About the Biz, Methodologies

Why can’t personal development be fun?!

Why Self Help Sucks

Look around the blogosphere today and you’ll see a ton of advice out there.   Here are just a few examples of recent titles:

  • How To Develop Mastery, Make Millions, and Be Happy
  • 7 Crucial Lessons People Often Learn Too Late in Life
  • You Make Or Break Your Life Between 5-7 AM
  • Surround Yourself with People Who Hold You to a Higher Standard than Yourself
  • 19 Tiny Habits That Lead to Huge Results

Most of this is really good advice.  We read it and we say, ‘someday I’ll pick up some of those habits.’  OR, we get a strike of inspiration and try one of the bits of advice for a day or two until we forget about it.  We forget about it because it doesn’t provide immediate results or some other piece of advice butterflied it’s way in front of our brains and we then focused on that.  Even more likely, we thought about trying it and realized it was just too hard.  So, I have to get up at 5 AM?  Really?  Who’s going to know if I get up at 5:15 or hit the snooze button until 6:45 anyway?  We then convince ourselves that we probably didn’t need that advice anyway.  Yeah, our lives aren’t great, but they’re not sooo bad, right?

Change IS hard.  Most of us fear it.  It is far easier to stick to the comfortable.  If you put yourself out there you could look like a fool or even worse, you could FAIL.  Oh, the horror.

I was talking to a life coach acquaintance of mine and she shared a really disturbing figure with me.  In her experience, life coaching only works for about 5% of all the people she coaches.  Five Percent!  That’s with people that have actually made a commitment and shelled out $250 an hour!   She stays sane because the 5% that stick with it make it worth it.  I don’t think this is an anomaly.

My wife is a family physician who has a fair number of patients with behavioral health issues and many more that deal with issues with diabetes or have serious trouble with medication adherence.  This is another group that sees a professional, works out a plan and universally struggles to stick with it.  Thankfully, her numbers aren’t as bad as 5% but they’re not a whole hell of a lot better either.


So what’s happening here?  When reading articles online, minimal attention is given to these good ideas.  They pass through the brain like a pleasant thought and last just as long.  There is zero accountability when it comes to reading self-help.  The exception is whatever accountability you impose upon yourself.

Accountability-personal-DevelopmentNobody cares if you hit your goals or not.  That’s why many self-help experts ask you to make these goals public and surround yourself with a support group.  Doing so raises the stakes and attempts to make people care.  These are great ideas – in theory.  These ideas are super hard to put into practice.  You know how busy other people are and you don’t want to impose.  It doesn’t matter to your lizard brain that your friends would probably be happy and honored to help.  It just sounds so cheesy and requires a level of vulnerability you’re probably not comfortable with.

Accountability is only part of the puzzle.  According to my life coach friend it’s only about 5% of the puzzle.  That’s primarily what her clients are paying her for, accountability.  I would personally put the pie slice quite a bit higher when accountability is applied, more along the lines of 20%.  This can soar far higher when a group dynamic is applied.  If you put group pressure in place by making things public or by adding an element of competition, we’ve seen the numbers get as high as 83% with our own experiments.  That percentage comes with a serious caveat, you only get those high numbers from competition when the majority of the group engages.  If only a minority engages, you end up back in the 20% range.  My wife sees higher accountability due to the authority of her role as well as the potential mortality of the consequences.  Things crystallize a bit when death is on the line.

Awareness and mindfulness

Mindfulness.jpgSo what other factors are in play?  After speaking with a bevy of life coaches, they all agreed that awareness and mindfulness were another big factor.  When we review our goals or talk about them with a coach or therapist, we leave those conversations or reviews feeling very inspired and pretty clear on what we should be doing.  However, when we smack into the stresses of real life, these great intentions vanish quicker than a hamburger at a Vegans Anonymous meeting.   Having the mindfulness to stick with your goals out in the real world is hard as hell.  If only we could program a little angel to be sitting on our shoulder to remind of us of our goals when the shit hits the fan…  That’s part of what the folks at the Track your happiness project are doing.  They have you check in on a regular basis throughout the day just to see how you are feeling and why.  Just participating in the project is having a positive effect on people’s overall happiness because they are made aware of it.  That’s the power of mindfulness.

