Sunday, February 7, 2010

Pushing 40

(Las Meninas, the portrait of a happy family, complete with regal dog as friend and protector of the young daughters, was done by Velazquez in 1656 and is widely considered to be the world's finest painting)


Reflections and a Touch of Melancholy

I just turned 38 years old, which means that I am apparently three years into being a middle-aged man. From a rough statistical standpoint, my life is now 50% consumed, with the remaining half including the "long goodbye."

Intellectually, I think I can face the hard facts regarding entropy, organic decay, and the underlying mathematical structure of life (lifespan in mammals appears to follow a power law, increasing at a rate of M^.25 where "M"=the animal's mass, although humans seem to live longer than the extrapolation would predict). However, my limbic system does not seem to fully appreciate these abstractions, and has been forcing me to contend with deeply philosophical topics, such as the nature of happiness and the pursuit of worthy life goals in the face of my evident mortality.

One reflection that seems particularly relevant to me right now is that perennial favorite, "The Meaning of Life". It is a complex topic in that musings seem to generate endless sub-issues that are all worthy of individual meditation. A brief sampling of my own ghosts: why do I find myself nearly 40 years old and having never been married? Why don't I have children yet? Why can I not seem to be able to handle tedium? Is Grey Goose really better than Ketel One? Why do I still experiment with modified 1911s, when Glocks have always performed well for me?

The days prior to a birthday seem to include a lot of time for contemplation of these and other, similar questions. On the marriage front, it seems that my inability to meet the benchmark is probably because I have so idealized the institution that I have historically required more evidence of long-term compatibility and more evidence of the girl and I generating an effective, pleasant joint-problem-solving style than most would consider reasonable. This appears to be a lesson that is learned at great cost. However, I will maintain that my heart is in the right place on this, because my primary goal is simply to avoid finding any truth in Wilde's cynical observation (via Dorian Gray) that "Men marry because they are tired; women, because they are curious: both are disappointed."

I want to mate for life, like gray wolves do, and for some reason I am just terrified of divorce.

(gray wolf mate-pairs take the phrase " sickness and in health" quite seriously)

The Good Life

The philosopher and occasional game theorist Patrick Grim organizes his thoughts on the question "what does it mean to have a good life?" by drawing a distinction between two categories:

1. Lives we admire

2. Lives we envy

To Grim, these life-types are often at odds. The lives we admire feature individuals who face and overcome extraordinarily difficult circumstances---the soldier, police officer, or firefighter who fights through horrible wounds to accomplish a mission and save others; the victim of violence, disease, or personal tragedy who somehow manages to convert a trauma into an ongoing relief project or rescue operation; the scientist or entrepreneur who toils away in obscurity and deprivation until one day (maybe) the world learns of his or her breakthrough. One way or another, we admire lives that are heroic, that feature individuals who persevere through fatigue and pain.

On the other hand, the lives we envy---which we certainly would also define as "good lives"---often involve great luxury, adventurous travel, physically beautiful romantic partners, and status. These lives are primarily about enjoying a broadly diversified, satisfying portfolio of fun activities.

(Mystique, 50m Jon Bannenberg-designed yacht built by Oceanfast in Australia)

Grim notes that the life of the admired hero is one that we often enjoy from the "outside, looking in." We do not necessarily want to literally be put in that person's shoes if we could change places via some kind of metaphysical life-exchange experiment(we know that those who endure physical and emotional battlefields are often deeply scarred by the experiences), but we do also feel that these people should be lionized. We are inspired by our heroes and from our earliest days as human beings we have enjoyed reading, hearing, and watching stories about them.

The life that we envy, however, is one that we often enjoy from the "inside, looking out"---we harbor fantasies about how life would be in that person's body, or in that person's socioeconomic position, and entertain ourselves with daydreams of being extraordinarily sexually attractive, or gaining the applause of a huge crowd whenever we step on stage, or having control of vast resources.

In our modern time of insipid, achingly ambitious social networking activities and endless self-promotion on Facebook, Twitter, etc., I think that we often find that people confuse the two "good life" archetypes and attempt to gain recognition and status by actively marketing themselves as socially concerned individuals.

Grim believes that most of us want a bit of both life-types---the soul of the life to admire combined with the physical and intellectual pleasures of the life to envy. The problem, he notes, is that the heroic soul will, if it truly is present in someone, never be satisfied with sharing 50% of its available energy with a life based around hedonistic pursuits and comfort. The heroic soul is imperialistic and will always seek to expand, demanding more and more time and resources, becoming increasingly embarrassed by the life of pleasure and disgusted with many of those who are trapped there.

A Study in Contrasts: 007

(film icon James Bond enjoys functional immortality and never has to reflect on lost youth, but must he suffer like the damned in order to be tolerable?)

