Happiness: You Can’t Get There From Here

For most of recorded history, wars, famines and epidemics were a given. Suffering and death were an integral part of life. Infant mortality was rampant, with parents constantly hedging their bets, seeing as their children were the only pension fund they had.

Now, for most humans in the West, things are much better. We haven’t seen war, famine or epidemic in over 70 years.

Having taken care of our survival needs, our heads now turn to the pursuit of happiness, famously enshrined in the American constitution.

How To Be Happy?

But how to be happy? If you’re religious, you have it easy. You just follow the directives that your super-being has provided and that’s that.

But some religions say nothing about the whole concept of human happiness. And many people simply do not believe in any of the traditional religions. What are they to do?

The standard answer is that they should turn to the dominant religion of today: economic liberalism, which is founded on humanism – the idea that humanity is not just capable but indeed the best candidate to decide its own future, in effect assuming the place traditionally reserved for deities.

If only you participate in the market economy, the thinking goes, and if only all artificial barriers to entry are removed, humanity can live and prosper indefinitely. Upper limits are illusory, as evidenced by the continued increases in agricultural and industrial production. Even limitations placed upon us by planet Earth may in time be transcended, initially by reinventing the way we use its scarce resources and ultimately perhaps by leaving the planet behind.

Climate change and nuclear proliferation in this sense become opportunities for human inventiveness, in addition to frightening agents of our collective destruction or regression into the age of iron.

It’s true that human resourcefulness has not let us down yet. So I’m sanguine about the ability of (some of) our children and grandchildren to thrive in the coming epochs. Absent some unforeseen event, humanity will likely not go the way of the dodo bird.

My concern is not with humanity’s continued existence, but rather with its happiness. For believers in economic liberalism slash humanism, to prosper is to be happy. But there is a false equivalence here.

To understand why, we need to define what happiness is. Of course, I’m not the first thinker to look at happiness, so let’s see what others have thought on the subject. Subjective well-being and life satisfaction are terms that are bandied about quite a lot. Both of these point to the circumstance that happiness is a subjective experience; it is mostly internal to the person experiencing it. Some people may be happy languishing in jail, whereas others can’t seem to find it on a paradise island.

Happiness, then, is not some objective reality. Whereas it appears that an increase in annual income corresponds to an increase in subjective well-being, that correspondence fails rather quickly when income reaches a certain point. In the USA in 2010, this point was famously set at $75,000 per household. Earn more than that, and your day-to-day happiness will not improve as much as your income.

From this point, expecting a larger salary to make you much happier is folly. Yet, like lemmings we go on chasing after larger pay checks and more consumption, in the tacit expectation that these things will make us happy.

They won’t. And here’s why.

The Happiness Scale

Subjective happiness is made up of many small joys and many small sorrows. Some joys have the power to make you very happy for a short time, while causing lots of anguish later on. Other joys last longer and have fewer “side effects”. Three examples.

A heroin experience can feel amazingly fulfilling for the first few hours, before it gradually wears down to baseline and just keeps going on a downward trajectory, until you feel depressed enough to want to use it again, just to experience the high, which – due to psychofarmacological reasons – will not be quite as good. For the experience to stay as powerful, you need to increase the dosage to account for the build-up of tolerance. Keep using it, adjusting your dose to maintain the strength of the initial experience – which itself is a risky strategy, for you might over-dose and lethally depress your ability to breathe – and you will trade ever-waning ecstacy for ever-longer agony.

Imagine a scale from 0 to 100, where 0 represents much effort to produce a small joy in the short term and lots of despair in the longer term and 100 represents the expenditure of zero effort to produce a joy that lasts forever. On such a scale, the kind of happiness produced by heroin is close to 0. Why? Because the happiness does not last and in fact becomes its opposite with increasing rapidity.

It can be joyful to revel in victimhood. Not taking responsibility for some unfortunate circumstance that befalls you can feel good for a short while, especially when friends appear to commiserate with you and you’re happy to blame others for your misfortune. This kind of joy does not last, however. You care deeply about the misfortune – otherwise why would you be complaining about it? – yet, you feel unable to change your lot in life. This creates internal friction and thus is not a happy situation in the long term. Sadly, complaining frequently leads to more complaining, and before long, you’re one of those people who can’t seem to stop complaining.

On our aforementioned 0 to 100 scale, this type of joy falls around the 20 mark, firstly because it just does not last very long, and second because this pattern of low-grade joy tends to reinforce itself into ossified patterns of personal investment yet not taking responsibility, which leaves a person internally divided.

