Curiosity killed the Habit

This week I’ve been enjoying a fascinating insight from psychiatrist and addiction expert Judson Brewer on ‘reward based learning’ and rewiring habit loops.

The simple trick is to use curiosity; not attempt self-control. As he explains (below) the bit of the brain which exerts control is way less ancient, and way less powerful than the bit that imposes cravings. So a battle with smoking or snacking with willpower alone is likely to be a losing one.

The key according to Brewer is curiosity. If we can stop and curiously examine an urge; not instantly act on it or try to make it go away, we can ‘hack’ our ‘reward based learning’ system by enjoying the experience of learning.

This – when I think back – is how I quit smoking nearly 18 years ago; actively exploring the craving made it manageable. I’d read ‘aversion’ doesn’t work. So I used to think of the famous Bisto gravy ads: and with a deep breath go ‘ahhh!’ remembering the ‘hit’, sensation and reward of a deep drag on a cigarette when I smelt one or the urge came upon me. Enjoying the urge made it pass.

Brewer’s is a very simple but clever idea – curiosity is its own reward; it could be habit-forming…

The Midlife Crisis

Of course we’re all ultimately barrelling towards the abyss; but there’s something about the middle of life that starts you thinking about it…

The ancients, the Stoics, the Buddhists; even the most whacko Californians all agree: at least half of the purpose of philosophy is to cope with our own mortality. And that need kicks-in big time around half-way through.

Elliot Jacques coined the phrase ‘midlife crisis’ in his 1965 paper Death And The Midlife Crisis. And MIT philosopher Kieran Setiya has had a proper go at really thinking about what it is and what to do about it, in this terrific podcast from the ever wonderful series Philosophy Bites.

The essence of his advice lies in giving up ‘telic’ living: the life focused on ‘projects’ and achievements. Defined by their completion: projects, achievements and ‘bucket lists’ are either constantly being consumed or are eluding you – increasing the feeling of time running out.

Instead the focus needs to be on ‘atelic’ living; enjoying ‘categories’ of activity and the process of doing them. It’s about enjoying philosophy, not ticking off the great philosophers; listening to classical music, not methodically completing the works of Beethoven; enjoying really looking at Art not consuming, categorising and collating it…

One approach endlessly pursues endpoints; of which and there is an infinite supply versus a finite amount of time. The other enjoys the time there is, in the doing of enjoyable things; not just the completing of them.

It’s a subtle thing; often the identical activities, but with a slightly different mental approach – enjoying the journey, not racing to complete as much as possible before the end.

Diced Relevant-Complexity

Having codified it three years ago, I amply proved the central premise of relevantcomplexity.com:

“But then, subtly and imperceptibly, sometimes even the things we once enjoyed the most, tail off into familiarity, boredom and ennui.”

I got bored of it.

Thanks goodness for Sonja Lyubomorsky… in the How of Happiness (which is also a website here) she sets out compelling evidence for two things which have really helped me this winter:

1) Hedonic Adaptation: pretty much anything which happens in your life – house move, significant gain or loss, any purchase from car to Concorde – you will have adapted to within three months; and then very importantly…

2) Happiness Set Point: you always return, inexorably, to your genetically determined default happiness setting; as proven by identical and non-identical twin studies. If you’re a miserable so and so, you likely always will be; if you’re a ray of sunlight, the same. Identical twins separated – with completely different life circumstances – have almost identical happiness levels. Non-identical twins living near identical lives, have widely divergent default happiness levels.

This sounds like a recipe for Stoicism (of which more anon). But the good news is you can better your Happiness Set Point – not by getting a better job, car or house… but by tricking yourself. The only way to beat your Happiness Set Point is to catch yourself out!

This explains (and links) my experience with Relevant Complexity and Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow”. My Happiness Set Point is a comparatively gloomy one. I was (initially) enjoying Relevant Complexity because of the variety and novelty. Then Hedonic Adaptation kicked in, “flow” went away – and inexorably and inevitably like a Newton’s Cradle I returned to my default ‘same old same old’ Happiness Set Point and lost enthusiasm for Relevant Complexity.

