An Unconventional View of Happiness (#140)

Most people and standard definitions associate happiness to a feeling of pleasure and joy. I don’t find that view very compelling. So I’m going to propose an unconventional (and hopefully more promising) view of happiness here. Since this is a relative subject, you don’t have to agree with me or even listen to me. But just hear me out.

The Problem

#1: Equating happiness to pleasure

“Pleasure may come from illusion, but happiness can come only of reality.”

Nicolas Chamfort

It’s unfortunate (perhaps) that pleasure and happiness (according to the theory which you’ll discover by the end of this post) are not the same and shouldn’t be equated with one another.

Pleasure is our biological instinct produced to make us feel good for performing behavior that lines up with survival. Food and sex are the typical examples used here. But pleasure is not limited just to those cues.
Humans find pleasure in music, in watching Netflix shows, while playing sport, when someone likes their Instagram posts, in gambling, in finally figuring something out, and almost everything that makes them feel good. These feel goods don’t seem to be related with our survival. So why do they give us pleasure?

Well, our pleasure response is also concerned with the beliefs we hold about certain things. For example: Do you want to know how to make wine taste more pleasurable? Just put it in an expensive bottle. It will literally make the act of drinking more pleasurable—biologically. [1]
Deep down though, at the fundamental level even the purpose of keeping beliefs is survival. Beliefs help us navigate the world so we can make rational decisions. Reasoning is very important to the survival of our species. We are not the strongest animals, but we rule the world because we’re the smartest. It’s hard to escape Darwin, I know.

We all have the same needs but express them differently. Pleasure is an emotion humans feel. It isn’t a default state. Some things make us feel pleasurable while others add to our misery.

But being tied to biological strings in terms of consciousness makes it difficult to understand the world without a faulty lens. (we’ll get to this in more detail)

We are lucky enough to be having this sense of rationality in us. No animal on Earth comes close to the way we are able to understand the world. But we are still what Tim Urban (writer of the blog Wait But Why) calls a transition species.
We haven’t reached a very high level of consciousness yet. Our mind still makes us think and behave primitively and animal-like. We are emotional beings. We are restrained by our unsophisticated biology. We can’t think higher than our brains allow us to. This is because of natural selection too.
Back in the (very) old days we needed certain instincts like fear and anger to survive harsh environments. And now they’ve just stuck with us. And we haven’t evolved above them. These emotions sometimes are misleading. That’s why we get angry on trivial matters. And that’s why we don’t take many “risks” even though they have a small downside on failure but very high upside on success.

So humans are somewhere in between completely instinct-based, irrational animals and the highest level of rational beings. Obviously we don’t know any of those completely rational beings, there are none here on Earth. We are the most rational animals that humans can perceive.
But that position is not a great one to be in. Because humans are part irrational animals. We are still primitive in nature. And on top of that we have this higher rational part of the mind. Those two are often contradictory. As an example: instinct craves instant gratification and comfort but rationality lies in the fact of working out.
But at least we are not genetically programmed beings like ants who live their entire lives on instinct performing tasks vital to their survival. We have the neo-cortex, the part of the brain responsible for reason. And that’s a nice thing to have (and use) if you don’t want to live a life that’s already been written for you by evolution.

Now, back to pleasure. When we equate pleasure to happiness we also imply that:

  • Happiness is something we get from things in the material world
  • Happiness is short-term and doesn’t last
  • Happiness is emotional (something you feel)
  • You can’t be happy if you’re not associated with the thing that makes you feel pleasure (i.e. only situations control your happiness)

As of yet just know that this happens when you equate happiness to pleasure.

#2: Misinterpreting Buddha

Buddha said that desire is at the root cause of all suffering. And I think he was right. Perhaps many reading this will also agree. But we’ve got the wrong sense of what he said, I feel.

