The distraction economy kills happiness

DSC_4692_2048LEI’m about halfway through Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience and as I said in an recent installment of my weekly blogpost, LFK Thoughtful Weekends it is headed to be one of the most important books I have ever read – and I read quite a few. It is said to be the “classical” work on happiness, yet it in so many ways differs from what I would categorize as “books on happiness”. A lot of those try to pull all kinds of crazy advice over your head in order for you to achieve happiness. This book – Flow – doesn’t do that. It draws upon heavy and clever research on how people feel doing different tasks during the day. A lot of the data gathered has come from people carrying small devices that at random times during the day beeps them, and then asks them to answer questions on how they feel and what they do.

The surprising or unsurprising finding, depending on how deep you already are in this type of research is, that people actually doesn’t feel most happy or fulfilled when relaxing, but actually while they are working or submerged in a task that takes their total attention. This state of mind and being is referred to as “flow”. A state where you lose track of time and being and is just totally submerged in the task at hand.

Speaking from personal experience I can totally agree on the fact that this is one of the most pleasurable states of being. But it is also somewhat paradoxical as although pleasurable as it is, it takes quite a lot of mental effort to reach. In order for an activity to qualify as being able to produce flow, it has to involve some part of skill and be mental challenging to the right amount for you. Meaning that if you get bored doing the activity, then it is not challenging enough. On the other hand if it is to challenging you will look for ways to escape the activity to cut the mental strain.

Reading a book is probably one of the easiest ways to obtain “flow”. If it is a good book and you have placed yourself in an distraction free environment you will probably quite quickly get into a state where you lose track of time and is just totally submerged in the book. Watching television or surfing the internet without purpose is on the other hand not very good flow-activities. While you can get submerged in them, they don’t offer enough challenges or involve enough skill to be fully rewarding. A good movie can leave you with thoughts for days, but they still won’t qualify as flow-activities. That is not to say that you shouldn’t watch movies or television, they are great at creating relief after a full day of good work, but they shouldn’t be your prime sources of happiness.

I won’t go in full detail with how work in a “flow” state creates happiness, for that argument you should pick up the book. But if you can stay with me and for now “buy” the hypothesis that “flow” state creates a sense of happiness, then you can probably follow the title of this blog post; “The distraction economy kills happiness”. Because with billions of dollars poured into one universal goal – grabbing your attention, then you can begin to see why it is so hard to concentrate and reach the sought after state of flow.

Reaching flow is not easy. If it was just a straight fight between a pleasant and easy state on the one hand and an as easy and pleasant state on the other it wouldn’t be that hard a fight. But the odds are very skewed. Not only are billions of dollars being poured into the advertising industry, social media etc. they also offer a quick fix of dopamine that feels good – for about half a second, then you need the next one. But getting into flow and reaping the benefits of this awesome feeling takes hard work. You have to do something that is adequately challenging for a sometimes long period of time, before you can come anywhere close to this pleasant feeling, so why not just stay with the quick fixes of dopamine?

Because in flow state you really live. You live on your terms, creating value for yourself and perhaps even for others. We are born with this internal paradox where almost all of us wants to relax more, but once we do nothing we start to feel worse and perhaps even inadequate. Doing can be anything from researching your bloodline, building scale models of old planes or finding cures for rare diseases. The important part is doing. And doing focused work on something that we enjoy for long uninterrupted periods of time.

A lot of research points to the fact that we might call an unfocused mind an unhappy mind. The more time you can spend in flow the happier and more fulfilling the life you seem to live. The good news here is that you can almost turn any activity into flow activity. What matters is that it challenges you, and that you find it worthwhile. What it leads to and whether you only do it for your own sake does not matter.

Focus your mind and get to work.

How to deal with long reply times or no answer

Flowers and road
Click here for full resolution

Ease of communication and hyper-connectivity comes with a myriad of advantages as well as disadvantages. As good as it can be at times, I am probably leaning towards it having dragged along as many new problems as it solved along the way. Not that we shouldn’t have it, but we need to adapt to both the strains and expectations it puts on both us and others. In the Utopian scenario all this connectivity just helps us communicate more, developing closer and deeper relations with others, but in my opinion it really ends up doing the almost opposite. The ease of communication detracts from the quality of the message.

