How Much Do You Think About Your Future?

“What dreams may come?” wondered Hamlet as he considered whether “to be, or not to be.” The potential of an afterlife of nightmares stopped him short of self-murder. For the rest of us, the time beyond today is either ignored, dreaded, colored in unending rainbows; or maybe even calmly planned.

Experience suggests that whatever comes will include both good and bad; and depend, in part, on how we approach it.

One’s individual weather forecast depends, to a degree, on his history and inborn, genetic disposition. Yes, there are born optimists or born pessimists. Guess who has more fun?

Cognitive behavior therapists help the latter group’s struggle with catastrophization. The counselor trains his patient to recognize the error within the terror of anticipated disaster when little realistic likelihood exists. The worst of life is best encountered in the moment. Don’t pour worry over yourself, like a sticky syrup mucking-up every day. “Borrowing trouble” comes at much expense, killing our ambitions before they begin.

When we do think past the horizon, some of us mistakenly focus on only half of what must be done to raise our prospects. It is not enough to quit an awful marriage or job, despite the immediate relief of departure. What comes after? Ask how you deposited yourself in a swamp? Envision a destination and a plan of attack. None of this is easy.

I know people who need a permanent set of attached binoculars to check out next steps. Some take bodily risks. Think prodigious drinking, eating, or drugging. Nor do I speak of the ones who simply deny their self-abuse. Too many possess the “talent” (or curse) of shutting off their brains when offered a drink or walking into a restaurant: an unconscious, dissociative process like a selective amnesia. A hour earlier they intended to pass by the cocktail or the quarter-pounder with cheese. Faced with the devilish dilemma, the brain takes a vacation — temporarily closes-off a sliver of awareness. One might think of it as the sky on a clear day, but for one cloudy portion.

The future is a trickster. His opening act makes us believe we own an unused bank vault full of years. For those who do survive, unlived time is most often neither so wonderful or terrible as we imagine. Humans hedonically adapt. After a period of euphoria we tend to move back to our “set point:” our usual level of emotional equanimity or distress. Time’s passage also elevates our spirits from the first awfulness of many seeming disasters. Review your history. You might find lots of misfortune from which you bounced back.

Truth is, we are poor affective forecasters — weak at predicting the emotional residue of our adventures. Psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Tim Wilson tells us this leads to “miswanting.” We guess we will like some choices more than we do when they happen, in addition to “mispredicting” how long strong feelings will last afterward.

You think a $10,000 raise offers sustained joy? Most likely not for long. Simply put, after a year or two, most of us feel about the same as we did before the wonderful or terrible thing happened.

If you dislike the fallible weatherman, examine your prognostic success. In 10-years-time you could be surprised by how much you change and how those alterations complicate your ability to make predictions about what you will enjoy:

While I’m giving crystal ball warnings, beware of “bucket lists.” Other than people like my old buddy Ron Ableman, I knew many who kicked the bucket before they reached the list inside. Another group believed their long-awaited trip to Paris, for example, would have held more enchantment in the springtime of their life.

If you peg your well-being to winning an Olympic gold metal or some similar recognition, reconsider. Someone will win the distinction, but far more won’t. The impossible dream is the graveyard of life satisfaction. Instead, enjoy the process and more probable rewards along the way. A spot on the highest podium while your national anthem plays then will be the cherry on top.

The difficulty of depending on tomorrow for all your pleasure is well-described by Dan Greenburg and Marcia Jacobs. Their funny and all-too-true book is called How to Make Yourself Miserable.

The authors believe we manage the dreariness of our regular duties by looking toward to THE WEEKEND.

Unfortunately …

By Saturday morning you may be vaguely aware that Friday night wasn’t as great as you hoped it would be, but you don’t have much time to think about it because … you are still looking forward to the climax of THE WEEKEND — Saturday night. By Sunday afternoon, however, it is all over. Hope is dead. There is nothing further for you to look forward to, except the gloomy prospect of Monday morning and another whole week of drudgery at a job or school you detest. The weekend — like your life — can at last be viewed in its correct perspective: one colossal letdown, one gigantic anticlimax. On Sunday afternoon you are free to ponder all the great times you felt sure lay ahead, but never quite materialized.

We do need to suppose something better is in the offing — somewhere, somehow — and energize the resolve to get there. All those who trod a long educational road toward a career valued the lofty goal. The fathers of our antique religions realized the worth of a heavenly reward — a world without gravity — for the grave circumstances we ofttimes endure on earth. But, as Greenburg and Jacobs recognized, laughing at ourselves helps too, and sooner.

