The Unhappiness Route to Happiness

Last year I wrote an article on happiness and how ‘making great meaning in life’ can contribute to true happiness. I said that living is truly about making great meaning. Now, I would like to add a little more to it, and it is:

“Living is about making great meaning by breaking uncertainty and by constantly paying prices.” Let’s see what it means:

Fundamentally, happiness is what people want from life. But, happiness is different for different people. So, what are the factors that cause happiness? For some people, it is financial security and for some it is doing something meaningful in life and for some it is X and Y. Great! It is great that people know what will make them happy. So, if X is fulfilled a person will be happy. Though this seems logical, this line of thinking doesn’t align with so many unhappy people in the world. Because if this were true, then there should be many more happy people than they are in this world.

In fact, I feel that the problem of happiness lies in the question itself. I think the question ‘what makes you happy?’ is wrong and it doesn’t make sense. I think a much better question to ask is ‘what makes you unhappy?’. Because for any being, at time ‘zero’, the default state is actually a ‘happy’ state and then ‘unhappiness’ (pain) is what happens later in time.

So, if you crack unhappiness, then it will lead you to happiness. Now, since the ‘happy’ state is the default state at time zero, the ‘unhappy’ state is actually caused by the misalignment between one’s machinery and one’s environment. Therefore, to really attack such an unhappy state, there are two ways of doing so:

1. Change your machinery (belief systems, interpretations, actions). This will help one to change the equation between the machinery and the environment. It could remove unhappiness by nullifying the relation between machinery and environment. If one is failing to accomplish some X in life continuously or if one is repeatedly doing a mistake, then chances are very high that there is a belief system that is coming in the way to adapt one’s machinery.

2. Change your environment. It is not possible to change your environment, but it is possible to learn about one’s environment so that one can effectively work in such environment. At time zero, the environment is completely uncertain and it leads to an ‘unhappy’ state. But, the truth is that uncertainty is the reality of our environment. So, one cannot wait for certainty to happen. Instead, one has to make certainty out of uncertainty by strategically breaking and managing uncertainty.

At time ‘zero’, when the default state was ‘happy’ state, the ineffectiveness to deal with the then present uncertainty is what causes ‘unhappiness’. Unhappiness is not caused by the lack of fulfillment of goals to happiness. Instead, unhappiness is actually caused by the ineffectiveness to break and manage uncertainty.

Therefore, for people to be happy, they should consciously break and manage uncertainty. This is why I say that ‘Living is about making great meaning by breaking uncertainty and by constantly paying prices.’


The invisible forces that drive your actions

Tony Robbins says that humans have six basic needs that sums up all the different types of motivations behind our actions. He says that these needs form the basis of every choice we make in life. The six core needs are:

1. Certainty/Comfort – the need to be safe and comfortable

We all want comfort and much of this comfort comes from certainty. Of course there is no ABSOLUTE certainty, but we want certainty that we can afford a certain standard of living, have a certain amount of safety and security, and lead a healthy life. For most people, money brings in a basic form of certainty.

2. Uncertainity/Variety – the need for physical and mental stimulation

At the same time as we want certainty, we also want variety. Our mind craves for challenges, variety, excitement, adventure, change and novelty.

3. Significance – the need to feel special and worthy of attention or love

Deep down, we all want to be important. We want our life to have meaning and significance. We want to build a sense of importance for ourselves. Different people can opt different ways to achieve it. For example, some people need money to ensure certainty whereas some people need money to feel more self-worthy than others.

4. Connection/Love – the need to be loved and connected to others

It would be hard to argue against the need for love. We want to feel part of a community. We want to be cared for and cared about. Being in love also contributes to the significance or meaning of one’s life.

5. Growth – the need to develop and expand

We constantly want to grow intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. To become better, to improve our skills, to stretch and excel. It may be more evident in some than others, but it’s there in everybody.

6. Contribution – the need to contribute beyond yourself

 The desire to contribute something of value—to help others, to make the world a better place than we found it is in all of us. Contribution to life provides a deep meaning and fulfillment about one’s life.

Tony Robbins says that we try to satisfy these needs daily in some manner, but not all of these six needs are equally important for all the people. Most of the times, people identify themselves most closely with one or two of the needs and they try to satisfy these needs in different ways. Most of a person’s decision-making can be understood if one understands their underlying core needs. He asks us to identify the one or two needs that are important to us and understand how we tried to achieve it in the past and how we are trying to achieve it in future, and explore what are the better ways to satisfy those needs.




