Music profoundly changes our emotions. Sound has the potential to turn our feelings inside out.
In September, I committed to bringing my mother to the theatre. Local theatres do a lot of film screenings, I found with disappointment. Among them, I spotted The Graduate. I don’t understand why, but I love the film.
The events and characters are grim. The atmosphere is anxious. The ending is certainly filled with angst. But that’s not the aftertaste it leaves.
I rooted out The Graduate in college. Third year of medicine, a year dedicated to learning ginormous amounts of information, weighed heavy on my mind.
It was the weekend. Alone, I had nothing to do other than study and the mood dwindled. Somehow The Graduate lifted me out of melancholy.
In an essay filled to the brim with reference to science, a music cognition scientist (yes, that’s a thing), says:
We never just hear music. Our experience of it is saturated in cultural expectations, personal memory and the need to move.
The revelation reminded me of something a friend said. She shocked me with a simple truth: you start having sex long before you enter the bedroom.
So yeah, our perception runs away from reality at the first chance it gets. I am sitting here imagining: in a film about Macbeth, what soundtrack would I choose? And when you think about it like that, you see that music manipulates emotion like nothing else.
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.
I am using the term daydreaming in the broadest possible way. There are ways in which it is positive (visualisation, rehearsal, creativity), but we all know that it can get out of hand very easily. These so called self-generated thoughts (SGTs) interfere with external task performance and can signal unhappiness and even mental health issues. They also occupy our thoughts for upwards of half of the time. In appropriate contexts, SGTs
allow us to connect our past and future selves together,
help us make successful long-term plans and
can provide a source of creative inspiration.
Given the time dedicated to the task, it seems natural to suggest that there must be an evolutionary advantage to being preoccupied with a daydream.
Contrary to the mindfulness rhetoric, daydreams can be seen as a mechanism for the consciousness gain freedom from the here and now – reflecting a key evolutionary adaptation for the mind.
There is evidence that SGTs are normal and may even be beneficial, so our natural inclination to dismiss mind-wandering – and recent odes to the benefits mindfulness – are perhaps oversimplifying the problem.
For the moment, however, I will focus on the negative aspects of daydreaming. In 2016, the Journal of Conscious Cognition did a study on self-identified “maladaptive daydreamers”. These guys had more daydreams that involved fictional characters and elaborate plots and spent 56% of their waking hours fantasising.
Maladaptive daydreaming caused significant distress to the affected and was associated with higher rates of ADHD and OCD.
Another study echoed the findings and showed that the daydreams were typified by complex fantasised mental scenarios that were often laced with emotionally compensatory themes involving competency, social recognition, and support.
Of note, solitude is required for elaborate daydreams – worsening any existing social dysfunction.
Mind-wandering is situations when attention is required is obviously negative: it can signify performance disruptions, cognitive problems, risk taking or low motivation to perform a task. At the same time, the question arises: how do we define a situation that requires attention? The resolution here is obvious. The capacity to regulate the occurrence of SGTs so as to reduce the risk of derailing on-going task performance is a marker of properly functioning, well-adjusted cognition. It is context-dependent – and requires self-awareness. Indeed, a brain trained with the practice of mindfulness would seem better equipped to recognise appropriate situations and adapt more quickly.
On a more philosophical note, however, what’s to say one isn’t missing out on some important unknown unknown in an apparent “safe-to-daydream zone”?
Based on some research and a preliminary Twitter poll, I have come up with 4 main feelings that trigger daydreams. If none of the four describe what it is like for you, please do comment, I am very keen to find out!
Thinking about thinking (known as metacognition) is hugely important for adaptation, however, little is known about it. The results of this study demonstrate that the information used to make the initial decision differs from the information that is used in metacognitive judgments.
From The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology
Obesity could play a part in the development of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s Disease. It appears that the relationship is a two-way street: being overweight or obese impacts memory function, then the memories of eating experiences change and thus affect future eating behavioural patterns.
