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Category Archives: Happiness

Trying and Not Trying on Valentine’s Day: or, SEO-Juice Me Baby One More Time

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Valentine’s Day has sprung up on me like a giant koala from the Wilderness Society. Sneaky fuckers all. Just when I’m trying to cough a lung into the gutter, I realise too late I am being watched. Yes, Dysatisfunctional friends, Valentine’s Day is a celebration of ocular social judgement. Skimping on flowers or the restaurant surcharge? You must not TRULY LOVE.

But I say a rose by any other means justifies the ends: a sauntering jaunt through your average inner suburb will yield quite the resplendent handsome stash. So as all writers and totalitarian despots know, solutions are only the cause of further problems:

Romance Taken Seriously

Romance Taken Seriously

What the fuck, now I need someone to give these flowers to. If you’re in a relationship and you still can’t figure out who, you deserve the absolute withholding of sex for the rest of the year. Even your birthday won’t climb over your partner’s “headache”, because YOU’RE the headache. Not  many can be that stupid, but you might be wary of overt, out-of-character displays. Fret not–no matter how sparse your affections throughout the year, Valentine’s day is that one time you can spring up with flowers without necessarily implying you feel guilty about an affair. So get ready to swipe that card for love! For other couples, Valentine’s won’t be a particularly big deal, since despite your busy interdependent schedules you still find time to be mutually supportive and remind each other, and yourselves, how lucky you each are. Still, another opportunity for humble appreciation to translate into hours, even minutes, of hot sex. As a friend of mine posted to her beau: “Honey, the safe word tonight is ‘kebab,'”

For singles, the day takes a measure of your overall approach, for good or ill. You may have several crushes to ask out, with full control on the dial of safe, ironic distance: “let’s share and laugh together at how inane this whole day is, let’s blur the line of where we take the piss and where we’re just SO. CRUSHINGLY. LONELY. and what comes next hey bust-a-move…” You can be all anti-consumerist as you like, but today gets people laid, and with a modicum of birth control awareness and basic hygiene in place, this cannot be a bad thing.

Alternatively, Valentine’s day shines a light on your complete absence of participation in your own life. You have no one to call, your cat loves you every day anyway, your parents try to give you “the talk” and somewhere somehow you’re confronted with other people’s happiness until it cuts DEEP. First things first: most of that happiness is fake, with grimace cheer for bad relationships that never recovered from “that thing s/he did” back in 2005, so fret not. Second, the best thing you can do is to admit how sad and lonely your life is, identify all the ways you made it so, and use that dissatisfaction to power some genuine reform. Like Young MC says: “Don’t hang yourself on a celibate rope.”

Perennially single people often report a lack of control in others, how others see them, and submitting to that is empowering. Meanwhile, they don’t much like to admit they are in control of themselves, from haircuts to social habits. Want someone to accept you as you are? Perhaps try to be less of a pig. Reform here is a longer topic for another time, but accepting your own authorship is a good principle from which to begin. It lets you realise, if nothing else, that you’re single because it kind of suits you; if not the worst parts of you, the weird parts of you. There’s heaps of good reasons to be single, so maybe your answer is to drop the yearning for something you demonstrably don’t want.

The basic message of this post was originally going to be, partners: try harder, and singles: try less. There’s a Dysatisfunctional way to be single I will get to one day, but for now, I’ll leave you with the idea that the best way to attain your goals is not to fixate. Establish good practices, good training (for yourself/others), have a good time, smell the roses (on the table of the couple next to you, as you read your book and overstir your coffee…). The flipback for couples is a coda for the same principle: having allegedly gotten what you want, go ahead now and prove you were right to want it. Your habits, training and good times shouldn’t change tack because you suddenly ‘arrived’ at a perceived goal. Single or taken, work according to a persistent ethic, and your most prized goals will arrive and zip right by, ideally without you realising. When someone asks you the best moment of your life, you’ll be in good shape if you can’t pick one: “Was that romance? Why yes, I suppose it was…”

Better advice than Simon Baker’s ANZ ass-tap

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“Don’t dig shallow wells.” — Cookiemonstergirl, June 2012

What’s that, reader? No post since July? I know! A girl much younger than me wearing a jacket that looked like she’d just hunted and skinned the Cookie Monster (seriously it even had a bloodish, red wine stain) listened to my bullshit dysatisfunctional predicament for about 3 minutes, nodded, said “Hmp”, then gave me the best advice I’ve received since Jon Safran said I could wear my undies four times without changing (“forwards, backwards, inside-out forwards, inside-out backwards”). She told me: “Don’t dig shallow wells.”

Dysatisfunctional cookie monster

I’ll admit it, I’m a bad multi-tasker. Comes from being a perfectionist, which leads to procrastination, which leads to feeling anxious, which leads to me bingeing on extremely unhealthy foods, like our fresh-slain friend here. So I threw Dysatisfunctional.com in front of my singularly determined priority van, like it was Todd in Neighbours.

Todd: more shocked than anyone

Todd: more shocked than anyone

What I took from Cookiemonstergirl’s advice was: if it ain’t payin’ me dollar$, and instead diverting resources away from something that will pay off sooner, faster, louder, longer, then broom it. Sorry to both my fans; maybe they should GET A JOB >>>>>

Now I’m a little more focused, and using Dysatisfunctional.com as a symbol, something terrifying, something…elemental ***sorry fuck that’s Batman*** Dysatisfunctional batman-fail-squirt when a noteworthy thing occurs to my now-singularly determined brain: I’m expanding the self-improvement project to the media, which I’m trained in anyhow, which I do professionally, and which lately I’ve come to think is the single greatest vehicle of dysfunction I’ve seen beyond family Christmases.

