Even assuming happiness to be a worthy target, though, a worse pitfall awaits, which is that aiming for it seems to reduce your chances of ever attaining it. ‘Ask yourself whether you are happy,' observed the philosopher John Stuart Mill, ‘and you cease to be so.' At best, it would appear, happiness can only be glimpsed out of the corner of an eye, not stared at directly. (We tend to remember having been happy in the past much more frequently than we are conscious of being happy in the present.)
Psychological tradition known as ‘self-comparison theory'. Much as we like to hear positive messages about ourselves, this theory suggests, we crave even more strongly the sense of being a coherent, consistent self in the first place. Messages that conflict with that existing sense of self, therefore, are unsettling, and so we often reject them – even if they happen to be positive, and even if the source of the message is ourselves.
Once you have resolved to embrace the ideology of positive thinking, you will find a way to interpret virtually any eventuality as a justification for thinking positively. You need never spend time considering how your actions might go wrong.
I am conducting a ritual of deliberate self-humiliation on the instructions of a modern-day psychologist, Albert Ellis, who died in 2007. But he designed it to provide a vivid demonstration of an ancient philosophy, that of the Stoics, who were among the first to suggest that the path to happiness might depend on negativity. Ellis recommended the ‘subway-station exercise', originally prescribed to his therapy patients in New York, as a way of demonstrating how irrationally we approach even mildly unpleasant experiences – and how we might find unforeseen benefits lurking within them, if only we could bring ourselves to look.
Over the last few years, the German-born psychologist Gabriele Oettingen and her colleagues have constructed a series of experiments designed to unearth the truth about ‘positive fantasies about the future'. The results are striking: spending time and energy thinking about how well things could go, it has emerged, actually reduces most people's motivation to achieve them. Experimental subjects who were encouraged to think about how they were going to have a particularly high-achieving week at work, for example, ended up achieving less than those who were invited to reflect on the coming week, but given no further guidelines on how to do so.
For the Stoics, the ideal state of mind was tranquility, not the excitable cheer that positive thinkers usually seem to mean when they use the word ‘happiness'. And tranquility was to be achieved not by strenuously chasing after enjoyable experiences, but by cultivating a kind of calm indifference towards one's circumstances. One way to do this, the Stoics argued, was by turning towards negative emotions and experiences; not shunning them, but examining them closely instead.
The idea that it is ultimately our beliefs that cause our distress, as we've seen, is a perspective shared by Stoics and positive thinkers alike. Beyond this, though, the two traditions diverge utterly – and the divergence becomes most baldly apparent when it comes to beliefs about the future. The evangelists of optimism argue that you should cultivate as many positive expectations about the future as you can. But this is not the good idea that it may at first appear to be. For a start, as Gabriele Oettingen's experiments demonstrate, focusing on the outcome you desire may actually sabotage your efforts to achieve it. More generally, a Stoic would point out, it just isn't a particularly good technique for feeling happier. Ceaseless optimism about the future only makes for a greater shock when things go wrong; by fighting to maintain only positive beliefs about the future, the positive thinker ends up being less prepared, and more acutely distressed, when things eventually happen that he can't persuade himself to believe are good. (And such things will happen.)
Applying their stringent rationality to the situation, the Stoics propose a more elegant, sustainable and calming way to deal with the possibility of things going wrong: rather than struggling to avoid all thought of these worst-case scenarios, they counsel actively dwelling on them, staring them in the face. Which brings us to an important milestone on the negative path to happiness – a psychological tactic that William Irvine argues is ‘the single most valuable technique in the Stoics' toolkit'. He calls it ‘negative visualisation'. The Stoics themselves, rather more pungently, called it ‘the premeditation of evils'.
The first benefit of dwelling on how bad things might get is a straightforward one. Psychologists have long agreed that one of the greatest enemies of human happiness is ‘hedonic adaptation' – the predictable and frustrating way in which any new source of pleasure we obtain, whether it's as minor as a new piece of electronic gadgetry or as major as a marriage, swiftly gets relegated to the backdrop of our lives. We grow accustomed to it, and so it ceases to deliver so much joy. It follows, then, that regularly reminding yourself that you might lose any of the things you currently enjoy – indeed, that you will definitely lose them all, in the end, when death catches up with you – would reverse the adaptation effect. Thinking about the possibility of losing something you value shifts it from the backdrop of your life back to centre stage, where it can deliver pleasure once more.
