Ureshiku Naritai

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.