Posted in Life & Happiness

The Story You Tell Yourself

It is the human condition to be our own worst enemies. Yes, life can get hard and it will throw various obstacles and challenges at us, creating all kinds of stress and distress. However, much of our anguish will come from the stories we tell ourselves.

We often think that we feel emotions as a reaction to a stimulus or a change in our environment. This makes us feel powerless and as if we are slaves to our emotions. In reality though, our emotions are usually reactions to our thoughts.

For example, when a relative or someone close to us dies, we feel sad. This may seem like an automatic response, but we first process the information with our rational mind and tell ourselves the story that we will miss them, or that we will never see them again. Our sadness is a reaction to the thought process rather than a direct result of the event.

In this case, the emotional reaction is highly appropriate. The problem is that it is extremely common for us to tell ourselves the wrong story.

A good example would be insecurities. If you ever notice yourself feeling inexplicably anxious, sad or angry, ask yourself the question: what am I telling myself?

You may find that the reason that you are angry every time your colleague talks to you is because you are telling yourself that they are lazy. You may be frustrated whenever a friend doesn’t reply back to your messages because you think they are avoiding you. You may feel sad whenever you look in the mirror because you tell yourself that you are not physically attractive enough. You may be telling yourself that your partner does not love you whenever they go quiet and withdrawn suddenly.

The importance of understanding this concept is that it lets you be more in control of your emotions and lets you diagnose the problems affecting your mental health. Once you know what story is causing the emotion, you can examine the story. When we run the story through a rational filter, we may find that our reaction was completely irrational.

The “lazy” co-worker may be going through a rough time making it difficult for them to work efficiently. Your friend may be busy at work, hence not able to reply. You may be objectively attractive and in good physical health, but your poor self-confidence may be creating a false story. It could be that withdrawing themselves is your partner’s normal coping mechanism when they are dealing with their own problem and it may have nothing to do with you.

This is also useful in a relationship setting, as you can ask your partner how your actions make them feel and what they are telling themselves in that situation to better break down what the true issue is. This lets you both resolve the issue in a more constructive, peaceful manner.

The bottom line is, to improve our mental health, we must examine and alter the stories we tell ourselves. If you tell yourself the worst stories, it will become reality. So ask yourself: what kind of stories am I telling myself and how is it affecting my life? You may be surprised to see how different life can be when you get your stories straight.

Posted in Science & Nature

Grasshopper Mouse

Grasshopper mice are a species of New World mice found in deserts throughout North America. They are small-to-medium sized, growing up to 13cm in size and weighing around 40-50g.

Despite their cute appearances, they are carnivorous, ferocious hunters. They feast on various insects, but are also known to hunt other mice.

Grasshopper mice have interesting adaptations that make them seem more like a miniature wolf or mongoose rather than a mouse. For example, they stalk their prey like a cat before pouncing. They hunt highly venomous insects such as scorpions and centipedes because they have evolved to convert the deadly toxins of a scorpion sting into harmless chemicals.

An interesting feature of the grasshopper mouse is that they often howl like a wolf to ward off competitors and to communicate with each other. It has been nicknamed the werewolf mouse because they are known to howl in the night with their heads thrown back, communicating over the vast desert with a high-pitched howl.

Posted in Life & Happiness

Yesterday’s Tomorrow

In life, procrastination feels almost like a base human impulse. It is so easy to put off tasks until tomorrow.
But what is today but yesterday’s tomorrow?

It is difficult to find motivation to do tasks that we find boring, hard or unimportant. But delaying it by a day does nothing to fix that issue. The best approach is to sort out easy tasks early so that they do not accumulate until you feel pressured by the sheer amount of tasks.

A useful rule of thumb is: if something will take you less than 5 minutes to do, do it now.
This might include wiping down the kitchen bench, throwing the garbage out, making your bed, tidying a small pile of mess, replying to an email or writing a bullet journal entry.

By clearing these small tasks as they arise, you have more free time to spend on things you are passionate about or find important.

Doing small tasks also gives you a sense of empowerment and can motivate you to do slightly harder or more complex things, such as vacuuming the house, making an appointment or sorting paperwork. Once the ball is rolling, it is far easier to be productive.

In a similar vein, setting up routines such as setting aside an hour or two on the weekend as “life admin” time, or having a to do list in your journal help form healthy habits to fight against procrastination.

