Sunday, October 28, 2012


CC BY 2.5 tinou bao

Recently, I've been contemplating the idea of failure, in part because I've written a first draft of a novel, and I'm now taking it to critique groups to get other people's thoughts. My ultimate goal is to be published, but I know that not everyone who writes a novel gets published, and not all of it is because the novel isn't worthwhile. Sometimes the agent just doesn't see a market for what the author wrote. But, I digress.
I started out with the thought that I was going to write a blog post about reasons to fail. And, in general, there are some good reasons. For example, we learn from failure. James Dyson points out that he failed 5,126 times before he got his vacuum right, but each time he got closer to his goal. In her article on “Why We Should Fail Whenever Possible,” Mary Jaksch points out that failure can recommit us to our goal. Sometimes if we fail, it makes the idea of succeeding that much more important.
History is filled with stories of famous people's failures. For example, Albert Einstein didn't learn to speak until he was almost 4, and his teacher said he wouldn't amount to much. Oprah Winfrey was demoted from her job as a news anchor because of the way she looked. The Beatles were rejected by Decca Recordings because they didn't like their sound, and they said, “they have no future in show business.” Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper for not being creative enough. Talk about open mouth insert foot. Clearly, failing isn't the same as being a failure.
However, not everyone who works hard becomes rich and famous. I wanted to talk about the myth that if you just work hard enough you will be wealthy, or at least well off. I was reading an article called “The Invention of Failure: An Interview with Scott A. Sandage.” Mr. Sandage wrote a book about failure called, “Born Losers: A History of Failure in America.” Sandage points out that we can all think of people who don't work hard, but who are wealthy, Paris Hilton comes to mind. We can also think of people who work very hard but are barely able to make ends meet. Sandage says that there has been a change in the meaning of the word failure throughout the Industrial Revolution. The phrase, “I feel like a failure,” would never appear in American writing before 1860. However, due to several factors, including the creation of credit rating, we began to associate lack of wealth with moral failings. Phrases such as “A number 1,” “good for nothing,” “second rate” and “of no account” all came from credit rating terminology, but later turned into idioms describing a person's identity. Before the Civil War, one wouldn't say, “I am a failure,” instead one would say, “I made a failure,” meaning he went bankrupt. This phrase, “I made a failure,” has very different implications compared to those of the contemporary phrase, “I am a failure.” Making a failure meant that someone overreached and was too ambitious. As opposed to today, when failure is often defined as someone who doesn't do enough and who lacks ambition.
So what does that mean for our culture now? Well, in part, it means that we've created a culture in which success and failure are measured in dollar bills. I was watching the Colbert Report from October 11th, and he had on guest Chrystia Freeland who studied the ultra-rich, or “Plutocrats.” In the interview with Colbert she talks about how we all recognize that we live in a winner-take-all society. She gives the example of people trying to get their kids into the very best pre-school they possibly can because they want them to eventually get good jobs and thus be successful. There's a large argument in the field of education that we teach our children to be afraid of failure, and thus being afraid to try new things. We want the best for our families and ourselves, which is why we are constantly striving to surpass the others around us.
Yet, we have to recognize that not all can be in the top 1% of wealth, it's statistically impossible. We all want to be successful, which by definition usually means wealthy. Even though we know that past the point of middle-class, increased wealth doesn't increase our happiness. To me, this sounds similar to my struggle with sugary foods. I may at one moment want a milk chocolate bar with almonds and Himalayan salt, but I know that in the long run it doesn't get me what I want. I may want to be rich, but in the end it doesn't mean I'll be happy. It doesn't even mean I'm a good person. It just means I have money.
My point isn't: give up, you'll never be wealthy or that you shouldn't keep striving to become better. No far from it. I'm still going to try to get published and become a well-known author. Einstein, Walt Disney, The Beatles wouldn't have been great if they didn't keep trying. My point is more that we should have a wider definition of success. I have a friend who sees success in the journey, and I really want to cultivate a perspective like hers. She's a writer as well, and she says that she is successful just because she wrote a book and sent it to an agent. The book got rejected by that agent, but that doesn't make her a failure. I want that perspective. I want not to see success solely in terms of dollar bills but in the journey I take in my life.
I guess my point is of both perseverance and acceptance. We keep going, keep growing, to become more than what we are. (If you read my post last week, you also might recognize that this is one way to increase our overall happiness). But if we fall short, if you don't become a famous rapper, basketball star, or writer, you shouldn't see yourself as a failure. I think we should take success out of terms of business, and put it in terms of community. Are you successful at being a father/mother? Friend? Spouse? Focusing on success in terms of community seems to be a good start to stopping the winner-take-all mentality that we have encouraged in our culture. Focusing on helping others also seems like a good way to increase happiness, and become a successful person, not just a successful businessman/businesswoman.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Evolutionary Psychology Tips on How to be Happier

