A 60 year old woman told me today that she lost 10 kg (22 pounds) in the space of one month, without starving herself, etc. Her bloods even look better. Of course, she has a lot to lose (say 30-40 kg), but I just think it’s so amazing when people do actually do it.
I asked her what was the main cause she could identify – giving her a few a few options, such as changing what she eats, exercise, a life event?
I did a 5 hour exam seminar today and one of the things that the students perked their ears up at was the idea of writing not for readers, but for a reader.
This was half way across the country (it’s snowing here). On the train home, in a bout of nostalgic tiredness, I flicked through the blogs of people who I followed 10 years ago and something occurred to me. A lot of bloggers ended up having some kind of successful business, often hingeing on a personal brand. I found an interesting correlation between their business and their friends. It’s painfully obvious, but for me it has been hidden in plain sight for a long time.
They sell the things their friends would buy from them.
And by friends, I don’t mean people who follow them, I mean friends. Real life friends.
So to rephrase the writing canon:
Don’t sell to followers, sell to a follower.
The concept of selling to your friends seems a bit odd at first, but it’s the perfect litmus test of whether what you’re selling is worth buying. I think some people rely on the vastness of the internet to find their product and end up making spammy things that don’t sell, where in reality it’s probably not going to take off unless their friends would buy it from them.
The publisher has been the supplier of good books for her friends. The photographer who became popular has been taking her friends’ photographs for a long time. The lad who has a web development studio developed his friend’s sites. The girl with the jewellery store has been the to-go to person for nice jewellery before she had a bona fide store. My personal experience is congruent with this.
I think it’s a good way to think about small business. Think of a friend: what would you buy from them? What would you sell to them? I had a think of my friends and all they are good for is professional advice and good alcohol. Oh dear, rofl.
The social/economic mechanics of this are obvious and not worth chewing over, but it’s just a good way to think for some people who are thinking of monetising something.
I have a problem: I really don’t like giving up books I started.
Is the solution to read them to the end?
No, because they are either full of mistakes and fakes or mostly because they are shallow.
Is the solution to not read them?
No, because then I’d start living in an echo chamber and that’s bad.
Is there a solution?
Yes: entertain a point of view and be able to throw it in the bin without succumbing to the slavish “it’s in a book, therefore it’s right”.
Does that mean I should read everything?
Absolutely not. For me, the purpose of reading is to come across ideas that I am not familiar with.
I recently asked the Slate Star Codex reddit thread how they choose their books because modern non-fiction has been getting on my nerves. Some good points came up and I will add some of my own (relating to both fiction and non-fiction):
1. The main criterion to optimise for is the product of age and readability
Saw The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck on the best sellers book shelf?
3. If it is on your favourite subject/sub-genre, older than 50 years and still relevant, it’s worth a read
Like Sherlock Holmes? You will probably like Hercule Poirot
4. If the author is a journalist first and foremost, don’t bother with it
Let’s not get political and mention names, but they usually have a lot of interests to defend
5. Authors who spend a lot of time in your part of the world are generally easier to read
Occasionally, for me, reading modern American authors feels like watching an informercial. I mean I really don’t want the first 3 chapters explaining why I should read the book, it’s already in my hands ffs.
6. Sample three random pages in the book: if a paragraph doesn’t make sense, the whole book it unlikely to make sense
This is what I do in book stores. Style is part of substance. When it comes to reading books by academics, this is especially important.
7. If the book itself promises to change your life, destroy as many copies as you can, so that our grandchildren are saved from the intellectual pollution
I could go on a rant, but I won’t.
There are obviously exceptions to the above.
8. Books by the same author seem like a good idea, but this isn’t a reliable rule
J. R. R. Tolkien, for example.
9. Reviews aren’t very important
Arthur explains it well above.
Case in point: The Da Vinci Code is 4.5/5 on Amazon.
“Those who live under the self-imposed pressure to be optimal in their enjoyment of things suffer a measure of distress” – Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Is that because those who put try to optimise for happiness are miserable to begin with – or because optimising is a curse?
