Designing the Mind




This is the first dimension of happiness:


It’s a simple scale running from pain to pleasure. We learn early on that some things feel better than others, and it’s generally better to do the ones that feel good.

This simple model gives us a way to navigate our lives and discriminate between better and worse paths. Halloween candy is good—homework is bad. Got it.

And it serves us well—imagine where we would be if we made no distinction between pleasure or pain in our decisions. Say what you will about recreational drugs and casual sex—I’ll take them over putting my hand in a blender any day.

But on occasion, something strange happens. Our happiness doesn’t quite do what we would predict. We have an anomaly.

The Halloween candy makes us sick. The homework makes us feel accomplished and proud. We get through a drug binge that felt good in one way, but we end up feeling bad in some other way. There must be more to happiness than that.

Our model of happiness is inadequate, and it’s time to give it an upgrade.

This is the second dimension of happiness:


This axis runs from loss to gain—shorthand for any good or bad life circumstances, achievements, or outcomes.

Once we can conceptualize this second dimension of happiness, we become long-term life strategists. We plot our decisions carefully to maximize a deeper kind of well-being. We realize how superficial the search for simple pleasure was and learn that a good life requires discipline and sacrifice.

When we combine these two axes, we get a two-dimensional plane of factors determining our decisions. This plane is the landscape of your circumstances, or for short, the circumscape.

This model is far more useful and comprehensive than the simple pleasure-pain axis. It enables us to weigh our decisions on multiple levels, balancing short-term pleasure with long-term success. We can choose to forgo the drunken party when our research paper is due the next day.

Once our understanding evolves to this point, we view and live our lives on the circumscape, and we gain a new understanding of happiness. Getting a raise is good—breakups are bad. Got it.

And most of the time, this framework seems to serve us and map nicely onto our experience. Buying a house after saving up for years brings joy—something deeper than momentary pleasure. Losing a friend brings sadness, something deeper than momentary pain.

But on occasion, something strange happens. Our happiness doesn’t quite do what we would predict. We have an anomaly.

We’ll achieve some clear success on paper, like getting a promotion, but our happiness will seem to stay the same. We’ll go through a difficult divorce and end up saying it was the best thing that ever happened to us. And then we’ll shrug and forget about this odd outlier before continuing our efforts for improved circumstances.

This is how most of us navigate our lives today. This is where the modern understanding of happiness stands today. Good things are good, but in rare cases, good things are bad, or bad things are good. And we’re just not very good at predicting when that will be the case.

But this time, instead of shrugging and moving on, let’s really pause and ask “why?” Why does winning the lottery rarely make people happier? Why do losses and failures so rarely affect us in the way we would predict?

Our model of happiness is inadequate, and it’s time to give it an upgrade.


This is the third dimension of happiness:

When we combine our three axes—the x-axis of pleasure, the y-axis of gain, and the z-axis of virtue—we get a three-dimensional landscape that we’ll call the overview.

The overview represents the three-dimensional lens we must learn to navigate our lives through. The overview adds the dimension of depth to the plane of the circumscape—the z-axis of well-being.

The measure of the z-axis is virtue. Virtue is what determines the most crucial form of happiness in humans, what we’re calling overall well-being. This topography illustrates the peaks and valleys of virtue, and everything in between.

Most people don’t have three-dimensional vision. They set and evaluate their goals according to the circumscape. And as a result, things don’t make sense a lot of the time.

Some people feel that something is inherently wrong whenever they experience pain or discomfort—being on the left side of the x-axis. But this pain may simply be the burn of climbing to greater heights of virtue.

Some think they will finally be happy when they attain the sensual pleasure they crave—moving to the right in the x-axis. Some think they will have succeeded in life when they attain the wealth to buy a fancy new car— moving up in the y-axis. But once they do, they find that the brief thrills of pleasure and possessions wear off shortly after securing them, and their overall well-being has not been affected.

The X and Y Axes

The x-axis is how you feel. The immediately pleasurable or painful experiences in life in a momentary, hedonistic sense. It spans suffering, pain, discomfort, comfort, pleasure, and ecstasy.

