The Illusion of Free Will

FreeWillName a song from your music collection.

Got one?

Whatever you chose, I’m sure you’ll agree that your choice was a free one. No-one told you what to pick. I chose Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”, but I could equally have picked Dido’s “Northern Skies” or Queen’s “We Will Rock You”. Clearly, we made our choices by exercising our free will.

Or did we?

Think about it for a minute. Why did you choose the song you did? Did you run through a list of every song in your collection in your head, then choose one at random? I didn’t.

I’m not sure where “Dark Side of the Moon” came from, but I remember that last weekend, when I went for a run, Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” came on my headphones. It made me think that I hadn’t listened to “The Wall” for a long time, and that I should do so the next time I was putting on some music. That made me think of my university days, when I first heard “The Wall”. In turn, I thought of the first time I heard any Pink Floyd, which was when a song from the album “Dark Side of the Moon” came on the jukebox at the pub I my friends and I went to during our last years at school.

I can’t be sure that that’s why, when I typed the first sentence of this post, I thought of that song. But I know I didn’t consciously choose it from a list of every possible alternative. It was just the first song that occurred to me.

Sam Harris makes a similar argument against the existence of free will in Free Will. Reflecting on a recent decision to drink a glass of water, he asks:

“Why didn’t I decide to drink a glass of juice? The thought never occurred to me. Am I free to do that which does not occur to me to do? Of course not…

[Some people] insist that freedom of will is synonymous with the idea that one could have thought or acted differently. However, to say that I could have done otherwise is merely to think the thought “I could have done otherwise” after doing whatever I in fact did.”

We may be “free” to act in accordance with our desires, but

“Take a moment to think about the context in which your next decision will occur: You did not pick your parents or the time and place of your birth. You didn’t choose your gender or most of your life experiences. You had no control whatsoever over your genome or the development of your brain. And now your brain is making choices on the basis of preferences and beliefs that have been hammered into it over a lifetime—by your genes, your physical development since the moment you were conceived, and the interactions you have had with other people, events, and ideas. Where is the freedom in this? Yes, you are free to do what you want even now. But where did your desires come from?”

In other words, while we act according to our desires, our desires are not freely chosen. They have been programmed into us by the sum of our life experiences up to that point.

Harris is unconcerned by the argument that even if free will is an illusion, it might be best not to point that out to people, lest it degrade their morality. While acknowledging that some studies have found an increase in cheating and aggression after people were presented with arguments against the existence of free will, Harris suggests that others may experience the opposite effect:

“Speaking from personal experience, I think that losing the sense of free will has only improved my ethics—by increasing my feelings of compassion and forgiveness, and diminishing my sense of entitlement to the fruits of my own good luck.”

I have observed the same change in my own thinking. As with any input, it seems clear that the effect produced in a given individual will depend on how that individual has been programmed. Someone with a well-developed sense of integrity is unlikely to suddenly become amoral by being persuaded that free will does not exist.

For the same reason, I do not believe that the argument about free will is, as one of my friends recently suggested, just a “philosophical parlour game”. The way you view life will inevitably be different whether you believe in free will or not.

Harris also says that a lack of belief in free will has not made him more fatalistic. The absence of free will does not imply that people cannot change, only that how they will change in response to a given stimulus is determined by their programming:

“Losing a belief in free will has not made me fatalistic—in fact, it has increased my feelings of freedom. My hopes, fears, and neuroses seem less personal and indelible. There is no telling how much I might change in the future. Just as one wouldn’t draw a lasting conclusion about oneself on the basis of a brief experience of indigestion, one needn’t do so on the basis of how one has thought or behaved for vast stretches of time in the past. A creative change of inputs to the system—learning new skills, forming new relationships, adopting new habits of attention—may radically transform one’s life.”

Free Will is a short but fascinating read, with the power to fundamentally change the way you view the world. Highly recommended.

Michael Singer on Why Happiness is a Choice

TheUntetheredSoulThe cause of unhappiness is not the situations we find ourselves in, it’s the way we think about those situations.

In The Way To Love, Anthony de Mello offered this advice for dealing with those who annoy us:

“Every time you find yourself irritated or angry with someone, the one to look at is not that person but yourself. The question to ask is not, “What’s wrong with this person?” but “What does this irritation tell me about myself?”

In The Untethered Soul, Michael Singer suggests taking the same approach to all our problems:

“When a problem is disturbing you, don’t ask, “What should I do about it?” Ask, “What part of me is being disturbed by this?” If you ask, “What should I do about it?” you’ve already fallen into believing that there really is a problem outside that must be dealt with… If you want to achieve peace in the face of your problems, you must understand why you perceive a particular situation as a problem.”

Perhaps we can fix one problem. But then another comes along, and we must fix that too. Then another. And another. External changes are not a long-term solution because they don’t address the root of the problem.

“For example, if you feel loneliness and insufficiency within your heart, it’s not because you haven’t found a special relationship. That did not cause the problem. That relationship is your attempt to solve the problem…

If you try to find the perfect person to love and adore you, and you manage to succeed, then you have actually failed. You did not solve your problem. All you did was involve that person in your problem. That is why people have so much trouble with relationships. You began with a problem inside yourself, and you tried to solve it by getting involved with somebody else. That relationship will have problems because your problems are what caused the relationship.”

Instead of spending our lives battling one problem after another, Singer advocates learning to not see them as problems at all.

Singer argues that we perceive a situation as a problem when it violates some expectation we have. This explains why one person may consider something a problem and another may not: the two have different expectations about what should be.

Expectations are simply conditions we have decided must be met for us to be happy. We have a model of reality and become angry and frustrated when life doesn’t conform to it. Instead, we should adjust our model, just as a scientist would adjust a theory that was contradicted by a new observation. This may not be easy: some of our assumptions are deeply programmed into us by our life experiences and may be difficult to change. But because they are not inherent in the situations we find ourselves in, letting go of them is not impossible.

We can identify our expectations by watching for the times we feel anxious. Instead of fearing these situations, Singer argues we should welcome them as opportunities to practice letting go of our expectations. Singer likens it to a dog approaching an invisible fence:

“An invisible limit was there, and when the dog approached that limit, it gave him a little shock. It hurt. It was uncomfortable enough so that now the dog feels fear whenever he approaches the boundaries…

Since that particular dog was used to roaming free, it’s a sad day when he stops trying to get out of the yard. The only reason he would stop trying to go beyond his little space is that he’s afraid of the edges. But what if we’re dealing with a very brave dog that’s determined to be free? Imagine that the dog has not given up. You find him sitting there, right at the place where the collar starts vibrating, and he is not backing off. Every minute he’s stepping forward a little bit more in order to get used to the force field. If he continues, he will eventually get out. There’s not a chance in the world that he won’t. Since it’s just an artificial edge, he can get through if he can learn to withstand the discomfort. He just has to be ready, willing, and able to handle the discomfort.”

Singer argues that we just need to make one decision: do we want to be happy or not? Happiness is in our control, provided we refuse to place any preconditions on it.

“When everything is going well, it’s easy to be happy. But the moment something difficult happens, it’s not so easy. You tend to find yourself saying, “But I didn’t know this was going to happen. I didn’t think I’d miss my flight. I didn’t think Sally would show up at the party wearing the same dress that I had on. I didn’t think that somebody would dent my brand-new car one hour after I got it.” Are you really willing to break your vow of happiness because these events took place?

Billions of things could happen that you haven’t even thought of yet. The question is not whether they will happen. Things are going to happen. The real question is whether you want to be happy regardless of what happens. The purpose of your life is to enjoy and learn from your experiences. You were not put on Earth to suffer. You’re not helping anybody by being miserable. Regardless of your philosophical beliefs, the fact remains that you were born and you are going to die. During the time in between, you get to choose whether or not you want to enjoy the experience. Events don’t determine whether or not you’re going to be happy. They’re just events. You determine whether or not you’re going to be happy. You can be happy just to be alive.”

Choosing happiness will not always be easy, says Singer, but it is always a choice.

Minimal Marriage

Minimizing MarriageMarriage has been around for five thousand years. Its meaning and purpose have changed during that time, most recently with the increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage. However, in Minimizing Marriage: Marriage, Morality, and the Law, Elizabeth Brake argues that the institution needs more fundamental reform.

“Is there good reason for marriage to be structured as it is—monogamous, central, permanent (or aspiring to permanence), with its dense bundle of legal rights and responsibilities? Is such an arrangement really part of the good life, and should it be privileged in the just society?”

Not only is the institution unjustifiably revered, says Brake, it actively causes harm. Fixing this, she argues, is a matter of justice, and she outlines her proposal for reform.

The case for reform

Marriage presents a particular type of relationship as an ideal: an amorous, exclusive, long-term relationship between two people, where the partners prioritise each other above everything else. Often the individuals must be of the opposite sex.

Brake argues that not only is such a relationship not inherently superior to any other, marriage devalues other relationships by suggesting that it is. Yet despite this, adults who marry are privileged, benefiting from social recognition and rights that are denied to those who are not.

Brake argues that neutrality and political liberalism require that law not be based solely on controversial moral or religious norms, unless they can also be justified by reasons that anyone would accept. Just as the state should not restrict marriage to heterosexual relationships because of the beliefs of some Christians, so it should not restrict it to only two people, to those in an amorous relationship, or to those who only intend their union to be short-term.

Minimal marriage

Brake argues that at its core, marriage is simply a legal framework designed to promote caring adult relationships. Since such relationships can be fostered by benefits granted by third parties, the principal legal function of marriage is to provide an efficient way to designate another person for the receipt of these benefits.

Just as there is no reason for the state to require that the person receiving such benefits should be of the opposite sex from the person granting them, so there is no reason to require that all benefits be assigned to the same person. Currently, marriage involves a mutual exchange of a pre-defined bundle of rights and responsibilities with only one amatory partner. Frequently, the partners are not even aware of all the rights and responsibilities they are exchanging! Instead, Brake argues that the state should allow people to select from these rights and responsibilities and exchange them with whatever individual or individuals they choose. Moreover, these rights need not be exchanged reciprocally. If I choose to assign familial hospital visiting rights to my friend, my friend does not need to extend those same rights to me. Brake calls her proposal “minimal marriage”.

“The central idea is that individuals can have legal marital relationships with more than one person, reciprocally or asymmetrically, themselves determining the sex and number of parties, the type of relationship involved, and which rights and responsibilities to exchange with each.”

Brake argues that the state should put no restriction on the nature of these legal relationships, other than they be caring relationships.

Ideally, Brake suggests that the number of entitlements available would be reduced to only those that recognise or support caring relationships. Other rights, such as those providing health care through marriage, would be removed, since the law should not assume dependency between spouses. However, she acknowledges that there may be practical difficulties implementing this, since we do not live an ideal society.

It’s refreshing to read such a thoughtful critique of an institution that so frequently goes unquestioned. Brake forces us to consider what the purpose of marriage actually is, and whether there might be better ways of achieving those goals. For that alone, Minimizing Marriage is an essential read.

Amatonormativity and the Case for Marriage Reform

Minimizing MarriageHeteronormativity is the belief that sexual and marital relations are only appropriate between a man and a woman. It’s a belief that has been embedded in our culture for thousands of years. Only now is it being challenged. However, there is a more fundamental belief about marriage and sexuality that continues to be taken for granted. In Minimizing Marriage: Marriage, Morality, and the Law, Elizabeth Brake calls this amatonormativity. It’s the belief that a normal relationship is exclusive, amorous, long-term, and involves the partners prioritising each other above everything else; that obtaining such a relationship is a universally shared goal; and that such a relationship should be preferred to other relationship types.

Evidence for amatonormativity is everywhere. It’s in the concerned parental questions about when you’re going to find someone nice and settle down. It’s in the raised eyebrows that greet you when you dine alone, put friendship above romance, bring a friend to a formal event or attend alone, or show no interest in finding romance. Such behaviour is considered odd. That’s amatonormativity.

Adults whose lives don’t follow the amatonormative norm face discrimination. They are subject to negative stereotyping, including accusations of being immature, selfish, irresponsible, a “man-child” or a “crazy cat lady”. Their friendships are denied the social recognition given to those in amorous relationships. They are denied access to the privileges afforded to the married, for example the ability to extend spousal immigration or hospital visiting rights to a close friend instead.

However, amatonormativity is so entrenched that most people consider this justified preferential treatment rather than wrongful discrimination. It is widely believed that amatonormative relationships are superior because they require commitment and promote mutual care. Brake disagrees. Such relationships may require the partners to make a commitment to each other, but they do not guarantee that they will have a commitment, as the divorce rate attests. Moreover, commitment is not desirable in itself. It may facilitate the achievement of complex, long-term goals, but such goals may have no more inherent value than short-term goals that do not require commitment. Likewise, abuse and unidirectional caring can be found as often in amatonormative relationships as in other ones.

Amatonormativity also has negative effects on the lives of those who subscribe to it. “Amatonormativity sustains the belief that marital and amorous relationships should be valued over friendships, and this undermines the attempt to pursue enduring friendships,” Brake writes. “Pressures to enter amorous love relationships likely result in individuals viewing friendships as less valuable than they might otherwise, and in some cases choosing less fulfilling relationships, given their idiosyncratic needs and preferences, than they otherwise might.” Amatonormativity is also responsible for our unrealistic belief that one person should be able to satisfy all our emotional, erotic, intellectual and companionship needs, an expectation that frequently causes unhappiness.

Marriage is not necessary to benefit from amatonormative privilege, but it is usually sufficient for it. Indeed, argues Brake, our current conception of marriage is a major cause of amatonormativity. By holding up one kind of relationship as special, and explicitly privileging it, our culture encourages people to pursue it.

Because marriage is neither necessary nor sufficient for the goods commonly attributed to it, is not inherently more valuable than other kinds of relationship, and actively produces harm, Brake argues that it is a matter of justice to reform it.

The Wedding Vow: The Promise it's Okay to Break

Minimizing MarriageIt’s considered bad form to break a promise. We regard those who don’t keep their promises as untrustworthy. If you make a commitment to someone, you’re expected to keep it.

One of the most serious promises that you can make is a wedding vow. Traditionally, this is a promise to stay with someone, for better or for worse, through good times and bad, until death. Indeed, we call it a “vow”, rather than a mere “promise”, to underscore just what a solemn commitment this is. Few promises are weightier.

It’s ironic, then, that a spouse who unilaterally decides to break it will generally face little condemnation.

Few would criticise the unilateral termination of such a vow in cases of abuse, whether physical or mental. But our society sets the bar much lower. If one partner is unhappy, perhaps for no reason more serious than because she no longer enjoys the same leisure activities as her partner, many people consider that sufficient grounds for termination. Even if the leaver made little effort to save their marriage, even if there are children involved, few will condemn someone who ends a marriage unilaterally. It is enough that they are unhappy. The vow seemingly counts for nothing.

This contradiction is explored by Elizabeth Brake in Minimizing Marriage: Marriage, Morality, and the Law. She starts by summarising the problem:

“Although many people see marriage as a serious undertaking, divorce—when “irreconcilable differences” threaten one or both spouses’ happiness—is not widely seen as a serious moral wrong. However, breaking a promise is widely seen as a serious moral wrong. This suggests an inconsistent triad:

  1. Wedding vows are promises.
  2. Promise-breaking is morally impermissible in the absence of morally overriding circumstances or release by the promisee.
  3. Unilateral divorce (an unreciprocated decision by one spouse to leave a marriage) is generally morally permissible.

If wedding vows are promises (1), then unilaterally willed divorces are acts of promise-breaking, which, according to (2), are prima facie morally impermissible. But as divorce is generally permissible (3), it cannot be an impermissible act of promise-breaking. How shall we resolve this?”

Brake considers several ways to reconcile these contradictory premises.

The first, what she calls the “hard-line” response, is to reject the third premise, and declare that unilateral divorce is almost always immoral. This view still permits it in some circumstances: where a more stringent moral duty overrides the promise (for example, a duty to protect oneself or one’s children in an abusive marriage); where there has been deception; or where one party has defaulted on an obligation (for example, not to engage in extra-marital sex). However, if none of these conditions apply, the hard-line response does not consider mere unhappiness sufficient reason.

The hard-line response argues that it is morally wrong to break wedding vows, but not that one should be legally compelled to keep them. What is legal and what is moral are not always the same. Moreover, marriage is a contract. Like other contractual arrangements, performance of contracted services cannot be compelled, and where one party no longer wishes to do so, there are typically terms under which the contract can be dissolved.

The second way to resolve the problem is to assert that the “morally overriding circumstances” described in the second premise are almost always present. Brake terms this the “hardship” response because it holds that the hardship of a failed marriage overrides any promise. Essentially, this response boils down to saying that unhappiness, whatever its cause, is sufficient grounds for divorce. However, Brake argues that the moral duty to prevent one’s own unhappiness is no stronger than the moral duty to uphold a promise, except in extreme cases. “Morality requires promise-keeping even at the cost of personal unhappiness,” says Brake.

The third solution is to argue that a promise is not binding if some assumption made by the promisor (in this case, the continuance of love) turns out to be false. Brake dismisses this. Promises based on risky assumptions may be reckless, but they do not excuse the promisor from discharging their obligations. Moreover, those who marry know that love does not last in many marriages, so it’s hard to argue that an assumption that it would continue in theirs is reasonable.

However, Brake contends that there is a fourth option: that wedding vows are not promises at all. She argues that this is because the spouses are promising something (the continuance of loving feelings) that is outside their control, and you can’t promise to do what you can’t do. Brake offers an analogy:

“If you visit me in Calgary, I might say, “I promise to show you Calgary’s historic downtown blues bar, the King Eddy, where some of my colleagues once took Elizabeth Anscombe,” only to find that developers have torn it down; in that case, I never promised you anything. I tried to promise, but didn’t succeed: I didn’t obligate myself to show you the bar because the act is impossible. My failure to perform is not wrong, nor is it promise-breaking.”

You might argue, however, that love is a verb, not a feeling, and that wedding vows are actually a promise to behave lovingly, something that is under our control. Brake disagrees:

“Since the “love revolution,” the Western understanding of marriage involves a crucial emotional component. Spouses may explicitly promise specific acts like sexual fidelity or cohabitation. But surely most do not intend to promise, or be promised, mere behavior… While one can promise to perform love-sustaining acts, this is not a reasonable way to construe the promise people are trying to make when they marry… Conceptually, promising to perform an action requires an intention to promise to perform that action. I have not promised to undertake “love-sustaining acts” if it has never crossed my mind that this is what I am promising, and if I believe I am promising to love someone forever.”

In short, we could promise to behave lovingly, but we don’t. Instead, we recklessly and misleadingly try to promise that our loving feelings will last forever, without realising that this is impossible because we cannot command our feelings.

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had the same opinion. Writing in Café Philosophy, Skye Cleary describes his view:

“If romantic love is ephemeral, promising to love your partner forever is absurd and a lie, according to Nietzsche. Love that lasts a lifetime is the exception, not the rule. Love, like any other feeling, is not within the individual’s power. Nietzsche’s argument is as follows: love is a feeling; feelings are involuntary; and a promise cannot be made based on something that one has no control over.

What one can promise, however, are actions. In a loving relationship, one can promise actions that “are usually the consequences of love”. It would be much more appropriate to recognise this contingency and be honest about it. To avoid deception in wedding vows, Nietzsche recommends saying something along these lines:


Brake’s view is intriguing, essentially arguing that society’s tolerance for unilateral divorce is because it recognises that wedding vows are not promises. But her argument is so technical, that it’s hard to imagine it has ever crossed the mind of the average person. As Brake herself notes, those who marry believe they are promising to love forever, so they are likely to hold the same view of the promise made by someone who leaves their spouse. As such, you would expect them to judge their behaviour on that basis.

Instead, I believe the lack of condemnation for those who walk out of their marriages is explained by Brake’s “hardship” response. Because contemporary Western culture values personal happiness so highly, the unhappiness of a spouse is considered a “morally overriding circumstance”. Even if it might be possible to alleviate their unhappiness through some other means, if the disaffected partner believes that terminating the relationship is the quickest way to be happy again, most people will not judge them for that. Given Brake’s view that morality requires promise-keeping even at the expense of personal happiness, this suggests that, on this point at least, Western culture is immoral.

It seems to me that the fundamental problem is our assumption that marriage should make us happy. However, marriage was not designed to maximise happiness. As Stephanie Coontz notes in Marriage: A History, it came about as a way to extend co-operative relations beyond the immediate family and increase the family labour force. It spoke to the needs of the larger group, not the individual. By insisting that it satisfy our personal need for happiness too, we are asking it to do something for which it was not designed. It’s no wonder that so many marriages end in divorce, that so many that don’t are unhappy, and that marriage is universally considered to be hard work.

In the rest of her fascinating book, Brake goes on to consider how marriage might be reformed to better suit our needs today.

Alain de Botton on Changing our Expectations of Marriage

TheCourseOfLoveAlain de Botton's The Course of Love is an unsentimental - some might say pessimistic - look at modern marriage. Writing in the latest issue of The Philosopher’s Magazine, Skye Cleary suggests that the book's main weakness is "that it napalms the Romantic ideal so successfully that it’s not clear that the institution of marriage is worth rescuing". But De Botton doesn't argue that we shouldn't get married, just that we should enter it with much more realistic expectations.

“Once, you were deemed ready for matrimony when you’d reached certain financial and social milestones: when you had a home to your name, a trousseau full of linen, a set of qualifications on the mantelpiece, or a few cows and a parcel of land in your possession. Then, under the influence of Romantic ideology, such practicalities grew to seem altogether too mercenary and calculating, and the focus shifted to emotional qualities. It came to be thought important to have the right feelings, among these a sense of having hit upon a soul mate, a faith in being perfectly understood, a certainty of never wanting to sleep with anyone else again. The Romantic ideas are, he knows now, a recipe for disaster.”

Instead, de Botton offers a quite different set of criteria.

One, you’ve given up on perfection:

“Choosing a person to marry is hence just a matter of deciding exactly what kind of suffering we want to endure rather than of assuming we have found a way to skirt the rules of emotional existence. We will all by definition end up with that stock character of our nightmares, “the wrong person.” This needn’t be a disaster, however. Enlightened romantic pessimism simply assumes that one person can’t be everything to another. We should look for ways to accommodate ourselves as gently and as kindly as we can to the awkward realities of living alongside another fallen creature. There can only ever be a “good enough” marriage.”

Two, you don’t expect to be fully understood:

“Love begins with the experience of being understood in highly supportive and uncommon ways. They grasp the lonely parts of us; we don’t have to explain why we find a particular joke so funny; we hate the same people; we both want to try that rather specialized sexual scenario. It cannot continue. When we run up against the reasonable limits of our lovers’ capacities for understanding, we mustn’t blame them for dereliction. They were not tragically inept. They couldn’t fully fathom who we were—and we did likewise. Which is normal. No one properly gets, or can fully sympathize with, anyone else.”

Three, you admit that you are crazy:

“It’s profoundly counterintuitive for us to think of ourselves as mad. We seem so normal and mostly so good—to ourselves. It’s everyone else who is out of step . . . and yet, maturity begins with the capacity to sense and, in good time and without defensiveness, admit to our own craziness. If we are not regularly deeply embarrassed by who we are, the journey to self-knowledge hasn’t begun.”

Four, you understand that marriage itself is deeply flawed:

“Rabih is ready for marriage because he has understood that it isn’t Kirsten who is difficult. They seem “difficult,” of course, within the cage of marriage when they lose their tempers over such petty things: logistics, in-laws, cleaning duties, parties, the groceries . . . But it’s not the other person’s fault, it’s what we’re trying to do with them. It’s the institution of marriage that is principally impossible, not the individuals involved.”

Five, you are prepared to love, rather than be loved:

“We speak of “love” as if it were a single, undifferentiated thing, but it comprises two very different modes: being loved and loving. We should marry when we are ready to do the latter and have become aware of our unnatural—and dangerous—fixation on the former. We start out knowing only about “being loved.” It comes to seem, quite wrongly, the norm. To the child, it feels as if the parent were just spontaneously on hand to comfort, guide, entertain, feed, and clear up while remaining almost constantly warm and cheerful. We take this idea of love with us into adulthood. Grown up, we hope for a re-creation of what it felt like to be ministered to and indulged. In a secret corner of our mind, we picture a lover who will anticipate our needs, read our hearts, act selflessly, and make everything better. It sounds “romantic,” yet it is a blueprint for disaster.”

Six, you understand that sex cohabits uneasily with love:

“The Romantic view expects that love and sex will be aligned. We are properly ready for marriage when we are strong enough to embrace a life of frustration.”

Seven, you accept that in some ways your partner is better than you, and you want to learn from them:

“We should bear having things pointed out to us. And at other moments we should be ready to model ourselves on the best pedagogues and deliver our suggestions without shouting or expecting the other simply to know. Only if we were already perfect could the idea of mutual education be dismissed as unloving.”

