More To That

An illustrated, long-form blog that delves deeper into the things that make us who we are.

The Riddle of Happiness

The hedonic treadmill gave us unforgettable metaphor about the pursuit of happiness. It simplified the complex phenomenon of reaching a finish line, and the period of acclimation that would soon accompany the achievement of this goal. It’s a great way of communicating that the illusion of any chase is broken when you realize that contentment is right back at where you started in the first place.

But perhaps the most overlooked part of this metaphor is the fact that you decided to get on the treadmill in the first place. When we go to the gym and get on a treadmill, we do so knowing that we’re emulating the experience of running by stepping on a stationary machine. We know that we won’t be getting the same sensory experience as running outside, but we understand that this will be good enough for our workout.

But in the context of hedonic adaptation, we regularly get on the treadmill thinking that the pursuit of something is what will bring us true happiness. We equate the pursuit of a goal with the pursuit of happiness itself, and we all do this to some degree. As an entrepreneur, there’s a revenue goal you set for your business. As a writer, there’s a subscriber figure you’re aiming for. As a parent, you wish for your child to get into whatever school. And so on.

Why do we do continue to do this, knowing damn well that it’s not the answer? Why do we keep stepping on the treadmill for a stationary run, instead of running outside to liberate ourselves from this tiring pattern?

This conundrum of happiness is what I want to explore today.

Schopenhauer believed that all of human experience runs along a pendulum that swings from two poles: one of desire, and the other of satisfaction. We strive when we have desire, so the only way to alleviate this is to experience the pleasure that comes with satisfaction. But once you’re satisfied, boredom ensues, and desire inevitably arises yet again. Hence the pendulum.

This is similar to the treadmill analogy, so it’s not too remarkable. But it’s the observation that Schopenhauer made next that’s the most interesting.

He said that the pace in which the pendulum swings between desire and satisfaction is what matters most. If it swings rapidly between the two, you get happiness. If it swings slowly between them, you get suffering.

To Schopenhauer, one could only be happy if desire is quickly offset by satisfaction, and this satisfaction could then be quickly offset by another desire. If it’s in our nature to restlessly strive for something, the only way to be happy is to feed that nature what it wants. Suppressing the existence of a desire only prolongs the suffering, which is why he didn’t believe that an ascetic life was the answer.

I think this does a good job explaining the phenomenon of busyness, and its existential utility for people. Ultimately, being busy is you continually swinging between desire and satisfaction. Anytime you create an item on a To Do list and proceed to check it off, that’s you making one round on this continuum. Multiply this by however many times you do it over the course of a week, and you get the feeling of busyness.

If you’re busy, the bad news is that you may feel overwhelmed. But the good news is that you may be temporarily shielded from an existential crisis. If your mind always has something to check off, then there’s no room to ask yourself if you’re deriving meaning or purpose in what you’re doing. You just move from one cycle of desire / satisfaction to the next, and that in itself is where you dedicate your attention to.

This is where Schopenhauer’s take breaks down. Simply going from one pole to the next in a rapid manner is not happiness. Oftentimes, it’s just distraction. And when the pace of the pendulum slows in a manner where your desire takes a long time to satisfy, then you’ll see through the illusion that your busyness has created. Anytime there’s a lull or silence in your day-to-day life, this void may be filled with the angst that what you’re doing isn’t the answer, and that’s when an existential crisis takes hold.

This is why true happiness cannot be contingent upon any notion of satisfaction. Because to be satisfied is to imply an endpoint. A goal. And as the hedonic treadmill illustrates, once there is a goal, the logical conclusion is to create another chase to distract you. This distraction may keep you amused and busy, but once you’re faced with silence, you will be afraid of what you may feel.

The answer here is that happiness cannot be pursued, nor can it ever be achieved. Because the moment you’re aware that you’re happy, then paradoxically, you no longer are because you’ve called it out. Once you name a positive feeling, you become attached to it, and you long to feel it again.

I’ve written before that when it comes to any endeavor, the way to know if it’s purposeful is if you stop asking that question entirely. If you keep wondering whether it’s meaningful, then turn back – it’s the wrong path. But if that question begins to fade, then keep going – you’re on the right track.

Happiness works the same way. The only way you’re happy is when the thought of pursuing it ceases. When you’re content with whatever you’re doing, regardless of how it’s going or what the results may be. You are happy when there is no goal to hit because you understand that the pursuit of that goal creates the endpoint of satisfaction, which is never the answer.

As Krishnamurti put it:

When you try to be good, are you good? Can goodness be practised? Or is goodness something that comes naturally because you see, observe, understand? Similarly, when you are conscious that you are happy, happiness goes out of the window. To seek happiness is absurd, because there is happiness only when you don’t seek it.

The moment you pursue happiness, it is nullified. Paradoxically, understanding this is the only way one can truly be happy.


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For more stories and reflections on happiness:

Travel Is No Cure for the Mind

Are You My Friend?

Happiness Is a Serious Matter

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