Play / Fun


I think the biggest reason by far is that self-help or personal development is typically not very fun.  Coming up with your goals is fun.  Building the vision boards is fun.  Imagining how successful you’ll be when you hit those goals is fun.  But doing the work…not so much.  Remember when you were kid and you had to get your chores done?  I know I would either put it off for as long as possible and then slog through it dragging my feet.  Or, I would make a game out of it somehow and have fun getting it done.  Kids have been able to turn chores into fun since time immemorial.  Yeah, they typically don’t do as good of a job as an adult because the focus becomes the game, but they still get work done.

A good story on that front: my youngest daughter picked, quite literally, the shittiest chore out of the chore hat for last year – the weekly cleanup of the dog poop out of the dog run.  Every Sunday when it was time to get it done, the waterworks would turn on.  Keep in mind, she was only eight.  “I hate that job <deep breath, huge wail>; how come I got the worst job <sob>.”  So I started to help her out with it.  In this case it was me that turned it into a game.  We would always start by looking for the grossest poop of the bunch.  Then we would both point at it, take a deep breath, and yell ‘ewwwwww’ at the top of our lungs until we were out of breath.  But then, she picked it up.  Next we would look for all of the hidden poops, those that were under leaves or dog toys – a poop scavenger hunt.  And she picked those up.  By that time, all that was left were the easy ones and she got through those pretty quickly.  Before we knew it, the job was done.  I’m not going to say that left her looking forward to doing the chore the next week, but she always got it done.

One of my eldest daughters chores last year was to cook one dinner a week.  She likes to cook so this was not a huge deal for her.  Regardless, whenever I could, I volunteered to be her sous chef.  So she was the boss.  And that was definitely a good time for her.  It was also a great time for me.  I gained a ton of insight into her thinking patterns.  It was also a great chance to deepen my relationship with her.

The fun approach should be a guideline for life anyway.  Who are the teachers you remember most growing up?  They were always the ones that made learning fun.  The whacky science teacher or we even had a math teacher who was one of the coaches who just didn’t get most of the subject he was teaching.  The fun and funny part was that he was very open about it, happy to share his vulnerability and even getting the kids to help him figure out problems on the board.  In retrospect, I truly wonder if he didn’t really get it in the first place and that was just his style of finding engagement.

It’s easy to be the downer.  It’s a lot harder to pick people up.  To be the fun one.

So, how do we make self-help fun?  This is what Jane McGonigal has been spending her time doing for the last six years, trying to gamify life.  Her story is a truly spectacular and is really worth the 20 minute TED talk if you haven’t seen it already.  She has proven that some of this stuff can be made fun with her game SuperBetter.  I wasn’t a huge fan of the game but I love the idea.

I can’t remember who said it but I read it somewhere – “Flow is playtime for adults.”  Once you can really get into a task and your brain fully engages, it becomes fun.  We just need to figure out how to make it fun to get your brain to that point in the first place.  That’s one of the challenges we’re taking on in our software.

As you start thinking about your next attempts at personal development, think about those three factors – accountability, awareness and fun.  Any of the three will give you a better shot at success but if you can figure out a way to hit all three marks, you’re on your way to a better you.


Embrace the Stress!

No worthwhile life is stress free

When did stress become such a bad word?  Maybe it’s because it’s around the New Year but I’m gonna lose it if I see one more article about “22 ways to live a stress free life.”  Stop and ask yourself for a second – would you really want a stress free life?  Sounds pretty horrible to me.

Stress reminds us that we are alive.  Evolutionarily, stress came packaged with the lizard brain.  This is the fight or flight response you learn about in grade school science.  The caveman version of stress (and Walter Cannon’s) is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack or threat to survival.  When we moved out of the caves and into the 20th and 21st century, stress came with us.  It too evolved.  Stress developed ways of convincing the lizard brain that a late book report, or showing up late to a meeting is the first world equivalent of facing down a hungry sabretooth.

