Snark vs. Values

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Over at Salon, Lauren Frey Daisley relates how a personal experiment went for her in "My Month of No Snark." She decided to see whether being nicer to people would improve her mood generally, so she lived by the following rules for a month:

I cannot say or write anything that could be construed as not nice. [She later acknowledges that, "When it concerns real human strife, it's ultimately not nice to just be polite." --ed]

I do not have to school other people on being kind.

I am allowed to tease in a good-natured way.
Her results surprised her and are interesting to consider:
... Without the ability to vent, I had only two options: to let something relatively stupid eat away at me -- or to just let it go. So I tried that. What did it matter if a stranger thought my marriage was challenged because of my first name? Giving his weird, offhand theory any stock would be as productive as stepping on a crack in the sidewalk and worrying it would hurt my mom. So I decided there was something to the old preteen-teen mantra: Whatever.


Instead of me denying my true thoughts, I stopped giving the unproductive ones much weight. Adding credence to the theory that changing what you do changes how you think, unkind thoughts just dissipated in a matter of days...
I don't think it's accurate to say, "What you do changes how you think," but I think Daisley has shown us something with her experiment, and the key to seeing exactly what this is is to consider a point she raises in passing and a realization that came to her at the end of her experiment. First, the point:
Maybe I've had too many years of therapy, or maybe we've all had too many years of Oprah and the imperative to "get it all out."
And now, the realization:
One thing that hadn't occurred to me: Buddy didn't mean anything at all by what he said. It was a harmless attempt at conversation, maybe even a touching way of reaching out. Either way, why waste energy assuming ill intent? Haven't we all said something stupid and realized it sounded insulting? If we stop lashing out against perceived insults and stop subtly eroding our friendships -- or even kind relations with strangers -- by giving so much attention to the things that bug us, quality of life inches incrementally but noticeably closer to excellent.
In other words, Daisley's snarkiness was a manifestation of a mental habit she had fallen into -- of indulging in her immediate emotional reaction to the people around her and simply spewing out whatever came to her mind without introspection. I am sure that even the basic question, "Is this really worth my attention?" was left unasked.

Daisley's article shows the value, in terms of improving one's emotional state, one's ability to evaluate others, and the quality of one's relationships, of not just immediately venting negative emotions. Absent her usual outlet, she instead confronted what it was about so many little things that used to bug her and, in the process, discovered that most of them weren't worth her time.

To the extent that her actions changed how she thought, I think it was because her actions both mimicked what a more deliberate person might have done, and caused her to start doing some of these things absent her usual alternative. She thus started enjoying some of the benefits of acting more deliberately. Perhaps the key to getting the most out of trying on such aphoristic advice as, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all," is to conceptualize what putting it into practice accomplishes.

-- CAV

----- In Other News -----

I like the fact that there's an ad campaign, "in which inspiring poems (or parts thereof) are read by famous people for the Union Bank of Switzerland under the unifying title: Thoughts that Transcend Time."

One point Paul Graham made in the essay I linked to yesterday was, "I think the way to 'solve' the problem of procrastination is to let delight pull you instead of making a to-do list push you." Motivationally, yes. A to-do list will get you only so far. To-do lists have their place, but they have to be prepared correctly to really be effective.

I enjoyed this quote about formal and informal levels of usage from the preface of my Paper Tiger version of Norman Foerster and J. M. Steadman's Writing and Thinking: "Or, to use the words of Professor Harold W. Bentley, the authors have tried not to let the 'virtue of tolerance' be carried 'so far that it leads to the vice of slovenliness.'" (For those who might be interested in the book, the Paper Tiger site hosts a review by Jean Moroney.)


Sam N. said...

Why do you believe it is inaccurate to say, "What you do changes how you think"?

Assuming I haven't misunderstood you: What would you say is going on in cases where consistent repetition is followed by habitual automation? It definitely seems that the automatic performance of tasks allows for other thoughts to occur (in place of thoughts originally required for doing those tasks) - though perhaps this is not what you were getting at.

How about this: Does not the way in which you react to a piece of music, art, or literature change as you become familiar with it. Are the acts that are leading to your familiarity with a work not also changing the way you think about it?

If that fails to make the point, take suicide: an unpleasant - but materialistically concrete - example. Suicide definitely seems to be something one does; it is difficult to imagine non-spiritual appeals that would suggest being dead does not affect how one thinks (alternatively, consider an unsuccessful attempt with resultant brain-damage).

It may be more accurate to say that experience changes how we think. Unless we accept determinism, however, to the extent that we choose certain experiences for ourselves, ipso facto, what we do does change how we think.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks for that very intelligent criticism, Sam.

Thinking back on this post, I would say that I was reacting against what I saw as a deterministic premise in that sentence which, as you show, wasn't necessarily implied.

I would say that, in the sense of forming habits by repeating certain actions, or making richer mental connections (as with repeatedly listening to a piece of music), I would have to agree that what you do CAN change how you think.

But in another sense, it doesn't. Daisley may well form a habit of being less impulsive about what she says, but if the habit arose due to certain deeply-held, negative convictions about other people on her part, I think more than just not always being snarky will be required on her part to change the convictions at the root of her original habit. In that sense, she may be more receptive to changing how she thinks, without having yet changed on that deeper level.