deletedJan 3·edited Jan 4
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Jan 3·edited Jan 3

>a great job preventing obesity, keeping people the same weight even on 10,000+ calorie diets through extreme fidgeting and movement

I was skeptical, so I clicked the link, expecting some academic paper, but instead it linked to some website selling services, with no indication of where on that page the claim was even being made.

It looks like the link is redirecting and it should go somewhere else.

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I've noticed that when I'm anxious, I often think thoughts that make me more anxious. So, if I'm worried about work, I'll also start to worry about my health or loved ones. I think most people already understand that as a sort of state that they're in, like saying "I'm in an anxious mood" or "I'm on high alert", but we can also think of it as the mind trying to keep itself anxious/aroused. For that one, at least, there's some obvious evolutionary explanations too

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>But why? Try setting aside all your internal human knowledge: wouldn’t it make more sense for sad people to listen to happy music, to cheer themselves up?

This begs the larger question: why would anyone - even someone not depressed - ever want to listen to depressing music.

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> Opiate addiction [could be considered] a recalibration of endorphin set point? I'm not sure.

You're not? I was under the impression that that was considered a fairly well-established fact about drug addiction at this point, that addictions "break" the ability of the body to maintain various biochemical levels to the point that dependency develops because you need the boost from the drugs to get back to normal. That's not *exactly* "recalibration of a set point" but it sure sounds pretty similar, don't you think? Or is there some nuance I'm missing?

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You describe depression as a problem of set points, as if depression were _accidental_. I don't think that's correct. Instead, I think depression is often the result of *incentives*.

I was depressed. I remember wondering, “Why am I so depressed? What’s wrong with me? Why are brains so dumb?” There’s a five month period where I don’t know what I did. In fact, I was so depressed that I just didn’t bother to interact with anyone new.

I expected that I would just get hurt whenever I interacted with other people:

- A girl seemed to really like me. We hung out a few times and it was great. I texted her the day after one of these times and she never replied. For months after that, I felt like I had to make her respond, and I blamed myself for her ghosting me.

- A friend didn’t like my ideas about psychology, called me “dangerous”, and terminated our friendship. I felt like I had to fix his reaction.

- At a party, someone asked me, “I heard you quit your job. Why did you quit?” I didn’t want to answer, but I felt like I had to answer.

Near the end of my depression, I wondered, What if my depression wasn’t a symptom? What if it was a solution?

When I am depressed and low energy, I don’t want to interact with other people. So, if interacting with other people means getting hurt, then, here’s an interesting theory: a way to avoid getting hurt is to be depressed.

Maybe my depression was actually adaptive. And maybe I didn’t have a ‘dumb brain’ after all…

If that was true, all I would have to do was find a way to interact with other people without getting hurt as much. But how?

I think the most common way that people in my position cope with this problem is by becoming numb and rejecting any negative feelings they feel. This is not what I learned. In fact, I had already learned this strategy of numbness, and I would have to unlearn it as I learned a better way.

Instead, with help from a counselor and a little-known method called Coherence Therapy, I gradually altered the ways I was interpreting social interactions and my feelings. As I made progress, I had less incentive to avoid other people and it became less useful for me to be depressed.

These days, I’m not afraid of social interaction anywhere near like I used to be. I’m comfortable being really social now.


The above is from a draft for a series I'm writing about unlearning social insecurities, supported by Epistea Residency and CFAR. It will be posted on my blog soon. https://chipmonk.substack.com/

I don't think this is the case for everyone, but it was the case for me and I would venture to say it's the case for most people. I was INCENTIVIZED to be depressed. I could not have told you that at the time, but looking back, yep: I was afraid of social interaction and I didn't know how else to cope.

From this perspective, it makes total sense to me that many people who are depressed seek stimuli that brings sadness. I don't think they're depressed _accidentally_. I think they're depressed as the result of an INCENTIVE. The Coherence Therapy Institute has documented many case studies of exactly this: https://coherencetherapy.org/discover/examples.htm

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I find most of what you say convincing but I don't think the sad music part fits the theory.

As you point out, even non-depressed people seem to prefer to listen to sad music when feeling down. I don't know about other people, but while I almost always prefer bright popy songs when I'm really bummed more melancholy music makes me feel like my sadness is heard and has meaning. It's the musical equivalent of someone empathizing with your break up by telling you how awful they felt after their break up instead of telling you about how great their relationship is going.

There are all sorts of ways this may differ for depressed people. For instance, maybe you can hope for catharsis for momentary pain but not for the general feeling everything is bad. And maybe they react differently.

So I don't think it's in conflict with your story but it seems like it isn't obviously predicted by it either.

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Jan 3·edited Jan 3

I've occasionally noticed something similar with procrastination. On days when I'm very distracted, I sometimes feel brain fog pour in right when I try to go back to work. The brain fog then goes away if I go back to being distracted. From the inside it feels like my body wants to be distracted and is enforcing this by making it hard for me to think well.

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Without being familiar with any relevant studies, I can’t say much about whether this tracks with what’s known. Still, it seems strongly counterintuitive, and goes against what I seem to observe in myself and others.

For context: I’m certified in Peer Support, and I’ve been offering similar support as a personal coach for 7 years. In almost each case of depression or acute distress that I’ve seen, there seems to be a shared pattern: trying to figure out what’s wrong or improve matters tends to increase stress and a feeling of futility, whereas simply acknowledging how things are seems to provide relief and, as the post mentions, relaxation.

Certainly this could be described as “feeling worse”: staving off negative emotion means having some amount of disengagement from them, whereas letting them land and linger means dropping those barriers.

But the key principle seems to be that feeling any feeling, feels consonant; whereas fighting any feeling, feels dissonant.

In my own internal experience, and in the descriptions I’ve heard from everyone I’ve worked with—often friends who I just happened to be there for—this seems to be universal. The aversive/distressing quality of any emotion seems entirely separate from its placement on the happy-sad spectrum; instead, it seems to be a function of whether a person feels safe to simply immerse themselves in it, which in turn can often come a bit *after* voluntarily doing so.

It seems like the only way that the set-point narrative applies here, is in the difficulties we all have finding our way towards less familiar emotions: anything we’re used to navigating certainly tends to be easier than finding our way somewhere new. The persistent inertia of predominant affect is a fact; but the “emotional homeostasis” claim seems wrong. Rather, people (1) feel better when they aren’t fighting any feeling, and (2) tend not to know a way out of their common, negative emotions—if they did, they’d have used it already.

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Isn't a consequence of a theory that explains depression as an error in set points that we should probably expect truly effective drugs for treating depression to also improve mood in non-depressed people?

You might be able to find some drugs that mostly just weaken the strength of the set-point but the problem is those could easily make things worse. Often depressed people will face real life problems as a result of their depression costing friends, jobs etc etc and weakening the set point could let it be pushed lower. Sure, regression to the mean probably makes these drugs worthwhile but it suggests that when you have a hard case and really need drastic intervention you probably need a drug that directly increases that set point in everyone.

This isn't necessarily bad per-se, you might want to avoid prescribing them to the non-depressed for risk of producing mania (which is presumably the opposite set point issue) but it likely means lots of trouble getting regulatory approval because they'll have some tendency for abuse and many people will get worked up about the idea of improving mood through chemistry since it doesn't just help the depressed.

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I've never been clinically depressed, but at times when I was feeling at a bad point in my life and listened to a lot of goth music it was (a) a group identification with other people who felt the same way, and (b) made my emotions feel validated. Not laudable, just validated.

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Can one's happiness set point be miscalibrated too *high*? What would the behaviors to defend that set point look like? Would the resulting overall picture correspond to a well-known disorder or phenomenon? (perhaps not classified as a disorder, if not maladaptive)

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I may have experienced some of the changing set point in fluid intake that you describe.

As part of a weight-loss plan, I deliberately increased the amount of water I was drinking to 8-10 cups daily. Later, due to other medical issues, I changed my target to 12-14 cups daily. More recently, I've found that I feel thirsty more often, and I'm now drinking 13-16 cups daily without much effort (I take potassium and magnesium supplements to avoid issues with low electrolytes resulting from drinking so much).

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> Which other conditions seem like cases of miscalibrated set points?

Isn't this a model for basically all chronic illness that persists after the acute shock disappears? The body is a complicated control system, sometimes acute stimulus drives the system into a different equilibrium point, the equilibrium point being bad makes us label it "chronic illness". At least this should work for chronic pain and chronic inflammation, right?

If you generalize "setpoint" just a little bit, I think autoimmune disorders might also fall into this category. (Does the body have mechanisms for determining when it should learn that something is a pathogen and when it should resist learning that something is pathogenic?)

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Many of the things depressed people have to do to avoid depression are quite effortful, like exercise, or aversive, like calling a friend when your entire cognitive architecture is telling you they secretly hate you.

Taking a pill is fairly easy. Perhaps depression works at the level of "all those things you can do to help yourself are gonna suck", by racheting up the level of predicted, and perhaps actual, negative affect you feels like doing the things. But an SSRI pill or whatever isn't like calling a friend or going for a walk, you can do it without being thwarted by all the negative generative predictions your cortex is spinning up.

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> I've never heard of anyone giving themselves a primary polydipsia by voluntarily drinking more water (maybe because they heard that bogus eight glasses per day statistic) and then being unable to stop; if there were cases like this, it would lend this theory significant support.

During fall of 2015, I was sick with semi-bad pneumonia, and my doctor told me to drink more water. (This was somewhat of a common refrain from many of my doctors, over the years.) So I did. Got into the habit of drinking regularly, two glasses of water per hour I was awake, summing up to about 300oz per day. (Where, before this, I was drinking smaller total quantities less consistently, maybe ~100-200oz/day on average.)

I kept this habit up after that. When I was sick and doctors told me to drink more, I'd do so temporarily for the duration of my sickness, escalating to two glasses per 40 minutes, but I'd go back to two-per-hour once no longer sick. It was stable enough that I could even pretty often *tell the time* by it: notice a pang of thirst, check the clock, find that, yes, as expected, it was the top of the hour. Until, in mid-2019, I became chronically sick with a bunch of inconvenient effects, including, among other things, continually-escalating thirst, to the point where I felt near-permanently thirsty. And even *I* knew better than to escalate up to drinking every half-hour, as my body was trying to push me towards.

As is likely obvious given the context of this story, it turns out, whoops, drinking 300oz/day is Too Much! This was eventually, after a half-year-ish of chronic sickness, a thing someone managed to figure out, following my sodium levels testing out-of-reference-range-ishly low during an ER-visit-for-a-kidney-infection at the start of 2020. So the nurse told me to cut my water-intake levels way back, and I did, and the chronic sickness and all its side-effects receded as I did, and now I'm down to drinking only ~90oz of water per day and being pretty stably in the middle of the reference-range sodium-wise and everything is pretty solidly fixed.

