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Posts Tagged ‘happiness’

23 APRIL, 2014

Love Undetectable: Andrew Sullivan on Why Friendship Is a Greater Gift Than Romantic Love

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Reflections on the cornerstone of our flourishing.

“A principal fruit of friendship,” Francis Bacon observed, “is the ease and discharge of the fulness and swellings of the heart, which passions of all kinds do cause and induce.” Thoreau would “sometimes awake in the night and think of friendship and its possibilities.” St. Augustine described friendship as “sweet beyond the sweetness of life.” But what exactly is friendship — what defines its singular hallmark? Shortly after his dear friend Patrick’s death, Andrew Sullivan — one of the deepest thinkers and most enchanting writers of our time — was gripped with grief so all-consuming that it led him to examine the nature of friendship itself, a bond so special that its forceful breakage could induce pain of such unbearable proportions. In the altogether fantastic 1998 volume Love Undetectable: Notes on Friendship, Sex, and Survival (public library), he considers the inner workings of friendship and argues that its gift is far greater than that of romantic love, despite our cultural bias for the latter.

Sullivan writes:

For me, friendship has always been the most accessible of relationships — certainly far more so than romantic love. Friendship, I learned, provided a buffer in the interplay of emotions, a distance that made the risk of intimacy bearable, a space that allowed the other person to remain safely another person.

He argues that our world has failed to give friendship its due as “a critical social institution, as an ennobling moral experience, as an immensely delicate but essential interplay of the virtues required to sustain a fully realized human being.” And yet, he concedes, the cultural silence around friendship also reflects an inherent truth about the nature of the bond itself:

You can tell how strong the friendship is by the silence that envelops it. Lovers and spouses may talk frequently about their “relationship,” but friends tend to let their regard for one another speak for itself or let others point it out.

Reflecting on the tragedy of loss that prompted his meditation, Sullivan adds:

A part of this reticence is reflected in the moments when friendship is appreciated. If friendship rarely articulates itself when it is in full flood, it is often only given its due when it is over, especially if its end is sudden or caused by death. Suddenly, it seems, we have lost something so valuable and profound that we have to make up for our previous neglect and acknowledge it in ways that would have seemed inappropriate before… It is as if death and friendship enjoy a particularly close relationship, as if it is only when pressed to the extreme of experience that this least extreme of relationships finds its voice, or when we are forced to consider what really matters, that we begin to consider what friendship is.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'I’ll Be You and You Be Me' by Ruth Krauss, 1954. Click image for more.

In that consideration, Sullivan turns to Aristotle, who is perhaps philosophy’s greatest patron saint of friendship. In Aristotle’s day, the Ancient Greek notion of phila cast a wide net to capture the many dimensions of friendship. Sullivan writes:

In Aristotle’s hermetically sane universe, the instinct for human connection is so common and so self-evidently good that there is little compunction to rule certain friendships out of the arc of human friendliness. There is merely an attempt to understand and categorize each instance of phila and to place each instance of the instinct in its natural and ennobling place. Everything is true, Aristotle seems to say, so long as it is never taken for anything more than it is. And so friendship belongs to the nod of daily passengers on a commuter train, to the regular business client, and to the ornery neighbor. It encompasses the social climber and the social butterfly, the childhood crush and the lifelong soulmate. It comprises the relationship between a boss and his employees, a husband and his wife, a one-night stand and a longtime philanderer, a public official and his dubious contributor.

[…]

Friendship, for Aristotle, seems to be the cornerstone of human society and flourishing, an integral part of happiness, and bound up inextricably with the notion of virtue.

For Aristotle, the defining feature of friendship was the trifecta of reciprocity, equality, and the physical sharing of life. Sullivan tackles the first element:

Unlike a variety of other relationships, friendship requires an acknowledgement by both parties that they are involved or it fails to exist. One can admire someone who is completely unaware of our admiration, and the integrity of that admiration is not lost; one may even employ someone without knowing who it is specifically one employs; one may be related to a great-aunt whom one has never met (and may fail ever to meet). And one may, of course, fall in love with someone without the beloved being aware of it or reciprocating the love at all. And in all these cases, the relationships are still what they are, whatever the attitude of the other person in them: they are relationships of admiration, business, family, or love.

