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Civilization and its Discontents

What’s the point in life?

iStock_000007789001LargeDear Jules,

I have been going through a really rough time lately and it is quite similar to your experience. I was quite a happy go lucky person through life until I had a bad terrifying trip on weed (my first time trying) I took way too much and freaked out and that traumatised me – having very anxious scary thoughts like what if I harm my self, what if I harm others – what is the meaning of life and whats the point of it all.

Like you I thought I ruined my brain chemistry forever. I still have the strange belief that everything in life is so insignificant and now I’m applying this to my daily routine – why bother getting dressed, why bother looking well in-front of people…strange thoughts like that and even when I give myself a sensible answer to this I boil down to WHAT’S THE POINT IN LIFE?

It’s like being told Santa isn’t real again.. Only I’m an adult and I want to be the happy-go-lucky one who got joy out of things instead of having this thought that puts a dampener on them (it is probably the worst thought I have, it makes my heart sink). Anyway I just want to know if you think I can be happy and live a life where I don’t feel like someone is poking me telling me life isn’t worthwhile.

Rachel

Dear Rachel,

Thanks for your email, and I’m sorry you’re having a rough time of it at the moment.

Some basic initial steps. Firstly, if you’re feeling depressed and frightened, it’s worth telling your parents – including telling them about smoking weed. They may react with anger and fear in the short-term, but that’s because they care about you. I didn’t tell my parents – or anyone – for years about my bad trips, and I think this made a difficult situation a lot worse.

Secondly, you might find it helpful to talk to a therapist. I’m not a trained therapist, but these days you can get free therapy on the NHS – find your local IAPT centre (it stands for Improving Access for Psychological Therapies, it’s an NHS talking therapies programme) or ask your GP. I can’t promise the therapist will be helpful, but it’s worth a shot.

The therapist will probably tell you that how you feel isn’t necessarily how things are. Sometimes our emotions become habits – we get habituated to taking a dark view of things, and are sure this view of things is true. So be wary of immediately believing your feelings to be true judgements of reality.

They will also tell you that sometimes we have irrational beliefs that cause us suffering, which we can learn to question and challenge. For example, I used to find it difficult to go to the theatre because I was very worried I would shout something out and everyone in the theatre would look at me. No shit! I honestly was so worried about this I’d put my hand over my mouth throughout the whole play. Then gradually I learned I wasn’t going to shout out, it was an irrational fear and I could call its bluff. Now I can sit through plays without my hand over my mouth. Progress!

Although I’m not a therapist, it doesn’t sound like you have schizophrenia to me, it sounds like you’re having what’s called an existential or spiritual crisis.

This happens when our consciousness sees through some of the constructs and conventions that ordinary life is made up of. We no longer believe in the things we used to believe in, and this makes us unhappy, because we’re not sure there’s anything worth believing in.

There’s a story-line that many of us follow in life. It goes like this.

In the beginning I was a happy-go-lucky innocent, without a care in the world or a distressing thought in my head. I lived in a Happy Valley of childhood. Then something went wrong. Something bad happened to me, and now I’m exiled from Paradise, and I’m stuck in a world where everything seems grey and miserable and somehow lacking in warmth and colour and joy and purpose. And I can’t get back to the Happy Valley. I can’t find my way back home.

Prince Siddhartha (the Buddha) wakes up to death and suffering
Prince Siddhartha (the Buddha) wakes up to death and suffering

This is exactly what I felt like when I was in late adolescence and early adulthood. And I think it’s a classic psychological journey. It’s the Fall of Genesis. It’s also what happened to the Buddha – happy teenager, then a sudden shock to his world-view, then a period of depression and searching. A lot of us go through the Fall when we’re in our late teens or early 20s. It’s a nasty surprise, not something our parents or teachers told us about, although it’s described in many books.

The Fall is really an awakening. It’s our consciousness realizing that some of the things we believed in are actually a bit of a charade.

When I was 17 or so, I went through one of these awakenings – suddenly, the world seemed a rather sordid and selfish place. Everyone else seemed a bit of an egotistical phony, chasing after their shallow and pointless goals. Getting a career, getting a nice house with a nice lawn and a nice wife, getting a thousand followers on Twitter…what’s the point!

