Let’s not be so pessimistic about pessimism

Image courtesy: Corbis

Image courtesy: Corbis

We have all imagined or daydreamed of ourselves in ‘joyous’, ‘successful’ situations but rarely has it occurred to us to see ourselves in situations otherwise. A recent study by neuroscientist Tali Sharot and her team tells us that we are just wired to think positively or think unrealistically. While I don’t get enough clarity in everything she brings across through her research, I quite agree that we have programmed ourselves to picture everything concerning us through rose-tinted glasses. We all suffer from “It cannot happen to me” syndrome.

Personally, I believe both optimism and pessimism are necessary to give us that required push / kick in different situations. We may be automated to think positively in situations but humans do possess the ability (if they wish to use that ability) to foresee unwanted, untoward events that they may want to avoid. While optimism gives us the confidence to move ahead, pessimism keeps us mentally prepared for the worse. Studies have in fact shown that pessimism can often bring in pleasant surprises and motivation to excel further. If according to Tali Sharot, optimism is denying facts of life, then I believe pessimism sometimes helps in accepting facts of life and hence, urges us to take corrective action. You can’t be overly optimistic and still be happy by thinking “Nothing will happen to me” – if you rely on heavy doses of nicotine or take up gambling as a profession after winning a few rounds or expect to lose 10kgs in a week if you are overweight. Being a little pessimistic helps in bursting false notions and working towards something that seems difficult to achieve. Being less optimistic can often bring us closer to reality. After all, as the saying goes – A pessimist is just a well-informed optimist.


Happy New Year

No resolutions

No expectations

Nothing to hold onto and nothing to let go

With a New Year in tow, I’m just gonna go with the flow


Mr Grumpy will be welcomed to join in for a walk

And then share some time with Smiley to get few troubles dropped

The clouds can rain a storm or the sun may shine bright

With a New Year in tow, I’m just gonna go with the flow


Cheer’s not to seek, it’s something that I share

But I’ll keep my blues to me ‘coz from them I’ll learn to dare

The path can be easy or a tricky one to stride

With a New Year in tow, I’m just gonna go with the flow


No dreams to fulfill or success to pine for

Living each day to its fullest without regrets, grunts or spite

There’s not going to be a journey or a final point to reach

I’m gonna live a new life everyday that I breathe

Yes, with a New Year in tow, I’m just gonna go with the flow

When bad is considered good…

Was sitting surfing TV channels on a lazy afternoon while nothing interesting seemed to control my obsession with the remote control… News channels were busy predicting AB baby’s arrival, National Geographic was showing a repeat telecast of a show I had already watched, Movie channels were airing movies that can match the current pathetic film releases and GEC’s were busy with their usual afternoon-slot shows. My finger on the remote was like a non-stop punching machine when one show held my attention for a reasonably longer time than the others. The irony is that it wasn’t any intelligent, useful or revolutionary content but instead a host of tantrums, useless fights, meaningless gossip and silly tasks that were projected with the help of some attention-craving individuals who claimed to have innumerable fans out there who would happily vote for them for every nonsensical, silly act of theirs. Ahem, the truth is they actually did receive a considerable amount of votes and the show that’s currently running its fifth season has been a hit for last four years. Well, the recipe for success of Bigg Boss has always been controversial gossips or ugly bitching or couples pairing up and even getting married on the show. And the more nonsensical (or should I say, unnecessarily cheap) it got, the more popularity it gained. It simply paid to be sick… to be bad.

Image source: cartoonstock

It isn’t an unknown fact that people often get more interested in other people’s lives than their own. Perhaps, it is an inherent human nature to have an opinion about others and suggest what they should ‘ideally’ do, especially when others lives don’t directly affect their own. This probably happens since, it’s easier to focus on the events or situations that we have no emotional attachment to, instead of focusing on the aspects we don’t like in our own lives. Many shows, advertisements and even wannabe celebs today are trying to use this human nature to their advantage and attracting attention towards them through negative publicity. What the audience gets is a new topic to gossip and entertain themselves and what producers, companies or celebs get is some undivided attention and popularity.

