Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Day After Christmas

I'm not sure how young I was when I first doubted the existence of Santa Claus.  Maybe seven years old?

Yes, the impossibility of Santa making all those deliveries in one night bothered me a bit, as did the whole, "he won't show up if you're not asleep" thing, but it was probably some of the "supporting evidence" for Santa Claus that bothered me the most.

Like the letters I received that were supposed to be from Santa Claus, to me.  On the surface, these letters might seem to be proof of Santa's existence.  But the return address on the envelope read, "North Pole, Alaska".  And even at seven years old, I was smart enough to know that the North Pole isn't in Alaska!  That was the kind of dumb mistake, I thought, that a grown-up would make when trying to fake out a kid.

Either that, or there was a town called "North Pole" in Alaska, in which case the letter's return address could be legitimate...  but the letter would still be a fake.  Santa was supposed to live at the North Pole, not in a town called "North Pole", after all!

So I devised a clever plan -- well, clever for a seven-year old, anyway -- that would trap my mother (who still insisted that Santa Claus was real) into admitting the truth.  I guess, even at that age, I preferred facing painful truths to believing pleasant lies.

But I Won't Tell You What It Was...  Just Yet

Now, for a kid, Christmas is all about the anticipation.  You have that one toy that you want more than anything, and even if you know there's no Santa Claus, and you already sneaked into your parents' room and found where they hid the thing, you still have to wait until Christmas morning!

Heck, for me the anticipation was that much greater if I knew I was getting the thing I wanted.  If I didn't find the hidden presents, then who knew what I might end up with?  Maybe that box under the tree wasn't a toy at all, but was really some terribly useful gift such as underwear!

But once you actually get the thing you want, it's usually a disappointment.  Oh sure, you're incredibly happy on Christmas day, and you may even play with the toy for months afterward...

But it's just not the same as when you imagined it!

Before Christmas, the thing you want seems magical and perfect.  Surely it will transform your life from a realm of tedium, into daily celebration at the wondrous miracle of its toy-ous perfection!

But when the real thing appears, you discover it's just another toy.  It has its good points and its bad points, and there are only so many things you can do with it.  The real toy cannot compare to the imaginary one, and you quickly become accustomed to its existence.  Life goes back to normal, as it always does...  until the next year, and the next must-have toy comes around.

And before I even reached the age of twelve, I had pretty much figured that cycle out.  Every year, by New Year's day, I would realize that I had fallen into that cycle again.  But even though I knew that no toy had ever made me happy for more than a short while, it never stopped me from wanting another toy the following year.

But this was not because I really believed that each new toy was different.  It's just that the part of a person that understands this cycle, and the part of a person that does the wanting and craving are...

Two Different Parts Of The Brain

You see, our brains evolved to give out the maximum pleasure reward, not for the pleasant things we already have, but for the pleasant things we anticipate getting.  Literally, it is the thrill of the chase!

Imagine an animal searching for food -- perhaps a predator seeking prey.  The animal sees something that might be a footprint of its prey.  Should it investigate?

At this point, the brain's "seeking" circuit kicks in, giving the predator a powerful reward for having looked for footprints in the first place.  Or for having come to this area looking for prey.  Or whatever else the animal is doing that led to this possible prey sighting.  The animal will now come back to the area more frequently to look.

Why?  Because the pleasure produced by the "seeking" circuit is the most powerful the brain can produce.  In fact, early brain research mistook the seeking circuit for the brain's "pleasure center!"

Do you remember those experiments where they gave lab rats a lever that would stimulate their brains' "pleasure centers", and the rats would then just sit around pushing the lever until they starved?  Well, that was really the seeker circuit.  So you could say that...

Those Rats Literally Killed Themselves with Anticipation!

As I explained almost a year ago, in Smelling The Fear, Feeling The Future (which is also chapter 16 of You, Version 2.0), our feelings are nature's crude way of predicting the future.  Bad feelings predict bad futures, and good feelings predict good ones.  This is important, because, as I said then:

It's better for an animal's survival to respond to the fear of something, than the actual pain of it. In a sense, the function of pain is merely to provide you with something to later fear, because punishing you for something that has already happened isn't much use. This is also why animals can learn to fear things by observing others of their species behave fearfully: if monkeys had to get bitten by tigers in order to fear them, it wouldn't be very good for their odds of survival.

And the same principle applies to pleasure as to pain.  If you didn't get the pleasure of food until you ate it, you would never survive long enough to learn how to look for food!

So, just as fear is the most overpowering negative emotion, so is anticipation the most powerful positive emotion.  Depending on how it is used, it can either produce the most wonderful experiences ever, or...

Destroy Your Life Entirely!