People are like greyhounds chasing after a mechanical rabbit, desperately trying to out-run each other, and if one of the greyhounds stops, scratches his arse and says ‘it’s just a mechanical rabbit’, they call him crazy.

And what lies beneath all the ego, all the desire, all the shadow puppetry? Nothing. The abyss. Human life is a game of charades played over a trapdoor of nothingness, and every now and then the trapdoor opens, one of the actors disappears below, and everyone goes on like nothing happened!

So, you’ve rumbled us. You’ve rumbled adults. You grew up thinking we knew what was going on. We don’t know what’s going on. No one knows why we’re here and we’re all basically winging it and passing the time trying to impress each other before we die.

What's the point?
What’s the point?

When I realized this, it made me feel quite melancholy – although maybe there was a certain pride in my melancholy too (I, the Deep One, have seen through the phoniness. I am the Awakened Greyhound).

I didn’t exactly choose to awaken to the emptiness of constructed reality. It was an accidental awakening – maybe through drugs, which can alter our consciousness and make us see things differently. Some people go through similar accidental awakenings through, say, meditation – suddenly everything seems a bit empty and pointless. Or it might happen to them when they first lose someone they love. They notice the trapdoor beneath their feet and think: ‘what’s the point!’

This kind of awakening to the emptiness of our constructs has been called the Dark Night of the Soul. In truth, it happens occasionally through life. It comes with being human, unfortunately, and with being blessed / cursed with consciousness.

So how do we get out of it? How do we discover a sense of purpose or meaning?

People get out of the darkness two ways. Firstly, some people just fall asleep again. Life changes, and they stop thinking such deep thoughts, and get caught up in the game once more.  Actually, this happens to everyone. You fall in love, you get a great job, you go on holiday, and things are fun again, and you shelve your inner Hamlet and enjoy the festivities.

There is nothing wrong with this at all. Sometimes the game of charades is a really fun game, and it’s fun to get involved, though unfortunately we often forget it’s just a game and end up totally believing in it and taking it very seriously.

Secondly, some people get out of the darkness by discovering a philosophy or an attitude that helps them through it and gives them a sense of meaning. Their old philosophy – ‘be happy-go-lucky’ –  doesn’t quite work anymore, but they discover a new philosophy which works better.

I’ve turned to different philosophies to help me when I’m lost: Buddhism, Stoicism, Sufism, Taoism, Christianity. These are all quite different philosophies, but I think they have a core message to them.

Which is this: We’re here to know ourselves, to discover our nature, and to help other people do the same.

The journey to know ourselves is not an easy one. It involves a lot of wrong turns, a lot of dark forests, steep mountains and sinking swamps. And we meet bad people along the way, fools, liars, egotists, and people who wish us harm. What makes the journey particularly difficult is, when we ask passers-by how to get to our destination, they all give us different directions, and they all seem immensely confident that they’re right.

On this journey, I don’t think you can go backwards. You can’t go back to the Happy Valley of childhood. Frodo and Sam can’t go back to how things were, they’ve got to go forward. You have to go forward. Your consciousness grows – sometimes accidentally, sometimes through education and experience – and then it’s like you don’t fit into the old clothes any more, they feel cramped and ridiculous. That means it’s time to go forward.

Winston Churchill, who suffered from depression, once said: 'If you're going through hell, keep going'
Winston Churchill, who suffered from depression, once said: ‘If you’re going through hell, keep going’

But what is the point? That question hangs over us like a cloud when we’re starting out on the journey, just as we find ourselves outside the Happy Valley. Why bother going on, when everything looks so dark and gloomy?

You won’t find an answer right now. It’s not like there is a Fortune Cookie slogan I can give you, which tells you The Point. First you need to practice taking care of yourself. Epictetus said: ‘practice, for heaven’s sake, in the little things, and then proceed to greater’.

Practice taking care of yourself. Practice taking care in the little things. Practice not letting your negative thoughts beat you up and cause you suffering. Why be so mean to yourself? Would you let someone be that mean to your sister, or your boyfriend, or your dog? So why be so mean to yourself?

