Searching for Happiness in 2017? Focus what you enjoy rather than the pursuit of happiness itself

Many people leaped into the new year with newly found enthusiasm for the catch-all ambition of being ‘happier’ in 2017, and having happy kids even trumps our other wishes for kids. A very worthwhile quest by the sound of it, however, the paradox of happiness (or better known as the hedonistic paradox) suggests that constantly looking for happiness might not maximize our long term happiness … and in the short run, the constant quest for happiness might actually inhibit us from experiencing it.

I first became familiar with this somewhat (ir)rational statement through the works of John Stuart Mill, who stated in his autobiography how his own views towards the attainment of happiness changed though his experience:

“The experiences of this period had two very marked effects on my opinions and character. In the first place, they led me to adopt a theory of life, very unlike that on which I had before I acted, and having much in common with what at that time I certainly had never heard of, the anti-self- consciousness theory of Carlyle. I never, indeed, wavered in the conviction that happiness is the test of all rules of conduct, and the end of life. But I now thought that this end was only to be attained by not making it the direct end. Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way. The enjoyments of life (such was now my theory) are sufficient to make it a pleasant thing, when they are taken en passant, without being made a principal object.”

And Victor Frankl, in his writing on Man’s search for Meaning, said the following:

Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.

The paradox of hedonism is one of many referenced in a book on paradoxes, complied from Wikipedia. The most cited example is one of collecting stamps, which is also used to show that ‘happiness cannot be reverse engineered’, i.e. what makes someone else happy will not necessarily make you happy.

Suppose Paul likes to collect stamps. According to most models of behavior, including not only utilitarianism, but most economic, psychological and social conceptions of behavior, it is believed that Paul collects stamps because he gets pleasure from it. Stamp collecting is an avenue towards acquiring pleasure. However, if you tell Paul this, he will likely disagree. He does get pleasure from collecting stamps, but this is not the process that explains why he collects stamps. It is not as though he says, “I must collect stamps so I, Paul, can obtain pleasure”. Collecting stamps is not just a means toward pleasure. He simply likes collecting stamps, therefore acquiring pleasure indirectly.

This paradox is often spun around backwards, to illustrate that pleasure and happiness cannot be reverse-engineered. If for example you heard that collecting stamps was very pleasurable, and began a stamp collection as a means towards this happiness, it would inevitably be in vain. To achieve happiness, you must not seek happiness directly, you must strangely motivate yourself towards things unrelated to happiness, like the collection of stamps

Even with the knowledge of focusing on what we enjoy … and happiness will come … we still have a residual problem: how to measure happiness? Te answer to this ranges from controversial to impossible, and being happy with your life might mean something complete different from being happy in your life. More on that later.

Finally, of interest to those attaining happiness from their endeavors in data science is Mill’s contribution to the theory of scientific method, unfortunately often lacking in the modern world of ‘big data’ insights.


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