Beliefs and Outcomes

As I said, there are some issues swirling around my mind that I’m not completely clear about. The temptation is not to write about them until I have achieved greater clarity. But I suspect that unless I write about them, I won’t achieve that greater clarity. So let me start with some basic thoughts about the relationship between beliefs and what happens in life:

1.) Imagine I walk out of my house one morning. As it’s early, it’s still dark, slightly misty and I’m only half awake. I see something I believe to be a cobra or some other kind of dangerous snake slightly to the side ahead of me. I jump back indoors and shut the door buying time to consider my next steps. Here are two alternative scenarios for what might happen next:

a) Ok, on further observation from a safe distance the belief that there’s a dangerous snake out there turns out to have been true. I phone the police or the local zoo or someone. They come to pick up the dangerous snake. All is fine. The correct belief that there’s a dangerous snake outside my house allowed me to react in an appropriate way to save my life and potentially that of others. By instilling a useful emotional reaction (fear) in me and triggering the right physical response (jump back, shut the door), the correct belief rewarded me by protecting me from a dangerous animal and I survive.

b) Ah, on further observation from a safe distance the belief that there’s a dangerous snake out there turns out to have been false. I look more closely and realise that a neighbour just left a coiled garden hose in the front garden. The belief that there’s a snake out there did nothing particularly useful, as it didn’t correspond with any real danger. Though I survive in this scenario too, the belief hasn’t done anything useful for me. If anyone observed me getting scared of a garden hose, it might cause me slight embarrassment. The whole episode was a bit of a waste of time.

2.) Imagine I need to get to work. I believe that there will be a train from my local train station at 8.20am that will get me there on time. So I walk to the station and get there just before 8.20am. Again two scenarios:

a) The belief that there is a train at 8.20am was correct. I catch the train and get to work on time.

b) The belief that there is a train at 8.20am was incorrect. It left at 8.15am before I got to the station and the next one doesn’t leave for another 30 minutes. I’ll get to work late and I waste 30 minutes at the train station.

In these examples correct beliefs about things reward me with a successful outcome to my projects (survival / avoidance of danger; getting to work) and allow me to plan appropriately. Incorrect beliefs can’t be said to reward me in such a way. The reason the correct beliefs reward me with a kind of success is because they correspond with something that’s real in the world (leaving aside for now all sorts of metaphysical and epistemological justifications that may be required for such a statement) with which I correctly engage in order to further my projects.

3. Let’s say that the train operator in my area is unreliable. I believe that on any given day there is a 50% chance that there is a train from my station at 8.20am. On half of the days the train drivers are on strike, there are technical problems with the trains or the trains aren’t running due to bad weather conditions. I have no way of knowing in advance whether this will be one of those days, so I walk to the station for 8.20am.

a) My belief was correct and today turns out to be one of the days on which there is a train. Great!

b) My belief was correct and today turns out to be one of the days on which there is no train. Not so great. But as my belief was correct, I always reckoned that there is only a 50% chance that I won’t have a train. Though the absence of a train is disappointing, I expected it as a possibility. It is an eventuality I took into account in walking to the station, while also planning for an alternative for the case that there is no train. In my own personal cost-benefit analysis walking to the station every day, even if trains only appear on half the days is still worthwhile. (E. g. because the walk to the station is short and the benefit of getting to work by train is great.) Believing correctly that there may not be a train allows me to avoid disappointment and plan for alternatives (taking a bus or working at home).

c) My belief was incorrect. There is never a train at 8.20am. Though there may have been one at 8.15am which I have missed. The next train may or may not be there in half an hour’s time. This is less good. It’s disappointing, a waste of time and for as long as I persist in my false belief that there is a train at 8.20am, I will never catch a train on time, even if it’s a good day for running trains.

In this scenario too, the correct belief rewards me with success in terms of furthering my plans and projects. In this case – due to the complexity of the situation – that success may not be the achievement of my most immediate goal (getting to work). But the success in this case consists of the fulfilment of my general expectation that if I go to the station for 8.20am every day, I will get to work by train on half the days. Though I don’t catch an 8.20am train in scenarios b) and c), scenario b) is different in that my project – of catching the train if there is one, and doing something else if there isn’t – is still successful. Again this success is due to the correspondence of my belief with what is actually happening in the world.