Have you ever tried writing Christmas cards? (If not – then please do. They will make a lasting impression on your recipients unlike anything ever sent or written electronically. But more on that in a later post.) The thing with cards and letters written by hand is that they are really hard to write. You have to think about what you will write. Perhaps even make a draft before putting it permanently on the intended card or paper. With electronic communication you can always just send a message more, back paddle a bit, if your recipient misunderstands you or explain a bit deeper, which all reduces the effort that goes into the text in the first place.

But wasn’t this post about reply-times? How are they related to effort? We’ll get there. Be patient my friend.

The obvious conclusion at this point would be that I’m trying to say that reply-times are related to effort – but that is not the case actually. I think they carry a history together, but it is not the end point of this blog post, we will get to that.

People are generally quite good at recognizing effort and feel a somewhat internal responsibility to acknowledge it. People will generally have a harder time ignoring something that a lot of effort went into as opposed to something that clearly hadn’t had any effort. If you gift something you have made yourself to someone, then taking aside the quality and aesthetic properties of the item, people will have a harder time turning down a gift that you clearly have put a lot of effort into as opposed to something you clearly just developed with two strokes of a very big hammer. Even if both are turned down, you can be pretty sure that the “effort-heavy” one was making the recipient think harder about turning it down.

Now as said earlier the point here is not that long reply-times or no answer at all is directly related to effort of electronic communication, but I do think that the ease of communication has made us feel less of a strain when not replying or replying late to something. The world quickly moves on.

But then how do we as individuals actually deal with this perceived long response times and perhaps even no response at all? For all my life I have been somewhat bad at managing this. I have gotten a lot better, but still catch myself getting a bit to wound up for unimportant reasons.

First of all there as I see it 3 categories of people each deserving their own distinct approach. Friends, business contacts, and prospects. Friends is pretty obvious as to whom it includes. Business contacts contains all people that you for one reason or the other are “forced” to be in contact with, so it doesn’t have to be business related. Prospects cover people you would like to be/come in contact or closer contact with, both personally and business wise.

Common for all is that you need to start by taking responsibility for the contact/interaction and realize that the problem resides with you. You are the one getting angry, you are the one thinking up scenarios as to why the other party isn’t answering. You are the one with the problem – not them. Handling these late replies and no replies then differs for each of the 3 categories as we will get to. But start by taking responsibility for the anger and problem, by doing so you are in control.

As a general rule people treat you the way you “let” them. This of course is more relevant to friends and “business contacts” as these two categories generally involve more rapport between you. Being super assertive and dominant with people whom you are trying to get in contact with, might not be the best strategy of the line. But what I’m trying to say is that if you always have been the type of person who has just smiled and let it pass without any confrontation each time friends has stepped over your line, then they will “learn” this behavior and inadvertently know that if they find themselves in a situation where it is between stepping a bit on your toes and another who clearly states his or her boundaries, then you are most likely to draw the short straw. If you hate it when people don’t answer your texts within a day then let them know! Don’t expect people to sit waiting to write you back every 5-10 min. But within 24h most people, not counting vacations, illness, family trouble etc. should have had a chance to write a text, maybe just saying “Sorry, super busy – will get back to you in a few days.”

But then how do we handle friends that keeps crossing these lines and ignore our texts/calls/whatever? If you have already confronted them as written above, then take the hard consideration as to whether you would like to keep them in your life. They can be super busy people so perhaps you need to order your friendship around that and only see them a few times a year, but in the end YOU need to decide whether the value they bring to your life outweighs the negatives of them willfully or not bringing conflict into your relationship. This of course is a balancing act. As said earlier don’t be the 10 yo child that can’t handle a few hours of delay on a reply. Or you could be – of course you make the rules in your life, but if you then end up with no real friends around you then perhaps the problem isn’t as much with them as with you.

Now “business contacts”. This is a bit different as you don’t necessarily have the same amount of control about whether to have them in your life or not. The point about people treating you as you allow them to do applies. But as well as you not being in as much control about leaving them, they will also know that they probably can get away with quite a lot more than otherwise if your business together relies on the fact that you communicate. So again. Don’t be a 10 yo child! Communicate with respect and write in neutral but form language that their late responses of total lack of responses is not to your liking and that it has the consequence of x,y,z to your relationship or business. If you out anger into it, they will most likely respond with anger. Don’t try to force people into something, convey objectively and explain your point.

