What to do if you can’t communicate?

I’ve been feeling pretty down today because of the s-risk-static debacle. I mean it’s great that cousin_it and others now like the concept, but at the same time, this shows that we fucked up quite hard at communicating with our static in the first place.

I’m generally feeling that I’m terrible at communicating, writing or expressing myself. Which is bad in itself but exacerbated by my extremely deep and strong desire to be understood. Reminds me of this guy whose only passion in life was singing but then he became mute. (Well, if I remember correctly, the story ended on a hopeful note. He was happy doing painting or something. ETA: Sorry, misremembered. He actually killed himself.)

Anyway, I also run into this problem with the work I’m currently doing (survey of human trade-ratios and correlates). I can already foresee that I’ll totally fail at communicating the importance and relevant content of such  a survey and that no one will read the eventual publication without falling asleep (well, I’ll probably get some pity-reads from my co-workers and my girlfriend though. Gotta look at the bright side.).  Some time later, someone else will do a similar survey and it will be all the rage. Might as well stop right away and do something more effective.

But what? One idea is that I could do more management, just like in 2016. Or at least the parts you can do with the communicative ability of a stuttering schizophrenic with logorrhea (of which there are many, don’t you worry). Problem is, I already tried to simulate how I’d enjoy doing more managing again. But all I ended up simulating was seeing the bloody remains of my brain splattered across the walls of my apartment.1

Apropos apartment, maybe I should do something completely different. Maybe construction work. “Hey, please gimme that thing with the stuff attached to the long thingy. You know that thing for nails.” “You mean a hammer?” “BOOOOOM BAAAABY! Motherfucking Proust is in da house!!! Seriously though, this is the first time in my life I’ve really felt understood.”

If you put it like this, construction really does sound like a remarkably satisfying career path.

1 Don’t you worry, I’d never kill myself in such a way. Overdosing on heroin seems clearly superior. It’s simple, affordable and effective. Plus, a huge pile of hedons right before the lights go out! Aesthetically speaking, I also prefer edgy over classy. (Though they say you shit your pants, which is definitely a minus.)

The very best of Scott Alexander and Slate Star Codex

Scott Alexander is one of my favorite writers and Slate Star Codex is (by far) my favorite blog. It’s pretty difficult for me to communicate with people who haven’t read most of Slate Star Codex. It’s like trying to have a conversation with a frequentist Hegelian who doesn’t believe in evolution. The inferential distances are so huge, you don’t even know where to start.

At some point, I realized that not everyone wants to read absolutely everything by Scott Alexander. At first, I wanted to give up on humanity. But now I think that there could be a tiny chance that humanity is not completely doomed even if everyone reads only Scott’s top 50 posts or so. That’s why I created this list of my favorite posts of his.

The posts are sorted into somewhat arbitrary categories and the really good ones are marked in bold. The most super duper uber amazing crucial ones are marked in bold and italic.

My favorite posts by Scott Alexander

Coordination, game theory, decision theory or other profound things that vaguely relate to that sort of stuff

In favor of kindness, reason, truth, non-tribalism, and not demonizing the outgroup

The system is not your friend

Bayesianism, reductionism, rationality, diseased thinking, etc.

Scientific studies: Not as great as you might think…

… and (social) psychology is the worst

Is reality biologistic?

Politics – or why prediction markets should rule the world

Not everyone in the medical system is as brilliant as Scott…

…especially not when it comes to antidepressants

Doing good…

…in a world full of misery

Human psychology: a mixed bag

The ultimate mind-kill section

Lies, damned lies, and social media

Social justice

Feminism, race, sex, PUA, loaded terms, people yelling at each other, losing your faith in humanity, etc.

The library of Scott Alexandria

I also highly recommend Rob Bensinger’s “Library of Scott Alexandria” which is more extensive.

My Experiences with Tranylcypromine: The Most Powerful Antidepressant Ever?

Introduction

Tranylcypromine (brand name: “Parnate“) is a nonselective and irreversible monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) used to treat major depressive disorder. See this previous post of mine about MAOIs (written in 2013). Prophetically enough, I wrote: “So my current plan is to first try Moclobemide and then Selegiline. If I don’t die, I’ll start with tranylcypromine and then live happily ever after.” It was meant as humorous hyperbole, but it’s not that far from the truth.

I’ve been taking tranylcypromine (TCP) for almost 2 years now (with a break of about 3 months) and wanted to summarize my experiences with it because, out of the ≈10 antidepressants I’ve tried over the years, it was by far the most effective one. Overall, I think that tranylcypromine might be the most powerful antidepressant on the market. Tragically, few psychiatrists prescribe tranylcypromine because they labor under the misinformed view that it’s highly dangerous. More on this below. My mind shudders at the amount of suffering that could have been prevented if they were less ignorant.

Probably the strongest Bayesian evidence for tranylcypromine being one of the most powerful antidepressants can be found in this astonishing post by the psychiatrist Scott Alexander. I can also highly recommend Ken Gillman’s website. He is a clinical pharmacologist and probably knows more about MAOIs and their (supposed) dangers than everyone else on the planet.

Don’t be afraid – tranylcypromine is safe

Although tranylcypromine is an extremely powerful antidepressant, it is rarely prescribed. In fact, it’s not even approved in many (European) countries such as Switzerland, Poland, etc.. Why is it so rarely prescribed? Probably because most psychiatrists have a completely exaggerated view of its dangers and side-effects and believe that its toxicity potential lies somewhere between cyanide and strychnine. Ok, now I’m exaggerating myself.

Still, it’s really quite disturbing just how much misinformation about the dangers of MAOIs is out there; even usually accurate sources like Wikipedia or patient information leaflets contain ludicrous errors. For example, many psychiatrists think (and Wikipedia and others back them up) that it’s extremely dangerous and often lethal to combine MAOIs with all tricyclics including doxepin, amitryptiline, trimipramine (and also trazodone to some extent).

Unfortunately, that’s all nonsense. See Ken Gillman’s excellent post on the topic. And it’s not just harmless misinformation. As I’ll explain below, insomnia is one of the most common side effects of tranylcypromine and drugs like doxepin, trazodone or trimipramine are often effective hypnotics.

Advantages of tranylcypromine

Most of the beneficial effects of tranylcypromine – like greater productivity, motivation, energy, optimism, confidence, “agency”, resilience, self-control – seem to be related; so many of the following factors are all comparably important.

Greater productivity, motivation (and energy)

On TCP, I have a literal urge to “make progress” and be productive. It’s almost as if tranylcypromine transforms me into a machine-like workaholic. On most days, I’m very motivated to work, enjoy doing so and feel cognitively alert and focused. This might sound normal to you but without tranylcypromine, I’m usually tired and unmotivated.1

Greater productivity – evidence from Rescue Time

This is maybe the most informative points because it’s the least subjective.

Without tranylcypromine

I started using RescueTime on January 16th, 2015.  Below a few RescueTime screenshots summarizing my productivity from January to May 2015. I didn’t take TCP during those months.

January – May 2015

As you see, in January I was extremely unproductive and then got more and more productive until March until I became less productive again. I’d say that March 2015 was probably my most productive month since at least the beginning of 2012, potentially even earlier than that.

On tranylcypromine

Now it gets interesting. Sometime in June 2015, I started taking tranylcypromine. Note that during the first few weeks I had to increase the dosage and often had problems with my blood pressure. Additionally, I was taking a vacation, so in June I was still pretty unproductive. I think it’s pretty usual that MAOIs need several weeks until they really start working to their full effect, especially if you need to increase the dosage very slowly – I needed like 8 weeks to finally reach my optimal dosage of 30-35 mg.

June to September 2015

Notice the impressive data for July, and especially August and September. I’d say that every month I set up a new record for my all-time productive month ever.

August 2015

In August, I logged 164h very productive time. That’s like 30h more than in March 2015. Plus, I also logged more productive time than in March 2015.

September 2015

In September, I logged 276 hours of productive + very productive time. That’s like 9.2 hours per day on average, which means 64.4hours per week. Considerably more than even during the already great month before. (But note that I also log stuff like meditation, exercise, chores, etc. as productive time, so it’s really not that great.)

I remember that I was feeling extremely good during July, August and September 2015. I also slept little, so maybe it was all just a short-lived, unsustainable manic phase? To some extent. My mood got worse and my productivity declined substantially over the next 2-3 months because I couldn’t really deal with the pressure of having to do both EA-work and stuying for university simultaneously. So what happened during the next few months?

October 2015 to January 2016

Although my productivity during October, November and December 2015 and January 2016 was lower than during the summer of 2015, it was actually almost as high or even higher than in March 2015! And again: March 2015 was probably my most productive and happiest month since 2012. In January 2016, I mostly focused on writing my master thesis and logged 177h of very productive time, which was again a new record.

February 2016

In February 2016, I started to work full-time for EAF/FRI and my productivity and happiness started to decline because my stress levels increased.

March 2016 – September 2016

Unfortunately, I stopped using Rescue Time in March 2016.

Overall, I was less productive during 2016. But after analyzing the offline data, I concluded that I was basically on average about as productive as during March 2015, if not more so. Note however, that I was able to sustain this level of productivity for many months. I also took a long break from December 2014 to January 2015 which made the productivity of March 2015 possible in the first place. Maybe even more important is to keep in mind that I only had relatively easy university stuff to do in March 2015. I had much less stress and responsibility in March & April 2015 than during 2016 when I really started working full-time for EAF/FRI. I’m almost certain that I wouldn’t have lasted more than a few weeks at this job without tranylcypromine.

September 2016 until now

This was a pretty crazy time for a variety of reasons I can’t go into here. Anyways, if anything, this period gave me even more evidence for the benefits of tranylcypromine.

Greater optimism

Without tranylcypromine, I’m regularly afraid of and worry about the future. I often feel as though nothing makes sense and that all my ideas are not worth much. I experience profound uncertainty and doubt about everything – but more on an emotional than on an actual cognitive level – though the two are of course related and reinforce each other.

In contrast, on tranylcypromine, I tend to be more optimistic about the future which also gives me more motivation. Sometimes, I might even be overly optimistic. This optimism also goes along with having a more entrepreneurial spirit, of having a more “can do” attitude. Generally, on TCP, I regularly get really excited about my work, some book or some other idea. Such feelings of intense excitement usually don’t last forever (which is probably good!) but they often reoccur. Without TCP, I basically never have such feelings about anything – even if I were to stumble on the best idea ever.

Greater confidence

On TCP, I tend to believe more in myself and my ideas. Several people also told me that I seem to speak with more confidence and louder. I also remember being more vocal about voicing disagreements. Otoh, I fear that TCP could also sometimes make me overconfident, especially when I’m feeling very good.

More resilience, stress-resistance; easier to overcome obstacles

I think I can handle stress and setbacks better on TCP. On TCP, I find it easier to push through obstacles and be (much) less bothered by them.

Greater agency and “taking initiative”

On TCP, I’m more “agenty”. That is, it seems to increase my ability “to take initiative and cause a plan to succeed or an idea to get realized (when, by default, it would have withered and and died)”. There are many things that I can’t imagine having done without tranylcypromine because I repeatedly felt that I had to take responsibility, push through and motivate others.

Near hypomanic episodes

On tranylcypromine, I sometimes have (near) hypomanic episodes which may last for several hours though usually not longer.

During these episodes, I feel joy and happiness in intensities which I usually cannot experience in a normal state (I think). Naturally, this is awesome in and of itself. In addition, I’m much more creative during these episodes and can generate novel, out-of-the-box ideas. During those episodes, working on and pushing through extremely difficult and complex tasks is also possible.

