TED Conversations

Nicholas Lukowiak


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"What is happiness?"

Some say "ignorance is bliss" others will say "knowing is the ultimate enjoyment."

What do you say?

To me, happiness seems to be an acceptable cognitive bias. We find little joys in the world (through aesthetics) and never really question why they are joyful or beautiful or appealing to us. But why do we never question what we enjoy or what makes us happy?

There seems to be a battle in our minds of 'knowledge vs happiness'

We will sacrifice happiness to know more, and we will sacrifice what we know for happiness... What does this say about us as a thinking thing?

How does one 'know' 'happiness'?
Are you happy with your already knowledge? Why or why not?


One day I was at a Burger King and waiting online to order. The person behind me (about my age - 22) was speaking very loudly and said "I'm just happy, that's all there is to it. I am in a great mood, because I am happy." Or something like that, and I turned around and asked "Or do you think you are happy?" He responded "Wow, that was deep" and laughed and we smiled at one another and nodded and I turned back around to order. As I waited for my food I turned around to look at the person and he was no longer smiling, he was in a deep state of thought and even let the person behind him cut him in line to order ahead of him. He was no longer smiling but had no emotions on his face. I can only blame myself for changing his state of mind, but all I did was encourage him to question his own happiness... Which made him no longer happy...

Once we question (seek knowledge of) our happiness, can we be just as happy after that line of questioning? Can we always be happy while we question our own happiness?

Let's discuss!

* I know I ask a lot of questions, feel free to answer them or comment in a general response!
I've also asked in the past: "What is love?" "What is evil?" And soon "What is respect?"


Closing Statement from Nicholas Lukowiak

I didn't get to respond to a few individuals and if those individuals want - they are more than welcomes to e-mail me to continue. Or anyone else.

So, a closing statement on "what is happiness?" seems humorous! As it should never have a final say, but maybe a simple conclusion.

As my original summary suggested I do think happiness is (at times) a sort of cognitive bias, but that does not suggest I think of happiness in any 'negative' manner. In fact I believe it is a leading factor that guides our general thinking as a spirit, soul and/or mind - as a human being.

From the conversation you will see that majorly happiness was regarded as 1. momentary, 2. involves an idea of enlightenment, and 3. an interpersonal experience. We also talked about happiness involving A. choices, B. self actualization via individuation, and C. social altruism.

My final thoughts: We should all practice hard-hedonism as individuals, philosophers, freethinkers, etc. What I mean by 'hard-hedonism' is that we should lead our lives by pleasure, but to never let pleasure go unquestioned. I think of happiness as something similar to the practice of 'faith' and if happiness is worth having, it can stand-up to the scrutiny of a serious investigation. Find what is joyful, aesthetic, and pleasing in life, absorb it, store it, but do not be greedy and keep it to yourself! If there is anything worth calling 'beautiful' and 'breath-taking' it is worth being shared.

Ultimately, I don't think there is happiness without sharing happiness with others - hence this conversation!
So find pleasure, understand why it pleases you, then share it! Better yet, give it away! Good things should given away at no cost besides the smiles we take on credit!

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    Apr 5 2014: i personally usually know why I'm happy? You don't?
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      Apr 8 2014: Well I do not know why - exactly - I am happy just because I am around other happy people. It involves a lot of chemistry and physiology I am unaware of... But I ask you now: if you do not know exactly why you are able to be happy and what makes you happy (biologically//neurologically), are you actually happy or just responding in a manner which appears to be happy (and able to be labeled as such)?

      This argumentative is loosely based on an emotivism (no ethics, just judgments); judgments do not function as statements of fact but rather as expressions of the speaker’s or writer’s feeling
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        Apr 8 2014: well, i'm usually happy if I'm not starving from lack of food, if I feel okay physically, if I'm successfully doing interesting, worthwhile activities. Those things don't make you happy, Nicholas? They don't seem that mysterious, pretty much anyone would be happy if those things were true, wouldn't they?

        Is this an argumentative, I thought it was a question?
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          Apr 8 2014: My question was a little contentious in phrasing, so yes, it was an argumentative statement - to be contrary to yours.

          My question still remains however: If you are not aware of the chemistry in which makes you happy, is that actually happiness or is it something we just able to label as happiness?
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        Apr 8 2014: well, it's hard for me to answer this, N. You're saying the burger king guy didn't know why he was happy, I find his syntax somewhat ambiguous, it's not crystal clear to me that if you had asked him why he was happy, he couldn't have suggested some reasons.

        By the way, you sure take a pleasant profile photo.
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          Apr 12 2014: No matter why he was happy, whatever the reason it was for him to declare happiness, after my simple statement of "or you think you are happy" it was apparent he was no longer in that state of happiness.

