I learned about Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment through a Fresh Air podcast (embedded below). The interesting thesis is that mindfulness meditation is the antidote for a lot of what is wrong with the human condition, such as always wanting more than we have, and then not being happy when we get it. You argue that a modern meditation practice could achieve these goals without the religious angle, but the author’s thesis is that the Buddhists correctly diagnosed the human condition thousands of years ago (however old Buddhism is, I was a little too lazy to look it up).
The only thing that makes me wary of Buddhism, but this applies to almost all religions, is that a social elite can use it to encourage people to accept things the way they are rather than envision a better future and be willing to fight for it. Then again, maybe part of the human condition is a fundamental conflict between being happy in the moment and being unsatisfied with the way things are and willing to fight for a better future. Perhaps the middle ground is to take some time each day to reflect on all the things that are good about the moment we find ourselves in. I personally like to also take a little time to nurture that deep down flame of anger about the way certain things are, because it motivates me to want to change them. If everyone just exists peacefully in the moment all the time, nothing will ever change.
This is a very simple idea but I like it.
The second good idea is to use a Venn Diagram to improve your practice and/or your life. Basically, the circle on the left is your ideal practice/life. The circle on the right is your current practice/life…
The amount of overlap determines how happy you are. Drummond says if the overlap is 60% or more, you are likely very happy and unlikely to burn out. If it is 20% or less, watch out! You are very likely to burn out very soon.
The first good idea, by the way, is to create a “transition ritual” between your work and personal lives. I like that idea to, and have actually been doing it for many years without having such a good name for what I was doing.
This blog post, which apparently is somewhat famous, is about interviews with people who are dying and what they regret about their lives. Number two on the list caught my eye:
2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret. But as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.
By simplifying your lifestyle and making conscious choices along the way, it is possible to not need the income that you think you do. And by creating more space in your life, you become happier and more open to new opportunities, ones more suited to your new lifestyle.
Continuing to think about European socialism-style equality vs. the U.S. narrative of equal opportunity and the pursuit of happiness. Our version makes more sense in some ways – everyone starts out equal, but then people who work the hardest, have the best ideas, or are willing to take risks get rewarded. This makes sense as an ideal – combine it with a safety net for those who don’t succeed through no fault of their own, and it could be a nice, practical vision. The main problem is that it is a narrative that can be twisted and co-opted by the rich and powerful to write the rules unfairly in their favor, ultimately creating the opposite of equal opportunity. Even darker, it can lead to a narrative where people who benefit from the rules being unfairly in their favor find ways to rationalize their success, convincing first others and then themselves that they had superior talents to being with. Here’s an article from Shelterforce that makes some of these arguments:
Upon closer scrutiny, however, the meritocratic ideal turns out to be quite pernicious. Summarizing the conclusion of my recent article on the subject, I find that, while this ideal is highly unlikely to achieve its core objectives (except maybe on the margins), its pursuit nonetheless creates “a competitive individualist ‘rat race’ of a society, fundamentally anti-communal and anti-familial, where group solidarity is uncommon and compassion muted.” And, worst of all, it ends up legitimizing—and thus reinforcing—the very social and economic inequality it purports to rectify…
In particular, much of liberal urban policy focuses on what liberals see as a kind of “unholy trinity” of barriers, as I have labeled it, that stem from inadequate schooling, troubled families, and poverty-impacted neighborhoods. Yet there is a great body of evidence showing that efforts to break down these barriers yield only marginal results in promoting meritocratic social mobility for the urban poor, while at the same time imposing significant costs on the most vulnerable.
Mostly notably, we see various school reforms fail over and over, and even enhanced higher education produces surprisingly limited impacts. As a result, we end up blaming the educational system for the failures of the rest of society, which in turn opens the door to corporate-oriented policies designed to privatize and monetize public schools. At the same time, programs that intervene into family life, unless highly intensive, also produce only minimal results, and when such interventions are intensive, they tend to violate the liberty of poor parents to autonomously direct the development of their children. Likewise, efforts to reduce barriers arising from the effects of poor neighborhoods via housing dispersal policies or the creation of mixed-income communities also have been generally disappointing, while often disconnecting the vulnerable from crucial familial and communal bonds.
