A lot of self-help content nowadays invites us to seek more positive feelings and experiences. But the pursuit of something better only reinforces the belief we lack something in the first place.
Suffering and uncomfortable feelings are part of our lives, practical enlightenment is accepting this simple truth. Not only suffering is inevitable, but it’s also valuable feedback to inspire change. Not to run away from our feelings but to solve our problems.
We always have to deal with problems, there is no moment when we’ll be free of them. The goal is to solve increasingly better problems (e.g. need money to survive, need money to build a new school for kids). To do that, we must assess and properly choose our values, and the things we give a fuck about. Healthy values are achieved internally (becoming a better partner, becoming wiser). Bad values are generally reliant on external events (getting a promotion, receiving more praise).
This, in a nutshell, is what “self-improvement” is really about: prioritizing better values, choosing better things to give a fuck about. Because when you give better fucks, you get better problems. And when you get better problems, you get a better life.
⇾ Lot of self help pushes us to seek more good experiences. But the desire for more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience.
⇾ No truly happy person feels the need to stand in front of a mirror and recite that she’s happy. She just is.
⇾ Let’s say you have an anger problem. You get pissed off at the stupidest, most inane stuff, and you have no idea why. And the fact that you get pissed off so easily starts to piss you off even more. And then, in your petty rage, you realize that being angry all the time makes you a shallow and mean person, and you hate this; you hate it so much that you get angry at yourself. Now look at you: you’re angry at yourself getting angry about being angry. Fuck you, wall. Here, have a fist. Welcome to the Feedback Loop from Hell.
⇾ By not giving a fuck that you feel bad, you short-circuit the Feedback Loop from Hell; you say to yourself, “I feel like shit, but who gives a fuck?” And then, as if sprinkled by magic fuck-giving fairy dust, you stop hating yourself for feeling so bad.
⇾ It’s what the philosopher Alan Watts used to refer to as “the backwards law”—the idea that the more you pursue feeling better all the time, the less satisfied you become, as pursuing something only reinforces the fact that you lack it in the first place.
⇾ When you give too many fucks—when you give a fuck about everyone and everything—you will feel that you’re perpetually entitled to be comfortable and happy at all times, that everything is supposed to be just exactly the fucking way you want it to be. This is a sickness. And it will eat you alive.
⇾ I see practical enlightenment as becoming comfortable with the idea that some suffering is always inevitable.
⇾ We suffer for the simple reason that suffering is biologically useful. It is nature’s preferred agent for inspiring change. We have evolved to always live with a certain degree of dissatisfaction and insecurity, because it’s the mildly dissatisfied and insecure creature that’s going to do the most work to innovate and survive. [As mentioned in The Social leap, happiness is not evolutionary useful]
⇾ Negative emotions are a call to action. When you feel them, it’s because you’re supposed to do something.
⇾ Whether you suffer from anxiety or loneliness or obsessive-compulsive disorder or a dickhead boss who ruins half of your waking hours every day, the solution lies in the acceptance and active engagement of that negative experience—not the avoidance of it, not the salvation from it.
⇾ Positive emotions, on the other hand, are rewards for taking the proper action. When you feel them, life seems simple and there is nothing else to do but enjoy it.
⇾ Then, like everything else, the positive emotions go away, because more problems inevitably emerge. The secret sauce is in the solving of the problems, not in not having problems in the first place. To be happy we need something to solve.
⇾ Happiness is a constant work-in-progress, because solving problems is a constant work-in-progress.
⇾ Values underlie everything we are and do. What is objectively true about your situation is not as important as how you come to see the situation, how you choose to measure it and value it.
⇾ If you want to change how you see your problems, you have to change what you value and/or how you measure failure/success.
⇾ Values are about prioritization. What are the values that you prioritize above everything else, and that therefore influence your decision-making more than anything else? You’ll notice that good, healthy values are achieved internally. Bad values are generally reliant on external events.
⇾ This, in a nutshell, is what “self-improvement” is really about: prioritizing better values, choosing better things to give a fuck about. Because when you give better fucks, you get better problems. And when you get better problems, you get a better life.
⇾ When we feel that we’re choosing our problems, we feel empowered. When we feel that our problems are being forced upon us against our will, we feel victimized and miserable.
⇾ There is a simple realization from which all personal improvement and growth emerges. This is the realization that we, individually, are responsible for everything in our lives, no matter the external circumstances. We don’t always control what happens to us. But we always control how we interpret what happens to us, as well as how we respond.
⇾ We all get dealt cards. Some of us get better cards than others. And while it’s easy to get hung up on our cards, and feel we got screwed over, the real game lies in the choices we make with those cards, the risks we decide to take, and the consequences we choose to live with.
⇾ Just as one must suffer physical pain to build stronger bone and muscle, one must suffer emotional pain to develop greater emotional resilience, a stronger sense of self, increased compassion, and a generally happier life.
⇾ It’s only when we feel intense pain that we’re willing to look at our values and question why they seem to be failing us. We need some sort of existential crisis to take an objective look at how we’ve been deriving meaning in our life, and then consider changing course.
⇾ Action isn’t just the effect of motivation; it’s also the cause of it.
⇾ Freedom grants the opportunity for greater meaning, but by itself there is nothing necessarily meaningful about it. Ultimately, the only way to achieve meaning and a sense of importance in one’s life is through a rejection of alternatives, a narrowing of freedom, a choice of commitment to one place, one belief, or (gulp) one person.
⇾ Consumer culture is very good at making us want more, more, more. Underneath all the hype and marketing is the implication that more is always better. I bought into this idea for years. Make more money, visit more countries, have more experiences, be with more women. But more is not always better. In fact, the opposite is true. We are actually often happier with less.
⇾ When we’re overloaded with opportunities and options, we suffer from what psychologists refer to as the paradox of choice. Basically, the more options we’re given, the less satisfied we become with whatever we choose, because we’re aware of all the other options we’re potentially forfeiting.
⇾ But while investing deeply in one person, one place, one job, one activity might deny us the breadth of experience we’d like, pursuing a breadth of experience denies us the opportunity to experience the rewards of depth of experience.
⇾ Now that I’m in my thirties, I can finally recognize that commitment, in its own way, offers a wealth of opportunity and experiences that would otherwise never be available to me, no matter where I went or what I did.
⇾ Commitment gives you freedom because it hones your attention and focus, directing them toward what is most efficient at making you healthy and happy. Commitment makes decision-making easier and removes any fear of missing out; knowing that what you already have is good enough, why would you ever stress about chasing more, more, more again?