Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘happiness’

09 JANUARY, 2013

Sherwood Anderson on Art and Life: A Letter of Advice to His Teenage Son

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“The object of art is not to make salable pictures. It is to save yourself.”

The quest to find one’s purpose and live the creative life boldly is neither simple nor easy, especially for a young person trying to make sense of the world and his place in it.

In the spring of 1926, Sherwood Anderson sent his seventeen-year-old son John a beautiful addition to history’s most moving and timeless letters of fatherly advice. Found in Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children (public library), the missive offers insight on everything from knowing whose advice not to take to the false allure of money to the joy of making things with your hands:

The best thing, I dare say, is first to learn something well so you can always make a living. Bob seems to be catching on at the newspaper business and has had another raise. He is getting a good training by working in a smaller city. As for the scientific fields, any of them require a long schooling and intense application. If you are made for it nothing could be better. In the long run you will have to come to your own conclusion.

The arts, which probably offer a man more satisfaction, are uncertain. It is difficult to make a living.

If I had my own life to lead over I presume I would still be a writer but I am sure I would give my first attention to learning how to do things directly with my hands. Nothing gives quite the satisfaction that doing things brings.

Above all avoid taking the advice of men who have no brains and do not know what they are talking about. Most small businessmen say simply — ‘Look at me.’ They fancy that if they have accumulated a little money and have got a position in a small circle they are competent to give advice to anyone.

Next to occupation is the building up of good taste. That is difficult, slow work. Few achieve it. It means all the difference in the world in the end.

I am constantly amazed at how little painters know about painting, writers about writing, merchants about business, manufacturers about manufacturing. Most men just drift.

There is a kind of shrewdness many men have that enables them to get money. It is the shrewdness of the fox after the chicken. A low order of mentality often goes with it.

Above all I would like you to see many kinds of men at first hand. That would help you more than anything. Just how it is to be accomplished I do not know. Perhaps a way may be found. Anyway, I’ll see you this summer. We begin to pack for the country this week.

With love,

Dad.

The following year, after Anderson and his wife took eighteen-year-old John and his sister Marion to Europe, the boy remained in Paris to study painting. Drawing on his own artistic experience and the parallels between writing and painting, Sherwood sent John another poignant letter of advice in April of 1927, adding to history’s finest definitions of art and stressing the importance of discipline in cultivating “talent”:

In relation to painting.

Don’t be carried off your feet by anything because it is modern — the latest thing.

Go to the Louvre often and spend a good deal of time before the Rembrandts, the Delacroixs.

Learn to draw. Try to make your hand so unconsciously adept that it will put down what you feel without your having to think of your hands.

Then you can think of the thing before you.

Draw things that have some meaning to you. An apple, what does it mean? The object drawn doesn’t matter so much.

It’s what you feel about it, what it means to you.

A masterpiece could be made of a dish of turnips.

Draw, draw, hundreds of drawings.

Try to remain humble. Smartness kills everything.

The object of art is not to make salable pictures. It is to save yourself.

Any cleanness I have in my own life is due to my feeling for words.

The fools who write articles about me think that one morning I suddenly decided to write and began to produce masterpieces.

There is no special trick about writing or painting either. I wrote constantly for 15 years before I produced anything with any solidity to it.

[…]

The thing of course, is to make yourself alive. Most people remain all of their lives in a stupor.

The point of being an artist is that you may live.

[…]

You won’t arrive. It is an endless search.

I write as though you were a man. Well, you must know my heart is set on you. It isn’t your success I want.

There is a possibility of your having a decent attitude toward people and work. That alone may make a man of you.

Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children is a delicious read in its entirety. Couple this particular excerpt with Georgia O’Keeffe’s spectacular letter to Sherwood Anderson, three years earlier, on success and what it really means to be an artist.

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12 DECEMBER, 2012

The Science of Our Optimism Bias and the Life-Cycle of Happiness

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“To make progress, we need to be able to imagine alternative realities, and not just any old reality but a better one.”