I’m the first to admit that you don’t want to be under pressure ALL the time.  Everyone has seen the corporate stresshoppers bouncing around every downtown urban center in the world.  These poor bastards are constantly at the end of their collective ropes, one bad review from a coronary implosion.  The science is out on that level of stress.  Live in that pressure cooker for too long and you’re gonna pop.

Let’s take a second though and look at the other side of the spectrum.  Those that live without any stress at all.  Have you ever met a really happy trustafarian?  Maybe when they’re younger and having all the funds to do whatever they want is still new.  But even then, there is an almost frantic malaise that seems to emanate from their booze soaked pores.  History is spackled with these diminutive creatures.  Think of the entitled nobility of yore who turned political back-biting into blood sport simply because they were bored.  A trustafarian acquaintance of mine recently had a mental break due to his stress free lifestyle all while continuing to post ever happier pictures on Facebook.

A mental break from too LITTLE stress?  How does that even happen?

For most of our history as a species we have been simply struggling to survive.  To find our next meal.  To not end up as a chew toy for marauding wolf packs.  That was our purpose.  Live to tomorrow.  Make babies.  Feed babies.  Protect babies until they can protect themselves.

If you’ve ever read Harari’s excellent book Sapiens, he explains that a side effect to human survival is community.  As the size of community grows so do the fictions that allow us to relate to others.  These fictions can be religions, corporations, ethos, zeitgeists, etc… but they are completely man made meaning that they don’t exist in nature without man.  Each human’s personal fiction is how they fit (or don’t fit) into the community’s larger fictions.  In other words, their purpose.  Having purpose comes with its own stress, but it’s a good stress.  A real purpose is something that you stand up for, something you fight for.  Not having purpose comes with a different stress that often takes a longer time to realize.  This is the understanding that you are just a boil on the ass of society, not contributing ideas or even simple labor.  This is what happens to our trustafarians.  Their stress free lifestyle ultimately catches up to them when they finally come to the realization that they’ve made zero contribution to the collective fictions of society.

The stresses brought about by purpose typically come in the form of accountability.  This is holding yourself accountable to your own values.  To fighting for your purpose.  This is holding your friends and co-workers accountable for playing their own role in society.  To keeping their commitments, living ethically, not allowing #metoo moments to happen.  These stresses are the lube that keep the gears of positive human interaction turning.

Another super valuable stress is adapting to change.  Life is change.  Stephen Hawking said it best, “Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.”  Almost every blog you read on success will at some point mention that you have to take yourself out of your comfort zone.  The more often, the better.  Leaving your comfort zone is stressful.  Nobody wakes up in the morning wanting to do it, but the feeling and education you get after successfully navigating unknown waters is worth it.

That’s what the term deliberate practice means.  Working on a skill in an area where you are out of your comfort zone.  If you’re learning to play an instrument, you don’t learn much if you keep playing the same song over and over again.  You HAVE to keep challenging yourself to get better.  That challenge is stressful.  Stress is a required ingredient in improvement.

There have been a number of studies done on the benefits of stress.  Moderate amounts of stress can boost your brain power, motivation and memory.  I’m sure you’ve experienced this.  When trying to complete a project for a deadline, just having the deadline forces a high level of focus.  Often, it pushes you into the zone where the work just flows.  When you leave the zone, you feel great.

Finally, when you look back at history, some of the greatest humans alive came from times of extraordinary stress.  Whether the stressful times made the leaders or the leaders made the times is always up for debate.  If you look at the Caesars, Churchills, FDRs, Lincolns, MLKs, the Gandhis, they rose in times of great stress.  Now, look at the leaders over the last 50 years.  Not a lot to be proud of.  It’s been more a decline in the collective purpose of the race.  Do you think history will remember Clinton or Bush?  Not that times of peace or a bad thing, but there’s always evil to fight, whether that’s a Nazi empire, global warming or poverty.

