Over 400,000 people visited Farnam Street last month to learn how to make better decisions, create new ideas, and avoid stupid errors. With more than 100,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub. To learn more about what we do, start here.

Category Archives: Philosophy

Tyranny, Democracy, and the Polity: Aristotle’s Politics

We've written before about why Plato matters. What about Aristotle?

The Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that questions of the state, how it should be organized, and how it should pursue its ends, were fundamental to the achievement of happiness. His text Politics is an exploration of different types of state organizations and tries to describe the state which will ultimately lead to the most fulfilled citizens.

Forms of Government

Aristotle argued that there were six general ways in which societies could be organized under political rule, depending on who ruled, and for whom they ruled.

Those in the first row he referred to as “true forms” of government, while those in the second row were the “defective and perverted forms” of the first three.

The true forms of government, therefore, are those in which the one, or the few, or the many, govern with a view to the common interest; but governments which rule with a view to the private interest, whether to the one, or the few, or of the many, are perversions.

[…]

Tyranny is a kind of monarchy which has in view the interest of the monarch only; oligarchy has in view the interest of the wealthy; democracy, of the needy: none of them the common good of all.

It is important to note that in Aristotle’s time, states were comparatively smaller than they are today. Thus, in democracies, the many could directly rule via participation in open councils.

Although our democracies are much larger now, the core concepts remain the same: Our vote is our means of exercising our rule, and any one of us may chose to run for an office of the state.

Aristotle argued that oligarchies and democracies are the most common forms of government, with much in common except their allocation of power; and thus he spends a lot of time discussing them.

For the real difference between democracy and oligarchy is poverty and wealth. Wherever men rule by reason of their wealth, whether they be few or many, that is an oligarchy, and where the poor rule, that is a democracy.

It is important to note that Aristotle did not consider oligarchies and democracies as inherently bad. Even though they govern in the interest of those who hold the power, they are capable of producing livable societies, unlike tyranny, which no free man in his right mind would choose.

But he also aims to demonstrate that there are better ways to govern. These better systems, however, are reliant on a quality of character in leadership that is uncommon.

Therefore, for him there was no clear cut best system: “None of the principles on which men claim to rule, and hold other men in subjection to them, are strictly right.

Democracy vs. Polity

For Aristotle, democracies [as he defined them] were very polarized societies, containing rich and poor and not much in between. For democracy, “equality is above all things their aim, and therefore they ostracize and banish from the city for a time those who seem to predominate too much through their wealth, or the number of their friends, or through any other political influence.”

Part of the reason Aristotle liked democratic systems is that he believed in the wisdom of crowds. (A remarkably modern idea.) “If the people are not utterly degraded, although individually they may be worse judges than those who have special knowledge, as a body they are as good or better.”

This is useful, because all societies must evolve their governing rules as needs change. No society can unflinchingly abide by a set constitution of rules in perpetuity; rigidity is not a valuable quality in a changing world. (Even the American constitution was designed to be amended.)

Laws speak only in general terms, and cannot provide for circumstance. … Hence it is argued that a government acting according to written laws is plainly not the best.” The leadership must be able to follow the laws while adjusting for circumstance. In this “the many are more incorruptible than the few“; and thus might be the most flexible to change.

Aristotle also cautioned against something he called extreme democracy – as it can lead to demagogues.

…in which, not the law, but the multitude, have the supreme power, and supersede the law by their decrees. … The demagogues make the decrees of the people override the laws, and refer all things to the popular assembly. And therefore they grow great, because the people have all things in their hands, and they hold in their hands the votes of the people, who are too ready to listen to them.

Eventually this ceases to be a democracy at all, because “the sort of constitution in which all things are regulated by decrees is clearly not a democracy in the true sense of the word, for decrees relate only to particulars.”

The right kind of democracy, if you will, is a polity: An ideal democracy that governs for the interests of all, not just the leadership.

