Attention-Reactive Problems

Attention-reactive problems are those that by the very act of paying attention to them or working on them, they change. For example, if you enter into marriage counseling, you cease to be counseling a regular marriage. Rather, you are counseling a counseled marriage. There is a component of striving and expectation that is now part of the problem.

So when someone implores you "Don't worry about it" or "You're over-thinking it," it isn't because they're annoyed, but rather because the advice may be the optimal path to a solution.

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Cognitive therapy, like all therapies, has the potential for abuse when placebo relief substitutes for authentic relief

One of the techniques in cognitive therapy (and also talk therapy) is self-explanation. Self-explanation is a double-edged sword. The way it works is that by spelling out your issues or concerns, whether in text (or via talk), overly-distorted and overly-negative thoughts may seem apparently dysfunctional, and then have a way of magically disappearing.

The opposite may happen, though, which is where the potential for abuse is. Investigating an emotion or issue necessarily amplifies it, at the very least for that moment, as it's further brought into light. As a result, the epiphanies in cognitive therapy are usually forged after a temporary spike in anxiety. The relief that follows is at least half the result of the simple contrast of moving your attention away from your issues and going about your day-to-day activities.

The potential for therapeutic abuse comes when that automatic relief gets confused with the actual relief that comes from successfully disputing negative beliefs.

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Consciousness can be reduced to the vague sensation of inner complexity: I am complex, therefore I am

The experience of consciousness can be boiled down to a single sensation: the feeling of inner-complexity. I am complex, therefore I am. It's a type of qualia, just like sight and smell, but of a lesser intensity, like our sense of balance. When we look at dogs and imagine that they're less human than us, or when our ancestors looked at slaves in an inhuman light, the assessment comes from a question: "Just how complex can their inner minds be?" Likewise, there are humans today whose minds are so much more complex (or more ordered, to use Kurzweil's terminology), that they would look down on us and think, "Well, just how conscious could those people be?"

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Conspiracy theorists probably have extra gray matter associated with memory, given how easy it is for data points to add up and overwhelm

When we exhume the bodies of conspiracy theorists and examine their brains, we might find them to have an unusual amount of gray matter associated with memory. Their theories are often presented as an overwhelming array of dots that may or may not be connected. The rate at which conspiracy theories get debunked by mainstream science is constant on a monthly basis, but the rate at which conspiracy theories are generated is unlimited.

Every mysterious detail gets logged in the conspiracy theorist's brain, and to them, the dots themselves are the point. There are just so many questions, which if they go on unanswered, can only mean one thing.

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Daring to think of genuinely negative thoughts makes them easier to dispute than when they just sneak up on you

Oftentimes the solution in a cognitive therapy session turns out to be reverse psychology. For example, if you have a negative, distorted cognition such as, "I am a failure," cognitive therapy would urge you to present both evidence for and against it. Sometimes just the mere act of presenting evidence in favor of it is enough to provide relief. So if you sit down with yourself and say, "Okay, let's assume I'm a failure, what evidence would point to that?" then the cognition becomes something you control. You are effectively telling yourself you're a failure, with your fingers-crossed, because you know you're only saying so as a thought experiment to find facts that will be disputed anyways.

This implies that our negative distortions are oftentimes suppositions that we're too scared to confront. If you're too scared to think you might be a failure, then your mind has to double-down and present the negative thought with increased volume and repetition until you're jolted out of your complacency.

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Emotional people need more emotional intelligence

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Even though you never know what parties you aren't invited to, you might know subconsciously, which may partly explain social anxiety

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How can homosexuality be a choice if people need to be "cured" from it?

Conservatives often resist gay marriage on the belief that homosexuality is a choice. And yet, those same opponents suggest that gays and lesbians should seek ex-gay therapy. But if homosexuality is a choice, it shouldn't require therapy to correct. If someone has to be "cured" of homosexuality, then the "victim" of homosexuality is as blameless as someone who needs to be cured of cancer.

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If faces are the highest density memories we have, then art must activate the same part of the brain that does facial recognition

Great artwork activates the same part of your brain used when looking at faces. Since faces are the highest-density memories we have, when a piece of art is done well, your brain maps and absorbs it like the facial recognition system in the Terminator.

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If rational thinking helps us make difficult decisions, then it's possible that abortion led to its evolution

Since choosing whether or not to keep a child is one of the hardest decisions to make, it may have also been the first hard decision we had to make, and therefore the vehicle by which rationality evolved.

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If suffering is subjective, it can be unlimited. If it can be unlimited, a single person's suffering could be worse the suffering of millions

Because of the subjective nature of suffering, it's possible that a person exists or has existed, who experiences a suffering that's a million times worse than the pedestrian headache of a neurotypical person.