Less “background” depression

I guess this is simply the reverse of what I have written above. Without tranylcypromine, I regularly feel a sort of constant background depression. I can feel depressed on TCP, but the feeling is less much less intense and profound. When I’m off tranylcypromine, I can experience episodes of near-catatonia where I find it almost impossible to even talk. During those episodes, my thinking also seems to be slowed down immensely.

Generally, I can have very depressive thoughts on tranylcypromine, but the emotional effect of those cognitions seems “blunted”. TCP acts like an emotional “shield”.

Without TCP I can look happy on the outside, even feel mostly good, but often there still exists this background feeling of depression, anxiety and worry and it feels like I have to expand constant cognitive effort to prevent the depressive feelings from growing and eventually overwhelming me.

Less extreme depression

TCP also reduces feelings of existential despair. It’s hard to describe but I feel like I can experience more profound, “deep” emotions without TCP. Of course, this is a double-edged sword. One of the reasons why I’m scared of not taking tranylcypromine is that I’m afraid of the occasional bouts of extremely intense depression in which I feel existential despair, loneliness, self-hate, hopelessness, pessimism and anxiety all at once. It’s hard to describe what I mean with existential despair. It’s like being in a metaphysical nightmare in which you realize that the multiverse is an apathetic, cold and dark place full of agony, loneliness, delusion and broken dreams. Don’t get me wrong, even now, while on TCP, I believe that this is basically an accurate description of the world we’re living in but I can know this while simultaneously writing about it with a smile on my face.

Greater self-control

Just to give an example: I remember trying to stop playing video games for months while not taking tranylcypromine. Repeatedly. But I always slipped. All in all, I lost like 400€ on Beeminder – that’s how bad I tried to stop playing video games. But then I started tranylcypromine in June 2015 and a few weeks later (after the real effects started kicking in), I just quit playing video games for literally one year without having to invest more than a tiny bit of willpower.

Importantly, I also think that tranylcypromine makes it easier for me to not consume any drugs like alcohol, cigarettes (or nicotine gums) or weed. I certainly consume considerably less of those substances when I take tranylcypromine and have also much less of an urge to do so.

Disadvantages of tranylcypromine

Listed roughly in order of importance.

Insomnia

By far the most annoying and detrimental side-effect of tranylcypromine is severe insomnia. Symptoms include:

  • Not falling asleep for several hours. Fortunately, I almost never had this side effect in the last two months or so.
  • Waking up after 2-6 hours of sleep and then not being able to fall asleep again for at least one, more often two to four hours. This occurs on about 540% of the days, even after months of taking TCP. That’s very annoying, needless to say. I tried meditating to fall asleep (helps a bit but not really). The best solution is probaly to just get up and get some work down and fall asleep again. Another possible solution is to sleep for 5h every second day, i.e. get up if you wake up at 5 and immediately start your day (with taking TCP, caffeine, etc.). Hopefully, you’ll be so sleep-deprived that you’ll be able to sleep for 7-9 hours straight. Sometimes works.
  • Generally, I only sleep like 7h on average on tranylcypromine. Usually, I sleep about 9h which seems optimal for my mood and brain.
  • Trazodone can help somewhat, but not that much. The biggest problem is that it causes relatively strong hangover at doses where it’s really effective. However, another promising solution might be low-dose doxepin. Or maybe another tricyclic (though you’ve gotta be a bit careful with those).

I don’t really think that it’s possible to completely overcome insomnia caused by TCP. Insomnia is really annoying because it can destroy your productivity for the next day. Good sleep is also necessary for having good health, memory consolidation, heightened mood, creativity, concentration, etc.

Of course, lying awake in bed, ruminating and just wanting to fall asleep again can also be extremely frustrating.

Afternoon fatigue, sudden “crashes”

This is a phenomenon that many people experience on TCP. When you have a “crash”, your mood and alertness decrease severely during 30-60min. It’s much more intense than the usual sleepiness most people experience at some points during the day. One basically feels very tired and unmotivated. During the most extreme crashes, my pulse can go below 50 bpm and my blood pressure rise above 150/100. Uncomfortable feelings ensue.

Naps can help. Unfortunately, even naps often don’t end up restoring one’s mood and alertness completely back to baseline. One still feels very sleepy and unmotivated after the nap for like 2-5 hours. In the literature, this, or a related phenomenon, is also described as “afternoon fatigue”. Sometimes, the crash is less intense (or the crash is followed by a feeling of depressed mood and tiredness of lower intensity but longer duration) and you are just feeling irritable, tired and depressed for hours. Sometimes, especially in the beginning or when taking too large a dose of TCP, or when not being able to lie down and nap, the symptoms can last for ~10 hours.

I think, however, I discovered a solution to this problem. First, I need to take many small dosages of TCP throughout the day. For example, 10mg and then 4 times 5mg every 1.5 – 2 hours later. This is quite uncommon I think, but every since I take my tranylcypromine this way, I have much less often crashes. The second solution is to maximally nap for 20 minutes! Overall, I’m much less concerned with crashes now and they are much more predictable than they have been in the past. I think the key is to experiment a lot. Experiment with total dosage, the size of morning dosage, the duration between dosages, etc. etc.

Unstable rhythm

In the past, it seemed impossible to have a stable rhythm. And TCP does indeed make it harder to have a stable rhythm or routine. But it’s not impossible. I think one just has to be very strict about going to sleep at the same time (making an alarm to take melatonin helps me). And to never get up too late. Better get up at 5, take your first TCP dosage and start your day (and maybe take several naps throughout the day if need be) than to lie awake in bed for 3-4 hours and then fall asleep again for 3 hours and then you got up at 11 or 12 and your rhythm is ruined.

(Hypo-)Mania

It’s not clear whether this is actually a disadvantage. But one side effect of hypo-mania is that I get more irrational, overconfident and insensitive.

Being less compassionate and “deep”

I think I become more of a “robot” on TCP. I’m a bit more superficial, less compassionate, less likely to feel profound feelings. Of course, as I’ve written above, being unable to feel deeply is often an advantage because it makes you more resilient, less likely to have existential angst or depression, etc. But I also value being a compassionate person with deep feelings, especially towards my friends and my girlfriend.

Unable to take LSD

I can’t take LSD which really sucks. Well, I think you technically can (i.e. it’s safe), but I’m afraid of interactions. Also, TCP seems to blunt the effects of LSD so it’s not even clear whether it’s worth the risk.

Weight gain

I suspect that I weigh about 3kg more on tranylcypromine. Not sure why. Maybe increased appetite. On the other hand, I think most people actually don’t gain weight so that’s not a common side effect at all.

Other disadvantages

  • The possibility of having a hypertensive crisis. I sometimes had high blood pressure (e.g. 160 systolic), though not high enough to classify as a hypertensive crisis. From extrapolating, a hypertensive crisis will be extremely unpleasant. That said, keep in mind that getting a hypertensive crisis is very unlikely and even if you have one: It’s very unlikely you will die from it. I’d guess that the probability of suicide because you don’t treat your depression – or take ineffective antidepressants – dwarfs the probability of dying of a TCP-induced hypertensive crisis by at least one order of magnitude.
  • Worrying about interactions with other drugs or pharmaceuticals.
  • Not being able to eat everything.
  • Having to go to the psychiatrist every 2 months.

Detour: Price gouging

This is not very important, but very annoying. Here some quotes from Ken Gillman first:

Many people will be aware that out-of-patent drugs, that should be cheap (like 10 – 20c per tab) are now frequently being sold at prices way above (like 100 times higher) what can be justified by decent business or ethical considerations. I will not dwell on it here, just Google the phrase ‘outrageous price increase drug’.

[…]

The two drugs that I am discussing here provide a number of revealing contrasts from all possible points of view, the first being in the price-hike field. The price of Parnate (tranylcypromine) has for many years been very modest since it has been out-of-patent for ages. But more recently the price has been much increased in most jurisdictions. The UK National Health Service are currently paying £248.14 for 28 x 10 mg tablets (around 700c per tab.), putting the cost of a typical month’s treatment at a couple of thousand US dollars or more. Insane, obscene.

The other drug, mirtazapine, remains dirt cheap, £1.80 for 30 x 30 mg tablets, around 10c a tab, which is all it is worth. That is about 500 times cheaper! Perhaps when they learn whatever tricks the ‘Parnate people’ seem to be getting away with, it will rocket up in price also! […]

A similar phenomenon (though less extreme) exists in Germany. There are two producers of tranylcypromine in Germany: Aristo (brand name: Jatrosom) and Neuraxpharm (generic). 100 tablets a 20 mg of Jatrosom cost 227,91 €. 2,27€ per tablet. Pretty expensive for a drug that’s over 50 years old and probably costs a few cents to produce (per tablet). You might think that the generic must be cheaper. And you’d be right. 100 tablets of 20mg generic tranylcypromine cost… 227,87€. A price difference of 0.04 cents per tablet! Amazing. Of course, the two companies Aristo and Neuraxpharm have to have some kind of deal and keep prices artificially high. This is usually illegal but I don’t know if Big Pharma was able to somehow buy some nice regulations in their favor. It’s also not as if anyone cares since there are so few people who take tranylcypromine.

Footnotes

Yet another reason to meditate [dark humor]

A friend of mine writes:

“[…] I used to be so much more into it when I was younger.

Life seemed much more full of adventures and possibilities.

Now I feel like an adult, there’s nothing to explore.”

Fortunately for him, with me as a friend, words of consolation are never far away:

Jup. And it won’t be long before you realize that not only is there nothing new under the sun, but that the number of things you are able to do (let alone enjoy) is actually decreasing – day by day. 

Until one day, the only things left to explore are the sensations of your breath, the empty wall of a hospital room, the feeling of having a stick in your dick, and the nightmarish confusion that arises when you don’t know who you are and why you’re so alone.

Yet another reason to meditate: You gotta learn to take joy in the simple things.

Meditation: Theory, Practice and Its Use in Overcoming (Emotional) Pain

Summary

The first part of this post discusses the practice, theory, and benefits of meditating. It summarizes and is inspired by four books on meditation: Joy on Demand and Search Inside Yourself by Chade-Meng Tan, The Science of Mindfulness: A Research-Based Path to Well-Being by Ronald Siegel and Practicing Mindfulness: An Introduction by Mark W. Muesse.1 The second part of this post, which is more based on my own thinking, contains a step-by-step program on how to use meditation to overcome negative emotions and thoughts. I end with a brief discussion of the similarities and differences between meditation and cognitive behavioral therapy.

Introduction and practice

Benefits of meditation

The following isn’t an exhaustive list and doesn’t contain many references (because I’m lazy).

  • Meditation improves concentration, the ability to not give in to distractions and thus the capacity to engage in deep work.
  • Meditation improves attentional control, i.e. you get greater conscious control to what you pay attention to.
  • Meditation improves self-control and “willpower” in the sense that it trains the mind to not give in to cravings.
  • Meditation increases one’s stress resistance and ability to endure discomfort, negative emotions and pain. In a sense, meditation is a form of exposure therapy which desensitizes one towards all form of suffering.
  • Meditation improves the immune system (by decreasing stress and cortisol levels).
  • Meditation can help with insomnia. Meditation might even decrease the need for sleep.
  • Meditation makes it easier to not identify with your thoughts and get lost in them. This can
    • increase one’s rationality (e.g. by reducing the sunk-cost fallacy)
    • decrease the emotional impact of needless, repetitive worries and negative thoughts in general.
  • By increasing one’s ability to accept, let go of and not identify with negative emotions and thoughts, meditation decreases multiple forms of “meta-suffering” or “meta-distress” – i.e. the second layer of suffering that results from e.g. being depressed about being depressed, or feeling angry about having been angry.
  • Meditation reduces anxiety by “shrinking” the amygdala – the neurological embodiment of our negativity bias. (Increased stress and anxiety is associated with increased grey matter density of the amygdala.)
  • Relatedly, meditation can help with all sorts of addictions (and habit-change in general) as it is a form of “urge surfing”. It desensitizes one towards urges makes one less likely to give in to them.
  • Meditation reduces depression and anxiety.
  • Meditation reduces the intensity of (especially chronic) pain; mostly by increasing one’s ability to let go of the aversion to pain.2
  • Meditation can make you more compassionate.
  • Meditation can increase happiness (and perhaps creativity as a result).
  • Overall, meditation can help you to become more productive.

