Optimism is a skill

The missed irony is that it is only because of the things offered to us by of modern life that we have the luxuries of safety and time to find fault in everything. Becoming optimistic about the things we have learned to take for granted or even rail against is both possible and simple. We need to take the action of being optimistic and repeat it over and over again until we get so good at it that we no long need to will it to happen. It’s a skill after all…

I have been called cynical and I can accept that. I consider myself to be skeptical given that I believe most people have the ability to do things and just choose not to. Cynicism is a little dark in that the world and everything in it is going to crap, which is not the view that I hold. Mine is closer to knowing that things could be better if people choose to make them better. As a collective, I don’t really believe in people. When talking about individuals though, I believe in them.

That seems like a violation of statistics given that the median or mean usually make the best guess when it comes to the predicting the performance of an individual in a specific group. Some people will be better, some people will be worse and some will fall right in the middle. There is no reason for me to believe that an individual person can when, within the group, the average person doesn’t. I think that reflects two interesting things about by experience of reality.

The first is about the direction I look and the second is about the impact personal choice has on reality. Stats are all about the what happened before. When making a prediction about the future based on stats, you are actually looking backwards in time to predict the future. This is great for generating a list of probabilities, which is valuable information, but it is always looking back since it is based on things that have actually happened. We can look forward as well, to consider things that have not yet happened. This is turning away from statistics towards the realm of imagination. We have agency and when we use it to choose what we pay attention to and what actions we take, we dramatically influence how reality unfolds.

The point here is that the future has not yet happened, so we can choose to do the things that will influence the outcome. Just because we have become very efficient at causing our life to be how it has up until now doesn’t mean that it MUST happen that way. But, all things being equal, it will probably be the same as before, more or less average with a slight improvement over time.

My belief that an individual can do better is a forward looking view. It basically says that things can be different and that everyone has the potential to make them different. We are powerless to change the past, the future can be anything. All that is needed is for us to choose to do the things that will contribute to a brand new future and to then put in the extra effort to make them happen. While statistically this isn’t something that the average person will do, anecdotally, people can and will choose to do the impossible from time to time.

So a future that is different from the past is possible, but unlikely.

The cynical label does not surprise me given where it comes from. People who do not know me have not yet experienced the optimism I am capable of. They hear my thoughts about the group and assume all they need to about me. People who know me well have identified that I am more than willing to be optimistic in the face of another challenge that was just like that last one. Those who did not rise to the opportunity and for which the optimism was misplaced cannot call me cynical or won’t call me skeptical. They know I’m a realist for being skeptical of their potential actions given their previous performance.

Optimism is a skill. People learn to be optimistic or pessimistic and the lessons are lifted from their experiences. Importantly, these experiences do not need to have ever happened. A pessimistic person can have a negative thought about something that has not and may not happen and this can reinforce their world view. This is no different from other things, thoughts carry almost the same weight as real life experiences and are subjected to the same cognitive biases, just in the opposite direction. For example, when someone experiences something that goes against their world view, they will tend to dismiss it by coming up with reasons why the experience does not represent reality. When this same person has a thought, it will be coming from their brain and is subject to all of their values and beliefs. It will be filtered and will usually reflect their understanding of the world meaning that a pessimistic person will have pessimistic thoughts – about their actual lived experience AND about things that have not yet happened – which further contribute to their pessimistic world view.

Cultivating optimism is fairly straight forward and you grow it in same way your create more of anything, focused attention and repeated practice over time. It has the unique property of being on one side of a continuum, which makes different from learning how to play guitar. Most skills are binary and independent meaning they do not really have an opposite, you either have skill or you don’t – the opposite of being able to play guitar is not being able to play a guitar, so you either either play it or not (or play with a level of prophecy or not play with that level). The opposite of playing guitar is NOT playing drums. This is an important distinction because acquiring a skill that is binary is not a zero sum endeavour. Learning how to drum does not eliminate your ability to play guitar so after you learn something about drumming, whatever guitar skill you have will remain more or less intact.

Coexistent / dependent skills that exist on a scale or continuum do not have this property. They are non-binary, and they exist on different type of scale that has absolute skill on both ends and no skill in the middle. But at either end are the skill and its opposite or its counter skill.

Optimism coexists on a scale with pessimism on the other end. In the middle is no skill and this is where everyone starts off. To learn how to be optimistic or pessimistic one approaches it the same way they would anything, they pay deep attention when trying to be optimistic or pessimistic and they practice frequently and consistently, overtime. So far this is exactly the same. The divergence occurs when one engages in the opposite behaviour – the optimist acts pessimistically or the pessimist acts optimistically. These are opposite behaviours and the practice of one impedes the formation of the other. The more one practices, the worse they get at the opposite. When compared to binary skills were skills decay is the result of not practising, coexistent / dependent scaled skills decay when not practised and when its opposite skill IS practised.

This is the big challenge that is presented to people who wish to become more positive. Let’s assume that they want to become more positive because they have noticed that there is a cost associated with their level of negativity. This is an easy assumption given that there IS a cost to being negative, one that isn’t paid by neutral people. Since they are negative, they have obviously spent a lot of time practising this negativity. They are highly skilled in finding and pointing out what is wrong with any given situation. Most likely they have automated this process so that what immediately comes to mind when anything happens is the worst possible interpretation or prediction. This changes their psychological state which creates an internal physiological state that is unhappy and stressful. These further impact the mental state and the thoughts that arise and even the parts of the brain that are functioning or active, causing the negativity to re-up, increase or cycle. It’s a toxic mental disaster and tough to break free from.

For the sake of illustration, lets say that on the Negativity – Positivity scale, that runs from -10 to + 10 they are a -8. That’s a very dark place to be and this value reflects a skill level that is remarkable. A lot of work has gone into becoming this proficient at being negative. The up side is that they do have the capability to take action and to work hard at cultivating a skill, the down side is that this is evidenced by the existence of a skill at a level that does not lend itself to improving anything. Regardless, if we want to move a -8 to a -6 we need to add 2 to it or we need to let 2 negativity skill units decay. In this case, if a -8 negativity person want to become a neutral or a positive person they have these two options.

What does this look like from a practical point of view? Well, to an outsider the immediate elimination of toxic negativity as the vocalized negative thoughts will land as a shift towards neutral. But this does not necessarily indicate a shift away from internal negativity and the person may still be automatically uncovering and giving internal voice to negative thoughts. They probably are doing this because they are very good at it, when they do it they are maintaining their skill level. Eliminate the toxic component will improve their life but it will do nothing to move them towards neutrality.

What matters here is the internal voice or thoughts. negative thoughts create negative emotions that lead to negative actions. The opposite is equally true, positive thoughts create positive emotions which lead to positive actions. To shift someone from a -8 to 0 the negative thoughts need to be eliminated to allow for the skill to decay thought lack of practice or positive thoughts need to occur to add skill units to the opposite skill (a process more akin to mathematical averaging). This is much faster given that skill decay is actually organic decay or cell death that prunes back unused connections during cell turn over. This takes a while and given that it is a passive process, things can occur that prevent it from happening – it’s easy to imagine a negative spontaneous reaction to something that serves as sufficient stimulation to justify the maintenance of a neural network.

Clearly then, if you want to gain control over the movement towards a neutral level of negativity you need to take action and create positive thoughts and when when negative thoughts show-up transform them into positive thoughts. This is very simple to do and while it may seem fake or corny to a negative person, it is neither of these things.

Creating positive thoughts is just a matter of taking time to look around and identify the good things that you see. Gratitude journals accomplish this task for all who take the time to complete them. The key element is to cultivate a genuine sense or feeling of gratitude about the things you are grateful for and to sit with this feeling for a period of time. You need to trigger the emotions that are associated with gratitude and allow their associated chemicals and neurotransmitters to flow throughout your body.

