Happiness and Meaning Revisted

Last week I was talking to a friend about happiness. We were discussing how to live a happy, meaningful life and not get discouraged by the general impossibility of eliminating suffering. That seems like a silly thing to get weighed down by, but it is hard to accept that people are suffering and there’s nothing you can do about it. No matter how much you do and how much you donate and how much you plan and all the rest, you can’t fix the world. Even small scale changing are incredibly difficult. Sure, I can volunteer at a food bank and make a difference in a number of people’s lives but that’s a tiny difference and doesn’t involve any wholesale changes to improve the person’s life. Feeding someone may help them get through the day more comfortably but how does it help prevent another person from taking his or her place (assuming the first person does move on)? I’m not suggesting charity is useless, a small help is still help. I’m wondering how we prevent ourselves from being worn down by the inevitability of true suffering considering even tiny changes are difficult to sustain?

This conversation about trying to help people turned into a conversation about what gives life meaning. It would seem like, on the face of things, eliminating suffering as much as we can for our fellow human beings would be the most important thing in life. But very, very few people live in a way that works towards that goal. And to be clear, I’m not looking down on those people, I’m included among them. It’s possible that neuroscience can help a great number of people, but it’s not entirely likely and not my primary interest anyway. (Free will arguments and being more rational isn’t feeding anyone or restructuring governments.) I always come back to the principle of equal consideration because I’ve never heard a decent take-down of the principle.

If I truly believe that overall well-being should be maximized then I don’t know how to argue out of improving someone else’s before my own. Giving arbitrary values to our well-being, someone in a poverty stricken country is probably aroudn a 1 or 2 (lacking essential needs for survival) and mine is, by default somewhere at a 5-7 (basic needs met, left over resources for entertainment and comfort and concerns about eternity and legacies and meaning). Looking at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which may have its flaws, the base is pretty necessary for life. We can argue over the extras to hit a fulfilled, actualized life, but we mostly need to be fed to care about them. And so I’m up on that hierarchy because I ate today, flushed a toilet, showered, have access to water, etc. Even if I didn’t enjoy listening to music or reading today, I’m still higher on that pyramid. Buying 5 books won’t bump me up to self-actualization, but giving that money to a charity may bump someone up by fulfilling physiological needs.

 

We got to talking in more detail about what we should be doing. And she said something slightly annoying, in my opinion. She said she didn’t like when people act as though animal lives are as, or more, important than human lives. I was thinking about that documentary in which people risk their lives to protect gorillas. It’s on Netflix and is called Virunga. I don’t think she was suggesting that those people are wasting their time but I also don’t feel as though she respects them as much as somebody who would do the same, but for humans. Meanwhile, neither one of us is doing anything for anyone. (At least not on the level the people in the documentary are. We were in a comfortable car on our way to lunch with her child.) I was reminded of the Tim Minchin line “your dog has a bigger carbon footprint than a four wheel drive. And so does your baby, maybe you oughta trade him in for a Prius.” Not the same topic, obviously, but it makes a good point that we certainly pick our battles to heavily favor ourselves. To use myself as an example. I didn’t get a Keurig because I felt the little cups were wasteful, but I use a French press and occasionally I’m lazy and use a paper towel to get rid of the grounds. Is that any better? Maybe marginally, but I still make myself feel better by not using k-cups.
So she decided to highlight her philanthropy, though it may be unavoidably limited due to her financial situation, by degrading others actions. We all do. Can’t fault her.

The main line through our conversation was being happy in a seemingly overwhelmingly unhappy place. (Although, she’s religious so she sort of has an out with being rewarded in the afterlife, which makes suffering on earth not that horrible, and the whole, “God has a plan” thing means suffering have a purpose. For some reason she didn’t mention either.) Most of our lives appear to be incredibly self-centered. I’m worried about my happiness and finding meaning. Even when considering all the good we do for friends and family, and the amount we worry about their well-being, it’s all centered around us. The amount most of us do for people we’ll never meet and the time spent agonizing over their well-being is diminutive in comparison.

Our conversation went on for some time along those lines. I’m not sure we discovered anything important, but it felt good to talk about.

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Happiness and Meaning Revisted

Hello? (and Book Recommendations)

This is going to be vague, but someone posted a blog about buying some new books that involved Haruki Murakami and some others. One of the other books sounded really interesting and I had planned on checking it out but by the time I got around to searching for it, I couldn’t remember the name of the book or the author. If the person who wrote that blog happens to see this and remind me of the book/author, I would very much appreciate it.

I don’t normally post blogs like this and realize it’s a long shot but hey, why not try. (Do you put a question mark at the end of a rhetorical question?)