Something similar to this is depicted in an episode of the British sci-fi series Black Mirror. The episode shows a future where we punish criminals by forcing them to relive the objectionable part of their life as a form of penance. The police do this by connecting wires to your head, which then suspend your consciousness so that an operator can manipulate it. The operator can then place you into any situation, whether it's an empty room or a part of your memory. They can then set any number of repetitions such that it feels like you're living a nightmare that lasts a week, a year, or a millennium.

Likewise, it's possible that insane asylum patients experience similar millions of pain. While only a tiny percentage of people are clinically insane, it would only take one of them with this boundless condition to suffer more than the suffering of all other human beings combined.

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Innovation comes from discontentment, but is it possible to innovate so fast that we remain forever satisfied?

We are designed to address our discontentment with ingenuity. We're so well-designed to do so, that evolution created a discontentment treadmill whereby we are never satisfied, no matter how much we accomplish. But are there theoretical limits to that discontentment? What if our ingenuity overcomes and abolishes all theoretical limits to discontentment? Perhaps, we are already at that point, and Lexapro and other antidepressants exist because the discontentment treadmill has nowhere rational to go.

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It's our obsession with Freud's theories that validate our mommy and daddy issues, not the theories themselves

The durability of the long-since debunked Freudian philosophies, speaks less to the quality of the psychology behind those ideas—and also less about the pioneering nature of them—but more to our natural human biases. We are all critical of the way our parents raised us. It's not very often you hear someone proclaim, "I was raised well." Freud is now less a part of the world of psychology than of literature, or perhaps mythology: animistic gods gradually replaced by bare descriptions of human bias.

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Just like it was a revolution of thought when Einstein declared that space and time are a continuum, perhaps another revolution of thought will occur when we realize that chemicals and thoughts exist on a continuum as well

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Modeling human behavior would be much easier if we reduced pleasure-seeking or happiness-seeking to just seeking

Economists mischaracterize human behavior as the rational seeking of happiness or even pleasure. Pleasure isn't the end in of itself, because there is no end, only process, and that process is about seeking, which may or may not deliver pleasure. More often than not, it doesn't. We are just driven. Maybe the idea of pleasure or happiness is thrown in as a carrot now and then. But for the most part, humans do because they do.

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Non-human animals don't have learning curves because they don't have our appetite for task-variety

The negative spaces of successful educational techniques often beg the question, Why are we designed to learn this way? For example, consider the hit memorization technique "spaced repetition." It's based on the notion that there is a critical time period after first learning something when it's best to re-learn it. When your recall dips down to 90%, a refresher will shorten the time it takes for you to get back down to 90%, and so on and so forth until the curve of forgettery disappears and you've created permanent knowledge. The graph of this process initially looks inefficient and brings up the question, Why aren't we designed to retain everything the first time we learn it?

However, this learning curve closely matches our omnivorous nature for task-selection. Whereas the woodpecker has only a few tasks to learn in life, we pick and choose tools and methods as our environment and culture demands. When you first encounter a tool, like a knife or pick, you may or may not use that tool again. So at that moment, it's not necessary to retain that knowledge. It may be a while before you return a second time—if you return at all—and so forgettery happens quickly early on. If you come back a second time and have sustained interest, you are liable to come back a third time sooner, and a fourth and so-on. Your learning therefore ramps up according to the understanding that you're actually interested in becoming familiar or developing a mastery of the tool in question.

When you are intrinsically interested in a task, your learning will naturally follow spaced repetition, but when you are not, such as when you're studying for an exam, then software and an application of the principle will be necessary to trick your brain into following its optimal and natural pattern.

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Of course, the happiness of lottery winners is fleeting: The goal isn't permanent happiness but rather a once-in-a-lifetime moment

An often cited study about the nuances of happiness is the one about paraplegics and lottery winners. After six months or so, paraplegics and lottery winners have roughly the same happiness levels, which seems to prove that happiness is not dependent on circumstance.

This conclusion, though, assumes that the point is to permanently raise our happiness levels. Instead, happiness is designed to create credible threats and promise. If you do a dangerous sport without a helmet, you should fear the unhappiness that would ensue. Six months of being unhappy would be harsh, and a significant chunk of your time on Earth would be lost due to physical recklessness. These six months would likely become your "dark days," and you will shudder every time you reflect upon them. Likewise, you should be excited about the prospect of a large financial windfall because the six months after receiving it would be an ecstatic ride.

Gamblers seem to internalize this attitude. Even though it's mostly poor people at the Bingo parlor, their attitude towards money shows a certain understanding of the nature of happiness. At any given time, there will usually be one person who has a crowd gathered around them. They are buying drinks for their friends and handing out bills left and right, quickly losing everything they had just won. While it would be financially better to save that money for a rainy day (or not even be at the Bingo parlor to begin with), it makes more sense to maximize the adrenaline rush in that moment, since the happiness from it will be fleeting anyways.

