Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking


I really enjoyed this little book by Oliver Burkeman. It’s a more thoughtful book than the title might lead you to believe. I don’t review books but will share a few excerpts:

“At best, it would appear, happiness can only be glimpsed out of the corner of an eye, not stared at directly. … The effort to try to feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable.”

“Learn how to stop trying to fix things, to stop being so preoccupied with trying to control one’s experience of the world, to give up trying to replace unpleasant thoughts and emotions with more pleasant ones, and to see that, through dropping the ‘pursuit of happiness’, a more profound peace might result.”

“What motivates our investment in goals and planning for the future, much of the time, isn’t any sober recognition of the virtues of preparation and looking ahead. Rather, it s something much more emotional: how deeply uncomfortable we are made by feelings of uncertainty. Faced with the anxiety of not knowing what the future holds, we invest ever more fiercely in our preferred vision of that future – not because it will help us achieve it, but because it helps rid us of feelings of uncertainty in the present.”

And how gratifying to find my philosophy of life within the pages of this book:

“You should sun yourself on a lily-pad until you get bored; then, when the time is right, you should jump to a new lily-pad and hang out there for a while. Continue this over and over, moving in whatever direction feels right.”

A couple of times, in fact:

‘A good traveller has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving.’ — Lao Tzu

And this for you Dale Carnegie devotees:

“The ‘cult of optimism’ is all about looking forward to a happy or successful future, thereby reinforcing the message that happiness belongs to some other time than now.”

I’ve been reading self-help and motivation books for half a century, with limited success. This was a refreshing new perspective.

The chief danger to freedom of thought

“The chief danger to freedom of thought and speech at this moment is not the direct interference of … any official body. If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face. … The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary.”

– George Orwell (via Brain Pickings)

People who don’t read books

I encounter far more people who rarely/never read a book, than those read regularly. The stats below seem to support my anecdotal findings.

  • 50% – U.S. adults who are unable to read an 8th grade level book
  • 33% – U.S. high school graduates who will never read a book after high school
  • 42% – College students who will never read another book after they graduate
  • 80% – U.S. families who did not buy a book this year
  • 70% – Adults that have not been in a book store in the past 5 years
  • 57% – Books started that aren’t read to completion

I found these at statisticbrain.com. The post gives the source for these stats as something called Read Faster, Reading Stats and and “Research Date: of April 28, 2013. I confess these are hard for me to believe so if anyone can call bullshit (with sources), please do. Now, here’s my nasty little secret:

I feel a little… superior… to people who don’t read books. I know I shouldn’t but an informed opinion just somehow seems more… valid?

Going Clear

Going Clear grabbed and held (and disturbed) me as few (non-fiction) books have. “Couldn’t put it down” is usually a cliche, but…

Reading this incredible story is as close to being in a cult as I’m ever likely to be. For my money, Scientology is far more frightening (and dangerous) than the Taliban.

Tom Cruise figured prominently in the second half of the book so I had to go back and take one more look at this video.

Rebirth

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“You are lounging on a magnificent balcony open to the starry sky, divine music is playing with such exquisite perfection you can hardly stand it, when all of a sudden something terrible occurs: the magical sounds break up into an obscene cacophony. What is happening? Are you dying? You could put it that way. That awful noise is the first scream of an infant: you. You have been born into a human body hardwired with each and every transgression from the last time around, and now you must spend the next seventy years clawing your way back to the music. No wonder we cry.”

– Bangkok Tattoo by John Burdett

Who wants to die for a supermarket

Trolley in supermarket, exact date
“The greatest weakness of the West is that it has nothing with which to inspire loyalty except wealth. But what is wealth? Another washing machine, a bigger car, a nicer house to live in? Not much to feed the spirit in all that. What is the West but a gigantic supermarket? And who really wants to die for a supermarket?”

– Bangkok Tattoo by John Burdett

Americans can never be defeated by war

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“Without a war, America would descend into total confusion and would have to form itself into a police state to survive, because its people no longer have any internal structure. Americans can never be defeated by war. It is peace they find intolerable.”

A line from a novel by John Burdett (2005). As we wind down two wars and crank up the police state in America, Mr. Burdett seems frighteningly prescient.

Immortality

book-coverThe Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization, by Stephen Cave (Amazon)

The Mortality Paradox – On the one hand, our powerful intellects come inexorably to the conclusion that we, like all other living things around us, must one day die. Yet on the other, the one thing that these minds cannot imagine is that very state of nonexistence; it is literally inconceivable. Death therefore presents itself as both inevitable and impossible.”

The Terror Management Theory – We must live in the knowledge that the worst thing that can possibly happen to us one day surely will. [...] We have created institutions, philosophies and religions to protect us from this terror by denying or at least distracting us from the finality of death.”

“Immortality is not for the weak and foolish.”

“”Longevity Escape velocity” – living long enough to live forever”

“”Computational Resurrection” – the rerunning of software that is your mind on a new piece of hardware so that you might live again.”

