Thinking About Happiness and Meaning

This is an exploration of ‘happiness’ and ‘meaning’.

What is Happiness?

Everyone has their own definition of happiness.

  1. “Once I get X, I will be happy” ( X= item, job, money, status, partner, body, experience)
  2. Doing the most ‘good’ in the world
  3. Eudaemonia : ‘flourishing’.
  4. Contentment

Number 1 tends to be the default mode.

There are many more. What is important is to examine your definition of happiness.

One definition that comes up in many traditions is : peace and contentment.

It is not about seeking positive or negative states. But about accepting them as they come. Life is a river of experience, some good, some bad. But the way you react to the experiences is what determines your level of peace.

You can either go through life struggling. Rejecting or chasing after things. Buffeted by the waves of pleasure, pain, success, failure, loss, gain, death, tragedy.

Or you can face them with equanimity. Appreciating joy, appreciating sadness and all the range of conscious experiences available.

This hypothesis comes up in many philosophies (Buddhism, Stoicism , Taoism). What we seek is peace through acceptance.


Internal vs External Games

@naval : We play external games all day : go get better grades, go make money etc. These are all multiplayer games. You should go do those. But looking for contentment by making the world conform to your desires will never work.

Knowing others is intelligence;

knowing yourself is true wisdom.

Mastering others is strength; 

mastering yourself is true power.

Lao Tzu

Instead, change yourself. Seek to alter the way you see the world.

This is entirely trainable. It is like building muscles in the gym. It’s a set of tools that you use until they become habitual.

This will be an exploration of this internal game and how to train the mind to become generally more content and peaceful. Let’s start at the beginning.


First Principles :

You are a biological creature who ‘experiences’ the world through a nervous system. How experience arises (‘consciousness’) we don’t know. But really you are essentially wearing a virtual reality helmet that is your brain and nervous system that converts changes in electrochemical energy into ‘experience’.

Whatever reality looks like, it doesn’t ‘look’ like anything. Many neuroscientists espouse the idea of ‘virtuality’. The brain creates a model of reality. Everyone is hallucinating, but when the hallucinations line up, we have a consensus of ‘reality’.

Evolution has programmed the brain to model reality in a certain way that maximises genes passing down populations. The mind is not immune to natural selection. Many books exploring this topic. You have biases tending towards ‘survival’ or self deception.

Some of these biases are not helping you become peaceful. There is a mismatch between the environment we evolved in and the current modern day environment

Evolution has not programmed for contentment. It has programmed for desire and aversion. We are never content.

The default state is non-contentment

You are always reacting to internal states. It’s all just neurotransmitters and electrochemical energy creating a model of experience (best hypothesis so far). You don’t perceive reality. Instead you live in a mental representation of reality.

You never react to the external world, you always react to your perception of it.

The universe essentially has no concept of bad or good. It is only in your mind that an event is judged to be positive or negative.

Naval

This is important to understand because it means that :

Circumstances matter little. Unless you are in extreme poverty, changing your external environment does little to happiness. There are a few external factors that aid in contentment, discussed below.

It’s the way you interpret the stories you create.

We are often wrong about what will make us happy. As I said, the brain has evolved to pass genes, not to be happy. Certain intuitions are false. Examples :

Having X will make me happy, Earning X will make me happy, Having X partner will make me happy

This is called ‘affective forecasting’. We have a very poor ability to predict what will bring about contentment and happiness in the future.

For example : ‘Once I get into Medical School I will be happy’. How long did that last? A day, a week?. Then : ‘Once I get out of medical school, I will be happy’. Same outcome. ‘Once I become a consultant’…

It is obvious with material goods. You know upgrading your car isn’t going to bring long lasting contentment. But it is often harder to see with career goals or self-improvement etc. The Buddhists have a word for this desire ‘Bhava tanha’. The desire to become. In psychology it is the ‘Hedonic treadmill’.

Desire is not bad. It is inevitable. But be aware of the fact that fulfilling your desires is inherently unsatisfactory. The second ‘truth’ that the Buddha articulated : ‘Life is inherently unsatisfactory’.

