Open vs closed strategies

Again, the summary of a new part in my notes, about good planning.

There are two fundamentally different ways to approach any project. I call them open vs. closed strategies. Closed strategies aim at being efficient. Open strategies aim at “getting lucky”. Here’s a list of comparisons:

  • Hunter vs. gatherer
  • Narrow focus vs. wide focus
  • Manager vs. entrepreneur
  • Productive vs. creative
  • Just-in-time learning vs. just-in-case learning
  • Specialist vs. generalist
  • Thinking vs. experimenting
  • Doing one thing a lot vs. doing many things a little
  • Master vs. renaissance man
  • Say no to everything vs. say yes to everything

Which strategies should we use when? What’s the meta-strategy here? I think it depends on the environment:

  • Use a closed strategy in a predictable environment
  • Use an open strategy in an unpredictable environment

A project can have two phases:

  1. Entering and surviving in a new environment – open strategy
  2. Thriving in the now familiar environment – closed strategy

Aspects of a resourceful life

This ends the first round of articles about living a good life. As with the others, I share some of the content of my collection of notes about everything I learn.

A resourceful life is what people most commonly refer to as a successful life. It’s about being able to collect and manage resources. Far beyond just money, resources include time, health, relationships, even skills and knowledge.

As I said in the introductory article, living a resourceful life is subordinate to living a happy life and a meaningful life. In practice, though, the synergies between the three almost always trump the tradeoffs. It’s hardly possible to be happy and help others without also being resourceful.

Let’s jump in the specifics of living a resourceful life.

Have good goals

In a sense, resourcefulness is the ability to achieve one’s goals. This is why it’s important to choose them wisely. In general, one should aim for a more happy and meaningful life.

A typical advice one gets related to this topic is the five-fold why. Josh Kaufman explains it like this:

The Five-Fold Why is a technique to help you find out what you actually want.

Applying it is easy: whenever you want something, ask yourself “Why?” as many times as needed until you get to the root of the want.

Discover the root causes behind the want, and you’ll discover new ways to get there.

I added it because it’s a classic. This never really helped me personally. I’d need to know more about how this technique really works. How do you know you got to the root of the want? How do you answer the question?

Anyway, apart from the 5-fold question, there is the SMART framework. Goals should be:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

I’d add Tony Robbin’s criterion: goals should be result or outcome-oriented (as opposed to action-oriented).


Fundamental skills needed for a resourceful life are:

  • Learning
  • Planning
  • Productivity
  • Creativity

The fundamental skill

The fundamental skill you need to be resourceful is the ability to provide value to an “audience” of people. Here I took notes about:

  • Writing
  • Building websites
  • Photography
  • Building software


These are important resources that I took notes about:

  • Health
  • Good relationships
  • A field of mastery
  • An audience
  • A successful business
  • Physical possessions

Learn more

If any of the bulletpoints above sparked your interest, you can go read my raw notes here, or you can wait until I write about them on the blog. With this series of articles, I highlighted the general structure of my collection of notes. From now on I’ll go deeper into the specific areas, or write about new things I learned. If you want a monthly update of the new things I learned, subscribe to my newsletter.

How to live a happy life

This article is one in a series about my collection of notes about everything I learn, called “live a good life”.

In my introductory article I split the good life in the meaningful life, the happy life and the resourceful life. Living a meaningful and a resourceful life both contribute to living a happy life. Here we’ll look at what contributes directly to living a happy life.

I split happiness into two: passive and active happiness. Passive happiness is a form of happiness that does not depend on outer circumstances. Active happiness is satisfying your needs (also see this article I dedicated to this dichotomy).

Passive happiness

This is the kind of happiness that is independent of outer circumstances, even regardless of the feelings we experience. It is arguably a more fundamental form of happiness. It is sometimes referred to as freedom from suffering. I dedicated an article to “Get out of your mind and into your life”, the book that taught me to think about this form of happiness. It changed my life. Read it.

