Freedom and its discontents

How I have moved! I have traveled nearly three thousand miles in less than two weeks.

Now there is stillness– such a stillness as I have never heard before in all my life. Soon I shall start moving again, and perhaps I will never stop.

— Oliver Sacks, On the Move: A Life.

As we grow up, one by one the markers of our childhoods fall away. We let go of the rituals and routines of family life and open ourselves to possibilities, freedom and choice.

In western culture, there is a sense that anything’s possible. But rather than making us happy, freedom can lead to aimlessness, as people wander endlessly in search of the thing, job, person, place that will fulfil them.

Traditional cultures, in which a person’s work, life partner, religion and values are largely determined by the social group they were born into, offer limited choice. But the people tend to feel they have meaning and purpose.

The paradox of choice is a well studied phenomenon whereby having a lot of options makes people anxious. And having made a choice, people who had many options tend to be less happy with their choices than people with fewer options.

While I’m not suggesting we cut back on freedom, I am suggesting that as a society we should be aware that there are limits on the psychological value of freedom.

In his study of suicide in the late nineteenth century, sociologist Emile Durkheim showed that people need constraints – social ties, work obligations, cultural connections – to have a sense of purpose and belonging.

Without obligations and constraints – the opposite of freedom – people are more prone to depression and suicide.

The moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt observes that the ideology of individual freedom has opened up opportunities for people of all backgrounds to participate fully in society. While this is a good thing, the downside is that it becomes harder to find a set of behavioural norms and moral values that everyone can agree on.

The lack of shared moral values in a society is called anomie. It is a weakening of social ties and expectations that imposes a psychological cost on the whole of society.

In his excellent book The Happiness Hypothesis, Haidt observes that the desire to avoid or reverse anomie is a driver of conservative policy and is often misunderstood by liberals. He writes:

We have paid a price for our inclusiveness, but we have bought a more humane society…. and even if some people think the price was too steep, we can’t go back …. all we can do is search for ways that we might reduce our anomie without excluding large classes of people.

Liberals are right to work for a society that is open to people of every demographic group, but conservatives might be right in believing that at the same time we should work much harder to create a common, shared identity.

Those born into traditional culture with clearly defined values, beliefs and practices have a ready-made method of imparting meaning and belongingness to the next generation.

Others need to work a little harder.

In a culture that worships freedom, maybe the best we can do for our children is to provide constraints – clear ethics and values, ties to people and places, and traditions to pass on.

Haidt concludes:

Just as plants need sun, water and good soil to thrive, people need love, work and a connection to something larger.


If you get these relationships right, a sense of purpose and meaning will emerge.


The lesson you don’t get in school: Seneca on learning how to live

My five year old sits at the table, pencil in hand, forming letters on the page. Most are clear enough, although his s’s, p’s and d’s are often reversed. He’s trying to remember to use full stops.

I’m constantly amazed that he is learning to read and write. I probably shouldn’t be.

Continue reading “The lesson you don’t get in school: Seneca on learning how to live”

We need to stop talking about growing the economy

Why do politicians sell their plans to grow the economy as if that is the solution to all our problems?

Yes, rich countries are generally happier than poor ones, and rich people are generally happier than poor people. But money only buys happiness up to a point. Continue reading “We need to stop talking about growing the economy”

Breaking through: On overcoming theory-induced blindness

After retiring from a career on the fringes of 1930s British academia, Lewis Fry Richardson was ready to indulge his passion for the mathematics of war. He wanted to test a theory that the incidence of conflict between countries is systematically related to the length of their common borders. Continue reading “Breaking through: On overcoming theory-induced blindness”

Life’s too short for boring books: Montaigne on why he’d rather be ignorant than read a boring book

In his 16th century essay on books, the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne set down his opinions on various writers, philosophers and poets, and was surprisingly candid about not ‘getting’ some works regarded as great by the experts.

A few weeks ago I went along to the Sydney Writers Festival to see a panel of high profile journalists, writers and entertainers talk all things books; favourite book of the year, best section in the book shop, best film and theatre adaptations and so on.

The whole thing was entertaining and fun, but what I found most interesting was the conversation about the books they hadn’t read; the worthy tomes in unwrinkled jackets staring down from bookshelves in silent judgment.

