Happiness can be defined evaluatively or experientially. The two often differ. You may say you are happy to be working in X job, but day to day it may make you feel mostly negative emotion. This writer argues that the experiential definition is superior.
It’s not how long you experience something that matters in terms of memory, it’s the perception of the length of time. If you feel like you spent a day doing admin when really it was 2 hours, you are warping that time in a way that makes your experience ultimately far longer than 120 minutes.
Memories of the past are experiences in the present, so it matters how think back on the past.
Find a way to change what you pay attention to. That is how you affect happiness. There is conscious attention which you can control to some degree and unconscious – day dreams, things that seem to intrude consciousness.
One of the most significant insights from happiness research is that the impact of lfie events fades quickly. We prefer to focus on the novel next thing.
People get unfit when they stop paying attention to getting fit and start to derive more happiness from other areas, like their career. People don’t get unhappy as they get fat. Rather, they get unhappy when they switch their attention away from other things and onto their weight, which often happens later on.
Consciousness is attracted to uncertainty. It’s where fear and excitement exist.
There are three main attentional problems that prevent happiness:
- Mistaken Desires
- Mistaken Projections
- Mistakes Beliefs
Firstly, mistaken desires:
achievement/money as a desire only makes you happier in the long term if you actually attain them, otherwise they make you less happy. Achievement gained by sacrificing your health or personal friendships probably isn’t going to make you happier.
‘Whatever you achieve, try to pay attention to the good bits’
When you have ambition, this involves making happiness dependent on future conditions being met (SIDE: this reminds me a lot of Awareness by Anthony de Mellio, the idea that we do not want to be happy, we use happiness almost as a promise to ourselves to get things we actually want – like achievement etc. Happiness is very often available to us, but we’d rather not have it if it means we are less driven to attain our more tangible desires. This is consistent with an article I read on ‘regrets of the dying’ – people often say ‘I wish I had let myself be happier’ – it is more of a choice than we realise.
SIDE: You don’t even want to be happy. It’s surprising! You might assume you do, but in fact, like many people I bet, you see happiness as over-indulgent and unimportant relative to achievement in various domains, which is what you really value. It also takes a level of self-compassion many people lack to truly want themselves to be happy! This might seem reasonable if you believe meaningful work and self-realisation is more important but….
‘Happiness has wide-ranging benefits & can help with achievement in most areas. Health, relationships, service, arguably even creativity. Even if you attach no intrinsic value to it, it still really matters.’
So, if you’re going to have ambition that you must sacrifice for and want to be happy too, better be damn sure it will make you happier when you achieve it because lost happiness is lost forever. Sometimes it makes sense to delay gratification, but you must be careful with this idea, happiness can be delayed forever!
Having said that, some things you can aim for really do tend to improve happiness, better daily task-personality alignment, more pay and a decent boss make do all make a difference to happiness.
SIDE: in the chart on a pg it shows happiness by job type, I notice that gardening an floristry are at the top. I have also heard that Kevin Kelly says one of the things you need to do before you die is build your own house and have noticed that this kind of work seems to be more deeply satisfing generally. THEREFORE: a physical craft / outdoor construction is probably a really good hobby to add wholesome, concrete to a human experience that is increasingly transient, digital, intangible.
Secondly, Mistaken Projections
‘Nothing is quite as important as you think it is while you’re thinking about it.’
We are not good at predicting how happy an event will make us.
People rate anxiety and depression about equally with having difficulty walking in terms of their effect on happiness. In fact, anxiety and depression have about 10x more affect.
‘Whatever your own precise focus (whichever filters you see memory through), you’re unlikely to remember the past in ways that are consistent with the facts. What this means is that your inaccurate memories may steer you toward decisions that are not consistent with the future maximisation of your happiness and away from the need to establish the appropriate balance between pleasure and purpose in your life’.
Translation: Your memories are distorted and this can lead you to overemphasise the importance of some things to happiness and under-emphasise the value of others. For instance, you may have worked in sales for a year and you remember it being fun and so you want to work in it another year. It could be that you remember the highest point vividly and that has been given the same weighting in your memory as all the other experiences you had combined. In fact, it might have been 99% grind. If we define happiness in terms of positive emotion over time, then this is a distorted judgement. The same could happen with an overemphasis on the most negative experiences and ignoring the everyday feelings of wellbeing.