I find that a bit of this schizophrenic attitude can be captured in the fictional character of James Bond. Using the recent film Casino Royale as but one example, we see that, in many ways, Bond lives a life of great style, adventure, and expense-account largesse. 007 is clearly a well-trained combat athlete, capable of physically dominating his environment through both animal athleticism and tactical finesse, but he's no unsophisticated brute: the character is also able to monetize his dangerous skills socially because he's a strikingly handsome, insanely well-educated cocktail party operator. He lives in the eternal springtime made possible by the hiring of a fresh actor whenever the current Bond starts to get a bit long in the tooth. As if these gifts were not enough, Bond is able to afford bespoke clothing, to stay in posh hotels and dine at Michelin-rated restaurants, to drive an Aston-Martin. The natural inclination when facing such a life of genetic, educational, and economic gifts is of course to imagine how delightful it would be to be Bond in real life, to envy 007 in some way, to want to see the world through his eyes.

Alas, there is a steep price to pay. In the same film, we see how the demands of Bond's extremely stressful job lead to him, among other things, nearly dying from poisoning, enduring grueling and desperate hand-to-hand fights in public bathrooms and on staircases, and (having somehow survived an amazing high-speed wreck) ultimately finding himself strapped to the torture chair, naked, while a sadist swings a heavy-knotted rope into his testicles. In the most trauma-inducing scene of all, 007 must watch a loved one drown (ok, they turned out to have had a rather complex and troubled relationship, but Bond did love Vesper Lynd).

Speaking for myself, I can certainly admire Bond's stoicism in being able to endure these events with surprising good humor, but I have absolutely no desire to go through any of these things. On some level, though, I did want Bond to go through hell*. If I was watching a conspicuous-consumption ad of a film about some Old Etonian jock with flashy good looks and commando training, spending his day playing high-stakes poker and shopping, I'd just walk out before long. In fact, if I want to be entertained by stories about a degenerate aristocrat's lifestyle and extreme snobbery, I'll just pick up one of Kyril Bonfliglioli's dark, witty novels about amoral London art dealer/occasional killer Charlie Mortdecai. Bond is meant to be serious, a heroic character, so I need him to suffer in almost Biblical terms in order for me to be able to admire him.

*(This was, for me at least, becoming a core issue with the Pierce Brosnan films---I thought Brosnan was breezing through situations effortlessly. With the exception of that North Korean prison camp that routinely exposed him to scorpions and water torture, he was just not suffering enough, or at least he was not suffering to a level that I found believable and satisfying).

I will return to Bond again in the future because I think that he provides a great platform for all manner of psychological explorations.

Haidt and Pursuit/Withdrawal Systems

When I suffer from existential angst, as I seem to around birthdays, I typically and probably predictably turn to cognitive science and evolutionary psychology for help. In his excellent book The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, Johnathan Haidt describes the neural "approach" and "withdrawal" systems ("your behavior is governed by opposing motivational systems: an approach system, which triggers positive emotions and makes you want to move toward certain things; and a withdrawal system, which triggers negative emotions and makes you want to pull back or avoid other things") and the effects that these may have on a person's ability to find happiness throughout life:

A person's average or typical level of happiness is that person's affective style." ("Affect" refers to the felt or experienced part of emotion). Your affective style reflects the everyday balance of power between your approach system and your withdrawal system, and this balance can be read right from your forehead.

It has long been known from studies of brainwaves that most people show an asymmetry: more activity in either the right frontal cortex or the left frontal cortex. In the late 1980s, Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin discovered that these asymmetries correlated with a person's general tendencies to experience positive and negative emotions. People showing more of a certain kind of brainwave coming through the left side of forehead reported feeling more happiness in their daily lives and less fear, anxiety, and shame than people exhibiting higher activity on the right side. Later research showed that these cortical "lefties" are less subject to depression and recover more quickly from negative experiences...and this difference in infancy appears to reflect an aspect of personality that is stable, for most people, all the way through adulthood.

Once when a friend of mine with a negative affective style was bemoaning her life situation, someone suggested that a move to a different city would suit her well. "No," she said, "I can be unhappy anywhere." She might as well have quoted John Milton's paraphrase of Aurelius: "The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven."

Haidt, a positive psychologist, seems to recommend a commitment to Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence ("EQ") practical skills, combined with a careful reading of the great Stoic philosophers (Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus) and studies of Eastern meditative disciplines, polished off with a general policy of forgiveness, "glass-is-half-full" optimism, and understanding when considering the faults of others.

