Comments on “Misunderstanding meaningness makes many miserable”

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Question about "enjoyable usefulness"?

Marko's picture

Hi, i’ve been employing “enjoyable usefulness” as a way to decide on my actions the past few weeks. It’s been very interesting and i’ve liked it, particularly how you don’t have to completely give up either a life of “mission” or “desire”. However I came to an unavoidable existential dilemma recently and i’ve been in the throes of it for the past day or two. I think I might have resolved it, but I want to confirm it with you and hear your take on it, if you would like to listen.

I’ve come to be dissatisfied with “enjoyable usefulness” because I feel like I have basic needs and desires which are not being met. There are certain things that a primal, visceral part of me wants to do, but when I ask myself if it’s both enjoyable and useful it’ll fail to meet the “useful” part of the criteria I guess. There is also something that i’m telling myself that I “enjoy”, but if i’m honest with myself I don’t actually want to do it.

For the first example, I have a biological drive to want to meet someone of the opposite sex, mate, and reproduce. I want to have a connection with someone. However, i’m naturally a very quiet person and, far from not having the courage to approach someone, I often can’t even think of anything to talk about or make conversation with.

To add to that, the male-female ratio at the social events I go to is usually like 80-20 (anime shows). Considering my hobbies, my character, and the events I go to, I can easily envision going through my entire life at this pace without once even getting a girlfriend.

When I employ “enjoyable usefulness” to decide on my actions, I am supposed to accept this and just go to such events that are in line with my hobbies, and not worry about never meeting anyone, which is actually the thing that I am most concerned about.

This creates an existential dilemma. It makes me want to shun all my social responsibilities and relationships and live a hedonistic life where I pay prostitutes for sex and things like that, stemming from dissatisfaction at this unsatisfied need.

For the second case, my day job is working in a lab. At great effort and personal expense to myself, I toil away day in and day out in what mostly seems like pointless labour for the sake of others without much appreciation and a great deal of personal worry and stress to go along with it.

If I use “enjoyable usefulness” to decide what I should do, the answer that comes to me is that I do enjoy it (for the love of science), and I should keep doing my best in it even beyond the current degree I am doing. I would keep doing it for the rest of my life. Needless to say, this idea freaks the living death out of me.

So I was in an existential crisis for a couple hours this morning, unsure of what I wanted or how to resolve it. Throwing away all my responsibilities and just doing what I wanted had an insatiable pull that could not be ignored. But at the same time, it seemed unacceptable, nor even something that I would have the courage to do, and there were some good aspects of enjoyable usefulness that I recognized and did not want to lose too. There was even a third option that was vying for attention: “do what you should”. I think this corresponds roughly to “reasonable respectability”, and the idea was that I do what is expected of me on the outside to lessen the pain of running into conflict with people, but other than that doing whatever I can get away with I think. This also seemed unsatisfactory.

I was stuck, vacillating, torn, and unsure for a couple hours. Not a pleasant state to be in, let me tell you. At one point I remembered that the idea of your philosophy is to find a resolution between opposing extremes. So I entertained the idea of doing things that arw both “what I want” and “what is enjoyably useful” or even just “what is useful”. I found that this was acceptable.

I am yet to try this “doing what I want and which is useful”. But it seems that I am not in danger of throwing away everything in the pursuit of hedonism. However framed in this new light, I also realized that I don’t want to continue doing lab work beyond what is required of me to complete this degree. This gave me a degree of relaxation and acceptance.

What do you think? Is this an acceptable modification? Or is it what you were aiming at from the start, and my mind simply perverted the meaning of “enjoyable usefulness” to be closer to mission.

Hopefully this works out for me. All i’m after really are these emotional benefits you speak of, and the power of resolving existential dilemmas might be worthwhile. I obviously don’t know myself yet.

Wanting vs enjoying

Hi Marko,

I’m glad you got some use out of this vague preliminary discussion! I am sorry if it may have been misleading. I’m not sure I understand your question, but I’ll try to answer, and you can follow up if I’ve got it wrong.

