Is it okay to be happy?

In a couple of decades living with anxiety and depression I frequently wondered about the correlation between my mood and my view of the world.

I’ve always valued the search for truth, and part of that search was to understand anxiety and depression themselves. But what if this “search” is itself a symptom of anxiety and depression?

What if looking for answers is just putting a positive spin on endless rumination?

Depressive realism

Sometimes it seems like happy people live in a bubble, unwilling or unable to grapple with the grand humane and existential challenges of life.

The popular notion of “depressive realism” offers a kind of perverse satisfaction in being miserable: the idea that depressed people see the world more clearly, or that happy people are buffered from harsh realities by self-serving delusions of competence and optimism.

If you find it difficult to be happy, you can console yourself with the idea that happiness is just for dumb, superficial, or morally unserious people.

But is this kind of depressive realism any better than a sour grapes attitude toward happiness?

Ironically, this consolation is itself the fostering of a self-serving delusion aimed at making us feel better, as we pride ourselves on being both willing and able to face the harsh realities of life.

When life hands you lemons, sure, you could make lemonade…but a real man will just eat that lemon and grit his teeth against the sourness, because lemons are supposed to be sour!

Intentional optimism

In the past few months I’ve made a conscious effort to change the way I think about life, in order to improve my mood.

In the process it’s become clear to me that despite all the suffering implicit in decades of anxiety and depression, despite being desperately unhappy, I couldn’t honestly say that I wanted things to be different.

We all want to be happy, but our desire for happiness is typically framed and delineated by very strict conditions.

We want to be happy in certain ways, under specific criteria; we want happiness on our own terms, even if those terms are largely unconscious in daily life.

When I first considered changing my thoughts in order to improve my mood, I immediately worried about becoming “delusional”, like one of those dumb, superficial, happy people who lives in blissful ignorance of life’s deeper meaning and struggles

It was very important to me that I maintain a sense of my own realism, honesty, and clarity about the nature of life; so important that I was more comfortable being deeply unhappy than risking a change to my self-image.

I put limitations on my pursuit of happiness, limitations that turned out to be based on little more than crude stereotypes.

Crude stereotypes of happiness

If I was truly honest with myself, wouldn’t I have to acknowledge that those supposed “dumb, superficial, blissfully ignorant people” were just a fantasy?

In all those years of looking for answers, I hadn’t once gone out of my way to examine people who were actually happy, preferring to think that I understood what superficial, derogatory happiness looked like.

In fact, my own experience belies the notion that happy people are ignorant or deluded. I don’t know anyone who matches the caricature that exists in my own mind.

People who are genuinely happier than me tend not to go around thinking and talking about their depressing problems, but to cast that as a moral failing is misguided.

I’ve met others similar to me: deeply depressed, yet repulsed by the thought of having to “delude” themselves in order to feel better.

Such people would never have the audacity to claim that they are free from “delusion”. They might say that they try not to delude themselves, but it’s more a statement of values and ideals than an objective assessment of their overall knowledge and beliefs.

It’s as if we’ve tried and failed at just “getting along” in life, and instead of admitting the failure, tried to redefine the parameters of life itself until those who get along well are the ones who’ve failed the test of moral seriousness.

Temperament defines happiness

The problem is that we aren’t all the same in what excites us and makes us happy, and therefore we can’t and shouldn’t try to “get along” in the same ways.

Those of us who struggle most with anxiety and depression seem to have an (un)healthy dose of what ancient proto-psychologists called melancholic temperament.

Melancholics are excited by meaning and ideals, and not much else. Yet we inhabit a society full of people who find happiness and fulfilment more easily accessible – in the pursuit of power and prestige, the enjoyment of sensual pleasures, or in simply being left alone to do their own thing.

Meaning and ideals are hard to reconcile with a world ordered to more tangible and readily accessible pursuits. That alone is enough to explain a depressed and anxious outlook.

But if we can at least recognise that meaning and ideals are what motivate and fulfil us, and that we are not all motivated by the same things, then we can dispense with attempts to universalise happiness and justify our own preoccupations.