CC BY 2.5 bdking

I've had a very stressful week this week, thus, I'm posting on Saturday, as opposed to Tuesday or Wednesday. I work at a hotline for domestic violence and sexual assault, which is both rewarding and stressful. (It's rewarding knowing I'm helping others; it's stressful constantly having to tell people that there aren't that many resources out there to help them get out of their situation, and the resources that are out there are stretched thin.) Add to that the fact that I'm absolutely failing at my diet, my husband and I are talking about moving and buying a house for the first time, and that the holidays are coming up. Mix it all up, add a dash of sleep-deprivation, and voila! A perfect recipe for a crying girl. 
This week, instead of doing a post about physical health, I thought I'd do a post about psychological health. Because I'm me -- weird, quirky, and downright strange -- I didn't want to do the normal tips on self-care. (I think we've all heard them: take a break, exercise, go for a walk, get a massage, etc...They're good tips, and something to keep in mind, but I've also heard them hundreds of times.) I wanted to give tips that are a little strange, but effective. So what did I do? I went to my college notes on evolutionary psychology. Odd, I know, but what would you have done?
What I found were my evolutionary psychology professor's tips on how to be happier. They basically break down into two categories: progress and expectations.
The basic argument for progress is that our brains are wired to reward progress and punish failure. This is believed to come from the environment of evolutionary adaptation (EEA). The thought is that if you were a caveman (or cavewoman) and you relaxed in a time of abundance you would be screwed when the next famine came. Instead, our reptilian brains give us a short-term dopamine reward when we succeed, like getting a raise, but after a while that reward diminishes, and we go back to trying to get the next reward. This would be useful in the EEA because instead of just relaxing in a time of abundance, you would be working, trying to get yourself ready for the next famine. Not surprisingly, some games use this to keep you addicted to playing. (Think about leveling up in an online game, and how good it makes you feel.)
On the flip side is the fact that our brain punishes us when we fail. We all know the feeling of failure. It sucks. I felt that way this week with my diet and not getting my post out on time. However, the good news is that it is not in our evolutionary interest to be debilitatingly depressed. Thus, our brain eventually turns off the shame, and we go back to the same level of happiness where we were before the failure. A famous example of this is Christopher Reeves. Reeves was asked to rate his happiness before and after his horse accident, the one that left him paralyzed and unable to play Superman. Surprisingly, Reeves rated his happiness as pretty much the same both before the accident and after. The truth is that after some big event (a horrible accident, or even winning the lottery) our happiness level changes, but eventually we level back out again. My evolutionary psychology teacher argued that most people who commit suicide after a horrible event do so within the first week of the event, because they can't imagine ever being happy again.
The second category is about expectation. There is a simple equation that explains this:
Outcome - Expectation = Happiness
I think this is very easy to understand. If you have high expectations for something, and they are not met, you tend to be disappointed. If you have low expectations for something and it turns out to be great, you feel awesome.
Here are six tips from evolutionary psychology on how to be happier:
  1. Buy friends and family members small gifts that are not tied to holidays or birthday. The gift receiver will be happier because it surpasses expectations. Yes, giving gifts unexpectedly makes other people happy, which in turn makes you happy. That is, if they don't feel suspicious that you are trying to butter them up for something. 
  2. You should change activities in your exercise program when your performance starts to plateau. You will be happier when you are showing progress at an activity. We tend to get a lot of gain in the first few weeks, but then we hit a plateau. Change your activity so you can see bigger results. For example, once you hit a plateau in biking, change to running. There is also the benefit that physical activity releases endorphins and that in itself makes you feel better.
  3. On your to-do list, divide jobs into explicit small chunks that will allow you to experience progress. The task pack up the house, is kind of daunting, and will be on your to-do list for a long long time before it's done. Instead, put something like “pack up guest bathroom today”. The knowledge that you have gotten one thing off your to-do list will give you a mental feeling of progress, which will make you feel good.
  4. Under promise, over deliver. Tell your boss a project will take two weeks, and get it done in one. Tell your friend you are running 20 minutes late, and get there in 12. 
  5. Lying around accomplishing nothing is unlikely to make you happy. Happiness comes from accomplishing goals. Researchers gave participants beepers, and every time their beeper went off participants had to write down what they were doing and how happy they were. Surprisingly, people were most happy when they were at work, especially if they were actively and productively engaged in a project and experiencing flow (if you don't know what flow is, look here for the definition).
  6. A career with advancement opportunities will make you happier than a better-paying job with no chance of promotion. Once again, people like progress. If you get a job that pays you well, but you can't go anywhere with it, you're likely not to feel as happy about it down the line as someone who gets a job that doesn't pay as well, but that has growth potential in the job.
Anyway, let me know what you think about the evolutionary tips on happiness. Do you think they are useful? Obvious? Do you think they could help you?

