Victus Spiritus


Satisfaction versus Happiness

31 May 2009

Before I begin this brief analysis I'd like to share a video of Dan Gilbert from TED talking about happiness that inspired this post (Thanks to Paul Buchheit for the share on friendfeed).  Dan's premise is that happiness falls within the realm and ultimate purview of the observer.  He goes on to explain that self induced (synthetic) happiness is just as good as natural happiness (getting what we want), in contrary to conventional wisdom.

In addition to a lively performance accompanied by some interesting data,  Dan Gilbert shares a few quotes that aid in making his point.

The powerful quote from Sir Thomas Browne that gets to the heart of the matter:

“I am the happiest man alive. I have that in me that can convert poverty to riches, adversity to prosperity, and I am more invulnerable than Achilles; fortune hath not one place to hit me."

Dan has struck the ball out of the park with this quote.  Observers are immediately either intrigued by the lucid optimistic confidence held by Sir Browne or are affronted by Thomas' complete disconnect from materialism.  As a member of the former group, I chose to believe the sentiment and ponder the limits of one's control over their perception (optimism vs. pessimism).  It is interesting to imagine how the second group reacted to this quote.  They must have asked themselves, "Why introduce a delusional writer's quote?", "What else do I know about Sir Thomas Browne, why would he brazenly lie?".  Even opponents to Dan's basic premise are inspired to question common knowledge.

Taking this concept to the extreme was William Shakespeare (sure Will the judgments of good and bad are byproducts of intelligence):

"Tis nothing good or bad, But thinking makes it so"

and then Dan Gilbert gives us a more modest view sharing the thoughts of Adam Smith (added a skipped  section of the quote for completeness):

"The great source of both the misery and disorders of human life, seems to arise from over-rating the difference between one permanent situation and another. Avarice over-rates the difference between poverty and riches: ambition, that between a private and a public station: vain-glory, that between obscurity and extensive reputation. The person under the influence of any of those extravagant passions, is not only miserable in his actual situation, but is often disposed to disturb the peace of society, in order to arrive at that which he so foolishly admires. The slightest observation, however, might satisfy him, that, in all the ordinary situations of human life, a well-disposed mind may be equally calm, equally cheerful, and equally contented. Some of those situations may, no doubt, deserve to be preferred to others: but none of them can deserve to be pursued with that passionate ardour which drives us to violate the rules either of prudence or of justice; or to corrupt the future tranquillity of our minds, either by shame from the remembrance of our own folly, or by remorse from the horror of our own injustice."

Adam Smith's philosophy: "suffering comes from exaggerating differences in status" could be a corollary of the Buddhist principle "suffering comes from desire".  If we accept this statement, we are inclined to find the proper balance of our passion and our integrity.

Why Satisfaction?