The success of a polity is dependent on the quality of the leadership and their definition of the common interest, leading to an interesting question: What is the common interest, anyway?

Trying to define it is very difficult. Here, we cannot take many lessons from Aristotle, because the “common interest” is a concept that's changed much over time. We now have a more inclusive notion of who belongs in the “common interest” than the ancient Greeks did.

Nonetheless, the general principles – quality of laws, virtue, and the middle class – are worth considering.

Critically, “There are two parts of good government; one is the actual obedience of citizens to the laws, the other part is the goodness of the laws which they obey.” We must pay close attention to the content of the laws we're following: They must constantly be reevaluated to make sure they remain consistent with the common interest.

Aristotle also foreshadowed modern ideals by linking the middle class to virtue itself: A great democratic system should govern in their interests, cultivating a happy medium.

This is one of the key characteristics of the polity.

The happy life is the life according to unimpeded virtue, and that virtue is a mean (average), then the life which is in a mean, and in a mean attainable by every one, must be the best.

[…]

Thus it is manifest that the best political community is formed by citizens of the middle class, and that those states are likely to be well-administered, in which the middle class is large, and larger if possible than both the other classes (rich and poor).

[…]

Great then is the good fortune of a state in which the citizens have a moderate and sufficient property; for where some possess much, and the other nothing, there may arise an extreme democracy, or a pure oligarchy; or a tyranny may grow out of either extreme … but it is not so likely to arise out of a middle and nearly equal condition.

Larger middle classes produce more stable states. Thus, the middle class is key in the establishment and maintenance of a polity. Because they are not in extreme need nor extreme wealth, their assessment of the common interest will produce the greatest benefit for all members.

Concluding: Why Government At All?

For Aristotle, the organization of people into states with governments was a key component of their achieving happiness and satisfaction in life.

It is clear then that a state is not a mere society, having a common place, established for the prevention of crime and for the sake of exchange. These are all conditions without which a state cannot exist; but all of them together do not constitute a state, which is a community of well-being in families and aggregations of families, for the sake of a perfect and self-sufficing life.

The best way to organize the state is the one that creates the most happiness for its citizens (not an easy problem, of course). For Aristotle, the polity, the ideal democracy, met this criteria — it allowed for the development of virtues that support the common interest, and limited the emphasis on wealth, allowing for the development of a desirable middle class.

Happiness, whether consisting in pleasure or virtue, or both, is more often found with those who are most highly cultivated in their mind and in their character, and have only a moderate share of external goods, than among those who possess external goods to a useless extent but are deficient in higher qualities.

Philosopher Kahlil Gibran on the Relationship between Vulnerability and Love

In 1923 the Lebanese-American artist, poet, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran (1883–1931) published his masterpiece, The Prophet, which endures as a timeless classic meditation on living.

The essence of his brilliance is captured on the section on love.

So much of meaning in life comes from the willingness to lean into things that make us vulnerable.

One of the biggest lessons I have learned about being the friend that my friends deserve, is that I have to put myself out there. It's the exposure of the self, not the protection, that creates meaning.

When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.

For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.

A few sentences later, he hits on the need for vulnerability.

[I]f in your fear you would seek only love's peace and love's pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love's threshing-floor,
Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter and weep, but not all of your tears.

As for finding love, we cannot direct the course.

And think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.

As for your desires, turning into vulnerability, Gibran, who echoes Alfred Lord Tennyson's sentiment when he said ‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,' writes:

To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.
To know the pain of too much tenderness.
To be wounded by your own understanding of love;
And to bleed willingly and joyfully.
To wake at dawn with a winged hear and give thanks for another day of loving.

Love is process, not an outcome.

In The Prophet, Gibran goes on to explore the tension in love between intimacy and independence. Complement with Richard Feynman's beautiful Letter to his wife Arlene.

John Gray: Is Human Progress an Illusion?

