Research Summaries: Establishing Causality Using Longitudinal Hierarchical Linear Modeling: An Illustration Predicting Achievement From Self- Control

Today’s research summary is slightly technical. It is based on this paper [pdf] by Angela Duckworth et al that shows a causal relation between self-control and academic achievement.

The Illustrated Sutra of Cause and Effect. 8th...

The Illustrated Sutra of Cause and Effect. 8th century, Japan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  1.  Some personality variables like self-control predict important life outcomes. It is well know that self-control as measured at age 4 (using the marshmallow test) can predict important life outcomes years later. However, prediction may not imply causality as a third factor may be responsible for causing both the phenomena under consideration.
  2. The test for causality is a) causal variable must precede the effect in time; b) the causal variable and outcome variable should be correlated; and c) any third party confound or variable should be ruled out. This is easy to achieve in  double blind randomized placebo controlled experiments, but personality traits like self-control are hard to manipulate as trait variables in experimental settings.
  3. Typically personality traits and their outcomes are studied using a longitudinal study design where changes in say self control at time T1 are correlated with outcomes like academic achievements at a later time T2, of course measure other confounding variables and factoring their effects; thus self-control, along with IQ, may be measured at the beginning of a school session and at the end of session the CGPA obtained will be used to find whether and how much self-control led to academic achievement. This however cannot establish causality in a strict sense as not all variables of interest can be identified and measured. Often the dependent variable (CGPA in our case) is itself controlled for to ensure that a higher CGPA at point T1 does not lead to higher CGPA at time T2 independent of self-control at T1.
  4. To take care of third party confounding variables, Angela et al used growth curve analysis with Hierarchical Linear Modelling (HLM). This involves taking multiple measures of say self -control at different times and also multiple measures of the outcome say CGPA. The independent variable is considered a time varying co-variate and used to figure the within-person relationship between the two variables of interest. Consider a between subjects confound like socio economic status (SES) that could potentially lead to different outcomes (CGPA) – if not controlled for the self control- CGPA relation arrived at by analysis of between subjects data might lead to erroneous conclusions. However, a stable thing like SES (which doesn’t change with time and is constant for an individual) will have no impact on the correlation or causal relation between how changes in self-control affect CGPA over time in the same individual.
  5. The direction of causality can also be ascertained by using HLM with reversed time lagged, time varying co-variates. What this means os that we can try to see of the causal arrow runs in other direction by taking measures of CGPA as predictor and  self control as outcome variable.
  6. In this study, self control was measured using self-report, parents and teachers ratings of students for four consecutive academic years (as they moved from fifth grade to eighth grade) using the Brief Self-Control Scale  ; CGPA was measured each year as the outcome variable. Self-esteem and IQ was also measured and so was gender, ethnicity etc.
  7. They found that  self control measured 6 months earlier predicted CGPA six months later; average self-control predicted the baseline CGPA as well as the slope of CGPA changes (how fast the CGPA increased or decreased over time). Howsoever, the reverse analysis whereby short term CGPA was used to predict self-control gave negative results thus establishing the causal direction.
  8. It was thus established that self-control does indeed cause or lead to higher academic outcomes like higher CGPA.  A limitation of the study was that a time varying third variable that increased and decreased in tandem with self-control can still account for the relationship between self control and academic achievement.

I liked the paper,  though its more methodological. You can find the full paper here [pdf].

Anxiety, Depression and the Internalizing Spectrum

Pathological mental health problems in children and young adults have been classified into externalizing (substance abuse, conduct disorder etc) and internalizing disorders (depression , anxiety etc). Today’s post will try to  work out the structure of this internalizing spectrum.

English: An anxious person

English: An anxious person (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first major difference, that is made in say DSM, is between Mood disorders (disturbance in mood) and Anxiety disorders (characterized by anxiety and avoidance behaviors) . However, Watson in this article (pdf) emphasizes that this classification is not proper and in many cases these disorder say depression (say MDD) and Anxiety (say Panic disorder) are co-morbid with each other.

To explain this as well as other genotypical and phenotypical findings, Watson has developed a structure of these ‘distress disorders’ – however the road was long, an intermediate stop was tripartite model of depression/anxiety.