“Enjoyable usefulness” is a stance, or attitude, only. Mostly it just says that “eternal” and “mundane” purposes are both valid, and if one can satisfy both at once, that’s good. This may seem totally obvious, but the world is full of people who explicitly insist that only one of the two kinds of purposes is OK—and those arguments are occasionally compelling to each of us—so it needs to be said!

In practice, inevitably much of our time is spent doing things that are not enjoyable, or not particularly useful. But even if one can only manage one at a time, alternating some of both is good! Even then, quite a lot of life is neither enjoyable nor useful. It’s just stuff one has to do. One can try to enjoy it anyway, or to make it more useful; sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t.

There is also something that i’m telling myself that I “enjoy”, but if i’m honest with myself I don’t actually want to do it.

Hmm, yes, then you probably don’t really enjoy it… or else the word “enjoy” may be imprecise. It’s pretty much automatic to want to do things we enjoy, I think? (Except when depressed. When I’m depressed, I don’t want to do anything.)

I’ve come to be dissatisfied with “enjoyable usefulness” because I feel like I have basic needs and desires which are not being met.

Yeah, that’s no good. Eating is not “useful,” exactly, but it’s necessary; and it can be a source of great enjoyment, so food is important to me.

As for sex and/or romance, I’m in favor of those :-) Probably an argument could be made for sex and romance being “useful,” inasmuch as usually two people enjoy them, so you benefit at least one other person (plus possibly children). Also, a satisfactory relationship can make one more productive, generally kinder, and so on. I’ve read that when venture capitalists evaluate tech startup founders, one important criterion is whether the founder has a stable relationship. It’s much more difficult to do the CEO job without that emotional support.

But mostly sex, romance, and family are “basic,” like food. How to handle them raises central issues of meaning for modern people. One can’t escape that—even if, by choice or circumstance, one remains single life-long.

Considering my hobbies, my character, and the events I go to, I can easily envision going through my entire life at this pace without once even getting a girlfriend. When I employ “enjoyable usefulness” to decide on my actions, I am supposed to accept this and just go to such events that are in line with my hobbies, and not worry about never meeting anyone, which is actually the thing that I am most concerned about.

Yes, I would not advocate that!

It makes me want to shun all my social responsibilities and relationships and live a hedonistic life where I pay prostitutes for sex and things like that, stemming from dissatisfaction at this unsatisfied need.

I probably wouldn’t advocate that either :-)

I’m not in the business of giving dating advice, but I’d say both these are unrealistic extremes. Also, they share an aversion to the practical work of dating. To caricature: “I’ll just ignore the whole issue” and “I’ll throw money at the problem, and/or act unethically as a shortcut.”

Finding a suitable girlfriend is a big, complicated, practical project. (That sucks, in a way, but the universe wasn’t made for our convenience.) If one accepts that, then one can take a deep breath, roll up one’s sleeves, and get to work on it.

As with any new type of project, one will be bad at it initially, and fail a lot, and it’s not enjoyable at all. But if one continues, one finds first that there’s a lot that’s interesting about it (intellectually, emotionally, physically), and then that the process itself becomes enjoyable, regardless of the level of success.

At great effort and personal expense to myself, I toil away day in and day out in what mostly seems like pointless labour for the sake of others without much appreciation and a great deal of personal worry and stress to go along with it.

This doesn’t sound like you are enjoying it (despite what your next paragraph says). Mixed feelings, maybe? Although in your last paragraph, it sounds like maybe you’ve made a decision: “I don’t want to continue doing lab work.”

There was even a third option that was vying for attention: “do what you should”. I think this corresponds roughly to “reasonable respectability”, and the idea was that I do what is expected of me on the outside to lessen the pain of running into conflict with people, but other than that doing whatever I can get away with.

Yes, that does sound like “reasonable respectability.”

doing things that are both “what I want” and “what is enjoyably useful”

I don’t understand the conflict between “what I want” and “what I enjoy.” (Don’t you want to do things you enjoy, or expect you would enjoy? Do you find you don’t enjoy doing the things you thought you wanted to do? I’m confused.)