So pick your desires very carefully : See ‘externals’ section below. Don’t have too many. And prioritise them. Relationships > Work etc

TLDR : Happiness as most of these ancient philosophies have mentioned is internal. It is your reaction. It is the mental stories you tell yourself AND how one relates to those stories

There are largely 3 ways to train the mind to become happier i.e. the reps of the internal game.

  1. Meditation
  2. Analysis of Thought
  3. (Pharmacological)

I will discuss each of these in turn.


1. Meditation

Modernity has destroyed what we mean by meditation.

TLDR : Observe. Look closely at experience.

Meditation is about becoming aware of ‘experience’ as it arises and passes away. This includes the arising and passing of thought. It is not about ‘not thinking’.

It is paying close attention to the contents of consciousness

Realising that thoughts are impermanent, and simply arising and passing away, as with all contents of consciousness.

Ultimately the relationship with phenomena changes. There is only consciousness and its contents. ‘Awareness’.

It is about viscerally understanding impermanence, the nature of suffering, and the illusory nature of the self (in Buddhist philosophy : Annicha, Dukkha, Annata)

Basic method:

  1. Bring attention to the breath
  2. Notice when the mind wanders
  3. Bring it back to the breath
  4. Be aware that one is thinking, without getting lost in thought.

Noticing that you were mind wandering is a glimpse of awareness. Repeat until it becomes habitual.

One can exclusively pay attention and explore conscious experience. Suppose you sit for a month just paying close attention to the contents of conscious experience. You can discover something fundamental about the nature of consciousness.

The Buddhist view of the self being not what it seems is being investigated and is being supported by modern neuroscience. Furthermore, there are objective changes in the brains of meditators.

The brain has a set of structures called the ‘Default mode network (DFMN). DFMN turns on when one is doing ‘nothing’. It results in background thought. It is ‘self referential thought’. Basically thinking without one is knowing they are thinking

Wandering minds are unhappy minds. Though can be a useful tool, but a terrible master

Meditation is a way to train these structures. fMRI scans show that experienced meditators have lower activity in the DFMN. But the real benefit is experiential.

Meditation is a fundamental ability. It can greatly reduce suffering as you become aware of ‘yourself’

There are profound experiential truths that can be investigated at a first person level through meditation. Admittedly not many people want to go on month long meditation retreats. But there is a lot to be gained from a basic daily practice. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.


2. Analysis of Thought

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Victor Frankyl

This is the realm of philosophy. You can choose your response to situations.

You can construct and reinforce thoughts that are useful and adaptive. You can train yourself to respond in certain ways to challenges.

The liberating aspect is realising : "my thoughts are not accurate. They are simply models. "

You can change your thought through deliberate analysis. If you have ruminations on self image, jealously, anger etc, become aware of them. Write them down. Journal

They lose their power almost immediately once brought into the light. They are simply constructs that you can change.

It is about intention and conscious deliberation. Left to its own devices, the automaticity of thought can cause tremendous amounts of unhappiness.

But when looked at, and accepted. Not pushed against. One can begin to change.


3. Pharmacological

Being medically trained, these medications have real side-effects. It is akin to using a sledge-hammer to hammer in a nail.

A lot of research is being done into psychedelics. I don’t know enough about them, but my worry is that they may not be sustainable.


External Factors

There are certain external factors that can affect your happiness.

Importance of social relationships

Those with deeper, closer social relationships are happier

The hard part is finding meaningful relationships and keeping them

One strategy is to meet lots of people. Once you find the right people – go all in. Invest in long term relationships

The longest term relationships are always family. So invest in family.

Quality > Quantity

Make time for relationships. A dying regret of many, is that they wish they hadn’t worked so much, and wish they had spent more time with people they love.

Time Affluence

People with more time and autonomy are happier

When faced with a decision between money vs time. Choose time

Unless you can trade the money for more time

Use money to buy time rather than to buy social status

Time is non renewable. Money is renewable.

There are 2 ways to be rich : earning a lot and desiring very little

Certain Environments

Commuting : Excessive commuting has been shown to make people unhappy

Noisy environments

Avoiding Poverty

Money is essential.

It should be viewed as tool rather than as an ends

Trade money for time. Outsource labour. Specialise as a producer ( become a specialist in the economy e.g. lawyer) so you can diversify as a consumer (trade that money for other speciality such as a painter to paint your house)

Money can essentially buy ‘freedom’ which is Time.

