Archive for August, 2015

Fuel Tank

child-drinking-rainWhen your car or your body runs short on fuel the symptoms are pretty clear. Your brain needs fuel to function just like your body. In fact, your brain uses up to 20% of the fuel you consume. But what about the mind? That’s a much more abstract question.

It rarely runs short on fuel. It digests and uses everything it encounters. It’s going to keep its tank full with something. You can’t control that. But what is the fuel you are giving it? You can control what it encounters, and therefore influence it’s processing. A helpful exercise is to spend a period of time being aware of your mind’s diet. Try logging what you’re reading, watching and experiencing, and how much time you spend with each. Then go back and asses. Circle all the negative or useless information and influences you’ve helped your mind consume.

It’s eye opening.

Is there any doubt that if you provide a more positive set of stimuli for your mind it will respond accordingly?

The hard work of this is that you have to do a little work to keep things available that will be a positive influence. Some good books (that you take the time to read), positive friends (not the drama seekers), the right kinds of television shows, and certainly not least a hobby or two that you find engaging. Part of the challenge is that you must make time to engage yourself with these things. That means not doing something else. Look at your list. Does it have a few things on it that could/should be replaced with actions that are better for you? Note how each makes you feel and choose these carefully. Even with hobbies, which are of vital importance, be aware of the effect they have on you. Not all are helpful.

Of course you must also keep the rest of your body fit, and take the other steps to keep the right balance of chemicals involved. It is helpful that if you take the actions noted here, your body will automatically respond chemically to help you.

Happiness, Part xx6, The Chemistry

Parts xx1, xx2, xx3, xx4, xx5. Part xx6 will unfold over a series of related posts.

We’re animals with bodies wired to respond to stimuli in ways that increase our chances of survival. While we have certain physical vulnerabilities, we overcome them by having been graced with a complex array of genetic tools that make us adept at learning and cooperation. We’re social. We work well in groups, and need them. We respond to what we call feelings, which help to facilitate this cooperative, social behavior. Our feelings have chemical underpinnings. There are two primary kinds: Selfless and Selfish. The selfish ones produce good feelings when we accomplish things for ourselves, while the selfless ones are oriented more toward the feelings we get in cooperation with others.

The primary selfish ones are:

Endorphins – Associated with the runner’s high. Their job is to mask physical pain. To help give us the will to push through when we’re tired or injured. But they serve other purposes as well. When we laugh they are released, which can mitigate anxiety. An example might be a comedic moment in a horror movie. We feel better even after the laughing stops.

Dopamine – Responsible for the feeling of satisfaction we get when accomplishing something. The bigger the accomplishment the more dopamine we get. We even get a little along the way to start us up and keep us going. It’s a part of what makes us goal oriented. Eating food produces dopamine, which is one reason why we like to eat (too much). In fact, dopamine is a major factor any many different types of addictions. This includes not only food or drugs, but things like checking e-mail or Facebook. That little bit of intrigue when there is something new releases dopamine. We like it. We want more. We can’t put our phones down for want of it.

There are some others in this category that are a little less important for feelings, though more important for action, such as Noradrenaline and Adrenaline.

The primary selfless ones are:

SeratoninSerotonin – Our warm feelings when others support and approve of us, or we support others, are linked to serotonin. Getting likes on Facebook or feeling like you have followers or loyal friends triggers the release of this chemical. The feeling of respect from others triggers it, and so it helps us to organize around being a good team member or leader. Because of this chemical we feel the weight of responsibility toward others – not just results (that would be dopamine), but the people, especially when they are counting on us in some way. It helps make us want to do right by people, or to make them proud.

Oxytocin – Known as the love chemical, oxytocin helps to produce a feeling of closeness or intimacy with others. It is often, but not necessarily triggered by physical contact. It helps to reinforce a bond between people, whether friends, siblings, or parent and child. It’s why others showing support of our endeavors makes us feel better about them, and why we feel better about ourselves and them when we offer that support. It triggers feelings of empathy and the strongest bonds of trust and friendship. Unlike dopamine, which is fast and temporary, oxytocin lasts and strengthens relationships over time. It produces a feeling of warmth and security that allows us to reveal our vulnerabilities.

Try to find ways to laugh or seek other enjoyment to trigger endorphins, especially when times are tough. Easier said than done. Try to find healthy (as in not too frivolous) measures of accomplishment to achieve. Dopamine will help you once you set up some clearly defined goals. Show up (or come through) and do something to help someone else or make them feel good for a little boost of serotonin. And for oxytocin, reveal your vulnerability and show yourself. Strive to get close.

In other words, fake it ’til you make it. It’s not easy, but your body will respond by chemically helping you…if you can just find a way to get started. Each day.

Power to the People?

34 years ago today the chartkillspeopleworld changed in a way that isn’t as spectacular or as talked about as some of the major tragedies or accomplishments as they are often portrayed in the drama hungry media.

On August 5th, 1981 Ronald Reagan ushered in a mindset that mass layoffs were acceptable with the firing of over 10,000 employees during the air traffic controllers strike. He also banned the workers from returning to the profession for the rest of their lives!