But the interesting thing in the meantime was: during the acute chronic sickness in 2019, I felt permanently thirsty due to not drinking enough relative to the runaway spiral my thirst-levels had fallen into. When I dropped my water-intake in 2020, I went a couple weeks feeling even more deeply unpleasantly thirsty than I had before, but then after a couple weeks it turned around, with the reduction-in-thirst from breaking the spiral becoming larger than the increase-in-thirst from drinking like a quarter the water I was accustomed to. So things were better, at that point. But they weren't *fixed*, in any quick way. It took probably on the order of 2-3 years, after that, before my thirst levels really finished recalibrating on my new baseline water-intake-rates, and during those years I was in a state of, if not constant thirst, then at least *frequent and conspicuous* thirst, enough that I had to be very actively *limiting myself* to drinking only one glass of water per two hours even when this was unpleasant. (And supplementing in the middle of those two-hour spans, sometimes, with Gatorade, when not-drinking-at-all proved too unbearable.) It's only relatively recently, the last year or two, that I've hit the point of being basically-comfortable-most-of-the-time with my current water-intake-rate.

So I suppose the bottom line I'm trying to get at, here, is: the overly-high water-intake-set-point wasn't strong enough to *make me unable to stop* the overly-high water-intake, once I realized it was bad; but it sure did *make it difficult*, and stuck around as a conspicuous factor in my psychology for a while even post-stopping.

(Even now, I have very little trust in my intuitive sense of thirst as a means of calibrating my water-intake. I may not be unpleasantly thirsty most of the time any more, but my Gatorade-intake-rate between scheduled drinks remains not all that much smaller than it was back when things were worse. (I factored it into the ~90oz/day number above; my scheduled water-drinks alone would be only 80oz..) I suspect that, if I were to drop the scheduling, sooner or later I'd find myself back retreading the same ground that led me eventually into the hyponatremia-feedback-loop half a decade ago.)

(The eight-glasses-a-day statistic in particular, to be clear, had nothing to do with anything here. If anyone ever told me to drink eight glasses a day, I told them "yeah, already drinking more than that" and then forgot about the whole thing. But many doctors just sort of abstractly told me to drink More, presumably on the assumption that most people drink unhealthily little rather than unhealthily much, and that definitely was a contributing factor to things.)

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Do you think the same applies to mania, just with the mood set-point too high instead of too low? This theory matches my internal experience of depression reasonably well, but I haven't heard of anything analagous to depressed people listening to sad music for mania.

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Jan 3·edited Jan 3

...All this talk about predictive coding and free energy and the brain just being applied statistics is starting to make me think that this whole topic is a legitimate information hazard. There's probably a damn good reason that the brain thinks it's not just math and that it believes there's actually something special about it, and you can't rob people of that illusion without consequences. We are walking into very dangerous territory here.

I understand that further AI research and research by the AI themselves will continue to unveil inconvenient truths about our own existence, but... maybe it's better if we don't think about this too much for the time being. We've already killed God, we can't afford more nihilism and existential horror right now.

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I also think about this in terms of someone being in constant "recovery". For example, one of the primary mechanisms behind feeling better after crying is that it is an intense release of emotion all at once, and often people would prefer to feel very bad for a short period of time than have it stretch out over the course of days. For most people, listening to sad music or doing things that make them feel terrible can actually help them. For depressed people, I think it sort of works in the same way, but there's some sort of constant pressure of sadness that invariably returns fairly quickly, sending them down the same path again. Because of this, many natural coping mechanisms don't really work long-term for depression, but people keep seeking them in hopes of some short-term respite.

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When people go to live blues concerts, does it make them feel worse? I have trouble believing this. They look cheerful. Perhaps they are cheered by the social atmosphere, not the music.

Blues fans are the people most likely to go to blues concerts. They are also the people who are most likely to listen to recorded blues music, which presumably makes them sadder. Are blues fans generally more depressed than other people? I suspect they are. Live music bars often prefer blues bands perform because the audience is a heavier drinking one than audiences of most other genres of music.

But then why do these depressed people seek out blues concerts, which cheer them up?

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Some observations from internal experience:

- When I'm in a depressive episode and feel like sitting in dark rooms doing nothing, my internal justification is usually something like "I just need to rest and save energy, and then I'll go do things later when I feel better." (Most of the time, this is probably untrue. Maybe my brain heard too much "spoon theory" at some point and miscalibrated its incentives on that basis?)

- Some of the internal experience of depression for me is just feeling an indefinite sense of melancholy, and trying to follow that and put into words exactly what it is that I'm feeling. Sad music sometimes has the effect of helping me put the emotion into explicit words, and that causes some kind of cathartic release that allows me to move on. So there may be some situations where sad music is actually the right choice.

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I often think about an episode of Dan Carlin's Hardcore History, "Painfotainment", where he reviews the history of public torture and executions. There's a part where he talks about the striking absence of nausea in old accounts of public torture.

Keep in mind these were hours long, ended in gruesome deaths beyond anything you'd see in a theater, and people voluntarily went to see them. Yet nobody seems to get sick. Meanwhile, transport most modern non-sociopaths to the same scene and most of us would feel at least a little sick. Plenty of dads don't do well during labor and delivery.

This is interesting to me, because it not only suggests a link between physiological reflexes and psychological conditioning, but it extends that to social conditioning as well.

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This post feels way too much like assuming the conclusion.

1. The attraction to the sadness could equally well be hermetic, for instance.

2. It could be an attempt to normalize the depression: "See, it's not just me. Some people feel so sad that they actually write music to reify it! I'm not that sad-maybe I'm closer to normal than I thought."

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Jan 3·edited Jan 3

From a first-person perspective, I understand this a bit. When my father died, I felt incredibly sad, and all-around horrible. I didn't enjoy being sad, didn't want to wallow in it (especially since he explicitly asked me to do the opposite!), but it did feel *wrong* to, say, eat cotton candy while skipping around on a sunny day.

In the midst of this, I had this thought experiment. Let's say there was a breakthrough in psychiatry and they'd solved sadness entirely with one easy pill a day. I wouldn't've wanted to take the pill, and I think anyone would agree that maybe sometimes one should be able to be sad for a time. I'm pretty anti-suffering, but justified not wanting to take the pill because maybe my sadness was teaching me something. But let's say there was also some amazing super AI tech that could instantly teach me everything I would've learned through sadness. I still don't think I'd've taken the pill.

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>if an obese person diets for long enough, does their lipostat eventually recalibrate to the diet as a new set point?

Yes, unless they think that they have permanently recalibrated and abandon the diet for the more enjoyable "old ways". Diets work only if you actually can stick to them indefinitely, with only the occasional splurges. I though this was the conventional wisdom by now?

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> This matches personal experience; when I'm feeling down, I also prefer sad music.

But according to this theory, shouldn't a non-depressed person prefer to seek out happy music when their mood is down? Like, we would expect people without depression to play happy songs at funerals to cheer up.

According to set point theory, there should be two groups of people seeking out happy music:

1) people whose mood is temporarily down by sad events

2) people with mood regulation disorders that are opposite of depression - they are compelled to always listen to happy music regardless of life events

Does it match the observed reality?

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Jan 3·edited Jan 3

This is one of the biggest things in psychs' usual playbook I cannot reconcile with my own experience. Trying to force down "happy things" to feel happier seems to require assuming you can neatly separate Genuine Bad Feelings and depression and that while Genuine Bad Feelings carry some kind of useful information or relation to reality, depression never does and therefore the only thing you should do is pretend it isn't there/do not-depressed things until your mind recalibrates to match.

I don't listen to a bunch of drone and atonal free jazz when depressed because it's "relaxing". I listen because trying to feign happiness in the face of what made me unhappy feels immediately and clearly dishonest, which makes it impossible for me to *view* whatever piece of media as "happy" or really anything but dishonest. I'm also not even sure there's an objective outside view where you can say something *itself* is intrinsically "depressing" or "happy" at all -- there are tons of songs I know where both music & lyrics taken in isolation are "happy" but my reaction is the opposite, or vice versa.

The even bigger objection I have to this is that it seems to imply that:

1. Only the end goal of mental wellbeing matters

2. You can easily define what mental wellbeing really is

If you were to find some magical purely internal way to feel and think only things consistent with optimal mental wellbeing, it would lead you never to act at all unless you are compartmentalizing mental wellbeing entirely separately from e.g. meaning, morality, your feelings & duty toward others, some idea of duty to survive, ...

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>>"Am I eliding some important differences in which these conditions are vs. aren't ego-dystonic? "

Sadness can function as a social signal, conveying emotions like regret or sorrow. This signaling is most effective when the emotion is authentic and perceived as involuntary.

The recruitment of the ego in maintaining sadness could undermine this authenticity. It could make the emotional expression appear deliberate or strategic, potentially reducing its ability to elicit genuine empathy and support from others.

So, I don't think it's a point against your theory. It makes sense that set-points would recruit all the mechanisms at their disposal that don't harm their underlying purpose.

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very interesting article with thought provoking questions.

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69 love songs has a lot of good (and hilarious) writing on this topic.


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I'm not clinically depressed. But still when I feel sad (for instance, when my grandmother died), I have a desire to listen to sad music. Using the set point theory, the natural response of someone like me (who's set point is... normal.. i.e. not depressed), upon hearing depressing news, should be to listen to happy music, to reset towards a normal state. But I don't. I still favour depressing myself further with sad music.

I don't think it's possible to square this with the idea that depressed people listen to sad music to keep a homeostatic depressed state. I just don't think it's logically consistent; if this was the case we'd see the opposite effect in people without clinical depression when they get sad news, but we don't. I don't have any particular problem with the overall homeostatic theory here; but the sad music component doesn't fit IMO. Which is inconvenient since it's the framing device for the entire article haha...

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This was really interesting!

I think of this in the context of dopamine a lot. Like cell phones, apps, games, tv all artificially set our dopamine thermostat level too high and it's hard for us to get it back down to a normal level where we can appreciate stillness and calm and thoughtfulness.

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If it was just a matter of having a different set point to non-depressed people, then wouldn't we see non-depressed people start listening to lots of sad music when they get particularly happy (i.e. above their own set point)? And other depressed type behaviours?

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I am uncomfortable with the emphasis on the idea that patients with fevers are "too warm" and should seek to cool themselves. They aren't running fevers because their internal temperature set point is too high. They're running fevers because the optimal position of their internal temperature set point is higher than is normally the case.

We often treat fever with fever suppressants, and I always wonder whether that actually improves outcomes. You're more comfortable on a fever suppressant, but the purpose of the fever is to help you. 😕

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> Depressed people, when told a treatment will make them happy, very occasionally refuse on grounds that "I don't deserve happiness", but this is pretty rare

Really? This is very much my experience with some of my friends, giving all sorts of reasons not to get help when they're depressed. "It's not depression clouding my judgement, I really am worthless and I really do deserve do be miserable. I wouldn't want some shrink to stop me from perceiving the objective reality of my being a useless piece of crap." In fact, I perceive the "actually deciding to get help" as one of the biggest obstacles to overcoming depression; it's my experience that it's extraordinarily difficult to talk a depressed friend into seeing a doctor. Maybe your perception is shaped by some form of selection bias, since you only see the kind of depressed people who agree to see you in the first place?

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Jan 3·edited Jan 3

I have an adjacent explanation for why I’m fat: I was, legitimately, really really hungry.

