Happy by Habit [Happiness Sequence, Part 1]

Summary: Becoming happier is a learnable skill, just like becoming more rational. Likewise, the best method to practice happiness is similar to the best method to train rationality: Practice only a few basic techniques very often, instead of trying hundreds of advanced techniques only a few times. This is the best way to install new cognitive habits that make you happier. And habits are crucial because will-power is limited. 

First of all, and often overlooked: Just like rationality, happiness is learnable. You can practice to be happier. Sure, for some people happiness is more difficult to achieve than for others, since genes account for about 50% of the variance in happiness1. Similarly, rationality skills are probably also heritable to a significant amount. Still, most people can learn to be happier.

Second of all, to become more rational you don’t have to practice hundreds of different, complicated and fancy rationality-techniques. No, there are probably less than ten, all-important, but rather simple rationality skills. E.g. being a good consequentialist and not falling prey to the sunk-cost-fallacy. (Writing this down it occurred to me, that there are indeed few basic rationality techniques, but each of them has lots of sub-techniques). Similarly, to become happier you don’t have to learn hundreds of complex, cognitive techniques for dealing with depressive thought patterns. You only have to learn some of them.

Thirdly, the most effective way to become more rational/happier is to practice those few basic techniques until they become second nature to you2. We can draw an analogy between practicing rationality/happiness-techniques and martial arts: To become a good martial arts fighter you should practice the basic kick and the basic defense over and over again, until you’re really great at kicking and defense. You should not try to spend most of your time practicing a 360° double-side kick which is only useful on very rare occasions3. By practicing a few, simple techniques every day, eventually those techniques should become habits. You don’t think about employing those techniques, you just do them automatically.

And habits are essential. Nobody has enough will-power to rely on to execute happiness-inducing techniques like e.g. meditating or cultivating gratitude every day anew. No, the only way is to practice one new technique until it becomes an automatic habit and you don’t even have to use will-power anymore to execute the habit. Then you have again enough will-power to focus on building the next technique4. An important caveat: Don’t try to establish too many new habits at a time. It’s probably better to focus on one or two new habits at a time and wait until they’ve become really easy to execute before you decide to learn a new habit.

What is the best way to install new habits (and get rid of bad old habits)? I’m too lazy to write about it here so I will link to this excellent post by Kaj Sotala. Also, I can highly recommend the book “Superhuman by Habit” which is probably the best and most inspiring book on the topic I’ve ever read.

In this post I write about some of the most effective strategies for dealing with depressive thought patterns. Of course, “most effective” is a relative term and those strategies are probably only suited to my idiosyncratic problems and personality.

[Next: Thoughts on Happiness (1)]


1. Stubbe, Posthuma, Boomsa, & De Geus (2005). Heritability and life satisfaction in adults: A twin-family studyPsychological Medicine, 35: 1581-1588.

2. In this sequence I’m only discussing cognitive techniques for becoming happier. Fundamentals like exercise, good sleep and diet are arguably even more crucial in this regard.

3. Of course, this advice only applies to novices and intermediates in the art of rationality/happiness/martial arts. E.g. if you are already an expert and have mastered the basic fighting techniques you obviously should devote your time to more advanced techniques.

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