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When we don’t like the things we want and don’t want the things we like

Habits, States of mind

We tend to think of “wanting” and “liking” as being closely related: if we want something, then we will necessarily like it when we get it, and if we like something, then we will feel moved to action–or so the thinking goes.

People have been known to do some interesting things using this assumption, for instance working very hard to get somewhere in life, and then not liking where they are when they get there, or bingeing on a particular food and not enjoying a single bite.


gremlins: the real root of the problem?

So what’s going on here? Are we not enjoying things because we aren’t paying attention? Is it ennui? Are gremlins somehow involved?

The root of this matter is that liking and wanting are separate systems in the brain. Under normal, healthy circumstances, they’re pretty closely related: there’s a good chance that getting something we want will give us feelings of pleasure. But there are situations where they’re actually at odds with each other: the more we want something, the less pleasure it will give us when we get it. This is true of drug addiction, but also true of many other habitual behaviors, like overeating, compulsive shopping, and video game obsession.

The logical thing to assume (you would think) would be that people who overeat enjoy food more than people who don’t, and that’s why they overeat; or that people who max out their credit cards with unnecessary purchases enjoy getting a new pair of shoes a lot more than people who stay within their budgets. Yet when someone does something to excess, it often doesn’t look like they’re enjoying it more–it just looks like they’re more compelled–they want it more, but they don’t like it more.

And in fact, much of the brain chemistry of doing things to excess is the same whether we’re talking about watching too much TV or eating too many doughnuts or drinking too much coffee or shooting heroin: the more we overdo something, the less our brain reacts to dopamine release when we have that thing. Dopamine is a brain chemical that tends to make us feel calm and satisfied, and its normal purpose is to remind us to do things like eat and procreate, because if dopamine levels are low (as when we don’t do things we’ve evolved to want to do), we feel agitated. Doing too much of something makes our brain less receptive to dopamine, which means we require more of that thing to feel comfortable and happy. To someone who doesn’t drink much alcohol, one beer can be very satisfying–but to an alcoholic, one beer is barely noticeable.

There are at least two other reasons that we might want something we don’t like. First, there’s habit: if we do something very regularly, regardless of whether it makes us happy or not, our brains have reinforced the neurons devoted to that activity, and we will feel strongly inclined to keep doing it even if it doesn’t provide us any enjoyment or benefit.

And second, there are the broken ideas I’ve written about here before (more formally called “cognitive distortions”). These are things we tell ourselves that contain some kind of basic flaw. For instance, deciding that someone is a jerk and shouldn’t act toward us as they do can make us act unkindly toward that person, which can contribute to an increasingly aggravating relationship.

And what about not wanting things we do like? This is the effect of broken ideas again. For instance, we might have a task in front of us that seems very difficult,and think “There’s no way I can ever finish that, and it would be painful and awful to try”–when in fact, just getting started on the task can begin to relieve stress, and enough determination can get the entire task done, which can then deliver great benefits. Take for example cleaning out a room in the house that has long served as a “junk room.” Avoiding the junk room can be a continuing source of low-level stress, while getting it cleaned out can be very rewarding (especially after turning it into that home knitting studio we’ve been dreaming of having). Yet do we say to ourselves “Wow, I’m really excited to get that junk room cleaned out”? Not usually.


the junk room: shouldn't this be the kind of thing we can't wait to tackle?

Given these insights, that wanting and liking are not always in step with each other, what do we do about it? The simple answer is that we’re happier when we 1) question our wants and 2) remind ourselves of what actually makes us happy.  If an incident with a coworker makes you want to march into that person’s office and deliver a scathing review of their personal failings, it can be useful to think about whether you’ll really be happy doing that, or might ultimately be happier if you decide to calmly explaining what you didn’t like about the incident (maybe after a suitable cooling-off period). If you’re staring at a menu and feel inexorably drawn toward the buttered onion rings with fat sauce, it may be worth thinking about whether the minute or two that you are really enjoying those onion rings (after the first few bites, our enjoyment of food sometimes drops considerably) is going to be worth the over-full, sleepy feeling you’ll get soon after you eat them and the quarter pound heavier you’ll be as a result. Putting things in this kind of perspective can make doing things you’ll actually like much easier, bringing wanting and liking more in line.

