Guide to Understand and Manage “Happiness”

Happiness — a simple yet illusive word that has been a topic of confusion and contemplation throughout my learning journey. Given that almost all of my work — blog posts or projects — indirectly (or directly?) try to pursue happiness, I wanted to deep-dive and understand it.

In this post, I will attempt to articulate understanding happiness and managing it. The lessons here are inspired by The Happiness Advantage, Elephant in the Brain, Stumbling on Happiness, and personal experiences.

Defining Happiness

To begin with, the fact that happiness is defined in different ways only exaggerates the problem of trying to understand happiness. So, I will attempt to define happiness.

First, let’s assume that the word “happiness” refers to any emotional state, or collection of emotions, that we desire in life. So, you can substitute the word happiness for any emotional state that you desire – excitement, meaning, adventure, fulfillment etc.

Second, there is a category of people who say they don’t desire happiness or that they are happy. From personal experience, the “problem” of happiness is not that people are not already happy or don’t desire it. Instead, the problem is that getting happy, remaining happy, or getting happier is not as straightforward as many other aspects of life.

With that understanding of happiness – an emotional state that we all desire and find it difficult to manage through life – we can proceed to exploring the problem of happiness.

Overview of the Problem of Happiness

The book that best summarizes the scientific evidence of the problem of happiness is Daniel Gilbert’s book, Stumbling on Happiness.  For a summary of the book, you can listen to this podcast or read this summary and action items. The book explains that our minds — as an emotional, prospective (future), retrospective (past) and thinking machine — are bad at handling the nuances around happiness.

Now, if we are “bad” at handling happiness, why is that? That is where the lessons form the book, Elephant in the Brian, provide a compelling answer. The authors propose that many of our evolutionary desires are selfish and in conflict with other human beings — finding partners, status, and wealth. Therefore, we appear to be more selfless to others (when we are not) and it gives us respect of others. Whereas, if we appear to be caring only about our baser motives, we may be viewed as selfish.

Summary of the Problem of Happiness

To simplify this complex problem further, this is how we can summarize the problem of happiness:

  1. Understanding Happiness — Our brains are bad at thinking about the future, past, using emotions, and knowing what will make us happy. (Source: Book, Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert)
  2. Why are we this way — We are (possibly) this way because of evolution — staying happy all the time might work against the “survival of the fittest” and it might benefit us to be ignorant of our deeper motives that make us pursue happiness. (Source: Book, Elephant in the Brain)
  3. Managing Happiness — Happiness is a emotion or state of mind that needs to be managed and nurtured with self-awareness, understanding problem of happiness, and making tradeoffs. (Source: Book, The Happiness Advantage)

In the future, I hope to explore further on “Managing Happiness” (the last point above). Managing happiness is complicated by philosophical approach one may want to adopt — should we fulfill desires (hedonism), see through them (buddhism), or some combination of various approaches? In practical life, managing happiness is a lot harder than my summary above.

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