This section of preaching is directed at me rather than you, but I want to write it publicly to force myself to make sense. I’ll probably include some irrelevant music or photos with each post to distract you in case you get bored – this one’s the first big win of 2011’s adventure into the music other people discovered in 2010.


I spend my downtime in life analysing things, trying to identify comprehensible systems and figure out ways to beat them. Then I forget again. So this is a notebook of that stuff.

It’s what got me interested in philosophy, but since uni, my interest has shifted to the more practical consequences of it. It’s not hard to figure out the meaning of life, it’s harder to figure out how to pursue it. Hence, Advice.

The meaning of life is there isn’t one, which is to say there isn’t one other than the obvious one, which is to say be happy.

It gets clearer if you think about what you’d want for your kids: you might want them to have kids themselves, but that really only gets you back to the drawing board a few decades closer to the destruction of the planet. What you probably want, overall, is for them to be happy. Apart from anything, it’d make you happy.

This hedgehog agrees with me.

It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that some people have written a bit about how to pursue happiness, but a lot of it trips over a pretty basic hurdle at the starting line. We’ve noticed we are happy when we get things we wanted – love, money, sex, kids, shoes – and concluded this stuff is related. Or we’ve noticed we are unhappy when we can’t get things we want, and concluded we should stop wanting things.

At the heart of it there’s an assumption that we want what’ll make us happy, with a certain margin of error for when things aren’t what we expected. We think we’re almost rational that way, wanting things because of the happiness they’ll bring, or our estimation thereof. We are way, way off.

This won’t sound terribly profound, but we just want shit. It just happens. It’s not a decision, it’s a set of drives built into us by evolution to ensure we survive and reproduce whether it’ll make us happy or not. The desire to have kids has nothing to do with any felicific calculus about the happiness and sadness they’d bring, in the same way that hunger isn’t a judgment about how enjoyable food would be. Other desires that are less primal stem from these, usually via power, safety and status.

The upshot is: your brain, gut, heart, genitalia, and whatever other organs you want to assign desires to, are not trying to make you happy. When they say they want something – whether it’s true love or a breakfast burrito – it doesn’t mean they’ll thank you for it. And the question of how to make yourself happy has really very little to do with getting what you want. These posts will be about what it does relate to, and sometimes how.

20 Replies to “Advice”

  1. It’s always seemed to me (and this is purely personal experience- I’m a physicist, not a biologist) that satisfying base desires makes us happy because happiness is a primary driver of evolution. It’s often said that humans are one of the few species to have recreational sex, and that makes sense when you figure in the pleasure aspect- creatures that enjoy having sex have sex more, and that’s pretty much the number one requirement of the whole passing your genes on thing behind evolving. Eating makes us happy because it means you don’t starve. Eating tasty things makes us happier because there’s a correlation between taste and fat/sugar/salt- all things that, while vilified by health experts today, were a vital part of our ancestors diets to survive harsher conditions. This is true across most animals at the higher end of the evolutionary pyramid. It’s not to say that all things that make us happy are evolutionary tools, but don’t write off happiness as a tool of evolutionary success.

  2. @Mr Chug: So you are happy to have friends because that means you’re in a group and this increases your survival chances? Seems to work, at least superficially.

    But what about pleasures that derive from solitude? Like trekking alone in the mountains just to explore or see the view, or reading, or playing (be it any of the miriad solitaire games you can do with almost anything, or even single player games), or …? Wasting time seems to lean more on the bad side, so why do we like it?

  3. That’s evolutionary psychology, and I sort of assume it in the above. My point is that the predicted happiness payoff for fulfilling these desires doesn’t always come, and it doesn’t necessarily stop the more primal ones from coming again – nor us from obeying them.

    Fede – you might say the joy of exploring alone is related to the possibility of discovering some food, water or shelter, that reading is the general thirst for experiences that might inform our furure decision making and improve our survival chances, and that games are mental training, the way play-fighting is physical training.

    At a certain point, of course, attempts to assign an evolutionary drive to every little desire in the modern mind get a bit silly, and while you can always do it, it’s not always terribly informative or useful to do so. At a certain level of rationalisation, you could rationalise pretty much anything into those terms whether it benefitted us or not.