At the end of the day, procrastination is like taking a loan out from your future free time, with interest added. It will simply rob you of quality time you can spend on your passions and loved ones.

So think to yourself “What is a simple task I need to do that I can sort out right now?” and just do it. You will find that you had the motivation to be productive and efficient all along.

Original video, worth watching if you don’t feel motivated: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZXsQAXx_ao0
Posted in Life & Happiness

Elephant Riding

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt described the relationship between our rational and emotional minds as that of a person riding an elephant. The rational person can guide the elephant using reins, but if the elephant really wants to go a certain way, it will easily overpower the rider. Fighting against the elephant risks it throwing you off or going on a destructive rampage.

This analogy is helpful in making us understand that emotions are natural and powerful. Fighting against emotions (particularly strong, negative emotions) can be pointless and harmful. The best thing is to let yourself feel the emotion, so that it can resolve rather than build up.

This may sound defeatist, because it feels as if we cannot ever control our emotions and we are slaves to it. However, as the analogy points out, our thoughts are the riders atop our elephants of emotions.

Thoughts and perception lead to emotions, as emotions are typically a reaction to an internal or external stimulus. For example, if someone is rude to us, then we feel angry. If we have doubts or insecurities about ourselves, we feel anxious and sad. If we perceive ourselves to be loved, then we feel happy.

And there we have the secret to controlling our emotions. We cannot choose what we feel, but we can choose what to think. By changing the way we think about or perceive something, we can directly influence how often or how intensely we feel certain emotions.

Take road rage as a common example. It is so easy and automatic to think that someone cut in front of us, or going too slow, or too distracted because they are terrible people or stupid. This thought and perception makes us enraged and frustrated, creating stress and sometimes even making us engage in risky behaviour such as tailgating or aggressively overtaking. But if we try to think of it from their perspective, they may be an inexperienced driver, in a rush or having a horrible day. At the very least, we can think of the times we have done the same thing to other people unintentionally. This change of perspective helps us suffer less from our emotional outbursts and overall reduces our stresses.

Take anxiety as another case, where if we stop and think rationally, many of our worries and doubts can be settled. The problem is that because we give less attention to our thoughts, our emotions take over and drag us down into a negative spiral. When that happens, our emotions override our thoughts and we powerless, feeling that we have no control over either our emotions or thoughts.

To counteract this, we need to have a paradigm shift where we know that we have the power to think freely. When we feel an emotion that we do not like, then we can approach it with mindfulness by recognising that we are feeling the emotion, then trying to diagnose the problem. To do this, ask yourself the following questions.

  • What am I thinking?
  • Why am I choosing to think this?
  • How does this thought make me feel?

The point of these questions is to figure out what thought is making you feel that way so you can fix the thought rather than the emotion. Even if you can’t, it puts you in the habit of forming a link between thought and emotion, leading to a healthier connection to your feelings and giving you back some control over them.

Posted in Science & Nature

Compound Interest

When is the best time to invest? Is it when you have sufficient income and savings that you feel that you have a surplus to invest with?

The correct answer is much simpler: yesterday, with the second best time being today. Because of the magic of compound interest, investing early is the best strategy possible.

Thanks to a simple mathematic rule, compound interest rewards early, small investments more than late, large investments.

The way compound interest works is that after a given time interval (e.g. year), interest (as a percentage of the original investment) is paid out. The next year, interest is paid out again but as a percentage of the new amount. As an example:
1000 x 1.08 = 1080 (end of year 1)
1080 x 1.08 = 1166.40 (end of year 2)
1166.40 x 1.08 = 1259.71 (end of year 3)
…until end of year 10

If we use mathematical shortcuts and convert this into a formula, we can express it as:

(A = future value, P = present value, r = interest rate as decimal, n = number of periods/years)

For example, if we invest $1000 (PV) at an interest rate of 5% (r=0.05) for 10 years, then:

$1000 x 1.08^10 = $2158.92,

meaning we have earned $1158.92 over 10 years. Taking it further, in 30 years our investment would have grown to $10062.66 – ten times our original investment.

Because the formula uses exponents (or powers) for the time, your investments grow exponentially with time. This means that the earlier you invest, the greater your returns become disproportionately. This is why within 10 years, we have more than doubled our initial investment despite a reasonable interest rate and not doing anything else.

