Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘happiness’

08 JANUARY, 2014

How Art Can Save Your Soul

By:

“Art can be a source of help with our problems — our innermost problems — the problems of the soul.”

“Art holds out the promise of inner wholeness,” British philosopher Alain de Botton wrote in Art as Therapy (public library), one of the best art books of 2013. He expounds the premise of the book in this fantastic “Sunday sermon” from The School of Life — the lecture series de Botton founded in 2008, premised on the idea that secular thought can learn a lot from the formats of religion, which went on to reimagine the self-help genre. De Botton argues that in the 19th century, culture replaced scripture as our culture’s object of worship, but we are no longer allowed to bring our fears and anxieties to this modern cathedral. “It is simply not acceptable to bring the aches and pains of our souls to the guardians of culture,” he laments. He goes on to explore how we can reclaim this core soul-soothing function of art from the grip of empty elitism and sterile snobbery, focusing on the the seven psychological functions of art. Enjoy:

We are very vulnerable, fragile creatures in desperate need of support and we generally don’t get it. … Art [can be] a source of help with our problems — our innermost problems — the problems of the soul. . . . Art can be a form of self-help and there is nothing demeaning about the concept of self-help — only the way in which some of self-help has been done so far, but there is nothing wrong with it as a concept. . . .

There is nothing wrong with [art today]. It’s not the art that’s the problem — it’s the frame around the art. We are simply not encouraged to bring ourselves to works of art. . . . The impact of art is often not what it should be because the frame is wrong.

[…]

I believe that art should be propaganda of something [other than the Christian church] — not theology, but psychology. I believe that art should serve the needs of our psyche as efficiently and as clearly as it served the needs of theology for hundreds of years.

Art as Therapy is an excellent read in its entirety. Take a closer look at de Botton’s argument and his seven psychological functions of art here.

Open Culture

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

02 DECEMBER, 2013

How Should We Live: History’s Forgotten Wisdom on Love, Time, Family, Empathy, and Other Aspects of the Art of Living

By:

“How to pursue the art of living has become the great quandary of our age… The future of the art of living can be found by gazing into the past.”

“He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth,” Goethe famously proclaimed. Thomas Hobbes extolled “the principal and proper work of history being to instruct, and enable men by the knowledge of actions past to bear themselves prudently in the present and providently in the future.” It is this notion of “applied history” that cultural historian and philosopher Roman Krznaric — who gave us How to Find Fulfilling Work, one of the best psychology and philosophy books of 2013 — places at the center of How Should We Live?: Great Ideas from the Past for Everyday Life (public library). Part psychological manual, part cultural manifesto, part philosophical memoir of our civilization’s collective conscience, the book explores yesteryear’s great works of philosophy, social science, economics, anthropology, and cultural mythology. Krznaric trawls the timeless to surface the timely and excavate practical ideas about the art of living, about how we, today, can live better, richer, more fulfilling lives — ideas across love, work, family, time, money, death, creativity, and more.

He writes in the introduction:

How to pursue the art of living has become the great quandary of our age.

[…]

I believe that the future of the art of living can be found by gazing into the past. If we explore how people have lived in other epochs and cultures, we can draw out lessons for the challenges and opportunities of everyday life. What secrets for living with passion lie in medieval attitudes towards death, or in the pin factories of the Industrial Revolution? How might an encounter with Ming-dynasty China, or Central African indigenous culture, change our views about bringing up our kids and caring for our parents? It is astonishing that, until now, we have made so little effort to unveil this wisdom from the past, which is based on how people have actually lived rather than utopian dreamings of what might be possible.

I think of history as a wonderbox, similar to the curiosity cabinets of the Renaissance — what the Germans called a Wunderkammer. Collectors used these cabinets to display an array of fascinating and unusual objects, each with a story to tell, such as a miniature Turkish abacus or a Japanese ivory carving. Passed down from one generation to another, they were repositories of family lore and learning, tastes and travels, a treasured inheritance. History, too, hands down to us intriguing stories and ideas from a cornucopia of cultures. It is our shared inheritance of curious, often fragmented artefacts that we can pick up at will and contemplate in wonder. There is much to learn about life by opening the wonderbox of history.

