Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Pregnancy Interlude

Recently I asked two people a question for which I thought the answer was obvious, but they both answered the opposite answer from me, and in turn thought their answer was obvious. It is rare that this happens, as socially backwards and morally ambiguous as I am/feel sometimes.

I looked it up later and it turns out that statistics overwhelmingly support only one of them, despite the fact that they gave the same answer. You will see how this is possible in a minute. But now I am left with the odd feeling that my mind works in backwards, alien, screwed up, selfish ways! I mean, I knew that, but, um, what say you when given this choice, loyal 'multitudes'? I know you're loyal because you're still here!

Given this situation: you are pregnant. With a single child, twins, triplets, nonuplets... doesn't matter. You have complications. The doctor says to you that he can either save you or save your babies. Which do you choose?

One friend, a girl, said that she would choose the babies. My boyfriend, speaking as the male watching the mother of his child go through this, disturbingly (to me) also said he would choose the babies. Neither of them hesitated.

And I thought, really? See, I would choose myself in a second, and if it somehow were my husband/boyfriend going through this, I would choose his life with even more force than I chose my own! While taking into account that I am a crappy predictor, like the rest of the species, and just think I would choose that because I haven't yet felt that incredibly strong maternal bond that is said to exist, I still made a different snap certain decision from the other two, like it was obvious, like, who would really pick these unborn babies?

I recently read a book by Atul Gawande, the surgeon and writer, that cited a study that said that most mothers, when in that situation, choose to save their babies, while most fathers choose to save the mothers. Can I find this study on the internet somewhere? Hmm, no, but it was somewhere near this excerpt.

Now, this is a crazy oversimplification and I realize this, and I realize that by even bringing it up I'm being rude to sentimentalists and people with feelings everywhere, but could it be that both mother and father are choosing the choice that carries the least risk of crippling regret?

The mother, if she chooses to save herself, was still obviously extremely attached to her baby and might never forgive herself for not trying to save it. The father, if he chooses to save the baby, might feel doubly guilty for not saving his wife and depriving his child of a mother.

Or maybe people just choose to save those of whom they are most protective.

(I should have named this entry A Pregnancy Interlude, or: How I Successfully Put Off Writing About Regret Again.)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Blame, Fault, and Other Slippery Words

A line from the book, p. 208 (I'm nearly through with it now and will soon stop touting it as though I'm getting paid to advertise it, though I do love it and recommend it to anyone who wants to dog-ear every page) gave me pause:

"Optimists explain successes with chronic, global, and personal causes and failures with transient, specific, and universal ones. Pessimists do the reverse. Optimists say things like 'I got an A' and 'She gave me a C'. Pessimists say things like 'I got a C' and 'He gave me an A'. And it is the pessimists who are candidates for depression."

Hmm... I know that the author's not trying to be exhaustive here, but I think there's more to it. There is definitely a large subset of pessimists who base their pessimism on the belief that the entire world is at fault, rather than even consider that they are. And there are an equal number of what the author might call 'optimists', taking proud credit for their successes, that are simply masquerading, and privately, even unconsciously, harbor doubt that they really did anything to deserve them.

I'll anticipate the obvious argument (I know it's coming) that these 'optimistic' masqueraders shouldn't be labeled optimists just because they're good actors. They should be labeled pessimists as they really are inside. Fine. But what about the pessimists who blame the world rather than themselves? We all know these people. There's probably one whining at you right now. He probably failed at asking out a hot girl because the hot girl was stupid and wouldn't recognize a manly sensitive studly catch of a guy if he was dropped in her lap (which, the complainer asks us to believe, he was). Or maybe she's telling you that she didn't get a promotion because her competition was some slut who sexual-favored her way up the ladder instead of working for it like an honest, hardworking sort of person (that would be her, of course).

Schwartz came into this line not too long after running through a bunch of studies about how animals who believe they are helpless are more depressed, and human infants who activate their crib mobiles with a turn of the head are more interested and happier with their mobiles than babies whose mobiles were activated by another baby turning their head. And old people in nursing homes who are given plants to take care or are happier than those who have their caregivers take care of the plants for them. The point, I think, was to prove that control, or at least a belief, mistaken or not, that one has control, makes one happier.

And then he turns around and says that people who are pessimists tend to be depressed and people who take the blame for their problems tend to be pessimists. Isn't taking the blame taking responsibility? And isn't taking responsibility supposed to tend oneself towards being happier? And isn't being happier the opposite of being a pessimist?

In this article about a talk by Martin Seligman, he goes deeper into the difference between responsibility and blame, and the difference between blaming the world and accepting that the world is sometimes just not in the right place for you at the moment. He also makes a big distinction between blaming yourself for events you have the ability to change and blaming yourself for being a specific, unchangable type of person. I wish Schwartz had inserted this article straight into his book.

