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.

Emotionally unavailable?! 3 Steps out of The Rut

You know what the words mean, I am sure. But let me briefly illustrate.

Thelma is an attractive woman in her late thirties. She has had several boyfriends, but always something was missing. She has been going out with Jack for nearly two years – exclusively but without any physical expression of love. Not even holding hands. Jack, a successful 45 year old, is also still living with his parents in their large house and has a hard time contemplating moving out. – Sensibly,  Thelma left before they hit the two year mark. The only people she has been attracted to since were still in a relationship.

What is going on here? Well, Jack is not really available for an exclusive relationship; his heart is safely parked at his parents’. But Thelma neither: she unconsciously picks people who could never offer a full, durable, emotional relationship. Where there’s no relationship, none can be broken. True risk safely avoided.

What do economists make of this? What is an ’emotionally unavailable’ person doing in economic terms?
She is not on the market. She is not buying, let alone investing. Keeps her money safely in a low or no interest savings account, while she goes through the motions of shopping. We are talking about an extreme risk aversion here, that for tops is unconscious. The aversion is so high it keeps you out of any chances of a substantial return on your investment. Risk averse people want insurance. Thelma and Jack insure against the essential risks of amorous relationships by keeping healthy amour out; the true mutual connection.

How doe we get the amour back in? What can be done?

  • Step 1 would be to make the process conscious. Instead of unconsciously avoiding productive risks, Thelma and Jack would consciously avoid them. Nothing wrong here, if that makes them happy.
  • If it doesn’t make them happy, then in the medium run, step 2 would mean a realistic assessment of the risks of investing. Are they sizeable? Certainly. But not higher for oneself than for others. (Thelma needs to reality check her self esteem. And correct upwards. One way to do this is to avoid people that drag us down with reproaches and criticism. Sometimes this means creating distance to formerly close chums. And creating more proximity with friends that lift us up and appreciate us.)
  • Step 3 would finally entail some stepwise and careful and proactive risk taking. Without inbuilt insurance. But with the option to dial back at any step if needed.

There are no guarantees. You may be hurt.

Or you may bond forever.

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.

Do you know why you trust whom you trust?

Why do we trust whom we trust? Why do we refuse to trust sometimes? Experience (with the persons in questions) is a big part of it, but not always. And what does this mean for our relationships?

One source of trust is us belonging to a group (or tribe, or nation). Some inter-disciplinary researchers have established that we tend to be altruistic within these groups, and less so between the groups. This is called ‘parochial’. On average, we tend to make choices of benefit to our group (even when conflicting with the choice that benefits all groups), out of a sense of duty. People perceive that they got something from their nation or group, so have a duty to give back.

There are some benefits of organizing our trust in this way. It is more ‘efficient’ in the short term; agreements are easier to enforce in a group with limited membership.

But when you are looking for your significant other, parochialism isn’t the smartest thing. It segments the world. Selecting your best possible mate just within your segment won’t likely find you the best possible mate in the world.

5 Things That Keep You Faithful

It’s wonderful to marry. It’s wonderful to be married. And in many cases it’s wonderful to stay married for life. There are the obvious exceptions when relationships become unbearable at least for one party. But there are also the break-ups that needn’t be. I don’t know how you feel about it, but I see many broken up marriages that could have been great. No abuse anywhere, two intelligent and loving people with great hope…but often – unfaithfulness creeping in out of nowhere.

Sometimes I see the first symptoms; partners not wearing their wedding band and giving a pretend-unmarried face to the world and their colleagues. When in reality they are very married. Or people sending mixed signals: no wedding band, but frequent mention of their partner. Unless the person is affiliated to a culture that doesn’t know the ring as a symbol – I don’t trust the wedding-band shirkers, also in matters unrelated to marriage.

So today’s column is about staying faithful. More precisely, about how to resist the temptation to the contrary. Our recommendations are inspired by recent research from a team of international sociologists, and actually apply to various areas of life:

  1. You can successfully say ‘No’ to temptation most of the time. Among common daily temptations (not necessarily for relationships, but for example for ice cream, internet surfing etc), people fail to resist only 17% of the time.
  2. But beware: self-control tires out. Resistance is a depleting reservoir. Failure occurs after many successful attempts to fend off temptation.  The main recommendation coming out of this is the next point:
  3. The best strategy to resist temptations is to avoid them altogether. In this way, you do not have to use your weakening resistance muscle, and can keep it ready for the unavoidable temptation. Faithful people work mainly by avoiding temptation, not by fighting it.
  4. Alcohol not only weakens resistance but actually makes temptation stronger. Stay away from alcohol and other mind-altering drugs. Also,…
  5. Stay away from people who yield to the temptations you want to avoid. Watching others succumb to a temptation makes you more likely to do the same. I guess, in the case of infidelity, which always involves two, this argument is even stronger: if you are around people who are ready to be unfaithful, it is more likely to happen to you.  – So, switch workplace, sports club or other circles if they have a high density of cheaters.

Happiness: invest in your relationships, not your career

We kind of suspected it: relationships are worth so much more than many things we usually strive after (career, money, property…). When you want true happiness, claims David Brooks in ‘Social Animal’, your best investments are many, trusting and deep relationships. A good marriage is apparently worth $120,000 a year just by itself. (Dr de Bergerac thinks this is an understatement.) Every friendship, multiplied by its depth, adds to the happiness income.

So there we go. Starting next week, make sure to leave your desk at 5pm sharp and call up your buddy instead of reviewing the accounts once more.