“We suffer more in imagination than in reality.” Seneca – Happiness
Can our imagination make us happy?
Happiness is something that everyone wants. Sometimes, though, our imaginations create anxiety and actually prevent us from experiencing happiness. We make things worse than they actually are because of what we create in our minds. Yet, at other times, it is our actual experiences that create our suffering and our imaginations play no role. The power of the imagination is unique to each individual and can be a source of our happiness or despair.
Join Steve and Dan Fouts with guest, Dr. Jana Mohr Lone, Director of the Center for Philosophy of Children at the University of Washington, for a conversation about happiness using the Teach Different conversation method.
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Image source: Wikimedia | Caladius
Dan Fouts 00:00
Hello, Steve and Dan Fouts here. We’re veteran educators who have created the Teach Different podcast to inspire all of us to think deeper, listen with more intention, and understand each other better. On this podcast, we model a conversation method using claims, counterclaims, essential questions, and quotes from some of the world’s great thinkers. This method works with adults and students of all ages, at school or at home, and is implemented using Google Forms. If you’re a teacher, parent, administrator, social emotional learning specialist, or anybody who wants to think in new ways and help others do the same, then you’ve come to the right place.
All right, welcome, everybody to the Teach Different podcast this week. We are very lucky and excited today to have a great guest with us who has a lot of experience helping young people think deeply. The Teach Different method will be very comfortable for her. Her name is Dr. Jana Mohr Lone, and she’s from the University of Washington. I’ll let her introduce herself right now before we get into our quote from Seneca. Welcome, Jana. It’s great to see you.
Jana Mohr Lone 01:24
Thank you. Thanks for having me. I am the director of the Center for Philosophy for Children at the University of Washington, a research center that focuses on children’s philosophical thinking, and the philosophy of childhood. I’m also a professor of philosophy at the University.
Dan Fouts 01:46
Great. The work you do is aligned with what we’re going to do tonight. We’re adults having this conversation, but the hope is that you can imagine how to have this conversation in the classroom with students of any age. I think the quote tonight will be relevant to just about any age student, which is an excellent thing. For people unfamiliar with the Teach Different method, we’re going to start with the philosophical quote, then we’re going to work through the claim of the quote, then at a certain point, Steve will move us into the counterclaim. Now, we get a lot of questions about the counterclaim. Why have a counterclaim to a conversation? Why don’t we just give an opinion of the quote? Well, the counterclaim is that tension you need in a conversation, where you have an equally reasonable belief that is in competition with the first one. In a class the kids have to take sides. That’s when the conversation gets interesting. That’s the purpose of the counterclaim. We end with an essential question that we provide. Most of our best essential questions organically appear in the conversation. I want everybody who’s listening here and who uses this in the classroom to pay close attention to the conversation to find those great questions, pull them out, and use them. Here’s the quote for tonight from Seneca, a Roman stoic philosopher. It’s a simple one, but very deep. “We suffer more in imagination than in reality.” “We suffer more in imagination than in reality.” Jana, what are your thoughts on the claim?
Jana Mohr Lone 04:13 – Claim
Well, this is a great quote. I think you’re right, Dan, that this is a quote that will resonate for anyone of any age. I think what Seneca is saying here is that our biggest problem is in our minds, that it is anxiety and worrying about what might be that keep us from just being able to experience our lives, and that causes us more suffering than anything else. Many of the stoics believed that we can control how we respond to what happens to us. I think that this quote is a really nice way of pointing out how often we don’t really control how we respond. We spend a lot of time spinning in anxiety about things that we may not have any control over, or that might or might not happen. I think what’s really powerful about this quote is the idea that when we worry about what might happen, what is causing our suffering is not the external events that might or might not happen, but our own minds. And, we can change that.
Steve Fouts 05:51
That’s where the power lies, in our own minds. Well put, Jana. This is Steve. I have this thought about the quote, with regards to imagination. That word is really interesting. When an adolescent thinks about imagination, they might think of wild things that might happen, crazy dreams they might have, and things like that. But, I think Seneca is using a definition of imagination that’s closer to the way you interpreted it, Jana. This idea that it’s in your head. It’s not so important what it is that you’re imagining, per se, but it’s this idea that it’s not in the world. It’s something that’s in your head. After putting this quote on the board, I would circle imagination and talk about the meaning of that word to get the kids to focus on the fact that it’s something in your head.
Jana Mohr Lone 07:16
Yeah, we tend to think of imagination as linked to creativity, but you’re right that in this quote, Seneca is using imagination in a much broader sense.
