Friday, May 07, 2010

Markets, Depression, and Merry-Go-Rounds

Yesterday I watched as the stock market took an unprecedented plunge. The Dow fell something like 600 points in 15 minutes, perhaps reflecting fear of a world-wide financial collapse. I'm no fancy economist, but that sounds like a bad thing.

I have my personal retirement account built from decades of Excel work; about half of it is in stock funds. I manage the investments my mother lives off of, and those of a non-profit I volunteer for. These too have exposure to the stock market.

The problem isn't simply about losing money. That's to be expected sometimes: as a Buddhist and a poker player, I'm familiar with the roller-coaster of variance. (Variance refers to gain and loss alternating for reasons we can't understand, and in ways we can't predict -- at least in the short-term.) At this chaotic moment, the issue is: I'm responsible for dealing with several financial situations... and I have no idea what to do.

It's most likely that I'll do nothing. Doing nothing is one of my favorite things, as well as my go-to strategy in troubled times. Years ago, I read the novel The Mouse That Roared. One character was a government official who had a standard policy for any problem that reached his desk: he'd ignore it for the first week. He reasoned that most problems resolve themselves in a short time if you do nothing. Even as a child, the idea was appealing to me. It's no coincidence that I ended up doing Zen, a practice that involves a whole lot of sitting quietly and doing nothing.

Biologists debate why we human beings get depressed. Since depression doesn't seem to offer an advantage in terms of survival or procreation, you'd think that evolution would have weeded out this tendency. And yet depression remains common, across all age groups and throughout history.

When depressed, we can't find the pleasure we usually derive from activities like social interaction, sex, and eating. In short, we don't feel like doing anything. Since we're not "distracted" by the search for pleasurable activities, we have more time and energy for rumination. From the Scientific American article Depression's Evolutionary Roots:
... when you are faced with a difficult problem, such as a math problem, feeling depressed is often a useful response that may help you analyze and solve it. For instance, in some of our research, we have found evidence that people who get more depressed while they are working on complex problems in an intelligence test tend to score higher on the test.
From the Wikipedia entry Evolutionary approaches to depression:
Another way depression increases an individual’s ability to concentrate on a problem is by reducing distraction from the problem. For example, anhedonia, which is often associated with depression, decreases an individual’s desire to participate in activities that provide short-term rewards, and instead, allows the individual to concentrate on long-term goals. In addition, “psychomotory changes,” such as solitariness, decreased appetite, and insomnia also reduce distractions. For instance, insomnia enables conscious analysis of the problem to be maintained by preventing sleep from disrupting such processes. Likewise, solitariness, lack of physical activity, and lack of appetite all eliminate sources of distraction, such as social interactions, navigation through the environment, and “oral activity,” which disrupt stimuli from being processed.
What a relief. It's not that I'm lazy. It's that I don't want to disrupt stimuli from being processed!

Life is like a carousel: it can be wonderful to enjoy the lively music, to experience the exciting shapes and colors and motions, to grab at the brass rings. But what if you spent a whole lifetime on a merry-go-round? You'd miss lots of stuff. Hell, if you never got off the merry-go-round, how would you even notice that you're on a merry-go-round?

So we've got formal Zen practice, in which we sit quietly and do nothing. It's just like stepping off the merry-go-round. This pause from the constant ups and downs, the gain and loss and striving of life, reveals an otherwise hidden wider perspective. Stopping for a moment our search for rewards... is the only way to get a clear view of the big-picture questions: what am I, and why am I alive?

Over the eons, perhaps DNA discovered that in difficult and confusing times, the optimal default strategy is to do nothing. Maybe that's why it allows depression... so we'll periodically give it all up and curl up immobile. If it's good enough for DNA, it's good enough for me.