The Psychology of "Normal Life"
How to Achieve a Benevolent Sense of Life, Part 3
This is part three of what looks like it might be a five-part series.
In the previous installment of this series, I urged readers to become flame-spotters who look for the good in the world, so that this orientation toward the good becomes the psychological focus of your life. I ended with a reference to the old song about how you have to not only "accentuate the positive" but also "eliminate the negative." Not to mention "latch on to the affirmative" and "don't mess with Mr. In-Between," whoever that is.
To be honest, the song gets by mostly on its bouncy melody rather than the lyrics, but the words were supposedly based on advice to the songwriter from his psychiatrist. And it's pretty decent advice.
But it can also come across as glib and superficial advice, as if it were simply a matter of blocking out anything in the world that's bad and putting on a kind of forced cheerfulness.
To get an idea of what I mean, consider the fate of Lynne Rosen and John Littig, a couple who committed suicide recently in their Brooklyn apartment. What was really unusual about the story is the fact that Rosen and Littig were "life coaches" and motivational speakers who co-hosted a radio show called "The Pursuit of Happiness."
If you have ever grappled with a malevolent sense of life, you probably remember this news story with a deep sense of vindication. Somewhere in the back of your head there is a little voice saying, "Cheerful bastards. I knew it was all an act." And that voice may be right. You have to wonder whether an obsession with relentlessly jaunty inspirational slogans was their way of overcompensating for an underlying sense of bleak hopelessness. Which turns out to be very counterproductive.
"A 2012 Canadian study, published in the Journal of Psychological Science, found a negative correlation between positive self-statements and mood in people with low self-esteem. As lead researcher Joanne Wood of the University of Waterloo explained, those who try to pump themselves up with such phrases as 'I accept myself completely' end up feeling worse, in part, because affirmations conflict with their own view of themselves."
Here is the detail that I thought was a dead giveaway.
"Go watch the promotional video for Lynne Rosen’s life-coaching service, titled 'The Person You Always Wanted to Be,' and she seems almost frantic in clinging to that belief. 'Remember: positivity is precious,' she says to viewers. 'Even a brief exposure to negativity is like being drenched in an acid bath.'"
Even a brief exposure to negativity is like being drenched in an acid bath? Spoken like someone with a severe case of malevolent sense of life.
Achieving a benevolent sense of life means being able to deal with a little negativity. In fact, that is one of its chief benefits: the ability to face up to the negative and deal with it with a certain degree of equanimity, without feeling like pulling a rubber balloon over your head.
So when I talk about eliminating the negative, I don't mean just ignoring it. As I explained in the previous installment, accentuating the positive doesn't just mean putting a cheerful face on things and pretending that they are better than they are; it has to mean seeking out things that are actually, genuinely good. Similarly, eliminating the negative doesn't mean whistling past the graveyard and trying to shut out what is bad. It means actually reducing the role of the negative in your life.
I have already made my case against pessimism about the state of the today's world. I happen to think that, despite all the odds, the world is cruising toward the sunlit uplands of peace and prosperity. Go figure.
The surest sign of this is that the biggest negatives are not out there in the world, in politics or war or the culture. If the world really were collapsing, you would be less worried about preserving your sense of life and more worried about just preserving your life. But in our non-collapsing civilization, the biggest negatives are in here in our own lives—and we allow them there.
The most frequent way people reinforce the malevolent sense of life is through their own actions and through what they permit into their own lives.
Cutting out the negative is partly about cutting out the influence of negative people. Fans of Ayn Rand's novels and ideas have the benefit of an explicit ideological defense against this sort of person: we are attuned to the destructive effects of altruism. So when we encounter the sort of person who is a material or spiritual leech—say, the friend who calls on you, day and night, as a sounding board for all of her endless personal problems but who doesn't really care about what's going on in your life—when we find someone who creates a one-sided relationship in which you provide all the value and they offer nothing in return, we are able to understand that we don't have some kind of duty to keep sacrificing ourselves to the needs of others.
