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 Work

Autotelic : (of an activity or a creative work) having an end or purpose in itself.

Definition of Work:

Work is the set of things you have to do that you don’t want to do(@naval)

When you want to do something: that is not defined as work

Examples of work at the moment: Things that I don’t enjoy : paperwork, bureaucracy, being a glorified secretary

Things that don’t constitute work: learning about medicine, talking to patients, clerking, practical procedures

Play is the opposite of work

When I do things that don’t constitute work, it feels like play.

Examples of play : music, exercise, reading for curiosity, learning about medicine.

There is also an element of improving, getting better every day. This is rewarding.

The way to maximise satisfaction is to pursue mastery.

To pursue it for its own sake. Because you enjoy the process rather than any outcome. An autotelic process.

Keep in this mind when thinking about career. The correct response to life is to treat it like play.

to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play

Alan Watts

Minimise work

Minimise the set of things you don’t want to do.

But accept a level of jumping through hoops especially in a hierarchical field, and also when you are early in a career.

But as you get older, time becomes more valuable. You want to do work you enjoy. Work that is skill based, that you can improve on, that is congruent with your values and that you are good at.

Choosing work : heuristics

  1. Congruent with your values
  2. You are good at it
  3. It is skill-based, allowing for improvement
  4. Not far away – ideally you can walk in the sun to, or short drive
  5. You like the people
  6. Long term compounding

The Value of Journalling

I want to enumerate why journalling is a good habit, mainly because I want to make it a stronger habit.


1. Self Reflection

The unexamined life is not worth living

Socrates

“Know thyself” is the oldest advice in the book. Our life can be unconscious if we choose. The automaticity of thought and daily life can result in an almost trance like state, where you just drift from day to day without really asking the big questions. Who am I, what are my desires, what are some of my personality traits that maybe are harmful?

Humans are conditioned. We are influenced by our environment, our genes, cultural and social memes etc. This is of course inevitable.

The problem lies when this is all unconscious and unquestioned. It is when you don’t question your beliefs and ideas (which of course you’ve just picked up from somewhere else).

So journalling is a way to question yourself. Is there a better way? It’s about living an examined life.


2. Think about things

We often don’t know what we think, until we write it down.

Often its just a fuzzy idea. With belief for example, we often make leaps in logic because we are kind to ourselves. Or we just wholesale adopt the belief or opinion of someone we admire, without really thinking it through ourselves.

Writing is structured thinking. And with structured thinking you can more robustly make an informed point.


3. Nostalgia / Recording

I don’t typically look back, but I think that might not always be a good thing.

Psychology has shown that memory formation is flawed. We don’t see reality how is was. Often we are prone to biases such as looking back with rose tinted glasses. Maybe this is a good thing? But I prefer seeing reality.

Journalling is a way to record day to day. What one did, thought, felt etc.

I’ve been trying to record more in general. Just take more pictures, videos, write. I don’t really go back and look at old photos, but people around me do, and its always nice to share a snapshot in time with someone else.

How I Currently Journal

I used to write down, but increasingly I’ve found using my phone or tablet is more convenient. (Similarly with reading). It’s much faster to type, and now even dictate!

I use an app called : DayOne

It is brilliant! You can record video, audio or write. Automatically saves time and location. And I can write in it anywhere.

I typically dictate, because that way I can truly see what thoughts are coming up. There is less of a delay in typing and modifying. You can see the unfiltered reality of thought.

And what about? Any challenges during the day, how I can respond better, how I am feeling now. And longer term questions. Really it is personal. But I think the best format is to ask yourself questions. Be curious.

Then also you can just purely record what you are doing. Everyone has a different way of journalling.

But the most important thing I feel is to keep up the habit.

20 and a half- What I’ve learnt

It’s strange that people only talk about ‘half’ years when they are either really young or really old. “I’m 4 and a half” or “I’m 91 and a half”. I think the rest of us are missing out. Six months is a long period of time and one that perhaps deserves recognition. In an attempt to ‘celebrate’ that fact, and partly due to procrastination, I’ve decided to undertake a deep introspection of what I feel to be most important in life. I would love to look back at this and see how my views have evolved or changed, maybe even write a followup when I hit 30 and a half…

 

1. “You know nothing Jon Snow”

The fact is that I know nothing. Nothing beyond my initial surroundings, interactions and schoolings. With that comes only a deep respect for everyone I encounter, since they have a unique experience of life and a perspective that can offer a view on the world. I try to listen to everyone.

 

2. A life not shared is a life not lived

I identify as an introvert. That doesn’t mean I prefer to sulk away in the corner and keep to myself. It just means most of the time I prefer to do that. Yet I have an incredible gratefulness for family and friends. They are the people you can share your happiness with, or troubles when the time comes. That said, I could definitely work on trying to be more sociable though. A close friend who loves to initiate deep philosophical chats that I am never prepared for once told me – “We avoid risks in life in order to arrive safely at death”. I’m sure he stole that one from somewhere.

 

3. Health is one of the best gifts you can give yourself

A tangible sense of dread would wash over me when I had to do any form of physical exercise in my early teens. The bleep test was the stuff of nightmares. My diet was reasonable, mostly due to the blessing of a health conscious mother, but needless to say, cardio was a word I was not aware of. I would love to say how I was inspired to change, but in fact it was just the underestimated power of establishing a routine. I started going to the gym and lifting weights. I force myself to go and the process becomes mechanical. Heeding the wisdom of the modern philosopher Shia LeBoeuf, “Just do it”.

