Happiness is an Uncertainty or The Futility of Mandating Positivity

Happiness is not a deterministic state.

Finding happiness is like finding the position of a particle in a wave function.

One cannot guarantee joy nor can it be sustained indefinitely. It is uniquely individual and temporally variable.

However, sadness and other generally negative conditions can be prescribed almost universally with a predictable outcome.

To many readers this may seem like a simplistic observation, but I believe that few truly consider the significance that happiness and sadness are not polar opposites like two sides of a coin. The perception of one is not mutually exclusive to the other. But in our minds and cultures the two are often conflated to be a simplistic dichotomy.

Perhaps this description will be more … palatable:

More directly to the point, happiness and sadness do not have Newtonian equal or opposite reactions. For example, if one were denied all food for an extended period, that will with high likelihood make them unhappy. Therefore, access to food should result in joy. But what if it is bland or uninteresting? In such cases relief of hunger does not by necessity equate happiness.

During the United States civil war, a popular parody song among soldiers was known as “Hardtack, Come Again No More!” This song echoed the common opinion that the simple cracker ration the soldiers were given was only desirable as an alternative to death by starvation.

The tolerance of bland food has been a philosophical concern spanning thousands of years. “Can that which has no flavor be eaten without salt? Or is there any taste in the white of an egg?” [Job 6:6]

So what about truly delicious food? Imagine a dish that is a favorite go to. Yet for certain there is someone who does not enjoy that dish for whatever reason. Or remember that time it was prepared poorly or you were just not in the mood for it? Can one confidently state that any food always has and forever will guarantee happiness for anyone?

But there is certainly food you will refuse to eat unless it is a life or death situation.

In quantum mechanics, the absolute position of a particle cannot be known unless measured.

Therefore, the best you can do to determine an experimental outcome is to foster an environment that maximizes the probability of the desired state.

This is like happiness, where a favorite meal, the latest gadget, a specific income level, or the significant other of your dreams does not guarantee a specific emotional state. It is the old derided “Money can’t buy happiness” adage.

Although quantum mechanics is often concerned with where a particle is, we are much more certain where a particle isn’t.

Many variables including velocity or previously known trajectory narrows the probability of where a particle is to a near universe of where it certainly is not. Or we can even impede the motion of some particles with other objects or Faraday cages.

Therefore, even though nothing listed previously is guaranteed to provide happiness, if the qualities or quantities of them are decidedly inadequate it is almost assured that one will be unhappy.

Hundreds of years before quantum mechanics, this same realization was made by the authors of the American Declaration of Independence.

It famously states the belief that every person has, “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” To break these down further:

Life is a measurable Boolean state understood by even the simplest of animals. There is little genuine disagreement on what this state is. The authors of the Declaration were more concerned that no one has the right to end or claim ownership of your life without your consent. Regardless of how fine the hair is split, categorically the choices and statuses can be defined as binary absolutes.

Liberty is difficult to define in absolute terms and is more classically relativistic. Whether judged in qualities or quantities, it is typically a comparison between different individuals or populations. A simplistic definition of liberty is the enforceable limit to the breadth of one’s acceptable behaviors. What factors impact individual liberty will be debated ad infinitum, but a majority consensus of what will provide relatively more or less of it at any point in time is definable.

Happiness is a truly indeterminate state unique to each individual. No two people have precisely the same parameters for joy or success, and no specific pursuit is universally applicable. The authors recognized the importance of this personal condition and included the “Pursuit of” it as equal to life and liberty.

The authors understood that ensuring or mandating “happiness” can’t be done, but it is the duty of the government to allow its citizens to strive to attain it as far as is reasonable. That is why it is important for rules and regulations to be curated to that standard, maintaining only the most relevant provisions while minimizing impedance to one’s pursuits under those laws.

Although this article does not further any of these discussions philosophically, I’ve found this comparison to mathematical definitions to be a relevant exercise and important illustration in dispelling the myth of ensured happiness for myself.

In summary:

  • No quantity, quality, environment, law, requirement, or any other objective measure can guarantee happiness. In fact, any such claims are by definition unachievable and should be considered suspect.
  • Not everyone will achieve “happiness”, and, like a quantum eigenstate, it is temporary. Once observed it continues on to a new indeterminate location. Success of the “pursuit” is not assured or can be made permanent by anyone or anything ever.
  • One can only encourage a positive outcome by fostering an enabling environment. Excessive restrictions and overbearing requirements impede the “pursuit”, but the absence of any support or guidance minimizes the odds of finding happiness as well.

My takeaways:

It is easy to be sad and angry as it is found anywhere that happiness is the least probable outcome. Resist being content with this joyless certainty. And although happiness cannot be determined by force, it is only through our efforts as individuals and societies to enable our pursuits that we can allow that state to be observed.

I hope you have found these parallels between physics and psychology interesting. If this has inspired you in any way, leaving a comment will encourage for me a positive eigenstate.