Eudaimonism: Happiness & Meaning
Editor | On 03, Apr 2018
In South Korea, very graciously, I’m known as the ‘Father Of Business TRIZ’. Sadly, I’ve never managed to get the TRIZ community in that country to get beyond the idea that ‘business TRIZ’ is all about a business version of the 40 Inventive Principles. The heart of the problem, I believe, is a reluctance to embrace the idea that the key difference between technical and business problems is that the former is largely about complicated situations and the latter is inevitably about ones that are inherently complex. The two, therefore, cannot be treated in the same way. Solve a contradiction in a technical environment and almost inevitably, you’ll find yourself heading in the direction of a more ideal solution. Solve one in a complex environment, and you may well not be. There’s almost no such thing as a simple solution in a complex environment, and as such, we shouldn’t expect that the Eureka-like deployment of and Inventive Principle is going to unlock a breakthrough success. Key word in that sentence: ‘almost’. Solving a complex problem with a single Principle provocation isn’t impossible, but it might just as well be if you haven’t spent some time making sure you understand the ‘first principles’ (Reference 1) from which the system behavior is emerging.
Last month, I wrote a blog article about a – some might say ‘the’ – high-level psychology-related contradiction between happiness and meaning (Reference 2). The contradiction was relative simple to draw on a 2×2 matrix as follows:
Here’s a problem that we might simply choose to examine as a ‘Positive Intangibles’ versus ‘Meaning problem on the new version of the Business Contradiction Matrix. It would very swiftly inform us that, sure enough, we’re not the first people to desire solutions to this conflict, and that the ranked list of Inventive Principle strategies used by those that had been successful before us were, respectively, 17, 3, 7 and 25.
So far so good. But now comes the real problem: to what do we apply these Principles? What other dimensions? Local quality relative to what homogeneity? Nesting what inside what? Unless I have a specific context I have little chance to make any kind of meaningful connection in any of these cases. And, worse, even if I do have a specific context – if I tried to apply these Principles to my own life, for example, I still can’t be confident I’m doing the right thing. The problem here is that unless I understand my own ‘first principles’ I may well find myself doing more harm than good when I start thinking about ‘Self Service’ (or any other Inventive Principle).
How, then, to get to this ‘first principle’ level?
What Reference 1 will tell me is that the ‘first principle’ story, as far as human psychology is concerned, starts with the ABC-M model. Autonomy, Belonging, Competence and Meaning all need to be present and heading in the ‘increasing’ direction. We might imply from this overall direction that ‘happiness is the state we attain when all four attributes are moving in the right direction. If this is the case, then ‘happiness’ and ‘meaning’ aren’t necessarily in conflict. The fact that they often are in conflict, perhaps better implies that it is the ABC attributes that better correspond to happiness: what makes us ‘happy’ is when we feel in control of a situation, feel like we belong to the right tribe and feel that we’re good at what we contribute to that tribe. None of which fundamentally implies that we achieve any of those things by adding meaning.
Look at the majority of popular self-help psychology books and they will point us to the pursuit of happiness as the topmost of all human goals and objectives. The Figure 1 Matrix, however, reveals the possibility that I can very easily find myself in a simultaneous state of both ‘happiness’ and meaningless. I simply do this by living a hedonistic lifestyle. The ‘happiness gurus’ in this sense have got things strikingly wrong. The pursuit of happiness – a fundamental human right according to the US declaration of independence – may cause me to become a rather shallow person. One suspects that anyone caught in this ‘pursuit of happiness’ and the aversion to negative experiences can actually find themselves locked in a perpetual oscillatory loop like this:
One suspects that this oscillating loop between hedonistic happiness and depression is one lived by many people in the affluent West. We’re told that buying a bigger, faster car will make us happy, so we save up our money and eventually reach the ecstasy of ordering one. Only to then find it didn’t make us happier at all, and now, worse, there’s no money in the bank account, and the car costs a fortune to run.
Breaking out of this loop, requires me to solve a contradiction. Very likely solving it necessitates the realization that I need to turn things around and forget about happiness. At least for a while. Stop drinking; stop spending 6 hours a night couch-potatoed in front of Netflix, get off my backside and go do something meaningful. In other words, I escape the (1) loop and find myself in a second, different, one:
In terms of the ‘ABC gets better’ first principle requirement, this second oscillation between nihilistic doubt (‘why am I here?’) and asceticism is usually about personal sacrifice for the greater good. It is the life of Siddhartha: giving everything away only to find that no matter what we personally offer to others there are many more of them than there are of us. The more I sacrifice, the more I realise how meaningless my sacrifice is in the broader context. Once I realise and solve this contradiction, I might, if I do it right, find myself now locked in a third type of loop:
When I forget about my personal happiness and recognize that no matter how much I sacrifice I can never make everyone else happy, I begin to resolve the big contradiction: how to be happy and live a meaningful life: I realise that, for a few moments once in a while, my meaningful acts for others bring personal happiness to me. When I’m happy, I’m in turn more able to help others. Loop 3, in other words, is all about recognizing that ‘happiness’ is not intended to be a permanent state. Happiness in hedonism terms is about being comfortable in your box; happiness in eudaimonism terms is about delivering ‘meaning’ by getting outside your box. Getting outside your comfort zone is often about recognizing your incompetence, but doing it anyway, learning from your mistakes and ultimately then taking control by attaining new competences.
Finally, then, comes the slippery-slope fourth loop:
This loop is all about ‘falling off the wagon’, taking our foot ‘off the pedal’ and generally goofing off from all the hard work. ‘I’ve done such a good job for the world today, that I deserve an evening off’. That kind of thing. Which is, of course, a totally legitimate thing to do. Living a state of permanent eudaimonism is hard work, and requires a lot of energy. A bit of R&R is something we all need. The slippery-slope challenge is when an evening off becomes two and then a day, and then a long-weekend.
The number (4) loop is how we can very easily find ourselves back at Loop (1). Which in effect means that we’re in danger of having to start the whole (1)-(2)-(3)-(4) journey all over again. Which may just be another contradiction, if it weren’t for the fact that knowing which loop and which quadrant of the picture we’re currently in are precisely the other ‘first principle’ pieces of understanding we need to know before we can start to use the Contradiction Matrix. ‘Local Quality’ when I find myself caught in Loop 2, nihilist mode means something very different to using the same Principle when I’m caught in one of the other loops.
Know where you are; know which oscillation you’re caught in; know that ABC-M are all supposed to be ‘getting better’, and now you can start expecting that an Inventive Principle might help you to achieve your next breakthrough. And that’s ‘simplicity through complexity’.
- ‘Eudaimonism & Philosopher’s At Sea’, blog article, darrellmann.com, 2 October 2017.
- Systematic Innovation E-Zine, ‘First Principles First’, Issue 184, July 2017.