If you do not like the idea of reading a book review of a self-help book written by an author who hates self-help books. Or if you cringe at expletive-laden language. Stop. Seriously, move on. If that is not you – author, thinker and popular blogger Mark Manson is back with another book full of counterintuitive wisdom, razor-sharp observations, and vulgar humour. I imagine most of my readers will have an academic background, or at least value critical, logical thinking and a healthy dose of scepticism. Manson’s writing might just be for you. Why? Because scientists are people too.
My introduction to Manson was through his increasingly popular blog. It was the counterintuitive advice in posts such as Love is not Enough and The Most Important Question of Your Life that got me hooked on his writing. His previous book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life, was a merciless slap in the face of the self-help industry and its “advice”: “follow your dreams”, “go with your gut feelings”, “think positive”. Fuck that, says Manson. Those things are a recipe for disaster. Life is not fair and you will experience suffering. Rather than seeking out happiness, we should pick our struggles: which pain are you willing to endure?
Now Manson turns his gaze at the world at large. At a time when we have it better than ever before (see e.g. Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined and Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress), why does everything feel fucked? Why is extremism on the rise? Why are depression and suicide rates so high in developed countries? Ours is a crisis of hope.
See, says Manson, our whole lives are formed around our desire to avoid the uncomfortable truth: that, ultimately, human existence is meaningless. Or, as Manson so poetically puts it, imagining himself a rebellious barista leaving messages on coffee cups:
“We are inconsequential cosmic dust, bumping and milling about on a tiny blue speck. We imagine our own importance. We invent our purpose – we are nothing. Enjoy your fucking coffee.“
And so we have a fundamental psychological need for hope. Manson defines hope as a need to have something to look forward to, to believe that we are sufficiently in control of our lives to work towards it, and to be part of a community to achieve it with.
“our whole lives are formed around our desire to avoid the uncomfortable truth: that, ultimately, human existence is meaningless”
The first part of the book examines these three properties in detail. This involves a clever tale of an imagined Isaac Newton, emo-Newton, in an alternative universe, drawing up the laws of emotion. It involves a hilarious piss-take on organised religion (achieve everlasting bliss and eternal salvation! (or your money back)), handing you the blueprint to start your own. And it involves the balance between two parts of your mind, your thinking brain and your feeling brain. This sees Manson taking a swipe at the self-help industry. After centuries of church and state telling us to suppress our feeling brain, some have now gone too far the other way, believing that their feelings are all that matters. That “shutting off their Thinking Brains in favor of their Feeling Brains [is] “spiritual growth”” and “that being self-absorbed twats brought them closer to enlightenment“.
Manson examines the life of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and comes to the remarkable conclusion that it is conflict that maintains hope: “everything being fucked doesn’t require hope; hope requires everything being fucked“. Just as I was finishing this book, I also reviewed Good Enough: The Tolerance for Mediocrity in Nature and Society, and there are striking parallels between what Milo and Manson are saying. As Milo writes, once humans evolved the capacity to perceive a future, we became restless and wanted to improve our lot. Hope was born. Having achieved ways of meeting our primary needs, our restless neurons continue to crave action. So, to give our lives continued meaning, we invent endless problems for ourselves to solve, endless diversions to indulge in. And, in my opinion, this is exactly what Manson argues here when he writes that our pursuit of happiness is causing our crisis of hope: “because the only thing that can ever truly destroy a dream is to have it come true“. Milo and Manson should go for a coffee together, I am sure they would have much to discuss.
Manson finds a solution to this conundrum in Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo: amor fati. Love of one’s fate. But this is not a call for nihilism. Manson argues we must learn to act without hope, and this is what the second half of the book looks at. This part also offers an unflinching critique of how many things in our society are working against this.
“Manson argues […] that our pursuit of happiness is causing our crisis of hope”
In an audio commentary about the writing of this book, Manson explains how finally reading the works of philosopher Immanuel Kant was an eye-opener. Much of what Manson writes about when it comes to leading a better life boils down to unconditionality. Kant wrote much the same 200 years ago in The Metaphysics of Morals. Manson paraphrases it here as the Formula of Humanity: “you must treat humanity never merely as a means, but always as an end in itself“. In other words, in order to grow the fuck up and start behaving like an adult, we have to learn to act and love unconditionally. And herein lies the problem with hope, argues Manson. It is transactional. We act now with an eye towards an expected future payoff. But this also offers an answer as to how to act without hope. Do not let ideology or religion drive your choices in the hope for a better life. Be a better life. Be virtuous. For no other reason than that it is the right thing to do.
Just one small problem, modern Western society is at odds with this thinking. We highly value happiness and are stuck on a hedonic treadmill in relentless pursuit of it. In his chapter Pain is the Universal Constant, Manson discusses psychological research that shows we are, on average, always fairly happy, but also mildly discontented. The paradoxical result is that the better our lives are, the pettier our grievances become. To the point that “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” are now a thing (see also The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure).
“The paradox […] is that the better our lives are, the pettier our grievances become”
The other big issue is what he calls the Feelings Economy, a chapter that allows Manson to go on some glorious rants. Ever since Edward Bernays pioneered a different advertising strategy back in 1928, marketeers have learned that to get people to buy shit, you have to play on their emotions (see also The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations and Propaganda). Make people feel inadequate with one hand and offer them salvation with the other. And reap the harvest of mindless consumerism. This playing on our feelings went into overdrive with the internet and social media (see e.g. The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember and my review of Rage Inside the Machine: The Prejudice of Algorithms, and How to Stop the Internet Making Bigots of Us All). Or as Manson puts it:
“when you give the average person an infinite reservoir of human wisdom, they will not google for the information that contradicts their deepest held beliefs. They will not google for what is true yet unpleasant“.
Manson sees the pernicious combination of these two forces as being responsible for a generation of people who are fragile and entitled, suffer from low-level addictive behaviours, are unable to tolerate negative emotions, and are paralysed by a needless excess of choices and options in their day-to-day life. And as Manson wrote recently in #FakeFreedom, more choices does not equal more freedom. Allow me one more quote:
“If the pursuit of happiness pulls us all back into childishness, then fake freedom conspires to keep us there. Because freedom is not having more brands of cereal to choose from, or more beach vacations to take selfies on, or more satellite channels to fall asleep to. That is variety.“
These, then, are some of the challenges holding us back, and the impulsive tendencies we have to reckon with if we are to live a better life.
“marketeers have learned that to get people to buy shit, you have to play on their emotions […] Make people feel inadequate with one hand and offer them salvation with the other”
Manson ends on a rather curious note, considering the existential threat of the rise of artificial intelligence (see Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies). He is not too concerned and I have my reservations as well (see also The AI Delusion). It is a great topic for a separate blog post but feels a bit out of place in this book. That notwithstanding, Everything is Fucked is one of those rare books that is thought-provoking while being hilarious, and inspiring while being bleak. Next to his excursions into philosophy and psychology, he features some extraordinary historical figures, such as WWII-resistance hero Witold Pilecki, or the Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức who burned himself to death in protest in 1963. Manson’s writing is easy to recommend, just check out some of his blog posts. If you like anything of what you read there, do yourself a favour and get both this and his last book. They really are that good. Thank you, Mark, for all the fucks not given. And for then writing books about it.
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