Happiness is what you make it

While negative events can cause ongoing unhappiness, “hoping for happiness from positive events appears misplaced.“. Oof.

On the plus side, it might be freeing to understand that waiting for that promotion/relationship/event won’t make a difference to your happiness. Embrace who you are and what you have today.

Happiness and satisfaction

What we talk about as “happiness” is actually a [set of biochemical reactions](https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201211/the-neurochemicals-happiness) that happen inside our brains. [About half of those are determined by our genetics](http://www.springerlink.com/content/515738417321242m/), 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](https://www.mindful.org/meditation/mindfulness-getting-started/) 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](https://books.google.com/books/about/Man_S_Search_For_Meaning.html?id=H8k4JLZu6AsC&printsec=frontcover&source=kp_read_button#v=snippet&q=sunset&f=false):

> 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](https://www.mindful.org/how-the-brain-can-change-your-experience-of-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](http://bob.ryskamp.org/brain/sitting-quietly/)

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](https://www.nature.com/news/we-dislike-being-alone-with-our-thoughts-1.15508) 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](https://abcnews.go.com/GMA/Living/10-teen-girls-give-social-media-weeks-fared/story?id=58967114)–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](https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Philippians+4%3A11-13&version=NIV)

How video games point to enlightenment

In 2008, Metafilter member aeschenkarnos wrote [a review of the outside world as if it were a video game](http://www.metafilter.com/70365/The-Myth-of-the-Media-Myth-Games-and-NonGamers#2063862):

> The physics system is note-perfect (often at the expense of playability), the graphics are beyond comparison, the rendering of objects is absolutely beautiful at any distance, and the player’s ability to interact with objects is really limited only by other players’ tolerance. The real fundamental problem with the game is that there is nothing to do.

It received a score of 7/10.

Since then, a few people have written about how treating your real life like a video game can improve your [productivity](https://www.popsci.com/technology/article/2012-01/can-treating-your-life-game-make-you-better-person#page-4) and [personal development](https://oliveremberton.com/2014/life-is-a-game-this-is-your-strategy-guide/). [Jane McGonigal](https://janemcgonigal.com/), one of [my design heroes](http://bob.ryskamp.org/brain/?p=41500), developed [a game to make people happier and healthier in real life](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lfBpsV1Hwqs). And many “games” have been created to [teach meditation](https://www.headspace.com/headspace-meditation-app), [calm the mind](https://www.calm.com/), and even [“promote compassion, altruism and teamwork”](http://thatgamecompany.com/clouds-new-sky-game-details-revealed/).

There are clear parallels between the activities shown and taught in these “games” and the ones that multiple religions point to as leading to truth and enlightenment. Video games let you build a character, developing their “experience points” along the way; religions provide paths of growth toward holiness. Video games let you explore alternative realities; Buddhism and Christianity both explain that this world is not the “true” reality; the promised kingdom.

But piloting a character in a video game, and recognizing their false nature, is different than believing you yourself are a character in a game. [Nick Bostrom’s Simulation Argument](https://www.simulation-argument.com/) is the most well-known explanation of how we might actually be living inside a simulation, while Robin Sloan wrote a fascinating piece about [how to best succeed–and not get turned off–if that were true](http://www.jetpress.org/volume7/simulation.htm):

> If you might be living in a simulation then all else equal you should care less about others, live more for today, make your world look more likely to become rich, expect to and try more to participate in pivotal events, be more entertaining and praiseworthy, and keep the famous people around you happier and more interested in you.

However, I had almost the opposite reaction. Instead of making me strive for simulated immortality, taking such a perspective mostly changes how I view everyday things. When I imagine I’m a character in a game, a few things change:

– I pay more attention to the present moment: the people I’m with, the sights and sounds and feelings. It really is a well-designed game (“the graphics are beyond comparison”), but you only appreciate that by paying attention. And why play a game if you’re not going to pay attention to it?
– My phone, the internet, and TV are less tempting. Who logs into a video game just to have their character watch TV?
– In general I’m less swayed by indulgences. Drinking alcohol and eating junk food aren’t going to help with that leveling up, and being tired is something I can fix by simply clicking on a few more hours of sleep.
– It’s easier to do the chores and tasks I know I need to do. Somehow viewing myself as a character makes it easier for me to tell him to get to work.
– I feel braver and more willing to take risks, and try new things. Games reward exploration.