Some personal examples here might be helpful. Being grateful for family, friends and other loved ones, for health, for your home, your job, your possessions, your capabilities, values and beliefs, you can be grateful for modern healthcare, the Internet, technology, science, math, the education system, your ability to read, to think, to rationalize, that you are alive, for your ancestors, for the planet, for the seasons, of the fact that all the bad stuff will eventually fade away, for clothing, for the invention of air conditioning, central heating, the discovery of electricity, for the space program, for gravity, the wind, etc…. There is no limit and there are many things to be grateful for.

Initially it might take a while to trigger the emotion and to then to sit with it but with practice firing the emotion will get easier and you will get to linger in it for as long as you want; you’ll choose to stay with it because gratitude feels good. In the early days of practising gratitude you will need to sit in the emotion for 30 to 60 seconds and you will pick 2 or 3 things day to be grateful for. It is a five minute exercise at most that is done everyday. Within a day it will begin to shift your negativity level.

Given that we are working on creating a skill, the relationship between practice and fluency can be used to our advantage. It makes sense to practice being grateful, being positive, and seeing the up-side to daily occurrences. Throughout the day, take a few moments to think about something you are grateful for and to really bath in the emotions these thoughts trigger. When something good happens, think about it, trigger the positive emotional response and soak in these good feelings. Take a few moments during the day when you are feeling absolutely nothing at all to try and see the positive aspects of the things that have happened. Here we are dealing with the things that didn’t trigger a negative thought and that you lived through without paying any attention to.

Changing negative thoughts in to positive thoughts is a two step process. The first step is identifying when a negative thought arise. The second step is changing it into a positive thought. For best results, each one needs to be identified and transformed. For a very negative person, this can be time consuming and mentally draining. Do this keeping three things in mind. The first is that it gets a lot easier with practice. You are in essence creating a new process and skill of mindfulness which takes time and practice but is well within everyone’s capabilities. The second thing is that this gets a lot easier when you done in conjunction with the gratitude journaling because the journaling practice shifts thoughts towards the positive size of the scale. The third thing to keep in mind is that you are remarkably negative. This can be a little overwhelming when you begin to pay attention to your thoughts and notice the sheer number of negative ones. The number doesn’t matter, negativity is a skill and a habit it isn’t who you are. You’ve made the decision to be a positive person so the transformation has already begun. Missing some isn’t a big deal simply do your best to identify and convert as many as you can.

What do you change these negative thoughts into? That is up to you. When someone at work does something that demonstrates their incompetence, be grateful that you have the abilities. When their error increases your work volume, be grateful that you have a job. When you have to clean-up after someone else, be happy that you can and that you don’t leave a mess for other to deal with. When someone cuts you off in traffic be grateful you are not in the same hurry they are or that you don’t have spend any of your life with them. You have creative licence here to change the negative thought into whatever you like. There are no rights or wrongs, you are basically trying to interrupt the conditioned pattern of negative thought, negative feeling, negative action. Over time identifying that a negative thought has popped up will be enough to shut it down but until then every one that you notice pop up gets converted into something positive.

Final thoughts:

I am grateful for the abundance of low cost high quality food. While I don’t eat most of it the fact that it is there makes me feel good, but only when I think about it. I’ve normalized this part of life and don’t as a general rule think about it unless I put deliberately effort into doing so. Most of the good things in life are like this; we are so accustomed to them being there that we just filter them out and ignore them. This is even more true for a person who is on the negative side of the scale, they have definitely habituated everything to the point of eradicating the potential positive feelings associated with modern life. The missed irony is that it is only because of the things offered to us by of modern life that we have the luxuries of safety and time to find fault in everything. Becoming optimistic about the things we have learned to take for granted or even rail against is both possible and simple. We need to take the action of being optimistic and repeat it over and over again until we get so good at it that we no long need to will it to happen. It’s a skill after all and we know how to develop those.

Crab Mentality? No, Because They Are NOT People

There is a story that people will tell about watching a bunch of crabs who have been caught and placed into a bucket. The essence of the story is that as one of the crabs gets closer to climbing its way out, the rest of the crabs will grab onto it and pull it back in. Watch them for a while and you will see this repeating over and over and over again. You might be inclined to say that it is a pattern of behaviour and something that is a property of being a crab. The meaning most people give to the phenomenon is that “if I can’t have it, neither can you.”

Drawing this conclusion gives crabs way too much credit for knowing what is going on. However, if all of these people are correct, we should then stop eating crabs because this would indicate that they have a level of intelligence that moves them into the realm of sentient beings.

Take a moment to consider the level of self-awareness that a crab would need to possess in order to do what proponents of the crab mentality are suggesting. Below is a short list of some of the things that the crab would need to be aware of or have the cognitive capacity to process:

It would need to know that it is in a bucket.

It would need to know the shape of a bucket, that it has an open top and that anything that climbs to the top will be able to get out of the bucket.

It would need to know that it is a crab and that the rest of the things in the bucket are also crabs.

It would need to have a theory of mind that allowed for object permanence and environmental awareness in so far as it knew that on the other side of the bucket is the rest of the world / the environment from which it was transplanted.

It would need to have a well formed values system placing a higher value on being in the natural environment and / or a lower value being in the bucket.

It would need to have an established morality in order for it to make the decision that it is better that no one go free if it cannot go free. This would be broad enough to include the concept of fairness.

It would need to have a powerful motivational system that would have it choose to expend the energy needed to grab onto the crab that is trying to climb out and pull it back in.

This is making the assumption that to be the foil is not a cooperative behaviour and is just an innate quality of crabs because this is the most simple way to look at it. If craps are capable of collaborating together to make sure no one gets out of the bucket, we have no business catching them, let alone killing and eating them.

It seems unlikely that crabs know what a bucket is because those who have spent time in one probably didn’t live long enough after being put into it to ever find themselves in a second bucket. Since all crabs act the same way when they are put into containers – they try to move and find a place to hide – we’re observing automatic innate behaviour. It can’t have been learned or taught because buckets / escapable containers do not exist in a crabs natural habitat.

There is very little chance that a crab knows the shape of a bucket, that they have a top and that the boundary between the bucket and the rest of the world is located at the top. It is moving in the only direction it can, which is up, because there is no other direction.

It is the level of awareness of being a crap and also being in a bucket of crabs that is up for debate. Generally speaking, crabs are not social creatures and will tend to fight when mating, looking for a place to hide, and when there isn’t enough food for all of the crabs. But they would sooner avoid each-other than spend time fighting because fighting is dangerous.

Object permanence and environmental awareness are rather advanced mental processes. While I cannot say with certainty that a crab, when placed into a bucket will maintain an image of where it came from and will be aware that it is no longer in that place, these are things that much complex creates do not have.

Do crabs value not being in a bucket as better than being in a bucket? I don’t think they do. I think they would prefer be hiding under a rock somewhere or to be away from all of the other crabs, but to suggest that they would value being out of the bucket more highly than hiding or being alone somewhere remains to be see. I suppose we could figure it out by putting some rocks to hide under in a bucket and see what the crab does. We could also put one crab per bucket and observe their behaviour. If they still worked hard to get out, maybe we’d be start to make a call on their established values / priorities.

Crabs are not social so the suggestion that they would sooner keep crabs in the bucket with them is not supported by observation. Nor do they like fighting so much that they’ll pull back anyone who is climbing away from them just so they can fight. They don’t have a morality to violate by preventing one from getting away. Nor do they have the object permanence to know that any crab that was visible before but is no longer visible is still alive doing crab things elsewhere.

While crabs do have a motivational system, it is for things that they want or need, and things that they will find rewarding. Eating, hiding and reproducing are the three things that move crabs to act. They will not spend the effort to pull other crabs back to be close to them.

