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Archive for October, 2015

This is not a post about how you should be fixing all your own problems by yourself, by just cheering up and adopting a positive mental attitude.

There are a lot of things we can do to physically influence our mental state, without introducing any external factors like drugs or alcohol. In fact, we’re unavoidably doing it all the time.

We tend to assume that being happy makes us smile, being tired makes us slump into a pathetic heap, and so on. That’s how we imagine bodies work. In fact, the way we feel and the way we express ourselves to the world is not at all a one-way street.

For instance, if you adopt a superhero stance, or a “power pose”, it will make you feel more powerful. And adopting a withdrawn, nervous, low-power posture will make you feel more anxious and reduce your confidence. You might adopt such a position because of anxiety and low confidence, but if you do, your posture will likely reinforce it. Even if you feel great and only stand like that in order to pretend, you will still start to feel anxious and less confident, because of the way your brain takes on feedback.

Also, smiling makes you happy. Botox can both treat depression and cause depression, because it suppresses the ability to both smile and frown. Also, exercise is useful in treating depression.

In all these cases, your brain notices how your body is behaving, and uses that to decide how it must be feeling. It’s really not meant to work that way around. But it does.

For years now, I’ve been reading the kinds of blogs and listening to the kinds of podcasts that often talk about fascinating, important, and deeply counter-intuitive features of human psychology, so this kind of thing gets brought up a lot. And, having been saturated in it for so long, I now regularly try to incorporate it into my life.

If I’m not having the best day at work, sometimes I’ll hide in the toilet and spend a few moments grinning ridiculously and leaping around a bit, in the kind of way that could only possibly be explained by my being in a fantastically good mood. And honestly, if I let myself go along with it, this is pretty good at making me feel better. Acting like I’m really happy seems to remind me that I don’t have to be mopey by default just because I’m not actively thrilled to be in the office and I’ve got resting bitchface. My brain sees me looking goofy and bouncing around, and goes “Oh yeah! Things are pretty good apparently!” Even just remembering to stand up straighter can improve my outlook.

Science has learned some wonderfully bizarre and amazing things in this area of psychology, and there are many ways for us to take control of our own state of mind and have a significant impact on our feelings, motivations, and emotions.

That’s all good and important and if I were a more consistent writer I could fill a dozen blog posts about all this stuff.

But none of that’s the point.

The point is: it is incredibly difficult to talk about this in a way that’s actually empowering.

What I’d love to discuss is some uncontroversial scientific data, and my own recent experiences with some very light brain-hacking. What I want to do is talk about how everyone can find this data useful in their own lives, in the same way that I have.

What I’m in real danger of actually doing is patronising everyone and inadvertently blaming them for all their problems.

Because everything I’m talking about is a hair’s breadth away from terrible popular advice that everyone’s heard a million times before. People with depression or mental health issues are constantly told to just pull themselves together and get over it, by people who don’t understand what they’re experiencing. Men never seem to shut the fuck up from telling women to smile. And the supply of folk who think fat people maybe just haven’t encountered the advice “try eating less” before, and consider it their moral duty to deliver this important message to them for the first time, is apparently endless.

The thing about this advice is that it’s always about the giver, not the beneficiary. If you shout an instruction to smile at an irritated stranger, that’s not going to make them want to smile. It’s far more likely to irritate them further, and it’s hard to imagine someone not understanding that without being wilfully oblivious to other people’s actual emotions.

Ditto with “just cheer up”. Nobody says that because they think it’s going to help. They say it to try to browbeat another person into complying with their wish for a more artificially cheerful environment. They say it when somebody else is bothering them by not being in a sufficiently upbeat mood.

This is true even if the woman walking down the street being harassed from a building site really is only in a mildly bad mood for no good reason, and really could make herself feel better by changing her stance and facial expression and choosing to shake it off. Unfortunately, you’re not introducing her to a useful and empowering psychological tool in a safe environment, where she might be able to take it on board and use it to improve her life. You’re just being a selfish dick.

So how do you talk informatively about the potential for positive psychology to improve people’s lives, without just being part of that same unhelpful crowd? There are just tripwires everywhere. Already it might seem like I’m nagging at people who hide in the toilet at work to cry and feel shit about themselves, like they should do what I do instead, and just choose to put on a brave face and force themselves to feel better. That’s absolutely not my aim. I really don’t want to make anyone in that position feel worse than they already are, but it’s so hard to get a constructive point across without putting my foot in it like that.