Eight, you accept that, deep down, you and your partner are not compatible:

“The Romantic vision of marriage stresses the importance of finding the “right” person, which is taken to mean someone in sympathy with the raft of our interests and values. There is no such person over the long term. We are too varied and peculiar. There cannot be lasting congruence. The partner truly best suited to us is not the one who miraculously happens to share every taste but the one who can negotiate differences in taste with intelligence and good grace. Rather than some notional idea of perfect complementarity, it is the capacity to tolerate dissimilarity that is the true marker of the “right” person. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it shouldn’t be its precondition.”

Nine, you accept that the love stories in books and movies and TV shows bear little relation to reality:

“By the standards of most love stories, our own real relationships are almost all damaged and unsatisfactory. No wonder separation and divorce so often appear inevitable. But we should be careful not to judge our relationships by the expectations imposed on us by a frequently misleading aesthetic medium. The fault lies with art, not life. Rather than split up, we may need to tell ourselves more accurate stories—stories that don’t dwell so much on the beginning, that don’t promise us complete understanding, that strive to normalize our troubles and show us a melancholy yet hopeful path through the course of love.”

Is de Botton too pessimistic? I don’t think so. As he puts it himself, “Melancholy isn’t always a disorder that needs to be cured. It can be a species of intelligent grief which arises when we come face-to-face with the certainty that disappointment is written into the script from the start.” If we entered marriage with more realistic expectations perhaps there would be fewer divorces and fewer children shuttling between two houses with no one place to call home.

Alain de Botton on What Children Can Teach Us About Love

TheCourseOfLove“We believe we are seeking happiness in love, but what we are really after is familiarity,” says Alain de Botton in The Course of Love. “We are looking to re-create, within our adult relationships, the very feelings we knew so well in childhood.”

It’s a persuasive argument, one that would explain why most of us see love as “a quest to find love rather than to give it, to be loved rather than to love”, however much we might try to convince ourselves otherwise. It’s also a reminder than parental love is much less selfish than romantic love. As such, de Botton suggests, perhaps we should try to emulate it in our adult relationships too.

“Children teach us that love is, in its purest form, a kind of service. The word has grown freighted with negative connotations. An individualistic, self-gratifying culture cannot easily equate contentment with being at someone else’s call. We are used to loving others in return for what they can do for us, for their capacity to entertain, charm, or soothe us. Yet babies can do precisely nothing.”

Marriages often founder if the couple believe they no longer have anything in common. Yet this is not the basis of our love for our children:

“Neither Kirsten nor Rabih has ever known such a mixture of love and boredom. They are used to basing their friendships on shared temperaments and interests. But [their baby daughter] is, confusingly, simultaneously the most boring person they have ever met and the one they find themselves loving the most. Rarely have love and psychological compatibility drifted so far apart—and yet it doesn’t matter in the slightest. Perhaps all that emphasis on having “something in common” with others is overdone: Rabih and Kirsten have a new sense of how little is in truth required to form a bond with another human being.”

We are often more forgiving of the bad behaviour of children than we are of the bad behaviour of our partner. But adults should know better! we may think. De Botton is sceptical:

“The child teaches the adult something else about love: that genuine love should involve a constant attempt to interpret with maximal generosity what might be going on, at any time, beneath the surface of difficult and unappealing behavior. The parent has to second-guess what the cry, the kick, the grief, or the anger is really about. And what marks out this project of interpretation—and makes it so different from what occurs in the average adult relationship—is its charity. Parents are apt to proceed from the assumption that their children, though they may be troubled or in pain, are fundamentally good. As soon as the particular pin that is jabbing them is correctly identified, they will be restored to native innocence. When children cry, we don’t accuse them of being mean or self-pitying; we wonder what has upset them. When they bite, we know they must be frightened or momentarily vexed. We are alive to the insidious effects that hunger, a tricky digestive tract, or a lack of sleep may have on mood. How kind we would be if we managed to import even a little of this instinct into adult relationships—if here, too, we could look past the grumpiness and viciousness and recognize the fear, confusion, and exhaustion which almost invariably underlie them. This is what it would mean to gaze upon the human race with love.”

We believe that treating adults like children is patronising. De Botton argues that not only is this not always true, it is often precisely what we want. But rather than seeking such unconditional love from another, something over which we have no control, perhaps we should just focus on providing it:

“It isn’t surprising if, as adults, when we first start to form relationships, we should devotedly go off in search of someone who can give us the all-encompassing, selfless love that we may once have known in childhood. Nor would it be surprising if we were to feel frustrated and in the end extremely bitter at how difficult it seems to be to find—at how seldom people know how to help us as they should. We may rage and blame others for their inability to intuit our needs, we may fitfully move from one relationship to another, we may blame an entire sex for its shallowness—until the day we end our quixotic searches and reach a semblance of mature detachment, realizing that the only release from our longing may be to stop demanding a perfect love and noting its many absences at every turn, and instead start to give love away (perhaps to a small person) with oblivious abandon without jealously calculating the chances of it ever returning.”

Alain de Botton on Monogamy

TheCourseOfLove“Marriage,” notes Alain de Botton in one of many pithy observations in The Course of Love, “is a deeply peculiar and ultimately unkind thing to inflict on anyone one claims to care for.” And no more so, perhaps, than when it comes to sex.

De Botton suggests that there is a fundamental contradiction between love and monogamy:

“If love is to be defined as a genuine concern for the well-being of another person, then it must surely be deemed compatible with granting permission for an often harassed and rather browbeaten husband to step off the elevator on the eighteenth floor in order to enjoy ten minutes of rejuvenating cunnilingus with a near stranger. Otherwise it may seem that what we are dealing with is not really love at all but rather a kind of small-minded and hypocritical possessiveness, a desire to make one’s partner happy if, but only if, that happiness involves oneself.”

De Botton suggests that the near-universal value we place on monogamy (a value so ingrained that attempts at polyamory often founder on jealousy) has a religious origin:

“In the West, we owe to Christianity the view that sex should only ever rightly occur in the presence of love. The religion insists that two people who care for each other must reserve their bodies, and their gaze, for each other alone. To think sexually about strangers is to abandon the true spirit of love and to betray God and one’s own humanity. Such precepts, at once touching and forbidding, have not entirely evaporated along with the decline of the faith that once supported them. Shorn of their explicitly theistic rationale, they seem to have been absorbed into the ideology of Romanticism, which accords a similarly prestigious place to the concept of sexual fidelity within the idea of love. In the secular world, too, monogamy has been declared a necessary and crowning expression of emotional commitment and virtue. Our age has strikingly maintained the essential drift of an earlier religious position: the belief that true love must entail wholehearted fidelity.”

In an age where contraception has separated sex and pregnancy, shouldn’t such fidelity be unnecessary?

“It is, so its adherents conclude, just as absurd to suppose that one should only ever have sex with the person one loves as it would be to require that only those in committed couples ever be permitted to play table tennis or go jogging together.”


“This remains, in the current age, the minority view by a very wide margin… Despite the liberal atmosphere of our time, it would be naive to assume that the distinction between “weird” and “normal” has disappeared. It stands as secure as ever, waiting to intimidate and herd back into line those who would question the normative limits of love and sex. It may now be deemed “normal” to wear cutoff shorts, expose belly buttons, marry someone of either gender, and watch a little porn for fun, but it also remains indispensably “normal” to believe that true love should be monogamous and that one’s desire should be focused exclusively on one person.”

The problem, suggests de Botton, is that, for many people, love is “a quest to find love rather than to give it, to be loved rather than to love”. We want to feel special, to be the sole object of our lover’s attention, not one of many. Romanticism tells us that we should be all our lover needs. This value is so deeply ingrained in us that most of us cannot feel loved if we know that our lover is sleeping with someone else.

What’s the answer? De Botton concludes that there isn’t one:

“Adventure and security are irreconcilable, he sees. A loving marriage and children kill erotic spontaneity, and an affair kills a marriage. A person cannot be at once a libertine and a married Romantic, however compelling both paradigms might be. He doesn’t downplay the loss either way. Saying good-bye to Lauren means safeguarding his marriage but it also means denying himself a critical source of tenderness and elation. Neither the love rat nor the faithful spouse gets it right. There is no solution.”

Douglas Hofstadter on Problem Solving

GodelWhen faced with a complex problem, we often set about solving it by breaking it down into smaller pieces, then solving each piece in turn. But as Douglas Hofstadter notes in Godel, Escher, Bach, a problem can often be decomposed in more than one way. Choose the wrong way and we may find ourselves unable to solve the problem at all:

“There is no guarantee that the method of problem reduction will work. There are many situations where it flops. Consider this simple problem, for instance. You are a dog, and a human friend has just thrown your favourite bone over a wire fence into another yard. You can see your bone through the fence, just lying there in the grass - how luscious! There is an open gate in the fence about fifty feet away from the bone. What do you do? Some dogs will just run up to the fence, stand next to it, and bark; others will dash up to the open gate and double back to the lovely bone. Both dogs can be said to be exercising the problem reduction technique; however, they represent the problem in their minds in different ways, and this makes all the difference. The barking dog sees the subproblems as (1) running to the fence, (2) getting through it, and (3) running to the bone - but that second subproblem is a "toughie", whence the barking. The other dog sees the subproblems as (1) getting to the gate; (2) going through the gate; (3) running to the bone. Notice how everything depends on the way you represent the "problem space" - that is, on what you perceive as reducing the problem (forward motion towards the overall goal) and what you perceive as magnifying the problem (backward motion away from the goal).”

Alain de Botton on Why We Marry

TheCourseOfLove“There is no-one more likely to destroy us than the person we marry,” says Alain de Botton in The Course of Love. Marriage is certainly a risky proposition: some estimates suggest that only around 38% of married couples describe themselves as happy and around 50% of marriages end in divorce. So why do we do it? De Botton dissects some of our most common rationalisations.

We marry because we love the way we feel when we’re with our partner, and we assume we’ll continue to feel this way:

“He proposes because he wants to preserve, to “freeze,” what he and Kirsten feel for each other. He hopes through the act of marrying to make an ecstatic sensation perpetual…

[But] Rabih is not marrying—and therefore fixing forever—a feeling. He is marrying a person with whom, under a very particular, privileged, and fugitive set of circumstances, he has been fortunate enough to have a feeling.”

We marry because it’s intoxicating to find someone who loves us:

“We shouldn’t underestimate the appeal, to someone who has often and painfully doubted many things, not least herself, of a proposal from an ostensibly kind and interesting person who seems unequivocally and emphatically convinced that she is right for him.”

We marry because it’s better than being alone:

“To a shameful extent, the charm of marriage boils down to how unpleasant it is to be alone. This isn’t necessarily our fault as individuals. Society as a whole appears determined to render the single state as nettlesome and depressing as possible: once the freewheeling days of school and university are over, company and warmth become dispiritingly hard to find; social life starts to revolve oppressively around couples; there’s no one left to call or hang out with. It’s hardly surprising, then, if when we find someone halfway decent, we might cling.”

We marry because our culture has taught us to value instinct over reason in matters of the heart:

“For most of recorded history, people married for logical sorts of reasons: because her parcel of land adjoined yours, his family had a flourishing grain business, her father was the magistrate in town, there was a castle to keep up, or both sets of parents subscribed to the same interpretation of a holy text. And from such reasonable marriages there flowed loneliness, rape, infidelity, beating, hardness of heart, and screams heard through the nursery doors. The marriage of reason was not, from any sincere perspective, reasonable at all; it was often expedient, narrow-minded, snobbish, exploitative, and abusive. Which is why what has replaced it—the marriage of feeling—has largely been spared the need to account for itself. What matters is that two people wish desperately that it happen, are drawn to one another by an overwhelming instinct, and know in their hearts that it is right. The modern age appears to have had enough of “reasons,” those catalysts of misery, those accountants’ demands. Indeed the more imprudent a marriage appears (perhaps it’s been only six weeks since they met; one of them has no job; or both are barely out of their teens), the safer it may actually be deemed to be, for apparent “recklessness” is taken as a counterweight to all the errors and tragedies vouchsafed by the so-called sensible unions of old. The prestige of instinct is the legacy of a collective traumatized reaction against too many centuries of unreasonable “reason.””

We marry because our culture has lead us to believe that unless a relationship leads to a commitment to stay together for the rest of our lives, then it lacks purpose, and we’re tired of looking for a relationship that can live up to that ideal:

“He asks her to marry him in order to break the all-consuming grip that the thought of relationships has for too long had on his psyche. He is exhausted by seventeen years’ worth of melodrama and excitements that have led nowhere. He is thirty-two and restless for other challenges. It’s neither cynical nor callous of Rabih to feel immense love for Kirsten and yet at the same time to hope that marriage may conclusively end love’s mostly painful dominion over his life.”

We marry because we think we’d be easy to live with:

“He proposes with such confidence and certainty because he believes himself to be a really rather straightforward person to live alongside—another tricky circumstantial result of having been on his own for a very long time. The single state has a habit of promoting a mistaken self-image of normalcy. Rabih’s tendency to tidy obsessively when he feels chaotic inside, his habit of using work to ward off his anxieties, the difficulty he has in articulating what’s on his mind when he’s worried, his fury when he can’t find a favorite T-shirt—these eccentricities are all neatly obscured so long as there is no one else around to see him, let alone to create a mess, request that he come and eat his dinner, comment skeptically on his habit of cleaning the TV remote control, or ask him to explain what he’s fretting about. Without witnesses, he can operate under the benign illusion that he may just, with the right person, prove no particular challenge to be around.”

We marry because of a reckless desire to demonstrate our commitment:

“Those voices which hint that marriage is no longer necessary, that it is far safer simply to cohabit, are right from a practical point of view, concedes Rabih; but they miss the emotional appeal of danger, of putting oneself and one’s beloved through an experience which could, with only a few twists of the plotline, result in mutual destruction. Rabih takes his very willingness to be ruined in love’s name as proof of his commitment.”

This recklessness is captured perfectly by de Botton’s definition of marriage:

“Marriage: a hopeful, generous, infinitely kind gamble taken by two people who don’t know yet who they are or who the other might be, binding themselves to a future they cannot conceive of and have carefully omitted to investigate.”

Gödel, Escher, Bach

GodelDouglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach is a fascinating exploration of how consciousness can arise from inanimate matter. It's an intellectual tour-de-force, covering a fantastically diverse range of subjects, including mathematics, art, music, molecular biology, neuroscience, Zen Buddhism, extraterrestrial life, computer science, and artificial intelligence.

At the core of Hofstadter’s beliefs about consciousness lies the idea of a “Strange Loop”:

“The "Strange Loop" phenomenon occurs whenever, by moving upwards (or downwards) through the levels of some hierarchical system, we unexpectedly find ourselves right back where we started.”

Hofstadter cites the Epimenedes Paradox - the statement “this statement is false” – as an example of a one-step Strange Loop. He spends a large part of the book discussing Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, which can be thought of as the translation of the Epimenedes Paradox into mathematical terms.

“Gödel says that no sufficiently powerful formal system can be perfect, in the sense of reproducing every single true statement as a theorem... The fact that truth transcends theoremhood, in any given formal system, is called "incompleteness" of that system.”

A “formal system” is a system that has a set of axioms and can generate statements by following a set of rules. A “theorem” is just a statement made by the system (including the axioms). “Sufficiently powerful” means a system that has the ability to make statements about itself.

While Gödel’s Theorem is about mathematical systems, an analogy can be drawn with the English language. This can be thought of as a system with a set of axioms (words) and a set of rules (grammar) for combining those words into sentences. Sentences can be constructed that are true (“the sky is blue”) or false (“ice is hot”). Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem is analogous to saying it is impossible to create a book that contains every true statement that could be made in English, regardless of how large that book is.

The gist of the proof is as follows. Consider the sentence, “This sentence is not in this book”. Would that sentence be found in our hypothetical book, or not?

Suppose it was in the book. In that case, the sentence is untrue. But since we have said that the book only contains true statements, this is impossible. Therefore, the sentence must not be in the book. But in that case, the book must be incomplete, since we know the sentence is true, yet is not contained within it!

Hofstadter also notes that whether a statement is true or false is not inherent in the statement itself – it depends entirely on the interpretation we choose for the symbols. For example, consider, “the sky is blue”. This is only true if we interpret “the sky” as “the sky on planet Earth”. Were we to interpret “the sky” as “the sky on Mars”, the statement would be false. This mapping between the symbol “sky” and the concept of the thing above our heads is called an “isomorphism”. Indeed, the only thing that gives the inherently meaningless squiggles S-K-Y meaning is our recognition that they refer to the thing above our heads. As Hofstadter puts it, “Meaning is an automatic by-product of our recognition of any isomorphism”.

Whether a system is internally consistent also depends on the interpretation chosen for it. For example, consider a system with “1p1q2” as an axiom. We might choose to interpret p as “plus” and q as “equals”. Now suppose we decided to create a new system by adding the axiom “1p1q4”. Isn’t this new system inherently inconsistent? We might think so, since not only is 1+1 not equal to 4, we now seem to have two axioms that disagree with each other. However, we only have a problem because we have retained the same interpretation for the symbols p and q. Reinterpret the symbols appropriately (for example, by reinterpreting q as “less than or equal to”), and our system is consistent and meaningful once more.

Later in the book, Hofstadter offers a great visualisation of a multi-level Strange Loop:

“Think of chess. Clearly the rules stay the same, just the board position changes on each move. But let's invent a variation in which, on your turn, you can either make a move or change the rules [according to some constraints]...

Now we have two layers of rules: those which tell you how to move pieces, and those which tell how to change the rules... You could even express rules and metarules as positions on auxiliary chess boards...

Now we can have any number of adjacent chess boards: one for the game, one for rules, one for metarules, one for metametarules, and so on, as far as you care to carry it. On your turn, you may make a move on any one of the chess boards except the top-level one, using the rules which apply (they come from the next chess board up in the hierarchy). Undoubtedly both players would get quite disoriented by the fact that almost anything - though not everything! - can change...

Now it is possible to go considerably further in removing the pillars by which orientation is achieved. One step at a time... We begin by collapsing the whole array of boards into a single board. What is meant by this? There will be two ways of interpreting the board: (1) as pieces to be moved; (2) as rules for moving the pieces. On your turn, you move pieces - and perforce, you change rules!... The distinction between game, rules, metarules, metametarules, has been lost. What was once a nice clean hierarchical setup has become a Strange Loop... There are still different levels, but the distinction between "lower" and "higher" has been wiped out.”

Hofstadter argues that consciousness arises from a similar tangling of different levels in the brain:

“My belief is that the explanations of "emergent" phenomena in our brains - for instance, ideas, hopes, images, analogies, and finally consciousness and free will - are based on a kind of Strange Loop, an interaction between levels in which the top level reaches back down towards the bottom level and influences it, while at the same time being itself determined by the bottom level. In other words, a self-reinforcing "resonance" between different levels... The self comes into being at the moment it has the power to reflect itself.”

Mark Vernon on Friendship, Love and Sex

The Meaning of Friendship

“A friendship which includes a sexual element is the best sort of relationship that many people hope to have,” says Mark Vernon in The Meaning of Friendship. “The downside is that sex can clearly imperil friendships by its possessiveness or its inappropriateness.”

Sex presents a number of problems to friendship. First, relationships based on physical attraction can form quickly, with little need for personal disclosure. In this respect, they are similar to relationships based on utility or a shared interest. As a result, the relationship may fall apart if the couple later realise there is no real basis for any friendship between them.

Conversely, friends who sense a sexual undercurrent developing between them may hesitate to pursue those feelings lest they put the friendship at risk.

However, even just the possibility of such feelings developing can cause problems:

“Imagine a man and woman becoming friends at work - good friends - and deciding to go out for dinner together as an apparently natural extension of the friendship. Then, as they're sat across the table from each other - starched linen, candles and a rose between them - they start to feel awkward. Unwittingly, they have been drawn into uncharted waters as dinner for two is the sort of thing that lovers do, not friends. The evening is one of embarrassment, and the friendship flounders. What's happened is that cultural assumptions about the activities associated with a sexual relationship have imperilled a friendship quite as effectively as any actual erotic attraction itself…

The complication that comes from such an unresolved sexual frisson is the suspense. Indeed, suspense is as much a cause of erotic frisson as any actual sexual attraction might be: people do not even need to fancy each other, just be conscious that they might. In Evelyn Waugh's phrase, even 'a thin bat's squeak of sexuality' can frighten people off or distract them from becoming friends.”

However, sex doesn’t just imperil the friendship between lovers, it can jeopardise their other friendships too:

“In today's world, there is a myth of romantic love based upon the idea that two lovers become one flesh, a totalisation of life in the other, supremely enacted in sexual ecstasy which is symbolic of that union. The myth or ideal tends to exclude others, not because lovers do not want friends, but because it tells them that their friends are incidental - pleasant but non-essential adornments to the lover's life together. Although few people in real life believe the myth in its entirety, it is difficult to ignore it entirely too...

Think of the estrangement that can come about between friends after one of them marries another... Or recall just how hard it can be to sustain a friendship when your friend started a new sexual relationship..."

Vernon suggests this may be because the partiality of friendship may be seen as a threat to the supposed primacy of the sexual relationship.

“Is there not a steely strand in the ethic of modern marriage which repels anything that compromises the unconditional commitment of husband and wife - 'forsaking all others', as the service says? Close friendship can count as infidelity quite as much as a fling or affair.”

To my mind, this is one of the great tragedies of modern marriage. The idea that one person can satisfy all of our sexual, emotional and intellectual needs is infantile. Our notions of exclusivity, indoctrinated in us by our culture, all too often cut us off from a richer, albeit more complex, tapestry of relationships that have the capacity to profoundly improve our lives.

At the root of the problem is our tendency to value sexual relationships above mere friendships. We often talk about how a friendship can blossom into “something more”.  Yet by doing so, we have created an incentive to misunderstand our feelings:

“In a culture where sexual consummation is seen as the highest expression of love that two people can hope for, a fascination for someone is easy to mistake for falling in love, even when it is simultaneously obvious that a sexual relationship would be inappropriate, unsustainable and possibly ruinous of the friendship.”

Aristotle valued things differently:

“[Aristotle] assigns close friendship top place in the hierarchy of human relationships, regarding it as a key ingredient in any flourishing life. There's a place for 'friendly lovers' too, if lower down: they can hope for some contentment. They belong in his second category of friendship, the kind that form because of some mutual shared pleasure, in this case that being sex...”

Vernon seems to agree:

“Perhaps friendship should assert itself more strongly in our romance obsessed world... For contra the myth, there is a love that does not desire to possess. It is called friendship. It loves the other, and wants them both to be free.”

Mark Vernon on the Three Kinds of Friendship

The Meaning of FriendshipWhat is friendship? Why are we friends with some people but not others? Why do some friendships last while others wither away? These are some of the questions considered by Mark Vernon in The Meaning of Friendship.

According to Aristotle, there are three reasons people may be friends: because they are useful to each other, because they enjoy some shared interest, or because they value each other for who they are.

Most work friendships fall into the first group. Consider how we typically feel when a colleague leaves:

“Why is it that you can have known a colleague for years, enjoyed their company day after day, worked with them, even helped them when personal matters spilt into the workplace, and yet, when they left, it was, overnight, almost as if you had never known them? You might miss them for a day, perhaps a week, and hope their new job is going well. But, in truth, most of the people with whom we were once friendly at work disappear from our lives with little more than a toast in the canteen, or best wishes on a card. It is very odd, when you consider all the time you spend with these people, and the genuine exchange of good feeling. And yet, it is entirely understandable when you realise that the relationship was, at heart, one of utility, based mostly on what was done together. Take that shared activity away, which is what happens when people leave work, and the friendship withers like a cut flower. It is not that they were not liked or had nothing in common with you. It is that the thing held in common - the work - is gone; without doing that together the relationship ceases to have reason or purpose.”

The second group is similar to the first, except that the shared interest is pleasurable rather than utilitarian. It may be a common love of board games or birdwatching, shopping or sex. Like the first group, however, the friendship only thrives for as long as the shared pleasure continues to exist.

Vernon argues that it is friendships of the third kind – those who enjoy being together because of who they are in themselves – that are the most durable. However, while this may be a necessary component of the best friendships, it may not be sufficient:

“In [philosopher Friedrich] Nietzsche's book, longevity is not the determining measure of friendship. A short-lived friendship may nonetheless be the most important of your life. It's not that there is anything wrong with long-lived friends per se; it is rather that time can suck the authenticity out of friendship... Such friends do not really share that much, beyond their association, and so wind away the hours talking about this and that, conspiring in indecision and perhaps in all honesty becoming nuisances to one another...

