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

[Previously: Happy by Habit]

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

1. Problems

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

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

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

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

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

2. How to counter those problems

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

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

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

3. Don’t take existence so seriously

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

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

4. Don’t take yourself so seriously

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Optimism/hoping for an utopian future: 

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

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

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

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

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

6. View life as a game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. You are not alone

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

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

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

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

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

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