A rule of thumb for calculating how long it will take your investment to double is to divide 72 by the interest rate in % (e.g. 7). This is the number of years it will take for your investment to double (e.g. 72/7 = 10.3 years).

On top of this, if we invest small amounts every year, then we can benefit even more from the exponential growth of our investment. For example, just by adding in $100 every year, we end up with an additional $564.55 of investment earnings at the end of 10 years – a 50% increase in returns.

Unfortunately, mathematics works both ways and compound interest also applies to certain loans, such as credit cards. This means that your debt will grow exponentially unless you aggressively pay it back, making it seem impossible to pay off your credit card debt sometimes.

(This graph shows that investing early and consistently is the best strategy to maximise your eventual earnings. Compare the grey and purple line and you will see that despite investing a third of what Lyla invests total, Quincy ends up with a higher portfolio by retirement.)
Posted in History & Literature

Unspeakable Names

An important part of the Harry Potter story is the infamous villain Voldemort, who is so fearsome that the general populace are too afraid to say his name out loud. Instead, they call him “He who must not be named” or “You-know-who“.

The phenomenon of taboo avoidance of names is fascinating and examples can be found all around the world.
In ancient China and Japan, it was forbidden by law to say the emperor’s name, to the point that the names of some historical figures have been forgotten.
Some Australian Aboriginal cultures do not refer to their dead by name during the mourning period, but instead use titles such as kunmanara, translating to “what’s his name”.
In cultures speaking Highland East Cushitic languages such as some parts of Ethiopia, women practice ballishsha – a system where they avoid pronouncing any words beginning with the same syllable as the name of their mother or father-in-law.

This is called avoidance speech and it is typically used as a sign of respect or fear. For example, there are cases of cultures avoiding saying the name of demons or other evil creatures in fear that calling its name may summon it.

Perhaps the best example of this is the bear.
The old word for bear is arkto (note that Arctic comes from the same Latin roots, as the North is associated with the constellation Ursa Major and Minor – the bear). However, the bear is a fearsome wild beast and it was thought that saying its name would summon it, which would be particularly problematic if you were a hunter.
So instead, they used the word bear, which comes from the Proto-Indo-European word for “the brown one“. This practice became so commonplace that this euphemism became the present formal name for this animal.

Posted in History & Literature, Uncategorized

Meese

The plural for goose is geese. But the plural for moose is not meese: it is just moose. Why is this the case? This is because English is formed from words of various origins, all following different rules.

Goose is an old word that derives from Old English with Germanic roots. Typically in Old English, words were pluralised (turned into plurals) by a process called mutation, where the vowel sounds are changed to an adjacent sound (e.g. “oo” to “ee”). This explains why goose becomes geese, foot becomes feet and tooth becomes teeth.

However, the word moose traces its roots back to a Northeastern Algonquian language – a subfamily of Native American languages. This means that it does not follow the Old English rules of mutation. Furthermore, because Algonquian languages do not pluralise, the plural for moose is just “moose”.

Posted in Science & Nature

The Closest Planet

Which planet is closest to Earth? If we look at a typical model of the Solar System with each planet neatly lined up, we can see that Venus approaches Earth closer than any other planet. However, this is only one interpretation of the question.

Technically, Venus is the planet that comes closest to Earth. However, as they do not orbit in synchrony, this approximation happens about once a year. At other times, Venus will orbit away from Earth and can go on the other side of the Sun, making the distance between Earth and Venus vast. In those times, Mars may seem like the next obvious choice to be closest to Earth.

But then again, Mars has the same issue where it and Earth are often on opposite sides of the Sun. Because of the nature of circular orbits, the distances between the planets swing and fluctuate, meaning that the real question should be:

Which planet is closest to the Earth most of the time on average?

The answer to this question happens to be Mercury. If we look at a “top-down” model of the Solar System, we can see that Mercury – being closest to the Sun – orbits rapidly around the Sun and often lies between Earth and the two other planets, Venus and Mars. If we plot the distance between each of these three planets and Earth, we can see that on average, Mercury is closer to Earth because the distance fluctuates less.

Interestingly, if we take this question further, we find that Mercury is also Mars and Venus’ closest neighbour on average. This is a property of the Solar System being formed of concentric circles, meaning that Mercury’s smallest orbit makes it average a closer distance to all of these planets.

