Mental Models for Happiness and Results

Modeling is a relatively common concept in personal development: Find someone who’s getting the results you want, learn how they did it, and basically copy their approach.

This makes sense from an objective standpoint. If the world is objective in nature, this type of modeling should work well. But does it actually work for you?

Core Principles vs. Modeling

Even better than modeling, however, would be to understand the core principles behind successful outcomes. Then you can apply those principles to your own situations with more flexibility. I’ve heard that this is what Elon Musk does. Instead of reasoning by analogy based on what works for others, apparently he prefers to build his own models from the ground up, based on physics.

I like to use a similar approach with personal development challenges. While I do find value in learning from others, I don’t get good results by copying their approaches, and even if I try to do so, my creative instincts and intuition tend to guide me down a different path anyway.

But I do like thinking in terms of basic principles, such as truth, love, and power. Every growth challenge has a truth aspect (what is), a love aspect (what I want), and a power aspect (what I can create). These serve as fundamental building blocks for how to solve a problem, achieve a goal, or to maintain consistency when life is flowing well.

Problems With Objective Modeling

Modeling is a pretty objective concept though, rooted in some objective assumptions.

One assumption is that what works for other people is likely to work for you. This may be true for something simple, like following a recipe to make a meal, but with bigger projects, like building a business, there are so many complexities that it’s tough to know which factors caused the successes. Even when a CEO writes a new book about their success principles, it often comes with caveats and disclaimers.

For every rule or piece of advice shared as a golden success principle, it’s not difficult to find counter-examples. We find companies apparently succeeding with bad leadership, bad teamwork, no clarity of vision, and other rampant problems. Apparently the U.S. economy had a great 2019, but compare that with the state of the U.S. government. If some government officials wrote a book on their success principles for this achievement, would you want to model their approach? I’d sooner give myself a paper cut and pour lemon juice on it.

I’ve found my own results with studying and modeling other people’s success patterns to be pretty random. Sometimes it helps, but mostly I’d have to say it’s been wasted effort.

Self Modeling

I typically get better results by studying myself more deeply instead trying to adapt other people’s success patterns. I’ve spent years figuring out my strengths and weaknesses (truth), my most compelling desires and interests (love), and my best modes of action (power).

This is a different kind of modeling. Instead of modeling someone else’s patterns and trying to transplant them into me, I build mental models of my personal success patterns.

But this approach is also limiting if I look at myself in isolation. My external results aren’t entirely up to me. I need to do my part, but reality gets a say as well. Sometimes when I go out into the world believing that I understand myself better and being clear about what I need to do to improve my results, reality slams me back hard and sends me back to the drawing board. Has this ever happened to you?

This approach is a good start, but if you’re going to build a model of yourself, you also have to build a decent model of the world. And furthermore, you need to build a model of how you and the world relate to each other. So you need three models minimum here.

Modeling the World

The objective modeling approach also recognizes that the world has a say in our results, but it makes a huge, unprovable, and probably false assumption: that your world is the same as other people’s worlds. But what if that isn’t true? What if our worlds are different?

Is your reality the same as mine? If not, then in order to be effective, objective models would need to acknowledge the differences between these worlds and provide some kind of translation matrix between them. And they usually don’t.

Even when we look at people’s worlds from a purely objective standpoint, it’s hard to call them the same worlds. If there is one single objective world that we all share, it’s clear that we don’t all inhabit uniform parts of it. Just look at the difference in the environments of rich and poor, and it’s hard to say that we all live in the same world on a day-to-day basis. I don’t live in a world where racism and sexism are used against me personally right now, but lots of people do. I live in a city that has its own pyramid, castle, Eiffel Tower, Brooklyn Bridge, Statue of Liberty, canals, a volcano, and a pirate ship, all within walking distance of each other.

If you want to apply objective modeling and improve your results with it, one tip would be to learn from people with a very similar environment – physically, socially, culturally, educationally, etc.

Subjective Modeling

The approach I’ve been finding most effective in terms of modeling involves translating the whole concept into subjective reality thinking.

Suppose that the world is a simulation, including your personal avatar. We can still build and use models, but now we need simulation-aware models. These include models of who and what you are, what the world is, and what your relationship with the world is.