(sometimes the approach system can malfunction)

If we follow Haidt's argument to its logical conclusion, though, we can end up with a disturbing case of biological determinism. In the event that the approach and withdrawal systems are, in some substantive part, genetically predetermined, the result would be that relationships which feature mixed systems can easily be subject to a sort of emotional redistributionist tax policy: one participant, the individual with the more potent approach system, will end up becoming a net emotional taxpayer, and will have to expend positive energy to attempt to support, placate, or otherwise positively stimulate the other person. The person with the more potent withdrawal system will thus become a net emotional tax beneficiary. If matching approach/withdrawal biases are present, it appears that two approach-centric individuals could happily coexist through a self-reinforcing "virtuous circle" feedback loop, while two equally withdrawal-biased individuals would lead each other down the road to great sadness and depression, a true case of the vicious circle.

Haidt deals with this by presenting a conceptual framework for happiness that includes a role for learned behavior and adaptive coping mechanisms: "One of the most important ideas in positive psychology is what Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, Schkade, and Seligman call the 'happiness formula': H = S + C + V

"The level of happiness that you actually experience (H) is determined by your biological set point (S) plus the conditions of your life (C) plus the voluntary activities (trained behaviors, V) that you do. The challenge for positive psychology is to use the scientific method to find out exactly what kinds of C and V can push H up to the top of your potential range."

Gregory Berns, Satisfaction, and Dopamine

After taking numerous tests over the years that have confirmed the existence of an extremist "novelty-seeking" component to my personality (I want to more fully unpack this family of traits in a future post, when I can get into anthropologist Helen Fisher and her research into strategies for how people can find compatible mates), I have attempted to learn more about how I can better satisfy my need for these psychic paychecks in ways that hopefully do not harm either myself or society. One finding of the cognitive/computational neuroscience community that I have found useful was written up in the book Satisfaction by "dual-cool" (i.e., MD and PhD) Gregory Berns:

Much of what is known about motivation has to do with the neurotransmitter dopamine, which, until the mid-1990s, many scientists thought of as the brain's pleasure chemical. While dopamine is released in response to pleasurable activities---like eating, having sex, taking drugs---it is also released in response to unpleasant sensations---like loud noises and electric shocks. Actually, dopamine is released prior to the consummation of both good and bad activities, acting more like a chemical of anticipation than of pleasure. The most parsimonious explanation of dopamine's function suggests that it commits your motor system---your body---to a particular action. If this idea is correct, then satisfaction comes less from the attainment of a goal and more in what you must do to get there.

How do you get more dopamine flowing in your brain? Novelty. A raft of brain imaging experiments has demonstrated that novel events, because they challenge you to act, are highly effective at releasing dopamine. A novel event can be almost anything---seeing a painting for the first time, learning a new word, having a pleasant, or unpleasant, experience---but the key factor is surprise. Your brain is stimulated by surprise because our world is fundamentally unpredictable. Like it or not, nature has given you a brain attuned to the world as it is. You may not always like novelty, but your brain does. You could almost say that your brain has a mind of its own.

Once again, there is a darker interpretation of Berns and the dopamine/novelty-craving brain. If left to its own devices, this hardwired feature (which Fisher finds to be much stronger in some individuals than others) can become an apologist tool for all manner of bad behaviors. I have personally found that it can also lead to grave mistakes in the assumptions on which relationships are based, as attempts are made to create a sense of novelty in the hopes of increasing the excitement level and pleasurable anticipation, when in fact they merely end up contributing to suspicion and the perception of risk. I won't exhaustively catalog my own errors here, but perhaps they would serve a purpose as a cautionary tale later on.

Driven and the Balanced Life

(soft, expressive eyes of silverback mountain gorilla always struck me as revealing a self-actualized and contemplative animal, quite comfortable with his social position and lifestyle)

Harvard Business School professors Paul Lawrence and Notin Nahia provide an interesting view of life meaning and the pursuit of fulfillment in Driven: How Human Nature Shapes our Choices. While I prefer the more comprehensive theory of emotional command systems and neural correlates that has been originated and articulated by Jaak Panksepp, Lawrence and Nahia provide a good conceptual framework for exploration.

Driven articulates the thesis that the human animal is motivated by four primary drives, usually discussed in the shorthand form D1-D4, and that long-term happiness is achieved when each drive has been satisfied to an appropriate level for that individual (these drives will be found to also line up quite nicely with Fisher's model of four major personality types and their neurochemical reward system origins). Distortions and personality pathologies can occur when some (or perhaps all) of the drives are left unattended to.

Lawrence and Nahia define the terms in their book:

D1: to acquire objects and experiences that improve our status relative to others.

D2: to bond with others in mutually beneficial, long-term relationships.

D3 to learn about and make sense of ourselves and the world around us.

D4 to defend ourselves, our loved ones, our beliefs, and our resources.

