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This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. We've all been there, you park your car in a giant lot only to come back a few hours later and have no idea where you parked. You wander around your arms laden with shopping bags, cursing. TV shows like Seinfeld, milk these situations for laughs.
"Where the hell is this car, Kramer? We need a system. That's got to be here. Why are they using so many colors. The numbers go up to 40. Maybe it's not on this level. But there's four different levels..."
When things like this happen in real life, you probably don't laugh. Or take bigger things. You slip on the ice and you break a wrist, someone leaves the stove on and your house catches on fire. Or the world suddenly and inexplicably is gripped by a major pandemic.
Cases now topping 15 million here in the U.S., one point three million of them in just the past seven days.
Jobs are lost, lives are lost.
And as hard as it is to fathom the record number of covid deaths, public health officials are warning tonight that it will likely get worse before the situation improves.
Life is filled with tragedies and hardship. For thousands of years, philosophers have come up with strategies to help us cope with setbacks.
This week on Hidden Brain an ancient philosophy backed by modern psychology, shows us how to respond wisely to disappointment and misfortune. William Irvine is a philosopher at Wright State University. He has spent years studying how we respond to setbacks and how we might use ideas from philosophy and psychology to respond differently. Bill Irvine, welcome to Hidden Brain.
Oh, it's a pleasure to be here.
I want to start with a couple of small examples of the kind of irritants we all experience. You were recently taking a nap and you got woken up by a call from a telemarketer. What happened next?
I was enjoying a mid-afternoon nap and the phone rang and I answered and it was just the robot. And then I pressed the buttons necessary to get to an actual real person. And when I got to that person, my sleep deprived brain, you know, I had that that kind of fog and I launched into a verbal attack. I rather surprised myself. I don't remember the details, but I do remember the phrase 'you lying snake' being among them. And it's like a part of me emerged from some back corner of my mind and simply took control, took
k control. And I was along for the ride watching what happened.
Yeah. So some years ago, you and your wife were on a vacation to Morocco. You were camping in the Sahara and you had scheduled a camel ride across the desert the next day. It's a once in a lifetime experience, once in a lifetime moment. But as you lay in your tent, your mind was filled with intrusive and unpleasant thoughts.
What were those thoughts about?
Yeah, no, it was supposed to be kind of this wonderful dreamlike adventure and this particular trip featured a night in a tent, and it was a nice tent. You know, don't think pop tent, think tent with an internal shower, if you can imagine such a thing. Oh, wow. And two camel rides, one at sunset and one at sunrise. So I was very much looking forward to it. They served us dinner there in the tent and then we headed off for bed.
I was about to drift off. I was tired. We had done a bunch of traveling that day and just as I was about to fall asleep, an incident arose. I don't need to go into the details of the incident, but involving someone I knew. And it was an unpleasant incident and I found myself getting angry and, you know, I could feel my blood pressure rising, that kind of anger. And I thought, well, this is really stupid because I have a sunrise camel ride tomorrow, so I need to get some sleep.
So I rolled over and the voice indeed went away until just as I was about to drift off to sleep, it came back. It just is, it's this reminder. And that's kind of how it went through the night, you know. And then I experienced what I call Meta anger. It's a whole another level of anger about getting angry about something as stupid as what I was getting angry about.
So, you know, I kind of transcended normal anger.
I feel that the stories you are telling are so universal, we all have these experiences, we stew over things, lose your temper, lose sleep over things. I mean, I feel I do this all the time. And when it happens, I tell myself sometimes this is you know, this is happening at three o'clock in the morning. This is so pointless. You're not going to be arrested in the morning. All this fretting is not going to solve anything.
You have a wonderful analogy to how these thoughts operate in our minds.
Tell me the analogy of the annoying roommate.
Yeah. So imagine that you're trapped in an apartment with this roommate. And the problem was he was a very annoying human being. He would basically hang out in the back bedroom playing video games or something. But every now and then he would come out and tell you something you should worry about. And as you were falling asleep in your own bedroom, he would come in and tap your shoulder and say, you know, there's something probably you should be angry about.
And you would want to eliminate this roommate, you would want to expel him, you might want to do physical violence against him. That's kind of what it's like. That's the human experience. You've got this roommate, he's not in the back bedroom. He lives in a corner of your mind and comes out to make you miserable. That isn't necessarily his goal. He's just thoughtless, it's just what he does and that's the human experience. So both you and I consider the movie Groundhog Day one of our all time favorites on the surface, it's just another Hollywood romantic comedy.
