Author Archives: docrpm

on happiness

i recently read an article in The Atlantic Monthly called What Makes Us Happy. it’s a fascinating overview of the Harvard Grant Study, a 72-year-long analysis of 268 men, one of the most comprehensive longitudinal examinations of people and their long-term happiness ever performed. the study is very similar in spirit to Michael Apted’s brilliant Seven Up! series, which examined the lives of a group of British schoolchildren over the course of 40 years, and provides some amazing insights into the human condition.

so what’s the punch line? what makes us happy? is there a set of basic factors common to people who are deemed, or deem themselves, happy?

in short, it seems the simple answer is "No." there’s no one set of things that guarantees happiness.

happiness is a complex, slippery thing, a state of being experienced subjectively, without clear causation. over the course of the lives of the men in the study, many experienced both happiness and sadness; happiness is not static or stable or concrete. many who appeared incredibly stable and well-balanced as young men went through depression and turmoil. on the other hand, many from troubled upbringings found success and happiness despite a bad start. some that seemed depressed and unhappy by any objective standard actually characterized themselves as happy.

for me, there were a few particularly insightful things in the article, not necessarily on the subject of happiness, but on human psychology as a whole.

Adaptations
there is a school of psychological thought that all of our perceptions of reality are distortions (although not necessarily in a negative sense). we see the world through a set of adaptations (or defenses) that evolve over the course of our lives. they are our unconscious thoughts and behaviors that help us deal with pain, conflict and uncertainty. based on the work of Anna Freud, there are four types of adaptations:

  • Psychotic: These are the isolating adaptations (like paranoia, schizophrenia, or megalomania) that make reality tolerable to the person experiencing it, but that seem crazy from an external perspective
  • Immature: A level above the psychotic, these reactions (e.g., passive aggression, hypochondria, projection, and fantasy) are better, but still impede intimacy
  • Neurotic: These are the reactions of "normal" people, and include things like intellectualization (reduction of painful things into objects of formal thought), dissocation (removing oneself from one’s feelings), and repression (blocking or ignoring input from one’s senses)
  • Mature: The healthiest adaptations of all include things like humor, altruism, anticipation (looking forward to plan for future discomfort), suppression (postponing response until the time is right), or sublimation (finding outlets for feelings, like focus on work or sport).

our usage of these adaptations may change over time as we experience our lives. if i look at my own life honestly, i’d have to say most of my adaptions fall into the neurotic category, with occasionally mature responses. it’s difficult to really be objective about it, of course, and that’s one of the points of the article. it’s tough for people to see their own adaptations, the lenses through which they bend the light of the world and their experiences. rather than finding fault and illness with unhealthy adaptations, however, the champion of the study (George Vaillant) casts our use of them simply as an unwise deployment, and something we can change.

in other words, even someone whom a psychiatrist would characterize as depressed can grow, modify their adaptations, and thrive. this may be a slightly simplistic view when examined in the light of neuropsychology and the physiological basis for depression and other mental illnesses. i don’t think they are necessarily in conflict, but it seems to me the biological dimension of behavior shouldn’t be entirely discounted.

Factors for healthy aging
Vaillant did identify what he considered to be seven factors associated with healthy aging, based on the Grant Study. there is no clear and definitive causation (i.e., there are plenty of exceptions to the rules), but these things seemed important in many cases.

  1. Employing mature adaptations
  2. Education
  3. Stable marriage
  4. Not smoking
  5. Not abusing alcohol
  6. Some exercise
  7. Healthy weight

of the men in the study, 50 percent who were deemed "healthy happy" at age 80 possessed at least five of these factors. none of the men with three or fewer of these factors were happy at age 80. depression was a major factor as well; of the men who suffered from depression by age 50, 70 percent were dead or ill by age 63. although not stated, this is probably because depression erodes one’s ability to maintain a number of the factors above (e.g., approach to adaptations, stable marriage, smoking, alcohol abuse).

what are some factors that don’t really seem to matter???