“Straw Dogs is an attack on the unthinking beliefs of thinking people.”
— John Gray

***

We like to think that the tide of history is an inexorable march from barbarity to civilization, with humans “progressing” from one stage to the next through a gradual process of enlightenment. Modern humanists like Steven Pinker argue forcefully for this method of thinking.

But is this really so? Is this reality?

One of the leading challengers to that type of thinking has been the English writer and philosopher John Gray, the idiosyncratic author of books like Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, The Soul of the Marionette, and The Silence of Animals.

To Gray, the concept of “progress” is closer to an illusion, or worse a delusion of the modern age. Civilization is not a permanent state of being, but something which can quickly recede during a time of stress.

He outlines his basic idea in a foreword to Straw Dogs:

Straw Dogs is an attack on the unthinking beliefs of thinking people. Today, liberal humanism has the pervasive power that was once possessed by revealed religion. Humanists like to think they have a rational view of the world; but their core belief in progress is a superstition, further from the truth about the human animal than any of the world's religions.

Outside of science, progress is simply a myth. In some readers of Straw Dogs this observation seems to have produced a moral panic. Surely, they ask, no one can question the central article of faith of liberal societies? Without it, will we not despair? Like trembling Victorians terrified of losing their faith, these humanists cling to the moth-eaten brocade of progressive hope. Today religious believers are more free-thinking. Driven to the margins of a culture in which science claims authority over all of human knowledge, they have had to cultivate a capacity for doubt. In contrast, secular believers — held fast by the conventional wisdom of the time — are in the grip of unexamined dogmas.

And what, pray tell, are those dogmas? They are numerous, but the central one must be that the human march of science and technology creates good for the world. Gray's not as sure: He sees science and technology as magnifying humanity “warts and all”.

Our tools allow us to go to the Moon but also murder each other with great alacrity. They have no morality attached to them.

In science, the growth of knowledge is cumulative. But human life as a whole is not a cumulative activity; what is gained in one generation may be lost in the next. In science, knowledge is an unmixed god; in ethics and politics it is bad as well as good. Science increases human power — and magnifies the flaws in human nature. It enables us to live longer and have higher living standards than in the past. At the same time it allows us to wreak destruction — on each other and the Earth — on a larger scale than ever before.

The idea of progress rests on the belief that the growth of knowledge and the advance of the species go together—if not now, then in the long run. The biblical myth of the Fall of Man contains the forbidden truth. Knowledge does not make us free. It leaves us as we have always been, prey to every kind of folly. The same truth is found in Greek myth. The punishment of Prometheus, chained to a rock for stealing fire from the gods, was not unjust.

Gray has a fairly heretical view of technology itself, pointing out that no one really controls its development or use; making humanity as a group closer to subjects than masters. Technology is both a giver of good and an ongoing source of tragedy, because it is used by fallible human beings.

Those who ignore the destructive potential of future technologies can do so only because they ignore history. Pogroms are as old as Christendom; but without railways, the telegraph and poison gas there could have been no Holocaust. There have always been tyrannies; but without modern means of transport and communication, Stalin and Mao could not have built their gulags. Humanity's worst crimes were made possible only by modern technology.

There is a deeper reason why “humanity” will never control technology. Technology is not something that humankind can control. It as an event that has befallen the world.

Once a technology enters human life — whether it be fire, the wheel, the automobile, radio, television, or the internet — it changes it in ways we can never fully understand.

[…]

Nothing is more commonplace than to lament that moral progress has failed to keep pace with scientific knowledge. If only we were more intelligent and more moral, we could use technology only for benign ends. The fault is not in our tools, we say, but in ourselves.

In one sense this is true. Technical progress leaves only one problem unsolved: the frailty of human nature. Unfortunately that problem is insoluble.

This reminds one of Garrett Hardin's idea that no system, however technically advanced, can be flawless because the human being at the center of it will always be fallible. (Our technologies, after all, are geared around our needs.) Even if we create technologies that “don't need us” — we are still fallible creators.

