A difficult week given the untimely demise of our beloved pup; but I am finally released from the shackles of a job which often made me feel helpless and hopeless.
After crying my eyes out on Tuesday as the vet put Romeo to sleep, on Wednesday I began to tackle the domestic to do list: tidying and odd jobs. By yesterday evening I’d got as far as completing my tax return… a process and sense of achievement nicely encapsulated by Boston Dynamics’ Atlas robot, here:
Today I have cycled, walked, made sausage sandwiches for breakfast, sorted our evening meal, done my washing, and now am sitting socially distanced outside a little cafe with a nice flat white. I feel a bit like Atlas the robot below, tentatively upbeat…
But there’s no getting away from the fact that this week will always be remembered for our lost little dog; he tried, but after his stroke, never could quite get back to his feet.
The great Dutch philosopher Spinoza has always appealed to me; but all the more so now I’ve studied more psychology.
Spinoza’s ethics are ‘naturalistic’ and spring from simple real-world causes. There is no divine origin or human uniqueness. Everything stems from the simple proposition (as Michael LeBuffe explains in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) that:
Human beings desire whatever will bring joy and are averse to whatever will lead to sadness.
This fits beautifully with modern psychological theories that, along with animals, we have one of two basic reactions to everything: approach or avoid. And it all stems from a simple, unquenchable, animalistic drive which Spinoza describes thus:
Both insofar as the mind has clear and distinct ideas, and insofar as it has confused ideas, it strives, for an indefinite duration, to persevere in its being and it is conscious of this striving it has.
Spinoza’s ‘passions’ are the manifestations of this striving, as LeBuffe describes them:
Human passions are for Spinoza changes, that is, increases or decreases, in the power with which we, or parts of us, strive.
And again, as modern psychology suggests, Spinoza suggests a lot of what drives us is subliminal and below the level of consciousness:
Between appetite and desire there is no difference, except that desire is generally related to men insofar as they are conscious of the appetite. So desire can be defined as appetite together with consciousness of the appetite.
And the mind is constantly on the lookout for ‘perfection’ via more ‘joy’ and less ‘sadness’.
By Joy, therefore, I shall understand in what follows that passion by which the mind passes to a greater perfection. And by Sadness, that passion by which it passes to a lesser perfection.
All of which drives our actions or ‘striving’ accordingly:
We strive to promote the occurrence of whatever we imagine will lead to joy, and to avert or destroy what we imagine is contrary to it, or will lead to sadness.
And virtue for Spinoza is simply ‘correctly’ striving:
Consciously trying to preserve oneself is right and neglecting to preserve oneself is wrong.
The more each one strives, and is able, to seek his own advantage, i.e., to preserve his being, the more he is endowed with virtue; conversely, insofar as each one neglects his own advantage, i.e., neglects to preserve his own being, he lacks power.
All very simple – but we’re pretty complex in our motivations aren’t we? All that complexity comes from our reaction to other people and things; or as Spinoza has them ‘objects’.
There are as many species of Joy, Sadness and Desire, and consequently of each affect composed of these (like vacillation of mind) or derived from them (like love, hate, hope, fear, etc.), as there are objects (i.e. things) by which we are affected.
And a key part of achieving virtue, and correctly developing and using our ‘power’ of right action, is developing ‘clear and distinct ideas’ on things. As LeBuffe explains:
When I do something that fails to help me to persevere, it’s because the ideas on which I based my action were confused; that is, I thought I knew what would help me to persevere, but I was wrong.
When I do something that does help me to persevere, though (unless I have simply been lucky in acting from an inadequate idea), it is because I acted on clear and distinct ideas or, in other words, genuine knowledge about what would help me to persevere.
And this of course is a life’s work; coming to know ourselves, understand others and appreciate how the world works.
But does this mean there is no objective good and bad? Looks like it… For Spinoza:
As far as good and evil are concerned, they also indicate nothing positive in things, considered in themselves, nor are they anything other than modes of thinking, or notions we form because we compare things to one another. For one and the same thing can be good, and [evil], and also indifferent. For example, Music is good for one who is melancholy, [evil to] one who is mourning, and neither good nor [evil] to one who is deaf.
