The Sentence

As I am sure none of you know, I had a minor in college. While I graduated with a Major in Computer Engineering, my official minor was philosophy. A pretty odd combination, I know. I have always been a thinker, and I very much enjoy reading the thoughts of others. As such, I read a lot. When I say I read a lot, though, I am sort of cheating. I should say, I read a lot of stuff, online. Recently though, I have been trying to make a conscious effort to read more books. A recent blog article I read, which was actually about XML, made mention of a book. It didn’t say anything really about the book, and it didn’t really suggest that I should read the book, but I decided to pick it up anyhow.  Seemed like as good a place to start as any.

The book is called Stumbling on Happiness.  It is not, however, a self-help book.  Nor is it a book about how to be happy.  While I would not deny reading a self help book even if I was, I strongly feel that this is not one of them.  I believe that it is a philosophical work, with a major influence from the field of psychology.  It was written by Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard.  The summary given of the book on the back cover is, to summarize:

Most of us spend our lives steering ourselves toward the best of all possible futures, only to find that tomorrow rarely turns out as we had presumed. Why? As Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert explains, when people try to imagine what the future will hold, they make some basic and consistent mistakes. Just as memory plays tricks on us when we try to look backward in time, so does imagination play tricks when we try to look forward.

Last night, I sat down and read through Part I of the book.  Obviously I am far from finishing it, but that’s fine since this entry is not a review of the book, nor is it meant to focus on the books’ contents.  It is however, an entry in which I want to discuss some things which the book made me think about;  Topics on the essence of human happiness.  It really boiled down to just a couple of things:  Our Imagination, our ability to think about the future, and our desire for control.

One of the first things made mention to in the book is The Sentence.  Apparently it is an unwritten oath every doctor of psychology takes, which is to write one response during your time on this earth to The Sentence.  This sentence is:  “Human beings are the only animal that…”  He goes on to say that most psychologists wait until the last possible moment to finish the sentence such that they minimize their chances of being dead wrong.

For example, some early published responses to the sentence might have been:

Human beings are the only animal that uses language.

Human beings are the only animal that uses tools.

Daniels response is:

Human beings are the only animal that thinks about the future.

Obviously the first two have been proven wrong, some time after they were first proposed it was learned that many types of primates have been found to use sticks to dig termites out of holes, or can be taught to use sign language.  To us, those sentences just seem ridiculous.  You might also think that Daniels response is dead wrong right off the bat.  He goes on to elaborate though.  Thinking about the future is not what he calls “nexting”.  Nexting is the act of predicting what will happen next based on your minds historically learned set of logical outcomes.  For example, if you hold a stick, and pretend to throw it in front of your dog, he will likely run to a spot at which his brain predicted it might go.  Almost all organisms predict the future one way or another, through learning.  Your brain is constantly analyzing what is going on in your surrondings and doing its absolute best to predict what will happen next.  This is the essence of surprise.  Surprise is what happens when the outcome of any specific moment in time contradicts what your brain expected it to be.  I had never really considered trying to think about surprise in such a way, but I think that sums it up quite nicely.

This is not, thinking about the future, though.

Daniels response to the sentence, I feel is quite good.  And until we discover some other highly intelligent life form which can be classified as earthly “animals”, I think his response is quite future proof.  His response also does a good job of exposing the tip of the iceberg on the subject of human happiness.

We imagine.  We think about our futures.  We plan.  At some point in the evolutionary timeline when our brains doubled in size, we obtained this ability.  We can thank our newly grown frontal lobes for it.  As a consequence of our desire for control, however, this ability is also the source of our happiness as well as the source of our depression.  I do not want to generalize too much in this way as there are many many other criteria which go into the essence of happiness, but I feel this is one of the major contributors.

When we think optimistically about our future, winning the lottery, buying that new car next month, or getting our next paycheck, we can relish in these ideas, and become happy.  However, when our often overly optimistic plans for our own future do not go quite the way we planned it, we become inherently unhappy by this.  Conversely, often we find ourselves in a cycle of thinking overly pessimistically about our own futures.  We become wrapped up in the worst case scenario “what if’s”, and consequently, depressed about it.

This is related to what I mentioned earlier, frontal lobe.  In the book Daniel uses it to describe the giant leap in evolution which essentially makes us human.  Our brains doubled in size, and most of that mass was our frontal lobes.  This part of our brain is what is responsible for our ability to think about the future, and to plan events ahead in time.  We can easily survive without this part of our brains.  Frontal Lobotomies were widely used to treat severe cases of clinical depression in the early 1900’s, with great success.  After the procedure, people who were previously filled with depression and high anxiety no longer had any of those symptoms, and seemed otherwise unaffected.  This was until later when it was more understood what the exact function of our frontal lobe actually is.  This function is essentially planning.  If you ask someone who had a frontal lobotomy what they are going to do tomorrow, they will be utterly unable to answer your question, nor would they have a good grasp on why they cannot.

So it can be observed that our ability to think about the future and imagine is not only our strongest trait, but also our biggest weakness.  It gives us the ability to not only build something like the international space station, which a well programmed machine could do, but it gives us the ability to imagine the space stations existence, before it existed.  It is our imagination which enables us to dream up the things we later create.  It also gives us the ability to think and dream of the things which might happen to us tomorrow, which are undesirable.  Things we can get consumed with.  Things we cannot control.

There’s that word again, control.  We want to control our lives, our schedules, and our futures.  When this control is subverted by outside influences, we do not cope well with that, especially when it interferes with our own grandiose plans of the future.  This is the category I fall into.  I am clinically depressed due to my own pessimistic outlook on my own uncontrollable future.  I also become very upset by the lack of control I have over many of the circumstances that currently govern my day to day life.  However, prior to yesterday I had never really thought of it this way.  Does understanding my own condition offer me any hope or help into ways I might better deal with it?  Doubtful.  But it is very interesting nonetheless.

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