The distraction economy kills happiness

DSC_4692_2048LEI’m about halfway through Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience and as I said in an recent installment of my weekly blogpost, LFK Thoughtful Weekends it is headed to be one of the most important books I have ever read – and I read quite a few. It is said to be the “classical” work on happiness, yet it in so many ways differs from what I would categorize as “books on happiness”. A lot of those try to pull all kinds of crazy advice over your head in order for you to achieve happiness. This book – Flow – doesn’t do that. It draws upon heavy and clever research on how people feel doing different tasks during the day. A lot of the data gathered has come from people carrying small devices that at random times during the day beeps them, and then asks them to answer questions on how they feel and what they do.

The surprising or unsurprising finding, depending on how deep you already are in this type of research is, that people actually doesn’t feel most happy or fulfilled when relaxing, but actually while they are working or submerged in a task that takes their total attention. This state of mind and being is referred to as “flow”. A state where you lose track of time and being and is just totally submerged in the task at hand.

Speaking from personal experience I can totally agree on the fact that this is one of the most pleasurable states of being. But it is also somewhat paradoxical as although pleasurable as it is, it takes quite a lot of mental effort to reach. In order for an activity to qualify as being able to produce flow, it has to involve some part of skill and be mental challenging to the right amount for you. Meaning that if you get bored doing the activity, then it is not challenging enough. On the other hand if it is to challenging you will look for ways to escape the activity to cut the mental strain.

Reading a book is probably one of the easiest ways to obtain “flow”. If it is a good book and you have placed yourself in an distraction free environment you will probably quite quickly get into a state where you lose track of time and is just totally submerged in the book. Watching television or surfing the internet without purpose is on the other hand not very good flow-activities. While you can get submerged in them, they don’t offer enough challenges or involve enough skill to be fully rewarding. A good movie can leave you with thoughts for days, but they still won’t qualify as flow-activities. That is not to say that you shouldn’t watch movies or television, they are great at creating relief after a full day of good work, but they shouldn’t be your prime sources of happiness.

I won’t go in full detail with how work in a “flow” state creates happiness, for that argument you should pick up the book. But if you can stay with me and for now “buy” the hypothesis that “flow” state creates a sense of happiness, then you can probably follow the title of this blog post; “The distraction economy kills happiness”. Because with billions of dollars poured into one universal goal – grabbing your attention, then you can begin to see why it is so hard to concentrate and reach the sought after state of flow.

Reaching flow is not easy. If it was just a straight fight between a pleasant and easy state on the one hand and an as easy and pleasant state on the other it wouldn’t be that hard a fight. But the odds are very skewed. Not only are billions of dollars being poured into the advertising industry, social media etc. they also offer a quick fix of dopamine that feels good – for about half a second, then you need the next one. But getting into flow and reaping the benefits of this awesome feeling takes hard work. You have to do something that is adequately challenging for a sometimes long period of time, before you can come anywhere close to this pleasant feeling, so why not just stay with the quick fixes of dopamine?

Because in flow state you really live. You live on your terms, creating value for yourself and perhaps even for others. We are born with this internal paradox where almost all of us wants to relax more, but once we do nothing we start to feel worse and perhaps even inadequate. Doing can be anything from researching your bloodline, building scale models of old planes or finding cures for rare diseases. The important part is doing. And doing focused work on something that we enjoy for long uninterrupted periods of time.

A lot of research points to the fact that we might call an unfocused mind an unhappy mind. The more time you can spend in flow the happier and more fulfilling the life you seem to live. The good news here is that you can almost turn any activity into flow activity. What matters is that it challenges you, and that you find it worthwhile. What it leads to and whether you only do it for your own sake does not matter.

Focus your mind and get to work.

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“A guide to the good life” – and notes

*Notes on the book towards the end

As mentioned before I can’t really remember when I was first introduced to stoicism, but I think some of the first stoic texts I read was from Seneca. Shortly after being introduced to stoicism I stumbled upon A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joyand if I remember correctly I probably bough it together with Letters from a Stoic.

First time I read “A guide to the good life” I liked it, but for some reason not much more than that. It was a good book with good practical advice, but somehow it did not really have the impact I had expected. Too high expectations? – Perhaps.

