7 min read

On Happiness

In Siddhartha, the protagonist points out flaws in the Buddha’s teachings to the Buddha. The Buddha responds that there are many paths for achieving enlightenment. He explains that while all can get you there, none are perfect.
On Happiness
Photo by Alexandre Debiève / Unsplash


The following is a collection of insights that have made me happier. I write this reflection to consolidate and remember them.

Part 1: Happiness in my Actions

According to Naval Ravikant, happiness is “the absence of desire”.

“Desire is a contract you make with yourself to be unhappy until you get what you want. I don’t think most of us realize that’s what it is. I think we go about desiring things all day long and then wonder why we’re unhappy. I like to stay aware of it, because then I can choose my desires very carefully. I try not to have more than one big desire in my life at any given time, and I also recognize it as the axis of my suffering. I realize the area where I’ve chosen to be unhappy [taken from The Almanack of Naval Ravikant].”

I would like to add that I often find myself increasing the number of desires I have during periods where my life is smooth sailing. As such, I deprive myself the opportunity to acknowledge and appreciate the slower pace of my life at these times.

Separately, according to Eric Greitens, there are three types of happiness: “the happiness of pleasure, the happiness of grace, and the happiness of excellence”.

“The happiness of pleasure is largely sensory. It’s a good meal when you’re hungry, the smell of air after it rains, waking up warm and cozy in your bed.
The happiness of grace is gratitude. It’s looking over to see the love of your life sleeping next to you and whispering, ‘thank you’. It’s taking inventory of what you do have. It’s when you speak to something greater than yourself, expressing humility and awe.
And then there is the happiness of excellence. The kind of happiness that comes from the pursuit of something great. Not the moment you arrive at the top of the mountain and raise your fists in victory, but the process of falling in love with the hike. It is meaningful work. It is flow. It is the purpose that sears identity and builds character and channels our energy toward something” [taken from: 101 Essays that will Change the way You Think by Brianna Wiest].

(Pleasure) There are multiple spectrums from that can describe the choices people make in selecting a particular pleasure. For instance, some prefer vice over virtue and others prefer solitude over company. But one that I find particularly interesting is the extent to which individuals allow popular curation to influence these decisions. I have noticed for instance that some of my friends do only what is prescribed to them by social media influencers or outlets like Toronto Life. In turn, they receive picturesque venues and bougie menu options. Others are comfortable exploring seedy dive bars in search of something perhaps more human. Just an observation.

(Gratitude) Someone who is religious may be grateful to their god. Someone who is lonely may be most grateful when someone reaches out to them. Acknowledging and recording what we are grateful for each day should not only make us happier, it can also be a succinct way of recording who we are at a particular point in time.

(Excellence) The following is how I understand the third paragraph of the quote above. I should have at most one desire (as outlined by Naval Ravikant); however, I should find more fulfillment in the actions I take to pursue this desire rather than any outcome I hope to achieve. This is also a central theme of both the Bhagavad Gita as well as Siddartha by Herman Hesse. Both are texts that I highly recommend.

In spite of this, the question still arises, how do I select a particular desire? One option could be to identify what I enjoy doing and attribute a goal to that. However, I find that this could be harmful given that doing this could reduce the intrinsic value of the task itself. Another way could be to use fear setting, Tim Ferriss’ adaption of stoic philosophy.

I think that fear setting is a better path forward as it forces us to pursue things that are slightly more outlandish.

Part 2: Happiness Through My Reactions

In any situation in life, you always have three choices: you can change it, you can accept it, or you can leave it” [taken from: The Almanack of Naval Ravikant].

Accepting a particular situation is fairly straightforward. It means submitting myself to it, even if it is particularly bad. In doing so, I can make the situation better as I am no longer wasting cognitive resources on trying to alter or leave my circumstances. This is good for short term things that I can’t get out of.

Leaving the activity is also fairly straightforward. Fear setting might be particularly helpful in this case if I am anxious about doing so. But how do I know when to start considering leaving. I believe that it is when I have exhausted different avenues to change my circumstances. Ali Abdaal provides some insight into how to do this.

In his interview with Lana Blakely, he talks about the 3Ps: power, play and people. He sees these as three different ways to manufacture intrinsic motivation.

Step 1: Identify tasks that are draining (i.e., not intrinsically motivating).

