Today I am going to chat with you about the information you deal with, its impact on your happiness, and ways to make it work for you to have a more fulfilling life.
A few weeks ago, as part of the recently added theme on better living, I introduced you to my infographic that I call “A Better Life” to be helpful in my guidance for you. It is not because I have it in my tagline (the refusal to think is evil) that I think that your thoughts are critical to your happiness. You want to be happier, you want to feel that life is fulfilling. Hey, I want that too! You have thoughts, lots of thoughts, and all the time. Whatever you think, they lead to what you feel, and then to the action you take, and the result that follows. The thoughts are based on the information set you hold at any point in time. (The term ‘information set’ is just a fancy term for everything you know. In other words, it is a sum total of all the things you experienced since birth minus all the things that you have forgotten.)
So, why should we pay attention to the formation of this information set and what can we do about constructing and using it in a way that makes us happier?
Impact – Short Term – Incremental Information
If through some mechanism we created a replica of you right now, and called that twin ‘YourTwin’ you would both be in precisely the same emotional state. If YourTwin was then whispered some good news, and you were whispered some bad news, your emotional states would typically diverge. That additional news imparted was added to the information set that each of you held. As time passes you and I receive different bits of information and so our information sets are very different.
In the case of the sudden magical existence of YourTwin, before the additional news was imparted, with the same information, the thoughts, feelings and actions would have been identical. It is the incremental information that led to a divergence of moods.
Impact – Long Term – Integral of Information
You are the sum total of your experiences so far. Because the long term is made up of the many, many short-terms it is important to understand the impact of each short-term and also the interaction between the many short-terms that make up the long-term.
Revelation of Information, Resolution of Uncertainty
As time passes uncertainty is resolved. What was once a set of possibilities in our information set becomes a single reality in the information set. It is also worthwhile noting that the many unrealized possibilities are not to be discarded in favour of the single possibility that was eventually realized.
Let us now zoom into the information component of the infographic, A Better Life
Information Sources – Internal and External
External Information lies outside your mind. The non-human sources are many (e.g. internet, TV, printed material). The human sources are all the people you interact with directly. Internal Information is that which resides in your mind already, memories since birth. Most of the internal information will have originated from external sources. It is this information that we must take great care of and is essentially what drives your happiness. Your internal information is also your knowledge.
The Value of Information – My Green Underwear and Your Consumption
Many of us confuse ‘information’ with ‘useful information’. Even academics will often publish research that is ‘new’ and even incremental to existing information. [Click here to see some of mine 🙂 ] However, you need to understand that, for you, information is useful and worth sourcing, analyzing and storing only if it will affect your current or future consumption. The knowledge that I am wearing green underwear does not affect your future happiness – it is new information but it is of zero value [or even negative value 😉 ]. Perhaps this crude analogy will help you remember this point whenever you think of information sources, so-called-information or news items, and storing that information. Ideally, information you seek ought to be both incremental and useful.
Action – External Information Sources
Given that information is the input to our thoughts, filtering it appropriately is important. Doing it consciously and with intelligent focus is very important. When I block out certain information sources, I call it ‘negative filtering’. Blocking out is extreme filtering – preventing information sources from reaching you in the first place! With external non-human information sources, this could include switching out of rubbish TV channels, muting the TV during adverts, watching news channels that do not constantly pipe through bad news. Filtering out external human information sources would include avoiding people who are ‘a waste of time’ or affect your state of mind negatively. And then we have the converse, ‘positive filtering’, to actively receive targeted e-mails on subject areas or sub-topics of interest, or meeting friends and experts who enhance our state of mind.
Action – Noise, not News
Someone who reads nothing is likely to not benefit much from the information available out there. Someone who reads a lot without being discerning is likely to (a) not retain much (b) spend less time on reflecting or have less time for acting in ways that make that information useful (c) not become particularly knowledgeable at things that are useful. Stop reading that newspaper every day. It is more likely to be making you more stressed and less happy. Even if you work in the financial markets, going to news actively at more spaced out intervals is likely to help you make better decisions. Do not waste your pre-frontal-cortex’s limited bandwidth on noise. Become a connoisseur of new useful information, not a mindless consumer of noise.
Pre-Processing Before Storage
Processing the information that you receive is also important so that you can decide whether you need to take specific action based on it or simply store away that information. Understanding how we commit to memory is also important then. Techniques for reinforcing useful memories for the short term (e.g. the name of the waiter who just served you – for a better meal experience) or the long term (e.g. the process for emergency CPR – to save a life!) will also be good for you to develop.
Information once stored comes in handy later for solving problems (e.g. getting to your favourite restaurant) and at times it can be debilitating (e.g. fear of approaching your boss to ask for a pay rise because of experiences in your childhood or recent past). Handling that internal information consciously is also important for thriving. Being conscious of your power to try to retrieve only useful information will make you feel more in control of your own life. Your internal information is your knowledge – and knowledge is power! Focus on quality not just quantity. But, with regards to quantity, remember that knowledge builds on knowledge – you can’t read unless you know the alphabet! You won’t eat healthily if you don’t even know something as simple as what the nutrient groups are!
Results as Information
With the information that we have we think through a decision process and then perform certain actions. Those actions lead to certain results and those results become new information that we have to then manage. We generally tag or label these results e.g. ‘disaster’, ‘bad’, ‘good’, ‘awesome’ when we store them away but that tagging also needs wisdom. I spoke to you many months ago about how such labels can limit you. Results are just an outcome and, therefore, beyond the necessary analysis, resultant conclusions and sensible storage, it makes more sense to focus in a disciplined manner on improving the design and execution of the daily processes (that drive the results).
Information and Cognitive Biases
Humans are subject to a whole host of cognitive biases that make us function in less than optimal ways. Knowing what these biases are, and what their impact might be, will help reduce the cost of errors you make using the information you handle. Ignore this aspect at your peril!
Junkie? No! Snob? Yes!
If you are anywhere close to my age or older you grew up in times when information and knowledge were not easy to come by. There was no world-wide-web and definitely no smart search engines. You had to typically get hold of books, journals or wait for a specific documentary to be aired on TV. Today, there is concern about information overload. There are some people who still take pride in being news junkies. I prefer to follow the approach of being an information snob. Don’t take false pride in hearing about a lot, or even knowing a lot. Take pride in knowing enough of what is important to lead a happier life. It is not a problem of information overload – it is a problem of inappropriate filtering! I consciously seek additional knowledge every day but I try to do that under the umbrella of consciously deciding what information to add to my information set. Information that will not make me happier now or in the future, I consciously avoid. Information that will help me consume more units of happiness now or in the future is what I am interested in. Paying attention to that detail is important.
Be a snob, don’t consume junk!
Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.