The basis of this kind of happiness we tend not to think about is being psychologically healthy. It is worth noting here that in Europe there still is a bias against professions related to psychology. Because of this, people tend to avoid going to a psychotherapist, even when it would be advisable doing so. I visited a therapist for a period of time, and am happy I did.

Other than the cases where our mind needs the help of a “technician”, the general approach here is that we need to cultivate the right mindset, feelings and attitudes. In particular, we need to cultivate the right relationships with various things:

  • Past
    • Gratitude instead of rumination and regret
  • Present
    • Presence, mindfulness and enjoyment
    • Acceptance instead of resistance
  • Future
    • Savoring instead of worrying
    • Hope
  • Yourself
    • Self-compassion
  • Other people
    • Generosity
    • Compassion, loving kindness
  • The world
    • An eye for beauty

The general way to do this is by exercising the mind. The most obvious and effective technique (with a ton of verified benefits) being mindfulness meditation:

  1. Sit straight
  2. Close your eyes
  3. Concentrate on your breathing
  4. When mind-wandering, move your attention back to the breathing – no self-criticism needed

5 minutes every day are more effective than an hour per week. To get the habit going I recommend using the app headspace.

Active happiness

Active happiness is what derives from satisfying your needs. To be able to do this, you need resources, which is why this kind of happiness relies on your ability to live a resourceful life (more about this in a future post). But being resourceful isn’t enough: you need to understand your needs and use your resources to satisfy them.

The general principle is to focus on things one doesn’t get used to (get more of the good ones, get rid of the bad ones).

  • Good relationships are the single most important happiness factor
  • Mastering something reliably puts you in a highly enjoyable state of flow
  • A livable income puts worries to rest, the lack of it can significantly affect wellbeing
  • Having long commutes or living in a noisy place negatively affects your daily life

On the other side, we should avoid to put a lot of energy into things we get used to, to avoid the so-called hedonic threadmill.

For many more details on how various aspects of life influence our happiness, read the happiness hypothesis, by Jonathan Haidt.

Some notes on how to live a meaningful life

This is the third article in my series about my notes on everything I learn. Here I share my notes about living a meaningful life. It is underdeveloped, compared to the importance of the topic.

The main idea here, which I’m quite convinced about, is that what gives meaning to life is working to improve the wellbeing of all sentient beings (which includes nonhuman sentient beings).

As I said in my article about the good life, living a happy and a resourceful life both contribute directly to a meaningful life. But these are categories on their own and I’ll treat them separately.

I know of two approaches that contribute to living a meaningful life: being helpful to others, and taking care of the world in which you live.

Being helpful to others

This area is a big question mark to me, filled with contradictions. How do you actively help someone? I can imagine a number of cases where the intuitive answers would actually end up harming someone or, at best, make them feel patronized. Giving money to a drug addict, or to a corrupt government. Being too eager to giving advice to a sad friend. Trying to fix things someone just needs to be heard about.

Also the saying comes to mind: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” But there’s also the aspect of teaching the man to be happy whether there is fish to be fished or not.

In an interview, Derek Sivers, the guy who inspired me to start taking note about everything in form of directives, gives some unconventional advice (but maybe unconventional advice is what is called for here). From a transcription:

1. Get famous
do everything in public and for the public , the more people you reach the more useful you are (the opposite is hiding which is no use to anyone) being famous

2. Get Rich
Money is neutral proof you are adding value to other peoples life: s. so by getting rich you are being useful as a side effect. Once rich, spend the money in ways that are even more useful to others, then getting rich is double useful

3. Share STRONG opinions
Those who are undecided or ambivalent can just adopt your stance, but those who disagree can solidify their stance by arguing against yours. – THIS is very useful to others

4. Be expensive
placebo pill = twice as likely to have pain disappears when told that pill was expensive, people who paid more for tickets are more likely to attend the performance. So people who spend more for a product or service value it more and get more use of it. BE EXPENSIVE

I see a tradeoff between 1 and 4. If could let you pay to see my notes, for you to value them more. But then they wouldn’t be public anymore, would they?