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Our consciousness has as much free will as presidents do: They're deciders whose hands also happen to be tied

One way to understand free will and the mind is to adopt Daniel Dennett's "Society of the Mind" metaphor. For example, if you wanted to convince yourself to prefer the color red, even though your favorite color is blue, the act of trying to convince yourself, in a way, automatically signifies that you actually like red. But, the word "actually" is a hazy notion, and perhaps better renamed as "partially" because the decision signifies that you like the color enough to want to convince the rest of you to like red.

It is this "rest of you" that conjures the mind as a society with leaders, workers, special interest groups, different religions, and pundits. Each person or group in the mind, just like their human counterparts, has varying powers, methods of communications, and weaknesses. Together they act as one nation in spite of their diverse interests.

The decision to like the color red may have come from the president of your mind, or from Congress, or from special interest groups. However, the majority of the nation may still be still stuck on blue. If you were presented a form with two checkboxes, red or blue, the president of your mind might go ahead and mark the color red. But in other situations, possibly if we phrased the question differently, such as, "Which color are you drawn to most?" the herd in your mind might push for blue.

A democratic nation follows a similar pattern. The leaders often make decisions against the will of the majority, but they can only do so much, without losing their power and being replaced by leaders who think otherwise. This configuration assumes that your mind works like a democracy. In America, the Constitution guarantees free speech, and so a similar mind would give all emotions a voice.

Your mind might be run, instead, like an autocracy, where the executive always runs the show. Every decision goes straight into action. Sometimes this is easy if the public is peaceful, without loud activists, or strong emotions getting in the way. People with that kind of mind tend to believe in free will.

Or one could have a president who automatically moves with the polls, evolving their policy positions according to the whims of the majority. This type of person too would tend to believe in free will.

If this model were stretched further to include communication, consciousness would appear like the 24-hour news cycle, with the pressing topics of the day fed from all parts of the nation. Different speakers then compete for television access, stealing the microphone from each other, hoping for the chance to talk over everyone else.

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Our memories of people's faces are imperfect mosaics: less Polaroid, more Picasso

When you re-encounter someone who you've spent a long time away from, their face always seems more compressed than normal. In our imaginations, the facial memory of our loved ones becomes elongated and exploded, as features disappear, and notable ones remain, like ornaments on a Christmas tree. Their real face is tighter and more whole. Perhaps Picasso was onto something with his depiction of jigsaw faces.

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Our sense of the present is roughly 30 seconds. But could that stretch to 30 minutes? What about 30 years?

Psychologists have determined that our perception of the present is anywhere from a half-second to 2 minutes long. The half-second version can be perceived by simply counting or by becoming aware of the half-second increments it takes to process the words in this paragraph. A two-minute-long sense of the present could involve losing oneself in the flow of some task, like ditch-digging, whereby a series of repetitive steps blur into one single stroke, all the while you may be daydreaming.

If the leap from 0.5 seconds to 2 minutes is possible, is it feasible to have a sense of the present that is 30 years long? Some people have days that go by mindlessly, such that weeks blur into one motion, so it's not too much of a stretch to have months or years that blur as well.

The perception of the present is marked by events happening simultaneously. So for a 30-second sense of the present, an event at second 0 and second 30 have to appear like they happened together. Likewise, for the present to feel like 30 years, then, a 46-year-old must have a thought that feels simultaneous with a thought they had when they were 16. Even though the thoughts technically occurred 30 years apart from each other, the perception could be like the 46-year-old traveled back in time and communicated to their 16-year-old self, giving words of wisdom now that they're older.

We fund such retroactive dispensing of wisdom in our psychological defense mechanisms, in the form of phrases like, "I knew I would always find my way (to where I am now)."

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Psychology's biggest wins remain in the experimental; Meanwhile, its conceptual wins remain clouded by myopic metaphors

The biggest bias in psychology is the pneumatic theory of the mind. It suggests that brains are like an interconnected series of reservoirs and pumps. For example, if at your first therapy session you explain how you're exhausted by work all of a sudden, the therapist could suggest, "Are you perhaps blocking out misgivings in other aspects of your life by throwing yourself into work." You might nod your head in agreement because somehow it makes sense. It makes sense that there is this pressure brewing, like a pot on the stove, and in order to avoid that pressure, you're drawing your attention away with escapism.

But our understanding of the mind is limited by a layman's understanding of engineering. We imagine issues in our lives like levers, with insight acting as fulcrums. We imagine bubbles of insecurity inflating and then popping. We immediately latch onto debunked pseudo-scientific theories from Freud, such as his notion of repression, which conceives of thoughts like steam pipes, that when shut for too long, burst.

While on a molecular level, the mind is a machine, at a high-level, the mind may not have any appropriate metaphor grounded in the basic sciences. The most accurate metaphor is that of society, which has been popularized by Daniel Dennett. This theory states that the mind is like a democracy with various factions competing for attention. Even if this is accurate, our scientific understanding of crowds is weak.

