I love YouTube creator CGP Grey. He’s one of the best things on the internet. His video on Lord of the Rings takes the dense and often dry work in the Silmarillion and turns it into a fun little cupcake of knowldgeIt’s a shame Peter Jackson couldn’t do the same with The Hobbit.. His video on Internet Germs is a perfect explanation of why Twitter has been transformed from the platform food and pet blogging into a global symposium of Horrible People and Their Ghastly Opinions. His video on Americapox explains why Europeans didn’t catch horrible plagues from Native Americans. Maybe that lesson is common knowledge now. (Is it?) But this has bugged me since I was in grade school, and it wasn’t until that video that I felt like my question had been properly answered.
But he made a video that annoyed me. So now I’m going to turn on him, as you do on the internet.
Last week he released a video titled 7 Ways to Maximize Misery ðŸ˜ž, and it contains advice built atop ideas that are presented as universal truths, but are actually quite situational and dependent on the person.
7 Ways to Maximize Misery ðŸ˜ž
About a year ago my mom came to me and complained she’d been feeling a little depressed lately. She was feeling like things just didn’t matter. The joy was gone from her life, and even though nothing in particular was going wrong, her usual comforts weren’t helping her anymoreDon’t worry, she’s much better now..
“Here is what you need to do,” I told her. “Put your computer in a dark room. The darker the better. If you’ve got some neon or other colored lights, turn those on because they’re very relaxing. Put some dubstep music on and write code for a few hours. Close the door, close social media, and turn off your phone so nobody can interrupt and break your flow. If that doesn’t cheer you up, fire up Batman: Arkham City and do the challenge rooms. Improving your score over time will give you a sense of accomplishment. Then switch back to dubstep and coding. Just keep switching between those two until you feel better. Oh, and don’t forget to turn the air conditioning to extra-chilly. The cool air helps with alertness. Keep this up all night. By the time the sun comes up, you’ll feel fantastic and you’ll be ready for a full day of restful sleep.”
Obviously I didn’t actually say that to her. But if I did, everyone would immediately recognize it as a list of how I keep myself happy. It’s obvious this advice would be completely useless – if not counterproductive – to someone who doesn’t have my exact personality. To my mom, that advice would probably sound like an attempt on her life. In any case, I would rightly get called out as a butthead.
But for some reason the gregarious early-riser busybodies of the world have been getting away with this exact sort of thing since the dawn of the self-help section at the bookstore. Countless books are filled with advice from people who love to get up early, love to eat salad, love exercise, and love to socialize. And it turns out their advice for happy living is – shockingly enough – to get up early, have a salad, go for a run, and then spend the rest of the day wearying bystanders with inane chatter about exercise and salads.
None of these activities are bad, mind you. But they are too often sold as some sort of universal happy-pill. After a couple of decades of people telling me I’d enjoy life if I spent more time doing things I hate and less time doing things I love, I think it’s time for a little pushback.
Grey’s video is a tongue-in-cheek thing that offers you “7 Ways to Maximize Misery”. Ostensibly doing these things is bad for you, with the idea that doing the opposite will be good for your mood. I’m going to run through the list and talk about the profoundly annoying misconceptions behind them.
1. Stay Still (To be miserable.)
Ah yes. “Go outside and take a walk.” The cornerstone of disposable advice.
Of course, if your satisfaction in life comes from concentrating for long periods of time until you figure something out, then this advice is ruinous. It suggests that you’d be happier if you stopped engaging in your primary means of satisfaction. There’s a reason programmers, writers, architects, and animators do their work from behind a boring old desk and not from the back of a wild bronco. There’s a reason musicians work in a studio and not careening down the side of a mountain on a bitchin’ snowboard.
It’s good advice for your health, of course. By all means, go outside and move around. But if you need to concentrate to feel good then it’s not a secret technique to make you happy.
The video even offers the promise of delicious “endorphins”. I’ve engaged in regular exercise. I’ve kept up with it for weeks. I never found anything rewarding about it. I’m totally willing to believe that other people end a workout feeling energized and with a sense of accomplishment. But see, I get that feeling from other things. I have to stop doing those things in order to exercise. Worse, it’s not like I can plop down in front of the computer and resume productive work the moment the workout ends. It takes a while for my heartrate to return to normal and my mood to reset so I can begin concentrating again. Exercise carries a tremendous opportunity cost. A half hour of exercise will usually cost me about two hours(!!) of productivity.
I still try to exercise because I don’t want to drop dead of a heart attack by 50, but I do so with the understanding that this is a trade-off. I try to stay active, but I also try to minimize the damage it does to my happiness.