I linked recently to an article on the psychology of "pathological altruism," and one form of pathological altruism is "codependency," a term from pop psychology that turns out to be surprisingly useful. It describes how a friend or family member of an addict can become ensnared in the addiction. He is dependent, not on the destructive behavior itself—not on drinking or gambling or drugs—but on the role of being the person who cleans up the mess afterward. It is a dependence that can only be explained by pathological altruism: the codependent person is addicted to the sense of virtuous self-sacrifice he gets from supporting the destructive behavior of the addict—even if it actually makes things worse for the addict by delaying the day when he's willing to recognize that he has a problem.
An Objectivist can be ensnared by this error just like anyone else. One's explicit ideology is not automatically translated into a perfect psychology, and there are always unexpected ways to penetrate the best defenses. Some people are very good at finding a way to make you feel you have a duty to support them. But at least Objectivists are already armed with some of the intellectual tools to identify and reject a self-sacrificial relationship.
Moreover, this is still about what is happening out there, with other people, while the most insidious sources of a malevolent sense of life are in ourselves. They are in our own actions, manners, and habits, which reinforce the sense that the world is malevolent by creating their own little islands of malevolence.
Let me start with a small example. Some years ago, I had a friend who moved to Manhattan and complained that the one thing she really didn't like about the culture of the big city was the way people casually used profanity in public. It was something that bombarded you as you were just walking down the street, like being in a real-life David Mamet play. During my lifetime, I've seen a noticeable increase in the use of profanity as part of a post-counterculture change in manners. Back in the 1930s, Cole Porter observed: "Good authors, too, who once knew better words/ Now only use four-letter words writing prose." He was talking about highbrow literary writers, but the phenomenon has filtered down relentlessly into popular culture. I see words now used casually in mainstream publications that would have been a firing offense just a few decades ago.
Profanity is a way of expressing an unpleasant emotion by reference to an object or action that is, or is considered to be, disgusting and unpleasant. (One of the leftover pathologies in our culture is the number of swear words that derive from terms for the sexual act, as if one were evoking something crude, violent, and shameful. That, too, is part of the unpleasantness inherent in their use.) So to use profanity casually—as so many people do today—is to invoke the crude, the disgusting, and the unpleasant as a constant refrain in life. It is to live in a world of...well, I won't use the word. If you need a clue, watch this clip if you want to. Not that I particularly recommend it.
This is just the tip of a giant iceberg of malevolence. So much of what passes for entertainment in this era of the antihero is about watching bad people do nasty things to one another. The latest hit television series, "Game of Thrones," is about a fictional, Medieval-style kingdom in which warring factions battle ruthlessly for supremacy. Though the show appears to be well-made, based on what I've seen, virtually every character is scheming, cruel, and oh yes, prone to the extravagant use of profanity. Other big television hits, particularly among a recent crop of highbrow series produced by premium channels, are a litany of bad behavior. There's "The Sopranos" (mobsters), "Breaking Bad" (drug dealers), "Oz" (prison), "Boardwalk Empire" (mobsters and corrupt politicians, as best I can tell). You get the idea.
The important thing about these shows is not that there are bad people or that bad things happen. It's that there are generally no good people and nothing good happens. There will always be a need in art for villainous characters and villainous deeds. The hero, after all, needs someone and something to fight. What is unique to the modern era is the prevalence of art that is all villains and no heroes.
There is even a reflection of this in the field of comedy. In a more benevolent strain of comedy, we laugh at the foibles of the main characters, but we still like them and wish them well. But there is a contemporary strain of comedy—its flagship was "Married with Children" followed by "Roseanne" and even "Seinfeld," which is the most palatable of the bunch—in which there is really no character who is particularly sympathetic, nobody we would actually want to be friends with in real life. So we are laughing at them more than we are laughing with them.