The Happiness Vacuum

Take responsibility for your life and its outcomes, such as the humanist/liberalist creed dictates, and you may grow rich beyond your wildest dreams. Or not. If you do everything just right and end up atop the greasy pole, a fulfilled desire or ambition might be met with a dose of happiness. Still, that happiness soon fades to make way for new desires and ambitions, leaving you wanting and striving until the achievement of this new desire produces a new dose of happiness. And on and on it goes, never completely satisfying, never lasting quite long enough.

As we’ve just seen, happiness that results from prosperity is capped at a certain level, say at 80 on the scale. By the way, this does not have to be 80, it could also be 99.99. The relevant thing is that people experience a happiness vacuum, whereas their short-term needs have been met many times over. A vacuum that does not seem to get filled by taking more responsibility, making more money, having more power, sex or fame.


Fortunately for those who ask this question, this is not a new phenomenon. Over the millennia, philosophers and other sages have had lots to say on the subject.

The general consensus seems to be that You Can’t Get There From Here. Meaning that using your mind to inquire why you’re not completely happy creates an unbridgeable gap between the ideal state of perfect happiness and the experience of discursive thought that looks for problems to solve, chiefly among which the problem of not being happy. Intellectualizing the problem does not, can not, solve it.

Whereas there seems to be agreement on this particular matter, opinions diverge about how to bridge the remaining 20 (or 0.01) points on the happiness scale. Below, we’ll briefly examine five, at times overlapping, answers.

The Science of Happiness

This recent field examines satisfaction on a number of different scales, the total of which is expected to translate into a total life satisfaction score.

The dimensions that have been identified include bodily happiness (fitness), kindness and a meaningful social life, experiencing flow, optimism, and meaning. It’s a great start to begin to understand how human happiness might be put together.

The problem with this approach is that it seeks to identify areas to work on if and when a person is not experiencing (sufficient) happiness. But working on a vaguely described subject such as meaning is unlikely to help the unhappy person. After all, she is not currently experiencing meaning in her life, making her less happy than she wants to be. The “scientific” answer that she should just hitch her wagon to a religion of some kind seems glib and unhelpful.

A further problem is that it assumes that something has to happen for the happiness to arrive. That happiness is an outcome, only to be attained after a journey of some kind. This may gel with the mythology of the hero’s journey and the process of acquiring a skill, but it is far from certain that happiness responds to similar mechanics.

Science or no science, lasting happiness seems elusive as ever. Which is not to say that science shouldn’t try to be relevant in this domain. I would invite you to watch this space, but for now, let’s keep looking.

Epicurus and the Pursuit of Happiness

The Epicurean school of ethics holds that it’s beneficial to be as independent as possible from external things. Conducive to happiness is the state of ataraxia, which is the experience of inner tranquillity. Ataraxia in turn comes about through hedonism, which does not mean what you think it might.

Everyone naturally seeks out pleasure and avoids pain. Hedonism, according to Epicurus, is to distinguish desires and pains that are conducive to happiness, and further to train yourself to disregard other pains and desires. So, which desires and pains are conducive to happiness, and how does one train oneself to disregard the rest?

Desiring to get rid of bodily pain is an example of a desire that is conducive to happiness, as with the absence of such pain a neutral state is attained in which we don’t seek pleasure and thus can experience inner tranquillity. Pursuit of unnecessary desires, like a bigger, better, more sexy version of something we already possess or any other kind of binge – the contemporary definition of hedonism – is expressly unwanted, leading as it does to inevitable pain.

Contemplation of pleasant past events and the savoring of modest pleasures leads to ataraxia and establishes within us the wherewithal to withstand unnecessary pains and pleasures.

Unnecessary pain is the pain we self-apply by believing in the punishment of the gods or by fearing death. According to Epicurus, the gods don’t care enough to punish us, and fear of death is mildly ridiculous; death is meaningless to both the living and the dead, it just makes little sense to worry about it.

That’s right folks, you can stop being afraid of dying now, the philosopher said so.

Sounds too good to be true? Join the club. Let’s see whether the Stoics could be more convincing.

The Stoic Search for Happiness

Stoics believe that happiness (eudaimonia, also translated as “flourishing”) comes about through the skillful crafting of our “moral character”, which in turn is formed by our judgements and responses.

The extent to which we can control something is the most important question in this regard. A correct understanding whether something is “up to us” determines the virtue of our moral character. Mistakenly believing that our health or wealth is wholly within our control is not virtuous.

