Zach’s Best of 2018

I watched 71 movies. My favorites were:

  1. I don’t feel at home in this world anymore
  2. Dunkirk
  3. Goodtime
  4. Ken Burns The Vietnam War
  5. Game Night
  6. Wild Wild Country
  7. Tully
  8. American Animals
  9. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

I watched 132 episodes of  TV. There wasn’t anything that was that memorable except for the episode USS Callister in Black Mirror.

I read 45 books. 25 were audiobooks – the most I’ve ever listened to in a year. My favorite books were:

  1. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan Peterson
  2. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
  3. How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence by Michael Pollan
  4. What Is Ancient Philosophy? By Pierre Hadot
  5. Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Favorite Purchase Jabra wireless headphonesRunner up: Prana Brion Pants

Most painful:  In the dark mistaking a bottle of essential oil for eye drops

Saddest: Seeing my kids cry as we take back the pet dog we got for a month because she started biting people

I’m too old for this moment: Pulled some hip muscle I never knew I had while at the skatepark

Runner up: Sprained my ankle pretty badly at an Andrew WK concert

Most Adventurous: Bought a Triumph Scrambler and took it camping at Little Crater Lake

Runner up: Backpacking Canyonlands National Park – Needles District

Most New: Started a new job

Most Frustrating: Unclogging toilet after 2 year old flushed contents of entire waste basket

Dumbest: Accidentally burning a hole in the deck of beach rental property while trying to cook pizza with this thing

Most miles driven: Two road trips amounting to a total of 4,236 miles of driving

Best Dad moment: Taking all kids camping at Timothy Lake by myself

Nature’s Role In Helping Us Succeed

Avoiding danger is a key survival skill for any species. One way our species accomplished this was by developing systems in our brains over tens of thousands of years that would make it unavoidable for us to not notice danger, and as a result, hopefully, respond to it. This system has been identified as the negativity bias by social scientists – “even when of equal intensity, things of a more negative nature (e.g. unpleasant thoughts, emotions, or social interactions; harmful/traumatic events) have a greater effect on one’s psychological state than neutral or positive things.”

Our modern-day brains are equipped with this finely tuned built-in brain apparatus that’s super-sensitive to negativity, but instead of using it to be hyper-aware of negative things like tigers stalking us or other tribes moving in on our territory, our brains dwell on no Facebook likes, being looked over at work, the aches and pains of an aging body or insults we received years ago.

Some people seem to be able to brush off these negative feelings effortlessly and move on with life while for others, the negativity turns into habitual thought patterns. But there’s no reason that the more negatively-inclined of us can’t learn to cope and even thrive with negativity bias and in fact, I think those who consciously learn to do so can turn it into an advantage.

First, consider another psychological finding called the “facial feedback hypothesis” which demonstrates how manipulatable the brain is. The “facial feedback hypothesis” is the idea that facial movement can influence emotional experience. Your brain doesn’t just look externally for stimulus but actually pays attention internally to what your body is doing. So, when it senses that a muscle, like those connected to smiling, are flexing, the brain attributes it to happiness, and then we feel happy. In other words, our brains can be manipulated by conscious physical effort.

Our physical bodies aren’t the only thing that can change our emotions – our conscious and unconscious thoughts affect emotions too. Thoughts can trigger emotions, like worrying about catching a flight, and they also serve as an appraisal of that emotion: as in, “this isn’t a realistic fear”. The former causes emotions, the latter dispels them.

So, you wake up and the body is stiff, your mind is cloudy, the alarm clock hurts your ears – all these physical stimuli are signals that the brain intends to give meaning to. These negative feelings remind you of a thought, “I hate my job, It’s the worst.” Now the brain has the proof it was looking for to justify the emotion – “You feel sad.” You take that sad feeling and apply further cognitive distortions to it, “I always feel sad and it will never get better.” Those thoughts are heard by the brain, it pushes the buttons and pulls the levers and releases some more chemicals and now you feel worse. You take a long time to get out of bed and you choose to skip the gym and eat a pop-tart instead — these actions reinforcing negative thoughts causing more sad emotions. Repeat this enough mornings in a row and you’ll have a personal Rube Goldberg machine of entrenched thought patterns where “waking up” = “life is pointless”. This is one manifestation of depression.

What if you chose to attribute those negative feelings somewhere else? Stiff body, cloudy mind, alarm clock: Instead you think, “This feeling in the morning? This isn’t because of work. This is the prerequisite feeling before achievement is possible. This is how you know you’re on the right track. This is what winning feels like.” The brain believes you. And again starts to look for a way to justify those thoughts. You come up with the thought, “I’m making progress at work.” The brain pushes those buttons and pulls those levers and releases some more chemicals and now you feel better. So you go to the gym and stick to your diet. Repeat and eventually “waking up” = “Life is full of possibilities.”

