I think people can often be unhappy not because they have major problems (like an illness or a divorce), but due to "nonspecific discomfort", which arises from many small reasons. Most of the time it stays below the radar, but there's one particular way it can lead to large harm: you feel a gradual realization, over the course of days or weeks, that your life is missing some important specific thing, and set out to obtain it. In fact the thing is unrelated to the reasons you're unhappy, you just latched onto it randomly; and more often not, it ends up harming you instead of helping.

Here's some examples that made this idea clear in my mind:

  • Musicians often talk about "gear acquisition syndrome". Basically you see a shiny new guitar in a storefront, and it starts to occupy your thoughts, giving you an illusion that it will bring you joy. Then you buy it, and no joy results. The truth is you had some other discomfort going on, unrelated to the amount of gear you own, and it coalesced around a random idea: "I want this thing".
  • I know a few people who've had plastic surgeries that didn't go well; it gets so bad that their new look literally makes me want to leave the room. But they themselves never seem to notice the problem. It feels like their nonspecific discomfort randomly coalesced around a different idea: "if I change my looks in this way, that will make my life better".
  • Copycat suicides. For most people, hearing about a suicide on the news isn't reason enough to push them over the edge. But in society there's always a certain percentage of people whose nonspecific discomfort is so high, that they can latch onto even this idea and imagine it's a solution to some or other imaginary problem.
  • Mass movements, and savior complex. Hoffer's book is the best source on this and basically agrees with my experiences: the people joining mass movements often do that because they're unhappy with themselves, and use the movement as a substitute for the things missing from their life.

Now, it's true that my idea is a bit like phlogiston theory: "there's this nebulous thing and it's the reason behind all of life's problems". But I'm not actually proposing to explain all problems, only some. And the easiest way to judge the idea is to try it for yourself, make a measurement of your own "nonspecific discomfort", and recognize which more specific problems and solutions your brain may have made up along the way.

(This is where I part ways with psychoanalysis: nonspecific discomfort doesn't always come from childhood trauma or anything big like that, I think it's usually just a bunch of unpleasant things, not necessarily large things, but piling higher as you get older. You can dig for the deepest reasons but it would be pointless, your mind's just too good at making up more stuff in response to that; and it doesn't help with mitigating the problem, at all.)

So, if we assume for a moment that "nonspecific discomfort" is an actual thing, some kind of generic substance that problems are made of, then what are some ways we could deal with it?

  • Physical activity, outdoors, preferably in the sun. In my view this is the clear winner. If you can easily access a basketball hoop, a pool with a diving board, or a place to do pull-ups - then it's a good idea to regularly spend time there! It's amazing how many problems that felt substantial before a workout, become faint shadows afterward.
  • Creativity - making music, writing, drawing, what name you. The immediate effect of grabbing a pen and trying to be creative is that it makes you feel good about yourself :-) Then if you're careful to get to a concrete result in the end, something you can look back on and show off to others, that also invests in your happiness for the longer run.
  • Socializing, as long as you do it for fun and not for any serious result. I've found that when people like me, and I'm having fun, a lot of problems take the back seat. In many ways, socializing is an art of distracting yourself and others - worth getting good at that.
  • Cooking, making or fixing physical things, heck, even cleaning your living space - doing any kind of work with your hands turns out to be surprisingly therapeutic. I've known some people who went too deep, overdoing it, but I still strongly recommend it if done within reason.

That's naturally not an exhaustive list. But maybe to summarize, my main advice is just to recognize nonspecific discomfort, as a thing that can be a problem worth fixing. And recognize that on the margin it might be less useful to chase specific solutions to specific problems; there are things you can do to alleviate discomfort "generically", no matter where it comes from, and these can be a better investment.

New Comment
19 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 10:34 AM

I think this overestimates the level of introspection most people have in their lives, and therefore underestimates the effectiveness of introspection. I think for most people, most of the time, this 'nonspecific discomfort' is almost entirely composed of specific and easily understood problems that just make the slightest effort to hide themselves, by being uncomfortable to think about.

For example, maybe you don't like your job, and that's the problem. But, you have some combination of factors like

  • I dreamed of doing job X for years, so of course I like doing X
  • I spent so long training and working hard to be allowed to do job X, I can't quit
  • I'm an X-er, that's who I am, what would I even be if I stopped doing job X?

These kinds of things prevent you from ever thinking the thought "I have a problem which is that I don't like doing X and maybe want to do something else". So you have this general feeling of dissatisfaction which resists being pinned on the actual source of the problem, and may pin itself to other things. "Maybe if I get that new, better X-ing equipment", "Maybe if I get promoted to Senior X-er".

Probably doing exercise and socialising and cooking will help you feel better about a life doing a job you don't like, but ten minutes of honest focused introspection would let you see the problem and start to actually deal with it.

