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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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 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 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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
Francois de La Rochefoucauld — image 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 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”
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.
Back in the 50’s, not too long after Albert Hoffman discovered the mind-bending, consciousness-expanding properties of LSD, scientists starting conducting experiments into the therapeutic potential of the drug. It became a popular area of research, and by the mid-60’s had spawned six international conferences, and over 1,000 peer-reviewed clinical papers¹.
Meanwhile, the first sparks of the acid revolution had been lit, spearheaded by passionate acolytes such as Timothy Leary and Ram Dass, who believed that the drug held the key to shifting our global consciousness, to create a more peaceful, loving human species. It’d be tough to find a loftier, more noble objective.
Then it all went to shit. Governments across the world became concerned about the widespread, casual use of such a potent substance, particularly one that caused its users to doubt and criticise the power structures within their society, often calling for a freer, less restricted world. LSD was promptly banned by governments, forcing chief manufacturer Sandoz to halt production in the mid-60s¹. The first era of psychedelic therapy was over.
Thankfully, there’s been a resurgence. Governments are once again becoming receptive to the therapeutic potential of “party” drugs such as acid, psilocybin, and MDMA, whose reputation has been tainted in part by the greedy fear-mongering of the popular press. Scientific studies are becoming increasingly common, some with astounding results. The gold-standard treatment for PTSD is prolonged exposure therapy—MDMA has been found to be twice as successful². Psilocybin—the psychoactive chemical found in magic mushrooms—had an 80% success rate in breaking a smoking habit, compared to 35% for conventional treatments³. It’s also been shown to cure severe depression⁴.
“Perhaps to some extent we have lost sight of the fact that (LSD) can be very, very helpful in our society if used properly.”—Robert Kennedy
Though the hardened conservative will undoubtedly raise his eyebrows in disbelief, the people who have spent their lives taking illegal drugs such as MDMA, LSD, and magic mushrooms may be unsurprised at the results. It’s obvious that these drugs have incredible potential for our psychological health. The pristine empathy and compassion one feels in the midst of an MDMA experience tells you everything you need to know. How could such an emotionally positive experience not have therapeutic potential?
In my late teenage years, I found myself surrounded by friends in the comfortable living room of one of our parents, each of us high on ecstasy. Uninhibited conversation was flowing, and upon reaching the topic of our fathers (Freud’s spirit nestled in the corner, glowing with anticipation), for the first time in his life, one of my friends opened up about his difficult relationship with his dad. He expressed sheer, unalloyed pain at his dad’s early departure from the family, followed by the brutal indifference that he exhibited towards him in the years after. There were floods of tears, but no awkwardness from anybody—just pure compassion and sympathy. Afterwards, he seemed as though a weight had been lifted off his shoulders, finally able to talk about something that had created anguish for years. It remains the most beautiful moment I’ve ever had with my friends.
“What’s unique about MDMA is that it’s actually stimulating but decreases anxiety…it could help people feel calm and comfortable enough to explore painful things that are hard to talk about.”—Julie Holland
The bonding power of MDMA cannot be understated, even with people who you’re already close to. Everyone tends to emerge from a session with a feeling of heart-warming emotional closeness, and a fiercer sense of loyalty towards this magnificent bunch of people with who we’ve spent the last eight hours. Time spent on MDMA can be flawlessly authentic, offering a state of mind that encourages you to delve into profoundly meaningful topics that you’re usually too wary to approach.
As a shy and cautious teenager, I’d often have trouble interacting with people who weren’t my friends—the gut-wrenching awkwardness was too much to bear, so I wouldn’t bother trying. MDMA helped to bring me out of my shell, and not just for the duration of the high, but extending far into the future. The rush of empathy one feels while on the drug, mixed with the feeling of immaculate love towards people around you, taught me not only to more easily identify the inherent good in other people, but to realise that I was worthy of their company and friendship. It accorded me the courage needed to speak and act without restraint, teaching myself—little-by-little—that I was more than capable of being a funny, interesting person, whose company people were eager to keep. By improving my emotional intelligence, MDMA has undoubtedly helped to shape my personality into something better.
Psychedelics such as LSD and magic mushrooms also have a reputation for changing people profoundly. In Michael Pollan’s incredible book How To Change Your Mind—a treatise on the beneficial effects of psychedelics—he reveals that many people who take these kinds of drugs describe it as one of “the most meaningful experiences of their lives”. Psychedelics dampen our Default Mode Network, which is suspected to be the creator of our ego. As our sense of self dissipates, we can feel a profound sense of unity with the world around us, and our brains are temporarily permitted to make brand new connections, illustrated beautifully in this diagram from the book.
