Does Thinking About the Ideal Life Actually Lead to Living One?

Daydreams and self-reflection

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” – Socrates

Do introspective, intelligent people enjoy life more than the masses? Often not.

Ben Casnocha wrote this after the death of David Foster Wallace. Awarded the MacArthur genius grant, Wallace was brilliant, but unfortunately, as Casnocha writes:

Wallace’s suicide raises for me the question about the correlation between enlightenment and depression. How much truth is there to the phrase “ignorance is bliss”? How unbearable is genius?

Wallace is certainly an exceptional case, but it raises a point about introspection in general. I’ve had many readers email me that they felt both intelligent and thoughtful, but somehow led less fulfilling lives than their apparently unthinking peers.

Is Introspection a Good Thing?

To skip to the punch line, my answer is yes. But, then again, I’m incredibly biased. I’ve centered much of my life around the introspective pursuit of knowledge and the ideal life. Introspectiveness forms such a large component of my identity, even if I were wrong, perhaps I wouldn’t be able to admit it.

So I’d like to present some of the pitfalls of introspection, why it might be dangerous and also what I feel is its ultimately redeeming quality.

Why Introspection Might Leave You Miserable

There are a few easy explanations for why smart, thoughtful people are miserable.

The first is that the world, and life in general, really is terrible. Ignorance is a defense mechanism to escape the inevitable conclusion of nihilism and pessimism. The truly intelligent cannot ignore this conclusion, so inevitably spiral into despair, being unable to delude themselves into happiness.

I don’t like this explanation. It fails to explain why so many intelligent people are also extremely driven and happy.

Another explanation is that introspectiveness and misery are coupled. That the cognitive mechanisms that make someone brilliant also encourage unhappiness. So unhappy thinkers aren’t depressed because they have come to some horrific conclusion about the world, but that their brains are simply hardwired for it.

To a certain extend, I believe this is true. Extreme cases of depression have deeper genetic and biological roots, so it makes sense that some people are just born happier than others. Perhaps the introspective people are hardwired to think so much because they naturally enjoy the sensory and unarticulated aspects of life less, leading to lower happiness.

A final explanation, and my favorite, is that introspection is only half of the skill you need to pursue the ideal life. In addition to introspection, you also need another ingredient. So without this other ingredient, your thoughtfulness can never be realized, so it loses control. The desire for the ideal life is there, just that you’ve become impotent to obtain it.

What’s the Missing Half?

I don’t know if there is a good word to place on the missing half. If I had to pick I would say, “actualization” but that doesn’t seem entirely right either.

Actualization is the ability not only to think your thoughts, but to translate those thoughts into reality. To not just philosophize about the meaning of life, but to live it every single day. If self-reflection never translates into the real world, it simply mutates and multiplies inside your head.

Stanford professor of neuroendocrinology, Robert Sapolsky (another MacArthur genius grant recipient) has spent his entire career studying stress. Yet, even he admits, he faces a lot of stress in his day-to-day life. He worries, in this video:

(Click here if the video won’t load)

“I go around telling people they should live differently, so presumably, I should have incorporated all of this. But the reality is, I’m unbelievably stressed. I’m Type A and poorly coping…”

I believe it’s naive to say that he should just follow his own advice. That’s like saying fat people should just stop eating so much. It’s not always just a matter of will. Introspection and applying those introspective thoughts are two separate skills.

How Well am I Doing?

When I first spoke to Ben Casnocha, his first question was, “well, do you practice what you preach?”

It’s a good question because introspection and applied introspection are separate skills, so someone who is really good at thinking of the ideal life may have little success actually living it.

I’d like to believe I’ve done fairly well at the secondary skill of actualization. When I skim over my journal entries from the last few years, I see far more entries where I write about how happy I am, than those where I feel depressed.

I haven’t done an extensive tally, but I’d also wager that the proportion of happy to unhappy musings has increased largely over time. So, if the question of whether all this productivity and obsessive analysis have made me happier, I’d guess yes.

Even just in the practicing of my life philosophy, I believe I’ve been fairly successful incorporating it into my life. Although the purity of an idea is rarely perfectly translated into reality, I’m still a vegetarian, I write regularly every week, I exercise regularly and I’ve stuck to my principles. Sure, I sometimes slip up, but who doesn’t?