Dan Fouts 07:32
Yeah, I agree. You also use the word anxiety. That was the first word I thought of when I read this quote.
Steve Fouts 07:42
Jana Mohr Lone 07:43
Dan Fouts 07:44
Immediately, I thought of my own anxious thoughts about things, and how he’s calling me out.
Jana Mohr Lone 07:54
It reminded me of how last week I was worrying the day before a planned outdoor event whether it was going to rain. There was a chance of rain, so should I bring an umbrella? If I bring an umbrella, what would I hold it in, or will I have to carry it around? I ran myself through this whole spin, and then, of course, I got up the next morning and it wasn’t going to rain. There was no issue. I’d wasted all this energy worrying about something that was completely fruitless. I think we do this all the time.
Dan Fouts 08:30
All of the time. I have a story from yesterday. We had a Socratic seminar in class about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous letter from Birmingham Jail. A student in class, who is terrified of public speaking, came up to me after class to tell me, I was going to say this, then I was going to say this, but I just couldn’t. What do I do? This is the second time he’s come up to me after a discussion like a deer in headlights. I had this quote in my head, because I knew we were going to have this podcast. I just said, you know what, you’re making the situation worse and you don’t have to, because it hasn’t happened yet. If you were to say something, it wouldn’t be that bad, but you’re suffering right now, aren’t you? I didn’t want to sit there and correct him. I just wanted to make him more aware of what his mind was doing to him. It was such a great example of this quote in action.
Jana Mohr Lone 09:41
Think about sitting on an airplane, and whenever there’s any turbulence, worrying about what’s going to happen. The planes going to crash. You could make the whole flight miserable for yourself, and it’s all in your imagination. It’s all in your mind.
Steve Fouts 10:01
Maybe another thing you could ask students to share would be times in their lives, when they took action, and didn’t over think or worry about it. But, something happened that caused some problems and some suffering. Maybe it’s even something they regretted. But, they didn’t have anxiety beforehand, they just did it and then dealt with the consequences. Get them to compare that feeling with just sitting around paralyzed on the plane, worried that this thing isn’t going to make it to its destination. Then, you ask them to think about how they want to live? What is more important to you? I don’t know what the follow up question would be, but I know that we all find ourselves in problem situations, because we didn’t imagine anything. We didn’t think at all. But, we can get out of those as well. I’d like to hear what they have to say about that.
Jana Mohr Lone 11:21 – Counterclaim
In some ways, that leads me to think that might be one of the counter arguments to this claim. Sometimes we can imagine possibilities that lead us to refrain from doing something we might otherwise do, which, upon reflection, we think we really shouldn’t do for the reasons that we’ve imagined. For example, I start thinking about leaving for the airport tomorrow morning. I think, okay, my flight is at 10. I’m going to leave at eight. Then I think, wait a minute, if I imagine eight o’clock, I’m just going to be sitting in traffic, and if there’s an accident, I could be really late. What if I miss my flight? So, maybe I’m going to leave at seven, because the worst that could happen is I’ll get to the airport really early. I’ll just go have some coffee or something. So, in that case, it would seem that you might say to Seneca that sometimes we do suffer more often in imagination, but sometimes those imaginings, even if they are causing us worry at that time, lead us to better decisions.
Steve Fouts 12:36
Jana, I’m going to leave it to another philosopher. You preempted me on the counterclaim. I think you’re right on there. I felt it too. Imagining and thinking about the future can’t always be bad. Now the quote is about suffering. When bad things happen to us, we suffer, but it’s more often in our minds then in the real world. So, maybe he would have a little bit to say about the comparisons that we’re making. But, you turned the corner with it. It’s not always a bad thing to imagine what’s going to happen in the future. There’s no way it can always be a bad thing. That’s a good start for a counterclaim.
Jana Mohr Lone 13:31
Yeah, although… you go ahead. I’m sorry, Dan. You’re right, that it’s kind of a counterclaim, but he might say, wait a minute, my claim isn’t that you should never imagine, my claim is that our suffering comes more from our imagining, then from reality. Maybe a counterclaim to that, I’m not even sure it’s quite a counterclaim, but let’s see if we can make it one, is that you must be really privileged for that to be true. Because, there are certainly people in the world who suffer way more in reality than in imagination. So, maybe that is true for someone who has a pretty protected life, but for many people imagination is a refuge from suffering.