It appears that individuals with mental illness – regardless of the diagnosis – have abnormalities in their limbic system responses to various tasks. The limbic system is associated with emotion.
Put simply, the fMRI of a depressed person isn’t different to the fMRI of a person with a (seemingly) completely different disorder schizophrenia.
This could be a reflection on insufficient sample sizes. It could also be a reflection on the worry of going into an MRI scanner. A number of studies emerged recently showing that we’re possibly misinterpreting the findings of fMRI.
Individuals suffering from obesity who self-stigmatise may be at an increased cardiometabolic risk. Physiological and psychological mechanisms linking weight bias internalisation and metabolic syndrome warrant further research.
One of the researchers commented:
“There is a common misconception that stigma might help motivate individuals with obesity to lose weight and improve their health,” Pearl said. “We are finding it has quite the opposite effect.
When people feel shamed because of their weight, they are more likely to avoid exercise and consume more calories to cope with this stress.”
Tara Brach humorously talks about the relationship between biases, emotion, beliefs and thinking. Emotions can subside in 90 seconds unless we generate cycles of thinking that re-trigger and reinforce them.
It seems that the focus of many bloggers and mindfulness advocates is to promote mindfulness as yet another miracle fix on the way to flat abs and a yacht. Mindfulness isn’t a shortcut to effortless positive thinking.
The fact that the 440×220 pixel Twitter platitudes with a stock sunset background and a quote from a Buddhist have become so popular reflects the growing misunderstanding surrounding mindfulness.
While mindfulness does help with depression, anxiety and other difficult mental states, achieving a certain mental state – or indeed happiness – isn’t the purpose of mindfulness. While it isn’t necessary to buy into the philosophy behind mindfulness to practice it, it’s important to understand what it is one’s getting themselves into.There’s nothing at all wrong with “secular” mindfulness, the kind pedalled by corporations, promoted to children, etc. Indeed, I am in no way a Buddhist. However, I believe that hiding from this philosophy and still expecting to get experience mindfulness to the full is futile. The philosophy states that…
At the root of all suffering is attachment.
Non-attachment is a key tenet of the Buddhism. Attachment is our attempt to deny the fact that everything is impermanent, hence is causes a dissonance between reality and perception ultimately resulting in suffering. The concept seems at odds with out common view of happiness that involves the strife to get through a checklist of experiences and things – and walk of into the sunset in permanent bliss. However, the concept of non-attachment is echoed in the philosophy of Stoicism, the thoughts of Friedrich Nietzsche and modern talking therapies such as CBT and REBT. Indeed, I struggle with the concept again and again. It seem that Buddhism advocates that we live our lives a bit like plants: accept everything that comes our way and adapt.
Using mindfulness as some kind of trick to accomplish certain goals just doesn’t make sense.
Born at Google and based on brain science, SIY uses the practices of mindfulness to train Emotional Intelligence skills, leading to resilience, positive mindset, and centred leadership. In the midst of complexity, it’s about finding the inner capacity to create, to thrive, to lead. And it’s surprisingly fun. Backed by some of the world’s leading experts in neuroscience and mindfulness, SIY is changing thousands of lives in over a dozen countries.
Here’s a book they propose. I haven’t seen the inside, but if I may judge by its cover, I find it wanting.
Indirectly, insights into how to achieve goals may be precisely the result of the practice. However, a realisation of the irrelevance of those goals may also be the outcome. Being in the moment involves not knowing how it will all turn out. Barry Magid is an American psychiatrist who went against the current. He argued against using meditation as yet another vehicle en route to the conventional happiness prescription, i.e. maximum pleasant feelings and thoughts, minimum unpleasant feelings and thoughts.
Magid’s understanding of mindfulness is that it is a way to stop trying to “fix” ones’ experience of things.
His argument is somewhat routed in mythology: struggling to escape one’s demons is what gives them their power.
