Correlation, Causation, Happiness and Imperfect Metaphors

I’ve been analyzing patterns of happiness, and trying to identify ways to stay happy (well, non-depressed, more precisely. I am fine with being unhappy, or not-happy, or bored, or things such as that because those are part of a range of human emotions, so they happen). 

All I have is correlative data, and so I cannot conclude any causation. But I’m going to hash out a couple things, and maybe make unfounded extrapolations, and use a bunch of probably-unclear-if-you-aren’t-me metaphors and say the same thing multiple ways until it makes sense to me.

The first thing

I know that when I am happy, I tend to spend time with people. When I am sad, I tend to hide in my room and stay away from people, except a very special few (boyfriend). The tricky thing to tease out, though, is if being around other people makes me happy, or if when I am happy, I have enough energy to spend time with other people.

So if we look at a simple correlation, we would see this.

So hey, you might say, this seems like a pretty good correlation. Maybe even causation, eh? When you are happy, you spend time with people. Maybe then, to be happier, you should spend more time with people.

But wait… the plot thickens.

This is not actually the complete graph. Anyone who knows me should know that I have an upper limit for time I can spend with people. The first graph I showed you was incomplete! It actually only included a small part of the scale! When you look at a larger range, you actually see this!

Was the first graph even necessary? Well, I do like drawing these graphs, so I am going to go with ABSOLUTELY YES.  But (shhh) these graphs are actually not assembled using any “real” data, just general observations I have gathered from my life. Don’t tell anyone!

Being with people all the time is not a good thing for me. I need alone-time-breaks, where I can just chill out quietly and read some books or watch Netflix or spin in circles or look at leaves or swim or other things. There is an ideal ratio of time that I can spend with people that will result in maximum happiness ability. It is also more complicated because the amount of time varies depending on who it is.

Also, there are other factors that do affect this. It is a self-perpetuating cycle, a positive feedback loop, in many ways.

When I am sad, I do not have enough energy to do daily things (like eat or brush my hair or things like that). Because being sad seems to use up energy by itself, somehow. When I am happy, I do have enough energy to do daily things AND I have a surplus of energy. I can then spend that extra energy on fun things that make me happy.

What I think the answer is…

(1) Spending time with other people makes me happy
(2) But it also uses up a lot of energy
(3) Running out of energy results in meltdown, results in sad me
(4) Being sad also means lack of energy (possibly caused by lack of energy, is tricky to determine the cause of that)
(5) When I am sad, I do not have enough energy to make myself happy.

And now for some Terry Pratchett

It is sort of like this. (But with happiness instead of money. And the spending money is instead effort. OK, well, it is a complicated metaphor, and I’m not sure I can completely explain it, but they are the same colors and flavors and feelings of arguments, and I can’t really explain better why they are the same, but they just are.)

“The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money. 

Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles. 

But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.  

This was the Captain Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ theory of socioeconomic unfairness.”

(I have maybe possibly been on a Terry Pratchett spree recently… But this is from Men at Arms and it is wonderful just like all the other books.)

Happy people seem to have more energy to be happy.

Comparing happiness and showering and enzymatic reactions

It’s sort of like taking showers. I actually really love taking showers. I love water. I love the sound of it and the feel of it. Taking a shower will result in me feeling better, almost invariably. Because water is just that amazing. But the amount of effort it takes to initiate a shower is just not always there. So even though in the end I know I will feel better, I am not able to do it.
Thinking about it in another way, it is like I am lacking the activation energy. I am missing an enzyme to lower the activation energy. But somehow other people are able to do the thing. And because they have the enzyme, it works. It is easy, maybe. But it just doesn’t work for me.
It’s not perfect, I know. Like there is the increased energy of the state of the molecule/intermediates that is supposed to correspond to the level of energy I have. And then the lower-energy end-product (although that will vary depending on the reaction). People who are good at chemistry, I am sorry if there are other problems in this that make your head hurt.

Another warning about correlations and causation

And so this is the problem I face when I am going through a bad streak, when I am trying to regain lost happiness. I know what I do when I am happy. I tend to blog more. I hang out with people more. I bake. I sing to myself a lot. I’ll explore and take walks. I exercise. But this is all correlation. Are these things that make me happy? Will they lead me back to happiness when I have lost it? Sometimes they do. Sometimes I don’t have enough energy to try.
I only have correlational data available on my life, when I am looking for causations.

