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Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 4
August 14, 2011 9:38 PM   Subscribe

"Incompatibility between our big aspirations and the reality of life is bound to disappoint unless we learn to be a bit more gloomy, says Alain de Botton."
posted by joannemullen (42 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
increased wealth makes us less pessimistic
Ladies and gentleman, the Murdocian paradox.
posted by clavdivs at 9:44 PM on August 14, 2011


Is there an opinion Alain de Botton doesn't have?
posted by Nomyte at 9:52 PM on August 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


Is there an opinion Alain de Botton doesn't have?
Let him live on the dole for a few years and lets see how his opinions change.
posted by Bighappyfunhouse at 9:57 PM on August 14, 2011 [5 favorites]


I'm pretty pessimistic, and I'm usually right. But I'm able to trick myself with false hope to at least keep myself alive. I think we need a bit more of that - "Life sucks, but its better than the alternative, and it might get better".
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 10:00 PM on August 14, 2011 [2 favorites]




This article immediately made me think of E. M. Cioran.

Encountering his extreme but beautifully-articulated pessimism was, paradoxically, quite a delight. Not in an "oh, this guy's a character" kind of way, but because I felt like I was reading some of my own thoughts -- but these were thoughts I'd never have the courage to put on the page. Not so much for fear of others seeing them, but for the fear that writing them down would somehow extinguish all hope. Well, here was someone who'd already had that hope extinguished (via a vicious, tenacious, near-perpetual insomnia), so he clearly had no concerns about writing them down. At least that's how I framed my encounter with his writings. And there was an unexpected comfort and pleasure with that, a deep sigh let-out by some part of my subconscious, a deep sigh that wasn't so much related to gravity and seriousness but rather compassion and laughter. It's hard to explain.
posted by treepour at 10:19 PM on August 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


Optimists are always cruising for a disappointment. For a pessimist, all surprises are pleasant ones.
posted by warbaby at 10:21 PM on August 14, 2011 [10 favorites]


"I'm pretty pessimistic, and I'm usually right."

Confirmation bias.
posted by Pinback at 10:23 PM on August 14, 2011


"There. I'll tell you what, here's a happy little tree. He lives right there. Just sort of visualize in your mind where you think a tree would be happy and you put him in there. Just put him in there."
-Bob Ross
posted by clavdivs at 10:23 PM on August 14, 2011 [22 favorites]


No. He's got his terms all confused. Contentment is not a product of pessimism, but of lowered expectation.

To drag an example from Lovecraft's link there, if anticipation of joy upon taking a vacation provides greater joy than the vacation itself, then the thing that is providing happiness is still an expectation of a positive outcome. Ie an optimistic view of the future.

The fact that the happiness of the expectation and the happiness of the achievement are not the same, and contentment is not the result, is not because positive expectations were held, but because the initial expectations were too high.

So the solution, and the path to maximising happiness and contentment, isn't to become pessimistic and assume your vacation will be shit, it's to assume that it will be moderately pleasurable. Then, when the outcome matches those expectations, you've been vaguely happy while planning the vacation, vaguely happy while on vacation, and the accord between the two will leave you content.

So there.
posted by Ahab at 10:40 PM on August 14, 2011 [5 favorites]


Or, isn't it more like Buddhism - reduce desire for happiness/a given outcome and you reduce the misery when it isn't fulfilled?
posted by symbioid at 10:47 PM on August 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


To anyone who thinks life isn't getting better, what golden age do you want to go back to? Say you're an American, just go back a bit more than a decade and you lose your iphone, netflix, 90% of project gutenberg, widespread availability of local or organic food, the ability to carry a thousand books and a million songs in your jacket pocket, your metafilter. If you take a less myopic view around the world hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty, HIV/AIDS is no longer a certain death sentence, people everywhere live longer, and in many countries gay people are being granted civil rights that couldnt have been dreamt of fifteen years ago. Even the wars the US wages kill a fraction of the people that they have in the past and we don't have a serious threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over our heads. Those are very real things!

And Botton thinks he's dealt with this by saying, "With no evident awareness of the contradiction they may, in the same breath, gruffly dismiss a belief in angels while sincerely trusting that the combined powers of the IMF, the medical research establishment, Silicon Valley and democratic politics will together cure the ills of mankind." But what does he propose in their stead? Nothing but an attitude that welcomes misery. He's like a boxing coach who never bothers teaching you how to throw a punch, only how to minimize the pain from getting hit.