Apply this to every scenario where negative feelings occur:
That uncomfortable feeling of confusion isn’t proof of incompetence, but evidence of being on the threshold of learning something new.
That dissatisfaction isn’t proof of discontentment, but evidence of putting in the required amount of effort before achievement is possible.
That feeling of fear due to uncertainty isn’t proof of your incapableness, but evidence that you’re getting stronger

Exercising doesn’t feel great all the time which is why many people don’t do it. You have to come to learn that the negative feelings of exhaustion, discomfort and pain are actually good – no pain, no gain. Those feelings mean you’re doing it right and the reward is forthcoming.

Epicurus said,

“Give thanks to nature, the bountiful, because it has made necessary things easy to procure, while things hard to obtain are not necessary.”

Can one feel a near-constant sense of progress by taking what nature gives so readily and translate dissatisfaction, discontent, uncertainty and disappointment into something else? What if instead of considering those negative feelings as something to be avoided, we saw them as necessary and looked forward to them like sign posts informing us that we’re on the right track? Since those negative feelings will be there one way or another, I’d say might as well try to make the most of them.

All Means And No End

Douglas Rushkoff in Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus:

“We have set in place an economic system whose growth works against our own prosperity.”

He explains that the central assumption of our economic lives — that further economic growth will create continually rising prosperity for all — is broken. Companies are designed to take money out of the system so in the end they vacuum up the playing field altogether, impoverishing the markets, consumers and employees–on whom they ultimately depend.

 

As we unfortunately absorb capitalistic principles into our daily lives, we also have inherited their flaws. One of them being the need to constantly grow. And just as much as it is unsustainable for businesses, it is equally unsustainable in our daily lives since we can never be certain whether we have achieved enough. The inevitable consequence is disappointment from endless ambition on the one hand, and bitterness when things don’t work on on the other.

 

Matt Haig explains wonderfully in his book Reasons to Stay Alive how our culture constantly threatens us to “improve.”

“The world is increasingly designed to depress us. Happiness isn’t very good for the economy. If we were happy with what we had, why would we need more? How do you sell an anti-ageing moisturiser? You make someone worry about ageing. How do you get people to vote for a political party? You make them worry about immigration. How do you get them to buy insurance? By making them worry about everything. How do you get them to have plastic surgery? By highlighting their physical flaws. How do you get them to watch a TV show? By making them worry about missing out. How do you get them to buy a new smartphone? By making them feel like they are being left behind. To be calm becomes a kind of revolutionary act. To be happy with your own non-upgraded existence. To be comfortable with our messy, human selves, would not be good for business.”

To achieve what Haig calls ‘the revolutionary act of being calm’ requires constraints. We tend to assume that “keeping our options open” means living with more freedom. Harry Emerson Fosdick provides an important context for freedom:

“Self-denial is not the negative, forbidding thing that often we shake our heads about. In one sense there is no such thing as self-denial, for what we call such is the necessary price we pay for things on which our hearts are set.”

One must choose to live up to standards based on one’s own judgment about what is good. Then when the world incites us to improve in some way we can interrogate those ideas and ask whether they are opportunities to exercise our values and, if they aren’t, we can be ready with the reaction, ‘Then it’s none of my concern.’ Within simple everyday things like working, walking outside, talking with people, bathing, and eating can be found all the opportunities to live according to chosen values and be fully awake, fully alive and fully human.

 

Self improvement has infiltrated all aspects of our lives as if to suggest that unless an activity is doing some kind of optimization or fulfills some end, it’s not worth doing. I like to think of meditation as just practicing ‘being’ — a time to attempt experiencing a reality deeper than goals, narratives, expectations and desires. But as Mike Powell in Meditation in the Time of Disruption points out, even meditation has been exploited to serve some kind of means.

“Whereas some come to meditation as a way of reckoning with the incredible gifts existence has already given them, others come because they want to see what else is in the bag. This sort of rhetoric only gets ramped up in reference to meditation as a performance booster. For example, the promise that meditation will make you more effective at work seems to have a lot more salience and motivational charge than the promise that meditation will just make work feel a little less important overall.”

“All told, this is a bleak picture,” writes Alexandra Schwartz in Improving Ourselves to Death, published in the New Yorker. She asks, “If the ideal of the optimized self isn’t simply a fad, or even a preference, but an economic necessity, how can any of us choose to live otherwise?” And then provides this answer:

“This isn’t a message of hopelessness. On the contrary, what it actually leads us towards is a better way of finding happiness. Once you realize that it’s all just an act of coercion, that it’s your culture trying to turn you into someone you can’t really be, you can begin to free yourself from your demands.”

Recognize the coercion being acted upon you and free yourself from your demands. Find things to do that will not improve you in any measurable way. Go for a walk in the woods. Think about the vastness of the cosmos. Go to a museum and look at art. Or read a book.