Required amount practice

According to Chade-Meng Tan, it takes no more than 50-100 hours for meditation to bring about meaningful benefits and change one’s life for the better. Unfortunately, on average 1000 to 2000 hours are required to become very good, e.g. to be able to experience (intense) joy in sitting meditation 95-99% of the time in normal circumstances or to calm your mind in difficult situations more than half the time.

Duration

Chade-Meng Tan recommends to meditate at least 20 minutes per day. This seems to be the minimum duration necessary to reap the greatest rewards. Jon-Kabat Zinn thinks that 45 minutes is optimal. In my experience, 20 minutes is much more effective than 10 minutes because I usually need (at least) 5-10 minutes to calm my mind and reach a sufficiently intense degree of concentration. I could imagine that longer durations are considerably more effective still.

Don’t give up – difficulty as a prerequisite to growth

Even seasoned meditators experience days when they will feel bad and have trouble meditating or experiencing joy. This might be due to a variety of causes such as illness, bad sleep, stress etc. It’s important to not give up in times of difficulty and stress.

Think about this way: As a beginner in meditation, you might be able to stay calm (and maybe even access joy) when faced with negative emotions or difficult situations of maximal “intensity-level 1” or so. After some more practice, you might be able to handle level 3, but level 4 and beyond will still throw you off balance – but this doesn’t mean you aren’t getting better.

Adversity as an opportunity for deliberate practice

I often use the following reframing-technique whenever I find it difficult to (motivate myself) to meditate: The more restless, bored, tired and overall unmotivated to meditate I feel, the more effective the training is because the difficulty level is so high and the urge to quit so strong. By managing to keep meditating, however, I will train the mental habit of not giving into urges (like e.g. stopping to exercise when tired, continuing to ruminate in bed, etc.), of staying strong and committed to my goals, even in the midst of emotional turmoil, in states of decreased mental alertness and in difficult circumstances in general. In summary, higher difficulty levels provide an opportunity to practice meditation on a higher difficulty level – which is more strenuous and less enjoyable but also more effective (cf. deliberate practice).

Different paths to meditative expertise

Chade Meng-Tan’s “joy-focused” path to meditation (which I outline below) is just one path among many. It might be the easiest for many people but everyone has different inclinations. Similarly, different teaching can be most helpful during different stages of your practice. For example, beginners might better focus on developing concentration, attention and discipline, whereas seasoned meditators might be better off focusing on relaxation and ease.

Notes on theory and formal meditation practice

Informal meditation exercises are outlined further below and usually involve being mindful in everyday life (for short periods). In contrast, formal meditation practice means sitting in silence for extended periods of time (usually at least 10 minutes) and e.g. focusing one’s attention on a meditation object (often the breath).

Letting go as the foundation of meditation

In Joy on Demand, Chade-Meng Tan writes that if he had to summarize the entirety of his meditation practice, he would say that meditation is about learning to let go – letting go of distractions, sensory addictions, negative emotions, etc. In general, meditation is about letting go of the craving for pleasure and the aversion to pain. In Search inside yourself, Chade Meng-Tan also writes that letting go is probably the most foundational skill of meditation practice.

The biggest misconception about meditation is that it’s about emptying your mind of all thoughts. But this is false. Don’t attempt to suppress your mind from having thoughts or negative emotions. This is counterproductive and doesn’t work. Aim to let go of thoughts as they arise and, gradually, less and less thoughts will arise. Likewise, it’s impossible to stop negative emotions from arising. What you’re aiming for is to let go of negative emotions.

Settling the mind

Another very important and fundamental skill of meditation is the ability to settle the mind, i.e. to rest the mind so it approaches stillness.

The basic meditative state: Simultaneously relaxed and alert

All meditation practices that aim to settle the mind have two features in common: Attaining mental stillness and attention to the present moment. Thus, all practices lead to the basic meditative state: The mind being relaxed and alert at the same time.

Balancing relaxation and concentration

Another very important meditation skill is the skillful modulation of effort and energy. When you meditate, equanimously observe your mind. If you’re too tired, apply mental energy and resolve to focus your attention on the breath. If you get too restless and stressed, relax your mind and rejoice. Meditation is about having the right balance between relaxation and concentration.

The importance of training the mind to notice joy

The more you train your mind to notice joy, the more naturally your mind perceives joy and the more frequently joy arises. Practicing to notice joy is like practicing to notice blue cars. Usually, you aren’t aware of blue cars, but after some time, you’ll see them everywhere. Similarly, after some time of training you’ll notice joy much more often. Be careful to not force your mind to experience positive emotions, but gently incline the mind towards joy.

If you associate meditation with experiencing joy, you are more likely to meditate (and for longer periods of time) as the practice of meditating becomes intrinsically rewarding.

Three basic mindfulness practices

This classification is mostly taken from the book The Science of Mindfulness: A Research-Based Path to Well-Being by Ronald Siegel.

1) Focused attention and concentration

Here one focuses one’s attention on the meditation object, e.g. one’s breath. This practice is used to refine one’s concentration and should be trained first. Without sufficiently trained concentration, the mind is too scattered to observe what is happening in each moment.

2) Open monitoring

After one has trained one’s concentration sufficiently, one can practice open monitoring. Open monitoring means broadening one’s awareness and paying attention to whatever arises in consciousness.

3) (Self-)compassion and loving-kindness

Through practicing open monitoring, one realizes how often judgmental, aversive and negative thoughts and emotions arise in the mind. That’s when the practice of (self-)compassion and (self-)acceptance is so helpful.3

Insight (Vipassanā) meditation

The three marks of existence

Vipassana traditionally means insight into the true nature of reality, namely the three marks of existence: 1) impermanence, 2) suffering or unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), and 3) non-self. Meditation can help one to see the truth of the three marks of existence on an instinctual, system-1 level.

Impermanence
Through meditation, you learn to perceive the transitory nature of all phenomena (including your emotions, sensations, and thoughts) on a more visceral, perceptual level.

Non-self
With enough vipassana training, you realize – on a visceral, perceptual level, not only on an intellectual level – that what we usually call self is only an illusionary mental process. The mind creates the illusion of a self/an observer in reaction to other phenomena arising.

Dukkha
Suffering permeates existence. Through meditation, you realize that most of our suffering is caused by our desires to either get things we like (cravings) or avoid things we dislike (aversions).

Gaining conscious awareness of pre-conceptual, usually subconscious mental processes

Insight-practices sharpen the mind so it can perceive mental processes at very high resolution. Highly experienced meditators recognize that sensations and thoughts are actually comprised of many micro-sensations. Seasoned vipassana meditators can switch effortlessly between the pre-conceptual level of perception and the default, conceptual level of perception in which the mind integrates sensory data automatically and without our awareness into higher-level concepts.4 For example, the breath is comprised of hundreds of micro-events that the mind instantly integrates into the higher-level concept of breathing. Lastly, Chade Meng-Tan writes that experts in vipassana meditation can notice about 10 phenomena per second (with conscious awareness), whereas beginners notice only about 1 per second.

Informal meditation exercises

Notice thin slices of joy

Train the mind to notice joy, even if there is only a subtle hint, a thin slice of joy present. Examples of thin slices of joy: The taste of coffee in the morning, the feeling of warm water on your skin when showering, etc.

Noticing joy is not enough. You should also attend to joy, i.e. pay intense attention to joy and nurture it.5

One-mindful-breath practice

In my experience, this is a very effective habit to acquire. It takes almost no willpower, only takes a few seconds and it can be done everywhere. The one-mindful-breath practice relaxes you and provides temporary relief from suffering such as boredom, anger, sadness, stress, etc.

How to: Take one slow, deep breath and focus your attention on it. When being aware of your breath, practice gentleness in attitude and intensity in attention, like gazing intensely at a loved one.

Great cues for doing the practice, are, for example: When waking up or going to sleep, whenever you’re waiting, and whenever you experience a negative emotion.

3-breath-exercise

Take 3 slow, deep breaths. Slow, deep breaths decrease blood pressure, heart rate and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, creating a feeling of calm and relaxation.

First breath: Bring full attention to the process of breathing. Second breath: Calm the body and relax. Third breath: Bring up joy. If you don’t notice joy, smile gently which usually causes joy to arise (after some practice).

Meditation and overcoming pain, negative emotions and thoughts – an algorithm

It’s impossible to be joyful all the time. Besides to learn how to incline the mind towards joy and meditate in general when things are going well or at least ok, it’s very important to learn to endure and deal with (intense) negative emotions.

The following “algorithm” for dealing with (emotional) pain combines insights from Joy on Demand and The Science of Mindfulness, as well as my own ideas.

Two remarks before we delve into it. First, the algorithm can be used in everyday life but also during meditation – especially the first two steps. Second, the 2nd (affective) and the 3rd (cognitive) steps can (and often should) be used repeatedly and in varying order.

Step 1 – Attentional step: Calming the mind

Calm your mind by focusing your attention on the breath, away from negative emotions and thoughts. Stay in the present moment. When the mind is calmer, the next two steps outlined below can be done more effectively. Note that this step can be very brief if the negative experience isn’t intense.

With enough practice during minorly stressful situations, you’ll eventually gain the ability to calm your mind even when faced with very stressful situations.

Step 2 – Affective step

Our instinctive reaction to pain and negative emotions is to try to push them away, get rid of them, fight or suppress them. But it’s usually the aversion towards (emotional) pain that causes the suffering – or at least intensifies it. Somewhat paradoxically, it’s often more effective to accept or even embrace and welcome negative emotions and thoughts – while being careful to not identify with them. It can also be very helpful to investigate negative emotions and pain with an attitude of kind curiosity. Although the attitudes of acceptance, embracement, non-identification and curiosity are distinct, there certainly exist substantial similarities

Accept and really experience your negative emotions

Aiming to connect with and accepting your pain and negative emotions can be much more effective than trying to suppress them – which is what we usually do (potentially subconsciously).6 Allow the negative emotions to exist, stay with them and don’t try to push them away. This merely tends to cause meta-distress by adding a second layer of negativity.

The central role of aversion

Aversion plays a central role when it comes to (emotional) pain. By learning to let go one recognizes that suffering and pain are two different phenomena: You can feel pain without suffering as it’s your aversion to the pain that causes the suffering. The more averse and resistant you are to pain, the more suffering it causes.

Don’t identify with your negative emotions

Be careful to not identify with or lose yourself in negative emotions or thoughts – this will only perpetuate them. In essence, emotional pain is not more profound than a toothache and simply comprised of bodily sensations and often kept alive by negative thoughts. Pay attention to the bodily sensations and thoughts, but see them for what they are: impermanent phenomena arising in the mind. Allow them to stay and watch them with equanimity but don’t identify with them. After some time, they will often go away on their own.

In other words, whenever you experience a negative emotion, e.g. sadness, don’t think existentially: “I am sad”. Instead, think experientially, i.e. “I experience sadness in my body”. Or even better “an experience of sadness is present in consciousness”.

