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.

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”

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

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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.

Miswanting

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 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.

A tale of two selves: Daniel Kahneman on the duality of self consciousness

Does the quality of our day to day experiences matter in the long run? Psychologist Daniel Kahneman considers this question in ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ where he distinguishes between the experiencing self and the remembering self.

On returning to work after my firstborn I remember relating to my (not very empathetic) boss at the time some minor worries over our new daycare arrangements: the constant illnesses, the tears and fears of separation, and knowing our bub was no longing enjoying the one-on-one care and attention he was used to.

As if helpfully trying to put things into perspective for me (while actually trying to extricate himself from the conversation) my then boss responded, “Ah well. They all turn out alright in the end, don’t they?”

It was a throwaway line, but it stayed with me, as it struck me as so odd: Do we really believe this? That the quality of a child’s – or anyone’s – experience day to day doesn’t really matter so long as things “turn out” alright in the end?

The eminent psychologist Daniel Kahneman considers this question in Part V of his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman distinguishes between the ‘experiencing self’ and the ‘remembering self’:

The experiencing self is the one that answers the question: “Does it hurt now?” The remembering self is the one that answers the question: “How was it, on the whole?” It is the perspective we adopt as we think about our lives. Memories are all we get to keep from our experience of living, and the only perspective that we can adopt as we think about our lives is therefore that of the remembering self.

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Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Kahneman’s research shows that we tend to make decisions for the benefit of the remembering self, while showing a surprising degree of apathy to the pains and pleasures of the experiencing self. He invites us to observe our attitude to our experiencing self using a thought experiment about an upcoming holiday.

How would this prospect affect your vacation plans? … At the end of the vacation, all pictures and videos will be destroyed. Furthermore you will swallow a potion that will wipe out all your memories of the vacation.

Kahneman reports that some choose to maximise pleasure by returning to a place where they had holidayed happily before. Others show a total disregard for their experiencing self, saying they would not bother to go at all.

I am firmly in the former camp, and even rather like the idea of this hypothetical amnesic holiday: with no pressure to create new memories (and the requisite social media evidence) there would be more space and time to actually relax and enjoy the moment.

Of course, the question of which self to live for has implications not just for the way we holiday, but for all the big and small decisions about family, career and how we spend our days.

It becomes most pressing when the choices that would optimise and prolong pleasure and enjoyment in the moment – you might even say ‘happiness’ – are not the same as the choices that create a good story or a meaningful life, the goal of the remembering self. I write more about that here.

If most people were to review their life choices in this light, rightly or wrongly, they would probably find it is their remembering self who is calling the shots.

Kahneman does not provide advice on the best way to live, but concludes simply:

Odd as it may seem, I am my remembering self, and my experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me.