Hang onto your wallet – or lower your expectations

We have learned one more truth about ourselves: when we think an object is worth more, we enjoy it more. When told a bottle of wine is worth $90, researchers have found our brain tells us it’s more enjoyable than the same bottle of wine priced at $10. As if we don’t already have enough inflation to worry about – $3.10 gallons of gas, $4.00 gallons of milk, and Starbucks coffee costing more – we have to worry about the damage to the pocketbook we’re self-inflicting. Now, it may not mean we’re likely to actually go out and pay more for a bottle of wine – afterall, I’m as big a cheapskate as they come – but we’re more likely to feel better about the Night Train we’ve just bought on sale…marked down from $90 to a paltry lucky $13.

We are conditioned to believe that if something costs more, it must be better. To the point that in this California Institute of Technology and Stanford Business School study, we find that our brains actually change to accommodate this belief, by sending more blood and oxygen to the medial orbitofrontal cortex – the area of the brain associated with reward.

The study itself purports to provide evidence that marketing actions can influence the consumers’ not only expectations of quality, but our actual experience of enjoyment.

In a way, it makes sense and it is something from which marketers have made a living for as long as there have been marketers – if a person believes they’re getting a deal, they’re more likely to spring to buy a product. For instance, consumers as a whole do not understand the varying qualities of jewlery and when we see an advertisement for a sale – “with prices slashed” from/to – we think we’re getting a good deal. What we fail to notice is the caveat at the end/bottom of the advertisement: “original price may not have resulted in actual sales.” We’re told that the item is worth $X, and that the sale price is now some percentage reduced from that value, but we have no real way of knowing if it actually could sell at the “original” price.

This goes one step farther. This study asserts that marketing can actually change our physiological experience of a product, or in the argot of the profession, it can actually change the intrinsic quality of the product. Meaning that, at least with wine, if we’re told that it is an expensive bottle, we enjoy the wine – “enjoy” as operationally defined by brain activity in the pleasure center of the brain – to a greater extent.

That’s some heavy stuff. Watch out for more studies on this – the more we find out, the more likely we are to be paying more for the perception that we’re getting products of quality.

The study entitled “Marketing actions can modulate neural representations of experienced pleasantness” appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences of the United States of America January 14, 2008.






Afterward: I wrote this in March 2008, so I don’t know if any of the links still work, but I figure it was worth reposting. For instance, gas has come down some in the last 10 years…this caused me to remember what it was like leading up to the economic crash. I’ve found a few things from 2008 and am culling through them to see what’s relevant to post.


Untitled: The Contentment of Existence

I started this post in 2012.  I’ve come back to it a few times in the intervening six years, to the point that I’m not sure what caused me to start it, where I was planning to go with it, what my intention was behind it. It had no title – it sat as a “draft” known only as ‘Untitled’ as it sat. Writing is an interesting thing: sometimes it takes ideas years to percolate and come to their own meaning. Ironic, really, that it takes so much time and energy to process these thoughts on being present. Sometimes it’s not as ironic as all that: sometimes its the serendipity of finding relevant ideas in a seemingly unrelated book.  This entry is really the result of persistence, coming back off and on over a period of time – enough so that when the right inspiration came along, I knew how to apply it.

And thus it begins with a question: What makes one happy?  I don’t mean a funny joke, or laughing with old friends.  I don’t mean pleasurable. I mean generally happy.  The kind of happiness that at any one moment of clear presence, you realize you’re smiling or content.  The happiness you feel when you’re alone with your thoughts, no one else around, no media to distract, and you realize you’re happy.

I spend a lot of time alone in my head – to the point that a lot of people think I’m aloof, until they get to know that is an outside wrapper and that I can be a warm, engaging and caring person.  Introverts are often like that: larger groups, where the potential for the spotlight of attention being focused on you at any given time can give you the heebie jeebies, but smaller groups of 1:1 interaction on meaningful, deep interesting topics are energizing.  I think I’ve gotten better about that over the years, but it’s still difficult for me to break the ice.  I’d rather mull ideas over, and get lost in my thoughts.

