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Thanksgiving and the Stories We Tell Ourselves

Thanksgiving and the Stories We Tell Ourselves
First Thanksgiving in America

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving here in the U.S., possibly the most important secular holiday of the year. On this day, football is played, families come together and fight, vast quantities of turkeys are consumed, and stories are told. Stories of family and football, of course, but also a particular story, the story of the United States in its infancy, when beleaguered pilgrims came to American shores fleeing religious persecution. Pilgrims who were ill-prepared for the rigors of a new and harsh land, but who, with the help of their Indian neighbors, managed to flourish here.

This story tells a very specific and flattering part of the history of early America. It leaves out the earlier Thanksgiving celebrations in the Virginia colonies — those colonies being guided by commercial gain not religious enlightenment — and the history of slavery and armed conflict with America’s indigenous population.

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But historical accuracy is not the standard that we measure the Thanksgiving story against. It is the feeling of Thanksgiving, the kind of attitude about ourselves, our families, and our nation, that is important. The Thanksgiving story as we tell it describes us as a country founded in peace and goodwill — not in theft, slavery, and genocide. It’s the story of how we want to see ourselves and our past — and, sometimes, it’s the kind of story that inspires the best in us, instead of justifying the worst.

Each of us tells ourselves stories about ourselves and our lives, sometimes to inspire ourselves to great heights, and other times to justify our failures. This Thanksgiving, instead of thinking only about what I’m thankful for (though that’s important, too), I wanted to think about the kinds of stories I’ve told myself, or about myself, over the past year.

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I’ve talked before about how stories are powerful ways of encapsulating and passing on information — but they do more than that. Stories give shape to and direct emotion, passion, and behavior. They help us to grapple with experience and extract meaning from it. So, for instance, when my step-children’s father started behaving terribly towards his children, for no clear reason we could make out, my partner and I told the story to each other over and over in some attempt both to understand and to decide how to respond.

The stories we tell ourselves can motivate us to excel or to try something new. For years, I have told myself a story of academic life and of myself in it. In the gap between the story I imagined and the life I led lay all the steps I needed to take to make the story real, and it is that which has kept me motivated at a job that can be, at times, overwhelming. Part of that story was about my unique grasp of Internet technology as an instructional tool, which has motivated me to include blogging and online research in the design of my classes — earning me a great deal of attention from my colleagues and my department.

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But stories can also be deceptive, causing us to fall short of our goals. I have always intended to write for an audience outside of academia, but for years I have told myself that I had to pay my dues as an educator and a researcher before I could take up writing professionally. This year, I realized that it was not my academic situation, nor my economic situation, that was preventing me from becoming a writer — that it was in fact the story I was telling myself. So I stopped telling myself that story, and started telling myself the story where I’m a writer — and within months had begun writing at lifehack, as well as sending out submissions to several magazines.

These are only a few examples; I’m sure we tell ourselves dozens of stories about ourselves as lovers and partners, parents and sons or daughters, employees or employers, artists and amateurs. Often when we worry or back away from challenges, it is because in the stories we tell ourselves we are not good enough to deal with them, or just not the kind of person that deals with them. “I’m no hero,” we tell ourselves, and shy away from situations that demand heroism of us. Other times we charge headlong into risky situations because in our stories, we can and do handle them — in our stories, there is no risk.

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I wonder how easy it is to change our stories? It occurs to me that traditional psychoanalysis and therapy is based on telling your stories to a trained listener, who gently guides you through the process of developing new stories about yourself. Perhaps for the most deeply-held stories, professional intervention is needed, but what about the casual stories, the little tales of personal imperfection and unfulfillable desire that subtly shape our daily lives?

I think we can re-tell these stories — we humans are innately creative and creating new stories comes naturally to us. The catch is that to revise the stories of our lives means closely examining — proofreading, if you will — the stories we already tell ourselves, and that kind of self-examination is hard to come by. But as we face a long weekend committed to the telling of stories — both national and familial — maybe we can commit ourselves to examining at least some of our personal stories and considering how we might tell better ones.

That would be something to be thankful for, indeed!

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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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