 

In The Bookish Life: How To Read And Why, Joseph Epstein explains how reading is one of those things that don’t need to be of concrete use in order to have value.

“What is the true point of a bookish life? Note I write “point,” not “goal.” The bookish life can have no goal: It is all means and no end. The point, I should say, is not to become immensely knowledgeable or clever, and certainly not to become learned. Montaigne, who more than five centuries ago established the modern essay, grasped the point when he wrote, “I may be a man of fairly wide reading, but I retain nothing.” Retention of everything one reads, along with being mentally impossible, would only crowd and ultimately cramp one’s mind. “I would very much love to grasp things with a complete understanding,” Montaigne wrote, “but I cannot bring myself to pay the high cost of doing so. . . . From books all I seek is to give myself pleasure by an honorable pastime; or if I do study, I seek only that branch of learning which deals with knowing myself and which teaches me how to live and die well.” What Montaigne sought in his reading, as does anyone who has thought at all about it, is “to become more wise, not more learned or more eloquent.” As I put it elsewhere some years ago, I read for the pleasures of style and in the hope of “laughter, exaltation, insight, enhanced consciousness,” and, like Montaigne, on lucky days perhaps to pick up a touch of wisdom along the way.”

To Tell A Story Is To Be A Manipulator

A quote by Peter Marin in his article Spiritual Obedience (Harpers Magazine Feb 1979) from Sam Harris’ book Waking Up A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, does a great job of articulating a particular vulnerability we all have as humans:

“I remember going a few years ago to a lecture in which the speaker, in the name of enlightenment, had advocated total submission to a religious master. The audience, like most
contemporary audiences, had been receptive to the idea, or more receptive, rather, than they
would have been a while back. Half of them were intrigued by the idea. Drawn to it. Total submission. Obedience to a “perfect master.” One could hear, inwardly in them, the gathering of
breath for a collective sigh of relief. At last, to be set free, to lay down one’s burden, to be a child again-not in renewed innocence, but in restored dependence, in admitted, undisguised dependence. To be told, again, what to do, and how to do it. … The yearning in the audience was so palpable, their need so thick and obvious, that it was impossible not to feel it, impossible not to empathize with it in some way. Why not, after all? Clearly there are truths and kinds of wisdom to which most persons will not come alone; clearly there are in the world authorities in matters of the spirit, seasoned travelers, guides. Somewhere there must be truths other than the
disappointing ones we have; somewhere there must be access to a world larger than this one. And if; to get there, we must put aside all arrogance of will and the stubborn ego, why not? Why not admit what we do not know and cannot do and submit to someone who both knows and does, who will teach us if we merely put aside all judgment for the moment and obey with trust and goodwill?”

That vulnerability? We want to believe. In what? In anything that can make sense of our feelings. Life is hard. It’s easier when there is an explanation. Looking for reasons isn’t something that our brains can turn off. And for that reason we are easily manipulated. The manipulator needs only two things, a story and the means to tell it.

For most of human history a story could only be told orally. (From an evolutionary perspective, one reason it makes sense that we would believe stories  is because for most of our species’ history one could only hear a story from a person they knew and trusted.) Oral stories gave way to written ones, which gave way to stories on the radio. A great Radiolab episode called War of the Worlds  tells the story of how Orson Welles in 1938 was able to captivate audiences with his radio drama about martians invading earth. The show was made in a way that was incredibly believable, to the point that people turned off their radios and readied themselves to fight the invaders. In the show they demonstrate that others have taken the War of the Worlds script and seen similar results in places like Quito, Ecuador and Buffalo, New York — each with their own version of inciting mass hysteria. As they go on to explain, with War of the Worlds Orson Welles created the initial playbook with radio that all modern newscasters have since mastered with TV. Not a day goes by without “breaking news” that some threat may or may not affect you — but you’ll have to wait until after the commercials to find out what.

So after oral, written, radio and tv stories came the stories we now consume via the internet. At first humans could only manipulate those within the sound of their voice. Then it was just the select few humans who were the gatekeepers to mass media. Now with the internet, the tools for manipulation are in each of our hands. Each of us has a story and the ability to share it far and wide. This unprecedented ability is causing some serious negative externalities. As Frank Bruni explains in his New York Times article, The Internet Will Be the Death of Us:

“Before he allegedly began mailing pipe bombs to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and others, Cesar Sayoc found encouragement online — maybe not in the form of explosives instructions, but in the sense that he could scream his resentments in a theater that did the opposite of repudiating them. It echoed them back. It validated and cultivated them. It took something dark and colored it darker still…The internet is the technology paradox writ more monstrous than ever. It’s a nonpareil tool for learning, roving and constructive community-building. But it’s unrivaled, too, in the spread of lies, narrowing of interests and erosion of common cause. It’s a glorious buffet, but it pushes individual users toward only the red meat or just the kale. We’re ridiculously overfed and ruinously undernourished.”

