“Your hair looks better up!” I screamed over the densely packed dance floor.
“What?” She leans closer and frowns as if that’ll help to mentally block out the frantic bass and seizure inducing light.
She then stopped mid-track and stared straight into my eyes, “Are you negging me?!” before pushing me aside and disappeared into the sea of sweaty, testosterone pool of men. I stood there dumbfounded at the ubiquity of modern-day pick up lingual.
Neil Strauss would’ve been proud that his once bestseller (The Game) which panders to socially awkward men around the world is suddenly a must-read for women’s psychological self-defense. And while I never managed to become as suave as Mystery or dated Jessica Alba, Strauss did open a door for me into the world of self-improvement. In other words, he led me to the realization that people must have contemplated for many years on how to live a good life and found a way to codify that into writing. I was just not looking hard enough…
From Tony Robbins to the 4-Hour Work Week, the self-help industry has ballooned into an $11+ Billion marketplace with no end in sight. One can argue that as our lower bracket Maslow needs are met, there’s been an even greater emphasis on the higher psychological yearning for meaning and purpose.
My latest encounter down this rabbit trail is a well curated book by a Swiss Columnist, Rolf Dobelli. In the Art of the Good Life, Dobelli pulls together 52 teachings from modern day positive psychology studies, ancient stoic philosophy, and a smattering of cognitive biases. We’ll touch on a few chapters that surprised me:
Circle of Dignity
Circle of Dignity is a tight set of non-negotiables or core values that define how we live. In other words, these are the preferences and principles that we do not negotiate. In the book, Dobelli colored in the chapter with the story of Dunkirk where the English troops were outnumbered and surrounded by the Germans. However hopeless the situation, the troops were commitment to evacuating the small French town only because defeat was non-negotiable.
In our day-to-day we may not face an impending assault by the Third Reich, but our core values are, nonetheless, constantly put to test. Are you ordering another drink? Are you going home early to have dinner with your family? Can you make that soccer practice? Are you skipping the gym because it’s raining? Our core values and principles are constantly under assault from the elements. Many of us will simply try to use a process of logical analysis to arrive at our core values. Dobelli suggests that core values are not developed through reasoning and logic but rather through a process of crystallization. This is a process where you experience wrong decisions, disappointments, failures, and crises. Without this indispensable step, we’ll have to rely solely on our thoughts and reasoning. Values developed through reasoning is vulnerable to constant attack and cunning arguments. Dobelli argues that the process of crystallization is an indispensable step towards becoming an mature adult with solid foundations.
Life Stories Are Lies – Why we go after the world with a false self image
If we ask 5 of your closest friends to tell your story, we’ll likely get 5 different storylines, each with their own peaks and valleys, positive and negative interpretations of reality. Stories are great communication tools because we’re wired to remember stories better than raw data. However, stories are inherently subjective which does not paint a good picture of reality. Dobelli proposes 3 points we should remember when we try to interpret the world:
- We change more rapidly than we think – In high school, I was adamant about majoring in Biomedical Engineering. After graduating, I got involved with healthcare management. In the past 5 years, I’ve been investing in real estate. I would’ve never imagine how my career and life choices would have morphed into the current state, in such a short period. There’s even a Harvard study (via Dan Gilbert) to show that we underestimate how little we will change. Dobelli argues that this can be a source of dissatisfaction because our static interpretation of our future self translates to actions/decisions that lock our lives in a state that will soon be incongruent with what we want.
- Our lives seem more amenable to planning than it is – Before I even stepped outside the door this morning, I knew that the weather was going to be high 60s in the afternoon and taper to low 40s by sunset. I knew the exact route that would take me to work. I knew the valet will pick up my car when I arrive. My doctors will tell me the exact dose of medication I should take and when I should expect to feel better. In short, our world has become incredibly predictable and any unpredictability we experience such as untreatable illnesses, a car accident, a natural disaster, we attribute these misfortunes to lack of planning. We are much less willing to simply accept our bad luck. No amount of planning can shield us from misfortune. In some cases, we’ll be happier to just accept our lack of control over the world.
- We have a positive self-attribution bias – There’s almost a primal human tendency to attribute all of our successes to our personal actions and our failures to external circumstances. It’s primal because it’s a relic of our ancestral need to avoid threat and hoard rewards. That might be very relevant when there’s a limited supply of edible berries to pass around but very counterproductive when we overestimate our own capabilities. In an age of abundance, humility is more important than self-preservation.
At first glance, one might wonder about the qualification that allows Dobelli to tackle such an ubiquitous question as life itself. After all, it’s not difficult to live a good life when you’re a wealthy successful author, living in the most developed country on the planet. But as I sit here thinking about privileges, I’m reminded of the plethora of mental tools encapsulated in the book, specifically – that life isn’t fair. What’s surprising about the book is that all the teachings are incredibly reasonable but also incredibly difficult to uproot (as I’ve demonstrated in my self talk just now). It’s difficult because to embrace stoicism, to denounce our self importance runs against our natural instinct for fairness, for power, for sex and for wealth. If I have to sum up this book in one sentence, it would be that less is more. If less is more, then we all have the capacity to live a good life. Ain’t that a better way to go?
Reference: Art of the Good Life – Rolf Dobelli