    What you can say is that surprisingly often, people’s motives and actions can be understood in those terms surprisingly well. That is useful, sometimes, particularly in making sense of violence or tragedy, or in getting over personal differences.

  4. I worked out how to be happy, and can sum it up in 2 words: Be happy.

    That’s all there is to it. I worked this out after my breakup and realised that I have the choice to be happy, even if people are mean callous bastards. Granted, I worked this out in between throwing up and passing out, but it still works now.

  5. The message I personally took from Nineteen Eighty-Four was that even in the worst of circumstances, you are master of your own head, and you can be happy.

    Somewhere George Orwell is rolling in his grave, but screw him, I’m happy.

  6. FYI, my first encounter with the Bubblehog was macro’d ‘And they shall call me…Bubblenuts.’ It’s not funny but I can’t not smile.

    I know I’m also falling down the evo-psych side of things rather than your actual point, but I don’t have anything in particular to say to your actual point. It’s unlikely but possible, Tom Francis or other reader, that you’ve never held the concept of the Monkeysphere (less whimsically Dunbar’s number) as a tool for understanding your surroundings. I think you might enjoy thinking about it. If by some terrible misfortune I ever find myself in a management position, I have promised myself that the Peter Principle and the Monkeysphere will be the primary lenses through which I view all decisions affecting my coworkers.

  7. I love the Monkeysphere concept; I gave an impromptu lecture to my family over Christmas on the nature of the human mind and why we react to news of the lives of others as we do (specifically, why reality TV and celebrity gossip rags buck the trend by making people care about complete strangers, every bit as human as them, that they likely will never meet).

    Tom’s right in that it’s an endless exercise to try and attach evolutionary benefits to every positive action, although it strikes me as a possible idea for a particularly highbrow party game. What I find to be a more interesting question is why happiness emerged at all. Does a mouse feel happiness, or are they limited to contentment when all their basic needs are fulfilled? Babies don’t smile naturally for 6-8 weeks, and only then at familiar objects and people; do they ‘learn’ happiness as they develop? As far as I see it, being able to feel happiness when we get what we want is in itself an evolutionary advantage, regardless of whether the desire itself gives an advantage.

  8. @Pentadact: I see where that comes from, and while I agree that it can give satisfactory explanations, accepting it as the sole explanation would make me feel uneasy. It reminds me of Hume’s utilitarianism.
    Ultimately, I believe man isn’t just what these theories make of him (he’s both more and less), but I’m sure it cannot be proven easily.

    The monkeysphere concept covers a different field, and is a very solid concept, although I question the given numbers: new technologies make it much easier to keep in touch and care for more people, so the monkeysphere has extended (and it will probably keep extending).

  9. I disagree. One of the conclusions I draw from the concept is that carelessly overextending the monkeysphere is fraught with individual and societal peril. It’s not a matter of time or effort, it’s a matter of potentially tying up a finite number of circuits you may need in meatspace.

  10. @Mr Chug, re your first comment: I think it is useful to distinguish between pleasure and happiness – pleasure being transitory, and happiness being a more long-term, general state of being, which I think is what Tom meant in his post.

    I think the seeking of pleasure is absolutely something that drives evolution, for the reasons you give, but on the whole evolution couldn’t give a shit about lasting happiness. Maybe because of this, humans are remarkably bad at predicting what will make us happy (e.g. despite all the evidence to the contrary there is a widely-held belief that more money will make you happier, which – above poverty level – doesn’t really hold), but we’re pretty good at predicting what will give us momentary pleasure.

  11. The thing with the monkey sphere is that it’s perfectly capable to care for more than a 150 people, just not, perhaps, at once; but if you exploit the theory it can be done. I worked it out a couple of weeks back and I know about 400 people well with roughly 700-800 acquaintances (although to be fair, 300 of them are on my course at Uni), then there’s a load more that I see around the city that I recognise from walking past them on the street.

    I know them in groups, usually into groups of 20-50 people, the brain will assign each group a set of properties (much like how people assign stereotypes to nations) but if you think about that group you automatically remember all the people inside and realise you care about what happens to them.