In these examples then, there is a relationship between beliefs and outcomes. Holding correct beliefs allows me to interact with the world in a way that generates a successful outcome. This is not least the case because the world is the way I believe it to be. If I hold false beliefs, the world turns out not to have been the way I believed it to be. This means I interact with the world in sub-optimal ways.

There is a certain type of beliefs that is held to be particularly important to the achievement of successes. These are beliefs about ourselves. I wonder whether the simple relationship we discussed above regarding the correspondence of real things in the world with the beliefs I hold and successful outcomes holds for this type of beliefs too.

 

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Why What Goes On In The Mind Matters

A complex of related themes is going around my mind at the moment over which I don’t feel I have enough clarity yet to write a coherent blog post. But I thought that maybe if I set out some of those things in little chunks, then maybe it will help make things clearer. So here are some slightly random thoughts which really need to be elaborated and brought into some kind of order:

  1. What goes on in our minds matters because it influences what we do and how we do. Not just in an obvious sense that acting on correct beliefs can lead to successful outcomes (“there is a train at 8.20am that goes to the destination I need to get to”), but also in more indirect ways (if I believe things aren’t hopeless, I will be able to take positive action for longer; if I believe this pill is the medicine that will heal me, I will get better even if it’s a placebo; if I believe my mental capacities aren’t fixed but I am capable of learning things, I will succeed better at expanding my mental capacities; etc.)
  2. The things we actively “bring to mind” and the things “at the forefront of our mind” aren’t the totality of what goes on in our minds. There are probably beliefs we are unaware of that we may not have examined for a long time. There may be thoughts that are being processed outside of our field of attention. There may be techniques by which we can become more aware of some of the things going on in our mind but fundamentally that’s how human minds work (?).
  3.  Given 1. and 2., it would sometimes be helpful if we could choose what we believe or what goes on in our minds. But fundamentally we can’t fully choose what we believe (try believing something random at will), and we can’t easily influence the beliefs or other things going on in our minds that we aren’t aware of.
  4. There may be techniques by which we can exercise a bit more control over what goes on in our minds (in particular clearing out unhelpful beliefs that we hold but haven’t examined for a while). Given 3. we should expect these to be very valuable but not straightforward to practice or instantaneous in their effect.

So that’s it. I hope to expand on all of this a bit in the next few posts. If the mind allows.

Useful Concepts -#14- Belonging Gently

A Blog Post for Nihal’s 5th Birthday

Dear Nihal – Happy birthday!

A famous literary critic once said that there was “no more sombre enemy of great art than the pram in the hall.” A blog isn’t great art. This stuff isn’t literature. But it’s funny that I felt more motivated and able to write things down after you were born. Probably that’s because there are certain things I would like you to know when you’re old enough to read and understand them. Or at least certain things of which I would like you to know that your father once thought them.

Unlike with some of my other blog posts I won’t quote lots of books at you here. These are just some thoughts of mine. I always thought I had a very diverse background as far as nationalities, ethnicities and religions go: I was born in Israel, brought up in Switzerland and now live in England. Go back far enough into my (your) family background you’ll find Jews from Switzerland and all over Europe, as well as non-practising Christians or atheists of Roman-Catholic and Anglican backgrounds, Italians who emigrated to London, an English line and probably more. But you have even more diversity on your side. On your mother’s side you also have Sikhs from the Punjab, and some who came to London via Kenya. And even if you didn’t have all of that diversity already in you, you still have access to an amazing range of cultures, ethnicities, religious experiences because that’s the world you live in. London, where you’re growing up is one of the more open-minded, multi-cultural and diverse places in the world and I hope that it won’t close in on itself during your lifetime.

And what I wanted to recommend to you – though I know that you will come to your own conclusions – is to hold as much as you can of your own and of that wider diversity close and dear. Belonging gently – never fiercely, desperately or too seriously – to as much of it as you can. I found that at times I tried to impersonate one of the many strands of my identity too strongly at the cost of others and I found that that was never particularly successful. There were times, for example, when I jokingly said that my career ambition was to become a miracle working rabbi (not like Jesus, but like the orthodox guys who were prevalent in Eastern Europe some centuries ago) and there were times I just wanted to be seen as being totally English and hated it when people suggested I had some kind of foreign accent or asked where my name came from. I was about as likely to succeed in either ambition – that is to say, not at all – and I now think these ambitions to be one thing instead of being many things were misguided. Because trying to be purely one thing with too much orthodoxy, clinging too much to an identity, means excluding any other identities that you can have. And there are things of value, sources of energy, and potential for insights in all of them.

