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Solving the Happiness Problem

How can we respond to the demands of happiness and unhappiness?…

I have described the Happiness Problem in the following way: a) happiness and unhappiness, in all its forms, motivates us to predictably meet our needs for survival and connection; b) our lives are inherently uncertain and insecure, meaning we cannot always predictably meet our needs; c) our attempts to predictably meet our needs where we can’t causes harm to others and ourselves.

Now, there’s plenty more to say about each of these three parts of the Happiness Problem. But I think I’ve said enough for now to show that it’s a problem we should all care about, and to start looking at some potential solutions.

Just to warn you: I used the phrase “potential solutions” deliberately. In this post, I will very briefly outline the three kinds of potential solutions that I believe we need to use, on both an individual and collective level, to solve the Happiness Problem. However, I also believe that none of these solutions will solve the problem completely – each has its own flaws and further problems that come with. Ultimately, I think this is the real lesson to be learned from the Happiness Problem, which I will come back to at the end of this post.

The three potential solutions to the Happiness Problem, which I will talk about at length in this blog, are based on two fundamental capacities of the mind. These two psychological capacities largely follow the distinction that Iain McGilchrist makes in his book, The Master and His Emissary, which I highly recommend if you want to understand the neuroscience in more detail. Simply put, they are our psychological capacities for certainty, action and achievement, on the one hand, and for uncertainty, attention and understanding, on the other. With these capacities we have the ability to both engage with and appreciate life.

This distinction has been made across a number of contexts. Science and politics typically concern themselves with matters of what we can do: how we can change things for the better, and what we can know with certainty. In contrast, art and spirituality typically concern themselves with matters of how we can be: how we can appreciate and understand how things are, and what we don’t know.

Of course, these are broad caricatures. Often, science, politics, art and spirituality (amongst other things) done well concern themselves with matters of what we can do and how we can be - of action and understanding. For example, good science is often motivated by a sense of wonder at the mystery behind the whole universe or behind any particular living thing. As Albert Einstein wrote: “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious, the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”

This is why there are three potential solutions to the Happiness Problem. The first two solutions are based on our psychological capacities for a) certainty, action and achievement, and b) attention, uncertainty and understanding. I call these solutions War and Peace. We can either predictably meet our needs by trying to eliminate all the uncertainties and insecurities we face in life (War) or by paying more attention to them and understanding them better (Peace). The third solution (Balance) attempts to blend these two psychological capacities together – integrating the War and Peace strategies into a seamless whole.

We need to know a lot more about each of the three potential solutions. They are all extremely useful ways of trying to solve the Happiness Problem. Some contexts demand one solution to take precedence over the other – there are times for going to war with the world and there are times for making peace with it. Some people may prioritise one solution over another – some people may focus on how to make change, others may focus on making things beautiful. Entire cultures may do the same: just think about modern capitalist societies and their “religion of progress” in comparison to indigenous cultures focused on living in harmony with their natural environment.

My point is that we employ these strategies whether we are consciously aware of them or not – they are the psychological foundations we have to work with. We need to understand them all better in order to figure out when and how to use them best. With a better understanding of each solution, I believe we can go a long way towards solving the Happiness Problem.

Or, at least, that’s the good news. The bad news is that, ultimately, I don’t think we can figure out which solutions works best and when. The Happiness Problem is complicated, and may not be possible to solve in any satisfactory manner. Nonetheless, we can continuously learn how to solve it better.

And this is where other people come in. I believe we are all lost: we are all motivated to predictably meet our needs for survival and connection, and there are some ways in which we can do this better than others; but, ultimately, we just don’t know how to do so without causing harm to others and ourselves in the process – life is too complicated to work out how to do it well.

Instead of shying away from this fact, I believe we need to embrace it. We are all in the same boat. We can learn from each other. Every individual has a rich and valuable story to tell, based on their own lived experiences of trying to figure it all out as best as they can. In connection with others and ourselves, we can learn from this rich pool of experiences. It is through our shared, flawed, humanity that we can best learn how to solve the Happiness Problem in our own lives.

3 suggestions for further reading:

  • Elkonon Goldberg: Creativity: The Human Brain in the Age of Innovation

  • Alan Lightman: A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit

  • Iain McGilchrist: The Master and His Emissary

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