Diced Relevant-Complexity

Having codified it three years ago, I amply proved the central premise of relevantcomplexity.com:

“But then, subtly and imperceptibly, sometimes even the things we once enjoyed the most, tail off into familiarity, boredom and ennui.”

I got bored of it.

Thanks goodness for Sonja Lyubomorsky… in the How of Happiness (which is also a website here) she sets out compelling evidence for two things which have really helped me this winter:

1) Hedonic Adaptation: pretty much anything which happens in your life – house move, significant gain or loss, any purchase from car to Concorde – you will have adapted to within three months; and then very importantly…

2) Happiness Set Point: you always return, inexorably, to your genetically determined default happiness setting; as proven by identical and non-identical twin studies. If you’re a miserable so and so, you likely always will be; if you’re a ray of sunlight, the same. Identical twins separated – with completely different life circumstances – have almost identical happiness levels. Non-identical twins living near identical lives, have widely divergent default happiness levels.

This sounds like a recipe for Stoicism (of which more anon). But the good news is you can better your Happiness Set Point – not by getting a better job, car or house… but by tricking yourself. The only way to beat your Happiness Set Point is to catch yourself out!

This explains (and links) my experience with Relevant Complexity and Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow”. My Happiness Set Point is a comparatively gloomy one. I was (initially) enjoying Relevant Complexity because of the variety and novelty. Then Hedonic Adaptation kicked in, “flow” went away – and inexorably and inevitably like a Newton’s Cradle I returned to my default ‘same old same old’ Happiness Set Point and lost enthusiasm for Relevant Complexity.

But now I’m back! The secret? Dice…

As Sonja Lyubomirsky sets out, the key is to trick yourself. So now I have dice and lists. When I’m pottering in the kitchen: the dice decide whether I’ll listen to a podcast, an audio book, the news in Italian, classical music, 80s hits, footie or talk radio. And each time I get bored; simple – roll again.

Similarly in a morning instead of fighting the randomness of which bus arrives first (and it’s never the one I want) I’m just hopping on. Make some progress, watch the world go by and change where there are more options. Embracing – even imposing – randomness seems to brighten up both me and my day. And it has certainly got me back doing the Relevant Complexity thing again.

But I’m not kidding myself… I’ve got three months before I have to come up with something new; you can’t cheat Hedonic Adaptation and your Happiness Set Point for long!

Irrelevant Complexity 1) – Odd Jobs

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‘Relevant complexity’ is my theory of everything: satisfaction and joy arise from the pursuit of complex, worthwhile and comparatively challenging pursuits.

Art history, particle physics, the raising of children, the preparation and enjoyment of good food etc etc – all relevantly complex.

You need to learn, improve, occasionally triumph – and sometimes feel you actually know almost nothing – to achieve the satisfaction of mastering relevant complexity with a good degree of skill.

Then there are hobbies. Same effect Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘flow’ – as one become adept or expert but some risks: becoming a bore or solitary obsessive. I have achieved ‘flow’ by hoovering well, even cleaning a fridge. But these are not monuments to my life’s work or relevantly complex pursuits I’d want defining who I am.

What’s in? An eclectic and erratic list: cooking, relevant; gardening, chore. Writing, relevant; drawing embarrassment. Cleaning the fish tank, chore (and only tolerable if I’m left to do it properly) odd jobs, drilling and hanging things source of great irritation and angst. Why?

Because it’s hard to get odd jobs right. Our walls are rubbish, you only ever do a thing once – so you make maximum mistakes, never get the chance to practice what you’ve learned. And the smallest thing can take disproportionate time for a disappointing effect; which then stares down at you in reproach for years. Aaargh. Irrelevant complexity.

My latest botched odd job stares down at me here:

Curtain derailed
DIY failed
Drooping drapes
In awkward shapes
Lots of screws
And hacksaw blades
Variety of fixings
Wobbling and fiddling
Scarcely blocking the sky
Humble pie.

But every cloud has a silver lining. After three separate wasted days on and off up ladders, with hacksaws, at the DIY shop, I definitively gave up in a huff on our lounge curtains.

Then a miracle intervened. My beloved took to the ladders, took up the drill and made it all hang together. Perhaps she found it satisfying enough that she might become Oddjob now… Fingers crossed.

Arts and Draughts

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I found myself talking Art – with a nice bloke I’ve never met before – in the pub this week. It was at a leaving do for my other half.

Neither of us look like gallery buffs. But a happy coincidence of amateur enthusiasm for the painterly arts, meant two slightly awkward men – with ostensibly nothing in common – had a surprising bond.

