Single player game
Life is a single player game. You’re born alone. You’re going to die alone. All of your interpretations are alone. All your memories are alone. You’re gone in three generations and no one cares. Before you showed up nobody cared. It’s all single player.
I stumbled upon this bit of brilliance in a recent podcast I was listening to. It is an interesting way to frame the world, and one I want to explore further. On the surface it sounds depressing and lonely, but it is a bit different.
I have written about loneliness before.
Loneliness is essential to being human. Each of us comes into the world and eventually realizes that we are a separate person, alone. We travel through life alone and ultimately we die alone. Acknowledging and accepting this on a conscious level, and learning how to live our lives with some degree of grace and satisfaction is the human condition. Thus we all have some degree of existential loneliness. In this respect it is a ‘natural state’.
This is a painful reality to accept. The mind doesn’t like it. So the mind does what it always does when it is bothered; it changes reality. We invent stories that are not really true.Our mind fills in details that didn’t actually happen and creates a seamless appearance of reality from a smattering of sensory input.
In order to deal with the world our mind creates useful things like ego, personality and the illusion of a separate self. Our brain convinces us we can experience each other’s thoughts and emotions. It continually compares us to others. Life feels multiplayer. The illusion is an incredible dance that evolution has created for us, but the side effect is we forget what really matters.
From birth we are thrown into a world of competition and comparison. Our DNA is encoded to compete. Our genes only care about their survival and replication. That is their purpose. We are built to be competitive. This is the essence of our subconscious mind.
It should not surprise us that all of our education, both formal and informal, teaches us to compete against others. Society creates a vast array of multi-player competitive games for us; school, sports, earning money, the corporate ladder, status, mating; and it constantly reinforces the idea that these are the important games to play.
We need some of this competitive drive. Without it we would still be wandering around the grasslands, without tools, foraging for nuts, berries and shitty tasting root vegetables. In fact, the only reason you are here today is because some other bags of mostly water with a few scattered more complex molecules (your parents) out-competed others for the right to pass their genes on.
I’ll wait patiently while you text them and tell them how grateful you are. Actually never mind, they did what they did for entirely selfish reasons. I’ll explore that in another essay.
In modern society it is pretty easy for an average person to survive and replicate. There are exceptions to this rule of course, but I’m assuming if you are reading this right now you have the basic tools for survival.
The problem is we let this survival program run rampant and unchecked. Our mind is simply out of control most of the time. We invent competitive games where they need not exist, simply because this is our default programing. Our brain needs something to do, so it does what it knows how to do. It creates suffering. Unfortunately this is a feature, not a bug.
The bigger issue though is happiness and contentment is single player. There is no one that can share in your happiness; it is all alone and in your mind. No one really cares about your happiness except you. When people do things to make you happy, it is actually a desire within them that drives this. It causes them happiness (or maybe decreased suffering).
Our internal state can change dramatically without changing anything external. The external games we play are superfluous and largely unnecessary. Meditation and mindfulness has helped me see this clearly.
This week was a tough one at work. I’ve been working much more than usual (I will write about this in future articles). It was extremely busy and I was tired. I found myself getting frustrated and a little angry at times. When I realized this I would pause and simply observe my thoughts. I would imagine myself relaxing and smiling. I would think of all the things I was grateful for.
All of this took less than a minute. When I resumed my work nothing had changed with respect to my external circumstance. There was still a big list of studies to look at and power through. I was no closer to walking out the door. I was just as tired and hungry. But my internal mindset was completely changed.
Getting through my work and doing my job to make money is a multi-player game I’m currently engaged in. I make the conscious decision to keep playing, but my mindset and how happy or miserable I am is entirely up to me. It is single player.
Somehow I have developed the power to nudge my internal state closer to contentment in almost any circumstance I have found myself in. Why didn’t anyone teach this to me? This is THE skill of skills. Why did I have to piece this together in my late 30’s from random podcasts and blog posts?
People went out of their way to teach me things that didn’t really matter (like organic chemistry and geography). These same people told me it was very important to then measure my comprehension (tests). They were very convincing and as a result I learned to play those multiplayer games very well. If standardized tests were a martial art, I had a black belt.
But no one taught me how to be happy.
