A Life of Happiness and Fulfillment

7 07 2015

Having taken a couple of MOOCs recently on the subject of “happiness”, and having read a lot of material on the topic, my first thought when I came across yet another happiness course, this time offered by an Indian institute, was – I already know about all the cutting-edge research and material on the subject, and listened to the great pioneers in the field; what’s more to know? what new can this course offer?

I know! I sound like a true fool. Because the adage goes – “A wise man never knows all, only fools know everything.” 😛

This changed a little, when I was taken in by the intro video, which basically promoted the course as something that offers the knowledge and wisdom in the form of immensely helpful and practical nuggets like the “seven habits of the highly happy”, the “seven deadly sins of happiness” etc. The course is offered by a business school. What else can we expect. 😛 My curiosity piqued and I decided to give it a try.

I quickly realized my earlier folly and was pleasantly surprised to find a lot of new and engaging material (even though I’m familiar with many of the main ideas from my earlier courses). The presentation too is new and more engaging.  And I soon found myself impressed and looking forward to more from the course.

It wasn’t far along into the course that I started to feel like this is the ultimate practical guide you can get on happiness. What a quick transformation! 😉

Devaluing happiness is the first deadly sin of happiness. At the risk of being dramatic, I admit that it is at this point that I let my defenses down and let myself completely carried away by the bounty of knowledge in front of me. Because I readily realized that we actually don’t give happiness the priority it deserves, in many situations.

Another mind-blowing useful piece of nugget I got from the first week of the course, is about the medium maximization. It’s a common phenomenon that we confuse means with goal and pursue the medium and lose sight of the goal. The most common medium is money. Other similar ones include status, fame etc.

But in some cases, it’s not easy to distinguish between the medium and the goal. For example, I like to travel. But is it a medium or a goal? What am I really after? Do I think that I achieve happiness by travelling? If so, am I doing it wrong by pursuing travel? Same with “reading”. What is my goal in reading? Is it the means or the goal?

If they are mediums, what if I can be happy even without doing those things? Why do I think that only doing those things will bring happiness to me? Questions, questions!!!

But, really, all mediums can’t be the same in their effect. Can they? It makes sense to think that materialistic pursuits are always meaningless and lead to unsustainable pleasure, unlike the experiential pursuits. Tom Gilovich and others have proved through research that people are happier when they gain experiences rather than material things. But this implies that even experiences are means to the ultimate goal – happiness. Albeit a more reliable and sustainable means, but means nonetheless.

But what if I get carried away by these experiences – that is  what if I pursue them with as much vigor as some people pursue money or status, do they lose their significance and become as empty and meaningless as material pursuits?

The first exercise itself, which involves coming up with my own definition of happiness and identifying the things/activities that make me happy’ had been so rewarding. I realized that I have never consciously thought about what makes me happy or what I actually consider as happiness. I hope to work on my perception of happiness, refine it, and procure a more sustainable form of understanding about the concept.

I was awestruck by the second deadly sin too – Chasing superiority. It hit the nail right on the head. The instructor not only offers the reasons why we chase superiority in the first place, but also addresses the common perception that it’s necessary for being successful and motivated, by letting us know that it’s only a misconception and unravels the hidden folds of this seemingly simple attitude. He also offers antidotes to all the sins in the form of practices and habits that mitigates the sins and  reinforce happiness.

The second week exercise is about Gratitude. writing a gratitude letter to someone you are grateful to and reading it to them. I kind of cheated on this exercise in my previous course :P. Expressing gratitude to someone whom you have taken for granted all your life isn’t easy. Even though I consciously feel it many times, the idea of putting the sentiment into actual words and delivering them in person makes me uncomfortable. Nevertheless, I would like to give it a honest try, this time. (This instructor says, “email” is fine too. 😛 )

I found the way how the instructor not only provides just enough science and research behind each concept, but also how he actually addresses the prevalent misconceptions about various deadly sins we indulge in on a regular basis, throws light on how they are damaging our happiness and offers practical tips about how to get rid of them, completely useful.

This is the biggest advantage of this course. I’m delighted to take this course and hope to get as much as possible out if it, given my hectic schedule these days. The fact that it’s converted to On-Demand format is really helpful.
I’m also pleasantly surprised by the depth of the content. There are lot of references to books and research articles. If only I can ever read them all.. 😛

For other happiness related posts, click here.

