Poem – The Universe Is Walking On A Treadmill


Nope I don’t think so. This was not premeditated.
Everything is protons and neutrons , my soul pushed the protons and neutrons together that made me say that thing.
It was from the soul
and the protons and neutrons.
I don’t exist. I don’t exist. I don’t exist.
What makes it exciting?
Existence.
I was walking on the treadmill the universe walking on the treadmill
All the atoms in existence and I occupy some small fraction of it for the time being.
Observe. Observe. Observe.
Time can never run out.
The protons and neutrons are moving precisely in the way that the protons and neutrons would move if under the specific position they’re in at this specific moment
The universe feels good when the protons and neutrons are moving precisely in the way that are the way they are supposed to move when under those moving conditions

Simple Pleasure #1: Walking | How To Enjoy Simple Pleasures

You may feel a bit insulted by the claim that you need somebody to teach you how to enjoy. This isn’t really about having the capacity to enjoy, but rather about choosing what to enjoy and consciously practicing how to enjoy in a certain way. This also isn’t about telling you what you should or shouldn’t enjoy. The point is taking a moment to question your assumptions related to how you derive pleasure. If left unchecked, one could over invest scarce time and resources needlessly and come out worse off than they were before.

We’ve all experienced the sense of fleeting enjoyment that things have. Even when you do discover something enjoyable, after some time it becomes harder to replicate and eventually stops being enjoyable altogether because you’ve found something that you think you’ll enjoy even more. Why does enjoyment feel out of our control?

You can’t deny the amount of effort that is put towards teaching you what to enjoy. Trillions of dollars are invested in the form of advertising to train us in enjoyment. As a result we tend to maintain under-theorized requirements for enjoyment. To enjoy, goes our unconscious thinking, things are required to:

  • Be rare. The exotic and hard to find will please us more than what is easily available.
  • Be unique. Ordinary and familiar is dull and uninspiring.
  • Be expensive. Cheap or free are hard to appreciate.
  • Be popular. Endorsement from other people ensures their quality.
  • Be big. Large scale means big enjoyment.
  • Be something you’re good at or even the best at. Enjoyment increases the more expert you become.
  • Be a means to an end. Makes money, advances career, increases power, makes you better, helps someone else, makes a lasting impact — rather than an end unto itself.

Every once in a while something that doesn’t meet the above requirements jumps out and surprises you with the amount of enjoyment it provides. We call these Simple Pleasures.

I think we have more control over what we enjoy than we think. We impair our ability to enjoy life by undermining our ability to enjoy simple, easily obtainable things. “Pleasure is an important form of knowledge,” says critic Jerry Saltz and, like any knowledge, we can learn it. Trust your own responses a little more. Focus on approval from others about what is enjoyable a little less. Decide to take pleasure in life more often and in more ways. From Seneca:

“To have whatsoever he wishes is in no man’s power, it is in every man’s power not to wish for what he has not, but cheerfully to employ what comes to him.”

For example, above is a video essay on one of life’s purest and most simple of simple pleasures — walking.

Look for more videos on simple pleasures coming soon.

The Benefits of Seeing Reality

There’s an antidote to many of life’s problems that you may not realize you already have at your disposal. It can reduce anxiety and depression. It can transform your experience with pain & other difficulties. It costs no money. It’s available to everyone at any time. What is this wonder drug?

It’s reality.

Step one: come to terms with the fact that you rarely perceive reality as it is.
Perhaps you’re thinking that reality is the source of your problems, not the cure. But there is a big difference between reality, and your perception of reality. Our brains come equipped with many biases to assure ourselves that we know what’s going on even when we don’t.

In an article in Vox, “Intellectual humility: the importance of knowing you might be wrong” Brian Resnick, explains,

“Much as we might tell ourselves our experience of the world is the truth, our reality will always be an interpretation. Light enters our eyes, sound waves enter our ears, chemicals waft into our noses, and it’s up to our brains to make a guess about what it all is.”

This overconfidence in perceiving reality is not always necessarily bad. It helps us set goals and work towards them even when the odds are stacked against us. This sense of understanding feels good. Voltaire is quoted saying,

Illusion is the first of all pleasures.

But this pleasure comes at a price. There are forces at play within us that we can be unaware of that cause unnecessary pain. Rarely do we experience an event itself, but an invented story about the event. Such stories can treat a fleeting state of mind as if it were our entire and permanent self. Over time irrational thoughts and beliefs are unknowingly reinforced and lead to patterns of thought that drive negative experiences and lead to mental health disorders.