But friendship is different. Friendship uniquely requires mutual self-knowledge and will. It takes two competent, willing people to be friends. You cannot impose a friendship on someone, although you can impose a crush, a lawsuit, or an obsession. If friendship is not reciprocated, it simply ceases to exist or, rather, it never existed in the first place.

Perhaps more challenging to grasp is the condition of sharing in one another’s physical life. Why should two friends be required to have regular physical and verbal contact? Sullivan writes:

It has been said that a person’s religion is best defined not by what he says he believes but simply by what he actually does. Equally, it could be said that one’s friends are simply those people with whom one spends one’s life. Period. Anything else is a form of rationalization.

What’s interesting to consider, however, is that at the time of Sullivan’s writing — and certainly in Aristotle’s time millennia earlier — the physical and the real overlapped far more congruously than they do today, in the age of digital sociality. Consider, for example, the friendship between two people who live apart and rarely spend physical time together, but are constantly and intimately connected via email, Facebook, Skype, text-messaging, and other digital extensions of physical presence. Is that relationship any less real, even though it isn’t rooted in physicality? Perhaps the criterion of “people with whom one spends one’s life” is better reframed as “people on whom one spends one’s emotional energies.”

Illustration by Ben Shecter from 'The Hating Book' by Charlotte Zolotow, 1953. Click image for more.

Still, for both Aristotle and Sullivan, as well as the centuries of thinkers in between, the most important criterion for friendship is that of “equality between the parties.” Sullivan explains:

This may seem a banal point on the surface, but the more you think about it, the more significant it seems. It is linked to reciprocity. Because each human being is equal in his capacity to assent or not to assent to a relationship, each is, in some sense, radically equal in the capacity for friendship. Even in relationships in which one person vastly outweighs the other in money, or wit, or good looks, or social power, the inferior party can quit the friendship of his own accord and reduce it to its essential elements. A friendship is thus ultimately defined by the desire of each person to be in it. And it is successful insofar as that desire is equal between the two parties.

[…]

Friendship… is almost a central symbol of human autonomy, and the most accessible example of that autonomy in practice.

This notion of autonomy is what takes us to Sullivan’s most central point — the supremacy of friendship over romantic love, or Aristotle’s notion of eros, despite our culture’s compulsive fetishism of the latter:

The great modern enemy of friendship has turned out to be love. By love, I don’t mean the principle of giving and mutual regard that lies at the heart of friendship [but] love in the banal, ubiquitous, compelling, and resilient modern meaning of love: the romantic love that obliterates all other goods, the love to which every life must apparently lead, the love that is consummated in sex and celebrated in every particle of our popular culture, the love that is institutionalized in marriage and instilled as a primary and ultimate good in every Western child. I mean eros, which is more than sex but is bound up with sex. I mean the longing for union with another being, the sense that such a union resolves the essential quandary of human existence, the belief that only such a union can abate the loneliness that seems to come with being human, and deter the march of time that threatens to trivialize our very existence.

[…]

We live in a world, in fact, in which respect and support for eros has acquired the hallmarks of a cult.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House of Butterflies,' 1960. Click image for more.

Still, Sullivan concedes, the allure of romantic love isn’t hard to grasp. It has been described as a unique experience that makes “the boundaries between you and not-you relax and become more permeable,” a “fever which comes and goes quite independently of the will.” Sullivan adds to history’s most moving definitions of love:

It can eclipse every other emotion and transport us to levels of bliss and communion we have never felt before. It is intoxicating, but, unlike most other forms of intoxication, it appears to have meaning and depth. We believe, for a moment, that we have found our soulmate, that we are reunited with another half of ourselves that finally gives meaning to everything in our lives. And because we are with that person, more often than not gazing into his or her eyes, it is easy and indeed necessary to abandon perspective. In fact, it almost seems a crime against love to retain any sort of perspective.

Eros, Sullivan points out, blinds us to even such universal concerns as time and death — why else would lovers promise one another eternal love and swear that they couldn’t live without each other? More than that, they even “insist upon it, because to trap it in time would be to impair the inherently unbounded nature of the experience” and “because anything else implies that love is just one competing good among others.” But this quality of eros comes with a dark side:

Love is a supremely jealous thing. It brooks no rival and obliterates every distraction. It seems to transport the human being — who is almost defined by time and morality — beyond the realm of both age and death. Which is why it is both so irresistible and so delusory.