Writing this blog is far more interesting for me, anyhow, than the one time per year I decide to write a freelance article, which always gets whittled down to fit the narrow demands of a bulk audience that may only exist as part of a self-fulfilling prophecy and failure of editorial imagination. But because this blog is still not a political soapbox, I’ll say no more on this for now, and instead talk about Simon Baker in the ANZ smartcard commercials. Check it:

 Yeah they’ll make you go Youtube. Fair enough.

I’m convinced this was made by an outsourced freelancer who thinks Australia’s ‘Big Four’ banks suck of the balls. Let’s review: Simon Baker is vaguely Mentallist in his weekend garden vest, almost drops the wrench, needs to compensate so rips on the underling he just hired about his fingernails, which presumably got dirty doing a job Simon was unable (incompetent snob) or unwilling (snob jerk) to do himself. Next, Simon counters an argument the plumber never made–that his cashflow COULD be fixed with a wrench. Hands back the plumber’s wrench like he’s doing him a favour, makes out like payment for services rendered equals ANOTHER favour, shows him a thing or two about REAL modern tools, then grimaces at his mucky shit hand because he couldn’t think of a slick, stylistically consistent way to avoid the pretense of a handshake.

Why is all this the work of a clever filmmaker/advertising culturejammer who hates the ANZ? Because the caption reads, “We live in your world.” when everything about the ad screams: “CLASS DISPARITY!” I bet it was made by the same person who convinced the National Australia Bank to refer to themselves as lowercase “nab” in one of the only countries where banks charge customers for the privilege of maintaining our accounts, instead of the banks being privileged to hold our money and use it for whateverthefuck. This person, textually the same person, is for me a total gun. On the chance this self-parody was unintentional, its creators just effectively culture-jammed themselves, and might be smarter than even they realise.

As we conclude our maiden foray into a seemingly ever-dysatisfunctional media landscape, it’s worth mentioning that our proletariat plumbing friend actually could get paid faster swinging a wrench, late at night between the car door and the front door. Not to get political, but money could change hands fast if he rounded up some friends, “Oppa-Engels-style”,Psy performs Gangnam Style and many wrenches were swung determinedly at whatever smug executive-class pricks, who we know from this ad can’t/won’t do menial tasks themselves, need to impress their aristocratic airs on those helping them from below, and who find the materialist underpinnings of their basic existence far more distasteful than the virtual online world their money streams through. Though I hear the Class Consiousness App crashes all the time. But even if the revolution never comes, Simon, some people don’t pay their bills on time because they’re FUCKING BROKE, bruz, so don’t get on like an asshole.

I bet Simon casually refuses to indicate when changing lanes in his BMer, too. What has Cookiemonstergirl to do with Simon allegedly living in our world, I hear you ask? Well here’s an example of someone not digging shallow wells. You can bet dude got pai-yeed. And good on him for making it through the role of struggling actor, I say. But there, reader, is your take-away: if you must win, try to do it with some dignity.

Feedback me when you feel the function.

Seeking Compromise, Part Three: the Upsides to Downsides

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“usually when you think you’re compromising with someone else, you’re really still compromising with yourself.”

The more avid reader might have noticed two posts ago that I set an agenda around compromise, before getting waylaid by the pros and cons of optimism and cynicism. Yes I set a goal, then deferred its realisation off into the distance. See what I did there? So meta. It wasn’t deliberate.

What could this feelgood/feelshit disparity in world-views possible have to do with compromise? Well, compromise means getting away from our ideal scenarios. If optimism and pessimism establish internal order, compromise is where those values and methods meet with cold, hard circumstances. Optimists deal with compromise just as narrow-mindedly as do cynics. The optimist might strategically block out limitations and downsides, while the cynic might just as strategically rule out hope. As we explored already, both are irrational certainties, and nothing much to do with how events pan out. Very little indeed will stop us from continuing to see the world exactly as we are most comfortable with, but optimistic/pessimistic tendencies might inflect how we are forced to compromise, as we shall see.

Compromise is important here because it puts our values into action; it is the nature of Plan B, and Plan B goes to the heart of Dysatisfunctional.com. It means giving up control; working with the elements. We compromise with other people whenever we share space, time and wants. But more often—in fact, all the time—we compromise with our own competing ideas, observations, judgements and desires. It’s only a little more complicated when we have to compromise with another party, because we are slightly less in control of their competing desires than we are of our own. In any case, compromise is an inescapable predicament, for everyone, all the time. No exceptions.

We compromise over the most ordinary decisions. How much to work before our health and happiness are both shot. How much to study, before our brains melt down or our friends start to think of us as that person. How much to stop and smell the rosaries. Economically speaking, the price of ANYTHING, and I don’t just mean money. The self itself is at stake, though I mean ‘self’ almost metaphorically. The question is not, “Who do I want to be?” on a macro scale; it’s always an infinite regression of micro-decisions—compromises, that combine to make you whoever you end up ‘being’, regardless of who you’d like to be. So get it right! I’m only half-kidding—such a view puts the onus on the responsibility of our decisions more than some ever-futile self-image. Dysatisfunctional.com starts from the basis that your preferred self-image is impossible to realise, and not just because it is endlessly deferred.