A very effective way of being useful to others is to follow a path of mastery, i.e. to pick something, your one thing, and become really good at it. This is also a key aspect of living a happy life, and of living a resourceful life. So much that I don’t really know which aspect it really should belong to.

Taking care of the world in which you live

Here I have a strong opinion to share: everyone should be an activist. And in particular, most people should practice a particular form of activism: sustainable activism. The society we live in has collectively built a system meant to increase our collective happiness. This system will always have flaws. In other words: there will always be a need for activism.

“Activism is my rent for living on the planet.” – Alice Walker

Richard Stallman, a famous software freedom activist and computer programmer, states on his home page:

The Lifelong Activist

People often ask how I manage to continue devoting myself to progressive activism (such as the free software movement) for years without burning out. The best way I can answer is by recommending a book, The Lifelong Activist by Hillary Rettig.

I can recommend you read the online book. But the only principle you need to know and follow is the following: dedicate a limited, regular time to activism. It could be a couple of hours per week (which is what I used to do). Or a full day per month (which is what I’ll be doing). Whatever works for you. Put it in the calendar, and show up.

Additional recommendations:

  • Invest in important causes – a hint? Climate change.
  • Join and support worthy existing efforts – often we think that nothing has been done until now, but in most of the cases there are world-wide organizations or local groups that can profit from your help.
  • If needed, start from scratch – take time to get educated on a topic, create a meetup, do something and learn along the way.
  • Use your own skills effectively – you have a PhD in economy? If possible, don’t just go collecting signatures.

Keep an eye

That’s it for the section on meaning. All in all, my intuition is: go ahead and focus on living a happy and successful life. Just keep an eye on the wider world around you and watch for opportunities to share your resources and skills in an effective way.

How to structure everything you learn

If you keep notes of everything you learn in one place, you’ll have to come up with a way to structure them. An interesting approach is to transform everything into directives, an idea coming from Derek Sivers. Taking his example:

“Behavioral psychologists Stephen M. Garcia and Avishalom Tor showed that merely knowing there are more competitors in a competition decreases our performance.”

— turns into this advice:

“Avoid awareness of competitors.”

A further step is to organize the directives hierarchically. Building upon his example:

  • Have a successful business
    • Perform
      • Avoid awareness of competitors

If you keep doing this for a while, you’ll end up writing some quite fundamental categories, like “Be successful” or “Be happy”, and you might ask yourself: where does it end? Why are we doing what we do? You need a good fundamental structure.

It’s all about living a good life

Everything you learn is useful to you if it contributes to you “living a good life”. This is the root directive:

  • Live a good life
    • Everything else

But what is a good life? What I’ve seen over the course of the last months, is that everything I learn falls in 3 interdependent categories, none of which can be fully reduced to the other.

  • Live a good life
    • Live a meaningful life – contributing to the global wellbeing (M)
      • Contains things like “be helpful to others”, “share what you learn”, “take care of the environment”
    • Live a happy life – contributing to our own wellbeing (H)
      • Contains things like “Meditate”,”Cultivate gratitude”, “Do something you love”
    • Live a resourceful life – contributing to our own resourcefulness (R)
      • Contains things like “Have a successful business”, “Be productive”, “Be healthy”, “Have good relationships”


These “pillars of a good life” are intertwined.

  • Meaning (M) is an integral part of what makes us happy (H).
  • If you provide value to others (M), you will earn trust (R).
  • Making yourself happy (H) is often the most effective way to increase the world’s wellbeing (M).
  • Often, being happy (H) will make you more productive, healthy, and improve your relationships (R).
  • Having a certain degree of security, affluence, good health and relationships (R) is a component of what makes people happy (H).
  • You need to be resourceful (R) to be able to help others (M).


Sometimes these categories conflict with each other:

  • It’s possible to focus on one’s own happiness (H) in a way that is destructive to others (M).
  • It’s possible to focus on one’s resources (R) in a way that makes us miserable (H).

