Discover more from The Comma Project by Devin Baker
Tension, growth, happiness, and intuition
Via negativa has interesting implications for our pursuit of happiness. But is it restrictive of personal growth and possibility? Can our intuition help us?
It turns out that the removal of unhappiness proves to be a much more effective approach than striving towards happiness. This is via negativa (benefit by way of subtraction) style a la Nassim Taleb (see some of the earlier pieces for more depth on the topic).
Happiness is such a nebulous concept that it’s quite hard to identify. A lot of us think we know what makes us happy, but it turns out that we’re so often wrong. Because positive events feel so much more pleasant to focus on, we find ourselves imagining more of them, leading to overly optimistic views of our futures. Not only are we quite bad at predicting what will happen, but we’re even worse at predicting how we’ll feel about that outcome, should it occur. Layer on the fact that evolution has taught our ego, which so often drives us, to value things (e.g., money, status) that were once beneficial for survival but now, in our privileged world of abundance, prove ineffective at making us happier, and we find that we have quite the clouded view.
And despite these often misidentified goals, we chase them endlessly. We’re all searching for happiness. That’s why there are so many self-help books, motivational speakers, and “thought leaders” pushing “31 WAYS TO BE HAPPIER” in Buzzfeed-style, click-baity, attention-grabbers.
On the other hand, we could probably list a dozen things we encounter on a day-to-day that bring us unhappiness, however strong. The concreteness of this form of identification relative to the amorphous markers of some future happier state that we so often pursue provides a stronger signal for the effectiveness of via negativa-style removal and avoidance of unhappiness. Which would you prefer - hitting a target you can’t see but think might be there or removing the splinter from your foot that you see and feel with every step?
But a question comes to mind - does this focus on removal of the negative inhibit change and growth? Tension and strain beget progress and growth. We see this in many areas of our life, including in training our physical fitness, where work, strain, and tiny muscle tears lead to muscle growth and greater strength. As it relates to the inexact science of happiness, could there be some healthy amount of struggle that results in progress which via negativa removal of unhappiness would prohibit? Via negativa: less unhappiness, perhaps, and more efficient in the short run, but in the long run are we holding ourselves back?
Via negativa removal of the existing can be quite powerful, but is there a point at which a via positiva pursuit of the new or different is more effective? Dynamic, adventurous, admirable, exciting? In choosing to face the unknown and try something new as opposed to removing something that proves challenging in the moment? Even necessary in that it broadens our horizons?
Another - are the characteristics of a definitionally unbounded possibility that comes with via positiva pursuit of better through change and growth conducive to realization of greater potential than the closed and finite universe of the present state from which we strive to remove unhappiness, via negativa-style?
Does it depend on personality? Specific timing and circumstances?
Is the answer to first focus on via negativa, given its higher hit rate, then focus on growth through the new?
Nassim Taleb in his book Antifragile advocates seeking those actions that drive “positive convexity” effects that will, in the long run, benefit from volatility - characterized by low, capped downside and high, unlimited upside.
With more drastic, via positiva change comes higher volatility as, metaphorically speaking, you’re changing the game board on which you’re playing (or even the game itself), instead of simply removing obstacles from the current one through less drastic change of via negativa.
But is it convex? Is the downside capped? It depends on how you think of downside. If you believe we’re antifragile (benefit from adversity and change), then yes.
Is that even something worth striving for? Is that generalization not applicable for everyone? I’d have to believe that it is highly personal. For example, if one has an inkling, a gut feeling, an urge to pursue something new and different, as opposed to someone for whom change doesn’t organically stand as a desire, I’d have to believe broad strokes statements can’t and shouldn’t universally apply.
I believe that too many broad statements are made about how qualities such as adventure-seeking or risk-taking are universally admirable. They can be, surely, but not for everyone. I believe it’s not necessarily better or more desirable to want change or “new” more than others. To me, it’s a question of intuition and risk tolerance, which should be absent any moral judgment regarding whether where you stand on the spectrum is better or worse than any other. It’s purely subjective, and comes down to what naturally arises for the individual.
Which ties in to some thoughts I’ve been having a lot recently, which come down to the merits of gut feeling or intuition. We all have gut feelings, all day long. Some are mundane, like what we should have for lunch or what shirt we want to throw on today.
But there are others that bubble up organically, and for some reason stand apart or hold more weight. For me, those are the existential - those gut feelings about bigger questions. Where do I want to live? What do I want to do? What kind of person do I want to be?
And to me, those are the ones most important to listen to. Without judgment. One isn’t more or less moral or good than the other. But it’s all the more important if you notice that those gut feelings that come up don’t match up to how you live your day-to-day.
Which begs the question about comfort zones - are they restrictive? Should one venture outside and be in the discomfort zone?
Not universally I say. Only if you get the urge, however small, to do so.
And, maybe, start small. Build that intuitive muscle. Intuition is something I’m trying to become more in touch with and aware of. Awareness, before action, is key, as you can jump as confidently as you want, but it’s much more important to know which direction you’d like to be going.
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