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The Scipionic Circle 69: Banishing Negative Thoughts, Time Management Myths, and The Happiness Illusion
"What the system sells as happiness is actually pleasure, a philosophical and economic distinction that makes all the difference between profit or loss."
Welcome to another issue of The Scipionic Circle - I hope you find something of value.
Food for Thought
I. Stop Catastrophizing (Thinking The Worst)
"Sticking to the facts can, by itself, often reduce your anxiety. Cognitive therapists use the neologism 'catastrophizing,' or dwelling on the worst-case scenario, to help explain to clients how we project our values onto external events. They turn the noun 'catastrophe' into a verb to help clients remember that viewing events in this way is actually an activity they’re engaged in. Catastrophizing is also a form osf rhetorical hyperbole, or exaggeration. An event like losing your job is not inherently catastrophic; we don’t just passively perceive how bad it is. Rather, we actively catastrophize it, turning it into a catastrophe by imposing a value judgment upon it that blows things out of proportion.
"In cognitive therapy, we learn to take greater ownership of or responsibility for the catastrophic value judgments that distress us. Modern cognitive therapists advise their clients to describe events in more down-to-earth language, like the Stoics before them. They call it 'decatastrophizing' when they help clients downgrade their perception of a situation from provoking anxiety to something more mundane and less frightening. For instance, Aaron T. Beck, the founder of cognitive therapy, advised that clients suffering from anxiety should write 'decatastrophizing scripts' in which they describe distressing events factually, without strong value judgments or emotive language: 'I lost my job and now I’m looking for a new one' rather than 'I lost my job and there’s nothing I can do about it—it’s just a total disaster!' Think about it: when you’re distressed, don’t you tend to exaggerate and use vivid, emotional language to describe things, both to yourself and other people? Decatastrophizing involves reevaluating the probability and severity of something bad happening and framing it in more realistic terms. Beck asks his clients, 'Would it really be as terrible as you think?' Catastrophizing often seems to involve thinking, 'What if?' What if the worst-case scenario happens? That would be unbearable. Decatastrophizing, on the other hand, has been described as going from 'What if?' to 'So what?': So what if such-and-such happens? It’s not the end of the world; I can deal with it.
"Another common method of decatastrophizing is for cognitive therapists to ask clients repeatedly, 'What next?' Mental images of feared events often rapidly escalate to the worst, most anxiety-provoking part and then remain glued there as if the upsetting experience were somehow timeless. In reality, though, everything has a before, during, and after phase. Everything changes with time, and experiences come and go. Anxiety can often be reduced simply by moving the image past the worst point and imagining, in a realistic and noncatastrophic way, what’s most likely to happen in the hours, days, weeks, or months that follow. Reminding himself of the transience of events is one of Marcus’s favorite strategies, as we’ll see in later chapters. One way of doing that is to ask yourself, 'What, realistically, will most likely happen next? And then what? And then what?' And so on." — From How to Think Like a Roman Emperor by Donald J. Robertson.
II. Time Before Timetables (Have We Got Time Management Wrong?)
In the below passage, Oliver Burkeman discusses how time would have felt to a medieval farmer:
"But there’s one set of problems you almost certainly wouldn’t have experienced: problems of time. Even on your most exhausting days, it probably wouldn’t have occurred to you that you had 'too much to do,' that you needed to hurry, or that life was moving too fast, let alone that you’d gotten your work-life balance wrong. By the same token, on quieter days, you would never have felt bored. And though death was a constant presence, with lives cut short far more frequently than they are today, time wouldn’t have felt in limited supply. You wouldn’t have felt any pressure to find ways to 'save' it. Nor would you have felt guilty for wasting it: if you took an afternoon break from threshing grain to watch a cockfight on the village green, it wouldn’t have felt like you were shirking during 'work time.' And none of this was simply because things moved more slowly back then, or because medieval peasants were more relaxed or more resigned to their fate. It was because, so far as we can tell, they generally didn’t experience time as an abstract entity—as a thing—at all.