Gray's real problem with the idea of moral progress, technical progress, and scientific progress are they, even were they real, would be unending. In the modern conception of the world, unlike the ancient past where everything was seen as cyclical, growth has no natural stop-point. It's just an infinite path to the heavens. This manifests itself in our constant disdain for idleness.

Nothing is more alien to the present age than idleness. If we think of resting from our labours, it is only in order to return to them.

In thinking so highly of work we are aberrant. Few other cultures have ever done so. For nearly all of history and all prehistory, work was an indignity.

Among Christians, only Protestants have ever believed that work smacks of salvation; the work and prayer of medieval Christendom were interspersed with festivals. The ancient Greeks sought salvation in philosophy, the Indians in meditation, the Chinese in poetry and the love of nature. The pygmies of the African rainforests — now nearly extinct — work only to meet the needs of the day, and spend most of their lives idling.

Progress condemns idleness. The work needed to delivery humanity is vast. Indeed it is limitless, since as one plateau of achievement is reached another looms up. Of course this is only a mirage; but the worst of progress is not that it is an illusion. It is that it is endless.

Gray then goes on to compare our ideas of progress to Sisyphus forever pushing the bolder up the mountain.

He's an interesting thinker, Gray. In all of his works, though he certainly raises issue with our current modes of liberal progressive thought and is certainly not a religious man, one only finds hints of a “better” worldview being proposed. One is never sure if he even believes in “better”.

The closest thing to advice comes from the conclusion to his book The Silence of Animals. What is the point of life if not progress? Simply to see. Simply to be human. To contemplate. We must deal with human life the way we always have.

Godless contemplation is a more radical and transient condition: a temporary respite from the all-too-human world, with nothing particular in mind. In most traditions the life of contemplation promises redemption from being human: in Christianity, the end of tragedy and a glimpse of the divine comedy; in Jeffers's pantheism, the obliteration of the self in an ecstatic unity. Godless mysticism cannot escape the finality of tragedy, or make beauty eternal. It does not dissolve inner conflict into the false quietude of any oceanic calm. All it offers is mere being.

There is no redemption from being human. But no redemption is needed.

In the end, reading Gray is a good way to challenge yourself; to think about the world in a different way, and to examine your dogmas. Even the most cherished one of all.

Kristin Dombek: The Selfishness of Others

I'll bet you think this article is about you.

“We all know selfishness when we see it,” writes essayist Kristin Dombek opening The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on The Fear of Narcissism. She's right. We see it everywhere from TV to family and lovers. Playing in the tension between pathology and common selfishness, her book offers a thought-provoking look at how narcissism became a cultural phenomenon and repository for our fears.

What is wrong with the narcissist she asks?

This is harder to know. If you see the smile on the face of a murderer, you must run. But if you are unlucky enough to love someone who seems suddenly so into himself that he doesn't care who he hurts, someone who turns from warm to gone when he doesn't need you, so self-adoring or wounded he meets criticism with violence or icy rage, who turns into another person in front of your eyes, or simply turns away when he said he'd be there—if you love someone who seems to have the particular twenty-first-century selfishness in some more subtle, or worse, invisible way, you will likely go to the internet for help.

The internet of course offers answers to even the wrong questions.

You'll read, in that seizable portion of the self-help internet we might call, awkwardly, the narcisphere, a story that can change the way you see everything if you start believing in it, giving you the uncanny but slightly exciting sensation that you're living in a movie. It's familiar, this movie, as if you've seen in before and it's a creepy one, but you have the most important role in the script. You're the hero.

The basic script plays out like this.

At first, the narcissist is extraordinarily charming, even kind and sweet. Then, after a while, he seems full of himself. It could be a “he” or a “she,” but let's stick with “he.” That's what you start to think, when you know someone like this: he's full of himself. But the narcissist is empty.

