Archive for the ‘Lifestyle’ Category

Life Advice

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

Here is my summary of a collection of advice I ran across for people who are struggling in life:

Your solutions are shaped by your specific problems.  You might start with something like the Mooney Problem Check List (Personality Tests), see where your problem areas are, and work from there.

Follow the advice you would give to a good friend.  Or pick someone you really admire, who shows good judgment.  And ask, “What would they do?”  Only listen to those you have good reason to trust.

Keep it real.  You need to be honest with yourself about your motives and the situation.  You value something to extent you are willing to sacrifice for it.  Don’t rationalize and play word or mind games with yourself.  Recognize what’s bothering you and name it.  Try to see the whole picture: the evidence, the logic, and your feelings as they relate to the problem.  “Reason means truth, and those who are not governed by it take the chance that someday the sunken fact will rip the bottom out of their boat.” ~Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Don’t catastrophize. Ask yourself, “How important will this be one year from now?”  Don’t be afraid of something more than it is due. Sometimes it’s best to face your fears.  For example, one way to deal with panic attacks is to get in a safe situation, deliberately initiate one, make it as intense as possible, encouraging it to kill you, and let it burn itself out over the course of an hour or so.

You have to set priorities, make tradeoffs, adjust to life’s limitations, and accept imperfectionsBe flexible, opportunistic, and creative in pursuing the means towards your ends.  When setting goals make them reasonableMeasure your progress; you will pay attention to what you measure.  One of the strongest predictors of success is being able to delay gratification. Create/choose a helpful environment.

Don’t make excuses to be a jerk. It’s counterproductive because people won’t put up with it, and besides it won’t help you solve your problem.  Don’t whineFlush the guilt about a failure, and do something useful.  Control the controllablesDon’t procrastinate.  Learn and teach others.  Do be gratefulSee the humor and beauty in lifeChallenges are necessary, they keep us from going crazy from boredom.

Don’t worry, but do plan and problem solve. If you have a problem you have several options: You can try to fix it by confronting it rationally.  Can you at least mitigate the situation?  If you can’t fix or mitigate the problem then you can try to ignore it.  In that case try to change the topic, and then do something else that’s productive.   You can also try to disown it, “That’s what father believes, but I don’t.”   Sometimes doing nothing can be better than doing something.  Sometimes it’s best to cut your losses and retreat from a problem, while sometimes it’s best to confront it.  Knowing which to do and when is not always simple, and is one of the main reasons life can’t be reduced to a simple set of rules.  So, there is no substitute for rationality, and really knowing what you are talking about. Problem solving involves such things as the intelligent application and understanding of plans, probabilities, appropriate risk taking (and accepting the mistakes you will make), persistence, diminishing returns, and a whole lot of domain specific knowledge.

You have to learn to negotiate and compromise, observe and set appropriate boundaries, disagree agreeably, give appropriate credit, and the art of forgiveness. Learn the rules of etiquette, humility, how to be a good team player, how to show respect, how to value and appreciate others.  Love is dependable, helpful, and compassionate.  You should practice the golden rule within an appropriate circle of concern.  Not everyone is good, so flush toxic people.  Adult relationships are between equals; otherwise they might very well involve unfair manipulation.  Platonic love across the genders is not a myth.  Actions and plans are a balance of thought, action, and emotion; which create reflection, involvement, and warmth.  Your actions should reflect your core values directed by reason.  Sometimes you just have to laugh and accept the embarrassments of life.  To have mature love it is necessary to share deeper thoughts and mutual beliefs.  Ignore the bling; everyone is ordinary in most ways.

To have a community you need shared values, understandings, rules, a sense of identity, and a sense of shared history.  (See also: The Uplift Program for Happiness - Lost Wanderer) You have to conform to some degree to belong to a community, so fit in and be ordinary in a healthy community.  People need to be dedicated to something larger than themselves.  Spirituality helps happiness.  The other choices are believing in ridiculous chance, or depressing determinism.  Meaning generates energy.  The gratifications of being part of a healthy community for most people exceed the pleasures of power, hedonism, popularity, and money.  Although money can help a lot, you can’t simply buy happiness off the shelf.  A person’s commitment to the communal welfare can even trump status, health, and safety.  The importance of community is shown by the fact that many of the greatest fears people have are socially related: isolation, bereavement, betrayal, disgrace.  Mental health doesn’t come from reading a book, but from practice and habit within a healthy community.

Guess positive if you don’t know. For example, imagine that you estimate there is an 80% chance you will all die even if you are all positive about a situation.  And you also estimate that there is a 100% chance you will all die if you aren’t.  Which do you choose?  Make the best out of whatever happens - make lemonade.   Use your thoughts and actions to train your feelings and habits, which then shape your values, which then shape your thoughts and actions….

There are many traps people fall into: Drugs are reinforcement traps, so is being co-dependent.  Practice good health and hygiene.  Be careful when inferring motives from behavior, don’t assume bad intentions or strategic interference unless you have confirmed it.  If you are over-controlled you might become compulsive.  If you are under-controlled you might be histrionic.  You can stupidly rebel for its own sake.  You can chronically argue, and be a know it all.  You can be closed minded and dogmatic, or be a doormat.  Don’t just react to some wrong (or wrong idea) in a simple mirror-like fashion, but react thoughtfully, at a time and in a manner of your own choosing.

Happiness and Gender Differences

Tuesday, October 26th, 2010

Women start out happier than men, but end up less happy in later life, partly because they are less able to achieve their life goals.  The areas of family and finances help explain this.  Men are less happy in their 20′s, because their financial situation falls farther short of their aspirations, and they are likely to be single.  As men age they are more likely to be married than women, and this marriage gap widens with age.  So in their later years they are more likely to be satisfied with their family lives.  Also in later life men generally come closer to meeting their financial and status goals.  After age 48 men’s average overall happiness exceeds women’s.  (New Research Finds Gender Differences In Happiness – Medical News Today)   Researcher Todd Kashdan says that if he had to name three factors that are essential for happiness and meaning they would be meaningful relationships, gratitude, and living in the present with openness and curiosity.  He also speculates that since men are taught to control their softer emotions they might be limiting their happiness. (Key to Happiness is Gratitude, and Men May be Locked Out – Science Daily)

Happiness and Work

Tuesday, October 26th, 2010

All other things being equal, the more enjoyable a job is the less it will pay.  So, of course, the worst paying jobs in 2010 involved activities that many people would enjoy.  These jobs involved kids and family, art and music, food, religion, sports, and nature.  The converse of this is that if a job is distasteful it will pay more, and if it involves doing things most people can’t do, so much the better.  So naturally the best paying jobs were all in technical fields involving lots of math. (20 Worst-Paying College Degrees in 2010 and Top 20 Best-Paying College Degrees in 2010

People who find meaning, purpose in their work are healthier, happier, and more productive.  Meaning and purpose involve such things as being of service, a sense of community, and/or a sense of appreciation of people. (Spirit At Work – Secret To Workplace Happiness? – Medical News Today)  The happiest workers are often in professions that involve teaching, care-giving, protecting, and creative pursuits.  For example, ministers live out their convictions by doing meaningful work, and have status within a community that shares their faith. (Looking for Satisfaction and Happiness in a Career?  Start by Choosing a Job that Helps Others – Science Daily)  Weak social ties at work increase the risk of burning-out. (Weak social ties at workplace increase risk of burn-out - Physorg). 

The Work Happy Now blog by Karl Staib is all about how to find work you will be happy doing.  His entries discuss such topics as having confidence and taking risks (What is the Underlying Theme in Most Careers?), what makes a career fulfilling (How to Find Career Fulfillment by Joe Wilner), and the importance of having a good attitude (Your Attitude and How it Affects Your Career).  Here is the collection of entries by him that all are tagged under “happiness.”  This selection of articles covers such topics as tracking your moods, problem solving, getting a happiness coach, connecting with nature, connecting with people you like, being grateful, giving back, and using failures as steps to success.  In his collection tagged “emotional intelligence” he discusses such topics as mind training, celebrating your mistakes, and recommends the book “Personal Development for Smart People” by Steve Pavlina.

When you are paid by the hour, your pay will be more salient as a measure of your worth, and therefore there will be a stronger correlation between your income and your happiness.  (Hourly Employees Happier than Salaried – Medical News Today)

The Grant Study

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

The Grant Study is a longitudinal study that has been following the mental and physical health of a cohort of 268 male Harvard students since the 1930′s.  The researchers seem to take a somewhat psychoanalytic-like view in modeling how people respond to life’s problems, (1) and they argue that much of what determines a person’s happiness isn’t necessarily how much trouble a person has, but often it’s which coping mechanisms they use in responding to itPeople’s coping mechanisms can be rank ordered, starting with the unhealthiest:  The least functional responses to problems are the psychotic adaptations: paranoia, hallucination, or megalomania.  Next up the ladder are the immature adaptations: acting out, passive aggression, hypochondria, projection, and fantasy. (Using drugs, alcohol (excessively), and isolating oneself probably fall in this list about here.)  (See also: Delusions as Strategic Deception – Lost Wanderer)  The third healthiest are the neurotic defenses: intellectualization (which they describe as, “mutating the primal stuff of life into objects of formal thought”), dissociation (intense, often brief, removal from one’s feelings); and repression (which can involve seemingly inexplicable naïveté, memory lapse, or failure to acknowledge input). The healthiest responses include: helping others, humor, realistic problem solving (such as planning ahead), ignoring the problem until you have some way of productively dealing with it, and channeling your energies into other ends (e.g. aggression into sports).  Researchers have found that people can change significantly over time, so looking at a person at one time in their life can be very misleading.  As adolescents the participants mostly utilized immature defenses, but by middle age they were four times as likely to use the mature ones.

Our understanding of the factors that lead to successful ageing and happiness are often shallow, because researchers often don’t know the reason a given variable correlates with happiness.  Having said that, this study has found that there were a number of major factors that predict healthy physical and mental aging: using the mature adaptations, education, a stable marriage, not being depressed or pessimistic, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, some exercise (regular exercise in college predicted mental health in later life), and maintaining a healthy weightMoney helps to a point, marriage and spirituality also help.  The risk factors for healthy life adjustment change over time, and it turns out that, surprisingly, a number of factors didn’t matter much (if at all) for health in late life: cholesterol at age 50, social ease in college, and childhood temperament.  The researchers argue that social aptitude, not IQ or social class, is what leads to successful aging. (2)  Good relationships are absolutely key.  Also, good sibling relationships when young are very powerful predictors of good adjustment in old age.  If you are born poor, industriousness in childhood predicts good adult mental health.  The authors argue that this implies that what we do affects how we feel, as much as our feelings affect what we do.  Being born into a lower class apparently does have at least one advantage.  It turns out while lower status men were more likely to become alcoholics; they were also more likely to recover from their alcoholism.  This is because recovering requires hitting bottom, and this means not having the resources available to be able to deny your situation.  The researchers also point out that the positive emotions, e.g. love, are much of what make life worth living, but they do have a down side since they expose people to the possibility of rejection.  (What Makes us Happy? – The Atlantic)  

(1) Many of the ideas Freud is given credit for are actually plagiarized from others.  From a previous post, Freudian Psychology is Horsesh*t – Lost Wanderer, readers will know that I hold Freud in utter contempt as a charlatan.  So I am assuming that if these purported psychological mechanisms do have any real merit they probably didn’t originate with Freud.