A friend of mine is deciding on a wedding dress. The only one she will ever wear, with any luck. She likes several designs for different reasons. She can’t wear them all, so she has to compromise. Whatever decision she makes, she is confronted with the path not taken. If we never put those paths away, multiplied by every decision we make, our lives would be miserable. Luckily our brains conduct handy tricks on our behalf—most of the time, and some of us more than others. All the cons for the chosen dress are minimised, as are all the pros for the alternatives. The chosen dress pros are enlarged, as are the cons of the alternatives. Seamless compromise. Problem solved. If she’s aware of this operation (and she is—she told me), the resolution will depend on being able to enjoy the dilemma with a sense of playful, ironic detachment, to avoid constant second-guessing.

As for compromise = sharing with others, usually when you think you’re compromising with someone else, you’re really still compromising with yourself. This post isn’t about negotiating the best possible result for yourself, while hoodwinking the other party into believing they’ve actually done well. We might have something to say about such practices in the future. To show how compromising with others is still really about prioritising your own values, think about the start of your last relationship. Many things weren’t quite how you wanted them to be, but you were putting your most optimistic foot forward, giving their peccadillos the benefit of your actual doubt: ever running late, clothes hung up on the floor, inconsequential lies, secret-surprise smoker’s breath, chewing and talking at once, an obsessive avoidance of odd numbers, crying after orgasm, drunken violence, refusal to go see a doctor, or capricious bursts of unseemly competitiveness. Some are more endearing than others, and some less funny.

When a peccadillo first arises, you might casually tease your new flame, joke about it, or politely ignore it. All these are subtle discipline procedures. Once identified as entrenched or compulsive behaviour, peccadillos can be dealt with two different ways: zero in on each one, allowing no margin for error until your partner leaves you, citing your impossibility, OR acknowledge the theoretical existence of your own flaws, accept that theirs are part of the package, and keep rolling with the good times. This IS the more optimistic path, which doesn’t mean it is more open-minded, which in turn doesn’t rule it out as the best course of action. Classic compromise.

Your eyes might glaze over when irritating habits occur, or you conveniently find something else to do, momentarily looking in your bag for your glasses (which you are always already wearing) until the crisis passes. And, tellingly, this might well constitute your own peccadillo for your budding flame (“S/he’s great but s/he’s SOO absent-minded…”). Your chances of minimising the peccadillo itself are lower than your chances of minimising how it impacts your life, and the second course is ethically superior to the first, as well as more practical. The optimistic course here is to reduce it down or away, while the cynical course might be ironic detachment, if not a wholly sardonic (re)framing of the relationship itself. Significant compromises both; in fact a series of perpetual compromises, as you assess, recommit and devote your energies each day.

Optimists might well be bummed about this described state of affairs, and cynics gloomy minus surprise. But I say fear not! The inevitable upside of these inescapable compromises so close to our hearts, is that downsides can work in our favour, just like with my friend’s wedding dress. The critical optimist path, introduced last week, is to stay aware of the peccadillo in question, as cynics would, but in context with what you value about the relationship and the person. If the balance plays in your favour, I hope you’re satisfied, or dare I suggest—happy. If the balance tips poorly for too long, you call it a day. Optimism and cynicism matters here because your assessments depend upon your expectations and decision-making methods.

Ending a relationship, or having it ended in your face, is where critical optimism prevents eschatological hysteria or defeatist nihilism: all those peccadillos you fought down now become the excellent proof for why you’re suddenly so much better off. The operation applies no matter which side of the power imbalance you find yourself on. This explains the disjointed phenomenon so many friends and loved ones experience, when a partner or relationship goes from being championed with so much conviction, to becoming the sudden object of repulsion, exasperation, even vilification. In Freudanese, it’s textbook ‘return of the repressed’. If the reversal can’t be explained in this way, are we seriously to believe that reality was instantly so categorically turned on its head? Surely not, though I’d love to hear your alternative explanations.

Some caveats: you can only use these peccadillos to power critical optimism through this tough time, if you’re aware enough of them in the first place. This rules out unbridled optimism. Meanwhile, if you do nothing but wallow in the relationship deficits you were all too constantly aware of, those peccadillos are wasted potential. This rules out committed cynicism. Perhaps I could have explained the upsides to downsides without spending a month on optimism and cynicism and their evolved mutant hybrid, but hopefully you can now see why we went there.

In his new book The Shape of Design, and his latest round of international talks, renowned designer and author Frank Chimero advocates the long way around for creatives specifically, and perhaps indeed for life more generally, since design for him is about making decisions that bring you closer to how you want the world to be. This long way around is all about compromise, reframed as exploration, innovation, surprise, and engagement. More than design tenets, these make great self-help tenets. Harnessing the deviations and downsides of compromise is absolutely dysatisfunctional, and simultaneously, to your benefit. Even—as the last four weeks of blog posts here demonstrate—by utter, ignorant mistake.

Seeking Compromise, Part Two: Flying Penguins and Critical Optimism

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“critical optimism has the potential to engender a kind of gracious self-worth, or arrogant humility, depending, of course, on how you see it.”

