5 Mind Viruses Impeding Personal Growth (and how to stop the spread)
S.M.S. Top Tips, Volume 1
Hey friends, welcome to Sunday. New week, new opportunities for growth! Welcome to the first addition of S.M.S. Top Tips. To spice things up, I am exploring a different format. I went for some 🌶 content this week.
Got feedback or questions? Throw it in the comments!
1. “I want to be happy all the time.”
The pursuit of happiness. It looks nice, it sounds nice, it even smells nice. Mmmm, impending doom, smells like sulfur. But I can tell you right now it is not nice. Substitute ‘happiness’ for ‘fulfillment’ and now you’re cooking with gas.
What happens when you over index on happiness? Short answer: not good things. The scientific answer:
“The over promotion of happiness, and, in turn, the felt social pressure not to experience negative emotional states, has implications for maladaptive responses to negative emotional experiences.”
The studywas published in 2018 and explored if an overestimation on the importance of feeling 'happy' would create a net positive or negative effect. What they found was the overemphasis on feeling happy actually led to an outsized amount of subjects feeling more negative emotions & a worsening ability to deal with these feelings.
The pursuit to feel happy all the time is dangerous. But equally, the desire to never feel unhappiness is just as dangerous. As we know from our essay on Self-Mastery, it is always The Middle Way that will serve us best.
While I appreciate the author’s intention from the article above, and he indeed does list some very positive strategies to “stay happy all the time” - the intent is wide of the mark. The self-help space is littered with heaps of nonsense about achieving perpetual happiness. One could argue it’s doing more harm than good.
We can’t stay happy all the time and we shouldn’t try. If you believe you are in an eternal state of happiness, or are attempting to achieve this state, please ask yourself one question: what person will I be when the really bad day comes?
Fulfillment is my drug of choice. Drawing on Stoic philosophy, the ancients knew very well that life would come knocking no matter what. The unhappy days were inevitable. The happy days were a bonus. This is not cynical. This is pragmatic.
“For you should regard as an enjoyment all that you are able to accomplish in accordance with your own nature; and everywhere that is within your reach.” -Marcus Aurelius
“Demand not that things happen as you wish, but wish them to happen as they do, and you will go on well.” -Epictetus
To expect every day to bring happiness is a sure fire way to not be able to handle the inevitable unhappiness. Therefore, if you are pursuing a life of meaning, doing honest work and connecting with people you truly care about, you will be fulfilled. When that inevitable day of suffering arrives, you will be strong, balanced and ready to take on the challenge. Follow Viktor Frankl’s 3 Paths to Meaning if you need a place to start. I write about it here.
2. “My comfort is the most important thing to me.”
There is nothing like sitting down and taking that [insert streaming service] series to the main vein eh? The sweet thrill of knowing you have 8 hours of content to go and enough insomnia to get you there 😵!
I want to be very clear, I subscribe to 3 different streaming services, watch hours of YouTube, I enjoy a couple hours gaming here and there and have a healthy obsession with podcasts. Not all of them are educational or for the purposes of bettering myself. We can definitely make the argument that art is art, and there is a time and place for a good Netflix session.
Let us also be honest and admit that a disproportionate amount of comfort-seeking activity in a sedentary position is no way to live. I know when I’m being indulgent with entertainment, refined carbohydrates… and you probably do too.
There are times we should be exercising instead of watching Netflix. There are times we should be challenging ourselves in our careers instead of just doing the bare minimum. Each present the same fork in the road: choosing comfort or the inevitable discomfort of the more difficult path. We avoid exercise because there’s some pain involved. We avoid going for the more challenging position at work because we know the learning curve will be steep, and the chances of failure are higher.
On the other side of resistance is growth.
Hedonism plays a huge part in our lives. Our comfort-seeking behavior has its intellectual roots in ancient philosophy.
Hedonism: the ethical theory that pleasure (in the sense of the satisfaction of desires) is the highest good and proper aim of human life.
The ancient Greek school philosophized that the highest aim in life was pleasure. Inversely, that pain should be avoided at all costs. While many Hedonist teachers also preached temperance and good judgement, you can understand how the root of the philosophy is seductive, and can be taken to extremes.
I cannot see the inherent virtue in holding comfort & pleasure as the highest good. On the other side of pain is growth. You are better for going on the longer walk. You are better for resisting the hyper palatable sugar/carbohydrate dish and drinking a glass of water. You are better for challenging yourself to learn a new skill or trade versus just phoning it in.
I know I am better for placing myself outside of my comfort zone, because very simply: I learn about myself when I do those things. And that, we know, is the hardest thing to do - to truly know oneself. I write about it here.
Knowing is growing. And if you are hiding from the world, you aren’t finding out about yourself, so you definitely are not growing.
3. “My friends and I agree on ALL the things & it’s great.”
Echo chambers. We love them, because we love to know we are valued and that our opinions matter. Therefore, what better place than being surrounded by people who will proactively reinforce all your thoughts and opinions on a given subject?
Again, we know deep down this is dangerous. There’s comfort in doing the easier thing. And the easier thing is to not seek out dissenting opinions. There seems to be an evolutionary imperative to finding one’s own tribe & commiserating over shared truths. I think that’s beautiful. But we know a bit of diversity in the gene pool makes us a lot better. Same goes for diversity of opinion.
