Mood shifts

Wherein I opine on the nature of mood shifts and the value of different states of mind.

I had major depression from about age 20 to 23. I was functional the whole time and so I’m never quite sure how serious it was. I simultaneously felt desperately miserable and completely dismissive of my own evaluation of my misery. I thought that I was somehow imagining being miserable; that real misery was too good for me somehow. Therapy and drugs made a big dent in whatever it was, though. I could tell because I recognized the self that emerged from the treatment as my old self.

Reflecting on different phases of my depression is difficult, because I find myself in a whole different frame of reference when my mood shifts. It’s hard to embody memories from radically different mood contexts. I still have the semantic content, but it doesn’t have the same emotional meaning. I’m still making sense of the whole experience, and how that relates to a different and more foreign phase: blithe happiness.

Blithe happiness is, unfortunately, for me a very selfish mood. I feel my own emotions more acutely, and they crowds out everyone else’s. My thoughts don’t stray to distant people and places the way they used to. I feel more selfishly invested in myself than I do when I am depressed. I’m afraid I’ll lose sight of the big picture that I saw when I felt like the one speck among billions instead of feeling like the star on a stage with billions of extras. Maybe there’s just more to lose than when I felt like a shadow of myself. Or maybe depressive thinking isn’t all wrong. I can’t help but feel that I grokked something deep and true during my depression, and I’m afraid that I’m losing the in-my-bones understanding that I had in a depressed state.

I’m trying to understand what my brain seems to think is desirable about this state.

When I realized I was depressed, it was like slowly coming to on another planet. I didn’t know that could happen, that you could just find yourself in another mental environment altogether. It’s not the emotions that changed– though that happened, too– it’s that you can’t remember anything else. The wallpaper of the mind is suddenly different and you realize you never noticed what was there before. It’s like color constancy. At first, nobody can believe that The Dress could look black and blue AND gold and white, but then they see it flip. Part of overcoming depression for me was learning the ins and outs of these illusions.

The Dress

But at first it just seems like what was white is now blue, and gold is now black. I took what my brain was telling me at face value– the world, and I in particular, had become awful. Since then, I’ve realized that these context shifts happen all the time, and probably happened all the time before I learned to notice it. My mind just confabulated at any given moment that I had always felt whatever I felt then, which gives a false impression of continuity.

The feeling of alienation from my old self and from my body (dissociation) was one of the scarier parts of depression, but it’s also somewhat self-protective. One theory of dissociation/derealization is that it’s a defense mechanism against the intense negativity of depressed emotions. It’s like a psychological immune response that can get out of control and become part of the problem when you can’t zoom in anymore and focus on yourself. Seems a major part of my life will be learning to turn that focus dial. Or maybe just to accept the whole picture for what it is without being able to see everything clearly.


Depressive altruism and feet of clay

Thou, O king, sawest, and behold a great image. This great image, whose brightness was excellent, stood before thee; and the form thereof was terrible.
This image’s head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass,
His legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay. (Daniel 2:31-33 describing Nebuchadnezzar)

Now I see what people mean when they act like EAs haven’t “earned the right” to care about faraway people. On some level, they are right. Our bodies have limits, and our bodies support our brains. Caring about increasingly abstract things takes a lot of mental and emotional energy. If you don’t have a stable base that replenishes your energy, you’re draining the principal. The principal is eventually lost anyway, no matter its size, when you die, so you shouldn’t store it up forever. And sometimes it pays to take risky bets; to gamble the principal. But you’ll live a walking death if you mortgage yourself for others and you can’t make the payments. A zombie, no matter how pure its intentions, is not much help to others. The best thing a zombie can do for everyone is stop and take care of itself.

Some people are better or worse at interpreting their body’s signals– hunger, thirst, heat, cold, pain, etc. Some people put too much stock in these signals and take more resources than they need to deal with them. We say someone is selfish when they are unwilling to bear their own pain and hassles to spare others the trouble. The opposite of selfishness is not effective altruism. It’s asceticism. It’s a level of self-denial that becomes reality-denial. All of our bodies have needs, and if those needs are not met, then you’re standing on feet of clay.

Some people really are too selfish. They can afford to help others, and their own lives would probably be richer if they did help others. But some people have a tendency to deny their needs (EAs often fall in this camp). And they build increasingly elaborate structures on a shaky foundation. They have feet of clay.  Nebuchadnezzar had an undeserved ego– a head of gold  on top of arms of silver all the way down to feet of clay. Some EAs, recently including me, have an unsteady superego. It comes from a beautiful impulse to help others, but if the foundation is not sturdy enough to support it, we’ll collapse under the weight of the world. We can’t neglect to take care of ourselves when our goal is to use ourselves to take care of others.

