2018-04-09

A Marginally Better Life


For a long time now, I’ve considered that my approach to life is best termed “getting better at being happy,” or perhaps simply, “Getting better at getting better.” Self-improvement has always featured prominently in my psychology; why, I cannot say exactly. At a certain point early on, I adopted the perspective that, if I push myself in a few important ways, I might be able to reach a mental position that would be – I’m not sure, exactly. “Better” than average.

The important caveat here is that it was never about being superior to other people, at least not in the sense of moral worth. I’ve always considered life to be a bit of a sport. Some people live well, and some do not. Among those who live well, some live better than others. The hypothetical happiest man is he who lives best of all, or so goes my mental framework, anyway. We need not get caught up in comparisons (the better man wouldn’t waste time comparing himself to those beneath him, anyway). The point is marginal. At any moment, we all have a choice to do better, or not. Thus, the guiding vision of my life so far has been: Identify as many of those choices as possible, as they come up, and then choose to do better.

When we’re young, this is easy. To be a better student is to study harder and more effectively. To be a better athlete or musician is to practice more. Our personal relationships in youth are often quite simple, consisting of people and situations that are relatively easy to read, where doing the right thing is not so difficult to intuit.

As we grow older, though, maturity and the complexities of adult life combine to make our relationships much more complicated. Wooing a potential date can be hard, but it’s nothing compared to keeping a spouse happy for decades. The former involves making a good impression; the latter involves reading complex and subtle emotional cues every day for the rest of your life. The workplace, too, demands more as we grow. Early in our careers, we’re tasked to perform well. Later in our careers, we’re assigned more responsibilities, encouraged to mentor the younger employees, expected to rise in the ranks, entrusted to build confidence among our clients, and so forth. As for things like art and athleticism, our bodies age and our potential for artistic achievement narrows, so our goals transition from vying for “first prize” to something more introspective: “Being the best I can be.”

This is the landscape I’m in today. I still want to be a continually better person, but it’s no longer so simple as practicing hard and putting in more effort. Nowadays, it’s a matter of trying to identify the margins most in need of improvement, and working at those margins to the exclusion of others. For example, I have a good job and a good amount of savings now; but how can I better invest that savings? Would I be better served to further my career to increase my income, or invest more wisely the income I already have? If the latter, then which is the better investment?

Or, physically speaking: I’m not winning any races any time soon, but how should I best invest my time for managing my health? Is it better to accept that I only have time for [whatever], or should I make more time to build more muscle, increase some running speed, etc.? If the latter, how hard can I push before I start to risk injury or long-term damage? What can I get away with before it becomes counterproductive?

Or, morally speaking: Now that I have adopted the basic healthy patterns of a moral individual – consistent honesty, integrity, conscientiousness, the living of my life in accordance with my values – what, then? What next? Can I afford to give more to charity? Am I investing enough time in training my child to become a moral person? Am I doing enough to promote my values within my community? If not, what more can I do?

In all aspects of life, these are tough questions. The answers don’t come easy, at least not to me, and I can sink a lot of time into chasing unsatisfactory answers. Given that, I have to ask myself what the most practical approach is to solving all my dilemmas?

I don’t know for certain, but I’ve come upon an approach that seems to work. The approach relates to a concept I wrote about on this blog years ago: Stop Beginning. In that post, I discussed how to transition from being a novice runner to being someone who no longer needs to learn or establish the basics. It’s only at that point that a person can undertake to solve some of the “next-level” problems associated with running, like how to increase your speed and endurance after getting to the point where you can finish a 5K without issue. So, it’s not “how to run,” but rather, “how to run better.”

We can apply this same principle to any aspect of life, of course, including the over-arching idea of “living a good life.” If you accept that you are no longer a young person still learning the basics, then you can transition away from tackling the basics, and spend your time addressing more mature problems. The issues change from “how can I invest my money” to “how can I improve my investment portfolio?” Or better yet, “What small change can I make to my portfolio that will get me a decent improvement in my savings plan?”

But the key is not to ask the big question. The key is to sit in the moment and make a simple, utility-maximizing decision. You’re sitting at a restaurant, wondering whether to order another beer. At the margin, this will make you a little drunker, a little fuller on empty calories, and a little poorer. You have to make a choice in the moment: Which decision – to buy the beer, or not – is more consistent with your idea of living the good life? Are you someone whose life will be enriched by another beer? Or, are you someone who could stand to have a glass of water instead? Don’t just ask yourself the questions, envision both scenarios. What would they look like? What would they feel like? How are you likely to feel about your decision tomorrow, when you’re eating breakfast? Take stock of how and to what extent your present circumstances reflect “the good life,” the life you want to lead. Then, make the right choice for living the good life. Maybe have that beer, or maybe not, based on your own personal vision of the good life.

This simple, marginal, low-effort approach can help you make slight course-corrections toward a better life. If you do this often enough, your choices will add up, and you’ll be living an even better life in no time at all.