Happiness doesn’t exist; unhappiness does.
The great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy begins his masterpiece Anna Karenina with a simple observation he then illuminates throughout the novel: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Some combination of attraction, intimacy, shared values, parenting philosophies, and so on are base requirements for the flourishing of a union between two people, and while they may deviate in detail here and there to account for our individual differences, they are all broadly non-negotiable if the union is to last to the satisfaction of each party over the long-term. A sustained deficiency in any one of these, however, is enough to crack the shield even if the others are accounted for. In other words: There is one general way to succeed, but many diverse ways to fail.
The scientist Jared Diamond codified this into a broader principle that applies to a variety of domains in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel. The idea applies to the functional role of animals in diverse ecosystems. It applies to how we build social structures when we try to engineer civilization. Essentially, it applies to anything that can be considered a complex system with many interacting parts and thus has many different points of failure.
The good thing is that the principle points to a solution in its framing: Figure out what the important things are and make sure that each one of them is accounted for. Make everything redundant. Just because you and your partner have great chemistry, for example, it doesn’t mean that you can rely on that at the expense of the experiences that bring you closer as compatible selves. Everything has to be constantly worked at, or the whole thing falls apart. Fair enough. But broadly applied to existence, this approach becomes a little more difficult. Much of life is unpredictable, ambiguous, and uncertain. We don’t always know what the important things are. What then?
Generally, when we make plans ahead of time, we try to predict what it is that will gratify a yearning in the future and then we work backward from there. It’s an attempt to figure out what the important things are before the experiential wisdom has been acquired to make that judgment in a meaningful and accurate way. The thing about predictions is that the world is always in flux, and we change, systems change, cultures change, and all of these things are themselves part of a broader ecosystem that isn’t concerned with our own personal predictions. Imagining a concrete ideal in the future is an inherently futile exercise because it assumes that reality will remain static while we dynamically evolve forward.
When it comes to things that we have immense data on — say, like successful marriages — part of the work is done, and we can use that as a pointer. But we all have our own version of life that, sooner or later, diverges away from an average statistic. We may sit at the center of the Gaussian bell-curve much of the time, but the parts that make us who we truly are, the ones that shape our individual self, are generally ones which deviate away from this center, and that makes it nonsensical for us to apply populational data.
There may be one general way to succeed and many ways to fail, but we generally don’t know what success — or happiness, or satisfaction, etc. — look like until we actually experience them as a day to day part of our reality. That said, we generally do have a very good intuition for what failure is, even in the present, even without the aid of prediction. Happiness may be nebulous, but suffering is not. Health metrics may never measure peak fitness and general conditioning precisely, but the effects of sickness are clear. And they are clear immediately. There is no information asymmetry across time.
Negative things exist, concretely and obviously. You can argue all you want about what objectively constitutes as pain and suffering, but when you stub your toe on the chair or when a loved one dies, it is clear that you experience a version of reality that is less ideal than it could be, and that it would be worthwhile for you to interpret the signal that this reality is sending you and then do something that helps you move on.
We spend much of life chasing positive things. We have an inherent bias towards a future that is better than today, and that motivates us to act and to create and to build and to care. But the great paradox of life is that we are all too different for the positive, or for this sense of betterment, to make itself visible to us based on someone else’s experience. Quite often, these things are blurry until we are close enough to actually see them. Even something like a happy family — which Tolstoy argues is the same for everyone, which something like science can point towards with data — ends up meaning different things to different people, even accounting for shared elements, because every happy family has its own spice to mix all of those elements together, and that spice can’t be invented with a formula.
Looking for happiness is a great way to never experience it. Most of us are familiar with the shallow feeling that comes over when we finally get what we want, what we have sacrificed for. While that feeling may be temporarily nice, for the majority of people, an emptiness soon takes over. And the only thing that makes it go away is if we find something else to chase, which then sends us up and up on a path to nowhere until we crash.
This backwardness leaves us with three conclusions: negative things are real enough to be managed, we are bad at predicting positive things for ourselves (even with the help and wisdom of others), and we all create our own spice in life that makes things work for us in our own way.
One of the big breakthroughs in our understanding of how the scientific method allows for innovation came from the philosopher of science Karl Popper in the 20th century, and his idea was this: We can’t ever say for certain that something is true, but we can know when something contradicts reality and then remove it from contention. It’s called falsifiability. For a scientific hypothesis to be taken seriously, it has to be capable of being proven wrong. Truth, then, becomes an evolving process. It is no longer about being completely right all the time, but it’s about eliminating what doesn’t work and making incremental progress towards the future.
We can apply this same idea to life. In the face of uncertainty, we are never going to be able to predict the future or create any satisfying vision in the present for how it should play out. That just ends up boxing reality into a predetermined shape rather than letting it freely flow into something more. That said, there are some negative things that are obviously painful and meaningless and problematic in life, and they provide important information about what we don’t want, and that should be used liberally.
We can and should use the wisdom of others, of science and data, literature and philosophy, to point us in the right direction, but the image we are pointing to should only become clear when we are close enough to see it for ourselves. And the only way to get closer to it is to iterate away the mistakes and the problems that come up as we move through time. And over a long enough period, by continually doing this, two things happen: a) we improve and become individualized by solving useful problems; b) that improvement and individualization begin to generate the spice that emergently arises to combine the remaining elements of success together.
The Anna Karenina principle captures an important truth: There are more ways to fail than there are to succeed. But Tolstoy missed a crucial ingredient in his famous sentence. Just because there are fewer ways to succeed doesn’t mean everybody succeeds in exactly the same way because success itself has many different sides, with many different shapes carved out, depending on who the experiencer of that success is.
When applied to people and the uncertainties they deal with, what we are left with is this: All happy people are alike in having found their differences; each unhappy person is unhappy for failing to solve a problem.