Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson

Don't be fooled by the potty mouth or the smart-ass title. There's a reason why thirty-five people are waiting for this book at my local library. Basic ideas: solving problems generates happiness and "failure is the way forward."

Mark Manson zeros in on the emptiness of the social value of "exceptionalism" fed to a passive public. He challenges readers to think and act independently, and accept that not everyone is destined to be great. Taking aim at victimism, an insidious form of exceptionalism, he invites blamers to quit whining and recover their personal power.

In an era of unprecedented self-pity by those who have the most money, education and stuff, this is refreshing advice. Admit your weaknesses. Make the effort to become a better person. Take responsibility for your life.

The author's idea about pursuing of happiness is simple: Don't. "The desire for more positive experience is in itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one's negative experience is itself a positive experience." He offers evidence for his ideas, drawing on respected sources back to Aristotle and Buddha.

He cites Alan Watts, who proposed "the 'backwards law' -- the idea that the more you pursue feeling better all the time, the less satisfied you become, as pursuing something only reinforces the fact that you lack it in the first place." Adds Manson, "The more you want to be spiritually enlightened, the more self-centred and shallow you become in trying to get there."

Scientific and psychological evidence refute deeply ingrained beliefs. Polish psychiatrist Kazimierz Dabrowski developed the Theory of Positive Disintegration. Studying people who'd survived horrific experiences during WWII, he was surprised to learn that after the war his subjects felt more confident and grateful. They were no longer fazed "by life's trivialities and petty annoyances." This was true even though many carried lifelong emotional scars.

Manson also reports fascinating stories from the lives of famous people who overcame failure and despair, then went on to make great social contributions. Psychologist and philosopher William James turned away from suicide by deciding to accept responsibility for everything in his life. Failed university professor Ernest Becker described the psychology of human "immortality projects." On his death bed, he wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning book called The Denial of Death.

To illustrate how misguided values cause us to suffer, Manson tells the fascinating story of Dave Mustaine. Evicted from a band called Metallica, he created another called Megadeth. Both became wildly successful. Yet even though Mustaine is "one of the most brilliant and influential musicians in the history of heavy-metal music," he considers himself a failure. Why? One, he's bitter over rejection by Metallica. Two, he's defined selling fewer albums than the other band as failure.

Happiness is a problem, and emotions, says Manson, are "overrated." We should therefore "make a habit of questioning them." This way we can get off the psychological "hedonic treadmill" and avoid the experience that despite "always working hard to change our life situation...we actually never feel very different."

The antidote to suffering is simple. Accept it. Adopt values that matter to us, then take responsibility for our own lives. Accept the uncertainty of life, and act in spite of incomplete information. Stop blaming others, and keep improving ourselves. Such choices provides us with enough challenges to last for a rewarding lifetime of happiness-inducing problem-solving.

And remember, "We are wired to become dissatisfied...this has kept our species fighting and striving, building and conquering. So no -- our own pain and misery aren't a bug of human evolution; they're a feature."

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