But now I’m back! The secret? Dice…

As Sonja Lyubomirsky sets out, the key is to trick yourself. So now I have dice and lists. When I’m pottering in the kitchen: the dice decide whether I’ll listen to a podcast, an audio book, the news in Italian, classical music, 80s hits, footie or talk radio. And each time I get bored; simple – roll again.

Similarly in a morning instead of fighting the randomness of which bus arrives first (and it’s never the one I want) I’m just hopping on. Make some progress, watch the world go by and change where there are more options. Embracing – even imposing – randomness seems to brighten up both me and my day. And it has certainly got me back doing the Relevant Complexity thing again.

But I’m not kidding myself… I’ve got three months before I have to come up with something new; you can’t cheat Hedonic Adaptation and your Happiness Set Point for long!

What I’d spend a $billion on…

There is so much that is shocking about this book; I almost can’t begin…

West Coast life is a million miles from South-East London; but there’s something in the heady mix of crazy diets, dotcom startups and whopping egos which makes Tools of Titans a veritable page turner… albeit I have it on Kindle so no one can see I’m reading it!

In fairness, author Tim Ferriss says right up the front that not all of it is for everyone. But I have to say I’ve picked up five or six things from the lists, watchwords and obsessions of the featured folk which are actually rather transformational.

Five rep weights, Kettlebells, cracking down on carbs, single ‘golden’ rules and (in an otherwise toxic chapter featuring a right old narcissist) a moment of clarity on the thing I’d spend a $billion on – if someone gave me $1bn to change the world… I’d promote Learned Optimism à la Martin Seligman.

Optimism – and crucially the fact you can indeed ‘learn’ it – is perhaps the single most important thing I’ve discovered in my adult life. Shame I didn’t find that out until just under two years ago!

Everything improves with optimism. Well worth remembering given the state of the world in 2017.

So here’s to 2018; a shiny new optimistic year. And thanks to Tim Ferriss for reminding me.

Happy Tracks

Sitting in the car singing along, I’m reminded to be eternally grateful for one of Chris Croft’s top tips from the Big Book of Happiness: get yourself a playlist of ‘Happy Tracks’.

Quite simply these are pieces of music which always make you happy. I’ve been building and editing mine for a year; and it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

From Sinatra to Leadbelly, Beyoncé to Chumbawumba, Finlandia to Bach; I’ve got every genre. Some came from the radio, some from Spotify – one I was reminded of over a supermarket tannoy…

But wherever I am: standing crushed by the stairs on a fully loaded bus, schlepping across a windswept Waterloo Bridge or bowling along on a Santander bike; ‘Happy Tracks’ reliably puts me on top of the world.

Happy days.

Distracted? There’s an App for that…

Eric Barker writes a great blog; I’ve told three people about the thesis in this post, in the last week or so.

Neuroscience increasingly suggests we’re all more a bunch of impulsive Apps than a well designed rational operating system.

Makes a lot of sense to me; and has reminded me to actually make a bit of time for mindfulness for a week or two – as opposed to reading about it, avoiding it and constantly distracting myself by doing other things. Let’s see how I get on…

“The human brain wasn’t built top to bottom as a single project like Apple builds a computer. It evolved over millions of years in a very messy fashion. Various systems (or “modules”) came about to drive you to accomplish different tasks like seeking food, fighting, reproduction, etc. But here’s the problem…

They were never integrated. So these systems compete to steer the ship that is your brain. Your mind is less like a single computer operating system and more like a collection of smartphone apps where only one can be open and running at a time.

Here’s noted science author Robert Wright:

In this view, your mind is composed of lots of specialized modules—modules for sizing up situations and reacting to them—and it’s the interplay among these modules that shapes your behavior. And much of this interplay happens without conscious awareness on your part. The modular model of the mind, though still young and not fully fleshed out, holds a lot of promise. For starters, it makes sense in terms of evolution: the mind got built bit by bit, chunk by chunk, and as our species encountered new challenges, new chunks would have been added. As we’ll see, this model also helps make sense of some of life’s great internal conflicts, such as whether to cheat on your spouse, whether to take addictive drugs, and whether to eat another powdered-sugar doughnut.

