In popular culture and media, dopamine is usually seen as the main chemical of pleasure, but the current opinion in pharmacology is that dopamine instead confers motivational salience; in other words, dopamine signals the perceived motivational prominence (i.e., the desirability or aversiveness) of an outcome, which in turn propels the organism’s behavior toward or away from achieving that outcome.
And thus dopamine doesn’t bring satisfaction. In fact, I’ve discovered, the opposite – the more you scratch the more it itches. Dopamine powers learning and curiosity; and seems to reward it. But once you’re in a dopamine cycle it just itches and itches and itches.
It’s dopamine which powers all addictions: drugs, gambling and alcohol most notably. But it also fuels any form of compulsive behaviour; wherever your subconscious tells you you need to “feed your need” from marathon running to marathon eating, dopamine is urging you on.
I was talking this week about ‘chucking some random numbers’ at my career; which I think some people listening thought might be bit reckless.
But in fact what I have in mind is well grounded in computer science.
Going back and listening again to ‘Algorithms to live by’ out walking the dog today, I was reminded that there are excellent design, creativity and evolutionary reasons to ‘chuck in’ a bit of randomness…
After all, life is all about optimisation.
Being randomly jittered, thrown out of the frame and focused on a larger scale, provides a way to leave what might be locally good and get back to the pursuit of what might be globally optimal.
But there are (and should be) limits:
The cult classic 1971 novel The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart (real name: George Cockcroft) provides a cautionary tale. Its narrator, a man who replaces decision-making with dice rolling, quickly ends up in situations that most of us would probably like to avoid.
I remember flirting with The Dice Man in the 1990s – and it’s a young man’s game… Later on in life there’s much more at stake.
But maybe it’s more about how, and how much:
If the Dice Man had only had a deeper grasp of computer science, he’d have had some guidance.
‘Algorithms’ says there are three golden rules; first, from ‘Hill Climbing‘:
Even if you’re in the habit of sometimes acting on bad ideas, you should always act on good ones.
Second from the ‘Metropolis Algorithm’:
Your likelihood of following a bad idea should be inversely proportional to how bad an idea it is.
You should front-load randomness, rapidly cooling out of a totally random state, using ever less and less randomness as time goes on, lingering longest as you approach freezing. Temper yourself—literally.
And that’s that the original Dice Man did too:
Cockcroft himself apparently turned, not unlike his protagonist, to “dicing” for a time in his life, living nomadically with his family on a Mediterranean sailboat, in a kind of Brownian slow motion.
At some point, however, his annealing schedule cooled off: he settled down comfortably into a local maximum, on a lake in upstate New York.
Sometimes you need to know when you’re in a good place:
Now in his eighties, he’s still contentedly there. “Once you got somewhere you were happy,” he told the Guardian, “you’d be stupid to shake it up any further.”
After a full (and indeed a fulfilling) schedule of festive feasts and gatherings; the final set piece hoves into view – the big one: New Year’s Eve…
Classically the ‘bridge too far’, I usually approach New Year’s Eve with a heavy heart and a bulging acid stomach. But not this year!
Perhaps in part thanks to Josef Pieper and St Thomas Aquinas.
Last night I finished ‘The Four Cardinal Virtues’ and found myself reflecting on temperantia which Wikipediahas thus:
Temperanceis defined asmoderationor voluntary self-restraint.It is typically described in terms of what an individual voluntarily refrains from doing.
But not for Josef Pieper, who offers a typically full blooded rebuttal of this ‘modern’ interpretation:
The meaning of “temperance” has dwindled miserably to the crude significance of “temperateness in eating and drinking.” We may add that this term is applied chiefly, if not exclusively, to the designation of mere quantity, just as “intemperance” seems to indicate only excess.
Needless to say, “temperance” limited to this meaning cannot even remotely hint at the true nature of temperantia, to say nothing of expressing its full content.
Temperantia has a wider significance and a higher rank: it is a cardinal virtue, one of the four hinges on which swings the gate of life.
Discipline, moderation, chastity, do not in themselves constitute the perfection of man. By preserving and defending order in man himself, temperantia creates the indispensable prerequisite for both the realization of actual good and the actual movement of man toward his goal.
Which kinda makes sense. So what of the gustatory arts? St Augustine offers a very reasonable take:
It is a matter of indifference what or how much a man eats, provided the welfare of those with whom he is associated, his own welfare and the requirements of health be not disregarded; what matters is just one thing, namely, the ease and cheerfulness of heart with which he is able to renounce food if necessity or moral obligation require it.
To which Thomas Aquinas adds pithily.
