Apr 29

Life is a Single Player Game

the view from above

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.

Naval Ravikant


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’.

life is a single player game


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.

meditative work


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.


Never enough

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.


Stop playing

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.


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  1. I have helped more families after they sold their family business than I can count in my over three decades in wealth management. Amazing to watch them think the money they got would fill the void they didn’t know they would have. Their business had given them purpose and influence. Without it they had neither,

    Most succeeded in making the transition to self-sufficiency. Sadly, some families struggled mightily.

    Excellent insights, especially for those of us who are adept at creating those stories we tell ourselves.

    1. Money can buy us influence, but it just wont bring us meaning or purpose. Once we have enough the money just amplifies what is already there.

      I find the transition from work to ‘retirement’ a fascinating topic. I would love to hear more from your perspective. What were some of the common themes that brought people to fail or succeed?

  2. I enjoyed how you approached this topic in terms of single and multiple players. I’ve often wondered if people who are “outsiders” because they don’t play the game by trying to fit in with their peers (when it goes against their values or interests) and do their own thing are somehow wired differently. Part of this might come by being comfortable spending time with ourselves so that we can figure out what is truly important to us – rather than on what our peers. family, or marketers tell us we need to have. It’s pretty hard to ever be happy when you rely on external factors that are constantly moving the goal post. And I know it can be hard for people who have spent their whole lives trying to measure up to other people’s expectations to switch to living up to their own expectations (once they identify them that is). A great book to read on this is the Four Agreements by don Miguel Ruiz.

    1. Interesting questions. I think to some extent our ‘wiring’ is instrumental in how we live our lives. I have often wondered about how introverts and extroverts approach these games, and if it’s measurable.

    • VagabondMD on May 1, 2017 at 12:40 pm
    • Reply

    Well done, as always.

    I thought of you today (twice) in about a five minute span during a Q&A session after a terrific presentation on radiologist burnout at the ARRS meeting.

    The first member of the audience, a young radiologist, all but blamed the physician burnout problem on Trump. Really? I rolled my eyes so visibly that the speaker and I made uncomfortable eye contact. I suck at poker. He needs to read the blog about surviving the Trump presidency. He needs to grow up, too.

    Immediately afterward, a very thoughtful mid-career radiologist gave two suggestions. The first was to take stock of the handful of cases that you make an impact every day, record them, and review them again before you leave work, to reinforce that your work has value. We all know that in many (maybe most) cases, we add little value, so celebrate the the ones where you do.

    The second was to go part time and by doing so, be the be more likely to be the best version of yourself when you are at work. The second guy has mastered the single player game,

    1. Haha, excellent story! It is impossible that Trump could be responsible for anything in the medical system at this point. I’m trying to imagine the logic involved.

      That other rad has some great ideas though. What he is talking about is injecting meaning into our job and I think it’s a fantastic idea. As radiology is so far removed from care many days (diagnostic, not IR) it is easy to not see the difference we make. It is really easy to become cynical. After the 20th set of spine x-rays with “mild-to-moderate multilevel degenerative changes” one starts to question the ten years of training.

      My hats off to that guy, he sounds like he has figured some stuff out.

    • Deb on May 2, 2017 at 3:37 am
    • Reply

    I don’t think humans progressed because they were competing with each other – co operation was at least as important as competition. The real breakthroughs though came from people playing about, asking why not? Or what if…? Also single player is a western way of looking at life ( and maybe even a male one more than a female one). Other folks have more of a “our team ” attitude to life.

    1. Co-operation and competition are both necessary, although the problem lies when our native programing takes over and tuns unchecked. Different cultures and genders may value different things, but we all play these games at times. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Interestingly, even in societies that seem to work better as a group, there are still competitions at various levels. So, I agree that we are wired for competition.

    That being said, it doesn’t mean part of our competition shouldn’t be to help others get further along in what ever endeavors they are pursing.

    You are quite correct in that it is difficult to wrap your mind around the concept, but I although we may be ultimately alone, we really do need other people. When we are born, suffice it to say, we would not survive very long without others becoming a part of our lives.

    And at death, we may be the ones taking our last breath, but that passing probably goes better when we are surrounded by those we love.

    Even if we are forgotten within 3 generations (on average) we can certainly strive to leave a legacy that can live on even if we ourselves are forgotten.

    Rich Devos wrote one of my all time favorite books, Compassionate Capitalism. It is okay to strive, to achieve, to compete. Just lift others up along the way instead of knocking them down.

    cd :O)

    1. I agree, we do need other people. We have become absolutely dependent on society for our survival. Helping others and trying to be useful often makes us happy, and is a great game to play.

      The question I find interesting is ‘why should we strive to leave a legacy?’

      So many people feel this need to leave something lasting in the world, yet in a couple of generations no one will care. Getting to the root of questions like these are where we find the profound truths.

      1. If we don’t strive to leave something that can carry on, then how have we truly affected future generations? Think about poems, books, architecture, photos, art, national parks, roads, bridges, etc. Does anyone remember who even designed the Golden Gate bridge, let alone everyone that helped build it? But we sure do appreciate being able to get across the bay.

