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#20: When wanting something is better than having it

#20: When wanting something is better than having it

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Welcome to another Motherfuggin’ Monday email, the only weekly newsletter that dresses in all black, wears eyeliner and sits alone brooding in its room because life is endless pain and get out of my room, Mom, geez!

Anyway… uh, every week we cover three new and interesting ideas, hopefully to make you a slightly less awful human being. This week, we’re talking: 1) lottery tickets and happiness, 2) the paradox of getting what you want, and 3) some thoughts about calendars.  

Let’s get to it. 

1. Why the Lottery Makes People Happy – Hundreds of millions of people all over the world play the lottery each week, making the game just as popular as it is financially stupid. Unlike casino games such as Blackjack or Roulette, your average expected return for playing the lottery is roughly 50 cents for every dollar spent. As Ambrose Bierce once said, “The lottery: a tax on people who are bad at math.” 

But, people like the lottery. Clearly, otherwise it wouldn’t be so damn popular. A new academic study published last week looked at why the lottery makes people happy, despite the fact they’re essentially setting their money on fire. 

The study is interesting because apparently, it’s not the winning that made people happier. What made people happier was the expectation leading up to the drawing. 

Put simply: people enjoyed thinking they might win but not actually knowing, more than they enjoyed the winning itself. It was the uncertainty that made them happy, not the result. And as soon as the drawing was over and that uncertainty disappeared, their happiness also disappeared, and they needed to buy another lottery ticket to achieve the same high. 

I’ve written before about how we often enjoy wanting something far more than actually having it. In the case of the lottery, people probably buy tickets telling themselves that they want to be rich. But really what they want is the idea that they could be special. They desire to feel as though they are the “chosen one”: the fantasy that out of tens of millions of people picked numbers, *I* was the one who got it right. This is why people cough up money every week. Not jsut for the promise of riches, but to be able to feel, just for a few days, that they have been chosen by the Gods.

2. The Paradox of Getting What You Want – Related to above, George Bernard Shaw once said, “There are two tragedies in life: one is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it.”

When we base our happiness on the expectation of great things, then the achievement of that great thing will paradoxically remove us from our happiness. This is why we self-sabotage and avoid things that will make us successful. Because by achieving our dreams, we are forced to give up the joy that a dream lends us. 

I wrote about the dangers of this propensity for dreaming in my book Everything is Fucked: A Book About Hope. In it, I argued that hope, while being a necessary and healthy psychological function, can also turn destructive. If we use our hopes as a means to escape the present, then we’re likely setting ourselves up for disaster.

I also wrote that we seem more susceptible to doing this when we’re part of groups. Left to our own devices, we’re like, “Oh well, I guess I’ll make do with a six-pack and Friends reruns. Hey, life’s not bad!” 

But suddenly you put us in a group and before long we’re standing on street corners, writing embarrassing shit on poster boards, crying for revolution, and putting all of our faith and hope in some utopian vision for the future. 

This is like a political version of playing the lottery, a blind belief that our group is part of some divinely chosen group that will somehow remove suffering. I see people on both the right and left fall victim to these sorts of mindsets. They enjoy wanting something more than they do living it. They vote for the feeling of specialness, not the possibility of success, and they’re getting 50 cents on the dollar for their efforts.

3. Our Funny Gregorian Calendar – If you’ve ever wondered what sorts of things Mark Manson does on a Saturday morning, “Spending two hours on Wikipedia reading about the history of calendars” may or may not be one of them.

As I’m writing this, it’s February 29th, that rare day that only occurs once every four years. Of course, that got me thinking, “Who came up with the leap year? And why weren’t they shot for it?” 

That led me down quite the rabbit hole where I discovered many things, among them:

  • The modern calendar that the world uses today was instituted by Julius Caesar in 46 BC. Thus, it was named “The Julian Calendar” and July and August were named in honor of the first two caesars (Julius and Augustus). 
  • Roughly 1,600 years later, astronomers realized that the summer and winter solstices were occurring ten days earlier each year than they did in the Roman Empire. They calculated that a year has 365.2425 days in it, not exactly 365. 
  • In 1582, they proposed a new calendar. This new calendar would run in 400 year cycles. Every four years a day would be added to February. These years would be called “leap years.” Every hundred years, you skip leap year. Except for the 400th year, on that year, you keep it. 
  • I know, this isn’t complicated at all. 
  • Fun Fact: the next time we skip leap year is in 2100. Me and almost everyone reading this will be dead by then. 
  • The church was satisfied with this new calendar and in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII decreed it to be used immediately. That year, they skipped from October 4th straight to October 15th to get the solstices lined up again. 
  • Gregory, being another powerful asshole based in Rome, decided to name this calendar the Gregorian calendar. It’s the calendar that is used all over the world today. 

This gets me thinking about how all measurements of time are somewhat arbitrary and based on poor measurements of the sun and stars. For example, sleep scientists have found that the human body’s natural circadian rhythm is actually closer to 24 hours and 15 minutes. This is often why, when you have absolutely nothing to do for weeks on end, you start going to bed later and later each night. 

It makes me wonder, what if we devised a system of timing that wasn’t optimized for the sun or the moon, but instead, optimized for human biology? What would that look like? What if we decided to measure hours in exactly 1/10th of the average circadian rhythm, months in exact increments of average female menstruation, and years in exact increments of the solstices (for farmers). What would that look like? It would surely make measuring time easier, diagnosis for disorders and illnesses more straightforward, the debate about what is “normal” a bit more clear. 

Then maybe I could move to Rome and we could call it the Mansonian Calendar. 

Until next (Gregorian calendar) week, 

Mark