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.

Friday’s 5 cognitive curiosities journal club

1. Thinking Fast and Slow: 2 different networks

From eLife

University of Oxford researchers studied the speed/accuracy trade-off involved in making decisions. They explored the networks that determine how quickly we choose an option, and how much information we need to make that choice. These findings indicate that distinct neural mechanisms determine whether a decision will be made in haste or with caution. They found that participants made much faster decisions when the task was easier and when asked for a quick decision. As expected, study participants made significantly more errors during tests where they spent more time making a decision and were instructed to focus on accuracy.

2. Are some people born depressed?

From The Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry

Alterations in the normal development of the functional connectivity within the amygdala have been associated with atypical emotional processes and psychopathology. This study examined term and preterm neonates who were then followed up at 2 years of age. Most interestingly, the researchers noted that various connection patterns between the amygdala and other structures – like the insula, involved in consciousness and emotion, and the medial prefrontal cortex, which plays roles in planning and decision making – affect the risk of early symptoms related to depression and anxiety.

3. AI to decode conversation tone to help people with social anxiety and ASD

From MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL)

The system captures audio data and text transcripts to analyse the speaker’s tone, pitch, energy, and vocabulary. It’s not ready for widespread use, but the algorithms are training as this is written.

4. You pop that gum one more time…

From Current Biology

While nobody really likes repetitive sounds like chewing or pen clicking, some people are known to get particularly distressed by them. It’s called misophobia. This study reveals that this is due to a physical difference in the myelination of the grey matter of ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC).

5. A seminal paper on mindfulness in medicine


I am currently talking to one of the medical mindfulness pioneers, Prof Ronald Epstein. Now a professor, then a third-year Harvard medical student, he was moved by the experience of watching an surgeon fail to notice that his 18-year-old patient’s kidney had turned blue. This set Epstein on a path of studying what makes doctors present and how it benefits their practice. He argues that as a link between relationship-centered care and evidence-based medicine, mindfulness should be considered a characteristic of good clinical practice.

cognitive curiosities top 5 this week

The many ways the tail wags the dog

I first tried to read Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion a few years back. While the introduction is full of interesting facts, it is clearly a book written for a wide audience and has a slightly off-putting uniquely-American selling pitch quality despite being about how to not be sold to. I revisited it this Christmas, and I am very happy I did. My initial approach to it was as a book on marketing. I doubt I am the only one – learning to be good at marketing makes me feel a bit… fraudulent. Reframing it as learning about human behaviour – makes all the difference. It’s especially ironic as the book would explain why that is. In essence, it is a more dated (1984), less academic, but none the less brilliant rendition on the same issues as Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. The academic tone is probably my favourite, but it did, nevertheless, take me a particularly long time to read Thinking…, so if it seems too tedious – Influence is the perfect alternative. [Having said that, it is of a lower academic standard. For example, Cialdini’s description of S. Milgram’s famous experiment is inaccurate and his interpretation – sensationalist, but it’s still an interesting point of view that could be true.]

robert cialdini influence review

There are 6 rules of influence, Cialdini posits: Reciprocity, Social Proof, Consistency, Liking, Authority and Scarcity. The gist of it is summarised here.

Essentially, the entire book is about expectations – and how they reign over us.

I am tempted to go into a mindfulness/stoicism spiel here, but I’ll save that for later. I imagine reading this somewhat dated but still fundamentally brilliant book before the advent of social media would have been one of the best education investments one could make. Now, we are much more familiar with social proof, authority, etc as we see it every day. We probably have much sharper BS detectors for these particular marketing tricks than people did when this book was written in the 1980s. However,

this book explains the fundamentals incredibly well – and while we learnt a bit on how to not be BS’d when buying, most of us are clueless about these influence modalities in their applications outside of mechanical buying and selling .

Essentially, all of these 6 things set expectations: one feels obliged to reciprocate, one feels reassured by social proof, one trusts authority even more than one could ever imagine, etc.

Cialdini’s examples come from all areas of life.

Be it buying petrol, ordering desert, changing the behaviour of prisoners of war or navigating a romantic issue – Cialdini shows how expectations – rather than reality – determine our behaviour.