The merits of their arguments and the various points of view have been debated. It should not be forgotten that the strike itself was illegal, as mandated by the sometimes controversial Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which prohibits any labor strike that can cause unfair harm to those not involved or negatively affect general welfare and commerce. The union leader at the time has gone on record since, acknowledging that they botched it, were too arrogant, and didn’t understand a lot of the underlying politics, not to mention the power of spinning public opinion in one’s favor (or not).

Up to this time it was not common to use mass layoffs to handle strikes. This incident eased those inhibitions significantly. Reagan broke the union (it should be noted that the union that eventually replaced it got most of the demands the fired employees were asking for), and in a way galvanized a growing mindset that unions were too powerful and not in the best interests of the economy overall. While Reagan may have been ‘right’ in some ways, and was viewed as effective in quickly restoring order to a situation that was getting out of control, the message that was taken has had some dire long term consequences.

We often don’t/can’t know the consequences of perturbing a system, especially one as complex as the economy with the various complications of the corporations and the workforce driving it. Reagan’s actions communicated from on high that it was acceptable to use swift and massive layoffs to help guard against a short-term economic disruption. Though he never intended it as such, there was now a precedence for protecting commerce before protecting people. Social conventions that had restrained CEO’s from doing something many would have liked to do were disrupted. Not surprisingly some began to take advantage of this tacit permission to take such dramatic action affecting the lives of so many. It became gradually more and more common for workers to be viewed simply as assets and liabilities on a spread sheet, with the math at the bottom supporting their actions to make the numbers for a quarter in efforts to appease stockholders and justify, if only in the short term, the CEO’s position to the board.

Protecting the money eventually became a clear imperative over protecting the people. The very concept of putting a number or resource before a person flies in the face of the protection our anthropology says leaders (alphas) are supposed to offer. It’s kind of like a parent putting the care of the car a child rides in before the actual care of the child. On the surface it may appear to make sense sometimes, but our biology knows better.

Now we much more commonly see leaders, whether CEO’s, politicians, record labels, news organizations, or bankers betray the trust of the very people they are supposed to be serving, often by allowing outside, unengaged constituents to have too much influence over decisions and actions, all in the interest of short term gains and the almighty dollar. When people are lower down the priority list they are less able to operate from a secure position and do the really great work. They are more prone to operate from a position of fear and insecurity, which leads to more focus on the short term protection derived from looking good than the profound work that will make the big difference. Differentiation and innovation give way to commoditization, which ironically spells trouble in the long run.

Contrary to what many would say these days, or at least contrary to where their actions take us, the power, or at least the care, needs to be in the hands of the people, and they need to be provided with an environment where humanity and social relations and the accompanying support they provide can prevail. If we listen to our biology, which at this point in time is what it is, we can cultivate environments that take advantage of our core strengths as social animals. At the most practical level, companies who bring a better value to the table will do better in the long run, and studies have shown that companies with more rigorous financial scrutiny tend to have fewer patents, and the ones they have are generally less profound. Give the people the leadership and security to do their best work and the results will come in time.

Or the few who forge their way to power can try to protect it and hang on at all costs, with all of the stresses and difficulties running rampant in our culture today.

There is a better way.

Do We Have to Lie in that Bed?

CaveiPadIt would be nice if we could figure out how to use our human ability to reason to overcome the emotional characteristics of our species that are evolved adaptations for a lifestyle of consuming and reproducing.

Our species started in an environment much different than the one we currently inhabit. The survival of any individual proto-human was something that wasn’t certain on a day-to-day basis; food was scarce, predators were many, writing and language weren’t invented yet (so the formation of social groups had to be done by much cruder methods), and unchecked growth wasn’t nearly the problem it is today.

Because of our ability to dramatically shape the environment in which we live — on a timescale much shorter than evolution can respond to, no less —  the environment that shaped us is no longer the environment in which we live. On a daily basis, we’re incredibly safe, there’s plentiful food for (almost) everyone, we have the means to communicate abstractly to form social groups, and the space and resources available to us will no longer support unchecked, exponential growth. The adaptations that we carry that made us fit to consume and reproduce then no longer serve us now. 

However, we still have the instincts that made our ancestors fit for their environment. Fear, anxiety, and the fight-or-flight response still haunt us in situations where they’re hardly appropriate (giving an important business presentation is hardly as dramatic of an issue as potentially getting mauled by a predator that’s just ten feet away). Over-eating at individual meals still happens, despite the fact that food is generally plentiful enough that we don’t need to stock up between rare opportunities. We still obsess over social acceptance, despite the fact that we’re nowhere near as reliant on our immediate social groups for survival as we were in the past.

All of these ill-suited behaviors cause a tremendous amount of unneccessary suffering. Consuming and reproducing are no longer particularly appropriate behaviors, yet the sophisticated industrial machine knows just how to tap into our evolutionary insecurities (via advertising) to be able to convince us to worry about both.

Having a reliable way to reason ourselves off of the evolutionary path of least resistance would improve our collective lives immensely — we could combat the unjustified anxiety many experience daily, we could lead fulfilling lives without succumbing  to the immediate whims of society, we could avoid the problems associated with over-consumption and over-reproduction — the list goes on and on.

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