Saturday, 31 March 2012


I recently took part in a study of mood and sleep patterns (the EMOTE project). This involved a week of wearing an activity monitor and being prompted by text ten times a day to fill in a questionaire (what were you thinking when you got the text? How happy are you right now? To what extent is your mood under your control right now? etc.). I was in the control group—the real concern is people with bipolar disorder or fibromyalgia—so I wasn’t expected to produce anything terribly exciting. Nor did I: my  mood varies slightly and predictably in step with my blood-sugar and blood-caffeine levels. The most interesting result for me was recognising that I mostly live in accordance with John Stuart Mill’s advice:
Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way. The enjoyments of life (such was now my theory) are sufficient to make it a pleasant thing, when they are taken en passant, without being made a principal object. Once make them so, and they are immediately felt to be insufficient. They will not bear a scrutinizing examination. Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. (Autobiography chapter 5).
I am generally a pretty calm and positive person, but I rarely think about my own mood (apart from ‘a coffee will perk me up’) and I found having my attention repeatedly drawn to my own state of mind disconcerting. Excessive self-consciousness, I’m inclined to think with Mill, is risky.

But the oddity of Mill’s advice is that he gives it in the paradigm case of extreme self-consciousness: an autobiography. In its strong form, it’s advice which could only be authoritatively given by someone who ignored it (as, in a smaller way, is this post).

There are weaker forms, which are perhaps what Mill meant: continuous self-consciousness would be bad, but there are appropriate times for turning one’s attention on oneself, and appropriate amounts of self-monitoring. Ten times a day is too much. Once in a lifetime, taking stock near its end, might be right.

But the sort of person who might write an autobiography—not me—perhaps needs to be thinking much more about her own states and moods at the time, if she’s to recall and make sense of them later. And again, that might be risky.

Bonus: some of my answers to ‘what were you thinking when you got the text?’
  • ‘In what way is Ed Milliband like Wallace (of Wallace and Gromit)?’
  • About helicopter parenting
  • How to teach a seminar on workplace democracy
  • Watching my son be fascinated by geese
  • ‘I fancy a beer’
  • Time to put Hal to bed
  • ‘I tell you what: I may have fucked my life up flatter than hammered shit, but I stand before you today beholden to no human cocksucker.’
  • About the children’s book author Judith Kerr
  • About the pleasures of repetition
  • ‘Mmm, ice-cream’
  • Watching my son dance, thinking I should play him more dance music
  • About the meaning of the term ‘harbouring’
  • ‘If I get enough work done this afternoon, I could take tomorrow morning off’
  • What is the past tense of ‘cast’?
  • Is my son ever going to go down for his nap?
  • ‘Amazing sunset’
  • ‘Time to light the fire’
  • About virtue ethics
  • About communally-organised childcare
  • ‘Mmm, noodles’
  • ‘It would be really nice to be able to cycle into work’
  • How to make coleslaw
  • About how to organise essay-planning tutorials next week
  • About how to deal with a student plagiarism case
  • About modernist architecture
  • About how to deal with a failing student
  • Nothing much—walking to stretch my legs
  • About irony in utopias
  • About how to deal with a problem student
  • About government in an online society
  • Is Derrida worth reading?
  • ‘Beautiful evening’
  • About gender in utopias
  • ‘I stayed up too late last night’
  • About how to gently tell a supervisee that her dissertation draft is very weak
  • About moving house
  • About the book I’m writing

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