“Thus the sovereign voluntary path to cheerfulness, if our spontaneous cheerfulness be lost, is to sit up cheerfully, to look round cheerfully, and to act and speak as if cheerfulness were already there.”
It is always refreshing to get a perspective from an outsider. In the United States today everyone seems to be rushing around, working constantly, and suffering from information overload. In 1899, William James’s The Gospel of Relaxation illustrates that America has always been a hardworking country. Often, this is taken to a fault. We are obsessed with busyness and we often confuse business with productivity.
This idea is amplified by hourly wages. People are paid per hour of their time, so they care about how long they work rather than how productive they are. This form of pay does not provide an incentive to do better work.
The American Mindset
Hard work is virtuous and should be celebrated, but only when it’s smart work. A culture that values the idea of work more than the fruits of labor is a sick culture. James wrote, “American over-tension and jerkiness and breathlessness and intensity and agony of expression are primarily social, and only secondarily physiological phenomena.” People are over-worked, not in the sense that they spend too many hours working, but too many hours mentally at work. That is, too many hours thinking about work and responsibilities.
The ability for someone to work hard and be able to relax completely is a rare skill. There is a very common archetype of a person who can work hard but never enjoy personal and family time. A good example is Willy Loman, in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. The opposite side of the coin is a complete chiller, very unproductive but low stress levels.
Neither of these personality types is appealing to me, but William James shows a middle path, the dull worker.
“Your dull, unhurried worker gets over a great deal of ground, because he never goes backward or breaks down. Your intense, convulsive worker breaks down and has bad moods so often that you never know where he may be when you most need his help he may be having one of his bad days.”
This example actually underrates the difference between the two workers. The dull worker can also work longer on boring tasks, and lay the groundwork for future success while the intense worker will get discouraged quicker. The different worker’s mindsets also carry over into the other areas of life, the hurried and intense worker is hurried and intense in his family life, with his friends, and in the bedroom. This is not ideal, but it is true – how you do one thing is how you do everything.
The Buried Life Of Human Beings
No one can read minds but everyone can read what is on your mind. The human body works as a complete unit, and when you are anxious or stressed people can read it in your facial expressions and your body language. People can read the subtleties in your movements, particularly close friends and family and people with sharp observational skills.
Everyone has “tells”. A tell is a poker term for a change in a player’s behavior or demeanor that gives a clues to that player’s assessment of their hand. People notice your behaviors and mannerism when you are feeling some type of way.
Binnebleben (or buried life of human beings), “is the sort of unuttered inner atmosphere in which his consciousness dwells alone with the secrets of its prison-house. The inner atmosphere in what we can’t communicate or describe accurately to others, but the wraith and ghost of it, so to speak, are often what our friends and intimates feel as our most characteristic quality.”
The ghost of someones inner life is their most characteristic quality. This explains the gut feeling we have around certain people. Our intuition tells us things our rational mind cannot quantify or ever understand. This sensation of intuition is natural and serves evolutionary purposes. It’s why babies smile when they see good people and cry when they see bad people. Babies have the most astute radars for judging someone’s character.
How does one balance high achievement and low stress? In modern life we have lost this idea, the closest we have come is “work-life balance”. This idea is a bastard child of MBAs, HR generalists, and management theorists. In past centuries this idea was having a deeper purpose. For example, religious devotion or working for something greater than ourselves,
The best manuals of religious devotion accordingly reiterate the maxim that we must let our feelings go, and pay no regard to them whatever. In an admirable and widely successful little book called ‘The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life,’ by Mrs. Hannah Whitall Smith, I find this lesson on almost every page. Act faithfully, and you really have faith, no matter how cold and even how dubious you may feel. “It is your purpose God looks at,” writes Mrs. Smith, “not your feelings about that purpose; and your purpose, or will, is therefore the only thing you need attend to. . . . Let your emotions come or let them go, just as God pleases, and make no account of them either way. . . . They really have nothing to do with the matter. They are not the indicators of your spiritual state, but are merely the indicators of your temperament or of your present physical condition.”
This idea is incredibly freeing, and it isn’t simply a religious idea. If you are working towards a big project and know you are doing the right things, you can disregard the emotions that come and go. I think of this as active indifference, I am actively working towards the life I want, but indifferent to the emotions that flow through my body while I am on the path.
Be The Change
Emotional maturity is one of the most important parts of being an adult. If you have kids you understand, you need to have the stability and equanimity to deal with moody and volatile children. In a civilized society one of the things that is looked down upon most (non-violent and non-illegal) is emotional volatility. We expect the leaders in our society to have emotional stability. Although citizens have as large a responsibility as leaders for setting a positive example.
James writes, “There is only one way to improve ourselves, and that is by some of us setting an example which the others may pick up and imitate till the new fashion spreads from east to west… surely, there is no human being whose example doesn’t work contagiously in some particular.”
This is an incredibly optimistic worldview. Everyone matters and can positively influence the world. This is the butterfly effect (Wikipedia),”the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state.” Small changes can have massive unpredictable consequences. You won’t be able to predict these changes but your attitude can have a net-positive influence on the world.
On Vital Reserves: The Energies of Men: The Gospel of Relaxation by William James