Saturday, September 22, 2012

Personal Growth and the Threshold of Pain

Personal growth is when we restructure ourselves to better adapt to the world. It is a matter of getting rid of old stuff that is holding us back, finding better ways of doing things and getting closer to what truly makes us happy. To grow, we have to try new things. Maybe they will work and maybe they won't, but we have to try. We also have to push ourselves a little to get over a certain threshold of pain we are bound to encounter when we try new things. It is this pain that prevents people from changing.

A simple example: You know you should lose weight, but this requires eating less and exercising more, both of which are painful at first. In the modern world, we are surrounded by rich food, and resisting it can be uncomfortable, like enduring heat or cold. Likewise, when you first exercise, you may be huffing and puffing and not feeling so good.

Most people, upon encountering this discomfort, will do the patriotic thing: They quit! "I can't do this," they say, and they retreat right back to their old ways. These people will never grow because they are not willing to face the pain that seems to block their path.

Correction: These people may grow if change is forced upon them. You may be stuck in a job you're not happy with, vaguely knowing that it is not getting you anywhere, but you just can't muster the courage to look for another. Discretion is taken out of your hands, however, if you lose the job anyway. The situation is painful, but now you have no choice: You have to deal with it. There is a good chance now that you will finally find a better job and be happier in the long run.

People can grow by responding to disaster, but that's not the most efficient way to go about it. Ideally, you want to stimulate your own growth by deliberately initiating mini-disasters that you have more control over. If you have a heart attack because of poor health habits, you may be forced to change them, but it is much better to change your behavior before you have the heart attack. This involves enduring a little bit of pain now to avoid at lot more pain in the future.

When you try new things, you are bound to encounter a wall of pain—physical pain, emotional pain or just personal anxiety. Actually, anxiety is the main problem: the vague fear of losing your identity. In fact, there are many people who revel in physical pain, who actively encourage it just to show their strength in overcoming it, but that doesn't mean they are growing personally. The more frightening pain is the anxiety that wells up inside you as you approach something unknown and potentially threatening to your self-esteem. People will often prefer physical pain to facing that internal dread.

The main problem as we approach new things is that we interpret the anxiety barrier as a brick wall when it more likely to be a paper one we can smash through quite easily. People who grow without the need for disaster are those who are willing to test their pain threshold to see how flexible it is. Is this barrier insurmountable or something they can adapt to? They are motivated to push themselves into areas that don't seem comfortable at first for the potential reward of discovering a more efficient and productive way of living.

Most people love to say, "I can't." They try somethignnew, encounter a little discomfort, then retreat and add it to their Can't Do list. Soon they are so constrained by their self-imposed restrictions that they can hardly move. They dig themselves into a hole where they are not really happy but where everything seems known and predictable. The funny thing is, most of these "Can'ts" are imaginary, and disaster often teaches you this by necessity. You think you can't survive without X, Y or Z, but when these things are forcefully taken away from you, you may find yourself doing quite nicely, free of their burden. The challenge is, can you relinquish X, Y or Z voluntarily, without outside disaster forcing it upon you?

All of us know there are unproductive things we need to get rid of, but when it comes down to throwing the damn thing out, we encounter a little anxiety and back off. Things would be out of our hands, however, if a fire burned down everything we own. We would grieve at first but would probably be happier and healthier in the long run. Voluntary personal growth involves lighting your own smaller fires, getting rid of the things you don't need in more controlled burns with less collateral damage.

It is tough facing the pain of getting rid of something or testing something new, but if you want to grow, you have to be constantly pushing those limits. In most cases, the pain you perceive in front of you is just a thin veneer, not a brick wall, but you can't really know until you test it, until you push yourself to see how much pain you can take. If you can just get beyond the initial threshold of discomfort, then you may find a whole new set of tools you never knew existed.

Reality is bound to surprise you. You may think, in theory, that something can't be done, but when you actually try it and push beyond the anxiety, you may discover a whole new angle that the theory didn't predict. Maybe that Thing That Can't Be Done in theory is really quite easy in practice.

You find this all the time when you travel to new place. You study your destination on the internet and based on the information you find there, you get worried about one aspect of your visit (safety, finding lodging, etc.). When you actually arrive, however, you find that the thing you were worried about isn't really an issue at all. The key is, you have to actually visit the country to know.

This is where most people fail. They aren't willing to travel out of their comfort zone because that have a little theoretical anxiety about the journey. They say, "I can't visit France because I don't speak French," so they never go.

