The Emotional Support of Family

The Emotional Support of Family

Like many people, my family is complex. I have two uncles who have finally re-connected after at least 20 years of not talking to each other. At the same time, one of those uncles and another are now no longer talking to each other even though they have been business partners for over 20 years. Half of my family doesn’t talk to the other half, and one Grandma only speaks with me, though she mostly only asks me about my siblings. The relationships are challenging, often frustrating, but like virtually all humans, we all still find emotional support in the form of family.
Regardless as to whether family members are living or deceased, whether we know our ancestors or have no knowledge of our familial roots, and whether we have close relationships with family or whether our ties have faded, we all seem to be primed to find emotional support in family and in the idea of family. I really only recently learned about the heritage of my family from my dad’s side, and while I have lived most of my life without knowing any of that heritage, I am now able to find pride in the roots of that side of my family. I also look back at my dad’s dad, a troubled man who made some bold choices to get our family to the United States, and I find emotional support in his story, even if the man was not ultimately the best role model one could have. The point is that despite the contradictions in people and in families, despite the distance in time and space that arise between family members, we hold on to our families as something special, and find support in them, even if they are not around to actually support us.
Elliot Liebow writes about this phenomenon in the case of homeless women in Washington DC in the early 90’s in his book Tell Them Who I Am. Many of the women who he met were divorced, some had kids, and many had lost almost all connections with family. Nevertheless, family, the stories they had about their families, and the ideas and memories of family gave the women emotional suppport. The women didn’t want to burden their families with their own homelessness, demonstrating a real respect for their family members who were doing better than they were. They were impressed by children whose lives were on better paths, and they even sometimes remembered former spouses in a positive light. For women who had few deep connections or meaningful relationships in their homeless lives, the past relationships and memories of deep connections still fueled them to keep moving and surviving each day.
Humans need connections and families are the first connections we form. Even though today the families we chose are sometimes closer to us than the families we are born into, our original and genetic families are still a strong force in our lives. We are predisposed to care about our families and find emotional support within them, even when they are not physically close by or emotionally near us.
Risk Literacy and Emotional Stress

Risk Literacy and Emotional Stress

In Risk Savvy Gerd Gigerenzer argues that better risk literacy could reduce emotional stress. To emphasize this point, Gigerenzer writes about parents who receive false positive medical test results for infant babies. Their children had been screened for biochemical disorders, and the tests indicated that the child had a disorder. However, upon follow-up screenings and evaluations, the children were found to be perfectly healthy. Nevertheless, in the long run (four years later) parents who initially received a false positive test result were more likely than other parents to say that their children required extra parental care, that their children were more difficult, and that that had more dysfunctional relationships with their children.

 

Gigerenzer suggests that the survey results represent a direct parental response to initially receiving a false positive test when their child was a newborn infant. He argues that parents received the biochemical test results without being informed about the chance of false positives and without understanding the prevalence of false positives due to a general lack of risk literacy.  Parents initially reacted strongly to the bad news of the test, and somewhere in their mind, even after the test was proven to be a false positive, they never adjusted their thoughts and evaluations of the children, and the false positive test in some ways became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

 

In writing about Gigerenzer’s argument, it feels more far-fetched than it did in an initial reading, but I think his general argument that risk literacy and emotional stress are tied together is probably accurate. Regarding the parents in the study, he writes, “risk literacy could have moderated emotional reactions to stress that harmed these parents’ relation to their child.” Gigerenzer suggests that parents had strong negative emotional reactions when their children received a false positive and that their initial reactions carried four years into the future. However, had the doctors better explained the chance of a false positive and better communicated next steps with parents, then the strong negative emotional reaction experienced by parents could have been avoided, and they would not have spent four years believing their child was in some ways more fragile or more needy than other children. I recognize that receiving a medical test with a diagnosis that no parent wants to hear is stressful, and I can see where better risk communication could reduce some of that stress, but I think there could have been other factors that the study picked up on. I think the results as Gigerenzer reported overhyped the connection between risk literacy and emotional stress.