  • Cholesterol levels at age 50
  • Social ease (which helps when you’re younger, but doesn’t matter as much as you age)
  • Childhood temperament (i.e., shy, anxious kids can still grow up to be healthy and happy)

it’s all in how you look at things (squeeze those lemons!)
there’s a great little snippet embedded in the article that encapsulates a lot of the theory:

A father, on Christmas Eve, puts into one son’s stocking a fine gold watch, and into another son’s, a pile of horse manure. The next morning, the first boy comes to his father and says glumly, "Dad, I just don’t know what I’ll do with this watch. It’s so fragile. It could break." The other boy runs to him and says, "Daddy! Daddy! Santa left me a pony, if only I can just find it!"

when i read this, it made me realize just how much of my life i have spent being negative, or at least, spent too much time looking at both sides of things, seeing both good and bad. to think that someone could find joy in a pile of manure, that there is a way to turn anything on its head if only you try — this is amazing to me, and makes me think just how much happier i would probably be if only i looked at things differently. the problem is we are continually cloaked in a veil that clouds our awareness, a veil of mindlessness and forgetfulness. we forget to take things in, we forget that there is a different way to look at the world and our experiences; instead we mindlessly follow the path of least resistance, past patterns, unwise adaptations.

one man in the study, a successful writer and gay rights activist, led a life that was paradoxical. he clearly suffered from depression, went through two marriages, then came out of the closet to his wife and children after many years. he drank heavily. at the same time, he was successful, achieving many things. he died at age 64 after falling down a flight of stairs, with high blood alcohol levels in his autopsy results. near the end of the study, Vaillant sent him a manuscript-in-progress about the study and asked for his input. he wrote:

The methodology you are using is highly sophisticated. But the end judgments, the final assessments, seem simplistic. I mean, I can imagine some poor bastard who’s fulfilled all your criteria for successful adaptation to life … upon retirement to some aged enclave near Tampa just staring out over the ocean waiting for the next attack of chest pain, and wondering what he’s missed all his life. What’s the difference between a guy who at his final conscious moments before death has a nostalgic grin on his face as if to say, ‘Boy, I sure squeezed that lemon’ and the other man who fights for every last breath in an effort to turn back time to some nagging unfinished business?

another perspective on happiness and perception. squeeze the lemon. live every moment. it may be bitter, it may suck, it may not in fact always make you happy, but you will have truly lived. how many of us can say we have truly lived, and how many have followed easy paths that may have been less fulfilling, because they weren’t willing to risk? is the latter such a bad thing, after all? who is to say which is true happiness, and which isn’t?

the road to happiness?
it seems to me what this whole study says is that each of us has the power to understand and shape our view of the world, craft our own version of happiness, whatever that is. think about how you respond to the stress and anxiety and pain in your life, and try to do it in a healthy way. don’t smoke or drink too much. eat healthy and exercise a little. if you think you’re getting depressed, get help for it.

at the end of the day, happiness is relative. there is no clear path to it, no "Seven easy steps to Nirvana." in some cases, the path to it may be through distinct unhappiness. one simply can’t know. should i squeeze the lemon or stick with rice porridge? or can i do both, depending on the day and how i feel?

for me, it is a profoundly sad image to think of lying on my death bed, struggling for my last breath, wondering if i had lived my life. there’s only one chance. no do-overs. do i want to die happy? yes. do i want to die feeling regret? no. and yet, would i rather die with the taste of sour lemon, having no regrets? would you?

A Day for Mom

Ryan and Mom

today is a day to celebrate our Mom’s, for all that they have done, all that they have given us, for the love they have brought to our worlds and spirits. for the greatest gift anyone could ever give another: life.

my Mom is an amazing woman who struggled and sacrificed to help me become the person that i am today. there was no instruction manual and she did it alone, striving to give me the things she never had growing up. she loves me with all her heart, and for many years during my rebellious and independent youth, i could not see that love. it was clouded as i tried to individuate, to become myself apart from parental guidance, to find my way in the world. it caused us to separate for awhile, to drift apart, sad at the disconnection that had come between us, but not knowing how to repair it. we each played our part in the way our relationship unfolded, doing our best, but still missing our connection somehow.