Self-defeating emotional behaviours are innately extremely good at defending themselves from treatment. There’s so much science can tell us about how to improve ourselves as much as we claim we want to, but the problem makes us want to solve it by doing things that actually make it worse. The often insurmountable difficulty of applying solutions that work, despite their easy availability, is one of the great frustrations of the modern age.

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I get told every so often that I should have been a teacher.

The people telling me this are disregarding the massively antisocial aspects of my personality to reach this conclusion, but I do kinda see where they’re coming from. Aside from the whole human interaction element, I quite like teaching.

I guess the way I tend to think of it is that I enjoy explaining stuff I understand. In front of a chalkboard staring at a couple of dozen pre-adolescents is absolutely not somewhere I’m ever going to feel at home, but some one-on-one maths tutoring is something I’ve been meaning to do for a while. I’m good enough that it could provide a nice little side-income.

And, like, a good chunk of what I’m trying to do on my blog is explain stuff that interests me to other people. I think I can be a bit teacher-y, so long as it’s well outside the standard classroom environment.

And I sometimes remember that I have definite Opinions about teaching, and how it can be done well and badly. I’ve been convinced for a while that many people’s profound aversion to anything involving numbers can be largely explained by a crappy standard of teaching with regard to all the fundamentals. If you think you hate maths, there’s a good chance you could understand a lot of its bewildering ideas much better if they were introduced in a better-structured manner.

In fact, I started a series of posts back in my LiveJournal days called Happy Funtime Maths Hour, attempting to do exactly that. It was inspired by the polite curiosity of my humanities-oriented university housemates, starting a longer time ago than I’m comfortable thinking about. So when I said I get told I should’ve been a teacher “every so often”, I guess I meant “fairly regularly for over a decade now”.

And I might actually have to start listening, in some form or another. There’s a couple of things that have made me think about this again lately. The first was listening to the audiobook of Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Chef. There’s a lot going on in there: it’s partly a cookbook, with recipes and so on, but it’s also a treatise on the process of learning itself. It examines the path taken by the author to becoming a skilled cook, and picks out the crucial parts of how that learning actually happened. It builds a system of teaching skills based on the way they’re likely to be most efficiently acquired.

Not everything in the book entirely hit home with me, but it definitely had an effect how I think about the process of learning. I’m learning to cook myself, not in quite as organised a fashion as Tim, but in some way inspired by his methods.

One thing I was inspired to do was actually crack open one of the hardcopy cookbooks we have on our shelves. We recently picked up three volumes of Delia Smith’s How To Cook in a charity shop, thinking it might be a good starting point for me to pick up some more basic kitchen skills. These books are somewhat well known for starting from the absolute fundamentals, explaining in simple detail the basics of how to boil an egg, and I vaguely remember them attracting some negative commentary from people who found something risible about this perfectly fine idea.

After some introduction and opening preamble, page 16 of the first volume kicks things off with the header: “How do you boil eggs?”

Just overleaf, on page 19, is this picture:

Now, I’ve never actually taught anything, and I didn’t read the intervening pages in full, so technically I don’t even know how to boil an egg either. But if you’re talking to someone who you’re assuming knows nothing about cooking at all, and they turn a single page to find themselves expected to produce that, something really seems to have gone awry somewhere in the pedagogical process. Maybe other people really have learn loads about cooking from scratch by this exact process, but to me it feels badly disconnected from anything someone clueless and hoping to learn things could actually engage with.

Educating people in ways they won’t get distracted or put off by may be becoming one of my Things. Watch this space.

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Apple Inc. have been paying an effective tax rate of under 2% in Ireland over the past decade.

There’s now a legal dispute over this, but not the way that you might think, or that might make any sense whatsoever. The question being disputed is actually whether the Irish government might be “forced to recoup tax” from the company. The state is apparently going out of its way to make sure this large international corporate behemoth doesn’t make any further contribution to public services.

I’m going to try to bear this in mind the next time the anarchist commentary on a news story about some capitalist atrocity seems a little over-the-top.

(Also, between scribbling the above and getting around to posting it: Facebook.)

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