Bertrand Russell

“The world is full of things that are tragic or comic, heroic or bizarre or surprising, and those who fail to be interested in the spectacle that it offers are forgoing one of the privileges that life has to offer.”
– Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell was not only one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century but was also one of the most prolific. He published a book a year for over sixty years, ranging from the extremely technical and influential Principia Mathematica, to those written for a mass audience such as The Conquest of Happiness. It is this latter book, published in 1930 and in which Russell discusses the causes of happiness and unhappiness in individuals, that I want to highlight today.

It should be noted from the outset that this is not an exhaustive meditation on the subject. As Russell acknowledges in the preface, “no profound philosophy or deep erudition will be found in the following pages. I have aimed only at putting together some remarks which are inspired by what I hope is common sense.”

Many of his observations and statements throughout the book, then, will not strike the levelheaded reader as terribly remarkable. This is not to say the work is trite or that it cannot be read profitably by those seeking wisdom. Just don’t crack open the covers expecting Russell’s genius to reveal the elixir of happiness.

Quite a variety of topics are touched upon. Family, work, hobbies, zest, envy, fatigue… In each of these Russell applies a sensible rationalism. But though the subject matter is of a timeless nature – and the principles he affirms largely are too – one can’t help but notice the numerous passages littered throughout the book in which Russell speaks to issues which have very little relevance for today’s world. The primacy of religious moralism and the burdensome sense of sin that occupied the minds of people back then, for example.

The vantage point afforded the modern reader also reveals attitudes towards women which today seem antiquated. It is for reasons such as this that Daniel Dennett, in his introduction, calls The Conquest of Happiness a “fascinating time capsule,” noting that “a good way to read the book is to consider it a temporal telescope that allows us to see how far we’ve come.” Lest I give the wrong impression about Russell, Dennett acknowledges the British philosopher “deserves some of the credit for moving our moral imagination out of obsolete orthodoxies into better territory.”

And so with that brief little introduction, please find below some of my favorite excerpts from the book.

On Success

“Success can only be one ingredient in happiness, and is too dearly purchased if all the other ingredients have been sacrificed to obtain it.”

On Decisiveness

“It is amazing how much both happiness and efficiency can be increased by the cultivation of an orderly mind, which thinks about a matter adequately at the right time rather than inadequately at all times. When a difficult or worrying decision has to be reached, as soon as all the data are available, give the matter your best and make your decision; having made the decision, do not revise it unless some new fact comes to your knowledge. Nothing is so exhausting as indecision, and nothing is so futile.”

On Unfulfilled Desires

“To be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness.”

On Envy and Contentment

“The man who has double my salary is doubtless tortured by the thought that some one else in turn has twice as much as he has, and so it goes on. If you desire glory, you may envy Napoleon. But Napoleon envied Caesar, Caesar envied Alexander, and Alexander, dare I say, envied Hercules, who never existed. You cannot therefore get away from envy by means of success alone, for there will always be in history or legend some person even more successful than you are. You can only get away from envy by enjoying the pleasures that comes your way, by doing the work that you have to do, and by avoiding comparisons with those whom you imagine, perhaps quite falsely, to be more fortunate than yourself.”

On Living Your Own Life

“I think that in general, apart from expert opinion, there is too much respect paid to the opinion of others, both in greater matters and in small ones. One should respect public opinion in so far as is necessary to avoid starvation and to keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny, and is likely to interfere with happiness in all kinds of ways.”

“There is of course no point in deliberately flouting public opinion; this is still to be under its domination, though in a topsy-turvy way. But to be genuinely indifferent to it is both a strength and a source of happiness. And a society composed of men and women who do not bow too much to the conventions is a far more interesting society than one in which all behave alike.”

On Affection

“Affection in the sense of a genuine reciprocal interest of two persons in each other, not solely as means to each other’s good but rather as a combination having a common good, is one of the most important elements of real happiness, and the man whose ego is so enclosed within steel walls that this enlargement of it is impossible misses the best that life has to offer, however successful he may be in his career.”

“The best type of affection is reciprocally life-giving: each receives affection with joy and gives it without effort, and each finds the whole world more interesting in consequence of the existence of this reciprocal happiness.”

On Love

“Love is to be valued because it enhances all the best pleasures, such as music, and sunrise in mountains, and the sea under the full moon. A man who has never enjoyed beautiful things in the company of a woman whom he loved has not experienced to the full the magic power of which such things are capable.”

“Of all forms of caution, caution in love is perhaps most fatal to true happiness.”

My Favorite Quote from the Book

“A man who has once perceived, however temporarily and however briefly, what makes greatness of soul, can no longer be happy if he allows himself to be petty, self-seeking, troubled by trivial misfortunes, dreading what fate may have in store for him. The man capable of greatness of soul will open wide the windows of his mind, letting the winds blow freely upon it from every portion of the universe. He will see himself and life and the world as truly as our human limitations will permit; realizing the brevity and minuteness of human life, he will realize also that in individual minds is concentrated whatever of value the known universe contains. And he will see that the man whose mind mirrors the world becomes in a sense as great as the world. In emancipation from the fears that beset the salve of circumstance he will experience a profound joy, and through all the vicissitudes of his outward life he will remain in the depths of his being a happy man.”