Growth lies in finding a way to power over the initial anxiety so you can test your limits. You don't want to do foolish things that get you killed, but it is okay to risk some humiliation and discomfort. Most of those "can't dos" will evaporate upon testing, but you actually have to push them to find out.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Predictive Hedonism: Where Meaning Comes From

We all start our lives from a base of hedonism. As infants, we know instinctively that eating feels better than being hungry, that sharp things hurt and that a soiled diaper is uncomfortable. You don't need any complex philosophy to follow these cues. Some things feel good and other things feel bad, and you naturally do what you can to increase one sensation and decrease the other.

But immediate hedonism has its limits, as illustrated by an experiment we have all conducted: One piece of chocolate tastes good, right? Eat a whole box of chocolates at one sitting and you don't get the same sensation. In fact, you may start feeling quite ill, to the point where you can't even look at another piece.

This is a fundamental observation about life: Good sensations diminish with repetition. If you pursue a purely hedonistic track, then you will soon find that any experience that once made you happy soon loses its power. You can increase the dose or try different varieties of the same experience, but as drug users eventually find out, immediate hedonism is a losing game. You become addicted to the drug but without the pleasure. 

Another problem with hedonism is that it doesn't always lead to good results. If you indulge your pleasures right now without regard to the consequences, you are bound to suffer great pain in the future, often far in excess of the pleasure you received. At some point, your higher thought processes have to reign in your hedonistic impulses or you'll end up injured, in prison or at least very unhappy.

It is amazing how many adults never grasp these two concepts—that pleasures diminish with repetition and that seeking immediate sensation may hurt you in the long run. These people are trapped in perpetual childhood and eventually suffer boatloads of self-induced pain. For the rest of us, life's first "Ah-Ha!" experience is realizing that maybe we should start looking ahead at the consequences of our actions and not just their immediate sensations.

Immediate hedonism is a primitive and self-destructive philosophy. Hedonism with foresight gets much more complex and interesting. If you learn from experience how your body responds to the world and how the world responds to you, you can begin to plan ahead for increased pleasure and less pain in the future.

Finding meaning in your life is simple: You just work to resolve the practical problems the world presents you with, to increase your pleasure and decrease your pain over time. It is not a sin to seek your own happiness. Sophistication lies in doing it with ever-greater foresight, so that you're not just solving your problems of today but those of the future and maybe even the problems of others when then affect your own peace of mind.

Eating when you are hungry feels good. Adding foresight to this observation means you started planning ways to continuing eating in the future. Having food on the table right now isn't enough to make us happy. We also need to know that we will be able to eat for the next weeks, months and years. We might even be willing to forego today's meal if it helps us secure a more reliable long-term food supply. That's foresight.

To find meaning in your life, you only need to observe your own reactions to the world—what makes you happy or sad—then start planning ahead for these sensations, maximizing the good feelings and minimizing the bad over time. Call it "Predictive Hedonism". You are less concerned with immediate pleasure than with predicting you future pleasure and finding ways to sustain it.

What makes this a sophisticated philosophy is the layers of observation and understanding you add to the simple of equation of pleasure and pain. You have to understand both yourself—what really works for you—and the world around you, since you have to somehow coerce it into giving you what you want.

What really makes you happy? It is hard to define but pretty easy to observe. What makes you smile? What makes you laugh? What fills you with warm feelings at the time it happens? Whatever it is, that's the thing that you want to try to reproduce and sustain. The complication lies in deducing the real underlying factors that made you happy as opposed to the superficial ones that don't really work when repeated.

It is not just simple sensory stimuli that make you happy—things like food, sex or relief from pain. You also derive happiness from social contacts. For example, nothing makes you feel better than being praised by someone you respect for a job well done. That's usually a more powerful pleasure that any sensory one. Now that you observe this reaction in yourself, you can start planning ahead to reproduce and sustain such praise in the future. In fact, you may have to actually start accomplishing things to make this happen again.

But even with higher pleasures like this, the law of diminishing returns is bound to kick in. If you are praised over and over by the same person, eventually the pleasure fades. It is also hard to sustain your pleasure if you know the praise is not genuine or that your accomplishment didn't really deserve it. With maturity, immediate praise is no longer your goal. You start looking ahead to achieving long-term praiseworthy goals. If you are really sophisticated, you may spend years working on a project that gives little immediate reward but that you think will be appreciated in the future.

Add layer upon layer, and soon your hedonism begins to look like something entirely different—almost like altruism! Maybe you start creating systems to increase your own long-term pleasurable feelings by solving the problems of others. There's no limit to how far hedonism might take you into altruistic territory once you start observing and looking ahead.

