When it comes to filtering information and decision-making, I like to work from hyperbolic case studies for two reasons. The first is they tend to eliminate a lot of noise found in grey, anecdotal cases. The second is that if we can agree on the extremes, then it’s generally easy to work out actionable consensus on related but less obvious dilemmas.
As some so aptly put it, I tend to apply Reductio ad Hitlerum arguments - a reduction to Hitler - cause hey, if we get the black and white right, the grey tends to get a lot clearer.
So let’s talk expectation, and to be that obnoxious dinner party guest, let’s throw a little Reductio ad Depression at it.
We’ve all been there (I imagine). And given the events of the past year, it’s likely we’ve all been there in the last year. Depression is a hard maze to navigate because when we're in it, it can be absolutely devastating, even immobilizing. And all those handy rules of health and vitality couldn’t be of less value - move, breathe, eat right, blah blah.
To someone stuck in the weeds, not even a weed cutter seems useful.
Studies on depression are painting an increasingly clear picture - it rarely, if ever, originates with a chemical imbalance, though it might arise with one.
Where then, does it originate?
It originates from those tinted glasses we wear that interpret the world differently than it is.
When narrowly misaligned, this leads to thwarted expectation - someone shows up late, ignores you, forgets to praise your hard work, your sports team loses, the fridge is out of ice cream, etc.
When widely missed - depression. A sign that ones expectations are severely misaligned with present reality.
When a trained rat navigates a maze and receives a reward pellet, serotonin and dopamine - hormones responsible for motivation - are triggered.
When meaningful (define for yourself) actions are taken and consequently rewarded… motivation occurs. Please read that twice.
Motivation is a byproduct of, not precursor to, meaningful action. Action precedes motivation.
One shouldn't expect to shift from negative, to feel better than they, do without first taking action.
And how, you may be asking, do we make that same pellet-filled rat depressed? Simple, throw a bunch of random shit at it. Sometimes pellet, sometimes not. Sometimes the rules of the game change, and the maze is different. There's no rhyme or reason to signal and reward, if there even is a reward.
Thwart its expectations!
A rat trained to navigate its maze yet not receive its reward suffers elevated cortisol and norepinephrine levels = stressed out rat. Not exactly the guy you want at your party dropping Reductio as Hitlerums, that’s for sure.
If maintained, low grade stress becomes SDS - social defeat stress. Which means a bunch of his friends are watching him run mazes from an elevated platform and mocking him for being a dumb, worthless piece of shit. Or something like that.
Reductio ad Depression.
When expectations are not met...
“I ran the damn maze, where’s my pellet? I did my job, I work conscientiously, I care for those around me, why is life dealing me lemons?”
…psychological suffering arises, along with all its chemical imbalances. As with the rat, so too with you.
Now, this isn’t intended to be about depression (the Hitler of missed expectations) so much as an exploration of the grey - that low grad stress and lingering discontent that permeates a portion of our days. Those non-weightless moments.
As is often the case with complex problems, there are multifacets to this equation:
One is establishing meaningful, gradable habits for which relevant rewards can be received with relative accuracy. This is the domain of Weightlessness Training. It’s the consistent maze with a predictable pellet at the end.
How you diet, move, stand, and breathe determines a great deal of your experience as well as your perception of reality. It's the stuff that makes you excel at running the mazes of your choice. It's Super Rat territory.
The other is holding fast to a narrative out of sync with your experience. In other words, you’re either in the wrong maze, or your actions within a meaningful maze are not delivering relevant rewards.
To transcend this, one must remove their tinted glasses. For the narrative, the story you've told yourself, while not wholly false, is not the whole truth. Important information is getting lost. You want the world to be different than it is, and that comes with pressure. And when expectations are unmet, it comes with stress. But this is what separates us from the rat - we can choose the maze we run.
This should be hitting you on a Friday, just before you head into a break from work. That’ll give you two days away from the maze (one of several mazes you're running perhaps). If any of this resonates, I’d recommend a few still moments over the weekend where you can look inside and investigate any points of discontent. And rather than throw it back at the world, challenge yourself to identify and release those expectations that bind you to it, if even for just a few minutes. I’ll be doing the same.
There is no maze.
P.S. If you tried the above and found yourself just as attached to said expectations, try this simple hack for masterful mindfulness practice.
P.P.S. I've included some images below of rats doing things. Perhaps they get to choose their mazes after all...