The Experiencing Machine

Going to Mars

There is a thought experiment, sometimes called the teletransport paradox, that has existed in various forms from as early as 1775.

Imagine entering a teleportation device, designed to send you from Earth to Mars. The device works by breaking you down into your component atoms, scanning them and then creating an identical copy of you on Mars from locally sourced atoms. This process happens quickly, and the disassembled particles from the original you are destroyed as soon as the process is complete.

As far as you are concerned, you step into a futuristic looking contraption on Earth, and step out of another on Mars. How this has happened is completely transparent to you.

The Mars-you is identical in every way to the Earth-you that was destroyed. You would feel like you, you would have all your previous memories, you would have all the same scars and marks accumulated over your lifetime. There would be no disconnect between your previous physical being and this one, so you could quite happily go about your business without any existential thoughts crossing your mind.

But what if the machine on Earth malfunctioned, such that the original particles were not destroyed and instead put back together. There are now two identical copies of you, each in exactly the same physical, mental and emotional condition as the other. One of you steps into the pod on Earth and steps back out, finding that the teleportation has failed, while the other emerges from a pod on Mars and thinks that it has been successful.

Interstellar regulations frown on the existence of clones. So which would you consider to be ‘you’?

Is it the Earth you, because the atoms used to reconstitute you are the same ones as before the teleportation and there is physical continuity?  Or is it the Mars you, as the successful product of the teleportation, and the originally intended survivor? Are they both you? Or are neither you as you once were?

Presumably, both yous would feel worthy of survival and neither would wish to sacrifice themselves so that the other could remain unique. Both are fully functional, conscious beings that happen to identify as being the same person, and for all intents and purposes are the same person.

Let’s say the embarrassed teleportation technicians decide to sweep this incident under the rug for fear of losing their Christmas bonuses. Both of you are hurriedly waved out.

From this point onwards, both of these ‘yous’ will experience entirely different events and environments. Although based on the same template, both of you will become unique and different people.

Physically, one of you might nick his finger, or have an accident and lose a leg. The two yous would no longer be physically identical. Even eating different foods, engaging in different activities, and being in different climates and environments would slowly but surely change each of your physiologies. Should food availability and activities differ, one of you might become overweight while the other becomes underweight.

More importantly, since your experiences and environment are no longer identical, your GEBE begins to diverge and hence your personality and thought processes start diverging as well.

We can picture the two yous finally meeting for the first time 10 years later, having both been invited for your high school reunion. While most of your fellow alumni have gained a bit of weight, you are the only one that has literally doubled up.

By this time, you (both of you) will have had somewhat of an exaggerated twin-like experience. Your base selves are genetically identical and share identical background experiences, much more so than normal twins, yet you’ve lived entirely disparate lives for the past 10 years.

It seems quite obvious that despite both yous being technically you, because of your differing GEBE, you will be two distinct people at this point, fully capable of having different views and making different choices. You might find yourself arguing with you about everything from politics to celebrity crushes and finding it quite hard to believe that you were once the same person as this moronic idiot.

The logic of this scenario implies that there cannot be a hardwired core identity inside you that is making free choices. There is no real ‘you’ at all. You are simply an experiencing being that is swept up in the tide of chance and circumstance that is your life. Your thoughts and actions are a function of your GEBE and nothing more.

This experiment is of course currently impossible to perform, and likely never will be. It is however possible that a slightly different scenario will become feasible in times to come.

Given that our minds are essentially the result of billions of neurons firing, it is theoretically possible to model this behaviour and therefore, given sufficient computing power and knowhow, it will one day be possible to fully simulate a human mind on a computer.

A human brain could be scanned for its structure and replicated, not in flesh and bone, but in code and logic. The digital-you brain would function exactly the same as the physical brain, with additional sensors providing the necessary sensory inputs.

The digital-you could easily be replicated on multiple devices. There could be a you on your laptop, a you on your phone, a you on your fridge, and a you emailed over to your cousin to help him with math homework.

Each digital-you is as conscious and self-aware a being as you are, with the same circuitry that provides it with the feeling of free will that you have. Despite this, given that it is ‘only’ a computer simulation, it is much easier to see it as being guided by fixed (if incredibly complex) rules, and having no free will of its own. It has to do what it is programmed to do, and can do no other.

Technically speaking, we are no different from this, just packed in a different form factor. Again, such a situation could be used to argue that there is no real ‘you’ at all, merely a being that reacts to circumstances the only way it can.

Taking this a step further, there are a number of prominent thinkers who believe that this has in fact already happened – we are already living in a computer simulation.

We know that computer simulations are becoming more and more realistic all the time. Games are reaching the point where they will soon be visually indistinguishable from reality, while artificial intelligence is seeing steady gains.

If you were to drop a single grain of sand in the same spot every year, at some point in the future you would end up with a towering mountain that could rival Everest. If we are to assume any technological improvement at all, then at some point in time it will become possible not only to simulate a single human, but an entire world, galaxy and beyond. It may be a hundred years from now or a million, but provided humanity survives and continues to advance its technology even the slightest bit over time, eventually this outcome is a virtual certainty.