The Redeeming Virtue of Introspection

The genesis of this post came from an email I received several months ago. It was from a reader who wasn’t having much dating success. He complained that his friend, who seems to be completely lacking in introspection, has far more success than he does.

He asked whether the problem was introspection itself. Was it simply that women weren’t attracted to guys who thought so much? How else, with the full powers of his self-reflection at his disposal, could he not be more successful than someone who didn’t even appear to be trying?

I can’t speak for the women in the audience, but I doubt that introspection itself was the problem. It was simply that, as always, introspection isn’t the same as actualization. Even if you knew perfectly how to be attractive and desirable, that wouldn’t necessarily be your reality.

However, I don’t think this means introspection is worthless. In fact, despite this reader’s doubts, I think introspection is probably one of the best qualities you can possess.

That’s because actualization is another form of introspection. It’s a form of introspection that is focused not just on the subject of a goal, but the implementation of it. It’s not just the knowing you shouldn’t eat so much when you’re overweight, but the deeper insight into the strategy and tactics necessary to achieve that.

The major breakthrough in my life came when I realized that my near obsessive ability to think about things could be directed towards the realization of those things. If I wanted to start a business, I couldn’t only obsess over the minutia of business, but also develop an understanding of myself so that I could achieve that goal.

The reader who emailed me might have spent a lot of time thinking about dating. But did he channel that energy into making himself a better person? Going out and socializing? Trying to understand his psychology to notice when he feels more confident or successful and replicating that?

Making Use of Your Mind

I’m not here to argue that you should be more or less introspective. I don’t believe that is useful, because I’m fairly confident that how much you think is heritable. If you’re naturally a go-with-the-flow, intuitive person, then I don’t believe you can radically alter that to live inside your thoughts.

Instead, I’d like to suggest that, for all the self-proclaimed nerds, geeks and chronic overthinkers, that thinking isn’t a bad thing. It may be their best weapon, provided that they can channel it not just onto the subjects of their dreams, but onto their realization.

Martin, over at the University Blog, has a great followup to this article.

  • Sid Savara

    Hey Scott,

    I never really considered introspection that way before. I’ve always thought of introspection as a positive thing, but you’re right – I too came at it from a biased perspective, since I’ve always been a pretty reflective, introspective person.

    I think the point you make about channeling my “chronic overthinking” is something I discovered about myself as well. Some of my friends underplan, and that leads to issues down the road where they haven’t thought through consequences – the flip side is if I don’t stop myself, I can overthink things and overanlyze to the point where I don’t get anything done!

  • Sola

    Interesting, thought-provoking article and a great point. This is something that I have come to realize not too long ago myself – the knowledge of how to change and the skills to do so are very different. As Ramit Sethi and many popular marketers and psychologists have pointed out, “Knowledge is the least influential form of persuasion for action.” This is why reading and thinking alone will not assist in changing behavior and why each person should experiment with different methods to achieve the same goal. Not only do you become more successful at achieving a specific goal, but you learn more about yourself and develop the skill to change.

  • Wendy Irene

    My guess is that a lot of your readers are big thinkers, so most of us are probably biased. You need the ability to reflect on what makes you happy to understand happiness, and ultimately BE happy. In my opinion happiness is a muscle that takes hard work to strengthen. You need to work at focusing on the positive, although you are not ignorant of the negative. In some cases ignorance definitely seems more blissful. Sometimes I think that when I watch the show The Doctors. I enjoy learning new things, especially health related, but some things I don’t want in my head afterwards. It is important to pay attention to how you feel while reading, watching, working, or doing certain activities, so that you can incorporate as many things that make you happy as possible while minimizing those that don’t.
    Maybe us deep thinkers tend to experiences the extremes more, like true happiness, and deeper depression, depending on which way you let the thinking take you, and what thoughts you let fill your head. Just an idea. What makes me happy about this blog is that it gets me thinking and reflecting on areas I like to have in my head, the ideal life, so thank you!

  • Kole McRae

    The questions is how you define “happiness”.

    Is happiness some unobtainable future or is it something random and scary that happens when you least expect it?

    I find most “intelligent” introspective people seem to have a beautiful view of say science or math, but when it comes to life they focus on the wrong things. They see happiness as something they must obtain through hard work, when in fact it’s the exact opposite.