According to this tripartite model (developed by Watson and Clark), both depression (MDD, dysthymia etc)  and anxiety disorders (phobia, panic etc) share a common non-specific factor called Negative Affect (NA) which is characterized by things like preponderance of negative emotions like sadness, fear, guilt, anger etc as well as irritability, difficulty concentrating etc.

Depressive disorders meanwhile are specifically characterized by lack of Positive Affect (PA), which means less emotions like happiness, interest etc, but also Anhedonia or inability to derive pleasure from earlier pleasurable experiences.  Anxiety disorders, on the other hand, are characterized by physiological hyper arousal (PH) (shortness of breath, dizzyness etc) .

This model however was also found wanting and replaced with an hierarchical integrative model, which posited that there was a generic non-specific factor of NA common to both anxiety and depressive disorders, and a lower order low PA factor characterizing depression and more specific multiple low order factors (instead of one PH hyperarousal factor) associated with the different types of anxiety disorders like panic/ agoraphobia, Phobia-specif stimuli, phobia social etc .

However , Watson further modified the structure and came up with this model shown below:   One broad factor of distress/NA; two specific factors of anxious-misery and fear and then further unique factor specific to individual diagnosis.

To summarize and also extending it a a bit,

  1. At top there is an internalizing spectrum and associated with it a non-specific NA factor.
  2. In middle there are four spectrum:-  a depressive spectrum , a Fear spectrum and a bipolar spectrum and an Obsessive compulsive spectrum.
  3. each of these can be further divided into discrete diagnosis along two factors/dimensions (I will not eb focusing too much on bipolar or OCD for the purposes of this post) :
    1. Depressive spectrum :
      1. group 1: MDD and dysthemia
      2. group 2: GAD and PTSD
    2. Fear Sepctrum
      1. group 1: Panic and agarophobia
      2. group 2: Phobia (specific stimuli) and Social Phobia
    3. Bipolar spectrum (bipolar I, II and cyclothymia)
    4. OCD

Lets focus more closely on Depressive and Fear Spectrum and try to see alignment with ABCD model. MDD/Dysthemia imho are mainly about mood or Affect;  GAD/PTSD are more Cognitive (reaming stuck in a thought loop) ; Panic/agorophobia more Physiological or Dynamic in nature and Phobia (both specific and Social) more Behavioral in nature (avoiding people, places and animals).

Each of these in turn splits into four factors; for ex PTSD splits into four factors- Dysphoria (A), Intrusions (C), Hyperarousal(D) and Avoidance (B). Similarly, recent research has shown that MDD is itself heterogeneous made up of four neural subtypes- one way to list those would be – marked primarily by Anhedonia (A), Anxiety (C) , Psychomotor retardation (D) and Fatigue (B) . Similar analysis should be possible for other discrete diagnosis.

For now, we will turn to the structure of Bipolar and OCD spectrum by analogy to dep/anxiety spectrum.

  1. Biploar spectrum:
    1. Euphoria (Affective)
    2. Flight of ideas (Cognitive)
  2. OCD spectrum
    1. Obsessions (Dynamic)
    2. Compulsions (Behavioural)

Within this OCD can be seen to be comprising  of four factors: Hoarding (A?) , Order and symmetry (C), Obsessions and Checking (D) and Washing and cleaning (B).

Another way to think about the depressive and anxiety spectrum is to say that Depression rgoup 1 is characterized by Low PA, depression group 2 by high PH; Fear group 1 by High PH and Fear group 2 by low PA. What distinguished Fear spectrum from Depression spectrum is the fact that much more variance is explained by High NA for depressive syndromes and only moderate variance explained by NA for Fear syndromes.

What do you think is missing from the above model? Where might it be wrong? where might it be correct? If correct what are the implications?

What type of Self-control/Grit is More Useful?

I recently came across an article titled “More than Resisting Temptation: Beneficial Habits Mediate the Relationship between Self-Control and Positive Life Outcomes” by Brian Galla and Angela Duckworth, which argues that the positive outcomes associated with self-control have more to do with habits for self-regulation, than with in-the-moment exercise of willpower.

