Don’t Measure the Quality of Your Life Using the Temperature of Your Nachos

15 minute read

A few years back, I read an anecdote somewhere on the web by a guy whose boss had won an all-expenses-paid trip to see an NFL game with amazing seats. The following Monday, the author asked him how it had gone. “Oh, it was terrible,” he says. “My nachos were too cold.”

The author’s point was, how much must it suck to be someone for whom nachos that are the wrong temperature can ruin an entire weekend?

This essay isn’t about pettiness, or tolerance for cold nachos. It’s about people’s inclination and ability to evaluate experiences and lives as wholes, rather than as reflections of their worst parts. As far as this skill goes, I think I’m on the opposite end of the spectrum from this guy’s boss, to the point that people comment on how optimistic I am (although I think this is a misleading way of describing it; more on that later). So suppose I, personally, had gone to a football game and gotten some absolutely disgusting nachos – the worst nachos I could imagine, so that I couldn’t take more than a couple of bites – and they cost me $35. I’d certainly be telling the story of my disgusting $35 nachos years later. But I’d come back having enjoyed the weekend, because the weekend wasn’t about the nachos. By the time I arrived home, I’d be more amused than upset about the whole thing.

In real life, on March 11 of this year a heroin addict stole my car out of my apartment parking lot. I wasn’t able to drive it again until May 19, and didn’t have everything repaired until May 31. (Turns out drug users who steal cars on the spur of the moment usually aren’t the kindest to them.) This experience was…fine? I mean, I wouldn’t voluntarily choose to have it, but it just wasn’t that big of a deal. I was about $1,000 out of pocket, but I have savings for that kind of thing. I live in a place where I can easily meet all my daily needs by walking or biking. I can work from anywhere and don’t have to drive to work. I have access to tolerably decent public transit, had Uber if I needed it (I only needed it once), and my friends could pick me up when we were going somewhere inconvenient together. I wasted a few hours of my life on the phone with my insurance company and the body shop, but that’s nothing unusual nowadays. I had to skip a few activities I normally would have enjoyed, but I just replaced them with other things I enjoyed temporarily. I got a few good stories out of it. I gained useful perspective on what it’s like to live here without access to a car. And I certainly learned not to leave my spare key in my car.

I also recently broke up with someone I had been dating for about three months. This was not a particularly difficult breakup as things go; it was only three months in, and part of the problem was that neither of us were feeling that much of a romantic connection. But I noticed that people around me still accused me of being unreasonably optimistic. I certainly wasn’t happy this happened, and I felt pretty bad for a day or two, but then…I was fine? Nothing terrible happened here. While both of us made some mistakes, I don’t think any of them fundamentally changed the outcome, and that things didn’t work out wasn’t a reflection on either of us individually; it was more a bad match than anything else. There was no yelling or crying involved, and we’ll probably even see each other again as friends.

I think people tend to be unreasonably upset by endings. The ending is only a small part of the story, which was good here! I think we both enjoyed almost all the time we spent together (I certainly did), and I learned a whole lot. Expecting things to be permanent when nobody ever promised they would be is a great way to feel bad for no reason. In fact, come to think of it, even the ending was basically good here, as I explained above. The only unpleasant part was that it happened – nobody likes change.

I need to point out that I’m not saying I don’t have emotions, or that I dislike them or try to get rid of them, because that’s the straw man that people create when they look for reasons not to think about life the way I’m doing here. I had a lot of complicated thoughts about this breakup and the ways my own weaknesses contributed to it, and I was sad and lonely for a little while. I was pretty annoyed when my car was stolen; at first I was worried that I wouldn’t get it back at all and I’d have to deal with buying a new car, and then I was angry at my insurance adjuster for yanking me around (I have some unkind words for Geico which I will not print here). And I’m certainly not saying that you can’t feel bad about things, whether they’re tiny or huge. Sometimes it’s best to just let yourself feel bad and not worry about solutions or rationalization or moving on for a bit.