This is why creatives in Silicon Valley are spending their work-days microdosing—it unfetters their naturally restricted brains, allowing them to be more creative than ever before.
“I’m glad mushrooms are against the law, because I took them one time, and you know what happened to me? I laid in a field of green grass for four hours going, ‘My God! I love everything.’ Yeah, now if that isn’t a hazard to our country…how are we gonna justify arms dealing when we realize that we’re all one?”—Bill Hicks
There’s a big difference between the occasional drug-taking experience, and using substances as a coping mechanism for the pain in your life. Highly-addictive drugs such as cocaine and heroin are a completely different beast, and should be avoided at all costs. This kind of escapism rarely ends well — it’s usually much better to face your suffering head on, with as much courage as you can muster.
“Taking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life. LSD shows you that there’s another side to the coin, and you can’t remember it when it wears off, but you know it. It reinforced my sense of what was important — creating great things instead of making money, putting things back into the stream of history and of human consciousness as much as I could.”—Steve Jobs
When it comes to MDMA, LSD, and psilocybin, it’s no wonder that people are willing to break the law in order to experience them. They can function as a form of self-therapy—a vehicle for fundamentally changing your brain, quicker and more effective than any other method. Since the discovery of LSD back in the 50’s, scientists have suspected its therapeutic benefits, kickstarting a field of research that has shown incredible results. But for the general public, stringent scientific experiments aren’t needed to tell them what they already know: MDMA, LSD, and psilocybin—when used for the right reasons— have the power to improve our lives. This is why millions of everyday people are willing to position themselves on the wrong side of the law. It’s not just about goofing around with your friends—laughing but also terrified at the clouds wiggling and shifting into new shapes—it’s about being equipped with the courage needed to leap over personal boundaries—a shift in consciousness that can teach you how to be a better person, with opportunities to encounter the world from fresher, more fluid perspectives. These drug can equip us with the potential to break out of our tired, restrictive moulds. Scientists have known this for years, as have regular, law-breaking users.
It isn’t a question of whether these drugs have therapeutic benefits, but a question of when our governments will be able to get past their antiquated views and embrace them as valuable weapons in our medical arsenal. Great progress has been made with marijuana. In time, and as more scientific evidence emerges, perhaps the same will happen with MDMA and psychedelics.
Some words of caution MDMA, LSD and psilocybin are still illegal in many countries, and as such, their production lacks quality control. Drug testing kits are essential to test their purity, and obvious discretion required if you’re willing to take the necessary risks to acquire the drugs themselves. This article is by no means an advocation to do so. It’s also worth noting that these drugs aren’t for everyone, particularly for those with serious mental illnesses.
Flat Earthers have a tendency to evoke a great deal of condescension in people. Wry grins are accompanied by snorts and scoffs, all wrapped up in a feeling of unquestionable superiority. What kind of idiots could believe such a thing?
The hardened beliefs of a Flat Earther are caused by a mixture of fascinating psychological processes, the enlightening of which can help to protect ourselves against such rampant illogicality. Truth is critical for the survival of our species—a firm grip on reality essential for mastery over our environment. Consider some of the great achievers of history, infected with the absurdity of the Flat Earth belief—Francis Drake might have been too fearful to steer his galleon towards the dusky horizon, lest the ship find itself suspended in mid air, before toppling into the unforgivable abyss. Physicist Léon Foucault would have seen little point in attempting to demonstrate the earth’s rotation using his famous pendulum. The Wright Brothers might have been too fearful to carry out their sky-soaring antics, worried about eventually flying off the edge of the planet into a body-crushing black hole. For our species to be successful, we need solid, verifiable information. Without it we’re lost.
Here’s some of the psychological phenomenon that might be occurring in a typical Flat Earther.
This is a type of reasoning motivated towards reaching a conclusion that matches our pre-existing beliefs, resulting in feel-good positive emotions. When our beliefs are challenged, we experience an unpleasant, almost jarring sensation called cognitive dissonance—our confidence on the topic has been called into question, and we feel a strong urge to get rid of the uncomfortable feeling. There’s two ways to vanquish cognitive dissonance—replace our current idea with the new one being proposed, or blankly reject it. It’s obvious which one is easier—no cognitive effort is needed for rejection, but replacing the idea with something new requires us to search our memories for related information, and consider the logicality of it. The principle of least effort tells us that we’re probably going to reject the idea. Some Flat Earthers are so bold in their beliefs, with such an illusion of objectivity, that they probably never even arrive at cognitive dissonance, blankly rejecting the evidence before it has a chance to rear its head.