Practice taking care of your body. The health of your consciousness is connected to your physical health – when you’re tired or hungover, you’re more susceptible to the automatic negative thoughts. Practice taking exercise, going for walks or jogs or swims or yoga, practice getting out into parks or the countryside. Feed your body with good things, feed your soul with good things.

Practice being appreciative of little things – a cup of tea, a good book, a beautiful song, a funny film. Practice being appreciative of other people – little moments where people are kind to each other, despite all the hurt and confusion in the world. Practice loving other people. See them in all their beauty and vulnerability, and how much they want to love and be loved.  (I am rubbish at this, I’m usually an utter misanthrope – I need to practice being kinder and softer-hearted.)

I think this practice is easier if you find other people to practice with. That might be a self-help group, or a humanist group, or a Buddhist, Jewish, Christian or Muslim group, or it might be a group of friends that you can be genuinely honest and vulnerable with. Some of these groups might be dodgy, and we always have to be wary of ‘gurus’….but in general I think it helps to practice with other people.

All this practice slowly gets you into good habits. It’s like Mr Miyagi teaching the Karate Kid and getting him into good habits. Wax on, wax off!

And then, one day, perhaps months or years after you started the journey, you realize you’re in a different place, and that your world is full of joy, and colour, and meaning.

What is that place? It’s our inner nature, beneath the flaky conventions and constructions we’ve pasted onto it.

To get a bit mystical, I believe our nature is full of light, and when we practice well, when we get into good habits and out of bad habits, we let that light shine out, and we see the light in others too.And that’s the point. It’s not a sentence or a slogan. It’s an experience of consciousness enjoying itself, and helping other people’s consciousness shine out too.

I no longer feel as lost and scared and confused as I did when I was 21. I never became the happy-go-lucky child again. I never regained the innocence of childhood. I pressed on, and after a while I found something else, a kind of happiness regained, occasionally. I still have days of darkness, confusion, fear and ignorance – and I’m sure I have some bigger challenges ahead of me when I will write to someone and say ‘help!’ But I enjoy life, I’m grateful for it.

This is basically me, just so you know.
This is basically me, just so you know.

It’s difficult to talk about spiritual matters without sounding a pompous git spouting cliches. I’m 36, single, fitfully employed, writing this in my dressing gown. I’m a lazy, boozy, self-satisfied, egotistical idiot, caught up in the charade and wondering how many times his article has been re-tweeted. Just so you know who you asked for help.

Here’s a passage from The Catcher in the Rye which I’ve found helpful over the years:

Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many people have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement.

What that means is, when you find a way through the particular forest you’re in at the moment, remember the way, and pass it on.

Jules

Where next for well-being policy?

783472895I went to the book-launch of a new book on well-being policy yesterday, which brought together some leading figures in this nascent movement – including David Halpern of the government’s ‘nudge unit’, Canadian economist John Helliwell, psychologist Maurren O’Hara, and Juliet Michaelson of the new economics foundation. The book – Well-being and Beyond – is edited by Michaelson and Timo Hamalainen, and has some great essays in it, including a particularly interesting one by Mihayli Csikszentmihalyi on ‘the politics of consciousness’.

With the news that the government is set to establish a What Works research centre for evidence-based well-being policy, and that David Cameron may be resuscitating his well-being agenda, it seems like a good time to take a panoramic view of the politics of well-being in the UK, some of the areas into which it’s developing, and some of the areas where more research is needed. It will obviously be a partial and incomplete view, but here goes:

Schools

The ministry of education under Michael Gove pulled back on some of New Labour’s well-being initiatives, such as Every Child Matters and the promotion of Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL). However, there seems renewed political interest in the idea of teaching character skills like resilience, with all three parties recently offering broad support for such a move. The work of James Heckman, focused on early interventions, is particularly popular with policy-makers at the moment.

The area is likely to progress through local and regional evidence-based initiatives, rather than top-down national initiatives like SEAL. Key players include the Jubilee Centre for Character and Values, Jen Lexmond’s work at Character Counts and elsewhere, James O’Shaughnessy’s Positive Education network, the Education Endowment Fund’s research, and the National Citizen Service, which apparently is building up a great evidence base for its intervention. The challenge is how to teach not just skills but also values within a pluralistic and multicultural society – more on this below.