“Some people make the mistake of thinking that they are being mindful because they are focusing diligently on problems. But if they are doing so while subconsciously bound up with their worries and expectations, with no awareness that they can’t see clearly or that others may know more, they aren’t open at all.”

― Ed CatmullCreativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

In that alone alone time where I do get lost in thought they’re not overly deep thoughts, not pondering the nature of the universe or heavy, complicated concepts. Its actually super easy to just live in that place.  But that’s the issue; its easy. There is no achievement, there is no improvement.

Ed Catmull citing research in his book Creativity, Inc., says that “mindfulness helps us accept the fleeting and subjective nature of our thoughts, to make peace with what we cannot control. Most important, it allows us to remain open to new ideas and to deal with our problems squarely.”  It’s that proclivity to dive inside myself that keeps me from being mindful, and perhaps content. Happy.

Catmull also visits the idea that meditation could actually lessen physical pain by helping people to be in the moment: by being in the moment, you shut off your monkey brain from overthinking and mulling over what the perception of pain should be.  Now, there is a fundamental disconnect between “thinking” and “feeling;” the two don’t necessarily share a vocabulary, and feelings are fundamentally different than rational thoughts, but I do try to think about what I’m feeling.  I spend time thinking about what’s causing me to feel a certain way – it seems almost disconnected, doesn’t it? Like a scientist observing a subject.  And that’s where I’ve been going wrong – I just need to experience, not think about it. Just. Be. In. The. Moment.

While it does seem disconnected, it is important, because its not even really about discovering the why of the emotion, but rather realizing that it’s being felt.  Being present. Looking around, taking myself off autopilot, and observing. When you’re so inclined as to spend that much time in your own head, it becomes very easy to be oblivious to the simplest things going on around you.

When you’ve owned a pair of shoes for a while, you notice a wear pattern on the soles. Yet, it’s not likely that you’ve ever consciously thought about how your feet hit the ground each time as you walk.  Often the greatest release of stress can be just taking that deep breath, coming out from yourself, and looking around; taking in the air, the sights, realizing what you’re doing. Feeling how those feet hit the ground. And you realize, you’re happy.  Content in your existence.

And so there it is: 6 years of percolating these words and the idea eventually reveals itself to be presence.  Not feeling.Not thinking. Not introversion vs. extroversion. Just being present in the moment.

XLVII: Random to Semi Perfect

Image result for number 47The number 47 is something called a “safe prime” number.  Now, being a social science guy myself, I really can’t wrap my mind around the “safe prime” definition, other than to say it has something to do with other prime numbers – 2p+1 – and that its useful for cryptography.  How? I cannot say.  I’m just leaving it at “it’s a thing” and moving on.  In some circles, it’s regarded as the quintessential random number – apparently when asked to pick a number at random, 47 is the most likely one picked.  That’s a concept I can more readily accept, perhaps because it’s decidedly a social science study about people and less about the inherent value of the number itself.

And hence the rationale for the post.  Today is the last day of my 47th year.  It’s been an interesting year, one in which I challenged myself to bigger things. I demonstrated endurance and, to a lesser extent, resilience.  I screwed some things up wildly. I did other things very well.  Much like the “random number” that 47 is, Mo at 47 was a bit of a mixed bag. It definitely wasn’t “safe.”

I took some calculated chances this past year and tried some things I wasn’t sure I could complete.  I completed some, failed at others.  I think I was a better friend this past year than I have been in the past, I hope I have been a better parent and partner.  I try to be the best me I can, but I fail at that sometimes.

