Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

19 JUNE, 2014

Legendary Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on Why the Capacity for Boredom Is Essential for a Full Life

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“Boredom … protects the individual, makes tolerable for him the impossible experience of waiting for something without knowing what it could be.”

When was the last time you were bored — truly bored — and didn’t instantly spring to fill your psychic emptiness by checking Facebook or Twitter or Instagram? The last time you stood in line at the store or the boarding gate or the theater and didn’t reach for your smartphone seeking deliverance from the dreary prospect of forced idleness? A century and a half ago, Kierkegaard argued that this impulse to escape the present by keeping ourselves busy is our greatest source of unhappiness. A century later, Susan Sontag wrote in her diary about the creative purpose of boredom. And yet ours is a culture that equates boredom with the opposite of creativity and goes to great lengths to offer us escape routes.

Children have a way of asking deceptively simple yet existentially profound questions. Among them, argues the celebrated British psychoanalytical writer Adam Phillips, is “What shall we do now?” In an essay “On Being Bored,” found in his altogether spectacular 1993 collection On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life (public library), Phillips writes:

Every adult remembers, among many other things, the great ennui of childhood, and every child’s life is punctuated by spells of boredom: that state of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins, the mood of diffuse restlessness which contains that most absurd and paradoxical wish, the wish for a desire.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Phillips, of course, is writing more than two decades before the modern internet had given us the ubiquitous “social web” that envelops culture today. This lends his insights a new layer of poignancy as we consider the capacity for boredom — not only in children, though especially in children, but also in adults — amidst our present age of constant access to and unmediated influx of external stimulation. This is particularly pause-giving considering the developmental function of boredom in shaping our psychological constitution and the way we learn to pay attention to the world — or not. Phillips writes:

Boredom is actually a precarious process in which the child is, as it were, both waiting for something and looking for something, in which hope is being secretly negotiated; and in this sense boredom is akin to free-floating attention. In the muffled, sometimes irritable confusion of boredom the child is reaching to a recurrent sense of emptiness out of which his real desire can crystallize… The capacity to be bored can be a developmental achievement for the child.

Because of how profoundly our early experiences shape our psychoemotional patterns, it’s inescapable to contemplate how this translates into our adult capacities. How easily and uncomfortably the phrase “modern adult” can replace every mention of the child in the following passage from Phillips’s essay:

Experiencing a frustrating pause in his usually mobile attention and absorption, the bored child quickly becomes preoccupied by his lack of preoccupation. Not exactly waiting for someone else, he is, as it were, waiting for himself. Neither hopeless nor expectant, neither intent nor resigned, the child is in a dull helplessness of possibility and dismay. In simple terms the child always has two concurrent, overlapping projects: the project of self-sufficiency in which use of, and need for, the other is interpreted, by the child, as a concession; and a project of mutuality that owns up to a dependence. In the banal crisis of boredom, the conflict between the two projects is once again renewed.

It is unsurprising then, Phillips notes, that the child’s boredom evokes in adults a reprimand, a sense of disappointment, an accusation of failure — that is, provided boredom is even agreed to or acknowledged in the first place. In a certain sense, we treat boredom like we treat childishness itself — as something to be overcome and grown out of, rather than simply as a different mode of being, an essential one at that. Phillips adds:

How often, in fact, the child’s boredom is met by that most perplexing form of disapproval, the adult’s wish to distract him — as though the adults have decided that the child’s life must be, or be seen to be, endlessly interesting. It is one of the most oppressive demands of adults that the child should be interested, rather than take time to find what interests him. Boredom is integral to the process of taking one’s time.

That, perhaps, is what Cheryl Strayed alluded to so beautifully nearly twenty years later, when she wrote that “the useless days will add up to something [because] these things are your becoming.”

Illustration by D.B. Johnson from 'Henry Hikes to Fitchburg,' a children's book about Thoreau's philosophy. Click image for more.

Phillips goes on to consider more directly the evolution of boredom from childhood into adulthood:

As adults boredom returns us to the scene of inquiry, to the poverty of our curiosity, and the simple question, What does one want to do with one’s time? What is a brief malaise for the child becomes for the adult a kind of muted risk. After all, who can wait for nothing?

[…]

We can think of boredom as a defense against waiting, which is, at one remove, an acknowledgement of the possibility of desire… In boredom, we can also say, there are two assumptions, two impossible options: there is something I desire, and there is nothing I desire. But which of the two assumptions, or beliefs, is disavowed is always ambiguous, and this ambiguity accounts, I think, for the curious paralysis of boredom… In boredom there is the lure of a possible object of desire, and the lure of the escape from desire, of its meaninglessness.