Work

There’s growing interest in the importance of well-being at work, partly driven by the high economic cost of sick days due to stress and mental illness. Some of the more enlightened companies have bespoke well-being courses for their staff – like Google, Zappos, M&S, British Telecom or Saracens rugby club – in a manner reminiscent of 19th century Quaker companies like Rowntree’s. A key player in this area is the firm Robertson Cooper, which established the Good Day at Work network.

Nils Mordt of Saracens brushing up on some philosophy

As in schools, the new focus on work well-being ties in – or should tie in – with an ethical focus on values, character strengths and social responsibility. Saracens’ personal development course is a good example of how to teach well-being + values but in a flexible and peer-led way, compared to Zappo’s which, from the outside, seems quite inflexible and even authoritarian in its collective happiness ethos. Well-being at work ties in to another policy area, adult education (of which more below) – see, for example, Google’s emphasis on adult education for its workers, again reminiscent of Quaker companies like Rowntree’s. I also love the Escape the City network (by the by!).

Health

One of the main recommendations in Sir Gus O’Donnell’s Legatum Institute report on well-being, released last month, was that the NHS should focus more on prevention of ill-health, and also treat mental illness as equally important as physical illness.

That means greater support for the burgeoning Improving Access for Psychological Therapies programme across the UK, particularly in Wales, where there are high levels of depression and long waiting lists for talking therapy. It also means public health organizations like Public Health England taking more of a lead in promoting mental well-being. It means more support for peer-led well-being networks (one of the themes of Michaelson’s chapter in her book), which can draw inspiration from historical models like 19th century Friendly Societies. And it also means trying to work out a better way to treat psychosis, as the government is now trying to do.

Well-being health policy ties into well-being policy in other areas, particularly schools, work, and adult / online education. Empowering people to take care of their own physical and mental health means treating them as reasoning agents rather than as malfunctioning machines.

Prisons and probation services

At the book launch yesterday, John Helliwell mentioned a paper he’d written on well-being in prisons, championing the Singapore Prison Services’ reforms. Singapore pioneered a mutual model of well-being, in which staff, inmates, former inmates and the wider community worked together to help inmates flourish.

We’re a long way from that here, but there is some interest in the ‘desistance’ model of rehabilitation, whereby inmates make a reasoned choice to leave their former criminal life and to pursue a new narrative. This fits with the coherence model of well-being, in which well-being is connected to our ability to find meaning and value in ourselves and the world. Some charities and probation organizations are also looking to extend the desistance / mutuality model beyond the prison walls – I’m meeting with one such organization, Co:Here, next week.

In England, the probation system is on the verge of a massive privatization, which is likely to cause stress to the system and to the people in it. However, the chaos will also create opportunities for new and innovative approaches. I’m interested to learn more about the RSA’s research on prison learning.

The economy / housing / urban planning

The O’Donnell report suggests the best economic policies to promote well-being would be to reduce unemployment, which has a particularly negative impact on well-being. Fine – but which government says it’s in favour of high unemployment? Other well-being economists suggest there is a correlation between income equality and national happiness – but so far this has failed to lead to major tax distribution policies, and inequality continues to rise.

The UK housing bubble also continues to grow, with the average property price in London now approaching half a million pounds. This is likely to have a significant impact on people’s well-being, and their ability to feel in control of their destinies. As more and more humans live in ‘mega-cities’, will we know and trust our neighbours, will we have access to green spaces, will we have any real connection to nature?

More research needs to be done on the rise of solo living, which is particularly popular in Scandinavian countries (typically championed as happiness templates). What is the trade-off between autonomy and loneliness? Is solo living sustainable or equitable? Are new forms of conviviality emerging? The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has done good work in this area.

Adult education / online learning

So far there is little policy focus on the importance of adult education to well-being. Adult education is, in general, ‘off the radar for policy-makers’, as David Halpern put it. This makes no sense to me, considering all the research into the importance of coherence, meaning, reasoning and collective engagement to well-being – all of which points to adult education as a booster to well-being. There’s been some work showing that engaging in adult education predicts higher well-being, but that has not fed into policy discussions at all, sadly. The national budget for community education shrinks every year.

schooloflife-3However, informal learning continues to grow, with various organizations appearing dedicated to raising well-being, including Action for Happiness and the School of Life. There have also been some encouraging developments in online well-being courses. Stanford’s Greater Good centre is launching an online happiness course in September, Berkeley has also launched a Positive Psychology MOOC, Action for Happiness recently launched an online course, while TED’s Understanding Happiness course has been in the top ten of iTunesU for a few years. Online learning connects to health policy in well-being, particularly with the rise of health apps.