Once this happens, it will become possible to run virtually infinite numbers of these simulations, much like there are millions of instances of popular games running at any given time today.

Now let’s say that in reality, it is already some time in the future and humanity has long since reached this point of technological development. Simulations indistinguishable from reality are being run willy-nilly by anyone with the slightest inclination to do so. These simulations can be set in any time period, under any desired conditions. Cartoon characters could be made political leaders for kicks, just to see what would happen.

Each and every one of these simulations would appear to its simulated inhabitants as being the one true world. None of the Sims realise their world (and they themselves) aren’t actually real physical beings. Eventually the inhabitants of these simulated worlds might in turn figure out how to create their own world simulations, and there could be simulated worlds within simulated worlds, ad infinitum.

If there are indeed millions of simulated worlds and only one real world, then the likelihood of our own world being the true base reality begins to look very small. It would be like winning the lottery –technically possible, but statistically very unlikely.

Following this logic, our entire universe, everyone that we know and everything that we hold so dear might well just be a lunchtime experiment run by a runny-nosed kid eating cheesy fries.

Fortunately, this is largely an academic problem.

Reality does not quite matter here. Whether or not we live in The Matrix is largely irrelevant to our lives, because it is not something that we can influence or ever truly know about. It is neither knowable, nor actionable. The objective reality of our experiences are far less important than our perception of it. Regardless of the truth, our world as we know it goes on, and so do we.

Naturally, no matter how logical these thought experiments might seem on paper, in reality (our reality) such scenarios inevitably feel like farfetched fantasy. On a visceral gut level we 'know' they can’t possibly be true simply because they don’t feel true, much like it is extremely hard to reconcile our lack of free will. At the same time, we know that our guts aren’t very reliable, and if the scenarios were true, disbelief is by design how we would be made to feel anyway, leaving us back at square one; we just can’t know.

What are we?

However, there is one simulation we are part of that we can be certain of.

Everything in our existence happens in a few cubic inches of brain matter; everything you are and experience happens in your brain. Our minds take sensory inputs from the environment, combine them, buffer them, filter them and present us with our own version of reality.

Take just one of our senses, sight, as an example. It is the strangest thing, but you are never truly seeing what is actually out there at any given moment in time. For everything that appears before your eyes, there is a tiny but distinct amount of time it takes for this information to travel along the optic nerves to be processed by the brain – approximately one fifth of a second. This tiny lag may not seem like much but it can make the difference between seeing and avoiding a hole in the road or ducking away from approaching danger.

In order to compensate for this lag, our brains continuously forecast the future, one fifth of a second ahead. It is this simulated reality that is always shown to us by our brains rather than actual reality. You have quite literally never seen the world as it currently is. You live in a simulation of the future created by your brain. Whatever you see as occurring has in fact already occurred, and may not have actually occurred in the way that you saw it, given that the brain’s forecasting is sometimes wrong.

A number of visual illusions illustrate this point nicely, such as the flash-lag effect, whereby a light is moved in a straight line, and at some point, a momentary flash occurs near the moving light. Invariably, we perceive the relative locations of the lights incorrectly, due to the brain’s inability to accurately predict such circumstances.

Things get even stranger once we include other senses, since sight, sound, smell, touch and taste all tend to take different amounts of time. We all know for example that sound and light travel at different speeds, hence we see lightning before we hear thunder. Conversely, within the body itself, the time it takes sound to travel from your eardrums to your brain for processing is faster than the time it takes for visual information to do the same.

Given these discrepancies, without the brain stepping in, experiencing the world would be very much like watching a badly dubbed kung fu movie, where Jackie Chan’s lips are woefully out of sync with the voice of someone who sounds nothing like Jackie Chan. Fortunately, the brain buffers the information we receive so that it is generally perceived as coming at the same time and we are spared this out of sync existence. Naturally, this means that what we actually perceive is merely a representation of reality rather than being the real thing.

There is of course a limit to how much buffering our brains will perform. Movies with sound that is synchronized within 80 milliseconds of the image are perfectly fine for us; we don’t notice any issues. Beyond this limit however it becomes immediately apparent how disjointed the two are. Similarly, if someone were to clap their hands within 30 meters of you, you would hear and see the clap happening at the same time. But just a single step further and your brain’s buffering threshold would be exceeded and you would perceive the sound and sight as being out of sync.

Even more significant to the simulation is our own added layer of perception, in the form of the stories that we tell ourselves, attaching flavour and nuance to everything that we experience.

We are effectively living in a simulation generated by our own brains.

If our minds tell us something is true, then to us it is true. What we perceive and experience in life is what our brains tell us to, not necessarily what is actually real. Something might be clearly untrue, and yet within our own simulation it could seem self-evident and beyond question.

When our minds are damaged the simulation can go wrong, as in the case of brain damaged people who begin to see and hear things incompatible with the general simulation. If one day, some wires get crossed and your brain tells you that you live in a world full of pink tap-dancing elephants, then that is exactly the world that you will live in; you cannot possibly do otherwise.

Even in perfect condition, our brains serve us unique versions of reality. No one else has your unique GEBE; there can be no one else that has the exact version of the universe in their head that you do.

