Happiness is Not an External Thing to be Found
On Filters and Illusions that Mask our Innate Happiness
The search for happiness is one of the most fundamental and universal driving forces in us. Yet happiness seems to be extremely elusive, and even people who seem to have it all figured out are often deeply unhappy.
The problem is that we are frequently looking for happiness in the wrong places.
Happiness is not really a thing to be found, but more something to be unveiled within ourselves. It is the absence of unhappiness. It is our default state.
We just need to look at young children. If there are no immediate worries, concerns or stresses, we are simply happy.
The problem is that this happiness is often buried very deep, under layers and layers of illusions, social pressures, and false beliefs. And instead of trying to remove these issues, we are instead frequently focused on external things, both material as well as conceptual, in the hope to find happiness.
It is easy to confuse happiness with fun, and not too infrequently we end up choosing short term fun over long term happiness.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with fun for its own sake, and it can even be a big contributor to happiness. But it gets problematic when we use fun as a pain killer.
Happiness is joy. It’s like a state of flow in which we experience complete inner peace, stillness, and calm.
Above a certain minimum, happiness is independent of wealth, success, or many of the other things we believe will eventually make us happy.
We often approach the problem from the wrong angle. We try hard to be successful in order to find happiness, often sacrificing many things along the way. But “success”, at least in the way most people usually interpret it, is in no way a prerequisite for happiness.
In fact, the opposite might be true. A recent study from Warwick University found that happy people are on average 12% more productive.
Success doesn’t lead to happiness, but happiness contributes to success.
Maybe we should prioritise happiness, and success will follow automatically.
Generally, we feel happy when life behaves the way we want it to. This sounds obvious, but it’s a crucial insight. It means that happiness is directly tied to our perception and expectations of events.
It’s not so much the events in our lives themselves that matter, it’s how we think about them.
This is the core tenet behind Stoicism, and I have previously written about this in the context of facing adversity.
Pain, in most cases, is useful. But suffering is not. It makes us linger on past pain and generates even more unnecessary pain and unhappiness. Suffering, opposed to pain, offers no benefits. But we choose to let it happen.
Many of us accept the thoughts in our heads as the absolute and uncontrollable truth. We act as victims. But by making conscious choices and adjusting our perception and expectations, we can steer ourselves towards uncovering our happiness, or preventing it from getting buried deeper. It’s not easy, but it is doable.
Our thoughts come in different flavors. Some are focused on abstract problem solving, others are concerned with direct tasks we are facing. Both these types are fairly non-judgemental and focused on the present moment (even if the problem to be solved lies in the future).
However, a third type of thought is our internal narrative. It’s the voice in our head that just keeps chattering away, often in a negative way, ruminating on the past or worrying about the future.
Most negative thoughts or emotions are either associated with past or future, not the present. Happy emotions on the other hand are often anchored in the presence.
This inner monologue that’s constantly distracting us from being present in the here and now is dangerous and can easily mask our happiness.
We need to take control of it. Most types of meditation are focused on exactly this. Not seeing ourselves reflected in these thoughts, but objectively observing them as they arise, as if they were something external and not part of us.
Once we have learned to make this distinction, it becomes much easier to avoid the thoughts altogether.
We can also make use of the fact that our brain can only process a single fact at a time (multi-tasking is a myth). If we focus on something external or physical (like focusing on our breath or particular body parts during meditation), our internal monologue will inevitably stop. If meditation isn’t your thing or you are looking for something “stronger”, psychedelics or flotation tanks can aid in this process.
Alternatively, we can also focus on things that make us happy. This has the added benefit of priming our brain for more happy thoughts.
My “favorites” album on my phone is full of memories that in almost any situation get a smile on my face. So if I need a quick happiness boost I just have to scroll through that for a few seconds.
In his famous book The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley argued that the brain’s main function is that of a filter, and that psychedelics are a way to (temporarily) remove this filter.
“The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful.”
Our perception of the world is very limited and biased. Our senses are much too powerful for all their information to actually be processed, so we have filters in place that guard us from sensory overload, and allow us to only focus on what’s “practically useful” instead.
Many factors influence our perspective and which aspects of the world around us are allowed to be consciously perceived. But no matter which parts are let through, the inevitable filtering of information leads to a very limited and imperfect image of the world forming in our minds. It’s generally a very subjective picture.