Another common metaphor is the following: Your mind is like the sky and thoughts are like clouds; they’re just passing through the sky. But they are not the sky.

Investigate your negative emotions with curiosity

It can be even more powerful to go further than simply accepting negative emotions, and trying to meet them with an attitude of gentle curiosity. Generally, negative emotions often “try to tell you” that something is wrong and can teach you something about yourself. For example, if you experience anger or depression, neither suppress nor express it, but reflect on why you’re angry or depressed and investigate the causes of your anger or depression with a sense of curiosity. Gaining a deep understanding of the causes of your negative emotions can help you to integrate and eventually overcome them. Note that this kind of investigating also blends in the cognitive step (outlined below).

Embrace and befriend your negative emotions

It can be even more powerful to go further than simply accepting negative emotions, and trying to embrace and befriend them. To be honest, I find this attitude very difficult. On the other hand, this attitude is similar to the one outlined above, as it seems best to investigate one’s negative emotions with an attitude of friendly, curiosity.

Willingness to experience joy in the midst of emotional pain

One last attitude is to be open towards experiencing joy even in the midst of emotional pain. This is possible but can be admittedly very difficult but our emotional state fluctuates more than we realize. Having access to mere moments of joy during periods of great emotional pain can be as useful as being able to occasionally rest in small oases while travelling through a vast desert.

Step 3 – Cognitive step: Reframing the situation

The effectiveness of the different steps depends on the person and the type of suffering to be dealt with. Of course, the attentive and affective step are usually more effective when dealing with simple physical pain (e.g. a toothache). The attentional and affective steps, however, are often not enough to overcome more enduring or intense emotional pain.

The cognitive step seems more effective for people (like myself) whose cognitive style is less associate/emotional/visual and more “intellectual”/abstract. The cognitive step has less to do with meditation and much more in common with techniques used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or positive psychology (more on this below). That’s why I’ll write a much longer post on the cognitive step in a later post. For our purposes here, a short and cursory discussion of some, in my view, valuable concepts must suffice.

Reinterpreting adversarial situations

We usually interpret events either negatively or positively, which results in the emergence of either negative or positive emotions. Thus, reinterpreting the meaning of an adversity or difficult experience more positively usually tends to decrease our associated negative emotions. I’m not advocating to be delusionally optimistic or overconfident. But it’s often more rational (instrumentally as well as epistemically) to aim to be more compassionate (to oneself and others), objective and beware common cognitive distortions (e.g. catastrophizing, or overgeneralizing) and the negativity bias.

Interpreting adversities more positively and as an opportunity for growth
Stoic wisdom recommends viewing obstacles and adversities as opportunities to grow and become stronger. In general, most adversities usually contain at least some positive aspects. It makes sense to focus on these aspects and make the best of them.

Serenity prayer

Another crucial stoic teaching is the importance of distinguishing between the aspects of reality one can control and the ones one cannot control. Try to solve the ones you can control but learn to accept the ones you cannot. Reinhold Niebuhr said it best in his serenity prayer which Albert Ellis, the founder of rational emotive behavioral therapy (REBT) adapted to the following, secular form:

“Have the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

The attentive and emotional steps can certainly help one to accept the things one cannot control.

Beware of excessive “shoulding”

We often increase our negative emotions by thoughts of unfairness, fear or frustration. As Albert Ellis, would say, we needlessly exacerbate our suffering by excessive “shoulding” or “musting”. E.g. we think to ourselves that “I shouldn’t get sick so often!” or “the pain must not get worse, I couldn’t stand that!”. In essence, we’re “shoulding” at the universe, in the irrational hope that it changes. This just amounts to the futile effort of trying to change the parts of reality that lie beyond our control.

An alternative classification: Gentle, “experiential” acceptance (step 1 & 2 / meditation proper) vs. active, intellectual disputing (step 3 / CBT)

Although there exist overlaps between the affective and the cognitive step, one could sort the attentional and affective step on the one hand, and the cognitive step on the other hand into two distinct algorithms for dealing with negative emotions and thoughts: the algorithm comprising the attentional and the affective step is more “experiential” and characterized by an attitude of friendly, gentle acceptance. It’s all about not identifying with, allowing or even embracing and eventually letting go of negative thoughts and emotions.

In contrast, the cognitive step is more “intellectual” and characterized by an attitude of actively disputing irrational, negative thoughts and emotions and actively replacing them with more positive, rational thoughts. Usually, this is most effectively achieved in written form as this way of externalizing negative thoughts makes it easier to not identify with them and recognize their inaccuracy and repetitiveness.

Meditation vs. CBT: Differences and similarities

It’s obvious that meditation, for the most part, consists of step 1 and 2 while CBT is mostly about step 3. Of course, there also exist similarities between meditation and CBT. In meditation as well as CBT, the practitioner learns to give less weight to and identify less with negative emotions and thoughts and not take their accuracy for granted.

REBT also emphasizes the importance of identifying and ultimately letting go of intense, absolute desires and aversions (excessive “shoulds” or “musts”) and replacing them with more moderate preferences. Buddhism and meditation, likewise, are all about letting go of (maybe even all) desires aversions and cravings.

Lastly, we saw that (self-)acceptance/loving-kindness is one of the three basic mindfulness practices. Likewise, CBT and REBT (and Carl Rogers’ humanistic psychotherapy maybe even more so) also emphasize the importance of profound self-acceptance.

Footnotes

Stress: How UDT, the Multiverse and Stoicism can Help

Some ways of viewing and interpreting reality (or certain parts of it) can make you much more productive and happy than others, although they are not less accurate than other, more “pessimistic stances” of viewing and interpreting the world 1.

In this post, I’m going to outline two such stances of viewing and reacting to life events, particularly stressful events, that are especially important for effectively dealing with (and overcoming) stressful situations while remaining productive and avoiding burn out.

I) The first such stance is not original and can be found in the teachings of the old stoics: Whenever one is confronted with a stressful, unfair or otherwise hard situation, one should resist the urge to be upset or angry, but instead view the stressful event as a test of one’s abilities, a challenge (maybe even a playful one), an opportunity to grow as a person, develop one’s skills (particularly the skill to handle stressful situations), build one’s character, become stronger, and to train one’s mind; such that one will be better able to handle even more stressful situations in the future.

II) The second way of reacting to stressful situations combines (my limited understanding of) Updateless Decision Theory and the multiverse hypothesis:

In short, by one’s decision to not off oneself and to continue to play the game of life one agreed to the existential rule that shit is essentially guaranteed to happen. To be precise, one accepted that almost all of one’s copies (or better: almost all of the instantiations of one’s decision algorithm) will live in parts of the multiverse where things will turn out suboptimal at times (of course in some parts severely suboptimal occur very often…). Choosing to adopt the decision algorithm to get angry, upset or “should at the universe” whenever one is unfairly treated by stupid people, confronted with stupid tasks, stressful situations, somehow suboptimal circumstances, etc. is just a stupid and counterproductive policy: by adopting such a decision algorithm one condemns almost all of one’s copies/instantiations in the multiverse – except those living in the exceedingly rare “perfect” parts of it–  to feel angry, annoyed, stressed, depressed and to burn out 2 3.

One last point I have to mention: It is of overwhelming importance to repeatedly practice these ways of interpreting stressful situations  until they become habitual, i.e. get automatically activated whenever one is faced with a stressful event. That’s why I often preach to only focus on installing a few new habits instead of several at once. It’s much more effective to spent 30 min per day on learning one new habit such that it really becomes second nature than spending trying to learn 10 new different habits at once which won’t get activated if one is stressed or one’s willpower is otherwise depleted (i.e. exactly then when the habits are most needed).

Footnotes

1. I use the word “stances” as my concept resembles Dennett’s stances to some degree: The different stances are all equally correct, and simply different ways of viewing reality (and the behavior of agents in Dennett’s case). However, some stances can be more useful in certain situations than others.

2. I’ve used a similar thinking pattern to stop feeling depressed about the fact that I’m not extremely intelligent or have a great positive impact on the world.

3. As an aside, this mental reframing bears also some resemblance to Nate’s post “Simply locate yourself“: “Your observations are not messages that the world is full of terrible unfair luck. Your observations are simply indicators as to where you are. They’re the data that you need to locate yourself [in the multiverse].” And this might be in the shitty part of reality-town. But you always had known in advance that some of you have to live there.

Loneliness and Love in a Darwinian World (a rational critique of PUA)

Introduction and disclaimer

I’m not quite sure why I have written this. I guess I just wanted to write about my past experiences with loneliness, admittedly to get my story out there but also to evoke some sympathy for a lot of lonely shy guys who must have made similar experiences – and are still making them. Another reason was to write a critique of the “worldview” of PUA – but one that makes rational and scientific arguments, in contrast to most critiques of PUA which are overwhelmingly motivated by political correctness and reality-denial. I wish I could have read such a critique 3-4 years ago, that would have saved me from a lot of pain.

In the first part I will try to convey my past state of mind as authentically as possible, meaning that I will not only write about my experiences but also about my PUA-influenced interpretations of them. As should be clear by now, I no longer agree with substantial parts of the PUA-body of thought (and also with other more philosophical views of the first part). So if you only read the first part and think it’s misogynistic crap, please keep in mind that there is a second part before sending me death threats. Thanks.

Oh, and one last note: You can skip the next 3 paragraphs in case they are too boring.

[ETA: I don’t agree with the negative language of the post anymore, though even at the time of writing I was using a hyperbolic style as this is more fun to write and read (which is true for most of the posts on this blog. But even so, the language strikes me as too, hm, judgmental. Actually, this is again true for most of my other posts. Lastly, I’ve used this blog always more in a therapeutic way (as compared to the most accurate description of my epistemic map), as an outlet for my feelings and experiences with the aim of inducing catharsis and eventually getting over them.]

Part 1: My own story – Experiencing the darwinian abyss

I like to think of loneliness as the worst fundamental existential evil of the human condition: Loneliness is associated with an around 30% increased likelihood of mortality (after controlling for possible confounding variables), which is comparable to smoking and obesity. But even more important for my belief in the seriousness of loneliness are my personal experiences.

About my youth I will only mention a few things because I was basically a superficial idiot until 18 so there is little to talk about anyway. I met my first girlfriend with 16 and was together with her for two years. At the beginning it was lovely (of course still shallow from my present perspective) but soon the relationship transformed into a nightmare because besides being depressed and suffering from low self-esteem she was pathologically jealous: During the last 12 months my home was essentially my prison. Just to take two examples of the absurdity that permeated this whole relationship: I wasn’t allowed to see my friends – because I could meet pretty girls there – or read the newspaper – because I could see pretty girls there. Why I didn’t break up with her? Well, I was an idealistic, naive and romantic “white knight” and wanted to marry her. She was my “true love” after all! I would probably still be together with her, if she hadn’t cheated on me by sleeping with another guy (and kissing yet another guy 6 months before this) and then telling me, that she wanted a break. It’s not unlikely that I would have stayed with her if she hadn’t initiated the breakup because I somehow never was angry at her for this and forgave her immediately. Sometimes I think about all the Everett branches in which I’m still together with her and cry a bit.