Fascinatingly, if we go even further than that, we find that the same pattern holds for every other planet in the Solar System, despite the vast distance between Mars and Jupiter due to the Asteroid Belt. Even Pluto (not formally a planet anymore) with its massive elliptical orbit has Mercury as its closest neighbour on average compared to the other planets, due to the unique property of concentric circles.

No matter the distance, if you are orbiting the Sun, Mercury is the closest planet to you.

This video from CGP Grey explains it in a concise and informative way, complete with clean diagrams and animations!
Posted in Life & Happiness

Approval Voting

Let’s say you have to organise a group dinner. With so many preferences, dietary restrictions and non-specifically fussy eaters, what is the best method to decide where to eat without starving to death while deciding?

The classic method relies on old-fashioned democracy, where people vote on their most desired place. However, the smaller the group size, the less reliable this method becomes as the results become more split. Furthermore, this method can make the minority unhappy as the majority choice may not even be the minority’s second or third choice. Lastly, it runs the risk of the wolf and sheep” problem, where two wolves vote to eat the sheep and the sheep has no say because it is the minority.

A much better method is the approval voting system. Here, all you have to ask is for everyone to vote on every place that they are okay with going to. For example, let us say that 6 people have to vote between three potential options: burgers, dumplings and fried chicken.

In the old system, it could have been that 2 people voted on each option, making the vote useless. Or, 3 people may have voted dumplings when the other 3 hate it (but voted 2 burgers, 1 chicken), meaning half the group is unhappy with the final result.

With the new system, 3 people are okay with burgers, 3 people are okay with dumplings and 5 people are okay with fried chicken. Fried chicken wins the vote and a much greater majority of the participants are okay with the result, because the vote reflects some of their preference, even if it wasn’t what they most wanted.

The approval voting system also has the strength of accounting for people who are indecisive and vote on everything, or nothing. Voting on all the options essentially cancels out the ratio, so it counts as a null vote. This means that people have less power to swing the votes one way or another.

All in all, it is a simple but powerful tool to help decision-making in a group setting, which can be painfully frustrating when you are just trying to have fun together and relax.



Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Motion Sickness

Why do we get motion sickness when we are riding a moving vehicle?

Our sense of balance relies on an elaborate system. Our eyes give us visual information about head position and if it is moving in relation to our surroundings. Our inner ear contains delicate tubes (vestibular system) that act as gyrometers, indicating if our head is tilted or moving. Our brain synthesises the data from these two systems to know where we are in three-dimensional space and how we are moving within it.

The problem is that these two systems give conflicting information sometimes. For example, when you read in a car, your vestibular system senses that you are moving, but your eyes tell your brain that you are still. Conversely, when you watch a fast-paced action movie or playing a virtual reality game, your eyes will sense movement but your head will feel no movement.

When your brain receives conflicting information, it becomes confused; which information should it trust? The brain assumes that one of them must be wrong, possibly because you have been poisoned. The sensory mismatch results in nausea and you may start to vomit because the brain tries to get rid of whatever “poison” may be causing the problem.

In essence, motion sickness is caused by a mismatch between what the brain perceives and expects versus the reality.

Similarly, we can experience a form of “mental motion sickness“. Our brains are designed to predict the future, but the side effect of this is that we tend to form idyllic, simplified expectations. A good example is our tendency to hang our happiness on a future moment.

When we are unhappy or going through a hard time, we are prone to thinking that changing something will result in happiness. Some people change jobs or escape to another city (the “geographic solution“). Some people eagerly await for a holiday or for a deadline to be over. Some people start or end a relationship. We expect a drastic change in the future, even though the reality is that most things in life take time to change and happiness is not a switch you turn on, but a steady state that you build up to.

Eventually, when we realise that we are still unhappy, our brains become confused why reality is so different from our expectations. It makes us nauseated and want to reject our reality, frustrated that we are still miserable. But reality will not change just because we will it to.

The only solution is to manage our expectations. We need to accept that change happens gradually and that changing our environment will not necessarily change our headspace and perspectives. Our miseries will not disappear without us trying to improve our wellbeing. Instead of expecting a magical fix, we need to be mindful of our reality and find peace with the fact that it is okay not to always be okay.

We have evolved to improvise, adapt to and overcome changes and challenges. So instead of wallowing in self-pity that things did not turn out as expected, we must accept that things are as they are and keep fighting on to find our inner peace and happiness.