I don’t believe that following any specific lifestyle or behavior will result in happiness. You can conduct surveys over a large population and perform statistical analysis to find what lifestyles often lead to happiness. You can then draw conclusions to whether things like helping others, maintaining close personal relationships, or doing meaningful work can lead to a happy life.
Although this information can definitely be useful and guide you in the right direction, these are ultimately just associations. The same way the crowing of a rooster is not the reason for the sun rising every morning, specific life choices are not the fundamental reason why you are happy or not.
Basic Units of Experience
My goal here is to explain what makes an experience positive or negative at the most fundamental level. As with computer programming, no matter how complicated an application can be, at it’s very core it is all just ones and zeros.
To better understand positive or negative emotions, we need to understand their evolutionary purpose.
Positive emotions reinforce behavior and solidify patterns. Sex feels good because reproduction is essential to the survival of our species; your brain wants to keep repeating behaviors that lead to more sex.
Negative emotions alert the brain that something is not right, telling your brain to change patterns to avoid those negative behaviors from happening again. Rejection feels bad because as primates, we need other humans to reproduce and survive, so you instinctively want to change behaviors that lead to rejection.
We are not only driven by survival instincts, reinforcements for our positive and negative behaviors are often a result of our ego and ideas about what our future should look like. If your goal is to have money, making money will feel good and spending money will feel bad.
Negative emotion is the only thing that triggers change. Whether that might be the fear of losing what you already have or visualizing a future that is better than your current state. If you are in perfect bliss, there is nothing that you want to do differently.
I refer to this basic unit of change as mental resistance. As with programming, this basic unit can create a complex set of experiences and emotions.
- Pleasure is a state of reduced mental resistance resulting from positive emotions or physical sensations
- Tranquility is a state of low mental resistance absent of strong emotions
- Happiness is confidence that your current path in life will lead to less mental resistance in the future
- Spiritual Enlightenment is understanding that all mental resistance is just a choice
More On Resistance
Mental resistance is an internal conflict, an alert that signals uncertainty. Your brain is constantly trying to improve your current state; decisions are made by predicting future states through the analysis of previous experience. Your brain creates simulations of possible outcomes and determines which is the best path forward. The more uncertainty on a path, the more mental conflict.
Mental resistance in our everyday life is often a result of internal conflicts between our logic and emotions. Our rational and emotional mind battle to make decisions such as: Should I eat this cake? Should I tell him the secret? Should I drink another beer?
Let’s pretend you are out to dinner debating on whether to order dessert. You had set a new year’s resolution to make healthier choices, with a goal to lose 10lbs by summer. You also love this restaurant’s chocolate cake. You have two options.
Eating the cake will reduce your levels of mental resistance in the present. Regardless of whether you had mental resistance to begin with, wanting to eat the cake but not eating it is a cause of mental resistance on its own. Comparing your present state to a potential future state can result in high levels of mental resistance, so just the act of the cake being on the menu causes conflict. Alternatively, not achieving your goals creates mental resistance by attacking your self image, an attack signaling uncertainty in your current path of life.
There is no right answer. Your decision will ultimately depend on how much you predict the level of mental resistance caused by you not eating the cake will be in comparison to the mental resistance that will result in the future from you breaking your diet.
The level of mental resistance for any specific conflict is a relationship between the uncertainty of a predicted path and its potential impact on future mental states.
Here are some examples of activities and my perception on their levels of mental resistance.
- No Resistance — Breathing, walking, closing your eyes. Any process that can be done without being conscious of it will have no mental resistance.
- Low Resistance — Choosing a movie to watch. Your brain is trying to predict the best option. Both the level of information you have on the movie and your perceived importance on your choice may vary, but overall, the impact on your life is low.
- Medium Resistance- A sprained ankle. Depending on the level of uncertainty and potential impact on future mental states, spraining your ankle leads to a medium level of resistance. As long as you know what to do and what you should expect, it should not be traumatic. Pain is a type of resistance alerting you to stop your current path and attend the pain to prevent future negative mental states from occurring.
- High Resistance- Going through a divorce. Although the experience of a divorce can differ, the process can result in an extremely high level of mental resistance. Your self identity can be destabilized, which reduces confidence that your current path in life will lead to less mental resistance in the future. Additionally, decisions like whether to pursue legal action are often made with little confidence on future impacts. These tough decisions create ongoing mental conflicts.
Pleasure and Flow States
Pleasure is experienced when you feel an emotion or physical sensation that reduces current mental resistance.
Think about what you enjoy doing. Maybe is socializing with friends, listening to music, watching movies, or eating good food.