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Shrimp Filled Avocado Boats

Mmmmm. Delicious avocado boats.

I love these avocado boats! They are rich and creamy, and taste absolutely decadent. This recipe is great if you are craving sugar, because healthy fats can help reduce sugar cravings (look here and here).
I came up with the idea by modifying a recipe I had at a sushi bar. The sushi bar had an avocado boat with shrimp, crab, and wasabi mayonnaise. I was going to try to replicate it, when my mind switched to other things I had in my refrigerator, such as cilantro and chipotles in adobo sauce. Instead of replicating the recipe, I decided to make a more “Mexican” version. And the result? It was sooooo good. Anyway, try it and let me know what you think.

What you will need to make these shrimp avocado boats
Chipotle Mayonnaise
  • 2 whole eggs
  • the juice of 1 lemon
  • 2 chipotles in adobo sauce
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 cup pure coconut oil, melted

  • 8 oz cooked shrimp, deveined, peeled, and chopped (I just buy a bag of frozen peeled shrimp, and put some in boiling water until the shrimp are pink, but not chewy)
  • 1/3 cup cilantro, chopped
  • 3 radishes, diced
  • ½ lime juice
  • 2 Tablespoons of chipotle mayonnaise
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 large firm avocado
Ingredients needed for the filling.
  1. In a blender, blend together the eggs, lemon juice, chipotles, salt, and pepper until smooth.
  2. With the blender running, slowly drizzle in the coconut oil.
  3. Voila! Chipotle mayonnaise.
  4. In a bowl blend together the chopped shrimp, cilantro, radishes, lime juice, chipotle mayonnaise, salt, and pepper.
  5. Cut the avocado in half, removing the pit.
  6. Cut off the rounded bottom of the avocado, so it will sit easily on the plate.
  7. Fill the two avocados with the shrimp mixture.
  8. Squeeze left over lime juice over the top, if you like.
  9. Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Bad Reaction to Research: Why Moderation is Important

