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Behavioural economics

How philosophy can help us get unstuck in work and life

Ancient Greek Philsophy
Ancient Greek Philsophy

If you’re trying to carve out a better career and life for yourself, you face obstacles. Some of those obstacles are external – finding the right job opportunity, testing your idea, choosing your partners and investors, balancing the books. But a lot of the obstacles are internal – cognitive, emotional, ethical. Fear of failure. Fear of loss of status. Fear of letting down your parents. Fear of not being able to support your family. There’s also the fact that we are creatures of habit and inertia. It’s easier to keep on in our habitual groove. It takes energy and focus to change.

One life-hack that a lot of entrepreneurs and business people have found useful is ancient Greek philosophy, and particularly a philosophy called Stoicism. Fans of Stoicism include Tim Ferriss, self-experimenter and champion of the ‘four-hour work-week’, who says Stoicism is ‘the perfect operating system for thriving in high-stress environments. For entrepreneurs, it’s a godsend’.

Another fan is Nassim Nicholas Taleb, investor and author of Black Swan and Anti-Fragile – the latter book is a celebration of how Stoicism makes us less exposed to the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’. Other Stoic entrepreneurs and business-people include Luke Johnson, chairman of Risk Capital Partners; Jonathan Newhouse, chairman of Conde Nast International; and Ryan Holiday, author of The Obstacle is the Way, which is about how to apply Stoicism in business life.

The more forward-thinking businesses are running courses in practical philosophy or wisdom to help their employees be more resilient and to help build a more value-driven culture. Personally, I’ve run workshops in practical philosophy for everyone from Premiership-champions Saracens rugby team (they have a regular monthly philosophy club for their players and coaches); to blue-chip corporates like PricewaterhouseCoopers and Allianz; to mental health charities and prisons. Alain de Botton’s philosophy shop, the School of Life, also creates humanities-based courses for companies, as does a new US consultancy, Strategy of Mind.

The philosophy club at Premiership champions Saracens RFC. Spot the philosopher.

This might not be to everyone’s taste. Hard-nosed businesspeople might think this sounds like a waste of money, while humanities academics might turn up their noses at what might sound like the dumbing-down, instrumentalization or commodification of philosophy.

But the idea that philosophy should offer practical help to people in their daily lives goes back to the origin of philosophy in ancient Greece and Rome. Socrates thought philosophy taught people how to ‘take care of their souls’. Cicero thought the humanities ‘enhance prosperity and provide solace in adversity’. Indeed, Stoicism was the main inspiration for the two inventors of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis, and also inspired self-help writers like Dale Carnegie and Stephen Covey.

At its best, ancient philosophy is not just a ‘life-hack’, a short-cut to conventional goals of status or wealth. Rather, it’s a value-hack – it wakes us up from the rat-race so we can think for ourselves and discover what flourishing means to us.

So what practical advice can Greco-Roman philosophy offer to help us get unstuck? Here are seven ways.

1) ‘It’s not events, but our opinions about events, that cause us suffering’.

This is a quote from Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher of the first century AD. It inspired the psychologist Albert Ellis to invent cognitive therapy in the 1950s. What it means is, nothing is good or bad in itself, but thinking makes it so. The way we interpret what happens to us dictates how our emotions react. You will face ups and downs in your journey, but you make the journey a lot harder if you catastrophize when adversity happens. We can modulate our emotional reactions by learning to take a more philosophical perspective when the sea turns choppy. Charlie Munger, vice-chairman of Berkshire Hathaway investment, says he learned from Epictetus that ‘your duty is not to be submerged in self-pity, but to utilize the terrible blow in constructive fashion’.

2) Recognize traps in your habitual thinking

Socrates suggested we sleepwalk through life, following an automated programme of beliefs and values which we picked up from our parents or society and follow blindly, even if it leads us down cul-de-sacs or off a cliff. We may be particularly prone to misreading reality in a certain way – so that certain events push our buttons and trigger strong emotional reactions. When that happens, we can notice our strong emotional reaction, and ask if we’re falling prey to the same habitual misinterpretation. For example, I have a habitual tendency to be over-sensitive to perceived slights – by now, at age 38, I’ve learned that’s a habitual bias of mine, so I’m wary when I jump to that conclusion.