Happiness seems to be on everyone’s mind.
Yes, we’re on a quest to be happier and we’re trying to game the system.
No, it may not actually be helpful to overall happiness, who knows.
I decided that I will start this post as my one stop shop for all the quality neuroscience on happiness. I am sure it will be elaborated on, but so far, here is what we all have to know.
Lottery winners aren’t happier right now
Back in 1978, Philip Brickman published a study that has since been replicated many times. Its finding are so significant that if I had my way, it would be on the school curriculum. It’s a deeply unsettling study on many levels, yet it is so fundamental for anyone who has an interest in understand how human beings function.
They had three types of people:
those who recently won a lottery
those who recently lost the ability to move their legs
those who haven’t had any major life events recently
The researchers gathered the happiness ratings for the above groups. The main lesson is that there was no statistically significant difference between the the lottery winners and the control groups in terms of their present happiness.
The accident victims were less presently happy than the controls, but their ideas of their future happiness weren’t significantly different.
Daniel Kahneman described further insights into “What proportion of the day do paraplegics spend in a bad mood?” His answer appears to be that over time, people’s attention is drawn away from the negative change. Exceptions include exposure to loud noise, pain and severe depression.
It seems that the strongest emotions of the winners were also quite short-lived:
“Both contrast and habituation will operate to prevent the winning of a fortune from elevating happiness as much as might be expected. Contrast with the peak experience of winning should lessen the impact of ordinary pleasures, while habituation should eventually reduce the value of new pleasures made possible by winning.”
The scary thing about this research is that it attacks the fundamentals of our culture. When the prince rescues us from the tower or the princess breaks the curse by kissing us (underline as required), after a while, we won’t feel much different than we did before. In general, things may be different, but they probably won’t feel different unless you actively pay attention.
So what’s the point of chasing after achievements if they won’t make you happy? Well, I wouldn’t put it quite like that. They will make you happy every time you think of them: which for most of us isn’t that often. They are meaningful (well, I assume they are meaningful) regardless of how much dopamine they fill you with. So don’t give up just yet.
This brings me to my next point, that happiness is less dependent on reality than it is on constant, internal factors.
Long-term happiness is on a thermostat
There is beautiful symmetry in the brain as it relates to happiness – or at least I ill simplify things to look this way for our purposes today.
The right prefrontal cortex is associated with anxiety, anger and unhappiness.
The left prefrontal cortex, it seems, is active among people who report high levels of happiness.
Measuring the ratio of right to left prefrontal cortex activity is predictive of a person’s happiness level. That’t it. That’s your level of happiness.
So are we doomed? Is this it? Our happiness level is set and that’s it? Thankfully, no. The most effective answer is… drumroll… mindfulness training.
Daniel Goleman has written about Richard Davidson’s research for The New York Times if you want more detail.
Money is somewhat related to happiness still
So does this mean money has no bearing on happiness? Not quite. There was a clear positive relation between income and happiness. Importantly, it is subject to diminishing returns – and earlier than you might think.
According to our good friend Daniel Kahneman, by the time you get up to an annual household income of around $50K, the increases become very small. At $81K, the scores peak (2016 USD). By the way, happiness is cheaper in Alabama and more expensive in New York – just like the cost of living.
Think about – and value – time
There is something relieving about Stoic philosophy. Just like Christianity, it was popular among all social classes. Seneca basically sees death as a relief.
I always thought valuing death is nihilistic, but sometimes I just can’t quite resist the pleasure of acknowledging that death is part of life. Perhaps my happiness doesn’t stem from some strangely happy passive death wish. It seems that focusing on time makes people happier. Here is a HBR interview with the researcher.
Going outside, leaving the urban landscape and spending time in a natural environment makes people happy. Peter Aspinall spent time evading urban Scots here. A more comprehensive meta-analysis of these studies suggests there are strong links between nature and happiness.
I am always so happy when there is research to prove the obvious.
