Meaning and Purpose in Life as an Equilibrium of Monkey Mechanisms in an Unmonkey World (briefly ft. Coronavirus)

March 13, 2020
3 min read

Talking about Coronavirus, confrontation with the possibility of death or the death of a loved one, and the emotional pain caused by having higher desires and ambitions ripped away by this newfound sense of perspective, a friend complains:

Why we gotta do this self idealization thing

Emotions are messy, failure is messy, why can’t we just try and like survive and be happy abt not dying out as a species

Alright, full disclosure, from this point on it’s just a ramble. Maybe I’ll revisit and make it into something more organized later, but for now I just want to get it down.

Emotions, stress, pain from failure; self-idealization, striving to be better, even when you know it’ll hurt if you fail. These are all survival instincts; different forces, pieces of machinery designed to make your monkey brain better at driving your monkey body through a monkey world, and eventually have monkey babies and keep the species going.

For the most part, we live in a profoundly un-monkey world. To find a sense of purpose, to find happiness and satisfaction in life as self-improvement books try to get us to do, then, is to calibrate the machinery of our brains to an equilibrium state, to guide ourselves on a path through life that creates least resistance in our brains. And not least resistance as in minimizing pain or maximizing material indulgence and pleasure; rather, minimizing the deepest level of resilience, the part of your brain that tells you you’re doing life wrong, that you’re unhappy, that things need to change but you don’t know how.

To minimize this is maybe to live in a state of constant stress and effort, constant striving and fighting, but knowing the purpose for which you suffer, feeling content that this is the way you wish to live your life. Minimize, perhaps, is not even the right word. It’s like finding an equilibrium state, a way of living life so that the monkey forces balance out, that makes things okay, that moves you forwards rather than being destructive or getting in your way.

Where this equilibrium point lies changes with time and circumstance. If your life is threatened, there’s no point in seeking balance; your primal instincts take hold to deliver you from danger. Even after things are settled, say you’ve found a steady job, a steady life; at any point in time, a new stressor, a new competitor, a new ambition, may come into your life and mess everything up.

Viewing purpose this way makes it obvious why it must be defined in terms of process, not outcome.1 If “success” — say, material or social — is a function in space, these underlying monkey mechanisms — stress, anxiety, hope, ambition — are the derivatives of that function,2 the coefficients of various variables beyond our control. If we choose a point in space — a specific outcome, say a certain salary, or to befriend a certain person — as something to center our sense of purpose around, there are a million combinations of derivatives that will get you to this point. But chances are, most of them create unstable equilibriums, if equilibriums at all, and if these derivatives shift, as they inevitably will if you go through life without thinking about them, your point will certainly become something unsustainable or meaningless. It’s better, then, to define your sense of purpose in terms of derivatives, or at least in terms of other functions that get closer to the root variables: for example, striving to be more communicative or more vulnerable. This way, you get closer to deliberately modifying the function itself, creating something that can be stable. Eventually, if you’ve created a stable equilibrium point that you’re happy with, you can aim towards a different equilibrium point by modifying the derivatives at a different point, aware not only of your surface level achievements, but the amalgamated, adaptable, sustainable machinery of self that you’re creating beneath them.

In an unmonkey world, our monkey mechanisms are often miscalibrated. We must rely on our unmonkey tools — language, science, art — to calibrate them for our lives. This is what we call happiness, the purpose and meaning of life.

  1. i.e. instead of setting a goal of losing ten pounds, setting a goal of running three times a week and eating only until 80% full. 

  2. i.e. your experiences are a function of all these basic biological mechanisms. Experiences = f(stress, anxiety, hope, love, etc.). Success markers are points in this space of experience.