Just as a predictable joke is never funny, the most remarkable opportunities and joys take you by surprise.

In my own temporary stay on the planet, for example, I never contemplated that I might become a consultant to more than one major sports team. The unsought path just revealed itself.

Sure, I passed through down times and understand more will come, but I find little profit in attempting to improve the distance-vision of the nearsighted man I am. Indeed, if I live long enough, I’ll hesitate before buying unripe bananas. Most senior citizens are wise not to take a mental leap forward. They do well to make every day count.

Nothing is static. Expect sunny days and stormy weather and many partly cloudy skies. The ability to adjust to conditions is a skill necessary for you and me, both.

The largest portion of our contentment comes not beyond our noses, but by grabbing the beauty near at hand.

Of course, I have a surgically reconstructed left knee, so she may elude me.

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More on affective forecasting.

The first image, What Lies Ahead, was sourced from Eurotimes.org. The art work that follows is The Future of Statues, by Rene Magritte. It was sourced from Wikiart.org.

 

 

Mick Jagger is Right: On the Elusiveness of Satisfaction

Mick Jagger

Early in my life, as I lay in bed in the brief dreamy but not dreaming moments before sleep, I’d think up a short list of things I wanted. These were experiences or objects or abilities I believed might make me happier — improve my life in some significant and permanent way. The list included learning to drive a car, having a girlfriend, being as good in science as my friend Steve — those sorts of things.

While I never became the world-famous scientist Steve Henikoff is, I achieved much of value both on and off the lists I imagined when I was 10 or 15. Later the practice of making nighttime aims fell away. No, I didn’t get A’s in all my school work or win every girl I fancied, but few people do.

I discovered goals on a list are a bit like the candy in a PEZ dispenser. The candy is spring-loaded into its container. As soon as you remove the piece at the top, another piece is pushed up to take its place. So long as the dispenser holds more candy, one morsel is replaced by the next. Just so, as soon as you check-off an item on your goal list, another pops to the top.

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We don’t seem to remain satisfied. You eat a meal, but before long you get hungry again. You have sex, but, however wonderful, you won’t remain ecstatic forever. You eat a piece of chocolate, but it’s not so fulfilling as to satiate you. More is usually required. Robert Wright, the Princeton psychologist, talks about this in his lectures on the subject of Buddhist psychology. Moreover, he says, this is part of the reason people are so often dissatisfied with the way things are.

The Buddhists call the experience (and much worse catastrophes) dukkha or suffering. To them dukkha is the central part of life. In their view, emotional pain is caused by grasping for things we don’t possess, the endless wish for fame or money or acclaim we don’t have, or holding tightly to those same things for fear of losing them. The Buddhists contend our misconception of how to live contributes to dissatisfaction and anxiety. They point to a path away from unhappiness and toward acceptance instead of grasping, contentment with our lot in life, and living in the moment. In effect, they tell us we are trying to fill up a pail with a large hole in it and can never make our lives whole in this way.

There should be no surprise people make poor choices of how to live. We see it all the time in acquaintances, but perhaps less often in ourselves. Research concludes we are not good at knowing in advance what things or activities will offer happiness — give some lasting satisfaction. In fact, psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Charles Wilson coined a phrase for this: “miswanting” or desiring things that won’t provide the emotional benefit we expect. Dukkha here we come.

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Perhaps even worse, because the mind drifts so easily to what is wrong in life, we try to keep busy and distract ourselves. We fail to take time to focus on the problem of “miswanting” or any other self-inflicted emotional wound. We stay on the treadmill of misguidedness, heading in a direction that hasn’t worked in the past and probably won’t work in the future. Kate Murphy describes our discomfort with quiet thought in a New York Times article of July 25, 2014. Rather than the painful job of self-reflection, we choose to stay too busy to think, ignore how we are hurting ourselves, and don’t consider a big change of direction.

Look around you. Just about everyone wants more money, a more satisfying intimate relationship, a better residence in a new place, a fancier phone, different clothes, a better job, a nicer office; but soon after an item on the list is achieved dissatisfaction returns.

Robert Wright says this is no accident. Indeed, he points to the work of evolutionary psychologists who believe evolution is the culprit behind our discontent, broadly speaking. He is not trying to make light of the genuine wrongs in the world, but rather to look at why human existence is generally so difficult — even for those who are not suffering from stretches of terrible luck or misfortune.

Wright uses food and sex as examples in the set of lectures he produced for Coursera, the free online source of university level education from some of the best instructors in the world. Wright says evolution (or Mother Nature) has set us up to be unsatisfied much of the time.

