Podcast #978: Want to Be Happy? Give Yourself Reasons to Admire Yourself

Podcast #978: Want to Be Happy? Give Yourself Reasons to Admire Yourself

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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Happiness and depression can feel like slippery and befuddling things. We can do the things we’ve been told to make us happy, while still not feeling satisfied. Or on paper, our lives can look great, yet we still feel depressed, and the advice that’s out there about these states doesn’t always seem to correspond to our lived experience. Ryan Bush has created a new map he thinks can help us make better sense of life. Ryan is a systems designer with a long-standing interest in psychology and philosophy, the founder of Designing the Mind, a self-development organization, and an author. His latest book is Become Who You Are, a new theory of self-esteem, human greatness, and the opposite of depression. Today on the show, Ryan explains the two dimensions along which we usually plot our happiness, and what he thinks is the missing third dimension, virtue. Ryan then unpacks his virtue self-signaling theory, which he thinks can heighten happiness and reduce depression, and which is premised on the idea that if you want to live a flourishing life, you have to give yourself reasons to admire yourself. I really think this is a valuable idea that everyone can get something from and recommend listening through. After the show is over, check out our show notes at aom.is slash become. All right, Ryan Bush, welcome to the show.

Ryan Bush: Thanks for having me, Brett. I’m excited to be here.

Brett McKay: So in your new book, Become Who You Are, you lay out a theory for human happiness, and you start off the book talking about that most ideas or theories of happiness focus on two dimensions. What are these dimensions and how do they interact with each other?

Ryan Bush: Yeah, it’s a sort of spatial visual metaphor that I think could be really useful for navigating our lives. And so if you imagine there’s a chessboard sitting on the table in front of you, you can imagine there’s an x-axis and a y-axis. The sort of left and right on the chessboard is pain and pleasure. So further to the right means more immediate pleasure. Further to the left means pain, discomfort, suffering. Then on the y-axis, sort of moving closer to you or further away on the chessboard, you’ve got loss and gain. And so this one’s all about long-term success and striving and achievement or loss and setbacks and that kind of thing. And so when we’re children, we’re all sort of navigating just using this x-axis. We want more immediate pleasure and less pain. This is what most non-human animals pretty much spend their lives doing. And when we get a little older, we learn how to bring this y-axis in. We learn how to say, okay, I can put my pursuit of pleasure on hold. I can delay gratification. I can go after this long-term success and gain. And so we essentially go back and forth throughout our lives between chasing immediate pleasure and chasing long-term success, at least by default. That’s our innate wiring. That’s the map we’re using to navigate our lives.

The problem with this is that sometimes the map doesn’t really correspond to the territory. Sometimes we will achieve something in our lives that should be good according to this map. It should result in the ultimate happiness, and it doesn’t really work that way. We end up kind of just shrugging and saying, oh, why am I not any happier now? Or we’ll go through a loss and end up saying it’s the best thing that ever happened to us. There’s been a lot of studies of this where Daniel Gilbert writes about a lot of them in a book called Stumbling on Happiness, where he points out that lottery winners and paraplegics have the same levels of happiness a year after their incidents. And that’s just such a like, what’s going on here? When we spend our lives pursuing things that seem good on paper and look like positive external circumstances, and then we achieve them and they don’t actually make us any happier, what’s actually going on? And so I’ve used this dimensional framework to suggest, okay, there’s actually a third dimension, which is actually pulling the strings this whole time.

As we’re running around chasing pleasure and success and gain, actually something else is determining whether we’re happy or not. And it may relate to those things, but it’s not directly pleasure or gain. And I’ve argued in the book, it’s not meaning, it’s not love exactly, even though it relates to all these things. But this is really what’s driving our wellbeing under the surface.

Brett McKay: Okay, so you make the case that there’s a third dimension that’s going on in our lives that determines our happiness or our flourishing that we typically ignore or don’t even know that’s there. And that third dimension is virtue. What do you mean by virtue?

Ryan Bush: Yeah, I tend to introduce it using the term admirability because that connects a little more immediately to the modern listener. I think virtue has this really outdated sort of preachy connotation. And that’s really unfortunate because it’s got this rich philosophical history going back to the ancient Greeks and Confucius and all these brilliant thinkers who have made very similar arguments to the one I’m making now just without this sort of fancy three-dimensional framework, right? And without a lot of the data backing up and explaining why this is actually the case. But the ancient Greeks, the Stoics, for example, they said that virtue and eudaimonia, which was sort of the ultimate happiness, these are fundamentally tied together. The more virtuous you are, the more satisfied you ultimately are in your life. And virtue didn’t just mean the kind of moral purity that we tend to think of. The word arete that it was originally used as can be translated as excellence or strength or greatness. And so there are a lot of different levels that this can play out on, right? We can talk about moral strength and moral virtue, but we can also talk about courage and creativity and charisma, humor even, all these traits that we basically look at other people in our lives and say, I admire this person for this.