(2) I do not believe this claim, especially in regards to IQ.  In terms of both social class and IQ they are dealing with a range restricted population, which would tend to reduce the effects of these variables.  This claim also directly contradicts a number of other results I have run across.  (See: SES Status, Health, and the IQ Connection – Lost Wanderer)

Happiness and Marriage

Wednesday, October 20th, 2010

It’s very likely you won’t achieve perfection in a relationship, but you want to do as well as possible.  So you need to take into account your own needs, and then set priorities concerning what qualities in a potential mate are optional, and which are essential.  As we go through life we learn who we are as we interact with others, in both romantic and non-romantic relationships, and at least cut down on making the mistake of eliminating candidates on the basis of superficial factors.  Experts advise you to narrow your list to about three non-negotiable demands.  Some typical categories people tend to choose include: You should be compatible in living styles and how you generally think (e.g. emotionally or rationally).  An adequate level of sexual attraction is important, but it doesn’t have to be at a level 10.  Don’t demand incongruent things, such as demanding someone who is both a high earning work-alcoholic, but who should spend a lot of time at home with you.  Respect and mutual admiration helps a lot.  Finally, you should listen to your gut, and, even if your checklist says yes, if your gut says no, be very careful.  (The ‘Good Enough’ Marriage – WebMD) 

Larson and Holman conclude that premarital predictors of success include such factors as family of origin, education, race, support from family and friends, physical and emotional health, similarity in status, race, and religion; similarity of values and attitudes, conflict resolution skills, and communication skills.  For those planning marriage Larson, et al. reviews three well validated tools that have been developed for predicting marital success: PREPARE, FOCCUS, and RELATE. (1)  PREPARE’s inventory has scales for such things as: expectations, personality issues, communication, financial management, sexual relationship, conflict resolution, leisure activities, children and parenting, role relationship, spiritual beliefs, and family and friends.  FOCCUS has 10 separate scales that cover similar ground as PREPARE, including such areas as: life styles, problem-solving skills, values, and money management.  Larson criticizes both PREPARE and FOCCUS for not measuring three variables that are known to help predict marital satisfaction: parental mental illness, similarity of intelligence, and similarity of absolute status.  The RELATE inventory has a survey of eight personality areas (including self-esteem, happiness, calmness, organization, flexibility, emotional maturity, and sociability). It also includes a survey of general values/attitudes (including employment, sexuality, children, religiosity, and marriage roles).  It has a section on partner perceptions of family background (family processes, relationship with father and mother, family stressors, conflict resolution styles, and parental marital satisfaction).  The last section includes communication, relationship satisfaction, relationship stability, conflict resolution style (based on John Gottman’s work, see below), and problem areas (including power, alcohol, drugs, and money problems).  RELATE doesn’t have a measure of absolute status, and there are no remarriage items.  Larson recommends that these instruments be supplemented with a broader personality measure, and self-help materials.  (A review of three comprehensive premarital assessment questionnaires, Predicting Marital Success For Premarital Couple Types Based on Prepare)  Also, at the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy site they discuss these three tools. (This paragraph is a repeat of an earlier post: For those who are Contemplating Marriage – Lost Wanderer)
Similarity in personality is one of the most important factors leading to a happy marriage.  Such things as extraversion, conscientiousness, positive and negative emotions, and attachment predict marital satisfaction.  Couples do assortatively marry, and so they are similar on other things such as their attitudes, religion, values, and beliefs, but these factors did not predict marital satisfaction in this particular study.  The researchers speculated that, while other factors are salient, personality factors are more subtle and therefore take much longer to be recognized.  They argue that in a committed relationship, involving regular interaction and coordination, personality factors will either smooth or create conflict. (Do Opposites Attract or do Birds of a Feather Flock Together?  - Science Daily) (2) 
Dr. James Murray and Dr. John Gottman teamed up years ago to create their ‘love lab,’ where they record and mathematically analyze the conversations of married couples.  In the love lab couples discuss contentious topics for 15 minutes, which then are coded for such things as the use of humor or contempt.  (As you might expect, contempt is a very bad sign.)  It turns out that the marriage is in good shape if the ratio of positive to negative interactions is 5:1 or greater.  Murray and Gottman claim a 94% success rate at predicting who will divorce. (Love lasts when the maths (sic) is right – News in Science, Mathematician predicts divorce by the numbers, The Gottman Relationship Institute) (This paragraph is largely a repeat of an earlier post: The Math of Love - Lost Wanderer)  
Michael W. Fordyce writes that the single best predictor of relationship success is the mental health of both parties prior to the relationship. (Close Relationships are #1 - Human Happiness Its Nature and Attainment) 
A wife’s happiness is strongly influenced by: her husband’s emotional commitment to the relationship, his making enough money, and his doing a fair share of the housework (after taking into account his work-related contributions).  (How to Make Your Wife Happy – LiveScienceAnd for a marriage to be stable, both partners need to be equally happy. (You Can’t Be Happier than Your Wife: Happiness Gaps and Divorce)
Researchers have found that, especially when in a good quality marriage, if a wife holds her husband’s hands when under stress her brain scans show that she will have a strong decrease in threat-related brain activity.  (High-Quality Marriages Help To Calm Nerves – Medical News Today)    
The bad news is that married couples see each other as more irritating the longer they are together.  The good news is the same progression wasn’t found for relationships with friends or children.  The researchers suggest that this pattern is a normal development, which could simply be the result of people being more comfortable, and therefore better able to honestly express themselves. (Marriage: It’s Only Going to Get Worse - LiveScience
To be a good husband: Assume equal work and responsibilities.  Appreciate what she does.  Romance is required.  Respect her.  Don’t be overconfident, a bore, or a showoff.  (Summarized from 10 Things Husbands Should Never Do – Shine)
In a recent study researchers estimated that increasing your rate of intercourse from once a month to once a week is equivalent to getting a $50,000/year raise.  A lasting marriage is worth $100,000 a year, while a divorce is like losing $66,000 annually.  One qualification regarding these results is that these effects of sex on happiness seem to be greater in highly educated people.  This suggests that they would also be wealthier, and that they might have reached a level of income where diminishing returns for money would have set in.   So at such levels it would take a lot more money to have a significant impact. (Sex Better Than Money for Happiness – WebMD)

People in intimate relationships often are poor at giving each other presents.  There are several reasons for this:  Knowing someone well makes people overconfident, which lead them to put too much weight on prior information while ignoring clues in their present situation.  They also tend to assume their tastes are more similar than they are.  Another part of the problem is affluence, which means that people generally already have everything they really need.  So gifts often have only symbolic or self-identity value.  Since symbolic statements are more subject to interpretation people frequently get them wrong.  (Why Lovers Give Dud Presents – News in Science) 

A happy marriage depends mainly on its day-to-day aspects.  Happy couples often negotiate explicit agreements about such things as who does the dishes, also they communicate in a respectful, considerate way.  (Probing Question: What predicts a happy marriage? - Physorg) (See also: The Uplift Program for Happiness - Lost Wanderer)

Happy couples tend to share a number of characteristics:  They think in terms of “we,” and share a common vision of what kind of life they want, although they also keep a balance between their relationship and individual interests.  They are good friends, are honest and open, know each other well, and support one another by listening and attempting to meet each other’s needs.  They keep working at seducing each other.  They respect each other; don’t try to fundamentally change each other, or to be overly controlling.  They value each other for who they are.  Their relationship is their first family, and together they set common boundaries between themselves and their relatives.  They fight fair, while feeling safe and secure together.  (The 7 Steps to Happily Ever After – WebMD) (See also: Fighting Fair in Relationships - Lost Wanderer)

Like just about everything else worth having, a good marriage requires intelligent focused attention and doing the work of problem solving.  It requires being aware of your partner’s needs and sometimes sacrificing to meet them.  You have to guard against the common problems of temptations, jealously, and not living up to your responsibilities.  A good relationship requires clear and open communication.  You can’t play mind games, such as being passive-aggressive or stonewalling.  You need to make time for just the two of you to interact and engage.  Finally, you have to accept your partner as they are, and don’t expect them to change fundamentally. (Eight Keys to a Happier Marriage – Zenhabits)

(1) Two other instruments that are not discussed, partly because of the lack of evidence for their predictive validity, are The Cleveland Diocese Evaluation for Marriage, and the Premarital Inventory Profile.  
(2) I suspect that these researchers aren’t taking into account the problem of restriction of range.  If couples are self-selecting for similar attitudes, religion, values, and beliefs then as a result these factors are less likely to be sources of conflict.  Those remaining factors, which they aren’t able to select as efficiently on, will be the left over residue that will cause a disproportionate number of their later problems.  So it isn’t that such issues as different religions are unimportant.  Such a difference very likely would have caused problems if people hadn’t anticipated this possibility, and obviated it by selecting their partners the way they did.

Happiness and Community

Friday, October 15th, 2010

One study found that, of all the variables they looked at, only one type of consumption helps happiness – leisure consumption.  The authors also found that this was partly due to the fact that leisure consumption increased social connectedness and reduced loneliness.  (Does consumption buy happiness? Evidence from the United States - International Review of Economics

Our best and worst experiences in life don’t usually involve individual accomplishments.  Interaction with other people and the fulfillment of social connection generally make up the most important moments of our lives.  Falling in love, making a new friendship, someone dying, or breaking our hearts are the sorts of things that touch people the most deeply. (Research Shows That Our Best And Worst Moments Occur Within Social Relationships – Medical News Today

For communities to exist they have to have rules, and some means of enforcing them.  Even macaques have to have their enforcement mechanisms.  When researchers removed the dominant male macaque police from a group cohesion disintegrated, cliques formed, social networks broke down, and violence escalated.  Meanwhile playing, grooming, and sitting together all decreased. (Monkey Cops Key to Group Happiness – NewScientist)

People who benefit from kindness respond by being more altruistic toward others, and this can result in a positive upward spiral in a community.   This finding suggests that through this mechanism healthy interpersonal networks can drive good behavior.  (Acts of Kindness Spread Surprisingly Easily: Just a Few People Can Make a Difference - ScienceDaily)

Happier people have more frequent and more substantive conversations with others, since deeper conversations create greater meaning and intimacy between people.  (Talking Your Way To Happiness: Well-being Is Related To Having Less Small Talk And More Substantive Conversations – Medical News Today)

Religious people are less anxious. Researchers suggest that this is because it lets you know what the rules are, and when you are doing the right thing.  This way you aren’t as subject to second guessing yourself. You know when you are right with the tribe. (Religious people less anxious, brain activity shows – NewScientist) (I made the same point in a previous post in foot note 23. Happiness – Lost Wanderer)

People who work out in groups produce more endorphins, and researchers suggest that this functions as a natural bonding mechanism.(

According to Daniel Kahneman, “Research concludes that “happiness is mainly being satisfied with being with people that we like.” (Highlights from TED 2010, Wednesday: “We can eat to starve cancer” – Boing Boing)

Happiness and Children

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

To improve the odds of being happy it helps for children to be spiritual, have reasonable social skills, to not be bad at sports, and to have been breastfed.  