Step two: become aware of thoughts and see them for what they really are.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy teaches that all thoughts should be treated as hypotheses – we don’t assume thoughts are true unless there is compelling evidence to support them. Thoughts need to be put on trial and we need to second guess what our brains are telling us.

Author Robert Greene explains,

…only by throwing some light on yourself and realizing that these qualities, these flaws that are built into us, they are inside you too. Only then can you begin to overcome them and use them for productive purposes.

Question, question, question. Don’t assume that the reason that you feel something, and that it’s right just because you feel it. And in that kind of process, you will become rational, you’ll become somebody who can use empathy, you will have the ability to judge people properly and accept them for who they are as opposed to continually moralizing, wishing people were something that they’re not.

You’ll have a much smoother path through life, and you’ll be much calmer and more peaceful without all that emotional baggage that drags you down. But it starts with looking inward and questioning yourself and not assuming that everything you feel or think is right.

To practice this skill of questioning, CBT practitioners use worksheets like the “Dysfunctional Thought Record,” which asks the user to write down a situation where they had an intense emotion. Then they are to think about which automatic thoughts led to that emotion, identify the distortions that those thoughts contain and then reassess how much they really believe in those thoughts. In the end, the initial emotion is reevaluated — usually leading to a decrease in intensity.

Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens, has said more than once that the reason he meditates is to answer the question:

“What is reality? What is really happening? To be able to tell the difference between the stories that the mind keeps generating about the world, about myself, about everything and the actual reality.”

Meditation is essentially training our attention so that we can become more aware. It allows us to recognize the authenticity of thoughts and emotions and not be overwhelmed by them. Mindful meditation allows you to practice observing a thought, or a worry, and interrupt it before it spirals out of control and causes you to anxiously dwell on it.

One way it does this, similar to CBT, is called Mental Noting. Mental Noting is the practice of using a simple “note” to give a name to what you are experiencing. It does not involve analysis or judgment. It’s simply to give your current experience a one-word label — ‘seeing’, ‘touching’, ‘feeling’, ‘thinking’ etc. The goal is that with enough practice in mental noting while meditating, it can become second nature with any experience in day-to-day life.

Steven Johnson, in his book “Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most,” writes, “The Novel is an empathy machine.”

He explains that,

“We can imagine all sorts of half-truths and hypotheticals: what-she-will-think-if-this-happens, what-he-thinks-I’m-feeling. Reading literary novels trains the mind for that kind of analysis. You can’t run a thousand parallel simulations in our life but you can read a thousand novels over the course of that life…It’s true that the stories that unfold in those novels do not directly mirror the stories in our own lives…But the point of reading this kind of literary fiction is not to acquire ready-made formula for our own choices. [What it] does teach you to do is see the situations with…a keen vision and feeling.”

In other words, reading helps us practice feeling emotions. We can observe the antagonist’s choices and feel what they feel and practice recognizing the thinking distortions the antagonist has before they do. Heroes usually carry some deeply painful event that they believe has been resolved or overcome, but which is still affecting their behavior. Screenwriter Michael Hauge calls this the hero’s “wound”. We the audience can feel the character’s wound by proxy and experience the character’s attempts to be effective while trying to not admit that the wound exists – just like we do in real life. So when the hero embarks on a journey (the plot), they are forced to confront their wound and we get practice in doing the same — ideally leading us to confront our own personal thought distortions.

We all have stories we’ve told ourselves that limit our potential and cause undue pain. Use all opportunities to practice challenging your negative thoughts with frequent reality testing: meditation, cognitive therapy or by consuming fiction. Don’t believe lies.

Zach’s Best of 2018

I watched 71 movies. My favorites were:

  1. I don’t feel at home in this world anymore
  2. Dunkirk
  3. Goodtime
  4. Ken Burns The Vietnam War
  5. Game Night
  6. Wild Wild Country
  7. Tully
  8. American Animals
  9. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

I watched 132 episodes of  TV. There wasn’t anything that was that memorable except for the episode USS Callister in Black Mirror.