And we observe this throughout cultures. There are certain traits that psychologists like Martin Seligman have observed are pretty much valued in every culture around the world. And that tells us something very important about our psychology and what’s deeply embedded in it, which is that we have these deep impulses of admiration around these certain traits. And so there must be some reason why it is so deeply embedded in our minds and why the ancients were right, I argue, in thinking that it is really connected to our happiness. And when we are depressed, we are in some ways not able to see for one reason or another those virtues that we pride ourselves on. And when we’re deeply satisfied, it’s because we are achieving a high level of virtue exercise in our lives, and we are seeing that fact and observing it and admiring ourselves for it.

Brett McKay: Okay, so I like that idea that virtue is being admirable. It’s excellence. And it could be things like, as you said, courage, temperance, wisdom, humor, but even things like your ability in a sport or your ability in designing or your ability in programming, you can be virtuous in those tasks as well. Potentially. I will say some of them, I think, are not as deeply ingrained because they’re not things that our ancestors necessarily had.

Ryan Bush: So my skill at CAD design on the computer doesn’t necessarily translate. Our ancestors would have just been like, what is that? But from an evolutionary standpoint, I think there are reasons why honesty and kindness are things that we really deeply admire, and so those hold a special weight in our minds. I also think that our values can vary from one person to another. And so really, it most requires inquiring into our own values. What do I most admire in other people? Who are the people I admire most, and what are these traits, and how can I incorporate them into my own life and behavior and lifestyle?

Brett McKay: So you have this idea of a virtue portfolio. What’s a virtue portfolio?

Ryan Bush: It’s essentially just a collection of your top signature strengths or virtues that potentially you’ve always been good at since you were a kid. You really pride yourself on them. And if you found yourself in a situation in life where you started to doubt that you had these virtues, you started to think you were no longer good at these things it would really crush you. You can imagine that despair. And if you’ve been depressed, you may have had a period where you really did feel like you lacked those signature strengths. This is very often the case. People who are depressed typically describe themselves as incompetent, worthless, unlovable if they’re severely depressed. And vice versa for those who are deeply satisfied. And so your virtue portfolio is this collection of strengths that you’re constantly trying to balance and bring out in your life. Or at least I argue, you should be. As you look at the different areas of your life, you should be saying, how can I exercise my ingenuity more? How can I exercise my wisdom more in this situation?

And really it’s gonna vary for each person. There’s a test that I recommend that Martin Seligman developed called the Signature Strengths Test or the Brief Strengths Test, which is much quicker if you don’t have as much time, that’ll essentially tell you what your top five virtues are that make up your virtue portfolio. I think it’s really just a starting point because there are a lot of ways you can sort of define what it is that you’re best at and value most. But I think you need to be paying very careful attention to these traits. When you’re navigating your life, when you’re making transitions, you don’t want to allow these to get neglected for long because your brain will notice. And according to this theory that I’m proposing, it’s going to affect your mood, your behavior, your long-term wellbeing.

Brett McKay: You also have this idea of virtue domains. What’s a virtue domain?

Ryan Bush: Yeah, this is essentially just an area in your life, a vessel that allows you to bring out a certain strength. So work for people is often a major virtue domain. There are certain positive traits that we don’t really get other opportunities to exercise in our lives besides through our work, or at least if we’ve designed our career well and allowed ourselves to bring out those traits. Your relationships would be other virtue domains. You may have a particularly important relationship in your life that allows you to bring out your sense of humor or your creativity or your loving affection in ways that you don’t have another outlet for. So these are going to be really important virtue domains for you. You might have a hobby or a nonprofit you volunteer at or something else. These can all potentially be virtue domains. And this is really crucial to crafting that strategy to exercising your virtues and achieving greater happiness or eudaimonia.

Brett McKay: So how does this virtue dimension interact with the pleasure, pain, and loss gain dimensions of happiness?

Ryan Bush: That’s a good question. There are some thinkers who would argue that basically the pleasure and the gain in your life are completely irrelevant. The Stoics would have said, don’t even worry about those, they don’t affect you. And other thinkers like Aristotle and I would say myself have argued that, well, they matter, but not in the direct sense. Your achievements, your career, these things are not going to improve your happiness in themselves, but they can increase or decrease the amount of virtue that you’re able to exercise in your life. So for example, we talked about winning the lottery. I sort of do an exploration of this in the early chapters of the book where I say, okay, so you might win the lottery and you might say, okay, well now I don’t have to work. So I’m going to quit this job that a big part of my self-esteem was previously tied up in. I’m going to just kind of sit around now and do whatever I feel like and kind of adopt this passive, effortless life and spend the money on immediate pleasures. In that case, the lottery’s actually going to be a bad thing for you and your wellbeing because it’s going to decrease the amount that you’re exercising your virtues in your life and your brain is going to notice, so to speak.