It’s this last factor that actually explains what is going on when a bunch of crabs are captured and put into a bucket of water. They are going to do the things that they find rewarding to do, and these things will be what they do when they are in their natural habitat – eat and hide. There won’t be much to eat in the bucket, so they’ll start looking for food. Having quickly exhausted the search at the bottom of the bucket, they’ll start looking everywhere else. At the same time, they will want to hide – it isn’t natural for crabs to be out in the open like they are in a bucket – and they’ll want to get away from the other crabs. They will go ANYWHERE they can and since there are crabs all over the bottom of the bucket, they start climbing. Their motivation is not to get out, but to get away from the rest of them, to find a hiding spot and to find something to eat.

Since there is nothing to climb on except other crabs, they climb on them. Again, they are not consciously going up, they are going away and that just happens to be up. As one climbs close to the top, those on the bottom, who share the same motivation to get away from the rest of them, will reach up and away from the mass of crabs and grab hold of the one that is close to reaching to top. They will pull, and since the top crab has nothing to anchor itself to, the weight of the other crabs will cause it to get pulled back down. The crab or crabs that pulled it down were not trying to pull it down, they were trying to pull themselves up in an effort to get away from the mass of crabs below.

All of the crabs remain captured because they lack the buoyancy needed to float to the top of the water and since they cannot support the weight of the crabs below, they fall down.

This is about the only part of the Crab Mentality metaphor that holds up when applied to groups of human beings. Other people grab onto someone they see doing better in an effort to pull themselves up. That person, however, isn’t well enough anchored to the better life to support the weight of those below them. As a consequence, they fall down to the level of the others who were reaching up and holding on.

The notion that when we are starting to do better, others are trying to hold us down, just like the bottom crabs holding back the one that is almost about to escape, is a completely different thing. People do act that way, and their goal is to hold others back. It’s a thing that exists, but not with crabs. Crabs couldn’t care less about escaping a bucket because they don’t know what a bucket is. All they know, if they know anything at all, is that there is something above them that they can grab onto that might help them pull themselves up and away from the mass below them. It doesn’t work out the way they wanted and all of the crabs remain captured.

The thing about crabs is much more simple. It is completely void of malice and is cynical only in the most literal meaning of the word. The crabs are looking out for themselves and are not looking out for the worst interests of the other crabs. They have no concept of winning only if everyone losses or losing if one of them wins.

So what?

Just as the “crab mentality” narrative is so easy to understand that it bypasses critical review, ANY narrative that is very easy to understand can bypass critical review. In fact, “ease of understanding” is an important and common heuristic that human beings use to evaluate when something is true. This is blind spot or weakness in our decision making process.

And yet, most of us accept as fact the underlying assumptions that would need to be true in order for the notion of a crab mentality to be accurate. Now ask “where else in my life am I doing this?” followed by “what might be the cost of doing it?”

One area in which many people find themselves making these mistakes is when we assume that the people we are talking to are very similar to us and have the same talent, abilities, intentions, and information / knowledge that we do. They do not. We all share a lot of things – physiological and neurological processing – but have unique experiential paths through life. Since experience determines knowledge and triggers gene expression, these underlying processes are running with different data and every individual is running processes other than those which are innately activated at birth. The end result is that in almost EVERY case, assuming that the person you are speaking to knows, thinks, and values the same things that you do is a mistake, and if you make it, it is going to hurt the quality and accuracy of your communication.

Ease of understanding is NOT an indication of truth, it is an indication that something was easy to understand.

All explanations are post hoc

If we really want to uncover a persons motivations or if we want to help them understand what is going on in their brain (or shape their decision making) we will ask the question before the action is taken. While the answer here is about as accurate as the answer after, it has one thing going for it that post hoc explanations will not, it is speculation about a future. The person is talking about their motivation for a thing that has not yet happened and is therefore free from any of the need to eliminate cognitive dissonance.

A fun fact that has been revealed by functional MRI machine research: any narrative explanation a person gives about their motivation for doing something ALWAYS occurs after the decision to do the thing. Your explanation for why your ate the chocolate bar will almost always follow your decision to eat the chocolate bar. Put another way, we can say we ate the chocolate bar because we were hungry, or because there was nothing else to eat, or because we felt like it, but this justification will always come after the decision to eat the chocolate bar.

This makes even less sense with decisions that the individual should have made differently. Choosing to eat a doughnut, when salad is available, makes less sense for someone who says they want to drop a few pounds immediately before eating the doughnut. Their explanation will, however, be logical and consistent. This doesn’t make sense if we are actually in charge of our bodies and our decisions; although the apparent contradiction rarely becomes evident to the person who is wanting to be leaner while continuing to eat the food they know they should not be eating.

If we were in charge, we would simply do what we have set out to do. Saying we want to eat better would be sufficient for us to eat better. Saying we want to stop smoking would be all that is required to stop smoking. That isn’t how it works. Almost everyone knows they should eat better yet most people don’t do it. Almost everyone who smokes wants to stop, yet they continue. When they are asked why they choose the food they do or why they keep smoking, they are able to explain why in a way that doesn’t seem at odds with their desire for things to be different. The logical incongruence does not seem to exist, or at least it isn’t experienced as incongruent, when explanations are given after the fact.

All explanations that are given after the fact are post hoc and therefore worthy of suspicion. Any dissonant characteristics are explained away and any logical inconsistencies are accounted for and rationalized so that what happened seemed like it was always going to be what happened.

This is why I don’t trust the reasons people give when they answer questions. I do not believe that they are deliberately being dishonest, and I have no reason to believe that their memory of historic events is wrong, I just know that the human brain does not handle dissonance effectively and will sooner make up a story that it immediately believes is true than it will acknowledge and examine the inconsistencies.

And again, I don’t blame people for this. The brain is unbelievably complex and so much is going on below the level of conscious awareness that to assume that anyone understands their motivation beyond simply staying alive is to give them undue credit. Eating the doughnut does help them stay alive, going without the doughnut denies the body high energy calories which could be interpreted as a life risking decision. Having a cigarette supplies nicotine that eliminates the negative physical symptoms of nicotine withdrawal, allowing these physical symptoms to continue and grow could be interpreted as a serious sign of unwellness.

If we really want to uncover a persons motivations or if we want to help them understand what is going on in their brain (or shape their decision making) we will ask the question before the action is taken. While the answer here is about as accurate as the answer after, it has one thing going for it that post hoc explanations will not, it is speculation about a future. The person is talking about their motivation for a thing that has not yet happened and is therefore free from any of the need to eliminate cognitive dissonance. The question “under what circumstances would you choose to eat a doughnut given that you have committed to eating better?” is rather different than “why did you eat the doughnut given that you have committed to eating better?”

One thing we know with certainty, the brain will supply a coherent narrative to rationalize and justify any decision that it has made, which is why we cannot consider our post hoc explanations to be the reasons we think they are.

No Evolutionary Reason To Become Healthy – Particularly As We Get Older

Because of our genetic code, any one who wishes to improve their health as they get older will need to spend a lot of time doing things that run against that programming. This is not an easy task because the behaviours that are required to cause this change have little or no history in our ancestral past. This is not impossible and is in fact rather simple – although it is very hard – consistent attention, practice, and recovery over time.

As a personal trainer I found that there were two groups of people who were extremely easy to train and who were almost certain to get good results. The first group was competitive athletes. These individuals were unstoppable, self-motivated and relentless. They did what they were asked to do, as hard as they could, and paid very close attention to their actions. They ALWAYS improved and most of them probably achieved their physical potential in terms of movement proficiency, explosive speed and strength. If you want to feel capable, train these people. They will improve and you will feel like you can do no wrong.

