Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

28 NOVEMBER, 2014

In Praise of Melancholy and How It Enriches Our Capacity for Creativity

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How the American obsession with happiness at the expense of sadness robs us of the capacity for a full life.

“One feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well, utterly helpless,” Van Gogh wrote in one of his many letters expounding his mental anguish. And yet the very melancholy that afflicted him was also the impetus for the creative restlessness that sparked his legendary art. In his diary, the Danish philosopher and poet Søren Kierkegaard — one of the most influential thinkers of the past millennium — wrote that he often “felt bliss in melancholy and sadness” and thought he was “used by the hand of a higher Power through [his] melancholy.” Nietzsche, too, believed that a certain amount of suffering is essential to the soul.

And yet the modern happiness industrial complex seems bent on eradicating this dark, uncomfortable, but creatively vitalizing state — something Eric G. Wilson explores with great subtlety and wisdom in Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy (public library | IndieBound).

With an eye toward the marketable ticker of bad news on which our commercial news media feed, Wilson writes:

Our minds run over a daunting litany of global problems. We hope with our listing to find a meaning, a clue to our unease.

[…]

I can now add another threat, perhaps as dangerous as the most apocalyptic of concerns. We are possibly not far away from eradicating a major cultural force, a serious inspiration to invention, the muse behind much art and poetry and music. We are wantonly hankering to rid the world of numerous ideas and visions, multitudinous innovations and meditations. We are right at this moment annihilating melancholia.

Considering what lies behind our desire to eradicate sadness from our lives, Wilson admonishes that our obsession with happiness — something he considers a decidedly American export — “could well lead to a sudden extinction of the creative impulse.”

To be clear, I myself am deeply opposed to the Tortured Genius myth of creativity. But I am also of the firm conviction that access to the full spectrum of human experience and the whole psychoemotional range of our inner lives — high and low, light and darkness — is what makes us complete individuals and enables us to create rich, dimensional, meaningful work.

It is important, then, not to mistake Wilson’s point for romanticizing melancholy and glorifying malaise for its own sake — rather, he cautions against the artificial and rather oppressive distortion of our inner lives as we forcibly excise sadness and inflate happiness. He writes:

I for one am afraid that our American culture’s overemphasis on happiness at the expense of sadness might be dangerous, a wanton forgetting of an essential part of a full life. I further am wary in the face of this possibility: to desire only happiness in a world undoubtedly tragic is to become inauthentic, to settle for unrealistic abstractions that ignore concrete situations. I am finally fearful over our society’s efforts to expunge melancholia from the system. Without the agitations of the soul, would all of our magnificently yearning towers topple? Would our heart-torn symphonies cease?

He is especially careful to delineate between the creatively productive state of melancholy and the soul-wrecking pathology of clinical depression:

There is a fine line between what I’m calling melancholia and what society calls depression. In my mind, what separates the two is degree of activity. Both forms are more or less chronic sadness that leads to ongoing unease with how things are — persistent feelings that the world as it is is not quite right, that it is a place of suffering, stupidity, and evil. Depression (as I see it, at least) causes apathy in the face of this unease, lethargy approaching total paralysis, an inability to feel much of anything one way or another. In contrast, melancholia (in my eyes) generates a deep feeling in regard to this same anxiety, a turbulence of heart that results in an active questioning of the status quo, a perpetual longing to create new ways of being and seeing.

Our culture seems to confuse these two and thus treat melancholia as an aberrant state, a vile threat to our pervasive notions of happiness — happiness as immediate gratification, happiness as superficial comfort, happiness as static contentment.

In the remainder of Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, Wilson goes on to explore how we can avoid falling in the trap of such shallow and superficial “happiness,” reap the spiritual benefits of darker emotions, and learn to be ennobled and creatively empowered rather than consumed by them.

Complement it with Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking and a look at the link between creativity and mental anguish, then see this excellent animated history of melancholy from my friends at TED Ed:

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26 NOVEMBER, 2014

Kierkegaard on the Individual vs. the Crowd, Why We Conform, and the Power of the Minority

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“Truth always rests with the minority … because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion.”

“When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else,” Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in her spectacular meditation on happiness and conformity, “you surrender your own integrity [and] become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.” And yet conformity is not only a survival strategy for us but also something institutionally indoctrinated in our culture.

A century earlier, the great Danish writer and thinker Søren Kierkegaard, celebrated as the first true existentialist philosopher and an active proponent of the benefits of keeping a diary, contemplated this eternal tension between the individual and the crowd. Writing in The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard (public library | IndieBound) — the same fantastic window into his inner world that gave us Kierkegaard’s prescient insight on the psychology of online trolling and bullying — he considers how our incapacity for quiet contemplation cuts us off from our true self and instead causes us to adopt by passive absorption the ideals of others.

Lamenting the tendency to take our values from the “very loud talk” of the crowd rather than by “each individual going alone into his secret closet to commune quietly with himself” — something he had come to consider the root of our unhappiness — he writes:

One can very well eat lettuce before its heart has been formed; still, the delicate crispness of the heart and its lovely frizz are something altogether different from the leaves. It is the same in the world of the spirit. Being too busy has this result: that an individual very, very rarely is permitted to form a heart; on the other hand, the thinker, the poet, or the religious personality who actually has formed his heart, will never be popular, not because he is difficult, but because it demands quiet and prolonged working with oneself and intimate knowledge of oneself as well as a certain isolation.

A year later, in 1847, Kierkegaard revisits the question of the individual and the crowd:

The evolution of the world tends to show the absolute importance of the category of the individual apart from the crowd… But as yet we have not come very far concretely, though it is recognized in abstracto. That explains why it still impresses people as prideful and overweening arrogance to speak of the separate individual, whereas this precisely is truly human: each and every one is an individual.