But I want to spend a moment with a movie since I think it reveals some really interesting philosophical ideas that will inform this conversation. So for the people who haven't watched Groundhog Day, the movies about Phil Connors, he's a cynical TV weatherman out in California.
They're going to have some warm weather tomorrow, gang wars and some very overpriced real estate.
He dislikes his colleagues. He hates his job. He's been assigned to cover the Groundhog Day festivities in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. It's the middle of winter. Phil thinks this is a boring assignment.
This is part of a thousand people freezing their butts off waiting to worship a rat. What a hype.
He can't wait to get it over with. But after he finishes filing this lackluster report, bad weather forces him to stay overnight in town. And when he wakes up the next day, he discovers that time has rewound itself and he is back at the start of Groundhog Day. He has to do the same TV report, made the same people live the same boring day over again.
And then the same thing happens the next day and the next. And the next. He is living in the prison of Groundhog Day.
He can't run over this. Oh, no. Oh, come there every day. What a Miami high school boys are playing yesterday's team.
Bill, tell me if you remember, how does Phil react to the setback?
He becomes increasingly depressed.
Rita, I'm reliving the same day over and over Groundhog Day.
I'm racking my brain, but I can't even begin to imagine why you'd make up something like this. I'm not making it up. I am asking you for help.
I used to watch the movie every Groundhog Day until two years ago when my wife said, that's enough Groundhog Day. I think we can skip this year. And I think in one scene we finally see him there in his pajamas playing along with a game where they ask questions in. The problem is he knows all the answers because he's heard it 100 times before because that's what he starts every day. Yeah, and that's the interesting thing, that idea that you have to live the same day over and over, it can be a really depressing thought.
So at one point in the movie as the same day, endlessly replays itself over and over again. Phil boils over with frustration and his rage spills into the TV segment he's doing and he lashes out on camera at his colleagues Larry.
And Rita, you got a problem with what I'm saying? Larry, untie your tongue and you come out here and talk. I am I upsetting you, princess? You know, you want a prediction about the weather? You're asking the wrong film. I'll give you a winter prediction. It's going to be cold. It's going to be gray. And I asked you for the rest of your life, so, Bill, the comedy comes from the fact that as we watch from the outside, we can see how Feld's reaction to his own suffering is actually making things worse.
But but he can't see it, can he?
No, he can't. He's he's trapped. He hasn't figured it out. And a lot of people actually haven't figured it out as well. A lot of us normal people, that much of the suffering we experience is due to our response to the events of life. And that's a tragedy. You know, you have one life to live and to spend it living the same day over and over when you have other options open.
That's tragic. So I want to stay with this core insight for just a moment.
You know, all of us think that when the world hands us a lemon, when things go wrong, it's the world's fault.
The world is causing us to suffer. But I think a core insight that you just pointed out was that our response to what the world hands us is as much a part of our suffering as what the world gives us.
Can you talk about that for a moment?
Yeah, actually, our response is usually worse. Think about if somebody says something obnoxious to you. Those are just words. They're there and gone. What will cause you the agony is you dwelling on those words, thinking about those words, replaying those words.
I've known people, the older people in nursing homes who had lost much of their memory, you know, dementia had set in, and the amazing thing was they could still remember and describe in detail an annoying incident that happened decades ago. It just drills deep into your brain and it has the power to poison your life. And that's what you got to look out for.
You have a wonderful analogy of of a burst pipe in your home. So when a pipe burst, you have to quickly shut off the water and call a plumber and then you have to deal with the water damage. Tell me about the analogy between this burst pipe and the way many of us respond to life's setbacks.
Yeah, a burst pipe is not your problem. A burst pipe you call a plumber. And if the plumber is competent, might take him half an hour to fix it, might cost you a few hundred dollars and it's back to business as normal. The pipe isn't the problem. The problem is all the water that came out of the broken pipe. If this is the second story bedroom where the pipe broke, you could have a collapsed ceiling on the first floor and that could have damaged the carpet, could have damaged furniture.
So we're talking of thousands of dollars worth of damage. We're talking maybe days or weeks of repairs being done until it's finally clear. But that's what one of life's setbacks is like when somebody insults you. It isn't the insult. That's just words. It's your response to the insult. And it can be orders of magnitude greater harm that it does you than the insult itself did.
