And so we continue our search for the meaning of life. Robert Solomon’s The Passionsoffered an interesting take on this question. He proposed the idea that emotions are the meaning of life: as in they add the meaning in a life; emotions add meaning to our experience the world.
When I first came across this idea, I thought it was strange, but really it does make sense. Emotions have a strong effect of perception. Perception heavily influences our understanding of reality and thus has an impact on the meaning we attribute to things, life itself being one of those things.
Emotions are probably the strongest mental phenomena, built of thoughts and feelings – and very importantly, ultimately resulting in action, as the name suggests. Emotions are the driver of behaviour. My entrepreneurial soul was quite impressed when I heard that every sale is a promise of a future state. Emotions rule us, so we may try to be a little bit more aware – and perhaps less disrespectful to them.
Solomon argues that emotions are judgements rather than plain feelings arising from bodily reactions. Emotions tells us whether something matters – or is meaningful. Solomon also argues that emotions are in a sense chosen, sort of along the lines of stoic philosophy. As with beliefs, emotional judgements are often unintentional and unconscious, but we are still responsible for evaluating and changing them if that’s warranted.
According to Matthew Ratcliffe, Solomon sees emotions as the ‘meaning of life’, in the sense that they are a precondition for the intelligibility of all our goal-directed activities. If no actual or possible states of affairs were ever judged by us to be preferable to any other, we would have no grounds for action. Without emotions, we could have no projects, nothing to strive for, no sense of anything as worth doing:
“I suggest that emotions are the meaning of life. It is because we are moved, because we feel, that life has a meaning. The passionate life, not the dispassionate life of pure reason, is the meaningful life.”
As someone who has spent some time studying emotions, I occasionally hold out hope that one day science succeeds in transcending the prism of bias and emotion and we are able to see the world without the emotional projections. Being that little bit pragmatic though – and seeing people like N. Taleb do it, I realise that we have to give up on overintellectualising and accept our limitations – or rather break up with our illusion that we are so above our lowly emotions.
The interesting thing about Solomon’s writing is that he emphasises the existential aspect of emotions: this our experience of being present.
The other interesting aspect is how neuroplasticity affects our perception: any time we experience an emotion a certain pathway gets potentiated and the next time we perceive similar inputs, the fact that we experienced an emotion relating to it previously will have changed the way we see the world. There is positive feedback here.
Neuroplasticity affects everything, but a lot of it is mediated through emotion. My personal working theory is that the meaning of life is the impact that you have (appreciating that that’s very vague, but the point here is that it’s different to the en vogue “the meaning of life is happiness”). But how do I decide what is full of impact? I need to feel that it has meaning. The exact values I consider to be full of impact may in theory be independent of emotion, but in reality they are completely affected by emotion. That warm feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment has to flow through me to know that what I am doing is meaningful. I usually only arrive there through what would look to an outside person as a silent CBT session with myself, so it isn’t entirely detached from intellectualising, but it has to feel right in order for me to know that it is right.
What if I do find something meaningful? It is going to invoke strong emotions. The common denominator of meaning does seem to be emotion.
Solomon drew a lot of Martin Heidegger’s concepts of mood. Mood is probably a more more precise word for what Solomon was talking about. The weather (emotion) matters less than the climate (mood) when we decide on the meaning of things around us. Our moods probably invoke the exact brands of biases and focuses of those biases that will allow us then to form our ideas on the meaning of what we see. Heidegger has an interesting definition for mood: it is a background sense of belonging to a meaningful world. That’s kind of like saying that I, as an object, have a relationship with all these other objects and I am trying to evaluate the condition of that relationship. “Sun’s out, so everything is good” or “Nobody is replying to my emails, so I feel like sh*t”. This certainly describes my mood a lot of the time, but then I slap myself and go back to a more Stoic/Nietzschean attitude to evaluating my own actions rather than the world’s response to me.
Reality is real no matter how we perceive it, but meaning is pretty personal.
P. S. I wrote a Haiku while sitting on a beach in Dublin:
An old dog, once black, now wiser, at sunset.
Here is the culprit:
P. P. S. I also drew something mighty odd. Feel free to indulge in the madness mindfulness and colour it in.
“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.
My first curiosity is an essay from the Financial Times. I have mixed feelings about the FT. It’s pretty impossible for a paper like that to be neutral, but the FT doesn’t even try. I am constantly disappointed with its sneaky political undercurrent. At the same time, I cannot find a news outlet that would be as well presented and lack the dogma. Anyway, the essay is titled The age of unenlightenment, written by Robert Armstrong.
The author is thinking of why it seems that we are getting dumber.