He goes on to quote Tim Cook, the chief executive of Apple,

“Rogue actors and even governments have taken advantage of user trust to deepen divisions, incite violence and even undermine our shared sense of what is true and what is false.”

“Rogue actors” are taking advantage of this new-found ability, but so are the rest of us too. To tell a story is to be a manipulator. Your manipulation may not to be a conscious effort to incite others to violence but it’s still a manipulation that we’re all affected by. And your ability to distribute your manipulations has never been easier.

Tim Urban in his article 7 Ways to Be Insufferable on Facebook, exposes beautifully how manipulative we all are when given the chance. We can’t help but use the same time-tested tactics of Orson Welles and your local TV broadcaster to craft images of ourselves while reinforcing and defining the groups we belong to.

We need to acknowledge the stories that we indulge in, recognize the complexities of reality and practice self-introspection. Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, explains,

“[People] are encouraged to follow their feelings. If they feel offended by something then they have been attacked. They’re supposed to not question those feelings. But part of wisdom is the ability to say, “now wait a second, are there other ways to look at this?” These are crucial skills for critical thinking. These are crucial skills for mental health and we need to be teaching young people at all stages to question their first interpretations, look for evidence and improve the way they interpret the world.”

This is the only chance we have at escaping the weaponized story telling that bombards us.

All Stories Are False, But Some Are Useful

In his Book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari calls it the cognitive revolution. About 70,000 years ago a genetic mutation altered the inner wiring of Homo sapiens, enabling them to think and communicate in unprecedented ways. Humans began telling stories and share ideas and myths. We are the only species to have developed this capacity to comprehend ideas and events that we’ve never personally experienced. These stories, myths, beliefs, religions and ideologies enabled the cooperation needed for large groups to work together. The cognitive revolution laid the necessary groundwork for the agricultural revolution about 12,000 years ago, followed by the scientific revolution about 500 years ago.

The statistician George E. P. Box said,

“Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.”

In the case of the cognitive revolution that can be rephrased as, “All stories are wrong, but some are useful.”

The benefits of this ability to believe stories that enable cooperation surround us. Harai explains:

“At the heart of our mass cooperation networks, you will always find fictional stories that exist only in people’s collective imagination. Two Catholics who have never met can nevertheless go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital because they both believe that God was incarnated in human flesh and allowed himself to be crucified to redeem our sins. Two Serbs who have never met might risk their lives to save one-another because both believe in the existence of the Serbian nation, the Serbian homeland, and the Serbian flag. Two lawyers who have never met can nevertheless combine efforts to defend a complete stranger because they all believe in the existence of laws, justice, human rights—and the money paid out in fees.”

But of course, this cooperation superpower can also backfire. There comes a time when some story is brought out into the light and we see it for what it really is — not some absolute truth, but a mere antiquated social norm. Because beliefs run so deep, people get offended at the insinuation that their “way of life” is hurting others — to them it’s just the way things are and always have been, not a story they’re telling themselves.

For example, Anastasia Basil in her article, Relax, Ladies. Don’t Be So Uptight. You Know You Want It, delineates the movies, ads, and TV shows that have socialized sexism and misogyny in America for generations. Ideas, beliefs and behaviors once thought to be “ just the way things are” is in fact just a story — one that needs to change.

She says,

“No one thinks of themselves as a byproduct of a generation…You’re aware of the trends and social attitudes of your generation, but your thoughts, proclivities, and the votes you cast are entirely your own. Or are they?”
“We are all byproducts of a collective mindset. Those who question the mindset of their time and shine light on its moral defects are considered malcontents. And yet, it is malcontents like MLK who are (later) lauded as heroes — not for upholding America’s values, for shaping them. Here’s a fun game. Ask yourself: What strongly held opinion of mine will my grandchildren one day struggle to understand?”

It takes deliberate effort to look inside and question your motives, beliefs and worldview.
As Basil goes on to say,

“The 23 percent of Americans who supported civil rights in 1963 knew exactly what they were doing. They didn’t accidentally do the right thing. They weren’t accidentally on the right side of history. Instead of bullheaded allegiance, they questioned, examined, and took a knee to the moral defects of their time.”

That deliberate effort required is something that needs to be experienced. The realization needs to come from within. You can’t cause it to happen to someone by providing them with information.

Monica Hesse in the Washington Post article He thought white men were vanishing from TV. I disagreed. So we conducted an experiment, writes, about a man on Facebook who felt white men were increasingly absent from TV, and he surmised that a push toward gender and racial diversity had shoved them out. So she tried to correct him by sending links to studies showing he was wrong. One, from San Diego State University, found only 24 percent of 2017’s films had a female protagonist. It didn’t work so instead they decided to make their own data by watching an hour of the same channel, coding ads by gender, by voice-over vs. on-screen appearance, main actor vs. extra. By the end of the hour he had changed his opinion, “In reviewing these statistics, I have to change my opinion. They do represent the population fairly well. There are some commercials that don’t have any white males in them, but this is to be expected.”

