Constructive Living by David Reynolds

Constructive Living by David Reynolds

I picked up a used copy (the book is out of print) of Constructive Living by David Reynolds after reading a comment from James Hogan on Patri Friedman’s livejournal.

The book bills itself on the cover: “Outgrow shyness, depression, fear, stress, grief, chronic pain. Achieve the goal of Constructive Living—to do everything well.

At around 100 pages in length, the book is a quick read that essentially admonishes you to act your way into a better life. In keeping with my fascination/recent obsession with doing over thinking as well as Glasser’s Control Theory and Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, CL was right up my alley.

Part of CL is about paying attention to your life. To some extent, it seems a bit like a “living in the moment” sort of mantra; however, I think the idea is much more poignant/specific than that. If I could sum up CL in one sentence, I’d clumsily suggest that constructive living is “Acknowledging your feelings and then taking control of what you are doing.”

It’s in the doing that you can outgrow your feelings. There’s a maxim somewhere in the book that has managed to stick in my brain:

“Doing wags the tail of feelings.”

To elaborate somewhat on this quote, we can’t control our feelings. And since I can’t control what I’m feeling, I also can’t control the feelings of those I care about. What I can do is control my behavior. I can do something—anything. By doing, I can change my situation, which will almost always ultimately change my feelings.

We are only what we do. So doing is not just about taking control, it’s also a rejection of wishing, wanting, can’ting, or any other type of behavior that is non-constructive. I can dream about wanting to be successful all day — those dreams may be fun to imagine, but they do nothing to advance my state.

Here’s a memorable quote from the book that somewhat deals with the idea of dreaming and doing:

The first step in changing reality is to recognize it as it is now. There is no need to wish it were otherwise. It simply is. Pleasant or not, it is. Then comes behavior that acts on the present reality. Behavior can change what is. We may have visions of what will be. We cannot (and need not) prevent these dreams. But the visions won’t change the future. Action—in the present—changes the future. A trip of ten thousand miles starts out with one step, not with a fantasy about travel.


Constructive Living includes a number of exercises at the end of the book that work to refocus your life on doing. Not surprisingly, one of the exercises is exercising. Exercising is a fundamental way to act in a positive way and can work to change your feelings. Incidentally, he also suggests preparing your own meals. It’s interesting (to me) that over the past couple years, amidst a number of things I could not control, two things I’ve returned to over and over again have been cooking and exercise, which are really two core things that make you feel like a competent and capable human being.

CL has a distinct buddhist undertone. Another maxim in the book is that “self-centeredness is suffering,” which is less about being selfish and more about focusing your attention outward instead of dwelling on your own feelings. CL is actually based on Morita Therapy, a treatment that emerged out of Japan.

For such a short book, CL is worth re-reading. Even in its simplicity it has a great deal to digest, and I’m pretty sure I missed a few things.

Coincidentally, Penelope Trunk blogged on How to have more Self-Discipline the other day, and I’d recommend her post for a complimentary expression of Constructive Living (though I have no reason to believe that Penelope Trunk has read this book, there is a lot of great overlap in her post, which is also much better written than this scribbled out book review!).

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

Finished reading Stumbling on Happiness (SoH) by Daniel Gilbert last night, which weighs at about 240 pages and is an easy and informative discussion of the human mind, how we perceive the past and future, and our own ineptitude at understanding what makes us happy. It’s explicitly not a self-help book or a guide to finding happiness. SoH is more an expose on how our minds work to deal with reality, remember the past, and predict the future.

In short, we’re not very good at doing any of the above and Gilbert does a pretty excellent job at explaining why.

While reading SoH, I marked various pages that I found particularly insightful. I’m sharing those bits and pieces below, as transcribed from the book.

Note: This “review” is a bit long because I’m recording some of the core concepts of SoH for future reference (If I don’t do this, I’ll probably forget them!).

On the importance of control with regard to human well-being (Chapter 1, Prospection and Control):

Knowledge is power, and the most important reason why our brains insist on simulating the futrue even when we’d rather be here now, enjoying a goldfish moment, is that our brains want to control the experiences we are about to have.

[Regarding why we want control,] There are two answers to this question, one of which is surprisingly right and the other of which is surprisingly wrong.

The surprisingly right answer is that people find it gratifying to exercise control—not just for the futures it buys them, but for the exercise itself. Being effective … is one of the fundamental needs with which human brains seem to be naturally endowed …

… Research suggests that if [we] lose [our] ability to control things at any point between [our] entrance [into the world] and exit, [we] become unhappy, helpless, hopeless, and depressed. …

Our desire to control is so powerful, and the feeling of being in control so rewarding, that people often act as though they can control the uncontrollable.

