The Hidden Cost of an American Education

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A college student’s senior year is often a time of celebration.

For many, it serves as a victory lap – a final rendezvous with Natty Light and 11 A.M. alarms before plunging into the mundanity of adult life.

Unfortunately, my senior year didn’t quite turn out that way. In fact, I spent a good portion of it fighting a war with myself.

No, I’m not just talking about that cliched existential crisis we all face at the end of adolescence. I’m talking about a deeper kind of pain, one that sometimes left me paralyzed in bed, literally moaning from the psychic hell I was experiencing.

I’m talking about depression.

I spent the end of my collegiate career fighting this ugly battle, one that robbed me of the energy needed to do much of anything outside of barely pass my classes.

And in hindsight, I can’t shake the feeling it was completely unnecessary.

You see, somewhere near the end of my junior year, I decided to drop out. As the idea of wage slavery crept closer to reality, I realized I preferred a more independent career path. This discovery rendered my remaining economics curriculum pretty useless.

But to mention it to any of my contemporaries was to commit blasphemy:

“WHAT?! DROP OUT DURING YOUR SENIOR YEAR?! YOU’LL RUIN YOUR FUCKING LIFE!!”

Their words may have been different, but after receiving this feedback from literally every person who heard the idea, I reluctantly chose to spend one more year obtaining my piece of paper.

Cue: the Elliot Smith.

Joking aside, completing my education had a severe impact on my mental health. And I’m not alone.

Student depression has climbed dramatically in the past couple of decades. A generation of kids in the prime of their lives is increasingly succumbing to hopelessness and anxiety. What gives?

I propose this trend indicates a broader problem: one whose causes touch the very fabric of our culture.

Namely, the present state of American education is a steaming pile of shit. And its costs are much more than a mounting sum of debt.

Is college worth it?

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When asked why they go to college, students overwhelmingly cite one reason: to get a better job.

A 2014 study revealed that 86.1% of incoming freshman listed this as “very important” in their decision to continue their schooling. Some of the lower ranked reasons include “to gain an appreciation of ideas” and “to make me a more cultured person.”

When you look at the numbers, this reasoning is justified.

The median income for 25-32 year olds with a college degree is $45,500. For those with a high school diploma, it’s $28,000. Most well-paying jobs require higher education these days. That’s just the way she goes.

But what is the necessity of this requirement? Does the material we spend four additional years of our lives learning really make us such valuable workers?

Outside of technical fields (i.e. engineering, computer science, nursing, etc.), it’s kind of hard to argue that it does.

Sure. College teaches us a great deal about the human condition. We get to spend four years engaging with some of mankind’s most important ideas. If nothing else, an education makes it easier to navigate this strange little thing called life.

But most of the information we learn in the classroom has little practicality in the workforce. Doing a job requires completing a process, not the ability to quote James Joyce.

What’s more, the knowledge held by educated people is becoming more and more accessible these days.

Programs like Code Academy offer free courses in computer programming. EdX provides free classes from prestigious colleges like Harvard and MIT. Teaching yourself a language is as easy as downloading Duolingo, and you can learn about the humanities by, you know, visiting a library.

Becoming an exceptional person doesn’t require a university’s seal of approval – especially with the advent of the digital age. Yet today’s job market solely cares about that distinction.

In that sense, college’s value has little to do with becoming a better worker.

It’s become a brand.

If you want a stable career, you need the external validation that a diploma provides. Little attention will be paid to your individual merits if you ain’t rockin’ one. If you ask me, that’s a fucking tragedy.

But yes. When you look at the numbers, a college degree still holds a lot of value. While that value is largely superficial, it still exists.

Sadly, this trend comes with some pretty dire consequences.

The Debt Bomb: Turning self-discovery into self-limitation

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Another oft-cited benefit of college is the chance to “discover yourself.”

We like to think of our university years as a time of liberation. Our first taste of independence is supposed to provide us the perfect opportunity to explore our political views, bisexuality and love for Bon Iver.

But the realities of today’s world have largely obscured this romantic notion of soul-searching.

The issue can be attributed to one thing: student debt.

You hear millenials bitching about it all of the time, and for good reason; the average American is coming out of school nearly $30,000 in the hole.

But with the higher wages they’ll earn, that’s not so bad right?

Well for one, that answer is becoming less and less certain.

For instance, if a girl manages to save $400 a month for the rest of her life after high school, she’ll have a net worth of $1.6 million when she’s 65. If she goes to college, accrues $30,000 in debt and starts saving $400 a month after school (which goes towards her debt for 6 years), her net worth will only be $800k at the same age.