He moves from his selling pitchy voice to a much more ethically-charged discussion on how people deal with authority later in the book. He has incredible insight. He even discusses free will very briefly. It seems as though he would have liked to write a much more academically themed book, but felt he wouldn’t reach as wide an audience.

cialdini influence kahneman thinking fast and slow review

Here are some of my favourite chunks:


This stretch below will make it easier to let go of your failed romances:

Take the bettors in the racetrack experiment. Thirty seconds before putting down their money, they had been tentative and uncertain; thirty seconds after the deed, they were significantly more optimistic and self-assured. The act of making a final decision—in this case, of buying a ticket—had been the critical factor. Once a stand had been taken, the need for consistency pressured these people to bring what they felt and believed into line with what they had already done. They simply convinced themselves that they had made the right choice and, no doubt, felt better about it all.

Before we see such self-delusion as unique to racetrack habitués, we should examine the story of my neighbor Sara and her live-in boyfriend, Tim. They met at a hospital where he worked as an X-ray technician and she as a nutritionist. They dated for a while, even after Tim lost his job, and eventually they moved in together. Things were never perfect for Sara: She wanted Tim to marry her and to stop his heavy drinking; Tim resisted both ideas. After an especially difficult period of conflict, Sara broke off the relationship, and Tim moved out. At the same time, an old boyfriend of Sara’s returned to town after years away and called her. They started seeing each other socially and quickly became serious enough to plan a wedding. They had gone so far as to set a date and issue invitations when Tim called. He had repented and wanted to move back in. When Sara told him her marriage plans, he begged her to change her mind; he wanted to be together with her as before. But Sara refused, saying she didn’t want to live like that again. Tim even offered to marry her, but she still said she preferred the other boyfriend. Finally, Tim volunteered to quit drinking if she would only relent. Feeling that under those conditions Tim had the edge, Sara decided to break her engagement, cancel the wedding, retract the invitations, and let Tim move back in with her.

Within a month, Tim informed Sara that he didn’t think he needed to stop his drinking after all; a month later, he had decided that they should “wait and see” before getting married. Two years have since passed; Tim and Sara continue to live together exactly as before. He still drinks, there are still no marriage plans, yet Sara is more devoted to Tim than she ever was. She says that being forced to choose taught her that Tim really is number one in her heart. So, after choosing Tim over her other boyfriend, Sara became happier with him, even though the conditions under which she had made her choice have never been fulfilled. Obviously, horse-race bettors are not alone in their willingness to believe in the correctness of a difficult choice, once made. Indeed, we all fool ourselves from time to time in order to keep our thoughts and beliefs consistent with what we have already done or decided.

Robert Cialdini's Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion review

Social Proof

It works even when it’s phony:

I don’t know anyone who likes canned laughter. […] The people I questioned hated canned laughter. They called it stupid, phony, and obvious. Although my sample was small, I would bet that it closely reflects the negative feelings of most of the American public toward laugh tracks.

Why, then, is canned laughter so popular with television executives? They have won their exalted positions and splendid salaries by knowing how to give the public what it wants. Yet they religiously employ the laugh tracks that their audiences find distasteful. And they do so over the objections of many of their most talented artists. It is not uncommon for acclaimed directors, writers, or actors to demand the elimination of canned responses from the television projects they undertake. These demands are only sometimes successful, and when they are, it is not without a battle.

What could it be about canned laughter that is so attractive to television executives? Why would these shrewd and tested businessmen champion a practice that their potential watchers find disagreeable and their most creative talents find personally insulting? The answer is at once simple and intriguing: They know what the research says. Experiments have found that the use of canned merriment causes an audience to laugh longer and more often when humorous material is presented and to rate the material as funnier. 

Together with Daniel Kaheman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Mark McCormack’s What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School, this book is essential reading in understanding human behaviour.

Here is the full book though I imagine this breaches copyright

Get these blog posts via Facebook!

Management consultants now selling neuroscience

The Financial Times published an interesting post today on how management consultants are looking at brain chemicals to help analyse leadership and workplace trust.