According to one study children who are “spiritual” are happier, with two aspects of spirituality accounting for most of the effect: a feeling their lives have value and meaning, and having deep good quality relationships.  These two factors accounted for up to 27% of the differences in happiness among children.  On the other hand, religiousness – institutional rituals, practices and beliefs had little effect on happiness.  (Spirituality Is Key To Kids’ Happiness, Study Suggests - Science Daily)  (1)

Researchers have identified some of the main differences between children who are socially accepted and those who are rejected.  To avoid rejection children need to be able to pick up non-verbal and social cues.  Next, they need to be able to understand what they mean.  Finally they need to be able to reason about the situation, engage in problem solving, and respond appropriately.  In short, they need to be able to sense what is going on, decide on a reasonable course of action, and be able to self-regulate such that they can carry out their plan. (Three Key Factors to Help Children Avoid Social Rejection Identified – Science Daily)

Children who are poor at sports are more likely to be sad, isolated, and experience social rejection at school.  (Playground Politics: Lack of Athletic Skill Often Means Loneliness and Peer Rejection – Science Daily)

Even after researchers controlled for children’s education, their family’s level of functioning, their happiness, and their parent’s SES children who were breastfed for six months or longer have a lower risk of mental health problems.  The study followed children up to age 10, and the risk increase ranged from 37% to 61% depending on the child’s age.  The most marked differences showed up in rates of delinquency, aggression, anti-social behavior, depression, anxiety, and social withdrawal.  (Breastfeeding Boost Mental Health, New Research Reveals - Science Daily) (2)

In a recent study Dutch children came out the happiest.  Some of the likely reasons are they live in a highly protective and caring environment, with very open communication with their families.  They also have a lot of freedom.  For example, they can smoke at 16, and legally buy marijuana.  Finally, they are a democratic country, with a very good education system.  (Why are Dutch children so happy? – BBC News

Dr. Halabe Bucay speculates that the chemicals a mother’s or father’s brain generates because of different moods might affect their eggs and sperm.  This could affect the way an offspring’s genes are expressed, and how that child develops. (Can Happiness Be Inherited? - Science Daily)

Finally, from the point of view of the parent’s happiness, whether or not having children increases happiness depends on the situation.  When people are married, ready, and want to have children having them generally improves their lives.  But if they are unmarried or separated having children doesn’t contribute to happiness, and might even reduce it by limiting people’s leisure and social time.  (Married With Children The Key To Happiness? - Science Daily)

(1) As I have written before, I think that spirituality is something that tends to naturally come along with being a member of a healthy community.

(2) I’m always skeptical of breastfeeding studies because of the almost inevitable problem of confounding variables that could fly under the radar.  Mothers who breastfeed, and the fathers who support them, might be different in many ways from those who don’t.  For one example, they might have genes that decrease the likelihood of mental health problems, and also increase the likelihood of breastfeeding.  These genes could be passed on to their offspring, who would therefore likely have better mental health, and the breastfeeding itself would have played no causal role in the outcome.

Happiness and Money

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

Following up on my previous happiness post (Happiness – Lost Wanderer), here is one that takes a closer look at the relationship between money and happiness.  The lessen I take from this post is that money should be seen in terms of the functions it serves.  It is useful as a means, but generally not as an end, in and of itself.  The question to ask then is, “What is this money getting me in terms of those things that do directly relate to happiness?”  If money gets you such things as time with your family and friends, status, a sense of community, warm memories, freedom from worry, and good medical care then it’s probably well spent. (See also: Your Money or Your Life: 9 Steps to Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence: Revised and Updated for the 21st Century by Vicki Robin et al.) 

Contrary to earlier studies, in one study lottery winners reported overall being happier after winning.  Researchers found winners reported that being able to spend more time with their family contributed more to their happiness than the financial stability, security, and the material possessions the money brought.  (also, after winning a higher percentage of them became married) (Money Can Buy Happiness, Study - Medical News Today)

According to Ed Diener, very happy people are gregarious, self-confident, and have more close friendships.  So if someone is concentrating too heavily on their career, success, and income they actually might be too conscientious about material success, and thereby cost themselves when it comes to relationships and happiness.  (Of course, this reminds me of the character Ebenezer Scrooge.) Don’t Worry, Be Moderately Happy, Research Suggests – Science Daily)

People who give to charity are happier.  (As always, I wonder about the direction of causation here.) (Can Money Buy Happiness? Yes, But Only When Spent On Others – Medical News Today)

One study reports that psychological therapy could be 32 times more cost effective than money at making you happy.  800 (British pounds) of therapy turned out to be equivalent to 25,000 pounds of money at increasing happiness.  (Therapy 32 Times More Cost Effective At Increasing Happiness Than Money – Medical News Today) Psychological Therapy 32 Times More Cost Effective at Increasing Happiness Than Money – Science Daily)

When a person buys experiences instead of buying products they tend to be happier over time.  This is both because of selective memory, and also the subjective nature of experience.  With something like a vacation it is hard to line up and directly compare it to other experiences.  Also, people tend to selectively remember the best parts of it, so over time it gets better.  On the other hand, physical objects can be more easily compared, and this often can promote second guessing leading to later regrets.  (Shopping For Happiness? Get A Massage, Forget The Flat-Screen TV – Medical News Today)

Once people are above a certain level of income it seems money can only increase happiness if it changes people’s social status.  Only if people see themselves as better off than their friends and work colleagues will they be happier. (Money Only Makes You Happy If It Makes You Richer Than Your Neighbors)

Our relative status position within an organization has a greater effect on our happiness than our absolute level of pay.  (New Research Says Being Top Dog Makes Us Happier Than Simply Getting Top Dollar – Science Daily) (1)

No matter how good your financial situation is, if you are constantly worried about it you aren’t likely to be very happy.  It seems that in many cases freedom from worry about money can be more important than the money itself. (The Key To Happiness May Be Financial Security, Rather Than Money Alone, Princeton Study Says – Medical News Today)

People who are financially well off are less unhappy than others after a disability, although this difference reduces after a few years.  (Money Doesn’t But Happiness, Except When Disability Strikes – Medical News Today)

(1) What these last two items on status highlight is one of the tragedies of life, the somewhat zero-sum nature of happiness.  Since status is relative, for there to be winners there have to be the losers who are less happy.  This, of course, implies that it could never be the case that everyone in a society was maximally happy all at the same time.


Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

An abbreviated list of what makes people happy includes:  You have to find out what is true for you, so most happiness advice is only true most of the time.  Happiness is a way to travel, with a life filled with frequent, simple, small, positive experiences.  Happy people have reasonable status, are both technically and socially competent, and are successful.  They have low stress and feelings of guilt, get enough sleep, have good perceived health, access to nature, and a sense of control over their lives.  Community, spirituality, and good individual relationships are important for happiness.  Living under a good government is important.  It helps immensely if you love your work.  Happy people are optimistic and grateful.  Symbiotes can help.  For the rest of the details read below.

The advice in this post should be used in the same way clinics often use psychological assessment tests.  (For examples, see Psychological testing – Wikipedia, Psychological Test List, and Neuropsych Tests)  A client comes in, and for the first few days he is given a whole battery of tests covering just about everything imaginable.  Then a counselor sits down with him, goes over the results, they narrow down where the problem areas are, and then they proceed from there.  Some of the advice in this post will be in tension with other advice in it.  For example, “You should delay gratification for greater rewards in the long run.” versus “Try to live in the moment, not in the past or future.”  The way to think about this is that there are many ways in which people can be less than fully functional.  So, you’ll need to tailor any advice to your life by reasonably applying it to your specific situation.  If you tend to worry excessively, you will need to try to worry less, and learn to take reasonable risks for the greater gains.  But if you’re a risk freak, then you might need to work at being more cautious.  The first step then is to take stock and ask yourself the question, “What in my life is causing me problems?” and tailor your approach accordingly.  Also, don’t fall into the trap of becoming a slave to any “happiness advice rules.”  Be flexible, generally act in moderation, and do what works for you.

What a person brings to life (their personality, likes and dislikes, abilities, temperament, skills, and habits) determines their happiness to a fair degree, and therefore to some degree our happiness is out of our control. For example, our inborn degree of extroversion is an important variable in determining our happiness.  Relative to the current range of environmental variation (1), about 50% of people’s happiness depends on their genes.  But, this leaves us with the other 50% to work with, which allows a lot of room for improvement.  Approximately 10% of the total is a result of various identifiable life circumstances, such as health, SES, marital status, and income.  And 40% is some combination of unknown factors, along with the actions that individuals intentionally take to make themselves happier, or not. 

If you want to intentionally work at improving your happiness one thing you need to develop is a looking-down-on-yourself-as-a-subject metaperspective on your life.  So a good habit is to keep a happiness diary.  You need to figure out what’s true for you.  Because we often know our own nature better than others do, and often have our own interests more at heart, a good general rule is that people who set their own agendas in life are often happier than those who don’t or can’t.  This is one of the reasons why freedom and happiness correlate.  Another reason is that freedom implies status and respect in a community, because the fact that you can’t make choices to the same degree as your peers is often a sign of inferior status.  So you need to know yourself, and be able to act on that knowledge, to fashion a life that’s grounded in what’s best for you. (2)  But, having said this, unlimited freedom isn’t the ideal state either.  Routines are comfortable and familiar, and help us by limiting our choices.  Research shows that although people believe they want endless variety and choice, they’re actually happier with somewhat more limited options, otherwise they can become overwhelmed.  As with many things, freedom also needs to be in moderation.

However, there’s one problem with the plan of finding out what’s true for us.  As bad as other people are at running our lives, we aren’t necessarily very good either.  (It’s just that other people are generally even worse.)  It turns out that people are quite bad at predicting what will make them happy. (Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert) They consistently remember bad things in the past as worse than they were at the time, and they make the same mistakes over and over in predicting how various hypothetical circumstances will affect their happiness.  For example, when people are asked how happy would they be if they were paraplegic many people predict they would be miserable.  It turns out that, while parapaglics might be not quite as happy as before, they often aren’t miserable.  The reason they aren’t miserable is that we don’t react to the world as it is, but to how we perceive it, and we have some control over this.  People are very good at adapting to bad things by changing how they see the world, and our inability to account for this when given some hypothetical explains why our imaginations fail us.  One way to fight this tendency is to ask people who are actually in the hypothesized situation how happy they are.  This turns out to be a better predictor than a person’s introspection usually is.  So, even though people vary in what will make them happy, the average of other’s experience is still better than we can do in predicting how happy we will be in some situation we’ve never experienced.  This is why it’s important to try all sorts of things for ourselves, because through this process we find out who we are, and what works for us.  If you think about it, it shouldn’t be the least bit surprising that people are bad at knowing what will make them happy.  If people were actually good at this, then there wouldn’t be much point in doing happiness research.

