Epistemic status: somewhat empirical, having gone from badly depressed to astoundingly happy within a year through a lot of different experiences (and no drugs). I don’t know whether what I do that makes me happy is idiosyncratic to me and a subgroup of people like me, or universal.
This post is neither an attempt to predict happiness nor to teach Three Easy Steps To Be Happy™. I try to verbalize what I believe causes me to be so happy in such a consistent way.
Over the last few months, I have repetitively done some pretty difficult things, almost entirely because they were part of a path that 10+years-ideal-me would have taken at my age to become him.
One year ago, I asked myself if there was a version of the world in which I’d want to be alive: the answer was yes. That ideal has changed greatly since then; along with the milestones my preferences evolved. Still, the nature of the purpose that guides me remains the same: I try to walk the path that ideal me would be walking.
I think that taking now the actions that will bring about the ideal you or your ideal world will bear immense happiness into your life. I‘ll lay out my explanation of why that is.
Kahneman talks about the tyranny of the remembering self. We take pictures instead of enjoying the moment; in anticipation we choose not the experiences that will be the nicest but those that will be the most memorable, etc. The problem according to him is that this doesn’t optimize for overall happiness, which includes experiential happiness as well. We don’t receive as much value from fondly remembering memorable events as we lost value choosing them over more agreeable ones (because we overestimate how much time we’ll spend remembering).
Well, guess what you do have to remember all the time, as if you’d uncontrollably pressed “repeat” on the memory player? You.
Even if you aren’t pressing the button, everything is a reminder. The people, of your social status; the opposite sex, of you sexual marketplace value; your tests, job, understanding of the world... of your intelligence; and so on.
I‘ll admit here that it gets a little confusing what’s experiential and what’s remembering. Being, you experience you, how you think, how your self and your thoughts change; but everything around you also reminds you how much you suck if you think you do, how much you rock if you think you do, how much you [whatever you think of yourself] if you [whatever you think of yourself]. And then there are the memories of what you’ve done, from plaguing to inspiring.
When you choose to take the path that your ideal self would take rather than whatever the default derp state is — what I call Complying With the Ideal versus The Couch, it is true that the actions you do can suck more. For instance if ideal you is in great shape, you’ll go to the gym. Pull-ups are worse than Facebook browsing (Straight Pain vs a mild feeling of interest possibly followed by mild self-hatred or disgust). That said, the self you experience and are reminded of is just so much better to you, because they're walking the path you want. Annoying, difficult actions are quickly forgotten, they don’t really make one unhappy. Are you unhappy because you’ve taken out the trash? Of course not. Unless you‘re not doing it freely, from your own agency or sense of responsibility. This is where the “Free” in the title makes its appearance.
I went back home for Christmas, in France. Despite that almost all emotions were positive, that we were having fun, that I was there for too short a time to get into fights..., after a couple of days I felt my happiness fall somewhat drastically. Things felt heavy, complicated, similar to how they felt when I was depressed. I couldn‘t understand why until I came back to London.
Yes the emotions were high, but I literally wasn’t in the driver’s seat of my life. We had to go from place to place, my parents driving us. X amount of time there, enjoy, time‘s up, get in the car. Y amount of time in that other place, enjoy, time‘s up, get in the car. And so on.
I quickly found myself miserable because I wasn’t making the choices for myself, I wasn’t free. I was given a script, I had to play the part. I couldn’t not play it, much less play my own script. This was quick to make me excessively tired, and from there things went downhill.
The rationalist community is acutely aware of rationalization. Whatever you like, whatever your tribe is, you’ll rationalize why that is Good, more Logical, Better, Smarter, whatever you think is a valuable quality, a reason to pursue. And we think that is Bad. With which I tend to agree.
There are however aspects to rationalization which we can use to our advantage.
Your brain is so good at coming up with logical-sounding stuff to justify preferences and emotions that if you look at something and say “Oh, this reminds me of... when I was a kid...” you will come up with something true, that you are truly reminded of with a genuine feeling that the thing and the memory have something in common — despite that, as the words left your mouth, you had absolutely no idea of what you were going to say. Rationalization is fast.
If someone that you don’t know insults you, it triggers your internal alarms and conflicts with your idea of yourself. You are not a loser people can blatantly disrespect. ...unless they were your friend. In order for reality to match your ego/map, you will laugh it off, and rationalize that the person must be joking and actually nice, or your friend, and before you know whether that’s true, you will like them more. Under certain conditions, negatives will be rationalized as positives.
The way that rationalization will work to your advantage is that, if you’re doing something that bears some degree of pain to you, whether physically or mentally; once you plow through your initial resistances to doing it, your brain will quickly rationalize that you like it or that some higher instance makes it worth the pain.
When someone forces you to do something, you don’t want to do it. Plowing through the resistance, although arguably doable, becomes much harder. Self-inflicted hardship however, when plowed through, will be not just tolerable but some kind of mystical, I-must-accomplish-type journey. Mystical probably because your brain can’t fabricate a good logical argument so it just feeds you a feeling to induce perseverance. It creates engagement. Which in itself is already great because you brain goes from a hindrance to your final goal (when you resist the initial pain) to a facilitator.
The reason freedom is important is that it allows to do something that you want, ie it enables to Comply With the Ideal. Rationalization of pain can only go so far. You can rationalize liking hardships, but if it’s aimless pain forever you’ll soon find yourself out of strength. There comes a point where the pain has to face the Why question (and more often than not, it’s the first time pain arises). As you lose your agency over yourself (ie you get less choice on what you do) even when you chose to lose it, the Why slowly fades away and you find yourself lacking that ultimate justification — the one that’s not a rationalization — reaching your ideal self. And you give up.
The need for agency is, by the way, why coaching doesn’t work, why advice isn’t listened to. People wish “if only someone could drive my life for me”. But that’s terrible and that’s not real. As soon as the coach leaves, you’re left to your weak brain circuitry. You don’t get a driver’s license for jumping in cabs.
My point is this:
- When you comply with your ideal, you’ll see everywhere reasons why you’re awesome, you’ll be proud, you won’t feel ashamed to rest, you won’t beat yourself up over taking breaks because they’ll feel well deserved.
- Thanks to rationalization, the pain of the path will be toned down once it’s clear to your brain that you have locked in on it and will not flinch. You will want it in a weird kind of way. When all I want to do is quit, I'll often double the reps of my last set at the gym, just because. Overall I’m very happy about it, but when it happens a part of me wants to punch me in the face. The beauty is that it doesn’t need to make sense as long as it’s making you do it.
- Because the rationalization mechanism stops working effectively when you’re not your own agency, you have to be the person that chooses and walks the path for yourself.
I’m not sure I believe it after all, that Happinness = Freedom+Compliance with the Ideal. It seems to me that what happiness fundamentally comes down to is the happy feeling, and you can get that by learning to reframe negatives as lessons/funny/interesting/unimportant and everything else as good/funny/interesting/beautiful/soothing (which I’ve done, and it works very, very well). But maybe you need to like yourself to begin with, to be able to think positively.
The post is submitted nonetheless. If anything it could trigger an interesting discussion, and after all the argument could still be true.
To privately ask me anything or just see my all-positive nothing-bad very-edited life, head to instagram @eaudadrien