In the previous post on my personal philosophy I outlined my foundational positions on some things as they relate to shaping how I view the world. Since I don’t think anything is really useful unless it can be applied in practice in some way, I’m following it up with this post on how my personal philosophy informs my actions and how I deal with certain things.
Since my personal goal in life is a hedonistic one of trying to maximize my happiness and peace of mind during my short existence the primary focus of all of these practices will be to do just that – maximize my personal peace of mind and contentment primarily through reduction of negative stimulus / emotions and a minimization of desires.
I’ve written it prescriptively, as though I’m giving advice, but you don’t have to take it that way. I’ve gotten good mileage from it, but if you don’t hold the same positions as myself from the previous post your results may vary. I don’t think this is a one size fits all philosophy, so regardless of my writing style don’t take it as being writ in stone.
I’m going to start with the internal side of things. It is much easier to change yourself than it is to change the world around you, so in my view the best way to create the largest effect with the least effort is to begin by gaining control of your internal processes.
Cultivating Emotional Control
You are largely in control of your own emotional states. There are caveats, of course, your brain chemistry is for the most part still something that most people are not directly aware of and it can easily override or undermine your conscious thought processes.
Even so with practice you can – in the same way that people learn to control, ignore and suppress feelings of hunger or discomfort – learn to control your own emotional states. Since happiness and peace of mind are emotional states, this an excellent place to start on the road to achieving them.
When there is a problem, or when you feel like you’re off track, you should always attempt to change yourself to correct the problem before trying to change the situation externally.
Recognizing Negative Emotions
The first step in cultivating control of your emotions is to learn to recognize and address the ones that are going to cause the biggest problems – the negative ones.
Developing mindfulness is key here. Whenever a negative emotion arises, be it anger, fear, sadness or whatever, you need to be able to recognize when those emotions arise then take a step back and examine as objectively as possible why you’re feeling them and what’s causing them.
Once you do that you can come to understand why you no longer need to feel that emotion and let it drift away. The easiest way to allow yourself to let go of an emotion you don’t want is by examining it through the dichotomy of control.
The Dichotomy of Control
The dichotomy of control is the fact that there are two possible states to everything, either it is under your control or it is not under it. This doesn’t have to be an absolute, there are grades of how much control you may have over something, but everything in existence must fall into either the category of at least partially under your control or not under your control at all. No exceptions.
When you recognize this you can view each situation to determine which category it falls into. If it falls into the first category and is something you can control, determine if you did or can do everything under your power to make the situation better. If it falls into the second category don’t even think about it – things that are 100% outside of your control needn’t be bothered with since there is absolutely nothing you can do about them.
For example, say you’re worried that one day the Sun will explode and wipe out all life on Earth in a supernova. There’s nothing you can do about that, at least not practically, so you might as well let that worry go. It’s not helping you and its just wasting your time and energy.
On the other side let’s say you’re angry you didn’t get a promotion you wanted. Assuming it’s based on your performance this is presumably something under your control. Look back at your performance and determine if there were areas you could have performed better. If there were, let go of the anger and resolve to do those things next time. If you determine you did everything you possibly could, then it turns out it wasn’t under your control after all and there’s nothing else you could’ve done. No sense being angry over something you can’t control so let it go and try again next time.
Embrace the Ephemeral
If you recall from my previous post I don’t accept the existence of any deities, afterlife or the idea that life has any inherent meaning. In the grand scheme of the universe I am an insignificant blip of carbon that got disassembled almost immediately after coming into existence. Through the lens of deep time my life is more infinitesimally small than a single hydrogen atom in the entire Pacific ocean.
Nothing is permanent and everything I know and care about will eventually be gone. So why worry?
Existence is transient and largely trivial. Does it really matter that I spilled coffee on myself this morning? Is it such a big deal that the car in front of me cut me off? Am I going to die because I got rejected for something I wanted? Most of the things that we get upset about are laughably insignificant when you look at them in terms of the big picture, so don’t let them make you miserable now.
Even if that weren’t the case nothing lasts. As miserable as you can possibly get it can never be eternal, so remind yourself that this too shall pass and move on. Dwelling on negatives will never lead to increased happiness or peace of mind.
Eliminate your Expectations
Disappointment is the sum deficit between your expectations and reality. By eliminating your expectations entirely or by always assuming that the worst possible outcome is inevitable you keep yourself from dealing with the pain of something falling short of your expectations.
Now when I say to expect the most negative outcome I don’t mean to dwell on it. Instead use your examination of the worst possible outcome as a way to eliminate your fear of failure. When you ask yourself what the worst thing that could happen is, it’s almost always not that bad. Especially when you remember the ephemerality of things as noted above.
When you understand that the worst case scenario is never that bad, there’s no reason to worry about it. Then you can expect it knowing you’re totally ready for it and, in the cases when the outcome is much better, be pleasantly surprised. Besides, most things are outside of your control, so having high expectations on the outcome of situations beyond your control is like gambling with your piece of mind. Don’t surrender control of your happiness to chance.
Live Now and Be Mindful
You only have this moment right now. The past falls into the category of things you can’t control or change under any circumstances (until someone invents a time machine, though that might not even be logically possible from a space-time standpoint) so let go of it. Worrying about or being hung up on the past is one of the stupidest things you can do – you’re poisoning your present over something you can never change.