Remember the chocolate? Wright states if you are a chocolate lover, at the end of having a bite you are going to want more. Your satisfaction is temporary. Why is this? Evolutionary psychologists like Wright believe our distant ancestors (early men and women) discovered fruit was sweet and tasty. Those who enjoyed and ate it regularly were more likely to survive than those who either couldn’t find any fruit, didn’t care for it, or didn’t seek more. The survivors produced children who had the same genetic makeup and also enjoyed sweet things. In other words, evolution favored those who ate (and eventually learned to grow) fruit.

256px-ChocolateThe twist in the story came when candy was created in India, over two centuries ago. Later on, man would find all sorts of ways to add sugar to his diet and the products sold in groceries. The irony of this survival story is that the same affinity for sweetness, once widely helpful to our distant progenitors’ survival, now contributes to a USA obesity epidemic.

Now think about sex. Ancient humans who had sex one time only and were so overwhelmed and permanently fulfilled by the experience aren’t our ancestors. Had everyone been like them our species would be extinct. Indeed, we can assume the genetic line of those who had little interest in sex vanished. We are the progeny of a group of humans who enjoyed sex, weren’t perpetually fulfilled by it, and kept looking for more sexual opportunities, as most of us do. For the same evolutionary reasons, we are alive because those primitive humans also had feelings of affection toward mates and children, wanted to protect them, and thus increased the chance the kids would live to reproduce themselves.

In our twenty-first century world we continue to pair with others to survive, mutually protect each other, and teach our children how to manage the same life project. You might think you are making money just to get a nicer car or a bigger apartment, but the evolutionary scientists would say you are preoccupied with such things because signs of status and power made our ancestors more appealing as mates. Those who were more desirable, more able to protect their mates, and thought more physically fit had an increased chance of passing forward their genetic “stuff” to another generation.

If you believe men preoccupied with “hot” women are shallow, remember that appearance drew our ancient ancestors to one another. Those who chose lovers who looked healthy — capable of bearing and nursing children in the case of females — were more likely to reproduce and raise kids who grew to do the same thing. Thus, it became automatic for people to consider surface qualities. We come by our shallowness honestly! Mother Nature is the real culprit.

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Wright makes the point that the evolutionary process aims at only one thing: getting your genetic material into the world of the future. Evolution is not inclined to make us happy.

Indeed, Mother Nature sometimes fools us into doing things that aren’t going to make us anything but miserable. Consider how desperate we can become thinking the next job, promotion, or mate will generate everlasting bliss. Alas, once achieved, the satisfaction and happiness are only temporary. Another piece of PEZ pops to the top of the PEZ dispenser and we expect the next target will be the key to joy.

Sometimes the characteristics fostered by evolution are terrific. They have, after all, kept our species alive. Curiosity, competitiveness, and intelligence are great (leading to medical progress, higher living standards, and the Internet), but too often our evolutionary residue contributes to weapons of mass destruction and the self-protective jealousies or ethnic/racial hatreds we find all over our troubled world. Again, individual men and women are making some very bad decisions, but Mother Nature (aka evolution) is complicit.

If you put the Buddhist and evolutionary perspectives together, you get something like this. I’ve oversimplified what follows, but I think you will get the idea. The Buddhist view will be in bold print, followed by the evolutionary explanation:

We get too attached to things. Our ancestors needed things (tools, food, shelter, etc.) to survive.

We are afraid of losing things. Same as above.

We grasp for what we don’t already possess. Appearance, status, and power increase our chances in the mating game.

We fret about the future. Early humans who anticipated difficulties had a better chance of ensuring survival.

Just as we work hard to acquire things, we try to get and keep the most desirable mate. We are programmed to look for healthy partners to increase our chances of creating, nurturing and protecting a new generation.

We get attached to people and it pains us when we lose them. Our ancestors formed groups for self-protection and survival. Evolution contributed to our desire for human contact, affection, and reliance upon others.

Most of us never figure out the “PEZ dispenser” nature of life: that the things we want won’t make much permanent difference (unless they are healthy food, protective shelter, and other essentials), whatever temporary good feeling they generate. We’d be better off accepting the mantra-laden Rolling Stones song, (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, as the matrix of living. Once realizing this, Wright and the Buddhists say, you can begin to change your personal path in the direction of more acceptance, less grasping, and reduced concern with either gaining what you want or losing what you control. You will be less worried and dissatisfied, more able to take joy from things as they are or at least accept whatever happens. No one suggests this path is easy, but the alternative will make your life worse.