Also, hospital patients who get to look out the window do better.
Apparently, if you can’t escape the urban jungle, viewing natural settings can still help. Nat Geo Wild, here I come.
Body language signals things to the brain, it’s not just the brain signalling things to the body. One of the slickest experiments was designed in way that the subjects didn’t know they were being investigated to assess happiness.
In 1988, Fritz Strack found that people who held a pen between their teeth, which induces a smile, rated cartoons as funnier than did those who held a pen between their lips, which induced a pout, or frown.
It seems, however, that there were questions raised when someone tried to replicate it recently.
Harvard/MassGen psychiatristRobert Waldinger draws an interesting conclusion to one of the longest studies on happiness, carried out at Harvard: “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”
Under this heading, I will very briefly go over the highlights of the neuroscience of good relationships: avoiding negative things is more important than having overwhelmingly positive experiences, no dismissive behaviours and seeking new experiences together.
You’ve heard all about this before.
I won’t bore you.
Imagining being happy
I guess we become what we pretend to be. Nakia Gordon studied what happens to participants who pretend to laugh or pretend to cry.
The results were predictable: thinking about laughing made people happy and thinking about crying made people sad.
Happiness begets happiness
Happy people are more productive, have better memories and better immune function.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. But this time it is really different:
What an uncomfortable graph. Sometimes when things scale, they are just a bigger version of the small thing. However, at times, they also develop new properties. A population of cells becomes an organ – and has new properties. A large teddy bear can be used as a pillow, while a small one cannot.
What can a large human population do that a small one couldn’t? What does it mean for the individual?
The above graph of world population vs time scares me because we’re going into the unknown. In a sense, each one of us is less important. It takes much more to compete. If you are “one in a thousand”, in 1800 that would have got you places. Today, not so much.
What does that mean for individuals? Can such a demand for food, water and energy be met, never mind sustainably? How do we find a place in such a competitive imminently expanding world? Albeit we’re no longer accelerating the growth, the sheer numbers are a little bit unnerving.
Not to fall into conspiracy theories or 1984/Brave New World despair, but for the sake of an analogy, consider cows, or minks, or any other farmed animal. I’ve always felt that breeding animals to kill them is a kind of (?necessary) evil, but it is somehow made better by the fact that they are bred. They don’t have to worry about food and get to have lots of babies. In a roundabout way, they have won in the Darwinian casino.
But then I wondered: if cows and minks are bred for their meat and their fur, are we kind of… bred for economic growth?
Each one of us has to comply with the assertion that success comes from having lots and lots of things in order for this to be perpetuated. Few people look for fame and fortune to exercise some kind of power (if you prefer “change the world”) – and to be fair I have respect for such people.
I get the sense though that to most people, fame and fortune is an end in itself. Furthermore, I suspect it is a product of our culture rather than just hedonism. For a proper first principles hedonist, it would never make sense to work so hard to have things they will never get time to enjoy.
I’ve always found it fascinating that the very people I know from school that were so rebellious that they just wouldn’t comply with the simplest of instruction become exemplars of compliance and obedience when there is a paycheck involved.
It’s someone’s birthday?
“I’ve work tomorrow.”
Can’t stand the sight of the boss?
“I have to go to work.”
Wife giving birth?
“I better get to work, so.”
It seems that no amount of personal problems can stand in the way of being at work. And when it does happen, the rest of the working tribe treats it as some kind of weakness and/or deceit to get out of doing work.
Buckminster Fuller comes to mind:
“We should do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”
“Inspectors of inspectors”… The irony. A friend of mine, a former employee of a multinational once pointed out: we have trackers for trackers. Entire days are spent changing amber to green and red to amber.
Some also theorise that very few jobs require 9-5 x 5 days a week. A lot of time is spent being idle. Why then do the employers insist of you being there? I would argue it isn’t the employer: it’s the culture. Some people won’t take their job seriously if they are given the autonomy to manage their own time (though I always bet on the opposite when looking for people in my own ventures).