The fight for a vision of happiness is the cause of the problem, not the solution to it.
Freud’s seemingly basic idea of our psychology was that we seek pleasure and avoid pain (and we avoid pain much more than we seek pleasure). He argued that our subconscious was a big long list of everything we avoid. The Buddha confronted suffering, he didn’t move away – he moved into the pain – and that is how he became free.
As a doctor, I know that it’s very worrying when a patient doesn’t flinch away from a painful stimulus. I am starting to come around to the idea that for our higher cognition, the non-reflex, non-fight-or-flight, it is better to not flinch away from mental pain.
That’s how I understand mindfulness. It’s not sitting there thoughtless. In fact, trying hard to fix the busy mind is yet another trap. The way I understand it is that it is necessary to observe it without clinging or fleeing. Like I discussed with Bela,
For me the experience of mindfulness is a bit like being on a tight rope: the abyss of clinging to the left and of fleeing to the right. Sometimes of the past to the left and of the future to the right. Just like it takes a lot of awareness to remain on the tight rope, flexing the right muscles, adjusting to the wind, it takes the same kind of awareness to stay in the moment.
Seneca, Freud, the Buddha – and our new friend the living psychiatrist Magid all seem to think that flinching away from suffering is what makes it worse.
The Abhidhamma, a central text for Buddhism, teaches that the mind is a bit like a sense organ. Thoughts and feelings come in just like smells, sounds and tastes. Recently, I observed a thought that seemed completely extraneous to me: having relaxed after non-stop worrying about a sick animals, I found it strange how someone else would get so upset about a pet in hospital. Not every thought and emotion belongs to us. Why do certain songs cling to our minds? In what way are they ours?
We could consider the inescapable nature of the smell of cigarettes – or the taste of toothpaste every morning as a way to understand the presence of certain thoughts and feelings.
It gets a little bit “meta” – as we are more abstractly thinking (one may say observing non-judgementally) of regular thinking (to do list, he said, she said, itchy, hungry, Never mind I’ll find someone like you, and other assorted circular randomness) – and saying that regular thinking is just like an organ of perception. What does that say about abstract thinking? Is that the “real” thinking? Somewhat over-simplistically, I suspect that this abstract thinking is a process of the prefrontal cortex, while the regular thinking is carried out by more basic circuitry we share with many animals.
In this vein, not being able to get the motivation to do something because one’s sad doesn’t make sense. One needn’t feel pumped to do work. If thoughts and feelings are like smells and sounds, one can still muster the agency to do what needs to be done. The Stoics would argue like this also.
In a sense, this still means that mindfulness is a route to happiness, only I changed the goal posts of what happiness is. In a sense, mindfulness is a fight to stay on the tightrope of the present moment – and thus a fight for happiness. This is all difficult to state in words, but I think you all know what I mean.
Mindfulness doesn’t have a purpose, except perhaps to reconcile perception and reality – which is so obvious, it is a bit embarrassing to state as a purpose.
Man cannot endure his own littleness unless he can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level
Fear of the passage of time
I recently came across the term chronophobia in the context of people doing exams: knowing that exam day is ever closer makes people anxious. Chronophobia was defined as an experience of unease and anxiety about time, a feeling that events are moving too fast and are thus hard to make sense of, in “Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s” by Pamela Lee.
Chronophobia isn’t a formal diagnosis, neither does it feature in scientific literature. In other words, it’s not really a phobia. It is more of an unpleasant feeling – one that is often expressed in art.
It is common in prison inmates, students in long academic programs and the elderly. When one is anxious, it is not only possible to be anxious about the event, but also its inescapable approach. Chronophobia is less about the doom and more about it being impending.
Chronophobia appears to be connected with heightened awareness of the passage of time that is inherent in distant deadlines for significant events.
