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The Illusion of Control March 24, 2024

About 10 years ago, a skit became popular on YouTube. In the scene, a woman with a nail sticking out of her forehead complains about the pain to her partner. The man tells her to remove the nail, and she gets upset that he's not listening. She just wants to express how much it hurts; it's "not about the nail!" The man resigns himself to saying, "That sounds really hard," and she's appeased.

I've always disliked this skit. "Haha, look how illogical women are! They're too dumb to see the obvious solutions to their problems and just wanna talk about feelings." A selection of the comments from men on YouTube today:

If there's a man out there who doesn't instantly relate to this, then he has never had a wife, a girlfriend, or a female friend.

This video changed my marriage. My wife will let me fix things now...occasionally.

Yeeep. I'm sending this to my sister. And my mother.

I laughed at this video and my wife got mad and said "A man must have made this." I think we might be fighting now but I can never be sure anymore. Funny video, at least I think so.

To me, this video is a good representation not of people who go to their partners for solace (how silly of them!), but of the hubris of men who believe they know The Solution to everything and can fix other people's lives.

Most things can't be "fixed."

In real life, people don't have nails sticking out of their heads that everyone can see. They're dealing with complex situations that don't have easy fixes. No, telling off her toxic boss won't instantly transform the culture of her workplace. She already submitted a report to HR, and they refused to do anything. And she can't "just quit" while there are bills to pay.

If she's complaining about other situations that seem "simple" to you, there are probably factors you don't understand that are deeply ingrained in her psyche, which no therapist can poof away with a magic wand. There are also definitely factors in your own psyche behind the belief that every problem is a nail, and you're an omnipotent hero with the perfect imaginary hammer.

I recently completed a class on mindfulness offered by a hospice care center to help people dealing with grief of all kinds. In one of the later sessions, the instructor said, "People can get attached to their suffering. They prolong it on purpose."

"Why would anyone do that?" a student asked. "It doesn't make any sense."

"Yes, why would someone do that?" the instructor said. When no one answered, she repeated, "Why? Why would someone want to prolong their suffering?"

I said, "The illusion of control."

Powerlessness is hard to accept.

I once read an insightful comment from a woman who experienced a miscarriage, and who was still devastated and crying daily many months later. She wrote, "I feel like I'm clinging to my grief, because as long as I stay sad, it hasn't happened yet."

The "stages" of grief are a lie, but they're an accurate list of the things people do to avoid accepting that they're powerless to control an upsetting situation: denial, anger, bargaining, depression. They'll work themselves up over the should'ves, would'ves, and could'ves. "We should've seen a doctor sooner"—as if they can reload their lives from a save file and take a different path. "Maybe if we hadn't fought, she wouldn't have had a stroke"—as if anyone on Earth can thwart death forever. Maybe if...maybe if...maybe if I just obsess over this long and hard enough, I can undo it all and life will be perfect.

People also say horrible things to others to maintain the illusion for themselves. They tell women who have lost babies, "Well, take better care of yourself next time." Or, "Do you think it's because we went out for drinks before you knew you were pregnant?" Or "Maybe because you were so stressed out that it could happen, you kind of, you know, made it happen."

I've read many scary news articles about the experiences of pregnant women since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. One especially troubling article from NPR was, "Losing a pregnancy could land you in jail in post-Roe America." States are using fetal harm laws to prosecute women for negligence and manslaughter after they've experienced miscarriages. When something tragic like that happens, someone must be to blame, right?

As a matter of fact, no. An expert witness in the article says, "Twenty percent of pregnancies in the U.S. end in a loss...[and] over 90% of these losses are caused by genetic abnormalities, which are often undiagnosed."

Often DNA just breaks. Tiny hearts just stop beating. No one made choices that caused it, and no one could have prevented it. It doesn't matter how well these women took care of their health. They didn't "make it happen" by partying too much, or stressing out too much, or any of the other things screenwriters put in TV shows to illustrate that a female character deserves a miscarriage.

Finally, we arrive at the reason I'm writing about this on a blog primarily dedicated to literary criticism:

Western fiction creates and vehemently defends the illusion we can control our fates.

