Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘happiness’

02 OCTOBER, 2014

Joan Didion Answers the Proust Questionnaire

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“Misery is feeling estranged from people I love. Misery is also not working. The two seem to go together.”

In the 1880s, long before he claimed his status as one of the greatest authors of all time, teenage Marcel Proust (July 10, 1871–November 18, 1922) filled out an English-language questionnaire given to him by his friend Antoinette, the daughter of France’s then-president, as part of her “confession album” — a Victorian version of today’s popular personality tests, designed to reveal the answerer’s tastes, aspirations, and sensibility in a series of simple questions. Proust’s original manuscript, titled “by Marcel Proust himself,” wasn’t discovered until 1924, two years after his death. Decades later, the French television host Bernard Pivot, whose work inspired James Lipton’s Inside the Actor’s Studio, saw in the questionnaire an excellent lubricant for his interviews and began administering it to his guests in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1993, Vanity Fair resurrected the tradition and started publishing various public figures’ answers to the Proust Questionnaire on the last page of each issue.

In 2009, the magazine released Vanity Fair’s Proust Questionnaire: 101 Luminaries Ponder Love, Death, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life (public library) — a compendium of answers by such cultural icons as Jane Goodall, David Bowie, Allen Ginsberg, Hedy Lamarr, Gore Vidal, and Julia Child.

Unsurprisingly, some of the most wonderful answers come from 69-year-old Joan Didion — a woman who has endured more personal tragedy than most and has written about it with great dignity and grace, extracting from her experience wisdom on such subtle and monumental aspects of existence as grief, self-respect, keeping a notebook.

Portrait of Joan Didion by Robert Risko for Vanity Fair

Didion’s answers are particularly poignant for their timing — she answered The Proust Questionnaire in October of 2003, several weeks before her husband died of a heart attack while her only daughter lay comatose in the ICU; though Didion’s daughter did recover from the coma, acute pancreatitis took her life eighteen months later.

What is your greatest fear?

I have an irrational fear of snakes. When my husband and I moved to a part of Los Angeles County with many rattlesnakes, I tried to desensitize myself by driving every day to a place called Hermosa Reptile Import-Export and forcing myself to watch the anacondas. This seemed to work, but a few yeas later, when we were living in Malibu and I had a Corvette, a king snake (a “good” snake, not poisonous, by no means anaconda-like) dropped from a garage rafter into my car. My daughter, then four, brought it to show me. I am ashamed to say I ran away. I still think about what would have happened had I driven to the market and noticed my passenger, the snake, on the Pacific Coast Highway.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

I find “speaking one’s mind” pretty overrated, in that it usually turns out to be a way of aggrandizing the speaker at the expense of the helpless listener.

What is your favorite journey?

A long time ago, before they showed movies on airplanes and decided to make you close the blinds, I used to love flying west and watching the country open up, the checkerboarded farms of the Midwest giving way to the vast stretches of nothing. I also loved flying over the Pole from Europe to Los Angeles during the day, when you could see ice floes and islands s in the sea change almost imperceptibly to lakes in the land. This shift in perception was very thrilling to me.

On what occasion do you lie?

I probably lie constantly, if the definition of lying includes white lies, social lies, lies to ease a situation or make someone feel better. My mother was incapable of lying. I remember her driving into a blinding storm to vote for an acquaintance in an S.P.C.A. election. “I told Dorothy I would,” she said when I tried to dissuade her. “How will Dorothy know?” I asked. “That’s not the point,” my mother said. I’m sorry to report that this was amazing to me.

What do you dislike most about your appearance?

For a while there I disliked being short, but I got used to it. Which is not to say I wouldn’t have preferred to be five-ten and get sent clothes by designers.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

Most people who write find themselves overusing certain words or constructions (if they worked once, they get hardwired), so much so that a real part of the exercise is getting those repetitions out.

When and where were you happiest?

