You could argue that the world has never been better: war is increasingly rare, medical science has cured a number of the deadliest diseases, global poverty is down, life expectancy is up, and crime in America is down. But it sure doesn’t seem that way, especially with Brexit, climate change, Trump, Syria, and terrorist incidents around the world. Oliver Burkeman explores some of the reasons why we think the sky is continually falling and what we can do to be happy anyway. I have been thinking about this aspect of it recently:
And there is another, subtler reason you might find yourself convinced that things are getting worse and worse, which is that our expectations outpace reality. That is, things do improve — but we raise our expectations for how much better they ought to be at a faster rate, creating the illusion that progress has gone into reverse.
See also George Saunders’ manifesto from People Reluctant To Kill for an Abstraction.
Jason Fried, founder of 37signals (which became Basecamp a few years back) writes about not having goals.
I can’t remember having a goal. An actual goal.
There are things I’ve wanted to do, but if I didn’t do them I’d be fine with that too. There are targets that would have been nice to hit, but if I didn’t hit them I wouldn’t look back and say I missed them.
I don’t aim for things that way.
I do things, I try things, I build things, I want to make progress, I want to make things better for me, my company, my family, my neighborhood, etc. But I’ve never set a goal. It’s just not how I approach things.
A goal is something that goes away when you hit it. Once you’ve reached it, it’s gone. You could always set another one, but I just don’t function in steps like that.
This is my exact approach, which can drive the more goal oriented people in your life a little bit nuts. Oliver Burkeman wrote about goals being potentially counter-productive in The Antidote, which is perhaps the book I’ve thought most about over the past year. An excerpt from the book about goals was published as a piece for Fast Company.
It turns out, however, that setting and then chasing after goals can often backfire in horrible ways. There is a good case to be made that many of us, and many of the organizations for which we work, would do better to spend less time on goalsetting, and, more generally, to focus with less intensity on planning for how we would like the future to turn out.
One illuminating example of the problem concerns the American automobile behemoth General Motors. The turn of the millennium found GM in a serious predicament, losing customers and profits to more nimble, primarily Japanese, competitors. As the Boston Globe reported, executives at GM’s headquarters in Detroit came up with a goal, crystallized in a number: 29. Twenty-nine, the company announced amid much media fanfare, was the percentage of the American car market that it would recapture, reasserting its old dominance. Twenty-nine was also the number displayed upon small gold lapel pins, worn by senior figures at GM to demonstrate their commitment to the plan. At corporate gatherings, and in internal GM documents, twenty-nine was the target drummed into everyone from salespeople to engineers to public-relations officers.
Yet the plan not only failed to work-it made things worse. Obsessed with winning back market share, GM spent its dwindling finances on money-off schemes and clever advertising, trying to lure drivers into purchasing its unpopular cars, rather than investing in the more speculative and open-ended-and thus more uncertain-research that might have resulted in more innovative and more popular vehicles.
Update: Forgot to add: For the longest time, I thought I was wrong to not have goals. Setting goals is the only way of achieving things, right? When I was criticizing my goalless approach to my therapist a few years ago, he looked at me and said, “It seems like you’ve done pretty well for yourself so far without worrying about goals. That’s just the way you are and it’s working for you. You don’t have to change.” That was a huge realization for me and it’s really helped me become more comfortable with my approach.
In the Guardian, Oliver Burkeman writes about what’s going on when we become a little stubborn about not wanting to enjoy Hamilton, Ferrante, Better Call Saul, or [insert your friends’ current cultural obsession here].
Somewhere around the 500th headline I read in praise of Hamilton, the universally acclaimed Broadway musical due in Europe next year, I was struck by a deflating thought: I’ll probably never see it. Not just because it’s virtually impossible to get a ticket, but because so many people — people whose tastes I trust — have raved about it that I now regard the prospect with annoyance. Two years ago, it was the Richard Linklater movie Boyhood, which I still haven’t seen; then Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, which I still haven’t read. Straw polls of friends suggest I’m not alone in this reaction — call it “cultural cantankerousness” — which seems to affect books, films, plays, holiday destinations and restaurants equally. Increasingly, my first thought on seeing something described as a “must-read” is‘“Oh really? Try and make me.”
This reaction could be a FOMO defense, but the optimal distinctiveness theory explanation is more interesting.
One explanation is what psychologists call “optimal distinctiveness theory” — the way we’re constantly jockeying to feel exactly the right degree of similarity to and difference from those around us. Nobody wants to be exiled from the in-group to the fringes of society; but nobody wants to be swallowed up by it, either.
FWIW, I have not see Boyhood or Better Call Saul yet, but I’ve read Ferrante and seen Hamilton are both are as good as advertised. (Oh, and Burkeman’s own book, The Antidote, is great as well.)