Dan Fouts 13:35
Go ahead, Jana. You’re going right where I was going. When you think of reality and any kind of death that you might experience, as an example. That is a real thing. You suffer a lot with that, and oftentimes what happens is that your imagination, I love the term refuge, becomes the thing that helps you deal with reality. It becomes the positive in the situation. It could also still be a negative though, right? Your imagination could be a trigger to make the situation even worse, but it could also be a refuge.
Jana Mohr Lone 15:18
Think about someone who is fleeing their country with their children and is scared that they won’t be able to reach safety. Perhaps telling stories or dwelling in imagination can be a place of safety and comfort. Which isn’t to say that Seneca would disagree with that, necessarily, but I think there are times when reality can trump imagination for suffering.
Steve Fouts 15:50
This could get emotional. All of these conversations can, because they’re dealing with real emotions. Some of the stories the students might share about times in their lives when they were struggling with being happy. Maybe we suffer more often through imagination, but when we suffer in reality, it’s ten times worse. Maybe that’s a way to agree and disagree with him at the same time. I’m just thinking out loud.
Jana Mohr Lone 16:29
Yeah, exactly. I was thinking something similar, because I don’t think he would disagree that people suffer in reality, but when we suffer, maybe we can make it better, as Dan said, through imagination. We can imagine something else. But, we can also make it worse through imagination. So, even if our suffering in reality is terrible, it could be even worse through our imagining. Ultimately, I think I agree with Seneca. I think he’s right, but it requires a bit of parsing to get to the heart of what he means. I don’t think that he’s trying to say we shouldn’t be imagining. It’s more a statement about the type of imagining that is negative, the anxious worrying. This led me to wonder about the question, is worrying ever useful? There’s planning, like we talked about going to the airport, or, Steve, your point, about when we don’t think ahead before we do something, we may have to deal with consequences. But, that’s seems to be different than worry. People spend a lot of time worrying, and I just wonder is it ever useful?
Dan Fouts 18:09
That’s great. That points to the critics of Stoic philosophers, like Seneca. They seem to deny the emotional side of the human experience to the extent that it’s all rationality. Worrying is an emotional expression that isn’t necessarily bad all of the time. Jana, you have a lot of experience working with young children, and helping them think deeply about things like this. Could you speak a little bit about your experience with younger children and this kind of thinking? What kind of examples do you think they would bring up in this conversation?
Jana Mohr Lone 19:01
These days, I do work primarily with elementary school children. It’s interesting, because the question about worrying did come up in a conversation with, I think it was, third graders. There’s a book called, “Albert’s Toothache.” It’s a great story by Barbara Williams about this turtle who complains of a toothache, and of course, turtles don’t have teeth. His family says, Albert, why are you not telling the truth, and nobody believes him. It raises all of these interesting issues about who gets believed and about language, because it turns out he has an ache in his toe where a gopher bit him, so the ache actually came from somebody else’s tooth. In the story, Albert’s mother has all these places that she goes and worries. She has a worrying chair, a worrying rock, and a worrying sofa that she goes to and worries. In one class, the question was raised by these children, why does she worry all the time? It led us to talk about worrying, what you worry about, and whether worrying is ever a good thing. I think the kinds of things children would raise, are worrying about someone getting sick. Right now, kids are worrying about illness and about safety, about what the first day of school, is their teacher going to be someone that they connect with, worrying about whether they’re going to make any friends, worrying about future events in the same way that adults do. One of the things I find, and my undergraduate and graduate students, always comment on, is that in a classroom of children, the questions they’re asking are almost identical to the questions that we’re asking in our university classes. They may use different language to ask the questions, but the questions are exactly the same. I think the kinds of concerns children would have with Seneca’s quote would be quite similar to the conversation we’ve been having. This leads me to think about the way in which childrens’ worries are, in some ways, qualitatively different than the worries of adults. Children have so much less agency. Many aspects of their lives are not under their control. Some of the things that adults worry about, like that might or might not happen, and then you can choose how to respond. But, for children, it still might be the case that this might or might not happen, but it might or might not happen because some other person is going to decide for them whether it will happen or it won’t. I think there’s a sense of things not being within their control, much more intensely than is true for adults or even older, young people. By the time you get to high school, there’s a larger avenue of life that you do have some agency over.
Dan Fouts 22:51
That’s really interesting, Jana. Are you saying that the younger the kid, the more they might feel the suffering, because they don’t have as many ways of getting out of it?