the gap that was created existed for many years, despite our desire to repair. there were still resonances of past arguments and disagreements and misunderstanding. it was hard to find the words to repair the past hurt, and so we drifted into that place that i suspect many parents and children do: comfortable friendship, conversations about the weather and what’s happening in the family, pleasantries that stay away from those past memories and wounds.

on our last visit, my mom and i found a way to open those past doors without fear or defensiveness. we reconnected in a way we haven’t for years, and started a journey down a path to rediscovery of ourselves and our connection. when we parted, it wasn’t with sadness, it was with joy, love, and respect for one another as people, as mom and son.

and so on this day devoted to Moms everywhere, i want to recognize my special Mom, and all that she has given to me. i love you Mom. you gave me life and helped me become who i am today, and i will never again take for granted your special spirit and gift to the world, and all that you have given me.

By appointment or chance

there is a small used bookstore around the corner from my house. i have never been inside, but recently i was out taking a walk in the warm Easter sunshine, and happened to stroll by. it was closed, but i stopped to look in the window.

ever since college, i’ve been a used bookstore junkie, always dropping in to see if there are any good remainders, or anything i need to round out my collection. i don’t need one more book, but it doesn’t stop me looking. it’s always fascinating to see the titles they choose to put out, too…literary window dressing is a brand statement that shows what you might expect to find in this particular store. i found the selection at this shop fascinating:

  • The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien (an old printing by a non-mainstream press)
  • The Transgressors by Jim Thompson (an old pulp noir novel put out by Vintage)
  • Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  • The Book of Gold (an old book that looked to be the kind a 12-year-old would devour in a weekend, learning everything there is to know about the precious metal)
  • A book on Vietnamese history and philosophy (title and author escape me)

you couldn’t get a much more eclectic selection. well, i suppose you could if you threw in a B-grade romance novel by Danielle Steele, a collection of children’s nursery rhymes, and something about quantum field theory. but you get the point. just seeing what was in the window made me want to go in the store to see what else they have on their shelves, and also see who runs the shop. i’ll have to go back another day.

the other thing that caught my eye were the two hand-written signs in the window, each penned in blue ink by a slightly erratic hand. the first said, "We may, or may not, be open on Easter. — Mgmt (Thank you for your patronage)" at the bottom of the hours sign was another curious statement: that you could engage with the owner and store by appointment, or by chance. hours are for the world of the rational, this said to me…why not be open to chance as well? who knows what might happen?

by appointment or chance

imagine how it unfolds, how the happenstance walk could lead to a visit to the store, which is open by chance. a book lies on the counter, cast aside by a disinterested reader, but at that moment, in that state of mind, it is perfect somehow for what you need, the gem that inspires dreams or fills the soul or brings deep reflection and satisfaction. and maybe this book creates a thought, then an action, then a transformation. all by chance. just because the owner of the store decided to open their doors that sunny day, hoping to maybe fulfill a soul or fire a dream.

courage and the corner store

a new store opened up in my neighborhood recently. as it was being prepared, there was a sign that made it look like another corner restaurant was going in, which was cause for excitement…always good to have more local restaurants. once it opened, however, it turned out to be something different.

it’s called something like "Cafe Brasil," but it’s not really a cafe. it’s actually a Brazilian specialty shop, selling everything from pre-packaged Brazilian foods to cheap flip-flops to soccer jerseys. in other words, lots of random crap. as i first thought to write this entry, it was going to be a humorous jab at people who open stores that sell random crap. after all, how many more of those outlets does the world need? there’s more good crap to buy than anyone could ever possibly imagine or purchase, and the random crap just adds to the noise. one could also argue it leads to lowering the societal bar in terms of what we need (and very much don’t need) in our lives.

but taking potshots at people selling things we ostensibly don’t need is pretty easy, and actually kind of snarky. so i thought about that corner store a little more, and realized there is probably something to be admired there.

while i may not think that Brazilian specialty goods is the best thing to have in a corner store, someone did. someone had a vision for that store, and worked quite hard to realize it. the property was a disaster before they took it over, and had to be carefully remodeled over the course of several months. at least now, it’s clean and adds some much-needed character to the neighborhood. it also probably took a bit of effort to determine what speciality goods to bring in, where to source them from etc etc.