We want—and we should want—to control the direction of our [lives] because some futures are better than others … This idea is so obvious that it barely seems worth mentioning, but I’m going to mention it anyway. Indeed, I am going to spend the rest of this book mentioning it because it will probably take more than a few mentions to convince you that what looks like an obvious idea is, in fact, the surprisingly wrong answer to our question. We insist on steering our [lives] because we think we have a pretty good idea of where we should go, but the truth is that much of tour steering is in vain … because the future is fundamentally different than it appears through the prospectiscope.

In other words, the futures we expect to have given we do X or Y are never the same way as we expect them to be when we imagine them now.

On our brains doing the “filling-in” trick and imagining thing we could not know (Chapter 4, Onward). This reminds me of jumping to conclusions or the logical fallacy of the “hasty generalization,” though both fail to capture what our minds are doing, which is using a great deal of spackling to fill in holes.

Your mistake was not in imagining things you could not know—that is, after all, what imagination is for. Rather, your mistake was in unthinkingly treating what you imagined as though it were an accurate representation of the facts. …

Without the filling-in trick you would have sketchy memories, an empty imagination, and a small black hole following you wherever you went … We see things that aren’t really there and we remember things that didn’t really happen, and while these may sound like symptoms of mercury poisoning, they are actually critical ingredients in the recipe for a seamlessly smooth and blessedly normal reality. … Even though we are aware … of the filling-in trick, we can’t help but expect the future to unfold with the details we imagine.

And on how the brain leaves things out (Chapter 5, Absence in the Present), Gilbert cites Francis Bacon:

Nearly four centuries ago, the philosopher and scientist Sir Francis Bacon wrote about the ways in which the mind errs, and he considered the failure to consider absences among the most serious:

By far the greatest impediment and aberration of the human understanding arises from [the fact that] . . . those things which strike the sense outweigh things which, although they may be more important, do not strike it directly. Hence, contemplation usually ceases with seeing, so much so that little or no attention is paid to things invisible.

I’ll circle back to this later, but this is strikingly similar to our abilities to justify action over inaction, which Gilbert addresses later in the book.

Gilbert further illustrates how our brains leave out important details in discussing siamese twins and blind people who are unquestionably happy. Those of us without such disabilities have a hard time appreciating how individuals stricken with a dehabilitating problem could be just as, if not more happy than us. That is because our brains leave out important details. Regarding blind people, Gilbert writes (Chapter 5, Absence in the Future):

[W]hen sighted people imagine being blind, they seem to forget that blindness is not a full-time job. Blind people can’t see, but they do most of the things that sighted people do—they go on picnics, pay their taxes, listen to music, get stuck in traffic—and thus they are just as happy as ighted people are. They can’t do everything sighted people can do, sighted people can’t do everything that they can do, and thus blind and sighted lives are not identical. But whatever a blind person’s life is like, it is about much more than blindness. And yet, when sighted people imagine being blind, they fail to imagine all other things that such a life might be about, hence they mispredict how satisfying such a life can be.

Later in Chapter 5 Gilbert makes the astute analogy between how when we see off in the distance of space, our brains understand that we are unable to make out many details of the far-off objects, like the hairs on buffalo far off in the horizon; however, when we see off in the distance of time (either remembering the past or imagining the future), we fail to appreciate the many details our temporal perception may leave out (On the Event Horizon):

But when we remember or imagine a temporally distant event, our brains seem to overlook the fact that the details vanish with temporal distance, and they conclude instead that the distant events actually are as smooth and vague as we are imagining and remembering them.

One interesting part of the book describes how we use our brain hardware to imagine. This means that when we imagine a song or a picture in our heads, we trigger the parts of the brain that deal with visual or audio stimuli. This works reasonably well, but it is difficult for our brains to multi-task the hardware, which means that when we are feeling a certain way, that feeling impacts our imagining of something else – like the past or future. Gilbert writes (Chapter 6, Onward):

Each of us is trapped in a place, a time, and a circumstance, and our attempts to use our minds to transcend those boundaries are, more often than not, ineffective. … We think we are thinking outside the box only because we can’t see how big the box really is. Imagination cannot easily transencd the boundaries of the present, and one reason for this is that it must borrow machinery that is owned by perception. The fact that these two processes must run on the same platform means that we are sometimes confused about which one is running. We assume that what we feel as we imagine the future is what we’ll feel when we get there, but in fact, what we feel as we imagine the future is often a response to what’s happening in the present. The time-share arrangement between perception and imagination is one of the causes of presentism …

Gilbert goes on to discuss the balance our minds strike between the real and the illusory, and that this balance is achieved by the competing forces of what motivates us (the illusory) and what keeps us grounded (the real). He writes in Chapter 8, Cooking with Facts:

We cannot do without reality and we cannot do without illusion. each serves a purpose, each imposes a limit on the influence of the other, and our experience of the world is the artful compromise that these tough competitors negotiate.