Anyway, from 18 to 19 I became ever more interested in philosophy and science, briefly had another girlfriend but she was too much of a stuffy, boring satisficer and I broke up with her. I had already become disillusioned after my first relationship and after the second breakup I swore myself to not waste time with romantic relationships because I came to believe that emotions like love and sexual attraction just delude people and fool them into fulfilling their genetic imperative – having offspring – and, most importantly, distract them from the truly important stuff: philosophy and science. Consequently, from 19 to 23 I didn’t have any physical or romantic contact with females (not even hugging) because I basically cut all my social ties and only focused on reading and figuring out “the meaning of life”. To make a long story of intellectual development short, my interest in girls renewed around one year after I had discovered LessWrong, EA and related ideas. On LessWrong I first encountered this thing called “PUA” – short for pickup artistry – and got convinced that it is an excellent method for improving your social skills and confidence. After years of near social isolation I basically didn’t have many social skills left and thought that it would make sense to try to find a girlfriend, improve my confidence and social skills at the same time, which would make me happier and more productive. Basically “finding a girlfriend” was at the beginning merely a subgoal to the main goal: “saving the world”. Ok, and I guess I actually  started to feel lonely after all those years of solitude even though I might not have admitted this to myself back back at this time.

Anyway, approaching girls actually was waaay harder than I thought. I’m relatively shy by nature and years of social isolation certainly didn’t help to improve this. In addition, the human brain is essentially programmed to find the idea of approaching strangers terrifying because in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness this was a big deal (e.g. if you got rejected by a woman of your tribe you lost not only her as a mating opportunity – and there were only around 10 appropriate women “available” in total in most clans – she also would probably tell other women and it would be much harder to attract them). But presumably the biggest problem was that I didn’t have a social circle or friends. Normally it’s not so difficult to talk to “strangers” if you meet them, say, on a party of a friend – you immediately have a sort of social connection, you have “social proof” and often you even get properly introduced by the common friend. Alas, this option was not available for me. That’s why I had to go alone to night clubs, festivals or other parties and try to meet my soulmate there (or so I thought, more on the stupidity of this strategy later). But trying to approach groups of strangers while having no “wingman” requires incredible amounts of confidence, at least for me. After numerous failures and rejections my confidence actually started to severely decline. While searching for possible solutions, I had the great “epiphany” of trying out drugs especially tranquilizers in order to be calm, confident and happy before approaching girls. But even this didn’t help because I was just such a pussy. I don’t remember how often I went to clubs alone, high on some drug or another, but still not uttering a single word to anyone the whole evening – and I was there for like seven fucking hours. I felt like the greatest retarded loser of the whole fucking Milky Way. After all, I only had to blame myself for my misery and loneliness because I was such a pathetic coward, unworthy to live for another second. And of course there is also the fact that taking drugs is pretty bad for you so my depression and confidence naturally deteriorated even further.

Let’s get a bit more concrete here. I wrote about “rejections” in the abstract but people not familiar with the process may not truly grasp what this word actually means. First, what you have to keep into account is that approaching girls required me to summon all my willpower and courage. We are talking about an amount of willpower and courage that probably exceeded what I needed to finish my whole bachelor thesis, heck, probably my whole degree. With this in mind, let’s imagine a typical night: I’m standing there in the club and after preparing myself to approach this cute girl for like an hour or two, I finally do so with an innocuous opener like “hey, do you know the name of this track?” or something like this. And then, depending on the situation, we would either have a short conversation and after a few minutes it became clear that she either had a boyfriend or was shallow and mentally deficient. Or she would reject me by screwing up her face and waving me away like I was a genetically modified maggot. You know how this makes you feel? Imagine God himself pointing a finger at you, in front of every earthly and celestial being that has ever lived, and saying “Look at this deformed piece of subhuman genetic garbage. You are the only mistake I’ve ever committed. You are a disgrace to my whole creation. Please kill yourself. Immediately.” Needless to say, my evening was over.

But what probably disillusioned me the most was reading numerous blogs and books about PUA and evolutionary psychology after which I was forced to discard my idealistic and romantic notions of love that I was holding dear since my early youth. I was forced to stare into the darwinian abyss of human nature and realize how arduous, competitive, mechanical and brutish this whole endeavor, actually our whole existence is. This shift in perspective stripped the whole concept of dating and love down to the essentials: Love is not magical. It’s merely an epiphenomenon of the biological drive to mate. As in most biological species, the male has to fight to gain sexual access to the woman. Women as the picky sex choose, and men have to prove themselves. I will quote wikipedia, because I’m too lazy to explain everything:

In many species, sexual selection is closely linked to parental investment. In theory, a male from such a species can produce a large number of offspring over the course of his life by minimizing parental investment in favor of investing his time instead impregnating any reproductive-age female who is fertile. In contrast, a female from said species typically can have a much smaller number of offspring during her reproductive life, partly due to an obligatory non-nil parental investment (i.e., gestation and delivery). This suggests that females will be more selective (“choosy”) of mates than males will be, choosing males with good fitness (e.g., genes, high status, resources, etc.), so as to help offset any lack of direct parental investment from the male, and therefore increase reproductive success. Robert Trivers’ theory of parental investment predicts that the sex making the largest investment in lactation, nurturing, and protecting offspring will be more discriminating in mating; and that the sex that invests less in offspring will compete for access to the higher-investing sex (see Bateman’s principle).

So basically my state of mind when entering a club resembled that of a lonesome warrior, who has to compete with all the other males there – and most of them have more muscles, are way more confident and have “social proof” than me, that is they are accompanied by male and/or female friends in contrast to me who is just being awkwardly alone there. Going to nightclubs or parties was no fun. It was war. All males trying to impress females with their dancing skills, charisma, confidence or whatever they had in their arsenal in this big fucking darwinian mating contest. And losing it condemned you to loneliness and death (from your gene’s eye perspective).

Naturally, this kind of Lovecraftian perspective leads to desperation, soul-crushing cynicism and further isolation. Because if you tell anyone, they will accuse you of misogyny or “biologicism” or some other “ism” they  invent in order to not have to face reality. Or they say that you are just a self-pitying, pathetic “nice guy”. In our society you are basically not allowed to say that there exist certain areas where men have it at least as difficult as women, if not more. But one such area is definitely dating. At least women under 30 whose attractiveness is not significantly below average can far more easily find a partner than most men. How anyone who has ever been to a party or a night club does not see this is a fucking mystery to me. Contemplate this: Myriads of idealistic, good-hearted but lonely and nerdy “betas” sit at home, dreaming about merely hugging a girl and crying in front of their computer while murderous psychopaths in jail get flooded with love letters.

As hinted above, the whole nightmare gets even worse once you realize which type of men are actually attractive for most women. Certainly not nice, intellectually curious, attentive men as everyone wants you to believe. Women may say that they like such traits but they actually long for confidence, aloofness, arrogance, wealth and status. Naturally, the man should also be desired by other females – called “pre-selection”. Of course it makes evolutionary sense for females to seek those traits (personality traits like confidence e.g. are at least partly genetically determined. So if you as a woman have sex with someone who is e.g. confident then your sons will also be more confident and more likely to have lots of genetic offspring, too. Similar arguments can be made for the other traits. Why pre-selection should be crucial should be obvious for example). The problem was that I wasn’t confident, aloof or rich. I was insecure, idealistic and poor. I had no social proof. Non. Not a single friend. I also had not pre-selection at all. In fact, I didn’t have any sex for 5 years. In terms of those criteria, I was the most unattractive male at the whole club, if not in the whole city. So of course this made me even more nervous and insecure – so I had to take even more drugs to fake being confident. I had to hide my nervousness as if my life depended on it – but women can smell nervousness from miles away like hyaenas. Knowing this makes you even more nervous, of course. A truly vicious circle.

Love, i.e. mating is basically one big Matthew effect: Males who already have slept with a lot of women can easily get more women because they are so confident and aloof. And romantic but desperate, nervous and lonely males who would do everything for their future girlfriend are as attractive to females as a fruit fly contaminated with radiation. Here is the real law of attraction (not to be confused with this shit): The more you are attracted to a woman the less she is attracted to you. The more you love a girl the more nervous, unconfident and needy you will behave around her – which is as repulsive to women as a supernova of vomit. The less you are attracted to a girl the more aloof and confident you will act around her and the more she will be attracted to you. True love is impossible. Human nature is rotten to its very core and fucked up beyond all redemption. Quod erat demonstrandum.

Anyway, during the first year of searching for a girlfriend/doing PUA, I  somehow managed to not kill myself and became better, more experienced and eventually succeeded in getting a few dates. I still remember the first time I actually got a date after a approaching a girl in a bar. She was really pretty and during the first two dates I’ve developed a strong affection for her partly because of her great nihilistic humor and the fact that she was sharing some of my interests. After the third date I was deliriously euphoric because I had just kissed her goodbye – remember: my first kiss in half a decade. I was so happy and optimistic about our “relationship” I was practically planning our honeymoon already. Of course I never heard of her again after kissing her.

The doors of desolation were opened and the world appeared as it is: infernal.

Absurdly enough, essentially the same thing happened three months later: Met an awesome girl, awesome conversations, fell practically in love with her, kissed with her on the third date, only to never see her again. What the fuck was going on here? Did I really have such a bad breath? Did I suck at kissing so hard? Or did these girls just find me repulsive because I was so romantic and idealistic shy and nervous that I merely kissed with them and didn’t physically escalate more? (Not only this, I also needed aeons – until the third date! – to merely kiss them!) About three months later I finally could experimentally confirm the last hypothesis: I had sex with a girl on our first date after I had approached her like two days ago. She essentially fell in love with me and continued to write me for a year or more although I basically stopped answering her messages (she was nice but quite boring, sorry).

To sum it up: Through reading PUA-materials, evolutionary psychology and above all my own experiences (and the ones of friends) I became deeply hopeless about the prospect of ever finding a girlfriend. I lost my “faith” in humanity. All women appeared to be essentially the same. All of them seemed like superficial, hypergamous, rationalizing, status-whoring, compartmentalizing, self-righteous, false-hearted, hateful hypocrites without souls. But what good is life without true love? What good is even a positive singularity if all this talk about romance and soulmates is just a mendacious charade and (at least) half of humanity is wicked and attracted to psychopaths but disgusted by people like me? Sure, creating your own soulmate using advanced AI could be a way out. And wire-heading is always a possibility. But those options felt a bit hollow.

Part 2: How I finally found my soulmate and why (much of) PUA sucks

Alright, the above part should have given you a feeling of how a felt during that time. I think it’s important to note that I now feel much better, have a girlfriend with whom I happily together for two years. Most importantly, I do not subscribe to many views anymore that one can read on many PUA-blogs. I believe that that these views are wrong and maybe even more importantly, also depressing and in a certain sense self-fulfilling.

But first let me admit that there certainly exist women – probably even a lot but certainly not all of them (as I will argue later) – who are truly superficial and fit the description of PUAs almost perfectly: They seek aloof, arrogant, almost semi-psychopathic men with lots of money and power and don’t care about much else – except astrology, shoes and their looks. So what. Human nature is fucked and many humans are shit. Big news. You should have internalized this by now if you ever read about the Holocaust, the Milgram experiment or thousand of other tragedies and wars in which the pettiness and cruelty of humanity revealed itself. But notice that I’m writing about humans in general. There are also lots of men whose superficiality, perfidy and predictability is in no way inferior to the type of women I described above. For example, PUAs often complain that women are disloyal and hypergamous and leave their current partners if they have the chance to get a partner with higher status. But many men also leave their partners if they meet a girl that’s younger or more attractive. In a way, men are even more cruel and superficial than women: Men care about the physical attractiveness of women to a much greater degree than vice versa. But physical attractiveness and “inner beauty” – say, altruism, intelligence, kindness, etc. – essentially do not correlate at all. Moreover, physical attractiveness starts to rapidly decline once you get past the age of 30 or so. “How fucking cruel is that” you could ask with good reason. In contrast, women care about things like status, confidence and “interestingness”. But that’s completely understandable, maybe even laudable. “Status” isn’t a bad thing. Most awesome people have high status – just think of Albert Einstein or Bertrand Russell. And low status correlates at least with being boring or shitty, albeit by no means perfectly. Lastly, of course no men or women is at fault that they genetically programmed to seek certain traits in the different sex. We humans were designed by evolution and now we are equipped with psychological mechanisms that tended to maximize inclusive genetic fitness in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness. But I would love to edit my neural algorithms underlying those psychological mechanisms and e.g. delete my preference for fatty and sweet food or my preference for slim, young female bodies and make it much less discriminating. I guess this is true for many men and women out there. We are the slaves of our genetic past. Let’s not blame each other for having preferences we never deliberately chose.