    There is a balance in life of happy and depressing moments. That balance is EXACTLY 50 percent. You get scammed out of a lot of money then you make a lot of money. It’s not that simple of course but the example makes sense 😛

    The problem is introspective people tend to focus on the depressing 50 percent. They think about the time someone they love died or when they lose something valuable. Instead of focusing on the positive things that happen all the time.

    Happy is short lived but you get an awful lot of it.

  • Max

    Awesome. This sounds so much like me. I read heaps of stuff about the perfect life everyday. I think about it a lot too. So much in fact i don’t have the time to live the perfect life at all.
    I am pretty good at giving advice to other people though.
    Sad isn’t it?! Some people say realization is the key to change. I strongly disagree. Realization is the key to depression and stress.
    It makes me sick watching how some people waist their lifes. It makes me even more sick how i waist my life. Those people suck as much as I do at most, but they are happy.

  • AHA

    This is something that I’ve also been giving a lot of thought lately. I try to implement “selective ignorance”, for instance having irrational self-confidence in certain situations. There is a time and a place for being self-critical and introspective, but in some situations you just need to throw up a mental firewall and be a bit of a… well, dick. Finding a balance between hyper-critical of self and gung-ho quasi-reckless “git r done!”-mode.

    Are you a fan of btw?

  • Ben Weston

    As a philosophy grad and introvert, I think you’re dead on with the “actualization”. In high school and parts of college, I enjoyed thinking about the meaning of life and essentially anything else that got me thinking. It took me a while to realize that all the time I spent in my head thinking about life, never actually contributed to my enjoyment of it.

    We need to get out of our heads occasionally and just do something. The doing and the experiences that come with it, far outweigh any of the enjoyments I derived from pondering the existence of free will.

  • AHA

    Steve Pavlina has a useful model of personal development, with the core components being Truth, Love and Power. His idea being that you need all 3 to truly be intelligent.

  • Jim

    Sounds like the biblical principles of self-examination, and a bit of meditation – considering what you know, and have learned, and figuring out how it applies to your life.

    Wisdom, after all, only comes from understanding the knowledge we have. Sitting back and plainly thinking about something can so often be 90% of the way to a solution.
    As a Software Engineering student, it’s not rare to see students in the computing lab get up for a piece of paper, to try and work through some operation they need to program. It feels unnatural even – you want to program, but you set aside the keyboard. It really is more productive when you need to apply some thought though.

  • Leela

    I think the ability to introspect is a gift but if we were to take the Eastern perspective, we have to make sure to control it as opposed it controlling us. If we don’t learn how to control our minds, they have a natural tendency to get out of control and think of catastrophes and other negative thoughts. It’s a hard road, learning to control our minds, but our minds are a tool only not who we are and it is up to us whether we use it to benefit us or to make us miserable. The path of least resistance is the latter.

    People who are, shall we say, ignorant experience bliss because their minds don’t wander off into negative fantasies, people who do have introspective minds can fall victim to out-of-control minds, but those of us who learn control our minds – I think that is the sweet spot.

  • Topi

    Hi Scott, what a deep question! I think the answer starts with the proposition that have to be yourself – so, if you are an introspective type then you will be happier taking an introspective approach to life, and vice versa. I know several people who don’t have an introspective cell in their bodies (that’s an observation, not a criticism!) so it wouldn’t sit comfortably with them to be introspective. However, ultimately I think the answer is about taking personal responsibility for your happiness. I think that’s what you’re getting at when you talk about actualisation – it’s not enough to just muse about what happiness is, if you want happiness in your life you have to work out how to make that happen, and then act on that knowledge. And, it changes as you change during your life – just to keep things interesting…

  • K. van Lent

    Thinking but not doing is what I struggle with from time to time… This post really made me think more about what’s next, and gave me the “aha” moment. Cous though I am a introspective person, I’m very depressed and don’t really get the point of living, the idea I hold is that we’re here to learn. It keeps me going… Besides that, we all just like to get exited “war/death/misery etc.” and “becoming/being powerful” so we get the attention we want. This post might seem confusing because it is.

    But my question is, are we all here to just learn / unconditional love?

  • Craig Thomas

    Hmm I tend to think a lot – and very often not practise what I preach. Nice post, got me thinking.