Therefore, a black box approach still yields the only psychological truths. Even if the black box in question is a pneumatic theory, like cognitive therapy—which imagines negative thoughts like frothing vents—the therapy is only interesting if a meta-analysis validates it, which it does. In other words, the logic of cognitive therapy may be completely false, but at least we know that if we throw the therapy at a subject, we can predict the outcome. That's the best we can hope for in psychology.

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Psychology makes us believe that talking about our unwanted traits automatically leads to coping with them

The term "method" in self-improvement refers to a word or series of words that someone says to themselves (audibly or inaudibly), to get some desired effect. Positive proclamations, such as telling yourself you're handsome or beautiful, are a form of method, with the desired effect being confidence and improved self-esteem.

Method abuse happens when the use of the method follows an obsessive-compulsive disorder cycle of relief. The method actor feels down, then says the positive proclamation to achieve some relief, but quickly returns to their downcast state.

Some forms of method abuse are so enduring that we've ingrained them into our culture and language. For example, the psychological trope that says our problems stem from issues in our childhood is a series of words and ideas that provide some temporary relief. For example, someone could say, "Wow, you're really shy," to which your response could be, "Yeah, I was told to keep my mouth shut when I was a kid." Somehow that ends the conversation by explaining the source of the shyness. But explaining the source of something doesn't do anything meaningful to it. It is maybe the beginning of addressing the concern, but the childhood trope becomes a repeatable form of half-work that simply gives the sensation of fixing by identifying a cause. One could respond, "Yeah, I'm shy because I have low levels of dopamine," and again the conversation is ended.

But rather than gaining relief and sympathy by implying that it's out of your hands, it might be better just to reply, "Yes, I know."

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Self-help books just re-enforce the belief that small changes to one's circumstances are all it takes to become happy

Reading a book on productivity or success, while for some people may genuinely solve a problem in their life, for most will just re-enforce the belief that small improvements to one's circumstance will make them happy. Sonja Lyubomirsky's The How of Happiness is then the last self-help book one needs to read because it shows once and for all that circumstances only account for 10% of people's happiness. Those who are happy are scientifically proven to be those who continuously, intentionally make themselves happy, whether it's by meditation, deliberate acts of kindness, prayer, etc., or who already have the wiring for calm temperament.

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Since emotion drives everything we do, then being driven is the constant pleasure running through life

Life is pleasure. Even something as simple as picking up a glass of water is pleasurable on some level. Having the thought, "I want water" is pleasing. Determining to satisfy that urge is pleasing. The locomotion of the body that goes to the kitchen is pleasant. Swinging the cabinet door open, rifling one's fingers for a glass, and then gripping it are all kinesthetically satisfying. If one is tired or has shoulder pain, then at the very least, the promise of simple achievement is the pleasure.

Even interactions that are considered unpleasant are pleasurable. Listening to a co-worker you dislike is typically considered unpleasant, whether you speak up or not. If you do speak up, it's pleasurable to release the words that bubbled up to your throat. If you don't speak up, it's pleasurable to give energy to your willpower and subvert the urge to retort.

While there are many other emotions at play, such as boredom, anxiety, and irritation, yielding to any of these is a form of pleasure. Negative emotions lure us into action through the pleasing thought of their release. Even depression makes the prospect of collapsing on the couch and turning on of the television the satisfaction of an urge. Since emotion drives everything we do, then being driven is the constant pleasure running through life.

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Since many negative distortions are inherited, it's possible that cognitive therapy could take multiple generations to work

It's possible that cognitive therapy may take multiple generations to work. Here we define cognitive therapy broadly as the process by which your worldview gets adjusted to more realistic/optimistic interpretations of the world. Without deliberate sessions with a therapist spread over six months, there are still natural forces designed to give you undistorted thinking.

Your grandparents, for example, might be well-adjusted human beings, but raised their children (your parents) in an environment much different than the one they grew up in, and therefore your parents might have distorted ways of thinking about the world. Your grandparents might have ways of thinking, that for them, weren't distorted, but when shared with their kids came out that way.

Your grandparents, for example, might have told your parents that, "If you veer from the Puritan work ethic, your soul will crumble." Your parents, growing up in the 1960s counter-culture, might have been split and even depressed while living in both worlds. When your parents then raise you, they might try to present a cohesive worldview that would've helped them go through the 1960s, one free from such dire statements. But their actions might contradict their commandments, and remnants of their parents' distortions might yet get passed onto you.

You might then fine-tune your parent's exhortations further until your children are well-adjusted and free from harmful fears of their "soul crumbling."