Deloitte is looking into brain chemistry – and how they can apply what they learnt in neuroscience to management. Some of the quotes from management consultants sound like they need a bit more time in the oven: “Neuroscience would be saying you need more neural pathways to make people think differently.”

management consulting psychology neuroscience

I think Thinking Fast and Slow should be read by every management consultant and leader. I wonder what these guys will have to add on top of this. Paul Zak, the neuroscientist that the FT quotes, talks about trust as an “economic lubricant”. Isn’t that Marketing 101? In fact, I doodled about it here. Ok, they mention a few chemicals that most management consulting folk and their clients probably haven’t heard of before like oxytocin. In management consulting, a new name usually means a new sales pitch, so I can see why they are excited. Another management consultant references the idea that we are more irrational when we are in fight or flight mode. I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised that in some boardroom some CEO of a gargantuan business is signing off on a contract with a management consultancy that just presented this – but really, it does sound like plain common sense.

There is one very interesting idea in the article: predictive hiring.

Instead of relying upon CVs and interviews, they ask applicants to play 15 or 20 computer games designed with the aid of neuroscience — revealing a cognitive and emotional profile. The result is matched against the gaming profile of high-performers in the role to be filled. Combined with techniques such as machine-learning and trawling social media profiles, this approach opens the way to hiring based on capability. “Companies won’t worry where they went to school or what their grades are”…

I think that games that seeing how a person takes decisions is a great way to understand their personality. It is the basis of psychological tests. However, if, instead of trying to go into the reasons why a person is like this and what they can do about it, we could simply use this information for what it is, I think it would really help to match people with certain jobs. It’s like a decision making genome that you can then marry with a job description – of course only after you accumulate enough data.

using psychology neuroscience in management consulting

Good advice vs bad advice

“I hesitate to give advice because every major single piece of advice I was given turned out to be wrong and I am glad I didn’t follow them.”

– Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Taking advice from anyone, be it Seneca, an aunt or an admired mentor  is risky business. Almost everybody who gives advice means well – even those who make money by doing it. However, it is very easy to overgeneralise with advice. It’s also tempting to shift part of the responsibility for results onto the advice giver – without meaning to do so – just one reason we are drawn to good advice, hacks, secrets, tricks and shortcuts. It’s also not uncommon to receive conflicting advice from seemingly reputable sources. What to do then? Here are four questions to ask before deciding to take on advice.

Is it advice or is a fact?

Exercise is good for you is a fact; it’s not advice. It applies to everyone from recent ICU patients to pregnant women to the elderly to – basically everyone. Obviously, the application of this fact is different for all these people, but it is all based off the same fundamental principle. High-intensity interval training and a ketogentic diet would be good for you is advice. It doesn’t apply to everyone. People who say it assume that everyone is just like them, so it will work for everyone (or for a critical mass that makes the rest irrelevant). It won’t work for everyone – simply because the assumptions don’t hold for everyone. It’s not 100% clear what those assumptions are, perhaps it is genetics, microflora, etc, but it’s not a fact and as advice it needs to be refined, i.e. made contextual – I will explain further on.

How does one distinguish between facts and advice? It’s probably an intuitive judgement that relies on the universality of a statement. If it is a fact, great; a new gem for our wisdom collection. If it is advice, we shall continue to investigate.

Is it a sales pitch?

Watch an interview with Richard Branson. He always says it is very important to let go, not hold a grudge and other such merry stuff. He also always brings up this example: when he started his airline, British Airways tried to sabotage it through a series of illegal tricks like calling Virgin passengers, telling them their flight is cancelled and rebooking them with BA. Being the sound lad that he is, he made up with the management of BA after the dust settled on their conflict. Great story. There’s just one problem. If Mr Branson really took his advice seriously – he wouldn’t have gone around 20 and 30 years later dragging British Airways through the dirt. Yes, they arguably deserve it, but it certainly isn’t an example of letting go and being sound. What it is, is a sales pitch for people who lack insight. Branson is basically talking up the brand that centres so significantly around his persona. If he is sound, surely you will want to buy from him and his c. 400 companies.