“If I expect as little as possible, I won’t be hurt,” Susan Sontag famously wrote in her diary. And yet we’re wired to expect a lot — and to expect great things. So argues neuroscientist Tali Sharot in The Science of Optimism: Why We’re Hard-Wired for Hope — a short, absorbing TED Book summarizing Sharot’s own research, as well as that of others in the field, using a combination of neuroimaging and behavioral science to explore why we’re “more optimistic than realistic,” what this might mean for our everyday well-being, and whether it’s due to the specific architecture of our brains.

The root of optimism, Sharot suggests, isn’t far from what Montaigne argued five centuries ago. She writes:

Optimism starts with what may be the most extraordinary of human talents: mental time travel. That is, the ability to move back and forth through time and space in one’s mind. To think positively about our prospects, it helps to be able to imagine ourselves in the future. Although most of us take this ability for granted, our capacity to envision a different time and place is critical for our survival. It allows us to plan ahead, to save food and resources for times of scarcity, and to endure hard work in anticipation of a future reward.

While mental time travel has clear survival advantages, conscious foresight came to humans at an enormous price — the understanding that somewhere in the future, death awaits. This knowledge that old age, sickness, decline of mental power, and oblivion are somewhere around the corner, can be devastating.

In some instances Sharot cites, this “optimism bias” might be better termed “narcissism bias” — a phenomenon known as the “superiority illusion”:

In a survey by two Ohio researchers, 25 percent of respondents said they were in the top 1 percent for getting along well with others. A separate study of college students found that 93 percent of respondents in the U.S. believed they were above average in driving ability. Most people would even be willing to bet money on it if you asked them to. This high level of car-handling expertise, however, is statistically impossible — we cannot all be better than everyone else.

In discussing the role of memory in optimism and illusion, Sharot echoes the idea that memory is not a recording device:

Memories … are susceptible to inaccuracies partly because the neural system responsible for remembering episodes from our past may not have evolved for the memory function alone. Rather, the core function of the memory system could in fact be to imagine the future — to enable us to prepare for what is to come. The system was not designed to perfectly replay past events, they claimed. It was designed to flexibly construct future scenarios in our minds. As a result, memory also ends up being a reconstructive process. Occasionally, details are deleted. At other times, they are inserted.

She traces the intersection of memory and optimism to a neural framework:

The capacity to envision the future relies partially on the hippocampus, a brain structure that is crucial to memory. Patients with damage to their hippocampus are unable to recollect the past, but they are also unable to construct detailed images of future scenarios. They appear to be stuck in time.

[…]

Findings from a study I conducted a few years ago with prominent neuroscientist Elizabeth Phelps suggest that directing our thoughts of the future toward the positive is a result of our frontal cortex communicating with subcortical regions deep in our brain. The frontal cortex, a large area behind the forehead, is the most recently evolved part of the brain. It is larger in humans than in other primates and is critical for many complex human functions such as language and goal setting.

Curiously, people with depression are better able to predict future events accurately, indicating that we would all be somewhat depressed if we lacked that very neural mechanism that underpins our optimism bias. But, of course, there’s a problem with that realistic — or, worse yet, pessimistic — accuracy:

The problem with pessimistic expectations, such as those of the clinically depressed, is that they have the power to alter the future; negative expectations shape outcomes in a negative way. Not everyone agrees with this assertion. Some people believe the secret to happiness is low expectations. If we don’t expect greatness or find love or maintain health or achieve success, we will never be disappointed. If we are never disappointed when things don’t work out and are pleasantly surprised when things go well, we will be happy. It’s a good theory — but it’s wrong. Research shows that whatever the outcome, whether we succeed or we fail, people with high expectations tend to feel better. At the end of the day, how we feel when we get dumped or win an award depends mostly on how we interpret the event.

