Life can be very difficult to understand or figure out. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why does evil exist? What is the right thing to do in no-win situations? Questions like these can eat up your time in deep philosophical thought trying to find the best way to either live optimally or understand why the world works the way it does.
While we do the best we can, we often build up a set of beliefs based on our personal experience to allow us to move on with our lives or to protect us from future pain or harm. For example, if you show your vulnerability to someone and they mock or betray you, you'll be more careful in the future with how you come to trust someone. While there are too many questions and answers to address in one blog post, there are a few common conclusions that people draw that are important and life-altering enough that they should be addressed.
Below are eight major fallacies in thinking about life that can hold you back, waste your time, or leave you wondering where you are going wrong. The logic behind these fallacies seems perfectly valid, but there are critical errors or mistakes that prevent you from seeing how these conclusions can lead you down the wrong path.
Life's 8 Major Fallacies
1. There is a Universal, Objective Goal or Definition of Success for Everyone – This is probably the fallacy that will waste the most of your time on the list if you keep searching forever for "The Truth" in terms of what everyone is objectively supposed to be striving for in this world. You'll be looking for your whole life, and you will never find it. Some people look to the origin of life for answers around the meaning of life, while others look at what others are doing or what different masters say to look for.
The simple answer is in the proverb, "Life is a journey, not a destination." The point of life is to choose your own destination and experience the journey of growth toward what you want to achieve in life. The only universal, objective meaning or purpose that applies to all is growth, while your goals or what you choose to grow to be is completely up to you. When you accept growth as the only thing that unifies you with other living organisms and stop looking for a universal goal or outcome, you'll begin to become the author of your own life.
2. Negative Experiences Are Bad and Should Be Avoided – This fallacy will possibly hold you back the most. It's basically a fear of failure, pain, and harm to the point of avoiding some of the biggest growth opportunities in life. Of course, if you touch a hot stove and burn yourself, you probably shouldn't do that again. The negative feedback that you receive is telling you to avoid the harm to your body. But there are experiences that you associate with being unpleasant that would actually contribute to your growth: losing, failing, practicing, exercises, learning, or working. Sadly, many people equate these experiences in their mind with touching the hot stove, and that can and will lead to avoiding beneficial experiences.
If you don't learn or practice, you cannot get better. If you do not lose or fail once in a while, you'll never be able to succeed in areas where everyone else has failed. If you don't exercise, you won't be able to maintain your health. If you don't find the value of or joy in work, then you will not accomplish a fraction of what you would otherwise. If you want to get the most out of life, you have to change your mindset around from experiences being simply "good" or "bad" to ones that are "beneficial" and "harmful". The latter framework puts a whole set of unpleasant or uncomfortable experiences and puts them in a category of experiences that you should have more often than you would otherwise, and you will be much better off as a result.
3. You Always Want What You Don’t Have and Have What You Don’t Want – Yes, there is a different feeling when you want something you lack compared to when you want something you have: desire vs. appreciation. So, once you attain a goal or obtain the thing you want, you no longer have that desire but rather now appreciate it. The same concept applies to long-time couples who switch from an unquenchable desire for each other when they're going through the courting process (which involves a lot of dopamine and oxytocin) to the long-term pair bonding of a sustainable marriage (which involves a lot of endorphins). In either case, that sense of desire has to subside, or you'd only accomplish one thing in life (i.e., you put the rest of your life on hold because you only care about that object you obtained or you obsess over your mate 24/7).
However, just because your desire has to change so you can keep moving forward in life, that doesn't mean that your appreciation does. In other words, you can both have what you want and want things you don't have. You will have a lifetime of new things to want and existing things to appreciate. Nothing proves this point more than when your whole life seems to be falling apart but you have that one thing you can always rely on. When it's a person, they're often credited as being "the rock" in a person's life. When it's a home, it's seen as a "haven" or "sanctuary" from the troubles of the world. When it's music, a book, or a device, it's an "escape" or a "reliable friend that's always there for you" to the person who treasures it. Rather than seeing the world as great things you don't have and junk you have that you don't want, it's important to see things as wonderful things you have and wonderful things you don't have yet. By always being content but never being satisfied, you'll maintain good feelings toward life instead of feeling a sense of lacking.