(And of course most dictators, psychopaths, murderers and rapists are men, but let’s not even go there.)

Probably the most crucial point to keep in mind is that all women are not fundamentally the same – a fact that some, maybe even a lot of PUAs deny. But of course some women are different. You really want to tell me that e.g. Marie Curie or Irena Sendler were superficial? Many PUAs claim that their beliefs about female nature are true for all women and although I agree that their views pertain in many ways to many women I’m pretty sure that the traditional concepts of PUA are at most very limitedly applicable to the women I like most: intelligent, curious, rational, altruistic, empathetic and a bit existentially depressed and nihilistic. I know that this won’t convince anyone, but for me the strongest evidence against the traditional PUA-view of female nature is my girlfriend who certainly doesn’t fit the PUA-female-stereotype –or at most in very few instances 🙂 .

Furthermore, an important point about the “methods” of PUA: Going to night clubs, approaching strange women is a fucking bad idea – at least for people like me. Only superficial men or men who only want to have sex have something to gain from doing this. Since I’m interested in unusual things and a romantic maximizer, the chances of finding a girl that shares all my interests and fits all my other criteria are exceedingly small. And meeting her in a random night club is about as probable as winning the lottery twice in a row because attending a night club doesn’t select for intellectual curiosity, rationality or lots of other things I care about: So every time you approach a girl in a night club it’s almost like you draw a sample from the general population and just hope she will be the one. Not only this, going to nightclubs or festivals is also inefficient, expensive and detrimental to any normal sleep rhythm. Lastly, in a night club or at a festival you have to directly compete with dozens of other males trying to achieve the same goal as you. A way better method is online dating or trying to go to meetups or groups that are interested in EA, philosophy or something like this (admittedly, I also had tried this without success for the simple reason that almost no women were part of such meetups or groups – however the movement of EA/LessWrong is growing exponentially and thus it should keep getting easier to find like-minded women). Of course, ultimately the best method is going to a good university (or maybe a good company) and trying to find your girlfriend there. For example, if you seek an intelligent girl passionate about philosophy, your chances at finding this girl while studying philosophy in Oxford are astronomically higher than just going to a stupid night club. Also, it is quite easy and natural to get to know your fellow classmates or colleagues. That’s also similar to how I’ve met my girlfriend (although not in Oxford of course). What when you are trapped at your shitty university or your shitty job? Well, you are fucked. That was also basically my problem for basically two years. Just try to think long-term, even though that’s not easy.

Moreover, I think that many prominent PUAs like Roissy or Roosh are eternally discontent, hateful and restless, existentially empty beings, only seeking short-term pleasure, incapable of forming close human relationships and engaging in deeply personal conversations with women they love. In certain respects, they resemble psychopaths (Roissy says as much himself). I pity them. Some PUAs are maybe even more pathetic. For them the meaning of life consists of fucking as many women as possible who are as pretty as possible. That’s their sole life goal. That would be deplorable enough but then they go ahead and try to convince numerous young guys who don’t have a sense of purpose yet and are therefore vulnerable that they should adopt the same goal and measure their self-worth by the same metric of “lays”. This even happened to me: At the beginning I practiced PUA only for instrumental reasons and rather half-heartedly while still pursuing my other interests. But after a few months I became obsessed with it, forgot about all my other valuable qualities and equated my worth as a human being basically with how successful at PUA I was, that is how attractive I was to some stupid girl I met at 3:30 at some degenerate night club.

Another drawback of the PUA-lifestyle is that practicing PUA day and night requires extraordinary amounts of time and is basically not compatible with having other passions like art, music, philosophy or science or having an challenging job. But that’s not a problem because many PUAs don’t really have a life anyway and try to hide their own emptiness from themselves by focusing on putting their penis into as many vaginas as possible. I really have as much respect for a traditional PUA as for a heroin junkie: Both are seeking short-term pleasure at the exclusion of everything else and they don’t care about hurting other people in the process.

Also, PUA is generally not even good for increasing your confidence. Sure, if you are not too shy to begin with, don’t have too high standards and are good-looking, you can increase your confidence with PUA. But in all other cases the only thing that will get fucked is your self-esteem by the countless rejections and failures. Approaching and afterwards seducing women one doesn’t know at all is incredibly difficult and even the most confident and skillful PUAs have a success-rate of significantly less than 50% if they approach only attractive women.

Of course, PUA is not all bad. Some techniques are useful and I myself probably increased my social skills by practicing it. And sure, confident guys, maybe even arrogant, aloof assholes can be more attractive to many women than shy, nervous nice-guys. But I think the mistake that a majority of PUA-enthusiasts committed was the following: They discovered that many women are generally not attracted to shy, unconfident nice-guys, and so they simply reversed every trait into its opposite: Niceness is not attractive, so arrogance has to be! Likewise, shyness gets transformed into confidence and attentiveness into aloofness. And born was the ideal of male attractiveness– or so the PUAs thought. But reversed stupidity is not intelligence. Through merely reversing one’s previous unattractive behavior into its opposite one doesn’t reach the ideal behavior. Being confident, aloof and arrogant might be an improvement to being an awkward, nervous nice-guy. But being generally authentic and naturally confident, funny and interesting is vastly superior. Becoming naturally confident is of course not easy, but I guess one promising path is to find something one truly enjoys and at which one is good at – be it painting, programming or writing – and the confidence will more or less follow. Lastly, being passionate about something makes you interesting and distinguishes you from all the other bland, overly pushy zombies trying to hit girls in the clubs. And if a girl doesn’t care about your passion and rejects you because of it – good for you, or would you like to spend time together with someone who is not interested in you and your dreams? Ok, ok, I won’t lie and admit that it can be quite tough to find girls who share your passions if your passion happens to be mathematics, philosophy, EA or programming instead of fashion or sport.

But I never said that existence is worth experiencing.

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.

Thoughts on Happiness (1) [Happiness Sequence, Part 2]

[Previously: Happy by Habit]

This is a collection of thoughts on how to become happier. The first 2 parts are mostly focused on cognitive habits that I’ve found useful. That means I’m not talking about obvious stuff like regular exercise, good diet, enough sleep, socializing with friends, having healthy relationships and keeping the cocaine to a minimum (this will be the focus of the last installment of this sequence). Beware: I’m not an expert on happiness as you might have guessed from reading some other posts of mine. To be frank, I suck at happiness. So take all this stuff with a fat chunk of salt. I wrote all of this mostly for me anyway so that I can reread it regularly and whenever I’m down in the dumps.

1. Problems

Let me first describe the two problems that are most detrimental to my happiness. There are other problems in my life but these facts I hate the most. These problems may or may not resonate with you.

1.1. We live in a cruel, uncaring cosmos which exists for no purpose. In several posts I mentioned this before and it is common knowledge anyway, so I won’t go into details here and just mention that I’m talking about fundamental existential evils like the second law of thermodynamics, moral anti-realism, evolution by natural selection, the corollaries of evolutionary psychology, the high heritability and variability of intelligence and other crucial personality traits among humans, human nature in general, loneliness, aging, death, as well as the absurdity and meaninglessness of a reductionistic, infinite multiverse containing infinite suffering. You get the gist.

1.2. I’m not as intelligent, productive, articulate or just plain awesome as I wished. Furthermore, intelligence and other crucial personality traits are not malleable to a really significant extent, but mostly genetically determined (of course, genes are not everything. I’m just saying that I could have never discovered the theory of general relativity even if I did nothing else than think about physics. Exceptional genes are a necessary but not a sufficient condition for becoming a genius.) Anyway, the point is that I will be doomed to mediocrity until I die. Or awake in a transhuman civilization.

[Here’s a post that attempts to convey how those problems feel from the inside. Warning: Written in a very nihilistic tone.]

So let’s talk about how to best cope with those and other related depressing problems (obviously, everything is related to the first problem).

2. How to counter those problems

I’ve read quite a bit of traditional advice on how to be happier. The problem is that most of those books, even the ones by respected academics (e.g. “The How of Happiness“) are written in a rose-colored panglossian tone and often preach downright irrationality for the sake of happiness. Most of this stuff is simply too obnoxious for a natural cynic like me. That’s why I had to steal modify existing advice or make up my own stuff.

Also, it should be noted that I don’t completely subscribe to all of the following techniques. For example, the next one is really hard to implement when one is truly depressed or is experiencing suffering first-hand. Furthermore, I use different techniques in different states of mind and thus some of the following techniques may seem contradictory (because they are).

A last note of optimism before delving into the details: Although the optimism of many self-help books is over-the-top, one shouldn’t forget that the power of the mind is really incredible. Just read a book about the placebo effect and you will learn that not only stem like 80% of the effects of antidepressant drugs actually are caused by placebo effects (i.e. the difference in the effect sizes between the drug condition and the placebo condition is only 20%), but that even, say, placebo surgeries on knees can be as effective as real surgeries which just blew my mind.

3. Don’t take existence so seriously

As noted above, our universe has many existential shortcomings. However, one has to learn to accept those facts like the fact that there is no Santa Claus and stop whining about them. I wrote about this in another post before, so I won’t go into details here and keep it short: Try to view existence as a joke and laugh about it. (And remember, thanks to Timeless Decision Theory you can produce infinite amounts of happiness by your decision to be happy – every second.) So how can one learn to acquire this attitude? That’s admittedly not easy. At all. Maybe taking psychedelics will help. Maybe reading the stoics will help. Maybe reading continental philosophy like Nietzsche or Camus could help. Maybe read The Onion. Admittedly, I myself am not really able to adopt this attitude (although I personally like dark humor so I should find this universe downright hilarious) but it can be helpful.

Again, I will refer you to this post in which I expand on the aforementioned points and also write about related concepts like the revolt against the absurd and eternal recurrence.

4. Don’t take yourself so seriously

Learning to laugh about existence is useful. But sometimes it is even more important to not take your own existence, your own individual life so seriously. Often I’m quite depressed and apathetic because I know that I’m not particularly intelligent, productive or influential. For example, I’m often not motivated to read something about a technical topic such as anthropics, physics or decision theory because I know that I will never grasp those topics as deeply as people with higher mathematical intelligence – of which there are many. Furthermore, it is discouraging to know that if I study and learn for 8 hours I make as much progress in my understanding of this problem as if, say, Nick Bostrom would spent 2 minutes on this problem. Similar points apply to writing (why write at all if other people write much better posts in much less time and would reach much more people) and other intellectual work in general.

But why do I even want to be super smart and productive? One reason is that through greater intelligence and productivity you can achieve much more good in the world and since I aspire to be an effective altruist I wish to have as much positive impact on the world as possible. Knowing that highly intelligent and productive people like Bostrom probably have many orders of magnitude more positive impact on the world than me therefore can be rather demotivating and depressing. Moreover, there are thousands of people in this world which are smarter and more productive than me. So on an emotional level I think to myself: It doesn’t matter how hard I try. In comparison to those guys I’m basically making no difference at all. Competing with such people makes as much fun as sprinting against Usain Bolt. With one leg.

