We Tend To Remember Bad, More Than Good
Our brains are hardwired to remember bad things, rather than good things. It was much more important for primitive man to remember there was a bear living in a cave, than to remember there was also pretty flowers growing there.
Remembering negative experiences protects us from danger. And thus it is an evolutionary prerogative. Having the luxury to worry about being happy is a very modern concept. However as we don’t have to grow and kill all our own food, we have medicine and we have dealt with most of the dangers primitive man faced, we, as a species, have reached self actualization and happiness on the ‘to do’ list.
But what that means is, even if good and bad things happened to us in equal measure, we would still think more BAD things happened. Because those memories remain at the forefront and the better memories are quietly erased as irrelevant.
Choose To Remember Good Things
In order to really appreciate the true level of good in our lives, we have to make a conscious choice to do so. However since our brains don’t, and possibly, can’t do it on their own, we need to have some sort of system in place to help us.
If you are going to be happy, you have to appreciate the good things in our lives. And the easiest way to do that, is by showing gratitude.
I think gratitude is one of those things that some people roll their eyes at. It feels new age and a bit neon Christian. It makes us thinks of 20-something women in pastels with really popular instagrams. Well, that’s what it makes me think of.
However its actually a rather old, rather traditional, rather cultural ideal packaged up in a new wave of enthusiasm. Its the modern version of saying grace before meals, and prayers before bedtimes. It is something our grandparents and great grandparents were familiar with.
Most people will say it goes back to the bible, when Jesus gave thanks to God before meals. However it is much older than that. Many native tribes from all over the world gave thanks—usually to the spirits of the animals they killed—before eating. Gratitude, may be almost as old as language itself.
Gratitude Really Works
In my experience, and in the reported experiences of many women in their 20s with popular instagrams, gratitude works. This is also backed up by a few sociological studies, though I am not going to link to any of them here. There are lots of books you can read on happiness, if you want to know more about the science. Email me if you want recommendations.
Remember the important thing about showing gratitude is making you happy. Its about remembering all the good things and people that surround you every day, so you can really appreciate them.
In my experience, it takes a week or two of daily gratitude lists, before it really starts having a positive effect. At first I was making myself write three things I was grateful for each day, and trying not to repeat ones I had used before. I used an app on my phone called Zest for this. These days, I quickly open zest when I wake up in the morning and I usually write 8-10 things I am grateful for, not because I think I should, but because it feels so good to do it.
But What Should I Be Grateful For?
For the longest time, I had no idea how to be grateful. I didn’t know what to be grateful for. I was at a complete loss. I tried to be happy when good things happened, but they felt few and far between, which left me with few things to be grateful for on a day to day basis.
Then, one life changing day, a pastor at my church was talking about gratitude. Specifically, giving thanks to God. He said: “If everything you didn’t give thanks for today, would be gone forever tomorrow, what would you be grateful for?”
Suddenly, there were hundreds of things I was grateful for. Thousands. Suddenly, I could have spent all day doing nothing but reciting the things I am grateful for in an OCD panic that if I didn’t I would lose them forever.
Thankfully life doesn’t actually work like that, and even if you aren’t grateful for things, they tend to stick around. However it did teach me what to be grateful for. Everything I don’t want to lose.
Ways To Show Gratitude To Others
Say thank you. Literally tell people you are grateful for them. I used to feel silly telling people I really appreciated their efforts on my behalf. In fact, I think my pride stung when I had to do it. I felt like I should have been able to do everything alone.
However maybe you can do everything alone, that doesn’t mean you are. And as long as your gratitude is sincere and not over the top, most people will feel fantastic when you thank them.
Saying thank you doesn’t have to be a ten page letter. It doesn’t even have to be a one page letter. A few sentences are enough. You want to make someone happy, not take up an hour of their time.
‘Hey, I just wanted you to know I really appreciated you coming to bat for me yesterday. I’m so glad I have friends like you on my side. Let me know if I can ever return the favor. Jake.’
That’s all you need to say.
Ways To Track Gratitude For Yourself
Due to the popularity of gratitude in a whole range of circles, there are a lot of apps, specialized notebooks, and tools out there to help you track your gratitude. Just search gratitude tracker in the google play store on you phone and you will find a whole list to choose from.
If you prefer a more old-school approach, you could have a pretty notebook that you record 3-12 things you are grateful for every day. Some people like to write down good things that happen, along with things they are grateful for, and place them in a jar, so they can get them all out at the end of the year and read through them.
If you are religious, a daily prayer book would be a fantastic place to expand on your gratitude each day.
Where and how is up to you, there are literally thousands of options. Keep looking until you find one that suits your needs. You mind find you need an alarm on your phone to remind you every day, or maybe you want to leave your gratitude journal with your medication so you do both at the same time.
However I think if you commit to recording at least three things you are grateful for every single day for three weeks, you will start to notice a difference. Give it a try. What’s the worst that could happen?
Next week, we are going to be looking at interpersonal relationships. Unsurprisingly, studies repeatedly show that interpersonal relationships have the single greatest impact on our happiness. People with good interpersonal relationships and a strong community live longer, are happier and are generally better off.
So next week I want to look at how to strengthen current interpersonal relationships and forge new ones. I want to look at the barriers many of us face when it comes to socialization and building relationships and I want to give you all some ideas for how to improve yours.
Jake, In Summary
I got into gratitude about 18 months ago and it really transformed my life. I have two main ways of tracking gratitude. First I use the app ‘Zest’ on my phone. Second, every day I write two pages in my prayer book, most of which is giving thanks for the things I have.
I am still working on showing gratitude to the people around me. I like to think I remember to say thank you to people, but unsolicited praise is still something I have to think about. It doesn’t come automatically. However when I do give unsolicited praise and gratitude, I find it greatly strengthens my relationships with people, making both me, and them, feel better.
The most profound difference for me, particularly since I started writing the two pages in my prayer book every day, has been a huge decrease in stress levels. The more I am grateful for what I have, the more time I take REMINDING myself of all the good things I have, the less stressed I am.
It becomes a constant stream of good news. And things that would have made me angry or stressed don’t anymore. Like when my dog pees on the veranda. Something that used to put me in a bad mood all day. Now I am glad to have him and make more time to play with him and pet him, because I am always being reminded how wonderful it is to have him with me.