Truth is, as Spinoza sees it, they are the other way around:
It is clear that we neither strive for, nor will, neither want, nor desire anything because we judge it to be good; on the contrary, we judge something to be good because we strive for it, will it, want it, and desire it.
LeBuffe concludes we need to stop kidding ourselves:
The ideal we set before ourselves will be a person who possesses the greatest possible power of action. This would be, in effect, to correlate our systematically distorted ways of perceiving ourselves—as free agents pursuing as an end a model of human nature—with the causes that really determine our actions.
So does this mean anything goes?
No, because we live in community, society and constant connection with myriad others, each with their own delusions, desires, passions and ideas of what’s good and bad; and that 100% creates our context.
And so as Susan Jones explained in Philosophy Bites in December 2007, Spinoza’s sage advice is to find a ‘community’ whose values you share – as he himself did. Because given how small our ‘power’ to influence events, people, ourselves and human nature truly is, you won’t make much headway in changing one you don’t.
And this piece of Spinoza’s advice – from across time and place – is part of why I’m changing jobs next month.
He’s a lovely little fella, but phew! As predicted; a puppy is a whole lot of work.
Still it’s a joyful business. And despite finding myself breathing mist: in a bobble hat, an old coat and a pair of crocs; chucking a stuffed squeaky toy for him at 6am this morning (for the tenth day running) it’s nice to have a dog about the house.
Life’s all about choices in the end. The house is a tip; the brief idealistic moment (after we moved two houses) of thinking we might get the place sorted and tidy is almost forgotten.
But a tidy house and a tidy life is a shrinking life – a puppy creates mess and disorder. That’s no bad thing.
The rather wonderful Disney kids film ‘Inside Out’ suggests the eponymous ‘Joy’ (above) represents our original childlike state. In the film, the loss of ‘Joy’ deep into the vaults of memory is the bridge to the discovery of the more complex emotions of teen and adult years.
It’s a lovely film. From our family watching experience, it helps both kids and adults better understand their emotions and personalities.
Interesting then – at the other end of life – to read two famous eighty year olds advocating the same simple emotion. The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu invite us to do better than ‘happiness’: a rather stolid state of satisfaction; and aim for ‘joy’.
Our ability to cultivate joy has not been scientifically studied as thoroughly as out ability to cultivate happiness. In 1978 psychologists Philip Brickman, Dan Coates and Ronnie Janoff-Bulman published a landmark study that found that lottery winners were not significantly happier than those who had been paralysed in an accident. From this and subsequent work came the idea that have a “set point” that determines their happiness over the course of their life. In other words, we get accustomed to any new situation and inevitably return to our general state of happiness.
I’ve read this before and there’s good and bad in it, I think. It helps with resilience as you know you’ll get through stuff, but doesn’t lead to much hope for joy; whatever you do you’ll just default back to ‘average’ happiness… But the next para is VERY encouraging:
However, more recent research by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky suggests that perhaps only 50% of our happiness is determined by immutable factors like our genes or temperament, our “set point.” The other half is decided by a combination of our circumstances, over which we may have very limited control, and our attitudes and actions, over which we have a great deal of control. According to Lyubomirsky, the three factors that seem to have the greatest influence on increasing our happiness are:
Our ability to reframe our situation more positively
Our ability to experience gratitude
Our choice to be kind and generous
These are exactly the attitudes and actions that the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop had already mentioned as central pillars of joy.
I realise looking at them that I really started making headway on the three factors in joy in my early forties – not the least through reading and blogging.
As the saying goes ‘life begins at forty’. Perhaps if you’re lucky the rediscovery of ‘joy’ begins too.
I’m not big on joy – more steady progress, appreciation, a bit of peace… Joy is one of those ‘hot’ emotions, which can feel like it’ll just cause me bother or be too much like hard work.
