Psychology

Happiness and satisfaction

What we talk about as “happiness” is actually a set of biochemical reactions that happen inside our brains. About half of those are determined by our genetics, but the other half can be trained and improved.

There are many ways to train your happiness, but I find two especially important:

  • Noticing good things around you
  • Being content without them

Noticing good things

Much of “happiness” comes from noticing (consciously or unconsciously) the good things around you. Practicing happiness means focusing your attention on things you find beautiful, pleasing, delicious, fulfilling. Many people find gratitude journaling a good way to do this. Mindfulness meditation builds the ability to do this throughout your life.

Noticing good things can be easier when circumstances are good; however Victor Frankl highlights in Man’s Search for Meaning a moment when joy came from noticing a beautiful sunset even while headed to a prison camp:

If someone had seen our faces on the journey from Auschwitz to a Bavarian camp as we beheld the mountains of Salzburg with their summits glowing in the sunset, through the little barred windows of the prison carriage, he would never have believed that those were the faces of men who had given up all hope of life and liberty. Despite that factor–or maybe because of it–we were carried away from nature’s beauty, which we had missed for so long.”

Even those moments of noticing required a brief respite from pain, so a precursor to noticing good things is managing painful emotions. Fortunately the same practices of mindfulness and gratitude can help with processing and dealing with pain.

Being content

The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his own room – Blaise Pascal

In the modern world, we’re surrounded by physical and mental stimuli at all times. When those are removed, the emotional reaction can be so intense that people would rather give themselves electric shocks than experience the boredom of silence.

This dependence on external stimuli means our happiness is subject to our circumstances. If we can learn to be without those influences, our happiness will be more resilient. Taken to an extreme, if we were able to fully entertain ourselves with just the act of breathing, we wouldn’t need anything external to be perfectly happy.

Again, mindfulness meditation can train this ability, as can fasting–from food, entertainment or social media–and practices like keeping the Sabbath. Intentionally restricting what we consume builds our ability to be content without those things.

I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. – Paul, Philippians 4:11-13

Working less, deliberately

Interesting research on how we might be more productive working 4 days a week, and/or 4 hours a day.

The basic premise is that humans are severely limited in our cognitive capacity, and working more than that amount of time actually causes us to do worse:

The [productivity] curve rose steeply at first and peaked at between 10 to 20 hours per week. The curve then turned downward. Scientists who spent 25 hours in the workplace were no more productive than those who spent five. Scientists working 35 hours a week were half as productive as their 20-hours-a-week colleagues.

I recently finished Why We Sleep, which makes a persuasive argument that while studying and exercising are important, we only learn and grow when we sleep. Perhaps our cognitive capacity is capped not by the amount we work or study, but by how much we can then solidify through rest?

The 4-hours-a-day article closes with a similar thought:

This is how we’ve come to believe that world-class performance comes after 10,000 hours of practice. But that’s wrong. It comes after 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, 12,500 hours of deliberate rest, and 30,000 hours of sleep.

Be careful little eyes what you see

The past few years have taught the human race a few surprising things about itself, and they’re not very flattering.

First, we are not the rational creatures we think we are; our decisions are largely driven by emotions, biases, and even unrelated activities. For instance, simply using hand sanitizer can temporarily change your political beliefs.

Second, the new way to exert power in the world is not physical but digital. Online social networks have immense mindshare and impact on our lives.

And third, dangerous, powerful professionals are using these digital tools to manipulate us.

Renee DiResta has written an in-depth article looking at how state-sponsored professional attackers use misinformation to divide and influence society. Increasingly, their strategy is to directly target individual citizens, through the media and social networks, feeding them misinformation to steer their minds in specific directions.

In a warm information war, the human mind is the territory. If you aren’t a combatant, you are the territory. And once a combatant wins over a sufficient number of minds, they have the power to influence culture and society, policy and politics…
Combatants are now focusing on infiltration rather than automation: leveraging real, ideologically-aligned people to inadvertently spread real, ideologically-aligned content instead.

What’s especially dangerous about this kind of polarization is that it’s often good business. Digital influence is cheap, as online advertising platforms love to remind us, and angry or scared viewers are especially profitable.