Happiness and the Hedonic Treadmill

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Imagine the excitement you had when you bought your first car. You were really happy of your new possession and you thought that it is going to add to your stack of happiness in life. But, soon you realized that the happiness fizzled out, and you are back to the same level of happiness. Rolf Dobelli describes it nicely in one of his articles:

A friend, a banking executive, whose enormous income was beginning to burn a hole in his pocket, decided to build himself a new home away from the city. His dream materialized into a villa with ten rooms, a swimming pool and an enviable view of lake and mountains. For the first few weeks, he beamed with delight. But, soon the cheerfulness disappeared, and six months later he was unhappier than ever. What happened? The happiness effect evaporates after a few months. The villa was no longer his dream. ‘I come from work, open the door and … nothing. I feel as indifferent about the villa as I did about my one room student apartment.’

Science calls this effect as the Hedonic Adaptation or the Hedonic Treadmill. Wikipedia defines it as the supposed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness, despite major positive or negative events or life changes.

It is based on two very well researched findings:

1. Human’s happiness levels don’t seem to increase beyond a threshold.

2. Human’s happiness is seen as a hedonic treadmill, as one must continually work to maintain a certain level of happiness.

Happiness has always been a difficult subject of research for psychologists and sociologists, partly because it is so difficult to measure. Humans have always been in pursuit of happiness and they wish to maintain an unending level of happiness in life. Some people, like the famous psychologist Victor Frankl say that happiness cannot be pursued, it must ensue. He said that one must have a reason to be happy and that the very constant search of happiness actually thwarts happiness.

Though there is a lot of debate about how people look at happiness and whether money can buy happiness, there is no doubt that lack of money definitely buys you misery. If you have sufficient money, then life is easier, if not happier.


Part of the confusion of whether money can buy happiness or not probably lies in the way we view happiness. I think there are two types of happiness in our lives – hedonistic happiness and meaningful happiness – and money can definitely buy one of them.

Hedonistic happiness is the short term happiness that we get out of possession, shopping, and other self-indulgent activities. As we now know, hedonistic pleasure starts to fade out a few months later and people want a continuous feed of hedonistic pleasures to be happy. Hedonistic pleasures hold high amount of importance in the present, fades away in retrospection, and is relativistic in nature.

On the other hand, meaningful happiness is the kind of happiness that one derives from the meaning of their life in retrospect. For example, people like Nelson Mandela, despite struggling a lot in their lives, are one of the happiest in their old age because of the meaning their lives held. On the contrary, the all possessing rich celebrities lead miserable lives.

Yes, money can definitely buy happiness: hedonic happiness, but not meaningful happiness.

Recent research at Stanford and UCLA Berkeley shows that people’s happiness levels were positively correlated with whether they saw their lives as meaningful or not. Research shows that happiness without meaning is characterized by a relatively shallow and often self-oriented life, in which things go well, needs and desires are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided.

Probably that is why even with high amount of emotional stress caused by the misery they encounter on a daily basis, professionals like social workers still have many truly happy moments out of their work. For example, a social worker who struggles a lot to reunite a child with his or her parents derives a very high and long lasting amount of happiness out of that life event.


Most people experience meaningful happiness from their families and work life. I believe that is probably why humans reproduce, as it adds to their meaning in life. For most people, caring for their own children is a source of substantial amount of meaning.

It is observed that meaning brings in more stress, worry, and the emotional ups and downs. But, life is much worth if it is meaningful than just being happy.




Are you the person who you chose to be?

One of the questions that really intrigue me in life is: why do people behave the way they behave? This is an important question because behaviour is one of the key factors that separate one individual from another. So, what is it that influences human behaviour? Is your behaviour actually in your control?

Some people say that how a person thinks is what that influences how s/he behaves, as if thinking is not a part of behaviour. Thinking is a central part of our behaviour. Everything that you do, either physical or mental, is your behaviour.

People say you have complete control over what you are doing (your behaviour), because it is ‘you’ who is consciously chosing to do these things. Therefore, it only makes true that who you are today is who you chose to be within the circumstances that happened to you. 

In this view, we are always told inspirational stories of people like Mahatma Gandhi or Albert Einstein, and we are told that they became who they are because they chose to be so. But, let’s turn the tables and dig this a bit.

Probably, any person who was born in place of M. K. Gandhi with his exact genes and who had the same environmental experience as Gandhi had would’ve behaved in the same way as Gandhi did on that night when he faced racial discrimination in a train in South Africa. This is because it is the genes and the accumulated life experience (until that moment) of Gandhi is what that caused a certain reaction in Gandhi’s mind that night.

So, essentially what I am saying is: what you are doing at this moment is nothing but a causal effect of all the experience in your life until the previous moment. Therefore, in essence you really don’t control your life. You just have an illusory experience that you control it. So, in effect, you are not who you chose to be. You are what you are because that is the only way you could have been, given the previous state of condition.


If this is true, it somehow takes away the responsibility of one’s action. In this case, it takes away the credibility of M. K. Gandhi for his efforts because the actions are not consciously chosen by Gandhi, but are the only way things would’ve unfolded that night.