Choice and Change IV: Memory and Prediction

Turns out that no one really knows what they want. Again, obvious, but let me paraphrase and quote actual studies (isn't it awesome that someone was able to think up a study that proves this?):

Experiment 1 - "Participants in a laboratory study were asked to listen to a pair of very loud, unpleasant noises played through headphones. One noise lasted for eight seconds. The other lasted sixteen. The first eight seconds of the second noise were identical to the first noise, whereas the second eight seconds, while still loud and unpleasant, were not as loud. Later, the participants were told that they would have to listen to one of the noises again, but that they could choose which one. Clearly the second noise is worse - the unpleasantness lasted twice as long. Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority of people chose the second to be repeated."*

They chose the second noise because it was less loud and annoying at the end, and that's all they could remember. Apparently people base their memories on two things: how they felt at the most extreme part of the experience, and how they felt at the end. So in this case, the peak was the same, but the end was less annoying; the second noise was remembered as less uncomfortable overall.

Experiment II: "Each week [college students] had a three-hour seminar with one break that allowed [them] to stretch their legs, use the bathroom, clear their heads, and have something to eat. When the professor asked the students to pick a snack for each of the next three weeks, the students picked a variety, thinking they'd get tired of the same snack every week. In contrast, another group in the same study got to choose their snack every week, and these students, choosing for one week at a time, tended to choose the same thing each week."*

Basically one group had to predict what they would feel like eating and the other only had to decide what they felt like eating at the time. The predictors thought they'd be sick of eating the same thing for three weeks, but we're more creatures of habit than we think we are.

It's starting to look very much like we can't even trust ourselves to make an accurate assessment of the things we prefer! Which means, when we make important decisions, that we're setting ourselves up for disappointment when we come to realize that we're crappy predictors because we have crappy memories and we actually are very unhappy with the thing we chose.

Which also leads to regret. I have been leading to regret for the last three posts and have been neglecting it/putting it off because it's such a hard topic, but I guess the next post in the thread will have it.

*All quotations taken from pp.49-52 of The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Choice and Change III: The Anatomy of a Decision

What I think I'll do now is take advantage of my natural tendency in fiction writing to give way, way too much detail about everything I describe, and slow time down to a crawl to pick apart the stages of a decision I made about a week ago.

(By the way, I'm not joking about that tendency. Once I spent four single spaced pages describing the way a cat moves. I have also spent twelve diving into the way a teacher looks at you when you ditch class. Five about the first step into an ice cave. The reason I sometimes sound stilted now is that I'm leaning purposefully in the opposite direction and sometimes I lean too far.)

It's not a big decision. Just a small decision. An everyday decision. What am I going to do now. That type of decision. The kind that accompanies every tiny crossroads - one path leading to quesadillas and one leading to warmed up soup. One leading to the library and research and one leading to someone's living room and a tabletop bong.

Last week's decision, though simple, is a three-crossroads-decision: work on the background organ chords of a song, struggle through further pages of a book that I mostly find unbearably trite but that my mom has insisted that I read, or watch an old episode of the disgustingly compelling show America's Next Top Model on YouTube.

I already have my preconceptions of the outcome of all three of my choices. Mostly I have vaguely formed ideas that I haven't bothered to examine, but hopefully by the time I write it all down that won't be true anymore.

ANTM is the most lazy option and also the most confusing. I will be entertained despite, and between, bouts of shame. I can eat while doing it, pluck my eyebrows, lose my endless heavy thoughts. There is no risk of failing at watching a reality show (maybe failing BY watching a reality show, but this somehow doesn't make its way into my automated math-maker). It's easy. It's fun. But it makes me feel sick after awhile, and afterwards, I know I will feel regret at the opportunities to be productive that I missed (and back to opportunity cost there).

It's also hard to fail at reading a book. Even when the book is formulaic, as I feel this one is, I can be swept up in it. It's also lazy; I can eat dinner while doing that as well. I'll feel slightly more like I'm doing something worthwhile, but still be angry that I wasted time on something I've read 5,000 times in creative writing workshops. It's definitely the middle option; the settling option. If I'm afraid to fail at something creative but I'm also afraid of too sickening of a regretful feeling, so I go for the one that has the least risk of both.

If I work on my song, it is eminently likely that I'll fall short of my expectations and of how the song sounds in my head. My organ skills will prove to be poorer than those of my imagination, and I'll notice while I'm recording it that some vocal harmony sounds bad, and I'll re-record it, but as it turns out, I'll re-record it worse and then have lost the original. I might realize a portion of the lyrics don't make sense, or feel at a loss about how to string them into a logical end. I might have trouble with the bridge, because I always have trouble with bridges.