It might be tempting to imagine an alternative present where there are no financial or economic crises or wars or student loans, but living in a dreamland is always going to leave you disappointed, eh Madame Bovary? That's not pessimism, that's just not being delusional. The trick isn't to be more pessimistic about the future, but to be more appreciative of the present.
posted by villanelles at dawn at 10:47 PM on August 14, 2011 [13 favorites]


To anyone who thinks life isn't getting better, what golden age do you want to go back to? Say you're an American, just go back a bit more than a decade and you lose your iphone, netflix, 90% of project gutenberg, widespread availability of local or organic food, the ability to carry a thousand books and a million songs in your jacket pocket, your metafilter.

It's not about how the world is. Its about our own mortality and loneliness.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 10:48 PM on August 14, 2011


Oh oh!

Wait, I have a little story...

So back when Matrix 2 came out I had thought it would be hard to live up to the first one, so I set my expectations low. As the time came closer to see it, I thought - maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised. I tricked myself into thinking that my low expectations would lead me to think I'd have a better result, thus... removing the low expectation.

So I went in *claiming* to have low expectations, but then hoping it wouldn't suck, that I tricked myself into thinking it would suck so bad that it couldn't be bad.

I was wrong, and I was disappointed. But only because I talked myself out of having the initial skepticism.

Also what role does agency come into play here?
posted by symbioid at 10:50 PM on August 14, 2011


Depends, are you acting more yourself or less yourself when you are in control of yourself?
posted by TwelveTwo at 11:08 PM on August 14, 2011


what golden age do you want to go back to

8-12
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:28 PM on August 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Definitely agree, Brooklyn. Inability to deal with those two things in particular is probably the largest outstanding source of my issues.

Of course, dealing with that first one probably necessitates some form of Mad Science. Maybe not the best approach if I want to interact with a more sane world.

My personal coping strategy has been "maximize what time I can to do what I want, by getting what is necessary done in such a way that it does not need re-done." We'll see if this keeps working when I hit the job market part.
posted by Archelaus at 11:32 PM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm in the 'Up With People Thread' a bit below, and I figure my coping strategy is pessimism combined with irrational optimism. Like 'today, I'm going to be positive and happy! things are going to work out!' even though/because I know that they won't. Its more powerful because its irrational.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 11:38 PM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Getting laid will help all this greatly.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 12:13 AM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'll do you one better, Horselover.

With regards to the original article: Getting laid OFF will help all this greatly.
posted by DeWalt_Russ at 1:04 AM on August 15, 2011


The question of how to be happier is sort of boring to me. Its just a bit like "How can I save over 50% on my car insurance?" It's probably worth knowing what the answer is, and especially useful for people who are paying too much for car insurance. But the knowledge is not, in itself, very interesting. I already know that certain things will make me happy or unhappy, and having positive psychologists tell me what those things are with greater specificity is a minor discovery in the scheme of things. We learn very little about the human condition that we didn't already know by finding out that social connections are important to happiness, for example.

A more interesting question is why people relive unhappy events long after they've passed, and continue to suffer from things that aren't happening to them despite immediate conditions that are quite pleasant and comfortable. If humans are hedonistic machines looking for happiness and avoiding pain, why do we endlessly return to painful memories when we could easily choose to think happy thoughts instead? Those who claim to only think happy thoughts are almost always suffering from some kind of denial - why is this necessary, if not for the fact that the past has the same deadly fascination for them that it does for everyone else? Optimists claim to be resilient, but they can't even deal with their own memories.

Maybe pessimists are less troubled by the past. They expected it to be bad, it turned out to be bad, and aren't especially troubled by it once it's over. An optimist is surprised when things turn out badly, so they feel robbed, which is a much worse feeling. If Buddhism offers anything, it's not practical steps that we could take to improve our day-to-day happiness - how would a 2500 year-old self-help manual be relevant to today's world? Instead, it's the "pessimistic" recognition that dissatisfaction and disappointment are part of life, not things that in themselves require going into crisis mode. We can't get over negative experiences in the past because beyond the actual negative feeling, there's also the belief that something profoundly exceptional happened to us. We can easily weather hardship, but can't deal with the feeling of having been robbed.

I also don't think that believing in the inevitability of disappointment leads to being politically passive. If I believe my suffering is unique, how could I be motivated to make radical changes to the system? It's a belief that the status quo functions, with a few minor exceptions.
posted by AlsoMike at 1:08 AM on August 15, 2011 [6 favorites]


Getting laid will help all this greatly.

Yeh, I think people underestimate this stuff. Get laid. Eat the right food. Don't use a lot of coffee and alcohol. Exercise hard 5 times a week. Have friends where you live.

