‘Life loves the liver of it.’ That was the mantra of the extraordinary Maya Angelou, who died three years ago, aged 86. Although best known as a great poet and writer, few people realise that another of her talents was a capacity for radical living.
She not only pursued a huge range of careers (from tram attendant to brothel manager) – she was also constantly moving to new cities and countries, throwing herself into politics and love affairs, and drinking plenty of whisky along the way.
So what was her secret? How did she overcome the fear of taking risks and lack of self-confidence that hold so many of us back from living with such energy and abandon? And how did her life show that carpe diem living is full of potential dangers and dilemmas too?
‘Life is short. Have an affair.’ This is the carpe diem tagline of Ashley Madison, the world’s most famous website for arranging an extra-marital fling. ‘Thousands of cheating wives and cheating husbands sign up every day looking for an affair,’ the Canadian-based site boasts, claiming that it has over 40 million users in more than fifty countries, who it matches together for ‘discreet encounters’.
In July 2015, however, the company’s promise to guarantee absolute secrecy received the ultimate blow: its data was hacked and posted online. Suddenly anyone could check whether their spouse had signed up and search their personal profile for their wish-list of kinky turn-ons. The fallout has included a flood of divorces, alleged suicides, shaming of public figures and an epidemic of distrust, with suspicious partners starting to covertly check the emails and texts of their significant other for evidence of an Ashley Madison liaison.
Ashley Madison’s membership figures have been shown to be exaggerated, but there is clearly an enormous appetite for having a fling: nearly 60% of men and over 45% of women have an affair at some point during their marriage. Yet the set-up promoted by Ashley Madison and other similar companies is widely seen as immoral, irresponsible and indulgent. It’s hedonism taken to the extreme – pleasure for pleasure’s sake, regardless of the consequences – and contributes to the generally bad reputation of hedonism, whether it’s extra-marital sex, binge drinking, taking drugs or gluttonous overeating. In many people’s minds, hedonism is about sin, selfishness and deceit, anti-social excess, debauchery and addiction. The dominant image is that hedonism harms – sometimes ourselves, and often others.
In the nineteenth century, the historian Thomas Carlyle condemned the philosophical ideal of utilitarian hedonism – maximising pleasure as the chief purpose of life – as a ‘doctrine worthy only of swine’. The self-help industry today takes a similar position. Pick up a typical book on happiness or wellbeing and I can almost guarantee it will not suggest downing a couple of tequila slammers, devouring a large slice of chocolate cake, having an affair or smoking a joint under the stars. Instead you are likely to be offered a healthy diet of positive thinking exercises, advice on breathing techniques to hone your meditation skills, and top tips on time management to destress your life.
This kind of guidance reflects a growing puritanical streak in the modern happiness movement, which focuses on promoting moderation and self-control while leaving hedonism off the agenda. It is usually only discussed in pejorative remarks about what psychologists call the ‘hedonic treadmill’ – the idea that we get caught in cycles of seeking material pleasures, such as buying a fancy sports car or taking a luxury Caribbean cruise, which only give a temporary boost to our wellbeing and leave us hungry for more.
It is time to challenge this new puritanism and recognise that hedonism is a source of unexpected virtues. I’m not in favour of having secret affairs, buying a Lamborghini or becoming a strung-out coke addict. Rather, we need to appreciate that hedonism has long been central to human culture, personal expression and passionate living, and it is essential that we find a place for it in modern life.
How can we develop a more positive attitude towards hedonism? Easy: by getting immersed in one of the great carpe diem poems of the nineteenth century. To find out what it is, seize the moment and have a quick read of my new ‘click essay’, The Hidden Virtues of Hedonism, based on my book Carpe Diem Regained. I hope you enjoy the pleasures of it.
I’ve been a fan of mindfulness for years, and have done a good deal of sitting in Buddhist meditation classes and also tried some of the new secular mindfulness courses too. As with many people, mindfulness has helped me when I’m stressed, been a source of spiritual solace, and acted as a ballast in my life. It’s offered me the gift of present moment awareness, rescuing me from the modern curse of digital distraction.
But when I began looking into it more deeply when researching my new book Carpe Diem Regained: The Vanishing Art of Seizing the Day, I started having creeping doubts about it. One of the most confronting moments was when I asked renowned Buddhist thinker Matthieu Ricard (best known, to his playful annoyance, as the happiest man in the world) what he thought about the modern secular versions of mindfulness, such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy. His response surprised me. This is what he said:
There are a lot of people speaking about mindfulness, but the risk is that it’s taken too literally – to just ‘be mindful’. Well, you could have a very mindful sniper and a mindful psychopath. It’s true! A sniper needs to be so focused, never distracted, very calm, always bringing back his attention to the present moment. And non-judgemental – just kill people and no judgement. That could happen!
Ricard was only half-joking, because he knows that secular mindfulness courses have become popular in military training and amongst Wall Street bankers, who hope it will keep them calm and give them the edge when the financial stakes are high. He then told me about a study at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig showing that taking a mindfulness course can help you deal with stress but has no discernible impact on pro-social behaviour.