[Nietzsche] also suspects that such relationships are untrustworthy because when the dynamism disappears from a friendship, but the individuals concerned cannot quite bring it to an end, they constantly strive to re-establish their intimacy with each other - by dwelling on the 'old times' or college days; the past, not the future. This is a sign that habit has become a substitute for any real affection or closeness.

Nietzsche is not saying that a shared past is not important to close friends. Rather, he's arguing it's not enough. His observation about the future orientation of the best friendships is an arresting one.”

To Nietzsche the true joy to be found in friendship is not the collapse of boundaries between the individuals, nor a sense of like-mindedness. Rather, like the Missing Piece and the Big O, it’s the realisation that they are moving in the same direction.

Most of our friendships don't reach such heights. Yet for Nietzsche there was value in more superficial friendships too:

"Just as in order to walk beside an abyss or cross a deep stream by a plank one needs a railing, not so as to hold on to it - for it would at once collapse if one did that - but to give the eye a feeling of security, so as a youth one has need of people who without knowing it perform for us the service of a railing. It is true that, if we were really in great danger, they would not help us if we sought to rely on them, but they give us the quieting sensation that there is protection close at hand."

Savour the Mundane

“Perfect happiness comes in tiny, incremental units only, perhaps no more than five minutes at a time,” writes Alain de Botton in The Course of Love. “This is what one has to take with both hands and cherish.”

Yet these moments need not be rare. In Peace is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh argues that they can be found in even the most mundane of tasks, if we take the time to savour them:

“To my mind, the idea that doing dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you aren't doing them. Once you are standing in front of the sink with your sleeves rolled up and your hands in the warm water, it is really quite pleasant. I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to eat dessert sooner, the time of washing dishes will be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity, for each minute, each second of life is a miracle.”

Krista Tippett on Love and Romance

BecomingWise“What is love? Answer the question through the story of your life,” asks Krista Tippett in Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living.

Tippett describes how her own views on love were shaped by her divorce, causing her to question the way that we elevate romantic love above other forms:

“When my marriage ended, I walked into a parallel universe that had been there all along; I became one of the modern multitudes of walking wounded in the wreckage of long-term love. Strangest of all, on this planet, is the way we continue to idealize romantic love and crave it for completion—to follow those love songs and those movies. After my divorce, I created a welcoming home and took great delight in my children. I cooked dinner for gatherings of friends old and new, invested in beautiful far-flung friendships, and drew vast sustenance from webs of care through the work I do. Yet I told myself, for years, that I had a hole in my life where “love” should be.

This is… a story that perceives scarcity in the midst of abundance. I have love in my life, many forms of loving. As I settled into singleness, I grew saner, kinder, more generous, more loving in untheatrical everyday ways. I can’t name the day when I suddenly realized that the lack of love in my life was not a reality but a poverty of imagination and a carelessly narrow use of an essential word.

And here is another, deeper carelessness, which I am absolving in a spirit of adventure: I come to understand that for most of my life, when I was looking for love, I was looking to be loved. In this, I am a prism of my world. I am a novice at love in all its fullness, a beginner.”

This lack of imagination, says Tippett, is endemic in our culture:

“Love is the superstar virtue of virtues, and the most watered down word in the English language. I love this weather. I love your dress. And what we’ve done with the word, we’ve done with this thing—this possibility, this essential bond, this act. We’ve made it private, contained it in family, when its audacity is in its potential to cross tribal lines. We’ve fetishized it as romance, when its true measure is a quality of sustained, practical care. We’ve lived it as a feeling, when it is a way of being…

The sliver of love’s potential that the Greeks separated out as eros is where we load so much of our desire, center so much of our imagination about delight and despair, define so much of our sense of completion. There is the love the Greeks called filia—the love of friendship. There is the love they called agape—love as embodied compassion, expressions of kindness that might be given to a neighbor or a stranger. The Metta of the root Buddhist Pali tongue, “lovingkindness,” carries the nuance of benevolent, active interest in others known and unknown, and its cultivation begins with compassion towards oneself.”

Tippett recounts a conversation with Eve Ensler, the American playwright best known for her play The Vagina Monologues, who came to a similar realisation about the nature of love after being diagnosed with cancer:

You wrote how, in that extreme moment, the loves that we tend to focus on—love with a capital L, the romantic love, the marriages, the lovers—didn’t really come through for you, didn’t feel very substantial. And yet you realized that did not amount to the equation we would often make—that you don’t have love in your life. You realized you were surrounded by love, that you were held by love, and that you’d had too small an imagination about that word, that thing.

Romantic love, absolutely. Our notion of love—it just seems a very unevolved and very unenlightened notion. That it’s this one person who you will meet.

The One.

The One. And, by the way, I’ve yet to meet anybody who has that experience in that way. Yes, there are people who have good marriages that have lasted long. But I don’t think you will talk to anybody who will tell you this is the panacea and this is the only person whom I’ve ever loved who fulfilled me. Of course not. And I feel so excited now in my life, now that my notion of love has been dispelled, that old notion. Though it still haunts you and lingers. How do we get rid of so much of that stuff? It’s in your cells. You just gotta keep purging. But since I recovered from cancer, I feel so joyful. To be sitting here occupying this space with you. This summer, I had my friends and we were in Italy and we were dancing and we were swimming and we were talking and we were having amazing evenings. And every moment of that was so dear to me and precious. We find our fulfillment where we choose to find our fulfillment. And if you’re told you can only find it here and you don’t look at where it is, which is your life, you keep thinking it’s coming. Oh, it’ll be here one day. I’ll get the big love. Well, you have the big love. It’s already here.

You talk about “the daily, subtle simple gathering of kindnesses.” It was that love you felt. It was also the love you felt from women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo who were praying for you.

Absolutely. I had one of those bad nights where I was thinking about all my past lovers and husbands and the failure of love in my life, with a capital L. I just didn’t get it, and my own intimacy issues, and blah, blah, blah, blah. And then I suddenly realized, okay, how many beautiful people had shown up for me? Marie Cecil, who was cooking me eggs at five in the morning to settle my stomach when I was in chemo. Or my granddaughter, who packed my bags when I went to see my mother for the last time. Or my sister who was there every minute on the couch with me, putting washcloths on my forehead. And it was just this moment of, “Oh, my God, my life is so rich.” There is the love. The paradise is here. Paradise is right in front of us. In capitalism what is engineered is longing, engineered longing and desire in us for what can be in the future. It’s always about the next product, the next big thing…

Come on. What if we actually were content with our lives? What if we actually knew this was paradise?”

“To walk through the world practicing love across relationships and encounters feels like a great frontier,” says Tippett, who goes on to suggest how we might do this.

Situational Leadership

LeadershipAndTheOneMinuteManagerSituational Leadership, described by Ken Blanchard in his book Leadership and the One Minute Manager, is a technique that requires a manager to change his leadership style depending on the person and the situation. It requires three skills:

“You have to learn how to set clear goals. You have to learn how to diagnose the development levels of the people you work with on each of their goals… Finally, you have to learn to use a variety of leadership styles to provide individuals with what they need from you. So, the three skills are: goal setting, diagnosis, and matching.”

Blanchard likens a manager’s job to that of a teacher preparing a student for an exam:

“Once your people are clear on their goals—they have the final exam questions—it’s your job to do everything you can to help them accomplish those goals—learn the answers—so that when it comes to performance evaluation—the final examination—they get high ratings—As.”

Blanchard argues that managers should set between three and five goals, which should tie into the goals of the team and the organisation. Each goal must be SMART – Specific, Motivating, Attainable, Relevant and Trackable. The manager and their report should also discuss and agree what the individual’s current “development level” is for each goal, as this will determine the kind of support the manager will need to provide.

Development level is a combination of competence and commitment. Competence is the person’s skill at the task, gained through learning and experience. Commitment encompasses his confidence in his ability and his enthusiasm for doing the task well. Any time someone is not performing a task well, says Blanchard, it’s either a competence or a commitment problem.

Blanchard identifies four distinct development levels. Usually people start at level D1, the “enthusiastic beginner”, characterised by low competence but high enthusiasm. As they begin to realise what they don’t know, motivation may fall, and they move into stage D2, the “disillusioned learner”. Here, both their competence and commitment are low. With perseverance and support, however, they can move to stage D3, a “capable but cautious contributor”. Their competence has grown but they may still lack confidence in their ability. Finally, they can move into stage D4, the “self-reliant achiever”, where both their competence and commitment are high.

Once goals have been set, the manager’s job changes to one of day-to-day coaching. This is about providing a combination of direction and support. Direction involves making decisions, teaching, observing and providing frequent feedback. Support involves listening, involving the individual in decisions, facilitating and providing encouragement. This leads to four possible leadership styles:

High Directive Behavior and Low Supportive Behavior
The leader provides specific direction about goals, shows and tells how, and closely monitors the individual’s performance in order to provide frequent feedback on results.

High Directive Behavior and High Supportive Behavior
The leader continues to direct goal or task accomplishment but also explains why, solicits suggestions, and begins to encourage involvement in decision making.

Low Directive Behavior and High Supportive Behavior
The leader and the individual make decisions together. The role of the leader is to facilitate, listen, draw out, encourage, and support.

Low Directive Behavior and Low Supportive Behavior
The individual makes most of the decisions about what, how, and when. The role of the leader is to value the individual’s contributions and support his or her growth.”

Blanchard argues that how much direction and support a person needs depends on their competence at and commitment to the goal they are working on – in other words, on their development level for that goal.

“Directing (Style 1) is for enthusiastic beginners who lack competence but are enthusiastic and committed (D1). They need direction and frequent feedback to get them started and to develop their competence.

Coaching (Style 2) is for disillusioned learners who have some competence but lack commitment (D2). They need direction and feedback because they’re still relatively inexperienced. They also need support and acknowledgment to build their self-confidence and motivation, and involvement in decision making to restore their commitment.

Supporting (Style 3) is for capable but cautious performers who have competence but lack confidence or motivation (D3). They do not need much direction because of their skills, but support is necessary to bolster their confidence and motivation.

Delegating (Style 4) is for self-reliant achievers who have both competence and commitment (D4). They are able and willing to work on a project by themselves with little direction or support.”

Using the wrong style can be disastrous. For example, using delegation with an individual with low competence is more like “abdicating” than “delegating”. Without direction, the individual’s lack of competence can result in them unintentionally creating problems, especially if they are a D1 and unduly confident in their own abilities too. Similarly, a D4 who is given a lot of direction is likely to feel that they are not trusted, and become resentful as a result.

Situational Leadership does not stigmatise inexperience or lack of knowledge. It recognises that people may be at different development levels at different tasks – a D1 at some things, perhaps, but a D4 at others – and focuses on what the manager needs to do to move the individual to higher development levels. It’s about working side-by-side with people. “Your goal as a manager should be to gradually increase the competence and confidence of your people so that you can begin to use less time-consuming styles—supporting and delegating—and still get high quality results,” says Blanchard.

Krista Tippett on Understanding Others

BecomingWiseKrista Tippett’s podcast On Being seeks to illuminate what it means to be human, through conversations with scientists, artists, theologians, activists and teachers. In Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, Tippett summarises what she’s learned from these conversations, and offers her views on how to foster understanding in our communities.

The key, says Tippett, is asking good questions.

“It’s not true what they taught us in school; there is such a thing as a bad question. In American life, we trade mostly in answers—competing answers—and in questions that corner, incite, or entertain. In journalism we have a love affair with the “tough” question, which is often an assumption masked as an inquiry and looking for a fight... My only measure of the strength of a question now is in the honesty and eloquence it elicits…

Questions elicit answers in their likeness. Answers mirror the questions they rise, or fall, to meet. So while a simple question can be precisely what’s needed to drive to the heart of the matter, it’s hard to meet a simplistic question with anything but a simplistic answer. It’s hard to transcend a combative question. But it’s hard to resist a generous question. We all have it in us to formulate questions that invite honesty, dignity, and revelation.”

Tippett starts each episode of On Being by asking her guest to describe the spiritual background of their childhood. It’s typical of her approach, inviting people to answer her questions through the story of their lives. Tippett explains why:

“In Collegeville, discussion about a large, meaty, theological subject began by framing it as a question, and then asking everyone around the table to begin to answer that question through the story of their lives: Who is God? What is prayer? How to approach the problem of evil? What is the content of Christian hope? I can disagree with your opinion, it turns out, but I can’t disagree with your experience. And once I have a sense of your experience, you and I are in relationship, acknowledging the complexity in each other’s position, listening less guardedly. The difference in our opinions will probably remain intact, but it no longer defines what is possible between us.”

“The human soul [is like] a wild animal in the backwoods of the psyche, sure to run away if cross-examined,” says Tippett. More open, indirect lines of questioning are a better way to reach understanding.

Our discomfort with others’ suffering, or a desire to find common ground or a fix, can be an obstacle to understanding. Tippett tells of the mayor of Louisville’s initiative to embed compassion in the social fabric of the city. According to one African American pastor, “the greatest breakthrough was having a politician who was willing to sit with people’s pain—just that. Not, in the first instance, to present a policy or a fix—but to acknowledge that damage has been done and dwell with it, let it be in the room, accompanied, grieved—lamented”.

These obstacles aren’t only present when seeking to improve understanding between groups. They operate at a personal level too. Tippett recounts the experience of Quaker author and teacher Parker Palmer while battling depression:

“I had folks coming to me, of course, who wanted to be helpful, and sadly, many of them weren’t. These were the people who would say, “Gosh, Parker, why are you sitting in here being depressed? It’s a beautiful day outside. Go, you know, feel the sunshine and smell the flowers.” And that, of course, leaves a depressed person even more depressed, because while you know intellectually that it’s sunny out and that the flowers are lovely and fragrant, you can’t really feel any of that in your body, which is dead in a sensory way. And so you’re left more depressed by this “good advice” to get out and enjoy the day. And then other people would come and say something along the lines of, “Gosh, Parker, why are you depressed? You’re such a good person… You’re so successful, and you’ve written so well.” And that would leave me feeling more depressed, because I would feel, “I’ve just defrauded another person who, if they really knew what a schmuck I was, would cast me into the darkness where I already am.””

But one person was different, willing to simply be present, without offering advice:

“There was this one friend who came to me, after asking permission to do so, every afternoon about four o’clock, sat me down in a chair in the living room, took off my shoes and socks and massaged my feet. He hardly ever said anything. He was a Quaker elder. And yet out of his intuitive sense, he from time to time would say a very brief word like, “I can feel your struggle today,” or farther down the road, “I feel that you’re a little stronger at this moment, and I’m glad for that.” But beyond that, he would say hardly anything. He would give no advice. Somehow he found the one place in my body, namely the soles of my feet, where I could experience some sort of connection to another human being. And the act of massaging just, you know, in a way that I really don’t have words for, kept me connected with the human race.

What he mainly did for me, of course, was to be willing to be present to me in my suffering. He just hung in with me in this very quiet, very simple, very tactile way. And I’ve never really been able to find the words to fully express my gratitude for that, but I know it made a huge difference. It became for me a metaphor of the kind of community we need to extend to people who are suffering in this way, which is a community that is neither invasive of the mystery nor evasive of the suffering, but is willing to hold people in a space—a sacred space of relationship—where somehow this person who is on the dark side of the moon can get a little confidence that they can come around to the other side.”

Can Love Last?

CanLoveLastIn Can Love Last? The Fate of Romance over Time, psychoanalyst Stephen Mitchell explores why romantic love usually fades over time. His surprising argument is that it's because we expend considerable effort degrading it, and for good reason.

Mitchell argues that it’s our desire to stabilise our relationships, to guarantee access to love, that undermines desire:

“The great irony inherent in our efforts to make love safer is that those efforts always make it more dangerous. One of the motives for monogamous commitments is always, surely, the effort to make the relationship more secure, a hedge against the vulnerabilities and risks of love. Yet, since respectable monogamous commitment in our times tends to be reciprocal, the selection of only one partner for love dramatically increases one’s dependency upon that partner, making love more dangerous and efforts to guarantee that love even more compelling. So we pretend to ourselves that we have, somehow, minimized our risks and guaranteed our safety— thereby undermining the preconditions of desire, which requires robust imagination to breathe and thrive…

Love, by its very nature, is not secure; we keep wanting to make it so.”

Mitchell considers several factors that are often blamed for the decline of romance in long-term relationships: that it thrives on novelty and is dispersed by familiarity; that sexual lust is difficult to reconcile with respect and admiration; that romance is inspired by idealisation, which withers with exposure to reality; that it turns too easily into contempt; and because it’s eroded by the guilt and self-pity generated by the mistakes we inevitably make.

Romance may be dispersed by familiarity, but Mitchell argues that often that familiarity is not real but constructed, to give us the feeling of security we seek. We convince ourselves that we know everything there is to know about our partners, that they cannot surprise us.

Passion doesn’t decline because it’s incompatible with respect and admiration but because it’s so arousing that we do everything we can to control it.

Romance may be fuelled by idealisation, but it doesn’t ebb because reality sets in. Mitchell argues that idealisation is not inherently a bad thing. Fantasy doesn’t necessarily cloud reality, it can also enrich and enhance it. Each offers a different viewpoint that can be useful in different contexts. However, long-term relationships are necessarily utilitarian, and an idealistic view of our partner’s abilities are not helpful in that context.

Romance isn’t eroded because love inevitably becomes contaminated by our natural human aggression. Because of the risks inherent in love, anger and even hatred are inseparable from it. Aggression is a necessary component of romantic passion. Aggression is a response to threat, and the threat of losing the person we love is constant. Romance is not degraded by the presence of aggression, but by an inability to manage it skilfully. Mitchell gives an example:

“There are many different strategies for managing the confluence of love and hate in romance. The basic underlying principle is to both express and control the aggression at the same time by diminishing or obliterating the object of desire. Aesop long ago identified this common solution as “sour grapes”: the seemingly desirable other that disappoints was rotten all along. There might be good grapes out there somewhere, but self-protection against disappointment requires constant reminders not to expect any sweetness from one’s own bunch. Denigration thus serves the purpose of maintaining equilibrium, and a chronic contempt for one’s long-term partner often feels like a necessary requirement for stability.”

Romance isn’t necessarily eroded by the mistakes we make. Mistakes are inevitable, and hence so are the guilt and pathos that flow from them. However, Mitchell argues that guilt and pathos each appear in two forms. In genuine guilt we accept responsibility for what we have done, acknowledging that nothing can be done other than bear the feelings of regret and move on. In genuine pathos we may grieve over the way we were betrayed or disappointed, but again, we move on, recognising that the future can be different. In contrast, in guiltiness we become enmeshed by our guilt, becoming stuck in attempts to buy exoneration because we cannot accept the suffering we have caused. In self-pity we become stuck in a perception of ourselves as a victim. Guiltiness and self-pity degrade passion, but genuine guilt and pathos do not.

So can romance last? Yes, says Mitchell, but not by attempting to resolve the tensions inherent in it, or by “a laboured struggle to contrive novelty”. Rather, it requires two people who are able to tolerate its fragility, understand the forces that undermine it, and a willingness to constantly build and rebuild it.

Einstein’s Dreams

Einsteins Dreams“There is only one cause of unhappiness,” says Anthony DeMello in The Way To Love. “The false beliefs you have in your head, beliefs so widespread, so commonly held, that it never occurs to you to question them.” Whether it’s the belief that happiness requires money, or marriage, or children, there are certain ideas that our parents and culture have instilled in us so deeply that we consider them axiomatic, not beliefs at all.

Similarly, we take the laws of the physical world for granted. When we drop something, it falls to the ground. When our car is moving, we must brake to stop it. Time flows from the past to the future. All these things are so obvious, we rarely give them any thought.

In Einstein’s Dreams, physicist Alan Lightman asks us to reconsider time. The novel is a collection of vignettes, each describing how life might be if time behaved differently to the way it does in our world.

What if time wasn’t a straight line, from future to past, but bent back on itself in a circle? What if effect sometimes preceded cause? What if the passage of time brought increasing order? What if there was no time, only images? What if we only lived for one day? What if time was a sense, like sight or taste? What if it was a visible dimension? The number of alternatives Lightman considers is dazzling.

Some scenarios are chilling. What if the texture of time was sticky, causing certain people and places to become stuck at a certain moment, never to break free?  

“The tragedy of this world is that no one is happy, whether stuck in a time of pain or of joy. The tragedy of this world is that everyone is alone. For a life in the past cannot be shared with the present. Each person who gets stuck in time gets stuck alone.”

Or suppose there was a place where time stood still from the perspective of those outside it.

“Who would make pilgrimage to the center of time? Parents with children, and lovers…

Some say it is best not to go near the center of time. Life is a vessel of sadness, but it is noble to live life, and without time there is no life. Others disagree. They would rather have an eternity of contentment, even if that eternity were fixed and frozen, like a butterfly mounted in a case.”

Einstein’s Dreams is an intellectually interesting series of thought experiments, but some of the vignettes offer insight on the way we live our lives in this world too. Consider a world in which time works as it does in our world, but people have no memories.

“Late at night, the wife and husband do not linger at the table to discuss the day’s activities, their children’s school, the bank account. Instead, they smile at one another, feel the warming blood, the ache between the legs as when they met the first time fifteen years ago. They find their bedroom, stumble past family photographs they do not recognize, and pass the night in lust. For it is only habit and memory that dulls the physical passion. Without memory, each night is the first night, each morning is the first morning, each kiss and touch are the first.

A world without memory is a world of the present. The past exists only in books, in documents. In order to know himself, each person carries his own Book of Life, which is filled with the history of his life. By reading its pages daily, he can relearn the identity of his parents, whether he was born high or born low, whether he did well or did poorly in school, whether he has accomplished anything in his life. Without his Book of Life, a person is a snapshot, a two-dimensional image, a ghost…

With time, each person’s Book of Life thickens until it cannot be read in its entirety. Then comes a choice. Elderly men and women may read the early pages, to know themselves as youths; or they may read the end, to know themselves in later years.

Some have stopped reading altogether. They have abandoned the past. They have decided that it matters not if yesterday they were rich or poor, educated or ignorant, proud or humble, in love or empty-hearted— no more than it matters how a soft wind gets into their hair.”

Or consider a world where people live forever:

“Strangely, the population of each city splits in two: the Laters and the Nows.

The Laters reason that there is no hurry to begin their classes at the university, to learn a second language, to read Voltaire or Newton, to seek promotion in their jobs, to fall in love, to raise a family. For all these things, there is an infinite span of time. In endless time, all things can be accomplished. Thus all things can wait. Indeed, hasty actions breed mistakes. And who can argue with their logic? The Laters can be recognized in any shop or promenade. They walk an easy gait and wear loose-fitting clothes. They take pleasure in reading whatever magazines are open, or rearranging furniture in their homes, or slipping into conversation the way a leaf falls from a tree. The Laters sit in cafés sipping coffee and discussing the possibilities of life.

The Nows note that with infinite lives, they can do all they can imagine. They will have an infinite number of careers, they will marry an infinite number of times, they will change their politics infinitely. Each person will be a lawyer, a bricklayer, a writer, an accountant, a painter, a physician, a farmer. The Nows are constantly reading new books, studying new trades, new languages. In order to taste the infinities of life, they begin early and never go slowly. And who can question their logic? The Nows are easily spotted. They are the owners of the cafés, the college professors, the doctors and nurses, the politicians, the people who rock their legs constantly whenever they sit down. They move through a succession of lives, eager to miss nothing.”

Or what if, Lightman concludes, time was a nightingale?

“Trap one of these nightingales beneath a bell jar and time stops. The moment is frozen for all people and trees and soil caught within.

In truth, these birds are rarely caught. The children, who alone have the speed to catch birds, have no desire to stop time. For the children, time moves too slowly already. They rush from moment to moment, anxious for birthdays and new years, barely able to wait for the rest of their lives. The elderly desperately wish to halt time, but are much too slow and fatigued to entrap any bird. For the elderly, time darts by much too quickly. They yearn to capture a single minute at the breakfast table drinking tea, or a moment when a grandchild is stuck getting out of her costume, or an afternoon when the winter sun reflects off the snow and floods the music room with light. But they are too slow. They must watch time jump and fly beyond reach.”

Neil Strauss on Monogamy, Polyamory and Marriage

The TruthOne reason we marry is to create stability in our lives. Yet, as Stephanie Coontz noted in Marriage: A History, since we started marrying for love, around two hundred years ago, marriages have actually become less stable. Is lifelong monogamy an idea whose time has come and gone? Are there other forms of intimacy more appropriate to the way we live our lives today?

These are the some of the questions explored by Neil Strauss in The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships.

“We expect love to last forever. Yet as many as 50 percent of marriages and even more remarriages end in divorce. Among those who are married, only 38 percent actually describe themselves as happy in that state. And 90 percent of couples report a decrease in marital satisfaction after having their first child.”

The book is not an intellectual exploration of the subject, but a personal one, as Strauss recounts his own battle to understand what kind of a relationship he himself wants.