The point is that once you’ve figured out what you’re feeling and the emotions have served their purpose, you stop focusing on them, and you create a new narrative for yourself that doesn’t unduly emphasize things merely because you had strong feelings about them at the time. If you do that, you’ll be able to believe that life is mostly good, even in the face of a lot of struggle and suffering – because, for most people, it ultimately is. It’s just hard to see that if you let yourself disproportionately pay attention to the things that are naturally most obvious and easiest to remember, that is, the small things that make you feel particularly strong emotions in the moment.

Maybe this sounds easier said than done to you, and I think I probably am unusually capable by disposition of controlling my attitude. But I also think there are some things anyone can do to improve their ability to consistently see the whole picture. Here are five that help me.

(1) Write down what’s happened to you. It’s a lot easier to think clearly about your experiences if you get them out of your head and linearize them. When you take the time to retell the whole story, every part gets the airtime it deserves, not just the parts that you feel the strongest about.

You can tell the story to other people, but I often find writing more effective even if it’s harder and more time-consuming. You’ll be less tempted to bend the truth; you’ll only be influenced by yourself, not the experiences of someone else; and you can refer to what you wrote later to compare with other, newer experiences. (Obviously, talking to other people is helpful as well, because they will sometimes have experiences you don’t, and thus be able to give you insights you couldn’t reach yourself. Doing both is the best.)

It’s especially worth seeking ways to concisely and accurately describe what you’re feeling. I was bad at this as a kid, and I’ve gotten better more or less just by trying repeatedly. If you can’t explain what you’re feeling, chances are you don’t fully understand it, and if you don’t fully understand it, you won’t be getting the message that those emotions are supposed to deliver.

I just looked and, over the three months we were together, I wrote more than 36,000 words about my relationship with the woman I recently broke up with, and that doesn’t count the notes I put in places that aren’t organized chronologically (e.g., general observations about myself and my behavior). I’m not saying you have to write that much, but it doesn’t hurt if you’re serious about getting better at understanding yourself and your life. By the time we got to the end, what happened didn’t surprise me, it almost felt like a foregone conclusion that I already understood, even though I didn’t expect it to happen when it did or take the form it did. Afterwards, I was able to easily wrap up my thoughts about the relationship and get ready to move on by finishing the story I already had written down.

(2) Think of your life as an accumulation of stories. Speaking of stories, they’re a natural and emotionally satisfying way of thinking about the world. Not everything that happens in a story is supposed to be hunky-dory. Arguably, it wouldn’t be a story at all if everything were, and that’s fine because life isn’t perfect either. Life is more fun when you have challenges to overcome.

I’m reminded of this scene from Harold and Maude, in which Maude says:

A lot of people enjoy being dead. But they are not dead really. They’re just backing away from life. Reach out! Take a chance! Get hurt maybe. But play as well as you can.…Otherwise you’ll have nothing to talk about in the locker room.

Look for stories to tell in the locker room, and accept them when they come to you, regardless of how you feel about them at the time.

(3) Try to focus less on whether experiences were good or bad. I’m not saying you can’t believe that, e.g., a child dying of preventable illness is bad. And it’s fine to feel bad when something unpleasant happens to you – for a little while. But especially with experiences that are more ambiguous, it’s often more productive to simply think of things that happened and together make up your story, without worrying too much about their moral value.

(4) Stay away from compilations of negative events and ideas, to the extent practical, and counteract them with your own compilations of positive ones. The news and social media tend to emphasize the negative, with the result that bad things are more accessible than good things, and everything looks worse than it actually is. It’s OK to stay up to date on things if that’s what you want to do, but try to spend as little time in negative-compilation-land as possible while meeting your other goals.

