I want to make the case that the fundamental problem of life is easily identified. This foundational problem is how to spend the limited resources that are our time, attention and energy. How do we allot those resources in keeping with what we personally value? In fact, all known life forms have to deal with this problem not just humans, although humans have the special gift of being able to make conscious choices. I think we will all find in giving a little more attention to getting better at the multiple balance and efficiency problems in the use of these resources, the problems I describe further below, we will find we are terrifically motivated and find whatever insecurities we have are greatly diminished. This is about flourishing and thriving, making the most of whatever capabilities we have.
I think that we should come together as similarly-minded people who are convinced that this is a problem worth giving a little more attention to and that we will naturally help each other with encouragement. Indeed I think it will also be very enjoyable and educational to hear from each other how we are trying to get closer to a good balance and an enjoyable fulfilling use of our one life. Our priorities and path will be unique for each of us but we share some commonality in having this problem; all mortal life has this problem.
This is not an advert for our small informal group. Below I give some thoughts on how you might start your own.
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You can also safely ignore them and understand the core of the essay.
"I think the idea is good for a lot of things. The main reason being that it's good to be able to vocalize the things you actually prioritize. Helps keep the life trending positively." A nice summary from one of our participants in the small informal group we have formed.
The Fundamental Problem of Living
Life is tough. There are lots of different demands on our time and energy to balance and sometimes due to just getting stuck in a rut or not having the force of will to make changes we can end up not making the most use of this one life we have been given and our limited time.
Finding the right partner, earning money, even finding good friends and positive attention from those around us are, at base although we sometimes don't want to acknowledge it, competitive processes where to get the most out of life we need to put in our best effort. We put the best effort into ourselves and the value and offer we make to these markets we can. We make the best claims we can in those marketplaces where the people who might give us their time, attention, affection and money are assessing subconsciously or consciously what we are willing and able to give in return. And they are comparing us favourably or unfavourably with other opportunities they have. The process is mostly not coldly analysed in this way but since we all have limited time and energy, we are all constantly choosing from our available options.
Not everything we value is a competitive process of course and we might find it particularly fruitful to focus on those areas where our gain can not possibly entail a loss for someone else. Our health and physical fitness is a gain for everyone, being a better kinder person with good boundaries to avoid people who might take advantage of our kindness, doing some good in the world .....
Hopefully, this whole process is relaxed and enjoyable. Striving for the things we want doesn't necessarily need to be stressful and exhausting. Our sense of humour should not go by the wayside either, losing your sense of humour is a good bell weather to judge if we do not have the right balance of relaxation versus striving, perhaps.
Leisure, rest, relaxation and recuperation are also important uses but also demands on our time.
And there is the balance of short-term outcomes versus less obviously salient long-term outcomes. It might not be obvious to you that you need to put energy into making sure you will be happy long-term in terms of finances, physical health, etc.
Other People Are Constantly Trying to Sell to Us
In the markets we are involved in we are constantly being sold stuff. Persuaded to hand over our attention, time, energy or cash in return for something we want. We need to make smart decisions about how to use our limited resources. The consumer economy and people are good at producing everything that will sell but should we hand over our attention, time and energy?
It is obvious how this applies to making smart choices about the media and social media we consume and food we consume but I think the same is true for platonic and sexual relationships.
Show Don't Tell
Since we are effectively all trying to sell each other all the time on what a good deal we are or we will be soon and your improvement carries almost an implicit bid for people to value you more, in competition with their feeling that they might be underappreciated, you might find people less than excited about the new you you feel is certain to come to fruition. We should then be grateful for all who support us in our new enthusiasm for life and trying to get living right but not be surprised if people are initially sceptical of change. Be careful you choose a good audience to talk to about any enthusiasm for change you have and make sure it is a willing audience. It is much better to show how you are becoming better than to tell.
This is also true of trying to persuade others they might change, much better to bring them on board by doing the things you might expect them to do yourself and showing them how much better your life is and you are to be around as a result and bring them on board that way.
The Challenge Never Ends
We keep on working at getting better. This seems intrinsic to living. The biological organism we are is not easily satisfied. When things are good we just increase our expectations and want things to be better. It's important to enjoy the process since the goal will always recede away into the distance as you start to reach it. Hedonic adaptation means we will likely always be pursuing happiness, striving onwards, putting out fires...