As someone who is instinctively always planning for the worse, I think showing conscious gratitude has had the single greatest positive impact on my happiness. So I hope you will give it a try.
Tuesday, June 19, 2018
Tuesday, June 12, 2018
A lot of your unhappiness stems from the fact that, deep down, you know what you SHOULD do to fix your problems. You just don’t want to do it. Some of your reasons for not wanting to do it are valid, but that doesn’t change the fact that, despite all your complaining, you know the solution to your problems.
And that knowing, but pretending you don’t know, or it won’t work, is causing you cognitive dissonance.
You Can’t Really Lie To Yourself
I spoke in an earlier post about cognitive dissonance and how the brain can’t tolerate it, so when faced with proof that our beliefs are false, we are forced to come up with a new belief.
I gave them example of believing that good students do well at university, and believing that we are a good student.
But if we get a terrible grade, we have to change one of those beliefs. Either we have to say we are a bad student, or we have to change our belief that good students do well, instead believing the system is flawed and that the teacher showed favoritism or just doesn’t like us.
Lets say we went with the latter, but really it was the former. We didn’t study, we half-assed the assignment, doing it all the night before, and we haven’t been attending classes. But pride kept us from admitting that, and instead we are blaming the teacher for our low score.
Its easy to convince other people that you believe the teacher is corrupt. Its much more difficult to convince yourself. Even if you manage to make yourself really, truly believe it, you’ll always feel tension on this subject.
Because part of you knows its a lie. Part of you knows you didn’t work as hard as you should. Part of you knows, deep down, you are a bad student and your got the grade you deserved.
A Lie Is Clenching, A Truth Is Relaxing
There are several very popular self help books around that boil down to ‘tell the truth to yourself and everyone else and you will be happy’. I think this is at least partly true.
You never have to remember anything if you’re always honest. Being honest takes a lot less emotional energy.
Most people who know me—particularly in person—know I am a very honest person. I never hesitate to tell the truth. That’s not to say I go around offering it unsolicited and then pat myself on the back for being a jerk.
I am truthful for two reasons. Firstly, and most importantly, it is because when I was in my 20s, I decided to stop lying. I decided I wanted to be the sort of person who was always honest and if someone pressed me for information I didn’t want to give them, I would just say: ‘I don’t want to tell you’.
And my second reason is, because I am excellent at both spotting lies in other people, and in lying myself. I prefer to think of myself as a pathological story-teller, as apposed to a pathological liar. However as a small child I spent an ungodly amount of time convincing people of things that weren’t true.
Once, when I was four, my mother and I took a train. I was wandering up and down the carriage talking to people and my mother started to notice everyone in the carriage was looking for something. I had convinced a train carriage full of people that I had lost a live frog and they were all searching for it. Later in the same trip, she went to the bathroom on the station and came out to find the baggage handler searching the station for the same imaginary frog.
Even people who knew me well as a child, still came to my mother asking her if she was really keeping a pony on our small suburban block, or what we were going to do with the live emu chick I found and so on and so forth.
Being both extremely good at reading people, extremely good at coming up with narrative and (at the time) having an eidetic memory, made lying as easy for me as speaking. And, for the most part, it still is.
Furthermore, being able to read body language as well as I can, I always know when other people are lying. I almost never call people on it, unless it is going to inconvenience me in some very direct way.
Being able to tell when people lie is not actually very nice. I saw a documentary last week where a man claimed he didn’t know who raped and murdered his daughter, but he had nothing to do with it. All lies. Now I am going to live with that for the rest of my life, knowing the case is closed and he is free. Knowing when people’s excuses not to see me, or compliments, are fake is annoying too.
But take it from an expert liar. Being 100% honest about everything is lighter. Its freeing. And its much more comfortable. The fears we have about people reacting badly to the truth are mostly unfounded.
However This Post Is About Self Truth
Being honest with yourself is one of the most relieving things you will ever do. Admitting the truth hurts. Sometimes when we are finally honest about things to ourselves, it comes with a lot of pain. You may cry or be angry or completely lose your shit about certain things. However remember you are only confessing things you already know and all those bad feelings are just bottled up inside you right now. Festering.
Once you let it out, you can begin the process of healing. Just like any abscess, it won’t heal right away. There may be weeks, even months, maybe years, of leaking pus and bad feelings. However you can’t heal until you lance that boil.
You can’t start taking the right steps to fixing a problem, if you won’t admit what the problem is.
You Probably Know What You SHOULD Do
The truth we so rarely admit is, we usually know what we SHOULD do to fix our problems, we just don’t want to. Maybe we don’t love our partner and we don’t see a future with them, but we don’t want to go through the trauma of a break up. So we keep trying to find other solutions. Even though we know its a problem we can’t fix with romantic dates and taking a dance class together. Worse, the person we’re dating may see all these things as a sign the relationship is going well. We know the only solution is to end the relationship, to let both people move on and find someone who feels a mutual passion. But still we make excuses. We delay. We try other things that we know won’t work.
Maybe you want to save up for something, but instead of putting X amount aside for two years, you think: “Two years is way too long, I’ll just do X and get the money I need in a lump sum.” But it never pans out. And two years pass, and because you never started putting money aside every week, you don’t have it. You still can’t buy that car or holiday. You’re still trying to find a ‘quick fix’ when you know, deep inside, the best and, realistically, ONLY way to get what you need is to save up a small amount every week for a few years. Its sensible, its reliable, and if you had started two years ago, you would have it by now.
Maybe you want a date, but you always cancel plans for events where you would be meeting new people.
Maybe you want a new job, but you haven’t even updated your resume or submitted it anywhere.
Maybe you want to write a novel, but you never actually do any writing in the three hours a week you set aside as writing time.
I don’t know what thing you aren’t doing that you know you should. However I know there is a thing. Probably several things. Maybe everything you have ever wanted in your life has been lost because you didn’t want to do the things you knew you had to.
That’s a painful thing to be honest to yourself about.
So Here Is A Little Exercise:
Think about one of the problems in your life that you are having. Now imagine someone else is having them. Someone who is different to you. In this case, the more different, the better. I would suggest thinking of someone you find it a little difficult to empathize with. Someone of another race and gender, perhaps. If you dislike Christians, imagine it is a fundamentalist. Maybe even write down their characteristics so this person is clear in your head.
