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I'm an addict in long term recovery, and I hang out with lots of addicts trying to get or stay clean. Obviously this crowd has problems!

But what's interesting is that as I've been making friends who aren't addicts, they have problems that are every bit as messed up as the recovery crowd. There are two main differences, though: "normal" people are much more committed to hiding their problems (I feel as though I only learn about them because people assume I won't judge them), and normal people don't recognize that their unhappiness is a solvable problem.

Furthermore, most of them aren't really into the solutions: a leveling of ego and pride, humility, rejection of desire and attachment, and living for something greater than themselves. Addicts, of course, have no choice -- we either develop the skills and tools needed to be happy enough to stay clean, or wallow on in the misery of drug addiction, often to an untimely death.

It's kind of sad, but I have no idea how to convince normal people that they can be happier by changing themselves instead of acquiring things or relationships or any other external thing they think will finally make them happy.

I feel as though erikpukinskis' comment about capitalism is a big part of the problem, but I'm not sure how to use that observation to help more people be happy.

Edit: C'mon HN, we're smart -- ideas on solutions to these problems are better than upvotes :-)

Answering your edit: don't people have to come to this conclusion on their own, rather than be "convinced"? Doesn't someone have to pass through some period of anhedonia, and the realization that "things" aren't going to make them happier, before they can start to see the structure that will help?

If so, and if your desire is to help normal people, I guess your choices are to a) find a strategy that sells anhedonia against the formidable marketing budget of pretty much everyone, everywhere in this culture, or b) capture them on the other side and offer them the structure they need to build a life after anhedonia.

75% of these Robert Pirsig quotes [1] seem relevant, in some way.

[1] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10799124

Which Robert Pirsig quotes did you mean again? That link seems to be for this article itself.

“The place to improve the world is first in one's own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.”

“The real cycle you're working on is a cycle called yourself.”

“Like those in the valley behind us, most people stand in sight of the spiritual mountains all their lives and never enter them, being content to listen to others who have been there and thus avoid the hardships.”

These talk a little bit about self-improvement, or that knowledge is not understanding. Telling someone that new relationships aren't going to help, that acquiring new stuff won't help, is just giving them your personal knowledge/wisdom but you can't give them understanding.

This is certainly how most people reach happiness, a conclusion supported by more than a few thinkers (Kierkegaard comes to mind).

But is this really the only way? In AA we like to emphasize that there's no such thing as "hitting rock bottom". That is, even if you haven't lost everything, you can have the foresight to stop drinking and get your shit together, and recognize the necessity of changing yourself.

That said, most people, myself included, have to hit quite a few rock bottoms before we get the point.

> It's kind of sad, but I have no idea how to convince normal people that they can be happier by changing themselves instead of acquiring things or relationships or any other external thing they think will finally make them happy.

Welcome to the club :-)

I'm happy, with a few exceptions, since the late 90ies. Don't know what to do since talking about what sorted it for me seem to scare off people.

Go on I'll bite :) What sorted it for you?

Christianity. It got me a head start[0] and I think I was lucky to start with friends who explained that forgiveness is just the start and that I was supposed to be living a new life.

That said, like other believers here I don't usually mention it as it can effectively derail discussions.

[0] I'd tried for a 2/3 years before admitting I couldn't do this on my own, -I was so impulsive I didn't recognize I was doing something stupid until I had done it.

Faith is extremely good for this.

I didn't want to kickstart the perennial HN argument about 12 step programs, but that's how I found mine.

I would add that I'm not exactly a Christian, although I find a lot of inspiration in the gospel and the writings of Christian thinkers -- so one doesn't have to go "all the way" and believe in life after death and miracles and stuff -- it's often enough to focus on forgiveness and compassion, and that there's something bigger and more important than you and your tiny problems. I've talked to astronomers, for example, who find great comfort in considering the complete insignificance of our lives against the majesty of the cosmos.

> I would add that I'm not exactly a Christian, although I find a lot of inspiration in the gospel and the writings of Christian thinkers -- so one doesn't have to go "all the way" and believe in life after death and miracles and stuff -- it's often enough to focus on forgiveness and compassion, and that there's something bigger and more important than you and your tiny problems.