Let me illustrate this feeling through an example: Imagine a tug of war between hundreds of giants. These giants are as tall as mountains and they are so strong they could throw entire battle ships over all of New York. So, how motivated would you be to exercise rigorously three times a week, eat healthy and all that stuff so that you are in the best shape of your life and help one side in this tug war? Probably not much. Why should you try so hard. It wouldn’t make a difference either way. That’s basically how I feel.

But this metaphor – and my associated emotion – is flawed in several ways. It should be noted that it is not flawed in the sense that it depicts the giants as too large or powerful. There are really hundreds of people in this world who have at least 3-4 orders of magnitude more impact on the world (that’s why the giants are approximately thousand times taller than me).

However, it is not the case that I have to pull in the same direction as one of the two sides. I could pull the rope sideways, so to say, if I realize that my goals don’t completely overlap with either one of the two sides or if I understand reality better than most of those giants. Which happens to be true in real life. E.g. Angela Merkel has much more impact on the world but it’s not clear if her impact is positive or negative. However, then there are people like Bostrom who have very similar goals and who understand reality as much as I do, so pulling the rope sideways won’t help in such cases.

But there is another resort: I could try to help my favorite giants in other ways. Continuing the metaphor, I could e.g. read more about optimal exercise and teach them better methods to do so. I could cook for them, clean their homes, etc. This is almost directly transferable to the real world: You can really cook and clean for productive geniuses such that they become even more productive. The only problem is that this often feels demotivating and depressing on a system 1 level because having more positive impact on the world is probably not the only reason why I desperately wish to be more productive and intelligent:

Another more vain reason is probably that I – or at least my system 1 – desires to be famous, to be influential, to be admired, to have high status. Most humans – especially males I would guess? – have such desires due to how natural selection shaped the human motivational system. Higher status meant more access to mates/more resources meant higher inclusive genetic fitness. That alone is one reason why you shouldn’t take those types of desire so seriously but that ain’t so easy. It just feels bad to have lower status than others and there is little you can do against this feeling because it’s basically hardwired into you.

As an aside: In our globalized civilization this problem is especially pernicious. For example, people almost everywhere have access to television and can see rich, handsome and high-status males like Brad Pitt or George Clooney and feel shitty in comparison. Aspiring writers compare themselves with and compete against the most successful and brilliant writers of the world, the same holds true for aspiring scientists, philosophers, artists, engineers, entrepreneurs, athletes and so on. In every niche you try to create for yourself you will find people who are better than you, have higher status than you – except if you are literally the best mathematician, poet or basketball player of the world, which is fucking unlikely. But presumably the human brain is wired to seek to be the best in at least one area: In the environment of evolutionary adaptedness it was almost always the case that you were the best member or among the best members of your clan in something. Why? Because your clan only consisted of maximally 150 people, more often substantially less. So people everywhere try to be the best writer/scientist/athlete in a clan of 8 billion members and get depressed if they are forced to bury their dreams while forgetting that their task is approximately thousand times more difficult than winning the lottery at the first attempt. Another problem is that in our times performance gets measured constantly – books sold, number of citations, number of visitors and views to your blog, goals scored, money earned, etc. – so through these objective numbers people are basically forced to compare themselves with others and are not even able to deceive themselves anymore or at least not to the extent it was possible in earlier times.

Anyway, I often experience this desire to seek status, to be admired or special in a more elaborate (rationalized?) form which basically goes like this. “Oh look at me, I’m such an exquisite and special individual. Almost nobody shares my strange combination of humorous nihilism and sensitive compassion. Few have stared so deep in the abyss, few combine my taste of pessimistic high-brow literature with scientific understanding and rationality. My world view, my value system, my individuality is unique and invaluable. If I just were more famous, if just more people read my texts, looked at my thoughts, acknowledged what a genius I really am and learned to see the world through my eyes and adopted my values!” In such a state of mind I feel like a very special snowflake, a unique human being holding unique values and experiences whose instantiation and proliferation is of cosmic importance. Needless to say, that this is a load of crap.

All your idiosyncratic, oh so special desires, tastes and values are determined by your genes and your environment. The study of identical twins illustrates the genetic part vividly. Such twins often share highly idiosyncratic quirks like enjoying to sneeze in elevators. And the rest of your other desires and values were just shaped by accidental environmental factors.

As noted above, studies like the one by Terman show that not only your values, but also your intellectual abilities are determined by your genes to a large extent.

What I want to say is this: Firstly, it makes little sense to be depressed just because you aren’t famous and the rest of humanity doesn’t see the world through your eyes and very few individuals share your values. Why? First of all, you shouldn’t take your own peculiar values so seriously, because if, for example, it had rained on the day of your conception, and thus your parents would have had sex one hour later because there was a traffic jam (or insert your favorite butterfly-effect story here) “you” (to be more accurate: the person being born to your parents in this counterfactual universe) therefore would have had a different genetic makeup and thus totally different values and would pursue them with the same vigor, desperately trying to succeed in “your” highly specific goals, convinced that they would be of paramount, holy importance.

Secondly, it makes little sense to be depressed because you are not so intelligent and productive as your role models. It’s not your fault that you aren’t a genius. It’s not your fault that you aren’t an angel of productivity. With more luck in the genetic and environmental lottery “you” too would have been a genius (and in another parallel universe/Everett branch “you” probably are!).

To put it succinctly: Why should you care about your idiosyncratic values and desires, why should you take your personal identity seriously, and why should you be proud or ashamed of your abilities if they merely came into being through the throw of a genetic-environmental d∞ dice?

[Relatedly, Scott Alexander recently wrote this amazing post which explains much more eloquently than I ever could that feeling like a loser for not being particularly intelligent or productive is nonsense. Seriously, read this post now, it’s superb.]

We can substantiate the conclusions of the preceding paragraphs by considering timeless decision theory and parallel universes (or modal realism, or the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, pick whatever suits your epistemic taste). Let’s assume you adopt the general decision to be sad if your life is not truly perfect. Since there exists only one possible world (namely the best of all possible worlds) in which “your” life is truly perfect in every way, “you” would be condemned to be sad in every other possible universe – of which there are a lot – because the “you” in every possible universe is an instantiation of the decision algorithm “be sad if your life is not perfect”. That strikes me as the wrong step in the existential dance.

As an aside: You may have noticed that much of this advice gives reasons against engaging in (social) upward comparisons which are quite detrimental to your happiness, as psychological research has shown in many studies (my memory, 2015).

Just accept your abilities, accept your fate and run with it. Life is a bitch? So don’t give it the satisfaction of successfully wearing you out.

An important caveat: I don’t wish that I stop caring about anything anymore and just relax until I die. I think some values are so general, are “attractors in value-space” to put it very abstractly and to them the previous meditations don’t apply because the majority of (biologically evolved) beings would pursue them (if they are sufficiently rational and intelligent). That is, even with a quite different genetic makeup and different environmental history “I” would have those values. Suffering-reducing and perhaps happiness-maximizing (or frustration-of-preferences-reducing and fulfilling-of-preferences-maximizing) are very good candidates for such values.

I don’t know if this applies to other minds, but reasoning of this sort helps at least me to give less weight to my own quirky idiosyncratic, “selfish” values and focus more on my “bland”, generic values and utilitarian preferences such as reducing the suffering of sentient beings in general.

Four other considerations on why being a genius is not so desirable and awesome anyways: (1) First of all, with great intelligence and power to optimize comes great responsibility. If I wouldn’t do anything other than smoke weed and play computer games until the rest of my life it wouldn’t make a big difference. However, if Bostrom did it he would know how much would be lost. (2) Secondly, even the smartest human on this planet influences the wheel of history to a very small extent, at least in absolute terms. (3) Lastly, even the exceptional genius stands on the shoulders of giants as well as dwarfs: Without previous generations of geniuses he would have to literally reinvent the wheel and without “dumb” humans who are just good enough to produce food he would starve. (4) In a sense, your worth as a human being is not determined by your abilities but by what you make of them (at least from an intuitive virtue-ethics point of view).  I realize that all those four considerations are somewhat contradictory but you can pick one of them whenever you please. If you are depressed and feel bad about your mediocrity think about (1) and (2). If you want to get motivated you should better think about (3). (4) is an all-time classic.

This brings me to an important word of warning: Some of the above suggestions may make you happy but they also can turn you into an apathetic, demotivated zombie. There could be a tradeoff between happiness and productivity/motivation. Maybe not. More on this in later posts.

5. Optimism/hoping for an utopian future: 

Another cognitive habit, often preached in the traditional self-help literature is cultivating optimism. In the past I often considered this advice far too panglossian, naive and simple-minded to be of use for myself. But I just had to modify the technique. In contrast to normal people I don’t (only) hope for a secure job, health and more mundane things of this sort because even winning the lottery wouldn’t solve the fundamental existential evils mentioned in the beginning of this essay.

However, there are some things that could solve literally everything. I’m talking about a positive singularity, brought about by a successfully created friendly AI whose utility function is the coherent extrapolated volition of humanity (and perhaps other sentient beings). It may be unlikely, but certainly not impossible that people who are alive today, including me and my friends, will experience a transhuman utopia in which suffering, strife and boredom are no more (and signing up for cryonics should increase those chances). If we throw quantum immortality into the mix (although this leads us straight into the epistemic maze of anthropics) it seems almost certain that “I” will one day wake up in a place in which every sentient being can follow its dreams and experience ecstatic joy until the last stars burn out. (This scenario presupposes that the extrapolated volitions of all sentient beings actually cohere which is maybe unlikely but not impossible.)

However, even this realm of heaven would still be plagued by two hard problems: Firstly, the nasty second law of thermodynamics from which it follows that we all are condemned to eternal void. Real bummer. Secondly, there still would exist other causally inaccessible universes full of unimaginable amounts of suffering . Also, huge amounts of suffering lie in our own past which is – according to plausible theories of time – just as real as the present. The upshot is that there would still exist vast quantities of suffering whose alleviation is impossible, even for future posthumans and superintelligences. Or is it?

Maybe, just maybe, a future superintelligence can hack into the depths of the multiverse such that all suffering – be it of the past or of other causally inaccessible universes – is reset to nothingness. And maybe a future superintelligence will be able to transform the very foundations of reality itself such that the second law of thermodynamics is no more.

I know that this amounts to wishful eschatological speculation of the highest degree. But if I’m really far down the abyss, cheering myself up with such dreams of ultimate existential perfection can be quite helpful. And there is a chance that something like this could happen, right? And if it can happen, it will happen, at least in one possible world, ergo somewhere in this godforsaken multiverse. And it only has to happen once, as should be obvious. (Alas, the fact that we are still experiencing suffering seems to cast doubt on the very possibility of the aforementioned scenario. Better not think about this too much!)

6. View life as a game

Another perspective that is almost universally conducive to happiness is to think of life as a game: A game with certain rules (the laws of nature) and certain goals, e.g. reduce suffering or maximize happiness (you can also add your own idiosyncratic values and goals if you are not – or not only – a utilitarian). As in all good games, you play with some other player characters (rational, “agenty” people) and lots of non-player characters.

It may seem strange at first and you might think that this perspective diminishes your zest for and appreciation of life. But that’s just because you don’t know how amazing games can be. Have you ever played a video game for 10 hours straight, being totally enraptured by it? I did. Believe me, playing a good game can produce more hedons than heroin.