In these cases the meaningful life should have precedence over the happy life, and the happy life should have precedence over the resourceful life. I’d argue, though, that the synergies between these categories are way stronger than the tradeoffs. In practice, it’s almost never about giving up on any of them, and almost always about balancing them out.

My notes

I gave exactly the structure described above to my notes. As a note-taking software I use dynalist (as explained here). You can access all my raw notes here. You can follow what I learn on my blog or be notified via my newsletter.

How to share what you learn effectively

For a long time I’ve been wondering about how I could share what I learn in an effective way, that is, make it accessible to the people who might be interested and profit from it, without too much additional effort from my side. In this article I describe my past attempts, and a system that I believe to be better, that I’m going to experiment with in the following months.

Shareable notes

I take notes about virtually everything I learn. How I do this has changed a lot over the years. I’ve used paper, notebooks, journals, word files, virtual pen tools, wikis, plaintext files, git repositories. All of them had advantages and disadvantages. Over time I decided two requirements for my note-taking system:

  • I have to be able to take notes effortlessly
  • The notes have to be easily shareable

Among the systems I tried, the following ones stood out.

Structuring notes in a Mdwiki

I introduced mdwiki enthusiastically on this blog in 2014. It’s a very good system for the technically inclined. Mdwiki is a wiki system based on markdown files, which allows one to make a git repository out of it, with all the related advantages like versioning, diffing, pushing and collaborating. I used for various projects and courses during the last years of my studies. They can be accessed here. The downside of this system is that there is a bit of a technical overhead to maintain and share your notes.

Dumping notes in a blog

For about a year, I kept an additional blog (introduced here, now archived here) just for raw notes. Taking shareable notes was very simple: keep a tab open, start a new post, dump your notes, publish. Over time it accumulated a ton of content, too.

The problem with this system was its linearity. All you get is a long list of notes organized in chronological order. This system didn’t allow me to reorganize and integrate the notes, and the shear volume of unorganized stuff probably felt too overwhelming for any visitor to stick around.

Taking hierarchical notes with Dynalist

Lately I discovered a delighting note-taking platform called dynalist (some of you might know the similar and more established workflowy). The principle is pretty simple: everything you write is part of a huge bullet-point list. Every item can have sub-items, you can expand/collapse any point and “zoom in” and focus on any of them.

What I really like about this system is that it forces you to think in a more structured way. Everything you write “goes somewhere” among the things you already wrote. Let’s make an example. My notes about good planning look like this:

  • Do good planning
    • Have realistic expectations
    • Focus
    • Build willpower

I read somewhere that “willpower is strongest in the morning”. First, I transform this information into a directive: “Do the hardest things in the morning”. This item, then, has to be placed appropriately.

  • Do good planning
    • Have realistic expectations
    • Focus
    • Harness willpower
      • Do the hardest things in the morning
    • Build willpower

Now I see that two items belong to the same “subcategory” and I put them together. This reminds me that I know other things about that subcategory, which I add

  • Do good planning
    • Have realistic expectations
    • Focus
    • Manage your behavior
      • Harness willpower
        • Plan to do the hardest things in the morning
      • Build willpower
      • Manage your habits
        • Favor tweaking existing habits over creating new ones

I’ve been taking notes like this for a couple of months now, and the list has grown more and more structured, with more than 1000 (!) entries. This is now my favorite way of taking notes, and I consider this problem as solved, as everything I learn now automatically gets integrated into this general practical knowledge tree.

The question that remains is: how to share this knowledge effectively?

The sharing workflow

I could share the full list (and I will in an upcoming article), but like my notes blog, I doubt many people would look at it without knowing what specific topics I’ve been taking notes about. Also, there’s no easy way they would be able to know whether something changed and what.

This is where the blog comes in. Once a week, starting from today, I’ll write very short articles about what I learned, linking to the specific part of the list that’s relevant. That way, the people who follow my blog will be able to see a chronological development of my learnings, and explore what spikes their interest.