It is from behind that shadow that friendship shines its superior light. Sullivan writes:

Of course, the impossibility of love is partly its attraction. It is an irrational act, a concession to the passions, a willing renunciation of reason and moderation — and that’s why we believe in it. It is also why, in part, the sober writers and thinkers of the ancient and medieval worlds found it a self-evidently inferior, if bewitching, experience. But their confidence in this regard was based not simply on a shrewd analysis of love but on a deeper appreciation of friendship. Without the possibility of friendship, after all, love might seem worth the price. If the promise of union, of an abatement to loneliness, of finding a soulmate, was only available through the vagaries of eros, then it might be worth all the heartbreak and insanity for a glimpse, however brief, of what makes life worth living. But if all these things were available in a human relationship that is not inherently self-destructive, then why, after all, should one choose the riskier and weaker option?

And in almost every regard, friendship delivers what love promises but fails to provide. The contrast between the two are, in fact, many, and largely damning to love’s reputation. Where love is swift, for example, friendship is slow. Love comes quickly, as the song has it, but friendship ripens with time. If love is at its most perfect in its infancy, friendship is most treasured as the years go by.

In fact, this difference in pace of development is what lends friendship its emotional gravitas. Sullivan continues the contrast:

If love is sudden, friendship is steady. At the moment of meeting a friend for the first time, we might be aware of an immediate “click” or a sudden mutual interest. But we don’t “fall in friendship.” And where love is often at its most intense in the period before the lover is possessed, in the exquisite suspense of the chase, and the stomach-fluttering nervousness of the capture, friendship can only really be experienced when both friends are fully used to each other. For friendship is based on knowledge, and love can be based on mere hope… You can love someone more than you know him, and he can be perfectly loved without being perfectly known. But the more you know a friend, the more a friend he is.

(In some instances, as Stendhal famously argued in his 1822 treatise on the role of “crystallization” in love, knowledge can be the mortal enemy of love, squeezing the hope-giving fantasy out of a reality that comes up short.)

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Let's Be Enemies' by Janice May Udry, 1961. Click image for more.

Besides the difference in pace, Sullivan also points to a difference in intensity of investment, which translates into a difference in stability:

Love affairs need immense energy, they demand a total commitment and a capacity for pain. Friendship, in contrast, merely needs tending. Although it is alive, a living, breathing thing, and can suffer from neglect, friendship can be left for a while without terrible consequences. Because it is built on the accumulation of past experiences, and not the fickle and vulnerable promise of future ones, it has a sturdiness that love may often lack, and an undemonstrative beauty that love would walk heedlessly past.

One interesting consequence of that dynamic — of the difference between eros and phila — unfolds in the realm of lifelong union, which Sullivan captures beautifully:

The most successful marriages, where the original spark of eros has slowly lit a flame of phila that sustains the union when other more compelling passions have long since died away. Indeed, one of the least celebrated but most important achievements of the increasingly successful battle for women’s equality is that it has properly expanded the universe of friendship for both men and women and made marriage more of a setting for friendship than for love. This is no mean accomplishment.

He contrasts C.S Lewis’s model of love as two people facing one another enraptured by the other’s gaze with the stance of friendship:

The classic stance of two friends is side by side, looking ahead in the same direction. The two stances are not complementary; they are opposed. And although it is conceivable to unite them, it is quite a hazardous enterprise. When a friendship becomes a love, of course, the moment may be partially liberating. But it is liberating precisely because one is leaving the distance and discipline that friendship demands for the union and abandon that love promises.

(For a gripping manifestation of the shift from one to the other, see Sartre’s letter to Simone de Beauvoir on “the pleasure… of turning abruptly from friendship to love.”)

It is precisely in how each bond addresses the question of control that the most important difference between the two is found:

Love is about control and loss of control. In love, we give ourselves up to each other. We lose control or, rather, we cede control to another, trusting in a way we would never otherwise trust, letting the other person hold the deepest part of our being in their hands, with the capacity to hurt it mortally. This cession of control is a deeply terrifying thing, which is why we crave it and are drawn to it like moths to the flame, and why we have to trust it unconditionally. In love, so many hazardous uncertainties in life are resolved: the constant negotiation with other souls, the fear and distrust that lie behind almost every interaction, the petty loneliness that we learned to live with as soon as we grew apart from our mother’s breast. We lose all this in the arms of another. We come home at last to a primal security, made manifest by each other’s nakedness…

And with that loss of control comes mutual power, the power to calm, the power to redeem, and the power to hurt.

