I have done a few different things for the past years. Worked in stores, fast food restaurants and finance departments. Studied Political Science, Philosophy and Business & Economics. Lived in London and in four different Swedish cities. During some periods I have felt pretty good, and during others quite bad. I have felt uninspired, fatigued and indifferent.
A seminar on my business education that my well-being has benefited from was about emotional intelligence and self-awareness. Our teacher talked about how emotions are reactions to how well important needs are being met. If important needs are satisfied, you experience positive emotions, and if they are not, you experience negative emotions. If someone is condescending to me, I experience anger since my need for respect is not satisfied. If I spend too many hours in an intense social context I experience fatigue and frustration since my need for solitude is not satisfied. In other words, the emotions you experience can be used to deduce what needs you have to satisfy in order to feel good. Like a Sim, you walk around with needs bars, and the colour of the diamond above your head is determined by the bars. If someone had the bad taste of not spending seven hours a day playing The Sims between 2002-2004 and therefore does not get that reference, here is an ugly picture from the Internet:
The needs of the Sims are illustrated by the bars in the lower right corner. An aggregate of how well their needs are met can be seen in the diamond above their heads. Green diamond = the needs are satisfied. Red diamond = the needs are not satisfied.
Seeing the Sims’ bars makes it easier to make them feel good, since you always know what they need. When a Sim starts to feel shitty about its hygiene, you see that the shitty feeling is precisely due to the lack of hygiene, and then you tell the Sim to take a shower. And then the Sim feels good again. IRL some needs express themselves clearly. When my stomach growls it is obvious that I am hungry and when my eyelids twitch it is obvious that I am tired. Other needs are also important for my well-being, but do not cause emotional reactions that are as easily interpreted. When I feel anxious and insecure it is not necessarily clear that the cause is an unsatisfied need for belonging and when I feel frustrated and upset it is not necessarily clear that I lack autonomy. However, if you regularly reflect on what needs that cause the feelings you experience you can start noticing patterns. In some situations you repeatedly tend to experience positive emotions, and in some you repeatedly tend to experience negative emotions. In other words, you can get closer to a The Sims-like scenario where you know what needs your bars consist of, how these bars behave and what is needed to make them green. A scenario where you can deduce colour changes in the diamond above your head to colour changes in the underlying bars. That is to say: you can begin to understand your needs and how they affect your well-being.
A rather powerful insight follows: then I can “just” use the same tactic in life as in The Sims – do what make the bars green. If my well-being is an effect that comes from a cause, and I know what that cause is, then I can “just” design my life in a way that increases the likelihood of the cause staying green. That is, design my life in a way that increases the likelihood of my important needs being satisfied.
Doing so will not eliminate negative emotions from my life, and the point is not to aim for a life that completely lacks them (partly because negative emotions are sometimes caused by events outside my control, and partly because they are sometimes a necessary evil to accomplish things that are important to me). But this suggests that at least you have a good chance to avoid unnecessary negative feelings. That is the case if I make it difficult for my bars to stay green, in situations where I can make it easy for them to do so. That is to have a job, relationships and routines that do not align with my most important needs and preferences. A job that requires reactiveness and intense social interaction when I’m methodical and introverted, or a partner who thinks I should be adventurous and spontaneous when I really just want to check titles from my reading list. Experiencing negative feelings from these causes is unnecessary since it can be avoided by designing my life differently. It is fully possible to have a job and a partner that work with my needs, not against them.
My strategy for well-being is to make it easy to feel good. I strive for the basis of my life – the activities I devote my days to, my routines, the people I spend the most time with and the person I am – to be designed in accordance with my most important needs and preferences. By doing so I give my well-being good conditions. I increase the likelihood of experiencing positive emotions, and decrease the likelihood of experiencing negative emotions.
For me it is easy to feel good if my life satisfies the needs/preferences for meaningfulness, productivity, intellectual stimulation, rationality, effectiveness, reason, wisdom, quality, development, clarity, autonomy, order, control, belonging, pleasure, passion, humour, inspiration, beauty, solitude, calm and rest. It is easy for me to feel good if I get to channel my full potential into a meaningful life project. Set goals, write to-do lists, make coffee, roll up my sleeves and get to work. Write undisturbedly. Achieve awesome things with awesome people. A life where I have meaningful relationships. Friends that I like to take walks and have dinners with. A partner I enjoy chatting, laughing, discussing, resting, making out, developing, achieving what we want to achieve and going through life with. Time for rest and exercise. Read books. Cook. Take walks in nature. Get sweaty to house music drops in running tracks and group training halls. Occupy myself with projects in my life management. Watch good series and movies. Have long breakfasts, read the newspaper and blogs. Listen to podcasts. Update my brain with more knowledge, more careful reasoning, greater wisdom and deeper insights. Be in contexts where my brain gets dizzy from growth. And enrich this existence with AESTHETICALLY PLEASING. Live, write, talk, get shit done, laugh and eat in beautiful environments. When my life is similar to this I feel calm, content, energized, alive, inspired, motivated, get lots of ideas, am excited about doing stuff and feel a huge gratitude and humility about being a part of LIFE.