“The Soul – the most influential single idea in the history of Western civilization”

“Whether or not we literally believe we have a soul that will go to heaven, the cosmic significance we ascribe to ourselves as unique individuals reassures us that we transcend mere biology. [...] We are creating a myth of immunity to extinction.”

“Buddhists do believe in some essential part of you that survives the body in order to be reincarnated in accordance with the laws of karma. This is pure consciousness, stripped of all memories and convictions and the rest of the accumulated baggage of a lifetime. The Dali Lama describes it as a “continuum of awareness.””

“In Hinduism and Buddhism there is an undercurrent of recognition that the individual mind cannot continue without the body. Beyond the theory of reincarnation, which requires a soul robust enough to be punished for its past sins, there are hints of something more radical. Nirvana, for example, literally means “extinguishing” or “blowing out.” But what is it that is being “blown out” like a candle? Some Buddhists say worldly desires. Others, however, go further and believe it is the self that is extinguished. For some in the ascetic tradition, the source of worldly suffering is not just being in the world–it is being at all. Liberation therefore means to cease to be an individual altogether, or as the Hindus put it, to become one with the all, the Brahman.”

“We have already concluded you have no soul — no unchanging essence or immutable inner core. We could go further and say that there is, in fact, nothing that is the “real you.” You are just a collection of disparate thoughts, memories, sense impressions and the like, all bundled up together in a package we conveniently label a person. What is more, all these disparate parts are continually changing,as some things are forgotten and others learned, opinions changed and new memories formed. The question is, then, if you are such an ever-changing bundle, what does it mean for “you” to survive?”

“Psychologist Roy Baumeister has estimated the length of time for which most of us can expect to be remembered as seventy years. He points out that not many people can even *name* their great-grandparents.”

“People in modern cities long ago lost the ability to survive independently—we are utterly reliant on a complex higher level system for clean water, food, clothing, shelter, medicine, security and energy. Like the specialized cells of our bodies, which have given up their independence for the greater strength and security offered by life as part of a macro-organism, we have each given up our independence to be part of strong and secure superorganisms.”

“Individual humans are merely temporary forms taken by the single, shifting web of life on earth. If humans are not really separate things, then their births and deaths are also not real, but simply one way of seeing the rhythms of life.”

“The great social-reform movements of the last centuries — emancipation of slaves, equality between sexes and races, social welfare and son on — arose only when the preoccupation with the next world began to lose its grip on Western society. [...] If this life here on earth is regarded merely as a series of tests for a place in another life, then it is necessarily devalued.”

“There are as I see it two sets of problems: on the one hand, the boredom and apathy that would result from having done and seen everything there is to do— that is, from having already lived a very long time—and on the other hand, the paralysis that would result from having an infinite future in which to do any further things. Both these problems, the backward looking and the forward-looking, threaten to suck the meaning out of life and leave one wishing for a terminal deadline.”

“Death is the source of all our deadlines.”

“Life as we know it may be too short to watch daytime TV, but eternity wouldn’t be.[...] Given infinity, time would lose its worth. And once time is worthless, it becomes impossible to make rational decisions about how to spend it. [...] If civilization exists to aid our preparation into the future, then if that perpetuation were guaranteed, civilization would be redundant. [...] Civilization exists to give us immortality, but if it ever succeeded it would fall apart.”

“We do not “see” or experience death; death is the end of all experience. [...] Neither you nor I can ever literally *be* dead. Living things cannot be dead things. To talk of someone “being dead” is just a shorthand for saying they have ceased to exist. [...] We can never be aware of (life) having an end — we can never know anything but life.”

“If you are happy now, then you are happy always, as there is only now.”

The Queen’s Gambit

The-Queens-GambitThis is a thriller about tournament chess. The tournaments aren’t just background for a more exciting plot, the chess games are the action. Piece-by-piece. Don’t play chess? (I don’t) Doesn’t matter, I was on the edge of my seat. (Wikipedia)

As with the only other novel I’ve ready by Walter Tevis (Mockingbird), I felt a sense of impending doom on every page of this story. I was exhausted by the end. I didn’t read closely enough to learn if Tevis was a chess player. Hard to image writing this story if he wasn’t.

If there was a false note, for me it was the main character’s struggle with alcohol and pills. According to Wikipedia, the author had the same struggle. This element just seemed “tacked on” to me.

[I was reminded of the drinking binges (and hang-overs) of Matthew Scudder, the alcoholic detective created by Lawrence Block. It was hard to read those without a cold cloth on the back of your neck.]

William Gibson at New York Public Library

William Gibson is the author of ten books, including, most recently, the New York Times-bestselling trilogy Zero History, Spook Country and Pattern Recognition. Gibson’s 1984 debut novel, Neuromancer, was the first novel to win the three top science fiction prizes—the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, and the Philip K. Dick Memorial Award. Gibson is credited with coining the term “cyberspace” in his short story “Burning Chrome,” and with popularizing the concept of the Internet while it was still largely unknown. He is also a co-author of the novel The Difference Engine, written with Bruce Sterling.

Video above recorded at New York Public Library