Thirdly, mistaken beliefs
‘We are often wrong about the kind of people we are and why we do what we do and the expectations we have and the benefits of accepting who we are.’
The accuracy of self-evaluations isn’t very important as long as they aren’t noticeably detached from reality (e.g. believing you are generous but noticing that you can’t bring yourself to donate money to anything)
We are far more context-driven than we like to think and consistently attribute others behaviour to broad traits while attributing our own to the context. People don’t like to admit that cheating on your partner and success with an exercise plan are heavily context-dependent. About 66% of the variance in exercise workout success is down to non-personal factors, like having a gym nearby. Most men and many women cheat if the context is right (attractive keen friend drunk after night-out) – but not every man get’s that chance.
Mis-alignment of attributes with behaviour is not comfortable. E.g. behaving unconscientious while being ambitious and goal-orientated does not feel good.
In general, it’s better to have modest expectations. Expecting to be very happy is probably a surefire way of not being so.
IDEA: Evaluate your goals, fantasies and expectations of yourself and your life systematically and consider if they are realistic and if you are better off just changing your attitude rather than changing your behaviour. Which aspects of yourself are you not accepting. If they are unrealistic, you are setting up life to be painful when it otherwise could be wonderful. Remember the feeling when you got 98% on that exam? It was so sweet because you didn’t know if you’d even get an A!
IDEA: Based on my ‘distractions’ document and on my meditation month challenge, I have learnt that my inner world is dominated by fear and fantasy and that both of these lead to ‘grass is greener’ style schemes for how to better my conditions. Most of my ideas are abstract, future-oriented, it’s all based on this fundamental premise that ‘things are not as they should be’ and ‘I must find a smart way to get ahead’. This type of thinking generally seems counterproductive and rarely if ever manifests itself in practical action. In fact, it often distracts me from my daily responsibilities which leads to less attainment in every area (including leisure, creative, explorative stuff and work). To some degree, this may be learnt behaviour as my dad also does this a lot. This behaviour is partially driven by inspiration and a high need for cognition in low-stimulation environments, so it’s hard to separate the value from the waste and misery it causes. This style of thinking MAY have genuinely helped me better my life, but of that, I am not sure, since the best ideas seem to come effortlessly often while doing more focused work rather than through idle reflections, in which case there is no added value to sacrificing lots of time and energy for scheming. I have already made a commitment to quitting this style of thinking, but didn’t really address the root cause of this style of thinking which is basically egotistic ambition (ambitions which are not related to the self in some way are more detached from emotion because the outcome of them is not related to your identity, this paradoxically makes less ego-bound endeavours easier to engage with consistently, with perspective and balanced energy, which then leads to success). In other words, selfish ambition, ego-over-extension, is possibly the cause of much unhappiness in my life and holds me back from attainment.
Q: What would happen if I lost my egotistic ambition?
My hypothesis, which I’d like to test for a week, is that it would make me far happier and free up my attention and energy for projects, the people in my life, new experiences and my responsibilities. In other words, by desiring these things less, I might actually be present enough to engage with what matters properly. What would be the long term affect of that? A far better shot at happiness, responsibility and ironically, the self-realisation and achievement I wanted all along.
What if to a significant degree, life comes your way and it’s better to take things as they come than try to impose your will on your life and the world? YES – that’s it. One of the characteristics of ego-ambition is that it wants to control outcomes because it makes my happiness outcome-dependent. The strange effect of this seems to be that in a desire to control outcomes to shield and gratify the ego, emotions become aroused that make it harder to attain favourable outcomes.
For instance, when I quit school, I imagined my future self reading books, being fully engaged with them and then applying those ideas directly to a business I was growing. What actually happened is that I felt an overwhelming sense that I needed to prove myself – to myself more than to others – and this made all activities, both work and leisure, unenjoyable.
Basically, egotistic ambition can make you less engaged with the present, which in turn can mean you don’t move towards a favourable future or enjoy your life. So, you double-lose.