Thoughts on Happiness (2) [Happiness Sequence, Part 3]

[Previously: Happy by HabitThoughts on Happiness (1)]

9. Seeing the positive

Stupid and/or irrational people can really annoy me. Someone just has to say that “evolutionary psychology is biologistic” and my day is ruined. The fact is that the irrationality, overconfidence and ignorance of some people boggles the mind. If this sad fact is brought home to me by e.g. reading some comments on the internet or listening to certain students in my classes, I sometimes completely lose my faith in humanity.

Of course, it doesn’t make any sense to feel enraged by stupid or irrational people. (Actually, it never makes sense to feel enraged by anything except you can channel your anger into constructive motivation).  First of all, talking in an angry tone almost always makes other people more defensive and you will never change their minds if you do so. Secondly, as soon as one really groks determinism and evolution one has to understand that no one is really at fault for their stupidity or irrationality. We are all crazy robots, born with brains that weren’t built for truth-seeking or honesty but that were cobbled together by natural selection.

Furthermore, it is not unlikely that the majority of humanity (except psychopaths) actually would have relatively similar goals to mine and wish me all the best, at least if one counted their extrapolated volitions. We humans often labor under the dangerous illusion that all our opponents are innately evil. But every time I encounter someone who is talking nonsense while being overconfident and self-righteous about it, I should visualize that he had just the wrong genes, the wrong learning environment and that his cognitive engine was actually built to feel confident and self-righteous most of the time.

In addition, I would like to train myself to view such an encounter as an opportunity through which I can learn which arguments and which tone of voice are optimal to convince other people of my beliefs. Also, I’m of course not always right and feeling enraged is epistemically detrimental: Only in a calm, sympathetic mood can you evaluate the arguments of your opponent in an impartial way.

9.1. Invert your perspective 

In the previous post, I wrote that I often feel depressed, insignificant and inferior in comparison to smarter people. And in the previous paragraphs I wrote that I often feel depressed, hopeless or angry when other people are more stupid than me. But one day I realized that this attitude is at the least inconsistent, if not downright idiotic. Why shouldn’t I invert my perspective? For example, when dealing with more stupid and/or irrational people I could just think to myself how much more I can achieve (and already achieved, more on this later) in my life than they can or how much more I can steer the future of sentient life towards a positive direction than they can.

Similarly, I could feel grateful and happy for the existence of every productive genius because everyone of them restores my faith in humanity and makes it more likely that the future will consist of less suffering and more awesomeness. (Admittedly, this only holds true for productive geniuses who share a non-trivial portion of my values and beliefs.)

To sum it up: Whenever I encounter a stupid, irrational person I could think to myself how much more awesome I am or how lucky I am, i.e. engage in downward comparisons (indeed, research has shown that those are good for your happiness). To put it succinctly: Replace anger with pride.

And whenever I encounter someone who is more intelligent than me I could just be grateful for his existence. That is replace envy and self-loathing with gratitude.

Generally, whenever I notice that I dwell on the negative, I should try to invert my perspective and focus on the positive. And this is (almost) always possible. I can choose on which aspects of reality to focus, I can choose which emotions to cultivate and I can choose which thoughts to contemplate and which ones to abandon.

9.2. Changing the narrative of one’s own life story/ Overcoming nostalgia/ Learning to accept that some things lose their magic

From a young age, the narrative style of my own life was that of almost continuous decline and a longing for the past: For example, when I was around 10, just entered 5th grade and thus a new school, I realized that my life will never be as easy and happy as before. In elementary school everything was perfect: I spent maximally 10 minutes per day on homework and learning, but still got excellent grades. The rest of the time I could just play lego which was pure bliss to me back then. But now in 5th grade, things got harder; one had to make new friends, one had to learn more and lego also wasn’t as magical as before. As I contemplated my past, it occurred to me that kindergarten was even more awesome and relaxed than elementary school because back then I have had even more free time and loved lego even more! Thus I naturally wondered: Will this always go on like this? Will I have more and more responsibility as I grow older, will the disenchantment with this world become ever more sinister and sobering, as I lose my naivety and learn more about the cold, hard facts of this cosmos? Sadly, I was right, even more so than I could imagine.

These days, I often long for the past in which everything seemed so easy and when I hadn’t heard anything about the existential evils of our universe. Back then, I also had years in which I was actually convinced that my life will get better and better. I was so overconfident that I was relatively sure that I will achieve something truly great. You know, maybe unifying general relativity and quantum mechanics, nothing too grandiose. Dreams like this can really motivate you.