As many people have said, “Happiness is a way to travel, not a place to get to.”  Along these lines one key to happiness is setting up your life so that you generally have something good to look forward to. Living in this way supports optimism, and also dovetails with the finding that happiness tends to grow out of small, frequent, regular, and dependable positive experiences,  which are habits that are part of a routine. As such, a person’s happiness can often be best understood by looking at how their ongoing activities operate in their life.  A change in a person’s life that involves pursuing a goal or engaging in a new activity (joining a club, beginning a new hobby, learning a new skill, changing careers, making new friends) will usually change a person’s happiness for a long time, because they are now in a constantly changing environment that provides a series of novel happiness enhancing experiences.  By contrast, even an important change in a person’s material circumstances (getting a new house or new car) will usually result in only a temporary rise in happiness.  This is because people become acclimated to the static facts of their new lifestyle as they roughly have the same experience over and over.  (Why Are Some People Happier Than Others? by Sonja Lyubomirsky)  This contrast highlights the fact that happiness generally doesn’t grow out of possessing things, but out of doing things. (3)  Dr. Michael Fordyce summarizes the idea that happiness often grows out of a series of small positive doing-things experiences by employing what he calls the “Time Clock Theory of Happiness,” and argues that a person’s happiness is largely determined by the content of their thoughts over time. (Happiness Research Website)  What this suggests is that you should try to find simple pleasures you enjoy and distribute them throughout your day. (4)  (Savor the Little things – Zen Habits)  If a person regularly engages in activities such as having sex with someone they love, spending time with friends, relaxing, learning new and interesting things, challenging herself with new projects, and meditating (Meditation – Lost Wanderer) she will probably be happier.  And if she can limit distasteful activities, such as long commutes and boring or stressful work, it’s so much the better.

In addition to simple pleasures, there are a number of general factors that for many people tend to color their overall life satisfaction: regularly getting a good night’s sleep, having a low level of stress (since stress tends to maintain depression) (How NOT to Multitask – Work Simpler and Saner – Zen Habits), living in quiet surroundings (Stress and Noise - Resources for Science Learning – The Franklin Institute), having high self-perceived health (5), engaging with nature, and having respectable statusDepression tends to be associated with social rejection and emotional isolation (6), living in fear, unrelievable pain, and having a low sense of control over your life.  Dr. Steven Ilardi, in his book, “The Depression Cure,” argues that our transition from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to modern civilization created a mismatch between our biology and the environment that reduced our happiness.  Some of his recommendations are that we should consume at least 1 gram/day of omega-3 fatty acid (because it’s anti-inflammatory)  (For example, see Natural Factors Omega-3 Pharmaceutical Grade Fish Oil – Lost Wanderer), get enough sleep (most people need 8 hours/day) (7) (Sleep Related Topics – Lost Wanderer and Sleeping Like a Hunter-Gatherer – Lost Wanderer), eat a healthy diet (The Paleolithic diet – Lost Wanderer), exercise (Move Natural Exercise – Lost Wanderer, Pole Dancing & Belly Dancing are Good Workouts – Lost Wanderer, Lifting Depression by Kelly Lambert – Lost Wanderer,, and Conditioning Research), and get 30+ minutes of sunshine/day. (8)  Another very important factor I can add to his list is our natural biological symbiotes, such as various helminths and protozoa, which we need in order to function normally, and lost during our transition to modernity.  For example, the common soil bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae seems to have strong antidepressant effects, which might help explain why so many people enjoy gardening. (Is Dirt the New Prozac - Discover Magazine, See also, We Need Our Symbiotes – Lost Wanderer)  Johns Hopkins researchers have written that a majority of subjects in a 2006 experiment reported an increase in life satisfaction over a year after taking psilocybin a single time.  Many of the volunteers described the experience as an especially spiritually significant one.  (Magic Mushrooms – Lost Wanderer)  Another natural antidepressant of note might very well be semen. (Semen acts as an Anti-depressant – Lost Wanderer)  And some of the natural environmental stressors people used to be exposed to might also be very helpful.  (Adapted cold shower as a potential treatment for depression – Lost Wanderer)

The evidence for the relationship between money and happiness is mixed, and sorting out all the confounding variables will take researchers some time.  National income has greatly risen in the last 50 years, but national happiness levels haven’t changed.  (I suspect that this is because if everyone is on average richer, then no one’s relative status has changed, and status is often the reason why having money is important for happiness.)  The happiest states are the poorest ones, and the least happy are the richest.  Yet, rich people are happier than poor people, (My guess is that this is mostly because rich people have higher status and they have a greater sense of accomplishment.) and rich countries are happier than poor ones. (Rich countries generally have more honest governments.  See below, “trust and confidence in their government.”)  What researchers can say right now about money is that having lots of it usually won’t make you happy, because it has rapidly diminishing returns past some point.  It seems that money helps if it can be used to access those things that increase happiness, and to reduce those things that lead to unhappiness.  So, if someone can use a raise to get enough sleep, eat a healthier diet, have a greater sense of personal freedom, etc., it might very well help.  And if that raise can be used to reduce or remove pain, stress, insecurity, anxiety, being trapped in a job you hate, not being able to get good health care, having low status/being looked down upon, being forced to interact with people you don’t like or trust, not having access to nature, etc., it would be likely to increase happiness.  Today in America, money’s effect tends to top out at about $50,000/year, and after that its returns drop.  As a dramatic demonstration of this, in a study of 22 people who won major lotteries, researchers found that after some time these people were no happier than matched controls who hadn’t won. (Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative?)  (It also seems to be the case that earned money correlates with happiness far more than won money. (Can Money But Happiness? By Arthur C. Brooks) (9)  Money spent on acquiring things often doesn’t increase happiness, because trying to buy happiness puts you on what has been labeled the “hedonic treadmill.” The pattern is that a new possession will give you a temporary boost, but then you will fall back to your previous level, and you then need to buy something else to get another boost.  Since the tendency is to have to up the ante each time, it’s a race you can’t win.  From reading this post, you might reasonably conclude that it does make a lot of sense for someone to say, “I’ll be happier when I have an income of at least $50,000/year, a job I love, good friends, access to nature, etc.  But all too often what people are saying is something like, “I’ll be happy when I get that big raise or promotion.”  To fight this money trap one piece of advice is, instead of comparing yourself to others who have more than you, use downward comparisons. Read stories about people going through catastrophes. (Recommended happiness reading – Memoirs of illness and catastropheThe Happiness Project)  Compare yourself with those who have less than you, who have gone through tragedy, and who are struggling.  Make a list of all the positive things in your life: friends, family, a job you love, good health, enough food, etc.  You might come to see that you are blessed.  And if your circumstances are very bad, stories where someone overcame incredible hardships inspire you to believe you can also.  It’s OK to have material goals, but you shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking you’ll be happy when you reach some high material accomplishment.

The same principle also applies to very high status.  Try to focus on that you have accomplished, not on what you haven’t.  It is certainly true that having high status helps happiness, but it too has diminishing returns.  And if your self-esteem comes out of a title, then losing your job is a catastrophe.  This explains why the loss of a job is very bad for happiness, since people lose self-respect and expect to be seen as a failure by family and friends. You need to remember that your job isn’t you, and avoid the status trap. So don’t envy others’ great wealth or status, if you do you’re probably living an unbalanced life and targeting the wrong goals. (10) A good strategy to achieve maximal happiness is to invest your energy in a balanced way in most, if not all, of the various factors that contribute to happiness.  Once a category is above a certain level, you’re probably misallocating resources if you are trying to drive it to the sky.  Keep your priorities balanced, and practice moderation in most things. Indulge yourself occasionally, but don’t make indulgence into part of your lifestyle. Obviously, addictions and compulsions can ruin lives.

The advice in this post is geared for those people who have enough to offer such that they can fit into some sort of reasonable community.  In short, you aren’t that toxic person everyone else is rejecting.  Living in a community requires a degree of honesty, and, like most things in life, honesty involves tradeoffs.  There are clear benefits to deception; otherwise our capability for it would never have evolved.  There are many circumstances such as war or negotiation, where unvarnished honesty would drive you from the field of battle.  Likewise, individuals with little to offer often end up in the unenviable situation of having problems they can’t ignore, and they can’t solve in any honest way.  While the compromises such people fashion might entail large costs, they also might be the best they can do given their limited resources and capabilities.  In addition to habitual dishonesty, a whole panoply of dysfunctional behavior patterns (drinking, engaging with prostitutes, habitual pornography, gambling, etc.) sometimes can be viewed as coping mechanisms used by those who have no better options.  If you aren’t in such an unfortunate situation, fitting into a community as a respected member can be the path to a happier life.  We need a place called home.  A community of people is a group who care about each other (which lowers the stress response), participate together in meaningful activities, who believe in the system, and are mutually invested in a common set of rules.  The nature of community makes it an ongoing enterprise.  Cooperation is fostered by shared fate, and the expectation that people will interact into the future.  In this way reciprocity and equality are encouraged, and cheaters are punished and driven out.  People often have common interests, a common background, propinquity, and support each others’ dreams & goals.  So, you should use the power of others to help achieve your goals, and listen to good advice from trustworthy friends.  (The Evolution of Despair by Robert Wright – Lost Wanderer, The Importance of Belonging and Community – Lost Wanderer, and The Uplift Program for Happiness - Lost Wanderer)  Having said all this, if you are so dysfunctional that you are toxic, you should look to other sources for happiness advice. (The Origins of Violence: Is Psychopathy an Adaptation? by Ian Pitchford)

Good relationships are a very important determinant of happiness for almost everyone.  (Rejection Creates Resentment – Lost Wanderer)  One of the many reasons for this is people need motivated conversation.  We must feel needed. Research indicates that it’s more important to worry about having around five good friends rather than a lot of them.  Extraverted people are happier, and if your social circle is lacking you should try to meet some new people.  (Succeed Socially.comGood family relations and a significant-other long-term loving relationship help a lot.  Married people are happier than the unmarried, and widowhood is bad for happiness.  (Although it isn’t clear what impact having children has on happiness.) (A Simple Statistical Method for Measuring how Life Events Affect Happiness, The Math of Love – Lost Wanderer, and For those who are Contemplating Marriage – Lost Wanderer) (11)

But, this raises an obvious question, “Just what is a good relationship?” In order to have good relationships we have to do our part.  To have good friends we have to be one.  One starting point is to remember that people don’t remember what you said so much as they remember how you made them feel.  The advice people give on the topic of friendship is commonsensical:

  • Be polite, be fair and follow the rules. (12)
  • Don’t maliciously lie (lying to protect someone is more of a judgment call).
  • Keep your wordpay your debts, take what’s yours, and be patient and flexible.
  • Don’t react in anger.  (If you’re angry count to 10, and wait 24 hours before sending an angry email)
  • Try to not hold grudges, and follow the golden rule. (13)
  • Practice compassion by putting yourself in their shoes. (14)
  • A good relationship will have: trust, respect, appreciation, and enthusiasm.  It will be transparent and have open communication with people able to, for the most part, freely express their needs and feelings while empathizing with one another.  (15)  You will be involved, accessible, engaged, reliable, and committed.  (A New Scale to Assess the Therapeutic Relationship in a Community Mental Health Care: STAR)
  • Of course, it’s a two way street, and you should try to hang around with people who also do and are these thingsHappiness is a team sport.  In the end we should try to interact with people we like and who like us back, and be with the people we can count on when the chips are on the line. (16)  (See also, Fighting Fair in Relationships - Lost Wanderer)
  • Take responsibility for what you do.
  • Happy people are emotionally stable and socially competent.
  • You should try to live your values, and know your moral bottom line.
  • Keep it real. Can you take what you say seriously? (17) (18)   