But if - miraculously - none of these things happen, I will have spent time creating something I'm proud of. I'll listen to it later and be glad I did. I won't regret the time spent working on it - and in fact, I won't regret it even it if turns out to not turn out well.

So it's pretty clear empirically which one is the best decision for me to make. But - though I did make the right decision last week - more often than not, when faced with a similar decision, I'll choose America's Next Top Model, or, barring that, freeze, and end up surfing the internet thinking I'll eventually make a decision until it becomes - oops! - too late to make a decision. Whoops! I guess it's not my fault, then, if I didn't have time to make a decision!

It's funny how I can so totally absolve myself of regret by convincing myself that I didn't have a choice.

Creeping Normalcy

Interesting... but actually obvious when you think about it.

The problem with putting it into play on purpose would be that it appears to work by virtue of total ignorance of its process. Note the phrase 'unnoticed increments'.

Although I'm sure a weaker version of it would make a change more palatable, even if it were on purpose. That's how most varieties of programs are generally advocated. There aren't many exercise programs out there advising beginning jazzercisers to start out with jump-splits and high kicks for an hour a day, or Buddhist monasteries insisting their new monks meditate for 20 hours a day and live on tea and bread. Are there? Maybe there are. I wouldn't know. I have no experience with being a jazzerciser except for the knowledge that that isn't a real noun, and no experience being a monk other than having lived with someone who meditated for five hours a day and went to a Buddhist university. I have experience with seeing a psychiatrist, though, during my high school years, and when they were advising me about my severe anxiety, none of them dared suggesting that I cure myself by immediately entering the school's talent show or sitting fenced in in the center of a large classroom. No, it was 'feel yourself out... go at your own pace' and 'why don't you try taking deep breaths and counting to ten' and 'maybe tomorrow you can sit one seat in from the door instead of right next to it' and 'could you maybe set a goal for next year of being able to play an obscure instrument in the school band production?'

Come to think of it, creeping normalcy never worked for me. All those suggestions fell flat. The only thing that ever worked for my anxiety was throwing myself into terrifying situations with no possible escape. Like sitting in the absolute center of the bleachers at a Shakespeare production, where the bleachers are tiny and have about an inch of escape room when everyone's sitting down, and it's considered a major faux pas to be standing and squeezing and excuse-me-ing through the crowd while Macduff is stabbing Macbeth or whatever. Or traveling to a very isolated area of a poor country where malaria and bird flu abounded and good hospitals did not (abound, that is).

But that just supports my theory (which I'm in the middle of in the 'Choice and Change' thread) about how tricking yourself into thinking you have no choice, or literally giving yourself no choice, may actually be a good thing in embarking on change.

Drug rehab programs must have recognized this. When you go to inpatient rehab (from what I've heard) you leave everything you know and are familiar with, and go to a place where you're treated as if you were at boarding school. You are accompanied everywhere... bathroom included, bedroom included. Checks at night. Body checks. Monitoring on your phone calls. No care packages. No possible way to possibly relapse. Free will plays no part in it; choice plays no part in it. That is, while you're there. Afterwards is another story.

Afterwards, choice comes flooding back in overwhelming quantities. Yes, you're supposed to keep up with a counselor and groups... but you don't have to, and it's easier not to. Yes, you're supposed to find new friends who enjoy things other than drugs... but you don't have to, and it's easier not to. Yes, you're supposed to fill your nights up with clean activities... but you don't have to, and it's easier not to. Are these choices easier or more difficult to resist after a period of such restricted choice? Do people just get used to doing what they were taught in rehab, or do they revel in their sudden freedom and relapse more easily?

I'm not sure if an enforced creeping normalcy would have higher success rates than rehab, which rarely jumps above 50%. I'm also not sure how enforced creeping normalcy would have to manifest itself. Slow replacement of (for example) drinking with other activities, one half hour at a time? Alcohol slowly becoming unavailable, out-of-place or inconvenient during these new activities? The new activities slowly becoming the norm?

Of course nobody can constrain their own freedom of choice forever, and that's why it's so difficult to sustain a new state.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Choice and Change II: Opportunity Cost

Luckily, I was right about The Paradox of Choice having all sorts of quotable post inspirations. I'm halfway through and have irresponsibly dog-eared at least 20 of its pages. Unfortunately, both my lack of internet on the weekends and my habit of reading in bed and falling asleep with an open book have prevented me from rushing to Blogger in the first throes of knowledge-orgasm and have therefore forced a chasm between me and what I thought I was going to say. But I'll do my best.

What struck me as shocking is that the book happened to have all sorts of anecdotes that were basically reinterpretations of my farmers market story. For example, to paraphrase:

A parent gave one child a bunch of cash and let the child decide the clothes she wanted to buy for the next year, and she was fine. He tried it with his other child; the other child froze up. She deliberated endlessly over every little thing, wondering if she bought this one outfit, would there be a better one in the next store? If she bought two pairs of pants, would she still have enough for a sweater?