“When I’m single, I want to be in a relationship. When I’m in a relationship, I miss being single. And worst of all, when the relationship ends and my captor-lover finally moves on, I regret everything and don’t know what I want anymore…

Maybe the problem isn’t just me. Perhaps I’ve been trying to conform to an outdated and unnatural social norm that doesn’t truly meet—and has never met—the needs of both men and women equally…

Is it even natural to be faithful to one person for life? And if it is, how do I keep the passion and romance from fading over time? Or are there alternatives to monogamy that will lead to better relationships and greater happiness?”

The book begins with Strauss in rehab for sex addiction after being caught cheating on his girlfriend, Ingrid. Like Tomas in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Strauss sees his desire for variety in women no differently from his desire for variety in any other aspect of his life:

“I love traveling, eating at different restaurants, and meeting new people. Sex is the same: I like getting to know different women, experiencing what they’re like in bed, meeting their friends and family, and having the adventures and memories…

Whether it’s Nicole or Sage, Anne or Veronika, each woman is a wonderful world unto herself. And monogamy? It’s like choosing to live in a single town and never traveling to experience the beauty, history, and enchantment of all the other unique, wonderful places in the world. Why does love have to limit us?”

Strauss wonders whether the desire for exclusivity is selfish:

“Perhaps on some level, the demand for exclusive love is an immature demand, the desire of the needy child who hungered to be the sole object of its parents’ attention, affection, and care.”

When a relationship starts to fall apart, should we even try to save it? Strauss observes several men in therapy with him struggling hard to save marriages they’re not enjoying anyway. “You know, Neil, I call her every afternoon and tell her I love her,” one man sighs, recounting his attempts to win his wife’s forgiveness. “I send her flowers. I do everything to show her I care.” “But do you care or are you just doing a duty?” retorts Strauss.

“Most people seem to believe that if a relationship doesn’t last until death, it’s a failure. But the only relationship that’s truly a failure is one that lasts longer than it should. The success of a relationship should be measured by its depth, not by its length.”

Echoing Anthony DeMello’s belief that our behaviour is largely programmed into us in childhood, Strauss realises his life is “running on a unique operating system that took some eighteen years to program and is full of distinct bugs and viruses”, and that the roots of his behaviour can be traced back to his dysfunctional childhood relationship with his mother.

“I move on to explain the third type of parenting: enmeshment. This is my upbringing. Instead of taking care of a child’s needs, the enmeshing parent tries to get his or her own needs met through the child. This can take various forms: a parent who lives through a child’s accomplishments; who makes the child a surrogate spouse, therapist, or caretaker; who is depressed and emotionally uses the child; who is overbearing or overcontrolling; or who is excessively emotional or anxious about a child. If you grew up feeling sorry for or smothered by a parent, this is a sign that enmeshment likely occurred: In the process, enmeshed children lose their sense of self. As adults, they usually avoid letting anyone get too close and suck the life out of them again. Where the abandoned are often unable to contain their feelings, the enmeshed tend to be cut off from them, and be perfectionistic and controlling of themselves and others. Though they may pursue a relationship thinking they want connection, once they’re in the reality of one, they often put up walls, feel superior, and use other distancing techniques to avoid intimacy. This is known as avoidant attachment—or, as they put it here, love avoidance.”

In contrast, one of his therapists says:

“A healthy relationship is when two individuated adults decide to have a relationship and that becomes a third entity. They nurture the relationship and the relationship nurtures them. But they’re not overly dependent or independent: They are interdependent, which means that they take care of the majority of their needs and wants on their own, but when they can’t, they’re not afraid to ask their partner for help.” She pauses to let it all sink in, then concludes, “Only when our love for someone exceeds our need for them do we have a shot at a genuine relationship together.”

Strauss, however, finds himself increasingly uncomfortable with his therapists’ assertions about what’s right and wrong.

“If we eliminate one half of the dysfunctional relationship, the dysfunction is gone,” I explain. “What’s left is a single guy enjoying life and its pleasures. Why is the option with two people in a reciprocal nurturing relationship any better than this option?”

Disenchanted, Strauss quits therapy, agonising over whether to end his relationship with Ingrid:

“This is it, then: I must make a decision. A lifetime of monogamy with the woman I love. Or a lifetime of dating who I want, of doing what I want, of having complete and total freedom. It doesn’t mean I’ll never have a girlfriend or a child or a family. It just means I’ll have them on my terms, not those of this repressive society that expects you to cut off your balls as soon as you say “I do”…

On their deathbeds, people don’t think about their work or their life experiences or the items remaining on their to-do list. They think about love and family. And I’m throwing it away. I may genuinely be turning that nightmare I had when I was a kid— of being a lazy, broke, unloved deadbeat sleeping on the couch in my brother’s perfect suburban family home— into a reality this time. But do I actually want that dream: a house in the suburbs, a domestic routine that never changes, a lifestyle where going out to a movie is some sort of grand adventure, ungrateful kids like me who blame all their problems on their parents?”

He decides he doesn’t.

“Ingrid strokes my head reassuringly and says, “I feel like I caught a beautiful bird in the wild and put it in a cage, just for me to look at.” I listen. She knows. She understands me. “The cage is near the window, and the bird keeps looking outside and thinking about life out there. And I need to open the cage and let it go, because it belongs in the wild.” Then her face falls, her eyes redden, and the tears start coming faster. I can’t let go, but she can. Between sobs, she sputters her last thought, the six words that will haunt me forever after: “But birds die in the wild.””

As Strauss sets out to explore alternatives to monogamy, one of his friends cautions him to remember his real objective. “The goal is not monogamy or nonmonogamy. It’s for you to be living a life that brings you happiness.”

Monogamy has its drawbacks, but Strauss quickly realises that polyamory comes with its own challenges:

“Shama Helena explains that to most people, polyamory means having multiple loving romantic relationships in which all the partners know about one another. The key word here is loving. A relationship that permits only casual sex on the side wouldn’t technically qualify. The other distinction is honesty. Having a secret mistress or being in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” relationship wouldn’t truly be polyamorous either. And poly doesn’t necessarily come with freedom. Many relationships, Shama Helena explains, require sexual exclusivity to some or all members of the group— or, as it’s called, polyfidelity…

There’s a concept called compersion. And that means if your partner has another lover, rather than being jealous, you’re happy for her because she’s happy…

True love is wanting your partner to have whatever she wants—whether or not you approve of it.”

As Strauss starts to have non-exclusive relationships, he begins to realise how difficult this is. “Compersion is a struggle. It goes against every fiber of my being. I don’t know if my resistance to it is cultural or evolutionary or both,” he says.

When Strauss tries living with three women in a group relationship in San Francisco, he realises there are other challenges. Now he’s not managing one relationship, or even three, but six: between himself and each woman and between each of the women. The conflicting expectations rapidly bring the experiment in communal living to an end.

“A piece of relationship advice Lorraine taught in rehab rings ominously in my head: “Unspoken expectations are premeditated resentments”…

In the dance of infatuation, we see others not as they are, but as projections of who we want them to be. And we impose on them all the imaginary criteria we think will fill the void in our hearts. But in the end, this strategy leads only to suffering. It’s not a relationship when the other person is completely left out of it.”

Strauss tries other open relationships, but again struggles with jealousy. When he becomes sure that one woman is on the point of leaving him for another man, he calls one of his former therapists, Lorraine, for advice.

““Just remember,” she adds soothingly, “that the only people who can be abandoned are children and dependent elders. If you’re an adult, then no one can abandon you except you.””

This doesn’t help. Strauss realises that although he wants to be able to have multiple partners himself, he wants those he’s with to be exclusive to him. The hypocrisy is not lost on him.

As he begins to realise that polyamory is not for him, Strauss’ thoughts return to Ingrid, and why he loved her.

“Love isn’t about wanting someone to save my life or see a vista with me or make me laugh or any of those selfish reasons I’ve always given for loving Ingrid. Those are just things she can do for me or ways she makes me feel…

[Love is] when two (or more) hearts build a safe emotional, mental, and spiritual home that will stand strong no matter how much anyone changes on the inside or the outside.”

Strauss realises that he should have stayed with Ingrid, and asks her to take him back. Remarkably, she agrees. As the book comes to an end, however, Strauss acknowledges that this is not the end of his story, that building that safe home together will be difficult.

“Though Disney cartoons and romance movies end the moment the lovers reunite, leaving the audience to assume they lived happily ever after, in real life this is the moment the story truly begins…

Without the intensity to keep them busy, the common enemy to unite them, or the obstacles to intensify their longing, these legendary lovers now face the biggest challenge of all: dealing with each other— and the differences, be they great or slight, in their values, upbringings, opinions, personalities, expectations, preferences, and imperfections.”

The Truth is a fascinating account of one man’s journey from monogamy to polyamory and back again, and a sobering reminder of the difficulty of maintaining any kind of relationship with another human being.

Anthony De Mello on Attachment and How to Love

TheWayToLoveAttachment is the cause of all suffering. It’s the central tenet of Buddhism and the recurring theme of Anthony de Mello’s The Way to Love.

We are programmed from a young age - by our parents, our friends, our culture, our religion – with certain beliefs. Because these beliefs are established while we’re young, and because many of them are widely held, it rarely occurs to us to question them.

However, says De Mello, many of these beliefs are false. Foremost among them is the belief that we need certain things to be happy:

“Everywhere people have actually built their lives on the unquestioned belief that without certain things—money, power, success, approval, a good reputation, love, friendship, spirituality, God—they cannot be happy. What is your particular combination? Once you swallowed your belief you naturally developed an attachment to this person or thing you were convinced you could not be happy without. Then came the efforts to acquire your precious thing or person, to cling to it once it was acquired, and to fight off every possibility of losing it. This finally led you to abject emotional dependence so that the object of your attachment had the power to thrill you when you attained it, to make you anxious lest you be deprived of it and miserable when you lost it. Stop for a moment now and contemplate in horror the endless list of attachments that you have become a prisoner to.”

These attachments cause almost all of our negative emotions:

“Each time you are anxious and afraid, it is because you may lose or fail to get the object of your attachment, isn’t it? And each time you feel jealous, isn’t it because someone may make off with what you are attached to? And almost all your anger comes from someone standing in the way of your attachment, doesn’t it? And see how paranoid you become when your attachment is threatened—you cannot think objectively; your whole vision becomes distorted, doesn’t it? And every time you feel bored, isn’t it because you are not getting a sufficient supply of what you believe will make you happy, of what you are attached to? And when you are depressed and miserable, the cause is there for all to see: Life is not giving you what you have convinced yourself you cannot be happy without.”

To be happy, we have to change our programming. We have to rid ourselves of our attachments. “You must choose between your attachment and happiness. You cannot have both,” says De Mello.

De Mello is careful to distinguish between happiness, which cannot co-exist with attachment, and pleasure, which can. Pleasure is what we feel when things are going our way. It is different from happiness because it is short-lived and accompanied by the fear that it will not last (which it never does).

“What you call the experience of happiness is not happiness at all but the excitement and thrill caused by some person or thing or event. True happiness is uncaused. You are happy for no reason at all.”

However, the pursuit of happiness cannot be our goal, because that, in itself, would be an attachment:

“If you desire happiness you will be anxious lest you do not attain it. You will be constantly in a state of dissatisfaction; and dissatisfaction and anxiety kill the very happiness that they set out to gain.”

Rather, happiness arises naturally when attachment has been eliminated, like the blue sky that is revealed when the clouds clear.

De Mello stresses that ridding ourselves of attachment does not stop us loving people and things and enjoying them thoroughly. Nor does it prevent us preferring that a favourable situation continue or savouring the enjoyment we are experiencing right now. It simply means not worrying about prolonging the experience because we know we don’t need it to be happy.

“If you just enjoy things, refusing to let yourself be attached to them, that is, refusing to hold the false belief that you will not be happy without them, you are spared all the struggle and emotional strain of protecting them and guarding them for yourself. Has it occurred to you that you can keep all the objects of your attachments without giving them up, without renouncing a single one of them and you can enjoy them even more on a nonattachment, a nonclinging basis, because you are peaceful now and relaxed and unthreatened in your enjoyment of them?”

Letting go of our attachments and beliefs and expectations is difficult because they have often been part of us for a long time. They feel like statements of absolute truth rather than an arbitrary set of inherited values.

However, we need only look at other people to see this cannot be true. We are all programmed differently. We know that many people are perfectly happy without a thing or person that we have convinced ourselves we cannot live without. We know that there are people who would not be irritated by the things that annoy us. “You see persons and things not as they are but as you are,” says De Mello. Our negative emotions are not caused by external things but by our programming. And this is something we can change (although doing so may not be easy).

Attachment is not only the cause of our negative emotions. It also discourages us from seeking out other people or things:

“If you learn to enjoy the scent of a thousand flowers you will not cling to one or suffer when you cannot get it. If you have a thousand favorite dishes, the loss of one will go unnoticed and leave your happiness unimpaired. But it is precisely your attachments that prevent you from developing a wider and more varied taste for things and people.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in romantic love. Our culture promotes monogamy, encouraging us to attach ourselves to a single person, to the exclusion of all others.

Most of us seek love because we want to be special to someone. However, most people will only care for us if we please them in some way. This requires us to modify our behaviour to gain and keep their approval. And thus we lose our freedom to be ourselves.

Requiring someone to satisfy our expectations of how they should behave isn’t love, argues De Mello. We cannot truly love another person without giving them the freedom to be themselves:

“Now say to this person, “I leave you free to be yourself, to think your thoughts, to indulge your taste, follow your inclinations, behave in any way that you decide is to your liking.” The moment you say that you will observe one of two things: Either your heart will resist those words and you will be exposed for the clinger and exploiter that you are; so now is the time to examine your false belief that without this person you cannot live or cannot be happy. Or your heart will pronounce the words sincerely and in that very instant all control, manipulation, exploitation, possessiveness, jealousy will drop. And you will notice something else: The person automatically ceases to be especial and important to you. And he/she becomes important the way a sunset or a symphony is lovely in itself, the way a tree is especial in itself and not for the fruit or the shade that it can offer you. Your beloved will then belong not to you but to everyone or to no one like the sunrise and the tree.”

Love, according to De Mello, is about seeing and appreciating another person for the person they are. It is not about finding someone to meet our needs. Love demands nothing. It is unconditional.

And this means we cannot love unless we are comfortable with solitude. “To love persons is to have died to the need for persons and to be utterly alone,” says De Mello.

Lightness and Weight

UnbearableWhat’s better: a life of lightness or one of weight? So asks Milan Kundera in his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Our culture is schizophrenic. On one hand we are told to value selflessness, self-sacrifice and duty. We are urged to marry, to raise children, to contribute to our communities. Those who avoid commitment are criticised as immature and selfish.

“Necessity, weight and value are three concepts inextricably bound: only necessity is heavy and only what is heavy has value.”

On the other hand, our culture of individualism encourages us to do what makes us happy, to follow our bliss, to put ourselves first. If we’re dissatisfied with our marriage, we don’t need to work on it, we can just get a divorce.

Knowing whether to pursue lightness or weight isn’t easy. We cannot look to others for guidance. One person’s lightness is another’s weight. To Franz, the secrecy surrounding his affair with Sabina was heavy. To Sabina, that secrecy was light: it kept their relationship free from the judgement of others. When Franz leaves his wife, and the gaze of the world falls on them, their relationship becomes joyfully light to Franz and unbearably heavy to Sabina.

Moreover, many of our most important decisions – whether to marry, for example, or have children – are transformative experiences. We cannot know whether we should pursue them until we are already committed, because the experience itself changes us in a fundamental way.

 “The goals we pursue are always veiled. A girl who longs for marriage longs for something she knows nothing about. The boy who hankers after fame has no idea what fame is.”

Faced with such difficulties, we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves if we find we don’t know what we want:

“[Tomas] remained annoyed with himself until he realized that not knowing what he wanted was actually quite natural. We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives, not perfect it in our lives to come. Was it better to be with Tereza or to remain alone?...

Any schoolboy can do experiments in the physics laboratory to test various scientific hypotheses. But man, because he has only one life to live, cannot conduct experiments to test whether to follow his passion or not.”

Cheryl Strayed on Divorce

TinyBeautifulThingsMost people regard divorce as an apocalyptic event. Even though marriage is more optional than it has ever been, it is still valued so highly by our culture that it's hard not to interpret its premature end as a crushing personal failure.

In Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, Cheryl Strayed takes a gentler view. Echoing Marcus Aurelius' knack for seeing things as they really are ("Like seeing roasted meat and other dishes in front of you and suddenly realizing: This is a dead fish. A dead bird. A dead pig."), she offers some advice to her younger self when she was considering leaving her first husband:

"You are not a terrible person for wanting to break up with someone you love. You don’t need a reason to leave. Wanting to leave is enough. Leaving doesn’t mean you’re incapable of real love or that you’ll never love anyone else again. It doesn’t mean you’re morally bankrupt or psychologically demented or a nymphomaniac. It means you wish to change the terms of one particular relationship. That’s all."

If you were the one who was left, the desire to understand why can be overwhelming. But even the one who left may not know. Strayed recounts the end of her own first marriage:

"I was married to a good man whom I both loved and wanted to leave.

I still can’t entirely explain why I needed to leave my ex. I was tortured by this very question for years because I felt like such an ass for breaking his heart and I was so shattered I’d broken my own.

I didn’t want to stay with my ex-husband, not at my core, even though whole swaths of me did. And if there’s one thing I believe more than I believe anything else, it’s that you can’t fake the core. The truth that lives there will eventually win out."

As she tells one letter-writer, however, even though you may not understand why your marriage ended, that doesn't mean you can't learn from it:

"I encourage you to do more than throw up your hands in your examination of “whose fault” it was that your twenty-year marriage fell apart. It was no one’s fault, darling, but it’s still all on you. It would behoove you to reflect upon what went right in that relationship and what went wrong; to contemplate how you might carry forth the former in your current and/or future relationships and quash the latter."

Perhaps one of the most difficult things to do when going through a divorce is to try to keep a sense of perspective. And yet divorce is not without its upsides:

"The end of your relationship with him will likely also mark the end of an era of your life. In moving into this next era there are going to be things you lose and things you gain."

Being left by someone who doesn't love you any more may even be a good thing:

"He deserved the love of a woman who didn’t have the word go whispering like a deranged ghost in her ear. To leave him was a kindness of a sort, though it didn’t seem that way at the time."

Marriage creates an expectation that you and your partner will stay together for the rest of your lives. Set aside that expectation and suddenly divorce seems less fearsome.

"We live and have experiences and leave people we love and get left by them. People we thought would be with us forever aren’t and people we didn’t know would come into our lives do. Our work here is to keep faith with that."

Planet My Baby Died

TinyBeautifulThingsWhen my marriage broke up, I was fortunate to be able to lean on several people for support. Some were old friends, who I'd known since my school days. One was just an acquaintance, yet became - unexpectedly, humblingly - one of my greatest allies. But what shocked me was how many other supposed friends, and even family members, offered little or no support at all. 

Some offered a few sympathetic words the first time they saw me, but then I never heard from them again. Some avoided me. Many pretended as if nothing had happened. A year later, while I was still struggling to deal with my pain, even some of the more supportive ones were suggesting it was time I moved on. 

"Oh these little rejections, how they add up quickly," as Alanis Morissette once sang. I never understood the way these people behaved until I read some advice given by Cheryl Strayed to a woman who had miscarried eighteen months previously and was still struggling to deal with her grief. In Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, Strayed writes:

"Don’t listen to those people who suggest you should be “over” your daughter’s death by now. The people who squawk the loudest about such things have almost never had to get over anything. Or at least not anything that was genuinely, mind-fuckingly, soul-crushingly life altering. Some of those people believe they’re being helpful by minimizing your pain. Others are scared of the intensity of your loss and so they use their words to push your grief away. Many of those people love you and are worthy of your love, but they are not the people who will be helpful to you when it comes to healing the pain of your daughter’s death.

They live on Planet Earth. You live on Planet My Baby Died."

Stephanie Coontz on the Changing Role of Marriage

MarriageAHistoryMarriage has existed for around five thousand years. But as Stephanie Coontz observes in the fascinating Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, the idea that love should be the main reason for getting married has only been around for the last two hundred. Coontz presents compelling evidence of how this shift has rendered marriage more optional, fragile and risky than ever before, and illustrates the extent to which our ideas about love and marriage are determined by when and where we are born.

"For thousands of years, marriage served so many economic, political, and social functions that the individual needs and wishes of its members (especially women and children) took second place. Marriage was not about bringing two individuals together for love and intimacy, although that was sometimes a welcome side effect. Rather, the aim of marriage was to acquire useful in-laws and gain political or economic advantage. Only in the last two hundred years, as other economic and political institutions began to take over many of the roles once played by marriage, did Europeans and Americans begin to see marriage as a personal and private relationship that should fulfill their emotional and sexual desires. Once that happened, free choice became the societal norm for mate selection, love became the main reason for marriage, and a successful marriage came to be defined as one that met the needs of its members."

Different perspectives

There are similarities between the institutions classified as marriages throughout history, but coming up with a common definition is difficult.

"Marriage usually determines rights and obligations connected to sexuality, gender roles, relationships with in-laws, and the legitimacy of children. It also gives the participants specific rights and roles within the larger society. It usually defines the mutual duties of husband and wife and often the duties of their respective families toward each other, and it makes those duties enforceable. It also allows the property and status of the couple or the household head to be passed down to the next generation in an orderly manner.

But marriage does not serve all these functions in any one society. Moreover, almost every single function that marriage fulfills in one society has been filled by some mechanism other than marriage in another."

Coontz provides numerous examples to illustrate how our current ideas about love and marriage, far from being timeless and universal, are specific to our culture and age. 

“In the Chinese language the term love did not traditionally apply to feelings between husband and wife. It was used to describe an illicit, socially disapproved relationship. In the 1920s a group of intellectuals invented a new word for love between spouses because they thought such a radical new idea required its own special label.”

Adultery was sometimes considered a good thing.

“In Europe, during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, adultery became idealized as the highest form of love among the aristocracy. According to the Countess of Champagne, it was impossible for true love to “exert its powers between two people who are married to each other.””

In some societies today, too much love is considered a bad thing.

“In many peasant and working-class communities, too much love between husband and wife is seen as disruptive because it encourages the couple to withdraw from the wider web of dependence that makes the society work.”

Coontz provides some fascinating examples of how other cultures have regarded same-sex relationships.

“In many Native American groups, for example, the rare person who chose to do the work of the other gender could marry someone who shared the same biological sex but played the opposite role in the division of labor. A man doing “woman’s work” could marry a man doing “man’s work,” and a woman doing “man’s work” could marry a woman doing “woman’s work.”

These social gender roles completely overshadowed the actual biological sex of the partners. As a result, sexual relations between two people of the same sex, when one had chosen man’s work and the other woman’s work, would not have been considered homosexual, had an equivalent of that label even existed. But eyebrows would certainly have been raised at the idea of a man and a woman living together if both were playing the same work and gender roles.”

The ancient Greeks valued some homosexual relationships above heterosexual ones:

“The Greek model for true love was not the relationship between husband and wife. The truest love was held to exist in the association of an adult man with a much younger male.”

In Victorian England, despite general condemnation of actual homosexual acts, intense same-sex friendships were considered unremarkable:

“People did not pick up the sexual connotations that often make even the most innocent expression of affection seem sexual to our sensibilities today. Perfectly respectable nineteenth-century women wrote to each other in terms like these: “[T]he expectation once more to see your face again, makes me feel hot and feverish.” They carved their initials into trees, set flowers in front of one another’s portraits, danced together, kissed, held hands, and endured intense jealousies over rivals or small slights.

Only at the end of the nineteenth century did physical expressions of affection between men begin to be interpreted as “homosexual,” and only in the early 1900s did ardent woman-to-woman bonds start to seem deviant.”

Coontz also reminds us that marriage is not a fundamentally religious institution. Not only does it pre-date the Christian church by several thousand years, “for the first eight centuries of its existence, the church itself showed little concern about what made for a valid marriage or divorce among the lower classes of society”.

The rise of the love match

When the idea of marrying for love started to emerge in the late eighteenth century, there were several factors that still acted to stabilise the institution. There was a belief that there were large, innate differences between men and women, and that marriage enabled them to gain the benefit of each other's unique abilities. There was no reliable contraception, so sex and child-bearing were still closely linked. There were penalties for illegitimacy. There were strong social controls on people's personal behaviour and penalties for non-conformity. Divorce was not readily available. Women were legally and economically dependent on men and men were domestically dependent on women.

