Most of our waking moments are spent either doing things that we expect will make us happy or trying to be happy. It’s like happiness is a currency and we want to hoard it as much as we can, as fast as we can. But the more we chase happiness, the less we’re able to get it. Yet if we momentarily forget about our desire to be happy, we find ourselves to be happy.
Before dissecting this contradictory nature of happiness, it’ll help to first define happiness. Everyone has their pet definition of happiness and each dictionary will define it in its own way. There’s no United Nations mandate specifying ingredients for happiness. It seems that happiness is hard to pin down and, as you’ll see, that’s precisely why you cannot plan for happiness.
The happiness paradox
Happiness is fundamentally an emotional feeling. You see, we feel happy. If happiness was a physical object located somewhere in our 4D spacetime, we could have sent space missions to find it and bring it back to us. If happiness was an idea, we could have ordered a book on Amazon and wrote reviews about it. If happiness was a person, we could marry it and be done for life. But happiness is none of it. If we knew what happiness was and how to get it, the entire self-help industry would have been long bankrupt. Yet the market for heres-how-you-get-happy is thriving because we’re suckers for happiness.
What I find most paradoxical about happiness is that we often think about it. Thinking is a process where we state some assumptions and work through their implications. Thinking is full of biases and is limited in its capacity (we aren’t able to store more than a couple of assumptions in our working memory). Thinking works best when there are a few variables involved. You’re fine thinking about whether Socrates is mortal (or discovering quantum mechanics), but you’re not ok thinking about how the future will unfold because it has far too many variables than what you can hold in your head.
Emotional feelings like love, disgust or happiness are a product of millions of years of evolution of our mind. There’s no single thing or principle that makes us happy. There’s no grand unified theory of happiness. Yet, we deploy our thinking hats trying to plan for a happier life. Thinking is significantly underpowered for this simulation: how our body and mind will react to billions of combinations of ingredients that make up our daily life and its context.
Miswanting: wanting things that won’t make you happy
There’s an idea in psychology called miswanting. It’s the difficulty we have in predicting what’ll make us happy. Here’s a simple example to illustrate miswanting. Suppose you think a beach holiday will make you happy. Since thinking is linear and full of biases, what leaps to your mind is pristine beaches, sun, beer and perhaps good food. Feeling pleasant and excited, you book your tickets. When the day arrives, you discover that the flight is delayed, or there was a cranky baby in the flight. Or when you reach the hotel, you find out that you forgot to pack sandals. On the beach, you get irritated by all the sand that’s stuck on your feet. There are tourists everywhere. It’s loud. Sun is harsher than you thought.
When you’re planning for a holiday (or any other experience you expect to derive happiness from), you obviously cannot think of all the nuances that’ll ruin the experience you planned for. This is why people report deriving more happiness from planning vacations than going to those planned vacations.
Another flaw with thinking about happiness is that because we’re thinking, we end up over-emphasizing easily-thinkable aspects. Whatever is easy to count is easy to think about. That is why we think more money will make us happier because a 30% rise requires only a couple of bits of information to store and process. We think going to a place, marrying a particular person, or taking a particular job will make us happier because all of these are simple, easily-thinkable ideas.
When it comes to happiness, what we fail to plan for is whatever is hard to think about. You cannot visualize that the day-after-day of slogging at an incredibly hard task for years could make you happy. Yet it does! (Ask Olympic athletes who paradoxically feel less happy after winning a medal than how they felt while training). What we fail to think is that perhaps meditating will make us happier because our thinking mind cannot comprehend how a not-thinking mind can be a more pleasant state.
All hope is not lost though. Happiness is obviously a thing of importance, and even though it’s elusive, it’s not entirely beyond influence. We can (and should) try to be happier, but thinking about one’s future is not how we’ll get it done. Rather, to become happier, we should try thinking about one’s own past.
The key is to realize that it’s easier to identify what makes you happy than to think about what will make you happy. Identification of happiness works because you have the easier job of directly scanning for a feeling whatever its cause may have been. While, when you’re planning for thinking, you have a much harder, reverse job: thinking of situations that would definitely lead to the feeling you’re desiring. It’s harder because whatever situations you’re thinking about may or may not give you happiness. And those situations may come with extra situations that you never thought about.
But when you’re identifying happiness, you’re working in the full-HD glory of your memory. If every time you got a raise in the past, you found yourself not much happier, start de-deprioritizing money as a factor that determines how happy you’ve been. If every time, you “wasted” time on a hobby and it made you tremendously happy, start prioritizing it. If you have a high-paying job that you hate, trust that the hate will not go away automatically. Remember: there’s a difference between p(situation | happiness) and p(happiness | situation). Only the latter is calculatable.
There’s just one problem with identifying happiness. What if in your life there haven’t been enough situations to select from? Won’t limiting yourself to repeating the past push you into the local minima of happiness? One way to work around the limitations of the past is to plan for experiments in life with the sole purpose of discovering what makes you happy.
This is different from planning for happiness where you expect happiness. Here you actively seek diversity of situations, hoping a subset of them give you happiness. Be a curious scientist. This requires stepping outside of comfort zone and is harder than it sounds, but it’s an authentic way of approaching happiness. For example, last year, I tried doing many new things that I hadn’t done before: organizing meetups, starting a new Youtube channel, meditating and mentoring startups. Out of these, I realized I enjoyed meditating quite a lot and didn’t enjoy other activities that much. Guess which of these I’m now doing frequently as a source of “free” happiness?
To sum up, the next time you find yourself thinking about what will make you happy, stop and try to think of things that made you happy. When it comes to memory, rely on memory more than thinking. Remember the second law of happiness: there are many more ways for you to be unhappy than the ways for you to be happy. And low-entropy configurations come about only once a while. Become an expert at identifying and recreating those configurations at will.