Rather than approaching that wonderbox as an instructional manual, however, Krznaric looks at history as a choose-your-own-adventure compendium of do’s as well as don’ts. In addition to shining light on yesteryear’s forgotten wisdom on living, he also seeks to highlight the habitual attitudes we’ve unwittingly inherited from the past and to bring mindfulness to the bad and the harmful as well, so we can begin to decondition them — those toxic belief systems that sell us impossible romantic ideals, strain our relationship with time, force us into work that falsely prizes narrow specialization over wide intellectual expansion, measure our success in material terms, and otherwise warp the meaning of life:

We need to trace the historical origins of these legacies which have quietly crept into our lives and surreptitiously shaped our worldviews. We may choose to accept them, understanding ourselves all the better for it, or we may reject them and cut ourselves free from an unwanted inheritance, ready to invent anew. That is the sublime power we wield when we have history in our hand.

The Histomap by John Sparks, 1931. Click image for details.

In a chapter on love, Krznaric contends that our modern definition of love is too narrow, which both deprives us of the breadth of this grand human capacity and sets us up for disappointment:

We can navigate these difficulties of love — and enhance its joys — by grasping the significance of two great tragedies in the history of the emotions. The first is that we have lost knowledge of the different varieties of love that existed in the past, especially those familiar to the ancient Greeks, who knew love could be discovered not just with a sexual partner, but also in friendships, amongst strangers, and with themselves. The second tragedy is that over the last thousand years, these varieties have been incorporated into a mythical notion of romantic love, which compels us to believe that they can all be found in one person, a unique soulmate. We can escape the confines of this inheritance by looking for love outside the realm of romantic attachments, and cultivating its many forms.

To lift our culturally conditioned blinders, he turns to the six varieties of love found in ancient Greek philosophy: eros, or sexual passion; phila, a more virtuous love often translated as “friendship”; ludus, the playful affection between children or casual lovers; pragma, the mature love and deep understanding that develop in lasting relationships; agape, the selfless love extended to all human beings, offered unconditionally and with no expectation of reciprocity; and philautia, or self-love, which can be both negative, manifested as greed and narcissism (after the myth of Narcissus), and positive, as a nourishing broadening of our capacity for all love, starting from within.

Vintage illustration for Homer's 'The Iliad and the Odyssey' by Alice and Martin Provensen. Click image for details.

Observing history’s long quest to define love, Krznaric finds in the ancient Greek model solace for our modern hearts:

One of the universal questions of emotional life has always been, “What is love?” I believe that this is a misleading question, and one which has caught us in futile knots of confusion in an attempt to identify some definitive essence of “true love.” The lesson from ancient Greece is that we must instead ask ourselves, “How can I cultivate the different varieties of love in my life?” That is the ultimate question of love that we face today. But if we wish to nurture these varieties, we must first dispel the potent myth of romantic love which stands in the way.

Krznaric argues that the myth of romantic love, whose origin he traces across three stages over the course of civilization — the poetry and music of medieval Persia in the first millennium, the courtly love ideal of Europe in the Middle Ages, and the utilitarian union of passion and companionship of the Dutch Golden Age in the seventeenth century — is a toxic myth that only robs us of love’s dimension and leads us to believe all forms of love should be found in a single person. Instead, he suggests that returning to the ancient Greek taxonomy would enrich our lives and give greater freedom in cultivating our capacity for love:

The varieties of love invented by the ancient Greeks … are what we should be striving to cultivate, and with a range of people rather than just one person. I am not saying that you should get your pragma from a steady marriage but then satisfy your eros in a series of lustful affairs. That is bound to be a destructive strategy, for sexual jealousy is part of our natures and few people can tolerate open relationships. What I mean is that we ought to acknowledge that we may only be fulfilled in love if we can nurture it in a multitude of ways and tap into its many sources. So we should foster our philia through having profound friendships outside our main relationship, and make space for our lover to do the same without resenting the time they spend apart from us. We can seek the joys of ludus not just in sex but in other forms of play, from tango dancing and performing in amateur theatre to laughing with children around the family dining table. And we must recognize that being drawn too far into self-love, or limiting our love to only a small circle of people, will not be enough to meet our inner need to feel part of a larger whole. So we should all make a place for agape in our lives, and transform love into a gift for strangers. That is how we can reach a point where our lives feel abundant with love.

