Swearing, according to various psychologists, boosts endorphins, promotes social bonding and makes people more persuasive. Which is why I make no apology for following last week's column on the phenomenon of "bullshit jobs" with a reference to an ebook that's been riding high on Amazon. It's The Universe Doesn't Give A Flying Fuck About You, by an author calling himself Johnny Truant. I like that title not just because of the swearing – which is always intrinsically hilarious, obviously – but for its message. It's a foul-mouthed version of the bestseller Don't Sweat The Small Stuff (And It's All Small Stuff). Faced with life's most agonising dilemmas, about love, work, ethics and the rest, it's perversely liberating to be reminded that the answer to the question "What should I do?", seen from the perspective of the cosmos, or world history, is usually, "You know, it doesn't really matter all that much."
We've learned lots, in recent years, about the phenomenon of "choking" in sports: when players, consumed with the belief that something really matters, try to seize control of a process best left unconscious, thereby screwing everything up. But a similar problem bedevils personal life, the workplace and politics. The message that something really matters, intended to promote a sense of urgency and thus action, has the reverse effect: big decisions get delayed, more meetings are held, commissions of inquiry are launched. Even the aforementioned ebook, sadly, turns out to be full of advice about being "epic". ("Stop waiting for permission to be epic… Your life is a one-way train, and any second you waste is a second lost for ever.") But that kind of talk raises the stakes. Often, it's much more helpful to lower them.
One especially prevalent form of this self-sabotage is embodied in the notion of "self-esteem", as the late (and very sweary) psychotherapist Albert Ellis pointed out. Trying to think of yourself as a good person – or encouraging children to think that way – dramatically raises the stakes of every action taken, as each one gets taken as evidence for or against that belief. Mistakes get magnified: failure at some specific task becomes an all-round failure of the self, fuelling a vicious circle of risk avoidance and self-blame. You should give up the practice of rating your whole self, Ellis counselled: accept yourself warts and all, then by all means judge individual action. "Your totality is too complex and too changing to measure… Now stop farting around and get on with your life!"
The fear of what other people will think can be just as paralysing. So it was heartening to encounter a new study suggesting that liking or disliking is a "dispositional attitude": different people, in other words, are predisposed to like or dislike things in general, no matter what they are. Researchers found that people's judgments on unrelated matters – architecture, wine, abortion, camping, Japan – were partly influenced by the mere fact of being a liker or a hater. Consider the implications: that person who criticised your work may just not like things! (The corollary is harder to swallow: that person who praised you may be predisposed towards liking.) So you can worry a bit less about how others, let alone history or the universe, will judge what you do. You don't matter that much. Thank goodness.
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