Finally prospects. Here your expectations should be really low. As a rule of thumb expect no answer at all. If you do not know people and have close relations to them, then don’t expect anything. They can have a thousand other close relations to cater to so why should they potentially risk any of those just to answer you. So don’t expect anything. But wrapping up the point from earlier, a minimal amount of effort put into the inquiry will most likely help. Write something that is clearly personal and aimed at them but without trying too hard. Give them an easy way out and be precise in what you try to accomplish with your message. This as said in the beginning of this paragraph by no means ensures an timely or even an answer at all, but it should increase your chances.

Happy communicating, and remember to always think the best of the other party. No one is by default mean or aiming to hurt you. They can have a thousand struggles in their life you know nothing about, so don’t judge them.

Sleep comes to you, it’s not something you do

Sunset beachAll my life I have been struggling with, what I think is called onset sleep insomnia – meaning trouble falling asleep. Once I have fallen asleep I usually sleep just fine. So not the serious kind that keeps you from sleeping several days in a row, but still incredibly annoying.

I even think I know how I got it. When I was a little boy my parents and all the other families on our road used to gather around for special occasions which usually kept on till way into the night. I thought it quite cool to be up with the adults so I fought my tiredness and stayed awake as much as possible. I can even remember the adults saying how impressive it was for me to be able to stay awake. If I had access to a timemachine, I would fly right back and throw that “trying-to-be-cool-child” in bed! That “coolness” has sort of kept up with me for some time now.

Over the years I have tried quite a lot of different things in order to combat this annoyance – some with more success than others and I will probably come with several pieces of advice in this regard, although truth be told I haven’t yet totally figured it out. But I have found a lot of little hacks and things that work in favor of falling asleep faster. I can still have nights where nothing seems to help and as if planned this actually perfectly leads into what I will describe in this blog post.

As Epictetus famously said:

“Man is troubled not be events but by the meaning he/she gives them”

Meaning nothing is ever really good or bad, it is all in how YOU decide to frame it. Your perception colors the experience. Not digging to deep into this, but what does it have to do with sleeping? Glad you asked!

If you have trouble falling asleep you’ll with guarantee recognize the scenario where you lay in bed trying to fall asleep and nothing happens. You turn to one side – no help. The other side – no help. You start to count sheep – 1,2,3…7…24…78..167…498 – okay this is jus stupid. You try all you can to get to sleep – and nothing happens. If anything you may feel more fresh than when you initially put your head on the pillow. You frame yourself as being bad at getting to sleep. You can’t seem to do it. You put pressure on yourself for being bad at something as simple as falling asleep.

Well this is where this concept comes into play. I actually didn’t pick it up from some famous sleep-article or research paper, but read it in a book that hasn’t really got anything to do with sleeping. It does have a lot to do with how you live your life and how to think, so under that wide umbrella you could say that sleeping somewhat must find itself. The book is the somewhat famous Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. First time I read this book several years ago I didn’t actually finish it. I was in no way impressed with it and probably only got halfway through – but all that is for a different time. Luckily I picked it up and read it again a second time where I really enjoyed it, at least most of it.

But staying on track. If I remember correctly there is actually at least two times in this book where he mentions/touches on this concept. It is only as a strayed out sentence each time and something that could easily be missed. I probably only picked it up because of my long troublesome relationship with sleep, so anytime I see something that has to do with this subject I automatically pick it up or dig a little deeper.

Paraphrasing from memory, the first time this “concept” is mentioned it is written something like:

“I lay there in what seems like eternity but no sleep comes”

And the second time something like:

“It is 5 am, way too early, but no more sleep to be had”

So there are some subtleties in those two sentences that might go unnoticed, but really clicked with me. What he does here is speak of sleep as something that “comes” and something “to be had”. Framing sleep this way, it suddenly goes from something you do to something that either comes or not.

