The Wheat And The Chaff

We come into contact with so many schools of thought in our lives — philosophies, religions, self-help strategies, suggested ways to reach happiness, and so forth.  It is tempting to look at each of these and decide if they are correct or incorrect.  And there is a lot of value in doing that — you have to make decisions about things, right?

And yet, I’ve recently come to realize the (perhaps) obvious — in many cases a whole system of thought isn’t “right” or “wrong”, but a mix of both.  It sometimes happens that in the middle of some “ridiculousness” there is hidden a vein of pure gold.  In other words, instead of accepting and rejecting something as a whole, we sometimes have to do the harder work of figuring out what parts are valuable and what parts are not.

In particular, over the past few months I’ve been looking at Eastern philosophies and practices such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Yoga, and Taoism.  Each of these have beliefs that, in the past, I have found to be in some ways romantic, and yet at the same time (to me) unlikely to be true — things like reincarnation, various deities, and present-life immortality.

My reexamination of these systems of thought hasn’t caused me to change my stance on most of these beliefs.  However, I’ve realized that in addition to a set of beliefs, each of these contains methods for changing our conscious experience.  By “changing our conscious experience” I mean such things as, oh, feeling ridiculously happy, getting rid of anxiety, and increasing self-discipline.  Most of these aren’t stated so directly, and are often written with mystical language accompanying them.  But this is exactly what they are doing.  Buddhism, for example, contains a truly massive amount of thought and experience aimed at figuring out how to feel ridiculously happy, in a wide range of circumstances.

Of course, even within these various systems, there is much that is vague or inconsistent or unhelpful alongside that which is helpful, and it involves some sifting though.  But I am beginning to suspect that there are some real techniques here for mastering our minds and emotions, something I care very much about.  Stay tuned for more.

 

Basic Processes In Feelings

I’ve been thinking lately about some of the “processes” that might underlie our feelings.  As discussed in earlier posts, my own view of feelings is that they are, ultimately, physical processes implemented in the brain.  On this view, our feelings are the result of some complicated “brain machinery” that takes as “input” information from things like our senses, our larger understanding of the world, and the current state of our brain.  This machinery then, in a sense, produces our feelings as “output”.  These brain processes are likely to be pretty complicated, but I have some initial thoughts about some of the things that may contribute to our feelings (I know, this sounds a bit abstract!):

  1. Direct evaluative processes (non-model-based). An “evaluative process” evaluates certain information and says whether it is “good” or “bad” (or potentially makes other distinctions).  In this case, direct evaluative processes are evaluations of our immediate present experience.  These are not based on evaluations of our larger situation (our “model of the world”).  For example, tasting a delicious food or the sensory experiences one has during sex might be directly evaluated as “good”, and touching something very hot (aka “getting burned”) or stepping on something sharp might be directly evaluated as “bad”.
  2. Model-based evaluative processes. In contrast, model-based evaluative processes are evaluations of our “model of the world” — what we think is true, and how we feel about it.  For example, thinking about the past or the future, or whether we are a “good person” might be evaluated positively or negatively.  Believing that tomorrow you will get a promotion at work could be a positive model-based evaluation, and believing that you made a big mistake in the past can be a negative model-based evaluation.
  3. Non-evaluative processes. Additionally, there are processes which aren’t really evaluating anything, but are instead aspects of the “feeling machinery” itself.  This includes things like neurochemical balances, or taking drugs.  For example, someone who is “high” on drugs might feel great even though they are sitting in a room with nothing going on (so no positive direct evaluation), and even if there are bad things going on in their life (so no positive model-based evaluation).
  4. Attention. Another factor which seems to make a difference is attention.  Since there are so many things happening at any one time (tons of sensory information coming in, extremely detailed models of the world), the brain likely can’t handle processing everything at once, and so it must select some things to process.  The things that are attended to likely have the most input into the evaluative processes.  For example, by distracting yourself you might shift your attention away from a negative model-based evaluation (my girlfriend just dumped me) or negative direct evaluation (I just stepped on a thorn).
  5. Other moderating factors. There are likely to be other things that influence feelings as well, and there are probably complex interactions between all of these factors.  For example, one kind of negative evaluation might limit another kind of negative evaluation (such as sadness inhibiting anxiety, for example).  Many (or most) evaluations are also likely to be relative rather than absolute (you feel good not about having a fixed amount of money but rather about having more than other people, or you enjoy a food more the longer it’s been since you ate).  And there may be (or not) a “baseline” feeling that you get when no evaluations are really telling you anything.

Microdiscipline

It seems like we often say to ourselves that we’ll be disciplined “on the big things” and “this one little thing won’t hurt”.  Well, I am starting to think that is a load of bull.  We are almost never faced with some “big” task which we either do or don’t do, all at once.  Rather, almost every big thing consists of a hundred little ones.  So doing what you should do in the little things becomes really important.  I am calling this microdiscipline — doing the little things that are difficult to do, but which are in our best interest (and I’m going to try to have more of it!).

The Measure of Happiness: How YOU Feel

Lately I’ve come to realize the obvious:  in the pursuit of happiness there is only one measure of success — whether you feel happy.  When you’re trying to pursue happiness, several points:

Different people like different things — what makes others happy may not make you happy.

People are different, and different things make different people happy.  As basic as it may sound, you have to evaluate, for yourself, what makes you happy.  It may happen that other people genuinely enjoy things that don’t do much for you.  Conversely, you may get a lot of enjoyment out of things that other people don’t enjoy.

For example, I personally don’t really enjoy watching sports on TV, going out for gourmet food, or getting drunk.  And yet, many people enjoy these very much.  On the other hand, I enjoy some things that other people may not enjoy, such as reading mathematics, listening to happy pop music, or (as a 36-year-old guy) watching Sex and the City.  Which leads to another point –

Every culture has expectations about what people should and shouldn’t enjoy — and in some cases these expectations are different from what people actually enjoy.

In many cases, social expectations about what brings happiness will match with people’s actual experience of what makes them happy.  But social expectations can sometimes be just plain wrong about what makes people (or some people) happy.

The bottom line is that if you want to be happy, you’ll ultimately have to discover what makes you happy — not what makes other people or most people happy, and not what society more generally feels ought to make you happy.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t learn from others — what other people say makes them happy may very well make you happy too.  But at the end of the day, we’re all unique and the pursuit of happiness is an individual pursuit.

Happiness And Being Okay With Anything

In thinking about the people I know or know about who seem to be extremely happy, I’ve noticed one thing they all seem to have in common:  they all seem to be “okay” with almost anything happening.  In other words, they aren’t afraid of what might happen in the future, they aren’t filled with regret about the past, and they aren’t too concerned with the discrepancy between the way things are and the way things could be.

Each of these has a different take on things, however.  For example:

  • Some of them have a religious belief that there is a God who loves them and is taking care of everything.  They believe that life may have ups and downs, but in the end, everything is going to be downright wonderful — they have found out a deep truth about the universe and are part of it, they will live forever in a wonderful place, and there will be no end to enjoying the delights of the universe.  The bad things that may happen in the short term are part of a bigger picture which involves their every desire being fulfilled.
  • Others believe that we live forever through reincarnation or through some other extension of life beyond this one.  They believe that the purpose of life is to learn and grow to be better and better beings.  All of the bad things that happen in life are in reality opportunities to learn and grow.  In this way, life is like a giant training program, helping us reach higher and higher forms of existence.
  • Still others believe that the only thing that is “real” is the present moment.  The future and the past are illusions — only the present moment exists.  Additionally, the idea that each individual has a separate unique existence is incorrect, and everything is a part of the same whole.  They believe then that there is only this present experience, right now — there is no past or future, and no self.  Therefore, there is nothing to worry about or regret, and no “self” to “have things” or “have problems”. Continue reading 

Trying To Work With The TV On Is Like… Meditation

Many people I know have a magical gift — they are able to work productively… with a TV on!  I, on the other hand, am not one of those people.  Instead, I seem to be physically compelled to pay attention to any TV in the vicinity, no matter how inane the programming might be.

I’ve always felt frustrated when I find myself in a situation where people are watching TV while I’m trying to work.  However, recently I started thinking about this situation differently, by viewing this as a sort of meditation.

Let me explain.  In meditation, you sometimes try to focus your attention on something (such as your breath), and keep your attention on that thing in spite of distractions (such as anxious thoughts).  I know, I know — this isn’t every type of meditation, and some people would say you aren’t “trying” to do anything when meditating.  But some forms of meditation (that I practice) do involve focusing your attention.  This is then very much like the situation I find myself in — wanting to focus on one thing (my work) when distractions are present (the TV). Continue reading 

Great Relationships: Getting Your Message Across

In our relationships we often want to share things with others — we want them to know what we’re thinking and feeling, or convince them to think in a certain way.  To do this, we have to carry out a miraculous task — to somehow get what’s in our head over to the other person, so that they understand it in much the same way that we do.

In some ways this might seem like a simple task — you can “just tell them”.  And sometimes it is as simple as that.  But in many cases it isn’t easy — our thoughts and feelings are complex, or they are conflicting, or we have a sense of something but we’re not really sure how to put it into words.  And there may be a lot of background information that we know but the other person doesn’t (imagine telling a stranger about something that just happened to your best friend).  On top of this, we have to use a language where almost every word has several different meanings.

Perhaps this is obvious, but it seems to me that miscommunication and lack of communication are everywhere.  I’ve been in more than my share of business meetings where almost no real communication happens — people talk at length about something that others pretend to understand but don’t, or different people express conflicting points of view while congratulating themselves about reaching agreement.  And in personal relationships I’ve had my share of arguments that later turned out to be… just misunderstandings. Continue reading 

Insults And Counter-Insults — Is There A Better Way?

Why is it that when we get insulted, it helps us feel better to insult the other person back?  On the face of it, our counter-insult does nothing to refute whatever negative thing they just said about us.  For example:

James:  Thanks for cutting me off!  You just failed your driving test, genius!
Pierre:  Oh yeah, well I bet you haven’t gotten laid in twenty years!

When we get insulted, it seems like our feelings may be mainly a reaction to two things:

  • Feeling like other people may accept the insult as true and view us in a negative light
  • Feeling attacked, and that others may now view us as having a lower position in the social hierarchy if we’re unable to defend ourselves

I imagine that giving a counter-insult addresses the second point — we’re defending ourselves, and not letting the other person get away with attacking us.

So attacking the other person back may keep us from looking like we’re lower on the social hierarchy, but it has its own problems.  You end up with an antagonistic relationship, where both of you come across as looking bad.  A better goal might be not just defending yourself, but defending yourself and having fun and maintaining the possibility of having a good relationship with the person who delivered the insult.  But how can you get there? Continue reading 

Four Productivity Killers

When it comes down to it, “productivity” seems to be all about how we spend our time.  We want to spend our time in a way that best brings about the things we care about.  Here are four things that can get in the way of productivity:

Doing an excellent job… on things that aren’t very important

It might seem that the most effective person would be the one who made sure things were done right.  After all, a great job is always better than a mediocre job, right?  This is true up to a point.  However, there is a fatal flaw in this reasoning, which is that it doesn’t consider that there is often a cost to doing a great job, which is often… spending more time on it.  Time isn’t free, and spending more time on something doesn’t just mean you’ll do a better job on that thing — it also means you’ll do something else less well, or not be able to do something else at all.  Bottom line:  spend a lot of time where it counts, and do an adequate job where it doesn’t count so much.

Doing things that improve our lives… a little bit

Doing things to better your life is of course a good thing, everything else being equal.  But again, there is a cost associated with doing something to improve you life, which is the time spent doing it.  Doing something that gives you a positive but small return may actually stand in the way of doing something that gives a bigger return.  Of course, some things we have no choice about — they must be done, even though we don’t get much out of them (unloading the dishwasher, for example).  But where we have a choice, not doing things that improve our lives a little may actually make time for doing things that improve our lives a lot. Continue reading 

Our View Of The World, And Selling It To Others

We all have our own understanding about the way the world works.  I like to refer to this individual way of viewing things as our “view of the world”.  Our view of the world might include that, say, Obama is the president, grass is green, James and Samantha are our friends from college, and that we love chocolate-covered strawberries.

Depending on our political and religious beliefs, it might also include Obama being an “outstanding” or a “disaster” president, and it might include “we are physical machines described by the laws of physics” or alternatively, “Jesus is my Lord and Savior”.  We also have thoughts about what other people’s attitudes and beliefs are (such as “he did that because he only cares about himself”) as well as what we think the best course of action is in a given situation (“we should raise taxes to pay for the fight against global warming”).  Even our understanding of what happened in the past is part of our view of the world.  By a “view of the world” then, I simply mean everything we believe to be true about the world.

Our views of the world are, ultimately, in our heads.  Sometimes we have good reasons for our beliefs, sometimes they are based on incorrect information, and sometimes they are just guesses.  Sometimes we’re right, and sometimes we’re wrong.

When we’re interacting with other people, our views of the world often differ.

And we often want other people to accept our view of the world and attempt to “sell” them on our view.  For example, we might want others to agree with our political or religious beliefs (“We should present all sides of the story in biology, including intelligent design” vs. “Intelligent design goes against everything we know from science and doesn’t belong in the classroom”).  We might want others to agree with our view of the past (“You told me I could return this vacuum cleaner if it was defective!” vs. “I told you you have to contact the manufacturer with any problems!”).  And, we might want others to agree with our evaluation of ourselves (“I am an excellent driver” vs. “You are a terrible driver”). Continue reading