Ancient Wisdom is Being Lost in our Incessant Thirst for Information, and Replaced by an ‘Illusion of Understanding’
When it comes to the subject of ‘self-help,’ ‘lifestyle design,’ or simply ‘changing one’s life,’ there is a seemingly infinite supply of advice, to the point which, determining what is useful and what is not is almost impossible. Further, our brains are not properly equipped to deal with so much information; by nature, we find it difficult to filter out signal from noise. And today, with the never-ending stream of stimulating information, our shortfalls are only exacerbated. The question is, why is it stimulating? There are a few ways to answer this question, but they perhaps all stem from our biologically innate desire to have information, and to have it quick.
Take a moment to consider most of the information we consume everyday—or rather, how it is forced upon us—and the ‘type’ of information it is, that is, how it is delivered to us… … … You’ll quickly realise that almost all of it comes in short, intense, attention-grabbing bursts, and these bursts occur one after the other, all day, everyday. TV commercials; twitter, Facebook, Youtube and SnapChat feeds; newspapers and news channels; instant messaging and emails—the list goes on. Technological progress, as beneficial as it can be, often creates new problems of it’s own—or, at least, it brings back problems that humans once faced, but in a different form.
The problems that immediate access to infinite (when you consider human capacity) information bring are becoming clearer by the day: increased anxiety, inability to ’switch off,’ higher depression rates, poorer thinking skills and a decreased ability to distinguish between the useful and useless, poorer in-person conversational skills, and so on. The solution, I think, is to not abandon the information; our technological advances have, it is hard to argue, allowed us to incredible things, and have improved aspects of our lives, and are, it is even harder to argue, fun to have. The only thing we can do is become aware; become aware of how we’re wired and how that wiring, how our biology, makes it harder for us to deal with modern life, and more specifically, the information.
The reason I bring this up, is to highlight that for all our progress, we appear to be not better off when it comes to personal happiness (Science is beginning to shine light on this). But not only are we no better off, we are actually less equipped in our pursuits of happiness—to have a sense of purpose, stable happiness, peace, and deeper understanding. In our quest for happiness we may turn to the advice of others, of teachers–dead or alive—of self-help books, etc, but, in doing so we actually expose ourselves to another problem: there are so many books, so many podcasts, so many articles, so many websites, so many teachers, so many practices, so many methods, so many reasons, so many do’s and don’ts, so so much information. We have an innate need to acquire information, and fast, so, faced with all these options, we’re easily overwhelmed. The modern phrase for this is ‘FOMO’ (fear of missing out). Of course, hundreds of years ago, or even as recently as 30 years ago, this was not near as much of a problem: our need for information was there, but it was not so easily overwhelmed, and therefore, not a contributor to anxiety, confusion, or ‘FOMO’. Considering our biology and history, it’s understandable that happiness levels haven’t increased—maybe even got worse.
There is another thing to take into account, here, which, when understood, may help us with our understanding, and hopefully, our happiness. It is the illusion of understanding that results from the acquisition of information. Merely consuming information, and even understanding it, is not the same thing as understanding the concept; knowing is not understanding. If you spend an hour reading a hard book, or even 10 minutes scrolling through twitter, you may notice that you come away feeling somewhat more informed, and that you have deeper understanding. The problem is that whilst the former is true, the latter rarely is. Information acquisition creates the illusion of understanding. A symptom of this, I think, is people who get hooked on life-advice and self-help books: they keep consuming the information without ever getting the message. You may read this very article, and, thinking you understand it, recite some of it to your friends later; but then your friend may not quite agree and probe into your reasoning; a little probing on his part proves that you actually don’t have any reasoning, and were just reciting words; confused, you go over in your head why you thought you understood, or worse, you agree with your friend because he’s your friend and ’sounds convincing,’ and discard this article as ‘bullshit’. This type of thinking is much more prevalent than we like to think, and it is being made worse by our inability to do our own critical thinking. Critical thinking is already hard for us because it is not natural, but when you add to it today’s information, it becomes significantly harder. In the former, we’re running up a steep hill; combine it with the latter, and we’re running through deep water.
As much as I would like to give an ultimate solution to this problem, this problem of meaning and happiness and making sense of the world (which, I think, would be the secret), my desire isn’t matched by anything resembling that of a silver bullet. Of course, the question could be, what is the problem? Is there a problem? Are we asking the wrong question(s)? The answer to the last question could well be ‘certainly’. But if we do not look for the answer we have absolutely no chance of finding it; it is in our search for silver bullets that we stumble upon bullets made of bronze and gold.
We may be asking the wrong questions when it comes to happiness and meaning (or anything)—but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask them, just as long as we recognise when a better one comes along. The key to this is awareness, is understanding why it is that we feel the way we do, why information both fails us and decreases our happiness, and why life, more often than not, is so hard.
True understanding elevates us to higher ground; it gives us an enhanced perspective with which to view not only ourselves, but our fellow brothers and sisters and the world we share; from here we can choose futility—fighting, moaning, trolling, lying, hopelessness, inaction, bowing to fear—or we can acknowledge that we’re all in this together, and identify what rightfully be done, and do it.
In my next article I’ll highlight some subtle practices that one can easily integrated into your life, and that can have profound effects, both short and long-term. An example of this, for those impatient souls, is keeping a ‘Jar of happy’, which simply involves the practice of writing down a good thing that has happened on any particular week or day (preferably on a sticky note or something similar), folding it up, and keeping it in a jar on your desk. Any time you feel blue, just open up the jar and start reading. But this isn’t the main benefit of the practice. What is it? I’ll reveal that in my next article.