I’m not even on Ozempic or anything - just inositol, a supplement, after hearing it can help women with PCOS like myself.

I’d *never* before felt the fullness I do now. Now I actually feel physically bad if I eat too much. I have a natural stop point. When I accidentally miss my pills, and when I accidentally took a lower dose for a few weeks, the uptick in hunger was felt almost instantly. I’d guess it’s something about insulin resistance (though some obese are insulin “normal” but most are not) and just adjusting appetite. Accidentally overeat by 200 calories for six months, you gain weight, appetite adjusts to the new weight.

I really do think “overweight people are more hungry” explains a lot about overweight and obesity. Yet it’s so rarely focused on. You don’t need to jump straight to meds - lots protein and fiber can go a long way. But our most effective treatments for obesity, Ozempic and co and surgery, seems to affect appetite a lot - surprise surprise.

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Is this like a narrower version of Borsboom's network theory? https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28127906/

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My gut feeling would be that at least with regards to the title example, it's more typically the other way round than in the post:

Blues = music of sadness => we like listening to it in our sadness as it makes us feel less lonely in our sadness, i.e. at least a partial relief from the pain of sadness that is often paired with loneliness.

Happy music = music of the happy moving cheering people => making us feel even more lost in comparison to them, making us even sadder. We avoid it when we're sad; we'd lack the energy to feel truly part of it anyway.

I wonder about the possibility of a similar confusion in some of the rest: "They deliberately choose activities that push them into sadder rather than happier moods. This explains not just why they prefer sad music, but sad environments (eg staying in a dark room), sad activities (avoiding their friends and hobbies)" -> I'd avoid friends when I'm sad not because I want to be sad, but because in my sad state, I feel like my mood is a spoiler anyway. And I don't think that thought is only a trick by the brain; look at how popular you can be among a group of 'normal' people if you're a charismatic cheerful person, and look how much your popularity is lowered if you're that sad person (I have no stats on this, but it's a strong gut feeling/casual observation).

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This control theory applies to society/politics as well.

In a society with minimal crime, a person will point to the one crime that's happened all year and say "Look at how much crime there is. This never would have happened in the good ol days [statistically, it happened all the time back then]. This proves how soft we've gotten on crime. Crime has been normalized. Our society has become so tolerant of crime to have allowed this to happen. It never used to be like this [no it was objectively much worse]"

People talk like that all the time, because when society has wound up at an extreme set point for something, it perceives itself at being at the opposite extreme of that something, and aims to correct by becoming more extreme in the direction that it's already extreme in.


Now as for violent video games (i wound up on your streetlight effect article), imagine someone plays violent video games for too long. At first, their increased aggression is only temporary. But after too much for too long, it starts to "stick", and that post-GTA aggression level becomes their new set point ....

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> I've never heard of anyone giving themselves a primary polydipsia by voluntarily drinking more water (maybe because they heard that bogus eight glasses per day statistic) and then being unable to stop

Not sure how much this counts for but I've gotten into the habit of drinking a lot of water and I suspect I now get thirsty more easily than most people. Not exactly polydipsia though.

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I just wish the post was called The Sad Point.

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Taking this from depressed people to non-depressed people as well:

I wonder why our usual happiness set point is where it is – and whether some reasons we act irrationally like knowing *what to do* to have a some version of a better life and then for some inexplicable reason *not doing it* are because of some unconscious regulation attempts of our thymostat.

Do we believe our current setpoint to be the correct one and act in ways to keep it like that? Does it make sense to interpret some of our behavior this way and might knowing this help us raise our happiness set point to new levels, in effect making us perform more healthy actions that a healthier, happier person would take?

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Very interesting questions.

First off, this link doesn't work for me.

"It’s why, after you overeat, you might fidget a lot "


If I strip out http://sci-hub.tw/ , however, I can get the cited publication.

I apologize in advance for the lack of humility in making suggestions to a top tier psychologist in his area of focus. I hope this isn't entirely redundant with things you've considered already.

Anorexia is a really weird and maladaptive example of an altered set point. You'd think that if you starved an organism and made it exercise that it would adopt a set point of desiring a pathologically large quantity of food, not refusing food if it was available.

"(is) Opiate addiction a recalibration of endorphin set point? I'm not sure. What would it mean, philosophically, to answer yes vs. no to these questions?"

Alternate models:

1. Lack of a set point. If you have a fever, presumably you're still averse to burning your skin. If opiate addiction is well modeled by set points, we should still expect a certain amount of opiates to be aversive and a new, stable set of satisfycing behaviors that involves opiate addiction. A set point that wanders outside control limits is not a *set* point. Similarly, if anorexia is about set points rather than outright food aversion we should still expect a minimal level of food consumption to still be hedonic. Do we?

2. "This person has a new set point for opiate exposure" could be an incorrect assessment of the scope of what is being 'set.' Opiate addiction is a form of stimulation. Maybe the relevant 'set point' isn't for opiates, specifically, but is a set point for stimulation, instead. "If a person is stimulated in other ways then their tendency to use opiates will decrease" is a contrary case to the notion that opiate addiction involves altered set points for opium exposure, specifically.

3. Habit or stimulus-response should be at least partially distinct from set point. The notion that a crack addict seeing a crack pipe will lead to increased *desire* does not seem entirely in line with a set point model. In contrast, does a feverish person feel colder if they see a blanket? Probably not?

4. Lack of capacity is a simpler and more treatment friendly model than altered set points. If someone has higher blood pressure because of kidney dysfunction, then theirs may be 'a new set point' in some sense. But it may be simpler to defer to Occam's razor and just say that a person has kidney dysfunction. It seems common enough and functional enough to describe diseases based on their expected cures. A genuine, physical lack of ability to do a thing should probably supersede a set point model.

"Depression is a trapped prior on low mood"

I feel like 'depression' is a bit of a wastebasket diagnosis. Lets say that in some cases depression is a trapped prior on low mood. In other cases, it's a result of a thyroid disorder. Or the physiological effects of cancer (Which, yes, can be hard to disentangle from the looming mortality that goes with cancer.) Or starvation. Or some other condition where depression is an entirely logical and adaptive state.

If we're going to apply set point theory to depression it would seem helpful to tease out some subpopulation of people to focus on.

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> This seems paradoxical (why does someone with a fever, ie someone who is too hot, feel cold?!)

An alternative (or maybe better, and additional/intensifying) explanation of this is _heat flow_ versus temperature. I am (perhaps incorrectly) under the impression that our bodies do not have a temperature sensor but rather a heat flow sensor (hence why a 120F piece of metal feels very hot and a 120F piece of wood does not feel very hot).

Under "normal circumstances" - i.e. a 98F body temp and a 72F room temp, there is a certain heat flow from the body to the environment.

Under "cold circumstances" - i.e. a 98F body temp and a 50F room temp, there is a greater heat flow from the body to the environment, and this prompts "warming behaviour" (shivering, blankets, heaters).

Under "feverish circumstances" - i.e. a 102F body temp and 72F room temp, there is also a greater heat flow from the body to the environment, and this also prompts warming behaviour.

As I said, doesn't need to replace the set-point hypothesis, as I think the feeling of cold in a fever is stronger than the 4-5F change would merit, but it does drive in the same direction.

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An excellent and useful article. From a certain perspective, the idea seems extremely likely; humans are full of dynamic systems on various levels of abstraction (metabolic, physiological, psychological, etc), and it just appears that many of these dynamic systems happen to be metastable (that is, they each have more than one stable equilibrium.) Many complex systems are metastable, so this wouldn't come as a huge surprise.

Phrased this way, it also makes a lot of sense that depression, metabolic disorder, and so on share characteristics, even though they're all regulated by vastly different mechanisms - metastability is a property of (properly arranged) dynamic systems in general, not of any particular substrate.

There's also another question here; properly speaking, among all the metastable states a system has, one should be the *most* stable (or lowest-energy) state; in the very long run, this is the state the system will wind up in. We can hope that the most stable state is the healthy one for the system in question (proper weight, balanced mood, etc) but this isn't necessarily true; can we find out if, e.g., the lowest-energy state in our mood-regulation dynamical system is the best for human flourishing? (Is that even an answerable kind of question?)

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In my case, listening to music at all is inversely correlated with depression. Graphing hours per month on Amazon music would give you a very good proxy for mood in a way I don't think any other simple metric would.

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Not sure if you’ve already come across Maxime Taquet’s mood homeostasis work (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32320005/) but it sounds very relevant to your thinking on this subject

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After reading comments, I realized there is a fair bit of unclarity about what it means to have a set point. For instance, is a set point

A) Merely a baseline against which changes are evaluated. In other words opiate tolerance is an increase in the set point for mu-opiate receptor activation since you now need more than that usual level to feel the high of endorphins and below that level feels like too little.


B) The level which the body tries to maintain via some kind of homeostasic process?

In this case opiate tolerance probably doesn't qualify because, while you feel shitty if you go cold turkey, your body doesn't act to regulate your opiate levels to that baseline (it doesn't produce more endorphins to avoid withdrawal and you can't call drug seeking a homeostatic mechanism since you don't feel shitty when you have more than the normal amounts

And I think this really matters for the theory since in case A the claim is essentially trivial and I don't think you've given much evidence that depression is like fever rather than just merely having too high a baseline of what it takes to feel good (internal drug w/d essentially).

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I’ve worked with CBT with depressed teenagers and it’s not uncommon that a prolonged depression or otherwise difficult period gets caught up in their identity formation. Thus the idea of medication or treatments that ask them to behave differently are sometimes scary because, if it works, it feels like loosing what makes you you. I wonder to what extent this is an additional cognitive mechanism and to what extent it’s just an epiphenomenon emerging from some “set-point”. I am from a cognitive-behavioral school so I’m inclined to seeing things as a bunch of additional things rather than grouping it all together into one mechanism.

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A PCT familiar friend read this and replied “I’m not sure that this applies control theory correctly. Mood regulation isn’t a goal in itself, it’s the means of altering behaviour. People aren’t trying to make themselves more unhappy, they’re trying to get sacked, get out of a relationship, get out of family responsibilities. It’s easy for the helper to make this mistake because it is their job (goal) to make the person happy”.

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There's a tension in a certain kind of depressed person that runs like this:

- I deserve to be miserable

- I nevertheless (viscerally or instinctively) try to avoid being miserable

This leads to some weird things. First off, it causes distress through fairly standard self-discrepancy theory: I'm a piece of shit who deserves to be miserable, but I'm not. Something is wrong! Oh no! Quick, resolve the distress by reminding yourself what a piece of shit you are! As soon as that's done, the immediate crisis is resolved: you're a piece of shit and you correctly feel like one. Peace has been restored to the world.

I'm confident at least some flavors of depression also involve self-destructive tendency or warped cognition. Consider somebody who is obese who wants to eat healthily but struggles to do so. He has a choice, at some point, to eat a chef salad or four Big Macs. Naively, in the realm of pure thought segregated from physical desire, one might imagine he would be happier with the idea of eating a chef salad than four Big Macs:

- "I am eating healthily. That's good!"

- "I did it again, I ate four Big Macs. What a mistake."

