For the past year or so I’ve been making occasional allusions to a great book with a really stupid title. Daniel Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness sounds like it should be what the late Douglas Adams called a “Liff” – a book that claimed “this book will change your life!”
Gilbert makes no such claim. In fact, being a dry, acerbic wit that I can relate to, he actually tells you that you won’t accept his advice on how to become happy. He’s probably right when it comes to stubborn asses like me, but it’s useful advice nonetheless.
When somebody talks about “how to be happy” I’m immediately skeptical. My guess is that they are going to sell me a choice lot of horseshit that is little more than common sense, and call it profound. Fortunately Gilbert does not want to give us advice on how to do things to be happier….”eat better, get more rest.” He wants to tell us how the human brain works and how it processes information and how that affects one of three states we lump together as “happiness.”
Gilbert puts forward that most of what affects our “happiness” is our perceptions and handling of the future. He goes on to explain how, and why, we think about the future, and why we make mistakes that lead us to be unhappy. He then goes on to propose a remedy we probably won’t accept.
You can argue about emotions and theory all day long, but Gilbert is talking about firm, provable, mechanical facts about how the brain works. He’s simply not wrong. When he talks about our perceptions he’s defining things as provable as this famous illusion:
It’s a little scary to have the future so reduced, but he does it brilliantly, with tongue in cheek. If you can follow him, you understand a lot more about why we do the things we do, and along the way learn several tricks that are very useful to the M/s and BDSM lifestyles.
In the next several essays I am going to break down his basic principles as they apply to M/s and D/s.
For starters Gilbert explains
Why we think about the future.
On one hand, thinking about the future is pleasurable. Studies confirm that when people daydream about the future “they tend to imagine themselves achieving and succeeding rather than fumbling or failing.”
The bad news? “Researchers have discovered that when people find it easy to imagine an event, they overestimate the likelihood that it will actually occur.” Statistically that biases us towards un unreasonable optimism.
Right now you’re probably thinking “that doesn’t sound like my sub.” The converse is true. We think about the future in order to avoid bad things. “People who seek treatment for their inability to stop thinking about the future are usually worrying about it rather than reveling in it.”
Does that sound familiar? In a community where trauma is not an unknown, how many times have we held the hand of a partner who is cursed with anxiety, and not the good kind.
Gilbert explains why we think negatively about the future:
The Paralysis of Negative Anticipation
“First, anticipating unpleasant events can minimize their impact.” If you want to read about the studies that support this buy the book…the short version is that it’s true.
This is fertile ground. We’ve all dealt with girls (or boys) who simply would not look on the bright side or embrace opportunity because it hurt too much. Better not to hope or dream and not be disappointed. It affects Masters too, and can cause a paralysis of anxiety that is one of the most common reasons a submissive seeks a Dominant partner. The need to have a controlling influence to break that paralysis.
It’s easy to tell someone “well just jump into deep water.” And so terribly easy to become frustrated when they seem to be unable to. Our own experience teaches us that there is no joy and happiness without risk. Why do our submissive partners not see this.
Let’s define the qualities of a Dominant – someone who tends to bend things with their will. Now we all know that “Submissive” doesn’t mean “beta.” The world is full of strong willed girls who aren’t submissive to anyone else. Many submissive are strong, brave, and make good leaders. But on some level the characteristic of Submission is a to be conservative in regards to certain types of personal choice. To seek protection and shelter not to risk it all.
We can’t, as much as we’d like to, simply pitch them into deep water and teach them to swim. Sometimes we can and must do that, but if we do it without any base-work we are courting disastrous failure. The basis for any D/s Relationship is to build a solid foundation of trust and care that makes the submissive partner feel safe jumping into deep water. That is critical to offsetting their tendency to think of the future negatively or pass up opportunity in order to minimize the chance of hurt.
The Benefits of Negative Anticipation
Whether one is a proponent of Capital Punishment or not, I am willing to hazard that fear of the noose or being put in the hot seat has kept more than one of our fellow men alive who otherwise would now be pushing up whatever it is that cemeteries allow you to grow on graves in these diminished days.
In short, the other reason we think negatively about the future is that it actually allows us to avoid consequences. Humans don’t have to have their left hind foot snapped off in a trap to learn to avoid things that are made of steel and smell of oil.
Gilbert says “in short we sometimes imagine dark futures just to scare our own pants off.”
With this benefit comes a danger. Humans have a frighteningly long childhood. One theory of evolution suggests that a slow maturation rate is a random mutation that is responsible for much of human intelligence. Whether that’s true or not, we do a lot of thinking and learning before our adult personalities are fully formed.
Not surprisingly this means we learn some important lessons while our personalities are still that of a child. The things we learn are the root of most of our paraphilias. They are deep and complicated and often seem simpler than they are.