It might be tempting then to go further and give up on belonging to any particular background: adopt the citizenship of cosmopolitanism and the religion of spirituality without religion. But it’s difficult to find the culture and national character of the citizens of the world. And it’s hard to work out the rites, rituals, holidays, beliefs and prayers of the merely spiritual. And these things matter, even if only as a backdrop of traditions from which to renew things or even to rebel against.

That’s why I suggest a concept of “belonging gently.” Belong to your backgrounds, adopt some new things to belong to, if you like, but embrace them all at the same time. Don’t belong too radically just to one, never be too proud of one strand, never cling too desperately to any one of them. If you can, be happy to belong to things, but also be happy, when it’s called for, to be a little bit of an outsider. It is healthy, now and then, to be able to look at what you belong to from a different perspective, a little bit from the outside, having taken a step away or adopted a different way of looking at it. You can then ask yourself questions like “does all of this represent all of me? Which parts of it am I happy to belong to? Which can I do without?”

None of this, by the way, is to say that you should be commitment phobic. Commit fully to people, to ideas, to cultures, if you like. Committing is about what you give of yourself. Belonging is about the hold that you allow something to have on you. This may be complicate. I’ll try to illustrate it by way of an example: It makes me laugh how you five-year-olds can say “today, so-and-so was my friend” and then the next day “today, so-and-so wasn’t my friend.” That’s a funny concept of friendship that comes and goes with each day. Friendship by definition implies a more enduring commitment, even if someone decides not to play with you for a day, or even a series of days. And you need those commitments to friendships with other people for a happy life. But you don’t need to want to belong so strongly to a group of “friends” that you’d do anything – exclude others, do things you know to be silly – in order to remain a part of it.

So yes, commit firmly and belong gently. Maybe that works.

Anyway, perhaps this getting all too serious. Maybe by the time you can read and understand this, you’ll have found out for yourself what works. Or I will have changed my mind about these things again. For now have a happy birthday, blow out candles, eat cake, unwrap presents and enjoy yourself!

Useful Concepts -#13- Going With the Flow

When I was much younger, maybe in my teens, I adopted “go with the flow” as a motto and as a way of life. For me it didn’t mean just following others or not having any idea what I wanted to do. It meant not having too clear a plan, for example going to the train station knowing that there would be a train reasonably soon, rather than going with a particular itinerary in mind. Or walking around in the right area of town trusting that I would find the place I needed to find, rather than having the location clearly mapped out in my mind.

This may have led to me spending too much time waiting at train stations, or asking perfect strangers for directions more frequently than may be respectable. Less kind observers may also have taken my “go with the flow” attitude for a rationalisation of a certain lack of personal organisation or an overly intellectual excuse for a poor sense of direction. But it did insure me against getting too stressed if stuff didn’t go to plan. (Not having a specific itinerary in mind happened to be particularly useful when I became a user of English trains, rather than Swiss ones.)

Speaking of rationalisations and over-intellectualising things, it’s fair to say that “going with the flow” has pretty much the purest intellectual and philosophical ancestry of any useful concept. Ever since Thales of Miletus, one of the first Greek philosophers, thought that water was the primal substance and Pythagoras believed that souls flow from one incarnation to the next, ideas of flux were in philosophical play. But it was Heraclitus of Ephesus who declared that everything flows.  And in a way this idea that beyond our reality, where things seem hard and fast and where we assume a certain amount of stability, there is a world in flow, flux, change, and motion is perhaps the original philosophical stance. It is even possible that Heraclitus taught that if everything is in flux then we – our selves – are also impermanent. We only have fragments of his teachings preserved in the writings of later philosophers, often out of context, misquoted or misunderstood. But his tendency to compare the flux of everything to the flow of a river is clear. He says people can’t step into the same river twice. And when this is quoted, there sometimes is a suggestion that those who step into the river aren’t the same either on the two occasions. If we allow for Heraclitus’ concept of “psyche” to stand for a kind of concept of self, it is clear that Heraclitus regarded it as something we could never fully get a grasp of ourselves.

