Lets Consider Our Standards for Life

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca writes, “Let us try to maintain a higher standard of life than that of the multitude, but not a contrary standard; otherwise, we shall frighten away and repel the very persons whom we are trying to improve.”

 

On an initial quick read, this quote seems to be saying, live better than the masses but don’t act like you are better than everyone else. That’s good advice that has been said so many times that it is basically useless. We already all believe that we are morally superior to other people and we are especially likely, according to Robin Hanson in an interview he gave on Conversations with Tyler, to say that our group or tribe is morally  superior to others. If you give the quote a second thought however, you see that there is a deeper meaning within the idea being conveyed.

 

The first thing we should consider is what it would look like to maintain a high standard of life. In his same letter, Seneca advises that a high standard of life does not mean that one wears the nicest possible toga or that one has silver dishes laced with pure gold. A high standard of life is not about maintaining exorbitant material possessions. Advertising in the United States would make you think differently. A high standard of life is advertised to us as driving the finest sports car, demanding the best possible wrist watch, and having exquisitely crafted faucets. Seneca would argue that these things don’t create a high standard of living, but just show off our wealth. I would agree.

 

A high standard of life, Seneca suggests and I would argue, is a well ordered life in which we can live comfortably but don’t embrace the mindset that it is our possessions that define our success and value. A high standard for life means that we cultivate habits which help us be more kind and considerate. We pursue activities and possessions that help us be more effective, less impulsive, and allow us to better use our resources and intelligence.

 

Maintaining this version of a high standard of life can have the same pitfalls we may associate with the Real Housewives of LA if we don’t give thought to the second part of Seneca’s advice. Maintaining high living standards can lead us to selfishness and self-serving decisions if we don’t think about other people and how we operate as a society. Seneca’s advice is about becoming a model for other people and helping become a force that improves lives by encouraging and inspiring others. This idea was echoed in Peter Singer’s book about effective altruism, The Most Good You Can Do. Effective altruists want to direct their efforts, donations, and resources in the direction where they can have the greatest possible positive impact on the world to help the most people possible. One of the ways to do that is to inspire others to also strive to do the most good they can do. No one would follow an effective altruist who gave away all their money and lived a miserable life. But someone would follow an effective altruist who gave a substantial amount of their money to an effective and meaningful charity and still lived an enjoyable and happy life.

 

Our high standard of living in the end should be one that drives us toward continual improvement. A life that makes us more considerate, more thoughtful, less judgmental, and less impulsive. It should encourage others to live in a way that helps them be happier and healthier, rather than living in a way that suggests that having expensive things and showing off is what life is all about.

A Failure to Connect During Bad Times

Adam Smith lived from 1723 to 1790 and is best known for his economic principles and writing. A quote from him, on the nature of humanity, is included in Ryan Holiday’s book Ego is the Enemy to open a chapter that immediately follows a page with some simple art and the words, “To whatever failure and challenges you will face, ego is the enemy…” The quote from Smith is, “It is because mankind are disposed to sympathize more entirely with our joy than with our sorrow, that we make parade of our riches, and conceal our poverty. Nothing is so mortifying as to be obliged to expose our distress to the view of the public, and to feel, that though our situation is open to the eyes of all mankind, no mortal conceives for us the half of what we suffer.”

 

A funny thing about humanity is that we seem to think that everyone else is happy all the time and doesn’t face the same challenges, obstacles, depression, anxiety, or general discomforts that we face. We try hard to present a happy and fun life to the outside world, but often we are dealing with our own challenges and fears that we hide away. We face the world on our own in times of stress but go out of our way to broadcast our achievements during times of joy. In his quote from over 200 years ago, Smith recognizes our urge to show off the positive and hide the negative in our lives, and he goes beyond that to show how we assume that other people could not even understand our suffering.

 

This aspect of humanity was with us over 200 years ago when Smith wrote his quote, and today with social media always at our fingertips, it has become dangerously supercharged. It is easier than ever to curate the perfect online life that we show to everyone we know, and this pushes us to become even more isolated when things don’t go right. The feeling that many of us have is that we can only be loved if we have the perfect job, the perfect work/life balance, root for the right sports team, drink the right coffee from the right place, put together the cutest planters, cook the most unique dinners, and brush our teeth with the right toothbrushes. Anything short of the perfectly curated life feels like it needs to be hidden from the rest of the world and deepens isolation.

