June 9, 2022
 min read

Mind Macros 20: Inheriting happiness, cognitive dissonance, and the dichotomy of control

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Hello, friend.

Welcome to another issue of Mind Macros - I hope you find something of value.

Food for Thought

1.  Cognitive dissonance (how we justify bad behavior)

"The engine that drives self-justification, the energy that produces the need to justify our actions and decisions—especially the wrong ones—is an unpleasant feeling that Festinger called ‘cognitive dissonance.’ Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent, such as ‘Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me’ and ‘I smoke two packs a day.’

"Dissonance produces mental discomfort, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don't rest easy until they find a way to reduce it. In this example, the most direct way for a smoker to reduce dissonance is by quitting. But if she has tried to quit and failed, now she must reduce dissonance by convincing herself that smoking isn't really so harmful, or that smoking is worth the risk because it helps her relax or prevents her from gaining weight (and after all, obesity is a health risk, too), and so on. Most smokers manage to reduce dissonance in many such ingenious, if self-deluding, ways." — From Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

Despite knowing something we're doing is bad for us, unwise, or even illegal, we can rationalize it through self-justification. Take this memorable example from Mistakes Were Made:

"Have you ever done a little finessing of expenses on income taxes? That probably compensates for the legitimate expenses you forgot about, and besides, you'd be a fool not to, considering that everybody else does. Did you fail to report some extra cash income? You're entitled, given all the money that the government wastes on pork-barrel projects and programs you detest. Have you been writing personal e-mails and surfing the Net at your office when you should have been tending to business? Those are perks of the job, and besides, it's your own protest against those stupid company rules, and besides, your boss doesn't appreciate all the extra work you do.

"But, you say, all those justifications are true! The government does waste money! My company probably wouldn't mind if I spend a little time on e-mail and I do get my work done (eventually)! Whether those claims are true or false is irrelevant. When we cross these lines, we are justifying behavior that we know is wrong precisely so that we can continue to see ourselves as honest people and not criminals or thieves. Whether the behavior in question is a small thing like spilling ink on a hotel bedspread, or a big thing like embezzlement, the mechanism of self-justification is the same."

2. 50% of our happiness level is inherited

"In fact, happiness is one of the most highly heritable aspects of personality. Twin studies generally show that from 50 percent to 80 percent of all the variance among people in their average levels of happiness can be explained by differences in their genes rather than in their life experiences." — From The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt

The study Haidt references here is titled “Happiness Is a Stochastic Phenomenon,” and it suggests genes account for as much as 80% of our happiness levels. Happiness is inherently difficult to quantify, with numerous studies providing varying results. One such study conducted by the Minnesota Twin Registry found that genes determine around 50% of happiness levels. In the study, researchers David Lykken and Auke Tellegen examined the happiness levels of 1,300 pairs of identical and fraternal twins. Here's what they found:

"Identical twins reported similar levels of happiness, while fraternal twins exhibited greater variation in their reported sense of well-being. These results were found in families of twins raised together and extended with twins reared apart. Lykken and Tellegen concluded that nearly half of happiness can be accounted for by genetic factors. The other half is determined by life's everyday ups and downs. In other words, everyone is born with a certain "set point" for happiness in the same way that your household thermostat is set to maintain a certain temperature in your home. Tragedies and pleasures might affect your level of happiness. But eventually you will return to your genetic set point, just as the temperature of your home will return to your thermostat's set point after you have let in cold air by opening a door or window."

The Minnesota Twin Registry study hinges on the accuracy of the “reported happiness levels of the twins.” The sample size is large enough for the data to be useful, but I would recommend treating these studies as indicators, not absolutes.

Practical Advice

1. Tying our well-being to our actions (the Stoic fork/dichotomy of control)

"Marcus Aurelius offers us another thought that might help us to clarify our aims: Ambition means tying your well-being to what other people say or do. Self-indulgence means tying it to the things that happen to you. Sanity means tying it to your own actions. We are looking to tie our well-being to our own actions, not those of others. The idea is simple, but its execution can feel difficult."

