psychology

The day after

I work a strange schedule: 24 hours on, 48 hours off. In practical terms, I get up at 4 every third day, schlep to the firehouse to be on duty at 6AM, and work until 6AM the next morning. When I roll out of the station, I have exactly 48 hours to recover before starting the process over again.

Most days when I get off work, I go home, try to recoup a little sleep with a short nap, and have a day in which I write and run errands with low expectations for myself. I'm coming off a shift in which I've usually been privy to some horrible shit, and the primary goal of the day is to avoid and suppress it. I have a bunch of rituals designed to reinforce the firewall between the world of perpetual emergencies and the quiet of home, but it is work to maintain the defenses.

Over time, I've noticed something about the day I get off work. It's like the third rail of my days. I'm more likely to have an argument with my wife - so much so that I avoid discussions of meaningful topics. I'm overcome by strange and sweeping emotions. I have sudden, compelling ideas - maybe I should buy a strange wig at Goodwill and wear it to the Odesza show! - and tend to see myself as damaged, if not outright psychopathic for my ability to tolerate such constant doses of human suffering. 

Then I get a normal day, in which things feel pretty normal. Then I go to work. Those are the normal days.

 

Happiness

I didn't think there were any epiphanies in the documentary Happy, an exploration of the recent science of what makes people feel fulfilled and content, yet I find myself harkening back to it two months after watching it on Netflix. Bits and pieces of its core message have already filtered into pop culture: that money and possessions don't actually make people happier in the long term (above the poverty level at least); enduring happiness is achieved through a sense of self-actualization, connection with a community, and the feeling you make a difference in the world. 

What Happy did very well was give me a straightforward vocabulary to think about my own well-being. Often we think about our lives as a series of decisions between two courses of action. But many of our decisions are not between disparate actions, but between how we understand what we do. I write fiction because I love it, because a well-told tale has made all the difference in the world at times in my life. Do I write for external plaudits, or do I write because it allows me to learn and grow in ways that are meaningful to me? That choice determines who is in charge of my happiness: a publisher, or myself. 

The sound of the gesture of the emotion

For a mercifully brief period of my young life, I earned some money doing telemarketing. That all came to an end when the bosses told me that to improve my percentages, I should stop trying to sell to anyone who sounded "dark." There's more to that story for another time. 

Almost anyone who has sold things over the phone can tell you that smiling when you talk is a proven sales tactic (so is mimicking the regional accent of the area you're calling, if you can pull it off). I was reminded of this when I heard a song* in which one line was sung with an obvious, audible smile. 

Consider the significance of that. Your hearing is so finely tuned that it can detect the facial position of a total stranger by voice alone. That facial arrangement has no inherent significance, except that it is itself an encoded representation of an emotion. So, when you hear that voice, you're decoding a face from sound, and decoding an underlying emotion from the position of a face you can't see.


* Okay, I'll admit it, the song was "Can't Stop the Feeling" by Justin TImberlake, and the line is "Just imagine..." which is sung just before the chorus. 

Behold the power of bad

This may be an odd sentiment to lead with after a welcome and restorative vacation, but:

The greater power of bad events over good ones is found in everyday events, major life events (e.g., trauma), close relationship outcomes, social network patterns, interpersonal interactions, and learning processes. Bad emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback have more impact than good ones, and bad information is processed more thoroughly than good. The self is more motivated to avoid bad self-definitions than to pursue good ones. Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones... Hardly any exceptions (indicating greater power of good) can be found. 

That's from Baumeister et al, in an analysis appropriately titled "Bad is Stronger Than Good." [here's the complete PDF]. 

It makes intuitive sense that the mind is wired to prioritize negative experiences (threats) over positive ones. It accounts for effects across a broad range of your subjective existence, from the memories you retain to your political affiliation. Prioritizing threats may be necessary for survival, but can make life miserable, particularly in an environment that is perceptually threat-rich, as media culture has become. 

Why are so many of our stories structured around a hero who faces down evil, resists what seems inevitable, and emerges victorious, if changed? We don't tell those tales because we see them reflected in the natural arc of the world around us. We tell them as a bulwark against a more grim reality - that fear, sorrow, and surrender to weakness are the more common outcomes in the face of adversity. 

But we keep telling the stories, and when we believe them, we sometimes follow an anomalous trajectory, a deviation from the physics in which all objects fall unperturbed into a great black hole. We resist the terrible gravity of our birthright, break the world's laws and force it to rewrite them. 

You (and you) are you

I had this dream recently in which, unbeknownst to me*, someone was playing a deeply unfunny prank on me that involved men pretending to hijack the bus I was on.

I say unbeknownst (asterisk) because, of course, it was my dream. Everything in it should be completely beknownst, because I was making it all up. But the subjective me in the dream had no idea what was going on, or thought it did. [The complete dream, in which I dared armed men to stab me to death, is here.]

This video examines the duality of the brain's hemispheres. It doesn't fully explain what I experienced but it offers a suggestion, as well as a rather unsettling vision of how the mind works.

Resistance is utile

Radiolab produces such high-quality shows that I just assume everyone listens to it or downloads the podcast. If you don't, I'd like to nominate it as an achievable new year's resolution. 

They've been revisiting some of their greatest hits, and I highly recommend this rebroadcast of "The Bad Show." One of the pieces delves into the Milgram experiments in compliance, in which unwitting participants were persuaded to deliver potentially lethal shocks to what they thought were real experimental subjects. An astonishing percentage allowed themselves to be pushed into an apparently immoral act at the urging of a white-coated researcher. Their compliance is often touted as proof that human beings are easily swayed to evil. 

The section about the experiments starts at 13:00. What makes Radiolab great is that they don't just accept the standard interpretation of the results. They interview professor Alex Haslam, who thinks we've totally misjudged Milgram's work. 

Milgram ran many additional experiments to see what conditions would reduce the chances that the participants would deliver the shock. When they could see the subject, fewer people delivered the shock. When they had to hold the subject's hand to the shock plate, even fewer.

You know what reduced the compliance rate to zero? When the white-coated experimenter told the participant "You have no other choice" but to continue.

No one who was told they had no choice went through with the shocks. 

What a powerful thing it is, to be reminded of the fact that we have a choice in our actions. It's a form of mindfulness, one that is easy to lose as you walk in a beseeching world, cajoled by the endless figures who benefit by your compliance. Even between the sparring voices you hear when alone in the quiet, you have a choice. That's useful information in a season in which many of us consider how we might strive to be a little better.