CC BY 2.5 anacleaver_2000

When I was getting my Bachelors degree in psychology, I had to take a class called “Biopsychology”. The class was very interesting, focusing mostly on how the structures of the brain influence behavior. One of the gems wedged in the book was a chapter on eating and hunger, called “Why Do Many People Over Eat?” Now, I'm kind of a geek, and I'm very curious about health, eating, and diets. When I saw this chapter, I was really excited about going over it in class. I wanted to know why people would overeat, so that I could apply this knowledge to my own life, and, hopefully, lose weight.
The author of Biopsychology, John J.P. Pinel, makes it very clear that our bodies are designed for storing as much energy as they can, not for giving us the ideal amount of energy as we need it, writing, “you may believe your body is short of energy just before a meal, it is not” (1). Pinel points to the environment that our ancestors had to survive in. He argues that if our bodies were designed for using all energy immediately, our ancient predecessors would have starved during long winters or famines.
Now, I will talk about several studies, but stay with me, there's a method to my madness, or at least, there is this time. Other times...I make no promises.
To illustrate his case that hunger is more than a regulation of energy Pinel writes about R.H., a patient with severe anterograde amnesia. Researchers offered R.H. his favorite meal: veal parmigiana and apple juice. Fifteen minutes after R.H. had finished eating (and had forgotten his previous meal), researchers offered him another meal of veal parmigiana and apple juice. Again, R.H. ate it. They offered it a third time with the same result, and a fourth, at which point, he refused saying “his stomach felt a little tight.” Then, only minutes after R.H. had refused, he announced he was going for a walk and some veal parmigiana (2). The message here is clear, hunger is not motivated by a need for energy, but rather other reasons. In the book, Pinel makes the case the our hunger can be motivated by such things as our schedule, simply having food in front of us (would you say “no” to your favorite plate of food pipping hot and inches away from your face, even if you weren't hungry?) or by habit.
In another study on sham eating, Weingarten H. P., & Kulikovsky cut the esophagi of rats, connecting it with an external tube, so that anything the rats ate would not reach their stomachs. The researchers (whom you might be thinking are mad scientists at this point) had two groups: rats that had previously eaten a specific brand of rat chow (group A) and rats that had never eaten that brand of rat chow (group B). Group A was found to eat similar amounts of rat food as they had previously, even though none of the food was reaching their stomach. Group B, on the other hand, was found to eat more rat chow than group A. When researchers reconnected the rats esophagi to their stomachs, they found that group B ate similar amounts of food to when none of their food was reaching their stomach (3). This suggests that we eat based on experience, not based on how much food we need at that point in time.
After reading about these and other studies done on hunger, the message to me was clear: if you are overweight, it is because you eat too much, and in general, people eat much more than they need.
Now, I have always struggled with my weight, and like most women, I am very sensitive about it. Reading this chapter was like someone bashing me over the head with a large mallet while screaming, “stop eating so damn much!” That is to say, it was very unpleasant. Thus I decided that I would reduce my eating to so-many number of calories in a given meal, and I would not eat anything unnecessary (i.e. snacks, desserts, etc...) and I would lose weight. I would ignore my hunger pangs, after all, “the strong, unpleasant feelings of hunger that you may experience at meal times are not cries from your body for food; they are the sensation of your body's preparations for the expected homeostasis-disturbing meal” (1). Translation: eating a meal is rough on your body.
So I did it. I ignored my hunger pangs, ate relatively little, and was absolutely and completely miserable.
For two whole weeks I was grumpy, irritable, and had a headache that would not go away.
Let me repeat that.
It. Would. Not. Go. Away.
Two weeks.
I was miserable. I couldn't sleep at night because I was so hungry. I wanted more food in a way that mentally talking myself out of it couldn't curb. Yet, the research resounded in my head. I was overweight because I ate too much. I did not need more energy. My body had energy to use in the form of fat. I would not die from this diet, I just wished I would.
One day, I was talking to my sister on the phone. I was going on and on about all the research I had recently read, and how I was trying to incorporate it into my life, and how I felt sick and awful. On and on I went, until finally my sister stopped me. “Katerina, eat when you're hungry, stop when you're not.” Simple. Easy. Non-headache inducing. And like that, I was free from my research malaise.
CC BY 2.5 Marcin Wichary
Now, let me be clear. I am not recommending eating large quantities of food every day all day, or that we should not listen to what research has to say. My point is moderation. Research may suggest that we eat too much, or that by reducing the amount of food we eat, the longer our life will be, but really, who wants to live constantly hungry and obsessing over food?

1. Pinel, J. (2009). Biopsychology. (7th ed.). New York: Custom Publishing.
2. Rozin, P., Dow, S., Moscovitxh, M., & Majaram, S. (1998). What causes humans to being and end a meal? A role for memory for what has been eaten, as evidence by a study of multiple meal eating in amnesic patients. Psychological Science, 9, 392-392.
3. Weingarten H. P., & Kulikovsky, O.T. (1989). Taste-to postingestive consequence conditioning: Is the rise in sham feeding with repeated experience a learning phenomenon? Physiology & Behavior, 45, 471-476