And yet, Kierkegaard argues, most of us find it too daunting to live as individuals and instead opt for the consolations of the crowd:

Most people become quite afraid when each is expected to be a separate individual. Thus the matter turns and revolves upon itself. One moment a man is supposed to be arrogant, setting forth this view of the individual, and the next, when the individual is about to carry it out in practice, the idea is found to be much too big, too overwhelming for him.

Illustration from 'How to Be a Nonconformist,' a 1968 satire of conformity-culture written and illustrated by a high school girl. Click image for more.

Conformity becomes our hedge against this overwhelming idea:

Of course it is more secure to have a solid position in life, some official appointment which does not demand nearly as much of one… Most people lead far too sheltered lives, and for that reason they get to know [the divine] so little. They have permanent positions, they never put in their utmost effort…

Another year later, he returns to the subject and argues that the real arrogance is not in living up to our individuality but in denying it, and in effect denying the individuality of others:

Each human being has infinite reality, and it is pride and arrogance in a person not to honor his fellow-man…. It is a paralogism that one thousand human beings are worth more than one… The central point about being human is that the unit “1” is the highest; “1000” counts for less.

Two years later, in 1850, Kierkegaard makes a poignant case for the vital role of the minority as an antidote to the chronic groupthink of the majority:

Truth always rests with the minority, and the minority is always stronger than the majority, because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion — and who, therefore, in the next instant (when it is evident that the minority is the stronger) assume its opinion, which then becomes that of the majority, i.e., becomes nonsense by having the whole [mass] on its side, while Truth again reverts to a new minority.

In regard to Truth, this troublesome monster, the majority, the public, etc., fares in the same way as we say of someone who is traveling to regain his health: he is always one station behind.

Two centuries before Zadie Smith wrote about the privilege of self-actualization, Kierkegaard is keenly aware of the class element in this interplay between minority and majority, between the individual and the crowd:

I want people to sit up and take notice, to prevent them from idling away and wasting their lives. Aristocrats take it for granted that a lot of people will always go to waste. But they keep silent about it; they live sheltered lives pretending that all these many, many people simply do not exist. That is what is ungodly about the superior status of the aristocrats; in order to be comfortable themselves they do not even call attention to anything.

Vowing not to be like the aristocrats himself, he — a self-described “complete composite of dialectics” — offers his own solution:

I will call the attention of the crowd to their own ruination. And if they don’t want to see it willingly, I shall make them see it by fair means or foul. Please understand me — or, at least, do not misunderstand me. I do not intend to beat them… I will force them to beat me. Thus I actually compel them. For if they begin to beat me, they will probably pay attention; and if they kill me, they most definitely will pay attention, and I shall have won an absolute victory.

Kierkegaard’s rationale behind this strategy is rather humanistic in considering what it takes to awaken the individual human spirit from the trance of the crowd:

[Individuals] are not so corrupt that they actually wish to do evil, but they are blinded, and don’t really know what they are doing. It is all a matter of baiting them for decisive action… A crowd triumphs if one cedes the way, steps aside, so that it never comes to realize what it is doing. A crowd has no essential viewpoint; therefore if it happens to kill a man it is eo ipso halted; it pays heed and comes to its senses.

He later adds:

Nobody wants to be this strenuous thing: an individual; it demands an effort. But everywhere services are readily offered through the phony substitute: a few! Let us get together and be a gathering, then we can probably manage. Therein lies mankind’s deepest demoralization.

Photographs from 'Exactitudes,' a global project highlighting the implicit conformity of subcultures. Click image for more.

But Kierkegaard’s most poignant point arrives shortly before his death, in 1854, when he addresses with prescient precision our modern anxiety about being alone, stressing its absolute vitality in living up to our individual potential:

The yardstick for a human being is: how long and to what degree he can bear to be alone, devoid of understanding with others.

A man who can bear being alone during a whole life-time, and alone in decisions of eternal significance, is farthest removed from the infant and the society-person who represent the animal-definition of being human.

In a remark to which Anne Lamott might have the perfect response, he adds:

Testifying to the fact that man is spirit … with the passing centuries, as polished brutishness mounts, becomes increasingly necessary, but also requires increasingly greater effort.

The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard is a short yet infinitely rewarding read. For a counterpoint to this particular excerpt, see Norman Mailer on the instinct for nonconformity, then revisit Kierkegaard on our greatest source of unhappiness and why anxiety enhances creativity rather than hinders it.

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26 NOVEMBER, 2014

C.S. Lewis on Why We Read

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How great books both change us and make us more ourselves.

“A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her gorgeous contemplation on reading. A century earlier, Kafka asserted in a memorable letter to his childhood friend that “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” Indeed, the question of what books do for the human soul and spirit stretches from ancient meditations to contemporary theories about the four psychological functions of reading. But hardly anyone has articulated the enchantment of literature more succinctly yet beautifully than C.S. Lewis, a man deeply invested in the authenticity of the written word.

In his 1961 book An Experiment in Criticism (public library | IndieBound), he considers literatures’s immense power to expand our inner worlds:

Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realize it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough. I regret that the brutes cannot write books. Very gladly would I learn what face things present to a mouse or a bee; more gladly still would I perceive the olfactory world charged with all the information and emotion it carries for a dog.

In broadening our individual reality, Lewis argues, great books also manage to contain and console our most overwhelming emotions:

Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like a night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.

Complement with Lewis on true friendship, what it really means to have free will, his ideal daily routine, and the secret of happiness.

Thanks, Terry

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