Another Week Ends

The Productivity Trap, Can-Do Optimism, the Benefits of Humor, The Five Wounds, Firm Beliefs in Dialogue, and a New Killers Album.

Todd Brewer / 8.13.21

1. Mbird-favorite Oliver Burkeman just released a new book this week on time management, but you’d be mistaken to disregard Four Thousand Weeks as yet another self-help paperback. Burkeman places our finitude and impending death at the forefront of our problems, the font from which many of our anxieties about time management flows. But rather than preaching a myriad of newfound strategies to solve an age-old problem, the real problem is ourselves: caught by our ambitions and need for quiet. Among other things, we are caught in a “productivity trap“:

Burkeman describes the drive for efficiency and productivity as a kind of “trap”, since you never truly escape the feeling that you should be doing more.

Consider a basic goal, such as optimising your email correspondence. You might think that you could get to a kind of Zen state where you have nothing in your inbox at the end of each day, and reply to each message as it comes in. Unfortunately, each email you send is likely to trigger further replies and tasks to complete, which can lead the messages to pile up again.

The fact that work often begets work means that many efficient employees are soon stretched beyond capacity, as their manager keeps adding to their responsibilities. As Burkeman writes in Four Thousand Weeks: “Your boss isn’t stupid. Why would she give the work to someone slower?”

Productivity hacks may therefore help you to get more done, but that increased efficiency won’t relieve your stress and improve your wellbeing, or create more free time for the things that really matter to you. […]

Humans have an annoying habit of becoming habituated to positive changes in our life — a phenomenon known as the “hedonic adaptation”. You might expect that a job promotion would be a suitable reward for all your toil — but the research shows it often won’t leave you much happier than your current position. No matter how productive you are, and what you achieve, you’ll always want more for yourself […]

Ultimately, Burkeman thinks that our relentless drive for productivity is a futile attempt to escape the harsh truth about our 4,000 weeks on Earth. “It’s alluring to try to spend your time improving your routines and rituals — but that’s simply helping you to avoid confronting the truth about how finite you are,” he says. “And it’s really a recipe for stress — the idea that you can do something superhuman with your time.”

In Burkeman’s view, we could all reduce our anxiety if we simply accepted our limited capacity to achieve all that we would like in life.

See also an excerpt of Four Thousand Weeks on online distraction, published by the Guardian:

As the technology critic Tristan Harris likes to say, each time you open a social media app, there are “a thousand people on the other side of the screen” paid to keep you there — and so it’s unrealistic to expect users to resist the assault on their time and attention by means of willpower alone. Yet if we’re to understand distraction at the deepest level, we’ll also have to acknowledge an awkward truth at the bottom of all this, which is that “assault” — with its implications of an uninvited attack — isn’t quite the right word. We mustn’t let Silicon Valley off the hook, but we should be honest: much of the time, we give in to distraction willingly. Something in us wants to be distracted, whether by our digital devices or anything else — to not spend our lives on what we thought we cared about the most. The calls are coming from inside the house.

2. I get it. Ted Lasso isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. The fish-out-of-water humor hits hardest if you know something about British culture (or in my case, lived there a few years). The sports context of the show may be a bit too niche, too distant. When the show received a record 20 Emmy nominations, I knew some critics would feel emboldened to tear down something so universally acclaimed. Writing in the New Yorker, Doreen St. Féli

Ted seems to be not a character but a kind of powerful infection: his can-do aphorisms, which increase in good-natured absurdity in the course of the season […]

Here is the molten core of the series, the power source that’s too hot to truly touch: Ted is a figure of great pathology, a sloganeer drifting in a purgatorial state. The simplicity of his language betrays his inner turmoil. … Ted can’t help but rebuild his cheery hell, his fantasy of perpetual triumph through adversity. […]

This time around, Ted is publicly withering, bucking against the themes of actual therapy and self-help, a welcome contrast to his belief in unabating optimism. As the presence of Dr. Sharon reveals the sharper edges of Ted’s ego, you can feel the show pulling away from the coach’s centripetal force. I can’t say that I particularly miss him.

Time will tell where the chips will fall once the series ends, but

3. Over at Zyzzyva, CJ Green has a review of Kirstin Valdez Quade’s first novel, The Five Wounds, and it sounds like a delightful (Christian) book.

What does the crucifixion — both Amadeo’s and Christ’s — have to do with everyday life? How should a person understand their suffering when it isn’t staged? As his alcoholism reawakens, Amadeo wonders, “What’s the point of being sober if no one notices?”

His core conflict is subtly modern. Beyond the material concerns of unemployment and excessive drinking, it’s a dogged link between performance and redemption, so that any potentially fulfilling experience instead feels hollow, made for consumption. Beautifully, Quade draws out the contest between the outer and inner life, validation versus something deeper and less quantifiable.

Throughout the book, two planes intersect, the vertical plane of heavenward abstraction (faith, Christ, redemption), and the horizontal plane of daily life (hospital visits, school presentations, diaper changes; trying to get a job, trying to raise a child, trying not to drink). […]

It’s telling that she concludes in “Lent,” a season of intentional deprivation. Lent anticipates renewal, but is not gratified by it, and it’s only here that Amadeo begins to see that his redemption lies not in the expunction of his weaknesses but in the deeper understanding that “for someone with his particular weaknesses, performance is a distraction.”