5 Elements

In 1818, the French writer Marie-Henri Beyle, better known under his pen name Stendhal, met a Milanese woman named Mathilde Viscontini Dembowski. She was twenty-eight years old, beautiful, and very active in the politics of her day. Stendhal immediately fell in love with her, but despite his efforts at courtship, she rejected him. The friendship that thus ensued was a cool one, and Mathilde kept Stendhal at a distance.

But this did little to affect Stendhal’s feelings. Try as he might, this unrequited love haunted his every thought.

Then, in 1819, Stendhal happened upon, in his words, a “brilliant idea.” He would write a book on love, expressing all that he felt for Mathilde.

The result of Stendhal’s efforts did not exactly take the world by storm. His book, simply titled Love  (or in French: De l’Amour) was chided by critics, ridiculed by his publisher, and generally ignored by the reading public.

But to some extent, this can be explained by the confusion about what Stendhal was attempting to accomplish. In the introduction to the 2004 Penguin edition, Jean Stewart and B.C.J.G. Knight provide further background:

Undoubtedly De l’Amour is on first acquaintance a disconcerting book; it seems a hotch-potch of analysis and anecdote, argument, apophthegm, and poetry. Some critics have deplored its lack of order, even of that instinctive organic order that underlies some of Stendhal’s least ‘composed’ books. Most of his contemporaries were completely baffled; the publisher, Mongie, complained bitterly about the unsold copies: ‘They must be sacred, for nobody will touch them.’

The book’s failure can be explained in part by the fact that not even Stendhal’s friends were aware of the key to it: his love for Mathilde Dembowski, about which he spoke to no one, but which obsessed him unhappily for years. He wrote this strange and profoundly perceptive book partly to explain his feelings to her, partly in an attempt to exorcise, by dissecting, a hopeless passion. It thus displays the two conflicting sides of his nature—the deeply sensitive and the cooly analytical.

These aspects are indeed present in everything he wrote, but in the great novels they are fused miraculously, whereas in De l’Amour they are in somewhat uneasy juxtaposition. The effort he made to control his feeling self was too great; these experiences were too close, too traumatic for lucidity to prevail. Emotion was hardly ‘recollected in tranquility'; even when he was correcting the proofs of De l’Amour he wept: ‘I nearly went crazy,’ he said in Souvenirs d’égotisme.

So these are the circumstances and the history of the book which must be kept in mind when reading it.

Something else that is quite poignant about the book are the anecdotes with which Stendhal illustrates his discussion of love. He refers to events and acquaintances of his day, but it was only after his death, when historians got access to his own personal copies of his book and could read his marginal notes, that it was discovered that many of the situations he discussed were not about those he knew—they were about himself and Mathilde. Stendhal masked his own intimate feelings by using the names of other people, with the full knowledge that only Mathilde herself would recognize the incidents he described. In this cryptic way, Stendhal could confess what he was unable to say in person.

The first half of the book is definitely stronger than the second. It drags on a little towards the end in my opinion, but overall I really enjoyed it.

I think Stendhal says a lot of things in the book that people will find speaks to them. He touches on a lot of truths, and it is for this reason that I thought I’d share a selection of passages that stood out to me.

“In love, unlike most other passions, the recollection of what you have had and lost is always better than what you can hope for in the future.”
 
“Love is like a fever which comes and goes quite independently of the will.” 
 
“[L]ove is the strongest of the passions. In all the others, desires have to adapt themselves to cold reality, but in love realities obligingly rearrange themselves to conform with desire.” 
 
“From the moment he falls in love even the wisest man no longer sees anything as it really is.” 
 
“The reverie of love defies all attempts to record it.”
 
“Even the most ingenuous women, if they have any imagination, are sensitive and suspicious. They may be mistrustful without knowing it; after all, life has been full of disillusionment!”
 
“Before the nature of an object can produce its proper sensation in them, they have blindly invested it from afar with imaginary charm which they conjure up inexhaustibly within themselves. As they come closer they see the experience not as it is, but as they have made it. They take delight in their own selves in the mistaken belief that they are enjoying the experience. But sooner or later they get tired or making the running and discover that the object of their adoration is not returning the ball; then their infatuation is dispelled, and the slight to their self-respect makes them react unfairly against the thing they once overrated.” 
 
“When heaven has endowed you with a soul made for love, not to love is to deprive yourself and others of great happiness.”
 
“Glances are the big guns of the virtuous coquette; everything can be conveyed in a look, and yet that look can always be denied, because it cannot be quoted word for word.”
 
“[T]ears are the ultimate smile.”
 