          I never asked him "why are you so happy" I merely state that simple statement. If the happiness was genuine, do you not think my statement would of only made him more-happy and not upset? At least, that is what I think.
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        Apr 13 2014: i'm not sure, Nicholas. Are you assuming that because he stopped smiling, he was no longer happy? It is true that sometimes you can be happy and all smiling and laughing, and then other times you can be happy in a mellower way where you're more reflective and sober? It is conceivable to me that he shifted from mode 1 to mode 2 after your comment? It is even possible that your comment had nothing to do with his change in expression?

        It is also possible that his happiness was based on something very superficial, and thus any question coming from anybody would have shaken him up. But that doesn't mean others couldn't have a larger, stronger happiness that they have questioned and that can withstand questioning. I do tend to think that if you are happy based on healthy, wholesome factors, you have a pretty good idea why you're happy and it's reasonable for you to feel happy. It's also important to remember that there are degrees of happiness, perhaps it's more common to be mildly happy than to be really exuberant.

        Would you say you are happy? Sometimes or most of the time? Do you have an idea why?
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          Apr 13 2014: Agreed, I assumed he was no longer 'happy' due to my statement and the passing of time. However, from what he was (happily outgoing) to what he became (silent and no facial emotions) we can at least determine his state of mind changed. And I can only further assume that my statement affected that state of mind by the change of expression and how he was expressing himself; at bare minimal he became less happy than what he was prior to my statement.

          It is possible my comment had no affect on him but that does not invalidate my conversation's inquiry: "Once we question (seek knowledge of) our happiness, can we be just as happy after that line of questioning? Can we always be happy while we question our own happiness?"

          I questioned him, he didn't question himself, but what if he did? Would he have been JUST as happy, how so? It could either amplify or decrease when one questions the knowledge of something - I cannot see how questioning one's happiness can keep it the same (it being the state of mind).

          I would say I can be happy if I chose to be (at any time), but I do not believe happiness is the most important state of mind to find position in - nondualism, transcendentalism, transhumanism, Buddhism, Daoism.... what these belief systems represent are the state of mind I would definitely rather always be in than 'happy' because then I can know for sure I am less likely to be biased. Which I can also not find argument against - that happiness is not a cognitive bias of sorts (found in confirmation, group-thought, optimism and anthropic principles).

          Why I would be happy is for no-reason, why I should be happy but am not could be for every-reason. It depends, there is no constant. I do not question what will make me happy, I only question what will make me a better human being than I was yesterday - which does not necessarily make me happier in the moments, but imagine a life long contention from such.
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        Apr 17 2014: I do not understand this statement: "Which I can also not find argument against - that happiness is not a cognitive bias of sorts (found in confirmation, group-thought, optimism and anthropic principles)."

        I also don't understand this one: "Why I would be happy is for no-reason, why I should be happy but am not could be for every-reason. It depends, there is no constant. I do not question what will make me happy, I only question what will make me a better human being than I was yesterday - which does not necessarily make me happier in the moments, but imagine a life long contention from such." Can you explain? Also, did you mean the word "contention" in the last sentence?
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          Apr 17 2014: Sorry sometimes I write so quick I am not totally there. It's funny though how content and contention mean totally different things in English, I thought the context would explain: being actively content (contention).

          I have found a lot of scholars discuss happiness in terms of 'altruism' and 'optimism'. Cognitive biases effect/distort our ability to form ideas of the future and our current decision making. Optimism, trying to find the brighter side of things, can also do that; we attempt to make decisions based on what is more pleasant. Also we make choices on what is (not necessarily altruistic) socially altruistic. We will give up, sacrifice, and even surrender freedoms to the groups we identify with and want social-acceptance within (think about fundamentally religious people, or cult followers).

          So between 'helping the ourselves within the pack' and 'looking at the bright side of life' we are also designed to seek self awareness.... But, often the other two prevent that. This is what I have came to discover.

          Now in my search to ask "well is happiness a type of cognitive bias?" No one has really said no. While it is a ;guiding force in our lives' no one understands exactly how so... But, to investigate the matter under pretense it is actually a 'bias' and not a 'guiding force' let's us be more skeptical to the research and develop new ideas about what emotions do to our ability to process information (practically, logically and/or critically). Emotional intelligence theory suffers from these type of questions "are emotions a strain or cushion or neither towards our developing psyche?"

          I choose my own happiness - I practice Zazen and read about theology, religion and philosophy. What brings me my individual joy is learning how others think and what they can possibly believe in. I could be happy for no-reason at times, but at others, I need every-reason to pull me out of a sad state of mind.

          I can come and go to the happiness from the sadness..
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        Apr 17 2014: do you think a person could be at least somewhat happy while recognizing that there are horrible things in the world?
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          Apr 17 2014: I think most do just fine with that already lol.