Happiness made easy

25 04 2015

Everyone wants to be happy. There are a lot of theories and even philosophies that explain the “science of happiness”, but as a layperson, I just want to know exactly what I can do to achieve happiness. While there are no shortcuts, researchers have put together a number of practices, which, when incorporated in our lives, will actually make us happier.  Here they are for the benefit of the mankind 🙂 :

  1. Three Good Things – Every day at the end of the day, write down three good things that happened to you that day. This is the easiest. Before hitting the bed, my son and I tell each other the three good things that happened to us that day. Makes the ritual exciting ;).
  2. Active listening – take time to listen to someone, with total focus. Take an active interest in what the other person has to say. Show support and empathy. Practice it at least once a week.
  3. Random Acts of Kindness – Each day, do an act of kindness to one or more people. The key is to be kind in different ways and to spread them across the days. Doing 10 kind things a day and nothing for the next few days, doesn’t work. Also, it is important to do different acts of kindness, rather than doing the same thing to the same person or different people. Much to my chagrin, I didn’t find this practice as effortless as I thought it would be. For one thing, maybe I have a higher threshold for kindness. And also, it is sometimes embarrassing to feel good about myself by just being or doing something nice.
  4. Forgive – This is perhaps the hardest one. Make a list of people and actions that warrant the effort to forgive. Take each one, think about it and reflect on how it impacted you – psychologically and/or physically. When you are ready, “decide to forgive”. Here, it is important to understand what forgiveness really means. It does not mean forgetting or condoning the actions or even reconciling. It just means that you are letting go of your resentment. Extending the hand of mercy actually helps “you” more than the recipient. The other person doesn’t even have to know that you have forgiven him/her.
  5. Meditation – Mindful breathing, Body scan meditation. Being mindful helps you calm down and brings serenity when practiced regularly. Of course, there are lot of other benefits associated with meditation. Its positive impact on our lives cannot be overstated. The crux of mindful meditation is not about not having any thoughts but rather being aware of them when they occur and bringing the wandering mind back to the breath. This awareness itself helps us in being more mindful. Research states that a wandering mind is the cause of happiness, not the consequence. A focused or mindful mind is happier.
  6. Self-compassionate Letter – identity something about yourself that makes you feel sad or ashamed  or insecure etc. Then write a letter to yourself expressing compassion, understanding, and acceptance of the part of yourself that you dislike. When you feel really down, or berate yourself for something, or generally feel bad about yourself, imagine what you would say to a best friend who feels the same. Extend the same compassion towards yourself.
  7. Best Possible Self – Imagine the best possible life you can imagine in the next five years and write down about it. Consider all relevant areas of your life – career, relationships etc. Be very specific. I found that having multiple best possible selves is really helpful because it broadens our thinking and enables us to learn more about ourselves. It helps us to be more optimistic – even if plan A fails, we have other plans ready. 😛
  8. Gratitude Journal – Write about the things or experiences for which you are grateful. Do it thrice a week to be effective. Don’t overdo it. 😛
  9. Gratitude Letter –  Write a honest and candid letter to someone to whom you are grateful for. Better if it is someone/something that you haven’t thought about lately or that is not often on your mind. Deliver the letter in person and read it to him/her.
  10. Writing About Awe – Write about a time when you felt “awe”. It might be about nature, work of art, human kindness, or spiritual experience.

Part 12 of Science of Happiness Series (Final).

Part 1    Part 2    Part 3    Part 4   Part 5    Part 6    Part 7    Part 8    Part 9    Part 10    Part 11

How to learn: The right way

26 01 2015

I distinctly remember the feeling of despair that engulfed me when I was 10 and envisioned a weary future with seemingly never ending years of academics interspersed with vacations that always seemed just too short. The end of the tunnel, when I can forget schooling and get on with life carefree, seemed too far to be comforting. I dreaded the journey; the plethora of assignments, and exams.

What I never imagined was that along the journey I would succumb to Stockholm syndrome – come to enjoy it and even fall in love with the process of learning. I now realize that for the initiated, learning would never cease to occur, be in a formal academic setting or otherwise.

Thus I find myself these days pursuing academic programs, and MOOCs to my intense relish. Everyone has their own way of learning, their own bag of tricks when it comes to analyzing and understanding concepts, memorizing facts, or preparing for exams. I like to think that, given my moderate success, I did and do at least a few things right. But as I learnt recently from the Learning How to Learn MOOC from Coursera, I could’ve done/could do way better, with techniques and strategies backed by scientific research.