The Gospel of Thomas is a good example of this genre. The Zen-to-Magic ratio is much higher than in most Christian texts. Though, fwiw, mainstream Christians consider it heretic for some reason.

"Though, fwiw, mainstream Christians consider it heretic for some reason."

That's because it's technically a Gnostic writing, not a Christian one. The relationship between Christianity and Gnosticism is complex, but they are quite different belief systems.

> it's often enough to focus on forgiveness and compassion, and that there's something bigger and more important than you and your tiny problems

so, would Buddhism also work then?

I've done a lot of compassion meditation (which combined with insight meditation which fills out some more the forgiveness parts) in the past, and I have learned so much from that. Much bigger impact than I got from mindfulness meditation[0]. I did both during my morning routine for a while and was very beneficial. Combined with a weekly sangha (meditation-group) practice, which was absolutely instrumental too. Without that group, I wouldn't have made it my morning routine--no pressure just I noticed some people were doing that and gave it a try. Then there's the dharma-sharing part, which is nice but seems to me mostly a tool for group-cohesion (as well as an exercise in listening without judging), similar to singing songs, but more personal.

Unfortunately I let the morning meditations slip in the past year (circumstances, slipped a lot of good habits, exercise too, slowly crawling back out, shitty year for me). I usually don't do New Year's resolutions, but this is one. I do still attend the sangha, though.

BTW I'm not Buddhist. I like some parts of it, I can bear spirituality (suspension of disbelief and some of it actually makes sense as a metaphorical experience that is hard to explain words), but when it slides into religion (and Buddhism definitely has that, too) it just really creeps me out. You're in a susceptible mindstate, and there are some aspects of Buddhism I strongly disagree with on an ethical(-ish) level. So much when after a particularly religious (almost sermon-like talk by a Buddhist monk) meeting, it even bothered my during my own meditations for a few days because the bad aftertaste kept surfacing.

But that's okay, the group is quite diverse and we all bring in our own themes and stuff. They're also quite literally one of the nicest groups of people I've ever met.

[0] which is also useful, btw. mainly for bolstering focus and both dealing with and letting go of stress. especially the unnecessary stress. but I found I need to do that at least multiple times a week, more like a training, in order to take the benefits with me in the rest of the day. compassion meditation provided insights that sticks longer (but practice helps of course).

Is it easy to go back to believing once you not are non-religious? I've only seen it going one way, and I find it really hard to go back to religion even if I want to (because of the whole "it's irrational" aspect, sincerely no offense meant). How did you do it?

>sincerely no offense meant


Guess it depends.

Once you see it working it is hard not to.

As for the irrational part, my take is that once I believe in a almighty / close-to-almigthy God (close-to because of the free will part) everything falls in place. I don't argue about creationism or not etc, I accept science as very useful models and don't make a fuzz of it, I actually don't even think about because it is counterproductive and any decent almighty God could do it whatever way.

Anyway, why would you want to go back?

> Anyway, why would you want to go back?

Like, curiosity? People used to think that God floats in clouds above flat Earth.

Wouldn't you like to understand how exactly the belief in supernatural can make people happier and whether the (hypothetical) actual existence of supernatural plays any role?

I was happier when I was religious. That's the main reason I've considered going back to it. Couldn't do it :(

I’ll tell you how “I” did it.

I was raised as a Christian, but when I was 18 I gave it up. It was a matter of conscience. I didn’t believe. As you said, I thought it was irrational.

But as it turned out, my rationality and extraordinary intelligence just gave me the ability to screw up my life that much more. I was miserable and empty, not because of my circumstances, but because of me. I sucked.

That changed when I turned my life over to Christ at age 29. I still sucked, but it wasn’t about me. I still suck even today at age 53. But it is absolutely OK, because I’m not trusting in myself. I’m trusting in Christ.

God’s grace did it. I didn’t do it. It was “easy” because I didn’t have anywhere else to go.

I hope you can get back to that place, littletimmy. I’m rooting for you. Let me know if you want to talk more.

Many thanks for your kind words. It's cool to see that even though our religions are (were) very different (mine was Islam), we nonetheless have a very similar view. :)

> turned my life over to Christ

I think a lot of people miss that this is the essential part of religion: I suck at being happy, despite all of my rationality and intelligence, so let God do the driving.

