Notes on The Last Psychiatrist

I love few things more than a great blog. My latest find: The Last Psychiatrist, an archived blog, mostly about narcissism.

I was so excited to learn his insights… I made notes.

What follows are his finest insights about narcissism and my comments.

Imagine a crowded subway, and a beautiful woman gets on. Hyper-beautiful, the kind of woman who can wear no makeup, a parka, earmuffs and a bulky scarf and that somehow makes her look even prettier. A handsome man about her age in an expensive suit gets up and says, “please, take my seat.” She smiles, and hastily sits down.

TLP (The Last Psychiatrist), as the author refers to himself, gives us two options as to how the woman should think about this:

  1. This was a sexually motivated act as far as the man was concerned
  2. He was just being nice

If you think of narcissism as grandiosity you miss the nuances, e.g. in her case the problem is narcissism without any grandiosity:

she is so consumed with her identity (as not pretty) that she is not able to read, to empathise with, other people’s feelings. Source

In another post, TLP explains why narcissism isn’t necessarily about grandiosity. This is a blatantly obvious point that escapes most people, unfortunately.

Being the main character of your own film isn’t necessarily grandiose. It is narcissistic though because all the other characters are only important because they help the viewer to understand the main story line.

Here are some less obvious traits of narcissism TLP outlined:

Shame over guilt (I think this is because shame is an emotion directed at the self, whereas guilt is an emotion directed at your victim)

envy over greed (greed would be a primary reason to look for something, whereas envy is only a desire to catch up because otherwise otherwise it’s a bad reflection on you. I liked how this was called “existential agency” here.)

He [the narcissist] thinks the problem is people don’t like him, or not enough, so he exerts massive energy into the creation and maintenance of an identity: if they think of me as X… (and that’s one of the reasons why we love brands)

The narcissist feels unhappy because he thinks his life isn’t as it should be, or things are going wrong;  but all of those feelings find origin in frustration, a specific frustration: the inability to love the other person.

And this really brings it back to the original myth that TLP broke down beautifully here:

Narcissus mother took him to a clairvoyant who said, “He’ll have a long life as long as he never knows himself.

Narcissus kept rejecting people who fell in love with him because they weren’t good enough.

One rejected lover was furious and begged Nemesis, the goddess of vengeance, for retribution.  “If Narcissus ever falls in love, don’t let the love be returned!”

Nemesis  heard the prayer and caused Narcissus to fall in love with himself: he was lead to a  pool of water, and when he looked into it, he fell in love with what he saw.  And what he saw wasn’t real, so of course it couldn’t love him back.  But Narcissus sat patiently, forever, hoping that one day that beautiful person in the bottom of the pool was going to come out and love him.

Because he never loved anyone, he fell in love with himself. That was Narcissus’s punishment.

This brings up an interesting point: how are you meant to feel about yourself?

Let’s first look at what we want. What we pay for. A huge portion of marketing directly helps us to be in love with ourselves, because we’re worth it. They’re not even trying to hide that the feeling of being in love with yourself is what they’re selling. And it’s not punishment as we see it – otherwise we wouldn’t buy it. I suppose it’s a psychic equivalent of putting a person on heroin. You mightn’t feel it’s a punishment, but it is.

Then there are the more subtle “intellectual” publications that help you love yourself (see the distinction from being in love with yourself? Cause that would be shallow.) I wonder how many pages were dedicated to helping people see Narcissus’ infatuation as Buddhist acceptance or some other high and mighty concept.

There isn’t really anywhere that would tell you that you’re meant to not love yourself.

What happened to Narcissus doesn’t really sound so horrible in today’s culture. Maybe he wouldn’t have even retaken a selfie if he lived today and been happy with the first shot? That level of self-acceptance is just enviable! He’s winning at life by millennial standards!… Indeed, TPL calls narcissism “a generational pathology”.

TLP goes on to discuss Narcissus’ parents’ role, which I thought was priceless:

He will have a long life, if he never knows himself.

Forget about whether the prophecy is true.  Ask instead, “what would the parents have done once they heard it?”…

Next time I feel insignificant and weak, maybe I need to hold on to that feeling, because my culture will obviously infuse me with my own grandiosity without me ever trying.