You’re going to cease to admire yourself as much as you did before. On the other hand, you might win the lottery and you might say, oh, this is going to be huge. Now I can quit this mindless job that I had and actually create a new opportunity for me to do a lot more creative, interesting things. I’m going to start this organization. I’m going to become an angel investor. I’m going to invest this money responsibly so it doesn’t go to waste. And in that case, it could result in a much better life for you. So it’s not so straightforward that money doesn’t buy happiness, for example. It’s that all of these circumstantial gains or losses in our lives have an indirect relationship. And really, this is best viewed in this sort of three-dimensional model because you can be moving up in the z-axis, that sort of three-dimensional axis, which I didn’t fully flesh out earlier, but essentially, you can imagine that chessboard we mentioned turning into a topographical chessboard where you’ve now got mountains and valleys on top of the chessboard and it’s really the mountains and valleys that determine what’s good for you and what’s going to make you happy.

So you want to navigate your two-dimensional existence so as to increase that third dimension first and foremost. So maybe taking that job with the higher salary or the greater status really will allow you to climb up that mountain that corresponds to that. But it also might mean creating a new kind of passive comfort that might actually hurt you. It might actually move you down into those valleys of depression and make you less happy even though something seemingly good happened to you.

Brett McKay: I have an example from that. I have a friend who sold his business for lots of money, allowed him to retire. So that’s gain, pleasure, it was awesome, didn’t have to work. And for the first couple of months, all he did was sleep in because he hadn’t done that in a long time. Then after a while, he got depressed. He’s like, I got to do something. So he started another business so he could exercise his virtue. He was good at certain things and he needed an outlet for that.

Ryan Bush: Yeah, that’s a very common story. And I talk about my time in high school and how summer breaks were kind of like mini retirements in a way. I would get to the end of the school year and be like, oh, I’m so excited. I’m gonna do nothing. I’m gonna sleep in, play video games all day. And inevitably, I would end up feeling kind of terrible after like three weeks and almost be ready to go back to school by the end of the summer. And at one point, I kind of realized, okay, I can prevent this from happening. Next summer, I’m going to set big goals and ambitions. I’m gonna structure my days so I’m actually doing things that I’m proud of.

And I ended up turning those later summers into some of the best periods of growth in my life and really satisfying. But ultimately, that idea that when we finally are able to just stop doing the things that our self-esteem really is built on, that we’re gonna somehow be thrilled, it often has the opposite effect. So we need to give ourselves reason to admire ourselves and we don’t ever really get to stop. We don’t ever get to ride off into the sunset and stop doing this. It’s a lifelong process of earning your own admiration.

Brett McKay: I wanna dig deeper into this idea of how do we know when we’re being virtuous. When you developed a theory called virtue self-signaling theory, can you walk us through that theory? Because I think it’s like the linchpin of your idea of happiness and even depression.

Ryan Bush: Yeah, so the big question that led me to sort of develop this theory was why? About all this stuff that I was observing, about the connection between virtue and well-being and depression, I was saying why, from an evolutionary and neurological standpoint, would this be the case? It doesn’t naturally make sense that we would, one, that we would get depressed at all because that seems like a genetically kind of crippling state. Two, that our self-esteem and self-evaluations would play such an important role and would be so central to the functioning of our minds. And three, that happiness would work this way and that we would experience these highs of well-being when we’re being virtuous specifically. And so I draw from a lot of different areas.

This is like four chapters of dense research, so I’ll do my best to summarize it here. But I think potentially the best place to start with virtue self-signaling theory is to look at self-esteem and this sort of central role that it plays in our minds. We are constantly sort of evaluating ourselves. We are constantly thinking about our own worth and we’re criticizing ourselves in many cases. It’s kind of a constant stream. And if we look at the neuroscience behind this, there’s a network in the brain called the default mode network that is really lighting up any time we’re not engaged in another activity. That’s why it’s called the default mode network. By default, this is what our brain is doing. And it’s been found to be really closely linked to self-referential thoughts and self-ruminations and social comparison, essentially the evaluation of our own virtues and our social strengths.

It’s been proposed by some evolutionary psychologists that self-esteem is essentially a fuel gauge for the fuel tank that is social esteem. So it’s there as this internal indicator to help us optimize our social standing. If you think about our ancestors, the tribe was everything to you. If you lived 10,000 years ago or more, you really needed to be on your tribe’s good side. You could be ostracized or killed or worse, they could talk shit about you behind your back if you didn’t do well. And that would affect your social status, your mate prospects, your alliances. Ultimately, it has major genetic outcomes. So what I’ve argued in this book is that this system in the brain, the default mode network, the sociometer, whatever you wanna call it, is essentially there to regulate our mood up or down towards eudaimonia or toward depression based on what it sees, based on the virtue that it notices when it’s observing our actions. So our own brains are kind of constantly evaluating us to say, well, are you highly approvable?

