A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam. – Frederik Pohl

Art knows better

To experience the truth in art reminds us that there is such a thing as truth. Truth lives. It can be found…

All the world’s power over us lies in its ability to persuade us that we are powerless to understand each other, to feel and see and love each other, and that therefore it is pointless for us to try. Art knows better, which is why the world tries so hard to make art impossible, to immiserate artists, to ban their work, silence their voices, and why it’s so important for all of us to, quite simply, make art possible.

  • Michael Chabon, in his last letter as chair of the MacDowell artists colony

Happiness and satisfaction

What we talk about as “happiness” is actually a set of biochemical reactions that happen inside our brains. About half of those are determined by our genetics, but the other half can be trained and improved.

There are many ways to train your happiness, but I find two especially important:

  • Noticing good things around you
  • Being content without them

Noticing good things

Much of “happiness” comes from noticing (consciously or unconsciously) the good things around you. Practicing happiness means focusing your attention on things you find beautiful, pleasing, delicious, fulfilling. Many people find gratitude journaling a good way to do this. Mindfulness meditation builds the ability to do this throughout your life.

Noticing good things can be easier when circumstances are good; however Victor Frankl highlights in Man’s Search for Meaning a moment when joy came from noticing a beautiful sunset even while headed to a prison camp:

If someone had seen our faces on the journey from Auschwitz to a Bavarian camp as we beheld the mountains of Salzburg with their summits glowing in the sunset, through the little barred windows of the prison carriage, he would never have believed that those were the faces of men who had given up all hope of life and liberty. Despite that factor–or maybe because of it–we were carried away from nature’s beauty, which we had missed for so long.”

Even those moments of noticing required a brief respite from pain, so a precursor to noticing good things is managing painful emotions. Fortunately the same practices of mindfulness and gratitude can help with processing and dealing with pain.

Being content

The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his own room – Blaise Pascal

In the modern world, we’re surrounded by physical and mental stimuli at all times. When those are removed, the emotional reaction can be so intense that people would rather give themselves electric shocks than experience the boredom of silence.

This dependence on external stimuli means our happiness is subject to our circumstances. If we can learn to be without those influences, our happiness will be more resilient. Taken to an extreme, if we were able to fully entertain ourselves with just the act of breathing, we wouldn’t need anything external to be perfectly happy.

Again, mindfulness meditation can train this ability, as can fasting–from food, entertainment or social media–and practices like keeping the Sabbath. Intentionally restricting what we consume builds our ability to be content without those things.

I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. – Paul, Philippians 4:11-13

Danish Folk High Schools

A Danish Folk High School is “a non-formal residential school offering learning opportunities in almost any subject.”

More generally, it’s a place where post-high-school age students can go live for a while and learn about community practices together.

The book The Nordic Secret argues that the invention of the folk high school in the 19th century is key to the rise of the once-poor Nordic societies since then. The “folk-bildung” it developed can be described as “character formation, cultural heritage and developing a moral backbone all in one.”

A sense of belonging; a connection with nature; social responsiblity; conscience and morality–how many of these are lacking in our current education systems?

Prosocial and cultural change

Prosocial is “a change method based on evolutionary science to enhance cooperation and collaboration for groups of all types and sizes that’s effective at a global scale.”

It combines Elinor Ostrom’s insights about the behaviors of effective groups with evolutionary science and theories of change–moving toward or away from goals, with visible and internal reactions–that can make existing groups more effective.

Prosocial was used to fight Ebola in Sierra Leone, where the facilitators worked with local people to create a new way of honoring the dead that didn’t cause more infections; and to design a new community park in Detroit.

Seshat Global History Database

Interesting database of the evolution of several cultures around the world–when they developed which technologies, religious beliefs, political systems, etc.

A Beautiful Future

Alex Steffen–futurist, author, founder of Worldchanging–believes that imagining a beautiful future is the key to saving humanity in the coming climate crisis:

Above all, the desire to make things beautiful…is a thing people are willing to fight for.

One way to look at the planetary crisis is to create something beautiful at the level of the necessary.

It’s not only about how to prevent something terrible…it’s about how to make beauty.

There are millions of people right now dying for the chance to see a future worth fighting for. And it’s our job to imagine it.”

Anarchy and our interconnected future

Most societal critiques today come from either the right or the left, so it was interesting to read this (very!) long analysis of multiple interconnected issues–democracy, capitalism, equality, opportunity, the climate crisis, technology, and more–from a self-professed anarchist perspective.

Near the end the author describes the central challenge of defining societal narratives that can compete with the dominant one:

We are increasingly being sold a transhumanist narrative in which nature and the body are presented as limitations to be overcome. This is the same old Enlightenment ideology that anarchists have fallen for time and again, and it rests upon a hatred of the natural world and an implicit belief in (Western) human supremacy and unfettered entitlement. It is also being increasingly used to make the capitalist future enticing and attractive, at a time when one of the primary threats to capitalism is that many people do not see things improving. If anarchists cannot recover our imagination, if we cannot talk about the possibility of a joyful existence, not only in fleeting moments of negation but also in the kind of society we could create, in how we could relate to one another and to the planet, then I don’t believe we have any chance of changing what happens next.

This is one of the few attempts I’ve read to even describe an alternative system encompassing economic, political, environmental, and technological aspects; the Green New Deal is another, though that’s still early in development. It’s clear that trying to change any single aspect of our interconnected society is doomed to fail against the inertia of the status quo; change will come all together or not at all.

Teaching corn to save the world

Agriculture is one of the major causes of our climate crisis (livestock emissions, clearcutting of forests), but a group of biologists at the Salk Institute are trying to breed crops that gobble up carbon from the air, while simultaneously strengthening their root systems.

The secret is in teaching them to build more suberin (aka cork) in their roots:

By understanding and improving just a few genetic pathways in plants, Salk’s plant biologists believe they can help plants grow bigger, more robust root systems that absorb larger amounts of carbon, burying it in the ground in the form of suberin…

Once the Salk team has developed ways to increase suberin in model plants, they will transfer these genetic traits to six prevalent crops: corn, soybean, rice, wheat, cotton/cottonseed and rapeseed/canola.

In addition to mitigating climate change, the enhanced root systems will help protect plants from stresses caused by climate changes and the additional carbon in the soil will make the soil richer, promoting better crop yields and more food for a growing global population.

This kind of piggy-backing on existing societal practices feels very promising…not quite turning a vice into a virtue, but hopefully making it less harmful.

Food and teams

Fascinating look into how one of the most successful coaches in the world builds team strength with carefully orchestrated meals:

I was friends with every single teammate I ever had in my [time] with the Spurs. That might sound far-fetched, but it’s true. And those team meals were one of the biggest reasons why. To take the time to slow down and truly dine with someone in this day and age — I’m talking a two- or three-hour dinner — you naturally connect on a different level than just on the court or in the locker room.