 

Nevertheless, risk literacy is important for all of us living in a complex and interconnected world today. We are constantly presented with risks, and new risks can seemingly pop-up anywhere at any time. Being able to decipher and understand risk is important so that we can adjust and modulate our activities and behaviors as our environment and circumstances change. Doing so successfully should reduce our stress, while struggling to comprehend risk and adjust behaviors and beliefs is likely to increase emotional stress. When we don’t understand risks appropriately, we can become overly fearful, we can spend money on unnecessary insurance, and we can stress ourselves over incorrect information. Developing better charts, better communicative tools, and better information about risk will help individuals improve their risk literacy, and will hopefully reduce risk by allowing individuals to successfully adjust to the risks they face.
Stoicism in Thinking Fast and Slow

Stoicism in Thinking Fast and Slow

“We spend much of our day anticipating, and trying to avoid, the emotional pains we inflict on ourselves,” writes Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. “How seriously should we take these intangible outcomes, the self-administered punishments (and occasional rewards) that we experience as we score our lives?”

 

Kahneman’s point is that emotions such as regret greatly influence the decisions we make. We are so afraid of loss that we go out of our way to minimize risk, to the point where we may be limiting ourselves so much that we experience costs that are actually greater than the potential loss we wanted to avoid. Kahneman is pointing to something that stoic thinkers, dating back to Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, addressed – our ability to be captured by our emotions and effectively held hostage by fears of the future and pain from the past.

 

In Letters from a Stoic, Seneca writes, “Why, indeed, is it necessary to summon trouble – which must be endured soon enough when it has once arrived, or to anticipate trouble and ruin the present through fear of the future? It is foolish to be unhappy now because you may be unhappy at some future time.” I think Kahneman would agree with Seneca’s mindset. In his book, Kahneman write that we should accept some level of risk and some level of regret in our lives. We know we will face regret if we experience some type of failure. We can prepare for regret and accept it without having to ruin our lives by taking every possible precaution to try to avoid the potential for failure, pain, and loss. It is inevitable that we are going to lose loved ones and have unfortunate accidents. We can’t prepare and shield ourselves from every danger, unless we want to completely withdrawal from all that makes us human.

 

Ryan Holiday wrote about the importance of feeling and accepting our emotions in his book The Obstacle is the Way. He wrote, “Real strength lies in the control or, as Nassim Taleb put it, the domestication of one’s emotions, not in pretending they don’t exist.” Kahneman would also agree with Holiday and Taleb. Econs, the term Kahneman and other economists use to refer to theoretical humans who act purely rationally, are not pulled by emotions and cognitive biases. However, Econs are not human. We experience emotions when investments don’t pan out, when bets go the wrong way, and when we face multiple choices and are unsure if we truly made the best decision. We have to live with our emotions and the weight of failure or poor investments. Somehow, we have to work with these emotions and learn to continue even though we know things can go wrong. Holiday would suggest that we must be present, but acknowledge that things wont always go well and learn to recognize and express emotions in a healthy way when things don’t go well.

 

Kahneman continues, “Perhaps the most useful is to be explicit about the anticipation of regret. If you can remember when things go badly that you considered the possibility of regret carefully before deciding, you are less likely to experience less of it.” In this way, our emotions can be tools to help us make more thoughtful decisions, rather than anchors we are tethered to and hopelessly unable to escape. A thoughtful consideration of emotions, a return to the present moment, and acceptance of the different emotions we may feel after a decision are all helpful in allowing us to live and exist with some level of risk, some level of uncertainty, and some less of loss. These are ideas that stoic thinkers wrote about frequently, and they show up for Kahneman when he considers how we should live with our mental biases and cognitive errors.
The Emotional Replica of Reality in our Brains

The Emotional Replica of Reality Within Our Brains

It feels weird to acknowledge that the model for reality within our brains is nothing more than a model. It is a construction of what constitutes reality based on our experiences and based on the electrical stimuli that reach our brain from various sensory organs, tissues, and nerve endings. The brain doesn’t have a model for things that it doesn’t have a way of experiencing or imagining. Like the experience of falling into a black hole, representations of what the experience is like will never fully substitute for the real thing, and will forever be unknowable to our brains. Consequently, the model of reality that our brain uses for every day operations can only include the limited slice of reality that is available to our experiences.

