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How imagining the worst case scenario can help calm anxiety.
- Stoicism is the philosophy that nothing about the world is good or bad in itself, and that we have control over both our judgments and our reactions to things.
- It is hardest to control our reactions to the things that come unexpectedly.
- By meditating every day on the "worst case scenario," we can take the sting out of the worst that life can throw our way.
Are you a worrier? Do you imagine nightmare scenarios and then get worked up and anxious about them? Does your mind get caught in a horrible spiral of catastrophizing over even the smallest of things? Worrying, particularly imagining the worst case scenario, seems to be a natural part of being human and comes easily to a lot of us. It's awful, perhaps even dangerous, when we do it.
But, there might just be an ancient wisdom that can help. It involves reframing this attitude for the better, and it comes from Stoicism. It's called "premeditation," and it could be the most useful trick we can learn.
Broadly speaking, Stoicism is the philosophy of choosing your judgments. Stoics believe that there is nothing about the universe that can be called good or bad, valuable or valueless, in itself. It's we who add these values to things. As Shakespeare's Hamlet says, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Our minds color the things we encounter as being "good" or "bad," and given that we control our minds, we therefore have control over all of our negative feelings.
Put another way, Stoicism maintains that there's a gap between our experience of an event and our judgment of it. For instance, if someone calls you a smelly goat, you have an opportunity, however small and hard it might be, to pause and ask yourself, "How will I judge this?" What's more, you can even ask, "How will I respond?" We have power over which thoughts we entertain and the final say on our actions. Today, Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
Helping you practice StoicismCredit: Robyn Beck via Getty Images
One of the principal fathers of ancient Stoicism was the Roman statesmen, Seneca, who argued that the unexpected and unforeseen blows of life are the hardest to take control over. The shock of a misfortune can strip away the power we have to choose our reaction. For instance, being burglarized feels so horrible because we had felt so safe at home. A stomach ache, out of the blue, is harder than a stitch thirty minutes into a run. A sudden bang makes us jump, but a firework makes us smile. Fell swoops hurt more than known hardships.
What could possibly go wrong?
So, how can we resolve this? Seneca suggests a Stoic technique called "premeditatio malorum" or "premeditation." At the start of every day, we ought to take time to indulge our anxious and catastrophizing mind. We should "rehearse in the mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck." We should meditate on the worst things that could happen: your partner will leave you, your boss will fire you, your house will burn down. Maybe, even, you'll die.
This might sound depressing, but the important thing is that we do not stop there.
Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
The Stoic also rehearses how they will react to these things as they come up. For instance, another Stoic (and Roman Emperor) Marcus Aurelius asks us to imagine all the mean, rude, selfish, and boorish people we'll come across today. Then, in our heads, we script how we'll respond when we meet them. We can shrug off their meanness, smile at their rudeness, and refuse to be "implicated in what is degrading." Thus prepared, we take control again of our reactions and behavior.
The Stoics cast themselves into the darkest and most desperate of conditions but then realize that they can and will endure. With premeditation, the Stoic is prepared and has the mental vigor necessary to take the blow on the chin and say, "Yep, l can deal with this."
Catastrophizing as a method of mental inoculation
Seneca wrote: "In times of peace, the soldier carries out maneuvers." This is also true of premeditation, which acts as the war room or training ground. The agonizing cut of the unexpected is blunted by preparedness. We can prepare the mind for whatever trials may come, in just the same way we can prepare the body for some endurance activity. The world can throw nothing as bad as that which our minds have already imagined.
Stoicism teaches us to embrace our worrying mind but to embrace it as a kind of inoculation. With a frown over breakfast, try to spend five minutes of your day deliberately catastrophizing. Get your anti-anxiety battle plan ready and then face the world.
A study on charity finds that reminding people how nice it feels to give yields better results than appealing to altruism.
- A study finds asking for donations by appealing to the donor's self-interest may result in more money than appealing to their better nature.
- Those who received an appeal to self-interest were both more likely to give and gave more than those in the control group.
- The effect was most pronounced for those who hadn't given before.
