Notes on Happiness: #1, stability

A few days ago, amid the pseudo-stress of exams, I met up with a friend that I don’t get to see very often. We met in a little tea shop, downtown Chicago – it was a bit cool out. Along the course of catching up, we stumbled upon the the topic of happiness (not something too many people readily talk about, in my experience). We had different sources of happiness, at least on the face of it, but there were some noteworthy similarities. For starters, we were examining what made us happy – we spent time – outside this conversation – inspecting and exploring our sources of happiness. Secondly, the sources were largely personal – and they had not necessarily started out that way, they evolved. Thirdly, they were immaterial.

Exactly how we got on the path of discussing happiness, my minds fails to recall. I do know, however, that at some point we were looking at the happiness – actually, lack thereof – of people we had been close to at some point. What was interesting to me, is that the sources of “happiness” here cited also had similarities. Their effects were temporary, they were physical or material, they were rarely if ever examined – and for the most part left little room for exploration. In the cases of which I spoke, I had personal accounts of an underling, lingering unhappiness. What’s more, is that in all cases of unhappiness that we brought up, there was a sense that we could hardly know – truly – the person so afflicted. (I have made the argument before that they can hardly know themselves.)

At any rate, this is what we discussed. Not in a condescending matter, though there were traces of sadness for the unhappy, but it was all discussed rather frankly and matter-of-factly. I’m wanting to explore some of those ideas. Here I will look at how stability plays a role in happiness.


As I have discussed before, externalized sources of happiness seem problematic for me. They seem necessarily unstable. This instability seems less than ideal. It is not obviously clear to me that a happiness that will necessarily be followed by unhappiness is desirable. When you pursue such a temporary happiness, it seems only a means to an eventual unhappiness. Are you then, actually causing happiness, unhappiness, or both? Assuming you want as much happiness as possible, this unstable route seems undesirable.

What, then, if you externalize the source of your happiness to something permanent? Say, you depend on a star for your happiness – a star that you know will outlive you. I might wonder, could you still be happy if you could never see the star again? If you were locked in a small room with no windows, could the star make you happy? If you tell me “no” – I would suggest that the star was not your complete source of happiness. Rather, your happiness is dependent on the fact that you can see the star. This is an unstable form of happiness. Your vision of the star can be taken away – I can poke out your eyes, the sun can drown out your star. If you say to me, “I can be happy without seeing the star” – I would conclude your happiness was based on the idea of the star. The source of your happiness is an idea – it is stable. Right on.

Of course, rarely is externalized happiness on something permanent. If happiness is derived from a substance – it is necessarily unstable. Your next glass of beer is dependant on your ability to buy it, or collect the materials to brew it yourself. The former is dependant on your ability to retain employment, the latter is constrained by time and materials. The more expensive the substance, the more unstable the happiness.

If your happiness is from the newest “stuff” – you are also constrained by time and money. If your happiness comes from a pet – your pet may/will die. If your happiness is dependent on another human – they will/may die too, or the may leave you.

Of course, the possibility of your source of happiness vanishing, does not necessarily mean it will happen, I know this. If your source of happiness never becomes unobtainable, it will never necessitate unhappiness. It is likely just as good in the end as a genuinely stable form of happiness.  The real issue here, of course, is that most of the time externalized happiness is guaranteed to be actually unstable. Most people do not have enough funds to procure their substances indefinitely. If they have a job – most will be forced to abstain from their source of happiness while at work – and most need work to procure the substance. If it is a pet – most live for less time than a human. If it is a partner – unfortunately divorce is on the rise. The person is likely to change; it is nearly guaranteed that they will do something to make you unhappy. Admittedly, the partner is probably a more stable source than most materialistic sources of happiness.


I am well aware that in order to make these arguments, I have to make some assumptions. I assume that the source of happiness can be chosen or altered at some point, I also assume that the most happiness is the most desirable, I must also assume that YOU will not change so significantly as to make your once genuinely stable form of happiness a source of unhappiness.

These are some pretty huge assumptions. I’m going to explore them more later, but I’m using them now because I would use them in conversations today. In other words, I know I still have some thinking to do.

That is precisely what makes me happy.

What to do yesterday.

I apparently had no idea. Well, I had some vague thoughts – I knew I would not set out to study anything I love doing. Computer Science was off limits because I really enjoy learning about technology and programming. It is always exciting to explore and teach myself new things in that field. Start forcing me to study and my enjoyment melts away. It becomes a chore – a burden – another imposed aspect of life. So I vowed to refrain from structured – institutionalized – studying of technology.

I wavered back and forth, indeed enrolling in a few computer science courses over the past few years – and always being sorry I did. As I suspected, the regiment destroyed my internal desire to explore. No more computer science “classes” for me.

I set out to study something that I had no desire to ever pursue. I took advantage of the university’s reputation and picked economics as my major. Something I already disliked – and should I ever be in the very undesirable situation of having to employ my degree, I supposed a degree in economics might provide semi-lucrative.

That thought process – however skewed – had a very nice side-effect. Not only did it leave my love for technology mostly untarnished – it has just recently revealed to me something I likely would have never known otherwise, I am a very poor and obviously uninterested economist.

Consistently, those courses have yielded for me: poor grades, poor attendance, and occasionally even poor spirits. If I were ever to have to employ an economics degree in the future, I can most confidently say – I would starve first.

And so, perhaps the often overlooked, yet undeniably important skill, of folding must come into play. I must fold my plan of pursuing a degree in economics, before I spend another lackluster day working towards a piece of paper with the ability to seal me into a life I would surely not enjoy. I must act while I still have options on my side.

So, I have finally said it. I should have done that yesterday.

Now, to pick some other area of investigation. (because they do the mandate some “cohesive” program of study.)

Math, undeniably powerful and revealing – goes against my natural intuition at every chance it gets. Surely not making it impossible or even uninteresting for me to explore, my exploration is just painfully slow. Having already taken a wide offering of mathematics courses providing me a fairly solid mathematical foundation, I think it better to leave further investigations for independent study. Also, I am in want of a break from numbers for a while.

So, what have I left but humanities and some social sciences at this small university? And what good is a degree in philosophy (a subject I think I would very much enjoy), if I ever need to employ a degree? Would I be content spending a fifth year at this institution under any circumstances? Those are the questions I face tomorrow…

Tea, Economics, Paint — and thoughts on existence

I’ve got a cup of green tea, three open windows (it is a beautiful 50° F), and a pile of homework due shortly. I’m [supposed to be] working on two multi-part (multi-part meaning over a dozen sub-questions each) economics questions due Monday and my first art project due Tuesday.

After reading about mathematically described recursive data structures all day, I’m taking a little break to write. So, here we are. You, me, and some extemporaneous thoughts to follow:

Well, the holidays are quickly approaching… and that means expectations are in place for everyone to mingle with family and friends. Which gets me wondering if that is a worthwhile use of time. More generally I start to wonder how much time people should really be spending outside of solitude. Refrain from deeply gasping, it will interfere with your attention.

I’ve known a few hundred people, and have had some type of observational opportunity for thousands of others. What I always enjoy discovering, usually directly, is who people are. Specifically, what they want, where they want to be, how they intend on getting there, what’s driving them towards tomorrow, and what other common thought they entertain frequently. Very rarely do I meet someone who can answer those questions.

I know many college graduates that never put their degrees to use. They took on thousands of dollars of debt, only to work in unskilled jobs. So many people detest their employment.

Another common question I like to ask: is the person happy. So often I have seen people flee from the answer, and many times tears accompanied my prying investigation.

Everywhere people enjoy drugs, alcohol, sex, food in excess, etc.

My meandering thoughts are trying to get at a few simple ideas. In my experience, most people do not know what they want or who they are, and happiness is often dependent on things external.

These issues are insurmountably problematic for me, because they seem to warrant the severest form of personal attention, but are so often masked or neglected.

If someone’s happiness has external dependencies, it must be unstable. Revocable, destructible, temporary. A happiness like that would seem destined to cause unhappiness at some point. Assuming happiness is the ideal state, it seems like a person should devote plenty of time to cultivating a stable source of happiness. An internal source. And to do that, it seems like one would need to minimize the external. Spend time alone, with internally spawned ideas, looking for a happiness that can exist when nothing else is there.

Spend enough time alone, and one is bound to uncover things about one’s self. Which eliminates wasted time – trying to find yourself using someone Else’s directions is ridiculous. And once you’re fully aware of who you are, you’re much better equipped to enjoy others.

I’m running out of time to flesh out these thoughts in more detail, but I’m going to revisit these ideas soon.

For now: if you have issues with unstable happiness or an uncertain self, consider spending the holidays alone. The last thing you need is distraction from fixing problems that could potentially linger for life.