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The Flag of New Mexico

New Mexico became the 47th state in January 1912, about 9 months before the Red Sox beat the New York Giants in the World Series. That’s relevant because ’47 brands designs some of my favorite Sox lids; Recently acquired starting pitcher Tyler Thornberg currently wears the typically un-baseball number 47 for the Sox.  Alas, they’re not playing this time of year; The Patriots are, however, and little known rookie Jacob Hollister, a Tight End, wears 47 for the Pats.  Over the last two decades, it has been a not uncommon feature of my birthday to get Patriots gear – 8 times since my birthday in 2002 I’ve gotten AFC Champion or Patriots Super Bowl gear.  It’s mind boggling, and as a fan I love it.  I know it’s not common and I cherish every time it happens because you never know when or if it will happen again.  The Baltimore Ravens won Super Bowl XLVII (47) after having knocked off the Patriots in the AFC Championship game, which was a drag.

We took a trip I never expected to take this past year – a week in Italy.  It was an amazing experience, and I’m so thankful for having had the opportunity.  A week in an ancient mountainside castle in Umbria with amazing views; we spent Easter Sunday in Assisi. We drove the Italian countryside, visited a vineyard and made our own Italian dinner.  You never know when or if that will happen again; if it happens to be a once-in-a-lifetime trip for me, it will absolutely be one of my favorite memories.

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Umbria, Italy. As an aside, I also got my only international traffic violation while driving around the Coliseum on this trip.

Apparently, 47 is the new “Middle Age.” Apparently, according to this article, I can be expected to live to about 86.  While, that’s all well and good but that bit of information reminds me that I am on the clock…at least there would seem to be a little more time my clock.  I’ve made it farther than Alexander Hamilton who died at 47 years, 183 days (showing you shouldn’t play with guns), Jack Kerouac at age 47 223 days from complications of cirrhosis (kind of not a shock, really) and Francis Gary Powers at 47 years, 349 days when his U2 spy plane was shot down. The difference between those guys and me, though, is that while I’ve outlived them in terms of how many days on  the calendar I’ve been on the Earth, it’s hard to say I’ve “outlived” them in terms of how they lived.  We still talk about these guys no less than 49 years after the last one passed away. I’m pretty sure no one will be talking about me.  I still have some time to give back, but I am on the clock. Time to step it up.

It’s also harder to keep what you’ve gained.  I started exercising regularly at 45.  I’m not likely to ever be the fastest runner out there, but I have gained speed, I have gained strength. Now, comes the hard part: keeping it.  That’s part of what freaked me out when I was hurt a couple of times this past year – I was afraid I wouldn’t get it back.  I found that it was a lot harder to get back than I expected. This last time I’ve found it’s more difficult than it had previously been to lose some of the excess weight I had packed on.

Image result for number 47

I’m also pretty far behind saving for retirement.  I can chalk that up to all kinds of things, but at the end of the day, I made choices.  So there are two choices now: sit around and hand-wring or do something more.  I’ve chosen to do more.

The last time I wrote an entry like this it was for year 38.  It was 9 years ago today to mark the passing of my 38 years, the year my father had passed away.  I can’t believe this July will mark 10-years – almost 20% of my life – that he’s been gone.  I miss that man and his influence more than I can say.   I don’t know that I ever adequately made sure he knew what he meant to me.  A significant regret, but I’ve come to find regret to be a powerful motivator to being a better person.  My hope is that I’ve become a better person in that time, and that the people close to me know what they mean to me.  That’s a regret I never want to have again.

I very clearly have a lot to work on and a lot to look forward to in the coming year.  And perhaps that’s the key: giving yourself the opportunity to be proficient while building additional capacity.  In a sense then its good I’m headlong into middle age, in theory I’ve got some time to figure out that which I haven’t figured out and to learn what I don’t already know.  Who knows where year 48 will take me, but I feel like I’ve given myself the opportunity to make something good and different from it.    48 is what’s called a “semi-perfect” number, a number equal to the sum of all or some of its proper divisors. In way, then, it’s fitting I find myself at this place in life. Not quite perfect, room for improvement, but not wholly imperfect either.