Last week I wanted to talk about compromise, but realised we needed to clear some ground about worldviews first, broadly grouped as optimistic and hopeful, on the one hand, or pessimistic and cynical, on the other. Self-help and psychology-based industries usually take it for granted that the former is desired and beneficial, while the latter stops us in our tracks. So last week we reviewed the benefits of optimism, like improved health and feelings of well-being, but also the costs: discomfort and avoidance of life’s harder truths. I may even have suggested that unbridled optimism was the door to psychopathy. At the very least, it can be a source of alienation in personal relationships, if not cause some of the dumbest shit humans can get up to. Denial is not a river in Egypt, and this geographical misunderstanding costs us every time. I still want to talk about compromise, but we’re not going to get there today either.

As we concluded last week, then, cynicism and pessimism can be virtuous, because they help us confront hard truths, set realistic goals and are also the pathways to empathy and close social bonds. Not that all those downsides from last week don’t suddenly vanish; unbridled cynicism will put your life in a tailspin just as much as unbridled optimism. Historically, the Cynics of Ancient Greek philosophy believed in an ascetic life of virtue, in accordance with nature’s laws. Nowadays this still correlates in a surprising way: if you believe most positive thinking ideologues, cynics might find themselves living quite the ascetic lifestyle indeed! I can vouch for some truth in that, though does struggling to get by make me cynical, or am I really to believe that already being cynical is why I struggle? My considered answer to the head of the Royal Melbourne Pain Clinic followed thus: “Fuck you.” In any case, we shouldn’t shy away from the negative impacts of cynicism.

Before our pathological Dr Feelgoods out there point to “Ah-HA!” me here, this is a long way from the perrenial bad press cynicism gets, and is enough to take optimism off its perch as the ideal state of mind in all situations. A cynical person would be more likely to acknowledge the flaws of their approach, even if it meant impinging on their success or well-being, and this is precisely my point. A canny reader put me onto this TED talk, worth sharing:

I take issue with much of this talk, as you might expect. Who says believing in your own abilities has anything to do with optimism? Many cynical folks are used to backing their own skills; they have to, because they’re not expecting the world to hand them anything. If Dr Sharot is correct here, though, it’s possible I’m optimistic about my abilities but pessimistic about their capacity to translate into success or happiness.

But mainly, I don’t believe there are optimists and pessimists, in an empirical, testable way. The Dysatisfunctional position is that we are all surely mixes of the two, optimistic about some things and cynical about other things. Even when clear tendencies exist for any given person, we might generalise and label someone accordingly, in a kind of shorthand. But there are problems with scientifically measuring optimism over one particular tested topic, then generalising across that person’s whole life, folding in health indicators, perceived happiness etc. I’ve used that shorthand in this post, but I’m not claiming scientific knowledge along the way, and neither should these guys.

And anyway, respondants’ perception of their happiness might be WRONG. Sounds crazy, but many people think they are happy, when anyone with a clue can see they are perpetual runners, living with that perpetual crazed wild horse eye we’ve all seen before:

dysatisfunctional wild horse eyes

Several ex-girlfriends over the years have pulled the exact same face on the way out the door.

Or they might be perfectly happy while projecting all their chaos and crap onto others, in which case they might be happy while outsourcing their unhappiness. In the business world it’s called negative externalization, and it’s just as despicable in private matters. So for Dr Sharot and her fellow scientists, relying on the conscious mind to provide data for their experiments is impressively flawed, especially for a discipline that created the concept of the sub-conscious, which ushers in the certainties of unknown motivations and limits to self-knowledge. Science won’t save us from our dysatisfunction; rather it makes us more dysfunctional in the false certainty it provides. Penguins, no matter how optimistic, simply will not “soar like an eagle”, as Dr Sharot suggests.

Is getting insurance sensibly pessimistic because you’re counting on needing it, or optimistic because you’re sure that whatever happens, you will be covered by the policy? Stupid penguins…

Dr Sharot’s gist, nonetheless, is that downsides have their upsides. Apart from her concluding point, that a dash of pessimism builds in preparation in the form of conditions, caveats and thus greater durability, I would add it also matches up better to how life actually is (since the universe is indifferent to us), fosters self-reliance (because the universe is indifferent to us), and facilitates greater empathy in personal relationships (because we are tooled up to acknowledge inevitable interpersonal difficulties). Since last fortnight, my “all good” friend replied that he has come more my way over the years, because it made him professionally and personally more effective, and I admitted to moving a good deal his way too, away from assuming things will go bad. Such thinking starts as an unrealistic assumption, but undeniably tends to self-fulfill.

This is where Dysatisfunctional.com advocates a middle ground I’d like to call “critical optimism”. It builds in the healthy benefits of optimism, while shedding the narrow self-blinding that tends to accompany positive thinking. It relies on an ever-critical degree of questioning, without running too far into despair. There are good reasons why both tendencies are linked to these bad behaviours, and critical optimism takes considerable self-discipline, and also energy, to maintain. Limited resources is why we all pull shit when we should know better. Implementing critical optimism will necessarily be imperfect, but that is an assumed part of its strategy.

When Buddhists meditate, they seek to quieten the mind, to block out all conscious ramblings, be they selfish or selfless, trivial or some raison d’être. Every effort is made to return to the most fundamental cornerstones of living: breath, sensation, and the passing of time. Importantly, they count on their attentions straying; the task is to return to the practice. Critical optimism works the same way: thinking positively need not deny inevitable failings, and your failings need not deny the next positive experience.

