"... the 'pursuit of happiness' is not equivalent to the 'avoidance of unhappiness.'" -- Nassim Taleb, Antifragile.
I read this quote today, and I was struck by how simple this idea is, yet how easy it is to lose sight of it. Sometimes we act as though we believe that happiness will result once we can somehow eliminate every possible reason for unhappiness.
There are several problems with this. First, it isn't really possible to remove every possible justification for unhappiness, so the desire to do so sets up an impossible ideal that we can never meet. Second, the mere absence of unhappiness would only create a neutral state, not happiness. Finally, by observing happy people, we see that they did not eliminate every possible problem from their lives, rather they are happy even though there are still many imperfections in life. They just care more about the good things than the bad.
I'm reminded of an experience I had many years ago when I was wandering around in a small town in Costa Rica. I saw a man who was standing behind a little table where he was selling some crafts. He saw me walking by, and he struck up a conversation. He obviously really wanted to tell me something, but even though we both spoke English, at first we had a bit of trouble understanding each other's accents. He spoke with a strong Jamaican accent, and I have a west-coast U.S. accent. And I was also suspicious at first that he was trying to give me some sort of sales pitch so I would buy what he was selling, but actually that wasn't the point he was trying to make.
He pointed to the table, and pressed down on it, and the legs wobbled. He said, "You see how bad this table is?" (I thought: you're right, it looks like it is about to fall apart.) He said, "I could say, oh no, this is no good, I need a new table. But really, this is OK, a different table wouldn't change anything. It's a good day, we can be happy just like this."
That was over 15 years ago, but I still think about it. Would a better table change anything?