It’s also worth mentioning the boom in mindfulness courses – including for example the phenomenal success of the book / CD ‘Mindfulness’, by Mark Williams and Danny Penman, which has been in the top 30 of Amazon for two years. Mindfulness is a policy intervention that can be deployed in health, work, education and prisons – similar in that respect to ‘mental resilience’ interventions.

Academia

British higher education seems so beleaguered that the well-being of staff and pupils is off the official agenda for the time being. If change comes, it is likely to be driven by students and staff rather than top-down, though perhaps some enlightened VC or chancellor will take the lead (eg Floella Benjamin at Exeter!) But this is a sector which potentially could play a very important role in the development and implementation of well-being interventions.

For example, universities could – and should – offer free courses in well-being to undergraduates. Such courses should (in my opinion) teach some of the techniques of well-being, such as meditation, gratitude, self-determination, resilience, while also providing a space for philosophical discussions about what it means to flourish. If done pluralistically, such courses would be an important space for inter-faith discussions, preventing campuses from becoming divided on religious lines.

I also think universities should do more to support the well-being of their staff, particularly PhDs, where burn-out and drop-out rates are high. Some PhDs, such as the LSE’s Inez von Weitershausen, are beginning to work on this, and I think funders like Wellcome are keen to support more work in this area.

Academia could also play an important role in promoting adult education, as it used to do in the university extension movement. Unfortunately, humanities academics seem to have little time for adult education work and little faith in well-being politics – which is typically dismissed as ‘neoliberal’. A few humanities academics, however, understand that well-being policy is an important way to champion the impact of the arts and humanities in national policy. The work of the Reader Organisation, based at Liverpool Uni, is a good example of this more enlightened and engaged approach (they have their national conference in London next month, by the by).

Sports / arts / the festive

Burning Man festival

Well-being research tells us how important sport and exercise is to our well-being. It’s also beginning to tell us about the importance of the arts to our flourishing, particularly arts that engage us collectively, such as singing in a choir or reading in a book club.

I’d like to see more research on the importance of ‘the festive’ to well-being – think of the work of Durkheim, Barbara Ehrenreich, Jonathan Haidt, Martha Nussbaum and Charles Taylor in this area – or Dan Ariely’s writing on Burning Man festival.

Why do the residents of the Orkneys have such high well-being? Ian Ritchie, former co-director of the St Magnus festival there, tells me that that one reason is the islands are so rich in festivals – a folk festival, a blues festival, a well-being festival. Parties, clearly, are good for us, particularly when we help to organize them. It would be good to study the well-being impact of starting a festival in a town. For example, Wigmore, a small town in Scotland with high unemployment, launched its own book festival two years ago and it seems to have revitalized that community.

More generally, well-being economists and psychologists need to connect with arts and humanities practitioners to explore the role of beauty, awe and wonder in well-being, and the higher states of consciousness which arts and ‘the festive’ can create. That means going beyond a aridly Benthamite notion of happiness towards a more Millsian appreciation of the transformative power of the arts.

The media

Alain de Botton has been generally mocked by humanities academics for his latest book, The News, but as is often the case there is wisdom beneath his gimmickry. Our well-being is deeply connected to our culture, and therefore to the media – in the broadest sense of TV, online media and advertizing. How, in a free market economy, can we try and make sure the messages we soak in are not entirely shallow?

This morning, it was announced that Richard Hoggart, the great public intellectual and critic of commercial television, has died. He thought commercial TV pushed viewers towards a way of life ‘whose texture is as little that of the good life as processed bread is like home-baked bread’. His involvement in the Pilkington Report led to the establishment of BBC 2. But the vision of Hoggart, Reith and others – that broadcasting could be a force for the raising of public consciousness – seems to be in abeyance.

