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.

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)]

Depression Reveals the Truth: We Live in the Abyss

[Epistemic status: Just poetry, written in a nihilistic mood. Don’t take it so seriously.]

When you are in the midst of a deep depression it’s impossible to do anything other than lie in bed and wish to die. Speaking is difficult, writing impossible. So any piece of writing about depression will always be false. False, because written prose about depression originates always as an afterthought, thus distorted, allayed, softened. The written word can’t fully capture the despair, the futility and the horror of being depressed. Paralyzation of will renders it impossible. But I try my best.

First of all, there is always the feeling of pain. Pain in your bones, your limbs, your lungs, head and heart. Then exhaustion and extreme tiredness. You are too exhausted, too tired to move. But you can’t sleep. And you are too fatigued to escape. To distract yourself. You also don’t see the point in distracting yourself. Truthfully, you don’t see the point in anything. The problem is that depression makes all of it very believable. You think you can see the truth. And maybe you do. There is this saying: „Depression lies“. I’m not so sure. Maybe happiness lies. Maybe life itself lies. Just imagine if you could apprehend, to the full extent, all the evils of this world: dying children in Africa, pigs slaughtered in factory farms, women in mental ayslums crying over their dead daughters, lonely students, heart-broken and addicted to benzos and opioids because their cries for love were never answered. Then imagine if you saw, clearly, in your minds eye, all your failures, your weaknesses, your shortcomings, your inability to understand the theory of general relativity, your insomnia, your aging and ever less appealing body, your slowly decaying immune system, your lack of money, your lack of influence, your lack of willpower, your laughable productivity. Your selfishness. Imagine if you could contemplate, at all times, the right deeds you didn’t do, all the good things you could have done, all the experiences you could have had or would have had or could have in the future if you were just another person. A person more intelligent than you. A person more energetic than you. A person more admirable than you. Or a person, just less miserable. Less tormented. Less pathetic. Less you.

If you perceived clearly all this you couldn’t function. Not in this world. Not in any world. Evolution, the alien God, Lord of all reductionistic worlds, would have thrown you into nothingness. Depressed people lose the game of natural selection. The Alien God made creatures not able and not willing to see the flaws of the world and of themselves. He created optimists and gave them their rose-colored glasses for free. I won’t give you an academic sermon about the phenomenon of „depressive realism“. That’s none of my business. That’s what Wikipedia is made for.

So here is my thesis: Depression doesn’t lie. It pierces through the veil of ignorant bliss. It reveals. And the revelations are frightening, soul-crushing and true. Depression lets you see the grim, naked truth. It lets you see into the Abyss. At the heart of all being is suffering, and the wish for things to be different. Combined with the knowledge that this wish is unfulfilled. Unfulfillable. You are alone. People may say they love you. But they only love a mask. A shell. Depression lets you see that there are people out there who have more positive impact on the world at least by orders of magnitude and there is nothing you can do about it. Sure, you wish more people would admire you. That you would be a better writer. A better scientist. A better being. Or more intelligent, preferably at math. Maybe more funny, more talented at computer science. More useful. More productive. You wish you were unique. Special. At least a bit. But you are not. You are just a random sample from the eternal and vast urn of genes, environment and happenstance. The laws of probability are stern and unforgiving. You are average. You are mediocre. This is the axiom of existence.

Consider the self-sampling assumption. You should reason as if you were a random sample out of the set of all the observers in your reference class. Anthropics is the enemy of perfection. And even if you were one of the lucky few. One of the chosen ones. A genius, talented, witty, productive, energetic, admired. You would still die. You would still have enemies. You could still lose all of your loved ones. Just through a freak accident. And you will. And all of this, and I mean all of it, call it life, the cosmos, the multiverse or the ultimate ensemble. It doesn’t make any sense. Whatsoever. It just is. There is no purpose. Nothing justifies the existence of this world. Or of you. But you exist. You have to exist and nobody asked you for your consent. You were thrown into this world, cruel and uncaring. Oh sure, there is happiness. I’m not saying that there isn’t. Opioid receptors are a solid fact. But suffering prevails. It is stronger. Let’s say you got really lucky. I mean, really, really lucky. You are a genius, productive, admired and have a loving partner. What will happen? Hint: Death. Oh, sure, maybe someone will build a friendly AI, summon the singularity, transcendence, whatever you wanna call it. Entropy still reigns. Eventually, everything will be nothing.

Whatever. I’m in a good mood, really generous here: Let’s imagine the second law of thermodynamics was somehow false. But don’t celebrate to fast! How would this help? Ok, death is dead. But boredom is still alive and well. The question you have to ask yourself is: What would you do for the rest of eternity? Do math? Physics? Write books? Make love? Dance? Take drugs? I guess this would get boring long before the last stars have burnt out. But admittedly, the ability to indulge in superficial hedonism is strong in us. Let’s give it the benefit of the doubt. Even so: You *know* that there exists suffering. Maybe, which is highly, extremely doubtful, considering the all-encompassing baseness of our species, we would be able to eliminate all suffering in our light cone. There would still exist suffering. In the past (google timeless universe of block universe). And in other, causally inaccessible parts of the universe. And you know that your happiness depends on the existence of this suffering. A bit of a bummer, you don’t think so?

Let’s be even more generous, delve straight into the realm of panglossian fantasy and assume that suffering was abolished. Everywhere. Through some weird shit. I don’t know. Maybe quantum stuff or time travel or acausal magic of some sort. Whatever. But then this still leaves one fucking thing left: There is no fucking purpose whatsoever. To all of this shit. The multiverse is mute and cold and doesn’t care. It’s absurd to the core. A sick, twisted farce with no redemption or meaning.

Some of you will say that we, as humans, have the ability to give our lives our own meaning. Just like that. Through some weird, existential, Munchhausen bootstrapping shit. So yay! Let’s celebrate and create lots of meaning. If you happen to be around, can you give me some meaning? I guess I need it.