“I have just re-read a hundred pages of this essay. I seem to have given a remarkably poor idea of true love, the love which pervades the whole consciousness and fills it with pictures, some wildly happy, some hopeless, but all sublime; the love which blinds one to everything else in the world. I am at a loss to express what I can see so clearly; I have never been so painfully aware of my lack of talent. In what intelligible terms can I convey the simplicity of gesture and bearing, the deep earnestness, the look which expresses the precise nuance of feeling so exactly and so candidly, and above all, I repeat, the ineffable concern about everything but the woman one loves.” 
 
“In love, I have the feeling that boundless happiness beyond my wildest dreams is just round the corner, waiting only for a word or smile.” 
 
“The whole art of loving seems to me, in a nutshell, to consist in saying precisely what the degree of intoxication requires at any given moment. In other words, you must listen to your heart.” 
 
“I should have been sorry to reach forty and to be past the age of loving, without having experienced passion deeply. I should have felt the bitter and degrading pain of realizing too late that I had been tricked into letting life go by without living.” 
 
“The difficulty of forgetting a woman with whom you have been happy is that the imagination tirelessly continues to evoke and embellish moments of the past.” 
 
“Love is an exquisite flower, but it needs courage to pluck it on the brink of dreadful precipice. Besides ridicule, love is always haunted by the desperate possibility that the beloved will forsake it, leaving nothing but a lifelong dead blank.” 
 
“It is improper to love a woman whom one would be ashamed to desire in marriage.”
 
“When one has just seen the woman one loves, the sight of every other woman damages the vision and physically hurts the eyes.”
 
“A sign of love has just struck me; it is when all the pleasures and all the pains attributable to all the other passions and all the other needs of a man cease abruptly to affect him.”

Paul Graham, besides being known for his pioneering work creating web-based software and co-founding the illustrious seed accelerator Y Combinator, is also known for penning an assortment of articles that are a must-read in the startup/tech community. He’s a very insightful essayist and writes with the kind of authority that can only come from reflecting on many years spent ‘in the trenches’. He covers a range of topics in his articles, but I’d like to highlight one in particular entitled “How to Do What You Love,” as I think he offers a lot of great advice.

I’ve cut-out some excerpts below, but let me recommend that you head over to Graham’s site to read the original article because if you’re interested in the topic (and who isn’t), it’s worth reading in full.

We have been misled about the realities of work

By the time [kids] reach an age to think about what they’d like to do, they have been thoroughly misled about the idea of loving one’s work. School has trained them to regard work as an unpleasant duty. Having a job is said to be even more onerous than schoolwork. And yet all the adults claim to like what they do. You can’t blame kids for thinking “I am not like these people; I am not suited to this world.” What a recipe for alienation.

[Kids have] been told three lies: the stuff they’ve been taught to regard as work in school is not real work; grownup work is not (necessarily) worse than schoolwork; and many of the adults around them are lying when they say they like what they do.

How much are you supposed to like what you do?

Unless you know that, you don’t know when to stop searching. And if, like most people, you underestimate it, you’ll tend to stop searching too early. You’ll end up doing something chosen for you by your parents, or the desire to make money, or prestige—or sheer inertia.

Here’s an upper bound: Do what you love doesn’t mean, do what you would like to do most this second. Even Einstein probably had moments when he wanted to have a cup of coffee, but told himself he ought to finish what he was working on first.

As a lower bound, you have to like your work more than any unproductive pleasure. You have to like what you do enough that the concept of “spare time” seems mistaken. Which is not to say you have to spend all your time working. You can only work so much before you get tired and start to screw up. Then you want to do something else—even something mindless. But you don’t regard this time as the prize and the time you spend working as the pain you endure to earn it. If your work is not your favorite thing to do, you’ll have terrible problems with procrastination. You’ll have to force yourself to work, and when you resort to that the results are distinctly inferior.

Do something you think is cool

To be happy I think you have to be doing something you not only enjoy, but admire. You have to be able to say, at the end, wow, that’s pretty cool. This doesn’t mean you have to make something. If you learn how to hang glide, or to speak a foreign language fluently, that will be enough to make you say, for a while at least, wow, that’s pretty cool. What there has to be is a test.

And that you would do for free

The test of whether people love what they do is whether they’d do it even if they weren’t paid for it—even if they had to work at another job to make a living. How many corporate lawyers would do their current work if they had to do it for free, in their spare time, and take day jobs as waiters to support themselves?

Don’t worry about prestige

Prestige is just fossilized inspiration. If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious. Plenty of things we now consider prestigious were anything but at first. Jazz comes to mind—though almost any established art form would do. So just do what you like, and let prestige take care of itself.

Finding work you love is not easy

It’s hard to find work you love; it must be, if so few do. So don’t underestimate this task. And don’t feel bad if you haven’t succeeded yet. In fact, if you admit to yourself that you’re discontented, you’re a step ahead of most people, who are still in denial. If you’re surrounded by colleagues who claim to enjoy work that you find contemptible, odds are they’re lying to themselves. Not necessarily, but probably.

Sometimes jumping from one sort of work to another is a sign of energy, and sometimes it’s a sign of laziness. Are you dropping out, or boldly carving a new path? You often can’t tell yourself. Plenty of people who will later do great things seem to be disappointments early on, when they’re trying to find their niche.