We all know that pleasure feels good. In the absence of other factors, I would gladly take ecstasy over suffering. But pleasure does not constitute, or even contribute to the good life on its own. It would be a great mistake to take the momentary feelings of pleasure, which can easily be chemically induced, as a sign that you are living a good life.

There’s a thought experiment known as the “experience machine” that asks you to imagine a device that could virtually simulate any pleasurable feelings or blissful experiences in your brain—sort of like virtual reality if it were connected directly to your nervous system. You could create a dream life in this world, and it would be indistinguishable from reality in every way.

Most people say they would rather live in the “real” world than this blissful virtual one. But they usually mistake it for a matter of authenticity. The real insight of the experience machine is not that an analog world is somehow more real than a digital one.

But when equipped with the overview, it becomes clear why the experience machine does not seem right. It clashes with our intuitions because we assume it would provide us with a life of pure hedonic bliss. We would not expect it to deliver a life of challenge, growth, or virtue. And on some level, we know that virtue is all that matters.

But pleasure is also not bad. Enjoying a delicious dessert with a friend or taking a drug-induced journey of self-exploration can be entirely worthwhile endeavors. This is the case when they cause you to move up in the z-axis of virtue, or at least don’t bring you down in it.

Some people gravitate toward comfort. Others try to get out of their comfort zone whenever possible. But from the overview, comfort looks different as well.

There will be times when leaving your comfort zone is necessary for achieving greater virtue integration—more often than not. But there will also be times when pursuing the uncomfortable and dangerous would serve no such purpose and need not be a goal in itself.

Like pleasure, a life of greater comfort is not inherently better than one of less comfort. A leisurely work schedule and financial ease can remove barriers to virtue. Comfort can eliminate distractions that take away from the cultivation of character.

But comfort can also foster complacency. It can become an addiction that lulls us into a state of ease and makes us averse to the hard work often needed for growth. Comfort itself can become a barrier to virtue.

Comfort and discomfort are tools for growth—nothing more. Both can be used strategically to elevate your position in the z-axis.

What about pain and suffering? As you might have guessed, pain is not inherently bad either. It is not uncommon for people to come out of painful periods of their life with the sense that they are better people because of them.

When painful experiences result in a higher position up the mountains of virtue, we can say that pain resulted in something good. When it results in a lower degree of virtue, or even an equal degree, we can say the pain resulted in something bad because the unpleasant experience did not serve us in any way.

Sometimes people misunderstand this relationship and go too far, arguing that pain is necessary or worthwhile in its own right. Suffering is not a requirement for virtue.

Philosophers like Nietzsche sometimes make the mistake of idealizing suffering. Suffering is good only insofar as it contributes to greater virtue—to the cultivation of character. But much of the suffering experienced in the world does no such thing.

Sometimes people praise suffering to justify their own pain. But suffering is not good in and of itself. Suffering is not inherently positive. It is not inherently meaningful or catalytic. Suffering can be pointless. Pain is beside the point of the good life.

The y-axis is what you have. It spans material failure, loss, setback, advance, gain, and success. It can relate to the loss or gain of wealth, social status, possessions, jobs, or even relationships. The things for which we often temporarily sacrifice the first dimension.

The y-axis is sort of like the x-axis stretched across time. Because we are unique beings capable of contemplating the future, we developed a set of emotions related to this experience of “having things.”

Pleasure and pain in the present moment are not the only experiences relevant to us. We can also “attain” things that may or may not continue to bring us pleasure or pain over time.

A job offer feels good because of the pleasure, or mitigation of pain we anticipate it will bring over time. A breakup feels bad because of the pain, or mitigation of pleasure we anticipate it will bring over time.

What about money? We have all heard that money doesn’t buy happiness. But we can build a more nuanced perspective on this platitude. Money has an indirect relationship with happiness. Depending on how it is used, more money may result in greater, lower, or equal virtue.

If you lack the income needed for basic financial security, you may have very little ability to cultivate your virtues. You might end up spending all of your time working multiple repetitive, virtue-less jobs just to meet your physical needs. In this case, a lack of money could result in significantly lower well-being.

