How To Heal A Broken Heart? A 5-Step Program

“We broke up”. “It’s over.” “No more.” It can sound so easy. But the hard work sometimes begins right there. If you are done with listening to Sinead O’Connor and a good dose of mourning, and can suffer some humor again, and maybe a fresh outlook, then this article is for you.

What on earth would economists know about this, you may be asking. I must admit, a broken heart is not a topic I would have thought of by myself, but it is one that many friends bring to me these days. So I dug around in the treasure chest of empirical literature and found a few tissues helpful pointers. (Most of them come from Daniel Kahneman’s seminal article in the AER (2003)).

1 Gain perspective. It is not quite as bad as it seems. Human beings experience loss aversion. I.e. we feel a loss of a certain importance more strongly than we would feel a gain of equal importance. In plain English: your sadness without her is bigger than your happiness with her would have been. (Sounds about right?) This is how we humans work.

2 While an end with pain is better than pain without end, your perception may get this wrong. I know it’s hard to believe, but empirically, patients judge the pain of a procedure by the pain they feel at the end. A short procedure that ends with a sharp sting of pain is judged as worse than a much longer procedure with several stings of pain and two sharp stings in the middle. Look back critically: how much *pain* was there already in your time together, which your memory now tries to dismiss?

3 Good riddance indeed. You know, the opportunities you missed while dating your now lost love are likely a bigger loss than losing him now. It will not feel like it. But this is just another way our intuition plays tricks on us. Economists would coldly say ‘out of pocket expenditures are more painful than opportunity costs’. What it really means is that it hurts more to lose an actual mate than missing a good potential mate – even if objectively the latter is the bigger loss. Bottom line: rejoice; you are free to revive the opportunities you had missed in the meantime.

4 Replace the adrenaline and cortisol with endorphines. This advice is not from behavioral economists, but from doctors and experience. Adrenaline and cortisol are hormones caused by stress, such as fear or anger or sadness. Exercise can reduce their levels. Physical activity makes you less stressful. Difficult issues are easier to handle. What is more, exercise produces endorphines that create a sense of peace and pleasure. (Some people call this “runner’s high.”) To be precise, endurance sports are best for this effect: running, rowing, biking, aerobics, for example. For good balance, you may want to throw in something to wind down every other day, such as yoga or pilates.

5 Keep trying. Your past loss has no control over your future success. Meeting good people is a bit like waiting for a taxi, don’t you find? They pass by at rather random intervals. Sometimes you wait and none arrives, sometimes there are lots in parallel lines. The only thing you can predict is that the arrival and departure of one taxi is completely unrelated to the next. In nerdy terms, taxi arrivals follow a Poisson distribution. One arrival (or departure) is no predictor whatsoever of when (or how) the next one will arrive. I would venture that it’s quite similar with dates. Let go of your current pain; it has nothing to do with the next mate.

Holidays without A Better Half? – A 5-Step Survival Plan

I am not quite sure I should be writing this. After all, I am *everything but* without a better half. I have the world’s hunkiest husband, who is currently playing with two adorable little wild beasts on the corridor.
But, boy, do I remember how it was without him. In fact, it is a recurring nightmare that I have: being unmarried and having to decide among a bunch of unpalatable ex-es. These are nightmares that feel quite real. During the dream I genuinely forget that I am married. It’s scary and lonely. And the options look between dour and unfeasible. A group of friends and family that stand around, bewildered and without understanding, does not help.  – And then I wake up next to The Man and feel like singing Handel’s Alleluia, multi-voice.

In other words: dears, I know what I am talking about. Been there. You are not alone. From the vantage point of someone in safe haven, but with a good view of the ups and downs of single-hood, here comes my survival plan for your holidays:

1 – Read the biography of a great single man or woman. (There are MANY. Composers, writers, poets, politicians, successful entrepreneurs – each century has had a few, of both genders.) Take a step back from the couple focus.
2 – Promote this idea to your family: not everyone needs to have a partner. You may use evidence from the biography you are reading. (You don’t have to believe this yourself, but the real bunch that you want to take a step back is your family.)
3 – Focus on yourself. Pamper yourself, become yourself – just better. Train the muscles you’d wish you had, or the skill you’d like to have. Schedule a makeover with a pro, or a friend whose taste you trust. Beautify your best side.
4 – Be the person that is missing from another person’s life. This need not be ‘somebody’s partner’, but another helping hand at the family dinner, or with your cousin’s little wild kids, the community activities of the season, or in the places that lack staff during the holidays but are bitterly needed: hospitals, soup kitchens, hospices, nursery homes, orphanages. You will never know how much you are appreciated till you try.
5 – Number three and four should keep you busy already. But if you have some downtime left: dream. Sit down with yourself and make your personal wish list for the next year. Stick to a maximum of three wishes total if possible. If that includes a partner, work on it and be specific: what are his/her five non-negotiable traits. Promise yourself you won’t accept a second date with someone that does not meet them. After all, dating is about spending one’s time wisely and economically for best results. That’s called optimization.

Happy Holidays!

Love from your Economist.

The Price of Naptime

You know what’s the best time of the day? If you are a parent of young children that is. Naptime. Those 1-2 hours in the afternoon they nod off and let you be. One good hour for mum and dad to do what they want, alone or, together. Read a book, write a blog, engage in a passionate conversation. Essential. Restoring. For body, mind, soul – and sanity.