He told me about a couple of lectures he’d been to at the National Gallery: what’s hidden in Turner’s boats and skies, what’s interesting about (two painters neither of us usually find remotely interesting) Gainsborough and Reynolds.

I told him about ‘Barge haulers on the Volga‘ and the problems of perspective for Renaissance composition (realism can really get in the way of symbolism – see Uccello navigating the transition from Medieval to modern above).

We finished on intrigue and alchemy in Nineteenth century porcelain (him) and the challenges of making colours and the discovery of new blues (me, him and Monet).

A cracking natter. We could’ve done footy – he offered me Everton FC early on. But something about him (chair of his local synagogue, England Rugby shirt, a bald head and long grey curls) made me venture portraiture.

I’m so glad I did. Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘flow’ in action.

Fridge Frees

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Proof, if ever it were needed, that Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘flow’ can be found in any – and I mean any – activity. This morning at 7.45am, I began chucking some veg and old bottles of chilli out of the fridge…

…Two hours later the entire fridge, glass shelves, drawers and door storage sparkle clean as a whistle; for the first time in over five years.

What possessed me? A combination of ‘homo faber’ (Hannah Arendt’s thesis that man needs to work) and ‘flow’ any task done with focus and intensity brings absorption and satisfaction.

Positive feedback from my astonished ‘other half’ helped too. Amazing what a week off work does for you – plus a brief respite from the kids.

As I said to the missus last week, I sometimes have an uncontrollable urge to take some autonomous action, to get on and do something – anything. Hannah Arendt explains why:

“Men are free…as long as they act, neither before nor after; for to be free and to act are the same.”

A fridge frees.

Relevant Complexity 2) Hobbies

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Until last year I absolutely didn’t get ‘hobbies’. Now I am persuaded hobbies maketh the man. The big mistake in life, I reckon – observing overwork, depression and recession hitting even the most high powered of my friends – is to have your work completely define who you are.

As Aristotle said: All paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind.

Sure we all have to earn a living. And if a trick of fate and a twist of ability take us to major responsibility, so be it. But a wider reading of Aristotle suggests no man can be ‘excellent’ who only works; much less ‘happy’.

Who we really are is often better indicated by what we do for leisure and pleasure. Of course being a ‘wage slave’ doesn’t always leave much space or time – and in antiquity, for most, there’d have been no time for leisure or pleasure at all.

But what we ‘freely’ do is a window to a person’s soul. Or perhaps better – as a typing mistake just suggested – a window to a persons ‘souk’: the bazaar of stuff we do and like.

A lot of hobbies are conventional: sports, music, walking, reading and none-the-worse for that. Some are apparently bonkers. I know a man who has laboriously constructed a scale railway in his back garden which his own daughter is forbidden to touch.

Some hobbies are sociable – choirs, ensembles, ramblers. Some are quite solitary – stamps and the myriad forms of collecting. Some border on sociopathic – travelling football fans notably. But what they all have in common is they endlessly fascinate the aficionado and generally bemuse the disinterested onlooker.

Of course once you spot it, the driver is ‘complexity’. Hobbies enable us to collect deep knowledge, unique complex skills and relevant (at least to obsessive) complexity. Hobbies are Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘flow’ par excellence – high challenge met with high skill.

“Who scored the winner against Scunthorpe in 1974?”, “What was the printing error in the 4d Commonwealth Games commemorative stamp?”, “What’s the winter plumage of that bird?”, “Can you play Schubert?”, “Is that a class 47 locomotive?”, “Is that a Bordeaux or a Burgundy?”

All of of these bring ‘flow’ to the expert. They are validated, either, by one’s personal appreciation of oneself or the appreciation of the ‘community’ of expert practitioners, fruitcakes and obsessives who share our particular interest.

But the art of life – and hobbies – I think is to weave together our passions with the other things we care about: family, friends, communities. There is joy to be had in literally any hobby – with practice we progress and develop mastery of its complexity.

As Aristotle said: ‘Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit. [Or maybe a hobby?].

But there is also a trap – eccentricity and sheer oddness. The trick is in making at least some of our hobbies cohere into ‘relevant complexity’ so they define and develop us as much as our work does.

A friend described how he and his teenage son seek the ultimate ‘fried breakfast butty’ every Saturday. It’s about the only thing which always brings them together; relevant complexity. Building a garden railway, for me at least; irrelevant complexity. Writing for pleasure, relevant; long stints staring at the telly, irrelevant.

Albeit, as Aristotle said: different men seek after happiness in different ways, I think sewing (or knitting for my other half) ‘relevantly complex’ hobbies into the fabric of our lives is essential to properly embroidering life’s rich tapestry.

As Aristotle said of education, but might have said of hobbies if he’d read Csikszentmihalyi:

Education is [Hobbies are?] an ornament in prosperity and a refuge in adversity.