Bear this in mind, and critical optimism will stop you getting ahead of yourself when things start going well, while also developing a different kind of confidence that comes from training your critical eye, especially in sticky situations, (even those of your own making). In this way, critical optimism has the potential to engender a kind of gracious self-worth, or arrogant humility, depending, of course, on how you see it.

Seeking Compromise, Part One: optimism vs. cynicism

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“Doing whatever it takes to be perpetually motivated and optimistic is psychopathic”

The last two posts here at Dysatisfunctional.com have addressed social dysatisfunction owing to a couple of national holiday themes, but today we refocus on personal and interpersonal dysatisfunction, as we assess optimism and cynicism. I wanted to talk about compromise today, but it’s important to first look at some of the pros and cons of how we orient ourselves to an imperfect world, imperfect neighbours, and imperfect selves. The post is a day late, too, so compromise is all between the lines anyhow.

I used to have a recurring dialogue with an excellent friend of mine: he would say with a grin and maybe something stuck to his lip/face, “I’m aaall good,” “Last night was aaaall good,” “This burger is aaaaaall good,” and I would say, often without consciously deciding to, “Well… nothing is ALL good. Mostly? OK. Nearly everything? Rarely. But never ALL as in 100% good,” and make a wiping motion to help him address the facial interloper.

After all, unknown pathogens were waging biological warfare in my friend’s body as he misspoke. The night before was not good for everyone, since that girl was dancing with him at the expense of at least one disgruntled ex. It couldn’t even be all good for himself—it’s more accurate to say that the systematic demolition of neurons via alcohol and whatever else was “worth it” or otherwise worthwhile, which are totally different concepts of goodness. The burger, most definitely, cannot be all good: industrial food production in relation to human health and global ecology make that impossible—even a cow’s fart is a calculation of means and ends (usually by humans, bovine thought processes notwithstanding).

The “all good” exchange was sometimes funny, depending on how I justified my interregnum, and on how well my friend countered, but it wasn’t exactly a running joke, since neither of us was kidding. This ritualistic exchange was a fair metonym of our personalities at the time, and perhaps still is. Over time I would just have to say, “Well…” and my pal would bunch his lips and nod what was probably a mix of nominal assent for the technicality, combined with respectful disagreement with my world view and overall strategy for living.

I must admit, being optimistic really brings me down. “Hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something,” they call it. And I’ve tried it—forced nights out to break the spell, cheerful dinners I had no reason to think could go well, or all my team sports/the occasional street fight. When I try unbridled optimism, something gnaws away in my sub-conscious processes, like I’ve gone on holiday with the gas element on, or forgotten to make arrangements for the plant, pet, child or parent in my care. Something that will come back to bite me. And it always does. Some of you will share this nagging wariness for unbridled optimism, while others will shake your heads and point out the folly of self-fulfilling prophecies. You latter folks will be happy to read that I share your, erm, doubts, on this point. Feeling cynical, wary, suspicious, or just plain bad has many negative health effects, beyond question, and lowers quality of life, almost by definition.

Far from arguing against these ill effects, I can only confirm that I find them… accurate. It would be easy to label cynicism then, as the poor-to-do, less successful sibling by contrast, and maybe that’s so, but first we should ask if there are any ill effects resulting from optimism. Philosopher Gottfried Leibniz’s optimism argued that God necessarily created the best of all possible worlds. Our Easter post identified how faith in a benevolent universe might be irrational and plain wrong, but probably paid off in terms of physical and emotional health. So optimism’s first casualty might be the truth, if Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Jessup thinks we can handle it.

Can you handle the truth of advertising creatives?

It seems that if we’re to assess the respective truth claims of optimism and cynicism, we should ask: is the world essentially benevolent, malignant, or a mix of good and bad? The dysatisfunctional answer has to be that things are both good and bad at once, except for when things are neither good nor bad. The empirical way to fit the world to our perceptions suggests that we might feel hopeful in positive situations, and doubtful in negative situations, but actually the reverse is more helpful: hope is needed when things are bad, while in good times we should guard against complacency. So as with faith, what is useful might not correlate to what is true, even when it brings its own self-fulfilling prophecies.

This seems cool and stupidly obvious at once

In addition, this question of utility assumes quite a lot of control over our emotions, personality and general disposition. Such ideas are the foundations of modern psychological therapy, self-help, goal-setting motivational industries, New Age faith industries, and there’s a lot of milk in these cow$. I’ll throw down on these money-changers another time. For now, while we can change much about ourselves with the right dedication, motivation, patience and practical tools, I’d like to suggest that talking ourselves into 100% optimism might not be as healthy as you’d prefer to believe.

Optimism usually entails discomfort at any threat to a sunny disposition. One way to deal with  hardship is to minimise it, or better still, pretend it does not exist. Negative effects can be contained, blamed on something unrelated, or reinterpreted in a positive light. This can keep us motivated about improvement, achievement, and pursuing some concept of good. The upsides to a train wreck: practical experience and a sense of teamwork for emergency services, personal development for everyone involved including their families and friends, a turning point for the hitherto discontented and half-arsed, inadvertent euthanasia for the already infirmed, reduction in human overpopulation problem, to name a few.

