Alain de Botton on Marriage, Happiness, and Compatibility

Alain de Botton is one of my favorite modern-day writers/philosophers. This week, he has an op-ed in The New York Times titled “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person.” Alain de Botton is incredibly perceptive in his interpretations and unravelings of love and happiness:

But though we believe ourselves to be seeking happiness in marriage, it isn’t that simple. What we really seek is familiarity — which may well complicate any plans we might have had for happiness. We are looking to recreate, within our adult relationships, the feelings we knew so well in childhood. The love most of us will have tasted early on was often confused with other, more destructive dynamics: feelings of wanting to help an adult who was out of control, of being deprived of a parent’s warmth or scared of his anger, of not feeling secure enough to communicate our wishes. How logical, then, that we should as grown-ups find ourselves rejecting certain candidates for marriage not because they are wrong but because they are too right — too balanced, mature, understanding and reliable — given that in our hearts, such rightness feels foreign. We marry the wrong people because we don’t associate being loved with feeling happy.

This paragraph resonates with me especially:

The person who is best suited to us is not the person who shares our every taste (he or she doesn’t exist), but the person who can negotiate differences in taste intelligently — the person who is good at disagreement. Rather than some notional idea of perfect complementarity, it is the capacity to tolerate differences with generosity that is the true marker of the “not overly wrong” person. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition.

For those of you unfamiliar with Alain de Botton’s other writings, I highly suggest checking out The Consolations of Philosophy and his novel, On Love. I’m looking forward to reading his latest novel, The Course of Love, when it comes out in June 2016.

On Happiness and its Opposite

This is a fascinating, must-read piece in The New York Times in which the author, Arthur C. Brooks, posits that the opposite of happiness is not unhappiness, and the things we can do to elevate our levels of happiness:

So when people say, “I am an unhappy person,” they are really doing sums, whether they realize it or not. They are saying, “My unhappiness is x, my happiness is y, and x > y.” The real questions are why, and what you can do to make y > x.

If you ask an unhappy person why he is unhappy, he’ll almost always blame circumstance. In many cases, of course, this is justified. Some people are oppressed or poor or have physical ailments that make life a chore. Research unsurprisingly suggests that racism causes unhappiness in children, and many academic studies trace a clear link between unhappiness and poverty. Another common source of unhappiness is loneliness, from which about 20 percent of Americans suffer enough to make it a major source of unhappiness in their lives.

The tangible advice comes near the end:

More philosophically, the problem stems from dissatisfaction — the sense that nothing has full flavor, and we want more. We can’t quite pin down what it is that we seek. Without a great deal of reflection and spiritual hard work, the likely candidates seem to be material things, physical pleasures or favor among friends and strangers.

We look for these things to fill an inner emptiness. They may bring a brief satisfaction, but it never lasts, and it is never enough. And so we crave more. This paradox has a word in Sanskrit: upadana, which refers to the cycle of craving and grasping. As the Dhammapada (the Buddha’s path of wisdom) puts it: “The craving of one given to heedless living grows like a creeper. Like the monkey seeking fruits in the forest, he leaps from life to life… Whoever is overcome by this wretched and sticky craving, his sorrows grow like grass after the rains.”

This search for fame, the lust for material things and the objectification of others — that is, the cycle of grasping and craving — follows a formula that is elegant, simple and deadly:

Love things, use people.

This was Abd al-Rahman’s formula as he sleepwalked through life. It is the worldly snake oil peddled by the culture makers from Hollywood to Madison Avenue. But you know in your heart that it is morally disordered and a likely road to misery. You want to be free of the sticky cravings of unhappiness and find a formula for happiness instead. How? Simply invert the deadly formula and render it virtuous:

Love people, use things.

Success Cannot be Measured

Success is the strength of your heart, the power of your mind and giving of your soul.

This is a great post by Ketan Anjaria who claims that success, like other intangibles in life such as love, can’t be measured:

Real success isn’t measured by how many cars you own, how hot your startup is, or even how amazing you are at yoga.

Real success can’t be measured, just like happiness or love can’t be measured.

If you are trying to apply a metric to your success you have failed to realize one the most beautiful reasons we are on this earth.

Success to me is what you make. What you give to the world. That your thoughts, and actions and time go to building something that works for others.

We could all this reminder every once in a while.

