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The Paradoxes of Happiness

The Paradoxes of Happiness

The nature of a complex topic such as happiness, and the danger inherent to studying it from a scientific perspective, is that it is often very difficult to sum up its many intricate parts: in truth, there are very few happiness ‘principles’ that can actually hold true for all individuals at all times within all contexts.

I find the Zen concept of the paradox helpful to elucidate understanding here; this is a teaching method which is often used to help students to examine topics from different angles, jarring you just enough so that your brain is forced to move into a new place or understanding. This is a technique also used in therapy, where the therapist endeavors to help the patient understand that while they are perfect as they are, they also do need to change. 

A paradox, by nature, must have two contrasting statements, and it is that interplay between the two opposites that catches us by surprise, forcing us into new perspectives, and reminding us that opposing statements can be true. As so much of happiness is contextual and individualized, we must recognize that seemingly paradoxical statements can simultaneously hold true, as well-being in and of itself often exists paradoxically.

  • Relationships are extremely important to well-being, except for those times when they harm well-being.
  • Membership in society is critical to individual flourishing, except for those times that it severely hampers it.

I have observed that there are three major paradoxes that arise repeatedly in the study of well-being, within which I am including a variety of approaches to the topic: religion, philosophy, science, personal experience, and even forms of self-help. 

The First Paradox of Timing

Happiness is in the moment and it is in the long term. 

Happiness, as many people think of it, is ephemeral – it happens in a moment of positive emotion, which inevitably fades away. However, philosophers like Aristotle have argued that there is a deeper, more meaningful, and more fulfilling form of happiness, known as eudaimonia, which has been defined as “living a complete human life, or the realization of valued human potentials.” These are such different concepts that we obviously need to distinguish between them. 

Timing plays out in subtle ways. Studies have found that asking an individual whether or not they are happy with their lives is actually influenced by their current mood, and the time frame in which an individual looks at their happiness has a strong impact on their judgment. Many of us make foolish choices in the moment in an attempt to maximize our present happiness, and many others of us make foolish choices in the moment in an attempt to secure our happiness in the future. 

The Second Paradox of Content

Happiness is simple and complex.

It is complex: What is happiness? Can we be relied upon to define it for ourselves? Under what circumstances are we wrong about our happiness? Is there a universal definition of happiness? Do all people experience happiness the same way?

And yet, it is simple: you just know it when you feel it. The most frequently used method for finding out if someone is happy is to ask them; science is reliant upon the self-report mechanism because it is a reliable report of well-being. In this way, it is quite simple: we instinctively know if we are happy or are not.

But if it was purely a simple topic, would thousands of thinkers, artists, philosophers, religions, psychologists and lay people have devoted their lives to attempting to understand it? 

The Third Paradox of Our Nature

Happiness comes from satisfying your own needs and from choosing to serve the needs of others. 

We are wired to experience and pursue both self-interest and self-transcendence. Humans not only evolved at an individual level, but also at a group level, making us social creatures that can cooperate and understand what others are thinking and feeling. This has led to a delicate daily dance of prioritizing ourselves and prioritizing the groups within which we claim membership. The two are so intertwined (and perhaps, enabling of one another) that living a good life means accounting for both and sometimes prioritizing one over another. 

The implications of these paradoxes are important to consider when we are studying happiness, analyzing and designing interventions, implementing those interventions, and considering our own choices in life. We are multi-faceted individuals who have wide-ranging histories, beliefs, relationships, contexts, visions, hopes, fears, dreams, and ideas about ourselves and the world, which, layered on top of these paradoxes, makes it a mighty tricky activity to dole out any sort of meaningful wisdom. 

So, instead of doling out advice, we might seek instead to offer up thoughtful questions, ones that highlight the paradox to ourselves. By embracing the tough questions, we can shift more elegantly between these paradoxical sides of ourselves and our word, bringing new insights to the forefront - insights that might actually be the way to a more meaningful, happier life. 

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