When you feel that something important about your approach to your current life isn’t working, you should adopt a new way of sailing your ship at life’s sea. Hence, following my read of Aristotle’s Way by Edith Hall, I continued pursuing the answer in Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg, a self-help book based on Aristotle’s dictum that virtue is a habit in 21st-century parlance.
Fogg’s approach to habit-forming practice is categorized into small steps that require no intellectual, or philosophical commitments, as in the case of new year’s resolutions. He refers to motivations and willpower as “fair-weathered” friends who hooray and holler at our resolutions to change at first but disappear into the lost memories of the first initiation when our souls plunge at the lowest later. Instead, we must befriend “Aspirations” and “Outcomes” as faithful friends who will help us build a Behavior Design that best matches our disposition and lifestyle by which we can realize our affirmation as the functionary of noble ideas. For example, if you want to save $500 as an emergency fund, you can start by curtailing your Starbucks visits or bringing your lunchbox to work, rather than saving a lump sum of money from your paychecks; as the saying, “Drop by door fills the tub.” Fogg refers to such small practice as the principle of “Golden Behavior,” which you can do when you feel like calling it a day, even on your most challenging day.
Notwithstanding the noble intentions and the greatness of simplicity in Fogg’s guide to habit-forming, some carbuncles I find incongruent in his examples of his successful people who are comparatively well-off business owners or professionals. Of course, that is not to avert his excellent idea that the simple is the best. Still, I hoped to find examples of everyday working-class people struggling to make their lives better who have fewer resources, such as seeking help from a person like Fogg, a Behavior Scientist at Stanford University. Maybe I could inadvertently judge his study results only with limited information based on my reading. Still, I only wish that he would include a broad social spectrum of subjects in the advantage of Golden Behavior. But then I could be a captious reader feeling left out of the selected successful achievers.
In all fairness, the book is worth reading if you are especially keen on Aristotle’s way of happiness, which I regard as personable and approachable, compared to Plato’s metaphysical way of interpreting how to live a perfect life. But let’s forget about the ancient Greek school of philosophy. Still, Tiny Habits do matter.
Tolstoy in Anna Kararina knows a thing about the Aristotelian school of subjective happiness thus: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its way.” Happiness is an antidote to depression out of hopelessness and envies out of disappointment in a purely subjective sense. It requires only self-will to choose the light and to follow it by constantly taming your brittle spirit via lifelong habit until you find a sense of why you are here in this world. If you doubt it as a cliche, then meet Aristotle, the student of Plato, who was the student of Socrates, and the private tutor of Alexander.
Along with his great predecessor Socrates, Aristotle was a thinker who billeted Philosophy from the heavens at the houses of mortals so that she could show them how to cope with the harsh realities of the world that discombobulated a sense of purpose in life. Aristotle’s main concern was that people weighed heavily on the outward material success as a sign of well-being and a carte blanche to happiness, which would lead people astray with a sense of emptiness inside. For example, we can’t know if all those glossy selfies on Facebook and Instagram reflect the real lives of those uploading them. Or the lives of Hollywood stars who predicate on images and styles are not, in fact, worth admiration, as revealed in the recent defamation trial of Depp v. Heard, in which Depp’s braggadocio of recalcitrant drug and alcohol uses combined with alarmingly repulsive backstage personality, is simply disgraceful. On the contrary, the Uber drivers I have come across appear to be more satisfied with their lives, content with their independent work mode, and love of families. This Aristotle refers to a state of eudaimonia, a feeling of bliss, however small it is, because it comes from a higher sense of pleasantness from within.
Of course, Aristotle’s way is not instant magic and may not show visible effects in one fell swoop, but it is a long-term remedy like a physical therapy that will show improvement. Aristotle’s way is not fanciful but practical with two recipes for the malady of hearts: (1) to keep everything in moderation, called the “Golden Mean”; and (2) training yourself continuously and actively to do the right thing like a habit. Aristotle reminds us that excellence is not an act but a habit. This happiness school parallels Emerson’s dictum that thinking is the function, and action is the functionary. So this is Aristotle’s simple but sophisticated stairways to your happiness, and I think it’s worth trying. No wonder his student Alexander became great.
We are not always right in what we believe. What we see with the eyes may not be the truth but in the likeness of truth as our instinctual response to sensory stimuli is swifter and mightier than the wise arbitrator of reason. Whether you like it or not, we procrastinate diligently assessing what the senses tell us, bypassing the voice of reason and judgment. Using automatic and biased instinct is a mental shortcut to make a judgment call in one fell swoop, sans inconvenience of time and cognitive analysis. Socrates knew it, Plato portrayed it, Aristotle acknowledged it, Shakespeare saw it, and now in our time Daniel Kahneman, an Israel-American psychologist and economist interpretes it in this book.
Kahneman illustrates our intuition, or sense, as System I and mind, reason, as System 2. System 1 activates the images stored in a mind’s cabinet when prompted to evaluate the stimuli. There are three factors contributing to this design of instant machinery of thinking without an assistant of reason: available information, time constraints, and limited cognitivity. The system is highly biased, touchy, and impatient like a quick-tempered, spoiled celebrity. It is tuned to subjective truth inured to sensory perceptions about our surroundings and ourselves with quick fixes without consulting System 2, the voice of reason, the superego, which strives for objective truth. But such a dichotomy of Sense and Reason has always been observed and acknowledged, as I introduced earlier in this writing. For example, Plato alluded to the Chariot of Two Horses, of which one is noble and logical, and the other impulsive and recalcitrant. But the difference between Plato and Kahneman is the applicability of the mind-system to the principle of economic activities and consequences.
The book is a steady bestseller, readable to all ranges of readers who want to search for the cause of their mental malaise and existential vertigo. What might have been a reiterating modern interpretation of how the mind works proves to be a piece of practical advice on how to overcome emotional trauma and live a purposeful and gainful life as thus: 1) When the signs of ill-judged biases arise from within, slow down and ask for reinforcement of the spirit of System 2. In doing so, we must acquire such skills to dominate the hubris of System 1 in a regular steady environment that provides an adequate opportunity to practice and rapid and unequivocal feedback about the correctness of thoughts and actions. If you still prefer a mental and physical shortcut to put the aforesaid into more effortless locomotion, how about taking the simple advice from Socrates?: “When unpleasant, depressive thoughts begin to cast on you, breathe deeply once, then bring a smile to your face.” Too trivially mundane? “Of course, you have to make it a habit,” quibbled Aristotle to support his teacher.