Heraclitus is credited with this original vision of the fleeting world. But what consequences does flux have for our lives? What does it mean for the way we are, that everything, even our own selves are in flux? Perhaps surprisingly the real masters of flux for me, because they aim to address some of these questions, are the Stoics. It was probably the founder of that philosophical school, Zeno of Citium, who declared that a happy life was one that “flowed smoothly.” (And by  the way, while we’re talking about Ancient Greek or “Western” philosophy, Thales’ and Heraclitus’ hometowns of Miletus and Ephesus were in an area called Asia Minor, today Turkey, whereas Zeno’s hometown of Citium is in today’s Cyprus, so far East that it’s more or less equidistant between London and Mumbai.)

The word the Stoics used for the “smooth flow” of life is “eurhoia,” a term that is also used in ancient Greek for water that flows clearly without obstacles, and for speech that flows well with a coherent argument. But what does it mean for a life to flow smoothly? It means arranging our life in such a way that the flow of the self moves with the flow of everything else. For the Stoics the flow of everything was not just a random movement of atoms in a chaotic universe but it was a pre-determined course of events guided by fate. Occasionally they metaphorically describe Zeus, the chief of the Greek gods, as the personification of that destiny, at other times it is a divine sequence of cause and effect, represented by the goddess Heimarmene, or just the nature of things. Bringing our own actions, but also our emotions, into line with that natural flow of things that happen in the world, is key to the good life and virtuous life.

One Stoic philosopher compares the human condition guided by destiny to the situation of a dog pulling a cart. The dog’s master will make the dog pull the cart from A to B. The dog may take the attitude that it doesn’t want to pull the cart from A to B. It may try going elsewhere, or it may try to shake off the cart. Then it will be beaten by the master all the way from A to B. It will be an unpleasant experience but the outcome will be that the dog pulls the cart from A to B. Or it can willingly get on with the task and get from A to B without being beaten, a smooth journey. That sounds a bit unfriendly, but there are other ways of putting it. Here’s Diogenes Laertius, the third century biographer of Greek philosophers summarising the teachings of the Stoic, Chrysippus:

“Again, ‘to live according to virtue’ is equivalent to living according to the experience of events which occur by nature, as Chrysippus says […]. For our natures are parts of the nature of the universe. Therefore, the goal becomes ‘to live consistently with nature,’ i.e., according to one’s own nature and that of the universe, doing nothing which is forbidden by the common law, which is right reason, penetrating all things, being the same as Zeus, who is the leader of the administration of things. And this itself is the virtue of the happy man and a smooth flow of life, whenever all things are done according to the harmony of the daimon in each of us with the will of the administrator of the universe.”

The aspect of this that seems most modern about this is the idea of living in accordance with one’s own nature. “The daimon within us” is not a demon, but the kind of minor divinity of the self who can aim to get along with Zeus, the controller of the universe. And this idea of being true to oneself – living in line with our own nature – is expressed in other, practical ways. Cicero, summarising the teachings of the Stoics for the Romans, gives an example (also alluding to the use of “eurhoia” in rhetorics as smoothly flowing speech which would have been important for him, the master orator) :

If anything at all is fitting, then nothing is more fitting than a smooth flow of life as a whole and of individual actions; and you cannot preserve this if you neglect your own nature and imitate that of other people. For just as we should employ the style of speech that is familiar to us to avoid being quite justifiably ridiculed like certain people who drop in Greek words all over the place, so too we should not admit any inconsistency into our actions and our general way of life…

None of this means that we should lazily submit to the thought that it’s just our fate to have certain things happen to us, or it’s just our nature that we are a certain way. The dog still has to pull the cart. It is doing hard work – happily – to get where the master wants it to go. And the inner “daimon” is managing the flow of the self, as a microcosm of the flow of the universe managed by Zeus. That self isn’t fixed. It is in movement. It just flows more smoothly and pleasantly when it goes with the flow of overall destiny.

 

 

Just Briefly on Terrorism…

In the aftermath of terrorist attacks a lot of dumb stuff gets written and said and a lot of good stuff. What you don’t get much of is new stuff. I don’t have anything particularly good or new to say on the subject. But I wanted to add a small and unimportant voice to those of the people who say the kind of thing I’m about to say anyway.