The next group of people who were great to train were women, usually parents of 2 or more children. These individuals acted like athletes – the followed instructions perfectly, paid attention when they worked, and were highly motivated to get the best possible results out of the limited time they had to spend training. They also improved, although not necessarily as quickly as their potential would allow because balancing being a mother with training is tough and their workouts were always going to be secondary to their family responsibilities.

Everyone else was a crap shoot. As a general rule, younger people do better than older people. Single men up until age 40 do better than their their female cohorts. Single women who do not like working out, married men in general, and older people all fair equally poorly.

I’m not certain why this is, but I have a few guesses. First off, working out to improve any goal is tough. If someone likes working out, they’ll deal with this toughness and do what is asked of them. But learning how to like working out is a skill that must be learned and mastered through practice. If that practice hasn’t been put in when the person is younger, it may already be too late as the toughness can simply be too much to overcome. They may go to the gym or work out, but they don’t do everything they need to make gains – they don’t work hard enough, they don’t eat appropriate amounts of food, and they don’t replace bad habits with good ones.

Next, there is a lot biological programming that is geared towards keeping things as they are. Body fat is store energy, traditionally used during a famine. This is an evolutionary proven method formed during a time when food scarcity was a reality that it isn’t today. Becoming lean makes no survival sense according to our genetic code; fine so long as there is a constant and stable supply of food and when it is interrupted, a life threatening problem. Eating high calorie foods is also intrinsically rewarding. Most human being release dopamine in response to fat and sugar combinations specifically and fat or sugar in general, so we are motivated to seek out and consume foods containing these macro-nutrients. Green leafy vegetables offer very little in terms of intrinsic reward. While it is true that we can teach ourselves to find these food rewarding, that is a skill and must be practice in order to cultivate it. Generally speaking this won’t happen, and if it does, it is more likely to occur in the younger population.

The final reason why I would say it’s very tough for people who are older than 30-35 years of age to get into better shape is that there is no evolutionary reason to do it. Becoming a parent gets tougher as we age and while those who are older may be in a better financial position to be raise children and have a better temperament as parents, the statistics on positive reproductive outcomes reduce as both sexes age. These negative outcomes may actually provide a disincentive in terms of improving body composition.

Consider the fact that, generally speaking, women allow men to determine who the best mates are – given that men work it out themselves who is at the top of any dominance hierarchy, the best potential mates for women have in actuality been select by other men. At the top of these dominance hierarchies tend to be strong men with good posture, two characteristics that are linked to higher levels of testosterone and growth hormone. Without an exogenous supply of these hormones, men who are in the late teens to late 20s will have the highest levels. The statistics reveal that reproductive success and outcome is greatest for men in this age range.

Men select reproductive partners because of factors embodied by the women themselves. These tend to be waist to hip ratios, body fat levels and posture. Social norms not withstanding, this excludes younger women, and women over the age of 30. An examination of the hormonal averages for women indicate a bell curve distribution with a peak for women in their early 20. Reproductive success and outcomes are also bell curve shaped and map almost identically onto the hormonal averages.

For women and men, the story is the same. When the hormone levels are lowest, reproductive success is lowest. When hormonal levels are highest, reproductive success levels are highest. When hormonal levels are highest, desirability to the opposite sex is also highest. Women and men tend to desire reproductive partners who represent the greatest likelihood of reproductive success. This means high testosterone and GH for men, and higher estrogen, progesterone, testosterone and GH for women. It is not surprising that when people who belong within these groups workout, they change body composition very quickly. The opposite fact is also not surprising, when those who fall outside of these groups workout, the changes in body composition take a lot longer, and may not happen at all in-spite of the fact that fitness levels improve as do a number of other health markers.

There is no evolutionary reason for people to get into better shape, particularly when they have moved past the peak of their hormonal profile. Reproductive outcomes are worse – pregnancy success rates are lower, birth defects and developmental challenges are higher. Given these facts, a narrative justification can be given to the difficulties in changing body composition as people age – for the betterment / fitness of the species, the things that make an individual attractive to the opposite sex evaporate and are harder to achieve when the risks of pregnancy begin to increase.

So what?

Learning how to like working out is a skill that must be learned and mastered through practice. While some individuals may have a genetic predisposition to find it more pleasurable or easier to like than the bulk of the population, activity is still required to trigger the expression of this increased potential.

It is easier for younger people to teach themselves to enjoy exercise than it is for other people for a few critical reasons. First off, they haven’t spent nearly as long learning what other non-movement activities can be rewarding therefore they are more inclined to put the time and effort into lifting something heavy in an earnest attempt to trigger a dopamine release. Second, they have a more favourable hormone profile that improves the rate of result acquisition; this reinforces the actions they are taking and, while “liking” exercise is not the same thing as being rewarded, it’s a distinction without much of a practical difference. Finally, younger people usually have way more opportunity to exercises, which will make them better at it. Proficiency, particularly when compared to others, does tend to result in a greater sense of satisfaction.

Gene expression and any learning will have much larger impact the earlier in life they occur. A child who learns to associated movement with the sensation of feeling good or who conditions their brain to release reward chemicals in response to movement will, on average, be more active throughout the entirety of their life and will enjoy the benefits associated with an active lifestyle. Similarly, a child who takes advantage of the time and the opportunity to discover many of the different foods that trigger the release of reward chemicals will, on average, consume more of these specific foods over the course of their life. They will, as a consequence, experience sub optimal health outcomes and may increase their risk of disease when compared to those who do not eat a lot of these foods or those who consume them in moderation while engaging in a more active lifestyle. We can therefore conclude that gene expression and learning have compounding effects over time, good or bad.

Unless you like working out because you are genetically predisposed to or you find it to be rewarding because you put the effort into teaching your brain to release reward chemicals when you do, you are NEVER going to feel like getting into great shape, and even less so as you get older. Our genes exist as they do because they gave our ancestors a survival and reproductive advantage. They were shaped by mutations and in response to the various environments over millions of years, but at no point during this time was there ever a long lasting abundance of food. Those species that survived were able to handle intermittent periods of food scarcity because they would over eat when they could in order to store energy as body fat, move as little as necessary, and down regulate their metabolic rate when calorie consumption would drop. Genetically speaking then, we are programmed to be fat, lazy, and to seek out and gorge on high calorie low nutrient foods. These three tendencies are never a part of any weight loss, health or body composition improvement plan.

Because of our genetic code, any one who wishes to improve their health as they get older will need to spend a lot of time doing things that run against that programming. This is not an easy task because the behaviours that are required to cause this change have little or no history in our ancestral past. This is not impossible and is in fact rather simple – although it is very hard – consistent attention, practice, and recovery over time.

Complaining Is Not Helpful – It Makes Everyone Who Hears It Unhappy And Motivates Them To Withdraw

When someone has developed a habit of complaining, we can be sure of at least one thing: they are repeating a successful behaviour – doing something that worked before – and are seeking the same outcome. Their decision making matrix MAY be populated with an inaccurate piece of information, but we KNOW with certainty that their actions are goal directed and, if nothing else, historically effective at leading them to that goal.

My name is Patrick and I am a complainer.

There, I said it. While I am certain that complaining is not a disease, it does lead to some very poor outcomes. The main one is that it doesn’t do anything positive. In fact, it nearly always makes a person feel worse. If talking about everything that is wrong with your life moves you to do something about it then it may be worth doing, otherwise it only serves to make you feel bad and to reinforce any views you held that triggered the negative thoughts in the first place.

Complaining is toxic. It creates negative emotion in everyone who is exposed to it. Even those people who agree that what you are saying is factually true become infected with the poison of dark emotion. When they listen to you complain, you begin to make them feel bad. They won’t want to be near you and they won’t have any desire to listen to you. No one likes toxic people so complaints for their own sake are incredibly alienating.

