Will von Bolton was 25 years old the first time he smoked weed, and his life has never been the same since. It was von Bolton's first step on a journey that cost him his marriage, his possessions, and very nearly his sanity in order to write Loophole to Happiness, a 585-word book that he believes could be "the next Bible."
"Every thought I had felt profound. I'd literally been living 25 years, I smoke this joint and think completely different thoughts," von Bolton, who is an ex-musician who at the time was a creative director for a recording studio in Dallas, says of that first time getting high. It's a late afternoon in January and he's relaxing at his family's 1,500-acre ranch outside Killeen, Texas. "I started writing down every thought I had. I didn't know what was happening, but at the same time I wanted to reverse-engineer my own happiness."
Von Bolton hasn't stopped taking notes since, and now, 10 years later, the kitchen table inside the compound-style ranch house is full of his notebooks. Scrawled in red and black ink are mantras, mottos, sketches, and diagrams, page after page, spread across more than a dozen notebooks—and those are just the ones he's filled since finishing the Loophole to Happiness manuscript in the spring of 2016. The book was published January 1 by Clovercroft Publishing.
If von Bolton's story is one of excess, then the guiding principle of his book has been a rigid adherence to simplicity, clarity, and self-discipline. That's because he's built the framework of his thinking around the metaphor of a computer, or what he calls "an operating system for the mind."
"If you think of every Bible as a regional operating system, using that metaphor we now have of a computer to understand our brain, never before have we had a metaphor like this to understand the way we think," von Bolton says. "It's 150 pages, two to nine words a page. Every page represents a line of code. There are no geographical references, no time references, and very little abstract vocabulary. I want it to be timeless, so that somebody in 1,000 years will pick it up and go, 'Okay, this is still a relevant way to think.'"
Von Bolton has his believers, too. Among them is Ross Lynch, the former Disney star who played the titular role in last year's My Friend Dahmer biopic on serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. He got to know von Bolton when he was the touring photographer for Lynch's pop band, R5.
"I really admire Will for his mindfulness. He's really enlightened me as an individual to think about life in a different way," says Lynch, who, though more than 10 years his junior, would spend hours at a time talking philosophy with von Bolton on tour. "I think he's figured it out. You really have to turn off the rest of the world, sit down, really go into the process and devote yourself to whatever it is you're doing. I think he does that to an extreme that most people aren't capable of."
Dr. Daren Martin, a psychiatrist, motivational speaker, and author of books like A Company of Owners, refers to von Bolton's philosophy as "the E=mc² of happiness," comparing its simplicity to buddhist poetry. "It's such a big shift. It affects so many different areas [of life]. It really maps out, in very short order, a way to rewrite peoples' key thinking," says Martin. "He'll be the first to tell you there's some dark history in terms of the struggles he's had, so you know this book wasn't borne out of a vacuum."
There's little in von Bolton's demeanor to suggest a delusional, much less unstable, person. Quiet and thoughtful, his direct, often intent manner of speaking is peppered with the wheezing giggles of a stoner. He has long, stringy blonde hair, a patchy beard, and thick glasses that give his eyes a distorted, curious quality. As he walks outside and down a gravel path towards a smoldering fire pit, dressed in a puffy, black jacket and basketball shorts, von Bolton walks with a loose, absentminded gait, as though his mind is elsewhere and present all at once.
A self-described "fat kid" growing up in nearby Belton, a town of 20,000 people, von Bolton got into drumming, photography, and web development around age 10. In his late teens, he joined a metal band called Greatness in Tragedy, who signed to Austin label Brando Records. "We were a Christian band at first, then we went to the secular market. It was like going from $4,000 a week playing these camps to getting paid $50. It was that extreme of a shift," he says, with a wheezing laugh.
Once Greatness in Tragedy had fizzled out, von Bolton landed in Dallas, where he was tasked with creating a series of mini-documentaries about local musicians for the studio where he worked. It was during one of those recording sessions, in 2008, that he was introduced to marijuana. "I saw color in different ways. I heard music in 3D. It was so fucking crazy," von Bolton remembers. "I realized if I wrote these things down it would help me articulate them more and also help me understand them more."
Emboldened by the experience, von Bolton threw himself into his newfound enlightenment with an obsessiveness that bordered on mania. He figures he crossed that line five years later, when he began experimenting with mushrooms. "I ended up tripping on mushrooms for six days," he says. "I started feeling like I was in this god mode, this omniscience, like anything I want to know I'll focus on it and I can know it. So, like, 'I'm going to imagine I'm God for six days.' Then, 'I'm going to write the next Bible.'"