The last time you successfully transformed a potential problem into a motivational plus was probably a decent mental victory for you, but can you recall the last time you had to deal with someone else who did this? Instant nightmare. Everything shoveled under the rug; all the important stuff; all the keys to problem-solving, including the primary acknowledgement of the problem itself. Doing whatever it takes to be perpetually motivated and optimistic is psychopathic, and your loved ones will eventually notice. Optimism can create a deep interpersonal discord, a social alienation the optimist might never be aware of. And even if they were aware, by virtue of optimistic procedures, they wouldn’t be, and this is what makes it completely insane.

None of us know what we don’t know—Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous “unknown unknowns,” but some of us are trying harder than others. It’s all about degree, to be fair, but we all know people for whom this kind of minimisation or elision is their signature go-to move. These people are high-performance authors of widespread dysatisfunction, mobile human catastrophe volcanoes. Don’t believe the sheen of functionality, the good night’s sleep, the ability to compartmentalise any problem—it only appears handy in the beginning, or in war…

Optimism meets amorality: bad combination

I don’t care if optimists are wrong; doesn’t faze me. The systematic denial and minimisation of all the world’s problems, on the other hand, is a terror to be fought tooth and claw. Even for more moderate optimists, we know that folks can identify all sorts of problems in the world, their relationships, even themselves, and yet the hardest faults to see are the biggest and gnarliest and most impactful of them all. This is where cynicism, suspicion and a critical eye become virtuous. Earlier, I said cynicism lowers quality of life almost by definition. Almost, because who said quality of life should be solely defined by positive experiences? Tragedy is meaningful, educational and redemptive, and for these reasons should not be minimised or elided. The critical perspective that accompanies the cynic is valuable when tempered, and that caveat should not be… minimised.

Next week we’ll  start with cynicism and move toward compromise, as we look at the upsides to downsides, fun break-up inversions, some shit about Buddhism, and introduce Dysatisfunctional.com’s mutant hybrid: critical optimism.

Until then, if you can’t be good, be well.

Beyond Belief, Easter edition

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‘all religions seem to carry the same message: “Stop being an arsehole.”’

You might think taking on Christianity at Easter would be like stabbing chickens in a barrel here at Dysatisfunctional.com, and you would be right. What could be more on-message than a powerful institution that seeks to right what is most dissatisfied and dysfunctional in the mortal world, yet so often winds up perpetuating both? Great rolling wars, the hoarding of riches, political machinations, colonial adventuring, and more recently the denial of justice and equal rights to women, indigenous groups, homosexuals, and children abused by church representatives—its tragedy is almost matched by its irony. But it’s also just too easy, so we’ll be turning our blows aside at the last moment, seeking instead the flat-bladed mark of a more sympathetic ragging. We’ll even seek out religion’s most worthwhile parts, because while so many billions of people throughout history can be completely wrong, we’re nothing if not utter fashion victims.

I was a pious young Anglican at about twelve. Far more devout about my upcoming confirmation than most of the boys joining me, who were more or less forced into it by their parents (authoritarian weakness #1). My religious education teacher addressed us by surname only, an anachronism in the 1990s (authoritarian weakness #2). Mr Murray assured me that the family of my best friend, who regularly took in bedraggled borders from wherever, were nonetheless going to hell (authoritarian weakness #3).

Mr Murray had the brass balls to actually say: “I’m not saying I’m perfect, but I don’t drink, smoke, or swear.” We had all heard the punchline before: “Oh fuck I’ve left my smokes at the pub”, but good Mr Murray was all earnest denial. The punchline came during one of my frequent Friday detentions. I busted him through a crack in the door, sucking on a beer and a cigar. To be fair, I never heard him swear. It wasn’t our last disagreement.

I had another argument, this one much more recently, with a staunch old atheist. We agreed on everything, except my point that it was difficult to reconcile all the drawbacks of organised religion and religious belief, with the role they have played in framing moral order. So many good people, or just normal people trying to be good. So wayward, so naive and just plain wrong, but so often with the highest of intentions. The church justified colonial endeavours, true; but at the same time their missions were the only humane force restraining even further brutality. And not for nothing, the Pope did prevent a war between Argentina and Chile in the late 1970s. Atheist old man river was incensed, especially when I said his extremist position kept him from seeing how much we agreed on.

In many ways, around the world and throughout history, all religions seem to carry the same message: “Stop being an arsehole.” This is a difficult role to account for in its fullness, as our primitive animal brains urge us down the side of justification for the church and its good, or equally down the other side to utter condemnation. Then we mistake it for rationality. Much harder, morally and intellectually, to stay on the ridge that sees all around. This was why Jesus hung out with hookers.

Western atheists often make the mistake of denying their debt to Christianity. Secular society emerged in no small part from the European inter-faith wars, between all the different versions of Christianity that arose. Soon freedom of religion meant also freedom from religion. Liberty came in no small part from the Treaty of Westphalia. Is it possible that the values of Christianity somehow created a space in which to reject it? How very turn-the-other-cheek. My twilight-years sparring partner threw the big Enlightenment figures at me: Hume, Kant, Darwin. But their Christian credentials ranged from devout to ambiguous. Most of these big guns were desperate to rationalise God with an increasingly empirical order, rather than lead some secular revolution. My anti-faith interlocutor was filling history, retrospectively, with modern secular ideas. The denial of God is historically specific, relatively new, but hard atheism seems just as antiquated to me as being addressed by my surname in a boys’ school.