Finding and Being Our "Authentic Self", Finding Our Passion
I would say that "being your (authentic) self", "finding your passion" are pointing at when you have the feeling that you are approaching the current solution for the right balance of:
- making the most of your talents and current capabilities (given your life experience up to now, your individual differences in talents and challenges compared to others)
- what you enjoy
- and what other people will value
These three considerations are just another lens on how to find the right balance in the ongoing process of engaging in the competitive and non-competitive processes outlined above.
I do think it is helpful to have more clarity about the slightly vague terms "authentic self" and "passion". Acknowledging and understanding that we are engaged in competitive processes with others and that we can also find others to cooperate with who are on the same page as us and we have something to offer to can help help in understanding how to find our "authentic selves" and passions.
Finding Meaning and Purpose in an Atheistic World
We used to have common myths to rally around, time tested myths that helped us unite within and beyond the tribe. Science has poked holes in those myths so that many people find it difficult to believe in them anymore. The myths used to say that heaven for eternity awaited us in another realm. We know that our time is limited that it is unlikely that their is eternal pleasure in another realm for us.
This is a grand claim but ......
I believe that small groups of people can unite around rediscovering more passion and purpose in their lives through this acknowledgment and dealing with of our common fundamental problem. We can help each other be the best we can be and in making the best offer to humanity's progress that we can and better our own life experience in the process through more connection and our social and emotional lives rewarding us for being better people than we might have been. We all have a common interest in that. I think we can find great meaning in making the best contribution we can to humanity, this spralling incredible civilisation that against the odds has evolved and is gradually evolving to create more and more sentient, intelligent, conscious (human) beings who are living better and better lives with more opportunity and less suffering.
Adaptive Virtue Signalling
It is a core part of our individual psychology and how human society works that we want to signal to others that we are good people who will make good giving coalition mates in our struggle against the "bad". Good and bad used to be God and the Devil. These uniting ideas got us on the same page societally and established rules for social conduct at the time that made society work well and allowed our societal progression.
Again a grand claim .....
I think that for some groups of people we can unite around being the best we can be and it doesn't matter what our political persuasions are, we can support each other in being better by the definitions above. We don't have to unite around virtue signals like saying that humanity should be completely egalitarian, that all differences in outcomes are the result of injustice or by uniting around identities and identity politics and fracturing society in the process. Life is certainly unfair but we can support each other to meet the demands of life, being better people and getting the best deal from life we can.
Overcome Almost Any Sadness Or Depression You Have or The Almost Inevitable Insecurities; "Be Yourself", Flourish
I think the truly exciting reason to give the right kind and amount of attention to this fundamental problem is that we will naturally overcome most of our insecurities and naturally find terrific motivation. We can become terrifically engaged with life and surely more happy in our lives and connected with others.
We all do some amount of impression management with other people, especially people we are impressed by and attracted to, platonically or sexually. Anxiety is one of the most commonly diagnosed emotional problems, often in relation to this problem of whether we are showing ourselves in the best light in the platonic, romantic, and economic market places we are engaged with. Anxiety and insecurity that so many of us suffer from to some degree waste our attention trying to second guess how we are coming across, trying to read other people's reactions to us and thinking about what we can do about those reactions. And for those of us who are not actually anxious, would it not be good indeed for everyone if we have more confidence and self assuredness in certain situations? Bear in mind that confidence in ourselves, self assuredness, might not always mean pushing ourselves forward but will also allow us sometimes to step back when it would be better for others to have more of the limelight.
I think we can be assured that if we are putting this energy into ourselves, getting towards the correct balance and maximum efficiency of the use of our one life we can be assured that we are going to live an awesome life and raise up those around us too by example and by osmosis of our positive energy. When we look around us we will begin to see that most people are unfortunately making large mistakes in how to use their one life to the best of their capability. Some of this judgment might come from our comparing other's lives with our own personal idea of what the best one life is but also when we truly put ourselves in the other person's shoes and look at life from the perspective of their capabilities and opportunities, we can still see many people are making obvious large mistakes. I think we can easily imagine how we can shine a little brighter as one example of how to live life to its full potential. We are not likely to quickly come to our perfect solution to this fundamental problem but we can almost certainly do more to directly address it than is the current norm. So in a way others neglect of this problem is an opportunity to out compete them, but also by example to raise everybody's game.
