Two obscure but important reasons why it so hard to feel happy

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:

  1. 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.

 

happiness depends on expectations biases and change
A full moon over Dublin Bay as seen from Dun Laoghaire East Pier. It reminds me of the time I spent abroad, where it was sunny and warm. Should that make me sad? Not at all: I am all the happier to be here.

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.

how anchoring bias affects happiness
You know the old song by Wham! called “Everything She Wants” where George Michael sings with much anguish: “Why do I do the things I do? I’d tell you if I knew”? Daniel Kahneman knows. Imagine if Machiavelli spoke like Pavlov, they guy with the dogs? This is it.

“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.

what determines how happy you feel
People’s level of life satisfaction as a function of time surrounding their wedding. Source: “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman, page 398

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.”

how to feel happy all the time anchoring bias
An nice and heavy anchor is Dun Laoghaire harbour, Dublin

 

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.

For example:

“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)
  • expectations

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.

Mindfulness in a difficult situation 1/2

Mindfulness takes people away from sadness over the past or worries over the future. What if the now feels stressful? With the brutal honesty this situation deserves, I describe the fleeting thoughts and finer insights I’ve been able to obtain by being in the moment as much as I could – in a difficult situation I caused. I felt it more, which was painful, but I also learnt more than I would have by not paying attention. Once again I learn that what made this situation difficult was rooted in the past or projected to the future. This story may be difficult to read for anyone who love animals, especially cats.

A charming new friend

I’ve always loved the furry little creatures. Maybe it is growing up with The Lion King as a favourite cartoon, I am not sure. Last Monday, coming back from work I felt quite lonely. There are a lot of feral cats near where I live. The community here feed them, it’s like a little sanctuary for them. In case you were wondering, cats can live in a kind of a pride, they’re not always solitary like it is normally presumed. I don’t usually pet them.  i tell myself the reason is that they have all kinds of parasites, etc. There’s something else that bothers me though:

I feel there’s something disingenuous about petting a stray cat. I am interfering with its life, implying that I can be good for the cat, but really I don’t know if I am habituating it to being accepting of humans when it shouldn’t necessarily be.

However, this cute grey kitten of about 8 months old sat there on a garden fence, looking at me. I came over to pet it and it seemed very happy. I was very happy too. We played for about 10 minutes and then she followed me for a long stretch of the journey home. I even wondered – should I bring her to stay in my garden, feed her, etc. But there are other cats living there, who knows what they’ll do. We passed by someone in a man hole and the cat didn’t want to keep going.

She made eye contact with me as I regretfully waved at her – and ran back to her part of the beach.

Talking to a friend later that day, I reminisced about the cat that we had when I was younger. She had to be given away as I had bad allergic rhinitis. My friend reassured me that it was good for me to befriend a cat like that, and it would be right to have the cat migrate from where it normally lives.

On Thursday I was passing by the same stretch of the beach. All of a sudden the very same kitty appeared out of nowhere. I know that dogs have a fantastic sense of smell, but this cat new who I was as it came over very confidently awaiting to be cuddled. About 10 minutes later, I decided it wouldn’t be right to play with the cat and not feed it. After all, these cutesy cats know how to play us: they are very used to getting fed by humans. So I decided that we shall cross the road and get some tuna in the shop. You know where this is going…

Watching the consequences of bad judgement in real time

I carried the cat across the road, but as we were finished crossing, agitated, she wanted to get out of my arms. And I let her. She jumped on the pavement. We were a good few metres away from the cars at this point – and all of a sudden she bolted back to run to the other side of the road.

The next moment seemed to last forever.

I don’t know how long it took her to get across. I remember the tiny pieces of cat fur vaporised in the air as if they were feathers. I remember anxious drivers mindful of their blind spots but also aware of the traffic behind them on a busy road… At the same time, it happened so fast, I don’t even know which car hit her. I stood there terrified. Even after it was injured it relentlessly kept searching for safety, breathing fast, its back arched and eyes wide open, pulling itself by its front paws.

I felt that I had taken this defenceless trusting creature, promised her safety and negligently let her fall into the Styx.

The adrenaline was pumping, but I knew that I couldn’t just go out into the stream of cars to save her. Between the traffic coming from 2 sides and the frantic cat, all at night time, there were more moving parts than I could safely handle.The hardest part was standing there, watching the poor cat trying to get to safety having absolutely no insight into how traffic works knowing that this wouldn’t have happened without me and realising my own powerlessness.

Most of this blog is in some way related to mindfulness.

