Addicted to headphones

As soothers are to toddlers, headphones are to anyone who has given up their soother. As someone who’s trying to incorporate as much mindfulness as possible into my life, I was wondering why listening to music is so addictive. Anytime I leave the house I get a little rush – mmm, headphone time! The gym is great for listening to music too. Weights seem lighter and the treadmill moves in slow motion to David Guetta.


Having learnt about the rush on dopamine that’s associated with anticipation and how it makes our daydreams addictive, I’ve become intrigues as to what behaviours of mine are affected by this. I think my craving for the bass to drop is the same.

It all began when I started exercising. As well as being phenomenally good for me, it has turned into an exercise in escapism. When I hear my favourite tracks, my mind always wonders to the good times I had with my friends and all those associated daydreams. Essentially, listening to music has become an augmented day dream for me.

It seemed near impossible to leave my phone behind as I went for my evening walk. It genuinely felt like saying goodbye at the airport as your best friend is leaving for Australia (that would be a remote location relative to me!) I did. And it was a very nice walk. I noticed the shops that I passed by, I noticed some cool constellation – still no idea what it is – and I even helped someone with directions. Most of all, however, I was able to think more clearly. 

My yearning for the headphones is a case of classical conditioning. Once the music is on, my thoughts are off to a nice place – away from here. They go in a circle and never reach anything. This time – walking without headphones was different – I was more aware of what was around me – and in my own head. I came home and wrote some interesting notes down about a question that had been bothering me before hand. All of these occurred while I was walking – in relative silence.

I would argue that it is good to give up the headphones once in a while. Maybe even most of the time. Listening to music is different for different people, but for me it is a way to run away from my current state into a safe place. It’s necessary sometimes, but most of us probably overdo it.

On the value of stress

Being a big fan of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, I read his new article today. It relates to the significance of extreme events. In short, Taleb says that it’s not the high rep low intensity exercise that builds strength, but rather the extremely high difficult exercise. He compares it to assessing the strengths of a bridge: you need to test it using the heaviest vehicles – rather than driving a normal car back and forth on it lap after lap.

nassim nicholas taleb on stress

In his book Antifragile, Taleb discusses the useful of stress. He talks about how people create great things by, in the best possible sense of the word, overcompensating for their shortcomings.

Taleb’s concept of the usefulness of stress is really helpful when you are experiencing stress. It won’t all have been for nothing. People often bring up Nietzsche: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. The disheartening thing about this quote is that it’s out of context and misunderstood. Nietzsche said that if you manage to make it through, it means you were strong to begin with.

Stress does make you stronger, up to a point. Rather than resenting the fact that I am going through stress, this thought helps me focus on the way in which it will all make sense in the end.

When the going gets tough

A few days ago, for the first time in years, I found myself in a horrible mood – completely out of the blue. On reflection, I got into it through comparing myself to someone else, being inflexible and impatient under the pressure of my own big dreams. Had I not known better, I would have thought I was suicidal. I was thinking of how I owe it to the people who love me to keep going. I knew that I felt like this before. Because of that, cognitively, I knew it would pass. Cognitively, I knew that the kind of words that were floating around in my head were only words that clumsily tried to explain how much pain I was in. All the same, it was a really dark three or four hours of self-hatred and hopelessness. It was made worse by the vicious cycle of feeling guilty and weak for feeling bad.

Cognitively, I knew that the faster I interrupt this horrible mood, the better. Bad moods beget more bad moods. At this point, I stopped judging myself for feeling bad, acknowledged that this is simply the way it is – good or bad – and it’s time to get myself out of this horrible state. But how? How do you get yourself out of this mood swamp? Common wisdom would say: look for support. I couldn’t fathom talking to anyone. I know now that it’s silly, but there was no arguing with the upset-me. Common wisdom would say: try and feel grateful for what you have rather than feel bad about what’s missing. That just seemed like some kind of evil joke.

I want to die

The answer, as always, came from asking the right question. The question I asked was: What’s useful about this? I knew this lesson from before. I’ve even written about it here. It just goes to show that these lessons aren’t only cognitive. It takes time and iterations to learn them. Even with all my knowledge, it took me a bit of digging around to find where the right button was.

