During the course of my life I had, mainly, 3 theories of happiness.
Theory #1 was the theory created in the industrial revolution that a good life entails the following: go to school, get good grades, go to college, get a good job, find a good partner, work for 40 years, save as much money as you can and live rich when you retire.
This theory never made much sense to me, particularly because society (parents, friends, teachers, television, movies, etc) gave terrible advise in regards to love, on how to choose a professional career, focuses on grades instead of learning and postpones a rich life to when there is not much life left. This theory recommends a life of hardship.
A better theory was needed.
I noticed how everyone was so keen on weekends, vacations and doing nothing. I started asking people what they would do if they had all the money in the world. The usual answer was “I would never work another day in my life. I’d spend my days at the beach, drinking”. Being a teenager and having had plenty of free time I never understood the appeal of lying in the sun drinking alcohol. But a better theory was needed and I wasn’t shy about testing my theories out.
Theory #2 was that a good life was a life lived in pleasure.
I endeavoured to test this theory out for myself. For me, pleasure was not beaches or alcohol, but rather games, series, sleeping, eating and pooping. So I played games, I watched series, I ate and I pooped.
Classic mistake. Did not work. I was miserable. A better theory was needed.
I realized common sense was pretty bad. Most people give terrible advise. Then I realized why: they where all living in dogma, living a life according to parents, friends and teachers, without ever stopping to test those theories out for themselves. So they both wrong in living such a life and in understanding what a good life was. “Doing nothing” wasn’t happiness, merely the alleviation of the suffering of work.
I then realized common sense wouldn’t get me there and started looking for other sources of knowledge. I soon realized no one knew the answer to happiness – it’s still an unanswered question. But that’s ok, that’s how knowledge works: we make a guess at how something works and then use experience to test it out. Discovering what does not work is useful knowledge as well.
Eventually, with the accumulated knowledge of the self-help books, I formulated another theory of happiness.
Theory #3 was that happiness comes from progress.
Progress is essentially problem-solving. What is a problem? A problem is a conflict between ideas, including emotions, desires and mental states. There’s a whole theory of progress that is very closely related to the theory of knowledge.
There is an objective difference between chronically failing to solve a problem and solving it, between right and wrong, between ugly and beautiful, between stagnation and progress in the fullest sense.
The enlightenment was a very important time in human history because it was where a special kind of knowledge was created: the knowledge about how to create further knowledge, i.e. the scientific method.
Human history was a long period of a complete failure to make progress. Our species has lived for maybe 50.000 years, maybe 100.000 to 200.000 years. All this time people where wanting to make progress, to solve problems, to live better, happier lives. But progress was so slow that geologists can’t distinguish artifacts from one era to another with a resolution of 10.000 years. So from the point of view of a human lifetime, nothing ever changed.
Since the enlightenment humans are now able to create further unlimited knowledge using the scientific method.
The key principle of progress – and according to my theory, of happiness – is the following: Any problem whose solution is not prohibited by the laws of physics is solvable with right knowledge. Another way to put it is that problems are soluble.
So theory of happiness #3 not only provides us with a framework to make progress, it also informs an optimistic worldview, i.e. that progress is both desirable and obtainable.