This Easter, in Australia at least, the question of religious relevance is again, er, relevant. Australia is one of the most secular Western nations, in which it is common to harbour suspicions for religious zeal. The ABC’s QandA program recently pit unlikeable but respected professional atheist Richard Dawkins against Catholic Cardinal George Pell, to often incendiary effect. They spent far too long debating the nature of existence, only coming to social issues late in the game. Dawkins mishandled the matter of Darwin’s faith, as well as the yawning chasm between his theory of evolution and subsequent social Darwinism. Pell was well prepared, to his credit, though he couldn’t avoid looking foolish when talking about the Jews, when dicing around such issues as atheists going to heaven/hell, the difficult evidence of evolution up to homo sapiens sapiens, and literal interpretations of both Genesis and of communion. Pell had to go into PR mode on these issues, playing language games that risked inflaming true believers, presumably for the sake of those future souls who might be saved. But armed with arguments the Catholic church has been loathe to update, he simply couldn’t have performed better.

In the next day’s papers, most gave the ‘win’ to Dawkins. Only the shrill and irrational conservative Greg Sheridan at The Australian thought Pell came out ahead. But what neither advocate was unable to resolve was 1) how much faith most Australians put into reason- or evidence-based accounts of the world, including evolution, and 2) how much most folks still want to believe in a benevolent authority with some kind of design especially for them. It’s easy to fall one way or the other, in an effort to stay consistent, but it’s hard to explain how so many people keep a foot in each argument.

Once I was swerving through Perth traffic with a fine lady, and we spied out several triple-1s on licence plates, which had a grand significance for her. Each triple-1 is apparently a chance to express some “intentionality” to somehow magnetise the good shit to you (aka: make a wish). Like too many friends to count, she will snort breakfeast through her nostrils at the mention of God, and yet believes irredeemably in a benevolent universe. Isn’t it lonely, these religious hippies ask, to get on with no faith that something out there loves me? Yes, I say, it’s lonely. Social connections mean more. They ask: how can you live in a randomised world without meaning? Well, I say, chance simply makes everything that happens that much more significant, compared to what could have happened just as easily. Unlike preordained destinies, I’m never waiting for the other foot to drop.

In Marc Cohn’s signature tune “Walking in Memphis”, I always hang out for the affective narrative peak of that song: “She said, / Tell me, are you a Christian, child? I said, / Ma’am, I am tonight!”. As Cardinal Pell articulated quite well, religion exists to provide existential peace of mind, a response to a yearning that takes hold for many of us more or less often. Dare I say, that’s the precise space Dysatisfunctional.com was set up to address. If we can suspend the question of how true those sandal stories are, or how relevant they are to social values thousands of years on, there is surely still merit in religion’s function. Some social studies have claimed along these lines, that faith leads to a level of robust stability during adversity and happiness more generally. The jury might be out for a long lunch on this one, but anecdotally at least, I’m listening. I’ve seen people firm in their beliefs live more sure-footed, though they can create chaos around them by virtue of what falls beyond their narrow perspective. If they were more dysatisfunctional, they would be better people.

Pell claimed science cannot provide a comparative existential guarantee, and Dawkins agreed with him, branding the existential question of purpose silly. Well played, Dawkins, though you are also not dysatisfunctional enough. People are silly. We ask silly questions, want, demand and do silly things every day. Besides, many people find scientific explanations and questions about the universe humbling, awe-inspiring and deeply compelling in ways that are comparable to religious belief: the concept of in/finitude, the nature of matter, the vexingly simultaneous simplicity and yet comlexity of observable laws. Those who actually seek to understand dark matter, string theory and quantum mechanics are no doubt rewarded with some kind of existential kick, contrasted with myself, who can’t understand how the toaster works. Let’s admit it now—for those of us to whom the causative workings of switches, buttons and pills remain a mystery, our belief in science isn’t much more than magical. If I press this button at the right time, hey presto!—Lily Serna will appear on my television screen. And thank God for her.

Since Dysatisfunctional.com began, I’ve become a much more consistent fan of Alain de Botton, who uses philosophy and the history of ideas to help improve people’s lives. (He still might not belong in the philosophy section of the bookstore, however…) Last week he appeared on the ABC discussing ideas about religion he expressed also in a TED talk entitled “Atheism 2.0”. Amongst other ideas, he focuses on the helpful functions of religion in human lives, offering a much more sympathetic view of Christianity than most atheists afford. When it comes to mastering our dysatisfunctional natures, I’m with him. Stay atop the ridge! I say. Don’t vault down one side or the other, merely to claim consistency. Merely to say you believe in something. It’s not worth it.

On Scary Ladies: “Do not forget the wit!”

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women are still terrifying. They have what I want, and I will fight them for it.’

“Are you going to women? Do not forget the wit!” In the wake of International Women’s Day, let us recall what Fred Nietzsche almost once said. He actually said “whip”, and my version would have been much less dysatisfunctional, had he but asked. Whatsoever: bring your wit! I say it now as a kind of advice to men and women both, because while Fred got the solution wrong, the problem was bang on: chicks* are scary.