This reality of course is always changing, because you are always changing. There is no constant unchanging ‘you’ that perpetuates throughout time. As your GEBE evolves, so do you. You are no more the same, exact person that you were ten years ago than you are Santa Claus.

Given that we are who we are because of our GEBE and nothing else, given that in fact there is no core ‘self’ at all, what does that mean for our purpose as humans? What is the point of being alive?

In the preceding chapters we’ve taken a look under the hood and had a glimpse at the nature of being human. There is far more going on behind the scenes than it first seems.

We are miraculous but flawed beings, operating under a false illusion of agency and wired to behave in ways that are often irrational or nonsensical.

From a biological point of view, there is little doubt that we are simply survival machines. Much like socialites who are famous for being famous, we are beings that exist to exist, and survive to survive. The goal of the game is simply not to become extinct. There is no higher purpose beyond that, biologically speaking.

Above all other considerations, our genes are selected for survival. Our outdated OS, flawed instincts, emotions and biases are all a reflection of this. We are programmed to behave in ways intended to maximise the chances of reproduction and the resultant survival of our genes – this is the genetic purpose of life.

As a by-product of this process, our brains developed some nifty tricks, including consciousness and high-level brain functions.

This has inadvertently allowed us to evolve past the demands of our individual genes. Our purpose has consequently extended far beyond mere genetic survival. It no longer makes sense to blindly follow the directives of our outdated OS.

In fact, by slavishly giving in to our base instincts we would ironically ensure our collective doom. Much like divers that pull out their own regulators, we would, and may yet still, cause our own extinction through war, overpopulation, resource depletion, climate change, mass depression, mismanagement of health issues or other creative methods of self-annihilation. Our genetic selves only care about the good of ourselves and those who share our genes. Our evolved selves must care about humanity as a collective if we are to survive and thrive.  

Even on an individual level, we cannot live optimal, happy lives if we are slaves to our outdated emotions and biases. We have evolved a new layer of highly conscious existence with a purpose that should arguably be different from, and perhaps even at odds with our genetic purpose.

Consciousness can be thought of as being separate from ‘who you are’. ‘Who you are’ is just your GEBE, a particular set of personality traits and attributes caused by chance and circumstances. Your consciousness perches atop that, experiencing life as presented to it, like the audience in a movie theatre. Much like the two you’s in the teletransport paradox, there is no fixed ‘you’ calling the shots. Whether the movie unfolds this way or that, your consciousness experiences it equally.

As far as our conscious selves are concerned, beyond mere survival machines, we are experiencing machines.

We are born and we die, and in between we experience life. We do not control what happens to us, we do not control the hand we have been dealt, we do not control our outdated OS, or even our own thought processes – we merely experience them.

Our conscious experiences are the only real thing that we have. Everything else is temporary, illusory and/or much less important than we think. Even the concept of ‘you’ as an entity is fleeting and has no concrete meaning.

Conscious experience is literally the only thing that we can be sure of in life – the fact that we experience it. Everything else in life could well be a fantasy, but it is a certainty that we are experiencing it nonetheless.

We go through life fighting the good fight, trying to amass money, material possessions, credentials, qualifications, status, power and networks. But at the end of the day, we depart the world the same way as everyone else, empty handed, and only our experiences and the experiences of those we touched will matter. This is not to say that practical things are unimportant in our daily lives, but they are often less important than we make them out to be, and we often sacrifice a great deal that is more important in their pursuit.

Our lives are the sum total of every moment we experience, and nothing more. Our evolved purpose in life must then be to optimise our experiences and the experiences of others. To crave and savour every experience as much as possible, and to actively seek out positive experiences. To live lives of quality, and enable others to do the same.

Positive experiences are those that provide us with happiness and a sense of meaning and purpose. It is important to make the distinction between positive experiences and pleasant experiences. They are not always the same thing. The process of mastering a skill for example may not always be a pleasant experience but it is a positive one. Generally speaking, positive experiences will ultimately lead to pleasant ones.

On the other hand, there are pleasant experiences which can be exceedingly negative, both to ourselves and to those around us. Imagine an excessively smoking, drinking, gambling, brawling, rootin’ tootin’ cowboy living wild and free at the expense of others, and you have a picture-perfect example of someone neck deep in momentary pleasures but unlikely to be creating positive experiences for anyone, much less himself. Pleasurable activities do not necessarily make us happy, but positive ones generally do.

As experiencing machines, our values and priorities must naturally be different from mere survival machines. Our outdated OS can take us in directions that are not only harmful to us but also work at cross purposes to our experiencing selves. Our survival machines cause us to focus on negativity, fear, self-centeredness and greed, while our experiencing machines thrive on the opposite side of the spectrum.

We are always discovering at every moment what our lives are going to be. Life is like a movie where you really don't know what’s going to happen next, with cliff-hangers, twists, drama, joy, sorrow and action at every turn. Sometimes there may be a little horror here and there and hopefully a liberal dose of passionate romance. This is your life, and this is what the experiencing machine is all about.

Experiencing time

It is quite strange that the older we get, the less time we have, and yet the less we seem to appreciate it.