Do a good job and always produce

Is there some test you can use to keep yourself honest? One is to try to do a good job at whatever you’re doing, even if you don’t like it. Then at least you’ll know you’re not using dissatisfaction as an excuse for being lazy. Perhaps more importantly, you’ll get into the habit of doing things well.

Another test you can use is: always produce. For example, if you have a day job you don’t take seriously because you plan to be a novelist, are you producing? Are you writing pages of fiction, however bad? As long as you’re producing, you’ll know you’re not merely using the hazy vision of the grand novel you plan to write one day as an opiate. The view of it will be obstructed by the all too palpably flawed one you’re actually writing.

“Always produce” is also a heuristic for finding the work you love. If you subject yourself to that constraint, it will automatically push you away from things you think you’re supposed to work on, toward things you actually like. “Always produce” will discover your life’s work the way water, with the aid of gravity, finds the hole in your roof.

Don’t let the “impossible” constrain you

If you’re ambitious you have to… make a conscious effort to keep your ideas about what you want from being contaminated by what seems possible. It’s painful to keep them apart, because it’s painful to observe the gap between them. So most people pre-emptively lower their expectations.

How to get paid to do what you love

There’s another sense of “not everyone can do work they love” that’s all too true, however. One has to make a living, and it’s hard to get paid for doing work you love. There are two routes to that destination:

The organic route: as you become more eminent, gradually increase the parts of your job that you like at the expense of those you don’t.

The two-job route: to work at things you don’t like to get money to work on things you do.

Which route should you take? That depends on how sure you are of what you want to do, how good you are at taking orders, how much risk you can stand, and the odds that anyone will pay (in your lifetime) for what you want to do. If you’re sure of the general area you want to work in and it’s something people are likely to pay you for, then you should probably take the organic route. But if you don’t know what you want to work on, or don’t like to take orders, you may want to take the two-job route, if you can stand the risk.

Expect a struggle

Whichever route you take, expect a struggle. Finding work you love is very difficult. Most people fail. Even if you succeed, it’s rare to be free to work on what you want till your thirties or forties. But if you have the destination in sight you’ll be more likely to arrive at it. If you know you can love work, you’re in the home stretch, and if you know what work you love, you’re practically there.

For those fortunate enough to discover their calling and who are prepared to dedicate themselves fully to doing what they love, new heights of accomplishment may be attainable; particularly if one adheres to certain principles. On this, see Robert Greene’s book Mastery (in which Paul Graham, as a matter of fact, is featured).

5 Elements

“The root of success in everything, from academics to business to leadership to personal relationships and everything else,” say the esteemed mathematics professors Edward Burger and Michael Starbird, “is thinking—whether it’s thinking disguised as intuition or as good values or as decision making or problem solving or creativity, it’s all thinking.”

To the extent that we want to succeed in some endeavor—or in life in general—we would do well, then, to improve how we think.

Doing this efficaciously may in fact be easier than first imagined. According to Burger and Starbird, “the basic methods for thinking more clearly, more innovatively, more effectively are fundamentally the same in all areas of life [and these methods] can be described, taught, and learned.” Expounding these principles is the subject of their 2012 book The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking.

Though only a slight volume (it numbers just 168 pages), the book is packed with powerful ideas. It’s very well written and, unlike others in the genre where it’s not unusual for the author to quickly run out of steam and then start to waffle, Burger and Starbird do not belabor any points. Rather, they have distilled effective thinking into a set of core ideas, offering practical advice about how to incorporate them into our lives, and then often illustrating these points with reference to the habits of a diverse range of individuals such as Ernest Hemingway, Niels Bohr, Galileo Galilei, and Pablo Picasso.

So what are the 5 elements? Burger and Starbird give a summary in their introduction:

  1. Understand Deeply
    Don’t face complex issues head-on; first understand simple ideas deeply. Clear the clutter and expose what is really important. Be brutally honest about what you know and don’t know. Then see what’s missing, identifying the gaps, and fill them in. Let go of bias, prejudice, and preconceived notions. There are degrees to understanding (it’s not just a yes-or-no proposition) and you can always heighten yours. Rock-solid understanding is the foundation for success.
  2. Make Mistakes
    Fail to succeed. Intentionally get it wrong to inevitably get it even more right. Mistakes are great teachers—they highlight unforeseen opportunities and holes in your understanding. They also show you which way to turn next, and they ignite your imagination.
  3. Raise Questions
    Constantly create questions to clarify and extend your understanding. What’s the real question? Working on the wrong questions can waste a lifetime. Ideas are in the air—the right questions will bring them out and help you see connections that otherwise would have been invisible.
  4. Follow the Flow of Ideas
    Look back to see where ideas came from and then look ahead to discover where those ideas may lead. A new ideas is a beginning, not an end. Ideas are rare—milk them. Following the consequences of small ideas can result in big payoffs.
  5. Change
    The unchanging element is change—by mastering the first four elements, you can change the way you think and learn. You can always improve, grow, and extract more out of your education, yourself, and the way you live your life. Change is the universal constant that allows you to get the most out of living and learning.

