Make Good Bargains

Make Good Bargains

Is it worth it?

The Practice:
Make good bargains.

Why?

Life is full of tradeoffs between benefits and costs.

Sometimes, the benefits are worth the costs. For example, the rewards of going for a run – getting out in fresh air, improving health, etc. – are, for me at least, worth the costs of losing half an hour of work time while gaining a pair of achy legs. Similarly, it could well be that: getting a raise is worth the awkwardness of asking for one; teaching a child good lessons is worth the stress of correcting her, and deepening intimacy is worth the vulnerability of saying “I love you.”

But other times, the benefits are not worth the costs. For example, it might feel good to yell at someone who makes you mad – but at a big price, including making you look bad and triggering others to act even worse. There are indeed rewards in that third beer or third cookie – but also significant costs, including how you’ll feel about yourself the next day.

We make a thousand choices a day, each one a bargain in which the brain weighs expected benefits against expected costs. Therefore, it’s important to make good bargains, good choices, in which the real benefits are greater than the real costs.

Unfortunately, your brain lies to you all day long. (And to me and to everyone else.)

Here’s why:

  • The reward centers of the brain’s limbic system evolved several hundred million years ago. Their relatively primitive processing pursues short-term gratification and basic sensual pleasures and inflates apparent rewards – all to get the inner bunny chasing the carrot. As a result, the brain routinely overestimates the benefits of things that are not that good for you, such as: consuming sugar, carbohydrates, and intoxicants; playing video games; buying more consumer goods; looking for love in all the wrong places; pounding home one’s point; or being one-up in a relationship.
  • Even more ancient fear centers see shadows under every bush, hyper-focus on apparent threats, and over-generalize from past uncomfortable experiences – all to get the inner iguana running from the stick. Consequently, your brain routinely overestimates the costs of things that are good for you, such as exercise, taking the time for well-being practices like meditation or prayer, going back to school, setting aside your own position to really understand someone else’s, or exposing the soft underbelly of your deeper feelings.

Meanwhile, modern culture bombards us with the promise of inflated rewards – thicker hair! thinner thighs! – and the threat of exaggerated alarms: radioactive clouds coming this way! threat level orange!

So, let’s stand up for the truth – and make better bargains.

How?

(To be sure, we can also make mistakes in the opposite direction, such as underestimating the benefits of getting more skillful at being a mate, or the long-term costs of global warming. But in this limited space, let’s focus on the brain’s bias toward overestimating the benefits of things that are bad – broadly defined – and the costs of things that are good.)

Try to be more aware of the little choices you make about what you will and will not do. Slow things down in your mind and unpack these bargains to be more aware of the anticipated benefits and costs that drive them.

Know your usual suspects – the “carrots” you chase to a fault, and the “sticks” you needlessly run from.

Pick a desire that’s been an issue for you (e.g., food, drink, pulling for approval), and ask yourself: Are the expected benefits really that good? Try to imagine them in your body. How intense would they be, how long would they last? What price will you pay later? Are there better ways to get these benefits? Are there better benefits to be found pursuing other aims?

Also pick something that’s been a block for you (e.g., public speaking, asserting yourself in love or work, pursuing a lifelong dream), and ask yourself: Are the expected costs really that bad? Truly, how uncomfortable would you actually be, how long would it really last – and how could you cope? Would you survive the experience? How would you feel about yourself, finally pushing through this fear? What other rewards would come to you?

Now, take two, calculated risks – and see what happens: stop chasing some hollow and costly carrot, plus take some positive action you’ve over-feared, no longer fleeing a paper tiger. Notice that these are much better bargains! Open to and really feel the positive experiences you have earned. Link these good feelings to the specific steps you’ve taken, and to the general practice of being more conscious and realistic about benefits and costs.

And feel free to keep going – making better bargains.



Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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