Are you someone that your tribe is going to like, that your friends and mate prospects are going to approve of? If so, let’s get out there, let’s be active, right? Let’s display those strengths and put them out there and capitalize on this opportunity. Or your brain is saying, no, I’m not seeing those traits that I approve of. I’m not seeing evidence that I’m the kind of person I would admire and hence that people in my tribe are more likely to admire, right? And that means I need to be in a state where I’m going to withdraw socially. I’m going to be socially risk-averse. I’m going to lie low, essentially, and not damage my social status. And so this mechanism that I’m proposing essentially evolved as a social protection tool, but it has much greater implications for us. And it’s almost kind of cruel to think that this awful, crippling state that we know as depression would just have come about to sort of optimize our social standing. But I think that’s where its origins lie.

And so the question for us is not how can we do what our genes wanted us to do, which was to maximize social outcomes? The question is how can we earn our own respect? How can we appeal to this social simulator in our heads for maximum wellbeing? And so I think that ultimately comes down to trying to signal the most virtue to ourselves. And that’s why the name is Virtue Self signaling theory. We are as happy as the virtue that we signal to our own brains and that we give ourselves evidence to believe that we are exhibiting.

Brett McKay: And what’s interesting about this socio meter in our head, it’s only turned on to things that are important to our identity. So, for example, if you don’t think of yourself as a soccer player, if you’re really bad at soccer and someone makes fun of you, you’re not going to care, right? But like in your example, you’re a designer. That’s a big part of your identity. If someone says, yeah, I don’t think you’re that great of a designer, or you get bad feedback on that, that’s probably going to hurt you more than if someone says you’re a bad soccer player.

Ryan Bush: Exactly. Yeah. It doesn’t affect our self-esteem all that much when someone doubts us on something that isn’t in our portfolio, in our virtue portfolio, right. If we haven’t built those serotonin pathways associated with those particular traits, it’s not that big of a deal. I already didn’t think I was good at that. But when it attacks our identity directly, that’s when it can really affect our self-esteem and our happiness. When we look at people who are depressed, very often they’ve got a broken identity. In fact, I would argue this is the kind of the essence of what depression is. It’s not a chemical imbalance like is often argued. Fundamentally, it’s an identity failure issue. You have a broken identity in some way. Your virtue portfolio has had a market crash, and so you are now in this sort of state of disrepair in your identity. And that sort of calls for a reshaping or re-strategizing of the state and of our general virtue strategies. But yes, it does fundamentally center around our identity or our virtue portfolio.

Brett McKay: I want to talk more about depression because you went in deep on this section. We’ve had a lot of people on the podcast, psychologists, come on, talk about depression. There’s lots of different theories out there for what causes depression, and a lot of research is being spent on it because it’s one of the big mental health issues in America. And in the west, and for a longtime, there’s this idea, you just mentioned it that, well, depression is a brain chemistry problem. If you have low serotonin, low dopamine, you are going to have depression. But what the research shows is that even if you give someone a antidepressant where it increases, serotonin, for example, it might alleviate depression a bit, particularly in people with really severe depression. But for people with mild depression, it doesn’t do much. What’s going on there?

Ryan Bush: Yeah, there are a couple of problems with this sort of view on depression. One is just kind of explaining why it’s there and why it operates the way it does. If we look at normal pathologies and diseases and disorders, there are certain traits that they tend to share, and a big one is getting more common with age. Right? Heart disease gets more common with age. Most of these awful diseases that we experience as our organs get older and start sort of deteriorating, we get more likely to get these conditions. Well, depression. Most people experience their first bout of depression, who have depression at some point in their early adulthood. So it doesn’t operate like a normal pathology. It also, while there are genes that are associated with depression, a greater likelihood of it, ultimately, we all have depression genes in the sense that all minds seem to be capable of getting depressed under certain conditions. So, this is not just something that made it through the sort of filter of natural selection in some people.

This is kind of a staple of human existence. You put people in certain conditions, certain beliefs about themselves, and they’re going to get depressed, and vice versa. The other issue is that this view of depression as a chemical disorder fundamentally really isn’t that well supported. It’s really bleak. When you look at the data on things like antidepressants, people sort of assume and have really been marketed this idea that there are pills you can just take that fix the problem that is depression.

And really, there’s no reason to think that’s the case. I just, sometimes I say to myself, well, I’m not technically like a medical professional, I’m not a psychiatrist. Should I be sharing this with people? But the fact is, like, I have the same data in front of me, and this is really what the experts are saying, too. Like, there is no evidence that antidepressants, at least the ones we have now, actually fix depression. In most cases, they rarely out-perform placebos. And in fact, cognitive behavioral therapy works both, at least as well in the short term and much better in the longterm, and has none of the really awful side effects. Right? So, really, it’s kind of this misleading belief that we ever had these tools and that fundamentally, depression was caused by this weird imbalance in the first place. I think serotonin and many other neurochemicals do play a role in this state, but I think ultimately, the start of this cycle is the low self-esteem that when your belief about yourself, when your identity starts to decline, that’s like the fuel gauge in your car when it’s running low. And that little light that turns on at the end is depression. You get depressed as a way of saying, okay, things are not working. Your identity is broken. You don’t need to be going out and bringing a lot of attention to yourself.