2. Screw With Your Sleep (To be miserable.)
The video conflates two different concepts here. One of them is true, and the other is a pernicious lie.
It is true that irregular sleep is bad for you. This is true for me, and it’s true for the outgoing yogurt-eating joggers of the world. But the video presents getting up with the sun as some kind of virtue. This ties in with a point made during the previous segment, which advances the notion that the sun is this magic dispenser of happy-rays.
While I don’t have anything against sunlight, I don’t get a lot out of it from a mental health standpoint. I understand you need a little sunlight for certain vitamins in your system to do their job. But direct sunlight, like exercise, is something I need despite the damage it inflicts on my mood.
For me the most stressful hours of the day are just after sunrise and just before sunset. The low angle of the light means the sun beams directly into my eyes, which is actively painful. For me the moments of greatest serenity are after dark. It’s quiet, it’s cool, and the light level is just right for creative work. Which means that my ideal sleep schedule is one that maximizes hours of darkness, while still giving me a couple of hours of sunlight.
This one is a sore spot with me because I still run into people who have this idiotic notion that getting up at noon is a horrible character flaw. This might have some merit if I stayed up all night boozing, gambling, and whoring, but I spent the night getting shit done. And it’s not like I’m some exotic case. Millions of people are wired the way I am. Work done at 3 p.m. is not somehow more moral than the same work done at 3 a.m.
3. Maximize Your Screen Time (To be miserable.)
Ugh. The whole notion of “screen time” has the rancid stench of Victorian-age moral panic. Screen time is the new television, which was the new Rock-and-Roll, which was the new radio, which was the new movies, which was the new novelsOr whatever. I forget the exact structure of this particular ouroboros.. There’s always some new thing that – despite how amazing, convenient, useful, engaging, and educational it seems – is somehow a menace that must be curtailed.
Actually, this one is worse than the panics of the past, because the “screen” is an omni-device that replaces or supersedes everything that came before. It’s a record player. A newspaper. A map. Telephone. Cookbook. Alarm clock. Textbook. Television. Dictionary. Radio. Camera. Address book. VCR. Library. Mailbox. Encyclopedia. Gaming machine. Paintbrush. Legos. Wristwatch. Typewriter. Calculator.
Imagine telling a kid – or anyone else – they can only access those things for a limited time each day. What’s left? You might as well limit their access to electricity and indoor plumbing.
“Shamus, you moron. You don’t want kids to spend all day staring at the screen so they never get their work done!”
Okay, if that’s your goal, then why not make that the rule? Just tell the kid, “Your time is yours as long as your work gets done.” What’s with the arbitrary limit? Yeah, maybe your kid is wasting time reading Pokémon fanfiction. That’s okay. They’re a kid. This is the one point in your life where it’s okay to waste time. Pokémon is not somehow better or worse than running around outside catching actual frogs, which was what I did while I was waiting for the world to invent videogames. In fact, you could argue the Pokémon is better. At least it doesn’t mess with animals that would rather be left alone. (Er, not real ones, at least.)
Sure, maybe those Pokémon hours could be better spent elsewhere. But is it really that much worse than playing a videogame? Or reading my site? More importantly, this is the time in life when kids are trying things out to see what interests them and what they’re good at. The next Skrillex is out there somewhere. So is the next John Carmack. And I hate to think their parents are pissing away countless hours of their life where they could be using that wicked screen to discover and develop their unique skills because their parents want them to… do what, exactly? At least wait for “screen time” to manifest some sort of observable problem before you cut a child off from the most powerful learning and creative tool the human race has ever devised.
If it makes you feel any better, my kids are nearly grown and they’ve barely done any ax-murders, so this approach to parenting apparently works at least sometimes.
Funnily enough, this advice works just as well when applied to adults. Why would you limit your own screen time? If you’re worried that the blue light is messing with your sleep cycle, then you may want to try out a tool like this one.
Sure, if “screen time” is preventing you from doing important things like paying bills and mowing the lawn, then maybe think about changing your behavior. But don’t fall for the hype. An hour spent staring at a book or rocking on the front porch is not automatically more moral, mentally stimulating, spiritually rewarding than the same hour spent reading text on a screen.
4. Use Your Screen to Stoke Your Negative Emotions. (To be miserable.)
Actually, I’m 100% in agreement with this one. I spend a lot of time curating my internet reading to minimize outrage. This started in the last year, and it really did improve my mood. I’m still trying to figure out how I can use Twitter to snark about game publishers and dumb headlines while not getting sucked into the vortex of “THOSE OTHER PEOPLE HAVE DONE SOMETHING HORRIBLE LET’S RIDICULE THEM UNTIL WE’RE IN A CONSTANT STATE OF AGITATION AND EVEN THE SLIGHTEST JOKE AT OUR EXPENSE FEELS LIKE AN AFFRONT.”