What was useful about it? I knew that I need time to look after myself. In and of itself, that was useful information. I looked back and wondered what upset me – I learn from that too. It wasn’t the first time that being super focused and not flexible enough got me into trouble like this. However, rather than judging, I will just take this is another data point and another note to self: be more flexible. This is high level theory, but I’ve already implemented measures that would make it easier for me to be more flexible. I also realised that today wasn’t a good day to do any work. My alarm bells went off – I am glad that I don’t have to work?! Rather than accusing myself of laziness, I dug deeper. I was doing something  important, repetitive – and boring. It was super easy. I am sure many people don’t mind those kind of tasks, but I can’t handle them at all. My relentless focus on doing what needs to be done got me into a situation where I couldn’t play to my strengths. So here’s another lesson: doing things that don’t come naturally for too long isn’t sustainable. I think that’s valuable as next time I will be able to assign who does what and when better.

As I am writing this, I am able to not just hope that that horrible feeling never happened – I feel grateful that I learnt from it. I really mean it. It’s all about learning, progress, small wins and getting closer to the person you want to become. And not judging.

The truth is, it’s highly unusual for me to get upset. I wasn’t just born this way though. There was one thing that made me go from super sensitive to where I am now. When I say super sensitive, I mean if the person who poured my coffee in the morning looked at me wrong – I would feel uneasy for hours. What made the difference for me wasn’t some sort of soul searching or even mindfulness – it was straight up physical exercise. I don’t know whether it is just the flood of endorphins, but it really helps with the art of just not giving af when appropriate. Exercise is the one thing that makes the biggest difference to both mental and physical health for a healthy person.

what to do when you feel awful

There was some cognitive work too, but it would never have happened without the initial boost through exercise. The cognitive work was something like this: the barista doesn’t care about you, you are just a person with an order and a wallet. They are in their own world. It’s not personal. They are just trying to get through the day the best they can. I think there’s a word for that – it’s called empathy. Exercise isn’t known to cause empathy, what’s going on here? Exercise requires focus, so in a sense, it requires mindfulness. Maybe that’s part of it. In any case – in my unblinded non-randomised non-controlled trial of n=1, it works.

The pain of dreaming big

Every commencement speech tells you to dream big. I want to clarify that dreaming big specifically relates to who you become – not what you have. Fantasising about Ferraris doesn’t count. In this model, they are a possible side effect of delivering something valuable to the world.

Dreaming big comes naturally to those who are ambitious, but some people don’t. Why don’t they? Freud is my friend here. Not dreaming big is less painful than dreaming big. Big accomplishments come with increased responsibility, hassle and resentful friends. Nobody likes those things. I think every human being can relate to this. At the same time, convincing yourself that something that is out of reach isn’t worth it has a name. In Ancient Rome, they called it sour grapes. Literally, the expression comes from this: you cannot reach the grapes, so you convince yourself that they are sour – so you don’t have to keep reaching. It’s a form of nihilism: “it’s not worth it anyway.” Personally, I never suffered from this. Grapes are yummy. However, I have another issue.

is it better to dream big or be realistic

Dreaming big focuses on the future. It stretches you. It sets a vision on what should be in your head. However, when you snap out of the big dream – it really hurts. Looking at reality will inevitably cause you to question what is responsible for the discrepancy. This may be another reason that stops people from dreaming big. Furthermore, even if you have the audacity to dream big, feeling bad about yourself in this manner hampers your chances of achieving your dream.

Happiness is most certainly a function of expectations, not reality. In fact, to make it nice and mechanical, let’s (over)simplify: Happiness = reality – expectations.

It is easy to be happy if you have no sense of entitlement. This is a nice way of saying it. It is stoicism in a sentence. Let’s try this: it is easy to be happy if you have low expectations. Hmmm. This calls into question the idea of dreaming big. It seems that reality hurts more when you have big dreams as happiness becomes a negative “number”. While there is technically a difference between a dream and an expectation, but I think for anyone who really believes in their dreams, it is kind of the same thing.

The only solution I can think of is patience. Patience means that you don’t expect is all and expect it now. I recall dreaming of being a doctor. I knew no bigger dream at the time. It didn’t hurt so much when I was 17 and on track – though the dream was still only a dream. It becomes more complex when you are an adult. When you see others who achieve humongous things at an exceptionally young age, when you start comparing yourself to others – your patience seems to die a sudden death. For me, thinking about Mark Zuckerberg or the chap who came up with Snapchat makes me feel like I am already late to the party.

is it better to dream or not

Another bit of common wisdom comes to mind – don’t not compare yourself to others. Is it good advice? Comparing yourself to others is part of understanding reality. I believe that self-awareness and awareness of reality are paramount – hence my interest in mindfulness. So comparing yourself to others it’s at least in part useful. However, it has to be balanced with feeling good about yourself – I don’t think anyone ever achieved anything through hating themselves. In fact, comparing yourself to others could even be pleasant – look at you doing better than some of your classmates. Twisted, but true. Apparently, that’s the same mechanism behind people watching the Kardashians being ridiculous. I don’t know. I’ve never gone there. Looking up to a role model – our fundamental way of learning – is a form of comparing yourself to others, only here you strongly believe that one day you can become a version of this person.