Thus, a higher education could cost someone half of their potential lifetime wealth.

Of course, other factors are involved. The college-educated girl will likely have a better job, which will allow her to save more money and junk.

But the most insidious problem is that not everyone ends up getting, or wanting, one of those magical jobs. What’s more, having to find a means to make their education “worth it” is likely what’s driving college students crazy.

You see, college is a financial investment we millenials don’t really get to choose. For most of us, a higher education is a foregone conclusion.

Ages 14-16 are spent taking PSATs, SAT’s and ACT’s. We visit campuses, apply for scholarships, take AP classes and narrow our list of choices during our junior and senior years. Then, we have to commit to a school before we even graduate.

Our high school careers largely serve as a stepping stone to higher education.

After that, the debt we assume during college robs the freedom we need to do anything else with our lives.

For example, imagine a guy discovers that he’d rather be an actor than an actuary during his sophomore year. But he can’t completely devote himself to the craft yet, because he’s already five figures in debt, and he NEEDS that University Brand on his name first to make up for it.

Thus, he waits to pursue acting until after he graduates.

However, he soon realizes that the prospect of making monthly loan payments for a decade is too hard to handle on top of the initial uncertainty his dream job requires.

So he settles for a position at an insurance firm after a few months, then spends the rest of his days as a cynical, high-functioning alcoholic.

In this case, the self-actualization college was supposed to provide really just limited his capacity to actually do what he wanted with his life. Student loans took away the autonomy he needed to follow the desires of his changing identity.

For those who start to recognize this pattern during school, the anxiety can be crushing.

When you realize your degree is not leading you toward a future you’d like, everything starts to suck.

You hate the tedium of your assignments. You hate the life they’re preparing you for. You hate the superficial smiles of your peers who still buy into the system. Most of all, you hate the fact that you’re hating all of it.

But you can’t escape the cycle without risking financial suicide. So you must face the notion of surrendering your youth, and potentially the course of your life every single day, just to pay for a process you never got a say in.

At that point, the idea of stopping and ending it all can become pretty damn enticing.

… or maybe that’s just what I went through. But judging by the increasing rates of student depression, I think the process is more common than you would think.

What can we do?

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Put bluntly: We cannot continue to let education have such a dismal impact on our youth’s financial futures.

Two options exist.

1.) If higher education is so valuable that all well-paying jobs require it, then we must remove student debt out of moral necessity.

or

2.) If college is a privilege that comes with a financial cost, then we cannot discriminate against those who choose an alternative path.

Having young people sign away their futures before they get the chance to choose them is downright cruel. On the other hand, only rewarding those who are well-adapted to the system is equally wrong.

Other nations have already caught on to this issue.

Brazil, Germany, France, Norway, Sweden and Slovenia are just a few of the world’s countries that provide free, or nearly free, tuition for young people. The U.S. must adopt a similar model going forward if it wants to maintain its ever-dwindling image as the Land of Opportunity.

But if we can’t change the system, then at the very least we should encourage more young people to take some time off after high school.

A gap year provides a tremendous opportunity for someone to reflect on his path that the inevitable debt bomb removes.

Yet doing so would require us to put less emphasis on the fabled “college process” which characterizes the end of our high school careers. So even this change would be difficult to carry out.

Still, something needs to be done if we want to quit driving our young people crazy.

Let’s quit stealing the lust for life before it even begins, and reconsider the cost of college.

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The Two Sides to Every Coin

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Steven Buckles is your stereotypical college professor.

With suit jacket and jeans, tousled hair and an ever-present look that suggests his mind is anywhere but the space that surrounds him, Buckles is a sort of folk hero among Vanderbilt’s Econ majors. And for good reason. His classes are full of the difficult, open-ended questions that get you to think about the heart of the material – almost making you feel like the $30,000 you are paying to attend that semester is justified.

Among the many thought-provoking queries Buckles proposed to my Econ 101 class, one sticks out in particular:

How do we make a correct decision?

It’s one of the most important questions that exist, after all. We make choices throughout the course of our lives. Whether we’re deciding which job to take, city to move, person to date or type of sandwich to make, our choices color the reality we experience.

So how do we make the right choices? Some use logic. Some trust their feelings. Some pray to an old dude in the sky. Buckles offered us a simple answer: “If the benefits of a decision outweigh the costs, you should do it.”

… well yeah. No shit.

It seems obvious once you think about it, but little did I know this answer would linger with me through the rest of my college courses, eventually shaping the way I perceive every thing.