 

We are afraid to open up to other people about the areas where we fall short of the perfect life. We receive so many likes for our “proud dad” social media brags, our new home photos, and for our tropical vacation pictures that it feels as though we can only connect with people if we have those things to share. Somewhere along the line we forget that other people also experience negatives and we fail to connect with them to discuss what we are challenged by and what we would like to do to change our situation. Because we don’t open up with others about our struggles we are all forced to go it alone, assuming that no one would understand our pain, and feeling worse about not being perfect. This was true during Adam Smith’s lifetime and it is heightened in our technologically connected world today.

 

Holiday would argue that we behave this way because our egos cannot let us be seen as vulnerable, scared, weak, or unsure about ourselves and the world. We feel pressured to always be on top of things and to always be ready to take the world on. We go out of our way to show how well we are doing to boost our ego, and that is what ultimately drives us into further isolation when we don’t feel good about our lives. This sense of being overwhelmed will only grow if we cannot open up about it and be honest about where we are with the people around us. What we will ultimately find if we do go against our natural ego urges is that more people face the challenges we face than we expect, and there is more love in opening up than in hiding away and only presenting the good moments of our lives. The ego wants us to take a path that furthers isolation whereas putting the ego aside will actually help us progress and improve our lives.

Pride and Ego

Ryan Holiday describes pride in his book Ego is the Enemy as a force that “takes a minor accomplishment and makes it feel like a major one.” It is the piece of us that ascribes our success to some essential character of ourselves and hyper-inflates that piece around us. It is the sense that we are inherently something  special because of our qualities and accomplishments.

 

Holiday explains the problem with pride by writing, “Pride blunts the very instrument we need to own in order to succeed: our mind. Our ability to learn, to adapt, to be flexible, to build relationships, all of this is dulled by pride. Most dangerously, this tends to happen either early in life or in the – when we’re flushed with beginner’s conceit. Only later do  you realize that bump on the head was the least of what was risked.”

 

Some days I am proud of my writing. Some days I am proud that I just ate a simple and healthy lunch or that I did at least some type of exercise at the gym. These are minor accomplishments that build on each other over time to lead to positive lifestyles and that is something I can find very comforting and take pride in. To me, it seems that the problem with pride is when we take these small things, and begin to boast and brag about them as though they set us apart from the rest of humanity. When we intentionally post a picture of us snacking on apple slices with peanut butter because we know we have friends who are currently at a bar. When we use seven hashtags in our gym post about how a fit life is somehow morally superior than sleeping in and having waffles. And when we complain about how hard it was for us to publish a blog post 7 days in a row, we are taking the small things that can make life meaningful and elevating them (along with our ego and pride) to a level they don’t deserve.

 

Holiday presents pride to us as something that distorts reality in the same way that many other elements of our ego do. It creates situations where your actions become the most important thing about you and about the category of people you belong to. Other people can only fit in with you if they also do these small and meaningless things that you take pride in. Pride says that someone can’t really be a baker if they don’t use specific cookware, that someone can’t really be a runner if they don’t have a new GPS watch and post to Strava, someone can’t really be smart unless they have graduated from the right college or gotten an advanced degree. Pride is a way of creating barriers between us and other people. It gives us a reason to believe we are special, and that as a result we can self-segregate into groups of people similar to ourselves and distance ourselves from the undeserving “others”.

 

None of these outcomes of pride are healthy, which is why there are so many warnings to avoid pride and remain humble. We can be proud of the small actions that drive our life in the right direction, but we should be aware of when we are bragging about those small actions and when we are trying to use those as justification to suggest that we deserve more than what we have or more than another person. We must do our best to include other people in our positive lifestyles and remember that we can only do what we do and be who we are with the support of an entire society, so our pride must also include a sense of community and belonging with everyone who supports us in our lives.