In other words, it is not superficiality that makes others happy; they are happier (in general) because they have greater ease in identifying and accomplishing the things that make them happy.

Likewise, we are not less happy because of our bold embrace of harsh truths and discomforting realities; we are less happy (in general) because we have not succeeded in identifying and accomplishing the things that make us happy, and have in fact gone to the other extreme of denying our need for meaning and ideals.

Putting meaning and ideals first

I think the most important thing is to recognise what it is that makes us happy as individuals – whether that be meaning and ideals or something else – and seek to enlarge that aspect of our life.

For melancholics the initial challenge is working out that it is meaning and ideals that excites us, and the subsequent challenge is learning how to approach meaningful things for the sake of the meaning they provide.

I used to study philosophy, but I couldn’t really articulate that it was the search for meaning that drove me to it. So I tended to go along with other people’s perspectives of what philosophy is and why it is meaningful or important.

There came a time when I ceased to find philosophy meaningful. And it turned out that I didn’t really care all that much about the other aspects of philosophy that people find valuable. I didn’t really care very much about critical thinking or rationality or asking big questions or seeking answers generally.

Ironically this makes a melancholic surprisingly pragmatic in a way that can even resemble a choleric. A melancholic is like a choleric whose ambition is finding meaning, and everything else is subordinate to that goal.

I think that’s what drives my interest in mysticism, philosophy, and religious practice and thought. I’m looking for a pure meaning that can encompass and imbue all of life.

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Want answers? Learn to ask the right questions

My latest article on MercatorNet explains how to use some key philosophical skills to solve problems in your own life:

“How can I lose weight?” might be the burning question that comes to mind, but that doesn’t mean it is the right question to ask or answer. Most of us “know” how to lose weight, after all. We just have to consume less energy than we expend.

Yet that answer would not satisfy most people. So at this point a philosopher might suspect you are asking the wrong question.

How do we find the right question? How do we, as Bacon put it, question prudently?

Reading the works of past philosophers shows that they spend a lot of time describing situations and problems prior to asking their questions. In other words, they provide context to their questions.

Rushing out and asking “what is the meaning of life?” presumes too much. It presumes we all know what the question means by “meaning” and “life”.

https://www.mercatornet.com/features/view/want-answers-learn-to-ask-the-right-questions

 

Why is losing weight so difficult?

I’m in the middle of changing my blog layout to facilitate ebook sales. People need a landing-page for incoming links to my books, and sadly my beloved dog-lion-whatever was a bit too much to scroll through.

While you’re waiting for the inevitable upgrades, my latest article on MercatorNet looks at…you guessed it: my new book on weight loss!

The Socratic principle that “to know the good is to do the good” means that the primary cause of our struggles and suffering in life is intellectual. In other words, the surest antidote to a problem like excessive body weight is to better understand the problem itself.

The corollary is that confusion and ignorance surrounding a problem like weight loss is central to the problem.

That’s why “willpower” is such a distraction in the weight-loss debate. From an intellectualist point of view the main problem is not the strength of our will, but the clarity of the intellect that informs it. It’s not that we aren’t trying hard enough to lose weight, it’s that we don’t really understand how or why or what we are actually trying to accomplish.

We think we want to lose weight. We think we understand why it is harmful to us. But if we really understood, then we wouldn’t have to struggle and suffer in confusion.

If we really understood we would just go ahead and do it. That’s why I call my approach an enlightened one. Instead of fumbling around in the dark, relying on diet fads and fashions and incomplete information, I decided once and for all to understand the problem, knowing that if I understood it I could at last resolve it as efficiently as possible.

https://www.mercatornet.com/features/view/19846

Promoting The Weight-Loss Paradox

If you have an idea you believe in, all you can do is trust that others will believe in it too, find it beneficial, and then it will succeed.

“Success” is just short-hand for your plans coming to fruition. My plan was to write a short book that describes how I used my skills in philosophy to lose weight.

It won’t help everyone, but I believe enough people will find it worthwhile, insightful, and refreshingly honest.