You see, Buckles’ answer signified something deeper, one of the very foundations of the human experience. It’s mysterious. It’s awe-inspiring. And it’s one of the most important things you can ever realize in your quest to become a happier, more empathetic human.

The Two Sides to Every Coin

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Our lives consist of moments. We measure their duration with different units – be it a second, an hour, a day or a century.

But through them all, you only experience one thing: this moment. Here. Right now. These words you’re reading. The sounds you’re hearing. They are all that compose your reality.

One of the driving blocks of economic theory, scarcity, originates from this truth.

Because our time is finite and our wants unlimited, we are forced to make a trade-off every time we do something. And since we only exist inside of one moment, we are always making a sacrifice. That sacrifice is every other possible thing we could be doing.

Say you’re sitting on the couch staring at a bag of Cheetos. You’ve been flirting with a diet for the past few days, but the allure of the cheesy goodness is starting to override your willpower, and you consider digging in.

In this situation, two possibilities exist – you eat the Cheetos or you don’t eat the Cheetos. Thus, there are two sides to your moment: the action and its opposite. You choose to do whichever one you think is best for you during that unit of time.

But this logic doesn’t just apply to Cheetos. The deeper you look, the more you realize that everything in the universe has these two sides. Light and Dark. Good and Evil. Life and Death. Benefits and Costs.

We spend our lives floating through them, forever experiencing one midpoint along the spectrum. But all possible outcomes take place in a single reality which consists of two extremes.

This idea has existed for thousands of years, mainly seen in Eastern Philosophies like Taoism. It’s also the truth Buckles was getting at during my Econ 101 class.

We judge our decisions based on our perception of their two sides. So how do we find the right balance?

The Utility Machine

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In our example, you would choose to eat Cheetos for one reason: you think eating them would provide you more satisfaction than not eating them.

Economists have a name for this concept as well – utility.

Utility is defined as a hypothetical measurement of happiness.* When making a decision, you attempt to allocate your scarce resource (time) in a manner which provides you a maximum amount of contentment (utility).

Thus, every decision you make requires you to weigh the two sides of it. A correct choice is one which provides the most units of pleasure after subtracting the amount of displeasure you will have to endure.

This type of reasoning is also used in ethical inquiry. Namely, utilitarianism is a theory which holds that moral actions are ones which produce the most total utility in society. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill refined this approach most completely, but the idea can be seen as far back as Aristotle. While utilitarianism isn’t a perfect approach to morality, it is largely consistent with the way we actually make decisions.

The obvious conclusion of these arguments is that all of our choices are derived from our feelings. If something makes us feel more good than bad, we call it the correct choice, the moral choice, etc. But what is the origin of our feelings?

From all that we can tell, they’re completely random.

For instance, think of what gives you the most pleasure in life. Most of us tend to prefer things like sex, money, a good meal and time spent with family. The common theme behind these – they promote the survival of yourself and the species.

Sex helps create more humans. A good meal provides you with energy. Keeping close to your family gives you a sense of security, as does money.

Yet the only reason these things feel good to you now is because the people who liked them in the past are the ones who reproduced. If you don’t feel inclined to seek sex, food or security, you’re less likely to pass down your genes to the next generation.

Thus, the basis of utility is completely subjective. What we perceive to be good and bad are solely the elements which aid life’s survival. If an action doesn’t promote that end (i.e. murder, thievery, greed) it makes us feel really bad, and we label it evil.

But in reality, it’s all a part of the same coin. None of our choices are inherently right or wrong outside of the way we feel about them.

So, Heads or Tails?

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In summary, two sides exist to everything. Whichever one we prefer is subject to a random process no one controls.

This might seem a little hopeless at first, especially when society at large conditions us to believe the opposite. However, recognizing the two sides to every coin is a key feature in making better decisions and becoming a more empathetic human.

When you accept this truth, you realize every one is doing their best given their circumstances.

Some people are Fundamentalist Christians. Some are Transgendered Nihilists. Each of them are making the choices they think are best given their perception of reality.

We all have our own utility machine, and we use it to take actions we believe produce the most total goodness for ourselves and others. Recognizing this fact separates you from your ego  a bit and creates more sympathy for every facet of the human struggle.

Further, it also inclines you to reject the dogmatism of any single group. Be it Islam, Christianity, Feminism or Cross Fit, any declaration of “this-is-totally-right-and-this-is-totally-wrong” will raise a red flag, because that person is marginalizing the reality of the other side. As Buckles would say, they are either ignoring the benefits or the costs.

Finally, accepting the two sides to every coin can help you make better decisions in your own life.

You may be feeling unsure about your career path, dating choices or general life purpose. However, most of these uncertainties exist because your parents, friends or culture tell you there’s something you should be doing.