By and large, mindfulness makes life easier to be mindful as the vast majority of moments are better than anxieties about the future or ruminations about the past. This wasn’t one of those moments.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget it – neither should I.

There were just seconds between being a happy friendly kitten and suffering the most intense fear and life-threatening injuries.

When I came over to her, her little heart was pounding so fast I could barely distinguish a pulse.

As I lifted her, it was obvious her back legs weren’t functional. She tried to climb into a bush, dragging herself by her front legs.

As a doctor, I have a certain confidence when it comes to emergency situations: I was trained to handle emergencies. However, it turns out this only applies to specific emergencies. Given the time of day, it didn’t even occur to me to look for a vet. Just like the cat’s, my instinct was to hide in my own metaphorical bush – carry her home, to my safety. As I carried her, I thought she might be dying. Cats’ pupils are usually so tiny. This cat’s were so dilated, I could barely see the green of her irises. She was supine in my arms, staring into space, hyperventilating and foaming at the mouth.

I’d never seen so much anguish in any creature’s eyes.

Reflection and rumination

What stopped me from crossing on my own to get the cat food? It seemed like it would be so much fun to go together. It seems that with all that scrolling through Instagram, I’d forgotten that animals aren’t a form entertainment. They have fragile lives that we don’t understand the same way that they do. One of the reasons I didn’t think that it was in issue to bring the cat across was that I’d seen plenty of cats crossing the road like they knew exactly what they were doing. I’ve seen a few lucky escapes by less than knowledgeable cats, but they somehow didn’t come up in my mind quite so prominently. It was possibly a semi-conscious decision to refuse insight as it seemed that doing things together with this cat was my way to connect with it and to feel less lonely. She’s a lonely stray cat, and I felt like a stray that day too.

It felt right to pick her up – and felt wrong to be overly calculated about it.

As she ran back across I tried to stop her. Even at that point, I was a bit scared but mostly confident she knew what she was doing.

There’s a certain arrogance that comes with being human.

When I picked her up the first time, I was sure I knew how to handle a cat. I felt I knew more about what’s good for the cat than she did. But really, what am I capable of? I can’t pause the traffic. I can’t keep a cat due to family circumstances. I can’t expect to find someone to home a sick cat in a country full of stray cats. I can’t even be sure I can pay the vet’s bills.

It’s a terrifying realisation: how fragile we all are. It is so hard to handle this concept. It’s hard to not feel helpless knowing how vulnerable we really are.

Not only was this creature fragile, but also lacking in insight. This poor cat didn’t know how it worked even though it lived by the road.

And it just reminded me of how we all are: we don’t know why things happen the way they happen.

Things seem random and dangerous. We try so hard, we give it all we’ve got, but we don’t know how to get to safety any better than this little kitten.

Guilt, guilt, more guilt

Is it all just guilt? There’s a lot of guilt. While everything I did was well intended, it was also negligent. I should have known that the feral cat isn’t that used to being picked up, that it may want to run home, that it may not understand how the road works.

It’s difficult to recognise that being well intended, I ended up putting this cat into a horrible situation.

At the same time I know that I was never going to be perfect. I err; it is my nature as a human being. I can forgive myself at some point, given that I learnt. It’s tough to write this. All of this is written while crying. I’ve been crying multiple times a day since this happened. It’s my n-th draft. The least I can do is learn and share what I learnt. I can’t let go of this until I learn everything I can – and of course, do everything I can for the poor cat.

Of course, I realise that all of these ruminations aren’t very mindful. However, I have no intention of purging them as I know they’re trying to teach me something. Most of this is written as they occur.

I know it’s better to acknowledge my thoughts and feelings: the good, the bad and the ugly rather than trying to get rid of them. It’s the choices and actions that count, so that’s my focus now.

No vet was open at this late hour. I rang a few “emergency” numbers where the vets all advised me to wait until tomorrow. I struggled to fall asleep. I tried to focus on my breath as my mind insisted on replaying the events of the night as well as all the ifs and the should haves… It was particularly hard to let go of those. I couldn’t, but I kept trying. I woke up very early the next morning. It wasn’t clear whether it was alive as it hid behind the air conditioning unit. I didn’t want to wake it. It was only a fleeting thought of yet another part of me that I am seriously not proud of that she was dead so that I wouldn’t have to face difficult decisions at the vet’s like having to “put her to sleep”. It wouldn’t be sleep though, would it?