Just because Buddha said that desire is at the root of all suffering doesn’t mean that you should try and suppress all desires made by the primitive part of yourself. In doing so, hoping to restrain all desires so that there is no suffering. It’s unfortunately not that straight-forward. Suppressing does not work. Almost nothing works by force. You can’t suppress desires because just like pleasure they are a part of our human selves (however animal-like). We feel desire and then we want to act. Resisting that desire or suppressing it won’t change you. In fact doing so only may worsen your chances of being happy by playing against Nature.
(This is again a case where teaching someone how to think is more important than telling them what to think.)

But Understanding is a better choice. Many may not be aware but Buddha also said ignorance is at the root of suffering (even Plato said the same but anyway). What we ought to do is not resist desires. But to make sense of them. To understand why we feel certain desires and are they really something our higher conscious selves want or does it just pop up because of the part of our mind responsible for our primitive thinking behavior?
Although counter-intuitive, most desires are not something we really want. Most desires like many fears and angers are irrational. Or are themselves based upon certain (irrational) fears and angers.

So we need to understand our desires. Be a level higher than them. Understand when our desires are irrational. When we do this effectively, we will automatically not desire many things we would otherwise crave. So, no more suffering.

Same problem: the happiness equation

Happiness = Reality – Expectations

You may have heard of this equation. But the same problem reappears here.

Having expectations and other desires is part of being human. You can’t change biology. But this equation shows that having expectations is bad for happiness. So does it imply that you can’t be both a human and a happy person? It actually does when looked at in this sense.

But again you can’t be suppressing and applying force against desires to be less human and more happy. What we need is to be more of a rational human. Being above trivial expectations.

Universe

“Time to get cosmic. There are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on any beach, more stars than seconds have passed since Earth formed, more stars than words and sounds ever uttered by all the humans who ever lived.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Most things we care so much about are just things. But because of the meaning we’ve attached to them, they become very powerful and very important. But most things don’t matter. In fact nothing inherently matters. It’s just that it matters to us because we assign meaning to things and we perceive things as significant. Without our unique ways of perception, nothing matters.

Often when I ponder on the vastness of the Universe, I feel like I have literally transported myself into another realm. At that moment, I forget everything. It’s the flow state that comes with it. The Universe puts things into perspective. But we live a very zoomed-in version of life. We never zoom out and look at the world entirely as it is. Doing that helps me see things as they really are. It’s not shedding away from reality. It is reality. Things don’t matter.

Life is just a series of sensory experiences. The job of interpretation of those experiences lies in our minds. But we so often unconsciously let the mind do all the thinking and judging that it inhibits our happiness.
When you’re stuck in traffic, there’s no reason to be frustrated. Your frustration won’t make the cars move faster. On top of that, you’ll arrive all grumpy when you reach your destination. And that may have further implications like a bad meeting or a trivial argument with your spouse because of your mood. But what if you saw that traffic as it really is, accepted it and filled up your time in the car listening to an audiobook or pondering some deep thought? That way possibly your meeting or date goes well too without the pollution of mental grumpiness.

This is what it boils down to. Putting perspective onto things that you crave about. Understanding when it’s the animal-like, emotional part of your mind having some expectation or desire. And being higher than your primitive self. Touching into the rational pool of consciousness.
Next time you’re expecting something, put stuff into its real place by understanding its origin, it’s significance (in the cosmic scheme of things), and whether it’ll take away your happiness or let it be.

“If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.”

Carl Sagan

Oh, yes, let’s get back to happiness now.

Happiness

Happiness is not a place to reach. It is immediate.

We mistake happiness for something we’ll get when we reach there. When I achieve this goal, I’ll be happy goes our thinking. But delaying happiness until an achievement is a very dumb choice.
There are a few reasons why:
(1) The hedonic treadmill; we are ingrained in a way that never keeps us satisfied. Once we reach there and get comfortable, that lifestyle too gets monotonous very soon. And then another goal, another there is created before we can give time to our happiness.
(2) Things don’t matter to happiness; a bigger home won’t keep your mind comfortable and a bigger paycheck won’t buy your mind happiness. Happiness doesn’t arise from some thing. Happiness is a state of mind. Not a state of your environment. Stop fixing what needs no fixing in a broader sense. Start fixing what really needs some work to be done upon.
(3) Happiness is now; there’s no thing or situation that is perfect for happiness. There may be for pleasure but we already stated (and will soon discuss more about how) they’re both quite different. If a person can’t be happy now, there’s nothing wrong with their outside life that needs fixing. There’s something wrong within. Happiness is a choice one can take now. Since happiness, I think; above all else, depends on perspective.