There are, of course, less subtle examples of this. Is there a conflict of interest? The most obvious example comes from the glut of people online who sell X teaching others how to sell X. For example, people who sell courses on how to sell courses. Professional advice givers that aren’t really professional – the many life coaches out there – are in that same category. To be fair, even doctors and lawyers could be accused of this. The difference is that there is a greater degree of responsibility that the provider assumes for their client. So the difference isn’t qualitative, it is quantitative.

Taking advice from mentors is ridden with problems too. They have an ego and a reputation to defend. Before I went into medicine, Every. Single. Doctor. I met told me not to do it. They told me I would regret it. Once I was in it, it was a different game. They couldn’t talk to me earnestly like before because they had standards and facades to uphold – a vision to sell. Any complaint regarding the issues in medicine goes down like we’re in the Stanford prison experiment. Ok, it’s not a sales pitch, but it’s a perversely related beast based on a conflict of interest.

The reason advising in various shapes and forms is a whole industry, is that it sells. It sells just like Coke. Advice is a product, it’s the intangible magic pill – one that makes us feel good too.

how to get good advice

Is this advice contextual?

Advice without context is meaningless. That part of the advice industry that is tailored is useful. So for example, a one-on-one consultation with a doctor or lawyer, an engagement with a management consultant would be contextual. They ask questions, in other words, they find out the context. All advice should really always carry the same disclaimers as medical advice. For example, Marcus Aurelius’ advice to live every day like it’s our last isn’t right for everyone. Similarly, just because Jimmy does better on the purple inhaler doesn’t mean that Bobby will too. It wouldn’t be right for Jimmy to tell Bobby to throw out his brown inhaler and buy a purple one. This logic should be applied to all advice.

This is one of the reasons why “secrets” often traded by people who did well in something are of limited value. They lack context. Furthermore, this is made worse by a certain cognitive bias: once one learns something, it is virtually impossible to imagine not knowing about it.

Daniel Kahneman, in his wonderful Thinking Fast and Slow, showed that we have 2 systems: one intuitive, stereotype-driven fast system, and the other logical slow system. The trick here is that everyone’s fast system is slightly different. The point of giving advice is to elicit an idiosyncrasy about this particular person’s fast system that is so far from reality that it is hurting them.

Do I want to swap places with this person?

It’s only a crude proxy, it doesn’t always apply, but generally, unless a person is living your dream at least in that aspect of their life on which they are advising – it’s probably not worth taking their advice. It still a valuable data point, but not good advice. This is why it is hard to take advice from overweight doctors and why reading the biographies of philosophers has me feeling shocked with their trail of pregnant land ladies and other hypocrisies. It is also the reason why role models are usually more beneficial than advice givers.

how to get good advice

And yes, I know that someone out there will call this advice – or even meta-advice! However, I don’t think it is possible to give advice by asking questions. Questions direct people to narrower answers, but I do believe that this set of filters will lead to more thoughtful and relevant decisions.

Cognitive curiosities: what our minds do without telling us

I am fascinated by the idiosyncrasies of the human mind. This is an ever expanding collection of my finds: biases, assumptions, adaptive mechanisms and shortcuts. I don’t recommend reading all of these books – some are (much) better than others, but here are the highlights by theme.


We often deal with difficult questions by answering an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution. Is Jenny good at her job? becomes Do I like Jenny? [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

It’s impossible to learn if you think you already know it. [Ego Is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday]

Self-awareness comes in layers. The first is to recognise an emotion. The second is to ask why the emotion is there. Usually it is due to some event occurring: e.g. a piece of news, a breakup, a raise, someone looked at you funny, etc. The third is to acknowledge what meaning you ascribed to this event through your values and rules. For example, you may believe that someone breaking up with you means you’re not good enough as a person, or that getting a raise is a consequence of your hard work. The more important the relevant value is in the hierarchy of values, the more intense the emotion. The way you decide your values makes all the difference to how you feel. [The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F-ck by Mark Manson]

Emotional contagion is a real thing. [Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman]

