Tuesday, May 29, 2018
Happiness Series: 3 - You Would Rather Be Right Than Happy
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.