My wife and I bought a house last October.
With winter waning this month, we were excited to see tulips sprouting in our front yard—a nice little surprise and reminder that things are slowing going back to normal.
With extra daylight and Springtime-like afternoons, I’m beginning to feel happier after this cold, Covid winter.
As much as I’d like to continue our learning about happiness by focusing on how we can all be happier, I think it’s important to first step back and learn about the opposite.
I did my best to come up with a catchy phrase to call this concept but all I could think of was: struggle sprinkles (I dabbled with struggle surrogates but that sounded even weirder).
It’s not a perfect metaphor, as you will see, but at least I know you won’t forget it.
Let’s get learning.
Vanilla ice cream is boring (well, most people think it’s boring, I think it’s perfect).
But add sprinkles on top and suddenly you’ve got yourself an interesting and delicious treat.
Ice cream sprinkles were invented in 1913.
They’re one of the many human improvements of the past 150 years for our species.
- We cured polio (along with most infectious diseases that have plagued mankind for millennia)
- We went to the moon
- We installed indoor plumbing (finally)
Air planes, dishwashers, the internet, even zippers, compared to the previous 200,000 years of mankind’s existence, the past 150 years have been quite the step up.
But are we happier?
That’s a difficult question to answer and not one I will attempt to tackle in this week’s Letter.
Instead, I’d like to draw your attention to the following graphic:
This graph represents the frequency of “happiness” and “happy” found in books published in English (it’s a pretty nifty tool, if you want to check it out).
Ignoring the more recent spike, why do we see a drop in happy and happiness usage over the past 150 years of progress?
I have a hunch.
But before I tell you my hunch I need to tell you about music.
Music and complexity
To prepare for this week’s Learning Letter I watched a video called The Psychology and Neuroscience of Happiness by The Royal Institution.
Around the 12:19 minute mark, Morten Kringelbach (what a name) uses music to show how complexity plays a role in our enjoyment of music.
To summarize, a basic song with just four beats—boom, boom, boom, bam—repeated over and over again is boring.
If you add a little complexity—boom, boom, boom, bam; boom, boom, bang, bam—makes the song a bit more enjoyable.
However, too much complexity—boom, whizz, splunk, ahh-choo—and it’s not even music anymore, it’s noise.
There’s a relationship between complexity and pleasure because complexity interrupts our mental “templates” or expectations.
When something unexpected—but not too unexpected—happens to us, we derive a sense of joy from it.
It’s how comedy works and why impromptu Chick-fil-A runs feel more fun.
Getting back to my hunch.
Life is getting easier because we are removing the complexities that made it difficult.
We’ve cut too deep, we’re removing every inconvenience that used to make life interesting.
Life is becoming too predictable, too routine, and too redundant.
Life, in other words, is boring.
Happy makers revisited
Seinfeld is the show about nothing. Or is it?
No, it’s a show that celebrates the communal struggles of modern life (well, the 1990s version).
Most of the conundrums Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer find themselves in are no longer conundrums today.
The daily annoyances discussed in their booth at Monk’s are now solved today with a tap and swipe.
Am I proposing we backtrack technology for the sake of living in an NBC sitcom? Not exactly…
Like last week’s happy makers, finding the struggle sprinkles in life is all about making conscious efforts.
Maybe instead of stripping away complexities, we find ways of adding some back into our lives.
Maybe we drive without the GPS on.
Maybe we order takeout over the phone.
Maybe, and hear me out on this one, we go a day without our phones.
We need to find ways of adding struggle sprinkles to our otherwise vanilla-flavored lives.
Because as we see with music, complexity adds interest.
And without interest, our minds turn to quick hits of dopamine.
We can do better.
Aristotle defined two types of happiness:
- Hedonic – or the happiness derived from pleasure
- Eudaimonic – or the happiness derived from living a life in accordance to one’s virtues
In other words, Aristotle argued that a good life is one where a person strives to be their best self by seeking purpose and meaning.
So far this month I’ve (hopefully) laid the ground work of how to find healthy hedonic forms of happiness.
But finding a deeper sense of happiness takes more than putting our phones out of sight.
For the remainder of this month, we’ll shift our focus to eudaimonic forms of happiness and how we can find deeper meaning, even in the drab routines of our lives.
Until next week,
P.S. – I wrote two new articles this past week. One about why quitting your job will be the best and worst decision of your life. And another about why applying to a job rekindled an old dream of mine.