The only thing that is wholly within our power is the authority over ourselves, and the decision whether to be affected by external events. The capacity to adapt to everything that happens, to judge nothing as “bad” but rather as insufficient to overwhelm your moral character, is the only “good” that matters to a Stoic.

External events themselves are neither good nor bad, but merely indifferent. These indifferent items and events may still be “preferred” or “dispreferred”, but they can never be truly good or bad.

You might argue that all this “vice or virtue, good or bad” amounts to mere wordplay. So here’s the gist: according to Stoic thought, it is not events themselves that disturb our mental tranquillity but our judgements about these events. We must therefore keep our judgements in check, always. In the words of the Roman Stoic Epictetus (Handbook, 20):

Remember that insults or blows in themselves are no outrage, but your judgement that they are so. When anyone makes you angry, know that it is your own thought that has angered you. So endeavour not to let your impressions carry you away. For after some time has passed, you will find it easier to control yourself.

Nice theory. But how to do it? There are lots of practices the Stoics invented, all belonging to one or more of the following three Disciplines.

The Discipline of Desire involves endeavouring to keep your desires to what is up to you. Maintain this consciousness of what is truly good: your own judgements.

It is fine to pursue preferred indifferents if you must, but then you should take care not to be attached to outcomes. This is called the Discipline of Action.

When something external happens and you notice emotions or other sensations surfacing, take care to examine them closely before you accept them as true or good. For Stoics, this involves rational effort. This Discipline of Assent is meant to act as a safety on top of the two previously mentioned Disciplines.

Maintaining eudaimonia was of paramount importance to innumerable Stoic practictioners in the course of at least five centuries. If all this appears cold-hearted or emotionally repressive to you, perhaps reflecting on the optimism inherent in the Stoic world view might change your mind. Rather than seeing humans as tragic playthings of the wanton movements of chance (or fate), Stoics believe (indeed nowadays there are again people practicing these techniques and calling themselves Stoics) that your happiness is completely up to you.

Buddha and the End of Suffering

Unrelated to Epicurus or the Stoics, and presumably pre-dating those traditions by several hundred years, Buddha’s mission was to discover the end to suffering. Through learning to see the ephemerality of pleasant and unpleasant sensations, he taught his followers to gain independence from their dictates, thereby ending suffering and ultimately experiencing the unbounded bliss of nirvana. Although bliss is apparently one of the results of buddhist prescription, happiness expressly is not its goal – the ending of suffering is.

According to Buddha, suffering is habitually added on to unpleasant sensations, as well as to pleasant ones. Using his method of mindfulness meditation, an adept could gain a better understanding how suffering got tacked onto these sensations.

Basically, there are three types of sensations: pleasant, unpleasant and neutral. The neutral ones are the ones we are more or less blind to, at our present level of mindfulness. Cultivate mindfulness, and you become more sensitive to different flavours of neutrality, thereby opening up new ways in which you can stop suffering in your life. This process continues until no additional suffering gets added at all.

So, who adds the suffering? Well, you do. In fact, you’re probably doing it right now. By tacitly assuming that unpleasant sensations are to be avoided and pleasant ones pursued, you keep this whole suffering-creating apparatus intact. Basically, our biological desires and aversions point us in the wrong direction for lasting happiness.

Rejecting them is beside the point, for that way you only create additional suffering. Desire and aversion have to be seen through, ideally without reacting, and with a mind state called “equanimity”, which is regarded as the epitome of love.

Love, you say? Well look at it this way. If all reactions lead you into bad states, the best and most loving response is to not react. Equanimity embodies this attitude, and is developed right alongside mindfulness as a mental quality.

Although human happiness is not the stated goal of this cultivation, your happiness is increased while your suffering decreases. Basically, the more you experientially understand that it’s your habitual reactions to life’s little joys and sorrows that add suffering, the more likely you are to stop adding quite so much of it, thereby making you happier.

A Fifth View

In contrast to the humanist/liberal ethos, it appears that the upper echelon of happiness is not dependent upon external conditions. Rather, it rests on the internal reality of your attributions. Paradoxically, the more you let go of trying to control your environment, of wanting to leave your mark on the world, the happier you will be.

In conjunction, and yet sometimes quite apart from the aforementioned lines of thought around this subject, many spiritual traditions have taught practices that seem to jive with this insight. The extent to which you establish these practices and attitudes tends to be much more predictive of lasting high levels of happiness than material wealth or income.