Now, even though initially the popularity achieved may be in bad taste, often the task of getting the required attention is accomplished, …after all attention is the most valuable commodity today. Moreover, with time, the bad image is likely to be nothing more than a figment in people’s short-term memory or has the potential to be reversed even by a mere apology for the unacceptable act. Consider Tiger Woods – not saying he deliberately got the accident done or cheated on his wife to attract attention via negative publicity but even after big controversies tarnishing his image completely in view of public eye, an apology and noticeable behaviour change has slowly got him back on track on being one of America’s favourite golfers. At the same time, Rakhi Sawant is happily basking under the sun of fame and popularity, all owing to the number of outrageous behaviour displays and scandals that she has been involved in.

Negative publicity before the release of movies has also worked wonders to generate curiosity in the crowds to watch the film. As opposed to conventional promotional activities, buzz created due to affairs between lead actors or promoting controversial content from the film has often resulted in big ticket sales with a profitable outcome. Mallika Sherawat, for instance, would have remained unnoticed if her 17 lip-locks in Khwahish wouldn’t have been publicised on almost every media channel. Kurbaan attracted a lot of attention after posters with a bare-backed Kareena Kapoor were removed by Shiv Sena supporters. Kites release was hyped and awaited with bated breath after a highly publicised affair between Hrithik Roshan and Barbara Mori. Love, Sex Aur Dhoka got packed cinema houses after one of its sex scene photograph was featured in a tabloid. Deshdrohi’s Kamaal Khan got 5 seconds of fame because of the Marathi-Bihari issue in his film. Night Shyamalan, on the other hand, tried to play it smartly by releasing a hoax documentary on the Sci-Fi channel to promote his film The Village. This particular mockumentary – “The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan, shot on the set of The Village” was full of ridiculous facts and resulted in a huge audience for the actual film, because of its negative publicity campaign. Film controversies have also played up as “breaking news” before release and well, the list here is endless.

Advertisers aren’t far behind in featuring controversial content. What comes to your mind when you recollect the recent Fasttrack commercials or the Amul Macho (yeh toh bada toing hai) campaign or the old Tuff footwear ad featuring super-models Milind Soman and Madhu Sapre posing nude with a python? Nothing positive enough to be discussed comfortably with both tots and old, right? But still these ad campaigns are some which haven’t got lost in the clutter of plenty of other good commercials that have come and gone unnoticed.

There is yet another genre that really makes use of negative publicity to its advantage and that’s the book publishing industry. Bill Clinton’s autobiography My Life became a bestseller, not because people were keen to know about his journey to becoming the President of United States but because they were curious to know the person described by Monica Lewinsky. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, had become more of a ‘style statement’ to be carried in hand by almost every other person I saw on the street after controversy surrounding it made it supremely famous. Jaswant Singh’s book Jinnah: India-Partition-Independence that contained some controversial remarks against Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was received fairly well even after it got banned in Gujarat and Jaswant Singh got expelled from BJP.

As said by Brendan Behan, “There is no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary”, the focus has today shifted to merely publicise – whether good or bad. The idea is to not ever get forgotten or go unnoticed. Personally, I am not with it as bad publicity, in my opinion, hurts more than going unnoticed. Nevertheless, it does work and those who wish to use it to their advantage will continue to attract attention and get us interested in them by playing with our inherent nature.

Sometimes things work just because ‘You’ want them to!

Ever wondered why sometimes you no longer feel that sick once you’ve met the doctor… or remember those younger days when you fell down and got hurt and mom said, “Don’t worry baby, this pain will go away in just 2 mins” and what the hell – that pain actually did run away into nowhere…. and well, precisely in 2 mins.

Now think further… did you end up liking a song that you didn’t like initially ‘coz all your friends insisted it’s a great song?… or has plain, normal coffee tasted richer and smelled more aromatic just ‘coz the ambiance was great and the coffee mug was really cool?

I’m sure you have experienced at least one of these instances if not all… we all have… ‘coz we all have trained our minds to experience what we expect or want to expect.

It’s called the ‘placebo effect’ – an effective practice of years and basic requirement for homeopathic medicine to work… an option often tried out in clinical trials…  and an effective tool for marketers and advertisers to convince us.

The human brain, however remarkable, can be easily fooled. We are driven by emotions and so can be easily pushed towards making us want something, whether or not we really want it.