Terrorists kill people. They destroy buildings and infrastructure. They also attack our values. Values that form the background to everything we do and think. But that’s the thing: they form the background. We are so used to taking them for granted that we don’t even think about them. Values like open-mindedness, tolerance, and freedoms – freedoms of speech, of thought, of movement, of congregation, of religion, of assembly and so on.

When these values come under attack we need to to bring them from the background to the foreground. We need to forget that they are so firmly established that we can take them for granted. We then need to start again -committing to them, justifying them, implementing them, furthering them and promoting them.

So we need to counter closed-minded fundamentalism with open-mindedness. We need to counter intolerance by promoting tolerance, we need to counter attempts to reduce our freedoms by making the best use of them, broadening them out and making them available to more people. Because if we try to fight intolerance with intolerance, closed minds by closing ours and attacks on our freedoms by reining in freedoms, we lose. If good people think they need to fight evil with evil, evil wins.

Why Addiction Makes You Unhappy and Meditation Makes You Happy

Book Review: The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smartphones to Love – Why We Get Hooked and How We Can Break Bad Habits – by Judson Brewer

I’ll admit it right at the start: There were times when I didn’t want to like this book. As I was reading it, I composed a snide and angry review in my mind. Some of that is below. But there’s something in there which makes the book great. It’s just hidden away in lots of other stuff.

So the things that annoyed me…

First, the foreword by Jon Kabat-Zinn: He is a great man. The great man of mindfulness meditation in the West. When he writes something new, people buy books and read them. But there is really very little that is new or exciting in this foreword other than an endorsement of the book’s author. At first I thought this was purely “clickbait,” a phenomenon Brewer helpfully describes later in the book as headlines or bits of text designed to “get us fired up, and our dopamine neurons firing, so that we will click the link to read the article.”

But on a second reading, I think I worked out what the point of Kabat-Zinn’s foreword is. It’s a bit complicated. Bear with me:

My theory is that the history of mindfulness meditation in the West has various waves. The first wave was the Tibetan Tulkus, Indian Yogis, Japanese Zen masters and other weird and wonderful creatures that literally went from the East to the United States to teach their philosophies and practices. The second were people like Kabat-Zinn who soaked up all those teachings, cleared out any religious content and made mindfulness clinical, not least so that they could get medical research grants to study and teach mindfulness. The third wave consists of people like Judson Brewer who make apps out of mindfulness. (They do literally make smartphone apps, but metaphorically they also package mindfulness as an application that can make you more effective professionally, healthier, free from your addictions, and so on.) Now, there is a slight embarrassment in selling (literally and metaphorically) mindfulness as an app: How do you square the attitude of non-doing, non-striving, non-purposive awareness of the present moment that constitutes mindfulness, with the idea of “doing this in order to get that”?

It appears that Kabat-Zinn is here not to explain this conundrum but to say he’s ok with it:

“Mindfulness as both a formal meditation practice and as a way of living has two interacting aspects, an instrumental dimension and a non-instrumental dimension. (…)

The non-instrumental dimension, a true complement to the instrumental dimension of mindfulness practice and absolutely essential to its cultivation and to freeing ourselves from craving-associated mind states, thoughts, and emotions, is that there is, at the very same time—and this is very hard to take in or talk about, which is why the phenomenon of flow plays such a large role in this book—no place to go, nothing to do, no special state to attain, and, ultimately, no one (in the conventional sense of a “you” or a “me”) to attain it.

Both of these dimensions of mindfulness are simultaneously true. Yes, you do need to practice, but if you try too hard or strive for some desired end point and its attendant reward, then you are simply shifting the craving to a new object or a new goal or a new attachment and a new or merely upgraded or revised “story of me.” Inside this tension between the instrumental and the non-instrumental lies the true extinguishing of craving, and of the “mis-taken” perceptions of yourself that the craving habit is grounded in.”

I’m not sure this is entirely successful as an explanation. The tension isn’t some kind of Zen riddle or paradox. It’s not the sound of one hand clapping. It stems from a further evolution of thinking about mindfulness that needs to be made explicit, brought out into the open and argued for. Otherwise it will remain a hard sell, even if Kabat-Zinn provides his blessing for the project.