4. The Atlantic columnist Arthur Brooks (who we interview for the latest issue of The Mockingbird magazine) examines the benefits of humor for overall wellbeing. And as always, his citations of studies and framing of the issue are a goldmine. Humor has many different functions in everyday life. Some of the takeaways Brooks cites feel a bit like commonsense, but it’s clear that humor is something we all need more of, not less. Laughter isn’t exactly the best medicine, but it’s close.

Consuming humor brings joy and relieves suffering. In a 2010 study from the Journal of Aging Research, the researchers gave one group of senior citizens “humor therapy”—daily jokes, laughter exercises, funny stories, and the like—for eight weeks. A control group did not receive this therapy. At the end of the experiment, the people in the first group reported feeling 42 percent happier than they had at the beginning. They were 35 percent happier than the second group, and experienced decreases in pain and loneliness.

However, the type of humor you consume and share matters. Humor can be positive, when it’s not intended to belittle or harm others, or when one laughs at one’s own circumstances. It can also be negative, when it attacks others or when one belittles oneself. Positive humor is associated with self-esteem, optimism, and life satisfaction, and with decreases in depression, anxiety, and stress. Negative humor follows the exact opposite pattern: While it can feel good in the moment, it exacerbates unhappiness.

For humor to be effective in increasing happiness, timing is everything. If you have ever made light of a tragedy and no one laughed, you might have tried to mitigate the faux pas by asking, “Too soon?” Researchers studying humor in the face of tragedy have found that jokes can indeed help people cope with grievances and loss. However, the joke can’t be too close to or too far from the event in time. Tell a joke during a horrific natural disaster and you will be shunned; tell one about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and most people won’t know what you are talking about. But get it right, and you can provide tremendous relief.

Having this sense of comedic timing requires what social scientists call “humor creation ability,” an ability that the authors Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas of the book Humor, Seriouslycredit with many other benefits, such as success in business. Being funny, however, is the one dimension of a sense of humor that does not appear to boost happiness, which is sometimes called the sad-clown paradox. In a 2010 experiment published in Europe’s Journal of Psychology, researchers asked people to write captions for cartoons and come up with jokes in response to everyday frustrating situations. They found no significant relationship between being funny (as judged by outside reviewers) and happiness or unhappiness. Another study found that professional comedians score above population norms on scales measuring psychotic traits.

Laughter itself is what brings a lot of humor’s benefits, not necessarily making other people laugh. Laughter also acts as a social lubricant, making interactions easier even when there is no humor involved. Indeed, one study found that only 10 to 15 percent of laughing is due to anything even remotely humorous. Much of the rest is meant to display emotions such as agreement or simple conviviality. Pay attention to your ordinary interactions today and you will appreciate this.

5. And on that note, the New Yorker‘sLawsuits I’d File Against My Past Selves Over Their Trivial Mistakes” offers a window into those smaller regrets that probably aren’t so small. And Reductress’ Mom Who Spent 25 Years Trying to Change You Doesn’t Understand Why You’re Not More Confident” is just … wow: “‘I feel like I raised you better than this,’ your mom said, despite having raised you in a way that would lead to this exact cauldron of insecurity, lack of identity, and anxiety.”

Finally, the Hard Times delivers the low-anthropology zinger of the week: “God Works in Mysterious Ways That Somehow Always Reinforce What I Want To Believe.” The politics of it spoils some of the humor (as if so often does), but it’s a brilliant premise nonetheless:

God works in mysterious ways. That’s why I don’t question God’s plan for me. I merely pick and choose from the parts of it that justify my incredibly narrow view of the world. That said, I will totally question God’s plan for anyone who is even the least bit different than me. […]

But you have to remember that God is made in man’s image. Specifically my image. I can’t remember the exact Bible verse that goes over that, but it means I know exactly what He’s thinking at all times. Thank goodness it always reinforces what I already knew.

6. On the other side of the belief-makes-you-intolerable coin, this past week Heterodox Academy published an intriguing article on faith commitments and dialogue across differences, citing two 2019 ethnographic studies by Rachel Wahl. Does holding firm beliefs make you an obstinate conversation partner? Many assume that to be the case — and we’ve all lamented having discussions with highly opinionated people. But in the course of her research about evangelical Christians, Wahl found the opposite to be true:

This capacity for receptivity contains what may initially seem to be an irony. It is her certainty that allows for her humility. She does not need to be afraid of others, because her faith is strong enough that it will not be shaken by their views. But this very faith directs her to meet with humility many other aspects of life. The strong ground on which she stands allows for a softening in other areas. […]

[Evangelical students] typically believe that they do not need to engineer the change they wish to see in the world. … This freedom from the need to manipulate outcomes seems to make receptive learning possible. […]

The secular liberal sense that individuals are responsible for bringing about a just society can undermine the willingness to learn from opponents at times when one’s principles are most directly threatened, while an evangelical Christian belief that God enacts change in the world can in moments of relative confidence nourish the capacity to learn from others.

A lot has changed since 2019 (ha!) to the degree that the findings may no longer hold water, but the ideas proposed here at least pass the eye test. It was Jesus who cautioned against worrying about the future and trying to engineer outcomes precisely because God promises to provide. And holding such firm beliefs about God and the world could enable conversation without the need for a defensiveness that makes the back-and-forth so vitriolic (see: any Facebook thread longer than 10 comments!). Or, to take a page from Arthur Brooks, the ability to laugh at oneself reflects the kind of assuredness that can handle critique.


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