First things first, there is no free lunch. No pains, no gains. Learning by its own nature requires certain effort. It isn’t automatic. In order to learn something new, we need to undergo the process of first understanding it and then to deliberately practice it for retention. Any number of tips and strategies do not absolve one from the effort required. Instead, they are meant to guide you along the right path, steering you away from ineffective ways of studying and illusions of competence.

One major issue I face, like many, is procrastination. But an interesting thing I noticed is that I don’t do it with every subject or topic. It happens only with those which make me uneasy and uncomfortable. Just the reason why one should spend more time on them in order to master them but alas, that never happens. So, the trick is to focus on the “process”, rather than the “product”. Say, “product” here is an assignment or a paper, which always puts you off. Instead of thinking about finishing it, just focus on the “process” – working on it for some time.

The Pomodoro technique [1] enables you to work on a task with intense focus – without any distractions – for 25 minutes. You should follow up this period of intense focus with a break/reward. Given that 25 minutes is a reasonably comfortable stretch of time that anyone can focus, it is highly effective. Shutting yourself from all kinds of distractions – phone, noise, Internet etc., is the main catalyst. Equally important is taking a mental break at the end of this brief period, where the brain shifts to diffuse mode. It is scientifically proven that one can learn in a sustainable way only by leveraging both modes of thinking – focused and diffuse [2]. While focused mode is where the brain concentrates on something that you are learning, traversing a familiar nicely paved path of neural connections, diffuse mode is where the brain wanders around  looking at big picture perspective trying to make new connections. So, don’t regret those long walks or those little episodes of day dreaming. 😛

Despite their popularity, some study habits are anything but illusions of competence. Any amount of re-reading doesn’t help you much. Only when you apply the concepts to solve different problems, on your own, can you be able to say that you’ve mastered the material. This is what you call “deliberate practice” [3], which doesn’t seem appealing sometimes, and that’s ok. That’s how it should be. But, I’m sorry, that’s the only way to learn stuff. You can’t look at the solutions and decide that you know how to do it. The struggle you go through, the discomfort you feel when you are learning something new is inherent to the learning process.

Highlighting is another such habit that fools you into thinking that the material has sunk into your brain [4]. I highlight, but only for the purpose that when I peruse the material again, my eye is drawn to the most important points right away. I find it helpful to make analytical notes in the margins as I read – making connections to different ideas, providing context, asking questions etc.

Note-taking and concept mapping are two other study habits that aren’t really effective by themselves. I do a lot of note-taking. It helps me in slowing down while I’m absorbing new material.  It helps me to provide a visual imagery when I’m trying to recall certain stuff from my notes. But that’s it. It does not , by itself, result in learning. Note-taking, at best, is an aid. Nothing can replace the actual deliberate practice of working on the application of concepts to different sorts of problems. [5]

Spaced repetition [6], also known as distributed practice, is what enables you to assimilate and retain what you’ve learned in long term. It is necessary that you repeat and practice stuff periodically in order to push it into long-term memory. You can’t study something once and expect to recall it anytime in future. When I think back, I can certainly see this in my experience. Those ideas that I’ve spent time on  repetitively over the years are the ones I don’t have to fumble about anytime. Also, when you have multiple subjects/topics to study, it serves you well to interleave them [7]. Interleaved practice involves working on multiple skills in parallel instead of working on them sequentially. This enables the brain to be more alert and hence helps is better retention. It greatly helps when you try to apply concepts from one area to another. This technique, called “transfer”, enables you to gain mastery.

“You are what you practice”. What we do and think literally shapes our brain. It is called neuroplasticity [8]. By making conscious effort, we can change the way our brains are structured. We can learn new things, no matter whether we are naturally gifted or not. Research shows that being in an enriched environment (with creative people around) and exercising allows the brain to grow new neurons and remain healthy.

Even though the insights I provide here are just the tip of the iceberg, they are valuable nevertheless. I hope they prove to be helpful to you as they do to me.

Happy learning!


[1] Mind Tools, “The Pomodoro Technique® Staying Focused Throughout the Day,”

[2] Immordino-Yang, M. H., J. A. Christodoulou, and V. Singh. “Rest Is Not Idleness: Implications of the Brain’s Default Mode for Human Development and Education.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 7, no. 4 (2012): 352-64.