In a chapter on family, Krznaric explores the lost history of the househusband — presently an exotic species statistically outnumbered by housewives by a ratio of forty to one, and yet a species that used to be far more common in pre-industrial society. In a chapter on empathy, he invokes the famous anecdote of St. Francis swapping his clothes with a beggar in order know what it was like to be a pauper, then writes:

Empathy matters not just because it makes you good, but because it is good for you. It has the power to heal broken relationships, erode our prejudices, expand our curiosity about strangers and make us rethink our ambitions. Ultimately empathy creates the human bonds that make life worth living.

He once again offers an important caveat to our current cultural understanding — or misunderstanding — of empathy:

It is important when thinking about empathy to distinguish it from the so-called Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Although a worthy notion, it is not empathy, since it involves considering how you — with your own views — would wish to be treated. Empathy is harder: it requires imagining others’ views and then acting accordingly. George Bernard Shaw understood the difference when he remarked, “Do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you — they may have different tastes.”

George Orwell

But it is another legendary writer to whom Krznaric points as the “one person who did more than most others to transform this experiential form of empathy into an extreme sport” — George Orwell. Raised in a privileged upper-middle-class British family, with the benefit of an elite education, Orwell found himself suddenly disillusioned with imperialism when he spent five years as a colonial officer in Burma in his early twenties. More than that, he couldn’t live with his own contribution to the system he came to so vehemently disdain — he wrote that the job made him “see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters” and left him oppressed “with an intolerable sense of guilt.” Those five years were Orwell’s training ground for empathy. Krznaric traces how the beloved writer put his own twist on the St. Francis approach:

If Burma was his apprenticeship as an empathist, Orwell’s formative training took place in London in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Determined to be a writer, he came up with a plan that would give him both a literary and a moral education: to conduct a radical experiment in experiencing poverty. He wanted to know what it was really like to be downtrodden, to exist on the margins of society, to be short of food, money and hope. Reading about it was not enough — his aim was to live it.

[…]

So, for several years, Orwell regularly dressed as a tramp in shabby clothes and shoes, and ventured out virtually penniless to frequent the “spikes” — hostels for the homeless — and doss-houses of the East End of London, wandering the streets with beggars and other destitutes. He would stay for anything from a few days to several weeks. At all times he did so without concessions or compromise, without carrying spare money for an emergency or wearing extra layers of clothes against the winter cold.

[…]

Orwell’s empathy grew out of an attempt to liberate himself from his elite background and the imperialism of which he had been a foot soldier. But he also wanted to touch injustice with his own hands rather than be just another clever intellectual who pitied the poor from a comfortable distance. And in this he undoubtedly succeeded.

He also succeeded in showing how empathy was about far more than ethics. His tramping excursions certainly challenged his prejudices and shifted his moral values, but they also gained him new friendships, nurtured his curiosity, expanded his ability to talk to people from different social backgrounds and provided him with a rich seam of literary materials which would last him for years. For a young man who had once worn a top hat at Eton,his experiments in living down and out were an intense, exhilarating and often challenging lesson in life itself, catapulting him out of the narrowness of his privileged past. Trying to survive on the streets of East London was the greatest travel experience he would ever have.

Though Krznaric notes that few of us can go to the extremes Orwell did in our pursuit of embodied empathy, he draws from the writer’s experience a seemingly simple yet, when applied, profound everyday aspiration:

The idea of empathy has distinct moral overtones and is often associated with “being good.” But experiential empathy should really be regarded as an unusual and stimulating form of travel. George Orwell would tell us to forget spending our next vacation at an exotic resort or visiting standard tourist sites. It is far more interesting to expand our minds by taking journeys into other people’s lives — and allowing them to see ours. Rather than asking ourselves, “Where can I go next?,” the question on our lips should be, “Whose shoes can I stand in next?”

