Tag: Alan Watts

Alan Watts: Why Modern Civilization is a Vicious Circle

Alan Watts The Wisdom of Insecurity

“When we compare human with animal desire,” writes philosopher Alan Watts in The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety, “we find many extraordinary differences.” Watts offers an interesting perspective on an age-old argument — that our society has its priorities messed up, that we need to live in the moment.

The animal tends to eat with its stomach, and the man with his brain. When the animal's stomach is full, he stops eating, but the man is never sure when to stop. When he has eaten as much as his belly can take, he still feels empty, he still feels an urge for further gratification. This is largely due to anxiety, to the knowledge that a constant supply of food is uncertain. Therefore eat as much as you can while you can. It is due, also, to the knowledge that, in an insecure world pleasure is uncertain. Therefore the immediate pleasure of eating must be exploited to the full, even though it does violence to the digestion.

Human desire tends to be insatiable. We are so anxious for pleasure that we can never get enough of it. We stimulate our sense organs until they become insensitive, so that if pleasure is to continue they must have stronger and stronger stimulants. In self-defence the body gets ill from the strain, but the body wants to go on and on. The brain is in pursuit of happiness, and because the brain is much more concerned about the future than the present it conceives happiness as the guarantee of an indefinitely long future of pleasures. Yet the brain also knows that it does not have an indefinitely long future, so that, to be happy, it must try to crowd all of the pleasures of paradise and eternity into the span of a few years.

This is why modern civilization is in almost every respect a vicious circle.

The root of this frustration is that we live for the future. Yet the future is never, as we move forward it becomes the present.

To pursue (the future) is to pursue a constantly retreating phantom, and the faster you chase it, the faster it runs ahead. This is why all affairs of civilization are rushed, why hardly anyone enjoys what he has, and is forever seeking more and more. Happiness, then, will consist, not of solid and substantial realities, but of such abstract and superficial things as promises, hopes, and assurances.

Thus the “brainy” economy designed to produce this happiness is a fantastic vicious circle which must either manufacture more and more pleasures or collapse-providing a constant titillation of the ears, eyes, and nerve ends with incessant streams of almost inescapable noise and visual distractions.

Watts argues that one of the ills of modern society is that we believe sleep to be a waste of time, that life is short. Interestingly, we'd rather watch TV and chase our fantasies than rest.

Animals spend much of their time dozing and idling pleasantly, but, because life is short, human beings must cram into the years the highest possible amount of consciousness, alertness, and chronic insomnia so as to be sure not to miss the last fragment of startling pleasure.

Our quest for never-ending stimulation comes with a high cost. We become “incapable of real pleasure, insensitive to the most acute and subtle joys of life.” The more common the pleasure the less it interests us. We'd rather watch TV.

Watts tears into our wants and makes us question our desires.

Generally speaking, the civilized man does not know what he wants. He works for success, fame, a happy marriage, fun, to help other people, or to become a “real person.” But these are not real wants because they are not actual things. They are the by-products, the flavours and atmospheres of real things-shadows which have no existence apart from some substance. Money is the perfect symbol of all such desires, being a mere symbol of real wealth, and to make it one's goal is the most blatant example of confusing measurements with reality.

Based on this we cannot, says Watts, call ourselves materialistic. We are in love with not things, but “measures, not solids but surfaces.”

The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety is one of those books that makes you question not only yourself but the fabric of civilization.

How To Be Happy

Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger on the key to happiness

If I were to ask you if you wanted to be happy, 100% of you would say yes. But how many us live our lives in a way that makes us happy?

“The days are long, but the years are short. Time is passing, and I'm not focusing enough on the things that really matter.” — Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project.

At the Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting in Omaha this past weekend, a 30-year old asked what advice the 82-year-old Warren Buffett and his 89-year-old business partner, Charlie Munger, would give if they could communicate with their 30-year-old selves.

Their response might surprise you.

First let's recap a little be about what we think we know about happiness.

Happiness refers to two different phenomena:

The problem begins with language. We use the word happiness, Kahneman says, to refer to two very different and often mutually contradictory phenomena: the mood of the moment and our overall life-satisfaction. The former is an evanescent and notoriously unreliable gauge of the latter. Example: the joy of buying a new car vs. the subsequent, ongoing annoyance of paying the monthly bills.

A lot of people think happiness is about money. But according to Daniel Kahneman:

millions of dollars won’t buy you happiness, but a job that pays $60,000 a year might help. Happiness levels increase up to the $60K mark.

Other people think that if you live a long time you'll be happy. But Alan Watts offers this tidbit of wisdom:

What would you do if money were no object? You do that, and forget the money. Because if you say that getting the money is the most important part then you will spend your life completely wasting your time. You will be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living, that is to go on doing things you don’t like doing. Which is stupid. Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing than a long life spent in a miserable way.

To some extent experts feel that happiness involves being busy, but not rushed.

We know that moving to California won't make you happy. Kahneman explains:

Kahneman’s decades of cognitive research, much of it done in collaboration with longtime colleague Amos Tversky, has shown that humans are subject to what he calls a “focusing illusion.” We focus on the moment, overestimating the importance of certain factors in determining our future happiness and ignoring the factors that really matter.

For this reason, people commonly assume that moving to a warmer climate will make them significantly happier.

Steve Jobs, never one to follow the path, says often what we get told should make us happy results in a very limited life.

When you grow up, you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world, try not to bash into the walls too much, try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money.

That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader, once you discover one simple fact, and that is that everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.

Maybe we'd have more luck if instead of trying to be happy we inverted the problem and avoided the things that make us unhappy.

That brings us back to Buffett and Munger. What they say about life is equally important as what they say about investing.

MUNGER: We're basically so old-fashioned that we're boringly trite. We think you ought to keep plugging along, and stay rational, and stay energetic. Just all the old virtues still work.

BUFFETT: But find what turns you on.

MUNGER: Yeah, you have to work where you're turned on. I don't know about Warren, but I've never succeeded to any great extent in something I didn't like doing.