In the following years I read and re-read a lot of stoic books. Loved Meditations, Ryan Holiday’s book on stoicism and as mentioned above “Letters from a Stoic”. But did not re-read “A guide to the good life” because of my first impressions of it. Then hearing a guest on Tim Ferriss’ podcast praise it, I finally re-read it.

And I am very glad I did. Because this time it really hit something inside of me, it really resonated and I absolutely loved it. It’s really full of practical applications of stoic principles and very actionable. It spend a little too much time on philosophical discussion of stoic principles, but as the author is a philosopher this is not unexpected – even though it seems somewhat going against the exact principles of stoic philosophers; philosophy should be practical applicable in everyday life. But those passages are easily overshadowed by the majority of content that is really top notch.

As I have mentioned in this post: Read and remember – make it stick I always underline passages that resonate with me or perhaps I find worthy of some more digging. Then actually starting with this book, I waited a few days and then went through my highlights writing down notes for most of them.

They are probably very subjective to my head and understanding, but if someone might find them useful they will come below. So as final comment I will highly recommend the book to anyone interested in stoic philosophy and interested in practical advice on how to live like a stoic or perhaps just implement some of their advice.

And now the notes:


 

Notes on “A guide to the good life”

To be virtuous is to live in accordance with nature – if we do this well we live a good life according to the Stoics.

We are social creatures and therefore have duties to our fellow men. Honor friends, parents and countrymen.

Stoic tranquility is the absence of  negative thoughts and the pretense of positive ones.

Unlike Cynicism Stoicism does not require adoption of ascetic lifestyle. We can enjoy money, luxury etc. but should do so while being willing to give it all up. We should not cling to these things.

The obstacle is the way. Hardship and set-backs build character like strength training builds muscle and hormesis builds up our immune system.

Negative visualization. All we have is on loan from “fortune” – cherish it, enjoy it but be prepared to lose it.

Memento mori. Reflect upon each day as if it was your last. Don’t take anything for granted – in an instant it can be gone.

Reflect and be grateful upon the people and things you have in your life and contemplate how sad it would be to lose them. This counteracts hedonic adaptation.

A stoic will not spend all his time thinking about catastrophes and visualizing all things being taken away from him, but a few times a day or week, spend some time contemplating loss of things dear to him in order to make him value them higher.

To practice negative visualization is to contemplate the impermanence of the world around us.

There will be – or already has been! – a last time in your life that you brush your teeth, cut your hair, drive a car, mow the lawn or go for a run. There will be a last time you hear rain or see snow falling, smell newly baked bread or feel the warmth of your child or spouse fall in sleep in your arms. Or a last time you make love. You will someday eat your last meal and soon thereafter you will take your last breath.

Learn to want the things that are easy to obtain or better yet, the things you already have.

Trichotomy of control; things we have full control over, things we have some control over, and things we have no control over. Do not worry over things that you have no control over.

We should periodically cause ourselves to experience discomfort – cold exposure, hunger etc. This rehearses the “what if” and further more builds character and self confidence.

The more pleasures a man captures, the more masters he will have to serve. We must learn to resist pleasures – else we spend our lives twitching in each pleasurable way.

Avoid high expectations – both of people, events and things. Having high expectations set you up for disappointment.

Take responsibility for your reactions to events, a stranger might cut you off in traffic, a colleague may say something insulting – what you can control is your reaction. If you don’t feel insulted – then you weren’t.

In the morning, rather than lazily lying in bed, we need to get up and get to work on the thing that we were created to do. The first resistance of pleasure starts with getting out of bed first thing upon waking.

Avoid melancholy people and negative people – they will upset your tranquility.

Don’t be insulted by things that are objectively right – being bald and then being told that you are bald is not an insult – it is just a fact.

Grief: Grieving for a short period of time is OK. But then move on. If you grieve the loss of a child then after a period get on with your life. Be happy that you had that child in your life in the period you had. And your child most definitely did not want you to suffer so why go against the will of your own child and become a sad and unhappy person?

Anger: Should a stoic that has seen his wife and children be raped and murdered not do anything about it. Indeed he should – but he should remain as calm as possible while doing it. Success in doing so will make for a much better and thoughtful revenge than just resorting to outright anger.

If we seek social status we are at the mercy of other people trying to have them see us in as positive a light as possible. Our goal should be to become indifferent to other peoples opinion of us.