The reason you are making them someone you wouldn’t like, is so you are as objective as possible. Imagine they have the same problem as you and have the same resources. Detach your emotions entirely from the problem and work out the most obvious, logical solution.
Work through these questions in order:
- What should someone else in your situation do? Be objective.
- What are all the reasons you don’t want to do that?
- What are the solutions to those excuses?
The worst is over now. This was the last of the ‘reasons you are unhappy’ posts. You have learned about the basic biological function of all life to avoid pain and seek pleasure, you have accepted you would rather be right than happy, and that if you want to be both you have to change your beliefs, you have realized you can’t be unhappy unless you have something to compare your situation to and now you have confronted the fact that you are probably choosing to ignore the obvious solutions to your problems.
The hard parts are done and hopefully your life has improved vastly from these realizations alone.
Starting next week, we are going to look at how to actually be happier. Things you can do and change that will increase your sense of pleasure and purpose over time, according to science.
Jake, In Summary:
Taking responsibility can suck. Though, to be honest, I tend to go too far the other way, trying to take responsibility for problems that were well out of my control. Blame the weather on me and I will probably accept the guilt.
This is probably because 1) I am pretty narcissistic and 2) I have a hero complex that causes me and endless parade of problems. At the start of 2017 I made a lot of painful choices, cutting off some relationships that had become dangerously unhealthy. I had made friends who too many people who needed saving, who were only too happy to blame their problems on me. Some of those friendships recovered and are now fantastic, and some of those people are unlikely to become a part of my life again.
I saw one of them recently, and even though they showed the same needy ‘save me’ behaviors that drew me to them in the first place, I didn’t feel compelled to intervene. If that’s not personal growth, nothing is.
That said, I still love helping people who are willing to help themselves. Tell me you need me, and I am yours. I don’t think I will ever be able to cure that urge completely. However I am no longer going to let it tie me to people who don’t appreciate my help, and don’t want to take responsibility for their situation.
I still miss those people. I regularly think of them, and hope they will find what they need so we can be friends again, in a healthy way. But I am proud of my growth and I an definitely happier without those toxic elements. The important thing is, I know I created those toxic elements, not them. We had to both go seeking, and both contribute, to those toxic behaviors. It never would have happened if I hadn’t been complicit.
It was painful to admit, it was painful to cut those people off, but it has been worth it. I hope it will be worth it for you too.
Tuesday, June 5, 2018
Comparisons Are Reality
Imagine there is a terrible natural disaster. Your house and possessions are destroyed but everyone in your street is killed except for you and your family. Freak luck kept you all alive and you stagger out the other side with minor injuries, surrounded by death, but somehow, miraculously, okay.
Now imagine a different scenario. Another freak disaster and again your house and possessions are all destroyed. You and your family still escape unharmed. This time you have no minor injuries at all, you are perfectly fine, but none of your neighbors houses are damaged.
Objectively, which scenario is better? The latter, of course. In both cases, you lose everything you own, but in the latter, you have no injuries. In the former, you have mild injuries and all your neighbors are dead.
However in the first scenario, you would be grateful. At least you survived. At least all your family survived. You might have nothing else, but at least you have each other. At least you only have minor injuries.
Comparatively, if you were in the second situation, you would be devastated. You lost everything. All of your possessions, your house, where you live. Its all gone. Why you? Why were you singled out for this freakish disaster?
Comparison is our only frame of reference.
We have no innate understanding of normal. We are born as a blank slate and ‘learn’ what is normal as we experience the world. Our ‘normal’ living conditions now are far superior to even those of royalty hundreds years ago.
Indoor plumbing, technological and medical advances, ready access to food, clean water and hygiene and revolutionized human living conditions. However all of these things are very new to humanity. For millions of years we lived in conditions that we would now consider squalid and filthy.
And if you are reading this, either on a computer or phone, you are likely in the very top percentage of humans as organized by material wealth.
Someone living in Australia on a disability pension usually falls below the poverty line. The costs of rent, food and utilities are far beyond what most people on a disability pension can afford. And yet, the pension alone, puts them in the top richest 5% globally. The most impoverished people in one country, can still be some of the wealthiest, globally.
Who Do You Compare Yourself To?
You probably don’t compare yourself to a child who just died if dysentery in a third world country. Or the desperate parents who tried to save them while earning just a few cents a day, working in a hot, dangerous factory.
You probably compare yourself to the people around you, your friends and family, and the people you wish you were more like, celebrities and the characters on the TV shows, movies and books you love.
There’s nothing wrong with that. This isn’t about making you feel guilty because you’re not desperate and poor. I’m just trying to show how we, as humans, decide what is ‘normal’.
We don’t base ‘normal’ on our intellectual understanding or scientific polls and surveys. We based it on what we see.
Everything On TV Is A Lie
TV is not real. Even shows that seem very real at not real. We all love Grand Designs, but it paints a VERY rosy picture. The episodes are short and we see a pre-build plan, two, sometimes three days during the build, then one day when the build is mostly complete. However the time passed between filming episode one and the final episode can be 1-3 years. We don’t get to see the 38 hours of fighting, or the 26 hours crying or the blood pressure scores of the family throughout that period. We don’t get to hear about all the times they were close to separating and wanted to give up. And when they do mention the stress and heartache, its brushed off very quickly. A pat on the back and some very heartfelt British nodding.
But we have to be aware of all the lies shows tell, and most of them tell a thousand a minute. More even, if every image really is worth a thousand words. Things like the speed people recover from break ups. The ease of forming friendships. The ease of getting out of the house. The frequency that adults get to hang out with their friends. How good a quickly whipped up dinner looks. The ease of meeting romantic prospects. The speed attraction forms when you do.
I could go on for hours. TV lies about every aspect of reality, constantly. And it leaves us with a constant uneasy sense that we are not normal, because the people we see, the people on TV, are very different to us.
Remember the brain can’t tell the difference between TV and reality. We aren’t born with a sense of normal. We learn it. And if you learn it from TV, you can never, ever feel normal.
Social Media Is Warped Too
The problem is, of course, that social media is curated and, worse, it is a constant feed of noteworthy materials. My feed is full of good news, because I tend to unfollow people who post negative things. Which is generally fantastic, however I have well over 1000 facebook friends, so any given day there will usually be at least one big good news item, a birth, marriage or engagement, and probably, on average, 3-4 good new articles relating to signing publishing contracts or reaching major sales milestones.
