Historically and still today, many people believe that humankind is the creation of a supernatural entity called God, that God had an intelligent purpose in creating humankind, and that this intelligent purpose is the ‘meaning of life’. I do not propose to go through the various arguments for and against the existence of God. However, even if God exists, and even if He had an intelligent purpose in creating humankind, no one really knows what this purpose might be, or that it is especially meaningful. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that the entropy of a closed system such as the universe increases up to the point at which equilibrium is reached, and God’s purpose in creating humankind and, indeed, all of nature, might have been nothing more lofty that to catalyse this process. If our God-given purpose is to act as super-efficient heat dissipaters, then having no purpose at all is better than having this sort of purpose because it frees us to be the authors of our own purpose or purposes and thereby to lead truly dignified and meaningful lives. For this same reason, having no purpose at all is better than having any kind of purpose, even a more traditional and uplifting purpose such as ‘serving God’ or ‘improving our karma’. In short, even if God exists, and even if He had an intelligent purpose in creating humankind (and why should He have had?), we do not know what this purpose might be and, whatever it might be, we would rather be able to do without it. Unless we can be free to become the authors of our own purpose or purposes, our lives may have, at worse, no purpose at all, and, at best, only some unfathomable and potentially trivial purpose that is not of our choosing.

Some might object that not to have a pre-determined purpose is, really, not have any purpose at all. However, this is to believe (1) that for something to have a purpose, it must necessarily have been created with a purpose in mind, and (2) that something that was created with a purpose in mind must necessarily have the same purpose for which it was created. Last summer, I visited the vineyards of Château-Neuf-du-Pape in the South of France. One evening, I picked up a beautiful rounded stone called a galet which I later took back to England and put to excellent use as a book-end. In the vineyards of Château-Neuf-du-Pape, the declared purpose of these stones is to absorb the heat from the sun during the daytime and then to release it during the night time. Of course, these stones were not created with this or any other purpose in mind. Even if they were created with a purpose in mind, then this purpose was almost certainly not to make great wine, serve as book-ends, or be beautiful. That same evening over supper, I got my friends to blind-taste a bottle of claret that I had brought along from England. As I did not have a decanter to hand, I kept the wine in its bottle and masked the identity of the bottle by slipping it into one of a pair of socks. Unlike the galet, the sock had been created with a purpose in mind, even though this purpose was very different from (although, note, not strictly incompatible with) the one that it eventually found.

In summary, whether or not God exists, and whether or not He has a purpose for us, we should strive to create our own purpose or purposes. In Sartrean terms, whereas for the galet it is true only that existence precedes essence, for the sock it is true both that essence precedes existence (when the sock is used on a foot) and that existence precedes essence (when the sock is used other than on a foot, for example, as a bottle sleeve). Human beings are either like the rock or like the sock, but whichever one they are like, they are better off creating their own purpose or purposes. To re-iterate, unless we can be free to be the authors of our purpose or purposes, our lives may have, at worse, no purpose at all, and, at best, only some unfathomable and potentially trivial purpose that is not of our choosing. Plato once defined man as an animal, biped, featherless, and with broad nails, but another much better definition that he gave was simply this, ‘A being in search of meaning.’

Adapted from The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide

There are important geographical variations in the prevalence of depression, and these can in large part be accounted for by socio-cultural factors. In traditional societies, human distress is more likely to be seen as an indicator of the need to address important life problems, rather than as a mental disorder requiring professional treatment. For this reason, the diagnosis of depression is correspondingly less common. Some linguistic communities do not have a word or even a concept for ‘depression’, and many people from traditional societies with what may be construed as depression present with physical complaints such as headache or chest pain rather than with psychological complaints. Punjabi women who have recently immigrated to the UK and given birth find it baffling that a health visitor should pop round to ask them if they are depressed. Not only had they never considered the possibility that giving birth could be anything other than a joyous event, but they do not even have a word with which to translate the concept of ‘depression’ into Punjabi!

In modern societies such as the UK and the USA, people talk about depression more readily and more openly. As a result, they are more likely to interpret their distress in terms of depression, and less likely to fear being stigmatised if they seek out a diagnosis of the illness. At the same time, groups with vested interests such as pharmaceutical companies and mental health experts promote the notion of saccharine happiness as a natural, default state, and of human distress as a mental disorder. The concept of depression as a mental disorder may be useful for the more severe and intractable cases treated by hospital psychiatrists, but probably not for the majority of cases, which, for the most part, are mild and short-lived, and easily interpreted in terms of life circumstances, human nature, or the human condition.

Another (non-mutually exclusive) explanation for the important geographical variations in the prevalence of depression may lie in the nature of modern societies, which have become increasingly individualistic and divorced from traditional values. For many people living in our society, life can seem both suffocating and far removed, lonely even and especially amongst the multitudes, and not only meaningless but absurd. By encoding their distress in terms of mental disorder, our society may be subtly implying that the problem lies not with itself, but with them. However, thinking of the milder forms of depression in terms of an illness can be counterproductive, as it can prevent people from identifying and addressing the important life problems that are at the root of their distress.

Adapted from The Meaning of Madness.