I read 45 books. 25 were audiobooks – the most I’ve ever listened to in a year. My favorite books were:

  1. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan Peterson
  2. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
  3. How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence by Michael Pollan
  4. What Is Ancient Philosophy? By Pierre Hadot
  5. Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Favorite Purchase Jabra wireless headphonesRunner up: Prana Brion Pants

Most painful:  In the dark mistaking a bottle of essential oil for eye drops

Saddest: Seeing my kids cry as we take back the pet dog we got for a month because she started biting people

I’m too old for this moment: Pulled some hip muscle I never knew I had while at the skatepark

Runner up: Sprained my ankle pretty badly at an Andrew WK concert

Most Adventurous: Bought a Triumph Scrambler and took it camping at Little Crater Lake

Runner up: Backpacking Canyonlands National Park – Needles District

Most New: Started a new job

Most Frustrating: Unclogging toilet after 2 year old flushed contents of entire waste basket

Dumbest: Accidentally burning a hole in the deck of beach rental property while trying to cook pizza with this thing

Most miles driven: Two road trips amounting to a total of 4,236 miles of driving

Best Dad moment: Taking all kids camping at Timothy Lake by myself

Nature’s Role In Helping Us Succeed

Avoiding danger is a key survival skill for any species. One way our species accomplished this was by developing systems in our brains over tens of thousands of years that would make it unavoidable for us to not notice danger, and as a result, hopefully, respond to it. This system has been identified as the negativity bias by social scientists – “even when of equal intensity, things of a more negative nature (e.g. unpleasant thoughts, emotions, or social interactions; harmful/traumatic events) have a greater effect on one’s psychological state than neutral or positive things.”

Our modern-day brains are equipped with this finely tuned built-in brain apparatus that’s super-sensitive to negativity, but instead of using it to be hyper-aware of negative things like tigers stalking us or other tribes moving in on our territory, our brains dwell on no Facebook likes, being looked over at work, the aches and pains of an aging body or insults we received years ago.

Some people seem to be able to brush off these negative feelings effortlessly and move on with life while for others, the negativity turns into habitual thought patterns. But there’s no reason that the more negatively-inclined of us can’t learn to cope and even thrive with negativity bias and in fact, I think those who consciously learn to do so can turn it into an advantage.

First, consider another psychological finding called the “facial feedback hypothesis” which demonstrates how manipulatable the brain is. The “facial feedback hypothesis” is the idea that facial movement can influence emotional experience. Your brain doesn’t just look externally for stimulus but actually pays attention internally to what your body is doing. So, when it senses that a muscle, like those connected to smiling, are flexing, the brain attributes it to happiness, and then we feel happy. In other words, our brains can be manipulated by conscious physical effort.

Our physical bodies aren’t the only thing that can change our emotions – our conscious and unconscious thoughts affect emotions too. Thoughts can trigger emotions, like worrying about catching a flight, and they also serve as an appraisal of that emotion: as in, “this isn’t a realistic fear”. The former causes emotions, the latter dispels them.

So, you wake up and the body is stiff, your mind is cloudy, the alarm clock hurts your ears – all these physical stimuli are signals that the brain intends to give meaning to. These negative feelings remind you of a thought, “I hate my job, It’s the worst.” Now the brain has the proof it was looking for to justify the emotion – “You feel sad.” You take that sad feeling and apply further cognitive distortions to it, “I always feel sad and it will never get better.” Those thoughts are heard by the brain, it pushes the buttons and pulls the levers and releases some more chemicals and now you feel worse. You take a long time to get out of bed and you choose to skip the gym and eat a pop-tart instead — these actions reinforcing negative thoughts causing more sad emotions. Repeat this enough mornings in a row and you’ll have a personal Rube Goldberg machine of entrenched thought patterns where “waking up” = “life is pointless”. This is one manifestation of depression.

What if you chose to attribute those negative feelings somewhere else? Stiff body, cloudy mind, alarm clock: Instead you think, “This feeling in the morning? This isn’t because of work. This is the prerequisite feeling before achievement is possible. This is how you know you’re on the right track. This is what winning feels like.” The brain believes you. And again starts to look for a way to justify those thoughts. You come up with the thought, “I’m making progress at work.” The brain pushes those buttons and pulls those levers and releases some more chemicals and now you feel better. So you go to the gym and stick to your diet. Repeat and eventually “waking up” = “Life is full of possibilities.”

Apply this to every scenario where negative feelings occur:
That uncomfortable feeling of confusion isn’t proof of incompetence, but evidence of being on the threshold of learning something new.
That dissatisfaction isn’t proof of discontentment, but evidence of putting in the required amount of effort before achievement is possible.
That feeling of fear due to uncertainty isn’t proof of your incapableness, but evidence that you’re getting stronger

Exercising doesn’t feel great all the time which is why many people don’t do it. You have to come to learn that the negative feelings of exhaustion, discomfort and pain are actually good – no pain, no gain. Those feelings mean you’re doing it right and the reward is forthcoming.

