Essay: On The Fear of Missing Out

I’ve been keeping an inspirational journal. Every day, I write my thoughts on a cheesy prompt. I keep it hidden because it’s full of hollow platitudes and dumb ideas. But today something good came out of it:

And in the end it’s not the years in your life
that count, it’s the life in your years.
—Abraham Lincoln

Describe how you live each day to the fullest,
and what you can do to enjoy life more.

I’d say that I rarely ‘live life to the fullest.’

On those rare occasions that I do, it’s a day that manages to include being useful (whether or not for monetary gain), physically active (maintenance), and able to spend time with friends. Very rarely does a day include all of those things with enough time to catch enough sleep for the next day.

Furthermore, deciding to spend your time in any given way guarantees that you’re missing out on something else worthwhile. The cliche ‘so much to do, so little time’ is an expression of disappointment in the fact that no one can be two places at once. Life’s greatest challenge is to make peace with this.

It’s incredibly difficult to confront the feeling ‘I’m missing out on this, this, and this!’ and genuinely feel satisfied with what you are doing. But I must assume that being content with what you are doing instead of what you could be doing is, if not happiness itself, the prerequisite for contentment.

To be young is to feel these feelings.

“The Big Switch” by Nicholas Carr

This book was written in 2008. Although that was an eternity ago in digital years, the question this book begs is still pertinent: namely, how will our world be transformed as computing power increases and gets cheaper? To answer this, Carr first turns to the history of electricity, and it’s shift from an energy source generated on demand to a widely-available utility.

Computing is similar to electricity in that once it is freely available it can be used to accomplish a wide variety of tasks. Alternating between historical narrative and speculation, Nicholas Carr proves as adept at recreating the past as he is at envisioning the future.


Quotes and Anecdotes: The 19th Century Ice Trade, Digital Sharecropping, and The Great Unbundling.
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Required Reading, 4th Week of September 2015

Throughout the week, I read a LOT of online articles. What follows are the two I found most interesting:

Miracle Healers, via The Economist—A disturbing look at the profitable and unregulated market for nutritional supplements:

Strangely, it was regulations which gave the industry its biggest lift. In the 1990s the FDA considered new rules for supplements’ health claims. “It set off a firestorm,” remembers David Kessler, the FDA’s commissioner at the time. “The industry understood there were billions of dollars at stake.” Lobbyists framed the issue as one of personal liberty. Bureaucrats would rob Americans of both vitamins and the freedom to care for themselves.

The result was a law that covered not just vitamins and minerals, but botanicals, amino acids, enzymes, metabolites and pills made from animal organs. The 1994 law let firms sell supplements without requiring the FDA’s approval for safety or efficacy. It also, for the first time, authorised firms to tout health benefits. They cannot claim that their pills can diagnose, prevent, treat or cure a disease, but they may make vague claims that it “supports a healthy heart” or is “essential for strong bones”, and so on. As a result, rather than restrain the firms, the law unleashed them. There are more than 20 times as many supplements on the market as there were in 1994.

Big Tech Has Become Way Too Powerfulvia The New York Times, Google’s ‘Don’t be evil’ mantra gets murky when they’re so politically powerful that they get to write the laws. This op-ed is so spot on I might as well get you started with the first three paragraphs:

CONSERVATIVES and liberals interminably debate the merits of “the free market” versus “the government.” Which one you trust more delineates the main ideological divide in America.

In reality, they aren’t two separate things. There can’t be a market without government. Legislators, agency heads and judges decide the rules of the game. And, over time, they change the rules. The important question, too rarely discussed, is who has the most influence over these decisions and in that way wins the game.

Two centuries ago slaves were among the nation’s most valuable assets, and after the Civil War, perhaps land was. Then factories, machines, railroads and oil transformed America. By the 1920s most working Americans were employees, and the most contested property issue was their freedom to organize into unions.

Now information and ideas are the most valuable forms of property. Most of the cost of producing it goes into discovering it or making the first copy. After that, the additional production cost is often zero. Such “intellectual property” is the key building block of the new economy. Without government decisions over what it is, and who can own it and on what terms, the new economy could not exist.