So imagine my surprise (having been dreading it for weeks) to be utterly joyful last evening, at a work event.
We had a ceilidh which involved 90 minutes of lung-busting jigging around bumping into each other; swinging folk you hardly know around, ‘stripping the willow’ and prancing like the ‘gay Gordons’.
I had a spill and hit the deck, as we sought to spin our foursome fast enough, for the two ladies to take off and fly with centrifugal force. I then nearly re-enacted the Large Hadron Collider with a Greek particle physicist in some poorly-coordinated galloping. What a laugh. Everyone finished hot, flushed, sweating and beaming.
The last time I remember everyone beaming like this at my work, was at an awards night when the staff choir brought the room to life. And this has set me thinking…
I’ve been listening to Bach’s passions this week – and perhaps there’s something to be said for a bit more joy. Singing, dancing, music, performance; they’re as old as the hills. But they still make life feel worth living. Here’s to joy.
School Christmas carols
Parents wedged in
Making a din
Like a blanket of snow
Then many small voices
Sing tunes we all know
The grow-ups join in
All in good voice
The joy of a hymn
Our spirits all lifted
By seasonal cheer
The annual sing song
Gets better each year.
The annual Christmas carol service, at my daughter’s new school, is a step up from the childish plays of recent years.
Opened with an expert trumpet solo, studded with eloquent readings and conducted with vim and vigour throughout, this was a classy – and very traditional – Christmas performance.
She, smartly dressed in red shirt and blue skirt, never spotted us – lost in the crowd. But I could see her, through gaps in many heads, singing her little heart out. It lifted mine as I stood to sing too. You can’t beat a proper Christmas hymn.
Our home broadband has been on the blink this week. You really miss it when it’s not there. Perhaps worse is when it comes and goes – one minute you’re surfing gaily, the next you’re beached with a ‘no network’ message.
Csikszentmihalyi points out that, although impressive by electronic standards, the amount of data our minds can process simultaneously is surprisingly small. More punched tape than broadband. Two people talking to us at once or, say, riding a bike and whistling a song, just about exhausts our real time mental processing capacity. Any more and we lose attention and get distracted, flustered or confused.
I noticed it one day this week in the office. One minute I was churning out flowing prose, the next someone started talking in my earshot and I was distracted. I slowed to trickle – like someone was hogging my wifi. The talker left, bandwidth returned, and so did flowing prose. It was like flipping a switch.
Things, events, people and basic navigation are all basically different data and signals crowding in or cluttering up our cognitive bandwidth. This makes directing our consciousness and limited mental energy hard.
And it’s especially hard because life can easily just happen to us. Events and other people can readily soak up all the bandwidth we have. And if we do decide to use that precious resource on directed thought and action, we do so against a background of almost overwhelming distraction and diversions.
All life is, is the continual stream of sensory data, words, pictures, thoughts and ideas streaming through that narrow mental bandwidth. All we are, is the accumulated store of that data in the limited hard drives of our brains and to some extent those of others. It makes you think – until someone starts talking in your earshot and the mental connection is interrupted.
But given mental broadband is always there I’ve discovered I can redirect it when I catch myself wasting or underusing it. At work this week while being gently bored by a presenter on pan-European data collection standards, I contemplated the extraordinary beauty of a large tree – spare broadband successfully redeployed into joyful contemplation.
More experimental was testing optimising ‘flow’ by doing two different things simultaneously, and well. Combining loudly whistling the Marseillaise with cycling to work smoothly and safely through London traffic perfectly occupied my mental broadband. And in a heartily enjoyable way. Vive la France.
Our mental broadband has surprisingly limited peak capacity. But the compensation is it is ‘always on’. You can waste it or have it used for you, but you can also use it well. I found this week being more careful in how I deploy my personal ‘punched tape’ makes a big difference. Focusing its use on doing one or two things at a time really well – and exploiting every minute of it – whether I’m on my own, or with others, has removed a good deal of routine boredom and irritation from my week. Replacing that with moments of joy, satisfaction and genuine happiness is broadband well spent.