This will be a virtuous circle.
- The more we can be assured of this and redirect our energies away from impression management back to the fundamental problems of living and begin to incrementally find a better balance and more efficiency in dealing with this problem ourselves, the more value we will be offering to the world and those around us. Although other people are instinctually trying to solve these problems themselves we have the advantage of seeing the problem more clearly and consciously.
- We can begin to understand what it means to "be yourself", which I believe is pointing to reducing our efforts at impression management and putting that energy into our one life. And we will feel more ease in the world and confidence. People will be naturally attracted to the higher value offer we are making to the world and our reduced insecurity, in other words our increasing self confidence. If we are rejected or under valued by people it is their loss but many people will instinctually not want to waste the opportunity to be more closely allied to us. Our emotional systems evolved in an age where we lived in small tribes, surrounded by a small group of people, mostly extended family who we would interact with repetitively for our whole lives. In the modern world, especially in our wonderful modern cities, we have vastly more opportunity for connection with a wide range of people and people's individual reactions to us is much less important, we will inevitably find others that appreciate our value offer.
- The more we can put this into practice the more it will in turn gradually further reduce our natural instinct to impression manage. And we will gain further energy and motivation for refocusing on the fundamental problem.
They say there is a loneliness epidemic in much of the developed world and so many people are anxious and depressed also. This seems tragic given all the opportunity, wealth and comfort we have worked hard to build up. I hope this article helps you to see how you can be part of the solution to this problem, starting first with getting your own life more in order.
Life Lived Well is a Challenge Which We Can Share Together
In addition to current people in your life, would it not be useful say once every 2 weeks to reflect on all of this and think through together with a group of sympathetic friends whether you could improve on your current choices? People who might give us insight and encouragement that is helpful in our journeys. This might also meet one of our needs, which seems to be a particular challenge for some of us in this modern world and which we could all probably do with more of, deeper connections with other humans - by sharing our challenges and our journeys and giving and receiving support.
This will also be a time to reflect on where we are putting our energies, what we want and whether we are smartly engaging with the areas of our life we want something from. Are we putting the right amount of effort into the right areas?
Finding An Accountability Group Right For You
It'd be best if we had people around us in our everyday lives that we could talk over these issues with. Possibly sharing these ideas with others will help you find those people. But some of us may want to find other people who also want to put more time and energy into this kind of focus and get other perspectives that the people around us in our physical environment cannot offer. We of course can put social media to a more wholesome use than it is normally put to and reach out to people through that medium, and video conferencing enables us to easily connect with people around the world. You are probably already connected to many people on social media who share common interests and might also find this focussing on fundamental problems of living and regular time to think about how to best approach a solution to them helpful.
If the first set of people you try this with don't work out for you, you can iterate, adding and politely suggesting to people they are not a good fit or finding a new group.
Of course it is not so easy to change, I like James Clear's "Atomic Habits" for thinking about behavioural change and found this neat summary of the ideas in the book.
A question for the first meeting of such a group might be, "in your life right now what is the main area that you feel frustration in, what small or big action can you commit to right now for the next 2 weeks to make a difference and start building better habits in that area". We can make commitments to the group in order to encourage ourselves. Or for extra motivation we might make a public wager such as if I don't do (some tricky but well specified change of behaviour hopefully building towards a long term habit) then I will donate X dollars to some charity that I don't like or someone who I don't want to give money to for example.
Big 5 and IQ
There is a growing awareness that there are measurable individual differences between us. IQ and the big 5 personality traits have a wealth of research behind them and are probably one of the most well understood and replicable areas of psychology. It seems important to all of us to understand these measurement tools and our relative strengths and weaknesses in comparison to the rest of the population. Behavioural genetic research show that these are temperaments and talents that we are born with and it seems that personality doesn't change much, on average, for most people within their life times. But it doesn't mean that we cannot learn to work with who we are and learn to exercise our extroverted side when we need to if we are introverts or learn techniques to deal with low conscientiousness or high neuroticism. The techniques are out there, such that we might even experience a shift in our personalities.