If there isn’t a conflict, then how is “doing things I want to do that are also useful” different from “doing things that I enjoy and are also useful”?

Or is it what you were aiming at from the start, and my mind simply perverted the meaning of “enjoyable usefulness” to be closer to mission.

That might be, yes…

I wish you the best of luck with this! Oh, and on a different topic, I’m still intending to write a reply to your Tolle comment. There’s a page on “thought suppression” that I have half-written, and I want to post it first. But I haven’t had a chance to work on it for three weeks.

I'm going to just try my own way

Marko's picture

Hi David,

Thank you very much for your very quick and very detailed reply. I don’t want to distract you too much with my own personal issues so I’ll try and make it a little brief. Mainly I brought them up because to explain my points required concrete examples, so it had to be a little personal.

The way you said that I got caught in different extremes in my pursuit of a girlfriend got me grimacing and shaking my head. It’s hard to admit it, but you’re probably right. Maybe I’m just not approaching the issue properly. I never thought of it like that.

Generally speaking, I tend to always want to oversimplify things in my head when I want to find solutions to whatever problem I am facing. Maybe that’s why I got caught up with Tolle’s stuff for so long. It’s a simple, almost satisfying answer (but not in the long run!). That probably has to do with the way I’m not approaching this issue properly.

But it’s not just this, I think it stems from a bigger issue of just generally not knowing how to deal with things as they come, and trying to come up with set rules for it, and repeatedly failing. If you’re unsure about how you want to live, how the heck would you be able to focus on relatively more minor issues? I’ve been like this for a long time. I try to adopt a set method, it works for a while, and then fails.

To be honest, I’ve already given up that one too, that I mentioned: “do what you want and be useful”. I just immediately got caught up in another unresolvable dilemma between it and all the other methods I can think of, and not being able to decide which one I “want” (lol).

I appreciate that you’re trying to help, and the method of “enjoyable usefulness” that you proposed. It seemed pretty enlightening for a while. But really I’m just the kind of person that just cycles through techniques and cannot settle on any one in particular. I could not adopt “enjoyable usefulness” now even if I wanted to, same as any other method that I’ve tried and has become damaged goods in my head. It’s like there’s a black veil there and I can’t touch it anymore with my thoughts.

I think I just need to keep working on this myself and seeing what works for me. I think people are constructed differently, and it’s naive to think that one solution would apply for everyone. Not saying you’re naive though, I really do appreciate the hard work you’ve put into this. Maybe other people will find use in it.

If you’re curious about the new method I’m trying, I’ll just mention it. It’s a conclusion I came to after a lot more mental turmoil. I remember there was a period in high school where I was pretty happy for the most part, and I think it might be because I almost unknowingly adopted this. I want to give it another run. (This will be like my 3rd or 4th try.)

It’s called “just waiting”. Basically, I often get caught up with being unable to do things that I know I ought to be doing. I also often get caught up with dilemmas in my head and don’t know which choice to make. The idea is to just do nothing and wait until you can do whatever it is you have to do, or until you know which choice you want. There seems to be a sort of psychological block that passes in my head if I do this, so that’s why it’s so enticing. It also relieves the stress of having to “choose” which one you want right away but being unsure about it. What’s nice is I came up with it myself before I ever knew about Tolle, thought it may be similar to the sort of ideas he suggests.

Sorry, it ended up being not brief at all :/

P.S.
The difference between “wanting” and “enjoying” exists in my head. “Wanting” is a sort of visceral feeling of desire that comes before the the thing and/or process that is wanted. “Enjoying” is the process of having fun doing whatever it is that is enjoyable. They are not exactly the same, so when I ask myself questions based on them I get different answers for each.

P.P.S.
That picture in the main article is great. That’s exactly what I look like during existential dilemmas!

