Principles for the Pursuit of Happiness

May 13, 2009 |

What might principles for the pursuit of happiness look like? Some suggestions follow. The key idea is that we do not know that all is hopeless, we just conclude it from time to time, based on our emotional state, not our knowledge. Having sufficient humility to recognize that we do not know is a key stepping stone to improving our well being.

A. Eye demonstration. Close one eye; gently poke side of open eye. The whole field of vision “moves”. Point: Eyes are not merely a window to the truth; they are showing a creation of the mind. The metaphor of Buddhism – seeing as a path to understanding, rather than believing, itself can be qualified on this basis. To improve our understanding, we must be willing to distrust our beliefs.

B. Years ago, Plato described Socrates’s metaphor of the cave, in which people were chained in place, with fixed gaze, observing shadows on a wall cast by unseen puppeteers. His point was: we might be in that position and not know it.

C. There are many hints provided by science that we are, indeed, shown a play, told a story, immersed in a creation of our minds. If so, what role does happiness play, and what chance do we have of improving its role in our lives?

D. The first premise of this inquiry is that we improve our chances by affirmatively seeking to understand. By not becoming tired, satisfied, or complacent. This is a pursuit that does not involve a competition for resources. We all have the power to improve our understanding and improve our lives. But we must keep asking questions.

E. The second premise of this inquiry is that every one of us has a personality, a personal make up that influences in some degree or other our relationship with happiness. For this reason, we must each develop our own theory of happiness, figure out what it might look like, and then test it, continuously, throughout our lives.

F. A third premise, perhaps most important, is that the mere fact that we have tried and failed in so many areas so many times tells us nothing. It is the spirit of inquiry that matters. This spirit includes awareness of our inclination toward discouragement. If we keep doing exactly the same thing and expect a different consequence, perhaps we should be discouraged. But if we preserve a spirit of inquiry, this spirit itself is quite directly connected to, and a harbinger of, happiness. The spirit of inquiry requires self-doubt – not a lack of self-esteem; but, rather, the recognition that all of our understanding is provisional, and all of our understanding is susceptible to improvement.

G. One reason the human brain is the marvel that it is arises from its plasticity. It adapts to adversity, change in circumstances, and it relentlessly intuits its environs. As people, we too have the potential for plasticity. That is a compliment. But it is not a well-deserved one unless we are brave enough to keep our minds open.

2 Responses to Principles for the Pursuit of Happiness

  1. ehard May 28, 2009 at 5:26 am #

    There is a fair amount of evidence that what we call happiness is simply a feature of our biology that promotes replication. To accept that key aspects of ourselves have arisen from their role in replication is nothing more than recognizing that what is alive and here probably has a long track record of successful replications, and probably has pruned out features that tend in some other direction. With our expanded cortex, we cannot resist ascribing other meanings to happiness and many other mental and physical states and concepts. The tendency of our multivariable, pancerebral neuronal modules to ascribe meaning may, on some level, be little different that a kind of platonic cave wall scribbling. A confabulation. But, if so, what piece of artistry it is! What a piece of work is man, says a cynical Hamlet. To pursue happiness, viewed in this light, is to grab onto something pleasurable and divert it to our own purpose, not unlike a settler tapping into a western stream. What Hamlet briefly forgot, and what we all may seek to remember, is that one of the routes we may go in this diversion is to contemplate the evidence, gaze upon this cranial vernissage, and never stop marvelling at our good fortune that we are here, past the guard, with an inexhaustible treasure of master works before us.

    Thanks for your comment.

  2. Anonymous May 21, 2009 at 9:35 pm #

    Material objects, technology, packaged food, etc. does not lead to happiness. Stimulation of the mind by these material tools or games or fuels (for the material body) creates a false sense of happiness, followed by the desire to have more. Our minds have become addicted to the pursuit of material objects and not to the pursuit of happiness, as you have described it. True happiness is spawned from the internal, not the external.

    Great entry ehard,

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