Epicurus said,

“Give thanks to nature, the bountiful, because it has made necessary things easy to procure, while things hard to obtain are not necessary.”

Can one feel a near-constant sense of progress by taking what nature gives so readily and translate dissatisfaction, discontent, uncertainty and disappointment into something else? What if instead of considering those negative feelings as something to be avoided, we saw them as necessary and looked forward to them like sign posts informing us that we’re on the right track? Since those negative feelings will be there one way or another, I’d say might as well try to make the most of them.

All Means And No End

Douglas Rushkoff in Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus:

“We have set in place an economic system whose growth works against our own prosperity.”

He explains that the central assumption of our economic lives — that further economic growth will create continually rising prosperity for all — is broken. Companies are designed to take money out of the system so in the end they vacuum up the playing field altogether, impoverishing the markets, consumers and employees–on whom they ultimately depend.

 

As we unfortunately absorb capitalistic principles into our daily lives, we also have inherited their flaws. One of them being the need to constantly grow. And just as much as it is unsustainable for businesses, it is equally unsustainable in our daily lives since we can never be certain whether we have achieved enough. The inevitable consequence is disappointment from endless ambition on the one hand, and bitterness when things don’t work on on the other.

 

Matt Haig explains wonderfully in his book Reasons to Stay Alive how our culture constantly threatens us to “improve.”

“The world is increasingly designed to depress us. Happiness isn’t very good for the economy. If we were happy with what we had, why would we need more? How do you sell an anti-ageing moisturiser? You make someone worry about ageing. How do you get people to vote for a political party? You make them worry about immigration. How do you get them to buy insurance? By making them worry about everything. How do you get them to have plastic surgery? By highlighting their physical flaws. How do you get them to watch a TV show? By making them worry about missing out. How do you get them to buy a new smartphone? By making them feel like they are being left behind. To be calm becomes a kind of revolutionary act. To be happy with your own non-upgraded existence. To be comfortable with our messy, human selves, would not be good for business.”

To achieve what Haig calls ‘the revolutionary act of being calm’ requires constraints. We tend to assume that “keeping our options open” means living with more freedom. Harry Emerson Fosdick provides an important context for freedom:

“Self-denial is not the negative, forbidding thing that often we shake our heads about. In one sense there is no such thing as self-denial, for what we call such is the necessary price we pay for things on which our hearts are set.”

One must choose to live up to standards based on one’s own judgment about what is good. Then when the world incites us to improve in some way we can interrogate those ideas and ask whether they are opportunities to exercise our values and, if they aren’t, we can be ready with the reaction, ‘Then it’s none of my concern.’ Within simple everyday things like working, walking outside, talking with people, bathing, and eating can be found all the opportunities to live according to chosen values and be fully awake, fully alive and fully human.

 

Self improvement has infiltrated all aspects of our lives as if to suggest that unless an activity is doing some kind of optimization or fulfills some end, it’s not worth doing. I like to think of meditation as just practicing ‘being’ — a time to attempt experiencing a reality deeper than goals, narratives, expectations and desires. But as Mike Powell in Meditation in the Time of Disruption points out, even meditation has been exploited to serve some kind of means.

“Whereas some come to meditation as a way of reckoning with the incredible gifts existence has already given them, others come because they want to see what else is in the bag. This sort of rhetoric only gets ramped up in reference to meditation as a performance booster. For example, the promise that meditation will make you more effective at work seems to have a lot more salience and motivational charge than the promise that meditation will just make work feel a little less important overall.”

“All told, this is a bleak picture,” writes Alexandra Schwartz in Improving Ourselves to Death, published in the New Yorker. She asks, “If the ideal of the optimized self isn’t simply a fad, or even a preference, but an economic necessity, how can any of us choose to live otherwise?” And then provides this answer:

“This isn’t a message of hopelessness. On the contrary, what it actually leads us towards is a better way of finding happiness. Once you realize that it’s all just an act of coercion, that it’s your culture trying to turn you into someone you can’t really be, you can begin to free yourself from your demands.”

Recognize the coercion being acted upon you and free yourself from your demands. Find things to do that will not improve you in any measurable way. Go for a walk in the woods. Think about the vastness of the cosmos. Go to a museum and look at art. Or read a book.

 

In The Bookish Life: How To Read And Why, Joseph Epstein explains how reading is one of those things that don’t need to be of concrete use in order to have value.

