Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide

“So we must exercise ourselves in the things which bring happiness, since, if that be present, we have everything, and, if that be absent, all our actions are directed towards attaining it.” —Epicurus

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Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide is worth reading. Frederic Lenoir explores what the greatest thinkers — Aristotle, Plato, Chuang Tzu, Voltaire, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Kant, and Freud — have to add to the ongoing conversation on happiness.

The question of happiness is forever being discussed: eventually it gets worn down and loses its edge. But although it’s become so common- place, and seems so simple, it’s still an enthralling question, one that involves a whole skein of factors not easy to untangle. … [T]he pursuit of happiness isn’t a pointless quest. We really can be happier if we think about our lives, if we work on ourselves, if we learn to make more sensible decisions, or indeed if we alter our thoughts, our beliefs, or the way we imagine ourselves and the world.

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On why there is no recipe for happiness:

Another difficulty arises from the notably relative character of happiness: it varies with each culture and each individual, and, in every person, from one phase of life to the next. It often takes on the guise of things we don’t have: for someone who is ill, happiness lies in health; for someone who is unemployed, it’s in work; for some single people, it lies in being a couple—and, for some married people, in being single again! These disparities are heightened by a subjective dimension: artists are happy when practicing their art, intellectuals when handling concepts, romantics when they are in love.

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, shed considerable light on this point when he noted in Civilization and Its Discontents:

In this, [the individual’s] psychical constitution will play a decisive part, irrespectively of the external circumstances. The man who is pre-dominantly erotic will give first preference to his emotional relationships with other people; the narcissistic man, who inclines to be more self-sufficient, will seek his main satisfactions in his internal mental processes; the man of action will never give up on the external world on which he can try out his strength.

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The origins of the word

In Greek, the word for happiness, eudaimonia, can be taken to mean “having a good daimon.” These days, we would say “having a guardian angel,” or “being born under a lucky star.” In French, bonheur comes from the Latin bonum augurium: “good omen” or “good fortune.” In English, happiness comes from the Icelandic root happ, “luck” or “chance,” and there is indeed a large element of “luck” in being happy, if only because happiness is, as we shall see, to a large degree based on our sensibility, on our biological inheritance, on the family and social environment in which we were born and grew up, on the surroundings in which we develop and on the encounters that mark our lives.

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The philosophical journey and the path to wisdom

We are conditioned but not determined by various factors to be more or less happy. So, by using our reason and will, for example, we have the ability to increase our capacity for happiness (though the success of our quest is not thereby guaranteed). Because they shared this conviction, many philosophers have written books purportedly on “ethics,” devoted to what will encourage us to lead the best and happiest lives imaginable. And isn’t this philosophy’s main rationale? Epicurus, a sage from Athens who lived shortly after Aristotle, points out that “in the study of philosophy, pleasure accompanies growing knowledge; for pleasure does not follow learning; rather, learning and pleasure advance side by side.” This quest for a “good” or “happy” life is called wisdom.

[…]

So it is a philosophical journey, in this broader sense, that I would like to propose to the reader. There is nothing linear about the route, which won’t be following the chronological order of the authors’ lives or the emergence of concepts: this would be conventional and boring. It is, instead, a ramble, the most exciting imaginable, with many questions and concrete examples on the way.

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The intellectual distrust of happiness

The essayist Pascal Bruckner offers another view: “I love life too much to wish to be permanently happy.” Indeed, there is a movement against the pursuit of happiness, which I’ve discussed before. Lenoir, however, adds to this conversation and speaks to a reason for the intellectual mistrust in happiness: vulnerability.

I think that there is another reason why certain academics and intellectuals mistrust this theme and are reluctant to tackle it—a reason that they find difficult to admit to: to discuss it properly, we have to expose ourselves on a personal level. We can discourse ad nauseam about language, hermeneutics, the theory of knowledge, epistemology or the organization of political systems without this necessarily involving us intimately. Things are completely different when it comes to the question of happiness, a question that, as we shall see, affects our emotions, our feelings, our desires, our beliefs and the meaning we give to our lives. It’s impossible to give a lecture or a talk on this subject without a member of the audience asking, “What about you? What’s the meaning of your life? What system of ethics do you follow? Are you happy? Why?” A lot of people find these questions embarrassing.

In the end, happiness is a philosophical pursuit. Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide is a great place to start your inquiry.

Louis Gerstner: An Elementary Management Lesson

IBM CEO Louis Gerstner

Louis V. Gerstner Jr. is a pretty shrewd psychologist.

In this excerpt from Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?, which details how he turned around IBM, Gerstner echoes Warren Buffett.