  • Sanford

    A most interesting and thought provoking article.
    As a life-long introspective and optimist (I’ll be 61 soon), I tend to agree with your conclusion that it is an innate trait.
    The trick is to let yourself temporarily abandon your thoughts to act and react in the real world. You shouldn’t try to think through a social situation, for example, while trying to carry on a conversation with someone. If your mental analysis of things has been productive, then it is important to let go of the thinking and put your ideas to the test. The worst that can happen is that you feel foolish and you have feedback of new data to analyze. You might also find that others value your intelligence.

  • BHud

    Like most other people who’ve posted, I too think about life, its meaning, what I’m here for, etc… I see the value in introspection. Knowing more about ourselves can help us achieve our goals.
    The problem I see in myself, and a lot of other intelligent people (if I may lump myself into that category) is a lack of effort to get things done. Just thinking about a problem wont solve- you have to take action. Scott, you hit upon this point. Taking action can often be more important than thinking.
    I too think about those “less intelligent” people who seem to get through life so much easier than I do- usually in regards to social situations. When reading this post, I think of the reader who had trouble with girls, and whose friend was a casanova. We all know people who seem to be naturally good at these things. I’d like to challenge us all to evaluate why we think of these people as “less intelligent” than ourselves, if they can seemingly do something so easy that we find difficult. If we are so smart, why can’t we go out and find dates? My excuse, and I assume a lot of others, would be based on the book intelligence we have. But isnt being socially smart a form of intelligence? I’m not talking about being able to read people- I’m talking about being able to learn how to act in social situations, just as you would learn about World War II. If you’re in a social situation, and someone misquotes a famous philosopher or fact of history, are you more intelligent because you correct them, or are you more intelligent because you keep your mouth shut and let them bask in their glory for five seconds?

    Being smart isnt a guarentee to success, and maybe we’ve all bought into that lie. Outside of school…grades dont matter.

  • Scott Young

    I wouldn’t say “actualization” is the same as “just doing things”

    Intelligent people often “do things” and in abundance. But without the applied introspection to their pursuits, they may get in a cycle of starting, quitting, failing or never breaking their own plateaus. I agree “doing something” is important, but it is more nuanced than that.


  • Bob Cross

    Actualization that comes from “the examined life” could lead to asking why. Why life? Why me? Why should I be happy? Why do I have this intelligent ability to introspect? What is the point? Am I content in “The Cave” or do I honestly want to know reality? Am I interested in the final reality?

  • Colbycheeze

    Interesting read. There is no doubt in my mind that the one true key to happiness, success, wealth, whatever it is that you desire is in, as you call it, “Actualization.” Otherwise known as LoA, Visualization, etc.

    Everything good ( and bad ) that has happened in my life has been manifested from me thinking about it for some time. I can give dozens of examples of how I created exactly what it was that I wanted to happen into my life.

    The speed at which I am able to do so is of course related to how quick I can align my actions with the vision I create in my mind as well as how CLEAR that vision actually is.

    I don’t mean to come off as all “new-age” but hell, it has been my experience of life so far and until I prove myself wrong I am happy with being the creator. 😉

  • Melissa

    As an engineering major at a University where suicides are becoming more and more frequent (it’s actually starting to get incredibly depressing), this was a huge question I was wondering about as well. I read an article that blamed it on the fact that introspective people also have a tendency of thinking too much, so when there’s no real direction to apply their thinking, they start over analyzing their lives and it leads to depression. I could probably see that being true, it’s why TV’s probably so popular. It distracts us so its a temporary relief.

    Regarding this actualization concept, I find my problem isn’t putting philosophies into action because usually I do (I’m a little bit of a self-improvement addict), and my quality of life improves for maybe a week, but then it dwindles. My problem is maintaining it. I get like 1-week “highs” from different life-meaning philosophies and then it dwindles. Do you have any suggestions on maintaining this sort of actualization?

  • Bob Cross

    If a person thinks too much…..over analyzes and then becomes depressed, it may be because of what Melissa has experienced, we have a hard time maintaining our self improvement projects. We disappoint ourselves. We are our own critical watcher. It is hard to maintain projects unless the project has meaning. All of us would like to think that this 70 plus years has some meaning.

  • Brad Carps

    I think the unhappiness comes from not applying what you’ve learned — a choice to not be happy. Ignorance may be seen more as a lack of that choice.

