I recently read the book „The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck“ by Mark Manson — these are my key learnings and thoughts from it.
Self-improvement culture: Better, Smarter, Happier
We live in a world that is strongly influenced by a high level of connectedness — to not turn mad, we need to filter out certain things. This filtering is often not done by ourselves, but rather (social) media, which is in turn motivated to supply us with the content most likely to satisfy our cravings. It creates a notion of needing to „be better, be happier, be smarter“ and a focus on what we might lack instead of what we already have.
On top of that, society promotes that negative feelings are not ok. By showing us only „feel good“ moments the reality that pain is part of life seems to become more and more distant.
This leads to a negative feedback loop: We worry so much about doing the right thing, that in fact, we start worrying about being worried.
Acceptance to the rescue
We can escape this loop by accepting negative feelings — or, as Manson writes, by „not giving a f*ck“ about them. Pain is part of life and denying it will only lead to more pain.
This is by no means a call to accept everything that happens to you just like that. It is part of us humans to care about certain things based on our nature, nurture and our experiences.
The magic truly happens when you actively choose to care about specific parts of your life and decide to accept others (like for example feeling sad or depressed).
Pain is constructed by the mind
Part of our biology is the ability to experience pain to be able to innovate and survive. Only by experiencing pain when touching the hot oven plate you can learn and avoid touching it in the future, ultimately securing your survival.
The same goes for psychological pain: Chemical signals either indicate „do more of this“ by letting you experience positive emotion or „do something different“ through negative emotion.
However, pain is not the truth but rather a suggestion of our mind, based on many different aspects.
In an experiment, the study „The context of a noxious stimulus affects the pain it evokes“ from 2007 showed that when touching the hands of subjects with a -20°C metal piece, the subjects reported much more pain when they saw a red light while being touched in comparison to when they saw a blue light. The stimulus is the same but the context given to the brain is different.
This means that whatever our experience is, we can consider it as something created by our mind — not necessarily reality.
Being aware of this when experiencing pain (be it physical or psychologically) can make it much easier to accept certain sensations. Taking this even further, pain can actually contribute to our happiness.
Happiness and problems
Happiness is not a deterministic algorithm that can be described by saying „given X, if you do Y, you will be happier“. Because pain is such an important part of our brain and lives, it plays a strong role in how happy we feel.
A study from 2013 has shown that experiencing relief from pain can increase our feeling of happiness and reduce feelings of sadness. So although pain is a negative experience in itself, surmounting it will often lead to a release of endorphins — the very chemicals that are responsible for happiness (this is also called the „runners high“).
Manson writes in the book that „happiness is the constant activity of solving problems“ — it’s the relief one gets from resolving a problematic (or painful) situation.
The way vs. the destination
We often ask people what they want to get from life and receive answers like „happiness“, „a loving family“ or „a fulfilling job“.
We never ask „What pain do you want in life? What are you willing to struggle for?“.
Because happiness is generated from solving problems, it would make much more sense to focus on challenging activities instead of the expected results of an activity.
You might focus on reaching a mountain peak, anticipating the experience of finally standing on the top. However, after a short period of happiness on the top, you are going to feel the need of finding an even higher peak to satisfy your craving. You might even go through a lot of pain climbing the mountain, only being motivated by the imagination of the eventual selfie on the peak.
On the other side, you can focus on the exhausting activity of climbing the mountain itself. On the experience of fighting the pain. Reaching the peak is a nice cherry on top, but the true satisfaction comes from the ascend itself. In this case, you are going to climb not just this one mountain but many over a long time.
By focusing on the way instead of just the destination, we can experience more happiness.
Another example: You can either ask „Do you want to be the CEO of a very successful company?“ or you can ask „Do you want to put in 60h weeks and often deal with work that has little to do with your original profession?“ — both questions describe the job of a CEO, but the latter one is more helpful in terms of predicting your daily struggles. Because of this, it is the second question that will lead you to a healthier decision (actually not that many people like 60h weeks and derivation from their original profession 😉).
