6 Secret Beliefs That Are Making Us All Unhappy
When you're depressed and go browsing around the Internet for something to improve your mood, you'll probably run into this video of a slow loris eating a banana. But then you'll probably find this video of comedian Louis C.K. wondering why everyone seems to be miserable in a world of endless wonders (example: after soaring majestically through the sky in a technological marvel, you can only complain about the 45 minutes you were stuck on the runway).
There is actually an answer to his question -- experts have found that the human brain has a series of weird feedback loops that sabotage its own attempts at happiness. If life seems to be full of cruel paradoxes, that's why -- that call is coming from inside the house. And if you're already rolling your eyes and thinking this is more simplistic self-help bullshit for dumb housewives, well, let's start with you:
We Think Happiness Is for Stupid People
Create a picture in your mind of a perfectly happy person.
We're guessing you imagined some flighty character from a sitcom or romantic comedy. Someone who's always smiling and waving at strangers, dancing in the rain because they like the way it feels -- you know, taking pleasure in the little things, not worrying too much about the world. They're endlessly optimistic, and always sure that everything will be okay. They're probably an artist or some shit.
They're definitely way too into balloons for an adult.
And we're guessing that you are imagining this person as being A) very childlike and B) kind of stupid. In other words, you secretly don't think they're really happy -- they're merely oblivious and/or suffering from some kind of brain disease. They're happy in the way that a baby or a dog is happy: because they don't know any better. After all, it's the brooding geniuses who drink themselves to death or commit suicide. Not only because they can see the tragedy of the world ("I'll have you know that slow loris at the beginning was probably kidnapped and tortured by poachers!"), but also because they can see all the ways they're screwed up -- self-awareness means full knowledge of your own failings.
Usually paired with reduced knowledge about the dangers of chain smoking.
But isn't that a good thing? Obviously, being a healthy, fully realized adult means a certain amount of self-awareness. Knowledge of who you are, how you affect other people, and all that -- nobody wants to be that douche in the Camaro who blithely cuts people off in traffic and then assumes all the honking is them letting him know his Camaro is awesome (which he ignores, because dude, he already knows). But it appears that too much self-awareness is literally fatal. This is referred to as the self-absorption paradox.
Psychologists think this is because there are two ways you can dwell on your life: self-reflection (analyzing your thoughts, feelings, and actions to learn how to get better) and self-rumination (endlessly focusing on all the ways you suck). The former makes you healthier and happier (and more popular with others), while the latter makes you miserable, to the point where you hate the hypothetical happy person above for not joining you in the abyss. If you're asking how you do one without falling into the other, well, let us know if you figure it out. Or go write a self-help book and become a millionaire. At the moment, most people can't regulate their self-hatred without some kind of chemical assistance.
It appears (from our unscientific examination of the problem) that part of the problem is ...
We Think Optimism Means Being Delusional
Most people (or at least, most pessimists) seem to misunderstand what optimism is. It's not about obliviously ignoring the reality, like in that old Bobby McFerrin song in which a wealthy musician tells the homeless not to worry about being destitute ...
Instead, it's accepting the horrible reality and knowing you can get through it if you keep pressing on. This is what some call the Stockdale paradox, named after a Vietnam POW and torture victim who found that the "optimistic" captives broke first -- or rather, the ones who thought optimism was another word for lying to yourself:
"They were the ones who said, 'We're going to be out by Christmas.' And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they'd say, 'We're going to be out by Easter.' And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart."
It's true that it was probably less a broken heart that killed them and more the Viet Cong and/or malaria, but you get the point. Stockdale's coping method was to accept that their situation was unimaginably shitty, while also holding onto the knowledge that it is absolutely possible to survive such things. His first step was to develop a system of code that would let the captives talk to each other, finding ways to commiserate and reassure each other after torture sessions. Letting each POW get outside of his own head, in other words, so that his universe wasn't reduced to a tiny bamboo cell and a black cloud of despair. Stockdale also wrote letters home, full of coded information, having no idea whether they were making it to the recipients or not.
His definition of optimism was less "uplifting mantras" and more "beating himself bloody with furniture if it could embarrass the Viet Cong in any way."
In other words, his self-reflection on the situation got translated into action, rather than into more self-reflection.