So, without subscribing to any foreign notions of virtue, moral character or suffering, it is possible to just incorporate some of the following attitudes and practices and watch your happiness rise to previously unthinkable levels. Which is not to say that the aforementioned four traditions have nothing to teach us; that, as a Stoic would say, is completely up to you.

Letting go of outcomes is a great starting point, especially when it pertains to your relationship to yourself. The journey is more important than the destination. Don’t adopt a freewheeling attitude that is unmoored from any accountability, either, but don’t assume you can only be persuaded to do what’s in your own best interest by relying on reward and punishment, instead taking honesty as a superior substitute. Honestly assess whether you’re better off doing things one way or the other and then let go of the inferior way. Don’t beat yourself up when you fall back into old habits, but simply resolve to let this be an incidental thing.

For the external life, letting go of outcomes is fair advice as well. Set goals, make plans, evaluate regularly. Do your best, always. Fail beautifully, take responsibility for your inevitable mistakes and learn from them. But don’t get attached to outcomes. This embodies the gentle understanding that there are so many things that can influence the outcome of any one situation, that allowing it to alter your basic happiness would be unhelpful to say the least. As far as your happiness is concerned, outcomes are irrelevant.

Gratitude helps you focus on the 99.999% of your life that is actually going great, instead of insisting on magnifying the 0.001% that may require some attention. Gratitude may soften sadness by calling to mind the reasons for your sadness: the wonderful memories of the person, object or chance now lost. Emphasizing the positive elements inherent in negative mood states helps to appreciate the aetiology of their existence.

Generosity, compassion, empathy and other forms of kindness help you to realize that you’re somewhat connected to those around you, thereby opening the door to experiencing positive emotions, such as joy and love. Giving is more fulfilling than receiving. Love enables you to see where you may be similar to others, thereby fostering a sense of connection and openness, leading to positive emotions. It is also a great antidote to anger and resistance.

Humility encourages your ego to let go of some of its acquired territories, such as The Truth, Being Right, Knowing It All or even Having The Last Word. A slightly smaller ego has less to defend and is more likely to pierce preconceptions and make a real connection.

Connected to humility is the insight that you really shouldn’t take anything personally. Think about it, you don’t usually perceive the other people in your life in any objective sense. Rather, you see them through the lens of your preconceptions, expectations and past judgements. This is not just true about others, but of yourself also. You rarely see yourself objectively. Science has discovered a large collection of human cognitive errors and biases that bedevil any honest attempt at objectivity. Knowing yourself fully and honestly can take a lifetime. If you don’t know yourself, how can you expect others to fully grasp who you are? Truly integrating this insight, it becomes logical to stop taking things personally.

Curiosity counteracts anxiety. Try it, it enlarges your world. Next time you experience a small amount of anxiety, muster the courage to be curious about what is really happening, say on the level of your bodily experience. And remain present with those bodily sensations, noticing how they develop. Pretty soon, you may notice that your anxiety has made room for curiosity, which is a far happier, more expansive state to be in.

Lay off the shame, guilt and punishment. These are not healthy practices to engage in. Like the heroin experience we discussed earlier, they provide a minute amount of joy right now in return for a lot of pain later on. Whenever you notice yourself doing so anyway, be present with the process and also with the judgement that underlies it. Stop short, however, of rejecting anything about your experience. Mindfully notice whatever there is to notice, and don’t react. Don’t feel bad about feeling bad.

This treatment is far from exhaustive. There must be many other practices that are relevant. They share a common trait in that they gradually persuade you to stop taking yourself (and the things that happen in your life) quite as seriously. Perhaps this is one ingredient that leads to their ability to bridge our happiness vacuum.

Happiness As A Starting Point Rather Than A Destination

You Can’t Get There From Here. Thinking your way to happiness, as I’m sure you can attest, does not work. Neither is assuming that this or that new desire or ambition will end up magically fulfilling your wish for lasting happiness, whereas in the past no desires or ambitions have been able to make that a reality. The assumption that You Can Get There is the problem.

Part of the reason is that lasting happiness is less a destination and more of a journey. Could it be that There is Here, right now?

Instead of doing something expecting that it will “make you happy”, take whatever happiness you experience right now and go from there, sprinkling your life with practices and values that maintain and develop your happiness.

In order to maximize your experiential position on the 0-100 happiness scale, and to turn the tables on the idea that happiness is something that must be pursued, investigate these five alternative approaches. This way, perhaps happiness becomes the start of new intentions, thoughts, words and actions – of whole new projects – instead of their intended result.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this matter. Leave a comment if you feel like it.

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