4. It Doesn't Matter What You Believe—the Truth Is What It Is – This is the hardest one to prove is a fallacy because it seems like a tautology. After all, the truth is the truth regardless of what you believe. However, the faulty logic is not in the statement itself but rather in how people extend it past its point of legitimacy. There are unchangeable truths like the law of gravity, and changeable "truths" like how many representatives are in your local, state, or federal governments. Finally, there is what you choose to focus on or prioritize, and there is what you end up doing based on how you assess a situation.
So, no matter what "the truth" happens to be at any given moment, your beliefs absolutely matter and can make all the difference in whether you succeed or fail, are happy or sad, or do the right thing or not. You might see the fact that there are only a few people who ever make it to the NFL and so never bother to try. While it's true that there are only hundreds of NFL players, it's also true that there are millions of people who play the sport recreationally and many, many thousands of people who are paid to play around the world. So "truth" is not so absolute and objective as it may seem since there are so many variables at play and you usually only factor a few of the most important ones in your decision making. The reality is that regardless of what the truth is, you should hold beliefs that are beneficial to you. The truth might change, or you might change what is true. In either case, you'll only act if you believe it's possible in the future regardless of what is true now.
5. The Ultimate Goal in Life Is to Be Happy – Ah, happiness. Of course, everyone wants to be happy. There's nothing wrong with being happy or trying to be happy. However, the flaw in this statement is that it's inaccurate: happiness is the indicator that you've achieved your goal, not the goal itself. It's like to say that the point of going to school is to get A's. No, it's really not—the point is to learn, and A's prove that you did learn. Likewise, the point of life is to grow through experience, and you know you're doing it right if you're happy.
The other problem with seeing happiness as the point is that all indicators can be gamed. In that grade example, you can always cheat to get an A and not have actually learned anything. So, yeah, you got the indicator of learning, but you didn't actually learn. Similarly, you can take drugs, gamble, eat bad food, etc. and feel fantastic...but you haven't found fulfillment, you've just hacked your indicator. So don't conflate pleasure and fulfillment, and don't confuse the indicator with the goal. I hope this saves you years of chasing the next high only to wonder why it's not making you feel fulfilled—millions and millions of people make this mistake, and it's becoming more and more common as pleasures become more bountiful and happiness is a main focal point of parents, schools, workplaces, and psychological research. The more accurate saying is, "Do what makes you happy," and the most accurate saying would be, "Do what makes you happy as long as you don't seek addictive behaviors to experience highs that cover up unaddressed negative emotions or boredom." (somehow, I don't think that will catch on)
6. There Are Fundamental Rules for Life that Apply in all Situations – This fallacy won't save you much time, since you'll be spending your whole life adjusting your rules and ethics as conditions change. However, it will stop you from oversimplifying rules and misapplying them to others' situations that might be different. For example, "though shalt not kill" sounds like a simple, easy, universal rule to follow until you realize that a. you kill trillions of organisms (if not more) in your lifetime just by existing (sorry, bacteria and viruses, but it's either kill or be killed) and b. if someone has a gun to a family member's head, I think that whoever is judging you will understand that maybe you should, in fact, save them at that point with lethal force if necessary.
The problem with universal rules is that you might miss out on something by following them. A silly example is that I followed the rule of never climbing a ladder (i.e., let professionals do it) because you could fall and kill yourself until my roof had a leak and it was only by climbing the ladder that I could find it (i.e., the professional couldn't figure it out because it wasn't a problem with the roof but a problem with the gutters' drainage system that only I could figure out after weeks of analysis). Yes, it's a silly example, but imagine how many times you might've missed out on an opportunity because you're following blanket rules that don't apply to the situation. Like maybe you think that lying is wrong but in doing so undersell yourself on your résumé and miss out on that job opportunity. In that case, maybe you have to reset the line to don't say things that are factually incorrect but feel free to describe what you do in the most impressive way possible.