[3]Pachman, M., Sweller, J., & Kalyuga, S. (2013). Levels of knowledge and deliberate practice. Journal of experimental psychology, 19(2), 108-119.

[4]Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58.

[5] Karpicke, J. D., and J. R. Blunt. “Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning Than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping.” Science 331, no. 6018 (Feb 11 2011): 772-5.

[6]Logan, Jessica M., Alan D. Castel, Sara Haber, and Emily J. Viehman. “Metacognition and the Spacing Effect: The Role of Repetition, Feedback, and Instruction on Judgments of Learning for Massed and Spaced Rehearsal.” Metacognition and Learning 7, no. 3 (2012): 175-95.

[7] Birnbaum, M. S., Kornell, N., Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2013). Why interleaving enhances inductive learning: The roles of discrimination and retrieval. Memory & cognition, 41(3), 392-402.

[8] DeFelipe, Javier. “Brain Plasticity and Mental Processes: Cajal Again.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience 7, no. 10 (2006): 811-17.

Learning challenges

15 01 2015

Learning to Learn on Coursera is an amazing opportunity to enhance one’s skill at this all-encompassing capability, called Learning. In a different course I took several month earlier, I got a glimpse of the most powerful strategies that help us learn effectively. (I blogged about it here.) This course is offered by University of San Diego and co-taught by Dr. Barbara Oakley (who authored the bestseller – A Mind for Numbers, on which this course content is based on)  and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski (a pioneer in Computational Neurobiology). I’m only one week into the course and I already love the animated videos and the enthusiasm of Dr. Oakley. The 10 Rules of Good and Bad Studying provides a small taste (as claimed on Barbara’s website) of what you can find in the book and thereby the course.

The first assignment involves writing a reflective narrative about one’s learning situation/goal and how one plans to address it based on the many insights provided by existing research. Find a version of my submission below:

Current learning situation and goal

I’m a software engineer currently learning skills to be a data analyst/scientist. Mostly, I’m relying on MOOCs for the purpose. I have some relevant background in my under-graduation and graduation and am keen on gaining right aptitude for the role. I realized that I have two major learning challenges in the process. One is getting my head around Statistical Concepts and the other is gaining some ability in storytelling, most essential for creating compelling analytical products. The other technical part, I’m sure I’ll get it eventually.

Learning aim

As I’m not a part of any formal academic program, my goal would be complete the relevant courses online and be able to create a few decent data products on my own. Six months from now, I would like to see myself as fairly confident with regard to Statistics and Storytelling (from analytics perspective).

Biggest mental challenges

While I work on the material, quizzes, and assignments, I don’t persevere when I hit a stumbling block. Also, I don’t really practice on a regular basis. While I don’t have a procrastination problem, I feel that I don’t get the most out of my study efforts. I also realize that I’m not timing my study well. I panic when I do nothing and try to cram as many things as possible into my schedule, leaving me little time for relaxation and/or reflection. I feel stressed out most of the times.

After my first few, not so encouraging, encounters with the topics, I am frustrated that the secrets of Statistics allude me, that I’m not able to master them. My storytelling attempts too were lame, at best. I think I kind of developed a mental block about them and do not approach them without considerable apprehension. I have always thought myself as an analytical person and one good at Math. It puzzles me that I couldn’t get Statistics right, that I’m not able to fathom its depth. I keep waiting for that mesmerizing teacher, who can unravel the complexity of Statistics and give me a key to understanding its essence. But of course, there is little chance for this miracle to happen. And I’m painfully aware that this unrealistic optimism is adversely affecting my learning efforts. I give up too early.   And the opposite applies to ‘Storytelling’. I believe I’m naturally bad at this, and don’t envision a dramatic improvement. So, I don’t try enough. Again I realize though that this notion of mine is self-defeating.

Existing research and learning techniques

Understanding how our brain functions with respect to learning offers insights into how to approach it more effectively. There has been a lot of research on both how learning happens and what techniques are better than others. An extensive study on effective learning techniques by Dunlosky et al. reveals that practice testing, distributed practice, interleaved practice, self-explanation, and elaborative interrogation techniques have moderate to high utility. Surprisingly, as per the research findings, the more popular techniques of re-reading, summarizing, highlighting, and mnemonic usage are actually very ineffective. This blogpost by neurobonkers summarizes the lengthy monograph of the researchers quite well.