The second, subtler, and arguably even more powerful benefit of the premeditation of evils is as an antidote to anxiety. Consider how we normally seek to assuage worries about the future: we seek reassurance, looking to persuade ourselves that everything will be all right. But reassurance is a double-edged sword. In the short term, it can be wonderful, but like all forms of optimism, it requires constant maintenance: if you offer reassurance to a friend who is in the grip of anxiety, you'll often find that a few days later, he'll be back for more. Worse, reassurance can actually exacerbate anxiety: when you reassure your friend that the worst-case scenario he fears probably won't occur, you inadvertently reinforce his belief that it would be catastrophic if it did. You are tightening the coil of his anxiety, not loosening it. All too often, the Stoics point out, things will not turn out for the best. But it is also true that, when they do go wrong, they'll almost certainly go less wrong than you were fearing. Losing your job won't condemn you to starvation and death; losing a boyfriend or girlfriend won't condemn you to a life of unrelenting misery. Those fears are based on irrational judgments about the future, usually because you haven't thought the matter through in sufficient detail. You heard the rumour about cutbacks at the company, and instantly jumped to a mental image of being utterly destitute; a lover behaved coldly and you leapt to imagining lifelong loneliness. The premeditation of evils is the way to replace these irrational notions with more rational judgments: spend time vividly imagining exactly how wrong things could go in reality, and you will usually find that your fears were exaggerated. Confronting the worst-case scenario saps it of much of its anxiety-inducing power. Happiness reached via positive thinking can be fleeting and brittle; negative visualisation generates a vastly more dependable calm.
In better times, it's easy to forget how little we control: we can usually manage to convince ourselves that we attained the promotion at work, or the new relationship, or the Nobel Prize, thanks solely to our own brilliance and effort. But unhappy times bring home the truth of the matter. Jobs are lost; plans go wrong; people die. If your strategy for happiness depends on bending circumstances to your will, this is terrible news: the best you can do is to pray that not all that much will go wrong, and try to distract yourself when it does. For the Stoics, however, tranquility entails confronting the reality of your limited control.
It's easy enough to see that a verbal insult need entail no personal harm. It would be vastly harder to make the same argument about, say, the death of a friend. This is why the notion of a ‘grand plan' is ultimately so crucial to a thoroughgoing embrace of Stoicism: it's only by seeing death as part of such a plan that one could one ever hope to feel serene about it. ‘Do not despise death, but be well content with it, since this too is one of those things which nature wills,' says Marcus. But this is a tall order. The best that Stoicism could do for an atheist, in this situation, would probably be to help her see that she retained some control over her judgments. She might be able to remind herself that it was possible to choose to be seriously but reasonably upset, instead of spiralling into utter despair.
It is essential to grasp a distinction here between acceptance and resignation: using your powers of reason to stop being disturbed by a situation doesn't mean you shouldn't try to change it. To take one very obvious example, a Stoic who finds herself in an abusive relationship would not be expected to put up with it, and would almost certainly be best advised to take action to leave it. Her Stoicism would oblige her only to confront the truth of her situation – to see it for what it was – and then to take whatever actions were within her power, instead of railing against her circumstances as if they ought not exist. ‘The cucumber is bitter? Put it down,' Marcus advises. ‘There are brambles in the path? Step to one side. That is enough, without also asking: "How did these things come into the world at all?"'
"Now that I'm here, rather than anywhere else, here in this time and this place – what can I do? Rationally, I'm accepting the reality of the situation. And then I don't need to feel distressed by a judgment that it ought not to be happening. Because it is happening."
What Ellis had grasped about his unstated beliefs concerning conversation with women – an insight he would later extend to the beliefs that lie behind all instances of worry or anxiety – is that they were absolutist. To put it another way, it wasn't just that he wanted to be less shy, and that he wanted to be able to talk to women. Rather, he had been operating under the absolutist conviction that he needed their approval. Later, he would coin a name for this habit of mind: ‘musturbation'. We elevate those things we want, those things we would prefer to have, into things we believe we must have; we feel we must perform well in certain circumstances, or that other people must treat us well. Because we think these things must occur, it follows that it would be an absolute catastrophe if they did not. No wonder we get so anxious: we've decided that if we failed to meet our goal it wouldn't merely be bad, but completely bad – absolutely terrible. Ellis's encounters in the Bronx Botanical Garden had shown him that the worst-case scenario – rejection – was far from the absolute disaster he had been fearing.