it took courage for someone to bring that tiny store to life, to try to realize their dreams (or at least, it seems so to me). that’s what they believed in and wanted to do, and they did it.

as i think about my own professional life, i ask myself, how much courage have i had? how willing have i been to take risks, to pursue my dreams, to follow a vision for myself that had heart? when i left my career as a scientist to pursue who-knows-what in the world of the Web, i took a great risk, and it paid off in terms of personal growth and happiness. but for the last 5 years at least, i’d say my professional life has been entirely reactive and risk-free: i followed a fairly clear path, without giving a huge amount of thought to where it was going. after all, i was making good money and didn’t feel entirely dissatisfied with what i was doing.

the time has come for that all to change, again. the time has come to find courage, to re-establish vision, and to pursue my dreams, wherever they may ultimately lead me. and whether or not they know it, those people in the corner store lead by example. even if they fail, they have followed a path with heart, followed their vision, and that is what i must do.

self and profession

my sense of self is inextricably linked with my professional life.

this isn’t true for everyone, but it is for me. as i embark on a critical analysis of my goals and ambitions and professional direction, i find myself looking deeply into the mirror. who am i, really? what is it that drives me as a human being? how do my deepest fears and desires manifest themselves in how i do my work? what are my true strengths as a person, and how do i use them to full effect? what are the things that inspire me to achieve?
in my case, it turns out there aren’t any easy answers to these questions. you could argue pretty easily that i think too much about these things, but as it turns out, i haven’t thought that much about it for the last decade. i’m now at the point in my life where i can say i’ve ignored things for decades, and maybe that’s why i’m peeling back the veneer or my day-to-day life and looking at what’s underneath.

at the end of it all, what i seek in my career seems pretty simple: to help people by solving problems. it’s the fusion of the intellectual and the emotional, the scientist and the artist. it’s the dichotomy that i’ve always felt inside me, the polar opposites of the purely rational and the intensely emotional.

in rational pursuits, i can exercise and apply my mind to bring order to chaos, to simplify the complex, to create and discover new things. i can come up with ideas, make them real. i can try to decipher the mysteries of the world, learning and growing in the process. but all of these pursuits are meaningless without the emotional component, without the way my actions affect others.

and so with this emotional dimension of helping others, i build the connections with people i’ve always wanted deeply (yet that have often eluded me). i can try to make a difference in people’s lives, which seems to give more value to my own. i do my best to make the world a better place, however small my contributions may be. maybe it’s my fight against existential angst, or maybe it’s just my desire to be loved and accepted. maybe it doesn’t matter.

what are the ways i manifest these twin desires in my professional life? what’s the best course, if any? or can i satisfy these desires, achieve my goals, regardless of the literal course i take?
i’m currently on a journey to answer that very question…

The Yearbook

after several years of career tumult, combined with post-dot-com survival-oriented myopia, i am standing back and assessing my professional goals, my direction, my aspirations. that it comes as i approach (or have entered) middle age is probably no coincidence. it gives me the benefit of having enough years under my belt to ask, who do i really want to be, and how does my professional life support my goal?

unexpectedly, as part of this process, my personal history has found its way into my thinking, as i realize how some of my experiences have led me down the path of my life to today. the first clear manifestation of this personal-professional connection comes as i examine what motivates me as a human being.

recognition of my accomplishments is certainly one theme, even though on the surface i shy away from public accolades and dislike being in the spotlight. in my mind, this desire for recognition is connected with a deep need for acceptance. as shallow as it may be, i want people to accept me for who i am, to value me as a human being, despite whatever faults i possess (in abundance). i’ve always been very independent, but looking back, i see a continuous thread related to this need.

while our childhoods are filled with formative events, there’s one that stands out for me as particularly painful, something that crystallized my feeling of otherness and burned to the ground any notion i had that i was truly accepted. as i try to integrate this need for acceptance into who i am, i need to give a voice to this past pain.
this isn’t for any of you reading. this isn’t to provide anyone with a window into my soul. this isn’t to gain your acceptance or sympathy. on this one occasion, i don’t want it. this is for me.