This morning during my 10 minutes of mindfulness, something interesting bubbled up. I randomly remembered myself on an airplane travelling back to Moscow to visit family about 2 years ago. I felt a strong urge to be that person again, a bit like when I’m on vacation and towards the end, with a sigh, I think back to how liberating the first day off felt. Or when I reach the last bite of some dopamine-explosive dessert, I think back to how happy I felt when it was just put in front of me. We all love vacation and desert. However, my wish to be 2 years younger makes little sense. I was in the throes of a challenging 70-80 hours per week medical rota. It took much ingenuity to carve out enough time to travel. Is it regret? It wouldn’t be fair to say that the last 2 years were somehow a waste of time in any regard. Why do I feel so drawn to the thought of going back in time?
Fear of opportunity cost
Aged 27, I frequently contemplate what it would go back to a previous point in time. I think it’s the understanding of the limited nature of time. I also worry about opportunity cost. In economics, there is the term opportunity (alternative) cost is the value of the option that we don’t choose when making a decision. [If I have 1 euro and buy a 1 euro can of Coke, I would have to forego the 1 euro Mars bar in order to have it. I would thus potentially worry about what it would have been like if they got a Mars bar instead.] The feeling is different to decision-anxiety. It’s not even about second guessing one’s choice, but more about imagining alternative paths.
The word decision literally means the cutting off – of other options. Thinking of the alternatives always reminds us of the unyielding nature of choice and how we really can’t literally “have it all”.
Robert Frost’s famous (infamous?) “The Road Not Taken” is a brilliant and often misinterpreted examination of the nature of choice. It is important to recognise the speaker’s deliberation: he says the roads are much the same: “just as fair”, “really about the same”, “equally lay”.
“The Road Not Taken”, a frequent feature of post-card philosophy, is often oversimplified to say that the speaker chose the less travelled road – and, woohoo, that’s amazing. It’s more complex than that.
The speaker admits that he left the first road “for another day”. While he knew he would never go back, the torment of admitting the final nature of choice is just too much.
One can get very detailed when describing their particular fear. I certainly don’t support the idea of including “fear of opportunity cost”, “fear of the passage of time” or even “fear of choice” as phobias into the DSM. Indeed, this is perfect ground for thinking by induction. Is there a common thread here?
Boiling down fears to a common denominator: could it be death?
Why does chronophobia affect students? Time forces them to deal with events that will affect serious aspects of their lives such as their future careers – and thus even more permanent things like social class, the kind of people they will be likely to marry and so on. Exam results’ effects are by no means definitive, but probabilistically they are significant.
It has become popular to say that there are only 2 human emotions: fear and love.
Everything negative is a form of fear. It kind of makes sense: anger is a way of defending one’s point of view, property or whatever other boundary. Being sad is a fear that one will never be as happy as they were before as a result of an event (not talking about depression here). Disgust is a fear that something will negatively impact one’s existence. You get the gist.
The other popular thought is that all fear is a form of the ultimate fear – of death.
Going back to chronophobia again, why does it affect the elderly? Time threatens the existence of the elderly. It threatens all of our’s existence, but the elderly are more aware of it – mostly for social and cultural reasons. Now, none of us are deluded enough to actually think we’re not going to die. However, as Ernest Becker points out:
we have 2 ideas of the self: the physical and the symbolic.
In my opinion, our rationality only extends as far as the physical self. We are preoccupied with ways to immortalise our symbolic self. As per the “Mahabharata”:
“The most wondrous thing in the world is that although every day innumerable creatures go to the abode of death, still man thinks that he is immortal”.
The recent debate that followed my discussion of the role of validation in our self-esteem sparked some follow on thoughts. In short, it showed that people with narcissistic tendencies experience much emptiness or even self-hatred – and validation is used to take the edge off. However, as all creatures who make choices, people with narcissistic tendencies are subject to avoiding pain and seeking pleasure (thank you, Dr. Freud). Clearly, they find narcissism more tolerable that the alternative. How could this be?