I could make this a topic for a philosophical or literary critique (and have done so before). But let's focus on this from the perspective of its impact on a culture's sense of life and on how you shape your own sense of life. Again, it's not just about whether you have these cultural influences impinging on you from the outside. It's about the things you do to echo those influences in your own actions.
I see this most clearly on the Internet, where anonymity and the lack of direct human contact leads to a loosening of normal inhibitions on vicious sarcasm and name-calling. And while some of us recoil from this and dread the prospect of a "flame war," you have certainly noticed that there are those who relish it. I had an acquaintance some years ago who I dealt with occasionally in business matters and who seemed to be a normal, decent fellow. But then I came across him again more recently while reading an online discussion group, where he appears for what seems like the sole purpose of ranting at everyone else about their errors and dishonesty, frequently and at length.
There were two things about this that I thought were revealing. The first is that none of his contributions were positive. They weren't about setting out his own ideas or praising something that he agreed with. They were all about heaping abuse and vitriol on any one who he thought went astray intellectually. He is a one-man flame war. The second is how frequently he made these contributions. All of us can be goaded into taking the occasional pot-shot in a discussion group; you may remember the classic cartoon about the guy who can't go to bed because "someone is wrong on the Internet." But this fellow is clearly spending hours a day picking fights on the Web. It is his hobby.
There, I thought, is a man deep in a downward spiral of malevolence. He no doubt has the view that the Internet is an awful place full of dishonest people making bad arguments for distorted ideas. But he is helping to make it awful. This goes a step beyond the "awfulizing" I mentioned in the previous installment. That consists of wallowing in the awful things that are already out there in the world. In this case, you are adding to the awfulness and the unnecessary conflict.
This approach to life finds its most extravagant expression on the Internet, but there's plenty of it in real life, too. There are people who regard bickering and argumentation as a "normal" way of dealing with one another. It reminds me of an old Bedouin saying that has various translations but generally goes like this: "Me and my brother against my cousins, me and my cousins against the village, me and my village against the tribe, me and my tribe against the rest of the world." Other versions note that the progression can go the other way, too; in the absence of any external conflicts, it's "me against my brother." This is a worldview in which constant conflict is taken for granted, everything is a zero-sum game, and it's only a question of who you're fighting against at this particular moment.
Objectivists are susceptible to this, too, as are adherents to any ideology. There is a temptation to act as if the importance of your cause is so great that it justifies throwing out all rules of decorum and polite behavior.
We should, of course, allow for some regional and cultural variations regarding what is a "normal" level of conflict. A knock-down-drag-out argument among Minnesotans would barely be noticed by Brooklynites, while a polite debate in Brooklyn would seem like nuclear war to a Minnesotan. As a Midwesterner (who is married to a Minnesotan), I'll admit that my bias is more toward the Minnesota end of the spectrum.
But even if Minnesotans tend to be polite to a fault—refusing food three times before accepting, and all that sort of thing—there is something to be said for being "Minnesota nice," and that's the ultimate point of this whole discussion. You can't control whether other people will blurt out four-letter words while chatting on their phone next to you on the street; you can't control the shows the networks decide to put on the TV (though you can control how much of them you watch), and you sure can't stop flame wars on the Internet. But you can control how you speak and act and how you treat other people.
The whole point of rules of politeness and civility is to convey a sense of benevolence in dealing with other people. One of the worst things we can do, for our own sake, is to lose sight of the positive value others have to offer us, especially those who are closest to us. The rules of politeness are there to make sure we don't drop that context. They are norms, which is to say that they set a standard for what is (or ought to be) normal in human life. They are there to remind us to make benevolence the default in our way of dealing with other people, and to encourage them to reciprocate.