The second thing that annoyed me about the book is Brewer’s attempt to adhere to all the hallmarks of a certain genre: The kind of popular science book – or “smart thinking” as some bookshops have come to call it – that is ubiquitous and has become so lame that it’s crying out for renewal. One of the most obvious genre markers is that, before a new discovery or concept is explained, the people working on the subject are introduced at length. Not necessarily just their academic career, or their intellectual journey, but how they dress in the morning before they go to their labs, what they eat for breakfast, their individual quirks and characteristics, as well as how happy they are to be friends of the author’s.  Tempting as it must be to copy ingredients of a recipe that sells so well I think this book and many others could do with less of that.

One egregious example of that feature is when Brewer talks about how the brain’s (the mind’s?) tendency to imagine various possible scenarios or outcomes. He imprecisely compares this process to Monte Carlo simulations, a statistical method to arrive at the relative likelihood of certain outcomes by running simulations thousands of times. Not only is the link between what the mind does and Monte Carlo simulations tenuous, but it is introduced with this entirely unnecessary backstory:

“I first came across Prasanta Pal in the neuroimaging analysis computer cluster at Yale. A compact and soft-spoken gentleman with a ready smile, he had just received his PhD in applied physics. When we met, he was using fMRI to measure turbulence in blood flow through the heart’s chambers. He had seen a paper of mine on brain activity during meditation, and over a cup of tea, he told me how he had grown up with meditation as part of his culture in India. Prasanta was excited to see that it was being researched seriously. In fact, he was interested in joining my lab and putting his particular skills to use.”

A third thing that was slightly irritating is that Brewer tries maybe too hard to show that his thinking about neurological and behaviouristic models of craving and addiction are not only presaged, but precisely present in the teachings of the Buddha himself. (“According to the Pali Canon, the Buddha was said to have been contemplating this idea on the night that he became enlightened. Maybe it was worth looking into further.”) At one point Brewer asks “Could [what the Pali canon refers to as] birth be what we now call memory?” Unlikely, right?

Ultimately though I found the book fascinating. It does a number of things really well:

  • It describes how addictions can come about based on very basic brain functions that allow animals to survive, e. g. by remembering where they can find food. Performing certain actions give us a short-term reward (mediated by dopamine in the brain) which makes us happy, but can also give us a craving for more.
  • It properly analyses certain kinds of social media and smartphone use as addictions. It describes the research that shows how people are getting addicted to presenting a certain image of themselves (their selfies) and being “liked” on social media. One fascinating study which Brewer describes links an increase in children’s accidents to parents being distracted by their phones.
  • It argues that other activities fit an addictive pattern, such as (obsessively) being in love, daydreaming or thinking. This is particularly so when they are really about the person in love, the daydreamer or the thinker themselves, rather than directed at someone or something else.
  • It also provides evidence that daydreaming, being lost in fantasies of pleasant scenarios actually makes us unhappy, rather than happy. (“A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” as the researchers of this phenomenon are quoted.)
  • It then describes the research by Brewer and others that implicates a certain pattern of activity in a specific area of the brain (the Default Mode Network) in addiction-style thinking about ourselves.
  • And of course the killer is that Brewer can then show that when we practice mindfulness meditation, this pattern of brain activity is absent. In other words meditation is the absence of an addictive activity to do with shoring up the self.
  • So every time we give in to a craving, we become more addicted. Every time we interject some mindfulness between craving and our next decision, we become less addicted. Giving in to addiction makes us unhappier, being mindful happier.

In Brewer’s words:

“In any type of addictive behavior, reactivity builds its strength through repetition—resistance training. Each time we look for our ‘likes’ on Facebook, we lift the barbell of ‘I am.’ Each time we smoke a cigarette in reaction to a trigger, we do a push-up of ‘I smoke.’ Each time we excitedly run off to a colleague to tell her about our latest and greatest idea, we do a sit-up of ‘I’m smart.’ That is a lot of work.”

And with this, Brewer has done something that is actually even more amazing than he explicitly says in his book. He has brought some issues that were far more present in the teachings of the first wave of meditation masters than they were for the later ones back to life. Those issues concern the role of the ego and the idea that less of it might be good for us. Through his scientific research, Brewer shows that shoring up the self is an activity that makes us unhappy and is linked to addictive behaviours. He also shows that meditation helps with that, not by a process of killing off or diminishing the ego, but simply by stopping the activity in the brain associated with self-referential thinking and doing something else for a while.

