TL;DR: This article investigates the use of a mental tool to simplify big questions.
How do I become happy?
I’ve tried to answer this question in one way or another since my conscious brain came online thirty years ago. The experimenting for potential solutions has been endless.
Childhood found me, like everyone, trying the reactive approach. Bouncing from one activity to the next. Friends to video games to movies to sports and back again.
Adolescence sprinkled in volatile hormones which had me testing how girls and popularity would move the happiness meter.
Early-Adulthood featured efforts in fitness, travel, and academics with, of course, the (and long-lasting) partying experiment.
All of these experiments shared the ultimate goal of increasing my happiness. Some succeeded and some failed.
But throughout this entire process, I never felt confident in identifying which behaviors left me consistently happy. If asked I would have answered “Friends” or “Health” or “Family”…but what does that look like in practice? How do you translate “Friends” into a functional part of your day/week/month/year? I was not equipped to answer that question at the time.
In hindsight, it was this failure to 1.) Identify which behaviors leave me consistently happy and 2.) Determine how to translate those to everyday life, that led to years of feeling unfulfilled.
Sure, there were stretches where my happiness was through the roof, but it would always inevitably be matched by an equally deep sadness or frustration. The consistency was just not there.
This is not to say I’m under the illusion that a human being can feel great all the time. But I knew that at least some of the feelings of frustration and sadness were self-inflicted. I just couldn’t put my finger on it.
This is where the topic of this post comes in; a mental tool that empowered me to flip the script and get finally get consistent, actionable solutions to big questions like How do I become happy?
A Mental Latticework
Over the past few years, I’ve started hearing about mental models. Frequently mentioned on podcasts and sprinkled in blog posts. But I never investigated until the opportunity (time) presented itself during COVID-19 quarantine.
Mental tools used to simplify complex topics in an effort to better understand the world.
Used across the world by people every day, both consciously and unconsciously, these mental tools have been plucked from every area of knowledge. Mathematics, Biology, Physics, Engineering, Computer Science, Warfare. The list goes on.
Thinking about a company or community as an ecosystem is a mental model taken from environmental science.
Understanding the incentives that influence behavior is from biology.
Ever described something a bottleneck? This is taken from the study of systems and engineering.
The world is complex place and with so much to process, it’s essential to higher thinking that your brain has a way to simplify the glut of information being dumped on you every day.
Some of these models, like the ones above, are ubiquitous in our societal modes of thinking. But others are not.
This is why they’re the most fun to discover. Because in discovering a new mental shortcut, you’re able to understand more of the world with less effort than many of those around you.
Charlie Munger, Warren Buffet’s longtime business partner at Berkshire Hathaway, is probably to thank for the popularization of mental models, after his now famous commencement speech at USC.
In this speech (and using his signature old-timey lingo) he describes one’s collection of these models a mental latticework.
“If you [create this mental latticework], I solemnly promise you that one day you’ll be walking down the street and look to your right and left and think, ‘My heavenly days! I’m now one of the few most competent people of my whole age forward.’”Charlie Munger
Inversion is the first mental model I was exposed to. Plucked from mathematics, where I used it to solve algebraic equations in high school, it was called-out explicitly by Munger in his speech.
Here’s how it works: When approaching a problem, especially ambiguous problems with a huge number of possible answers, simply invert the question being posed. In doing this you’ve revealed exactly what not to do in solving that problem. And by simply avoiding these pitfalls, you are already ahead of 95% of the competition.
We will get to examples of this below, but here’s Munger:
“Invert, always invert: Turn a situation or problem upside down. Look at it backward. What happens if all our plans go wrong? Where don’t we want to go, and how do you get there? Instead of looking for success, make a list of how to fail instead – through sloth, envy, resentment, self-pity, entitlement, all the mental habits of self-defeat. Avoid these qualities and you will succeed. Tell me where I’m going to die, that is, so I don’t go there.”
How to Become Unhappy
Equipped with my new mental tool of Inversion, I realize now what the problem was; while my full attention was pointed at things that would bring me happiness consistently, I was completely blind to the other side of the coin – things that would make me unhappy consistently.
