“My Uncle Alex, who is up in Heaven now, one of the things he found objectionable about human beings was that they so rarely noticed it when times were sweet. We could be drinking lemonade in the shade of an apple tree in the summertime, and Uncle Alex would interrupt the conversation to say, "If this isn't nice, what is?"
So I hope that you will do the same for the rest of your lives. When things are going sweetly and peacefully, please pause a moment, and then say out loud, "If this isn't nice, what is?”
- Kurt Vonnegut
A lot has happened over the past few months, and all of our lives have been affected and changed by the current state of the world — some more than others. As I sit here in my bedroom reflecting on everything I am continually reminded of the importance of having an optimistic outlook. I’ve always believed that happiness is a choice and a skill that you can develop over time. With that being said it’s very subjective and varies a lot from person to person, so I wanted to spend some time thinking and reflecting on this topic.
Everyone wants to be happy — we spend our most valuable resource, time, chasing what we believe will make us happy but few truly try to understand what happiness actually means. At a fundamental level, there are 4 brain chemicals that make us happy: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins. That's really all it is, chemical reactions in our brains motivating us to take action that releases the same chemicals in a reinforcing feedback loop. From an evolutionary biology perspective, these chemicals are designed to be released when we make decisions and act in our best interest to survive and pass down our genes. Understanding this is interesting but not particularly useful for tangible action around happiness so we’ll explore some other ideas.
I think its fair to say that many people in our current capitalistic/ consumer-centric society closely associate happiness with material consumption. This thought and worldview are reflected almost everywhere we look nowadays, ranging from social media to various magazines, happiness is often tied with consumption. In the book “Ethics in the Real World”, in an essay on happiness, Peter Singer writes that "making money gives us something to do that feels worthwhile, as long as we do not reflect too much on why we are doing it.” Or as Joe Rogan aptly says “this is the kind of shit you get when people don’t think very hard about what they want.”
While I agree with this statement, I also believe that making money and spending it on the consumption of goods/ services does award individuals with a certain level of happiness in the short term. The dopamine hit when you buy a new car or really cool gadget is undeniable but the problem is that it is often fleeting. Whatever you buy becomes the new normal fairly quickly and leaves you in search of the next hit, Jeff Bezos describes the human condition as a state of “divine discontent.” This way of living is very effective for a society that values consumerism as individuals are never satisfied and are always chasing that next dopamine hit, but it isn’t sustainable in the long term.
Another way to think about happiness is to explore the relationship between happiness and purpose. I've been told many times that a happy and fulfilled life is one that is meaningful. Nietzsche posits that “the secret of a fulfilled life is to live dangerously, build your cities on the slope of Mount Vesuvius.” Getting valuable shit done comes at a consequence and requires sacrifice. Your life should be passionate, like a work of art, but this can lead to unforeseen side effects. Notably, a lot of the great painters in history like Van Gogh and Nietzsche himself lived broke and miserable lives. Perhaps despite their hardships, they found happiness in the process of creating art for art’s sake?
On a similar vein but in a less extreme light, Jordan Peterson also explores the relationship between purpose and happiness. He notes that happiness can be found in the process of “continual self-transcendence”. What he means by this is you should strive to improve yourself and through this process, you are able to grow and become a better you every day. That this is the only way to find happiness in an otherwise tragic life, you find meaning by taking responsibility for yourself and doing something worthwhile to you — whatever that is. As he says "the world might be bad but what could it be if we all strived to make it better. There’s nothing better to do. Strive for heaven, start from home."
On the opposite side of the world, Asian culture, and the worldview I grew up in has a very different view on happiness. Buddhism teaches you that to be happy or content is to be present, that to live completely in the present away from material possessions and attachments is the highest calling there is. Most of our waking life our brain is performing duration-path-outcome analysis thinking how long is something going to last? What's the path to do it? And how is it going to work out? This is essential for survival but takes us out of the present into a different state of mind. Similarly, Naval says that happiness is the default state when you remove the thought that something is missing in your life. Happiness is the absence of desire when you are able to accept and appreciate things as they are. He explores this further by saying that "nature has no concept of happiness, to a tree there is no right or wrong. For instance, kids are in a state of neutrality, they accept and appreciate things the way they are." So maybe the way to find true happiness is through peace and contentment with the way things are.
But what if we shouldn't be striving for happiness at all? One of my favorite investors, Josh Wolfe, has a slightly different take on this. He talks about the idea of gain through loss, that there is an inherent link between suffering and progress, pain, and beauty. The premise is that most of us seek comfort and happiness but progress doesn't come from happiness. Happiness is liking the way things are, progress comes from change, and change comes from discontent. So is happiness even a state we should be seeking? Or is dissatisfaction needed for continual progress? Should we instead abandon this idea and strive for change?
We’ve explored several interpretations of happiness from its relationship with purpose and sacrifice to happiness as the absence of desire. Fundamentally, we will all try to find happiness in our own ways and continue chasing those chemical releases the best way we know how. Maybe that is where true happiness lies, in the ability to shape your own path and define what it means to you — after all if that isn’t nice, what is?