This is a supplement to the luminosity sequence. In this comment, I mentioned that I have raised my happiness set point (among other things), and this declaration was met with some interest. Some of the details are lost to memory, but below, I reconstruct for your analysis what I can of the process. It contains lots of gooey self-disclosure; skip if that's not your thing.
In summary: I decided that I had to and wanted to become happier; I re-labeled my moods and approached their management accordingly; and I consistently treated my mood maintenance and its support behaviors (including discovering new techniques) as immensely important. The steps in more detail:
1. I came to understand the necessity of becoming happier. Being unhappy was not just unpleasant. It was dangerous: I had a history of suicidal ideation. This hadn't resulted in actual attempts at killing myself, largely because I attached hopes for improvement to concrete external milestones (various academic progressions) and therefore imagined myself a magical healing when I got the next diploma (the next one, the next one.) Once I noticed I was doing that, it was unsustainable. If I wanted to live, I had to find a safe emotional place on which to stand. It had to be my top priority. This required several sub-projects:
- I had to eliminate the baggage that told me it was appropriate or accurate to feel bad most of the time. I endorse my ability to react emotionally to my environment; but this should be acute, not chronic. Reacting emotionally is about feeling worse when things get worse, not feeling bad when things are bad for months or years on end. (Especially not when feeling bad reduces the ability to make things less bad.) Further, having a lower set point did not affect my emotional range except to shrink it; it reduced the possible impact of real grief, and wasn't compatible with the "react emotionally" plan. The low set point also compromised my ability to react emotionally to positive input, because it was attached to a systematic discounting of such positivity.
- I had to eliminate the baggage that told me it was not possible to cognitively change my mood. Moods correspond to thoughts, and while it can be hard to avoid thinking about things, I can decide to think about whatever I want. A decade of assorted antidepressants had wreaked no discernible change on my affect, which constituted strong evidence that chemicals were not my problem. And it was easy to see that my mood varied on a small scale with things under my complete or partial control, like sleep, diet, and activity. It did not seem outrageous that long-term, large-scale interventions could have similar effects on my overall mood.
- I had to decide, and act on the decision, that my happiness was important and worth my time and attention. I had to pay attention, and note what helped and what hurt. I had to put increasing the helping factors and decreasing the hurting factors at the top of my list whenever it was remotely feasible, and relax my standards around "remote feasibility" to prevent self-sabotage. And I had to commit to abandoning counterproductive projects or interactions, at least until I'd developed the stability to deal with the emotions they generated without suffering permanent setbacks.
2. I re-labeled my moods, so that identifying them in the moment prompted the right actions. When a given point on the unhappy-happy spectrum - let's call it "2" on a scale of 1 to 10 - was labeled "normal" or "set point", then when I was feeling "2", I didn't assume that meant anything; that was the default state. That left me feeling "2" a lot of the time, and when things went wrong, I dipped lower, and I waited for things outside of myself to go right before I went higher. The problem was that "2" was not a good place to be spending most of my time.
- I had to label the old set-point as subnormal, a problem state that generated a need for immediate action from me to fix it. It was like telling myself that, unbeknownst to me, my left foot was in constant pain and needed medicine at once: kind of hard to swallow, given that my left foot always felt pretty much the same unless I'd just stubbed a toe or received a massage. But eventually, I attached urgency to the old set point. It was not just how things were normally; it was a sign that something was wrong.
- I had to make sure that I had many accessible, cheap excuses to cheer up, so I didn't ever fall into the trap of "just this once" leaving myself at a "2" state instead of acting. I designated a favorite pair of socks and wore them whenever I woke up on the wrong side of the bed; I took up the habit of saving every picture of a cute animal I found on the Internet so I could leaf through the collection whenever I wanted; I threw myself into developing the skill of making friends on purpose so I'd have lots and if I happened to log onto my IM client, someone would be there who would talk to me; I became very acquisitive of inexpensive goods like music and interesting websites. When one of these interventions failed to work, I forced myself to try something else, rather than falling into the self-talk disaster of "well, that didn't help; I guess something must really be wrong and I should feel like this until it goes away by itself." I also harnessed my tendency to feel better after a night's sleep - if I felt suboptimal close to bedtime, I'd turn in early and reasonably expect to wake up improved.
