CGP Grey is a frankly great internet content producer. When I first found his work it really excited me. I now look forward to each new http://www.hellointernet.fm/ podcast and always watch his youtube videos with interest. On Grey’s blog i came across http://www.cgpgrey.com/blog/i-have-died-many-times. This blog is my unsolicited response to what i think was a fascinating article.
Grey’s main point in this article is that we die many times during our lives. We are not now the same people we were 10 years ago. I think that creates a problem, how best to handle this reality?
How Age Changes Us:
Physically every cell in our bodies has been swopped out, but also our actual personalities change. As a general rule when you are young, you are a more pleasure seeking version of yourself, in the middle part of your life you seek more power, and toward the end of your life you value honesty in those around you: these past versions of your self have died.
How Happiness Changes With Age
There is also the U-shapped happiness curve. The start and ends of someones life tend to be the happiest and the bit in the middle is the tougher bit. My personal view is that the unhappiness of middle life is because you either have to stair into the light and accept how the world really is and make the best of it, or you remain somewhat a child and suffer the consequences.
When you are young there are an enormous number of potential futures open to you, and society in the form of school and university have simplified and mandated the number of possible decisions available. By the time you are 32 and have a house and child many of your possible futures have been closed down, but a number are still open.
Its less a galaxy of potential futures and more a small convenience store of possible futures. Its on you buddy, you have to call the shots and there is no-one else to blame if it doesn’t work out well. If you leave the shop with a twix and wish you had a kit-kat or even some fabric softener, thats tough shit. You have only yourself to blame. With decisions of that magnitude at play: Its no wander middle life is tough. By the time the clock is run down on your life the number of potential possible futures is dwindling fast, so all that is left is acceptance and the happiness that results.
Happiness As An Each Way Bet.
I am at the start of ‘Middle life’, having accepted that a typical pattern is that I am heading into 2 or 3 decades of relatively low levels of happiness, how do i dampen those depths. Where do I find the psychological suspension springs that will stop me grounding out. I am also aware that nothing in the universe is for free. If you hedge against the bad, that limits the good times.
In my twenties I didn’t hedge against the bad times, I was all in on pleasure: a policeman came to my student house because a friend and I had got so drunk we were making a newsanse of our selves. In the most Withnail moment of my life to date when the copper asked me why I was so drunk, I responded without missing a beat “Because i have been drinking pints of wine!”. The hang over was horrific on every dimension that a hangover can be. If you chemically lobotomise yourself and go on the rampage in South West London, one of the most densely populated places on the planet, don’t be surprised if the next day there is some damage control to do.
Contrast that with last night: For the first time in eight months I went out for a drink with another man about my age. I had two large glasses of chilean merlot, a pint of Cobra and a pleasant chat. I walked in the door at 9:15pm, caught my wife up on my meeting offered her a hot chocolate before bed. and thought: ‘Gosh I feel a little jolly’. Clearly the young man who ran drunk across the roof tops of Fulham Marry Poppins style is gone.
I don’t know what set of circumstances would activate another night of debauchery typical of my university days. I don’t hang out with many people in their late teens or early twenties and when I do, i tend to slip into the background because ‘I have been to this circus before’. I expect it would take an new legal mind altering drug that everyone was raving about to come onto the market. Such a thing might be fun enough to trick me into behaving like and idiot again. Possibly I would sit down and use it under safe, controlled circumstances, and I would methodically work out what my minimum effective dose was: Something I have never done with Alcohol because I learned to use it through trial and error when I was young and stupid.
If I concentrated and direct a beam of attention to it, i can see that I am quite different from my past self. But you don’t feel or see these changes taking place. Everything is changing all at once so there is no frame of reference in these shifting sands.
Our minds are set up to make sense of the world. We couldn’t function without the illusion of solidness. As i sit here typing, me and my laptop feel solid. However I know that really I am a cloud of electrons, and that my consciousness is in fact an emergent property of several systems working in conjunction in my brain. If you have ever lost a lot of weight in a short time, you will know that your reflection in the mirror takes on a hypnotic quality. There is something really odd about having a reflection that doesn’t match your minds mental image of yourself. When i lost 3 stone it took months for my internal mental self image to catch up with reality.
We Are Not Unique or Special
Not only do we have the elision of solidity, we also think we are unique. A typical error is to assume that our personalities, thoughts and feelings are so unique to us that we can predict our future feelings better than someone else who has simply done what we are seeking to do before.
When I was 19 I met a TV Assistant Producer. He told me that he still wasn’t sure if he was doing the right job and that he may leave TV. I was flabbergasted: I could not believe my ears, this guy was doing a job in an industry that I was busting a gut to get into and he ‘wasn’t sure’. Clearly this guy and I were very different. I felt sure that I could ignore his views and carry on. When I was a TV AP i would be for-filled and happy. Nine years on I was sitting at my desk as a TV AP, and surprise surprise I felt exactly the same.
More recently I was sat in a co-working space in south east London Plotting Wine Rides World domination with a child on the way. A civil servant was sat opposite me, and we were making polite conversation. He said in a knowing way something I had herd many times before. “When you have a child, your priorities change and the way you approach things will to’. I thought: ‘Clearly this is a sad grey man with no ambition.’ That wont happen to me. Suffice to say, I had a kid and the next day my world tilted on its axis. It has nothing to do with ambition, but the direction is now different.
We Are Built For Procreation Not Happiness
Our perception feel so real. The images coming in through my eyeballs and my memories feel so much like loading up a DVD and watching a film back that it is hard to believe they are not. But think about the substrate these memories are written in. Its not the hard plastic of a DVD, memories are being laid down in the soft grey mush of your brain. Is it any wander they distort over time?
An elephant never forgets. We are a long live species and that is why we have the amazing memories we have. Historically humans hunted buy stitching fishing nets together, and making bows and arrows. It takes a long time to learn that stuff, so we have evolved to be a long lived species with good memories. This memory isn’t there to make you happy. Its there to keep you alive long enough to have grandchildren.
You don’t need a perfect film of the time you made your bow in your head, you need one that is could enough to let you make a functioning bow when this would breaks. Hence humans memory is good enough: not perfect.
What To Do
So given that I am in a place where there is still so much to be gained, and I have much I don’t want to loose, I can’t trust my mental faculties and I have no objectivity, how do I chart the right cause?
Try and be Wise: Smart people learn from their mistakes, Wise People learn from other peoples.
Accept loss is inevitable: If you loose £10 that has roughly twice the emotional effect that being given £10 has. We are naturally predisposed to find loss painful, this is so we act to stop it. That bird in the hand really seems twice the one in the bush. But you know what £10 is £10, sometimes you have to make logical choices not emotional ones.
Get out of your head regularly. Sun light is the best disinfectant. I need an external storage facility for my ideas. Only when you have your ideas outside your head can you separate them from the emotions you felt when you generated they and judge them as harshly as you would if they came from someone else.
Don’t be hung up on happiness: Its very hard to put lightning in a bottle. All happiness really is, is the reward centre of your brain firing to re-enforce some behaviour you engaged in. If you do something to increase your Social Status i.e. get a promotion, you will be happy. If you do something to increase your Certainty: buy your first home, you will be happy, If you do something to increase your Autonomy, learn to drive, you will be happy. If you do something to increase your Relatedness: connect with someone and make a friend or if you do something to increase fairness i.e. break bread you will be happy. But the feeling has to subside or it wont re-enforce the next important thing you do that actually makes your life better.
Achieving and then sustaining a given emotional state indefinitely, is a ridiculous and unobtainable goal. Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness are my yard sticks. My hope is that If I work on those things, my emotions will look after themselves.