I lost my last word vomit- it felt like it was some of the best work that I’ve ever done, and I lost all of it before I even had the chance to read it again. I felt really hurt and angry for a couple of minutes. And then I decided that I wasn’t going to give up and be depressed just like that, just because of that. I’m in this for the long haul. I’m here to fix the problem, to make progress.
I’ll start over. Here’s where I was at. I was working from first principles.
1: Life is limited. We have limited time, limited resources, limited cognitive ability. Everything is incredibly limited.
We can choose to take charge or we can choose to let forces beyond our control push us around. This is a lot more nuanced than it sounds. When I was a kid, I hated school and rejected the idea of doing what other people told me I should do. But in the process of that rejection I didn’t learn how to follow my own direction. That’s changing now. I’m starting to do what I think and believe is important. I’m starting to refine and improve my idea about what it means for something to be important.
What is important?
2: Because life is precious, it should be enjoyed. It should be beautiful. It should be pleasurable in a full-bodied way. Things like cigarettes have diminishing returns. You stop enjoying it after a while and the health stuff ruins you. Life should be spent in good health, with clarity of mind, with great relationships with smart, thoughtful, kind people. We’re here to have the best fucking time we possibly can, in a kind, loving, creative, positive way.
3: There are 3 parts to happiness, says Martin Seligman. (Here’s the TEDtalk he gave, it’s worth a watch.)
- There’s pleasure, which is the most straightforward and the one that people probably obsess the most about. The one that advertising sells. Creature comforts. Good food, nice possessions, status symbols, that sort of thing.
- There’s flow, which is the feeling you get when you lose yourself in some sort of pursuit- something challenging yet not overwhelming. I felt a lot of flow when I was writing the blogpost that I lost. And I’m doing whatever I can to recreate that. What matters isn’t each individual post, what matters is that I get back up and go again.
- There’s meaning, which comes from contributing beyond ourselves. We’re social creatures- we’re wired to live and grow in groups, and we’re not actually that great at being alone (yet). As long as we live in the current conditions of reality, if we haven’t yet hacked the human brain completely, if we still have limited lifespans, we’re still bound to the constraints of meaning.
These are things I’ve come to accept axiomatically. I’m not very much interested in discussing the nuances of pleasure, flow and meaning- we could, but I think it’s far more interesting to figure out how to actually get those things for yourselves and for others in a sustainable way.
You can choose to define happiness on your own terms, and you can evolve and change and modify and edit your definition of happiness over time. That’s fine. Start with something that works in the general sense, and get more precise about it over time as you keep going. Refine it, test it, compare it, reflect, think, improve. Again, the end goal is to be a happier, healthier person. To have a more beautiful experience of life, which is limited and precious.
4: Rational decision-making is about making the best possible decisions to experience the most joy and pleasure in life. All decisions are about the allocation of limited resources. Where do you devote your time and energy? What do you do? What do you not do? What do you focus on? What do you get rid of? You either grow or you don’t, you either get better at thinking about things or you don’t, you either get better at making sense of reality or you don’t. You either do better things with your life or you do not. You’re either growing or you’re stagnating.
It occurs to me that people can fall off at each point. Some people might believe in reincarnation or an afterlife and so-on. I don’t know if there’s any such thing, so I’m choosing to believe that life is limited as far as we can tell.
Some people might think that life doesn’t necessarily have to be enjoyed. You can just live a moderate, mediocre, miserable life and nobody deserves anything more than that. Take what you get and shut up. I can’t agree with that. I think life has to be pursued, danced with, laughed with. You have to have joy. If you don’t agree, I don’t think we can be friends, at least not in a deep, engaging sense. (That’s just a general statement, it might not always be true. Life is full of surprises.)
If you agree that life should be enjoyed in a full-bodied way, over the course of an entire lifetime (say 80-100 years, but also such that you can have it cut short at any time and you still find peace and happiness in that), then you’re going to have to decide to make good decisions. By good I mean decisions that have a lasting, postive impact on your happiness functions. Things that make you happier. Things that give you flow, and things that benefit other people- preferably people that you admire, people that you care about.
All of this feels like stuff I’ve said before. What’s surprising? What’s counter-intuitive? What’s unusual?
I’ve always thought that I want to be happy, but I didn’t quite fully accept or realize how much of a commitment that is. I didn’t quite realize how deep that has to transform you. It’s not something you can try on for fun, it’s not a place you can visit for holidays. (I mean- you could do something like that, but that’s not the same.) If you’re serious, you double down. If you’re serious, it goes deep into your identity, deep into your psyche, your belief system. You change who you are, at every scale of reality. From your actions, your behavior, your social groups.
Committing to happiness means choosing to do a lot of work, and it means walking away from things that aren’t productive, aren’t useful, aren’t important. And that can be traumatic to some degree. It can be scary. It involves cutting things and people out of your life, things and people that are toxic. It means prioritization. It’s a strange mix of ruthlessness and graciousness. You have to say no. You have to focus. You have to commit.
The most important thing is that you develop this central mechanism upon which everything else is built. This is what helps you identify what the 2nd-most important thing is, to get you from where you are to where you want to go. While you’re en route, you can ask yourself what your motivations are- why are you doing what you’re doing? Would you do it if it were the only thing you were ever going to do ever again? But it’s critically important that you don’t think about these things as an excuse to avoid doing the work. You have to develop a body of work. And that will help you think.
I guess what’s surprising for me is how much I have had to change. How much I have had to walk away from things. How much of my past self I have to destroy, in a sense. I can preserve that guy in writing, I can preserve him in memory, the way we use museums, but that’s all he can ever be- and that’s a bit scary, a bit painful, but that’s the way it is.
This ended up being less pretty / beautiful / directed than the original vomit was, and that’s a loss I’m going to have to accept as a part of the journey I’m on. Let it be. Learn. I have to preserve things better. But there’s a lesson here and I’m going to learn it. I’ve completed what I set out to do. I felt sorry for myself for a little while, and then I decided that it would be more therapeutic to go at it again, with drive. 100 vomits from now all of this will look silly. But there was, for a brief moment, intense meaning in this choice. That’s flow.
I’ll return with more.