Life can be better than you think
Let me tell you a secret.
You don’t have to experience negative emotion.
I risk coming across as implying that “happiness is a choice,” and that’s not what I mean. I’m not implying that it is something easy to do, I’m not implying that it is something you should be able to do right now…
But I’m bringing up the possibility. Have you ever imagined it? Living your normal, ordinary life, from now until you die, but with the distinction that you choose not to experience negative emotion?
It’s likely that you have not thought of it. After all, negative emotions are just part of life, aren’t they? They aren’t things we can change, right?
The Serenity Prayer goes like this:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
The last part is invariably the most tricky one. I think people systematically underestimate the scope of the things that they can change, and that becomes more and more true as technology advances.
As Eliezer has pointed out,
“We have a concept of what a medieval peasant should have had, the dignity with which they should have been treated, that is higher than what they would have thought to ask for themselves.”
A medieval peasant accepted infant death, slavery, and the like as “part of the plan,” as “just the way things are.” Just like people nowadays accept death as “just the way things are,” and say things like “it is impossible to avoid negative emotions altogether because to live is to experience setbacks and conflicts.”
The same can be said of us who grew up in abusive families, as well as oppressed groups in authoritarian societies — they may consider normal things that to us are abject, merely because they haven’t known of anything better.
I think if there is something close to making me feel indignation, it is the fact that the ways in which life can be better are not self-evident.
Throughout my childhood and adolescence I had a host of internalizing mental disorders — depression, anxiety, poor self-esteem, dysthymia, suicidal ideation, all that good stuff. I regularly met with several psychotherapists, but unfortunately none provided much help.
When I was 16, however, I was fortunate enough to experience a particularly severe major depressive episode. The pain was so strong, so disabling, so unwavering and all-encompassing, that it eventually prompted my mom to take me to a psychiatrist instead of psychologist. I experienced with one antidepressant, had problems with it, and then a few months later was prescribed Wellbutrin.
And… three weeks after I started taking it, I realized something odd. I realized that I didn’t need to ruminate on all the ways in which I was the worst person in the world all the time! Even if that were true, it would be far better to occupy my thoughts with something positive, like trying to improve myself.
Another thing I noticed at the same time, and which shocked me, was that I was unable to feel jealousy. I had received the news that my ex — whom I still had a strong unrequited love for, which was largely the source of the depression — had started dating someone, and all that I could muster as an emotional reaction to it was “That’s cool for him.” No feelings of jealousy, no feelings of rejection.
Eventually, after noticing those and other noteworthy changes in my mind, and after giving them a lot of thought and consideration — after making sure that it wasn’t some sort of mirage — it was clear to me, by the fourth week, that, indeed, the depressive episode was over. My mind had gracefully transitioned from a state of constant mental torment to that of serene internal tranquility, and I deemed the change unlikely to be ephemeral.
It’s been over two years, and although life has indeed had its ups and downs, there is… incredibly little overlap between my mood before and after I started taking Wellbutrin. Almost all of the days in my life after I started taking it have been better than almost all of the days before.
It is truly difficult to convey just how different the sadness I am capable of today is from the torment I used to be able to feel. My negative emotions, when present, are a pale version of their former selves, to an extent that they barely feel real — they’re pretty much cardboard cutouts of what they used to be.
Now, an interesting thing is that during my pre-Wellbutrin life, I would obviously never have desired for a life like the one I have now — such a thing simply wasn’t within the scope of my imagination. It doesn’t come to us naturally, to desire for a peaceful inner mind and a capacity to control our feelings. It’s not a basic human drive, the way that the desires for sex, money, love, and recognition are. Your mind is all that you have, it is all your life is — but aiming the arrow of the desire at one’s own mind requires a fair amount of complicated metacognition.
What I find unfortunate about this story is that I had to get to an extremely low point in order for medication to be considered an option. If I hadn’t had that particularly severe depressive episode, I would keep having a life which was meh seventy percent of the time.
And that makes me wonder: how many people around don’t know how good life can be for them? How many people suffer and think they can’t help it? How many people don’t have a blast with their morning routine merely because they haven’t tried to? Sometimes it genuinely requires a lot of open-mindedness in order to notice that you are sitting on a pot of gold.
We are patently unaware of the scope of the space of possible human psychological experiences. There was once this debate about whether mental imagery was an actual thing. It was only settled when Francis Galton gave people surveys and saw that some people did have mental imagery, and others didn’t. Before that, everyone just assumed that everyone else was like themselves.
It does not seem implausible to me that the same fallacy would apply to the psychological phenomenon of the pleasantness of life. That is, we naturally expect others to experience life as being roughly as pleasant as it is to us in particular. I find this passage from Schopenhauer to be a good example:
“In a world like this […] it is impossible to imagine happiness. It cannot dwell where, as Plato says, continual Becoming and never Being is all that takes place. First of all, no man is happy; he strives his whole life long after imaginary happiness, which he seldom attains, and if he does, then it is only to be disillusioned; and as a rule he is shipwrecked in the end and enters the harbour dismasted.”
He’s making big claims about the psychology of other people’s minds, claims that, thankfully, are wrong; the majority of people are happy. But there is a significant share of the population to whom that quote sounds entirely reasonable (my 15-year-old-self and David Benatar included). And those don’t know how good their life can be.