        And let’s go way, way, way, way back. Don’t we appreciate the knowledge of creating fire. What can you do that can help others in future generations. So yes we are wired to compete, but I believe we are also wired to make a difference, hopefully wired to make a good one.

        cd :O)

        1. All those things are true, but it gets really interesting when we keep asking the question why.

          Why do we need to affect future generations?

          Whatever the answer is to that question ask why again. Eventually we will get to a profound truth or end up in a circular argument. It is a fun thought experiment 🙂

    • Claussen Pickles on May 2, 2017 at 11:42 am
    • Reply

    Thanks for the great insight. Its is interesting how you took an internal struggle and turned it into a game theory question. It processes quickly for me as an engineering type mind set. I like this type of approach because I think you can better quantify your points instead of just discussing them. To add to your points, as an American society I see far too many people focus on external happiness rather than listen to what really makes them happy internally as an individual.
    For about 3 separate summers when I was about 10 years old my parents would leave me with my grandmother to volunteer at the nursing home where she worked. I would do it for 2 days a week, and the main reason why they did this was because my parents couldn’t afford someone to watch me. What they really didn’t expect was how much impact this made on me at an early age. I can go on and on about the insights that I learned, and it is really interested to look back and start to piece together what really makes a person happy as I also become older and more experienced with life. Your article really hits the point that many people don’t come to understand until late in life or never, and that is self content is a major key to happiness. Life has many distractions and multi player games like you said you will never win, and in the end it doesn’t even matter. Make your life more about becoming self content and through your actions hopefully others will see the benefits. It is amazing when you filter out the multiplayer games how much pointless crap is in people’s lives that are wasted effort and time.
    Thanks again,

    1. Thank you 🙂

      There is a lot of wisdom stored up in people that are in the twilight years of life. It is wonderful when we are able to soak up some of it at such a young age. Funny how things that seen so mundane in the moment can change the arc of our thinking throughout our lifetime.

  4. do you have a twitter handler where you tweet when there is a new post? thanks in advance

    1. Yes. At the top of the web page there is Twitter button. You can also follow me on Twitter here.


    • Gary brown on May 6, 2017 at 7:59 am
    • Reply

    Great read

  5. Alone you come, alone you go;
    what did you bring that you lost here?
    What did you gain that you can carry?
    Memories and lessons are all there is.

    Life intervenes, creates many illusions
    Getting caught in them is part of our delusions
    What did you gain here that you can carry?
    Memories and lessons are all there is.

    All relationships end with the house
    Your children may mourn at the burial
    But nobody comes with you on the last journey.
    Memories and lessons are all there is.

    I could go on, but will stop my attempt at poetry here. Your great post HP insrpired these words. I love the single player framework.

    1. Thank you TFR. No one has written a poem in the comments yet and I am honored. I would respond in kind, but I am only capable of limericks and an occasional marginal haiku 😉

    • Ryan on May 23, 2017 at 9:14 am
    • Reply

    Enjoying the blog. I think there is a lot more to say about how we connect with others. Ideas like this oversimplify our relationships with others:

    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.

    I think it’s important to grasp that living our desires is not mutually exclusive from caring about another. Even if the reason we care about another is for our own peace there is power and relationship in that empathy. It’s because we all have an awareness of others and can feel them to an extent that we have meaningful relationships.

    It’s important to think about this because we can’t truly live alone and it is not single player. It’s a higher effect of both understanding yourself deeply and independent of others but then understanding how the self you are can connect with others and the world as a whole. It’s in knowing ourselves and seeing how we connect with the world that we find fulfillment and meaning.

    1. I agree with you and I think we can both be correct. Life is all about relationships, and empathy is powerful. Without empathy we would all be sociopaths (in the true sense of the word, not the tongue-in-cheek was I throw it around in some of my articles).

      The way I use single player in this context is not to say we we should isolate ourselves or consider ourselves immune to others, but to point out that our metrics for happiness are all entirely created by our brain. I want people to connect with others; that is the essence of what makes us human. Many of my happiest moments were because of the effects others had on me, but playing the multi-player games of society has never really made me happy.

      Opting out of the multiplayer games I describe above has been a form of decluttering for me. Without the distractions I can focus on the things and people that make me happy. By being happy myself, I have found I make the people around me happy as well. It’s a win-win.

      Thanks for the comment 🙂

  1. […] The spiritual path helps you understand your mind better, and find more intrinsic sources of peace. Essentially ‘Know Thyself’ and in one way or the other attain equanimity to external stimuli, without giving in to extremes of emotion. Others think of it as a ‘single-player-game’, i.e. happiness is within your head, and only you can control your happiness, see for instance http://thehappyphilosopher.com/single-player-game/ […]

  2. […] Life Is a Single Payer Game […]

  3. […] are surrounded by others, and we largely define ourselves by our relationships. Although life is a single player game, we are not solitary beings. We depend on others for our survival, both physical and spiritual, and […]

  4. […] never considered what it would be like to be a 1 Percenter because I’ll never be one. But, a recent Happy Philosopher post got me thinking about […]

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