Epistemic status: musings on advice from three different spaces, all with a similar tactic to improve your life. This discovery is told through a semi-fictional story. 


I am not the happiest person.

Rather than accepting this, I research it, I make it my job to change that fact.

My research brings me to the concept of the hedonic treadmill. I discover that any temporary shocks to my happiness will always bring me back to my resting rate. I then find out about gratitude journaling. I can trick my brain by writing a few things down that I’m grateful for every night. This rewires my brain to notice more things I’m grateful for as if on autopilot.

I am not an insightful person.

Rather than accepting this, I decided to seek out ways to be more insightful from others I value the insights from. Paul Graham discusses how he gets his essay ideas from surprises:

I write down things that surprise me in notebooks. I never actually get around to reading them and using what I've written, but I do tend to reproduce the same thoughts later. So the main value of notebooks may be what writing things down leaves in your head.

I realize now that I am not not an insightful person, just a person out of the practice of being surprised.

I wish I was a better storyteller.

Rather than accepting my shortcomings here, I do what I always have and find ways to improve. In my search, I watch a ted talk by Matthew Dicks.

In his talk, he discusses his homework for life, which is to write down a story-worthy event from each day.

At this point every night I’m being asked to do three things. To simplify, I created a spreadsheet with separate tabs: one for gratitude, one for surprises, and one for story-worthy moments.

Every night I continued this, and eventually, it started to work.

  1. I found a new surprise when I realized how three unique optimization problems (happiness, insightfulness, and storytelling) had very similar solutions;
  2. I was grateful for my ability to be surprised by such things;
  3. I could tell I had a story worth telling in this process.

A clear process drove each improvement. A process that didn’t require more of any resource, but a process where intentionally practiced thought could “earn” you more than was there to you before. You made it more visible.

The common thread was the cognitive ability to create more metal from less ore.

I want to be happier, I gratitude journal.

I want to be more insightful, so I write down what surprises me.

I want to tell more stories, so I capture what is worthy of stories.

I did not do more “happy” things to be happy, get smarter to be more insightful, or live a more interesting life. My life is just as brilliantly dull as it was, as yours is too.

I harnessed the frequency illusion. Your brain acts effectively as a pattern recognition device. You can do the same by following three steps for anything you wish to “glean” more of:

  1. Agentically think about what you want to improve in your life
  2. Pragmatically understand that those inputs cannot be increased indefinitely
  3. Arrogantly believe that your mind is powerful enough to create more from what isn’t there

I have since put this into practice in many other domains of my life, and the trick translates easily.

  1. You must intentionally force some “noticing” to activate it.
  2. Do this until it becomes second nature, and then maintain the practice.

I get more from life, from less.

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All good practices. Although, isn't this just "more metal", rather than "less ore"? I imagine one would want to maximize both the inputs and outputs, even if opportunities for increasing inputs are exhausted more quickly.

In the case of the hedonic treadmill, possibly more inputs could have no effect at all? I was wondering this too.

This is a reasonable note and I do agree with you that the ideas presented in this essay only capture the increased "glean" of metal (the desirable output of happiness, insights, stories). 

Less ore for me was both a creative liberty I took with the metaphor, but also represented a shift in what levers should be focused on. I would posit that most people now seek more metal with more ore.

"I will be happier if I make more money"

So, less ore is relative to this, not relative to the stable level of inputs a person would be currently at. 

Otherwise, I would argue that not only are "opportunities for increasing inputs are exhausted more quickly", but some would run counterproductive to the fundamental goals of whatever optimization problem. It's hard to determine what will meaningfully contribute to vague and complex ideas like happiness, insightfulness, story-worthiness, etc. Would definitely be interested in expanding on these ideas in a further essay.