Even the best charities with the longest records of doing great fundraising work have to spend some time making sure that the next donation checks will keep coming in. One way to do this is by showing potential donors all the good things the charity did over the previous year. But there may be a better way.
A new study by researchers in the United States and Australia suggests that appealing to the benefits people will receive themselves after a donation nudges them to donate more money than appealing to the greater good.
How to get people to give away free money
The postcards that were sent to different study subjects. The one on the left highlighted benefits to the self, while the one on the right highlighted benefits to others.List et al. / Nature Human Behaviour
The study, published in Nature Human Behaviour, utilized the Pick.Click.Give program in Alaska. This program allows Alaska residents who qualify for dividends from the Alaska Permanent Fund, a yearly payment ranging from $800 to $2000 in recent years, to donate a portion of it to various in-state non-profit organizations.
The researchers randomly assigned households to either a control group or to receive a postcard in the mail encouraging them to donate a portion of their dividend to charity. That postcard could come in one of two forms, either highlighting the benefits to others or the benefits to themselves.
Those who got the postcard touting self-benefits were 6.6 percent more likely to give than those in the control group and gave 23 percent more on average. Those getting the benefits-to-others postcard were slightly more likely to give than those receiving no postcard, but their donations were no larger.
Additionally, the researchers were able to break the subject list down into a "warm list" of those who had given at least once before in the last two years and a "cold list" of those who had not. Those on the warm list, who were already giving, saw only minor increases in their likelihood to donate after getting a postcard in the mail compared to those on the cold list.
Additionally, the researchers found that warm-list subjects who received the self-interest postcard gave 11 percent more than warm-list subjects in the control group. Amazingly, among cold-list subjects, those who received a self-interest postcard gave 39 percent more.
These are substantial improvements. At the end of the study, the authors point out, "If we had sent the benefits to self message to all households in the state, aggregate contributions would have increased by nearly US$600,000."
To put this into perspective, in 2017 the total donations to the program were roughly $2,700,000.
Is altruism dead?
Are all actions inherently self-interested? Thankfully, no. The study focuses entirely on effective ways to increase charitable donations above levels that currently exist. It doesn't deny that some people are giving out of pure altruism, but rather that an appeal based on self-interest is effective. Plenty of people were giving before this study took place who didn't need a postcard as encouragement. It is also possible that some people donated part of their dividend check to a charity that does not work with Pick.Click.Give and were uncounted here.
It is also important to note that Pick.Click.Give does not provide services but instead gives money to a wide variety of organizations that do. Those organizations operate in fields from animal rescue to job training to public broadcasting. The authors note that it is possible that a more specific appeal to the benefits others will receive from a donation might prove more effective than the generic and all-inclusive "Make Alaska Better For Everyone" appeal that they used.
In an ideal world, charity is its own reward. In ours, it might help to remind somebody how warm and fuzzy they'll feel after donating to your cause.
Sometimes, moral lessons can be learned from blowing away zombies.
- Most video games are happily escapist entertainment, but some are much more.
- One of these is The Last of Us Part II (TLOU2), which takes place in a post-apocalyptic pandemic world.
- Through the innovative use of game play technology TLOU2, radically changes your perspective and elevates this game from entertainment to true art.
There are basically two kinds of people in the world: those who play (or played) video games and those who don't get video games at all.
Okay, I admit this might be an oversimplification. But for a 58-year-old guy who didn't start playing until about ten years ago, this bifurcation explains why so many people miss what is truly revolutionary in these revolutionary technologies. I find myself spending a lot of time explaining to my non-gamer friends (both young and old) that in the midst of all the alien shooters, battle royales, and side-scrolling melee fighters — FYI, these are game genres — there lies a radically potent new method for storytelling. And it's storytelling that provides one path by which a great video game can become great art. To illustrate this point, let me introduce The Last of Us Part II.
Released during COVID-19, The Last of Us Part II (TLOU2) tells a story in a world fallen to a pandemic. The subject matter certainly seems timely, but by itself, that doesn't mean much. Post-apocalyptic pandemic video games are a dime a dozen. There are a zillion titles out there that will let you spend 20 or 30 hours of game time mowing down zombies of one form or another while upgrading your weapons, health, and skills.