Perhaps this area of policy links up with health and adult education – the BBC is looking to launch MOOCs on FutureLearn, and to develop its online learning platforms. I know people in BBC Arts have been interested in promoting things like meditation or ancient philosophy, but it hasn’t happened yet. Indeed, there is a weird absence of ethical / spiritual discussion on TV. Radio 2’s Sunday morning show, once a province of spiritual discussion, is now presented by a sports presenter, which sums up the BBC’s (understandable) unease with promoting any particular ethics in a multicultural society.

The environment

Clearly the big question for well-being policy is: is it at odds with the coming environmental catastrophe? Are we meditating while Rome burns?

In Well-Being and Beyond, Csikszentmihayli outlines three constituents needed for consciousness to flourish: first, the freedom to think what you want and decide what is true (rather than being coerced and lied to by our government); second, to find flow in meaningful and purposeful activity (he understands the importance of higher or altered states of consciousness like awe, wonder, transcendence and ecstasy). And finally, we need hope.

We need the hope, or faith, that tomorrow will be as good as if not better than today. That drives all of our activity, all our plans, our investment in our work and family. Without that, ‘consciousness becomes idle and atrophied’, or it shrivels up in despair or short-term hedonism.

What is weird and unnerving about this historical moment is the loss of hope. Living standards are declining, the young are poorer than the old, but above all, there is a collective sense that the future will be worse – perhaps much worse – than the present, that nature will be severely depleted, the world will be more crowded, politics will be more unstable, the weather will be more violent, and we may see mass migrations and perhaps mass extinctions of animals and humans. Indeed, the animal mass extinction has already begun.

Religion and Wisdom

This brings me to my final point, the final area of research which I think would be fruitful. I don’t think secular humanism is going to be sufficient to sustain us through the coming crisis, because its hope in progress and a better tomorrow will not last in the face of mass extinctions. You need something more transcendent to believe in and give you the strength to do the right thing and to take care of the weak, even in the face of mass extinction and social collapse. Techno-humanism – in which the rich get to detach or upgrade from the rest of humanity – seems to me a much, much worse option than a return to the wisdom of older religious traditions.

Religion seems to me the massive elephant in the room of well-being policy. Well-being policy practitioners sometimes seem to me like people who have had their cultural memories wiped, so that they need to re-discover the basics of human flourishing from scratch. ‘We’ve discovered volunteering is good for well-being! So is collective singing. So is a sense of meaning and purpose. So is gratitude. So are higher states of consciousness. So is neighbourliness, reciprocity and mutuality. So is self-control coupled with an acceptance of the limit of one’s control over the universe. So is faith in the future.’

Well…yeah. All of which we used to get from religion, before we trashed it and turned to psychologists for guidance.

How do we spread the wisdom of religious traditions in a multicultural and increasingly secular society? To me, the key word is wisdom. Wisdom gives us the ability to appreciate the insights and practices of multiple religious faiths, to have respect for those faiths and to learn from them, while also finding our home in a particular tradition.

We need to learn not just the techniques of ancient wisdom traditions (meditation, gratitude, self-control etc) but also to create the space to discuss the different moral ends or goals which those traditions promote – nirvana, union with God, happiness, inner peace, Aristotelian flourishing etc. These different ends should be discussed rather than forced upon people. Socratic discussion is a way to include these moral ends / values without imposing them on people.

At the heart of most of the ancient wisdom traditions is an optimism that humans can use our reason to take care of our souls and our societies, combined with an acceptance that our reason is bounded, and that flourishing emerges best through habits and shared practices. These wisdom traditions are therefore opposed to a more biomechanical model of humanity, which sees negative emotions as chemical imbalances to be corrected with medication.

We need universities to take wisdom seriously, but I actually think we need a new sort of research institute – closer to the Esalen model – which combines intellectual and experimental research with practice. Sort of a think-tank / monastery. As Alasdair MacIntyre says at the end of After Virtue: ‘We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”

Well, those are some areas of possible research. A lot to be getting on with! But this is an important movement, and the UK is blessed with some pioneering thinkers and practitioners in this field, not just in economics and psychology, but also in the arts, technology, philosophy and faith.

PS I forgot to mention mental health in the military services. But that’s obviously another potential area for interventions to promote resilience.