Stephen Pinker, in “How the Mind Works“, discusses two mechanisms that can contribute to creating strong friendships.  First, if people share a rare common interest they will often naturally generate positive externalities for each other.  For example, if two people both like an esoteric genre of music they can share advice about it, and they become more valuable to each other.  If two people are more valuable to each other this results in a positive feedback cycle, because each can more likely count on the other for aid.  Because each is not only a source of advice, but also aid, they see each other as still more valuable.  This process iterates in an upward spiral.  Second, in similar fashion, if John has a special area of expertise that Susan values, and can’t easily substitute for, then he becomes valuable to her.  He will know that he is valuable to her, which means that he knows he can more likely count on her for aid and support.  So as a result she now becomes more valuable to him.  She now knows that he thinks she is valuable to him, so she can now count on him for more support.  Again, the same upward spiral occurs.  These two mechanisms highlight the importance competency has.  Happy people are more competent people.  The more competent you are in general the more you have to offer.  Having more to offer, you will attract others who will also have more to offer.  So you should find the things you’re are good at and love to do, and develop these areas.  One strategy is to ask yourself, “What’s in short supply?”  Then try to make yourself an indispensible expert, and find those who will value most what you have to offer.  (The Evolution of Happiness by David M. Buss)  The idea is not that you are helping people in a bean counting tit-for-tat way, but if you can help generally, by being able to give to people what they can’t get from others, you can build friendships. (19)  Happy people want the best for those around them, they like other people, and help people when they can for their own sakes.  Help people problem solve, share their goals, help them find a silver lining, and be on their side/team. (20) (21)  All of this will create confidence in everyone involved.  Besides sounding nice, it turns out that it’s also in our own self-interest to increase the happiness of those around us, because people catch emotions from others.  Happiness spreads in society in waves, much like a viral infection, and your happiness somewhat depends on the happiness of people who are 3 degrees of separation from you.  (Happiness is Contagious – Lost Wanderer)   So try to do one thing every day to make someone else happy.  In marriage if one partner is happy the other also on average will be happier.

We are a social species, as evidenced by the large number of social emotions we have for regulating our interactions with others: guilt, shame, self-righteousness, loneliness, jealously, love, modesty, resentment, contempt, gratitude, approval, pity, etc.  Humans evolved in small hunter gatherer groups of 50 to 200 individuals, and most of these were kin.  So continuous face time is the default setting, and it was the norm for 99% of human evolution.  In the hunter-gatherer days being in a tribe in which you trusted the collective decision making of the group would have been important for survival.  Because it would have entailed such a high a fitness cost, incompetent leadership became something that made people unhappy.  How would you have felt if you thought your tribal leaders were criminals, incompetent, or malicious; instead of honest, honorable, and competent? (22)  It only makes sense that this would be one of the determinates of happiness today, only now it’s good government that plays the role of the tribal council.  The happiest countries are small, stable, homogenous, democratic, protect human rights and liberty, they are efficiently run, and have honest courts.  People have trust and confidence in their government. I don’t think I’m speculating too wildly when I suggest that if a country is stable this means you don’t have to deal with the anxiety that arises out of political turmoil.  A homogenous country generates less suspicion that various other factional interests are trying to take advantage of you (9), and you will be more likely to have a sense of belonging. (Trust in Communities and Ethnic Diversity – Lost Wanderer and Belonging versus Support – Lost Wanderer) (23)  If a country is democratic you have status as an equal citizen, and democracies imply the various rights and freedoms that allow you to tailor your life to achieve greater happiness.  An efficiently run country implies a good standard of living, and honest courts means that you can trust you won’t be legally cheated.  Northern European countries are the happiest: Denmark, the Netherlands, and the Scandinavian countries.  Other countries with high levels of happiness are Switzerland, Canada, and Costa Rica. (24)

Spirituality is another aspect of human experience that’s important for happiness.  Spirituality exists when a person has an emotional connection to something larger than themselves.  This can be many things: their community or country, a cause, science, God, etc.  People have suggested that for an activity to be meaningful in the spiritual sense we must understand what it is and how to do it, and how it fits into the larger picture creating a benefit for that larger thing that is beyond ourselves.  Whatever the specific object of a person’s spirituality, it is characterized by four major affective components: a sense of gratitude (appreciation of benefits received), awe (an overwhelming feeling of deep respect, wonder, and fear), transcendence (a state of being or existence above and beyond the limits of material experience; lying beyond the ordinary range of perception, preeminent or supreme), and love.  Spirituality gives people a sense that they are needed, a belief/feeling that they have a higher purpose.  They believe they are living by a higher narrative.  Some defenders of the spirituality argue that if you think that it’s irrational to be spiritual, you should dare to be irrational, because you already are in so many ways.  Not infrequently spirituality involves religious beliefs about judgment and an afterlife, and this provides another reason why it creates happiness, because it helps happiness to believe in ultimate justice. (Although a religion full of hate tends to drive out happiness.)  Durkheim argued that God ultimately refers in a metaphorical way to the clan or tribe.  (The Death of Animism, Community, and God – Lost Wanderer, Alienation and Animism – Lost Wanderer, and “Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought” by Pascal Boyer – Lost Wanderer)  If this is so, then the purest form of spirituality would exist in relationship to a community, and the other forms (to science, a cause, etc.) would be in some sense substitutes. (25) (26)

The old clich’e, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” leads directly to the important idea that if you can do what you love to do, and you are good at, you will live a much happier life.  (How to Find Your Passion – Stepcase Lifehack, Find and Follow Your Bliss, The Short but Powerful Guide to Finding Your Passion - Zen Habits)  When deciding which job to take, along with salary and benefits, the questions should be: how engaging and meaningful will this work be for you?   The opposite of work you love is toxic work, which is work that mentally exhausts you. (27)  Whenever I have heard a world champion, or anyone who is at the top of their field, interviewed, and the interviewer asks, “What is the secret of your success?” almost inevitably the first thing the person says is, “I love what I do.” They are passionate about it, and when going to bed generally look forward to, or even can’t wait for, the next day.  They are mentally energized and thrilled by it.  For them work can even be joyful and gleeful.  I think this partly explains what Joseph Campbell meant when he said, “I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.”  Work is for them is what play is to a child.  Most people can think back to some period of their lives, frequently when they were children, when they woke up every day passionate about living.  If you love your work much of your life will be like this.  Csikszentmihalyi says that such work creates the experience of “Flow.” (28)  People are not focused on themselves, but absorbed and fascinated.  One acquaintance of mine once said that his father was a big strong guy, loved helping people, loved fire, and loved working in groups.  So he became – what else? - a fireman.  Other examples I’ve run across include: The Olympic gold medal winning wrestler Cael Sanderson, who had to work to not smile during matches, because he enjoyed them so much. Warren Buffett describes himself as “tap dancing to work every day.” And the mathematician David Hilbert, who while delivering a funeral eulogy lost track of the situation and started enthusiastically delivering a math lecture! (29) Even those of us can’t do something we love for a living should make a list of those things we love to do, and try to make time for them every day. (30) (31) (See also Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck- Lost Wanderer)

Our sense of ourselves, or how our thoughts and words relate to external reality, has real consequences.  So there are a number of habits you can cultivate that involve deliberately managing your thoughts and emotions to increase happiness:  Our attitudes somewhat determine who we are, which leads directly to the old idea of having a positive attitude.  A positive frame of reference flows out of what you pay attention to, how you interpret it, and how you remember it.  You might begin by keeping a journal each day, and fill it with entries that reflect on what went well in the last 24 hours.  When someone is negative you should try to think of two positives for each negative.  In general look for the silver lining, for beauty – which is always there in the world, and try to find some meaning in even the worst of things.  Spin it half full rather than half empty, and ask, “What did I learn, and what is better because of it?”  Make lemonade out of lemons by asking, “How can I take advantage of this development?”   Think about how it could have been worse, and could always be worse.  If you don’t have any information at all (even probabilistic) guess positive until proven otherwise.  Expect happiness.

However, while hope and optimism are essential for happiness, you should never confuse the general belief that you will overcome in the end with the expectation of success of any specific plans you have made.  You need to be confident, but not have unrealistic expectations.  In other words, believe in yourself, but not too much.  You should expect disappointment within an overall joyful life.  You need to also be realistic enough so your rose colored glasses don’t become blinders such that you only see the positive, and ignore some impending catastrophe.  So when making specific plans you might try imagining the worst case outcome, then imagine the best, and then imagine something in between.  The third one will generally be much more likely.

Other habits of mind you need to be aware of include: If you worry a lot, give yourself a set time and place each day to worry, and then otherwise don’t.  Self-monitor and keep a score in a worry journal where you write them all down.  Don’t indulge pointless negative thoughts, but note them in your worry journal and then change the topic. You will probably find that most of the things you worry about either never come true, or they come true in a way no one could have anticipated or prevented.  Stress and tension are universal negatives, so the more you can eliminate them the better. (32)  Sometimes it is best to simply face our fears.  For example, you might think about, share, talk about, and deal with your fears of death, instead of letting them hang over you.  In general it turns out that the best way of dealing with negative thoughts isn’t to try to suppress them, or to vent them, but instead to change the subject and think about positive and productive things, such as, for example, what you are grateful for.  Being generally grateful is very important for happiness.  One technique people have suggested is to construct a “gratitude bomb” by making a detailed list of all the things other people have done for you over the course of your life.  It should run into thousands of items, and could be overwhelming.  Cultivate gratitude, make it into a habit, and incorporate it into your routine.  In this way you are recreating the experience of being in a tribe.  Along with gratitude, forgiveness has been called, “an essential ingredient for mental health,” (33) because anger and hate drive out love.  Try to think about your own faults before you beat up on others for theirs.