[For a balance, read this more constructive/optimistic post about some of the same topics]

In Praise of Maximizing – With Some Caveats

Most of you are probably familiar with the two contrasting decision making strategies “maximizing” and “satisficing“, but a short recap won’t hurt (you can skip the first two paragraphs if you get bored): Satisficing means selecting the first option that is good enough, i.e. that meets or exceeds a certain threshold of acceptability. In contrast, maximizing means the tendency to search for so long until the best possible option is found.

Research indicates (e.g. Schwartz el al., 2002) that there are individual differences with regard to these two decision making strategies. That is, some individuals — so called “maximizers” — tend to extensively search for the optimal solution. Other people — “satisficers” — settle for good enough1 . Satisficers tend to accept the status quo and often see no need to change their circumstances; be it their career, their relationships or the world in general. Maximizers, on the other hand, don’t content themselves with the status quo and strive for perfection2 .

Unfortunately, the maximizer vs. satisficer distinction is almost completely ignored by popular personality tests. But this distinction may be one of the more telling and crucial personality dimensions that exists.

However, when the subject is raised, maximizing usually gets a bad rap. For example, Schwartz et al. (2002) found “negative correlations between maximization and happiness, optimism, self-esteem, and life satisfaction, and positive correlations between maximization and depression, perfectionism, and regret.”

So should we all try to become satisficers? At least some scientists and the popular press seem to draw this conclusion:

“Maximisers miss out on the psychological benefits of commitment, leaving them less satisfied than their more contented counterparts, the satisficers.”

“…Current research is trying to understand whether they can change. High-level maximisers certainly cause themselves a lot of grief.”

I beg to differ. Satisficers may be more content with their lives, but most of us don’t live for the sake of happiness alone. And satisficing obviously makes sense when not much is at stake3. However, maximizing also can prove beneficial, for the maximizers themselves and for the people around them, especially in the realm of knowledge, ethics, relationships and when it comes to more existential issues – as I will argue below4.

Belief systems and Epistemology

Ideal rationalists could be thought of as epistemic maximizers. They try to notice slight inconsistencies in their worldview, take ideas seriously, beware wishful thinking, compartmentalization, rationalizations, motivated reasoning, cognitive biases and other epistemic sins. Driven by curiosity, ideal rationalists don’t try to confirm their prior beliefs, but wish to update them until they are maximally consistent and maximally correspondent with reality. To put it poetically, ideal rationalists as well as great scientists don’t content themselves to wallow in the mire of ignorance but are imbued with the Faustian yearning to ultimately understand whatever holds the world together in its inmost folds 5.

In contrast, consider the epistemic habits of the average Joe Christian: He will certainly profess that having true beliefs is important to him. But he doesn’t go to great lengths to actually make this happen. For example, he probably believes in an omnipotent and beneficial being that created our universe. Did he impartially weigh all available evidence to reach this conclusion? Probably not. More likely is that he merely shares the beliefs of his parents and his peers. However, isn’t he bothered by the problem of evil or Occam’s razor? What about all those other religions whose adherents believe with the same certainty in different doctrines?

Many people don’t have good answers to these questions. Their model of how the world works is neither very coherent nor accurate but it’s comforting and good enough. They see no need to fill the epistemic gaps and inconsistencies in their worldview or to search for a better alternative. One could call them epistemic satisficers. Of course, all of us exhibit this sort of epistemic laziness from time to time. In the words of Jonathan Haidt (2013):

We take a position, look for evidence that supports it, and if we find some evidence—enough so that our position “makes sense”—we stop thinking.

Usually, I try to avoid taking cheap shots at religion and therefore I want to note that similar points apply to many non-theistic belief systems.

Ethics

Let’s go back to average Joe and look at his moral views and intuitions. He obeys the dictates of the law and/or his religion and occasionally donates to the Charity for Fulfilling Lavish Wishes of Cute, Soon-to-Die Children. Joe probably thinks that he is a “good” person and many people are likely to agree, which leads us to an interesting question: which moral criteria do most humans intuitively use when they judge their own actions?

Let’s delve into the academic literature and see what it has to offer: In one exemplary study, Sachdeva et al. (2009) asked participants to write a story about themselves using either morally positive words (e.g. fair, nice) or morally negative words (e.g. selfish, mean). Afterwards, the participants were asked if and how much they would like to donate to a charity of their choice (only up to 10$). The result: Participants who wrote a story containing the positive words donated only one fifth as much as those who wrote a story with negative words.

This effect is commonly referred to as moral licensing: People with a recently boosted moral self-concept feel like they have done enough and see no need to improve the world even further. Or, as McGonigal (2011) puts it (emphasis mine):

“When it comes to right and wrong, most of us are not striving for moral perfection. We just want to feel good enough – which then gives us permission to do whatever we want.”

Another well known phenomenon is scope neglect. One explanation for scope neglect is the “purchase of moral satisfaction” proposed by Kahneman and Knetsch (1992): Most people don’t try to do as much good as possible with their money, they only spend just enough to create a “warm-fuzzy feeling” in themselves.

To summarize: Phenomenons like “moral licensing” and “purchase of moral satisfaction” indicate that it is all too human to only be as altruistic as is necessary to feel or seem good enough. This could be described as “ethical satisficing” because people just follow the course of action that meets a certain threshold of moral goodness. They don’t try to find and carry out the morally optimal course of action (as measured by their own axiology).

I guess I cited enough academic papers in the last paragraphs so let’s get more speculative: Many, if not most people6 could be described as intuitive deontologists7. Deontology (at least most of its variants) basically posits that some actions are morally required, and some actions are morally forbidden. As long as you do perform the morally required ones and don’t engage in morally wrong actions you are off the hook. There is no need to do more, no need to perform supererogatory acts. Not neglecting your duties is good enough. In short, deontology can be thought of as ethical satisficing.

(Admittedly, one could argue that more formal versions of deontology are about maximally not violating certain rules and thus could be viewed as ethical maximizing. However, in the space of all possible moral actions there exist many actions between which a deontologist is indifferent, namely all those actions that exceed the threshold of moral acceptability (i.e. those actions that are not violating any deontological rule). To illustrate this with an example: Visiting a friend and comforting him for 4 hours or using the same time to work and subsequently donate the earned money to a charity are both morally equivalent from the perspective of (many) deontological theories – as long as you don’t violate any deontological rule in the process. We can see that this parallels satisficing.)

