We spend all of our waking hours chasing goals. More money, more leisure, more everything. In doing so myself, I recently stumbled upon an insight that stopped me in my tracks.
In 1951, Alan Watts wrote in The Wisdom of Insecurity:
“I have always been fascinated by the law of reversed effort. Sometimes I call it the ‘backwards law.’ When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink, you float. When you hold your breath, you lose it — which immediately calls to mind an ancient and much neglected saying, ‘Whosoever would save his soul shall lose it.’”
But isn’t that all we do? Struggle to stay afloat? We set goals we think will make us happy, then we dive in. And so we sink. A lot. Back then, Watts said about the book:
“It is written in the conviction that no theme could be more appropriate in a time when human life seems to be so peculiarly insecure and uncertain. It maintains that this insecurity is the result of trying to be secure, and that, contrariwise, salvation and sanity consist in the most radical recognition that we have no way of saving ourselves.”
If Watts thought 1951 was uncertain, I wonder what he’d say in 2017. The book’s subtitle, ‘A Message for an Age of Anxiety,’ may be even more appropriate today than it was when it came out.
Watts’s message sounds gloomy, but reveals valuable lessons, if we dare to look closer.
Setting Goals Makes You Sad…
All is well, you go to work, live your life and nothing too crazy happens. That’s baseline happiness, according to NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. In The Happiness Hypothesis, he explains that no matter how far we deviate from this baseline level, we always regress back to the mean:
“We are bad at “affective forecasting,” that is, predicting how we’ll feel in the future. We grossly overestimate the intensity and the duration of our emotional reactions. Within a year, lottery winners and paraplegics have both (on average) returned most of the way to their baseline levels of happiness.”
Imagine you’re at this base level. Now, you set a bold, new goal. You want a Ferrari. Or more confidence. Or a girlfriend. Looking at your happiness mathematically, the following happens:
You, at baseline happiness = 0. You, after reaching your new goal = 0 + X. To close the gap between now and the future, you have to solve this equation: 0 = 0 + X Subtract X on both sides and you get: You, currently in lack of your new goal = 0 – X. You, after you attain X and fill the hole = 0.
All you’ve done is made yourself worse off than before. A lottery win is a sudden amplification of your happiness. A big goal is an expectation of the future that reduces your contentment with the present.
In order to desire, you first have to acknowledge something’s missing. It’s this intent focus on what we’re lacking that makes us miserable. We’re placing ourselves in front of artificial trenches that separate us from mostly made up needs.
Since we price the expectation of reaching our goals into our present state, the best we can hope for is to end up back at zero, but not before feeling bad for lacking what we ‘should already have’ for a long time.
…While Being Sad Makes You Happy
However, there’s also a good side to the law of reversed effort. Per Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck:
“What’s interesting about the backwards law is that it’s called “backwards” for a reason: not giving a fuck works in reverse. If pursuing the positive is a negative, then pursuing the negative generates the positive.
Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience. Any attempt to escape the negative, to avoid it or quash it or silence it, only backfires.”
Instead of desperately wanting more and then feeling bad for staring into the abysses of our own shortcomings, what if we just accepted them? What if we let our lacks, our mistakes, our flaws just wash over us and be done with it?
Louis C. K. thinks that’s a great idea:
“I started to get that sad feeling and I was reaching for the phone and I said: “You know what? Don’t. Just…be sad. Stand in the way of it and let it hit you like a truck. And I let it come and I pulled over and I just cried. So much. And it was beautiful. Sadness is poetic. You’re lucky to live sad moments. I was grateful to feel sad and then I met it with true, profound happiness.”
Louis was lonely, his goal was connection. To avoid the sadness, he could’ve messaged 50 people until someone wrote back. He would’ve succeeded in connecting but remained miserable deep inside. Instead, he faced his sorrow and had a meaningful experience.
That’s the ironic twist Watts referred to. To avoid real life adversity, we subject ourselves to imaginary pain by chasing false gods. Yet, it is right behind said adversity where true happiness awaits.
If there’s so little to gain from our aspirations and so much from facing our fears, then what’s the way to seek out one over the other?
Everything Is Better When You Care a Little Less
My grandpa ran a little clothes shop in his village for 50 years. While I would’ve freaked out every single day no customer came in, he didn’t try to explain each tiny problem away. Not because there were fewer potential reasons back then, but because finding them rarely solves anything. Sometimes, the best you can do is shrug and clean the counter, because people don’t always need new clothes.
Imagine this: Some days, our grandparents’ only communication with the rest of the world was to walk to the mailbox and pull out nothing but bad news. A relative missing in the war. A whole village being moved.
What did they do? They moved on and went about their day. That’s called detachment. Part of life is that life sometimes sucks. To accept that and not be swayed by it is a skill.
Detachment is great, because no matter where you stand, whether that’s far away from your goals, on top of the highest mountain, or down in the deepest trench while it’s raining, it allows you to do one thing: go on.
But today we don’t go on. We go on Facebook. And Instagram. And Twitter. In search of answers we don’t need, hoping to get a quick fix. Because we care too much. Yet, all we see on highlight media is everyone having ‘the time of their lives.’
And we’re right back to staring at our ditch.
What Detachment Is Not
Detachment can be summed up in three words: I am enough. At least for now. You might have a crooked nose, been single forever or not enough money to buy your dad a cruise, but you know what? That’s okay. It’ll do for today.
I don’t believe detachment will absolve us from chasing goals. That’d be naive. It’s human nature. But don’t put detachment on the other side of the next ditch. “If only I could be more detached, then I’d be happy.” No.
Detachment is not a recipe for happiness. It’s a way to go on living while you wait for happiness to come back.
Detachment is taking care of your shit while your partner figures out their own. It’s not letting your boss’s feedback tear a hole in your self-image. Not adding more suffering in imagination to what you endure in reality.
It is not “I don’t need this.” It’s “I’ll be fine if I don’t get it.” Not right away, anyway. Because every path is longer than we think, with more obstacles than we’d like.
The journey may be the best part, but only if you’re okay with arriving at the wrong end.