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.

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