Friendship, by contrast, offers a wholly different and diametrically opposed paradigm:

A condition of friendship is the abdication of power over another, indeed the abdication even of the wish for power over one another. And one is drawn to it not by need but by choice. If love is about the bliss of primal unfreedom, friendship is about the complicated enjoyment of human autonomy. As soon as a friend attempts to control a friend, the friendship ceases to exist. But until a lover seeks to possess his beloved, the love has hardly begun. Where love is all about the juggling of the power to hurt, friendship is about creating a space where power ceases to exist. There is a cost to this, of course. Friends will never provide what lovers provide: the ultimate resort, that safe space of repose, that relaxation of the bedsheets. But they provide something more reliable, and certainly less painful. They provide an acknowledgement not of the child within but of the adult without; they allow for an honesty which doesn’t threaten pain and criticism which doesn’t imply rejection. They promise not the bliss of the womb but the bracing adventure of the world. They do not solve loneliness, yet they mitigate it.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'I’ll Be You and You Be Me' by Ruth Krauss, 1954. Click image for more.

Nowhere does this glorious dimensionality of friendship blossom more beautifully than in a letter that Patrick wrote Andrew shortly after the two, gripped with equal trepidation, shared with each other the same devastating news that they had both been diagnosed with HIV:

With all that’s happened to us — together and apart — I’m inclined to think that somehow we were chosen to know each other, to help sustain each other, and to teach each other about the mysteries of loving, living, dying. After the initial crush of your news, when I had been prepared not to receive but to give a report on my HIV status to you, I found myself strangely grown more attached and connected to you, even protective of you, and I felt an effusion of love and tenderness that, for the first time since I met you, was not constrained by considerations of others, of anything or anyone another than you, and me, and our feelings for one another. Somehow I was able to love you wholly, and this gave me great strength to face the greatest fears I have known. How is it that such news can clear an immediate path between us, sweep away the debris and the impediments…?

Andrew never found out how the letter continued, since Patrick never mailed it. This first page was found among his possessions a year after his death.

Love Undetectable is an absolutely sublime read in its entirety — the kind that plays more strings of your soul than you knew you had.

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21 APRIL, 2014

Trying Not to Try: How to Cultivate the Paradoxical Art of Spontaneity Through the Chinese Concept of Wu-Wei

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“Our modern conception of human excellence is too often impoverished, cold, and bloodless. Success does not always come from thinking more rigorously or striving harder.”

“The best way to get approval is not to need it,” Hugh MacLeod memorably counseled. We now know that perfectionism kills creativity and excessive goal-setting limits our success rather than begetting it — all different manifestations of the same deeper paradox of the human condition, at once disconcerting and comforting, which Edward Slingerland, professor of Asian Studies and Embodied Cognition at the University of British Columbia and a renowned scholar of Chinese thought, explores in Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity (public library).

Slingerland frames the paradoxical premise at the heart of his book with an illustrative example: a game called Mindball at his local science museum in Vancouver, in which two players sit opposite one another, each wearing an electrode-equipped headband that registers general activity in the brain, and try to mentally push a metal ball from the center of the table to the other player; whoever does this first wins. There is, of course, a rub:

The motive force — measured by each player’s electrodes, and conveyed to the ball by a magnet hidden underneath the table—is the combination of alpha and theta waves produced by the brain when it’s relaxed: the more alpha and theta waves you produce, the more force you mentally exert on the ball. Essentially, Mindball is a contest of who can be the most calm. It’s fun to watch. The players visibly struggle to relax, closing their eyes, breathing deeply, adopting vaguely yogic postures. The panic they begin to feel as the ball approaches their end of the table is usually balanced out by the overeagerness of their opponent, both players alternately losing their cool as the big metal ball rolls back and forth. You couldn’t wish for a better, more condensed illustration of how difficult it is to try not to try.

Our lives, Slingerland argues, are often like “a massive game of Mindball,” when we find ourselves continually caught in this loop of trying so hard that we stymie our own efforts. Like in Mindball, where victory only comes when the player relaxes and stops trying to win, we spend our lives “preoccupied with effort, the importance of working, striving, and trying,” only to find that the more we try to will things into manifesting, the more elusive they become. Slingerland writes:

Our excessive focus in the modern world on the power of conscious thought and the benefits of willpower and self-control causes us to overlook the pervasive importance of what might be called “body thinking”: tacit, fast, and semiautomatic behavior that flows from the unconscious with little or no conscious interference. The result is that we too often devote ourselves to pushing harder or moving faster in areas of our life where effort and striving are, in fact, profoundly counterproductive.