TLP has another explanation for why Narcissus stayed looking at the primordial selfie lake though.

He didn’t stay there for years because the reflection had pretty hair.  He stayed because daydreaming takes a lot of time.

In other words, Narcissus didn’t recognise himself and spent all that time conjuring up images of how wonderful life would be with that person in the reflection…

And the DSM says exactly that, only it adds a grandiose twist: “preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love”.

I am confused now.

Narcissus fell in love with himself, only he didn’t know if was himself.

So, as far as Narcissus was concerned, he was genuinely in love with another human being – only they were unreachable. Their personality was entirely a figment of his imagination…

Wait, that’s not Narcissus, that’s Gatsby! (Who also dies in a body of water, fair dues to FitzGerald).

Narcissus’ crime wasn’t being in love with himself at all. Phew, it’s ok to let L’Oreal and #positivethinking to get money and likes.

Narcissus’ crime was not knowing himself.

Actually, no, again.

TLP puts it better:

The moral of the story of Narcissus, told as a warning for the very people who refuse to hear it as such, is that how Narcissus came to be is irrelevant.  What was important was what he did, and what he did – was nothing.

And that’s his main crime: he never cared about anyone real. To me that’s all one ever needs to know to understand narcissism.

TLPs advice on how to not be a narcissist is to fake it. I think what TLP’s getting at is that your behaviour is much more important than your identity.

Trying to be old

I loved how the sun lit up the windows of the ostentatiously classy restaurant come wine bar on St. Andrew’s Street in Dublin called Stanley’s. The bleached turquoise exterior with golden letters spelled understated chic.

A few doors down from the expensive Trocadero, the location seemed perfect for such a place.

It opened about 2 years ago. Today I found that it’s been replaced with a place called Kathmandu, a gerrish, bright orange Nepalese eatery. Full of people. 

Stanley’s was never full of people.

Why? Where did they go wrong? Where didn’t they go right, more like? The broadly positive Irish Times review and then another even more positive one? The perfect location? The classy interior in modern blues and grays? What more could people want?

Or is it maybe that classy is old-fashioned. Maybe these things don’t sell anymore.

I love old books, films, chandeliers, even houses. Often these things sell at a perplexing yet welcome discount.  Has it always been this way – that old things are cheap?

Writing up my list of the Christmas gifts I want to give, I realised that I strongly prefer older things. I think it’s from reading too many XIX century novels…

Which would you rather get for Christmas, a new iPhone or an antique chandelier? 

It turns out that the iPhone is about five times the price. This raises another point: did old things always go at a discount?

And finally, maybe that’s why Stanley’s closed down. Perhaps their bet was on people’s vanity, a desire for a classy place to shorten the protracted winters nights. But it never caught on.

Trying to be old without actually being old may be a hard sell. 

Pareto principle as a consequence of positive feedback loops

“Alexander to Aristotle greeting. You have not done well to publish your books of oral doctrine; for what is there now that we excel others in, if those things which we have been particularly instructed in be laid open to all? For my part, I assure you, I had rather excel others in the knowledge of what is excellent, than in the extent of my power and dominion. Farewell.”

And Aristotle, soothing this passion for preeminence, speaks, in his excuse for himself, of these doctrines, as in fact both published and not published: as indeed, to say the truth, his books on metaphysics are written in a style which makes them useless for ordinary teaching, and instructive only, in the way of memoranda, for those who have been already conversant in that sort of learning.

– The Life of Alexander the Great By Plutarch

Besides the fact that Alexander was a paranoid megalomaniac, this occurred to me:

Learning begets more learning.

As well as:

  • Fitness begets more fitness.
  • Money begets more money.
  • Friendship begets more friendship.
  • Even children – traditionally people tended to either have none at all or a good few.

There is positive feedback (all up to a point of course and then returns diminish).

Why are societal things positive feedback loops whereas biological things are generally negative feedback loops? There are exceptions of course, notably the use it or lose it principle in anything neurological/behavioural as well as in exceptional situations like labour.