Realize that many other people, perhaps even your closest friend do not want you to succeed. By doing so they may see themselves as being put down, because if you can succeed then why can’t they.

Acknowledge that the exposure to luxury might lose us our ability to enjoy the simple things in life.

Eat to live instead of live to eat. Eat to nourish the body and fill its basic needs not to gain pleasure.

If a stoic finds himself well of, then he should enjoy his wealth but never cling to it. He should contemplate losing it all again. If he clings to his wealth and new lifestyle then he becomes a slave to it. Because then suddenly he might fear losing his high income and therefore becomes limited in his freedom.

Stoics not being afraid of public ridicule, exile or even death often held and stood up for unpopular beliefs. People today often go out of their way to steer clear of trouble, where as the stoics would ask whether a life where nothing is worth dying for is worth living?

A man is as wretched as he convinces himself he is.

The stoics was convinced that what stand between ourselves and happiness is not the government or the society we live in, but the lack of a life philosophy.

Never categorize yourself as a victim. Always take responsibility.

Thanks to hedonic adaptation a pursuit of novel things will always leave us in want and unhappy. We should instead use negative visualization to learn to want the things we have.

Steve Jobs – an evil character

Some months have passed since I read this book: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. I can’t really tell why I haven’t felt the urge to write about it yet though. Perhaps more because of the impression about Steve Jobs I was left with after reading it, than the book in itself.

I have read Walter Isaacson’s biography about Benjamin Franklin before, and found it really good and entertaining. I will at some point also read his biography about Albert Einstein – so nothing bad to say about the author or his style of writing – I really like that.

But what really stands in your way as a speed bump the size of Everest is the personality of Steve Jobs. You can try and go around it, look over it, but it is still in your way. Walter Isaacson’s writing is as good in this as in his Benjamin Franklin book, he engages the reader and paints a very telling picture of the man Steve Jobs. But struggle as I might I can’t say that it is a very good book. It is fascinating, shocking and revealing but good – just somehow not.

You can’t argue what Jobs have accomplished. He in many ways have changed the world. But reading the book really made me lose respect for him. And that is not coming from one who did not or still don’t like Apple products – I really am a big fan of them.

The point some people will make however is that he can be forgiven for how he behaved because of what he accomplished – or that you need to be that way to accomplish what he did. I simply just do not buy into that narrative.

There are so many instances where he just acts pure evil! Nothing else to describe it. And it has absolutely nothing to do with being goal-oriented, ruthless business man or anything of the like – he just acts evil. These projections of him can of course be false or projected in a more negative light – but my impressions of Isaacson in general and the book as a whole, is that he tries to be as objective as possible. And this fact just stayed with me for the entirety of the book. People who does so many acts of unnecessary evil and unkindness just cannot be given any respect.

I did finish the book and almost let my guards down a little towards the end, where if you have a really bad short time memory, you may have a slight breeze of compassion towards him. I just couldn’t let go off the evil picture painted of the man. He lost my respect and never won it back again.

Of course your mileage may vary – I almost wish I hadn’t read it. I did not have a positive image of Steve Jobs before, just as slightly unsympathetic at times – but this book really pushed the needle as far towards evil as it goes without physically harming people.

If you somehow feel compelled to read it you can get here: Amazon

 

Surely you’re joking Mr. Feynman!

I’ve had this book on my shelf for quite some while. I actually started reading it while in Dublin on a business trip some 6-8 months ago – got very amused by it, but at the time I was in the midst of two other books so had to leave it for some while and finish the others first.

A few weeks ago I picked it up again – and what a book! It is very much on course to be the best and most entertaining book I have read all year. There are some hard contenders in the pipeline but in terms of overall entertainment- and take-away-value I think this book is hard to beat.

I think I can describe Mr. Feynman pretty accurately with just one sentence:

The oldest and most knowledgeable child who ever lived

The full title of the book is: Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character) and especially the subtitle sure does describe Mr. Feynman accurately. His way of looking at the world is just so incredibly inspiring. He really sees the world through the eyes of a newborn child. He can’t encounter anything without having to know how it works. This thirst for knowing how and why things work inspire you to look differently at the world.