It's very comforting.

I'll also add that for me faith didn't come from a single "burning bush" moment, it came from long, painstaking, often failing, effort.

I see. I feel for you.

I think there is more to it than you and most people have seen, in particular I don't just feel better but I know that it has already transformed me to some degree. That said I'd almost say recommend to wait until one "gets" it, and then hold onto it.

That doesn't mean don't try, but don't force it. Ask whatever-it-is to help, read the parts that are accessible (I found Proverbs are partially good business advice.)

And whoever else reads this - don't let anyone scam you, - you should be looking for a personal connection to whatever-it-is that will help you, not someone to fleece you.

If this helps, keep it, if not leave it.

(I'll be offline for a few hours now.)

I'm in the same boat. The one thing that so far has been promising - after about 10 years of 'nothing' since I left my faith - has been zen buddhism.

It tickles my 'theological' side by providing an incredibly rich history of thoughts and thinkers that is almost entirely unknown to me (in contrast to Christian theology).

More importantly, at least in the form at which I'm exposed to it here, it explicitly promotes not spending too much time on the thinking part of things, has less cultural/religious baggage, and as a result is much more palatable and practical than Christianity has ever been for me.

The only thing that it doesn't offer me (yet), and it's a big one, is the sense of community and 'rhythm' that the church offered (Sunday service, youth and small-group meetings, usually at least one other type of activity a week).

Check out wkup.org and see if there's one near you. I don't know your age, it's aimed mostly at young people, but not too young either (I'm 35) and the groups are diverse and each have their own take (they're not always quite zen Buddhism in a strict sense, though).

I've been a christian for a very long time, finding myself sliding away, just don't find the solace in it anymore? Any thoughts? I still find myself attracted to the ideas - grace, forgiveness, love, a relationship with god, just so attractive - but just can't seem to make the bridge from it to the daily grind.

This thread is getting old but for now:

Did anyone teach you the more advanced parts?

I've updated my profile to link to a site that I feel includes useful material (and yes, I am part of that bunch in a way.)

I might get around to adding some kind of contact details for myself, but for now I wont.

I'm not looking to be converted, but I'm going to check your link anyway. If there's some thing that can be called "advanced Christianity", then it's my (other) religious duty to check it out :)

Thanks! I'll check it out.

Not the OP but my guess: religion

Correct. More specifically Christianity. I admit that whatever it is is likely greater than what I can understand but it is the best I have found. So far (>10 years and counting) it has served me well.

What are some examples of problems normal people have that are as bad as the ones addicts are having? I promise I am asking this question in good faith.

Here's a few off the top of my head:

Remaining in dysfunctional relationships because they can't bear to be alone.

Continuing to work a job which they're losing money on because its their identity.

Crippling debt, and its associated stress, accrued paying for things they hope will make the happy.

(In the US at least) medical bills.

All of those could easily have equal, or even more, negative effects on someone's life than an addiction, particularly an addiction they're able to support financially.

A few more:

Worshiping beauty, and always feeling ugly as a result.

Worshiping their own intellect, and always feeling like a fraud.

Being crippled with self-doubt and skepticism.

Constant anger at the world for wrongs, real or imagined.

Being underemployed and hating oneself for it.

Really, there are as many variants and flavors as there are people.

Jumping from one relationship to another with barely any time (if any at all) in between, each relationship failing the same way as the last and doing ever more damage, convinced the next one will work even though no fundamental changes were made. I've seen this a lot.

Makes me think that everybody's journey deserves respect.


I don't mean any offense when I say this, but I kind of resent this type of perspective.

I can't say for sure but I suspect if we knew each other, I would fall into the "non-addict friend with problems" type category.

You do correctly point out that a lot of people worry whether they will be judged for revealing a problem. This has happened to me and my family quite severely. Long-term, deeply close friends have abandoned me; extended family scatters like roaches when the lights turn on; goodly people of the working class like pastors or coworkers just brush you off with annoying platitudes.

Human beings seem pretty hard-wired to pass judgement on other people due to their associates and circumstances. We absolutely are a "blame the victim" species through and through. If we can't even stop ourselves from blaming the victim in matters of rape or child abuse, how can we expect people to see others' problems clearly?

