Some Questions About Happiness

How do we find happiness? There are tons of answers out there, so I will instead present a ton of questions. Some are loaded, some answer previous questions. I hope all are illustrative.

What is happiness? Is it pleasure (e.g.: eating something delicious)? Is it more subtle, like spending time with friends? Is it tranquility? Is it full absorption in what we are doing? Is it reflection on a life well lived?

If all the above, then there are different kinds of happiness. Do we care which ones we get? For instance, will we settle for a life of absorption at the expense of no spikes of pleasure? I ask because we can control at least some types of happiness; this means we can increase it, but possibly at the expense of decreasing other kinds. For instance, tranquility is generally opposed to spikes of pleasure.

What does it mean to be happier? Did the duration increase? The intensity? The number of happy experiences?

It’s said that happiness and unhappiness are two sides of the same coin. If so, how much unhappiness am I willing to tolerate for happiness? Am I willing to take the spikes of ecstasy if it means suffering the pits of despair, or would I rather experience a more even keel?

Different types of happiness differ by the probability that I’ll experience them. If true, then the most probable happiness is that which is up to me. But take this example: I will be happy if I eat a bag of chips, but buying it is not entirely in my hands (someone may mug me on the way to the store, etc…). On the other hand, overcoming my desire for chips is more in my hands. Yet, which is more likely to be achieved?

How often do I recall past happiness? Does this gladden or sadden me? How often do unwelcome thoughts (eg: “too bad this moment will end”) intrude on my happy moments? What about past unhappy events that I now think were fortuitous? Did my unhappiness then magically cease? If not, why does this matter? What does this mean, given that every moment dies and is instantly in the past?

Some say happiness is reflection on a life well lived,. What does this mean? What if I do something painful for the sake of a future reflection that I acted virtuously?

Indeed, in general what does it mean when I sacrifice now for happiness tomorrow? Why is my happiness now less real than tomorrow? For instance, if I’m saving for a comfortable retirement, I’m sacrificing now for something decades down the road, and I may not survive or be less able to enjoy it. Indeed, doesn’t age mellow desires, so doesn’t it make more sense to enjoy now?

Can we choose our desires? Can I instantly turn off a desire, or is it long term work? But if it’s entirely up to me, why can’t I do it now? Maybe I’m not in as much control as I think and perhaps this may remind me that my desires are not my own and thus not to be taken seriously? Were my desires put in, or did I have some say – and if I did, why can’t I change my desires to something totally satisfiable or perhaps even end them?

Is happiness the state of no desires or the state of a satisfied desire? The two are not the same.

Also, do we underestimate desire? I often think of desires as desiring something, but desires are also at the root of my life, where I judge my life in terms of desires and satisfying them. Perhaps I desire to desire? Perhaps the first step is to stop treating desire as something to be satisfied to begin with.

Some say happiness comes from within and provide a program to achieve it. If I truly believe this, then do I even need a path? Wouldn’t the belief itself be enough to make me happy? For instance, let’s say I believe the following re-wording of the Buddhist path:

  1. Life is full of unhappiness.
  2. Unhappiness is caused by desires.
  3. I can overcome desires and experience bliss.
  4. I can do this through the 8-fold path (omitted)

If I believe 1-3, do I even need 4? For to truly believe that life is full of unhappiness is to stop pursuing things, since we pursue things only because we think they’ll give us happiness, right? To truly believe misery is caused by desires is to overcome desire automatically, since we desire because we think something is good, but to see desire itself as bad, we should automatically stop, right? To believe I can overcome desires is to automatically exercise that power since I know its role in happiness, right?

As an analogy to the above, how tempted am I to stick my hand in a fire, since I know it to be bad? I don’t need discipline for that, so why do I need discipline for this?

But I can compare this with losing weight. I believe eating less causes weight loss, yet sometimes I splurge. Did I suddenly suffer a loss of belief? No. But maybe my belief is that eating now is better than not eating? Maybe I convince myself that I’ll be better later and in the scheme of things this won’t matter. Maybe my long term pleasure at weight loss is too distant to seem real, while eating now seems real?

Does belief require work – even physical work? Someone once said “if you do as you believe, you will believe as you do”. This seems right, for what else does it mean when someone claims they believe X but does something consistent with a belief in Y? We like to talk about discipline and being torn, but is this true? Is belief as simple as acting consistently with respect to that belief? Can you fake it until you make it, or is faking it by definition making it?  Should we force our inner thoughts to be consistent or will the inner follow the outer?

If the above is true, can we regard spiritual paths (like Buddhism’s) to be a way of really believing the tenets? Perhaps the whole path is to simply believe the claim, but that is the work and we travel the path only to return at the beginning, with an internalization of the truths so we truly believe and hence achieve the goals?