Useful Concepts – #12 – Happiness Again

The other day I met up with a former colleague. I say “former colleague” but maybe “friend” would be a better word. Not that he’s a close friend. I know very little about what goes on in his life. But I’ve worked with him for long enough to know his strengths and for him to know my weaknesses, our views of the world overlap to a significant enough extent and we can tap into each other’s sense of humour easily enough. He’s one of those people who are very good at being rude (honest) to me but with enough underlying sarcasm and politeness that it’s easy to take. So  I wasn’t surprised that he suggested somehow that I probably spend too much time blogging and promoting my blog on social media.

I gave my usual explanation, that I just wanted to get into a regular habit of writing, that I’ve spent too much time reading and thinking and not enough writing, and so on. He responded: “Really? I just thought you wanted to help.” As I couldn’t work out whether he was making fun of me or whether he was getting at the truth, I decided he was probably doing both. (Who says Socratic irony is dead?). “Help make the world a better place?” I asked. He confirmed that that was indeed his take on what I was trying to do. We both smirked at the hopeless idealism and immodest ambition in that alleged motive and I changed the subject.

But yes, I guess in truth I would like to help. Ideally, if I’m honest, I would like each of my little blog posts to be a “transformational object” for its readers. And one of the ways I would like to help is by getting at happiness and what that means for human beings. It was probably no coincidence that my first post was on the subject of happiness. There was a time when I was obsessed with the concept and given my personality type and preferences that meant getting at it intellectually rather than through practice, trial and error. I first got into it by studying ethics and learning that there are lines of inquiry that are not so just about working out what the right actions would be in given situations, but about having a vision of the good life for human agents and giving them a way to navigate their way through a hazardous world where much is out of their control.

A bit later I worked as a civil servant on sustainable development. And as it happened, this work again brought me back to my obsession with happiness, wellbeing, the good life, or quality of life. (Happiness was given other names in order to make it respectable for government to show an interest in it.) I was able to play a minor role in developing government indicators of wellbeing, funding research of people like Professor Paul Dolan who has since published his bestselling “Happiness by Design: Finding Pleasure and Purpose in Everyday Life” and participating a bit (always at a slight distance as a grey-suited civil servant)  in Professor Tim Jackson’s work for the Sustainable Development Commission which led to his classic “Prosperity without Growth: Foundations for the Economy of Tomorrow.” (How little he enjoyed his interaction with government is the subject of a new preface to the second edition.)

In the early part of the millennium there was a bit of a happiness boom driven by behavioural economics and positive psychology. And a part of why I was so angry and upset about the retreat of philosophy from the public sphere was that I felt that it was giving up on its tradition of having meaningful things to say to people about the important things in life and the big questions.

I remember for example being at a philosophy seminar where the lecturing philosopher described a psychological experiments that measured what activities contributed to people’s happiness. He described how people were given a pager that would send them a signal at random times of the day, at which point they were asked to record the activity they were engaged in and how happy they felt on a scale of one to ten. The lecturer’s voice trembled in anticipation of how amused his audience would be at this experimental set-up. And he was richly rewarded with sniggers from an audience full of senior academics.

Of course there is plenty that a philosopher could question about this, to give just a small number of questions as an example:

  • isn’t happiness too multi-dimensional to just rate it with a simple number?
  • how does someone’s happiness in the moment relate to their overall happiness in life or their evaluation of their happiness from a later point in time, say from their deathbed?
  • is an individual’s assessment of their happiness reliable or could they be deluded?
  • how do we deal with the fact that this experiment will only give us statistical correlations between happiness and activities, rather than causal explanations?
  • isn’t this idea of using technology to ask real people questions about things they do in everyday life a bit vulgar? Hadn’t we better rely on literature and a bit of thinking undertaken in the library?

But at the same time you could read things in philosophical literature that showed that philosophers could have done well to engage a bit more seriously with this kind of research. For example, in a book that I love and hold as one of the great works of philosophy, Rosalind Hursthouse relies on the fact that it is obvious to an outside observer whether we are enjoying ourselves. She writes:

“I need a shorthand description for the indications of enjoyment – that things are done with zest and enthusiasm, anticipated and recalled in certain tones of voice with certain facial expressions, and in a certain vocabulary, and so on – so I shall call them `the smile factor’.”