Each chapter consists, then, of an expansion and elaboration of the above ideas.

I really enjoyed reading the book, particularly as all throughout one comes across pithy and rousing statements on a whole host of topics:

5 Elements of Effective Thinking

On Failure

The mindset that mistakes are poisonous often freezes us into inaction. If we have the healthier attitude that failure is a potent teacher and a scheduled stop along the road to success, then we find ourselves liberated to move forward sooner, because mistakes are actions we definitely can take at any time. If you’re stuck, a mistake can be just the thing to unstick you.

On Biases

Whenever you “see” an issue or “understand” a concept, be conscious of the lens through which you’re viewing the subject. You should assume you’re introducing bias…[A]cknowledging and then letting go of bias and prejudice can lead you to see what’s truly there and (often more importantly) to discover what’s missing.

On Extending Ideas

Take a good idea from any arena—work, society, or personal life. It need not be an idea you yourself originated. Now engage with that idea and extend it. The key is not to wonder whether the idea has extensions; it does. Your challenge is to find them.

On Looking Back to Look Forward

Whenever you face an issue—whether an area of study or a decision about a future path—consider what came before. Wonder how the issue at hand landed in front of you. Ask where and what it was yesterday, a month ago, a year ago, and so forth. Everything, everyone has a history and evolves. Acknowledging that reality will allow you to generate new insights as well as create fruitful directions in which to move forward.

On the Examined Life

What you know most about in this world are the familiar objects, actions, and ideas that make up the vast majority of your life experience. But what you don’t do regularly is examine those common features of your life with a probing mind. You can intentionally look at familiar objects, actions, ideas, and experiences unusually deeply. And when you do, your voyage of discovery will begin. The familiar is full of unseen depth and wonder. Clear away the distractions, see what’s actually there, and make the invisible visible.

For those looking to enhance and improve their reasoning abilities, I highly recommend The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking.

sun water

In 2000, after more than 20 years spent working the night clubs, comedian Robert Schimmel’s time had finally come. His hour-long special for HBO was a hit, he had just won the Stand-Up Comic of the Year, and his very own prime-time sitcom for Fox had been greenlighted, all set to debut that fall following The Simpsons.

But then, with the discovery of a small bump in his armpit, everything changed.

Diagnosed with stage III non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, he was told he must immediately undergo chemotherapy. “If we didn’t catch this now, now as in today,” his doctor told him, “you would be dead in six months.”

And so, with that, his life was turned upside down. Professionally, the sitcom was dropped and his burgeoning career and fame put on the backburner. Henceforth, all his attention and energy was to be devoted to just struggling to survive.

Schimmel documents all of this in a very honest, forthright, and yes, funny book entitled Cancer on $5 a Day (Chemo Not Included): How Humor Got Me Through the Toughest Journey of My Life.

schimmel2

Firstly, for those who have never seen any of Robert Schimmel’s stand-up, I recommend checking him out. He’s hilarious. But be warned, he’s dirty. And I mean really dirty. Here he is performing at Dangerfield’s in 1988. And here is his 2000 HBO special. Those depraved souls who find themselves laughing can discover other clips on YouTube.

Okay, now back to the book.

Of the things I got from reading it, what I found most valuable were the passages where Schimmel discusses those existential concerns that tend to be brought to the surface when one’s life hangs in the balance:

“When you’re staring eyeball to eyeball with the Grim Reaper, you’d better feel as if you’ve dealt with all the important stuff. What’s the point of going to your doom with a bunch of loose-ends or unfulfilled dreams lying around? When else am I going to deal with my change, if not now? What am I waiting for?”

We all recognize that we will inevitably die at some point in the future. But the fact that we don’t know how or when results in death being an abstraction. For those diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, however, grappling with thoughts of limited tomorrows can give life an urgency and seriousness that tends to be lacking in the rest of us:

“[T]hat’s what cancer does. It shakes you up, then sifts out all the unimportant crap and leaves you facing only the highest priorities. Sounds eerie, but it’s really not. It’s what we should be doing every day. It’s how we should live our lives. It’s how I vow to live mine from now on.”

Schimmel goes on, saying that, “one thing I’ve learned [is that] you never know what the future holds. You have to give yourself permission to live life to its fullest.”

And then in another passage: I try to live in each moment, take each day as it comes. Today was a good day. I feel pretty good right now. That’s all I’ve got. Today.”

Now none of this is new, we’ve all heard sage advice like this expressed before. But does such guidance really inform our daily living? If it doesn’t, why not? Is it that we can only take stock of what’s truly valuable in life under the shadow of death?

schimmel1

Schimmel is very candid throughout the book about the ways in which chemotherapy wreaks havoc on the functioning of the human body. Frequently these stories are related with humor (his exchange with the merkin salesman while in hospital, for instance, is laugh-out-loud funny), but all throughout you don’t lose sight of just what a scourge it must be to be afflicted by cancer:

“Cancer beats the crap out of you. It pounds you with non-stop body shots to your ribs, chest, throat, gut, and head. You are left breathless, afraid to move, because even the slightest motion sends you reeling.”

