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All My Cat Needed to Know He Learned at Harvard

“All I really needed to know, I learned from my cat.” “All I really needed to know, I learned in Kindergarten.” “All I really needed to know, I learned from my hamster.” Share. Play well with others. Take naps in the sun. Put things back where you found them. Advice like this sells millions of books.


But advice like that only gets you so far. I need more. I need a new book with more sophisticated insights. I’ve gone beyond the wisdom contained in these Kindergarten / Cat / Hamster books. I understand that it’s good to share, not because I read the book, but because I’m not a mean person. And I actually discovered the value of naps on my own, through trial and error.  

Frankly, I’m disappointed. When I got to college, I became more disappointed. I took classes in Political Science and Economics, and so I read expensive textbooks full of long chapters with conclusions such as: “people buy less of something when the price increases” (the Law of Demand) or “the rich and well-connected have a disproportionate influence on American politics” (Classical Elite Theory). 


I didn’t know any better back then – to just get up and leave – so instead I sat there taking notes with an intelligent frown on my face, finding layers of unintended meaning in phrases such as “people tend to vote for the candidate they like better” or “the more likeable candidate usually wins.” The really good professors could talk for hours about a sentence like this: “Yes, that’s fine, but what do we really mean by likeable? Are we assuming a Utilitarian framework, or should we assert such subjective criteria in a Rawlsian world? If so, how do we operationalize subjective concepts such as ‘win’? Class, next week, we’ll begin to deconstruct a working definition of ‘people,’ so please read that chapter.”

In graduate school, I studied complex theories of international relations; one theory was actually called “Complex Interdependence Theory,” purporting to be so complex it needed the very adjective in its title, just as a warning. I think more academic subjects ought to have descriptive adjectives in their titles, so students really know what they’re getting into: “Abstract and Paradoxical General Physics;” “Dense and Confusing Organic Chemistry;” “Highly Irrelevant Latin.” When I learned what Complex Interdependence Theory really was, I was disappointed yet again. It wasn’t so complex after all. In fact it was just like Classical Elite Theory – breathtakingly obvious, once you removed the layers of academic bureaucratese. The theory was created by two professors from Harvard and Princeton, and it suggests that countries that trade with each other are less likely to go to war with each other. Stated another way in case you don’t grasp the concept: countries like the United States and Canada are less likely to attack each other because doing so would be bad for their economies.


I think we need more social scientific theories declaring the obvious, so let me suggest a few: “Standard Population Diffusion Theory” – this suggests that when there is a crowd of people, people will tend to move towards less crowded areas. “Classical Expense Theory” suggests that consumers will generally spend more money when they have more money to spend. Thanks to “Consumer Preference Analysis,” we now know that people tend to purchase goods that they like, while avoiding items that they dislike.


Universities have gotten very good at complexity, and simple common sense is getting lost amidst the abstract dissertations and esoteric lectures. We have an avalanche of dense and multilayered knowledge with pages of footnotes, while actual wisdom is becoming quite rare. Perhaps this is why simple books that deal in simple truths are so popular; they satisfy something that has been otherwise missing – they provide wisdom, not just information. And they use smaller words. “All I Need to Know I Learned From My Cat” does not purport to advance the frontiers of theoretical knowledge, but it does unabashedly proclaim to offer practical advice on living your life – something that is painfully lacking in the modern university, with a few notable exceptions.


A new class at Harvard University entitled “Positive Psychology” provides students with nuts and bolts suggestions on how to be a happier person. Not surprisingly, it is the most popular course on campus. Now, you don’t need advice from your cat – you can actually get it in college. But “All I Really Needed to Know I Learned at Harvard” doesn’t sound quite so egalitarian. It was fairer when all you needed was a cat. We now have Harvard professors competing with cats in the advice department. And so the question begs itself: who has the better advice? The answer is not as obvious as you might think; the Harvard Professor actually manages to hold his own when stacked up against the cat.


Let’s look at the advice we’re getting from each camp.


Tovia Smith, of National Public Radio, outlines the key points of the “Positive Psychology” course taught by Harvard University Professor Tal Ben-Shahar:


1. Give yourself permission to be human.


2. Happiness lies at the intersection between pleasure and meaning.


3. Keep in mind that happiness is mostly dependent on our state of mind, not on our status or the state of our bank account.


4. Simplify!


5. Remember the mind-body connection.


6. Express gratitude, whenever possible.


That’s pretty good. I was kind of hoping for another long-winded declaration of the obvious, so I could just dismiss academia once and for all. But that’s not what we’re getting from this class. The ideas are surprisingly fresh and real.


Now let’s look at the advice we’re getting from the cat. Here are some excerpts from Suzy Becker’s book, “All I Need to Know I Learned From My Cat:” (Workman, 1990)


“Know all the sunny places.”


“Get mad when you’re stepped on.”


“Take some time to eat the flowers.”


“Be tolerant-but not overly accommodating.”


“Make your own hours.”


“Scratch when it itches.”


“Depend on others without losing your independence.”


“Avoid company you do not like.”


“Be good at hellos.”


“Don’t drag out goodbyes.”


“Don’t think too far beyond your next meal.”


“Celebrate the days you can open the windows.”


“First one in has to warm up the bed.”


That’s just a sample. The cat has ninety lessons like this, throughout the course of the book. What strikes me first is that the cat has a lot more to say than the Harvard professor. The Harvard professor summarized his entire course with six short bullet points, while the cat goes on for ninety pages, with a new edition including forty eight additional pages of advice. I never thought this would be the case, but the cat is more verbose than the professor. But in all fairness, I doubt that the entire book was actually written by the cat. The cat owner, Suzy Becker, gives credit to her Holstein Cat Binky for these insights, but I think we all know that Binky probably only wrote about half of the book, if that.


The Harvard professor tells us first that we should “give ourselves permission to be human.” Binky the cat never mentions this, as far as I can tell. Binky might have said, “Give yourself permission to be cat,” but that wouldn’t have resonated with most people. The cat tells us that we should “Know all the sunny places,” and “Get mad when we’re stepped on,” while the Harvard professor suggests that “Happiness lies at the intersection between pleasure and meaning.” Sunny places are good, and being stepped on is definitely bad, so the cat is clearly on to something, but the Harvard professor is now telling us the very location of happiness. Where is it? “It lies at the intersection between pleasure and meaning.” Nice. Binky never tells the reader where happiness lies. But Binky definitely points the reader in the right direction with “Take some time to eat the flowers,” and “Celebrate the days you can open the windows.” I like that. I always celebrate when my cat opens the window. And while the Harvard professor has nothing to say about eating flowers, he does tell us to “express gratitude, whenever possible,” and I assume that would include all the moments in our lives when we’re not being stepped on.


So, who has the better advice? Who should we listen to? Actually, they both have a lot of good things to say. They just say them in different ways, being of different species and education levels. The down-home common sense of Binky the cat is just as prescient as the well-researched and thoroughly foot-noted lectures of the professor. What is remarkable is that the university is no longer just imparting knowledge to its students; it has entered the new and controversial field of common sense. And in this field, academia is quite the freshman. But at least Harvard can now match wits with a cat. And that is quite remarkable. And for that, we should express gratitude, because gratitude is good for happiness, according to Harvard University.


Of course, many people are not grateful for this. Many people are still very unhappy. And some would argue, with a very ungrateful expression on their face, that universities shouldn’t teach such “fluffy” things like “Simplify!” and “Express Gratitude!” “That’s so obvious! So basic! It’s common sense – it has no place in a university.” Students should be studying serious subjects like Economics, where they learn more sophisticated concepts like: “People buy more of something when the price decreases.”


We do need college level Economics courses to tell us why we buy more of something when the price decreases. But we also need a forward thinking Harvard Professor and one very wise cat to tell us how to be grateful when buying much, much less.


Carl McCoy, copyright 2011

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