Contrast this with deontology’s arch-enemy: Utilitarianism. Classical utilitarianism, as originally formulated by Bentham advocates that the best action is the one that produces “the greatest good to the greatest number of people”. Of course it’s open to debate — among other things — what “good” actually means (hedonic pleasure, fulfillment of preferences, etc.), who counts as “people” (only existing people, future people, animals, etc.) and thus there are many different variants of utilitarianism.

Nonetheless, almost all branches of utilitarianism share the same principal idea: That one should maximize something for as many entities as possible. (Of course, negative utilitarianism aims to minimize suffering. But this is equivalent to maximizing non-suffering.) Thus, utilitarianism amounts to ethical maximizing. 

(Let me elaborate on why this categorization really makes sense: In the space of all possible moral actions there is only one optimal moral action for an utilitarian and all other actions are morally worse. An (ideal) utilitarian searches for and implements the optimal moral action (or tries to approximate it because in real life one is basically never able to identify the optimal moral action). It should be clear that this more or less amounts to maximizing. Interestingly, this inherent demandingness has often been put forward as a critique of utilitarianism (and other sorts of consequentialism) and remarkably, satisficing consequentialism has been proposed as a solution (e.g. Slote, 1984). Further evidence for my claim that maximizing is generally viewed with suspicion.)

The contrast between the moral mindset of typical people and effective altruists is even starker. Effective altruists actually try to identify and implement (or at least pretend to try) the most effective approaches to improve the world. Some conduct in-depth research and compare the effectiveness of hundreds of different charities to find the ones that save as many lives with as little money as possible. Others change their life plans completely and attempt to find the highest earning careers in order to donate as much as possible. Now that’s ethical maximizing!

And rumor has it there are people who have even weirder ideas about how to ethically optimize literally everything. But more on this later.

Personal relationships and social life

The preferences and practices of maximizers and satisficers also diverge widely in the social realm.

Let’s start with a personal anecdote: Once I was going out with a teaching assistant of mine, who was doing his PhD in psychology, as well as some of his friends. They grew up in the same village and knew each other since childhood. Some time later, I asked his best friend if he was also interested in psychology. “Why should I?” he replied.
“Well, your best friend is studying psychology and will soon finish his PhD”, I answered.
“Oh, I didn’t even know that he studied psychology” was his reply.

I still remember the feeling of raw horror this sentence evoked. How lonesome, disconnected and misunderstood must the teaching assistant have felt? His best friend — whom he had known for almost 25 years — didn’t know or care what he wanted to do with his life!

But perhaps I just fell prey to the typical mind fallacy. Maybe the teaching assistant gladly accepted the fact that his best friend basically didn’t know him. Maybe talking only about politics, soccer and women was good enough for him. Maybe he was a social satisficer.

Humans intuitively assume that the desires and needs of other people are similar to their own ones. Consequently, I always thought that everyone secretly yearns to find like-minded companions with whom one can talk about your biggest hopes as well as your greatest fears.

But experience tells me that I was probably wrong, at least to some degree: The conversations of my class mates, parents or (old) friends often only revolve around soccer, new shiny gadgets, food or random jokes. It seems they are satisfied as long as the conversation meets a certain, not very high threshold of acceptability. Since they are conversational satisficers, they enjoy small talk.

By the way, this time my defense of maximizing is even backed up by research. One study by Mehl et al. (2008) suggests that small talk does not only fail to enlighten, it also fails to make one happy.

I want to note that “pluralistic ignorance/superficiality probably accounts for many instances of small talk since everyone experiences this atmosphere of pure superficiality and thinks that the others seem to enjoy the discussion. So everyone is careful not to voice their yearning for a more profound conversation, not realizing that the others are suppressing similar desires. But I’m not sure if pluralistic ignorance can fully explain why the same phenomenon also frequently occurs in private conversations.

Romantic relationships

Relationships can really confuse me. An acquaintance of mine will serve as yet another extreme exemplar:

This guy, highly intelligent, is in his early twenties and works as a software developer for big tech companies. He has many interests, ranging from philosophy to science fiction. However, he is together with a cranky succubus whose banality is beyond words. (I also must add that she is not attractive either, if you thought this could be the explanation.) Anyway, decency prevents me from delving into the details. Lastly, I should mention that this relationship is not a short affair: they are living together for several years, with no end in sight.

Why doesn’t my acquaintance search for a better partner? A girl that at least shares some of his interests, understands him and with whom he can talk about philosophy or programming? I know that he would like to have substantive conversations with his partner, but in his relationship they are non-existent. It would only be a slight exaggeration to say that the only things they have in common are devouring culinary superstimuli and converting oxygen into carbon dioxide.

However, what really puzzles me is that this guy is happy. Certainly happier than me. This girl is good enough for him. He seems to be a romantic satisficer, which is not too uncommon: I know many relationships that primarily consist of copulation, cooking and watching mind-numbing series. Unfortunately, sometimes one partner yearns for more profound activities, but her desires are met with a mixture of scorn, apathy and incomprehension; consequently they backpedal and content themselves with the status quo.

Please don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to condemn the lifestyle of anyone as long as they don’t cause suffering. If people are happy with their relationships, all the best to them. But the whole phenomenon still bewilders me and I often think people could lead much more fulfilling relationships if they tried harder to search for partners that suit their needs and preferences better. This is by no means easy and many people probably think that they won’t find a better relationship which can explain a lot of romantic satisficing. There are probably also many biases like loss aversion, the endowment effect and the sunk cost fallacy that tend to hold undesirable relationships together.

Anyway, I’m what could be called a romantic maximizer. I long for a girl who has similar interests and deeply understands reductionism, natural selection, evolutionary psychology, rationality, utilitarianism, transhumanism and who reads existentialist literature and philosophy. Someone who ponders over the future of humanity and all sentient life. Someone who knows that our creator is an amoral, alien god and that we humans are just survival machines, built by selfish replicators. Someone who understands the sobering implications of the universal acid called Darwinism. A like-minded spirit with whom I can embark on psychedelic journeys to visit all parts of our minds, exploring chambers of despair as well as the sanctuaries of light, until our souls merge and ultimately become one.