As children, our perception of time tends to be quite different. The days seem long, summers seem endless, and every year seems new and bright. We are always living in the moment. Years are so long that we count our age in fractions and announce to the world that we are 6 and ½ years old lest we be mistaken for only six.

As we get older, time compresses. We start marvelling to each other at how the years seem to be going by faster. Days, weeks, months and years start melding together into an indistinguishable blurry blob, whizzing past at increasingly dizzying speeds.

This change in the perception of time isn’t merely anecdotal. An experiment by Peter A. Mangan had different age groups estimate when they felt three minutes had passed. People in their 20’s were found to be remarkably accurate, with the average estimation being within 3 seconds of 3 minutes, some even managing to get it exactly right. Participants in their 60’s however, allowed an average of 3 minutes and 40 seconds to pass by before they felt 3 minutes had elapsed. In general, as people get older their internal clocks become slower and less accurate.

How we experience time is directly related to how we experience life.

Our immediate experience of time depends on how present and focused we are on the moment at hand. Naturally, if we are bored, distracted or engaged in a painfully tedious task, time can slow to a crawl and the second hand seems to tick by in slow motion, like an action hero strolling away from an explosion. And when we are having fun or in a state of flow, time really does fly.

On the other hand, our retrospective judgement of time is directly related to the number of memories we create. Our brains are much better at encoding new or notable experiences into memory rather than familiar, mundane ones. This is why most of last year might seem a vague blur that flashed by in two blinks, yet your trip to Hawaii stands out in vivid colour, and even years later you are able to recall small details despite being incapable of remembering what you had for breakfast.

During the trip, time flew by because you were living in the moment and having novel experiences. In hindsight however, the trip seems much longer than it actually was, because there were so many unique experiences packed into it, creating many memory milestones. It was short in the moment but long in reflection.

As adults, we are always busy, our time is always occupied and yet there is often very little to distinguish one week from another. We live in our minds instead of the present moment, ensconced in a semi distracted state of tedium. And that is exactly why time seems to pass so quickly for us, and seems so indistinct in hindsight. Everything blends together because our routine lives contain few highlights and milestones to distinguish between one day and the next. Not only do we not need fractions to denote our ages, we barely need years.

It is of course just a fact of life that an adult cannot possibly have as many new or outstanding experiences as a child. When we are kids everything is new, shiny, novel and fun. The first time you brush your own teeth, the first time you taste ice cream and the first time you take the bus are all landmark events that mean next to nothing to most adults. For a kid, there is always a new mountain to climb, a new frontier to explore. Naturally, as we get older these experiences become rarer, and it is harder to be dazzled.

Even so, there is a vast chasm of difference between being unmoved by routine experiences and being jaded and cynical. This is largely about the stories we tell ourselves. A jaded person has a world-weary attitude that prevents them from seeing the joy and wonder that surrounds them. It doesn’t help that a been-there-done-that, I’m-bored-with-life attitude is often considered to be cooler than wide eyed excitement. People can go to great lengths to make it seem like they know everything there is to know, seen everything there is to see and done everything there is to do, despite this being a rather strange position to feign in life, being logically impossible as well as undesirable.

As a society, we have become so jaded and cynical that it has become quite trendy to be a person who gives zero f*cks, asterisk and all. Helpfully, a small cottage industry of self-help guides have sprung up to aid people on this quest to absolute zero. Unfortunately, someone who gives zero f*cks is quite literally a psychopath. We don’t need to care about everything, but we need to care. Pretending we don’t just harms us and those around us.

We’ve gotten to the point where we see the next amazing marvel and almost instantly we’re complaining about how inadequate it is, even though we didn’t even know that such an incredible thing could exist five minutes ago. ‘Are you seriously telling me that this time machine doesn’t come with leather seats, a built-in selfie camera and a cup holder? Lame!’

We are able to quite economically and miraculously fly in metal tubes across the world in a matter of hours, covering distances unimaginable to people mere decades ago, and yet all we focus on are the stale peanuts and crying baby.

Not all that long ago, being able to talk to a person across an ocean was a remarkable feat and a magical experience for the select few afforded the opportunity. Now, we get irritated when our phones take more than a second to buffer the latest 4k resolution cat video.

Simple pleasures in life are completely taken for granted – in the not too distant past you’d have to be unspeakably rich and probably royalty in order to have music playing for you while you were using the toilet. Now virtually anyone can poo while swaying to sultry sounds on demand.

In general, people want to live longer lives. Many of us try to eat right, exercise and stay away from unhealthy activities. This hopefully keeps our physical bodies in good shape, but simply being alive for a long time doesn’t amount to much. A long life of drudgery, filled with the same routine day in and day out for a hundred years will probably seem interminably long day by day but exceedingly short in retrospect, with no milestones or noteworthy events to mark time.

As experiencing machines, it is an unfortunate and all too easy thing to be alive without truly living.

An equally important path to longevity is to extend your perceived lifespan. You effectively have the power to slow down the passage of time, to savour life and fill it with positive experiences.