Popular study : happiness increases up to $50000 a year.

Just automate finances, so you don’t have to think about it all the time.


Meaning

Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.

Victor Frankyl

It is important to have a ‘meaning’. A higher overarching narrative you live by, even thought it is illusory.

I find this video essay explores meaning and nihilism well.

There is no meaning universally.

Meaning is locally created by you.

You get to pick and choose a meaning to life. Here are some popular ones :

  • Kids
  • Helping people
  • Doing ‘meaningful work’

What is important is to think about what your meaning is.


Conclusion

Don’t listen to me. Don’t listen to anyone.

Figure it out for yourself through experiments. Start from an epistemological stance of reasoning entirely from first principles.

Just make sure you think about these topics and revise your views accordingly. Have opinions, just loosely held.

Three Questions to Answer in Your 20’s

The 1% of decisions you make paradoxically determine the trajectory of your life

In your 20’s, I think there are three main questions to be answered :

  1. Where do you live
  2. What do you do
  3. Who do you spend your time with

Let’s explore each of these

1. Where

Do you choose to live in a City or a Rural area?
Where do you choose to live in a City?
What City do you live in?
Do you want to be a small fish in a big pond, or a big fish in a small pond?
Where can you afford to live?

You can try rationalise a lot of these. But at some fundamental level, there is an intuition. The problem is : you are the easiest person to fool.

You are a very poor predictor of ‘what you think you want’. It’s called affective forecasting.

You might have an idealised notion of wanting to live in the big city. So you spend years saving or working towards that, finally to reach your goal, and realise it was not what you wanted. It was just a ‘thought’ , repeated until you confused it for reality.

So what is the solution?

Mini experiments : Live in a place for a few months or a year if possible. Or at least frequently visit or ask friends/family who live there.

Currently : I have this idealised notion of living in North/West London. Why? I’m not sure. Maybe romanticism. But I don’t know the reality of living there, and making all my decisions to get there is foolish. Instead experiment first. Settle later.

It’s a pretty big decision. It warrants experiments.

2. What

What do you do for your career?

Ideally you should do something you are intrinsically motivated to do.
But again that is not always possible for most people.

You can either do what you enjoy, or enjoy what you do. Those are the two options.

Or you could be miserable in a job that pays well.

But the best would be to learn to enjoy what you do. Enjoy the process. But what career do you pick?

This question is a lot easier for Medics. The path is very clear. It’s a lifelong profession generally.

But for most other careers, when I talk to people, they just seem to ‘fall’ into a job by accident. They may consciously choose a ‘field’ but they don’t choose the job prospects.

Moreover the idea of having the same ‘job’ for life is an outdated 20th century notion. Nowadays, people are constantly switching jobs. Just talking with a few of my STEM graduate friends, even they are finding it difficult to cope with the uncertainty. They don’t know ‘where’ they are going exactly.

Solution?

You should not try to ‘aim’ towards any specific job. But develop the character and skillset such that you are resilient and employable. The pace of innovation is only accelerating, and the most valuable skill in the 21st century is the ability to learn fast whilst also staying sane.

Currently : Fortunately for me, I’ve thought this one through a lot. I’ve experimented, spent almost 2 months in Radiology departments. I’ve compared it to other specialities I want to do. There is no question, I can’t see myself doing anything other than Radiology. It’s intrinsically enjoyable.

3. Who

[Intimacy and Relationships]

This is arguably the most important one, but also the hardest one.

Modernity makes it hard to keep stable ties since people move around. But you can make an effort to go meet old friends, and make new friends of course.

In terms of finding a good romantic partner, there is an element of luck involved. You can increase your odds by meeting more people, through shared networks or groups, but luck is still present.

Solution?

Meet lots of new people initially. But if you don’t ‘click’ or share common values, don’t invest. Invest in the 1% of people you do connect with. And go all in.

Conclusion

Think carefully about these three questions as they largely determine the trajectory of your life.

No right or wrong answers : just an open floor to facilitate introspection.

Thinking about Success and Failure

I want to explore my view on what success and failure mean.