I’ve noticed that at the end of the year, people have a tendency to talk about how bad the year was. To a significant extent, they focus on what happened in the world, and what the news has reported, because that’s the easiest for them to access at that point. Then they conclude from this that the world and even their own life felt bad. For a few years, I’ve been intentionally counteracting this by spending January 1 going through my journals, calendar, email, blog posts, files, and so on to compile a comprehensive picture of everything that happened to me in the last year. And I can honestly say that not one year has looked actively bad once I did that. Some years have been better than others, for sure. But when you evaluate any year as a whole, you can spot the good aspects of things you weren’t sure about back when they happened, and you see that the overwhelming majority of things that happen to you are quite all right, or even wonderful.

(I’m not saying you can’t have bad years. I wouldn’t say I’ve had shockingly good luck over the past few years, but also, no horrendous disasters have happened to me personally, and I’m certainly living in a privileged part of both the current world and human history. But unless you’re unusually unlucky, I bet the vast majority of your years are good on balance. Even if you’re, say, permanently disabled, chances are your happiness and perspective will adjust to get you feeling all right again within a year.)

(5) Remember, and try to feel intuitively, that the past is gone. I promised earlier that I would explain why I think calling myself optimistic is misleading. I don’t think it’s strictly wrong, but this word tends to also describe a cluster of beliefs that I don’t hold. I don’t believe that problems always have a solution, things always turn out for the best, or suffering is a necessary part of some cosmic plan. I certainly don’t like everything that happens to me, and I don’t explicitly search for ways to reframe everything as good. I also spend quite a bit of time planning ahead for potentially bad future events; I don’t trust that everything will work out the way I want it to.

But I do believe that, ultimately, once bad things have happened, it’s fine that they have. Possibly my favorite subtitle to any book ever is to Derren Brown’s book on Stoicism, Happy: “Why more or less everything is absolutely fine.” Because it is – if you let it be. The things happened; now you get to choose how you’re going to respond, and while complaining about the situation you find yourself in is always an option, it can’t possibly buy you anything.

I’ve been fascinated by David Cain’s idea that your life is always just beginning for a while. Think about how every movie starts with a moment where the scene fades in from black and you slowly come to understand the situation the characters have been placed in. There is no time in the story before that moment, and in the audience (or as the storyteller, for that matter) you don’t really think about what happened “back then” except to understand how the current scene will work. The story now takes the past as given and works from there.

The thing is, that’s your life, right now, every moment. The past is gone and your next story starts right now. This is the first moment you can control.

You can take advantage of this idea by pretending that you didn’t live the last however many years of your life. Instead, you just got plopped into your body and woke up right now, with your current situation and memories, and you take the story from here. This might seem like a stupid trick that couldn’t possibly work, but I was lucky enough to be reminded of this idea right at the time of my breakup a couple of weeks ago, so I gave it a try a couple of times, and my verdict is, it really works! If things aren’t going the way I want when I do this, I suddenly feel like I have the ability and energy to go change them, and that I started in a situation I don’t like doesn’t feel so bad anymore. It’s like I suddenly detach from whatever bad decisions and bad luck my past self got himself into and jump into somebody else’s problem. I don’t have to feel bad about the things they felt bad about – they didn’t happen to me – and I know I’m smart and motivated enough to fix the problem for them, or at least to move on to the next chapter.

Before I wind up, I want to make sure I’m not being too hard on nacho guy, because nacho guy is not so different from any of us. While the anecdote is self-evidently absurd and appears to display a stunning lack of emotional maturity, I think we’ve all been there. Nobody’s perfect at seeing things from the right perspective, especially in the moment.

So your goal, should you choose to accept the ongoing challenge of broadening your perspective in a way that will hopefully make your life more joyful, is not to avoid getting frustrated when you get a plate of nachos that’s too cold; you will fail at that sometimes, and when the problem is worse than cold nachos, it might be better for you anyway not to entirely suppress those feelings. Your goal is instead to periodically pause and reflect on how your weekend is going, and to recognize, when you do, that actually, it’s going pretty well, the fact that you got some cold nachos is inconsequential, and it’s time to move on and enjoy the rest of the day and the rest of your life.