Do you fall into the lottery trap? On real happiness and problems with fantasy/destination thinking.

If you reach the destination of life, then what? Then you will be very embarrassed. – Osho

When I was growing up us kids, enthralled by the deluxe smorgasbord of TV advertising, would continuously ask mum “can we go to Disneyland?” or other requests obviously out of our budget. “When I win Lotto” she would always reply. It took a while for us to realise she never bought lottery tickets. Despite that, she still had the fantasy herself: if I win lotto I’ll buy a place in the Coromandel…” I didn’t question it until recently when I started to wonder if this mass social delusion that more wealth (particularly if won) equals more happiness. Apparently it doesn’t.

Research on happiness suggests that people are generally no happier (or sadder) a year after winning the lottery – even if they win millions. Interestingly enough, people are apparently about the same level of happy, a year after becoming paraplegic, as they were before.  Now, that is something to really chew on for a while. If these things we wish for, long for, fantasise about are not actually associated with happiness, then what are we doing to ourselves?

We are projecting our happiness into the future. This is so appallingly common. We have been taught since childhood that when we get to the next stage happiness awaits us: when we finally get to school – when we can read/write/swim/ride a bike we will finally be happy.  When we have a friend, or a lot of friends, when we have a boyfriend, when we graduate, when we finally get a job or clock this XBox game or reach our weight goal we will surely be full of endless joy. Obviously, when we grow up we will be happy. Yes – because we can have ice-cream for dinner and no one will tell us what to do and we can have all these cool jobs and things: happy as! Wait, being grown up is just as much work. Making decisions is tricky. Money is tricky. I bet I will be happy when I reach that next goal: have a baby, get a promotion, get married, buy a house, sell a house, buy another house: happiness will abound! Oh, wait, I’m still chugging along. I know, when I get discovered for my real shining talent as a singer/actor/genius or win lotto or NZ’s Next Top Model I will then be happy… except it hasn’t happened yet, so where is my next goal? I know: when I retire I will be incredibly happy because I can do whatever I want! Yay! No job! Except that retired people often (not always) get depressed because they aren’t contributing to society as much as is satisfactory. They have removed the work from their lives and many interesting things can fill those empty hours, but real happiness is still only a goal away, or did I waste my life going from one goal to the next, projecting my happiness into the future instead of realising that happiness is only ever now? After all, what is the real destination of life? Death? Are you just biding your time ’til the Armageddon comes? Are you hoping for a blissful after-life instead of making the most of this one?

All the Zen dudes will tell you that: happiness is only ever now. They reckon now is the only thing that really exists anyway. The past is just muddled memories in the narrative we tell ourselves about our lives.  The past is often full or sad stories or nostalgia that we can re-live over and over to no-avail.  The future is just projections and uncertainty. Many an anxiety can be found in thinking too much about the future. Life is very uncertain (yes, I have been reading too much Osho).  All this is very obvious. Happiness is a choice, moment to moment. If our established thought-patterns are interfering with our happiness we can change them through therapy or self-help or bazillions of other methods. Thoughts can be changed.

The problem with the “if only”, lottery-type thinking is that it’s not in the moment. It comes from being unhappy with our jobs and our lives and our lack of options. We have been taught to think that money is the problem and that money (particularly a large lump of it right now) is the answer, but really, with more money just comes a different level of finance to deal with.  Don’t get me wrong, having not-enough money and struggling for survival really sucks, but unless your fantasies about winning lotto are a helpful coping strategy for dealing with real hunger and desperation they are probably doing you more harm than good.

For most people who read this, who are in the pattern of ‘lottery thinking’, it is a little escape from the drudgery of every-day life. You wake up, you go to work, you work, you come home, you *insert escapist media here, eg: Playstation, movies, TV series, Facebook*, you maybe get a bit of creative time to work on building that model air-plane, writing that screen-play, painting that impressionist take on the New York skyline, re-designing your poodle’s coiffer, you practice in your steam-punk death-metal band and so on… and you dream… you dream of all the poodling, steampunking, screen-playing you could do if only …If only you had more time, if only you didn’t have to work.

Well, here’s a thought: how about, instead of fantasies and escapism, you try making little baby steps toward genuine happiness. There are two ways to do this and you probably should do both:

1: Choose to be happy. Try it now. Just one moment of happy. Just one moment of letting go of the struggle. Relax those shoulders. Breathe. Good, now go on. Don’t grimace. Smile. Yes, yes! That’s it!  You’re doing it, baby. Every time you realise you’re in a yucky mind state, your going around in circles, you’re dreaming of that day you finally reach heaven STOP! Yes, now, relax. Smile. You don’t even have to smile, but find a tiny bit of happy just by dropping all the shit. I’m glad you’re so good at following instructions. The more you can choose happiness in moments, the more moments of happiness you may experience in your life. Don’t just depend on the external world for you happy, DIY it.