But my favorite is a chapter in which Krznaric considers our strange relationship with time — that peculiar dimension of life that we’ve attempted to measure and make palpable since the dawn of, well, time. Given how profoundly metaphors shape our thoughts and emotions, Krznaric makes an especially pause-giving point in exploring how our flawed metaphors for time — much like our flawed metaphors for memory — deform our experience of it:

Our concept of time is similarly structured by metaphors, and we need to become aware of the subtle ways they work on our minds. One of the most prevalent metaphors already mentioned, which emerged during the Industrial Revolution, is of time as a commodity: spending time, buying time, wasting time, saving time, “time is money,” “living on borrowed time.” Another dating from the same period is time as a possession: “my time is my own,” “give me a moment of your time.” These two metaphors, in tandem, constitute the psycholinguistic roots of our problems with time. If our time is like private property, it becomes possible not only for it to be freely granted to others, but possibly owned by them or appropriated at an unfair price against our wishes.

Discus chronologicus by German engraver Christoph Weigel, a timekeeping chart circa 1720s. Click image for details.

I’ve always been extremely wary of the notion of “work-life balance,” which pits work as something undesirable that takes away from the desirable parts of life and must thus be balanced against those, kept to a reasonable level, quarantined. This dichotomy leaves no room for the kind of purposeful work that is life. Curiously, the very concept of “work-life balance” tends to use time as the currency by which balance is measured, so I find Krznaric’s admonition against conceiving of time as a commodity especially resonant when it comes to how we think about work and play:

One manifestation of the “time as a commodity and possession” metaphor is when we talk about taking “time off” from work. This expression is essentially saying that we have given our employer ownership of our time. . . . Each year the firm will give us back a little of our time, usually no more than a few weeks. This vacation period is usually referred to as “time off”; it is their gift to us, a temporary pause in the regular pattern, in which being at work is, by implication, “time on.”

Instead, he proposes we think of leisure as our “time on,” which would imbue our non-work time with value and awaken from the cultural trance that consistently blinds us to how much more precious presence is than productivity.

Krznaric traces the history of time as a commodity to the dawn of the Protestant ethic, which equates productivity and efficiency with virtue. Coupled with that is the cultural legacy of our fear of boredom, beneath which Krznaric finds a deeper anxiety:

On some level we fear boredom. A deeper explanation is that we are afraid that an extended pause would give us the time to realize that our lives are not as meaningful and fulfilled as we would like them to be. The time for contemplation has become an object of fear, a demon.

He argues that we can begin to undo this baleful legacy by borrowing the mindset of Gustave Flaubert, who famously observed that “anything becomes interesting if you look at it long enough.” Krznaric even proposes a somewhat radical pragmatic intervention: a “chronological diet” that banishes timekeeping devices from your wrist, your smartphone display, and your walls — a tactic, however disorienting at first, that promises to make you “less likely to interrupt a conversation or a thought with a glance at your watch which sends you scuttling off to the next task.”

How Should We Live?: Great Ideas from the Past for Everyday Life, an illuminating and awakening read in its entirety, goes on to explore how Michelangelo deformed how we think about creativity and precipitated the dangerous myth of the sole genius, why money is not enough, what the Toltec and Aztec civilizations teach us about our understanding of mortality, and much more. Complement it with George Myerson’s exploration of what history teaches us about attaining everyday happiness.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

23 OCTOBER, 2013

Happy Birthday, Brain Pickings: 7 Things I Learned in 7 Years of Reading, Writing, and Living

By:

Reflections on how to keep the center solid as you continue to evolve.

On October 23, 2006, I sent a short email to a few friends at work — one of the four jobs I held while paying my way through college — with the subject line “brain pickings,” announcing my intention to start a weekly digest featuring five stimulating things to learn about each week, from a breakthrough in neuroscience to a timeless piece of poetry. “It should take no more than 4 minutes (hopefully much less) to read,” I promised. This was the inception of Brain Pickings. At the time, I neither planned nor anticipated that this tiny experiment would one day be included in the Library of Congress digital archive of “materials of historical importance” and the few friends would become millions of monthly readers all over the world, ranging from the Dutch high school student who wrote to me this morning to my 77-year-old grandmother in Bulgaria to the person in Wisconsin who mailed me strudel last week. (Thank you!) Above all, I had no idea that in the seven years to follow, this labor of love would become my greatest joy and most profound source of personal growth, my life and my living, my sense of purpose, my center. (For the curious, more on the origin story here.)