When we got to the vet in the morning, this woman in her early 40s didn’t seem enthused at having to see a stray. She examined the cat: there was reason to believe that the spine could be broken and the bladder ruptured, both of which a guarded prognosis. I cried again in the vet’s office. The vet wasn’t in any way unprofessional, but she had a cold and clinical style. It seems I was sufficiently inconsolable to get her a bit more involved. When she was writing up the cat’s chart, the vet asked me what the cat’s name was. This is when I really stopped being able to speak through the tears. Obviously, cats don’t give consent, but if they did, I felt that I surely didn’t have it. I failed this animal, I didn’t have any rights over her and surely she was not the sort of cat who has a name. She was a feral cat, and it was time for me to finally respect that fact.

I am crying again while I am writing this. My emotions seem completely overwhelming.

I had a role to play in this cat’s misfortune. I made an error in judgement. I realised yet again our fragility and transience. It’s bad, but it doesn’t explain how intensely bad I feel.

Transference and empathy

To some extent, I feel that this isn’t a stray cat, but my old cat from years ago. Freud called it transference. On another level, I feel that I have much in common with the cat. I believe that is what they really call empathy. Being an NT type on Myers-Briggs, it seems to me that I don’t feel things as intensely or as quickly as some others seem to. I might come across as cold to some people, but I it’s not really what it’s like for me. I cry from watching films, reading books… I can’t watch fail videos… I couldn’t even finish Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, in the same way that, I would argue, the main character wouldn’t finish it either.

Having a habit of reading deeply into things, I wonder if being a thinking type (as distinct from a feeling type) is a form of defence – because experiencing real, insightful empathy is utterly intolerable.

Perhaps that’s why most nerds seem kind of maladjusted socially and don’t relate well to people.

IQ combined with EQ allows one to see things that are very scary – and nobody wants to be this scared. Perhaps having a high grade on both of these stops being evolutionary advantageous.

Of course,  it is about how one uses it, but even that requires constant overriding of primal limbic empathy. I remember seeing pictures of Syrian children that went viral and feeling awful on one level, simply as any human being would towards a harmed child, on another – recognising that such emotionally charged images are used to promote certain political interests, that most people who see the images don’t realise this and that this lack of insight from the mass readership of social media and newspapers is instrumental in the advancement of the said political interests. It’s not that I have the opposite political interest, it is the fact that politics is involved that made it feel nasty. In other words, suffering children are used to condition the masses in a way that suits some elite. This isn’t all that deep, but it’s just an example of IQ and EQ working together to show how the world is a hugely complex place. Why am I using the word complex? Why not just say that its nasty? Well, because I know that I don’t fully understand it. Maybe the consequences of this media reporting are going to be better than the alternative. I will never know.

A few attempts at rationalisation

Years ago, I read about Shingon Buddhism. It’s not something that is written about a lot on the internet or indeed in print. It teaches about right and wrong in a way that we’re not used to.

For example, if a tiger kills an antelope, we conventionally feel sorry for the antelope. There’s something wrong about it. In reality, the tiger needs to kill the antelope because its little tiger cub will shrivel and die otherwise. What is right and what is wrong?

We like the day and fear the night: but they can’t exist without each other. I guess Buddhism, in general, tells us that it’s difficult to judge what’s good and bad, at least as far as external circumstances we’ve no control over are concerned.

Of course, part of me is consoling myself and searching for a rationalisation. However, there genuinely may be some good that will emerge from this experience. Maybe my learning will help me – or someone reading this – to do something better than what we would have otherwise done. In a strange twist, a day or two before this happened, I was replying to someone’s comment and saying that meaning remains after death, regardless of whether one’s top of the food chain homo sapiens or… a feral cat. I hope she doesn’t die from this, but in any case, she is very meaningful to me.

Lessons I learnt

We’re all fragile. A moment can change everything. It’s a bad idea to interfere in another’s life as I don’t know nearly as much as I think I do about it.

What else did I learn?

At no point during the ordeal did the cat show any signs of giving up.

I am here lamenting and analysing. The cat is getting on with her life. Tildeb recently introduced me to some old English literature, and in particular this:

Whether fate be foul or fair,

Why falter I or fear?

What should man do but dare?

The cat doesn’t give up. The cat is always preoccupied with her surroundings. She’s constantly looking around and just does her best to adapt. The night before we went to the vet she cried, I assume for her relatives and because of pain. I’d never heard a cat cry before. It’s kind of like a dog squealing, but less protracted and a bit more like a meow. It’s also completely heart-wrenching.

I also learnt a huge amount about guilt, compassion, motivation, bias, empathy, sense of self and expectations.

To be continued….

mindfulness in a difficult situation
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