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Minimizing Pain, Maximizing Joy:

 Learning from 2,000-year-old Philosophy

By Shlomo Maital

   Two unrelated events in my life have come together, in an unexpected way.

   My wife and I are taking a Zoom class, on Sunday nights led by our Rabbi Elisha, on the Stoic philosopher Philo the Greek, who lived in Alexandria 2,000 years ago, and who used Stoic philosophy to help interpret the Bible, in a creative and highly insightful manner.

   And, from time to time, I listen to the wonderful NPR podcast Hidden Brain,  featuring Harvard University psychologist Shankar Vedante.  The podcast features psychological insights into behavior, with information that we can use daily.  The episode I am listening to now is “Minimizing Pain, Maximizing Joy”,  an interview with philosopher William Irvine, about how we can manage extreme anger reactions, when we ‘lose it’.  Irvine’s book

     In these pandemic days, I am sure there have been an unusually large number of these anger-arousing incidents, when fierce anger arises and we ‘lose it’ or come close.  It is sad, because in my country, and I believe in other countries, there has been an alarming rise in domestic violence, especially against women. 

     In his book, William Irvine proposes how we can use a two-millenium-old philosophy, Stoicism, to better deal with the problem,  to “minimize pain, maximize joy” – the title of Hidden Brain podcast, available at th NPR website. 

    Here is the essence:

“Some people bounce back in response to setbacks; others break. We often think that these responses are hardwired, but fortunately this is not the case. Stoicism offers us an alternative approach. Plumbing the wisdom of one of the most popular and successful schools of thought from ancient Rome, philosopher William B. Irvine teaches us to turn any challenge on its head. The Stoic Challenge, then, is the ultimate guide to improving your quality of life through tactics developed by ancient Stoics, from Marcus Aurelius and Seneca to Epictetus.

   “This book uniquely combines ancient Stoic insights with techniques discovered by contemporary psychological research, such as anchoring and framing. The result is a surprisingly simple strategy for dealing with life’s unpleasant and unexpected challenges―from minor setbacks like being caught in a traffic jam or having a flight cancelled to major setbacks like those experienced by physicist Stephen Hawking, who slowly lost the ability to move, and writer Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffered from locked-in syndrome.

    “The Stoics discovered that thinking of challenges as tests of character can dramatically alter our emotional response to them. Irvine’s updated “Stoic test strategy” teaches us how to transform life’s stumbling blocks into opportunities for becoming calmer, tougher, and more resilient. Not only can we overcome everyday obstacles―we can benefit from them, too.”

    What are the practical Stoic techniques:  *  Practice:  pull anger-arousing incidents out of your memory, and revise, re-edit them, as you revise (retroactively) your reaction.  * Someone says hurtful things to you:  Ignore, move on, disregard… and forget them.  If they’re trying to wound you, they will deeply regret failing.  * Visualize: imagine highly annoying situations, and practice sliding through them.  * Blessings: remind yourself more regularly of what is good in your life.  * Real-time realization:  In an anger-arousing situation, look more deeply into it, and find the parts that comprise blessings to you. 

   I know – much easier said than done.  But dealing with extreme annoyance is a life skill that is incredibly valuable.  One technique I use myself is the ‘echo chamber’.  When you feel you are about to say something hurtful, in white-hot anger,  say it first in your head, think it, unspoken.  Listen to it.  And then delay it, and ask, do I really want to say this?   

    In close to 100% of the time, I do not actually say those words. And boy – am I grateful I did not!

     Try it.    

Happiness, Giving, and Creativity: 3 Insights from Hidden Brain

By Shlomo Maital

I am a big fan of a podcast, called Hidden Brain, and its founder Shankar Vedante, a Harvard psychologist. This week’s podcast is especially fascinating. It is about happiness, creativity and diversity. Here are three insights that I believe we can all learn from and apply in our lives.

  1. “materialize”.

   “Emily Balcetis, a psychology professor at New York University, knows that there’s a deep truth to these sayings. As she shows in her book Clearer, Closer, Better: How Successful People See The World, our visual system and our behavior are linked. We can use our sight, she says, to help us make better decisions and reach our goals.”

     To think concretely about the longer term, try to materialize it – make it visual, clear, detailed, pictorial. Balcetis tells this story about Michael Phelps, and the 2008 Olympics. Phelps was competing in a 200 m. event, that would break records for gold medals. At the start his goggles filled with water. He could not see. And you do need to see, to know when to do the somersault-turn. But Phelps had ‘visualized’ and ‘materialized’. He went over this eventuality in his mind much earlier, and figured out what to do, and pictured himself doing it – count strokes. He knew exactly how many strokes would get him to the end of the pool, where he had to turn around. He counted…and turned…and won.   Balcetis shows Gen Y people photos of themselves, artificially aged, to help them think materially about saving and retirement.