    Think of this, if you kept all your computer files in the base directory of the drive, with your ‘essential files’ in a safe place (your monkeysphere), would you particularly care if you deleted a couple of files at random to install a new game? But if you have them all set out neatly into folders then it’s harder to go and delete the files (providing you stop to open it) since when you open a folder, you recognise the files inside and think “but I might need them!”.

    I’ll admit it does break down at a world scale where you don’t know people from X or Y country, so they’re just caricatures. The Monkeysphere is right, it’s almost impossible to get past.

    If you visualise a couple of phantom people with a personality but that can be adapted quickly (in your head) to living in X or Y.

    Despite being fictional, I’ve found you’ll think twice about acting against the group (I’ve only asked a few people to test this, so the data is just anecdotal really). If your Mr. Khati, who has his own hopes and fears, raises 4 kids and has just lost his job in the floods lives in country X then their plight becomes much more real to you at a base level. You still know he’s not real, you can still rationalise away caring about the floods, but hopefully you’ll donate money to the cause if you walk past a collection box which you walked straight past before.

    Sure, you’re still that ignorant ape that struggles to live in a large society, but it makes it that bit easier to regard others – who you don’t know – as being just as human as yourself.

  12. Oh yes, I agree that’s one of the major ways it can help the pilot steer the animal. Tricking it with groups is a great tool, perhaps the great tool that enables civilization. All I’m saying is, what happens when Facebook comes into your iPhone and asks you to care about some stranger’s bad day in Poughkeepsie? What happens when every single night there’s a new group – a new synthetic person – suffering on the news? At some point do you stop saying ‘hi’ to the bus driver? What happens when a bus crash in Bangalore that hurts 20 people is preceded or followed by an earthquake in Bangladesh that hurts 1 million? And does diverting individual sympathy toward specific tragedies short-circuit willingness to support more dispassionate social safety nets, foreign aid or disaster response programs?

  13. Stick to writing about video games emo. Amateur philosophy hour can be found in any number of esoteric self help sections of book stores and you are too good a writer for this.

  14. @Jason L (on Dunbar’s numer)

    Please let me explain where I was coming from with my “monkeysphere has extended” comment.
    One of the conditions Dunbar observed was the necessity for the groups to be close, citing him from Wikipedia:

    “… we might expect the upper limit on group size to depend on the degree of social dispersal. In dispersed societies, individuals will meet less often and will thus be less familiar with each, so group sizes should be smaller in consequence.”

    also, later

    Dunbar, in Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, proposes furthermore that language may have arisen as a “cheap” means of social grooming, allowing early humans to efficiently maintain social cohesion. Without language, Dunbar speculates, humans would have to expend nearly half their time on social grooming, which would have made productive, cooperative effort nearly impossible. Language may have allowed societies to remain cohesive, while reducing the need for physical and social intimacy

    our means of communication are improving, so my guess is that this allows us to reduce the need for physical and social intimacy a little more.

    I expect further advancements in our means of communication, from there my tentative “(and it will probably keep extending)”.

    On the contrary, we might have reached the maximum communication efficency some time in the past. In that case, we won’t increase our monkeysphere just by helping networking.

  15. Well, Tom, you’ve dealt with what happiness ultimately isn’t, even though your correspondents tend to disagree. Now it’s time to suggest what it is. How sad that one contributor wants to leave philosophy to the professionals. It might seem a bit self-consciously paradoxical but one example of happiness is to use one’s own intelligence to try to work out what happiness might be. . .

    By the way, ‘felicific calculus’ is a phrase to conjure with!

  16. It probably does, look at Haiti, there was a massive response to the disaster itself, but how many would give to a quick-response organisation to ready for the next big one. The brain does seem to ‘reset’ by forgetting what happened before though, people do care about the latest thing on the news and the latest synthetic person if only because the last one has slipped out of their consciousness.

    I think that’s what saves this species in a way, our short attention span, it stops us from not caring at all; we’ll still say hi to the bus driver and give aid to the latest disaster, but we sacrifice the capability to support long-term problems without reminders (look at the money that goes to groups that focus on long-term aid, that tends to be from communities like a church where a collection plate is handed around and people are reminded weekly).

Comments are closed.