A Desert, a Smiling Dog, and a Revelation

A hasty engagement and subsequent marriage turned into anguish for Liesl Schillinger, who realized she was incompatible with her husband. So she goes off to the desert in New Mexico and has a revelatory experience:

I continue amending my idea of fulfillment as I go. I have no regrets except for one: I am not allowed to own a dog in my apartment building. I travel too much to have a dog, anyway. Out of curiosity, though, I sent the photo of the big white dog to a breeder, who told me what kind it was: a Samoyed.

The breed, also known as “the smiling dog,” is famous for its friendly temperament. The dog I met in Taos would have shared its good mood with any creature it happened to encounter on its run. I’m so glad I was that creature.

I wish I still had the picture, but I will never lose the impression bestowed upon me by that generous, exultant animal on that long-ago day, when I most needed to be reminded that happiness is not an intellectual choice, it’s an instinct, and a good in itself.

A beautiful conclusion in this Modern Love story.

A Physicist Proposes to his Physicist Girlfriend

A redditor named “bogus_wheel” (a physicist by profession) received a proposal from her physicist boyfriend via an academic paper titled “Two Body Interactions: A Longitudinal Study.” You can read it below:

two_body_interactionsVery cute (and she said yes).

Two questions: where are the references and is it possible to replicate this study?

Passion vs. Big Problems

Oliver Segovia has a message for the twentysomethings:

Like myself, today’s twentysomethings were raised to find our dreams and follow them. But it’s a different world. And as the jobless generation grows up, we realize the grand betrayal of the false idols of passion. This philosophy no longer works for us, or at most, feels incomplete. So what do we do? I propose a different frame of reference: Forget about finding your passion. Instead, focus on finding big problems.

Putting problems at the center of our decision-making changes everything. It’s not about the self anymore. It’s about what you can do and how you can be a valuable contributor. People working on the biggest problems are compensated in the biggest ways. I don’t mean this in a strict financial sense, but in a deeply human sense. For one, it shifts your attention from you to others and the wider world. You stop dwelling. You become less self-absorbed. Ironically, we become happier if we worry less about what makes us happy.

The good thing is that there are a lot of big problems to go by: climate change, sustainability, poverty, education, health care, technology, and urbanization in emerging markets. What big problem serves as your compass? 

He then has suggestions on connecting with people, exploring the world, and developing situation awareness. Segovia concludes:

Happiness comes from the intersection of what you love, what you’re good at, and what the world needs. We’ve been told time and again to keep finding the first. Our schools helped developed the second. It’s time we put more thought on the third.

I love photography and think I am relatively good at it. But am I changing the world with it? Not really. Does that mean I should abandon it, though? In my opinion, Segovia’s call is a challenging one: it is not trivial to find something that the world needs that you’re also good at and love doing.

The Longevity Project: Happiness and Unhappiness

According to a new book, The Longevity Project, authored by Howard Friedman and and Leslie Martin, the basic premise behind happiness is this: sadness does not make you sick any more than happiness makes you well…

The Longevity Project is based on the results of a longitudinal study started by psychologist Lewis Terman (which became known as the “Terman Study”). The Terman study followed a group of 1,500 Californians over eighty years, beginning in 1921. All of the children selected for this study were judged to be of high IQ  (presumably because with high IQ are more predisposed to live longer, happier, and more successful lives). A snippet from The Atlantic provides the findings (I’ve bolded the two most interesting/important points):

All three researchers concluded that one of the biggest factors in both a happy life and a long life was having strong and healthy social connections. Beyond that, the people who tended to have “happy-well” outcomes were conscientious, emotionally healthy individuals who set and actively pursued goals; who incorporated strong social networks, exercise and “healthy” eating/drinking habits organically into their everyday lives; who were optimistic but not to the point of being careless or reckless; social enough to form strong networks, but not so social as to pursue unhealthy habits for peer approval; and who felt engaged and satisfied in their careers, marriages, and friendships.

According to Friedman and Martin, however, there’s one area where unhappiness does seem to play a causal role. It may not directly sicken or shorten the life of the person experiencing the unhappiness. But it [unhappiness] apparently can be toxic for people who have to live with that unhappy person. Unlike the Grant Study, which interviewed only the Harvard men, the Terman study also interviewed the spouses of the people in the study, to gauge their impact on study participants’ lives. And in the Terman study, women married to unhappy men tended to be unhealthier, and live shorter lives, than women married to happy men. Oddly, the reverse was not true. The happiness of the woman had very little effect on the lifespan or happiness of her husband.

