Two valid yet opposite paths to happiness

This is an experiment in public thinking. I’m exposing my thoughts in the hope to encounter a good conversation, interesting arguments, and possibly, change my mind.


Happiness is the state of accepting the contents of your consciousness. I use acceptance here in the more “Buddhist” sense of fully accepting, not a mere tolerating, of actively “being in the presence of”.

Acceptance is peculiar in that it can be both active and passive. There are things you just accept, and others you can learn to accept. It follows that there are two ways to increase your happiness:

  1. Increase your capacity to accept the contents of your consciousness (passive)
  2. Increase your capacity to fill your consciousness with contents you accept (active)

A romantic way of naming these strategies could be “the path to enlightenment” vs “the path to success” (even though it’s a bit of a semplification). Or “the eastern way” vs “the western way”, as they are characterized in Haidt’s “Happiness Hypothesis”.

I’d say that the most rational way to go about the first strategy is through mindfulness meditation. Also see “Waking up: a guide to spirituality without religion” by Sam Harris (I’d like to thank Harris for sending me down this exciting path). The second approach has more to do with learning how the world (including human beings) works and — in a sense — conquer it in order to fit your needs.

To have two so fundamentally different ways to pursue happiness is, at least to me, deeply unsatisfying. Couldn’t it be that one of the two is invalid? Is it a real or a false dichotomy? It’s tempting to accept arguments that dismiss one or the other, because they simplify and shrink our model for happiness down to one dimension. Yet, I believe, like Haidt does, that both approaches are valid, and that they probably need to be combined to reach optimum efficacy. In this post I’d like to think through some objections I couldn’t find answers to otherwise (if they have been dealt with by some author, please let me know, I’d be grateful to know).

The “passive” approach, as foreign as it is to our culture, can hardly be completely dismissed. Learning to meet the contents of consciousness, say sensations of pain, with full awareness, has been shown to surgically transform your capacity to suffer (or avoid doing so), as can be confirmed by millions of people who practice some form of mindfulness meditation (see, for example, “10% happier” by Dan Harris). Having been on a 10 day meditation retreat myself, I can attest to that. It might seem futile to merely change the quality of the mind without dealing with the outer world, but happiness does happen in the mind, so deal with it.

An argument against the outer-wordly approach could be the “hedonic threadmill”, the idea that we are never satisfied for a long time, that we get used to our pleasures and therefore always need more and more. Yet I believe there are ways to circumvent this problem, if you know about its mechanics, just like you can design mechanisms to work around different psychological biases (see “Predictably Irrational” by Dan Ariely).

An other argument against the second approach is more subtle. That is: also in pleasure there is suffering. When we feel pain, we resist it (and fear it when it’s gone), when we feel pleasure, we cling to it (and crave it when it’s gone).
This argument makes the world of pain — pleasure completely orthogonal to the world of happiness — suffering (aka. acceptance — resistance). Increasing our pleasures, decreasing our pains doesn’t make any difference, we suffer all the same. The only way to become happier then is the first strategy, and the attractiveness of the second is merely an illusion, a further testament to our clinging and craving.
I came out of my meditation retreat with this view, mainly due to the characterizations of pleasure and pain given to us in the recordings of the original teacher of the retreat, S. N. Goenka. After more examination I now think that this argument is rather absurd (I’m not implying that Goenka makes this argument). My subjective experience strongly suggests that I suffer less when I feel pleasure than when I’m in pain. Yes, sometimes I’m afraid of losing the pleasure, but only when I think about its fleetingness. In terms of acceptance, if I sense pleasure, I fully accept it and it would be nonsense to say the opposite — it therefore by definition contributes to my happiness. Clinginess then is just the non-acceptance of the thought about its fleetingness. Being able to remove that thought would therefore represent yet another increase in happiness, and note that that would be a step done following the second strategy (changing my consciousness’s contents).

The last argument against the western approach would be that it is not needed. That the “spiritual” approach can make you way happier anyway, regardless of outer circumstances. Knowledge of the outer world is only needed insofar it helps us secure our survival, but forget about “success” as a means to achieve happiness: even granted that success can give us pleasures that do contribute to our happiness, we could generate much more of it by investing all possible energy turning inward.
I’m actually not so sure about this one. It could be true. I guess science will have to tell us. There is something creepy about the idea of a perfectly happy human being spending his or her life in a cave. But on the other hand, the western approach could lead to something that looks quite similar: a society of perfectly happily entertained and satisfied people, forever attached to some sort of total videogame (or why not be brains in vats?). I guess whatever humanity’s ultimate happy form will be, it would probably creep us out a lot.

To conclude, If we do accept both approaches as legit, the work is far from done. Is there an optimum combination thereof? Does that optimum depend on the environment? On the individual? Where are the synergies between the systems, where are the idiosyncrasies? I’m happy to learn more.