If you still feel existential loneliness and unhappiness then look into weird continental philosophers. Or just get a fun hobby.
posted by Not Supplied at 1:20 AM on August 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


Ugh. AdB is the worst of popular philosophy. When he isn't stating the obvious in a technical way, he's taking one term to mean something different. Ahab is spot on. A pessimistic outlook remains negative even when that pessimism is affirmed. He even claims, without backing argument, that hope is the primary cause of all anger!?

From a perspective Down Under, we truly are the lucky country, one of the wealthiest and with an amazingly high standard of living. But if you read the papers, most of us are struggling financially and couldn't possibly afford a small increase in the cost of living. I don't think we're lacking pessimism and it certainly isn't helping people feel better about themselves.

villanelles, I think the argument should be made with the condition that when one travels back in time, all knowledge of the 'future' is lost. Nevertheless, I don't know why people always think its 'greener on the other side'. When one is assured of being alive tomorrow (food, water and accommodation are all available), location in time and/or space makes little difference to disposition.

Being happier is a matter of changing one's perspective. Any perspective will generally suffice, so long as one is able to look back at the old perspective and wonder why one held onto it for so long.
posted by bigZLiLk at 1:31 AM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


There was a book called How To Be Free published in the UK a few years ago, which like many such books advocated a return to simplicity. However, the viewpoint here was that we were much more happy in medieval times and should emulate these - forgetting that it's easy enough to live off your land and home-educate your children if you are a freelance journalist with enough money to buy a large farmhouse in Dorset.
posted by mippy at 1:49 AM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


The principle I follow in life is WWMAD?
What Would Marcus Aurelius Do?
posted by atrazine at 2:04 AM on August 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


To anyone who thinks life isn't getting better, what golden age do you want to go back to? Say you're an American, just go back a bit more than a decade and you lose your iphone, netflix, 90% of project gutenberg, widespread availability of local or organic food, the ability to carry a thousand books and a million songs in your jacket pocket, your metafilter.

Most of this is basically distraction and infotainment. I mean, it makes life a lot more convenient and diverting, but it's not exactly fundamental and in many cases there are definite downsides.

I think a lot of people (in places like the US and Europe at least) might trade every last bit of it for that post Cold War, pre 9/11 optimism.
posted by rhymer at 2:23 AM on August 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


Finally, my point of view is validated. Who am I kidding? It won't last.
posted by Splunge at 3:55 AM on August 15, 2011


Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are all in harmony. Ghandi
posted by jet_manifesto at 4:42 AM on August 15, 2011


Or, isn't it more like Buddhism - reduce desire for happiness/a given outcome and you reduce the misery when it isn't fulfilled?

If Buddhism offers anything, it's not practical steps that we could take to improve our day-to-day happiness - how would a 2500 year-old self-help manual be relevant to today's world? Instead, it's the "pessimistic" recognition that dissatisfaction and disappointment are part of life, not things that in themselves require going into crisis mode.

Neither of these is Buddhism, at least not as I understand it (and Buddhism is a big thing, so your experience may vary). Buddhism, instead, suggests that you see things as they are.

So, let's say you would like a relationship. Well, great, that is a basic human desire and trying to satisfy it is a reasonable thing to do. And, for the sake of the example, let's say that you find someone who is into you, and things are going well. Now, Buddhist advice here would not be to remind you that everything ends and life basically sucks and your relationship is doomed, so don't sweat it. Buddhism reminds you to look at this person and see who s/he is -- don't fall into the trap of thinking that this relationship will fix your life and you will be deliriously happy until the end of your days. Instead, remember that this is a person, who has her/his own life and situation, and that you will have good times and bad times, and you're going to need to put work into the relationship if it's going to be worth it. By seeing it for what it is, a relationship, rather than a key to joy and beauty everlasting, you are not putting more weight on it that it can stand, but treating it fairly as itself. And that diminishment of delusion will cause you less suffering.

Also, aversion is just as much delusion as clinging. So trying to ease your sense of, say, loneliness by constantly telling yourself that you are unlovable and will always be alone (basically, being a pessimist about relationships) or that your relationship is doomed and there is nothing you can do is just as unuseful as telling yourself that you are so great that it's all your partner's fault or that it's all going to be kittens and roses all the time.

So, anyway, Buddhism isn't about diminished expectations, except in as far as it warns against excessive expectations.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:18 AM on August 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


Happiness is found in the here and now, not in the past or in the future. Enjoy the moment and enjoy your life.
posted by caddis at 5:54 AM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


"I'm pretty pessimistic, and I'm usually right."

