A Good Life


For many years, my life plan was to have as many pleasures as possible while also making money and saving for the future. I didn't have any plans for what to do with this money, but it seemed important to be saving it. I wanted to live in a downtown area of an urban center for convenience and access to bars, restaurants, and gyms.

Looking back at it now, it is the luxurious life of a "yuppie" that I desired, though I chose a more spartan design aesthetic. Minus the saving money bit, this is a pretty typical American life. Work to have money so you can spend it on something. Spend enough and you begin to feel the juice is worth the squeeze.

Several years ago I began doubting that life.

One reason is that work has become very hard, very isolating, and very stressful since 2020. I don't need to tell you why. For almost four years now, there has been one crisis after another, leading many to rightfully fear that we will lose our jobs, have our financial security stripped away, or even possibly become sick or hurt. Anxiety and mental health issues are at an all time high.

Prior to 2020, I operated on an ethos that would go something like: I am responsible for my life. If anything is going to be, it is because I have put in the effort to make it so. There is limitless potential of what I can do. I can fulfill my dreams and make them reality.

Now, however, I realize just how much I am subject to massively powerful forces beyond my control. These are not just the normal "whims of fate" but also include the behemoths of monetary policy, geopolitics, and technological advancement. I was always dimly aware of my status as a tiny worker ant on the field of global neoliberal capitalism, but it was not until recent years that it became obvious that our economic system is not only influenced by, but completely dictated by the actions of faceless organizations such as the Federal Reserve, the IMF, and so on. All knees bow to the almighty economic system, an incorporeal demiurge with no end-game except utilitarian maximization of production.

Another factor is that I am getting older and realize I don't have that much time left on earth. A couple decades at most. I haven't spent very much time doing what I want to complete before I depart this mortal coil.

Not only am I not deriving as much pleasure from life as I could – maximizing my "utility" in the language of economics – but I am also not contributing anything that will last beyond my lifetime. I am not saving the whales, so to speak. Worse still, I am not even really doing anything for those around me. I am frequently cranky and stressed out, which makes it hard to be a good friend. I cannot even claim to be leading a "good life."

This drew me into more introspective reading and reflection. But like the author of Qoheleth, I began to question whether this reflective mood is any better than the pursuit of pleasure, when life is so short and my place in the world so tiny and insignificant. Does anything I do matter anyway? Why not buy a new luxury car and wardrobe?

I've tried buying myself these things, but I have found it makes no difference to my happiness. I do not feel any better or worse based on my car or my clothes or whatever. Spending money doesn't really do anything for me, personally, beyond the basic material comforts.

Instead, money represents this concept of "security" for me. I've sacrificed a lot of time on jobs that I didn't really want to do, in pursuit of a "secure" life.

Most of my jobs have been in the volatile if intermittently rewarding tech industry. In a few of these jobs, I really did like the work environment, the people, and what I learned there. I am forever grateful for these opportunities. Working hard, in the service of a larger goal, is always rewarding.

But for good or ill, I came to identify with work. My career conferred some sense of "security" and a status in society as someone useful or important. I felt the future would have more "security" as long as I kept working and putting in the effort.

However, there were also many occasions where outside factors, such as sub-par company financial results and private equity buy-outs, caused me enormous stress because I did not know when I would be cut.

Losing my livelihood was always a threat, but it was kept in check by a robust job market. The fact I could easily find a new job gave me that sense of "security" in a volatile market. Since 2020, there has been no where to run to when the ship started sinking, except maybe another leaky boat. And this has sent me into a crisis of sorts.


I see now that so much of my life circumstances are completely out of my control.

I knew this intellectually before, but I don't think I really felt it.

This is so painful because much of American culture is about exerting control. We are told from an early age that success is about going out and getting what we want. We are not trained what to do when circumstances change and we run up against significant barriers and "what we want" is just not an option.

The belief in control is cult-like. Many people actually believe in "manifesting" material outcomes, as if our preferences matter to the world. It is commonly expressed in popular media, especially mass-market business books, and junk lit like The Secret.

