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Mental Models - How they contribute to a happy life

Mental models are how we see and interpret the world. In reality, nothing has meaning, the world is just full of events obeying the laws of the universe. These laws constrain how we live: time is finite and irreversible, gravity puts us on the ground, physical needs ensure survial, etc. But beyond that everything is really up to our minds. We are all born within this frame, but over time we all have different experiences. More importantly, those experiences shape how we interpret and understand the world. While growing up, we see how our characters and mindsets diverge from those that were so similar to us back in the early school days. Once we leave our home to explore other cultures we see the diversity of lifestyles. What unites us is the desire to have a happy life. What differentiate us is the intepretation of how to attain it.

The complexity of life

Interestingly, not even religion, a centerpiece in most cultures, seems to provide an answer to that question. They provide guidance in how not to live (think Ten Commandments and their analogues in other religions) based on core values that are shared in the community and often a common belief in some kind of higher sanctitity. Religion is a powerful mental model on how to see the world, but even it is only a part of our identity. Just look to see how different the lifestyle of an ostentatious Sheik in Dubai is to that of the geographically close average co-religionist in Iran. The living-circumstances are totally different of course, but how they choose to live is driven by values. After all, there are frugal millionaires who stick to a modest lifestyle (take Ronald Read)!

Maybe a more common denominator of lifestyle is to be found among those who share a life philosophy (Stoicism, Epicureanism, Hedonism…). A life philosophy is yet another mental model which lays out values to be lived by.

Values

Regardless of our convictions, we all have values - even though some are more intentional and proactive in defining them than others. I guess many people choose to live by their values “intuitively” - they do what feels good or right. This includes myself until I came to adapt new mental models on how I want to live.

Life areas as daily guidance

In defining what matters to me, I found it helpful to become aware of my different life areas and realize them as something that needs maintenance. It takes effort to maintain the standard I define for myself, so I reserve time and energy for it: Family matters to me? Do I regularly take time to call my grandparents? My friends birthday is approaching, so do I reserve time to think about how to surprise her? I want to become financially independent? Do I review my spendings and allocate enough savings to long term investments? Do I review my portfolio to reallocate according to my risk and diversify enough? I want to live healthy? So, I reserve time to go to the gym and explore new healthy recipes.

My life areas include: professional ones like my job, university and coding, in which I want to learn new skills and apply them to side projects. My leisure areas include: reading, my blog, language learning, finance, health (exercise, meditation) and exploration. The last one I defined for myself lately with the desire to try out more new things. It includes planning adventures, travels, etc., but also learning completely new skills in a short time. The latter is inspired by the monthly Learning challenge. When planning for the week, I view it through the lens of my life areas. Of course, I still engage in spontaneous activities, but most of my time is dedicated to maintain and develop my life areas.

Hell Yeah Or No

Another helpful model to decide my time commitments is: Hell Yeah or No. The elapse of time is governed by the law of entropy, but our perspective on time is subjective. You can either see it as a free resource to spend until its depleted or view it as a scarcity you are hesitant to spend - spending it on this means I won’t have it for that. I choose to view time as scarcity. I rather say no to most things to have the capacity for the “Hell Yeah, I want to do that” moments. When people invite me to hang out together, the easy and default answer is yes. It will be fun and I get to know new people. But unless, the girl I’ve been chasing is there or the potential investor of my startup idea is there, the cost of foregoing my other committed priorities might be higher. We do this cost-benefit analysis naturally with money, but somehow it does not seem to be the default for time.

The final step

Once you know your life areas and view time as scarcity, you have a good guidance on what to do, and more importantly, what not to do (saying no is more difficult!). However, there is still one more crucial step missing. We might decide to build that new cool app, or organize that crazy suprise party, but these are big projects that can be intimidating. Much anxiety and procrastination comes from not having clear what to do next. And this even applies to much smaller undertakings such as writing an article. I find it helpful to view every undertaking that takes me more than a couple of minutes as a project (for more check Getting Things Done). The big projects then needs to be broken up into actionable items. In fact, its even enough to define the next tiny step toward progress. The first step for the surprise party might be calling a friend to ask for help or brainstorming ideas. At this point you have translated the abstract life area concept into a concrete action. If you plan your days with actionable items, you know exactly what to do and can stay away from external distractions. This gives you a sense of control over your life - you are the steersman with a clear heading, robust to the roaring sea. And other than money or fame, the feeling of control seems to be the univeral fuel of happiness:

More than your salary. More than the size of your house. More than the prestige of your job. Control over doing what you want, when you want to, with the people you want to, is the broadest lifestyle variable that makes people happy. – The Psychology of Money, Morgan Housel

You want more?

These thoughts are my intepretation and takeaways from a lot of books and blog posts I read (and of course reflections). I could not fit them all into this all ready long article, but I’m considering to do a follow up article. For now, I want to leave you with some recommendations. My book notes are also linked.

I shortly alluded to the value of a life philosphy, and this book on Stoicisim was very impactful on me: A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy - William B. Irvine

The name speaks for itself, one of my favourite authors: Hell Yeah or No

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