A few weeks ago a friend loaned me The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck (2016), by Mark Manson. I just finished it, and — while I’m not a big fan of self-help books — I give this one an Ah! rating. Manson’s approach, contrary to our modern norm, is not about finding happiness, but about choosing the pain worth seeking (and letting the happiness come through our fulfillment).
The subtle part is that not giving a f*ck doesn’t mean one stops caring. The subtle part is learning to be selective about what matters to us.
The counterintuitive part is that chasing happiness leads to misery.
Now that we’re below the fold, I won’t be using asterisks in the venerable word “fuck” — Manson certainly doesn’t once past the title. (In fact, it might be amusing to count the “fucks” per page. One characteristic of the book is the language and bluntness. I found that ever so slightly off-putting and very refreshing.)
One reason I don’t usually find value in self-help books is, ironically, expressed in the title of another self-help-ish book: All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten (1989), by Robert Fulghum.
While I don’t think it’s literally true, there is a great deal of truth to it. Life teaches us lessons throughout our lives (if we but listen and learn), but I’ve always felt the foundation is poured early.
As Fulghum writes:
Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. […] Live a balanced life — learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some. […] Be aware of wonder. […] Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup — they all die. So do we.
What would the world be like if we all built on that foundation?
As it turns out, I found quite a few bits in Manson’s book worth talking about:
Unfortunately, I can only touch on some of them.
Manson starts with a crucial and true observation:
The desire for a more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience.
This is one of those deceptively simple truths that comes only with experience (it’s not really a kindergarten lesson).
We cannot chase happiness, for it will always elude, forever just out of reach, and this will make us miserable. This is especially true if we measure success by material things. (Can there ever be enough wealth, awards, or power? Is that demon ever satisfied? Have you ever noticed how, very often, people who seem to have little or nothing still find joy in life?)
As Manson points out, we have a limited number of fucks to give in life. (If one lives to be 80, one gets only 960 months on this Earth. Not even 1000.)
Our sanity, let alone our happiness, depends on choosing what to give a fuck about:
There is a subtle art to not giving a fuck. And though the concept may sound ridiculous and I may sound like an asshole, what I’m talking about here is essentially learning how to focus and prioritize your thoughts effectively — how to pick and choose what matters to you […] based on finely honed personal values. This is incredibly difficult. It takes a lifetime of practice and discipline to achieve. And you will regularly fail. But it is perhaps the most worthy struggle one can undertake in one’s life. It is perhaps the only struggle in one’s life.
That’s almost the book right there: The lifetime struggle to find meaning and happiness in finding what truly matters.
If it were only that simple. As with many self-help books, there is an assumption of privilege (and a disregard for circumstance and luck).
Especially in the current climate where, as Jon Stewart put it recently, “America suddenly stopped and smelled the racism,” I had a strong sense of the privileged position from which Manson speaks. It was an undercurrent that buzzed at me throughout the book.
In fact, one reason I can only give the book an Ah! rating is the utter lack of awareness of poverty and racism. (Manson, world-traveler that he was, even mentions a trip to South Africa without mentioning the social realities even in passing.)
The facts of life for many are the daily struggle to survive among the surreal systemic prejudices of institutionalized racism, poverty, and misogyny. Many simply do not have choices that amount to much. This is bizarro world where just the color of your skin can get you killed.
To be blunt, many of the things people seek self-books about fall, in my mind, very squarely under the rubric of First World Wealthy White People Problems.
That said, I applaud one of Manson’s key messages: You’re not special! (So get over yourself and learn to play nice with others. That is a kindergarten lesson.)
Manson touches on a theme I’ve hammered on repeatedly here about feelings versus thinking, about over-identifying with one’s emotions and letting them control us.
As I’ve put it, “The head steers, but the heart pushes.” Our passions are the fuel, but there must be a thoughtful captain guiding the ship.
As Manson puts it:
You know who bases their entire lives on their emotions? Three-year-old kids. And dogs. You know what else three-year-olds and dogs do? Shit on the carpet.