Here’s to what 47 was and to what 48 will be.

Beliefs Become Destiny

This was my end of a recent conversation about health, conditioning, and whether to run a particular race:

“I mean I’ve barely run for three weeks and I’ve lost so much conditioning I’m afraid all I can do is the half marathon.”

I’m quite aware that may sound hollow to a good deal of people, I get that.  The race we were discussing is a 50k – 31.1-Miles – considerably longer than a half marathon and one for which one really needs to train.  I’m no where near that level of fitness right now.

My friend did not let me off the hook so easily. I was looking for affirmation, “yes, of course. You’re not your best you for reasons outside of your control. It’s okay. Build up to it.” That’s not what I got.  I was looking for excuses; I got a reality check.

“‘barely,’ ‘lost,’ ‘afraid’ are all I see in what you just said…  Come on man, if it’s a half marathon kick the crap out of it, if its a 50K finish, if it’s a 5K set a course record.”

“I mean I’ve barely run for three weeks and I’ve lost so much conditioning I’m afraid all I can do is the half marathon.”

A lot of negativity in one 23-word sentence.

Then, the kicker, because ever since undergrad I’ve been interested in how language affects us, how we use it to convey meta-messages, how it can be used like Jiu Jitsu to disarm verbal attacks:  “Language can be as bad for your health as drinking beer, and having a heart attack while in the garage on Facebook.” Ouch.  I was letting fear control my thoughts; and in turn I was letting that negative thinking control my words. My actions.  I was letting myself off the hook with excuses; setting the bar low so I could attain a marginal victory.  I was failing to control my inner dialogue and failing to let my positive thoughts control my language.

I was thinking that I could do the Half Marathon and get by. He was challenging me to set a personal best.  He made it okay to run the 5k variation, if I was going to set a course record. He made it okay to simply finish the ultra-marathon. Jiu Jitsu. He took the control the fear had over me, and used it against itself.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
― Marianne WilliamsonA Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles”

Internal dialogue is a powerful thing.  It controls your definition of success and it determines whether you’ll allow yourself to achieve it.  It is the difference between continuing when you don’t want to and regretting you didn’t continue. It’s the difference between embracing your limits and setting artificial ones.

My motto for 2017 was “goals without fear,” and yet I started 2018 allowing fear to control my thoughts.  Am I in condition for a long race? Probably not, but that’s not what I said. I said I was letting fear control how I was thinking about it, and not, as I believed, making an honest assessment of my current fitness.

The race is 20 days away – longer than I was laid up. If I want it, I can get myself back to my previous condition, whether or not that’s ‘race ready.’ The idea isn’t that I should or shouldn’t run the race, it’s that I should not let fear, loss, and barely control my thoughts.

It’s about the courage to see just where my inner power may be. Its the courage to see that light as power and not fear; to speak from a place of strength, not weakness.

“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”

― Mahatma Gandhi

If you let fear control your thoughts, you allow fear to control your words. If you let fear control your words, it ultimately controls your destiny.  Charting your course is hard enough as it is, why make it more difficult by allowing that inner darkness control your destiny?



Eternal rest grant unto them , O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon them .
May the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

It isn’t often you’ll find me reaching back into the faith of my childhood to find the words to convey meaning at life’s most difficult times, but tonight these words seem appropriate and right.

Tonight, a beautiful and wonderful human being has become one with time and with the universe, has left this earth and gone forth to the great unknown.  If I could let her know anything, it’s that I love her son like he is my brother and that brother of mine loved her as much as any person could love another.

Throughout her illness, she demonstrated rock solid resiliency.  When it became clear treatment was no longer effective, she demonstrated the strength of character I’ve come to know over the last 30+ years.  When one is at peace with herself, she can make those around her stronger.  And she did just that.

She exemplified feminine strength with rock solid conviction and understanding of who she was in this world.  I can think of few people I have ever known more impressive, more confident, more tough or strong.  More loving or sure.  Tonight, I am sad to know she has left us, but proud to say I knew her.  She leaves the world just a little bit better for her having been here, and far better than most.


