Pretty much two years ago, it was late November 2015, I sat with Alex on the restaurant terrace of Villa Gris in Pranburi, Thailand, and expounded for the first time my grand theory of civilization and its discontent. I told him after a two-hour elaboration – he must have suffered hellishly - that I would wish for a sabbatical to put my thoughts on paper. Half a year later my employer lets me go with a financial cushion good for two years of moderate living and in the same week the dean of the institute of sinology at the university of Vienna asks me if I would like to start a PhD there.
I did not and still don’t understand what exactly happened then, something like transcendental meditation bursting its way into reality, the power of the controlled subconscious taking hold of my life or simply serendipitous coincidences. There is though this feeling that I have embarked on a project which combines something very personal about my life, a narrative which can only be told by me, to a problem which humanity at large suffers from. It is under such rare circumstances, when one can – in the words of neurologist Viktor Frankl - subject his life to a cause greater than oneself to find meaning. I felt that I had a calling which I needed to follow.
My research subject is very much related to the above cartoon: Happiness is an Inside Job. We are brainwashed with self-help, self-management, self-esteem and so much more self-design, which tells us a story about us being in control of our little lives and the way we feel about them. My grand theory, which I told Alex first time two years ago, could thus be summarized as Happiness is an Outside Job. It is not so much us who manage life satisfaction and well-being, but a series of factors which are beyond our influence or if under our potential influence then the control knobs are seriously difficult to find and handle.
Now, before you start to shoot: I am aware that the truth is like always somewhere in between; but, and this but is very important, we live in societies which make it increasingly difficult to exert self-control over our lives. A flood of information inundates our minds, technological inventions and standards streamline how our bodies move; it is as if one truly must sever the ties with modern society in order to break free from negative outside influences.
While I collected data which shows that we experience in almost all industrialized societies an increase in drug and medication abuse, a rise in burn out and ADHD diagnosis, and above all an epidemic of suicides and suicide attempts, I found in spring 2016 a beautiful book, which showed a solution to all this and which I read as a preparation for our first journey to Japan.
Its author, Andy Couturier, did not waste time trying to confirm my above assumptions through academic analysis. He seemed to agree with Jiddu Krishnamurti, that its no measure of health to be adjusted to a profoundly sick society, and set out to profile like an applied social psychologist ten people who have built well balanced lives and radiate profound satisfaction. He talked to them about their values, about their lessons learned, about the things which make a good life.
The result is The Abundance of Less, a beautiful piece of writing, a stunning catalogue of sustainable living, a guidebook on how to regulate our interaction with society at large, a manual for an efficient economy of the self and of how to adjust one’s behavior to a world which offers many choices but pressures us unconsciously into enslavement.
I calculated that at most three people would read my PhD thesis, me and two supervisors, before it would – if printed - be dumped in the university archive. It felt as if four years of my life and the demanded analytic rigor was a too high price to pay for no result but me obtaining a degree. The support of an existing and well written book seemed to heed the probability of creating more impact with less effort. So, I sent probably a year ago an email to Andy and asked him if he would like to come to China on a book reading tour which I would organize for him with Green Initiatives, a nonprofit which I had started to advise on strategic matters. Well, you guess, Andy agreed and I am pretty thrilled to present to you The Abundance of Less – Goes to China!
Knut, originally posted Jan 1, 2018 on mingong.org