Normal, healthy people are full of self, a kind of substance like a soul or personhood that, if you have it, emanates warmly from inside of you toward the outside of you. No one knows what it is, but everyone agrees that narcissists do not have it. Disturbingly, however, they are often better than anyone else at seeming to have it. Because what they have inside is empty space, they have had to make a study of the selves of others in order to invent something that looks and sounds like one. Narcissists are imitators par excellence. The murderer plagiarized most of his manifesto, obviously and badly, but often narcissists are so good at imitating that you won't even notice. And they do not copy the small, boring parts of selves. They take what they think are the biggest, most impressive parts of other selves, and devise a hologram of self that seems superpowered. Let's call it “selfiness,” this simulacrum of a superpowered self. Sometimes they seem crazy or are really dull, but often, perhaps because they have had to try harder than most to make it, the selfiness they've come up with is qualitatively better, when you first encounter it, than the ordinary, naturally occurring selves of normal, healthy people.

[…]

Because for the narcissist, this appreciation of you is entirely contingent on the idea that you will help him to maintain his selfiness. If you do not, or if you are near him when someone or something does not, then God help you. When that picture shatters, his hurt and his rage will be unmatched in its heat or, more often, its coldness. He will unfriend you, stop following you, stop returning your emails, stop talking to you completely. He will cheat on you without seeming to think it's a big deal, or break up with you, when he has said he'd be with you forever. He will fire you casually and without notice. Whatever hurts most, he will do it. Whatever you need the most, he will withhold it. He cannot feel other people's feelings, but he is uncannily good at figuring out how to demolish yours.

[…]

It isn't that the narcissist is just not a good person; she's like a caricature of what we mean by “not a good person.” She's not just bad; she's a living, breathing lesson in what badness is.

Immanuel Kant offered a formulation for how to do the right thing: Asking yourself, if everyone acted this way, would the world be a better place? Good people, we tend to believe, will treat others as the ends themselves, not the means. Narcissists, along with psychopaths, do the opposite. For them, people are the means toward other ends. “If everyone were to follow suit,” Dombek writes, “the world would go straight to hell.”

The realization that the narcissist, not so much selfish as not really having a self, changes everything. Suddenly you can see them for what they are: puppets or clowns. While they may look human, they are not.

So what should you do when you are confronted with a narcissist?

It seems no matter what you answer, you'll be haunted forever. With equal certainty the internet offers two pieces of common advice: love them and expect nothing and hope that they change, or run as fast and as far as you can.

If the prevailing wisdom that narcissism is becoming more and more common is indeed true, today's prevailing advice doesn't scale.

Kant's advice no longer holds. But that is not the worst of it. Running is an act of the very same coldness described by the diagnosis. What if the only way to escape a narcissist is to act like one yourself?

The question of the selfishness of others, though, leads quickly to the very difficult question of how we know things about others at all, and the mind-knotting question of how we know things at all.

Dombek goes on to explore provocative questions of ourselves—most of us can be put in environments where we display situational narcissisms; why is having a boyfriend or boss like having a villain; why do the narcissistic descriptions of others (“in moments you quietly bury deep inside you”) remind you of yourself.

 

The Most Respectful Interpretation

Consider this situation: You email a colleague with a question expecting a prompt response, but hours or days later you’ve yet to hear from them. Perhaps you can’t move forward on your project without their input so you find yourself blocked. How do you imagine you feel in this situation?

For many of us, situations like this result in feelings of anger, frustration, or annoyance. Maybe we take it personally and conclude that our colleague is lazy or that they don’t value our time or our work. Perhaps we send off a terse reminder asking for an update.

If we’re feeling particularly revengeful, we alert the person’s manager or mention our grievance to another colleague looking for validation that the offending colleague is in fact lazy and disrespectful – a form of confirmation bias.

Perhaps this colleague has been slow to respond to communications in the past, thus we extrapolate that to all of their communications, a case of the fundamental attribution error.