Rather than thinking people as hopelessly Panglossian, then, we might think of them as having a psychological immune system that defends the mind against unhappiness in much the same way that the physical immune system defends the body against illness.

The idea of our minds as having an immune system over otherwise cold-hard depressing truths is particularly apt. How often are we able to find the silver-lining on the darkest, most depressing of clouds? Indeed, this is almost certainly an evolved trait that forces us to press onward despite real, painful realities.

Two of the best ideas that Gilbert illustrates in SoH demonstrate the implications of having a psychological immune system. For one, the present of this mental immune system incites us to prefer action over inaction (Chapter 9, Looking Forward to Looking Backward):

But studies also show that nine out of ten people are wrong. Indeed, in the long run, people of every age and in every walk of life seem to regret not having done things much more than they regret things they did

But why do people regret inactions more than actions? One reason is that the psychological immune system has a more difficult time manufacturing positive and credible views of inactions than of actions. … The irony is all too clear: Because we do not realize that our psychological immune systems can rationalize an excess of courage more easily than an excess of cowardice,we hedge our bets when we should blunder forward.

The second point is that despite how we seem to believe we want as much choice and freedom as possible, our psychological immune system is so effective at its job that we are often better off without choice because the restrictions imposed by unchangeable decisions elicit compensatory justification by our minds, which enables us to make peace and appreciate our somewhat restricted positions (The Inescapability Trigger):

The costs and benefits of freedom are clear—but alas, they are not equally clear: We have no trouble anticipating the advantages that freedom may provide, but we seem blind to the joys it can undermine.

Somewhat related to Bacon’s observation that we tend to ignore the absences is the reality that unusual experiences stand out in our minds, tricking us into thinking they are the norm, when we are forgetting that the norm is the usual. Said better by Gilbert in Chapter 10, The Least Likely of Times:

The fact that the least likely experience is often the most likely memory can wreak havoc with our ability to predict future experiences.

In SoH Gilbert explains the idea of super-replicators, an idea explaining why certain genes are transmitted successfully, and applies this idea to belief systems. The super-replicator idea is simply that “any ( gene | idea ) that promotes its own “means of transmission” will be represented in increasing proportions in the population over time.” The idea of the super-replicator immediately elicits thoughts of the spreading of religion (and hark remembrances of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash):

If a particular belief has some property that facilitates its own transmission, then that belief tends to be held by an increasing number of minds. … [T]here are several such properties that increase a beleif’s transmissional success, the most obvious of which is accuracy.

I’d substitute usefulness or efficacy for accuracy, but the point is well made. There are ideas, both good and bad, that propagate and self-replicate. Gilbert goes into details on some of these ideas, perhaps the most prominent being the belief that money == happiness. The entire notion of self-replicating ideas is a great meta idea that, though related to how we perceive the world, could probably be expanded and written on in its own book.

At the end of SoH, Daniel Gilbert suggests a solution to help deal with our innately handicapped ability to perceive the future (and know what will make us happy). It’s pretty simple: observe others who are experiencing what you either will experience or want to experience. Watch how they feel because more often than not, the way they feel given a set of circumstances is likely to be how you would feel under the same. Gilbert calls this using surrogates, and it makes a lot of sense in theory though I can imagine it being incredibly difficult to put into practice. This is because we overestimate our own uniqueness in relation to other human beings when. As noted earlier, we are blind to how a blind man could be as happy as we are because we only see their blindness as a unique difference rather than seeing the gross majority of similarities.

All in all, some great insights are elicited in Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness. I have to recommend it!

Human Happiness, the Human Condition, and our Hunter-Gatherer Forebears

Bruce Charlton has made his a final proof of his 1999 book Psychiatry and the Human Condition available online in its entirety. The book book is described as, “an optimistic vision of a superior alternative approach to psychiatric illness and its treatment, drawing upon modern neuroscience and evolutionary theory.” From the parts of the book I’ve managed to read so far, this book could well be worth reading in full.