Hesse says,

“Our worldviews are shaped by our experiences. We all obsess over our own scars until we start to think they’re symbols for broader injustice. We believe what we feel. And then we believe our feelings are facts.”

This kind of change is available to all of us if we’re willing to be wrong, if we’re willing to accept that we may be part of the problem and if we’re willing to put in the hard work to uncover the stories we tell ourselves.

A Reliable Path To Being Present — Hobbies

Ancient philosophy teaches that the present is enough for happiness because it allows us to satisfy our simplest and most necessary desires. The idea is that there are natural desires, and unnatural desires. Natural desires are always available, or at least very simple to obtain in the present — such as a desire for water when we are thirsty can be easily satisfied. Unnatural desires, like wanting status and money cannot be easily obtained and are not in the present — therefore they cause unhappiness. Furthermore, a person who applies all his attention and his consciousness to the present will obtain the highest and genuine type of happiness — the pure pleasure of existence.

Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations has this to say on the topic:

“Even if you’re going to live three thousand more years, or ten times that, remember: you cannot lose another life than the one you’re living now, or live another one than the one you’re losing. The longest amounts to the same as the shortest. The present is the same for everyone; its loss is the same for everyone; and it should be clear that a brief instant is all that is lost. For you can’t lose either the past or the future; how could you lose what you don’t have?”

Sitting there blissed out on existing is not an easy mental state to get into. I think a more reliable way to achieve it is in doing things. Particularly things that are interesting to you, that are intellectually compelling and that you enjoy doing — also known as hobbies.

 

Yet hobbies are under threat.

 

One reason, explains Tim Wu in the New York Times article In Praise of Mediocrity, is that we feel like we need to be good at them.

“There’s a deeper reason, I’ve come to think, that so many people don’t have hobbies: We’re afraid of being bad at them. Or rather, we are intimidated by the expectation — itself a hallmark of our intensely public, performative age — that we must actually be skilled at what we do in our free time.”

Tim Wu goes on to say,

“In a way that we rarely appreciate, the demands of excellence are at war with what we call freedom. For to permit yourself to do only that which you are good at is to be trapped in a cage whose bars are not steel but self-judgment.”
The promise of our civilization, the point of all our labor and technological progress, is to free us from the struggle for survival and to make room for higher pursuits. But demanding excellence in all that we do can undermine that; it can threaten and even destroy freedom. It steals from us one of life’s greatest rewards — the simple pleasure of doing something you merely, but truly, enjoy.”

Stephanie Buck in an article, Our parents discovered leisure. We killed it, describes another reason besides demanding excellence in all that we do that hobbies are becoming extinct: we’re turning hobbies into businesses.

“For many of us, the hobby is dead. Our work lives have merged with our free time, and hobbies are now often indistinguishable from second jobs. In a culture obsessed with productivity, the hobby has become the next venture.”

William Deresiewicz, in his book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, tells us that this indoctrination of measuring time spent only by monetary return-on-investment starts early:

“What’s the return on investment of college? What’s the return on investment of having children, spending time with friends, listening to music, reading a book? The things that are most worth doing are worth doing for their own sake. Anyone who tells you that the sole purpose of education is the acquisition of negotiable skills is attempting to reduce you to a productive employee at work, a gullible consumer in the market, and a docile subject of the state. What’s at stake, when we ask what college is for, is nothing less than our ability to remain fully human.”

In losing our hobbies, we’re losing our humanity. We’re being conditioned to love our jobs, equate career with leisure, turn hobbies into side hustles and then feel self-conscious about our performance when we do them. Not only our humanity and the ability to living in the present are at stake; we’re also being robbed of simple pure joy.

Again, Tim Wu explains,

“But there is also a real and pure joy, a sweet, childlike delight, that comes from just learning and trying to get better. Looking back, you will find that the best years of, say, scuba-diving or doing carpentry were those you spent on the learning curve, when there was exaltation in the mere act of doing.”

Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes, echoed this sentiment in his 1990 Kenyon College Commencement speech. In college he decided to paint a copy of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” from the Sistine Chapel on the ceiling of his dorm room.

“Despite the futility of the whole episode, my fondest memories of college are times like these, where things were done out of some inexplicable inner imperative, rather than because the work was demanded. Clearly, I never spent as much time or work on any authorized art project, or any poli sci paper, as I spent on this one act of vandalism.”

We need to follow the advice of Austin Kleon in his talk, How To Keep Going,  and make everyday Groundhog Day. Consider yourself Phil Connors and ask yourself,

“What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?”

