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An intriguing paradox
Life is not a problem to be solved
Happy New Year!
A few days ago I listened to Derek Sivers talking about the idea behind his wonderful book How to Live. I want to dive into a specific quote here from the podcast.
Life is not a problem to be solved, but a paradox to be experienced.
Not “a” problem
All too often we fall into the trap of wanting one particular thing or person. “If only I have the money/job/relationship, I’ll be happy.”
I used to believe my grades at school were the most important thing. I centered my life around the problem of “how to get better grades”. After school, I fell into a similar trap with my passion for being outdoors. I thought that was the only thing that made me happy.
But none of the thing gave me the happiness I wanted. While I did experience moments of joy, I was unhappy at times because of it. I couldn’t always live up to my expectation of being a straight-A student. Or I had to earn my living with a 9-to-5 job instead of camping in the woods every day.
Before we talk about a better way to understand happiness, I want to discuss why fixating on one thing is a problem.
Life is a complex system
Suppose all I had to do was focus on my studies. I only live in schools surrounded by students and teachers. Good grades can earn me anything. I bet my life would be pretty good if I achieve good grades.
But life is not a simple function that can be optimized by tuning one parameter.
At the individual level, we want different things all the time — good food, a cozy home, money, leisure, meaning, social recognition, security, adventure, love. These desires are often in conflict with one another. Even something as powerful as money cannot solve all problems, only money problems.
At the environmental level, we don’t spend our entire lives in the same place with the same people. I learned this the hard way when I moved to the US. I was too optimized for the environment in China that I found myself ill-adapted to the new culture and values. Even if someone never leaves their physical environment, they will still be affected by external events, whether they are aware of them or not (think pandemics or inflation).
There is a Chinese saying that goes, “Excess leads to reversal.” Any value taken to an extreme can create negative outcomes. In the case it does not backfire, it can disrupt other areas of your life that are also important to you.
For example, honesty is perhaps an important value to hold. But it’s worth asking how much honesty? One extreme example is when an axe murderer comes to your door and asks where your family are, would you lie or be honest?
Stephen West talked about this in his podcast Philosophize This!,
The problem here was not with the value of honesty itself. The problem was with people trying to oversimplify morality into a system of monism—something philosophers have tried to do for thousands of years, where they try to take one ultimate value and subordinate all the other values to it.
You’ll hear them. “If only you were more rational, then you’d overcome all your irrational fears, and you’d be more courageous.” “If only you valued freedom as the most important virtue in the world, then you’d value truth because you’d want to free yourself from the shackles of ignorance,” or whatever story they came up with today.
I later learned that happiness comes from many sources.
With my (unprofessional) research on the topic, happiness can be broadly divided into two categories. One is experience-based happiness driven by emotions. This is the pleasure we feel in the present moment. It often comes from relationships and activities we enjoy.
Another one is more related to the thinking mind, often called evaluative happiness. This includes personal values (purpose, living according to one’s own values) and social values (pride, life satisfaction when looking back at your achievements).
To live a happy life is to incorporate a balance of all into our lives. Try this test:
While “Pleasure, purpose, and pride” can be a useful framework to understand happiness, I find it more practical to look at our lives through these four areas (as recommended in Designing Your Life):
Health — both physical and mental
Work — ideally something meaningful
Play — doing things that are not means to some end
Love — relationships with others
Review what you did over the past two weeks. How do they contribute to each area? What do you want to do more of? What do you want to eliminate?
Decide how to live at a micro level
When I saw a picture of an orchestra at the end of Derek’s book:
I interpreted it as a metaphor for diversifying our activities. But in the podcast Derek went further to explain that we can also diversify our values and life philosophies.
Imagine yourself in front of an orchestra. You are the composer and conductor. You’ve got, let’s say, 27 different instruments at your disposal. How do you choose?
Are you going to use the flute for a couple of years or are you going to use the viola for a couple of years?
The answer is you don’t have to decide. You combine them. You can say, okay, I’m going to have the flute and viola playing for a bit. And then it might just be a few seconds, and then they can stop. And now it’s just the harp, and then boom, boom, you bring in everybody for a little bit then.
So if you apply that to your life, then as you're listening to podcasts like this, and people telling you, you should do this, no, no, you should do that. You can apply these different approaches at the micro nuanced level, to certain aspects of your life.
Like you might do what the book Atomic Habits says, but only half an hour a day, and then throw yourself completely into one thing for four hours. And you might live for the future for an hour. But then during lunchtime, you're an absolute hedonist and you indulge in whatever the hell you feel like eating for lunch today. And then after lunch, you do something to keep your past work alive. So you're kind of living for the past, you leaving a legacy or even just the way that you apply different approaches to life.
We don’t have to conclude what is right or wrong in theory. We can make decisions according to the situation. Nassim Taleb said,
I am, at the Fed level, libertarian; at the state level, Republican; at the local level, Democrat; and at the family and friends level, a socialist. If that saying doesn’t convince you of the fatuousness of left vs. right labels, nothing will.
Flirting with possibilities
You may feel that it takes much more work to make decisions all the time than following some detailed picture someone else draw. But remember that you’re already deciding with your time, no matter what you choose to do in any given moment.
Rather than approaching life as a series of soul-searching choices, how about taking it more lightly and see it as a playground for experiments?
For example, if honesty seems important to you, “try telling a kid that you don’t think they’re really going to become an astronaut because honestly, if I’m betting, statistically it’s probably not going to work out for you.” Stephen West said. “Try that out. Because the exact point in your life that honesty or any value becomes toxic will vary from person to person. Which values and at what level of intensity will serve you and your culture and time period is an experiment that you have to run.”
To conclude this piece, I’ll leave you with one final quote from Tim Urban:
If someone gave you a perfect simulation of today's world to play in and told you that it's all fake with no actual consequences—with the only rules being that you can't break the law or harm anyone, and you still have to make sure to support your and your family's basic needs—what would you do?
My guess is that most people would do all kinds of things they’d love to do in their real life but wouldn’t dare to try, and that by behaving that way, they’d end up quickly getting a life going in the simulation that’s both far more successful and much truer to themselves than the real life they’re currently living.
Alright, thanks for reading. If you enjoyed it, I’d really appreciate it if you share it with a friend or two.
And if you come across anything interesting this week, let me know by replying to this email or DM me on Twitter.
Have a great week,
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