Do it for the ‘Gram.
Why your outdated brain is making you unhappy and how to hack it.
This article is thanks to Andrew and Lee: “Knowing what we know from last week’s Don’t Be Evil article, where do we go from here?”
Everything is sourced and inspired by articles and books I list at the end.
Your brain: an outdated operating system.
For almost the entire history of our species, we’ve lived as clan-living hunter-foragers. 150,000 years ago, homo sapiens arrived on the Savannah Plain. Dangerous predators. Scarcity of food. Unreliable clothing and shelter. Life was short and perilous. Our brains became hardwired to survive and thrive in this world of constant danger.
By using language to pass on knowledge, our species has done so much in such a short amount of time.
Today, we live in a completely different world as our ancestors. Yet, our biology is still exactly the same. Only 10,000 years ago, the Agricultural Revolution turned hunter-foragers into farmers. Only 200 years ago, the Industrial Revolution turned farmers into office workers. Evolution did not have the time to reprogram our hardwiring. Today, our brains are still plagued by the operating system of hunter-foragers.
An obvious example of this is the reason behind why we gorge on high-calorie food. If a pre-agricultural hunter-forager came across a tree full of figs, she’d try a bite. Her brain would release dopamine upon tasting sugar. She would have no choice but to eat every last one of those delicious figs on that tree. Her brain’s instructions make complete sense in her world of scarcity. It could be days before she discovers another of food source.
This is probably why I can’t stop myself from binging on ice cream and cookies during my cheat days. In this new world of abundance, our DNA still believes we live on the Savannah.
How Instagram hacked your operating system to make you an addict.
Your outdated hardwiring isn’t a secret. Every company in every industry needs to persuade you to buy their product. Hacking your hunter-foraging operating system is the most effective way to do so. Marketers use tactics like social proof, tapping into our need for the tribe to keep us safe from danger.
As you know, Big Food puts sugar in everything because it might be more addictive than cocaine. As builders of technology products, we also try to put our own version of sugar into our products. Nir Eyal codified it for us as the Hook. Building a habit-forming product is our holy grail. Instagram, Snapchat, Candy Crush — we revere those that have done it the best and aspire to be like them.
At the heart of the Hook Model is a powerful cognitive bias called a variable schedule of rewards. Humans crave predictability and struggle to find patterns, even when none exist. Unpredictable rewards cause greater releases of dopamine. It’s this mental hardwiring that kept us alive. Our brains instruct us to continue to search endlessly, never satisfied. This is what technology companies capitalize on to create habitual behavior. Variable rewards come in three types: rewards of the tribe, rewards of the hunt, and rewards of the self.
Rewards of the Tribe
Our physically-weak species depended on our tribe for survival. We have specially-adapted neurons to help us feel what others feel. Our brains seek out what makes us feel accepted, important, attractive, and included.
Rewards of the Hunt
The need to acquire food and supplies is hardwired into our operating system. Today, we’ve replaced the need to hunt for food with the hunt for deals and information.
Rewards of the Self
Our brains instruct us to seek the new. Things that stimulate our senses captivate us.
Here’s the four step Hook cycle:
You open up Instagram while you’re waiting in the elevator on the way home from work. It’s an internal trigger because that’s just what your idle brain does now when it’s looking for some stimulation.
You scroll down to browse your feed. Look at all those visually stimulating photos from your friends’ interesting lives. Sigh.
3. Variable Reward
One photo catches your eye. You look at your friend and her boyfriend on a beautiful Hawaiian beach during sunset. They took the photo five times to get the angle and lighting right. She just posted it now, even though she took it a month ago. You like the photo.
Now you’re on vacation with your boyfriend in Iceland! You’re wading in the awe-inspiring corporate-manufactured hot springs of the Blue Lagoon. You carefully take your phone out of the plastic protective bag, take a candid selfie, and post it on Instagram. You get an external trigger notification. Your friend liked your photo back!
People like your photo! 49 likes since you posted it!
Variable Reward. Dopamine Release.
18 minutes later, you check your phone. 21 more likes!
Variable Reward. More Dopamine Release.
11 minutes later, 7 new comments!
Variable Reward. More Dopamine Release!
Don’t feel bad, we’re all Pavlov’s dogs.
Why your Instagram addiction makes you depressed.
Instagram has hacked into your core social survival mechanisms as a tribal hunter-forager. It allows us to spread gossip, pursue social status, and make human connections. We now do it exponentially faster than ever before in the history of human civilization. We used to only compare ourselves to our 150 tribe members. Now we see the most successful, the most beautiful, the most fortunate of 7.5 billion people in our feed every day.
Here’s the kicker: you only post when your life is fun and interesting. Your Instagram profile is a collection of the most amazing moments. It’s obvious that your photos don’t actually represent your actual monotonous daily affairs. Yet, when you start scrolling, you magically forget all of this. Your friends are all living wonderful, fulfilling lives while you’re scrolling in the elevator. Remember this: your friends are in their own elevators, thinking the same thing about you.
It’s not just Instagram, it’s everything around you. Our pre-agricultural biology causes addiction, anxiety, and depression in today’s modern world.
How to rewrite our operating system for happiness and high performance.
Tim Ferriss wrote 4 Hour Work Week, 4 Hour Body, and 4 Hour Chef. He’s also a successful angel investor, investing early in Uber, Twitter, Evernote, Shopify, Facebook, Alibaba. He relentlessly experiments to discover behaviors to get 80% of results from 20% of the effort. His podcast interviews world class performers across industries to discover their secrets. Interviews include Naval Ravikant, Jamie Foxx, Chris Sacca, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tony Robbins, and Ed Catmull. He’s taken his learnings and refined them in book form in Tools of Titans. The foreword is written by Arnold Schwarzenegger and amazing.
