Neuroticism is essentially the degree to which you think or overthink things. A neurotic person will second-guess themselves more often, plan, and run through more scenarios in their head than someone who is less neurotic. This not necessarily a negative thing. In the right dose, it’s a great trait to have. Too much of it generally leads to self-doubt, anxiety and depression.
Neuroticism is essentially mental friction, where the friction comes from second-guessing and thinking/overthinking. It gives you finer-grain control over your decisions and actions, with the tradeoff of reducing your overall speed. It allows you to make better decisions when you’re in an unfamiliar / dangerous situations but is a waste of mental energy for tasks that you have to do / already know how to do.
Neuroticism is like applying the brakes on your car. It produces waste heat and reduces the amount of distance you can cover on a gallon of gas, but it also allows you to control your speed and navigate tight and complex routes. You want high neuroticism (braking) when you’re driving in the city so that you don’t hit pedestrians or people pulling out of parking space, but the downside is that your fuel efficiency suffers. When you’re on the highway, you don’t want to brake at all, so in this driving metaphor you don’t want high neuroticism in “highway” situations.
Your brain already has mechanisms for modulating neuroticism. People are naturally more neurotic when approaching new or unfamiliar tasks and gradually get less neurotic as they become more familiar with the task or situation. Some people are also more neurotic than others by default. Each person’s baseline is different.
Where conscious modulation comes in handy is for situations where your default response is unadaptive. For example, if you’re in a situation where overthinking will only make things worse and you are prone to neuroticism, you can consciously step in and down-regulate the neuroticism. Usually these sorts of situations are ones where the outcome is unknown and there’s nothing you can do to affect the outcome. On the other hand, if you’re in a situation where you should be anxious about possible negative outcomes and your baseline neuroticism is low, you can up-regulate the neuroticism consciously in order to help yourself make better decisions. This is useful in situations where you do have the ability to influence the outcome.
Modulating neuroticism is the same thing as learning when to not think about things (down-regulation) and when to think about things (up-regulation). The advantage of not thinking about things is that you save mental energy; the purpose of thinking about things is to find a solution to a problem and/or make a decision about something. If your thoughts don’t help you solve problems or make decisions, or if what you’re thinking about is out of your control, learning to down-regulate will save you a lot of time and worry. A lot of things resolve themselves without intervention, and anxious intervention in the meantime might make things worse. Think of hypochondriacs and constant medical visits.
Obviously learning how to not think about things (or start thinking about them) is easier said than done. Each person’s mind works differently, so I can’t give you any techniques that work for everybody. You’ll have to figure out what works for you. All I’m trying to convey is the value that this will bring you if you do figure it out.
Desire is a feeling of lack causing by a perceived deficiency between where you want to be and where you think you are. The greater the perceived lack, the more miserable you are, but also the more motivated you are to act because of this misery. Desire is a strong motivating force, but it’s also an unpleasant thing to experience, especially if you experience it for an extended length of time. It’s similar to the biological drives of hunger and thirst (which signal a lack of food or water) except that it’s more general and triggered by higher-order cognitive functions.
Because desire is a function of how you perceive the world (and not a function of how little water you’ve drank in the past 24 hours), there is a lot more you can do to modulate desire. You can’t make hunger or thirst go away by changing the way you perceive the world, but you can change what you want or whether you want something by changing the way you see things.
A perceived lack is only possible under certain interpretation of your situation. Being able to hold no interpretations (i.e. enlightenment) makes it impossible to desire things because there is no way to perceive the lack of anything.
Here’s a quote I pulled from the internet attributed to Gautama Buddha:
When we free ourselves of desire, we will know serenity and freedom.
Is there a way to induce action without desire, outside of the use of fear, pain, and habit? There might be, but those four are the strongest motivators of human behavior that I know of. If you aren’t able to completely free yourself of desire, it is still useful to learn how to up-regulate and down-regulate your desires in order to minimize unnecessary misery.
It’s more useful to feel desire in situations where you have the ability to influence outcomes. You don’t want to feel desire when you’re in a situation where you can’t. In this case, you’ll only be subjecting yourself to unnecessary mental anguish.
As with neuroticism, I cannot provide any general-purpose techniques for modulating desire. All I will say is that it’s probably a skill worth learning because it will save you a lot of unnecessary anguish as you go through life.