Details aside, the emotional pressures here are at least working in the correct direction. But the fact that fat and salt taste better than unseasoned lettuce aside, even in the realm of pure thought there's a way to invert this logic with sufficiently warped thinking.

- "What the fuck are you eating a salad for, you fat fuck? Pathetic. You're just going to eat twice as many Big Macs later."

- "That's right, you fatass. Eat four Big Macs like the fat fuck you are."

Somehow, in the locality of the moment, eating healthily has somehow become more locally stressful than eating four Big Macs. A fat man should be eating Big Macs, not salads. Somehow that's just become the way things work. I imagine lot of nominally self-destructive behavior or simple refusal to engage in depression-alleviating activities is a result of hyperlocal avoidance of immediate distress.

As for depressed people trying to get better, there's a second tension involved:

- I deserve to be miserable

- I am aware on some level that I should not think this way

In my experience with depressive episodes I am cross-pressured both ways. Sometimes I'll put on disgustingly upbeat bubblegum pop to try and simply drown out my thoughts with positivity. At other times I'll actively look for audio clips of somebody telling me I'm an awful piece of shit. (I've never actually found any. Most of the audio out there that promises to abuse the listener seems to be sexually charged S&M fetish stuff, as opposed to thirty minutes of somebody telling you you're a failure at life because you struggle to accomplish basic tasks and are bad at your job.)

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I'm wondering now if I've allowed my tiredness thermostat to be set too low.

Obviously it's difficult to separate from jet lag but I find that when I've stayed up very late one night, I might stay up even later the next night and the one after... Eventually exhaustion and normal life demands pull me back - but whether its true or not, I think I may use this model as a further push to re-up attempts around personal discipline and going to bed earlier.

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Anecdote of one, but I I have what seems to be a slightly higher-than-normal happiness set point and I *truly* LOATHE most happy music, particularly bouncy, insistent pop tunes.

For example, in Christmas music, I never want to hear Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas is You," "Jingle Bell Rock," "Feliz Navidad," etc ever, *ever* again.

My favorite Christmas songs are the really serious traditional pieces like "O Holy Night," and "Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel" (and the more serious the performance, the better), but in modern music, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "Grown Up Christmas List," "Mary, Did You Know" (but only super-sad acoustic versions; no stupid pop-style cheese, please) and similar are my favorites.

In almost any given musical, my favorite song is going to be the unhappiest, or at least the one filled with the most pathos / longing / determination / inspiration (which is different from "happy")/ etc. Never the cheerful comedy number.

Happy music just feels so grating, so goddamned *insistent*, like a toddler constantly tugging on me, trying to get me to engage with their banal favorite preschool video, over and over and over again. I hate uptempo pop beats so much that if I'm forced to consciously endure them at an unignorable volume (in a restaurant or whatever), my mood deteriorates and I have to consciously conceal that I'm feeling irritable and resentful. If it goes on for a while I'll start to feel something akin to mild despair.

People are always astonished by this until I explain that basically every happy song I hear is Baby Shark (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XqZsoesa55w). Although even that isn't a great analogy because almost a billion people have watched that video and a nonzero number of them loved it!

In contrast, I'm elevated by sad music. There's a bittersweet frission between the pathos itself and the beauty of its execution that I find both calming and inspiring.

But if I'm actually sad for some reason, I'm not comforted by sad music. I still really loathe happy music, but I don't want to hear sad music either. I just quit music entirely.

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I've had fevers, though not really high fevers. I've never wanted to cover myself with blankets or any such thing.

It might be relevant that I generally like being a little chilled-- the joke version is that in a past life, I was a head of lettuce. I was well into adulthood until "warm" was a meaningful concept-- before that, I would go straight from "pleasantly chilled" to "too goddamn hot" without noticing the intermediate stage.

It's possible for fat people to be anorexic-- to eat so little that they're malnourished. Anorexic does not equal extremely thin.

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I propose that I have a super-high happistat, and that’s why I am so good at doing the things that make me happy, sometimes to my long-term detriment.

But I’m in a good mood!

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Here comes the classic..

" At his console he hesitated between dialing for a thalamic suppressant (which would abolish his mood of rage) or a thalamic stimulant (which would make him irked enough to win the argument).

“If you dial,” Iran said, eyes open and watching, “for greater venom, then I’ll dial the same. I’ll dial the maximum and you’ll see a fight that makes every argument we’ve had up to now seem like nothing. Dial and see; just try me.” She rose swiftly, loped to the console of her own mood organ, stood glaring at him, waiting.

He sighed, defeated by her threat. “I’ll dial what’s on my schedule for today.” Examining the schedule for January 3, 1992, he saw that a businesslike professional attitude was called for. “If I dial by schedule,” he said warily, “will you agree to also?” He waited, canny enough not to commit himself until his wife had agreed to follow suit.

“My schedule for today lists a six-hour self-accusatory depression,” Iran said.

“What? Why did you schedule that?” It defeated the whole purpose of the mood organ. “I didn’t even know you could set it for that,” he said gloomily.

“I was sitting here one afternoon,” Iran said, “and naturally I had turned on Buster Friendly and His Friendly Friends and he was talking about a big news item he’s about to break and then that awful commercial came on, the one I hate; you know, for Mountibank Lead Codpieces. And so for a minute I shut off the sound. And I heard the building, this building; I heard the—” She gestured.

“Empty apartments,” Rick said. Sometimes he heard them at night when he was supposed to be asleep. And yet, for this day and age a one-half occupied conapt building rated high in the scheme of population density; out in what had been before the war the suburbs one could find buildings entirely empty … or so he had heard. He had let the information remain secondhand; like most people he did not care to experience it directly.

“At that moment,” Iran said, “when I had the TV sound off, I was in a 382 mood; I had just dialed it. So although I heard the emptiness intellectually, I didn’t feel it. My first reaction consisted of being grateful that we could afford a Penfield mood organ. But then I read how unhealthy it was, sensing the absence of life, not just in this building but everywhere, and not reacting—do you see? I guess you don’t. But that used to be considered a sign of mental illness; they called it ‘absence of appropriate affect.’ So I left the TV sound off and I sat down at my mood organ and I experimented. And I finally found a setting for despair.” Her dark, pert face showed satisfaction, as if she had achieved something of worth. “So I put it on my schedule for twice a month; I think that’s a reasonable amount of time to feel hopeless about everything, about staying here on Earth after everybody who’s small has emigrated, don’t you think?”

“But a mood like that,” Rick said, “you’re apt to stay in it, not dial your way out. Despair like that, about total reality, is self-perpetuating.”

“I program an automatic resetting for three hours later,” his wife said sleekly. "

(c) "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?"

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A good time man like me don’t got no business singin’ the blues.

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Insightful. Thanks.

Globally raising hedonic set-points (or ""thymostats") world-wide should be our long-term goal as a civilization - in human and nonhuman animals alike. For sure, genome reform is a controversial issue. But if we _don't_ tackle the biological-genetic basis of low mood, then the "cancer of the soul" will persist and proliferate indefinitely.

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Jan 3·edited Jan 3

This needs an explanation why some set points are more vs. less malleable. Like the set point for blood oxygen level seems pretty much cast in stone.

The obvious route is the evolutionary one. Probably someone with a malleable blood oxygen set point is just much less likely to pass on the genes that include that malleability.

But why would a malleable thymostat (great word coinage!) be evolutionarily stable?

I would hypothesize it is adaptive in a situation of being at the bottom of the social pecking order, chiefly by massively reducing aggression. Because of the many lies that depression tells, "you're going to lose any fight, so stay out of all fights" is one that might have a strong effect on survival to reproduction when in conditions roughly like slavery.

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Had a coworker recently whose dysfunction seemed anti-fragile. Like we'd try an intervention, e.g. "let's pair program together for an hour" and it would be massively effective - it would be followed by a productive day or two - but then they'd start making excuses to avoid pairing. Similar with various other interventions. As a system, they became resilient against intervention attempts.

Fascinating (and horrible) to watch.

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When I played Depression Quest I felt so down, I played aggressively happy music in the background to make myself feel worse (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kFkpHRB5FOM). I don't usually listen to any music when I'm really sad. I don't want to taint it.

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At present, I am on medication for a thyroid problem.

Which felt like a broken control mechanism in action ... I was losing weight so fast without even trying.

Which, of course, is a colossal red flag, so off I went to my doctor for blood tests, and yep, thyroid issue, and medication was prescribed.

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Jan 3·edited Jan 3

Wait wait wait. Does that mean diets cause obesity?

For the weight set point to change you need a mechanism, an evolved adaptation that used to change a set point beneficially in the ancestral environment, like an immune system changing temperature set point. What could be a reason for your weight set point to be able to go way higher than is healthy? I can think of one possibility: feast-or-famine situations.

When you either have more food than you can eat or you are starving, with nothing in between, you need to eat all you can while starving and you need to store as much fat as possible when food is plenty. You should always eat more. So it makes sense to just raise the set point for weight.

In modern times, what can trigger similar response from your body? One possibility is high-stress lifestyle with real risk of not having money for food, but another is dieting! Especially jumping from one diet to another, "looking to see if one works", meanwhile teaching your body that food can disappear without warning and it's best to prepare and store as much food as possible!

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Devil's Avocado: depressed people are drawn to sad music because it elicits a stronger emotional response than the alternatives. They're not capable of feeling all that good, that's why we call them depressed, so listening to happy, upbeat, I'm Walking On Sunshine type music does nothing for them. It's just noise. You want music to make you *feel* something, and the only thing that can do that for depressed people is sad music. The sadder, the better.

Source: me. Used to be depressed as a teenager, listened to a lot of sad music.

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I don't have any reason to disagree with the overall point of the post, and appreciate the interesting theory.

I do wonder if "depression" (which covers a wide range of feelings and behaviors) can be categorized as the same kind of incorrect mind reaction as anorexia. Maybe extreme depression that a psychiatrist would deal with regularly is in the same category as anorexia, but not everyone who listens to sad music or is feeling down is clinically depressed.

Judging from my personal experience with sad music, I feel like it helps me "complete" the mood and therefore get through it with some benefit. Trying to listen to happy music feels forced and unnatural and often fails to work. It feels to me as though I need the sadness, maybe in the same way that mourning the loss of a loved one is necessary if more extreme, and that listening to sad music helps with this process.

Extreme depression could still be a misfiring/recalibration, but if I'm right then we wouldn't look at every bit of sadness/mild depression as something to be eliminated.

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I had a major psychotic break as a young man— one year continuously incarcerated in mental hospitals ( some pretty rough) and four months on day care. So anyway, one Spring morning I’m in the cab, running along next to a stream ( the Fens in Boston), and I roll down the window a little and I feel happiness for the first time in a long,long time. I hadn’t even been aware until that moment that I’d been existing without happiness. So, there was a depression completely beyond human control…

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I think people ruminate in depression because thinking about how bad everything is both explains and justifies how awful they feel. There is a sense of letting go of the struggle against the depression, not fighting anymore and feeling that a new reality has has been revealed: there is no point, no hope and no purpose. The world consists of nothing but pain, and anything happy or cheerful is a lie. If you were to believe it you would be fooling yourself, and now you can see the world as it really is. Oddly, whilst descending to such a state is very painful and unpleasant, once you get there you feel too numb to feel—anything. It is easier to stay just like that than it is to fight to regain what seems like an illusion now, that the world is a good place full of positive things. All you have left is the physical feeling of complete emptiness, and you are just a short step from the hypochondriacal delusions that your body is rotting, dead, or full of cancer. You can sit motionless for hours and not have a thought cross your mind. Just the odd voice calling your name, but you don't know what it wants.