Of course, it's natural to feel anger and frustration when faced with these situations. But is anger the appropriate response?

In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle wrote about The Virtue Concerned with Anger. He begins Book IV with a description of good temper:

The man who is angry at the right things and with the right people, and, further, as he ought, when he ought, and as long as he ought, is praised. This will be the good-tempered man, then, since good temper is praised.

Aristotle tells us that anger has a time and place and that when applied to the right people and for the right reason, is justified and even praiseworthy. But we have to use anger judiciously:

For the good-tempered man tends to be unperturbed and not to be led by passion, but to be angry in the manner, at the things, and for the length of time, that reason dictates; but he is thought to err rather in the direction of deficiency; for the good-tempered man is not revengeful, but rather tends to make allowances.

In Aristotle’s description of good temper, he encourages us to err in the direction of “making allowances”. But how can we do this in practice?

Let’s return to our example.

We take our colleague's lack of response personally and assume they are lazy or disrespectful, but it is important for us to recognize that we are assuming. We often instinctively chose to assume the worst of people, because it slips easily into mind. But what if instead we chose to assume the best?

In her book Rising Strong, Brené Brown describes how she learned to assume that people are doing the best they can and shares a concept introduced to her by Dr. Jean Kantambu Latting, a professor at University of Houston. Brown writes:

Whenever someone would bring up a conflict with a colleague, she would ask, ‘What is the hypothesis of generosity? What is the most generous assumption you can make about this person’s intentions or what this person said?’

By pausing to reflect on our anger we can recognize that we are making a negative assumption and challenge ourselves to invert the situation and consider the opposite: “What is the most generous assumption I can make?”

Perhaps our colleague has been given a higher priority project, or they don’t understand that we’re blocked without their input. Maybe they are dealing with some personal challenges outside of the office, or they need input from somebody else to reply to our message and thus they’re blocked as well. Perhaps they've decided to reduce their email frequency in order to focus on important work.

When we pause to look at the situation from another angle, not only do we entertain some explanations that frame our colleagues in a more positive light, but we put ourselves into their shoes; the very definition of empathy.

We’ve all had competing priorities, distractions from personal issues outside of work, miscommunications regarding the urgent need of our response, etc. Do we think others judged us fairly or unfairly in those moments?

The point is not to make excuses or avoid addressing problems with our colleagues, but that if we recognize we are making negative assumptions by default, we might need to challenge ourselves to consider more generous alternatives. This may alter the way we approach our colleague to address the situation. It takes effort and a commitment to think about people differently.

Someone who knew this best was the late, great author David Foster Wallace.

***

In his beautiful commencement speech to the Kenyon graduating class of 2005, Wallace reminds the students that the old cliché of liberal arts education teaching you to think is truer than they might want to believe. He warns that one of the biggest challenges the graduates will face in life is to challenge their self-centered view of the world – a view that we all have by default.

Using some of life’s more mundane and annoying activities like shopping and commuting, Wallace writes:

The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

Please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being “well-adjusted”, which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

The recognition that we are inherently self-centered and that this affects the way in which we interpret the world seems so obvious when pointed out, but how often do we stop to consider it? This is our hard-wired default setting, so it's quite a challenge to become willing to think differently.

As an example, Wallace describes a situation where he is disgusted by the gas guzzling Hummer in front of him in traffic. The idea of these cars offends him and he starts making assumptions about the drivers: they're wasteful, inconsiderate of the planet, and inconsiderate of future generations.

Look, if I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.

But then he challenges himself to consider alternative interpretations, something often described as making the Most Respectful Interpretation (MRI). Wallace decides to consider more respectful interpretations of the other drivers – maybe they have a legitimate need to be driving a large SUV or to be rushing through traffic.

In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.

Again, please don't think that I'm giving you moral advice, or that I'm saying you're “supposed to” think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it, because it's hard, it takes will and mental effort, and if you're like me, some days you won't be able to do it, or you just flat out won't want to. But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options.