I think it is good advice in the sense that in the long run, you’re only ever fighting against your former self. If you are trending upwards, it doesn’t really matter where you rank in the short term.

Lastly, it is important to get good at dealing with failure. It is my rule that if something hurts too much – a rejection, a failure, whatever – I am taking it personally. The only way to approach this is like a game. A sort of hobby. The moment you begin to take it personally, you lost. There is a temptation, especially among overachievers, to bet their self-esteem on achievements. Bad idea. Just like in negotiating – you should never put yourself in a situation where you can’t walk away from a deal. The way to do that when it comes to expectations is to remember that you are distinct from your mission – no matter how much you love it.

After all, dreaming big is about who you become. Winning is a long game, so big dreams, patience and a good understanding of reality will be required.

To-solve list, not to-do list

As an ENTP, I abhor repetitive tasks. The reason I say this now is that I am writing up solutions to an Economics exam for my education venture. It is taking forever. Every distraction seems like a lifeboat out of this gloom. I usually only deal with English – that’s how the whole thing started. I love English because it is creative. I love Maths because it requires hard logic and open-mindedness – which is kind of like being creative, though a little different. Having said that, school Maths puts a cap on how creative you need to be. English doesn’t. You can write an essay on Hamlet that’s the best in the world. However, a quadratic equation is just that. School Maths doesn’t ask hard enough questions. Even still, most other school subjects are even more repetitive – case in point here with Economics. Obviously, real life economics is as complex  and interesting as anything, but school has a way of putting creativity in a cage. The good news is that English seems to be exempt from this rule.

to solve list not to do list

This got me thinking about how to handle repetitive tasks, or anything nagging in general. I try to have a to-do list to put some kind of structure on my day, it feels like a warden watching over me. I just don’t like the feeling. When I don’t cross something off the list on the day it was meant to be done, it reappears the next day like a zombie-stalker. It’s an even worse feeling. I certainly don’t feel enticed to do this to-do.

The key to a to-do list is to find the leading domino. What is the most important task? What task will make the biggest difference to the future? What task will the make the other tasks irrelevant? Clearly, a to-do list requires more than execution – it requires judgement if you are going to do it well. Furthermore, to-do’s are just fragments of bigger plans. Their relevance deteriorates faster than than the value of a brand new car. Obviously, the to-do’s arise from a plan on how to solve problems and achieve goals. However, whether they address the problem today – isn’t always clear. To-do lists, unless used with care, can be a right recipe to be super busy while you are getting nowhere fast.

I think there is something to be said for playing to your strengths. On that note, how about have a list of problems to solve, not things to do? After all, to-do’s come easily, once you know what you are focusing on. It makes you think, solve, be creative – and be in control. Motivation is all about control. After that you can actually do – execute. This to-solve approach helps with the feeling that you are the powerless servant of a relentless unforgiving to-do list that knows that you should be doing better than you do. 

Why daydreaming is so addictive

I only became interested in mindfulness as it enhances my ability to get insight into reality. It wasn’t to treat a condition such as depression. It wasn’t because I belong to a subculture where mindfulness is considered cool. It was the realisation that constantly being carried away in thought is a way to ignore reality.

why am i addicted to daydreaming

It is a well known fact that dopamine (one of the many normal brain chemicals that makes us happy) gets released as soon as we anticipate something good, not when something good actually happens. It really is about the journey, not the destination. The more unpredictable the reward – the more dopamine is released in anticipating it. Robert Sapolsky in Stanford did a lot of interesting commentary on that. Apparently, when you’ve practiced a certain pathway/belief enough, it doesn’t matter how far away into the future the reward is. It doesn’t have to be immediate. He explains how this is the basis of gambling and, half-jokingly, says it may even play a role in how we think about religion!

At one point today, I noticed how I reached for the phone to check Instagram wondering if my friend posted more pictures of her exciting trip through Asia. I felt the rush when I picked up the phone, not when I saw the picture. Mindfulness at work. The other crazy thing I realise about my behaviour is that… the reward isn’t really all that rewarding. I mean, ok, I get to see a picture and vaguely feel connected to my friend.