Indeed, as we’ve seen with “the winner effect,” optimism might provide an adaptive advantage:

Although the belief in a better future is often an illusion, optimism has clear benefits in the present. Hope keeps our minds at ease, lowers stress, and improves physical health. This is probably the most surprising benefit of optimism. All else being equal, optimists are healthier and live longer. It is not just that healthy people are more optimistic, but optimism can enhance health. Expecting our future to be good reduces stress and anxiety, which is good for our health. Researchers studying heart attack patients have found that optimists were more likely than nonoptimistic patients to take vitamins, eat low-fat diets, and exercise, thereby reducing their overall coronary risk. A study of cancer patients revealed that pessimistic patients under the age of 60 were more likely to die within eight months than nonpessimistic patients of the same initial health, status, and age.

One of the most fascinating aspects of optimism comes from behavioral economist Andrew Oswald’s research, who studies happiness across the life-cycle. Sharot writes:

Happiness and the ability to learn from bad news alter with age in reverse patterns. The latter follows an inverse U shape, while the former a more traditional U shape. The behavioral economist Andrew Oswald found that from about the time we are teenagers, our sense of happiness starts to decline, hitting rock bottom in our mid-40s (middle-age crisis, anyone?). Then our sense of happiness miraculously starts to go up again rapidly as we grow older. This finding contradicts the common assumption that people in their 60s, 70s, and 80s are less happy and satisfied than people in their 30s and 40s.

[…]

All in all, Oswald tested a half million people in 72 countries, in both developing and developed nations. He observed the same pattern across all parts of the globe and across sexes. From Switzerland to Ecuador, from Romania to Singapore, Slovakia, Israel, Spain, Australia, and China. Happiness diminishes as we transition from childhood to adulthood and then starts rising as we grow wrinkles and acquire gray hair. And it’s not only we humans who slump in the middle and feel sunnier toward the end. Just recently, Oswald and colleagues demonstrated that even chimpanzees and orangutans appear to experience a similar pattern of midlife malaise.

The pattern of a typical person’s happiness through life, based on about 70,000 observations in Britain. Credit: Andrew Oswald and Nick Powdthavee

Perhaps most interestingly, these results held even when Oswald controlled for variables like marital status, health, and cultural climate. But Oswald did find some discrepancies in the age at which happiness reaches its lowest point across different countries, as well as across gender — women hit happiness-bottom at 38.6 years on average, whereas men do more than a decade later, at nearly 53.

Sharot goes on to examine the potential causes of such life-cycle patterns and explores the practical implications of this research — like, for instance, why fear-based PSAs targeting adolescents might be ineffective and how packaging might better communicate a product’s benefits. She concludes:

Yes, optimism is on one level irrational and can also lead to unwanted outcomes. But the bias also protects and inspires us: It keeps us moving forward, rather than to the nearest high-rise ledge. To make progress, we need to be able to imagine alternative realities, and not just any old reality but a better one; and we need to believe that we can achieve it. Such faith helps motivate us to pursue our goals. The question then is: How can we remain hopeful, benefitting from the fruits of optimism while at the same time guarding ourselves from optimism’s pitfalls? We are not born with an innate understanding of our biases. The brain’s illusions have to be identified by careful scientific observation and controlled experiments, and then communicated to the rest of us. Once we are made aware of our optimistic illusions, we can act to protect ourselves. The good news is that awareness rarely shatters the illusion. The glass remains half full. It is possible to strike a balance, to believe we will stay healthy but get medical insurance anyway; to be certain the sun will shine but grab an umbrella on our way out the door — just in case.

Because, as a very wise woman once wrote, “if you imagine less, less will be what you undoubtedly deserve … imagine immensities.”

For a deeper dive, complement The Science of Optimism with Sharot’s full-length book, The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain, one of 7 essential books on optimism, and pair with her 2012 TED talk:

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16 NOVEMBER, 2012

Eleanor Roosevelt on Happiness, Conformity, and Integrity

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“When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else … you surrender your own integrity. You become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.”