This ‘shame-attacking exercise', as he later came to refer to these kinds of undertakings, was the ‘premeditation of evils' rendered real and immediate. The worst thing about any event, Ellis liked to say, ‘is usually your exaggerated belief in its horror'. The way to defuse that belief was to confront the reality – and in reality, getting rejected by women turned out to be merely undesirable, not horrifying or terrible. Explaining the difference between a terrible outcome and a merely undesirable one became a governing mission of Ellis's career. He went so far as to insist that nothing at all could ever be absolutely terrible – ‘because', he wrote, ‘when you insist that an undesirable event is awful or terrible, you are implying, if you're honest with yourself, that it is as bad as it could be.' Yet nothing could be 100 per cent bad, he argued, because it could always conceivably be worse.
The distinction between judging something to be ‘very bad' and judging it to be ‘absolutely horrific' makes all the difference in the world. It is only to the absolutely horrific that we respond with blind terror; all other fears are finite, and thus susceptible to being coped with. ‘If you accept that the universe is uncontrollable,' Ellis told me, ‘you're going to be a lot less anxious.'
The modern image of meditation as a sophisticated form of positive thinking is almost the opposite of the truth. In fact, meditation has little to do with achieving any specific desired state of mind, no matter whether blissful or calm. At Buddhism's core, instead, is an often misunderstood notion that is starkly opposed to most contemporary assumptions about how to be happy, and that places it squarely on the ‘negative path' to happiness: non-attachment.
Non-attachment need not mean withdrawing from life, or suppressing natural impulses, or engaging in punishing self-denial. It simply means approaching the whole of life – inner thoughts and emotions, outer events and circumstances – without clinging or aversion. To live non-attachedly is to feel impulses, think thoughts, and experience life without becoming hooked by mental narratives about how things ‘should' be, or should never be, or should remain forever. The perfectly non-attached Buddhist would be simply, calmly present, and non-judgmentally aware.
Barry Magid, argues that the idea of using meditation to make your life ‘better' or ‘happier', in any conventional sense, is a misunderstanding. The point, instead, is to learn how to stop trying to fix things, to stop being so preoccupied with trying to control one's experience of the world, to give up trying to replace unpleasant thoughts and emotions with more pleasant ones, and to see that, through dropping the ‘pursuit of happiness', a more profound peace might result. Or, rather, that wasn't the ‘point', exactly, because Magid objects to the notion that meditation has a point.
From Barry Magid's Buddhist–Freudian point of view, then, most people who thought they were ‘seeking happiness' were really running away from things of which they were barely aware. Meditation, the way he described it, was a way to stop running. You sat still, and watched your thoughts and emotions and desires and aversions come and go, and you resisted the urge to try to flee from them, to fix them, or to cling to them. You practised non-attachment, in other words. Whatever came up, negative or positive, you stayed present and observed it. It wasn't about escaping into ecstasy – or even into calmness, as the word is normally understood; and it certainly wasn't about positive thinking. It was about the significantly greater challenge of declining to do any of that.
Seeing thoughts as similar to the other five senses makes non-attachment seem much more approachable as a goal. In the analogy most commonly used by contemporary Buddhists, mental activity begins to seem more like weather – like clouds and sunny spells, rainstorms and blizzards, arising and passing away. The mind, in this analogy, is the sky, and the sky doesn't cling to specific weather conditions, nor try to get rid of the ‘bad' ones. The sky just is. In this the Buddhists go further than the Stoics, who can sometimes seem rather attached to certain mind-states, especially that of tranquility. The perfect Stoic adapts his or her thinking so as to remain undisturbed by undesirable circumstances; the perfect Buddhist sees thinking itself as just another set of circumstances, to be non-judgmentally observed.
Just as the Stoic notion of acceptance need not entail resignation, Buddhist non-attachment can be a rigorously practical way of accomplishing worthwhile activities. To understand why, consider the most ubiquitous and frustrating barrier to getting things done: the near-universal curse of procrastination. The problem with all the usual motivational tips and tricks is that they aren't really about ‘how to get things done' at all. They're about how to feel in the mood for getting things done. The problem is that feeling like acting and actually acting are two different things. A person mired deep in procrastination might claim he is unable to work, but what he really means is that he is unable to make himself feel like working.
