Why does your life suck so much sometimes? Like, how does your computer know ten minutes before an important deadline that now's the worst possible time to break down? Or why you get stuck in a traffic jam the day of your job interview? For answers, this Rabbit Hole looks to one of the most pessimistic philosophers in the Western tradition, and to my dad—the grumpiest man to ever hail from Grumpington.
I was out with my dad in a few weeks ago. We were in the city, looking for a place to have lunch. As we were walking down the street, dad was complaining about what a bad job they’d done laying the footpath. It wasn’t that he’d almost tripped over, or that there were pavers dangerously missing—he just looked at ground and it came to his attention that they hadn’t done a good enough job.
This is a regular occurrence every two or three weeks or so: we go to lunch; he complains about anything and everything that crosses his mind, memory or field of vision.
At this particular moment, it was footpaths, but as you can imagine there is a vast field of things my dad finds unsatisfactory. I spent the time he spent complaining trying to be polite, trying to get a word in, trying to change the subject, and just generally rolling my eyes and thinking:
“Footpaths? Really? Footpaths? I haven’t seen you in weeks and you're going on about bloody footpaths!”
After what seemed like two hours to me, and probably for him too short a time to really hit his stride, I couldn't take anymore. In a pantomime of pretend but real frustration I said, “Jesus dad! You’re certainly settling into the stereotype of a grumpy curmudgeon. Nothing is good enough! Everything could do with improvement. But footpaths!? Really?”
“Idiots!” he declared, probably realising for the first time in twenty minutes that he'd lost his audience and now it was time to wrap things up and place his final stamp upon the subject.
I wish I had confidence in my own judgements like dad has in his own. In his world everyone’s an idiot and he’s the only one who can see it.
And as I write this I’m 70% certain that my retelling of this story is accurate, but there’s this other thought that’s tugging at my consciousness:
I do what he does too. Sh*t! I'm doing it now.
So, in writing this, I guess I’m trying to rehabilitate the both of us. I can see the same tendencies in me, and it's got me thinking about how easy it is to fall into thinking how disappointing our world is, and how inadequate we all are in the face of it.
I mean it’s a pretty safe assumption that, if you’re reading this, you’ve reached a threshold of affluence that means you’re not running from tigers or cholera, and you can take time out from your own whingyness to read someone else's.
So why do most of us who live in comparatively relaxed, free and prosperous countries live personal, social and political lives of grumpiness and general dissatisfaction?
Well, it might be a by-product of human consciousness itself.
Hardwired for unhappy
Arthur Schopenhauer, nineteenth century German philosopher, wrote this essay “On the Pain and Suffering of the World.” Within the first few paragraphs, he writes:
"Just as a stream flows smoothly on as long as it encounters no obstruction, so the nature of man and animal is such that we never really notice or become conscious of what is agreeable to our will; if we are to notice something, our will has to have been thwarted, has to have experienced a shock of some kind. On the other hand, all that opposes, frustrates and resists our will, that is to say all that is unpleasant and painful, impresses itself upon us instantly, directly and with great clarity. Just as we are conscious not of the healthiness of our whole body but only of the little place where the shoe pinches, so we think not of the totality of our successful activities but of some insignificant trifle or other which continues to vex us. On this fact is founded what I have often before drawn attention to: the negativity of well-being and happiness, in antithesis to the positivity of pain." (Essays and Aphorisms, 41)
So for Schopenhauer, the problem is we just can’t see the good things because we’re hard-wired to suffer. It’s part of our make-up—the cost of human cognition.
We dwell on the unpleasant and the annoying because only the unpleasant and annoying stimuli get our attention.
All the good stuff—all the stuff that works without complaint—all that stuff gets ignored, which explains why it appears to me that my computer intuitively knows to break down at the worst possible time, but in reality it doesn’t; it’s just that I don’t really notice it working brilliantly 99.99% of the time.
The painful truth is that my computer and all the other inanimate objects in my life don't care about me at all. As Bertrand Russell says, writing about Schopenhauer's own pessimistic tendencies:
"From a scientific point of view optimism and pessimism are alike objectionable: optimism assumes or attempts to prove that the universe exists to please us, and pessimism that it exists to displease us. Scientifically there is no evidence that it is concerned with us either one way or another." (History of Western Philosophy, 686)
Yet still we delight in trolling our experience and putting nasty comments under our perceptions— "Ow, these cheap shoes hurt!", "Oh, he hates everything I do!" —because (1) we're all a little narcissistic, and (2) like Schopenhauer says, that's the cost of doing business, perception-wise.
There was this short article I read in Psychology Today—"Our Brain's Negative Bias: Why our brains are more highly attuned to negative news"—which explained that our ingrained tendency to see the glass as not only half empty, but also chipped and dirty, is simply a question of evolution. Human beings place more weight upon bad experiences because bad experiences bring with them tigers and cholera and other nasty things, so it's of the utmost importance that we stay forever vigilant for the worst possible scenarios.
The Psychology Today article explains that our ever-present "negativity bias" is because the "brain is simply built with a greater sensitivity to unpleasant news," citing a Ohio State University study where experimental subjects who were exposed to a series of pleasant and unpleasant images showed far, far higher electrical activity in their cerebral cortex to negative ones.
Which all sounds obvious, but think of the effect that this negativity bias has on your creativity and productivity if all your neurons are focused on negative, useless and unwanted chatter. There's plenty of research that says that positivity and negativity has a huge effect on performance. For instance, a New York Times article reported on research that found that the highest performing business teams gave five times more positive feedback than negative feedback.
So does this mean that when we sit down to work we should put out our crystals, spark up an incense burner, and get ourselves into a positive frame of mind by looking into our dream-catchers or poster of a goddess riding a dolphin?
Hey, if gets you through the day—yes.