Is it possible that getting stuck in these loops, what psychologists sometimes call perseveration, that some of us are more prone to it than others?
In other words, some of us have a more annoying roommate than others? I think so.
And I've given this some thought. And I think there are, you know, dispositions. There are personality types. But I also think it's possible with a little bit of effort and a little bit of direction for you to do as much with whatever personality you were born with in terms of redirecting it so that life's setbacks aren't quite as damaging as they otherwise would be.
Coming up after the break, we explore the psychological techniques used by people who respond exceptionally well to life's curveballs.
You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. We've seen how our responses to setbacks can sometimes produce problems that compound the original setback. We can't always control what the world does to us. But in his book, The Stoic Challenge, philosopher William Ervin says there's a way to change how we respond to the world. In fact, when we look atccessful and well-adjusted people, we see them practicing the very skills that could lead all of us to greater peace of mind.
Bill, in your book, you tell the story of the astronaut Neil Armstrong. He's obviously famous for the moon landing. But you describe another incident involving Neil Armstrong. Tell me that story and what lesson you drew from it.
Yeah, in order to be able to land on the moon, they needed a lunar lander and they needed to practice landing with it. So they did that on Earth on multiple occasions. It would hover above the ground, maybe, you know, a few hundred feet. It was a very, very difficult vehicle to pilot. It's likened to trying to balance a dinner dish on the end of a broom handle. And on one of the times they were testing it, Neil Armstrong had it up, and the valve stuck in one of the thrusters,
and the whole thing started tipping over sideways. When it became approximately at a 90 degree angle, tipping over, he, being a trained pilot, hit the ejector button, blew off the lander and his parachute automatically opened. He drifted down to earth safely. Meanwhile, the lander crashed into a big fireball.
He had no harm done to him physically other than I think he bit his tongue when he hit the ground. So later on he was back at the office complex filling out paperwork, as you can imagine someone would have to do after crashing a lunar lander. And fellow astronaut Alan Bean came along, saw him working there. Alan Bean hadn't heard anything about any of this, but saw him working there and stuck his head in the office and said, "hey, Neil, how are things going?".
Neil said, "eh, fine". So Alan Bean went on to talk to another astronaut and the other astronaut said, "Did you hear what happened this morning? Neil crashed the lander!". And at that point, Alan Bean went back to Neil Armstrong and said, "you crashed the lander!?". And Neil said, "oh, yeah, yeah. You know, those are tippy things and down it went.". And [he] didn't have another thing to say about it. So just imagine this life threatening thing he went through
it, behaved like a hero and yet didn't even think it was worth mentioning. Just bounced right back as if nothing had happened. That's true.
There was there was work to be done. Right. We were just almost killed. But I wasn't.
Talk about low drama, huh? Yeah. Talk about no drama. And yet that's one approach you can take to things. It's history now. So let's move on and figure out what happens next.
There's another story to tell. This one is of a 13 year old surfer named Bethany Hamilton, and it's instructive in that it shows what you were just talking about a second ago, which is some people managed to stay relentlessly focused on the future rather than fretting about the past. Tell me, Bethany, story, Bill.
Yeah, Bethany Hamilton was a young surfer, a very good surfer, and was out surfing one day with a friend and was there waiting for the next big wave with her arms draped over the surfboard when suddenly something hit her right arm. And before she knew it, she saw the flash of Grey. She realized that it was a shark and she realized that she was missing her right arm instead of panicking. She made her way back to shore. She was rushed to an emergency room.
But what's of interest here is the way Bethany responded to this tragedy.
I think when you're faced with such incredible trials at such a young age, you're just trying to find that light of hope of like, OK, what can I do?
What did she do? She rose to the challenge. As soon as her doctor said it's OK to get wet again, she went out and she taught herself again how to surf. And, you know, normally you use two hands pressing down. She had only one hand to push herself up to a standing position. She figured out how to do that. And she also figured out a bunch of other things like how do you button a shirt? Answer is you don't you don't get shirts with buttons.
There's a workaround for that.
I didn't mean easy. I just needed possible.