Relying on outside sings of enjoyment to draw conclusions on an inner state (the “smile factor”) is a tricky business but Hursthouse is not wrong to do so. It is similar to the idea that our subjective estimation of our happiness would mirror the judgement of other people as to how happy we are and would correspond to something real, namely our happiness. But while Hursthouse just uses a list of indications of enjoyment and assumes that they are as accessible to ourselves as they are to others, the economists and psychologists have done their homework and collected evidence: They undertook studies, for example, where they asked an individual to rate his happiness on a numeric scale. They then asked people close to that individual to rate his happiness. The ratings of the individual matched the rating of that individual’s happiness given by their friends reliably.

Or Professor James Griffin proposes a list of things that one might want in one’s life: accomplishment, the components of human life (autonomy, liberty, limbs and senses that work, the minimum material goods to keep body and soul together, etc.), understanding, enjoyment, deep personal relations. I’m sure I was at a lecture where Professor Griffin said that his list may show a slight bias to the things that academics might value but he thought it was pretty comprehensive. We could rely on such lists much more, if we compared them with the factors that look important when we look at studies of the wellbeing of tens of thousands of people world-wide.

On the other hand, it is depressing to read in Professor Lord Layard’s great and influential book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science dismissals of Aristotle of this kind:

“It differs, for example, from the approach taken by Aristotle and his many followers. Aristotle believed that the object of life was eudaimonia, or a type of happiness associated with virtuous conduct and philosophic reflection.”

“For Aristotle, ethical behaviour was largely a matter of good habits, which create discomfort when you behave badly and reinforcement when you behave well.”

“However Aristotle made one serious mistake. He included in his concept of happiness only that happiness which is associated with a life of virtue (including contemplation). This was to confuse the means with the end. Virtue may be the means to create a happy society, but the end is the greatest happiness and the least misery in the society. And much of happiness comes and should come from purely private pleasures. Is painting virtuous, or playing the piano to yourself, or enjoying bingo? Virtue doesn’t seem the right word to describe these things.”

Any serious engagement with philosophy could have cleared up some of the false assumptions here. For example the misunderstanding that, for Aristotle, happiness (eudaimonia) results as a consequence of virtuous actions, rather than that virtuous actions and having virtuous character traits are constituent parts of human flourishing. Aristotle wouldn’t have a problem with the idea that bingo (played virtuously) could contribute to the happiness of human beings. Or for an other example, the idea that habits which create comfort and discomfort in response to behaviour are the mechanics that links virtues to happiness. Virtues for Aristotle are more than a question of good habits and good behaviour. They are more like character traits that govern emotions, reliable and stable ways of acting, sensitivities, reasoning and so on. Nor is Aristotle’s happiness a sum total of momentary comforts and discomforts, but a notion related to the characteristically good, flourishing life for human beings.

Would there be a difference if Layard (whose work has been influential in shifting public policy and government spending priorities) had paid more attention to Aristotle, rather than dismissing him on flimsy grounds? I don’t know. But the vast array of studies that have found correlations between various activities and subjective ratings of happiness of the people who undertake them could be enriched. Correlations have been found for example between happiness and all three of the following: commuting to work for a shorter time rather than a longer time, being married, and attending church regularly. It seems to me that if you want to move from mere correlation to causation, it will be important to ask, for example, how commuters could make better use of their time commuting to engage in valuable activities, rather than just waste it. Or you need to ask yourself whether it is being in possession of a marriage certificate that makes married people happier, or whether it could be something about their ability to enter into deep personal relationships and long-term commitments (things that unmarried people can cultivate in different ways too, by the way). And you have to ask yourself whether it is being in a church at certain times that is making people happy, or the social aspects, putting time aside to reflect on the human condition in its relation to the divine, or enjoying beautiful music and language. Otherwise you might end up prescribing the wrong things for happiness (get a different job closer to home, even if your current job gives you a great sense of purpose, get married even if you’re not sure it’s for you, go to church) and miss the point.

So yes, I will hopefully write a bit more about happiness. (Looking back it looks like all of my blog posts so far are in some way about happiness.) And in some way or other I hope we will get at its nature, or at least stay close to it.