This isn't meant to imply that procrastinators, or the severely depressed, should simply pull their socks up and get over it. Rather, it highlights the way that we tend to confuse acting with feeling like acting, and how most motivational techniques are really designed to change how you feel. They're built, in other words, on a form of attachment – on strengthening your investment in a specific kind of emotion. Sometimes, that can help. But sometimes you simply can't make yourself feel like acting. And in those situations, motivational advice risks making things worse, by surreptitiously strengthening your belief that you need to feel motivated before you can act. By encouraging an attachment to a particular emotional state, it actually inserts an additional hurdle between you and your goal. The subtext is that if you can't make yourself feel excited and pleased about getting down to work, then you can't get down to work. Taking a non-attached stance towards procrastination, by contrast, starts from a different question: who says you need to wait until you ‘feel like' doing something in order to start doing it? The problem, from this perspective, isn't that you don't feel motivated; it's that you imagine you need to feel motivated. If you can regard your thoughts and emotions about whatever you're procrastinating on as passing weather, you'll realise that your reluctance about working isn't something that needs to be eradicated, or transformed into positivity. You can coexist with it. You can note the procrastinatory feelings, and act anyway.
It is illuminating to note, here, how the daily rituals and working routines of prolific authors and artists – people who really do get a lot done – very rarely include techniques for ‘getting motivated' or ‘feeling inspired'. Quite the opposite: they tend to emphasise the mechanics of the working process, focusing not on generating the right mood, but on accomplishing certain physical actions, regardless of mood. The routines of almost all famous writers, from Charles Darwin to John Grisham, similarly emphasise specific starting times, or number of hours worked, or words written. Such rituals provide a structure to work in, whether or not the feeling of motivation or inspiration happens to be present. They let people work alongside negative or positive emotions, instead of getting distracted by the effort of cultivating only positive ones. ‘Inspiration is for amateurs,' the artist Chuck Close once memorably observed. ‘The rest of us just show up and get to work.'
‘People . . . think that they should always like what they do, and that their lives should be trouble-free,' Maria wrote. ‘Consequently, their mental energy is wasted by their impossible attempts to avoid feelings of displeasure or boredom.'
We can feel the fear, and do it anyway.
‘SMART' goals (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, time-bounded)
There is a good case to be made that many of us, and many of the organisations for which we work, would do better to spend less time on goalsetting, and, more generally, to focus with less intensity on planning for how we would like the future to turn out. At the core of this outlook is the insight that Chris Kayes and James Lester both reached in their studies of Everest mountaineers: that what motivates our investment in goals and planning for the future, much of the time, isn't any sober recognition of the virtues of preparation and looking ahead. Rather, it's something much more emotional: how deeply uncomfortable we are made by feelings of uncertainty. Faced with the anxiety of not knowing what the future holds, we invest ever more fiercely in our preferred vision of that future – not because it will help us achieve it, but because it helps rid us of feelings of uncertainty in the present.
In singling out one goal, or set of goals, and striving to meet it, you will invariably exert an effect on other, interlinked aspects of the thing you're trying to change.
Formulating a vision of the future requires, by definition, that you isolate some aspect or aspects of your life, or your organisation, or your society, and focus on those at the expense of others. But problems arise thanks to the law of unintended consequences, sometimes expressed using the phrase ‘you can never change only one thing'. In any even slightly complex system, it's extremely hard to predict how altering one variable will affect the others.
‘You should sun yourself on a lily-pad until you get bored, then, when the time is right, you should jump to a new lily-pad and hang out there for a while. Continue this over and over, moving in whatever direction feels right.' The imagery of sunbathing on lily-pads should not be taken to imply laziness.
‘You can have a broad sense of direction without a specific goal or a precise vision of the future,' Shapiro told me. ‘I think of it like jazz, like improvisation. It's all about meandering with purpose.'
The most valuable skill of a successful entrepreneur, Chris Kayes is convinced, isn't ‘vision' or ‘passion' or a steadfast insistence on destroying every barrier between yourself and some prize you're obsessed with. Rather, it's the ability to adopt an unconventional approach to learning: an improvisational flexibility not merely about which route to take towards some predetermined objective, but also a willingness to change the destination itself. This is a flexibility that might be squelched by rigid focus on any one goal.
Saras Sarasvathy has distilled her anti-goal approach into a set of principles she calls ‘effectuation'. It is an outlook with implications far beyond the world of entrepreneurialism; it might serve as a worthy philosophy for life. ‘Causally minded' people, to use Sarasvathy's terminology, are those who select or are given a specific goal, and then choose from whatever means are available to make a plan for achieving it. Effectually minded people, on the other hand, examine what means and materials are at their disposal, then imagine what possible ends, or provisional next directions, those means might make possible. The effectualists include the cook who scours the fridge for leftover ingredients; the chemist who figured out that the insufficiently sticky glue he had developed could be used to create the Post-it note; or the unhappy lawyer who realises that her spare-time photography hobby, for which she already possesses the skills and the equipment, could be turned into a job.