The sublime art of TLOU2
Now, don't get me wrong. The mowing down of zombies and the upgrading of skills common to many video games are just fine. Not every game has to be great art, just like not every movie you watch or novel you read has to be great art. There is, most definitely, a place in this world for mindless escape, entertainment, and fun. That's because — if you are into it — sneaking around some last-outpost-of-humanity while trying to take out dangerous zombies can be a delicious waste of time at the end of a hard day. But with TLOU2, there is all that and more.
The creators of TLOU2 take players on a difficult, exhausting journey through the consequences of violence.
Given the "Part II" in its title, TLOU2 is obviously the continuation of a story laid down in The Last of Us. That game followed Joel, a survival-hardened middle-aged smuggler who's been tasked with shepherding teenaged Ellie across the country 20 years after the pandemic outbreak. Ellie is immune to the infection that turns people into zombies. Joel is given his mission by a resistance group that hopes to use Ellie to find a final cure. The journey of Ellie and Joel (who lost his own teenaged daughter two decades earlier in the outbreak) is harrowing and makes The Last of Us almost universally recognized as one of the greatest video games ever made. I've written before about how TLOU's innovative use of game-playing mechanics redefined what was possible for storytelling. In TLOU2, creator Naughty Dog Studio manages to make lightning strike twice, finding an entirely new path to transformative innovation.
Warning! From here on there are serious spoilers. If you think you want to play these games STOP.
The Last of Us Part IICredit: Naughty Dog
You've been warned
TLOU2 takes place four years after the end of the original game. The story is set in motion with the brutal murder of Joel as Ellie is forced to watch. It's an act of vengeance, a retribution for Joel's own choices at the end of the first game. So, what does TLOU2 do to make this game rise above a thousand other stories of vengeance and retribution? The answer lies in the most basic mechanics of game play: perspective.
When you play a video game like TLOU2, you take on the role of the character. This means you literally take control of their actions, seeing through their eyes (or over their shoulder) as you navigate them through the world and the story. This is where the digital technologies of video games take storytelling into new domains. In the hands of lesser creators, the possibilities of that power are lost, and you just get another ho-hum shooter with a weak story. That's not what happens in TLOU2.
The first half of the game follows Ellie as she tracks down Joel's killer and seeks her own vengeance. Her quarry is Abby, the daughter of a doctor that Joel killed at the end of the first game. Abby is now part of a paramilitary group in Seattle, and you, playing as Ellie, must work your way through the city to find her over the course of three days. Using stealth and combat, fighting both the infected (really terrifying zombies) and Abby's compatriots, the effort is unnerving and exhausting. Unlike most games, TLOU2 does not let you off the hook in its depiction of violence. The brutality of what you are doing cannot be avoided. Characters struggle for their lives and call to each other by name if you take one down. They are friends, and you are the one ending that friendship forever.
The big plot twist
Which you are doing because, in a stunning design choice, TLOU2 switches that all-important perspective on you right in the middle of the game. With an impressive narrative mechanism, the clock gets reset to three days earlier, and you are now Abby, greeting one friend after another at the stadium that serves as the paramilitary group's base of operations. You get breakfast at the commissary and chat with folks in the line. You check out gear for the upcoming patrol and take responsibility for a playful guard dog named Alice.
As you move Abby through these often intimate interactions, you come to realize that these are all the people that you just murdered (including the dog) in the first half of the game when you were Ellie. It's a terrible, harrowing shift that colors the rest of the game as it goes on to unpack deeper issues about the strictures of our tribalism, our capacities for choice, and the possibilities of forgiveness. In the end, I was just blown away.
What matters for our discussion today is that the immense power of TLOU2 — namely, its ability to haunt me months after I finished the game — is due to the medium. Yes, a novel or film can force a change in perspective and that can be arresting. But it's the immersion, the agency, and the appearance of choice (even if limited) in video games that radically shifts the experience of perspective in a story. And in that shift comes a transcendence, a reframing, and a learning that are all the reasons why we turn to art. Ultimately, one reason we create art, one reason we participate in art, is an effort to learn something. Through it, we hope to find something deeper, something more about this mystery of being human.
That is what TLOU2 accomplishes. Through the medium of video games, the creators of TLOU2 take players on a difficult, exhausting journey through the consequences of violence. Given that medium's usual careless treatment of violence, making such a journey possible was not a small thing. It was revealing, and that is what we can, and should, ask from true art.
- Benjamin Franklin wrote essays on a whole range of subjects, but one of his finest was on how to be a nice, likable person.
- Franklin lists a whole series of common errors people make while in the company of others, like over-talking or storytelling.
- His simple recipe for being good company is to be genuinely interested in others and to accept them for who they are.
Think of the nicest person you know. The person who would fit into any group configuration, who no one can dislike, or who makes a room warmer and happier just by being there.
What makes them this way? Why are they so amiable, likeable, or good-natured? What is it, you think, that makes a person good company?
There are really only two things that make someone likable.
This is the kind of advice that comes from one of history's most famously good-natured thinkers: Benjamin Franklin. His essay "On Conversation" is full of practical, surprisingly modern tips about how to be a nice person.
Franklin begins by arguing that there are really only two things that make someone likable. First, they have to be genuinely interested in what others say. Second, they have to be willing "to overlook or excuse Foibles." In other words, being good company means listening to people and ignoring their faults. Being witty, well-read, intelligent, or incredibly handsome can all make a good impression, but they're nothing without these two simple rules.
The sort of person nobody likes
From here, Franklin goes on to give a list of the common errors people tend to make while in company. These are the things people do that makes us dislike them. We might even find, with a sinking feeling in our stomach, that we do some of these ourselves.
1) Talking too much and becoming a "chaos of noise and nonsense." These people invariably talk about themselves, but even if "they speak beautifully," it's still ultimately more a soliloquy than a real conversation. Franklin mentions how funny it can be to see these kinds of people come together. They "neither hear nor care what the other says; but both talk on at any rate, and never fail to part highly disgusted with each other."
2) Asking too many questions. Interrogators are those people who have an "impertinent Inquisitiveness… of ten thousand questions," and it can feel like you're caught between a psychoanalyst and a lawyer. In itself, this might not be a bad thing, but Franklin notes it's usually just from a sense of nosiness and gossip. The questions are only designed to "discover secrets…and expose the mistakes of others."
3) Storytelling. You know those people who always have a scripted story they tell at every single gathering? Utterly painful. They'll either be entirely oblivious to how little others care for their story, or they'll be aware and carry on regardless. Franklin notes, "Old Folks are most subject to this Error," which we might think is perhaps harsh, or comically honest, depending on our age.
4) Debating. Some people are always itching for a fight or debate. The "Wrangling and Disputing" types inevitably make everyone else feel like they need to watch what they say. If you give even the lightest or most modest opinion on something, "you throw them into Rage and Passion." For them, the conversation is a boxing fight, and words are punches to be thrown.
5) Misjudging. Ribbing or mocking someone should be a careful business. We must never mock "Misfortunes, Defects, or Deformities of any kind", and should always be 100% sure we won't upset anyone. If there's any doubt about how a "joke" will be taken, don't say it. Offense is easily taken and hard to forget.
On practical philosophy
Franklin's essay is a trove of great advice, and this article only touches on the major themes. It really is worth your time to read it in its entirety. As you do, it's hard not to smile along or to think, "Yes! I've been in that situation." Though the world has changed dramatically in the 300 years since Franklin's essay, much is exactly the same. Basic etiquette doesn't change.
If there's only one thing to take away from Franklin's essay, it comes at the end, where he revises his simple recipe for being nice:
"Be ever ready to hear what others say… and do not censure others, nor expose their Failings, but kindly excuse or hide them"
So, all it takes to be good company is to listen and accept someone for who they are.
Philosophy doesn't always have to be about huge questions of truth, beauty, morality, art, or meaning. Sometimes it can teach us simply how to not be a jerk.
Research has shown how important empathy is to relationships, but there are limits to its power.
- Empathy is a useful tool that allows humans (and other species) to connect and form mutually beneficial bonds, but knowing how and when to be empathic is just as important as having empathy.
