Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Happiness Series: 2 - Seeking Pleasure, Avoiding Pain

The One Fundamental Truth

There is a fundamental truth about the behavior of living things—one simple element that controls every choice we make, from the very simple, to the very complex, and it is true for every life form from ants to geniuses.

It can be difficult to confront and accept, because I think on some level we all want to be more complicated. But we are not and this simple, overriding truth will affect everything you ever say, do or think, from birth until death.

Every single choice we make is governed entirely by the desire to seek pleasure and avoid pain. There exists no other motive. Every choice, big or small, can be boiled down to either seeking pleasure, or avoiding pain.

However any choice that is difficult, has a complicated relationship with one or both of these things.

The Cupcake Dilemma

Lets take a cupcake for example.

Assume you have made a pact with yourself to get healthy and lose five kilograms. You want to feel better about your appearance, which relates to seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. The pain you are avoiding is the humiliation of feeling unfit, you are avoiding the perceived disapproval and disgust of others. The pleasure you are seeking is pride in your appearance, and a perceived increase in sexual attractiveness.

Its easy to want to lose weight.

Until there is a cupcake.

The cupcake present a dilemma. Sugary, salty, and fatty foods produce a rush of dopamine. Which makes us happy. We learn very quickly, within the first few days of life, when we are feeding on sweet breast milk, that food can make us happy.

So suddenly we are faced with a choice. Avoiding the cup cake now will give us more pleasure later on—when we lose weight. But it will give us pain now—we have to suffer through the agony of wanting something and exhibiting the self control not to take it with only the concept of later happiness to warm us.

It is unlikely, however, that the idea of later happiness will stay our hand. Rather, we know if we do eat the cupcake, we will experience much greater pain later on. Shame and anger at ourselves for ruining our diet, and more hard work to try and burn off the calories we ate.

Pleasure Or Pain

Why do we go to university? Most of us don’t enjoy exams and assignments, or studying for that matter. However we imagine we will experience a greater long term pleasure with a degree in our chosen field. We hope that getting a job we love will make us happy.

Why do we avoid looking at bills and let them pile up, even though we know it only makes things worse? Because we know when we open them and see how much we owe, it will make us stressed and we are avoiding that short term pain, even though it leads to greater long term pain.

Why do we go to the effort of throwing a party and buying nice gifts for our partners and friends? Their happiness will make us happy.

Why do we volunteer our time to charities? Giving back to the community makes us feel important, kind and generous. Which is a fantastic feeling.

There are some instances, where we might seek things that initially appear to be pain, but really they are a pleasure. BDSM is a good example, if you are simplifying this idea so much you think pain only refers to literal pain and pleasure only refers to literal pleasure, you have missed the point, please go back and start again.

For some people in some situations the pain IS the pleasure. BDSM is a very wholesome example. Particularly when I compare it to, say, creating drama and hurt for the attention. Someone who destroys their life and relationships may not seem to be getting any pleasure at all. However they are always getting something out of it. Attention can feel like validation. And the pleasure of that validation can be as addictive as heroin. Which is why both attention seekers and heroin addicts tend to throw away everything else good in their lives.

When you are in a lot of pain, like after a break up, you might also seek more pain as a form of catharsis. This is no different to throwing up when you feel nauseous, or lancing an abscess to relieve their pressure. Listening to sad songs and crying may SEEM like it is pain-seeking, but really it releases the pain and is actually a way of purging pain to return to equilibrium.

Every Moment Of Every Day

“What do you want for dinner tonight?” actually means “What would you enjoy? What would make you happy?” No one asks their kids or spouse: “What’s your least favorite, very healthy meal, lets have that.”

Furthermore, the reason we ask what people want to eat is also pleasure seeking. Cooking is often time consuming and difficult. If we cooked and no one ate it, or they complained about it, we would feel very bad. It would hurt. By asking what people want, we are maximizing the chance they will enjoy it and be satisfied, thus making the chef feel proud and satisfied.