So, yeah, for people who aspire to some of the fruits of their working class labor, and who feel great pressure from "blame the victim" thinking, they sure as shit are paranoid about not coming off as though they "have problems" -- and it's pretty disingenuous for you or me or anyone else to judge them for this and roll our eyes while we say they should be more zen and stop "wanting things" or "clinging to their pride" or whatever.

The other big thing though is that people really, truly can be victims of circumstance. People can have depression, for example, not because they are genetically predisposed to have depressive reactions to mostly-normal circumstances, but because they have normal, sane, healthy reactions to insane circumstances. Reacting to something by being depressed about it can be, and often is, totally healthy because it represents your body's correctly calibrated response to a circumstance that cannot be "lived with" and must be purged out of your life for survival.

I bring this up because I feel like a lot of people give extremely little thought to the problems other people have. We rationalize and look for one or two ways that it might "be their fault" (i.e. blame the victim) and if we can't find those, then we revert to Plan B which is to rationalize one or two ways that they could "get better but they won't" (e.g. they aren't currently seeing a counselor; they aren't currently on anti-depressants; they aren't currently in a support group; they refuse to have a less materialistic outlook on life; etc. etc.).

Our brains are wired to find or invent short-circuits out of actually empathizing with suffering people. Just like we want our shit to be flushed down the toilet bowl and to Just Stop Being Our Problem, we think along similar lines about the problems that others tell us, even close friends and loved ones.

What I can say for sure is that letting go of ego and pride has almost nothing to do with it; having humility has almost nothing to do with it; "reject desire and attachment" sounds nice on a poster, but that's just so thoroughly not human that I don't even know where to begin, let alone that it too has almost nothing to do with anyone's extrinsic circumstances.

I guess what I am saying is that a lot of people who have problems already are well aware that there is no "thing" that's going to make them happy. They aren't searching for that. And yet, being embedded in the life circumstances they are in causes real, visceral pain, and they have no choice but to try to find a way to not be in pain. There is no amount of perspective shifting that's going to just poof make a painful circumstance into a pain-free one.

And, to be quite blunt, for a lot of people, money absolutely would solve a huge number of their circumstantial problems. I don't want to make this comment any longer than it already is, so I'll just provide a link to a past comment that I made. It was on a thread discussing the semi-recent self-aggrandizing post from DHH about his magical foresight to know that wealth was never going to "truly" make him happy.

< https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10628129 >

Money is just one dimension of all this, sure. But I bring it up because one of the first things we all rush to bash is someone's "materialism" in the face of their problems. I have to believe this is some kind of Hansonian signalling dealie that's secretly about taking stuff from others, because it really is the case that money can solve a lot of problems in life. And instead of indoctrinating people with feel-good mantras about being less materialistic, we ought to be teaching them when and how to strategically employ their materialism when it is for their own benefit and when to avoid letting it become excessive. Heuristics that are too sweepingly general, like "never be materialistic" frankly do more harm than good and probably lead people to worse living circumstances that feedback into the pressure to look like you're not having a problem and just magnify the whole thing.

We can probably make similar claims about love and relationships, health and beauty, intelligence, credential, and status within organizational or social hierarchies. All of these things, like money, have a slippery slope aspect to them: you can really fuck yourself over by caring about them too much, but you can also fuck yourself over by believing some zen bullshit mantra about how you can "transcend" them and they don't matter at all. Like most things, the answer is somewhere in the middle, and it's exceedingly hard to get it right, and it's different for every person, and no one has any magic answer for how it's going to work out for you or me or any other given person.

This response really resonates with me.

There's an experience I had several times when I was growing up and going through school, where I would ask someone for advice and they'd give me some well-reasoned, thoughtful answer, then the advice turned out to be unhelpful. This happened often when I talked to academic advisers. I realized afterwards that my academic advisers were giving me exactly the kind of advice that would have suited them when they were my age, and since I was a different person with different goals, a different background, and different circumstances, their advice was simply ill-suited.

The thing that really struck me, however, is the realization that they truly believed in the advice they gave me, and that they had grounds to believe in it. It wasn't "bad advice" per se, but they talked to hundreds of students every year and couldn't take the time to understand what my goals were. And I realized that I was going along a nontraditional path, I had nontraditional goals, I was deliberately nonconformist, and therefore academic advisers (as extremely conformist individuals, in general) were the least reliable source of advice for me.

