Because our library is also effectively infinite—no one person can ever read more than a tiny fraction—we face the paradox of abundance: Quantity undermines the quality of our engagement.
Like a rider on the back of an elephant, the conscious, reasoning part of the mind has only limited control of what the elephant does.
It is certainly true that changing your mind is usually a more effective response to frustration than is changing the world.
Human thinking depends on metaphor. We understand new or complex things in relation to things we already know.
It’s hard to think about life in general, but once you apply the metaphor “life is a journey,” the metaphor guides you to some conclusions: You should learn the terrain, pick a direction, find some good traveling companions, and enjoy the trip, because there may be nothing at the end of the road.
The metaphor I use when I lecture on Freud is to think of the mind as a horse and buggy (a Victorian chariot) in which the driver (the ego) struggles frantically to control a hungry, lustful, and disobedient horse (the id) while the driver’s father (the superego) sits in the back seat lecturing the driver on what he is doing wrong.
In the absence of feeling they see little reason to pick one or the other.
Sophisticated emotionality. It is only because our emotional brains works so well that our reasoning can work at all.
Reason and emotion must both work together to create intelligent behavior, but emotion (a major part of the elephant) does most of the work.
Controlled processing is limited—we can think consciously about one thing at a time only—but automatic processes run in parallel and can handle many tasks at once.
Our brains, like rat brains, are wired so that food and sex give us little bursts of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that is the brain’s way of making us enjoy the activities that are good for the survival of our genes.
The controlled system allows people to think about long-term goals and thereby escape the tyranny of the here-and-now, the automatic triggering of temptation by the sight of tempting objects. People can imagine alternatives that are not visually present; they can weigh long-term health risks against present pleasures, and they can learn in conversation about which choices will bring success and prestige.
An emotionally intelligent person has a skilled rider who knows how to distract and coax the elephant without having to engage in a direct contest of wills.
Whenever I am on a cliff, a rooftop, or a high balcony, the imp of the perverse whispers in my ear, “Jump.” It’s not a command, it’s just a word that pops into my consciousness.
Automatic processes generate thousands of thoughts and images every day, often through random association. The ones that get stuck are the ones that particularly shock us, the ones we try to suppress or deny.
Moral judgment is like aesthetic judgment. When you see a painting, you usually know instantly and automatically whether you like it. If someone asks you to explain your judgment, you confabulate. You don’t really know why you think something is beautiful, but your interpreter module (the rider) is skilled at making up reasons.
Because we can see only one little corner of the mind’s vast operation, we are surprised when urges, wishes, and temptations emerge, seemingly from nowhere. We make pronouncements, vows, and resolutions, and then are surprised by our own powerlessness to carry them out.
Events in the world affect us only through our interpretations of them, so if we can control our interpretations, we can control our world.
To take something “philosophically” means to accept a great misfortune without weeping or even suffering. We use this term in part because of the calmness, self-control, and courage that three ancient philosophers—Socrates, Seneca, and Boethius—showed while they awaited their executions.
Philosophy reminds Boethius that Fortune is fickle, coming and going as she pleases. Boethius took Fortune as his mistress, fully aware of her ways, and she stayed with him for a long time. What right has he now to demand that she be chained to his side?
Why should I alone be deprived of my rights? The heavens are permitted to grant bright days, then blot them out with dark nights; the year may decorate the face of the earth with flowers and fruits, then make it barren again with clouds and frost; the sea is allowed to invite the sailor with fair weather, then terrify him with storms. Shall I, then, permit man’s insatiable cupidity to tie me down to a sameness that is alien to my habits?
“No man can ever be secure until he has been forsaken by Fortune.”
Adverse fortune is more beneficial than good fortune; the latter only makes men greedy for more, but adversity makes them strong.
She draws Boethius’s imagination far up into the heavens so that he can look down on the Earth and see it as a tiny speck on which even tinier people play out their comical and ultimately insignificant ambitions. She gets him to admit that riches and fame bring anxiety and avarice, not peace and happiness.