But what is the difference, why is this important. Good question! And “important” might be overselling it, but at least in my opinion rather interesting. The subtle difference between seeing sleep as something you do as opposed to something that comes to you lay in the difference of control.

In general, things you do are things you can be better or worse at, but in the end it is you doing it, meaning your responsibility whether the outcome is good or not. Things that come to are out of your control. They either come or they don’t, not much you can do about it.

Herein lay the interesting difference of looking at sleep. If you think of it as something you do, then you are in control and you can beat yourself up about not being good at it. On the other hand if you see it as something that either comes or not, then it is out of your control. You can’t or shouldn’t beat yourself up over something out of your control does not come to you. It can be really annoying still, but no need to beat yourself up about it.

For me this actually helps when I have evenings where sleep does not seem to come. Then okay, it is not yet time for sleep, then I get up and read and try again a little later when I feel more tired.

Of course this won’t magically make you fall asleep in less than a minute, but in my experience it actually lightens some of the stress of not being able to fall asleep or waking up early. Well okay, no more sleep to be had.

I will give a lot more tips on sleep in the future, so please stay tuned. Whether taking advice on sleep from one that isn’t an expert at it must be for you to decide 🙂

Dan Ariely on delayed gratification

Predictably Irrational is one of the most entertaining books on psychology you will ever read. I read it several years ago and absolutely loved it. I have even written about it before here: Books on psychology and decisions but just stumbled on this awesome presentation by Dan Ariely from a Ted conference. Please do watch it and see for yourself why you should read his book:

 

Experience vs. Memory – duration neglect and peak-end rule

Just finished Thinking, Fast and Slow – and what an awesome book! I have already written a bit about the book in old posts and my previous post compares it to a couple of other popular behavioral science books. But if you find behavioral science and psychology the least bit exciting, you’ll probably love this book. As written before, it is not a book you just sprint through as one quote on the back of it states: “Buy it fast. Read it slowly. It will change the way you think!”

But just wanted to share a last anecdote from the book before moving on. Towards the end of the book there are chapters outlining the two selves; the experiencing and the remembering. Rather self explanatory, meaning the difference between what you actually experienced in the moment versus what you remember the experience as.

There have been some rather interesting studies in this area. For example people who have undergone different types of surgery has been equipped with devices that lets them rate the pain of the experience in small intervals during the surgery on a scale from 1-10. This is the experiencing self. Then afterwards they are asked to rate the pain of the experience as a whole again on a scale from 1-10. That is the remembering self.

What seemed to emerge from those studies was that it was not the total amount of pain – meaning the surgery with most pain during the experience that was rated as the most painful by the remembering self. Neither was it the total time under pain that emerged as the most painful, but instead it seemed to be the surgery where the pain towards the end was highest. If the pain tapered off towards the end of the surgery – people generally remembered it as less painful than they actually experienced it to be. This is to be known as the peak-end rule. The duration of the pain did not matter for the remembering self – known as duration neglect – the only real determining factor seemed to be how the surgery felt towards the end.

To test this Daniel Kahneman made a study where they subjected the participants hands to a very cold ice bath. As the surgery-studies, the subjects were equipped with devices to rate their experience during the trial and then afterwards asked to rate their experience. The first trial was 4 minutes in ice-cold water, then the next trial was the same 4 minutes in ice-cold water but then another 3-4 minutes where a little warmer water was released into the bowl without the subject knowing, so the temperature rose just slightly making the end less uncomfortable. Then finally they were asked for the third trial to choose whether to repeat trial 1 or 2 – and as you have probably figured, the vast majority chose to go with trial number 2 even though any rational observer would have chosen number 1.

This is peak-end rule and duration neglect at work. I find it so fascinating and amusing how these completely irrational factors plays into our lives. It also raises some interesting questions, for instance; should you prolong some surgeries artificially to taper off the pain towards the end thereby giving the patient a more pleasant memory of the surgery? Or in the less serious department; was your entire experience of a concert really ruined because it started raining at the end?

Trying to be aware of peak-end rule and duration neglect can make you less likely to get fooled by them. But as Daniel Kahneman writes somewhere; even though he has studied all these factors for decades, he still gets fooled by them from time to time – we just have to acknowledge and live with our irrational selves to the best of our abilities.