This reminds me of a story I read once from one of the big, famous advice columnists—"Dear Abby" or Anne Landers, one of the two. The story went something like this: a woman wrote in declaring that she was fed up with her husband and wanted to divorce him. But because she really wanted to make the guy suffer, she was going to become the "perfect wife" for six months—no arguing, no complaining, all sorts of little gestures of kindness like making his coffee first thing in the morning, that sort of thing. Only then would she leave him, so that he would feel the loss more acutely. I think you can guess where this story is headed. When she began to treat her husband better, he began to reciprocate, and by the time the six months was up, she had no desire to leave him.
I don't know if this story is actually true, and I'm pretty sure it's not foolproof advice on how to save a marriage. But it captures the way that people can get into negative cycles where rude behavior incites rude behavior, and simply being nice to one another can help reverse the cycle.
How you can change your manners, why you should change them, and what difference it will make is summed up for me in what I learned about the best way to train yourself out of using profanity: have children. That will condition you real quickly, because everything you say, you hear back. If you use four-letter words, they will use them, and what might seem normal coming from a 40-year-old is shocking when it comes from a four-year-old. The same thing applies to the rest of your behavior. If you are angry, demanding, snippy, dismissive—all of that will come back to you, too. It is a kid's job to learn what normal behavior is, and they learn it by watching you. It's like having a mirror held up to your life.
For our purposes, what is important about your manners—your everyday, habitual way of treating the people you deal with—is that it is something that you can change with relative ease, a little bit at a time if necessary, and just by following a few simple rules. But in changing it, you alter your everyday experience of life. And that is the whole key to influencing your sense of life.
So one of the best ways to "eliminate the negative" is simply to be nice. Or to put it in more philosophical terms: make a benevolent attitude toward others the basic rule for your habitual way of dealing with them. That's what I mean when I talk about the ways that we introduce malevolence into our own lives, through our own actions.
This is a point I actually learned from a radio televangelist. Don't scoff. I occasionally catch one of these guys while I'm scanning through channels on the radio, and they can be quite interesting to listen to, even for us unbelievers. The way they have managed to gain an audience is by offering some genuinely good advice and insightful observations about life—which they dress up, unfortunately, in mystical mumbo-jumbo.
This particular preacher talked about how you have to be on guard about "letting Satan into your house." When he catches himself or his family members descending into sniping or bickering, he stops them and asks, "Who let Satan into the house?" He makes the kids go through a ritual of going out and wiping their shoes on the doormat as a symbolic gesture of wiping off all traces of evil before they come back in. All right, I'm the one who called it "symbolic." Being a televangelist, he took the metaphor literally. The theme of his sermon was along the lines of: "The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist." (That came from Charles Baudelaire, by the way, before it came from Kevin Spacey.) But to bring this observation back to the realm of literal truth, in place of Satan we can say, "the malevolent sense of life," and remind ourselves that it is often we who carry it with us into our own houses.
This issue does not end just with having good manners and treating others with benevolence, though that has a big impact on our lives. One other major application of this idea is what we do in our working lives.
Productive people spend at least as much time with their work as they do with their families and friends. Our work is one of our chief sources of fulfillment—or frustration. So of course our approach to our work and our careers is going to shape and be shaped by our sense of life.
If you are doing work you enjoy, doing it well, working with people you respect, and constantly expanding the scope of your achievement, then the achievement of your goals becomes the main experience of your everyday life. Which makes it pretty hard to sustain a malevolent view of life. The opposite is also true. Doing work you don't care about or are not really qualified to do (or are over-qualified to do); working with people you don't like or respect and getting mired in petty office politics; being stuck in a dead-end job without prospects for advancement—all of these things will make your life miserable. The nightmare job is a cliché on television and in the movies. We all know someone who has lived like this, and most of us have encountered one or another of these indignities at some point in our working lives.
But working a lousy job is not the problem. The problem is the extent to which you accept it and train yourself to believe that being miserable in your work life is normal.