“What is the true point of a bookish life? Note I write “point,” not “goal.” The bookish life can have no goal: It is all means and no end. The point, I should say, is not to become immensely knowledgeable or clever, and certainly not to become learned. Montaigne, who more than five centuries ago established the modern essay, grasped the point when he wrote, “I may be a man of fairly wide reading, but I retain nothing.” Retention of everything one reads, along with being mentally impossible, would only crowd and ultimately cramp one’s mind. “I would very much love to grasp things with a complete understanding,” Montaigne wrote, “but I cannot bring myself to pay the high cost of doing so. . . . From books all I seek is to give myself pleasure by an honorable pastime; or if I do study, I seek only that branch of learning which deals with knowing myself and which teaches me how to live and die well.” What Montaigne sought in his reading, as does anyone who has thought at all about it, is “to become more wise, not more learned or more eloquent.” As I put it elsewhere some years ago, I read for the pleasures of style and in the hope of “laughter, exaltation, insight, enhanced consciousness,” and, like Montaigne, on lucky days perhaps to pick up a touch of wisdom along the way.”

To Tell A Story Is To Be A Manipulator

A quote by Peter Marin in his article Spiritual Obedience (Harpers Magazine Feb 1979) from Sam Harris’ book Waking Up A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, does a great job of articulating a particular vulnerability we all have as humans:

“I remember going a few years ago to a lecture in which the speaker, in the name of enlightenment, had advocated total submission to a religious master. The audience, like most
contemporary audiences, had been receptive to the idea, or more receptive, rather, than they
would have been a while back. Half of them were intrigued by the idea. Drawn to it. Total submission. Obedience to a “perfect master.” One could hear, inwardly in them, the gathering of
breath for a collective sigh of relief. At last, to be set free, to lay down one’s burden, to be a child again-not in renewed innocence, but in restored dependence, in admitted, undisguised dependence. To be told, again, what to do, and how to do it. … The yearning in the audience was so palpable, their need so thick and obvious, that it was impossible not to feel it, impossible not to empathize with it in some way. Why not, after all? Clearly there are truths and kinds of wisdom to which most persons will not come alone; clearly there are in the world authorities in matters of the spirit, seasoned travelers, guides. Somewhere there must be truths other than the
disappointing ones we have; somewhere there must be access to a world larger than this one. And if; to get there, we must put aside all arrogance of will and the stubborn ego, why not? Why not admit what we do not know and cannot do and submit to someone who both knows and does, who will teach us if we merely put aside all judgment for the moment and obey with trust and goodwill?”

That vulnerability? We want to believe. In what? In anything that can make sense of our feelings. Life is hard. It’s easier when there is an explanation. Looking for reasons isn’t something that our brains can turn off. And for that reason we are easily manipulated. The manipulator needs only two things, a story and the means to tell it.

For most of human history a story could only be told orally. (From an evolutionary perspective, one reason it makes sense that we would believe stories  is because for most of our species’ history one could only hear a story from a person they knew and trusted.) Oral stories gave way to written ones, which gave way to stories on the radio. A great Radiolab episode called War of the Worlds  tells the story of how Orson Welles in 1938 was able to captivate audiences with his radio drama about martians invading earth. The show was made in a way that was incredibly believable, to the point that people turned off their radios and readied themselves to fight the invaders. In the show they demonstrate that others have taken the War of the Worlds script and seen similar results in places like Quito, Ecuador and Buffalo, New York — each with their own version of inciting mass hysteria. As they go on to explain, with War of the Worlds Orson Welles created the initial playbook with radio that all modern newscasters have since mastered with TV. Not a day goes by without “breaking news” that some threat may or may not affect you — but you’ll have to wait until after the commercials to find out what.

So after oral, written, radio and tv stories came the stories we now consume via the internet. At first humans could only manipulate those within the sound of their voice. Then it was just the select few humans who were the gatekeepers to mass media. Now with the internet, the tools for manipulation are in each of our hands. Each of us has a story and the ability to share it far and wide. This unprecedented ability is causing some serious negative externalities. As Frank Bruni explains in his New York Times article, The Internet Will Be the Death of Us:

“Before he allegedly began mailing pipe bombs to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and others, Cesar Sayoc found encouragement online — maybe not in the form of explosives instructions, but in the sense that he could scream his resentments in a theater that did the opposite of repudiating them. It echoed them back. It validated and cultivated them. It took something dark and colored it darker still…The internet is the technology paradox writ more monstrous than ever. It’s a nonpareil tool for learning, roving and constructive community-building. But it’s unrivaled, too, in the spread of lies, narrowing of interests and erosion of common cause. It’s a glorious buffet, but it pushes individual users toward only the red meat or just the kale. We’re ridiculously overfed and ruinously undernourished.”