Motivated reasoning ensures that a Flat Earther experiences as little negative emotion as possible—an existence of blissful comfort in which they’re definitely right, without having to undergo the mental distress of getting to the actual truth. In the Flat Earth Netflix documentary Behind the Curve, cognitive dissonance is illustrated beautifully in the closing scenes, as Jaren Campanella tries to disprove the Flat Earth theory by copying the Bedford Level experiment—an exercise carried out in the 19th century which proved the earth’s curvature. As the result of the experiment becomes clear, the mental anguish caused by Jaren’s cognitive dissonance is almost too painful to watch, as his mind wrestles with the terrifying notion that—despite having invested so much time, effort, and social credibility into his theory—he might be wrong after all. Motivated reasoning is a powerful force though—a peek at his Twitter account reveals his continued belief in the theory.
Motivated reasoning occurs when a person’s self-esteem, their future, or their understanding of the world are at stake. Disproving the theory that a Flat Earther spends their life promoting could destroy their self-esteem, put their future into question, and invalidate their understanding of how the world works. With so much at stake, it’s no wonder that Mr Campanella’s brain subconsciously protects itself with the mental gymnastics of motivated reasoning.
This theory is supported by another psychological phenomenon called confirmation bias, which explains our tendency to actively seek out information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs, and ignore information that contradicts with it.
Contrary evidence—equally as visible as everything else—conveniently fades into the background. Though we may enjoy the occasional flirtation with an opposing idea, we want to be right about our deeply-held beliefs, because it does wonders for our confidence and sense of surety.
As our Google results flash up, our eyes make a beeline for the link that matches our theory. As we talk with our friends, our ears bring up the volume for words that agree with ours, and hit the mute button for words that disagree. As we furrow our brows and try to recall something from our saturated brain, we remember the information that matches our beliefs, and ignore everything else.
When our convictions are presented to us from the real world, they’re glowing with a sparkling resonance, which we grab at like greedy children in order to boost our delicate egos. This is especially true if we have strong emotional ties to the belief, which would undoubtedly be the case for Flat Earthers, who must surely be on the receiving end of regular bouts of ridicule.
As our species evolved, fitting into our group was a matter of life and death, resulting in our yearning desire to belong. We desperately want everyone to accept us, because in the past, it gave us a much better chance of survival. We’re social animals to the core. The desire to belong is so universal that it’s found within every single culture on the planet. The alternative to belonging to a group is anxiety-fuelled loneliness — a harsh social pain that motivates us to seek out a tribe that we can call our own.
Perched on the fringes of society, with an intense hankering to be proven right, Flat Earthers must surely welcome new believers with open arms. This isn’t an exclusive club that everyone is dying to get into, but a motley crue of oddball characters, who’ll take anyone that they can get. Once immersed into the community, a new member might find themselves glowing with a sense of acceptance and belonging, feeling as though they’re finally part of a group who gets them, and will protect them from the emotional danger of a cruel, unforgiving world. Though it’s difficult to believe, their fellow Flat Earthers are the only people who can see through the biggest illusion in human history, and they’re lucky enough to be a part of this wonderful tribe, flushed with the idea of finally being connected with a common identity, and one of such obvious importance!
A fierce loyalty develops towards the group, which is to protected at all costs. Danger to the tribe is danger to the individual. The affiliation that is shared between a group of individuals is too precious to be left exposed—an invaluable bond that restores the self-esteem of each and every member. A tribe is worth its weight in gold.
Confidence is a wonderful feeling. It’s the universe telling us that we’re doing well, despite the repeated failures of our past. We feel energised and willing to tackle things heads on, fuelled by an expansive feeling of power.
Confidence goes hand-in-hand with being (or at least feeling) right. As a fresh Flat Earther indoctrinates themselves into the group—confidence strengthened with each new piece of “evidence”—a feeling of superiority emerges, and they cannot believe how everyone else can be so foolish. They’re suddenly oozing with a self-confidence that has been lacking their whole lives. Not only do their fellow believers want to talk to them, they actually agree with them! They become immersed in a serene and reverberant echo chamber, in which everyone repeatedly confirms each other’s absurd beliefs.
Electrified with a new-found optimism, a Flat Earther may feel the need to spread their truth to as many people as possible, filled with passionate and seemingly enduring confidence. Such a feeling is addictive to say the least—how good it feels to be right for a change; what a contrast to the apathetic disengagement that accompanied life before Flat Earth. Why would I ever want to go back to that?