The lessons of any blockbuster movie or bestselling genre novel in the United States are simple and predictable:

  • If you're strong and clever enough, you can escape death.
  • If you're righteous and tenacious enough, you can eradicate evil from the world.
  • If you're feminine/masculine enough, you can make attractive people love you.

Everyone knows that "protags protag." Only bad writers create reactive characters. Protagonists must drive the story by making choices that have direct consequences. A series of events without causal links between them is just a bunch of stuff that happens, not a story.

The very structure of fiction in the English-speaking world depends on the illusion of control. In other parts of the world, this isn't always the case. Japanese movies made in the 20th century have ensembles of characters who have little to no agency in a big, cruel world. Examples include Kurosawa's movies like Rashomon (1950) and animated films like Grave of Fireflies (1988) and Akira (1988).

Warner Bros's attempted live remake of Akira has been stuck in "development hell" for more than 20 years. One of the many directors attached to it, Jaume Collet-Serra, was widely panned on social media for his comments about the changes he thought would be required to make the movie appealing to American audiences.

"I hope that I can bring strong characters. In the original source material, I don't think the main characters are the protagonists.... Nobody's interesting. Tetsuo's interesting because weird shit happens to him, and Kaneda is so two-dimensional. That's part of the Japanese culture, they never have strong characters." (IGN, 2014)

This interview demonstrates Hollywood's rigid outlook on how all movies are "supposed" to be. Protags must protag. The script must use a 3 or 5 act structure. Each act is marked by a "decision point" made by the heroes that moves them closer or farther away from their goal. If movies like Akira feature more realistic teenagers who don't have the power to proactively shape their own fates, they "don't have strong characters."

While it's tempting to blame Hollywood for everything, my personal experience reading countless Goodreads and Amazon reviews confirms that few people will tolerate low-agency main characters. A "relateable" protagonist is actually a highly idealized one, representing who audiences wish they were instead of who they are.

It would be futile to suggest we change those expectations. But I can ask that storytellers be more careful in what they decide to portray as controllable.

We cling to the illusion against all logic.

Our culture takes "personal responsibility" to an unhealthy extreme. When people experience a tragedy, it's common for them to say, "I don't know what I did to deserve this." They feel shame and responsibility, even when they couldn't possibly have affected the outcome. The shame doesn't come out of nowhere. Creators invent and perpetuate it through the way we tell stories, fiction or non-fiction.

Miscarriage is a big one. Membranes don't suddenly rupture because of emotional distress, alcohol or opioid consumption, mild physical exertion, or "karma." But when a miscarriage is portrayed in fiction, there's usually a dramatic cause that's psychologically easy for audiences to accept, even if it's medically impossible. It's much more tempting to believe a baby's death is someone's fault than it is to face the fact that tragedies can happen to anyone at any time.

Scarlet O'Hara famously lost her baby by flying into a rage, attempting to strike Rhett, and falling down the stairs in Gone with the Wind (1939). In a season finale of Gray's Anatomy (2010), the titular character has a miscarriage caused by the shock of seeing her husband get shot. In The Other Boleyn Girl (2001), sweet and innocent Mary successfully bears a son for the king after being careful to rest during her pregnancy, while the ferocious and power-hungry Anne experiences multiple miscarriages after doing scandalous things, like begging her brother to help her produce an heir. The delivery scene implies the baby's fate was set at its sinful conception.

In the midwife's bloody hands was a baby horridly malformed.... The midwife looked at Anne, her face very grave. "What did you do to get this on you?"

"I did nothing! Nothing!"

"This is not a child from a man. It is a child from a devil."

"Good values" have shadow sides.

The people who create books and movies don't set out to teach bad values. They set out to teach good ones, but don't recognize there's a "shadow side" to each one.

The shadow side is another concept introduced in that mindfulness class, representing the rejected parts of ourselves that cause dysfunction and suffering. For example, traditional American culture holds that good people abstain from sexual activity before marriage. The shadow side to the value of "sexual purity" is all kinds of dysfunction: repressed people believing they're "sluts" or "damaged goods" if they fail to live up to God's supposed standards, churches covering up for priests who assaulted children in their congregations, the media blaming young women in their teens and early 20s for "ruining" powerful men twice their age who chose to cheat on their wives (Bill Clinton, Kobe Bryant, Rupert Sanders...).

