happiness, purpose and meaning

12 minute read

This is an exploration of ‘happiness’ and ‘meaning’.


What is Happiness?

Desire and Aversion is the implicit definition for many

Happiness is a nebulous concept because everyone has their own definition of it. Here are a few definitions people use consciously or unconsciously :

  • “Once I get X, I will be happy”
  • “Once I get rid of Y, I will be happy”
  • Doing the most ‘good’ in the world
  • Eudaemonia : ‘flourishing'
  • Contentment

There are many more.

Largely the implicit definition for most is : ‘once I get X’ or ‘get rid of Y. ( X= item, job, money, status, partner, body, experience)

Desire and aversion.

My Definition

My definition is : peace and contentment.

It is not about ‘addition’ of positive states, but more acceptance of all states.

It is not about seeking positive or negative states. But about accepting them as they come. Life is a river of experience, some good, some bad. But the way you react to the experiences is what determines your level of peace.

You can either go through life struggling. Rejecting or chasing after things. Buffeted by the waves of pleasure, pain, success, failure, loss, gain, death, tragedy. Or you can face them with equanimity. Appreciating joy, appreciating sadness and all the range of conscious experiences available.

This hypothesis comes up in many philosophies (Buddhism, Stoicism , Taoism). What we seek is peace through acceptance.

Internal vs External Games

Looking for contentment by making the world conform to your desires will never work.

We play external games all day : go get better grades, go make money etc. These are all multiplayer games. You should go do those. But looking for contentment by making the world conform to your desires will never work.

Instead, change yourself. Seek to alter the way you see the world.

This is entirely trainable. It is like building muscles in the gym. It’s a set of tools that you use until they become habitual.

This will be an exploration of this internal game and how to train the mind to become generally more content and peaceful. Let’s start at the beginning.

Evolutionary Basis :

Contentment isn’t the default

  1. Evolution has programmed the brain to perceive reality in a certain way that maximises genes passing down populations. The mind is not immune to natural selection
  2. So you have a whole bunch of biases and unaware tendencies. Some of these are not helping you become peaceful. There is a mismatch between the environment we evolved in and the current modern day environment
  3. Evolution has not programmed for contentment. It has programmed for desire and aversion. We are never content.

So understanding that contentment is not ‘natural’ is an important first step.

You are always reacting to internal states

Another is realising that you are always reacting to internal states.

No-one or event ever ‘upsets you’. You upset you through your reaction to it

It’s all just neurotransmitters and electrochemical energy creating a model of experience (best hypothesis so far)

  1. You don’t perceive reality. Instead you live in a mental representation of reality
  2. You are always reacting to a mental representation of reality
  3. That is why ‘contentment’ is internal. You never react to the external world, you always react to your perception of it.
  4. The universe essentially has no concept of bad or good. It is only in your mind that an event is judged to be positive or negative.
  5. Whatever reality looks like, it doesn’t ‘look’ like anything. Many neuroscientists espouse the idea of ‘virtuality’. The brain creates a model of reality. Everyone is hallucinating, but when the hallucinations line up, we have a consensus of ‘reality’.

Just to reinforce : we are all reacting to internal states. This is important to understand because it means that :

  1. Circumstances matter little. Unless you are in extreme poverty, changing your external environment does little to contentment. They are a different skillset (Unless they are the factors discussed below)

  2. It’s the way you interpret the stories you create.

  3. We are often wrong about what will make us happy. As I said, the brain has evolved to pass genes, not to be happy. Certain intuitions are false. Examples

    1. Having X will make me happy
    2. Earning X will make me happy
    3. Having X partner will make me happy
  4. This is called ‘affective forecasting’. We have a very poor ability to predict what will bring about contentment and happiness in the future.

  5. For example : you can all think of a time when you thought ‘once I get into medical school I will be happy’. How long did that last? A day, a week? Then the so called happiness (more like pleasure) fizzled away. Another example : ‘Once I get out of medical school, I will be happy’. Same outcome. ‘Once I become a consultant’.

  6. It is obvious with material goods. You know upgrading your car isn’t going to bring long lasting contentment. But it is often harder to see with career goals or self-improvement etc. The Buddhists have a word for this desire ‘Bhava tanha’. The desire to become. In psychology it is the ‘Hedonic treadmill’.

Desire is not bad, but clinging to desire causes suffering

  1. I am not saying that desire is bad. It is inevitable. But be aware of the fact that fulfilling your desires is inherently unsatisfactory. The second ‘truth’ that the Buddha articulated : ‘Life is inherently unsatisfactory’.

    It is the ‘clinging to desire’. Holding on so tightly to the outcome, that it causes mental anguish. If you simply accepted it, then the suffering stops.

  2. Pick your desires very carefully : See ‘externals’ section below. Don’t have too many. And prioritise them. Relationships > Work etc

How to train the mind

So happiness as most of these ancient philosophies have mentioned is internal. It is your reaction. It is the mental stories you tell yourself AND how one relates to those stories There are largely 3 ways to train the mind to become happier i.e. the reps of the internal game.

  1. Meditation
  2. Analysis of Thought
  3. (Pharmacological)

I will discuss each of these in turn.