   Emily Balcetis, a psychology professor at New York University, knows that there’s a deep truth to these sayings. As she shows in her book Clearer, Closer, Better: How Successful People See The World, our visual system and our behavior are linked. We can use our sight, she says, to help us make better decisions and reach our goals.

 

  1. Help others. “Psychologist Elizabeth Dunn studies happiness. She says at the heart of her research is a sad idea. “Whatever we have, we tend to get used to it. So no matter how awesome our lives might be, or what wonderful things come into our lives, we tend to get used to them over time, and the pleasure that they provide gradually diminishes.”

   Dunn shows one route to happiness: Give to others, rather than to yourself. But, as Balcetis explained, “materialize”. Giving to a website won’t do it. But later in the podcaste, Vedante explains how. He cites a wonderful Canadian idea — five people can come together and sponsor a Syrian immigrant.

   “A Group of Five (G5) is five or more Canadian citizens or permanent residents who have arranged to sponsor a refugee living abroad to come to Canada. G5s may only sponsor applicants who are recognized as refugees by either the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) or a foreign state”

The G5 are responsible for the immigrant family for a full year. Not just financially – but, meeting them at the airport, bringing them to their new home, and making many arrangements for them. Hidden Brain interviews someone in Vancouver who did this —   and it brought enormous happiness.

   Contrast Canada’s G5 idea with the Trump Administration’s xenophobic policies toward hapless immigrants, including children.

Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton, 2013.

 

  1. Diversity and creativity. Vedfante’s Harvard colleague, economist Richard Freeman, studied whether teams of scientists that are culturally diverse were more creative than those that were culturally homogenous, uniform. He measured this through citations. The answer is: Absolutely yes. It’s not surprising.   We’ve always known that teams that have divergent thinking (many many ideas, from many perspectives) are more creative than convergent ideas from same-culture people.

Freeman, R. B., & Huang, W. (2014). Collaboration: Strength in diversity. Nature News513(7518), 305.

   I believe that creativity brings happiness. So materialize, visualize, give to others materially and in a very personal manner, and welcome diversity, seek out those very different from yourself… Hidden Brain’s recipe for happiness.  

 

Understanding the Brexit Disaster:

Ask the Psychologists!

By Shlomo Maital

I’ve been glued to our TV, for weeks, watching the British debate in Parliament what to do next about Brexit. I’ve watched how the world’s oldest elected Parliament cannot find a majority for anything – except, maybe, NOT to crash out of the EU. I’ve watched how the Trump-like PM Boris Johnson tries to circumvent Parliament, in the name of democracy but instead mortally wounding it. I studied for a year in Manchester, and feel deeply sorry for the people of Britain – and am trying to understand how they got into this pickle.

     Enter the psychologists. In the excellent podcast Hidden Brain, by Shankar Vedanta, the Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert was recently interviewed. He spoke about this – we humans are incorrigibly bad at predicting the future,, specifically, in predicting how we will feel in future about a decision made in the present.

   The British people voted narrowly (52 for, 48 against) to leave the EU, in 2016. Mainly they voted for “take our country back”, a slogan pushed by pro-Brexit politicians, driven by anger at the flood of migrants crossing the English Channel that under EU rules could not be stopped.

     But what about other aspects of leaving the EU? What about the Ireland-Northern Ireland border? What about all the EU citizens living in Britain? What about trade, tariffs, customs? Then-PM David Cameron, who initiated the referendum, never believed it would pass, and never developed realistic future scenarios about how leaving the EU would be done. Former PM Theresa May stubbornly pushed the same leave-EU proposal to Parliament three times – despite zero chance of it passing.

       Professor Gilbert explains, basically, that when we make a decision, we are pretty hopeless about predicting how we will feel about it. As the Brits learn more about what leaving the EU means – crashing out with no deal, in particular, as Johnson obsessively wants — I believe they regret their initial vote in 2016. In particular — if only 1.5 per cent of those who voted “leave” now change their mind and would vote ‘stay’ – the referendum would be reversed.   Yet — cynics, in the name of democracy, say “the result of a referendum is set in stone” – even though Parliament, elected by the people, can change its mind a dozen times a day, also in the name of democracy.

     Basically – people are flawed in how they predict how they will feel about a decision in the future. We know this from the work of psychologists, and from our own introspection.

     Conclusion: Do another referendum on “leave or stay”. Take into account that humans are flawed. Give the British people another chance.

       But Johnson and pro-Brexit politicians insist this is undemocratic. Wrong.

       The 2016 referendum was terribly flawed. The British people were not told the full story. They voted on the basis of a narrow idea, ‘take our country back’. They weren’t told, how precisely this would be done.

       So – do it again. Offer clear precise scenarios. And offer a clear ‘leave’ plan, including Ireland.