And finally, once a month, I’ll write a newsletter with links to the articles, sorted by category, which is how I’ll be able to share most effectively what I learn with the people who are interested in it (if you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my newsletter here).

At least, this is the plan. No plan survives contact with reality. Let’s see how it goes.

A professor of psychology wrote a book about how to overcome suffering and start living a rich life, here’s what I took away from it

May I recommend you “Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy” by Steven C. Hayes. It was the most insightful book I read this year, and now, half a year after reading it, I can say it has truly changed my life forever. In this article I’m trying to share the main lessons I learned from this wonderful book.

The first core message of the book is that there’s a difference between pain and suffering. When you feel pain, and try to avoid feeling it — that’s when suffering start. Our mind can’t fix itself like it fixes problems belonging to the world out there. If you try to do that, the mind becomes both the fixer and the object to be fixed, and so begins a fight of the mind against itself, which often even augments the pain. Often, then, the strategy the mind uses is to avoid the situation that produces the pain. In turn this creates an even worse kind of pain: the pain of not being able to fully live one’s life.

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.

This principle can be seen in an incredible variety of cases, from overcoming addictions, bad habits, worrying and many, many problems we encounter every day. Let’s take, for example, social anxiety, something I’ve struggled with, and at times still do. Being in a social environment can be an overwhelming experience. One feels naked, judged, many strong feelings arise. Questions of self-doubt arise, “Am I not able to have fun? Am I not able to be fun?” The temptation to just go home and be at peace is strong. But what’s to do in that situation?

The first thing to do is to stop the fight, and accept one’s own mental state for what it is.


The opposite of resisting pain is accepting it. Acceptance is a wonderfully effective skill (so much that it sometimes feels a bit like a superpower). By acceptance I don’t mean passivity towards the contingencies of life. What I really mean is acceptance of the contents of one’s own mind. The tools of acceptance are

  • Be mindful of your feelings
    Pay attention to your feelings and sensations. Move from trying to avoid what you feel to meeting it with full awareness. Recognize your feelings and sensations for what they are in their rawness, as they arise in your body (heat, sweat, pressure, heartbeat…).
  • De-fuse from your thoughts
    Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking, without identifying with them. Move from “I’m afraid” to “I just had the thought that I’m afraid,” go from “I can’t resist anymore” to “I just thought that I can’t resist anymore.”

These are the paradoxical tools of acceptance. And they work. Because they end the fight of the mind against itself. And they can be trained. For example, with mindfulness meditation (and other exercises you can find in the book).

If you are struggling, be mindful about your sensations and defuse from your thoughts, and you will become aware of a part of yourself that is untouched by the struggle.

Back to the example: if you are in a social situation, and troubling emotions arise, first become aware of those emotions, as they come and go in your body. Then become aware of how you are interpreting those emotions and the situation around you. What kind of thoughts arise. Probably they are forms of self-judgement. Recognize them as thoughts. There’s not even a need to argue with them. Just recognize them for what they are: words, pieces of language, that arise, produced by your brain’s language center, and then go back from where they came. Nobody wants me at this party — oh, there goes another thought.
Paradoxically, what helps me the most in those situations is to think that these feelings are part of who I am, of how my brain works, and will for sure come again, in the future. I might just as well give up on “fixing” them.


Now, if life was all about overcoming suffering, the story would end here. But the second part about this wonderful approach is about committing to action (which is why it is called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT).

When you liberate yourself from the need to get rid of all pain, a window of freedom opens up, which allows you to choose what the next thing you do is going to be. But what should you do? That’s where values come in.

A value is like a compass, indicating a direction.

It’s not a destinations you can reach — nobody has “got it”, everyone is on the way, and there’s no missing out or failing to arrive.

It doesn’t tell you how fast you have to move — if the moving is hard, you can baby-step, and celebrate any progress you make.

It never becomes unavailable — as long as you have a breath of life in you, you can make an effort to move towards it.