It was a revelation to me that these intelligent, well read, well rounded individuals could have insecurities about books and authors they hadn’t read; that they could harbour secret fears they might not be smart enough to ‘get it’.

In his 16th century essay on books, the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne set down his opinions on various writers, philosophers and poets, and was surprisingly candid about not ‘getting’ some works regarded as great by the experts. He didn’t seek to challenge the judgment of the experts, but rather to share his own reactions and tastes.

Michel de Montaigne

In the essay, Montaigne tells us has no patience for Ovid; Cicero is long winded and very tedious. He even admits, with “sacrilegious boldness,” to finding the dialogues of Plato “dull and heavy” and laments “so much time lost by a man who had so many better things to say.”

He claims he doesn’t mind if people think he’s ignorant for holding these views because he doesn’t consider himself an expert anyway. His aim in reading is “to become more wise, not more learned or eloquent.”

Montaigne reminds us that life is short and should not be wasted on books we neither understand nor enjoy, and perhaps most importantly, not to waste energy worrying that we aren’t smart or educated enough if we cannot engage with certain books.

I seek in the reading of books only to please myself…. I do not bite my nails about the difficulties I meet with in my reading; after a charge or two, I give them over.


If one book does not please me, I take another.

Montaigne gives us proper philosophical backing not to force a book if it’s not enjoyable.

For some books it may be a matter of getting the timing right. The first time I attempted Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady it was slow and dense. When I reread it recently I found it different and was completely drawn in to Isabel’s world, perhaps because I can relate now to the themes of ambition, relationships, marriage, children etc.

The opposite is also true. As a teenager I found Wuthering Heights to be very moving and deep. Now it seems embarrassingly overwrought, though the language is beautiful as ever.

Other books just need to be given up altogether. For example, I have had to cut loose Oliver Twist after beginning and giving up so many times before.

Taking Montaigne’s lead, I will also admit that much as I enjoyed his essay on books, and also quite liked the ones on solitude and the inequalities between us, the language is generally difficult and I can’t get into most of them.

With him I say:

I could wish to have a more perfect knowledge of things, but I will not buy it so dear as it costs.

And so I’ve closed his book – no more Montaigne for me – and on to the next.

When silver is worse than bronze: the cognitive errors that make successful people unhappy

I had everything a man could want…. I was a millionaire. I had beautiful women in my life. I had cars, a house, an incredible solid gold career and a future. And yet on a daily basis I wanted to commit suicide.

Eric Clapton was one of the most successful rock stars on the planet. He had it all and he was miserable. And he’s not alone.

You could probably name a dozen actors, musicians, sports stars and billionaires who are deeply unhappy despite being among the elite in their field.

We might wonder how such successful people can be so unhappy.

It’s tempting to think that we are somehow different; if I were in their shoes I would be happy. But there’s no evidence that highly successful people are inherently more vulnerable to discontentment and depression than the rest of us. We’re all subject to the same faulty beliefs and errors of judgment that can lead to unhappiness.

This article explains the main culprits.

Comparison and adjustment

Photo by Wolfgang Hasselmann on Unsplash

It’s human nature to compare. We use other people as reference points to decide whether we are satisfied with our selves, our accomplishments and possessions. Unfortunately this compulsion to compare can lead to some perverse outcomes.

For example, while objectively it’s obvious that coming second in a race is better than coming third, research on the facial expressions of medallists at the 2012 Olympics found that for the athletes themselves this wasn’t the case.

While the gold medallists appeared happiest, the silver medallists on average appeared less happy than the bronze medallists. Why? They were comparing against different reference points. Many of the silver medallists were disappointed to miss out on gold, whereas the bronze medallists were just happy to win a medal at all.

As this example suggests, the reference points we use for measuring outcomes we care about are not static. The research shows we adjust to each new life event until it is just the new normal. This is the law of hedonic adaptation.

Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.

Ecclesiastes 5:10

After awhile my fancy new car is just my car; my exciting new job, just my job. And the new normal becomes the reference point for raised expectations in the future.

What’s more, the law of diminishing sensitivity applies to external rewards like money and fame: like a drug, the more you get the more you need to achieve the same level of satisfaction.


As a Beatle we made it and there was nothing to do. We had money, we had fame, and yet there was no joy.