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Social skills lead to confidence which leads to extroversion which means that Jung's typologies aren't set in stone

In psychiatric literature, it is taboo to say social anxieties are related to social skills. Yet in folk therapy, i.e. by consulting your friends or reading controversial "underground" guides like The Game, if you explain that you have trouble talking with members of the opposite sex, your friends may suggest a makeover for you and that you take improv classes. It could be that more serious literature is designed to apply to as many people as possible, and a very specific recommendation like that is too unlikely to apply to you. (i.e. You may have already taken improv classes and may already dress well). Literature has to be context-free.

This notion of introversion vs. extroversion is one of those context-free memes that has become ingrained in people's consciousness. People say, "Oh, I'm an introvert" like it's a permanent part of their being. However, we don't have measurements about how flexible introvertedness is. Do people measure the same level of introvertedness one, two, or five years later?

In my personal experience, I noticed an uptick in my extroverted-ness that coincided with each uptick in social skills. When I read The Definitive Guide to Body Language. When I learned about empathetic listening. When I followed Fonzworth Bentley's principles of being a gentleman: "Style, Confidence, and Manners." After each seminar, I became more eager to socialize and make friends.

Now, it could be a confusion between causation and correlation. I may have been fundamentally eager to socialize, and therefore sought out self-help books to aid in that. On the other hand, then that means I wasn't an introvert to begin with, since my desires were so clear to me. So in a way, self-described introverts may cling to the label to resolve the tension between their desire to socialize more and the social anxieties that hold them back: "I don't know, I don't feel like going out, I guess I'm an introvert." In tandem, true introverts may use more blunt descriptions: "I have no interest in going out."

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The definition of the g factor for intelligence is a no-brainer: Of course, a group of cognitive factors predicts career performance

In order to address perceived deficiencies in IQ tests, scientists unified the results from multiple intelligence tests and narrowed down intelligence to a single factor called g. g predicts success in a multitude of intelligence tests as well as in career performance. This points to the possibility of a single attribute or gene—a gene qua non perhaps—which coincides with lay intuition: some people are smarter than others.

But this bundle of intelligence tests, combined with the career-performance correlation, is biased in favor of a social notion of success. g measures a grouping of measurements that determine what we believe to be good in society. Doing well in a career is better than not. Identifying patterns in diagrams faster than others is better than not. But these are all tests valued by humans, not measurements by an independent cognitive judge.

g doesn't test feats of strength nor does it test all mental capacities, such as artistic ability. Even though g does correlate with performance among creative professionals, if all careers were artistic in nature, then g would be unimportant, or we would find another factor a that also grouped multiple tests of intelligence, but in this scenario, intelligence would be synonymous with artistic ability, and career performance would mean being a good at art. g simply tells us that there is some social consensus as to what it means to succeed or not when it comes to tasks that rely on our minds.

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The depressed fear that anti-depressants may inhibit their ability to solve their underlying problems, and yet depression is the biggest inhibitor of all

Coping vs. Solving is the central debate when it comes to psychotherapy, anti-depressants, and self-improvement. Do anti-depressants cure disease or do they just mask and postpone it?

We confront issues like this every day. When you have a bad day, what should you do? Should you soak in the hot tub with a bottle of wine? Should you engage in positive thinking? Or should you sit down and figure out why your day was bad and learn how to prevent it from happening again?

Everybody has their own pattern of responses, and they probably do a moderate amount of both. If they have a bad day, they turn on the TV a little to drown out the pain, and then maybe complain a little to a loved one. It makes the rest of the day go by more easily, and by complaining daily, they may eventually accumulate some sort of understanding of what needs to be done to fix their bad days.

There's a simple Roarsarch test for where you stand on coping vs. solving. First, consider the technique known as smile therapy. This espouses that you should, every day, spend some amount of time forcing yourself to smile. The process of doing so releases neurotransmitters in your brain related to the same kind of joy that would make you smile in the first place. Now, after knowing about this, are you going to do it?

Some people will naturally shake their head, objecting that smile therapy fakes happiness. That's a valid complaint, but then again you have to wonder which habitual coping mechanisms fake happiness or provide authentic happiness.

Some people would immediately embrace "smile therapy" thinking it's an all-natural way to find happiness. But then again, what if you're in an oppressive marriage that you need to get out of, you probably shouldn't use smile therapy to keep yourself in it.

The way to get out of this either-or pickle is to use the terms "causative redress" vs. "symptomatic redress." Causative redress is an attempt to handle what is causing the problem. For example, if you failed an exam and became sad, causative redress would come up with a plan on how to do better the next time.

Symptomatic redress is an attempt, as its name suggests, to deal with the symptoms. For example, if you failed an exam and became sad, symptomatic redress would imply exercising to relieve stress.

Some kinds of redress are both causative and symptomatic. For example, therapists argue that taking anti-depressants helps retrain your brain to behave more positively, which in of itself, helps you fix concrete problems in your life.

This then boils the coping vs. solving debate into a simple rule:

You should only apply so much symptomatic redress that it doesn't obscure or mask the opportunity for causative redress.

