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Missing Out: On The Uses Of Dissatisfaction

January 26, 2013

Jason Farago for NPR:


From Malcolm Gladwell to the Freakonomics guys to (discredited) science writer Jonah Lehrer, writers these past few years have flooded bookstores with popular nonfiction titles that purport to tell us how we think. But something has been lost amid the recent vogue for cognitive science and behavioral economics. What about the human part of human behavior — the dreams and desires that set us apart from animals and computers? Are we just assemblages of neurons and chemicals?

Adam Phillips, a prolific British writer and psychoanalyst, is one of the few prominent voices in the social sciences who defends a more abstract, mysterious human mind against the certainties of biology and cognitive science. In previous books he has wrestled with the virtues of monogamy, with the meaning of promises and with the fate of kindness in the modern world.

In Missing Out, his slightly messy but deeply humane new book, he turns to dissatisfaction: How do we cope with not having what we desire, or not being who we want to be? Although dissatisfaction may cause us pain, Phillips concedes, we shouldn’t think of it as a weakness to be overcome. It’s a natural part of human existence, and one that can ultimately provide us pleasure if we let it. “We may need to think of ourselves as always living a double life,” Phillips writes, “the one we wish for and the one that we practice; the one that never happens and the one that keeps happening.”

In a series of five essays, on themes ranging from the uses of frustration to the pleasures of misunderstanding, he shows us how to negotiate the tension between who we are and what we crave. (A sixth essay, on madness in the theater, is listed as an “appendix” but has almost nothing to do with the remainder of the book; perhaps it’s here to pad out a publication of under 200 pages.) For citizens of the U.S. and other rich nations, “affluence has allowed more people than ever before to think of their lives in terms of choices and options.” And modern media have rendered these other possible lives tantalizingly visible. That should and can be a source of pleasure, but it also wears us down. Our desires exceed our abilities to satisfy them. That’s just life. [More]

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