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Be Unhappy to Be Happy

  • Moscow, Russia
  • comments

mood psychology

At the very end of one of my recent meetups I was asked a question: “Are you a happy person?” I mumbled something about being happy from time to time, but later gave this question more thought. Am I happy? Not really. Well, sometimes. What makes me happy? And why are so many of us unhappy so often? It seems that there is an answer, and a recipe for happiness.

Yip Man (2008) by Wilson Yip
Yip Man (2008) by Wilson Yip

“A well-paid job, house, car, family are the ultimate possessions of anyone’s life. But despite having everything why is the happiness missing?” Debika Chakraborty asks here. I think that happiness is missing not despite us having everything, but thanks to that.

Happiness, according to Nietzsche, is “the feeling that power increases — that a resistance is overcome.” Therefore, in order to be happy, we must have some issues to deal with. It’s not enough to possess those cars, houses and well-paid jobs. We need to overcome the obstacles first. Happiness is simply impossible without a struggle being won.

To be happy, we constantly need a new problem to solve, a trouble to get rid of, or an enemy to destroy, if you wish. What kind of enemy it might be—depends. Aristotle, for example, according to Edith Hall, believed that “happiness comes from a continuous effort to become the best possible version of yourself,” which is the war with yourself, “the worst enemy you can meet,” as Zarathustra once said. On top of that, there are, of course, other foes all around us, including poverty, lack of skills, health issues, annoying colleagues, or cheating partners. To be happy we need some of these things.

Bertrand Russell, in his book The Conquest of Happiness, suggested that “to be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness.” However, the modern world, and especially the tech part of it, gives us almost anything and everything we may wish for, including the cars, houses, healthy food, information, electric scooters, safety, lifetime employment and retirement plans. We’ve got nothing to worry about and … we are unhappy because of that.

The key word here is “worry” not “give.” Happiness doesn’t really depend on how rich or poor we are, as studies confirm (well, above a certain level). Instead, it depends on how easily we get what we want. The more we worry and the less life gives us for free, the more happy we are … provided we achieve what we want.

Ernest Hemingway in The Garden of Eden said that “happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.” This is because most “intelligent” people nowadays possess all those things mentioned above and don’t need to struggle much in order to get them. The smarter we are, the easier it is for us to achieve: find a well-paid job and buy a new iPhone.

We intelligent tech people, don’t struggle enough.

Life doesn’t challenge us as much as we need. We don’t even need to have special talents these days to be decently paid: You read JavaScript in 24 Hours and a new iPhone is yours. The market is in deficit now and the demand is much higher than the supply of coding hands. Moreover, most managers are incapable of demanding above-average performance from us. This may look like a perfect life, but in a long run we may end up with problems larger than unhappiness or depression—read what happened to the poor mice in the Universe 25 experiment.

What is the solution? Listen to what Frank T. McAndrew says: “Dissatisfaction with the present and dreams of the future are what keep us motivated,” meaning that happiness comes to those who 1) are permanently dissatisfied with current results and 2) act to achieve more.

Ergo, the recipe of happiness is: resent, overcome, repeat.

But what to resent? Well this may be your laziness, your fears, your absence of Oracle certification, your low Stack Overflow reputation, or no paychecks from the Apple Store (do you have your own revenue-generating app there?)

Once the obstacle is overcome, repeat.

Stay unhappy. To be happy.

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