Consider what complaining without taking further action might reveal about you to other people – you are stupid, lazy, or have a very low opinion of yourself.

Stupid because you stopped thinking as soon as you saw what was wrong and decided to bitch about it; the complaint is not necessarily the indicator of stupidity, that is revealed when you didn’t do anything to change the situation when you noticed what was occurring because you are not smart enough to think up a solution to make things better.

If you are not stupid, you are probably lazy because you know what to do to fix the situation and just can’t be bothered to do it. A small action to improve your situation would require about as much energy and probably less time than what is being consumed by complaining about it.

Okay, so you are not lazy or stupid, and continue to complain. Assuming you know how to fix the situation and have the energy to do that, maybe you believe you are a piece of crap who deserves only to exist in the situation that you find yourself in. Maybe, if you were a better person, a person of some worth or value, you’d take enough pride in your life and do the things that are needed in order to make it better.

This final one may be a little tougher to wrap your head around, but the rationale I am using goes something like: every day we take thousands of actions, most of which are aimed at addressing wants, while the remainder are aimed at addressing our needs. When resources are low we shift focus, slightly redirecting an increased portion of our effort towards addressing needs. Therefore, when we do not take a specific action that we have awareness of and the ability to take, that lack of action is actually the taking of an action aimed at addressing a specific need. In this instance, that need is to provide or generate evidence that we do not deserve for that thing to occur. Sure this is a version of a counterfactual argument, and this makes no material difference when you track in and exhaust all of the other possibilities. We take care of our needs and when we do not take a known action, we have TAKEN care of a need.

Regardless of which of these three is true, the people around you will make the proper decision and move the hell away, and can you really blame them? You are stupid, lazy or have no self respect, this is the trifecta of contagious uselessness and it is a fact that anyone who is repeatedly exposed to these qualities will begin to manifest and display them. People can’t wait to get away from you because being around you makes them feel bad and will, over time, turn them into the same thing. You ending up friendless is an act of self preservation or self compassion by the people you once called friends.

This is why I say I am a complainer, not because I complain but because I used to complain. All that really means is that I am just not complaining right now. The ability is strong within me and it can come out with very little provocation and during moments of inattention.

As such, it is best that I treat it like a disease because left unchecked, it will ruin my life. It will repel everyone and everything that I love and I will see removed from my life will be all of the things that make it worth living. It will tear me down revealing a shell of what I could have been had I just fixed the problem as soon as it was identified.

So what?

Human beings are exceptionally pragmatic and logical operators that take actions to achieve a specific outcome. This will occur even if they have no conscious awareness of what they are seeking or what action they are about to take. Knowing this allows us to work backwards from an outcome or action and surface the intention and a persons underlying values, beliefs, and personal identity.

HOWEVER, the world is very complicated and affords us ample opportunity to get things wrong. But the feeling of being wrong and being right is the same; being wrong only feels different when we REALIZE that we are or were wrong. The consequence to this is that people end up acting pragmatically and logically with incorrect information.

Human beings are practically identical to each other and the differences between us are the result of a variation in very small number of genes. This means that all human beings have the same needs and mostly the same wants (this is the area in which there will be some variability).

Out of the near infinite number of possible actions that a person can take at any moment in time, human behaviour is actually limited to a very low number of them. Very few of our actions are new, and most of these new actions will never be repeated because they will not yield the result we are seeking. Those that do lead to a desired outcome will be repeated over and over again.

When someone has developed a habit of complaining, we can be sure of at least one thing: they are repeating a successful behaviour – doing something that worked before – and are seeking the same outcome. Their decision making matrix MAY be corrupted with inaccurate information, but we KNOW with certainty that their actions are goal directed and, if nothing else, have been historically effective at leading them to a goal.

A Few Questions Worth Knowing The Answer To – Post Revisited

… objective reality and the truth do not matter to the brain and do not need to be factored into the simulation that is running. If knowing and keeping them in mind will improve evolutionary fitness they will be, but if they do not contribute to this, and they do not, it is actually better that they are never known or, if they are uncovered, ignored.

The human brain is able to and will automatically begin to run different experiences on the simulation in an effort to figure out what is going on or what WOULD need to be true in order for a possible outcome to be achieved.

A number of years ago I was talking to a friend who had gone to speak to a therapist. Their reason for going was mostly just curiosity, but they were also motivated to some degree by the unused portion of their company group benefits.

I wrote about this in the December 2012 post titled A Few Questions Worth Knowing The Answer To and focused specifically on two of the questions that my friend had found compelling enough to remember. These questions were:

  • What did you go without because there was no suffering in an experience?
  • What was it like to have things go bad around you without warning?

At the time my thoughts about the questions were that they were reflective and introspective. Anyone who was willing to take the time and put in the effort to answer them would stand to learn a great deal about themselves. I have not moved off of this view in the years since, but this view has expanded dramatically and I have a much better appreciation of what the therapist was trying to cause to happen by inviting my friend to consider these questions.

The brain is a very remarkable and slightly funny thing. Remarkable in just how well it creates the experience of being alive and in how it goes about doing it. The brain is an organic computer that is running chemical and cellular software that makes EVERYTHING possible. The software is a bunch of processes, which take input and generate output. One of the processes is consciousness. It receives input from a variety of sources – everything we experience, know, think, believe, feel, and understand – and the lived experience of consciousness is the output of this process. It is slightly funny because most people never notice that it is happening.

Which is a shame because when you actually notice what is happening as it is happening, it feels really good. And the more often you notice it, the greater the influence you can exert upon it.

Instead, we spend nearly all of our time on one of three different things: narcissistically obsessing about the world in terms of us being the absolute center of it, seeking out reward in terms of triggering dopamine releases in the reward centers of the brain, or spending time in a state of mild discontentment – bad enough to prevent feeling content / still / peaceful and yet not bad enough to actually do something about.

These three states, or the taking of the actions that are required to create them, are completely understandable. We ARE the center of the universe. The brain, the software it contains, the information that our senses provide, and the content of our memories combine to create a simulation of the world that is completely focused on us. I’m not sure that anyone could come-up with a better approach if tasked with finding a solution to the problem of staying alive, reaching a point of being able to reproduce, and then keeping our offspring alive long enough to become self-reliant and independent all while trying to manage the thousands of things that are simultaneously occurring and battling for scarce resources.

No matter what else life might be about, the undeniable fact, and one that is shared among all living beings, is that every single individual MUST be motivated to maintain life and to reproduce. If either one of these is missing, the individual will either die or will not pass along their genes to the next generation. The outcome is the same regardless, their genes cease to exist and the diversity of the species gene pool will be reduced.

Digging in deeper here, it becomes clear that believing that we are the center of the universe is a very effective way of ensuring that we will try to continue to live and will take the physical actions that historically lead to reproduction. The fact that we are one of 7.75 billion people alive on the planet at this moment in time, that every individual gene we have is also located in the genetic code of other human beings, or that the universe is so big that it has the effect of rendering every location in space statistically empty – three things that can also be known as fundamental and objective truths about the world – need not ever be considered. In fact, objective reality and the truth do not matter to the brain and do not need to be factored into the simulation that is running. If knowing and keeping them in mind will improve evolutionary fitness they will be, but if they do not contribute to this, and they do not, it is actually better that they are never known or, if they are uncovered, that they be ignored.

By believing that we are the center of everything, we increase the changes that we will act in a way that ensures that our genes continue to exist.