This relationship will not always be straightforward. Many of the things that can only be bought with exorbitant amounts of money, like sports cars, private jets, and yachts, will not increase a person’s well-being. But money can be used to start a business, become an angel investor, or donate to a purposeful cause as well. It can also be used to eliminate a job that provides little opportunity to exercise virtue.

Money can easily become a pathological addiction. Making too much money can distract you from the virtue game that is taking place beneath the surface. It can train you to think of it as your sole aim in life, despite the fact that it may not facilitate, or may even impede your vertical trek to virtue.

Money often causes people to be confused about work. Some people, seeing that work can play an important role in well-being, go so far as to praise mindless and arbitrary labor, as if it had inherent value.

Others go too far in the opposite direction, believing that work is a capitalist scam that has no value beyond earning wealth. The need to engage in paid labor to support our lifestyle tricks us into discounting the satisfaction good work can bring. We are then surprised when retirement brings boredom, or even despair.

A job can be a major opportunity to exercise virtue. Losing a job can mean losing a prominent domain for building and sharing your character. It can also open up new avenues for building admirable traits into your lifestyle.

When people say things like “losing my job was the best thing that ever happened to me,” they aren’t necessarily saying it randomly led to a lucky turn of events. They are also not necessarily merely justifying their misfortunes.

They are generally saying that losing their job gave them the opportunity to reform their virtue strategies and get to a much higher place in the z-axis. When you lose one particular job, you merely lose one particular domain through which to exercise your virtues. But it may not take long to find another, even better one.

Relationships often work the same way. Losing a relationship can lead to grief, lower well-being, and even depression. This is because relationships, like jobs, are important arenas through which we can activate our virtues.

Relationships are rewarding insofar as they provide each person with an opportunity to share their virtues and have them appreciated. Losing a relationship, through death, divorce, or simply losing touch can tragically cut people off from one of the core virtue domains of their lives.

There is no doubt you would be losing something if you lost all the love in your life. Love relationships are among the primary avenues through which we can surface our own best qualities. If you lost the person you are closest with, a significant set of your personal strengths would be shut down until further notice.

But losing a relationship, too, can end up being a positive thing, or even the best thing that ever happened to you. Unhealthy relationships are often those that deprive at least one partner of the opportunity to bring out their virtues.

Parenting can be largely understood as an act of virtue cultivation. A bad parent fails to model or facilitate the development of virtues in their children. Overprotective parents force virtue behavior on their kids, who then go on to lack the capacities to act out those virtues without their parents.

Social status is similar, though in some ways more complex than other rewards of the y-axis. Higher social esteem is not necessarily better than lower social esteem. The quest for status and popularity may pressure us into becoming less virtuous, satisfying our social drives while moving us further away from our values.

But social status also may be the result of high levels of virtue. When we exhibit traits like courage or kindness, we are often acknowledged for these traits by our peers. When we are among the most confident or creative members of our social circles, we may find this reflected in our status.

While not inherently good, social approval and respect can serve as a mirror that indicates our virtues to us. If we aren’t receiving any social approval for certain virtues, it may be a sign that we are not exercising those virtues. It could be an important signal that could lead us to reflect and re-strategize.

You should only care about social approval insofar as it reflects your own approval. When it does, pay careful attention. When it does not, feel free to disregard it.

It must be emphasized that no external reward has value in and of itself. But the indirect effects of our circumstances can have implications for our well-being. With no relationships, no friends, no achievements, and no job or business, a person will have few opportunities for value alignment and virtue.

It is essential that you understand exactly which factors are responsible for your well-being. Actively work to break the habit of associating circumstantial gains with happiness. Insist on perceiving the virtue-implications of all decisions and outcomes, and keep your gaze continually fixed on the z-axis.

The Z-Axis

The z-axis is who you are. Being higher in the z-axis means integrating more virtue into your character and actions. And unlike the fleeting highs brought by short-term pleasure or material gains, the happiness reaped from becoming a more admirable person is stable and robust.