A book by Sloman and Fernbach entitled The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone offers clever demonstrations of how much we take for granted, and how little we actually understand. An example: try drawing a picture of a bicycle, with the chain, all the bits of the frame, and the pedals all in the correct place. It is not so easy. In an experimental setting, half of people set this task fail it. If that’s too basic, explain how a flush toilet works. Easy? Well, unless you described how a trapway creates a siphoning effect, you got it wrong.
Granted, I am trained as a doctor, however I knew 80% of the basics about how the body functions before I went in to college. It never fails to impress me that most people haven’t a clue about how their body works, but they really think they do. Women endlessly discuss what’s good for their skin, but seem to miss the crucial detail that virtually non of the miracle co-enzymes and ultra-proteins in their creams get absorbed past the epithelium. Guys in the gym would authoritatively discuss the benefits of “fast carbs” immediately after a gym session and how to prevent “knots” forming in muscle tissue, but ask them about insulin or myosin – and they haven’t a clue. And I don’t mean they don’t know the terms, but they just don’t understand the basics. A much more florid and familiar example is of people who love talking about geopolitics. They rarely know where the “enemy” actually is on the map.
Robert Armstrong continues: Technology has encouraged us to confuse access to information with knowledge. Education treats teachers as customer-service professionals rather than people who know things that students don’t, and offers students inflated grades, meaningless credentials and a false sense of their own wisdom. Journalists are encouraged to give their audiences what they want, rather than telling them what they need to know.
I agree with all of the above. There is a sense in the above lines that it was different in another time. I sincerely doubt that it was. However, I do feel that the rate at which raw information is becoming available is rising. Still, as few people know what to do with it as back in the proverbial day. It seems Mr Armstong’s conclusion is that the books he has read on the matter (listed below) focus more on the problem than on proposing solutions. Frankly, I’ve never read a book that was any good that proposed solutions. Observing what’s going on in plain sight and asking the right questions is usually more than enough. Here are the books:
The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach, Macmillan
The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, by Tom Nichols, Oxford University Press
#republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media, by Cass Sunstein, Princeton University Press
While we are speaking about books, I’ve been into the book shop and looked over the newest books in the psychology section. I sat in Hodges and Figgis’ leather chair and flicked through a few books. I always do that before I decide to read a book: I’ve bought too many “recommended” books that turned out to be either poor quality (as in, I couldn’t even finish them) or insidiously venomous making me wish I hadn’t come across them at all. In any case, I tend to really engage with the books I read, so there is a courtship ritual before I commit to reading the entire work. It went like this:
The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli
“The Art of Thinking Clearly by world-class thinker and entrepreneur Rolf Dobelli is an eye-opening look at human psychology and reasoning — essential reading for anyone who wants to avoid “cognitive errors” and make better choices in all aspects of their lives.”
Mmm, it’s a very practical rewrite of Daniel Kahneman’s and Nassim Taleb’s thoughts. I would have thought that the former were practical enough. The back of the book featured praise by Sam Harris. I found Harris interesting initially but soon was uncannily repelled from his lopsided philosophy. I would be more careful in my choice of allies than Mr Dobelli. Could be a light read for someone unfamiliar with cognitive biases, but if you have any respect for your little grey cells, go straight to Kahneman. My (binary) rating for this book is: Nay.
Mindset : Changing the Way You Think to Fulfil Your Potential by Carol Dweck
“After decades of research, world-renowned Stanford University psychologist Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D., discovered a simple but groundbreaking idea: the power of mindset. In this brilliant book, she shows how success in school, work, sports, the arts, and almost every area of human endeavor can be dramatically influenced by how we think about our talents and abilities. People with a fixed mindset—those who believe that abilities are fixed—are less likely to flourish than those with agrowth mindset—those who believe that abilities can be developed”
Psychology classics retold – and not in a very compelling way. Nay.
Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion by Paul Bloom
“We often think of our capacity to experience the suffering of others as the ultimate source of goodness. Many of our wisest policy-makers, activists, scientists, and philosophers agree that the only problem with empathy is that we don’t have enough of it.
Nothing could be farther from the truth, argues Yale researcher Paul Bloom. In Against Empathy, Bloom reveals empathy to be one of the leading motivators of inequality and immorality in society. Far from helping us to improve the lives of others, empathy is a capricious and irrational emotion that appeals to our narrow prejudices. It muddles our judgment and, ironically, often leads to cruelty. We are at our best when we are smart enough not to rely on it, but to draw instead upon a more distanced compassion.”
I thought there was some merit in this book, but Daniel Goleman said a lot of the same stuff better. It may seem that he proposes the opposite to what this book is about, but that’s only an illusion. Perhaps, given the denigration of the intellectual and analytical approaches in the media, this books attempts to restore the balance and say that a quest for empathy isn’t going to solve our problems? It’s a nay from me, though the tone of the book is pleasantly contrarian.