One by one, these restraining factors fell away. Reliable contraception had a huge impact:

“The pill gave unmarried women a degree of sexual freedom that the sex radicals of the 1920s could only have dreamed of. But when a large number of married couples stopped having children, it also radically changed marriage itself. Not only did effective contraception allow wives to commit more of their lives to work, but it altered the relationship between husbands and wives. Without a constant round of small children competing for their attention, many couples were forced to reexamine their own relationships more carefully. In addition, the growing number of childless marriages weakened the connection between marriage and parenthood, eroding some of the traditional justifications for elevating marriage over all other relationships and limiting it to heterosexual couples.”

Improvements in healthcare and nutrition resulted in people living longer, and therefore being married longer.

“In England in 1711 the median age at death for men was thirty-two. By 1831 it had risen to forty-four. By 1861 it had reached forty-nine, and by the end of the century the median age of death was in the high fifties. “The average duration of marriage,” estimates historian Roderick Phillips, “increased from about fifteen to twenty years in preindustrial Europe to about thirty-five years in 1900.””

The erosion of the distinction between legitimacy and illegitimacy in the 1960s and 1970s, while reversing an ancient inequity, also stripped marriage of one of its traditional functions.

In parallel with these changes came a rise in individualism, in the belief that everyone is entitled to personal happiness and satisfaction. Marriage became freighted with increasingly high expectations: that it should provide sexual satisfaction, emotional intimacy, self-fulfilment, a sense of meaning and a source of fun. Married couples should be best friends and put each other above all other relationships. Each should provide the other with everything they need. Such a package of expectations, notes Coontz, is historically extremely rare.

As love became the main reason to marry, loveless marriages started to be seen as a problem. The idea that women might have to enter such a marriage just to survive economically was seen as unacceptable, and spurred demands for women’s rights. The risk of being trapped in a loveless marriage, if love and intimacy disappeared, prompted calls to make divorce easier. 

“Evidence of a slippery slope leading directly from the celebration of free choice to the destruction of family life was provided by the mounting demands to liberalize divorce laws. In the mid-seventeenth century, the poet John Milton had already argued that incompatibility should be reason enough to declare a marriage contract broken. His view found little support in the seventeenth century but gained much broader backing in the eighteenth. By the end of the eighteenth century Sweden, Prussia, France, and Denmark had legalized divorce on the grounds of incompatibility…

The strongest opponents of divorce in the nineteenth century were traditionalists who disliked the exaltation of married love. They feared that making married love the center of people’s emotional lives would raise divorce rates, and they turned out to be right...

In 1891 a Cornell University professor made the preposterous prediction that if trends in the second half of the nineteenth century continued, by 1980 more marriages would end by divorce than by death. As it turned out, he was off by only ten years!”

Today, 43% of all first marriages in America end in divorce within fifteen years.

All these changes came to a head at the end of the twentieth century:

“In less than twenty years, the whole legal, political, and economic context of marriage was transformed. By the end of the 1970s women had access to legal rights, education, birth control, and decent jobs. Suddenly divorce was easy to get. At the same time, traditional family arrangements became more difficult to sustain in the new economy. And new sexual mores, growing tolerance for out-of-wedlock births, and rising aspirations for self-fulfillment changed the cultural milieu in which people made decisions about their personal relationships. During the 1980s and 1990s, all these changes came together to irrevocably transform the role of marriage in society at large and in people’s personal lives.”

Coontz does not argue that these changes are bad. “When a modern marriage is stable, it is so in a more appealing way than in the past,” she says. Her point is that marriage is no longer necessary:

“Marriage used to be… the gateway to adulthood and respectability and the best way for people to maximize their resources and pool labor. This is no longer the case. Marriage still allows two people to merge resources, divide tasks, and accumulate more capital than they could as singles. But it is not the only way they can invest in their future. In fact, it’s a riskier investment than it was in the past. The potential gains of getting married need to be weighed against the possibilities offered by staying single to pursue higher education or follow a better job. And the greater likelihood of eventual divorce reinforces the appeal of leaving your options open while investing in your own personal skills and experience.”

Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage is a fascinating read in its entirety.

Cheryl Strayed on Forgiveness

TinyBeautifulThings"Forgiveness," wrote David Whyte, "is a skill, a way of preserving clarity, sanity and generosity in an individual life." It's also one of the hardest skills to acquire, as Cheryl Strayed acknowledges in Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, a collection of the unconventional, moving, no-nonsense advice columns she wrote for the online literary magazine The Rumpus.

The most important thing is not to try to rush it. "Being friends with someone who once broke your heart is fine and dandy," she writes in response to one letter-writer, "but it’s almost always a good idea to take a breather between this and that."

Instead, she proposes a more modest initial goal:

"You asked for help with forgiveness, but I don’t think that’s what you need to reach for just yet. You know how alcoholics who go to AA are always using that phrase “one day at a time”? They say that because to say “I will never drink again” is just too damn much. It’s big and hard and bound to fail. This is how forgiveness feels for you at this moment, no doubt. It’s the reason you can’t do it. I suggest you forget about forgiveness for now and strive for acceptance instead...

Your life has been profoundly shaken by these recent revelations. It’s not your task to immediately forgive those who shook you. Your spoken desire to forgive the woman who betrayed you is in opposition to what you feel. Forgiveness forces an impossible internal face-off between you and a woman you hate.

Acceptance asks only that you embrace what’s true."

Others have eloquently expressed the futility of holding on to past wrongs ("Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies," said Nelson Mandela), but Strayed expertly defines what is and is not required for forgiveness itself:

"Forgiveness means you’ve found a way forward that acknowledges harm done and hurt caused without letting either your anger or your pain rule your life or define your relationship with the one who did you wrong."

Forgiveness, then, is a gift to ourselves, not to the one who wounded us. It doesn't require that we forget or condone what was done to us. It only requires us to decide that we will no longer allow that hurt to shape our future.

Barbara Fredrickson on Love

Love20In Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become, psychologist Barbara Fredrickson offers a fresh paradigm of love as "micro-moments of positivity resonance".

"Forget about the love that you typically hear on the radio, the one that's centred on desire and yearns for touch from a new squeeze. Set aside the take on love your family might have offered you, one that requires that you love your relatives unconditionally, regardless of whether their actions disturb you, or their aloofness leaves you cold. Set aside your view of love as a special bond or relationship, be it with your spouse, partner or soul mate...

Love is not exclusive, not something to be reserved for your soul mate, your inner circle, your kin, or your so-called loved ones...

Love is not lasting. It's actually far more fleeting than most of us would care to acknowledge. On the upside, though, love is forever renewable..."

Instead, says Fredrickson:

"Love is a momentary upwelling of three tightly interwoven events: first, a sharing of one or more positive emotions between you and another; second, a synchrony between your and the other person’s biochemistry and behaviors; and third, a reflected motive to invest in each other’s well-being that brings mutual care... Love blossoms virtually anytime two or more people — even strangers — connect over a shared positive emotion, be it mild or strong."

She calls this "positivity resonance", in order to deliberately dissociate it from our  common preconceptions of what "love" means. (Fredrickson's book opens with an oh-so-true quote from Margaret Atwood: "The Eskimos had fifty-two names for snow because it was important to them: there ought to be as many for love".)

What's unusual about this conception of love is (1) the idea that it can arise between any two people and (2) that love is not something that can exist solely in one person but that exists in the connection between them. Or as Fredrickson puts it:

"Love unfolds and reverberates between and among people — within interpersonal transactions — and thereby belong to all parties involved, and to the metaphorical connective tissue that binds them together, albeit temporarily. … More than any other positive emotion, then, love belongs not to one person, but to pairs or groups of people. It resides within connections."

In other words, unrequited love is not love at all.

Neither can love be unconditional. There are certain prerequisites that must be satisfied for it to occur. The first is a perception of safety, the second the existence of connection:

"True connection is physical and unfolds in real time. It requires sensory and temporal copresence of bodies... Love requires you to be physically and emotionally present."

So what's the difference between the love you feel for your partner and other kinds of love?

"At the level of positivity resonance, micro-moments of love are virtually identical regardless of whether they bloom between you and a stranger or you and a soul mate; between you and an infant or you and your lifelong best friend. The clearest difference between the love you feel with intimates and the love you feel with anyone with whom you share a connection is its sheer frequency. Spending more total moments together increases your chances to feast on micro-moments of positivity resonance."

It's not just about the total number of micro-moments we experience in our closest relationships, however. When we deeply understand someone, and accept them for who they are, those moments get triggered more frequently:

"Whereas the biological synchrony that emerges between connected brains and bodies may be comparable no matter who the other person may be, the triggers for your micro-moments of love can be wholly different with intimates. The hallmark feature of intimacy is mutual responsiveness, that reassuring sense that you and your soul mate — or you and your best friend — really ‘get’ each other...

Your intimates offer you history, safety, trust, and openness in addition to the frequent opportunity to connect. The more trusting and open you are with someone else— and the more trusting and open that person is with you— the more points of connection each of you may find over which to share a laugh, or a common source of intrigue, serenity, or delight."

Sharing an activity with someone can be a way to generate positivity resonance:

"Couples who regularly make time to do new and exciting things together— like hiking, skiing, dancing, or attending concerts and plays— have better- quality marriages. These activities provide a steady stream of shared micro-moments of positivity resonance."

However, some shared activities may generate positivity, but not love. For example:

"You and your family members take in the same television comedy. Yet absent eye contact, touch, laughter, or another form of behavioral synchrony, these moments are akin to what developmental psychologists call parallel play. They no doubt feel great and their positivity confers broaden-and-build benefits both to you and to others, independently. But if they are not (yet) directly and interpersonally shared experiences, they do not resonate or reverberate, and so they are not (yet) instances of love. The key to love is to add some form of physical connection."

Fredrickson is unafraid to follow this line of reasoning through to its logical conclusion, carefully drawing a distinction between positivity, love and the bond of marriage:

"And here’s something that’s hard to admit: If I take my body’s perspective on love seriously, it means that right now— at this very moment in which I’m crafting this sentence— I do not love my husband. Our positivity resonance, after all, only lasts as long as we two are engaged with each other. Bonds last. Love doesn’t. The same goes for you and your loved ones. Unless you’re cuddled up with someone reading these words aloud to him or her, right now, as far as your body knows, you don’t love anyone. Of course, you have affection for many, and bonds with a subset of these. And you may even be experiencing strong feelings of positivity now that will prime the pump for later, bona fide and bodily felt love. But right now— within this very moment that you are reading this sentence— your body is loveless."

Nevertheless, Fredrickson's paradigm remains a uniquely liberating one:

"Viewing love as distinct from long-standing relationships is especially vital as people increasingly face repeated geographical relocations that distance families and friends. Falling in love within smaller moments and with a greater variety of people gives new hope to the lonely and isolated among us."

[First published 26 January 2015; updated 16 June 2015]

On Hope

When life is hard, we often turn to hope. 

Hope allows us to believe that our predicament is only temporary, that things will get better again. Having hope is usually considered a good thing. According to Psychology Today, “As long as a patient, individual or victim has hope, they can recover from anything and everything”.

“Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear,” agrees Thich Nhat Hanh in Peace Is Every Step. “If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.”

But, he continues, there’s a catch:

“But that is the most that hope can do for us - to make some hardship lighter. When I think deeply about the nature of hope, I see something tragic…

Hope is for the future. It cannot help us discover joy, peace, or enlightenment in the present moment… I do not mean that you should not have hope, but that hope is not enough. Hope can create an obstacle for you, and if you dwell in the energy of hope, you will not bring yourself back entirely into the present moment. If you re-channel those energies into being aware of what is going on in the present moment, you will be able to make a breakthrough and discover joy and peace right in the present moment...”

Instead of hoping for things to get better in the future, we should learn to appreciate what we have right now.

His advice is echoed by Pema Chodron in When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice For Difficult Times:

“Without giving up hope – that there’s somewhere better to be, that there’s someone better to be – we will never relax with where we are or who we are...

Abandoning hope is an affirmation, the beginning of the beginning. You could even put “Abandon hope” on your refrigerator door instead of more conventional aspirations…”

Give up hope? This advice may seem indefensibly defeatist.

Yet sometimes hope leads to more anxiety and stress, not less. We pay a price for hope: fear. If I am diagnosed with cancer, I hope I will be able to fight it off – but I fear that I will not. If I lose my job, I hope I will soon find another – but I fear that I will not. If my partner tells me they are unhappy in our marriage, I hope we can work together to save it – but I fear that we will fail.

Fear, not hopelessness, is the opposite of hope. In Everyday Zen, Charlotte Joko Beck writes

“…what happens with you when you begin to feel uneasy, unsettled, queasy? Notice the panic, notice when you instantly grab for something. That grabbing is based on hope. Not grabbing is called hopelessness...

A life lived with no hope is a peaceful, joyous, compassionate life.”

Hopelessness does not mean that we do not care about our situation. It does not mean that we should never strive for anything. We can have goals, and if we achieve them that is fine. However, if we fail to achieve them that is fine too. In the words of the Serenity Prayer, it's about having the serenity to accept the things that we recognise we cannot change. It does not excuse us from the need to find the courage to change the things we can.

David Whyte on Expectation, Gratitude and Unrequited Love

ConsolationsExpectation is the foundation of disappointment. Without a preconceived notion of how something should be, it is impossible for us to be unhappy.

When it comes to other people, we are often told to accept them for who they are. However, we should also be willing to accept them for what they are, for the particular kind of relationship we actually have with them rather than the relationship we wish we had. Instead of wishing that an acquaintance could be a close friend, we should appreciate them for simply being someone we can share a hobby with. Instead of wishing that a friend could be a lover, we should simply be content that they are our friend.

It's this kind of acceptance that poet David Whyte writes about, among other things, in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words:

"We can never know in the beginning, in giving ourselves to a person, to a work, to a marriage or to a cause, exactly what kind of love we are involved with. When we demand a certain specific kind of reciprocation before the revelation has flowered completely we find ourselves disappointed and bereaved and in that grief may miss the particular form of love that is actually possible but that did not meet our initial and too specific expectations."

Perhaps, says Whyte, "being unappreciative might mean we are simply not paying attention". To be grateful for the particular relationship we have with another person, to appreciate its beauty, simply requires us to fully inhabit the present moment with that person, not some imaginary, wished-for future. "Beauty," says Whyte, "is the harvest of presence."

Perhaps the hardest kind of relationship to be grateful for is that of unrequited love. And yet, says Whyte, this is the most common form of love:

"What affection is ever returned over time in the same measure or quality with which it is given? Every man or woman loves differently and uniquely and each of us holds different dreams and hopes and falls in love or is the object of love at a very specific threshold in a very particular life where very, very particular qualities are needed for the next few years of our existence. What other human being could ever love us as we need to be loved? And whom could we know so well and so intimately through all the twists and turns of a given life that we could show them exactly, the continuous and appropriate form of affection they need?"

It is the expectation that love should be perfectly requited that so often leads to heartbreak:

"Requited love may happen, but it is a beautiful temporary, a seasonal blessing, the aligning of stars not too often in the same quarter of the heavens; an astonishing blessing, but it is a harvest coming only once every long cycle, and a burden to the mind and the imagination when we set that dynamic as the state to which we must always return to in order to feel ourselves in a true, consistent, loving relationship."

The key, again, is to let go of our expectations and simply be grateful for what is:

"Human beings live in disappointment and a self-appointed imprisonment when they refuse to love unless they are loved the selfsame way in return. It is the burden of marriage, the difficult invitation at the heart of parenting and the central difficulty in our relationship with any imagined, living future. The great discipline seems to be to give up wanting to control the manner in which we are requited, and to forgo the natural disappointment that flows from expecting an exact and measured reciprocation."

The Art of Loving

TheArtOfLovingMany believe that love is a feeling, which comes and goes as a result of forces that are mostly outside our control. In The Art of Loving, philosopher and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm asserts that love is an art and just like any other art - music, painting, carpentry - requires knowledge and effort to be successful.

Fromm attributes our scepticism of the need to learn about love to three misconceptions.

First, that we are mostly concerned with how to be loved, how to be lovable. We focus on how to make other people like us and give little thought to what love requires of us.

Second, that we believe the difficulty of love lies primarily in finding the right object to love or be loved by. Our culture has conditioned us to think of ourselves as a commodity. We trade ourselves not only in the job market, but in the love market too. "Two persons thus fall in love when they feel they have found the best object available on the market, considering the limitations of their own exchange values," as Fromm puts it.

Third, we confuse the initial experience of falling in love with the state of being in love. We are misled into believing that love should be easy because of the ease with which we fall in love, that exhilarating but temporary time when the boundaries between ourselves and another are first falling away.

Once the initial euphoria has worn off, however, love isn't easy and it's not about making ourselves attractive to another. It's about knowing another person deeply enough that we can support them effectively (recognising what they really need), respect them (understanding who they really are), and care for them.

"I may know, for instance, that a person is angry, even if he does not show it overtly; but I may know him more deeply than that; then I know that he is anxious, and worried; that he feels lonely, that he feels guilty. Then I know that his anger is only the manifestation of something deeper, and I see him as anxious and embarrassed, that is, as the suffering person, rather than as the angry one."

This is the art of loving. It requires discipline, mindfulness and patience. It is primarily giving, not receiving.

"What does one person give to another? He gives of himself, of the most precious he has, he gives of his life. This does not necessarily mean that he sacrifices his life for the other— but that he gives him of that which is alive in him; he gives him of his joy, of his interest, of his understanding, of his knowledge, of his humor, of his sadness— of all expressions and manifestations of that which is alive in him."

"Giving" does not mean "giving up". Fromm argues that love does not necessarily require us to sacrifice or be deprived of something. The misconception that giving means impoverishment causes some not to give at all, some to only give in the expectation of getting something in return, and others to trumpet their willingness to sacrifice as a virtue. Fromm has little patience with the latter:

"They feel that just because it is painful to give, one should give; the virtue of giving to them lies in the very act of acceptance of the sacrifice. For them, the norm that it is better to give than to receive means that it is better to suffer deprivation than to experience joy."

Instead, Fromm argues that we should give because by offering our talents to another person we get to feel alive:

"Giving is the highest expression of potency. In the very act of giving, I experience my strength, my wealth, my power. This experience of heightened vitality and potency fills me with joy. I experience myself as overflowing, spending, alive, hence as joyous. Giving is more joyous than receiving, not because it is a deprivation, but because in the act of giving lies the expression of my aliveness."

When we give we are able to think of ourselves as a person who has something valuable to offer. It provides us with a positive self-image:

"Whoever is capable of giving of himself is rich. He experiences himself as one who can confer of himself to others."

Nevertheless, the reason man loves at all is "to leave the prison of his aloneness". Thus, while giving offers its own benefits, it must stimulate love in return. Fromm quotes Marx:

"If you love without calling forth love, that is, if your love as such does not produce love, if by means of an expression of life as a loving person you do not make of yourself a loved person, then your love is impotent, a misfortune."

Perhaps, argues Fromm, this is our greatest fear about love:

"While one is consciously afraid of not being loved, the real, though usually unconscious fear is that of loving. To love means to commit oneself without guarantee, to give oneself completely in the hope that our love will produce love in the loved person."

And if we fail?

"The absolute failure to achieve this aim means insanity, because the panic of complete isolation can be overcome only by such a radical withdrawal from the world outside that the feeling of separation disappears— because the world outside, from which one is separated, has disappeared."

See also:

Erich Fromm on Conditional Love

TheArtOfLovingApart from the love of our parents, most of the love we receive as adults is conditional. Moreover, in our meritocratic society, we are taught to believe that this is fair, that to expect to receive anything other than what we deserve would be presumptuous.

However, in The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm argues that such love can be debilitating:

"To be loved because of one’s merit, because one deserves it, always leaves doubt; maybe I did not please the person whom I want to love me, maybe this, or that— there is always a fear that love could disappear."

Not only does conditional love breed fear in the loved one, it can lead to resentment:

"Furthermore, “deserved” love easily leaves a bitter feeling that one is not loved for oneself, that one is loved only because one pleases, that one is, in the last analysis, not loved at all but used."

Conditional love suggests a lack of respect:

"If I love the other person, I feel one with him or her, but with him as he is, not as I need him to be as an object for my use.

See also:

On Closure

TheExaminedLifeIn The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves, psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz elegantly illuminates our struggles with love, change and loss through a series of moving anecdotes about some of the patients he's seen during his career.

In "On Closure" Grosz argues that the common belief in "five stages of grief" - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance - is wrong.

"In the 1960s [Elisabeth] Kübler-Ross identified five psychological stages in the experience of terminally ill patients, the last of which is acceptance. About twenty-five years ago, Kübler-Ross and many bereavement counsellors began to use these same five stages to describe the experiences of both the dying and the grieving. I’ve long thought that Kübler-Ross was wrong."

He explains why:

"The ‘psychological stages’ of dying and grieving are wholly different. For the person who dies there is an end, but this is not so for the person who grieves. The person who mourns goes on living and for as long as he lives there is always the possibility of feeling grief."

While acknowledging that the initial shock and fear associated with a loss do decrease with time, Grosz argues that the idea that we can do something to achieve permanent closure is a fantasy.

"Holidays and anniversaries are notoriously difficult. Grief can ebb and then, without warning, resurge...

My experience is that closure is an extraordinarily compelling fantasy of mourning. It is the fiction that we can love, lose, suffer and then do something to permanently end our sorrow. We want to believe we can reach closure because grief can surprise and disorder us – even years after our loss."

This fantasy can have serious consequences for those who fall victim to it.

"They suffer more because they both expect to make progress, to move through certain stages of grief. And when they don’t, they feel that they are doing something wrong, or, more precisely, that there is something wrong with them. They suffer twice – first from grief and then from a tyranny of shoulds: ‘I should have pulled myself out of this,’ ‘I shouldn’t be so angry,’ ‘I should have moved on by now,’ and so forth. There is little room here for emotional exploration or understanding. This way of being leads to self-loathing, despair, depression."

The Examined Life is fascinating in its entirety.

Marcus Aurelius on Impermanence

Meditations is saturated with Marcus Aurelius' thoughts on change, impermanence and death.

In a passage that finds an echo in Bhante Gunaratana's warning about inattention, Aurelius reminds us that change is already happening:

“Bear in mind that everything that exists is already fraying at the edges, and in transition, subject to fragmentation and to rot.” (10.18)

The present moment is all we have...

"Forget everything else. Keep hold of this alone and remember it: Each of us lives only now, this brief instant. The rest has been lived already, or is impossible to see." (3.10)

...and all we can lose:

"The longest-lived and those who will die soonest lose the same thing. The present is all that they can give up, since that is all you have, and what you do not have, you cannot lose." (2.14)

Don’t waste time:

“Stop whatever you’re doing for a moment and ask yourself: Am I afraid of death because I won’t be able to do this anymore?” (10.29)

We may not even be able to enjoy our whole life:

"We need to hurry. Not just because we move daily closer to death but also because our understanding— our grasp of the world— may be gone before we get there." (3.1)

There will be a last time for everything we do, and it may come sooner than we think:

“As you kiss your son good night, says Epictetus, whisper to yourself, “He may be dead in the morning.”” (11.34)

Tomorrow our wife may leave us, we may be diagnosed with a fatal illness, we may lose our job. We may have already done something for the last time and not yet know it.

Not to hope that we will be remembered when we die. Anyone who might remember us will soon be dead too.

“So many who were remembered already forgotten, and those who remembered them long gone.” (7.6)

See also:


Marcus Aurelius on Acceptance

One of the themes of Meditations is our need to accept the things that are outside our control.

To play the hand we’ve been dealt:

“The spot where a person decides to station himself, or wherever his commanding officer stations him— well, I think that’s where he ought to take his stand and face the enemy, and not worry about being killed, or about anything but doing his duty.” (7.45)

To treat misfortune as an opportunity for growth:

"Just as you overhear people saying that “the doctor prescribed such-and-such for him” (like riding, or cold baths, or walking barefoot …), say this: “Nature prescribed illness for him.” Or blindness. Or the loss of a limb. Or whatever. There “prescribed” means something like “ordered, so as to further his recovery.” And so too here. What happens to each of us is ordered. It furthers our destiny." (4.8)

To not worry about what might not happen:

“Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole. Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand, and ask, “Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?” You’ll be embarrassed to answer.” (8.36)

To not be surprised when people act according to their nature:

“To expect a bad person not to harm others is like expecting fig trees not to secrete juice, babies not to cry, horses not to neigh— the inevitable not to happen. What else could they do— with that sort of character? If you’re still angry, then get to work on that.” (12.16)

To let go:

“Not “some way to sleep with her”— but a way to stop wanting to.
Not “some way to get rid of him”— but a way to stop trying.
Not “some way to save my child”— but a way to lose your fear.” (9.40)

See also:

Marcus Aurelius on Action

In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes about the need to take responsibility for the things in our control.