Still more advice includes:

  • You might need to try to be more decisive. When faced with an uncertain choice, make it and move on.  In studies where people were allowed to reconsider and change their choices they were on average less happy with them. 
  • Don’t dwell on what you can’t control, but focus on the positive things you can do to make things better. (34)  Don’t ignore what bothers you if you can change it.  Your aim should be to fix the problem, or at least make it better.  If you can’t do either, your last option is to try to focus on something else you can do something about.  You can’t control the past, so give yourself a break, don’t beat yourself up for mistakes, flush the guilt, don’t brood, learn from your errors, and move on and improve.
  • You don’t have to be perfect.  You should strive to appreciate your strengths, root for yourself, give yourself credit for what you have to offer, accept your shortcomings and weaknesses, and thereby cultivate self-acceptance. (35)  Try daily self-affirmations.  Make a list of your positive characteristics.  Put them on index cards, hide them around your house, and every time you see one focus on it for a while.  Treat yourself the way you would treat a good friend, and in this way work on your self-esteem.
  • Don’t set yourself up to fail by setting goals that are incompatible. Don’t persist in clearly unwinnable conflicts, but recognize the situation and tactically retreat. (You’ve Gotta Know When to Fold ‘Em: Goal Disengagement and Systemic Inflammation in AdolescenceSet reasonable goals, both short term and long term, you can have success with in all areas of your life.  (See also Mystery Moods – Lost Wanderer)  The idea is to create a record of success, so that you can develop self-confidence in your abilities.  Happy people feel successful, and are satisfied with their lives.
  • Practice being honest with yourself.  Don’t self-handicap in order to have an excuse ready if you don’t succeed.
  • You might also have to learn to not care what certain people think of you (8 Best Ways to Deal with Detractors – Zen Habits); and, as harsh as it sounds, to flush toxic people at some point. (36)
  • Work at failing fast and cheap. That is, figure out if you can succeed at whatever you’re doing early on in the process, and if you can’t drop it.
  • Try to see the humor and play in life. (37)  Look for books, films, and TV shows on DVD that you find funny.
  • Remember that you always have choices, so you have some control, and aren’t helpless.
  • You need to be open to new ideas, and try to learn something new every day.  Challenge and novelty are important elements of happiness.
  • Being able to negotiate well is a general applicable and valuable skill. (38)
  • You might need to learn to be appropriately assertive, to stand your ground, and speak up for yourself. (39)
  • You might consider learning to play poker well.  Bill Gates, among many others, credits poker with teaching him a lot about how to run a business. (pp. 396-7, “Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker” by James McManus)
  • Develop your problem solving skills. (40)
  • More education can sometimes help, and a conscientious attitude (the tendency to be organized, and to think carefully and thoroughly before acting) is often a plus.
  • You have to learn to take reasonable risks, so you can’t be too afraid of failure.  If you’re not occasionally failing you’re not taking enough chances.  It turns out that moderate, rational risk takers, who are from the 50th percentile to the 84th, are the happiest. (The Art of Living Dangerously by William Gurstelle)  “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear.” (Ambrose Redmoon).  So don’t feed the fear, feed the dream.  Think of solutions, instead of dwelling on worst case scenarios.
  • Things are rarely as good or as bad as they seem, so try to take a 3rd party perspective, and be somewhat detached and analytical when things go wrong.  This doesn’t mean you’re uninvolved, but instead it’s more likely your problem solving will be more productive. (Calm as a Monk: How Equanimity Can Save Your Sanity – Zen Habits)
  • When you have to do unpleasant things do the worst things first, get them out of the way instead of having them hang over you head.
  • People who plan for the future and delay gratification often come out ahead in the long run.  So, don’t take shortcuts that will hurt you in the long run.
  • But, you also don’t want to end up only living in the future (or the past) but try to live in the present and enjoy it.  The past is to learn from, the present is to enjoy, and the future is to look forward to.  The goal is to keep them balanced and in their proper places.
  • Try laughter yoga.
  • If you have gone through emotional trauma try expressive writing for getting over it. Write down in detail what happened and your feelings about it.  Get it out of your head, and know your own mind.  See your flawed thoughts, be honest with yourself.  To remember it practice telling someone else.
  • The book, “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness” argues that we should arrange our lives so that it’s easy to do the right things.  The authors argue that we have self-control problems because of limited time and the various mental shortcut heuristics we use to get along in the world.  (List of Cognitive Biases - Wikipedia)  So we should tilt the playing field in our favor by, for example, intentionally setting our default options.
  • Control your desires.
  • The simplicity movement argues that many people have their priorities confused, and we should simplify our lives and flush the clutter.  (Simple Living, Simple Living – Wikipedia)
  • You might try recording your night-time dreams and sharing them with others.  Some people report this can lead to lucid dreaming. (The Lucidity Institute)
  • Some people find getting a pet helpful. (Happiness Is: Are Pet Owners Happier?)
  • Create new challenges by starting a new hobby, joining an organization, or learning a new skill.  A general rule is to buy experiences rather than goods, because a good experience will tend to get better each time you remember it.  (“59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot” and Richard Wiseman’s Online Webpage for his book “59 Seconds...) So go to a concert, movie, unusual place, or strange restaurant.
  • One piece of happiness advice is to smile more often. While it’s true that our emotional state helps determine whether we smile, it turns out that the lines of causation are a two way street, and if we smile we can actually make ourselves happier.  People are told to practice by putting a pencil between their teeth.  (“Just smile, you’ll feel better!” Will you? Really?)
  • On her blog, The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin lists many suggested readings, and says that she found the 13 virtues of Franklin (41), The Rambler, The Life of Samuel Johnson, and St. Therese, Story of a Soul especially helpful to her.
  • Fight procrastination. (42)
  • It was John Wooden who said, “Don’t let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.”
  • Commit when appropriate, don’t hold back, and ignore the irrational messages/feelings that interfere with success.
  • Finish the projects you start that are worth finishing.  If you have a winning hand, be stubborn and keep at it.
  • Work at being lucky. (How to Be Lucky – Lost Wanderer)
  • Compromise is sometimes wise, satisficers tend to be happier than maximizers, and the perfect can be the enemy of the good.
  • Don’t be a slave to rules, but be flexible in means to a given end. (Predictors of Success for People with Learning Disabilities – Lost Wanderer)
  • You have to learn to take constructive criticism.  Being in touch with reality is often painful, but (if you are willing to take the pain) you have to let the evidence guide you even if it hurts.  For many people, it is so painful to consider ideas/arguments they disagree with, or are outside their current world view, they shut them out. (43)
  • Wives are happier if they believe their husband is committed to the relationship
  • Vacations shouldn’t be thought of as a set of experiences, but as a celebration of family.
  • In general, it’s bad to be alone or watching a lot of TV.  It’s better to be listening to music or reading.
  • Look for ways to be romantic. (Cheap but great dates – Zen Habits)
  • Happy people aren’t too emotionally dependent on other’s approval.  Of course, it’s a balancing act between our need for others and our need to have a sense of control, independence, autonomy, and self-support.
  • Happy people don’t experience many of the negative emotions that erode happiness: they have low tensions, stress, fear, guilt, resentments, regrets and worries.  Happy people like themselves.  People with high self-confidence see themselves as having many good qualities, positive traits and abilities.  They see themselves as likeable, attractive, and worthwhile.
  • Many of the roots of the positive school of psychology stem from the humanistic school. (Positive psychology – Wikipedia and Humanistic psychology – Wikipedia)  Psychologists such Maslow focused on such topics as love, creativity, self-actualization or “fulfilling one’s highest potential”.  (FWIW, I’m not actually sure what they mean by “self-actualization.”)
  • Happiness is itself a resource that produces better relationships, longer life, health, wound healing, a lower chance of suicide, less depression, and less alcohol and drug abuse.
  • Stop looking at virtually all mass media, and get rid of the TV.  Advertising is selling the myth that buying things will make us happier.  We are continually being invited to be seduced by the unhealthy cheap thrills of modern life.  (Superstimuli – Whole Health Source)  Because of the mass media we all now compete with the best in the world, and compare our lives with the fantasy ones we see on TV.  Beautiful people are constantly paraded across the screen, providing unhealthy upward comparisons.  We could be the best at something in the ancient tribe, but now envy, which used to motivate people within realistic settings, leads to depression, self-perceived failure, and frustration.  If an athlete wins a silver medal at the Olympics announcers will describe the second best in the world (by a hair) as having “lost.”  On top of all this, the news presents us with a depressing negatively distorted version of reality (see foot note 22).

(1) Any statement like this is always limited to the range of variation of the relevant variables that was present in the environments where the studies were done.  If some very important variables were highly range restricted then a statistic wouldn’t generalize to another environment, where these variable weren’t as restricted.  For example, if everyone in a population was deficient in a symbiotic bacterium that strongly affects happiness by changing serotonin levels, then the researcher’s statistical model predicting happiness would be incomplete, and its heritability estimate for other environments would be different.

(2) Having said this, while people do vary in what makes them happy, there’s also a fair degree of agreement among people about this, otherwise giving advice would be impossible beyond saying, “Follow your own heart.”

(3) Since our hunter gatherer ancestors hardly owned anything, and they were generally happy, it makes a lot of sense that owning things wouldn’t create happiness for us either.  A caveat to this is that today a minimal level of possessions are often necessary as a signal of status, and status has always been correlated with happiness, both today and in the days of the hunter gatherers.

(4) The simple pleasures simply have to be enough to create happy lives.  Hunter-gatherers didn’t have trips to Europe, etc., yet they were happy with only their spears and skins.  We know they were happy both from anthropologists’ reports, and from the fact that evolutionary selection wouldn’t have fashioned an animal that was generally unhappy in its natural environment.  The fitness cost from the stress would have been too large.

(5) Unless the person is psychotic, I would think that at some point a person’s perception of their health would correlate with their actual health.  So, their actual health must also matter.

(6) The lowest status in a community is to be socially rejected and shunned by everyone in that community.  For an exploration of what happens when you are on the very bottom of a society, see (Delusions as Strategic Deception – Lost Wanderer).  Being cast-out might be considered an even lower case, but then you are no longer inside the community.

(7) To help our sleeping Ilardi recommends we turn off the lights 1 hour before bedtime, and use only a soft lamp or candlelight with no overhead or computers.

(8) This last piece of advice stems from the fact that sunlight is about 100 times as bright as artificial light, and through specialized receptors in the back of our eyes it adjusts our body clocks, which regulate our sleep and hormones.  We also get vitamin D this way, and most people in modern society are deficient in this.  (Vitamin D Deficiency in Modern Society – Lost Wanderer)

(9) This distinction might help explain why affirmative action is so controversial.  Besides all the other objections (Affirmative Action: A Worldwide Disaster by Thomas Sowell), instead of redistributing only money, it is also attempting to redistribute status.  As such, it rearranges the social hierarchy, and more clearly attempts to redistribute happiness.

(10) You want to manage your relationship with money, and not let it manage you.  You should try to eliminate debt, and build an emergency fund (a major way to reduce stress and make you feel more secure).  If you can find less expensive ways to do things, control impulse spending, and learn to live with less you will likely be happier in the long run.  A good book to start thinking about this is, “Your Money or Your Life: 9 Steps to Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence: Revised and Updated for the 21st Century.” by Vicki Robin et al.

(11) The general advice seems to be: Select a mate who is similar to you in mate-value & values, interests, politics, and personality.  A spouse should also be agreeable, emotionally stable, conscientious, and open to new experiences.

(12) The advice for good relationships overlaps with the advice for good sportsmanship, e.g., be polite and use appropriate language, don’t show off, respect your opponents, don’t argue with officials, don’t make up excuses when you lose – instead learn from it, cheer the other guy, don’t cheat, the team often comes first, etc.  Also, don’t engage in gamesmanship. (Gamesmanship – Wikipedia)

(13) Although, if you are ending a relationship, I could imagine circumstances where revenge could be an attractive option as a healing experience.

(14) One exercise is to start by imagining the suffering of a loved one.  Try to see the world as they see it, so that you can understand their pain, their emotions, and why they would react the way they do.  By repeating this exercise, you are developing a skill that can be applied to everyone, so that you can better understand what they are going through.