Of course, now I know that this was nothing but a huge delusion. These days, I’m mostly afraid of the future: I will have to find a job that will probably be much more soul-crushing and tedious than I can imagine now. My body will decay, I will have less and less energy and I will get sick more often. I’m truly afraid of getting old.

What I also didn’t realize in the past was just how powerful the hedonic treadmill is: A few years ago my biggest dream was to find my “soulmate” and I thought as soon as I find her we will live happily ever after. The problem is that I’ve basically found my soulmate and sure, my happiness increased, but I certainly don’t feel blissed-out all the time the way I had imagined. Not to go in to much detail, but in general my life has really gotten exponentially better the last few years – not only did I find my soulmate, I also made lots of very close friends and I’ve even found meaningful work in an EA organization, all things that I could only dream about a few years ago when I had to go out alone to clubs in hope of finding my dream girl or at least some like-minded people because I basically had no friends and felt unbearably lonely. But now, although I accomplished so much of my goals and escaped this abyss of loneliness, I’m not that much happier.

One could even say that I’ve reached my epistemic, romantic and social optimum or that I’m at least quite close and that all further improvements in those areas are subject to heavily diminishing marginal returns. What I mean with a romantic and social optimum should be clear from what I’ve wrote above. An epistemic or philosophical optimum I’ve reached because I already discovered LessWrong, EA, transhumanism, bayesian epistemology, evolutionary psychology, superintelligence, etc. Of course there are many important things I still don’t understand like more complicated anthropics or decision theory but I fear my IQ is too low to really comprehend those subjects. I probably won’t discover novel and exciting ideas anymore that will radically change my worldview. Often I feel like there is nothing new under the sun, that life has nothing exciting in store left for me. In contrast, back in my youth I was always unsatisfied with my current knowledge and could see flaws in it everywhere and thus was extremely curious and motivated to find satisfying answers to philosophical, scientific and above all existential questions and therefore devoured books like a starving child a Big Mac. On average, I was reading more than one book per day and was making every week immense intellectual progress. At the same time I was very optimistic and thought that once I’ve found the answer to the meaning of life, I would become enlightened and live happily ever after. (Oh, the memory of those glory days…). Anyway, in an important sense, this was very similar to the above-mentioned search for my soulmate and to my ill-fated attempts to find enlightenment by tripping on psychedelic drugs (which I haven’t mentioned): I was always searching for some kind of transcendence and I believed it could be found. Now I know that I will never achieve transcendence and that I will never become truly happy or enlightened – at least not before we achieve a positive singularity.

It’s also likely that I won’t have experiences anymore that are as intense as the ones I made in my past. For example, I think that generally the first love is the most intense love of one’s life and that later romantic relationships – albeit much better in many other ways – just won’t reach this raw emotional intensity again. Furthermore, a sad fact about relationships in general is that the first few months tend to be the most intense and euphoric. This has certainly to do with simple brain-chemistry and hormones but also with the fact that at the beginning of a new relationship the speed at which you get to know and become closer with each other – the velocity of convergence in mind-space –  is incredibly high: you can have hour-long conversations in which you make one exciting discovery per minute about the other person. But sadly, even the most complex human mind is of a finite capacity and after some weeks or months the velocity of psychological convergence inevitably starts to decelerate. Sure, being really intimate with your romantic partner is great, but it’s not as novel and exciting anymore (notice the paralleles between this – having reached the romantic optimum – and having reached the epistemic optimum).

Similarly, I probably will never experience something as magical and other-wordly as my first LSD-trip on a festival. Similar things can be said for all the other drugs I’ve tried and which lose their magic and novelty after the first few times.
The same pattern can be observed with regards to (fiction-)books, movies, TV series, etc. : It feels like I’ve already seen the best movies and read the best books and there is nothing left anymore that can truly excite me and terminate my endless search for satisfaction, even temporarily. Once I find something (a book, a movie) that I truly enjoy, I devour it immediately and I have to start my perennial search to fill my inner emptiness again. But it gets harder and harder to find things that satisfy my steadily increasing standards. It’s like I’ve developed a really high tolerance for awesomeness and I need ever increasing dosages of awesomeness to avoid boredom.

