The Addition Culture

I often hear people ask a variation of the following question:  what food (drink, pill, etc) could I be eating (drinking, taking, etc) that would make me healthier?  It sounds like a fair question at first, right?  However, not all questions are created equal.  Before analyzing your health and lifestyle, it would thus seem prudent to first figure out if this is the right question to be asking.

What should I add questions, like the one aforementioned, immediately sound an alarm in my head.  This is because people who ask this type of question are operating (often blindly) under the assumption that health is largely gained through the process of addition.  I, however, start with a very different assumption, i.e., I believe that the key to getting healthier comes largely through the removal of things from our diets and lifestyles, not through adding things.  Now, I certainly realize that I’m in the minority with this opinion (well, maybe not amongst the regular readers of this blog, but certainly with the general public).

The reason that this opinion isn’t very popular is because we live in an addition culture. In other words, we live in a culture that desperately wants you to believe that addition is the path to health.  Why is this so?  Cynic that I am, I believe the answer is simple: people who sell magical pills (and things like healthy açaí smoothies) clearly have an ulterior motive to promote an addition culture.  To put it in economic terms, they have a financial incentive for you to believe in the power of addition because subtraction just isn’t all that profitable.

Many people the world over have lived long and healthy lives without things like açaí or goji berries. Now, these types of berries may not necessarily cause harm when eaten (and they may even be good for you), but they aren’t mandatory to eat in order to have good health or achieve longevity either. Paying absurd prices for them, then, seems foolish.

I also think it’s easy to forget that many doctors are more interested in prescribing pills than they are in making sure you stay healthy. In his online notebook, Nassim Taleb wrote that Michel de Montaigne realized (back in the 16th century) that the last thing a doctor needs is for you to be healthy. This is a variation of the agency problem, which basically means that there is a conflict of interest at play in the doctor-patient relationship. If everyone were living a vibrant healthy life, what would doctors and pharmaceutical companies charge people for?

It’s easy to forget that the human body has this amazing ability to heal itself, if we let it. Particularly when it comes to health, I believe the power of subtraction plays a bigger role than does addition. Now, let’s be clear, I’m not suggesting an extreme position here, because obviously we do need some things to live. And adding or replacing some things in your diet or lifestyle can be beneficial too. However, addition often adds complexity and increased risk without adding much upside.

Think about it this way, the most potent health advice in the last 60 years was negative advice: Don’t smoke!  Most of us, however, are bombarded with the message that addition is the path to health everyday. And sadly, even the most thoughtful and bright people in the world often mistake repetition for truth.

Lessons in Practical Pessimism

This essay is about an experience I recently had and is annotated with six notes that we can learn from the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.

I recently boarded an airplane, after a two-week long vacation, at a London Heathrow terminal. Suffering from a vacation hangover, I was, needless to say, looking forward to a calm and relaxing trans-Atlantic flight home (if there is such a thing). At the very least, I was hoping that I would be able to read and nap in at least a somewhat quiet atmosphere. Oftentimes, however, our hopes don’t align with reality.

Low and behold, the experience I’m about to describe was one of those times. Less than five minutes after the plane went airborne I felt the back of my seat being kicked by a couple of squirmy young children seated behind me. Then, I heard the primal screams of not one, but two separate babies. Although this was not the first time I had been annoyed on an airplane, I still became immensely frustrated. Damn-it, why did it have to be this time?

I had recently read Arthur Schopenhauer’s book, Essays and Aphorisms, and this situation ultimately reminded me that my optimistic hopes, paradoxically, became the root cause of my anger and frustration. Had I been a pessimistic about my flight before boarding the airplane my frustrations at the ensuing situation may have escaped me. Perhaps at the end of the flight, I may may have cheerily noted that although the flight was not exactly pleasant, at least the airplane didn’t crash.[1]

Many people find Schopenhauer’s brand of pessimism repulsive (he’s arguably the most pessimistic philosopher of all-time), but I, however, think there is some wisdom buried beneath his seemingly disturbing and misanthropic philosophies. Carl Jung, describing Schopenhauer, once wrote: “Here at last was a philosopher who had the courage to see that all was not for the best in the fundaments of the universe.”[2]

Admittedly, I’m not exactly known for my Pollyannaish tendencies; however, I’m probably more optimistic than most. Strangely, despite my somewhat optimistic bent, I’ve become fascinated over the past couple of years with the work of Schopenhauer, who once wrote, “Life is a sorry business, I have resolved to spend it reflecting upon it.”