3) Focus on what’s in your control, accept what isn’t

Derren Brown says Stoicism helps him accept the uncontrollables
Derren Brown says Stoicism helps him accept the uncontrollables

This technique, which is at the heart of Epictetus’ philosophy of resilience, is hugely helpful for people trying to manage very complex situations. If you fixate on the uncontrollables, you will feel helpless, frustrated, and the slave of circumstances. Bring your attention back to what Stephen Covey called ‘the circle of response-ability’ – your own thoughts, beliefs and actions. Derren Brown, who is writing a book about Stoicism, told me: ‘For me, that’s become a mantra. If something is frustrating you, what side of the line is it on? Obviously, it’s always on the side of things I can’t control. And then you can go, ‘it’s fine’ and let go. It makes me feel like a kid when it’s Saturday and you realize you don’t have to go to school. It’s just a very visceral feeling of relief.’

4) Avoid ‘tilting’

Tilting is a poker expression, when people lose emotional control and their decision-making becomes irrational and error-prone. If you’re in business, you can try to set speed-bumps or decision-checks to make sure you’re not on the tilt, but are staying rational. For example, the investor Sir John Templeton would set investment rules, so that he automatically bought shares if the price tanked too low, and automatically sold if the price rocketed too high. He knew that, in the grip of a stock market boom or bust, his decision-making would be clouded by the crowd hysteria, so he set controls to defend against his automatic irrationality. Many other top investors use similar techniques to maintain rationality in the midst of crowd-hysteria. Following your heart / gut isn’t always the best method in business.

5) What’s the worst that could happen?

Sometimes, our fears about the future keep us stuck in a mediocre present. Entrepreneurs, or potential entrepreneurs, can be crippled by the fear of failure. It can be useful to ask oneself, ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’. The Stoics practiced a technique called ‘rehearsal of bad things’, where they imagined a check-list of what could go wrong in a situation. That can be useful in itself as a form of ‘defensive pessimism’. And it’s also useful to practice saying ‘so what?’ You do a talk and it goes badly. So what? You make a pitch and you don’t get the deal. So what? Life goes on. Philosophy can teach us how to shrug, to accept mistakes and imperfections and ‘keep buggering on’ as Winston Churchill put it.

6) Memento Mori

Get on and do what you need to do.
Get on and do what you need to do.

The ancient Greeks and Romans, like Buddhists, practised the ‘memento mori’, or remembrance of death. This can be very useful if we’re feeling anxiety, disappointment or shame – you can zoom out and see the bigger picture, which is that everything passes, and no one is going to remember your failed ethical cupcake business in 10 years anyway. But the memento mori can also be a spur to action. Don’t assume you’ve got 10, 20, 30 years left. If there’s something you want to do, get on and do it. Never mind the risks, do the things you need to do while you are still functioning.

7) We are what we repeatedly do

The Greeks understood that we’re creatures of habits, so if you want to change, you need to practice repeatedly, to weaken old habits and strengthen new habits. ‘If you want to be a writer, write’, said Epictetus. The only way humans get anywhere is by repeatedly practising an action. There’s no short-cut. Get into daily rituals – a 10-minute morning meditation, say, or 10 minutes at the end of the day to ‘recollect’ and think about what you did well or badly. Or assemble your own storehouse of maxims to remind yourself of, over and over, until they become internalized. Or get out and practice in real life situations – practice networking, practice writing, practice public speaking.

These are mind-hacks to help individuals change, but philosophy is just as helpful for groups – it helps groups to reflect on their shared values and culture, and ask what’s important to the culture and whether the organization is living up to that.

If all this sounds interesting to you, come to a one-day conference on practical philosophy on November 7 in London, called STOICON, where you can hear from some of the leading figures in the revival of ancient philosophy in modern life. It’s only £30, which is a bargain considering how much companies spend on learning the same lessons. You can also enrol for a free week-long online course, called Stoic Week, which is running from the 2nd to the 9th of November.

Review: The Happiness Industry by William Davies

9781781688458-4171756f689401c14d3e2d09906a9e3fWatch out folks. There is a murky world lurking behind the scenes, a sinister cabal of policy-makers, psychologists, CEOs, advertizers and life-coaches, watching you, measuring you, nudging you, monitoring your every smile, all to try and make you happy. We must resist. This, broadly, is the message of sociologist William Davies’ book, The Happiness Industry: How Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being.

I opened Davies’ book expecting a historical critique of the so-called ‘politics of well-being’, a movement which arose in the last decade. Cognitive psychologists like Aaron Beck, Martin Seligman and Daniel Kahneman found ways to measure how our thoughts can make us miserable, and how cognitive behavioural interventions can help us to be wiser and happier.  The evidence-base they built up persuaded policy-makers – particularly in the UK, but increasingly around the world – that governments can and should try to measure and improve citizens’ well-being.