A big part of learning to think is recognizing our default reactions and responses to situations — the so-called “System 1” thinking espoused by Daniel Kahneman. Learning to be “good-tempered” and “well-adjusted” requires us to try to be more self-aware, situationally aware, and to acknowledge our self-centered nature; to put the brakes on and use System 2 instead.

So the next time you find yourself annoyed with your colleagues, angry at other drivers on the road, or judgmental about people standing in line at the store, use it as an opportunity to challenge your negative assumptions and try to interpret the situation in a more respectful and generous way. You might eventually realize that the broccoli tastes good.

Richard Restak: A Simple Exercise To Read The Emotions of Others

One of Charles Darwin’s less famous works, his The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, released in 1872, kicked off the idea that emotions carry distinct facial expressions. We read these emotions naturally, from birth, all the time — it’s part of our innate wiring, and how to relate to and understand others. But we can learn to read them better with some practice.

One of the complicating factors in learning to read the emotions of other people is that we’ve been taught from a young age to conceal all emotions. We shouldn’t talk about them, display them, or feel them. Reading humans is a lot trickier than any other species, because we can conceal, confuse, hide.

As a result of this, offers Richard Restak in Mozart's Brain and the Fighter Pilot: Unleashing Your Brain's Potential, “[T]he reading of other people’s emotions from their facial expressions is a subtle and arcane art that not everyone learns successfully.”

And this is odd considering that a lot of success in life comes from the ability to accurately read the emotions of other people and (simultaneously) control your own.

Restak provides a simple exercise to improve our ability to read the emotions of others based on the fact that “when a person pretends an emotion, he or she activates the same brain areas that would be activated in circumstances when the emotions are naturally and spontaneously expressed.”

Start by grabbing a trusted and interested friend. Sit on the floor about 3 feet apart, and have your friend close her eyes.

Then, while gazing into her face, ask her to think about the saddest moment in her life. She shouldn’t speak or otherwise respond by sighing, touching, or frowning. Study her face for the subtle changes that accompany her recall of the sad experience.

After a minute, ask her to clear her mind and think of nothing in particular. … Observe any facial changes that may occur as her thoughts shift from sad to neutral. At this point, ask your friend to open her eyes and look directly into your eyes. Ask her once again to think about her saddest experience, then of an emotionally neutral experience, and finally her happiest experience. Keep focused on her face, particularly her eyes as she shifts from one internal experience to the other. What changes do you observe?

Now shift roles.

Let your partner observe you first with your eyes closed as you think sad, indifferent, and happy thoughts. Then open your eyes and repeat the sequence. At this point in the exercise, both of you should spend one minute mentally organizing your impressions. Then share your observations and impressions.

Here is where things get interesting. What did you observe and how does it compare to what she tells you?

Does hearing the details of what she was thinking enrich your observations in any way? While she’s speaking of the sad experience, try to see once again those earlier changes in her eyes and face. Can you now detect something in her eyes or facial expression that escaped you when you were observing her a moment ago? Listen closely while she describes how you appeared to her when you were recalling the saddest and happiest moments in your life.

The most common reason the exercise fails is that, as if by force of nature, we try to conceal our facial expressions.

Both of you must remain psychologically undefended, vulnerable. It’s also important that during the eyes-open part of the exercise you continue to maintain firm but gentle eye contact; not the eye contact of a salesperson or an interviewer, but that of a curious child who remains relaxed and open to a new experience. You’re not trying to “stare down” your partner, but intuitively enter into and participate in his or her inner experience.

This exercise is really intense. Pick your partner carefully. You’ll be dealing with subtle displays of emotion that we all have, however, unlike in social situations, you will get to test the accuracy of your emotional perceptiveness with the other person.

Still Curious? Check out Konstantin Stanislavsky’s An Actor Prepares to help the development of your emotional memory.