Life can be better than you think

post by Natália Mendonça · 2019-01-20T14:19:59.098Z · score: 52 (None votes) · LW · GW · 23 comments

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

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 [LW · GW],

“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.


Storytime!

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 [LW · GW] 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. [LW · GW]

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. [LW · GW]


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 [LW · GW], 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.

23 comments

comment by romeostevensit · 2019-01-23T05:37:20.493Z · score: 12 (None votes) · LW · GW

I have a hypothesis for increasing transferability of insights. Their transferability being by default quite low. Lower than they feel like they should be from the inside. I think what generally happens is something like this: a person has an insight, this generates a bunch of emotional energy, sometimes this gets channeled into the urge to share/write about the insight, this is most of what we hear about. But the writing is from the perspective of the insight, which tends to be dissimilar from the material that *triggered* the insight. I noticed this in myself after developing a very detailed note taking system. This allowed me to go back and trace the trajectory of past insights. It is much harder and less motivating (currently) to share stuff from the pre-insight perspective. Harder because of insight amnesia, the tendency to forget what your past thinking patterns were like, and also because most don't have detailed enough notes. Less motivating because pre-insight material just seems, well, wrong now. Why write about wrong things when you could write about *glorious new correct thing*?

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2019-01-23T13:55:56.851Z · score: 11 (None votes) · LW · GW
But the writing is from the perspective of the insight, which tends to be dissimilar from the material that *triggered* the insight.

Related: the Burrito Tutorial Fallacy.

While working on an article for the Monad.Reader, I’ve had the opportunity to think about how people learn and gain intuition for abstraction, and the implications for pedagogy. The heart of the matter is that people begin with the concrete, and move to the abstract. Humans are very good at pattern recognition, so this is a natural progression. By examining concrete objects in detail, one begins to notice similarities and patterns, until one comes to understand on a more abstract, intuitive level. This is why it’s such good pedagogical practice to demonstrate examples of concepts you are trying to teach. It’s particularly important to note that this process doesn’t change even when one is presented with the abstraction up front! For example, when presented with a mathematical definition for the first time, most people (me included) don’t “get it” immediately: it is only after examining some specific instances of the definition, and working through the implications of the definition in detail, that one begins to appreciate the definition and gain an understanding of what it “really says.”
Unfortunately, there is a whole cottage industry of monad tutorials that get this wrong. To see what I mean, imagine the following scenario: Joe Haskeller is trying to learn about monads. After struggling to understand them for a week, looking at examples, writing code, reading things other people have written, he finally has an “aha!” moment: everything is suddenly clear, and Joe Understands Monads! What has really happened, of course, is that Joe’s brain has fit all the details together into a higher-level abstraction, a metaphor which Joe can use to get an intuitive grasp of monads; let us suppose that Joe’s metaphor is that Monads are Like Burritos. Here is where Joe badly misinterprets his own thought process: “Of course!” Joe thinks. “It’s all so simple now. The key to understanding monads is that they are Like Burritos. If only I had thought of this before!” The problem, of course, is that if Joe HAD thought of this before, it wouldn’t have helped: the week of struggling through details was a necessary and integral part of forming Joe’s Burrito intuition, not a sad consequence of his failure to hit upon the idea sooner.
But now Joe goes and writes a monad tutorial called “Monads are Burritos,” under the well-intentioned but mistaken assumption that if other people read his magical insight, learning about monads will be a snap for them. “Monads are easy,” Joe writes. “Think of them as burritos.” Joe hides all the actual details about types and such because those are scary, and people will learn better if they can avoid all that difficult and confusing stuff. Of course, exactly the opposite is true, and all Joe has done is make it harder for people to learn about monads, because now they have to spend a week thinking that monads are burritos and getting utterly confused, and then a week trying to forget about the burrito analogy, before they can actually get down to the business of learning about monads. (Of course, certainly not all monad tutorials are like this, and I don’t even have any particular ones in mind, just a general impression left over from reading many of them, but if the shoe fits…)
What I term the “monad tutorial fallacy,” then, consists in failing to recognize the critical role that struggling through fundamental details plays in the building of intuition.
comment by SMR · 2019-01-20T19:35:05.124Z · score: 6 (None votes) · LW · GW

Thought provoking, thanks for posting

comment by ChristianKl · 2019-01-21T08:15:59.693Z · score: 5 (None votes) · LW · GW

The last person that I remember writing something along the lines of You don’t have to experience negative emotion, on LessWrong didn't turn out well. Be careful if you hack around to deeply without knowing what you are doing. Emotions have their role in providing meaning.