But well, it’s not a bad thing after all (though, there have been quite a lot of controversies surrounding placebos). Infact I feel it’s really good to be fooled sometimes if fooling our brain’s gonna do some good in return. Let’s look at where all, in my opinion, a “placebo effect” can be/has been created and helped:

Prescribed Placebos

Well, well… seems like a familiar zone? If not, it will – if you know that most of your homeopathy medicines have been nothing but sugar pills. Moreover, the trick is that you have convinced yourself that homeopathy takes time to work but it’s effective and will have no side-effects.

Hmm, knock, knock – Obviously, sugar pills aren’t going to have side-effects unless you are allergic to them. Secondly your own body’s working for you so it is going to take a while longer to heal. But all this healing was taking place while you were happily believing that those interesting sweet pills are busy curing you.

Well, that’s it – you believed. And that’s exactly what your doctor may have wanted you to do – Believe that you’re going to be okay with those teeny-weeny sugar pills.  End result: In most cases,  you did get okay.

Treating cold and cough, I guess works in a similar fashion – you are prescribed antibiotics which are supposed to attack bacterial infections not a viral infection like cold or cough. But voilà – the credit always goes to the antibiotics.

Hmm, now we know why doctors are rich

Well, who said Placebos are safe?

This works great, according to me, unless of course people aren’t duped for long in case of serious medical cases that needs attention from actual medicines.

Placebo Therapies

Reiki, magnet therapy, aroma therapy and like – don’t these work hard towards one main principle?… that’s – Making you feel good.

You are told, you’ll be cured… the kind touch or wonderful smells or objects that you don’t much understand creates an aura that pushes you to believe that you’re in for good… you believe the therapy will help and just because you believe in it, it does help. Well, with the amount of money you end up spending for these therapies, they better help.

Placebos building path to divinity

Ever realised that all those incense sticks, bells ringing, soothing candles, melodious chanting, swaying with music, holding hands and even pin-drops silence could actually be a way to get you more involved in the (religious) activity and strengthen your belief in prayers or your faith. If you haven’t realised, then think about it next time when you are in that environment.

Prayers can work wonders

But there’s nothing bad about it at all unless it turns you into a fanatic who opposes other faiths. We pray but believing in our prayers builds in positive energy and can actually push us to work towards making things happen. The best part is it often dissuades us to give up.

Drive in a placebo effect and make selling easier

It’s not news for Indians to know that hair oil acts as a good conditioner for hair. But say, with Mr Amitabh Bachchan and Mr Shahrukh Khan telling us that jadibutiyon wala ‘Himani Navratna Oil’ helps ease out tension and stress and makes us thanda thanda cool cool, we may end up believing that this particular brand of oil has more benefits. The strong smell of the oil on application may aid our belief further and we feel it really works. Though ultimately what may happen to relax us is actually a head massage irrespective of the oil used.

Advertising hair oils with added benefits is just one mere example but creating a placebo effect via advertising has been an age-old practice and the trend’s never gonna go.

Now, unless we aren’t going to be fooled into buying something super-drastic, I guess we can live with this selling game.

So, if you wish to share one of your experiences where you believed in something and it worked for you, do share.

If I break what I resolve, blame it on my brain

We have entered the year 2011… some of us in a l’il tipsy state after an overdose of alcohol on New Year’s Eve, some with an air of drowsiness after a late night of talks and babbles with friends and some with a fresh start coupled with best efforts to begin their New Year on a good note. No matter how each one of us decide to embrace the first day of the year but often the first thought of the year consciously or sub-consciously that occurs to all of us is – “I resolve to achieve XYZ in this Year” … a list of New Year resolutions soon occupy our mental space or get jotted on a blank page. Some vow to quit smoking, while some commit to lose weight and some decide to finally kick out their laziness… (Well, I’m barring a few who resolve to stay exactly the way they are 😉 )

Alas, just a few days pass by and we find it hard to keep all that we resolved for the New Year. The cigarette seems more tempting than ever before, the cake wins over the salad and lethargy sets in, like forever. As time passes by, the New Year’s resolutions become no more than a distant memory and by the end of the year, we end up cursing ourselves for not sticking to what we resolved.