I didn’t mean for the above to sound didactic. I’m sharing this because I recently went through a crisis from pushing myself too hard. When I’m in a bad state, I move toward self-denial that easily disguises itself as altrustic sentiment. I’m writing this to share, but also to remind myself when I need to step back and care for myself.

Launched my podcast

I can’t believe I forgot to post this to my blog, but I just posted the first episode of my podcast with Ales Flidr, the Turing Test (the podcast of the Harvard Effective Altruism student groups) on Saturday.


The first guest is Larry Summers and there’s a lot more coming up 🙂

Subscribe here and like our facebook page if you want to support it.

I’ll probably write about lessons learned on this blog soon. Suffice to say that editing a podcast is a great way to become extremely aware of how you sound…

Migraines: the sword of Damocles

“So, Damocles, since this life delights you, do you wish to taste it yourself and make trial of my fortune?”

When Damocles said that he desired this, Dionysius gave orders that the man be placed on a golden couch covered with a most beautiful woven rug, embroidered with splendid works; he adorned many sideboards with chased silver and gold; then he gave orders that chosen boys of outstanding beauty should stand by his table and that they, watching for a sign from Damocles, should attentively wait on him; there were unguents and garlands; perfumes were burning; tables were piled up with the most select foods. Damocles seemed to himself fortunate.

In the middle of this luxury Dionysius ordered that a shining sword, fastened from the ceiling by a horse-hair, be let down so that it hung over the neck of that fortunate man. And so he looked neither at those handsome waiters nor the wonderful silver work, nor did he stretch his hand to the table. Now the very wreaths slipped off. Finally he begged the tyrant that he should be allowed to depart because he no longer wanted to be fortunate.

–Cicero’s Tusculan disputations 5.61, translation by Gavin Betts.

Migraines lurk behind every seemingly good thing. The sun is out? Migraine. Done with exams? Migraine. Great workout? Migraine. Exciting travel? You better believe there’s a migraine in store at the end. Do something random like catch a fluorescent light from a weird corner of my eye? Bonus migraine!

My migraines aren’t even that bad or frequent. I only get one or two that last about 6 hours every few months (for perspective, there are 4 million people who have 15 or more migraines per month). I have at least 15 minutes heads-up when I get aura, sometimes longer if I’m really paying attention to how I feel. The pain is manageable if I can get to a dark, quiet room before the headache comes on and not have to talk to anyone while I ride it out. Sometimes I throw up, but only if I had to move too much after the onset.

The worst part is the psychological symptoms. If I’m not mindful of the pain creeping in, it tanks my mood and convinces me the world is nothing but aching and dissatisfaction. Sometimes I get migraines in my sleep and wake up in the headache stage. Waking up is always a relief, even though I’m still stuck with the pain, because it frees me from a limbo of desperate, tortured dreams inspired by the migraine. Even at the best of times– saw the migraine coming, got to safety, maximum pain mitigation– migraines bring me down. They are powerful and fickle god that I have to drop everything and appease.

No, my migraines are just bad enough, preventable enough, and come with just enough warning that worrying about them consumes a big part of my life. They are the sword of Damocles because they attend the good things in life. The threat of migraines tinges the most potent and exciting developments in my world. Throw myself into a project and live a little immoderately? Migraine. Should have seen that one coming. Big performance? What if I suddenly go blind? What if my face goes numb and I can’t even fake my way through? This is not even to get into the worries that my migraine symptoms are actuallly a stroke this time…

It’s easy for the migraine reward schedule to give my intuition the idea that there’s something vaguely sinister about exciting and happy things. I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop. I have to work hard to convince myself that migraines aren’t my punishment for getting uppity. (I should have known better than to go outside!!!) Fortunately, that idea doesn’t make any logical sense. Migraines are a nasty god whose power I need to respect, but the god’s jurisdiction is much smaller than the territory I let it occupy. 24-60 hours of my year are forfeit. I will spend those hours in bed (or in hell on earth: heaving up my guts in a train bathroom– whatever the case may be) trying not to provoke my tormentor any further. I don’t need to sacrifice any more of my life to this asshole in the hopes my meekness will move it to pity.

I may be stuck with migraines but I’m hereby opting out of crippling migraine dread. Let the sword fall. Because, in this case, “prevention” is worse than the disease.


You only have one life

…and you want to spend it on the couch playing video games???