Self Control (film)

Self Control (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Self-control is defined by APA as the ability to delay gratification and resist short-term temptations for long-term gains.  Thus the main challenge while exercising self-control is how to take care of inevitable temptations that happen to cross our path. One approach is to build our willpower or in-the-moment inhibitory self-control that is able to overrule the impulses that drive us to engage with the temptation. This reliance on willpower will typically deplete our cognitive resources each time we use this willpower and leave us drained or ego-depleted and less able to resist temptations in the near term.

The other approach is to structure your day and activities in such a way as to minimize the temptations that you are exposed to. There is a five step process that is recommended to self-regulate. Start with selecting the situation. If you want to study , study in the library where distractions are likely to be minimal. The next is situation modification. If you cant study in library and have to study in living room, turn off the TV and put your remote away to minimize distractions. The next step is selective attention, where if you have TV turned on (due to n number of reasons) and still want to study you selectively attend to your textbook/ study notes and do not attend to the TV noise in the background.  If the earlier three stages are not available, or you don’t have an opportunity to use them then comes cognitive re-framing; maybe you can’t turn off the TV and are not able to resist watching it over say studying for math which seems hard and boring. You can re-frame studying as preparing for a better future, which hopefully inspires you; and watching TV as wasting time. The last step in this framework is to rely on brute-force willpower to turn off the TV and go back to studying. This last recourse of using willpower is to be exercised and relied on , only if all else (the earlier steps ) fail.

Thus, its evident that self-regulation is best implemented by having good habits of selecting and modifying situations to minimize temptations etc. Also, its better to use your willpower to create healthy habits like exercising everyday and letting the subconscious take care of executing that on auto-pilot, once the habit has been formed, than to rely on conscious inhibitory self-control.

From this, I propose the following structure for self control:

  1. The main challenge is resisting temptations
  2. One way to do so is by creating habits that minimize exposure to temptations or that test oneself.
  3. Another way to do so is to rely on willpower or brute force in-the-moment inhibitory self-control to resist temptations.

There is now some research available that shows that the self-report self-control we measure, and which is associated with all sorts of positive outcomes (see PDF), primarily measures the habit or auto-pilot self-control rather than the state self-control. The in-the-moment or state self-control is not such a good predictor of future positive outcomes.

Now lets think for a moment about a related but different concept, Grit, which is defined as passion and perseverance for long term goals; and which again has been shown to be a predictor of all sorts of good outcomes.

By analogy I have come up with the following structure for Grit:

  1. The main challenge is persevering despite obstacles/ failures
  2. One way to do so is by minimizing possibility of failure by careful planning (orderliness) and habits to circumvent obstacles or bulldoze through then by working hard (industriousness). Together this can be construed as the trait Conscientiousness.
  3. Another way to do so is to rely on ordinary magic of in-the-moment resilience to bounce back from failures and getting up and restarting after colliding with an obstacle.

By analogy, I believe that the self-report Grit that is associated with all sorts of positive outcomes will correlate more with trait contentiousness rather than the in-the-moment ability to be resilient. And it follows that it is better to create habits of orderliness and industriousness rather than relying on our ability to bounce back and get up after falling.

I should perhaps stop here, but I can also see parallels with what I think is the reverse of having Self-control. Too much not having self-control, or being impulse driven may be associated with the psychological disorders clubbed under addiction.

There has now been a lot of research showing that addiction is not so much about dependence on substances or biologically based but due to lack of satisfying interpersonal and social relationships.

With that in mind, and extending the analogy, here is what I propose to be the structural quality of all types of addiction, whether related to substance abuse or behavioral (internet etc) in nature:

  1.  The main challenge to remaining addicted is availability of satisfying relationships.
  2. One way to to remain addicted is habitually prioritizing one activity/ substance to the exclusion of others (salience), so that the joy from other activities like satisfying relationships is not experienced at all.
  3. Another way to remain addicted is to get so much in-the-moment high form indulging in the activity/ using the substance, that it overrules any comparisons with the satisfaction derived from relationships.

If I had to go on a limb, I would say that the former system which relies on habits or prioritizing a particular activity over others is related to the ‘wanting’ system , while the latter system which is related to experiencing in the moment highs is related to  the ‘liking’ system. And we all know that the ‘wanting’ system is more powerful than the ‘liking’ system. So most likely addiction is maintained by the former system where a habitual pattern of (mis) use has been formed.