If you keenly live in the present moment, if you actively seek out new experiences and intentionally enjoy old ones, if you keep learning new skills and knowledge, if you keep exploring new activities, if you try to create things of value, if you augment your own experiences through books and other people, if you make an active effort to see old things with fresh eyes, you will automatically experience a longer and richer life, no matter how long your physical lifespan is.

Your mind is where you actually live your life. Your experiences are all you have; the more you experience, the more you live. Even if you do not necessarily live a life that is long in absolute calendar terms, it will feel like it all the same.

Put down memory milestones each step of the way and make every day you live a distinct and meaningful experience.

The privilege of existence

Being experiencing machines doesn't mean that we have to spend every moment skydiving, having blowout parties or seeking out the next big thrill. Even sitting quietly alone can be a good experience. Boredom is a highly underrated state, allowing us to exercise our imaginations or simply enjoy being alive. Rather than any specific type of activity, experiencing is often just about being in the moment, appreciating both big and small things and just being present and appreciating whatever is around us.

Most of us spend our lives physically in one moment, but mentally somewhere completely different, often with unnecessary negative thoughts running through our heads. Not only are we then not experiencing our lives, we are exchanging those opportunities for imaginary, unnecessary and self-inflicted negativity. That is an unpleasant and unproductive way to experience life.

It is very easy to forget how very lucky we are to exist at all. We don’t get to choose much of anything in life, and certainly we did not choose to be alive. There is really no compelling reason for humans to exist at all, much less any individual one of us.

It is a privilege simply to be alive as an experiencing machine. It may not seem that way at times. Life can be tough and cruel. You will get dealt crushing blows from time to time. But being able to go on this ride at all is something that is incredibly rare. Of any being in the entire universe, only you can experience the things that you do in the way that you do. It helps to take a moment from time to time to appreciate this.

When times are good, savour them and realise that you really are lucky to be in this moment. When times are bad, try to see things in perspective and understand that this is part of existence. Suffering is an entirely normal thing, not unique or rare, and is an unavoidable part of life. It doesn’t matter if you are a Queen, a Sultan, a tycoon, a famous celebrity or a monk on a mystic mountain – you will suffer at times. Countless people have suffered before you, and countless more will suffer after you are gone. As an experiencing machine, experiences come as a complete set; you don’t get to choose only the yellow M&Ms, nor should you. Research shows that people who have experienced adversity tend to be happier than those who have not. Without the sour you cannot truly appreciate the sweet.

Anything that we get to experience is exactly that – something that we get to experience; a privilege. We get to enjoy the taste of food. We get to share joyful moments with loved ones. We get to witness the boundless creativity and passion of our fellow man. We get to delight in the sights and sounds of the world. We get to feel jubilation and gratitude.  

Even unpleasant circumstances can be seen as a privilege and an opportunity.

If someone is wasting our time, we get to practice our patience and kindness.

If we experience heartbreak, we get to be free from someone who by definition wasn’t right for us and find someone more compatible.

If we suffer adversity, we get to exercise our resilience, conquer our fears and come back stronger.

If our car catches fire and explodes on the highway, we get to have an interesting story to tell, we get to be grateful we were unharmed, and we get to look forward to having a new car one day.

Above all, we get to experience the moment, whether good, bad or ugly.

Almost every setback has a silver lining, especially when you think of the alternative – not being around to experience anything at all.


Being an experiencing machine comes with certain responsibilities.

There is no denying the immense role that luck plays in our lives. For us to exist at all, let alone exist in such favourable circumstances means that fortune is smiling on us far beyond any reasonable expectation. Feeling we are superior to others is simply a drastic lack of understanding. The winds of fortune can change direction without notice, and arrogance just makes us all the more vulnerable to bad times when they come.

The reality is that we are all soldiers of fortune, and there is but a sliver of fate separating any of us from each other. If you had been born with just slight tweaks to any of an infinite number of variables, you would be an entirely different person. Once we look beyond the petty and the insignificant, there is much more that unites us than divides us. It is therefore imperative that we strive not only to have positive experiences ourselves, but also to create positive experiences for others. We are each part of the GEBE of everyone else that we come in contact with. This is a privilege and a responsibility. We need to make it count.

Unlike with material possessions, it is impossible to grab and hoard all the good experiences for yourself. Experiences are not a finite resource and life is not a zero sum game. Both tend to be better when shared with other people.

From the survival machine perspective, it seems quite ridiculous to spend time and effort helping people who don’t share your genes, much less to sacrifice for them without the expectation of anything in return. But there is a great deal of research showing that for the experiencing machine in us, relating to and helping others is a big part of having a happy and meaningful life. You simply cannot live a fulfilled life without good relationships.

There is a saying of unclear origin, usually misattributed as a Chinese proverb that says:

If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap.

If you want happiness for a day, go fishing.

If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune.

If you want happiness for a lifetime, help people.

While this may not literally ring true for everybody (a fishing trip is probably some people’s idea of torture), the general principle is well proven by science. Momentary pleasures like napping, a great meal or fun recreational activities are pleasant but brief; they bring no substantial impact to your life. Getting married and striking the lottery are life changing events, and yet people are extremely good at adapting their expectations over time. We get used to our new circumstances, go back to our base level of happiness, and simply start wanting more. But practicing kindness (regularly) is shown to generate significant and long lasting increases in happiness.