Well, why not? It’s your only life to do that, too. It’s your only life to daydream, or to sleep in. It’s your only life for instant gratification. Arguably, having limited time is a reason not to delay reward or risk failure.

There are different kinds of pleasures to pursue, and some worthwhile rewards are at the end of long and bumpy roads. Challenges can be intrinsically rewarding. There are good reasons to be disciplined and delay gratification. But the fact that you have only one life isn’t really one of them.

This point has been made much more eloquently before me:

Nordstrom mud jeans: The competitive possibilities are endless

Reblogging my Dad!

Protecting Your Pocket

If Nordstrom’s $425 jeans with fake mud on them are real, they have already succeeded in getting folks talking about the retailer. Well played.

Just the beginning?

Unfortunately, it’s likely to drive jealous competitors to try to cash in themselves, and the results might not always be pretty.

Here are products we believe retailers should AVOID:

Tie with fast-food stain, $69.95. Goodbye stuffy and pretentious. Break the ice as a relaxed, confident Regular Guy with our eye-catching simulated grease stain on classic stripes or dated Paisley. (Barbecue Fan extra-long tie, $79.95.)

Pre-dandruffed blazer, $279.99. No more fretful sidelong glances or brushing for flakes. Put the whole dinner party at ease when your outfit says, “Let it snow!” Stop dreaming about the Aspen slopes and wear them.

Pits-ahoy dress shirts, $115.99. Send the signal you mean business at the office. Armpit stains show who’s putting in the sweat equity and who’s not. Available…

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The remembering self needs to get real about the experiencing self.

The remembering self needs to get real about the experiencing self. Momentary pleasures are not bad– what’s bad is not getting more of them. It seems to me like behavioral economics takes the remembering self at its word too often, especially the remembering self near death. Very often that view of one’s past and future is aspirational and warped. Do you really wish you spent less time on facebook? Or is it more that you wish you could think of yourself as the kind of person who spent less time on facebook? Or is it the wisdom to know that you would have been happier spending less time on facebook even though that’s not what you wanted? There are good reasons for spending less time on facebook, but the remembering self doesn’t have good reasons solely by virtue of being out of the moment. The remembering self exists in its own moment, an experiencing self that is experiencing memories, with its own good and bad incentives. It’s all too easy for the remembering self to want its own junk food– getting the benefits of feeling virtuous or accomplished– when it doesn’t have to do the work.

Delaying gratification is not always the right choice, all selves considered. (Though it’s safer to err in that direction, given that we tend to be drawn to whatever is most salient or enticing in the present.) From the safety of the relative future, the remembering self can judge the decisions of the experiencing self without really weighing present gratification against future gratification. Is the policy that the remembering self advocates really the best from the perspective of past moments?Further future moments? Some accomplishments are not worth the effort or sacrifice. (Again, we can expect “quitter talk” to tend to be a justification for abandoning worthwhile efforts, but that doesn’t make it automatically false.)

A person on their deathbed may wish they had lived a life they could be proud of now, but that’s just a wish to feel pleasure now, often at the expense of earlier selves. When people express regret, it’s just another experiencing self that wants satisfaction in the moment, but blames its dissatisfaction on past selves. If it’s right for the remembering self to want the pleasure/satisfaction of experiencing selves having made different choices in the past, then it’s right for the experiencing self to have wanted similarly “cheap” pleasure in a moment past.

The only way you can arbitrate between the desires of the experiencing and remembering self is to consider what course of action brings the greatest overall happiness across all moments (both perceptions and reflections on past perceptions and thoughts).

I’ve moved toward this understanding in tandem with appreciating the happiness and suffering of others, not as if it was my own, but as if it mattered as much as my own. Future me is not me. Neither is the me who wrote that sentence a few seconds ago. That self is consigned to memory. What matters is not that you experience the same thing as another self, or that from this moment you anticipate experiencing the same thing in the future, or that knowing about other selves’ suffering makes you uncomfortable, though these are all important ways in which we motivate ourselves to take action. What matters is that that happiness or suffering will be experienced. Your self is privileged, just like the present, because that’s where you happen to be. Neither your experiencing nor remembering self is past you. Past you is closed to you in much the same way as other people are. You could interpret this as a reason to feel distant from your past and future, but I think it’s more accurate to interpret it as a reason to feel closer to others by realizing how circumscribed any one experience is. Just like it’s not always right to sacrifice your happiness for others, and this policy would be disastrous if no one ever ended up benefitting from the sacrifice, it’s not always right to delay gratificiation for the pleasure of a future self.