And

Education is [Hobbies are?] the best provision for old age.

But, of course, who am I to say. As the great Greek also points out:

Happiness depends upon ourselves.

And the fact I am secretly proud that I know what a Class 47 locomotive is, shows the perils and pleasures of hobbies. Keep it relevant.

Relevant Complexity 1) The Spice of Life

20120108-152605.jpgMy new theory of everything: all purpose and enjoyment in life is found in ‘relevant complexity’.

I came to the idea via the Hungarian American psychologist Mihili Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of ‘flow’: that we achieve optimum experience when we meet considerable challenge with considerable skill. Or put another way – when we master complexity.

I propose, that, the value of doing something and the intrinsic enjoyment in doing it, lies in it having and creating further ‘relevant complexity’. Let’s prove the pudding with food.

Does relevant complexity describe our relationship with food? Yes, I think it does. I’ve started doing lots of cooking lately – not least Indian. I seem to really enjoy it. Why? It needs doing. I get a break from the kids. When I get it right I get positive feedback from the missus. And, I mostly quite enjoy eating what I cook.

Notwithstanding there are some great dishes which are very simple, most of what’s considered ‘tasty’ in the world’s cuisines involves blending different ingredients, tastes and textures in relevant complexity.

To many, too much of one, one that’s out of place or the wrong blend of ingredients creates irrelevant complexity – often simply nasty. In fact I’d argue that even the simplest ‘great’ foods rely on great ingredients – which are often very complicated to grow, make or rear, requiring optimum care and conditions.

As the scientific chef Heston Blumenthal points out, cooking is applied chemistry. The complexity comes in applying it to that most unpredictable of non-linear systems – human taste.

And tastes develop and mature with experience. Taste doesn’t stand still, it is cultivated and grows. Blame ‘flow’, if the challenge doesn’t move on we become bored.

So, I conclude the joy in making and eating food lies in creating, enjoying and cultivating a taste for ‘relevant complexity’. It’s the spice of food life. Mmmm.

Of Angels

20111105-201745.jpgSmarting from the accusation I seldom read the source, I’m wading through Aquinas at present. Corblimey he’s obsessed with some things well beyond my interest. But that’s because I’m reading him for his ethics, and he’s writing a science book as far as he’s concerned.

Summae Theologica is, I come to realise, describing Aquinas’ views on how the world, universe, animals, minds, substance and energy all work – the lot.

Not surprising then he spends considerable time on causation – what causes what, what is primary, what is secondary and what is ‘higher’ and ‘lower’, what is an ‘operation’ what is a ‘state’.

His method is famously rigorous: three or four well sourced views on a theme, his own judgement and an answer to the opening views.

I think he quite carefully integrates a humanist perspective with a religious one. At times he acknowledges tantalisingly what ‘would’ be the case if there was no God – Aristotle ‘would’ be right on human happiness for instance he says.

After Aristotle, he concurs that our ‘end’ is indeed happiness. But we achieve happiness imperfectly in our mortal lives. We achieve it most in contemplation. In contemplation of what though?

For Aquinas, of course, that would be God. But contemplation of God is, he acknowledges, tricky. Not least as He is infinite and Our reason is finite. We’re snookered from the off.

What to do? It could be worse. Animals are even further from God than we are. They lack our intellect and capacity for reason and thought and so can’t contemplate God at all.

Aquinas explicitly acknowledges that nature has fitted us and animals with desires and emotions to further our own survival and that of our species – positively Darwinian. But they are ‘beneath’ us and we are a rung down from – you guessed it – Angels.

God tops Angels of course, but each in the chain comes closer to ‘perfection’ and achieves ‘happiness’ most by ‘touching’ the one above.

I’m not sure how many farm animals would agree they are ‘perfected’ and happier ‘touching’ humans. Perhaps a well trained sheepdog. But we humans can attain greater happiness in the use of our more ‘perfect’ power, namely contemplation. And among the things we can happily contemplate are Angels.

Now this is a thought I can honestly say I have never had. Beyond the one on top of the Christmas Tree and my daughter in the school nativity, I have never spent any time contemplating Angels. Perhaps I should?

But the point I take from Aquinas and Angels is this: contemplation, seeing beauty around us and perfecting and developing our human capacities, skills and aptitudes is where Earthly happiness lies.

Csikszentmihalyi comes to mind. As I said to someone last weekend it’s all about adding ‘relevant complexity’ to our lives and personalities.

And I think this is what Aquinas is getting at too. A life of virtue, self-improvement and integration of the body, soul and mind might mean at the end of it all, the ‘bottled essence’ of us – probably in frail and wizened form – is a shimmering soul ‘touching’ that of an Angel.

