Big Love: Loving from a Place of Authenticity and Courage

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When I was offered a chance to review ‘Big Love’ I was skeptical- The title seemed too touchy feely.  My specialty is reading, and sometimes reviewing, psychology books so I was not even sure it would make  good match. Also I had never heard of Scott Stabile and the PR blurb seemed too good to be true. However, as they say don’t judge a book by its cover. The book is a memoir cum advice from hard learned life lessons, and though its not a psychology based book, I could not find any contradictions with what psychology tells us about life and love. The need for vulnerability, courage and authenticity is all essential for love to inform our lives and all these shine throughout the book- the book, and Scott, leads by example.

Scott writes in a witty, humorous and genuine style and its a pleasure reading though the book, each of whose chapters are woven around an anecdote/story from the life of Scott and end up with practical life lessons, tips, attitude changes with which you can benefit.

Scott has had his share of adventures, and misadventures, including writing the screenplay for a Hollywood film that bombed, losing his parents to murder when just 14, or having to deal with his brother’s and roommates addiction/ overdose as also having a strong Facebook community and being a member of a cult for 13 years – however its not the experiences themselves but what he has done with the experiences that make this book stand out.

I hope his efforts at spreading love get even bigger and this book finds the right readership.

The Four Kinds of Happiness

I have written previously about four major goals that one pursues in life: to recap they are Happiness, Success, Meaning and Morality. I have increasingly come to regard them as forming a stage wise progression- one moves from Happiness to Success to Meaning to Morality.

Aristotle

Aristotle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Its important to clarify here that by Happiness I mean here pleasure or the Pleasant life, as contrasted with the Successful life, the Meaningful life or the Virtuous life. Refer the Life Orientation Profile by Paul TP Wong.

One can even say that initially as a child/ adolescent, one is primarily driven by pleasant life; then in early adulthood the focus is on achieving success; in late adulthood the focus shifts to helping others and connecting to a bigger whole (meaning) and finally in old age the focus is entirely on being moral/spiritual.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that thousands of years earlier, Aristotle too had delineated four kinds of happiness worth striving for, I am mixing that with the three levels of happiness as elaborated by Nettle in his book Happiness: the science behind your smile.

  1. Laetus: Happiness derived from material objects; this is the domain of material and sensual pleasures; its also the domain of felt emotions on a day to day basis. The idea is to maximize positive emotions and minimize negative emotions. People primarily driven by this have the pleasant life orientation. These are momentary feelings of joy and pleasure as per Nettle. I refer to this as happiness in the colloquial sense.
  2. Felix: Happiness comes from ego gratification, being compared with others and coming out on top; this is the domain of achievement and competition. There is a lot of social comparison involved; you evaluate your life with reference to the life of others. Life satisfaction is a construct proper in this domain, where you implicitly compare yourselves with others and having more money can help you feel better here. People primarily driven by this have the successful life orientation. These are judgements or evaluations about feelings as per Nettle; your life satisfaction arises from how you perceive you are feeling relative to others. I refer to this as Success.
  3. Beatitudo: Happiness comes from helping others, and making the world a better place; this is the domain of altruism and co-operation. The orientation shifts from self to others.  There is drive towards generativity,  of living a meaningful life. People need to feel that their lives have meaning and they are contributing to a greater cause. People primarily driven by this have meaningful life orientation. These represent higher level of meaning as per Nettle. I refer to this as Meaning.
  4. Sublime Beatitudo: Happiness comes from being a moral person; experiencing moral joy of being a transcendent person whose nature is unconditional love.  There is drive towards living life in harmony with ones deepest values. People primarily driven by this have a virtuous life orientation. I refer to this as morality/ Integrity.

What is interesting is that one can find tantalizing neural and chemical correlates of above four kinds of happiness, I am extending the FTI model of Helen Fisher to happiness domain:

  1. Pleasant life: Material pleasure is associated with Dopamine system. All sorts of pleasure or rewards are associated with dopamine. Thus pleasure= dopamine. On the flip side, endorphins that are anti-pain may also be associated with this system. The focus is squarely on maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. Helen fisher also calls this the curious/energetic temperament.
  2. Successful life: Achievement and competitiveness are strongly associated with Testosterone system. All sorts of aggression and active competition can be traced to high testosterone. On the flip side, when the other party is too strong (say a predator), then if one wants to do something other than passive freezing, then flight or fight system kicks in and adrenaline (epinephrine) calls the shots. The focus is on winning/ fighting and succeeding. Helen Fisher calls this analytical/ tough-minded temperament.
  3. Meaningful life: Helping others and cooperation are strongly related to estrogen/Oxytocin system. All sorts of cuddling, bonding and trusting happens as a result of oxytocin and vasoprassin. On the flip side, I speculate that excessive self-centredeness may result in endocannaboid release and may also be part of this system. Helen Fisher calls this pro-social/ empathetic temperament.
  4. Virtuous life: Morality and integrity are associated with Serotonin. Serotonin is involved in both preventing harm and ensuring fairness- the two major dimensions of moral behavior. Religion and traditionalism would also be valid associates here. On the flip side, I see anti-anxiety GABA playing a role here. Helen Fisher calls this the cautious/ social norm compliant temperament.

