I’d like to talk more about Mark Manson’s Everything is F*cked (there’s a lot in here, so I’ll probably come back again). The penultimate chapters of the book finally cover the subject of the title–with so much going for us, why are we unhappy?
Manson talks about several experiments (one with colored dots, one with faces) where people’s perceptions shift to ensure that they see an expected ratio of items. For example, if you are shown 70% blue dots and 30% purple dots for a while and then they switch to 60% blue/40% purple, your brain tricks you into thinking some of the purple dots are blue to get you closer to 70/30.
Similarly, a study was done where people rated their happiness** that showed that we pretty consistently rate our happiness level as 7 out of 10. Something good will push us up, something bad push us down, but generally we level back out at 7 out of 10. Manson suggests that
…this constant “seven” that we’re always coming back to plays a little trick on us, a trick that we fall for over and over again. The trick is that our brain tells us, “You know, if I could just have a little bit more, I’d finally get to ten and stay there.” Most of us live much of our lives this way, constantly chasing our imagined ten.
This is the #firstworldproblems problem at it’s finest (and the mid-life crisis as well to some degree, but more about that in another post). We can have all the good things in life–success at work, family, leisure, shows to binge, but we’re always going to feel dissatisfied. Or as Manson puts it:
Pain is the universal constant of life. And human perception and expectations warp themselves to fit a predetermined amount of pain. In other words, no matter how sunny our skies get, our mind will always imagine just enough clouds to be slightly disappointed.
Manson argues further that:
The pursuit of happiness is a toxic value that has long defined our culture. It is self-defeating and misleading. Living well does not mean avoiding suffering; it means suffering for the right reasons. Because if we’re going to be forced to suffer by simply existing, we might as well learn how to suffer well.
I’m not sure if I buy this extreme (toxic is a strong word, but then Manson’s writing style leans toward hyperbole). I think we should work to alleviate suffering. But what I do take away from this is that our own minds are responsible for a certain amount of suffering, and that there is value to figuring out how to (1) manage our minds and (2) determine if what we are suffering is above or below the metaphorical 3 points. If it’s above, then it’s time to make a change. If it’s below, we should think carefully before changing our circumstances and maybe consider changing our approach.
I’ve read some recent critics of the culture of meditation that say it encourages people to put up with situations they could otherwise change, that it is basically another opiate for the masses. While there may be some truth to that, I would argue that meditation techniques can help us manage our happiness by quieting the jabbering monkey brain and helping us discern if our discontent is within the 30%, where we should manage our interior lives, or the 40% plus that says it’s time to make a change
** Manson cites Brickman and Campbell in their 1971 essay “Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society.”