Phil Connors had to live in the present. He had no future, and the past was irrelevant. Paradoxically, only when he gave into the present was he able to move into the future. We too must realize that only when we disavow outcomes, let go of expectations and get lost in the present with our hobbies do we stand a chance at achieving the pure pleasure of existence.

The Price Of Facebook

We tend to believe that we are rational, profit-seeking, self-interested, long-term players, with access to information and the time and inclination to process it. Therefore the only things we would spend time and money on are things that we believe are worth more than they cost. Who would be stupid enough to consistently waste time and money on something that didn’t give more value back in return?

Look at all the time spent with our phones and social media. Over two billion people currently use Facebook. And since we only spend time and money on things that we believe are worth more than they cost — and since Facebook is free, no matter how minor the benefits, they’re still more substantial than the cost…right?

Well, as Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, says,

“Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”

Well-funded marketers are working overtime to take advantage of our psychological vulnerabilities to confuse and deceive us about the anxiety, personal freedom, independent thought, outrage, democracy and certainly time that Facebook costs. Yet thanks to our bias for ignorance, if anyone asked, “why Facebook?”, many would reply, “why not?”

In the New Yorker article Why Facts Don’t  Change Our Minds, Elizabeth Kolbert explains how cognitive scientists are able to demonstrate just how ignorant we are of our ignorance — in this case when it comes to our stances on political issues. Multiple kinds of studies show that even when you give people evidence that refutes their beliefs, they still fail to revise them.The ignorance only begins to crack when people are instructed to explain, in as much detail as they can, the impacts of implementing their stance.

“Most people at this point ran into trouble. Asked once again to rate their views, they ratcheted down the intensity, so that they either agreed or disagreed less vehemently.
Sloman and Fernbach see in this result a little candle for a dark world. If we—or our friends or the pundits on CNN—spent less time pontificating and more trying to work through the implications of policy proposals, we’d realize how clueless we are and moderate our views. This, they write, “may be the only form of thinking that will shatter the illusion of explanatory depth and change people’s attitudes.””

So, in the case of using “free” services online, if we spent less time swiping, liking and posting and more time trying to work through the implications of social media use, we’d realize how clueless we are and stop hurting ourselves.

Let’s try it:

Seneca said,

“Our stupidity may be clearly proved by the fact that we hold that “buying” refers only to the objects for which we pay cash, and we regard as free gifts the things for which we spend our very selves.
These we should refuse to buy, if we were compelled to give in payment for them our houses or some attractive and profitable estate; but we are eager to attain them at the cost of anxiety, of danger, and of lost honour, personal freedom, and time; so true it is that each man regards nothing as cheaper than himself.”

This is similar to a quote from Henry David Thoreau,

“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.”

Put another way, “the value of anything is the amount of life you pay for it.” So let’s look at the record: what would your calendar say about what you value the most? Does the amount of time you’ve spent online align with your values? Is your life, as Seneca points out, worth less than the paltry friend requests, status updates and clickbait?

Ancient Stoic philosophers believed that the key to having a good life was to value things that are genuinely valuable and be indifferent to things that lack value.

William B. Irvine, in Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, attributes Marcus Aurelius to saying,

“Because we have it in our power to assign value to things, we have it in our power to live a good life.”

By assigning things their correct value we can avoid much suffering, grief, and anxiety. Consider a handful of values one could choose from to lead to a good life: honesty, hard work, confidence, love, creativity, adventure. How does time on Facebook support these or any other quality value?

For me, questions like these help me put Facebook and all other types of social media in their proper place. The information we consume changes us. Facebook isn’t free. Your life is more valuable than social media.

Making the habitual conscious and the conscious habitual

How much of your life is a result of unconscious beliefs and values?

We generally think that the things we feel, believe, perceive and the way we behave are some kind of natural essence of who we are. Further, we also tend to believe that all of that stuff just happens by itself and isn’t really in our control.

As a result, our emotions feel like they’re attached to our identities. Bad feelings make us think that we’re bad people. Negative identities lead to bad choices which further entrenches us in more bad feelings. This is a lot like what depression feels like – an inescapable spiral of slipping self-worth with no hope of change.

The way out is to realize that the way we react to things we feel, believe and perceive can be, to some degree, chosen. Epictetus, Greek Stoic philosopher, said,

“It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgements concerning them.”

It’s difficult to choose feelings but you don’t have to take them seriously. Learning to question feelings leads to unraveling their source which, in turn, leads to an ability to relate to feelings differently.

By default we absorb the values and beliefs of our parents, culture, or society and tend to accept them unquestioningly (a tip on discovering your absorbed values: What gets questioned the least? The moment something is most widely accepted is the moment it should be questioned the most). Overcoming these tendencies and deliberately choosing the beliefs that are the most helpful to us is one of the biggest challenges of life. David Foster Wallace explains in his 2005 commencement speech that “the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”
He goes on saying,

“Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.”