He goes on to quote Tim Cook, the chief executive of Apple,

“Rogue actors and even governments have taken advantage of user trust to deepen divisions, incite violence and even undermine our shared sense of what is true and what is false.”

“Rogue actors” are taking advantage of this new-found ability, but so are the rest of us too. To tell a story is to be a manipulator. Your manipulation may not to be a conscious effort to incite others to violence but it’s still a manipulation that we’re all affected by. And your ability to distribute your manipulations has never been easier.

Tim Urban in his article 7 Ways to Be Insufferable on Facebook, exposes beautifully how manipulative we all are when given the chance. We can’t help but use the same time-tested tactics of Orson Welles and your local TV broadcaster to craft images of ourselves while reinforcing and defining the groups we belong to.

We need to acknowledge the stories that we indulge in, recognize the complexities of reality and practice self-introspection. Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, explains,

“[People] are encouraged to follow their feelings. If they feel offended by something then they have been attacked. They’re supposed to not question those feelings. But part of wisdom is the ability to say, “now wait a second, are there other ways to look at this?” These are crucial skills for critical thinking. These are crucial skills for mental health and we need to be teaching young people at all stages to question their first interpretations, look for evidence and improve the way they interpret the world.”

This is the only chance we have at escaping the weaponized story telling that bombards us.

All Stories Are False, But Some Are Useful

In his Book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari calls it the cognitive revolution. About 70,000 years ago a genetic mutation altered the inner wiring of Homo sapiens, enabling them to think and communicate in unprecedented ways. Humans began telling stories and share ideas and myths. We are the only species to have developed this capacity to comprehend ideas and events that we’ve never personally experienced. These stories, myths, beliefs, religions and ideologies enabled the cooperation needed for large groups to work together. The cognitive revolution laid the necessary groundwork for the agricultural revolution about 12,000 years ago, followed by the scientific revolution about 500 years ago.

The statistician George E. P. Box said,

“Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.”

In the case of the cognitive revolution that can be rephrased as, “All stories are wrong, but some are useful.”

The benefits of this ability to believe stories that enable cooperation surround us. Harai explains:

“At the heart of our mass cooperation networks, you will always find fictional stories that exist only in people’s collective imagination. Two Catholics who have never met can nevertheless go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital because they both believe that God was incarnated in human flesh and allowed himself to be crucified to redeem our sins. Two Serbs who have never met might risk their lives to save one-another because both believe in the existence of the Serbian nation, the Serbian homeland, and the Serbian flag. Two lawyers who have never met can nevertheless combine efforts to defend a complete stranger because they all believe in the existence of laws, justice, human rights—and the money paid out in fees.”

But of course, this cooperation superpower can also backfire. There comes a time when some story is brought out into the light and we see it for what it really is — not some absolute truth, but a mere antiquated social norm. Because beliefs run so deep, people get offended at the insinuation that their “way of life” is hurting others — to them it’s just the way things are and always have been, not a story they’re telling themselves.

For example, Anastasia Basil in her article, Relax, Ladies. Don’t Be So Uptight. You Know You Want It, delineates the movies, ads, and TV shows that have socialized sexism and misogyny in America for generations. Ideas, beliefs and behaviors once thought to be “ just the way things are” is in fact just a story — one that needs to change.

She says,

“No one thinks of themselves as a byproduct of a generation…You’re aware of the trends and social attitudes of your generation, but your thoughts, proclivities, and the votes you cast are entirely your own. Or are they?”
“We are all byproducts of a collective mindset. Those who question the mindset of their time and shine light on its moral defects are considered malcontents. And yet, it is malcontents like MLK who are (later) lauded as heroes — not for upholding America’s values, for shaping them. Here’s a fun game. Ask yourself: What strongly held opinion of mine will my grandchildren one day struggle to understand?”

It takes deliberate effort to look inside and question your motives, beliefs and worldview.
As Basil goes on to say,

“The 23 percent of Americans who supported civil rights in 1963 knew exactly what they were doing. They didn’t accidentally do the right thing. They weren’t accidentally on the right side of history. Instead of bullheaded allegiance, they questioned, examined, and took a knee to the moral defects of their time.”