We think that other people pay much more attention to us than they actually do. [Mindwise… by Nicholas Epley]

We tend to assume that others see the world similarly to the way we do. [Mindwise… by Nicholas Epley]

When your working memory is occupied, your ability to think is compromised. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

Priming: our actions and emotions are affected by things we are often unaware of. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

Naïve realism: the feeling that we see the world as it actually is, rather than through the lens of our perception. [Mindwise… by Nicholas Epley]

We are aware of the brain’s finished products, e.g. conclusions, theories, beliefs, emotions, but not so much how these were arrived at. Hence, it is difficult to recognise one’s own errors of cognition/assumptions. [Mindwise… by Nicholas Epley]

Surprise leads to enhance conscious attention. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

People believe that they are more attractive than they actually are. This is why most of pictures look so bad. [Mindwise… by Nicholas Epley]

Our brains are story telling machines. If we don’t know the facts, the brain will pad the story with assumptions. [Mindwise… by Nicholas Epley] It is easier to come up with a story that makes sense when you know fewer facts – as it is a simpler puzzle to solve. This is because we have an unbelievably powerful way of ignoring what we don’t know. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

“The media” are frequently accused of being biased. However, they never seems to be accused of being biased in favour of those accusing it. [Mindwise… by Nicholas Epley]

God always seems to agree with the person citing him. [Mindwise… by Nicholas Epley]

We have an overwhelming need to be consistent. We assume that other’s are consistent too, it’s called the halo effect. In our minds, a brilliant pianist is automatically a great driver and family man. However, a convicted criminal is automatically an aggressive driver and a wife-beater. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

Desiring a positive experience is a negative experience. However, accepting a negative experience is a positive experience.The more you want X, the more 1/X you will feel. This applies to wanting to improve your appearance, mood and spirituality. The key point of the book, phrased more civilly, is to play to your strengths. [The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F-ck by Mark Manson]

Leaving your sense of self open to be influenced by external circumstances is dangeorous.
The narcissistically inclined live in an unwalled city. [Ego Is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday]

What feels bad isn’t necessarily bad and vice versa. Negative feelings are biology’s way to draw our attention to a (potential) problem. [The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F-ck by Mark Manson] [Principles by Ray Dalio]

Feeling bad is made worse by taking things personally, believing that it’s going to last forever and affects absolutely every area of your life. [Multiple works by Martin Seligman]

cognitive biases mental health


Future-oriented people tend to be more successful professionally and academically, to eat well, to exercise regularly, and to schedule preventative doctor’s exams. But they are the least likely to help others in need. When faced with a choice to engage in a behaviour, future-oriented people believe that they are choosing the consequences, rather than the behaviour. [The Time Paradox by Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd]

Present-oriented people tend to be willing to help others, but appear less willing or able to help themselves. They are the least likely to be successful. Good leaders are in the moment and have a way of communicating this to their audience to make them feel like they are the leader’s sole focus. [The Time Paradox by Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd]

How we think and feel today influences how we remember yesterday. [The Time Paradox by Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd]

Anything that limits our sense of an unlimited future changes our motivations and priorities so that they now focus on emotional satisfaction in the present. Those who feel like the future in unlimited, favour quantity over quality: more friends, more hobbies, etc. Those who feel the future in only short, e.g. due to a terminal disease, favour quality over quantity.  [The Time Paradox by Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd] This is interesting in the context of stoic philosophy.


We respond to a change in wealth in a measure that is inversely proportional to the initial amount of wealth. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

We take on more risk when all our options are bad. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

We perceive value as relating to gains and losses rather than to wealth. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

Having explicit goals has a positive impact on achievement. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

Understanding other people

Spending more time together doesn’t help you read the mind of the other person. It gives you the illusion that you can. [Mindwise… by Nicholas Epley]

Emotion is carried through voice more than it is through visual expression. [Mindwise… by Nicholas Epley]

Reading body language and trying to take on the other’s perspective doesn’t seem to help to understand the person better. What does help is creating situations where people can openly tell you what they think – and listen carefully. [Mindwise… by Nicholas Epley]