The challenge is to make the unhelpful, inherited values and beliefs that we habitually lean on conscious, and, after analyzing them, make the consciously chosen, helpful values habitual:

  1. Watch your mind without necessarily believing everything you think
  2. Discover your unconscious beliefs, examine them and their triggers
  3. Decide if they helpful or not helpful
  4. Create a plan so that when the trigger occurs you’ve got an alternative helpful explanation ready
  5. After enough practice, in any situation we’re in, we naturally feel the helpful emotion instead of the unhelpful one and do the right thing.

“Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you, out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account.”
John Gardner, Personal Renewal

The Müller-Lyer Illusion and You

Which horizontal line looks longer?
Turns out it’s an illusion called the Müller-Lyer Illusion. The horizontal lines are the same length.

 

Here’s the thing: Even after we have measured the lines and found them to be equal and have had the neurological basis of the illusion explained to us, our conscious awareness still perceives one line to be shorter than the other. One can know that the two lines are the same length whilst at the same time experience them as different lengths.This has a serious effect on our conception of the nature of experience.

 

The world around you is not the way you think it is.
Scientists believe that the illusion works because a portion of the brain that perceives that the one line is longer is “modular” — a kind of semi-independent department of the mind which deals with particular types of inputs, and automatically gives particular types of outputs, and whose inner workings are not accessible to any rational thought from the conscious awareness of the person. Consider the implications: Outside of a simple illusion, how many of our waking hours are managed by a part of the brain that is impervious to reason? Something in us that is deciding before we have any say? As David Eagleman says in Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain,

“Instead of reality being passively recorded by the brain, it is actively constructed by it.”

 

In the face of such truth, one must learn to pause. Tara Branch calls it the Sacred Pause:

“Taking our hands off the controls and pausing is an opportunity to clearly see the wants and fears that are driving us. During the moments of a pause, we become conscious of how the feeling that something is missing or wrong keeps us leaning into the future, on our way somewhere else. This gives us a fundamental choice in how we respond: We can continue our futile attempts at managing our experience, or we can meet our vulnerability with the wisdom of Radical Acceptance.”

Realize your first thought is never your best thought. Your first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what you’ve already heard, always the unoriginal conventional wisdom and ridden with stereotypes and inaccuracies. To choose how to construct your own meaning means concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient; to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them and to outlast your impulses. To defeat your desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing is the only way you stand a chance at understanding anything.

 

Don’t believe the story you’re telling about the world
The Müller-Lyer Illusion counts against the claim that seeing is believing. If seeing is believing, then when experiencing the Müller-Lyer Illusion, one would simultaneously believe that the lines were, and were not, the same length at the same time; but this is irrational — how could you simultaneously hold contradictory beliefs?

 

These contradictory beliefs cause cognitive dissonance. Feelings of discomfort result when there is an inconsistency between beliefs and behaviors. Relief comes when something changes to eliminate or reduce the dissonance. In this case, you brain itself provides the relief — it chooses one line to be longer despite all evidence to the contrary.

 

So it is with the world we inhabit and our own beliefs. In every area of life, from relationships to careers, politics to religion, we can’t look at sequences of events without weaving an explanation into them based on what we already believe and have already experienced. When new ideas arrive that threaten your belief system, the truth you believe in and cling to makes you unavailable to accept them. They are literally filtered out and might as well not exist.

 

Don’t believe the story you’re telling about yourself
Ryan Holiday, from Ego Is The Enemy explains that we need to

“resist the comfort of reducing our lives into a story that retroactively creates a clarity that wasn’t and never will be there.”

Crafting a life story out of past events or future ones that don’t exist leads to an arrogant narrative—taking full credit for any good that happens, when in fact, you’re a small part of a large universe.

 

Our brains are wired to try to make sense of things, to see patterns that aren’t there, because there is just too much information to sift through and we need to think the world is not random and that we have control. So our minds take shortcuts by constantly choosing the most likely interpretation of what we see. The brain is designed to be efficient, not accurate.

 

Sometimes the brain’s constant predicting of what will happen is helpful, otherwise we would never have any reason to be confident about anything. In some cases however, it’s predictions are incredibly harmful to us. We jump to conclusions and become expert mind readers and fortune tellers, creating negative interpretations of events that are non-existent. These distortions of thought can turn a negative event into a never-ending pattern of defeat despite little to no evidence. More thought distortions cause our brains to classify everything as either fantastic or awful, perfect or a total failure instead of recognizing everything is on a spectrum. We hang on too tightly to “should” statements about ourselves that we cannot live up to, piling guilt on ourselves. Then we cling to our “should” statements about others and are disappointed they don’t meet our invented expectations leading to anger and resentment.

