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Finite vs infinite games and how they affect your happiness

James Carse published the book Finite and Infinite Games in 2006. It begins:

There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.

Life is an infinite game. It might seem that death would make it finite. However any individual's death is just another event in the continuum of the infinite game of life. As Anne Lamott observed: “A hundred years from now? All new people.”

50,000 years ago, our ancestors lived in tribes with the same set of people for their entire lives. Of course new people were born and grew up, and older ones died, and there was the occasional inter-tribe swap for marriage and genetic diversity. But overall, you lived side by side with the same people year after year.

We now have a society where it's more possible than to have finite relationships. Went out on some dates but don't want to see them again? Ghost 'em. Get in a fight with a friend? Fine, I'll invest in these other friendships. Not getting along with your family? Withdraw, and see them once or twice a year at holidays, if at all.

Freedom to choose seems powerful on the surface but it's insidious—it allows us to avoid feeling difficult feelings and working out disagreements with others. In tribal times, there wasn't really another option. You had to work things out, get to forgiveness and move on. No doubt there were cases where one person was killed, or banished, or the tribe split, but those were rare.

Our society makes it easier than ever to avoid difficult conversations. And it's no surprise that given the choice, many people are choosing the easy way out. But that is making us less resilient than ever, and it is a root cause of our mental health and well-being crisis.

All of our emotions exist because evolution selected for them. They help keep the tribe together. They enable us to manage and repair conflicts. That doesn't mean it's an easy or pleasant process. But it's how we are coded to work.


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