So we see something really strange. And people like Neil Armstrong and Bethany Hamilton, when bad things happen to them, they not only don't react the way most of us do, they don't spend a lot of time wishing that the bad thing had not happened to them. I want to play you a clip from Yankee first baseman Lou Gehrig. He had to retire from baseball near the peak of his career after being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Here's the clip.
For the past two weeks, you've been reading about a bad break. Yet, today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.
Lou Gehrig died in 1941 at the age of 37. What's the secret these people have in common, Bill?
A secret is they realize a few basic insights. One is that history is history. History is over. You can't change history. You can change what happens tomorrow. And another thing, the Stoics actually never said what I'm about to tell you, but I think it could be their motto. Do what you can with what you've got, where you are. And if you look at the people that we hold up as this kind of hero who bounced back from extreme setbacks, that's what they did.
They did what they could with what they had, where they were. And Lou Gehrig did that. He remained a hero to the endخخخخخخخخخخخخخخخخخ♥خخ
خخat I might have been given a bad break, but I've got an awful lot to live for. Thank you.
You've spent decades reading about and trying to emulate some of the greatest philosophers who ever lived. I'm wondering if you can tell me the story of Musonius Rufus . I understand he ran afoul of an emperor and was banished to a desolate island, but survived it in some ways by drawing on the same philosophical tradition that has informed your own life.
Yeah, the stoic philosophers had an unfortunate tendency to get in trouble with the powers that be and to be banished by them. So several of the most famous Stoics spent time banished. You get sent out to an island in the island that Musonius was sent to was one of the particularly bad islands, the Greek island of Gyaros in the Aegean Sea. It's described as a desolate rock. He went there and discovered that it wasn't uninhabited, that there were a handful of fishermen who figured out a way to make a living there.
So what he did is he spent his time on the island studying the island. He found a new spring on the island that the locals didn't know about. He was visited from time to time on the island by his students and they thought they were coming to cheer him up. He would cheer them up when they got there and listen to their problems, because what did he do? He did what he could with what he had, where he was.
He was the target of injustice and yet refused to play the role of victim of injustice. It's a different mindset altogether. A victim might wallow in self-pity. A target rises and thinks, "what am I going to do next in order to minimize the harm that this targeting has done to me? Hmm."
So there were three techniques that he practiced to minimize the harm that was done to him. And I want to discuss them one by one because I think they carry deep psychological insight. The first has to do with an understanding of what he could control and what he couldn't control. Talk about this idea, Bill.
Yes, this is the dichotomy of control, although in my own works, I broken it into a tri-chotomy of control. So things you have complete control over, those would be your values. Those would be the choices that you make. Things you have no control over at all are like whether the sun rises tomorrow. So the first bit of advice, stoic advice in this comes from you, Musonius's student Epictetus, one of the four great Roman stoic philosophers.
The advice is, don't spend your time thinking about things you have no control over because you can't control them. It's a waste of time. You should instead spend that time thinking very carefully about things you do have control over, including your values. And then there's this interesting middle category, and that's the category of things you have some but not complete control over. So one analogy I use is preparing for a tennis match. You can't control how hard your opponent practices.
You can't control the weather conditions on the day of the match. But there are things you can't control, like how hard you train, like the strategy you come up with for doing the match. And that's what you should be focusing your attention on. Let me take a little bit of a side trip here. When a stoic is, has finished, when whatever he was preparing for is over, he won't judge himself on the basis of whether he won or lost.
He'll judge himself on whether he did the most with what he had available to him. And if he did that, that's success, because that's all he could do.
You know, to measure success by some higher standard is sheer lunacy.
The second technique that Musonius practiced on this desolate island was to remind himself that things could have been much worse. Why did he do this and what did he do, Bill?
Yeah, this is a phenomenon known as as anchoring and whatever situation you're in, is it good or bad? Well, it depends. Depends on what? Depends on what you're comparing it to. So, for instance, you know, we're going through this covid pandemic. I've been asked by many people, so what would a stoic do under these circumstances?
And I suggested, well, one of the things they would do is, is they would do this game of anchoring and they would think about how things could be worse. And, you know, it's interesting because my students said, "now this is as bad as as things get."
And then I tell them the story of the Blitz in London during World War II.
"Night and day and night, indiscriminate attacks continue..."
Where it wasn't that you were locked into your apartment, it was that you had to leave your apartment every night.
"In underground shelters, a dauntless Britain carries on undismayed..."