Is there a way to bring the immediacy of instant gratification to a long term path? If I experience tranquility and bliss in meditation, I feel pleasure now and it’s a reminder that I can be happy with little or nothing. But this bliss is not always guaranteed, but perhaps the tranquility throughout my day is and I can reflect on how I have this thanks to the path, partly through mindfulness.

What of the opposite approach, of showing the pitfalls of not doing this? Can mindfulness help? If I’m mindful, I can see the connections between things like my desire and anger, and perhaps seeing this builds the kind of belief I’m looking for.

Perhaps this works with pleasure to? When I look in the mirror, I see white hairs; this means I’m getting old and will die. But do I dwell on this? Do I flee it? When I’m in a relationship, I try hard to ignore how many of my previous ones failed. Should I face this? When I see buckling concrete or wilting flowers, I try not to think about how everything is impermanent – including all I love. Should I reflect on this? This would seem to make things negative, but it also forces me to confront that I’m desiring things that will ultimately disappoint. Will this suffice to make me not desire?

I’m not so much trying to see something as I’m no longer running away.

The assumption here is that once desire is gone, there’s a blissful state. Is this true? Some say it’s boring, but isn’t boredom a desire for stimulation? Some say it’s numb, but doesn’t numbness still have a negativity to it? Think of pure nothingness, tranquility beyond tranquility. Maybe this is more like it?

Back to belief. If I find inner happiness, then I will be happy no matter what. This means if I’m in a bad situation, I will be happy in in the midst of it. So can I imagine myself happy in such a situation – especially if it’s happening? If I reject the thought and choose misery rather than happiness at the “price” of acceptance, what does that say about what I believe?

From the above, is there something more fundamental than happiness? Habit? Identity? Can the lack of acceptance simply be because I identified with something so strongly that I regard not having it to be a sort of death and therefore cling, even at the detriment to my happiness? Should I aim at something more fundamental, namely unraveling this identity?

If I think it’s good to believe something, and if I can control my belief, then should I automatically believe that something? Some things I may not be able to believe – like that I can fly. But what about others? Some things may be indeterminate, and belief could be a matter of choice. But perhaps I can choose to see these things in a particular way and thus force a belief for which there is no evidence, but no counter-evidence either.  But am I aware that I’m forcing this?


2 thoughts on “Some Questions About Happiness

  1. This is no vacuous praise: your blog is one of the most interesting ones I have come across in months. It is a breath of fresh air.
    For example, I find your approach of doubt much more enlightening than the plain stating of an opinion.
    Also, you seem to have similar obsessions as me, for example regarding Buddhism: isn’t getting rid of your desires equivalent to not caring about anything? If it’s all about removing suffering, isn’t it faster to just shoot yourself? Another question I ask myself often is whether it is happiness we should pursue or something else, something somehow deeper than happiness.

  2. Thank you very much! I love your blogs as well. I practically jumped out of my seat reading about how we may live in a simulation.

    My approach of doubt was ironically due to my false start of trying to write something prescriptive about happiness. However, I kept running into questions, and while I had answers for some or all, I also realized different people may see things differently. I finally felt it would be better to present the questions and let readers engage with them themselves.

    Yes, we do share obsessions and I was actually thinking of writing on desire and happiness and desirelessness. I think Buddhism argues that to remove suffering is to experience bliss; so I guess the First Noble Truth of Buddhism must be taken very seriously; that every moment of our experience is tinged with suffering. If you believe that, then to remove the suffering would be to experience bliss, much like ending a headache brings an enjoyable state of no-pain. Therefore, to end suffering is to experience happiness unlike suicide which would simply end it all (if you don’t believe in an afterlife). Also, suffering of course should be loosely taken to mean everything from irritation to soul crushing grief (thus making the First Noble Truth more believable).

    A key premise here is that our suffering so permeates our perception that we can’t really understand what it is like to end it, so we can’t simply extrapolate. It would be like a person who had a lifelong headache; could such a person understand what it’s like to not have a headache?

    It also raises a question about how one is happy upon satisfying a desire. Is it the satisfaction of the desire itself, or the fact that there are now fewer desires that bring the happiness?

    As for not caring… I guess it comes down to how you define desire. In Buddhism, I think the original term used is “tanha” which means craving or thirst, but I’ve also seen “attachment to desire” used instead of “desire”, which would imply that we don’t actually end desire, but our attachment to it. So, it’s possible to still care about things depending on what definition of desire you use.

    I also wondered about the pursuit of happiness. At some point if one experiences enough detachment one can even be indifferent to happiness. Since (at least for me) the point of life seems to be the pursuit of happiness, what then? In fact, if one finally achieves “happily ever after”, then what? It would seem one is in the same boat.

    My candidate would be altruism. If my happiness is taken care of, then it seems only logical that I should dedicate my life to helping others. However, this may not strictly answer your question, as this wouldn’t necessarily be deeper in the sense of being a drive.

    What are your candidates for something deeper than happiness?

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