Diogenes searching for a human being.

Diogenes of Sinope or Diogenes the Cynic was a contemporary of Socrates’ pupil Plato, whom Plato described as ‘a Socrates gone mad’. Like Socrates and, to a lesser extent, Plato, Diogenes favoured direct verbal interaction over the written account. When a man called Hegesias asked to be lent one of his writing tablets, he replied, ‘You are a simpleton, Hegesias; you do not choose painted figs, but real ones; and yet you pass over the true training and would apply yourself to written rules.’ After being exiled from his native Sinope for having defaced its coinage, Diogenes moved to Athens, took up the life of a beggar, and made it his mission to metaphorically deface the coinage of custom and convention, which, he maintained, was the false coin of morality. He disdained the need for conventional shelter or any other such ‘dainties’ and elected to live in a tub and survive on a diet of onions. He proved to the later satisfaction of the Stoics that happiness has nothing whatever to do with a person’s material circumstances, and held that human beings had much to learn from studying the simplicity and artlessness of dogs, which, unlike human beings, had not ‘complicated every simple gift of the gods’. The terms ‘cynic’ and ‘cynical’ derive from the Greek kynikos, which is the adjective of kyon or ‘dog’. 

Diogenes placed reason and nature firmly above custom and convention, which he held to be incompatible with happiness. It is natural for a human being to act in accord with reason, and reason dictates that a human being should live in accord with nature. Accordingly, he taught that, if an act is not shameful in private, then it should not be shameful in public either. Upon being challenged for masturbating in the marketplace, he replied, ‘If only it were so easy to soothe hunger by rubbing an empty belly’. Upon being asked, on another occasion, where he came from, he replied, ‘I am a citizen of the world’ (cosmopolites), a radical claim at the time and the first recorded use of the term ‘cosmopolitan’. Although Diogenes privileged reason, he despised the sort of abstract philosophy that was being practiced elsewhere and in particular at Plato’s Academy. When, to great acclaim, Plato defined a human being as an animal, biped, and featherless, Diogenes plucked a fowl and brought it to the Academy with the words, ‘Behold! I have brought you Plato’s man.’ Plato consequently revised his definition, adding to it ‘with broad nails’. 

Diogenes was not impressed with his fellow men, not even with Alexander the Great, who came to meet him one morning while he was lying in the sunlight. When Alexander asked him whether there was any favour he might do for him, he replied, ‘Yes, stand out of my sunlight.’ Much to his credit, Alexander still declared, ‘If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes.’ In another account of the conversation, Alexander found Diogenes looking attentively at a pile of human bones. Diogenes explained, ‘I am searching for the bones of your father (King Philip of Macedon), but cannot distinguish them from those of a slave.’ Diogenes used to stroll about in broad daylight with a lamp. Whenever curious people asked him what he was doing, he would reply, ‘I am just looking for a human being.’ Much to his chagrin, all he ever found were rascals and scoundrels. When asked how he wished to be buried, he left instructions to be thrown outside the city wall so that wild animals could feast upon his body. After his death in the city of Corinth, the Corinthians erected to his memory a pillar upon which they rested a dog of Parian marble. Diogenes taught by living example that wisdom and happiness belong to the person who is independent of society. He was, I think, a shining example of the art of failure. 

Adapted from The Art of Failure – The Anti Self-Help Guide.

A person’s beliefs, attitudes, and values (henceforth, ‘beliefs’) are stored in his brain in the form of nerve cell pathways. Over time and with frequent use, these neural pathways become increasingly worn in, such that it becomes difficult to alter them and so the beliefs that they correspond to. If these beliefs are successfully challenged, the person begins to suffer from ‘cognitive dissonance’, which is the psychological discomfort that results from holding two or more inconsistent or contradictory beliefs (‘cognitions’) at the same time. To reduce this cognitive dissonance the person may either (1) adapt his old beliefs, which is difficult or (2) maintain the status quo by justifying or ‘rationalising’ his new beliefs, which is not so difficult and therefore more common. The ego defence of rationalisation involves the use of feeble but seemingly plausible arguments either to justify one’s beliefs (‘sour grapes’) or to make them seem ‘not so bad after all’ (‘sweet lemons’). ‘Sour grapes’ is named after one of the fables attributed to Aesop, The Fox and the Grapes.

One hot summer’s day a Fox was strolling through an orchard till he came to a bunch of Grapes just ripening on a vine which had been trained over a lofty branch. ‘Just the thing to quench my thirst’, quoth he. Drawing back a few paces, he took a run and a jump, and just missed the bunch. Turning round again with a One, Two, Three, he jumped up, but with no greater success. Again and again he tried after the tempting morsel, but at last had to give it up, and walked away with his nose in the air, saying: ‘I am sure they are sour.’