If you think about it, it’s kind of disrespectful to insist that someone is there just so that their boss has the option of coopting them into some work engagement. Another interesting (?side) effect is that predictably a person has no strength to create anything outside of work. An eight hour day of being surveyed and judged, a draining commute, an uncomfortable suit and a toilet seat you cannot sit on… As Taleb puts it:
“In short, every organization wants a certain number of people associated with it to be deprived of a certain share of their freedom. How do you own these people? First, by conditioning and psychological manipulation; second by tweaking them to have some skin in the game, forcing them to have something significant to lose if they were to disobey authority –something hard to do with gyrovague beggars who flouted they scorn of material possessions.”
I wonder if it is becoming harder, though, to be a gyrating roaming monk (these days they have a Mac and are called digital nomads) given that the population is growing. Is there room to be an individual? Nietzsche has his concerns:
“Those who commend work. – In the glorification of ‘work’, in the unwearied talk of the ‘blessing of work’, I see the same covert idea as in the praise of useful impersonal actions: that of fear of everything individual. Fundamentally, one now feels at the sight of work – one always means by work that hard industriousness from early till late – that such work is the best policeman, that it keeps everyone in bounds and can mightily hinder the development of reason, covetousness, desire for independence. For it uses up an extraordinary amount of nervous energy, which is thus denied to reflection, brooding, dreaming, worrying, loving, hating; it sets a small goal always in sight and guarantees easy and regular satisfactions. Thus a society in which there is continual hard work will have more security: and security is now worshipped as the supreme divinity. – And now! Horror! Precisely the ‘worker’ has become dangerous! The place is swarming with ‘dangerous individuals’! And behind them the danger of dangers – the individual!”
It’s pretty clear that Nietzsche’s talking about institutional employment.
This essay of mine isn’t about robbing the rich or some other way of getting out of work. It’s not promoting Zuckerberg’s universal basic income. It’s about the fact that work is indeed glorified. Much of what is called work is being trapped in purposelessness.
And it’s not even work that is glorified: nobody cares about the labour of a painter who hasn’t (yet) made their hobby into a job or a blogger, or whoever. It is the stamp of approval from some institution that people really respect. Perhaps, it is just easier to relate to.
I suppose, being Russian, I can’t help but be reminded of how easily institutions fail. Countless Russian firms have risen to unbelievable heights and quickly died in the last 20 years. Even the USSR itself: seeing such a behemoth collapse shatters one’s faith in institutions.
And it wasn’t even that weak, with real industry and gargantuan natural resources. In a completely different context, where I am now – Ireland – also has become a State and gone through a couple of different names in the XX century. That empire disappeared too.
Nietzsche above and Taleb (in multiple works) have spoken about this security that people look for. The security that people trade a portion of their freedom for. Clearly though, it is an illusion. Remember 2008?
Meanwhile, the seaside restaurant beside me boasts having been established in 1728. Chin chin, Mr Taleb, and chin chin to everyone being creative and working hard to not lose your individuality among the impending billions.
In the professional medical world, Medscape is probably the most trusted up to date online resource. I am delighted to see that yesterday they published an article that highlights some of the more challenging and distressing aspects of meditation based on a recent scientific paper in PLOS One.
The reason I am so glad is that it means we’re moving to a different approach to meditation, one with more well-warranted rigour in how people talk about this intervention and away from the perception that this is something without side-effects.
Crux of the study:
the challenging aspects of Buddhist-derived meditation practices are well described in Buddhist tradition but are less so in Western scientific literature
the researchers interviewed nearly 100 meditators and meditation teachers from each of three main traditions: Theravāda, Zen, and Tibetan.
the researchers developed a taxonomy of 59 experiences organised into seven domains: cognitive, perceptual, affective (emotions and moods), somatic (relating to the body), conative (motivation or will), sense of self, and social.
all meditators reported multiple unexpected experiences across the seven domains of experience.
the duration of the effects people described in their interviews varied widely, ranging from a few days to months to more than a decade, the investigators report.
