Via Negativa — How to be happier by being a loser.

The pursuit of happiness can be extremely frustrating and confusing if it involves intellectualising too much about where it can be found. However, another more direct and pragmatic approach is available to us, and it’s a rather obvious one, at least in hindsight.

While knowing what makes you happy can be very hard to define or grasp, you can be almost certain about what doesn’t make you happy, as a consequence of the life that you’ve already lived so far. By using the via negativa approach, your aim is to understand the things that DON’T make you happy, in particular, the ones that you routinely keep on doing out of habit or compulsion, maybe even obsession, and to then eliminate them from your life. The basic premise of this method is that by removing known sources of unhappiness, you will be more free from the disruptive and toxic background noise they create. Doing this, in turn, will earn you greater freedom and opportunities to more clearly notice the many sources of happiness around you, which are just waiting to be discovered, but which that masking background noise has kept hidden from your awareness. You may not know what they are, but the beauty is, you don’t need to. You will know when you experience them, and you will improve your chances of doing so simply by removing the known sources of unhappiness from your life.

Buddha Gardens, Bombarral, Portugal — Image by Jyri Manninen (2015)

“Happiness is all around us. Just work on eliminating that which hides it.”

The via negativa approach is similar to how Michelangelo explained how he was able to sculpt the statue of David. When asked, he stated that all he had to do to reveal David was simply to remove everything that wasn’t him. So, perhaps to reveal our own happiness, we can also strive to simply remove all that which it is not?

To get started down the via negativa, you just need a little personal courage to take the first step. The second and all subsequent steps will become easier as you start to notice your happiness unfolding before your eyes.

So, what unhappiness will you cut out from your life today?

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