What if those who crave validation to feel good about themselves chose to be this way because the alternative – knowing that one is inherently valuable, without any validation – makes the thought of inevitable death absolutely intolerable? If one feels that they’re not that valuable, dying isn’t quite as scary or tragic.
Realising that a person is valuable, getting attached and then letting go is much harder than never getting attached – in this case to your self, as is the case with death. This devaluation allows people to cope with the fear of death. At the same time, the person with narcissistic tendencies maintains the upside of being able to work on “their immortality projects”, like winning medals and getting promotions. This is just a hypothesis of mine. I understand that I have no idea what Steve Jobs was really like. A lot of people say that he was an obnoxious narcissist. He said this, which happens to be congruent with my hypothesis:
Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
There are other psychologically sneaky ways that we deal with the fear of death that have stood the test of time (well, since 1974 or so when “Denial of Death” was published):
Becker argues that everything we do: writing books, starting businesses, having children are all ways to transcend – and not have to deal with – death.
It makes sense too: the thought that everything one ever does will disappear into oblivion is so hard to accept that in order to keep going we find ways to defy death’s erasure of our existence by leaving a legacy.
One’s own death is hard to imagine. It is as if we believe we will still be alive on some level after we die, but unable to act on our dreams and stuck reminiscing of the time we were alive and lamenting we didn’t do more.
If leaving a legacy isn’t an option, then one can choose to believe in the afterlife to help themselves cope with the concept death.
Paradoxically, dying may be a way to transcend death. Physical death could be a route to symbolic immortality. Just think of war heroes.
Constant reminders of death were common all throughout the last millennium: having a skull on one’s desk was kind of like having sticky notes or an extra mouse. An experiment where people were asked to write about death before they were asked about their country’s war efforts showed that thinking of death made people more enthusiastic about war -as it adds meaning, purpose, a sense of belonging, a feeling of impact…
The purpose of my reflection isn’t to say we shouldn’t fear death, and it will all be fine. It is more of an inquiry into what behaviours of ours are motivated by the fundamental, underlying fear, which so far appears to be that of death. However,…
It’s not death we fear, it is not having an impact
Is it really death we fear? I think a better way of putting it is that we fear that we’re inconsequential, insignificant, that we made no difference through our existence.
For those who insist that it is a fear of death: it’s that of the symbolic self. For those who insist that our biggest fear is to not be loved: to have someone love one is probably the biggest impact one can have on another human being. Perhaps, it is the ultimate, or the one that really count. I am not sure. However, my point remains: it is about impact.
My recent discussion of meaning according to Nietzsche prompted many to comment that the fact that we die and that the universe will ultimately end (something to do with the Sun and physics) implies that there could be no meaning in our lives. I don’t follow this argument. To me, it is like saying there’s no point in eating because you’ll get hungry again. Clearly though,
for a lot of people death is the ultimate enemy in a game rigged against them.
I used the word impact above for a reason. I could have said consequence or meaning, but something stopped me. Both of those words are overused and call to mind all kinds of associations. Furthermore, I thought of animals. They are driven largely by the same evolutionary forces as we are, and I think we overestimate the extent to which animals are different. They may not have insight, but they are a reflection at least of how nature intended things. To illustrate, I will use an example I recall from watching a BBC documentary on giraffes. Two massive male giraffes were fighting for a female. How on earth do giraffes fight, I hear you ask. Well, they violently swing their entire necks to strike. The force of the swing is enough to shatter their skulls. The battle went on to the point of near death… for the sake of a female. The giraffes decided/were driven by nature to go that far just to reproduce – so death is less important than an opportunity to have impact, which, for giraffes I think is reasonable to assume, is to have progeny.
I don’t think that the fear of not having an impact is the same as the fear of failure. One can fail, but still achieve a lot and have an impact. Failure is defined in terms of a percentage of the way to realising a dream. Impact, or lack thereof, is much more real.
I feel that a human being on their death bed is likely to think of what impact they have had, not where they ranked compared to their dream.