That deliberate effort required is something that needs to be experienced. The realization needs to come from within. You can’t cause it to happen to someone by providing them with information.

Monica Hesse in the Washington Post article He thought white men were vanishing from TV. I disagreed. So we conducted an experiment, writes, about a man on Facebook who felt white men were increasingly absent from TV, and he surmised that a push toward gender and racial diversity had shoved them out. So she tried to correct him by sending links to studies showing he was wrong. One, from San Diego State University, found only 24 percent of 2017’s films had a female protagonist. It didn’t work so instead they decided to make their own data by watching an hour of the same channel, coding ads by gender, by voice-over vs. on-screen appearance, main actor vs. extra. By the end of the hour he had changed his opinion, “In reviewing these statistics, I have to change my opinion. They do represent the population fairly well. There are some commercials that don’t have any white males in them, but this is to be expected.”

Hesse says,

“Our worldviews are shaped by our experiences. We all obsess over our own scars until we start to think they’re symbols for broader injustice. We believe what we feel. And then we believe our feelings are facts.”

This kind of change is available to all of us if we’re willing to be wrong, if we’re willing to accept that we may be part of the problem and if we’re willing to put in the hard work to uncover the stories we tell ourselves.

A Reliable Path To Being Present — Hobbies

Ancient philosophy teaches that the present is enough for happiness because it allows us to satisfy our simplest and most necessary desires. The idea is that there are natural desires, and unnatural desires. Natural desires are always available, or at least very simple to obtain in the present — such as a desire for water when we are thirsty can be easily satisfied. Unnatural desires, like wanting status and money cannot be easily obtained and are not in the present — therefore they cause unhappiness. Furthermore, a person who applies all his attention and his consciousness to the present will obtain the highest and genuine type of happiness — the pure pleasure of existence.

Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations has this to say on the topic:

“Even if you’re going to live three thousand more years, or ten times that, remember: you cannot lose another life than the one you’re living now, or live another one than the one you’re losing. The longest amounts to the same as the shortest. The present is the same for everyone; its loss is the same for everyone; and it should be clear that a brief instant is all that is lost. For you can’t lose either the past or the future; how could you lose what you don’t have?”

Sitting there blissed out on existing is not an easy mental state to get into. I think a more reliable way to achieve it is in doing things. Particularly things that are interesting to you, that are intellectually compelling and that you enjoy doing — also known as hobbies.

 

Yet hobbies are under threat.

 

One reason, explains Tim Wu in the New York Times article In Praise of Mediocrity, is that we feel like we need to be good at them.

“There’s a deeper reason, I’ve come to think, that so many people don’t have hobbies: We’re afraid of being bad at them. Or rather, we are intimidated by the expectation — itself a hallmark of our intensely public, performative age — that we must actually be skilled at what we do in our free time.”

Tim Wu goes on to say,

“In a way that we rarely appreciate, the demands of excellence are at war with what we call freedom. For to permit yourself to do only that which you are good at is to be trapped in a cage whose bars are not steel but self-judgment.”
The promise of our civilization, the point of all our labor and technological progress, is to free us from the struggle for survival and to make room for higher pursuits. But demanding excellence in all that we do can undermine that; it can threaten and even destroy freedom. It steals from us one of life’s greatest rewards — the simple pleasure of doing something you merely, but truly, enjoy.”

Stephanie Buck in an article, Our parents discovered leisure. We killed it, describes another reason besides demanding excellence in all that we do that hobbies are becoming extinct: we’re turning hobbies into businesses.

“For many of us, the hobby is dead. Our work lives have merged with our free time, and hobbies are now often indistinguishable from second jobs. In a culture obsessed with productivity, the hobby has become the next venture.”

William Deresiewicz, in his book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, tells us that this indoctrination of measuring time spent only by monetary return-on-investment starts early:

“What’s the return on investment of college? What’s the return on investment of having children, spending time with friends, listening to music, reading a book? The things that are most worth doing are worth doing for their own sake. Anyone who tells you that the sole purpose of education is the acquisition of negotiable skills is attempting to reduce you to a productive employee at work, a gullible consumer in the market, and a docile subject of the state. What’s at stake, when we ask what college is for, is nothing less than our ability to remain fully human.”

In losing our hobbies, we’re losing our humanity. We’re being conditioned to love our jobs, equate career with leisure, turn hobbies into side hustles and then feel self-conscious about our performance when we do them. Not only our humanity and the ability to living in the present are at stake; we’re also being robbed of simple pure joy.