 

What results is a distorted picture of the world. This was not too much of a problem for our ancestors living as hunter-gatherers in small tribes. It didn’t matter if they fully understood the precise risk of tiger attacks or poisonous fungi, as long as they had heuristics to keep them away from dangerous situations and questionable foods. They didn’t need to hear at the frequency of a bat’s echolocation pulses, they didn’t need to see ultraviolet, and they didn’t need to sense the earth’s magnetic field. Precision and completeness wasn’t as important as a general sense of the world for pattern recognition and enough fear and memory to stay safe and find reliable food.

 

Today, however, we operate in complex social structures and the narratives we tell about ourselves, our societies, and how we should interact can have lasting influences on our own lives and the lives of generations to come.  How we understand the world is often shaped by our emotional reaction to the world, rather than being shaped by a complete set of scientific and reality based details and information. As Daniel Kahneman writes in Thinking Fast and Slow, “The world in our heads is not a precise replica of reality; our expectations about the frequency of events are distorted by the prevalence and emotional intensity of the messages to which we are exposed.”

 

Kahneman writes about news reporting of strange and extreme phenomenon, and how that leads us to believe that very rare events like tornado deaths are more likely than mundane and common causes of death such as those resulting from asthma complications. Things that are dramatic and unique feel more noteworthy, and are likely to be easier for us to remember and recall. When that happens, the events feel less like strange outliers, and more like normal events. The picture of reality operating in our mind is altered and distorted based on our experiences, the information we absorb, and our emotional valence to both.

 

For a social species, this can have dramatic consequences. If we generalize a character trait of one person to an entire group, we can develop dangerous stereotypes that influence our interactions with hundreds or thousands of people. A single salient event can shape how we think about problems or opportunities in our communities and societies. Rather than fully understanding our reaction and the event itself, we are going to struggle through narratives that seek to combine thousands of individual perceptions of reality, each influenced in unique ways by conflicting emotions and opinions of what has happened. Systems and structures matter, especially when our brains operate on inadequate versions of reality rather than concrete versions of reality and can be shaped by our emotional reactions to such systems and structures.

In The End, We Seek Meaning

In his book When, author Dan Pink investigates how humans relate to and understand time. He considers the time of day, the timing of events, and also how we understand things based on time dimensions such as beginnings, middles, and ends. His focus on endings is one of the more surprising parts for me, someone who doesn’t read that much fiction and isn’t much of a movie buff.

 

Human life is narrative, and we can’t help but think of our lives and events in our lives in terms of beginnings, middles, and ends. We understand our lives by thinking about our end, which we will all eventually reach. We want our narrative to be happy, but Pink suggests that we also want something more than just happiness at the end of the narratives we create.

 

“Adding a small component of sadness to an otherwise happy moment elevates that moment rather than diminishes it. Poignancy, the researchers [Hal Hershfield and Laura Carstensen et al.] write, seems to be particular to the experience of endings. The best endings don’t leave us happy. Instead they produce something richer – a rush of unexpected insight, a fleeting moment of transcendence, the possibility that by discarding what we wanted we’ve gotten what we needed.”

 

Pink shows that rich emotions are what drive us. Happiness itself is not enough of a rich emotion on its own to truly provide us with the depth that we need in life. We experience sadness and the realization that our world is transitory, and come to understand that we need complex relationships in our lives. What we ultimately enjoy and engage with the most are narratives that create a comprehensive meaning from these complex and often competing emotions.

 

Pink continues, “Closings, conclusions, and culminations reveal something essential about the human condition: In the end, we seek meaning.”