Our Two Brains – The REAL Deal!
By   Shlomo Maital  
 
   On the latest Hidden Brain podcast, by Shankar Vedanta, the guest is a psychiatrist and brain researcher, Iain McGilchrist.  He speaks about his new book The Master and his Emissary.  I plan to read it very soon.
     There is enormous misleading hype about the left and right brains.  Much of it is wrong.  McGilchrist’s book is the real deal, and helps us understand our world.  The title comes from out an old folk tale. A “master” sends out an emissary to the countryside to gather information. The emissary gathers vast information, and tries to become the master, based on the knowledge he collected.  But he cannot. He fails. Because he has only facts, details (left brain/logic), and lacks big picture capability (right brain/holistic thinking). 
     Evolution helped humans survive. To kill and eat prey, we need right-brain big-picture thinking (the forest, trees, rocks, weather, etc.) and crucially need small-picture detailed left brain thinking (the deer is 20 yards to the left of the oak tree and is limping).  Of course, most crucial of all is the connecting link between the right and left brain.  Weird things happen, McGilchrist explains, when surgery has to sever the nerve path connecting the two brain hemispheres. 
      There is a serious message in the book, way beyond the research findings.  McGilchrist argues that increasingly we live in a left-brain logic driven world, based on algorithms and small details.  And on short run optimization.  What’s best for now.    I believe our political system is mainly driven by left brain messages.  Note, especially, that the emotion ‘hatred’ and ‘anger’ are actually cross-brain, not solely right brain (where most emotions originate),  Many political messages are now focused on hatred,  left-brain hatred. 
     “Meaning comes out of having consistent pictures of the world,” McGilchrist told Vedanta, based on knowing our past, not just our own but that of the world,  the past of others.”  A more right-brain world will focus on the long run, on the big picture, and on our interaction with our planet and with Nature. 
     Now,  how in the world do we achieve that?   A start, at least, is being aware that there is a right/left brain problem in the world.

Are You Trapped in the Tunnel of Scarcity?

By Shlomo Maital

   Are you trapped in the tunnel of scarcity?   If you are, you may not be aware of it.

   In his wonderful National Public Radio podcast “Hidden Brain”, Shankar Vedantam discusses the “tunnel of scarcity” – a situation in which we invest so much mental energy in one thing, there is too little left for other essential things (family, rest, relaxation).

   Princeton University Professor Eldar Shafir and colleagues showed in 2013 and 2014 (in Science journal) how being poor affects negatively our cognitive functioning. [1]   If you are poor, you focus on your immediate needs, with little thought or energy left to plan for the long run. Ability to defer gratification, to acquire human and financial capital, is thus impaired. They find:

   A person’s cognitive function is diminished by the constant and all-consuming effort of coping   with the immediate effects of having little money, such as scrounging to pay bills and cut costs. Thusly, a person is left with fewer “mental resources” to focus on complicated, indirectly related matters such as education, job training and even managing their time.

   Vedantam expands on this phenomenon, and describes the “tunnel of scarcity”. If there is something that you feel you need very badly, your brain focuses on it exclusively, and crowds out other things that may be important. He interviews a former medical resident, who focused obsessively on excelling in her residency, and burned out.

   I co-host a course on Entrepreneurship at my university. I invited a former very senior Intel executive to share his life lessons, in a life filled with innovation. He began his “10 Lessons” with Lesson #1 – Family, and described the heavy toll that high-tech can take. He cautioned students to be aware of it, lest it consume their family life.  

   In evolution, 25,000 years ago, humans who entered the tunnel of scarcity and focused single-mindedly on immediate needs – food, water, shelter – tended to survive, and reproduce, more than those lacking it. So evolution has equipped our brains with “tunnel of scarcity” capability.

   But in modern life, unless we are keenly aware and mindful of it, and if our friends and family fail to alert us to it, we can all of us fall victim to entering a tunnel of obsessive focus – and destroy without intention things of value. And when we awake to the situation, it may be too late. A brain trapped inside the tunnel may struggle to escape.

     Are you in such a tunnel? Is there sufficient light at the end of it, to guide you out of it?

. . . .

p.s. In 1972/3, 45 years ago, my wife Sharone, a psychologist, and I submitted an article to the American Economic Review. In it we argued that because the poor are not proficient at deferring gratification, to build future income, poverty tends to be transmitted from generation to generation. The editor of the journal rejected our submission out of hand, quipping glibly that “in fact the poor are expert at deferred gratification – they do it every day”. Eventually we did publish the article. But it has taken decades for psychology to invade, and perhaps even capture, mainstream economics.

   Sharone Maital and Shlomo Maital, “Time preference, delay of gratification and the intergenerational transmission of economic inequality”. In Orley Ashenfelter and Wallace Oates, editors, Essays in Labor Market Analysis, (Halsted Press/John Wiley & Sons, New York: 1978, 179-199).

 

[1] “Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function” Anandi Mani, Sendhil Mullainathan, Eldar Shafir, Jiaying Zhao. 30 Science   AUGUST 2013.

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital

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