- Filmmaker Danfung Dennis, Bill Nye, and actor Alan Alda discuss the science of empathy and the ways that the ability can be cultivated and practiced to affect meaningful change, both on a personal and community level.
- But empathy is not a cure all. Paul Bloom explains the psychological differences between empathy and compassion, and how the former can "get in the way" of some of life's crucial relationships.
Are we enslaved by the finer things in life?
- The Roman writer, Tacitus, argued that the Roman Empire was built by enslaving conquered people who became accustomed to fine living and luxury.
- Technology today has become so essential to our daily lives that it seems impossible to break free of it. It's as much a cage as a luxury.
- Being dependent on a thing gives it power over you. To need something or someone is, for better or worse, to limit yourself.
Philippa has decided she wants to quit social media. She's worried about how addictive it is and thinks it's not doing her any good at all. But then, how will she speak to her aunt in South Africa? What will happen to all of her photos? And how can she organize that party?
Trevor wants to leave the country. He distrusts the government, dislikes the people, and hates the weather. But, then, he does get good healthcare. And he does like the TV. The roads are pretty good, too.
Philippa and Trevor are two examples of how luxury, technology, and easy-living can ensnare us or box us in. In many ways, it's a modern and relatable phenomenon, but it goes back at least to the Roman writer, Tacitus. It's the idea that the trappings of civilization enslave us. How is it that, without even knowing it, those things we thought were helpful and time-saving became indispensable essentials?
The hidden danger of luxury
The Roman army was one of the most militarily effective and successful forces the world has ever known. On open land, their legions were pretty much unbeatable. But the Roman Empire was not built on the back of military genius and short, stabbing swords alone. The legions might have beaten a people, but they did not subdue them. It was the love of luxury and easy living that did that.
The Britons, Tacitus noted, were enslaved, not by chains, but by their desire for good wine and elegant dinner parties. In fact, the governor of Britain, Agricola, deliberately sought to pacify this tribal warrior society by the "delightful distractions" of warm baths, togas, and education. As Tacitus wrote, "The naïve Britons described these things as 'civilization,' when in fact they were simply part of their enslavement."
Comfort and convenience had morphed painted, screaming warriors into genteel, pacified civilians. (It should be noted that Tacitus likely over-exaggerated all this. Britain was never as compliant as France or Spain in the Roman Empire.)
The use of luxury to win over a people is a tactic mirrored across time.
Faced with a trade deficit with China, the British Empire flooded their country with cheap opium they had shipped over from India. A luxury drug became an addiction, and the British traded their opium for porcelain, tea, and silk.
Mikhail Gorbachev enjoying the American way of life.Credit: Bob Galbraith / Public domain via Wikipedia
The Cold War was also won on the back of luxury. When cheap American TVs and refrigerators inevitably worked their way into the USSR, the Soviets couldn't hope to match such opulence. The bloc came to see such "luxury" domestic goods as essential, and only the USA could give them.
But the most relatable example for most of us today is our relationship with Big Tech. Companies like Facebook, Apple, and Google slowly and surely wire our lives into their algorithms and platforms. Social media are designed and calibrated to be deliberately addictive. Time- or money-saving services, like cloud-based storage, have become so universal, that going back is becoming impossible. It's increasingly the case that we don't even know our passwords for things—we let our phones or apps invent and store them for us.
You can't leave the machine
A new technology or service is initially a luxury—until it becomes so normalized and ubiquitous, so essential—that we can't go back to the time before it appeared. What was once a "want" becomes a "need."
E.M. Forster's novella, "The Machine Stops", imagines a world where every facet of life is provided by "the machine." There are buttons "to call for food, music, clothing, hot baths, literature and, of course, communication with friends." How prescient has this turned out to be? Today, we have Uber, Skype, Hello Fresh, and Amazon Prime. Our friends and family are also plugged into the machine.
Is it possible to leave?
Though we view technology as liberating, it also boxes us in. If we believe Tacitus, we are now enslaved by the things we once saw as luxury. It's the job of philosophy to see these chains for what they are. And, as we examine our lives, we can then choose to wear them happily or start the long hard journey of throwing them off.