A quick way to build rapport with someone is to unveil private thoughts or memories to each other.  [Mindwise… by Nicholas Epley]

A relationship is more likely to succeed if bad experiences are avoided. It has less to do with the good experiences.[Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

Body language

We smile when we feel happy, but also, when we’re forced to smile by holding a pen in our teeth, it makes us feel happy. [Amy Cuddy: Your body language shapes who you are]

Two minutes in a power pose (think Wonder Woman or Usain Bolt crossing the finish line) lead to these hormonal changes in cortisol and testosterone that configure your brain to be assertive, confident and comfortable. Conversely, a small pose (arms and legs crossed) leads to changes that cause you to be stress-reactive, and feeling shut down. [Amy Cuddy: Your body language shapes who you are]

When you are in the high-power pose condition, it causes you to take more risks. [Amy Cuddy: Your body language shapes who you are]

It is difficult to empathise with a person fully until you assume their physical position. [Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman]

People who have had Botox have duller social senses being unable to mimic the facial expressions of others. [Mindwise… by Nicholas Epley]

cognitive biases psychological hacks

We love echo chambers

Confirmation bias: we pay attention to the facts that confirm our point of view more that the ones that refute it. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman] When volunteers were told that they have poor IQ scores and given the opportunity to read up on IQ tests, they paid more attention to articles that questioned the validity of IQ tests than articles that validated them. [Stumbling upon Happiness by Daniel Gilbert]

The part of the brain that is involved in trying to understand what others are thinking, the medial prefrontal cortex, is more engaged more when you’re thinking about yourself, your close friends and family, and others who have values close to your own. [Mindwise… by Nicholas Epley]

How we are sold

Shoppers were shown four identical pairs of stockings. They didn’t know that they were identical. Shoppers always preferred the stockings on the far right, they were the last that they examined. [Mindwise… by Nicholas Epley]

Making people want the right things

Changing the context is far more effective than changing individual minds. Otherwise cleanly people will litter if there’s already rubbish on the floor. [Mindwise… by Nicholas Epley]

Economies grow only if people are deluded into believing that the production of wealth will make them happy. [Stumbling upon Happiness by Daniel Gilbert]

irrational human minds cognitive biases

Black swans

Our memories cling onto the most outstanding, least likely things. Hence, when we predict the future, we tend to assign erroneously large probabilities to unlikely events.[Stumbling upon Happiness by Daniel Gilbert]

Predictions based on intuition tend to be overconfident and overly extreme. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

When we’re not sure about the probability of something, the best course of action is to default to the base rate and the propensity to revert to the mean. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

We crave uniqueness

We crave the feeling of being unique and constantly seek evidence to back it up. [Stumbling upon Happiness by Daniel Gilbert]

We are much more likely to notice an opportunity to develop if it makes us feel significant. [Ego Is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday]

A man who claims to be searching for himself is looking for a sense of distinction. [Mindwise… by Nicholas Epley]

We are what we do – not what we think, say or feel. [Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart by Gordon Livingston]

People tend to overestimate the differences between us and other people. This has implications for religious, racial and other conflict. [Mindwise… by Nicholas Epley]

Opinion vs experience

Expert opinions are not significantly more reliable than nonspecialists. [Expert Political Judgment… by Philip Tetlock]

Falsehoods will be accepted as the truth through frequent repetition. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

Virtually everybody sees themselves as above average. [Stumbling upon Happiness by Daniel Gilbert] [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

Our bias towards seeing ourselves as above average is accompanied by the perception that we are also less biased than average. [Stumbling upon Happiness by Daniel Gilbert]

We seek to change our experience before we look to change our attitude to it. We don’t automatically look for silver linings. [Stumbling upon Happiness by Daniel Gilbert]

We become less confident in a decisions when we are asked to produce more arguments to support it. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

We rate something based on the memory of the most intense point and the end point of an experience. Hence, an experience of consistent low-intensity pain is remembered as being better than a few intense shocks. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

Intense shocks trigger psychological defences, but the mild shocks do not. That’s why you could forgive your spouse for cheating but stay angry about the dishes. [Stumbling upon Happiness by Daniel Gilbert]