Well, that's how it felt to me. That was over twenty years ago now, and it still terrifies me how much I would have welcomed death.

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I'm now imagining the kind of guy who is so depressed he can only watch Neon Genesis Evangelion.

(Anime classic. But it has a certain mood).

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Scott, I remember that you hate jazz. What's your attitude towards blues?

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As a supporting observation, both anorexia and depression have opposite disorders (obesity/bulimia and hyperthymia/mania, respectively) that can be explained using control theory.

Also, sometimes people undergoing hypothermia (the opposite of a fever) feel hot and undress themselves. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/541627/

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Per QRI's theory that the valence of an experience is associated with its topological harmony vs dissonance, maybe people listen to sad music and do other things that resonate with dissonant patterns because it helps them get in touch with the similarly dissonant parts of their own organism.

Becoming conscious of an unconscious dissonance is unpleasant in the moment (although some people say that doing so with enough courage somehow counters the suffering, so maybe doing it on purpose via sad music is like exposure therapy), but allows for the dissonance to bump up against other patterns in the organism and potentially merge into something more unified and less inefficient.

According to this model, if someone doesn't have the right kind of dissonance stored in their organism, they wouldn't resonate with certain sad songs or other dissonant experiences in the same way, and wouldn't feel like seeking them out since they wouldn't assist with resolving internal dissonances.

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Re listenting to the blues when depressed:

You understandably, but mistakenly, equate sadness with depression. Sadness is a state of feeling acute, achingly unhappy and painfully mournful. A sharp, piercing state. Depression, in a way, is the opposite of sadness. Depression is dulled, blunted, defeated, generic feelings of lack of self-worth, lack of hope, and a type of cognitive distortion directed to seeking out justification for one's state. Depression is like taking a superb elegant kitchen knife and rubbing it, blade down, on concrete creating a dull instrument. The reason cognition is not helpful in figuring out depression when one is depressed is the cognitive distortions that are part of depression. It is like tyring to scramble an egg with an egg. Ain't gonna happen. The reason sad/depressed people like listening to the blues is that the mood evoked by the blues is synchronous the inner feeling state of sadness. It can make someome feel "understood/known." Almost a coming home brought on by the right chords. The blues, or sad songs, can begin to ease someone dulled with depression into a zombie-like state back toward a more human state of being and feeling acutely sad. Sad is sharp and aching but not crippling. The other prescription that should be given to depressed people is to move their muscles. Do anything, but do. Move. Feel.

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Tangential, but the idea that music would affect your mood one way or another is pretty weird to me. I listen to a lot of music of all kinds of moods, and the only time it actually acts on my emotional state is if it's so good that it gives me a feeling of rightness and affirmation. This can happen whether the music is happy or sad in tone.

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Metal is probably the saddest music not only in terms of music but also lyrics, esthetic, music videos etc but metal fans are reported by studies as being among the happiest group of music listeners.

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On a less psychological note, I have tinnitus (ringing in the ears). I am fairly sure it was caused by years of playing in marching band in school without earplugs. I’ve read tinnitus characterized as a neurological sensory condition where your brain’s auditory system adopts a new “setpoint” for silence which is higher than it should be and apparently results in a constant ringing. I’m not educated enough on brain hardware stuff to know how true it is.

I know one supposedly promising treatment is “bimodal neuromodulation”, a silly term for playing sounds in sync with little electric shocks on your tongue. Apparently this can somehow reset the setpoint for silence. I haven’t tried it for myself, but I’m going to one of these days. Sure would be nice to hear silence again.

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A complimentary take on sad music: It makes you feel connected, not alone. An artist has created a vehicle for emotional states or experiences that at some level are common to all humanity, and that you now are especially able to connect with. It can both articulate and elevate the experience. There is some level of two way empathy here, I think. Therapeutic or not? Some pieces of music can be poignant and uplifting at the same time, of course.

On other internal set-points and their adjustability: gender?

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Some programs are hard to change consciously, no matter how much you want to change. This is a topic worth exploring through the lens of so-called energy techniques. For example, check out the Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology - https://www.energypsych.org

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Jan 3·edited Jan 3

Not a psychiatrist or anything, and I'm not depressed but I can identify with the "being sad and wallowing in your own sadness and self-pity instead of going for drinks with friends" tendency.

As to why I would do said wallowing, a few things come to mind:

* if I go for drinks with friends then it's a lot of mental energy to act happy and sociable with friends, vs sitting at home and sulking.

* It feels like I need to spend some time sulking to "get it out of my system". I don't know how to square that with the stuff about how the fun activities make you happier, but it's my subjective feeling.

* If I am happy too soon after whatever Bad Thing, it feels like denying the Badness of the Thing. If I ask a girl out and she says no, and my friends ask if I want to hang out, then it's like, by expecting me to be normal and happy, they're not respecting how woeful my life is. I was rejected by a girl, I'm worse off than one of those kids from a famine-stricken country, don't you get it? But instead of a conversation between me and my friends, it's different parts of my own brain.

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For decades, I have been my own laboratory with regards to depression, anxiety, talk therapy, and medication. Here are my current theories:

The brain, among other things, is a social organ. There is no such thing as an individual human. We have always evolved in groups, taken care of each other, and needed to be taken care of. We regulate together as groups, tribes, and collectives. We always have.

Depression, for me, is a happiness-strike. My brain internalizes the social outlook and conditioning of its groups and belongings, and if it does not feel like happiness is appropriate given our social and existential outlook and circumstances, it does not feel justified in pursuing or going along with behavior and attitudes of prosperity and happiness.

The pervasive and underlying social beliefs of communities and societies impact individual human mental and emotional states. Many of us are waking up from organizational narratives that have fueled tremendous materialism, consumerism, corporatism, and enhancements to productivity, technology, and growth. Many of us are now seeing the larger, macro impacts of the mass organization of human patterns and behaviors on a global and historical scale, and this causes existential angst and despair to which depression, anxiety, and self-sabotage may be natural and understandable responses in individuals who are perhaps more appropriately considered part of larger social macro-organisms.

This can play out on smaller social scales: amidst wealthy families whose children cannot suppress the psychic disconnect between their own privilege and the inequality and suffering they see in the wider world. To pursue happiness with privilege while "in-group"-considered others cannot do so is sociopathic. This can lead depressed individuals to feel noble and justified in their suffering, given their perceived social landscape.

Would love feedback. Am I way off base? over-thinking this? I just think many of our psychosocial issues stem from a skewed understanding of what kind of organisms we are, and what it means to be a complex social primate that necessarily organizes meaningfully and existentially with other members/individuals.

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As of this comment, there have been two prior mentions of **catharsis** as an alternative explanation. Wikipedia seems to say that it's been used as therapy, but oddly not for depression. I feel there should be some studies testing this.


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That thing that happens in depression , where people perpetuate and deepen it by saying awful things to themselves, and staying isolated and inactive — I think a process of that kind goes on with most human appetitive and emotional states. For instance if you are hungry, you ruminate about food. Maybe you seek out food cues — read recipes online, or wander into your kitchen. It is hard to keep yourself from doing these things, even if you are trying to lose weight, and know that thinking about food or staring at your fridge is going to intensify your urge to eat. If you are feeling sexually turned on, you crave to think about or look at sexy things, and that intensifies your arousal. Or consider anger. I often catch myself mentally intensifying anger by focusing on the most annoying aspects of what’s around me. In fact, on days when I am carrying around a lot of annoyance, I often find myself having daydreams that intensify it. Once, for instance, I was on my way to pick up a prescription at a chain drugstore that usually has long lines and bad service, and noticed that I first mentally relived some of the most irritating things that had happened there, then had a fantasy about a clerk there being far ruder and more inefficent than anyone at the store ever had been — then, in the fantasy, I delivered a diatribe that was far louder and ruder than anything I would ever say in real life. And when I noticed what my mind was doing, and tried to get my thoughts on another track, I met real resistance — “no, dammit, this is what I’m thinking about and I have a right to think about it and I do not want to stop and you can’t make me.”

So the upshot is that I see depression as an instance of this kind of phenomenon, where a person semi-deliberately deepens a state, as part of the drive to reach consummation: eating something delicious, having an orgasm, or blowing up at someone. I think. a model of depression based on the idea that it’s in this class better captures what’s going on than a set-point theory. So what is the consummation that depression is driving towards? Some kind of radical giving up one oneself — at the most extreme, this would be suicide. Under this theory what keeps people stuck in depression is that we are all wired to have tremendous internal barriers that protect us from giving up on ourselves, or from suicide. So people end up stuck indefinitely in the revving-up-to-it phase.

This is incomplete, but I’m out of time.

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Control theory and predictive coding are both complicated enough to implement arbitrary circuits... you might as well introduce a "Turing machine theory" of human psychology. That is not to say they can't individually yield some insights, just that they are all equivalent, and are all too powerful to suggest that they are telling us how things work on a fundamental level. No matter how it turns out to work biologically, you will be able to express the resulting behavior in any "programming language."

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My experience is that I listen to sad music when I'm sad because I want to express how sad I am. (I guess to myself.)

Listening to Leonard Cohen sing "Everybody Knows" feels like crying to me - it's expressive.

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Personally, I feel my depression is mostly characterized by a lack of energy to get up and do stuff.

The tasks which would offer long term rewards (like working on my thesis, or more hypothetically online dating) will likely be something between a chore and a pain in short term, so I tend to avoid them.

Even tasks with a shorter time span, such as spending 10 minutes to cook a basic meal are not accomplished reliably.

I waste a lot of time playing video games, but I actually like playing video games and do not feel they make me more depressed. There are times when I even lack the energy to get out of bed to play for hours, though. And I could probably get more utility out of BG3 than trying yet another FTL run, but after thousands of hours of playing I know FTL very well (something something surprise minimization).

I had certainly phases when I was wallowing in my depression, though. Like spending a birthday alone in my room (because who has the energy to organize a birthday party) and then deciding that Watkins 'The War Game' (a pseudo-documentary on the effects of nuclear war) would be the perfect movie for the evening.

In general, I think that for a certain mood, there is a window of media and activities which are mood-affirming enough that you could stomach them. If you had made me watch a 'romantic comedy' on that birthday instead that would have worsened my mood more than anything. Likewise, spending time with more neurotypical people can be dreadfully depressing because it makes you feel deficient.

Unrelatedly, I am a bit skeptical of the set point theory of happiness. Locally, this should mean that if something good happened to you unexpectedly, you should compensate by doing something which makes you feel bad to maintain your equilibrium. It certainly works that way for temperature regulation. A set point which gets adjusted whenever you find a quarter on the ground is not much of a set point, in my opinion.