“Nothing is miserable unless you think it so; and on the other hand, nothing brings happiness unless you are content with it.”
The unsettling implication of Pelham’s work is that the three biggest decisions most of us make—what to do with our lives, where to live, and whom to marry—can all be influenced (even if only slightly) by something as trivial as the sound of a name.
Some commonalities of animal life even create similarities across species that we might call design principles. One such principle is that bad is stronger than good. Responses to threats and unpleasantness are faster, stronger, and harder to inhibit than responses to opportunities and pleasures.
Over and over again, psychologists find that the human mind reacts to bad things more quickly, strongly, and persistently than to equivalent good things. We can’t just will ourselves to see everything as good because our minds are wired to find and react to threats, violations, and setbacks.
Your behavior is governed by opposing motivational systems: an approach system, which triggers positive emotions and makes you want to move toward certain things; and a withdrawal system, which triggers negative emotions and makes you want to pull back or avoid other things.
Buddha said: “When a man knows the solitude of silence, and feels the joy of quietness, he is then free from fear and sin.”
Which of these two phrases rings truest to you: “Be all that you can be” or “This above all, to thine own self be true.” Our culture endorses both—relentless self-improvement as well as authenticity—but we often escape the contradiction by framing self-improvement as authenticity.
The human mind finds kinship deeply appealing, and kin altruism surely underlies the cultural ubiquity of nepotism.
Animals that can trade their surplus on a day of plenty for a loan on a day of need are much more likely to survive the vagaries of chance.
The logarithm of the brain size is almost perfectly proportional to the logarithm of the social group size. In other words, all over the animal kingdom, brains grow to manage larger and larger groups. Social animals are smart animals.
In the long run and across a variety of environments, it pays to cooperate while remaining vigilant to the danger of being cheated.
Thinking generally uses the “makessense” stopping rule. We take a position, look for evidence that supports it, and if we find some evidence—enough so that our position “makes sense”—we stop thinking. But at least in a low-pressure situation such as this, if someone else brings up reasons and evidence on the other side, people can be induced to change their minds; they just don’t make an effort to do such thinking for themselves.
Studies show that people set out on a cognitive mission to bring back reasons to support their preferred belief or action.
Whenever people form cooperative groups, which are usually of mutual benefit, self-serving biases threaten to fill group members with mutual resentment.
Each of us thinks we see the world directly, as it really is. We further believe that the facts as we see them are there for all to see, therefore others should agree with us. If they don’t agree, it follows either that they have not yet been exposed to the relevant facts or else that they are blinded by their interests and ideologies.
If God is all good and all powerful, either he allows evil to flourish (which means he is not all good), or else he struggles against evil (which means he is not all powerful).
Once anger comes into play, people find it extremely difficult to empathize with and understand another perspective.
When you find a fault in yourself it will hurt, briefly, but if you keep going and acknowledge the fault, you are likely to be rewarded with a flash of pleasure that is mixed, oddly, with a hint of pride. It is the pleasure of taking responsibility for your own behavior. It is the feeling of honor.
Happiness can only be found within, by breaking attachments to external things and cultivating an attitude of acceptance.
When it comes to goal pursuit, it really is the journey that counts, not the destination. Set for yourself any goal you want. Most of the pleasure will be had along the way, with every step that takes you closer.
If you went on the hike only to feel that pleasure, you are a fool. Yet people sometimes do just this. They work hard at a task and expect some special euphoria at the end.
Pleasure comes more from making progress toward goals than from achieving them. Shakespeare captured it perfectly: “Things won are done; joy’s soul lies in the doing.”
The Stoic philosophers of Ancient Greece, such as Epictetus, taught their followers to focus only on what they could fully control, which meant primarily their own thoughts and reactions.
The keys to flow: There’s a clear challenge that fully engages your attention; you have the skills to meet the challenge; and you get immediate feedback about how you are doing at each step (the progress principle).