Once, in a novel, Democracy, I had the main character, Inez Victor, consider this very question, which was hard for her. She drinks her coffee, she smokes a cigarette, she thinks it over, she comes to a conclusion: “In retrospect she seemed to have been most happy in borrowed houses, and at lunch. She recalled being extremely happy eating lunch by herself in a hotel room in Chicago, once when snow was drifting on the window ledges. There was a lunch in Paris that she remembered in detail: a late lunch with Harry and the twins at Pré Catelan in the rain.” These lunches and borrowed houses didn’t come from nowhere.

What talent would you most like to have?

I long to be fluent in languages other than English. I am resigned to the fact that this will not happen. A lot of things get in the way, not least a stubborn fear of losing my only real asset since childhood, the ability to put English sentences together.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

I’m afraid that “one thing” would just lead to another thing, making this a question only the truly greedy would try to answer.

What is your most treasured possession?

I treasure things my daughter has given me, for example (I think of this because it is always on my desk), a picture book called Baby Animals and Their Mothers.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

Misery is feeling estranged from people I love. Misery is also not working. The two seem to go together.

Where would you like to live?

I want to live somewhere else every month or so. Right now I would like to be living on Kailua Beach, on the windward side of Oahu. Around November, I’m quite sure I will want to be living in Paris, preferably in the Hotel Bristol. I like hotels a lot. When we were living in houses in Los Angeles I used to make charts showing how we could save money by living in a bungalow in Bel-Air, but my husband never bought it.

What is your favorite occupation?

I like making gumbo. I like gardening. I like writing, at least when it’s going well, maybe because it seems to be exactly as tactile a thing to do as making gumbo or gardening.

What is your most marked characteristic?

If I listened to other people, I would think my most marked characteristic was being thin. What strikes me about myself, however, is no t my thinness but a certain remoteness. I tune out a lot.

Who is your favorite hero of fiction?

Axel Heyst in Joseph Conrad’s Victory has always attracted me as a character. Standing out on that dock in, I think (I may be wrong, because I have no memory), Sumatra. His great venture, the Tropical Belt Coal Company, gone to ruin behind him. And then he does something so impossibly brave that he can only be doing it because he has passed entirely beyond concern for himself.

Sample Vanity Fair’s Proust Questionnaire further with answers from Jane Goodall and David Bowie, complement it with LIFE magazine’s similarly-spirited compendium of wisdom from cultural icons The Meaning of Life, then revisit Didion’s remarkable meditation on grief.

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24 JULY, 2014

The Poetics of Reverie: Philosopher Gaston Bachelard on Dreams, Love, Solitude, and Happiness

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“There are still souls for whom love is the contact of two poetries, the fusion of two reveries.”

“Creative writing, like a day-dream,” Freud observed, “is a continuation of, and a substitute for, what was once the play of childhood.” But how, exactly, does the playful imagination weave dream and storytelling together to frame our creative experience?

Gaston Bachelard (1884–1962) is one of the most wonderful — literally: full of wonder — philosophers of the twentieth century, yet one of the most underappreciated. His writings on poetics and the philosophy of science fall — rise, rather — somewhere between the erudite and the enchanting, but never more so than in his 1960 treatise The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos (public library), published in English seven years after Bachelard’s death — an exploration of “the remarkable psychic productivity of the imagination” and its relationship to memory, happiness, and our capacity for love, as well as of poetry’s singular ability to catalyze our sense of wonder.

Bachelard writes:

In poetry, wonder is coupled with the joy of speech… The poetic image is in no way comparable, as with the mode of the common metaphor, to a valve which would open up to release pent-up instincts. The poetic image sheds light on consciousness in such a way that it is pointless to look for subconscious antecedents of the image… Poetry is one of the destinies of speech. In trying to sharpen the awareness of language at the level of poems, we get the impression that we are touching the man whose speech is new in that it is not limited to expressing ideas or sensations, but tries to have a future. One would say that poetic image, in its newness, opens a future to language.