“Our own worth is measured by what we devote our energy to.” (7.3)

To tie our well-being to our actions alone:

“Ambition means tying your well-being to what other people say or do. Self-indulgence means tying it to the things that happen to you. Sanity means tying it to your own actions.” (6.51)

To choose our actions based on what’s right, not on what other people think:

"The tranquillity that comes when you stop caring what they say. Or think, or do. Only what you do. (Is this fair? Is this the right thing to do?)" (4.18)

To not respond to hate in kind:

“Someone despises me. That’s their problem. Mine: not to do or say anything despicable. Someone hates me. Their problem. Mine: to be patient and cheerful with everyone, including them. Ready to show them their mistake. Not spitefully, or to show off my own self-control, but in an honest, upright way.” (11.13)

To feel compassion for those who hurt us...

“When people injure you, ask yourself what good or harm they thought would come of it. If you understand that, you’ll feel sympathy rather than outrage or anger. Your sense of good and evil may be the same as theirs, or near it, in which case you have to excuse them. Or your sense of good and evil may differ from theirs. In which case they’re misguided and deserve your compassion. Is that so hard?” (7.26)

...and to act kindly towards them:

“That kindness is invincible, provided it’s sincere— not ironic or an act. What can even the most vicious person do if you keep treating him with kindness and gently set him straight— if you get the chance— correcting him cheerfully at the exact moment that he’s trying to do you harm. “No, no, my friend. That isn’t what we’re here for. It isn’t me who’s harmed by that. It’s you.” And show him, gently and without pointing fingers, that it’s so. That bees don’t behave like this— or any other animals with a sense of community. Don’t do it sardonically or meanly, but affectionately— with no hatred in your heart. And not ex cathedra or to impress third parties, but speaking directly. Even if there are other people around.” (11.18)

To use our problems as fuel:

“Just as nature takes every obstacle, every impediment, and works around it— turns it to its purposes, incorporates it into itself— so, too, a rational being can turn each setback into raw material and use it to achieve its goal.” (8.35)

To eliminate what’s unnecessary:

"Most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquillity. Ask yourself at every moment, “Is this necessary?” But we need to eliminate unnecessary assumptions as well. To eliminate the unnecessary actions that follow." (4.24)

To act selflessly:

"Some people, when they do someone a favor, are always looking for a chance to call it in. And some aren’t, but they’re still aware of it— still regard it as a debt. But others don’t even do that. They’re like a vine that produces grapes without looking for anything in return." (5.6)

To not be angry:

“How much more damage anger and grief do than the things that cause them.” (11.18)

And as for revenge…

"The best revenge is not to be like that." (6.6)

See also:

Marcus Aurelius on Perception

Writing in Meditations, Marcus Aurelius reminds himself that it's not external events that cause us difficulties, but the interpretation we choose to place on them.

"Choose not to be harmed— and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed— and you haven’t been... It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character." (4.7 and 4.8)

We have our emotions, and we have our thoughts about them. We can't control the former but we can control the latter, and we need to stop them fusing with each other

"The mind is the ruler of the soul. It should remain unstirred by agitations of the flesh— gentle and violent ones alike. Not mingling with them, but fencing itself off and keeping those feelings in their place. When they make their way into your thoughts, through the sympathetic link between mind and body, don’t try to resist the sensation. The sensation is natural. But don’t let the mind start in with judgements, calling it “good” or “bad.”" (5.26)

The only things we should label "good" or "bad" are the things in our control: our own actions.

“You take things you don’t control and define them as “good” or “bad.” And so of course when the “bad” things happen, or the “good” ones don’t, you blame the gods and feel hatred for the people responsible— or those you decide to make responsible. Much of our bad behavior stems from trying to apply those criteria. If we limited “good” and “bad” to our own actions, we’d have no call to challenge God, or to treat other people as enemies.” (6.41)

To be grateful for what we have without allowing ourselves to become dependent on those things:

“Treat what you don’t have as nonexistent. Look at what you have, the things you value most, and think of how much you’d crave them if you didn’t have them. But be careful. Don’t feel such satisfaction that you start to overvalue them— that it would upset you to lose them.” (7.27)

To trust ourselves:

“It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.” (12.4)

To be self-reliant:

"Poor: (adj.) requiring others; not having the necessities of life in one’s own possession." (4.29)

To not worry about praise...

"Beautiful things of any kind are beautiful in themselves and sufficient to themselves. Praise is extraneous. The object of praise remains what it was— no better and no worse.... Is an emerald suddenly flawed if no one admires it?" (4.20)

...or our reputation:

"Or is it your reputation that’s bothering you? But look at how soon we’re all forgotten. The abyss of endless time that swallows it all. The emptiness of all those applauding hands. The people who praise us— how capricious they are, how arbitrary. And the tiny region in which it all takes place. The whole earth a point in space— and most of it uninhabited." (4.3)

To recognise that we are not responsible for the behaviour of others:

"So other people hurt me? That’s their problem. Their character and actions are not mine." (5.25) 

To not extrapolate from first impressions:

“Nothing but what you get from first impressions. That someone has insulted you, for instance. That— but not that it’s done you any harm. The fact that my son is sick— that I can see. But “that he might die of it,” no. Stick with first impressions. Don’t extrapolate. And nothing can happen to you.” (8.49)

To see no more than is actually there:

“Like seeing roasted meat and other dishes in front of you and suddenly realizing: This is a dead fish. A dead bird. A dead pig. Or that this noble vintage is grape juice, and the purple robes are sheep wool dyed with shellfish blood. Or making love— something rubbing against your penis, a brief seizure and a little cloudy liquid. Perceptions like that— latching onto things and piercing through them, so we see what they really are. That’s what we need to do all the time— all through our lives when things lay claim to our trust— to lay them bare and see how pointless they are, to strip away the legend that encrusts them.” (6.13)

See also:

Bhante Gunaratana on Impermanence

In Mindfulness in Plain English, Bhante Gunaratana provides a chilling reminder of the unseen forces that are, at this very moment, slowly, imperceptibly destroying everything around us:

"Even as you read these words, your body is aging. But you pay no attention to that. The book in your hand is decaying. The print is fading, and the pages are becoming brittle. The walls around you are aging. The molecules within those walls are vibrating at an enormous rate, and everything is shifting, going to pieces, and slowly dissolving. You pay no attention to that either. Then one day you look around you. Your skin is wrinkled and your joints ache. The book is a yellowed, faded thing; and the building is falling apart. So you pine for lost youth, cry when your possessions are gone. Where does this pain come from? It comes from your own inattention. You failed to look closely at life. You failed to observe the constantly shifting flow of the world as it passed by. You set up a collection of mental constructions—“ me,” “the book,” “the building”— and you assumed that those were solid, real entities. You assumed that they would endure forever. They never do."


MeditationsOne of life’s difficulties is remembering our past experiences. We struggle to recall what we were doing a couple of years ago. We read a book or watch a documentary, then a few months later find ourselves barely be able to remember its key points.

Over the years a number of practices have emerged to fight this amnesia. Diaries and journals have long been popular as a record of events. In 17th century Europe, keeping a commonplace book – an intellectual scrapbook of quotes, information, ideas and thoughts – was a recognised practice. Today we might take photos or videos, or write a blog.

Meditations is one such device – a collection of aphorisms, insights and observations written by Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius to remind himself how to live.

Meditations was never intended to be published or read by others. Even the title is unlikely to be original; Aurelius probably gave it no title at all. The short passages that comprise the work are haphazardly spread across twelve books with little to unify them. Nevertheless, a number of themes emerge.

Aurelius was heavily influenced by the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, in particular his idea of the “three disciplines” of perception, action and will. The discipline of perception is about remaining aware of the difference between an event and the interpretation we place on it. Translator Gregory Hays provides an example:

“For example, my impression that my house has just burned down is simply that— an impression or report conveyed to me by my senses about an event in the outside world. By contrast, my perception that my house has burned down and I have thereby suffered a terrible tragedy includes not only an impression, but also an interpretation imposed upon that initial impression. It is by no means the only possible interpretation, and I am not obliged to accept it. I may be a good deal better off if I decline to do so. It is, in other words, not objects and events but the interpretations we place on them that are the problem. Our duty is therefore to exercise stringent control over the faculty of perception, with the aim of protecting our mind from error.”

Having seen things for what they are, the discipline of action is about taking responsibility for those things that are in our control. In contrast, the discipline of will is about accepting the things that are outside our control, done to us by nature or by others.

Meditations is not a philosophy of how to enjoy life, but of how to get through it with minimal suffering. Its advice is unflinchingly practical. At times it’s grim and pessimistic, infused with a sense of the shortness of life. Not for nothing did Alexander Percy refer to it as “the unassailable wintry kingdom of Marcus Aurelius”.

See also:

Erich Fromm on Marriage

TheArtOfLoving"True love is not a feeling by which we are overwhelmed," said Scott Peck. "It is a committed, thoughtful decision... This person has made a commitment to be loving whether or not the loving feeling is present."

In The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm starts with the same premise, and extrapolates what this means for marriage:

"This being so, it should not make any difference whom we love. Love should be essentially an act of will, of decision to commit my life completely to that of one other person. This is, indeed, the rationale behind the idea of the insolubility of marriage, as it is behind the many forms of traditional marriage in which the two partners never choose each other, but are chosen for each other— and yet are expected to love each other...

To love somebody is not just a strong feeling— it is a decision, it is a judgment, it is a promise. If love were only a feeling, there would be no basis for the promise to love each other forever. A feeling comes and it may go. How can I judge that it will stay forever, when my act does not involve judgment and decision?"

However, Fromm continues, it's not that simple:

"Inasmuch as we are all one, we can love everybody in the same way in the sense of brotherly love. But inasmuch as we are all also different, erotic love requires certain specific, highly individual elements which exist between some people but not between all.

Both views then, that of erotic love as completely individual attraction, unique between two specific persons, as well as the other view that erotic love is nothing but an act of will, are true— or, as it may be put more aptly, the truth is neither this nor that. Hence the idea of a relationship which can be easily dissolved if one is not successful with it is as erroneous as the idea that under no circumstances must the relationship be dissolved."

See also:

Louis de Bernières on Love

Scott Peck suggested that it is when the mating instinct has run its course that the opportunity for true love begins. Writing in Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Louis de Bernières makes the same distinction between true love and being "in love":

"Love is a temporary madness, it erupts like volcanoes and then subsides. And when it subsides, you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion, it is not the desire to mate every second minute of the day, it is not lying awake at night imagining that he is kissing every cranny of your body. No, don’t blush, I am telling you some truths. That is just being “in love”, which any fool can do. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident."

The Obstacle is the Way

TheObstacleIsTheWayWe sometimes make the mistake of thinking that life is supposed to be easy. When difficulties arise we can become angry or frustrated at the interruption to our perfectly planned lives. We forget that problems are inevitable. "Life is difficult," Scott Peck reminded us. For Peck, discipline - specifically delaying gratification, accepting responsibility, dedication to the truth, and balancing - was the key to solving those problems. In The Obstacle Is The Way, Ryan Holiday argues that it's the "three disciplines" of Stoicism that we need.

"The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way," said Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius. Holiday argues that the obstacles in our lives are not merely to be seen as things to be overcome but as opportunities to practice some virtue or improve our condition. That with the right approach we can actually emerge on the other side of life's difficulties as better people. We shouldn't avoid difficulties, or learn to put up with them, we should embrace them as the fuel we need for self-growth.

Holiday advocates the Stoic "three disciplines" as the way of doing this: the disciplines of perception, action and will. Or, quoting Aurelius again:

"Objective judgement, now at this very moment.
Unselfish action, now at this very moment.
Willing acceptance - now at this very moment - of all external events.
That's all you need."


To a large degree, our obstacles are only obstacles because that's how we choose to see them. Once we recognise that the situation and how we feel about it are two separate things, we can look for alternative, more constructive interpretations. It's an idea that recurs in many other places, from Buddhism to Shakespeare ("There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so," says Hamlet).

Doing this requires us to learn to control our emotions (or "domesticate" them, to use Nassim Taleb's wonderfully evocative term), neither allowing them to control us nor pretending they don't exist. It requires a shift in perspective, looking for the bigger picture or interpreting the events in a different way. It requires mindfulness, focusing on the present moment, "not the monsters that may or may not be up ahead". It requires us to believe that there is a genuine opportunity here, buried inside the obstacle, and finding it.

"You lost your job or a relationship? That's awful, but now you can travel unencumbered... If someone you love hurts you, there is a chance to practice forgiveness."

The discipline of perception is also about recognising which things we have control over, and which we do not. As the Serenity Prayer says, "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference". The things we can change, we can then subject to action. The things we cannot change require us to exercise our will.


"Once you see the world as it is, for what it is, you must act. The proper perception - objective, rational, ambitious, clean - isolates the obstacle and exposes it for what it is. A clearer head makes for steadier hands. And then those hands must be put to work."

Even if the conditions are not to our liking, we must act - with deliberation, boldness and persistence. We need to make a start, even if we're not sure of ourselves, using our frustration to power our actions. If we try something and it fails, we try something different. We iterate and keep moving forwards, step by step, focused on what is in front of us, dismantling our obstacles piece by piece. Whatever must be done, we do it, and we do it well, but not letting the best become the enemy of the good. What's right is what works.

Attacking problems head-on may not be the best approach. We need to look for opportunities to attack from the flanks, where we may meet less resistance. Or wait to be attacked, using the momentum of our obstacles against themselves. If we are patient, some obstacles may prove only temporary, fizzling out of their own accord.

Sometimes the correct action can be to not attack the problem at all, using the obstacle as an opportunity to explore a different direction altogether:

"There is a certain humility required in this approach. It means accepting that the way you originally wanted to do things is not possible. You just haven't got it in you to do it the "traditional" way. But so what?"


Some problems may be outside our control. These must be endured through the exercise of willpower.

"If Perception and Action were the disciplines of the mind and the body, then Will is the discipline of the heart and the soul... Will is fortitude and wisdom - not just about specific obstacles but about life itself and where the obstacles we are facing fit within it."

Our will is like a fortress inside of us, but it's one we have to build and actively reinforce during the good times so its strength is available to us in the bad. One way to do this is by thinking about what may go wrong before beginning an endeavour: a "pre-mortem" or what William Irvine refers to as negative visualisation.

"Far too many ambitious undertakings fail for preventable reasons. Far too many people don't have a backup plan because they refuse to consider that something might not go exactly as they wish...

About the worst thing that can happen is not something going wrong, but something going wrong and catching you by surprise. Why? Because unexpected failure is discouraging and being beaten back hurts. But the person who has rehearsed in their mind what could go wrong will not be caught by surprise."

When we recognise that something is immune to action, we need to go with the flow, not struggle against it:

"It doesn't always feel that way but constraints in life are a good thing. Especially if we can accept them and let them direct us. They push us to places and to develop skills that we'd otherwise never have pursued."

Acceptance is not sufficient, however:

"The next step after we discard our expectations and accept what happens to us, after understanding that certain things - particularly bad things - are outside our control, is this: loving whatever happens and facing it with unfailing cheerfulness... We have to learn to find joy in every single thing that happens."

Echoing something that one of my schoolteachers once said when a pupil asked him how he could be so cheerful teaching the same material year after year, Holiday observes that if we have to put up with something, we might as well be happy about it. Since we can choose our response to every situation, why choose anything other than cheerfulness?

"See things for what they are. Do what we can. Endure and bear what we must." The Obstacle Is The Way provides an excellent introduction to the ancient philosophy of Stoicism and a practical guide to applying it in modern life.

Scott Peck on Love

RoadLessTraveledIn the first part of The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth, psychiatrist Scott Peck discusses discipline, conceiving it as a set of tools used to solve life's problems. In the second part, he considers what he believes is the source of the motivation to use these tools: love.

But what do we mean by "love"? Echoing Margaret Atwood's observation that "The Eskimos had fifty-two names for snow because it was important to them: there ought to be as many for love", Peck observes

"Our use of the word "love" is so generalised and unspecific as to severely interfere with our understanding of love... As long as we continue to use the word "love" to describe our relationship with anything that is important to us... we will continue to have difficulty discerning the difference between the wise and the foolish, the good and the bad, the noble and the ignoble."

Accordingly, he proposes his own definition:

"The will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth."

Peck uses the word "will" deliberately, to mean not only the desire to help another grow, but also actively doing something about it. Action is what defines love, not good intentions.

Peck begins his discussion of love by identifying a number of misconceptions about it.

Love is not romantic

Peck distinguishes between true love, as defined above, and "falling in love". Our tendency to confuse the two, says Peck, is one of the most powerful and pervasive misconceptions about love. Peck asserts that falling in love is specifically a "sex-linked erotic experience":

"We do not fall in love with our children even though we may love them very deeply. We do not fall in love with our friends of the same sex even though we may care for them greatly. We fall in love only when we are consciously or unconsciously sexually motivated."

In contrast to real love, falling in love is not a conscious choice ("try as we might, we may not be able to fall in love with a person whom we deeply respect and with whom a deep relationship would be in all ways desirable"), does not require effort and is not about personal growth. It is simply the collapse of part of our personal boundaries and the temporary merging of our identity with that of another. In Peck's view, falling in love is nothing more than a biological mechanism to increase the probability of mating, or to put it another way, "falling in love is a trick that our genes pull on our otherwise perceptive mind to hoodwink or trap us into marriage".

The "myth of romantic love" propagated by our culture, the idea that there is one true love out there for each of us, makes this misconception worse. The ecstatic feelings of falling in love always pass, says Peck, but the myth suggests that if we can only find the right person, "the one", they would last forever. This myth is a lie, and one with damaging consequences:

"Should it come to pass that we do not satisfy or meet all of each other's needs and friction arises and we fall out of love, then it is clear that a dreadful mistake was made, we misread the stars, we did not hook up with our one and only perfect match, what we thought was love was not real or "true" love, and nothing can be done about the situation except to live unhappily ever after or get divorced...

As a psychiatrist I weep in my heart almost daily for the ghastly confusion and suffering that this myth fosters. Millions of people waste vast amounts of energy desperately and futilely attempting to make the reality of their lives conform to the unreality of the myth."

Peck acknowledges that falling in love does have one beneficial consequence, however: it makes us care about someone enough to actually want to begin truly loving them. Indeed, Peck asserts that it is at the moment when the mating instinct has run its course that the opportunity for genuine love begins.

This is reminiscent of anthropologist Helen Fisher's three stages of love - lust, romantic attraction and attachment - where each stage can serve as the basis for the next. Peck's description of "falling in love" parallels Fisher's "romantic attraction", while his definition of love seems similar to her "attachment" stage.

Love is not dependency

Peck also cautions about mistaking dependency - "the inability to experience wholeness or to function adequately without the certainty that one is being actively cared for by another" - for love:

"Two people love each other only when they are quite capable of living without each other but choose to live with each other... The only way to be assured of being loved is to be a person worthy of love, and you cannot be a person worthy of love when your primary goal in life is to passively be loved. This is not to say that passive dependent people never do things for others, but their motive in doing things is to cement the attachment of the others to them so as to assure their own care...

Allowing yourself to be dependent on another person is the worst possible thing you can do to yourself... If you expect another person to make you happy, you'll be endlessly disappointed."

Love is not self-sacrifice

Helping another is often an unselfish thing. However, Peck argues that whenever we do something for someone else, it is because we have chosen to do so, because it satisfies some need we have. That also makes it selfish. Thus:

"There is a paradox in that love is both selfish and unselfish at the same time. It is not selfishness or unselfishness that distinguishes love from nonlove; it is the aim of the action. In the case of genuine love the aim is always spiritual growth. In the case of nonlove the aim is always something else."

For example, if we behave in a self-sacrificial way to maintain an image of ourselves as a loving person, that behaviour should not be mistaken for love.

Love is not a feeling

The final misconception about love, says Peck, is the idea that love is a feeling. This misconception exists because we confuse love with cathexis.

Cathexis is the act of investing mental or emotional energy in a person, object or idea. We can cathect many things: money, power, fame, a piece of jewellery, our pets, our hobbies, as well as other people.

The feeling of love is the emotion that arises when we cathect something. However, this is not the same as love itself.

"When love exists it does so with or without cathexis and with or without a loving feeling. It is easier — indeed, it is fun — to love with cathexis and the feeling of love. But it is possible to love without cathexis and without loving feelings, and it is in the fulfilment of this possibility that genuine and transcendent love is distinguished from simple cathexis."

Peck continues:

"True love is not a feeling by which we are overwhelmed. It is a committed, thoughtful decision... This person has made a commitment to be loving whether or not the loving feeling is present. If it is, so much the better; but if it isn't, the commitment to love, the will to love, still stands and is still exercised... In a constructive marriage, the partners must regularly, routinely and predictably, attend to each other and their relationship, no matter how they feel."

Just as we can love without cathexis, so we can cathect without love. We can have strong feelings of love for another person without caring a whit for their personal growth. Moreover, by definition, we cannot love anything incapable of spiritual growth, such as an inanimate object or an animal. The best we can do is cathect them.

Perhaps, suggests Peck, the idea that love is a feeling is so common because it is self-serving, it being easier to find evidence of love in our feelings than in our actions.

Love is work

Extending one's self, as required by Peck's definition of love, requires pushing against either laziness or fear. Thus, Peck says, every act of love, without exception, requires either work or courage.

The main form that work takes is attention:

"When we love something it is of value to us, and when something is of value to us we spend time with it, time enjoying it and time taking care of it...

By far the most common and important way in which we can exercise our attention is by listening... An essential part of true listening is the discipline of bracketing, the temporary giving up or setting aside of one’s own prejudices, frames of reference and desires so as to experience as far as possible the speaker’s world from the inside, stepping inside his or her shoes…

Keeping one’s eye on a four-year-old at the beach, concentrating on an interminable disjointed story told by a six-year-old, teaching an adolescent how to drive, truly listening to the tale of your spouse’s day at the office or laundromat, and understanding his or her problems from the inside, attempting to be as consistently patient and bracketing as much as possible — all these are tasks that are often boring, frequently inconvenient and always energy-draining; they mean work... Since love is work, the essence of nonlove is laziness."

Love is courage

Courage in love takes many forms: the courage to accept that the relationship may end, the courage to change, the courage to commit, and the courage to confront.

Love requires overcoming the fear of loss. When we love someone, there is always the risk that they may leave us, or die. When we trust someone, they may let us down. But whenever we value anything we risk the pain that would come from its loss. The only way to avoid the pain of loss, says Peck, is never to value anything at all.

Love requires overcoming the fear of change:

"When we extend ourselves, our self enters new and unfamiliar territory, so to speak. Our self becomes a new and different self. We do things we are not accustomed to do. We change. The experience of change, of unaccustomed activity, of being on unfamiliar ground, of doing things differently is frightening."

Having the courage to change also means having the courage to grow up, to step away from the values handed down to us by our parents and our culture and taking the risk of doing things differently.

Love requires overcoming the fear of commitment:

"Commitment is inherent in any genuinely loving relationship. Anyone who is truly concerned for the spiritual growth of another knows, consciously or instinctively, that he or she can significantly foster that growth only through a relationship of constancy. Children cannot grow to psychological maturity in an atmosphere of unpredictability, haunted by the specter of abandonment. Couples cannot resolve in any healthy way the universal issues of marriage —dependency and independency, dominance and submission, freedom and fidelity, for example —without the security of knowing that the act of struggling over these issues will not itself destroy the relationship."

Commitment provides a safety net for the resolution of differences. By committing to love, regardless of how we feel, we make it safe to raise and discuss our problems.

Nevertheless, raising problems in a relationship requires courage itself. By confronting someone you are implicitly asserting that your viewpoint is superior, or at least has equal validity to theirs. Rigorous self-examination is necessary to determine if this is the case. Where it is, however, Peck insists that we have an obligation to do so:

"To fail to confront when confrontation is required for the nurture of spiritual growth represents a failure to love equally as does thoughtless criticism or condemnation and other forms of active deprivation of caring... Mutual loving confrontation is a significant part of all successful and meaningful human relationships. Without it the relationship is either unsuccessful or shallow."

Love is disciplined

In Peck's view, love provides the motivation for discipline. Expressed another way, discipline is love translated into action. Thus true love, which requires action, must by definition require its giver to behave with discipline. This does not mean that love cannot be passionate. Passion is simply something that is deeply felt. Uncontrolled feelings are no deeper than those that are controlled.

The feeling of love itself is one thing that must be disciplined. Although the feeling of love is simply a feeling of attachment to someone or something, and is not true love, it can create the attachment from which true love grows. Because true love is demanding and effortful, we cannot truly love everyone. Undisciplined feelings of love, however, could cause us to develop an attachment to someone who is unable to use our love to grow.

