People who look for ways to lose

I.

It might be caused by the kind of people I interact with, but in my experience, most people are looking for ways to lose. What do I mean with this? Well, there are ways of maximizing happiness and ways of maximizing your misery. One important way of maximizing your misery is by setting goals for yourself that you have no realistic chance of attaining. This, in my experience, is what most people seem to do.

To start with, the misery-maximizers look for things that are disappearing and baptize those as the most important things in the world. If their brain was a TI-84, they would enter a statistical equation into it that generates a 1:1 correlation between the amount of serotonin in their brain and whatever it is they realize will stand no chance of seeing the end of this century.

These people spend a decade of their life to become marine biologists and witness the twilight of the Great Barrier Reef. They become Catholics before the wrecking ball smashes the altar into pieces, monarchists just milliseconds before the guillotine strikes the throat of Marie Antoinette, go bird watching to meticulously document the decline of everything they teach themselves to cherish, listen to classical music in an empty opera building and go through painstaking effort to learn an obscure language that’s no longer used by its native speakers. They celebrate their evening with a cup of bottled tears they cried, memorizing the fond memories they have of television shows they watched as kids that won’t be aired again and places they visited that don’t exist anymore. A group of trees together is not a forest for them, the only thing that can be called a forest is an old growth forest, where no shadow of a lumberjack has been seen over the past two hundred years.

II.

I’m thinking here for example of Ted Kaczynski, who went through great effort to define happiness in terms that guarantee he’ll never find it. Happiness depends on the power process, he declares. The power process then, consists of struggling to survive through physical effort. Men who don’t go through the power process, because they work as cubicle concubines rather than living in a cabin in the woods, are guaranteed to become miserable. As we all gradually give up on physical labor, we all end up miserable. This can only be addressed by bringing down industrial civilization and hoping we’re one of the few people who don’t drop dead within weeks.

This is my TL;DR of the Unabomber manifesto. Do you see what happens here? Mr. Kaczynski sets goals for himself he can’t attain and decides to make his own happiness dependent on a way of life that’s dying out. There’s so much intelligence present in his brain, and he uses it to aim his car at full speed into the only obstacle he can find on the road. But I’m going to take his thought experiment and invert it for you.

Human beings don’t have a power process. They have a survival process. Their brains are designed to pursue the kind of conditions that encourage their survival. In modern society these conditions are not genuinely intuitive anymore, so a lot of people’s brains misdiagnose the conditions they live in. Their diet is so healthy, their immune system functions at optimal strength. It has no pathogens to eradicate and so it mistakenly attacks the brain it should defend. They don’t mentally compare themselves to children whose faces rot away from malnutrition, they mentally compare themselves to movie actresses born into middle-class families in Los Angeles, or tech billionaires born into middle-class families in San Francisco.

III.

The solution to this problem is not to bring down industrial civilization, but to adjust your frame of reference. You can look at a graph of opioid overdose deaths in America, or you can look at a graph of infant mortality from 1800 until today. You can remind yourself that the Earth faces a global species extinction crisis, or you can remind yourself that species diversity is actually higher than it ever was in local areas. Parrots don’t occur naturally north of India. Today they’re everywhere in Europe. The Anthropocene has increased biological diversity. The United Kingdom today has 1,875 foreign species that have invaded the continent, without harming the native species that survive there. Plant species hybridize freely with newcomers throughout the island, giving birth to new species overnight. Understand this: I can give birth to new species from the comfort of my own home. Do those species have no value, because I happen to have created them?

We can mourn the dying customs and disappearing polyphonic chants of the Baka pygmies of the Lobeke rain forest. But I don’t see anyone mourning the decline of foot binding in China. I don’t see anyone upset over the end of Sati in India, or circumcision, or slavery, or polygamy, or bride kidnappings. Western civilization isn’t perfect, but I haven’t really seen anyone come up with something better yet. If you’re drinking Coca Cola in rural India, it’s not on top of the list of my concerns.

I don’t lie awake at night just because I’m not forced to stalk deer like a hunter-gatherer. This is what has to be understood too, when we consider how demanding and intolerant the Unabomber manifesto genuinely is. It’s not just that Ted Kaczynski is upset because he can’t go out and engage in caveman activities. He considers it psychologically damaging that he lives in circumstances where he has no intrinsic survival need to engage in caveman activities.

IV.

I went out today to gather wild oysters myself, like a typical caveman would. A normal person has fun, doing something that people have done for hundreds of thousands of years. A batshit insane crazy person is upset because he does something a caveman did, without having an instrinsic survival need to do so.┬áThere is not a glass half-empty thing involved here, there’s a normal mentality and an insane mentality, of someone who is looking for reasons to justify a sense of misery he feels.