But the greatest power of the poetic image, Bachelard argues, is in its ability to grant us fuller access to the soul, to consciousness, through reverie — a concept that comes closest to, but isn’t entirely equated with, psychology’s notion of “positive constructive daydreaming,” a special flight of the imagination. And yet he makes a necessary distinction between reverie and dreaming:

In contrast to a dream a reverie cannot be recounted. To be communicated, it must be written, written with emotion and taste, being relived all the more strongly because it is being written down.

Illustration by Ohara Hale for 'Love Poem' by Denise Levertov. Click image for more.

In exploring how reverie evokes the realm of “written love,” Bachelard adds to history’s most beautiful definitions of love and reflects:

Written love … is going out of fashion, but the benefits remain. There are still souls for whom love is the contact of two poetries, the fusion of two reveries… To tell a love, one must write… Love is never finished expressing itself, and it expresses itself better the more poetically it is dreamed. The reveries of two solitary souls prepare the sweetness of loving… The reality of love is mutilated when it is detached from all its unrealness.

He returns to the question of dreams — a subject that, despite all the scientific advancements of understanding in the decades since Bachelard’s time, remains a mystery — and reflects:

One might wonder whether there really is a consciousness of dreams. A dream can be so strange that it seems that another subject has come to dream with us. “A dream visited me.” That is certainly the formula which indicates the passivity of great nocturnal dreams. To convince ourselves that they are really ours, we must reinhabit these dreams. Afterwards we make up accounts of them, stories from another time, adventures from another world… The teller of dreams sometimes enjoys his dream as an original work. In it he experiences a delegated originality; and hence he is very much surprised when a psychoanalyst tells him that another dreamer has known the same “originality.” The dream-dreamer’s conviction of having lived the dream he is recounting must not deceive us. It is a reported conviction which is reinforced each time he retells the dream. There is certainly no identity between the subject who is telling and the subject who dreamed.

[…]

Instead of looking for the dream in reverie, people should look for reverie in the dream.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger from 'The Wizard of Oz.' Click image for more.

Even more powerfully, dream and reverie conspire together to form a gateway to happiness. Bachelard writes:

Reverie illustrates repose for a being… it illustrates well-being. The dreamer and his reverie enter totally into the substance of happiness.

[…]

The whole universe comes to contribute to our happiness when reverie comes to accentuate our repose. You must tell the man who wants to dream well to begin by being happy. Then reverie plays out its veritable destiny; it becomes poetic reverie and by it, in it, everything becomes beautiful.

[…]

Poetic reverie gives us the world of worlds. Poetic reverie is a cosmic reverie. It is an opening to a beautiful world, to beautiful worlds. It gives the I a non-I which belongs to the I: my non-I. It is this “my non-I” which enchants the I of the dreamer and which poets can help us share.

[…]

Reverie helps us inhabit the world, inhabit the happiness of the world.

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

At its highest potentiality, reverie touches on the cosmic, and in doing so, liberates our solitude — that essential capacity to be alone. Bachelard writes:

The cosmic reverie … is a phenomenon of solitude which has its roots in the soul of the dreamer.

[…]

Cosmic reveries separate us from project reveries. They situate us in a world and not in a society. The cosmic reverie possesses a sort of stability or tranquility. It helps us escape time. It is a state. Let us get to the bottom of its essence: it is a state of mind… Poetry supplies us with documents for a phenomenology of the soul. The entire soul is presented in the poetic universe of the poet.

[…]

The soul does not live on the edge of time. It finds its rest in the universe imagined by reverie… Cosmic images are possessions of the solitary soul which is the principle of all solitude.

Therein lies the greatest gift of poetic reverie:

Reverie gives us the world of a soul [and] a poetic image bears witness to a soul which is discovering its world, the world where it would like to live and where it deserves to live… Poetry forms the dreamer and his world at the same time.

[…]

Poets lead us into cosmoses which are being endlessly renewed.

The Poetics of Reverie is a superb read in its entirety. Complement it with Muriel Rukeyser on how poetry expands our lives, James Dickey on how to read a poem, and Mary Oliver on the secret of great poetry.