Tell me where I’m going to die…so I don’t go there.Charlie Munger
How do I become happy? inverted becomes How do I become unhappy?
Oh man that’s an easy one! I could go on for days, but here are a few specific examples:
- Don’t talk to your friends or family
- Drink lots of alcohol
- Watch lots of TV
- Don’t sleep well
- Stop reading
- Don’t exercise
- Eat processed food for every meal
- Be an asshole to your partner
In applying this to my life, I realized that even though my weekends would be packed with social interaction, which made me happy – they’d also be packed with huge amounts of alcohol intake which would leave me feeling mentally and physically drained.
If I read a book for thirty minutes – I’d then watch four hours of TV.
If I’d exercise five times in one week – I’d then go a month with no meaningful fitness.
I’d see acquaintances regularly near where I lived – but then go months without talking to my best friends.
It seemed that each one of my actions aimed at happiness was counteracted by one aimed at unhappiness. This was absolutely the source of my inconsistent feelings of happiness. Every step forward was matched with a step back (that I didn’t realize I was taking!)
And this insight was not the result of some majestic stroke of brilliance – it was simply by identifying the most important things not to do. Munger lovingly describes it as “trying to be consistently not stupid”.
“It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.”Charlie Munger
So, in continuing with the model of Inversion, now that we’ve identified what not to do to become happy the next step is to avoid these pitfalls. In my case, I would…
- Schedule time to talk to your best friends and family on a weekly basis
- Limit alcohol intake, or cut it out entirely
- Stop watching TV
- Sleep like a baby
- Read an hour every day
- Exercise 5-6x/week
- Ate whole foods at most meals
- Loved (the verb) my partner every day
These aren’t new things. I know talking to my best friends makes me happy. I know exercise makes me happy. I know reading makes me happy. But in identifying the counterparts to these activities, I realized that I was spending just as much time on the negative as I was on the positive!
That strikes me as some powerful shit. I hope you feel the same.
Here are some examples of Inversion applied to other areas of my life.
In terms of my relationship with Jenna – How would I be the worst partner in the world? (Inverted solutions in bold)
- Never make time for intimacy
- Schedule a weekly/monthly date
- Stop communicating all together
- Create a habit of talking (and listening) purposefully every day
- Go to bed angry
- Never go to bed angry. Period.
- Bury your frustrations deep down
- Discuss frustrations as soon as they arise
- Assume the worst intentions in your partner
- Assume you and your partner are on the same team
I have a good friend pursuing acting right now – How would he make himself the worst candidate for this role?
- Show up late to the audition
- Get to the audition early
- Wait until that day to look at the script
- Study the script for a week ahead of time
- Get no feedback, overact the part
- Practice in front of others, adjust your performance
- Audition with zero confidence
- Having prepared, you’re able to give it your most genuine performance
In terms of health – How would I guarantee myself to become overweight?
- Have junk food starting you in the face whenever you open a cabinet
- Reduce the need for willpower by having mostly healthy food in your house
- Drink lots of alcohol consistently
- Limit alcohol intake, never drink more than 2x/week
- Make it extremely hard to work out (no plan, long distance to travel, lots of setup)
- Make it easy to work out. Have equipment or workout location very easily accessible.
- Have no one to hold you accountable
- Get an accountability buddy, ideally one who you workout with
- Have no idea of what “being healthy” looks like for you + Compare yourself to Instagram fitness influencers
- Understand what your goals are so you avoid comparing yourself to others. Know what success looks like.
In terms of writing – How would I have the worst blog in the world?
- Don’t write for months or years at a time
- Write every day (even if it’s only a few words)
- Expect to write world-changing posts every time you sit down
- Be ok with writing and publishing imperfect content (hint: it’s all imperfect)
- Have no one to hold you accountable
- Have an accountability partner who you speak with on a weekly basis
- Worry that people might be upset by your posts
- Write only for yourself
By simply identifying and avoiding the most damaging pitfalls in any area of your life, you’ve already put yourself in a powerful position to succeed.
I’d encourage you to apply Inversion to the big questions in your own life and comment below on what you find!