 

Don’t accept your emotions as fact. Put thoughts on trial. Examine the evidence. You’re not perceiving what’s out there, you’re perceiving whatever your brain tells you.

What Price Do You Put On Your Thoughts?

I saw the Mr. Rogers documentary , “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and something Rogers said struck me.

“What we see and hear on the screen is part of who we become.”

I completely agree. The information we consume affects us. It seems like a pretty believable statement but you wouldn’t think so considering how unthinkingly we consume information.

Consider the story with Facebook where user data was taken by Cambridge Analytica to use for political campaigning. People were outraged that data was taken from them without their knowing to serve them content that they didn’t want. Yet, nothing happened. Reports say Facebook usage actually increased.

A person walking out of a Whole Foods could be accused of being a fool for over paying for their natural, organic, fair-trade groceries instead of getting them from a typical store down the street. But the purchaser responds, “What price do you put on your health?” Whether or not that high-priced food is actually healthier is another debate. The laudable thing that Whole Foods customer is trying to do is be conscious and deliberate in their food consumption. When it comes to information consumption, the question not enough of us are asking is, “What price do you put on your thoughts?”

Every thought in your head is sourced from where you place your attention. The fear, outrage, disgust and contempt buzzing in our heads is directly proportional to the information we consume that gives those emotions a chance to grow. We seem to accept that the awfulness of the media is some natural outgrowth of the world we live in. In fact, it’s a reaction to the 24 hour news-cycle where leeching more and more of our attention became a business goal. There’s always front page news because there’s always a front page — not because the news on that front page is actually newsworthy. Feeling fear, outrage, disgust and contempt on a regular basis is an option — one you don’t have to choose if you don’t want to.

We are much further along in recognizing the effects of diet on physical health than we are in recognizing the effects of information on our mental health. Consider the amount of interventions and innovations that exist today to help us eat healthy: nutrition labels, calorie amounts on menus, diet books, personal trainers, nutritionists. Now compare all that to the lack of interventions devoted to improving our consumption of information. There are some ‘hacks’ to help curb smartphone addiction and some books on the topic, that’s about it.

The information that affects us is not limited to news. We also need to be concerned with tv shows, movies, youtube, comic books, Instagram feeds, billboards, music, product packaging, etc. This makes the challenge very complex. Continuing the analogy of information consumption compared to food consumption helps.

A calorie can be thought of as a unit of energy – if the amount of energy we consume is greater than the amount of energy we spend, the excess is stored in fat. This sounds simple but a calorie for one person is not the same as a calorie for another. Every individual’s ability to extract energy from food is a little different. So a calorie is a useful energy metric, but to work out exactly how many of them each of us requires we need to factor in things like exercise, food type, and our body’s ability to process energy — it’s not easy.

The same goes for trying to understand a unit of measurement for information consumed. The best tool we’ve got is listening to ourselves. We need to pause and reflect on the information we consume and pay attention to how it makes us feel.

Penn Jillette says food consumption is driven more by habit than by taste:

“It turns out everything about eating is habit. It’s all habitual. You think you have a natural inclination to like grilled cheese or donuts. Not true. All we eat is habit.”

I’m convinced that almost all content is consumed out of habit too making us feel just as lethargic as eating a bag of chips. Most of the information we consume is not even enjoyed. Consider Aziz Ansari’s test:

“Take, your nightly or morning browse of the Internet, right? Your Facebook feed, Instagram feed, Twitter, whatever. If someone every morning said, “I’m gonna print this and give you a bound copy of all this stuff you read so you don’t have to use the Internet. You can just get a bound copy of it.” Would you read that book? No! You’d be like, this book sucks. There’s a link to some article about a horse that found its owner somehow. It’s not that interesting.”

It took the obesity crisis to draw awareness to the food we eat. Let’s not wait for a crisis in mental health to draw attention to how powerful the information we consume affects our well being.

Be aware of how your attention is hijacked. Consume content on your terms, not on the phone’s. Letting Facebook decide what’s good for you to read and watch would be like letting McDonalds choose what you should eat.

To only seek information and entertainment that makes us feel good would be doing ourselves a disservice. Don’t binge on empty information calories. Broccoli needs to be consumed just as much as the salty and sweet snacks.

Remember the complexity of every issue. Attack the deep details of subjects to see the multiple facets being explored, the reasoning used by the other side and ask child-like simple questions that’ll lay bare the incredible complexity of everything.

Consider Bill Watterson’s idea, creator of Calvin and Hobbes:

“We’re not really taught how to recreate constructively. We need to do more than find diversions; we need to restore and expand ourselves. Our idea of relaxing is all too often to plop down in front of the television set and let its pandering idiocy liquefy our brains. Shutting off the thought process is not rejuvenating; the mind is like a car battery-it recharges by running.”