Love is separateness

While falling in love temporarily blurs the boundaries between two people, true love must also respect and even encourage the separateness and individuality of the other person. This can be difficult in a marriage, where we can sometimes have difficulty thinking about the identity of our partner separate from ourselves. Echoing Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's view that “Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction,” Peck shares his view of what marriage is all about:

"My wife and I draw the analogy between marriage and a base camp for mountain climbing. If one wants to climb mountains one must have a good base camp, a place where there are shelters and provisions, where one may receive nurture and rest before one ventures forth again to seek another summit. Successful mountain climbers know that they must spend at least as much time, if not more, in tending to their base camp as they actually do in climbing mountains, for their survival is dependent upon their seeing to it that their base camp is sturdily constructed and well stocked...

[Marriage exists] for the primary purpose of nurturing each of the participants for individual journeys towards his or her own individual peaks of spiritual growth. Male and female both must tend the hearth and both must venture forth...

Great marriages cannot be constructed by individuals who are terrified by their basic aloneness, as so commonly is the case, and seek a merging in marriage. Genuine love not only respects the individuality of the other but actually seeks to cultivate it, even at the risk of separation or loss.

The ultimate goal of life remains the spiritual growth of the individual, the solitary journey to peaks that can be climbed only alone."

Scott Peck on Discipline

RoadLessTraveled"Life is difficult."

So begins psychiatrist Scott Peck's exploration of personal growth in The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth. The book considers the role of discipline, love and faith in our mental and spiritual development and as the opening line suggests, is unafraid to remind us of some fundamental truths that our self-centred, pleasure-seeking culture often minimises.

“Most do not fully see this truth that life is difficult. Instead they moan more or less incessantly, noisily or subtly, about the enormity of their problems, their burdens, and their difficulties as if life were generally easy, as if life should be easy…

Life is a series of problems. Do we want to moan about them or solve them?”

Peck goes further, however, asserting that overcoming problems is what gives life meaning:

“Problems call forth our courage and our wisdom; indeed, they create our courage and our wisdom. It is only because of problems that we grow mentally and spiritually.”

Peck begins by looking at discipline, which he defines as a set of tools for solving life’s problems. He identifies four: delaying of gratification, acceptance of responsibility, dedication to the truth, and balancing.

“The problem lies not in the complexity of these tools but in the will to use them. For they are tools with which pain is confronted rather than avoided, and if one seeks to avoid legitimate suffering, then one will avoid the use of these tools.”

Delaying gratification

Delaying of gratification is being willing to tolerate some discomfort today for greater satisfaction later. 

A desire to deal with problems as quickly as possible, or a belief that we are incapable of dealing with them at all, can indicate an inability to delay gratification. Peck describes a patient who was having difficulty with her children:

“[She] was a basically loving and dedicated but rather helpless mother to her two young children. She was alert and concerned enough to perceive when her children were having some sort of emotional problem or when something was not working out in her child-raising. But then she inevitably took one of two courses of action with the children: either she made the very first change that came to her mind within a matter of seconds—making them eat more breakfast or sending them to bed earlier— regardless of whether such a change had anything to do with the problem, or else she came to her next therapy session with me, despairing: “It’s beyond me. What shall I do?” This woman had a perfectly keen and analytical mind, and when she didn’t procrastinate, she was quite capable of solving complex problems at work . Yet when confronted with a personal problem, she behaved as if she were totally lacking in intelligence.”

The cause?

“The issue was one of time. Once she became aware of a personal problem, she felt so discomfited that she demanded an immediate solution, and she was not willing to tolerate her discomfort long enough to analyze the problem. The solution to the problem represented gratification to her, but she was unable to delay this gratification for more than a minute or two, with the result that her solutions were usually inappropriate and her family in chronic turmoil.”

Similarly, Peck describes the first time he was able to fix a mechanical problem with a car after forcing himself to work through the problem slowly.

“Actually, I don’t begin to have the knowledge or the time to gain that knowledge to be able to fix most mechanical failures, given the fact that I choose to concentrate my time on nonmechanical matters. So I still usually go running to the nearest repairman. But I now know that this is a choice I make, and I am not cursed or genetically defective or otherwise incapacitated or impotent. And I know that I and anyone else who is not mentally defective can solve any problem if we are willing to take the time.”

Another symptom of an inability to delay gratification is a reluctance to tackle problems in the hope that they will go away. Rather than trying to find a quick solution, we try to avoid having to find a solution at all. Rather than trying to minimise the amount of pain, we try to avoid it altogether.

Accepting responsibility

The second tool in the toolbox of discipline is the acceptance of responsibility.

“We must accept responsibility for a problem before we can solve it. We cannot solve a problem by saying “It’s not my problem.” We cannot solve a problem by hoping that someone else will solve it for us. I can solve a problem only when I say “This is my problem and it’s up to me to solve it.” But many, so many, seek to avoid the pain of their problems by saying to themselves: “This problem was caused me by other people, or by social circumstances beyond my control, and therefore it is up to other people or society to solve this problem for me. It is not really my personal problem.”

Sometimes we don't take enough responsibility for our behaviour, usually because we're trying to avoid the painful consequences of that behaviour. Sometimes we take responsibility for more than we should, attempting to solve the problems of others when we should be placing the responsibility on them.

Dedication to the truth

The third tool is dedication to the truth. We cannot hope to solve our problems if we are oblivious of, or lie to ourselves about, their nature. This means constantly examining ourselves, being willing to be challenged, and being completely honest.

We must take care to constantly revise our maps of reality as we acquire new information, however painful that process may be, lest we find ourselves using maps that once served us well but are now outdated. The best way to ensure our maps are accurate is to expose them to the criticism of others.

Dedication to the truth also means not lying to others, although Peck accepts that there are situations where withholding the truth is the kindest thing to do. However:

“The decision to withhold the truth should never be based on personal needs, such as a need for power, a need to be liked or a need to protect one’s map from challenge… [it] must always be based entirely upon the needs of the person or people from whom the truth is being withheld.”


The fourth and final tool of discipline is balancing, the ability to discipline discipline itself, to be flexible and act spontaneously. At its core, balancing is about giving things up, about trading off one thing against another. Sometimes we can become so attached to one thing that it damages our relationship with another. The ability to recognise when we are out of balance, and need to give something up to restore our balance, is essential for a happy life.

Giving something up is painful, but Peck argues that we should see this as a positive thing. To be mentally healthy we must grow, and growth requires the giving up of our old selves. The pain of giving up is thus an indicator that growth is happening.

One important kind of balancing that Peck refers to is "bracketing". He defines this as "the act of balancing the need for stability and assertion of the self with the need for new knowledge and greater understanding", and notes that this must be done "by temporarily giving up one's self so as to make room for the incorporation of new material into the self". Expressed another way, it's the ability to evaluate and assimilate new knowledge on its own terms, separated from our own preconceptions and emotional biases, the ability to view the world as others see it.

To summarise, Peck views discipline as a set of four tools - delaying gratification, accepting responsibility, a dedication to truth, and balancing - that enable us to solve the problems life throws our way. However, using these tools is difficult and requires motivation. Peck believes this motivation is provided by love. I’ll discuss his views on that subject next.

“Looking Outward Together”

In Wind, Sand and Stars, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry writes,

“Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”

It’s an idea that’s echoed in Shel Silverstein’s The Missing Piece Meets the Big O, an allegory of love masquerading as a children’s book. A wedge-shaped character, the eponymous missing piece, is “waiting for someone to come along and take it somewhere”.

After several unsuitable candidates pass by, he eventually finds a circle with a hole that he fits perfectly, and for a time the two roll on together. But the piece continues to grow, whereas the circle does not, and before long the two no longer fit. Brain Pickings’ Maria Popova makes the obvious inference:

"And just like in any relationship where one partner grows and the other remains static, things end in disappointment — and then they just end. The static circle moves along, looking for a piece that won’t grow."

Then one day a shape rolls by that has no pieces missing, the Big O.

“I think you are the one I have been waiting for,” said the missing piece. “Maybe I am your missing piece.”

“But I am not missing a piece,” said the Big O. “There is no place you would fit.”

“That is too bad,” said the missing piece. “I was hoping that perhaps I could roll with you…”

“You cannot roll with me,” said the Big O, “but perhaps you can roll by yourself.”

At first, the missing piece is baffled. He has corners and flat edges and won't roll well at all. But the Big O points out that corners can be rounded off ("another elegant metaphor for the self-refinement necessary in our personal growth" notes Popova), and so the missing piece painfully begins to haul himself end over end. Gradually his corners do start to round off; indeed, he becomes rounder and rounder, until finally he starts "rolling, like it always dreamt of doing with the aid of another, only all by itself".

It's then that the Big O returns, and at the end of the book the two are seen rolling in the same direction, side by side.

This idea of two independent, self-sufficient people moving through life in the same direction is echoed by Alexander Seinfeld in an answer to the question, “What is the purpose of marriage?”, on Quora:

“Marriage is a commitment that two people make in order to pursue their life goals together.

This definition sheds light on why marriages succeed or fail. To the extent that the two (a) share the same life goals and (b) remain focused on those mutual goals, they have a high chance of a long-term stable happy marriage. The opposite is also true.

One of the big mistakes couples get when they get married is failing as individuals to clarify their life goals. Sometimes the only life goal they have in common is having and raising children. Guess what happens in such marriages once the kids are grown?”

In this view, marriage is more durable when it’s about cementing Saint-Exupéry’s idea of love rather than the traditional romantic ideal. Far easier to accommodate separate rates of growth when you’re rolling side by side than when you’re snugly interlocked.

How to Read a Book

How to Read a BookMost of us assume we learned everything we need to know about reading at school. As adults, we consider reading a book to be as straightforward as starting at the beginning and stopping at the end. In How to Read a Book, however, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren argue that, if we read to increase our understanding of the world, we can get more from our books by first learning how to read them more skilfully.

The authors argue that good reading is active and effortful. It requires us to ask questions of a book as we go. Specifically, our goal should be to answer four questions:

  1. What is the book about as a whole?
  2. What is being said in detail, and how?
  3. Is the book true, in whole or part?
  4. What of it?

Taking notes as we read is essential:

“First, it keeps you awake — not merely conscious, but wide awake. Second, reading, if it is active, is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks. Third, writing your reactions down helps you to remember the thoughts of the author.”

There are four levels at which we can read. Elementary reading is what we learn at school. Inspectional and analytical reading are techniques for reading a single book. Finally, syntopical reading is a technique for reading many books on the same subject. Each level builds on the ones before.

Inspectional reading

Inspectional reading involves systematically skimming the contents of a book to rapidly identify its main points. By doing this first, we can later read each chapter with a better understanding of the larger context into which it fits. It’s also useful for quickly determining whether a book is worth reading at all. Not every book has something of value to offer us, and we only have time to read a tiny fraction of those that do.

To conduct an inspectional reading, first look at the title and subtitle. Be careful not to bring any preconceptions about what the book is about. What, exactly, do they say?

Next, study the table of contents. This is a topical arrangement of the material. It indicates the structure of the book and provides an idea of what the main points are and the order in which they will be developed.

Then look at the index. This is an alphabetical arrangement of the material. Words with many references likely represent the key concepts discussed in the book. This gives us an idea of what’s most important to the author.

Read the preface if there is one. This ought to provide a high-level summary of the material that will be covered in the book. Supplement with the publisher’s blurb. Although generally promotional in nature, it can still provide insight into what exactly the book is about.

Finally, look for what appear to be the pivotal chapters of the book and scan their beginning and end for summaries of the points made therein.

Analytical reading

Analytical reading is the process of reading a book in depth, from beginning to end. It involves first understanding what the author is saying, then deciding whether we agree.

What is it about?

The first stage of analytical reading is developing an understanding of what the book is about. This requires us to:

“1. Classify the book according to kind and subject matter.

2. State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity.

3. Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole.

4. Define the problem or problems the author has tried to solve.”

An inspectional reading will have already provided the answers to most of these questions.

When classifying a book, we should consider whether the work is theoretical or practical:

“Theoretical books teach you that something is the case. Practical books teach you how to do something you want to do or think you should do.”

When looking for the structure of the book, it can be helpful to keep in mind the reciprocal relationship between reading and writing:

“The reader tries to uncover the skeleton that the book conceals. The author starts with the skeleton and tries to cover it up. His aim is to conceal the skeleton artistically or, in other words, to put flesh on the bare bones. If he is a good writer, he does not bury a puny skeleton under a mass of fat; on the other hand, neither should the flesh be too thin, so that the bones show through.”

What is being said?

The second stage of analytical reading involves interpreting the book’s contents:

“5. Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words.

6. Grasp the author’s leading propositions by dealing with his most important sentences.

7. Know the author’s arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences.

8. Determine which of his problems the author has solved, and which he has not; and of the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve.”

The first step is to identify the terms the author uses. These are the words used with a specific meaning. Often these are the most frequently referenced words in the index.

Next, we look for the propositions that the author constructs from these terms. These are single sentences, either premises or conclusions, that constitute declarations of knowledge or opinion that provide the answers to the questions the author is trying to answer. Knowledge can be distinguished from opinion by the presence of supporting reasons.

“Unless we are exclusively interested in the author’s personality, we should not be satisfied with knowing what his opinions are. His propositions are nothing but expressions of personal opinion unless they are supported by reasons. If it is the book and the subject with which it deals that we are interested in, and not just the author, we want to know not merely what his propositions are, but also why he thinks we should be persuaded to accept them.”

The author’s arguments are contained in collections of sentences that include his propositions. These sentences may be contiguous, within the same paragraph, or spread throughout the book, in which case we may need to construct the argument for ourselves. Every argument must start with either an assumption or a fact that the author holds to be self-evident. The author may or may not make these explicit.

We can either search for the terms and work up to the propositions and arguments, or we can look for the arguments and from them work down to the propositions and terms.

Searching for collections of sentences with a defined beginning and end is one way to find the author’s propositions. To be sure we have understood them, we should state them in our own words, and try to provide an example, preferably from our own experience.

Books that increase our understanding of the world, by definition, teach us something new. Because of this, another way to identify the author’s key terms, propositions and arguments can be to look for the material that we find difficult to understand.

Is it true?

The third stage of analytical reading requires deciding whether we agree with what the author has said. In doing so, we should abide by the following rules of intellectual etiquette:

“9. Do not begin criticism until you have completed your outline and your interpretation of the book. (Do not say you agree, disagree, or suspend judgment , until you can say “I understand.”)

10. Do not disagree disputatiously or contentiously.

11. Demonstrate that you recognize the difference between knowledge and mere personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgment you make.”

Point 9 is crucial:

“To agree without understanding is inane. To disagree without understanding is impudent.”

If we are going to criticise the author, we must:

“12. Show wherein the author is uninformed.

13. Show wherein the author is misinformed.

14. Show wherein the author is illogical.

15. Show wherein the author’s analysis or account is incomplete.”

If we can show that the author is uninformed (he lacks relevant knowledge), misinformed (he made a faulty assertion), or illogical (his conclusions do not follow from his reasons, or he has been inconsistent), we can disagree with his conclusions. However, we must give our reasons for doing so, otherwise we are mistaking our opinion for fact.

We should also be sure that we are disagreeing with the book’s conclusions, not its assumptions. The analysis of a book is about determining whether an author’s conclusions follow from his assumptions, not whether the assumptions themselves are valid.

If we can show that the author’s analysis is incomplete, we may suspend judgement on his conclusions.

If we cannot disagree or suspend judgement, however, then we must agree with the author. Note the “must”. We may not like his conclusions, but unless we can show where the author’s analysis was faulty or incomplete, we are bound to agree with them nonetheless.

What of it?

Finally we must consider the implications of what we have read:

“If the book has given you information , you must ask about its significance. Why does the author think it is important to know these things? Is it important to you to know them? And if the book has not only informed you , but also enlightened you, it is necessary to seek further enlightenment by asking what else follows, what is further implied or suggested.”

If we are reading a practical book, and we agree with the author, then we have an obligation to act upon what we have read.

Syntopical reading

Beyond inspectional and analytical reading is another level of reading that the authors term syntopical reading. This is the process of reading more than one book on a particular subject in order to obtain a broader understanding of that subject.

Preparing for this requires drawing up a shortlist of potentially relevant books, then performing an inspectional reading of all of them. The latter helps us to determine which are actually relevant, as well as clarifying what our subject actually is, something that’s not always simple.

Next we must actually read the books we have identified. Although the skills of analytical reading are still important when reading syntopically, analytical reading is primarily about how to read a single book with the goal of understanding what its author is trying to say. In syntopical reading, however, the goal is to address our concerns. Thus we do not simply read every book on our shortlist analytically. Instead:

“1. Inspect the books already identified as relevant to your subject… in order to find the most relevant passages.

2. Bring the authors to terms by constructing a neutral terminology of the subject that all, or the great majority, of the authors can be interpreted as employing , whether they actually employ the words or not.

3. Establish a set of neutral propositions for all of the authors by framing a set of questions to which all or most of the authors can be interpreted as giving answers, whether they actually treat the questions explicitly or not.

4. Define the issues, both major and minor ones, by ranging the opposing answers of authors to the various questions on one side of an issue or another. You should remember that an issue does not always exist explicitly between or among authors, but that it sometimes has to be constructed by interpretation of the authors’ views on matters that may not have been their primary concern.

5. Analyze the discussion by ordering the questions and issues in such a way as to throw maximum light on the subject. More general issues should precede less general ones, and relations among issues should be clearly indicated.”

The goal is to look at all sides, but take none:

“The aim of a project of syntopical reading is not final answers to the questions that are developed in the course of it, or the final solution of the problem with which the project began. This is particularly true of the report we might try to make of such syntopical reading. It would be dogmatic, not dialectical, if, on any of the important issues that it identified and analyzed, it asserted or tried to prove the truth or falsity of any view. If it did that, the syntopical analysis would cease to be syntopical; it would become simply one more voice in the discussion”

Avoiding explicit judgements, however, isn’t sufficient:

“Partiality can intrude in a variety of subtle ways—by the manner in which arguments are summarized, by shades of emphasis and neglect, by the tone of a question or the color of a passing remark, and by the order in which the various different answers to key questions are presented.”

Adler and Van Doren have a solution, however:

“In order to avoid some of these dangers , the conscientious syntopical reader… must constantly refer back to the actual text of his authors, reading the relevant passages over and over; and, in presenting the results of his work to a wider audience, he must quote the opinion or argument of an author in the writer’s own language.

How to Read a Book provides an invaluable framework for anyone who reads for wisdom, understanding and enlightenment.

What is Love?

There is a fascinating aside in How To Read A Book, in which Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren discuss what is meant by the word “love”.

Even once the authors have whittled down the definition, for the purposes of their example, to love between two human beings, the meaning of the word remains difficult to pin down.

Is love about what you can get for yourself, or what you can give to others?

“You would find, for instance, that love is said by some writers to consist wholly in acquisitive desire, usually sexual desire; that is, love is merely a name for the attraction that almost all animals feel toward members of the opposite sex. But you would also find other authors who maintain that love, properly speaking, contains no acquisitive desire whatever , and consists in pure benevolence. Do acquisitive desire and benevolence have anything in common, considering that acquisitive desire always implies wanting some good for oneself, while benevolence implies wanting a good for someone else?”

Is love an intellectual act rather than an emotional one?

“At least acquisitive desire and benevolence share a common note of tendency, of desire in some very abstract sense of the term. But your investigation of the literature of the subject would soon uncover writers who conceive of the essence of love as being cognitive rather than appetitive. Love, these writers maintain, is an intellectual act, not an emotional one. In other words, knowing that another person is admirable always precedes desiring him or her, in either of the two senses of desire. Such authors do not deny that desire enters into the picture, but they do deny that desire should be called love.”

Even if we just focus on romantic love, what exactly do we mean by that?

“Is the love that a man and woman have for each other the same when they are courting as when they are married, the same when they are in their twenties as when they are in their seventies?”

Are there different kinds of familial love? If so, how are they different?

“Is the love that a woman has for her husband the same as that she has for her children? Does a mother’s love for her children change as they grow up? Is the love of a brother for his sister the same as his love for his father? Does a child’s love for its parents change as he or she grows?”

What’s the difference between love and friendship?

“Is the love that a man has for a woman, either his wife or some other, the same as the friendship he feels for another man, and does it make a difference what relationship he has with the man— such as one with whom he goes bowling, one with whom he works, and one whose intellectual company he enjoys? Does the fact that “love” and “friendship” are different words mean that the emotions they name (if that is in fact what they name) differ? Can two men of different ages be friends? Can they be friends if they are markedly different in some other respect, such as possession of wealth or degree of intelligence? Can women be friends at all? Can brothers and sisters be friends, or brother and brother, or sister and sister? Can you retain a friendship with someone you either borrow money from or lend it to? It not, why not?”

Can we love someone very different from ourselves, or someone we have never met?

“If humanoid robots existed, could human beings love them? If we discovered intelligent beings on Mars or some other planet, could we love them? Can we love someone we have never met, like a movie star or the President?

To these, I’d add my own question: is love a feeling or, as Stephen Covey asserts in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, a verb, something that we choose to do?

The authors don’t provide any answers. They’re simply making the point that if you read for insight on a given subject, it can be more difficult than you might think to identify exactly what that subject is.

Nevertheless, they’re fascinating questions and I’d very much like to read some books that explore them further. If you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comments.

On Mindfulness

In our lives, we are all trying to do two things: find happiness and avoid suffering.

Typically, we do this by trying to get and hang on to the things we think will give us pleasure and avoid the things we think will cause us pain. When we find someone we love, we marry them. When we see a new gadget, we rush out to buy it. When we find a neighbourhood we like, we buy a house there. 

Despite this, however, we often find ourselves dissatisfied. Our partner’s mannerisms, once endearing, become annoying. Our phone, once perfectly adequate, suddenly seems too small. A noisy family moves in next door. If only we had a more understanding partner, or that new iPhone, or we lived somewhere else, then we would be happy, we think.

Yet even if we get these things, our happiness is only short-lived. There are no perfect people, places to live, or phones. Before long we become dissatisfied again, and new “if only”s take the place of the old.

Escaping this cycle requires becoming comfortable with where we are right now. How can we do that?

Why we suffer

First, we need to understand why we suffer.

You might think we suffer when something bad happens to us. However that’s not exactly true. We don't suffer because of the situation. It's our opinions about that situation that cause us to suffer.

For example, being stuck in a traffic jam is not inherently bad. It just means we are moving more slowly than usual along a particular stretch of road. Only when we allow ourselves to get frustrated, and start thinking about the fact that we’re now going to be late for work, and that this means we’re going to miss an important meeting with our client, do we become unhappy.

The distinction may seem pedantic, but it’s crucial. It means we can reduce the suffering we experience by changing the way we respond to a situation. As Viktor Frankl observed in Man’s Search For Meaning, subsequently echoed by Stephen Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, there is a gap between stimulus and response into which we are able to step.

However, even if we agree that this gap exists and that we can use it to choose a response that will cause us less suffering, being able to do it is another thing entirely. Perhaps we can manage it when we’re stuck in traffic, but what about a more challenging situation – being left by our spouse, for example?

Fortunately, there is a tool that is designed to help us do this: mindfulness.

What mindfulness is

Mindfulness is simply the non-judgmental observation of whatever is going on in the present moment. That can be an experience (say, the feeling of the wind blowing in your hair), a thought (“I wonder what I’ll have for dinner tonight”) or an emotion (“That guy is an idiot!”).

By observing it, we distance ourselves from it. This can help us avoid getting sucked into a train of thought that, at best, distracts us from what’s going on, or, at worst, leads to us obsessing over something over which we have no control. This distance is the very gap between stimulus and response to which Frankl was referring. By consciously creating and enlarging this distance, it becomes easier for us to acknowledge what is happening while refusing to become entangled in what we think and feel about it. It allows us to respond to the situation instead of reacting to it.

In particular, when we experience a painful situation, mindfulness means being unafraid to look directly at it and experience it as it is, instead of trying to avoid it. As Pema Chodron memorably puts it in When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice For Difficult Times we should:

"...acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of shit and not be squeamish about taking a good look... We could smell that piece of shit. We could feel it; what is its texture, color, and shape?"

Mindfulness also means not becoming caught up in positive experiences, thoughts or emotions. We should enjoy them when they arise, certainly, but take care to not crave their continuation. When a positive experience ends, as they all inevitably must, we will feel sadness and loss in direct proportion to the strength of our attachment to that experience.

What mindfulness is not

Mindfulness is not about analysing our experiences, thoughts and emotions. It’s not about suppressing them, or denying them, or even reappraising them to see them in a different, more constructive way. It is purely about observing them, then seeing what happens.

Mindfulness is not indifference. If we are indifferent to something, we don't care about it. It implies a degree of apathy. When we are mindful, however, we do care. Mindfulness does not remove our responsibility to act if a situation can be changed, but it encourages us to accept those situations that cannot. After all, if a situation cannot be changed, what is achieved by obsessing over it?