A value is something that is more important to you than the possibility that you might suffer. Acceptance then becomes “willingness”: You are “willing” to go through some pain, because there’s something you value more than avoiding that pain.

General values I’m trying to apply in my life are: “appreciate”, “be kind”, “learn and apply”, “be authentic”, “enrich other people’s lives”, “be resourceful”. I might be mediocre at all of them, but who cares? The idea to get better at any of them fills me with enthusiasm.

In the case of the party, the value one might want to apply is: “live a rich, deep and meaningful community life”. Following these values requires one to try to connect to others, to express oneself authentically, all of which comes with the risk of being misunderstood or disliked. But we have learned the tools that will allow us, step by step, to overcome them.

A deep insight into human nature

Let’s wrap up. The principles I learned in this great book are:

  • Find the values that are important to you and follow them.
  • Be willing to meet some pain and discomfort along the way. Learn to meet them with full awareness and acceptance. Move at your own pace.

As I said in the beginning, these principles have really changed my life. Many of the things I avoided, I now feel safe to try out now. Certain things I spent hours obsessing about in my head, now I just accept (and I also accept that sometimes the old habit of obsessing will slip through). It has really taken a lot of the burden it can be to be a human with an evolved brain.

Finally, I believe this book provided me with a deeper understanding of myself and the people around me, by giving me access to a fundamental insight about our nature. I might not have been able to summarize the book so well, so I recommend you go ahead and read it. And of course, I’m happy to have a conversation with you about this topic, so feel free to let me know what you think.

On harnessing procrastination

I am a procrastinator and a dabbler. I get very passionate about something, until it becomes too much of a duty. Then my passion tends to fade and move to something else. If you happen to be similar to me, in this article you might find a way to accept and harness this aspect of your personality.

I’m not going to question the need to practice all the good habits of self-discipline that allow you to actually do what you decided to do. I myself regularly exercise and learn more about willpower, good planning, mindfulness, accountability systems and so on. Yet I’m aware that this is an uphill and long-term process.

It’s good practice to invest more in enhancing your strengths than fixing your weaknesses, this is the approach I want to take here. In this article I’m arguing that you can harness your seemingly “dysfunctional” tendencies in a way that might actually reduce your need for self-discipline and planning.

In other words: what could allow you to spend at least part of your days doing precisely what you are interested in in that moment, and not regret it?

A helpful model could be this distinction between a manager and an entrepreneur: A manager has a goal, and uses the available resources efficiently to achieve that goal. An entrepreneur looks at the resources he has, shoots around for opportunities and follows them. The first approach works more in a predictable environment and as such tends to be efficient but also fragile, the second works more in a chaotic environment, and as such is less efficient but more “antifragile” (more on this in Nassim Taleb’s book “Antifragile: things that gain from disorder”).

You can see your tendency to procrastinate as a chaotic, unpredictable feature of your personality. Which means you need to set yourself up to be antifragile to that feature. To do this you can use the following two principles.

First principle: Keep your options open. Don’t let all of your success depend on one thing needing to get done at a certain time. Imagine you’re building a mosaic: as long as you keep placing pebbles in their right spot, it doesn’t matter in which order you do that.

How you go about this in practice depends very much on the context. For example, in the content-producing context, if what you are interested in varies a lot, don’t keep just one monolithic blog where you post everything. Instead, create and use many different channels that you can use whenever appropriate.

Second principle: Harness what you produced. So you just “procrastinated” a couple of hours. You just learned about something, thought about something, had an experience, formed an opinion. Congratulations! You just found a small pebble of the mosaic of your life. Maybe it’s not the pebble you wanted to look for, but here it is, in your hand. What are you going to do now, feel guilty about it and throw it away? If you have optionality, you can spend a couple more hours to polish the pebble and place it into an appropriate spot of your mosaic.

