The Myth of Happiness

What is happiness? Most emotions seem easier to identify: angry, anxious, grumpy, frightened, surprised, bored… For being widely considered to be the big one, the meaning of life and all that, it seems elusively vague.

How to be happier is certainly not a unique topic. There is actually a book with the exact same title as this post. And I’ve read lots of others. I’ve even written a couple of posts here before on the subject. Yet I haven’t found a satisfying answer.

There are many things people want to change in their life:

  1. Lose weight
  2. Have more money
  3. Be happier

These are compelling goals, but they generally aren’t actionable. You can’t do much directly to achieve these goals that isn’t fraught with issues:

  1. Get liposuction
  2. Rob a bank
  3. Do heroin

But there are things you can do that in turn, are likely to move you towards these goals:

  1. Eat healthier and exercise more
  2. Learn a valuable skill
  3. ???

If I commit to one of these, create a plan, and stick to the program, I’m very confident that I will at least move towards the goal.

But happiness is a complex one. A common question is “what makes you happy?”. Many things seem correlated to some degree with happiness – going biking, good times with friends, doing something cool and meaningful at work, etc. But it’s not a direct correlation. If I bike more I will get better at biking, at least up to some physical limit. But biking even more doesn’t make me even happier. Biking a few times a week seems optimal, and then doing something else. Work often makes me happy, but working more usually doesn’t make me even happier. Friends are great, but I also want time by myself.

Beyond that, anyone into “advanced” happiness knows that pinning your happiness on something external is troublesome. What matters a whole lot, maybe completely, is your mental attitude – waking up with a positive attitude and appreciating the little things.  There are many stories of people blissfuly happy while in prison, or while doing nothing but meditating all day in a room. There is definitely a lot to this, but taking it to the extreme of just sitting in a room and being happy doesn’t do it for me.

Then there’s the “Flow” crowd. About being engaged at that threshold between being competent and challenged. Being good at something, but pushing it to a level where it becomes challenging but not impossible. I get that, but it’s also not the whole picture. Sometimes I’m very happy just having a nice day.

I think that the challenge is that happiness is the net result of many different, often competing things.

It seems a bit like money. Not that money is happiness. But similar in that the way to get a lot of money has very little to do with directly trying to get money. Robbing a bank might be analogous to heroin here – yes you can simply go somewhere that has a bunch of money and take it, but that course generally has repercussions. Heroin might make you briefly very happy, but downsides exist.

A more common and less risky path to making money is more complicated. Know yourself, you skills, and what you love to do. Pursue your passions. But for best results do try to align those passions with some skills that someone actually wants. Preferably skills that are scarce. Make meaningful friendships and professional connections. Get into situations and companies that are successful and growing. All this and much more is required to have a successful career that in turn, in the end, is likely to result in reasonable amounts of money. 

For all practical purposes, unless you’re the federal reserve it’s impossible to just get more money. You need to do a bunch of things that, when combined, probably ultimately result in money. Ironically, it’s generally the most direct “get rich quick” ideas that are the least likely to work.

I think happiness is similar. And asking “what will make me happy?” is like asking “what will make me a lot of money?”. It’s not actionable. And any straightforward prescription for happiness is likely to be a flawed as Internet popup ads to “make money fast!”

So what are the components that create the recipe for happiness? Like many things, I think it’s like Thai food. Contrasting and even conflicting flavors that, when combined perfectly, result in an amazing, balanced, and delicious tension.

I think “contentment” is one ingredient. The umami in the recipe. This is the  “just be happy” dimension, and Webster’s even lists “happiness” as a synonym. But I don’t think it is. It’s important, but umami alone is also boring.

Another component seems to be something between “interesting” and “exciting”. The spice. The proverb/curse of “may you live in interesting times” is appropriate. This is all about challenges, and often unpleasantness. But it’s interesting. I really dislike hearing the alarm clock go off at 5 to get up early to go fly somewhere. Or to go to Alpental for powder before the pass closes. But, I never regret it. Tim Ferriss has some good arguments for excitement being equal to happiness, but for me, that’s also not the complete picture.

What’s exciting, as a hacker, about both of these is that they’re are eminently actionable. I have lots of ideas for increasing my contentment. Make my environment nice and uncluttered. Engage with friends and family. Meditate. Feed the woodpeckers in the back yard. Enjoy a glass of wine.

I can also increase the excitement. This is a bit more of a challenge as interesting and exciting things often also can be rather unpleasant at times. Get up early to go snowboarding. Go for a run, even if it’s raining out. At work – take on speaking opportunities, learn new things, take on project you aren’t sure you can do. Tackle the difficult issues no one else wants.

Travel is an interesting subset of life. Travel can be about contentment. Take a nice flight somewhere posh, relax, have good food. That’s nice, but it really doesn’t work for me. I need a solid dose of excitement too: Go somewhere without a plan. Explore something new. Use AirBNB instead of hotels and meet new people. Do things that are physically challenging. 

Like great Thai food, it is challenging because these the different forces are in conflict. Lime juice, sugar, and fish sauce all pull in different directions and must be balanced. If it needs more tangy lime juice add some. But then you also need to balance the other flavors as well.

Italian food is great but simpler – say some tasty pasta. Start with some tomato sauce. Add garlic, spices, some cheese. Put it on pasta. Each component adds to the whole. If it doesn’t have enough oregano, then add some more. You can overdo it, but oregano does not directly counteract the garlic. Most books on happiness are simple like this. Do xyz, be happier. I think that works but only to a certain level, or for some people. I truly envy the Italian food people with a less contemplative view of the world.  But for me it gets more complicated.

This isn’t earth shattering but I think it is fairly unique. I certainly have spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to be happier. I can’t complain, but I’ve always felt less effective than in some other areas of my life.

I’m looking forward to focusing on the components. Instead of asking what will make me happy this weekend, I’ll consider whether I want more contentment, or excitement. And how I want to adjust that balance in different aspects of my life – work, travel, relationships. I can work that!

What are your happiness flavors? And how do you combine them?

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