Gremlin illustration by ibtrav
Junk room photo by Steve Jenkins

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Broken ideas and idea repair

Handling negative emotions, States of mind

As a rule, our culture tends to think of emotions as things that well up inside us in a way that’s more or less completely outside our control. We can avoid emotional situations, this point of view goes, or we can suppress them, but they are what we are, and thinking doesn’t enter into it.

mimeI’d like to demonstrate some very useful ways this is completely wrong. I’ll do it using, of course, a mime.

Let’s say our mime–for convenience, we can call him Raoul–is on his way to the park to do a little street performance on a sunny May afternoon. For his performance today, Raoul has purchased three dozen imaginary eggs, which he plans to juggle, balance on his nose, perform magic tricks with, etc. He is carrying the imaginary eggs in mime fashion when he slips on an imaginary banana peel on the sidewalk and crashes to the concrete, right on top of his eggs. Now Raoul is a mess, covered with imaginary egg. All of his eggs are ruined, so there go his performance plans for the day, and to top it off, the people in his otherwise fair city are so rude and thoughtless that they leave imaginary banana peels lying all over the place. Oh, and to make it worse, since it was an imaginary banana peel, clearly it was another mime who did it!

We would expect Raoul to get upset in one way or another. He could sit there, covered with smashed eggs, weeping, or he could fling the gooey, imaginary cartons around in fury, shouting silent curse words. And we probably wouldn’t blame him for this, because through someone else’s carelessness, he’s a mess and his day is ruined.

Now, it’s true that immediately when this happens, Raoul’s brain will start making associations, and brain chemicals will start influencing his behavior–notably adrenaline in response to the unexpected fall and the problems that it has suddenly caused. That helps set the stage, but at the same time Raoul’s brain is likely to be generating what are called “automatic thoughts”: emotionally laden and potentially misleading judgments about what has happened. They might include things like:

“I’m screwed! I needed those eggs for this performance, and if I don’t perform I won’t have enough money to pay the rent tomorrow, and then I’ll probably get kicked out of my apartment!”

“What kind of sick #$!(@ leaves imaginary banana peels lying around all over the sidewalk?”

“This is a disaster!”

These kinds of automatic thoughts are also called “cognitive distortions,” because they are a kind of thinking that encourages belief in things that aren’t true. I’ll use a different term for them, though: “broken ideas.” A broken idea is anything you think up that misleads you. But what’s misleading about the above? Isn’t Raoul just silently telling it like it is?

In all honesty, he isn’t. Raoul’s broken ideas are broken only subtly, but they’ll lead him down a path he doesn’t want to take. For instance, his predictions about being evicted are very likely wrong, even if he isn’t able to come up with every penny of the rent money on time, and the fact that he’s trying to predict the future rather than just evaluate his options is a major red flag. We can’t predict the future in most cases, so basing our actions on assumptions about what will happen tends to lead to badly-chosen actions. Anyway, even in the worst case scenario he can always show how he’s trapped in a box and unable to leave the apartment. This is one of the powers mimes have.

He’s also telling himself he needs the eggs for the performance, when in fact he probably just wants the eggs for the performance, and can either buy more eggs or do a different routine.

And he’s also labeling the banana peel leaver as a (please pardon me for repeating this bad language) “sick #$!(@,” which dehumanizes the person and could lead some real interpersonal problems (like being hit over the head repeatedly with an imaginary stick) if Raoul decides the perpetrator must have been a particular someone he knows and acts toward that person as though they were purposely going around and leaving imaginary banana peels for people to slip on.