Studies show that people who volunteer tend to experience better health and more happiness than people who don’t. The more they volunteer the more likely they are to report being happy.

In the mid-2000s, Jordan Grafman et al conducted a study where subjects were given a pool of funds and a selection of charities linked to controversial issues such as abortion, euthanasia, nuclear power and war. Subjects could choose to donate, oppose the donation, or simply pocket the money for themselves. Using fMRI brain scans, it was found that when subjects engaged in altruistic giving their anterior prefrontal cortex lit up – the same parts of the brain that are stimulated by food and sex. This is why people feel a warm glow when they help others – there is a payoff in our brains similar to what we experience from sex, drugs and feasting.

A 2007 study by Bill Harbaugh et al found the same thing – when subjects chose to donate money to a food bank, areas of the brain that release dopamine lit up. Interestingly enough, when subjects were forced to pay a tax to the food bank, i.e. their contribution was forced rather than voluntary, pleasure centers were still activated, just not as much. Even when mandatory, we gain happiness from helping. It is a built in feature.

A 2005 study of alcoholics showed that those who helped others also helped themselves – helpers were nearly twice as likely to remain sober a year later as well as to be happier. Similar results have been shown with patients suffering from debilitating diseases. By helping others who suffered from the same disease, patients became happier and more confident and experienced drops in their own symptoms of pain.

This is a win-win situation all around. Helping people is not only the right thing to do as an experiencing machine, but by helping others, we help ourselves. If that weren’t enough, by helping others you also trigger feelings of reciprocity and liking, automated processes within our outdated OS that make it likely you will receive kindness in return. It is clearly in our self-interest to help others.

In the modern world, it is all too easy to overlook this. When we’re busy collecting achievements and objects we tend to become more cut off from other people, especially those outside our immediate environments. Those who have done well are even more prone to this, tending to find themselves in bubbles far away from the troubles and worries of other people, less able to understand or empathise.

Helping others makes us happier because it makes us feel that we are good, capable people, as well as bringing us closer to our fellow humans. It helps us feel less alone. Life is more meaningful when you are able to see purpose beyond fulfilling your own needs. Seeing that there are others less fortunate than ourselves gives us perspective, and makes hardships in our own lives that much easier to bear.

Helping others isn’t just about donating to charity or volunteering. It’s about every interaction you have every day. A kind smile, a shoulder to cry on, showing patience and tolerance, giving others confidence and self-esteem, teaching and guiding people, helping a stranger or simply caring about someone who needs it.

Knowing that you are part of someone else’s GEBE, you have the power to bring positivity and meaning and influence the course of their lives. You get to make a positive impact. People are ever evolving creatures. Just as others have helped guide you, you can help guide others when circumstances allow. You may never realise the profound effect you have on other people (and they may never realise it either), but this is one of the most positive things you can do as a human. Actions both big and small can have tremendous effects down the line. By bringing positivity, meaning and knowledge to other people you can affect who they are for the better. You will receive ten-fold benefits in return.

At the same time it is important to recognise that you can't help everyone; there needs to be the right environment, the right circumstances and the right mind-set. All you can do is try.

Make a difference

There is also a responsibility we have to the planet we live on and the living things we share it with. Most sentient life on this planet is not human and yet we act like we are the only ones that matter. We pillage the planet for short term gains, ignoring long term effects, kicking the can down the road for future generations to bear with. This is woefully to our own detriment.

As a species we have been hard at work causing mass extinctions ever since we first arrived on the scene, directly killing off entire species through activities such as hunting or indirectly through the destruction of habitats. Our devastation is equal opportunity; plants, mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and arthropods have all had their populations decimated by humans.

This ongoing mass extinction is collectively referred to as the Holocene extinction and is the Sixth and perhaps most significant extinction event in the history of the Earth. It is a direct result of human activity. Despite not being on the planet all that long, we have managed to drive extinction levels to somewhere between 100 to 1000 times the natural rate. We can’t really zero in on the exact number, or know with any reasonable accuracy how many species have died off permanently because of our actions. In most cases, humans aren’t even aware of the existence of such species before they go extinct, or no one realises they are extinct until someone looks around and thinks ‘hey where did all the dodos go?’

By some estimates, we are putting over a thousand species a week out of commission. To put things in perspective, the current rate of extinction is between 10 to 100 times higher than any of the previous mass extinction events in the history of the Earth. Whatever killed off the dinosaurs is like a tickle toy compared to us.

We are the only experiencing machines in existence with the power to nurture or destroy our planet. Whatever massive stroke of fortune resulted in our existence has also turned out to be an unequivocally massive stroke of bad luck for every other species on Earth.

The piper will of course have to be paid; our destructive habits are now beginning to threaten our own well-being as climate change, water scarcity and land degradation begin to rear their heads. It is highly probable that without serious collective change the next species we drive into extinction will be our own.