 

We are looking for a life that is coherent from a narrative sense, but also has a sense of meaning and a sense of purpose. We might not enjoy every moment and might not like many of the things we must do, but a fully engaging life is one that includes a vast array of experiences and emotions with other people. When we put everything together and reach an end, that is what we are looking for, and it is often a different set of experiences and emotions than what we would have if we purely searched for happiness, fame, and material possessions.

 

This is why the end of Avengers Endgame was so powerful for so many fans. We were happy to get an epic battle that we had been dreaming of for 10 years, but sad to lose the instigating protagonist of the entire series. While the depth of the meaning might not be the most impressive in cinematic history, I think many fans would agree that the ending was strong and powerful, because it included a touch of sadness with the joy that many receive from watching super heroes kick ass. It created a more poignant moment rather than just a happy ending, giving the whole series a new sense of meaning, just as we hope happens when we reflect back on our lives at the end of any milestone.

Peak, Trough, Rebound

Dan Pink’s book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing includes a lot of interesting information about time, how we think about time, and about how humans and our societies interact with time. The book is one of the books I recommend the most because it includes a lot of interesting ideas that Pink does a good job of combining in ways that can really help with productivity and organizing one’s day. We all deal with time and never have enough of it, and Pink helps us think about how to best manage and use our time.

 

One interesting study that Pink shares has to do with mood and affect throughout the day. A study of twitter showed a striking pattern among people across the globe. For most people, excluding night owls, we tend to have our peak of the day about 3 to 4 hours after we wake up. From there, we slowly trend downward until we hit the middle of our trough in the mid-afternoon. But, we rebound and our mood and affect improve in the late evening. Pink writes, “Across continents and time zones, as predictable as the ocean tides, was the same daily oscillation – a peak, a trough, and a rebound. Beneath the surface of our everyday life is a hidden pattern: crucial, unexpected, and revealing.”

 

The study Pink references shows that we are not simply continuously in the same mood and attitude throughout the day. We have a point where we are at our zenith, and best able to tackle the challenges that come at us. However, our energy drains, and our mood and attentiveness diminish. We become irritable and easily distracted, and we can see this happen through the adjectives and emotion included in people’s social media posts. Through breaks, and the end of the workday, however, our energy levels come back and we rebound, becoming happier and more creative. We get through the low part of our day and can be functioning human beings again. This isn’t just something that we sometimes feel, it is a clear pattern that is common to humans across the globe.

 

What I find so interesting about Pink’s book and why I have recommended it so much is that timing is everything for us. So much of our lives is impacted by the way we relate to time, but very few of us ever think about it. There are patterns all around us relating to time, but usually these patterns are hidden and unknown to us. When we look at them and understand them, we can start to adjust our days and how we schedule things that we do.

 

I find it incredible that we can look at people on twitter, and see their mood based on the adjectives and words used in their posts. What is even more incredible, is that we can watch the mood and attitude of a region change through a day, and change in a rhythmic pattern. If we want to be effective, and want to help others to be effective, we should think about these patterns and organize our days and activities in a way that corresponds to these patterns. I have tried to do that in my life, and find it helpful to set up my day so that I am doing particular activities in line with the peak, trough, rebound flow of my days. Timing is important, and should be a purposeful part of our days.

Feeling Threatened

When we feel jealous of another person, what do we actually feel about ourselves? In his book, Some Thoughts About Relationships, author Colin Wright writes, “Jealousy, at its core, is about feeling threatened.” Many of our reactions to the world and people around us, in my opinion, tie back to tribal forces that have been brought with us through human evolution. Jealousy is related to our status in the group, and when others have something we want, live a way we would like to live, or receive some benefit that we did not receive, our position of status appears to diminish in our tribal brain.