Consider, for example, how many marriages are run aground by one partner's addiction to the "thrill of the chase".  Or financial lives are ruined by the anticipation of another "big win" at the slot machines or the gaming tables.  Even minor addictions like perpetually checking email or reading blogs are driven by small hits of the "anticipation" drug, and it doesn't matter whether you intellectually understand this or not.

Because your behavior, like it or not, is not driven by what you think, but by what you feel.

And unfortunately, our feelings are actually lousy predictors of the future, because life isn't much like it was 100,000 years ago.  We are hundreds of times safer, and have ridiculously easy access to abundant quantities of almost anything we could possibly want, but our feelings are still tuned for a life of scarcity!

Recently, Josh Kaufman (one of my Seven Days To Live Your Dreams participants and the creator of The Personal MBA) wrote me with a link to an interesting talk on the psychology of happiness.  He knew I'd be interested, because the talk gives some scientific background for some of the principles I spoke about in the Seven Days workshops, such as "Indecision is suffering."

The talk was given by Dan Gilbert, the author of Stumbling On Happiness, and it explains just how bad at predicting the future our brains really are.  As Malcom Gladwell (the author of "Blink") wrote in his review of Stumbling on Happiness:

We spend a great deal of our waking life imagining what it would be like to be this way or that way, or to do this or that, or taste or buy or experience some state or feeling or thing. We do that for good reasons: it is what allows us to shape our life. And it is by trying to exert some control over our futures that we attempt to be happy. But by any objective measure, we are really bad at that predictive function. We're terrible at knowing how we will feel a day or a month or year from now, and even worse at knowing what will and will not bring us that cherished happiness. Gilbert sets out to figure what that's so: why we are so terrible at something that would seem to be so extraordinarily important?

The talk gives a great explanation of some of the reasons for this, but I think that one of the more important reasons is one that the talk doesn't address.  Specifically, the issue is that the only thing about your future happiness that evolution is interested in predicting is...

Whether You're Still Around to Have Any!

See, evolution doesn't care if you have a great life, from your point of view.  Evolution's definition of a great life is just that you stay alive long enough to have lots of kids, who then go on to do the same.  And evolution doesn't give a damn if you're happy while you're doing all that, unless the lack of happiness somehow inteferes with your job of surviving and reproducing!

So there's no need for evolution to make us happy after we get the food, or the mate, or avoid getting killed, or whatever else it is we're supposed to be doing.  We get a little pleasure for celebration, sure, but that's basically it.  Tomorrow is another day, and you'll have to eat again, so it's back to "normal" feelings for you!  That way, the carrot of anticipation and the stick of fear will have meaning for you at just the right times for it to matter, so that we keep doing the things that evolution "wants" us to.

We experience pleasure and pain in our lives, not because of some mystical balance or battle between good and evil, but because we are evolution's genetic puppets.  Our genes pull the strings, and we dance accordingly.

And thus, the lesson of the day after Christmas...  That is, the day when life goes back to normal.

We will always think we will be happy when we get what we want, because our brains do not have any natural circuits for predicting what happens after we get what we want!  Such circuits are counterproductive from evolution's point of view, because if you started thinking about consequences, you might start wondering what the meaning of life was, and whether you should really go on with all the surviving and reproducing.  And then you might commit suicide or decide not to have kids, thereby ensuring that whatever stray genes caused your foresight will be wiped out of the gene pool, or at least reduced in number.

And that's why we break up our marriages, gamble away our savings, become overweight, get addicted, steal, or even read blogs instead of working!  Not because we can't intellectually anticipate the negative consequences of our actions, but because the part of the brain that anticipates those things is merely the thinking part, not the feeling part.  And when your thoughts and feelings are in conflict...

Your Feelings Always Win!

So as you contemplate what you want in the new year, I encourage you to think about what happens after you get what you want.  How will you actually live your life differently?

Because if you don't think about this, you may discover that what you get, isn't really what you wanted.  After all, if you try to lose weight in order to become popular, you might not discover until much later that it wasn't your weight that made you unpopular!

And although my Seven Days course teaches quite a lot about how to create "mouth-watering goals" to leverage the power of anticipation, in the long run it matters more that you choose the right goals, than it is whether you achieve them!

Fortunately, there is a technique you can use to "sanity-check" your goals, that will let you know whether pursuing (and achieving) the goal will actually bring you long-term happiness.

But for now, I'm not going to tell you what it is.  That way, you can truly savor the anticipation of waiting for my next article.  Feel free to subscribe to my blog via email, or add me to your feed reader (Bloglines, Google News, etc.) so you'll get it automatically!  ;-) 

Oh, and happy Festivus Maximus!

--PJE