[ETA: It also occurred to me that the “proximity principle” – i.e. the tendency of humans to become friends or to form relationships with people who are close by – follows straight from social satisficing. If you basically are content to become romantically or socially involved with all humans who exceed a certain, not too high quality-threshold and don’t distinguish between people once they’ve reached this threshold, then of course you pick the guy or girl that lives only 100 away instead of, say, 200 meters away to spent your life with him or her. Satisficing FTW. Maximizers on the other hand probably have to form long-distance relationships or friendships over the internet – assuming they get lucky and find someone at all – because the probability is very low that they meet their soulmate just next door.]

Existential Questions, Crucial Considerations and the Big Picture

Let’s get to the last point in this essay, probably the one dearest to my heart.

Everyone tries to find answers to existential questions and yearns for a meaningful life, right? Apparently not: In a representative sample of 603 Germans, 35% of the participants — and even 53% of students — could be classified as existentially indifferent, that is they neither think their lives are meaningful nor suffer from this lack of meaning (T. Schnell, 2008). These folks simply wander mindlessly – but mostly with a smile on their face – towards their own demise.

The existential thirst of the remaining 65% is harder to satisfy, but how much harder? Do they stay up all night, frantically reading books ranging from philosophy to cosmology in order to find answers on how to optimally lead their lives? It doesn’t seem like it. Most people don’t invest much time or cognitive resources in order to ascertain their actual terminal values and ultimate goals – which is arguably of the utmost importance. Instead they seem to follow a mental checklist containing routine life goals (call them “cached goals“) such as a stable job, a decent romantic partner, a nice house, low cholesterol and some hobby like cooking to fill free time. I’m not saying that these goals are “bad” – I also don’t like to sleep under the bridge and prefer having a girlfriend to being alone. However, the (life) goals of many people originate from untrustworthy sources such as their genes, parents, peers as well as their own culture, but people usually acquire and pursue their goals unsystematically and without much reflection which makes it unlikely that such goals exhaustively reflect their idealized preferences. Most people simply don’t conduct an exhaustive search to find the best option in the space of existential answers.

Sure, some of these people may simply lack the financial, intellectual or psychological capacities to ponder complex existential questions. I’m not blaming subsistence farmers in Bangladesh for not reading more about meta-ethics, epistemology or cause-prioritization. But there are more than enough affluent, highly intelligent and inquisitive people who certainly would be able to reflect about existential questions and crucial considerations. Instead, they happily spend most of their waking hours maximizing nothing but the money in their bank accounts, interpreting the poems of some arabic guy from the 7th century or trying to prove arcane theorems in algebraic number theory. In short, they end up as money-, academia-, career- or status-maximizers although those things often don’t reflect their (idealized) preferences. Bostrom (2014) expresses this point nicely:

A colleague of mine likes to point out that a Fields Medal (the highest honor in mathematics) indicates two things about the recipient: that he was capable of accomplishing something important, and that he didn’t.

So what do all these people have in common? They apparently don’t give much thought to essential big picture questions and crucial considerations, take the current rules of this game called life for granted and content themselves with the fundamental evils of the human condition: They have accepted – more or less reluctantly – that countless wretched souls lost the lottery of birth and are condemned to mediocrity, disease, poverty, depression, low status, loneliness and unrequited love. They have accepted that the human brain lacks the intellectual capacity to completely understand the ultimate nature of reality and all its lurking mysteries. They have accepted that we and all our loved ones are doomed to continuous decay and the eternal void of death. They have accepted that for the needless suffering of billions no justification or purpose can be found – not to mention the unimaginable suffering of countless animals, in factory farms as well as in the wild. I don’t know whether many people simply don’t dare to stare in the abyss and successfully push the horror to the back of their minds or if they are really comfortable with living this twisted farce. Whatever the reason may be, they don’t try to fundamentally change the world and their everyday behavior seems to indicate that they are basically satisfied with their current existence. One could call them existential satisficers.

Contrast this with the mindset of transhumanism. Transhumanists generally don’t accept the horrors of nature. They realize that human nature is deeply flawed. Transhumanists want to fundamentally alter the human condition and aim to eradicate – among other things – disease, unnecessary suffering and ultimately death. Moreover, through various technologies, ranging from genetic engineering to Whole Brain Emulation and superintelligent AI, transhumanists desire to radically enhance human intellectual, physical and emotional capabilities until we all live in utopia. Transhumanism is basically existential maximizing.

(As an aside: Of course there are lots of utopian movements like socialism, communism or the Zeitgeist movement which are fed up with our current way of living and thus desire to radically change our social system. But all those movements make the fundamental mistake of ignoring or at least heavily underestimating the importance of human nature. First of all, creating, say, a socialist utopia is impossible because most of us are, by our very nature, too selfish, nepotist, status-obsessed and hypocritical – at least to a significant degree – and cultural indoctrination can hardly change this. To deny this, is to simply misunderstand the process of natural selection and evolutionary psychology. Secondly, even if a socialist utopia were to come true, there still would exist unrequited love, disease, depression and of course death. You simply can’t end the tears of a mother whose only child died from a freak genetic disease by merely coming up with another 5-years-plan, even if it’s a really sophisticated one. In order to eradicate all suffering on this planet you have to fundamentally alter nature, including human nature, itself.)

Unfortunately, existential maximizing and transhumanism are not very popular. Quite the opposite, existential satisficing – accepting the seemingly unalterable human condition – has a long philosophical tradition. The otherwise admirable Stoics believed that the whole universe is pervaded and animated by divine reason. Consequently, one should cultivate apatheia and gladly accept one’s fate, no matter how horrible it is. Leibniz even argued that we live in the best of all possible worlds. The mindset of existential satisficing can also be found in Epicureanism and arguably in Buddhism. Lastly, religions like Christianity or Islam are against transhumanism because this amounts to “playing God”. Which is understandable from their point of view because why bother fundamentally transforming the human condition if everything will be perfect in heaven anyway.

