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Bringing in the Harvest

Bringing in the Harvest

Bringing in the Harvest

    To all our American readers, I and the rest of the Lifehack team wish you the happiest of Thanksgivings today.

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    I wanted to avoid the typical, clichéd, count-your-blessings-what-are-you-thankful-for posts. You all know that. Grade school kids know that. Heck, the unborn already know that. So let’s take it as a given that you’re deeply considering your blessings and what you have to be thankful for today. At least during the commercials, if nobody’s yelling.

    (Non-US’ers may not be aware of how we celebrate Thanksgiving here in the US. First, there’s enough food to feed a small country – weird food, though, food we don’t eat any other time of the year except maybe Christmas: turkey – deep-fried, roasted, or stuffed with a chicken that’s stuffed with a duck – stuffing, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes, gravy, and something odd that an aunt or great-grandmother comes out of retirement once a year to cook. While that’s all getting magically cooked by our mothers, aunts, and grannies, the rest of the family either a) watches a big American football game, b) argues viciously, or c) alternates between “a” and “b”.)

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    But what’s got me thinking today is not so much the “thanksy” part of Thanksgiving, but the timing. Thanksgiving is, first and foremost, a harvest festival. That’s what the Pilgrims were supposedly giving thanks for – their first harvest in this new land. Every agricultural society in the world has a similar festival. After the crops are in and the hay laid up and the grain stored and the herds brought in and the work of the farm is done, there’s a festival, an opportunity to thank whatever god or gods a people consults on such matters and to celebrate the end of another year’s hard work and to prepare for the quiet months to come.

    Ironically, Thanksgiving became a national holiday in the US just as the agrarian lifestyle it celebrates was entering its final decline. It was Abraham Lincoln who made Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, as the Civil War which gave the US’s industrial revolution its running start raged. After the Civil War, farming would be increasingly industrialized, and the vast bulk of America’s population would leave the farm and migrate to the city, to lives of factory and service work. Today, fewer than 2% of Americans work in agriculture.

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    Which is to say that the majority of us lead lives that are no longer defined by the annual cycle of planting and harvesting, summer bustle and winter quietude. Our harvests are no longer brought in every Autumn; instead, we sow and we reap throughout the year.

    What strikes me about Thanksgiving, then, is that this is a holiday about finishing, about congratulating yourself and your community for a job well done. The Thanksgiving story with the Pilgrims and the Indians is a myth, of course, a story we tell ourselves to give ourselves some kind of grounding in the world, to explain who we are. But it’s a good myth – it tells of a people who looked at what they’d done and realized that they’d accomplished something. They were so excited about what they’d done that they couldn’t resist showing off a little, inviting their neighboring Indians to see (much like thousands of Americans will spend tonight giddy with excitement over the new widescreen television they’ve installed in the living room for tomorrow’s game, knowing that there friends and family will see that they’ve accomplished something).

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    It’s important to celebrate our accomplishments like that. It’s too bad that in today’s world of cool reserve and ironic detachment, too often we downplay our achievements, even to ourselves. We resist sharing our triumphs with others, for fear of being seen as bragging, boastful, “too big for our britches”, a show-off.

    This is unfortunate because the festival not only marked the end of the harvest, it gave farmers the energy and incentive they needed to slog though the dreadfully difficult work of tending and reaping their crops. We should allow ourselves the same benefit, but instead we sap away our motivation by downplaying the things that are most important to us.

    I guess what I’m saying boils down to this: while we’re giving thanks tomorrow for a harvest that we didn’t bring in tomorrow, maybe we should be thinking of the harvest we did bring in. And maybe we should be giving ourselves permission to have a little Thanksgiving throughout the year, to learn from the Pilgrims and mark our achievements as they happen – and share the bounty with our families and neighbors. Count your blessings if you must, but be sure to count your successes in the list, the projects you’ve completed, the steps both large and small you’ve taken towards your goals, and yes, your own harvests.

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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