Now here's the most important part: the belief that all of his work would pay off had no guarantee of being true -- lots of guys never came home (remember, it would be more than ten years before Rambo showed up). But that wasn't the point; the effort, and the belief that it could pay off, were what got him through. And if instead of reaching the promised land, he had died in the process of trying to get there, then so be it. It was continuing to try that made life tolerable.
Minor Inconveniences Enrage Us More Than Actual Tragedies, Due to How the Brain Works
The Internet is famous for having no sense of proportion whatsoever when it comes to complaints. A horrific human rights violation might get nothing more than a few retweets, but a minor tweak to a video game gets a storm of death threats. When Cracked changes a font on one section of the site, the general inbox fills with hundreds of demands that the whole operation be burned to the ground and its ashes scattered to the wind. That's not just because the Internet is full of crazy trolls -- it's because of a very basic flaw in how our brains handle disappointment.
The crazy Internet troll of the prefrontal cortex, if you will.
Ask yourself, which would upset you more: the closing of your favorite coffee shop (you know, the one that makes it exactly the way you like it, spells your name right every single time, and is 20 feet from the office), or losing one of your fingers in a bizarre coffee-making debacle? The second one, right? Where you're short a fucking finger?
"You killed my father, and now you've come for me."
Nope. You're statistically more likely to adjust to your new nine-fingered reality (Frodo seemed to do okay) quicker than having to go someplace else for your skim milk iced whatever. The reason is that your brain has built-in mechanisms to help you cope with tragedy, but they don't kick in unless the situation is bad enough.
So after losing the finger, you'll find all sorts of thought processes turning up to help you rationalize it away ("Sure, I lost a finger, but this same espresso machine severed Steve's whole leg. Man, we should probably replace this thing ..."). But these processes come at a cost -- they take a lot of focus and brain energy -- so they only get deployed in emergencies. It's kind of like how your doctor will prescribe you bottles of Vicodin to kill the pain of your missing finger, but won't do the same for a hangnail. As a result, the hangnail actually winds up causing you more pain.
Suddenly, losing another one to the coffee maker is starting to seem reasonable.
That means that in your everyday life, it's the proverbial hangnails that make you miserable. They call this the Region-Beta Paradox.
For most of you, this is the shit that ruins your week. A snide remark from a cashier. Somebody parking in your parking space. A friend failing to thank you for a gift. The annoying rattle your car makes, no matter how many times you take it to the shop. We never do the hard work of rationalizing those things because, well, we know it's "no big deal." So instead, we complain to whoever will listen, and feel a twinge of anger every time we are reminded of how much of a pain in the ass it all is. Some of you have been telling the same "rude cashier" anecdote for ten years.
At which point it will probably have evolved from "out of soy milk" to "Beowulf with lattes."
But that's not even the worst part. Think about all the times when you've been the hangnail. You played a mean prank on a friend years ago and he still refuses to get over it. You made one offensive joke in 2009 but your girlfriend/boyfriend still brings it up. "Why can't they let it go? It was no big deal!" Well, now you know -- if it had been a major offense, they'd have been forced to do the hard work of thinking about it and forgiving you. Because it was "no big deal," they'll instead let it linger until they're slipping the story into your obituary.
And speaking of relationships that turn into mutual torture ...
Relationships Hurt, Loneliness Hurts More (the Hedgehog's Dilemma)
OK, let's do a fun exercise real quick. Think back to the last time someone hurt you. And no, the dude that swiped the last bag of gas station gummy bears right in front of you doesn't count -- we've moved on from that. We mean really hurt you. The kind of hurt that leaves you no choice but to hermit up, subsist solely off of gin and ice cream and, let's be honest, get real with some Adele. You know what? Let's just pretend you're Adele. Now, we're betting that whatever personal betrayal made you want to say "fuck science and ignite the weather" didn't come from a stranger. No, in order to hurt you, they had to get close to you.
"I'd been hurt by the Jackson 5. The original title was 'Set Fire To Jermaine.'"
Freud even wrote about this -- intimacy, by definition, means lowering your defenses, leaving yourself vulnerable. But once you've let someone into your proverbial exhaust port, just to see them blow up your very core with a photon torpedo of betrayal, you swear you'll never let that happen again. And the only way to do that is to never let anyone get close.
That, friends, is the Hedgehog's Dilemma.