Similarly, don’t worry about the future. You should certainly plan for it to the best of your ability, but accept that what will come will come and the most you can do is accept it and deal with it when it’s here. You’ll control what you can and the rest there’s no sense in worrying about. Don’t worry so much about what the future holds that you miss out on the present.
Practice being as mindful and present in the current moment as possible as often as you can.
Neutralizing Negative Input
There are at least two types of negative input, physical discomfort and psychological discomfort. Physical discomfort would be things like pain, hunger, stress etc. while psychological discomfort would be things like insults, derision or humiliation by others.
Physical discomfort can be acclimated to, processed and internalized through practice. For example, an easy way to practice becoming one with the feeling of hunger and getting over the discomfort it causes is to occasionally engage in controlled fasting. Through regulated exposure you can become familiar with it and eventually it no longer causes discomfort.
The reason this can be important on the physical side of things is that our thoughts, actions and emotions are often strongly affected by our physical state and any discomfort we may be experiencing. People who are under a lot of stress, are extremely hungry or are in some similar state of physical discomfort are going to have a much more negative state of mind and negative behavior than someone who isn’t being affected by those things.
When it comes to psychological discomfort caused by others the best thing to do is understand that no one can cause you psychological discomfort without your permission. No one can directly make you angry, sad or anything else they can only take actions to create circumstances that would normally cause you to assume that state. In the end the control still lies with you.
Now again your brain chemistry can be a powerful thing, so this will take some practice as well. Most people can’t just flip a mental switch and no longer be angry or upset about things. Using some of the frameworks and realizations above helps, as does understanding that someone can only successfully insult you if you have a related insecurity. You effectively can’t insult a person by calling them a tree or something equally absurd, and if you’ve let go of your insecurities any insults or humiliation people attempt to bring to bear on you will seem just as ridiculous because you’ve stripped them of any ammunition.
Interacting with the Physical World
This second section deals primarily with your interactions with the physical world and things outside of yourself. This may at times still entail making changes to yourself rather than attempting to control your environment, but it’s more about what you do externally rather than how you process things mentally.
Pursue Physical Fitness and Health
Unhealthiness is an inherently discordant and negative state and is substantially less conducive to achieving happiness and peace of mind than is healthiness.
As a result, you should always be striving toward a state of health and physical fitness. Like anything this pursuit should not become so obsessive that it goes too far and begins to damage your happiness and peace of mind in other areas. Be reasonable, but always strive to be as fit and healthy as possible and avoid things that would reduce your healthiness whenever you can.
Neither Judge nor Begrudge
Remembering that in general people are not directly responsible for their actions as a result of holding a position of soft determinism it isn’t appropriate to judge people for their actions and isn’t appropriate to hold a grudge or seek revenge.
When harmed it is appropriate only to take sufficient action to ensure that no more harm will be done in the future. For example, if someone is convicted of murder they should be imprisoned not as retribution but as a means to ensure that they don’t cause harm to anyone else.
If someone causes you direct harm remember that they’re not entirely in control of their actions and don’t hold that harm against them. If there’s an obvious threat of further harm being caused take the absolute minimum effective action required to remove that threat of harm and move on.
I should note this doesn’t mean to necessarily forget that harm was caused, it may be important to remember as a means to avoid future harm, however you should forgive the transgressor.
Minimize Physical Desires
Embracing a general practice of minimalism and gratitude and being content with what you currently have will make it substantially easier to achieve a general state of happiness and piece of mind.
People have a general psychological set point of happiness to which we naturally return over time. In other words, even if you win the lottery tomorrow and are awarded 10 million dollars over time your happiness will equalize and you’ll find you need something even bigger to raise your happiness again.
This inevitably leads to disappointment when your desires can’t be met.
By eliminating extraneous physical desires and learning to be happy with what you have you create a space where your peace of mind is not dependent on constantly gaining more things but remains at a stable point. When your desires are easy to fulfill and keep fulfilled you never feel the pain of being unable to fulfill them or the loss of a desire that was previously fulfilled.
Much like lowering general expectations the less you want the happier you will be overall.
Always Seek to Minimize Harm to Others and Increase Happiness
In general causing harm to others will always result in a net reduction of peace of mind and happiness for yourself. Even if, temporarily, harming others increases your happiness (for example by theft of an item you desire) in the end it will bring more negative outcomes than positive.
There’s the obvious negative of potential legal consequences, including the reduction in peace of mind caused by fear of being caught. There’s also the fear of retribution directly from the harmed party. Additionally there’s the negative feelings of regret and guilt most people experience from knowingly harming others.
Outside of all of those your peace of mind and happiness is best served by existing in a society where everyone tries to maximize everyone else’s happiness and cause as little harm as possible. If you cause harm to others you are contributing to creating an environment where everyone harms others which is a less than ideal environment to exist in if your goal is to maximize your own happiness.
When you help others they are encouraged to help you increase your own happiness and peace of mind. By contributing to the creation of an environment where everyone is inclined to assist everyone else achieve happiness you maximize your own chances to do so as well.
To this end beneficence, honesty, respect and charity are all virtues one should attempt to embrace and cultivate.
While I’ve tried my best to distill the practices I follow in order to maximize my own happiness I’m certain there are things I’ve overlooked or not considered. Regardless this is a relatively complete list and hopefully can serve as a starting point for determining your own practices for maximizing happiness and peace of mind.
Do you have any similar practices? Anything you do differently that you’d like to discuss or concerns with my reasoning? Leave a comment!
Photo Credit: Jasohill