Someone decides to go on vacation, and is leaning towards Cape Cod. But the more alternatives they consider, the less attractive Cape Cod looks. One vacation spot has better weather than Cape Cod; another has a better nightlife, another is closer to family, etc. The more this person thinks about all the other possibilities, the less certain they are about choosing one. What if another one would have been better?

So I guess someone thought about this kind of freezing up, and the sinking feeling that accompanies a tenuous choice made after this kind of frenzied deliberation, and came up with a name for the costs involved: opportunity costs. My choosing to go to the farmers market carried with it the opportunity costs of not getting to go to the beach, and possibly not getting to launch a water balloon assault.

People's tendency to see the choices they didn't make as a 'loss' (because they had the opportunity to choose them, but didn't) makes choices even harder, because apparently, studies have shown that people feel equivalent gains and losses unequally. The joy at winning $100 is proportionately less than the anger at losing $100. So when a person has to make a choice between lots of appealing and perfectly achievable choices, they feel happiness at gaining the experience of their first choice, but compounding unhappiness from all the other choices that they rejected.

Entirely apart from the problem of habit (which I will get around to when I have something to back myself up) this explains why it's so tough to break a routine. Following a set routine, you feel no particular gain or loss; it's merely comfortable, merely satisfactory. Comfortable and satisfactory isn't great - a prolonged stint in that state breeds yearning for change and excitement and fulfillment - but at least it's not risky. You won't lose anything from staying put. Whereas if you decide to take the leap...

... a phalanx of choices and the associated headaching lays itself before you. What are you trying to achieve with this change? Whatever it is, what is the best way to go about achieving it? Could you be spending your time in a more productive way? What if you focus your efforts into making this change when you would be happier focusing your efforts into another?

And perhaps worst of all: what if you so carefully and delicately choose the change and the method, and despite your best efforts, fail?

In my opinion, that's the biggest obstacle to change that there is. Trying and failing is a blow to the ego (and time, and resources, and etc.) that staying with the status quo can never be. In terms of those studies about loss being a bigger blow than an equivalent gain is a bolster, the risk, in our minds, is mathematically not worth it. Whether we know that it's mathematical or not is, apparently, unimportant, because we calculate it unconsciously and decide accordingly.

I must be calculating away up there in my unconscious brain calculator, because the outcome of my decisions frequently follow this formula. That is to say, change is often harder for me when the risk of failing is greater.

The next post will be a continuation of this post, since I had no idea how seamlessly it would bleed into the end of this one So I'm just going to carry on later and all three of you will just have to deal with this topic being really, really longwinded (and if you read me normally then you shouldn't have a problem because you will be used to it). The only reason I'm not carrying on now is that I have run out of time. Look forward to more excessively wordy fleshing out of this fascinating topic tomorrow!

Regret On Behalf of a Town

I fittingly overheard this at a sheepskin boots booth at the Boulder Fine Arts Festival:

"And every time she goes back there she gets an overwhelming sense of regret, because everything she remembers has changed."

Odd, to feel regret on behalf of something else (in this case, presumably a city or a town). I always thought of regret as being defined by something you wish you had done differently. Not something that, out of your hands, turned out differently by itself. I am assuming here, of course, that the woman in question didn't leave her hometown in flames, set off by her lighting fire to the city hall after freeing all the prisoners from the jailhouse and inciting revolutionary thoughts in all the townsfolk.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Choice and Change 1: The Farmers Market Example

Though I was, by my own memory, for the most part, a low-maintenance child who was content to read in her bedroom, sing herself to sleep, and play quietly on the piano in the living room, the one thing I would really work myself up into a rage about was being asked to make small, unimportant decisions.

Every Saturday, there was a farmers market about a mile from our house. Every Saturday, my mom asked me whether I wanted to go with her to the market or stay home with my dad. And every Saturday, without fail, my endless and increasingly desperate deliberations ended with me howling in the entryway with one foot outside the house and one foot inside the house, watching my mom walk down the street towards the car and feeling my body pushed and pulled from both directions as I frantically thought about the wonderful things that would undoubtably happen at the market if I stayed home, and the wonderful things that would undoubtably happen at home if I went to the market.

There were so many things for my small, obsessive mind to consider. The farmers market was a mixed bag. Occasionally, we'd take my little portable keyboard with us and I'd improvise songs on it while sitting next to the carrot-seller. People would throw me money whether they could hear what I was playing or not (and usually they couldn't because I was shy and turned the volume way down) because I was little and cute. However, the ground was uncomfortable and the noise was distracting and people would fawn over me, my mom included, and the one thing I hated more than anything was being fawned over. So usually we didn't bring the keyboard.