For example, yesterday, instead of doing what I should have done, I was philosophizing about the meaning of life and the psychology of suffering. I wrote some notes to help me think, and out came some arguments and thoughts. At this point, after gaining some clarity, I could just have just moved on. Instead, I embraced the little piece of knowledge I had produced and tried to make the most out of it. I decided that I wanted to have a conversation about this subject and get feedback from people who know more about this subject, as to revise my opinion. So I

  • Refined the text into an article
  • Published it on the medium publishing platform
  • Wrote a related question on quora linking to the article, asked people that are interested in that specific topic from their bio to answer it
  • Wrote a message to a couple of local meetup groups on meditation and philosophy
  • Posted it on facebook and tagged friends of mine interested in that topic

Note that this is not about spamming everyone about everything you have been occupying your time with. On the contrary, it’s about selecting very specific channels and groups of people that are interested in exactly that kind of thing and might have something to say about it. It’s about increasing the value of your time and effort.

To wrap up, here’s the message: if you are prone to procrastination, set yourself up so that you can harness your experience during that time and channel it precisely where it will be the most valuable, to you and to others.

Two valid yet opposite paths to happiness

This is an experiment in public thinking. I’m exposing my thoughts in the hope of encountering a good conversation, interesting arguments, and possibly, change my mind.

Happiness is the state of accepting the contents of your consciousness. I use acceptance here in the more “Buddhist” sense of fully accepting, not a mere tolerating, of actively “being in the presence of”.

Acceptance is peculiar in that it can be both active and passive. There are things you just accept, and others you can learn to accept. It follows that there are two ways to increase your happiness:

  1. Increase your capacity to accept the contents of your consciousness (passive)
  2. Increase your capacity to fill your consciousness with contents you accept (active)

A romantic way of naming these strategies could be “the path to enlightenment” vs “the path to . Or “the eastern way” vs “the western way”, as they are characterized in Haidt’s “Happiness Hypothesis”.

I’d say that the most rational way to go about the first strategy is through mindfulness meditation. Also see “Waking up: a guide to spirituality without religion” by Sam Harris (I’d like to thank Harris for sending me down this exciting path). The second approach has more to do with learning how the world (including human beings) works and — in a sense — conquer it in order to fit your needs.

To have two so fundamentally different ways to pursue happiness is, at least to me, deeply unsatisfying. Couldn’t it be that one of the two is invalid? Is it a real or a false dichotomy? It’s tempting to accept arguments that dismiss one or the other, because they simplify and shrink our model for happiness down to one dimension. Yet, I believe, like Haidt does, that both approaches are valid, and that they probably need to be combined to reach optimum efficacy. In this post I’d like to think through some objections I couldn’t find answers to otherwise (if they have been dealt with by some author, please let me know, I’d be grateful to know).

The “passive” approach, as foreign as it is to our culture, can hardly be completely dismissed. Learning to meet the contents of consciousness, say sensations of pain, with full awareness, has been shown to surgically transform your capacity to suffer (or avoid doing so), as can be confirmed by millions of people who practice some form of mindfulness meditation (see, for example, “10% happier” by Dan Harris). Having been on a 10 day meditation retreat myself, I can attest to that. It might seem futile to merely change the quality of the mind without dealing with the outer world, but happiness does happen in the mind, so deal with it.

An argument against the outer-wordly approach could be the “hedonic threadmill”, the idea that we are never satisfied for a long time, that we get used to our pleasures and therefore always need more and more. Yet I believe there are ways to circumvent this problem, if you know about its mechanics, just like you can design mechanisms to work around different psychological biases (see “Predictably Irrational” by Dan Ariely).