But here’s the thing – more than ourselves, it’s our brain that’s to be blamed. It makes us lose both the will and the power in all our attempts at willpower and makes temptation win.

Now to explain – We are creatures of habit, good or bad. We have been wired to get attracted to immediate rewards even if they are smaller than the rewards that we can achieve after a waiting period. Saying ‘no’ to immediate rewards is a test for our willpower, which most of us often fail.

As per the scientific study that investigated the mechanisms of addiction, the brain area – prefrontal cortex (located just behind the forehead) is largely responsible for willpower. While this bit of tissue has greatly expanded during human evolution, it probably hasn’t expanded enough. That’s because the prefrontal cortex has many other things to worry about besides New Year’s resolutions like keeping us focused, handling short-term memory and solving abstract problems. Now in addition to that, asking it to lose weight or quit smoking, etc. is often asking it to do one thing too many.

Often most of us end up doing something even if it’s not the right thing for us, say gobbling up a cake when we have promised to be on a strict diet. The 3-minute sinful indulgence feels more rewarding than a slimmer figure which seems too far-fetched in that particular moment. Now, even when we promise ourselves, yet again to stick to our diet, the indulgence has all possibilities to recur in the future. That’s because a pleasure-sensing chemical named dopamine conditions the brain to want that reward again and again – reinforcing the connection each time – especially when it gets the right cue from our environment.The diagram below explains it further:

Now, it hasn’t been a new discovery for us that more often temptation wins over willpower, except of course most of us weren’t aware of the scientific mechanism behind it. But what makes this study useful is how we can apply it for our betterment. The trick is to train our minds for acquiring rewards after a waiting period. The task is definitely not an easy one and yes, even scientists who recognize the scientific mechanism can fall prey but such a habit can at most be successfully inculcated in our kids. They can be trained to resist an impulse or build their willpower against superfluous immediate rewards. This conditioning can help them ingrain a better lifestyle and make them better achievers in future. A long-known Marshmallow study by Walter Mischel helps us understand that. In the study, a group of four-year olds were made to sit in an isolated room and given a marshmallow. They were told that they could either eat the marshmallow right away or wait for 20 minutes after which they would get two marshmallows. Most kids ate the marshmallow soon after they were left alone with it while few others waited for 20 mins to get one more. The kids who ate the marshmallow immediately were considered to be oriented towards the present while the other few were considered to be oriented towards the future. When these children were interviewed again when they were 18 years old, there was amazing difference between children who could delay gratification and those who couldn’t resist the immediate temptation. The former scored better in their SAT scores, coped better under pressure and were self-reliant and confident while the latter over-reacted to frustration, were indecisive and prone to jealousy. This experiment has then been practiced by a number of scientists, researchers and psychologists and am sharing below the one carried out by Dr David Walsh to give you a glimpse of how it was conducted:

As all experimental studies cannot promise the same verifiable results all times in different situations, so can’t this one in particular. However, it doesn’t harm in being aware and conscious that the two marshmallows promised after a little waiting period are more rewarding than the immediate one. It’s about trusting our own power that we will get two marshmallows, if we follow a certain path. So, whenever temptation tries to tease you, do think for a moment – ‘What’s my second marshmallow: more money?,… better health?,… better relationship?,… a house?’ If you choose to resist the first marshmallow, you are sure to get any of these second marshmallows. So, follow your chosen path and wish you all a very Happy New Year that wins you lots of marshmallows 🙂

A l’il more thought on ‘Happiness’…

A couple of months back, I had shared a video of Daniel Kahneman talking on his study on Happiness or rather the effect of remembering self and experiencing self on happiness. Further to that, I am now sharing an insightful and a very well explained post from David McRaney’s blog: ‘You Are Not So Smart’.

Hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did.

NOTE: The post below is entirely from http://youarenotsosmart.com/2010/03/02/the-moment/ and hence full credit goes to it’s author, David McRaney.

The Misconception: You are one person, and your happiness is based on being content with your life.

The Truth: You are multiple selves, and happiness is based on satisfying all of them.

Have you ever been so sick you spent a week on the couch?

What do you remember from that period of time?

Mostly nothing, right?

All throughout your life great big patches of experience are tossed aside and forgotten. You turn around sometimes and think, “It’s March already!?” or “I’ve been working here for five years!?”