 

Wright continues in his book to explain that we can overcome jealousy with better awareness of our feelings and reactions. In personal relationships this means a better focus on how we feel, awareness of what causes certain emotions to bubble up, and a recognition of what places and people cause us to feel a certain way. Gaining a better handle on what actions and behaviors help us feel good and what actions and behaviors lead to negative feelings, such as jealousy, will give us the chance to craft our life in a more considerate direction.

 

This focus will help us begin to analyze our thoughts and feelings and begin to act in a less impulsive manner. Focusing beyond ourselves, slowing down our actions as responses to observations and feelings, and bringing a rational approach to how we think about our feelings can allow us to overcome negative impulses. Assessing why we feel a certain way can give us the chance to decide whether we should be upset, whether our emotions are the result of a lack of sleep, or whether we should act to correct an injustice.

 

As a public policy student, I see this ability and a deeper understanding of jealousy as critical in deciding how we should react to policies that unavoidably direct scarce resources to some groups and not others. Recognizing that our jealousy regarding certain programs may not be influenced by the efficiency or effectiveness of a program, but on our thoughts of how deserving we find the beneficiaries of a program is important in crafting and evaluating policy. We can understand that our jealousy is a reaction based on our perceived status relative to others in our complex society, and can begin to evaluate our opinions by moving past our initial reactions based on jealousy, status, and threat.

The Mind Observing the Mind

I am not a scientist in the sense that I don’t work at a laboratory, I don’t publish academic papers, and I am not going out into a field to make observation about the nature of the world to experiment with and report back on. But I do love science. I listen to a handful of science podcasts and I like to approach the world from a scientific point of view. This has lead me to look at objects and observers and to be aware of the relationship between an object and the observer recording the object. Scientists try to be as objective as possible, independent of the thing they are studying, but this is not always possible. When it comes to the human mind, and the observations we make about our thoughts, we must accept that we cannot split the mind from our thoughts and our emotions, even though we can observe both.

 

Thich Nhat Hanh writes about this in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness. He uses a metaphor of a guard standing at a gate, observing everyone who enters and leaves to describe the typical vision we have for our mind. Hanh explains that this is a limited view of the mind because we are both the guard and the people going through the gate. The mind cannot truly be separated from the thoughts and emotions going through it.

 

He describes the importance of this by writing, “We are both the mind and the observer of the mind. Therefore, chasing away or dwelling on any thought isn’t the important thing. The important thing is to be aware of thought. This observation is not an objectification of the mind: it does not establish distinction between subject and object. … Mind can only observe itself. This observation isn’t an observation of some object outside and independent of the observer.”

 

Our observations of the mind can change the mind as much as cake, a traffic accident, or the birth of a child can. We only have our thoughts inside our mind, but we don’t exactly control every thought, emotion, and feeling. Being unaware of our thoughts leads us to being whipped around as in a hurricane, but trying to be too controlling of our mind drives us mad and frustrates us at our inability to shut down the thoughts and emotions we don’t wish to have. Recognizing the reality of the mind as being one with its thoughts helps us see that our best option is simply to observe and accept the thoughts and emotions that run through our mind so we can choose to be more constructive with how we react to thoughts and structure the environment in which our mind operates.

Translating Symbolic Racism

What does racism look like when it is not overt and outwardly displayed? In Obama’s Race Michael Tesler and David Sears look beyond what people say and use survey data with carefully designed questions to try to look inside the mind of average people. Sears and Tesler are able to judge people’s affect, or their emotional feelings and responses, toward people of color, and look at their behaviors and actions such as their support for president Obama in the 2008 election or their support for public statements made in the wake of his election.

What the authors find is that many American’s, consciously or not, harbor feelings toward black people that cast black people in a second class status below white people. They write, “These earlier examinations have largely confirmed the original theory that the origins of symbolic racism for white Americans lie in a blend of antiblack affect and beliefs that blacks violate traditional conservative values such as individualism, obedience, and social morality.” The surveys show that white people view black people less positively than people similar to themselves. This is often not a conscious reaction, but rather hidden feelings that materialize in complex relationships in the real world.