To oppress one’s body by exaggerated fasting and vigils is like bringing stolen goods as a sacrificial offering.
If one knowingly abstained from wine to the point of oppressing nature seriously, he would not be free of guilt;”
After all as Pieper points out, the Bible says:
“When you fast, do not shew it by gloomy looks!” (Matt. 6, 16).
Because it transpires, the whole point of temperantia is to keep heart and soul happy and healthy – no more and no less. For as Pieper warns:
All discipline… bears in itself the constant danger of the loss of self-detachment, and of a change into self-righteousness, which draws from its ascetic “achievements” the profit of a solid self-admiration.
And we wouldn’t want that on New Year’s Eve, would we?
Instead, having eaten, drunk and been adequately merry (and stayed on the right side of 11 stone this Xmas) I’ll follow Pieper’s advice and crank out another evening of hilaritas mentis – namely: cheerfulness of heart.
But sometimes you just have to know when you’re beat. Months ago I bought a book on computer science and algorithms to see if I could do exactly this: train an algorithm to serve up my taste in music, art and writing… And then I realised that’s exactly what search engines and social media firms are doing… doh!
Still you can’t be too happy. And Happy Tracks simply puts me in a better mood every time I put my headphones on.
So here’s to artificial intelligence – and stupidity – because Spotify is smart enough to come up with enough duds to kid me I still have superior taste!
As I head to my half century this autumn, there is much to celebrate. None of it at work, if I’m honest; but at home my cup runneth over.
A house move hoves into view; thus providing the steady drumbeat of tasks: chucking away, taking stuff to the charity shop, driving to the municipal recycling facility and odd jobs on which (secretly) I thrive.
I have been ‘outed’ as a foodie at work, and “if the shoe fits wear it”… Armed with my constant companion – the InstantPot – and a burgeoning supply of Tupperware, I love my cooking and my homemade work lunches.
Family life is endlessly full. Yesterday, for Father’s Day I was treated to tasty tongue tinglers new and old by my offspring; capped (after the obligatory two trips to the municipal recycling facility) by a family bike ride to foodie heaven and a Venezuelan pork and crackling arepa for lunch.
And then there’s the dog. Such a happy little hound. Endlessly up for catch, wrestling with his stuffed pheasant and balls of all shapes and sizes. He is a constant source of joy in our lives.
Home is where the heart is; and my home and heart are full of happiness right now.
Knitting together from several sources: it’s well worth celebrating life’s small moments of joy…
A friend of Tim Ferriss recommends a ‘Jar of Awesome’ – a Mason Jar (as above) into which everyone in the family drops little paper slips, to celebrate small happinesses…
Not sure that would work in our house. I think we’d be arguing with each other and scrumpling up each other’s slips of paper in no time.
Plus ‘Awesome’ may be overstating it. Small blessings, kindnesses and happy moments are more up my street.
As so often Chris Croft is a voice of practical good sense. He recommends a small notebook to jot down happy moments through the day; then recap and write three more at bedtime.
So I’ve now got a list on my iPhone titled ‘Jar Mitzvahs’, my virtual jar-cum-notebook of daily moments, and memories, and things to be thankful for.
And as Chris Croft suggests I’ve found some recurring themes…
…cooking, activities with the kids, chucking stuff for the dog to fetch, sunshine. But there are also a few I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t written them down… kind words, being appreciated and just rubbing along with folk at work.
Happiness isn’t that complicated; it breaks out every time you clear the clouds from your head.
A night to remember last evening, at surely the greatest musical of our times – ‘Hamilton’.
We’ve been humming it and singing it all day (as we have for the last two years). But apart from the lesser known Founding Father’s tale of the (once) almost unlimited possibilities of America (as his final words bill it “that great unfinished symphony…”) Hamilton’s other message is the transcendent importance of time.
Alexander Hamilton lives like he’s running out of it; the other main protagonist, Aaron Burr ‘waits and he waits’.
Good old Chris Croft reminds us the external world is fickle (As George Washington cautions twice in Hamilton, no one decides ‘who lives, who dies, who tells our story), so the only resources we really have are money and time.
Separately, another excellent post from Eric Barker slam dunks the idea that anyone can multi-task well. I’d persuaded myself I can. But no… Multi-tasking Barker highlights, is just a rather ineffective and inefficient ‘dopamine rush’.
So, balancing the choice between work, money and time, my conclusion is: I’m working too hard and somewhat ineffectively; disproportionately meeting the needs of others, and not my own.
My Easter epiphany is to realise time is my most precious resource – and I’ve been being pretty careless with it. Looking on the bright side, it’s good to clock it.