Step 2 (People): Consider doing this task in a group setting could make it more fun. Or perhaps, if you are in a toxic environment, maybe finding a way to work independently. If you have anxiety making new friends, a helpful saying is “Everyone’s friendly, but you have to go first”. Try saying this before introducing yourself to someone new. Also remember that there is no difference between fake confidence and real confidence. Confidence is just something that you project.

Step 3 (Power): Try to see what you are doing in the most positive light (i.e., what you are grateful for, how you can use the experience going forward etc.). Additionally, you could also find other ways to complete your tasks. For instance, outsourcing some of your work to a virtual assistant in India (https://www.getfriday.com/). If you are a student, maybe going out and finding better resources (as opposed to watching boring lectures) or a tutor could be a way of doing this.

Step 4 (Play): Try gamification: trying to add game elements like a leaderboard/friendly competition to whatever you are doing.

Part 3: Happiness Through My Reflections

“A happy person isn’t someone who’s happy all the time. It’s someone who effortlessly interprets events in such a way that they don’t lose their innate peace.” [taken from: The Almanack of Naval Ravikant]

I think that the novel, Siddhartha, provides the best anecdote to help internalize the above-mentioned quote. This is the protagonist’s reflection on his journey:

“ Therefore, I see whatever exists as good, death is to me like life, sin like holiness, wisdom like foolishness, everything has to be as it is, everything only requires my consent, only my willingness, my loving agreement, to be good for me, to do nothing but work for my benefit, to be unable to ever harm me. I have experienced on my body and on my soul that I needed sin very much, I needed lust, the desire for possessions, vanity, and needed the most shameful despair, in order to learn how to give up all resistance, in order to learn how to love the world, in order to stop comparing it to some world I wished, I imagined, some kind of perfection I had made up, but to leave it as it is and to love it and to enjoy being a part of it.—These, oh Govinda, are some of the thoughts which have come into my mind” [taken from: Hermann Hesse. Siddhartha].

Part 4: Mental Barriers to Happiness [taken from: 101 Essays that will Change the way You Think]

“Most people don’t want to be happy, which is why they aren’t. They just don’t realize this is the case. People are programmed to chase their foremost desire at almost any cost [] It’s just a matter of what that foremost desire is. Often enough, it’s comfort. Or familiarity” .
There are many reasons people thwart the feeling of happiness, but a lot of them have to do with assuming it means giving up on achieving more. Nobody wants to believe happiness is a choice, because that puts responsibility in their hands. It’s the same reason people self-pity: to delay action, to make an outcry to the universe, as though the more they state how bad things are, the more likely it is that someone else will change them”.
“Clustering” is when you begin to see patterns in random events because you have subconsciously decided to. This is what happens when you start seeing the car you want everywhere, or notice everyone wearing red when you’re wearing it. You subconsciously create patterns that, to other people, would be seen as random, simply because you’re seeking a confirmation bias.”
Many people are afraid that “being happy” = giving up on achieving more. Happiness is, in an essential form, acceptance. It’s arriving at the end goal, passing the finish line, letting the wave of accomplishment wash over you. Deciding to be that way every day can make it seem as though the race is already over, so we subconsciously associate “happiness” and “acceptance” with “giving up.” But the opposite is true: The path to a greater life is not “suffering until you achieve something,” but letting bits and pieces of joy and gratitude and meaning and purpose gradually build, bit by bit.

Part 5: Do Not Seek Meaning

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry explains in The Little Prince:

"Goodbye," said the fox. "And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye." "What is essential is invisible to the eye," the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember. "It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important." "It is the time I have wasted for my rose--" said the little prince, so that he would be sure to remember. "Men have forgotten this truth," said the fox. "But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose . . ." "I am responsible for my rose," the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.

I know some people who experience existential dread because they feel as though their life doesn’t have meaning. To them I propose the above-mentioned quote. It is really saying two things. One, that searching for meaning relates to taking on responsibility. Moreover, it means burdening ourselves with true responsibility, in which our actions directly impact things or people that are meaningful to us. Two, like happiness to an extent, it is derived from our actions and choices rather than is something to necessarily be searched for.

Part 6: Some Advice on Receiving Advice

In Siddhartha, the protagonist points out flaws in the Buddha’s teachings to the Buddha. The Buddha responds that there are many paths for achieving enlightenment. He explains that while all can get you there, none are perfect. Thus, it can be beneficial to not check the internal validity of a proposed path before proceeding upon it.

I would add that often times, our understanding of that which is internally valid can also be flawed. Additionally, what better way to see if something works (i.e., is sound) than to simply try it out for a bit.