- I stopped tolerating the minor injuries to my affect that I identified as most consistent and, therefore, most likely to contribute to my poor set point. For instance, I noticed that I always slept better when I didn't go to bed expecting to awaken to the sound of an alarm, so I aggressively rearranged my schedule to give me morning leeway, and found alarm software that would wake me more gently when an early start was absolutely necessary. I identified people with whom interaction was frustrating and draining, and I limited interaction with them both by reducing opportunities to start, and by dropping my standards for abandoning the exchange midway through so I could leave before things got very bad. I practiced, in general, "writing things off" and rehearsed internal monologues about how I no longer needed to worry about [thing X]. ("I cannot control the speed of the bus. I caught it, and it will get there when it gets there. There is no point in further fretting about being late until I'm moving under my own power again - so I'll stop. To manage my strong, intrusive desire to be on time, I will start thinking about how to choose an efficient path to walk once I get off the bus.")
- I labeled my new desired set point - a safe spot on the spectrum, call it "5", which was ambitious yet felt attainable - as "normal". When asked how I was in this state, I consciously chose to say that I was "fine" or "okay" instead of something more enthusiastic, like "great", that I might have said before - the energy I felt at "5" was no longer to be considered extra. Similarly, these were not suitable occasions to do displeasing things. I didn't have happiness to burn at "5" - I waited until I was even better before I relaxed my emotional avarice. Instead, "5" was a good place from which to undertake more expensive entertainments that offered net improvement. (More difficult than choosing a specific pair of socks to wear is starting a D&D game, or walking around and exploring a new location, or working on a piece of artwork or fiction; the lag time and effort makes them poor "cheer up" activities, but excellent ways to get from "5" to "6" or "7".)
- I made a point of noting non-sadness deficiencies in my status like boredom, hunger, tiredness, or annoyance. These weren't directly related to the set point I was trying to affect, but they could exacerbate a bad influence or limit the power of a good one. Additionally, at the level of luminosity I then had to work with, they could also mask moods that were actually sadness, in much the same way that sometimes one can feel hungry when in fact just thirsty.
3. I treated my own mood as manageable. Thinking of it as a thing that attacked me with no rhyme or reason - treating a bout of depression like a cold - didn't just cost me the opportunity to fight it, but also made the entire situation seem more out-of-control and hopeless. I was wary of learned helplessness; I decided that it would be best to interpret my historically static set point as an indication that I hadn't hit on the right techniques yet, not as an indication that it was inviolable and everlasting. Additionally, the fact that I didn't know how to fix it yet meant that if it was going to be my top priority, I had to treat the value of information as very high; it was worth experimenting, and I didn't have to wait for surety before I gave something a shot.
- Even if I determined that my mood reacted to my environment in some way, that only removed my power over it one step: I could control my environment to a considerable degree, and with a strong enough reason to do so, I committed to enacting that power. (This sometimes has had unexpected and dramatic consequences. For example, once I determined that grad school was no longer compatible with my happiness, I dropped out as soon as I had something promising to switch to - mid semester - and moved across the country. To excellent effect, I might add.)
- Even if I have a lot on my plate, being happier will help me do it. It's like sleep: it's easy to keep staying up and staying up, because sleep just seems so unproductive, and you can get some work done however tired you are. But over the long term, getting to sleep at a sane hour every day will let you accomplish more; and so with maintaining a good affect consistently. Mood maintenance is typically not the most immediately productive thing I could be doing, but treating it as my top priority save in dire emergency has let me be more effective than I was before.
- I had to be willing to expend resources on my project. This involved working around some neuroses, like my unwillingness to spend money, and overcoming some background reluctance to try new things. Also, I had to allow myself to be somewhat subject to my whims. I still don't know what makes the mood to, say, do artwork strike me, but when it strikes, I have to do art or lose the inclination. Efficacious inclinations to do fun things are precious to me, and so whenever possible, I don't restrain them - even though this costs time and occludes other activities.
A friend of mine once sent me the following in an email conversation, when she mentioned how happiness was for her a matter of deliberate choice and I'd asked something like "How do you do that?"