Keeping It Between the Navigational Beacons

Life itself is a process of navigation. Sometimes we successfully navigate the beacons, sometimes we don’t.  Thankfully, in most of life’s endeavors there’s a pretty significant fudge factor.  Imagine if life were strictly a journey from place to place: in order to get to where you’re going you have to be exactly on point and the slightest deviation will put you a significant distance away.  If you have a 1-degree variance from your intended destination, over 500 miles you’d be more than 8-miles off track.  1-degree!  And that’s if you know where you’re going.  If you don’t have a goal, and just roll with whichever way the wind blows, you’re liable to wake up someday wondering where all the time went and why you haven’t accomplished anything you expected to.

Oftentimes though, the carefully planned path is overly rigid.  Sometimes you want to take a detour and see what else might lie beyond.  Plan that path too carefully, you’re liable to wake up someday and wonder about the path not taken.  If your path requires 100% accuracy – perhaps your assumptions are a little too exact, or require full control over extraneous variables for which there is no way you could possibly account – you’re likely to be very disappointed.

And then there’s all the in-between.  All the space between drifting without a goal and being overly structured.  That’s where I’m thinking about when I say it’s a process of navigation.  It’s the voyage toward the ideal goal along the charted path there.  My life has taken some twists I hadn’t planned for, but sometimes resiliency is the better navigator.  It’s getting by the obstacles that get in your way. It’s about having a destination in mind, but being flexible enough that one, or two, or more roadblocks won’t drive you off course.  It’s about paying attention to how much variance is acceptable and how firm your end goal is: maybe you’re 5-degrees off course but you realize that you’re enjoying where you’re going and decide the heading you’re on is better than the one on which you had planned.  Without that reality check, you wind up somewhere completely different than your expectations.

An article in The Atlantic suggests that the conventional wisdom that with age comes increasing happiness, is changing.  The author posits a couple of different potential reasons for this; the rise of individualism, an absence of emotional bonds.  I’m going to posit my own.  We spend an inordinate amount of time planning and setting expectations.  The generations coming to middle age and beyond now were raised with the expectation that they would do better economically than their parents; and it turns out this may not be so.  It’s about navigating the definition of happiness. We spend a lot of time alone, but very little time in introspection.  We know what we want to do, but we’re planning to get there instead of enjoying the here and now.  We have more capacity to touch more people, but less capacity for those meaningful relationships.  We have the knowledge of the entirety of human history at our fingertips, yet our work often needs little more information than how to press a button.  We give ourselves little wiggle room, and in our highly structured lives, we forget that resiliency matters.

I’m gettin’ paid by the hour, an’ older by the minute.
My boss just pushed me over the limit.
I’d like to call him somethin’,
I think I’ll just call it a day.

That said, the substantive body of generational and of “happiness” research suggests we do become happier as we get older.  The dawning of middle age was difficult for me.  I took a hard correction in course, really thought about what I wasn’t getting out of life, and reset what those expectations were.  What I didn’t do was decide it was all crap and throw it in the trash.

I started this post literally more than 4 years ago.  I have little doubt the direction it would have taken then would be substantially different than where I am today.  I cannot remember a time when I have felt more empowered by having a goal, having built a plan with a significant fudge factor in it, and working that plan. I’m happy with my work; I have a meaningful career I worked hard to cultivate and got lucky to have been in a few right places when it mattered.  I never grew up with a plan of what I wanted to do, I was however one of the lucky ones who found something I was interested in early and followed that path.

So how does one keep it between the navigational beacons?  By keeping the channel wide, by paying attention to the general direction, knowing what the journey generally should look like, and keeping tabs on where we are along the journey.  By finding meaning in what we do every day, instead of finding meaning in the ultimate goal.  The goal isn’t worth getting to if the journey isn’t worth having.