Research also points out that in order to assimilate new material we need to alternate between the two modes – Focused and Diffuse. Diffuse mode is when the default area network of the brain kicks in. And as Yang et al. points out, “rest is not idleness”. The importance of sleep in learning cannot be overemphasized. Sleep consolidates the fresh memories into long-term memories (Pierre Maquet).

Work by Carol S. Dweck  is perhaps the single most influential research on Mindset and Learning. By learning about neuroplasticity and believing in the ability of the brain to learn anything, despite the notion of natural talent, boosts “learning”. ( Dweck, C. (2008). Mindsets and Math/Science Achievement. Prepared for the Carnegie Corporation of New York-Institute for Advanced Study Commission on Mathematics and Science Education math and science grades. )

How will I apply

With the above insights, I would like to tweak my learning approach by indulging in distributed practice, self-explanation, and practice testing. I will practice more. I now realize the need to follow up intense focus periods with relaxation. One important takeaway for me is “leveraging sleep for learning”. I intend to study with focus before sleep and will to dream about it, so that I can assimilate new concepts better. I also commit myself to be more open and persevering towards the whole process.

Mindfulness and happiness

29 12 2014

In my opinion, much of our worry and unhappiness are the result of our inability to be in “the present”. Most of the times, we tend to be ruminating about our past or worrying or planning about the future. Inspirational author Spencer Johnson (most famously known for his  “Who Moved My Cheese”), in his best-selling book “The Present” emphasized that “the present moment is the best present (gift) you can give yourself.” None can fail to agree with this wisdom. But, in reality, mind-wandering is so ubiquitous that it’s affecting our lives adversely.

Do you know that our minds wander about half the time? A study conducted by Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert on 15,000 subjects  revealed that  people think about something other than what they are doing about 47% of the time. Of course, it varies among various activities. But it is interesting to note that in every activity other than sex, our minds wander at least 30% of the time. Even during “work”, our minds wander half the time. Too bad!!

A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.

Research finds that being able to be aware of the present – being mindful to ourselves, and our surroundings will reduce stress & anxiety, and improve health & happiness.

Mindfulness is generally defined as “non-judgmental, moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment” (Jon Kabat-Zinn). In “Mindfulness Meditation”, one should focus on breath and every time a thought occurs aka mind wanders, one has to bring the focus back to the breath. The idea is not to have no thoughts at all, because it’s almost impossible. Realizing that the mind is wandering and consciously bringing it back to the “breath” is the crux of this type of meditation. With practice, it will become easier and also one will observe that the mind wandering is reduced – it slows down.

Shauna Shapiro, internationally recognized expert in mindfulness, defines “mindfulness as “the awareness that arises out of intentionally paying attention in an open, kind, and discerning way”.  She emphasizes that “intention”, “attention”, and “attitude” are  the important aspects of mindfulness. We need to set the compass our heart to pay attention to something intentionally. And we need to approach it with the right attitude – with openness, curiosity, warmth, a sense of trust, gentleness, kindness.

We need to be kind to ourselves. Calming our mind is not an easy process.  But every time you catch your mind when it’s wandering and bring it back to whatever it is your are doing – if it is meditation, focus on the breath – you can congratulate yourself. You should not be frustrated that your mind wanders. It’s how it is and you are trying to calm it down. Be gentle and kind to yourself. It gets better with practice.

At this point, there  is a need to make a distinction between “mindfulness’ and “meditation”. Meditation is much broader in its scope.  Being mindful is only one part of it. Also, you can practice mindfulness even when not meditating.

A related concept is “flow”, a state when we truly feel like we’re “in the moment” or “in the zone”. We all experience it occasionally – when we are engrossed in some activity and lose all track of time.  “Flow” is intrinsically rewarding. We achieve “flow” when we engage in a task that is highly challenging for which we have a high level of skill.  The balance between the challenge and high skill is integral to flow. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the pioneer researcher of “flow”, says that it is the secret of happiness.

Daniel Goleman, renowned psychologist and author of “Emotional Intelligence”, in his latest book “Focus” focuses on precisely the same topic. Being mindful and focused is the most essential driver of success, not only for individuals and in personal settings, but also for organizations and workplace settings. He says that it is essential to be aware of our negative feelings and thoughts too. We need to acknowledge them and address them. I don’t know more about this book, but I’m sure it has lot of enlightening and useful stuff for all of us.