I haven’t read The Longevity Project, but it does look quite interesting. The best book I’ve read on the topic of happiness is Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss — it’s about one man’s search for the happiest countries on Earth.

On Regrets of the Dying

Bronnie Ware describes herself as having a thirst for experiencing life from the moment she was born. Reading about her life you begin to feel that she’s experienced a lot.

For many years, Bronnie worked in palliative care. Through her work with patients facing their mortality, she has come to greater appreciation of her life and the lives of others. In this moving post, she describes how these dying patients, time and time again, cite similar regrets. These are the regrets of the dying:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. It is very important to try and honour at least some of your dreams along the way. From the moment that you lose your health, it is too late. Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it.

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.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result. We cannot control the reactions of others. However, although people may initially react when you change the way you are by speaking honestly, in the end it raises the relationship to a whole new and healthier level. Either that or it releases the unhealthy relationship from your life. Either way, you win.

Reading the above, did you come away with the impression: “This is me right now”? If so, is there anything that you can or are willing to do about it?

Please go to Bronnie’s blog post and read the other two regrets (on friends and happiness). I can’t conclude it better than Bronnie did: Life is a choice. It is YOUR life. Choose consciously, choose wisely, choose honestly. Choose happiness.


(hat tip to @bfeld)

Readings: End of the Web, Apologizing, Dubai, Happiness

I’ve been away from this blog for nearly a month, but here’s what caught my attention recently:

1) “The Web is Dead. Long Live the Internet” [Wired] – the most sensationalist piece of writing I’ve read in a long while. Many have labeled this piece on the demise of the web as trolling by the lead author (and editor of Wired) Chris Anderson. Read the piece for yourself, but then read Alexis Madrigal’s brilliant retort in The Atlantic; especially notable is this point from Alexis:

[I]t’s impossible not to notice — if you worked at like I did — that Anderson’s inevitable technological path happens to run perfectly through the domains (print/tablet) he controls at Wired, and away from the one that he doesn’t.

2) “How to Apologize” [Research Digest Blog] – there are three main types of apologies, as explained:

The three apology types or components are: compensation (e.g. I’m sorry I broke your window, I’ll pay to have it repaired); empathy (e.g. I’m sorry I slept with your best friend, you must feel like you can’t trust either of us ever again); and acknowledgement of violated rules/norms (e.g. I’m sorry I advised the CIA how to torture people, I’ve broken our profession’s pledge to do no harm).

Read the post to find out which apology to use in which situation.

3) “Good-Bye to Dubai” [The New York Review of Books] – this is an excellent summary of the rise and (relative) fall of one of the most prosperous cities in the Middle East (and the world). The piece is actually a nice summary of three books: Dubai: Gilded Cage, Dubai: The Vulnerability of Success, and City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism. A telling paragraph of how things were built in Dubai:

Moreover, the real estate boom was kept going by a Dickensian labor system that was bound at some point to self- destruct. At the height of the boom, tens of thousands of Southeast Asian laborers, banned by Dubai’s labor laws from forming unions, were put to work for eighty hours a week to build the Dubai fantasy and obliged to live in squalid residential camps in the desert. There, according to a report in the Guardian, they were packed “twelve men to a room, forced to wash themselves in filthy brown water and cook in kitchens next to overflowing toilets.” Before the crash, workers had begun to agitate for reforms; one target has been the kafala system, which requires foreign workers to have “sponsors” to obtain a visa and mandates their immediate deportation if they lose their jobs. A Kuwaiti government minister called this system “human slavery.”

4) “But Will It Make You Happy?” [New York Times] – a great case study of a couple who gave up their jobs and a number of materialistic possessions in their quest to become happier. The outcome?

Today, three years after Ms. Strobel and Mr. Smith began downsizing, they live in Portland, Ore., in a spare, 400-square-foot studio with a nice-sized kitchen. Mr. Smith is completing a doctorate in physiology; Ms. Strobel happily works from home as a Web designer and freelance writer. She owns four plates, three pairs of shoes and two pots. With Mr. Smith in his final weeks of school, Ms. Strobel’s income of about $24,000 a year covers their bills. They are still car-free but have bikes. One other thing they no longer have: $30,000 of debt.

If you’re interested about the topic of happiness, I highly recommend checking out Gretchen Rubin’s excellent blog The Happiness Project. She also came out with a book of the same name late last year.