It's named after a story from famous sourpuss Arthur Schopenhauer, in his 19th-century work Parerga and Paralipomena, which is about hedgehogs in winter. When it's cold, they huddle together for warmth. But the closer they get, the more they prick each other, forcing them to separate again. We don't need to explain how that applies, right? You've felt the cold of loneliness, but you've also felt that sweet, guilty relief when friends cancel plans and you get to stay in. You've felt that twinge of annoyance when you get a text (or worse, an unannounced visit) from a friend. "Ugh, why can't these people leave me alone?"
"No, it's not like I had any plans today. Let's just get together and do your thing."
But then, after too many weekends (read: more than one) spent drinking boxed wine and watching Firefly reruns, you begin to feel the cold bite of loneliness again. Humans are social animals, and solitude is kind of like taking a nap -- it feels great while you're doing it, but if you remain in that state for too long, they eventually have to take you to the hospital and hook you up to machines. And so, you're left with three choices:
B) Follow Schopenhauer's advice, which was to find some safe distance from everyone; shallow but harmless relationships that give us a slight amount of closeness without any danger of being hurt. We'll call this the Facebook Option -- you observe what your friends are up to from afar. If you can muster it, maybe you slip them a few words of feigned goodwill amongst all the pictures of breakfast and cats, before going back to your Firefly reruns in peace, hoping the illusion of warmth will distract you from the cold.
C) Go out there and get hurt again, and accept that all relationships are painful at times. Even a casual friendship means occasional disappointments, petty betrayals, and feeling like they're not holding up their end. Some would refer to this as "The Only Option."
"You're right, I don't need anyone. You'll be my friend ... Yes, everyone must pay."
We Lie About What We Want, Because We Think It Makes Us Unselfish
Ask anyone their definition of an asshole, and you'll get roughly the same answer everywhere: "It's people who don't care about anyone but themselves." It doesn't matter how exactly that behavior manifests -- whether they're being aggressive, rude, or refusing to cooperate unless they get their way -- it all comes from the same place. They don't care about what anyone else wants or needs. The good news is that this means being the opposite of an asshole is simple: simply put your own wants and needs aside in deference to the people around you. Logically, the most perfect, saintly person would therefore be someone who does this all the time.
And yet, those people are a fucking nightmare to be around. Get more than one of them in a group, and everything grinds to a halt. This is called the Abilene Paradox, though we prefer to call it The Applebee's Paradox.
No, the paradox doesn't explain how a restaurant nobody likes has 2,000 locations.
It works like this: it's Friday night, and you've just finished what you will undoubtedly describe to your half-listening friends as the worst week to ever befall a member of the human race since Job. You shuffle on over to the local watering hole and, spotting your friends, you head over to their corner and proceed to avail yourself of the happiness this particular establishment touts to provide over the next decidedly-longer-than-an-hour 120 minutes. After a while, somebody mentions that they haven't eaten yet. Neither have you, come to think of it. Everyone else agrees that they, too, are hungry. So far, so good. Your group of dudes functions like a goddamned well-oiled machine!
Well, maybe not "oiled," but well-lubricated, at any rate.
But then you ask where everyone wants to eat. You do this because it saves you from having to make a suggestion yourself -- you care about their preference, not your own. After all, you're not an asshole.
Mike suggests Applebee's. He doesn't really want to go there, but it's close by and he doesn't remember anybody complaining last time. He secretly wants to go to Waffle House, but figures nobody else will want to, and insisting on his preference, well, that's something an asshole would do. He only picked it because he figured it would be a safe choice to make the group happy.
For future reference, if someone rejects waffles, they're probably the asshole.
Martin shrugs and says, "I'm good with that." Actually, he also doesn't want to go -- his mozzarella sticks were lackluster on his last visit -- but he doesn't want to disagree with Mike. If Mike wants to go to Applebee's, only an asshole would contradict him and insist on Martin's true preference (Waffle House). Besides, by begrudgingly suffering through a meal at Mike's choice, that means Mike owes him.
Greg then adds a third vote for Applebee's. He freaking hates the place, but he prefers subpar chicken wings to awkward disagreement or pregnant silence. After all, he wouldn't enjoy his true choice -- Waffle House -- if it meant that two of his friends were going to be sitting there sulking the whole time. He's not an asshole.
Finally, everyone looks at you and, well, you now don't have a choice -- everyone else has voted. You're not going to pull some 12 Angry Men bullshit and be the lone juror insisting everyone else is wrong and that they should all switch their vote to Waffle House. So before you know it, you're all going to Applebee's. Again.