Interestingly, all these are also benefits I’ve found from prayer and meditation. Games and religious practices share the desire to reduce the ego and the identification with the “self”. If you don’t believe that this is your true self–your intended form–you can handle setbacks and struggles better (after all, they’re not about *you*). And you can still invest in and grow your “self”, but the stress of that and fear of failure goes away when you believe the true consequences and rewards are separate from this reality.

The danger in this perspective is descending into nihilism, where you believe that this life has no purpose. Reminding myself of the personal benefits of growth helps avoid that, but also looking deeply at the beauty of nature and society all around shows me the value of simply being there to experience it.

So if you see me moving a bit awkwardly around the world, gazing intently at every little thing, and trying weird new practices every day, cut me some slack–I’m still learning how to play this game.

Teach courage, not caution

> As far as the education of children is concerned, I think they should be taught not the little virtues but the great ones. Not thrift but generosity and an indifference to money; not caution but courage and a contempt for danger; not shrewdness but frankness and a love of truth; not tact but a love of one’s neighbor and self-denial; not a desire for success but a desire to be and to know.

– [Natalia Ginzburg](https://smile.amazon.com/Little-Virtues-Natalia-Ginzburg-ebook/dp/B01LY5HBCQ)

When privilege kills

What’s behind the increased rate of deaths from suicide, drug abuse, and heart disease for middle-aged white Americans? According to Nobel Prize winning economists Case and Deaton, it might be that [they’re just not able to fulfill their own expectations](https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/03/24/the-disease-killing-white-americans-goes-way-deeper-than-opioids/):

> Most of the increase in white deaths is concentrated among those who never finished college. These are the same people who have been pummeled by the economy in recent decades…

> White American men without a college degree still earn 36 percent more than their black counterparts. But the death rate among less-educated black Americans has actually been decreasing…

> Case and Deaton believe that white Americans may be suffering from a lack of hope. The pain in their bodies might reflect a “spiritual” pain caused by “cumulative distress, and the failure of life to turn out as expected.”

Maybe Calvin had it right after all:

Lessons from living with an Amazonian tribe

[Or, how to unlearn your first-world problems](https://www.fastcompany.com/40403574/i-spent-a-month-living-with-an-amazonian-tribe-at-23-and-it-changed-my-career-forever):

* You learn to ignore the mosquitoes. And hunger. And all the other stuff too.
* Everyone depends on everyone else
* Lack of distraction leads to deeper thinking
* Everything else seems easier afterward

Selfishness and happiness

> Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian. These are: (1) we’re central to the universe…(2) we’re separate from the universe…and (3) we’re permanent. Now, we don’t really believe these things – intellectually we know better – but we believe them viscerally, and live by them, and they cause us to prioritize our own needs over the needs of others, even though what we really want, in our hearts, is to be less selfish, more aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment, more open, and more loving…

> And so, a prediction, and my heartfelt wish for you: as you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love. YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE. If you have kids, that will be a huge moment in your process of self-diminishment. You really won’t care what happens to YOU, as long as they benefit.

[A lovely and probably quite surprising graduation speech by writer George Saunders](http://6thfloor.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/07/31/george-saunderss-advice-to-graduates/). The most interesting part of becoming a parent to me was certainly how explicit the choice was between my (continued) selfishness and their happiness.

Thoughts on a year of Headspace

As I mentioned in [my 2015 wrapup](http://bob.ryskamp.org/brain/?p=5467), this past year I practiced mindfulness meditation with [Headspace](https://www.headspace.com/). I wrapped up another “pack” this morning and thought it would be useful to collect some thoughts on the various approaches I’ve learned and the experience overall.