I have found that by being pessimistic, I am always either right or pleasantly surprised.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:20 AM on August 15, 2011


There was a book called How To Be Free published in the UK a few years ago, which like many such books advocated a return to simplicity. However, the viewpoint here was that we were much more happy in medieval times and should emulate these - forgetting that it's easy enough to live off your land and home-educate your children if you are a freelance journalist with enough money to buy a large farmhouse in Dorset.

I have read both that and the other similarly-themed Hodgkinson book, How to Be Idle. I can agree with a lot of his points superficially, but what sticks in my mind mostly is that he had a "get of my lawn" approach to technology and seemed unable to see why anyone would waste their time on Facebook or, for that matter Metafilter: "Why on God's earth would I need a computer to connect with the people around me? ... What was wrong with the pub?" . I gather Hodgkinson has no friends who live more than an hour away from him.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:28 AM on August 15, 2011


Alain de Botton's drab verbosity is, as usual, distant from and largely uninfluenced by the lives of ordinary people. His observations and analysis are trite; comparable to those made by any reasonably bright seventeen year old.
posted by dickasso at 6:28 AM on August 15, 2011


I think a lot of people (in places like the US and Europe at least) might trade every last bit of it for that post Cold War, pre 9/11 optimism.


I'm in. It's always hard to sort out if it is just because I was younger or because the times were better, but I wouldn't mind a return to the 90's at all. My Kindle and iPod are nifty, but reading paper books and listening to CD's wasn't exactly a hardship.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 8:12 AM on August 15, 2011


what golden age do you want to go back to

Before the sperm met the egg?

A more interesting question is why people relive unhappy events long after they've passed, and continue to suffer from things that aren't happening to them despite immediate conditions that are quite pleasant and comfortable.

Guilt, shame and fear are powerful motivators of behaviour.
posted by squeak at 8:38 AM on August 15, 2011


And Botton thinks he's dealt with this by saying, "With no evident awareness of the contradiction they may, in the same breath, gruffly dismiss a belief in angels while sincerely trusting that the combined powers of the IMF, the medical research establishment, Silicon Valley and democratic politics will together cure the ills of mankind." But what does he propose in their stead? Nothing but an attitude that welcomes misery. He's like a boxing coach who never bothers teaching you how to throw a punch, only how to minimize the pain from getting hit.

De Botton will always have dumb ideas about happiness because he's extremely rich and privileged. That is, he doesn't grasp that he has a baseline of security, ease and respect that most people will never have. For De Botton, a pessimistic outlook basically boils down to "Maybe I won't get extra wonderful things on top of the wonderful things I already have! And oh, look, some other people somewhere else might suffer while I buddy up to Cameron! How can philosophy account for this?"
posted by Frowner at 9:20 AM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Alain de Botton occasionally has a one-liner that is interesting. However, the one time I attempted to read one of his books, I decided that the man attempts to crank out vapid platitudes all day in the hopes of being publishable.

I mean, I don't think that he believes they're vapid, but let me tell you -- I know vapid.
posted by mikeh at 9:29 AM on August 15, 2011


For De Botton, a pessimistic outlook basically boils down to "Maybe I won't get extra wonderful things on top of the wonderful things I already have! And oh, look, some other people somewhere else might suffer while I buddy up to Cameron! How can philosophy account for this?"

I think that's unfair; Botton can't do anything about having been born rich, aside from what he has done which is make his own fortune independently (no matter what I think of the way he's done it.) That's a lot more than most people with hundred million dollar trust funds do. Maybe it's possible to think he's being disingenuous here since he really has nothing to feel pessimistic about, but that seems doubly unfair; after all, truth doesn't depend on biography.
posted by villanelles at dawn at 9:32 AM on August 15, 2011


I became much happier when I stopped having aspirations.

I'm actually not joking.
posted by Decani at 10:20 AM on August 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's ALWAYS better to be a pessimist.

If you're wrong, you're pleasantly surprised.
If you're right, you can say "I told you so".
posted by lalochezia at 12:36 PM on August 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


One of my favorite quotes, from Lao Tzu:

"one who is content to be content
may always be content."
posted by Rinku at 6:40 PM on August 15, 2011


It's ALWAYS better to be a pessimist.

If you're wrong, you're pleasantly surprised.
If you're right, you can say "I told you so".


Yeh, but dude you have to live through your life as a pessimist. I wouldn't advocate happy clappy optimism, but having a general expectation that things will go well for you and not being too attached to that outcomewill help that to happen imo. Yeh random shit happens that's outside of one's control, but to some extent it is a self-fulfiliing prophecy if you expect things to go well or badly.
posted by Not Supplied at 3:02 AM on August 16, 2011


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