I've started recognizing the pattern more and more. Someone will give advice, and they'll be earnest and honest, but it just doesn't apply to everybody. I had a teacher who thought "happiness" was a fool's dream. I met a recovered addict who had a sure-fire plan, with five steps, to beat addiction and improve your life. He wanted to tell everyone that MDMA would ruin your chances for ever living a happy life. I met a divorcé with some advice which women to avoid, or how to treat them. It was advice that he needed, years ago, but I didn't. Same thing over and over again, people claiming to know what would make other people happy. (Or replace "happy" with adjective of your choice.)

And I suppose I am repeating the pattern, right here. "You have to learn to recognize what advice applies to you and what advice doesn't, because you're smart, and there are a great many mistakes you won't make, even though there are many you will."

But that's the advice that I needed, fifteen years ago, it's not the advice you need. And maybe this story won't resonate with you at all, because you thought it was obvious all along. That's the lesson.

> Like most things, the answer is somewhere in the middle, and it's exceedingly hard to get it right, and it's different for every person

Bingo. Balance is the keyword.

Nice response overall to parent comment. But I felt, they also had a valid perspective. How many people you meet, who would analyze it in as much detail like yourself?

It is true that often peoples' problems can be lessened, if not fixed, by making some corrections. I agree with you in that, its foolish/naive to be very open about our problems to everybody. But, I thought, the parent was implying a pretence of "normal". In several situations a good and trusted friend may be able to advise and can be as helpful as a shrink.

I somewhat agree with your thoughts on money and other things like intelligence, beauty, health etc. If we try to think from a perspective of someone who does not have and never going to have one or more of these positives. In such scenarios when they hear, it doesn't matter. It makes them not lose too much of heart. It gives them a new paradigm to work with, one in which they are never going to have certain things.

A disabled person has to transcend their disability, at some level. So calling it all a lie is shallow/surface thinking, when some lies might help us achieve some larger truth.

edit: typo

I really appreciate your comment -- the last thing I wanted to start was a reddit-style circlejerk. I feel like responding to a few points, though.

I think my comment might have come off as being sort of condescending to people who are unwilling to talk about their problems for fear of judgement, like if only they would just do that everything would be OK!

Of course that's not the case! When you reveal your problems to someone, they often jump to blaming you, judging you, and so on. I meant that people recognize that I've dealt with that a lot, and that I won't blame them or judge them. Sometimes I can offer them some practical advice, but often that's just condescending, so I just express sympathy.

As for circumstances, I firmly believe that it's possible, albeit difficult, to be happy under any circumstances. This doesn't mean that you're not allowed to seek better circumstances, but I've always found that I'm best at improving my external circumstances when I'm feeling OK internally.

Finally, my one liner "guide to happiness" was meant to be suggestive of broad principles, not "this is exactly what you need to do to be happy!". I should have made this clearer. Balance is an extraordinarily important part of it! People have thought and written about this basically forever -- in fact it's the original, and in my opinion, the only legitimate question in philosophy. It's also the whole point of religion. So to think that one can sum it up in a few platitudes is more than a little bit silly.

Your comment about money really alleviating some issues was exactly to the point. I recently lost both of my parents and my family has a few issues. I got a raise recently and my inheritance is worth few years wages. Money does not help with the pain of loss but these 'other issues' would be considerably more stressfull with less of it.

"reject desire and attachment" sounds nice on a poster, but that's just so thoroughly not human that I don't even know where to begin, let alone that it too has almost nothing to do with anyone's extrinsic circumstances.

Exactly. I remember reading a book by a couple painting a pretty picture about how freeing oneself from all desire (material, emotional) solves all the problems you may have. I got fallen in to this cheap advice back when I was suffering from unreturned love and tried to preach it as well, but retrospectively, it didn't actually work. It is only the passage of time and other events of life that may result in something like decrease of pain and moving on with life. But I guess this kind of advice (freeing oneself from desire, embracing religion) still has some value in the worst cases where the person is willing to believe anything just to stop the suffering. It gives an illusion of a solution and that helps a little bit.

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