Category Archives: pleasure

The Life of Stuff and the Life of Simplicity

by Dr. Norris Frederick

(photo/graphic above (on website only) by Ida Osterman,
Queens University of Charlotte, used by permission)

(1 minute 25 seconds)

In the video clip above[1], George Carlin asks with his inimitable humor, “That’s the whole meaning of life, isn’t it: trying to find a place to put your stuff?”  In questioning “stuff” he’s making a very similar point to the question Epicurus asked in my most recent post about Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, “why did you buy all this crap in the first place?”

I wrote last time about Kondo’s methods, my own desk piled with papers and stuff, why Epicurus thinks Kondo does not go far enough, and the ideal of simplicity.  Some of you wrote me that Kondo’s method and the feeling of control brought by keeping only what brings you joy really works.  Some wrote wittily that your own working conditions are quite different from Kondo’s ideal.  One friend wrote, “My desk is about like yours, and I like it that way-it is comforting and makes me feel attached to life; however, I do declutter now and then.”  Another wrote, “I have a dual approach to my cluttering/hoarding/neurotic stacks, piles, and general messes:  avoidance and denial, which has long served me well; and motion—every time I move a pile it gets smaller, motion = attrition.”  A third wrote, “I am inclined to delete this challenging email, so I don’t have to think about the stacks of stuff in my office until they start toppling over.”

Several of you shared in different ways this later-life sentiment: “Being executor of my brother’s estate and having to deal with his entire lifetime of voluminous and useless clutter has at least made me think: I DO NOT want to leave tons of useless stuff for my kids to have to deal with when I am gone.”  And another friend said, “When I travel abroad, and especially to places like rural India and rural Jamaica, my sense of how much ‘stuff’ is really necessary gets – well – turned upside down. Basic needs must be met, of course, but we Americans live in what is arguably the most materialistic culture on the planet and we are products of our culture, whether we like it or not.”

These last two comments bring us back to “useless stuff.”  Epicurus asks us a question that goes far beyond Kondo’s book:

Why do you buy all this crap in the first place?  Why have you bought an enormous home and then tried to fill every part of it with expensive items?  Aren’t you constantly worried about paying the mortgage and buying even more expensive stuff that you see on the strange screen where you stare at this enormous marketplace?  

The Hedonic Treadmill

(photo/graphic above  by Ida Osterman,
Queens University of Charlotte, used by permission)

One pervasive force in accumulating stuff is what psychologists call the “hedonic treadmill”[2] (“hedone” is Greek for “pleasure”) :  the belief that gaining that new car or new shirt or a 5% raise that I see in front of me on the treadmill will finally bring me happiness.  However, as Jonathan Haidt writes, “Nerve cells respond vigorously to new stimuli, but gradually they ‘habituate,’ firing less to stimuli that they have become used to.”[3] Instead, over time and due to hedonic adaptation, that object attained loses its initial excitement and hope, and is replaced in our view by another object or later a bigger raise which we think will bring us happiness.  And our striving and stress on the treadmill goes on and on and on.

So perhaps we should do as Epicurus argues and focus only on the simple pleasures which have almost no negative consequences:  eating simple food and drinking inexpensive wine; reading; philosophical conversation; and friendship. In fact, however, the ideal relationship between material goods and the good life is complicated.  After all, even with all his emphasis on focusing in simple pleasures, the life of Epicurus and his followers required money to acquire the school he opened in the garden (“The Garden”) of his house.[4]

American History and The Ideal of Simplicity

A study of American history also demonstrates a frequent avowed love of simplicity but also the difficulties in living that life, as David Shi masterfully illustrated in his book The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture .[5]  The proper balance between achieving the necessities of life and following the higher calling of man, hoped the Puritan Governor John Winthrop, could make America a “shining city on a hill.” To help people achieve the good life, the Puritans enacted laws that prohibited the wearing of any vain accumulations of stuff:  gold buttons or silk scarves allowed.

So whereas the Epicureans invited followers to join them in choosing and living a simple life, the Puritans decided to cut out that cumbersome individual decision process and force citizens to live such a life.

The founding fathers of this country were strongly attracted to the histories of the late Roman republic which “portrayed the Republic as a serene, pastoral nation of virtuous citizens.” For a number of years, Thomas Jefferson hoped that the United States could be an industrial yet decentralized nation, and thus could maintain agrarian values. Jefferson declared himself an Epicurean, stating in a letter that “to be accustomed to simple and plain living is conducive to health and makes a man ready for the necessary task of life.”[6]

Of course Jefferson didn’t lead a particularly modest life, as knowledge of his slave plantation and a visit to Monticello make clear. But Jefferson stated an ideal that remained strong in America.