Some common values and their shadow sides reinforced by popular fiction:

Smart and heroic people are survivors.

Shadow side: People die because they're reckless, immoral, and/or unlikeable.

Examples: the countless masked Storm Troopers who fall during laser shootouts in Star Wars while the main characters are inexplicably unscathed; any slasher film with the Final Girl trope; the universally despised murder victim of any cozy mystery who was unkind to one person too many.

Antagonists often die or get badly injured at random for "poetic justice." When heroes can't be shown committing violence, because that would be immoral, authors simply have villainous characters get trampled by a horse (Treasure Island, 1883), hit by a bus (Mean Girls, 2004), or tripped up by balloon strings and sent plummeting to certain death (Up, 2009). If only everyone were nice to each other, accidents would never happen.

People earn wealth and power through intelligence and hard work.

Shadow side: Poor people are stupid and lazy.

Examples: rags-to-riches movies like The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008); sports movies about poor kids from the sticks who triumph in the state championship over the rich kids from the capital; movies about struggling performers who make it big through raw talent and gumption, like La La Land (2016) and A Star is Born (2018).

In Back to the Future (1985), adorkable George McFly morphs into a bestselling SFF author with a fancy home, and macho bully Biff into a subservient mechanic, all supposedly because of one school dance in 1955. In the movie Troop Beverly Hills (1989), the antagonist Velda "is forced to take a job at Kmart after her actions have made her virtually unemployable, and a final scene shows her making a store-wide announcement about cookies" (Wikipedia). Working in low-paying fields is undoubtedly the most fitting fate for an annoying person who made bad choices in life.

People who prove their goodness will be loved.

Shadow side: People who lose their partners are vain, selfish, or otherwise imperfect and therefore deserve to be forever alone.

Examples: rom-coms like The Wedding Singer (1998) and Bubble Boy (2001) where the goofy main character proves he's a worthier suitor than his crush's vulgar fiance; Disney productions for children and teens like A Cinderella Story (2004) in which the school heartthrob publicly dumps the assertive queen bee for the girl-next-door heroine at the end.

In one scene of A Cinderella Story, the school "prince" quizzes the heroine Sam, "Would you rather have a rice cake or a Big Mac?" Sam replies, "A Big Mac!" This is supposed to demonstrate how different she is from his shallow calorie-counting girlfriend and "50% of the girls in our class." The bonus lesson for girls: we're supposed to be fun and down-to-earth and unconcerned about our looks, while also looking like Hilary Duff.

Hilary Duff promotional photo for A Cinderella Story
Just your average unpopular high school nerd

Shadows grow from unrealistic rewards and punishments.

As a society, we want to teach people to be kind, courageous, prudent, and peaceful. We give fictional heroes these desirable traits, and villains their opposites, and then we reward the heroes and punish the villains. This structure depends on the fictional universe being a fair and just place, because if it weren't, why bother to be a good person?

The real universe isn't fair or just, but people innately want to be good anyway. Our brains encourage pro-social behaviors. We feel great when we get along with others and accomplish common goals, and we feel awful when we're isolated or in conflict.

Rather than pushing the lie of meritocracy, it would be great if more fiction taught people how to cope with unfairness. Corporations let people go, and it's not because they didn't work hard enough. Children die, and it's not because their parents weren't careful or nurturing enough. Crushes don't reciprocate, or spouses leave, and it's not because you're not loveable enough.

But it would be a big improvement if books and movies just stopped using "karma" to reward or punish characters. The villains who conveniently slip and fall from great heights at the last moment, like in Vertigo (1958) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). The characters who endanger or lose a child because they were having sex out of wedlock, like in Mermaids (1990) and Casual Vacancy (2012). The powerful elder who swoops in to hand the win to the heroes and put the bullies in their places, like in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (1997), High School Musical (2006), and Shakespeare in Love (1998)—although, to be fair, several of Shakespeare's plays also rely on deus ex machina, so this was probably on purpose.

Screw the Gatekeepers October 13, 2023

My last blog post was about cultivating happiness in your life. One of my suggestions was to identify the true desires at the root of your big unattainable dreams, because so many of them are "only partially about doing something, and mostly about being something."

