When I think about the things that make me happy, it seems that there are two basic categories. There's surface happiness, which comes from things like watching a TV show or eating a good meal, and deep happiness, which comes from things like building a water fountain or writing a program.

The surface happiness comes from things that are pleasurable or exciting or novel. These things tend to be something I'm consuming. The happiness tends to last a short time. I need a constant stream of these to keep me happy. I've noticed that I can suffer withdrawal/crash symptoms if I have a lot of these and then I suddenly don't. For example, one weekend I went to Calistoga with my wife and coworkers. It was lots of fun. But when I got back home I was depressed, and I wouldn't have been if I had never gone on that trip.

The deep happiness comes from things that took effort. These things tend to be something I'm producing. Actively creating something takes longer but the happiness lasts longer too. I don't need as many of these to keep me happy, and the entire process of creation makes me happy, not only the end result. For example, a few years ago I wanted a small water fountain for the backyard. My mom bought me a fountain and I set it up. It was fun for a short time. But it didn't make me happy. I decided to read about fountain pumps, water filtering, etc., and then bought some parts myself and built my own fountain. That made me much happier, even though the end result was pretty similar. The process matters.

The difference between my two types of happiness can be labeled passive vs. active, but I think there's more to it than that. Although actively producing generally leads to deeper happiness than passively consuming, I think the real difference is in meaningful decision making. When I play Diablo, I'm pretty active, but most of that activity doesn't involve meaningful decisions. The "hack and slash" part of the game is pretty mindless; only the strategy for character development involves decisions that matter. When I play Civilization, my decisions matter much more. When I'm finished playing Diablo, I certainly had fun, but when I'm finished with Civilization, I feel a sense of accomplishment. Both take effort and require activity but one makes me happier than the other.

Another thing that seems to make a difference for me is when I use something in a way it wasn't intended to be used. With the fountain, I used saran wrap, which is not a normal building material for fountains. When I use something for what it was designed for, it feels like someone else has made the decision, whereas when I use it for something else, I'm the one who made the decision of how it will be used.

I do need both types of happiness, just as I need both fast and slow muscle, but for me, producing things yields much better, much longer lasting happiness than consuming things.


Ravi wrote at Thursday, September 29, 2005 at 2:06:00 AM PDT

Very nice piece of writing. I wonder if you read Geoge Leonard's "Mastery" ? There are a few congruent thoughts in there though the thrust of the book is slightly different.

this is something I have been trying to articulate for sometime. Awesome.

Ravi wrote at Thursday, September 29, 2005 at 5:33:00 AM PDT

Would you mind adding an rss feed. Maybe you have one and i douln't find it. I would love to read your blog in my blog reader.Thanks!

Amit wrote at Thursday, September 29, 2005 at 9:48:00 AM PDT

Hi Ravi,

I haven't read "Mastery".

There is an autodiscovery Atom feed; Bloglines is able to find it, but Firefox is not. I don't know how many feedreaders can use autodiscovery. You can subscribe to http://amitp.blogspot.com/atom.xml

Adnan wrote at Sunday, March 5, 2017 at 8:15:00 AM PST

Excellent article sir. Could u please enumerate some activities and passivities? I mean something from our daily lives...