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#41: Unhappiness is a Mistake

#41: Unhappiness is a Mistake

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Welcome to another Mindf*ck Monday, the only weekly newsletter that will always listen to your complaining, even though it doesn’t care. Each week, I send you three potentially life-changing ideas to help you be a slightly less awful human being. This week, we’re talking about: 1) harm inflation and why words matter, 2) how unhappiness is a mistake, and 3) who you are. 

Let’s get into it. 

1. Harm inflation and why words matter One of my research obsessions the past couple years is something psychologists have begun to call “harm inflation.” The idea is simple. Over the past hundred years or so, our understanding of harm — trauma, pain, suffering, etc. — has expanded to include milder and milder experiences that cause discomfort. 

Basic example: a hundred years ago, the definition of “trauma” was pretty much limited to soldiers who came back from trench warfare. All day, every day, for years they were shot at 24/7 and watched their buddies get blown up by shells. They lived among rats and lice and drank their own urine to survive. They survived but they came home and were known as “shell shocked” — they were often mentally and emotionally empty. That was trauma. 

But as decades went on, we began to realize that trauma could result from far more normal experiences — domestic violence, tragic accidents, natural disasters, etc. Then a few more decades went by and we realized that symptoms of trauma could result from prolonged, low-level painful experiences — i.e. being neglected by one’s parents as a child or being bullied regularly as an adolescent. 

We’ve now arrived at a place where offensive tweets, mean-spirited comments, and controversial books are being seriously discussed in academic journals, news media, and public policy as “traumatic” for people. Whether you agree with this or not, the trend over the past hundred years is clear: we have expanded and enlarged our understanding of trauma to encompass the more mundane and typical human discomforts. 

Similar “concept creep” has happened with a lot of related terms. The meanings of violence, safety, mental illness, addiction, and persecution have all expanded greatly in the past century as well. 

And let’s be clear, these expansions have had some incredible benefits. Sixty years ago, drinking scotch all day, beating your kids, and sexually assaulting your secretary were all seen as relatively normal parts of life. But due to the expansion of the concepts of addiction, trauma, and safety, we now understand that these behaviors can royally fuck people up. 

But can this expansion of definition ever go too far? One aspect of human psychology that we all intuitively know but rarely put into words is the self-fulfilling nature of many of our beliefs. Generally, if we believe something is harmful, we are more likely to experience it as harmful. If we believe something will ruin our life, we are more likely to feel as though our life is ruined. 

There’s an interactivity between our beliefs, our definitions of various concepts, and our experiences. If the definitions of these words shift and expand to encompass more of our lives, then they will reshape how we experience more of our lives. 

Therefore, definitions matter. A lot. Yet, we don’t seem to pay enough attention to them. A new paper recently found that teaching people broader definitions of trauma made them more likely to experience the effects of trauma after viewing a graphic film. Similarly, another recent study found that people who are taught to adopt mental illness as part of their self-understanding suffer greater negative symptoms from mental illness. 

When it comes to harm inflation, it seems that there must be an optimal definition somewhere in the middle but we’ve missed it. Our 20th-century definition was too permissive and callous, causing unnecessary harm to others. Meanwhile, our 21st-century definition seems to be too sensitive and entitled, thus causing unnecessary harm to ourselves. 

We have overcorrected as a culture. Hopefully, we can find a way back to a healthy middle.

2. Unhappiness is a mistake – In this newsletter a couple of weeks ago, I challenged everyone to read a big ass book they’ve always wanted to read but never had the guts to. We’ve all got one. I joined in the challenge and decided to read the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s principle work, The World as Will and Representation (yeah, I know, fuck me). Well, about 80 pages in, I made an exciting discovery.

If you’ve read a number of articles or books about happiness, you’ve probably come across, at some point, the following equation:

Happiness = Reality – Expectations

It’s pretty common. In fact, I even shared it in this newsletter once, many moons ago. I always figured it was a cute thing that came from some happiness researcher or self-help author. 

But, it turns out that it actually comes from Schopenhauer! Here’s the man himself: 

“All happiness depends on the proportion of what we claim and what we receive. It is immaterial how great or small the two quantities of this proportion are, and the proportion can be established just as well by diminishing the first quantity as by increasing the second.” 

He then goes on to explain that to maintain our happiness, we adopt one of two strategies. The first strategy is to simply want or expect less. This is the Buddhist strategy — to remove oneself of all desire or attachment so that reality can never upset or disappoint you. 

The second strategy is to live in so damn well that all of your expectations are fulfilled. This is the Western way — the way of expansion and growth and living in virtue.  

But here’s the really cool part. In explaining this, Schopenhauer points out that, regardless of your strategy, all unhappiness is ultimately rooted in the same thing: mistakes. 

“For whenever a man in any way loses self-control, or is struck down by misfortune, or grows angry, or loses heart, he shows in this way that he finds things different than what he expected, and consequently he lived under a mistake.” 

Translation: if you’re unhappy, it’s either because you had the wrong expectations, or you failed to materialize your expectations in reality. Either way: you fucked up. And this is what drives unhappiness, the sudden realization of one’s assumptions and expectations being so terribly wrong. 

3. Who are you? – Last week, I asked all of my readers to fill out a survey. In all, 25,360 people completed it — way more than I expected — and it provided me with a lot of interesting information. So, if you took the time to do it, thank you. 

Here’s some fun info about you — the readers: 

  1. Age and gender: 58% female and 42% male. (Note: 21-year-old desperate and single Mark would have been very satisfied with this ratio.) 0.58% identified as non-binary or transgender. The bulk of the audience (54%) is between the ages of 25-44. This has been the case for a long time, but whereas the audience used to skew younger, now the audience skews older, with another 28% between ages 45-64 and 5% over the age of 65. Teenagers now make up the smallest age demographic at only 2%.
  2. The audience is split pretty much 50/50 between North America and the rest of the world. It’s split 67/33 between native English speakers and non-native English speakers. Australia and Singapore continue to be the two most over-represented audiences relative to their countries’ populations. The fastest growth in the audience is in Asia and Africa, particularly India, but also the Philippines and South Africa.
  3. 39% of the audience says they are more likely to enjoy or recommend my work because of the profanity. Only 6% say they are less likely to enjoy or recommend it. This confirmed my suspicions but was also a nice revelation. I get complaints about the profanity from readers constantly. And while I always suspected that it was a loud minority that I was hearing from, it was nice to have it confirmed. Fuck ‘em.
  4. The only topic that people overwhelmingly did not want to see me write about were current events. Over the years, I have avoided current events and politics, but with so much happening this year, I felt a kind of moral duty to write about some major issues, particularly COVID-19. 

The spring, therefore, became a kind of experiment to see if touching on current topics felt right. By June, I found it drained me and brought out the worst in both myself and a lot of the readers. For instance, even in this survey, a couple dozen people commented that my usage of a particular word or a recommendation of a certain book in prior emails signaled that I must be “succumbing to the neo-Marxist left” or “parroting the soft bigotry of the alt-right.” I have received stupid fucking emails like this for months now. The amount of moral judgment coming from people who don’t know a single one of my political beliefs yet are happy to project whatever “-ism” scares them onto me is staggering. 

So, to see that the readership, at large, doesn’t have that much interest in these topics came as a relief. I will gladly stay away. The little current events experiment of 2020 is over. Back to my Schopenhauer and poop jokes… aka, home. 

Until next week,