— From Happy by Derren Brown

Marcus Aurelius refers to the Stoic fork (or dichotomy of control), a method at the core of the Ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism. The practice involves separating what we can control from what we cannot. Epictetus, a former slave turned Stoic philosopher, wrote that only our thoughts and actions are under our direct control; everything else is out of our hands.

Brown imagines drawing a line down the center of his vision. When an issue arises, he checks to see which side of the line it falls on. If the problem lies beyond his control, he tells himself to stop trying to resolve it since no amount of effort will alter the outcome.

Separating issues into these two camps works because no harm is done when we let go of what we cannot control. If we have no control over a problem, releasing our attachment to it cannot make it worse. In addition, we will feel liberated from fighting fate. Brown expands:

"Anything on the other side of the line – anything other than our thoughts and actions – we can safely decide is fine. We can ask ourselves: how is it fine? Why is it fine? Why is it OK to not try to fix or change this? What would happen if I left it? What terrible thing would occur? We can enjoy the warm glow of relief as our centre of gravity returns to a place located securely within us.

"We are not fooling ourselves – it truly is fine to let go of these things. Nothing bad happens if we stop trying to fix them. Of course some grievances are harder to let go than others. Occasionally we must act to protect ourselves from danger, and these are the thoughts and actions which we should seek to control. Beyond that, let us allow that it's fine to permeate where it can, and feel some prelude to the fuller relief it might eventually offer in time."

We can influence many situations that are beyond our control. The majority of life's challenges fall into this category. For example, we cannot control whether our bosses decide to grant us a promotion; their preferences are their own, and fighting them would be a losing battle. However, we can control how hard we work, our commitment to the company, our teamwork, and so forth.

Using a tennis match as an example, Brown advises that we should not worry about “winning the game,” a result that is beyond our control. Instead, we should focus on playing to the best of our abilities, which is something we can control.

Beyond actions, the Stoic fork can extend to goal-setting. Our goals change from hitting 10,000 YouTube subscribers to uploading a high-quality video every week. Losing ten pounds in three months becomes averaging four workouts per week. Getting a book published with a renowned publisher becomes writing the finest book we're capable of and promoting it to the best of our abilities.

Of course, we will still desire a promotion, to lose weight, and pursue other goals out of our direct control. We may also work with charities, non-profits, and social injustice movements that set numerical targets. The goal is not to develop a selfish concern for our own lives, but to ensure our well-being is not dependent on external circumstances.

2. Viewing the world in extremes

"Imagine you're stepping on a traditional medical scale. It has two weight bars, one with notches at fifty-pound intervals and the other with notches at one-pound intervals. This allows the user to measure their weight down to the pound. What would happen if your doctor used a scale with only one bar with just two notches, one at fifty pounds and one at five hundred pounds, with no way to measure anything in between? Good luck getting medical advice after the person weighing you writes one or the other on your chart. You could only be morbidly obese or severely underweight. It would be impossible to make good decisions about your weight with such a poor model. The same holds true for just about all of our decisions. If we misrepresent the world at the extremes of right and wrong, with no shades of grey in between, our ability to make good choices—choices about how we are supposed to be allocating our resources, what kind of decisions we are supposed to be making, and what kind of actions we are supposed to be taking—will suffer."

— From Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke

Duke argues that thinking in absolutes is like weighing ourselves on scales that only measure in extremes.

Thinking in such a way is black-and-white thinking, or “believing in absolutes” (something must either be true or false, or good or bad). We often rely on this thinking model as our default approach despite its inaccuracy. Duke suggests instead that we should “think in bets” and place these bets in varying degrees of probability, not bouncing between the extremes.

We have covered Duke's philosophy on decision-making before (issue 16), but different analogies help to illustrate the concept.

Quotes to Ponder

1. Henri Poincaré on always falling into the extremes:

"To doubt everything or to believe everything are two equally convenient solutions; both dispense with the necessity of reflection."

2.  Naval Ravikant on the relationship between wisdom and action:

"My definition of wisdom is knowing the long-term consequences of your actions."

Thank you for reading,

Matthew Vere

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