I’ve had a lot of experience turning around troubled companies, and one of the first things I learned was that whatever hard or painful things you have to do, do them quickly and make sure everyone knows what you are doing and why. Whether dwelling on a problem, hiding a problem, or dribbling out partial solutions to a problem while you wait for a high tide to raise your boat— dithering and delay almost always compound a negative situation. I believe in getting the problem behind me quickly and moving on.

This is a short post but one that I feel is worthy of reflecting upon. There is a lot to unpack in there.

Exercise as a Tool to Manage Stress

For any of you who have experienced a ‘runner’s high’ or endorphin rush while exercising you know how powerful the feeling can be. But there are many more chemicals at play than just endorphins and they can do much more than just make you temporarily feel good. Regular exercise can help you combat high levels of stress and anxiety.

In Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain the authors explain how exercise can become your best medicine.

Aside from elevating endorphins, exercise regulates all of the neurotransmitters targeted by antidepressants. For starters, exercise immediately elevates levels of norepinephrine, in certain areas of the brain. It wakes up the brain and gets it going and improves self-esteem, which is one component of depression.”

“Another factor from the body that comes into play here is the atrial natriuretic peptide (ANP). Produced by the muscles of the heart itself when it’s really pumping, ANP travels through the bloodstream and into the brain, where it helps to further moderate the stress response and reduce noise in the brain. It’s a potent part of a cascade of chemicals that relieve emotional stress and reduce anxiety. Along with pain-blunting endorphins and endocannabinoids, the increase in ANP helps explain why you feel relaxed and calm after a moderate aerobic workout. When you talk about burning off stress, these are the elements at work.

We all know that chronically high levels of stress is very unhealthy but did you know that it can actually destroy the connections between nerve cells in the brain?

If mild stress becomes chronic, the unrelenting cascade of cortisol triggers genetic actions that begin to sever synaptic connections and cause dendrils to atrophy and cells to die; eventually, the hippocampus can end up physically shriveled, like a raisin.

But this process can also be reversed.

Studies show that if researchers exercise rats that have been chronically stressed, that activity makes the hippocampus grow back to it’s pre-shriveled state

It’s important to note that while a lot of stress is bad, a little stress can be very good. Physical fitness is one discipline which has always advocated introducing controlled stress to your system. That is, after all, how we break down and build up our muscles. The neurons in our brains benefit from a bit of stress in the same way our muscles do.

What’s gotten lost amid all the advice about how to reduce the stress of modern life is that challenges are what allow us to strive and grow and learn. The parallel on the cellular level is that stress sparks brain growth. Assuming that the stress is not too severe and that the neurons are given time to recover, the connections become stronger and our mental machinery works better.

To get the most mental benefit from your exercise program ideally you need to spend some time pushing yourself and getting a bit outside of your comfort zone.

Psychologically, this is where you ‘confront the self,’ in the words of my colleague Robert Pyles… By going beyond where you thought you could, straining and stressing and lingering in that pain for even just a minute or two, you sometimes transcend into a rarefied state of mind, in which you feel like you can conquer any challenge. If you’ve ever experienced the phenomenon of runner’s high, it probably came in response to a near maximum effort on your part. The euphoric feeling is likely due to the mixture of extremely high levels of endorphins, ANP, endocannabinoids and neurotransmitters pumping through your system at this intensity. It’s the brain’s way of blocking everything else out so you can push through the pain and make the kill.

You also need to build a routine. The stability of a routine can have dramatic effects on your mood and motivation.

Exercise immediately increases levels of dopamine and if you stay on some sort of schedule, the brain cells in your motivation center will sprout new dopamine receptors, giving you new found initiative.

Lastly, exercising at a moderate intensity serves another important function; it helps take out the trash.

Inside your brain cells, the higher activity level triggers the release of metabolic cleanup crews, producing proteins and enzymes that dispose of free radicals, broken bits of DNA, and inflammation factors that can cause the cells to rupture if left unchecked.

Okay, maybe I won’t skip yoga tonight.

The Lucretius Problem

Lucretius_Rome

It’s always good to re-read books and to dip back into them periodically. When reading a new book, I often miss out on crucial information (especially books that are hard to categorize with one descriptive sentence). When you come back to a book after reading hundreds of others you can’t help but make new connections with the old book and see it anew.

It has been a while since I read Anti-fragile. In the past I’ve talked about an Antifragile Way of Life, Learning to Love Volatility, the Definition of Antifragility , Antifragile life of economy, and the Noise and the Signal.

But upon re-reading Antifragile I came across the Lucretius Problem and I thought I’d share an excerpt. (Titus Lucretius Carus was a Roman poet and philosopher, best-known for his poem On the Nature of Things). Taleb writes:

Indeed, our bodies discover probabilities in a very sophisticated manner and assess risks much better than our intellects do. To take one example, risk management professionals look in the past for information on the so-called ​worst-case scenario ​and use it to estimate future risks – this method is called “stress testing.” They take the worst historical recession, the worst war, the worst historical move in interest rates, or the worst point in unemployment as an exact estimate for the worst future outcome​. But they never notice the following inconsistency: this so-called worst-case event, when it happened, exceeded the worst [known] case at the time.

