Friday, May 11, 2012

Moods: WTF?

Beavis and Butthead.  It makes no sense to illustrate this post with these guys, but I'm doing it anyway, because seeing them is like a breath of fresh air.
I don't know if you remember Beavis and Butthead or loved it as I did.  To me that show was like Western Civilization stopping in the middle of its long, long downfall to do a quick magic trick, drop some acid, and crack a few jokes before going back on its way.  Who will ever forget Beavis dreaming of being on "True Stories of the Highway Patrol"?

In case you're too young to remember, Beavis and Butthead were idiot teen boys who were obsessed with MTV and videos.  See, back in the day, MTV used to mostly show videos of popular songs.

Of course, at the time, this prompted massive hand-wringing about the downfall of Western Civilization:  OMG how will the kids ever be able to concentrate if they get used to watching three minute videos!!  Little did everybody know that within the next twenty years three-minutes for a concentration span would seem like an eternity.  Watch a whole video? Without online comments, snarky one-liners, and multitasking?  Who has time for that?

Anyway, in one classic episode, Beavis loses interest in videos.  I can't remember if he's bored, or angry, or what happens exactly, but he's like "Ugh videos who fucking cares I'm bored this is stupid" and I think it's that episode that he and Butthead decide to smoke some nutmeg, and you can imagine how that goes.

Then some stuff happens.  And a few minutes later, they're back on the sofa.  And a video comes on.  And Beavis is like "Hey! A video! Check it out, Butthead, a video! Cool!!"

I think about this episode all the time because that happens to me a lot.  One day I'm doing something and I'm like blah blah this is stupid and boring blah blah blah and the next day I'm doing the same exact thing and I'm like "Hey! Cool! Check it out Butthead!"

What's changed is my mood.  And if you think about it, moods change everything.  Sometimes I'll put on a certain set of clothes and I'm like Waaah this looks stupid I hate everything and the next day I put on the exact same set of clothes and I'm like Hey, this is looking OK I guess everything's going to be all right after all what's for breakfast?

The fact that moods alter experience so dramatically is already a little WTF in itself.  But the real WTF aspect of moods comes when you think about what, if anything, you ought to do about your moods.

On the one hand, you think:  as much as possible, you should just do the things that put you in a good mood and avoid the things that put you in a bad mood.  What could be more obvious?

On the other hand, though, you think:  wait, isn't that what that whole SOMA thing was from Brave New World? Wasn't that partly just a drug that would put you in a good mood?

This schizo attitude toward moods manifests itself in our profound ambivalence about mood altering substances of all kinds.  It's like, Well, if you're depressed, you should take something.  But to take those drugs when you're not depressed would be somehow wrong.  And that's true even though you're supposed to try improve your mood by exercising and eating right.

It's convenient to try to explain the inconsistency by pointing out that the drugs have negative side-effects and the exercise has positive ones.  But that cannot be the whole story, because if it were, we'd be trying to develop mood-improving drugs for everyone, and not just for depressed people.  But that's not what we're doing. 

It's tempting to try to explain the inconsistency by appealing to something like the desire for reality, for truth, for accurate information about the world.  Maybe you think, Well, to respond to something as if it's pleasurable and fun when it's really not pleasurable and fun is to be deeply misguided.  It's like living in the matrix.

But "really not pleasurable":  what does that mean?

You might say something like "It means how you, or how people in general, would respond to something when they're in a calm and cool state, a kind of neutral mood, not too up, and not too down.

But I am seriously not buying that this makes any sense.  Because there is no such thing as a neutral mood.  You're always in a mood, whether you like it or not.  A "mid-range" mood is just the mood that happens to be in the middle:  if you were on SOMA all the time you're mid-range mood would be through the roof.  A calm mood isn't a neutral mood; hell, in some ways it's the dullest mood there is. 

So I don't think these work.  I think the inconsistency is based on a deep but false mythology we have of ourselves as having true selves which it would be bad to alter unless you had to because you were, you know, depressed or something.

But everyone knows this isn't true really.  If it were, when we see people who start exercise programs or cheer up through yoga or "anger management" we'd be like "Hey Dude Don't Go Changing! That's you there."  Which is, of course, ridiculous.

I am basically on the side of do the things that put you in a good mood, but I confess to a certain amount of residual puzzlement.  Because there's something creepy about always being in a good mood.  Plus, I can't say that "being in a good mood all the time" is a quality I necessarily find attractive in people.

So I don't really know what the story is.

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