The „What pain do you want in your life?“ question is so helpful because it reminds us that it is the process of overcoming struggles that lead us to a happier life.
Manson claims that most often, people are scared of being „average“. The media conditions use for the extraordinary by showing us only the best, the worst, the funniest, the add-a-superlative things and people.
If we can acknowledge that most of our life is average, the pressure of „being great“ will be lifted.
Does that mean that one should not get inspired? Definitely not. There is a difference in looking at what the media provides to us in a comparing way (suggesting that because of certain conditions one might not be able to reach a similar level) and an inspiring way (showing what is possible).
Manson writes that the statement „Every person can be extraordinary and achieve greatness“ is useless because in this case there could be no extraordinary people at all. Personally, I would also add that „greatness“ is a subjective term — it might mean something different for every person.
We cannot always control what happens to us, but we can certainly control how we interpret what happens to us and how we respond to it. This does not mean one should strive for an „always stay positive“ view. It is perfectly fine to respond to certain situations by for example grief and still being aware that it is one’s own decision to act this way.
This is to say: Whatever happens, you are always responsible for your experience of the situation.
Although this might disappoint people who usually prefer not taking responsibility, it also means one is always in control. You can decide how to react to certain events, how to evaluate things and by what metric you measure your experiences — this is usually referred to as your value system.
There is an interesting part about taking responsibility: It makes one’s impression of getting oppressed disappear — which is usually the justification for being outraged and angry. One can easily try this „at home“: The next time you are angry, remember that you are responsible for this anger and your interpretation of the situation. Interestingly enough, your anger will vanish and reveal the true underlying need that is not being met. A very good resource for more information on how to deal with anger is the book „The Surprising Purpose of Anger: Beyond Anger Management: Finding the Gift“ by Marshall B. Rosenberg.
The media is making active use of people who do not take this responsibility by producing so-called „outrage porn“ — content designed to evoke anger and judgement of others. Publishing this kind of content leads to a chain reaction where outrage can be used as a topic to report on itself, hence creating even more anger and judgements.
As an answer to the question of how one can take more responsibility, Manson replies that „there is no ‘how’ […] you are already choosing […] what to give a f*ck about“. He says that you will go through rejections and some of your relationships might even break if you change the values they were built on. I understand that he emphasizes the focus on one’s values, however, I see additional tools available. For example, by using Nonviolent Communication you can emphasize with others and still express your values in a way that won’t hurt them. I think that just telling people to change their values without giving them the right tools might lead to pain and disaster.
Values and identity
As described above, it makes sense to choose the things we care about wisely. When choosing our values we can be truly scientific: Our values are hypotheses („this is good, this is bad“) and our actions are experiments, validating our values through the resulting emotions and thoughts.
This indicates that our values can and should change — trying to maintain a static set of values might prevent us from experimenting and growing. It is important to stay open-minded and critical about our values to allow this growth.
Mansons writes „The more something threatens your identity, the more you will avoid it“.
We often have a certain image in mind about ourselves, sometimes clear and sometimes lurking in our unconsciousness. This image usually represents our values which is why we tend to avoid things that attack this image (and hence our choice of values).
Because of this, „knowing yourself“ can be dangerous: it removes wiggle room for uncertainty in how you see yourself. Given that we usually avoid things that threaten our self-image, this can remove the potential to grow.
Buddhism even goes a step further and argues that there is no such thing as „you“ (a concept referred to as „Anatta“). Instead, our self-identity is a construct we make up. If we assume that there is no self-identity, there is also nothing that holds us back from changing our views and values.
To make it easier to challenge one’s views and values, Manson provides questions to help. When in doubt about a situation, one can gain new insights by answering them.
1. What would it mean if I were wrong?
There is the quote „It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it“ (some say it’s from Aristotle). You can reason from a perspective without necessarily accepting it. Putting yourself into such a position can yield astonishing insights that your mind usually blocks you from having (because it likes to recognize known patterns for a given stimulus). It also means that you might not like the answer and could get into the state of Cognitive Dissonance.