Stress is important to our well-being both personally and as a society.  My recommendation is that the next time you see another article on how to totally eliminate stress from your life, ignore it.

About the Biz, Methodologies

Personal Development in only 3 minutes?

Gamifying the Experience

We’ve done several sessions of the full, mediated personal development plan.  The most common feedback question that comes back: this is great when it is moderated, but how can you ever turn this into software?  Will you use videos?  Will you just sell it to life coaches?  How will you introduce this to the average Joe or Jan on the street?

In one of my previous lives, I built a company where we developed video games.  We were always planning on making gamification a big part of driving personal development.  The original idea was that gamification would come in as an afterthought, as icing on an already tasty cake.  The more feedback we get, the more it feels like the entire system should be structured like a game from the get go.  The newbie level will be an introduction to the concepts and we will gradually unlock all the different pieces of know thyself and ultimately the entire development plan.  Yes, there may be videos along the way but everything will be introduced in very bite sized pieces.

The 3 Minute Rule

As I was explaining the idea of the Odyssey to one of my closest friends, whom I started the video game company with and who stayed in the industry, he brought up the 3 minute rule.  A lot of the titles that he publishes these days are mobile titles.  One of the golden rules for a mobile game is that you have to be able to have a satisfying experience in 3 minutes or less.  This means that you can play a round while on the subway or on the can.  It has to be an encounter that can give you a sense of accomplishment in that time frame.

Turns out the 3-minute rule has applications in a ton of other scenarios.  We all know that the average pop song is around three minutes.  The Beastie Boys actually had a song called the 3-minute rule, not that I would ever dare to categorize the Beastie Boys as pop.  Billy Joel also lamented the restriction in the Entertainer – “it was a beautiful song / but it ran too long / if you’re gonna have a hit, you gotta make it fit / So they cut it down to 3:05.”

The 3 minute rule is also used in auctions and nautical measures.  Another interesting case is a philosophy that a venture firm proposed in the Harvard Business review about understanding your customers.  They found that you can learn a ton about them by asking them what they were doing three minutes before using your product and three minutes after.   These three minute chunks place the customer in context to see why they start using your product in the first place.  Similarly, the three minute chunk after they use your product gives you a sense of what they are doing with the outputs you provide, how you fit into the greater workflow.

The moral of the story seems to be that the human mind identifies three minutes as a minimal amount of time to get something necessary, like an errand, done.  I did some research on this to see if there is an evolutionary reason for the time period but failed to turn anything up.  If you have seen any research about this segment of time, please let us know in the comments.

Making Each Step Fun

The other rule that we want to pull from gaming is that it should be fun at every level of progression.  RTS(real time strategy) games were brilliant at this.  The early game was all about establishing a base, the mid game was about exploration and advancement while the end game was typically about destruction of the enemy.  Another good example of this is the game Rim World.  Although it sounds like some dirty space fantasy, it is actually a brilliant strategy game.  I don’t know anybody who plays it the same way.  My wife loves the early game of setting up the colony, where I love the end game.  My girls seem to enjoy the expansion that happens in the middle.  The point is that one game allows us all to enjoy it for different reasons.  This is what we want to bring to the Odyssey.

The Internet Quiz

Internet QuizSo how do we implement the 3 minute rule in personal development?  The first obvious way to do this is the internet quiz.  Half of the Know Thyself elements that we use are built around taking personality or character strength multiple choice quizzes that define some primary attribute(s) about yourself.  Buzzfeed made the internet quiz a staple over the last ten years so familiarity with the approach will not be a problem.

The next step is providing an enjoyable entry level experience.  This will start with narrowing the problem space.  Can we pick a couple of problems that are very common in the current zeitgeist and build a ‘make-your-own-adventure’ decision tree that will allow our users to address very real problems in bite sized chunks?  We hope so.