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We ought to distinguish between: 1) the ways in which all emotions are equipped with self-perpetuating mechanisms, and 2) the idea of an overall set point to which any perturbance will likely eventually return. If set point theory is true, I would think that different mechanisms are responsible for a euthymic person preferring sad music when in a sad mood, and a depressed person preferring sad music all the time--if this is indeed part of their control mechanism, and not an artifact of them usually being sad. Unless every emotional deviation is trying to establish itself as a new set point!

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I wonder if depression/suicide is an example of the set point being set very low to conserve resources for other family members? If I feel that my prospects for reproduction and caring for my offspring are quite low, then, in a world with limited food, it makes sense for me to act like a depressed person to conserve resources for others sharing my DNA, culminating in suicide so that I no longer consume any resources. So, kin-selection theory of depression.

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Happiness and sadness have been a curiosity of mine ever since that time I talked myself out of a really good mood. Not enough to, like, look into them, but... uh...

so My take has been that people think in ratios, and happiness or sadness is the difference between a semi-arbitrary memory of themselves, and a semi-arbitrary point of comparison. So, changing either of those can change your mood, and then doing depressing things would add more depressing points to the "you" side to be semi-randomly chosen as the starting point of comparison. So, not a set point, just a point in the set.

As for why people seek depressing things... self-expression. I read this blog because I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup was a really good expression of an idea I'd been trying to put to words for a couple of years, but couldn't get close enough to express it and properly be done with it. So people seek out depressing music and movies as an attempt to express their own depression, but most of them aren't close enough to do it justice so they keep searching. (Just like porn.)

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Jan 3·edited Jan 3

The well-understood setpoint disorders are rare. Listening to sad music when sad is almost universal. If this were due to a setpoint disorder, it would mean that the setpoint is /normally/ disordered. This is evolutionarily implausible.

Letting a theory convince you to tell your patients to do the opposite of what they're naturally inclined to do is a medical hubris with a bad history: the "rest cure" for "hysteria", the coach's "walk-it-off" cure for sprained ankles.

I think we must consider a huge difference between eating and listening to music which Scott overlooks: music, especially music with lyrics, is /cognitive/.

I looked into the research on why people listen to sad music for a talk I gave at Bronycon 2016 on why people like sad stories. The physiological crowd mostly argued that people are self-medicating, trying to induce an anti-depression chemical response, such as prolactin (Huron 2011), oxytocin & dopamine (Eerola et al. 2016), or endorphins (Dunbar et al. 2016) (read my slides at https://www.fimfiction.net/blog/903438/ for the references).

I instead looked into the cognitive aspects. My talk was motivated by my observation that literary theorists still teach that tragedy induces catharsis, whereas observing readers and people watching sad movies shows that every genre /except/ tragedy induces catharsis. Tragedy is the genre which deliberately /forestalls/ catharsis. This is obvious if you're writing tragedy for a fan-fiction audience. The reader comments show people avoiding the sadness you're trying to induce by providing ways in which the tragedy could have been avoided. Only after you rewrite to prevent any possible catharsis, by blocking off all plot avenues by which the tragedy could have been avoided (while keeping the characters true to themselves), can you consistently make your readers cry.

Aristotle was a conservative reactionary writing shortly after the time when Euripides' plays had challenged conservative Athenian beliefs. Aristotle developed a theory of tragedy which completely and explicitly denied that the challenging /ideas/ in a tragedy were of any importance, which conveniently made Euripides a less-important playwright.

I studied about 800 reader comments on 6 sad stories that I wrote. All but one were tagged 'sad' or 'tragedy', so the readers chose to read a sad story. The substantive comments were mostly descriptions or explanations of the reader's emotional and/or cognitive response. Only one reader said anything that could be interpreted as personally experiencing catharsis. Many readers merely described their emotional state, but almost as many tried to explain the /ideas/ in the story that troubled them. What troubled them was cognitively complex and story-specific:

- Readers of "The Case of the Starry Night" concluded that the characters' flaws made the tragic outcome inevitable.

- Readers of "Burning Man Brony" said the futility of the main character's stubbornness and contempt made them re-evaluate their own attitudes.

- Readers of "Twenty Minutes" contemplated how society can suppress or corrupt good people.

- Readers of "Pony Play" wrote about the awful consequences of hiding from trouble and pain.

I also read a lot of responses to Quora.com questions asking why people listened to sad music or watched sad movies. The most-common responses were:

- to try to understand sadness, what causes it, and how others deal with it

- to feel understood by seeing that other people have gone through the same sort of thing

- because happy things seem fake, and so repel or anger them and make them feel more alone

- in order to process their emotions at a distance, through a fictional character, without being judged themselves

- in order to feel something, anything

So I don't think you should try to explain why sad people listen to sad music using nothing but physiology. The ideas in sad stories are the important thing. Music is not as cognitive as story, but most of it has lyrics, often very poetic. Pink Floyd's /The Wall/ is sure as hell cognitive, as are Wagner's operas. Even instrumental sad music sometimes seems to tell a story through its structure, like Beethoven's 5th. So don't leave out the ideational part of the mind.

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Maybe there's something about experiencing extreme trauma that makes set points especially reprogrammable? Maybe terror causes the bayesian brain to ratchet all of its priors way up and you get stuck with whatever strategy you adopted in response to the trauma (e.g. "All I know is that the only way to make my mom happy is to be thin" or "the only way I can tolerate being conscious in the wake of my wife leaving me is to totally shut down the feeling parts of my brain" etc).

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My general impression is that sad or angry music feels "true" when you're depressed, while happy, peppy music feels like a lie.

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Hm. Seems plausible, but I kind of worry that it's stretching set-point theory a bit far. On the other hand, why not go all the way and apply it to [redacted], too?

My personal experience is that the negative-feedback cycle is like wallowing. It feels "right", somehow. Like I need to burn all the dead trees before the forest fire dies out. Like if I run with the wind, I'll be safe. Like there's some resolution just around the corner. And sometimes that pans out, but it's really hard on the rest of my life.

One of my theories about depression, both mild and severe, is that it's like an elimination diet crossed with a shit-test. Something bad happens in our life, and maybe it was caused by something we did. So we stop doing everything except the minimum to survive, and slowly add stuff back to see whether anything goes horribly wrong. Or at least, that's how it worked in the ancestral environment, when humans lived in small groups, and everyone's labor was essential, and most of that labor was stuff that had easily measured metrics of success. If you got too depressed to hunt or gather, and you were valuable to the tribe, someone (probably several someones) would make you do it anyway, nicely or otherwise. And if they did, you knew that you were valuable. (If they didn't, if they just left you in a ditch somewhere, that also provides a resolution.) But now we're in a complicated interconnected-yet-atomistic society, where the bonds that tie us together are things which our primate instincts don't recognize, which do not fill our emotional nutritional needs. (Internet parasociality is empty calories from junk food.)

Another random theory: melancholy music and art is like emotional BDSM, converting something normally-bad into something beautiful and transcendent. Some people don't see the point, others can take it or leave it, but some people try it once and get hooked for life.

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Well written and thought out!

>"Some anorexic people, when told that a treatment will help them gain weight, often refuse out of fear of becoming fat (though others are happy to accept treatment). Depressed people, when told a treatment will make them happy, very occasionally refuse on grounds that "I don't deserve happiness", but this is pretty rare; most of them are glad to accept the treatment. Is this just a quirk of how each of these different drives is implemented, or is it a strike against the theory?"


I don't think this is a strike against the theory, rather it points to there being additional nuances and wrinkles in the theory. One of the reasons why therapy works is convincing the patient that it will work if they do the things, and as you pointed out they have to be convinced that it's worth doing the things. To get to that point the patient often has to feel understood and affirmed, otherwise they won't do the things or won't do them too well.

For anorexic people refusing treatment because they're afraid of getting fat, maybe you have to affirm and validate their fears and concerns but why it's still worth it. So maybe something more akin to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy before trying to move onto more CBT practices?

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I find applying siloed reductive rationalism to complex holistic systems like the human body rather dissatisfying. Perhaps best kept for philosophy where what one is mapping is largely made up so it doesn't need to accurately model an incredibly complex real system.

I think to have a meaningful discussion on any emotion or nervous system state one must begin by considering the evolutionary contexts in a holistic sense. The best psychologists I've read contend that emotions are evolutionary signals that drive us towards what we need. So rather than adopting some mind splitting modernistic reduction of life to "happiness is good, sadness is bad, then what's the point of sad? Must be broken thermostat", I think the question to ask is what is the evolutionary purpose of sadness? And an entirely different question altogether would be what is the evolutionary purpose of depression?

From this perspective many of these phenomena become easier to answer for. For instance, a large part of sadness is to release the nervous system energy of grief, which would otherwise get trapped in the body. The other reason, and the reason why sadness is often so visible on a person (tears, sobbing, a down demeanour) is that evolutionarily it's meant to solicit a response of empathy, compassion and support by those around us who can support us and form deeper bonds that will protect us in the wake of something threatening happening like a split from a sexual partner of the death of a loved one. The question of why people feel drawn to listen to sad music when they are sad comes to light as well: sad music helps us to excavate our sadness, which is serving an evolutionary purpose of energetic catharsis. Sometimes we want to cry until all the tears are gone and we feel much better. Also, evolutionarily, mourning with another (the empathy response) allows us to know that we aren't alone. We are seen, we are understood, and we won't be abandoned in the wild. So listening to music and lyrics that reflects our experience of sadness is like an empathetic mirror where we feel seen in the art of another. It's actually deeply evolutionary.

Depression on the other hand, firstly, is not well ontologically defined. It refers to many different conditions and they aren't all the same. But in the case of temporary depression - depressions lasting a few days, few weeks or few months, I'd say that depression serves an evolutionary purpose as well. Depression is somewhat linked to the nervous system freeze state. In my experience with depression, which I've experienced intermittently for most of my adult life (A few times a year, for most years), depression is signal to stop and rest. For me it usually happens from overexerting myself and ignoring and overriding my emotions towards some end. After a while this leads to burn out, or just flat out feeling tired, unmotivated and unwilling to do anything other than sit around and wait. Why would the body want us to sit around and wait? Many spiritual teachers point towards the birthplace of vision (motivation and desire for the future) being a space of deep stillness and reflection, sometimes prescribed in the form of a vision quest where one sits in the woods without shelter or food for several days with very little stimulation until meaning and vision 'comes'. Other times this can take several weeks or months of relative austerity and stillness in ones life in waiting for the next threads of meaning, purposes and motivation to emerge after wrapping up some previous purpose that no longer feels meaningful. So depression then, actually gives us the stillness to listen to our inner guidance system, IF we don't overide it by forcing ourselves to cease being depressed. For those who have become depressed because their nervous system has been through the ringer, or they have ignored and overidden their emotions and nervous system needs until their body has finally 'given up', it serves as a time where one is forced to listen to the quiet directions of one's own emotions and inner guidance, that will inevitably lead a person into living in a healthy, happy, social equilibrium again where they feel motivated and alive. In that sense, when I'm depressed, on a rational level I don't want to force myself out of depression. The depression has come for a reason. It's time for me to sit with it, make friends with it, and listen to it until it's said what needs to be said, and the small flourishes of desire and meaning begin to unveil themselves again.

