eastwood, boredom researcher
Few people like to be alone with their thoughts, particularly the difficult ones. But running away only exacerbates them; they grow in your mind like a rapacious virus, goading you into inevitable combat. The beasts that we bury deep within are but temporary prisoners. Every attempt at distraction swells their strength, until they burst forth with a violence that cannot be ignored. Embracing boredom can help you to identify the things that truly bother you, so that you can face them head on, and with a bit of luck, defeat them.
The busyness and distraction habits that we’ve built for ourselves can have a tendency to make our brains feel as though they’re brimming with worthless clutter, and travelling with such speed as to put Speedy Gonzalez to shame. Consuming hundreds of memes, photos and videos with frantic flicks of the thumb might leave you feeling even more stressed than before. By allowing yourself to be bored on occasion, you may find that you’re less tired at the end of the day. Submitting to the odd bout of boredom is like drinking a cup of coffee without the elevated heart-rate.
Having mustered the fortitude to withstand a little boredom, the valuable thing that you decide to do may be suffused with more creativity¹. Innovation often comes from daydreaming, when your mind is in a directionless, wandering state. Only by doing nothing is there room for something to emerge. When we’re in such a state, our brain’s Default Mode Network is activated, a core component of creativity. Incidentally, this network is also activated when taking psychedelics. The empty space of boredom makes room for wondrous creativity.
“So we might try to find that stimulation by our minds wandering and going to someplace in our heads. That is what can stimulate creativity, because once you start daydreaming and allow your mind to wander, you start thinking beyond the conscious and into the subconscious. This process allows different connections to take place. It’s really awesome.”
On the surface, being bored seems a waste of our precious time; a devilish rascal to be avoided at all cost. But digging a little deeper reveals the truth: it’s a driving force of creative thinking, allows golden moments of self-reflection, and compels us towards what we value. Escaping into the glow of a screen while sucking our thumbs for comfort isn’t necessarily the best option. By relenting to our boredom, we may just stumble onto something important.
“When hit by boredom, let yourself be crushed by it; submerge, hit bottom. In general, with things unpleasant, the rule is: The sooner you hit bottom, the faster you surface. The idea here is to exact a full look at the worst. The reason boredom deserves such scrutiny is that it represents pure, undiluted time in all its repetitive, redundant, monotonous splendour.
Boredom is your window on the properties of time that one tends to ignore to the likely peril of one’s mental equilibrium. It is your window on time’s infinity. Once this window opens, don’t try to shut it; on the contrary, throw it wide open.”
Humans are a suggestible bunch. We’re constantly influenced by external factors, be it advertising, social conformity, or anything else in our environment. There’s also internal factors that affect us, and one that is utterly terrifying, like a demon lurking in our minds, waiting for its chance to strike a malevolent blow. When we’re in a regular state of stress, it’s hard to defend against. This heinous phenomenon is known as the nocebo effect.
Some historical cases explain it best. In the 70’s, a man was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer and given just two months to live. The pronouncement appeared true, and he passed away. After slicing the unfortunate chap open, however, they discovered that his tumour had not grown, and concluded that it was not the cause of his death. They speculated that it may have been the expectation of his impending death that actually killed him.
In another example, a despondent gentleman decided that existence was no longer worth it, and downed a bottle of pills. Almost immediately afterwards he rediscovered a ton of reasons to live, and dashed to the nearest hospital, collapsing when arriving at reception due to hyperventilation and low blood pressure. It was quickly discovered that the morose man was currently in the midst of a drug trial, in which unknown to him, he’d been assigned placebos. Turns out that he’d consumed a whole bottle of sugar pills, and his mind had manifested his pearly-gate-approaching symptoms. After being told the good news, he promptly recovered.
If you’re a hayfever sufferer, you might consider artificial flowers to be a safe bet. But a hundred years ago, doctors found that hayfever symptoms can be brought on by exposure to fake roses. This only worked if the person didn’t know that they were made of plastic.
In the present, modern technology is causing similar problems for people. Sufferers of Electromagnetic hypersensitivity believe that the plethora of electronic devices surrounding them make them sick. As with the other examples, these people actually manifest symptoms when exposed to what they conclude to be areas with strong electromagnetic fields. They don’t do so well in double-blind experiments though, being completely unable to identify when an intense field is present. Wind Turbine Syndrome, common in Canada, is another example of a disease created purely from suggestion.
This hideous yet fascinating quirk of the mind is called the nocebo effect—the nefarious twin brother of the much more agreeable placebo effect. Both of these are proof that our beliefs and expectations can have a direct cause on our wellbeing. The American Cancer Society claims that the placebo effect is responsible for up to a third of symptom relief for sick people. That’s a staggering amount. With this in mind, how much suffering might we be causing ourselves as a result of its malevolent twin, the nocebo effect? If we expect to have a miserable day at work, are we authoring our own fate? Are we making ourselves unwell?