You never know which rules you're following that could be unnecessary and limiting until you test them. After all, ethics are beliefs, and you could be holding limiting beliefs as we mentioned earlier. You don't have to look any further than the legal system to see how complex rules need to be so that you can apply them appropriately. Define the best ethics for you, and remember to get all the facts about a situation and apply the appropriate nuances to the rules when you judge others, lest you be judged in the same overly simplistic way that labels you as a bad person and ruins your life.
7. Everyone Is Only Out for Themselves – This fallacy is nuanced because the only word that makes it fallacious is "only". Otherwise, it's pretty accurate. People are inherently selfish, as they should be since taking care of and responsibility for yourself ensures that no one else has to. Ironically, nothing could be more selfless than making sure that you're not a burden on anyone by being selfish. What people usually mean by "selfish", however, is that everyone is out for themselves even at the detriment of others. That's mostly untrue, as people who have been taught proper ethics and can see where their actions negatively affect others will choose not to cross the line into benefitting themselves at others' expense. Yes, there are exceptions like sports or games where your success makes others' worse off based on how you set up the rules, but everyone agrees to those rules beforehand.
The truth is that humans are a social species and do factor in social considerations in everything that they do. Reputation takes forever to build and a moment to destroy, so people act with others in mind. In fact, lying to safe face (even when there are no consequences) just shows you that people are not just caring about themselves but caring about what other people think about them. People also regularly hold the door/elevator open for others, share, and spend their time volunteering to help others in need. Life can be pretty lonely without others, and caring about them is the number one way to sustain relationships.
The reason why people believe this fallacy is when they are in need and people won't help them. In modern society, we have the majority of people engaging in mutual exchange of goods, services, and money to help each other. It's only in familial, communal, and charitable interactions where that most common exchange is broken. It's easy to see people working so hard to earn money and the successful people earning "more than they need" and concluding that they're selfish jerks. However, we all know that the most successful people usually donate huge sums of money to charities and other causes, so it's not true at all. All business transactions are mutually beneficial, so while you try to maximize your own benefit if the other person is doing the same, the truth of the matter is that all voluntary transactions are mutually beneficial or one of the parties wouldn't agree to them.
The reason why this fallacy is harmful is that you'll go around being a jerk thinking that everyone else is a jerk, too. Reciprocity as an ethic is engrained into the brains of social animals, so this belief will naturally trigger that ethic and cause you to feel entitled to treat everyone poorly. When you do that, the only jerk in the exchange with someone without that belief is you. So don't assume that everyone is a jerk, or you'll become one—regardless of whether anyone else is or not.
8. You Didn't Have a Choice – "I didn't have a choice," is the most common response when someone is accused of making a bad (intellectually or morally) decision. Yes, there are plenty of decisions where only one option makes any logical sense. But it's important to remember that you always have a choice. There are plenty of people who choose to kill themselves after committing a crime instead of facing the consequences of their actions. There are plenty of people who choose to prevent justice from being done rather than violate their personal ethics of keeping someone's identity or confession in confidence. There is always a choice—you just might not be able to handle the consequences of any of the other options.
The more accurate statement would be, "I had a choice between what I did and options that were much, much worse," or, "It was the only reasonable option." Why does this matter? It matters because saying that you didn't have a choice takes away your power. While not an issue for a decision that's already made, it does affect your future decision making. In psychology, they call it "learned helplessness" when a person or animal concludes that their choices don't matter and they just give up trying to get out of bad situations. The term came from a study where a dog stopped trying to get away from shocks after there was initially nothing that it could do to avoid them but then later an escape option became available. Similar to the beliefs fallacy above, the belief that you don't have a choice will close off possible options in the future because you'll have stopped looking for them.
Yes, there is no doubt that you'll be in no-win situations where every option is terrible or has benefits and drawbacks. You also might be in situations like prison where you really don't have many choices at all. But because no one can control what goes on in between your ears unless you let them, you must always keep your sense of agency about what you think, what you prioritize, what you pay attention to, and what you can do to make your life situation better. If you give up that agency, it will take a long time for you to get back into the mindset again—if you ever do.
I know this was a long post, but I hope it was helpful. If you want to succeed in life, you have to have and sustain the right worldview that is conducive to attaining the type of life you're seeking. Check your logic, and if any beliefs or conclusions are causing you to miss out on opportunities to make your life better, it might be time to rethink them.