Finally, we need to build the entry level functionality with an eye towards the mid and end game.  Each step needs to be fun and each step needs to bring our users a step forward in their personal development.  Most of this will be presented by unlocking new functionality each step of the way until our users are working off of a full personal development scorecard.  Many of these ideas have been story-boarded and wire-framed.  Our next step will be getting some early user feedback.  Stay tuned!

Book Reviews


Know Your Species

To understand who we are, it’s always a good idea to look at who we were.  It’s certainly cliché but that doesn’t make it any less true.   Yuval Noah Harari has written a masterpiece on the history of our species in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.  He brilliantly takes us on an anthropological journey that defines who we are as a people.  This book has taken its place on my shelf as one of the all-time greats.

He starts from the very beginning.  2.5 million years ago, the humans evolve into being in Africa.  We were weird: big brains, skinny, we walked upright, we used tools.  The world didn’t know what it was in for.  Since we walked upright, women had a really tough time of it when it came to giving birth.  The upright gait required much narrower hips which constricted the birth canal.  Big brains required big heads and death in childbirth was a huge problem.  So we evolved to give birth to very premature babies.  If you look at other species, like horses, or even giraffes, they start walking within days.  It takes us over a year, but we’re vulnerable for far longer than that.  This required us to evolve communication and communities to take care of our young.  That’s what got the ball rolling towards world domination.

Harari breaks the book down into four sections: the Cognitive Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution, the unification of humankind and the Scientific Revolution.  There are a ton of insights in each section of the book so I’ll do my best to capture the ones I found most interesting in this quick review.  There is so much more in there though, so please do yourself a favor and read the book.

Cognitive Revolution

The Cognitive revolution started about seventy thousand (70K) years ago.  This is my back of the napkin math, not Harari’s, but if we consider that over history there was roughly five generations per century, this means that we started serious cogitation about thirty five hundred (3,500) generations ago.  That’s a lot of chance for evolutionary mutations but nothing compared to the roughly 2.4 million years before that time started that it took for us to figure out the tools and weapons to take us from the middle of the food chain to the top.  During that much longer period of time, sapiens weren’t the only kids on the block.  There were the Neanderthals, Homo erectus, Homo rudolfensis, Homo ergaster and several others.  The evolution to sapiens wasn’t a serial progression from these other species.  There is DNA evidence that we did the nasty with Neanderthals and we didn’t drive them to extinction until about thirty thousand(30K) years ago.  It wasn’t until about thirteen thousand years ago that Homo sapiens were the only humans left.

So why did sapiens make it when the rest of the competing human species didn’t?  The conclusion that Harari draws is fascinating.  He claims that our big edge was our ability to create fiction.  In his words, “Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.”  There are natural laws like the law of gravity that would exist even if humans were not on the planet, but “There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws and no justice outside the common imagination of the human beings.”  All of those things exist only because we made them up.  Our ability to create these fictions allowed us to “revise our behavior rapidly in accordance with changing needs.  This opened a fast lane of cultural evolution, bypassing the traffic jams of genetic evolution.”  When everyone believes in a similar idea or concept, it builds trust, which allows us to work effectively in much larger groups than chimps or Neanderthals.

The other really big step we took in the Cognitive Revolution was when groups of sapiens near Indonesia figured out how to build ships and leave Afro-Asia.  This was a monumental advantage over other creatures because we didn’t have to wait to evolve flippers and fins.  Instead, we built boats and sailed to Australia.  “The moment the first hunter-gatherer set foot on an Australian beach was the moment that Homo sapiens climbed to the top rung in the food chain on a particular landmass and thereafter became the deadliest species in the annals of planet Earth.”  As soon as we got there, we wiped out 90% of the megafauna.  All of the big animals there didn’t see us as a threat until we stuck them full of spears.  They never had the chance to evolve a fear of sapiens and they were destroyed, by us, long before that could happen.  Sadly, this was true with every other landmass we migrated to.  We migrated there and wiped out all of the big animals.  This is a disturbing trend of our species.  We move in, we pillage and destroy, and we completely change the ecological environment.