I’ve got people on both sides of the political aisle in my list of friends, and watching them build hateful totems of each other is actually kind of scary. I’ve considered quitting TwitterWhich wouldn’t really solve the problem, since half of the venom comes from Facebook. And I can’t quit Facebook because that’s how the extended family plans events. altogether. I still might. But I do enjoy the occasional joke about the Dumb Thing Some Publisher Did This Week. And it does give me a sense of what the gaming community is talking about at any given moment.
5. Set Vapid Goals (To be miserable.)
Okay. This section is a bit of a guide on how to set goals for yourself, with the idea being that short-term, achievable goals are better for happiness than long-term pipe dreams. That’s fine.
6. Pursue Happiness (To be miserable.)
I guess if you don’t know how to be happy, then trying to chase happiness itself is a recipe for failure. But if you haven’t identified the things in life that make you happy, then maybe following a specific list like this one is a terrible idea. Maybe sunshine, handshakes, and sportsball will unleash your inner joy monster. Or maybe those things won’t be fulfilling for you, and chasing after them will prevent you from writing a novel or a videogame.
And if you haven’t figured out what makes you happy yet, then what you need is some introspection and a shakeup of the status quo. Find what works for you. Since we’re all different, you’ll have to follow your instincts.
7. Follow Your Instincts (To be miserable.)
Remember, this is a list of anti-advice. So the video is suggesting that following your instincts is the way to misery. This seems to be based on the idea that we’re all numbskulls who don’t know what we want. I get the sense this idea was devised by an outgoing salad-eating jogger to explain why all the people around them aren’t socializing and jogging everyday at 4 a.m.
If you don’t use your instincts, then what are you supposed to use? A self-help book written by a stranger?
Okay, I suppose it depends on what you mean by “instincts”. If you mindlessly follow your base primate desires then things probably won’t turn out well for you. But assuming you’ve got the mind of an adult and a memory capable of remembering things that happened a week ago, then your gut is a pretty good tool for figuring out if the thing you did on Monday still seems like a good idea on Thursday.
I suppose there could be a hypothetical person out there who has a deep need for long-term accomplishment. Their lack of large achievements makes them feel empty, so to fill the void they spend every evening gorging themselves on junk food, porn, internet drama, and boozeNote that I’m not condemning any of these things directly. I’m just saying that while you’re doing that stuff, you’re not working on a longer-term goal.. This gratifies the lizard brain while making the initial problem worse. But this is a very specific kind of person with a specific behavior problem and I don’t think this list has what they need to break the cycle. Particularly since the video doesn’t even differentiate between the helpful and unhelpful drives, and instead advocates ignoring your drives altogether.
I think our problem is too many people look to self-help books to tell them what they need, rather than looking inward. Your instincts are there to let you know if you’re having a positive or negative experience. That’s their job. I wouldn’t say you should follow only your instincts, but you ought to at least consult them once in a while to see how you’re doing. The problem has less to do with following your instincts and more to do with recognizing the conflict between short-term goals (watch TV and have a pizza) with long-term ones (finishing that painting) and finding a balance between the two.
Well, that was cathartic. I’m kind of disappointed the video didn’t advocate socializing as a means to happiness. That one is usually bundled with these others and it would have been nice to give it a good thrashing.
To be clear: No hard feelings against CGP Grey, or against anyone else who finds his advice useful. I just get annoyed when the conventional wisdom is selling highly situational techniques as universal truths. And if you are having trouble with happiness, then please be careful what advice you follow. Self-help books are filled with good advice for the sorts of people who enjoy writing self-help books.
Anyway, it’s now 3 in the morning. I’m gonna put on some dubstep, eat some junk food, and go to bed happy.
 It’s a shame Peter Jackson couldn’t do the same with The Hobbit.
 Don’t worry, she’s much better now.
 Or whatever. I forget the exact structure of this particular ouroboros.
 Which wouldn’t really solve the problem, since half of the venom comes from Facebook. And I can’t quit Facebook because that’s how the extended family plans events.
 Note that I’m not condemning any of these things directly. I’m just saying that while you’re doing that stuff, you’re not working on a longer-term goal.
WAY back in 2005, I wrote about a D&D campaign I was running. The campaign is still there, in the bottom-most strata of the archives.
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