The science of flourishing became a way for policy-makers to move beyond the cultural relativism bequeathed us by Nietzsche, through a marriage of ancient wisdom (Buddhist, ancient Greek) and empirical science. Governments could then try and improve citizens’ ‘flourishing’ without being accused of imposing their version of the good life on every else. ‘It’s not our version’, they could say. ‘It’s science.’

The politics of well-being is still quite an undeveloped movement, but in England it’s led to specific policies, particularly to the collection of well-being data to guide policies; an on-going attempt to teach ‘well-being’ and ‘character’ in schools; and the expansion of free talking therapies on the NHS.

Davies has written well on this movement for the New Left Review. But what we get in this book is a much more sprawling narrative, which looks at the history of the attempt, in economics, psychology, statistics and neuroscience, to measure moods and emotions, and to use that data either to ‘nudge’ us towards policy-outcomes, or sell us things, or keep us working. The story meanders from Bentham to JB Watson via whiplash, social networks theory, the DSM, the history of management consultancy, the Chicago school, the history of stress and the Quantified Self movement. It risks becoming a history of everything, and could more coherently have concentrated on the last decade (although oddly he doesn’t mention Kahneman, or happiness economist Ed Diener, or the various attempts to teach well-being in schools, or Martin Seligman’s attempt to teach ‘resilience’ to the entire US Army).

The ‘enemy’ of his book seems to be an overly-mechanistic or behaviourist model of the mind, in which scientific experts measure our mood-machine and try to steer it without asking people what they mean or care about. Certainly, the politics of well-being can be anti-democratic and positivistic. When our government came up with a national definition of well-being, for example, it did so via a small panel of experts, entirely made up of economists and psychologists.

However, Davies’ story risks confusing the behaviourist with the cognitive behavioural. Much of the politics of well-being sprung from the success of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which arose in the 1960s as a critical response to behaviourism. In CBT, people’s beliefs, meanings and values are all-important, so it’s more humanistic and potentially more democratic. It’s true that CBT can ignore the impact of external circumstances like poverty on our emotions. But people are developing more collective forms which equip us to change our circumstances (like being in debt to loan sharks) as well as our inner lives.

Probably the biggest impact of the politics of well-being so far has been to increase public funding for talking therapies, and to put mental health on the political map – there is a new campaign in the UK for ‘parity of esteem’ between physical and mental health in the NHS. But Davies ignores this. Instead, he focuses on the possibility of therapy or life-coaching being forced onto benefit-claimants in England and Wales. The Department for Work and Pensions denies therapy is ever mandatory, although it may be on occasion, and this should be opposed as an ethical breach and a waste of tax-payer money. But we also need to vigorously defend and expand free therapy for those who need it and want it.  Davies doesn’t lift a finger in support.

Instead, he lays into corporate wellness programmes and the booming wellness industry, and slams the proliferation of ‘chief happiness officers’ and ‘happiness apps’ monitoring our every smile. Are they? Does your company have a chief happiness officer? Have you ever used a ‘happiness measuring app’? It’s true that a handful of companies are taking well-being seriously (a few, like Zappos, take it too seriously). On the whole I think this is a good thing, and could mean companies take employee satisfaction and corporate ethics more seriously as well. But at the moment, most companies’ well-being programmes amount to little more than a salad option at lunch, cheap gym membership, and one away-day a year for some wacky team-building and half-baked resilience-training. Hardly Brave New World.

The over-riding tone of Davies’ book is the hermeneutics of suspicion – he is constantly expressing ‘unease’, ‘disquiet’ and the need for ‘critical resistance’ to the ‘hidden agenda’ of the elite. This is left-wing academics’ favourite posture, but it’s not really radical in that it undermines people’s agency: the ‘well-being agenda’ in this narrative is always something the elite imposes, never something citizens develop for themselves (as is actually the case with the Quantified Self movement). And his ‘perpetual unease’ doesn’t change anything. What are you actually for?

It turns out Davies is for co-operatives, for co-owned companies in which decision-making is shared. Such companies make us happier, according to research. He’s also for local community mental health initiatives like therapeutic gardening, which research suggests make us happier. And he’s for more equal and less competitive societies, which some research suggests make us happier. So on the occasions he’s arguing for something positive, Davies turns to well-being data for support.

At the extreme of his argument, he says governments should ignore people’s moods and feelings altogether, and focus on the serious business of improving material circumstances. That’s exactly the argument successive governments have used to deprive mental health services of funding. Hopefully, this is finally changing, but Davies’ book does little to help the cause.