Category Archives: belief

Why Does Pessimism Feel Good?

Jenny Odell, in her book How To Do Nothing, tells the story of Masanobu Fukuoka, a Japanese farmer, philosopher and inventor of “do-nothing” farming. Fukuoka’s method of farming consisted of imitating nature: scattering seeds on the ground in the fall and then paying extremely close attention and doing everything at the right time. As it turns out, his methods produced more productive and sustainable crops than neighboring farms. Fukuoka sums up his insight that nature needs no interference by saying:

‘Humanity knows nothing at all. There is no intrinsic value in anything, and every action is a futile, meaningless effort.’

I laughed out loud when I read such a blunt and pessimistic statement. It also made me feel good.

I’ve alway been a fan of angry and depressing music. I like movies where the ending isn’t all buttoned-up and happy. Seemingly paradoxical sayings like, “Cheer up, there’s no hope,” are those that I feel do the most good to remind myself of. Whatever the form it comes in, why does pessimism feel good?
Some answers to that question may be that:

  1. Hearing other people be pessimistic reminds you you’re not alone in your sadness. Suffering is compounded with the belief that everyone else is doing fine. Pessimism reveals that this concern is gloriously unfounded. Your sadness isn’t a departure from the norm, but actually the basic default mode of human beings.
  2. Pessimism makes us feel small in a way which alleviates us from that agonizing sense of self-importance and egoism which is otherwise clinging to us. An unruly ego turns the smallest inconveniences into assaults on one’s pride that must be thwarted at all costs. How exhausting!
  3. A culture of optimism says, Anything is possible! Here are ten steps to success! Anyone can win if they try hard enough! When we believe that we are in 100% control of our destinies then what we swiftly develop are problems of self-esteem. If everybody expects to achieve everything, then an awful lot of people end up feeling that something’s gone dramatically wrong with their lives when their dreams don’t materialize. Rather than encouraging blame, pessimism can relieve it.

Maybe there are some deeper reasons for pessimism.
I like Jordan Peterson’s idea of revering the Bible for its stories, reasoning that any stories that we have been telling ourselves for so long must be, in some important sense, true. The story of Adam and Eve is one such helpful story in understanding the tradeoffs we get with gaining self-consciousness. We, like Adam and Eve, are cursed and blessed by eating the forbidden fruit, i.e., consuming information. By learning about the real nature of life we became as the Gods, discovering the most pessimistic idea — that we will die — but also gaining wisdom on how to live.

After obtaining self-consciousness, the threat of pessimism is that it is a slippery-slope; that if we let ourselves be pessimistic we’ll end up thinking that life is meaningless suffering, utterly futile, to which the only rational response is nihilism. So to combat this impulse, we pursue the fabled state of removing suffering altogether — the objective of our culture’s obsession with optimism — that would have us believe that removing suffering is possible with enough effort, possessions, money or adherence to supernatural superstitions.

But there is a third way. Not avoidance, not denial; but transcending suffering. Pessimism need not be a slippery slope. What looks like pessimism can also be a mature state of accepting that life is suffering, we’re all doomed, and yet, recognize that there are some things in life still worth fighting for. Our job as mature adults is not to let the information of good and evil, that everything that lives must die, make us bitter and resentful or cover it up with vain pursuits. To ‘get back to the garden,’ in other words, is to become a fully conscious human adult. Pessimism feels good because it reminds us of that fundamental job. It reminds us that all of our efforts to distract ourselves enough to avoid suffering are futile so we can go back to the hard work of acceptance of what is. For the adult, pessimism doesn’t make you think that life is meaningless, it simply acts as a reminder to readjust your priorities. Most of the things that make us upset, consume our minds, cause stress and drain us of energy are inconsequential trivialities.

Give up, or don’t, we die either way!

Why Does Journaling Work?

In quarantine one of our biggest threats, outside of becoming infected, is deteriorating mental health. I’ve seen many articles lately offering lists of things to do to keep from slipping into depression; one such article, by astronaut Scott Kelly from the New York Times entitled, I Spent a Year in Space, and I Have Tips on Isolation to Share, points out a common recommendation:

“NASA has been studying the effects of isolation on humans for decades, and one surprising finding they have made is the value of keeping a journal. Throughout my yearlong mission, I took the time to write about my experiences almost every day. If you find yourself just chronicling the days’ events (which, under the circumstances, might get repetitive) instead try describing what you are experiencing through your five senses or write about memories. Even if you don’t wind up writing a book based on your journal like I did, writing about your days will help put your experiences in perspective and let you look back later on what this unique time in history has meant.”

Many studies have itemized further positive effects of Journaling, including, but not limited to:

  • Reduced Stress
  • Improved Immune Function
  • Sharper Memory
  • Boosted Mood
  • A greater sense of confidence and self-identity

What is it about journaling that makes it so effective? I think it has something to do with the way we find and make meaning. Day to day life gives us plenty of meaning without any conscious effort. But when something disrupts the pattern of day to day life we are forced to see things in a new perspective which threatens the whole meaning-making apparatus of our brains. 

We are pattern-seeking mammals. Natural selection has made human beings predisposed to pattern seeking because the observation of patterns—for example, the connection between crop growth and rainfall—is evolutionarily advantageous. And if we can’t come up with a good explanation we’ll come up with a bad one—for example, the connection between crop growth and prayer or animal sacrifice. Modern humans’s lives are mostly made up of bad ones—bad in the sense that they are invented, and as a result, much more easily upended. So when something upends the pattern, like the death of a loved one, the loss of a job or, say, a global pandemic, the pattern is quickly ripped apart and the result reveals the pattern for what it is—a wholly invented paradigm. There wasn’t anything really meaningful there afterall. We were just playing make believe. A disruption in the pattern can call into question not just our confidence in a single belief, but our confidence in the entire act of believing.

Coming to terms with the idea that our lives have meaning only to the extent that we give them meaning allows us the ability to manufacture it when necessary. If daily life doesn’t provide the requisite amount of patterns for our brains to latch onto unconsciously, then we can consciously force the brain to notice the patterns we choose; i.e. journaling.  

It’s remarkable the extent to which we believe in what we think. Journaling is deliberate thinking and therefore, deliberate belief making. In a journal we create the world as we see it. We’re allowed to fabricate whatever version of that world we want to believe. As the author of your life’s story write down your struggles, passions and goals and be rewarded with meaning for all those things. You have the power to create whatever life you want. As the designer of your world, a journal lets you get as detailed in world-building as you want. In this sense the goal of journaling isn’t necessarily to make our beliefs more accurate; it’s to make them more functional. So either let the depressing world provide your meaning for you, or put your inbred meaning-making skills to good use by journaling a better world for yourself. 

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 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.

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