One has to grant ancient philosophers that they couldn’t even imagine that one day humanity would acquire the technological means to fundamentally alter the human condition. Thus it is no wonder that Epicurus argued that death is not to be feared or that the Stoics believed that disease or poverty are not really bad: It is all too human to invent rationalizations for the desirability of actually undesirable, but (seemingly) inevitable things – be it death or the human condition itself.

But many contemporary intellectuals can’t be given the benefit of the doubt. They argue explicitly against trying to change the human condition. Just to name a few: Bernard Williams believed that death gives life meaning. Francis Fukuyama called transhumanism the world’s most dangerous idea. And even the usually very sane Richard Dawkins thinks that the fear of death is “whining” and that the desire for immortality is “presumptuous”:

Be thankful that you have a life, and forsake your vain and presumptuous desire for a second one.
– Richard Dawkins

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?
― Richard Dawkins in “Unweaving the Rainbow”

With all that said, “run-off-the-mill” transhumanism arguably still doesn’t go far enough. There are at least two problems I can see: 1) Without a superintelligent singleton our coordination problems will never be solved, or in Scott Alexander’s words, “Moloch” will never be defeated. 2) We are still uncertain about ontology, decision theory, epistemology and our own terminal values. Consequently, we need some kind of process which can help us to understand those things.

Therefore, it could be argued that the ultimate goal is the creation of a benevolent superintelligence or Friendly AI (FAI) whose utility function is the Coherent Extrapolated Volition (CEV) of humanity. There are of course serious and numerous objections to FAI as well as to CEV but I won’t go into detail here.

FAI and CEV – if implemented correctly – could not only abolish (almost) all of the afore-mentioned existential evils, as well as solve crucial meta-ethical and epistemological problems. With the help of a FAI we would also acquire the ability to figure out how the universe is fundamentally structured and how we could rearrange reality so that it corresponds to our terminal values. We could become posthuman beings with god-like intellects, our ecstasy so bright as to outshine the surrounding stars, ultimately transforming the universe into paradise, until one happy day all wounds are healed, all despair dispelled and every (idealized) desire fulfilledTo some this may seem like sentimental and wishful eschatological speculation but for me it amounts to ultimate existential maximizing 8 9.

Conclusion and personal remarks

The title of this post is “In Praise of Maximizing” and not “In Praise of Myself”. Let me emphasize that I often fall very short of the ideals espoused in this essay. As research suggests, my maximizer-tendencies frequently depress me. I’m often feeling not satisfied with what I’m currently doing and ask myself “Is this really the most effective action I could do at this moment?”. Sometimes I’m analyzing my situation for hours and eventually end up doing nothing. There will always be more effective and important endeavors I could undertake, but for many of them I simply lack the courage, motivation or raw intelligence. Maximizers are perfectionists and perfectionists want to be the best. But in a world of more than 7 billion people this is quite impossible. Reflecting on the fact that there exist many humans who are considerably more intelligent, productive and talented than I am and therefore have orders of magnitude more impact on the world sometimes can kill my motivation. I end up staring at white walls and don’t maximize anything other than the amount of hours I’ve utterly wasted in my life. Which makes me even more depressed. A vicious cycle. [ETA March 2015: This paragraph and several of the sentiments below do not longer apply to me as I currently consider myself to be pretty happy and productive. But I decided to leave them in because other people might make similar experiences and mine can serve as a warning.]

“If I were just smart enough to conduct research on the value-loading problem or to investigate strategic considerations relating to the future of humanity. If my writing style just wouldn’t suck so hard.” My mind conjures thoughts like this every week. But I’m a prisoner of my own brain and its limited abilities. The desire to always aim higher, become stronger, to always engage in the optimal activity can easily result in psychological overload and subsequent surrender. All of this is of course irrational and I try to combat thoughts of this sort. Unfortunately, it seems that adopting the mindset of a maximizer increases the tendency to engage in upward social comparisons and counterfactual thinking which contribute to depression as research indicates.

Similarly, I have a hard time enjoying most leisure activities because I often think that I’m just wasting my time and should do something more awesome or altruistic instead. Admittedly, I envy satisficers for their ability to enjoy the “little things” and that they are more easily content with their life. In fact, there is much to be learnt from stoicism and satisficing in general: Life isn’t always perfect and there are things one cannot change. One should accept one’s shortcomings – if they are indeed unalterable. One should make the best of one’s circumstances. One shouldn’t berate oneself if one isn’t maximally productive. And so on.

It may even be dangerous and hypocritical of me to extol the virtues of maximizing if it can so easily lead to poor or even negative results. Better be a happy satisficer whose moderate productivity is sustainable than be a stressed maximizer who burns out after one year. See for example these two essays which make similar points and are written by effective altruists who are certainly more effectively altruistic than me.

All that being said, I still favor maximizing over satisficing. If our ancestors had all been satisficers we would still be picking lice off each other’s backs. And only by means of existential maximizing can we hope to abolish the aforementioned existential evils and all needless suffering.

Footnotes

1. Obviously this is not a categorical classification, but a dimensional one.

2. To put it more formally: The utility function of the ultimate satisficer would assign the same number to each possible world. The ultimate satisficer would be satisfied with every possible world. The less possible worlds you are satisfied with, and the less possible worlds exist between which you are indifferent, the more of a maximizer you are. Also, I’m talking about the somewhat messy psychological characteristics and (revealed) preferences of human satisficers/maximizers. Read those posts if you want to know more about satisficing in AIs.

3. Rational maximizers take the Value of Information and opportunity costs into account.

4. Instead of “maximizer” vs. “satisficer” I could also have used the terms “optimizer” vs. “satisficer”.

5. I fancy myself a rationalist but of course my worldview will never be maximally consistent with reality. My time and my intelligence in particular are limited, so I’m — much to my regret — not able to fully comprehend subjects like e.g. higher mathematics or anthropics. (And therefore I will never contribute directly to the most important projects of this world. Sigh.)

6. E.g. in the “Fat Man” version of the famous trolley dilemma, something like 90% of subjects don’t push a fat man onto the track, in order to save 5 other people. Also, famous utilitarians like Peter Singer don’t exactly get rave reviews from most folks. Although there is some conflicting research (Johansson-Stenman, 2012) and the deontology vs. utilitarianism distinction itself is limited. See e.g. “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt. Relatedly, trying to follow utilitarianism to the letter is probably not the best idea if done in a naive way.

