David Foster Wallace’s This is Water gave the broad perspective of living a life of empathy and compassion, and the Cleveland Clinic — who do some amazing things in healthcare communications — puts it in action in a hospital setting with this powerful video … the message of which can be applied broadly, of course.
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
– Not Plato, though the Internet insists otherwise
How’s that for an optimistic title? What Daniel Kahneman actually says in his TED talk is “Happiness is not a useful word anymore.” Kahneman is considered the founder of behavioral economics (that’s the same field as the guy I often refer to as my braincrush, Dan Ariely).
Using examples from vacations to colonoscopies, Nobel laureate and founder of behavioral economics Daniel Kahneman reveals how our “experiencing selves” and our “remembering selves” perceive happiness differently. This new insight has profound implications for economics, public policy — and our own self-awareness.
If you haven’t seen the video of David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water, an abridged version of his commencement speech at Kenyon College, then you have obviously just emerged out from under a fallen bookshelf and have not been able to access the Internet in the last week. For your benefit, here it is:
It might feel odd to take posthumous life advice from someone who killed himself less than three years after giving said advice, but that’s where Hyperbole and a Half’s brilliant post on depression comes in handy, to illustrate what depression is and is not.
The video had me going into my draft folder where half-finished blog posts go to die. Sure enough there’s benefitofthedoubt.doc from October 2011, where I inelegantly proposed the idea that DFW so eloquently expressed. I wish I’d known then of the unabridged transcript of his speech, available at the Internet Archive.
An excerpt from my draft (after a long and now outdated preamble framing the idea of giving people the benefit of the doubt):
One of the ways I still cope with my nervousness at doing interviews is to think that the interviewee is nervous. Sometimes I know it’s true, sometimes I suspect it’s not, but it doesn’t matter: thinking of the interviewee’s nerves takes the focus away from what I’m feeling and on to my job as interviewer, to make them more comfortable. (Disclaimer: I’m not saying I’m good at putting people more at ease, I’m saying it’s an effective brain trick to put myself more at ease.)
And that’s an even longer preamble to say that sometimes thinking of other people before yourself actually helps you, maybe even more than it helps them.
Maybe the person who cut you off in traffic is distracted because they just visited a loved one in the hospital. Or maybe they’re a jerk driver, but your rage won’t doesn’t teach them anything and makes you rage-y.
Obviously there’s a point where this line of thinking becomes disgustingly Pollyannaish, or making excuses for people who treat you badly, but in most cases what’s the downside to thinking of alternate explanations for these ephemeral interactions and reacting accordingly?
This was written before last summer, when I was the distracted driver returning from visiting a dying loved one in the hospital, or furiously concentrating on driving as smoothly as possible with him — precious, nauseous, pain-wracked cargo — in my car and therefore driving too tentatively. The summer when I wanted to beg every stranger we encountered to please be extra nice to him, and I wanted a tattoo on my forehead to say the same about me.
The upside to horrible experiences is it can give you empathy for the truth that everyone is carrying their own burden. But we don’t need to have experienced an identical burden. If we need an empathy lesson we can, for example, read Allie of Hyperbole and a Half sharing her story of depression.
Or as David Foster Wallace points out, we can also simply open our minds to the idea that we are all swimming in the same water.
I’ve been experimenting with some online animation and presentation tools, ultimately to use for work but I’m learning the tools by making samples for myself. This one was created with Powtoon (as they will yell at you at the end), which has a greater learning curve than, say, VideoScribe, but not as much as, say, Xtranormal.
This was a piece I meant to write but I struggled to come up with much to say; I mostly had an image in my head of people trying to squish irregular shapes into a box. So it seemed like a good idea to represent visually: a short reflection on selfhood, combining some thoughts after years of reading Dan Ariely (aka my braincrush) and having recently finished Proust Was A Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer.
Yes, Lehrer was discredited and shamed for self-plagiarism and just plain making stuff up, but this was his one book that was vetted post-publication, not found suspect, and not pulled from circulation. And maybe, just maybe, Lehrer is more than the person in that plagiarist/fabricator box.
When I’m sad, I generally want to sadly rip the head off anyone who tries to cheer me up. A well-meaning impulse often feels like an attempt to invalidate a well-earned emotion.
Sometimes life is unbearably sad. Sometimes sitting in bed with a tub of chocolate ice cream listening to Sarah McLachlan and imagining abused puppies is the only appropriate response. Grief isn’t linear, and because I don’t walk around crying all day doesn’t mean I’m over it. I’ll never be “over it.” Part of me is missing, forever.
But since my goal isn’t to be lifted out of my apartment by crane, or turn into a permanent puddle of misery, or make friends and acquaintances flee from me by saying things like “part of me is missing forever,” cheering myself up is crucial until the loss becomes more bearable.
I know what some of my happy places are — nature, travel, learning new things, an understanding friend, stories, friends who tell me stories. I’ve discovered new ones and rediscovered old ones.
New and old combine in Ze Frank’s Chase That Happy video. I’d forgotten how much I love Frank’s humour; I never knew the joy of happy typing, and the word “interestingly” now brings me an unusual joy. Maybe he can remind you to chase your happy too. As long as your happy doesn’t include trying to cheer me up.