One foundation of effectuation is the ‘bird in hand' principle: ‘Start with your means. Don't wait for the perfect opportunity. Start taking action, based on what you have readily available: what you are, what you know and who you know.' A second is the ‘principle of affordable loss': don't be guided by thoughts of how wonderful the rewards might be if you were spectacularly successful at any given next step. Instead – and there are distinct echoes, here, of the Stoic focus on the worst-case scenario – ask how big the loss would be if you failed. So long as it would be tolerable, that's all you need to know. Take that next step, and see what happens. ‘See what happens', indeed, might be the motto of this entire approach to working and living, and it is a hard-headed message, not a woolly one. ‘The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning,' argued the social psychologist Erich Fromm. ‘Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers.' Uncertainty is where things happen. It is where the opportunities – for success, for happiness, for really living – are waiting.
ECKHART TOLLE, POWER OF NOW
The optimism-focused, goal-fixated, positive-thinking approach to happiness is exactly the kind of thing the ego loves. Positive thinking is all about identifying with your thoughts, rather than disidentifying from them. And the ‘cult of optimism' is all about looking forward to a happy or successful future, thereby reinforcing the message that happiness belongs to some other time than now. Schemes and plans for making things better fuel our dissatisfaction with the only place where happiness can ever be found – the present.
‘The important thing,' Tolle told me, ‘is not to be continuously lost in this mental projection away from now. Most humans are never fully present in the now, because unconsciously they believe that the next moment must be more important than this one. But then you miss your whole life, which is never not now.' Another staccato chuckle. ‘And that's a revelation for some people. To realise that your whole life is only ever now. Many people suddenly realise that they have lived most of their life as if this were not true – as if the opposite were true.' Without noticing we're doing it, we treat the future as intrinsically more valuable than the present. And yet the future never seems to arrive.
SECURITY, STABILITY, FAILURE
Chödrön's most famous book is entitled When Things Fall Apart, which makes it sound as though it might be a manual for getting back on a secure footing when things go catastrophically wrong. In fact, her point is that when things fall apart, however painful the experience, it's a good thing; the collapse of your apparent security represents a confrontation with life as it really is. ‘Things are not permanent, they don't last, there is no final security,' she says. What makes us miserable is not this truth, but our efforts to escape it.
To seek security is to try to remove yourself from change, and thus from the thing that defines life. ‘If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life,' Watts writes, ‘I am wanting to be separate from life.' Which brings us to the crux of the matter: it is because we want to feel secure that we build up the fortifications of ego, in order to defend ourselves, but it is those very fortifications that create the feeling of insecurity: ‘To be secure means to isolate and fortify the "I", but it is just this feeling of being an isolated "I" which makes me feel lonely and afraid.'
Each of us can be placed somewhere on a continuum, Dweck argues, depending on our ‘implicit view' – or unspoken attitude – about what talent is and where it comes from. Those with a ‘fixed theory' assume that ability is innate; those with an ‘incremental theory' believe that it evolves through challenge and hard work. If you're the kind of person who struggles mightily to avoid the experience of failure, it's likely that you reside near the ‘fixed' end of Dweck's continuum. ‘Fixed theory' people tend to approach challenges as occasions on which they are called upon to demonstrate their innate abilities, and so they find failure especially horrifying: to them, it's a sign that they tried to show how good they were, but didn't measure up. ‘Incremental theory' people are different. Because they think of abilities as emerging through tackling challenges, the experience of failure has a completely different meaning for them: it's evidence that they are stretching themselves to their current limit. If they weren't, they wouldn't fail. The relevant analogy here is with weight training; muscles grow by being pushed to the limits of their current capacity, where fibres tear and reheal. Among weightlifters, ‘training to failure' isn't an admission of defeat – it's a strategy.
Alternatively, it's worth trying to recall it when failure strikes: next time you flunk an exam, or mishandle a social situation, consider that it is only happening because you're pushing at the limits of your present abilities – and therefore, over the long run, improving them.
If I had my life over I should form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practice, as it were, the remembrance of death ... without an ever-present sense of death, life is insipid. You might as well live on the whites of eggs.