An obsession with "being" something is a theft of joy. In order to convince yourself you "are" something, you often need to win an imaginary competition against everybody else in the world. To be "a real author," you need to prove you're smarter and more talented than other people by publishing works of high literature with only the most prestigious houses. To be "a real runner," you need to prove you're faster and stronger than other people by winning expensive races. To be "a real gamer," you need to play technically difficult video games that "casuals" can't handle, and get 100% of the arbitrary achievements to show off on your profile, and basically have no fun at all.

At extremes, people obsessed with "being" something will skip over the part where they actually do things to prove themselves, and they instead spend their time convincing imaginary competitors that they're inferior. Oh you self-published some romantic drivel for women? You're not a serious writer, then. You're not training for a marathon? So I guess you're one of those "hobby joggers." This person only completed 10% of Bloodborne and stopped after dying a hundred times in the first map? LOL noobs!

Yesterday, I encountered a group of people like this in what I thought would be an unlikely place for elitist snobs: a Discord server about woodworking. What could people who make picnic tables and step stools possibly use to be judgemental and exclusionary?

The answer: pocket hole screws.

Pocket holes are a method of joinery that people without the money for impressive tools or the space for a big shop can use to construct basic projects. You drill out a channel on the edge of one board, then drive a screw through it at an angle into the second board. The jigs are relatively cheap, easy to use, and much less likely to maim a beginner than a table saw or router. Many free plans shared on homemaker blogs and YouTube use pocket holes.

Is it the strongest joint in the world? No, but most of the time you don't need the strongest joint in the world. Pocket holes are like Priuses. Sometimes people need a monster truck to haul a cubic yard of rocks, but most of the time they're just commuting to work or picking up groceries. It would be ridiculous to declare all vehicles should be monster trucks, and nobody should ever drive a Prius to get groceries because Priuses can't handle 2,000 pounds of rocks. Similarly, pocket holes are perfectly adequate for most small projects people tinkering in their garages will want to make.

A beginner on this Discord server said he only had a circular saw and power screwdriver. People told him he needed to buy this, that, and the other thing. I suggested that if he had a tight budget, he could buy a pocket hole jig first to get started.

From the reaction, you'd have thought I suggested he just grab an office stapler and start whacking at pieces of lumber with it.

pocket holes aren't strong enough for furniture

Pocket holes are NEVER appropriate for joinery, FULL STOP

I'm not saying you can't use pocket holes. You can do whatever your little heart desires. But they can't bear any weight. Not a lot of weight, no weight at all.

I was taken aback, because all of these assertions are factually incorrect. All the measurements you can find online show that pocket holes are comparable to other methods for making butt joints that rely mostly on glue for their strength, like biscuits and floating tenons. All of them start to crack at about 90 pounds of force. Unless you're going to use your little pine nightstand to store unsecured bowling balls, or allow a child to use it like a trampoline, that's not a significant limitation. I have an outdoor plant stand made with pocket holes in 2x4s—at least it was supposed to be a plant stand—that many a delivery person has used to drop off 40-pound bags of cat litter for multiple years with no problems.

But facts and common sense had no place in this server, because the objective strength of pocket holes wasn't their true concern. Their complaints quickly turned to "instant gratification DIY culture" and the stupidity of "the masses" with no appreciation for fine furniture.

The true problem, you see, is that if they admitted pocket holes are a legitimate method of joinery, that would mean the millions of untrained plebeians building shoe cabinets in their garages with $40 Kreg jigs are legitimate woodworkers. It would mean their "fine woodworking" projects aren't superior in every way to what those uppity DIYers with ideas beyond their station can put together in a weekend.

Pocket holes must be weak, despite all evidence, because if they're not, that means the members of this exclusive club of Real Manly Woodworkers aren't all that special.

(And yes, there's an undercurrent of sexism in there, too. How dare petite women with nice hair like Ana White make plans for trendy farmhouse-style coffee tables? The gall.)

First, don't be these people. There are 8.1 billion humans on planet Earth. Trying to prove you're better than all of them is as foolish as claiming one particular grain of sand sparkles brighter than all the others on the beach. You're not going to make it true by telling the other grains of sand they're not sandy enough.