Now, each individual person probably only accounts for one or two of those a year. And I probably account for one or two of those a year. However with an endless feed to scroll down with heaps of good news, it can seem like everyone has great things happening all the time.
Add to that the fact that people tend to cherry pick what they share to make their lives look good and interesting, and you have a recipe for very negative self comparison.
Even I don’t portray a very realistic view of my life on social media. I talk about my chronic health issues, yes, and I am quite direct about them. However I don’t whine and I don’t talk about them when I am at my worst.
The reason is, that when I am on social media it is for two reasons:
1. I want to entertain and improve other people’s day or
2. I want to connect with people. And if my social media was just a running bullet list of all the ways my life is shit, I would get to do neither of those things.
We Tend To Imagine The Best Of Them, With The Best Of Us
When we compare our lives to those of our peers and family, and we see the things they have that we don’t, we tend to imagine what it would be like if we had all the best parts of our life AND all the best parts of their life.
For example, I have a friend who has a really amazing marriage and her and her husband brought a lovely house. I also have a house, but hers is better. And I wish I had a relationship like hers.
Buuuuut, I don’t want her husband. I think he’s as boring as sand. Nice, but please don’t make me talk to him for more than five minutes, you know? His job is boring and he likes boring TV and he has the personality of beige.
Another friend of mine has adorable children (and a great marriage and a house). I would really love kids. But I know I tend to romanticize, and be jealous of, the idea of kids, without really appreciating how exhausting it is for her having a child with special needs.
And don’t even get me started on other authors and their careers. Paint me green.
Sometimes people tell me they are jealous of aspects of my life, which is frankly absurd, since high word counts aside, I am essentially a forever alone corpse with a diet of lettuce, potato and lean beef.
Yet when I imagine having the things other people have, I don’t imagine giving up the things I already have that they may want. I want double the amount of good things in my life.
What You Can Do About It
So, if you accept you compare yourself to your peers, and because of the warped filtering of both social media and our brains, this is making you miserable, what can you do about it?
People who volunteer their time are much happier than people who don’t. There is no data on if volunteering makes people happy, or if its just that happy people volunteer more. Initial evidence seems to suggest a bit of both.
However the act of helping our community, regardless of if we are helping people, animals or landcare, does seem to act to make us more aware and grateful of what we have.
If you feel particularly helpless and pathetic compared to your friends, you might want to try and volunteer with people, rather than animals or nature. Instead, look for recovering drug addicts, homeless people, people in respite care or disadvantaged children. Since the exposure to people who are worse off than you, will realign your idea of what is ‘normal’.
I think, however, the trick would be to find people you can help who have a different bracket of problems than yours. If you are an ex drug addict, you shouldn’t be helping ex drug addicts if you are trying to make yourself appreciate what you have more. If you are close to homelessness, don’t help people who are now homeless.
Focus on helping a group with very different experiences to yours, so that it is harder to make direct comparisons. You’re not going to feel better about your life if you are helping people who you could argue are better off. EG: when you were on drugs, you had no support, but this drug addict has a loving family who want them to get better.
Remind Yourself What Is Real
When you are feeling bad about what you do or don’t have in your life, make a conscious choice to remember what is real and what isn’t. If you don’t count the stuff on social media or TV, what do you actually know about the lives of your peers? It might be frighteningly little.
If you are going to compare yourself, compare yourself realistically. That means paying attention to the things you DO have, as well as the things you don’t.
Show gratitude for anything you would miss if you lost it forever. Imagine if you had to say you were grateful for everything, every day, to keep it? Now choose to live like that.
Next week, we are going to talk about taking personal responsibility for our problems. I am sure some of you are already considering not showing up next week. But if that’s you, you just learned you have a problem taking responsibility for things and prefer to avoid thinking about it. So you probably need next week’s post more than anyone else.
Jake, In Summary:
I don’t really compare myself to my friends very often. I dredged up some examples earlier, but in reality, most of the comparisons I make are not between myself and my friends, or myself and what I see on TV. They are between myself and my daydreams. I have an idea of what I want my life to be like, and it is very vivid. So clear and exact, I feel like it is something I had that has been taken away from me. Like I am being held hostage from my real life in this sort of purgatory hell of chronic illness.
I spend a lot more time thinking about this reality I want, than I do actually doing the things that make me happy. That’s sometimes because the things that make me happy are too taxing for my crippled, rotting corpse of a body. But sometimes it just because I think ‘if I can’t have everything from my perfect life, what is the point?’
The point, of course, is not being a miserable git, and making the most of the life I do have. Ideally, I want to be happy every moment I am around. I want to always find a way to maximize the happiness of every moment. And that is impossible if I am busy sulking about what I don’t have.
The exercises we are going to do in weeks 15 and 16 should address this. And they do work for me, for a few months, then I usually have to do them again to remind myself.
Until then, ask yourself who or what you are comparing your life to that is making you miserable. Is it even real?
Tuesday, May 29, 2018
Self Destructive Behaviors
So last week we learned about our choices and how they are all determined by either seeking pleasure or avoiding pain. So why, sometimes, do we make choices that we know are going to cause us pain? Why are we sometime self destructive?
Maybe we pick a fight with our partner, or best friend—even though we know before we say those words, it will hurt them. Maybe we don’t file paperwork we know will cause huge problems if we ignore, even though its not very hard or time consuming. Maybe we even do really stupid stuff, like not getting up to let the dog out when he’s whining, then get angry when he shits on the floor.
The answer to all that is even more painful and difficult to accept than last week’s revelation. The reason is: You Would Rather Be Right Than Happy.
The Brain Optimized for Survival
I don’t know if you have heard of the game Dungeons and Dragons, but in it, there is a curse that convinces the player they have a super power or ability and the character must do everything in their power to make it seem like they do have the ability, however they are unaware they are doing it.
So maybe they believe their super power is being able to shoot fire out their fingers, but instead of shooting fire, they actually use matches to set things on fire. However they are delusional and believe they are shooting fire out of their hands, even when presented evidence that they actually just used matches.
We all have this curse in real life.
If we believe something, we will do ANYTHING IN OUR POWER to make it come true, all the while being completely oblivious to the fact we are doing it.
Your brain will actively choose to ignore anything that doesn’t conform to your world view. Don’t believe me? Have a look at this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UtKt8YF7dgQ
This video has us focus on something, ball passing, and you may think it is that that causes people to miss the gorilla. You think, if we weren’t counting ball passes, we would definitely notice the gorilla. Truth is, probably not.