One simple set of models that I often use to good effect is this:

  • I’m a conscious being in development mode, being sculpted by my experiences in this reality, which is a temporary experience. When I’m done here, I’ll probably progress to exploring other dimensions of learning and experience.
  • This reality is a simulation, including my avatar, similar to a virtual world.
  • My relationship with this reality is that I’m the trainee, and reality is the trainer. The simulation will attempt to train me with or without my cooperation, but it’s easier if I cooperate, and I can go faster and enjoy the process with good cooperation as well. Resisting the training aspect or failing to acknowledge it just creates stuckness and slows everything down till I get a clue.

With these models (which are admittedly oversimplified for the sake of keeping this article succinct), I use modeling very differently.

The main way I apply these models is by noticing what my reality rewards and what it doesn’t reward (or punishes). A reward can be an external result, but I tend to put more weight on my own energy signature and my emotional reactions as the form of reward that I appreciate most. Same goes for what I might consider a lack of reward or a punishment.

What I like about this approach is that it meshes well with a lot of what I’ve experienced in my life.

The base-level rules of an objective world don’t really change over time. We’d assume that the laws of physics work the same today as they did a year ago. But in a simulated world, the rules can change, sometimes abruptly. So what worked for you tomorrow may not work today.

Have you ever tried to extract your own success process from a past accomplishment to remember what worked, but when you tried to apply that process again, it either felt flat or gave you a terrible result? That’s happened to me a lot. What worked for me in the past often doesn’t work for me today. I think it’s because my reality changes the rules on me sometimes, probably to ensure that I keep progressing. It doesn’t allow me to stop growing and coast for too long, and it doesn’t let me remain stuck in repetitive loops. At first I found this immensely frustrating, but now it makes sense to me, and I actually appreciate it. It’s good to know that I live in a world while doesn’t allow me to remain stuck forever.

My simulation seems to have a sensible algorithm for gradually degrading situations till I get a clue that it’s time to change my approach. If I stubborn resist, then my simulation will eventually start breaking aspects of my life that were previously working, as a way of jolting me out of my comfort zone. I’ve learned that I can largely prevent this by consciously staying on a path of growth and cooperating instead of resisting so much. The 60-day Submersion course has many deeper lessons and practices along these lines.

When I tried to apply objective modeling, it worked a little in the past, and it will work in short-lived and limited ways when I’m exploring something new, but then it will stop working. My reality seems to be okay when I learn from others’ experiences in the early phases of a new exploration, but it doesn’t let me stay there. That approach always dries up sooner or later, usually sooner.


These days I navigate my relationship with reality very co-creatively. I talk to reality aloud, I make offers, and I stretch myself when it feels right to do so. When I’m in the flow of this mindset, it works very well. I feel happy inside, and I enjoy pleasing results.

One thing that slowed me down was misunderstanding what happiness means to me – and to my simulation. In the past I used to think of happiness as a form of peace, contentment, or tranquility. But if I try to make those my dominant modes, my reality punishes this behavior. Maybe you’ll get better results here, but it doesn’t work for me.

So if I try to meditate my way through life, that gets punished, and I eventually end up feeling worse – bored, listless, unsettled, like I’m falling behind. External pressures will begin to mount as well. Based on how it behaves towards me, my reality seems to regard the pursuit of tranquility like a cop out, as if I’m trying to skip out on the training. It always eventually responds: I can’t let you do that, Steve.

So when I try to pursue that kind of happiness, I don’t get happiness, and I don’t get external results that I like much either.

This led me to question what my reality rewards and how it rewards me when I feel like I’m cooperating with the training aspect.


I had to admit that tranquility is kind of boring to me. It’s a nice place to visit for short stretches, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

So I pondered that maybe the happiness I should try to create is perhaps a more amped up form. Maybe I need the high-stimulation version.

This indeed work way better than trying to live in tranquility, and I do feel pretty happy when I’m stimulated by creative projects, travel adventures, and new social experiences. I can be in this mode for longer stretches, but reality doesn’t let me stay there all the time either. Eventually it slows me down and puts the brakes on.

I thought for sure that high stimulation was the answer to life, the universe, and everything, and that does seem to be true sometimes. But it’s not a sustainable approach long-term. Reality won’t let me live there every waking hour. And I’m not sure I’d want that anyway. I like variety too.

But at least this was a clue that I’d figured out a key piece to the puzzle. By defining happiness as stimulation, excitement, fun, adventure, risk, freshness, and so on, the reward aspect was an order of magnitude better than the tranquility approach.