It seems plausible to me that there are also problems that are really deeply defended and will resist introspection very effectively, but I think most people haven't spent ten minutes by the clock just really trying to be honest with themselves and stare at the uncomfortable things, and until you've at least done that it's too soon to give up on the idea that your problem can't be understood and dealt with. Certainly introspection can give you wrong answers, but usually the problem is just that people have barely tried introspection at all.

That's a good criticism which goes to the heart of the post. But I've done plenty of introspection, and on the margin I have less trust in it than you do. Most people I expect can't tell the difference between "I'm unhappy in my profession" and "I'm unhappy with my immediate manager" much better than chance, even with hours of introspection.

One thing that does help is experimenting, trying this and that. But for that you need "resource"; and the list in my post is pretty much the stuff that builds "resource", no matter what your problems are.

To me, it also seems you undervalue introspection. This can be bad because if you think introspection is not useful, you will underuse it.

Most people I expect can't tell the difference between "I'm unhappy in my profession" and "I'm unhappy with my immediate manager"

That might be correct, not because it is impossible for these people to introspect, but because they have not learned it. Most people don't hold off on proposing solutions but I would be surprised if they could not learn to do it.

I am sure I can tell if I am unhappy because of my job or my boss. It is likely I wouldn't have been able to tell a year ago when I thought I was good at introspection while being terrible at it. So terrible, that it is hard to imagine how I could have been worse.

How is that possible? Well, I thought I was good at introspection because I was very good at certain kinds of introspection. E.g. introspecting on how I do analytical reasoning, while I do it. But I was terrible at emotional introspection. I only had the concept of introspection. Now it is clear to me that there are multiple kinds of introspection. I was blind to emotions, without realizing this.

Before I got better at introspection, all of my negative feelings could have been described as nonspecific discomfort. But it was really not nonspecific at all. It was just that I had ignored and suppressed my emotions so much that they got disassociated from their actual causes. So I would feel bad but didn't know why. I basically did exactly what Hazard talks about here. I did this basically for every negative emotion I experienced.

But then I discovered this tek to introspect, and it seems to work quite well. I have applied it maybe 8 times now. Mostly to emotions that at first seem nonspecific. In my experience, most emotions are actually non-specific, even if they are temporally linked very tightly.

E.g. if I experience social rejection, I normally feel good at first but after 15 minutes I start to feel bad. It seems like it should be clear to me that this is because of the social rejection, but it's not. It will seem like the most likely explanation to me, but there will be uncertainty about if this is actually what is going on. This is ridiculous maybe I am especially bad at analyzing emotions without spinning up a conscious expliitit optimization process. But once I use the technique I linked above it becomes very clear why I feel bad. The interesting thing is that once you understand the underlying cause of the nonspecific comfort, it disappears. Without you doing anything.

This makes sort of sense. Once you have truly understood what a specific feeling "wants you to accomplish" there is really no more point in it sticking around. Now that you have understood the feeling you can either optimize for getting what the feeling wants, or you can realize that the feeling doesn't actually make sense in the current situation. Doing the appropriate thing will make the feeling go away. At least that is what happened so far for me.

I suppose it makes sense that if you've done a lot of introspection, the main problems you'll have will be the kind that are very resistant to that approach, which makes this post good advice for you and people like you. But I don't think the generalisable lesson is "introspection doesn't work, do these other things" so much as "there comes a point where introspection runs out, and when you hit that, here are some ways you can continue to make progress".

Or maybe it's like a person with a persistent disease who's tried every antibiotic without much effect, and then says "antibiotics suck, don't bother with them, but here are the ways I've found to treat my symptoms and live a good life even with the disease". It's good advice but only once you're sure the infection doesn't respond to antibiotics.

Could it be that most people do so little introspection because they're bad at it and it would only lead them astray anyway? Possibly, but the advice I'd give would still be to train the skill rather than to give up on understanding your problems.

That said, I think all of the things you suggest are a good idea in their own right, and the best strategy will be a combination. Do the things that help with problems-in-general while also trying to understand and fix the problem itself.

Trying to say it using my own words... one can have a "mysterious problem", which means they feel uncomfortable in some way, but do not see the cause of that feeling.

There are two ways how that could happen. The psychoanalytical explanation is that it is caused by some trauma which is repressed, so one cannot consciously admit the actual cause. You explanation is that it could be "dozen small problems", where I suppose the source of difficulty of understanding is that (1) we are primed by psychoanalysis to look for one big problem instead, and (2) even if we accidentally consider one of those small problems, the brain correctly predicts that fixing this one small problem alone would not remove the whole feeling.

Given the pressure to solve the problem, with the lack of knowledge how, there is a chance that someone will provide you a fake explanation, and the despair will make it feel real. ("I suppose you have no choice but to revolutionize the world. The way before you has been prepared.") Of course, this will not help you solve the problem, but it may take a lot of time to realize that.

Somewhat ironically, looking at the four proposed ways to deal with the problem, I can easily imagine a single underlying cause: a job with lots of overtime, which does not leave enough free time for physical activity, creativity, socializing, and cooking.