The more choices there are, the more you expect to find a perfect fit;
Buddha (the “awakened one”) preached that life is suffering, and that the only way to escape this suffering is by breaking the attachments that bind us to pleasure, achievement, reputation, and life.
The complete erasure of serious adversity from your child’s future would leave him or her weak and underdeveloped.
None of us knows what we are really capable of enduring.
Trauma changes priorities and philosophies toward the present (“Live each day to the fullest”) and toward other people.
You create your story in consciousness as you interpret your own behavior, and as you listen to other people’s thoughts about you. The life story is not the work of a historian—remember that the rider has no access to the real causes of your behavior; it is more like a work of historical fiction that makes plenty of references to real events and connects them by dramatizations and interpretations that might or might not be true to the spirit of what happened.
And finally, no matter how well or poorly prepared you are when trouble strikes, at some point in the months afterwards, pull out a piece of paper and start writing.
Children need limits to learn self-control, and they need plenty of failure to learn that success takes hard work and persistence. Children should be protected, but not spoiled.
Knowledge comes in two major forms: explicit and tacit. Explicit knowledge is all the facts you know and can consciously report, independent of context.
Tacit knowledge is procedural (it’s “knowing how” rather than “knowing that”), it is acquired without direct help from others, and it is related to goals that a person values.
Ignorant people see everything in black and white—they rely heavily on the myth of pure evil—and they are strongly influenced by their own self-interest. The wise are able to see things from others’ points of view, appreciate shades of gray, and then choose or advise a course of action that works out best for everyone in the long run. Second, wise people are able to balance three responses to situations: adaptation (changing the self to fit the environment), shaping (changing the environment), and selection (choosing to move to a new environment).
Set your heart on doing good. Do it over and over again, and you will be filled with joy. A fool is happy until his mischief turns against him. And a good man may suffer until his goodness flowers. —BUDDHA
The Greek word aretē meant excellence, virtue, or goodness, especially of a functional sort. The aretē of a knife is to cut well; the aretē of an eye is to see well; the aretē of a person is.
Thus in saying that well being or happiness (eudaimonia) is “an activity of soul in conformity with excellence or virtue,”3 Aristotle wasn’t saying that happiness comes from giving to the poor and suppressing your sexuality. He was saying that a good life is one where you develop your strengths, realize your potential, and become what it is in your nature to become.
Most cultures wrote about virtues that should be cultivated, and many of those virtues were and still are valued across most cultures (for example, honesty, justice, courage, benevolence, self-restraint, and respect for authority). Most approaches then specified actions that were good and bad with respect to those virtues. Most approaches were practical, striving to inculcate virtues that would benefit the person who cultivates them.
Children must be taught how to think about moral problems, especially how to overcome their natural egoism and take into their calculations the needs of others.
Trying to make children behave ethically by teaching them to reason well is like trying to make a dog happy by wagging its tail. It gets causality backwards.
It’s difficult to change any aspect of your personality by sheer force of will, and if it is a weakness you choose to work on, you probably won’t enjoy the process. If you don’t find pleasure or reinforcement along the way.
We have all encountered something we failed to understand, yet smugly believed we understood because we couldn’t conceive of the dimension to which we were blind.
Only a few other primates (and perhaps dolphins) can even learn that the image in a mirror belongs to them. Only a creature with language ability has the mental apparatus to focus attention on the self, to think about the self’s invisible attributes and long term goals, to create a narrative about that self, and then to react emotionally to thoughts about that narrative.
Love and work are crucial for human happiness because, when done well, they draw us out of ourselves and into connection with people and projects beyond ourselves.
Group selection creates interlocking genetic and cultural adaptations that enhance peace, harmony, and cooperation within the group for the express purpose of increasing the group’s ability to compete with other groups.
Just as plants need sun, water, and good soil to thrive, people need love, work, and a connection to something larger.