This page consists of random personal notes. Not surprisingly, their defining feature is their irrelevance and pathological self-absorption.
Table of Contents
- A collection of techniques for dealing with negative thoughts and emotions
- There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so
- Identify dysfunctional, negative thoughts. Hint: “Shoulding” at oneself, others or the universe
- Do your thoughts help you to achieve your goals?
- Have the serenity to accept what you cannot change, the courage to change what you can, and the wisdom to know the difference
- Reinterpret reality more positively
- The multiverse meditation. Or how to accept everything
- The lack of cosmic justice
- Life is a game – a losing game
- Scraping the last utilons out of your miserable existence
A collection of techniques for dealing with negative thoughts and emotions
13 Jan. 2017
The following is a collection of high-level principles I use for dealing with all sorts of “active” negative thoughts and emotions, such as anger, worry, stress, resentment, grief, self-hate, etc. You might even call it an “algorithm”. Note that it doesn’t really work for “passive” negative emotions such as anhedonia or low motivation and drive.
One last remark: It’s often more helpful to do the steps below in written format. According to my own experience (and some research), writing is often more effective than mere thinking or talking.
There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so
This principle lies at the core of stoicism, cognitive behavioral therapy as well as Buddhism. Suffering is not caused by external events, but by how one cognitively interprets such events. Exceptions include torture, I guess.
Identify dysfunctional, negative thoughts. Hint: “Shoulding” at oneself, others or the universe
Identify the dysfunctional, negative thoughts underlying your current negative state of mind. Negative thoughts are usually triggered by shortcomings of 1) oneself, 2) others, and/or 3) the universe, and are often characterized by dogmatic demands (“musts” or “shoulds”) directed at oneself, others and/or the universe. They often take the following form: “X should not be! It’s so bad and unfair! X means that I’m rotten / others are rotten / the universe is rotten!” In other words, negative thoughts are often caused by “shoulding” at oneself (1), others (2) or the universe (3).1
Do your thoughts help you to achieve your goals?
Once identified, ask yourself if these negative thoughts help you to achieve your goals. If not, it’s instrumentally rational to try to overcome them (or at least cling to them less). Of course, feelings of anger can be useful at times, and feelings of sadness or grief can be very healthy (e.g. after the loss of a loved one).2
Have the serenity to accept what you cannot change, the courage to change what you can, and the wisdom to know the difference
Stoicism, Buddhism and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) all advocate the importance of the following principle: Focus your efforts only on changing the things you can change (a), and learn to accept the things you cannot change (b). It’s important to distinguish the two and apply different strategies. Trying to change the latter only causes pointless frustration, while accepting the former limits your potential.
Importantly, many negative thoughts and emotions arise through a combination of (a) and (b). In our example, some things can be changed (e.g. improving one’s writing through practice) and some things can’t (as verbal intelligence and general productivity are partly determined by genetics).
As written above, this algorithm mostly deals with (b), i.e. how to accept the things one cannot change (b). I might write another post on useful techniques for how to motivate oneself to change the things one can change (a).
Reinterpret reality more positively
Often, we can reinterpret reality more positively. I find the following algorithm useful:
- You are faced with X; a shortcoming of yourself, others or the universe in general. For example, your mediocre writing abilities.
- Naturally, we compare the current, suboptimal world to a better world, more in line with one’s preferences, e.g. one in which you’re a better writer.
- However, instead of comparing our world to a better world, we could also compare our world to a worse world, e.g. one in which one is an even worse writer.
- Generally, instead of focusing on how this world is less than perfect, one should try to focus on how this world is a lot better than the worst possible world.
The multiverse meditation. Or how to accept everything
Admittedly, the above paragraphs can be boiled down to the rather trite advice of “looking on the bright side of life”.
If such a simple positive reinterpretation fails, I use a technique I call “multiverse meditation”. It’s better for me than meditation because it’s more logical or “rational”. The more perceptual, instinctive acceptance trained via meditation seems less suited to me. I want to have a ironclad reason for why I should accept all the shitty things of life.