– John Lennon

Research by psychologists Dan Gilbert and Tim Wilson indicates that people have a poor understanding of what they need to be happy. Their studies show that we make choices – to work hard for advancement, buy a big house and make a name for ourselves – based on an intuition that these things will make us happy. But changes in life circumstances have a much smaller impact on happiness than we expect.

This error is caused by a focusing illusion: when we think about how an event will affect our future happiness we focus too much on the the event and overlook the main causes of well being, things like genetic predisposition, living in a democratic country, having a healthy life expectancy and social support. And we ignore the law of hedonic adaptation.

Gilbert and Wilson coined the term ‘miswanting’ to describe the poor choices people make as a result of errors in predicting what will make them happy in the future.

Another cause of miswanting is a tendency to value the remembering self over the experiencing self. I write about that here. Serena Williams’s comments about tennis during the 2012 Australian Open encapsulate this point:

It’s not that I’ve fallen out of love; I’ve actually never liked sports, and I’ve never understood how I became an athlete. And I don’t like working out; I don’t like anything that has to do with working physically.

These words suggest that Serena Williams became an athlete because it was important to her remembering self to become a champion and this overrode her experiencing self’s dislike of playing sport.

Successful people who hate what they do must want to win so badly they are willing to endure endless pressure filled, lonely and exhausting days to get there and stay there – hardly a recipe for happiness.

All things considered it’s not surprising so many successful people are unhappy.

And maybe next time you catch yourself envying a highly successful person you might remember that underneath they might not be any happier than you after all.

The beauty of living simply: the forgotten wisdom of William Morris

It could be the result of keeping an unreasonably tidy house while it was on the market, or moving into a terrace with no wardrobe; or it could be the mountains of things that attach themselves to my children. Whatever the cause, lately I have been in the grip of a decluttering frenzy. Continue reading “The beauty of living simply: the forgotten wisdom of William Morris”

The Alex Kidd complex: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on living for the future

Living for the future is what our social system encourages: it promises ‘the good life’ and we work for its goals. This article considers how we can apply the concept of flow to improve our lives today.

As a child of the 80s, the first video game I ever played was Alex Kidd in Miracle World on Master System. I remember the wonder and joy of it, grappling with the controls to navigate Alex Kidd around his world.

Then, reaching what seemed to be the end, but which was actually the gateway to the next level, my mindset shifted: this was no longer a pleasant romp around Miracle World but an urgent quest to get to the end!

Like a lot of people these days, it seems, I often live as though life were a video game with the goals to get the furthest the fastest: Level 1 – School, Level 2 – University, Level 3 – Get a Job, Level 4 – Go for Promotion …

In playing this game, there is, to quote Eckhart Tolle, a tendency to be “so busy getting to the future that the present is reduced to a means of getting there.”

In the introduction to his great work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, eminent psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (say “chick sent me hi yi”) observes:

We grow up believing that what counts most in our lives is that which will occur in the future. Parents teach children that if they learn good habits now, they will be better off as adults. Teachers assure pupils that the boring classes will benefit them later, when the students are going to be looking for jobs.

The company vice president tells junior employees to have patience and work hard, because one of these days they will be promoted to the executive ranks. At the end of the long struggle for advancement, the golden years of retirement beckon ….

As people move through life, passing from the hopeful ignorance of youth into sobering adulthood, they sooner or later face an increasingly nagging question: “Is this all there is?”

Living for the future is what our social system encourages: it promises ‘the good life’ and we work for its goals.

We must, to an extent, accept this deal to function in society; to have somewhere to live, meet living expenses and participate meaningfully in the world.

Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

But, Csikszentmihalyi argues, to achieve a high quality of life, it is not necessary to put all one’s time and energy into conventional goals, what he calls ‘social controls’, such as climbing the career ladder, power, possessions, money and reputation.

Instead, what is required is the ability to find rewards in the events of each moment:

If a person learns to enjoy and find meaning in the ongoing stream of experience, in the process of living itself, the burden of social controls automatically falls from one’s shoulders ….

Instead of forever straining for the tantalising prize dangled just out of reach one begins to harness the genuine rewards of living.

He goes on to explain that the way to enjoy the process of living is to find more opportunities to enter into states of ‘flow’ – the feeling of being completely absorbed in an activity.

He summarises decades of research thus:

The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.

And so the goals of the game change, and now the challenge is to find my flow in miracle world.