And so not to waste everyone else’s time entirely, I thought I’d ask for more book recommendations. I plan on picking a few up over the weekend, or Monday, and am open to input. For a reference point, I enjoy pop-science books. The Ego Tunnel, about our sense of self, Rethinking Positive Thinking, about happiness, and Moral Tribes, about morality and some deficits, are three that stand out. As for fiction, I enjoyed Cathedral by Raymond Carver, Stardust by Neil Gaiman and Like Life by Lorrie Moore, recently. If that helps at all, use that information. If it doesn’t help, just name a few favorites and I’ll look into them.

 

Thanks, sorry, bye.

Hello? (and Book Recommendations)

My Foot Is Destroyed

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I wrote, recently, about the aging my body has been doing behind my back (I don’t understand that sentence either). My little toe is something akin to broken, but, as I haven’t seen a doctor, I wouldn’t know the status. Point being, my foot hurts whenever I move. The fun thing about foot injuries is their knack for never healing on account of being used every other time you take a step. I haven’t been running around playing soccer or football (the same sport, depending on who’s reading this), I haven’t kicked any rocks or dropped any heavy objects on my already injured foot. But every time I take a step with my right leg, the pressure on my foot hurts the hurt part of my toe. (It’s the area around the cuboid/5th metatarsal.) I can’t imagine my foot is getting any better, no matter how immobile I make my little toe.

So now I’ve wrapped my foot up something fierce and am hopeful a few days of this will turn things around. But the world isn’t made for suddenly massive feet. I wonder where I fit in. Surely, I’m a lonely fool, and nothing more. I feel better physically, already, but I’m afraid my non-existent ego has taken another formidable blow. I have to recreate an ego just to allow it to be destroyed yet again. At least it was a philosophical decision last time. I don’t know what the general public thinks as I hobble around. Can’t I just be considered eccentric and quirky?

adult_foot_fx_anatomy01a1350352109856

Got this off of google. Credit to whoever wants it. Also, I had no idea what any of these bones were until 3 minutes ago. Keeping my foot moisturized though. Looking good.

My Foot Is Destroyed

Sitting on the Fence

Last week (or something, I don’t remember, look it up), I wrote about sticking to your guns in the face of contrary evidence. I talked about how we all have this tendency to not only hold on to our beliefs but use faulty logic to make us feel better and more convinced that we are right in whatever it is we think is true.

One part that I left out of my post was our initial desire to pick sides. It’s true that opposing information makes us uncomfortable but we are also uncomfortable being undecided. Our brains aren’t huge fans of uncertainty. So when a topic comes up, we like to have an opinion about it and we like to think our opinions are correct. Plus, if we didn’t pick sides we would have nothing to add to the awesome family arguments during the holidays.

Anyway, I was listening to my favorite Australian-born comedian, actor, writer, musician, Tim Minchin and realized his song is better than anything I could write about the topic. And it’s also funny. So I lose, Tim wins. Everyone with good taste wins. I guess I come out even.

The chorus is especially relevant

“We divide the world into terrorists and heroes
Into normal folk and weirdos
Into good people and pedos
Into things that give you cancer and the things that cure cancer
And the things that don’t cause cancer, there’s a chance they will cause cancer in the future
We divide the world to stop us feeling frightened
Into wrong and into right and
Into black and into white and
Into real men and fairies
Into status quo and scary
Yeah we want the world binary, binary
but it’s not that simple.”

It’s easier and it makes us feel good and less afraid when make up our minds about something and hold on to it. But sometimes it’s better to be on the fence, where you can “see which grass is greener, chances are it’s neither and either way it’s easier to see the difference when you’re sitting on the fence”.

Sitting on the Fence

A New Phone

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I have a new phone, so hit me up!

The current year is 2015, a full eight years after the original iPhone was released. Yesterday, I got my first smart phone, an iPhone 6. Before yesterday I had little interest in smart phones or mobile phones in general. My previous phone was a slider. I had no internet access, no wifi capabilities, no special ringtones, a terrible camera, no GPS (that I know of), or any of that. Before I get some hipster looks (although, I’d argue hipsters have cool androids or something with personalized hand-knitted cases), I’m not against technology or smart phones at all. I simply don’t have the need for one when considering the substantial cost of most. My last phone was free and the monthly fee was around 20 bucks. But yesterday I went to see my parents and they decided to buy iPhones and get me one because someone worked out some ridiculous deal. Now I have a giant cell phone that does all kinds of fun stuff. I guess it’s unavoidable, really. At some point only smart phones will be produced, and it seems like we’re almost there already. I didn’t know anyone else who didn’t already have an iPhone or Galaxy. And they’ve had them for years. I don’t use my phone very much so I doubt anything will change because of this. I do like noting the passing of certain periods though. It seems likely that I’ll have a smart phone until I die, very rarely do we go back, right?

Besides, my friends have their own ringtones and that’s not annoying at all, is it stranger on the train with me?