...Go into a subway tunnel and sleep with 300 strangers on the ground. Get up the next morning and go back to your apartment in the hopes that it hadn't been bombed into a rubble the night before.
"Never in history has an entire people born so frightful an ordeal so bravely..."
You know, and once you put it into that frame, then you start thinking, "you know, this isn't so bad after all."
The third technique that Musonius and other stoic philosophers have recommended is to learn self-control through occasional acts of self denial. What do they mean by this, Bill?
Yeah, this is what I call stoic training. You know, I like to think of it in terms of your immune system. We all know about our biological immune system. What does it do?
Well, it fights off germs. It fights off viruses. And the interesting thing is, unless you develop your biological immune system, it's not going to function properly.
I know a pediatrician and I asked him about whether children should be exposed to dirt. And his answer was, yeah, kids should eat a pound of dirt. Well, not in a single sitting, but you know what? If the kid is walking around the house and wants to suck on the table, let him suck on the table, you know, get pats. The Pats are going to be dirty.
That's good, because you want him to develop his biological immune system. The Stoics didn't think in these terms because they didn't know about immune systems. But it's a nice parallel. You have an emotional immune system, but you need to train it and the way you train it is by experiencing things that are going to make you unhappy.
You go out of your way to experience those things just because doing so will develop your emotional immune system. So think about somebody who lives in a palace. Think about somebody who never has anything go wrong. All it will take is the smallest little setback and that person's going to be a basket case. Think about somebody instead who's always going out and trying to do things that are going to make him physically uncomfortable, that are going to make him emotionally uncomfortable, present that person with a challenge of some kind and they're going to take it in their stride.
I'm wondering if some people might hear what you're saying and sort of think of what you're saying as a form of gaslighting. And here's what I mean, because effectively, what we might be telling people is, you know, yes, your life sucks. Yes. Terrible things have happened to you. But if you're unhappy, it's your fault because you are not reacting properly to your setbacks. Is there a risk that stoicism can sort of transfer over into the phenomenon of blaming the victim?
We could do that. I mean, here's one way to put it, if you look at the classical Stoics, they thought that if you want to have a happy life, if you want to have a life in which you flourish as a human being, there is an extent to which you have to take responsibility for that life. Now, that said, there are things in life you can't control in. There are going to be these bad things that come up and happen to you.
So what do you do? You deal with them to the best of your ability. But the stoic insight was most of the damage that they do to you is not the event itself, but your reaction to the event. And so what you need to do is figure out a way to keep that reaction within certain bounds. You know, and if you look at people we admire, if you look at Martin Luther King, for example, he was the target of considerable discrimination.
He refused to play the role of victim. He found a way to minimize the harm it did him personally. And that way he could use the energy that he would have spent feeling beat down, feeling powerless. He used that energy to start a movement. So that's a wonderful direction, a redirection you can take when you have been targeted by evil and malicious forces.
I want to read you the Oxford Dictionary definition of stoicism. It says it's the endurance of pain or hardship without the display of feelings and without complaint and dictionary. Dotcom says stoicism is about the repression of emotion. Are those definitions accurate? Because if so, it doesn't sound like it's very appealing or very fun. I avoided stoicism for most of my life for just that reason, and then about 15 years ago, I was in a research project and it dawned on me that it's a common idea people have, but it's very mistaken.
So in my own writing, I distinguish between what I call lowercase s and uppercase S stoicism. Lowercase as stoicism is precisely what you just said. So a lowercase s stoic as a person who stands there and simply takes whatever life has to throw at him and doesn't express emotions in the process. But the Romans Stoics were uppercase S Stoics. It isn't that they suppressed emotion. It's that they tried to avoid experiencing negative emotions, emotions like anger, anxiety, frustration, envy.
But they had nothing against positive emotions, including feelings of delight, including even joy. And that's the incredible thing. You know, if you actually look into the lives of the ancient Stoics, they had a reputation for being cheerful individuals. So it's the absolute opposite of what you would expect and one that I think keeps a lot of people distanced from a doctrine that could be very helpful to them in the life they're living.
We've talked at length on Hidden Brain and various episodes about the phenomenon of the hedonic treadmill, which is you have wonderful things happen to you, good things come into your life, and very quickly we get habituated to them and we fail to see them for what they are. We start to take them for granted. How would a stoic accentuate the positive, especially when the positive is all around her all the time, where she's seeing it all the time?