When you choose what to wear on any given day, you are weighing up several factors that will maximize your happiness. Comfort, your own perceived confidence and appeal in that outfit, and the likelihood it will give you the desired social outcome. For example, maybe you feel comfortable in a onsie, sexy in your favorite jeans and your workplace expects formal dress. What you put on will then be dictated  by what you are doing, because if you show up at work in your favorite jeans instead of a tie and blazer, you might be fired, or reprimanded, which would make you very unhappy. Likewise, if you are staying home to play video games, wearing your work suit will just make you miserable. You’ll be uncomfortable and probably feel foolish. Same goes if you wear the onsie on a date. The comfort you feel wearing it will be heavily outweighed by the misery of your date walking out of the restaurant in disgust.

However if you existed in a reality where everyone always saw you in the perfect clothes for the occasion, you would probably wear the onsie everywhere. Comfort would become the persistent deciding factor, because all other pleasure and pain factors had been eliminated.

But What About Logic?

So. Maybe now you understand the concept. There is no choice, big or small, that doesn’t revolve around pleasure or pain. Which is fine, except most of us have ourselves convinced all our choices stem from logic, not emotion.

That is completely untrue. There is no such thing as a logical choice. All choices are pleasure maximizing/pain minimizing. Anyone who says they only make logical choices is just completely and dangerously oblivious to their own emotions and shouldn’t be trusted with anything, the same way you wouldn’t trust a toddler with a knife. They’re going to hurt themselves, you and everyone around them and make a bloody mess in the process.

Even when making choices for people in other places, we try and project pleasure and pain. If we are a kind person, we try and project what would make us happy in that situation. If we are not, we try and imagine how we can benefit, even if it will never affect us.

For example, lets say we get to vote on if women in a remote village of a foreign country get tampons and menstrual pads delivered for free, or for a minimal sum. If we project ourselves as those women, we would choose the sanitary items be delivered for free, since that would maximize happiness and minimize pain. If we can’t project ourselves into the roles of those women, we might imagine we are the ones providing the items, even though we are not. We would then chose the fee, because we imagine ourselves making a profit, thus maximizing our happiness.

Always remember this when listening to politicians be ‘logical’ about a situation. Logic is usually just a code word for a lack of empathy.

What Are You Seeking? What Are You Avoiding?

So, lets assume you now accept and understand the concept. You realize that every choice you have ever made in your life, and every choice anyone you have ever known has ever made in their life, as been on a basis of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.

This is when things start to get ugly. Because what I want you to do now, is consider every choice you make for the next few weeks and be honest with yourself about what you are seeking and what you are avoiding.

This shouldn’t be something that brings you shame or discomfort. Everyone else is making the same choices as you for exactly the same reasons. You don’t want to make that phone call because you’re afraid you;ll get bad news, that someone will be rude to you, that the connection will be bad and you’ll have to repeat yourself, that you’ll say something stupid and regret it, that it will be out of office hours or you’ll be on hold for ages. There are lots of things to avoid on the phone.

But you might come up against some choices and reasons that make you say: “Hang on, why?”

Why are you eating cereal for breakfast? Well, the commercials for this cereal show healthy people and you have a positive association. There is even someone doing a triathlon on the box. But when you check the sugar, its 16mg in every 100mg. That’s 16% sugar. Not very healthy.

Why did you buy this foundation? Why do you even use foundation? Because you saw a magazine advert with a sad woman with bare, pocked skin on one side and a beautiful, smiling woman with foundation on the other. Society taught you to be ashamed to sell you a product.

Advertising relies almost entirely on this fundamental seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. First it makes you feel bad, then it offers you the solution to that. It is no different to me stabbing you, then offering you discount surgery to repair the stab wound. And we all accept it over and over, every day.

But its not just adverts is it? When you start to really look at what you are avoiding and what you are seeking, you’re going to see at lot of things you didn’t want to. A lot of things that suddenly seem stupid or selfish or unproductive.

Make Conscious Choices

From now on, when you have a decision to make, I want you to pause a moment, and ask yourself what pleasure am I seeking? What pain do I want to avoid? And make intelligent, educated decisions. Don’t just let the kind brain bang away without any self awareness.

Changing the quality of your decisions will have a huge impact on your life going forward. Just identifying the real reasons for decisions, without lying to yourself and saying it is the ‘logical’ choice, will make a huge difference in your life.

Moving Forward

Give yourself a week to ruminate on this post and begin self aware decision making, because next week we are going to tackle and even more uncomfortable truth: You Would Rather Be Right Than Happy.

If you are going to give up on this series, it will be next week. Because no one wants to hear it. However once you accept and believe it, everything can change for you overnight.