Schopenhauer was born in 1788 in Danzig (Gdansk, Poland). His father was a wealthy merchant and his mother had a reputation as a socialite who reportedly was friends with the legendary Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. After his father’s alleged suicide, Schopenhauer was left a fortune so large that he would never have to work. Whether this was a blessing or a curse is highly debatable, but it allowed Schopenhauer to enjoy the luxury of time, which is necessary to philosophize.

Schopenhauer, to put it mildly, was a disciplined individual. He supposedly wrote for three hours every morning, then played the flute for an hour, then ate a large lunch. He also walked for two hours a day (regardless of the weather), spent his afternoons reading, and his evenings at the opera or theater.

At the opera house and theater, he was often disgusted by the vast amounts of noise he perceived his fellow opera and theater patrons would make. To that point, he once wrote, “I have for a long time been of the opinion that quantity of noise anyone can comfortably endure is in inverse proportion to his mental powers.”  Schopenhauer was generally fond of the Stoic philosopher, Seneca; however, they clearly differed in opinion on how best to deal with uncontrollable noise from others.[3]

Here are a few other interesting tidbits about Schopenhauer:  He read Plato and Kant almost exclusively. He considered history of any kind unnecessary. And his desire for fame caused him to suffer from megalomaniac delusions — Go figure!

Without being too technical, there is one oversimplified idea surrounding Kantian metaphysics that must be understood in order to fully appreciate Schopenhauer, i.e., there are two worlds; the ‘real’ world (the thing in itself) and the ‘apparent’ world (the world of phenomena). In other words, appearance is not necessarily reality. Schopenhauer vehemently believed that many of his German contemporaries, namely Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, misunderstood Kant and he wrote them off as charlatans.

Schopenhauer coined the term the “will-to-life” (sometimes referred to simply as “Will”), which can be defined as an inherent drive, devoid of rationality or intellect, within human beings to stay alive and reproduce. There is a chapter in Alain de Botton’s book, The Consolations of Philosophy, in which he eloquently describes the nature of the “Will” and what it does to people. “The will-to-life led even committed depressives to fight for survival when they were threatened by a shipwreck or grave illness. It ensured that the most cerebral, career-minded individuals would be seduced by the sight of gurgling infants, or if they remained unmoved, that they were likely to conceive a child anyway, and love it fiercely on arrival. And it was the will-to-life that drove people to lose their reason over comely passengers encountered across the aisles of long-distance trains.”

What I think Schopenhauer was getting at is that we didn’t necessarily evolve to be happy, but rather to reproduce. In fact, we are hardwired with reproductive urges that are often detrimental to our happiness.[4] To paraphrase Mr. de Botton, love is nothing but the conscious manifestation of the “Will’s” search for an ideal and genetically fit co-parent; happiness in the relationship, unless consciously focused on, bears no say in our animalistic sexual desires.  Alas, the fact that some people are able to experience happiness at all in a relationship is truly amazing.

What advice would Schopenhauer offer up young people today? Perhaps the following: “Much would have been gained if through timely advice and instruction young people could have had eradicated from their minds the erroneous notion that the world has a great deal to offer them.” Unfortunately, in our culture of praise and mandatory positive thinking, many of us don’t hear this message.[5]

Schopenhauer was also an unknowing behavioral economist. He understood that, “…as a rule we find pleasure much less pleasurable, pain much more painful than we expected.” In other words, positive experiences don’t make us as happy as we think they will and negative experiences make us more miserable than we thought they would.[6]

Thinking back, the reason, I think, that I was frustrated on that airplane is that I was under the foolishly naive belief that travel plans never go awry. I had hoped for one thing and was disappointed. Perhaps Schopenhauer could have consoled me, after-all, he once wrote: “Hope is the confusion of the desire for a thing with its probability.” Had I expected something far worse than being jolted back and forth in my seat and cries of babies, I may in fact have been pleasantly surprised at the otherwise unfortunate situation life presented to me.

Schopenhauer recognized that life is teeming with unavoidable frustration that causes us to needlessly suffer.  This suffering, however, can be eradicated by looking at the world through a certain philosophical lens.  I like to think of this concept as “Schopenhauer’s practical pessimism”.

Pessimistic thinkers, contrary to popular belief, are often strangely and paradoxically the most uplifting. If we believe that we exist to be happy we are likely to encounter a lifetime of frustrations that cause deep unhappiness.  Happiness, whatever little we may experience, is merely an added side benefit of this thing we call life and we should be thankful for that.

Take a lesson from Arthur Schopenhauer: be a practical pessimist. You might just find that you live in a better world then you initially thought. And this, assuredly, is a pleasant surprise.