[…]

Boredom, I think, protects the individual, makes tolerable for him the impossible experience of waiting for something without knowing what it could be. So that the paradox of the waiting that goes on in boredom is that the individual does not know what he was waiting for until he finds it, and that often he does not know what he is waiting… Clearly, we should speak not of boredom, but of boredoms, because the notion itself includes a multiplicity of moods and feelings that resist analysis; and this, we can say, is integral to the function of boredom as a kind of blank condensation of psychic life.

Lamenting that we tend to treat boredom as a handicap and to deny it as an opportunity, Phillips cites the story of “a precociously articulate eleven-year-old boy” who was once a patient of his, brought in by a mother who believed her son was “more miserable than he realized,” in large part due to his “misleading self-representation.” Phillips found that this superficial self, which the boy donned as a shield for disapproval, was largely tied to the experience of boredom. Once again, Phillips offers a passage all too intimately applicable to the modern human condition beyond just childhood:

[The boy] was mostly in a state of what I can only describe as blank exuberance about how full his life was. As he was terrified of his own self-doubt, I asked him very few questions, and they were always tactful. But at one point, more direct than I intended to be, I asked him if he was ever bored. He was surprised by the question and replied with a gloominess I hadn’t seen before in this relentlessly cheerful child, “I’m not allowed to be bored.” I asked him what would happen if he allowed himself to be bored, and he paused for the first time, I think, in the treatment, and said, “I wouldn’t know what I was looking forward to, ” and was, momentarily, quite panic-stricken by this thought.

Phillips directed the treatment toward the boy’s “false self” and his belief that being good, by the token of his mother’s approval, meant having lots of interests that didn’t leave room for the vice of boredom. Over the course of the following year, Phillips helped the boy develop his capacity to be bored. He recounts:

I once suggested to him that being good was a way of stopping people knowing him, to which he agreed but added, “When I’m bored I don’t know myself.”

Illustration by from 'The Hole' by Øyvind Torseter. Click image for more.

This, I think, is how we as grownups in the modern world often go through life. Our version of being good is being productive. Choosing constant distraction or busyness — two sides of the same coin — we seek to avoid not boredom and passivity, but end up robbing ourselves of presence, because presence presupposed a detachment from what we look forward to, what is to come, and a mindful groundedness in what is.

This is the cultural pathology of our time: If we stopped doing what we do, we might not know who we are. As I’ve reflected before, to cultivate the art of presence in the age of productivity is no easy feat.

On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored is a beautiful and psyche-stretching read in its entirety. Complement it with this cultural history of boredom, then revisit Phillips’s fantastic conversation with Paul Holdengräber on why psychoanalysis is like literature for the soul.

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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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17 JUNE, 2014

The Theology of Rest: A Modern Sermon About Living with Presence in the Age of Productivity

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“Rest, instead of being something passive, is actually an act of resistance.”

“Busy is a decision,” a wise woman once once reminded us. I often think about how our modern obsession with productivity is blinding us to the fact that being productive can be the surest way of lulling ourselves into a trance of passivity, where we coast through our lives day after day after day, showing up but being absent. I’ve previously written about our culturally conditioned tendency to wear our ability to labor endless hours as a badge of honor that validates our work ethic, but what it really bespeaks is profound failure of priorities and self-respect. We treat rest like a sin, not like the sanity-elixir and ambrosia of creativity that is.

Even as a nonreligious person who sides with Sagan and has great reservations about the church, I was taken with this sermon titled “The Theology of Rest” from New York’s Forefront Church. In addition to being delivered by a young, female pastor — pause-giving in and of itself — the sermon explores a predicament so essential and so common to us all that it transcends faith and falls closer to a kind of philosophical self-help for the modern age. Sure, there’s something disorienting about a religious service that takes on the performance-production of a TED talk and the aphorism-speak of a business writer, but all cultural material is a product of its time. (I’ve previously wondered whether the commencement address is the secular sermon of our day.)

At its core, however, the sermon touches on questions of choosing presence over productivity, defining success, and defining ourselves. And perhaps that is the value of modern spirituality — taking away from traditional religion the philosophies and belief systems that help us live better, nobler, more peaceful lives, and doing away with the G-word and that which doesn’t hold up to basic baloney detection. After all, that’s precisely what Tolstoy did in searching for the meaning of life. So watch and take away what you will.

We’re picking up cues from our culture about the way we live our lives and the pace at which we live our lives. Rest isn’t a priority, because so often rest is confused with laziness… Sometimes, rest isn’t a priority because we’ve incorrectly measured success.

[…]

Rest, instead of being something passive, is actually an act of resistance. We live in The City That Never Sleeps — so resting may be the most countercultural and spiritual thing we do with our lives.

Complement with Alan Watts on how to live with presence and a sobering look at the science of how sleep shapes our every working moment.

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