Second, don't listen to these people. That's hard to do when they pile on to shame you personally, and present their unverified theories as unassailable facts with the utmost confidence.

Despite all my previous research and certainty in the adequacy of pocket holes, I wondered if these condescending jerks were right, and if I was being unreasonable because I felt disrespected. I wondered if I've been making furniture that's doomed to fail this whole time.

So I spent the evening checking articles from sources like Woodsmith and Family Handyman. They said pocket holes are fine. I read discussions on old woodworking forums and Reddit threads—pocket holes are fine. I watched YouTube videos by carpenters with forty years of experience—pocket holes are fine.

I couldn't find any convincing evidence that pocket holes are not fine. Even when people went out of their way to demonstrate how much pocket holes suck, they showed that these joints can take only 110 pounds of direct pressure from a lever, see?! So, again, if you're making a floating shelf for your bathroom, do you intend to pile a dozen medical textbooks on it? Or if you're building a coffee table from Ana White's plans, do you intend to stand on it to practice tap dancing? No? Then pocket holes are fine.

Despite all this research, when I catch sight of one of my pretty side tables—which I do not in fact use to practice tap dancing—I have the tiniest of doubts that it's strong enough, and I feel the need to find more evidence that pocket holes are fine.

Sadly, there are purists in every community who sew doubt and spread misinformation just to make themselves feel special. Some gardening enthusiasts will claim all non-native species from big box stores are invasive and will destroy the local ecosystem. Some animal lovers will say if you feed your cat any kind of processed dry food, you're basically murdering them.

We had our piano tuned recently, and the next day the tuner asked if he could come back to redo it for no extra charge. He'd been on the piano tuner forums, and they'd convinced him the settings he always used for Yamaha uprights were wrong. He spent an hour re-tuning every note, only to admit sheepishly that there wasn't much difference in the sound.

Humility and openness to new ideas is good for us, but self-doubt isn't. If egotistical people are trying hard to make you feel stupid and inferior, it's probably because they've sensed you're neither, and that makes you a threat.

In the words of a Redditor who responded to a year-old thread I found about snobby woodworking gatekeepers, "pocket hole screw them."

The Pursuit of True Long-Term Happiness July 22, 2023

Over the past few months I've had some personal experiences that prompted me to face uncomfortable but important questions. Namely: "Is my current life the one I want to live?" And, "Who do I want to be?"

I don't have concrete answers, but the continuous pursuit of them is the important part. I've been doing a lot of reading and reflecting on psychology, relationships, careers and finances. This post is a mishmash of the concepts I've landed on as most helpful for leading a happy life.

What is "self-care?"

"Self-care" became a popular buzzword during the pandemic. In theory, self-care is supposed to mean, "You should be allowed to prioritize your own needs without guilt." In theory, that's a good thing.

In application, particularly for the purposes of selling luxury beauty products and building social media brands, self-care has come to mean, "You should indulge in whatever feels good in the moment, regardless of whether it will make you happy or miserable in the long run."

Spending thousands of dollars on cosmetic procedures is "self-care," even if it means burying your future self under a mountain of 25% APR credit card debt.

Binging TV shows for days and refusing to eat proper meals, go outside, exercise, or do anything else that feels hard is "self-care," even if wallowing will make your mood worse, not better.

In short, the term self-care has become an excuse for self-sabotage.

True self-care means applying remedies, not pain-killers.

Occasional indulgences are necessary for mental health. There's nothing wrong with turning down party invitations when you need some alone time with HBO Max, or with enjoying that doughnut you've been looking forward to all morning. And beating yourself up for failing to be perfectly wise all the time is another form of self-sabotage.

However, indulgences are not true self-care. A doughnut will lift your spirits for about five minutes. It won't make you happy five years from now.

No unhappy person on Earth is dissatisfied with their life because they haven't eaten enough doughnuts. Or because they need a more exciting haircut, they haven't finished all eight seasons of Game of Thrones, or they just haven't hidden under the blankets long enough for their problems to disappear. These are temporary distractions, not solutions.

Pursuing happiness requires doing unhappy things.

Paradoxically, truly taking care of yourself usually requires doing difficult things that can feel very bad in the moment.