Agricultural Revolution

The Cognitive Revolution was followed by the Agricultural revolution which started around 9500-8500 BC.  Harari calls the Agricultural Revolution the biggest con job in history.  “The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return…Moreover, the new agricultural tasks demanded so much time that people were forced to settle permanently next to their wheat fields.  This completely changed their way of life.  We didn’t domesticate wheat.  It domesticated us.”  Farmers got a raw deal and were pretty miserable.  Bigger communities meant a lot more violence and a ton more disease.  As a species though, it was great.  We banged like rabbits and our population went through the roof.

The Agrarian society also had us thinking about the future for the first time.  Since we were no longer foraging, one bad crop could wipe everybody out.  This drove us into planning for the future and accelerated things like trade with other communities.  With that many humans now living together there was a ton of bloodshed.  “The problem at the root of such calamities is that humans evolved for millions of years in small bands of a few dozen individuals.  The handful of millennia separating the Agricultural Revolution from the appearance of cities, kingdoms and empires was not enough time to allow an instinct for mass cooperation to evolve.”  This made fiction and the shared myths even more important, especially when it came to organized violence like armies.  “At least some of the commanders and soldiers must truly believe in something, be it God, honor, motherland, manhood or money….How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy or capitalism?  First, you never admit that the order is imagined.  You always insist that the order sustaining the society is an objective reality created by the great gods or by the laws of nature.”

The other big advance that came out of the Agricultural Revolution was writing.  “The human brain is not a good storage device for empire-sized databases, for three main reasons…. First, its capacity is limited.  Secondly, humans die, and their brains die with them.  Thirdly and most importantly, the human brain has been adapted to store and process only particular types of information.”  These were things like what plants and animals it was safe to eat.  With all these people living together it became important to process large amounts of data.  Writing and math were an inevitable progression so the whole system didn’t come crashing down.

The Unification of Humankind

The next stage he covers is the unification of humankind which started about 5,000 years ago.  Harari posits that the three great unifiers were money, empires and religion.  “Money is based on two universal principles: a. Universal convertibility: with money as an alchemist, you can turn land into loyalty, justice into health, and violence into knowledge. b. Universal trust:  with money as a go-between, any two people can cooperate on any project.”  There was a serious dark side that came with money.  “When everything is convertible, and when trust depends on anonymous coins and cowry shells, it corrodes local traditions, intimate relations and human values, replacing them with the cold laws of supply and demand.”

Our current liberal societies don’t relish the idea of Imperialism.  However, empires were incredibly effective in unifying people.  “Ideas, people, goods and technology spread more easily within the borders of an empire than in a politically fragmented region.  Often enough, it was the empires themselves which deliberately spread ideas, institutions, customs and norms.”  They did this for two reasons.  This made life easier for those running the empire but a common culture also brought legitimacy to their rule.

Religion was the final unifier.  This is how Harari defines religion, “Religion can thus be defined as a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order.”  All religions had two big rules, “First, it must espouse a universal superhuman order that is true always and everywhere.  Second, it must insist on spreading this belief to everyone.  In other words, it must be universal and missionary.”  Two pretty powerful rules, they knew their marketing.  It’s not a huge surprise that the idea of religion became such a unifier.

The Scientific Revolution

The Scientific Revolution started about 500 years ago.  Science was very different from the traditions that came before it in three primary ways, “The willingness to admit ignorance…The centrality of observation and mathematics….The acquisition of new powers.  Modern science is not content with creating theories.  It uses these theories in order to acquire new powers, and in particular to develop new technologies.”  This led to my favorite quote of the book, “The Scientific Revolution has not been a revolution of knowledge.  It has been above all a revolution of ignorance.  The great discovery that launched the Scientific Revolution was the discovery that humans do not know the answers to the most important questions.”