[1] Practice ‘negative visualization’, a psychological technique used by Stoic philosophers, which involves contemplating (not dwelling) on negative events. Using negative visualization can create unexpected happiness when the worst doesn’t occur.

[2] Understand the difference between positive and normative ideas and you will likely be alleviated from unnecessary suffering due to overly optimistic hopes. In other words, seeing the world for how it is, rather than how it ought to be, is a great way to avoid unrealistic expectations about existence and happiness.

[3] Understand that there are some things we can fully control, some things we can’t control at all, and some things we have some control over. Both Schopenhauer and the Stoics remind us that worrying about things you have no control over is utterly pointless, but failing to act on the things you can actual exert some control over is foolish too.

[4] Realize that despite the ineffable flaws in human nature, we at least have the ability to reason, which can help us fight our self-destructive behaviors. Find personal ways to avoid these self-destructive behaviors that stem from our insatiable desires.

[5] Recognize that it’s OK to be unhappy sometimes. Allowing yourself to be unhappy is, paradoxically, a key to happiness in the long term. Sometimes life flat out sucks. Don’t worry, this means you are normal. It’s our inflated expectations of thinking that we deserve to be happy all the time that cause us much suffering.

[6] Chose your speed wisely. We spend our lives walking or running on what is called the hedonic treadmill. This means that as we make more money (or gain more of something) our expectations and desires rise in tandem with the increase in our monetary wealth. The unfortunate side effect is that we eventually recalibrate to our old level of happiness and thus experience no permanent gain in happiness. Humans are also loss averse, which means that we experience more pain from losing things we already have than we do pleasure from gaining things we don’t have. There is no way to escape the hedonic treadmill, but you can control which speed you choose to set it at.

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The Retirement Hoax

Ernest Hemingway once said, “retirement is the ugliest word in the English language” and I think he was right. So what exactly do we want from retirement?  Is it freedom from work?  Is it freedom to be ourselves?  Is it being wealthy (whatever that means)? I’m not really sure, but the whole concept of retirement seems like a fools errand to me.

The conventional argument for retirement goes something like this:  Work a job you hate now so that you can really live at some date in the future that’s yet to be determined.  Ignore your ambitions for meaningful and fulfilling pursuits now because you need to be saving money for later.  Diminish the quality of your life now so that you can obtain an undefined comfortable lifestyle in the future.  If all goes to plan you’ll finally be able to afford the luxury of being yourself at the ripe age of 65.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “but Greg, you’re a dreamer!” I understand that it takes money to live and I’m certainly not denying that reality.  I’m not implying that saving money is a bad idea.  I’m not implying that living recklessly is prudent.  I’m simply pointing out that the future is not guaranteed and retirement may not be all that it is cracked up to be.  Wouldn’t it be a shame to get to age 65 before you learned that lesson?  Following the conventional retirement plan is gambling, except that even if you win, the payout isn’t all that grand.

The conventional definition of retirement would have us believe that one reason people strive to retire early is so they can ultimately quit working.  The great irony is that many people end up working in retirement anyway, often out of choice, not need.  Working in old age is often thought of as punishment for not earning enough in your earlier years.  In my opinion, nothing could be further from the truth. I know many people who could have retired long ago, but choose to continue working because of the fulfillment and meaning their careers bring to their life.

So, if it turns out that freedom from work isn’t the answer, then why not start the search for a meaningful and fulfilling career immediately instead of waiting until retirement?

Another purported benefit of retiring is the freedom to finally be yourself.  You no longer have to wear a mask and abide by the unspoken customs of Corporate America, which include myriad forced awkward social interactions, such as company happy hours.  When you retire, you finally have the time to focus on the things that matter to you and the important people in your life.  Of course, you could take off the mask and start living this way right now.  Is killing yourself to live really worth that promotion or raise?

We often tell ourselves “if only I had “X” amount of dollars, then I could retire.”  The problem, of course, is that this number is not stagnant.  As desires grow so too does this number.  This is how people end up working a job they hate for their entire life.  Many people cite lack of money as a problem, but in reality it’s simply a perception problem.  There are two ways to become wealthier: increase income or decrease desires.  It might take years to increase the former, but the latter can be changed this instant with one simple decision.

Wealth is relative to desire and is not an absolute. In his book, Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton wrote some words that have become permanently etched into my mind. “Every time we yearn for something we cannot afford, we grow poorer, whatever our resources.  And every time we feel satisfied with what we have, we can be counted as rich, however little we may actually possess.”

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