Meditation

Exploring the neuroscientific basis of meditation :

  1. The brain has a set of structures called the ‘Default mode network (DFMN)
  2. DFMN turns on when one is doing ‘nothing’. It results in background thought
  3. It is ‘self referential thought’. Basically thinking without one is knowing they are thinking
  4. Wandering minds are unhappy minds. Though can be a useful tool, but a terrible master
  5. Meditation is a way to train these structures
  6. fMRI scans show that experienced meditators have lower activity in the DFMN

What is meditation? :

  1. Meditation is about becoming aware of thought as it arises andpasses away
  2. It is not about stopping thought
  3. It is paying close attention to the contents of consciousness
  4. Realising that thoughts are impermanent, and simply arising and passing away, as with all contents of consciousness.
  5. Ultimately the relationship with thought changes
  6. At a deeper level, it is about viscerally understanding impermanence, the nature of suffering, and the illusory nature of the self (in Buddhist philosophy : Annicha, Dukkha, Annata)

Basic method:

  1. Bring attention to the breath
  2. Notice when the mind wanders
  3. Bring it back to the breath
  4. Be aware that one is thinking, without getting lost in thought.
  5. The bringing it back to the breath, noticing that you were mind wandering is the ‘rep’. Now repeat.

It is a fundamental ability. It can greatly reduce suffering as you become aware of the movements of attention.

One can exclusively pay attention and explore conscious experience. Suppose you sit for a month just paying close attention to the contents of conscious experience. You can discover something fundamental about the nature of consciousness.

The Buddhist view of the self being not what it seems is being investigated and is being supported by modern neuroscience.

There are profound experiential truths that can be investigated at a first person level through meditation. Admittedly not many people want to go on month long meditation retreats. But there is a lot to be gained from a basic daily practice

Analysis of Thought

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. Victor Frankyl

This essentially is in the realm of philosophy. You can choose your response to situations.

You can construct and reinforce thoughts that are useful/adaptive. That way you train your brain to respond in a certain way to challenges.

  1. Work on character traits : compassion, gratitude, peace etc
  2. Have a world view that reinforces these traits
  3. Various mental hacks : ‘negative visualisation’, ‘framing’, etc

The liberating aspect is realising : my thoughts are not accurate. They are simply models.

  1. You can change your thought through analysis. If you have rumination on self image, jealously, anger etc , become aware of them. Write them down. Journal
  2. They lose their power almost immediately once brought into the light. They are simply constructs that you can change.
  3. A lot of this is about intention and conscious deliberation. If left to its own devices, the automaticity of thought can cause tremendous amounts of unhappiness.
  4. But when looked at, and accepted. Not pushed against. One can begin to change.

Pharmacological

I push back against this in some ways. I still haven’t made up my mind on the utility of drugs such as SSRI’s, psychedelics. They remind me of ‘Soma’ from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World

I haven’t formulated a view on this yet.

A lot of research is being done into psychedelics. I don’t know enough about them, but my worry is that they may not be sustainable.

External Factors

That said there are certain external factors that can affect your happiness.

Relationships

  1. Those with deeper, closer social relationships are happier
  2. The hard part is finding meaningful relationships and keeping them
  3. Meet lots of people. Once you find the right people – go all in. Invest in long term relationships
  4. The longest term relationships are always family. So invest infamily.
  5. Quality > Quantity
  6. Make time for relationships. A dying regret of many, is that they wish they hadn’t worked so much, and wish they had spent more time with people they love.

Time Affluence

  1. People with more time and autonomy are happier
  2. When faced with a decision between money vs time. Choose time
  3. Unless you can trade the money for more time
  4. Use money to buy time rather than to buy social status
  5. Time is non renewable. Money is renewable.
  6. There are 2 ways to be rich : earning a lot and desiring very little

Environment

  1. Commuting : Excessive commuting has been shown to make people unhappy
  2. Noisy environments
  3. Avoiding Poverty, having the lower tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy fulfilled

Money

Money is essential. It should be viewed as tool rather than as an ends

Trade money for time

  1. Trade money for time. Outsource labour. Specialise as a producer ( become a specialist in the economy e.g. lawyer) so you can diversify as a consumer (trade that money for other speciality such as a painter to paint your house)
  2. Money can essentially buy ‘freedom’ which is Time.
  3. Popular study : happiness increases up to $50,000 a year.
  4. Just automate finances, so you don’t have to think about it all the time.

Meaning

Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for. Victor Frankyl

I find this video essay explores meaning and nihilism well.

Ultimately there is no meaning universally. If there was a universal meaning, then everyone would have the same meaning. And we would all question : “Why is that the meaning?”. And keep asking why.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t choose a meaning.

Meaning is locally created (by you!).

You get to pick and choose a meaning to life. Paradoxically there is no universal meaning, but there is a personal/individual meaning. Here are some popular ones

  • Kids
  • Helping people
  • Doing ‘meaningful work’
  • Maximising pleasure consciously or unconsciously

What is important is to think about what your meaning is. Mine keeps changing, and it probably will at various stages in life.

Conclusion

Don’t listen to me. Don’t listen to anyone. There’s definitely a lot more to be said on this topic, that I can’t really articulate well.

Figure it out for yourself through experiments. Start from an epistemological stance of reasoning entirely from first principles.

Just make sure you think about these topics and revise your views accordingly. Have opinions, just loosely held.

Admittedly a lot of this is just losing yourself in the moment. This skill can be trained. Being present can be trained. You can quieten self referential thought.Seeing the world as a child does.

I’ll end with this quote by one of my favourite authors.

How beautiful the world was when one looked at it without searching, just looked, simply and innocently. Hermann Hesse


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