Saturday, May 2, 2009

Will Pessimism Bring You Happiness?

Alain de Botton is the current master of pop philosophy. By liberally borrowing from the great sages of the past, he has written a series of popular books about how we should live our lives.

Full disclosure: I have not read a single one of them.

Have I been missing anything?

That question was lurking in my mind when I was reading de Botton's article, "For a Happier Life, Shake Off Your Misplaced Optimism," in the Financial Times. Link here.

This would not be a very bad piece of advice, if de Botton had left it at that. Unfortunately, he takes his idea a few steps too far and advises us to discard all of our optimism.

To be happy, he says, we should overcome our optimism, our bourgeois belief in progress, and our can-do spirit, the better to contemplate everything that can go wrong in life.

If paradox could cure, this would be a panacea.

The philosophy that is going to lead us from pessimism to happiness comes from the Stoics. "It may be time to revisit some of these teachings, not to add to our misery but precisely so as to alleviate our sorrow."

Obviously, syntax is not his strong suit.

De Botton makes two points, both of which are worth considering: first, if we assume that the worst is inevitable, then we will not be as likely to blame ourselves when it arrives; second, if we contemplate the worst, we can better prepare ourselves for its arrival.

De Botton summarizes his argument in the following passage. Please be kind enough to ignore the jumbled syntax: "If we do not dwell on the risk of sudden calamity, in the money markets or elsewhere, and pay a price for our innocence, it is because reality comprises two cruelly confusing characteristics: on the one hand, continuity and reliability lasting decades; on the other, unheralded cataclysms.

If pessimism will really make us happy, then cognitive psychologists like Martin Seligman who tell us that we can overcome depressing by learning to be optimistic are selling us angel dust. Cognitive therapy is just setting us up for calamity.

A cognitive psychologist might reply that optimism and good habits are more likely to help you through turmoil than will a mind filled with horrid thoughts.

Be that as it may, the notion that we should be prepared for the worst sounds a bit like Nassim Taleb's concept of the black swan. For Taleb a black swan, an unheralded cataclysm, causes damage because no one could have predicted it.

De Botton wants us to prepare. Taleb explains that if we could have predicted a black swan event, then we would have prepared for it and mitigated its damage.

Had we all known that 9/11 was going to happen, we would surely have taken steps to stop it.

Personally, I find Taleb more persuasive on this point.

De Botton's prescription for happiness leaves something to be desired. He borrows from a great thinker, and declares: "... we must, argued Seneca, hold the possibility of the most obscene events in mind at all times."

Unfortunately, this sounds like as prescription for extreme video games and internet porn. I would doubt that a diet of Resident Evil and MadWorld, followed by an internet porn kicker, is going to lead to happiness.

In other words, the point is overstated. We should have some awareness of the worst-case scenarios. It is certainly one factor that should enter into investment decisions.

Just as clearly, you should not spend all your time cultivating visions of doom and gloom. Not only will this prevent you from ever getting anything done, but, as Winifred Gallagher offered in her book, "Rapt," it is depressing and bad for your health. See my posts about focus. Links here and here.

It is one thing to know that you should drive carefully because you do not want to get into an accident. It is quite another to sit behind the wheel musing about all the possible catastrophes that can befall you on your way to your grandmother's house.

The former is prudent; the latter will cause you to take your mind off the road.

Remember that philosophers do not have any responsibility for running a company or a country. They are in the business of thinking, of entertaining bizarre fantasies and visions, of stretching the limits of imagination.

They can obsess all they want about it because they do not have to show up for a job every day, meet a production schedule, set policy, or ensure that the factory is running smoothly.

De Botton is correct to say that mindless optimism is not the solution. But mindless pessimism is not either.

The former might leave us unprepared for ruin, but the latter will sap the energy and initiative needed to do the hard work of rebuilding.

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