Perspective

What it really boils down to is how someone thinks about things. Happiness arises from nothing, but one’s vantage point on things in their world.
Happiness is a perspective.

Situations don’t define happiness. Interpretations of those situations do.
There’s three things one can do about anything in the world. (1) Complain about it; that’s the most commonly taken path. (2) Accept it. (3) Change it. Unfortunately, complaining doesn’t do anything. Accepting situations out of control is a smart choice for happiness. Going on a quest for changing it is good too. Just remember that happiness doesn’t need to come after you achieve that quest.

“A rational person can find peace by cultivating indifference to things outside of their control.”

Naval Ravikant

You don’t chase freedom to be happy. You learn to create freedom even in the most restricted ways of living. But that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t fight for freedom. It just means being happy even when one is like a slave on a quest to freedom.
You can choose to be happy even in the most dreadful situations.

So now this is what happiness is when not equated to pleasure:

  • Happiness is achieved from a point of view within the mind
  • Happiness lasts as long as the perspective holding it remains (can extend till a long time)
  • Happiness is rational (something conscious you choose to become)
  • You can be happy in any situation

As you can see in the distinction between the points here and those made above while equating pleasure to happiness: true happiness is completely the opposite.

Conclusion

“Oh yes, well, I find myself unconventional everywhere.”

Anna Godbersen

I was a little uncomfortable at the thought of writing this post. Because happiness isn’t something I think about often. Happiness has become one of these very clichéd subjects. It seems “Do what makes you happy” is the most commonly advised but least commonly practiced phrase of the 20th century. Happiness, as we established, is a by-product of a certain way of thinking. So for me, I don’t think about what’ll make me happy but rather how I can view things (in their true form) and be indifferent to everything that’s happening around me to cultivate peace and inevitably happiness.

Society tells you to be happy by making you lead down a path of unhappiness. Rationality lies in understanding things in their true form. The form of happiness I preach is not delusion, it’s reality most can’t see.

May I be wrong in some of my claims? Certainly, yes. But my views don’t contain any objective or moral truths. I simply aim at telling the reader to have an indifferent view of most things that in their essence don’t matter. But I’m still curious to know my views and how much they may have changed (or remained the same) in the years to come. I’m just a kid now who likes to think about deeply philosophical (and scientific) things.
Am I happy? Well, I think so. It’s hard to always keep that perspective when your genes are against it but I consciously put an effort most of the time to do so. I’m at peace but never satisfied.

I hope this post gives you a chance to question the conventional view of happiness.

Let me end quoting Lincoln:

“Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be.”

Abraham Lincoln

Finally, it’s time to ask you, dear reader… Are you happy? If not, why not?


If you liked reading this post, I’d encourage you to share it so that it may reach others as well. Thank you for reading.

Appreciation & References

This post is greatly influenced by Tim Urban, Naval Ravikant, Julia Galef and Lucius Annaeus Seneca (among many others I’m sure I forget). I highly recommend reading their stuff. They have incredible works on these matters.

[1] The origins of pleasure by Paul Bloom

4 thoughts on “An Unconventional View of Happiness (#140)”

  1. Wow bhaiyya I never thought of it like that
    Keep up the good work I really loved this Blog and it must have taken a lot of time and patience to write this long and interesting blog

    Like

  2. I highly recommend you check out Mo Gawdat’s book Solve For Happy, a book that shares similar points you’re making, but with some key differences. I also recommend checking out some of his podcast interviews and the podcast he hosts, Slo Mo. Pretty insightful stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

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