Kaufman’s Folly is Everyone’s Folly

At some point growing up, I realized that I was neither as bright as Captain Kirk or sharp as Han Solo. It sounds mad that a 3rd grader would hold himself to such high standards but I’m sure most people end up doing that as well. The worlds we see in movies and on TV are so tightly scripted that their character’s real-life foibles  are eliminated if they aren’t relevant to the plot. And so, I’m afraid that even fantasy worlds can make us feel bad about ourselves.

Alain de Botton’s wonderful TED talk about status anxiety touches on some anecdotes for these media-generated feelings of inadequacy:

“It’s probably as unlikely that you would nowadays become as rich and famous as Bill Gates, as it was unlikely in the 17th century that you would accede to the ranks of the French aristocracy. But the point is, it doesn’t feel that way. It’s made to feel, by magazines and other media outlets, that if you’ve got energy, a few bright ideas about technology, a garage — you, too, could start a major thing.”

Better yet, pick up de Botton’s book, Status Anxiety. His writing is as eloquent and it is thoughtful, and it’s cheaper than therapy.

Required Reading, 3rd Week of September 2015

Throughout the week, I read a LOT of online articles. What follows are the three most interesting I found this week:

Underwater treasures: 10 stunning vintage photos of the American Dreamvia CNN, I enjoy Americana, especially from 1930-1980. Old photographs are a glimpse back into a world both the same as today, and utterly different. These advertisements are examples of the marketing campaign to sell 1940s and 1950s America as an ideal and innocent time, an impression that lingers on today.

Why Do We Admire Mobsters?via The New Yorker, A psychological explanation for my ‘good old days’ nostalgia: “Ultimately, the mob myth depends on psychological distance, a term coined by the New York University psychologist Yaacov Trope to describe the phenomenon of mental distancing that takes place when we separate ourselves from events, people, emotions, or concepts. In some cases, that distance comes naturally. As painful events recede into the past, our perceptions soften; when we physically remove ourselves from emotionally disturbing situations, our emotions cool. In other cases, we need to deliberately cultivate distance—to “gain perspective.” Trope likens it to the old cliché of missing the forest for the trees: you can wander around in the trees forever or, through training or external intervention, realize that you need to step back to see the full vista.

Once attained, psychological distance allows us to romanticize and feel nostalgia for almost anything. It provides a filter, eliminating some details and emphasizing others. We speak of the good old days, hardly ever of the bad. Psychological distance is, among other things, a coping mechanism: it protects against depression and its close cousin, rumination, which pushes us to dwell too long on unpleasant details from the past instead of moving forward. When, instead, we smooth the edges of the past, remembering it as better than it was, we end up hoping for an equally happy future.”

Why the U.S. Government Is Embracing Behavioral Sciencevia Harvard Business Review, Behavioral science shows promise in making everyday tasks more efficient (assuming they’re engineered responsibly). “Public policy has often relied on assumptions of rationality when accounting for human behavior, which has led to suboptimal policies in the past. For example, citizens are sometimes bombarded by mass-media campaigns (designed to decrease smoking, increase seat-belt use, etc.) that assume they will be able to process an onslaught of messages to their best advantage. But such campaigns often have not worked, and may even have backfired at times.”

Common Cognitive Distortions

From Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s fantastic article ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’ in this month’s Atlantic. The piece is presented as an alarmist think-piece about censorship in higher ed, but is actually a manual on cognitive behavioral therapy:

For millennia, philosophers have understood that we don’t see life as it is; we see a version distorted by our hopes, fears, and other attachments. The Buddha said, “Our life is the creation of our mind.” Marcus Aurelius said, “Life itself is but what you deem it.” The quest for wisdom in many traditions begins with this insight. Early Buddhists and the Stoics, for example, developed practices for reducing attachments, thinking more clearly, and finding release from the emotional torments of normal mental life.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is a modern embodiment of this ancient wisdom. It is the most extensively studied nonpharmaceutical treatment of mental illness, and is used widely to treat depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and addiction. It can even be of help to schizophrenics. No other form of psychotherapy has been shown to work for a broader range of problems. Studies have generally found that it is as effective as antidepressant drugs (such as Prozac) in the treatment of anxiety and depression. The therapy is relatively quick and easy to learn; after a few months of training, many patients can do it on their own. Unlike drugs, cognitive behavioral therapy keeps working long after treatment is stopped, because it teaches thinking skills that people can continue to use.