I still think we should talk about how to make equal opportunity, with an appropriate safety net, a reality in this country, as an alternative to the European socialist model, which is the main alternative. These are really the only two humane options. What could true equal opportunity look like? For the sake of argument, let’s say we had a 100% inheritance tax, with the proceeds distributed equally to all newborn babies. Universal tax-funded education, up to and including the highest level of education and/or practical skills training needed to succeed in the economy, including continuing education for adults to adapt as technology and economic conditions change. Universal and equal access to health care. Excellent public infrastructure serving and connecting all urban areas. Low barriers to changing jobs or starting a business. Now you have a platform where people can compete and cooperate to build wealth. Some will work harder, innovate more, take more chances and earn more financial rewards. Others will choose to play it safer, devote more time to family and leisure, or just enjoy life’s experiences with less material wealth. You would still need unemployment and disability insurance for those who fall through the cracks through no fault of their own.
In this FInancial Times article, John Kay accuses happy cities of being boring.
Liveability and happiness are complex concepts. The happiest countries identified by the UN are those of “Jante Law”, the stifling conformity described by Danish author Aksel Sandemose: “You are not to think you are anything special, you are not to think you can teach us anything.” Yet there is much that is good about social homogeneity, shared values, peaceful coexistence and honest government. Life in unhappy countries — Myanmar, Syria, Zimbabwe — is not boring, but much of the population desperately wishes it was.
Yet boring is not enough. Security, hygiene, good public transport — the factors that enter the assessment of liveability — are necessary for a fulfilling life, but they are not sufficient for it. That is why so many young people from Melbourne or Toronto go to London or New York in search of the excitement and creativity of the great, rather than the liveable, city. For the technology writer Jonah Lehrer, cities are the knowledge engine of the 21st century. And he wasn’t talking about Düsseldorf.
The most intriguing studies of the determinants of happiness are those of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The moments at which people are happiest are when they are in “flow” — when they are engaged in a challenging task and doing it well: the lecture in which you realise the audience is hanging on your ever word, the tennis game in which every shot takes the ball where you want it to go. For many people, bringing up children is a source of endless demands and frustrations, but taken as a whole it is one of the most satisfying experiences of their lives. There is more to the good life than clean water and trains that arrive on time.
I don’t know. I like a little excitement when I travel, but I like a certain calmness and predictability when it comes to the broad strokes of my day in my home city. Then I can enjoy the fun and interesting little happenstances that happen within that larger sea of calmness. Provide some walkable streets, some small-scale commerce, some open space and some contact with nature and I think you can create this atmosphere. And I don’t know why he picks on Myanmar, they might be able to teach us Westerners a thing or two about happiness.
From the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science:
Urbanization has many benefits, but it also is associated with increased levels of mental illness, including depression. It has been suggested that decreased nature experience may help to explain the link between urbanization and mental illness. This suggestion is supported by a growing body of correlational and experimental evidence, which raises a further question: what mechanism(s) link decreased nature experience to the development of mental illness? One such mechanism might be the impact of nature exposure on rumination, a maladaptive pattern of self-referential thought that is associated with heightened risk for depression and other mental illnesses. We show in healthy participants that a brief nature experience, a 90-min walk in a natural setting, decreases both self-reported rumination and neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex (sgPFC), whereas a 90-min walk in an urban setting has no such effects on self-reported rumination or neural activity. In other studies, the sgPFC has been associated with a self-focused behavioral withdrawal linked to rumination in both depressed and healthy individuals. This study reveals a pathway by which nature experience may improve mental well-being and suggests that accessible natural areas within urban contexts may be a critical resource for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world.