A while ago 80000hours posted about a study in which subjects who were indecisive about taking certain life-changing decisions agreed to make a decision based on a coin flip. The researchers then evaluated the subjects’ happiness several months after the study, and whether they had or not taken the decision the coin flip generated.
It turned out that people who changed something big in their life due to the coin flip turned out to be much happier later:
The causal effect of quitting a job is estimated to be a gain of 5.2 happiness points out of 10, and breaking up as a gain of 2.7 out of 10!
Notably, “Should I move” also had a large effect (3.2), as did “should I start my own business.”(5.2).
One interesting thing I noticed in those results is that what those decisions have in common, compared to the decisions that did not influence happiness that much, are that they result in a substantial change in people’s day-to-day life experiences.
Perhaps day-to-day life experiences can be especially prone to being coded as something to be accepted, as “just part of life.” It can be difficult to think of changing something so fundamental about life that you experience it everyday.
Maybe the lesson here is that experimentation is valuable.
I’ve received some objection towards my attitude of valuing happiness without special exceptions and without upper bound.
One common objection is that negative emotion sends important messages. I actually agree with that. Roughly speaking, the message that negative valence sends is “stop what you’re doing and change your strategy.” So, now you know. Now you can try to avoid the negative feeling when you notice it coming, and remember the message: stop what you’re doing and change your strategy. (In the case that you choose to even care about it, since emotions are based on evolutionary goals that might not be fully aligned with our own.)
I want to make it clear that in this post I am not claiming that external circumstances do not matter and all that people need to do is change their internal states. Not at all. I fully endorse changing one’s life in order in order to improve well-being when that is the best strategy to do so, and as we saw in that 80000hours post, it often is.
“You can win with a long weapon, and yet you can also win with a short weapon. In short, the Way of the Ichi school is the spirit of winning, whatever the weapon and whatever its size.”
Another objection I’ve faced is the claim that it is futile to pursue happiness, that it is empty or hollow without suffering, and that we should be aiming at meaning.
I think the threat of “empty” or “meaningless” happiness is much less plausible than most people think. It seems to me that there is a close correspondence between high-level beliefs and mood. I, for one, have visited a quite wide range of mind-states along the valence axis, and every single step I took from the nadir of my worst depression to the great gratitude I feel now involved a change in how I see the world, a change in how I think.
The degree to which that is generalizable to other people is a question that I am interested in investigating. For now, it’s instructive to notice that the popular Nihilist Memes Facebook pages are nearly entirely consisted of memes about depression. And that one of the diagnostic criteria of Borderline Personality Disorder, a very unpleasant condition, is “feelings of chronic emptiness.” Religious and spiritual experiences, on the other hand, which I would regard as some of the most blissful states possible to humans, involve plenty of meaning, so much that it all-too-often messes up people’s epistemology.
Another objection I have encountered is that constant happiness makes one insensitive to the suffering of others. That is not supported by empirical evidence. Positive mood makes people less willing to endure harm, or to let others endure harm. It has been found over and over again to make people more interested in helping others and doing more than what is expected from them.
Moreover, I would not be here endorsing positivity in LessWrong if I didn’t think that it had useful pragmatic value at helping us think and work. That’s because most of the people who will ever live will live in the far-future, and many people in this site are doing valuable work on that area. It is important that they keep their minds sharp, and positivity goes a long way in that regard. There are, of course, other variables that affect productivity, and I am interested on investigating them as well.
Another motivating factor driving me to write this is that I think it is important for me to… have this debate, in order to think more clearly about others’ attitudes towards happiness, to understand where exactly differences in opinion from mine stem from. This might be valuable for cause prioritization research. The cool thing about information is that it doesn’t have an expiration date. The knowledge and data that we gather will pass on the future and be a foundation future researchers will build upon.
I think Anna Sallamon, in one of my favorite LessWrong posts, provides a useful framework with which to think about why we may find some information aversive:
when I notice I’m averse to taking in “accurate” information, I ask myself what would be bad about taking in that information.
I think that drives at least part of the motivation behind the acceptance of negative emotions. It makes sense, since there are many ways in which it can be bad to think that negative emotion is always bad. For instance, when you are actively feeling a negative emotion, it often helps to hear that it is okay to feel that emotion — that makes you feel reassured and validated. By just plainly recognizing the badness of negative emotion, on the other hand, you risk getting into a loop. As an example, it turns out that, as depressing at it sounds, with enough self-referentiality it is entirely possible to be depressed because you’re depressed because you’re depressed. I’ve been there. And it’s distinctively worse than merely being depressed at the object-level.
I’ll steal one of the posts’ bucket drawings in order to illustrate this:
Whether negative emotion is always bad is a value judgement, which is why I left that label in the Desired state panel in blank. But it is always useful is to separate “is negative emotion always bad” and “should I feel shame/guilt/sadness for experiencing negative emotion” into two mental buckets; to recognize that they are separate questions.
Acceptance is useful when you cannot change a problem. Acceptance is useful when you cannot change a problem. Both those sentences can be true at the same time. And, as technology advances, our ability to solve problems improves; what was once impossible becomes merely an engineering problem.