Keyboard aside, there were so many other things. I liked choosing what we would buy. I had strong opinions about which vegetables I liked and which vegetables I didn't. I liked all fruit, but I was picky about bruises and ripeness. Sometimes there were seafood stands and they would give samples of fine lox and even caviar. Hippies, who weren't quite as prevalent in the 80's, proffered granola, which my mom, and therefore I, distrusted. And other men, usually grizzled and in wide-brimmed hats, would be playing their guitars next to their favorite vendors, and my mom would give me a dollar and let me creep up next to him and drop it in his open case. That short bout of being in front of the crowd was about all I could take. No thank-you's or what's-your-name's or invitations to sing along to children's songs. Just a dollar in the case and a hurried return to my mom.

But sometimes I got tired of the market. I was, even then, an introvert. Grownups and conversation and the sun and the crowds eventually got under my skin and I would start whining and acting like a spoiled bratty only child, which, of course, I was. All I ever ended up wanting to do, after an hour at the market, was to flop on the couch with a book and a bunch of carrots. I hated this feeling of dragging my sluggish feet around and having to smile whenever we ran into anyone my mom knew, which was everyone, since she taught in the local school system, and answer questions about how my piano playing was going and what new songs I was learning.

With one foot out and one foot in the house, I'd consider all these things, and more. My best friend who lived across the street might come home while I was at the market and want to do something fun - more fun than going to the market. Like having a water balloon advance against some unsuspecting kid's porch, or throwing our plastic parachuters off the roof. By the time I got back from the market, he might be gone!

I could also go to the beach - while also sunny, and filled with people who knew my parents, the advantage to the beach was that I could lay down and read and still have the general feeling of having done something social. But I might miss my favorite guitar man, or my mom might not bring home the right kind of apples.

The bottom line was that I was positive that whichever totally insignificant path I chose, I would spend the time steeping in regret for having made the 'wrong choice'. Even though it was clear that going to the farmers market or not going to the farmers market wouldn't have any huge, lasting impact on my life, I was convinced that it would.

Similar quandaries happened when: my mom asked me what I wanted to eat for breakfast; whether I wanted to take the car or the train downtown; whether I wanted to have my birthday dinner on my birthday or on the nearest weekend night... the list goes on and on.

I remember laying in bed on a school morning and my mom asking me what I wanted for breakfast. Listing off all my options. Pancakes. Scrambled eggs. Hard boiled eggs. Cream of Wheat. Toast. I could never decide. And then my dad would be yelling at my mom: 'Why give her a choice? You're doing her a favor! Make what you want to make! If she doesn't like it, she'll have to deal with it or else make her own!'

The funny thing is, even as I lay worrying about tragically making the wrong breakfast choice and having to suffer the regretful consequences, I realized that I would have actually preferred it had she just chosen something and made it for me without asking. Even if I hadn't particularly felt like whatever-it-was, I could just think, gross, Cream of Wheat', probably sulk a little, because I was spoiled, and then eat it and get over it with little result except maybe a less-than-satisfied stomach. Instead of having to agonize over a decision, get the pancakes, eat them, and think, if only I had gotten the Cream of Wheat.

I realize that this entry is ridiculous, because my child's mind had no idea how to distinguish important decisions from unimportant ones, and so I'm forced to write about the intricacies of breakfast cereal, but I think it does have larger implications. Namely, I still have less trouble with the outcome of a crossroads if it was forced upon me, and more trouble if I was responsible for choosing.

So obviously that causes me to wonder if it's possible to fool oneself into changing by making it seem like it's a forced change, and not a willpower-based-change. I'll hold off on commenting further, though, until I read the next book from the library that I have, which is called The Paradox of Choice and which has, I'm sure, insight that I can draw on if not totally just quote wildly and at will.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Fire Drill Example

Up in the bathroom at work (in other rooms, too, I'm sure, but in no other room am I forced to sit still with no distractions and stare forward straight at it) is a fire escape plan. It details the most direct route of escape from the building from the bathroom. It also uses an arrow to direct which way you're supposed to go after you evacuate. In our case, everyone evacuating the building is supposed to gather in the parking lot of the building directly east of us.

I never understood this before our first work-wide fire drill (which was a joke because it turns out we don't have internal fire alarms or smoke detectors so they had to set off the burglar alarm and explain to us later how our building was a total matchbox waiting to light itself and how if we saw a fire we had to use our voiceboxes as fire alarms, but I digress). The bathroom is on the west side of the building and the gathering place is on the east side. In a fire, why would I want to double back by the burning, billowy building just to meet up with a bunch of coworkers, instead of running like hell in the opposite direction?