In the case of Aesop’s fox, the cognitive dissonance arises from the cognitions ‘I am an agile and nimble fox’ and ‘I can’t reach the grapes on the branch’, and the rationalisation, which is a form of ‘sour grapes’, is ‘I am sure the grapes are sour’. Had the fox chosen to use ‘sweet lemons’ instead of ‘sour grapes’, he might have said something like, ‘In any case, there are far juicier grapes in the farmer’s orchard.’ Another example of rationalisation is the student who fails his exams and who blames the examiners for being biased. In this case, the cognitive dissonance arises from the cognitions ‘I am an intelligent, capable person’ and ‘I failed my exams’, and the rationalisation, which is once again a form of ‘sour grapes’, is ‘I am sure the examiners are biased’. Had the student chosen to use ‘sweet lemons’ instead of ‘sour grapes’, he might have said something like, ‘In any case, failing my exams has given me more time to study / gain experience / examine my career options / enjoy student life.

One of the most famous examples of rationalisation comes from Leon Festinger’s book of 1956, When Prophecy Fails, in which Festinger discusses his experience of infiltrating a UFO doomsday cult whose leader had recently prophesised the end of the world. When the end of the world failed to materialise, most of the cult’s members dealt with the cognitive dissonance that arose from the cognitions ‘the leader prophesised that the world is going to end’ and ‘the world did not end’ not by abandoning the cult or its leader, but by introducing the rationalisation that the world had been saved by the strength of their faith.

Human beings are not rational, but rationalising animals. If they find it frightening to think and painful to change, this is in large part because thinking and changing represent major threats to the beliefs that make up their sense of self. Given this state of affairs, any tectonic shift in a person’s outlook is only ever going to occur incrementally and over a long period of time. Moreover, such a tectonic shift is likely to be provoked by an important deterioration in the person’s circumstances which overwhelms his ego defences and leaves him with no alternative but to adopt the depressive position. In Remembrance of Things Past, the early 20th century novelist Marcel Proust tells us, ‘Happiness is good for the body, but it is grief which develops the strengths of the mind.’

Adapted from The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide

One of the central tenets of the Western worldview is that one should always be engaged in some kind of outward task. Thus, the Westerner structures his time – including, sometimes, even his leisure time – as a series of discrete programmed activities which he must submit to in order to tick off from an actual or virtual list. One needs only to observe the expression on his face as he ploughs through yet another family outing, yet another cultural event, or yet another gruelling exercise routine to realise that his aim in life is not so much to live in the present moment as it is to work down a never-ending list. If one asks him how he is doing, he is most likely to respond with an artificial smile, and something along the lines of, ‘Fine, thank you – very busy of course!’ In many cases, he is not fine at all, but confused, exhausted, and fundamentally unhappy. In contrast, most people living in a country such as Kenya in Africa do not share in the Western worldview that it is noble or worthwhile to spend all of one’s time rushing around from one task to the next. When Westerners go to Kenya and do as they are wont to do, they are met with peels of laughter and cries of ‘mzungu’, which is Swahili for ‘Westerner’. The literal translation of ‘mzungu’ is ‘one who moves around’, ‘to go round and round’, or ‘to turn around in circles’.

The 20th century psychoanalyst Melanie Klein called it the manic defence: the tendency, when presented with uncomfortable thoughts or feelings, to distract the conscious mind either with a flurry of activity or with the opposite thoughts or feelings. A general example of the manic defence is the person who spends all of his time rushing around from one task to the next like the mzungu; other, more specific, examples include the socialite who attends one event after another, the small and dependent boy who charges around declaiming that he is Superman, and the sexually inadequate adolescent who laughs ‘like a maniac’ at the slightest intimation of sex. It is important to distinguish this sort of ‘manic laughter’ from the more mature laughter that arises from suddenly revealing or emphasising the ridiculous or absurd aspects of an anxiety-provoking person, event, or situation. Such mature laughter enables a person to see a problem in a more accurate and less threatening context, and so to diffuse the anxiety that it gives rise to. All that is required to make a person laugh is to tell him the truth in the guise of a joke or a tease; drop the pretence, however, and the effect is entirely different.

In short, laughter can be used both to reveal the truth or – as in the case of the manic defence – to conceal it or to block it out. Indeed, the essence of the manic defence is to prevent feelings of helplessness and despair from entering the conscious mind by occupying it with opposite feelings of euphoria, purposeful activity, and omnipotent control. This is no doubt why people feel driven not only to mark but also to celebrate such depressing things as entering the workforce (graduation), getting ever older (birthdays), and even – more recently – death and dying (‘Halloween’). The manic defence may also take on more subtle forms, such as creating a commotion over something trivial; filling every ‘spare moment’ with reading, study, or on the phone to a friend; spending several months preparing for Christmas or some civic or sporting event; seeking out status or ‘celebrity’ so as to be a ‘somebody’ rather than a ‘nobody’ like everybody else; entering into baseless friendships and relationships; even, sometimes, getting married and having children.

In Virginia Woolf’s novel of 1925, Mrs Dalloway, one of several ways in which Clarissa Dalloway prevents herself from thinking about her life is by planning unneeded events and then preoccupying herself with their prerequisites – ‘always giving parties to cover the silence’. Everyone uses the manic defence, but some people use it to such an extent that they find it difficult to cope with even short periods of unstructured time, such as holidays, weekends, and long-distance travel, which at least explains why airport shops are so profitable. As Oscar Wilde put it, ‘To do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual.’

Adapted from The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide