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Nobody really worries much about what is going to happen millions of years hence. Even if they think they are worrying much about that, they are really deceiving themselves. They are worried about something much more mundane, or it may merely be a bad digestion.

Bertrand Russell

Kelsey Piper recently invented the concept of things being load-bearing, a concept so profoundly useful that I occasionally forget she only came up with it this May. She writes:

I think one thing that’s going on here is that there are a bunch of small parts of our daily routine which are doing really important work for our wellbeing. Our commute involves a ten-minute walk along the waterfront and the walking and fresh air are great for our wellbeing (or, alternately, our commute involves no walking and this makes it way more frictionless because walking sucks for us). Our water heater is really good and so we can take half-hour hot showers, which are a critical part of our decompression/recovery time. We sit with our back to the wall so we don’t have to worry about looking productive at work as long as the work all gets done. The store down the street is open really late so late runs for groceries are possible. Our roommate is a chef and so the kitchen is always clean and well-stocked.

It’s useful to think of these things as load-bearing. They’re not just nice – they’re part of your mental architecture, they’re part of what you’re using to thrive. And when they change, life can abruptly get much harder or sometimes just collapse on you entirely. And this is usually unexpected, because it’s hard to notice which parts of your environment and routine are load bearing. I often only notice in hindsight. “Oh,” I say to myself after months of fatigue, “having my own private space was load-bearing.” “Oh,” after a scary drop in weight, “being able to keep nutrition shakes next to my bed and drink them in bed was load-bearing.” “Oh,” after a sudden struggle to maintain my work productivity, “a quiet corner with my back to the wall was load-bearing.”

Examples of things that Kelsey thinks are commonly load-bearing are include things which affect your access to food you’ll reliably eat, aspects of the environments you spend the most time in (from the length of your commute to the light and ventilation of your bedroom), pets, cleanliness, and personal time when you’re alone and no one is making any demands on you. I’d add a few more. Other common load-bearing things include exercise, particular features of your diet like desserts or protein or vegetables, the ability to do something fun, time with your friends or loved ones, access to painkillers or other medications, and not taking heroic amounts of mind-altering drugs. Sleep is load-bearing for almost everyone. But load-bearing things can be incredibly idiosyncratic. For some people it’s load-bearing to ride on the train with headphones listening to soaring music about spaceflight.

Hyper-analytic people of the sort of people who read my blog fall into a particular sort of error when we think about philosophy. We’re sad for some reason totally unrelated to philosophy– because we don’t have any friends, or because we haven’t slept well for three months, or because we’re in an abusive relationship, or because we haven’t had alone time in weeks. But we think about philosophy, because we’re the sort of people who think about philosophy all the time. And suddenly we will decide that the problem is that there’s no such thing as objective morality. Or the heat death of the universe. Or existential risk. Or the existence of suffering in the universe. Or negative utilitarianism. Or the meaninglessness of life. Or the Drowning Child argument. Or atheism. Or the existence of Hell.

I don’t mean to be invalidating, but the problem is almost never negative utilitarianism. It’s true that negative utilitarians are often depressed, but I’m pretty sure that that’s just because negative utilitarianism is a philosophy that is very attractive to depressed people. Brian Tomasik is cheerful as hell and he spends a bunch of time worrying about the suffering electrons.

(Moderation side note: I disagree with 90% of what he believes but Brian Tomasik is one of my absolute favorite people in the entire world and comments about how much he sucks will be deleted with extreme prejudice.)

I don’t think that coming up with a more accurate and livable philosophical system is never relevant to fixing your mental health problems. This sequence is basically (spoiler alert!) “I Fixed My Mental Health Problems Through Moral Philosophy (And So Can You).” But if your issue is a well-known philosophical problem which many nondepressed people have grappled with over the course of their lives, your real issue is almost certainly not the philosophical problem. If it is, it would make everyone who thought about it depressed, and it doesn’t.

It is stupidly easy to forget to do the boring things that everyone knows you should do. I know so many people who, like, take n-acetylcystine to potentiate the effects of cleansing their chakras while in ketosis and who when asked “when is the last time you slept for eight hours and had a real meal?” will answer “…last week…?”

So the first thing to check, if you’re having scrupulosity issues, is whether all your load-bearing things are in order.

  1. Are you sleep-deprived for some reason like “I feel bad making my partner do morning parenting even though I do all the nighttime parenting” or “I procrastinate all day and get my work done at 2am” or “Adderall can TOTALLY replace sleep”? If so, stop reading this post immediately and GO TAKE A NAP.
    1. If you’re thinking longingly about how nice it would be to follow this advice, you’re sleep-deprived, go take a nap.
    2. If you’re sleep-deprived for an actual medical reason or a life reason that is not extremely stupid, you’re probably looking at me and going “I know sleep is important, it’s not my fault I do shift work and have insomnia.” I’m sorry about my lack of helpful advice for this situation. You should tell Scott Alexander to write Things That Sometimes Help When You Have Insomnia so I can link to it.
  2. Scott has an excellent post called Things That Sometimes Help If You Have Depression. If you have depression, work through the list.
  3. How are you doing on basic needs that most people have? Unfortunately, different people have different needs, and any advice I give is going to be wrong or counterproductive for some people, so take all the advice I give with a grain of salt. Things that are worth considering include:
    1. Are you sick or in pain?
    2. Do you do some sort of exercise on a regular basis? (Walks count.)
    3. Are you eating enough food?
    4. Are you getting enough protein? Vegetables?
    5. I said ‘sleep’ two bullet points ago but are you getting enough sleep?
    6. Are you going outside and getting fresh air and sunshine on a regular basis?
    7. Are you either not taking mind-altering drugs or taking a normal, responsible amount of mind-altering drugs that doesn’t make all your druggie friends go “please take fewer drugs”?
    8. Do you experience physical affection from a person or pet? (There is no shame in getting a stuffed animal or body pillow if the answer is ‘no’.)
    9. Does there exist someone who would notice if you were dead? Someone who will talk to you when you’re sad?
    10. Do you talk to a person face-to-face sometimes? Do you get enough introvert time?
    11. Do you do something you think is straightforwardly fun on a fairly regular basis?
    12. Do you have something to take care of, even if it’s just a plant?
  4. Are there any parts of your life a normal person would end up screaming “aaaaaaaa” about? You may wish to recruit a normal person of your acquaintance and explain the situation to them to see if they say “aaaaa”. (The comment section here can be a good choice if you are uncertain whether you know any normal people!) Unfortunately, I cannot list out everything that is “aaaaaaa,” because people are continually inventing new and exciting horrible life decisions.
    1. Are you in relationships with any people who benefit from you being scrupulous? If the answer is “yes, I put enormous amounts of emotion work into this relationship with this person and they throw an enormous shitfit every time I try to set a boundary and they guilt-trip me whenever I don’t do what they want,” that is probably related to your scrupulosity.
    2. Are you part of a sick system?
  5. Do you remember a time when you were less scrupulous? Think about what things might have changed since then. You might come up with several hypotheses: maybe your house is messy, maybe you’re overextending yourself, maybe your entire home state is on fire and you haven’t been able to leave the house or see anyone in person for two weeks. Test them systematically and empirically.

I have pretty much solved my scrupulosity, but I do sometimes have flareups, and it inevitably turns out that my flareups are related to losing one or more loadbearing things. Getting your loadbearing things in order– whatever that means to you– is an absolute necessity for recovering from scrupulosity.