One of the kickers for science is that it needs an alliance with an ideology to flourish.  The ideology is necessary to justify the cost of research.  The two big allies for science were imperialism and capitalism.  One of the primary reasons why Europe dominated the Scientific Revolution was, in Harari’s words, “The key factor was that the plant-seeking botanist and the colony-seeking naval officer shared a similar mindset.  Both scientist and conqueror began by admitting ignorance – they both said, ‘I don’t know what’s out there.’  They both felt compelled to go out and make new discoveries.  And they both hoped the new knowledge thus acquired would make them masters of the world.”  This quote reminded me of the Patrick O’Brian books where Captain Jack Aubrey was always accompanied by Dr. Stephen Maturin, conqueror and naturalist going hand in hand to take over the world.

This ultimately led to the Industrial Revolution.  “The Industrial Revolution turned the timetable and the assembly line into a template for almost all human activities.”  This led to a great story he told about time.  All local communities used to track time in their own unique way.  Based on how they calculated time, It might be 8 AM in London but 8:04 AM in Liverpool.  This was true until trains starting making their way across Britain and the train timetables were getting all screwed up.  So, in 1847, the train companies set all of their timetables to Greenwich time  Thirty years later, the British government followed suit and that is how the world got Greenwich Mean Time.

The Industrial Revolution came with a serious downside.  “Yet all of these upheavals are dwarfed by the most momentous social revolution that ever befell humankind: the collapse of the family and the local community and their replacement by the state and the market.”  Neighbors used to work on barter agreements.  Your fence falls down, I help you fix it.  My wall topples, you help me.  With the Industrial Revolution all of this changed.  “In order really to break the power of family and community, they needed the help of a fifth column.  The state and the market approached people with an offer that could not be refused.  ‘Become individuals.'”  Study after study shows that when we are surrounded by family and community we are happier.  We love to describe ourselves as rugged individuals but the cost turned out to be a whole lot of happiness.

Harari is a bit of a cynic when it comes to happiness.  He broke happiness down into three theories.  The first is that happiness is in the hands of our biochemical system.  Once we can regulate that machine like a well-tuned air conditioner we can engineer our way into happiness.  Meh.  The second is that “perhaps happiness is synchronizing one’s personal delusions of meaning with the prevailing collective delusion.  As long as my personal narrative is in line with the narratives of the people around me, I can convince myself that my life is meaningful, and find happiness in that conviction.  This is quite a depressing conclusion.  Does happiness really depend on self-delusion?”  He didn’t like that idea either but this seems to be the Facebook fallacy.

Know Yourself

His third theory comes down to ‘Know Thyself!’.  This is the one I prefer.  He uses Buddhism as a way to describe this knowledge.  In Buddhism, “People are liberated from suffering not when they experience this or that fleeting pleasure, but rather when they understand the impermanent nature of all their feelings, and stop craving them.”  He goes on to add, “In contrast, for many traditional philosophies and religions, such as Buddhism, the key to happiness is to know the truth about yourself – to understand who, or what, you really are.  Most people wrongly identify themselves with their feelings, thoughts, likes and dislikes.  When they feel anger, they think, ‘I am angry.  This is my anger.’  They consequently spend their life avoiding some kinds of feelings and pursuing others.  They never realize that they are not their feelings, and that the relentless pursuit of particular feelings just traps them in misery.”

I like his systematic approach to analyzing happiness.  He seems to come to no conclusion on what theory is the best approach allowing us to draw our own.  He closes by bemoaning that we really don’t have any historical study of happiness and that is a huge gap in our collective knowledge.  “Most history books focus on the ideas of great thinkers, the bravery of warriors, the charity of saints and the creativity of artists.  They have much to tell about the weaving and unraveling of social structures, about the rise and fall of empires, about the discovery and spread of technologies.  Yet they say nothing about how all this influenced the happiness and suffering of individuals.  This is the biggest lacuna in our understanding of history.”  Lacuna, cool word.

I found this study on humankind fascinating.  If we can learn the lessons that history has to teach, our chance of being successful in our own personal development can only increase.