All I can do beyond that point is try to make people aware of it. I’ve never been big on marketing or social media, so bear with me.

My first step has been to create a Facebook page for the book, which you can find here:

I’ll keep it updated with key ideas and concepts from the book, and other thoughts that helped me arrive at the answers to the weight-loss problem.

My first non-fiction ebook!

When I tell people I’ve been writing a diet book they’re typically speechless.

I choose to interpret their reaction as one of awestruck silence.

Awestruck is incidentally how I felt when I came across the photograph that now adorns the cover of my new ebook, The Weight-Loss Paradox: an Enlightened Approach to Body Weight and Diet.

I’m also pretty proud of the book itself. It’s not a long book at only 14,000 words, but it’s the culmination of several years of thinking about body weight and the psychology and ethics of eating.

But more than anything it reflects my own success in using my insights and reasoning as a philosopher to help me lose weight without trying. That is, I lost 20kg without feeling like I was trying to lose weight, and I did it in the firm conviction that if I truly understood the whole dynamic of eating and body weight it would change my mind, my relationship with food, and my whole life.

A quick shout-out to my former PhD supervisor Dr John Quilter: this probably isn’t the continuation of my work on free will, intellectualism and voluntarism you were expecting, but on the other hand I bet it’s the only diet book in existence that explicitly asserts “To know the good is to do the good!”

Like anything in life, this book won’t be for everyone. But if you or someone you know is thoroughly sick of the confusion and mixed-messages surrounding dieting and weight loss, or despondent and demotivated at the very thought of losing weight, my book may be exactly what you need.

I’ve been overweight for more than half my life, all my adult life until now. At my worst I was over 100kgs, right at the cusp of obesity according to my BMI (Body Mass Index). I’m now well into the normal range, and my weight stays consistently at or under 85kg.

In hindsight, I used to be someone who valued the enjoyment of eating so highly that I would never turn down good food unless I was physically incapable of eating it. I never understood people who could say no to a second helping of something delicious, or who could refuse a treat. I never even imagined I could be one of those people.

I finally found an approach to eating that makes sense, and I gradually changed my eating habits. I still enjoy food, and I still occasionally overeat. But most of the time my eating habits reflect my body’s actual needs in that moment. Isn’t that the ideal?

But for me the best part is that it’s not about weight anymore. In fact my weight loss really took off when I stopped thinking about it, and focused instead on the deeper motivations and dynamic that was driving my dysfunctional attitude to food.

In the end, being overweight was a symptom of that dysfunctional relationship with food. Weight loss is such a struggle because we expend most of our energy fighting a symptom instead of looking at the root cause.

The Weight-Loss Paradox: an Enlightened Approach to Body Weight and Diet is available exclusively on amazon kindle. If you don’t have a kindle, you can download a free kindle app that lets you read kindle ebooks on your PC or Mac, android or iOS devices. So you can buy the book at Amazon and then download it to the app on your preferred device.

The zone of silence: rediscovering non-fiction

I’ve been working on a short book about dieting, weight loss, and the ideal relationship with food.

But it’s been a while since I did any real intellectual work – long enough for me to forget all the lessons I learned years ago working in bioethics, where I had the privilege to dive headlong into all-consuming questions day after day.

That’s why it took 18 attempts before I remembered how to write non-fiction again.

The French Dominican philosopher Sertillanges wrote:

Do you want to do intellectual work? Begin by creating within you a zone of silence, a habit of recollection, a will to renunciation and detachment which puts you entirely at the disposal of the work; acquire that state of soul unburdened by desire and self-will which is the state of grace of the intellectual worker. Without that you will do nothing, at least nothing worthwhile.

That zone of silence is essential. To create it means rejecting every other thought, idea, desire, or preoccupation.

You cannot think “I want to write a book”. You cannot have your audience in mind. You cannot harbour any thoughts of how people may react, or how well your prose matches the conventions.

Create that zone of silence, and into that space a pure, authentic, unadulterated idea will come forth.

Proposition by proposition the text will grow, until there is enough substance to continue.