The concept of "normal" is a crucial one when it comes to sense of life. In its philosophical sense, "normal" is a metaphysical term—on precisely the metaphysical level that is the basis for one's sense of life. "Normal," in this context, doesn't just refer to a statistical average of the people around you. It means: appropriate to human nature as such. As we discussed above, if you accept bitter personal conflict as "normal," you are shaping your view of human potential. The same thing is true if you settle for an unfulfilling job.
I've written before about "The Metaphysics of 'Normal Life.'" What follows from that is the psychology of "normal life." Viewed from this perspective, your sense of life is a manifestation of what you regard as a normal life. And that, in turn, is shaped by what you have trained yourself to regard as normal by doing it over and over again, day in and day out, year after year.
Admittedly, it takes time to figure out what kind of work you really love. (I once wanted to be an academic philosopher, which now strikes me as a special kind of Hell.) And when you find the kind of work you want to do, it can take a few tries to find a job that will give you the opportunity to excel, and where you are working with the right kind of people as employers, coworkers, or partners. That's especially true in the lousy economy of the past few years. One of the evils of a moribund economy is that it keeps people fearfully clinging to the jobs they have and prevents them from hopping around in search of the jobs they really want.
But a bad economy can also become an excuse. Short of complete economic collapse, there are always pockets of economic vitality, and even when jobs in your field are scarce, there are always ways to improve your skills, meet new clients or customers, call on your network of friends and associates, and find some way of distinguishing yourself to a potential new employer. So financial necessity and a bad economy are perfectly reasonable excuses for why you are working an unfulfilling day job right now, or until the end of the year. It's not a reasonable excuse for doing it next year, or five years from now.
In my experience, the chief source of personal unhappiness and frustration is what people do in their jobs, and they do it because they're afraid. In this way, a malevolent sense of life becomes self-reinforcing. Because you're afraid nothing better is possible, you settle for a job you don't like and spend your time dwelling on rotten office politics, rather than seeking out a new job with a better employer.
I have only been called upon to offer my friends serious career advice a few times. It doesn't happen very often, because I'm not exactly the guy you call if you want to figure out how to climb the ladder. I'm the guy you call when you're thinking of quitting your job and going way out there on your own, hanging on by your fingernails. I've done that once or twice, and when others ask me, I pretty strongly encourage it.
There are two big pieces of advice I offer to those who are looking to make the plunge. The first is that when you know what you really want to do, you should start doing it as soon as possible. This isn't just about the immediate enjoyment of the work. It's also about the practical consequences of starting now. The more you do something, the more you learn, the better you get, the more opportunities open up for you. It's like the advice financial advisors give, that the best time to start investing is now. Because your gains compound over time, every extra day that they compound can make a big difference in the end.
But the enjoyment of the work is also important, because it affects your psychological attitude toward work itself. Hating your work is one of the most psychologically corrosive things you can do. It teaches you to look forward to a weekend off more than to the beginning of a new project. Working with people you don't like, or having to struggle with dishonest people and vicious office politics, tends to take over your life and cause you to divert valuable time away from generating new ideas to analyzing the shrunken psychologies of those who hold an undeserved influence over your work. If you spend enough timing living through this kind of bad reality TV show, it trains you to treat the shrunken psychologies as if they are more important than the new ideas.
Aristotle was right that "we are what we repeatedly do," and a lot of what we do is our work. If we repeatedly do work that is unrewarded drudgery, we will become drudges.
By the way, in case you're wondering, the couple of times I've offered this advice it has worked out pretty well for the friends I gave it to. But then again, people don't tend to come to me unless they are pretty sure this is the direction they want to go, and they're just looking for that extra push over the cliff.
That's not to say that it has been easy. Following this advice can mean facing a lot of difficulties, going through a lot of ups and downs, and just plain getting knocked for a loop every once in a while. Which can end up being a very good thing for your sense of life.
To someone struggling with a malevolent sense of life, I know that statement makes no sense. This is the great paradox of sense of life, which I will explain in the next installment of this series.
This series will be continued in a future edition of The Tracinski Letter.
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