Life can be better than you think

See also: Tran­shu­man­ism as Sim­plified Hu­man­ism, You Only Live Twice, Flinch­ing away from truth is of­ten about pro­tect­ing the episte­mol­ogy, Gen­er­al­iz­ing From One Example

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.