In 2016 Rachelle and I spent 30 days going to Disneyland, which was actually a lot of fun. Years ago I was tempted to do one of those 10-day Vipassana meditation retreats, but not anymore, especially after hearing about Rachelle’s kinda blah impression of the experience. I’m sure it’s great for some people, but I’m convinced that if I tried to do one, my reality wouldn’t reward that behavior. The rules may change later though, so we’ll see.


Figuring out the stimulation aspect was indeed a big piece to the puzzle. After that I mainly needed to keep listening to reality by noticing when I was in the flow of nice rewards and when I wasn’t. When did I feel good and the external results were flowing nicely? That’s the best reward combo.

For me being in the flow of high stimulation is about 70% of what creates happiness for me. The other aspects involve other modes to balance this out: relaxation, rest, affection, connection, intimacy, solitude, and even tranquility and peacefulness.

It’s like figuring out a song you’re trying to compose. You want multiple instruments playing harmoniously together, and sometimes it’s a matter of starting in the right place, and then it just makes sense how the other pieces will fall in line. For me the stimulation aspect was the key piece to my song, but the other pieces matter too.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s article about The Universe’s Timing, it can be tricky to sync our timing with reality’s dance moves. I often miss the synchronization signals (or try to stubbornly overrule them), but I’m getting better at aligning my timing. It just takes practice, and having the right mental models helps tremendously. Bad models can keep you stuck for decades.

It’s Between You and Your Simulator

My simulator seems to reward a certain kind of balance right now, but don’t assume that yours works the same way. Yours may have different rules, or you may be here for a different kind of training than I am (or no training at all).

The training mindset works wonders for me because it keeps me in the flow of growth, and it doesn’t let me settle, but it also allows sufficient breaks for rest and recreation – and time for human connection and intimacy as well. I can’t do high stimulation mode full-time every day, but I can do it for a significant chunk of each day. Writing articles is a stimulating and happy activity for me, so doing that each day feels good to me right now.

If you try to objectively model my approach, I think it will likely fall flat for you. Instead, pay way more attention to the relationship between you and your simulator. What I’ve shared here is what Bruce Lee (and Buddha) described as a finger pointing to the Moon, and I elaborated on this in the recent article about Investing in Your Core. But don’t mistake the finger for your actual Moon. Your Moon represents a rewarding and co-creative relationship with your reality, and strengthening this relationship is what you’re really after. Life is a lot more enjoyable when you in the flow of a strong and healthy relationship here.

My top recommendation is to pay close attention to when you feel rewarded by life and when you don’t. What would you consider a reward in a simulated reality? What’s the internal side, and what external results would you like to see?

If it feels like the rewards of life aren’t flowing for you, perhaps your simulation is telling you that your approach needs work. So dialog aloud with your reality and ask what it wants of you. Ask it for signs. Ask it to bonk you over the head with hints and clues. Pay attention to when you feel twinges of positive feelings nudging you in new directions. For me there are feelings of excitement, stretching, and usually some element of risk when I point my thoughts in the proper direction.

How do you think your reality works? Is it training you too? Or do you have a different way of modeling it? Trust your own best thinking.


My reality especially loves challenging me to trust it more than I have before, and it also rewards self-trust. So some good questions I like to ask are:

  • What would I do if I trusted myself more?
  • What would I do if I trusted my reality more?
  • Can I trust reality to give me what I need?
  • If I stretch myself here, do I trust that reality will support me?

Your relationship with reality may be different, but I imagine that all long-term relationships require trust.

As I’ve worked on healing trust wounds and deepening my trust in reality a lot over the years, I came to see just how important it is in all relationships, including the relationships with the people I serve. I love working with people who trust me, trust themselves, and trust reality. When there’s high trust, we can go so much further together. We can communicate authentically and support each other over many years, which is just so refreshingly beautiful. I’m grateful that my reality didn’t give up on me when I was in low-trust mode and that it kept inviting me to sculpt myself into a high-trust person. High-trust relationships are immensely rewarding, both personally and professionally. Trust opens the door to true, deep, and lasting friendships.

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Steve Pavlina

Steve Pavlina is an American self-help author, motivational speaker and entrepreneur. He is the author of the web site and the book Personal Development for Smart People.

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