Now modules aren’t physical structures in the brain, just like apps aren’t hardware in your phone. They’re software; the human nature algorithms that Mother Nature coded over thousands of generations of evolution.

So you want to diet but you see donuts and your brain’s hunger module (like the “Grubhub” app) hjacks control and says, “Food! Eat it. Now.” Or you want to be nice but your mind’s anger app (“Angry Birds”) takes charge and you’re saying things another app is really going to regret tomorrow. You’re like a walking live performance of Pixar’s “Inside Out.”

So how do we prevent hijacking by the wrong module at the wrong time and make better decisions? First we need to learn how those inappropriate modules get hold of your steering wheel…

Feelings. Nothing More Than Feelings.

Whichever module has the most emotional kick attached to it at any point wins the competition to be “you.”

Under this lens, many of the confusing and frustrating things about human behavior start to make a lot of sense:

  • Of course people are hypocritical. They’re made up of competing “selves” with very different goals and different information. Uncle Al is the most reasonable guy in the world — unless his “politics module” takes charge.

  • Are people good or bad? They’re both. The metaphorical angel on one shoulder and devil on the other are just different modules in the brain with different motivations.

  • Why do you lack self-control? Because now the word doesn’t make any sense. It’s actually “selves-control.” Your behavior isn’t inconsistent; the “you” in charge is inconsistent.

Here’s University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Robert Kurzban:

Some modules are designed to gather benefits, others are designed to deliver benefits, and they exist in the same head, sometimes in conflict. In the same way, this analysis does away with the question of whether individual acts are “really” self-interested. Different kinds of acts advance the goals that some, but not other, modules are designed to bring about. So, both meanings of “self-interest” seem to be a problem because different modules have different designs, and are therefore built to bring about different outcomes.

Here’s Robert Wright:

The human brain is a machine designed by natural selection to respond in pretty reflexive fashion to the sensory input impinging on it. It is designed, in a certain sense, to be controlled by that input. And a key cog in the machinery of control is the feelings that arise in response to the input. If you interact with those feelings… via the natural, reflexive thirst for the pleasant feelings and the natural, reflexive aversion to the unpleasant feelings—you will continue to be controlled by the world around you.

How To Prevent Brain Hijack

Buddhism recognized this problem over 1000 years ago. And it also came up with a solution: mindfulness meditation.

And neuroscience gives it a big thumbs up. Studies show meditation trains your brain to be less reactive to emotional swings and can prevent the wrong module from hijacking control of your brain.

The Silent Cinema

Now here’s a peculiar thing…

Having done a fair bit of listening to people with soothing voices inviting me to contemplate my feet… and having read a couple of harder core books from the Dalai Lama… I’d concluded mindfulness and meditation wasn’t really me.

I’ve learnt how to breathe, seek enjoyment and find peace ‘in the moment’. I’m getting pretty good at it; and had assumed that was it.

But one slightly terrifying day in July – the 29th to be precise – I met and said ‘oh, fancy that; hello’ to the actual ‘me’ inside. The most bizarre experience I think I’ve ever had.

The simple process is to imagine yourself in a cinema, completely caught up in a film. Then imagine yourself sitting deeper in the chair and detaching yourself from the film and noticing all the people sat around you (especially vivid if you think of them as wearing 3D specs).

Next imagine yourself alone in the movie theatre… and then imagine all your thoughts and sensory perceptions are on the screen.

Now imagine that screen going blank…

What’s left?

The silent person watching the screen inside.

I found it frankly really weird. For the first time I met the silent, energetic, unstable whoosh of raw consciousness and mental energy which is the ‘me’ that sits deep inside.

I’ve not been back since if I’m honest. I noted it down and slightly left it be. It feels like a thing not to be messed with. Pure consciousness is enlightenment, life and death and personal identity all wrapped up in one bouncing, pinging, luminous, easily distracted, unstoppable beam of ‘always on’ energy.