The multiverse meditation, basically a visualization of what it means to live in an infinite multiverse and use updateless decision theory, goes like this:
Almost all of your copies – or, to be more precise, almost all instantiations of your decision algorithm – will live in parts of the multiverse where things will turn out suboptimal at times, sometimes extremely so. 3 This is an inevitable fact of reality. You can either accept this or kill yourself right now. But choosing to adopt the decision algorithm to get angry, upset, resentful, depressed, etc. when one is confronted with suboptimal circumstances (hypocritical people, stupid bureaucracies, “unfair” diseases, etc.) is simply irrational. By adopting such a policy, you condemn every copy of yourself – except those living in the infinitesimally rare, “perfect” parts of the multiverse – to become depressed and eventually burn out, when the universe inevitably won’t align perfectly with your preferences.4
Another corollary of the multiverse meditation can also be helpful and fill you with hope, at least it does so for me: In some parts of the multiverse, everything will go extremely well, i.e. the future will be downright utopian. Naturally, the reverse corollary is also true. Do your best to not think about this one.
The lack of cosmic justice
9 Dec. 2017
The world is full of suffering and injustice and lacks a redeeming, transcendental purpose for it all. Sometimes I feel as though my mind cannot bear this sort of existential horror any longer. In such moments, I’m afraid to become mad if I can’t convince myself of the existence of some sort of higher power or cosmic justice (like God, Karma, an afterlife, etc.). I’m simply amazed that not all atheists and reductionists feel that way. In fact, it seems that most atheists are not bothered by this in the slightest. Does this make them “existentially shallow”? Or am I simply a wuss?
Life is a game – a losing game
27 Nov. 2017
Many of my friends and colleagues seem to find the following existential outlook very motivating: “Life is a game. Win it by achieving your goals.”
Personally, I don’t find this perspective very appealing.
First of all, the player character sucks. In all of my favorite games, you’re playing a hero with many extraordinary powers, defeat ultimate evil and save the world. In the real world, I’m neither a hero nor a genius. Not only don’t I have any unique powers, my abilities are generally laughable. I can’t summon fireballs, however small. Heck, most of the time I have trouble disposing of the garbage or responding to emails. Transforming the world according to my preferences is extremely difficult.
Second, the game is fundamentally unwinnable in the sense that I can’t fully achieve my goals. Take one of my central goals: reducing suffering. Sure, I can contribute to the reduction of suffering in the multiverse. But I can never actually *end* suffering. Furthermore, my counterfactual impact is preposterously low. Imagine a game in which you can reduce the final boss’ health points by 0.000001% at most – but he will never die. No one would play such a game.
Scraping the last utilons out of your miserable existence
16 Nov. 2017
Below a slightly edited excerpt from a message in which I suggested to take a long vacation from work:
“If I won’t be able to work productively by February at the latest, I will resign from my job, commit myself to a mental hospital and undergo some form of intense therapy. I’m not sure what I’ll be able to do when hospitalized and high on 800mg of quetiapine but maybe I’ll continue to be capable of [doing a really easy task] here and there and so scrape the last few remaining utilons out of my miserable existence. On the other hand, this probably causes more overhead than it’s worth so there goes my justification for remaining alive. Oh well.”
Sure, it’s a bit grim but you gotta admit; the bit about “scraping the last utilons out of my miserable existence” is pretty funny. You gotta find pleasure in the little things.
- Further characteristics of dysfunctional, negative thoughts are: Catastrophizing (“X is a catastrophe!”), frustration intolerance (“I can’t stand X”), and total condemnation (“Oneself, others or the universe are one hundred percent, completely rotten” [when often, this is only partly the case]). Characteristics of more adaptive thoughts are: Anti-catastrophizing (“X is bad, but not that bad”), frustration tolerance (“Sure, I don’t like X but I can stand it”) and trying to see the positive aspects in adversities.
- One could also add the following: Assess the evidence for your thoughts (using Bayesian reasoning). What evidence is there to support or dispute these negative thoughts? Are they even logically consistent?
- This is somewhat similar to the Stoic technique of “premeditation of evils”.
- See also Nate Soares’ “Simply locate yourself” which is quite similar in several respects.