So I will muddle through the correlations. Run some experiments (try some new coping mechanisms). And honestly, the correlational data is important. Because not only does it give me some hints about what might be causal, it also helps me identify emotions. Because that’s also not something I’m the best at. It helps to be able to recognize that I’m not doing great before I am doing awful, because it’s a lot easier to stop things before I’m headed at high speed down to the land of sad-and-confused-and-upset-me. Because when I am doing not-great, I still have the energy to fix things.

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An autistic navigates large social events (graphs included!)

What is it like to talk in a crowd?

A big forced social gathering.
Sometimes these things happen. And sometimes they are unavoidable. Unavoidable mingling with strangers.
Interviews. Orientations. That sort of thing.
They are growing stress. Ever increasing over time. And once it reaches a certain point, it’s like a curtain has been drawn over the stage, and I am on the other side. Not a normal curtain, but the curtain they use for dream scenes and such. It is mostly transparent. You can see and hear through it. But there is a feeling of different ness. 
And once I reach curtains, it is only a matter of time until a meltdown. Until I panic and run out of the room( link on running away) or can’t run so I hide and cry.

To illustrate, here is a graph.

The stress level grows over time. Once it reaches curtain stage, it grows faster. Eventually, it reaches the meltdown threshold. And then I’m gone (the meltdown threshold is a blurry one. Sometimes, the meltdowns are slower to build up, where I can escape somewhere in a panic. Or I can run. Sometimes it’s not).
Of course, there are different factors that can change the rate at which stress builds up at. Sometimes,  under the curtain threshold, there are even things that can decrease the total amount of stress.
Above is a close-up of the graph. Dark blue is the normalized, normal level of stress. Sometimes things can make the stress increase at a greater rate (green line). For instance, I might be wearing uncomfortable clothes. I might not know where I am or what I am supposed to be doing. I might be hungry or it could be loud or crowded or weirdly lit. But there are also things that decrease the stress (orange). If I have someone i know with me, someone who can manage introductions, someone I can follow around and so I can have less decisions to make. Or if I am carrying something in my hands, or weighted down (I love my backpack). 
But what if I take a break? Find somewhere quiet to sneak away to for a while? What then would happen?
Well, THIS is what happens. See the breaks! Those squiggly black lines. If that happens, then, as you can see, stress decreases. BUT it decreases much slower than it had increased. (Part of this is because I feel bad for taking breaks, or there aren’t good places to take breaks, or I am worried people will ask me why I am wandering around or not at the event. And partly is just because I take a while to recover). And also, if you look carefully at my excellently drawn graph, you can see that AFTER my break (for a while at least) , the stress increases at a slower rate than it had before the break. So breaks are good. If I can find a way to make them happen.
So then, what would be an ideal (but realistic) graph of what would happen socially?

Generally, it looks like this, if the night goes relatively well. (If the night goes well, I don’t reach the curtains cut-off). My stress level goes up, throughout the night. It goes up when I am wandering about, looking for someone to talk to, something to do, unsure of what I am supposed to do. As I talk to people, it slows down. It almost plateaus out, barely increases. I have a purpose. But the conversations die down, or it’s time to mingle some more with other people. And then it’s stress. A lot of stress. More wandering aimlessly. Building back up. And then I talk to some people again and it levels off. It’s a regular pattern. 
It’s unrealistic to expect the tiredness and the stress to not be continually increasing throughout the night. But as long as it doesn’t get above a place where I can’t handle it, as long as it doesn’t reach curtains, then I am ok. I will be tired the next day. I probably won’t talk all that much when it is over. But it will be good and I might have even gotten something out of it or networked or learned new things or eaten good free food or managed to successfully spend my time at a required event.

And that’s all I really expect.

But also, being stressed is not the worst thing ever. Sometimes it is necessary. And sometimes good things or necessary things require it. And as long as it doesn’t cross the threshold, (and as long as it isn’t all the time, every day), I can deal with it. Which is good, because sometimes it is necessary.