The part I’d like to focus on here is Charlton’s discussion of hunter-gatherers and their relative happiness. The subject of happiness and the human condition from a psychiatry/psychology perspective is of keen interest to me right now as I am just finishing up Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness (Also see recent discussion on Is Technology Making us Miserable?).

Charlton’s take is that H-G societies were “leisured and egalitarian” and H-Gs experienced a “Golden Age for humans.” Though I’ve yet to read it all, Charlton says that the “scanty” evidence available to support this statement is “consistent and unambiguous.” I believe part of the evidence is the apparent diminished health of agrarian societies combined with the greater stratification of class and status systems brought about by division of labor. That agrarian societies would migrate voluntarily to cities to partake in the industrial-mercantile society just furthers the argument.

I intuit that the hyper-specialization and -isolation experienced by modern human beings doesn’t fit with our evolutionary programming, even as it provides us with amazing new technology and toys. Having said that, I see no reason a balance can’t be struck between the perks of modern existence (technology) and the biological programming of functional/fulfilling community (family) and a more generalist approach to productive activities.

More on this later. And I have more reading to do. In the meantime, read the two bits from Charlton’s book below, which discuss in detail relative degrees of happiness and whether or not the human condition (which Charlton argues hasn’t been designed to be happy) can be improved.

From Chapter 1, Psychiatry and the human condition

Degrees of happiness

The lifestyle of nomadic foragers involve little forward economic planning beyond the communal decisions over when and where to move camp, and the logistics of hunting and gathering. This means that most problems of life related to the social realm – especially around the question of competition for mates – and this lay behind the power struggles, disagreement, discussions and violence. And the primacy of social life in hunter gatherer societies is what has been the decisive force in human evolutionary history – the main focus for natural selection is within-species, human versus human competition.

In summary, the ancestral hunter gatherers experienced a way of life that was – in world historical terms – leisured and egalitarian, and enjoyed health and life expectancy at a high level. Of the three kinds of society as described by Gellner: hunter-gatherer, agrarian, and mercantile, it is probable that hunter-gatherers had the best life, overall. Hunter gatherer societies are the happiest and peasant societies are the most miserable – while industrial-mercantile societies such as our own lie somewhere in between.

That, at any rate, is the conclusion of anthropologist Jerome Barkow – and his opinion is widely confirmed by the reports of many independent anthropologists who have experienced the alternatives of foraging, agrarian and industrial society. The ‘naturalness’ of nomadic foraging is also shown by differences in the harshness of child rearing practices in different types of society. Child rearing involves varying elements of forcible training that are necessary to prepare children for their social role. Peasant societies typically employ extremely repressive forms of socialization, extreme discipline, restriction, and the use of child labour. Industrial mercantile societies (such as our own) are much less tough on children – but still require many unnatural behaviors (eg. sitting in classrooms or examination halls for long periods of time without speaking or moving). But nomadic foragers are able and willing to give their children even more freedom than the most liberal ‘modern parent’ – and such a relaxed upbringing of unstructured interaction with peers apparently prepares the child properly for the adult life to come.

Another line of evidence is patterns of voluntary migration. When industrial mercantile societies develop, they are popular with the miserable peasantry of agrarian societies who flee the land and crowd the cities, if given the chance. Not so the happier hunter gatherers who typically must be coerced into joining industrial life. My great grandparents left their lives as rural peasants and converged from hundreds of miles and several countries to work the coal mines of Northumberland. They swapped the open sky, fields and trees for a life underground and inhabiting dingy rows of colliery houses. Being a miner in the early twentieth century must have been grim, but apparently it was not so bad as being an agricultural laborer.

From a psychiatric perspective, then, there are sharp differences between ancestral societies and modern societies. In terms of their general social situation modern humans are faced with a wide range of new problems – although we console ourselves that for the bulk of the population life is much better in an industrial mercantile society than in a warrior-dominated medieval peasantry. Nevertheless we now live in a mass society, full of strangers who there is no reason to trust since they are neither family nor friends. Although resources are vastly more abundant, resources are linked to status and there are massive inequalities in their distribution.

This means that there is a much higher proportion of intractably low status people in modern societies than in the societies in which humans evolved. Since status is the most important factor in determining a man’s sexual attractiveness, this is a major source of dissatisfaction. Men will devote enormous effort and take great risks in pursuit of the highest status, but for most people in delayed return economies the odds are stacked heavily against them succeeding.

Improving human happiness?

