If you want to be happy, doubt your own thoughts

They’re probably wrong anyway

The unexamined life is not worth living.

~Socrates

When I was younger, I thought that I had the whole world figured out. I thought that I was living the essence of an examined life. I was devoted to science and philosophy, and I loved asking the big, deep questions. I was certain I was on the path to fulfillment.

Boy, was I mistaken.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see where I went wrong. I may have been absorbing all kinds of knowledge and asking important questions, but none of those things ever really changed the way I perceived the world. Instead, I tried to accommodate new information into the system of beliefs that had already firmly planted its flag in my mind.

I never noticed that my everyday inclinations were the problem. No one ever told me that this might be the case; in fact, I was told the opposite — to trust myself. I assumed that my brain would naturally lead me toward fulfillment.

In short, I didn’t examine the thoughts I took for granted.

The problem us humans face is that evolution didn’t make fulfillment its priority. Our brains evolved over millions of years for essentially one purpose — to ensure we survived long enough to pass our genes onto the next generation. That’s it. And there is no reason to imagine that pure survival gets us anywhere near fulfillment.

Why does this matter? Because, at least in my part of the world, life is no longer just about survival. Everywhere you look there are books and articles claiming to help you find fulfillment. The thing is, I think many of them miss out on the fundamental first step: recognizing that the default mode of the brain — its survival mode — doesn’t really care whether we live a life worth living.

The questions, then, is, can we overcome these survival instincts to make fulfillment the main focus of our minds?

I think the answer is ‘yes’, but to do so we need to see through the patterns of thinking that may have been useful for survival, but are perhaps detrimental to flourishing.

Below are three “lies” we are told by the brain every day. My hope is that this knowledge will simply insert a sliver of doubt in your mind, because I believe the path of fulfillment begins when we recognize that it is the beliefs we take most for granted, the ones onto which we hold most fervently, that are the obstacle.

Sometimes, what we believe to be absolutely certain is simply not true at all.

Lie #1: we are rational creatures

When’s the last time you saw two people with differing political opinions have a conversation that didn’t result in fireworks? Yeah, I can’t remember, either. The problem isn’t that we disagree with each other so deeply; the problem is that none of us see the world in a truly rational way.

We all suffer from something called confirmation bias. This bias causes us to literally ignore or avoid information that conflicts with an already held belief and pay extra attention to or seek information that validates an already held belief.

And it affects us without us ever noticing.

Continuing with the political example, suppose Amber supports candidate X. She will tend to seek positive information about X and negative information about X’s opponent, let’s call her Y. Amber will also tend to ignore negative information about X and ignore positive information about Y.

But, it doesn’t end there. Amber will also interpret the same news article about those candidates differently from Greg who supports candidate Y. They will each tend to interpret the article positively for the candidate they support and/or negatively for their opponent.

In other words, Amber and Greg both cherry-pick information from the available evidence that supports what they already believe to be true. Even when exposed to the same evidence, Amber and Greg will come to different conclusions. They might as well be living in different worlds. It’s no wonder their conversations are so unproductive!

In general, this bias causes the beliefs we already hold to color our perception of the world. This means that we rarely, if ever, come to conclusions by objectively weighing the evidence.

In summary, neither you, I, nor anyone you know is truly rational.

So, the next time you’re shocked by your friend’s political views, just remember that neither of you are seeing the issue objectively.

Lie #2: our brains are on our team

It goes without saying that starting a new habit is difficult. In fact, it can sometimes feel downright impossible. But, if we want to, say, get more exercise, why is it so damn hard? Shouldn’t it be easier to get what we want from ourselves?

Research has shown that our brains have a natural disposition to be lazy (see here). From an evolutionary perspective, this makes a lot of sense. Our brains have been molded by evolution to conserve our bodies’ scarce resources for activities that keep us alive and increase our chances to reproduce.

This is why when you’re trying to get off the couch and go to the gym it feels like you’re fighting yourself — because you literally are. Your brain is naturally set up to make it harder for you to take this kind of action.

To get what we want we sometimes need to overcome an invisible part of our biology to get it. This doesn’t sound like the brain is on our team at all. In fact, the actions that can lead to a better life are often in opposition to our strongest biological drives. And I think it’s pretty obvious which typically wins out (spoiler alert: not what leads to a better life).

So, the next time you’re trying to get yourself off the couch and to the gym and your brain seductively whispers “Netflix”, laugh at its sneakiness and remember that its goals are simply different from yours. Being aware of these triggers can push the odds of you getting what you really want in your favour.

Lie #3: we directly experience the world

Do you ever get a little queasy when you remember that everything you think and perceive is happening inside a slug-like organ, carefully stashed away inside your skull? I do. Life doesn’t feel like it’s happening inside my head; it feels like it’s happening out in the world.

But, in a literal and slightly disturbing way, we’re all living in our own versions of The Matrix. Just like characters in the movie were tricked into thinking they were living in the “real” world, so are we.

While it feels to me like I’m seeing and feeling my hands touch the keyboard as I type this sentence, I know this isn’t what’s happening at all.

In truth (and glossing over some details!), my eyes and fingers are sending electrical signals through various nerves to my brain, where those signals are ultimately interpreted. The interpretation of those signals by my brain creates the “virtual” environment that I am consciously aware of.

Just like people in the movie were stuck inside The Matrix, we’re stuck in our own heads. Despite what it feels like, our conscious experience doesn’t touch the outside world at all; it only gets to witness the brain’s interpretation of the outside world.

Our consciousnesses are all hooked up to the most sophisticated virtual reality machine on the planet — and it’s not at all obvious from our experience that this is the truth.

Now what?

Unless you’re already skipping through the streets loving the shit out of life, the question somewhere in the back of your mind is, how can I be happier? It’s a simple question with what feels like an impossibly complex answer.

But, once we understand that our brains are set up to push us toward beliefs and actions that are more focused on survival than happiness, this gives us a weapon against their manipulation. Knowing that our minds deceive us is a tool that gives us the space to question thoughts that we would otherwise take for granted. This, in turn, allows us to see the world in a less biased and more rational way, which is essential for happiness.

It’s a bit like being in a bad relationship — with the right perspective, eventually you start to see through the bullshit.

Written by

Following my curiosity and hoping it will lead me to wisdom. I write about science, meditation, and spirituality.

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