Do you have a preferred pain ??

Posted by Tandarin Nike Saturday, April 30, 2011 1:36 AM 0 comments
The common sense view of pain and pleasure is that humans seek pleasure and try to avoid pain. Lately I've come to wonder if that's backwards, or at least incomplete. I see too many examples in which people appear to be chasing pain.

My theory is that our biggest motivator is the need to feel alive, and that pleasure isn't a sharp enough feeling to get us there. When you're bored or lonely, you're feeling something closer to death than life. And so you seek out pain to remind yourself that you're alive.

By this theory, the quest for pain is the primary motivator of all major life choices.

One test of a theory is that it can predict people's actions. And indeed you can see that people routinely choose activities that deliver pain. Consider a distance runner, for example. The health benefits of running are largely achieved in the first few miles. The rest is a pain that confirms we are alive.

You might argue that runners get a high, and they get great satisfaction from achieving a better time or finishing a marathon.

I'm going to argue that the pleasures are side benefits. But first I will add one more condition to my theory: Everyone chooses the pain they like best. For the runner, muscle pain is the drug of choice. For a soldier in a volunteer army, it might be the fear of combat, or the harsh living conditions.

For the entrepreneur, it might be the fear of failing. Everyone picks their own brand of pain. Sometimes we call that pain "challenge" to disguise it.

So far, all of the activities I mentioned have identifiable pleasures. The soldier gets the feeling of pride in serving the country, veteran benefits, and sometimes the thrill of combat. The entrepreneur gets the satisfaction of doing things his own way, and with any luck, riches too.

These examples are ambiguous because the participants get both pain and pleasure.

And if these examples were the only ones we had, I would not have a theory. We also need examples where people clearly choose pain over pleasure. That would be the best evidence for the theory.

Consider sports. Most sports are designed to guarantee failure for the majority of participants. In amateur tennis, if you join a league, and you start winning more than you lose, the computer rankings bump you up to the next level where you will mostly lose.

You would think that a system designed to make participants feel like losers most of the time would become extinct, but it actually thrives.

Golf is an entire game built around making something that is naturally easy - putting a ball into a hole - as difficult as possible, to guarantee plenty of losing.

In football you're normally thwarted every few yards. In baseball you strike out more than you hit. If winning were the payoff, sports would be a business where participants paid opponents to intentionally lose.

Perhaps you think losing is necessary to make the winning feel good. But consider small kids. For them, life is so vivid that they need no reminder they are alive. Every second is a miracle. And little kids prefer activities with no losing whatsoever. Only the winning appeals to them.

As we get older, and our sensation of living dulls, we seek the pain that confirms our existence. We seek sports to increase our losing.

You might know people who continuously make choices that put them in some sort of danger, economically, socially, or physically. To you, their choices seem unwise. You assume that the people who make those choices get some sort of payoff you can't understand. I think the payoff is the pain itself, and the attendant feeling of being alive.

If sadness is your preferred pain, you watch sad movies. If muscle soreness is your preferred pain, you exercise vigorously. If economic uncertainty is your preferred pain, you pick fights with your boss. If stress is your preferred pain, you make sure you don't leave enough time to do what you need to do.

This theory came to me recently when a number of people asked me, in all seriousness, if I've gone insane. It seems to the reasonable observer that I've intentionally stirred up more trouble for myself in this blog than can be explained by the pursuit of pleasure.

Where's my payoff?

If you look at most of my career choices, they have in common an unusually high risk of public criticism. I like the pleasures of success, but I need the pain of criticism. And because mine is a relatively rare form of preferred pain, it looks like insanity to the casual observer. To me, extreme sports look like a form of insanity. To each his own.

Consider your own life choices as an adult.

Do you have a preferred pain for feeling alive?

Engineered Happiness

Posted by Tandarin Nike Tuesday, April 19, 2011 8:15 AM 2 comments
It occurred to me recently that I have developed quite a few tricks for engineering my own happiness.

Allow me to share a few. Some are more obvious than others.

Food - Observe your own mood, and that of others, in the context of how recently they have eaten. If there's a hothead in your circle, notice that his anger is greatest before meals, when hunger is highest, and rarely does he explode during meals or just after. When you feel agitated, try eating some carbs. They're like a miracle drug. I suspect that anger is evolution's way of telling you to go kill something so you can eat.

Exercise - When I've exercised in the past day, almost nothing bothers me. And I sleep like a pile of moss. If you think of exercise in its usual way, as one component of health, or as a way to lose weight, it's easy to skip your hour at the gym. If you think of it as the difference between a good day and a bad day, it's easier to make it a priority.

Goals - I make it a habit to have at least one project brewing at all times that has a non-zero chance of changing the planet, or making a billion dinars, or both. Creating a blog was just one out of several dozen projects of that nature. As I write this, I have plans for all this post readers that would uncap their potential while helping a number of other people they know at the same time. That's a good feeling to wake up to. When one project doesn't work, I'll put another dream into the slot. (I don't put much time or money into the long shots).

Meaning - If you're young and you haven't yet achieved some level of success by your own standards, by all means make yourself your own first priority. You can't help others until you first help yourself. If you reach a more comfortable level, you'll find you need to be useful to others in order to find meaning and feel right in your own skin. That doesn't mean giving everything away. It's okay to pick your spots. You don't need to suffer in the process.

Positivity - The self-help gurus will tell you it's important to have an ongoing positive dialog with yourself. Lots of books have been written on this topic. All I will add is that you might be completely unaware of how negative you are. Many people make the mistake of incorporating negativity in their humor and thinking the outcome is a net positive.

That takes the form of reflexively commenting on what's wrong with, well, everything. I used to be that guy. It was a habit I picked up from my mother. I thought I was being funny. An ex did me the favor of pointing out that I was actually just being an asshole. All the time. Luckily, this is one of the easiest habits you can ever break. Now I make it a practice to think or say something positive immediately after I let slip a negative comment. Saying positive things puts your mind into a positive state. And when you become that guy, you attract positive relationships and positive outcomes.

A Little Bit of Danger - I don't recommend taking physical risks. But you'll feel more alive if you make it a habit to try new things, even if those things scare you a bit. I'm talking about small risks, such as signing up for an activity you know you will be bad at, or joining Toastmasters International (to give speeches), or sampling the unknown in some other way.

Learn - Feed your brain. The more active your brain is, the more alive you will feel. As a bonus, learning new things can be just the distraction you need to keep your mind from focusing on whatever else in your life is bugging you.

Feel Success - Make it a habit to often do things you do well. It doesn't matter if your best skill is playing chess or cooking or business or being a parent. Doing one thing well gives your ego some armor to handle all of the little things that don't go quite so well during the week.

Relationships - It's hard to be happy if you don't have whatever sorts of relationships in your life that work for you. The only advice I have in this area is that following the other tips for happiness will allow you to attract the sort of relationships you want.

That's a starter list for happiness. I don't think it contains any surprises.

But sometimes it's nice to remind yourself that your happiness can be engineered, and that luck is a product of good design.