26 February 2021

A life without problems

Who doesn’t wish to live a life without problems? Alas, even if we were to solve all our problems, new ones would come about and we would never reach that much-desired blissful, stress-free life. In Oliver Burkeman’s latest newsletter, he offers some thoughts and antidotes. Ever since I had read Oliver Burkeman’s Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking, I had followed what he had to say on productivity, mortality, and building a meaningful life. This time though, I wasn’t in full agreement and felt compelled to react. My email response eventually became a short essay in itself, which I have repurposed below.

But first, here are excerpts from Oliver Burkeman’s newsletter:

“Most of our attempts to become better people, fitter and healthier, more moral/productive/organised, and so forth, make this problem worse – because it's basically impossible to pursue any program of personal change without the thought, somewhere in the back of your mind, that successfully completing the change will catapult you into a new and somehow realer kind of existence. (...) This error of thought might be fine if it didn't detract from the quality of the life you're experiencing right now. But it does.

(...) One antidote is to allow yourself to imagine what it might feel like to know you'd never fully get on top of your work, never become a really disciplined exerciser or healthy eater, never resolve the personal issue you feel defines your life's troubles. What if I'll always feel behind with my email? What if listening attentively to other people will always take the weird amount of effort it seems to take now? What if that annoying thing my partner does annoys me to the end of my days?

(...) Your goal as a runner needn't be to get to a place where it's effortless to set off at 6.30am, day after day. It could just be to get better and better, every time you skip a morning and stay in bed, at starting again the next day.

(...) "Wait, I'm never going to get to the problem-free phase? That's not what I signed up for!" But then comes the sense of a heavy burden having been lifted. The pressure's off. I get to unclench, relax, and fall back into the life I'm living. Far from this being dispiriting, I find myself much more motivated to get stuck in. It turns out my really big problem was thinking I might one day get rid of all my problems, when the truth is that there's no escaping the mucky, malodorous compost-heap of this reality. Which is OK, actually. Compost is the stuff that helps things grow.”

Here’s my (slightly edited) response:

Being able to solve "all" problems? Most certainly not. However, many problems can probably be fixed, especially when one realises that some of those are self-inflicted. In fact, I would contend that it can be healthy to be aware of one's problems if that knowledge leads to acting on them: either, as Oliver Burkeman wrote, in accepting their existence (and diminishing the mental pain associated with the knowledge of their existence), or in taking steps to resolve them (for those that can be fixed).

Some problems may indeed have no solution – and they're incredibly stressful. That century-old grandparent whose mental faculties are diminishing by the day and who has made an annoying habit of calling family members dozens of times each day. That friend with a degenerative disease for which there is no cure.

Let’s instead consider those problems that can be resolved – those are hopefully the majority of the problems we encounter. The acceptance of a problem as a consolation prize of sorts risks merely providing an excuse for most of us, mere humans, to not do anything about it. Yes, Oliver Burkeman does point out that it doesn't have to be about resolving the problem as much as leaning towards that resolution ("getting better and better"). Isn't that simply moving the goalpost though? I'm no longer aiming to try and wake up at 6.30am the next day, so I'll be aiming to avoid skipping my morning run more than half of the time. Truth be told, there's value in adjusting goals if initial ones don't work, but that may or may not resolve "the" problem at hand.

Here lies an observation: why leave its resolution to chance or iterative steps? Instead, or in addition (there's no harm in trying different methods), let's focus on and analyse the problem itself. Why? Because it may well not be the correct problem in the first place. There may not even be a problem at all, but we "think" there is one. What a shame to suffer mentally from believing we have a problem when, after closer inspection, we realise it doesn't exist – or, equally as bad, it may not be the one we need to consider!

I would broadly consider the following cases: when we are mistaken about the problem itself; when we find excuses to even consider trying to fix problems; and the case when we simply add too much to our busy lives.

The first case can be illustrated by the following recent example of a friend who "wants" to buy a house but doesn't have enough money for a down payment. Because her desire for ownership is so strong, she considers becoming a delivery driver in addition to a full-time desk job earning fifty thousand euros a year. An outsider may "laugh" at the absurdity of this self-inflicted pressure to own a piece of real estate beyond their means (when their means are already almost double the median wage). Instead of "accepting" the problem, it would seem wiser to consider a range of questions: what is the real motivation to own a house? Has a financial model been constructed to assess how realistic that dream is? What about considering buying a cheaper house? What could possibly go wrong with my friend’s social life, mental and physical health by doing two jobs for years on end? In short, the initial problem may very well be an artificial one. It's easy to laugh off that case as an exceptional one. I observe plenty of similar examples: I complain about not having "time" to exercise and lose weight but I spend close to five hours a day watching TV or playing games on my phone; more controversial, I worry about not having enough money but I decide to have another child.

In the second case, that is, when we find convenient excuses to not address our problems: it's terribly human and I fall prey to the same bad habit. Feeling stressed for being behind email? Unless you're Oliver Burkeman(!), you probably don't get more than 100 emails every day. The problem can therefore be fixed, but there may not exist a one-size-fits-all solution. Some may be fanatics of an "inbox zero" technique, some will use a "getting things done" method, others will use fancy email clients that assist them in filtering important emails. I didn't say it was easy to fix all such problems – but the crucial issue may reside in the willingness to actually address at least one of them and not "thinking" we can't do anything about it.

Finally, let’s consider the times when we put too much on our plate. You may now think, “Oh that’s definitely me”, but wait: most of us are not over-achievers; statistically, we’re more likely falling into the second bucket above (sorry, not sorry), of making excuses.

But for the sake of this short essay, let’s nonetheless consider this case of “too much”. By definition, there's "too much", which implies we need to be realistic in what we can accomplish. The more projects we undertake, the more problems we'll encounter. So once again it would no longer be about acceptance of problems, but acknowledgement that some challenges need never be addressed so we can focus all our attention on our more important problems. A classic technique consists in listing them all and picking the top five as the ones to focus on, deliberately forcing ourselves to not address those which are not part of those top five (at least not until they are all resolved).

If all this – seeing what our "real" problems are, avoiding excuses, and prioritising – sounds easy, it's not. It requires introspection. A coach or a straightforward, non-white-lying friend (I'm referring to Sam Harris's short opus, Lying) can help. I personally get a kick whenever I manage to help someone with their problems along those various axes. But I fail at fixing my own. Time for me to introspect.