Can we think of any examples where there is a negative feedback loop in a sociological context?

It doesn’t have to be limited to humans by the way.

I can think of the following examples of negative feedback in society:

  • Election fatigue or the general situation of chasing after someone who isn’t interested be it in marketing or in interpersonal situations (for clarity, we can phrase it as the more attention they receive, the less attention they return).
  • Obviously, there are lots of theories about how markets self-regulate, but they are filled with problems.
  • Prices vs demand and prices vs supply is another tempting one. However, here the relationship is more genuinely between supply and demand rather than between either of those and price – and that’s not a negative loop.

And if there aren’t very many examples of negative feedback, this explains that so many things in society follow the 80/20 rule rather than the normal distribution.

In fact, you can extrapolate the 80/20 rule. Then you get:

64% of outcomes come from 4% of causes,

51.2% of outcomes come from 0.8% of causes.

I have about 20 GB worth of songs on my phone and I listen to the same 10 tracks. In other words, because there is no negative feedback (up to a pretty high threshold), these 10 songs monopolise my listening “choices”.  I have a whole wardrobe of stuff but I wear the same things all the time. Same with pots and pans. Apps on my phone.

Income inequality doesn’t quite as devilish when you think about it this way.

My thinking is that if we find more examples of macro scale negative feedback loops, we may be able to understand whether there is another way.

Or are we just always going to be in a use it or lose it situation? Are we just one giant self-similar network of walking talking neurons?

Feigenbaumzoom.gif
By BewareircdOwn work, Public Domain, Link

 

The thunder rattles, the dog barks

As the world ages, we gain collective experience. Relationships between things are clarified: insecurity gives way to confidence, truth, gained through an insufferable struggle, turns into familiar axioms that don’t demand any sort of struggle.

The well-intentioned man who once encouraged our predecessors to remind themselves of humility, would be the very first to be ashamed of his naiveté, should he rise from the grave and see the successes of his descendants.

In every way, we have succeeded; in every way, we have become enlightened. As we progress, our beliefs become firmer: they morph from vague illusions into something tangible.

The thunder rattles, the dog barks, the stubborn halfwits triumph – these are the simple truths that we have garnered and on which our future well-being relies. We recognise as truths only those truths that smack us right in between the eyes and physically stimulate our senses. We record in our annals only those facts that have the advantage of being in the perfect tense.

Everything else is labelled as lacking evidence and attributed to the realm of nonsense, and because nonsense is axiomatically useless, we treat this “everything else” with skeptical condensendence if not with outright hatred.

Where our unquestionable truths come from, what effects the thunder has, why a dog barks, why stubborn halfwits triumph, and not good people – we don’t think about it and aren’t interested in explanations. We just take it as fact, immutable and irresistible. On hearing the thunder, we say: this is thunder. On hearing a barking dog, we say: this is a barking dog.

The meaning of all our aspirations and worries is to be free from all doubts forever and to create for ourselves a position of flawless confidence in which we could live without thinking.

Each individual has a preference for a certain framework: we each create a comfort zone, and then we only need to make sure that we don’t venture into the unknown. In front of us, a prize dangles on a string, on which our eyes are fixated and which serves as a guiding star in our journey.

It wouldn’t be fair to say that creating the comfort zone is easy – quite the contrary! There is nothing more fragile than the framework to which we so diligently cling, nor is there anything more insistent on disturbing it than the unknown, from which we so stubbornly run. Staying in the comfort zone requires us to constantly repel the unknown with hard work and even violence… But we persevere. Assuming that our morals have been simplified enough that they don’t impede us in the our zealous quest for the said prize, what happens when we finally sink our teeth into it? I will tell you: the minute we reach the prize, when we feel it in our hands at last, it turns out that its richness isn’t quite what we thought it would be – the prize itself has become a victim of the unknown that we so strenuously fought against. And so, even though we judge the dreamers with their nonsense, we too end up in pursuit of nonsense, crude and stupid.

The question is: what was it that we were fighting for?

This is my rather liberal translation from Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin’s Sign of the Times, c. 1863. Quite possibly its first English incarnationOriginal text in Russian.