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18 JUNE, 2014

The Psychology of Your Future Self and How Your Present Illusions Hinder Your Future Happiness

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“Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished.”

Philosopher Joshua Knobe recently posed a perplexing question in contemplating the nature of the self: If the person you will be in 30 years — the person for whom you plan your life now by working toward career goals and putting money aside in retirements plans — is invariably different from the person you are today, what makes that future person “you”? What makes them worthy of your present self’s sacrifices and considerations? That’s precisely what Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert explores in this short and pause-giving TED talk on the psychology of your future self and how to avoid the mistakes you’re likely to make in trying to satisfy that future self with your present choices. Picking up from his now-classic 2006 book Stumbling on Happiness (public library), Gilbert argues that we’re bedeviled by a “fundamental misconception about the power of time” and a dangerous misconception known as “the end of history illusion” — at any point along our personal journey, we tend to believe that who we are at that moment is the final destination of our becoming. Which, of course, is not only wrong but a source of much of our unhappiness.

Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished. The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting and as temporary as all the people you’re ever been. The one constant in our lives is change.

Gilbert explores this paradox in greater, pleasantly uncomfortable-making, strangely reassuring detail in Stumbling on Happiness — one of these essential books on the art-science of happiness. He writes:

What would you do right now if you learned that you were going to die in ten minutes? Would you race upstairs and light that Marlboro you’ve been hiding in your sock drawer since the Ford administration? Would you waltz into your boss’s office and present him with a detailed description of his personal defects? Would you drive out to that steakhouse near the new mall and order a T-bone, medium rare, with an extra side of the really bad cholesterol?

The things we do when we expect our lives to continue are naturally and properly different than the things we might do if we expected them to end abruptly. We go easy on the lard and tobacco, smile dutifully at yet another of our supervisor’s witless jokes, read books like this one when we could be wearing paper hats and eating pistachio macaroons in the bathtub, and we do each of these things in the charitable service of the people we will soon become. We treat our future selves as though they were our children, spending most of the hours of most of our days constructing tomorrows that we hope will make them happy. Rather than indulging in whatever strikes our momentary fancy, we take responsibility for the welfare of our future selves, squirreling away portions of our paychecks each month so they can enjoy their retirements on a putting green, jogging and flossing with some regularity so they can avoid coronaries and gum grafts, enduring dirty diapers and mind-numbing repetitions of The Cat in the Hat so that someday they will have fat-cheeked grandchildren to bounce on their laps. Even plunking down a dollar at the convenience store is an act of charity intended to ensure that the person we are about to become will enjoy the Twinkie we are paying for now. In fact, just about any time we want something — a promotion, a marriage, an automobile, a cheeseburger — we are expecting that if we get it, then the person who has our fingerprints a second, minute, day, or decade from now will enjoy the world they inherit from us, honoring our sacrifices as they reap the harvest of our shrewd investment decisions and dietary forbearance.

[But] our temporal progeny are often thankless. We toil and sweat to give them just what we think they will like, and they quit their jobs, grow their hair, move to or from San Francisco, and wonder how we could ever have been stupid enough to think they’d like that. We fail to achieve the accolades and rewards that we consider crucial to their well-being, and they end up thanking God that things didn’t work out according to our shortsighted, misguided plan. Even that person who takes a bite of the Twinkie we purchased a few minutes earlier may make a sour face and accuse us of having bought the wrong snack.

This gives another layer of meaning to Albert Camus’s assertion that “those who prefer their principles over their happiness, they refuse to be happy outside the conditions they seem to have attached to their happiness.” Our in-the-moment principles and attachments, after all, may be of no concern to our future selves in their pursuit of happiness.

In the remainder of Stumbling on Happiness, Gilbert, who argues that “the mistakes we make when we try to imagine our personal futures are also lawful, regular, and systematic,” explores the sometimes subtle, sometimes radical changes we can make in our everyday cognitive strategies in order to avoid ending up unhappy and disappointed by unlearning because we set goals for the people we are when we set them rather than the people we become when we reach them.

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