As far as we know, in the entire discovered universe, we are the only experiencing machines with the capacity to make a tangible difference. The position we have been given is exceedingly rare and powerful. And with many incredible technological breakthroughs just over the horizon, we are on the verge of becoming infinitely more powerful yet. We are the stewards of this planet, for every living creature, and countless future generations to come. We have only one planet and only one chance to get this right. For better or for worse, we are the only hope that this planet has. We are the pinnacle of evolution – the best of the best as far as sentient intelligence on Earth, and possibly even the Universe, is concerned. It is not yet too late for us to use our powers for good.

Find your path

In order to fully realise the potential of being an experiencing machine, we need to understand our strengths and weaknesses and natural preferences. We need to find the best circumstances for ourselves to thrive in.

Throughout this book we have explored various limitations of being human, and how to mitigate or overcome them. But in addition to the limitations that we all share, each of us also possess a particular set of gifts and constraints all to ourselves, by virtue of being unique individuals with specific GEBEs and circumstances.

The rules and norms of society are designed to fit an arbitrarily imagined archetype. Physical features such as steps, railings, doors and furniture are devised by necessity to fit the average human being. Unfortunately, so are educational systems, government policies, economies and cultures. Consequently, some people will find chairs are always a little too low or too high for them, and some people will be stifled by societal systems that don’t suit them. Strengths may be seen as weaknesses and vice versa in societies that arbitrarily prize certain behaviours and discourage others.

Rather ironically, given that discrimination is still rampant, on the surface society shuns away and takes offense from any suggestion that there are any real differences between people. Everyone is assumed to have the same baseline attributes, and to have the capacity to conform to societal norms and achieve whatever definition of success is in vogue at the time.

This is a denial of reality. We are not all the same. We are not one size fits all. We do not all have the same opportunities or abilities.

While fairness and equality are extremely important, they do not preclude the recognition that people are individuals with different personalities, backgrounds, genetics and circumstances. It is completely possible to treat people fairly in an unbiased manner without denying this palpable fact.

Discrimination of any sort is highly irrational behaviour born of fear, and quite foolish as it tends to focus on superficial differences, such as race, nationality and appearance, while ignoring factors that really do make us unique – circumstance and opportunity. By recognising and accounting for real rather than imagined differences between people, there can be a more level playing field, and greater opportunities for people of all types. Simply plugging everyone into the same round holes and hoping that they all happen to be spherical doesn’t tend to work very well.

The average path is safe, but rarely the optimal path for any given person, much like an off-the-rack suit will rarely be as good a fit as a tailor made one. By definition, the average path to success is best suited for those who possess the most average attributes. Society’s idea of what is best is often flawed, and always changing over time, because society is no better than individuals (and quite possibly worse) at knowing what people need.

Societal goals do not account for anyone’s personal attributes or circumstances. Even if you succeed on an arbitrary path thrust upon you by societal expectations, you may not feel as happy or satisfied as you would on a path that plays to your own strengths, weaknesses and preferences. There are too many ‘successful’ but dreadfully unhappy people around, who lived life according to what they thought they should do rather than what was right for them.

As experiencing machines, to live the best lives possible, we need to account for our unique GEBE. You need to live the best life possible for you, which is not necessarily the life prescribed to you by society, family, friends, employers, self-help gurus, other well-meaning people or this book.

According to general wisdom, which varies from place to place and from time to time, success in life is achieved by being formally well educated, by entering a select field of occupations (typically ranked by remuneration), by owning certain assets and material goods, by getting married, by having kids, by being a pious religious person, and by not stepping outside of accepted societal norms.

Social media further narrows the range of acceptable outcomes by constantly bombarding us with a set of ‘ideal’ lifestyles and role models to emulate. Being a doctor or a banker is good, being a sanitation worker or cleaner is bad.

Once you achieve these things, so the fairy tale goes, you will walk into the sunset and live happily ever after. Except that this is not necessarily true.

According to Paul Dolan, a professor of behavioral science at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), the link between the narrative generally promoted by society and our actual happiness is extremely loose.

For example, only 64% of lawyers report being happy (with the implication being that 36% of lawyers are less than happy), whereas 87% of florists feel happy.

Grand weddings and big parties look great on Instagram but statistics show that couples who spent more than $20,000 on their weddings were twice as likely as the average to get divorced, whereas couples that spent less than $1,000 were half as likely.

Another common narrative is that owning your own home is a big milestone in life and a sign of success. There are many cultures where the perceived quality of a potential mate is significantly dependent upon whether they own a house. And yet having your own home has been found to have very little effect on happiness.

It turns out that many common societal goals turn out to be the incorrect goals for most people. Assuming that the ultimate goal for most people is general well-being, happiness and positive experiences, chasing what society wants you to chase will often lead you further away from these goals rather than closer.

In fact, the more such narratives are promoted as being the ideal, the more unhappy we are when we compare ourselves to them. Equally, we often make the same unnecessary judgements about other people, finding them wanting simply because their path has led them a different way.

A focus on goals that aren’t aligned with personal circumstances diminishes happiness by being always frustratingly unattainable, or unsatisfying when attained, since they were never really your own personal goals in the first place.

On top of that is the fact that it is often necessary to sacrifice positive things (e.g. time, relationships, peace of mind) in order to attain things that may turn out to be less satisfying than imagined (e.g. huge amounts of money, status, material goods).