Jake, In Summary:

Sometimes, being able to consider the pleasure/pain benefits of a situation is the only thing that keeps me moving forward. It means even when I am too sick to enjoy anything, even when I am hurting and can’t imagine a reality where I am ever not in pain, I can keep making sensible choices. Choices that will reduce long term pain and increase long term pleasure.

I did, however, get a bit fixated on the long term. To the complete disregard of the short term. In fact, I reached the point where I was always choosing short term suffering for long term gain.

…And tomorrow never comes.

Always choosing tomorrow over today meant I was always making myself miserable. So lately, it has been my mission to sometimes choose short term pleasure.

Sometimes, when I have a choice, I stop and ask myself: “What would make me happiest right NOW?” To be honest, the answer is usually a surprise. I’ve been doing a lot more cooking, gardening and reading since I started asking myself this.

I think most of you would use the word ‘driven’ to describe me. But its not always a good thing. I’m not aiming for hedonistic, but I am aiming for happy. How about you?

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Happiness Series: 1 - Introduction

Welcome to my happiness series! Seventeen blog posts on how to be happier, which will also chronicle my own journey toward not feeling so much like a human trash fire.

The series will consist of 17 posts, which will be broken down in the following format:

1 - Introduction and crisis advice (this post)
2-5 - Psychology, behavior and what makes us unhappy
6-10 - How to be happier
11-16 - Exercises to help us learn who we are and what we need
17 - Wrap up and summary

What To Do If You Are In Crisis

This blog series is not designed to treat or cure depression. It might help, but it also might have no impact at all, because depression is an illness like diabetes: a physiological imbalance of chemicals in the body. Also, if I had a genuine cure for depression, I would be a lot richer.

If at any point, now, or in the next 17 weeks, you are in crisis, these are the steps you should take. Firstly, if you are suicidal, tell someone who can help you. By that, I mean someone who has your address and phone number.

If you are in Australia, you can also call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or chat to someone on their website:

Most of you will have seen the R U OK list ( written by Sinope. Its great and I recommend everyone have a look at it.

As great as it is, it didn’t work for me personally, so I wrote my own for me to refer to when I am feeling stressed and overwhelmed. To me, it feels a bit more grounded and practical, so I am including it here in case any of you feel the same:

Steps To Take When You Are Overwhelmed:

1. Have a glass of water.
2. Have you eaten a meal in the past 4 hours? Eat.
3. Do you need medication? Take it.
4. Have you showered and cleaned your teeth today? Do it.
5. Are you wearing clean, comfortable clothes? Get changed.
6. Are your pets/children fed/watered/clean? Attend to them.
7. Are there any bad smells or loud noises near you? Remove them.
8. Are you a comfortable temperature? Address accordingly.
9. Can heat/cold packs help? Get up and fetch them.
10. Make a list of all the major things bothering you. (EG: Bills, pain, personal conflicts)
11. Add sub categories. (EG: List the bills that need paying.)
12. Under each sub category, list the steps that need to be taken to resolve that issue and any obstacles.
13. Compliment or thank someone, online or in person.
14. Exercise or stretch.
15. Put on music or white noise and sit or lie still for ten whole minutes.
16. Do one small productive thing. (EG: Put a load of dishes in.)

Definition of Happiness

However, as I have said, this series is not about treating depression, its about being happier. And in order to do that, we need to define what happiness is.

To borrow from Paul Dolan’s ‘Happiness By Design’, a good definition is: Happiness is a mixture of pleasure and purpose over time.

He says there are actions that bring us pleasure, actions that give us purpose, and actions that do both. However if we only focus on one or the other, we will not, overall, be very happy people.

Take for example, playing video games. This is generally an activity with a lot of pleasure, but very little purpose. Or perhaps, writing an assignment for our university class, not a lot of pleasure, but a lot of purpose. There may be other activities, such as playing with our children, or walking our dog, which come with a dual dose of both pleasure and purpose.

I am not suggesting we should limit ourselves to activities that give us pleasure and purpose. It would probably be impossible to live that way. I am just saying there has to be a balance of pleasure and purpose on our lives for us to experience happiness.

So moving forward in this series, that is the definition of happiness I will be using. Happiness = Pleasure + Purpose, over time. And we will assume that we need things in our life that both give us purpose and give us pleasure, in order to be happy.