Yeah. So a stoic, understands they didn't use this term for it, but they understand the hedonic treadmill. And I like to rephrase it as the gap theory of happiness. A lot of people are unhappy because they recognize the existence of a gap between what they have and what they want, and they're convinced that happiness will come to them if only they can raise that one level and get the thing they want. And in fact, it's true.
They are happy for a while, for a few minutes, for an hour, for days. And then they're right back where they were before because they discovered that there's another level that's even higher.
And they think if only I could reach that level, I would at last be happy. The insight which the Stoics had and by the way, the Buddhists had, and there have been a number of groups in history that have had the same insight, is that there's a second way to close the gap. What you need to do is to learn how to want what you already have. Because then there's no gap to close, you're already there. OK, but how do you accomplish that? And the stoic said, you do these certain exercises, these certain psychological strategies so that you can convince yourself to want the things that you already have.
And is one of those things in some ways to remind yourself of the things that could be much worse? We talked about the idea in some ways of exposing yourself to negative phenomena or of imagining perhaps that the thing that you have is no longer with you. You imagine the loss of the thing that you actually have in order to remind yourself of the value of the thing that you have.
Yeah, so that's what is referred to as negative visualization. And so if you want to find out what in life you're taking for granted, think about the things in your life that you value. And it could be your job. It could be your spouse. It could be your children. So negative visualization is this process in which you give yourself a few seconds to imagine that the thing you value somehow disappears from your life. So you don't dwell on losing the things that you value, but you allow yourself to have a flickering thought about it.
You imagine and you try to visualize your life with that person or that thing missing, just a few seconds and then you get back to life. And when you next encounter the person or thing of, an interesting phenomenon, you will probably notice. And that is that you will you appreciate them. You're happy to see them. Well, I do this periodically a few times a day. My wife knows that I've been up to negative visualization when she hears me shout out from the back bedroom, that's my office.
"Thank you for existing!"
And as a result, I realize, gosh, you know, I've really got it good. It's so insidious. This process of as soon as you've got something feels good at first, then you take it for granted. And if you could only appreciate the things you already had, you could really extract the joy that they can provide your life with. The same is true of children. You know, there are people who dream of having children. They have them and then before long, start ignoring them and start complaining about them.
But, you know, imagine that tonight at bedtime, it wasn't possible for you to tell your kid a bedtime story because your kids off in the hospital or or somewhere else, you can change your attitude dramatically and in a very short period of time.
You point out something quite wonderful in the book, which is, of course, every one of the things that we have at some level is transient. You know, the possessions we have, the relationships we have, the life that we have. It is fundamentally transient. And in some ways, when you remind yourself of that transience, at the one level, it is potentially scary and upsetting, but it also causes you to pay more attention to the things that you have.
So if I remind myself I'm talking to my friend, but I want to briefly visualize a point where this person may no longer be my friend or might no longer be in my life, I will engage with my friend more deeply in that conversation that I'm having with him or her today than if I sort of essentially took it for granted and assume that this is a relationship that would last forever.
Yeah, then I call it the last time, meditation is a great way to put yourself in the moment, you can feel what it's like to be living in the moment.
And what you do is whatever it is you're doing, you imagine that it's the last time you will ever do it. And for everything you do, there will be a last time that you do it.
And that's simply because you're a mortal being. You will someday die. There will be a last time you eat dinner. There will be a last time you lay your head on a pillow. There will be a last breath that you take. Now, again, you don't want to go overboard on this because if that's all you think about, you're going to be a miserable human being. But if you occasionally allow yourself to have that thought, then you find it has this psychologically transformative power.
You can take what you're doing and you can realize, you know, if this were the last time I was doing this, I would savour this thing that I'm doing. It can be something quite ordinary. You know, I find when I mow the lawn on a hot summer day, I like to remind myself that there will be a last time I mow the lawn. There's going to be a time when I'm in a nursing home somewhere I can't mow the lawn.
And if I reached that stage, I'm going to be looking back on that moment of me out there pushing a lawn mower around. And it's going to count as the good old days and, you know, just at that thought Carly Simon sang it. Well, you know, these are the good old days. If you live long enough, there's a very good chance that these are the good old days. Wouldn't it be tragic for you not to savour them while they're here?