Jana Mohr Lone 23:07
Well, I’m not sure I’m saying that. I need to think about it a little bit more before I I say that’s my conclusion. I was just thinking more about how when you worry as a child, there’s so much not within your control, and there are so many things that are unknown and unfamiliar. There are also things you don’t have to worry about, especially if you’re a child fortunate enough to have caring adults in your life who take care of many things for you. Childhood is full of new experiences, and especially for young children. Every day is full of new experiences. On the one hand, I see in children a pretty strong comfort with uncertainty, an awareness that there are a lot of new things in the world, and a sort of open curiosity about all of that. But, when there are worries, there’s a sense that I don’t have any idea what’s going to happen, partially because I have no control and partially because I don’t have a lot of life experience. They don’t know how to imagine or think about what might happen with a pandemic, for example, because this is so big and overwhelming. Of course, this is a new experience for everyone, but we have more things to maybe to compare it to then young children do. Maybe I’m saying that worrying can be more intense in childhood. I think a lot of emotional experiences are more intense in childhood, and I think that worrying and anxiety are two of them. I just received an email a couple of days ago from an adult who had heard a talk I gave regarding a new book. There’s a chapter in it about death and about talking with children about death. He wrote me to say that this made him feel so much better, because when he was a child, he was so worried and anxious about death, and he didn’t think anyone else felt the same way. I think there’s a lot of that for children, this sense that only I am having this worry. And, of course, adults experience that too. But, I think it’s more prominent in children.
Dan Fouts 25:41
That is the beauty of philosophical conversations like this, because you realize very quickly that you’re not alone.
Jana Mohr Lone 25:48
Dan Fouts 25:49
And that is the beauty.
Steve Fouts 25:50
Yeah. The idea that came to my mind as you were speaking, was that maybe worrying is more justified in children than adults, because of that lack of agency. There is a vulnerability to a child that just doesn’t exist on the same level as an adult. Maybe worrying is more justified. I never thought of it in relation to agency, until you put that out there. Reading into the quote a bit, knowing what a stoic is, you could argue that Seneca is trying to talk to the privileged. He’s talking to adults who are well adjusted, maybe very successful, and have normal lives, but here they go worrying about things that they really don’t need to worry about. Adults have the ability to not only control those thoughts, but they also have more control over their lives. They’re their own worst enemy. I thought of the word justified. Children are more justified to…
Jana Mohr Lone 27:21
I like that. Which isn’t to say that it still doesn’t make their suffering worse. It still might be that what Seneca says is just as true of children, but maybe it’s just more understandable. We can see why you would worry so much when there’s such a world of uncertainty within which you live. That’s less true as you get older.
Dan Fouts 27:50
We wouldn’t hold children as accountable as adults, perhaps, if they were to fall into the trap of doing this. Back to what you said, Steve. This would be a really sensitive conversation, now that I’m listening to you, Jana and Steve. When I begin this conversation I might talk about test anxiety, sports anxiety, friendship anxiety, going on a date anxiety. I would try to keep it safe, so to speak. This is one where you have prepare, because it might go into unexpected places, in a good way.
Steve Fouts 28:35
If I can share real quick. I’ve been an educator in some very tough neighborhoods of Chicago. I’m thinking of my students, and the anxieties that they have about myriad things. If you want to talk Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, safety was not established in many of their lives. Reality is difficult. There are safety issues getting home from school. There are safety issues if you’re with the wrong group at the wrong time. If they’re not vigilant, I’m going to use the word vigilant in their world, thinking about what could happen, something bad is probably going to happen. This may be their logic for a quote like this. I really don’t know how they would react to this quote, whether they would agree or not.
Jana Mohr Lone 30:07
I think that’s what makes it a really interesting and complex quote. I think you can say that having imagination about what might happen is an important skill for navigating through life, especially for people for whom life is particularly difficult and challenging, and holds particular dangers. At the same time, you could say that imagination can also make those very real fears even worse. I think it’s not a question of whether we should be imagining what might happen, it’s whether the imagining makes our suffering worse, or whether the imagining diminishes our suffering. The imagining is a practical imagining, like I need to walk down this street and not that street, or I need to make sure I get food before I do this, because there won’t be any food there. That’s different than what’s tomorrow going to be like. I’m going to get up and I’m not sure what’s going to happen, or who’s going to be out there. What if this happens, and what if that happens? So, I think there’s a fine line. I think many of us often fall on the suffering side of that line. We imagine things that really aren’t going to help us in a practical way, but are going to make us suffer more because it’s just our minds spinning in anxiety, to use the word from when we began.