One of von Bolton's friends soon staged an intervention, and a second one was to come from his then-wife, Veda, a model whom he met after he'd started writing Loophole to Happiness. "A good friend of mine had just been hospitalized, institutionalized, and Veda had just seen that happen. It was a really heavy experience, and she saw me almost going there, too. So I get it," he says. "She looked at me like I was going fucking crazy, and in some ways I was." The couple's marriage unraveled and, on their fourth anniversary, they were officially divorced—an event he refers to as "the asteroid that almost took me out."
By that time, however, he'd dove headlong into his new career as a band photographer, first touring with Texas acts like Bowling for Soup and Jonathan Tyler & the Northern Lights, and then with R5. Traveling to 38 countries in two and a half years, he was a firsthand witness to the idol worship of the band's teenaged supporters, who even started fan pages for von Bolton.
"Every airport we landed at, we were a security risk," von Bolton says. On one trip to Buenos Aires, the band got escorted through crowds by guards toting M16s after a meet-and-greet was shut down by the fire marshal. Both von Bolton and one of the band members had their hair ripped out in the melee. "As we're driving away, we see the reflection of the white van in the windows. Someone had tagged the van—thousands of Twitter handles, 'I Love Ross' Sharpied all over," he says.
Those experiences on the road proved instructive. "Because I'm a documentary photographer, I'm always walking into a room of people that generally have their guards up slightly, and I'm going in there to infiltrate them," von Bolton says. "You have to be conscious of your presentation, because you realize you have one chance to really freak somebody out and make them not listen again." Likewise, his advertising background influenced the format of the book, with each page modeled after billboard tag lines. "If one line can change your life, if one thought can change your life, then a collection of those can reprogram it," he says.
For all the personal turmoil that went into its writing, Loophole to Happiness is devoid of any clear perspective or dogma, beyond having a stringent aesthetic sensibility. Phrases like "Do not chase applause" or "Lose self to find self" resonate clearly enough with von Bolton's own story, though the book could easily have been generated by a computer algorithm—a belief system based on a mathematical equation. The closest thing to a narrative arc is the progression of one thought to the next, although the pages could easily be read in any order, over any period of time: all in one sitting, or a page a day.
As such, Loophole to Happiness can be read as a series of stand-alone idioms with their own internal logic, or as a collection that speak to one another. A line like "Nothing costs nothing," for example, can be taken at face value, or by the opposite that it implies: everything costs something. That minimalism is reflected in the physical book—white with black text and no images—as well as in the release party he held in Dallas last December, which included interactive video, listening stations, and his own artwork, presented as though an Apple store had been transplanted to an art museum.
Dr. David Henderson, a psychiatrist and author of the book Finding Purpose Beyond Our Pain, is particularly drawn to von Bolton's aesthetic sensibility. "I see the book not as a prescription for happiness but rather a conversation piece around happiness, to get people talking and get people wondering—particularly to reach that niche of folks who may not necessarily pick up a self-help book but are going to read this piece of art, essentially," says Henderson. "He has the ability to stimulate conversation. Honestly, that's the essence of what I do every single day working with clients: getting people to open up."
In a clearer state of mind than he was while on mushrooms five years ago, von Bolton continues to return to the analogy of a Bible. "These cultures we grow up in, whether it's Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, whatever it is, they shape your metaphors. I use the messiah complex because I was brought up in a Christian culture," he says. Rather than a religious text, von Bolton references the Bible—and particularly, the teachings of Christ—as a collection of life lessons. "It's just all about rebranding. The Bible has 1200 pages. To me, those 1200 pages are the walls around the castle that contain all this valuable information you can get from it. If you think I'm crazy, well, if you have 10 minutes, you can read this book."
Since its publication, Loophole to Happiness has added an audiobook version, been translated into Arabic, and was recently released on vinyl. Yet the book is but one step in a larger plan for von Bolton, who has two more in the works and says he wants to "rebrand every degree of thinking." He's even sold his possessions and essentially lives out of his car, a black Toyota Prius, in order to travel the country, which has inspired him to revisit his own text. "It works," he says of the book. "I feel like I have my own testimonial now."
As the sun begins to set at the ranch, von Bolton rises from the fire pit and makes his way down a hill to the shore of the Lampasas River, which runs along the foot of the property. "I don't know what the fuck's going on before this or after this. That's why the book doesn't talk about before birth or the afterlife. It only address the things that we know," he says. If von Bolton is certain of anything, it's the desire to follow his own lead. "What a beautiful conclusion to come to: I am my own example," he says. "I think everyone should be their own example like that, their own messiah."