Mindfulness is not about being emotionless. Joy and sadness are entirely appropriate in certain situations. If a loved one died, it would be dysfunctional for us to not feel sad. Mindfulness is simply about not letting those feelings of sadness overwhelm us. As a result, writes Charlotte Beck in Everyday Zen:

"If we can accept things just the way they are, we’re not going to be greatly upset by anything. And if we do become upset it’s over more quickly."

Developing mindfulness

Like playing an instrument, mindfulness is a learned skill. And like playing an instrument, where we must practice our scales before we can play in a concert, mindfulness requires practice too.

Meditation is the formal practice of mindfulness. It allows us to improve our skill so it becomes easier to apply mindfulness in the heat of everyday life. As exercise strengthens our muscles, meditation strengthens our ability to be mindful.

There is nothing complex about meditation. The most common way of meditating is to sit still and focus on a single thing. Often this focus is our breath, flowing in and out of our body. As we sit, our mind invariably becomes distracted and we start thinking about something else. When we realise that our attention has drifted, we gently label the thought (like brushing a crystal glass with a feather), then patiently return our attention to the breath. This is not a problem. We don't beat ourselves up when it happens. Indeed, being distracted, then returning our attention to the breath, over and over and over again, is the entire point.

Meditation does not have to be a big time commitment. Just ten minutes per day can make a difference. Even though meditating is a simple procedure, having an instructor talk you through what to do during the session can be helpful. For this, I’ve found the guided meditations offered by Headspace to be excellent.


While meditation is important for helping to develop mindfulness, it's important to remember that this is just practice. The goal remains to be mindful in everyday life.

Mindfulness is not a panacea. It is a process of gradually retraining the mind to respond to the change inherent in life in a more constructive way. As Dan Harris says, it might make you 10% happier. That's good enough for me.

Social Pain

In Your Brain At Work, David Rock suggests that social exclusion feels physically painful because it’s processed by the same brain regions as physical pain.

He cites research performed by Naomi Eisenberger, a social neuroscientist at the University of California on what happens when we feel socially excluded:

“What we found is that when people were excluded, you see activity in the dorsal portion of the anterior cingulate cortex, which is the neural region that’s also involved in the distressing component of pain, or what sometimes people call the ‘suffering component’ of pain. Those people who felt the most rejected had the highest levels of activity in this region.”

Eisenberger goes into more detail about her research in a fascinating interview with Edge.

If the processing of physical and social pain are linked, does this mean that those who are more sensitive to physical pain are more sensitive to social rejection too?

“We found that subjects who, at baseline, are naturally more sensitive to physical pain are the ones who later on report feeling more rejected where they get excluded.

We've also seen some genetic evidence for this. We find that people who carry the more rare version of the mu-opioid gene, which is linked to a greater sensitivity to physical pain, are individuals who have a genetic disposition to be more sensitive to physical pain. These are the same individuals who report feeling more upset by social rejection; they show greater pain related neural activity in response to social exclusion.”

What about painkillers? Does this mean they can suppress social pain too?

“One of the most interesting studies we've done is one where we looked at acetaminophen. We typically think of acetaminophen as a physical painkiller. In this particular study, we randomly assigned people to either take it everyday for two weeks or take a placebo everyday for two weeks. Instead of measuring their physical pain, we measured their social pain. We asked them each evening to rate their hurt feelings. We also then brought them in at the end of a separate study to look at their neural sensitivity to social exclusion. What we found is that the people who were taking acetaminophen reported less hurt feelings than people who were taking placebo, and they showed less pain related activity to social exclusion, just as a function of taking acetaminophen.”

Eisenberger has also studied social connectedness. Because we often talk about these as “warm” feelings, she decided to investigate whether they activated the same brain regions that process temperature.

“To look at physical warmth, we have them holding onto one of those warm packs that athletes will use where they crack them open and shake them up and it produces warmth in the packet. We scanned people when they were holding warm packs and a neutral temperature pack, and we also scanned them while they were experiencing social warmth. To do this we had the participants’ family members and friends, before the scanning session, write email messages to the participants. These were loving, tender messages that the subjects saw for the first time when they were in the fMRI scanner…

Some of the same regions that are processing physical warmth and the pleasantness of that sensory experience were the same ones processing the social warmth that people are getting from these loving messages.”

Good social relationships are widely believed to be important for health. The common perception is that this is because of the support we receive from these relationships. However, Eisenberger’s research has shown that the ability to offer support to others may be just as important.

“So we ran a study where we brought in couples, and the female member of the couple was in the fMRI scanner, and essentially we scanned her brain while she was providing support to her partner. Her partner stood just outside of the fMRI scanner, and on certain trials he received electric shock. The female could support him on some trials by holding his arm as he went through this experience…

There were two main findings here. The first is that we saw reward-related activity when people were providing support to somebody else… We actually saw more reward-related activity when the females were touching their partners when they were getting pain—when they were support-giving—compared to when they were just touching their partners and their partners weren't getting pain. It seems like maybe there was something more rewarding about being able to provide support than just being able to be in physical contact with your partner when they're not going through anything negative.

The last interesting finding was that the females who showed more reward-related activity when they were support-giving were also the ones who showed less activity in the amygdala. This is a region that's involved in a lot of different things, but one of the things that it's involved in is processing threat…

The idea here is that to the extent that we're in a caregiving situation, we need to remain calm… There may be something about caregiving that actually turns down our own internal stress level so that we can engage and provide adaptive help to others.”

So next time you’re feeling rejected, take some painkillers, pull on a warm sweater, and find someone else to help.

How to Negotiate

Everyone is a negotiator. Whether we’re deciding what to do on the weekend with our spouse, discussing chores or homework with our children, or asking for a raise at work, we need to make deals with others almost every day.

We may not be particularly good at it, however. We state our position, the other side states theirs, then we come to some compromise that lies along the line between the two. In Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, Roger Fisher and William Ury explain the limitations of this approach:

“All too often negotiators end up like the proverbial children who quarrelled over an orange. After they finally agreed to divide the orange in half, the first child took one half, ate the fruit, and threw away the peel, while the other threw away the fruit and used the peel from the second half in baking a cake.”

By focusing on positions we lose sight of what each side actually wants. Haggling back and forth is a slow, inefficient process. It’s hard to abandon positions to which we have previously committed without losing losing face and feeling resentful.

Instead, the authors propose an approach that focuses on identifying interests, generating options, and using objective criteria to resolve conflicts, dealing with people problems separately from the issue under discussion. The goal is to reach a fair, durable agreement that satisfies everyone’s interests, while improving the relationship – or at least, not damaging it.

Identify interests

Instead of arguing over positions (statements of what we want) Fisher and Ury advocate looking for the interests that underlie those positions (the reasons why we want what we want).

Interests fall into three categories: shared interests (objectives that both sides have in common), conflicting interests (objectives that are opposed to each other) and differing interests (objectives that are neither shared nor in conflict).

Interests are easier to reconcile than positions. Each interest may have multiple positions that satisfy it, and behind every opposed position may be several shared or differing interests, not only conflicting ones.

To determine interests, we should ask why the other side hold the positions that they do, and why they should not do so. What basic needs – status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, fairness – are they trying to satisfy? If their interests are monetary, why is that money so important to them?

To identify shared interests

“Ask yourself: Do we have a shared interest in preserving our relationship? What opportunities lie ahead for cooperation and mutual benefit? What costs would we bear if negotiations broke off? Are there common principles, like a fair price, that we both can respect?”

To identify differing interests

“Look for items that are of low cost to you and high benefit to them, and vice versa. Differences in interests, priorities, beliefs, forecasts and attitudes toward risk all make dovetailing possible.”

Reaching agreement is much harder unless we understand the other side’s interests first.

Generate options

The next step is to brainstorm multiple solutions that might satisfy their interests and our own.

Shared interests should be handled by making them explicit and formulating them as shared goals. Repeatedly emphasising them during the course of negotiations can help keep things amicable.

Differing interests are often key to generating solutions that enable both sides get what they want. In the example with the orange, one child was interested in the peel, the other in the fruit. Agreements are often possible because the two sides want different things.

One way to generate options is to start with the problem we are trying to solve, then analyse it to look for causes. From there, we look for broad theoretical approaches that might address these, then look for concrete action ideas to put these approaches into practice.


It’s also possible to start with an existing action idea and work back to the general approach of which it is one example. From there, we can look for other action ideas suggested by the same general approach. Or step back further and ask what other kinds of problem could be addressed by the same approach, then work forward to identify new approaches and action ideas.

It can also be useful to generate options of different strengths, with weaker options as alternatives should a stronger one prove unpalatable.

It’s important to ensure that the options will satisfy the other side’s interests as well as our own. It’s a mistake to think that “solving their problem is their problem”:

“Since success for you in a negotiation depends upon the other side’s making a decision you want, you should do what you can to make that decision an easy one.”

Solutions that are fair, legal and honourable are easier to accept, as are those that are consistent with agreements they have made before. We should understand what the consequences will be to them if they adopt our proposal, and strive to improve those consequences for them.

The ability to invent options is one of the most valuable skills that a negotiator can have.

Use objective criteria to resolve conflicts

The best way to deal with conflicting interests is to use objective criteria to resolve the disagreement.

“The more you bring standards of fairness, efficiency, or scientific merit to bear on your particular problem, the more likely you are to produce a final package that is wise and fair. The more you and the other side refer to precedent and community practice, the greater your chance of benefiting from past experience. And an agreement consistent with precedent is less vulnerable to attack.”

Engaging in a battle of wills over conflicting positions can damage the relationship. Standards make it easier to back down.

“What makes conceding particularly difficult is having to accept someone else’s proposal. If they suggested the standard, their deferring to it is not an act of weakness but an act of strength, of carrying out their word.”

Objective criteria can either be fair standards by which an agreement will be evaluated (such as market value, depreciated cost, moral standards or precedent) or fair procedures that can be followed (such as taking turns, drawing lots or letting someone else decide).

“Consider, for example, the age-old way to divide a piece of cake between two children: one cuts and the other chooses. Neither can complain about an unfair division.”

We should frame each issue as a joint search for an objective standard, but keep an open mind about what that standard should be:

“Insisting that an agreement be based on objective criteria does not mean insisting that it be based solely on the criterion you advance. One standard of legitimacy does not preclude the existence of others. What the other side believes to be fair may not be what you believe to be fair…

When each party is advancing a different standard, look for an objective basis for deciding between them, such as which standard has been used by the parties in the past or which standard is more widely applied.”

Never yield to pressure:

“Pressure can take many forms: a bribe, a threat, a manipulative appeal to trust, or a simple refusal to budge. In all these cases, the principled response is the same: invite them to state their reasoning, suggest objective criteria you think apply, and refuse to budge except on this basis.”

Know your BATNA

To counter the risk of accepting an agreement that should be rejected, we may set a bottom line before starting a negotiation. The problem with bottom lines, however, is that they tend to be arbitrary and, by definition, inflexible. They may be overly optimistic about what it is possible to achieve (causing us to reject a proposal we should accept), or overly pessimistic (causing us to accept a proposal we should reject).

A better approach is to judge every proposal against our BATNA – our Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement. Our BATNA is what we would do if no agreement was reached. The stronger our BATNA, the easier it is for us to walk away, so the stronger our hand.

We should be careful when determining our BATNA:

“One frequent mistake is psychologically to see your alternatives in the aggregate. You may be telling yourself that if you do not reach agreement on a salary for this job, you could always go to California, or go south, or go back to school, or write, or work on a farm, or live in Paris, or do something else. In your mind you are likely to find the sum of these alternatives more attractive than working for a specific salary in a particular job. The difficulty is that you cannot have the sum total of all those other alternatives; if you fail to reach agreement, you will have to choose just one.”

If a proposal is less attractive than what we would actually do in the absence of an agreement, we should reject it. If it’s more attractive, we should consider accepting it.

But remember:

“You should not expect success in negotiation unless you are able to make the other side an offer they find more attractive than their BATNA.”

If both sides have good BATNAs it may be better for both to not reach agreement.

Handle people problems separately

Negotiators are people. They can get angry, fearful and sad. They may misinterpret things that are said, overreact, or take things personally. They may mistake their perception for reality.

Fisher and Ury advocate handling these people problems separately from the main issue, by changing the way we treat the other side rather than making concessions.

"Making an unjustified concession now is unlikely to make it easier to deal with future differences. You may think that next time it is their turn to make a concession; they are likely to believe that if they are stubborn enough you will again give in.”

People problems fall into three categories: perception, emotion and communication.

Dealing with perception problems requires us to put ourselves into the other side’s shoes and look at the problem as they see it. We should avoid letting our fears cause us to makes assumptions about their intentions. Perceptions should be discussed openly, and we should look for opportunities to act inconsistently with theirs. We should take care to involve the other side in the process so they feel that they have a stake in it.

Emotions should be explicitly recognised and  acknowledged as legitimate. We should understand where they are coming from and encourage the other side to vent, while refusing to be drawn in to an argument. Symbolic gestures may help.

Communication problems arise when one side is not listening, one side is not talking, or there are misunderstandings about what is being said. The solution is to seek first to understand, then to be understood. When listening, we should be able to explain the other side’s point of view as well as they can, even though we may not agree with it. When talking, we should avoid focusing on what they did, instead explaining its impact on us.

Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In
 is a short but dense book, packed with practical advice on how to reach wise agreements.

Robert Cialdini on Influence

In Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini describes the powerful mechanisms that can be exploited to get people to say “yes”, and how to defend ourselves against them. First published 30 years ago, it’s still considered one of the best books on the subject. After reading it, Warren Buffet’s partner at Berkshire Hathaway, Charlie Munger, was so impressed that he gave Cialdini a share of Berkshire stock as thanks.

Click whirr

Cialdini starts by explaining that every animal, including us, has certain automatic patterns of behaviour that are triggered in response to a specific stimulus. If a new-born turkey chick makes a “cheep-cheep” sound, its mother will care for it. If not, she will ignore it and may even kill it. Other features of the chick – its smell or appearance – are largely irrelevant. These patterns of behaviour are so consistent it’s as if they’re recorded on tapes in the animals.

“When the situation calls for courtship, the courtship tape gets played; when the situation calls for mothering, the maternal-behaviour tape gets played. Click and the appropriate tape is activated; whirr and out rolls the standard sequence of behaviours.”

Weapons of influence

We have our own powerful click whirr behaviours. Cialdini calls these “weapons of influence” because although they mostly serve us well, simplifying our decisions and providing shortcuts through life, they can also be exploited to get us to do things we might not want to do. Anyone who knows how to trigger them can use their power against us, like jujitsu, using minimal effort. They provide the ability to manipulate without the appearance of manipulation.

For example, when we ask someone to do a favour for us, we’re more likely to get a positive response if we provide a reason, regardless of what that reason is. If we see an expensive item, we instinctively consider it to be of higher quality, whether that’s actually true or not.

Another weapon is the contrast principle, which describes how we view two things presented one after another. Provided they are sufficiently different, we tend to see the second thing as more different than it actually is. A heavy object seems heavier if we have picked up a light object first. The contrast principle is closely related to anchoring bias, our tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information that we receive when making decisions.

Cialdini devotes the rest of the book to an in-depth look at six other weapons of influence: reciprocation, commitment and consistency, social proof, liking, authority and scarcity.

1. Reciprocation

The reciprocity principle describes our desire to repay the favours that others do for us. This sense of obligation is so strong it can overcome other factors, such as not liking the person we are indebted to, and can make us willing to give back more than we have received.

Thus, if we want someone to do something, we can increase the chance of them agreeing by doing a small favour for them first. They need not have requested this, and because we get to choose both the initial favour and the subsequent request, we can set up an unequal exchange if we are so inclined. Because there is strong social pressure to accept a gift, it is very hard for the other person to refuse the initial favour, even if they suspect they are being manipulated. This makes it very easy to put people in our debt.

The rejection-then-retreat technique is a specific example of this. Someone starts by asking us for far more than he wants then, if rejected, offers a concession, retreating to a position that reflects what he actually wants. By offering a concession, he engages both the contrast principle and the reciprocity principle, creating pressure on us to offer a concession in return. Moreover, we are likely to feel that our actions caused the concession, increasing our commitment to and satisfaction with the deal. Alternatively, should we accept his initial offer, he has gained more than he would have settled for.

We can resist the reciprocity principle by considering whether a favour done or a gift offered was genuine. If we decide it was not, we can remove the sense of obligation by mentally reclassifying it as an action designed to obtain compliance, then accept the gift or favour anyway. Since the reciprocity principle demands that an action be repaid in kind, we should have no qualms responding to an act of exploitation by exploiting it!

2. Commitment and Consistency

We have a strong desire to act in ways that are consistent with what we have previously said or done. Commitment is the click that produces the whirr of the consistency tape.

“If I can get you to make a commitment (that is, to take a stand, to go on record), I will have set the stage for your automatic and ill-considered consistency with that earlier commitment. Once a stand is taken, there is a natural tendency to behave in ways that are stubbornly consistent with the stand.”

Commitments can also change our self-image, which can in turn lead us to naturally comply with a range of other requests consistent with this new view of ourselves. Cialdini describes an experiment where people were asked to sign a petition that favoured “keeping California beautiful”. Almost everyone signed. Two weeks later the same people were asked to allow a large “Drive Carefully” sign to be placed on their lawns. Around 50% agreed, far more than the 17% who agreed to the same request when it was not preceded by the request to sign the petition. According to the researchers who conducted the experiment:

“What may occur is a change in the person’s feelings about getting involved or taking action. Once he has agreed to a request, his attitude may change, he may become, in his own eyes, the kind of person who does this sort of thing, who agrees to requests made by strangers, who takes action on things he believes in, who cooperates with good causes.”

Others decide what kind of a person we are by looking at what we do. We do the same when evaluating ourselves.

Commitments also have a tendency to grow legs, as we look for additional reasons to justify our decision to make them. Even if the original reason is removed, these other reasons may be enough to ensure our behaviour remains unchanged. For example, a car salesman may offer a very good price on a car, only to deftly remove it after the customer has agreed to the purchase. Perhaps an “error” was discovered in the calculations or he says he was overridden by his boss. In many cases the customer will go through with the purchase anyway, having constructed other reasons as to why it makes sense in the interim.

Commitments are more effective when they are active, made public, involve effort and are made in the absence of strong outside pressures. A large reward or a strong threat may extract immediate compliance but it inhibits us from accepting responsibility for our actions, the key to creating long-term commitment. Worth remembering if you are a parent.

To determine when a foolish consistency is leading us astray we need to look out for two warning signs. The first is the feeling we get in our stomach when we know we are being taken. The second is the flash of emotion we feel when we ask ourselves the question, “Knowing what I know now, would I still have done what I did?” (before rationalisation and self-justification kick in). If the answer is “no” we should immediately press stop on the consistency tape.

3. Social Proof

Social proof is our tendency to look at what other people are doing in order to decide how to react to a situation. We determine what is correct by looking at what other people think is correct.

We typically turn to social proof when we are uncertain or the situation is unclear. We are most swayed by those we perceive as being similar to ourselves.

Social proof can lead to a phenomenon known as “pluralistic ignorance”, however. Others may be thinking or acting the way they are not because they have access to superior insight or information, but because they have observed others thinking or acting that way too. This explains the “bystander effect”, where individuals do not help in an emergency situation when other people are present. Because we like to look unflustered in public, and because we are unfamiliar with how to interpret the reactions of people we don’t know, we are unlikely to give off or correctly read expressions of concern when in a group of strangers. Thus, in an emergency situation bystanders may not help because they are uncertain if an emergency exists and they are unsure whether they are responsible for taking action.

To resist the effects of social proof we should look out for situations where social evidence has been purposely falsified. In addition, we should always compare the social evidence with the supporting facts, our prior experiences and our own judgements.

4. Liking

Simply put, we are more inclined to do things for people we like. Liking can be triggered by several things:

Physical attractiveness. This can dominate the way someone is viewed by others. We automatically, subconsciously assign positive characteristics such as talent, kindness, honesty and intelligence to good-looking people. Both sexes respond in the same way.

Similarity. Whether in opinions, background, personality, interests, dress or lifestyle, we like those who are, or appear to be, most similar to ourselves.

Compliments. It is very hard to stop ourselves liking someone who likes us. Praise does not even have to be true to be effective.

“Actor McLean Stevenson once described how his wife tricked him into marriage: “She said she liked me.” Although designed for a laugh, the remark is as much instructive as humorous. The information that someone fancies us can be a bewitchingly effective device for producing return liking and willing compliance.”

Familiarity. Repeated exposure to something causes liking, often subconsciously, as long as the exposure is under pleasant conditions. Under unpleasant conditions, the opposite is true.

Co-operation. Working together to achieve a goal produces liking. This is powerful enough to reverse previous dislike.

Association with good things. An innocent association with bad or good things will influence how people feel about us, as the imperial messengers of old Persia could testify when they brought news of a battlefield defeat. This explains why people are often judged by the company they keep, why we describe the sports team we support using “we” when they’re winning and “they” when they’re losing, and why companies often try to associate their products with the current zeitgeist. It also explains why we sometimes inflate the successes of others we are associated with, such as our spouse or children.

To detect whether someone is using liking to manipulate us we need to step back and ask ourselves whether we like the person more than we really should, under the circumstances. If so, we need to mentally separate our views of the person from what they are asking us to do.

5. Authority

We are conditioned from an early age to accede to the requests of those in positions of authority, be they policemen, teachers, governments or a knowledgeable sommelier.

So strong is this conditioning that we will willingly go to extreme lengths to comply. Cialdini describes a chilling experiment conducted by Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University. It was designed to test the willingness of participants (the “Teachers”) to administer a series of escalating electric shocks to another person, on the instructions of a lab-coated researcher. The victim was actually an actor, and the shocks were not real, but the participants did not know this. About two thirds of them continued to the end of the experiment (administering a “shock” of 450 volts), despite the agonised screams of the victim and his pleas for them to stop.

“I observed a mature and initially poised businessman enter the laboratory smiling and confident. Within twenty minutes he was reduced to a twitching, stuttering wreck who was rapidly approaching a point of nervous collapse. He constantly pulled on his earlobe and twisted his hands. At one point he pushed his fist into his forehead and muttered: “Oh God, let’s stop it.” And yet he continued to respond to every word of the experimenter and obeyed to the end.”

Why did Milgram believe obedience to authority was the explanation for this frightening result?

“In a later study he had the researcher and victim switch scripts so that the researcher told the Teacher to stop delivering the shocks to the victim, while the victim insisted bravely that the Teacher continue. The result couldn’t have been clearer; 100 percent of the subjects refused to give one additional shock when it was merely the fellow subject who demanded it. The identical finding appeared in another version of the experiment in which the researcher and fellow subject switched roles so that it was the researcher who was strapped into the chair and the fellow subject who ordered the Teacher to continue – over the protests of the researcher. Again, not one subject touched another shock lever.”

Obedience to authority does not even require that the person actually be a genuine authority figure. It can be triggered merely by the symbols and trappings of authority, such as a title or clothing, even when we know these are not real.

Thus when an authority figure attempts to influence us, the first thing to do is ask ourselves if they actually have any authority or expertise. Even if they do, we should then ask ourselves if they have anything to gain. Someone seeking to influence us may even appear to act against their own interest on a small issue, to establish their honesty, so that we are more likely to trust them on a larger one. For example, a waiter may advise against choosing a dish that is supposedly not good that evening, recommending an alternative that is a little cheaper, in order that we are more likely to trust his recommendation of an expensive bottle of wine.

6. Scarcity

We value things that are scarce, unavailable, or soon to become unavailable more highly than those things that are not. We value things that have recently become unavailable highest of all. Our desire can be increased further if there is competition for the object.

Thus, artificially restricting the availability or apparent availability of an object is a sure-fire way of persuading us to want it more. Signs saying “only 2 left in stock” and limited-time sales are two examples of how companies leverage this to persuade us to buy more.

The scarcity principle applies to information as well as things:

“Almost invariably, our response to the banning of information is a greater desire to receive that information and a more favourable attitude toward it than before the ban…

[However] we can see that information may not have to be censored for us to value it more; it need only be scarce. According to the scarcity principle, then, we will find a piece of information more persuasive if we think we can’t get it elsewhere.”

Something to bear in mind when reading an “exclusive” newspaper scoop.

We rationalise our heighted desire for a scarce object by assigning positive qualities to the thing. We instinctively assume that if we want something it must be because of its merits. Should we acquire the object, however, we do not enjoy it more because it was hard to get.

Thus, if we seek something simply for the sake of owning it, scarcity-induced desire will give us a reasonable indication of how much we value it. However, if we seek something in order to able to use that thing, we should be careful that its scarcity does not cause us to overvalue it. The key to resisting scarcity pressures, then, rests on us recognising our heightened state of arousal and asking ourselves why we want the thing.

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion is a terrific guide to persuading others and resisting being persuaded by them.