(15) In relationships you should practice active listening, which means that you: pay attention and respond, really try to understand the other person, make eye contact, don’t judge them, use touch, recognize their emotions and non-verbal cues. (For more, see The Art of Active Listening Tip Sheet and Active Listening Skills)

(16) David Buss even recommends that we set up critical tests to see who we can really depend on, and thereby develop a greater sense of deep social connections. (The Evolution of Happiness by David M. Buss)

(17) What makes for bad relationships is also common sense: People are angry, neurotically needy, condescending, destructively critical, reject and dislike one another.  They find each other annoying.  They are impatient, dishonest, and authoritarian.  They use pressure, engage in one-upmanship, and play manipulative games.  Other common practices include: not taking responsibility, changing the topic when they don’t want to talk about it, lying, playing dumb, withholding information, playing victim, feeling entitled, verbally minimizing the harm they’ve done, and basically not caring about others.  One test of whether or not a relationship is toxic for you is to ask yourself if you feel more energized or less after spending time with that person.  (Thinking Errors List and 15 Common Thinking Errors)

(18) The problem with this advice is that it is in some tension with the advice to be positive.  Imagine that you are, in fact, ugly (or even deformed), have a very low IQ, are a terrible athlete, naturally socially awkward, you can find nothing you enjoy in life, you are in bad health, in extreme poverty, everyone but mental cases and criminals reject you, and the only women interested in you are prostitutes.  Wouldn’t it be rational to be depressed?  Wouldn’t it be rational to see yourself in unflattering terms, because it’s true?  In short, the bottom 1% will be, of course by definition, in the bottom 1%.  Someone must be on the bottom of any competitive distribution, including a distribution of those things in life that make for happiness.  This highlights another of the tragedies of life; since good things tend to co-vary in populations (because of assortative mating, if nothing else), some people will end up on the bottom along many dimensions.  Their lives are the tragic and inevitable outcome of the logic of a competitive Malthusian type of world. (Malthusian catastrophe - Wikipedia and The Most IMPORTANT Video You’ll Ever See by Dr. Albert A. Bartlett) Low self-confidence correlates with unhappiness, and people with low self-confidence see themselves as unattractive and as failures, feel inadequate and guilty, expect to be socially rejected, are shy, self-conscious, self-critical, and hyper-sensitive.  They doubt love, are jealous and possessive, are unsuccessful and dissatisfied with their inter-personal relationships, have difficulty accepting praise, and are cautions and fearful.  Those who are unhappy are more neurotic, have many unfulfilled aspirations, are anxious, rigid, and display low spontaneity.  They are dependent on others for their self-esteem, are over concerned with prestige and social approval, have dissatisfying family lives, and are self-abasing.  They feel inadequate and insecure, are pessimistic and suspicious, are more likely to have experienced a loss of love, are socially withdrawn, and worry excessively. They are less competent, are less organized, and have lower mastery of the skills necessary to achieve their goals.  All this can easily end in self-hatred.  Those on the bottom will be more likely to be only able to socialize with others on the bottom, and the reason these other people are on the bottom is that they too don’t have much to offer.  In such circumstances, when you are hanging around with others who are depressed, and you can’t trust and don’t like, it would be rational to be depressed yourself.  This perspective is partially supported by the phenomenon of depressive realism.  This is where people with depression have been found to have a more accurate perception of reality.  Although the picture is complicated, people who are happier tend to have illusions of superiority, control, and excessive optimism.  (Depressive Realism – Wikipedia)

(19) This distinction is important and can be perhaps clarified by recalling the song, I Hate Myself for Loving You.  The idea this song captures is that someone might know that at a calculating rational level it would be far better to not love someone.  But at a more primal level they simply do.  If a person were extraordinarily lucky none of their desires would ever be in conflict.  In terms of relationships it’s ideal if you both like helping someone, and it is also in your long-term rational self-interest to do so.  The problem is that if you help people, but don’t really like them, there is the risk they will sense the calculating nature of your help, and discount accordingly.  Of course, you also get far less out of this sort of relationship.  But, this raises an obvious objection:  I can choose to act in a certain way out of calculated self-interest.  But, I can’t choose to like/love someone.  So what do I do if I don’t?  The two pieces of advice that come to mind are to fake it until you hopefully do feel it.  And to set up the background conditions that will make such feeling likely to eventually occur, and hope that they do.

(20) A person I know who went to an African country on business said that everyone there was desperately poor.  So people were constantly cheating everyone else, every time they could, to simply survive the day.  Of course, this created a self-feeding downward spiral that no one could ever get out of.  This next story might be apocryphal, but perhaps will serve as a useful allegory:  I read that if you put one lobster in an aquarium it will often be able to crawl out.  But if you put two lobsters in that same aquarium neither will ever get out, because as soon as one starts crawling up the other will instinctively come over and crawl up on it, pulling the first one back down.  So, if you want to get out of whatever trap you’re all in, find people you can trust, get behind them when they are trying to crawl out, and push.

(21)  When giving advice it is usually best to suggest possibilities, but not to give instructions.  You should prioritize, and focus precisely on the most important points.  Also, avoid giving mixed messages, e.g., “It was fine, but you could improve it.”  And avoid making vague statements, e.g., “I don’t like it.”

(22) I share the opinion of many of the most informed people I know that America as a corrupt society going to Hell.  The media, if not telling outright lies, through agenda setting, framing, the use of redefinition, and the careful taxonomic use of language categories supports an elite that rules by deception.  All this, along with a corrupt court system, both encourages and disguises the ongoing destruction of this society.  Those who speak out are pariahs, and considered either insane, fools, or far worse.  Those relatively honest people in power all too often must, at the least, compromise their principles to stay there.  Morality is inverted, with honorable people called scum by dishonorable people who are in positions of power.  Our presidents tend to be of one of two types, either they don’t know the truth, or they are semi-psychopathic liars.  Seemingly, anyone who knows the truth, and tells it, has a very hard time getting elected.  Think about two of our recent presidents: Clinton was credibly accused of rape, and Bush is a smirking fool who pushed for an unnecessary war that killed hundreds of thousands, and will cost an estimated 3 trillion dollars.  Yet, both of them are now comfortably retired.  The worst part of this is that the ultimate source of the problem is the American people.  The population of this country can’t handle the truth, and instead prefers to be told comforting lies.  So, as we spiral down towards Hell, this system can’t reform itself and, barring some miracle, this nation is doomed.  (As you might guess, my perspective hasn’t done much for my happiness.)

(23) In his book, Love and Survival, Dean Ornish also makes the point that in order to feel emotionally secure you need to have some sort of reasonably standardized rules.  You can have any number of different systems, but you need to have some standard, so that people know when they are right with the tribe.  (Love and Survival by Dean Ornish – Lost Wanderer)

(24) Having said this, while it is much better to live in a country with good government than bad, I doubt that even the best modern state does as well as the tribal council often did.  If things were going well people once had the whole tribe for social support, with typically each person a valued member of an enduring social group.  As such they lived their whole lives enmeshed in a web of deep intimate contacts within an extended kin group.  Today, we have lost this social support network, and are often limited to the nuclear family.  In the Paleolithic your kin determined what the law was, now the law is complex and created by strangers.  And at work people often suffer a sense of powerlessness as worker bees in large companies.  In short, even in the best societies, today we live relatively socially isolated disempowered lives. (The Evolution of Despair by Robert Wright – Lost Wanderer)

(25) Along the lines of thinking about spirituality as a phenomenon that grows out of community, evolutionary psychologist David Sloan Wilson argues that religion evolved to allow groups to better cooperate, and that those groups that had religion out competed those that didn’t. (Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society by David Sloan Wilson)

(26) Jonathan Ellerby lists the various paths by which people have traditionally tried to achieve spiritual enlightenment through following specific practices.  These include: ceremony and ritual, sacred movement, sound and music, prayer, meditation, study, yoga, death practice, sacred service, and ascetic practice.  (Return to The Sacred: Ancient Pathways to Spiritual Awakening by Jonathan H. Ellerby)

(27) When you are mentally tired one of the best ways to recharge yourself is not to rest or sleep, but engage in something you find fascinating.  For example, you might read a great heart-pounding page-turner of a mystery story.

(28) Being engaged in flow also prevents your brooding on negative thoughts.  When you brood your stress level goes up, driving your depression level up.  Brooding does have some initial benefit, because it allows us to think through why something went wrong and not make that mistake again.  But it has diminishing returns, and after the first hour or so past the first day of brooding you generally aren’t helping matters.  After that it is usually best to try to focus on something else, with several of the more engaging activities for most people being conversation and learning new interesting things.  If activities are intrinsically enjoyable people’s attention won’t be wandering.  They will not have to work to pay attention, they will be present, observing, and be breathing differently.  (Practical Tips to Practice Being Present)

(29) “David Hilbert was one of the great European mathematicians at the turn of the century. One of his students purchased an early automobile, and died in one of the first car accidents. Hilbert was asked to speak at the funeral. “Young Klaus,” he said, “was one of my finest students. He had an unusual gift for doing mathematics. He was interested in a great variety of problems, such as…” There was a short pause, followed by, “Consider the set of differentiable functions on the unit interval and take their closure in the …”” (Exactly Who and What is Your Instructor?)

(30) Jim Collins, the author of such books as, Good to Great, gives this career advice:  There is the set of all the things you are good at.  There is the set of all the things you love to do.  And there is the set of all the things you can make a living at.  Assuming these three sets intersect, pick from the intersect your choice of careers.

(31) Csikszentmihalyi has argued that one common characteristic a flow type activity must have is that there must be an appropriate level of challenge in the activity.  Beyond this, it seems that much of what makes something into an experience of flow for a person depends on the particulars of the individual.  The most enjoyable for most people are unfortunately very hard to turn into jobs: sex with a loving partner, socializing with friends, relaxing, meditating or praying, eating, and sports.  Of course, these are all activities that we evolved to enjoy back in the hunter-gatherer days when hunting and gathering were our jobs.  One way evolution gets an animal to do what it needs to do to survive is to make those things enjoyable.  Unfortunately the rise of civilization created a mismatch between those things we instinctively like to do, and what we have to do to get along in today’s world.  So an animal that was designed to go out and pack-hunt down a large dangerous animal for dinner, in a kind of thrilling sporting event, might now be working turning bolts 8 hours a day on an assembly line.  No wonder comparatively few people say, “I passionately love what I do.”  The least enjoyable activities are things like commuting, working, and doing housework.  I once thought of this party-proof that no job is fun: Suppose an employer has a job which is actually fun for most people, and he is paying someone $20/hour to do it.  As soon as word gets out someone will show up at his door and say, “I will do it for $19/hour.”  The next day it will be $18, and so on, until people are paying the employer to do the job.  So any job that does pay anything at all can’t be that job.  So, no job is fun.  This “proof” of course isn’t correct, because there can be barriers to entry, specialized abilities necessary to do the job, and someone might have unique tastes and preferences - enjoying a job few other people would, etc.  But what it does indicate is, all other things being equal, the more enjoyable a job is the less it will pay.  (See also Before the Fall, Evidence for a Golden Age by Steve Taylor – Lost Wanderer, The Worst Mistake In The History Of The Human Race by Jared Diamond – Lost Wanderer)

(32) I once had an instructor make the point that people wouldn’t want total certainty, because that would be boring.  (A Nice Place to Visit – Wikipedia)  People also don’t want total uncertainty, because that would be chaos.  What they want is to be in a state of reducing uncertainty.  An analogy seems in order:  A surfer doesn’t want to be on the shore.  He also doesn’t want to be out on the calm water.  He wants to be riding the wave into shore.  A happy life is then to be understood as action and process, to be in the middle of playing an enjoyable game, and not as a static place.  It also seems that the nature of the uncertainty matters.  Someone who buys fire insurance might still want to enjoy the thrill of a close basketball game.  So, some types of risks cause mostly unhealthy anxiety, and some cause mostly healthy thrill.  My belief is that good risks are those that dovetail with what would have been required activities in the Stone Age, and bad risks are those that don’t.