I was really moved by the story of a director friend told to me onetime. He had become deeply depressed, but for the first time in his life he was doing well financially and coild afford to take time off work for as long as he wanted. So thats what he did. He just sat, alone in his apartment, and intermittently listened to Alan Watts lectures, for 3 weeks straight. He made no other attempt to make his way out of it or to change anything. 3 weeks laters, and his depression had lifted and completely left. Which was not his usual experienc with depression, that would tend to hang around and linger in times where he would try to push past it and keep going. As I began to learn about somatic therapies and polyvagal theory and the deeply evolutionary nature of our emotional system and its inherent purpose for bringing us into healthy equilibrium, I began to understand the profundity of his experience. So now it seems wholly rational to me as to why someone would take actions that would seemingly have them 'stay depressed', even if the impulse is not in itself rational. My disclaimer here would be that with compounding co-morbities like anxiety, ADHD or a more clinical form of depression, that people can get stuck in depression and not know how to find their way out. In which case I feel the assertion to do the opposite of what the depression says can be useful, in conjunction with SSRI's and other interventions where depression dodoesn't run it's usual evolutionary course. (Also disclaimer, I am not a doctor)

The thermostat idea is an interesting concept, and perhaps not totally unuseful, but I just want far far more than that when trying to understand the body and the complex tapestry of our emotions.

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You blew my mind with this one. Going to have to think hard about this.

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The argument I have seen, by a neurologist whose name I sadly forget, was that if you're sad hearing someone else being sad makes you feel less alone, which would explain the love of depressing music by depressed people, as well as the emo and goth genres and the Gothic genre.

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>This matches personal experience; when I'm feeling down, I also prefer sad music. But why? Try setting aside all your internal human knowledge: wouldn’t it make more sense for sad people to listen to happy music, to cheer themselves up?

I have very vivid memories of being extremely sad after fleeing the war in Ukraine. It was a wonderful sunny day in Cascais (near Lisbon, Portugal), which made me mad. I needed stormy, rainy, "bad" weather and sad, melancholic music. Not because of the reasons you describe in the post. But because I wanted the conditions outside my mind and body to resemble the feelings inside myself. I didn't feel good about dissonance. So maybe it can be a good reason for sad music lovers or depressed and anorexic people. They are just looking for harmony.

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Question for someone who knows about sound editing:

For a given identical volume setting on an audio device, are sad songs typically played at a higher decibel level than happy songs?

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This is an interesting theory--I would like to offer an alternative one: There is evidence that sharing one's psychological pain and stress reduced the suffering. Perhaps listening to sad music reminds them that someone else made that music, and that makes them feel less alone?

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As a father of two adult children that have long struggled with depression, I really, really appreciate this post. I’ve seen so much of what you’ve cited with both of them - ‘Whenever I feel good, I feel like I deserve it. I don’t feel like it’s the true me.’ This was always the hard part of depression for me to understand. Now it makes more sense. Thank you.

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One 'good' reason I like listening to sad music when I'm down is that it gives a sense of community; the music makes you feel like other people have felt sad in similar ways. I'm never really depressed though, so maybe wanting that feeling is a sign of not having a 'set point' issue?

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As many have pointed out, sad songs have both cognitive and emotional components. Arguably, listening to sad songs – even alone - is an indirect way to bond with other humans. It is a way to implicitly share the awareness that to live can be compared to falling off a high building. On the way down, we may say to ourselves as we pass floor after floor: “This is not as bad as I feared: I haven’t got a scratch yet!”

Someone who is uncomplicated “happy” in this situation is delusional, emotionally shallow, or a young child. Listening to sad songs is a way to bond based on the common knowledge that life is essentially tragic. The sadness accompanying such listening is not depression, rather a type of melancholia. Having said that, clinically depressed people may possibly also find comfort in sad songs (for the same reason), implying that the correlation between depression and listening to sad songs seizes to be puzzling. Whether it be Leonard Cohen’s many songs, Johnny Cash’ rendering of Hurt, or Randy Newman’s song at his father’s deathbed:


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What would be the equivalent of "set point is set to too happy" ? Does it exists ? Is it classified as a disorder ?

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Jan 4·edited Jan 4

Curious about the claim on whether hypertension can be considered a re-calibration of a set point for blood pressure. I realize Scott's not really endorsing that view. In fact, I read him as just speculating that one might take the set point hypothesis in that direction. He's also expressing doubts (if I read him right) that that hypothesis won't work with blood pressure.

But I'd be curious if he, or anyone here, knows of credible sources that actually make or look into that hypothesis for blood pressure.

My own speculation is that hypertension isn't really a result of a set point, or it's not only a result of that. My understanding is that it's instead a result of arteries narrowing so as to require the same amount of blood to go through a less amount of space, meaning more "pressure." (Disclosure: I'm not an MD or anything, just someone who's concerned about hypertension.)

ETA: minor edits to typos.

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“ they still “feel” fat on a gut level.” Pun intended I presume. Ugh.

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How do antidepressants work under this model? Shift the balance point, somehow?

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Contemporary behaviorism has a simpler explanation, based on Skinner's concept of verbal behavior, and advances in relational frame theory..

Making meaning is a very powerful generalized reinforcer (similar to money). The most common forms of meaning making accord with the correspondence theory of truth. That is, when a word can capture or reflect a meaning about some state of affairs, whether public or private, simple or complex, it reinforces both knowing and communicating about our experience.

Depressed people listen to sad music because that makes the most sense, and that is highly reinforcing.

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Can't help but wonder what else is in some sense due to setpoints. Not straightforward chemical setpoints but neurological or social/behavioral ones.

"Not enough people are mad at me" setpoint -> disagreeableness.

"Things aren't bad enough, that's weird" setpoint -> neuroticism, anxiety.

I wouldn't be surprised if setpoints for status self- and other-perception governed a lot of interpersonal interactions. Consider something as simple as who feels entitled to take up space in a group conversation. There are implicitly setpoints governing how much each person should be talking.

Aside from the body weight setpoints (lipostat) there is also a myostat, a setpoint governing how much muscle mass your body wants to carry. Some people will carry much more muscle than others, even without exercising. Many people are capable of gaining muscle mass, but very quickly lose that muscle mass when not pushing very hard to train and consume excess protein, while some people will find it relatively easy to maintain the mass. Hormones obviously help with this, because hormones interact with (or perhaps directly define) this setpoint. There's a famous result that men taking extra testosterone and not exercising at all, gain more muscle than men who are doing mass-gain exercises and eating above-adequate protein.

I think once we figure out how to manipulate the myostat without causing permanent hormonal problems, this along with drugs like semaglutide are going to create a world of shredded, muscular desk jockeys.

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Did the depression axis move from "confident belief evaluated to satisfaction or disappointment" to happiness vs. sadness because of predictability? Happiness and sadness are bundled with a kind of meta evaluation about whether the future is good for you or not I think. I am depressed and if I go for a walk rather than lie in bed all day, my prediction (I will lie in bed all day) evaluates as false, so I experience some kind of disappointment but it doesn't make me sad. My mother dying from a brain tumor happened as expected but I wouldn't say I was happy about it. I think the distinction is important because I believe that the feelings of disappointment and satisfaction are a component of your conscious experience that tells you whether your predictions are correct or not. Happiness and Sadness are the components where you factor the sensory experience you used to make that evaluation into your predictions about the future. Happy and Sad are louder because they're more important for producing future expectations.

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Blues is to pain as a shower is to rain. Bernhard Lassahn. also: "Blues is a bathtub for the memories of pain. The pain did hurt. The bath I enjoy." German: https://www.matthiaskadar.com/blues-von-der-verhaltnismasigkeit-der-schmerzen-bernhard-lassahn/

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Interesting take. Question, though: why wouldn't effective antidepressant drugs that provide relief for so many people who are depressed not alter the setpoint back to norm range?

My partner suffers from treatment-resistant depression, and while each new cocktail does do the trick, it doesn't seem to "stick" when the treatment's efficacy inevitably fades...

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When I'm in a depressed state, listening to actively happy music can sometimes make me feel worse, in a way that's not necessarily related to the happy-sad emotional dimension. For example, "Happy" by Pharrell Williams would make me feel distinctly uncomfortable if I didn't actually feel happy when I listened to it. The particular feeling might be more related to disgust than anything else; the expression "sickeningly sweet" (as applied to media) comes to mind...

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Maybe there's an exploration/exploitation set point (that shifts over the lifespan) and ADHD is when it's shifted "too" much towards exploration?

But that implies there should be an opposite set point shift, and I can't think of an obvious name/diagnosis for that. Something very introverted, extremely conscientious - like depressive personality disorder maybe?

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I think many depressed people look at online media (like, ahem, this substack).

This would seem more to support a 'social junk food' theory than a broken thermostat ... your happiness thermostat is seeking more social interaction, but you'revtrying to obtain it online (which we're not evolved to deal with) and the online interaction fails to satisfy the craving.

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Jan 5
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Jan 5·edited Jan 5

Great piece, but I don't think music was the best example - there are too many subtle shades of sad/happy, especially when lyrics are involved. Is Everybody Hurts happy or sad? What about Sunny Afternoon by the Kinks? And so on. But I will look carefully for thoughts which have "I'm too happy" as the premise because I think there is something in this.

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Jan 5·edited Jan 5

OK, new theory.

Humans generally like stuff that matches and resonates with their current mood and mindset. That includes music, art, political commentary, and most other stuff. It's just subliminal pattern matching by our bio-neural nets, just like if you could tell ChatGPT "play some music that goes with my current emotion".

On the other hand, given any theory about what would be optimal for humans to do, the optimal solution would for all humans to re-wire their brains both to prefer taking optimal actions and to actually take optimal actions. That is, assuming one doesn't care about such things as preferences and individuality and free will and non-coercion. All those things are irrelevant, to be burned away in the purifying fire of optimality (purgatory), leaving identical optimal drones who freely choose to have identical optimal musical preferences, political views, charitable inclinations, religions, child-raising habits, and taste in tea (clearly a puer of some sort).

Remember, if one enjoys something that is not specifically commanded in the Book of Optimality, that preference is non-optimal and will require an extended stay in purgatory (re-education) before one achieves optimal unity with the transcendent beating heart of Optimality (IT).

So if one happens to be sad, that is a non-optimal mood. If that sadness causes one to prefer sad music, that is a non-optimal preference that reinforces the non-optimal mood. If it is too difficult to directly rewire the mood or preference to be non-optimal, at least we have the ability to ignore the preference and use music to reset the mood. The "fake it 'til you make it" school of enlightenment. Keep that clown smile painted on, and never let the world see you feeling non-optimally.


Real Zen story: The friend of a master died, and the master cried. The disciple asked the master, "Why are you crying? Isn't that a sign of attachment?" The master said, "You idiot! I'm crying because I want to cry!"

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Much of depressed behaviour fits with the theory that depressives are trying to be depressed. How come?

I believe I mostly listen to sad music when I'm depressed because it fits with some slowly-updating social narrative that I have a myopic incentive to maintain. Depression gives me an excuse for things I've failed at. And because depression usually causes me to fail more things, I need to maintain the excuse.