But in reality, there are no shoulds outside of the ones you choose to hold. You are the sole judge of what brings you utility, and your mission in life is to maximize the amount of it you bring to yourself and others.

If the benefits of the decision outweigh the costs, you should do it.

 


*This definition fell out of style during much of the 20th century, but with the advent of behavioral economics it's starting to make a comeback. Read more about the distinction here.

Why It Pays to Live for Less

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It’s a strange time to be an American.

With a mass shooting happening every other week and a man who got Stone-Cold Stunnered flirting with the presidency, it’s safe to say things are a little… off … in the Land of the Free.

A number of explanations have been proposed for this recent malaise. Truthfully, no one knows what the hell is going on – except that the foundation of everything we used to hold dear is crumbling.

Once upon a time, Americans thought their country was the land of opportunity. With a little grit and elbow grease, any one could rise above his circumstances and achieve whatever his heart desired.

But for young people, this belief in the “American Dream” has declined dramatically over the past generation.

And why shouldn’t it? The average student is taking on $30,000+ in debt to enter a working world where only 1 out of 3 people feel actively engaged. Our once vibrant futures have turned into a monotonous, ego-depleting existence, and there doesn’t seem to be an easy way out.

Fortunately, I’m here to tell you that things don’t have to be this way.

You don’t have to work a job you hate or give up on what you would like to do to live a healthy, fulfilling life. All of the tools are still out there.

But they require a basic deconstruction of what we’ve been taught to believe over the last 100 years or so. Namely, the materialistic preferences of the past few decades are no longer a realistic goal for modern Americans, nor are they key to personal happiness.

In our new world, achieving your dreams requires letting go of previous images of success.

It requires living for less.

A Brief History of How We Got Here

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The biggest hurdle standing between Americans and a fulfilling life isn’t the economy. It’s their preferences.

If you ask a typical American what his dreams look like, he’ll probably describe a scene from the Wolf of Wall Street. He’d have a Ferrari in the garage, Versace in the closet, a Rolex for every outfit and Dom Perignon at every party.

All of these luxury brands signal high status. They let people know you are living the good life and serve as a universal indicator for “success.”

However, these materialistic desires are a relatively new phenomenon. Like, less than 100 years old.

Four or five generations ago, people didn’t crave brand-name products. They didn’t even exist. A trip to the store would involve asking the clerk for what you needed and receiving whatever the hell they had behind the counter.

But then the Industrial Revolution happened. Suddenly, businesses were able to churn out goods at significantly faster rates and lower costs. This process created more jobs, more disposable income and lots and lots of shit to sell.

How did companies learn to capitalize on this newfound abundance? Psychological manipulation.

No. Seriously.

One of the Godfathers of modern advertising, Edward Bernays, also happened to be the nephew of the world’s most famous psychologists, Sigmund Freud.

Bernays applied his uncle’s renderings of the unconscious mind to a new type of propaganda, designed to engineer the consent of the population toward the wills of large corporations.

He called it “public relations.

One of Bernays’ most famous campaigns involved Lucky Strike cigarettes. The brand wanted to increase its sales with women, but a few hurdles existed. As a whole, the group found the color of Lucky Strikes’ box unappealing. Further, a general taboo existed against the idea of women smoking in public.

To combat these naturally-occurring preferences, Lucky Strikes enlisted Bernays’ help. And boy did he help.

To make Lucky Strikes’ shade of green more attractive, Bernays coordinated with higher-ups in the fashion industry who made it a staple of the next season’s style.

Then, he challenged the social stigma by organizing a large-scale demonstration at a feminist rally. After Bernays hired a bunch of attractive women to light up a smoke while protesting the injustices of 1920s America, the cigarette soon became known as the “freedom torch,” allowing females to challenge societal norms, flaunt their independence and increase their likelihood of dying from lung cancer.

All of these tactics targeted women’s subconscious wants. Bernays tricked them into believing that their desire to be a fashionable, independent person could be achieved simply by purchasing a pack of smokes.

And that, my friends, is how most advertising works today. Marketers tap into our basic  emotional wants using carefully orchestrated images, symbols and slogans and train us to associate them with their products.

As a population, we’ve largely bought the message. Our desire to lead a happy and fulfilling life is no longer about our accomplishments, but the type of things we can afford.

Obviously, this trend comes with a few problems.

First, basing your self-worth on the external validation that comes from your physical belongings isn’t a very healthy recipe for self-esteem. Second, these preferences are no longer a realistic goal for Americans in the modern economy.