But how can it be useful to view life as a game? First of all, if you completely internalized this perspective you would never get angry or enraged anymore:

  • A stupid, irrational person is hindering your progress? Well, it’s an enemy NPC and you have to find a way to defeat him or to get around him.
  • You have to deal with a kafkaesque bureaucracy? Well, admittedly this level is hard and the game developers could have given you clearer instructions but it won’t help to yell at a piece of computer code.
  • Other people are smarter and more productive than you? Well, obviously there have to be players (or NPCs) who have a higher level than you, better stats and deal more damage. I mean, a game in which you are the most powerful character from the start would be pretty boring. So do what you have to do: try to level up or get better equipment or develop a better strategy. And if this doesn’t work, try to make an alliance with those characters.
  • You have depression or you are poor? Sure, this sucks, but look at it this way: You just have to play in Hell mode which is difficult as the damn name implies. But if you manage to complete a quest or level up you can be much more proud than other players who just play on Normal.

Admittedly, life is not a perfect game. Some chars are just imba, the quests can be pretty repetitive, some bosses are way too hard, you can’t save, you can’t reload, dying really sucks because you can’t restart, you can’t choose your class, race, looks or your stats, leveling up only works to a certain point, and indeed after like 25% of total game progress some of your stats and abilities actually start to decline. Also, the worst noobs and the best pros have to play on the same fucking server, the difficulty can be downright nightmarish and it’s not even clear that you can “win” the game. What’s worse, you can’t really pause the fucking game and nobody asked you if you even wanted to play it. On the plus side, it’s free so let’s not complain. Never look a gift horse in the mouth, as they say.

7. Don’t live in the “Should Universe”

I’ve mentioned this point before and it’s similar to previous points (e.g. viewing life as a game) I’ve made in this sequence, but “living in the should universe” or “shoulding at the universe” is such an ubiquitous, natural and harmful cognitive habit that I include it here too.

Whenever you feel that self-righteous anger that occurs when you have been wronged, chances are that you are shoulding at the universe. Say, for example, someone is straw-manning your beliefs because he is biased or irrational. Now you think to yourself: “I shouldn’t have to explain him my beliefs again. He shouldn’t be so biased. It is unfair that I have to deal with irrrational people.” Or, let’s use an impersonal example: “Jesus, I’m sick again! I shouldn’t have to get sick, it doesn’t help anyone. It’s also unfair because I’m living healthy and I carefully tried to not get sick because I have to be productive this week!”

In both of those examples you get angry at another person or the cosmos itself for not being nice towards you. And sure, in a perfect universe, in which everything is as it should be, people would be rational and diseases wouldn’t exist. But we don’t live in this universe and it doesn’t make sense to scream angrily every time one is reminded that one doesn’t live there. People are irrational and unfair, a sequitur of how natural selection/evolutionary psychology works. And this universe is non-perfect because (almost) all reductionistic universes are non-perfect. Shoulding at the universe makes exactly as much sense as yelling at Occam’s Razor.

8. You are not alone

I’m often depressed because I feel like I’m the only one who realizes how fucked up our existence really is. There are so many people out there who successfully delude themselves into believing in God or other existential fairytales. Those folks just make it so easy for themselves and just believe what they need to be happy. In contrast, because of my epistemic rationality and intellectual integrity I’m almost forced to have many beliefs which are downright depressing and politically incorrect or despised by many others (I just mention intelligence and genes and leave it at that). So many hypocrites feel morally righteous for gullibly believing feeling-good, politically correct bullshit, while condemning those who don’t flinch away from reality as evil. Fucking frustrating. Then there are other people who simply aren’t intelligent or perceptive enough to really understand the mess we are in. In conclusion, there indeed are a lot of people who haven’t stared into the abyss.

But so what. One shouldn’t envy their rose-colored, white-washing glasses. It is important to keep in mind that there are also like-minded spirits in this world who haven’t succumbed to wishful thinking and who stare reality in its grim face without flinching away. There are humans who have endured much more suffering than me. And a lot of them didn’t wallow in despair and self-pity. They didn’t give up and continued to revolt against the absurd and fight against evil. Let them be an inspiration.

Also, there is probably a twisted observation selection effect going on: One over-proportionally encounters happy and energetic people because they just accomplish more and are louder than depressed people. Furthermore, it’s very improbable to encounter (much) more sensitive and perceptive minds than oneself because those people are so depressed that they only can bear existing when they sit alone at home in a dark room, torpedoing their neuroreceptors with a high-octane cocktail of benzodiazepines and opioids. You simply don’t meet people like this. And the *really* sensitive souls out there have blown their brains out long ago. No wonder you’ve never met them and think you are alone.

Also, if you were really such a kind person you would actually wish you were the only depressed person in this world because then there would be a whole less suffering on this planet.

[More in the next post: Thoughts on Happiness (2)]

Nietzsche, Eternal Return and Loving the Multiverse

Many of you will probably think: “Come on, Nietzsche?!” I know, I know. But I have holidays and a pretty smart, rational person recommended Nietzsche to me in order to overcome my existential angst.

I won’t bore you with the obvious shortcomings of Nietzsche. Not surprisingly, 90% of what he writes is either completely wrong, so confused as to be not even wrong or almost comically evil. For example, he argues at length against compassion and truth-seeking which are, at least in my humble opinion, basically the most important values ever. But as I said, here I will focus on the good stuff.

1. First of all, Nietzsche was one of the first people to understand evolutionary psychology and evolutionary epistemology. Thanks to Darwin, one might add, but still impressive.

2. Much more essential for this essay is the following: Nietzsche was one of the first true existentialists. He understood that there is no objective morality, no objective value, no objective, transcendental purpose. At the same time, he also saw that the yearning for such an objective meaning is a deep-rooted desire of almost every human. (Thus his poignant remark with which I couldn’t agree more: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”)

Since there are no objective values, we humans have to create our own values and find our own purpose. For most of my life, this realization filled me with deep despair and a feeling of absurdity and futility about the cosmos. But Nietzsche is one of the very few thinkers (besides Yudkowsky who is still more convincing than Nietzsche in this regard) who is able to persuade convince me of the opposite – at least sometimes: The fact that there is no objective morality is actually liberating! We are free to do what we want! We can create and follow our own rules and values! And why should I follow an “objective” morality anyway? Objective moral rules which you can blindly obey without to think for yourself may be comforting and easy, but this is ultimately a child’s dream and a mark of “herd morality” as Nietzsche would call it. Creating your own values is for adults. Or so the argument (or better: the sentiment) of Nietzsche goes.

I myself, with my own idiosyncratic personality, don’t find this perspective entirely persuasive and would expand and modify it as follows: Admittedly, it sucks immensely that there is no objective, transcendental purpose (and no God, no heaven, etc.) but there is no sense to cry and despair about it for the rest of your life like a small child that can’t accept that Santa Claus doesn’t really exist. Sure, an universe in which Santa Claus (or Heaven or moral realism) were real would be much more awesome but we already know that. We have to learn to accept the existential shortcomings of our cosmos, stop “shoulding” at the universe and learn to experience Joy in the Merely Real.

3. Nietzsche also went further than another favorite continental philosopher of mine: Albert Camus. Like Nietzsche, Camus realized (in a certain sense) that there is no objective purpose, no God and no objective meaning. We are ultimately free, that is we have to create our own meaning and values. Camus famously wrote that the fact that humans yearn for an objective meaning and that there is no such thing renders our existence absurd. However, in contrast to other thinkers such as Schopenhauer (whom I’m also admire), he didn’t succumb to pessimism but advocated the revolt against the absurd: We have to create our own values, help our fellow humans and live ethically in spite of the absence of a transcendental purpose. We shouldn’t surrender to the existential despair which our mute cosmos can oh so easily evoke in us. Let us acknowledge evil and absurdity while defiantly continuing to fight against it! For quite some time this sentiment has deeply resonated with me. And it still does.

However, only recently did I realize that Camus still harbored a kind of existential resentment towards our universe. Deep down, he was still against being. Why else would you want to revolt against something? It means that you still can’t accept it. Camus, in a certain sense, failed to acknowledge the nature of our existence, failed to really take it in. Now, don’t get me wrong. As you may already know, I’m the first one to agree with Camus that this place is fundamentally fucked up beyond redemption. I totally understand where he is coming from.

On the other hand, now I also see how this world view could be construed as a kind of youthful, maybe even childish, existential whining. In a certain sense, you can still feel how Camus (and I) are shoulding at the universe: “Hey Universe! You dare to be absurd and without an objective meaning? You think I will give up?! Ha! I won’t! I won’t accept your absurd ways! In fact, I will revolt against you! You heard me right! Let’s see how you like that!”

As an aside: It doesn’t help that Camus liked to use the legend of Sisyphus as a metaphor for the revolt against the absurd. As you probably know, Sisyphus was condemned by the Greek gods to roll an immense rock up a hill for all eternity. Camus wrote that we should “imagine Sisyphus as a happy man”. Although he knows that his existence is absurd and serves no purpose he enjoys it nevertheless. However, Sisyphus had one crucial advantage: He knew that the gods were watching him and by being happy in spite of his cruel fate he could defy their punishment and ruin their satisfaction. But we are not so lucky. The fact is that we are acting out or meaningless lives in front of no one but ourselves. Anyway, back to the issue at hand.

Nietzsche, in contrast to Camus and Schopenhauer, urges us to embrace reality, to love our fate (amor fati), to live our lives to the fullest, to say “yes” to life (for we have no other choice), to view our lives as a kind of joke and to transform existential tragedy into comedy, for we have the power to experience joy even in the face of existential horror. Or as I would sum it up:

If you laugh enough about the abyss, the abyss may start to laugh with you. 

This whole sentiment may strike you as immoral (and I certainly know where you are coming from). How can we enjoy existence in light of so much suffering? Isn’t this uncompassionate, if not downright psychopathic? Well, arguably, it is ethically required to enjoy existence: A) You are more productive when you are happy, thus more able to help other suffering sentient beings. B) If you are happy instead of miserable there is one less suffering sentient being in this cosmos. C) If we assume an infinite universe and Timeless Decision Theory (well-justified assumptions) then you can in fact produce infinite amounts of happiness by your decision to be happy for you are an equivalence class and can produce happiness/reduce suffering in each of the infinitely many worlds in which your decision algorithm is instantiated (this also solves the problem of infinite ethics, by the way). To put it crudely: With every second you choose to be happy you can produce infinite amounts of happiness.

4. Another central, at first glance rather crazy idea of Nietzsche was that of eternal recurrenceaccording to which our universe and thus our life will continue to recur in an identical form for an infinite number of times. Admittedly, Nietzsche didn’t even try to justify the truth of this hypothesis at all, at least to my knowledge. However, modern cosmological theories and the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics (see e.g. Tegmark’s article), at least to my understanding, make the concept of eternal recurrence not unlikely at all, but I won’t go into details here. Nietzsche called the concept of eternal recurrence the “thought of thoughts” and “the most burdensome thought”. Why? Because your reaction to this hypothesis is the ultimate arbitrator of your stance towards existence. Finding the idea horrifying reveals that you prefer nothingness to existence, whereas embracing the eternal return of all events would mark the ultimate affirmation of life. But embracing eternal recurrence requires amor fati, that is a love of fate, of which I wrote before.

Doesn’t make a lot of sense? I hear you. Here’s my own take on the subject: The concept of eternal recurrence illustrates vividly that you better let go of your resentment towards reality, that you better learn to stop shoulding at the universe and stop your existential whining. For if you won’t learn to do so, you will not only stay miserable in this life but will continue to suffer until the end of time (which won’t come). However, if you learn to love your fate, if you learn to enjoy your existence, if you learn to embrace reality without compromise, you will experience joy forever.

And all joy wants eternity
Wants deep, profound eternity.

[See also: Thoughts on Happiness (1)]