The individualistic spiritualism of the Transcendentalists in the mid‑19th century led to fascinating attempts to live out the simple life.  Emerson restates the idea of the Epicureans and Stoics when he writes, how “to spend a day nobly is the problem to be solved.”[7]  But Emerson’s home required domestic servants, which friend Thoreau criticized severely.  Thoreau went to Walden Pond (on land Emerson owned) to learn the necessities of life, and to write. His two‑year stay there relieved him of many illusions. The Indians and the farmers he met in his travels were not the noble children of nature his romanticism had pictured. He once was excited by meeting a Canadian woodsman who told Thoreau that if “it were not for books,” he “would not know what to do [on] rainy days.” Imagine Thoreau’s disappointment when he discovered that the man’s only books were “an almanac and an arithmetic” and that he knew nothing and cared less about spiritual views  or current social issues such as the antislavery movement.[8]

Thoreau decided that wilderness and the primitive life were necessary but not sufficient for the simple life, a view that became increasingly popular around the turn of the century and remains so today in somewhat different form, as we Americans climb into our “recreational vehicles” or take luxury cruises and either way take our computers with us on our return to nature, where often the first thing we do is to check the phone reception to see if it’s adequate for receiving internet.

What’s the Answer?

President Jimmy Carter addressed the growing consumerism of America in his famous “malaise” speech of July 18, 1979, saying, “owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning.  We have learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or meaning.”[9]

Epicurus pursues that meaning by focusing on some simple pleasures.  Instead of just carefully going through your stuff and getting rid of it, quit organizing your life around material possessions that ultimately distract you from a life spent on more important things, like friendship, reflection, memories that matter and the joy of being alive.

The Reverend Scott Killgore, once my student, now teaches me as he insightfully puts it all into perspective:

“I would argue that our cultural addiction to material possessions is a spiritual issue. Unless that spiritual struggle is acknowledged and dealt with, then we will find ourselves to be like addicts who struggle to break free, but repeatedly fall back into the clutches of whatever destructive addiction has taken hold of their lives.  Simplifying our lives in terms of material possessions is commendable, desirable, and something that would benefit most anyone. But, it may be more difficult to simplify our understanding of what makes us genuinely happy. 

“Simplifying our lives when it comes to material possessions is a good way to start, but it marks the beginning of a journey, not one’s arrival at a desired destination.

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[1] From YouTube, search “George Carlin Stuff.” Thanks to two friends who suggested this video.

[2] Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 86.  Haidt attributes the concept of hedonic adaptation to Brickman and Campbell’s article, “Hedonic relativism and planning the good society” (1971).

[3] Haidt, 86.

[4] John Cooper, Pursuit of Wisdom (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012),145.

[5] David Shi, The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture (Oxford University Press, 1985).

[6] Shi, 77.

[7] Shi, 130.

[8] Shi, 147.

[9] Shi, 271.

What Else Matters? Reality.

By Dr. Norris Frederick
First in a series

Thanks to those of you who responded to my most recent post about an assignment from my “Philosophy for Life” course, based on Nozick’s thought-experiment, “The Experience Machine.”  The ultimate virtual reality device, this machine can give you any experience you desire.  Any. I asked whether you would “plug into this machine for life, pre-programming your life’s desires.”  If not, why not: “What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?”[1]

For those of us who are getting a bit older (which I suppose would include everyone, wouldn’t it? …but you know what I mean), Dr, Nancy Gaillard wrote, “I think about this quite a bit as I realize there are so many things I can no longer do or places I can no longer go.” Instead of just occasionally having dream-fragments about running fast, I could program into the machine many long runs and even road races where I do well and have a great time, followed by delicious thirst-quenching beers being absorbed into my slim body (okay, I really went overboard, even in my imagination, with that last adjective).

But then Nancy went on to write, “I suppose that this kind of machine would be good but nothing compares to the actual adventures, both good and challenging, that give us perspective.”  There are several “what else matters to us” in her thought:  actuality, adventures, challenges, and perspective.  We might call each of these things a “good,” a type of thing that is desirable or has value for humans.