During those collective trips to the bathroom, I made my decision: I will choose the running-like-hell option, should the choice ever present itself. I didn't see what the big deal was about everyone gathering, as long as everyone was individually safe. Right?

Well, the fire chief told us a story. She told us that in houses where the family scatters - some end up in the front yard, some in the backyard, some across the street - a parent will panic when they see their child isn't in the immediate vicinity, run back into the house to save them, and die in the fire. Apparently, it's even common. So even small families have to have a meeting plan in case of fire. It's not enough to get out safely. Everyone has to see that everyone else is safe so that heroes don't try to be heroes saving their loved ones. The firemen even have to ask the people who have made it out safely whether everyone in the house/building is there. If they're not, the firemen are required to go in and try to save them.

The story, while told gruffly and a bit accusingly (we weren't very good at gathering quickly - we sauntered) made me change my mind about my plan. I decided that I would be willing to walk through an uncomfortable - not life threatening - vicinity to keep firemen or coworkers from reentering a building unnecessarily for me.

It always helps to change your mind when you know what will be the purpose or the outcome of your changing it. Turning it around to fit into the fill-in-the-blank of two entries ago -

Change is hard when you can't see a good reason to change.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Self-Help Taboo

Whenever I wander through a bookstore, I wander through a fairly wide selection of sections - medicine, graphic novels, classics, sociology, physical anthropology, zoology - but I still check the room to make sure nobody I know is around before I duck into the self-help section. I'm sure everyone does. I pick up random books from every conceivable genre to flip through them all the time, but I'll carefully inspect the book jacket to make sure the cover is easily hide-able before I sit down on a chair and flip through anything even vaguely self-help-esque.

I feel slightly the same way about this blog, and I'm working hard to steer it away from having that self-helpy connotation. Sometimes when I use the terms 'we should' and 'we do' followed by universal things that 'we should do', I feel sleazy. I feel like I'm writing something embarrassing, like recaps of a reality show that are nowhere near as funny and spot-on as these recaps are.

Hopefully behavioral psychology, which I guess this falls under, can be steered far enough away from conclusions that turn into preachy quoteables that turn into pushy slogans or cheesy recitations. I am not interested in unearthing 'the one right way to change'. I am not interested in 'finding myself and encouraging others to do the same'... in exactly the manner I did, so I can smugly boast to them when I give advice from on high. I am not interested, in fact, in discovering some sort of golden conclusion, the be-all-end-all of struggle.

The Scandinavian Shower Example

This will illustrate how far into the dark, webby corners of the internet I often go (referencing blog comments?), but in a comment on Becca's Belgian blog, someone mentioned how in Scandinavia if you're in the communal apartment shower for more than three minutes, someone will knock on the door and 'remind you that you're not in a Turkish bath or spa'.

If I were to visit that part of Scandinavia and find myself in that situation, I'd take the three minute shower so nobody thought I was a pampered brat, but in my mind, I'd be blubbering like a baby, and for the length of my visit, I'd be missing my decadent 25 minute showers where I shampoo and condition and scrub and shave and luxuriate under the near-scalding stream. I would count the days until I found myself back home, or in a high-class hotel, or anywhere at all that would accept my doing that.

In other words, it would be hard for me to change my shower habits. Do these bathroom-door-knockers spend their paltry - and environmentally responsible - showers dreaming of decadent, water-wasting, irresponsible showers? I don't know, but if anyone knows, please leave a comment and tell me. It would go a long way towards helping me to understand habits as they relate to desires.

What I'm guessing - and what I will assume until I find differently or enough people argue with me - is that they do not. There's a big mental difference between having had and lost than never having had at all (try teaching THAT as an ESL teacher). The difference between living on a $20k/year salary straight out of college - eating ramen noodles and pizza, using disgusting bathroom, and sleeping in creaking bunk beds - and living on a $20k/year salary after living for 30 years making six figures - driving around in luxury cars, eating in gourmet restaurants, and travelling the world with little regard to cost - is huge.

Both individuals will, I'm sure, long for more money. Both might play the lottery, constantly skim job ads looking for something better, gamble, feel jealous of richer friends (and help coin the term 'more successful' for them - what is the deal with that phrase??), et cetera. But the second individual featured will also feel not only a sense of loss, and maybe guilt or regret, for whatever they did to lose what they had, and maybe shame, for falling 'below' their old friends, but also - and I think this would be the hardest to deal with - a complete disconnect from the comforts and habits of their old life. They'll instinctively try keep their weekly massage appointments, their semi-weekly golf dates, their monthly trips to Mexico, then realize there's no place in the budget for them. When they have to miss these things, and instead sit at home in their new austere apartment with its bare walls and food from the grocery store, they'll feel depressed. And they'll think, 'how do people live like this?'

