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How Happy Are You Feeling?

It looks like I need two more weeks to round off what I want to tell you about Mark Manson’s book – you know, the one with all the asterisks on the front cover that I’ve mentioned before and that is too rude to name here.  Like a fine wine or a mature cheese, the book gets better with age, and I enjoyed the second half more than the first.  The further you persevere with it, the greater the rewards, not least when he came to talking about happiness and whether we can truly find it.  Spoiler alert – we can’t!

He makes the point that nobody is fully happy all the time, but likewise nobody is fully unhappy all the time either.  It seems that humans, regardless of our external circumstances, live in a constant state of mild-but-not-fully satisfying happiness.  Put another way, things are pretty much always fine, but they could also always be better.  Life is apparently nothing but bobbing up and down and around our level-seven happiness.  And, he says, this constant ‘seven out of ten’ that we are always coming back to plays a little trick on us, a trick that we fall for over and over again.  Our brain tells us, ‘You know, if I could just have a little bit more, I would finally get to ten and stay there.’  Most of us live much of our lives this way, constantly chasing our imagined ten.

But this constant sense that there is something missing from our lives, coupled with the seemingly endless pursuit of a happiness that always seems to be just out of reach, leads to what Manson labels a toxic value that has long defined our culture.  He describes it as self-defeating and misleading because living well does not mean avoiding suffering, it means suffering for the right reasons.  If we are going to be forced to suffer by simply existing, we might as well learn how to suffer well.

The author explains that the human mind, like the human body, can be fragile or antifragile depending on how you use it.  When struck by chaos and disorder, our minds set to work making sense of it all, deducing principles and constructing mental models, predicting future events and evaluating the past.  He says that this is called ‘learning’ and it makes us better.  It allows us to gain from failure and disorder.  But when we avoid pain, when we avoid stress and chaos and tragedy and disorder, we become fragile.  Our tolerance for day-to-day setbacks diminishes, and our life must shrink accordingly for us to engage only in the little bit of the world we can handle at one time.

This might all be manageable if we could somehow live in isolation away from the constant assault on our senses – and our sense of self-worth – but this is not possible.  Instead, as we are told, the invention of marketing in the first half of the twentieth century brought a modern-day goldrush to satiate people’s pursuit of happiness.  Pop culture emerged, and celebrities and athletes became very rich. 

For the first time, luxury items started to be mass-produced and advertised to the middle classes.  There was an explosive growth in the technologies of convenience – microwavable dinners, fast food, La-Z-Boys, non-stick pans and so on.  Life became so easy and fast and efficient and effortless that within a short space of time people were able to pick up a telephone and accomplish in two minutes what used to take two months.

However, life in this new commercial age, though more complex than before, was still relatively simple compared to what we have to deal with today.  A large, bustling middle class existed within a homogeneous culture.  We watched the same television channels, listened to the same music, ate the same food, relaxed on the same types of sofas, and read the same newspapers and magazines. 

There was a continuity and cohesion to this era, which brought a sense of security with it.  I can remember this from my own childhood and adolescence, where it always seemed so much easier to share cultural capital.  For example, you could travel almost anywhere, say a punchline from a Monty Python sketch and immediately make new friends.  Nowadays, you first need to check that the person you are talking to has ever heard of Monty Python, let alone sharing the notion that the dead parrot is pining for the fjords.

We were all, for a time, both free and yet part of the same quasi-religion, which was inherently comforting.  Despite the constant threat of nuclear annihilation, at least in the West, during the Cold War, we still tend to idealise this period and look at it as a time of stability and coherence.  Manson says that he believes it is for this sense of social cohesion that many people today are so nostalgic.  Although anyone who says the world was better in the 1970s really does need their head examined, you can nevertheless understand where they are coming from when you look at the chaos of the 2020s.

As the threat of Armageddon began to diminish, the internet was being invented.  All else being equal, Manson says, it fundamentally makes our lives better, much better.  The problem is the people who use it – us.  The internet's intentions were good: inventors and technologists in Silicon Valley and elsewhere had high hopes for a digital planet.  They worked for decades towards a vision of seamlessly networking the world's people and information.  They believed that the internet would liberate people, removing gatekeepers and hierarchies and giving everyone equal access to the same information and the same opportunities to express themselves.  They believed that if everyone were given a voice and a simple, effective means of sharing that voice, the world would be a better, freer place.

This, he explains, meant that a near-Utopian level of optimism developed throughout the 1990s and 2000s.  Technologists envisioned a highly educated global population that would tap into the infinite wisdom available at its fingertips.  They saw the opportunity to engender greater empathy and understanding across nations, ethnicities and lifestyles.  They dreamed of a unified and connected global movement with a single shared interest in peace and prosperity. 

But they were so caught up in their religious dreams and personal hopes that they forgot the world does not run on information.  People do not make decisions based on truth or facts.  They do not spend their money based on data.  They do not connect with each other because of some higher philosophical truth.  The world runs on feelings.  And when you give the average person an infinite reservoir of human wisdom, they will not google for the information that contradicts their deepest held beliefs.  They will not google for what is true yet unpleasant.  Instead, most of us will google for what is pleasant but untrue.

Manson concludes this section of the book by highlighting that instead of stemming the free expression of our worst feelings and darkest inclinations, the start-ups and corporations dove right in to cash in on it.  Thus, the greatest innovation of our lifetime has slowly transformed into our greatest diversion.  The internet, in the end, was not designed to give us what we need.  Instead, it gives people what they want.  And if you learn anything about human psychology from his book, which you will, you will quickly realise that this is much more dangerous than it sounds.

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