The way people feel inside has very little to do with their objective achievements or social status. We can set smart goals, achieve them and fee miserable. Alternatively, we can feel energised by doing the right thing. The difference is the story we tell ourselves. For today’s reading please consider articles here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Life as a narrative
What is the meaning of life? There is an infinite variety of acceptable answers. Here is one possibility:
Our life itself is probably the most important piece of art we can generate
There is actually no way to prove or disprove this statement. We can challenge it. We can accept it as-is. Maybe we can plan our entire lives around such a statement.
If our life is a piece of art, a narrative, what kind of story is it? In my case, probably a sitcom. Something that started strangely, but soon afterward moved into the mainstream along “The big bang theory”.
You can choose a very different narrative. Some people live in comics, others in drama, thrillers or even in horror movies. Probably soap operas are the most popular genre of personal narratives… The narrative we choose defines us and what we will do next.
Maslow vs narratives
All the goals we set up should bring us closer to what we really desire. Maslow’s pyramid is a myth, and Maslow himself understood this. After writing the book about human needs he wrote a book about self-actualization: people who risked and sometimes lost everything to promote their own narrative. I quote wikipedia:
Maslow used the term metamotivation to describe self-actualized people who are driven by innate forces beyond their basic needs, so that they may explore and reach their full human potential.
We have many kinds of goals. Some goals are dictated by simple needs, and we achieve these goals almost absent-mindedly. Other goals are defined by how we perceive our role in society, and we tend to be clear and open about these goals. And then there are goals that define us and our narratives, and sometimes even we are not fully aware of them. Therefore our narratives can turn against our interests and contradict each other.
When the worlds collide
Quite often we have different narratives and sets of goals based on our status. When we wear a different “thinking hat” or look from a different perspective, we may make a very different judgment call. This change is so subtle for us, that it can be triggered by something as benign as seeing a preacher or holding a cup of coffee. Dan Ariely’s books do a great job describing tons of such experiment in very clear and engaging language.
In our own articles, we typically ask people to visualize each situation from multiple perspectives, collecting answers from each viewpoint and gathering as much information as we can. In that case, our choices will tend to be more consistent. But what will we choose? When different narratives define different priorities, which viewpoint will win?
Whatever narratives we choose to tell, these narratives tend to serve us in certain situations. Otherwise, we would choose a different sort of narratives. In the narratives we tell ourselves, we are usually good guys. To justify this, we rely on our core values. If we put our lives above everything else, we will do anything to survive. The people who put the truth at the top of the pyramid do not mind who gets hurt, including themselves. When doing good is selected as the core value, certain moral flexibility will follow: as there is more than one way to measure the greater good.
There are many qualities that are favored almost universally. Most people will want all of them but in a critical situation, the core values will dictate the behavior.
My father is a sort of hero. A couple of times he risked his own wellbeing to save others. Several times I asked him why. The answer was always: “I acted and did the right thing before I could think through all the implications”. On several occasions that he got to think through all implications, his actions were cautious and did not make me too proud.
We have several contradicting narratives serving different core values. Quite possibly our initial response will be triggered by brain mechanisms very different from our calculated decision, possibly governed by different brain hemispheres. Not all of these mechanisms are verbal. We may get a strange phantom feeling in our body, and we should probably listen to it.
Originally I was trying to understand the gut feeling as a reaction of the body on different hormones, stomach acidity, immune system and bacteria activity, even some autonomous and not very smart neural network. While all of these reactions might probably happen, in my own case the gut feeling was simply a projection of some non-verbal thought processes on my body. Once I realized it, I noticed other kinds of telling clues and body language which I did not previously see. Our guts are telling us a story when we are too busy dealing with some other narratives.
We usually associate our ego with our self-talk. This self-talk can be positive, like “I am skilled, happy and can do this” or negative. The negative self-talk will usually involve fear and criticism.
The positive self-talk is good and motivating. The negative self-talk is somewhat debilitating, and it reduces our ability to execute gutsy moves. Maybe this is for the best, as we are less likely to take risks. If we need to take the risks anyway, the core values usually override any negative self-talk. A man gotta do what a man gotta do. If we succeed, we are heroes. If we fail, the negative self-talk gets stronger and we criticize ourselves more.
It is reasonable to have one bad thought for every four good thoughts. So each time we catch negative self-talk we need to balance it with positive self-talk, often relying on a different narrative.
Measuring success in the game of life
What defines a positive narrative and a successful life? There are many different criteria, with different priorities. Quite often I caught my wife telling “He is a good man. He did nothing bad in his entire life.” This is not something I would tell. I would probably praise the person for making the world a better place, even if some prices needed to be paid. Yet, when we think about families, what matters is loving and being loved or taking care of each other. And in some other contexts, maybe patriotic acts will be more important than being a good neighbor or family man. We change hats, and the narratives change. We can recreate the art of our life to generate a good positive narrative.
The absolute success in the game of life is not that important. We need to live with ourselves and not with some sort of scoreboard. So when we create a narrative, we should probably ensure it will generate the right kind of self-talk.
The things that generate the self-talk are as subtle as associations. Which associations will be used to remember everything: creative and funny, rational and calm or emotional and overwhelming? Each kind of associations is memorable, but each kind of associations is linked to a different narrative.
When we visualize goals and various if-then situations we usually do this in relative safety. The situation is very different when we need to act. If we prepared a certain response, we will probably execute it. Otherwise, we will follow our instincts. Can we influence the instinctive behavior?
Many people have an inner feeling of right and wrong. We do not need any religion to have spiritual intelligence, yet religious people often routinely practice this judgment. When there is something bigger and external judging us and our narratives, we will tend on average to make better moral choices. If our life is a sort of art, why not have someone watching our performance?
We could as well watch stories of other people. Good fiction allows us to relive the experiences of somebody else and somehow shapes our intuition. Nihilistic and existential literature may be very well written, interesting and important, but probably will not invite positive self-talk. Maybe it is better to focus on positive and life-affirming literature, instead of feeding the negative self-talk with further associations and imagery.
When we die, what do we want to be written on our graves? Which actions will we ignore before dying? The vision we have of a good life may guide us through difficult moments.
Recently I read a student telling that the essays he has to write in school are useless and he is happy to buy prefabricated essays. But this action has its own costs. When we do not live through the great dilemma’s presented by literature, our own vision and narrative are often grayish and unexciting, and our view of core values is clouded…
In this article, various thoughts and concepts appeared and disappeared only to surface again after several paragraphs. This is not so different from what we have in life. Our goals can be smart and crystal clear, but the underlying reasoning is often murky.