I guess the trick is to invert the perspective and see the positive: Isn’t it quite awesome that I’m near my epistemic optimum, that I found my soulmate and have lots of awesome friends? Why shouldn’t I be very happy about this? And there is still room for improvement. I can become happier, more productive and more knowledgeable – in fact I already did so in the last 6 months although no external circumstances changed. Sure, the rate of improvement won’t be as high as in my youth but that’s only because going from shitty to good is easier than going from good to great. I should be glad and proud that I’ve escaped my previous ignorance and naivete – which might made me happy but also deluded and wrong. Last but not least, with superintelligent FAI there is still hope to achieve ultimate transcendence and in a posthuman utopia I will also be able to comprehend truly exciting ideas, devour novel awesome books and other pieces of art, etc.

[EDIT 12.07.2015: These days I’m actually significantly more happy than, say, 2 years ago, and I’m proud of what I’ve achieved and am also more optimistic about my future but that may be because I’m taking a new antidepressant :). Also, I’m not disappointed anymore that I won’t be able to repeat my crazy drug experiences anymore. There are other things to look forward to, like meeting new cool EAs, writing influential papers and posts about important themes, or just in general doing high-impact work.]

9.3. Developing gratitude

As noted above, it is all to easy to focus on the negative. Cultivating the feeling of gratitude can help one to focus on the positive side. Gratitude is an emotion which lets one focus on the good things that one has received (either because of mere luck or because of the kindness of other people). Research has shown that writing a gratitude journal is an incredibly effective way to become happier (see e.g. “59 Seconds” by Richard Wiseman). For example, one could write down, say, three things for which one feels grateful and do so every day (those things could have happened this day or they could have happened long ago). Writing seems to be more effective than merely visualizing but it should also work.

Since this is my own blog and I can engage here in as much gooey self-disclosure as I wish, and this post is written mostly for myself, I will do it just now: I got really lucky in my life. First of all, I was born in a rich, first-world country. My parents love and support me in almost everything. I never had real financial worries. I never had to work in my life just to have food or clothes or shelter. I could study and read what I wanted. I am quite healthy, (relatively) intelligent and good-looking. I have many good friends. And my best friends I found through mere luck. I have an awesome girlfriend which I also found through pure luck.

9.4. Developing pride/self-compassion

Learning to “love” oneself or to be proud of oneself is also an exercise in learning to focus on the positive, at least for me. Naturally, I often focus on the negative, i.e. on how stupid, irrational, unproductive, lazy and cowardly I’ve been throughout my life. I guess for me it would be beneficial to practice to feel more proud about myself (if you are a clinical narcissist, this is probably not the best technique. Admittedly, I can be quite narcissistic myself, but I will do it anyways). Again, this is my own blog, so I will just brag about myself in the next paragraph:

Let me skip the boring basics like studies, etc. and come straight to the point: For three years I read on average at least 10 hours of philosophy and science per day and therefore discovered LessWrong and related crucial considerations like effective altruism or the intelligence explosion completely on my own. Actually, I was probably one of the first people in Germany that did so and organized the first German LessWrong meetup. I donated quite some money to effective altruism organizations. I personally introduced at least 5 people to those ideas. I translated and wrote more than 10 articles in German on rationality, the intelligence explosion and related topics. I even gave a talk on the intelligence explosion. In addition to this “Apollonian” side, I’ve also read a lot of literature, more so than most scientifically-oriented people. I did some other insane stuff – my life has some episodes that would make for excellent novels. Although I’ve stared in the abyss and endured some crazy shit, I never gave up and just blindly followed the herd but followed my beliefs even if they were unpopular. I eventually became confident enough to attract a girl and I’m not too bad as a partner. I’m not too bad as a friend. I’ve never been to a mental hospital. I haven’t killed myself.

Impressive shit! It is quite strange that I (like probably most humans) apply a self-defeating double-standard when evaluating the worth of human beings: Several of my friends are certainly less productive and have accomplished less than me but I nonetheless think that they are awesome human beings and I love them. But myself? Oh, I’m a hopeless loser who fucks up all the time. But this double-standard is just inconsistent and unfair. Indeed, I once realized that if I met someone who was almost exactly like me I would love this guy and would think that he should be proud and content (maybe I am a narcissist?). So why not feel like this now?