Saltykov-Shchedrin Legkovesnie Priznaki Vremeni

 

Hear vs listen

I noticed new Samaritans posters today at a train station:
hear vs listen samaritans campaign
samaritans campaign hear vs listen

A general stickler and former editor, I immediately caught on to the peculiar language.

To me, listening just means perceiving sound, albeit attentively. Hearing means taking it in. And, hearing = listening + understanding.

I don’t think the dictionaries (Oxford) agree with me:

hear

hɪə/
verb
perceive with the ear the sound made by (someone or something)

 

listen

ˈlɪs(ə)n/
verb

give one’s attention to a sound

My one argument is that the verb listen can be used in the continuous, whereas hear is more perfect:

“I hear you”

means I understand the emotion you are trying to convey – in millennial English.

 

“I am listening to you”

means I will take in all these sounds you make, but there is no guarantee it will make sense to me.

Thoughts?
You may listen to Linkin Park, but then you hear the news…
I guess the reason it registered on my radar was the poor Chester Bennington. Another high profile suicide, another wave of suicides that will follow. Take care of yourself.

Randomness as seen by Nassim Taleb

“Probability is not about the odds, but about the belief in the existence of an alternative outcome, cause, or motive”

Disappointed by Ayn Rand’s overfitting of consequences onto causes, I moved on to the book I’ve been meaning to read for a long time: Fooled by Randomness by N.N. Taleb.

What is Fooled by Randomness about?

Taleb is pretty clear on that:

“This book is about luck disguised and perceived as non-luck (that is, skills) and, more generally, randomness disguised and perceived as non-randomness (that is, determinism)”

This has to be one of my favourite paragraphs in modern non-fiction:

“It [determinism] manifests itself in the shape of the lucky fool, defined as a person who benefited from a disproportionate share of luck but attributes his success to some other, generally very precise, reason.”

Rand would argue that that’s intellect and taking responsibility. Instagram tells you it’s positive thinking. Richard Branson would tell you that it’s looking after your people and taking risk – though I’ve never had the “pleasure” of properly familiarising myself with his wisdom. Ryan Holiday would argue that it is one’s ego that gets in the way.

Life is more random than we care to admit

“... Just as one day some primitive tribesman scratched his nose, saw rain falling, and developed an elaborate method of scratching his nose to bring on the much-needed rain, we link economic prosperity to some rate cut by the Federal Reserve Board, or the success of a company with the appointment of the new president “at the helm”. Bookstores are full of biographies of successful men and women presenting their specific explanation on how they made it big in life (we have an expression, “the right time and the right place” to weaken whatever conclusion can be inferred from them).”

“Symbolism is the child of our inability and unwillingness to accept randomness; we give meaning to all manner of shapes; we detect human figures in inkblots.”

I find this very funny as I am the author of “Cliff notes” on Ireland’s secondary school poetry course. I enjoy looking for patterns where there are possibly none. My job as a doctor is right about the same: fit symptom A with symptom B and develop a list of differentials. While endless creativity is helpful with the Cliff notes, the situation with diagnoses is quite different. Taleb would argue that the conclusions I come to are more of a reflection on me than the material I am reflecting on.

“European intellectual life developed what seems to be an irreversible taste for symbolism – we are still paying its price, with psychoanalysis and other fads.”

Taleb table of confusion fooled by randomness

If there is one cause for this confusion between the left and the right sides of our table, it is our inability to think critically – we may enjoy presenting conjectures as truth.

“We are flawed beyond repair – at least for this environment.”

But it is only bad news for those utopians who believe in an idealised human kind.

He describes utopians (Rousseau, Godwin, Payne) as people who believe that knowing what is good for us will lead to that choice. So for example, telling people that obesity leads to health risks would lead people to lose weight according to this group.

On the other hand, he regards the likes of Popper, Hayek, Friedman, Adam Smith, Tversky and Kahneman, Soros, etc as people who see the world as it is and subscribe to scientific fallibilism.