The second activity, that of seeking out the experiences that trigger the release of dopamine in our brains reward centers, is much easier to understand, at least early on in our life. Somewhere along the way, a mutation occurred in the genetic code of our ancestors that had their primitive brain release dopamine in response to the things that promote survival. Our operating system still contains the code that has us seek this out because activation of this part of the brain is associated with improved survival. Sex, eating (particularly fat and sugar), solving a problem, pattern matching of sensory information to something in long term memory, learning, and social connection are things that will trigger the release of this neurotransmitter in the reward centers of the brain in all people. These things are innately rewarding and it is easy to see how each one of them is linked to improved survival outcomes and generational gene transmission.

The reward system is an innate system and it is precoded by the time of our birth to become activated in response to certain physical interactions with the external world. However, it can be programmed to release reward chemicals to practically anything. For example, while going hungry has historically been something that will reduce the chances of surviving and is therefore not one of the innate stimulations that will cause the activation of our reward centers, we can train the brain to release dopamine in response to the sensation of being hungry IF we manufacture a meaning that we perceive as being worthy of reward. The discipline high is an example of this novel pairing.

Always keep in mind that the innate purpose or function of the reward centers is to serve as a reinforcement mechanism which will increase the reoccurrence of the activity that caused the release. Sugar and fat are high in energy and since life requires a lot of energy, it behooves us to seek out and consume as much high energy food as we can. There is a direct relationship between sugar and fat molecules and the release of dopamine making these substances at least potentially addictive. This does not mean that we are powerless to NOT eat them, just that when they enter the body, the brain will react by releasing dopamine. However, there are other innate activities that trigger the release of reward chemicals, so we can train the brain to release them in response to anything, so long as we trigger the release in close temporal proximity to the thing we want to find rewarding. This is why people can find the most banal and meaningless things rewarding. While I am not a fan of musical theatre, some people love it simply because they have trained their brain to release dopamine when they watch them.

The final thing that human beings tend to do, spending time in a state of discontentment that isn’t just enough to get them to do anything about it but is sufficient to prevent them from feeling content / still / peaceful, is more of the same. Ensuing survival is about taking specific actions quickly whenever those actions are required. Feeling fantastic or the reasonable possibility that we well feel this way – which is effectively the way we feel when whenever our reward centers become active – serves as the motivation / incentive to take action. The opposite feeling, that of physical or psychological pain, serves as the disincentive for NOT taking an action; in the case of pain, the individual is motivated to STOP any action that the brain believes is causing the pain. From a fitness perspective, the objective is the same, to trigger action that will increase the likelihood of survival. Reward is approach, expansive, and repeat while pain is retreat, constrict, and avoid.

While it is true that there can be degrees of reward and punishment, we can view both as being on or off. If reward is on, the brain learns an association between a behaviour / action and feeling good. If pain is on, the brain learns an association between a behaviour / action and feeling bad. After the learning has occurred, the approach / avoid determination will be available to the simulation that is running on the brain. This ensures that when it perceives a similar or same situation it will initiate the corresponding approach / avoid action behaviour. When neither one is perceived, no approach or retreat action will be initiated which will help the individual conserve energy; or at least not waste it by taking an action that has not been demonstrated to improve fitness outcomes. Feeling “bla” is the second most desirable state for a human being to achieve because it indicates that things are safe, survival will continue and that there is no need for any action to be taken.

In 2012, when I made the initial post, I didn’t have a clear understanding of the critical role that reward, bla, and punishment play in the brain and life of people. The cool thing is that my knowing or not knowing will make no difference in the operation of the computer and software. The brain does not get wrapped around the axle with these things and conscious awareness of what is going on is not a requirement for the system to work perfectly.

The power of the questions is their ability to cause the person to consider the incentive / disincentive that the situation represents to them. They accomplish this by taking advantage of another quality of the brain, which is the tendency for it to assume that there is an answer to every question it encounters and to automatically and unconsciously begin to try to answer it.

If we consider for any length of time the question “what did you go without because there was no suffering in an experience?” we quickly notice that the question assumes that the listener went without something because the experience was neither good nor bad. If we assume that this is true, the narrative description of what occurred was that no approach or avoid lessons were learned because they remained in the bla or neutral state. The question implies that there was a fitness lesson to be taken from the experience, but that the brain did not pick-up on it because there was no reinforcement or punishment. The event unfolded, the person lived through it, and they remain unchanged in terms of their likelihood that they would repeat it or avoid it in the future.

This is the amazing thing about the human brain and language. Unlike living beings that have smaller brains and rudimentary or not existent communication skills, the human brain is able to and will automatically begin to run different experiences on the simulation in an effort to figure out what is going on or what WOULD need to be true in order for a possible outcome to be achieved. By listening to and hearing the question, the brain parses the information and then uses the relevant parameters to try and surface an answer. Whether or not there is an actual answer never gets considered because the brain just automatically starts the process and works on generating output.

The therapist was very aware that the situation my friend was talking about is historically a situation that people find very challenging and unpleasant. My friends experience of it as neutral or bla meant that there was not going to be much learning going on and this would amount to a squandered opportunity. The question served as a trigger for the creation of a lesson that may end-up being helpful in the future.

The question “what was it like to have things go bad around you without warning?” is the second half of the same process. The language implies that something negative occurred, which primes the listeners brain to consider the punishment / avoidance aspects of psychological conditioning. It also serves to validate congruence; if the answer is something positive or negative, there is a good chance that they did not answer the first question accurately. This is a situation that the brain will not allow to continue because it does not handle inconsistency very well. Even if nothing specific happens in the moment, the brain will be activated in an attempt to reconcile the lack of congruence between the two answers.

Years later, I still believe that these two questions are fantastic. They are helpful for anyone who takes the time to answer them as they force the brain to search long term memories, run various simulations in an attempt to solve the problem, and they provide valuable feedback about the quality and nature of the experiences in the past. They are introspective and manufacture reward and punishment states to allow the person to gain new lessons and move forward having harvested the experience more completely.

This Is Happening, So Just Come To Peace With It

One of the interesting things about required future actions is just how energy taxing they can be when you are not working on them. As soon as you know it exists, the energy burn begins immediately. The longer you put it off and kick it down the road, the more energy it will burn

Something remarkable happens when we make our peace with what is about to happen and just start doing it. It may not necessarily become easy, but it does become easier. This makes sense because resistance is expensive. It take a whole lot of energy to come-up with reasons why the world shouldn’t be the way it is and this energy will always be required because the world is the way it is – if you actually have to do something, you have to do it. If it is inevitable it will exist in your future until you take care of it.

One of the interesting things about required future actions is just how energy taxing they can be when you are not working on them. As soon as you know it exists, the energy burn begins immediately. The longer you put it off and kick it down the road, the more energy it will burn. The opposite is true, as soon as you start to complete it, you stop burning energy on it and begin to put energy towards it. The moment it is done, the transaction is completed.

Open loops are extremely taxing because our brain directs some energy towards the next and all actions that are needed to close the loop. In the book Getting Things Done they recommend that you make a list of all the things you have to do and then take some time to write the first next next that has to be completed to move the item towards completion. This closes the loop and stops the energy drain because documenting the task somewhere means you won’t forget it and knowing what the next first step is is a step towards completion. You may then spend time on figuring out the step after that one, and so what, that how you solve problems anyway.

I’m not talking about open loops here. I’m talking about the strong wish or desire to change reality to flip a required action into the not-required column. Chances are that if you could change reality that way you would already have done so. Since you cannot do this, it is a fact that any energy spend on this endeavour is simply wasted. Denying reality is not a practice that is helpful when one truly has no choice but to eventually do something.

In almost every case, if you had done it as soon as you realized it needed to be done, you would already have completed it. Worse case is that you have moved it forward, but the reality is more likely to be completion.

The term “get after it” applies perfectly. It is impersonal enough to paint the activity as just something you have to do and it does imply that the thing is there to be done. When it is right in front of you and a necessary part of your future, you may as well catch up to it and take it out!