With each round of chemotherapy life became increasingly more difficult, until he reached a point where every task required a Herculean effort. Just walking to the mailbox and back became something to rejoice about with all the enthusiasm of an Olympic gold medalist. The result of this is that cancer “makes you redefine success,” according to Schimmel. It causes you to ask: “What do I need? That’s the question. Not what do I need to have, to attain, to possess. What do I need to live?

At the end of the book, Schimmel provides a list of simple life lessons he took from the experience of undergoing chemotherapy:

  • Keep your sense of humor, no matter what.
  • Create a purpose, a focus, and never take your eyes off it.
  • Figure out what’s important to you. What’s really important.
  • Be open. Try anything. You never know.
  • Love. You need love. Tons of it. A shitload of love.
  • Sometimes you need to be selfish.
  • You need support. You’re in this alone, but you can’t fight it alone.
  • The most precious thing you have is time. Don’t waste it.
  • You’re only human.
  • And, finally, once again, laugh.

So the book has a happy ending—Schimmel’s cancer goes into remission and he gets a new lease on life, against all medical odds he has two children with the love of his life, and he returns to comedy, recording an hour-long special in 2009 (in which his experience overcoming cancer features prominently).

Sadly, however, in 2010 Robert Schimmel passed away tragically in a car crash. I knew this going into the book, which for me added a poignancy to his story and a fervor to his counsel to embrace life and seize the day.

What Does Science Have To Say About The Good Life?

For thousands of years, religion and philosophy have provided people with guidance on how to lead harmonious and desirable lives. But in recent years, with the rise of positive psychology, science has begun to encroach upon this territory in a significant way.

Just what is positive psychology?

Christopher Peterson, one of the pioneers of the field, defines it—quite boldly, I think—as “the scientific study of what makes life most worth living.” He goes on to say that “it is a call for psychological science and practice to be as concerned with strength as with weakness; as interested in building the best things in life as in repairing the worst; and as concerned with making the lives of normal people fulfilling as with healing pathology.”

How successful has this endeavor been? According to Peterson, “positive psychology will rise or fall on the science on which it is based.” And so far, “the science is impressive.”

In his 2013 book Pursuing the Good Life: 100 Reflections on Positive Psychology, Peterson gives a broad overview of this new branch of psychology, and with reference to the latest scientific studies, offers up many practical suggestions about how we can all get more out of life.

So, what are some examples?

Other People Matter

A major factor, one that Peterson brings up again and again, is the importance of other people. Whether they’re our partner, family, friends, co-workers, or members of our community, human beings are social creatures and so our fellows naturally play an integral role in making life worth living. We should be grateful, then, for those who positively affect our lives, and we should make an effort to let them know it too. In fact, studies have shown that “gratitude is one of the strengths of character most robustly associated with life satisfaction and all the good things that follow from that.”

Have a Passion

In several of his reflections, Peterson emphasizes the desirability of having a passion. Not only does a passion enrich our lives from the pure enjoyment it brings us, but it also plays an important role in molding and defining our character and sense of self. Peterson distinguishes between healthy and unhealthy passions, however, noting that they must be pursued in such a way that they’re sustainable. But to this, he adds that it’s “irrelevant” if others may think we’re being irrational in spending great time and energy on something they themselves find perplexing. “After all,” says Peterson, “passions are personal and what matters…is whether they make sense to us.”

Savor the Small Things

In pursuing the highly significant things in life, though, we should never forget the great joy and satisfaction that can so easily come from all the small things. Though we may often pass over them without much attention, they matter too. Whether it’s something as mundane as a warm shower or a lunch time meal, we can get more out of them if we desire. One of the ways, according to the research, is to focus more closely and undertake them without distractions.

Pursuing the Good Life

Cultivating positive traits and experiences and relationships have many chapters devoted to them, but Peterson acknowledges that “positive psychologists sometimes worry that the field will be seen as a celebration of shallow pleasures and thus be dismissed as another version of hedonism. So, positive psychologists emphasize that the field encompasses a variety of phenomena involved in a life well lived.” Peterson is true to this and, as such, spends a significant portion of the book on the role played by “enabling institutions”—things like families, workplaces, schools and sports—and the positive impact they have on individuals and communities.

Many interesting questions are addressed in Pursuing the Good Life, such as:

  • Does it matter where we live?
  • Should we focus on building our strengths or correcting our weaknesses?
  • Is greatness something innate or can it be grown?
  • What has a greater effect on our happiness—our biology or our psychology?
  • Do extrinsic rewards undermine intrinsic motivation?

One thing I appreciated about the book is that Peterson is humble with respect to the science and its implications. He recognizes its limitations and doesn’t see positive psychology as a panacea for all that ails humanity. He acknowledges, for example, that there can be vast cultural differences when it comes to what makes life worth living and, though a great amount of positive psychology research emanates from the U.S., Peterson argues that it should not be a U.S. export-driven industry. There are lessons to be learned about the good life from all cultures and all the world’s peoples.