The Stoics understood that you don't achieve tranquility by understanding theories about how the mind works, philosopher William Irvine has learned he needs to practice a series of techniques to respond well to life's setbacks. Those techniques might help you as well. That's coming up right after the break. You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. This is Head and Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. The stoic philosophers understood that no matter what challenges life throws at us, we have an option.
It's up to us to decide how we respond to those challenges. Our responses shape how badly we are affected by setbacks. They shape how we respond in important ways. Our responses to setbacks shape whether they appear as setbacks at all. Philosopher William Irvine is the author of the book The Stoic Challenge. In it, he explores various techniques to change how he responds to setbacks.
Bill, you've come up with a clever game that you play when you are dealing with frustrations. In your book, you describe a horrendous flight with a connection in Chicago.
Tell me what went wrong on that flight and how you employed an unusual form of conversation to reshape your response to the setback back in the day, the good old days before a covid, I did a fair amount of flying and I was flying cross-country and I was in Chicago. And the plane I was on, you know, we boarded and got on. They announced that there was a problem loading the luggage, that they were having trouble closing the cargo door.
And so they said off the plane and we're going to find a different plane for you. So you can imagine the groaning that was going on. Everybody goes back into the airport and are sitting there waiting for an announcement. And the announcement finally comes on and the announcement is, sorry, there is no other plane available for tonight. So in the morning, you'll be able to fly out and we'll put you up in a hotel overnight. Huge groaning from all around complaint's, you know, people going up to the desk to say, you know, this is not acceptable.
But for me, as a practicing stoic, it triggered a different response altogether. So I had this thing I call the stoic test game. When I experience a setback, I imagine that what's happened is stoic gods have provided me with the challenge. Now I do. I actually believe stoic gods exist. The answer is no. They're imaginary beings. Next question is why would they inflict these tests on me? Answer because they want me to thrive, because they want me to be strong and they want me to be resilient.
So they test me. You can think of them like a good coach. You know, a good coach won't pamper his or her players. A good coach will try to toughen up the players so they can thrive in upcoming competitions. Why do this mental game in? The answer is, instead of getting angry, for instance, you think of it as a challenge and you think I can actually do quite well in this and you kind of hijack your your inner emotions.
You want to get angry, but now you've got something else to focus on and that is to find a workaround for the setback and not get upset in the process.
So you have all these people in the airport sitting, groaning, complaining, walking up to the counter, saying it's unacceptable. You're sitting in your seat having a quiet conversation with the stoic gods. And what do you say to them and what did you say to them in that moment?
You know, I actually think these these imaginary stoic gods, I think a lot of them like to hang out in airports because that seems to be where all sorts of setbacks happen. But I'd say this is a clever challenge, but I'm up for it, so bring it on. It's a psychologically useful game.
So the airline transfers you to a hotel for the evening because there are no planes available for that.
Day does all go smoothly once you get to the hotel, it got to the room, opened the door and realized that the room had not been made up from the previous person who had stayed there. So I head back out into the hallway, go all the way back down and tell the person at the desk, hey, you know, the room is made up. And so he says, oh, that's funny. And he says, try this one.
Gives me a different key.
Go back up now again. If I weren't a practicing stoic, this would have been when my anger would be at its maximum, you know, the incompetence of this person. But I took a different spin on it, you know, and again, I tip my hat to the stoic gods of well played.
I simply did not see this happening. But, you know, to pass one of these stoic tests, to pass one of these challenges, the trick is to keep your cool. If you don't let it crush you, it's going to. Strengthen you, you bounce, you don't break. I want to focus on one of the challenges we have in trying to implement a philosophy like this. And in fact, I want to go back to the story you told at the top about being woken up from a nap and hearing the the robo call and having to to try and deal with that with a telemarketer.
When setbacks arise in our life, when frustrations arise, it seems like the journey between the set back and our, you know, our rage or despair, you know, it's almost instantaneous that we just go from zero to 90 miles an hour in like a second and it happens like that. And there's no time to stop and actually say the stoic gods are testing me. This is a challenge. Can I rise to that challenge? Can you talk a little bit about this idea that in some ways part of the challenge here is not just in coming up with that game, but being able to insert the game in the millisecond before your emotions sort of rise up and swallow you up and sweep you away?