Part 11 of Science of Happiness Series.

Part 1    Part 2    Part 3    Part 4   Part 5    Part 6    Part 7    Part 8    Part 9    Part 10

Toxic mental habits

30 11 2014

Till now, we have touched upon many positive things which contribute to and boost happiness. In this post, we will consider a few mental habits, which adversely affect our well-being. In fact, they are toxic in nature and severely detriment happiness.

According to Dacher Keltner, the following constitute toxic mental habits:

  • Perfectionism
  • Materialism
  • Social Comparison
  • Maximizing
  • Frazzle – putting ourselves into a lifestyle that is overwhelming

It makes sense, right? I can almost see the heads nodding in agreement. 🙂

Let us dwell a little on each one of them.

Perfectionism is trying to reach the ideal, to achieve the best in each and every endeavor. But of course, there is no thing called “perfect”. Chasing it will only be liken to pursuing a mirage. It’s impossible to derive any kind of satisfaction in the process. Continuously pushing your limits is usually accompanied by a lot of stress and results in severe discontent.

Materialism is another vice that refers to acute emphasis on material things. Under its influence, we tend to amass more and more material goods in view of the mislaid belief that they will make us happy. But, as research by Thomas Gilovich and others (an easy to read alternative here) suggests, people derive more happiness from experiences rather than material things. So, by focusing on wrong things, we are no way closer to what we want to achieve i.e., happiness, but rather moving farther away. Beware of how consumerism is affecting you.

We are social beings. It’s sometimes with amusement that I ponder on the ways “society”, which is nothing but the collection of us along with the rules we make to govern ourselves, controls and/or influences us. We have a deep rooted tendency to analyze, judge, make sense of things, establish hierarchies, and spot patterns. It is due to this ingrained impulse that we tend to compare ourselves with others. We have an unexplained urge to know where we stand with respect to our environment. Social comparison, especially with those above our level, will reduce self-perception.

Maximizing is a tendency to achieve the greatest amount of benefit or pleasure from anything. It requires considering all the alternatives/choices available, and evaluating them in order to arrive at the final decision. Needless to say, it involves lot of effort. Moreover, it is not as though maximizers are happier at the end of it all. In fact, maximizers are

  • more regretful after purchases
  • less satisfied with life
  • more depressed
  • less satisfied with success
  • less optimistic

Perfectionism and maximizing go hand in hand. It is very tempting for perfectionists to maximize.

“Having too many choices is a curse to our happiness.”

The alternative to maximizing is “satisficing”, which involves going with the first option that meets your set criteria. Satisficers do not consider all the choices. Satisficing doesn’t mean going with a sub-optimal solution. It just means a “good enough” solution that serves your purpose.

While maximizing is associated with unhappiness and less satisfaction, satisficing is related to happiness and more satisfaction. So, you can deduce that happy people and unhappy people follow different decision-making processes.

Happiness expert Dan Gilbert says, people are happier with irrevocable decisions. We all have what  he calls “psychological immune system”, which refers to our tendency to justify our choices and creates positive sentiment about them – but only when it’s perceived that the choice is complete and can’t be reversed. (Refer to the famous study of Monet paintings).  Listen to this absolutely wonderful TED talk by Dan Gilbert on Surprising Science of Happiness.

Frazzle is something which results from perfectionism, maximizing, and any other habits which will wear us out.

I myself am seriously prone to Perfectionism and Maximizing, while susceptible to a lesser degree to the rest of the toxic mental habits. Thanks to this new wisdom, I am beginning to notice their effects on the quality of my life. Realization is always the first step. But it should be followed by “action” to see results. It’s not easy but it’s definitely possible.

Even while we focus on improving positive emotions, it is important to curb these harmful mental habits for our own good.

Part 10 of Science of Happiness Series.