To me the fact that one can come to the four kinds of happiness from multiple sources, vouches for their validity and utility; and the fact that we have some tantalizing candidates of ‘happy chemicals’ that can be mapped to the four kinds of happiness is another converging evidence.

The ABCD of Human Conundrum

The Human existence is fraught with many conundrums and dilemmas, the chief among them being how to live a good life and how to resolve the various contradictions in the service of that goal.

Conundrum novel cover

Conundrum novel cover (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To start with, I noted in an earlier post that even infants are able to reason about the world and themselves and others using four cognitive frameworks:  they see self and others as animals (biological reasoning system), as agents (psychological reasoning system) , as separated individuals (sociomoral reasoning system) and finally as impartial observers obeying physical laws(physical reasoning system).  We as humans are all of these- both animals and individuals; agents and observers.

We also face significant challenges when thinking of ourselves in these domains; thinking of us as mere animals that will die one day brings existential dread of death and wants us to transcend that by asserting or cultural identities (see more here).

  1. Awareness: As an observer our primary role is to become aware. Aware of ourselves and aware of the world. Aware of our separateness from the world and the need to transcend that and become aware of us being a part of the world. There is a trade-off between being aware of one as separate and being aware of one as a part of the world. Mysticism or spirituality where one merges with the world is one thing that enters at this level.
  2. Being: As an animal our primary role is to just be…for as long as possible. Being authentic and true to our self is a prime motivator here as is the desire to transcend death and become a part of cultural milieu by playing adequately the role assigned to us by our culture. There is a dynamic tension between juts being ‘ourselves’ and fitting in to cultural expectations of norms and roles to be a good cultural animal. Culture enters the equation at this level.
  3. Choice: As an agent our primary role is to exercise choice. Being free to make choice is a keen motivator but so is the need to commit ourselves to certain values, certain moral principles that can justify our choices. Having certain moral values and principles means that we precommit to certain ways of acting and thus are not entirely free to make choices. There is a dynamic tension between freedom of choice and commitment to moral principles. Morality enters the equation in this stage.
  4. Doing: As an individual our primary role is to interact with others- to do somethings for or with others. Being proactive and self-propelled is a great motivator and we proactively interact with others for fulfilling our needs, but the awareness that they are sentient beings just like us means we start factoring in their needs and start responding and acting contingently. There is a dynamic tension between autonomous action by us and reciprocal action demanded by quid pro quo interactions.  Our need to have needs to be balanced with our need to help and connect.  Sociability enters the equation.

There is also tensions and interplay between these different functions:  Being and Doing are sometimes contrasted and so is Choice and Awareness. Overall I find the above conceptualization very interesting and informing.

While we can never hope to resolve the human conundrums perfectly, being aware of them ids a first step towards successful resolution.

The Four Needs for Meaning

Roy Baumiester, has written about the four needs for meaning that all humans have and I find that a useful framework. He believes, and I concur, that all four needs need to be satisfied to a reasonable degree, if a person has to live well. Even if one need is thwarted, one would be forced to search for meaning in that part of his or her life.

These four needs are as follows:

  1. Need for purpose (self-concordance?): We need to interpret events that happen to us and around us as leading to some goals or fulfillment. We cannot be doing random stuff, nor random stuff can happen to us; everything has to have some purpose or meaning. We need to conceptualize ourselves as goal driven, either acting the way we are due to external goals or due to intrinsic fulfillment.
  2. Need for values and justification (self-righteousness?_: We need to justify our acts (and inaction) by resorting to moral values that guide what we do and what we don’t do. We simply cannot be seen as acting capriciously, in our own eyes, and need a moral yardstick to act and justify the act. We need some consistency of behavior and that consistency has to come from a good point- that as a moral person this is what I am and this is what I do.
  3. Need for (self) efficacy:  We also need some control over our life and and need to believe that we can achieve our goals/fulfillment or realize our values. We need to believe that one can make a difference by one’s own actions. Even if we don’t have any real control, we need to have an illusory sense of control.
  4. Need for Self-worth: We need to feel good about ourselves; normally this is driven by a need to perceive one as superior to others due to either one’s achievements, attitudes or belonging to an elite social group. By one mean or another, we want to assert that we are worthy human beings, and possibly worthier that the average joe.