For example, if your marriage is falling apart, you shouldn't be drinking every night to mask away the pain—that would be escapism. Instead, maybe a nice jog into the wilderness will both relieve stress and help clear up your mind for positive solutions. Or maybe going to a religious service will give you a soft meditative high while also helping you reflect.

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The half-baked mental health practices of the past half-millennia might be responsible for the modern increase in neuroses

Many people avoid going to the doctor today because they "hate hospitals," which seems like an unhealthy attitude. And yet, only two generations ago, such a mindset would have been useful given how unhygienic hospitals were and how undeveloped medicine was. After all, back then doctors prescribed cigarettes and cocaine. Likewise, there are people today who "hate therapists," which is somewhat justified given that meta-analyses for talk therapy have yet to prove its efficacy whole-heartedly. Two generations from now, we may look back at our addiction to the immature field of psychology and ask ourselves, "What were we thinking?"

In 1596, author A. T. wrote in A Rich Store-House or Treasury for the Diseased a list of mental health tips titled "A Rule to knowe what things are good and holesome for the Braine," which includes items such as sleeping in moderation, avoiding music, abstaining from too much bathing or drinking, and making sure to wash the temples of the head with rose water. Back then, it would have behooved you to be skeptical of any guides on mental health. If you did partake, in the best case scenario you might find relief through placebo, but in the worst case, you might harm yourself with ritual.

Today, pop psychology is part of our culture, which may explain the modern rise in neuroses. Even if there is a 50-50 chance that the mental health ideas are good or bad, the misapplication may overwhelm whatever positive benefits we get. At the very least, it creates a culture of meta-cognition, wherein we are critical of our thoughts and think we have to keep doing things to them, such as revise them. This extra mental load could then provide the impetus for more psychological solutions, creating a feedback loop, similar to how doctors used bloodletting to cure vapors that were induced by potions to relieve consumption.

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The happiness set point isn't necessarily set, since half of it could be caused by behavioral habits, which while genetic in origin, can change

According to twin-separation studies, people have an average set point of happiness that they naturally return to, like an equilibrium. While this implies a genetic factor to happiness, it doesn't necessarily mean we don't have freedom to change our happiness. First, the set point only determines about 50% of happiness levels. Second, genetic factors can be either direct or indirect.

Direct genetic factors affect happiness through biological means, perhaps through a certain balance of neurotransmitters. Changes in neurotransmitters can lead to changes in temperament, which determine how anxious or calm someone is likely to be.

Indirect genetic factors affect happiness through behavior. For example, there is a gene for risk-taking, which in certain contexts, such as being a male entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, could lead to a consecutive string of positive professional outcomes, which would then trickle down to positive circumstances, such as having a stable income and home, which could contribute to happiness.

Conversely, someone could be genetically pre-disposed to make emotional judgments about people, and therefore consistently wind up in abusive relationships. They could have all the genetic ingredients necessary for a stable temperament, but those ingredients wouldn't be enough to overcome persistently troubling circumstances.

This is either a hopeful or hopeless conclusion. It's hopeful in the sense that while there are genetic causes to our happiness set point, many of those genetic causes are through behavioral tendencies, which we can correct by making better choices. But it's hopeless in the sense that happiness can also be conceived of a habit, and habits are difficult to change, potentially harder to change than temperaments, which anti-depressants are becoming increasingly specific at correcting.

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The problem with high-functioning depression is that going to work and parties doesn't mean "everything's fine."

Due to complications arising from misinterpreting pathologies in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it is often easier to describe symptoms by their outward disorder. The hallmark of being clinically depressed, for example, is when one's misery interferes with one's daily life. If someone is so perennially sad that it hampers their ability to show up for work, or with their ability to form and maintain relationships, then there is a clear case for treatment.

People with high-functioning depression then could be defined as having internal experiences similar to the clinically depressed, just without the job loss or lack of relationships. In a way, their situation is more tragic, because their bodies aren't forcing them to withdraw from the site of—or potential cause of—their misery. These people often excuse themselves out of therapy because, ultimately, "everything is fine."

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The ultimate career assessment test is to get out in the field, do the work of said career, and assess your happiness

You can read all the descriptions of a happy work life, but they may not really help you at finding one. If anything, it might make you more miserable with work for a couple reasons: a) You find more reasons to be dissatisfied or, b) You strive in vain to mold your work to be more fun or interesting, which further frustrates you.

You could read Drive for example, which talks about the importance of intrinsic motivation. The keys to fulfilling work are a sense of mastery, a sense of purpose, and a sense of autonomy. Autonomy can be broken down into control over three Ts: team, time, and technique.

However, perhaps these qualities should be read more like symptom report. If you are happy at your work, then intrinsic motivation and autonomy are the kinds of things you feel.

You could read up on Maslow's Ladder, about a hierarchy of basic human needs. Once you satisfy your basic needs for survival and your basic needs for self-esteem and pride in what you do, then you have to strive for self-actualization to be happy. But that may not actually help you in filtering for jobs that provide self-actualization.