I have called this mental defect the Lucretius problem, after the Latin poetic philosopher who wrote that the fool believes that the tallest mountain in the world will be equal to the tallest one he has observed. We consider the biggest object of any kind that we have seen in our lives or hear about as the largest item that can possibly exist. And we have been doing this for millennia.

Taleb brings up an interesting point, which is that our documented history can blind us. All we know is what we have been able to record.

We think because we have sophisticated data collecting techniques that we can capture all the data necessary to make decisions. We think we can use our current statistical techniques to draw historical trends using historical data without acknowledging the fact that past data recorders had fewer tools to capture the dark figure of unreported data. We also overestimate the validity of what has been recorded before and thus the trends we draw might tell a different story if we had the dark figure of unreported data.

Taleb continues:

The same can be seen in the Fukushima nuclear reactor, which experienced a catastrophic failure in 2011 when a tsunami struck. It had been built to withstand the worst past historical earthquake, with the builders not imagining much worse— and not thinking that the worst past event had to be a surprise, as it had no precedent. Likewise, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Fragilista Doctor Alan Greenspan, in his apology to Congress offered the classic “It never happened before.” Well, nature, unlike Fragilista Greenspan, prepares for what has not happened before, assuming worse harm is possible.

So what do we do and how do we deal with the blindness?

Taleb provides an answer which is to develop layers of redundancy to act as a buffer against oneself. We overvalue what we have recorded and assume it tells us the worst and best possible outcomes. Redundant layers are a buffer against our tendency to think what has been recorded is a map of the whole terrain. An example of a redundant feature could be a rainy day fund which acts as an insurance policy against something catastrophic such as a job loss that allows you to survive and fight another day.

Antifragile is a great book to read and you might learn something about yourself and the world you live in by reading it or in my case re-reading it.

Stephen King Shares His (Long) Reading List

At any question and answer session, a reader inevitably asks  Stephen King what he reads. Everyone, myself included, wants to know what’s on Stephen King’s reading list.

Now we know.

In On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft, he writes:

I’ve never given a very satisfactory answer to that question, because it causes a kind of circuit overload in my brain. The easy answer—“Everything I can get my hands on” —is true enough, but not helpful. The list that follows provides a more specific answer to that question. These are the best books I’ve read over the last three or four years, the period during which I wrote The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Hearts in Atlantis, On Writing, and … From a Buick Eight. In some way or other, I suspect each book in the list had an influence on the books I wrote.

As you scan this list, please remember that I’m not Oprah and this isn’t my book club. These are the ones that worked for me, that’s all. But you could do worse, and a good many of these might show you some new ways of doing your work. Even if they don’t, they’re apt to entertain you. They certainly entertained me.

There are about a hundred books that entertained and taught him, but here is Stephen King’s reading list. (Think combinatorial creativity applied to writing – You’re not going to be a great writer if you only read books from one genre.)