Should you believe that is a negative message, here is some news. Those Buddhist monks who are expert meditators are among the happiest people on the planet — so brain research tells us. Meanwhile, the USA, a land of wealth, is only tied for 14th in overall “thriving,” with just 57% of us describing ourselves in that way.* Nor do you need a religious conversion to Buddhism to improve your sense of well-being from moment to moment. But most of us benefit by becoming less grasping and attached — reaching for a permanent solution to existence when the problem is the reaching itself and the expectation that such a solution is possible.

So what do you do with all the above to make your life better? Here is a start. Make a list of the things you pursued in your life: material objects, status, money, romance, children, and so forth. Then ask yourself how much lasting happiness each one gave you once it was achieved. If you have been “miswanting,” maybe it is time to stop the treadmill, get off, and reconsider the path you are on.

Think about it.

*Click to see the complete 2010 Gallup Global Wellbeing Ratings. One-hundred-fifty-five countries are included.

The top photo is Mick Jagger. The second image is a Hello Kitty PEZ dispenser, taken by Deborah Austin. The Chocolate photo is the work of André Karwath. It is followed by a picture of Buddhist Art taken in Sri lanka. Finally, Gustav Klimt’s Der Kuss (The Kiss). All but the first of these are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Living in a Disposable World

Goats_kissing

Look carefully at the above photo. How does it relate to the way that so many things in our world have become disposable? I’ll tell you my personal answer at the end. First, though, I’ll give you a few examples of how much has become less permanent in a country that remains affluent compared to most of the world.

Let’s start with employment. In the early days of the USA, large numbers of people worked for themselves. As the industrial revolution came and cities grew, most cottage industries died and many individuals found that they could no longer compete with the larger, machine driven industrialists who could make the same goods more quickly and cheaply. So, the formerly independent man or artisan who worked for himself (with perhaps some family assistance) now had little choice but to find a job working for one of those entities. A phrase was born to describe this: he had become “a wage slave,” an idea that became increasingly popular in the nineteenth century.

For much of the last century, a good worker in that position might expect a long period of employment with one company. Today, on the other hand, that man is likely to work for several different companies over his lifetime, perhaps by his decision, perhaps not. Those that are not given the choice, now find that their skills are no longer needed or that they are more costly to employ because there is a cheaper labor force overseas or maybe even that robots are available to replace them. All of these folks have become disposable.

Now think of the various gadgets and machines you own. Smart phones that were said to have all the latest advantages just yesterday are considered obsolete due to improvements of design and technical capacity in the new and upgraded model that seems to have emerged in almost no time. Cars, too, fit this paradigm.  Clothes, although still often mended as they commonly were in the past, seem increasingly to be discarded for reasons of outdated fashion and limited storage in most of our residences, assuming you have the money and time to buy the “new” and dump the “old.” Even a bed was expected to last for most of a lifetime in my parents’ lower middle class home, with the possible exception of replacing the mattress when necessary.

Before the invention of the safety razor by Gillette in 1901, men who wanted a shave had to rely on straight razors, which required the use of a strop and a hone to keep them sharp. Now razor blades are commonly discarded after the blade becomes dull. And in my baby boomer life in a public elementary school, everyone was expected to write with a fountain pen, even though disposable pens soon took over. Styrofoam and bubble wrap are also useful 20th century inventions, which we get rid of almost as soon as we get them.

Those climbing the corporate ladder today get bigger houses with more amenities, selling off the old comfortable ones, often at the expense of disrupting their children’s lives; almost as if trading one style of life to be replaced by another. The same forces even operate on the cities or countries in which we reside, so that the need to find a job or advance one’s career causes moves from place to place, often by thousands of miles; sometimes more than once in a working life. Today one lives in Boston, in a couple of years in Chicago, and eventually maybe Hong Kong.

Even those of us who might wish to dispose of fewer things and make do with those with which we are comfortable are forced to follow the herd, if for no other reason than the fact that the replacement parts needed to fix our old appliances are no longer made or too expensive to install, not to mention those technological advances that our work might require of us, which make the scrap heap (or landfill) the new home of the old devices.

Friends, too, seem more interchangeable. How long does it take to make a really good friendship? If school is an example, it takes a bit of continuous time together and shared experience, not to mention the opportunity to live close enough to interact outside of school with some regularity. But the new mobile man or woman might not stay long enough in one place to create durable and lasting relationships that survive the residential movement for either themselves or their children.

To the good, the divorce rate hasn’t recently increased, although it appears that for many, marriage has been replaced by something that is perhaps more temporary: cohabitation.  A Pew Research Center study indicated that 72% of adult Americans were married in 1960 compared to 51% in 2010. There are doubtless many factors that explain this, but we are left with the bottom line that the anticipation of one and only one partner for life isn’t what it was in “the good old days.”