You can't pull up craigslist, tap a drop-down, and choose self-actualization. You could take a Signature Strength test, but the results that come up--for example, that your signature talent is design--may not be a helpful filter on craigslist.

This matched my experience, whereby I knew all these the concepts from Flow, Pathfinder, _What Color is my Parachute, and Maslow's Ladder. I tried to manually sculpt a career with the ideal attributes and that led to years of frustration with so-called dream jobs that weren't. A good example is my stint as a video game designer.

Part of the problem is that if you already knew how the ideal job was shaped, you would already likely be there. Because the only way you'd know that it has the ideal attributes is because you have had some familiarity and success working in that field already.

Since we don't know what we don't know, the emphasis has to be on a process that will surprise you on your way to what you really want to do. Even just a little bit more emphasis on process instead of outcome can go a long way to leading you to the ideal work-life. Take this very simple process: Quit your job if you're unhappy. Then if your boss objects and offers you a position in a new department, take it. If not, leave the company and just sign up for the next best alternative. Repeat until you stop being unhappy.

In computer science, this could be called a "hill-climbing" algorithm, whereby you simply keep jumping to the next alternative until you finally wiggle your way to a good place. It should actually be called "blind wanderer" algorithm, because the computer has no pre-set notion of what the top of the hill actually looks like. It just knows when its on an incline or decline, and then proceeds accordingly.

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We're irrational, not because we're stupid, but because of the volume of decisions we have to make with limited information

One problem with reason is that the act of doing so comes with an expectation that we have complete or complete enough information. But evolution didn't design us to be rational thinkers. Evolution designed us to maximize our outcomes, in the face of incredible uncertainty. Intuition is maybe 90% of what happens in reason. When we begin a line of reasoning, the path is guided by feeling. People with brain injuries who've lost their emotional centers, suddenly lose the ability to deduce. Extrapolation is the norm. Stereotyping is the norm. Jumping to conclusions is the norm. It's expecting otherwise that's irrational.

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Weak happiness simulators work both ways: We overestimate the happiness from childbirth but also underestimate smelling the roses

Humans have poor happiness simulators. Studies frequently show how often people are unhappier after having children despite how happy they think they will be. But having weak happiness simulators also works in the other direction: we often do things that make us unintentionally happy. For example, we often underestimate how much simple pleasures, like a bite of ice cream or the smelling roses, will improve our happiness.

Happiness is only useful as a motivator, not an outcome. The prospect of happiness is what drives us. Once the happiness is received, then whatever carrot was at the end of that stick is no longer relevant. In a way, then, it's almost that having weak happiness simulators is what makes us human, keeping an incentive always mysteriously looming on the horizon, and thus driving the continuance of living.

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We get choice anxiety because we are latent opportunists, usually satisfied with "good enough," unless we are faced with so many options that we can get otherwise

An attractive woman who is perpetually single presents a paradox. (For the sake of argument, let's consider only women since beauty is such a linear selector for them). If we assume that she is straight and desires a relationship, the paradox is obvious: How could someone presented with so many options find themselves with none. When they pass us by on the street, we often think, "It must be nice." It must be nice to be attractive and have plenty of suitors. But for the attractive woman, it doesn't feel that way.

A clue can be found in the oft-cited study on the paradox of choice. Grocery shoppers, when presented with a table of three jams vs. a table with thirty-seven, often buy more from the table with fewer choices. The reasoning is that having too many choices causes decision-anxiety since there are too many items to compare amongst.

But perhaps this misses the true cause. The attractive woman who has exclusive access to high-quality suitors sees their situation as a burden. They find themselves with a unique opportunity, and so they have a greater responsibility to maximize their gains. Their ancestors took all sorts of genetic risks to produce a great-great-great-granddaughter of eminent beauty, and now their chickens are coming home to roost. The attractive woman then holds out, straining to maximize their options.

When there is a so-so pool to choose from, any satisfactory candidate will do. But when presented with an exceptional choice, only an exceptional candidate will do.

So perhaps the jam study isn't about the numerical overload of choices, but about the pressure to seize opportunities. The more splendid the situation, the more we start thinking about the most we can extract from it. Our ancestors, upon discovering a grove with tremendous bounty, thought about how to transport the most and best of this back to the tribe. If they didn't, then they would have never created alpha males nor buoyed their tribe enough to survive harsh winters.

The word "opportunist" is often a derogatory term, but we are all opportunists at heart, just latent ones.

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We have more meta-memories than actual memories, sacrificing accuracy for speed, reality for witness-stand recall

I once had two long dreams about imaginary Hitchcock films. Both were packed with details and authentic Hitchcock plot twists, and yet I can barely recall their stories. All I remember is that the first film had Cary Grant and a large silvery gun, shaped like an old box camera that snapped together. The second film had Natalie Wood, who witnesses a murder while she is young, but cannot convince anybody around her. It gets to the point where she eventually believes she must have misremembered the murder, until later in life, she re-discovers real evidence of the murder. But in classic Hitchcock horror, she is still powerless to convince anybody.