In several other chapters, Peterson touches on the dangers of using happiness research for public policy purposes. For example, even if it were possible to capture in any meaningful sense the aggregate happiness of an entire population, we would still be stuck with incentive problems. If government funding, say, were to be tied to how unhappy the inhabitants of a city or town were—and if happiness research were to be gauged through survey data—would we not expect people to underreport their true satisfaction with life given that they have an express interest in doing so?

As it is simply a collection of short articles, Pursuing the Good Life does not offer a systematic treatment of positive psychology. But this, though, makes it an easy read, particularly as Christopher Peterson writes in a breezy and good-humored style. For those who are curious about the subject, then, this interesting and thoughtful account about what science has to say about the good life may be worth reading.

Categorical Imperative

This is the final part of a Three-Part series on Viktor Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning”

It’s a truism that every moment in life presents us with unique circumstances that will never again be repeated. The people we encounter, the activities to which we devote our time, the circumstances we find ourselves in—all of these things are imbued with potential meaning that can be actualized if  we so desire it.

Frankl asks us to consider: “is not this transitoriness a reminder that challenges us to make the best possible use of each moment in our lives?”

It’s certainly easy to acknowledge an admonition such as this, silently saying to ourselves that we should be more mindful of what is so precious and so fleeting and that we will endeavor to embrace life more fully. But when we go about our daily lives, we inevitably get caught up with minutiae and all too often fail to live according to our most deeply-held values. We fall back into our repeated patterns of behavior and later regret the actions we take, vowing that next time, next time will be different…

This brings us to the categorical imperative of logotherapy. Right before we’re to act in a way contrary to our higher-self, we should chide ourselves with the following rebuke:

“Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now.”

What a marvelous saying!

Says Frankl: “it seems to me that there is nothing which would stimulate a man’s sense of responsibleness more than this maxim, which invites him to imagine first that the present is past and, second, that the past may yet be changed and amended. Such a precept confronts him with life’s finiteness as well as the finality of what he makes out of both his life and himself.”

Life as a Movie

I’ll end my discussion with one of my favorite passages in the book. In it, Frankl gives us the perfect analogy of how to think about the meaning we attach to the events in our lives and the meaning of our life as a whole:

“To invoke an analogy, consider a movie: it consists of thousands upon thousands of individual pictures, and each of them makes sense and carries a meaning, yet the meaning of the whole film cannot be seen before its last sequence is shown. However, we cannot understand the whole film without having first understood each of its components, each of the individual pictures. Isn’t it the same with life? Doesn’t the final meaning of life, too, reveal itself, if at all, only at its end, on the verge of death? And doesn’t this final meaning, too, depend on whether or not the potential meaning of each single situation has been actualized to the best of the respective individual’s knowledge and belief?”

The Meaning of Life...At the Margin

This is Part Two of a Three-Part series on Viktor Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning”

In one noteworthy passage in Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl pleases my inner economist when he argues that the age-old question of “what is the meaning of life?” is framed incorrectly. Posed this way, it’s easy to be led into thinking that “out there” lies some definitive answer for humanity.

But what’s missing in this elusive quest, what we need to introduce, are the concepts of value subjectivity and marginal analysis.

Every one of us is different and every one of us has a distinct assortment of values. Life does not consist of a solitary moment where we must choose one of these to the exclusion of all others. Instead, life presents itself to us as a continuous stream of unique circumstances. Why, then, should we expect there to be one true and timeless answer that applies to us all at all times?

Frankl argues that in fact “the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”

He goes on to say that, “as each situation in life represents a challenge to man and presents a problem for him to solve, the question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life . . . Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as his specific opportunity to implement it.”

Choosing our Destiny

In the closing pages of the book, Frankl states that “man is ultimately self-determining. Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment.”

He continues on, saying that “every human being has the freedom to change at any instant.”

Some may gloss over an observation such as this, but I think this statement carries a lot of weight and we should recognize that it’s in fact extremely empowering. It ought to give us strength, because it says that, no matter what path we may have trod in life, no matter what baggage we may have accumulated along the way, every single one of us, right this very present moment, has within ourselves the ability to pause, change direction, and set off boldly down a new path.

Of course, the process of bringing meaningful change to fruition can take a lot of work and it may take some time for us to reach our destination. No doubt we will have fumbles and setbacks along the way and we may even need to ask for help every once in a while too.

But our ability to reflect upon ourselves, to evaluate our choices and our outlook on life, to make an honest and firm commitment to transform who we are, this always begins with an act of inner contemplation and a conscious decision—and this is open to us all.

Man's Search for Meaning

This is Part One of a Three-Part series on Viktor Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning”

In 1945, Viktor E. Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, sat down and began writing. Having been liberated from a concentration camp only a matter of months earlier, he sought to document his experiences of this unimaginable atrocity. But, unlike the other factual accounts on record, Frankl had a different goal in mind than solely recounting the horrors that he experienced. Instead, his objective in writing was to demonstrate to people that, no matter what circumstances you may find yourself in, even if it’s the most appalling suffering imaginable, life can still have value and meaning.