Witness the following commentary. It can be found in the book, Sketches From a Life, published by Pantheon:

I cannot help but regret that I did not live fifty or a hundred years sooner. Life is too full in these times to be comprehensible. We know too many cities to be able to grow into any of them, and our arrivals and departures are no longer matters for emotional debauches — they are too common. Similarly, we have too many friends to have any friendships, too many books to know any of them well; and the quality of our impressions gives way to the quantity, so that life begins to seem like a movie, with hundreds of kaleidoscopic scenes flashing on and off our field of perception — gone before we have time to consider them.

“Gone before we have time to consider them.” These words were written by George Kennan, a Pulitzer Prize winning author, diplomat, and scholar. Yesterday, you ask? No. They were written over 86 years ago in his journal, on December 20, 1927 when he was 23.

Which brings to mind a long time BBC radio program called Desert Island Discs, about which I’ve written before, as I have about Kennan. The idea here is for the moderator to interview some famous person (not just musicians) and ask him which recordings are his favorites. And, if he were marooned on a desert island, which of these would he take along. In a way, I suppose, the question is really about those tunes you could live without and others which you consider indispensable.

That is the real issue here, isn’t it? The tendency to treat so many things as if they are so important to us that we sometimes can’t wait to acquire them, but things that people used to hold on to and now will more readily replace unless living in the middle of nowhere, out of the very long reach of Amazon and companies like it.

If you choose to see the this “getting and spending” phenomenon in person, go out before sunrise to see long lines of people who wish to be among the first to buy a new geeky gadget — who queue up well before the store opens. Admittedly, sometimes we are required to dispose of things for something newer and “better,” but often we aren’t and virtually never are such purchases of the latest device required for our work on the first day that they are available for sale.

What exactly is going on here? Are we in danger of making the wrong choices because we hold incorrect beliefs about what will make us happy?  There is actually a good deal of research on this, which briefly summarized concludes that we are not very good at knowing in advance what things or activities will provide happiness — give some lasting satisfaction. In fact, psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Charles Wilson have coined a phrase for this: “miswanting” or wanting things that won’t provide the emotional benefit we are hoping for. There are doubtless more reasons than those I’ve listed for living in a disposable world, but the behavioral result is the same: out with the old and in with the new.

One could go in many directions with this idea, from the effects of globalization that have created jobs in one part of the world at the expense of another part, to the idea of what makes for a satisfying life, to the research that indicates that we often feel better giving something than getting something: Happiness and Giving to Others.

I can’t help but notice, however, that disposing itself has become a major preoccupation and job source. The proof is to be found in the increasing size of garbage cans in posh suburbs containing many things that used to serve us well for years and now go to the recycler or into the diminishing landfill space — the underground version of what we used to call a garbage dump. Or your can take a ride north on the Metra Milwaukee District North Line Train from downtown Chicago and pass a gigantic lot filled with discarded cars as far as the eye can see. Well, at least that gives the lot operators a way to make a living.

I know I’ve focused on the dark side of this. So, to balance things a little, it is worth mentioning that the same technological capacity that fuels our interest in what is fashionable and new, must be said to have produced some pretty wonderful things: cars, medical discoveries that improve the quality and length of our lives; central heating, air conditioning, and indoor plumbing; and air travel, just to name a few. Technology, it appears, is a sword that cuts two ways, especially if you are among the people who believe that man’s use of fossil-fueled energy to do all these wonderful things also means that we are treating planet Earth as if it too were disposable.

So what then is disposable to you? Put another way, what do you consider so precious in the world of people and things that you would take them along if you were a castaway and could manage only a little cargo?

Here is a hint to my way of thinking. The answer is to be found in the top photo I mentioned earlier, so you might scroll up to the picture — the one of goats on a hillside — and wonder what that is doing in an essay called Living in a Disposable World. Well, the photographer calls the photo Goats Kissing. Coupled with the hillside and the gorgeous blue-clouded sky, I find it all quite beautiful.

The photo is recent, but the scene would have been visible at virtually any point in human history to the average person who lived near a hill and a shepherd, or perhaps just naturally occurring in nature. No, I probably wouldn’t think to take goats to the desert island. But if there is beauty and love there, perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad at all. I guess what I’m saying is, be careful what you ask for and what you choose to leave behind when you reach the desert island. Some of those new things that won’t be on offer at any store just might have the most value.

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The Goats Kissing photo comes from Wikimedia.org, furnished by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos.