But five conversations in particular really stuck out to me. They were the ones that challenged me the most, or got me thinking in a new way about a difficult problem or provocative idea.
There’s no unifying thread tying all these conversations together, but each of them, in its own way, left a strong impression on me. One of my favorites was with author Michael Pollan about his fascinating new book on the science of psychedelic drugs. If you’re interested in mental health and the therapeutic potential of psychedelics, this is the interview for you.
My interview with Yale philosopher Erica Benner about what the writings of 16th-century Italian writer Niccolò Machiavelli can teach us about Trump and liberal democracy was fascinating and definitely worth a read. I also really enjoyed talking to business professor Carl Cederström about how capitalism and the individualistic culture it promotes has made us less happy.
Whether you’re interested in science or politics or philosophy, there’s something in these conversations for you. So without further ado, here are the five most interesting conversations I had this year.
“People struggling with addiction and depression are disconnected from the world and from other people. They fall into these loops of rumination and get stuck, and after a while, reality is blocked out and they’re trapped. These drugs seem to lower our defenses and foster a sense of connection with others and with nature. There is still so much to learn about how and why they do this, but it’s pretty clear that they do.” —Michael Pollan, author of How to Change Your Mind
“We’re in this weird situation in which people have to come to rely on government more and more, and at the same time government has required less and less of people. Now, you’d expect this to mean that people’s attitudes toward government have become favorable, but the opposite is true.” —Suzanne Mettler, author of The Government-Citizen Disconnect
“When people start to see themselves as rivals to the death, as groups with divergent interests and visions of society with no compatibility, you can’t sustain a democracy. Civil conflict was a central concern of his for that reason. When you look at societies like America and Britain and various other liberal democracies you see the kinds of cracks that Machiavelli warned about — and it ought to trouble us.” —Erica Benner, author of Be Like Fox: Machiavelli in His World
“The idea of happiness we now have, this pursuit of authenticity and personal freedom, may have once been a genuinely noble goal, but over time, these values have been co-opted and transformed and used to normalize a deeply unjust and undesirable situation. There really is no way to accurately compare happiness today with happiness 50 or 100 years ago, but this mania for individual satisfaction and this idea that buying and collecting more stuff will make us happy has produced a spectacularly unequal world, and it has, in my opinion, left people less fulfilled and more empty inside.” —Carl Cederström, author of The Happiness Fantasy
“I think the neo-Nazis who went to Charlottesville had to be reminded that we won’t stand for this, that we won’t allow them to be normalized. White supremacists needed to know that they aren’t a majority, that this is not the country they want it to be — not today, not ever.” —Daryle Jenkins, self-appointed spokesperson for Antifa