When I put words to the above, I realize that it is not surprising that I have felt bad during some periods. My life has on these occasions been poorly matched with my important needs and preferences. I also realize that the life that makes it easy for me to feel well is not at all rocket science. It is not difficult to design the existence I just described. Obviously it may take a few years to arrange the work and housing situation I desire and to meet a person I feel it would be a pleasure to spend thousands of hours with, but millions of people have succeeded in doing so before me. As a rule, my well-being is promoted by things I already do to a great extent. Let me write, read good books in beautiful environments and have nice dinners with nice people and we have come a long way. But if it is not particularly difficult to satisfy my important needs and preferences, then how come I, and probably many with me, have devoted so much time to lives that do not keep our bars green?
A first threshold is probably self-awareness. In order to design a life that makes it easy to feel good, it is preferable to know what that implies. What are my important needs and preferences? What do I need to feel good? What makes me feel bad? What kind of work do I enjoy? What housing situation? What friends? Which partner?
A second threshold, I think, is what decision rules one uses for important choices. It is to even consider designing one’s life on the basis of important needs and preferences. People make their decisions based on something, but my experience is that this something is often a vague feeling of what you just do rather than starting from first principle and asking: what are my most important needs and preferences? And given this: what life is appropriate to design to make it easy for me to feel well? Adhering to conventional wisdom can of course lead to an enjoyable life. There is no intrinsic value in writing your own recipe if those already available cause desirable outcomes. If doing as everyone else take you where you want to go, then you can achieve what you want without wasting limited resources on creating your own path. However, a prerequisite for it to be appropriate to follow existing recipes is that the assumptions they are based on are relevant to oneself. If one is to do as one’s parents and friends, it is preferable if one actually has similar needs and preferences as those parents and friends. By making the assumptions explicit, stating why something is “what you just do” one can easier evaluate their applicability. If conventional wisdom does not make it easy for one to feel good, it is probably time to start writing an own recipe.
A third threshold, I think, is social and emotional. It makes a lot of sense in theory to design your life in accordance with your needs and preferences. In order to actually realize that life, however, your prioritizations need to align with what you want to achieve. And to prioritize means not only to reject horrible suggestions from horrible people, but also to reject appealing suggestions from nice people. I like to dress up and drink some glasses of wine, but my dream of writing benefits from waking up with a clear brain that can produce text. It is not practically difficult to stay at home and read on a Friday night, but it might be socially difficult to decline friends’ suggestions of going out. Neither is it practically difficult to give my writing an honest chance for one year, but that plan is not necessarily the most satisfactory answer I can give when my family is wondering what I am doing with my life. It does not seem practically difficult to design the life that would make it easy for me to feel good, but it is socially and emotionally difficult to prioritize, set boundaries and decline, and all of them are necessary to get there. Designing that life also requires me to do something different than my parents and many peers, and doing so is often associated with a sense of loneliness. And since the brain is adapted to an existence hundreds of thousands of years ago, when the group was crucial to one’s survival, it does not exactly react CHILL to situations where my sense of belonging deteriorates.
The world is not designed to make it easy for one to feel good. It would have been great for my needs if all the lectures at school had been scheduled in the afternoons and if it had been effortless to make a living from writing. But the lectures were not just scheduled in the afternoons and it does not seem effortless to make a living from writing. This does not imply that the schedulers and the “society” are saboteurs who hate me, but rather that they, on reasonable grounds, try to optimize for other objectives than My Preferences. This sounds obvious, but my experience is that many (including myself!) may feel that “something is wrong” when “the world works against me” (as in: what one encounters when walking out the door does not make it easy to feel good). These feelings occur although there are good reasons to believe that everything out there is designed to maximize the likelihood of something else than one’s well-being. Systems can be designed to satisfy a basic level of well-being, the state tries to ensure the basic safety and health of citizens etc. But external systems are not designed to optimize for My Ultimate Life. And that is reasonable. There are many points both the state and the school should place higher on their priority lists than my self-realization.
But this implies that if you just go out the door and let life come to you, nothing guarantees that what happens will keep your bars green. If you have been fortunate enough to be born in e.g. Sweden you will probably have your basic human needs satisfied. But nothing out there makes sure that your job is meaningful, your solitude sufficient or your schedule consistent with your *productive energies*. When what make your bars green do not align with external incentive systems, you cannot rely on your well-being to solve itself. Instead you must actively design a life in which, despite those external systems, it is easy to feel well. Keep searching until you find a job that you long for on Sunday nights. Decline, not because you have something else planned, but because you need solitude. Skip scheduled lectures if you are more productive on your own.
My well-being is not rocket science. If I satisfy my important needs and preferences, I usually feel good, and if I don’t, I feel bad. It is not practically difficult to satisfy them, but doing so often requires active choices, rather than passively letting external circumstances hit me. Making it easy for my bars to stay green does not eliminate negative emotions from my life, but it reduces those that arise unnecessarily and gives my well-being better conditions. It increases the likelihood of positive emotions, and reduces the likelihood of negative emotions. It makes it easier to feel good, and harder to feel bad.
What life makes it easy for you to feel good?