Yeah, in stoic challenge book, I describe what I call the five second rule. It's a nice thing to keep in mind because my own experience with anger is that you need to nip it in the bud. You need to get to it quickly. So I described five seconds and I don't know if that's the exact time, but if you let the anger burst into flames, you've got a real problem on your hands because it's going to burn. It's going to burn for a long time.
Even if you reduce it to smoldering, it will burst into flames again, like happened to me on the Sahara Desert.
And so the best thing is to prevent it from even being activated to begin with. And that's why you have to be quick and you get you develop your instincts on this so that when a setback comes along, you very quickly put it into the proper frame. You say this is a test by the stoic gods. I'm atop my game and I'm going to show the stoic gods what I'm made of. So here's a thought for you.
Give it a try, you know, put it to work in your life, test drive it. And if it doesn't work for you, you've lost very little. And if it does work for you, you've acquired a very important psychological tool.
You talk in the book about the value of humor in combating the challenges that the stoic gods put in front of us. So in some ways, off of laughing or mocking, in some ways the setbacks that I put before us as a way to counter them. Can you talk about that idea for a moment?
Yeah, if you can laugh off an insult, the insult ceases to be a problem for you.
One interesting thing I've discovered is that if somebody says something and you just you listen and then you just go on as if they hadn't said it, what they'll do is they'll be puzzled. They'll wonder, well, why didn't he get mad? Why didn't he respond to it? And sometimes they'll say the insult again. And then the response is, yeah, I heard you the first time and then you just go on with whatever you were saying. And it's a really profoundly effective way to deal with an insult because they look like a fool.
You've just ignored it. They haven't hurt you.
So I'm wondering, when you think about the covid-19 pandemic bill, do you see it as a giant stoic test for all of us? Yes, it's a very good stoic test.
We talked before about negative visualization in which you imagine losing something that you have and appreciate.
covid-19 is a kind of a brutal substitute for negative visualization. It shows you what it feels like to be deprived of the thing that you appreciate. It could be the company of your relatives. It could be your favorite restaurant. It could be your favorite activity.
Hey, stoic gods are going to snatch them away from you so you can figure out what it feels like. The interesting thing about this whole pandemic situation is how people are going to respond to it after it goes away.
I'm assuming that it will it'll be a matter of time before people will be taking everything for granted again. And that's why it's important to be able to practice something like negative visualization, because then when you find yourself again, taking for granted restaurants, people and so on, you give yourself a moment to reflect on what it was like during the pandemic and how you felt back then. And that can renew your connection with a variety of relationships. We talked about the movie Groundhog Day, the start of our conversation, Bill Falconer's tries every self-destructive thing to get out of his quandary, but eventually when he realizes that nothing is going to work, he starts to slow down.
He starts to ask himself how he can appreciate the things that he has rather than wallow in resentment about the things that he doesn't have. I want to play you a clip from the very end of the movie.
When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life. But standing here among the people of Punxsutawney and basking in the warmth of their hearts and hearts, I couldn't imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter from Punxsutawney. It's Phil Connors so long.
I mean, Phil wakes up the next morning. It actually is the next day he has escaped his prison. It's almost like he needed to stop trying to escape his prison in order to escape his prison.
Absolutely. Here's the stoic bottom line on that. You've got one life to live and it's happening right now.
And you have to actively think about what you need to do in order to embrace the one life you have to live. If you spend that life wishing you could be living somebody else's life, that's a waste. So you dig in, you learn how to appreciate what you've already got. You learn how to savor your existence, your environment, your friends, your relatives, your lovers. And you can have that way the fullest life that's possible to have.
William Irvin is a professor of philosophy at Wright State University in Ohio. He's the author of The Stoic Challenge of Philosophers Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer and More Resilient. Bill, thank you for joining me today on Hidden Brain. Oh, it's been a pleasure. Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media, Metromedia is our exclusive advertising sales partner. Our audio production team includes Bridget McCarthy, Laura Querelle, Autumn Barnes and Andrew Chadwick. Our unsung hero today is Stephen Dubner.
Stephen is the host of the podcast Freakonomics. It's a terrific show and you should check it out. But Stephen has also been very helpful to me in thinking through what it means to launch and run an independent production company. He's been generous with his time and incredibly helpful with his advice. I'm so grateful. Stephen, thank you. For more hidden brain, you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter and visit us at Hidden Brain dot org. I'm Shankar Vedantam.
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