Chilling as the nocebo effect is, the power of its counterpart cannot be understated. The placebo effect has the capacity to cure cancer, heal ulcers, and even persuade assumed-to-be-dead hair follicles to sprout from the heads of bald men. It’s a small part of our incredible and unfathomable ability to self-repair, which if we play our cards right, can be used to our advantage.
This extraordinary self-restoration skill only works when you’re relaxed; the moments when your parasympathetic nervous system is in play. Stressed people don’t self-heal, they self-harm. You need a healthy mind to mend your ills, and there’s a number of ways that it can be achieved.
Most importantly: meditate. It’s probably the most essential habit that you can develop for yourself, besides regular exercise. It’ll drastically reduce your stress levels; you’ll learn to distance yourself from your emotions, instead of being swept away by them; it enhances your self-esteem and acceptance, improves your memory, your focus, your energy. The list goes on.
Self-compassion is a powerful psychological habit for the healthy-minded among us. Just as caring, nurturing doctors and nurses have shown to accelerate the recovery of their patients, we too can cultivate a similar attitude towards ourselves, and reduce our stress levels.
Finally, do anything and everything that feels honest and enjoyable to you. Slowly make your life into something that you want, not the life that society attempts to coerce you into. Over time, the modest improvements that you make will bring your self-repair mechanisms into play more often, reducing the odious nocebo effect, and increasing the regenerating placebo effect.
If a friend asks you to describe them using a single word, responding with “slow” might be suggesting that they’ve been cursed with an extra chromosome, and could result in a darkened eye and inflated lip. The word is synonymous with idiocy and dimwittedness—slow people might be considered unproductive; a waste of space. Slowing down seems like madness. Crooners such as Lionel Richie, who claim to spend their Sunday mornings at an easy and slow pace, would be laughed at by high-flying stock brokers who live at heart-straining supersonic speeds. The latter are getting things done, outracing the competition and positioning themselves at the top of every conceivable hierarchy. Their capitalist world is there for the taking—to win you have to be swift and ruthless. It’s a frenzied, ceaseless arms race — you’d better keep up, otherwise you’ll be savagely gunned down by the competition.
Millions of people are rushing through their lives in this way, charging relentlessly, blind to all detail aside from their chosen goal, which must be achieved at all costs. The irony is, if the objective is reached and all targets are hit, the odyssey that they’ve undertaken is mostly a hazy, nondescript blur. Their eyes have been so hopelessly blinkered that they’ve missed every detail of the journey, the part that actually counts. We can’t escape the present moment; the future is just a useful planning concept, it doesn’t technically exist. Permanently scanning the horizon ensures that we miss every gorgeous, proximate detail.
“Tomorrow and plans for tomorrow can have no significance at all unless you are in full contact with the reality of the present, since it is in the present and only in the present that you live. There is no other reality than present reality, so that, even if one were to live for endless ages, to live for the future would be to miss the point everlastingly.”
Time is finite, and there’s moments when we’re forced to get shit done quickly. But consistent hysteric dashing seems to crush time into something even smaller. We’re like headless chickens, rushing back and forth with feathers flying, and effectively shortening our lives in the process. “More haste less speed” is an overtaxed cliche, but it’s fabulously succinct. Paradoxical and counterintuitive as it may seem, we’re more happy and productive if we slow down.
“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”
An entire crusade called the Slow Movement has developed as a consequence of fast-paced living, created as part of an Italian activist’s protests against the opening of a nutritionless McDonalds in central Rome, a city brimming with mouth-watering restaurants that wouldn’t be such if their talented chefs cut every conceivable culinary corner in the name of profit. Journalist Carl Honore, famed for his 2004 book In Praise of Slow, describes the movement as follows:
“It is a cultural revolution against the notion that faster is always better. The Slow philosophy is not about doing everything at a snail’s pace. It’s about seeking to do everything at the right speed. Savouring the hours and minutes rather than just counting them. Doing everything as well as possible, instead of as fast as possible. It’s about quality over quantity in everything from work to food to parenting.”
Savouring is the key word here—the ability to luxuriate in the moment, to actually experience it, instead of rushing past as though possessed by a speed demon. The Slow Movement advocates a more mellow pace to areas of life such as food, parenting, travel, and sex, its followers happy to expound the benefits of moving at a leisurely pace. Instead of watching TV while eating, they attend to the taste of what’s being chewed. Rather than whizzing around on their precious two-week holiday, attempting to cram in every possible thing to see, they adopt a more agreeable pace instead. With savouring comes joy.