 

4. Travel

I am incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel and experience living life in a different culture. I was  born and raised in India till the age of six and that was when I moved to England, with a basic understanding of the language. I remember running to my Father in blockbuster because I had no idea how to speak to the staff about renting a DVD. The fact is that humanity is incredibly diverse. There are different cultures, systems, environments, climates and most importantly, people. It would be extremely limiting not to experience the countless ways that humans around the globe live their lives.

 

5. Culminate a deep passion for whatever you want

I didn’t get into medical school in my first year. I try and rationalise that by saying that “I didn’t work hard enough”, which is partly true. Looking back however, it was because I lacked a passion in what I wanted to pursue. I imagine that apathy came through in my interviews.  What has become more clear, is that having a grounded sense of ambition and passion and throwing yourself into what interests you the most, seems to ‘feel good’.  Currently that seems to be picking away at my guitar, reading and ‘being a medical student’… I’m loving it.

 

6. Be Open and Honest

It’s a simple concept that I prefer referring to as  being ‘chill’. Language is undermined with gossip, exaggeration or deceit and I find that by coming from a place of honesty, much the deadly sins of language seem to vanish. I’m probably one of the worst people to gossip with. By being open and honest, you tend to polarise people who harbour animosity or ulterior motives and attract those who like your company. Although its a cliche topic and I cringe writing it, a fantastic quote by Dr Seuss encompasses the idea perfectly.

“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”

 

7. Reading is food for the soul

Reading offers perspective. One author I strongly recommend is Atul Gawande. He is an incredibly relatable author who talks about a range of topics from mortality, to the use of checklists in surgery to inevitable complications in medicine. His most recent book called ‘Being Mortal’ explorers how medicine is not coping with balancing technological advances with the needs of the ageing population. He delves deeply into what really matters in the final moments of life, essential insight that I think every healthcare professional should have. It had me in tears at points and has changed my perspective on end of life. That is the boon of literature.

 

7 1/2. Sweet Potato is a gift from God

A brief point. Cooking has been an incredibly frustrating yet endlessly rewarding task. I have found solace in sweet potato. Following the timeless advice of Samwell Gamgee- “Boil em, mash em, stick em in a stew”.

 

8. Gratitude

“True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.”
Seneca

I’ve been reading about stoicism lately and have found it endlessly enlightening. I love this quote but also really don’t want to sound like the philosophy student spouting garbage from that scene in ‘Good Will Hunting’ so rather than analyse it, I just take it at face value- to be grateful for what you have.

Grateful for family and friends, for an education, for shelter and food and of course for good coffee. Even gratefulness in the smallest of things has resulted in feeling incredibly satisfied.

 

 

 

Side note:

If I am reading this in ten years time, keep writing. No matter how convoluted and nonsensical it may be.

 

My experience of dissection

I was one of those people. On the first day of dissection, I inadvertently fainted, falling back rather unromantically into the arms of the person behind me. It was strange as I’d had a preconceived notion to how the process was going to be. I thought there would be a body, perhaps vaguely resembling a human being in front of me. We would then get busy to work learning the intricacies of human anatomy and dissecting various systems of her body. I expected this on the first day. There was also the fact that ever since doing work experience in the field, I was determined to become a surgeon. So fainting in that sense, felt like a failure, albeit a humorous one. Looking back on the moment, I remember our group unzipping the off white plastic body bag, the smell of formaldehyde (one that was completely new to me) and feeling a form of nervous excitement. It was still excitement though. However when the body was completely out of the bag and lain on the cold metallic table, I couldn’t help but feel unsteady. It was the face. Looking at the face, I realised that this was a person in front of me. A person who had once been a child, sister, mother, daughter, who had once had a job, friends and family. A person who had experienced joy, sadness, grief, anger, jealously and countless other emotions. I imagined a family or friend in that same position and simultaneously felt the blood rush out of my brain. The rest was a blur, but I tried to engage in that first week as best as I could.

Oddly enough, in the following weeks, it just seemed so routine. I had absolutely no difficulty cutting and exploring this person in front of me. Something had changed. Looking back, I feel as I suppressed the idea that this was a person. It may seem daft, but at least it helped me.  Another reason is the sheer volume of anatomy we had to learn. The human body started to seem less and less mysterious and more and more like a compendium of names for various parts. It was like a  piece of machinery but with complexity beyond that of any machine made by man. One that humans were nowhere close to fully understanding. Someone told me that on average, medical students learn a total of 7000 new words by the end of the first year. I assume that number only climbs as we progress. The vast amount of knowledge in a way helped process my misconceptions about the body. I for one, expected everything to be neatly arranged much like in a textbook. In reality it was a mess of fat and fascia, with loops looped around other loops, blood vessels and nerves navigating through muscle and bone. It felt like an incredibly large and precariously packed suitcase. It is of course a three dimensional concept rather than a two dimensional one. I absolutely loved the entire process and threw myself into trying to learn anatomy. Fortunately what seemed like a mystery at the start, now seems slightly more manageable.

Nonetheless, the time sped by and as I come to the end of the process this week, having spent a total of a year learning about the body, I can’t help but feel grateful. Grateful for the opportunity and especially grateful to our cadaver. As the amount of anatomy has dwindled, I’ve started to think of our cadaver as more than  piece of machinery, but instead as a human being again. However now I feel a sense of pride and deep respect. It takes a special kind of human being to donate their body to medical education. One that would want her body to be put to a good use by others after she had no use for it herself. Although I know almost nothing about her as a person, I know for a fact that the virtues of courage and stoutheartedness were not lacking. In the end, all I can say is thank you.