Avoiding burnout: lessons learned from a 19th century philosopher

You’re hard at work writing code: you need to ship a feature on time, or release a whole new product, and you’re pouring all your time and energy into it, your heart and your soul. And then, an uninvited and dangerous question insinuates itself into your consciousness.

If you succeed, if you ship your code, if you release your product, will you be happy? Will all your time and effort be worth it?

And you realize the answer is “no”. And suddenly your work is worthless, your goals are meaningless. You just can’t force yourself to work on something that doesn’t matter.

Why bother? Why work at all?

This is not a new experience. Almost 200 years ago, John Stuart Mill went through this crisis. And being a highly verbose 19th century philosopher, he also wrote a highly detailed explanation how he managed to overcome what we would call depression or burnout.

And this explanation is useful not just to his 19th century peers, but to us programmers as well.

“Intellectual enjoyments above all”

At the core of Mill’s argument is the idea that rational thought, “analysis” he calls it, is corrosive: “a perpetual worm at the root both of the passions and of the virtues”. He never rejected rational thought, but he concluded that on its own it was insufficient, and potentially dangerous.

Mill’s education had, from an early age, focused him solely on rational analysis. As a young child Mill was taught by his father to understand—not just memorize—Greek, arithmetic, history, mathematics, political economy, far more than even many well-educated adults learned at the time. And since he was taught at home without outside influences, he internalized his father’s ideas prizing intellect over emotions.

In particular, Mill’s father “never varied in rating intellectual enjoyments above all others… For passionate emotions of all sorts, and for everything which has been said or written in exaltation of them, he professed the greatest contempt.” Thus Mill learned to prize rational thought and analysis over other feelings, as many programmers do—until he discovered the cost of focusing on those alone.

“The dissolving influence of analysis”

One day, things went wrong:

I was in a dull state of nerves, such as everybody is occasionally liable to; unsusceptible to enjoyment or pleasurable excitement; one of those moods when what is pleasure at other times, becomes insipid or indifferent…

In this frame of mind it occurred to me to put the question directly to myself: “Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, “No!”

From this point on Mill suffered from depression, for months on end. And being of an analytic frame of mind, he was able to intellectually diagnose his problem.

On the one hand, rational logical thought is immensely useful in understanding the world: “it enables us mentally to separate ideas which have only casually clung together”. But this ability to analyze also has its costs, since “the habit of analysis has a tendency to wear away the feelings”. In particular, analysis “fearfully undermine all desires, and all pleasures”.

Why should this make you happy? You try to analyze it logically, and eventually conclude there is no reason it should—and now you’re no longer happy.

“Find happiness by the way”

Eventually an emotional, touching scene in a book he was reading nudged Mill out of his misery, and when he fully recovered he changed his approach to life in order to prevent a recurrence.

Mill’s first conclusion was that happiness is a side-effect, not a goal you can achieve directly, nor verify directly by rational self-interrogation. Whenever you ask yourself “can I prove that I’m happy?” the self-consciousness involved will make the answer be “no”. Instead of choosing happiness as your goal, you need to focus on some other thing you care about:

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.

It’s worth noticing that Mill is suggesting focusing on something you actually care about. If you’re spending your time working on something that meaningless to you, you will probably have a harder time of it.

“The internal culture of the individual”

Mill’s second conclusion was that logical thought and analysis are not enough on their own. He still believed in the value of “intellectual culture”, but he also aimed to become a more balanced person by “the cultivation of the feelings”. And in particular, he learned the value of “poetry and art as instruments of human culture”.

For example, Mill discovered Wordsworth’s poetry:

These poems addressed themselves powerfully to one of the strongest of my pleasurable susceptibilities, the love of rural objects and natural scenery; to which I had been indebted not only for much of the pleasure of my life, but quite recently for relief from one of my longest relapses into depression….

What made Wordsworth’s poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a Source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings…

Both nature and art cultivate the feelings, an additional and distinct way of being human beyond logical analysis:

The intensest feeling of the beauty of a cloud lighted by the setting sun, is no hindrance to my knowing that the cloud is vapour of water, subject to all the laws of vapours in a state of suspension…

The practice of happiness

Mill’s advice is not a universal panacea; among other flaws, it starts from a position of immense privilege. But I do think Mill hits on some important points about what it means to be human.

If you wish to put it into practice, here is Mill’s advice, insofar as I can summarize it (I encourage you to go and read his Autobiography on your own):

  1. Aim in your work not for happiness, but for a goal you care about: improving the world, or even just applying and honing a skill you value.
  2. Your work—and the rational thought it entails—will not suffice to make you happy; rational thought on its own will undermine your feelings.
  3. You should therefore also cultivate your feelings: through nature, and through art.

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