A Flat Earther might finally feel that they’re a part of something bigger than themselves, becoming impassioned with meaning and purpose—a newly christened acolyte to the cause. When we come across something that is personally meaningful to us, we’re drawn to it like wasps to a lollipop, invigorated with motivation.
Our personal sense of meaning and the beliefs that follow from it form a strong part of our identity. Imagine how lost an Islamic extremist might feel after suddenly and spectacularly losing their faith? The core part of their identity has vanished into mist, to be replaced with — what?
What could be more important than a sense of personal meaning? After the philosophical “death” of god, who for centuries was the sole source of meaning for most people, existentialists such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Albert Camus spent their lives trying to understand how to replace such a formidable force. Without meaning, life can seem completely pointless. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the irrational belief in an omnipotent, beaming god, or the irrational belief in the earth being shaped like a pancake. The outcome is the same—a confident, fulfilling contentment, drawn from the idea that existence actually means something, and I’ve finally found out what that is, so good luck prying that from my white-knuckled grip.
Confounded disbelief is a common reaction to believers of the Flat Earth theory, until you examine the complex psychological processes at play. Credulity becomes forgivable in the face of such powerful forces. Our understanding of the inner workings of our minds—particularly their motivating biases, fallacies, and illogicalities—seems essential in order for us to create a more concrete reality, so that that we navigate our world with greater confidence. In a climate of increasingly alarming misinformation and fake news, this seems more important than ever.
The pursuit of happiness might be considered the biggest scam in modern history—an endeavour undertaken by millions of people worldwide, straining and toiling to get as much happiness as possible before their inevitable demise.
The idea was first made popular by 17th century philosopher John Locke, gained further fashion after being added to the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson, and since then, has been considered a worthy quest for people all over the globe. It makes intuitive sense—what could be more desirable than living a life of happiness, and as such, why not make it our primary goal?
If there’s a halo-wearing God watching, he must surely be stifling a laugh at the farcical irony of the situation, fully aware that happiness cannot be obtained by aiming for it—a phenomenon known as the paradox of hedonism. If he had a shred of his famed benevolence, he might poke his furry face through a gap in the sky and warn us of our ignorance, followed by a simple explanation of how we can live a happy, contented life—by seeking meaning, not happiness.
The pursuit of happiness is often sought through typical avenues such as high-paying jobs—bank account stuffed to the brim with crisp, hard-won notes— careers of admirable status, fawned over by the insufferable sycophants of the world, or wiry Instagram-model girlfriends who have the “perfect” figures, but personalities akin to a group of confused, one-footed pigeons. Such ambitions are tragically misguided. If we want to live a fulfilling life, brimming with long-lasting contentment, the pursuit of meaning is the adventure that’ll get us there. In the words of concentration camp survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl—“happiness cannot be pursued, it must ensue”—and it proceeds from a devoted, impassioned pursuit of what we find personally meaningful.
What is it that you consider to have intrinsic value, not for its high-esteem within society, or prized for its rarity, but because it occupies a little corner of your heart—a treasure without the glitter of gold or diamonds, but priceless nonetheless? This is where your happiness lies, and its discovery might be the most important task of your life.
Once we hurl the erroneous pursuit of happiness into the trash where it belongs, we can strap on our boots and get started on the more commendable pursuit of meaning. But how do we discover what’s subjectively meaningful to us, to be commissioned in perpetual glory as our North Star—a luminous, unmistakable heading that can determine our life’s direction?
Below is an extensive list of suggestions that serves as a instructional guide, each with their own merits.
Figure out your core values
Our core values typically define our true character—the person who we want to be, as opposed to the person who society wants us to be. When we’re living in accordance with our values, we feel a peaceful, blissful sense of authenticity, able to navigate the world wholeheartedly, with fervent confidence and commitment. In contrast, going against our values feels inherently wrong, as though our soul is in a state of revolt, being coerced into an action that we have no desire to take. It’s how a benevolent charity-worker might feel when being forced to shut the doors of a soup kitchen, with a queue of hungry people still wanting to eat. Everything about the action feels fallacious.
When it comes to your own values, maybe making people laugh is what you love the most, basking in the glow of squinted eyes and rumbling chortles. Perhaps compassion is your forte, and you find yourself flooded with surges of motivation in the face of unnecessary suffering. Maybe it’s relentless kindness—even towards the most spiteful, cantankerous of characters—that fuels your behaviour.