Without this detachment, this freedom from desire and self-will, the work cannot be fresh or original. It will shrink and curl, and take the shape of cliched and familiar expressions.

I’ve written a lot about fiction recently, but I’m thrilled to rediscover these deeper levels of non-fiction I had neglected for so long. I’ll keep you posted on this new book, but in the meantime I’d be remiss not to mention my recent fantasy novel.

To Create a World is a unique tale of magic and meaning, our longing for adventure and our deepest fears and desires. Click on the image below to find out more.

Fake news, junk knowledge, and learning to reason again

My reason hurts. I’ve been neglecting it for too long and it’s now profoundly out of shape. But there is a way back to good rational fitness: you just have to start scrutinising every piece of information that comes your way to a pedantic degree.

My latest article on MercatorNet sets you on the path to avoiding junk knowledge, and learning to reason again:

Every piece of information you take in, and how you treat it, is your choice. The manufacturers of junk knowledge don’t have your best interests at heart. Either intentionally or through ignorance they are out to get you hooked on their product. And while good quality sources of knowledge do exist, it’s up to you to distinguish them from the junk.

It’s up to you because in reality you are a lone, isolated individual mind, with the ability to take in, scrutinise, and reject all the information and propositions that come your way. You don’t have to believe everything you read.

You can instead cultivate a healthy suspicion of every proposition that comes your way, first by learning to recognise that it is a proposition in the first place.

https://www.mercatornet.com/features/view/sick-of-fake-news-how-about-a-junk-knowledge-diet

Fat, non-fiction and the philosophy of losing weight

I’m working on a diet book at the moment, and it’s taking a bit of time to get back into the process of writing non-fiction.

The book is essentially a common-sense philosophical approach to the problem of diet, weight-loss, and overeating. And if “common-sense philosophical approach” sounds like an oxymoron to you, well that just means you’ve been philosophising wrongly.

If you can’t use philosophy to ask “why am I fat?” then what good is it?

The book is based on my own experiences over the last couple of years, wherein I analysed the hell out of my eating habits, motivations, and life itself, and then lost 20kg with relative ease.

How easy was it? Well on the one hand, it involved facing some unpleasant truths about my life that were painful and confronting to admit. On the other hand, I didn’t do any additional exercise and stopped even thinking about losing weight. When I finally thought to weigh myself it was a surprise to see how many kilos I had lost. It felt like I wasn’t even trying to lose weight.

I discovered this approach because I’m too lazy to do huge amounts of exercise, too gluttonous to just set arbitrary limits on my food intake, and too frustrated at the conflicting messages and “solutions” offered by existing diets.

Here’s a great example: today the news is full of new evidence that gluten-free diets might increase the risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes.

Meanwhile we’re in the midst of either a revolution or just-another-fad that says refined sugar is the devil in nutritional form. Should we place bets on how long it is before some other new discovery bursts the no-sugar bubble?

I’m not doubting the scientific evidence, just doubting my ability and motivation to sift through all the conflicting messages to work out the whole complex picture formed out of the various strands of research.

I’d much rather see what I can work out for myself, using principles and facts that are unassailable. And if it turns out that I still lack the necessary information to find a solution, then at least I’ll know for sure that this is the case.

Asking “why am I fat?” is actually a great philosophical question. It led me to some very profound answers that have almost entirely changed my eating habits, and the way I relate to food. That’s why I’m writing a book about it. I’m sure some people will find it too radical and confronting, but for others it will provide the kind of certainty and insight they’ve been craving.

While you’re waiting for me to finish writing it, why not check out my new novel To Create a World? Unlike in Harry Potter the evil characters aren’t overweight!

Intuition: a logical interlude

Embed from Getty Images

I’m still working on the continuation of my MBTI & Temperament-themed posts, but in the meantime an article on Mercatornet caught my eye:

Whenever someone makes a claim to you about politics or morals — anything from “Morals are all relative anyway” (which you might hear at the corner convenience store) to “No one should be required to surrender his autonomy” (which you might hear at a political theory conference) — ask these three questions.  (1) What do you mean by that?  (2) How do you know it’s true?  (3) What difference does it make?