The goal is to minimize distorted thinking and see the world more accurately. You start by learning the names of the dozen or so most common cognitive distortions (such as overgeneralizing, discounting positives, and emotional reasoning; see the list at the bottom of this article). Each time you notice yourself falling prey to one of them, you name it, describe the facts of the situation, consider alternative interpretations, and then choose an interpretation of events more in line with those facts. Your emotions follow your new interpretation. In time, this process becomes automatic. When people improve their mental hygiene in this way—when they free themselves from the repetitive irrational thoughts that had previously filled so much of their consciousness—they become less depressed, anxious, and angry.

Common Cognitive Distortions

A partial list from Robert L. Leahy, Stephen J. F. Holland, and Lata K. McGinn’sTreatment Plans and Interventions for Depression and Anxiety Disorders (2012).

1. Mind reading. You assume that you know what people think without having sufficient evidence of their thoughts. “He thinks I’m a loser.”

2. Fortune-telling. You predict the future negatively: things will get worse, or there is danger ahead. “I’ll fail that exam,” or “I won’t get the job.”

3. Catastrophizing.You believe that what has happened or will happen will be so awful and unbearable that you won’t be able to stand it. “It would be terrible if I failed.”

4. Labeling. You assign global negative traits to yourself and others. “I’m undesirable,” or “He’s a rotten person.”

5. Discounting positives. You claim that the positive things you or others do are trivial. “That’s what wives are supposed to do—so it doesn’t count when she’s nice to me,” or “Those successes were easy, so they don’t matter.”

6. Negative filtering. You focus almost exclusively on the negatives and seldom notice the positives. “Look at all of the people who don’t like me.”

7. Overgeneralizing. You perceive a global pattern of negatives on the basis of a single incident. “This generally happens to me. I seem to fail at a lot of things.”

8. Dichotomous thinking. You view events or people in all-or-nothing terms. “I get rejected by everyone,” or “It was a complete waste of time.”

9. Blaming. You focus on the other person as the source of your negative feelings, and you refuse to take responsibility for changing yourself. “She’s to blame for the way I feel now,” or “My parents caused all my problems.”

10. What if? You keep asking a series of questions about “what if” something happens, and you fail to be satisfied with any of the answers. “Yeah, but what if I get anxious?,” or “What if I can’t catch my breath?”

11. Emotional reasoning. You let your feelings guide your interpretation of reality. “I feel depressed; therefore, my marriage is not working out.”

12. Inability to disconfirm. You reject any evidence or arguments that might contradict your negative thoughts. For example, when you have the thought I’m unlovable, you reject as irrelevant any evidence that people like you. Consequently, your thought cannot be refuted. “That’s not the real issue. There are deeper problems. There are other factors.”

“The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations” by Larry Tye

Edward Bernays is hailed by many to be the founder of Public Relations as a discipline. Whether or not that is true, he certainly was it’s first major intellectual and figurehead. He was the nephew of Sigmund Freud, and applied his psychology to the masses in order to drive them to buy things. His approach was to influence people to adopt a lifestyle that would necessitate them buying the product he was pitching, rather than appealing to common sense. Among other things, he figured out how to popularize cigarettes, even though he himself never smoked, made bacon and eggs breakfast food, and was the brain behind dozen of other advertising campaigns that still to this day define ‘normal’.

Larry Tye is a critical biographer who manages to maintain a respect for his subject even while pointing out his many personal flaws and inconsistencies. For instance, he was a social butterfly without close friends. He didn’t spend time with his children. He adored hos wife but neglected and suppressed her, even while advocation women’s liberation. The book leaves you unsure of who this man was and why he did what he did, but no doubt that he continues to have a profound influence on American life.

Also check out the fantastic documentary, “The Century Of The Self”

Quotes and Anecdotes:  The Wisdom of Edward Bernays
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