There is anther experiment that I am sadly unable to find on youtube, where you have a video of a downtown street and skyline. You can see pedestrians and cars passing. It is not too busy and all looks rather sedate. You are asked to observe the video for three minutes and report anything strange.
90% of observers will not notice two of the buildings slowly fading until they are invisible. When I did this experiment with a psych class in university, no one did.
THE BRAIN BLOCKS OUT ANYTHING THAT DOESN’T CONFORM TO YOUR WORLD VIEW.
But Hang On, How Does Any Of This Help Survival?
Well, you might be thinking, that sounds counter productive to survival. Surely we should notice weird stuff? Not really. We’re already programed to notice the important things. If you feel a tickle on your arm, how often do you panic, thinking it is a spider? When you see food adverts, do you get hungry? When you see a sexy person, do you get turned on? You’re already programed to notice the things that keep you alive.
Thinking uses a lot of calories. In fact, the only reason we can think and use language is because we learned to cook. Cooking food makes more calories available to the body, which gave us the excess we needed to develop complex brains.
However the brain as not evolved to accept that people in western culture have an excess of calories. Which is good, because we are one asshole pushing a button away from world war three. We could all, within a few days, suddenly be living in third world conditions, so don’t rush to give up these brain survival tricks just yet.
Anyway, thinking = excess calorie usage. So the brain’s job is to minimize thinking as much as possible. The brain has a lot of tricks to streamline behaviors and decisions, including this like schema, which allow us to classify things by group. EG: if you get bitten by a dog, you’ll be afraid of all dogs not just the dog who bit you. Or, when you see a table, you know what it is. You don’t have to ask. Because you have a schema for what a table is.
Schema is also the root of racism—we develop a negative, untrue idea of a group and apply it to all members of that group. And sexism. And homophobia. It shows an inability, or unwillingness to spend energy on thinking. Its no surprise then, it is more prevalent in less intelligent people.
So why would we rather be right than happy? Because nothing in the brain wiring is targeted toward making us happy. Happiness is something we week, in order to make us do behaviors that lead to flourishing. But its an afterthought. Just like a sticker is not the goal when giving a child a sticker for getting math correct. The idea is they will learn math.
If we believe something, we can act on it quickly and without much thought. No calories are wasted making an informed decision. Should you flirt with that guy? No, you’re ugly. Its pointless. Decision was effortless. Brain pats itself on the back.
The Brain Avoids Cognitive Dissonance
Cognitive dissonance is what occurs when reality conflicts with what we know. Lets say you believe you are a great student, and you believe great students get excellent grades. Lets say you fail an assignment.
Suddenly, there is cognitive dissonance. You brain needs a way to justify what has happened. You have to change your belief. Either you are not a great student, or great students don’t get good grades, because…. The system is wrong, or your teacher doesn’t like you, or something else.
You can’t go on believing that great students get great grades and that you are a great student. Since the brain seeks pleasure and avoids pain, you will probably choose whatever excuse takes the most blame off you.
Either way, cognitive dissonance is HUGELY taxing on the brain. Changing a belief is hugely taxing on the brain. The brain does not want to change beliefs. The trickle on effect to making rapid decisions is expensive.
So to change your beliefs, you have no strong convictions to begin with, or have the cognitive ability to spare. Thus, your brain will always choose upholding your current beliefs, over switching to one that will make you happier.
Where Does Happiness Factor In?
So what does this mean for happiness?
Lets say you have a negative believe about people of the opposite gender. Maybe you believe all women cheat, or all men are abusive. No matter what you do, you will never meet any women who don’t cheat, or men who aren’t abusive. Why?
Because your subconscious is very good at reading non verbal cues. So when you meet one of the many billions of women who don’t cheat, or men who aren’t abusive, your brain simply blocks them out. It will not register them as single, attractive or available to you.
You will only seek out people who prove you RIGHT. Because being RIGHT IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN BEING HAPPY.
Well, fuck, right?
What if you believe your writing is shit and no one likes it?
What if you believe you’re terrible with money?
What if you believe no one is attracted to you because of your weight?
You will only show your work to people who don’t like you and don’t want to read it, so you can be right when thy don’t like it.
You’ll spend your money poorly and blow out your budget, so you can be right about how terrible you are with money.
You’ll always give off desperate, antisocial and insecure vibes, which are not attractive to anyone, regardless of how skinny they are.
How Can This Be Stopped?
Self awareness is a beautiful thing. However if we are not careful, even though we are self aware when it comes to brain function, we still let yourselves believe the excuses our brain comes up with.
We say: “Ugh, I look really fat. And all my diets have failed. Last week I starved myself and I have gained two pounds. There is no point in this. If I am going to put so much work in and get nothing in return, there’s no point in trying.”
And all that starts to sound reasonable. However its not really, its just your brain hoarding its thinking ability. (The brain is also pretty motivated not to waste calories on exercise.)
Whenever you tell yourself something negative, or self defeating, I want you to add these words at the end: ‘And I would rather be right than happy.’
“I look like shit today, and I would rather be right than happy.”
“He’s not interests in me, and I would rather be right than happy.”
“No one likes my company, and I would rather be right than happy.”
“I look fat in this, and I would rather be right than happy.”
You’re going to get exasperated with yourself when you start to see your own excuses and avoidance, and you’re going to ask yourself: “Okay, but what if I would rather be happy than right? What would I say then? What would I do then?”
Look For Evidence To Prove You Wrong
We’ve all seen those flat earthers and anti vaccers, right? They’ll scroll past hundreds of studies, thousands of results on google, dozens and dozens of experts, to cherry pick some unregulated authority, like a blog post made by someone who is as equally crazy as them, supporting what they say.
Same with climate change deniers. Or basically anyone ignoring reality to push some insane agenda.
We all hate those people (well, I do), and yet that is what we are doing. All of us, every day.
We choose some inane, untrue belief and ignore all the evidence to cling to whatever scraps of ‘proof’ we can dredge up. In week 12, I am going to give you a specific exercise to work on this. However use some common sense until then.
At the very least, whenever you identify a negative belief, write it down so you have plenty ready to work with in week 12.
