October 14, 2022Opinion

On life, humans and happiness

What is the secret to happiness? I answer this below.

The following are some random thoughts, concepts and general takeaways that have served me well in life and helped me make sense of things.

If it takes less than 2 minutes to do it, do it right away

In my younger years I would delay many tasks only to have to do them all at once at the end of the day.

I realized this was super inefficient.

Now, I do the thing. If it takes less than 2 minutes, go ahead and do it.

As a result, I get a lot more done, but also free up mental space to focus on larger tasks with bigger payouts.

Don't trust, verify

Some people find this very annoying. But I've realized that most people are winging it in life. Human psychology and power dynamics influences how people think and what they say. People want to seem right so they copy what others say, and expect you to believe it.

One way people consume information is through media - news and articles. They'll read something and assume it's true.

Cited by a "study"? Must be true.

"Experts say"?

Gotta be true.

Except, if you check the sources and do some critical thinking, you might uncover that the study is flawed or that the experts are biased.

Simple things like statistical significance are thrown out the window in some studies.

People overlook personal biases.

This all leads to poor data and misrepresentation. This is how you get click-bait headlines.

The only way to know what's true is to try and verify it for yourself.

Even if you are not able to verify the facts, you can come away with a range of certainty about what you learned. Is it probably true? May be true. Certainly true? Or maybe there is a grain of truth to it? The level of confidence can vary. You don't need to be 100% confident in your newly acquired knowledge.

Treat new knowledge as data points

"It depends" is the most appropriate answer to all questions in life. The actual answer is very nuanced and depends on all sorts of things.

But, the way media presents information and the way our minds try to categorize it is by replacing past beliefs.

Once you learn something new, it's tempting to disregard your past knowledge.

I don't see information this way.

To me, all new information is a data point in my life-long accumulated collection of other data points.

Think of it like a toolbox. You have many tools in your toolbox and they are all useful for some specific task. You don't throw away a tool you bought because you acquired another.

Information is much the same. You source information from your mind to understand some subject. Consider existing beliefs, while looking at the new information. The goal is to connect the dots.

Sooner or later the data points (dots) start connecting, and you get a better picture of the subject.

Seek out incentives

Incentives drive human behavior.

Incentive to earn.

Incentive to love.

Incentive to feel good about yourself (generosity).

If you can figure out a person's incentives, you will start to understand their behavior.

People suck at understanding this. They blame the wrong things. They assign responsibility to people who are not responsible. They create made up reasons for why someone did something. All the whole ignoring incentives.

Incentives drive everything. Ask the following questions:

  1. What is the ultimate goal of this person by saying or doing this?
  2. What do they seek to gain?
  3. How does it make them feel?
  4. What will they do at the prospect of failure?
  5. Who are the people they care for?
  6. What do they stand to lose?
  7. What motivates their actions?

In almost all cases the answer to these questions involves a personal gain / loss.

Give people the benefit of the doubt

When trying to decide whether something was said or done with good intent, assume that's the case.

With exceptions such as career politicians or criminals, it is best to assume that people mean well and people are default=nice.

Otherwise it becomes difficult to have faith in systems, processes and humanity.

I know the world can be an ugly place, but it can also be a beautiful place. I'd rather assume people are seeking to build a better future for themselves.

If they act against everyone's best interest, it is best to assume they do so out of personal gain rather than some sinister plot. Look at the incentives that drive their behavior and figure out how to modify them to best serve everyone.

Acknowledge that material wealth does not bring happiness and strive for what matters to you.

Money does not bring happiness no matter what anyone says. It does relieve you of despair and help live a better, more peaceful and enjoyable life, but it will not make you happy.

Very few people in the world, if any, know true happiness because they confuse happiness (the process) with happiness (the end state). There is no end state for happiness.

When people ask you if you are happy, it's hard to answer, right?

Your instinct is to say "yes, of course". After all, your day is going fine, you have every comfort you desire and you had a pleasant lunch with a friend. You feel "happy".

But, this happiness fades. Tomorrow you get in a car accident, your car damaged, insurance won't pay out and you miss 2 weeks of work. You are "unhappy".

Some people confuse happiness with being content. You can be content with your place in life, but that doesn't mean you're happy.

The whole debate over happiness is a mute point. Since happiness is a process which is more akin to enjoyment, ultimately there is no such thing as happiness. The word itself should disappear from dictionaries.

Ok, I'm joking. But, you get the point.

When it comes to my life, I strive for satisfaction and contentment.

If I'm satisfied that day, that week, that month, that year, or the last decade, then I've met my "happiness" goals. If I am content with my life, then I'm "happy".

While material wealth can provide satisfaction, the contentment piece is often missing. With wealth, the goal post moves from one spot to another. Once you've achieved a satisfying moment, you have to move to the next, and the next. Each time you have to introduce higher states of satisfaction that require more effort and money.

Eventually, you plateau and satisfying moments from the physical world no longer matter. You seek out emotional attachment and relationships.

This is why so many wealthy people are depressed. No matter how much they spend, they can never reach that emotional attachment provided by love and relationships.

In fact, wealth only complicates those things. Instead of people seeing you for who you are as a person, a new variable is introduced and they see you for your status. With misaligned incentives, it becomes more difficult to form genuine relationships. Thus, contentment is hard to achieve.

I'm going to let you in on the biggest secret everyone is asking about - the secret to happiness.

The secret to happiness is charitable work. Doing things for others, without expecting anything in return.