So what are the takeaways? Build good habits and do not rely on in-the-moment strengths or capabilities to tide you over in times of crises. And measures of these good habits are what would drive success and lead to all sorts of positive outcomes.

The Making of a Genius: Required Ingredients

What goes into the making of a genius? More mundanely, what factors are required for success in any field? Your answer will differ based on what factors you consider to be the most important for success.

Photo of the obverse of a Fields Medal made by...

Photo of the obverse of a Fields Medal made by Stefan Zachow for the International Mathematical Union (IMU), showing a bas relief of Archimedes (as identified by the Greek text) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

No one can deny the large role that intelligence and talent play in the making of a genius, or to achieve moderate levels of success compared to peers. We can probably club these two factors together as ability, that is more or less inborn, and is not very easy to increase or amenable to interventions.

Let me be a be it more specific. I consider ability to be made of two components: specific talent in a particular domain, say singing talent or mathematical talent; and fluid intelligence, or the ability to solve problems in real time using cognitive resources like working memory and typically measured by IQ. While talent is domain specific, fluid intelligence is domain general, but both will be required to be successful in a domain. Intelligence (fluid) will enable one to learn at an exceptional rate and also to learn form ones mistakes and improve.

Both talent and intelligence have been shown to explain up to 50 % of variance, in say, academic performance. Thus they are definitely required to achieve extraordinary success/ genius.

However, another stream of research informs us that putting in 10,000 hours or more of deliberate practice is what does the magic. As per research by Andres Ericsson and colleagues to achieve and expertise in any domain you need 10,000 hours or more of focused, deliberate practice. Here two things are important to note:  you are not putting in brute force efforts blindly, but following a process of deliberate practice (picking up a weakness, working on it constantly to improve soliciting feedback etc) and the second is that you do put in more than 10,000 hours of such efforts to attain some expertise and then again 10,000 hours more to achieve genius level expertise.

Thus, one can subsume these factors under the common label effort: comprising of a daily ritual of deliberate practice or Riyaaz or smart efforts; and a long term fruits of putting in 10,000 or 20,000 hrs of such efforts in the form of expertise or domain specific crystallized intelligence.

Both indulging in deliberate practice daily and building expertise by putting in the required hours are correlated with genius level expert performance or success.  In more mundane terms, if you really want to make contributions to mathematics such that they deserve a Fields Medal, you need to systematically work on which areas of Maths need improving and actually spend hours daily honing your maths skills for a few years before hoping to get one.

and of course as Angela Duckworth says, talent * effort = skill and skill* effort = performance, so effort counts twice and is an important determinant of success.

But this brings us to the question is effort same as grit, another factor that has been shown to predict success/ achievement/ genius?

While to the naive mind they may appear same; to me effort is willingness and ability to work smart and work hard; while grit is more about being passionate about a particular super-ordinate goal and getting back on track and showing persistence in the face of setbacks/ adversity.

And of course another personality factor or character strength that is similarly predictive of success is self-control. Self-control is the ability to resist temptations and forego pleasure-in-the-now for gains-in-the-future. It reliably predicts success in many domains and is domain general trait.  Grit however is more domain specific. Also while Self-control works on a shorter time scale, Girt works on a longer time scale.

Both can be subsumed under goal-commitment: a in the moment domain general self control factor and a long term domain specific grit factor.

And this brings us to the final set of factors which are equally important for success: enjoying and being engrossed in what you are doing and being curious/exploratory about the things you don’t know/ haven’t experienced yet. These are emotional-motivational processes that ensure that you actually do put in the efforts required to meet the goal commitments and to actualize your ability.

Recent research has shown that a hungry mind is very important for predicting academic success. This hungry mind is conceptualized as intellectual curiosity. Curiosity as initially defined by Todd Kashadan et al was comprised of Exploration (or Curiosity as they define now per se) and Absorption. Later Todd et al have disowned absorption as a part of curiosity, and they are right to do so, but given the high correlations between  absorption and exploration, I think they were on to something. Important for us is to remember that curiosity or the appetitive strivings for novelty, complexity,uncertainty and ambiguity; and Absorption or flow or full engagement in specific activities, taken together are again strong predictors of success/ achievement.