2. Would this alternative be better or worse for both myself and others?
This question motivates you to find the better situation, given your current view and the alternative view (having evaluated them from their respective standpoints). The „better situation“ is the one that yields more positive long-term results for everybody involved. Now the only thing left to do is to act according to this newly discovered alternative.
Motivation and Action
Usually, when we think about taking action, we assume a chain of things that lead to each other:
Inspiration → Motivation → Action
As one can see, without inspiration, no action. However, action leads in turn to inspiration. This means that it’s really an infinite loop:
… → Action → Inspiration → Motivation → Action → Inspiration → …
Knowing this, one can just start with the action and expect that inspiration, motivation and further action will follow. Doing that will lead to an upward spiral of motivation because it focuses on the process rather than the result of some action.
Freedom vs. Commitment
Complete freedom by itself means nothing. Freedom gives us the option to choose how we live, but ultimately achieving a sense of meaning and importance can only be reached through committing to one option (for example a place, belief or person).
This is because of the „paradox of choice“: The more options we’re given, the less satisfied we become with whatever we choose because we know about the other options and how we might be missing out on them. The paradox was first described in a study from 2001, but it does not only apply to marketing and business but also our personal lives.
I experienced this first hand on a vacation in Mexico: I travelled without a lot of preparation in true backpacking fashion. Not too long into the vacation, I felt a strong notion of frustration and sadness — I thought I was missing out on so many things I could have done if I had planned ahead. I got even more upset when I analyzed my emotions and judged myself as ungrateful for having such feelings in a trip that was supposed to be fun and enjoyable.
Luckily I had good companionship that brought me quickly back to reality. The Paradox of Choice had hit me hard — given so many different things to do, I was perplexed and could not make a choice, frozen by the fear of missing out. On top of that, I could not accept my frustration and sadness at that time which led to even more frustration. It was the picturesque version of the negative feedback loop described in the beginning.
Trying to avoid the paradox, one might strive to keep all options open or pursue a broad assortment of activities, jobs or even romantic relationships. However, there are some experiences you can only have by dedicating yourself to one place, job or relationship for a long time.
Committing yourself to certain aspects of your life will make decisions easier and remove the fear of missing out. If you know that what you have is good enough, why stress about chasing more?
Relationships and Trust
Healthy relationships have two indicators:
- How well can each person accept responsibility?
- How willing is each person to reject and be rejected by the other partner?
In an unhealthy relationship, two people try to solve each other’s problems to feel good about themselves. In a healthy relationship, two people try to solve their own problems to feel good about each other.
This does not mean that you should not support your partner, but rather that you should do so because you want to, not because you feel obliged to.
Often a toxic relationship is defined by a „victim“ and a „saver“ type, both using each other to achieve emotional highs — the victim denies responsibility and expects the saver to solve their problems, while the saver takes this responsibility and tries to make the victim happy.
If you are in a relationship and want to test how „healthy“ it is, you can simply ask yourself: „If I refused, how would the relationship change?“ and „If my partner refused something I wanted, how would the relationship change?“.
Manson states that „without conflict, there can be no trust“ — he is referring to honesty in relationships and the use of lies to not displease the partner. I strongly agree with him that honesty is an important core value of every relationship, however I believe that there can be disagreement without conflict. One can speak the truth without being hurtful and still build trust — this requires training and reflection but can be achieved through tools like NVC.
Even though I don’t always identify with the language used by Manson in „The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck“, I found the insights one can draw from it very valuable. I believe that it can be hugely impactful to allow „negative“ feelings and pain to shift one’s focus to self-chosen values. It is sometimes easy to forget that we don’t perceive reality but rather a certain version of it, filtered through media, the people surrounding us and — last but not least — our own brain.
If we can leave more space for uncertainty, both in judging others and ourselves, we are heading in the right direction.
Got thoughts on this? Write me a response!