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The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain De Botton

23 Jul

Alain de Botton

Alain De Botton is a great chap who makes philosophy accessible, and relevant to everyday life. He not only does this with his books and lectures, but also through his School of Life which “runs courses in the important questions of everyday life” about “things we all tend to care about: careers, relationships, politics, travels, families“.

This book is a fun read, and surprisingly quite a page turner. It’s not a profound philosophical treatise or psychological exposition, rather an almost whimsical insight into different careers.

Alain describes a group of people in different types of work, from boring office work, through aviation and entrepreneurship, to a chap that designs electricity pylons. And that last one was fascinating: did you know that 2/3 of the London power supply comes from one nuclear station on the coast, along a 175km line of cable, which is made up of 69 aluminium strands, configured in the so-called cowslip formation?

cowslip formationWhat Alain perfectly described was the joy of someone who genuinely loved his work. This guy even went on holidays trekking along the routes of major power lines. A geek in the best sense of the word.

At first it seems as if he’s just describing different kinds of jobs. And he is. But there are plenty of gems in there if you look for them. The painter was a fascinating case – a dude that painted a tree. The same tree. Again and again for years. “Have you ever noticed water? Properly noticed it, I mean – as if you had never seen it before?

Or the career counsellor: “It isn’t normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement.

Alain is so good at writing he’s able to bring these different jobs to life. Which is the point really. It doesn’t matter what you do – doing something that is ‘you’ to the best of your ability, and loving it is what’s important. It’s about living. Pointless though it may seem in the grander scheme of things, it does matter from your perspective. So embrace it.

Here is a sample of just how good his writing is:

The man was evidently disinclined by nature to pay extravagant compliments, for when he finally spoke, it was to say ‘Fuck off‘ again with a resolve which his previous riposte had perhaps lacked – to which sentiment he then added, lest there remain any ambiguity, ‘Get the hell out of here before I shoot you in the ass.'”

Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche

4 Sep

I love Nietzsche’s ideas, and he doesn’t fail to shock and impress in this book.

He says that these ideas are not for everybody and he’s certainly right on that front. A lot of people I know wouldn’t be able to take on board some of his ideas as they push at our notions of right and wrong, society, power and fairness. Not to mention his strong sexism and stereotyping of nationalities. That’s not to say there is not truth in his ideas simply because they push against what is considered right and wrong in our current moral framework.

This version, translated a century ago by Helen Zimmern, is difficult to read. Logorrheic sentences that last a whole page mean the text is hard to comprehend. The way French, Latin and other languages are thrown in willy-nilly also detracts from an easy understanding. I’d be surprised if there’s not a better translation out there.

Here are some of his ideas that really struck home:

Morality is about maintaining power. People say that the morality of the average Joe Bloggs tends to be more democratic, more meritocratic, and so on, whereas those with power and control see this morality with disdain, almost don’t comprehend the point of it; their morals lead them to maintain their position. The morality of both parties is about increasing their power.

It’s all about one of Nietzsche’s favourite concepts: Will To Power. We talk about fighting for freedom (as currently seen in the Middle East), but it is often the case that freedom is a synonym for power.

He is scathing in his attacks on philosophers and, I presume by ironic extension, on himself. He says that philosophers have ideas, prejudices and beliefs and their philosophy is less about finding truth, and more about proving their own truth, more about finding justifications for their views. He goes on to say their philosophy is a confession, or an unconscious autobiography.

One of his more shocking assertions is worth quoting directly “The falseness of an opinion is not for us any objection to it: it is here, perhaps, that our new language sounds most strangely. The question is, how far an opinion is life-furthering, life-preserving, species-preserving, perhaps species-rearing, and we are fundamentally inclined to maintain that the falsest opinions (to which the synthetic judgments a priori belong), are the most indispensable to us, that without a recognition of logical fictions, without a comparison of reality with the purely IMAGINED world of the absolute and immutable, without a constant counterfeiting of the world by means of numbers, man could not live—that the renunciation of false opinions would be a renunciation of life, a negation of life. TO RECOGNISE UNTRUTH AS A CONDITION OF LIFE; that is certainly to impugn the traditional ideas of value in a dangerous manner, and a philosophy which ventures to do so, has thereby alone placed itself beyond good and evil.

And here is a taster of his apophthegms:

Woman learns how to hate in proportion as she forgets how to charm.

What is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil” i.e. any moral framework goes out of the window when love is the motivation.

I could go on. Suffice to say, a recommended read for those able to take such a strong questioning of many fundamentals.