Spot on. I would add that even when you know the actual cause of some problem, doing unrelated healthy stuff can still help you relax, make yourself feel "larger" than the problem and less bothered by it.

[+][comment deleted]2y2

I like this advice to not analyze the source of discomfort. Just focus on activities that are fun, healthy, or distracting. That list of mentally healthy activities is very close to mine. I wish I’d figured it out long ago, but better late than never.

Related to physical activity outdoors, I’ll add that great weather is rejuvenating. When a beautiful day comes along, go to great effort to be out in it.

Yeah, great point. I wanted to say about weather specifically; added to the latest edit of the post.

Just curious about "wishing you'd figured it out long ago", at what age did you in fact figure it out? For me I think it was understood instinctively since my twenties, and saved me from a lot of trouble.

Age 25 was the big transition. Before then I focused on school and work, which kept me indoors and busy. Then I quit grad school and became more social, exercised, and lost weight. I quickly became much happier. In later years I slowly learned the importance of hobbies that use my hands or get me out of the house: cooking, gardening, biking, travel, fossil hunting, photography. I'm 53 now. Still looking for ways to have fun, but the list in this article covers the big ones.

Related: https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/9ZodFr54FtpLThHZh/experiential-pica

I think the various kinds of soma (drink, TV, internet) are a different species of thing. They don't just pretend to solve the problem, they actually solve it, make nonspecific discomfort go away. Not in the most healthy way, but I think they can often distract people from worse things.

I am certainly no expert on this, but isn't this a central tenet of Buddhism? The idea that life is characterized by what has variously been translated as "suffering" and "unsmoothness" - a vague feeling of dissatisfaction or discomfort?

Tactically, I think your suggestions are useful and have found many of them helpful in my own life.

Not an expert on Buddhism either, but I'm not sure that the feeling characterizes life itself. I feel none of it when baking a cake, solving an interesting math problem, or going down a waterslide :-) It could be that it characterizes a certain state of mind, but wouldn't that suggest we should spend less time in that state of mind?

I think that this nonspecific discomfort could be fractal: You believe that it's not always there, but there's a version of it that's always in the background, and you have learned to tune it out in everyday life (like e.g. a tinnitus that you tune out 99% of the time, but which you hear when lying in bed at night). Once you start investigating deeper and deeper, it becomes apparent in a wider range of states of mind.

I would also wager that especially strong nonspecific discomforts are the ones first identified once people start a little bit of meditation (those then are often resolved or at least made specific/their cause is identified) and the whole process is started on a more subtle & refined level.

I'm probably biased towards seeing meditation as a panacea, but if I was restricted to naming the three largest advantages of moderate practice, it would probably be “identifying nonspecific discomforts and showing their causal structure/source”.

I don't know, meditation is very inward and mental, the opposite of the stuff I'd recommend. And people who meditate a lot tend to change their affect in a way that's kinda off-putting to me; while people who live "outward" in the way I describe tend to have pretty attractive (to me) manner.

I think this is very real. Important to also note that non-specific joy exists and can be reliably triggered by certain chemicals. 

My inference from this is that preferences are a useful but leaky reification, and if we want to get to ‘ground truth’ about comfort and discomfort, we need a frame that emerges cleanly from the brain’s implementation level.

This is the founding insight behind QRI — see here for a brief summary https://opentheory.net/2021/07/a-primer-on-the-symmetry-theory-of-valence/

This is all very suspicious. Let's say I write a program for a robot that will gather apples and avoid tigers. So most of its hardware and software complexity will be taken up by circuitry to recognize apples, recognize tigers, move legs, and so on. There seems no reason why any measure of "symmetry" of the mental state, taken from outside, would correlate much to whether the robot is currently picking an apple or running from a tiger - or in other words, to pleasure or pain.

Maybe we have some basic difference from such robots, but I'd bet that we're not that different. Most of our brain is workaday machinery. If it makes "waves", these waves are probably about workaday functioning. If you're measuring anything real, it's probably not a correlate of consciousness at all, and more likely a correlate of how busy the brain is being at any moment. No?

Here’s @lsusr describing the rationale for using harmonics in computation — my research is focused on the brain, but I believe he has a series of LW posts describing how he’s using this frame for implementing an AI system: https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/zcYJBTGYtcftxefz9/neural-annealing-toward-a-neural-theory-of-everything?commentId=oaSQapNfBueNnt5pS&fbclid=IwAR0dpMyxz8rEnunCbLLYUh1l2CrjxRhNsQT1h_qdSgmOLDiVx5-G-auThTc

Symmetry is a (if not ‘the central’) Schelling point if one is in fact using harmonics for computation. I.e., I believe if one actually went and implemented a robot built around the computational principles the brain uses, that gathered apples and avoided tigers, it would tacitly follow a symmetry gradient.