  • Eugene

    Your article triggered a recollection of having read articles over the years about folks with “permanent disabilities” who simply brushed aside the “permanent” part as immaterial to their circumstances. Due to severed nerves or other damage their prognosis was grim; they were paralyzed or otherwise “permanently” incapacitated. However, their subconscious evidently never got the memo, and doctors were dumbfounded when severed nerves or damaged brains regenerated. The lame walked, the blind regained vision, and the mentally disabled regained their acuity and sometimes gained extra-sensory abilities to boot.

    Years ago, a speeding car hit me, throwing me 30 feet through the air. I landed on my head and witnesses assumed I died instantly. Paramedics expected to bag me on arrival at the scene. Not only did tests including an MRI show absolutely no brain damage, but my extra-sensory abilities seemed heightened ever since. My dreams come true, literally. However, I can only “see” future events, not control them to my benefit, and there’s the rub. My life has been a haunting journey of déjà vu experiences, like being stuck in the game Myst. I keep expecting for something wonderful just around the corner, but true economic success eludes me and continues to remain just out of my reach.

    I live the ideal life in a home I could draw a floor map of in my dreams, an ongoing saga. Achieving that life in the here and now has been a lifetime quest, a journey where the elusive destination beckons in the distant horizon, transforming into a chimera or mirage.

    The reason I’m glad that I never got the financial success that I wanted all my life is because recently I have come to a startling realization. I was chasing a chimera that would have consumed my soul, and left me spiritually destitute! Real wealth starts from within, and ultimately manifests outwardly in permanent principled mental and physical security. Real wealth lasts a lifetime through retirement until death, hopefully at a ripe old age. Most importantly real wealth is built on a foundation of faith that all things are possible.

    My advice to you, friend, is to be careful what you ask for in life, because life just might hand it to you on a silver platter.

  • Jonny |

    Mate I love coming to this site. Wither over 7000 articles you have obviously worked hard to get to where you are and I commend you for that. Out of interest, what is it that you are studying?

  • J Allen

    I think therefore I am, I think? Therefore, I am thinking I am there for thinking. Therefore thinking I think I am there for thinkng I think…or not.

  • shreevidya

    Yes, even I have the problem of too much thinking. But now I am focusing on action.

  • Jonny |

    Hey Scott,

    Nice piece man. I read it from start to finish which is unusual for me. Valid food for thought from someone who is obviously skilled in the art of thinking.

  • J

    It may be that Introspection + Actualization = Ideal Life but it’s not as simple as that. I’m pretty good at the actualization part of many aspects of my life(including women) but not others. I know that it is extremely important to manage my time and be completely efficient though I have never been able to put that into practice. I just get distracted to easily.

  • Akshay

    Funny it is that leading an ideal life is the hardest thing to achieve on earth. Maybe thats what the ultimate goal of life is. Introspection surely is needed but after a lot of thinking, it forces me to feel that ignorance IS bliss. Introspection leads the mind to think a lot about future. That translates into the depressed behavior. And the future IS in fact a hell hole. The world is bad. So the ultimate solution to this is believing in living in the moment. Not thinking too much about the future will give you the best life can offer you. Live in the moment. The simplest mantra of living a quality life.

  • Jaundre

    Quite an interesting article, I would just like to briefly give a few comments. The underlying implication of “deep thinkers” is one of elitist fashion. The quote in the beginning is evident of this. In a harsher view we may equate everyone on the same playing field as people living with insignificant constructed desires such as the pursuit of being “happy”. Thus in this regard treating happiness as an inconsequential result of being human gives an answer to the question posed of whether or not deep thinkers are inclined to be depressed. The answer: There is no realistic distinction between being happy and depressed and the both moods are assessments purely as value statements humans have conveniently defined for their practical living. Of course this view is highly controversial.

    I must give credit to the author in suggesting that one’s internal thoughts ought to match reality, yet of course this poses in itself other questions as “How will I define my future through this actualization of my cognitive abilities and is this always of a consequential match to my further aims of being unique?” Or “Are the ideals I pursue my true thoughts or a resultant formation because of the world around me? Would that encourage me to be actually genuine by expressing a few responses with regards to the world in my day to day living.”

    I hope that the few comments and questions posed will be of help. I must again commend the author for writing the article – opens further doors for deeper thought…