22 Jul

“Most men pursue pleasure with such breathless haste that they hurry past it.
Soren Kierkegaard

Happiness is a concept that is difficult to pin down. However Daniel Kahneman gives an interesting lecture describing a distinction between two kinds of happiness.

He says that we have happiness in the moment, where a “moment” is defined as being a period of around three seconds that our conscious mind holds. This happiness in the moment is contrasted with the happiness of the memory of the event, i.e. looking back at what happened given our constructed story of what happened.

This perspective sits well with the idea that William James puts forward in defining the difference between the self as “I” and the self as “me”, where the former is the “consciousness of the self in the here and now” and the latter is the “self which we tell others about, is autobiographical or the “me” which again is a coherent account of who we think we are based on past experiences, current events and aspirations for the future.

This distinction does draw into focus what you are trying to achieve in your pursuit of happiness. This is worth considering given what so many psychological studies reveal about how our memories don’t necessarily give a true picture of our past but are rather highlights or what we prefer to remember for better or worse.

Kahneman talks about a cool study which shows that people who have a colonoscopy that finishes particularly painfully will remember the procedure in a worse light than one that was longer and more painful yet ended on a relatively mild note. The implication is that you remember better the last part of a bad experience which then colours your memory of the whole experience.

In terms of enjoying the moment I can recommend the increasingly popular mindfulness approach which is essentially “bringing one’s complete attention to the present moment, and non-judgmentally“. The last few years has seen a lot of positive studies proving the efficacy of mindfulness in increasing happiness as well as reducing stress, improving sleep, relationships and helping with psychological problems such as depression.

Other Philosophers

Of course plenty of philosophers have considered happiness over the years and it’s interesting to look at what they say in the light of Kahneman’s distinction.

Epicurus says what you need to be happy is:

– food and shelter
– time to think
– friends to talk to
– autonomy from a tyrannical boss
– a fine woman

Seneca says that you should expect the worst, so as to be happy with what eventually does happen. This approach requires accepting what you can’t control.

Montaigne contemplates the simple and carefree life of a goat and suggests that rather than reciting what other people think, it is preferable to understand for yourself how to achieve more happiness and fulfilment.

Nietzsche talks about how you can attain fulfilment through effort that may not be pleasant, using the analogy of getting to the top of a mountain. As a cyclist I can agree with this.

For some very practical and positive ideas to help in the pursuit of happiness, see my review of Bertrand Russell’s excellent book.

Agnes Repplier said “It is not easy to find happiness in ourselves, and it is not possible to find it elsewhere“.

Personally I tend to take the Nietzschean approach to fulfilment, and so I have to make an effort to focus on the moment in a more mindful way. I think choosing one thing to focus on and doing it to the best of your ability fits with this. Multitasking is not a productive way to do things and neither is taking on too much, so it’s preferable to learn to let go of things so you can focus on less things and do them well, which can give more fulfilment.

A helpful aphorism from Richard Feynman goes: “Don’t think about what you want to be, but what you want to do“.

The Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell

19 Jul

Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.

– Abraham Lincoln

Written in Russell’s usual say-it-like-it-is style, The Conquest of Happiness gets straight to the point with an incisive view of how to be happy, that is as apt today as when it was written nearly 50 years ago.

The book is split into two halves: the first describing the main causes of unhappiness, and the second, well I think you can guess that it’s the causes of happiness.

To summarise: live in the present; enjoy the small things; don’t compete with others; avoid boredom, yet aim for moderation in things that excite you; avoid fatigue, mental as well as physical; don’t envy others, rather aim for an expansive view, becoming pleased for the success of others; eschew guilt: be able to separate yourself from the, usually subconscious, influence of parental morals, and question your moral framework so that it is wholly rational; aim for a realistic self-perception and don’t be afraid of what others think, as that way they’ll think better of you!; show affection for others and you in turn will be shown the same, though don’t do it with payback in mind; find a balance with the work you do: one with autonomy, mental challenge, something that is constructive rather than destructive; give yourself lots of interests – the person who says he has many dislikes and is disinterested in so many things has less opportunity to enjoy life; accept what can’t be changed and work to change what you can; while introspection is good in small doses, looking outwards maintains a healthy perspective and increases happiness.

A lot of the things he says may seem obvious to me, but then I’m a happy person already. That said, some things are great and I am pondering them further. Besides, some of the simplest lessons in life are those that we have to learn over and over again. I think it can help plenty of people that want to make the effort to be happier. It’s the kind of book that can be read more than once, and will reveal more insights when you’ve had more life experience.

I’ve written an overview of other philosophers’ approaches to happiness here.

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