Writing as a Way to Work Out Your Ideas on Paper (or Screen)
Writing is a good way to work out ideas on the page instead of just in our heads and get more clarity on them. This whole document is that process for me. I would encourage others thinking about how the above problems of balance can be improved upon in their own lives to do some writing to inventory the areas of their lives and efforts.
I find it helpful to start just writing in a kind of stream of consciousness and then sort out the ideas and edit later. Then think about the ideas and structure of your document and ideas more and revise as necessary. I don't seek for perfection but for a fair representation of my thoughts.
Pillars of my self improvement
I have begun to do this inventory process in writing myself and I present to you an illustration of the kind of decisions and challenges in getting the correct balance, personal to me in this case. What do I think are the areas I will be putting energy into moving forward?
I am in a very happy contented phase of my life it seems with some good people around me, I see a lot of hope going forward. I am grateful almost for a period recently in my life 3 years ago when I was seriously depressed and socially anxious, a period I managed to work myself out of with much effort. It can be hard to work yourself out of those pits. I feel a lot of gratitude that my previous difficulties have made me appreciate my current good mood more now than I might have done if I hadn't had a very down period. I think previous difficulties also gives me empathy for the suffering of others, which I think is more widespread than sometimes we realise.
I think physical fitness is the biggest bang for my buck in improving the quality of my life. Eating well and getting some adaptive physical stress into my life every day, which is relatively easy and straightforward to achieve if you manage to get past the mountain of disinformation out there, helps me physically and emotionally and helps tremendously with the other challenges of life.
I have worked on strength training and cardio fitness and feel I am pretty fit.
Loving cycling round Kraków, a very bike friendly city.
Love to get out in the mountains and am trying to found a small open group of friends to regularly go out and explore mountain trails.
Belong to a cool group of pretty serious road bikers and am gradually getting to the bike fitness and proficiency level where I can join them on some serious bike rides.
Stoicism, parts of Buddhism, an understanding of mine and other people's psychology from the better more evidenced ends of modern psychology all help tremendously I guess principally with good emotional control and equanimity.
Freediving training. Am working on my pool skills here with an international competitor. Want to compete later this year. I find freediving fascinating as a quantified and progressively improvable mindfulness training. Have done a lot of vipassana in Japan and India and this seems a good progression from that, for anyone interested and who hasn't seen it already I wrote about this here.
I'm currently concentrating on understanding language learning itself and working on my Polish since I just moved to Krakow an awesome town. Am working full time on getting good at Polish as well as thinking about the language learning process itself.
Friends and Partners
I am learning to put myself out there more. I want to exercise my extroverted side more.
I am playing with more eye contact since it doesn't come that naturally to me to give a lot of eye contact and it seems really helpful in feeling more connected to people. Have been playing with it on the streets with strangers for example, I find it makes big anonymous cities feel less alienating, feel more connected to strangers I meet when I make prolonged friendly eye contact and naturally smile more in order to defuse the rather confrontational nature of eye contact. Am also taking every chance I can to say hello to people and I find I naturally smile at the same time.
Physically getting out the house more since I work at home and am quite introverted in temperament I need to sometimes push myself to do this. With my Neuroticism it is important to learn to tolerate rejection too (or signals I can interpret as rejection such as people not smiling back at me or looking pissed off) and not take it personally.
Another pillar of self improvement that I think I should add to those above. Male friendship, hoping to make some deeper connections through starting this group.
I can tend, as many of us do. to overuse social media, it seems to promise connection at little cost as it can be done easily from home but if not used wisely can be a huge time sink and not satisfying for the needs it seems to promise to meet.
Smart Substance Use
I've got to be careful with my slightly addictive nature. Am loving my new abstinence from alcohol. Got addicted to nicotine through snus but lost 5kg in the process. I have almost a visible 6 pack - the lowest fat percentage I have ever achieved.
I stopped snus through a 3 day trip to the mountains but started again due to relationship stress.
I need to start earning again. I have substantial savings and am living in a place where my money goes a fair way but want to find a way back to earning money through using some of these language learning ideas and the cool programming language I am using Clojure to start to produce value there.