P.S. If you want to see some beautiful nature photos and are interested in travel, my friend Charis blogs about the island I was recently on – Cyprus. I was there with her for some of the trips she describes. I will write more about my escapade to the Eastern Mediterranean at some stage.
I recall a certain Prof. T., a psychiatrist I worked with and whom I regard highly, recount how he very nearly left psychiatry soon after joining when the writers of the ye old DSM considered including happiness as a psychiatric condition, being the opposite of depression. How very understandable. Happiness is often touted as the purpose of life and the most important thing, the most important condition to fill: “Sure, so long as you’re happy“, as they say in Ireland. I am tempted to go on a rant how the goal-directed pursuit of happiness has made us unhappy, but I think everyone knows that anyway. My discussion with Terraustralis* revealed an interesting attitude:
Happiness isn’t necessarily the point, but it sure is a good survival strategy. It is easier to get through life when you can see the bright side.
It always seems like a barrier to entry and an annoying obfuscation when a person responds to a question by needing to define the terms of the question. However, as I get older, I find myself joining this school of question-dissection.
What is happiness and why do we need it?
I don’t plan to get too metaphysical here. All I want to say is that there are two things commonly discussed using this term:
The concrete sensation of being happy, such as when
a loved one gets you exactly the present you wanted for Christmas, or
you get an acceptance letter from a purchaser, an employer, a journal, etc, or
you notice the colourful sunset and feel at peace, or
you notice that your coffee is particularly nice
or indeed, you think of examples of when you were happy and your brain isn’t that sure what is real and what is a memory.
2. The abstract greater, non-provoked satisfaction, fulfilment or harmony that represents the bottom line of your emotional climate.
I will discuss happiness (1), of the concrete variety – because I feel that the abstract happiness (2) is a product of concrete happiness (1). If concrete happiness (1) is the weather, abstract happiness (2) is the climate. Abstract happiness is probably more often a subject of rationalisation and by its nature, it is more difficult to get a grip on, so we’ll start small(er).
Happiness is a chemical reaction.
Then again, so is everything else.
However, happiness is very directly a chemical reaction, unlike let’s say someone’s well-considered political views. They too are a series of reactions, perhaps even facilitated by the dopamines and serotonins of this world, but they lack the binary nature of the sensation of happiness.
Sorry for dropping the tone, but is happiness that different from an orgasm? Most of us know not to expect that to last forever.
Reason 1: Happiness only exists in response to a change
There is no happiness when there is no change, real or perceived. Lack of volatility takes away the opportunities to feel happy.
As Sigmud Freud put it: “What we call happiness in the strictest sense comes from the (preferably sudden) satisfaction of needs which have been dammed up to a high degree.”
This is why learning makes us happy: we see progress (or change). Furthermore, we get to control the change to a large degree. This enhances the happiness. This is also why ambitious people tend to be happier (my observation, do you agree/disagree?) It is like they have the activation energy to take the first step to learn something, to start on something. It is the mildly philosophical who are depressed, but they haven’t thought of the South East Indian history. Or how to start a petrol station. Expanding one’s horizons always leads to happiness (it may not be pure, but it is net positive). Some may call it distraction – and that would explain why we love clicking on stupid links shared on social media**. On the bright side, however, it is a form of learning, seeing new opportunities and changing one’s understanding of the world. Happiness comes free with that.
Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” has influenced me greatly. His economically-related theories, the ones that got him the Nobel prize, are of little interest to me. I am much more concerned of his background work on general psychology that led him to the conclusions he reached regarding our buying/selling decisions. His discussion of happiness is particularly interesting.
“For an example, take the following scenarios:
Today Jack and Jill each have a wealth of 5 million.
Yesterday, Jack had 1 million and Jill had 9 million.
Are they equally happy?
… Jack is elated and Jill despondent. Indeed, we know that Jack would be a great deal happier than Jill even if he had only 2 million today while she has 5… The happiness that Jack and Jill experience is determined by the recent change in their wealth, relative to the different states of wealth that define their reference points (1 million for Jack, 9 million for Jill). This reference dependence is ubiquitous in sensation and perception. The same sound will be experienced as very loud or quite faint, depending on whether it was preceded by a whisper or by a roar.”
According to Kahneman, there isn’t just one happiness because there isn’t just one self (the one that resides in our talkative default mode network). There is the experiencing self, a kind of present moment aware self, and the remembering self, including the ruminating sort we so dislike.
The remembering self will focus on the peak and the end of an experience, where the experiencing self, will be, well, experiencing every moment of it. Here is an example:
“People who recently married, or are expecting to marry in the near future, are likely to retrieve that fact when asked a general question about their life. Because marriage is almost always voluntary in the United States, almost everyone who is reminded of his or her recent or forthcoming marriage will be happy with the idea. Attention is the key to the puzzle.