Again, Tim Wu explains,

“But there is also a real and pure joy, a sweet, childlike delight, that comes from just learning and trying to get better. Looking back, you will find that the best years of, say, scuba-diving or doing carpentry were those you spent on the learning curve, when there was exaltation in the mere act of doing.”

Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes, echoed this sentiment in his 1990 Kenyon College Commencement speech. In college he decided to paint a copy of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” from the Sistine Chapel on the ceiling of his dorm room.

“Despite the futility of the whole episode, my fondest memories of college are times like these, where things were done out of some inexplicable inner imperative, rather than because the work was demanded. Clearly, I never spent as much time or work on any authorized art project, or any poli sci paper, as I spent on this one act of vandalism.”

We need to follow the advice of Austin Kleon in his talk, How To Keep Going,  and make everyday Groundhog Day. Consider yourself Phil Connors and ask yourself,

“What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?”

Phil Connors had to live in the present. He had no future, and the past was irrelevant. Paradoxically, only when he gave into the present was he able to move into the future. We too must realize that only when we disavow outcomes, let go of expectations and get lost in the present with our hobbies do we stand a chance at achieving the pure pleasure of existence.

The Price Of Facebook

We tend to believe that we are rational, profit-seeking, self-interested, long-term players, with access to information and the time and inclination to process it. Therefore the only things we would spend time and money on are things that we believe are worth more than they cost. Who would be stupid enough to consistently waste time and money on something that didn’t give more value back in return?

Look at all the time spent with our phones and social media. Over two billion people currently use Facebook. And since we only spend time and money on things that we believe are worth more than they cost — and since Facebook is free, no matter how minor the benefits, they’re still more substantial than the cost…right?

Well, as Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, says,

“Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”

Well-funded marketers are working overtime to take advantage of our psychological vulnerabilities to confuse and deceive us about the anxiety, personal freedom, independent thought, outrage, democracy and certainly time that Facebook costs. Yet thanks to our bias for ignorance, if anyone asked, “why Facebook?”, many would reply, “why not?”

In the New Yorker article Why Facts Don’t  Change Our Minds, Elizabeth Kolbert explains how cognitive scientists are able to demonstrate just how ignorant we are of our ignorance — in this case when it comes to our stances on political issues. Multiple kinds of studies show that even when you give people evidence that refutes their beliefs, they still fail to revise them.The ignorance only begins to crack when people are instructed to explain, in as much detail as they can, the impacts of implementing their stance.

“Most people at this point ran into trouble. Asked once again to rate their views, they ratcheted down the intensity, so that they either agreed or disagreed less vehemently.
Sloman and Fernbach see in this result a little candle for a dark world. If we—or our friends or the pundits on CNN—spent less time pontificating and more trying to work through the implications of policy proposals, we’d realize how clueless we are and moderate our views. This, they write, “may be the only form of thinking that will shatter the illusion of explanatory depth and change people’s attitudes.””

So, in the case of using “free” services online, if we spent less time swiping, liking and posting and more time trying to work through the implications of social media use, we’d realize how clueless we are and stop hurting ourselves.

Let’s try it:

Seneca said,

“Our stupidity may be clearly proved by the fact that we hold that “buying” refers only to the objects for which we pay cash, and we regard as free gifts the things for which we spend our very selves.
These we should refuse to buy, if we were compelled to give in payment for them our houses or some attractive and profitable estate; but we are eager to attain them at the cost of anxiety, of danger, and of lost honour, personal freedom, and time; so true it is that each man regards nothing as cheaper than himself.”

This is similar to a quote from Henry David Thoreau,

“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.”

Put another way, “the value of anything is the amount of life you pay for it.” So let’s look at the record: what would your calendar say about what you value the most? Does the amount of time you’ve spent online align with your values? Is your life, as Seneca points out, worth less than the paltry friend requests, status updates and clickbait?

Ancient Stoic philosophers believed that the key to having a good life was to value things that are genuinely valuable and be indifferent to things that lack value.

William B. Irvine, in Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, attributes Marcus Aurelius to saying,

“Because we have it in our power to assign value to things, we have it in our power to live a good life.”

By assigning things their correct value we can avoid much suffering, grief, and anxiety. Consider a handful of values one could choose from to lead to a good life: honesty, hard work, confidence, love, creativity, adventure. How does time on Facebook support these or any other quality value?

For me, questions like these help me put Facebook and all other types of social media in their proper place. The information we consume changes us. Facebook isn’t free. Your life is more valuable than social media.