Ants and grasshoppers and mental health

There is the old fable of the ant and the grasshopper – the ant saves and saves and saves and at the end has plenty. The grasshopper splurges and splurges and enjoys and at the end has nothing. In some versions, the grasshopper dies. In others, he borrows from the ant. Most tellings of the fable don’t end well for the grasshopper.

“Be like the ant”, goes the moral of the story.

I’m not so sure if that is the right strategy for “real life”. Talking about myself, I have spent large parts of my life living like an ant, and a lot of it has not been fun. I’m not talking about money here – credit cards apart, I’m entirely debt-free, and my wife and I paid off our home loan (the only big loan I’ve taken) in a fifth of the term. That has allowed us to take risks in terms of careers, and do more interesting things, so that part of “living like an ant” I don’t regret at all.

It is more on the non-monetary fronts. I might have written about this in the past, likening it to the movie Ganesha Subramanya. The plot there is a classic ant plot – that you “need to achieve something in life” before you can find a girlfriend or get married. And various people making fun of the protagonists for this philosophy.

Quoting from my old blogpost on this:

In the two years prior to going to IIT, it had been drilled into my head that it was wrong to relax or have fun until I had “achieved my goals”, which at that point in time was basically about getting into IIT. I did have some fun in that period, but it usually came with a heavy dose of guilt – that I was straying from my goal.

In any case, I got into IIT and the attitude continued. I felt that I couldn’t relax until I had “finished my work”. And since IIT was this constant treadmill of tests and exams and assignments and grades, this meant that this kind of “achievement” of finishing work didn’t come easily. And so I went about my life without chilling. And was unhappy.

Sometimes I think this problem went away in my twenties, but now that I think deeper about it, whether I think like an ant or a grasshopper is related to my state of mind, and it is self-fulfilling. When I am feeling contented and fine (what I like to think is my “normal state”) I’m a grasshopper. I sometimes bite off too much. I want to do everything. I want to enjoy also. And sometimes that means putting off work (or “borrowing from my future time”).

However, when I’m going through a rough patch or not in the best of mental health, I suddenly go off into ant mode. I don’t want to risk going lower, so I become extra cautious. Extra caution means fulfilling my responsibilities as and when they come, and putting off the fun for later (rather than the other way round). In other words you don’t want to borrow – from your future time!

If you think of utility theory, your “happiness” (or “welfare”) as a function of your “wealth” (need not always be monetary – can be physical or mental health as well) is concave. The more wellness you have, the less the marginal utility of getting more wellness (among other things, this explains why insurance, on average, can get away with offering a lower rate of return).

Among other things, what this means is that the loss of wellness from the loss of a rupee far exceeds the gain of wellness from the gain of a rupee (and this is consistent at all wealth levels – again I’m using rupees only for convenience here). And so when you are in a bad mental state, if you are optimising for not slipping further, you will necessarily follow a low-risk policy. And you become more “anty” (and antsy, of course).

Somewhere you need to break off that cycle. Even when you are otherwise not feeling well, you need to somehow give yourself that stimulus, and that means being a grasshopper. It is a conscious effort that you need to make – that yes, your life is shit and you are not doing well, but being an ant is most likely NOT going to help you get out of it.

And slowly you transition your way out. You will realise that occasionally you CAN borrow from your future time – that maximises your overall happiness over time (while at the same time not shirking). And you start being more of a grasshopper. And so forth until you are in “ground state”.

In some way a lot of fables have their morals the wrong way around – favouring the ant over the grasshopper; favouring the hedgehog over the fox. I guess a lot of them simply haven’t aged well enough to our current context and lifestyles!