No one really cared all that much about my happiness.
Maybe they couldn’t teach me. Perhaps they didn’t know how. Incidentally I don’t really use my geography and organic chemistry knowledge all that often, but I use my happiness skills many times every day.
My parents wanted me to do something in life that would make me happy, but they didn’t tell me what this was or how to find it. Notice I said they told me to find something to make me happy. This is the trap of the external. It reinforces the belief that something external is needed to make us happy. It could be a job, social status, or a spouse. Maybe it is making a lot of money, doing something meaningful or excelling at sports.
It doesn’t matter, it is the same trap. Find something external and hope it makes you happy. This is a fundamental delusion: some external thing will make us happy. I’m sorry to tell you this, but most likely it won’t. It will seem to work at times, but it’s not durable.
I think they really did want me to be happy, but this is not the same thing as learning to be happy.
I don’t blame my parents for not teaching me this. In retrospect I know that they couldn’t teach me. No one taught them. No one told them it was all single player.
You can’t win
Another problem with these multi-player games is they are unwinnable. By this I do not mean that we can’t do well at them, but there will always be someone better. There is always someone faster, stronger, richer, better looking, a better writer, a better lover. Even if you somehow manage to be the best at something, you will not be the best at everything.
Once you make it into the top 1% of something it will all be great right? Let’s use wealth as an example. We all want to be a 1%er? Do you think people in the top 1% think they have won the game? I can tell you from personal experience (I know many of these folks) that they just change their metrics. The rules of the game change to match the competition.
Many years ago a friend of mine tried to explain this to me. He and his wife were both doctors; she a highly paid subspecialist and he a resident about to see his income increase 10 fold within a few years. They would soon be making a million and a half dollars a year between them. I couldn’t even fathom this as I was a resident making less than $40,000. He told me making this amount of money was almost more stressful because now you could imagine
things that wouldn’t even enter your consciousness before.
You start to think buying mansions (real ones, not the fake McMansions) and flying in a private jet is feasible. You compare yourself to the ultra-wealthy (the people making 5-10 million a year and actually flying around in those jets). People scrimping to save enough money to take their family on a vacation in discounted coach seats isn’t who you are comparing yourself to anymore. The goal posts moved. It’s a different game now.
This is why many of them don’t feel rich. They lament that only if they had a little more, then they would be satisfied. I’ve also noticed though, that when that little more comes there is no river of contentment. This is the hedonic hamster wheel we find ourselves on.
Contentment is always just out of grasp when we play these games, but we keep playing. We cannot stop. Maybe the outcome of the next game will be different; make us feel happy. We are always trying to win (even if we are doing so subconsciously). We want to be better than those around us. Striving to be in the top 1% of whatever is a multi-player competitive game.
Wealth is just one of many external validations of “success”. We do this all the time when we grasp for better stuff, more prestige, etc. The prizes change, but it’s the same game. We keep hoping that something external will bring us this internal peace that we crave. But happiness, contentment and life satisfaction is a single player game.
I’ve noticed that the happiest people I know have opted out of many of the multi-player games. They use internal metrics. There is no competition with anyone to be happy. They don’t compare themselves to others or experience jealousy. They treat success as a byproduct of happiness, not as an addictive drug like most of us do. Happy people think single player.
There are few absolutes in life, and this topic is no exception. We can’t let go of this completely, just as we can’t have total freedom or total happiness. We will keep playing these games because that is what we do. But living a good life is not about perfection, it is when we nudge ourselves closer to the ideal. The more we can realize that the important games we play are all internal, the more we can focus on them and ignore the distractions. We need more signal and less noise in our lives.
Start to slowly disengage from these multiplayer games. Start to care a little less about winning them. They don’t matter all that much. It may feel a little lonely and empty at first. We fear quitting the multiplayer games because this reminds us we are truly alone. Single player brings the existential uneasiness of our loneliness into focus, but paradoxically this is where true contentment lives.
Nurture and support the internal metrics of happiness for yourself. Lean into and push past the uncomfortable feeling of living a more unconventional life.
Start thinking single player.
*Often we feel completely satisfied with who we are, but we learn to be unhappy with ourselves. Many of us are quite skilled in teaching others to be miserable.