On the Nature of Happiness

Someone recently asked me, in a discussion on a mailing list, Would you rather be right, or would you rather be happy?

They say that the key to life is not in knowing all the answers, but rather in asking the right questions. Everybody assumes that means you can’t find the right answers if you don’t first ask the right questions, which is true; but there’s more to it than that.

The questions you ask reveal a great deal about your unspoken assumptions, about your preconceptions and the way you view the world.

“Would you rather be right, or would you rather be happy?” is one ofthose questions. It’s also the wrong question. It’s so completely wrong on so many different levels that I feel I can’t even rightly understand the misapprehension that gave rise to it.

On the face of it, it’s a facile question. It makes a false choice between two alternatives that are not directly related to each other. It’s like asking “Would you rather be driving, or would you rather be warm?” Or like asking, “Would you rather be a teacher, or would you rather be dry?” Being right does not logically imply being unhappy as a consequence; and conversely, being happy does not imply being wrong.

But the rot goes deeper than that.

The question assumes a false opposition between two ideals that are not in opposition at all; but worse, it implies that truth is somehow inimical to personal happiness, that ignorance truly is bliss, that having the one must mean giving up the other.

The question has as an unspoken assumption an entire philosophy: Reason is the enemy of Happiness; where one prevails, the other must give way.

If your happiness is predicated on some misapprehension, some fundamental flaw in your understanding of something about the world around you, then I submit that your happiness is a mirage. It’s a phantasm, a castle built on sand, awaiting only the revelation of the truth to bring the whole structure crashing down.

Happiness-real happiness, the kind that lasts a lifetime–must ultimately be built on bedrock, not sand. It must be stable and secure enough to withstand the revelations that life will necessarily bring to you from time to time. It must be solid enough to withstand change, from within and from without.

Enlightenment and inner peace are never attained through a policy of willful ignorance.

A wise man knows, of course, that he will not always be happy or right. But assuming that you must sacrifice one to attain the other is the height of foolishness.