Challenging ourselves to seek out opposing viewpoints is necessary to develop a strong, reasoned understanding of a given topic. Our political climate in this country (USA) seems to promote this less and less. I am deeply worried about that. Ideological possession grips many, and they can’t seem to escape.
While it’s difficult to avoid Uncle Steve’s political rants at Thanksgiving, you can still choose your friends, as the old adage says.
Seeking out a diverse array of friends who hold different opinions than you is the spice of life. It will boost your creativity, sharpen your arguments (if you care to) and lead to those wonderful debates that invigorate your mind & produce plenty of oxytocin.
4. “[Corporate News Media Network] has my best interests at heart.”
In a recent piece, I hypothesized 5 major areas within our modern American experience that were emblematic of a larger existential crisis. One of those was the dangerous and incessant stream of ideology being spewed from the talking heads on corporate news media networks. There’s a landmark study that tracked politically extreme viewpoints coming from the major networks for the last several years - and they concluded that yes, political bias is… terrible.
There is a very important truth to be told about the corporate news media machine. Interestingly enough, this truth seems to be understood better in the context of social media. When you go on a platform like Facebook, do you pay? No. It’s free to use. Twitter? No, there’s some premium offerings, but it’s pretty much free. This means you are the product. I know it seems like you are using a product, but believe me, it’s the other way around.
When you turn on CNN and the entire segment is ‘brought to you by Pfizer’ - you are the product they are selling to Pfizer. You are being served advertisements. Facebook is paid by the advertiser, just like CNN, FOX and MSNBC is paid by massive companies to advertise to you. They monetize their viewership. Last I checked, you don’t pay a subscription fee to CNN… and when they tried that model, oh how hilariously terrible it went for them. If you aren’t familiar, CNN poured $300 million into launching their own streaming service, and it was cancelled after less than 1 month. It is one of the most spectacular failures in modern media.
So what does this all mean? Well, I think it’s pretty naive to think that the big network’s talking-head-ideologues have a great depth of care for your wellbeing. But is everything that comes out of corporate news media trash? No, not all. But man, it’s getting so difficult to even find a glimmer of hope in the overall model.
I personally cannot watch it. I find it painfully contrived and manipulative. The weird way they talk. The absolute ambush of glitz & glam surrounding what should be a serious issue. The Ukraine/Russia conflict shouldn’t be intro’d to me like I’m about to watch a Marvel movie. And the insanely short segments they have with political pundits going ‘toe to toe’ on the issues… it’s a sideshow.
Why are long form podcasts and newsletters so popular I wonder? Because there’s actual humanity in them.
I’ll be very careful here. I will not suggest any particular news media, author, independent commentator. Besides Substack. I’ll happily shill for Substack. Give the Discover function a try for political commentators if you so wish. I only recommend that you seek a cross section of opinion. No matter what, you can always go down ideological rabbit holes, and before you know it, you and Uncle Steve have flipped over the Thanksgiving table and are strangling each other while Nanna screams about Q Anon.
If you so choose to watch corporate news tv media, watch it as if you’re studying a psychological experiment through a two-way mirror.
5. “I know all about cognitive biases, so I can avoid them.”
No, no you can’t. And neither can I. Unfortunately, no matter how brilliant you think you are, you are also a dumbass, just like me. Dunning-Kruger Effect:
“People with limited knowledge or competence in a given intellectual or social domain greatly overestimate their own knowledge or competence in that domain relative to objective criteria or to the performance of their peers or of people in general.”
The incomparable Mark Manson recently did a little short on YouTube about this. It’s too good not to include here:
If you’ve ever taken a course on cognitive bias, listened to a podcast, read a book or heard an expert speak on this subject, then you understand: knowing about cognitive biases does not create an immunity to them. So, sorry to inform, this mind virus is terminal. However, your feelings related to our collective unknowing; you can definitely control those.
Why does this matter? Like Manson explains in the video, we live in an era of tremendous arrogance, vitriol and intellectual foolishness. Who knows, maybe it’s as bad as it’s always been, but it sure feel worse than the 90s. Humility is the integral precursor to learning. This is one of the things that so fascinated me in researching for my recent essay on Leonardo da Vinci. He was so humble in his approach to all the topics he researched, it allowed him to explore and understand areas of intellectual curiosity beyond anyone in his time. Therefore, taking a step back, and realizing that we don’t know what we don’t know, is a humble and wise approach.
I am aware of the irony, as I just waxed poetic on five different topics as if I’m some kind of expert. Trust me, I really don’t think I am, and it’s painful to click publish every single time on these articles. I’m not an expert, so please don’t treat me as one. I just want to write about things. It feels good! I am focused on taking a humble approach to this newsletter, so check me if you think I’m getting verbose, arrogant or out of my depth. I promise to ignore you. Just kidding 🤓
That wraps up the very first edition of S.M.S. Top Tips ! Thank you to our existing and new subscribers. I’m thrilled to see that we continue to go up and to the right each day. I hope you learned something, or at the very least, found some enjoyment in this article. See you next week, my friends!