As Huxley suggested, psychedelics are an extremely effective way to weaken the filters, and can be a great source of deep revelations, but no matter your stance on the use of psychedelics, very few would advocate for tying to sustain this state of consciousness (not that it would even be possible).
The filters are in place for a reason. But we can work on making them more objective and try to adjust them.
We want to get away from very ego focused filters with strong links to the past and future, to filters that are more impartial to preconceived notions, ones that evaluate the present moment without hidden biases.
Simply being aware of the fact that these filters exist, and that no matter what we think we “know” there’s a good chance we are wrong, is already a very important step in this direction.
It is natural for us humans to want to be in control. It is a key for our safety and survival.
The problem is that we are able to think and plan in a very long term way. But improbably and unexpected events happen all the time. And we are notoriously bad at thinking about the unlikely and improbable.
We make assumptions and fall prey to false assumptions all the time. We use them to fill in gaps in our knowledge.
But given the unpredictability of the real world, as well as the imperfect assumptions our predictions were based on in the first place, we run into one disappointment and setback after another as our carefully crafted plans are constantly shattered.
There are however things that are much more in our control than the distant future: our attitude, and the actions we decide to take in any given moment.
Focusing on these immediate decisions instead of distant outcomes that are largely outside our control is both a sure way towards a more happy life, as well as a step towards becoming a more productive and effective person and leader.
Another big source of unhappiness are fears, both those we are consciously aware of as well as those we don’t admit even to ourselves.
For example a very common fear, that I can personally identify with, is the fear of loosing freedom, be it due to a particular job, a relationship, or any number of other factors.
Identifying and admitting our fears is a crucial first step. But it’s far from easy. There is usually an overarching fear of facing our fears. Yes, I admitted one of my fears above, but I’m sure if I’d dig deeper I would uncover many others that I’m not aware of yet. And there are others I might be aware of but wouldn’t share publicly. This pocess takes time, and a conscious commitment. It requires vulnerability.
But it pays off. Because often there is no direct threat, only largely unfounded fear.
Tim Ferriss has on many occasions advocated the exercise of “fear-setting”. Essentially it boils down to clearly defining our fears and then proceeding with a series of “So what?” questions, eventually realising that if objectively examined, a lot of what we fear wouldn’t be half as bad as we make it out to be.
Again there is a filter at play. In many cases we fail to notice all the positive aspects of a particular situation or event and focus instead mostly on the negative. We need to consciously aim our attention at the positive aspects for them to have the same impact on our thoughts.
In science we use the principle of “Occam’s Razor”: If two explanations are equally likely, we choose to believe in the simpler one, the one with the fewest assumptions.
We should apply a similar concept to our everyday thoughts and believes. If two interpretations of events are equally likely, we should believe in the one that is more positive and makes us happier, which in most cases is probably also the one with fewer assumptions baked in.
This might just sound like naive optimism, and I can’t guarantee that it isn’t, but there is mounting evidence from positive psychology research that positive visualisation and priming the brain with positive thoughts have a direct impact on our happiness and wellbeing.
Finally, the simple act of giving gratitude as a means to increase ones own happiness (as well as that of others), has also gathered a fair amount of research backing in recent years.
So maybe as you finish reading this, take a few minutes to write a thank you message to a friend, a family member, or someone who had a positive impact on your life.
Thanking them will not only make their day, but also boost your own happiness!
A final side-note: Usually when a book inspires my writing, I mention it early on in an article and use quotes from the book throughout the story. This article was in a way also inspired by a book I read, Solve for Happy: Engineer Your Path to Joy by Mo Gawdat. However, this is one of the few books I’ve read over the past few years which I really can’t recommend to anyone.
While it starts off fairly good and makes some interesting points, some of which I have picked up above, towards the later parts Gawdat goes into metaphysics and uses completely nonsensical and plain wrong analogies from relativity theory, quantum mechanics and evolution, presenting them in a way many “gurus” (some of which he even cites) use to sell pseudo-profound bullshit to audiences without the necessary scientific background to detect the nonsense. The book is full of fallacies badly used to promote creationism and intelligent design. Given this ending, the author lost any credibility to me. I found it particularly shocking given that Gawdat was formerly the chief business officer of Google X.
This rant is unrelated to any of the points I made above, but I thought it necessary to reference this book, while simultaneously bringing up these caveats. I hope that the ending to this article doesn’t taint your view of it in a similar way as my experience with the above-mentioned book did.