What is happiness?

Article recovered from archives of my old blog originally written on the 9th of June 2019. This article captures what the old me called a ‘journal entry’ and it is a fascinating time capsule of who I was at the time and what I was grappling with in my mind.

Sorry, what was that? Yes, I know, this is a deep topic for a Sunday afternoon, but I’ve had too much coffee so here we are. And, no, I’m not writing this because I’m going through an existential crisis, that was last Sunday.

Let’s get into it. What is happiness?

Happiness has many definitions, across all different cultures and societies. In Buddhism, happiness is defined as the absence of desire. Old Buddhist wisdom, and in particular this Naval Ravikant extract, says that

Desire’s a contract you make to be unhappy until you get what you want. You become disturbed because you want something. Then you work really hard to get it and are miserable in the meantime. Finally, when you get it, you revert to the state you were in before you had it. It’s not like you achieve some peak level of bliss that you stay on forever.

No single thing will make you happy forever

People hold onto a delusion that there’s something out there that will make them happy and fulfilled forever. No single thing can do that.

Enlightenment is something different. It seems to be a permanent solution; but we’re not going to explore that just yet. We’re just talking about common sense happiness.

Happiness is a process of understanding and self-discovery

There’s no single permanent solution to happiness. Rather, achieving happiness requires a process of understanding and self-discovery. It is a process of training yourself to see certain truths.

If obtaining things made us permanently happy, then the cavemen would have been miserable, and we would all be deliriously happy. Yet, net happiness per person is not going up and might even be going down. Modernity probably brings more unhappiness than the past.

So happiness is returning to the state where nothing is missing in this moment.

– Naval Ravikant on desire

As a species, it is biologically wired into us to desire. So there isn’t much we can do to change that. What we can do, however, is alter what it is that we desire. If you are unhappy, then. you need to study yourself and come to a conclusion on what it is you desire that is making you unhappy. You might find it is something that you haven’t even set out to want, this is usually the case. You may just be after confirmation and acknowledgement from colleagues, which may stem from being mistreated or undervalued in previous employment. If you realised this, I’m sure you’d say to yourself something along the lines of ‘I don’t really care what other people think about me’. Although your unhappiness says otherwise.

If you are seeking happiness, which we all are (see, that is one of the basic forms of desire wired into us) then try your best to not have thousands of desires. Everyone desires things, such as a promotion at work. It is the things in between the lines, of which we are not consciously aware of, which are robbing us of our happiness.

Try picking a handful of central desires, for you and your life, and stick to those.