in 1979, i was in the seventh grade at Thurston middle school. in that era, there was no MySpace with all your friends, no Facebook to show how popular you were, no Twitter to show how many people cared about what you were eating for lunch or what you thought about the events of the day. one important social currency that did exist then, however, was the school yearbook.

the yearbook represented your community, your friends, your standing in the tiny world in which you lived. who you got to sign it, who was willing to, was manifest popularity. if someone was willing to sign your yearbook, it was some show of validation, and what they wrote even moreso. the humorous entries, the serious confessions of enduring love and friendship – these were the gems we all sought. the "have a great summer" entries were clearly penned by those who neither cared much, or knew us so well that it didn’t make sense to say more. i remember looking back on those inscriptions for months following signing week, depositing good feelings in the bank, and maybe being sad that some accounts couldn’t be filled…would never be filled.

i went away to England at the beginning of that summer, leaving before school was out. i would miss the annual ritual of yearbook signing, so i asked one of my friends to take my yearbook around and have people sign it for me. when i returned from my trip, and contacted him to get this treasure back, he told me to come by and pick it up. my mom and i drove there, and i remember feeling excited to see what had been written. he wasn’t there when we arrived. dark house. doors locked. and my blue yearbook sitting in the outdoor mailbox. maybe he couldn’t be there to hand it to me personally, i thought. and so we picked it up and went home.

as i feverishly read through all that had been written, i realized that in addition to the perfunctory "have a great summer" inscriptions, there were perhaps half a dozen others with a different purpose. my friend had had people (popular kids, kids i didn’t know) sign it, spewing the soul-crushing sentiments that only children can conceive. i was a jerk. i didn’t really have any friends. people loved laughing behind my back. one after another. and then came the denouement, the crown jewel: an obviously fake entry from the girl i was transparently in love with (but who was unattainable), saying how she cared for me and couldn’t wait to see me at the beach.

no building was tall enough to jump off. no amount of tears could wash away that betrayal and the hatred i felt. at that moment, though, i think i turned a lot of that anger and hatred and sadness inwards, feeling that i didn’t deserve to be accepted. that maybe they were right. after all, how could i confront the friends who i knew did this, to even give voice to what i was feeling? that would just prove my weakness and need for their acceptance. and so i swallowed it. for years.

i may have made a few remarks to them later about it. i don’t remember clearly. i do recall telling one of those who i suspected was involved, and his response was basically, "we were kids. we did some bad things." and this is probably exactly the right response. children to terrible things, manifesting their own deep-seated insecurities and needs for acceptance by making others feel lower. and on that level, i can forgive what happened. at the same time, it was deeply wrong what they did, and it’s hard to just overlook that kind of viciousness.
but there’s no point in excoriating them for their actions, however childish or wrong. after so many years, it hardly matters. certainly not to them.

what does matter is what it did to the little boy that was me. what does matter is that i accept that little boy’s sadness at feeling different, that i accept him, despite all his faults. that he didn’t do anything wrong to deserve what was done. i have grown from him, and he is part of me. his need for acceptance lives on in me, and perhaps i’ll overcome it one day. but for now, i will live with this flaw and try to let something positive grow from it, rather than pretend it doesn’t exist. it does. it’s in my closet of shortcomings, but i’ve just opened the door, and at least now i can choose whether or not i want to wear that shabby old coat.

the final days of Shelob

one of the things we’ve really enjoyed in our new house are the denizens of our backyard. they’ve been our companions since we moved in, and our house wouldn’t be quite the same without them.