So what about this theory? Getting carried away in thought – daydreaming – is similar to anticipating something. Whether we are obsessing about a person we have crush on, or worrying about the future – it is a form of anticipating something. Our brains clearly learnt that in the past there was a reward associated with this anticipation – we got to kiss our crush or avoid some fail through worrying about it enough at some point in the past. Furthermore, the reward isn’t predictable – you win some and you lose some. Not every crush is going to result in a wonderful experience and not every bout of worrying is going to result in avoiding peril. It is possible that our favourite day dreams cause a release of dopamine.

Mindfulness prevents getting carried away in thought, thus, I hypothesise that it prevents anticipation – and the accompanying dopamine rush. This is why it feels like more work than sliding into a day dream.

When I put it like that, it makes me realise just how addictive day dreaming is. I mean I kind of knew it already, but this little theory of mine helps me think about how I want to control it – not be controlled by it. Is mindfulness the cure? It is literally the opposite to day dreaming, but I don’t think in and of itself it will help with this particular addiction.

Assuming that everything is a habit – cue, action, reward – mindfulness can be slotted in instead of the day dream. In other words, whatever causes you to day dream (boredom?) has to be caught early, responded to with practicing mindfulness instead of day dreaming – and a chocolate bar, or whatever floats your boat, as a reward to stabilise the habit.

What patterns can you think of where anticipation is everything and the reward is meaningless? Would it be good for you to replace them?

Trust and likeability

What is trust? I think it is a feeling. It’s not an objective measure of how reliable somebody is.

I have many friends who are incredibly unreliable, incompetent at times – yet I still trust them because I somehow know that they will be reliable when it will really matter.

I think it is about having coherent values.

Belonging to one tribe – however you chose to define it. The reason we have tribes is probably deeply rooted in our DNA. A long time ago we were conditioned to know that if we lose our tribe, our survival chances are lower. It is the very reason why public speaking is so difficult for so many people. They feel that getting up on stage with a high risk of embarrassing themselves would lead to their audience – their tribe – to alienate them. It is one of the many examples where our brains are scanning for survival situations when really they would do much better to chill out a bit. It is one of the things that mindfulness really helps with: instead of assuming things and following the same scripts, it allows to take a step back and perceive a situation from a different standpoint.

In this day and age we have learnt to pay less attention to the superficial: race and socioeconomic background. Values lead the conversation on trust and exposing authenticity and vulnerability strengthens it. Trust makes us feel remarkably good. It is one of the things people value most in life: the goodwill of other people.

psychology of trust

Trust emerges in the strangest situations. We seem to always restrict the group that we trust.

Having a common enemy automatically builds trust among complete strangers. Nostalgia is a phenomenal marketing strategy because it immediately builds references for values we all accept and love – hence it builds trust. This means trust is scalable.

You don’t need to know much about the person: just pick up on the relevant markers of trustworthiness – and there, you are best friends. Our brains sort of skip over the whole due diligence process required to build trust.

Celebrities always say that fans feel that they know them personally – that’s the power of the illusions that trust can create.

One of the key reasons why social media have changed the world is because it trades in trust. Social proof – knowing that our friends, whom we trust, trust ABC brand – that causes us to trust the brand too. It’s like human link juice.

Being transparent is hard.

It takes courage as we run the risk of being rejected – that’s what the survival brain thinks about first. “Always budget for the downside”.

A better strategy would be based on the realisation that by being transparent we will be able to find the people who share our values. They are out there.

The easier it is for them to find you – the better life will be. Haters will be there and they won’t accept you even if you try and deceive them into believing you.

In the words of Elbert Hubbard: To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing. Don’t stand for anything. Make unfalsifiable claims – like the multinationals that none of us have any time for. It seems that to get trust, you need to be directional.

After all, making a decision means, literally, cutting off other options. And we all know that being indecisive is worse.

I can think of an exception to that rule: when somebody takes a strong position in a conflict averse environment. Certain societies value a lack of extreme statements. When my friends started expressing their opinions on Brexit on social media, people were reluctant to engage either way. Sometimes having a strong opinion in and of itself is against the values of a given environment. It seems to be a mantra we now have in the West. What if being agreeable and non-directional has become a value? Or is it simply the easy way out? Is it just a special case of the Stanford Prison Experiment?

There is one situation where strong opinions should definitely be held back – and that is in anything you don’t know well. Most commonly, this appears to be geopolitics. People who know nothing about politics make black and white claims. Obviously, this will garner support and trust from some parts of society, but a low quality signal is just that. Over time it will become clear whether you know anything about the thing you are preaching about . Trust is a long game.