Your virtues cannot be taken away from you by the actions of others or mere chance. Though you may temporarily lose domains through which your virtues are expressed, the virtues themselves are yours once you have done the work to cultivate them. Bringing them out will always be a simple matter of finding an avenue for them.

These axes have to do with the final aims of your goals and actions—strategies, not particular endeavors. The life of someone navigating on the overview may not look dramatically different from someone on the circumscape.

A person navigating on the circumscape might have a job because it enables them to buy things that bring pleasure or because it confers material success and status. A person living according to the overview might have a job because it enables them to exercise and cultivate their virtues.

Crucially, each of these people will react in different ways emotionally to the outcomes of their lives. The overview allows you to respond appropriately to the natural fluctuations of life. Pain and loss begin to look like stepping stones instead of tragedies.

When you are navigating on the overview, goals are opportunities to exercise your virtues—nothing more. The entire two-dimensional circumscape of pleasure and pain, loss and gain, is merely instrumental to the true object of the game.

Your job is not, as some might conclude, to maximize the happiness provided by each of the three axes. The weak and fleeting pleasures of the circumscape simply do not factor into your overall well-being. Your job is to navigate the three axes so as to elevate your position on the one that actually matters. The z-axis is the sole benefactor of overall well-being.

Most people run around frantically trying to grasp the objects of their desires, mistaking them for true ends. Throughout their lives, they repeatedly form attachments to specific objects and outcomes.

When they fail to attain the thing they wanted, they feel a burst of disappointment that quickly gives way to more craving. When they do attain the thing they wanted, they feel a burst of excitement that quickly gives way to more craving.

You already live in all three dimensions. There is nothing you have to realize or learn in order to enter the third dimension. Your happiness is already dictated by the third dimension.

It’s simply that without this dimensional model, you won’t understand why. Your happiness and unhappiness won’t make sense to you much of the time, and as a result, your efforts to navigate your own well-being will be chaotic and confused.

But there is a wide range of innate understanding of this third dimension. While no one has, to my knowledge, used this model before, some people seem to intuitively understand it. Even as a young person, they grasped that there was something deeper, something more important than pleasure and gain, though they may not have been able to put their finger on exactly what it was.

But there are also many fully grown and otherwise mature adults who completely fail to grasp it. They do their best to seek true happiness through pleasure, love, and comfort, and can only conclude by the end of the day that their vague sense of ennui must be due to a chemical imbalance.

Developing the perspective of the overview will have major implications for how you view and navigate your life. It will change the way you see pleasure and comfort and pain; it will change the way you see obstacles and successes. It will change the way you see yourself.

When you learn to see in three dimensions, you don’t suddenly stop experiencing pleasure or lose all interest in career gains. But you start seeing them as a means to the end of virtue.

You may choose to endure a period of pain and loss voluntarily so as to climb higher up the mountain of virtue. You also may find that in the context of some landscapes, the path toward virtue will be filled with abundant pleasure and gain. At other times you’ll find the goals which would seem senseless to some have deep meaning in the context of virtue cultivation.

The x and y axes, which were once valuable in and of themselves, now begin to look like mere instruments in the service of virtue. They are means to the end of aligning with your own values, nothing more.

Life is one big game of virtue maximization. To start seeing in three dimensions and building a great life, you must learn to frame all your decisions and evaluations in these terms.

Many philosophical insights can be viewed through this lens. Take the core teachings of Buddhism, for example. The Buddha claimed that normal human existence was “unsatisfactory” and that the root of this problem was our tendency to form attachments and cling to specific outcomes.

We make the mistake of thinking that pleasure and gain will be rewarding, but these rewards are fleeting and unsatisfactory. The solution of Nirvana that the Buddha prescribed may seem to differ from this framework.

But I think it’s no coincidence that the Eightfold Path he offered consists of the cultivation and improvement of character in many different domains. We could interpret this path as an expression of the fact that the z-axis, not our fleeting, two-dimensional circumscape, is the key to satisfaction.