Hi, it's me again. It's been

Marko's picture

Hi, it’s me again. It’s been a while since I posted my last comment. Just wanted to let you know some new insights I got in the meantime. I ended up going back to living by trying to do only things which I “want to do, enjoy, and which are useful”. And my recurring existential dilemmas seem to have stabilized a bit.

Despite this, I’m just generally prone to anxiety, so it’s sometimes hard to live even though I may be using this method. Sometimes all I can do is just lie down and wait for whatever’s ailing me to pass. I think just a general skill that’s important to have is to be able to step back from your thoughts, and not take everything too seriously. It’s hard and it’s painful, but it passes.

I realized something else about the distinction between doing what I “want” and what I “enjoy”. I think what was happening, is the distinction between doing what I want, and what is expected of me (by parents, my lab supervisor, society…), wasn’t fully captured unless I explicitly stated to do what I want to do.

People who naturally are not passive and able to do what they want since they were born probably wouldn’t even understand the source of this dilemma. But basically, I’ve been living in such a way that I always try to satisfy other people. I’ve been a very passive person all my life, and that’s how I got drifted into my current situation.

The distinction between “living for others” and “living for yourself” didn’t seem to be captured by doing “what I enjoy and which is useful”. I was still living for others, and believe you me if you are constantly relying on others for satisfaction, you are going to have a hard time of it. It was only once I added in “doing what I want” that I started “living for myself”, while at the same time doing things which are “enjoyable and useful”. To an extent, this is probably even just a natural progression: since I moved out from my parent’s house, found that I am independent, I have to start living life on my own terms.

What do you think? Is it better to live for others or for yourself? Or would you say both, and that doing what you enjoy and which is useful is in essence that, just phrased differently? Have I hit the mark here, but adding in a “do what I want” and thus actually mixing in selfishness with altruism?

However, I still have a lot of misgivings about doing “what I want, enjoy, and which is useful”, to basically make all my decisions about what to do at the moment. From my month or two of experience with it…

1) I have awful, terrible habits and lifestyle (as before and the usual). I stay up really late, come to the lab really late, and always fret and worry about how I am not living up to my expectations as a graduate student. Despite my fret and worry, I never take action on anything because it’s not “what I want to do”. A part of me is okay with this, but a part of me is deeply fearful. I put in a basic modicum of effort, but no more than that and I am aware of it. I feel like I ought to do more, but I don’t want to…

2) I’ve distanced myself from my parents. While I maintain a good relationship with them, they always ask me to come home but I never want to. It led to me having to tell off my mom pretty rudely. On the one hand, this is incredibly satisfying. I actually am quite happy with it. But it doesn’t seem to be the norm… is it okay? I didn’t even come home for my birthday. Actually, I realized I don’t even care about birthdays: others, or my own.

3) I do note that it cannot be understated that it is very satisfying do what I want. Even if everything fails, at least I will have been to true to myself. The feeling when I say “no” or do something strange that I would not have done before leaves me at peace. following is kind of personal By mixing what I want with what is useful, the porn that I find is more satisfying too. It’s not too messed-up, but I still let myself look at it. Strangely enough, that’s actually quite a solid motivation for me to continue with this method.

With all these factors, this method seems pretty good in terms of granting my heart’s desire, but I worry about social acceptability of my strange lifestyle, and the fact that my habits are awful, when everyone around me seems to be in control of their life, more organized, making notes to organize their lab work, planning their days, setting goals, things like that that you have to do to be “successful”…

I simply don’t wanna do it. And I’m tired of forcing myself after all these years. Well, I guess I want to be able to do it, but I don’t want to force myself is what I’m getting at, because that would not be true to myself… And then I start approaching that line of “well, it’s just temporary discomfort, but you’ll be happy with it in the long run…” which I’ve bought into for so long, but has always failed for me.

I’m kind of happy with it actually, but a part of me feels like I am useless, and just lying to myself about the lazy things that I allow myself to do and still claiming that they are “useful”. Because I have to in order to allow myself to do them in the first place. I don’t know whether I should ignore that dissenting part of me, or listen to it. If I ignore it, the happy and useful but apparently-secretly-useless status quo will continue. If I listen to it, I might just end up not being true to myself and unhappy again.