The specific sensations I found to attach to that advice were those I associated with walking slowly in fresh air with bright sun warming my eyelids, face, shoulder and back, just basking in that spring sun, doing what I call my plant impression...
I'm not really conversant with NLP but that's where she said she got this from, and I do credit that single paragraph with significant contributions to improving my mood over the seven years since that conversation. (Even though, rereading it just now, I realize I rarely do much more than just recalling that happy feeling; the circling stuff around I've usually skipped.)
Writing about your personal experience made the post more clear, meaningful and engaging.
I am new to the site in the sense that last week I didn't know the names of anyone who posts here, but I have been putting in the time to try to "catch up" on the issues that current posters and commenters think important.
As the top-scoring post is currently about the limitations of generalizing from one's own mind, I thought Alicorn was quite savvy to admit she was predicating her post upon lots of gooey self-exposure, and that admission primed me to read the rest of the post must less skeptically.
Even as posters may most often strive to say things that are true beyond the doubt of bias, I found this post very illuminating in its own right, because it is an account of a person fighting and gaining ground in her battle to live fruitfully as a mind which strives to be rational yet is fundamentally not so.
Now, to go get acquainted with the rest of living luminously.
Edit: Pronouns changed!
"She", by the way.
I did something similar, though less conscious and systematic, to combat what would probably be referred to as social anxiety. I just couldn't interact with people. At least people who weren't my close family. So at some point I started telling myself that it wasn't ok to always feel awkward in social situations and I decided to fight the feelings I had - which resulted in some self administered exposure therapy. And it worked pretty well.
When I suggest that someone try something like this and cite my own experience, they usually scoff and say something like, "You were just lucky to be able to control your emotions. I certainly can't control mine. Do you think I choose to feel like this all the time?" It seems they never tried to fight their feelings.
I think it's easy for people to conflate "I did not consciously cause myself to have this emotion" with "I cannot consciously cause myself to not have this emotion".
That's probably right. I think most people also think it will be easy - like they just have to think it, and it will happen. So when they think to themselves, "I don't want to feel depressed anymore" or something similar, and nothing happens, they conclude that it must not be under their control.
Of course, it is a rather long, arduous process to change your mental habits (depending on the degree of change).
Right. And it's not transparent how arduous any given hack will be until you have lots of general mind hack practice. I can now pretty well estimate how long and unpleasant any given change will be and make a cost-benefit evaluation, but in the beginning I had to decide that becoming happier was my top priority and was therefore worth as long as it took, and as much effort as it called for, however long and effortful that was.
Thank you for sharing this Alicorn, as usual a really encouraging analysis and description from you!
In my own experimentation, the knowledge that there are certain sure-fire mood-improving activities means that I can sometimes skip right over actually undertaking the activities. For example, being absolutely certain that my mood would be improved if I went walking for an hour is sometimes enough, without actually going walking, to lift my spirits. In fact, a long walk is the only sure-fire mood enhancer I've found, and it seems to be be important to have absolute certainty that it would work no matter how bad things seem in the present. Talking to friends and going for a short jog are also sometimes effective, but, at least for me, not always.
I think these fall into the "favourite pair of socks" category of short-term "emergency" mood enhancers.
One problem I always seem to have is that I'm unable to evaluate what mood I'm in. The concept of a 1-10 scale of happiness is something I can't relate to. There are times when I recognize that I'm feeling better than usual, but it's always because I'm excited about a specific occurrence or new thing I've learned.
It seems to me that I'm always just... living. I don't feel any sign that there are these foreign constructs called 'emotions' that arbitrarily have their way with my consciousness. That's why when I've experienced with my own bouts of 'suicidal ... (read more)
Thanks; I've bookmarked this and am going to try something like it. But I'm probably greedier than you are, so I've got to ask - do you think you could use the same techniques you used to raise your set point from 2 to 5, to raise your set point from 5 to 8?
Maybe. I haven't tried it because:
It'd require more maintenance work - the new set point is still artificial, just not unsustainably so, and the higher one goes the more one has to prop it up. I don't presently have a way to hack deep enough to make the new set point effortlessly native.
