Don’t talk to strangers. This is a social norm which wants to tell us who we should and shouldn’t relate to. It tells us to stick to people like ourselves. Yet when we’re at our best, we reach out for people who aren’t like us. Maria Bezaitis’ phrase for that is, ‘ strangeness,’ and she feels we should get more.
According to Bezaitis, the social landscape is changing. New technologies open up new opportunities for people. In the context of digital technology, you’re already doing things with people you don’t know, so thinking of strangers as people to avoid is the wrong thing. Strangers and weak ties have been said to be more effective at transferring information to us than close friends. We’re already homogenized with those we know.
Take our possessions and make them available to people we don’t know. As people’s relationships to the things in their lives change, so do their relationships with other people.
Strangeness makes the point that we need to disrupt our zones of familiarity; for learning and discovery. In the context of digital relations, seeking strangeness might be a good basis for innovation.
Is success really earned? And if so, do we assume failure is deserved?
In this humorous talk Alain de Botton dissects our idea of success and explains why we’re not jealous of the Queen!
Modern society is more equal than ever. We may be as unlikely to end up the next Bill Gates as a peasant would have been to rise to the French aristocracy in the 17th century, yet we believe we should be able to. The first question asked at many a dinner party remains,’So what do you do?’ Expectations and hope for our careers and lives are at an all time high. Magazines and books describe how we can ‘have it all.’ It may be easier than ever before to make a good living. The ability to rise to where we please is a beautiful thing; or is it?
It turns out that this spirit of equality is closely linked with envy. Ask most people in the world if they’re jealous of the Queen of England and they’re likely to answer in the negative. She lives in a huge house, has this life of endless boring engagements and an odd family. In short, we can’t identify with anything she does. But imagine you went to school with the President of America? Would you feel inadequate, knowing you once beat Barrack Obama in a spelling competition and now you earn ten times less than him? Apparently many of us would. In every self-help section there are dozens of titles on dealing with low self esteem. While there is a high value put on success, the consequences of failure can be crushing, and this has a detrimental effect on our self worth.
Modern society has a lot to answer for. We have nothing at our epicentre that is non-human; most people in developed countries worship human achievement far more than any Gods or idols. Our heroes are human heroes. In
Ancient Greek theatre, the tragic plays examined why people failed and afforded them a level of sympathy they may not have received otherwise. At the other end of the spectrum, today we have the tabloid newspaper, specially designed to highlight failures on a daily basis. In the middle ages, a pauper was described as unfortunate; in modern America, somebody at the lower end of society can be described as a ‘loser.’ It’s probably not surprising that rates of suicide are higher in developed countries than anywhere else in the world.
The unfortunate truth is that we often don’t make our own decisions about what constitutes success. Instead, our impression of a successful life is influenced by media, advertising, our parents, friends, colleagues. De Botton re-iterates that we can’t have it all. Chasing the perfect career is great, but theres always a trade-off. So let’s probe away at our notions of success and make sure our ideas are really our own.
Can we happy if we don’t get the things we want? Harvard professor and the author of ‘Stumbling on Happiness’, Dan Gilbert tells us we have a psychological immune system which lets us feel truly happy even when life doesn’t go as planned.
Over the last two million years the human brain has tripled in mass. In evolutionary terms, this is huge. The brain not only got bigger; it gained new structure. Major gains include the frontal lobe and pre-frontal cortex. Amongst its many functions, the pre-frontal cortex is responsible for experience simulation. Everyone has this ability. Ben and Jerrys don’t have liver and onion ice-cream because they made some and tasted it; we can sit in an armchair and imagine how it would be disgusting! Using this ‘experience simulator’, we can also synthesis the emotion of happiness. Most of us just don’t believe it.
Gilbert proposes that synthesised happiness is every bit as worthwhile as ‘natural’ happiness (also known as getting what we want!) He has the scientific data to prove it. A study of people following major life traumas shows that if it happened more than three months before, it has no impact whatsoever on happiness. Paraplegics and lottery winners have the same levels of happiness after one year. Quotes from people who’ve been subject to everything from natural disasters to marital breakdown can often testify to this. Take the words of Moreese Bickham, 78 years old when he was released from a Louisiana State Penitentiary after serving 37 years for a crime he didn’t commit; “It was a glorious experience.” Or there’s Pete Best, the first drummer from the Beatles; “I’m happier than I would have been with the Beatles.”
On hearing such statements, most of us roll our eyes and think, ‘Well, you must not have wanted it.’ We discredit the idea of the psychological immune system in favour of the natural happiness model. Gilbert says this refusal to believe is mainly economic. A shopping mall full of Zen monks is hardly going to be profitable, as none want ‘stuff’ enough.
More research points to the fact this psychological immune system works best when we are totally stuck. This is the difference between dating and marriage, freedom and incarceration. Unfortunately, we continue to maintain too much choice, not knowing that boundaries to our longings and the constant chasing of experiences is actually making us unhappy. When we overrate our fears and longings, we make bad decisions. Unbounded ambition leads to lying and cheating to get what one wants; unbounded fear leads to recklessness. Yes, we should have preference which leads us to one future over another. But these preferences shouldn’t be overblown. In the words of Shakespeare;
‘Tis nothing good or bad; But thinking makes it so.’
You may remember how Ruby Wax was told this by friends when she’d suffered a breakdown.
As Matthieu Ricard says, nobody wakes up and vows to spend the day in suffering. Apparently we’re all searching for happiness, but do we know what we’re really looking for?
Ricard is a French academic- turned Buddhist monk who is often described as the happiest man in the world. In his TED talk, he defines happiness as a ‘deep sense of serenity and fulfilment’. Happiness in this sense is different from pleasure, which comes and goes. Think back to the time your favourite team won a cup- You may have been filled with elation at first, later followed by the normal sports viewer’s dip. This is similar in ways to how an alcoholic craves the good times in the pub, the sense of confidence they had when drinking.
These are examples of the times when we look to outside sources for happiness. Buddhism teaches that we must look inside ourselves, as ultimately it is the mind which is a source of happiness. The very nature of consciousness is that it can change, as emotions in themselves are fleeting. This possibility for change is at the basis of mind training; humans cannot experience two contrasting emotions at the same time. Finding an antidote to a ‘bad’ emotion, such as hatred, can ultimately dispel that feeling.
Mind training may seem like a drastic measure, yet Ricard reminds us how much time we spend training our body and brain. He describes the results of various studies of happiness using CT brain imaging, in which those experiencing strongly positive symptoms showed increased activity in the left side of their premotor cortex, while depressed individuals had more response on the right side. Meditators who meditated on compassion had a strong sense of well- being in all.
The comments that follow this talk indicate how many people watched it for the obvious; to learn HOW to be happy. Ricard doesn’t give any specific answers, although he is the author of five books which should give more detail. He obtains plenty of laughs during this talk, which is informative and inspiring.
P.S: should you wish to see a humorous talk proving that money doesn’t buy happiness, I’d recommend this.