Those are my feelings right now. However, basically I don’t doubt that I will continue with this method of bad habits that I want to do, enjoy, and which is useful. The pull of it is too strong at this point, and I am no longer helplessly mired in cold altruism like I was before. However I might stress and think about it, this is where the wave of desire that’s inside me is going to take me, it seems (for better or worse).

Altruism and selfishness

Is it better to live for others or for yourself? Or would you say both, and that doing what you enjoy and which is useful is in essence that, just phrased differently?

It sounds that way to me, yes.

Have I hit the mark here, but adding in a “do what I want” and thus actually mixing in selfishness with altruism?

Doing what you want need not be selfish… only if it has an excessive negative effect on others.

Everyone always experiences some conflicts between what we want to do and what others want us to do. Life’s like that… and there is no possible rule or recipe for resolving those conflicts. Especially, it’s unworkable to say “always do what others want” or “always do what I want.” (Those correspond to ethical eternalism and ethical nihilism, roughly; I’ll write about those someday I hope!)

We just have to do the best we can.

For what it’s worth, the best book I know on “doing the best we can” is Will Buckingham’s Finding Our Sea-Legs.

Improving Social Skills

Fred's picture

“For the first example, I have a biological drive to want to meet someone of the opposite sex, mate, and reproduce. I want to have a connection with someone. However, i’m naturally a very quiet person and, far from not having the courage to approach someone, I often can’t even think of anything to talk about or make conversation with.”

I have found SucceedSocially.com to be very helpful on improving your social skills.

SucceedSocially.com is an extensive, completely free collection of articles on social skills and getting past social awkwardness. It’s written by someone who’s struggled socially themselves, and who’s also educated in psychology and counseling. The content is aimed at adults and older teenagers, though many of the ideas are applicable to younger children.

It covers the core social skills trouble areas:

Shyness, social anxiety, insecurities, and lack of confidence

Making conversation

Meeting people and making friends

Generally improving your overall social personality and package

It also covers issues related to the process and idea of improving socially:

The overall process of working on your people skills - having the right expectations, finding motivation, etc.

Developmental differences like Asperger’s Sydrome that make socializing harder to learn

Feeling wary or ambivalent about the idea of having to change socially

Feeling your main social problem is you get flak for being different from the people in your area, not that you have a lack of interpersonal skills

Having an overly negative view of aspects of socializing

People with "mission"

A. Karttunen's picture

I think the reason you can’t find your mission in life is that there is no such thing.

What about people who apparently had a mission, and succeeded in it? Like for example E. Gene Smith? Or many other scholars and scientists, or even artists? (e.g. Escher, whose mission we can guess was “artistic exploration of tessellations”, although for the first it was just a “mania” for him. See the Wikipedia-article).

Or is it more that in these cases it was actually that “What is something I can do now that will be both enjoyable and useful?” attitude that just went on and on, so that it eventually became to characterize the whole person? Instead of viewing it as something “eternalistically preordained” mission?

Passion instead of mission?

A. Karttunen's picture

Maybe instead of mission, your depressed friends should find their passion? Again, not “the preordained one”, but any one of several things that happens to hook them strongly enough.

Yes, I know the marketing industry has made that very word almost nauseating, and even on job market they now prefer “passionate cleaners”. (See e.g., Why ‘Do What You Love’ Is Pernicious Advice in the August 2015 issue of The Atlantic).

But still, in some jobs it is essential. The following is from Craig McClain’s (“Dr. M”) November 29, 2014 blog post “What single piece of advice would you give another scientist?” at deepseanews.com site.

