Monday, May 1, 2017

"Prioritizing These Three Things" Etc.

This article by Colby Itkowitz summarizes some lessons she took from talks she heard at the TED conference. Her piece is titled "Prioritizing these three things will improve your life — and maybe even save it." The three magic lessons and my responses are as follows:

Face-to-face social interaction leads to a longer life
This one is pretty well established and has been for decades, although of course there are problems with causality; maybe the people who don't socialize and die younger don't socialize because they are already sick. Anyway it seems to be true that how much you socialize with others is a better predictor of how long you will live than your weight or how much you exercise. The life-extending effect doesn't require that you have close friends, just that you get out and interact with somebody. This was a truth about life I resisted when I was young and passionately hated casual conversation with strangers or acquaintances. At the time I thought this was a personal quirk but I have since discovered that a dislike of chitchat and a longing for deeper, more meaningful interactions is extremely common, especially among the young. It was only as an adult, having shed much of my youthful self-consciousness, than I began to find pleasure in ordinary human interactions.

Knowing when to turn off your smartphone enriches your life
I don't know about this one. Yes, there are recent studies that show people who spend more time on social media are less happy, but 1) this is just a few recent studies and we could find a few studies to prove anything, and 2) maybe the causality is reversed and it is the loneliest, least happy people who spend the most time on Facebook. (On average, that is.) The obsessive worry about "missing something" that drives some people to check their phones every minute is a common symptom of depression, especially anxious depression. But I would accept as general principles both that online interaction cannot, for most people, substitute for interaction in person, and that there is a whole lot of unhealthy crap online that most of us are better off staying away from. The best uses you can make of your devices are to learn new things and to arrange to get together with your friends.

Chasing meaning, not happiness, is what really matters
This is one of those pieces of advice that is both universally accepted and all but useless. Granted that meaning is a better thing to chase than happiness, what are you supposed to do about it? Suppose that you find yourself thinking, "what could I do tonight that would be fun?" but then you stop yourself and ask instead, "what could I do tonight that would be meaningful?"

You see the problem.

This was from a talk by Emily Esfahani Smith, who distinguishes four forms of meaning: belonging, purpose, transcendence and storytelling. Belonging, sure, it's great to have family and friends and places we feel like we belong. But it is unavoidably true that for many people home and family are ambivalent concepts, riven with pain and disappointment; and it is also true that finding alternative places to belong is one of the hardest things in life.

Purpose is sort of a synonym for meaning, which doesn't help us much, but Smith says that many people find it in work. Here we fall into the trap set by the modern economy, that we both need work and are destroyed by it, since so few of us ever find work that both engages our full abilities and feels genuinely useful. I think work is one of the great puzzles of our age, in that we often hate it but flounder without it.

For those of us who can't stomach organized religion, the pursuit of transcendence is another very hard puzzle; where are we supposed to look? Yes, I have my ways, which I write about here all the time, but there isn't anything simple or particularly helpful about this suggestion.

Storytelling is certainly a universally human thing, and some studies suggest that turning your life into a narrative can help you get a grip on things. I am a little dubious about this because in my experience many organizing narratives are little short of lies. Consider some of the narratives political activists use to infuse their work with meaning: America has to be turned around immediately or our civilization is going to slide off a cliff! Or, from my perspective, the religious narratives that involve god sending you this or saving you from that. Or the victim narrative, that everything wrong with you is because you suffer from Catholic guilt or are oppressed by the man or can't succeed because your parents didn't really believe in you. If this sort of thing works for you, great, I guess, but I am enough of an existentialist to think that there is something wrong with buoying ourselves up using made up stores about our worlds.

I don't mean to mock the pursuit of meaning; if you know where to find it, go get it. But it has in common with most other formulas for the good life that 1) if people knew how to do it they would be doing it already, and 2) sometimes the long-term pursuit of meaning traps you in metaphysical tunnels from which there is no practical escape. Suppose (like me) your idea of meaning has a lot to do with home and family. This requires you to have a job, and to keep at it year in and year out even if it no longer provides you much sense of purpose; the mortgage still has to be paid and all those young ones fed. That is, the big choices in life carry with them huge repercussions, which (it seems to me) cut against the notion that we could just read an article like this and shift our lives in some meaningful direction.


G. Verloren said...

Socialization is important, but I'm a rather private individual so I prefer the option of having close friends and loved ones over that of interacting with strangers and acquaintances. I think it matters less whom you choose to socialize with, and more that you socialize regularly and in a positive manner.

The matter of smartphones is beyond me. I don't use them, nor do I engage in the typical "social media". I do find that they seem to lead to certain people being very distractable, but that's a quality I firmly believe to be present in every kind of engaging medium. The problem isn't smartphones themselves - the problem is poor self control and a lack of discipline.

Certainly modern electronics seem to share this problem. As a child growing up with an interest in video games, I had to learn early on not to let them overwhelm and distract me from other things. If life intruded on my game session, I had to be both willing and able to pause and come back to it later. And the same is undoubtedly true about television for countless people.

But the exact same thing is also true of much less modern mediums like books. I - and I believe most other literate people - had to learn earnly on how to keep at least one foot planted in reality while reading, so that if someone asks you a question, they don't feel like they're talking to a brick wall as you ignore them and fail to answer.

Thus, I don't think smartphones and social media are anything new in regards to causing people to zone out and be poor socializers - I think it's just the latest, trendiest version of a self control issue that has existed for centuries. The solution isn't to grumble and complain about the latest gadget or software that's leading people to zone out - the solution is to help promote better discipline, and do so in a positive, non-judgemental manner.

As for meaning, I'm actually convinced there is no such thing. I have seen no compelling evidence to suggest that the universe isn't simply overwhelmingly absurd, and I'm fine with that notion.

In fact, I'm better than fine - the thought that there is no grand scheme, no divine plan, no "shoulds" or "oughts" or "musts" factored into existence in the universe was incredibly liberating when it first occured to me. Nothing mattered, and thus I was free to care about whatever I wanted to care about. I did some naval gazing, rejected the option of being a self-serving asshole out of hand, and decided "Heck, I'm just gonna keep on trying to be a good person, because I'm happiest when other people are happy, so why spend the rest of my life not being happy?"

Belonging? Purpose? Transcendance? I reject them all.

It's okay be to be different or to not fit in. It's okay to lack direction or to lead a fundamentally absurd existence. Transcendance is merely another word for isolation and death. Why cling to these notions and agonize over them when they don't really offer any answers?

As for storytelling, that's a more complex issue. It is the very foundation of how we understand the universe... and yet, it is a deeply flawed tool that we should be careful not to place too much faith in, for it frequently produces detrimental results. We must rely on it to some extent to understand the universe, but we can't over-rely on it or we risk deluding ourselves through our own flaws and biases.

Meaning? I think it's overrated. You can be perfectly happy without telling yourself that the universe has some sort of meaning. A certain degree of fundamental absurdity in reality shouldn't matter in the long run.

If we eventually find rational, empirical evidence that logically suggests the existence of some greater meaning in the universe, then great! But until then, why worry over things that are beyond our ability to know and observe?

Shadow Flutter said...

Seems to me happy people live a better life than unhappy people but not necessarily a longer one. What makes someone happy varies from individual to individual. Unless you have a specific goal you must achieve, you probably aren't going to search for meaning unless you want to, and doing what you want to do usually makes you happier than doing what you don't want to do. The distinction between meaning and happiness here seems indistinct to me or maybe a category error. Happiness is a state of mind, while search for meaning is an intellectual pursuit (which could make you happy).