Charitable acts are secretly selfish acts, whether that person acknowledges it or not.

All humans act in self-preservation. The need to feel good about ourselves. The need for approval. The need for comfort and safety. The need for recognition. All of these needs are driven by self-preservation.

Charity is no different. While we may feel that we do good things for others out of the goodness of our hearts, the evolutionary incentive is to feel satisfied by our deeds. There's nothing wrong with doing good things to feel good, as long as you understand why you're doing it, instead of performing mental gymnastics.

We are not designed for our digital world and should not strive to adapt to it

Evolution took hundreds of thousands of years to shape humans into what we are today. But technology accelerated the process by many magnitudes all within about 100 years. Except, it hasn't. The evolutionary clock is still catching up, out of breath and exhausted with your daily activity.

While we adapt rather well, humans are not capable of processing the amount of data and connections offered by the internet. This ultimately messes with our minds.

Think about your current physical world social circle. Small, yes?

Now think about your digital social circle. Much larger?

How many people do you think about out of your larger digital social circle? My guess is not that many.

While you may recognize the individuals you interact with, the meaning connections formed in the digital world are somewhat closely mirrored to the physical world. I hypothesize this is because we have innate evolutionary boundaries that limit our ability to expand beyond a certain natural limit.

Going beyond the invisible evolutionary boundaries places a burden on your mind. It feels unhealthy.

Remember the last time you thought to yourself "I need a break. I need to unplug"? That's your evolutionary boundary telling you it is not capable of processing any more data. You need a purge to get back to equilibrium.

We are not designed to be always-on, always-connected, always-responsive. At least not yet. It's possible the evolutionary process catches up and prepares us to handle all of it, but I am not confident it will be any time soon.

I try to remind myself that I am not meant to have 50,000 followers and expect to keep everyone happy. I am not meant to follow everyone's updates and be expected to respond. To stay healthy, I need to unplug.

Life is what you make of it, do what you wish to do and ignore the rest

There's no "right way" to do anything. Everything is a figment of human imagination. To do things "the right way" means doing it by someone else's definition of right.

I found it incredibly freeing to realize that the only thing that is pure in this world is the natural world and your mind.

The world is a canvas.

You are the paint brush.

Everyone is capable of everything and nothing at the same time.

Everything else is noise.

Yes, we have society. Yes, we have rules. These artificial, human-invented boundaries act to preserve harmony. But, ultimately, the only pure forms of existence are the human mind and the natural world. What you do is the only thing within your boundary of control (to an extent).

Since we experience the world with our minds, we are all that is true. Everything else is a projection of some entity or experience that seeks to change our behavior (intentionally or unintentionally).

With this in mind, I look at people's experiences as unique to them and do not assume that they will translate in the same way to my life if I apply them.

Only worry about things that are in my control

I can't control what people do. I can try to influence them, but ultimately they will do what they decide to do. Since I can only control myself, I don't worry about what others think or do.

Never regret

It's easy to say "I don't regret things" but in reality emotions take us there and we think about what we regret.

I would be lying if I said I don't have feelings of regret. But, I forget about them quickly so I can focus on the things I can control. What passed is now behind me and there's no way to change it back, so there's no point in regretting.

Reflection is not the same as regret. One can reflect by looking at the past, and make changes for the future. Regrets are bitter feelings an no action.

Truth is relative, the only certainty is uncertainty.

Even as I write this, my own truths are relative. What is true for me, or is true now, may not be true for you or true when you read it. It may be wrong.

People used to believe earth was the center of the universe. That the sun went around the earth. That to ward off bad spirits you had to offer sacrifices.

These were all truths to the people who held those beliefs. Now we know different.

Given what we know now, it is only logical to assume that our current truths may be false in the future. Even physics, the foundation upon we base so many truths may be proven to be wrong or incompatible with other parts of the universe.

Most things are not the best version of themselves therefore there is always room for improvement.

Since things get better all the time, it is only logical to assume that even the best thing we can think of is not the best version of that thing. The "best" is relative to time, technology and imagination.

Whenever someone says "but we already have X that works great", that doesn't mean that Y cannot be better than X, nobody just thought of it yet.

Stay curious, stay hungry and know that you can create something better.

Take experts with a grain of salt

Even the top experts in their fields are often incorrect.

For example - I know a lot about conversion optimization, but if you were to take every advice I dish out, some of it will inevitably flop.

When you get to an expert level, when someone asks you something you don't know, it is tempting to give an answer. When many people ask you for something, it's even more tempting to respond.

Saying "I don't know" is difficult even if you feel that you should say it. Before you can utter the words, your mind says "I should know this..."

The second factor that makes experts not as credible as they may have been in the past, is the speed at which technology moves.

Think about a specialized doctor. This doctor may be the top expert in their field, but it is impossible for them to read the thousands of medical journals published every day. So many breakthroughs could happen in a year without this doctor ever knowing about them.

By the time an expert weighs in, the "truth" of the matter may have already shifted.

Knowing this, you can assume that not everything an expert says is correct, especially if they step outside of their lane.

Elon Musk is a great example of this. While Elon is a successful entrepreneur and perhaps knows a thing or two about rocket engines, when he steps outside of his lane and talks about crypto, he is no more coherent than someone who spent a lot of time in the space. He uses his influence to prop up things like dogecoin for fun and games, while people lose their life savings following his doge tweets.

I'm not saying that he is responsible for people's personal decisions, but he does influence them.

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