I would now extend this analysis of four needs for meaning and link it to the four major existential concerns. Existential concerns like death, when activated experimentally using say mortality salience paradigms, can lead to search for meaning.

So here is what I think the linkage looks like:

  1. Death: Existential reality of death reminds us that we are biological animals that will perish one day;  however there is a strong drive to transcend death; as a result whenever concerns about death are activated, we search for methods to enhance self-worth and stick closer to our cultural worldview. Both of these results are widely supported by the terror management theory. From a biological animal we want to become a cultural animal that has self-worth.
  2. Isolation: Existential reality of being social individuals who are still never able to get under the skin of the Other, and the deep drive on the other hand to reach out, leads us to look for deep existential connections and relations with others perhaps the whole of humanity as our brothers and sisters. We need to believe that by our actions we can forge connections and create ripples of meaningful difference to others. From an isolated social individual we want to become a part of connected and related humanity and this we do by exercising our self-efficacy/ control.
  3. Freedom: Existential reality of being free to make choices without there being any adequate grounds for making a choice, and the deep desire to make meaningful and responsible choices leads us towards moral values and guidelines that can provide a yardstick on which to make choices. As willful agents, we do not want to make random choices and we also don’t want to be governed/ determined by  external constraints/rewards and so the need arises to have an internal compass or moral guideline- choosing our values and then living life in accordance with that. From mere willful agents, we want to become moral and responsible agents.
  4. Meaning: Existential reality of living in world that is inherently meaningless, combined with a deep rooted desire to find meaning in everything we do, leads us to turn to purpose- we want to lead purposeful lives and expect the world to be a purposeful and meaningful place. We cannot just observe events dispassionately, we need to interpret and imbue them with meaning. From impartial objective observers of the world, we want to become meaning-making, actively-constructive observers.

It is my firm belief that until and unless one has confronted the existential realities full-on and come to grips with them, one would not be able to satisfactorily find the four meanings in life and would continue living an impoverished life.

Infants Reasoning About the World

The world may appear to be a ‘blooming, buzzing, confusion’ to infants, but within a few months infants are able to indulge in sophisticated cognition. They develop folk physical/astronomical theory, folk psychological theory,  folk moral theory and folk biological theory, pretty rapidly.

This post is about those cognitive frameworks that infants develop and which more or less persist in adulthood.

An infant

An infant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It had been my contention, that Autistic children are predominantly governed by physicalist explanations and frameworks, while those prone to psychosis indulged more in mentalistic cognition.  However, I recently came across the work of Renee Baillargeon and colleagues [pdf, pdf] that suggests that infants have four different types of cognitive frameworks.

  1. Physical reasoning system:  Infants are able to reason about the world like little physicists, assuming objects and their permanence over time.  Thus in a standard Violation of Expectation paradigm, they would look significantly longer at an event where object permanence is violated.  They also assume continuity about the object even when it may be hidden from sight and reappear from behind a blind. Thus they are able to perceive the world in mechanistic terms.
  2. Psychological reasoning system: Infants are also able to reason about the other agents around them, that the agents have a mind of their own and have their wishes, preferences and desires. The infants apply the principle of rationality (consistency and efficiency etc) to the agents and are surprised if the agent behaves irrationally (is inconsistent in his choices or completes an action using inefficient means). The agents are believed to ave autonomous control over themselves and have mental states which make them act as they do. Even at a very young age, infants are able to infer this.
  3. Scoio-moral reasoning system: This sort of reasoning may seem similar to earlier psychological reasoning, but is different in important respects. Infants are able to reason about other individuals that interact with each other. These interacting individuals are governed by principles of reciprocity, loyalty to in-group, fairness etc and infants comprehend and apply these yardstick to interacting individuals and are surprised when these principles are not honored. For eg, they would be more likely to help a helper than a hinderer and would also expect other members to do the same.
  4. Biological reasoning system: This sort of reasoning is about there being certain entities that are a certain form of life viz animals. Animals or life-form is something which has innards or an internal source of energy and if you take the innards out of the animal , the animal stops functioning.  Apart from being self-propelled and agentive, the condition that the animal has innards is very important for this system.

So what does this tell us about humans and the world? I believe this is further evidence that humans have four types of ways of looking out at the world: World in terms of its physical properties and constituents; World as constituting of conscious agents that have metal states that drive their behavior; world as constituting of intentional, interacting individuals that have their inner values and emotions; and finally world as constituting of biological animals that have their carnal grounding. No one way of looking at the world is perfect, The world is both matter and life and we are both minds and morals- it is the multiplicity of the world/ ourselves that makes it so rich and enticing!

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