9.5 Keep in mind ripple-effects

In the midst of depression you often believe that you can not improve the world to any significant extent, anyways, that all your efforts do not matter. However, the small changes you can make in the lives of other people can snowball into something big. Just by being 10% more happy or productive, you can probably increase the happiness and/or productivity of the people around you – basically the humans you love most – also by a significant extent – because happiness and productivity are contagious –, and the people around them will be happier and more productive again, and so on. This can add up to something truly big.

(And I’m not even mentioning how vast an impact one can probably have by merely donating 1000 dollars or something like this to an effective, far future charity like MIRI.)

10. 1 Self-compassion/Aligning System 1 and System 2

The human mind consists of several modules which could be classified into system 1 and system 2. System 1 is the emotional, non-logical, intuitive part of your mind and system 2 is the logical, reasoning part of your mind. System 1 and system 2 often have clashing interests. For example, my system 2 could be described as utilitarian, and thus wants to be rational, motivated and productive. But my system 1 is, most of the time, much more lazy.

Aspiring rationalists can easily forget how important emotions and intuitions are. But system 1 is actually in charge of most of one’s behavior. I will borrow an illustrative metaphor by Jonathan Haidt: You could visualize your system 1 as the elephant and your system 2 as its rider. If the elephant doesn’t want to do something the rider can’t force the elephant to do it because the elephant is much stronger. No, the rider, i.e. you, has to somehow find a way such that the elephant wants to do the action he previously disdained. Techniques for this purpose could e.g. be urge propagation or visualization in general, but I will write more on this in another post.

In general: don’t try to force yourself. Try to persuade or convince yourself. Most humans are probably much more productive if they successfully convince themselves (their system 1) that they want to be productive than if they try to guilt-trip themselves into being productive.

Here is another useful metaphor: System 1 is like a small child. If you tell a 2 year old “no, you can’t play outside” he will try to play outside even if he didn’t want to do it previously. But if you tell him that he can play outside if he really has to but that playing inside is much cooler anyway because there he can use this super toy here, he is more likely to do what you wanna (or so I heard). Your system 1 is similar in this regard.

Also, yelling at children for being crazy and irrational will be a waste of time. Trying to explain them in a nice, simple way that it is kinda crazy to, say, run on the street without looking is probably a more successful approach. Analogously, don’t yell at your system 1 for, say, wanting to play video games before an important deadline. Try to make a deal with it, try to convince it (in a simple, visually oriented language) that working is really better and actually more fun than playing video games, at least in the long run.

Needless to say, that I almost never implemented this advice in the past: I often tried to override the desires and urges of my system 1 by mere force and will-power. I also (successfully) tried to make myself feel guilty when I wasn’t productive. I also trained myself to feel ashamed or insignificant when I contemplated the fact that I wasn’t very successful, influential or intelligent. I also convinced myself that having fun or just enjoying yourself is a meaningless waste of time. Basically, my (utilitarian) system 2 waged a war against all the other modules of my mind. This kind of internal war inevitably resulted in mild depression, burn-out and the inability to just relax and enjoy myself without feeling like I was wasting my time.

In the last year I’ve come to the realization that I have to become more compassionate towards myself. First of all, I have to learn to accept myself and my abilities, even if this amounts to satisficing. Secondly, I have to learn to respect my system 1 and its preferences and values. In the long term, it is simply not sustainable to let system 2 be a ruthless dictator who never allows oneself to be lazy or to enjoy simple things. It is actually quite counter-productive because your system 1 will try to sabotage your system 2 if you are not giving it what it wants, at least to some degree. Also, if you credibly signal towards your system 1 that it can relax and enjoy itself when it’s really necessary, it automatically needs less breaks and is more willing to go along with the actions prescribed by system 2. (I stole this from Nate Soares and he describes it articulately here.)

10.2 Don’t trust your brain

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that system 1 (or system 2 for that matter) is super awesome and that you should always trust your emotions. In general, your whole brain is more of a crazy rationalization machine than a impartial thinking machine.

Not the King

Especially when I feel depressed or angry I tend to be quite irrational. (That’s maybe not true for most people). The problem is that a negative thought can trigger negative emotions (and vice versa). And negative thoughts seem much more convincing when one is in a negative mood which can lead to a vicious cycle of despair.

10. 3 Talk back to your inner critic/Externalizing your negative thoughts

One option is to try to counter negative emotions and thoughts by rational arguments. David Burns calls this “talking back to your inner critic”. For example, when I feel depressed or apathetic my brain comes up with lots of reasons why I should feel this way and usually those thoughts are utterly convincing. The trick is to try to write your emotions and the accompanying thoughts down and then try to evaluate them as rationally as you can. You soon will realize that these thoughts have lots of holes in them or are at least not the whole story.