To understand the difference between experience and memory, you first need to understand a little bit about self.

Your sense of self is just that – a sense. A figment.

The person you imagine yourself is really just a narrative, a story. You tell this story to yourself and to others differently depending on the situation, and the story changes over time.

For now, it is useful to imagine there are two selves active at any given time in your head – the current self, and the remembering self.

The current self is the one experiencing life in real-time. It is the person you are in the three or so seconds your sensory memory lasts, and the 30 or so seconds after that in which your short-term memory is juggling all your senses and thoughts.

You taste the ice cream and it is good. Then, you remember you tasted the ice cream. Then, in five years, you have no memory of tasting it at all. Sometimes, rarely, something else happens which prompts you to move the memory into long-term storage.

Think back now to all the times you have tasted ice cream. How many true memories do you have which aren’t just dreamlike wisps? How many stories can you tell about tasting ice cream?

The remembering self is made up of all those memories which have passed into long-term storage.

When you replay your life in your mind, you can’t go back to all the things you have ever experienced. You can only go through all the things which went from experience, to short-term memory, to long-term memory.

So, going to get ice cream is not about building awesome memories. It’s about being happy for a few minutes. It’s about gratification. The happiness derived from such an experience is fleeting.

The psychologist Daniel Kahneman has much to say on this topic.

He says the self which makes decisions in your life is usually the remembering one. It drags your current self around in pursuit of new memories, anticipating them based on old memories.

The current self has little control over your future. It can only control a few actions like moving your hand away from a hot stove or putting one foot in front of the other. Occasionally, it prompts you to eat cheeseburgers, or watch a horror movie, or play a video game.

The current self is happy experiencing things. It likes to be in the flow.

It is the remembering self which has made all the big decisions. It is happy when you can sit back and reflect on your life up to this point and feel content. It is happy when you tell people stories about the things you have seen and done.

Kahneman proposes this thought experiment:

Imagine you are preparing to go on a two-week vacation. At the end of this vacation, you will drink a potion which will delete all the memories from those two-weeks.

How will this affect your decision? Knowing you won’t remember any of it, what will you spend your time doing during those two weeks?

That weird feeling you are having thinking about this is the conflict between your experiencing self and your remembering self.

The experiencing self can easily choose what to do. Sex, skiing, restaurants, concerts, parties – all of these things are about being happy during the event.

The remembering self is not so sure. It would rather go to Ireland and look at castles or drive from New York to Los Angeles just to see what happens.

It turns out, based on his research, there are two channels through which you decide whether or not you are happy.

The current self is happy when experiencing nice things. The remembering self is happy when you look back on your life and pull up plenty of positive memories.

As Kahneman points out. A two-week vacation may only yield a handful of life-long memories. You will pull those memories out every once and a while and use them to be happy. There is a serious imbalance between the time you spend creating these memories and time you spend enjoying them later.

The current self doesn’t like sitting in a cubicle. It feels caged. It could be doing something fun.

The remembering self doesn’t like not having enough money to build new memories, so it is willing to grind away and delay gratification.

“Happiness is something you achieve, a constant thing. A constantly turning over thing, like a small plant that has flowers constantly blooming and dying on the same stem. It’s not like you achieve happiness this one time and it just stays with you forever. You don’t bake a cake because a cake makes you happy, you don’t bake that one cake because you baked this cake or bought that car you wanted to get. You’ve always wanted this car, you got the car, now you’re happy forever…no.”

– Maynard Keenan

Life for you and many others is full of conflict between these two selves over how best to be happy.

Kahneman’s research suggests that happiness can’t be all one or all the other. You have to be happy in the flow of time while simultaneously creating memories you can look back on later.

To be happy now and content later, you can’t only be focused on reaching goals, because once you reach them, the experience ends.

To truly be happy, you must satisfy both of your selves.

Go get the ice cream, but do so in a way which is meaningful, a way which creates a long-term memory.

Grind away to have money for later, but do so in a way which generates happiness as you work.

If you live for the moment, for pure gratification, the moment is all you will ever have. You won’t be able to sit in a rocking chair and tell stories.

But, at the same time, if you think happiness comes at the end of a process, as some achievement or status or possession, you will be miserable both before and after the pursuit.