So what’s wrong with these ideas is that they’re inaccurate, and more to the point, they tend to lead Raoul in the direction of making bad choices, like going to drown his sorrows in imaginary beer, or marching off to throttle a colleague who is a known banana afficianado. What would make Raoul happiest at the moment would be to somehow find a way to free himself of his anxiety and frustration at the incident, get him to think through what he’ll need to do to go ahead with his performance, and as soon as possible to get him to the park to charm half the passersby and infuriate the other half with his mimetic ways. This way his day could very rapidly get back on track, and no other trouble would need to come of the banana peel fiasco.

How does Raoul do this? We’ll tackle this in much better detail in other posts, but the basic steps are:

1. Relax, step back from the situation, and breathe
2. Use idea repair
3. Get on with your life

Idea repair, which takes some practice to learn but can be wonderfully effective once you have the basics down, is the process of reworking broken ideas to reflect the truth of the situation. For instance, “What kind of sick #$!(@ leaves imaginary banana peels lying around all over the sidewalk?” could be repaired to something like “As much as I wish they didn’t, sometimes people will leave imaginary banana peels on the sidewalk, so I’ll be better off if I’m on the lookout for them.”

Similarly, “This is a disaster!” could be repaired to “This is inconvenient and embarrassing, but if I take the right steps, I can get my day back on track.”

You might be amazed how much stress and distraction idea repair can sometimes clear away. I certainly have been ever since I first learned about the technique a decade or so ago.

Of course there’s much more that could be said on the subject, but that brief summation will have to do for now. I’ll leave you with this final comment from Raoul:


Huh. Well, that’s what I get for trying to quote a mime.

Mime photo by thecnote; banana peel photo by Black Glenn.

Postscript: As you may have noticed, I’m experimenting with a lighter writing style for posts. Up until now I’ve been making efforts to write seriously because I’m dealing with serious subjects, but I’ve come to think that a little humor might do more good than harm. I’d appreciate any comments you might have on this style of post.

LATER NOTE: I followed this article up in October with How to Detect Broken Ideas and How to Repair a Broken Idea, Step by Step.


Self-Control Fatigue

Habits, States of mind

This New York Times blog entry had at least two interesting pieces of information in it for me, echoing ideas I’d seen elsewhere. At the same time, it seemed to take a very narrow view of the subject of willpower: the studies they talk about look at body chemistry only, and while that’s an important part of the picture, it doesn’t offer nearly as many opportunities for improving self-motivation as the psychological parts of the picture do. After all, they’re about studies where groups of people are asked to do tasks they don’t care about, then either are or aren’t given some lemonade. These are very useful studies, but any time we look at this kind of information, it helps to remember that there are a lot of habits and thought processes going on that we’re not even touching.


Photograph by Palagret

So with that disclaimer, here are the things that might be most useful to us directly in understanding self-motivation:

First, we have a limited amount of energy and attention to give to self-motivation or changing habits at one time. If we try to push in too many directions at once, we’ll rapidly become fatigued and usually lose our grip on all of the pieces. This is why, generally speaking, self-motivation works best when we work on one and only one kind of goal at a time. This can sometimes include mutually supportive sub-goals, like working on both diet and exercise or physical organization and time management, but two very different goals will suck attention and energy away from each other unless at least one of them has already developed into a habit. Fortunately, we can develop a new habit and then move on to a new goal, so that over time we can address many goals.

The second useful point is that self-control draws energy from our body in the same way physical tasks do. It helps to be aware of this to understand when we’ll be capable of better self-motivation (which is to say, not when we’re hungry, distracted, or tired) and to understand that eating habits can directly affect how much we can motivate ourselves at any given time. For anyone working on weight loss, this is a point in favor of the “smaller meals, more often” approach.

The Times has several other interesting pieces on willpower that I’ll delve into in the near future.


  • Self-motivation is influenced both by our thinking and by our physical state
  • A little food energy can help boost self-motivation in the short term
  • We have a limited capacity for reversing our habits, so to be effective, that effort has to be focused rather than used to try to change everything at once
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