One thing we often see is aversion…the personality that avoids a specific common thing because it learned differently. If it was Daddy’s habit to beat you with a stick every time he did gardening, Roses may strike one much as a steel trap strikes the three-legged fox.
All this is obvious and if it was all that this book had to say we’d consider ourselves out a few bucks, but this is just laying the groundwork.
The Allure of Control
In investigating the “why” of “why we think about the future” Gilbert suggests and obvious truth. We don’t think about the future to have a pleasant entertainment. We think about the future in order to do something about it. Start a fire before it gets cold, take an umbrella if it will rain or shift money out of bonds before interest rates skyrocket.
He asks the apparently obvious question of “why should we want to have control over our future.” He then posits two answers one right and on “surprisingly wrong.”
“The surprisingly right answer is that people find it gratifying to exercise control – not just for the futures it buys them, but for the exercise itself. Being effective – changing things, influencing things, making things happen – is one of the fundamental needs with which human brains seem to be naturally endowed, and much of our behavior from infancy onward is simply an expression of this penchant for control.”
Hear that Doms and Dommes? It’s natural.
Now, here is the interesting thing. Gilbert goes on to talk about the risks involved in loss of control. “Human beings come into the world with a passion for control, they go out of the world the same way, and research suggests that if they lose their ability to control things at any point between their entrance and their exit they become unhappy, helpless, hopeless, and depressed.”
So, let’s remember for a moment that this is not a statement about Doms. It’s a statement about humans. Stupid word games aside, last time I checked that includes your submissive or slave.
Gilbert cites some rather scary research. Patients at a nursing home who were given a plant statistically lived longer if they had the responsibility of caring for it – 30% to 15%. If those odds hold true as a Master I should never die.
But…that’s not the chilling part…they did another experiment where students visited a nursing home. Some patients got to tell the students when they could come and visit others just got visited on the students’ schedule. Those in the high control group reported being “healthier, happier, more active and taking fewer medications” than those with little control. Remember these are abstracted studies so this isn’t random hearsay…there are careful inventory and analyses for these things.
So…same result. Only in a followup after they discontinued the experiment, they found a disproportionately high number of the patients in the high control group died in the ensuing six months. A significant enough number to convince the researchers something they hadn’t thought to test…that losing control has a more negative impact than never having had it at all.
‘These and other findings,” says Gilbert “have led some researchers to conclude that the feeling of control – whether real or illusory – is one of the wellsprings of mental health.”
Gilbert spends a bit of time exploring how we often behave towards random events as if our control matters. People will bet more on a game of chance if they pick the number or roll the dice, even if there is no statistical ability to influence the outcome.
What does this mean for BDSM? I see a couple of immediate fallout observations.
1) Having a dominant to exercise control may in many cases fulfill a need to limit the impact of the unpleasantness of losing control by refusing to take any.
The downside to this is something we experience all the time. A submissive or slave who is willing to “give up control,” but bridles at “taking orders” when those orders involve doing something that is challenging. If we understand that this is a motivation to experience control we can understand that limitation better
2) A D/s Relationship that is going to be non-egalitarian should start that way. We’ve all heard of couples where they “slowly came round to an M/s dynamic. “ In practical terms taking away a partner’s control is likely to provoke resentment and upset. State the terms of a relationship clearly.
3) We may exert control over a Submissive, but we know that their mental health is dependent on their feelings of control. Very few people really want to lose all control. What they actually want is to exchange some control for a feeling of safety and security. Often what we are really doing is creating a solid basis from which those who have had control ripped away, or have never had much and are scared to experiment with it, or fear a loss of control can feel “safe” while going experimenting with using control. We create an environment where someone who has had problems with control can experiment “a little at a time.” But contrary to all M/s literature, it’s unlikely that in most cases completely depriving our partners of all control is really what is desired, except inasmuch as that may be an act of taking control.
The Surprisingly Wrong Answer
The next thing which Gilbert investigates is the surprisingly Wrong answer to why we try control the future. “We insist on steering our boats because we think we have a pretty good idea of where we should go, but the truth is that much of our steering is in vain – not because the boat won’t respond and not because we can’t find our destination, but because the future is fundamentally different than it appears through the projectiscope. “
Gilbert likens this to other illusions – those of eyesight and memory, and puts forward an explanation based on how the human brain actually works.
Gilbert’s Central Thesis
In the book, Gilbert holds his central thesis till the end. He projects, correctly, that it is an answer that most readers probably won’t and can’t accept. In the remainder of the book he details painstakingly why we aren’t actually all the good at projecting how our future will be, and then proposes a better method for making decisions about what will bring us happiness…alas, his answer is one that, however practical, most of us will have a hard time digesting.
As time permits, I’ll build on this essay, and detail the remainder of the interesting and creative points that this fascinating look at how our minds actually work
…..More to come