Our self-view is a compromise between how we wish people would see us, and how people actually see us. Our feelings about ourselves are mostly determined by algorithms that have been optimised for giving us the kinds of feelings that we expect will make relevant others view us marginally more sympathetically.

The rest is implementation details. Quite important implementation details. :P

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I had something-worth-being-sad-about happening to me a year ago and for various reasons I was often hidding / suppressing the sadness. Recently I started going to a psychotherapist and they recommended I dedicate some time to feeling sad, like walking in the rain and listening to sad music. It's hard to judge this things, but it felt like a good advice. How does it fit this narrative?

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What you are describing is real but it is the opposite of blues, blues is about making light of the darkness, joining to sing with your community and seeing the beauty in the mundane. A great example of what you’re actually talking about is the band “have a nice life”. There’s also music that’s superficially similar to “have a nice life” that celebrates life instead of diminishing it (“different trains” by Steve Reich for example), it’s the undefinable essence of the music and the person making it that makes it pro or anti life. Anyways this was all completely unrelated but I felt like saying it.

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One behaviour I notice in myself during incipient depression is that I want my set point to recalibrate as quickly as possible. Depression only feels bad on the downhill part; once you’re in the deep end it feels like nothing at all. Like going into cold water, if you dither you’ll only draw out the discomfort so best to plunge in with whatever will get you used to your low mood the fastest (sad music, isolation, etc).

I especially avoid socializing or “fleeting” pleasures since they interrupt the recalibration, meaning more discomfort overall.

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The omnipresence of sugar in American food is far more likely the reason for increasing rates of obesity than any "lipostat". Americans have had the financial means to be fat for generations and have not been heavy labor lifestyles for at least 2 generations, but obesity hasn't been an issue until this one.

For me personally - eating sugary foods causes me to be more hungry regardless of how much I have eaten. If this is indicative of general experience, this itself would cause obesity to increase. Nor is avoiding sugar in food very easy - you have to work at it because so much of the food Americans eat is processed, and a large percentage of the processing involving adding things like sugar.

As for depression: I have zero professional experience. My mother is bipolar, but she gets depressed because

1) She "likes" being manic. She says she feels like she's doing something in that state

2) She knows what sets it off: staying up all night, usually because of a slot machine

To me - she appears to be a speed freak. Her own body and genetics are such that she can stay up all night for 48 hours even at 80, meaning her body is producing some methamphetamine equivalent. But the inevitable outcome is burnout = depression.

I don't have her genetics but I have enough that I only sleep around 5 hours a night, and have done so since high school. But unlike her - staying up all night doesn't send me into a mania nor would I like that. I can, however, get by on only 1 or 2 hours of sleep for several weeks but then I have to sleep 6-9 hours for some time.

In other words: genetics is a framework but behavior builds the actual behavioral construct.

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Interesting. I think there's very plausibly truth in the set points, but I'm not yet convinced that depression works like a set point.

My slightly different speculation (possibly inspired by you), might be that depression is a long sequence of bad things putting the body into a "look for threats, endure and don't take any risks" mode as might be a good strategy in the face on a long string of bad experiences resulting from living a currently hostile environment. So that depressed you tends to look for threats (hence reasons to worry) and avoid taking initiative or risk (bad in a dangerous situation until you get desperate, but hence avoiding any action to improve depression or improve life or improve anything).

I think both this theory and the set point theory involve behaviours that put you back in depression, but that the set point theory suggests that the further up you get from the low point in the short term, the BIGGER the pressure to lower your mood (until it lasts long enough to reset the set point). Whereas my theory suggests that the further up you get, the LESS the pressure to lower your mood again (even if still present). I feel like my theory fits my experience better, and I think other experiences agree, but I'm definitely not sure.

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Interesting comment section to this post. A take-home point after reading through: a set point theory of depression & listening to songs (and probably everything else related to emotions and moods) comes across as too atomistic-individualistic a theory. The "social" in the biopsychosocial overarching frame of reference is neglected/missing. All behavior is signalling behavior. We are signalling something when we act, including lie still in a dark room and listening to sad songs. Where the implicit receiver may be someone that can be named, or something like "the generalised other", or something/someone equally abstract. Our selves are tied to communicating, to something about humans that is social in nature. Even when we are all alone.

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This didn't sit quite right with me, and it took me a little while to figure out why, but what I came up with was: when I'm sad, I don't listen to sad music to reinforce my sadness; I do it to lend meaning to my sadness. Not sure what that says about the thesis here, if anything.

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Jan 7·edited Jan 7

I can speak to this from a personal experience pov. If I were to regard myself as a single-person within-subject case study, I would say that my experience has been that I tend to prefer and choose (almost by default) to listen to slow rhythm songs when I'm deeply unhappy or depressed and the reverse is true when I'm in an upbeat mood. I do most of my difficult readings when my mood is down, and I'm more thoughtful and paradoxically more satisfied with myself when I'm able to functionally roll with my depression.

A client with dissociative experiences once told me that when he switches to his angry, dark, destructive alter self, the only form of activities that make him feel better are songs or books that are dark, destructive, and demonic. I didn't question this claim because I immediately related it to my own experience of feeling actually consoled by depressing stimuli when depressed.

One commenter already made a very accurate inference as to why internal feelings seek external correlates: alignment or convergence or confirmation or normalization is a more powerful motive or appeal than contrast or divergence. We'll consciously choose anything that normalizes our experience than anything that flags them as abnormal. And there's an illusion of "better" or "not that worse" that's created when our own experience or state is contrasted with that of someone or something that is worse: not unlike the illusion of a normal temp water feeling slightly warmer if you're just coming from a freezing zone.

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Jan 7·edited Jan 7

I actually wonder if the music issue isn't a sort of false lead in this area, or simply too complex to be productive. Admitting that all this is subjective and anecdotal, I'm a long time blues fan, and if you watch blues musicians, they often smile broadly (and, so to speak, deeply) while playing, sometimes through a whole song. They absolutely love it, and I don't think that's in some sort of masochistic way. It's a genuine and deep joy. I'm not a musician, so I can't speak to that side of it--except, as I've just done, what I perceive from the outside--but listening to blues proper, dark ambient, and all sorts of sad music gives me great pleasure. I like to listen to it when I'm happy, doing the things I like to do, etc. I don't think I'm the only one (and apologies if I'm not the first to say this in the comments). I would add that when I'm depressed--as in, when I'm having thoughts like "I don't deserve anything and I think my friends all rightly hate me"--I don't want to listen to music at all (or read or watch something or do anything). Among other problems, all this seems to me to complicate what would fit into the category of "happy" music. I will say I find at least some music that many might consider happy--like "Who could ask for anything more" or "Good morning" from "Singing in the Rain"--manic and annoying rather than "happy."

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This post affected me deeply and positively and I’m still processing it. The concept of an anxiety setpoint has unlocked many new insights. I also propose that setpoints interact: there are whole internal systems built on these.

I’ve always been an anxious person who is unwilling to commit to lifelong medications. I also have consistently put myself into high pressure job roles and relationships. I’ve made progress from talk therapy, EMDR, and most recently ayahuasca therapy. I now realize that I’ve been expending effort to artificially raise my anxiety setpoint to avoid Bad Feelings from childhood trauma ever since they happened. I had thought that my anxiety was the result of all of the situations I found myself in - the AHA! moment was the realization that I was putting myself into high stress situations to keep my anxiety high.

Since then I’ve been consciously deciding to lower my anxiety without worrying about causes and it’s been working. I also see that I have artificial setpoints for keeping a brave face and keeping my breath steady (I had a rare breathing disorder as a kid) and I’m sure there are more. I feel unlocked.

The entire concept is worthy of a school of psychiatry. Thanks Scott!

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I feel compelled to point out that, since fighting against your set points is hard, it's good to have systems that work WITH your natural desires to lower your mood and subvert the actions you take to lift your mood instead.

This is why our ancient depressed forbearers created the Goth scene to save us.

Goth uses the things depression wants you to do to greatly lower the activation energy needed to go to a Goth thing. The music? Sad. The lyrics? Angsty. The aesthetic? All black (maybe with some highlight colors, preferably red or white to invoke blood or pallid death). The make-up? Hides your true face a bit. The dancing? Freeform expression of your inner turmoil. The venue? Cramped and very dark.

But it tricks you into being at a place that increases your mood!

It gets you out of your room. It gets you around other humans. It gets you some exercise (dancing). It exposes you to some mood-lifting music (there is some mood-lifting goth music, and it often gets played at goth clubs cuz its more dancy). You see a LOT of natural beauty. You feel accepted. You may make some new friends over time.

Strongly recommended. https://deathisbad.substack.com/p/hacking-your-happiness-set-point

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This makes me think about how helpful some people find psilocybin for depression. I wonder if the state of mind that hallucinogens put you in make it easier to move set points. Many anorexic people find cannabis helpful, obviously mostly because it gives you the munchies, but I wonder if there could be a similar pathway there. MDMA for PTSD is another example.

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The general argument here makes sense to me, but does the specific point about listening to sad music not have a better explanation in the catharsis one gets from doing so? I feel depressed; I listen to a Joni Mitchell song; I have a good cry; I feel better, at least in the short term. This doesn't seem maladaptive in the way that other depressive behaviours (e.g. self-isolation) are. You could still be right about the overall phenomenon, but it strikes me as a poor example.

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Trauma is possibly resetting the alarm-meter

The main point is: how can we move set points/priors intentionally? On psychedelics we can move them, but it is a big hit or miss

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Im wondering if the reverse happens a lot more. There are people whose happiness set point is set higher, and even though they have friends, family, health, wealth, they keep looking to be more happy. More friends? Binge watching? Anybody knows anyone who exhibits this behaviour?

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Reading Scott's older articles about predictive coding felt compelling back when I first read them, though in retrospect, my toy model of emotion had obvious structural flaws, not just those inherent to simplification. It'd be pretty annoying to specify them all right now, so I'll just go back to my intended point that my personal experience of depression feels intuitively linked to predictive coding (bias in emotions-as-predictions combined with a tendency to let them override my reason).

1. It "feels" like doing things will be much worse than actually doing the things almost inevitably turns out to be, including things I already know I enjoy.

2. Thinking about the future feels generally aversive.

3. Recursive thoughts feel especially bad.

I like the trapped prior frame too, where depression can be viewed as a selection effect, of specifically the people prone to mistaken ideas like sad music making them happy. Even after telling them it's not true, they still -feel- like it's true, they're not deliberately choosing to listen to it *because* it makes them sad.

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I'm interested how attitudes to sad music varies between communities.

I'm a singer-songwriter and generally sing post-apocalyptic, sad and dark songs. I used to play at these cool open-mic nights with artsy Brits, and would get a good reaction and a decent number of compliments. Then I moved to a less artsy (I want to say "normie" in terms of music taste, but also with a bunch of EA/rationalist types) community, and while playing my first open mic, people were just looking at me with what seemed like barely concealed disgust, as if I'd just shat myself on stage.

I basically never played an open mic since then.

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