I should go a step further here and point out the strangest aspect of it all: Every deep green post-civ anarcho-primitivist whatchamacallit guy can take a ride to rural Alaska today and risk dropping dead in an effort to survive, just like Chris McCandless did. I’m not even saying that to disparage the activity itself. I’ve probably risked my life on my own journeys through rural Scandinavia. I had fun, but I think I would have had fun if I had not gotten lost and come close to dying of thirst too.

The thing to consider however is as following: 99.9% of the human population is quite capable of being happy, without having to struggle for survival in the wilderness. It’s insane to try to force our lost utopia onto the rest of them. Most people have seen accomplishments in their own life that they don’t want to lose. They went from ritually mutilating their daughters to teaching their daughters how to do something useful with their lives. They went from shitting in the street to using a toilet. They went from living under constant threat of scurvy, to consuming exotic fruits that would have been reserved to nobility in previous centuries.

V.

I’m not constantly happy myself. I have learned however, to look for the cause of that within myself and to look for solutions to that problem in a manner that does not place the cost upon others. I have as much disdain for the anarcho-primitivist who thinks he’s a victim of modernity, as I do for the Catholic traditionalist who bemoans modern brutalist architecture, or even the socialist who seems to think he lives in poverty. If you manage to look at all this abundance of luxury, wealth and opportunities we have and you still find ways to be upset, you must be really trying hard.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t have problems. However, we fail to show sufficient appreciation for the abundance of luxury and wealth we have. There’s a fair chance we’ll lose everything during this century. People look forward to that, because their brains are not functioning properly. Science and psychology have progressed a lot in recent decades, but there has been very little success at shifting the frame through which human beings observe the world they inhabit. People look at Steve Jobs or an Instagram model and consider themselves failures. The frame of reference shifts in a manner that causes misery. Through social media, the effect this improper frame of reference has can be amplified enormously.

At this point however, some progress is starting to be made. In Victorian days, we housed the severely mentally ill in cages. We had no way to treat schizophrenia for example. These days, people with severe mental illness can often live independently. More moderate forms of mental illness like depression can now also be treated. However, until now the treatments have been poorly effective. This is changing, as mainstream science discovers psychedelics. Psychedelics have always been the domain of the fringe, like cryptocurrency, conspiracy theories and so many other things that became mainstream in recent years. With NDMA antagonists, 5HT2A agonists and Kappa opioid agonists, we can now allow growing numbers of people to live productive happy lives, who would have had no genuine chance to do so in past eras.

VI.

Perhaps, if the anarcho-primitivist shrink tested my blood, placed me down upon his couch and gazed into my brain, he would come to the conclusion that I would have been perfectly happy as a tribal elder in rural Scandinavia 1500 years ago, while any misery I experience is entirely the result of growing up in modern conditions. I could look at this as a grave injustice that has befallen on me. However, if I don’t fit into the conditions I’m thrown into, I choose to adjust myself to those conditions. As an example, I know for a fact that Psilocybe mushrooms and San Pedro cactuses have been tremendously effective at allowing me to live a normal life. I might have lived a more productive life if such intervention had taken place as a child, but I’m part of the first generation of people who have this opportunity to begin with. I know for a fact that I have friends who have turned their lives around through the same method.

Of course, this is just my mentality I have described here. You’re free to take an opposite approach. You can join every losing team. You can ignore everything we salvage from the past, decry everything that’s lost and denigrate everything new that we create. You can attend a church that’s dying because it adheres to outdated moral standards based on a dated understanding of biology and feel sad because the church is dying. You can fly to Australia, react with shock to the bleached coral, fly back to Germany and feel disgusted by the feral raccoon plundering your garbage can because the animal is an “invasive species”. You can mourn the murdered monarch of the Russian empire and ignore the abolition of serfdom. You can go through painstaking effort to feign appreciation of classical Baroque music and check whether nobody is watching before turning on Lady Gaga. If you insist on being miserable, no force in the world is strong enough to stop you.

1 Comment

  1. I take your overall point but do take some issues.

    Most obviously, the church’s moral standards are not outdated due to some suddenly new understanding of biology. That’s a terribly stupid comment. You can pine for the positive elements of the past while appreciating everything that modernity has brought.

    But if I try to summarise what you are saying, it is that we can never be happy. Not now, not before. We are doomed to perpetual unhappiness.

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