In just nine short days, Frankl completed his task, and the book that he had written, Man’s Search for Meaning, went on to become a worldwide best-seller.

This belief of Frankl’s —that meaning can always be found in life —was not some epiphany that came to him during his internment. In the late 1930s he had begun working on and developing “logotherapy” (from the Greek logos, denoting “meaning”), his own form of existential psychotherapy. But unlike Sigmund Freud’s will to pleasure or Alfred Adler’s will to power, logotherapy posits that the primary motivating force in our lives is the search for meaning.

The book is divided into two parts. The first consists of Frankl’s memoirs of life in a concentration camp. The second is a brief explanation of logotherapy. Both the theoretical part and Frankl’s personal account serve to bolster one another and they’re mutually reinforcing of his thesis.

I think those who choose to read Man’s Search for Meaning are sure to be richly rewarded. It’s a deeply powerful book that both inspires and challenges our conception of life and our attitude to existence.

With that, I’d now like to discuss some of the key ideas in the book that I found significant and illuminating.

Sources of Meaning & Clarifications on Suffering

Frankl sees three sources from which we can derive meaning in our lives.

First, there is meaning through work. Not work in the narrow sense of the term, but rather of setting worthwhile goals, striving towards them, and actualizing our values.

Second, there is meaning through experience. Whether it’s the experience of something (the pleasure one finds in art, music, literature, nature or beauty, for example) or someone (the enjoyment one gets from spending time with friends and family, caring for someone, experiencing love).

Finally, meaning can be found in suffering. More precisely, it is the attitude that we adopt when we find ourselves in a hopeless situation, when our character as a human being is truly tested and when we must summon all of our inner strength; it is in this that so too can meaning be found.

It’s perhaps worth clarifying Frankl’s belief about meaning and suffering lest he be misunderstood. Frankl does not argue that one must experience anguish and misery for life to have meaning. Rather, his claim is only that the presence of grim conditions need not extinguish meaning in one’s life. As Harold S. Kushner states in the Foreword, “suffering in and of itself is meaningless; we give our suffering meaning by the way in which we respond to it.” If we have the ability to put a halt to the cause of our pain, we should do so. “To suffer unnecessarily,” says Frankl, “is masochistic rather than heroic.”

But it is through suffering that we are afforded the opportunity to “bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation . . . we are challenged to change ourselves.”

I think that if one accepts Frankl’s contention regarding meaning and suffering, yielding to his exhortation is compelling indeed, particularly for those who may be diagnosed with a terminal illness. For as Frankl states: “in accepting this challenge to suffer bravely, life has a meaning up to the last moment, and it retains this meaning literally to the end.”

Clouds

For as long as I can remember I’ve struggled with writing. Sit me down with pen in hand or fingers on keys and immediately my mind freezes. Like a stubborn child, it refuses to obey instructions, and no matter how delicately or forcefully the appeals are put, it remains defiant. My mind’s thoughts are its own, and for whatever reason, it wishes them to remain unread.

The blank page, staring back at me, of course knows all of this—its participated in this tedious game since I was a child. With each passing minute its jeers grow ever louder until finally, finally, I begin to write.

Moving at a creeping pace, my pen travels across the page. But as the words sputter out, the bad taste I know all too well begins to reveal itself.

These fruit are rotten.

Disgusted, I tear the paper out and toss it aside. The tiny pleasure I get from doing this, short-lived. Because as my eyes return, I’m once again confronted by…another blank page.

Deciding to Write

But, despite the tremendous difficulty I have in converting thoughts to written words, I’ve nonetheless decided that I’m going to make a determined effort to write. This is in fact something I’ve wanted to do for some time but a number of things have held me back. Now, no longer.

So why am I doing this? What is my purpose? What do I intend on writing about?

Well, over approximately the last year there have been a number of events that have truly changed my outlook on life. To address those of a literary nature, reading the works of three individuals in particular stand out. Marcus AureliusPierre Hadot, and Jules Payot have all, in their own way, elevated my spirit to new vantage points from which to ponder some of the most important matters in life: How I view myself and my place in the world, my habits and patterns of behavior and modes of thinking, what things I value and why, what goals are worth striving for, what paths lead to happiness…

The effect of all this has been pronounced. Notably, it’s produced within me an earnest desire for improvement and change. Though in some areas this may require little modification to bring about a more ideal state of affairs, in others I recognize that it will take some time and will be extremely challenging.

To this end, I believe that writing can play a part in bringing these intentions to fruition.

I anticipate, then, that many future entries may take the form of exhortations to myself. The aim of such writings will be to curb certain tendencies, exalt others, and hold myself to account.

But more generally, I see this blog as an outlet for self-expression and a place for me to discuss whatever I may happen to find interesting (e.g. books I’m reading). By putting into words the ideas I encounter, I’m hoping that it will assist me in clarifying my thinking, in addition to implanting thoughts and reflections in memory.