We take it back, this totally explains the 2,000 locations thing
That's the paradox: everyone wants to come off as selfless, but this means we hide our true preferences in favor of other people's. But that would require knowing what their preferences are, and we don't because they also are hiding what they truly want, for the same reason. So we wind up working on a false set of assumptions about what others want, and all parties wind up miserable. You see the same dumb game play out everywhere, from big businesses to group projects to romantic relationships ("What movie do you want to go see?" "You pick, any one is fine! I only want you to be happy!"). Hell, you even see this with frustrated "nice guys" whose romantic strategy is to approach women and pretend they're not interested in them romantically. "I can't come out and tell her I'm attracted to her, like some kind of douchebag!"
All the while dreaming of the day they can finally say "I do ... if, you know, that's what you want."
Of course, honestly stating what you want isn't what makes you an asshole -- it's how you act when you don't get it. In fact, forever concealing what you want just so you can feel like you've made a noble sacrifice (one the other person doesn't even know you're making) is kind of the biggest dick move of all.
But that brings us to ...
Related: We Want to Pay You to Write for Us
You Don't Want to Be a Burden to Others, Which Makes You a Burden to Others
No one wants to be needy. If there ever was a death knell for a relationship, it is being labeled as such by your soon-to-be-ex partner. We all are taught to deal with our own shit, because the only one you can really trust out in the big, scary world is yourself. That's why all of our heroes are independent, self-sufficient badasses. Batman doesn't need anybody -- the world needs him. Hell, his lack of parents, and the need to find his own path, is the reason he was able to become Batman in the first place, dammit!
Near-limitless resources may have played a role, too.
And not to get all political, but this is kind of the theory behind cutting welfare benefits -- giving people help does nothing but make them more and more helpless, right? So if we want them to become awesome, fully-functioning human beings, we have to take away the safety net.
We've all had that friend who has come to borrow money, with a conversation that played out like this:
"Dude, I need to borrow $300. They're going to repossess my car."
"Well, I borrowed $75 from a payday loan place two months ago. So now with all the interest and fees it's $300."
"THEN WHY THE HELL DIDN'T YOU BORROW THE $75 FROM ME TWO MONTHS AGO?!?"
"I didn't want to be a burden."
"That $300 doesn't cover my water bill, though, so do you mind if I do a few loads here?"
His not wanting to be a needy burden wound up costing you more. Everyone would have been better off if he had simply admitted he needed help when he needed it. This is the dependency paradox, and you can apply it to virtually any relationship. Being too dependent on others -- emotionally, financially, etc -- is obviously bad. But refusing to admit you need others at all is even worse. Not just for you, but for them. In a relationship, when one partner admits they need the other, it actually helps that partner function better down the line (ironically making them more independent).
"Don't do that; I don't want to be a bother. Just do me a solid and organize and finance my funeral."
And this literally starts in infancy: forming a dependent bond on an adult is necessary for the kid's brain to develop. It's how we're built. So throwing a toddler out into the yard to hunt for his own food doesn't make him strong and independent; it turns him into a broken, dysfunctional mess. He may still dress up like a bat and punch people when he grows up, but he probably won't be doing it to fight crime.
Humans are social animals, and you can't escape that fact. Being self-sufficient doesn't mean never having to ask for help. If anything, being needy every now and then helps you be sympathetic to others in need -- it's the douchebags who turn their nose up at charity with the mantra of, "You didn't see me asking for handouts when I was on my ass!"
The world is full of broken people who remain that way purely because they can't admit they need help putting themselves together. It's part of the reason why miserable people are so quick to snidely dismiss anything that might make them happy, and rage at anyone else who openly admits they have needs. Like a soldier who is so badass he refuses medical attention for this gunshot wound, then promptly bleeds out and misses the rest of the battle. Ask yourself: was he brave because he didn't fear bleeding out, or was he a coward because he did fear looking weak in front of the other men? Knowing the answer to that question could save your life. Here's a video of a sloth lazily eating some carrots.
David Wong is the Executive Editor of Cracked and wrote 6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person as well as the NYT bestseller This Book is Full of Spiders. For more ways your brain is trying to sabotage you, check out 5 Ways Your Brain Is Turning You into a Jerk. And then check out 22 Shockingly Dark Lyrics in Otherwise Happy Songs.
Nightmarish villains with superhuman enhancements. An all-seeing social network that tracks your every move. A young woman from the trailer park and her very smelly cat. Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits, a new novel about futuristic shit, by David Wong.