These things quiet your internal conflict by captivating your attention and connecting you to the present. When you are watching a good movie, you are captivated in the plot; you are feeling emotions, but the path is outside of your control. You are in a set path with extremely low internal conflict.
Games can be fun because although there might be internal conflict on your moment to moment decisions, we are captivated by the game. Issues with your marriage or job disappear; the only thing that matters is winning the game. Winning feels good because it reaffirms us that we are doing things right; reinforcing our ego and the belief that we are on a path of low mental resistance.
This is why flow states are so desirable. Flow is a mental state when you are fully immersed in an activity. This is also known as being in “the zone”. People who have high levels of job satisfaction are usually those who become immersed in their work. This immersion leaves no room for mental conflict. However you define it, flow and resistance are literally antonyms.
Happiness is the belief that you on the right path, the path of least mental resistance. Happiness and optimism are somewhat synonymous. However, happiness usually refers to your internal well being while optimism usually refers to tangible, external results.
As I said in the intro, the right path is not the same for everyone. If your main goal in life is to experience as many things as possible, you will enjoy attending parties, concerts, and traveling. Every time you experience something new, you’ll be reinforced that you are doing things right, increasing your level of happiness. You will likely be miserable working a corporate job with limited vacation, regardless of pay.
If your main goal in life is to be financially successful, then sacrificing time and money for a trip to Europe will not make your happy. You will likely just experience mental resistance throughout your travels, thinking about work and wishing you should have invested that money instead. In this case, your actions are not aligned to your ideal path, causing high levels of mental resistance.
A Path to Happiness.
Remember that there is no right path to follow. Your ideal path is unique to you and it can change over time based on new information and experiences. The secret to living a life with high levels of positive mental states is achieved by reducing mental conflict. This can be done by aligning your emotions with your overall goals. All mental resistance cannot be avoided; although it is the cause for all suffering, mental resistance is also the only catalyst for change.
What does alignment between your emotional and rational mind look like? Imagine that your goal is to be physically fit. If you hate going to the gym or eating healthy, you’re going to have a lot of mental conflict every time you do these things. This daily resistance will cause you to question why you even have these goals to begin with. This increase in resistance will make you unhappy and this unhappiness will make it much more likely for you to break your diet.
Your options are to either change your expectations, or teach yourself to enjoy the process.You can learn to use the gym as a way to release stress, maybe think about how much better you are going to feel afterwards, or just enjoy the pump. It is not about setting a goal and grinding through it, it is about removing the resistance that appears every time you practice or work through that goal.
Although it sounds like a simple set of rules, you probably know that it is not easy. The path towards happiness often requires you to decide to do something which results in resistance in the present moment. This is the conflict between your emotional (Immediate) and rational (long-term) mind.
A good approach to happiness is to follow your path, but also be patient; accept your emotional brain exactly as it is. Understand that it is there and set reasonable, realistic expectations. We have all been dealt different cards, so don’t compare or judge yourself too much. The more you punish yourself by setting unrealistic expectations, the more you will succumb to your impulses and emotions as a way to avoid that mental resistance.
The same way happiness is not a permanent mental state, spiritual enlightenment is not one either. In my opinion, spiritual enlightenment is when someone fully surrenders to all resistance. This can happen through meditation, religion, psychedelic drugs, or near-death experiences.
When you experience full surrender or ego death, you come to the full realization that resistance is just a choice. Surrendering to all pain, thoughts, and emotions results in immense pleasure, the ultimate positive sensation. Enlightenment is not thinking you are in the right path, it is fully believing that everything is perfect, exactly the way that it is.
This explains the transformations people often have after near death experiences. The ultimate surrender from resistance is death. This experience occurs once somebody fully accepts their destiny and stops resisting their impending doom.
This is also the reason many humans value religion and spirituality. A surrender to God changes one’s perspective on what is really important. All of your daily problems lose meaning if your goals are aligned to something outside of this reality.
Unfortunately, I don’t believe this can be a permanent state of mind. Full surrender from any mental resistance would prevent you from making any change. If you fully surrender to the sensation of being hungry, you would not eat. However, spirituality it is an extremely powerful tool for improving people’s mental states.
Mental resistance is both the cause of all suffering and the catalyst for all change. It is the fork in every road that arises when there are gaps in information that can impact future mental states.
I am not interested in telling you how to live your life, nor have I really figured out mine; I experience conflicts at least once per minute. These are just my observations. As long as there is change, there will be resistance; you can’t control it from appearing, but you can control how it affects you.