The notion of Stoic indifference is a clear expression of the fact that our circumstances are indifferent to our well-being. A distraction. All that matters is the virtue and character we are able to build.

We see this taken to its extreme in the Stoic doctrine of amor fati, or the love of fate. The directive given by Epictetus to demand not “that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen” reflects the idea that we can not only become indifferent to, but embrace the events of the circumscape. It is not the plane that produces genuine well-being, as happiness comes from the z-axis alone.

Stoic practices like asceticism, or voluntary discomfort, serve as reminders to oneself that comfort is a circumscape consideration. It is beside the point to genuine well-being. External achievements like profit, pleasure, and prestige are merely elevations of the y-axis, not the z-axis that regulates our well-being.

What about Taoism? Its central principle of wu wei, or “effortless action,” expresses the idea that we can let go of the results of our actions. We can learn to practice an attitude of nonresistance to seemingly negative outcomes, as outcomes do not actually affect our happiness. We must stop pretending that our happiness corresponds to “good” or “bad” circumstances and see that it comes from the z-axis alone.

Friedrich Nietzsche rejected hedonism and what he called “decadence.” He warned of the emergence of the “last man” who was driven by superficial measures of a good life. He was adamant that the good life was not made merely of pleasure and insisted that suffering had its place in greatness.

We can see this as an expression of the fact that great individuals live in the third dimension, not the superficial plane of pleasure and suffering. The point of our challenges is that they are challenging, otherwise they would not require our unique virtues to overcome them.

Abraham Maslow was primarily interested in self-actualization, or in what he sometimes called full humanness. One of the most prominent qualities of these self-actualizers according to Maslow’s view was a tendency to be motivated by intrinsically rewarding processes, such as growth, inquiry, and creativity, rather than by “flattery, applause, popularity, status, prestige, money, honors…”

He called this healthy inclination growth-motivation, in contrast with the more common deficiency-motivation. And these two motivations correspond perfectly to the dimensions we have laid out above. While most people are driven by deficiency-based circumscape consideration, the wisest and happiest people are motivated by growth in the z-axis alone.

"The motivation of ordinary men is a striving for the basic need gratifications that they lack. [Self-actualizing individuals] no longer strive in the ordinary sense, but rather develop. They attempt to grow to perfection and to develop more and more fully in their own style."

—Abraham Maslow, Motivation and Personality

The Mechanics of the Good Life

The reason your overall well-being is equal to the admirability you exhibit is, I will propose, surprisingly concrete. A special part of your brain is always watching you, constantly making evaluations, and dynamically delivering chemicals based on those evaluations. These chemicals are responsible for your mood.

This big brother inside your brain is there because it was advantageous for our ancestors. It is a part of the evolutionary wiring of your mind to monitor your actions for signs of admirability. It’s rooted in social status, in mating, and in communal belonging.

This part of your brain that monitors you might be called the default mode network by a neuroscientist. An evolutionary psychologist might call it the sociometer. A spiritual teacher would call it the ego.

It is all one thing—one very real mechanism that is central to the functioning of your mind. And contrary to popular belief, it is not your enemy. It is the source of the highest happiness available to you.

Having an admirable trait is not the same as demonstrating that trait. If a strength is latent and failing to make its way into your behavior, it will not count toward your satisfaction. You are as happy as the traits you observe in your own behavior. As happy as the actions you see yourself taking.

We’re going to refer to these admirable traits, unique skills, and character strengths as virtues. And the exact measure of the good life is the extent to which your unique personal virtues are integrated with and being exercised through your daily activities.

This is the common element of all good uses of time—all rewarding activities in life. They all display what makes you special. The most rewarding actions are those that require such a specialized set of virtues that the combination is as unique as your own fingerprint.

You may believe you don’t have many of these virtues. You may believe that you lack the intelligence, the self-control, the time, the energy, or the money needed to bring your virtues to life. And we’re going to learn that you’re wrong.

The good life is not the sum of simple pleasure or the fruit of success. Its essence is not comfort, struggle, purpose, or even love. You don’t need meaning. You need virtue.


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