On the bright side…
There is a “cure” for fear of choice
Going back to my own ENTP-torment of being more interested in talking about choices rather than actually making them, I am looking for some kind of resolution. N. N. Taleb, a favourite writer of mine, is popularising the concept of optionality. He argues that having options is a great thing:
Optionality is the property of asymmetric upside (preferably unlimited) with correspondingly limited downside (preferably tiny).
It’s not really a way to get out of making choices. Instead, it is a way to do what you were going to do anyway, but leaving cheap enough nets here and there to see if one day something nice washes up in one of them such that covers the cost of having had the nets n times over.
He argues against specialisation (i.e. going down too far in the decision tree of choices or going down to the end of just one branch). We are all familiar with specialisation success stories. The Nobel Prize goes to the person who studied a particular enzyme for 30 years. The startup that solves a specific problem in one particular niche is the one that does well. Kim Kardashian has one thing going for her, and she’s taken over the world…
Taleb reminds us that there are cemeteries of specialised ventures and people. Just because the successes that make into the media are specialised, doesn’t mean all of them are. Specialisation comes from the propensity to make choices. It is not the only way to achieve something. Hence, it is possible that the act of making choices is overvalued.
Richard Branson has over 400 companies. Is it because he is greedy – or perhaps because he understands that specialisation is a dangerous game to play? Venture capitalists and angel investors back things in a non-specialised way. All financial investors do. It may look like it is specialised on the surface, but it really isn’t. Biotech, or robotics, isn’t a specialisation. These are incredibly broad fields. It’s like saying blogging is a specialisation. Investors take directional bets once is a while, i.e. ones that really require a choice, but they do so in a way that for every 1 euro they invest, they stand to gain 10, and only invest a tiny fraction of their euros into these schemes. This is exactly congruent with Taleb’s definition of optionality.
I have fabulously rationalised away the pressure to make choices here. However, the real work is in putting oneself into situations where optionality can be exercised.
The older I get, the more I realise that there’s quite a lot of engineering involved in all of this. It’s not so much about going after specific visions, but creating situations where visions can flourish – and ultimately have an impact.
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.]
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.
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.
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
When I went for my jog by the sea this morning, I noticed that it was unusually stormy. It reminded me of a story told by my uncle.
Years ago, his friend and he went for a swim – in the dark – in a storm – after a few pints. Yeah, as you do. They barely made it out alive. My uncle credits his survival to one strategy – and he made sure to emphasise this lesson to me:
The waves are in charge, not you, so your job is to stop resisting the waves and work with them instead by allowing them to move you, slowly and iteratively, towards the shore.
As I ran along, I thought, isn’t that just a great metaphor in general – rather than just a “how to” for when you’re drunkenly getting out of a stormy sea?
It then hit me that it is – for some people. However, there are some people for whom it really isn’t. As I discussed in my WordPress treatise on good advice vs bad advice, for advice to be useful, it has to be contextual. For over-ambitious people, the wave metaphor is great – as it bring them closer to reality. Their standard belief is that they can resist and accomplish, so the metaphor helps to remember that that’s not always the best strategy. However, for over-laid-back people, this metaphor is a disaster – for obvious reasons.
The whole point of these metaphors is that they allow one to see a side of things that they’re currently not seeing. In other words, heuristics need to be tailored to the specific unhelpful beliefs of a given individual.
I would argue that the point of metaphors, pondering advice and addressing one’s beliefs is to bring oneself closer to reality – and away from stereotypes and patterns that have stopped being useful.
All too often, however, these metaphors grow into ideologies. What’s worse is that people are generally drawn to ideologies that resonate with their off-kilter beliefs and idiosyncrasies, and so strengthen them – rather that being interested in ideologies that could take them out of their confusion and bring them closer to reality.
