Thinking about what you want to experience in life is important but not easy. The concept of feel, be and do good has been very helpful for us to structure our own thinking about this question. But, where does this concept come from? What is the logic behind it?
Try to remember back to when you were a kid and somebody asked you: “what do you want to become when you get older?”. The answer was probably obvious to you. You wanted to become famous, such as a sports star or a pop star.
As you grow older, the answer to that question becomes increasingly harder for you to answer. Maybe you learn more about yourself and the world, rendering your boyhood dream neither realistic nor desirable. Furthermore, when you look to the future, you see an endless number of different possible life journeys. You realize you have no idea how any of the journeys would play out for you.
So, you are faced with tons of options and tons of uncertainty. All this uncertainty and optionality adds mental strain to the task of choosing a life journey, prompting most people to stop thinking about the future before they even begin. It’s just too complicated. Rather just live life as it happens.
Although we appreciate the power of living in the moment, we are determined that it’s highly beneficial to frequently take a break from the moment and spend some time thinking about what you want to get out of your life. First choose the moment, then live it.
But, since there are tons of possible life journeys for you to choose between and lots of uncertainty, how do you even start thinking about finding the right journey for you?
The purpose of this post is to give you a tool, a framework of thinking, that you can use when brainstorming and selecting between different life journeys. We call it “feel, be and do good”. Let’s understand where this tool comes from and how this tool can be useful for you.
To begin with the basics, each life journey can be viewed as a collection of experiences. Maybe you want to experience life as a healthy person, create a family, do a startup, climb a mountain, do some teaching or drive your dream car.
Regardless of the experience, we argue that there are only two possible reasons for wanting any given experience. On a fundamental level, you either want an experience because you believe the experience will give you good feelings or because the experience in some way makes sense to you.
That is, if you ask yourself why you want something, if you dig deep, you eventually end up with: “because it will make me feel good” or “because it makes sense to me”. Actually, quite often you want an experience because of both reasons.
For instance, you may want to drive your dream car because you will be able to drive fast and feel the acceleration. Additionally, people will look at you with envy. In other words, it will be exciting and make you feel good.
Or, you may want to teach kids instead of raking in big cash working for the industry because you think it makes sense to give back to society. Teaching will also give you good feelings. You will be proud of what you do. But teaching will also, sometimes, be painful for you. But, you will withstand the pain, because you believe in what you do. It makes sense.
So, you either want an experience because it makes you feel good or because it makes sense. What is the source of these two fundamental reasons for wanting something?
Feelings are a product of billions of years of evolution. Essentially, it is a tool for your genes to impact your behavior. We observe similar mechanisms in all life, albeit with different level of complexity. For instance:
- Simple cells and bacteria move away from, or towards, chemical concentrations (video). We can say that simple cells and bacteria wants more, or less, of a certain chemical.
- Plants tend to move towards the light (video). We can say that plants want sunlight.
- Animals, for instance, humans, tend to move towards pleasure and away from pain. We can say that humans want pleasure and want to avoid pain.
By chasing these things, life does what life have learned to do over eons to maximize the probability of survival and reproduction.
In fact, human feelings are a very clever and flexible implementation of this mechanism. By influencing what gives you pain and pleasure, your genes can establish goals for you to achieve, such as get a girlfriend, start a family, amass wealth. But, the genes leave it up to you to choose the right action to achieve those goals. This is clever because the best way to get a girlfriend may have changed over the millennia, and genes don’t evolve fast enough to stay up to date and give you good, clear instructions regarding what to say to a woman in 2018.
As we can see, by chasing what makes you feel good you are doing stuff that is in the best interest of your genes.
This is most of the time a good idea.
In fact, many wise people have argued that the purpose of life is to satisfy your desires and maximize your happiness. Hedonism is an example of such philosophies.
This line of thinking makes sense. Doing what feels good can get you quite far.
For instance, you feel good when you are in good health and when you do stuff that improves your chances of procreation. Good feelings come from creating a functioning family and improving the chances of your offspring to thrive.
Furthermore, your genes are programmed to make you feel good also when you are being nice to others and being useful to society. For most people, being nice to others and useful to society also makes sense. So, quite often, what feels good and what make sense overlap.
Additionally, when you chase stuff that feels good, taking action is easy. That’s because you really want the experience.
To summarize, doing what feels good can get you far, indeed.
But, only chasing what makes you feel good can backfire bigtime!
Firstly, you may hurt the world. Your genes aren’t advanced enough to care about the longevity of the world. There has never been any selection pressure for that. Genes focus on the current generation. So, in the process of optimizing for your genes, you may have a negative impact on the world.
For instance, consider global warming. The failure to stop and reverse global warming is mainly due to our unwillingness to take the short-term pain to the benefit of all future life. We like to drive our cars, to fly around the world and to buy cheap products. Unfortunately, our chase for pleasure in the moment will probably create a world with higher sea levels, more extreme weather, increased desertification and, as a result, lots of climate refugees and suffering.
Secondly, you may not achieve your dreams. Your genes don’t care about your dreams. That is unless achieving your dreams impacts the probability of survival and reproduction. So, by overly focusing on what makes you feel good, you will not spend time on activities that would make you the person you want to be in the future. You may not be able to start that company or join that non-profit you always dreamt about working for.