7. Of course, most people are not strict deontologists. They are also intuitive virtue ethicists and care about the consequences of their actions. So when people hear a bit about utilitarianism or effective altruism, they often go on to confabulate elaborate rationalizations about how their preferred career path is actually the most effective way for saving the world.

8. By the way, it is probably no coincidence that Yudkowsky named his blog “Optimize Literally Everything“.

9. If you are interested in, or skeptical of the prospect of superintelligence in general, and superintelligent AI in particular, you should definitely read the book “Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers and Strategies” by Nick Bostrom. It is by far the best book on this topic and describes many of the essential problems and dangers related to the creation of superintelligent AI, including the orthogonality thesis, the value-loading problem and much more. And if you are not interested in the prospect of superintelligent AI, you should be. It is arguably the most important issue in the history of humanity.

References:

Bostrom, N. (2014). Superintelligence: Paths, dangers, strategies. Oxford University Press.

Desvousges, W. Johnson, R. Dunford, R. Boyle, K. J. Hudson, S. and Wilson K. N. (1992). Measuring non-use damages using contingent valuation: experimental evaluation accuracy. Research Triangle Institute Monograph 92-1.

Haidt, J. (2013). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. Random House LLC.

Johansson-Stenman, O. (2012). Are most people consequentialists? Economics Letters, 115 (2), 225-228.

Kahneman, D., & Knetsch, J. L. (1992). Valuing public goods: the purchase of moral satisfaction. Journal of environmental economics and management,22(1), 57-70.

McGonigal, K. (2011). The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Doto Get More of It. Penguin.

Mehl, M. R., Vazire, S., Holleran, S. E., & Clark, C. S. (2010). Eavesdropping on Happiness Well-Being Is Related to Having Less Small Talk and More Substantive Conversations. Psychological Science21(4), 539-541.

Sachdeva, S., Iliev, R., & Medin, D. L. (2009). Sinning saints and saintly sinners the paradox of moral self-regulation. Psychological science20(4), 523-528.

Schnell, T. (2010). Existential indifference: Another quality of meaning in life. Journal of Humanistic Psychology50(3), 351-373.

Schwartz, B. (2000). Self determination: The tyranny of freedom. American Psychologist, 55, 79–88.

Schwartz, B., Ward, A., Monterosso, J., Lyubomirsky, S., White, K., & Lehman, D. R. (2002). Maximizing versus satisficing: happiness is a matter of choiceJournal of personality and social psychology83(5), 1178.

Slote, M. (1984). “Satisficing Consequentialism”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 58: 139–63.

How to teach rationality (or anything)

First of all, I don’t want to teach rationality, because I’m an emotion-hating guy with a number-fetish.

No, one of the main reasons (among many other altruistic motivations) is that I wish people would understand me and what I am living for. A prerequisite for this is knowing the epistemological operating principles of my mind, i.e. how to update beliefs through bayesian evidence accumulation (pretty cryptical explanation, I know).

Anyway, if you want to teach rationality to a wider audience, you should first find the best method for doing so.

Intuitively, teaching rationality through abstract theory as well as concrete examples makes the most sense. Below one paper that corroborates our intuitions:

Fong et al. (1986) trained subjects in the law of large numbers (i.e. that large samples are more informative than smaller samples). Group 1 received formal training and learned abstract rules, group 2 was shown how to apply the law of large numbers in concrete examples, group 3 received both types of training and group 4 received no training.

Group 1, 2 and 3 improved their statistical reasoning. So we know that teaching rationality (or at least the law of large numbers) actually works. But more importantly, Group 3 improved even more than group 1 and 2.

Furthermore: The learning-through-examples-approach (aka guided induction) also greatly improves generalizability, i.e. subjects also improved in domains in which they weren’t explicitly trained. Which is exactly what I aim for.

Even more interesting is another study by Nisbett and Borgida (1977). They told students about the famous “helping experiment” (actually happened, too lazy to find the reference), where one confederate seemed to have a seizure and only 4 out of 15 subjects responded immediately. 6 did nothing and 5 waited for so long that the confederate would have probably died.

Most students are surprised when they first hear about this because they think other humans are nice and sane (guess they never grokked the holocaust on a gut level). It gets worse: Even after learning about this study most people still don’t change their beliefs about human nature:  

Nisbett and Borgida then showed the students a video of an alleged participant in the afore-mentioned “helping experiment”. The videos were bland and revealed no special information. The students should then give the probability that this participant would help immediately. Now, a good Bayesian knows that he has no special information, can only rely on the base rate and says: “Around 27% (4 divided by 15)”.

What did the students say? Around 90% or something crazy like this. Which shows that just teaching people about base rates, statistics and numbers without concrete examples does absolutely nothing.

But don’t despair, there is a way out: When Nisbett and Borgida showed the students first videos of some alleged participants and then told them that these participants didn’t help the victim immediately, the students began to grok the gruesome facts about human nature!

In conclusion: If you wanna teach people rationality (or anything), hit them with concrete, visual examples and not only lifeless statistics. Humans are mad.

References:

Borgida, Eugene and Richard E Nisbett (1977), “The Differential Impact of Abstract vs Concrete Information on Decisions,” Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 7 (July), 258-271.

Lehman; Lempert; Nisbett. (1988): The effects of graduate training on reasoning: Formal discipline and thinking about everyday-life events.

Fong, Krantz, Nisbett, (1986): The effects of statistical training on thinking about everday problems.

Effects of modafinil on cognitive performance (my bachelor thesis)

I wrote my bachelor thesis about modafinil. Although it’s only a literature review I decided to publish some of its core findings on this blog.

Here are some relevant quotes:

Introduction: 

The subject of this bachelor thesis is, broadly speaking, cognitive enhancement. Bostrom and Roache (2010, p. 1) define cognitive enhancement as “the amplification or extension of core capacities of the mind through improvement or augmentation”. … The issue of cognitive enhancing substances is of considerable importance because many small individual improvements in cognitive performance could have profound effects at a societal level (Bostrom & Sandberg, 2009).