So stay home, stop socializing. It’s the red light, essentially, and it’s a natural mechanism, I think, for doing that. And so it is an adaptation from a genetic standpoint, I believe that doesn’t mean that we want to experience it. And, in fact, if we can avoid it, I think by all means we should. But I think that means attending to our virtues and our identity and making sure that we maintain a positive view of ourselves through our genuine actions, not just through manipulating our views, but actually taking the actions that we would be proud of whenever we can.

Brett McKay: Yeah. So the decreased serotonin, the decreased dopamine, that’s a result of depression. You feel bad about your…

Ryan Bush: A symptom.

Brett McKay: Yeah, it’s a symptom. And the problem of just treating the symptom, like increasing it artificially with antidepressants, you might feel good a little bit, but then if you’re not doing things that make you admire yourself, create a strong identity, you’re just going to feel bad again right away.

Ryan Bush: Exactly. And that’s why another tactic known as behavioral activation by some studies, works even better than CBT, and it certainly out-performs antidepressants. It seems so simple and so easy that it wouldn’t work, but it actually really does. It essentially is just getting you to go out and do things, even if you don’t feel like it, and specifically doing things that gradually work towards embodying your values, starting small and climbing your way up gradually until you are doing things every day that you’re actually proud of yourself for. This is a really huge, underrated practice, I think, and there’s a lot of data suggesting it works as well as just about anything. There’s reason to think it might even be a big part of why exercise seems to work so well. It’s not just that you’re doing something that’s good for your body, so you’re doing something that’s good for your own self-perception. You are giving yourself a reason to admire your own discipline if you’re going out and working out, or it could be reading a book or going on a walk all these things that give you reason to see, oh, I am an admirable person. I do have these traits that I admire in others. And so, really, wherever you’re at, you need to start from there and then take baby steps and ask, how can I bring out more of my virtues? How can I give myself more evidence of the kind of person that I am?

Brett McKay: We’re going to take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. So I want to dig more into how we can use this virtue self-signaling theory to create a flourishing life for ourself. And you mentioned some things already, behavior activation, cognitive behavioral therapy. But I think someone could see this thing as, okay, well, look, if depression or our eudaimonia or flourishing is determined by this socio-meter in our head, why can’t we just hack it and just say, why can’t I just tell myself I’m awesome? Just tell your brain, like, I’m awesome, I’m great the Stuart Smalley. I’m good enough. I’m smart enough. Gosh darn it, people like me. Why doesn’t that work?

Ryan Bush: Yeah, it seems like the perfect solution, doesn’t it? But ultimately, your brain is a little smarter than that. I think that’s why it’s really primarily oriented around your behaviors, I think. There’s a great Goethe quote that says, like, if you want to know what kind of person you are, never by thinking, but always by doing, do your duty, and then you’ll know what you’re worth. And so I think our brains really are wired to pay a lot of attention to our actions, and there’s a good reason for it, because everyone else in our tribe is going to judge us based on our actions. If we just evaluate ourselves based on private thoughts that we’re having, then it’s not going to be a good representation of what our tribe thinks about us.

And so, really, our brains are centered primarily around action. Now, there are times when you definitely have to go in and correct distorted beliefs, but I think primarily it does need to be about action. Right? You can tell yourself all day that you accept yourself exactly as you are, that you approve of yourself Unconditionally, you’re perfect, you don’t need to do anything different. And you may be able to sort of influence a certain part of your self-esteem or explicit self-esteem. But the data suggests we can’t really influence our implicit self-esteem. We continue to feel the same way about ourselves even after we add all these superficial affirmations and tell ourselves we’re the best. So our brains, they’re a little better than that.

They’re saying, okay, maybe you are that kind of person. Go out and prove it. Let me see evidence of it. And so I think that’s a big part of why there’s not that much evidence for the effectiveness of affirmations and mantras and just really, inflating your self-esteem. If anything, that’s a recipe for narcissism rather than eudaimonia.

Brett McKay: Okay, so you can’t hack the socio meter in your brain through mantras and affirmations. Another solution to hack this would be like, okay, well, it’s there. How about I just say, it doesn’t matter, I’ll just transcend it. I’ll just meditate and use philosophy to rise above that, where it’s no longer an issue. Does that work?

Ryan Bush: Yeah, I mean, this is one that’s been echoed throughout many ancient philosophies. And now you hear it in pretty much every spiritual and self-help book. It’s all over the place. Transcend your ego, keep your identity small, basically get rid of your sense of self if you can. And I think there’s a lot to like about this approach. I think it actually probably is a viable option. I think it is possible to essentially disable, through gradual practice, this part of your brain until you just don’t have a sense of self anymore. The problem is that the sense of self is essentially the engine behind both depression and eudaimonia. It creates this really negative state of suffering when you don’t approve of yourself, but it also creates this incredible mood state of self-satisfaction when you do approve of yourself. This is what we observe in really the happiest people, according to positive and humanistic psychology, is that they are giving themselves reasons to approve of themselves, and then they’re enjoying the benefits of that.