Humans are vastly more similar than different, yet our differences are enough that we cannot expect everyone to live life in the same way, or define success in the same way.

It is pleasant and empowering to read inspirational quotes and articles that tell us what we want to hear. We are told that we can do anything that we set our minds to, we can grow up to be anything we want to be, the world is our oyster, and if we but work hard enough we can achieve anything. We are bombarded with success stories in the media, showing us that with just a bit of hard work and ingenuity, half a college degree and a garage, we too can start the next billion dollar company. We are continuously told that falling in love and getting married leads to happily ever after, and being single is a miserable fate. These nuggets sound laden with wisdom on first contact but are woefully simplistic, completely ignoring how much serendipity is involved in anything that happens. Even worse, they spur people to blindly follow trends and pursue dreams that are not necessarily their own.

Alas, it simply isn’t true that we can all be breakout successes at everything simply because we want to be, as evidenced by the fact that most people are not in fact breakout successes (by society’s narrow definition). Hard work, perseverance and resilience will do wonders, but they won’t make the impossible possible. All things being equal, a 4’ 7” person is not going to be the next NBA all-star, nor is someone who is 6’ 7” going to become the next star jockey.

This does not mean that each of us do not possess remarkable abilities and capacity. We absolutely do. It is a virtual certainty that you are particularly and perhaps even uniquely suited for a specific set of tasks and environment. In the right pond, you would undoubtedly be amongst the fastest swimmers.

There is no one on Earth that is a guaranteed success at everything they do. Success in one field does not assure success in other fields. Bill Gates wouldn’t have made the best wrestler, Michael Jordan wouldn’t have made the best accountant, Barack Obama wouldn’t have made the best ballet dancer, Michelangelo wouldn’t have been the best web designer,and Gandhi wouldn’t have made the best engineer. We each have unique GEBEs that make us suited for certain things and unsuited for others. It is a certainty that no matter how blessed you are in intelligence and ability, you would flounder in some settings and flourish in others.

There is also the question of what success means for you personally. Society’s definition is simplistic at best, and vastly misguided at worst, ignoring everything that we scientifically know about what actually makes for a happy, meaningful life. It forces us to take paths in life that are unsuitable, unpleasant and often harmful to ourselves and others, for the sake of trinkets and imaginary status that we do not need. It forces us to always want more instead of enough.

It is vital to find the right environment and the right role for yourself in life – to find the right ocean, river or pond to swim in. In order for the experiencing machine to thrive, you have to find the right slot for yourself in the jigsaw puzzle. The life of a square peg in a round hole is an unfulfilled one. You would be a resounding success in certain situations, and a disastrous failure in other situations; just like everyone else.

Surround yourself with people and circumstances that will allow you to thrive and provide you with the necessary GEBE to become the person you want to be. The right relationships will make you happy as well as more likely to be successful in all aspects of life. Be selective about the people you spend the most time with. They are all part of your GEBE – whether you want it or not, whether you realise it or not, they will affect you and they will change you. Seek out the people that you most wish to become like. Avoid bad influences like the plague; bad behaviour is surprisingly infectious to our outdated OS.

The right environment will make use of your genetics, background, skills, knowledge, emotional disposition and biases while at the same time avoiding your greatest flaws and limitations. This is the sweet spot where you can be the happiest and most successful.

Know thyself. Take time to really identify your strengths and weaknesses, not just in terms of skills, knowledge and qualifications, but also your emotions, biases and attitudes. Introspection is not something most of us are proficient at, so you may need to enlist help from others for a more objective view. In some cases this will be quite obvious; if you loathe having your photograph taken you probably shouldn’t become a fashion model. Most cases are a little more nuanced and will take more effort to tease out.

Even then, this profile will only be a snapshot in time since you are always evolving. You can use this snapshot to identify the gaps between who you want to be and who you are now, and seek out knowledge, experiences and people that will help you to close those gaps. As your GEBE evolves, so will you.

Write a profile for yourself with your findings. By referring to this profile, or showing it to trusted friends, you will be able to get a picture of who you are and what type of environments best suit you. You may not get it right the first time, but the more you explore, the more you experience, the more you will find your place in the world.

A panda is an animal that suffers because it does not know what it is. A panda has the digestive system of a carnivore and yet insists on being a herbivore – they consume bamboo and almost nothing else. As a result, they get very little nutrition from their diet, most of it being passed out as waste. To make up for this, they need to eat disproportionate amounts of food to stay alive, spending more than 10 hours a day simply eating.

To make matters worse, pandas are incredibly picky about mating. They are only fertile for a few days per year and yet their mating rituals go on for weeks. This is like Halley’s comet coming around once every 75 years, but instead of standing outside gazing at the sky you spend two months choosing your viewing outfit.

In a particularly unkind evolutionary kick in the pants, male pandas have been equipped with some of the smallest penises in the mammal kingdom relative to their body size, making it even harder to successfully breed.

If pandas were to take stock of themselves and understand their own strengths and weaknesses they might be able to reposition themselves and make life a lot easier.

Don’t be a panda.