An other argument against the second approach is more subtle. That is: also in pleasure there is suffering. When we feel pain, we resist it (and fear it when it’s gone), when we feel pleasure, we cling to it (and crave it when it’s gone).
This argument makes the world of pain — pleasure completely orthogonal to the world of happiness — suffering (aka. acceptance — resistance). Increasing our pleasures, decreasing our pains doesn’t make any difference, we suffer all the same. The only way to become happier then is the first strategy, and the attractiveness of the second is merely an illusion, a further testament to our clinging and craving.
I came out of my meditation retreat with this view, mainly due to the characterizations of pleasure and pain given to us in the recordings of the original teacher of the retreat, S. N. Goenka. After more examination I now think that this argument is rather absurd (I’m not implying that Goenka makes this argument). My subjective experience strongly suggests that I suffer less when I feel pleasure than when I’m in pain. Yes, sometimes I’m afraid of losing the pleasure, but only when I think about its fleetingness. In terms of acceptance, if I sense pleasure, I fully accept it and it would be nonsense to say the opposite — it therefore by definition contributes to my happiness. Clinginess then is just the non-acceptance of the thought about its fleetingness. Being able to remove that thought would therefore represent yet another increase in happiness, and note that that would be a step done following the second strategy (changing my consciousness’s contents).

The last argument against the western approach would be that it is not needed. That the “spiritual” approach can make you way happier anyway, regardless of outer circumstances. Knowledge of the outer world is only needed insofar it helps us secure our survival, but forget about “success” as a means to achieve happiness: even granted that success can give us pleasures that do contribute to our happiness, we could generate much more of it by investing all possible energy turning inward.
I’m actually not so sure about this one. It could be true. I guess science will have to tell us. There is something creepy about the idea of a perfectly happy human being spending his or her life in a cave. But on the other hand, the western approach could lead to something that looks quite similar: a society of perfectly happily entertained and satisfied people, forever attached to some sort of total videogame (or why not be brains in vats?). I guess whatever humanity’s ultimate happy form will be, it would probably creep us out a lot.

To conclude, If we do accept both approaches as legit, the work is far from done. Is there an optimum combination thereof? Does that optimum depend on the environment? On the individual? Where are the synergies between the systems, where are the idiosyncrasies? I’m happy to learn more.

It’s time to give distributed social networks another shot

A couple of years ago, multiple attempts at substituting current social networks with a distributed social networking system were made. But they failed: Today, centralized social networks are stronger than ever.

And yet, the most successful communication protocol remains email, which is by its nature distributed. Think about it: how compelling would email be if people with gmail accounts could only communicate with other people with gmail accounts, and so on?

As the mind-blowing web development framework meteor is growing in popularity, I think it’s time to give distributed social networks an other shot. There are a couple of reasons why I think it is best suited for such a challenge:

  • Its emphasis on modularity
  • Support for both web and mobile
  • Reactivity
  • The DDP protocol!

Here’s a first attempt at defining requirements for such a system.


A server would be a meteor installation.


In a distributed setting every user is associated to a server, like in e-mail. i.e. an user address looks like username@server.


Every user can create streams. A stream identifier would have the following form: username@server/stream.


Posts are generic pieces of content that one can post to a stream. In principle, anyone can post to any user’s stream. The stream’s owner gets to define the rules by which this is possible. A post entry identifier then is username@server/stream/postid. All posts related to a stream are stored on the stream’s server.


Users can subscribe to streams, that is send a DDP command to the stream’s server, authenticating and polling the stream’s content.

All this together would allow one to have a “facebook home stream” experience on his own server, while what’s actually happening in the background is the client is polling stream data for all his subscriptions from all related servers. DDP would then ensure that the stream is updated reactively.


This post is meant as a conversation starter. Some issues to be solved are:

  • Should every individual server be free to define its own post format, or should the post format be part of the protocol?
  • I have about 200 friends on facebook. If they all had an account on a different server, this would lead to a couple hundred different DDP connection. Is this something to worry about? And in a couple of years from now?
  • When my client polls the data of a stream via DDP, it needs to authenticate as user@server to the stream server, on which I might not have an account. How to handle that?
  • Should it be possible to define stream relationships, such as sub-streams, aggregated streams and so on?
  • How to represent “interactions with posts”, like comments, likes, and so on? These could for example be seen as yet another type of post added to the same stream.

If I weren’t working on my master thesis and other things, I’d start implementing a first version now, but unfortunately I won’t be able to do so for at least 6 months. It would be cool to see someone take the challenge.