And this can often be very altruistic endeavors, but ultimately they’re self-serving. At the same time, they give us reason to admire ourselves, and that makes us happier. So if we just try to disable our egos and escape our sense of self, but we’re ultimately taking the batteries out of the happiness unhappiness engine in our brains, we’re not going to be able to experience either of those states. And while this essentially middle ground would certainly be better than the sort of self-critical, depressive state that a lot of people unfortunately find themselves in, I think there’s a better state waiting, and I’ve personally experienced it at many points in my life, where you really do approve of yourself, and most of those self-referential thoughts in your head really are expressing pride and admiration. I don’t think we should treat this like it’s a dirty word and it’s narcissism, and we shouldn’t like and approve of ourselves, because I think fundamentally our view of ourselves is tied to our happiness and we shouldn’t, we shouldn’t try to eliminate it. I don’t think.

Brett McKay: No. We’ve had a podcast about the psychology of healthy pride. There’s bad pride. There’s also a healthy pride that spurs us to do more and more great, good pro-social things.

Ryan Bush: Yeah, and pride, really, it’s really two different things that we just use the same word for. You can have a kind of pride that’s like hubris. That’s always the fatal flaw of people, where they just don’t acknowledge their own limitations. They essentially blind themselves to their weaknesses, and that’s not a good thing. We want to have a very accurate view of our strengths and weaknesses. We want to be able to say, yeah, I’m good at this and I’m proud of that, but also, I’m bad at this and I’m not perfect, and I should get better at this. So ultimately, yes, when you are living in a way that you would admire in someone else, you should feel that pride. You shouldn’t be ashamed of it, but also you shouldn’t let it blind you to your genuine weaknesses, which we all have.

Brett McKay: So you argue, if you want a flourishing life, you need to become who you are. What do you mean by that?

Ryan Bush: Yeah, so that’s a phrase attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche. He talked about becoming who you are in this very vague way that’s hard to interpret. And it seems paradoxical at first, like, I already am who I am. Mission accomplished. But I think really what this comes down to is that there’s a certain way of thinking about yourself as the sort of conglomerate of your highest values and ideals. When you look at the people you most admire, when you look at the impulses of admiration you feel and the values that you hold the most deeply, you could say this template of your ideals is more you than you are like, you haven’t fully become this template yet. And ultimately, if you’re living your life well, you should be sort of saying, how can I come to resemble this template in my actions more and more throughout my life? How can I bring together my strengths so that I gradually become this person? And in some ways, that is becoming who you are? This process of self-becoming is a process of gradually decreasing the distance between your ideal self and your actual self.

Brett McKay: So you mentioned earlier how we can figure out what our strengths are, what our virtues are in our virtue portfolio. There’s quizzes. You can take tests. You can take anything that you’ve seen in your own life that’s been helpful in helping you figure out what your ideal self is.

Ryan Bush: Yeah, taking that test is great. That’s a good way to figure out sort of what your innate strengths already are. And generally doubling down on your strengths is going to be better than trying to mitigate your weaknesses in a lot of cases. But I also think we need to look at the people around us. We need to examine people in our lives, examine people, historical figures, even fictional characters, anywhere that we can go and find someone that we admire something about. We don’t have to admire everything about someone. We can write down specific traits. Like, I admire the way this person handles conflict, even though I don’t like this, that they do. And I admire how this person deals with this situation. And if we write these things down, we sort of gradually can group them together. We can create a kind of a blueprint for who we need to become. And so we can strategize our life according to this. We can say, like, would this change in my life bring me closer to putting myself on this piece of paper, or would it move me further away? I personally, I developed a tool called mine-site introspection cards, which are essentially a deck of cards where you take one every day, you go on a walk, and you write in this little pocket journal. And gradually this is meant to sort of answer a lot of these questions.

I think we have an introspective deficiency in the modern world, and most of us don’t spend enough time alone with our thoughts. And so this is kind of a way of getting a collection of prompts that will gradually reveal more about who you are and who you need to become to you, particularly if you. Yeah, if you don’t spend a lot of time alone with your thoughts. And if you do tend to distract yourself with all the endless supply of entertainment that we have today. Another just great thing to do in general is to ask people in your life, ask your partner, your parents, whoever, people who have known you for a long time, what do you think I’m best at? What do you see as my greatest strengths? And very often, they’ll surprise you. They’ll tell you things you never thought about, and that’ll give you some new insights into what you really need to be focusing on and sort of designing your behavior toward.

Brett McKay: Yeah. Another thing that I’ve done in my life that’s been useful for me is looking back childhood, high school years, college years, and thinking of those moments where I felt the most me, like, the most alive, the most invigorated. And then analyzing those, like, what was it about that thing that made me feel so great? And usually you can figure out what it is. For me, whenever I’m teaching or explaining things to people, I feel really good. And so I like leaning into that. So I think that’s another useful exercise to figure out, like reflect on what makes you feel the most alive and the most flourishing.