He underlines the importance of this several times throughout the book and especially in regards to education. At one point he joins a special advanced biology class, having no prior specific knowledge about biology. He gets a paper assigned which he reads and then has to give a presentation about in front of the class. It’s a paper about muscles, extensors and flexors which uses a cat as an example – there is one problem however; he can’t figure out where they’re located in relation to nerves or the cat itself for that matter. So he finds a “map of the cat” as he calls it and starts his presentation by outlining where all extensors, flexors and nerves are located on the cat. The class interrupts him and says: “Stop, stop – we know that already!” To which he answers:

Oh! – you do? Then no wonder I can catch up with you so fast after you’ve had 4 years of biology.

They has wasted time learning and trying to remember facts that they could have looked up in maximum two minutes time… This analogy is just so important! Why waste your time learning things that you can look up in two minutes? Why not save your precious memory space for knowledge that can actually help you understand both problems and the world in general. Later he also highlights a potential error with this type of learning because it makes you remember certain words, but not understand the underlying principles. This is great for passing an exam but bad for actually applying your knowledge to anything useful.

He also spends quite a lot of time explaining the importance of and joy of teaching others which to him was one of the most important activities of his life. He was by no means a guy that wanted to brag about his knowledge but at the same time he wasn’t afraid to speak up and display how knowledgeable he was either. Applying his curiosity of how things worked made him incredibly capable of applying his knowledge across all domains. This philosophy is exactly what he wanted to come across as he taught classes and had students challenge his beliefs. His Lectures on Physics has for a long time been on my wishlist and has just been amplified by the reading of this book – if only they weren’t so damn expensive!

I could write and highlight so many important points from this book. There are invaluable advice on learning, science, living; even entrepreneurship and how to deal with women – which I found especially amusing and surprising to find in this book. There are so many reasons to pick up this book and the fact that it at times makes you laugh out loud just adds to this.

But to finish of, if you are still not convinced, aren’t sure who this Mr. Feynman actually is or just haven’t seen this before, then please watch this interview with him:

Benjamin Franklin biographies – which should you read?

I can’t recall who led me onto Benjamin Franklin(B.F.). It might have been Ryan Holiday or Tim Ferriss, apart from these two however a lot of historical leaders have claimed to either read or always carried along The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. For this reason I bought it several years ago.

I do not know exactly what I had expected, but I know that I felt like it did not deliver. Boy was I disappointed. I think I struggled through the first 10-20 pages, but just could not grasp how so many people could have said good things about this book – I felt like I learned nothing. I aborted mission and put it back on the shelf.

Several years later I once again somehow came across something about B.F., but this time the recommendation was to read the biography by Walter Isaacson Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. I hesitated – having my last encounter with a B.F. book easily recalled it was kind of a struggle to get myself convinced, but after having read quite a lot of reviews i found a used example and bought it.

It could be a combination of lower expectations and perhaps even my own maturity, but this time a B.F. book did not disappoint. Walter Isaacson really writes in an engaging style and makes the reader feel really familiar with this fun, strange and entertaining character. I finished it with ease and was somewhat disappointed of having to put it back on the shelf – it was so engaging.

After having finished it, I picked up the autobiography once again. This time I went through it much more easily. But I also felt far more familiar with the content as much of it had been explained in the Walter Isaacson book.

Having now read both, I would recommend the one by Walter Isaacson. I think the disappointment with the autobiography comes from the fact that I expected more from it. I expected something in the lines of Meditations from Marcus Aurelius – a book full of good advice on how to live your life – but the autobiography is in many ways just what it says on the box – a biography. You can still learn from it, but I honestly believe that you are better of reading Walter Isaacson. I felt like most of what was covered in the autobiography was also covered by Walter Isaacson, only in a more engaging way.

B.F. sure is a colorful character and there are a lot of takeaways from his way of life. And also a lot of strange paradoxes and lessons on how not to live your own life. What you can’t take away from him however is how much value he gave as a “founding father” of America. His cunning way of maneuvering public life and politics is fascinating, while he to some extend could be accused of totally lacking in the private/family life.

Draw your own conclusions, but I can really recommend the biography by Walter Isaacson, whether you know anything about B.F. or not. It’s a fascinating and engaging read. Now I really want to get through Walter Isaacsons biography on Steve Jobs, which I have on the shelf, and will be ordering his biography Einstein: His Life and Universe very soon – his writing style really engages me.