While our standard of living has steadily increased, the financial health of the average American is hideous. Nearly half of the people surveyed in a recent study by the Federal Reserve said they couldn’t summon $400 dollars if an emergency rose today.

…$400 dollars. That’s probably the cost of the phone or computer you’re reading this on right now. Though we can obtain material comforts with more ease than ever before, we’re throwing ourselves into debt and working jobs we hate just to do it.

Despite what we’ve been manipulated to believe over the past century, we don’t need nearly as much as we think.

Our 4 Basic Psychological Needs

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Have you ever wondered how a supermarket employee can lead a happy and fulfilling life while a wealthy celebrity can be suicidal?

Psychologists have been studying this type of thing for decades, and they’ve basically boiled down the components of well-being to four requirements: security, belonging, self-esteem and control.

No matter where you’re from, how you look, or how much money you have, every single person has those four basic needs. If they’re being met, you’re gonna feel pretty good about your life. If they’re not, you’ll suffer.

That’s why a bagger at a grocery store who can afford his rent and has a few close friends can feel better than a celebrity who is surrounded by sycophants and bases her entire self-worth on her appearance. His psychological needs are being met while hers aren’t.

The key to living a happy life lies in fulfilling these needs. If you’re suffering, you should either try to improve your relationships, self-worth, sense of freedom or security.

But in the present state of affairs, that’s not always the easiest thing to do.

Namely, the individual’s lack of control in the American economy is contributing to our broad sense of disillusionment. To pay for her rent, food, car and material possessions, the average American must find a job which requires her to work 40-50 hours per week for 50 weeks out of the year.

To land one of these jobs, she’s forced to take out loans to fund her education. Then, she’ll need to pimp her resume during job interviews and convince employers that her performance will satisfy their clients. Finally, she’s expected to devote her utmost loyalty to the company in order to get promoted, increase her income and pay off the debt she assumed just to enter the process.

Most of us have to go through this cycle. And it requires us to surrender a large amount of the control we have over our lives.

Want to leave the office at 4 o’clock every day to spend time with your friends or family? You’re not working hard enough and don’t deserve to advance within the company.

Want to take a few months off to hike the Appalachian Trail or explore Southeast Asia? You’ll leave a big gap in your resume and will likely have to start from scratch somewhere else.

The recipe we’ve been given for success requires us to surrender the very sense of freedom that makes us feel successful. We can obtain a bunch of nice shit, but we don’t have any control over the process that lets us get it in the first place, which leads to our collective suffering.

How can you escape this viscous cycle?

You Need to Live for Less

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Fulfilling your basic needs doesn’t actually require that much money.

When you can learn to live for less, you gain the autonomy necessary to achieve what you actually want out of your life, i.e. the American Dream.

Adopting frugal habits like getting a roommate, moving within walking distance of your job, avoiding name-brand products, and cooking your own meals can allow a single person with no debt to live on as little as $1000 per month.

Don’t believe me? Check this guy out.

He and his wife spent around $20,000 annually for 8 years. Meanwhile, they invested the rest of their money in an index fund, which allowed them to retire at the ripe age of 30.

Now, these people had some of the well-paying, freedom-limiting jobs I criticized earlier, but the distinction is that they were working for a purpose. Their goal wasn’t to buy a mansion, eat at lavish restaurants, or own a Ferrari. It was to liberate themselves from the necessity of work altogether through a few years of low spending and high savings.

You don’t have to have these goals. Yours could be entirely different.

Maybe you’ve always wanted to be an artist. Or start your own business. Or travel the world. All of these things are possible. But they require you to live for less.

The only problem you need to figure out is how you can make enough money to pay for your food, rent, social activities and miscellaneous fees. Your other needs (self-esteem and autonomy) will be achieved through working for a higher purpose.

Because when you live for less, you can cut back your hours at work to spend more time on that book you’ve always wanted to write. You can save heavily for a few months and spend the rest of your year backpacking through Europe. You can volunteer at a hospital, religious institution, or any social cause that moves you.

It doesn’t matter what the fuck you do. Just make sure you want to do it.

Because at the end of the day, it’s your life. The only one you are ever going to get. Do you want to spend your numbered days working a career you hate to afford the stuff marketers say will complete you? Or would you rather spend your time actually doing things that make you happy?

Fair warning: this mindset requires you to go against the grain. A lot of people may think you’re inferior because you don’t live up to the material standard we’ve been taught to associate with success.

But people are going to judge you no matter what you do. Your goal is to look through that judgement, say fuck it, and arrange your life in a way that brings you the most enjoyment.

