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STOICISM.DESIGN

Is "happiness" in your control?

May 13, 2019

This morning during inbox zero I came across this post on Quartz about Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman's distinction between "happiness" and "satisfaction."

"Kahneman contends that happiness and satisfaction are distinct. Happiness is a momentary experience that arises spontaneously and is fleeting. Meanwhile, satisfaction is a long-term feeling, built over time and based on achieving goals and building the kind of life you admire. On the Dec. 19 podcast “Conversations with Tyler,” hosted by economist Tyler Cowen, Kahneman explains that working toward one goal may undermine our ability to experience the other."

They go on to say that this distinction is useful because it paints a picture about people who, pursuing satisfaction-related goals, aren't necessarily concerned about maximizing happiness.

This caught my eye, not because this topic is more "woo" than I like (although it is), but I argue that the pursuit of satisfaction rather than happiness not only appears to be a preference but also the only rational choice a person can make.

Happiness is a fleeting emotional peak, the cause of which is hard to pinpoint and easy to misinterpret (don't got love? Eat chocolate.), and the Stoic response to happiness to just appreciate and enjoy it as it comes, but don't be so haughty to think that happiness can be pursued. It is an emotion often but not always a reaction to something outside of one's control.

The feeling of satisfaction, however, is a comparison. We feel satisfaction about Y because it is a preferable state to X. We have some control over these states through hard work, eating when hungry, and so it makes sense that the mental state we tend to care about is a satisfied one - it's at least within arm's reach.

Seneca might, however, point out that satisfaction is a state defined by having when you have recently had not. You've heard or experienced first hand the paradox that getting what you want only leaves you wanting more? Then having been satisfied -- past tense -- can collapse on itself into a feeling of new dissatisfaction.

Being dissatisfied is older than time, and the Stoics -- themselves separated by centuries -- seem to align around a contentment strategy that's fundamentally about training yourself to want less.

Here's an excerpt (with my emphasis) from Epictetus's The Manual:

"Desire demands the attainment of that which you desire, and aversion demands the avoidance of that which you dislike. Those who fail to attain their desires are disappointed. Those who attain what they dislike are distressed. If you avoid only those undesirable things which are within your control, you will never suffer by attaining something you detest. But if you try to avoid what you cannot control—sickness, poverty, death—you will inflict useless mental suffering upon yourself. End the habit of despising things that are not within your power, and apply your aversion to things that are within your power. As for desire, for now it is best to avoid it altogether. Those new to this philosophy must first secure their sphere of power, before they can discern what is worthy of desire. For if you desire things not within your power, you will suffer disappointment. When practical necessity demands that you desire or avoid something external—at work, for instance—act with steady deliberation, not hasty strain."

Honestly, Epictetus - when he talks about desire - is kind of a prude, but I don't think he's wrong.

We can better achieve a sense of satisfaction the more we eliminate external variables from that equation.

- You can't be disappointed that a user doesn't like your work if you don't really care whether a user likes your work.
- You can't feel the pangs of being unrecognized at work if you don't desire to be recognized.

Training yourself to not want this shit feels so antithetical it comes off as dystopian, but I think it's a good thought exercise about moderating your expectations. Contentedness is directly proportional to how much you desire; the less you desire, the more content you are.

Craft virtuously,

Michael Schofield

Refer virtuously

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Copyright © 2019 Michael Schofield, All rights reserved.


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