Art by Austin Kleon from 'Show Your Work.' Click image for more.

Some of the most elusive objects of our incessant pursuits are happiness and spontaneity, both of which are strikingly resistant to conscious pursuit. Two ancient Chinese concepts might be our most powerful tools for resolving this paradox — wu-wei (pronounced oooo-way) and de (pronounced duh). Slingerland explains:

Wu-wei literally translates as “no trying” or “no doing,” but it’s not at all about dull inaction. In fact, it refers to the dynamic, effortless, and unselfconscious state of mind of a person who is optimally active and effective. People in wu-wei feel as if they are doing nothing, while at the same time they might be creating a brilliant work of art, smoothly negotiating a complex social situation, or even bringing the entire world into harmonious order. For a person in wu-wei, proper and effective conduct follows as automatically as the body gives in to the seductive rhythm of a song. This state of harmony is both complex and holistic, involving as it does the integration of the body, the emotions, and the mind. If we have to translate it, wu-wei is probably best rendered as something like “effortless action” or “spontaneous action.” Being in wu-wei is relaxing and enjoyable, but in a deeply rewarding way that distinguishes it from cruder or more mundane pleasures.

This notion is remarkably similar to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s pioneering concept of flow — that precious state of consciousness where we feel a deep and total immersion in life or creative work, forgetting the passage of time and even such physical needs as hunger and thirst — and subsequent psychological theories that emphasize the value of “problem-creating” over problem-solving as a source of creative energy and fulfillment. It is also at the heart of Lewis Hyde’s famous distinction between work and creative labor. But wu-wei is also different its counterparts in Western psychology:

People who are in wu-wei have de typically translated as “virtue,” “power,” or “charismatic power.” de is radiance that others can detect, and it serves as an outward signal that one is in wu-wei. de comes in handy in a variety of ways. For rulers and others involved in political life, de has a powerful, seemingly magical effect on those around them, allowing them to spread political order in an instantaneous fashion. They don’t have to issue threats or offer rewards, because people simply want to obey them… If you have de, people like you, trust you, and are relaxed around you.

If this too sounds familiar, it might be because it sounds like precisely what David Foster Wallace described in what’s easily the best definition of leadership ever articulated.

We’re drawn to people with wu-wei, Slingerland argues, because we inherently trust the automatic, unconscious mind due to a simple fact from the psychology of trust — because spontaneity is hard to fake, we intuit that spontaneous people are authentic and thus trustworthy. But Western thought has suffered from centuries of oppressive dualism, treating intuition and the intellect as separate and often conflicting faculties — a toxic myth that limits us as a culture and as individuals. Fortunately, Slingerland points out, recent decades have brought a more embodied view of cognition acknowledging the inextricable link between thought and feeling and debunking, as Ray Bradbury so eloquently did, the false divide between emotion and rationality. (We’ve seen, too, that metaphorical thinking is central to our cognitive development, and metaphor is itself rooted in emotion.) The Chinese tradition, on the other hand, has a millennia-long history of cultivating a more integrated model of the human experience:

For the early Chinese thinkers … the culmination of knowledge is understood, not in terms of grasping a set of abstract principles, but rather as entering a state of wu-wei. The goal is to acquire the ability to move through the physical and social world in a manner that is completely spontaneous and yet fully in harmony with the proper order of the natural and human worlds (the Dao or “Way”). Because of this focus on knowing how rather than knowing this or that, the Chinese tradition has spent a great deal of energy over the past two thousand years exploring the interior, psychological feel of wu-wei, worrying about the paradox at the heart of it, and developing a variety of behavioral techniques to get around it. The ideal person in early China is more like a well-trained athlete or cultivated artist than a dispassionate cost-benefit analyzer.

Slingerland poses a pause-giving contrast:

The ideal person in Western philosophy is not only disembodied but also radically alone.