Moving Forward

We will be looking at things that make us happy in weeks 6 - 10. However before that, for the next four weeks, we are going to look at the barriers we have in our lives that stop us from being happy.

So buckle up, because the next three weeks are going to be the hardest. Its time to confront the most difficult demon of all: What makes the human mind tick.

Jake, In Summary:

So, where am I in this journey? Honestly, I am not very happy these days. Financial issues mean that in the next six months I am going to have to move away from my friends, family and all the medical professionals I rely on to keep me healthy.

My writing career is struggling and the death of a very important person in my life over New Years still has been reeling. I am juggling a lot of very big complicated things in my life, including trying to get my career back on track, moving and the complications that will arise from that, trying to start a family and deciding who I want to be now I am Jake instead of Talitha.

Sometimes it seems like I can’t possibly move forward and keep all these plates spinning, so right now I feel like I am standing still, too afraid and too tired to move forward.  Its not a very nice place to be.

But there can be no going back, only forward. So take my hand, and lets go.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Harmful Self Perception

I want to tell you three stories about perspective. Because often we choose the perspective that makes us the unhappiest. We go looking for unhappiness like pigs seeking truffles and I want to talk about why.

So first, the three stories:

Story 1
When I was seventeen, I saw a really cute guy on crutches. He was about my age and had really sexy messy blonde hair and freckles. I kept watching him, hoping he would look my way and I could smile at him, which he did. However, when he caught me looking he scowled, hurt and furious. It was only when I saw how savagely he reacted, and how close to tears he looked, I realised he was on crutches because he'd had a leg amputated. Fairly recently, judging by the bandages.

I wanted to go over and explain, but he was with friends and I was with my mother. However, I still think about that guy who felt self-conscious and assumed I was staring for the complete wrong reason.

Story 2
I was doing a dance performance in Brisbane with a Bollywood dance class. One of the girls was wearing a neon pink outfit. It really was blinding. Pretty, but very bright. I didn't know the way to where we were preforming and the girl in pink assured me she did. I said that was good, because she would be easy to find in a crowd.

She flinched, and looked completely broken-hearted. I was baffled.

"Because I am so tall," she said softly.

"No," I said. "Because that outfit can be seen from space."

Story 3
Between 2008 and 2010 I lost twenty kilograms and I have kept it off. I was talking to a friend about it and she said something like: 'You're not really qualified to talk about losing a lot of weight though.' I was hurt and furious, thinking she was implying I was still too fat to talk about being thin. When I complained to another friend about the comment the next day, they suggested from the context that perhaps my other friend had been trying to say that even at my heaviest, I wasn't that overweight. It had been a compliment not an insult, and I had walked away angry.

Instinct Is Powerful, But Sometimes Wrong

We are all instinctively defensive. The person who insults you is not likely to protect you from the sabretooth tiger and humans are a highly gregarious species. We are very tuned in to communication. However, it is more beneficial to be aware of hostility than love, from a survival perspective. Mistaking love for hostility probably won't kill you, mistaking hostility for love could be fatal in thousands of ways.

Sometimes, people who genuinely mean well are being misunderstood to our detriment because of this. Please note, I am not talking about 'tough love' here. Calling someone a loser because you want them to try harder is not a 'misunderstanding'. Its hurtful, lazy and its been proven time and time again that it doesn't work. You're not doing it because you love them, you're doing it because you want them to change, but you're too lazy to be constructively supportive.

But I am talking about always assuming the worst. Language and body language are nuanced and sometimes we leap to assumptions based on our feelings and insecurities. Imagine if, without any doubt, you knew all those times you had caught someone staring and felt fat or ugly, that it was really because they were attracted to you? How much would your life change if you found out the negative attention you received was actually positive?

I'm not saying it all is. If some creepy guy is leering at you, he's probably a creepy guy. But the woman who seems to be looking at you disapprovingly may really love your handbag and have bitchy resting face.

Realistically, how often are you staring at someone because you think they look awful? Maybe it’s a lot. Maybe you're an asshole. How often do you stare at people because you love their clothes or hair or think they are beautiful? Being stared at is often uncomfortable, but that doesn't mean its hostile or judgemental.