Part 1    Part 2    Part 3    Part 4   Part 5    Part 6    Part 7    Part 8    Part 9

Intuition and decision making – Part2

19 11 2014

By definition, intuition, like our logical processing, is based on past knowledge/experiences (whether we know it or not). So, it may not give you a right answer in a new situation. It is at best a guide. It can be right in some circumstances and wrong in others. David Meyers, an experiential psychologist, in his brilliant book – Intuition: Its Powers and Perils, suggests the context in which context our intuition serves us well and in which it doesn’t. We can trust our intuition when:

  • harnessing the automaticity of everyday life – our implicit learning, memory etc.
  • we have experience based expertise
  • we are reading emotions from others’ faces
  • after letting our distracted or sleeping unconscious mind work on a decision task

We should not trust our intuition when:

  • Buying a lottery ticket
  • Picking stocks to buy
  • Predicting athletic performance from who is currently “hot”
  • Predicting job performance from a casual interview
  • Judging who is lying vs. truth-telling

Sure, it gave me a lot of clarity. Here is a short video (1 hr) by David Meyers on the topic, in which he gives the gist of his book. In the video, he also explains why we intuitively fear the wrong things. He says, we fear

  • What our ancestral history prepared us to fear
  • What we cannot control
  • What’s immediate
  • What’s most readily available in memory (availability heuristic)

Some of the biases that we need to be wary of are:

  • Self-fulfilling prophecy – we tend to behave in ways that make our predictions about something come true.
  • Confirmation bias – we tend to only look at the evidence that confirms our beliefs
  • Overconfidence bias – we generally are overconfident about our predictions and estimations
  • Affective forecasting – we tend to overestimate our  future happiness or otherwise from an event

Obviously, this short list is no way an exhaustive one. Sometimes, I feel so overwhelmed by all these invisible forces acting against me. 😛 Given the amount of reliance people usually put on their intuition, even while making critical decisions, I think we need more convincing on the part of the pitfalls or rather perils of it than its power. 🙂 Nonetheless, in view of its value, it helps us to be more intuitive. So, how can we improve it? It’s pleasantly surprising and heartening to know that New Zealand would like its kids to “reflect on their own learning, draw on personal knowledge and intuitions, ask questions, and challenge the basis of assumptions and perceptions.” Jamie McKenzie, the editor of an educational technology journal, provides a list of steps that can help students make use of their intuitions:

  1. Clarifying, Demystifying and Defining
  2. Enhancing Awareness and the Ability to Read Intuitions
    1. Meeting new people
    2. Predicting the next move
    3. Sizing up a situation
  3. Testing and Balancing Intuitions against Other Thinking

Read his excellent article here. Practicing meditation and being mindful is an excellent way to improve our intuition. Mindfulness enables us to be in the present, thereby making it more feasible for us to pick up the subtle cues and information around us. Meditation helps us to calm down, bring down the noise inside our heads. This makes it easier for us to listen to our inner self. Being more observant of others and surroundings also helps a lot. This brings to my next question: why are some people more intuitive? Is it a predisposition, a natural inclination? Or is it environment? Like everything else about us, it is a combination of both. Genetics partly shape our ability. But a significant portion of it depends on the kind of environment we are exposed to. Also, as we feel comfortable with a particular way of thinking, we tend to reinforce that behavior by repeatedly preferring it to the other resulting in a positive feedback loop. The popular psychology claims that there is a dominant part of your brain – Are you left-brained or right-brained? Left_Vs_Right_Brain Clearly, intuition is associated with right-brain and logical thinking and analysis with left-brain. But, the recent research indicates that the dominance is a myth and in fact both parts need to work together to solve anything. Nevertheless, we see that some people approach things more in the “right” way and some others more in the “left” way. This article points out that there are biases inherent in both the approaches. Intuition-dominant biases:

  • Overlooking crucial details
  • Expecting solutions to sound in a certain way
  • Not recognizing precise language
  • Believing their level of understanding is deeper than what it is

Logical-dominant biases:

  • Ignoring information they cannot immediately fit into a framework
  • Ignoring their emotions
  • Making rules too strict

People need to use the appropriate approach based on the problem/task at hand. For example, learning a mathematical or science concept should be approached analytically to be more effective, while understanding the emotions needs more of an intuitive approach. It is quite possible that you may not have an intuition in a certain situation. Then, all you have to depend on is concrete data. On the other hand, it is also possible that sometimes, you may not have any or enough data to rely on to make a deliberate decision, or very time pressed to actually make a logical decision. In those cases, you may have to act out of your intuition. I will end this post with an interesting questions: Are women more intuitive than men? If so, why? If not, why the myth is so prevalent? I’ll explore this in a later post. 🙂 Part1 Note: This is a continuation of an earlier post on Effective decision-making.