It was shocking to hear, especially from a guy who has spent four decades doing mindfulness meditation in the foothills of the Himalayas. For Ricard, the Buddhist approach to mindfulness – unlike its secular counterpart – doesn’t have this problem of being ‘mindfulness without morals’, as it emphasises concepts such as compassion, caring, empathy and altruism.
So if you happen to be someone who has benefited from mindfulness, and made it part of your life, I think it’s worth challenging yourself and exploring some of its somewhat darker sides.
I do so in detail in my new book, dedicating a whole chapter to mindfulness as a form of ‘seizing the day’ and living in the moment – and subjecting it to scrutiny. To give you a taster, have a look at this free, shareable, ‘click essay’ extract from the book, which you can read in just 3 minutes: Beware the Mindful Sniper.
The empathy critics are on the rampage. Led by the Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, the anti-empathy brigade claim that empathy is a weak or even distorting force in moral life and public affairs. The most recent convert is Peter Singer, perhaps the world’s most influential moral philosopher and author of classic texts such as Animal Liberation. In a recent public conversation I had with him as part of the Empathy Festival at Blackwell’s Bookshop Oxford (see photo), he argued that ethics should be led by rational thinking rather than empathy (of course, I didn’t agree).
In response to Singer’s claims, I have written an article at Open Democracy, called Welcome to the Empathy Wars. It makes the case that critics like Bloom and Singer are fundamentally mistaken, particularly because they fail to recognise the crucial role that cognitive empathy plays in establishing human rights and social justice.
Do have a look at the article, which is based on my book Empathy, and make up your own mind. Whose side are you in the Empathy Wars?
It’s probably the most extraordinary story of the power of empathy I’ve ever come across.
In 1971, the former Ku Klux Klan leader C.P. Ellis had an experience that blew away his prejudices and assumptions about African Americans. In this new 4-minute video produced by Renegade Inc, I reveal how and why it happened.
It’s especially relevant in the wake of the recent racially-motivated church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina.
If anybody ever tells you that empathy is a touchy-feely ‘soft skill’ that has little chance of changing society, just tell them about C.P. Ellis.
This video is based on ideas in my book Empathy, which has just been released in paperback by Penguin Random House.
The report, which builds on my book Empathy (but goes far beyond it) is part of Friends of the Earth’s exciting Big Ideas project that is drawing together the key ideas and insights we need to create a sustainable future for humankind. It challenges the belief that empathy is a fuzzy feel-good emotion and argues that with a bit of smart thinking it can be transformed into an innovative and powerful campaigning tool.
Here are four fascinating facts from the report, just to give you a taster:
The wealthier you are the less empathic you are likely to be, and people with psychopathic tendencies who lack empathy are four times more commonly found amongst senior executives than in the ordinary workforce.
Teaching empathy skills to school kids (yes, it can be done) not only makes them value relationships more, but increases their motivation to take action on environmental issues and immunises them against the lure of consumer culture.
A review of more than 500 studies showed that in 96% of cases, face-to-face contact between people of different ethnic and religious groups reduced prejudices and social divisions, and built community solidarity.
Over 7 million people have visited the empathy-based exhibit Dialogue in the Dark, which challenges assumptions and stereotypes around disability.
Overall, the report argues that building a world where we care more about the issues that matter to all of us – from grinding poverty to environmental collapse – requires using empathy to create a cultural shift from buying to belonging, where we jettison the hyperindividualism of the twentieth century and start to take collective values seriously. But there are no quick-fix solutions. We need to embark on a generational project of ‘deep lobbying’ that overhauls our education systems and sets us on course for a more empathic civilisation.
BBC Radio 4 is celebrating the New Year with a marathon ten-hour dramatisation of Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace. As part of the festivities, I’ve written an article for the BBC on seven lessons we can learn from the life of the bearded sage for the art of living in 2015. Read the article here, which is based on my book The Wonderbox (published in the US as How Should We Live?). But if you want a quick taster of his top tips for a happy life:
I recently came across a powerful, short video called This is Adam, about a homeless guy living on the streets of San Francisco. He had all sorts of interesting and insightful things to say, amongst them this: ‘I notice every day that people everywhere are losing their compassion and empathy – not just for homeless people but for society in general.’ What’s really striking is that we see the world as if through Adam’s eyes, including how people ignore him as they pass by. Continue reading →
As football fever envelops the planet, with all eyes turned towards Brazil, I want you to imagine a different World Cup. Each country sends their national team as usual, but then all the players are pooled together and divided into teams based on their astrological star sign. So Virgos play Leos, and Aquarians are pitted against Aries, with each team having players from a mix of countries. Who would win overall? Perhaps the power of Taurus, the bull, would be no match for the sharp sting of Scorpio. We might imagine other World Cups, where teams are based on shoe size – the clodhopping size elevens against the nimble-toed eights – or maybe the favourite colour of each player. Continue reading →
You can always tell when a new idea is becoming popular – people start critiquing it. That’s certainly the case when it comes to empathy, a concept that is getting more public attention today than at any point in its history (the frequency of Google searches for the word ’empathy’ has more than doubled in the past decade). Continue reading →