And yet this ideal runs counter to our biological and social truths:

In reality, we are not autonomous, self-sufficient, purely rational individuals but emotional pack animals, intimately dependent on other human beings at every stage of our lives. We get along, not because we’re good at calculating costs and benefits, but because we are emotionally bound to our immediate family and friends and have been trained to adopt a set of values that allows us to cooperate spontaneously with others in our society. These shared values are the glue that holds together large-scale human groups, and a key feature of these values is that they need to be embraced sincerely and spontaneously — in an wu-wei fashion — to do their job. This is why the tensions surrounding wu-wei and de are linked to basic puzzles surrounding human cooperation, especially in the anonymous, large communities we tend to inhabit today.

What wu-wei gives us, Slingerland argues, is “a sense of being at home in some framework of values, however vague or tenuous,” which allows us “to recover the crucial social dimension of spontaneity” — something else that distinguishes it from Western concepts like “flow.” Because contextual fuzziness is a central feature of human psychology, the barriers to spontaneity tend to vary among people and between situations, but the result is the same:

We have been taught to believe that the best way to achieve our goals is to reason about them carefully and strive consciously to reach them. Unfortunately, in many areas of life this is terrible advice. Many desirable states — happiness, attractiveness, spontaneity — are best pursued indirectly, and conscious thought and effortful striving can actually interfere with their attainment.

Page from 'Neurocomic,' a graphic novel about how the brain works. Click image for more.

One centerpiece of the paradox comes from an important cognitive duality: Our thinking is steered by two distinct systems, each beholden to its own rules and characteristics — the same two systems responsible for the marvels and flaws of our intuition. The first, known as System 1, is dominated by “hot cognition”; fast, automatic, and largely unconscious, it is primitive and significantly older in evolutionary terms, which means that, thanks to eons of practice and repeat use, it tends to be fairly fixed. The second kind, System 2, is characterized by “cold cognition” — slow, deliberate, rational, and conscious reasoning, which evolved more recently and is thus more flexible. The former is what we associate with the body, the latter with the mind. When System 1 takes over, with its impulsive and short-sighted reactivity, we often run into problems in the long run. Slingerland explains:

This isn’t because hot cognition doesn’t take future consequences into account. The problem is that this system’s conception of relevant consequences was fixed a long time ago, evolutionarily speaking, and is fairly rigid. “Sugar and fat: good” was for most of our evolutionary history a great principle to live by, since acquiring adequate nutrition was a constant challenge. For those of us fortunate enough to live in the affluent industrialized world, however, sugar and fat are so widely and freely available that they no longer represent unqualified goods — on the contrary, allowing ourselves to indulge in them to excess has a variety of negative consequences. The great advantage of cold cognition is that it is capable of changing its priorities in light of new information.

Slingerland points to two key theories that explain how “one (relatively) hairless ape managed the transition from tribe to state” and why the two systems of cognition arose. One holds that the development of external social institutions like laws, punishments, money, and rewards gradually came to keep our pre-wired, internal hot cognition in check as our cognitive control centers perpetually churn to override, repress, or redirecting it. Slingerland sums it up:

Civilization is about the triumph of cold cognition over hot.

But more recent work in Western philosophy and social science has pulled this theory into question for reasons more aligned with the concept of wu-wei, suggesting that cold cognition simply doesn’t have the strength and stamina to keep hot cognition under control 24/7. Instead, it’s something else that motivates our cooperative behavior — something not based on rewards as punishments but instead bridging the two systems through a deeper mechanism:

According to this view, the key to getting lots of strangers to work together is not to create an endless stream of new laws or institutions but to create a set of shared values. Laws are something you merely obey. Values are something you feel. Once internalized, values function just like other forms of hot cognition — fast, automatic, unconscious, wu-wei. Looked at this way, we can begin to see how the paradox of wu-wei emerges as a kind of natural consequence of our transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers and city dwellers.

Slingerland cites Cornell psychologist Robert Frank’s pioneering work on why we cooperate, which suggests that the most important lubricant of our social interactions are powerful emotions that keep us honest rather than cognitive evaluations of prospective rewards and punishments. In the long run, the payoffs of cooperation come only when we stop consciously trying to force them — a finding in stark contrast with the basic tenets of contemporary Western culture, which rewards cold cognition to an extreme and invariably pushes us to strive deliberately and systematically for things only attainable once we let go. Slingerland writes:

If you’re just using rewards and punishments — the rational, self-interested, cold-cognition strategy — it doesn’t matter what people feel on the inside. You set up the incentives, let people figure them out, and then judge them purely on their behavior. In the values model, on the other hand, what people are really feeling on the inside is crucial: if I can’t trust that you’re committed to the same ideals that I’m committed to, there’s no way we can work together.