Suffering Is The Excessive Focus On Oneself

Reflective pain has a much longer half life than reactive pain. It continues long after the cause of the pain has stopped precisely because the individual has been damaged.

Pain is not the same thing as suffering. Pain is not reflective, it is a real thing and it exists in the moment. It is a representation of now and is useful at getting an organism to stop doing something that is potentially harmful. Imagine grabbing a hot utensil or hot pan. The pain receptors in the hand fire, sending signals to the spinal cord and up to the brain. There will be a reflexive response to these signals, the goal being to stop doing the thing that immediately proceeded the pain. You will let go of the hot utensil or pan and this will stop the immediate sensation of pain.

If the pain stops, reflection on the nerve impulses that made it into the brain can begin and perception takes place. Generally speaking, not a lot of cognitive cycles will be dedicated to reflecting on what has just happened because there is little need to learn from it. Existing automatic responses were sufficient to avoid injury. There is no point in wasting time and energy solidifying the avoidance strategy. The one that exists works fine.

Depending on the nature of what just happened the pain may continue. If you have actually done tissue damage, the pain receptors will continue to send signals to the spinal cord and up to the brain. This does not mean that there is an immediate threat, it means that there has been a real threat and the reflexive response was not sufficient to avoid damage. It is also an indication that the nature of the pain is important, that what was automatic was not adequate to avoid injury. It is in the best future interests of the individual to process this information further and create a more robust avoidance strategy to employ moving forward. Tissue damage is not good, so let’s not experience it again if possible. The best way to eliminate the same in the future is to spend time processing it to increase the amount of mental stimulation and increase the amount learning that comes from it. The brain will adapt physically to this stimulation, laying down organic material to be used as memories in the future. This is the way we learn to avoid grabbing things from the oven.

Suffering has a survival purpose too. It is to help the individual to ruminate on something that happened that is potential harmful and should be avoided in the future. However, it doesn’t need to last for very long in order for the lesson to be learned and for an avoidance stratagy to be created. Imagine when you were 6 and blurt out an answer at school. The teacher scolds you for not raising your hand and some of your classmates laugh. While this isn’t as simple as the hot utensil example, it is very much the same thing.

It has been know for a long time that the brain releases chemicals in response to the sensation of pain. Something that has been uncovered recently is that many of these same chemicals are released in response to perceiving certain things in the environment. A lose of autonomy, a lack of certainty, a lack of fairness, a lose of relatedness and a lose of status all cause a similar chemical cascade as hitting your hand with a hammer. What is different is that the pain receptors in the body do not fire because there is not actual cause of pain. The pain receptors that do fire are the ones that fire as a result of the reflection on pain – the ones that fire when in response to tissue damage. Reflective pain has a much longer half life than reactive pain. It continues long after the cause of the pain has stopped precisely because the individual has been damaged.

The outcome of this is potentially very profound. If we take the example above of shouting out an answer. There is a loss of autonomy, as the teacher is exerting control over us. There is a loss of certainty because we suddenly do not know what will happen if we shout out the answer in the future. It will not seem fair because we are getting scolded for doing something that we and other people have done in the passed. In scolding us, our certainty about our relationship with the teacher will be called into question. A 6 year old brain does not have the necessary life experience nor the capability to know that there will be a moment after this. Most importantly, the status of the child has been thrown on its side when the other children laugh. As hard as it is to deal with the teacher exerting control, they are still the teacher and are at the top of the dominance, competence, and prestige hierarchies, at least within the boundary of the class room. The other students are supposed to be on the same level. When they laugh my social status takes a clear hit – my peers are laughing at me and therefore I am not as good as them. In this example, the brain of the 6 year old fires up and releases large amounts of reflective pain chemicals in an effort to prevent future damage.

Keep in mind that the response to the threat is very real and that the brain processes perceptions of these violations as it would process actual pain. It does not matter that to an outsider that the attempted behaviour correction by the teacher and the other students response does not actually make-up a real threat. The perception by the individual is sufficient enough to cause a reflective pain response geared towards creating a strategy to avoid the situation / action that immediately preceded the pain.

More importantly, we’re dealing with a 6 year old here. First off, they don’t have a very formed brain – their prefrontal cortex has not developed so they are incapable of processing what has happened effectively. They have few executive functions, little or no concept of the future, and practically no abstract thinking capabilities. Their incomplete and less than capable brain is being forced to create a pain avoidance strategy with limited experience and insufficient long term memory. All they are able to do is generalize to a specific behaviour and outcome pairing that is void of the necessary context to make the proper decision. They are going to get it wrong unless there is a clear explanation and reconciliation of the violations that occurred.

The teacher can, for instance, explain about raising hands and proper turn taking, about the consequences of shouting out, then can mention that it is the behaviour that they do not like or that is unacceptable and therefore the child’s choice that is unwelcome NOT their opinion. And the teacher can take efforts to ensure that the other children understand that if they had chosen to do the same thing, their peers would be laughing at them. The goal is to correct / explain the perception of any of these violations to provide the child and all the children the appropriate context to make sense of what actually happened. Teaching children is not easy and doing so well requires enormous amounts of patients and understanding.

But we’re not 6 anymore yet we continue to process the world as though we are – the pattern has been established and it works. Maybe we learned to not say anything. To keep our mouth shut in class and to suppress any aspect of our personality we incorrectly attributed to being the cause of the reflective pain response that occurred when we were 6. This is not good. It is understandable because keeping quiet DID prevent the same outcome, so silence is an effective strategy. It has just been generalized to everything as opposed to the specific action of speaking out of turn in the classroom setting.

This is how pain becomes suffering. Pain is reactive at first. There is no “me” or “self” in pain, there is no subject. We do something, it hurts, we stop, the pain stops, we continue along. If tissue damage occurs, the pain becomes reflective. This is adaptive and it helps to inhibit a specific action in the future. The terms of reflection are that “action A” caused “outcome B” to the subject “me”. Don’t do A in the future. The subject is not present in the pain response, the is no “me”. There is in fact very little action and outcome because reactions are automatic and tend have very little to do with consciousness. Reactions are over before we knew something needs to happen.

Suffering has the subject, and your suffering has “you” at the centre of it. Other peoples suffering is abstract, yours is real. It is narrative, but it is a real thing in so far as it impact future the future. And anything that happens to you happens to you, and it causes a chemical response similar to pain. Which makes you notice it more, and causes you to feel worse about it. It becomes a cycle and dysfunction is the inevitable outcome.

What do you do about suffering? Well, simply put, you make the decision to notice it as soon as you can and to detach from it the moment you notice you are suffering. If it is pain, you have reacted to it; you don’t actually need to worry about pain. You cannot in fact not address pain, it requires training to ignore pain and most people haven’t put the time in. Suffering on the other hand can be ignored. It doesn’t even need to be experienced. The moment you notice a hint of negativity and “yourself” in your thoughts label it for what it is by saying “there’s suffering.” By interrupting the pattern you buy some time to start to notice that nothing is actually wrong and that almost nothing in the physical world is actually happening. You are thinking, there is some brain activity, but there is no cause of pain and therefore no pain. Any pain response you are experiencing is the result of a perception of a thought that has you at its centre.

This is an effective approach that anyone can train themselves to have. It’s hard, but very simple and after you put the time in, the process becomes automatic and you gain the freedom to choose if and when you will suffer, maybe even liberating yourself from it entirely.

Practice What You Perform Because Performing Is Practice PLUS Competition

“You aren’t going to step up when it’s game time, you’re just going to do what you’ve done in training.”

Put another way, if you want something you have never had, you have to do something you have never done.

Either one works and both are true.