Likewise, what seems like a comment about your deepest insecurity might not be. My beautiful dancing friend thought I was talking about her height because she felt insecure about it. I'd never really noticed because, well, I am short. Everyone is taller than me. How much taller is just semantics.

You Don't See What Other People See

Whatever you are most insecure about could be invisible to the people around you. I have a huge insecurity about my physical appearance (nothing to do with gender). I feel like it is the most obvious, glaring, unavoidable flaw whenever people look at me. No one has ever mentioned it to me though. No one has ever commented on it.

Am I too intimidating to insult, or am I the only one who sees it? We'll probably never know, because I am unlikely to ever admit what it is.

But if you look at me and don't instantly know what I am talking about, maybe, just maybe, whatever flaw you think other people can't look away from is invisible to most people too.

Small changes in perspective and belief can make a big difference to our happiness.

And happiness is what I want to talk about going forward. I know this is a pretty big deviation from my usual writing and chronic illness topics, but for the next ten or so weeks, I am launching a happiness project.

Jake's Happiness Project

My aim is to write a practical, reasonable approach to being happier. One that is appropriate for millennials and Gen Y. One that says 'fuck off' to the law of attraction, positive thinking and any 'happiness' technique that punishes you for not 'thinking correctly'.

This will partially be a recording of my own personal efforts and journey, but I hope—as I always do—that my blog posts on the matter will be helpful to the rest of you as well, because I love you people. <3

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Why Write? For When You Feel Like Giving Up

When You Feel Like Giving Up

Most of the people I associate with are interested in writing in some capacity. Authors, editors, hobbyists and those who wish they were all of the above. If you read this blog, its likely you write, or at least, wish you did. Which is fantastic, of course. People who love writing are the exact people I want to spend more time with. I love my tribe.

A few times a month though, on my twitter or facebook feed, I see someone who is close to giving up. Or, more likely, they want to write, but haven't been able to for a long time, have been beaten down by rejections, or have lost the passion for the project they are working on.

They ask their community for advice, or even if they should just give up completely. This is almost always met with an outpouring of support and encouragement. Often with a few tips or suggestions, and a few people reminding, whoever it is, to be kind to themselves and that they have been going through a lot lately.

The problems, advice and responses are always pretty much the same, which will either be reassuring, or disheartening, if you have recently been in that situation.

Honesty Is The Best Policy

If you want support and reassurance, posts like those I have mentioned are a good idea. There is no shame in giving your friends and family a chance to give you the love and support they feel, but rarely get to show.

If an ego boost is what you need, that is perfectly okay.

However, if you are really, honestly umming and ahhing about if you want to dedicate your time and energy to writing anymore, I have an exercise that may help you make that decision.

No one else can make the choice for you, either. No matter how well someone knows you and your life, they can't make the right call for you. Only you can make that call. However, I hope this exercise will make it very clear to you what the right call is.

The 'Should I Write' Exercise:

1. First, get a notepad and pen,or open a new word document. At the top of the page write:
"Why I Want To Write".

2. Under that, write a list of reasons why you want to write. Keep writing until you can't think of any more. Aim for between 20-30. Be honest, put things you would never admit out loud on there. Things like impressing people (maybe a specific person), making money, proving someone wrong, etc.

3. When you have your list of 20-30 very private reasons why you want to write, go through that list and try and come up with other ways you could achieve those things. EG: If you reason is 'Getting Rich' you could list things like 'Get a better job' or 'Ask for a raise'.

4. When you have gone through the entire list and come up with other ways to achieve the same results or feelings, look through the list again. Is there anything you want from writing you can't get anywhere but writing? Is there any real reason to keep writing?

Some of the reasons you might not be able to satisfy any other way include things like:

- I get a special joy from writing I can't get elsewhere.
- I want to share a specific story with the world.
- I need a way to get these ideas out of my head so they leave me alone.
- I needed stories like this growing up and they didn't exist.

Now you will either have a list of compelling reasons that you MUST write, or you will have a list of things you can do with your life that will make you equally happy.

I can't tell you what conclusion you will come to, but I can tell you by the end you will have a good idea if you want to keep writing, and why. Or why not. Maybe you have realized all the things you want from writing you can get elsewhere and there is no need for it in your life. Or maybe you will have realized why you need to write and feel invigorated again.

Either way, good luck moving forward, for all the right reasons.