Of course, this one hour is only worth so much because the other hours of the day are filled with toddlers’ laughter, their crazy and creative ideas, needs, energy and wisdom. It is a clear case of diminishing returns. Given that this is one hour only, it is valued highly. One hour more would still be fun, two hours more (of productive solitude) would be helpful, but three kid free leisure hours would probably max out the fun, and any further minute would be boring and lonely.

Ok, just wanted to quickly get this message out before a little chocolate stained finger tries out my keyboard, as the soft steps on the corridor seem to announce…

 

5 Steps to Call Love Into Your Life

Caitlin is a very attractive woman in her late thirties. The classical blonde, slim but with generous curves in the right places, and endowed with genes that will let her look 28 for a while still. She is as smart as she’s hot, with an Ivy League MBA, and working long hours. She has strong values and is beautiful on the inside too. The one thing she finds missing from her life is – a better half. She would like to marry, and she knows what kind of guy she is looking for. But not too many people are showing up, and she has not been happy with those who have. People who know her are puzzled that she, of all people, should still be single.

Caitlin is not a rare case among my acquaintances. I too am puzzled. But let’s take her case as an example and try to find avenues for love to enter her life.

  1. Work Less (and Better). Caitlin is single, without dependents to care for, and still her life is packed packed packed with barely a minute to spare. No. 1 reason: work. Caitlin works hours that are totally incompatible with a regular dating life let alone a family life. She needs to stick to the timetable in her contract, and make use of leave time, holidays, compensatory leave for long hours or weekends worked – whatever her employer’s rules allow. And she needs to study these rules and find out, and put her foot down if needed. Downtime is good for dating, and good for productivity at work. (The Economist says: she needs to reveal her true work-life trade-off preferences.)
  2. Use Your Work Hours Well. Of course the main focus of her work hours should be her tasks and professional goals. It may however be in the interest of her professional life to cultivate a network of peer experts for exchange and review, or to take group training, whether in leadership, a language, organizational skills or something else. These activities kill two birds with one stone; they promote professional development and foster personal encounters. Caitlin’s dream date may attend one of the trainings, or be a peer expert, but even if not, there may be a person who knows someone Caitlin should know.
  3. Meet Many Quality People. Twelve should suffice, but more doesn’t harm. In order not to waste her precious time, Caitlin should focus on social circles and activities that likely attract people with her core values. If she is an environmentalist – she should find the key environmental groups and events in town and attend them. If she practices a religion – she should attend their singles groups or affiliated dating agencies. ALL OF THEM. And then the non-affiliated (online) dating agencies, carefully ticking the boxes of what she needs in a guy. She must make clear that non-matches need not apply. If money is no issue, she should consider a professional matchmaker (the classical solution before the internet era). These people are trained and, depending on the agency, have access to a quality selection of singles the world over. There may be a location – love trade-off: if the best guy is in, like, London UK, she may need to move there.
  4. Tell The World. The previous two steps, and especially this one, are about cutting what Economists call ‘the information asymmetry’. Caitlin knows what she needs; the world – and especially Mr Right – do not. She can start by telling her friends (who tell their friends and so on). No worries about seeming desperate – talking about this shows confidence. If she has friends in the publishing industry, she may plot with them to find an excuse to portray her in a newspaper or newsletter or online community. Does she have a specific project she is leading, a volunteer activity or similar? Does she have an interesting story or experience to share? Have them narrate it, and portray her in the wake.
  5. Give Yourself Time And Space To Decide. Once the phone starts ringing and the invitations coming, Caitlin needs to make sure the dates are meaningful and help her decide. Dinner or coffee are good, picnic too. As are moderately strenuous sports from hiking to tennis: they all give you time to talk. Cinema and theater do not – although they give you a theme, and if followed up by a meal, might make sense. Meeting in public until she feels safe is a no-brainer. Group activities are important to see how the date behaves around others, but getting too close too soon, e.g. involving family or very close friends, may influence Caitlin unduly. She needs to decide. And how best to do that will be the feature of another column…

Dear Economist, I am shy. How will I find a date?

Shy Person

 

 

 

 

Dear Anonymous,

the answer depends on whether you are a man or a woman. Contrary to received wisdom: if you are a man, you probably do not need to worry. If you are a woman, there is some work to do.

If being shy implies being less well known or popular, shy guys can relax. Recent empirical evidence shows that women are less likely to choose a man that is more popular than they are. On the other hand, men are less likely to choose a woman that is less popular than they are. In other words, if you are a well known woman appreciated by many, you will have more dates. For a man, however, being well known and appreciated by many may backfire. Why exactly, we don’t know. Probably women do not wish to take the risk of having too popular a man, as he may have a large female following and thus struggle with monogamy…and for some reason, women with a large following do not raise this suspicion. Well.

If shy guys can relax, what about shy gals?  – Ladies, you better work a little on your popularity. Get out there, organize events and announce them (get well known), get up to speed on popular topics (sports, restaurants and bars) which guys seem to like, and the effort should pay off.

This finding comes from a study by Michele Belot and Marco Francesconi at Essex University (“Can anyone be the one? Evidence on mate selection from Speed Dating.” 2006) They tracked a group of men and women through a series of speed dating events and examined their reactions to varying encounters. It turned out that women rarely proposed to a man that received more proposals than they did, while the opposite was certainly true.