Thus, we have a fourth big factor predicting and causing success, viz Engagement: one sub-factor of which is a domain/ task specific flow or absorption and the other a domain general or task independent curiosity or love of learning or intrinsic motivation.

With that we can probably summarize the ingredients required to make a genius:

  1. Ability, both talent and intelligence
  2. Effort, both daily deliberate practice and 10,000 hours of expertise
  3. Goal commitment, both self control and grit
  4. Engagement, flow as well as curiosity

As an aside, this fits my ABCD model: Engagement or flow/curiosity are Affective in nature; Effort is Behavioral; Ability (intelligence) I consider as Cognitive and goal-commitment as Dynamic/motivational.

So, what are you going to do different to achieve extraordinary performance after having learned this? Will you work on your curiosity, put in more hours of deliberate practice , ensure you are feeling flow and absorption or work or your self-control muscle. There are many paths to greatness, and you can choose to focus on one or more to take you where you need to be!

Openness/ Intellect and the MBTI

As per the Big Five/FFM or the HEXACO model, Openness/Intellect appears to be an important personality dimension on which humans differ from each other. People high on this dimension are variously described as creative, imaginative, intellectual etc. We will be only focusing on this trait of the big five/HEXACO/FFM for the purpose of this post.

fancy logo/writing for use in MBTI articles

fancy logo/writing for use in MBTI articles (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

MBTI is based on Jung’s theory: People may be Extroverted or Introverted, based on whether they find stimulation in the outer world preferable or find the inner world more a focus of their attention; and are low reactive/ high reactive respectively. They can also be predominantly focused on processing information and acting and deciding consistently (and thus using the Judging function) or on taking in information and acting flexibly and keeping options open (and thus using the Perceiving function). Within the judging function, they may rely more on logical analysis etc (the Thinking function) or go more by case-by-case basis (The Feeling function). Within the perceiving function, they may restrict themselves to facts and givens (the Sensing function) or  go beyond the givens and add meanings and interpretations (the iNtuition function). Depending on your propensities/ reliance on these four functions you would be categorized as INFP or ESTJ etc.

Some of the MBTI dimensions have been mapped onto the Big five/FFM/HEXACO.  The mapping of introversion-extroversion to eXtraverted trait of FFM/HEXACO is a given and self-evident, There could also be made a strong case for Judgement-Perception dimension to be mapped onto the Conscientiousness trait of the big five/FFM/HEXACO. However, there is no ready correspondence to Openness/Intellect trait and any of the MBTI dimensions/functions.

For the remaining analysis, I will like readers to refer to this article [pdf] that talks about AB5C model and lists five factors of personality:

For the NEO, the column defined by high loadings from the Extraversion facets is labeled Factor I, for the Agreeableness facets, Factor II, for the Conscientiousness facets, Factor III, the Neuroticism facets, Factor IV, and the Openness to Experience facets, Factor V.
Its important to note that Openness to Experience, like other NEO factors, is made of six facets. These are Openness to Aesthetics, Openness to Feelings, Openness to Ideas, Openness to Actions, Openness to Values and Openness to Fantasy.  The paper goes on to show that different facets of Openness to Experience can be construed as a combination of core Openness to experience factor V as primary factor and either low/ high  Conscientiousness (factor III) or low/high eXtraversion (factor I) as a  secondary factor.

For eg. Openness + high Conscientiousness = factor V + high factor III = terms like analytical, intellectual, intelligent, knowledgeable. This sub-factor of openness may be related to intelligence and may be called Intellectual. Its my contention that NEO facets like Openness to Ideas belong here. This is also closely related to the Thinking function of MBTI and is cognitive in nature (as per the fundamental four model).

Similarly, Openness + low eXtraversion = factor V + low factor I = terms like artistic, creative and imaginative. This sub-factor of openness may be related to creativity and may be called Instinctual. NEO facets like Openness to Feelings and Openness to Aesthetics belong here. This is also closely related to the Feeling function of MBTI and is affective in nature (as per the fundamental four model).

Similarly, Openness + low Conscientiousness = factor V + low factor III = terms like changeable, unorthodox. This sub-factor of openness may be related to fantasy-proneness and may be called Imagination. NEO facets like Openness to Fantasy belong here. This is also closely related to the iNtuition function of MBTI and is motivational/dynamic in nature (as per the fundamental four model).