some meditators reported their feelings, even the desirable ones, went too far or lasted too long, or they felt violated, exposed, or disoriented.
meditation experiences that felt positive during retreats sometimes persisted and interfered with their ability to function or work when they left the retreat and returned to normal life.
the meditator’s practice intensity, psychiatric history, trauma history and the quality of supervision are important factors that influence the meditators experience, but not for everyone.
the study highlights that the one size fits all approach isn’t ideal: “The good news is that there are many different programs out there and different practices available, and with a little bit of homework and informed shopping, someone could find a really good match for what they are after,” she said. “But I think often people just sign up for whatever is the most convenient or the best marketed, and it’s not always a good match for their constitution or their goals.”
Dissecting the side effects
Here are the reported side effects with the percentage of people who reported them in brackets:
It’s fascinating to note that nearly 50% noted a change in worldview. Open mind, new philosophy – fair enough. I would be on the fence about saying that I have a different world view because of meditation. It’s clearer, it’s calmer, it’s more adaptable, but it’s not really changed. Thus, it is possible that people who try to meditate are often looking for a new worldview or are quite suggestible.
Nearly the same number of people reported delusional, irrational and paranormal beliefs! I guess this is all based on Buddhism and there is a strong religious element to it. However, people were clearly made uncomfortable by it. I certainly experienced this: this is why I tread carefully when I go exploring meditation resources. A huge number of them are zealous, either for reasons of unquestioning devotion, or commercial ones. Snake oil requires faith.
Again, over 40% reported hallucinations. Just as a reminder – delusions and hallucinations are the key ingredients of psychosis and good reason to admit someone to a psychiatric ward. Obviously, these must not be quite as persistent as those associated with psychiatric disease, but if I had seen this table before starting mindfulness, I would have thought much more carefully. In this sample, 32% of people had a prior psychiatric history. This doesn’t explain how common all these DSM-sounding symptoms are among them.
Fear, anxiety, panic or paranoia came up for over 80% of people. I think is more a reflection on the sample than on meditation. Why to people meditate? Often they come upon it as a cure for anxiety. Indeed, in my experience, besides actually getting rid of the anxiogenic stimulus, meditation is a great method to deal with it. Depression was very common too at over 50%. Anhedonia and avolition – being unable to experience pleasure and not having any desire to do anything – are hallmarks of depression and were experienced by 18%. Personally, anxiety has always accompanied meditation in some way or another, but not in a bad way. It’s a little bit like saying that exercise cause shortness of breath. However, panic and paranoia are step to far.
Where there are mood changes, there are autonomic function changes and indeed they seem to have been affected too: level of energy, quality of sleep, appetite, etc. It’s unfortunate to note that many of those changes were negative with common reports of fatigue and pain.
As expected, 75% of meditators had their mind bent by Buddhist approaches to the self. We also know from MRI studies, that the anatomical self, seated in default mode network is modified by meditation, so this is expected.
To meditate or not? Meditate, but proceed with caution, a healthy balance of open-mindedness and scepticism – and preferably with supervision. In the words of Dr Walsh, it’s important to be challenged, but not overwhelmed.
As for me, I often take breaks from meditation. If it’s not happening, I don’t force myself too much. Thirty seconds of mindfulness is better than ten minutes of desperate striving effort and then feeling exposed, lonely and inadequate. To give it a Buddhist twist, we can think of the experience as if it is the weather. You may have decided that you are jogging today, but if it is stormy outside, it’s better to be a bit more adaptable, stay at home and practice your planks. Same here.
Lindahl JR, Fisher NE, Cooper DJ, Rosen RK, Britton WB (2017) The varieties of contemplative experience: A mixed-methods study of meditation-related challenges in Western Buddhists. PLoS ONE 12(5): e0176239. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0176239
P.S. Have a look at this Christian blogger explaining the emotional conflict she experienced when exploring yoga. It’s not important to be religious to understand that imposing one system of beliefs over another, whatever it may be, can be highly distressing.