On the physical side, our bodies are designed to avoid pain and pursue pleasure in the moment, every moment. Our muscles will rebel against the idea of leaving the warm squishy couch to get sweaty at the gym. Our eyes will cling desperately to the thrilling sight of beautiful people plotting to murder each other on TV, instead of staring at icky credit card statements and bank account balances. Being in poor physical and financial health will make us miserable, but our dopamine receptors don't care. They want a $50 Doordash delivery of triple bacon cheeseburgers with milkshakes and fries, and they want it now!

On the psychological side, considering significant changes to your life feels destabilizing and disloyal to the other people in it. Facing the habits and thought patterns that might be holding you back from making them is extremely uncomfortable. A natural instinct is to reject the suggestion you could have such flaws or the power to address them. "I am who I am," you'll bristle. "I should be allowed to be myself and be happy."

Two inescapable truths:

  1. The only person in this world you can control is yourself. You can try to influence other people and your surroundings, but you have complete power only over your own choices.
  2. The only person in this world who can control your thoughts is you. The telepathic characters in Marvel movies aren't real. Nobody has the superpower to enter your head and change the way you think.

So if you're unhappy, it's up to you to identify and address the causes. While you should never change yourself to please anybody else, sometimes it's necessary to change your thoughts and behavior for the sake of your own health and happiness.

While painting the kitchen cabinets, I listened to an amusing book by a divorce lawyer titled, If You're In My Office, It's Already Too Late. I most enjoyed the anecdotes of outrageous courtroom antics, but the substance of the book is the patterns the lawyer has observed while helping to dissolve hundreds of marriages.

The key takeaway is in the title: if a couple has reached the point of dissolution, the best time to address their problems passed long ago. Happy couples need to have hard conversations to remain happy, and tackle problems as soon as they arise, before resentments build up and they stop communicating, trusting, and respecting each other.

I think the same is true of any relationship, including the one you have with your unconscious self. You sometimes have to sit yourself down and say, "I know initiating conflict is terrifying because you think we'll be hated and lose everything, but if we keep swallowing our words and pretending to be okay, we will never actually be okay." Or, "Your anger at hurtful things people said in the past is justified, and I'm not diminishing your feelings, but stewing and fantasizing about petty revenge is just punishing us, not them. It's time to let it go."

Question your dreams.

Countless books and movies for general audiences feature scrappy underdogs overcoming all odds to realize their dreams. They win the championship soccer game, singing contest, or whatever to uproarious applause and universal praise, put the sulky bullies in their places, get a kiss from a cute love interest, and live happily ever after.

In reality, landing one dramatic penalty kick will not fix your whole life. This is called the arrival fallacy: "the illusion that once we make it, once we attain our goal or reach our destination, we will reach lasting happiness." (Source: "You accomplished something great. So now what?")

If you ask people about their wildest dreams, you'll get some common answers. To retire early and travel the world. To turn a side hustle making cutting boards into a multi-million-dollar business. To be president of the United States. To land a publishing contract, big-city art show, or starring role on Broadway and finally quit their day job to do what they love.

Dreams like these are only partially about doing something, and mostly about being something. Someone in complete control of their life. Someone everyone loves and respects. Someone with no worries and unlimited power.

But the truth is, no amount of money, fame, or political influence will protect anyone from feeling bad ever again. In fact, the celebrities who have all of those things seem like the most miserable, insecure, petty and unstable people on the planet. I've never once read a Tweet from a billionaire and thought, "Wow, they seem super easy-going, and so full of gratitude for their many advantages and love for their fellow man."

Lasting happiness comes from within.

Sometimes you do need to change your external circumstances to improve your quality of life. However, if your basic needs are met—you're healthy and safe, you have stable non-toxic relationships, you spend most of your time on fulfilling activities—but you're still not content, there are no other shake-ups that will ever make you happy.

Every career will have mundane duties you won't enjoy. Every partner will have traits that annoy you. Every locale will have some people and weather patterns you won't like. We probably all know at least one person who seems to think that maybe if they just quit their job and try something radically different, maybe if they just dump their boring partner and date someone cooler, maybe if they just pack up and move to that other place with greener grass, they will finally be happy. But it never works, because the true cause of their dissatisfaction is their own thoughts.