And they always have been. Unbeknownst to Pandora, the contents of her box* (it was actually a jar) were all manner of ill: labour, disease, old age, and death. This was supposed to punish men for stealing fire—maybe Pandora was the first martyr. Certainly a victim of her timelessness. Nowadays I’m sure Pfizer would have her covered, with all their fancy intellectual property. What a bitch-session* Pandora could have had with Eve—copping all that blame for the men. If Adam HAD a mother, you can imagine her chastising* him: “I suppose if Evie told you to jump off a cliff you’d do that too?” If for no other reason, this confirms that God must be a man*, with his poor communication skills and old-school paternalism. I could go on with misogynistic historical examples, but we’ve all got to be places. Suffice it to say, from Aristotle to Freud, the fountain of knowledge has endorsed slight after slight upon women, even the real ones.

To be honest, it’s mainly the real ones who trouble me. As usual, it’s a bit empirical and a bit irrational at once: since my only committed relationships have been with women, I’ve simply had (and lost) many more arguments with women than with men. I submit that whichever demographic I’ve had the majority of arguments with, this group would have to form a kind of bugbear, mainly because my ego is extremely fragile (in my experience, this is not simply because I’m a man, though I’m sure I do ‘fragile ego’ in a very manly way…). What’s behind these arguments, really? Let’s generalise and say I want something from women. Hard to say in a relationship, in which the whole thing can be a slog of mutual conditioning, and even harder to say when single. For instance, if a young girl jumps into your lap late of a rainy evening and holds a phone playing her favourite song to your ear, breathing smoke past your eyeballs and stroking your moustache for twenty minutes but doesn’t want to talk and definitely doesn’t want to make out, then snaps this peculiar anonymous intimacy like a twig by racing off to her sister and pal whom she abandoned to spend that time with you in the first place, you will be afraid and deathly so. She had it and you didn’t even know you wanted it.

Or you are walking home some other evening and fall in by chance with a friend who is quite upset because yet another man she trusts and respects has told her women simply aren’t funny and this has hit a nerve because, as she says through streaky tears, “I’m not pretty, skinny or rich, so I’d better damn-well be funny.” And she is actually but can’t hear it then, and the parting is awkward because she’s flustered and late for dinner. The scary thing here is what men do to women, by wanting something from them, creating categories of accord and dismissal, and also what women do to themselves by either listening to men or creating their own categories. The recent National Press Club’s UN Women’s Forum discussed the entangled issues of how men in the workplace underestimate women but also how women can underestimate themselves, or engage in fierce defensive competition with each other. While workplaces are defined places, I wouldn’t be the only one to have seen all three of these things occurring socially. At the other end of the spectrum, someone should write a book entitled, “Ladies Who Lunge and Fuck It Up”, so, you know, women just can’t get it right either way.

The Freudanese might say the cause is genital. You’ve heard this one before: willies are obvious and out there. They do one thing more or less well. It’s easy to gauge their interest and predict their intention. Meanwhile, the vajine intimidates by virtue of its furtive mystery: like driving in the dark towards a cliff—by the time it comes into view you are already committed*. There might actually be a coherent evolutionary psychology tangent in there somehow, about sexual selection and different reproductive strategies for men and women, assessing assertive action versus sustained observation, though they’re obviously not mutually exclusive, and I’d like to avoid biological essentialists firing crossbows at my front door as much as anybody.

So there’s a sprinkling of the problem, hinting at the dysatisfunction plaguing both men and women when it comes to how we think women. I grew up getting regularly smacked over the head by a mother, sister and chick-cousins with iron wills, and I AM afraid but ‘misogyny’ doesn’t cut it, because I don’t hate women as a result. I’m fairly confident that my fear of women isn’t about to lead to domestic abuse. But the fear still informs my thinking, with all those asterisks above that aren’t quite jokes about how many feminists are needed to change a lightbulb, but are still cheapies leaping from the common stereotypes. And I do like to say ‘chicks’ a lot, especially applicable to women who don’t at first seem to qualify, like your grandma, your elected representative or nuns generally, and used more frequently around those who seem a bit uptight* about it. I put this dilemma to friends recently: “There needs to be a word like misogyny, but more positive. Rather than fear and hatred for women, the new word describes fear that comes from respect for freakish lady powers.” Interestingly, the men left it well alone, except for one: “you mean like bleeding for five days and not dying?”. I’m still not sure if that sums up what I’m talking about or not, even in Freudanese.

While I was quite impressed with suggestions of ‘vajmiration’ and ‘awegyny’, Emah Fox had it down with ‘thambogyny’. Latin for awe + women apparently, and I think it’s sweet as. Another female friend later described herself as a thambogynist, due to feeling utterly overwhelmed by alpha-chicks she would otherwise want to befriend. Predictably, I never thought women could be thambogynists too, but we used not to think of them as voters either. Another friend can’t see how it differs from ‘intimidation’, but with so many instances in which one can be intimidated, and so many possible actions open to resolving it, including some good old-fashioned domestic abuse, I’m just not satisfied with how open the word is. There’s no sense of the good will that is so crucial to the concept. At the same time, women are still terrifying. They have what I want, and I will fight them for it. Bring your wits! I’m quite happy to say I’m a thambogynist. It’s kind of liberating.

Some inspiring women:

http://madzhasrunaway.com/

http://www.genbailey.com/

http://josephinerowe.com/

http://literaryminded.wordpress.com/

http://twitter.com/#!/housingstressed

http://melcampbell.com.au/about/

http://www.culture-communication.unimelb.edu.au/about/people/academic/angela-ndalianis

http://lifeatthebottom.com/2008/11/05/the-interview-series-02/