Tag Archives: human nature

Agree? “It Is Hard, So Terribly Hard, to Please Yourself…It Is Almost the Hardest Thing in the World.”

“It is hard, so terribly hard, to please yourself. Far from being the easy thing that it sounds like, it is almost the hardest thing in the world, because we are not always comfortable with that true self that lies deep within us.”
–Christopher Alexander, The Nature of Order Book Four: The Luminous Ground

I agree. It is so, so hard to please yourself.

The more I write about happiness and human nature, the more clearly I see this.

But it sure does sound easy.

What do you think? Do you find it hard, or easy, to please yourself?

How I Do My Research: Is “Despite” Actually “Because?”

People often ask me, “How do you do your research?”

I’m a kind of street scientist. I don’t have a lab full of undergrads eating marshmallows to study; I rely on my own observations.

Really, I feel more like Samuel Johnson or William Hazlitt or George Orwell, in the way that I analyze human nature. I love reading the science, and I think about the science all the time, but in the end, I pay the most attention to what I see around me. And what I read — not just science, but memoirs, biographies, novels.

I tell people this, and they say, “But how do you draw any conclusions?”

I can never think of a good answer. I just read a lot, talk to people a lot, take gigantic amounts of notes, and ponder. I look for patterns. Certain actions or remarks strike my attention, often for reasons that take me months to identify.

But it did occur to me that I’ve hit on one very useful analytic technique, without quite realizing it.

If I’m stumped by something I see, I substitute “because” for “despite,” and see if a proposition makes sense.

For instance, one thing that puzzled me tremendously when I was writing Better Than Before was the number of people who trained for the marathon as a way to get into the habit of running. But over and over, people told me, they’d had a great experience training, they’d successfully run the marathon — and then they’d stop running! This seemed counter-intuitive to me. Wouldn’t hitting a big goal like completing the marathon make people more committed to their habits? These people didn’t make sense.

Then I realized: I’d been thinking, Despite the fact that they successfully ran the marathon, these runners quit running.” What if I thought, “Because of the fact that they successfully ran the marathon, these runners quit running.” Eureka! For the first time, I was able to grasp the great danger posed by finish lines in forming habits. (To read more, check out the chapter on the Strategy of Reward in Better Than Before.)

This technique works surprisingly often.

Despite the fact that Americans are eating less fat than before, obesity levels continue to rise” becomes Because of the fact that Americans are eating less fat than before, obesity levels continue to rise.” This was a huge Lightning Bolt for me! For more on this, read Gary Taubes’s Why We Get Fat.

A friend told me about taking her father to the doctor, and although the doctor emphasized the importance of following his instructions for taking medicine, and how he’d be monitoring to see if the medicine had been taken, her father wouldn’t take the medicine. “Despite the fact that the doctor ordered him to take the medicine, and checks up on him, her father won’t take the medicine.” Could it be that “Because of the fact that the doctor ordered him to take the medicine, and checks up on him, her father won’t take his medicine.” Yes! Her father is a Rebel.

I’m sure my legal training was helpful here. In law, you always have to make the contrary argument, to push as hard as you can to make the opposite points, to make your case as strong as it can be.

Have you ever discovered that a “Despite” is actually a “Because?” Or do you have other techniques you use to figure things out?

Can a Vine Behave like an Olive Tree? No.

A vine cannot behave olively, nor an olive tree vinely—it is impossible, inconceivable. No more can a human being wholly efface his native disposition.

–Epictetus, Discourses, 2.20.18

This is what has struck me most in my study of habits. We can’t change our fundamental nature. We have to form the habits that work for us.

An Owl shouldn’t bother trying to form the habit of getting up early to exercise. A Moderator shouldn’t bother trying to form the habit of giving up sugar. A Sprinter shouldn’t both trying to form the habit of doing a little work each day, well before a deadline.

Those are great habits for Larks, Abstainers, and Marathoners. But there’s no magic, one-size-fits-all-solution for habits. Unfortunately.

An olive tree can’t act like a vine, and an Obliger won’t form habits the way that an Upholder will.

When we know ourselves, and figure out how to shape our habits to suit our native disposition–that’s when we succeed.

How about you? Have you ever found it much easier to form a habit when you changed your approach to be better suited to your nature? Your love (or dislike) of competition? Your love (or dislike) of spare decoration? Your love (or dislike) of bold changes?

You can pre-order my book about habit change, Better Than Before, here–but don’t worry, that’s not the actual cover of the book. Pre-orders really help a book, so if you’re inclined to buy it, I really appreciate a pre-order.

“Them Stories Just Gone and Shown You How Some Folks Would Do.”

“I lent some stories to a country lady who lives down the road from me, and when she returned them, she said, “Well, them stories just gone and shown you how some folks would do,” and I thought to myself that that was right; when you write stories, you have to be content to start exactly there—showing how some specific folks will do, will do in spite of everything.”

–Flannery O’Connor, “Writing Short Stories,” in Mystery and Manners

I’m not sure why I love this quotation so much, but I think about it all the time. Perhaps it’s because in my own writing, I’m always trying to understand what I’m seeing right in front of me–what some folks (including me) will do, will do in spite of everything.