There’s nothing worse than a sleepless night. We’ve all been there. Tossing and turning, you focus all your mental power on trying to fall asleep. With all your will, you force yourself to shut your eyes, turn your brain off and pray to be whisked away into sweet slumber.
10, 20, 30 minutes go by, and you’re still there. Eyes closed, yet still unable to fall asleep. Despite counting sheep and doing a head-to-toe full-body relaxation, you’re more awake than ever, staring up at the ceiling.
So, you cut your losses and decide to get up. You turn on the TV, do a crossword puzzle, or read a few chapters of a book. Your mind is occupied guessing the plot twist of your mystery novel or trying to come up with the capital of Nepal. Your eyelids grow heavy, and your head bobs. Your book falls face down on your chest. The TV continues to drone on in the background.
Suddenly, you’re fast asleep.
This is the backwards law, which states that the more we try to pursue something, the less likely we will succeed. In the case of a restless night, the more you think about your desire to fall asleep, the less likely you are to fall asleep. When your mind is elsewhere, not directly striving to achieve your intended goal, that is when you finally get some rest.
It’s funny how this works because it seems paradoxical. Why do our wants come directly to us when we give up and let go?
Alan Watts was an English-born pop philosopher who is widely attributed to the backwards law. But Watts didn’t invent the phenomenon; neither was he the first to recognize it. In fact, he got the idea from Zen Buddhism. For Buddhists, desire and ignorance are at the heart of all worldly suffering. By eliminating this desire, you will no longer search for what you lack because you will be satisfied and at peace with your life.
Watts molded the Zen Buddhist perspective into the backwards law. It’s called ‘backwards’ because it seems counterintuitive. In the West, we have a unique relationship with effort. Psychologist Mark Manson labels our ideas about effort as an example of linear thinking.
Picture effort represented on the x-axis of a graph with the intended results on the y-axis. The more effort we put into a given task, say learning the guitar, the better our results will be.
And for some things, this is true. If you practice every day, at some point, although it might be far in the future, you could theoretically play “Stairway to Heaven,” widely regarded as the most challenging song to play on the guitar.
In cases like these, the backwards law does not apply. It’s not a magic trick that allows you to improve at tasks that require sustained effort and diligence to achieve results.
This linear conception of effort and reward is etched into our brains. We usually only exert ourselves when there is a promised benefit. If your guitar experience is full of bleeding fingers and broken strings without marked progress, you will soon put the instrument down for good. The belief that each time you practice, you will improve is what pushes you through the pain and setbacks. The linear relationship between effort and reward motivates us to do complex tasks.
Fundamentally, we believe our hard work deserves to be rewarded. It’s not a flawed belief to have. It allows us to make goals, strive to achieve them, and feel proud when we reflect on how far we’ve come.
The problem is that we’ve become so used to this effort equals result that we expect it in every area of our lives, even in situations where it’s not applicable. This way of thinking is only valid when assessing quantifiable tasks. For example, the more time you spend making bracelets, the more you make. The more cardio you do, the more endurance you build up.
Because these results are measurable, we can see a direct correlation between our hard work and outcome.
But that’s just not how life works. Often, our best efforts do not yield the desired results. You can do all the right things in a relationship, and your partner will still walk away. You can spend extra hours studying for a test and still fail. Sure, the effort might increase your chances of success, but you will be wrong to falsely interpret that as a guarantee.
As much as we’d like them to, effort and success do not necessitate one another, especially regarding psychological matters. When you try to be happy, you only notice how miserable you are. Striving for freedom makes you feel more constrained. Yearning to love and be loved leaves you heartbroken and lonely.
When a pursuit is strictly psychological, your effort has an inverse relationship with your wanted rewards. The more you try to achieve happiness, confidence, love, freedom, security, or any other psychological need, the further you are from that goal.
To make matters worse, there are no instructions for meeting those psychological needs. Centuries of philosophers have toiled and struggled to define the more ephemeral aspects of life, like freedom or happiness.
What makes you assume you have the tools to achieve these elusive and mysterious parts of the human experience? When you apply a linear “effort equals reward” approach, you’re bound to be disappointed because it’s impossible to quantify the reward. How do you know the exact effort needed to achieve an unknown result?