Identifying the core values that motivate you are an effective way to discover personal meaning. One way to achieve this is to browse through James Clear’s list of core values, select five that have resonating appeal for you, and then consider what actions you might be able to take for each value. For example, if you have a burning aspiration for fairness, you might want to consider a career as a slick-haired, hotshot lawyer, or perhaps march for the awareness of an intolerable social injustice. If wisdom is your thing, you might nip down to the local library and borrow a copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, to absorb the emperor’s extensive stockpile of smarts. If it’s friendship, make a concerted, ongoing effort to socialise with your buddies, old and new. Write all of this down, so that you can refer back to it if you’re ever feeling aimless. If you’d prefer a more guided approach to discovering your values, you might consider taking this free values assessment.
“Tell me what you pay attention to and I will tell you who you are.”—José Ortega y Gasset
Contemplating the traits of your personal heroes can also help to identify your values. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has recently been thrust into the limelight after the terrorist incident in Christchurch, and though she was already well-known for her progressive, wonderfully liberal stance, her composed handling of the tragedy has won the hearts of people around the world. What we admire in others, we also admire in ourselves. The traits of our heroes provide strong clues as to our own values, whether it’s the authenticity and kindness of Jacinda Ardern, the humor and optimism of Winston Churchill, or the creativity and determination of Albert Einstein. When we live by our values, we channel the spirits of our personal heroes.
Guiding values can also make our lives easier, offering straightforward answers to the relentless and difficult decisions that befall us, endowing us with the strength we need to battle through adversity. Ambiguity vanishes with a strong sense of personal meaning—we know what’s important, and we know what do. Through meaning we find courage.
Living in accordance with your core values is one of the most effective ways to have an honest, meaningful, and happy life.
“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
Experiment as much as possible
The old adage you don’t know what you don’t know tells us that we need to experiment in order to find meaningful pursuits. You’ll never know that you’re a veritable speed demon capable of smashing Nürburgring lap records until you strap on your helmet, climb into the racing seat, and slam your foot on the throttle. Curious experimentation is a snow-covered sherpa that leads you to momentous places. With willingness comes discovery, and the capacity to unearth life-changing interests, altering your course in drastic and thrilling new directions.
Roman Krznaric—author of How To Find Fulfilling Work—believes that experimentation is one of the most effective ways for us to find meaningful employment. Theory only gets us so far—all of the books or conversations in the world can’t tell us what it’s actually like to work in a particular role. We need to get our hands dirty, going so far as taking a sabbatical and trying to get some unpaid work in our desired roles. This is obviously impossible for careers that require specialised training (such as nursing), for which conversation and research are the only real methods. But for many jobs and hobbies, experience is the best educator, offering tangible and extensive real-world understanding.
“Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.” —Andre Gide
Fresh experiences help to broaden our view of the world, uncovering exciting new aspects for us to explore. Birthday coming up? Ask for an experience instead of a product. Not only will you get to do something strange and unfamiliar, but your personal well-being will be kept safe from the corruption of excessive materialism. An evening spent in front of a pottery wheel—softly humming Unchained Melody while your teacher observes your archaic technique—can be infinitely more valuable than the latest electronic contraption that repeatedly steals your attention.
“Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you.”—Thomas Jefferson
Books can also be potent primers for new interests—piquing our curiosity by offering the perspectives of fresh and compelling minds, opening up entirely new avenues for us to explore. This is something that makes Medium such a wealth of information—we’re able to experience the world through the stories of ordinary, everyday people, each with their own captivating tales to tell.
“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born, and the day you find out why.” — Mark Twain
Kids are the masters of existence—they know what they want, and they pursue it emphatically, not stopping to worry about whether it’s the right thing. The immeasurably wise Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed that “time is a game played beautifully by children”, whose unerring mindfulness and focused attention on the present could put even the mighty Buddha to shame.
“The soul is healed by being with children.” ― Fyodor Dostoevsky
If you enjoyed something as a kid, chances are you’ll enjoy it as an adult. Our motivations are warped by maturity—we start to ask ourselves why we’re painting a goofy-looking giraffe in luminous acrylic shades of orange and cream, as if there must be some underlying reason for it. This absurd argument can be extended to our entire lives: why do anything? Painting a necky mammal can be just as rewarding and pleasurable as a night in a 5-star luxury hotel. It doesn’t have to have to be sold for hoards of cash, or posted on Instagram for surges of feel-good chemicals. We can just paint for the sake of painting, for nothing more than the process itself. Age can introduce an unnecessary focus on the end result, with fantasies of status and glory fogging our brains, masking what’s truly valuable—doing something that you love, just because you love it.