The meaning of life isn't hard. You don't need a god or guru to tell you what to do. You just need to observe, explore, respond and plan. Meaning is derived from the situation your find yourself in on Planet Earth. You didn't ask for the situation you were born into, bug if you choose to live, then you are accepting the responsibility of solving the problems the world presents you with.

You didn't ask for this body, but it is making demands of you. You can try to ignore its requests or you can try to master them. An immediate hedonist is going to blindly do whatever his body asks. A more proactive hedonist will investigate and observe to try to determine his body's true needs. Your body may demand endless chocolate cake, but that's not a healthy diet and will make a body feel bad in the long run. The proactive hedonist takes some executive control over his body, like a parent looking after the needs of a child. No, you can't just have chocolate cake. You have to eat your vegetables.

We are all growing up in a world that is alien to us. Whatever outside reality may be, it is pretty clear that it observes its own rules, independent of our wishes. It is our responsibility to explore and understand this rules, so that we make good predictions about how the world and our body will respond. In the beginning, we make a lot of bad decisions where the world and our own organism does not respond as we expect. If we are smart, we will use this data to modify our models and make better decisions in the future.

Or die. You can always just kill yourself and remove yourself from this alien planet. If you choose to remain, however, then it is your task to figure things out. Listen to your body and the world around you, then start planning to make the experience more enjoyable.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Glenn Campbell: The Turkish Biography

Is this real or a bizarre dream? I'm in hostel in Vilnius, Lithuania, writing a one-page autobiography for the Turkish edition of my collected essays. We're talking about an actual physical printed book containing some of my essays and book chapters translated into Turkish. This would be my first ever published book! Apparently, the translation is complete on the "first" book and publication is moving forward. The publisher in Istanbul has asked me to provide a biography, so this is what I've come up with...

Glenn Campbell is best known in the United States as an expert on Area 51, a secret military base in Nevada rumored to hold alien spacecraft. In 1993, having had some financial success in the software business, Campbell moved to a tiny desert town just outside the base to determine if the UFO rumors were true. To him, it was an intellectual challenge: to dive into a chaotic sea of fantastic claims and try to make sense of them. He became less a UFO researcher and more a curator of known information about the base. His sensible, factual approach to the base drew the attention of journalists and TV shows and helped make Area 51 a popular topic in the mid-1990s.

Does he believe in UFOs? Campell’s answer is typically pragmatic. He says he neither believes nor disbelieves. He believes only that UFOs are irrelevant to our life on Earth. Whoever the aliens may be, they are obviously keeping a low profile and not interfering overtly in our affairs, which is all we can ask of foreign visitors.

As the new century approached, Campbell grew weary of Area 51 and the constant media pressure to provide UFO evidence that wasn’t there. None of the information he collected provided any persuasive evidence of an alien presence at the secret base; yet the media was constantly distorting information in that direction. The facility itself was real, but its primary purpose was the testing of conventional military hardware, like unmanned aircraft used in recent wars. Campbell’s most valuable lessons from Area 51 had nothing to do with UFOs or the military. This was a place to learn about humans and their belief systems. Given ambiguous evidence, people see what their prior investments require that they see.

In the late 1990s, Campbell’s life took a different turn, as he became a husband and family man. That adventure blew up dramatically in 2003, leaving him with a new set of life lessons. Unintentionally, he became involved in Family Court in Las Vegas, the place where divorce, juvenile delinquency and child welfare cases were resolved in America’s most hedonistic city. For two years after his own divorce was settled, he studied the court system for his own amusement. He felt that this should be the “new Area 51”, the place people should focus their attention if they want the real secrets of the universe. You don’t understand love until you see how love breaks down. Unfortunately, he had much less success attracting the media than he did at Area 51. They wanted UFOs, not messy human dramas.

This is when Campbell began to write about more universal topics. His philosophy was formed within him, and he needed to get it out. He tried writing books, but there seemed to be little commercial market for what he had to say. Eventually he shifted his attention to short essays that he could complete in a day. He would wake up with an essay idea and complete it by noon. 2006-2008 was an especially productive period when he wrote most of the works found in this book.

Today, Campbell travels continuously and is highly active on social media. He writes fewer essays, compacting more of his wisdom into 140-charcter messages on Twitter (@BadDalaiLama). Campbell is constantly experimenting in photography and video to express his philosophy, but he has less time to write about it. The essays in this book may represent the Golden Age of his philosophy writing.