Jake, In Summary:
Like everyone else, I have my own list of negative beliefs. Its a long list. And I am still working on changing those beliefs. Probably one of the bigger, more self destructive ones is:
‘I am not attracted to very many people, and when I do find someone I like, they never like me back.’
I have been SPECTACULAR at maintaining this belief. By and large, because I find people who are into me off-putting. And the moment someone isn’t interested, they have my attention. That I am aware of this belief system, and have been for a long time, has not changed my behaviors or my attractions.
Since it is a self fulfilling prophecy, its very hard to find any proof to the contrary. I’m sure if I was interested in someone, and they showed interest back, I would either lose interest, or just do something impressive to fuck it up.
But on the bright side, I am ALWAYS right about this particular belief.
Wednesday, May 23, 2018
The One Fundamental Truth
There is a fundamental truth about the behavior of living things—one simple element that controls every choice we make, from the very simple, to the very complex, and it is true for every life form from ants to geniuses.
It can be difficult to confront and accept, because I think on some level we all want to be more complicated. But we are not and this simple, overriding truth will affect everything you ever say, do or think, from birth until death.
Every single choice we make is governed entirely by the desire to seek pleasure and avoid pain. There exists no other motive. Every choice, big or small, can be boiled down to either seeking pleasure, or avoiding pain.
However any choice that is difficult, has a complicated relationship with one or both of these things.
The Cupcake Dilemma
Lets take a cupcake for example.
Assume you have made a pact with yourself to get healthy and lose five kilograms. You want to feel better about your appearance, which relates to seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. The pain you are avoiding is the humiliation of feeling unfit, you are avoiding the perceived disapproval and disgust of others. The pleasure you are seeking is pride in your appearance, and a perceived increase in sexual attractiveness.
Its easy to want to lose weight.
Until there is a cupcake.
The cupcake present a dilemma. Sugary, salty, and fatty foods produce a rush of dopamine. Which makes us happy. We learn very quickly, within the first few days of life, when we are feeding on sweet breast milk, that food can make us happy.
So suddenly we are faced with a choice. Avoiding the cup cake now will give us more pleasure later on—when we lose weight. But it will give us pain now—we have to suffer through the agony of wanting something and exhibiting the self control not to take it with only the concept of later happiness to warm us.
It is unlikely, however, that the idea of later happiness will stay our hand. Rather, we know if we do eat the cupcake, we will experience much greater pain later on. Shame and anger at ourselves for ruining our diet, and more hard work to try and burn off the calories we ate.
Pleasure Or Pain
Why do we go to university? Most of us don’t enjoy exams and assignments, or studying for that matter. However we imagine we will experience a greater long term pleasure with a degree in our chosen field. We hope that getting a job we love will make us happy.
Why do we avoid looking at bills and let them pile up, even though we know it only makes things worse? Because we know when we open them and see how much we owe, it will make us stressed and we are avoiding that short term pain, even though it leads to greater long term pain.
Why do we go to the effort of throwing a party and buying nice gifts for our partners and friends? Their happiness will make us happy.
Why do we volunteer our time to charities? Giving back to the community makes us feel important, kind and generous. Which is a fantastic feeling.
There are some instances, where we might seek things that initially appear to be pain, but really they are a pleasure. BDSM is a good example, if you are simplifying this idea so much you think pain only refers to literal pain and pleasure only refers to literal pleasure, you have missed the point, please go back and start again.
For some people in some situations the pain IS the pleasure. BDSM is a very wholesome example. Particularly when I compare it to, say, creating drama and hurt for the attention. Someone who destroys their life and relationships may not seem to be getting any pleasure at all. However they are always getting something out of it. Attention can feel like validation. And the pleasure of that validation can be as addictive as heroin. Which is why both attention seekers and heroin addicts tend to throw away everything else good in their lives.
When you are in a lot of pain, like after a break up, you might also seek more pain as a form of catharsis. This is no different to throwing up when you feel nauseous, or lancing an abscess to relieve their pressure. Listening to sad songs and crying may SEEM like it is pain-seeking, but really it releases the pain and is actually a way of purging pain to return to equilibrium.
Every Moment Of Every Day
“What do you want for dinner tonight?” actually means “What would you enjoy? What would make you happy?” No one asks their kids or spouse: “What’s your least favorite, very healthy meal, lets have that.”
Furthermore, the reason we ask what people want to eat is also pleasure seeking. Cooking is often time consuming and difficult. If we cooked and no one ate it, or they complained about it, we would feel very bad. It would hurt. By asking what people want, we are maximizing the chance they will enjoy it and be satisfied, thus making the chef feel proud and satisfied.
When you choose what to wear on any given day, you are weighing up several factors that will maximize your happiness. Comfort, your own perceived confidence and appeal in that outfit, and the likelihood it will give you the desired social outcome. For example, maybe you feel comfortable in a onsie, sexy in your favorite jeans and your workplace expects formal dress. What you put on will then be dictated by what you are doing, because if you show up at work in your favorite jeans instead of a tie and blazer, you might be fired, or reprimanded, which would make you very unhappy. Likewise, if you are staying home to play video games, wearing your work suit will just make you miserable. You’ll be uncomfortable and probably feel foolish. Same goes if you wear the onsie on a date. The comfort you feel wearing it will be heavily outweighed by the misery of your date walking out of the restaurant in disgust.
However if you existed in a reality where everyone always saw you in the perfect clothes for the occasion, you would probably wear the onsie everywhere. Comfort would become the persistent deciding factor, because all other pleasure and pain factors had been eliminated.
But What About Logic?
So. Maybe now you understand the concept. There is no choice, big or small, that doesn’t revolve around pleasure or pain. Which is fine, except most of us have ourselves convinced all our choices stem from logic, not emotion.
That is completely untrue. There is no such thing as a logical choice. All choices are pleasure maximizing/pain minimizing. Anyone who says they only make logical choices is just completely and dangerously oblivious to their own emotions and shouldn’t be trusted with anything, the same way you wouldn’t trust a toddler with a knife. They’re going to hurt themselves, you and everyone around them and make a bloody mess in the process.
Even when making choices for people in other places, we try and project pleasure and pain. If we are a kind person, we try and project what would make us happy in that situation. If we are not, we try and imagine how we can benefit, even if it will never affect us.