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

Looking back today on the thousands of hours I’ve spent researching and writing Brain Pickings and the countless collective hours of readership it has germinated — a smile-inducing failure on the four-minute promise — I choke up with gratitude for the privilege of this journey, for its endless rewards of heart, mind and spirit, and for all the choices along the way that made it possible. I’m often asked to offer advice to young people who are just beginning their own voyages of self-discovery, or those reorienting their calling at any stage of life, and though I feel utterly unqualified to give “advice” in that omniscient, universally wise sense the word implies, here are seven things I’ve learned in seven years of making those choices, of integrating “work” and life in such inextricable fusion, and in chronicling this journey of heart, mind and spirit — a journey that took, for whatever blessed and humbling reason, so many others along for the ride. I share these here not because they apply to every life and offer some sort of blueprint to existence, but in the hope that they might benefit your own journey in some small way, bring you closer to your own center, or even simply invite you to reflect on your own sense of purpose.

Illustration from 'Inside the Rainbow: Russian Children's Literature 1920-35.' Click image for more.

  1. Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind. Cultivate that capacity for “negative capability.” We live in a culture where one of the greatest social disgraces is not having an opinion, so we often form our “opinions” based on superficial impressions or the borrowed ideas of others, without investing the time and thought that cultivating true conviction necessitates. We then go around asserting these donned opinions and clinging to them as anchors to our own reality. It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, “I don’t know.” But it’s infinitely more rewarding to understand than to be right — even if that means changing your mind about a topic, an ideology, or, above all, yourself.
  2. Do nothing for prestige or status or money or approval alone. As Paul Graham observed, “prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.” Those extrinsic motivators are fine and can feel life-affirming in the moment, but they ultimately don’t make it thrilling to get up in the morning and gratifying to go to sleep at night — and, in fact, they can often distract and detract from the things that do offer those deeper rewards.
  3. Be generous. Be generous with your time and your resources and with giving credit and, especially, with your words. It’s so much easier to be a critic than a celebrator. Always remember there is a human being on the other end of every exchange and behind every cultural artifact being critiqued. To understand and be understood, those are among life’s greatest gifts, and every interaction is an opportunity to exchange them.
  4. Build pockets of stillness into your life. Meditate. Go for walks. Ride your bike going nowhere in particular. There is a creative purpose to daydreaming, even to boredom. The best ideas come to us when we stop actively trying to coax the muse into manifesting and let the fragments of experience float around our unconscious mind in order to click into new combinations. Without this essential stage of unconscious processing, the entire flow of the creative process is broken.

    Most importantly, sleep. Besides being the greatest creative aphrodisiac, sleep also affects our every waking moment, dictates our social rhythm, and even mediates our negative moods. Be as religious and disciplined about your sleep as you are about your work. We tend to wear our ability to get by on little sleep as some sort of badge of honor that validates our work ethic. But what it really is is a profound failure of self-respect and of priorities. What could possibly be more important than your health and your sanity, from which all else springs?

  5. When people tell you who they are, Maya Angelou famously advised, believe them. Just as importantly, however, when people try to tell you who you are, don’t believe them. You are the only custodian of your own integrity, and the assumptions made by those that misunderstand who you are and what you stand for reveal a great deal about them and absolutely nothing about you.
  6. Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity. Ours is a culture that measures our worth as human beings by our efficiency, our earnings, our ability to perform this or that. The cult of productivity has its place, but worshipping at its altar daily robs us of the very capacity for joy and wonder that makes life worth living — for, as Annie Dillard memorably put it, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
  7. “Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.” This is borrowed from the wise and wonderful Debbie Millman, for it’s hard to better capture something so fundamental yet so impatiently overlooked in our culture of immediacy. The myth of the overnight success is just that — a myth — as well as a reminder that our present definition of success needs serious retuning. As I’ve reflected elsewhere, the flower doesn’t go from bud to blossom in one spritely burst and yet, as a culture, we’re disinterested in the tedium of the blossoming. But that’s where all the real magic unfolds in the making of one’s character and destiny.

One of Maurice Sendak's vintage posters celebrating the joy of reading. Click image for more.

Then, just for good measure, here are seven of my favorite pieces from the past seven years. (Yes, it is exactly like picking your favorite child — so take it with a grain of salt.)

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.