That said, depression is not necessary and I do encourage everybody to do what's necessary to overcome.

comment by Lanrian · 2019-01-21T08:48:09.519Z · score: 7 (None votes) · LW · GW

The last person that I remember writing something along the lines of You don’t have to experience negative emotion, on LessWrong didn't turn out well.

I'm not sure what this means.

Either you're saying that the LW community disapproved of this person. In this case, see the frontpage guidelines: try to present arguments for your own view instead of stating opinions of others.

Or you're saying that this person hacked around with they're own emotions until they lost meaning. In this case, I am very curious about what they did!

(Or you're saying something completelty different.)

comment by mr-hire · 2019-01-21T15:54:44.867Z · score: 13 (None votes) · LW · GW

There's a few documented cases in the community of a lose of negative emotion leading to a general malaise and lack of motivation (Here's Kaj Sotala talking about how he lost motivation after getting rid of many of his negative emotions https://kajsotala.fi/2018/12/18-month-follow-up-on-my-self-concept-work/).

Here's an example of the reverse case, in which someone claimed to have a method to remove negative emotions and feel bliss, but was not motivated to use it: https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/3Hkpttb6WsJwr5WdF/happiness-is-a-chore#comments

I suspect Christian may have been talking about the second example, as the author in the second post committed suicide.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2019-01-22T19:25:21.229Z · score: 6 (None votes) · LW · GW
Here's Kaj Sotala talking about how he lost motivation after getting rid of many of his negative emotions

Note however that I'm pretty sure that the long-term impact will be increased motivation rather than reduced (am gradually getting more done and having more motivation again). Also, I wouldn't really say that what I did was getting rid of negative emotions, just getting rid of one dysfunctional source of them.

comment by mr-hire · 2019-01-23T14:00:06.290Z · score: 7 (None votes) · LW · GW

I think what's interesting in what happened to you after doing the self-concept work is that the source of negative emotions was also a strong motivational factor for you in finding meaning - This is something that I think ChristianKI was in a roundabout way trying point at.

I also think that what's interesting about what you've done since then is that you've been able to build up positive alternatives for the negative motivational strategy. I've had similar experiences when doing my own mindhacks. I think a frequent pattern is something like a "trough of no motivation" when removing a large strategy that resulted in negative emotions internally, in which all of the things that strategy was regulating go out of wack for a bit (frequently motivation) until you work to find new strategies that don't result in negative emotions.

To me, this gives credence to ChristianKI's view that you should be careful with brain hacks that are removing negative emotions or sources of them, as this trough could be potentially disastrous. However, it also gives credence to Natalia's view that coming up with strategies that have few or no negative emotions could actually be quite powerful, providing that you avoid potentially disastrous consequences of exposing yourself to the trough over and over (or making the trough quite sticky by removing multiple strategies/negative emotions in quick succession).

comment by romeostevensit · 2019-01-23T05:48:03.707Z · score: 7 (None votes) · LW · GW

+1 eliminating certain negative emotions seems to temporarily get rid of any motivation structures that were using those negative emotions as a building block. Things I really value seem to rebuild themselves on better foundations.

comment by ChristianKl · 2019-01-23T09:12:22.664Z · score: 5 (None votes) · LW · GW

From what I know about what you shared about your journey I also wouldn't put yourself in the category of people who hack directly manipulatively on the emotion-layer.

I addition Focusing, Core, Transform Yourself, Internal Family System and Double Crux are all already system that were developed by people who know what they are doing and that went through a lot of practical testing.

If you work on your identity you don't get into the problem that you changed your emotions and don't really know who you are anymore.

comment by wunan · 2019-01-21T17:50:05.514Z · score: 2 (None votes) · LW · GW

I remember reading SquirrelInHell's posts earlier and I'm really sorry to hear that. Is there any more public information regarding the circumstances of the suicide? Couldn't find anything with google.

comment by ChristianKl · 2019-01-21T18:33:49.744Z · score: 2 (None votes) · LW · GW

As far as I know there's no public information. There's some nonpublic information ; )

comment by ChristianKl · 2019-01-21T18:51:03.152Z · score: 10 (None votes) · LW · GW

As mr-hire said, I'm referring to SquirrelInHell who committed suicide.

I hosted them as a couchsurfer for a few days, so I have a model that goes beyond what's in the linked post of mr-hire.

I don't know the exact details but there was a sense of I should speak with SquirrelInHell, to help them to sort through things that I had when I read that post [LW · GW]and I unfortunately didn't.