Moreover, your intense focus on your perceived deficiencies makes them seem more prevalent. The moment you start questioning your happiness is the moment you realize you’re unhappy. While self-reflecting, we tend to skew toward a negative bias of ourselves. Why? That would constitute a whole other video. But our negative self-conception, combined with the impossibility of achieving abstract states of being like love or happiness, mixed with a linear approach to effort and reward, is the ultimate recipe for misery. No wonder your search leads farther and farther away from your intended goal.
You’re trying to do what is supposed to lead to ultimate happiness. You eat healthily, work out, set boundaries, volunteer, and spend time with family and friends. Yet you remain discontent. There must be something wrong with you because all your efforts to be satisfied with your life leave you miserable. The constant confrontation of what you lack reminds you that you will never be happy despite your best efforts. You can lead yourself to a dark place when the expectations of your life don’t align with reality.
Backwards thinking tells us to stop trying to achieve what we want. It tells us to fight against the urge to control our emotional lives through constant tweaking and striving.
The problem is that this goes against what we’re taught by most self-help gurus today. We’re told that we’re in complete control of our happiness, in the driver’s seat of our lives, and have total control over how we live it. And so we try to micro-manage our every impulse and desire. We try to exert complete control over our emotional well-being. We want to feel whole, but all our best efforts only leave us feeling empty.
In the words of Mark Manson, “Desiring a positive experience is itself a negative experience; accepting a negative experience is itself a positive experience.”
This might not seem very natural, but it’s the truth. The counterintuitive nature of the backwards law philosophy prevents people from trying it.
It’s also possible that the theory could spiral in on itself until it becomes completely useless. In focusing on ridding yourself of any desire to be happy, that itself becomes a new desire. The desire to remove desire.
But Alan Watts has a solution to mastering the backwards law. You must remember that you are at the root of all your desires. You must recognize that you already have all you could want just by desiring it in the first place, so it’s futile to attempt removing or supplanting your wants.
Watts once said, “A knife doesn’t cut itself, fire doesn’t burn itself, a light doesn’t illuminate itself.” While this sounds obtuse and heady, it’s pretty simple.
Think about the person who strives for happiness. They pay close attention to the variables that make them feel content and enact those daily. From eating well to socializing and everything in between, they have built a life they enjoy. So why do they question themselves? Aren’t they just plain and simply happy? That is Alan’s point. If you desire happiness and do what should bring you joy, then there is no need to question yourself. You are happy.
Questioning or putting too much pressure on yourself to achieve an arbitrary ideal will only draw attention to a lack that might not even be there. Your actions reflect your desires, and in completing them, you fulfill those desires. The problem occurs when you focus too much on ‘trying’ because you will always fail, leaving you feeling discouraged. The goal is just to be. Stop trying to be confident. Just be confident. Be happy. Be secure. Asking yourself or others how to become or achieve what you want to be is a mistake. Let the question go. Let the effort go. And just be.
We spend too much of our short lives in a futile battle to satisfy what we lack. A consistent focus on lack can be crushing and obscure the abundance around us. The search for what we lack conceals us from what we already have. It’s deeply ironic to spend your whole life seeking something that was in front of you all along. All you had to do was let go of the search and the desire. Continue to live your life and stop looking for something you will never find, and you’ll realize you already have it.
To harness the power of the backwards law, live your life to the best of your ability. The backwards law does not work when you engage in self-destructive behavior. It’s not about doing the opposite of what you want or thinking you don’t deserve to live a fulfilling life.
It’s about living in a neutral state. To live this way, you are not regressing backwards to a place of self-pity and torment, nor are you reaching forwards to an ideal life you will never grasp. You must honor that in your life, which makes you comfortable and content. Focus on your instincts. Be yourself. You must be present with what you have and not ask for more. It may be easier than it sounds. You could discover you’ve been living the life you’ve wanted for yourself all along.
Because the primary key to the backwards law is not overthinking the state of your life, it’s about continuing to live it, regardless of its condition. You must relinquish control and realize you can never find freedom, happiness, and love through trying. So, stop looking because you’ve always had all you’ll ever need. You were just too busy searching to realize.
If you need help quieting your mind so you can finally see the beauty around you, this video on meditation will help.