I find extreme moods in general, including nice ones, to be disabling. When I am very happy I don't want to do work, I just want to twirl around grinning like an idiot and babble about what a beautiful day it is. 5 is a comfortable and practical place for me to spend most of my time. Other people may not have this trait.
Greed isn't a sufficient motivation to prompt the systematic, deep changes I made. It took actual danger to my life to make this a high enough priority. I don't have a good reason to believe that the 5 set point is endangering me.
There are certain forms of circumstantial stability (money, family, residence) that I do not have, and while it isn't urgent to me that I have them right now, it is a very significant long term goal of mine that I eventually acquire them. Becoming significantly higher set-pointed than I am now would require either excising these goals, so their not being satisfied would cease to unsettle me in the background, or satisfying these goals, which isn't feasible or clever right now.
"I threw myself into developing the skill of making friends on purpose"
I'd be interested in a comment or post about how this is done. I've never been able to do this.
Be prompt, generous, and sincere in your compliments. Ideally, don't use plain adjectives - use descriptions. (Exceptions here are compliments on articles of clothing - "your boots are AWESOME!" is kosher.) It only feels silly from your end. If you are just trying to make friends, avoid anything that (given your and the potential friend's genders) would appear laced with sexual interest, unless you can pull it off with genuine innocence and then reliably follow up with genuine innocence instead of changing tacks midway.
Have a "standby" interaction prompt that you can pull out in lulls which isn't threatening, is generally well received, and provides a hook for further conversation. I usually offer people food. I'm sure there are others that would do - if you're trying to conduct an informal survey of something, for instance ("Hey, I'm trying to find out different ways people celebrate St. Patrick's Day, what do you do?), that would probably work too.
Learn to pick apart people's dialogue for followup questions - you can practice this on fictional dialogue; just take a good-sized sentence and write down five followup tangents. Exampl
You know what's interesting? A lot of the above is oddly reminiscent of some of the sounder pick-up advice.
My experience with mastering the processes of sales and networking convinced me, when I later came across PUA lore, that one thing that is not wrong with the PUA community is the aspiration to distill procedural knowledge that applies to the broad category of social interactions.
Implies you're picking topics. Get them to pick a topic, and they'll be interested and they'll understand what is being talked about. If they pick a boring topic, go a little meta and do a perspective-taking exercise: what might it be like to be interested in this? What about it would fascinate you? If you were writing about a fictional character with this interest, what would you write? Or, interpret the topic through a lens/via an analogy that makes it more relevant to you (but don't change the subject to the one you had in mind when you do this; that's not the point).
Also, seek out people who share interests/intellectual levels with you in the first place. Random people can be cool, but you seem to have poor luck with them, and filtration is worthwhile.
If you do not have practice using social spontaneity to good effect it is ideal to try it in situations where the other party may both physically and socially escape, just as a general rule. On public transportation is not a physically escapable place to be.
Yes, what I used to do was yell greetings at random people on campus. Sometimes questionable propositions. Plenty of room for escape, especially when I'm sitting and they're walking. I met several good friends that way.
ETA: "questionable propositions" here being things like "P=NP" or "multiple realizability is true"
I'm... extremely biased... but I can't imagine getting the icky vibes from you that cause discomfort, even in a non-escapable space. You simply don't come off as remotely scary.
It's true. MBlume is the sort of person who could run up to someone while wearing a Nazi uniform, covered in blood, with swords in both hands, shouting about an imminent nuclear blast, all without coming off as threatening.
It's true. I've seen him do it.
I'm... extremely biased... but I can definitely imagine getting the icky vibes from you, Steven, that cause discomfort, especially in a non-escapable space. You simply come across as really creepy.
[Full disclosure: I am married to Steven.]
I would guess that oliverbeatson is suggesting that other things being equal, a man with facial hair (at least of a certain type) will come across as more of a creepy stalker than one without. I have picked this idea up from friends as well.
If the facial hair idea is true, it makes MBlume's non-threatingness (discussed elsewhere in the thread) all the more noteworthy given his facial hair handicap. Although maybe if MBlume combined the Nazi uniform with facial hair in the form of a Hitler mustache, he would appear threatening.
The article was very good.
A few points:
A book that helped me very much was Being Happy by Andrew Matthews. It was an easy read, and helped me to create synthetic happiness.