The best book on relationships

I have mentioned The Mastery of Love: A Practical Guide to the Art of Relationship before, back then just referencing almost an entire chapter called The Magical Kitchen and recommending people to read the entire book. But recently I re-read it and realized how much it had actually impacted my view on all types of relationships; friends, family, lovers etc. It dawned on me that this might be one of the most influential book I have ever read, even though, if you have asked me before I re-read it this time, I probably wouldn’t have mentioned it.

But it sure deserves a good shout-out once again. It CAN change the way you view and handle all relationships in your life. It is not a book like Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion  or How to Win Friends & Influence People – which both are amazing books – but they tend to focus on your ability to make an impact on other people, whereas The Mastery Of Love focuses more on yourself, distills feelings and worries into what is your responsibility and more importantly what is not.

From page 66 in the book:

In every relationship there are two halves of the relationship. One half is you, and the other half is your son, your daughter, your father, your mother, your friends, your partner. Of those halves, you are only responsible for your half; you are not responsible for the other half. It doesn’t matter how close you think you are, or how strongly you think you love, there is no way you can be responsible for what is inside another person’s head. You can never know what that person feels, what that person believes, all the assumptions she makes. You don’t know anything about that person. That is the truth, but what do we do? We try to be responsible for the other half, and that is why relationships in hell are based on fear, drama, and the war of control.

 

It can’t be said much more precisely. You can only control your own reactions, never anybody else’s. I can complain all day long that my partner does not do x,y,z but at the end of the day I cannot, and more importantly should not try to control my partner, I can only control my own reactions to her behavior. If x,y,z is something I cannot live with, then guess what – we probably shouldn’t be together. You can easily make the decision way more complicated, which a lot of people do, but at the end of the day it is all up to you. How much self-abuse will you take. If something in one of your relationships nags you so much, then make a decision whether this person should stay in your life. You can and should tell the person how you feel, but you can’t expect them to change anything. In the opposite scenario it works the same way. You can make all the sacrifices you want to please and impress the other person, but you can’t expect them to feel anything special. That is their half of the relationship. If they act selfish, rude or anything else, you can’t expect to change it. What you can do is walk away and respect your own happiness.

I could try to distill the information from the book even more, but I just feel like I will be doing the book a disservice. It is a cheap and short book. You can probably read it in 2-4 hours, and as written above I strongly believe it can change the relationships in your life to the better. It is easily one of the most influential book I ever read! Just started reading another of Don Miguel Ruiz’ books called The Four Agreements and so far it has not disappointed one bit, he just writes in such clear language – at least for me. But that book might find its way into another blog post. For now my advice which of course I cannot expect you to follow is: pick up The Mastery Of Love!

Stoic books: Aristotle – The Nichomachean Ethics

I have seen this recommended over and over again, and had kind of been looking forward to getting started with it. Having read book by Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, this was going to be my first encounter with Aristotle.

To cut the story kind of short, I was somewhat disappointed. I do not know if this is because I got a ”wrong” edition of it – mine being translated by David Ross. But it was just so extremely hard to read. As I have pointed out in this post I always read these kinds of books with a pen in my hand and underline or mark whenever I stumble upon something useful and then write page-numbers at the back of the book to make it easier to find things I found interesting, when picking up the book at a later occasion.

Judging by the number of page-numbers written in the back I can sort of see the tendency. From page 13 to 24 seems pretty good, then only consistently again from 65-76 and then a long and tedious pause all the way to Book VIII that starts on page 142 where it begins to be really good and remains so pretty much till the end.

But it just keeps nit-picking at little details, shining light on things from so many useless angles that it just get’s so hard to keep reading. It is a really short book, only about 200 pages but, the amount of useless things that are discussed in the middle of the book, just makes it feel like a marathon.

Usually I would abandon ship, if the book keeps being uninteresting after several sittings, but in exactly this case I am rather glad I stayed as the last part, starting from Book VIII is actually really really good.

The Nicomachean Ethics (Oxford World’s Classics)

But as my personal advice, I would probably stick to the start of the book and then jump to Book VIII on friendship and keep with it to the end. If you have had a totally different experience with the book then I would love to hear it, perhaps I was just unlucky with my translation, as I have been before the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.