Ryan Bush: Absolutely. Yeah. When we were talking about the virtue portfolio, I think going back through those historical charts and saying, yeah, when was I at a high? When was I at the best, sort of most alive, most me, like you said, period. And very often you’ll find it’s when you did having an outlet for those top few strengths. And similarly, the lowest periods in your life, you very likely will find are the times that you really didn’t have that outlet. For one reason or another, those traits were suppressed, or you thought you didn’t have those strengths for one reason or another. So I think, yeah, thinking about that, but also thinking about the times that you really didn’t feel like you. That you look back and you’re like, oh, yeah, I was trying to be someone else during that period, what traits were you exhibiting? What evokes disgust, potentially, in people that you don’t like, and how can you make sure you avoid those traits? I think is an equally effective exercise.

Brett McKay: Okay, so instead of hacking the virtue self signaling theory with mantras or just trying to transcend it, you argue we got to embrace it and figure out how we can make it work for us so that we can put ourselves in situations where we admire ourselves more. So we feel like we’re flourishing and we can avoid that depressive state. And you introduced a tool I think is really useful. It’s the ABC triangle. How can the ABC triangle help us virtue self signal to us more effectively?

Ryan Bush: Yeah. So this is a straight out of cognitive behavioral therapy. Essentially we’ve got our affect, which is our mood. We’ve got behavior, our actions, and then cognition, our thoughts. And these have a sort of a perpetual cycle relationship with one another. So if we look at depression, for example, we see a combination of low mood, low activity and motivation and low self regard or low self esteem. And we can see how these feed into one another because if you’re in a bad mood, you’re not gonna feel like doing anything, which means you’re not going to go out and take a lot of actions that you’re proud of, which means you’re not going to have reason to admire yourself and you’re going to develop these negative beliefs and that’s going to make you feel bad. And so it’s a vicious cycle essentially of negative mood and action and beliefs about yourself. So what can you do to reverse this cycle and create a fitting virtuous cycle essentially?

And a lot of it is what we’ve been talking about here. I mean, if you go into your beliefs, and you identify, oh, I thought I wasn’t a creative person, but actually I was exhibiting this cognitive distortion that was all or nothing thinking. And actually it’s much more accurate to say I’m creative in these ways, but not this way, right? If you go through a cognitive restructuring process, that can be a really valuable way of sort of a leverage point for changing that cycle. But I would advise first and foremost to take the behavioral activation approach. And really this goes all the way up. It’s starts at clinical depression and really no matter where you’re at, even if you’re generally satisfied in your life, you can still apply this principle of behavioral activation. But essentially you want to break that cycle so that no matter how you feel, you make yourself go out and actually do things that at least to some degree show you what kind of person you are and how that aligns with your values.

So if you are severely depressed and you’re struggling to get out of bed each day, you probably feel like there is a million things you need to be doing that you just can’t. Well, replace those million things with one thing or maybe two each day, you’re going to get out of bed, you’re going to take a shower. If you’re a little improved from there, you can say, okay, each day I’m going to get out of bed, take a shower, clean up my room and do some dishes. And then you can start introducing things that bring out more of these admirable behaviors. You can start introducing, okay, I’m going to call a friend for 30 minutes every day, even though I don’t feel like it. I’m going to go on a hike, even though I’d rather stay in bed, I’m going to make myself stick to this schedule every day. And gradually you sort of claw your way out of this vicious cycle and you can create a virtuous cycle in its place. You can get to a place where your positive mood is making you want to go out and do things, which is making you feel great about yourself and so on. The cycle continues. And so really we want to extend this all the way up to the point of asking, okay, I’m already in a great place, I’m in a great mood. But I want to go even higher. How can I bring even more of my virtues together and bring them to a higher level than they’ve ever been before?

Brett McKay: Is that where the idea of virtue convergence comes in?

Ryan Bush: Yeah, that’s exactly it. So essentially building a vessel for yourself where you can not only bring out one or two of your strengths, but concentrate a very high degree of them. And the best example of this that I know is my own designing the mind. Before I had started this organization, I had a few good virtue domains. I had a creative job, I had a healthy relationship, but a lot of my greatest strengths didn’t really have an outlet. My wisdom, my rationality, a big part of my ingenuity. These are things that are really important to me. And a lot of them were sort of relegated to like occasional hobbies that I made time for. Once I built designing the mind, I gradually found ways to bring more and more of these things that I was good at together in one place. And that our virtues really become synergistic when we can do this and really amplifies that virtuous cycle. So now every day I am doing things that are giving me evidence of the kind of person I was. And it’s a total 180 from the period I went through several years ago where I was doubting a lot of these things and living through a lot of the stuff that I’m talking about here with low self-esteem and depression.

Brett McKay: Okay. So to activate our virtue self signaling theory flourishing way, first thing you start off with, just do more things that are virtuous. Do more things that will make yourself admire yourself. And that’s going to vary from person to person. Like you said, if you’re in that really depressed state, it’s going to be really small, just getting out of bed. But as you progress, it can be exercise every day. I’m going to journal every day. I’m going to socialize once a week. You mentioned it briefly, but I want to dig into it a little bit. There’s situations where you could be doing these admirable things, these virtuous things, but it’s not registering because your meter in your head is off. Talk about that. How can you restructure that cognitive restructuring you’ve talked about? What does that look like?