These two dreams were so vivid that I immediately had dreams about them afterward. I remember reminiscing and embellishing the films in a sort of dreamworld "post-production." So in addition to having an intense memory of the movies themselves, I also have intense memories of reminiscing about the movies. When I woke up, I was so pleased with having seen and enjoyed two great Hitchcock films, that it took me a while to unravel the layers of remembrance to realize that those films were not real.

Have you ever remembered remembering something, but couldn't actually remember the thing itself? I often imagine that's how it feels like on the witness stand, where your recollection of the scene of the crime is weak, but you feel bolstered by your secondary recollection of your recollection. You may have a faint memory of being at the crime scene itself, but you vividly remember sitting uneasy on your sofa back at your apartment, replaying the events of the crime scene over and over again in your head.

This reminds me about how databases and Google work. Google caches all these websites and then constructs an index for looking up search terms. But oftentimes, Google's cache expires or the website drifts, and all that is left is the index as proof that those website caches were once real.

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When we enter adulthood, the thrill leaves, while the drive remains, which means we have been properly trained

The first achievements I had as an adolescent filled me with an incredible rush. Upon learning I had won something, I shot my fists into the air, jumped out of my chair, and felt electricity throughout my body. As I got older, the adrenaline rush faded, but I still sought new achievements. The promise of that rush drove me forward. Chasing the promise became the new pleasure. I stopped visualizing a spike or the pumping of fists in the air.

Likewise, people often don't simulate the pleasure of eating; They just crave. It's like that old Buddhist story about elephant training. When the trainers tie the elephant to a pole, it starts kicking and screaming. But after the elephant settles down and accepts it, the trainers remove the pole, and the elephant stays in one place on its own. Likewise, in moving from adolescence to adulthood, the actual good feeling from our goals fade, and all that is left is the journeys. By that point, we have become trained.

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When you realize that 90% of cognitive therapy sessions lead to attitude changes, all introspection starts to seem suspect

Cognitive therapy indirectly teaches that introspection itself is the cause of depression. Much of cognitive therapy involves renaming and rewording negative cognitions to something more balanced. For example, if you make a mistake at work, it is easier to say to yourself, "You're a failure." Cognitive therapy would urge you to spell out a more accurate reflection: "I made a mistake filling out paperwork yesterday, and that's the second mistake this week. Although it doesn't appear to be part of a larger pattern, it happened twice, and people might say something. I won't get fired unless I really mess up, but I should stay alert, especially in this economy."

Since this rewording calms patients down, it begs the question, "Why don't naturally we have these longer, healthier self-descriptions in the first place?" But perhaps that's not the point of introspection. Introspection might have evolved as a warning system, coded with exaggerations and distortions to shock us out of complacency. When this system is abused, the alarm bells linger past the non-existent fight-or-flight scenarios they were designed to anticipate.

If every cognitive therapy session involves realizing that your initial negative thoughts are inaccurate, at some point, you stop worrying about what your inner voice says and instead carry a skepticism toward all introspections in general.

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While we can all flex into a different persona now and then, it's cultivating new reflexes that ultimately count as true self-improvement

Some mental phenomena operate like muscles. For example, if you try to imagine a pink elephant, the image will appear immediately. However, if you try to hold that image in your mind's eye for longer and longer periods of time, it will eventually fade. It is almost like your brain is flexing, and to sustain the grip any longer requires increasing effort.

Discipline also follows a muscle-based pattern. Studies show that discipline is much like a reservoir. If you push yourself to do something now, it becomes harder to push yourself to do something later. Your general reservoir needs to recharge. In some instances, a compensatory pattern emerges, whereby someone works hard throughout the day, but then binges or splurges on other vices during happy hour.

Perhaps a similar process happens with method. When you first "psych" yourself up, you may get an initial boost of confidence. For example, if there are just a few minutes left in the game, and you tell yourself, "Come on, you've got this. This is it. This is your moment," the words will calm your nerves, increase your muscle strength, raise your adrenaline, etc. However, you can't do this throughout the entire game. At some point, the same words cease to have an impact.

Likewise, consider the onset of a self-improvement technique, like when you first read a self-improvement book. When you first apply the words to your life, the first couple hours or days may lead to increased self-confidence and effectiveness, which may be falsely attributed to the book's qualities. But then, eventually this reservoir gets tapped, and you're left in the same state as you were before you read the book.

The best lessons from self-improvement, therefore, create methods that have some of these properties:

  • They don't satiate right away
  • They don't require constant, sustained visualization
  • They are self-motivating so that they come up automatically without deliberate effort