Overcoming Helplessness: Advice from William James

More than a century ago, William James explained how to combat passivity.

Posted Mar 23, 2020

With the mandated changes to our daily routines wrought by COVID-19, it’s easy to fall into passivity. After all, there’s little we can do to restore our normal schedule of work, socializing, shopping, exercising, and many other activities we took for granted until just a few days ago. And the negative health and financial news both contribute to our feeling of helplessness. 

The psychological problem is that passiveness feeds on itself and reduces our capacity to initiate meaningful pursuits, even when we’re symptom-free or coping well physically with the illness. The result is a swift slide into anxious, chronic boredom and such detrimental concomitants as over-eating.   

So how to sustain mindfulness and a high level of self-awareness? William James, founder of American psychology and our country’s greatest philosopher, has insights to guide us—particularly in his speech before the American Philosophical Society at Columbia University in 1906. Titled “The Energies of Men,” it remains one of his most important statements in a far-reaching career that still impacts psychology today and has special relevance to the millions of us now confined to our homes. This speech exemplifies the fact that James was a pragmatic visionary—always seeking to make philosophy relevant to actual human experience. 

“Everyone is familiar with the phenomenon of feeling more or less alive on different days,” James observed. “Everyone knows on any given day that there are energies slumbering [within] which the incitements of that day do not call forth, but which {one] might display if these were greater… No one knows exactly what the term energy covers when used here… [Yet] to have its level raised is the most important thing that can happen to {us].” 

Later in the same speech, James argued more broadly that, “Most of us feel as if we lived habitually with a sort of cloud weighing on us, below our highest notch of clearness in discernment, sureness in reasoning, or firmness in deciding… We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.” 

What’s the solution? In James’ view, it lies in strengthening the will. By deliberately fortifying our willpower, we can prevent or minimize the tendency to passivity—and “the degrees of fatigue which we have come only from habit to obey.” James recommended such activities requiring daily practice as hatha yoga, raja yoga (involving meditation, often with special breathing), and Ignatius Loyola’s spiritual exercises. James was so enamored with yoga training that he devoted a considerable part of this speech to quoting his friend’s laudatory letter about its efficacy in “breaking through the barriers which life’s routine had concreted round the deeper strata of the will, and gradually bringing its unused energies into action.”

Intriguingly, James also praised a then-recent story, “An Empire Builder,” by Sydney Olivier (a leading socialist thinker and uncle of the great British film star Laurence Olivier) depicting how romantic love can also mobilize the human will to great effect. Quite a mysterious “fable” as James called it, “An Empire Builder” reflected its author’s view that willpower allied with altruism has the capacity to “steer the visible destinies of the world" and evoke “the elemental infinities of deliverance.”

What does this mean in concrete terms? Namely that the ability to express love and affection (aside from practicing yoga or another spiritual discipline) may be an important way to strengthen willpower now in a time when the 24/7 news cycle undermines and weakens it. Fortunately, I’m already noticing this phenomenon happening—an example, perhaps, of what Maslow called the “natural wisdom” of our inner makeup. Specifically, I’m seeing people renew their friendships and deepen their acquaintanceships (necessarily through the internet rather than face-to-face contact) as work loses its dominance in their daily lives.   

A final note: James’ emphasis on the importance of strengthening willpower had wide resonance in the early 1900s. However, the notion of the “will” quickly disappeared from psychology and wider American culture with the rise of psychoanalysis; the Freudians had persuasively argued that personality is ruled by unconscious impulses. Interestingly, though, the concept of mindfulness versus “auto-pilot functioning” advanced by Dr. Ellen Langer of Harvard University has re-introduced the notion of willpower back into popular thinking. In this sense, James would have certainly endorsed Langer’s contention that overcoming our “autopilot” tendency is essential for optimal living—perhaps especially so in these challenging times.