Dan Fouts 32:13
Yeah. A good takeaway for the kids, if you can steer the conversation in this way, is to use your imagination to uplift you, to rescue you from an otherwise desperate situation. If your mind can make you depressed, it can also make you happy. That’s the agency thing. Back to that theme. That is an incredibly powerful realization for kids at any age, to realize that they can use their mind to get themselves out of situations, within limits.
Jana Mohr Lone 32:57
And, to think of their minds as the launching place for creating the life they want for themselves. I can imagine I can do this, and I can be this. Then that leads you into the practical, okay, how do I get there. But, that first step of I can imagine myself not in this life to which I was born, but in a different kind of life, is powerful and important.
Dan Fouts 33:29
Definitely. What a wonderful conversation, Jana. I like how we got into the counterclaim quickly. We haven’t had that happen on these podcasts. Sometimes the counterclaim comes out first, and you can’t hold the kids back. You just have to go with it and try to steer it back to the claim and the counterclaim and then go on the necessary tangents as they come. The word imagination is really the one to unpack. Jana, usually with these quotes, there’s one or two words that can be a conversation in and of itself. It’s a good way to set up the conversation, and get everybody on the same page. Jana, would you talk a bit more about some of the work that you’ve done? I’ve read your book, “The Philosophical Child,” which is wonderful. That was in 2013 or something.
Jana Mohr Lone 34:39
I have a new book that just came out this spring called, “Seen and Not Heard,” which is really about the ways in which young people continue to be seen and not heard. There was an old proverb, children should be seen and not heard, which you don’t hear as much anymore, but I think the viewpoint of that proverb persists. The book is about conversations I’ve had over the years with children on subjects like death, fairness, justice, happiness, friendship, etc, with dialogue vignettes from these conversations, and then really unpacking those conversations to think about what the children said. It’s changed my philosophical views on many topics, because I think childhood offers a unique perspective, or a perspective from someone for whom the world is new, and who doesn’t think they have a lot of things they are sure about and already know. It allows young people to approach these very old questions in very new ways. That’s what the book is about. We do work with educators all over the country, and actually all over the world. It’s about helping teachers, parents, and other adults, become willing to listen to the philosophical content of what children say, and to be able to respond to the questions children ask without feeling as if they have to become the teacher, and have to tell the children what to think, but to inquire with the children in the ways we’ve been doing here in this conversation. I come into a classroom with a PhD in philosophy, but that doesn’t mean that I am there to enlighten the children about philosophy. I have a certain amount of training that enables me to see the philosophy in what children say, but what they say can often be very enlightening for me.
Dan Fouts 37:00
And, you end up being the student real quickly.
Jana Mohr Lone 37:04
Oh, yeah. It’s really a community. That’s one of the things I really hope children come away from our sessions with, the idea that they can all learn from each other. They all have things to teach everyone else. Teaching and learning are collaborative, mutual endeavors.
Dan Fouts 37:28 – Essential Question
And, a process of course. That’s great. I’m definitely getting “Seen and Not Heard.” That sounds like a wonderful book. Well, Jana, I’ve worked with you over the years, and it’s been such a pleasure to talk with you again. We like to end with an essential question. The one that we came up with is sort of on the positive side of this, can our imagination, make us happy?
Jana Mohr Lone 38:03
Oh, I like that.
Dan Fouts 38:04
A question that you could come out of this with to get them thinking positively about the power of their mind to make their life better. Jana, I have to give you credit for the essential question that you came up with halfway through this conversation. I don’t know if you all remember, but it was something to the effect of, is worrying ever the right thing to do, or is it ever good for us? Yeah, I really liked that one as well.
Jana Mohr Lone 38:40
Yeah, I think it was, is worrying ever useful? I agree. That’s a really important question and very much connected to Seneca’s quote. It’s kind of the flip side of the essential question that that you all came up with.
Dan Fouts 38:57
Thank you, Jana. It’s been a pleasure working with you over the years, and thank you for being on the podcast. You are a wonderful addition to the community here.
Jana Mohr Lone 39:06
Oh, well, thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure.
Steve Fouts 39:08
Dan Fouts 39:11
Thanks, everybody. We hope you are walking away feeling energized by some great ideas, and are confident that conversations like this are possible with a little bit of planning and a 3-step method. Make sure you go to teachdifferent.com to learn more, and check out our library of conversation starters, where we’ve compiled dozens of quotes, each with their own claim, counterclaim and essential question. Good luck. And, don’t forget to teach different with conversations and make a difference every day.