So, how you think today is a causal outcome of your genes and the experience you accumulated in your life till now. Similarly, how you thought when you were a seven-year old was also an outcome of your genes and the experience that you accumulated till that moment of time in the past.

experience-2This brings me to the below question, which I call as the birth swap puzzle because it talks about swapping the birth of people. The question is as follows:

The Birth Swap Puzzle:

If I was born in place of a person X in his or her mother’s womb, carrying the same genome as that of the person X, and faced the same experience* as that person X did in every nanosecond in life, then will I become the same person as that person X is today?

(*experience includes not only the high level things like school, location, etc., but the same atomic arrangements, mixture of position of all atomic and sub-atomic particles around, cell mutations, etc.)

The most intriguing thing about this question is that if the answer is ‘yes’, then it somehow makes all of us equal and it proves that there is no free will. It proves that at our core, we are all the same, but the reason for the difference in our identities lies in the genome and the environmental experience, neither of which is directly in our control. Scientists call this as the problem of nature (genes) vs.  Nurture (environment).

In theory, there are three factors that differentiate one person from another.

  1. Genome (Nature)
  2. Environmental Experience (Nurture)
  3. Human’s Free Will

What we are essentially saying is that the third factor is nothing but an outcome of the first two factors in a preceding time. This theory is called Determinism and it says that there is a deterministic way in which the laws of nature work, and it applies to human behaviour too. Nothing escapes the laws  of Physics.


Neurologists say that even though we consciously explain why we choose, in reality the choices are made by biochemical processes that we have no control over. So, there is no real free will; it is just an illusion.

For Charles Darwin, determinism came out as a gradual outcome from his Darwinian theory of evolution. Darwin wrote about determinism and free will in his book ‘The Descent of Man’. He says that people only feel that they have free will; ultimately all of their choices and decisions are determined solely on the basis of their genes, past experiences, and their current circumstances.

As neuroscience is starting to understand more about our brain and how we make our choices, there is increasingly more and more evidence on this regard. Some neuroscientists and psychologists say the below:

Consciousness is presented to us as a result of our neurons, our brains, our senses. When we lose these, we lose consciousness. These systems are governed and controlled by neurochemicals, hormones, ionisation, impulses: in short, by biochemistry. Biochemistry is in turn merely a type of chemistry, and when we look at the molecules and atoms that make up our chemistry, they obey the laws of physics.
Balls bouncing around a pool table have no free will. The basic chemicals that make up our bodies and minds have no free will. Neurones fire when they should fire, according to their electrochemical properties. They don’t randomly fire: They fire when they’re stimulated to fire by other neurones or by environmental inputs. Stimulation results from a constant biochemical cycle. These natural cycles determine our states of mind and our choices. Through a long and complicated series of cause and effect, our choices are made. As such, all our ‘choices’ are ultimately the result of impersonal and mechanical forces. There is no “free will force” that causes neurones to fire some times and not at others. They fire in accordance with the rules of physics, firmly beyond our control but not beyond our appreciation. These facts are proclaimed also by none other than the foremost physicist Albert Einstein.
There is now exceedingly strong proof in neuroscience that we make our decisions much before we are conscious  of them.

Some of the famous determinists include Charles Darwin, Arthur Schopenhauer, Albert Einstein, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, Spinoza, Ayn Rand, David Hume, and many others. Below are some quotes on determinism.

“We like to forget that in fact everything in our life is chance, from our genesis out of the encounter of spermatozoon and egg onward.” – Sigmund Freud 

“A man can surely do what he wills to do, but cannot determine what he wills.” – Schopenhauer 

“The initial configuration of the universe may have been chosen by God, or it may itself have been determined by the laws of science. In either case, it would seem that everything in the universe would then be determined by evolution according to the laws of science, so it is difficult to see how we can be masters of our fate.” — Stephen Hawking

“Everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control. It is determined for the insect as well as the star. Human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust, we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible piper.” – Albert Einstein

“Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws.” –Charles Darwin

Determinism says that you are nothing but a bunch of atoms obeying the laws of nature. The exact truth and future of the theory of determinism can only be understood with greater understanding of quantum physics and neuroscience, because the argument of a determinist at the core is that everything has a causal effect on something else.

I’ve stumbled on this thought after long hours of enquiry and observation of human behaviour, esp. about how people are apathetic towards human suffering, how people feel superior to others, and how people identify themselves with their achievements and failures. Therefore, in the light of this article, I plead that let us be a little more tolerant to our fellow living beings and let us always try to understand their actions a little more deeply.

Thank You.

I have used the honorable Mahatma Gandhi in an example in the above post purely for the purpose of making it easy to understand through a popular example, and it doesn’t hint any form of derogation even to the smallest degree. I hold high respect for Mahatma Gandhi and his contributions. Please don’t construe the example beyond the scope of this article.