That’s where “the paradox of wu-wei” arises — the conundrum of trying not to try. To be sure, this isn’t advocacy for passivity and resignation but for the mindful cultivation of those tendencies in ourselves that promise to bear fruit as behaviors and qualities we aspire to in the long run. Slingerland puts it elegantly:

You can cultivate your sprouts: try to identify incipient tendencies of desirable behavior within you, and then nurture and expand them until they are strong enough to take over. Or you can just go with the flow: forget about trying, forget about not trying, and just let the values that you want to embrace pick you up and carry you along.

Illustration by Alessandro Sanna from 'The River.' Click image for more.

There is also an ebb and flow of the two systems over the natural course of life: Cold-cognition strategies like “carving and polishing” tend to be more beneficial earlier in life as well as when we’re acquiring new skills, where deliberate practice is the key to mastery. But after a certain point of expertise, the very strategies that helped us make progress early on now lodge us into the “OK plateau” of autopilot and cold cognition starts hindering rather than powering progress. This, Slingerland notes, might also be true of morality:

A deeply ingrained moral disposition could become too rigid as you age, in which case you might need to shift to the sprout or letting-go approach.

On a social level, one solution to this paradox is what Slingerland calls “ethical bootstrapping” — the idea that the desirable behaviors and qualities we cultivate within ourselves emanate out to have a small but perceptible positive effect on others, “which causes them to act in an incrementally more morally positive way, which in turn feeds back on us.” Slingerland brings this back to the reality of our everyday lives, by way of the ancient Chinese:

This has immediate, practical implications for how you go about arranging your daily life. The early Confucians put an enormous amount of effort into modifying their immediate aesthetic environment — clothes, colors, layout of living spaces, music — so that it would reflect the values of the Confucian Way. Although most of us no longer embrace the Way, we can use the same techniques to foster our own particular set of values. If you can set up your home and workplace, to the extent you have control over it, to reflect your tastes and values, the things that make you feel good and at home, you’re going to be better off. You’ll have more wu-wei and more de.

[…]

The basic idea is simple. You choose a desirable model, then reshape your hot cognition to fit by immersing yourself in reminders and environmental cues. How this repetition eventually causes the new internal disposition to become sincere and self-activating is a bit of a mystery — intellectually, the paradox remains — but it seems to work in practice.

This disposition isn’t rooted in just philosophy. Recent findings in psychology and social science, Slingerland points out, have indicated that this is a central feature of our how our minds work:

A growing literature in the psychology of perception has demonstrated that, when it comes to certain difficult visual tasks — exercises where subjects are asked to locate a target shape in the midst of a large array—simply relaxing and letting the answer “pop out” works much better than actively trying. Similarly, when one is stymied by a problem, simply leaving it alone and doing something else is often the best way to solve it. Doing nothing allows your unconscious to take over, and, as we’ve seen, the unconscious is often better at solving certain types of particularly complex problems.

This, of course, is something nearly every model of the creative process accounts for, acknowledging the importance of an “incubation” phase, or what Lewis Carroll so memorably termed “mental mastication.” To create the conditions for this essential state, Slingerland advises that we do what we tend to intuit is important but rationally resist: “Sleep in, take a walk, go weed your garden.” He encapsulates the essence of this approach:

The sort of knowledge that we rely on most heavily is hot, emotionally grounded “knowing how” rather than cold, dispassionate “knowing that.” We’re made for doing, not thinking. This has significant implications for everything from how we educate people to how we conduct public debates, make public policy decisions, and think about our personal relationships.

[…]

Our modern conception of human excellence is too often impoverished, cold, and bloodless. Success does not always come from thinking more rigorously or striving harder.

In the rest of Trying Not to Try, Slingerland further explores the social and spiritual dimensions of wu-wei, how to better cultivate them in our daily lives, and why spontaneity is central to our ability to trust, play, and love. Complement it with Oliver Burkeman on how over-planning limits our happiness and success and Alan Watts on why living with uncertainty is the secret to a full life.

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18 FEBRUARY, 2014

A Simple Exercise to Increase Well-Being and Lower Depression from Martin Seligman, Founding Father of Positive Psychology

By:

You’ll need pen, paper, and a silencer for cynicism.