The figure shows an unusually high level of life satisfaction that lasts two or three years around the event of marriage. However, if this apparent surge reflects the time course of a heuristic for answering the question, there is little we can learn from it about either happiness or about the process of adaptation to marriage. We cannot infer from it that a tide of raised happiness lasts for several years and gradually recedes. Even people who are happy to be reminded of their marriage when asked a question about their life are not necessarily happier the rest of the time. Unless they think happy thoughts about their marriage during much of their day, it will not directly influence their happiness. Even newlyweds who are lucky enough to enjoy a state of happy preoccupation with their love will eventually return to earth, and their experienced well-being will again depend, as it does for the rest of us, on the environment and activities of the present moment.”
Reason 2: Happiness is tied to an anchor bias
What is anchor bias?
Anchoring is a cognitive bias that describes the common human tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered (the “anchor”) when making decisions.
“If you are asked whether Gandhi was more than 114 years old when he died you will end up with a much higher estimate of his age at death than you would if the anchoring question referred to death at 35.”
My own tale is that the first “anchor” I’ve thrown was in 1990s Moscow.
I still pause nervously at the thought of the things I avoided. I was very shielded, yet the echo of the various brands of social unrest that surrounded me reached me enough to know I have to watch out. You know how your mother probably taught you to not speak to strangers and not get into a lift (elevator) with people you don’t know? Most of us use discretion with these rules and only put our guard up when something is tangibly “up”. I am used to using these rules verbatim. I still don’t speak to strangers unless I am in a crowded and well-lit place. I still move whenever someone sitting beside me is coughing a lot: you never know, it could be TB. Whenever I am in Moscow, to this day, I always have my guard up. It sounds sinister, but it’s not actually.
It is as if I am constantly anticipating that someone will try to swindle me in some minor way. In a queue, you well get skipped unless you’re paying attention. The florist will inevitably “accidentally” charge for a higher priced bouquet and reissue the invoice once questioned. The radiographer will forget to take the standing X-ray having taken the lying one unless you double check. It’s a mix of carelessness and minor fraud that arises from low wages in a cynically unequal society. This happens everywhere of course, but it is quite consistent in Moscow, or at least is was, in the very turbulent 1990s. You have to be very aware, prepared to stand up for yourself and presume the worst of people. I don’t enjoy being like that. Just to be clear, I don’t hate where I come from or have some sort of overly dramatic story. These are just observations.
Having this 1990s Moscow “anchor”, most places I go to remind me of the pages of a fairy tale book. I may be exaggerating a little, but that’s the crux of the emotion I feel every day. Every day someone is polite to me, I remember that it wouldn’t have been like that back in the proverbial old country.
Whenever things happen without me having to double check that everyone has done their job, I automatically get this wave of bliss, gratitude and a sense of that concrete happiness. It’s like drinking water after a 10 K run. It’s like escaping capture by an enemy.
Why? Because I am anchored to believe that things going smoothly isn’t the norm. Elaborating on Ray Dalio’s formula,
Happiness = reality – expectation (regarding a given event or change in circumstances).
The specific anchor I have is quite low down in the expectation ocean, so happiness is often a positive value. Does it mean I actually have low expectations and take sh*t from people? Somehow it doesn’t. It just makes it easier to be happy. The fact that this isn’t just some idea, but an actual anchor I have been fortunate enough to form makes me see everything though that filter. Biases aren’t always bad.
If I had been reading, not writing this, I would probably think: here goes, be grateful, bla bla, game your mind until you feel happy even though you shouldn’t really. It doesn’t feel like I am forcing this at all. It’s a lucky idiosyncrasy. Can it be extrapolated to other things? So that we can feel happy more effortlessly? Very soon an overzealous extrapolation approach turns into “there are children starving in <remote location>, so you have to value what you have”, which inevitably causes resentment and a feeling of pointless self-fraud over time.
The point is that looking back at our own anchors and expectations (not those of deprived children in a less-developed country) can help to explain how happy or unhappy we feel.
Understanding that happiness is only achieved through change, it helps to think of our lives as a continuum of present moments rather than an efficient emotionless journey from A to B, where B is full of yummy dopamine***. It is just another way to understand the context, gain perspective or whatever other fancy term you may want to use for all those things hidden in plain sight.
In short, happiness is fundamentally decided by:
presence of change (real or perceived)
It’s also affected by temperament (e.g. the weight one attaches to negative events) and genetics – and I will talk about this another day.
* A gentleman who comments in English, but blogs in Polish here.
** Procrastination is an avoidance behaviour, but it does make us happy in a short term concrete way. I believe it makes us happy using the same mechanism as learning, though on balance, of course, it is a saboteur.
*** Actually, it is the anticipation of B that releases the dopamine.