Designing the Mind

“In the past, we humans learned to control the world outside us, but we had very little control over the world inside us.” 

– Yuval Noah Harari

We have all heard the ancient cliche that “true happiness comes from within.” Everyone from the Buddha to the Stoics to modern positive psychology have proclaimed that external circumstances and achievements don’t bring lasting satisfaction. Though the truism resonates with many of our intuitions, it also sends too many people down spiritual rabbit-holes that often amount to nothing. What does it actually mean for our happiness to come from “within,” and how can we apply this principle? This article’s goal is to propose a new way of thinking about a very old piece of wisdom.

An Aggregate of HabitS

According to the ancient thinker Aristotle, a person could be understood as the sum of his habits. This understanding of habit far exceeded the narrow notion of morning routines and ingrained compulsions. An individual’s entire being could be represented by his habits. His disposition was not decided at every moment and in every isolated action. His thoughts, words, and actions flowed from a network of interconnected habits, which in turn were reinforced or broken by his actions. In this way, his mind could be cultivated and perfected. The aggregate of all his habits was his character, and this was the ultimate determinant of his happiness.

The modern study of neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change and reorganize, sheds new light on this ancient habitual view of the mind. We now know that the neural pathways that make up our minds can be built, reinforced, or diminished through learning, conditioning, and practice. Everything you do (or don’t do) plays a role in shaping your mind. Even sitting on your couch all day is a form of practice and will strengthen the connections between certain neurons at the expense of others. But neuroplasticity can offer us more than the ability to improve our concentration or get good at memory games.

Psychological Software

DTM makes use of an extended metaphor called psychological software, and this metaphor allows us to take Aristotle’s representation of the mind to the next level. Although it’s true that our brains are not literally digital computers, built on silicon circuits and binary logic, the modern metaphor of the mind as a computer is by far the most powerful and comprehensive one we’ve ever had. Our hardware is the brain, the physical substrate made up of neurons, chemicals, and electrical impulses. Our software is the world of our experience – the mind.

Together, our hardware and software are responsible for our happiness or unhappiness. It’s true that there are chemicals which can alter our baseline well-being on the hardware level, and these can be a lifesaver for those with serious mood disorders. But for most people, the gateway to unlocking radically superior states of mind lies in the world of software. Your software is responsible for the way you respond and react to the changing conditions of your life. The way your mind is structured will determine the person you become, the life you live, and the fulfillment you realize. And this is where psychitecture comes in.

Psychitecture is self-directed psychological evolution. The act of deliberately reprogramming one’s psychological operating system. Psychitecture is a process and an art – aimed at designing and building a better mind. Psychitecture applies to everything from breaking a bad habit to rebuilding an entire worldview. We all engage in it at certain points in our lives. But calling it out and giving it a name can change our perspective on it.

Psychitecture is an often slow process of recognizing and iteratively compensating for errors in perception and action. Your great satisfaction should be the feeling of making one tiny optimization, inching one step closer to your ideal. This perspective is not unlike the best dieting advice available. Trying to constantly muster willpower to bring about a result can’t compare to gradual and habitual optimization. Individual thoughts, emotions, and actions are never the problem, in the same way that the individual drops of water leaking through your roof are not the problem. We are interested in the source. In the structural patterns.


At a fundamental level, psychological software can be understood as a chain of algorithms: automatic, step-by-step procedures which are triggered by the inputs of the external world, and result in the outputs of our thoughts, feelings, and actions.

When these algorithms are bad for us, we call them biases, maladaptive emotions, and bad habits.

These reflexes all chain together to result in our habitual state of existence. These algorithms can initially be programmed by our genes, upbringing, and powerful experiences like trauma. But they can also be programmed and reprogrammed deliberately.

Although some of these algorithms may be specific to individuals, by and large the bad algorithms that plague us are found across our species. And promisingly, there is strong evidence that we can deliberately reprogram these bad algorithms. Though this software framework represents a new way of visualizing them, the principles behind psychitecture are based on the best of modern psychological research. You can apply the science of cognitive debiasing, emotional self-regulation, and behavioral change to gradually reprogram your software for flourishing and self-actualization.


Let’s look at an example. Let’s say you land an interview for your dream job. You pour countless hours into preparation, nail the interview, and begin fantasizing about your new role as assistant to the regional manager at your local video rental store (it’s a weird dream job, but I’m not here to judge). Days and then weeks pass before you get an email saying the position was given to someone else.

At this point, there are two different ways you might respond. You could 1) spend weeks sulking, speculating about why you didn’t get the job, castigating yourself for your failings, and convincing yourself that you will never get a good job because you are fundamentally inadequate. Or you could 2) ask your interviewers for feedback, work to make the necessary improvements to your interview skills or portfolio, and move on to the next job without wasting a moment to suffer.

We would all rather be the person who takes option 2, but not everyone does, or even readily can. We may tend to think that acting in the right way is simply a matter of being mature and responsible. But the difference between taking option 1 and option 2 fundamentally boils down to complex chains of many psychological algorithms, and these chains must be understood before they can be reprogrammed.

Don’t worry about following this whole diagram just yet. Let’s look at a smaller piece first.

This illustration can be read like this: You accurately perceive that you did not get the job after reading your rejection letter. The conflict between this reality and your desire for the job results in sadness. An emotional algorithm is then triggered by this cognition and outputs the negative emotion of sadness or despair. You know that this job is already out of the question for you. But a rogue desire within you is causing you to experience emotions that aren’t serving you. It would be much better if our desires were fully adapted to this reality so they could start fueling us toward a better outcome instead of causing needless pain.

“I have learned to seek my happiness by limiting my desires, rather than in attempting to satisfy them.” 

– John Stuart Mill

So let’s get rid of that useless desire. A method I call desire modulation allows us to adjust the dials of desire and calibrate them to reality. There are a number of modulation exercises we can use to shift our emotional investment in certain outcomes. These techniques allow us to mitigate or eliminate the emotional pain we might experience so we can move on, respond in our actions, and leave the past in the past.

Engaging in the practice of gratitude, for example, is one of such methods of increasing desire for the things you have and decreasing desire for the things you don’t have. You also might down-regulate the specific desire causing your suffering by reminding yourself of the hour and a half long commute, or that movie rental is probably not a great industry to build a career in right now, or that you have a master’s in data science. Honestly, I have no idea what you saw in that job in the first place, Sarah.

Though this is a simple example, desire modulation can be used for far more complex challenges. But let’s assume that after relinquishing the desire for this particular job, you are still still experiencing unwanted emotional pain.

Here, a second emotional reaction is being triggered by the belief that this one rejection is indicative of a much greater and permanent problem. If I’m rejected for this position, then I’m never going to get a good job. After seeing it written out, the absurdity of the inference becomes obvious. But these thoughts often find their way into our belief systems without our full awareness. Once we understand that our painful emotion is the result of a distorted thought, we can use a method for altering the algorithm.

“Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of things.” 

– Epictetus

The technique called cognitive reappraisal allows us to alter our (often distorted) interpretations of our situation. We can learn to shoot down the automatic thoughts that sometimes succeed in falsely convincing us that we can predict the future, read other people’s minds, and apply broad and simplistic labels to ourselves. In this case, you could identify the distortion known as catastrophizing leading you to believe you will never get a good job. By learning to quickly recognize and refute this bias, you can build the habit of short-circuiting this tendency automatically, programming it out for good.

After identifying and reappraising our distorted cognition, we have eliminated the negative emotion and can now focus our efforts on setting new goals and taking action.

Hard-Wiring Inner Peace:

“Nothing can harm you as much as your own thoughts unguarded.” 

– Siddhārtha Gautama

Psychological well-being is a systemic property of the mind; it cannot be gifted to anyone, nor can it be taken away. There are too many people with great lives on paper who are still miserable at the end of the day. Many who face immense adversity who are genuinely fulfilled. You can only be as happy as your mind is programmed to be. This means that although you may feel content at any given time, that satisfaction is illusory insofar as it can be taken away. If losing all of your possessions, circumstances, social standing, and relationships would deprive you of all your happiness, what you have can hardly be called happiness in the first place.

Your body will be declining for most of your life. Your relationships will come and go. Material success can be lost. These things must all be icing on the cake of your well-being. Nothing you gain in life is yours. Your psychological software is the one thing that you can start developing now and get to keep for the rest of your life. Your software is your sole possession.

I have had too many conversations with people who have not even questioned the assumption that their external life was all that mattered. Who were convinced that they were failures because their life circumstances have not met their expectations. Or who were self-satisfied and complacent because they had built an impressive resume and bought a nice house.

The teachers who have inspired Designing the Mind have included orphans, crippled slaves, and concentration camp prisoners. Some were plagued by illness their entire lives, and some lost their own children. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, prisoner of the Gulag Soviet labor camps and author of The Gulag Archipelago reminds us that “the meaning of earthly existence lies not, as we have grown used to thinking, in prospering, but… in the development of the soul.”


The default human mind is almost inevitably an unpleasant place to be. A crusted core of egotism and craving and insecurity. The reason kids cry and scream and suffer so much more than adults is not just because their brains are less developed. It is because experience in the real world forces you to develop coping strategies over time that make living easier. The tantrums, agony, irrationality, and impulsiveness of childhood represent the epitome of being a slave to one’s own default software.

Societal pressures work to pull you up to the line of psychological adequacy, and psychotherapy can be used when society falls short. But these aims are far too low. Falling within the current “normal” range of psychological health is nothing to aspire to. The normal human mind may not result in tantrums and constant agony, but it is plagued by distortion, bad habits, and chronic discontent.

More than anything else, the idea of normalcy keeps people locked into a state of mind that falls far short of their potential. At DTM, we are interested in psychological greatness, and in structuring our minds in the ways that will lead to our deepest fulfillment. There is no force that naturally pulls you beyond the line of psychological adequacy. But there are also no hard barrier in your way. That is why we have to carve out the path toward the peaks of psychological well-being ourselves.

What do you dislike about your mind? Which patterns emerge when you examine your life – patterns you feel have held you back? Does fear prevent you from pursuing your ambitions? Does jealousy ruin your relationships? Do you allow distractions to rule your life? Do you have an inner critic whose expectations you are never able to meet?

It is the mission of Designing the Mind to not only show that real happiness comes from within, but to combine it with the rational methods and tools for reprogramming one’s psychological software “from within.” Deep well-being is not the result of building a better life, but of building a better mind. When you modify your mind, you make changes to the system at your core and change your personal trajectory. And when you make a persistent occupation of this endeavor, you become the architect of your own character.

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