Even if, somehow, the impossible were achieved and humans returned to the kind of egalitarian, immediate return, foraging societies in which we spent much of our recent evolutionary history – then unhappiness would still be common and intractable. Humans did not evolve to be happy – natural selection rewards reproductive success, not happiness. Happiness is – from this perspective – merely the ‘carrot’ which compliments the ‘stick’ of pain – a lure to draw us onwards, to make us strive – but happiness is a reward that we can never permanently grasp nor enjoy at leisure.

So much for the bad news. Happiness drives us, it is not a permanent state. And this really is bad news because there is little we can do about it, short of changing human nature. The good news is that this might prove possible – at least to some extent. Just as human ingenuity has landed us in the predicament of a sub-optimal modern human life, so the same ingenuity has proved a range of technologies of gratification through which we can attain a variety of surrogate satisfactions. – something that will be discussed more towards the end of this book .

Essentially the broad shape of society and its possibilities for happiness are the way they are for reasons that are accidental, unplanned, and intractable. We inhabit a society that grants few satisfactions and offers limited possibilities of fulfillment. It is also a society in which psychiatric symptoms are endemic and a major cause of human misery. In our favour we have increasing knowledge of the causes of human misery, including the understanding of psychiatric illness, and increased power to alleviate that misery provided by the armamentarium of psychopharmacology. All this understanding and therapeutic potential has arisen within the past few decades, and we have hardly learned how to use it.

My point is that the human condition of Western man is intractable in its fundamentals, but amenable to improvement in important ways. Things are worse than they might be. One aim of this book is to explore some of these means of improvement, and to do this will require an evaluation of the extent and nature of psychiatric illness.

The purpose of this book is therefore to suggest how knowledge and technology might be deployed to ameliorate the human condition. We are not talking about utopia, but we are talking about the potential for significant and worthwhile improvements in well-being for substantial numbers of people. However, power can be used for many purposes. And potential agents for good are almost inevitably also potential agents for harm. The possibilities for benefit from psychopharmacology is, although not universal, nevertheless immense. Whether these benefits can be realized under prevailing social conditions is altogether a different matter.

(H/T Mangan’s via Patri)

Can Blogging Make You Happier? [Research]…ke-you-happier/

I can’t say any of this comes as a surprise — some recent (2009) research has found that blogging can result in greater feelings of connectedness and social bonding which can improve one’s sense of well-being.

Yeah, that sounds about right to me (See my post on the power of blogging).

The researchers found support for deeper self-disclosure from bloggers resulting in a range of better social connections. These included things such as a sense of greater social integration, which is how connected we feel to society and our own community of friends and others; an increase in social bonding (our tightly knit, intimate relationships); and social bridging — increasing our connectedness with people who might be from outside of our typical social network.

They also hypothesized and found support from their data that when these kinds of social connections increase or grow deeper through blogging, a person will also feel a greater subjective sense of well-being or happiness.

H/T to Seth Roberts.

Confirmation Bias and the Internet

The internet is vast playground where every opinion is aired, fiction can masquerade as fact, and the answers to your most bizarre questions can be just a google search away. This abundance of cheap information and ideas is overwhelmingly positive even as there are latent problems.

One problem is that the internet can encourage and reinforce bias — like confirmation bias. According to wikipedia, confirmation bias is “a tendency to search for or interpret new information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions and to avoid information and interpretations which contradict prior beliefs.”

Thanks to Google, we can instantly seek out support for the most bizarre idea imaginable. If our initial search fails to turn up the results we want, we don’t give it a second thought, rather we just try out a different query and search again.

Armed with this power to search, it usually doesn’t take long to find someone or something that confirms our bias. If you happen to be a blogger or have a website, you can then reinforce your own bias by by writing on the subject and linking to the support you found!

To wit, one of the first things I did in writing this article was search for “confirmation bias” internet, which led me to a cached page and then a quote from a WaPo article titled The Year of Living Gloomily. The quote snappily nails my overarching point:

I’m sure some of these stories are true, or true enough to satisfy an editor somewhere, but there’s something else going on here: It’s what psychologists call “confirmation bias.” That’s the human tendency to seek out only facts that fit what we already know to be true while downplaying or ignoring contradictory evidence. As Mark Twain is said to have quipped, “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

People have always been prone to confirmation bias, but the Internet amplifies the phenomenon since we need not look far to confirm our particular bias. It’s always a click away.

By making the search for confirmation so easy — a mere “click away” — the internet rapidly exacerbates bias.

It happens just like that.