I still don't know how to cure the acute pain of loneliness, or the panic attacks regarding the meaning of life. I wish I knew the answer, and thinking there is no cure, and the remaining self-rationalization (It's genetic etc.), leads me back to the original negative loop thinking that I thought I solved in the first place.
Thanks for the post.
For some reason, I tend to experience sleepiness and sadness as very similar feelings, to the point where I frequently have a sensation that I can't clearly identify as either one. Is this unusual, or does it match the experience of other people here?
From Nathaniel Branden's book Taking Responsibility (p. 8):
By the way, I like all your stuff, but like many other commenters, I particularly like the posts with concrete examples from your life.
Also, the "making friends on purpose" comment was great!
Thanks for writing this article. If the feedback helps, I found your self-disclosure much more illustrative than "gooey."
Did you formally track your mental state at any point? The luminosity series, among other things, has gotten me thinking about the fact that my overall historical impression of my mood status has been a pretty poor indicator of my day-to-moment mood status. I can get fuzzy snapshots by reading through my scattered past writing, but am missing a lot of data. S... (read more)
This is more interesting and inspiring than your latest few admonitions to introspect and coach myself, which seemed either too obvious or too abstract for me to profit from.
Ideally, thinking about the reasons for our unhappiness rationally should lead to actions that improve our circumstances, and our habits of thought. I'm glad that seems to be the case for you - even more impressive considering that you were real-depressed enough at to want medication at times. I've never been that depressed, but at times it seems like I don't properly put to the test my belief that it works to analyze and experiment with my own life.
"Want" is probably never the right word for the administration of psychoactive medication to a first-grader. I got off the meds when I left for college and there was no realistic chance of anyone trying to enforce their consumption.
Just stumbled upon this post curtesy of it being placed highly in the Wellbeing tag, and I'm curious how this has held up a decade later.
For those wondering about the article's title:
This is absolutely brilliant. It makes more sense to me---and may have a larger impact on me---than years of therapy and medication for depression. People often say that Less Wrong is useless; it is not, it makes us better. Perhaps not as efficiently as we'd like; but often as much or more than the other available interventions.
i personally appreciate the self disclosure and did not find it too gooey. this is a great example of what Heart of Now (a personal growth workshop i was involved in for several years) called "vision," the concept of going for something that you have not yet personally experienced but will improve the quality of your life. I like the idea of the socks, i think i will try that. You don't mention exercise, has that had any effect in the past? Also, this was posted some time ago, i wonder where your set point is these days.
Really fascinating post! I wouldn't say that I'm a sad person, and now that I've gone past the social isolation I suffered as a kid, my happiness set-point is actually quite high, maybe because my occasional episodes of self-hatred spur me to get stuff done (which I seem to be good at). Nevertheless, especially in the past few years I've maintained a work and school schedule that leaves me burnt out and exhausted by the end of first semester, with just enough time over the summer (while working 50+ hours per week) to recover my ability to feel motivated be... (read more)
Just wanted to say, the approach outlined here seems very useful to me, thanks for posting.
I find the trickiest thing to be getting rid of wishful thinking in evaluating my mood.
I've heard that meditation was supposed to have this effect. I've never really put it to the test, though.
Aunt: 'Chair'? You have chairs in your house?
Edmund: Oh, yes.
Aunt: [slaps him twice] Wicked child!!! Chairs are an invention of Satan! In our house, Nathaniel sits on a spike!
Edmund: ...and yourself...?
Aunt: I sit on Nathaniel -- two spikes would be an extravagance.
Interesting. So I get the right result and instead of going "aaaaahhhh..." I go "AAAAAHHHH!"
More useful than the entire luminosity sequence combined. A lot of condensed wisdom.
''Self talk''? Here's how you can do that better!
"..using non-first-person pronouns and one’s own name (rather than first-person pronouns) during introspection enhances self-distancing. Studies 2 and 3 examined the implications of these different types of self-talk for regulating stress surrounding making good first impressions (Study 2) and public speaking (Study 3). Compared with the first-person group, the non-first-person group performed better according to objective raters in both studies. They also displayed less distress (Studies 2 and 3) and e... (read more)