Ryan Bush: Yeah, I think a big part of this is that we live in a very different world than the one our brains evolved in. We’re getting evaluated sometimes based purely on how much we increase profits at the company we work for or we’re getting evaluated socially on social media networks that are totally different from our actual in-person tribes that we had really close knit like lifelong tribes many years ago. And so I think what this results in is our brains aren’t always getting the correct signals. They’re not always able to come to the right conclusions. And we see this in CBT. We see it in the most common distortions that we see in depression. Pretty much everything that I’ve put out there, I’ve included this list from David Burns is feeling good, which is an excellent book. Mind Over Mood is another great one for anyone who wants to dive into this process, but essentially starting to log your own thoughts, starting to write down when you’re in a bad mood and say, what was I thinking just before this? What is the thought that popped into my head that made me go into this really awful mood spiral?

And once you start doing this, once you’ve done it for a few weeks and you’ve written down all of your moods and the thoughts associated with them, you start noticing patterns. You start saying, wow, every time I’ve been in a bad mood this last couple of weeks, it’s been because I had a thought like this where I was feeling like everyone was ignoring me or, it’ll vary from one person to another. But essentially finding those patterns in the thoughts that are triggering your negative moods can be absolutely huge because if you find those major thought patterns and beliefs that are causing most of your bad moods and you identify a flaw, an error, a distortion in those thoughts, which are almost always present, you can just eliminate a huge chunk of your suffering instantly. And so really it comes down to examining those thoughts the way a scientist might and going in and saying, okay, what’s the evidence that this belief about myself is true? What’s the evidence that it’s not true? And when you really take a healthy approach to this, you compile the evidence very often you’ll say, actually, there’s a lot of conflicting evidence with this belief I have about myself. I thought I was totally incompetent, but look at all these examples I have that I am really competent.

Actually, I’m only like really occasionally incompetent. And so by doing this process and particularly by identifying the top cognitive distortions, there’s a list of 10 that I think everyone should look into. You can gradually start catching your brain making these self-critical mistakes. Now, like I’ve said, it’s not always a mistake. I think there are times when our beliefs about ourselves are true and that’s when we have to make sure to change our behavior. But there are also times when, yeah, we have a totally distorted belief and everyone can see it except for us. And cognitive restructuring is the process of getting to where you can see it the way everyone else can.

Brett McKay: Yeah. And that’s what a therapist does. They’re there to act as that scientist, that disinterested person. Let’s look at the evidence here. You say you’re a piece of crap, but let’s look at, are you really a piece of crap? And then they’re going to help you figure out, no, actually, I’m not a piece of crap. I mean, I do some things that aren’t great sometimes, but most of the time I’m a solid guy. But you can also do this on your own. There’s a lot of great books that you mentioned them that can guide you through these exercises where you can do this with yourself and journaling can play a role in that. So what do you hope people walk away with after they finish your book? What’s the big takeaway, you think?

Ryan Bush: There’s a lot, but I think the biggest is that ultimately there are a lot of people sort of trying to tell you how you should live your life, how someone of your group should be living. And ultimately, I think it’s safe to pretty much tune those things out and start trusting your own compass. You’ve got a compass inside your head that points directly toward the things that you admire most, that you value in other people. And that’s telling you how to live and direct and navigate your life. You just need to get better at listening to it and doing those things that will actually take you further in that direction. So I think getting better at listening to and actually trusting that voice of admiration. Ultimately, well-being can be a lot simpler than I think we make it out to be. There’s a million little habits people tell you to do to be optimally happy. But ultimately, I think the big one comes down to doing the things that earn your own admiration and following those ideals that are inscribed in your own brain wherever they lead.

Brett McKay: So we’re taking control of that sociometer in our heads that motivates us to do what the tribe values and really thinking about what we ourselves value and admire and living in accordance with those values. Sounds like Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Ryan Bush: Yeah, yeah, there’s a lot of parallels there.

Brett McKay: Well, Ryan, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Ryan Bush: Yeah, I really enjoyed it, too. The best place to go is designingthemind.org slash Becoming. If you can put that in the show notes, that will give you the link to get the new book for one. But you can also get a couple of my previous books for free sent right to your inbox if you go there. And you can also get the Psychotech sent to your inbox every Saturday. So, yeah.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Ryan Bush, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Ryan Bush: Thanks so much.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Ryan Bush. He’s the author of the book Become Who You Are. It’s available on Amazon.com. You can find more information about his work at his website, designingthemind.org. Also, check out our show notes at AOM.IS slash Become. Where you find links to resources and where you delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM Podcast. Make sure to check out our website at artofmanliness.com where you find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you think of. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us a view of our podcast on Spotify. It helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time. It’s Brett McKay, reminding you to listen to the AOM Podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

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