Taleb advocates going around emotion rather than rationalising them:

“Ridding ourselves of our humanity is not in the works; we need tricks, not some grandiose moralizing help”

Taleb on happiness

Taleb calls upon Plutarch’s Lives:

“The observation of the numerous misfortunes that attend all conditions forbids us to grow insolent upon our present enjoyments, or to admire a man’s happiness that may yet, in course of time, suffer change. For the uncertain future has yet to come, with all variety of future; and him only to whom the divinity yet to come, with all variety of future; and him only to whom the divinity”

The modern equivalent has been no less eloquently voiced by the baseball coach Yogi Berra, who seems to have translated Solon’s outburst from the pure Attic Greek into no less pure Brooklyn English with “it ain’t over until it’s over”, or, in a less dignified manner, with “it ain’t over until the fat lady sings”.

fooled by randomness taleb key points
Now entering Wicklow

Taleb, not unlike Rand, believes in thinking hard, but reminds us to not take our own conclusions too seriously:

“Trading forces someone to think hard; those who merely work hard generally lose their focus and intellectual energy. In addition, they end up drowning in randomness. Work ethics draws people to focus on noise rather than the signal.”

I was very comforted to read the following on clarity vs correctness from Taleb. He spends this entire book fighting against the temptation to oversimplify and overexplain”

“Beware the confusion between correctness and intelligibility. Part of conventional wisdom favours things that can be explained rather instantly and “in a nutshell” – in many circles it is considered law. Having attended a French elementary school, a lycee primaire, I was trained to rehash the popular adage: Ce qui se congoit bien s’enonce clairement Et les mots pour le dire viennent aisement (What is easy to conceive is clear to express/Words to say it would come effortlessly)… Borrowed wisdom can be vicious. I need to make a huge effort not to be swayed by well-sounding remarks. I remind myself of Einstein’s remark that common sense is nothing but a collection of misconceptions acquired by age 18. Furthermore: what sounds intelligent in a conversation or a meeting, or, particularly in the media, is suspicious.”

He gives many examples of things that were genuinely new and good, but rejected when they originally were presented. This supports the whole “makes sense instantly” notion:

“Any reading of the history of science would show that almost all the smart things that have been proven by science appeared like lunacies at the time they were first discovered.”

Having worked with startups, I’ve always been told that one should be able to explain what your company does in one sentence. I just want to remark that this is for the “benefit” of investors alone.

Not everything is worth trying to explain

“I have a trick to know if something real in the world is taking place… The trick is to look only at the large percentage changes. Unless something moves by more than its usual daily percentage change, the event is deemed to be noise. Percentage moves are the size of the headlines. In addition, the interpretation is not linear; a 2% move is not twice as significant an event as 1%, it is rather like four times. The headline of the Dow moving by 1.3 points on my screen today has less than one millionth of the significance of the serious 7% drop of October 1997… We cannot instinctively understand the nonlinear aspect of probability.”

Confidence intervals are more important than the estimate

This point is related to the importance of variance as well as averages:

“Professionals forget the following reality. It is not the estimate or the forecast that matters so much as the degree of confidence with the opinion. Consider that you are going on a trip one fall morning and need to formulate an idea about the weather conditions prior to packing your luggage. If you expect the temperature to be 60 degrees, plus or minus 10 degrees (say in Arizona), then you would take no snow clothes and no portable electric fan. Now what if you were going to Chicago, where you are told that the weather, while being 60 degrees, will nevertheless vary by about 30 degrees? You would have to pack winter and summer clothes. Here the expectation of the temperature carries little importance concerning the choice of clothing; it is the variance that matters. Your decision to pack is markedly different now that you are told that the variability would be around 30 degrees. Now let us push the point further; what if you were going to a planet where the expectation is also going to be around 60 degrees, but plus or minus 500 degrees? What would you pack?”

taleb tricks to deal with being fooled by randomness
Just one track!

Consistency as path dependence

Taleb argues against the compulsion to keep our opinions the same and expect the same of others. From a logical stand points he is completely right. From a psychological one – we suffer greatly when we have to deviate from consistency and we simply don’t trust people who change their opinions. He gives the example of G. Soros, a man her described as “complicated”. He attributes at least some of Soros’ success to this ability to not be married to his views:

“They are totally free from their past actions. Every day is a clean slate.”