Combatants evolve with remarkable speed, because digital munitions are very close to free. In fact, because of the digital advertising ecosystem, information warfare may even turn a profit.

If you’ve ever felt that a news show, reshared Facebook post, or blog post was designed to rile you up and make you angry…well, it probably was. And this misinformation will only get more extreme and convincing over time, as technologies like deepfaked videos move into politics.

So what can we do against such attacks? DiResta’s analogy of the Maginot Line suggests that our current understanding of how to fight this war is outdated, and she lists several alternative defenses that will require the world to work together against the attackers. Much responsibility lies with the tech platforms to develop and enforce stronger policies and filters, but DiResta also argues:

The government has the ability to create meaningful deterrence, to make it an unquestionably bad idea to interfere in American democracy and manipulate American citizens.

As individuals, meanwhile, we can be far more critical in what we read and believe. Understanding that malevolent forces are constantly trying to manipulate us is a good first step.

We can also be more careful in what we repeat and share with others, checking multiple trusted sources and fact-checkers (like PolitiFact and Snopes) before resharing an article with friends or online. The best way to influence Americans, after all, is to get another American they trust to do it for you.

World War III is a guerrilla information war with no division between military and civilian participation. – [Marshall McLuhan, 1970](https://www.ribbonfarm.com/2018/11/28/the-digital-maginot-line/?fbclid=IwAR3t_52VLqXcaO8oy7Ve8y0I7NnlZuDg-i9dguTLW0l_p6OHKwlZgVC8XpQ)

And there’s never been a better time to support a professional, free, and independent press. One good way to tell if a news outlet is worth trusting and supporting is, of course, how they cover the news about digital manipulation and misinformation. People and sources that deny manipulation is happening are likely not worth trusting about other things either.

Be careful, little eyes, what you see.

Maybe the most important fact about living in the 21st century is that we are now hackable animals.

Suffering for joy

I’ve long subscribed to Russell Davies’ assertion that “to be interesting, be interested“. It only follows that to be more than interesting, you need to be more than “interested”; you need to be truly passionate. The most interesting people I know are those who are completely sold out for their beliefs, their work, or their hobbies.

Today I discovered that the root word of “passion” is the Latin passio, which means “suffering”. So it’s perhaps not entirely surprising that following your true passion often involves a fair bit of suffering. The areas in my life I’ve been most passionate about–activities, relationships, work–have all contained huge amounts of effort and “suffering”–though working hard to climb a mountain on my bike, or working late on a project I believe in, rarely feels like a bad thing.

Of course, the other kick I’ve been on recently is mindfulness, which aims to keep you in the moment, not off on cognitive flights of fancy. And the main benefit I’ve found there is avoiding negative thoughts, which lead to suffering (as Master Yoda teaches). The very excitement and responsibility I feel in the activities I’m passionate about could be considered “attachment” that opens me up to disappointment and pain.

So is there a unification between these approaches? Can you be truly passionate, and yet not suffer from the pain of (inevitable) disappointment?

I think so. To me, the practice of mindfulness is about freeing myself from negative thoughts and attachments. There are certainly people who take this far enough to achieve some kind of “nirvana”, but I’m far from that. Simply reducing the pain of worldly attachment is plenty. That frees me up to pursue things that bring me joy.

On the other side, pursuing passions is about enjoying the activities that keep me in a flow state. Again, it’s not a complicated intellectual achievement–I’m merely doing things that come naturally. The “attachment” that can cause suffering with other things I love, doesn’t seem as present when I’m working on things I’m passionate about. As a small example, when I get stopped by a red light in my car I’m often frustrated; when it happens on a bike ride I’m hardly bothered, even though it will take more effort for me to start up again. And the “suffering” required by true passions rarely feels as bad as that caused by external factors.

In both my passions and my mindfulness I find a reduction in conscious thoughts; an increased reliance on my senses and instincts; and feelings of satisfaction, lightness, and freedom. So despite the seemingly large difference between following passions and living mindfully in the moment, I think both practices can coexist nicely, and even reinforce each other.