Shower

20110718-105113.jpgMan – and woman – in the state of nature is not a pretty sight. Obsessed with feeding and drinking, scavenging for firewood, alternately soaked then sweating. Feral children career about, bumping and thumping each other. Sleep snatched fitfully as the elements do their worst. Not much contemplation here.

What, I ask myself, is the purpose of camping? I may never know. Csikszentmihalyi might posit a ‘rude’ form of ‘flow’. But I’m pretty sure Aristotle wouldn’t have rated it. Certainly not in England’s all too green, and, for much of this weekend, not very pleasant lands. Apparently there was a moment where the entire land surface of Great Britain was simultaneously being rained on. Certainly we were.

I found myself short of temper and shorter of humour. Only Dionysius with his warming grapes and a crackling campfire lifted my spirits. An extra thick sleeping bag and two angelic faces snoring next to me helped too. The family unit held together.

The high point was packing the tent. Both for the manly ‘flow’ I achieved as I dismantled, folded and rolled it and the several nods of recognition for getting it into its bag in one go. More though for what it signified – going home to civilisation.

Poetry in Motion

A few weeks ago, newly enamoured of poetry, I wrote a short ditty to capture what I think increasingly drives my life. It came out quite easily so I guessed it might be quite close. But then I forgot about it. Sat in traffic in the rain today, the last two lines came back to me unbidden. It has clearly lodged in my subconscious. So here it is:

Pay attention to life with bright eyes and keen ears.
Helped by poets and thinkers, refine hopes; master fears.

Embroider each minute and day of my years
with friendship and love and knowledge and ideas.

And the main credits are: for line 1) Montaigne and Aristotle; line 2) Aristotle, Kay, Csikszentmihalyi, Nietzsche, Homer, Armitage, Aquinas, McCabe, Socrates, Stoics, Sceptics; line 3) Me latterly; and line 4) Aristotle, Aquinas, my Friends in Contemplation, my family, reading, writing, work.

I’m not sure I’ll get a poster on the subway for these lines of rhyme, but they are pretty much where Eudaimonia lies for me I think.

Poetry in Motion

I’ve just finished Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘Flow’. There are things to criticise. Some points – the time we waste in front of TV notably – are right but he makes them repetitively. His style occasionally grates. But, in my humble opinion, it is an outstanding book. My Bayesian brain infers he is likely a pretty outstanding man.

There are many themes to pull out, ideas to take forward, good advice and thought provoking evidence. My simple summary is – just read it. I’ve given ‘Flow’ its own link in the sidebar to the right.

Two personal things I’ll draw out. First Csikszentmihilyi’s advice to read a piece of poetry every day. I’ve never much cared for poetry. But, as he says, I’ve discovered a poem is a simple and rewarding pleasure. It doesn’t take much. Just five minutes and two or three poems at bedtime and mood and life are subtlety and magically enhanced. I told my partner. She’s taken with it too. And now we both have books of poetry on the go. My advice – just do it.

The second personal thing was my curious desire to get the book over with. Mainly, I think, so I could get on with all the things I now want to read as a result of reading the book. But also because I ever-so-slightly feared Csikszentmihalyi might barrel off the rails and disappoint me at the end.

Many potentially great books have been marred by a lame ending. I worried about this one. Tantalisingly the penultimate chapter was pretty good – synthesis, some emergent structure and integration of themes. So, as I said to to a particular friend, I was anxious that the last chapter would be a major disappointment. He said ‘Don’t read it, write your own final chapter’. Good advice, but a somewhat daunting challenge, so I read it instead, and I’m glad I did.

No easy answers therein, but a validation of my own thesis, that the good life requires both thought and action – Aristotle and Achilles. Csikszentmihilyi also recommends the thinkers and writers of history and antiquity as invaluable guides. I increasingly agree. But his final challenge is a tough one: to learn to master oneself and then get beyond the self to find an overarching meaning for our lives and tune into and live vividly in the full ‘flow’ of the real world. Easy then.

Discussing this on Monday with another friend, we concluded life takes the balance of a Nureyev: to balance internal with external, self with others, the world within with the world without, skill with challenge, what we achieve in life with what we would want to be remembered for.

Stoic, Sceptic, Epicurean, Existentialist, pick your school of philosophy, they are all scratching the same basic itch: how much to stick your neck out and risk your mental and physical health in the hurly burly of the real world.

Finding ‘meaning’ for Csikszentmihalyi or a ‘telos’ for Aristotle is the tough one. For Aristotle’s harp player it’s playing the harp well. For me the meaning of life is getting clearer, but it’s reassuring to know there are philosophers and poets to help me on my way.