Tag Archives: Happiness

Overcoming Blackness and Gravity

The universe is on its way to a slow, cold death.

In the meantime, global warming is causing record levels of wildfires.

Worst of all, Donald Trump is still at the top of the polls.

How can a serious-minded beagle keep his head up?

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Stick Your Head Out of the Window!

This morning, I had coffee with a friend who has semi-retired from a long career as a pilot. My friend is a Princeton graduate with an MBA to boot, and very bright.

I once asked him what he liked about flying. “Everything,” he had replied. “I just love everything about it.” That’s why I was surprised this morning when he said that some of the smartest pilots get bored with the job.

“Why didn’t you get bored, too?” I asked.

“I never lost the wonder of being up above the clouds. It never diminished one bit,” he replied. So … his secret to loving his job was just to look out the window.

It was soon time for me to drive to work. On the way, I saw something in my rear-view mirror that brought a smile to my face. A dog was sticking his head out of the window of the car behind me, as happy as could be.

I thought, “Whether you’re a Princeton graduate or a dog, you can still stick your head out of the window and be happy.”

The Pursuit of Happiness

One of my daughters told me something yesterday that I thought was really profound. She said that in America, we feel that we have a right to be happy. After all, our Declaration of Independence states that we have an “unalienable right” to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

But what we forget, said my daughter, is the pursuit part. We’re so enamored of our rights that when we’re not happy, we think the universe/society/God has failed to come through as it should. We mope and complain.

Instead, if we’re not happy, then we should pursue happiness. That’s what we have a right to: the pursuit.

This came up for my daughter as she was having a conversation with a young man who had quit school and was stuck in a boring, dead-end job. He was clearly not happy. She asked him what would make him happy. He said he had no idea. “What are you passionate about?” asked my daughter. “I have no freakin’ idea,” he said again.

She made the obvious but important observation that if he didn’t at least try some new things, his life in his late 20’s would be just as dull as it is now, in his early 20’s.

Her encouragement to the young man is good advice for all of us. If you’re not happy, then pursue happiness. If you don’t know where to find it, trying things at random will give you a better chance than doing nothing.

I have another daughter who was quite depressed in her early adolescence. “Every day is worse than the last,” she told me. Out of the blue, a neighbor gave her a video of Korean pop music. (Talk about random!) Right away, all of my daughter’s circuits lit up. Suddenly, she had found her passion. She pursued it by finding a student-exchange program with Rotary International and then more or less crashed a meeting of our local Rotary chapter to ask if she could become an exchange student. She wrote to a Rotarian in South Korea to inquire about opportunities. She studied Korean on her own for a year and a half. She attended a Korean church 40 minutes away, and took Korean lessons there. She took Tae Kwondo lessons to absorb  even more of the culture. As I write this, she is an exchange student in South Korea, the first stage of pursuing her dream of becoming a performing artist there. She did this all on her own. (All I did was act as taxi driver!) I don’t know how her life will turn out, but I do know that she will continue to pursue her passions and happiness, no matter what it takes. That’s what I’m talking about!

If you’re not happy, try something different. If you have no idea what to try, random is better than nothing. Your best chance is probably something that serves others. But do something! Pursuing happiness is your right. Use it!

My Philosophy of Life

Tonight I will attend a party where each person will get the mic for 5 minutes to answer the question, What is your philosophy of life? This is my answer; what’s yours?

* * * * *

What can we aim for if not to be as deeply happy as possible?

Of course, finding happiness is not simple. Doing whatever feels good at the moment is probably the surest way to long-term unhappiness. If you always get what you want right away, you’ll learn why no child is as miserable as the spoiled child. I know I’m happiest when I’m striving for something, not when I’ve got it. I suppose that’s why we never give up striving.

Also, most of us can’t be happy if the people we love are not happy too, so that complicates matters further. The more socially conscious of us are also happiest when we know we have done our part to make society better, even if that involves personal sacrifice.

So things are pretty tangled up. When a string is tangled, it can be helpful to see how it got that way. Same for happiness. How did it come to be so complicated?

I would answer that question with two related ideas: evolution and emergence. I’ve found that those twin concepts are at the root of just about everything. Evolution explains how things developed and emergence explains why they mean what they do.


Evolution is itself built on two ideas: descent with modification and survival of the fittest. In other words, things are always changing and whatever variants work best are the ones that create the next generation. We’ve all heard of evolution as it pertains to living things, but when it comes to a philosophy of life I think the evolution of ideas is even more important.

We humans think we’re smart, but consider for how many millenia we were stumbling around in the dark. People were trying out various ideas and, in hindsight, they weren’t doing much better than trying things at random, each idea a modification of the last. The Earth is the center of the cosmos, it’s flat and the Sun is a god. And let’s kill everyone who disagrees. No, wait — the Earth is a sphere and at the center. Hold on — the Sun is the center of it all. And it’s not a god. But let’s still kill people who believe there are other worlds with life on them. Oh — we just realized that the universe has no center. Or maybe it does. And maybe it goes on forever. Or not. And hey! We now think there are a couple billion Earth-like planets in our galaxy alone. So chances are good that life has developed elsewhere after all. And maybe there are 10 dimensions, not 3. Or maybe 11…

One idea descends from the next. We’re always pushing the boundaries in one direction or another.

What makes all this randomness converge on something that can contribute to a meaningful philosophy of life? It’s the second component of evolution: survival of the fittest. The closer an idea matches reality, the more firmly lodged it is. It persists to inform the next generation of thinkers. That’s how we got to the scientific method: not because we were smart enough to know that it’s the best way to sniff out the difference between truth and error, but because we were so clueless that we tried just about everything else first.


After all, we are but recycled dust. Recycled star dust, to be sure, but still dust.

And that leads to the second thing that explains everything: emergence. Emergence is when one phenomenon gives rise to a phenomenon at what is in some sense a “higher” level. In most cases, you could study the lower-level phenomenon at a detailed level for a thousand years and never guess what would arise from it.

Who would guess, by studying brain cells, that they are the woof and warp of the very thought you are applying to them?  Who would guess, by studying color or sound as a phenomenon of physics, that it has anything to do with personal pleasure? Who would guess that an economy whose very cornerstone is personal freedom and no central planning, would end up with more of every imaginable good and service, and better apparent planning, than every centrally planned economy that has ever been tried?

These counter-intuitive results pale in comparison to the greatest emergent phenomenon ever: that unconscious genes would “selfishly” maximize their own chance for replication by chemically motivating their hosts to behaviors that are the exact opposite of selfishness, such as altruism and eusociality. The mechanism is a delicious, hundred-layer cake of one emergence on top of another.

And that’s why happiness is so complicated. It arises counter-intuitively from emergent phenomena that, in turn, are the product of random evolution — both biological and philosophical — that isn’t even done yet. Once we understand that, we can relax and enjoy the wonders that are playing out every day.

For those of us who enjoy philosophy, contemplating such mysteries is a large part of what makes life worth living.