Abrahams, Peter: A Perfect Crime
Abrahams, Peter: Lights Out
Abrahams, Peter: Pressure Drop
Abrahams, Peter: Revolution #9
Agee, James: A Death in the Family
Bakis, Kirsten: Lives of the Monster Dogs
Barker, Pat: Regeneration
Barker, Pat: The Eye in the Door
Barker, Pat: The Ghost Road
Bausch, Richard: In the Night Season
Blauner, Peter: The Intruder
Bowles, Paul: The Sheltering Sky
Boyle, T. Coraghessan: The Tortilla Curtain
Bryson, Bill: A Walk in the Woods
Buckley, Christopher: Thank You for Smoking
Carver, Raymond: Where I’m Calling From
Chabon, Michael: Werewolves in Their Youth
Chorlton, Windsor: Latitude Zero
Connelly, Michael: The Poet
Conrad, Joseph: Heart of Darkness
Constantine, K. C.: Family Values
DeLillo, Don: Underworld
DeMille, Nelson: Cathedral
DeMille, Nelson: The Gold Coast
Dickens, Charles: Oliver Twist
Dobyns, Stephen: Common Carnage
Dobyns, Stephen: The Church of Dead Girls
Doyle, Roddy: The Woman Who Walked into Doors
Elkin, Stanley: The Dick Gibson Show
Faulkner, William: As I Lay Dying
Garland, Alex: The Beach
George, Elizabeth: Deception on His Mind
Gerritsen, Tess: Gravity
Golding, William: Lord of the Flies
Gray, Muriel: Furnace
Greene, Graham: A Gun for Sale (aka This Gun for Hire)
Greene, Graham: Our Man in Havana
Halberstam, David: The Fifties
Hamill, Pete: Why Sinatra Matters
Harris, Thomas: Hannibal
Haruf, Kent: Plainsong
Hoeg, Peter: Smilla’s Sense of Snow
Hunter, Stephen: Dirty White Boys
Ignatius, David: A Firing Offense
Irving, John: A Widow for One Year
Joyce, Graham: The Tooth Fairy
Judd, Alan: The Devil’s Own Work
Kahn, Roger: Good Enough to Dream
Karr, Mary: The Liars’ Club
Ketchum, Jack: Right to Life
King, Tabitha: Survivor
King, Tabitha: The Sky in the Water (unpublished)
Kingsolver, Barbara: The Poisonwood Bible
Krakauer, Jon: Into Thin Air
Lee, Harper: To Kill a Mockingbird
Lefkowitz, Bernard: Our Guys
Little, Bentley: The Ignored
Maclean, Norman: A River Runs Through It and Other Stories
Maugham, W. Somerset: The Moon and Sixpence
McCarthy, Cormac: Cities of the Plain
McCarthy, Cormac: The Crossing
McCourt, Frank: Angela’s Ashes
McDermott, Alice: Charming Billy
McDevitt, Jack: Ancient Shores
McEwan, Ian: Enduring Love
McEwan, Ian: The Cement Garden
McMurtry, Larry: Dead Man’s Walk
McMurtry, Larry, and Diana Ossana: Zeke and Ned
Miller, Walter M.: A Canticle for Leibowitz
Oates, Joyce Carol: Zombie
O’Brien, Tim: In the Lake of the Woods
O’Nan, Stewart: The Speed Queen
Ondaatje, Michael: The English Patient
Patterson, Richard North: No Safe Place
Price, Richard: Freedomland
Proulx, Annie: Close Range: Wyoming Stories
Proulx, Annie: The Shipping News
Quindlen, Anna: One True Thing
Rendell, Ruth: A Sight for Sore Eyes
Robinson, Frank M.: Waiting
Rowling, J. K.: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Rowling, J. K.: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Rowling, J. K.: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Russo, Richard: Mohawk
Schwartz, John Burnham: Reservation Road
Seth, Vikram: A Suitable Boy
Shaw, Irwin: The Young Lions
Slotkin, Richard: The Crater
Smith, Dinitia: The Illusionist
Spencer, Scott: Men in Black
Stegner, Wallace: Joe Hill
Tartt, Donna: The Secret History
Tyler, Anne: A Patchwork Planet
Vonnegut, Kurt: Hocus Pocus
Waugh, Evelyn: Brideshead Revisited
Westlake, Donald E.: The Ax

The Last Thing We Need Right Now is a Vision Statement

elephants

In this excerpt from Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?, Louis V. Gerstner Jr. says something I wish tech companies would heed.

I said something at the press conference that turned out to be the most quotable statement I ever made:

“What I’d like to do now is put these announcements in some sort of perspective for you. There’s been a lot of speculation as to when I’m going to deliver a vision of IBM, and what I’d like to say to all of you is that the last thing IBM needs right now is a vision.” You could almost hear the reporters blink.

I went on: “What IBM needs right now is a series of very tough-minded, market-driven, highly effective strategies for each of its businesses— strategies that deliver performance in the marketplace and shareholder value. And that’s what we’re working on.

“Now, the number-one priority is to restore the company to profitability. I mean, if you’re going to have a vision for a company, the first frame of that vision better be that you’re making money and that the company has got its economics correct.

“And so we are committed to make this company profitable, and that’s what today’s actions are about.

“The second priority for the company,” I said, “is to win the battle in the customers’ premises. And we’re going to do a lot of things in that regard, and again, they’re not visions— they’re people making things happen to serve customers.”

I said we didn’t need a vision right now because I had discovered in my first ninety days on the job that IBM had file drawers full of vision statements. We had never missed predicting correctly a major technological trend in the industry. In fact, we were still inventing most of the technology that created those changes.

However, what was also clear was that IBM was paralyzed, unable to act on any predictions, and there were no easy solutions to its problems. The IBM organization, so full of brilliant, insightful people, would have loved to receive a bold recipe for success—the more sophisticated, the more complicated the recipe, the better everyone would have liked it.

It wasn’t going to work that way. The real issue was going out and making things happen every day in the marketplace.

Fixing IBM was all about execution. We had to stop looking for people to blame, stop tweaking the internal structure and systems. I wanted no excuses. I wanted no long-term projects that people could wait for that would somehow produce a magic turnaround. I wanted— IBM needed— an enormous sense of urgency.