This is one of those posts that gets weird before it gets useful. By the end of it, I hope to share with you one of the most life-altering realizations/techniques which has made me a tangibly happier man.
To start, we need to talk about psychology for a hot second. Specifically, we’ll look at 2 innate mental reflexes that must be tweaked in order to make us permanently happier. The first reflex up for modification is our hedonic adaptation. The second is our ability to visualize the future.
To be clear, this post isn’t about big, laborious or dramatic shifts in thinking. There is very little effort required here. We don’t need to go off into the mountains and meditate on mushrooms in a cave in order to make these changes to our brains. We are not monks, this is not Nirvana. We are monkeys, and this is merely a bigger stick to shove into a juicier mound of termites. I want you to think of these 2 mental techniques as being more like simple realizations, doorways into a different (and much happier) way of thinking. Simple is good. Simple can be profound. So let’s grab us a stick and get some motherfucking termites!
Hedonic Adaptation is one of the great human advantages. We have this shit wired right into our core programming. Hedonic Adaptation is what allowed our ancestors to adapt to the absolute shittiest living conditions, make nature our bitch, and ultimately take over the fucking planet using only fire and stabby objects.
Hedonic Adaptation, put simply, is our ability to get used to anything. It brings our happiness levels back up after something horrible happens to us, like death in the tribe or getting our genitals mutilated by barbed wire whilst attempting to escape over the fence at summer band camp. On the other hand, Hedonic Adaptation also automatically lowers our happiness back to our normal levels after something insanely awesome happens in our lives, like finding a legit lightsaber amongst the wreckage of a UFO crash site or inheriting a sizeable troupe of (highly obedient) samurai chimpanzees. If left alone, our Hedonic Adaptation will reliably return our happiness levels to normal no matter what happens in our lives.
So how can we fuck with our hardwired Hedonic Adaptation? To start, take a coat hanger and unbend it so it’s nice and straight. Then take that twisty part that’s like a cork-screw and, with great care, guide it up your left nostril until you feel some pain. Next, find a power outlet and…
If I want to consciously override my Hedonic Adaptation, I need to have a look at my desires/appetites. If I have a shoe fetish (which clearly I do), a big part of my fetish is fantasizing about new shoes. I get a major jolt of pleasure when I buy the latest Prada Stilettos, black, because they make my calves look sexy and I can wear them with anything. But the moment those beauties belong to me, they begin losing their appeal. Hedonic Adaptation is already eating away at how happy they make me. In no time, I’m swiping through celebrity Instagram accounts hunting for my next shoe fix.
This is the common pursuit of happiness we all grow up with. Everyone we know does this to some degree, some more egregiously than others. There is this treadmill approach to happiness through creating external jolts of pleasure, as illustrated by the highly scientific and technical chart below:
You can see how the black line (a person’s happiness) is like an excited heartbeat, spiking when something good happens (like buying a brand new hot tub), then fading a little below the average happiness level as the person Hedonically Adapts, compounded by a healthy dose of buyer’s remorse upon reviewing his credit card statement. Once the hot tub no longer gives adequate pleasure, the person makes another indulgence in order to spike happiness levels again.
So apart from not ever buying hot tubs, how do we set up our happiness such that it resembles the chart below?
Here we have a nice, gradual increase in average happiness over time, with a smoother rise and fall in our high and low levels. External events still affect us, of course, but our inherent happiness is far less reliant upon our ability to repeatedly indulge our various novel appetites.
The answer is drugs, so many drugs.
And a little golden nugget of awesomeness blatantly stolen from A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy called “Negative Visualization”.
First let’s look at Positive Visualization, because that’s going to be much more familiar to us.
Positive Visualization gets shit done. We picture the job we want and we go out there and get it. We picture the person we want to marry and we don’t stop searching until we find her. We picture a big, greasy hamburger and we drive to McD’s and crush one in the parking lot with the A/C blasting into our sweaty, desperate faces.
Positive Visualization is one of the most powerful techniques humans are innately capable of. It gives us the power to create the future we’ve imagined. With our minds, we shape god damn reality as we see fit.
That all sounds awesome! So why bother with Negative Visualization? That sounds like it sucks! Why would I think about un-eating a hamburger? Why would I picture myself without a job? Why would I picture my wife leaving me for Ellen Degeneres? I imagine all of this because, however counterintuitive it might seem, picturing my situation as worse than it currently is makes me happier by making me realize what I already have. It shifts my desire away from things I don’t have, to things I do have. And while I’m visualizing not having these things, my built-in Hedonic Adaptation reflex starts adjusting to the shittier reality (if even just a little bit). Then when I come out of visualizing not having these things, I’m suddenly very grateful for having them!
Positive Visualization helps us get what we want by creating present dissatisfaction. Negative Visualization helps us want what we already have by thinking about being without it, creating present satisfaction.
OK! I Get it! Just Get to the Gummy Bears Already!
I have an almost-2-year-old daughter, Isla. Positive visualization with Isla includes seeing her, in my mind, on her first day of school, taking her to her first beach volleyball tourney, and beating her first ex-boyfriend to death with a sock full of gummy bears just so the next kid in line knows I’m not fucking around.
While these fantasies make me smile and look forward to the future, they preclude my full enjoyment of the present moment with my little lady. I believe happiness derived from the present moment always trumps happiness derived from looking forward to some future moment, or happiness derived from memories. If some kid breaks Isla’s heart, it’s way more enjoyable to actually beat said kid into unconsciousness with a sock full of gummy bears than it is to merely fantasize about it. Don’t worry – I wouldn’t actually beat a kid to death with a sock full of random gummies. I’d make sure to eat all the red ones first.
Negative visualization, by contrast, is much more morbid. Negative visualization with Isla is picturing that she’s mortal (which she is) and that one day I will hug her for the last time (which I will). Even just writing that chokes me up. But it also makes me more loving and appreciative of the sound of her little voice as, while I write this, she sings the Paw Patrol theme song:
“Da da do, da da do, da da da da da DA DOOO!”
Realizing that my time with Isla is finite motivates me to actively and immediately increase the quality of my time with her. The more often I’m able to remind myself of our limited time together, the better that time will be, and overall the happier we both will be.
Yes, thinking about the inevitability that both of us will die (and I fucking hope it’s me first) does invite a quick dose of heartache into my present moment, but the immediate payoff of being hyper-aware of my love for my little girl and the resulting (and overwhelming) joy of having the time with her that I do have, is well worth a quick look at the harsh reality of our inevitable separation.
I’m more a fan of a little preemptive sadness if it buys us a happier today. I’m less a fan of avoiding sad thoughts with the assumption that we’ll always have tomorrow.