For example, lets say we get to vote on if women in a remote village of a foreign country get tampons and menstrual pads delivered for free, or for a minimal sum. If we project ourselves as those women, we would choose the sanitary items be delivered for free, since that would maximize happiness and minimize pain. If we can’t project ourselves into the roles of those women, we might imagine we are the ones providing the items, even though we are not. We would then chose the fee, because we imagine ourselves making a profit, thus maximizing our happiness.
Always remember this when listening to politicians be ‘logical’ about a situation. Logic is usually just a code word for a lack of empathy.
What Are You Seeking? What Are You Avoiding?
So, lets assume you now accept and understand the concept. You realize that every choice you have ever made in your life, and every choice anyone you have ever known has ever made in their life, as been on a basis of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.
This is when things start to get ugly. Because what I want you to do now, is consider every choice you make for the next few weeks and be honest with yourself about what you are seeking and what you are avoiding.
This shouldn’t be something that brings you shame or discomfort. Everyone else is making the same choices as you for exactly the same reasons. You don’t want to make that phone call because you’re afraid you;ll get bad news, that someone will be rude to you, that the connection will be bad and you’ll have to repeat yourself, that you’ll say something stupid and regret it, that it will be out of office hours or you’ll be on hold for ages. There are lots of things to avoid on the phone.
But you might come up against some choices and reasons that make you say: “Hang on, why?”
Why are you eating cereal for breakfast? Well, the commercials for this cereal show healthy people and you have a positive association. There is even someone doing a triathlon on the box. But when you check the sugar, its 16mg in every 100mg. That’s 16% sugar. Not very healthy.
Why did you buy this foundation? Why do you even use foundation? Because you saw a magazine advert with a sad woman with bare, pocked skin on one side and a beautiful, smiling woman with foundation on the other. Society taught you to be ashamed to sell you a product.
Advertising relies almost entirely on this fundamental seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. First it makes you feel bad, then it offers you the solution to that. It is no different to me stabbing you, then offering you discount surgery to repair the stab wound. And we all accept it over and over, every day.
But its not just adverts is it? When you start to really look at what you are avoiding and what you are seeking, you’re going to see at lot of things you didn’t want to. A lot of things that suddenly seem stupid or selfish or unproductive.
Make Conscious Choices
From now on, when you have a decision to make, I want you to pause a moment, and ask yourself what pleasure am I seeking? What pain do I want to avoid? And make intelligent, educated decisions. Don’t just let the kind brain bang away without any self awareness.
Changing the quality of your decisions will have a huge impact on your life going forward. Just identifying the real reasons for decisions, without lying to yourself and saying it is the ‘logical’ choice, will make a huge difference in your life.
Give yourself a week to ruminate on this post and begin self aware decision making, because next week we are going to tackle and even more uncomfortable truth: You Would Rather Be Right Than Happy.
If you are going to give up on this series, it will be next week. Because no one wants to hear it. However once you accept and believe it, everything can change for you overnight.
Jake, In Summary:
Sometimes, being able to consider the pleasure/pain benefits of a situation is the only thing that keeps me moving forward. It means even when I am too sick to enjoy anything, even when I am hurting and can’t imagine a reality where I am ever not in pain, I can keep making sensible choices. Choices that will reduce long term pain and increase long term pleasure.
I did, however, get a bit fixated on the long term. To the complete disregard of the short term. In fact, I reached the point where I was always choosing short term suffering for long term gain.
…And tomorrow never comes.
Always choosing tomorrow over today meant I was always making myself miserable. So lately, it has been my mission to sometimes choose short term pleasure.
Sometimes, when I have a choice, I stop and ask myself: “What would make me happiest right NOW?” To be honest, the answer is usually a surprise. I’ve been doing a lot more cooking, gardening and reading since I started asking myself this.
I think most of you would use the word ‘driven’ to describe me. But its not always a good thing. I’m not aiming for hedonistic, but I am aiming for happy. How about you?
Tuesday, May 15, 2018
Welcome to my happiness series! Seventeen blog posts on how to be happier, which will also chronicle my own journey toward not feeling so much like a human trash fire.
The series will consist of 17 posts, which will be broken down in the following format:
1 - Introduction and crisis advice (this post)
2-5 - Psychology, behavior and what makes us unhappy
6-10 - How to be happier
11-16 - Exercises to help us learn who we are and what we need
17 - Wrap up and summary
What To Do If You Are In Crisis
This blog series is not designed to treat or cure depression. It might help, but it also might have no impact at all, because depression is an illness like diabetes: a physiological imbalance of chemicals in the body. Also, if I had a genuine cure for depression, I would be a lot richer.
If at any point, now, or in the next 17 weeks, you are in crisis, these are the steps you should take. Firstly, if you are suicidal, tell someone who can help you. By that, I mean someone who has your address and phone number.
If you are in Australia, you can also call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or chat to someone on their website: https://www.lifeline.org.au/
Most of you will have seen the R U OK list (http://eponis.tumblr.com/post/113798088670/everything-is-awful-and-im-not-okay-questions-to) written by Sinope. Its great and I recommend everyone have a look at it.
As great as it is, it didn’t work for me personally, so I wrote my own for me to refer to when I am feeling stressed and overwhelmed. To me, it feels a bit more grounded and practical, so I am including it here in case any of you feel the same:
Steps To Take When You Are Overwhelmed:
1. Have a glass of water.
2. Have you eaten a meal in the past 4 hours? Eat.
3. Do you need medication? Take it.
4. Have you showered and cleaned your teeth today? Do it.
5. Are you wearing clean, comfortable clothes? Get changed.
6. Are your pets/children fed/watered/clean? Attend to them.
7. Are there any bad smells or loud noises near you? Remove them.
8. Are you a comfortable temperature? Address accordingly.
9. Can heat/cold packs help? Get up and fetch them.
10. Make a list of all the major things bothering you. (EG: Bills, pain, personal conflicts)
11. Add sub categories. (EG: List the bills that need paying.)
12. Under each sub category, list the steps that need to be taken to resolve that issue and any obstacles.
13. Compliment or thank someone, online or in person.
14. Exercise or stretch.
15. Put on music or white noise and sit or lie still for ten whole minutes.
16. Do one small productive thing. (EG: Put a load of dishes in.)
Definition of Happiness
However, as I have said, this series is not about treating depression, its about being happier. And in order to do that, we need to define what happiness is.
To borrow from Paul Dolan’s ‘Happiness By Design’, a good definition is: Happiness is a mixture of pleasure and purpose over time.