Here’s the biggest lesson — world class performers all have self-doubt, fear, and anxiety like the rest of us. They’ve just incorporated behaviors and habits to help them manage their hunter-forager psychology. They all hack their outdated OS.
Here are a few common patterns that high performers utilize:
The rise of agriculture was actually bad for our health. Hunter-foragers enjoyed a varied diet. Farmers gained cheap calories at the cost of poor nutrition. Today, carbohydrates (wheat, rice, and corn) provide the bulk of the calories consumed.
World War II completely changed our modern diet. The U.S Army invented processed foods to serve as combat rations for soldiers out in the battlefield. They mass-manufactured high-energy, tasty, and long-lasting food for hundreds of thousands soldiers. After the war, military policy had companies sell this processed food to the public. This ensured we would be ready for war at any time. We could simply convert our factories to produce rations for our soldiers. Manufacturing processed foods created the dawn the Big Food Industry. Today, 61% of our calories are from processed food.
Inflammation plays a big role in depression, much of this is caused by today’s modern diet: sugar. Our diet shouldn’t include refined carbohydrates and grains. We need to eat high levels of natural fats so our bodies can relearn how to use fats for fuel. This is the brain’s preferred source.
Three meals a day is a new phenomenon created by the Industrial Revolution. As hunter-foragers, we evolved to be the most effective on feast and fast cycles. Today, we feed all day and never allow autophagy to clean our body from toxins and recycle damaged cells.
Modern “stress” is actually your sympathetic nervous system activating your fight-or-flight response. Your body is preparing to fight or run from a physical threat that no longer exists. All non-vital functions shut down, including digestion. Over time, the hormones from these responses cause anxiety and depression. Exercise dissipates the physical manifestations of stress hormones in the body. It releases serotonin, a neurotransmitter that stimulates the brain’s “happy centers.” Exercise induces the release of endorphins, blocking pain receptors and enhancing your mood.
What works for me: I’m currently doing a six day-a-week PPL program.
Another way to combat the fight-or-flight response is calm breathing. Breathing and meditation stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system to calm us down. Meditation trains the body to reduce stress hormones that cause anxiety and depression.
What works for me: I’m using Headspace.
Our sleep is biologically programmed to follow the rise and set of the sun. Our body produces melatonin at night when it’s dark to regulate our sleep-wake cycle. Blue artificial lighting from our phones suppress melatonin and disrupts our restful sleep. Sleep regulates the brain’s flow of epinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin. Sleep deprivation causes depression. Eight hours of sleep while the sun is down is optimal. If that’s too difficult you can invest in some black out curtains.
What works for me: I drink yogi honey lavender tea as a primer for bedtime. I try to sleep before 10pm and wake up as the sun rises. I need to keep my phone in a different room.
Addiction [5:41] is caused by social isolation and cured with healthy relationships. Human beings have always had an innate need to bond and connect with their tribe. When we’re happy and healthy, we’ll bond with people around us. If we’re isolated, we’ll bond with something that will give us some type of relief. As our modern way of life continues to isolate us, we turn to our addictions. Make sure to spend the time to invest in your relationships.
What works for me: I try to have a deep, meaningful conversation with a friend every week. I try my best to use my knowledge and my resources to help them fulfill their goals.
Rewiring Your Brain
Your brain is plastic. Neurons in your brain make connections, communicating through synapses. Every time you reactivate a circuit, synaptic efficiency increases. Through myelination, connections become more durable and easier to reactivate. If you like to worry, your brain will naturally default to negative thoughts. By thinking positively, you can wire your brain for happiness. Practice gratitude, affirmations, and kindness daily to train your brain for happiness.
Stoic philosophy is widespread with high performers today. We don’t control and cannot rely on external events for happiness — only ourselves and our responses. We take obstacles in our life and turn them into our advantage. We control what we can and accept what we can’t. Stoics include Marcus Aurelius (the emperor of the Roman empire), Frederick the Great (King of Prussia), George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt. Even Bill Clinton and Wen Jiabao (former prime minister of China).
What works for me: I use the Five Minute Journal. Every morning I write three things I’m grateful for, three goals, and two affirmations. Every night I write three amazing things that happened that day and how I could have made the day better.
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Dig deeper! More to read on this topic.
Has the Smartphone Destroyed a Generation?
(Recommended by Steven, Lee, Derek)
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
The Algorithm That Makes Preschoolers Obsessed With YouTube (Recommended by Lee)
Kids watch the same kinds of videos over and over. Videomakers take notice of what’s most popular, then mimic it, hoping that kids will click on their stuff. When they do, YouTube’s algorithm takes notice, and recommends those videos to kids. Kids keep clicking on them, and keep being offered more of the same. Which means video makers keep making those kinds of videos — hoping kids will click.
The Bushmen Who Had the Whole Work-Life Thing Figured Out
(Recommended by Andrew)
The possibility that our hunter-gatherer ancestors might not endure an unremitting struggle against the elements. Ju/’hoansi “bushmen” only ever procured enough food to meet their immediate needs confident that there was always more available. They did not have to work particularly hard, they were neither indolent nor bereft of purpose. They found profound satisfaction from the work they did and used of their free time to make music, create art, make jewelry, tell stories, play games, relax and socialize.