Taleb goes on to explain that we have evolved this for obvious reasons:

“Think about the consequences of being a good trader outside of the market activity, and deciding every morning at 8 a.m. whether to keep the spouse or if it is not better to part with him or her for a better emotional investment elsewhere.”

Stoicism as seen by Nassim Taleb

“It is the attempt by man to get even with probability.”

I think that’s a very curious interpretation! A slightly escapist one, but interesting all the same.

“The only article Lady Fortuna has no control over is your behaviour.”

We probably cannot overcome our biases

The epiphany I had in my career in randomness came when I understood that I was not intelligent enough, nor strong enough, to even try to fight my emotions. Besides, I believe that I need my emotions to formulate my ideas and get the energy to execute them.

The good news is that there are tricks.

Avoid eye contact to avoid an emotional response

Psychopathy central, I know. But sometimes, it’s better to prevent motional contagion, for example, in a road rage situation:

One such trick is to avoid eye contact (through the rear-view mirror) with other persons in such encounters as traffic situations.

Don’t listen to people who aren’t definitely worth listening to

Taleb argues that it is best to not engage in reading comments and reviews from people who don’t have a lot of credibility as their comments are more about them then they are about the work supposedly being reviewed. My personal experience certainly agrees with this. This is one of the most important lessons of the book. It’s also a very good thing to remember when asking advice (or, God forbid, getting unsolicited advice). This point subtly arises from the confidence interval point mentioned above.

Manage your exposure to things that have a strong emotional impact on you

Yet I have experienced leaps of joy over results that I knew were mere noise, and bouts of unhappiness over results that did not carry the slightest degree of statistical significance. I cannot help it, but I am emotional and derive most of my energy from my emotions. So the solution does not reside in taming my heart. Since my heart does not seem to agree with my brain, I need to take serious action to avoid making irrational trading decisions, namely, by denying myself access to my performance report unless it hits a predetermined threshold. 

This certainly resonates with me. As I mentioned, I have an online venture. Whenever a sale happens, I get an email about it. In the early days, I used to get so excited when someone made a purchase – it was great! Then I found that if I opened my emails, but the inbox did not contain any such notifications, I would feel a bit disappointed. Furthermore, if a sale was made, I didn’t feel compelled to work quite as hard! If it wasn’t – I was there thinking outside the box of what I could do better. I quickly learnt to only check that email account once a day.

One of the most irritating conversations I’ve had is with people who lecture me on how I should behave. Most of us know pretty much how we should behave. It is the execution that is the problem, not the absence of knowledge.

And the bit that is lacking from most awareness campaigns.

I am tired of the moralising slow-thinkers who pound me with platitudes like I should floss daily, eat my regular apple and visit the gym outside of the new-year resolution… We need tricks to get us there but before that we need to accept the fact that we are mere animals in need of lower forms of tricks, not lectures.

I am not sure I agree. I am quite allergic to these tricks because quite often just like the lecturing, they do not work. However, unlike the lectures, they are held to a lower standard of evidence.

We are not designed for schedules

Our ancestors didn’t work to deadlines. In the second edition of the book, Taleb goes on about how we are designed for randomness: we are more like firemen meditating between calls. Optimising everything may be a very poor decision that will take away the very things that we are trying to achieve – as far as the big picture is concerned.

We favour the visible, tangible and narrated – and scorn the abstract. Maybe I should turn to writing fiction?

nassim nicholas taleb randomness tips to avoid biases
Just a pink house with a gladiolus. How random…

Happiness research: everything useful we’ve managed to gather so far

“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.”

We spoke about happiness being affected by expectations as well as reality. This research shows that the brain is quite adaptable in terms of expectations.

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.

how-do-i-feel-happier-in-life

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.

Experience nature

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.

what-affects-how-happy-you-feel
My personal research shows that ice-cream causes happiness, even if you’re just after spending 40 minutes running in the rain

Body language

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.

Good relationships

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.

Gratitude

You’ve heard all about this before.

Exercise

I won’t bore you.

Oxytocin

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.