Similarly, Openness + high eXtraversion = factor V + high I = terms like experimenting, original, prefer variety. This sub-factor of openness may be related to reality-orientation and may be called Innovation. NEO facets like Openness to Actions and Openness to Values belong here. This is also closely related to the Sensing function of MBTI and is behavioral in nature (as per the fundamental four model).

Talking in more abstract terms, the sub-factor of openness called Intellectual may be concerned with Truth, the sub-factor Instinctual with Beauty; Imagination with Possibility/probability while Innovation with Utility. While the former two are idealistic in nature (and being related to Thinking and Feeling, belonging to Judgement), the latter two are more pragmatic in nature ( being related to iNtuition and Sensing, belonging to perception).

To me this linkage of MBTI with openness to experience facets looks a promising future direction and makes immense sense; In a later post I will talk more about MBTI and FFM in more general terms.

PS: this post followed as a result of reading a recent paper [pdf] by Scott Barry Kaufman et al on structure of intuitive abilities and its relationship to Openness to Experience/ intelligence.

Welcoming the One Millionth Reader

I know its a bit premature (the blog visit count on my blog is only about 99,8000 yet and it will take another 2-3 days to hit that milestone) but I wanted to take this opportunity to thank all the ~1 million readers who have thought it worthwhile to visit my blog at least once. You know who who you are: thanks to the Moms and the Grandmoms (those readers who were the only ones to visit it in the early days) and thanks also to the Siblings and Cousins (those blogs which encouraged, accepted and sometimes generated a healthy sibling competition of sorts in the early days?).

Maker Faire 2008, San Mateo - a life size vers...

Maker Faire 2008, San Mateo – a life size version of the Mouse Trap board game (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My blog is ~12.5 years old, finishing the tween years and preparing to enter adolescence (if I may anthropomorphise it….I don’t really know if in the species called blogs, teenage begins at 13 years or whether a 13 year old is already an ageing blog on the verge of retirement/ death?), and I have mixed feelings about it.

To begin with, the following lines from an old popular TV commercial sensitizing people against gender discrimination comes to mind:

‘Ka maine kokh sahi na jani?’

English translation: ‘Did I not give birth to the right child?’

As some of you may know The Mouse Trap has not been able to generate much discussion (only 45 comments as per WP.com stats and 1313 comments as per WP dashboard, most of which are my own scoop.it backlink comments), is a relatively ‘Quiet’/ introverted child (only 540 posts in ~12.5 years), and may even be a specially abled/ differently abled child (it may have missed its developmental milestones like getting a one million hits in the first five years itself:-) ), but I am more than satisfied with my baby. It bears repeating that each child is unique and special, and that I am a proud parent.

The only regret I have is whether I have spent enough time with my child? Did I read enough stuff, reflect on it, and then take careful time out to craft a good post? I know that my blog can never live up to the extraverted ideals – of posting daily, of taking care of SEO etc to ensure enough stimulation (visibility/ interaction) etc, but I am also doubtful whether I really worked that hard to make content the king. Did I not start taking my blog (and its readers) for granted? Did other commitments, like curating content on scoop.it or other social media, not take away from the time I could have spent with the Mouse Trap?

Also, am I expecting too much from my child, and that too, too early? I had decided to put ads on The Mouse Trap earlier this year, and the revenue I get from that is still not able to cover expenses for hosting The Mouse Trap on fast servers (so that the readers can have a good experience), so are my expectations unrealistic? Should I wait till young adulthood before expecting The Mouse Trap to be able to sustain itself?

But then when I look at shining examples of other young adults out there (like Brain Pickings or Wait But why?) who are walking upright, I know that the Mouse Trap could also walk one day on its own feet. The hope lives on!

PS: Thanks, last but not the least, to my baby (The Mouse Trap) which is a bundle of joy. Like all parents, I take great solace in your potential and warmth, whenever feeling down or in a low mood. Reading older posts brings back memories of joy and thinking about your future fills me with excitement and vigor. Long Live The Mouse Trap.

Big Love: Loving from a Place of Authenticity and Courage

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.