The optimization for sound bites is gonna be the optimization for fundamentalism. – Daniel Schmachtenberger

The purpose of reading is to write

I’ve long struggled with the fact that I forget most of what I read. I read mostly for fun, but it’s disappointing when what I read doesn’t affect my life.

Writing about books seems to help me remember what I read. The additional thinking required to write down and compress my thoughts solidifies the lessons from the book. A good friend once said that “no one can ever teach you anything; they can only help you realize what you actually believe already.” Writing about what I read further distills the ideas and helps me “know what I believe”.

There’s also an imbalance created by only taking in ideas and not putting them back out. Writing helps me let go of ideas, making room for new things.

So now when I find a new book to read, I ask myself “what will you write about this?” The books that seem like good writing inspiration are also usually the best reads as well.

(inspired by a tweet from Steve Sinofsky…sure, tweets count as writing too!)

Hijacking habits

My college (and then Google) friend Tristan Harris has been doing some great work communicating the dangers of “attention-hacking” and the dark sides of social technology. A recent video he made on how the instant gratification of smartphones creates bad habits got me thinking about how I’ve successfully stopped bad habits and started good ones in the past.

1. Hijack bad habits with good ones

BJ Fogg, an expert on persuasive technology who taught Tristan at Stanford, runs a “[Tiny Habits]” course that emphasizes creating “triggers” that will remind you to do your new habit. I find that I can often use the urge to do a bad habit as my trigger to instead do my new good habit.

Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, calls this “routine replacement”– hijacking the cue and the reward, and inserting a different routine between them.

In my method, the bad habit isn’t technically “forbidden”–it’s just delayed and distracted enough by the good habit that it usually has no power left.

I also find it’s helpful to use a good habit that’s in the opposite direction as the bad habit–if the bad habit is eating junk food, the good habit is eating brocolli

2. Make those new good habits as small as possible

Right now I have a rule that I will do 1 pushup per day, and take one mindful breath per day.

Now, by the time I get down on the floor to do that 1 pushup, or take the time to have one mindful breath, I almost always end up doing a lot more. But even if I don’t, the success of completing the habit each day is the strongest reinforcement I’ve found to solidify it.


A few small examples of how I’ve applied this strategy:

  • Before I check my social media feeds, I take 10 mindful breaths
  • Before I read blog posts, I write one (that’s what I’m doing now!)
  • Before I eat candy or junk food, I eat a vegetable
  • Before I drink a beer or glass of wine, I drink two glasses of water
  • Before I say (or write) something bad about someone, I say something good about them

As you might imagine, doing the good habit first usually kills the urge to do the bad one. Some of the good habits address the same core needs as bad ones but in different ways (giving the mind something to focus on; learning something new; satisfying hunger; quenching thirst); others provide a cognitive dissonance that makes it hard to follow one with the other (saying good then bad things about someone).

It sometimes feels trivial to optimize such small things, but they add up. As Annie Dillard wrote:

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.

Humanity, correctly seen in the context of the last five hundred years, is an extruder of technological material. We take in matter that has a low degree of organization; we put it through mental filters, and we extrude jewelry, gospels, space shuttles. This is what we do. – Terence McKenna

Why We Forget Most of the Books We Read

Great overview of the “forgetting curve“, the way that we immediately forget almost all the information we take in:

For many, the experience of consuming culture is like filling up a bathtub, soaking in it, and then watching the water run down the drain. It might leave a film in the tub, but the rest is gone.

That describes many of my reading experiences quite well; sometimes I feel like the characters in this Portlandia skit. The key to avoiding this is recalling and re-encountering the information again:

If you want to remember the things you watch and read, space them out…Memories get reinforced the more you recall them, Horvath says. If you read a book all in one stretch—on an airplane, say—you’re just holding the story in your working memory that whole time. “You’re never actually reaccessing it,” he says.

The most well-known technique for recalling information systematically is spaced repetition:

Spaced repetition is a learning technique that incorporates increasing intervals of time between subsequent review of previously learned material in order to exploit the psychological spacing effect.

This website has always served as my outboard brain, but I don’t re-encounter my own thoughts on a regular basis. I’ve tried a few times to set up a system to send me random past posts; worth getting that going.