A good strategy to predict how we will feel is to find someone who just went through the experience and ask them how they feel. [Stumbling upon Happiness by Daniel Gilbert]

We find cognitive effort at least mildly unpleasant and avoid it as much as possible. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

If we deliberately avoid chasing short-term outcomes, the quality of our decisions and outcomes improves. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

We are obsessed with sunk-costs. This fallacy keeps people locked into situations that they should have left a long time ago. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

The planning fallacy: people are overly optimistic when they make plans. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

how to improve self awareness

I know one thing: that I know nothing

It is virtually impossible to remember what it’s like not knowing a fact/skill once you know it.  [Mindwise… by Nicholas Epley] The jury cannot disregard the prosecutor’s snide remarks. [Stumbling upon Happiness by Daniel Gilbert] We cannot reconstruct past states of knowledge. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman] I wonder about that. Is that not how negotiations work? Is that not how we lie to someone?

What we call “fact” is simply conjectures that have met a certain minimum standard of proof. [Stumbling upon Happiness by Daniel Gilbert]

People prefer certainty and clarity over uncertainty and mystery. While increasing our chances of survival they diminish happiness. [Stumbling upon Happiness by Daniel Gilbert]

We look for causal relationships to situations that require statistical reasoning. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]


Happiness is determined by expectations and our history rather than by real events alone. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

Deliberate attempts to feel happy tend to lead to feeling worse than we did before. [Stumbling upon Happiness by Daniel Gilbert]

We think that we will regret bad actions more than bad omissions. However, 90% of people regret not having done things. [Stumbling upon Happiness by Daniel Gilbert]

“Presentism”: we tend to evaluate historical figures using the values of our own time. Judging Thomas Jefferson for having slaves or Sigmund Freud for patronising women is like arresting someone today for having driven without a seat belt in 1923. [Stumbling upon Happiness by Daniel Gilbert]

We consistently overestimate how bad we will feel and how long this feeling will last if something bad happens. [Stumbling upon Happiness by Daniel Gilbert]

We only care about a parameter when it is highlighted through side-by-side comparison. [Stumbling upon Happiness by Daniel Gilbert]

Optimism is largely inherited. Optimists perform better. They take on more risks that they realise and bounce back from failure more easily. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

how to improve motivation


People will work harder to avoid bad things than to get good things. It’s a consequence of loss aversion. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

It is easier to assume that you’re going to fail than actually testing it. [The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F-ck by Mark Manson]

A sense of control over the outcome is very important to motivation. We have control over how we assign values and thus perceive the world as well as what way we’re going to act [Multiple works by Martin Seligman] The more choices we are able to exercise, the happier we are likely to be. [Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart by Gordon Livingston]

We are more motivated to avoid bad self-definitions than to go after good ones. [Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]

When believe that you can achieve something, you work harder. [The Time Paradox by Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd]

Repeated failure in early life creates a sense of learned helplessness and leads you to give up on that area of performance. [The Time Paradox by Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd]

Mentally rehearsing reaching goals step-by-step helps to achieve them. [The Time Paradox by Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd] [Principles by Ray Dalio]

Happiness and self-respect are our strongest desires. [Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart by Gordon Livingston]

Giving up on a dream isn’t always failure. Sometimes we make wrong decisions about what we aspire to (assuming that that in and of itself isn’t a failure). [The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F-ck by Mark Manson]

Anyone who gets really good at something have a belief that there’s lot os room for improvement. They doubt their work a lot. It’s beneficial to accept the possibility of being wrong unemotionally. [The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F-ck by Mark Manson]

Meaning and significant accomplishment is only possible through focusing and saying no. It means massive opportunity cost and less freedom, hence, few people do it. [The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F-ck by Mark Manson] [Ego Is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday]


People taking a test do much better when they are in a good mood. They become more creative. They also become more prone to logical errors. Unhappy test subjects were shown to be incapable of performing an intuitive task well. Mood affects our intuition.[Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman]


People in depression focus on the past. They feel that ruminating on the causes of their symptoms will help solve their problems. This only leads into a downward spiral. [The Time Paradox by Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd]