What is happiness and how important is it to you? The answer to this seems obvious at first, yet as we look closer we can see that the answer to this question is more illusive than one might think. The fact is, if we all had a clearly defined picture of what happiness means to us―we would all strive towards it.


How much happiness do you really want? So, I Imagine you, dear reader, now sit poised with eyebrows raised at such a silly question. When your eyebrows return from the top of your head, allow me to explain why the question is not silly, nor is the answer self-evident. Maximum happiness and maximum knowledge, whilst the two are not mutually exclusive, I would argue, the two interests are in a zero-sum contest; that is to say, we cannot have the maximum happiness and the maximum knowledge simultaneously. As we surely want both happiness and knowledge, this means we need to make a difficult decision, how much of each do we want in our lives?  Knowledge is necessarily burdensome―the more we know the more we understand how much we do not know. Idioms like “ignorance is bliss” suggest I’m not the first to recognise that as we attain more knowledge we also learn of the depths of the problems we face. The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias wherein people of low ability tend to overrate their competence, intelligence, and have an illusory sense of superiority―the fact that the majority of drivers rate themselves as better than average demonstrates this perfectly. If ignorance really is bliss and the most important thing in our lives is to be happy, then why waste our time on knowledge at all? Well, we recognise implicitly that happiness is not the be-all-and-end-all of our existence. House dogs―well treated― are the happiest creatures I can think of. A walk, some cuddles, a comfy spot to call their own, and they are in a perpetual state of happiness. They are not burdened by the knowledge of their own mortality and have everything done for them. Yet, is there anyone on the planet who would sincerely trade places with their furry friend? If there is, this person is likely not of sound mind! We recognise that a reduction in happiness is a price we are willing to pay in order to have the intelligence to appreciate a sonnet, or a symphony, a great work of art, literature, or a conversation. The trade-off between happiness and knowledge gives rise to experiences of awe and wonder. An inconvenient fact is that people who have children rate themselves as less happy than they were before they had kids, so why have them at all? It is because we recognise that, whilst we will endure the burden of child rearing, it is an experience which we ultimately want to have in our lives. We recognise that in spite of it being hard, and burdensome, and stressful that this experience is invaluable and to be without it can be tragic. Most would consider this experience to be their most meaningful despite the zero-sum relationship it has with happiness.


Is happiness, simply, a synonym for contentment? There are two people within your consciousness, each jostling for control of your actions―the current-self and the-reflective self. If we were asked, as we mindlessly browsed social media, how content and happy we felt in that moment, the current-self would perk up and we would say that we were indeed happy and content. However, at the end of our day, when we total up time spent on social media, if we were asked how happy or content we were throughout the day, the reflective-self would perk up and we would express regret for our time spent on social media because, reflectively, we see this as time wasted. Now, both of these versions of yourself have a purpose, the current-self needs to be appeased from time to time in order to stay sane and the reflective-self is working towards the big picture. However, your current self is only concerned about making you feel content and this contentment, usually, takes the form of cheap and easy pleasure. When we embark on a challenge, a new diet plan for example, our reflective-self understands that to maximise happiness you will need to make sacrifices which your current-self doesn’t want to make. Your reflective-self, generally, is the version of yourself which you need to take control of your actions, it does not bother about feeling content in the moment―it is concerned with long-term happiness.

My advice to you then is this. Figure out how happy you want to be, define it, and write down the long term goal which would have the maximum happiness payoff with the minimum knowledge loss to you. This may mean distancing yourself from things which you like in order to specialise in one domain. Let your reflective-self take control and strive towards achieving your personal definition of happiness. Be aware that at times you will not feel content, but take refuge in the fact that you know you are investing in a plan for long term happiness.

Written by Aidan Doherty

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