This is why practice is so important. Doing something new is never easy but it is possible when the pressure is low. It takes a lot of mental energy to create the impossible in working memory and then to take the action to make it real. When the pressure is high, so much energy is directed towards dealing with that pressure that there are just not enough resources available to do the required mental work to perform an unrehearsed movement in a controlled way so as to predictably lead to a desired outcome.

The human brain is an amazing thing. It has the ability to create temporary neural networks to allow coordinated brain activity that can cause brand new and novel things to happen. If not for this capability, human progress would be very slow and individual development would seem like a crawl.

If we assume that most of what we do that allows our species to exist is genetically programmed, and that’s a fair assumption given how almost every member of our species operates the same way – digestion, walking, the experience of hunger, communication, etc…. – this doesn’t account for all of the new skills technological progress has made possible and created a need for. Typing as a skill didn’t exist for most of human history because and yet every human being can learn how to type. Scratching a record on a turntable is a skill that anyone can learn, yet it’s about 60 years old. Most of the games we play on smart phone didn’t exist 5 years ago, but we can learn them and become very proficient at them.

It does not seem to matter what the task is, human beings can learn it and some will get very good at it. Statistically speaking, there will be a normal distribution curve for everything that can be done with most people being average and a few people being remarkably good and remarkably bad at it.

I find this thought reassuring. Even if some new comes out tomorrow and I find myself to be an outlier in the very low capability realm, there will be something new in a couple of days that I can become good at. And a few days after that something will be invented that I will be exactly average at. The world remains interesting and there is always going to be a place in it for me.

The key to remaining relevant is being open to acquiring these new skills and to be willing to do what is required to learn them. The formula is simple. Practice, consistently, over time, while paying as much attention to what you are doing as you possibly can. It needs to be practice and not performance because performance is not just practice in front of people. Performance is a completely different skill. If you are not well versed in performing, practising in front of other people will just mean you are doing two things poorly. This is not the most effective way to get good at something.

There Is A Difference Between Feeling Good And Being Happy

Who am I to say that feeling good is a bad goal? No one, but that is not what I am claiming. There is nothing wrong with wanting to feel good just as there is nothing wrong with wanting to be happy. There is however something wrong with seeking one when you actually want the other and it is very easy to believe that they are the same thing. We are in fact, almost programmed to make this mistake

There is a fallacy called the post hoc fallacy (more accurately post hoc ergo propter hoc) which, when translated into English states “after this, therefore because of this.” It refers to any self referencing experience that generates a causal connection between two things whose only relationship is that they occurred very close together in time. It is an error in logic that many human beings and beings in general will make.

Classical conditioning is an example of the post hoc fallacy in action. Recall that we can get a dog to begin to salivate at the sound of a ringing bell by first ringing the bell immediately before presenting the dog with food. The bell has nothing to do with the food but the dogs brain doesn’t know that. All it knows is that in and around the time the bell rings, food is given. After a few pairings, the sound of the bell and the food are linked so that the sound of the bell is sufficient to get the dog to response as though it had just encountered food. So after the bell therefore because of the bell.

It isn’t just dogs that can be classically conditioned. It works with humans and in many cases, it works much better with humans than other animals in that the conditioning in more sticky and that an actual reward does not even need to be received. Vicarious reinforcement allows human beings to observe someone else getting rewarded for a behaviour and for the conditioning to occur in both people (the observer and the person who receives the rewarded). And there doesn’t even need to be a reward to conditioning to occur. The thought of a reward is sufficient. In fact, human beings learn most things this way vs. hands on.

Given the ease at which classical conditioning happens with humans, the post hoc fallacy is not a surprise. We can learn to associated two completely unrelated things simply because they occur in a similar time frame. There is a good reason for us to make these types of errors. The quicker we can see a connection between two related things, the greater the chances are that we will be able to use that information in the future. For reward things, it doesn’t really make much difference in terms of staying alive. But for punishment or dangerous things, the ability to see pairing does serve a survival benefit. So much so that false connections do matter. It is better to create 100 incorrect pairing than to miss one pairing.

You don’t believe me? Why do you notice and feel something when a loud room suddenly goes quiet? It doesn’t necessarily mean something, but it can. We’ve learned to notice that when attention is directed towards something, things get quiet, so when a room suddenly goes quiet, our brain has been trained / conditioned to stop what it is doing and begin to search for the cause of everyone going quiet.

So what does this have to do with feeling good not being the same thing as being happy? For me and for a lot of my clients, we committed the post hoc fallacy with these two things. A lot can go wrong, or at least not go the way you want, when you pair feeling good with being happy. Most of the things that make us feel good do not lead to sustained happiness or happiness at all.

All the people who are alive today came from generations of people who only ever had an abundance of scarcity. There was never enough food, enough shelter, and enough safety and security. It wasn’t until a few thousand years ago and the invention of agriculture that food insecurity began to disappear. That isn’t long enough for our genetic code to adapt to the abundance. This means that all of us are still running the code that triggers the brain to release dopamine and endorphins when sugar and fat containing food hits our pallet. These molecules are high calorie and the body can easily transport them into the fat cells for consumption at some point in the future. Dopamine is the primary reward chemical while endorphins reduce pain, and when the pain has been suppressed or is not present, to feel pleasure.

Our ancestors would hunt and gather what they could. They would not necessarily eat as soon as they got food, but they would stop looking for it. Whatever motivated them to hunt in the first place would be gone. It’s safe to say that anxiety played a role motivating people to seek out food and once food was present, the anxiety would disappear. What is the opposite of anxiety? I’m not sure it is happiness, but the contrast between anxiety and no anxiety when it is eliminated is something like happiness.

We’re running the same code, so the pairing anything that feels good with happiness, or pairing the feeling that arises with the elimination of anxiety with something that feels good isn’t a Pavlovian stretch. Doing so might even be innate although it doesn’t make any material difference given just how often feeling good and feeling happy over lap or occur simultaneously. But it is a pairing of two separate and distinct sensations / states / feelings.

This mis-pairing is an easy thing to do, I have done it and most of my clients have done it to some degree. In fact, only a very small number of people I have worked with have not done it. Maybe 15 percent of the people have identified that it is the opportunity to do things that feel good that makes them happy and not the feeling good itself. Some of my more driven clients would put off eating junk food or treat meals for weeks in favour of achieving a body composition goal more quickly. They had found happiness in not feeling good because they had identified that by putting off the reward, they would get to the thing they wanted more quickly.

The rest of us, well, saying no didn’t make us happy and it didn’t make us feel good. But neither did saying yes.

It gets even worse when we consider the implications of the opposite – that doing things that feel bad will not lead to happiness. When this mis-pairing occurs, people stop doing anything that doesn’t feel good on the mistaken belief that it cannot lead to happiness. They no longer delay gratification and they begin to get addicted to anything that cause the release of reward chemicals. They become a slave to their devices, to seeking out food, sex, drugs, sloth and anything else that causes a dopamine spike. The outcomes here are abysmal. Lives are wasted and potential is squandered.

But what if happiness is the goal and if feeling good is seen as an independent variable? The realization that they are not the same thing sets in motion a different possibility. Instead of reward behaviours, the individual will get clear on the behaviours that make them happy and they will begin to do more of these. With willpower and diligence, they will quickly become free of the addiction. They will gain control over their life because they will have the freedom to do what they know they want in place of what they believe they want. Life will become easier, things will become more simple, and getting what they want will be inevitable.

Who am I to say that feeling good is a bad goal? No one, but that is not what I am claiming. There is nothing wrong with wanting to feel good just as there is nothing wrong with wanting to be happy. There is however something wrong with seeking one when you actually want the other and it is very easy to believe that they are the same thing. We are in fact, almost programmed to make this mistake.