A New Phone

My Niece Aged

My niece turned 1 year(s?) old last week and there was a party, and annoying relatives, and not enough food, and uncomfortable temperatures and conversations, and standing around waiting for something to happen, and watching nothing happen, and all the rest that goes into a party for a human that doesn’t understand much about the world or his/her surroundings.

It was more stressful than anything, but hopefully the little child had some fun.

At the party there was a table with a box, a pen, and index cards on top of it (what a stupid way to say that). You were asked to write what you predicted this one year old person would do when she got older. Of course, I take things way too seriously and am bothered by the concept of guessing what she will be when she gets older based on almost nothing. Sure, she has a scaffolding of a personality. She has some likes and dislikes but they are hardly more than whims. One day she loves her blocks and the next she just wants to carry a giraffe around. But this guessing game is just a fun thing to do at a first birthday and will get some sentimentality points when she gets older. (Even though we know what they say about sentimentality.) It seemed like the point of the game was to write down the most silly possibility. Someone said Mars citizen. Someone said pilot. Other space stuff was popular.

Unfortunately, I’m some weird asshole who can’t just go along with what I’m supposed to do. I should have said a research scientist or professor or neurobiologist. Something related to what I like and what I want to do. It’s cute and saccharine. Twenty years later, “Aww, Matt wanted you to be a scientist like he failed to become!” But I couldn’t do it, or wouldn’t do it. I don’t know. This wasn’t some utilitarian test or anything, I could have written something fun if I forced myself to do it.

I spend a lot of time thinking about advice I would impart on my niece. Advice that I avoid writing down because I know how useless advice is. Telling someone something is one of the worst ways to teach. On top of that, I don’t want to force any idea on her.

But giving myself some leeway, how would I honestly answer what I think/want her to be when she grows up?

I want you to find meaning. I think the most important thing people lack, more than happiness or love, is meaning. I don’t think anything makes us stronger than having meaning in our lives. It makes us resilient because we all will struggle. Everyone and everything will let us down at some point. The people we love will hurt us or leave us. They will disappoint us. (And we’ll return the favors.)  But when everything is stripped away, that meaning won’t go. Fortunately, and unfortunately, this meaning can come from anywhere. It’s fortunate because that means you get to explore and find what fits you. That journey is some fun. But it’s unfortunate because that journey might also be horrible. It may hurt and be lonely and sometimes things will look bleak. And you have to keep pushing through all that horribleness to reach that more secure place, but everything in your head will be urging you to turn back and settle on something within reach. Something easy or immediate. It may be accepting a job you hate and plan on quitting until it’s time to retire or contemplating taking your life, depending on your mental state. You have to fight against yourself. And you will have to do it repeatedly. You’ll have to be smart enough to listen to your doubts when they are valid, and strong enough to dismiss them when they aren’t. It’s not easy. It sometimes won’t be any fun. I hate that I want you to experience any pain, but I truly think it’s the way to go. And there’s every possibility that you’ll be one of the few who figure it out quickly and without struggling. That’s okay, too. Suffering is not necessary, but sometimes unavoidable and I think we should be realistic about it. Be prepared for it, even if there is no good way to prepare.

I think I’m losing the thread now, so I’ll end here. I don’t know what I said, and don’t want to edit it, so I hope it’s somewhat coherent.

 

 

 

*There’s nothing more arrogant than giving advice. I write as if I understand more than everybody else. I don’t. I steal ideas that make the most sense to me then butcher them. Hopefully they’re good enough to survive the process of traveling through my head.

My Niece Aged

Music Fans

Music is unreasonably special. It’s easy to overlook how soothing music is for all sorts of maladies. I think almost everyone can appreciate music on some level but we don’t often stop to think about its full effects. I won’t bother discussing taste, since my annoying elitism will be showing, and this is a more calm post than that would end up being. Whatever music we like, we all get similar benefits.

I’m still missing little Toons right now, but today I started listening to a band named toe, a math rock band from Japan. I listened to their most recent album, Hear You, three times through. Beginning to end, I love it. Sitting and listening to the music without bothering with the rest of the world was beautiful.

I’ve heard the album a total of three times, all today, so I’m in no position to spend any time reviewing the music besides saying it made me feel better. Or maybe, more precisely, it let me be okay with where I was and how I felt.

I’m guessing other people get a similar experience from other art forms. I think the part that puts music at the top, for me, is the primitive open-endedness. Specific sounds are almost impossible to ignore. They make you feel something (like minor keys). This toe album is primarily instrumental. Only a handful of songs have any singing and much of that is in a different language or incomprehensible (to my ears). Without needing language, the music helped in a way that’s difficult to explain explicitly. It’s not quote an escape because when I listen to music I don’t leave my problems behind, I’m still aware of them but they are translucent. Somehow they are less clouded and allowed to exist without judgment.

I was sad today and I let myself feel sad but not get down. Hear You made that possible for me. I’m really not sure what else can do that.

The single

A really great live song I just heard.

Thanks for reading

Music Fans