Alain De Botton and his insightful School of Life believe that time can be experienced more slowly when seeking novelty, and that new encounters can be found all around us, in our everyday lives, not just within the cultural hotpots of far-flung, mysterious continents. The streets that you amble along every single day are filled with marvels, you just need to learn how to appreciate them. Time can be stretched further by simply slowing down, and opening your eyes to the dazzling and delicate detail all around you.
“These days even instant gratification takes too long”
Last week, the CEO of my company came to my desk and asked for a chat. I’ve been working at the organisation for over seven years, almost since its inception — part of the furniture, you might say. I’ve always had a good relationship with the man who was leading me silently into a meeting room, each step more ominous than the last.
“It’s not good news I’m afraid” he said, after closing the door.
My heart sped up a little, then slowed to its normal pace. As he explained the reasoning behind the loss of my job, I felt the oddest sense of serenity, like a wizened old Buddhist atop a rugged Tibetan mountain. I quietly marvelled at my sense of calm — why wasn’t I climbing the walls in anxiety? Chewing my nails down to tender pink nubs? I’m relatively calm by nature, but redundancy is a big deal, especially for a job that you’ve held for almost a decade, and I didn’t feel concerned in the slightest. I still don’t.
Daniel Gilbert is an American social psychologist, and his work on affective forecasting — our ability to predict our future emotional state — can offer some insight into my odd sense of serenity. For many, the loss of a job might be viewed as catastrophic, loaded with mental anguish and stinging embarrassment, followed by hours of consolation amid the duvet. But Gilbert and his colleagues uncovered an important truth about our ability to predict our future emotional state: we’re terrible at it¹. We constantly misjudge. Events that we think are life changing end up being brushed off with ease. Gilbert dubbed this wonderful resilience of ours a “psychological immune system,”which protects us from major negative events, so that we can continue to function without descending into unbounded, gloomy dismay.
The psychological immune system works as a kind of salesman, who convinces you to buy into your new, altered reality. The negative aspects of your previous situation become highlighted: the tedious day-to-day tasks; the absent sense of making a difference; the insufferable penis in charge of accounts. Such afflictions are brought into sharp focus, and your freedom from them is sweeter than a packet of jelly babies. Similarly, positive aspects of your new situation begin to emerge in your mind: the excitement of fresh challenges; the prospect of a better wage; the opportunity to make new friends. The psychological immune system transforms the situation from a depressing failure into a glorious opportunity, and it does this by making us believe that our new situation is better, and our old situation worse, creating a silver lining so thick as to be impenetrable.
The part of our brain responsible for decision making is the pre-frontal cortex, which works as an experience simulator¹, running through various scenarios and determining whether they’re agreeable or disagreeable. When it simulates an extreme experience such as the death of your spouse, the cyclonic destruction of your house, or the loss of your job, it usually concludes that you’re going to suffer miserably, for a long time — a term known as “impact bias.” But if these undesirable outcomes hit, your psychological immune system kicks into gear, and rather than going with your pre-frontal cortex’s woeful simulation, it narrates an entirely different story infused with confidence and hope, which you’re happy to accept because it relinquishes the anguish. Why choose to believe the grim story from your pre-frontal cortex, when you can believe the comforting story of your psychological immune system?
In our scientific age, the idea of choosing which story to believe might seem fanciful and wishy-washy, as though we’d rather exist in a cotton-candy fairytale land filled with joy, than live in the hard-edged, gritty real world. It’s like choosing the blue pill, instead of the red pill. Objective truth, however, is a tricky thing to pin down, especially regarding subjective emotion.
Let’s say I have a suspicion that my girlfriend no longer loves me, which makes me sad. While the thought itself can be objectively scrutinized for its truth (maybe she does love me), the emotion that came from the thought cannot be denied — the sadness has been experienced, therefore it exists, and is true. So why not believe the emotionally-positive, hopeful story of your psychological immune system, instead of the woeful prediction of your pre-frontal cortex? The emotions from both stories are still subjectively experienced, making them true. Rejecting your psychological immune system’s story just seems like unnecessary suffering. What are our emotional lives, after all, than the stories that we tell ourselves? Acceptance Commitment Therapy — a relatively new treatment effective at reducing anxiety² — even has a concept called “cognitive fusion” to explain the harm that we do ourselves by buying into our negative stories, counteracted with what they call “defusion” techniques.
“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”
In my case, the psychological immune system seems only partly responsible for my blasé attitude towards the loss of my job. I’ve wanted a career change for a while, making a switch of company inevitable. This knowledge, combined with the anticipation of a redundancy payout, might have been enough to explain my calm demeanour. But the comfort and confidence that I feel going into the future is undoubtedly a result of my psychological immune system, convincing me that everything is going to be alright, like a best friend, nestled inside my own head. It’s telling me that a chapter of my life is over, and is about to be replaced with something more exciting and fulfilling.
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.”
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.