Let’s consider the first in the list, which I’ll call reality.  Reality matters to us, even though it is not always pleasant.  The first time I did this thought experiment with a class, one guy said, “Yes, I would plug in.”  When asked why, the student did not give a list of pleasures (such as endless ice cream sundaes, a date with the sexiest singer, etc.), but said “I can be with my friends whenever I want for as long as I want.”

“Aww, that’s sweet,” someone said.   Then someone questioned whether “for as long as I want” is true friendship.  Finally another student hit the nail on the head:  “You aren’t really with your friend, you’re just experiencing what appears to be your friend, but it’s not your friend.  It’s all you, it’s all in your head.”  “Ohhhh,” the first student got it.

Why This Thought Experiment?

A thought experiment is an imaginative exercise that gives us an opportunity to test our concepts and their limits, how they connect with other concepts, and which concepts are incompatible.  This particular thought experiment, for almost everyone, shows the limits of pleasure.  Pleasure is a fine thing indeed, but it’s not the only thing, and there are limits to the value of pleasure.  We value reality, too, even though we can’t always control it.  This lack of control makes possible adventures (if it’s all controlled, as in Disney World, it’s not really an adventure) and challenges, which we also value.  Our dealing with and reflecting about reality over time makes possible perspective.

I find this thought-experiment not only intriguing, but also vital as it leads us to ponder the values and limits of pleasurable experiences.  It’s easy for my students and the rest of us to recognize how those addicted to drugs value the drug pleasure and/or absence of pain over any other good:  relationships, family, health, and even food.  And for at least part of the time, they use the drugs successfully to avoid reality.  Poor them, we say.

It’s harder to recognize that for many of us non-drug addicts in the developed world, and certainly in the United States, there are ways in which we actual do inhabit the experience/pleasure machine a great deal of the time.  Most of us have “smart” cell phones, which remain a constant focus throughout the day.  To be sure, one of the reasons many people like the phones is that they offer extensions of real friendship, through voice, text, and email.  But those phones also provide endless distractions from our present reality:  cat videos, likes on Facebook, YouTube, music, Netflix, that ad that just popped up for shoes…. Then add time on the computer with all the preceding, and we actually are spending a good deal of time just seeking pleasurable experiences, whatever rocks your boat.

One measure of a person’s true values can be found in their expenditures.  How much do you or I spend a month on cell phones, cell phone service, and cable service for television and internet?

Again, in itself pleasure is a good, and as humans we are clearly wired to, …well…, like pleasure.  But it’s a matter of balance.  Aristotle is right: “What we need, in order to live well, is a proper appreciation of the way in which such goods as friendship, pleasure, virtue, honor and wealth fit together as a whole.”[2]

To be continued.

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[1] Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, p. 42 – 43 (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 2013, original paperback edition published in 1974).

[2] Richard Kraut, “Aristotle’s Ethics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),  https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-ethics/  and forthcoming URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2018/entries/aristotle-ethics/>.

Photo credit:  https://www.pinterest.com/pin/512847476286904880/

 

The Experience Machine

By Dr. Norris Frederick

This semester I’m teaching my course “Philosophy for Life:  What do Great Philosophers and Current Science Have to Say about True Happiness and a Good Life?” [i] The course raises and examines questions and conflicting views about happiness, whether some views are closer to “true” happiness, and whether happiness is the same as a good life.   One assignment asks students to consider and answer two questions about a thought-experiment created by Robert Nozick,[ii] “The Experience Machine.”  Today I want to give you, dear reader, an opportunity to think about and perhaps answer those questions yourself.  Here is the thought experiment.

“Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Super-duper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book.   All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life’s desires? …. Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think it’s all actually happening. Others can also plug in to have the experiences they want, so there’s no need to stay unplugged to serve them. (Ignore problems such as who will service the machines if everyone plugs in.) Would you plug in? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?”

So think about, perhaps talk about with others, those two questions:  “Would you plug in [for life]? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?”  Then if you wish you can write some of your thoughts either on my website (click here) or on my Facebook or Instagram pages.

Next month I’ll reflect on the thought-experiment and your responses.

 


[i]  The course is part of a learning community called “The Pursuit of Happiness,” which also includes a class in sociology and a class in rhetoric & argument. I am grateful to my colleagues Jay Wills, Sarah Creech, Tracey Perez, and Jenn Goddu for the opportunity to work with them in this learning community.

[ii]  Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, p. 42 – 43 (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 2013, original paperback edition published in 1974).

Photo credit:  Norris Frederick