People, namely my parents, have implied this when they have visited me in the studio apartments of the past. They can't believe I don't have: a microwave/an oven/a shower mat/a proper bed, rather than a futon on the floor. They wouldn't be able to live without these things and assume I wouldn't either.

But hardly anyone who's lived on that salary all their life would sit at home feeling depressed because they couldn't get massages, play golf, and go to Mexico. It would feel ridiculous to do it. It's not that they wouldn't want to get massages, play golf, and go to Mexico, but it wouldn't feel like a loss in their life, like something vitally necessary was missing.

It is harder to change to something 'lesser than', than to have lived at the 'lesser than' level and to continue to live there. Even though the end result is the same. The conditions are the same. Human necessities for life remain the same (and incidentally, are set far lower than the 'lower than' conditions I've set out). These two people could be living identical lives, but their perceptions of them will make the lives seem radically different.

The conclusion of that little aside doesn't, however, lead to the further extrapolated conclusion that 'change is hard'. It's not difficult for a person suddenly given a $100k raise or in the sudden possession of lottery winnings to adjust to a life of luxury. It can take less than a month, I'm sure. And no person will then lay back on their massage bed in a hotel on a Caribbean beach and long for their tiny, noisy, dirty apartment. They won't miss paying the minimum balance on their credit card and living with tooth pain because dentists are expensive and worrying about whether time off from work will be paid or unpaid and how that'll affect their upcoming yearly family reunion. Habits in that case fall flat. They're dropped like hotplates. Things that have been second nature for years go out the window with no trouble whatsoever.

So the new extrapolated conclusion would be what - 'Change is hard when _______'?

It's not 'Change is hard when you're moving from something simple to something complicated.' Managing millions of dollars is not simple. Hiring an accountant to do your crazy taxes after you invest your money in a bunch of stocks is not simple. Organizing your jaunts to other countries around the builder for your new mansion's schedule is not simple. And I'm not sure that anyone would call it fun, either.

It's not 'Change is hard when you're moving from something better for you to something worse for you.' Rich people aren't necessarily known for their sunny personalities and cheery dispositions. They're also not known for their healthy lifestyles. Just because someone has a lot of money doesn't mean they're going to buy wheatgrass shots and royal jelly spoonfuls and hire a raw food chef and a personal trainer. And speaking of personal trainers, if the above conclusion were true, then beginning a workout regimen would be easy. Nothing more needs to be said to disprove THAT one.

Is it 'Change is hard when you're moving from something comfortable to something uncomfortable?' Maybe. Comfort is obviously hard to define, as in, say when lounging around on the couch watching video marathons is relaxing and fun and easy to do, but causes a sick sort of emptiness when you're done (the emptiness I would personally categorize as very uncomfortable).

Perhaps comfort only comes after someone has settled into a habit, and comfort is only another word for familiarity, in which case the above conclusion is a tricky little circle of logic that only leads to the following: Change itself is (initially) uncomfortable. Which, as we have already seen in the case of lottery winner, it is not.

'Change is hard when __________.' Fill in the blank in the comments. I will continue trying to do so myself.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The First Rumblings

I got the idea to do something, not necessarily this blog, but something nonetheless, when I was walking into a mid-sized organic market near my house. The purse I was wearing was full of library books and there was a new sign on the sliding doors: We Appreciate Your Efforts In Bringing Your Own Bags!

The sign was no doubt meant to induce a mild infusion of environmentalist shame in those who so carelessly expected disposable bags to be provided. But when I looked at it, all I felt was wishy-washy politeness, a sign taking a position without sacrificing its friendliness. Bring your own bags if you want, it seemed to say, I mean, we'd appreciate it, we're totally for recycling and cutting down on wastefulness and all that kind of stuff. But if you don't, that's totally cool. We have plastic bags ready for you. Paper, too! We've got them if you need them, so don't feel the need to, like, go out of your way to change.

Since I have no training in the type of psychology that researches this kind of thing, I don't know if my gut feeling was true, but my gut feeling was that this sign, and others with that kind of message, wouldn't work. They wouldn't compel people to start bringing their own reuseable bags. They wouldn't force people to think about the effect of endless plastic bags on the environment. And they especially wouldn't make bringing reusable bags a widespread, effortless habit, something every member of the organic grocery shopping population just does, without thinking about it. They wouldn't turn those people who still insisted on being handed unlimited free plastic bags with their purchases into social pariahs.

So what would do all those things? That's what this blog was created to figure out. Not just what would make people start using reusable bags. (I think that needs to be made clear at this point; this is not about to be a blog about raising awareness about the importance of reusable bags - that would be crazy, and also about as useful as that sign in the organic market.) What is needed for a single person to stop a lifelong habit of nail biting? Not just stopping the actual biting, but stopping the desire to bite, until not biting is just as easy as biting ever was? What is needed for a whole population to start believing that driving a car is not an innate privilege, and to consider the actual consequences? And after the consequences have been considered, what is needed for the population to decide that biking, walking, bussing, should be and are now the norms?

