I'm reading Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, by Nassim Taleb, and this line about happiness really caught my eye. I paraphrased it below:
Happiness is best dealt with as a negative concept
Fragility comes from over-intervention, via positiva, the propensity to want to do something when we know very little of how things turned out in complex, volatile problems. But via negativa, removing things can be quite a potent action too. Subtraction adds to your life. As usual, the ancients wrote, "The good is mostly in the absence of bad." - Ennius. Likewise, happiness is best dealt with as a negative concept; the same nonlinearity applies for happiness. Modern happiness researchers don’t use nonlinearities and convexity effects. They should lecture us about unhappiness; the pursuit of happiness is not equivalent to the avoidance of unhappiness. Each of us certainly knows not only what makes us unhappy, but also what to do about it.
The same can’t be said about whether we know with certainty what makes us happy, isn't it?
I always felt that this whole pursuit of happiness is so elusive, even with books and experts all bearing down on the topic, showing up with good science and statistics. It feels like the more I know about it, the less I actually know about what makes me happy. I don't know. Looking back the years, my passion for self-growth had an over-arching flavour to it, which is trying to find happiness. But yet, I have no certainty over what makes me truly happy.
Ask yourself this: "What makes you happy?"
I think, like most of us, we will list off a whole laundry list of things, people, events, like a list of do's and don'ts. It's hard to pinpoint what exactly makes us happy - there's so many compounding and cross-interacting factors. But yet, ask me what makes me unhappy, I can boldly state with a obsessive specificity and a fiery confidence what makes me unhappy, and what I had tried and done about it, and what I want to do about it if I had not yet done so.
So, have we been pursuing happiness in the wrong direction then?
If Nassim Taleb is correct in his speculation, then perhaps pursuing the avoidance of unhappiness is the more effective approach than trying to find those few things that make us happy. Via negativa. Substracting unhappy things adds to my happiness, rather than adding happy things (which are elusive). It feels and sounds more hopeful and optimistic to me using subtraction as an approach, because it feels so much easier, doesn't it? Yes, I'm sure there are exceptions, and maybe you can list out those few things that make you happy. But I'm inclined to believe that knowledge was a lot harder to come by and discover, than knowledge about unhappy things to avoid. I'm more concerned with being practical and effective, not being 100% absolutely right.
Re-reading Ennius' wise words, "The good is mostly in the absence of bad." makes me feel a strange sense of assurance and confidence, that I can do this, that I can get to "happy", just by subtracting the unhappy. It's a refreshing yet familiar, because we had all done things to avoid unhappiness before. Just seldom as the dominant, or only, approach.
What if, instead of pursuing happy things, I just focused on removing unhappy things? How would that change my life, my overall sense of contentment with life, my wellbeing?
This feels like an important experiment to try. Perhaps...for October? Hmmm. 🤔