Aphorisms on Happiness

Written on April 5, 2009. Written by .

I have been studying the topic of happiness for some time now. After digging through many books and articles on Positive Psychology, Buddhism, and Epicureanism, I think I have found a set of core principles that underlay these works. Each principle is accompanied by a famous aphorism that illustrates the idea.

  1. “He who understands the limits of life knows that things which remove pain arising from need are easy to obtain, and furnish a complete and optimal life.” – Epicurus. The simplest thing you can do to find happiness is to be healthy! Poor nutrition or lack of sleep can deplete the neurotransmitters in your brain, making it impossible to feel happy regardless of your condition. Exercise is well known for boosting these neurotransmitters in your brain, which makes you feel happy for no other reason. On the other hand, physical pain makes it very difficult to maintain a peaceful mental state, so it should be avoided with preventative measures. Compromises of health are never as necessary as they seem. Be healthy and avoid physical pain.
  2. “You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land, there is no other life but this.” – Henry David Thoreau. At all times you have the choice to live in the moment or to live in the artificial world of your mind. In your mind, you dwell on the past, worry about the future, and execute analytical computations pertaining to the past and future. While this analysis can be useful at times, it is generally provides no immediate pleasure and usually accomplishes nothing anyways. Perhaps the best option is to isolate your analysis to one hour per week. In this time you can decide if your lifestyle matches your values, if your schedule supports your goals, and how much money to direct deposit into your off-limits savings account. Don’t worry about making mistakes. Don’t worry about missing out or falling behind. Let your feelings guide you through the decisions that analysis can’t readily handle. Note that doing analytical work does not contradict living in the moment because you are focused on the experience of the analysis, as opposed to being focused on some past or future experience. However, analytical work is dangerous psychologically because it reinforces the habit of being analytical. Meditation is the antidote. Maintain focus on the present.
  3. “Misery is almost always the result of thinking.” – Joseph Joubert. If you have too much free time and too few constraints in your schedule, you will start thinking a lot, which makes it difficult to maintain focus on the present. This explains why psychologists have found that people are much happier when they have more constraints. Keep yourself occupied and establish constraints.
  4. “There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.” – Epictetus. You are not in control of your life, you merely have influence over it. This is why trying to stick to a strict budget or setting a deadline for a big goal will usually lead to more disappointment than satisfaction. American culture is all for setting ambitious goals, but this practice leads to a never-ending chase after the phantom of success. Abandoning your desires isn’t necessary, but you should first try to understand them, then set goals that facilitate your desires without straining the power of your influence. For example, let’s say you have the desire to be rich. First understand the motivation for the desire. Perhaps you just want the power to control others that comes with wealth. You may decide that this isn’t a value you truly wish to strive for and you can abandon the desire. Or perhaps you want wealth so that you can explore the world. In this case, you might set the goal of finding a job that will make you rich enough to take a 3-month vacation in China, which almost anyone could do. Setting achievable goals doesn’t require ignoring your desires, you just acknowledge that there is a difference between what you desire and what you are presently trying to do. If your desire is strong enough, there is a good chance that you will naturally come within reach of fulfilling it through the small steps that you take. Eventually natural urges will compel you to accomplish what you are meant to accomplish, there is no benefit to trying to force the process. Reduce your dependency on external factors.
  5. “The fewer our wants, the nearer we resemble the gods.” – Socrates. Cultivate your appreciation of easily attainable pleasures like natural beauty, food, music, and flow experiences. Flow experiences are created from challenges that properly match a person’s skill level and provide feedback about progress. Eliminate possessions that are not contributing to your happiness, they will just act as liabilities. Avoid debt as it is pure liability. Generally speaking, simplify your life. Reduce your dependency on material goods.
  6. “Of all things that wisdom provides for living one’s entire life in happiness, the greatest by far is the possession of friendship.” – Epicurus. Humans are social animals, so social interaction is heavily weighted in our mind’s valuation scheme. Expose yourself to people regularly, preferrably a community consisting of a small enough number of people that you will be remembered. However, you must be careful not to create expectations as this would contradict principle 4 since you do not have direct influence over other people’s behaviors. Instead, do what you can to build an interesting and balanced lifestyle while practicing good social manners and being open to people. This is the best you can do to establish friendships as trying to force the process is unnatural and does more harm than good. Expose yourself to people.

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