Be passionate. Others will tell you that science should be an emotionless endeavor. Well good luck with that. If you don’t get super excited about what ever you are studying then you are probably not going to make it. Rejection of papers, grants, and jobs will face you at every turn and bring you down. You better damn well be excited about the questions you are working on. And don’t apologize for it. I love tiny deep-sea snails. How did they get so tiny? When I can’t find a job, I’ll still have my tiny snails. You don’t see Brian Sidlauskas apologizing for studying fish heads of drab little beasties inhabiting freshwater. He’s so excited about them it makes me excited about them. That is the kind of science and scientists I want to be around.

Indeed, I have observed that the true enthusiasm is contagious.

I see two psychological blocks:

A) if one has spent too much time with the groups concerning themselves mainly with the renunciation (especially of passions, yuck!).

B) any hysteria to “imminently save the world” (although of course it would be a laudable project) or other high-brow ethical commitment, in contrast to succumbing to “one’s own frivolous manias”, whose utility value seems yet insignificant.

Mission vs. passions

it was actually that “What is something I can do now that will be both enjoyable and useful?” attitude that just went on and on… Instead of viewing it as something “eternalistically preordained”

I suspect that’s so!

so that it eventually became to characterize the whole person?

I suspect it didn’t. Even the most obsessed people have multiple passions (interests and projects and personal relationships), which they are not known for and have no obvious connection with their “main” obsession.

Maybe instead of mission, your depressed friends should find their passion?

Yes, passion is good! I wrote about that in this page and its follow-on pages.

And, as you say, the word has been ruined by corporate management-speak. I hesitated to use it in that other page, but there’s no good substitute.

I wrote about passion in science in “Going down on the phenomenon.”

Where's the evidence, the data, the proof?

Bart's picture

This article says of “the rat-race of accumulation and personal gratification” that “everyone understands that is unsatisfying: a dead end.”

This article proclaims that all those who “pursue money, sex, popularity, and power,” i.e., “materialism,” have “seen that it fails.”

Wow!

Those are some mighty big assertions/assumptions!

Where’s the evidence, the data, the proof, that justifies this denigration of a way of life that so many people find to be respectable & admirable, and which they claim to find satisfying.

This article says that if you follow an alternative approach to life, called “enjoyable usefulness,” then “you can be useful and enjoy yourself.”

Again, wow! That’s a pretty big claim.

Again, where’s the evidence, the data, the proof that justifies the exaltation of this alternative way of life?

If tested and measured by psychologists, sociologists, or anthropologists, might it not possibly be discovered that this Enjoyable Usefulness Approach to life results in the same amount of dissatisfaction as the Materialist Approach to life?

Yes, there’re many religious and philosophical traditions that denigrate and dismiss as worthless what this article calls Materialist Approach to life. But what of it? Perhaps these saints, prophets, buddhas and gurus have all been wrong. Did any of them know or teach how to successfully treat cancer, diabetes, or bipolar disorder?

It is easy for talented philosophers to use words and logic to make anything look good or anything look bad.

But I think we should look to data. Data proves and shows everything that can be known. The people who we can trust to discover, verify, and interpret the data of human life are scientists: biologists, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and such.

This article calls upon us to reject “religious or therapeutic voodoo.”

But what about “philosophical voodoo”–which is what this article itself might qualify as being, given that it does not rely upon or cite any data whatsoever. “Voodoo” has come to be a slang term for anything that is not scientifically proven. Thus some used the term “voodoo economics” to describe President Reagan’s economic theories. Therefore, I think this article could be “philosophical voodoo.”

I invite the author of this article to respond in the spirit of which I have intended this critique: the spirit of intellectual dialogue. Only by colloquy can I see whether or not my perceptions have validity. Thank you.

Evidence, etc

For the most part, what I say on this site is on a “take it or leave it” basis. It’s not meant to be science, and mostly isn’t supported by specific empirical studies. There are exceptions; in those cases I often supply citations. However, if you want science, I would suggest looking elsewhere.

In this case, as it happens, I gather that recent psychology supports the story I told here. Here is a recent popular review article.

I don’t follow this branch of research closely; given the replication crisis in psychology, I would take any supposed results as provisional.

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