When you ask the second question — “How do you know it’s true?” — the person to whom you are speaking should reply by giving a reason for his claim.  The reasons are the premises; the claim they are supposed to support is the conclusion.  Taken together, the premises and the conclusion make up an argument.  Here are three tests for arguments.  (1) Do the terms used in the premises have clear meanings?  (2) Is the reasoning free of fallacies?  and (3) Are the premises true?  If it passes all three tests, you can be sure that the conclusion is true.  But if it fails even one of the three tests, you know no more about whether the conclusion is true than you knew before.  Arguments that pass tests 1 and 2 are sometimes called valid whether or not they pass test 3.  Bear in mind, however, that a valid argument with false premises may still have a false conclusion.

I’ve been asked, “What if I just know the conclusion of an argument is false, but no matter how hard I try, I can’t find anything wrong with the terms, the premises, or the reasoning?”  The answer is, “Then you change your mind.”

The author is a natural law theorist, and I’ve enjoyed his work in the past. In fact he’s quite an interesting guy with the slightly intimidating name of J. Budziszewski, a Professor of Philosophy in Texas.  In the article he runs through a set of common fallacies. But what caught my attention was the last line quoted above.

Since I started looking at the Four Temperaments, I’ve wondered whether there might be temperamental differences or nuances in how people present theories, or which theories they subscribe to.

For example, my late PhD project involved looking at the Intellectualist and Voluntarist controversy throughout the history of the free will debate. The heart of the debate is whether the will is subordinate to the intellect or vice-versa.

It occurred to me that the temperaments might play a role in how people respond to this issue, albeit probably not to the objective answer. That is, I don’t think temperament means some people’s intellects are subordinate to their will, while in others the will is subordinate to the intellect. Rather, I think that some people might seem to subordinate their intellect to their will, or others might appear to be wholly subordinate to their intellect.

Let’s say voluntarism is true, but philosophy has historically attracted a great many very rigorous thinkers, people who are inclined to adhere very closely to their own reasoning, valuing coherence between beliefs and actions, and so on. These people might provide exceptions to the voluntarist rule, apparent counter-examples of individuals who seemingly can’t help but will according to their intellect.

Well, it’s possible anyway.

But what caught my eye in Professor B’s post was that final line:

I’ve been asked, “What if I just know the conclusion of an argument is false, but no matter how hard I try, I can’t find anything wrong with the terms, the premises, or the reasoning?”  The answer is, “Then you change your mind.”

A good philosopher should indeed be ready to go where evidence and reason lead. But in my experience, “just knowing” is more significant than it appears. To be fair, some people “just know” because they are too stubborn or too afraid to consider the possibility that they are wrong. For them, “I just know” really means “I want to believe”.

But for others, “I just know” means an intuited gap in the logic. It points to a flaw that the discursive intellect may be yet to identify or clarify. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t verify the intuition, or that it will necessarily end in vindication of our original position. Sometimes it points to a hidden assumption that is tripping us up, or an expectation that may be holding us back.

Yet there are also occasions when intuition points to the broader errors in the other side: the flawed motives that might underlie a perfect strategy; or the difference in worldview that renders fine-grained debates redundant.

This is something I’ve learned from examining my own processes. I’m quite familiar with my own ways of thinking, learning, and solving problems, enough to know that the standard-issue approaches are rarely a perfect fit.

So I wouldn’t encourage everyone to stick to their “just knows”. It’s the kind of thing you earn after learning how to change your mind to suit the evidence, after all the hard work of self-examination.
But maybe it’s also an N thing? In MBTI terms, if intuition is unevenly distributed within the population then we can’t presume that everyone should follow the same approach. Some people just won’t get it, others need to learn to trust it.

This is certainly the general message of the Four Temperaments: as a Melancholic you can waste a lot of time and energy trying to be like everyone else, and still fail at it miserably. Ironically, that waste and struggle and (hopefully) realisation are also part of what it means to be a Melancholic.