As he goes on to point out, emotions don’t last. We get used to emotional satisfaction and need larger hits all the time. It’s what psychologists sometimes call the “hedonic treadmill” — that we’re always reaching for a higher high and finding it less satisfying each time.
In the chapter “The Value of Suffering” Manson relates the story of WWII Japanese soldier Hiroo Onoda, who in the last stages of the war was sent to an island in the Philippians with instructions to fight at all costs and never surrender.
The war ended less than a year later, in 1945, but Onoda and his men never got the message. They continued to fight guerilla warfare against what was now the civilian population of the island.
Attempts to drop leaflets were ignored as enemy lies. The locals began to fight back, and by 1969 Onoda was the last one left. But no one could find him.
In 1972, Norio Suzuki, a Japanese “hippie” and world-traveler, decided he would search for — and find — Onoda. Which he did (in four days), and Onoda was soon brought back to Japan where he became a celebrity.
He was utterly miserable. The Japan he knew, had fought for, was gone. He hated modern Japan and became little more than a side-show attraction railing about old values. In 1980 he left Japan for Brazil (where he died).
Suzuki died in the Himalayas searching for the abominable snowman.
The point is that both men lived most fully when they were most “miserable” living on bugs in the jungle or searching the high snows for a mythical creature. It fulfilled them.
More to the point, Onoda’s celebrity and comfort in Japan not only meant nothing, they invalidated everything he’d been fighting for.
The chapter “You are wrong about everything (But so am I)” made me think of how science works.
All our theories, to one degree or another, are provisional. They reflect our best understanding at the time. Many have fallen by the wayside as we’ve found better ones. (Lo, the Sun doe not circle the Earth!)
A good way to approach life is to realize our understanding of it is provisional. Put more bluntly, we’re usually more wrong about life than right, but if we pay attention to reality, we can become a little bit better.
Just like science. The daily goal is to become a little bit less wrong.
One key is recognizing that we don’t really know which of our experiences are truly positive or negative until after the fact. (Another reason to stop seeking “positive” experiences.) Onoda may have hated eating bugs in the jungle — a classic “negative” experience — but it gave his life meaning. It fulfilled him.
Manson relates the tale of Dave Mustaine, a rock guitarist who was unceremoniously fired from the metal band he played with.
Embittered, Mustaine determined to show those guys the error of their ways. Long story short, he worked his ass off and formed the famous band Megadeth, which sold 25 million albums and toured the world many times. Mustaine became well-known as brilliant and influential.
Major success story, right? Not so fast. Mustaine was miserable.
The band he was kicked out of was Metallica, who sold 180 millions albums and is widely considered to be the best metal band ever.
Mustaine’s main goal in life was showing up his former band mates, and that he utterly failed to do. Instead of the happiness of an amazing career, he saw himself as a failure.
How crushing must that have been in retrospect?
But Best went on to have a happy life with a stable marriage and a loving family. He also pursued his musical career well into the 2000s. He lost the fame of being “Ringo” but he gained everything that really mattered.
Simply put, Mustaine valued the wrong things. Best didn’t.
Earlier in the book Manson tells the story of a king in (what is now) Nepal who decided his son would want for nothing. The boy was sheltered from the world and given the best of everything, his every whim granted.
The kid was kind of a prick. Nothing meant anything.
So he snuck out of the palace only to discover a world of sickness, poverty, and filth. But rather then return to empty luxury, the prince decided to embrace this world, for surely in starving and living in the dirt there would be meaning.
Years passed, and there was no meaning. The prince discovered what we all know: Suffering sucks!
Confused, he cleaned himself up and went to sit under a tree until he figured out what to do. According to legend, he sat there for 49 days and did come to some profound revelations.
Among them was this simple fact: Life is suffering. It is a fact of all lives.
Millions know that prince as The Buddha.
That is the true lesson: Life is suffering. For everyone.
Contentment, if not happiness, if not joy, comes from our choices to pursue that which fulfills us, even knowing the path is hard.
As the saying goes, happiness is a journey, not a destination. It’s a choice. We hold the keys to our own happiness.
We always have.
Stay struggling, my friends!