2. Make steps towards doing more of the things you really love. What really feeds you? Do you even know? If you’re not sure, think about the experiences you’ve had, the things you’ve created and done, that have given you moments of happiness. Don’t tell me you’re not creative. Creative is part of human. You are continuously creating the story of your life in your head (right now), how do you want your story to go? Try new things. Figure out what brings your joy, little by little. Write a list. Figure out what you want to contribute to the world in your lifetime. Make baby steps. If your job sucks the life out of you, look for a better one. If you don’t have a job, figure out how you can contribute to your community. Community can feed us when jobs can’t. If you love to paint, sing, write, draw, ski, ride, explore, love, share, don’t relegate your passion to: ‘if/when I have time’. Everyone has the same amount of time. Everyone. It’s how you use it. If you want to be happy, let yourself do the things that bring the happiness with them. Let go of your own internal barriers to happiness. It takes a lot of time to master an art so start right now. You never know, you could be the next professional poodle coifferer.

The internet confessional: which type are you?

Are you among the millions who just confess to carefully selected friends you share your Facebook account with or are you more public with your personal bits? In the habit of regaling your audience with salacious stories about your ex, inspiring jealousy with pictures of your cafe brunch or revealing your bizarre crushes on over-the-phone technical support workers?  If you blog, are you tempted to spill juicy personal information or just gossip disapprovingly about other people’s gratuitous displays of sexuality? We now exist in an internet with a plethora of ways to share what might otherwise be private with various parts of the public.  There is even an ‘internet confessional’ website.

As I recall, Nietzsche reflected that the old (Christian) religious structure of Western society, far from being dismantled, had merely been replaced with a scientific religion. Instead of confessing to the priest in a private booth, more people these days confess to doctors and therapists.  More recently, there has been a diversification of the Western religion – in much the same way that the printing press allowed for individual adaptation, the internet has allowed for broad private-public confessions. Just like fight club, you choose your own level of involvement.

We can construct a 1-5 scale of internet confessional types:

Prudent or Prudish?

1 make conservative confessions about their sporting preferences and occasional celebrational posts (you don’t want anyone knowing anything bad ever happens to you), with more personal details confined to private messages. When they use social media to purge emotionally, it will be prefaced with “I’m sorry but” and be followed by a hurt/angry message.  1s might feel comfortable using Snapchat because the images disappear after a few seconds, but generally, only people well under 30 have heard of Snapchat and young people are much more likely to reside higher up on the scale, having grown up in a social-media world.

Dribs and Drabs

2s can be a little more revealing, maybe some political commentary, bad day ranting and firm opinions aired like dirty laundry along with pictures of one’s child/niece/nephew/partner/dog and some thinly spread social commentary amongst re-posted inspirational quotes, memes and news stories. You might not know where you stand with 1s and 2s because they might not know themselves, either that or they know damn well and are just respecting their own privacy. Both 1s and twos are prone to drunken confessions which are awkward the next day.

Constant commentators 

3s continually post on Facebook about things other than them, but you can tell from the nature of their re-posts, exactly how they feel about absolutely everything.  They are also likely to argue with you on your posts, just to make sure you agree with them about absolutely everything.  They will also take pictures of things they see/do/eat just to make you jealous. They are prone to the occasional drunken confession, but it will look cute compared to their normally well-constructed sentences.

Blurred bloggers

3.3 is reserved for the people who blog publicly but restrict their personal information. For example, one might write a food blog and mention one’s child being especially cute but neglect to mention an impending divorce out of fear of rejection by the conservative food-blogging community. One’s hard-core metal blog might fail to mention one’s penchant for floral embroidery, or one’s serious and sensible opinion blog might omit the existence of one’s Jungian archetype and astrology blog. Occasionally they will get emotional or political in their posts in a way that is likely to lose them followers, but in the heat of the moment they don’t much care.

Drama dilettantes

4 is slightly embarrassing with the level of personal detail, especially if you’re a prude, they untag the unflattering party pics but might post semi-naked soft-porn-esque pictures of themselves. Their blogs read like gossip magazines about themselves and the people they like and dislike enough to want to poison.  They will post poetry… they will. You always know where you stand with 4s and, if you’re sensible, that will be quite far away so as to avoid the emotional shrapnel.