As children, there was no need to dredge up reasons for doing something—we did it purely because it resonated with us, holding our attention for an extended period of time until we were ready to move onto another glorious mini-adventure. Our expertise was never a concern; the perplexing limbs of our physically-deranged giraffe never bothered us. We just loved painting, because it was meaningful to us.
Figure out what energises you
On Monday morning of every work week, a million defeated groans are released into the earth’s atmosphere, with the prospect of another day at work. Motivation can be an incredibly tough thing to muster, particularly for things that you don’t enjoy. Money has limited impetus, with the remainder of a work day spent fighting an internal battle to procrastinate, whether it’s flicking through the tripe on your Facebook feed, the vainglorious bullshit on Instagram, or the endless but often insipid entertainment on Reddit.
When you find something that naturally energises you—an activity that repeatedly draws you back into its clutches—procrastination becomes much less of a problem. Though it may be bursting with difficulty, accompanied by an uncomfortable skepticism about our own ability, we still harbour an unusual, pulling urge to keep at it, because for whatever mysterious reason, we’ve found something that is meaningful to us; something that charges our souls with driving energy. It might be a natural fascination with taking apart greasy old car engines, meticulously cleaning the parts and then putting them back together again. Perhaps you find yourself girding your proverbial loins before starting a thousand-page book on advanced economics, excited at the prospect of becoming a stock-market genius, but nervous about the bewildering mathematics. Whatever your nuanced jam, it belongs to you and you alone, and it energises your spirit through meaning.
“A great fire burns within me, but no one stops to warm themselves at it, and passers-by only see a wisp of smoke”—Vincent Van Gogh
Figure out your motivators
There’s two types of motivation—extrinsic, and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is when you’re driven by an external factor, such as money or social status. Though this type of motivation can be strong for some people (money can be an intense driver), it isn’t something that we really want to do. The behaviour can be provoked with a juicy dangling carrot, but when the carrot is removed, the behaviour stops. Intrinsic motivation—on the other hand—is doing something for its own sake, because it’s personally meaningful to you. These activities are naturally vitalising, forging an innate desire to complete them. You’re much more likely to return to intrinsically motivating tasks.
Much of what we do contains a mixture of both intrinsic, and extrinsic motivations. Writing down your honest reasons for undergoing an activity can help to determine their motivational makeup, in order to determine whether they’re genuinely meaningful to you. These are my reasons for writing:
I want people to benefit from my ideas, so that they can live better lives (intrinsic)
I enjoy writing in an entertaining, descriptive way (intrinsic)
I want to improve my writing skills, in order to become a freelance writer (intrinsic)
The positive feedback that I get from other people makes me feel good about myself (extrinsic)
If most of your reasons for doing something are extrinsic, and unless you’re happy coasting through the process without any real passion for it, or without the desire to become a true master, you might want to focus your efforts elsewhere. It’s possible for an extrinsically motivating task to turn into something intrinsic, and for this reason remains valuable for broadening your range of hobbies, but if the majority of your reasons remain extrinsic after a decent period of time, you should consider moving onto something that makes your heart sing. Extrinsically motivating tasks are somebody else’s obsession, not yours.
“To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself. She has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances.” — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
You may have a burning desire to be a glorified rockstar, assaulting the strings of your electric guitar while a thousand starry-eyed fans sing along to your lyrics. But are you willing to spend endless hours alone, strumming away at your instrument, until your brain is frazzled and fingers red raw? Are you willing to endure the drudgery of long-distance travel, arse squashed into the padding-shy seat of a minivan, driving towards another tiring, late-night gig? Are you willing to undergo the pain, frustration and risk required to become a master of your art?
Often, we’re more in love with the idea of something than the actual reality. Successful people may seem like fortunately gifted individuals who have sailed to the top of their profession with ease, but their path has been paved with grit, determination, and a ton of hard work. They’re successful because they find such a depth of meaning to their craft that they’re willing to suffer for it; to display the tenacity needed to struggle through the difficult times, when it’s much easier to just give up.
“Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.” —Stephen King
“Everyone has talent. What’s rare is the courage to follow it to the dark places where it leads.” —Erica Jong
When we find something truly meaningful, the negative aspects become endurable. We’re fully aware that our chosen pursuit carries just as much tedium and pain as anything else, but it’s valuable to us nonetheless, and we’ll tolerate it over and over, because we’ve found something that puts a dazzling glint in our eye; something for which we’ll happily rise from our soft, warm beds in the morning, to spend the day toiling and cursing in order to become masters of our craft.
“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but — I hope — into a better shape.” —Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
What would you do if money were no object?