“When [a man] has fair health, a fair fortune, a tidy conscience and a complete exemption from embarrassing relatives,” Henry James wrote in his diary, “I suppose he is bound, in delicacy, to write himself happy.” More than a mere philosophical contemplation, however, James’s observation presages the findings of modern psychology in the quest to reverse-engineer the art-science of happiness. No one has addressed the eternal question of what begets happiness with more rigor and empirical dedication than Dr. Martin Seligman, founding father of Positive Psychology — a movement premised on countering the traditional “disease model” of psychology, which focuses on how to relieve suffering rather than how to amplify well-being. Seligman, whom I first had the pleasure of encountering at my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, and who was once elected President of the American Psychological Association by the largest vote in the organization’s history, remains one of the most influential psychologists in the study of happiness. In his excellent and highly revisitable book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being (public library), Seligman offers a simple practice that promises to enhance your well-being and lower your depression — the “Gratitude Visit.” Though to the cynical eye the exercise might appear both old-fashioned and overly self-helpy, it is rooted in decades of Seligman’s acclaimed research and brings to practical life some of modern psychology’s most important findings. Seligman takes us through the practice:

Close your eyes. Call up the face of someone still alive who years ago did something or said something that changed your life for the better. Someone who you never properly thanked; someone you could meet face-to-face next week. Got a face?

Gratitude can make your life happier and more satisfying. When we feel gratitude, we benefit from the pleasant memory of a positive event in our life. Also, when we express our gratitude to others, we strengthen our relationship with them. But sometimes our thank you is said so casually or quickly that it is nearly meaningless. In this exercise … you will have the opportunity to experience what it is like to express your gratitude in a thoughtful, purposeful manner.

Your task is to write a letter of gratitude to this individual and deliver it in person. The letter should be concrete and about three hundred words: be specific about what she did for you and how it affected your life. Let her know what you are doing now, and mention how you often remember what she did. Make it sing! Once you have written the testimonial, call the person and tell her you’d like to visit her, but be vague about the purpose of the meeting; this exercise is much more fun when it is a surprise. When you meet her, take your time reading your letter.

This somewhat self-consciousness-inducing exercise, Seligman promises, will make you happier and less depressed a mere month from now.

He then suggests a complementary second practice — the “What-Went-Well Exercise,” also known as “Three Blessings” — based on the interventions he and his team at the Positive Psychology Center and the University of Pennsylvania have validated in the random-assignment, placebo-controlled experiments they have been conducting since 2001 to study changes in life-satisfaction and depression levels. He contextualizes the value of this exercise amidst our worry-culture and age of anxiety:

We think too much about what goes wrong and not enough about what goes right in our lives. Of course, sometimes it makes sense to analyze bad events so that we can learn from them and avoid them in the future. However, people tend to spend more time thinking about what is bad in life than is helpful. Worse, this focus on negative events sets us up for anxiety and depression. One way to keep this from happening is to get better at thinking about and savoring what went well.

For sound evolutionary reasons, most of us are not nearly as good at dwelling on good events as we are at analyzing bad events. Those of our ancestors who spent a lot of time basking in the sunshine of good events, when they should have been preparing for disaster, did not survive the Ice Age. So to overcome our brains’ natural catastrophic bent, we need to work on and practice this skill of thinking about what went well.

He then offers his empirically tested antidote:

Every night for the next week, set aside ten minutes before you go to sleep. Write down three things that went well today and why they went well. You may use a journal or your computer to write about the events, but it is important that you have a physical record of what you wrote. The three things need not be earthshaking in importance (“My husband picked up my favorite ice cream for dessert on the way home from work today”), but they can be important (“My sister just gave birth to a healthy baby boy”).

Next to each positive event, answer the question “Why did this happen?” For example, if you wrote that your husband picked up ice cream, write “because my husband is really thoughtful sometimes” or “because I remembered to call him from work and remind him to stop by the grocery store.” Or if you wrote, “My sister just gave birth to a healthy baby boy,” you might pick as the cause … “She did everything right during her pregnancy.”

Writing about why the positive events in your life happened may seem awkward at first, but please stick with it for one week. It will get easier.

For those of us able to quiet our inner culturally-conditioned cynic who judges and dismisses such practices, Seligman promises that we’ll be “less depressed, happier, and addicted to this exercise six months from now.”

Flourish offers an invaluable existential boost in its entirety. Complement it with Seligman on happiness, depression, and the meaningful life, then revisit these seven superb reads on the art-science of happiness.

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