I've had chronic depression since I was a teenager. I know how annoying it is when people who haven't experienced a mood disorder say things like, "You just need to change your attitude!" or "You just need to get out more!" or anything else that starts with, "You just..."

So when I say the root of a person's unhappiness is in their thought patterns, I'm not diminishing the seriousness of mental illness, traumatic experiences, or other factors that shape an unhappy brain. It's a pure statement of fact.

I have inherently weak arm muscles. Until recently, I couldn't do a push up or pull up. But my arms were never going to get stronger just hanging off my shoulders, unused. I had to make a habit of exercising them, even though it seems like I have to struggle twice as hard as "normal" people with functional biceps.

Similarly, I have an inherently depressive brain. Until a few years ago, it had to work a lot harder than "normal" brains to convince my body to get up, get dressed, smile and be social, stop thinking "I can't" or "There's no point" or "Nothing will change anyway." Focus on the good in other people instead of the bad, the reasons you have to be thankful instead of self-pitying, all the things in your life that give you joy instead of the things that try to steal it.

Eventually, rejecting negative thoughts for more positive ones became a habit, and my joy-affirming "brain muscles" built up strength. Now I can quickly swat away destructive thoughts, and it's no longer difficult to get up and go out. But I still have to choose to maintain my mental health, just like I have to choose to put on my workout clothes to maintain my physical health.

You can train your brain over time.

The brain is a very complex organ, and some parts of it undermine the hard work of the other parts. The unconscious parts are incorrigible and refuse to listen to those high-handed analytical parts. You can't "think" your way out of unhappiness. But you can, with diligent practice, shape the mold the unconscious parts tend to fall into.

Ever since tenth grade English, I've disliked the Alanis Morissette song "Ironic." No, not because the situations described in the song are just coincidences and misfortunes, rather than examples of Socratic, dramatic, or situational irony. Many words have valid colloquial meanings that are "incorrect" according to tenth grade English teachers.

The reason I have a negative reaction to hearing this song is because the worldview it expresses is, "Woe is me." The song's bitter narrator would be much happier if they looked for the silver lining around each of the minor disappointments they think are major tragedies.

  • "A traffic jam when you're already late" --> "Well, this is a good time to plan out that project I've been avoiding thinking about."
  • "A no-smoking sign on your cigarette break" --> "Maybe I'll finally be able to quit now that I can't be tempted during the workday."
  • "It's like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife" --> "Holy cow, ten thousand spoons? This is going on Instagram."
  • "It's meeting the man of my dreams, and then meeting his beautiful wife." --> "It's so great to know that kind men like him are out there. If the world could produce that guy, there must be many more like him!"

In The Happiness Advantage, psychologist Shawn Achor calls the ingrained patterns your mind unconsciously follows the "Tetris Effect." If you play Tetris for many hours a day, you tend to start seeing polygons and the gaps they could slot into everywhere. In your dreams, in brick walls, in city skylines. The visions are compulsive and uncontrollable. Unless, of course, you stop playing Tetris so much.

We see what our brains have been trained to expect to see. If it expects a world made up of falling polygons, it will impose that illogical vision over reality. If it expects a world made up of flaws, threats, and grave misfortunes, that's what you'll see everywhere, every day. Of course it's important to recognize flaws and threats, but an unhappy brain will attach outsized significance to them, like a Tetris-addled brain getting distracted by the silhouette of a skyscraper and ignoring the pretty sunset behind it.

People tend to say, "Reality check!" to mean a sobering reminder for people who are being too idealistic. But reality checks are equally needed for people who are being too pessimistic.

  • Is it really true that you do everything at the office, and your colleagues don't do anything to contribute? Or do they usually do their own jobs just fine, and you're upset about your lack of public recognition for a specific project?
  • Is it really true that the person you married has no good qualities? Or are you conveniently forgetting their romantic gestures and generous sacrifices to justify your anger over a particular issue?
  • Is it really true there's no way to find happiness where you live right now? Or are there opportunities for fun that you've been ignoring and recreational activities you've been too afraid to try?

It's not easy to stop playing Tetris, metaphorically speaking. But if you sternly tell your brain "no" every time it starts brooding or catastrophizing, it will eventually do that less and less, and start to automatically look for the bright side.