As always, with language it comes down to semantics. We all mean something different when we talk about success. Everyone is viewing the world through their own filter.

What is important, is to examine what your definition is. Otherwise you can be unconsciously influenced and just wholesale adopt the definitions of others

A few definitions that may be possible

* Make a ton of money
* Have a high status career
* Fulfil all your desires
* Be a moral/good person
* Help people

There are many definitions, and they are all individual.

But success tends to be a way of saying that you’ve fulfilled whatever desires you have. Failure means you haven’t.

What’s wrong with success = fulfilling all your desires?

Suppose you fulfill all your desires. You’ve been incredibly fortunate (or unfortunate!).
You’ve made money, have a high status job, even have a loving caring family. You might have struggled, been through mental breakdowns, destroyed relationships.
You’ve built this edifice. You’re the top

But… you haven’t realised that you will have to climb back down.

But you haven’t realised that its impermanent. It’s all just wooden scaffolding, and one day it will all burn down.

I swear I’m not a nihilist. I’m the opposite. (I’m rationally optimistic.)

Maybe a parable will help. This is a Taoist story

May be…

There is a Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “May be,” the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “May be,” replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “May be,” answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “May be,” said the farmer.

The point is. Life is inherently full of loss and gain. What comes around goes around.

I’ve internalised this so deeply, that I always instinctively question any praise or criticism. Default thought that comes up is “Is that so?”.

If you choose to define success and failure that way and cling to it, then it causes a great deal of misery.

What’s the alternative?

Acceptance

In all things have no preferences

Miyamoto Mushashi

I don’t tend to think of ‘success’ or ‘failure’ anymore. A more adaptive and useful framing is ‘learning point’.

There is no good or bad, only thinking makes it so. Reality just is. It’s just when our judgement ‘module’ comes online, that suddenly things are deemed good or bad.

You can see this in meditation. You might have this incredible pain in your knee while sitting. You’re struggling, resisting. All because you are ‘thinking’ without knowing you are thinking. Then suddenly you ‘see’ the thought, ‘this is bad’. And that awareness itself, just dissolves the struggle. Immediately. It becomes raw sensation, with ‘thought’ overlaid on top of it. Thinking without knowing you are thinking is the root. It can dissolve it instantly with awareness.

Events are largely up to your interpretation. Loss is not ‘bad’. It is just loss.
Gain is not ‘good’. It is just gain.

This way of seeing, I realise is not the norm in society. I look at other people and kind of think they’re definition is weird (maybe I’m the weird one) and it causes a lot of misery.

Fortunately this view has been articulated in Eastern philosophies (and Western stoicism), which is why I immediately connected with them. They articulate it a lot better than me…

But I can tell you its pretty damn peaceful, and paradoxically I’m more effective with basically no ‘stress’.

Desire is not bad… but clinging to it without realising it will change can be unpleasant

Desire is inevitable.

Obviously we all have basic desires for food, shelter etc

But if you haven’t noticed, we also have a desire for security. A desire that things will remain as they are. That we will be untouched by grief, sorrow, loss.

We desire security in an inherently insecure changing world. Expectation and reality collide.

We want one side of the coin: gain, ‘success’, ‘money’. But we don’t want the other.

So we cling to desire and push against loss. Without realising that what goes up must also come down. I encapsulate this into the well known aphorism:

‘Desire is suffering’.

It’s that clinging to one side of the coin, without realising that one must accept both.

So how do we think about desire?

Be aware of desires

Be aware of whatever desires you have. Because any desire you have is basically saying : I refuse to be content until this is satisfied.

So don’t have too many! Especially the small ones, like desiring someone to be slightly different because you don’t like something about them, or desiring better weather etc.

Don’t have small desires that accumulate and subtly make life unsatisfactory. Have larger desires.

What are my desires?

Thought this would be a useful exercise to think about.

I have desires in life. Things ‘I’ want.

* Large family
* Time and financial independence

I think that’s it…

Maybe I’ll get them. Maybe I won’t.
But neither is good or bad…

Conclusion

This blog is becoming fun, because I can explore some counterintuitive views that I’ve had for a long time!

The whole point of this blog is to look back in 5 years time, and reassess. It’s fun to look at how one has changed.