The Drive to Acquire

The drive to acquire is fairly straightforward: money, material goods, security, luxury. Harnessed to the command of resources would hopefully also be a sense of style, of good taste. Some aesthetes draw a distinction between four types of purchases: those that are beautiful, but non-functional; those that are functional, but not beautiful; those that are both functional and beautiful; those that are neither. The truly sophisticated, urbane man or woman of quality would, from this point of view, have the resources and discretion to surround himself or herself predominantly with items from that third category (functional beauty).

The Drive to Bond

The drive to bond has at least two two possible vehicles for expression: the first, the dark form, would be the pursuit of tools for social manipulation (we will cover this in the future when we discuss so-called "persuasion technologies"); the second, the light form, would be an attempt to build long-standing relationships of genuine mutual benefit.

The best description of this second form that I have found is probably Harry Browne's discussion of "freedom from bad relationships" in his seminal How I Found Freedom in An Unfree World. Browne uses the metaphor of a Venn diagram in which two circles, A and B, represent the interests of two individual people. The circles hopefully have an area of overlap. Within this area of overlap lies the natural "win-win" capacity of the relationship---activities within this area are of mutual interest to both parties, and no compromise is necessary. The size of the area of overlap will be the defining factor in how far a *healthy* relationship can develop---a larger area of overlap in the Venn system would allow for more time to be spent together without either party having to compromise (some compromise is inevitable and even desirable, of course).

Following Browne's interpretation, the skill of bonding lies in having: A) a broad range of interests, which makes finding areas of overlap easier; B) the ablity to find these areas in other people (i.e., being curious and generous); and C) practices in place to try to limit relationship investment to win-win overlap activities as much as is realistically possible.

The Drive to Learn

The drive to learn is perhaps the most important vehicle for that dopamine-loaded novelty pathway described by Berns. In Fooled by Randomness, the always-outspoken Nassim Taleb describes the idealized, cerebral lifestyle of his protagonist, the hyper-intellectual options trader/philosopher "Nero Tulip": "...what he likes most about proprietary trading is that it requires considerably less time than other high-paying professions; in other words it is perfectly compatible with his non-middle-class work ethic. Trading forces someone to think hard; those who merely work hard generally lose their focus and intellectual energy. In addition, they end up drowning in randomness; work ethics, Nero believes, draw people to focus on noise rather than the signal...This free time has allowed him to carry on a variety of personal interests. As Nero reads voraciously and spends considerable time in the gym and museums, he cannot have a normal professional schedule."

The Drive to Defend

The drive to defend is perhaps best satisfied by the development of a physical security capability---an ability to control one's environment in a crisis, to survive the onset of hostilities, to eliminate threats. I think, from the primal standpoint of an individual who genuinely wishes to be able to defend himself and his loved ones from environmental threats (as opposed to other, more nuanced types of attacks), this is best accomplished by starting with physical and psychological health; then having access to a range of simple, robust, and practical urban and wilderness survival techniques, many of which will evolve with technological improvements in equipment; and then making something of a lifestyle out of the development of a core, high-conviction porfolio of aggressive, "kinetic" skills (for a serious martial artist, these would include physical strength and conditioning, Mixed Martial Arts, and tactical shooting).

Basic health helps to deal with the problems and stresses of everyday life, the peripheral skills increase survivability in a variety of different higher-risk environments, and the core portfolio makes someone a formidable opponent in a physical test of dominance (while a fight probably will never occur, I and many others would argue that skill at fighting has positive spillover effects---positive externalities---that benefit many other, more routine aspects of life).

In aggregate, the four drives seem to provide a useful outline for measuring life progress and creating blueprints to inform further development. I find the D1-D4 schema to really help me to organize my thoughts on this stuff.


Thanks for indulging my pop-philosophical post-birthday ruminations! I will aim to get a post up about Helen Fisher and John Gottman by Valentine's Day (appropriately), and then I want to get back to free market economics and begin some work with trading strategies, a taxonomy of hedge fund types, and decision theory applications for the battlefield.


  1. Happy belated birthday, Seb. Hope you had a good one! That's quite a brave post, btw.

  2. Thanks, Anja! I am not a poet like you are, so I have to rely on a lot of pics. Re: the post---I think it is a case of "in vino veritas".

  3. Having just turned 39 myself, I find myself having very similar thoughts, Seb. I was a pallbearer at my grandfather's funeral the day before my birthday, too, which helped set the tone. I'm getting married this October, having had the same desire and concern as yourself all my life, and might well become a father some time after that.

    Lots of changes, lots of anxiety, lots of opportunity, lots of hope. Here's to the next 35 years.

  4. Man, I am sorry to hear about your grandfather. On a happy note, I'm excited for you about the wedding! Is the world ready for a little Sinnertot to be unleashed...?

  5. Nothing to add except that was a delightful read. Thanks, Seb.

  6. Thank you very much, Leo! I hope all your fighters are healthy and feeling strong and confident.