As long as you’re happy, you’ll have all the abundance you’ll ever need. When you live for less, you live with more.

Deconstructing the Ego

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For much of my adult life, I suffered from cripplingly low self-esteem. For much of my adult life, that confused the shit out of me.

On the surface, I knew I had no reason to be insecure. People tell me I’m handsome. People tell me I’m intelligent. I’ve lettered in three sports, gone to two of the US’s best colleges and have generally had experiences that confirm my capability of doing okay in this life.

Yet, while things seemed cool on the exterior, inside it was whole ‘nother bag of beans.

A subtle, unconscious feeling of shame permeated almost everything I did around the ages of 13 to 21. My career choices, relationships, and all around self-concept were largely shaped by an undying feeling that I wasn’t good enough. Clearly, it wasn’t a very fun place to be.

It took years of reading, some therapy and even a little drug exploration (sorry, Mom) to finally reach the conclusion that changed my life:

My problem was my ego.

Now, when one thinks of an egotistical person, this typically ain’t the image that comes to mind. Visions of people like Kanye West and Donald Trump tend to overpower the idea of a dude who’s too scared to ask a chick on a date.

However, the ego comes in all types of shapes and sizes. Some of them are big, bold and narcissistic. Some of them are fearful, ashamed and self-defeating.

In this post, I’m going to  explain what the ego is, why it’s mostly bullshit and how recognizing that fact can be one of the most important things you will ever do.

First, let’s look at some psychology.

The Freudian Sense of the Ego

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In 1923, Sigmund Freud formed an idea of the ego that has since shaped Western psychology. Namely, he proposed that the human psyche consisted of three systems: the ID, the Ego and the Superego.

The first part of the triad – the ID – is the primitive, child-like aspect of the brain that goes after what its wants with no fucks given. Like eating chocolate? Eat all of the chocolate. Wanna take a nap? Do it in the middle of broad daylight.

While it can be fun, the ID’s behavior isn’t necessarily conducive to the demands of adult life. To combat these child-like desires, Freud suggested that an opposing force evolves within the mind: the Superego.

The Superego can be defined as a person’s moral beliefs and ideal standards. As you age, your parents and your culture tend to give you an idea about what you should be. These beliefs get stored in the Superego, which tells you what to do throughout your life and makes you feel guilty if you don’t do it.

Where does the Ego come in? Glad you asked.

The Ego (or “you”) acts as the referee between these two competing forces. Essentially, its job is to satisfy the ID’s wants while taking the Superego’s demands into account.

Your ID still wants to eat a shit-ton of chocolate, but your Superego tells you that being fat and sloppy are bad. So, the Ego acts as the mediator between the two and decides you will only eat chocolate in small and infrequent quantities.

This seems like a useful tool, right? For the most part it is. However, it comes with a big problem:

The Superego is completely dependent on a person’s experiences.

In other words, the environment we grow up in largely shapes our moral beliefs. And unfortunately, our upbringings aren’t always the most helpful.

For instance, imagine a girl whose parents raised her to believe that sex is evil. Throughout her childhood, she was forced to shield her eyes when people kissed on TV. She couldn’t wear clothing that revealed more than her ankles and wrists and was never allowed one-on-one time with a boy.

As a result, this girl will probably feel shame and anxiety when she experiences sexual urges throughout her life. Clearly, that’s not a very helpful mindset.

Our parents, teachers and peers instill all kinds of harmful ideas like these into our subconscious, and the process is completely random! Your authority figures got their standards from their authority figures, who got their standards from their authority figures and so on and so forth.

The things that our Superegos hold dear and true originate from an environment that none of us control. We get to spend our lives feeling guilty and ashamed for reasons that are mostly arbitrary.

How fun!

Think that’s bad? Here’s another little discomforting truth.

Your ego is likely an illusion

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That’s right. That thing you think is “you” probably doesn’t exist; it’s just an image that your brain constructs due to the demands of the external world.

…yeah. I didn’t believe it at first either.

But it’s something Eastern Philosophers have been preaching for years, and new research in neuroscience may actually be starting to back it up.

Us Westerners tend to believe our identities are constant, stable things that exists through time. Yet, the idea of self promoted by people like Siddhartha Gautama (better know as the Buddha) rejects this notion entirely.

In particular, the Buddha taught that every single thing we perceive is merely a label assembled by the mind. Further, he thought that this process is inherently flawed because it removes objects from the causal chain of space and time and gives them a fixed, unchanging identity.

However, nothing truly exists as we know it. Everything is part of a large, continual process, and the present state of things is all that’s truly real.