* My main insight was that [training the mind really is like training the body](http://bob.ryskamp.org/brain/?p=5362). It benefits from consistent practice, varied techniques, planned routines, and even interval training (alternating periods of focus and relaxation). Similarly, the mind can become detrained without regular training, and I noticed a real difference in my mental state after just a few days without practicing.
* That said, I wasn’t very consistent with my practice, averaging a little less than one session every two days, and sometimes going up to two weeks between sessions (often caused by travel or illness disrupting my routine). Contrast that with some people who mention online that they’ve had a streak of 90 or even 365 days straight, and I wonder how their experience differs. I managed to maintain an overall sense of peace that persists even after a few days off, but some of the more advanced techniques and benefits didn’t stick around.
* The only way I was able to fit this into my day is by waking up earlier. If I start my day with meditation (after a few wakeup stretches), I’m much better at staying focused. Once I’ve done much of anything else, my mind is too distracted to have a successful session.
* Meditating on the breath always seemed to me an arbitrary choice–why not on a concept or a sound (like “[om](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Om)”). However, I gradually came to appreciate it, as your breath is always with you (and if it’s not, you have bigger problems than mindfulness), and doesn’t require conscious effort to maintain. When the goal is to clear away distracting conscious thoughts, the breath is a handy aid.
* I was initially skeptical of the “pack” approach unique to Headspace, but it too proved itself over time. It’s nice to break down what could be a lifelong practice into manageable chunks, giving you a tangible goal every 10 or 30 days. And while I started each pack wondering how meditation was supposed to improve a skill like creativity or generosity, every time there was indeed a helpful insight or new practice. A few examples and reviews:
* *Focus* was the first pack I tried. What stuck with me is the sense that sustainable focus isn’t something static and fixed, but rather the ability to steer your attention to different things at will–a dynamic experience. I wrote about [how my son exhibits this trait naturally](http://bob.ryskamp.org/brain/?p=5403), but it was a new (or renewed?) practice for me. I continue to use the visualization of a glowing sphere moving through the parts of the body when I’m cycling, especially during hard efforts, to keep my overall attention on the body’s performance and prevent my mind from wandering.
* *Anxiety* was next, and while this was a natural emotion for meditation to help, the approach was again surprising. The technique instructs you to first name, and then categorize, whatever stressful thoughts enter your mind. You might think of a difficult project at work, for example, which you could then give a title, mark as “negative”, and label as a “thinking” anxiety. The simple act of acknowledging the thought can be enough for your mind to let it go, a bit like how writing down an important todo item lets you relax mentally–it’s no longer your mind’s responsibility to keep track of it.
* *Appreciation* was a nice shorter one and quite related to *Generosity*. In both cases you’re instructed to think about who and what makes you the happiest and most fulfilled, and the goal is to cultivate that feeling (rather than, say, translate into direct action). I found Generosity more valuable overall, as you extend that feeling toward others and into the world.
* *Creativity* was a bit of a slog. 30 sessions, and again the goal was mostly to recognize the “feeling” of being creative. It introduced one nice technique though, the idea of rapidly alternating between focus on the breath and “letting go of the mind”, which trains you in the art of smoothly entering into a focused state at a moment’s notice. During this series I found myself better able to do “micro-meditations” throughout my regular day.
* I’ve only tried 10 days of *Headspace Pro*, the packs with less guidance and no particular theme. I did find them more challenging, and less motivating, than the themed packs, and haven’t been back recently. Hopefully more consistent practice will make them accessible again.

I continue to find new benefits from Headspace, even after a year and over 150 sessions. Here’s to another year of mindfulness!

Sitting quietly

> I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his own room. A man wealthy enough for life’s needs would never leave home to go to sea or besiege some fortress if he knew how to stay at home and enjoy it.
Blaise Pascal, Pensees, VIII, 136

*Update*: apparently [sitting alone is so unpleasant that people would rather give themselves electric shocks](http://www.nature.com/news/we-dislike-being-alone-with-our-thoughts-1.15508).

Resumés and eulogies

David Brooks shares a nice, quick talk on [the decisions to live for your resumé versus your eulogy](http://www.ted.com/talks/david_brooks_should_you_live_for_your_resume_or_your_eulogy/transcript?language=en):

> The résumé virtues are the ones you put on your résumé, which are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that get mentioned in the eulogy, which are deeper: who are you, in your depth, what is the nature of your relationships, are you bold, loving, dependable, consistency? And most of us, including me, would say that the eulogy virtues are the more important of the virtues. But at least in my case, are they the ones that I think about the most? And the answer is no.

In another article, he writes about [the 5 “ways to be deep”](http://www.theatlantic.com/national/print/2014/07/david-brooks-5-step-guide-to-being-deep/373699/), and hits on a few that aren’t as celebrated as they might be:

> *2. Suffering*

> “When people look backward at the things that made them who they are, they usually don’t talk about moments when they were happy. They usually talk about moments of suffering or healing. So we plan for happiness, but we’re formed by suffering…”

> *4. Obedience*

> “If you look at the people who are deep, often they don’t look inside themselves. Something calls to them from outside themselves,” he said. They obey a cause.