I get meditation and Buddhism now; and fear pain and fear itself a little less. But I’m not sure I want to go back into the cinema and turn everything off again…

I’ve kept myself busy since writing ‘Enlightenment’ in my iPhone notes on 29th July. My next entry is a ‘to do’ list for two weeks of camping – on the 30th July – which feels a good enough excuse; especially given all that’s happened since.

But the quiet seat – in the totally silent and empty cinema – is a place I will have to visit again; even if I don’t fancy it much.

Absent a sudden and violent death, the silent cinema is an important place to know the way into I reckon… That’s the purpose of Buddhism I suspect – to be able to detach the ‘silent witness’ and the constant flow of mental energy from the ego, angst, fear and pain which capture it for most of the living years.

A bit scary though.

POSTSCRIPT

Having written this, I popped back into the ‘silent cinema’ this morning. All very painless. Eyes closed: hearing the planes, noises off, feeling the grumbling in the stomach and the ache in my shoulder – and slowly turning attention away from them and towards inner silence. A few thoughts and ideas ping around, a sense it’s all a bit self-conscious in there and then quiet; just quiet… a couple of good thoughts float by… then eyes open and life’s Technicolor cinema immediately fills the screen again with dazzling light, noise, distractions and opportunity.

Life seems even brighter today after a few minutes in the silent cinema.

Sunny

😎

After two house moves in two weeks; last Sunday, post visiting a loved one in terminal decline and absolutely physically and emotionally shattered – I cried for the first time in a decade. It was just too sad.

But five days later the sun has come back out. Life is very simple. Get some sleep, be kind, work hard, do stuff, and crucially (as I’ve recently discovered) ruminate less; and the sun comes out.

My single biggest achievement in the last year – and arguably in my life – has been to train myself to think, act and be more positive. If you’re kind, interested, positive and helpful there is no situation you can’t improve.

For me it is a feat of application, discipline and will. It’s not my natural disposition. But sunny is the best way to be. Today it absolutely was; and I absolutely have been.

: )

Fear factored

A book I’m currently reading urges us to think of ‘fear’ as the mental equivalent of physical ‘pain’.

On one level they’re the things we want to most avoid; but looked at another way they are just simple signalling mechanisms. Pain is the body’s only way to draw our attention to a problem. Fear is the mind’s.

This opens up the possibility of a different approach to fear. Not do everything to avoid it; but objectively acknowledge it, accept it and maybe sometimes push through it…

The idea is that fear is just the psyche’s way of signalling boundaries to us – which is very much the same role pain plays in the body. They are both acutely and finely tuned signalling mechanisms.

Just like a burnt finger keeps us off hot kettles; so fear keeps us away from scary situations. But as a very experienced sports coach told me at work – strength is built by how you recover.

So the idea is to recognise when fear is signalling a boundary and just feel it – don’t fear it. And if it still seems like a good thing to do, push through that fear a bit.

I can’t say I’m quite there on this one yet. Stuff you don’t know how to do, can’t control or which could go very wrong still seems pretty scary to me. But if you accept it’s always going to feel scary, that calms the troubled waters a good deal.

And then what?

Well if you accept fear is often just a signal of the new and the unknown – and that variety is the spice of life – then trying new things and meeting new people are indeed things one might fear; but they’re not things to avoid…

To test my thesis I’m going paddle boarding this week on holidays: a thing I don’t know how to do, with the risk of humiliation and getting wet, for the first time, all on my own, with a lesson from someone I’ve never met.

Exactly what I’d generally avoid – so here’s to giving it go!

Re-wiring

Talking to a nice person at work this week, as we descended several flights of stairs; she said:

"Yes John, but you're about the most positive person I've ever met."

I nearly tripped and fell down the remaining stairs… As I subsequently texted to one of my finest friends:

And a good week it has indeed been – against all the odds!

Which goes to show why being more positive and following my new motto: trust the universe to provide an answer – is a goodie.

Still, another marvellous former colleague of mine (now working in a real zoo; not just a human one) offered an even better motto to end the week…