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#4: Feeling Good about Feeling Bad

#4: Feeling Good about Feeling Bad

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Happy Monday to you. Back with three ideas this week to hopefully make you a less terrible individual. This week: 1) Self-esteem, what’s the big deal? 2) More examples of the Nuclear Power Effect, and 3) thoughts on the rediscovery of ancient wisdom.

1. Is Self-Esteem Overrated or Underrated or Who Cares? – Self-esteem has a troubled history in psychology and pop culture. In my book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, I referenced some of the problems with the self-esteem movement back in the 1960s and 70s but didn’t give much detail other than, by some of those early definitions, “having high self-esteem” could turn people into raging narcissists.

This week, I wrote up a long article where I imagine a trilogy of movies based on the turbulent lifespan of the concept of self-esteem. Early on, self-esteem is the hero, arriving to save our society from all sorts of nasty perils such as poverty, addiction, and crime.

In the sequel, self-esteem takes a turn for the worst, showing its dark side. Researchers discover that there are negative side effects to over-inflating people’s self-esteem and that many of the benefits were overrated or imagined in the first place.

And, of course, the present-day Netflix remake: self-esteem is complicated. People are divided on whether self-esteem is a good thing or not. It turns out, so much of the value of self-esteem revolves around what else is going on in your life. Check out the full article, it’s a fun one:

Read: How to Build Self-Esteem (And Does it Even Matter?)

2. Nuclear Power Effect, Part Deux – Last week, I mentioned how nuclear power is one of those things that diverts a disproportionate amount of attention away from objectively good solutions for the simple reason that the few cases of extreme failure look and sound so scary. I mentioned air travel as another example of this: flying is far safer than driving, yet plane crashes are so scary, more people insist on driving (and dying) instead.

I called it the “Nuclear Power Effect,” but you could basically call it, “When the solution to something scary causes more damage than the problem.” I asked readers for examples of this phenomenon, and here are some good ones you all came up with:

  • Terrorism – small, infrequent (but terrifying) attacks command a disproportionate amount of defense budgets and pull resources away from more common threats.
  • Cancel Culture – People want to impede on centuries worth of free speech precedence because something was offensive or upsetting to a small group of people.
  • Drug Prohibition – Medical and therapeutic uses of narcotics aside (of which there are likely many), only a small minority of drug users get addicted or have serious health issues, yet prohibition has wrecked thousands of communities and destroyed millions of lives.
  • Fear of AI – People are terrified of letting self-driving cars on the road, despite the fact that autonomous vehicles would likely save hundreds of thousands of lives in prevented car accidents.
  • Shark Attacks – You are more than 100 times more likely to drown than to be attacked by a shark. But who knows, maybe by being afraid to swim in the first place, fear of sharks is saving lives!
  • Vaccinations – Vaccinations have arguably saved more lives than any other invention in human history (the WHO estimates that the number to be in the hundreds of millions). Yet, because of problems in a tiny proportion of cases, anti-vaxxers go nuts arguing against vaccines. I got to hear from a few of these people after the last email and came to the conclusion that anti-vaxxers = really, really bad at math. Vaccinate yourself. Vaccinate your kids. And please, shut the fuck up about it.

3. What Is Old Is New – The last two emails have been very much about how our perceptions are often incredibly misguided by our emotions. Whether it’s self-esteem, nuclear power, divorce rates, or whether a shark is going to eat us or not, our minds are poor at handling statistical truth. We latch onto emotional ideas and run with them.

This quote is, then, quite fitting:

“The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion.”
Stephen Greenblatt

The above quote is from Stephen Greenblatt’s absolutely brilliant book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. Greenblatt’s book describes the rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman philosophers (particularly the Epicureans) in the 15th century and how this rediscovery caused a “swerve” in intellectual thought on the continent. Greenblatt argues that this rediscovery of antiquity, after over 1,000 years of suppression by the church, brought Europe out of the intellectual dark ages and led to The Renaissance in Italy and later, the Enlightenment across the continent.

It’s an incredible tale of how seemingly small actions and simple ideas can have broad and lasting effects. It’s also a beautiful take on the idea that what’s new is often not actually new and what is old is often more appropriate now than at any other time in history. I’m often asked how I “come up” with my ideas, to which I respond that almost none of these ideas are new—they have existed in some form for 2,000+ years. It’s just that most people either don’t go looking for them or have forgotten them.

Enjoy the reads, until next week.

Mark