Notes on motivation and self-improvement

I’ve recently been thinking about something that strikes me as a remarkable fact about human psychology. Nearly everybody knows of multiple things that consistently bring them significant happiness, and despite this they don’t do these things, or do them much less frequently than they would like.

For example, virtually every time that I meditate I feel better off at the end of it. There’s usually long-term effects too, like that the rest of my day is improved, and sometimes multiple days in the future are improved. There’s even some longer-term benefits; my sense is that consistent meditation allows me to think more clearly and get insight about the structure of my own mind. I’ve meditated hundreds of times and have literally never had a negative experience. The most I can say is I’ve had some neutral experiences, but the vast majority have been positive experiences, and many of them have been extremely positive experiences. And yet, I don’t regularly meditate! If you picked a random moment in the last ten years of my life and asked me “Did you meditate today? What about this week? Or this month?”, the answer to all three would more often than not be “no”.

And it’s not that I just sometimes forget about meditation. It’s actually worse than this! I feel an active resistance towards meditating whenever I think of doing it. One reason I’m saying this is that I used to be very into psychological egoism. The idea is that you can boil down all of our motivations to finding personal happiness. The claim is that if you interrogate your own motivations and keep asking “well why do you want that?”, you’ll eventually find a basic seeking after positive valence experiences at the end of the chain. But when you actually start to introspect on your own mind, it feels like there are these very clear cases, cases that aren’t even very rare, of your mind rejecting happy experiences. One could say “Well really this is a short-term versus long-term type of thing and you’re really rejecting the long-term happiness in exchange for some short term gratification”. But it’s not even that! For me, the benefits I get from meditation happen basically immediately. If you were to try to model me as a simple happiness maximizer, even one that prefers short-term gratification, you would end up making really bad predictions about how I live my life.

So, there’s a whole set of strategies that I just know will effectively bring me happiness. And I can implement these strategies at virtually any time. And yet I don’t do them! Or at least, I do them much less frequently than I could be. And I’m willing to bet that the same is true of you. I want you to think about the following: What are three concrete actions you can take that aren’t very costly, and that pretty much always make you feel happier, healthier, or better in any way. Just think of these three things, maybe even write them down. And then ask yourself: “Well, how often do I actually do these things? Do I do them at a rate that I think makes sense, or do I do them less than that?”

I’ve already given the example of meditation for myself. Another example is exercise. Exercise is a less good example for the psychological egoism point I was making, because there is a good case to be made that it’s a trade off between present suffering and future happiness. But regardless, I know that when I exercise, I feel good for the rest of my day. I have more energy, I’m typically more focused, and I feel better about myself. Long-run consistent exercise makes you look better, which raises self-esteem and makes you more likely to attract social interactions that you might desire, like a romantic partner. And due to the halo effect, you’re probably able to more easily get friends. (Even if you think it’s a bad thing that our society prizes attractiveness so much, it still is a true fact about society. Just because something shouldn’t be the case doesn’t mean you should act as if it isn’t the case!)

Another one for me is taking a walk in the morning. If instead of going on the computer, the first thing I do is just get up and take a walk outside, it consistently makes the rest of my day feel better. I don’t think that this one has longer term effects beyond that single day, but it’s still something I could do which takes maybe 30 minutes and isn’t physically exhausting or anything. And I have a lot of resistance to doing it!

One more example I think I can give is writing. If in the course of a day I write an essay or make progress on an essay, I feel a lot better. This is one which is actually situational, because it’s not the case that at every moment I have an idea for a good essay I can write. If I just sort of sit down and start writing without any idea of something I want to write about, that typically isn’t going to have the same effect. But nonetheless, it’s often the case that there are topics that I want to write about and yet I don’t. So that’s another interesting phenomenon.

So, exercise, meditation, walking in the morning, and writing, these are all concrete things I can put into action literally today. And in fact, I have been doing these for last few weeks and I hope that continues; I’m trying to build them as actual habits rather than just some temporary phase I’m in. But taking an outside view I can see that throughout most of my life I have not had a really consistent practice of any of these things.

Ultimately I just think it’s a good thing to take a moment out of your day and reflect on the things you can do to help yourself, and that you KNOW will help yourself. And possibly just thinking about these things will be motivating to some degree to actually do them! Put a special focus on the fact that you really could just start doing them right now; there’s nothing stopping you. Of course, if one of your choices was something like “every time I vacation in Hawaii it consistently raises my happiness for a period of time”, well… that’s true but not very actionable. On the other hand, things like exercising or meditation can be done in almost any environment! You don’t have to go to the gym, you could just search “high intensity interval training” on Youtube, do ten to fifteen minutes of exercise and you will almost certainly feel better for the rest of your day. So ask yourself the question “why am I not doing that?” And then do it!