Aside from dropping countless f-bombs in refreshing ways, Mark Manson drapes some new terminology onto the reader of his #1 New York Times bestseller, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. One such concept is that of the hedonic treadmill: “the idea that we’re always working hard to change our life situation, but we actually never feel very different.” It’s a matter of biology in that once we capture one of life’s typical flags – promotion, pay raise, bigger or second home – we crave something more, ending up feeling relatively empty and inadequate. This maddening journey on the road to nowhere serves as the book’s overarching theme, and the message is a rather sobering one: we can neither permanently alleviate suffering nor secure fulfillment, so we’re left to choose what to care about and that which should be released. The good news? Manson is hilariously profane and appropriately unforgiving in his advice that we get busy building our personal value systems, always “striving and discovering” what – and who – we’re meant to be without caring what others may think.
If this is a challenge you’d like to tackle, it’ll help to know about something called death terror, a term credited to the late Ernest Becker, a Vietnam-era Pulitzer Prize winning radical academic in the fields of anthropology, psychology, and philosophy. Defined herein as “a deep existential anxiety that underlies everything we think or do,” death terror explains that while we understand the inevitability of losing our physical selves, we work tirelessly to preserve our conceptual selves to compensate for the fear of being forgotten (let’s call this FOBF and see if it catches on). We dive into so-called immortality projects to preserve our names because “all the meaning in our life is shaped by this innate desire to never truly die.” Time to let FOBF* go. Manson admonishes we celebrate the simple stuff today: time with a friend or a person in need, or creating, reading, and laughing away the constant pressure to be something amazing. Getting comfortable with our status as ordinary creatures and taking pleasure in the mundane frees us up to work on interesting projects without sweating the need to impress, ridding ourselves of third-party judgment and those attentive lofty expectations.
What results is a healthy commitment to what actually matters. Pursuing new paths invites potential failure not to mention the likely rejection and ridicule from colleagues (they’re uncomfortable with others’ bravery, after all) and yet at this point – do you really care? The author writes candidly about his past bouts with laziness and self-absorption to discover values that now feed his soul. In the book’s penultimate chapter “The Importance of Saying No,” Manson writes of the health and happiness that is found in narrow focus, starting with jettisoning the frivolous. Liberation awaits us once we eliminate “the constant pursuit of breadth without depth.” The reader is left to choose between process-oriented values (ones which can be worked on every waking hour) vs. materialistic ones (purchasing, say, a midlife crisis convertible). If ribald humor and blunt force stare-into-the-abyss perspective appeal, add this one to your list. You too may find it hard to put down and even harder to shake.
*I’d thank you to credit me for your future use of this term