— Inspector Mortimer in Muriel Spark's Memento Mori
Since the time of the ancient Greeks, certain radical thinkers have taken the position that a life suffused with an awareness of one's own mortality – as a matter of everyday habit, not just when direct encounters with death force our hand – might be a far richer kind of existence. It is also surely a more authentic one. Death is a fact of life, however hard we might try to deny it.
The psychotherapist Irvin Yalom, in his book Staring at the Sun, points out that many of us live with the dim fear that on our deathbeds we'll come to regret how we spent our lives. Remembering our mortality moves us closer to the deathbed mindset from which such a judgment might be made – thus enabling us to spend our lives in ways that we're much less likely to come to regret.
When you really face mortality, the ultimate and unavoidable worst-case scenario, everything changes. ‘All external expectations, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important,' Apple's founder Steve Jobs once said.
Start thinking this way, Yalom points out, and it becomes a virtuous circle. Living more meaningfully will reduce your anxiety about the possibility of future regret at not having lived meaningfully – which will, in turn, keep sapping death of its power to induce anxiety. As he puts it, there is a positive correlation between the fear of death and the sense of unlived life. Live a life suffused with the awareness of its own finitude, and you can hope to finish it in something like the fashion that Jean-Paul Sartre hoped to die: ‘quietly . . . certain that the last burst of my heart would be inscribed on the last page of my work, and that death would be taking only a dead man'.
The sixteenth-century essayist Michel de Montaigne was fond of praising the ancient Egyptians – ‘who in the height of their feasting and mirth, caused a dried skeleton of a man to be brought into the room, to serve as a memento to their guests'. (A writer's working space, Montaigne also believed, ought to have a good view of the cemetery; it tended to sharpen one's thinking.)
You need not engage in cemetery vigils to practise memento mori, however. You can start much smaller. The psychologist Russ Harris suggests a simple exercise: imagine you are eighty years old and then complete the sentences ‘I wish I'd spent more time on . . . ', and ‘I wish I'd spent less time on . . . '. This turns out to be a surprisingly effective way to achieve mortality awareness in short order. Things fall into place. It becomes far easier to follow Lauren Tillinghast's advice – to figure out what, specifically, you might do in order to focus on life's flavours, so as to improve your chances of reaching death having lived life as fully and as deeply as possible. This kind of smaller habit may actually be the most powerful form of memento mori. For it is precisely through such mundane and unassuming rituals that we can best hope to enfold an awareness of death into the daily rhythms of life, and thus achieve something of Epicurus's calm rationality in the face of mortality.
Sometimes, the most valuable of all talents is to be able not to seek resolution; to notice the craving for completeness or certainty or comfort, and not to feel compelled to follow where it leads.
More loosely defined, ‘negative capability' is really just another term for living in accordance with the ‘backwards law' – and it might be a good label to describe the chief talent I kept discovering among the people I encountered in the course of researching this book. What they all shared was this same turn of mind, which I came to visualise as a sort of graceful mental dance step: a willingness to adopt an oblique stance towards one's own inner life; to pause and take a step back; to turn to face what others might flee from; and to realise that the shortest apparent route to a positive mood is rarely a sure path to a more profound kind of happiness. The phrase ‘negative capability' also helps to clarify a subtle double meaning in the word ‘negative'. It refers both to a set of skills that involve ‘not-doing', as opposed to doing – a negative kind of capability – as well as to the fact that this skill involves confronting negative (as in ‘unpleasant') thoughts, emotions, and situations.
To use an old cliché of therapy-speak, we spend too much of our lives seeking ‘closure'. Even those of us who mock such clichés are often motivated by a craving to put an end to uncertainty and anxiety, whether by convincing ourselves that the future is bright, or by resigning ourselves despondently to the expectation that it won't be. What we need more of, instead, is what the psychologist Paul Pearsall called ‘openture'. Yes, this is an awkward neologism. But its very awkwardness is a reminder of the spirit that it expresses, which includes embracing imperfection, and easing up on the search for neat solutions. The chief benefit of ‘openture', Paul Pearsall claimed, is not certitude or even calm or comfort as we normally think of them, but rather the ‘strange, excited comfort [of] being presented with, and grappling with, the tremendous mysteries life offers'.
‘A good traveller has no fixed plans,' says the Chinese sage Lao Tzu, ‘and is not intent upon arriving.' There could be no better way to make the journey.