The Index Card is a new book by Helaine Olen and Harold Pollack about simple advice for personal finance. The idea for the book came about when Pollack jotted down financial advice that works for almost everyone on a 4x6 index card.
Now, Pollack teams up with Olen to explain why the ten simple rules of the index card outperform more complicated financial strategies. Inside is an easy-to-follow action plan that works in good times and bad, giving you the tools, knowledge, and confidence to seize control of your financial life.
I learned about their book from a piece by Oliver Burkeman on why complex questions can have simple answers.
But there’s a powerful truth here, which is that people dispensing financial advice are even less neutral than we realise. We’re good at spotting the obvious conflicts of interest: of course mortgage providers always think it’s a great time to buy a house; of course the sharp-suited guys from SpeedyMoola.co.uk think their payday loans are good value. But it’s more difficult to see that everyone offering advice has a deeper vested interest: they need you to believe things are complex enough to make their assistance worthwhile. It’s hard to make a living as a financial adviser by handing clients an index card and telling them never to return; and those stock-tipping columns in newspapers would be dull if all they ever said was “ignore stock tips”. Yes, the world of finance is complex, but it doesn’t follow that you need a complex strategy to navigate it.
There’s no reason to assume this situation only occurs with money, either. The human body is another staggeringly complex system, but based on current science, Michael Pollan’s seven-word guidance — “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” — is probably wiser than all other diets.
Burkeman wrote one of my favorite books from the past year, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.
From the abstract of a paper on the relationship between impatience and procrastination, this caught my eye:
We find substantial evidence of time inconsistency. Namely, more that half of the participants who receive their check straight away instead of waiting two weeks for a reasonably larger amount, subsequently take more than two weeks to cash it.
This reminded me of a passage I read recently in Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote1 about the pitfalls of positive visualization.
Yet there are problems with this outlook, aside from just feeling disappointed when things don’t turn out well. These are particularly acute in the case of positive visualisation. Over the last few years, the German-born psychologist Gabriele Oettingen and her colleagues have constructed a series of experiments designed to unearth the truth about ‘positive fantasies about the future’. The results are striking: spending time and energy thinking about how well things could go, it has emerged, actually reduces most people’s motivation to achieve them. Experimental subjects who were encouraged to think about how they were going to have a particularly high-achieving week at work, for example, ended up achieving less than those who were invited to reflect on the coming week, but given no further guidelines on how to do so.
In one ingenious experiment, Oettingen had some of the participants rendered mildly dehydrated. They were then taken through an exercise that involved visualising drinking a refreshing, icy glass of water, while others took part in a different exercise. The dehydrated water-visualisers — contrary to the self-help doctrine of motivation through visualisation — experienced a significant reduction in their energy levels, as measured by blood pressure. Far from becoming more motivated to hydrate themselves, their bodies relaxed, as if their thirst were already quenched. In experiment after experiment, people responded to positive visualisation by relaxing. They seemed, subconsciously, to have confused visualising success with having already achieved it.
In a similar way, it may be that the people who received their checks right away but didn’t cash them “relaxed” as though they had actually spent the money, not just gotten the check. (via mr)
“Success through failure, calm through embracing anxiety…” This book sounds perfect for me. The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman.
Self-help books don’t seem to work. Few of the many advantages of modern life seem capable of lifting our collective mood. Wealth — even if you can get it — doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness. Romance, family life, and work often bring as much stress as joy. We can’t even agree on what “happiness” means. So are we engaged in a futile pursuit? Or are we just going about it the wrong way?
Looking both east and west, in bulletins from the past and from far afield, Oliver Burkeman introduces us to an unusual group of people who share a single, surprising way of thinking about life. Whether experimental psychologists, terrorism experts, Buddhists, hardheaded business consultants, Greek philosophers, or modern-day gurus, they argue that in our personal lives, and in society at large, it’s our constant effort to be happy that is making us miserable. And that there is an alternative path to happiness and success that involves embracing failure, pessimism, insecurity, and uncertainty — the very things we spend our lives trying to avoid. Thought-provoking, counterintuitive, and ultimately uplifting, The Antidote is the intelligent person’s guide to understanding the much-misunderstood idea of happiness.
I learned about the book from Tyler Cowen, who notes:
[Burkeman] is one of the best non-fiction essay writers, and he remains oddly underrated in the United States. It is no mistake to simply buy his books sight unseen. I think of this book as “happiness for grumps.”
Given Cowen’s recent review of Inside Out, I wonder if [slight spoilers ahoy!] he noticed the similarity of Joy’s a-ha moment w/r/t to Sadness at the end of the film to the book’s “alternative path to happiness and success that involves embracing failure, pessimism, insecurity, and uncertainty”. Mmmm, zeitgeisty!