I wish I would have given a clear answer back then in private. I wish I could give a public one now, but in the absence of that, I prefer to have spoken up instead of stayed silent. In case anybody encounters related problem where they need somebody to talk them through, I'm happy to Skype.

comment by Aiyen · 2019-01-21T15:14:46.487Z · score: 4 (None votes) · LW · GW

"Emotions have their role in providing meaning."

Even if true, is meaning actually valuable? I would far rather be happy than meaningful, and a universe of truth, beauty, love and joy seems much more worthwhile than a universe of meaning.

Caveat-I feel much the same disconnect in hearing about meaning that Galton's non-imagers appeared to feel about mental imaging, so there's a pretty good chance I simply don't have the mental circuitry needed to appreciate or care about meaning. You might be genuinely pursuing something very important to you in seeking meaning. On the other hand, even if that's true, it's worth noting that there are some people who don't need it.

comment by Natália Mendonça · 2019-01-21T11:54:26.437Z · score: 1 (None votes) · LW · GW

I’m fairly certain that in the vast majority of the time, negative emotions are ego-dystonic.

They’re not something actively sought out out of a desire for meaning, they’re something essentially inflicted upon the sufferer by parts of their mind that they can’t control.

I think acceptance of negative emotion is often driven from being in that position, a position of helplessness, often driven out of a desire to maintain a good self-image, and avoid entering the negativity loop — and not from a position of having control over whether it happens or not, and seeking it because it brings meaning.

comment by mr-hire · 2019-01-21T16:01:56.364Z · score: 3 (None votes) · LW · GW
I’m fairly certain that in the vast majority of the time, negative emotions are ego-dystonic.

Working with modalities like Coherence therapy, internal double crux, and Internal Family Systems, I've developed the almost reverse hypothesis.

In most cases, it seems like "negative" patterns and emotions come from a subconscious plan - If I experience these negative emotions in these ways, I can (eventually) get my needs meet.

Coherence therapy calls this the "pro-symptom position".

Examples of pro-symptom positions might include:

"If I stop being miserable, then I won't be able to relate to my mother, and she won't love me. So I choose to continue to be miserable."

"“If I go on without Dad and decide to get somewhere on my own, then I’m responsible for my own life. That feels really scary, so I’m holding back.”

"If I stop feeling anxiety around other people, then I might not be as careful about what I say, and then they might hurt me. So I choose to continue to feel anxiety."

comment by shminux · 2019-01-20T19:36:06.288Z · score: 5 (None votes) · LW · GW

Glad this med is working well for you. Are you still on Wellbutrin? If so, what do you think might happen if you stopped taking it, do you expect to be able to retain some of your insights if your brain chemistry reverts back to its pre-medicated state?

comment by Natália Mendonça · 2019-01-20T23:49:08.450Z · score: 2 (None votes) · LW · GW

I get bodily fatigue when I don't take it for over five days, I haven't ventured farther than that. No particular reason to.

comment by shminux · 2019-01-21T06:17:21.705Z · score: 3 (None votes) · LW · GW

I asked because odds are that your insights only work for a brain with a certain neurochemistry. I have seen this in those with bipolar. Many have all these amazing insights when (hypo)manic, but none of them have any effect when depressed.

comment by Natália Mendonça · 2019-01-21T07:05:26.999Z · score: 2 (None votes) · LW · GW

Yeah, it would be interesting to investigate how that would work. I think the insights would serve to set a lower bound to mood, the same as what religion does for many people.

comment by Mitchell_Porter · 2019-01-25T16:28:52.172Z · score: 2 (None votes) · LW · GW

People like Schopenhauer and Benatar are just being realistic. Reality includes futility and horror on enormous scales. Perhaps the remaking of Earth by superhuman AI offers an imminent chance that even this can change, but it's just a chance.

comment by Pattern · 2019-01-22T00:31:04.019Z · score: 2 (None votes) · LW · GW
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.

Is there supposed to be a difference between the two sentences other than emphasis?

comment by Donald Hobson (donald-hobson) · 2019-01-22T21:09:26.718Z · score: 1 (None votes) · LW · GW

I consider emotions to be data, not goals. From this point of view, deliberately maximizing happiness for its own sake is a lost purpose. Its like writing extra numbers on your bank balance. If however your happiness was reliably too low, adjusting it upwards with drugs would be sensible. Whats the best level of happiness, the one that produces optimal behavior.

I also find my emotions to be quite weak. And I can set them consciously change them. Just thinking "be happy", or "be sad" and feeling happy or sad. It actually feels similar to imagining a mental image, sound or smell.