(33) The current dominate narrative in America today tells us that revenge and retribution are shocking and beyond the pale.  This isn’t true in all cultures, and since many people are wired to enjoy retribution it might be just as healing.  I think our society’s rejection of retribution and revenge might be analogous to the Victorian society’s purported rejection of sexual pleasure.  While it is true that sexual gratification is potentially a dangerous and destructive thing, witness the AIDS epidemic, in its proper place it is also a wonderful thing.  Perhaps revenge works the same way.  In pastoral societies, where no effective central law exists, cultures of honor develop where justice is founded on the threat of violent retribution for wrongs done.  Under these circumstances vengeance is not only allowed, but required.  (Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South by Richard E. Nisbett)  Today, norms in hard-core prisons work much the same way.  The only thing that protects you is your reputation.  The rule is, “You can lose every time, but you must fight every time.”  As bad as this is, the alternative can be worse.  I also don’t think that a culture of honor is necessarily philosophically morally inferior to a culture of law.  My suspicion is that most Americans would see it that way because they have been trained to.  For whatever political reasons, this is the current consensus.  But if we were to tote up the costs and benefits it isn’t clear to me that one system would clearly win out.

(34)  In sports they put this way, “Control the controllables.”  For example, in tennis when receiving serve you can’t decide you will take it to your forehand side if he/she serves it to your backhand side.  You also can’t even directly control whether or not you will win the game.  That outcome depends also on what the other person/team does, and you have no control over that half of the equation.  But you can control how well you train.  So arrange your goals around what you can measure and influence.  All the rest of it will happen of its own accord.

(35) These pieces of advice are all attempting to combat low self-confidence.  To introduce a note of reality here, unfortunately lack of self-confidence might all too often arise from people’s accurate perceptions of themselves and their lives.  See foot note 17.

(36)  Repeating foot note 16, one test of whether or not a relationship is toxic for you is to ask yourself if you feel more energized or tired after spending time with that person.

(37) In a radio interview I heard, the speaker opined that a sense of humor can save your life.  For example, when Hitler was in power the Jews told many jokes about him:  “Two Jews noticed that every day Hitler would walk by their shop in the morning.  They devised a plan to get a big rock to drop on his head from the second story of their shop to kill him.  The next day they were waiting with the rock, but at his usual time of 8:00 a.m. he hadn’t come by.  At 9:00 he hadn’t come.  At 10:00 he hadn’t come.  Finally, one of them gets worried and says, “Gee, I hope he’s OK.” (One Life to Give by Andrew Bienkowski)

(38) Here are some random titles to get started: Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Secrets of Power Negotiating, How To Haggle: Professional Tricks For Saving Money On Just About Anything, Bare Knuckle Negotiating: Knockout Negotiation Tactics They Won’t Teach You At Business School, The Negotiation Toolkit: How to Get Exactly What You Want in Any Business or Personal Situation, Leverage: How to Get It and How to Keep It in Any Negotiation, Practical Negotiating: Tools, Tactics & Techniques, The Haggler’s Handbook: One Hour to Negotiating Power, National Negotiating Styles.

(39) You might start with: Don’t Say Yes When You Want to Say No: Making Life Right When It Feels All Wrong.

(40) Effective problem solving involves a large number of elements.  Here are but a tiny few:  Be proactive.  Don’t wait for a solution, but go out and find one.  Do your homework, and anticipate consequences.  Break the problem down into its sub-parts.  Look for someone else who has solved similar problems.  Look for analogies.  It is worthwhile to keep in mind that successful problem solving also often involves a large amount of domain specific knowledge.  (Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else by Geoff Colvin) In short, there’s often no substitute for really knowing what you’re talking about. (“The Complete Problem Solver” (1981 ed.)), “The Universal Traveler: A Soft-Systems Guide to: Creativity, Problem-Solving, and the Process of Reaching Goals“, Center for Creative Learning, The Myth of Creative Genius – Lost Wanderer, Problem solving – Wikipedia)

(41) Franklin’s 13 virtues are: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility.

(42) If you are having trouble getting started on a project one method is to just dive in to get going.   For example, if you are writing a paper put down everything you know, garbage and all, to get started.

(43) Of course it’s always a balance between being too close-minded for the wrong reasons, versus having no ability to filter out nonsense. (See, for example Deconstructionism is Horsesh*t – Lost Wanderer, Freudian Psychology is Horsesh*t – Lost Wanderer)  The only advice I can give in this regard is that there is no substitute for knowing a subject, and to let evidence and reason guide you in deciding what’s nonsense.

(, “The Happiness Myth: The Historical Antidote to What Isn’t Working Today” by Jennifer Hecht, “100 Simple Secrets of Happy People: What Scientists Have Learned and How You Can Use It” by David Niven, “Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth” by Ed Diener, The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being by Derek Bok, The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want by Sonja Lyubomirsky)

Fighting Fair in Relationships

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

There are many types of contentious verbal contests, such as philosophical discussions, academic and political debates, and courtroom arguments.  In each type of contest there are generally accepted rules of fairness, and what counts as a dishonest trick.  (See for example: List of Fallacies – Wikipedia, A List of Fallacious Arguments, Misuse of Statistics – Wikipedia, Propaganda and Debating Techniques by A. Orange, Conversational Terrorism: How Not to Talk! by Dean & Laura VanDruff, 38 Ways to Win an Argument by Scrivs)  My post isn’t about these sorts of contests, but instead is about fighting fair in intimate relationships.  For these sorts of arguments, if you are trying to maintain or strengthen the relationship, and not seeking to end it, here are some rules of thumb. (1)

To start with, discuss and agree to the rules of fair fighting with your partner before you ever get into a fight with them.  Get to know what your and their personal fighting style is.  Don’t let issues build up; discuss them when they come up.  Don’t surprise your partner out of the blue, but set aside a time you both agree on.   Treat the other person with respect and as an equal.  Listen to them, and try to really understand him/her.  Try paraphrasing what you hear them saying, and see it through his/her eyes.  Don’t assume or speculate about what they are thinking.  In other words, don’t pretend to be able to read their mind, or expect them to read yours.  Take responsibility for your feelings and actions by using “I” statements.  Be direct and honest about how you feel and what you want.  Try to limit your fighting to only one issue at a time.  Define its scope, state it clearly, and don’t bring in unrelated items or unrelated past mistakes.  Keep it real by dealing with the problem, and not merely a symptom of the problem.  Ask yourself what your real goal is before you begin, that is, what you really want.  Be specific about your complaints, and use examples.  Focus on solving the problem, rather than trying to simply win for its own sake.  That is, you should be trying to find a mutually satisfying win-win solution by attacking the issue, and not the other person.  You do this by negotiating, compromising, log rolling, and brainstorming solutions.  Propose solutions and ask your partner to also do so.  Discuss the pros and cons of each proposal. 

Don’t name-call or blame the other person with “you” statements.  Don’t threaten violence, swear, denounce, curse, express contempt, engage in sarcasm, taunting, or character assassination.  Don’t hit below the belt by attacking the other person’s sensitive areas.  Try not to raise your voices.  If your partner breaks a fair fighting rule, don’t escalate.  Keep your intensity proportional to the size of the problem.  Ask questions that will clarify the situation, and not ones that will put the other person on the defensive.  Therefore, try to not ask questions that begin with, “Why?”  Avoid making comparisons to other people, and don’t belittle the other person’s accomplishments.  Don’t reduce your partner to a statistical generalization by stereotyping him/her as merely a member of a category.  Don’t exaggerate.  Don’t say you “always” or “never,” unless it is literally true (and it almost never is).  Avoid saying the words “you should”, “you must”, “you ought”, “I told you so”, “When will you ever learn”, “How many times do I have to tell you?”  Give the other person equal time.  Don’t interrupt or talk over the other person.  Don’t use disrespectful non-verbals, such as eye rolling, harrumphing, sighing, smirking, yawning, etc.  Limit your fight to no more than 30 minutes, and if necessary schedule another round for later.  If things get too heated take a half hour time out.  Be careful about introducing other people’s opinions about the situation.  Don’t fight in front of the kids.

You need to give the other person the room to change their mind and save face, because you don’t want to end up merely trying to score points in a game of, “Now I’ve got you, you SOB.” (Transactional Analysis – Wikipedia)   That is, don’t play manipulative games. (2)  If you do set limits and promise consequences, be prepared to really carry them out.  Don’t talk about divorce unless you mean it.  Don’t demand to win coming in the door.  Apologize when you are wrong, but be careful that you aren’t the only one who ever apologizes.  Don’t quibble over trivial details.  Try not to just walk out of an argument.  However, you might need to do so if the situation is getting out of hand or isn’t productive.  Tell them why, and let them know when you will be back.  If it’s appropriate hold hands during your discussion.  If and when you reach an agreement, write it down and set a trial period for the new behavior.  At the end of this period see if you need to modify the agreement.  Finally, if nothing seems to work it might be time to bring in a trained counselor.

(1) For an earlier post that discusses similar interpersonal negotiation concepts you can take a look at, The Uplift Program for Happiness - Lost Wanderer, part of which reviews the book Creating Optimism.
(2) Again, from Transactional Analysis, Eric Burns documented a number of such games, for example, Poor Me, Silent Treatment, Martyr, Don’t Touch Me, Uproar, Kick Me, If it Weren’t for You, Yes - But, See What You Made Me Do, and If You Loved Me.  See also: Psychological Manipulation – Wikipedia

(37 Rules to Fighting Fair by Happy Lists, Fair Fighting Rules: A Formula for Resolving Conflict -, Fair Fighting: Turning Arguments into Discussions by Mark Smith, Fair Fight Rules -, Fair Fight Rules: From “Domestic Violence” by Barbara Corry, M.A. – Klamath Crisis Center, Fair Fighting Rules for Couples by Nathan Cobb, Ph.D.Cobb Counseling Inc., Fighting Rules: From the book “Men Don’t Listen” by Wayne Misner - Dr. Irene’s Verbal Abuse (Site)!, Some Rules for Fair FightingTexas Woman’s University Counseling Center, How to Fight Fair – Dr. Phil, Fighting Fair to Resolve Conflict, Fair Fighting Rules – Knapp Family Counseling)