These are the immortal words of philosophical entertainer Alan Watts, who helped to popularise Eastern philosophy in the West. Money is the ultimate extrinsic motivator, and though we need it to survive, we certainly don’t need to spend our lives glued to our office desk for exhausting 12-hour shifts. Research shows that once we have enough money to do the things we want, greater quantities do little to improve our emotional well-being. So why do persist with the ludicrous and stressful rat-race—elbowing and biting our way to the front of pack—when there’s solid and extensive scientific evidence to suggest that we only need to earn just enough in order to be content? With this mindset in place, we can begin our search for an intrinsically, fulfilling career, as opposed to a career driven by the bewitching glitter of gold. A better question to ask yourself would be what would you do if money were less important?
Though it’s a foolish, utopian notion to assume that everyone can have their dream job, it’s perfectly realistic and achievable to aim for jobs that are good enough; for a career that motivates us intrinsically for the most part, yielding an appropriate wage for our life’s desires. There’ll always be aspects that we dislike — searching for the “perfect” job is folly, a consequence of unrealistic and unachievable expectations. But a career that motivates and challenges us, while still being a bit shit from time to time? That’s a worthy goal.
“It is impossible to escape the impression that people commonly use false standards of measurement — that they seek power, success and wealth for themselves and admire them in others, and that they underestimate what is of true value in life.” — Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents
What do you lose yourself in?
Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is credited with discovering the fascinating concept of flow—the sensation of losing yourself in an activity, productivity maximised, and all sense of time lost. When we’re in this state, we think of nothing else but the task at hand—it’s pure, unadulterated focus, often referred to as being in the zone, and considered by Csikszentmihalyi to be the “optimal experience” that one can have. Moments of flow have the potential to give birth to our greatest work. Some artists become so immersed in flow that they disregard basic needs such as water, food and sleep.
Have you ever found yourself in a state of pristine concentration, so immersed in the activity that all else ceased to exist; chatter of your internal monologue temporarily repressed, and equipped with a razor-sharp sense of awareness? This is the experience of flow— an intrinsically motivating, meaningful enterprise where you should probably be devoting your time.
What would you do if you couldn’t fail?
Fear of failure can prevent us from participating in difficult, meaningful activities, paralysing us until the opportunity passes, and we’re made comfortably safe again. Failure can be characterised by feelings of intense embarrassment, frustration, regret, powerlessness, and most importantly, a strong sense of shame, leaving us feeling bad about who we are. These are vigorous motivators against doing what we find to be personally meaningful. Using your imagination to expel the prospect of failure can help to make valuable pursuits seem more encouraging, with less reluctance to participate.
“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” —Robert F. Kennedy
The fact of the matter is, you’re going to fail repeatedly, especially for something difficult and worthwhile. What’s the worst that could happen? It’s better to fail, than to have never tried. Those who regularly fail are the most courageous among us. Imagining failure as a non-entity can offer the heroism needed to identify and undergo meaningful endeavours.
“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”—Michael Jordan
What would you do if you only had six months to live?
Death can feel like a faraway, dreamlike concept, best kept locked in the dark corners of our minds where it can be ignored, until the day that it bursts into view, fierce and unrelenting. At this point, the wasted hours of our lives come into sharp focus, and we might start questioning what we want to do for the final stretch of our life. Are you happy to keep on doing your 9-to-5—commuting to the office for another six months of depressing drudgery—or would you prefer to stay at home with a captivating novel? Perhaps you’d like to spend the time reconnecting with long-forgotten family or friends, the company of whom lit up your life in days gone by, but tragically fell by the wayside? Maybe it’s finally time to fill the spare room with an expansive train set, with multi-platformed stations, chubby conductors, and freshly-painted townspeople?
When time becomes more limited, it also becomes more precious, and we’re left wondering how we really want to spend it. If you only have six months to live, what are the most personally meaningful things that you’ve do?
“I’m the one that’s got to die when it’s time for me to die, so let me live my life the way I want to.” —Jimi Hendrix, Axis: Bold as Love
A sense of comfortable gratification washes over us when we’re exercising our natural talents. The activity can feel instinctive, almost second-nature, and we’re encouraged to push harder to advance our skill. Most of us want to achieve mastery over the world—a Nietzschean will to power—so our natural talents can be particularly enticing, boosting our treasured sense of autonomy and self-confidence.