Now, I know this can sound like some foo-foo hippy shit at first, but the idea is actually pretty consistent with recent discoveries in neuroscience.

In the 1980s, Benjamin Libet designed an experiment which showed that people’s choices could be accurately predicted by monitoring their neurons. What’s more, the scientists could determine which decisions the subjects would make before they were even aware that they had made them.

Since Freud defines “the ego” as the thing that makes our choices, the results of this study actually support the Buddha’s notion that our egos are merely illusions.

Moreover, aligning oneself with this idea has proven to be extremely beneficial.

Studies on meditation have revealed that a feeling of “ego-death” can dramatically increase a person’s well-being. Experienced meditators have been shown to have lower levels of stress, improved concentration, increased emotional awareness and even more grey-matter in their brains.

What gives? Many argue that meditation works because it gets us closer to what we actually are – a conscience experience without an ego.

When you clear your mind of thought, only the sensations that arise within the present moment remain. Further, regularly experiencing that state slowly causes you to realize you are not the thinker of your thoughts. You are merely the Watcher. All wants, worries, and desires are fleeting illusions that stem from the ego, and all that really exists is a peaceful, eternal emptiness in which all experience emerges.

This might sound a little silly. Hell, it is a little silly. But as the research shows, the idea can significantly increase our well-being and may not be all that far-fetched.

… so, what does all of this mean?

To recap: the external environment (which you don’t control) imposes all of your ideals and moral beliefs, and your ego – i.e. the thing you think is you – is a total illusion.

Real comforting, huh?

However, this realization proved to be one of the happiest of my life. Namely, recognizing my ego for what it is (or.. what it isn’t) allowed me to end years of unnecessary suffering and start doing the things I’d always wanted to do.

It let me speak my mind without feeling like I always had to be right. It let me chase the careers, goals and relationships I wanted without the fear that they’d end in abject failure.

Most importantly, it caused me to realize that no one is better than any one else.  We don’t choose our identities; none of them are even real. Underneath everything, we’re all a part of one shared struggle. The main purpose of our lives is to love each other and have as much fun as possible until we collectively return to that great, eternal void .

There are probably some things in your life that you want to do right now. You may have thought about starting a business, or writing a book or asking out that cute girl in your physics class. Yet you don’t do them, because you feel like you’ve got something to lose.

But friend, you’ve got nothing to lose. Because “you” are nothing.

Your problem is your ego.

Behind the smoke and mirrors, our lives are really just fun little games with the objective being to create our own objectives. Essentially, we’re all our IDs. The Ego illusion should only play a role in reaching the ideals you consciously choose to hold in your Superego.

Yet, you won’t be free to choose them until you look behind the mask and recognize what you truly aren’t.

So get rid of your ego, man, and get busy living.


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A helpful tool for finding happiness

happiness

It’s a message embedded deeply in the heart of Western society: “do what makes you happy.”

It’s the subject of Billboard hits. It’s the fuel that drives the self-help industry. Hell, it’s practically written on the Declaration of Independence.

Unfortunately, it’s kind of hard for us to tell what happiness actually is, let alone how we can achieve it.

In light of this ignorance, a lot of us spend our lives following a predetermined check-list. We work hard in school. We get an impressive degree. We land a cushy job and hustle up the corporate ladder. We go on lavish trips. We buy expensive cars, clothes, homes, and cell phones.

Of course, these things aren’t inherently bad. After all, it’s pretty hard to frown on Wave Runner.

The problem is that many of us do them without ever questioning them. Our peers, magazines, movies, and advertisements drill it into our heads that these ends are THE inevitable source of happiness. Yet as we achieve them, a subtle, empty feeling often persists – causing us to look in the mirror of our suburban homes and ask: how am I still miserable?

The rational self-help promoter Mark Manson wisely asserts that we all should stop tying to be happy. In his article, Manson draws a distinction between pleasure and contentment.

In the pursuit of happiness, this difference holds the utmost importance.

The biggest, most fundamental problem in our quest to find happiness is that we often associate the feeling with pleasure. We think that the rush of dopamine that comes from buying expensive things, receiving praise from others, or even something as insidious as drug use is what inevitably makes us happy.

At best, this fallacy can lead to a fragile self-esteem. At worst, it can cause life-ruining problems like gambling or drug addictions.

Instead, as Manson points out, happiness should be measured by contentment. Why contentment, you ask? It’s because the term alludes to a deep satisfaction with yourself. It’s being completely comfortable with your circumstances, your successes, your failures, and your own limitations.

It doesn’t come from the short-term, hedonistic gains that bring us Pleasure. Rather, it comes from the sacrifice of them in pursuit of an identity that is consistent with a higher purpose.