There's a big gap between believing and knowing, and then an even bigger one between knowing and acting. Those gaps are big enough for me to consider them disconnects. Embarrassing, yet telling examples from my own life include:

-Understanding the ridiculousness of recyclables going into landfills to sit and rot for all eternity or similar (I realize that's a ridiculous oversimplication), but still tossing paper and plastic into the trash fairly regularly because I don't feel like sorting them out, finding separate containers, or really, just bothering to do it. I know that that simple type of recycling is something even people who eat shark fin soup for dinner, wear fur stoles, and smoke cigarettes occasionally do - and it gives me an incredible guilt complex that I don't - but I can't, or won't, tumble over that pathetic invisible hurdle to actually move from understanding it to doing it.

- Understanding that staying in and surfing the web aimlessly and watching terrible YouTube videos makes me feel sick to my stomach and intellectually stunted, but often doing it anyway. On the other side of it, understanding that writing music and singing and exercising and other such sunny, creative, wholesome activities all make me feel free and happy and excited... but instead choosing to watch terrible YouTube videos. It is easier to do the thing that makes me feel sick. Why is that? Why are my habits (and most people's habits) naturally centered around things that aren't good for them? Why is it so easy to do things that aren't good for you? What's so damn easy about surfing the web aimlessly that isn't easy about writing a rant like this?


1. Plain old habit. When technology comes out with something undeniably awesome, like the ability to watch TV shows for free whenever it's convenient, or search for endless videos of cute cats, or, well, look up free information on any topic that strikes your particular fancy at the moment (a treatise on the history and application of elevators? Look no further. Want to see what happens when anyone can edit an article about a controversial political figure? Voila! Despairing about your job and how awful it is? Find gruesome relief.) you'll become quickly fascinated and spend hours lost in it. Before long, it will be hard to remember the days when you had to go to the library to read an essay on particle physics, or actually be at home when your favorite show was on, or shuffle through heavy, often irrelevant old dusty books to write a research paper. Once you're used to finding everything on the internet, you spend your time, um, finding everything on the internet. The internet is easy, convenient, and has now wormed its way into your comfort zone, and as we know, there is no worse place for something dangerous to settle than your comfort zone.

2. Jadedness.

Is 'jadedness' a word? Oh well, someone knows. It's probably listed, or unlisted, in a thousand different online dictionaries. Someone else will look it up. Well, I could look it up. Hmm, it is. Looks like someone already did the research to find out. Why should I bother working out the grammar rules to figure out if jaded can be suffixed with -ness, if I can just click twice and find out? Oh, hey, is 'suffixed' a word? Doesn't matter. Everyone's constantly introducing new words into modern parlance. I could do it, but someone probably already has, so why bother? Oh, but wait! I could write about about how words come to be added to the dictionary! That'd be interesting... oh, shit.  That's totally been done.  Well, here's my keyboard... I could improvise music like I used to do when I was little. But every time I do it it becomes painfully obvious that people who have been practicing diligently their whole lives are way better than I will ever be. So why bother even doing it, if it'll be painful to listen to myself do it?

May as well just read and enjoy the things that have been written. May as well just listen and enjoy the things that have been created.


On that note, hey! I have an idea. How about I dedicate a bunch of time to researching and writing a blog or book about the moment at which population customs change and a trend becomes a habit? I saw this sign at the food market and it totally made me think and stuff!

Nobody's done that, right? Nobody's written a national bestseller about that already... RIGHT?

Okay, I read this book before I started this blog. I started this blog even though the book is similar, even though the inclination to give up because someone's already done it was strong. My aims are a little different - I want to focus on each individual's personal tipping point, because I don't believe everyone's is the same - but I admit that there is a similar treatise out there already.

However, this treatise didn't answer all of my sometimes burning, sometimes dormant questions. I feel like it's up to me to go in search of answers myself, despite the real possibility that there is endless research like my own splashed all over the internet already. I feel like it's up to me to organize all of it in a cohesive manner and find my own answers. And that is an odd feeling, because it's a total change from the way I normally look at things (the normal way I look at things is depressingly similar to #2 above).

Whether this change proves to be a permanent, habit-forming tip in my behaviour or not remains to be seen. And I feel foolishly meta for pointing this out, but the existence of this blog about strategies for change and characteristics of change depends wholly on my own personal ability to change, which is both entertaining and hazardous given my history. Most people's history, I would assume.

Suggestions, links, ideas, and dialogue will help us all along.