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Posts Tagged ‘happiness’

17 JANUARY, 2013

Benjamin Franklin on True Happiness

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“Virtue is … the only true happiness of the mind and the best means of preserving the health of the body.”

The secret of happiness has been sought in cultivating optimism, in celebrating everyday moments, in finding one’s creative purpose, and in embracing uncertainty, but it remains forever elusive and forever alluring. Writing in a 1785 essay titled “On True Happiness,” originally printed in the Pennsylvania Gazette and eventually published in On True Happiness and Other Essays (UK; public library), Founding Father Benjamin Franklin — born 307 years ago today — considers the essence of the universal human pursuit that eventually found its way onto the United States Constitution, which Franklin co-signed.

The desire of happiness in general is so natural to us that all the world are in pursuit of it; all have this one end in view, though they take such different methods to attain it, and are so much divided in their notions of it.

Evil, as evil, can never be chosen; and though evil is often the effect of our own choice, yet we never desire it but under the appearance of an imaginary good.

Many things we indulge ourselves in may be considered by us as evils, and yet be desirable; but then they are only considered as evils in their effects and consequences, not as evils at present and attended with immediate misery.

Reason represents things to us not only as they are at present, but as they are in their whole nature and tendency; passion only regards them in their former light. When this governs us we are regardless of the future, and are only affected with the present. It is impossible ever to enjoy ourselves rightly if our conduct be not such as to preserve the harmony and order of our faculties and the original frame and constitution of our minds; all true happiness, as all that is truly beautiful, can only result from order.

Whilst there is a conflict betwixt the two principles of passion and reason, we must be miserable in proportion to the struggle, and when the victory is gained and reason so far subdued as seldom to trouble us with its remonstrances, the happiness we have then is not the happiness of our rational nature, but the happiness only of the inferior and sensual part of us, and consequently a very low and imperfect happiness to what the other would have afforded us.

If we reflect upon any one passion and disposition of mind abstract from virtue, we shall soon see the disconnexion between that and true, solid happiness. It is of the very essence, for instance, of envy to be uneasy and disquieted. Pride meets with provocations and disturbances upon almost every occasion. Covetousness is ever attended with solicitude and anxiety. Ambition has its disappointments to sour us, but never the good fortune to satisfy us; its appetite grows the keener by indulgence, and all we can gratify it with at present serves but the more to inflame its insatiable desires.

The passions, by being too much conversant with earthly objects, can never fix in us a proper composure and acquiescence of mind. Nothing but an indifference to the things of this world, an entire submission to the will of Providence here, and a well-grounded expectation of happiness hereafter, can give us a true satisfactory enjoyment of ourselves. Virtue is the best guard against the many unavoidable evils incident to us; nothing better alleviates the weight of the afflictions or gives a truer relish of the blessings of human life.

What is without us has not the least connexion with happiness only so far as the preservation of our lives and health depends upon it. Health of body, though so far necessary that we cannot be perfectly happy without it, is not sufficient to make us happy of itself. Happiness springs immediately from the mind; health is but to be considered as a condition or circumstance, without which this happiness cannot be tasted pure and unabated.

Virtue is the best preservative of health, as it prescribes temperance and such a regulation of our passions as is most conducive to the well-being of the animal economy, so that it is at the same time the only true happiness of the mind and the best means of preserving the health of the body.

If our desires are to the things of this world, they are never to be satisfied. If our great view is upon those of the next, the expectation of them is an infinitely higher satisfaction than the enjoyment of those of the present.

There is no happiness then but in a virtuous and self-approving conduct. Unless our actions will bear the test of our sober judgments and reflections upon them, they are not the actions and consequently not the happiness of a rational being.

Complement with Francis Bacon on virtue.

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09 JANUARY, 2013

Sherwood Anderson on Art and Life: A Letter of Advice to His Teenage Son, 1927

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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 (UK; 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.

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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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