Manson refers to this concept as the Ideal Self. In short, it’s the meaning we derive from existence and the concept that our daily actions should be designed to obtain.

Maybe you’re at this point. You’re rolling in the dough, sleeping with models, and reaching all of your life-long goals. Basically, you’re Drake.

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However, many of us have no clue how to become this ideal self or what s/he even looks like. As a result, we spend our days listlessly pursuing some vague, undefined thing, only to reach the finish line and ask: was that it?

Hopefully I haven’t instigated an identity crisis within you yet, but if I have, fear not. I’m about to introduce a very helpful key to finding happiness (i.e., contentment) and an exercise that will allow you to use it.

So, without further ado, here is a real, proven trick to achieving long-term happiness:

*cue drumroll*

Purposeful action.

*crickets*

Yeah, I know. Probably not as sexy as you were hoping for.

However, to achieve contentment, your day-to-day actions should be in line with a long-term vision you have for your future.

This may sound like an idealistic trope out of an Ayn Rand novel, but the concept is based on decades of psychological research. Namely, it plays on the idea that our thoughts, actions, and emotions are highly interconnected.

Let’s face it; in this topsy-turvey life, you’re going to go through a lot of shit. You’ll suffer break-ups. You’ll lose jobs. Loved ones will die. Good TV shows will have crappy endings.

These events and the emotional tsunamis that come along with them also shape our thoughts and actions. And sometimes, if we leave these feelings unchecked, they’ll cause us to waste our precious moments behaving in ways that are detrimental to our well-being.

The key to weathering these inevitable storms is to focus on the two factors we can control: the things we do and the things we think.

Clearly, changing your thoughts can do a lot of good. Learning to look at the positive side of things and practicing gratitude are very helpful habits. However, positive thinking by itself can only go so far. Besides making a person insufferable, a too rosy-tinted outlook can cause one to deny crucial aspects of reality. After all, negative emotions are unavoidable, and trying to suppress them will lead to more harm than good.

These thoughts need to be accompanied by our tool: purposeful action.

By doing this, you optimize your time and take constant steps toward your Ideal Self.

So, let’s get started! Here’s a little exercise designed to put you on the path towards that mythical beast called happiness:

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Step 1.) Make a mental image of the person you would like to be in five years.

How well-off are they financially? What do their relationships look like? Where do they live? What is their career? How is their fitness? Be vivid. Give specific examples. Then, get out a piece of paper and write these thoughts down.

Step 2.) Next, write down the steps someone would realistically need to take to become this person.

Where would this person be in three years? One year? Next month? Next week? Again, the more concrete you are about the details, the better.

Step 3.) Now, look at your own life.

Are you on the path towards becoming this five year person? Because s/he is your Ideal Self. If not, you need to take all of the places you envisioned him or her going in the next week, month, year, etc. and turn them into your own personal goals.

Step 4.) Keep a journal that tracks how well you are doing in pursuit of these goals.

This step is crucial, because the trick to achieving a goal is forming a habit. Keeping a journal allows you to hold yourself accountable through real time and allows you to make sure your actions remain purposeful. Further, this journal will help you identify flaws that are hindering your progress – which is the first step in correcting them.

And, there you have it. Feeling happy, yet?

Now, you’ve had a lot of experience. You may have tried something like this before, or you may be thinking that life’s too short and unpredictable to plan so far ahead in the future. Can’t we just live in the moment, man?

But that’s not the point. Yeah, you’re going to fail a lot. You’re not going to reach many of these goals.  And guess what? It ain’t gonna be easy. Acting with purpose doesn’t magically let you skip the hard times, self-doubt, and failure that comes along the way.

What it does is give you the chance to live a life of your choosing. And I can guarantee, trying and failing to live on your own terms is a helluva lot more satisfactory in the long run than a life full of “what ifs.”

By simply doing this exercise and sticking to it, you WILL constantly be getting closer to your Ideal Self. And that’s the beauty of it. Rather than stagnating in a job, town, relationship, or financial situation you hate, you are consistently putting in the work necessary to achieve the outcomes that you desire.

These outcomes are the chief aim of life, and achieving them is a never-ending climb. As much progress as we make, we’ll never be completely satisfied with where we are. We’ll always want something more. The trick is to keep moving towards it.

Because happiness is  about becoming content with the process. It’s about trying, failing, meeting your own limitations, and becoming comfortable with the effort you’ve put forth toward learning them and fearlessly engaging in this existence.

So, close the computer for a bit and get out there and put some purpose in your action.

In the words of Shia:

 

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