"If that sounds confusing, it’s because our modern way of thinking about time is so deeply entrenched that we forget it even is a way of thinking; we’re like the proverbial fish who have no idea what water is, because it surrounds them completely. Get a little mental distance on it, though, and our perspective starts to look rather peculiar. We imagine time to be something separate from us and from the world around us, 'an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences,' in the words of the American cultural critic Lewis Mumford. To see what he means, consider some time-related question—how you plan to spend tomorrow afternoon, say, or what you’ve accomplished over the last year—and without being fully conscious of it at first, you’ll probably find yourself visualizing a calendar, a yardstick, a tape measure, the numbers on a clock face, or some hazier kind of abstract timeline. You’ll then proceed to measure and judge your real life against this imaginary gauge, lining up your activities against the timeline in your head. Edward Hall was making the same point with his image of time as a conveyor belt that’s constantly passing us by. Each hour or week or year is like a container being carried on the belt, which we must fill as it passes, if we’re to feel that we’re making good use of our time. When there are too many activities to fit comfortably into the containers, we feel unpleasantly busy; when there are too few, we feel bored. If we keep pace with the passing containers, we congratulate ourselves for 'staying on top of things' and feel like we’re justifying our existence; if we let too many pass by unfilled, we feel we’ve wasted them. If we use containers labeled 'work time' for the purposes of leisure, our employer may grow irritated.
"The medieval farmer simply had no reason to adopt such a bizarre idea in the first place. Workers got up with the sun and slept at dusk, the lengths of their days varying with the seasons. There was no need to think of time as something abstract and separate from life: you milked the cows when they needed milking and harvested the crops when it was harvesttime, and anybody who tried to impose an external schedule on any of that—for example, by doing a month’s milking in a single day to get it out of the way, or by trying to make the harvest come sooner—would rightly have been considered a lunatic. There was no anxious pressure to 'get everything done,' either, because a farmer’s work is infinite: there will always be another milking and another harvest, forever, so there’s no sense in racing toward some hypothetical moment of completion. Historians call this way of living 'task orientation,' because the rhythms of life emerge organically from the tasks themselves, rather than from being lined up against an abstract timeline, the approach that has become second nature for us today. (It’s tempting to think of medieval life as moving slowly, but it’s more accurate to say that the concept of life 'moving slowly' would have struck most people as meaningless. Slowly as compared with what?) In those days before clocks, when you did need to explain how long something might take, your only option was to compare it with some other concrete activity. Medieval people might speak of a task lasting a 'Miserere whyle'—the approximate time it took to recite Psalm 50, known as the Miserere, from the Bible—or alternatively a 'pissing whyle,' which should require no explanation." — From Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman.
III. The Happiness Illusion (Pleasure Vs. Contentment)
The tide that keeps flooding the ship, Dr. Lustig says, stems from a culture in which many major corporations, unregulated by governments, have deliberately and with the utmost ingenuity targeted the brain circuits of pleasure and reward to foster addictive compulsions. 'That’s why they hire neuroscientists and use fMRI machines,' he told me. Neuroscience, originally meant to unlock the mysteries of consciousness and the brain, has become another handmaiden of the profit motive. There is actually a field called—and I’m not making this up—neuromarketing. 'Their aim is to market happiness in a bottle,' Lustig added. Or in a hamburger, or in a new smartphone or one of its many apps. In short, these corporations are acting as unscrupulous pushers in the open-air, perfectly legal market of mass addiction.
What the system sells as happiness is actually pleasure, a philosophical and economic distinction that makes all the difference between profit or loss. Pleasure, Rob Lustig pointed out, is 'This feels good. I want more.' Happiness, on the other hand, is 'This feels good. I am contented. I am complete.' This tracks perfectly with my understanding of addictions and brain chemistry. While similar in some ways, pleasure and happiness run on different neurochemical fuels: pleasure employs dopamine and opiates, both of which operate in short-term bursts, while contentment is based on the more steady, slow-release serotonin apparatus. It is very hard to get addicted to serotoninergic substances or behaviors. All addictions, however, commandeer the dopamine (incentive/motivation) and/or opiate (pleasure/reward) systems of the brain. Pleasure in the absence of contentment, and especially when sought in instant gratification, may be addictive, hence profitable. Contentment sells no products—except when evanescent, in which case it is no contentment at all, rather the bogus kind of 'happiness' meant by Mad Men’s fictional ad whiz Don Draper when he muses, 'What is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.' True happiness, being a non-commodity, does not make itself obsolete.” — From The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness & Healing in a Toxic Culture by Gabor Maté and Daniel Maté.
Quotes to Ponder
I. Viktor E. Frankl on controlling our reactions:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
II. Franz Kafka on honouring our individuality:
“Don't bend; don't water it down; don't try to make it logical; don't edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.”
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