the most active natural residents are the family of tree squirrels that live in our giant redwood (Click, Clack, and Cluck, we’ve named them). they run around constantly, playing and eating and clucking a bit like chickens (weird, but true). we had a possum visit us one night, whom we named Ron, in honor of Ron Weasely from Harry Potter (since possums look a bit weasely). he’s only visited once, but i’m sure he’ll be back sometime. and last but not least is the giant spider living outside one of our living room windows, named Shelob in honor of the spider from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers.
Shelob appears to be an Araneus diadematus, a species of garden orb weaver. she’s light brown, slightly spotted, and pretty big (maybe 10mm diameter body). for the past five months, she’s been building and rebuilding her web on the northern side of our house, but last week she stopped and appeared to be gone. when i went into the yard to do some work today, i was going to clean off all her old webs, and noticed that she was still inside the window frame. i thought she was dead, but when i started clearing her web away, she moved slightly, but didn’t run away. sadly, it appears she’s on her last legs, as it were.

while i’m not generally a fan of spiders, i am sad to be losing one of our house’s occupants…thank you, Shelob, for being a part of our lives, and for giving our house a little (eight-legged) character! we’ll miss you.

a good day to change the world

i’ve been attending Salesforce.com’s Dreamforce conference for the past two days, and have gotten excited about some things in my industry. it’s been awhile since something happened that i thought was really new, something with the potential to drive change and innovation.

two keynote speeches today were particularly inspiring. the first, by Larry Brilliant (head of Google.org), was about 21st century philanthropy and his causes for optimism. the second by Malcolm Gladwell was about the power of human potential, and the things we do to stifle it. fortunately, you can see a webcast of these keynotes (use the pulldown menu in the player to skip to the Brilliant and Gladwell chapters).

Brilliant talked about philanthropy in general, and the human desire to do good for others, despite all the bad things we’re clearly capable of. he shared some of the things google.org is working on, and used his past work on the eradication of smallpox as an example of what people can do when united to solve a daunting problem (Obama’s refrain "Yes, we can" rings particularly true here). he then made his case for optimism, citing the Dalai Lama’s belief that "humans are getting better." he closed with a call-to-action, saying that today was a good day to start changing the world, which led to a standing ovation. very inspiring, this man, in an unassuming and touching way.

Gladwell spoke about the idea of "capitalization" as it relates to human potential (he also gave this speech at Pop!Tech 2008). his basic thesis is that people often fail to achieve their potential due to three limiting factors: economics, stupidity (of societies and organizations that suppress capitalization), and cultural attitudes. a lot of the successful people in the world, he concludes, succeed because they are given opportunity and because they persevere to achieve their goals, because they believe in the notion of meaningful work.

the common theme for me in these presentations was the potential for change, and how we can drive it if we want to badly enough. it’s amazing that on the same day i hear these presentations, we elect the first black president of the united states. it makes me believe in a lot of things: the power of individuals, the strength of communities, and the opportunity for positive change and a brighter future.

it makes me want to get off my butt and do something.

election ’08: say anything

listening to news coverage of the election today, it struck me that anyone can basically say anything at this point. the truth has become entirely irrelevant. i’m not being partisan about this….i think each campaign is saying things about the other that are untrue, if examined closely enough. it’s just that it’s becoming more blatant…does anyone else notice? or care?

is Obama a socialist? John McCain goes on Larry King and says ‘No’ and then in a speech the next day says that Obama’s positions put him to the left of Socialists. and then there’s Joe the Plumber calling him a Socialist, and McCain putting Joe on the stump. is Joe a mouthpiece for McCain or the other way around? who can tell? what fraction of the US population even knows what a Socialist is? Steven Colbert recently had the Socialist party candidate on his show, and asked him if Obama was a Socialist, and he said No, unequivocally.

is John McCain a perfect clone of George Bush? Obama asks crowds to name one point in terms of economic policy on which McCain and Bush disagree. who is even remotely qualified to answer this question with any degree of certainty? i’m sure that even if McCain is pointing the generally same direction (i.e., trickle-down economics blah blah), that there are policy differences.

tax cuts. tax hikes. redistribution of wealth. the creation of opportunity. good for you. good for me. bad for you. bad for me. bad for everyone. blah blah blah.

we’ve known their fundamental positions for a long, long, long, long, my-God-i-want-to-slash-my-wrists long time. let’s just vote. let’s see which way the country wants to go, like a democracy should. get it over with and see if i need to consider moving to New Zealand.