In fact, cognitive behavioral therapists like Aaron Beck found that depressed people (and also mentally healthy people in a depressed or angry mood) often suffer from many cognitive distortions like overgeneralization (“I made a mistake, I can’t do anything right”) or magnification (“I came 5 minutes late to work, my boss will hate me”). Writing your negative thoughts down can help you to see such distortions better. And countering your negative thoughts with rational arguments can help you to get out of a negative mood.

Why is writing negative thoughts down in particular such an effective method? Probably part of the answer is that you thereby externalize your thoughts and emotions and because they are now outside your own mind – almost existing outside of you –, you can evaluate them as if they were expressed by someone else – and humans are more likely to question and scrutinize the beliefs of other people than their own ones.

11. Meditation

Another option to avoid a vicious cycle of negativity is to notice that one is lost in negative thoughts, catch oneself and try to focus one’s awareness on one’s breath without getting lost in negative thoughts again. I’m talking about meditation of course. Research on meditation has shown that it is quite beneficial for all sort of things, like reducing stress, boosting happiness, etc.

Furthermore, through practicing meditation you get better at controlling your attention which is an uber-useful skill to have (seriously, read the linked post). An experienced meditator can learn to notice in each moment what she in fact notices. If you feel a sad emotion your whole consciousness doesn’t have to feel sad; you can just notice the feeling of sadness in an emotionally detached, neutral way. As an experienced meditator you can learn to focus your attention on whatever you deem the most important and beneficial.

12. Writing itself

Studies have shown that personal writing can improve mood disorders and boost happiness. Narcissism is good for you, yeah! But seriously, this is in line with my experience. Writing almost always makes me happier and more motivated. I’m not really sure why but I guess that 1) writing creates a feeling of productive accomplishment and 2) writing can re-structure one’s thoughts in novel, maybe more positive narratives and 3) one is able to express one’s own thoughts and feelings and this can feel like being listened to by a understanding friend.

13. Being productive

I’ve written a lot but I should admit that the most useful advice of all is probably not to think about those problems too much. Just push those questions into the back of your head and distract yourself with work.

Really, I’m kinda serious. Working, i.e. being productive makes you feel like you’ve accomplished something, which makes you happy in turn. That’s why you should probably first become productive and then you can become happy as a side effect. Furthermore, work gives you a routine and a structure to your life. You never fill lost if you have something to do. You feel like your life matters, like you live for a purpose if you have (meaningful) work to do. And as said above, work distracts yourself and occupies your mind. That’s why I want to write more on increasing productivity and motivation.

Happiness and productivity may also be caused by hidden variables (or a mix of those) which may or may not be completely outside of your control (like e.g. if your brain is just in the right neuro-chemical state, you are not sick, you ate enough vitamins and dietary minerals, etc. ). This is definitely true to some extent and probably more than most of us want to believe.

14. Collection of inspiring essays

(Second) Lastly, a collection of essays that can help to restore my faith in humanity, make me laugh at existence, motivate me or all do all three of those things at the same time (I will try to expand this list. I’ve also forgot a lot probably):

15. A final note on how to put the theory into practice

As I wrote before, it is important to contemplate those thoughts regularly, so that they eventually become cognitive habits which are so deeply ingrained in your psyche that you automatically use them even if you are depressed and can’t rely on your willpower or rationality anymore.

Think of your previous depressing thought patterns (” This is soo unfair and horrible! It shouldn’t be like this!”, “I’m too mediocre anyways, so I won’t even try”) as old, bad habits. As Charles Duhigg writes in “The Power of Habit”, it is impossible to simply extinguish old habits, you can only change or replace them with new ones. Try to identify the triggers that make you depressed, then remind yourself to not automatically dwell on the old gloomy thoughts, but practice to contemplate the new thought patterns. Again, if you force yourself to do this repeatedly, it should become a new habit and you would consider happy and positive thoughts automatically as soon as you start to slip into a depressive mood.

The crucial problem is that it’s really difficult to summon the will power to contemplate happy thoughts when I’m in a depressed mood. Happy-Me totally believes in the above ideas, whereas Depressed-Me thinks this is all bullshit. It’s almost like I’m comprised of two different actors.

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