…the main research question of this thesis is if and to what extent modafinil has positive effects on cognitive performance (operationalized as performance improvements in a variety of cognitive tests) in healthy, non-sleep deprived individuals, substance-dependent individuals or patients with dementia. The abuse liability and adverse effects of modafinil are also discussed. A literature research of all available, randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind studies which examined those effects was therefore conducted.

Overview of effects in healthy individuals:

…Altogether 19 randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies about the effects of modafinil on cognitive functioning in healthy, non sleep-deprived individuals were reviewed. One of them (Randall et al., 2005b) was a retrospect analysis of 2 other studies (Randall et al., 2002 and 2005a), so 18 independent studies remain.

Out of the 19 studies, 14 found performance improvements in at least one of the administered cognitive tests through modafinil in healthy volunteers.
Modafinil significantly improved performance in 26 out of 102 cognitive tests, but significantly decreased performance in 3 cognitive tests.

…Several studies suggest that modafinil is only effective in subjects with lower IQ or lower baseline performance (Randall et al., 2005b; Müller et al., 2004; Finke et al., 2010). Significant differences between modafinil and placebo also often only emerge in the most difficult conditions of cognitive tests (Müller et al., 2004; Müller et al., 2012; Winder-Rhodes et al., 2010; Marchant et al., 2009).

Adverse effects: 

….A study by Wong et al. (1999) of 32 healthy, male volunteers showed that the most frequently observed adverse effects among modafinil subjects were headache (34%), followed by insomnia, palpitations and anxiety (each occurring in 21% of participants). Adverse events were clearly dose- dependent: 50%, 83%, 100% and 100% of the participants in the 200 mg, 400 mg, 600 mg, and 800 mg dose groups respectively experienced at least one adverse event. According to the authors of this study the maximal safe dosage of modafinil is 600 mg.

Abuse potential: 

…Using a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled design Rush et al. (2002) examined subjective and behavioral effects of cocaine (100, 200 or 300 mg), modafinil (200, 400 or 600 mg) and placebo in cocaine users….Of note, while subjects taking cocaine were willing to pay $3 for 100 mg, $6 for 200 mg and $10 for 300 mg cocaine, participants on modafinil were willing to pay $2, regardless of the dose. These results suggest that modafinil has a low abuse liability, but the rather small sample size (n=9) limits the validity of this study.

The study by Marchant et al. (2009) which is discussed in more detail in part 2.4.12 found that subjects receiving modafinil were significantly less (p<0,05) content than subjects receiving placebo which indicates a low abuse potential of modafinil. In contrast, in a study by Müller et al. (2012) which is also discussed in more detail above, modafinil significantly increased (p<0,05) ratings of “task-enjoyment” which may suggest a moderate potential for abuse.

…Overall, these results indicate that although modafinil promotes wakefulness, its effects are distinct from those of more typical stimulants like amphetamine and methylphenidate and more similar to the effects of caffeine which suggests a relatively low abuse liability.

Conclusion:

In healthy individuals modafinil seems to improve cognitive performance, especially on the Stroop Task, stop-signal and serial reaction time tasks and tests of visual memory, working memory, spatial planning ability and sustained attention. However, these cognitive enhancing effects did only emerge in a subset of the reviewed studies. Additionally, significant performance increases may be limited to subjects with low baseline performance. Modafinil also appears to have detrimental effects on mental flexibility.

…The abuse liability of modafinil seems to be small, particularly in comparison with other stimulants such as amphetamine and methylphenidate. Headache and insomnia are the most common adverse effects of modafinil.

…Because several studies suggest that modafinil may only provide substantial beneficial effects to individuals with low baseline performance, ultimately the big question remains if modafinil can really improve the cognitive performance of already high-functioning, healthy individuals. Only in the latter case modafinil can justifiably be called a genuine cognitive enhancer.

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)]

Footnotes:

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.

Ausweitung der Kampfzone

“Ausweitung der Kampfzone” von Michel Houellebecq ist zweifellos ein Buch, das vor Nihilismus und Zynismus nur so trieft. Trotzdem – oder wahrscheinlich gerade deshalb – beschreibt es viele grausame Wahrheiten.

Houellebecq vermag den Geisteszustand apathischer Hoffnungslosigkeit und Anhedonie wie kein Zweiter zu beschreiben:

“Die Schwierigkeit ist, daß es nicht genügt, wenn Sie genau den Regeln entsprechend leben. Es gelingt Ihnen ja (wenn auch oft nur ganz knapp, aber alles in allem schaffen Sie es doch), den Regeln entsprechend zu leben. Ihre Steuererklärung ist in Ordnung. Die Rechnungen werden pünktlich bezahlt. Sie gehen nie ohne Personalausweis aus dem Haus (nicht zu vergessen: das kleine Etui für die Scheckkarte…).

Trotzdem haben Sie keine Freunde.

Die Regeln sind komplex und vielfältig. Außerhalb der Arbeitsstunden sind da die Einkäufe, die Sie wohl oder übel erledigen müssen, die Bargeldautomaten, von denen Sie Geld abheben müssen (und vor denen Sie oft Schlange stehen). Vor allem sind da die verschiedenen Zahlungen, die Sie den Institutionen zukommen lassen müssen, die die verschiedenen Aspekte Ihres Lebens verwalten. Zu allem Überfluß können Sie auch noch krank werden, was zusätzliche Kosten und Formalitäten mit sich bringt. Dennoch bleibt ein Stück Freizeit übrig. Was tun? Wie sie nützen? Vielleicht sich den Mitmenschen widmen? Aber im Grunde interessieren die Mitmenschen Sie kaum. Platten hören? Das war einmal eine Lösung, aber im Lauf der Jahre mußten Sie einsehen, daß Musik Sie von Mal zu Mal weniger berührt.

