I’m changing things up with this week’s post. Instead of sharing some of the things I’ve learned along my trek into happiness, here are a few words from another explorer of the territory where—as philosopher Ken Wilber might put it—the Good, the Beautiful, and the True become self-evident.
Writer, ponderer, and ever-developing human-being David Cain is the creator of the highly popular blog Raptitude through which he shares a variety of the lessons he’s gleaned from his own experiments into living a more beneficent existence. He’s also just released his first ebook, This Will Never Happen Again, which is a collection of some of his blog’s best posts.
David deals with a variety of topics, such as the development of patience, mindfulness, compassion, living beyond materialism, and a variety of the other things that cause people to be better to themselves and to others. When I first encountered Raptitude a few months ago, I was struck by the honest and concise tone of the writing, as well as the outpour of gratitude that flowed through the comment section of each post. Simply put, it is evident that David’s readers (like most people) are hungry for a bit of guidance toward happiness, and that he has proven himself a to be an effective compass. Like most other people who seek a better existence, David goes about it by asking a lot of questions. I highly recommend taking a look at Raptitude to read about some of the answers he’s found.
So without further ado—let’s get to the interview.
Many people find it difficult to achieve happiness, at least on any lasting basis. Why do you think that is?
Well, I think we’re set up biologically to always be a little bit unhappy. Mother Nature wants to keep us moving, keep us having babies, keep us shoring up our personal security. So our minds are geared towards finding something wrong with everything, even if things are objectively pretty good. Happiness is certainly possible, but often it requires defying our more basic impulses and exploring our more sensitive capabilities, particularly mindfulness.
Do you think people know what it is that makes them happy in the first place?
That is a great question, and I think the answer is generally no. What amazes me most about human beings is that we all want exactly the same thing — happiness — and there is so little frank discussion on how to achieve it. Part of the problem is that we’re given bad answers by both nature and society. Nature tells us we’ll be happy if we just eat something or have sex, and society tells us we’ll be happy if we just bump up our salary or buy certain things. Mother Nature just wants us to pass our genes along and couldn’t care less about our happiness, not unlike marketers who just want us to pass our money along to them. So there is widespread confusion between gratification and happiness in human societies.
Do you think that it is presumptuous for writers such as you, me, and many others to undertake writing prescriptively? The vast majority of us don’t have degrees in anything relating to self-improvement or anything like that. I guess what I’m asking is, what gives a writer (or anybody for that matter) the authority to disseminate their views on what it means to live a better, healthier, and happier life?
Sometimes, yes. There have been a lot of times I have been talking out of my depth, but I think that’s just part of learning to write. However, what I write about primarily is my own experience in life, and that is a topic on which I am genuinely the world’s leading authority.
I don’t necessarily believe academics have much more to say on the topic of self-improvement. I’ve read hundreds of books on the topic, by both PhDs and laymen on the topic, and I’ve always been more moved and educated by non-clinical approaches to it. Direct experience and reflection seems to produce more actionable information than psychological studies do, in terms of the pursuit of happiness. I have found that prescriptive writing by academics tells us a lot about what ought to work, and personal accounts and experiments tell us more about what has actually worked in their lives. I have learned much more from anecdotes than studies.
As a sort of follow up, prescriptive writing has existed for as long as the first pen met the first paper. Who are a few of the writers, thinkers, and artists who you would say have most influenced your thinking?
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Douglas Harding, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ken Keyes and Richard Carlson. That’s a bit of a grab bag, but each of them have created watershed events in my thinking.
You like to travel, and you seem to endeavor to do so more than the average person. While many people dream of travel, it seems like relatively few actually go for it. Why do you think this is? And what are the benefits of travel?
In some countries travel is a much more common part of life than it is in the US. Canadians [Note: David is Canadian, which probably gives him a huge head-start on things like patience] are significantly more apt to travel, but the Germans win the prize. Everywhere I have been I have met German backpackers. Anyway, I don’t know why overseas travel is so uncommon for Americans.
The primary benefit is that it puts your own world into perspective, and for a Westerner, that means you realize you live in luxury every day. Power that’s always on, hot water, streets without garbage everywhere, relatively honest law enforcement, modern medicine, all kinds of work opportunities available to you… we are at the pinnacle of civilization in many aspects and we don’t recognize it. You get home and you’re a different person.
You’ve just quit your job in order to pursue writing full time. (Congratulations and welcome to the team. I suggest investing in a comfortable bathrobe.) What sort of writing will you be doing?
I’m writing digital books. There are a lot of topics that I have a lot to say about that I can’t cover in blog posts, and self-published digital books will allow me to keep them concise yet expand on everything I need to. I think there’s a void in the current selection of traditional writing formats. Print books are often way longer than they need to be. So often I’ve read a book that drones on for 300 pages about something that could be covered in 50, just because that’s the status quo and a publisher couldn’t sell a 50 page book. A lot of valuable information is lost this way. I think for prescriptive writing, a shorter book is much more useful to the reader and so I want to fill that void.
You’ve also recently released an eBook, This Will Never Happen Again. Can you tell me a few things about the process that went into making it and how it differs from and relates to Raptitude?
It was mostly a response to reader requests for a “Best Of” compliation. I prefer to write original material, but a publisher came to me with the idea and it was what a lot of people were asking for. So I got a chance to revise about fifteen classic articles and put them together.
If you had to boil down your view on how to live well into a one or two sentence prescription, what would it be?
Learn why you do what you do and what it is doing for you. Always be experimenting.
Finally, it’s time to get prophetic. What do you think our chances are as humans? Where are we headed from here?
I picture a pretty big scare in the relatively near future. Probably an irreversible environmental catastrophe. I really hope it wakes people up to less destructive and more intelligent ways of pursuing happiness. On some levels it looks like things are getting worse and worse, but on the level of political progress in the West I think we are improving. Just look at the stark differences in gay rights between today and even five years ago, as one small example. We are getting wiser.