“The person born with a talent they are meant to use will find their greatest happiness in using it. ”—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
There isn’t much point in struggling through something for which you have little natural skill, because there’s a good chance you’ll give up anyway. Only those with iron grit who are backed by a strong extrinsic motivator can muster the determination to become masters at such things. Most people get frustrated, give up, and move onto something more befitting of their abilities. There’s nothing wrong with this—why waste your time on something that doesn’t suit your particular type of intelligence? Our natural talents, and the innate desire to exercise them, can be valuable sources of personal meaning.
“Hide not your talents, they for use were made,
What’s a sundial in the shade?”
Listen to what others say about you
Your friends, family and colleagues probably know a great deal about you—perhaps more than you’d like. The words that you choose and the tone used to deliver them; the body language that you adopt; your unique way of solving problems—all these things construct a unique personality that the people close to you can readily identify, making them a valuable source of information about yourself.
That comment from your overly-enthusiastic colleague about your instinctive eye for design is a hint at your natural talents, as is the constructive criticism from your boss about your poor lack of planning. The raised eyebrows of your friends as you perform a self-composed guitar solo is strong evidence of your burgeoning musical skill, to be sustained if you have the appetite for it.
Other people provide constant clues of our natural talents, which can be registered if we‘re mindfully attentive. There’ll likely be sycophants and phonies along the way who’ll distort your self-estimations, but these are usually spotted easily—insincerity exudes the most pungent of smells. Generally, listening to what others say about you can yield valuable clues to your meaningful pursuits.
Talk to people
The unique preferences of every person who you interact with makes them a goldmine of information. A career in air traffic control may have never been a consideration, until being regaled with tales of the tarmac tower by your wife’s spirited, distant relative. The casual kitchen chat you had with your co-worker about the revived therapeutic studies of psilocybin could ignite a passion for learning about magic mushrooms. The lives of other people can be fascinating and remarkably educational, if you ask the right questions. Most people love talking about themselves, and they’ll spill their soul if you exhibit a genuine curiosity about them. Even more so if you ply them with red wine.
Our mobile phones are destroying these lovely little moments that we have with people, by offering a temporary reprieve from the inevitable awkwardness that arises during conversation. A second or two of silence, and our phone becomes more appealing than a freshly baked, crack-like Krispy Kreme. Taking our phone out in the middle of a chat is a death knell to the conversation—an announcement that we can’t handle a little bit of discomfort, so we’re reverting to our phones instead, where there’s no chance of social awkwardness, but also little chance of discovering something meaningful through honest, open conversation.
Consider something civil
It doesn’t just have to be about ourselves—deeply fulfilling meaning can be found through helping other people. Altruistic behaviour bathes us in a warm and contented glow, reinforcing our psychological need to relate, and encouraging us to repeat our act. Benevolent prosocial behaviour can provide us with long-lasting, joyful satisfaction.
“For it is in the giving that we receive”—Saint Francis of Assisi
A study from Florida State University found that the “giver” in a relationship had a greater sense of purpose in their life. Our subjective existence instills us with selfishness, but when we shift our focus to other people and act selflessly, without any thought of reciprocation, we often feel wonderful. It’s a win-win situation, creating positive vibes for both parties.
There’s a ton of ways to be prosocial: charity work; helping an old lady cross the street; unexpectedly cleaning the apartment for your partner; making the effort to talk to your often-ignored office cleaners, and much more. These little acts of kindness can provide you with a deep and valuable sense of meaning.
What social injustice bothers you?
Social injustice can stir up intense, morally-driven feelings of unfairness, followed by a powerful motivation to set things straight. Are you bothered by the fact that the American justice system is skewed towards punishing young black men? Consider doing something about it—raise awareness for the injustice through social media; integrate yourself into the Black Lives Matter movement, or learn about the intricacies of filmmaking so that you make your own documentary about the corruption and greed that fuels the American prison system.
Social injustice can light a fire in our soul, and though often accompanied by feelings of anger and distress, there’s also a formidable sense of meaning. What could be more meaningful than helping to battle an immoral discrimination, in order to make the world a kinder, fairer place?
“As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways in which I could respond to my situation — either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course.”—Martin Luther King Jr.
The pursuit of happiness is a fool’s game—a critically-acclaimed tale of tragedy penned by the world’s finest author, woven with threads of gloomy irony, with the pursuit itself being the saboteur of our happiness. Thankfully, there’s a laudable alternative—the pursuit of meaning. Our lives are but a tiny flicker of flame, lost in the darkness of untold millennia, until we discover the fuel that intensifies the blaze, unapologetically radiating our little corner of the world with dazzling luminosity.
Only through meaning can our light shine at its fullest, bestowing us with lasting, joyful happiness.
“Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer”—Joseph Campbell