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    Finding meaning in life

    What do humans need to be happy in life? The argument has sparked numerous debates for centuries. Some have argued that we can be happy so long as our basic needs for food and shelter and social connection are taken care of. Others have argued that we can be happy even in the face of indescribable suffering so long as we know how to control and guide our own minds. Over the last 70 years, more and more psychotherapists have come to the conclusion that human beings cannot be happy without a sense of meaning in life. I think this goes too far. Meaning is only one of the paths to happiness.…

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    Arguing with the universe

    Social media provide a strange playground for a psychologist. You get to watch people interacting, like a fly on the wall, much less intrusively than in real life. Each platform has its idiosyncrasies. Facebook ‘friendships’ mostly follow real-life ones, whilst Twitter and Reddit are dominated by relationships that exist only in cyberspace. Over the last couple of years, people have become more and more worried that these media may be causing or exacerbating a social divide. For example, in the political sphere, the centre-right and centre-left voices are being drowned out by the far-left and far-right. Numerous scholars and commentators have blamed social media. There might be some truth to…

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    Opportunity cost

    Our wonderful, complex, modern world provides myriad opportunities. And so, of course, it presents us with many thousands of choices to make, and just as many opportunity costs. Unlike 99% of everyone who ever lived on this planet, you can take a glowing rectangle out of your pocket, tap it a few times, and have food delivered to your home within a day or two. We should pause to notice just how astonishingly wonderful this is. But we should notice too the opportunity costs. For example, barring a zombie apocalypse, most of the people reading this post will never learn to hunt their own dinner. OK, maybe that’s not important…

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    How to spend less money

    There are many ways to get better at money management, though you wouldn’t know it from reading personal development blogs. They pretty much all recommend you plan out a budget and stick to it strictly, month in, month out. You set up a spreadsheet or pay for some shockingly expensive bespoke software and audit your expenditure at the end of every month. It works just fine, but it’s like counting calories. It’s tedious, and there’s a real risk you’ll one day break the diet in an alarming binge. Another approach is to change your mindset when it comes to money. Do this and frugal habits may become automatic. I think…

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    Using social media to live a better life

    We live in the age of the selfie, of Facebook, of Instagram, of self-generated content. This isn’t unprecedented narcisism, as some would have us believe. It’s the modern equivalent of boring your friends with four packets of photographs from you recent trip. In many ways, the modern approach is better. Tweaking an Instagram filter is fun. Re-taking a selfie until you get one without bags under your eyes might be desirable. Taking things further, learning about composition and the technology behind digital cameras, can be worthwhile. But if we’re not careful, we can end up as a sort of fifth-rate journalist. We can spend more time crafting the adjectives than…

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    The power of ritual

    Not too long ago, I read Mason Curry’s Daily Rituals — How Artists Work. It’s a fascinating book. Literally. I could hardly put it down. And yet, I hesitate to recommend it. The reason for my hesitation has more to do with the book’s reception than with the book itself. Oliver Burkman, writing for the Guardian describes how he was inspired by Curry’s book to change his own daily habits and rituals — rising early like Hemingway, drinking strong coffee like Beethoven, and walking outdoors like Franklin. He goes on to produce (a perhaps tongue-in-cheek) listicle based on Curry’s book, eplaining to readers, amongst other things, that practicing strategic substance abuse and…

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    In pursuit of happiness

    Since the time of Aristotle, great thinkers have discussed two types of happiness. One type can come from chocolate, an expertly made cup of coffee, a spot of sunbathing, or a good back scratch. Such things are said to bring hedonic happiness. If we were being a little less pompous, we might say ‘pleasure’. Hedonic happiness might also be identified in the absence of pain and suffering. The pleasure of a good night’s sleep is often unavailable to us when we have some important matter pressing on our minds. The other kind of happiness is eudaimonia, which Prof Daniel Robinson (Georgetown and Oxford) has referred to as ‘living a flourishing…

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    Monkey brain, lizard brain

    Thoughts and feelings get in the way more often than we would like. We don’t often acknowledge the fact, perhaps because we’re too close to the phenomenon to see it for what it is. Let’s say you decide to lose weight. What’s likely to be your biggest obstacle? You’ll almost certainly have urges to eat unhealthy foods, and these will likely become stronger the more you attempt to stick to your diet. In fact, food cravings are one of the main reasons dieters give for failing to stick to their diet. Imagine you have decided to write the next great American novel. What stops you waking up each morning and…

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    Everything popular is wrong

    You probably know that in 1912 China banned the practice of foot binding. Until then, for a millennium, many thousands of young girls were subjected to a culturally supported but dangerous practice wherein the foot was broken, twisted, and bound, so as to give it a more aristocratic appearance. It lead to disability and life-long pain. Why then was it considered aristocratic? Well, frankly, it’s only if you’re wealthy you can afford to have useless feet. All cultures have such practices. The Western sociologist Thorstein Veblen famously wrote of ‘conspicuous consumption’ — the spending of money on luxury goods and services merely as a display of economic power. A BMW might get…

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    Caring too much about what other people think

    In the dying years of the twentieth century, and the first few decades of the twenty-first, a remarkable shift occured in the American psyche. This has been described by numerous scholars as the transition from a general concern with character, to a preoccupation with personality°. The somewhat simplified story goes like this: People used to be concerned about what kind of person they really were, deep down. Some scholars claim this was to do with a worry over how god would judge them, others refute that. Either way, what mattered was inside, what kind of person one knew oneself to be. As one century gave way to another, your (great)…