Eleanor Roosevelt endures as one of the most memorable thinkers and doers in modern history — a relentless champion of working women and underprivileged youth, the longest-serving American First Lady, and the author of some beautiful, if controversial, love letters. When she was 76, Roosevelt penned You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life (public library) — an elegantly written, relentlessly insightful compendium of her philosophy on the meaningful life. In the sixth chapter, “Learning to be Useful,” Roosevelt considers the secret of happiness — that elusive, shape-shifting aspiration of which such great hearts and minds as Henry David Thoreau, Alfred Hitchcock, Alan Watts, Martin Seligman, C. S. Lewis, Annie Dillard, and a range of TED speakers have had their own theories.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Public domain image courtesy San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive via Flickr Commons

Roosevelt writes:

Happiness is not a goal, it is a by-product. Paradoxically, the one sure way not to be happy is deliberately to map out a way of life in which one would please oneself completely and exclusively. After a short time, a very short time, there would be little that one really enjoyed. For what keeps our interest in life and makes us look forward to tomorrow is giving pleasure to other people.

[…]

It is easy to slip into self-absorption and it is equally fatal. When one becomes absorbed in himself, in his health, in his personal problems, or in the small details of daily living, he is, at the same time losing interest in other people; worse, he is losing his ties to life. From that it is an easy step to losing interest in the world and in life itself. That is the beginning of death.

I have always liked Don Quixote’s comment, ‘Until death it is all life.’

Someone once asked me what I regarded as the three most important requirements for happiness. My answer was: ‘A feeling that you have been honest with yourself and those around you; a feeling that you have done the best you could both in your personal life and in your work; and the ability to love others.’

But there is another basic requirement, and I can’t understand now how I forgot it at the time: that is the feeling that you are, in some way, useful. Usefulness, whatever form it may take, is the price we should pay for the air we breathe and the food we eat and the privilege of being alive. And it is its own reward, as well, for it is the beginning of happiness, just as self-pity and withdrawal from the battle are the beginning of misery.

Eleanor Roosevelt votes in Hyde Park, New York, November 3, 1936

Public domain image courtesy Franklin D. Roosevelt Library via Flickr Commons

In the following chapter, titled “The Right to Be an Individual,” Roosevelt considers the moral responsibility of living what you believe and fully inhabiting your inner life as the foundation of integrity and, more than that, of what it means to be human:

It’s your life — but only if you make it so. The standards by which you live must be your own standards, your own values, your own convictions in regard to what is right and wrong, what is true and false, what is important and what is trivial. When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else or a community or a pressure group, you surrender your own integrity. You become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.

Indeed, this sentiment is at the heart of Mahatma Gandhi’s famous words: “To believe in something, and not to live it, is dishonest.”

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18 OCTOBER, 2012

A Poetic Antidote to City Life

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“You exist by your smile and your presence… Quests, pursuits of concrete securities of one kind or another lose all their importance.”

Last week’s omnibus of everyday happiness recorded by history’s great minds reminded me of a beautiful passage by Anaïs Nin from Diary of Anaïs Nin Volume 5 1947-1955: Vol. 5 (1947-1955) (public library), in which she — very much a city woman, but one with a deep sensitivity to the poetic and a hunger for existential truth — captures the remarkable awakening that happens when we shed our city skin and plunge into nature with joy and abandon:

[Fall, 1951]

To me Acapulco is the detoxicating cure for all the evils of the city: ambition, vanity, quest for success in money, the continuous contagious presence of power-driven, obsessed individuals who want to become known, to be in the limelight, noticed, as if life among millions gave you a desperate illness, a need of rising above the crowd, being noticed, existing individually, singled out from a mass of ants and sheep. It has something to do with the presence of millions of anonymous faces, anonymous people, and the desperate ways of achieving distinction. Here, all this is nonsense. You exist by your smile and your presence. You exist for your joys and your relaxations. You exist in nature. You are part of the glittering sea, and part of the luscious, well-nourished plants, you are wedded to the sun, you are immersed in timelessness, only the present counts, and from the present you extract all the essences which can nourish the senses, and so the nerves are still, the mind is quiet, the nights are lullabies, the days are like gentle ovens in which infinitely wise sculptor’s hands re-form the lost contours, the lost sensations of the body. The body comes to life. Quests, pursuits of concrete securities of one kind or another lose all their importance. As you swim, you are washed of all the excrescences of so-called civilization, which includes the incapacity to be happy under any circumstances.

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