Basteln, im weitesten Sinne, könnte ein Weg sein. Aber in Wahrheit kann nichts die immer häufigere Wiederkehr jener Augenblicke verhindern, in denen Ihre absolute Einsamkeit, das Gefühl einer universellen Leere und die Ahnung, daß Ihre Existenz auf ein schmerzhaftes und endgültiges Desaster zuläuft, Sie in einen Zustand echten Leidens stürzen.

Trotzdem haben Sie immer noch keine Lust zu sterben.”

Besonders genial ist seine Technik, die Ernsthaftigkeit bedeutungsschwerer, existentieller Themen (“Gefühl einer universellen Leere”, “absolute Einsamkeit”) durch vorrangehende, lakonische formulierte Sätze trivialen Inhalts (“Basteln könnte ein Weg sein”) zu hintertreiben, was den Nihilismus des Romans umso mehr verstärkt.

Houellebecq vergleicht die sexuelle Revolution mit dem Kapitalismus und betont, dass beide negative Konsequenzen hatten:

“Der Sex, sagte ich mir, stellt in unserer Gesellschaft eindeutig ein zweites Differenzierungssystem dar, das vom Geld völlig unabhängig ist; und es funktioniert auf mindestens ebenso erbarmungslose Weise. Auch die Wirkungen dieser beiden Systeme sind genau gleichartig. Wie der Wirtschaftsliberalismus – und aus analogen Gründen – erzeugt der sexuelle Liberalismus Phänomene absoluter Pauperisierung. Manche haben täglich Geschlechtsverkehr; andere fünf oder sechs Mal in ihrem Leben, oder überhaupt nie. Manche treiben es mit hundert Frauen, andere mit keiner. Das nennt man das »Marktgesetz«. In einem Wirtschaftssystem, in dem Entlassungen verboten sind, findet ein jeder recht oder schlecht seinen Platz. In einem sexuellen System, in dem Ehebruch verboten ist, findet jeder recht oder schlecht seinen Bettgenossen. In einem völlig liberalen Wirtschaftssystem häufen einige wenige beträchtliche Reichtümer an; andere verkommen in der Arbeitslosigkeit und im Elend. In einem völlig liberalen Sexualsystem haben einige ein abwechslungsreiches und erregendes Sexualleben; andere sind auf Masturbation und Einsamkeit beschränkt. Der Wirtschaftsliberalismus ist die erweiterte Kampfzone, das heißt, er gilt für alle Altersstufen und Gesellschaftsklassen. Ebenso bedeutet der sexuelle Liberalismus die Ausweitung der Kampfzone, ihre Ausdehnung auf alle Altersstufen und Gesellschaftsklassen.”

Auf die Nachteile des Kapitalismus zu verweisen, ist in den meisten Kreisen kein Problem, ja zeugt von Fortschrittlichkeit und Mitgefühl. Doch sobald man versucht, die Nachteile der sexuellen Revolution zu erwähnen, wird man entweder als lustfeindlicher Puritaner oder als sexueller Versager angesehen. Oder beides. Was ja meist auch zutrifft.

“Ein seltenes, künstliches und spätes Phänomen, blüht die Liebe nur unter besonderen geistigen Voraussetzungen, die selten zusammentreffen und in jeder Hinsicht der Sittenfreiheit, die das moderne Zeitalter charakterisiert, entgegengesetzt sind. Véronique hatte zu viele Diskotheken und Liebhaber kennengelernt. Eine solche Lebensweise läßt das menschliche Wesen verarmen, sie fügt ihm Schäden zu, die manchmal schwerwiegend und stets irreparabel sind. Die Liebe als Unschuld und Fähigkeit zur Illusion, als Gabe, die Gesamtheit des anderen Geschlechts auf ein einziges geliebtes Wesen zu beziehen, widersteht selten einem Jahr sexueller Herumtreiberei, niemals aber zwei. In Wirklichkeit zerrütten und zerstören die zahllosen, während der Zeit des Heranwach- sens angehäuften sexuellen Erfahrungen jede Möglichkeit gefühlsmäßiger, romantischer Projektion. Nach und nach, tatsächlich aber sehr rasch, wird man so liebesfähig wie ein altes Wischtuch. Man führt dann unvermeidlich ein Wischtuchleben; mit fortschreitendem Alter wird man weniger verführerisch, und in der Folge verbittert. Man ist eifersüchtig auf die Jungen und haßt sie daher. Dieser Haß, der uneingestanden bleiben muß, wird bösartig und immer brennender; schließlich mildert er sich und verlöscht, wie alles verlöscht. Es bleiben nur noch Verbitterung und Ekel, Krankheit und Warten auf den Tod.”

Sicherlich ist ein Zurück zu den “guten alten Zeiten” auch keine Lösung. Die Vorteile der sexuellen Revolution überwiegen wahrscheinlich deren Nachteile; wie dies ja auch beim Kapitalismus der Fall ist.

Fazit? Das Leben ist – nach wie vor – hart. Daran wird sich ohne radikale Maßnahmen  auch nicht viel ändern.

Old books are boring

At the risk of sounding like a lowbrow philistine, I have to say that many so called ‘classics’, (mostly written in the 19th century and before) are pretty boring. I tried to read folks like Hugo, Balzac or Dickens, but every time I had to give up after 50-100 pages.

There are probably many reasons for this, the most important and obvious being that the dreams and problems of folks in the 19th century and before were simply different from ours. Yudkowsky mentioned somewhere that the characters in old movies seem more alien than most ‘real’ aliens in sci-fi books. The same is true for old books.

Some more reasons I can come up with (and have the patience to write about):

Writers were often paid for every written page, so they kept just writing and writing without editing or shortening their works, using unimportant side-plots, secondary characters and petty descriptions of the environemt and stuff like that as mere page-fillers.

In our times, if you don’t like a book you just delete you illegally downloaded copy, throw it away or give it back to the library and read another one. Today most books are pretty cheap and are in no short supply. Reading a relatively boring books thus entails high opportunity costs. But a hundred years ago every book was a comparatively major investment so you kinda had no other choice than to read the book even if it was boring . That plus the good old sunk cost fallacy /endowment-effect/cognitive dissonance/whatever made you love your books. And so our ‘classics’ were born.

(There are obviously exceptions. Candide and Madame Bovary are quite good, for example.)