The Cult of Control has many enforcers. Expressing the basic truth that we have no control (outside our own choices) often results in hostility from its true believers. For example, I ended a friendship with a startup founder who was quite cruel to me after I opened up about my doubts and struggles with the current state of the tech industry. This person insisted I was the problem; in truth, he projected his own insecurities about his own situation.

I now reject the Cult of Control because I believe the quixotic quest for control and "security" is itself a recipe for misery.

It is a recipe for misery because we do not have control of the circumstances of our lives. These include factors that are obviously way out of our control, such as macroeconomics and monetary policy, but also the opinions of others, our reputation, and even our health.

We control only what we are able to directly choose. This includes our habits, behaviors, speech, and thoughts. That's it! Really.

By caring about anything else, we open ourselves to the misery that comes from trying to control what we cannot. Liberation comes only from releasing all care for that outside our direct control.

As I have searched to find a sense of peace in the past few years, I always find that my happiness increases the further I get from the Cult of Control.

This has lead me naturally away from the thrills of modern life and back into the past, to ancient traditions and spiritual practices. In the past, people had more of a sense that their lives were left up to God (or if religion makes you uncomfortable, "the universe"). People knew that their lives were in the hands of fate, and they felt gratitude just to be alive.

Gratitude means naturally wanting less. I have found that gratitude is a consistent recipe for happiness. When I consciously give up my desire for more – more money, more "security", more power, to be more liked – I feel a deep happiness inside.

I now believe that the feeling of "security" that I have been seeking is not something I will ever find from work, money, respect, not even love.


The typical American life is focused on to accumulating more. I am working on being happy with less.

A voice in my head tells me that I am a failure if my career is not going well. But work has never given me this sense of "security" I seek, so why bother with it? There is some practical need for income, certainly, but focusing on career as a central pillar of who I am as a human being has given me nothing but misery and no "security."

Another voice tells me that I would be happy if I spent money. Certainly, buying new toys and gadgets can give us a dopamine rush. But soon enough, our homes fill up with things we don't need, and then the shame sets in. Contrary to what I've been taught, having lots of stuff feels terrible. Having only the things that I actually need feels really good.

But even better is giving to others. I started donating to charities last year, despite it being a more difficult time for me financially than in past years. It feels better to give this money to the food bank than it would be to do anything else with it.

The less I have, the better I feel. Having less feels better than having more. The more I have, the more I have to lose. I would not feel any sense of security in having a fancy home, for example, because this would mean that if I lose my career – which is more than just a depressive fantasy at this point – then I'll lose my home. I would not be more "secure" paying $6,000 a month for the mortgage!

On the contrary, if I have a small, simple home, I gain the real security of knowing that I am happy no matter what happens to me.

If my happiness comes from my internal state, then the external stuff – which I do not have any control over – does not matter anyway. I could lose all my career standing, reputation, respect, money, etc., and it would not make any difference.

I began experimenting with giving things away through a local Buy Nothing group. I donated an old video game system to a family in need last year before the holidays. I found myself very moved seeing how excited the kids were to enjoy what I had considered junk! Giving to those in need feels way better than getting something I want.

More and more, over the past few years, this experience of having less and giving more has begun to change me.

I find that when I am focused on giving to others, I feel happiness. And when I focus on my own desires, I feel like absolute garbage.


What is a good life?

For me, it looks like it is a very simple life.

The only things I want to do before I expire are related to creative projects, ideas I want to express on e-ink or through a game or in music, experiences I want to have with loved ones, and perhaps if I can squeeze it in, a chance to visit the most beautiful places on our planet. (Currently dreaming about Tokyo!)

Everything else is an unimportant or merely practical concern.

That realization has made me turn toward true minimalism. Owning as little as possible helps me focus on a generosity of spirit, instead of the fearful spirit of seeking an elusive "security."

So much of our lives are consumed with negative emotions, fear, anger, greed, envy, and depression. I am as guilty (if not more so) as anyone else for dwelling in these states of mind.

A good life is simple to define, but difficult to execute.

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