Finally, you may hurt yourself. Your genes are outdated. Genes evolve slowly over thousands of years. Hence, they are not yet fit to navigate all the new stuff that has arrived in our environment over the last thousands of years.
Consider sugar. Your sweet tooth evolved in an environment void of easily available calories. In such an environment, it makes sense for your body to induce good feelings when eating quick carbs. The good feelings nudge you to eat more of those calories, add some more fat on your body, and therefore to be a better fit for the coming periods with a scant supply of food.
Today, calories are readily available at any supermarket. Hence, in today’s world, your sweet tooth is not improving your genes’ survival rate. Rather, your sweet tooth improves your chances of getting diabetes, cancer, and all the other lifestyle diseases.
As we can see, what feels good doesn’t always makes sense. So, what makes sense? Let’s look at thinking.
We can look at thinking as a process, that is, a thinking process. Every process requires some input and creates some output.
The input to the thinking process is all the things you value or believe to be true about yourself and the world around you. We call these things your beliefs.
Your beliefs are based on all your experiences so far in your life. They are impacted by the culture you live in, the people you have around you, the news sources you listen to and other factors.
For instance, if you live among flat-earthers, you are also likely to believe that the earth is flat. Additionally, if your local newspaper reports on explorers heading to the edge of the world, you are almost certainly buying into it.
So, the input to your thinking process is your current beliefs. Next, your thinking process uses your current beliefs to either create new beliefs about yourself and the world or to judge something to be good or bad.
Let’s apply this rather abstract description of thinking to the context of thinking about what experiences makes sense to us.
Say you have some beliefs about what you value, for instance, beliefs about what person you would like to be or what world you would like to live in. Your thinking process can take those beliefs, combine them with what you believe to be true about yourself and the world and produce suggestions for what experiences you should chase.
For instance, you may believe that a universe teeming with life is a good thing. You may also believe that global warming is a threat to life on earth. If so, your thinking process can produce a new possible truth: that we should reduce global warming.
But, your thinking process doesn’t necessarily stop there. You may also hold beliefs about what’s causing global warming. If so, your thinking process can suggest actions to reduce global warming. For instance, your thinking process can conclude that we all should consume less meat, take fewer flights and source stuff locally.
In other words, your thinking process can suggest or approve experiences that are aligned with what you value. By chasing what makes sense, you are more likely to contribute to creating the world you want to live in and become the person you want to become. You are more likely to fulfill your dreams.
But, only chasing what makes sense doesn’t work either. Especially when what makes sense doesn’t overlap with what feels good. Depriving yourself of good feelings and working against your own biology is not sustainable. You will likely end up exhausted and depressed.
So, when you think about what to get out of your life, we urge you to look for experiences that both will make you feel good and that makes sense. And if you don’t manage to find experiences that give you both at the same time, at least make sure you have a healthy mix of those two types of experiences. Exactly what the right ratio is for you, you can figure out over time.
This is all very helpful because we know a bit about what makes humans feel good. And you can figure out what makes sense to you. Just think about what future you want to live in and what person you want to become (or rather, as is often easier, think about the kind of person you do not want to become, and define the opposite of that). When you know what makes you feel good and what makes sense to you, you can use this knowledge to eliminate lots of possible life journeys. If a life journey doesn’t make you feel good nor makes sense, it’s not an option. Fewer options to choose between makes it easier to choose. Hence, you are a bit closer to how simple it was to answer the “what to become”-questions as a child.
To give you a head start, the following are examples of experiences that in general makes humans feel good, such as experiences of:
- Comfort and a sense of certainty in your life, including tasty food, good smells, and beautiful environment
- Excitement and a sense of variety in your life, including novel experiences
- Love and connection to other living beings, including activities related to reproduction
- Contribution. Adding value to other living beings. Being useful. Doing good
- Good state, with a surplus of energy, motivation, and calmness
- Positive thoughts about current and future versions of yourself, others and the world around you
- Growth and progress in one or more areas of your life
Furthermore, the following is what makes sense to us.
Firstly, we definitively want to feel good in the moment. But, we don’t want to live in a world where only we feel good while the rest of the world suffers.
So, for us, it makes sense to increase our circle of concern to also include other humans and other living beings.
We believe everyone deserves to have good experiences. Furthermore, we believe it is everybody’s job to help everyone around them have good experiences. This involves showing your girlfriend that you love her, smiling to your colleagues when you arrive at the office and offering your seat to the old lady on the bus. For simplicity, we call this being good to others in the moment.
But, we don’t want to live in a world where everyone is thriving today at the cost of suffering tomorrow. We want to see progress in the world. We want the collective experience of all life to improve.
In other words, we believe it makes sense to think long-term and invest money, time and energy in making the future better for all life. For simplicity, we call this doing good for the world.
We believe everyone has a vital role in creating a great future. Granted, the world is already pretty good for many of us. But, there is a huge gap between today’s world and any future utopia. Hence, there are enough opportunities and work for everyone.
So, when you think about what life journeys you want, we suggest you think about experiences that will make you feel good and enable you to be and do good.
Thus, we end up with the following key questions:
- What makes you feel good?
- How can you be good?
- How can you do good?
Hopefully, the questions above with corresponding answers will make it easier for you to think about what you want to experience in life.
Let us know in the comment section if this tool makes sense to you.