He says there are actions that bring us pleasure, actions that give us purpose, and actions that do both. However if we only focus on one or the other, we will not, overall, be very happy people.
Take for example, playing video games. This is generally an activity with a lot of pleasure, but very little purpose. Or perhaps, writing an assignment for our university class, not a lot of pleasure, but a lot of purpose. There may be other activities, such as playing with our children, or walking our dog, which come with a dual dose of both pleasure and purpose.
I am not suggesting we should limit ourselves to activities that give us pleasure and purpose. It would probably be impossible to live that way. I am just saying there has to be a balance of pleasure and purpose on our lives for us to experience happiness.
So moving forward in this series, that is the definition of happiness I will be using. Happiness = Pleasure + Purpose, over time. And we will assume that we need things in our life that both give us purpose and give us pleasure, in order to be happy.
We will be looking at things that make us happy in weeks 6 - 10. However before that, for the next four weeks, we are going to look at the barriers we have in our lives that stop us from being happy.
So buckle up, because the next three weeks are going to be the hardest. Its time to confront the most difficult demon of all: What makes the human mind tick.
Jake, In Summary:
So, where am I in this journey? Honestly, I am not very happy these days. Financial issues mean that in the next six months I am going to have to move away from my friends, family and all the medical professionals I rely on to keep me healthy.
My writing career is struggling and the death of a very important person in my life over New Years still has been reeling. I am juggling a lot of very big complicated things in my life, including trying to get my career back on track, moving and the complications that will arise from that, trying to start a family and deciding who I want to be now I am Jake instead of Talitha.
Sometimes it seems like I can’t possibly move forward and keep all these plates spinning, so right now I feel like I am standing still, too afraid and too tired to move forward. Its not a very nice place to be.
But there can be no going back, only forward. So take my hand, and lets go.
Tuesday, May 8, 2018
I want to tell you three stories about perspective. Because often we choose the perspective that makes us the unhappiest. We go looking for unhappiness like pigs seeking truffles and I want to talk about why.
So first, the three stories:
When I was seventeen, I saw a really cute guy on crutches. He was about my age and had really sexy messy blonde hair and freckles. I kept watching him, hoping he would look my way and I could smile at him, which he did. However, when he caught me looking he scowled, hurt and furious. It was only when I saw how savagely he reacted, and how close to tears he looked, I realised he was on crutches because he'd had a leg amputated. Fairly recently, judging by the bandages.
I wanted to go over and explain, but he was with friends and I was with my mother. However, I still think about that guy who felt self-conscious and assumed I was staring for the complete wrong reason.
I was doing a dance performance in Brisbane with a Bollywood dance class. One of the girls was wearing a neon pink outfit. It really was blinding. Pretty, but very bright. I didn't know the way to where we were preforming and the girl in pink assured me she did. I said that was good, because she would be easy to find in a crowd.
She flinched, and looked completely broken-hearted. I was baffled.
"Because I am so tall," she said softly.
"No," I said. "Because that outfit can be seen from space."
Between 2008 and 2010 I lost twenty kilograms and I have kept it off. I was talking to a friend about it and she said something like: 'You're not really qualified to talk about losing a lot of weight though.' I was hurt and furious, thinking she was implying I was still too fat to talk about being thin. When I complained to another friend about the comment the next day, they suggested from the context that perhaps my other friend had been trying to say that even at my heaviest, I wasn't that overweight. It had been a compliment not an insult, and I had walked away angry.
Instinct Is Powerful, But Sometimes Wrong
We are all instinctively defensive. The person who insults you is not likely to protect you from the sabretooth tiger and humans are a highly gregarious species. We are very tuned in to communication. However, it is more beneficial to be aware of hostility than love, from a survival perspective. Mistaking love for hostility probably won't kill you, mistaking hostility for love could be fatal in thousands of ways.
Sometimes, people who genuinely mean well are being misunderstood to our detriment because of this. Please note, I am not talking about 'tough love' here. Calling someone a loser because you want them to try harder is not a 'misunderstanding'. Its hurtful, lazy and its been proven time and time again that it doesn't work. You're not doing it because you love them, you're doing it because you want them to change, but you're too lazy to be constructively supportive.
But I am talking about always assuming the worst. Language and body language are nuanced and sometimes we leap to assumptions based on our feelings and insecurities. Imagine if, without any doubt, you knew all those times you had caught someone staring and felt fat or ugly, that it was really because they were attracted to you? How much would your life change if you found out the negative attention you received was actually positive?
I'm not saying it all is. If some creepy guy is leering at you, he's probably a creepy guy. But the woman who seems to be looking at you disapprovingly may really love your handbag and have bitchy resting face.
Realistically, how often are you staring at someone because you think they look awful? Maybe it’s a lot. Maybe you're an asshole. How often do you stare at people because you love their clothes or hair or think they are beautiful? Being stared at is often uncomfortable, but that doesn't mean its hostile or judgemental.
Likewise, what seems like a comment about your deepest insecurity might not be. My beautiful dancing friend thought I was talking about her height because she felt insecure about it. I'd never really noticed because, well, I am short. Everyone is taller than me. How much taller is just semantics.
You Don't See What Other People See
Whatever you are most insecure about could be invisible to the people around you. I have a huge insecurity about my physical appearance (nothing to do with gender). I feel like it is the most obvious, glaring, unavoidable flaw whenever people look at me. No one has ever mentioned it to me though. No one has ever commented on it.
Am I too intimidating to insult, or am I the only one who sees it? We'll probably never know, because I am unlikely to ever admit what it is.
But if you look at me and don't instantly know what I am talking about, maybe, just maybe, whatever flaw you think other people can't look away from is invisible to most people too.
Small changes in perspective and belief can make a big difference to our happiness.
And happiness is what I want to talk about going forward. I know this is a pretty big deviation from my usual writing and chronic illness topics, but for the next ten or so weeks, I am launching a happiness project.
Jake's Happiness Project
My aim is to write a practical, reasonable approach to being happier. One that is appropriate for millennials and Gen Y. One that says 'fuck off' to the law of attraction, positive thinking and any 'happiness' technique that punishes you for not 'thinking correctly'.
This will partially be a recording of my own personal efforts and journey, but I hope—as I always do—that my blog posts on the matter will be helpful to the rest of you as well, because I love you people. <3