I don’t think the results of the study show that we as white people are constantly acting against black people or that we don’t want to see black people live on an equal level with us, but it does mean that we tend to lean away from black people toward whiteness  without realizing it. This could mean that we like a resume from a person with a white sounding name more than an equal resume from a person with a black sounding name. It could mean that we are likely to be meaner to a black person who accidentally rear-ends us than a white person who rear-ends us. And it means we might choose to talk to a white person at a social event rather than a black person. None of these actions are directly racist and it is hard in the moment to ever recognize that you are making these decisions at all, but when a black person is constantly left out and receives harsher treatment, a sense develops that they are less valued within society.

I have recently been listening to John Biewen’s podcast, Scene on Radio, and his series on the show, Seeing White. Biewen discusses the origin of race and racial discrimination not just in the United States but across the globe. In a powerful episode, he and the scholars he interviews explain that people enslaved others for economic exploitation, and that exploitation required justification for the domination of other people. From such exploitation came the excuses that those who were being enslaved were savage beasts, hardly able to live on their own and much better off being subjugated by another man. In the United States these views were weaponized against black people with the advent of race, a biologically false idea, but a socially powerful and socially real construct. To justify slavery and exploitation, white people needed to be able to see black people as less moral, unable to live up to American values of individualism and self responsibility, and any action against their bondage demonstrated their clear disobedience. According to the research from Tesler and Sears, America never moved past these views of black people, and the views we developed as an excuse for our desire to exploit and subjugate human beings were carried with us to the present day, when our President attempts to undermine every accomplishment and action of our previous black president, and openly embraces terms and ideas that are caught up in racists backstories.

Emotional Wounds

One of the things I often think about at work is whether I am helping make the office a more enjoyable place for everyone to be. Am I helping to create an environment where people actually want to be, or am I in some ways contributing to an atmosphere that people dislike and don’t look forward to being at? These thoughts require that I take the focus off myself and instead shift it to those around me. It helps me look at my frustrations and move past them or see how they are opportunities for me to help others and make the day better for someone else.

Thinking in that manner is not easy, but I think it is something our society needs a little more of.  Whether we are in the office, on the freeway, at the gym, or in our neighborhood, we can think more of others and focus on how we can make a place better for others rather than selfishly thinking of ourselves.

A short passage from Cory Booker’s United helps me see why thinking of others and how I contribute to the world around me is so important. “For the eight years that I lived in Brick Towers, and during my almost twenty years as a Newark resident, my neighbors struggled with the emotional wounds of violence. This is not America; it is not who we are. It is a cancer on the soul of our nation. Like many cancers, the true peril comes from not detecting it, not recognizing the threat and the thus not taking the appropriate action.”

Our society often recognizes that everyone has problems that they are dealing with, but we never take time to think about the emotional wounds that many are going through. Booker refers specifically to emotional wounds brought on from violent experiences, but we all know people who have suffered intense emotional wounds without necessarily experiencing direct physicial violence. Putting thoughts of others and thinking of how you are helping the world be a nicer place for others helps us begin to heal the emotional wounds that Booker is discussing no matter where those wounds came from.

In regards to violence, we never spend much time thinking about how the victim will move on, continue life, and reintegrate with the world. We become singularly focused on how we wish to punish the violent offender but we don’t spend much time thinking about how we can minimize the emotional wounds that everyone involved will surely experience. I do not have a perfect answer for how we bind these emotional wounds, but I think that a crucial first step is to stop focusing on ourselves, what we want, and what is best for us in any given moment. We need to focus on other people, on how other people will react to our decisions and actions, and we need to focus on showing others that they are just as valuable as we are, and that we care about them. This does not mean we can never be self-centered and do things for ourselves, but rather that we will be more conscious of how our decisions impact other people, and we will find the appropriate time and place for ourselves.

Just as I think about the environment my decisions at work create, we should think about how our actions help to heal the emotional wounds that people in society face, or whether our attitudes further the strain those wounds.