This happens through our intuitive confirmation bias, attentional bias, producing an even more biased closed minded echo chamber. This is one of the reasons why I am moving away from ideologies. An ideology is a fantasy loosely based on reality that is applicable only under a certain set of circumstances. This may still be called an ideology, but for me, observing nature – in the broadest sense of the word – is all we’ve got as our teacher.
The concept of free will – the ability to make our own choices – has occupied me on and off for some time. Recently, my interest has been reignited by Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. Research seems to point towards the idea that awareness of volition occurs in parallel to actual agency. In other words, wanting to do something seems to occur n parallel rather than as a cause to it happening. There are a variety of experiments to support this. The explanation in Crash Course rather elegantly shows that there aren’t many arguments to support free will other than the fact that it just feels like it’s there.
In this context, it’s interesting to consider the instinct to reproduce. While planning a child involves conscious cognitive effort, instinct is a big part of the process. This instict is far more subtle than let’s say the instinct to eat when one’s hungry. This doesn’t mean it’s less strong. We are pretty clear that the need to eat is largely outside of our control or free will – it’s just there and we work around it. If I had to make a decision as to whether children were a product of a cognitive decision making process or an instinct – I would have to choose instinct. However, that’s not how it feels. It feels like one made a mostly cognitive decision to have a child – rather than the feeling of a mostly instinctive decision to eat when one’s hungry.
So if it possible to have a child and think that you consciously decided to do so, what’s to say that everything isn’t driven through instinct.
Of course, one can argue that free will has the potential to override instinct. However, even in that case, free will only gets to speak after the instinct made itself known, adding to the conditionality and frailty of free will.
It is quite conceivable to look at a cat and explain all of its actions through instinct. Or a dog – does a dog love its owner so unconditionally because it is a better creature – or because we relentless bred it into them, by getting rid of all the non-submissive dogs in a given breed? We are obsessed with explaining how we are different from animals. Maybe, the distinction is blown out of proportion.
Alerting someone to their breath is usually quite fascinating (unless they are used to it through mindfulness or have a healthcare background). People usually have this slightly blunted uncanny realisation in their eyes – “what, I’ve been breathing all time? Yes, naturally I have, but… Anyway, play it cool.”
I am sure, if someone randomly asked me: are you in charge of our own breathing? Without much thinking, I would say, yes.
We can, to some extent, override our respiratory drive, alter our breathing pattern, etc (at least that’s what we think tudum-tshh). However, the bottom line is that breathing happens because it has been hard wired genetically. The temptation though, is to say we control it – probably fuelled by the fact that we can “control” any of it. I wonder what else happens that way: how many of our choices and thoughts happen just like the breath? We breath when we sleep – we think and feel while we sleep too, we call it dreams. Buddhists see thoughts as something external – they are like clouds that come and go. So who’s actually in charge?
One of the reasons why it feels so… eery and empty to think about our lack of free will is that we are no longer in control.
Being in control is central to motivation – according to pretty much any study ever done on it.
Taking the lack of free will argument a step further, it is also possible that this sense of control is wired into us because it propels us forward. Most commencement speeches that get millions of hits on YouTube boil down to the same message: we have more choices and power than we realise. This feel good message is, in a sense, the opposite to the thought that there’s no free will. However, if free will doesn’t exist, by writing this, I -and countless people before me, prove that it’s possible to at least contemplate its lack. It’s possible to have insight, at least, even though it doesn’t feel good.
Maybe, this feeling of control is just like hunger and thirst – it is a drives us to accomplish, regardless of whether we have any choice over it.
There’s still hope…
That free will as we know it does exist.
Just because some actions occur without free will as evidenced through neurophysiology experiments, doesn’t mean that all actions occur this way.
… And if these bone fide free willed thoughts and actions exist, it is possible that they influence the will-less, or the subconscious, whatever you want to call it – just like you can teach your respiratory centre to stay quiet while diving for pearls for minutes at a time. This would mean that while decisions are made subconsciously, there is still a way to make them yours – and not predetermined.