Unveiled humans (my alliteration skills failed me)

5s may or may not have naked pictures, but if they do, they will be much more genuine than porn.  Whereas 4s want to flash everything flattering around and hide the unsightly human bits, 5s are experimenting with revealing their true selves, including beautiful flaws, to whomever stumbles across their blog.  They are probably politically progressive: artists, feminists or hippies, and are making a statement.  You can learn a lot about their politics, spirituality and sex lives from reading their blogs.

We can indulge our voyeurism in 4s and 5s. When they are like us we can like them and when they offend out sensibilities, or lack-there-of, we can ‘other’ them and make fun of them with our friends. Meanwhile we continue to confess in our own ways, both on and offline. The confessional is necessary because we have been taught to hold everything in. According to that Foucault dude, the pressure from conservative Victorian suppression is to blame for this bizarre emotionally vomitous behavior, and maybe 5s have gotten past that, to the point where they can co-exist publicly with their private bits rather than holding in all the bad stuff until we’re forced to purge it up all over everything.

Facebook: just like the Sims

There have been a few times in my life where I have gotten addicted to games; growing up I went through phases of being hooked on particular games on our families old Mac computers and more recently I went through a bejeweled fad. The most serious addictions I’ve had were as a teenager to Diablo II and the Sims (1 and 2). I used to love making the houses and decorating them. Perhaps designing the barbie-like characters made up for my barbie-deprived childhood. I would sit at the screen and stare at my little people, taking good care of them.  They were always bathed and fed and well-rested whereas, after staring at the screen for so long, I could have done with some bathing and feeding myself.  I would get anxiety when they burnt down the kitchen but felt proud when they studied and up-skilled and no longer posed such a great fire-risk.  I gave up on the Sims because I realised that I was putting all of this energy into something that wasn’t really feeding me.  It was a hard sacrifice to make but ultimately more rewarding.

Dopamine is an interesting brain chemical. It motivates us and gives us that sense of accomplishment of attainment, how-ever brief.  It is the primary brain chemical involved in addictions to cocaine, shopping gaming and Facebook.  Every time that little red number appears at the top of the screen you get a little bump, every like on your hillarous re-posted meme, every comment on your wall just reinforces the pattern.  Validation. It’s a trap!

The Facebook trap is a lot like the Sims trap. We can become pre-occupied with virtual lives – with the lives of other people, with our own closed-circuit-insular-universe to the point where other things are less important.  When I’m tired and don’t have other exciting things I do I always check Facebook looking for connection, validation, that little bump. I have been through times where I was getting psychologically dependent on Facebook to the point where it started to bother me. Unlike blogging, where I have the room to be creative and expressive, where I am building something that lasts and sharing ideas with the public, Facebook is insular and offers less space for expression, it rewards conformity and encourages me to share other people’s creations (which is not a bad thing) rather than develop my own.  I’m not saying Facebook is absolutely evil, and it certainly offers more real-world agency in communication and networking than the Sims does, but I am saying that it’s ultimately less satisfying than actually doing real stuff.

Dopamine is very relevant, but we can’t just reduce everything down to a neurotransmitter. Reality tends towards the complex.  There are lots of weird things happening in our brains, but what is easily observable is that doing something that triggers the reward pathway in the brain without achieving any meaningful results is infinitely less satisfying than doing something that activates the same pathway but does not accomplish much. Gaming and Facebook are less satisfying (for me, anyway) than working on a novel or writing a blog post – even reading a novel or doing the dishes, and yet, they are easy ‘lazy’ habits to get into.

Recently I went through a period where no one was liking my Facebook posts. WTF? Usually a plethora of people care about what I have to say.  I started to feel strange.  Out of my hundreds of friends, no one was bothering to comment or validate me – or even argue with me. No one was reading my blog posts either. How rude. As a result my blogging got more prolific than it ever has been, and more personal too. If no one cared, I was even more motivated to carry on with my life.  Something did seem a bit fishy though and then I realised that I must have somehow accidentally changed my Facebook settings so I wasn’t sharing my posts with my friends.  Hmmm.

This experience mirrors my experience lately of feeling like I’m walking in the dark.  Everyone seems very distant, and very few people seem to understand anything that is going on inside my head.  I suppose I’m not understanding most other people either. It’s kind of like temporarily regressing to teenage-insular-fog-brain, everything is a bit distorted. So if this blog post makes no sense, that will make absolute sense to what I’m going through.

The end.