          Most of the young adults I interact with may discuss the state of the world as being in a constant crisis, but they still stress about becoming an independent - monetarily.

          It has come to the point, for most, where they assume 1. the next generation will be better, 2. it can only get better and/or 3. I'll try to do my part, later.

          Same old issues. It's just a matter of privileges and the education to how and why to aid strangers. In my demographic, people are more often suspicious of others. No trust for the person who has never been met before, and no interest in randomly finding ways to trust them.

          It's not necessarily inhumane to treat others and view the world this way, but it only keeps social-cultural trends indoctrinated for generations before change can be seen by history.

          Take the country-sized piece of plastic in the ocean - our radiation problems in the Pacific Ocean - revolutions in S. America, W. Europe - yet, most of the people I know just worry about becoming a teacher, or just wondering what they should do with their lives.

          I think a lot of issues can be resolved (for individual Americans) is when they realize a simple thought: our government and system has been designed to take jobs away from Americans, we as young Americans should take our B.A degrees (and their debts from them) to other countries that are in need of those skills.

          Do not want to forever leave your family? Ever heard the phrase: 'you need experience to get experience' in response to the job market? Well, that may be the real cost to 1. help the world and settle that inner need to help, 2. learn about the world, and. 3. gain real experience to better yourself for where ever you end up.

          I do think people can be happy, I just don't think they will be happy, without making a life involved with helping others. And not just their families and friends, but with anyone they come across, and by seeking/keeping their options open.
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        Apr 19 2014: well, if people find happiness despite being aware of horrible things in the world, that suggests to me they have thought critically about happiness and still been able to find it.

        It seems worth saying that we can appreciate someone who does a job that contributes to society whether they do it to help others or not. For example, a farmer may only raise food to make money to pay his own bills. But still, the food he raises is something we all need.

        Sometimes people can help others for the profit motive. For example, a farmer who decides to shift to organic food-raising may only do it because he can make more money, yet he is contributing to positive change.

        It seems to me many people have a helpful spirit but maybe don't have the skills or motivation to put so much real help out in the world. You do have to have, or acquire, skills to help on any issue, and you have to be motivated, some people are more going to be leaders on any issue, and some people are more going to be followers.
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          Apr 22 2014: I do not think 'critical thinking' is what prevents a consciously aware individual from not getting dismayed by the current state of the world - I think it's another irrational state of mind; the deluded assurance that things will get better, even without any evidence of such. (Making 'assumptions' more so advanced biases.)

          Like your farmer example: That person is trying to make a living (make wages and income), but, we [not that we necessarily overlook that fact] prize him for the fact he is farming. No deeper concerns for what he is growing, how he is growing, etc. We are content at the fact of 'he is a farmer' because we relate 'farming' with benefit.

          However, expanding such an example, there is a double-edge sword to being a farmer also: If they do not grow corn, for instance, they risk losing their farms due to lack of government aid. AND when they do grow corn, their other crops suffer. Again we are supporting the farmer, but not necessarily supporting his choices of crops (which he had none).

          There are always dimensions of reality which we do not consider, but if considered would change our perspectives and grant a newer (perhaps higher) awareness. And whatever one may call this process (metacognition or enlightenment) it does not seem to be pleasant when pushed 'beyond a certain line or limit.' As if we are programed to limit our desire to investigate the truth when it becomes clear "the more you know, the more you don't know and you get depressed'. It seems to me, at least.

          I think we are naturally social creatures with the drives to be altruistic and become happy from that. However, our systems do not align with that. Religions and politics prevent humans from being human by means of 'capping our knowledge' and not allowing us to be creatively independent, which would result in politics and religions anyways, but ones where they are designed to help people be people and not fill in the gaps of society with their lives...
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        Apr 22 2014: so what is the line one would hit that would make it impossible to be happy? For example, should I be unhappy because there was once a Holocaust that killed six million Jews that took place before I was born?

        Our society is set up to force people to be altruistic whether they like it or not? Because even if you don't give to charity, you do pay taxes, and a lot of those taxes go to social programs that help people. But really, Nicholas, lots and lots of people have an orientation towards helping others already, where are you coming from, are you suggesting there is a high percentage of people who have no orientation toward helping others, what percentage do you think it is? What exactly do you consider helping others anyway, I never for example see a starving person who I could give food to, everyone I see on the streets of America looks reasonably well-fed, even the homeless people.
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          Apr 28 2014: I like to give time before I respond - but since the conversation is ending soon I will respond quicker (or feel free to e-mail me).

          Well you can do a few things Greg, you can create deluded thoughts: "Everything can only get better before they become worse" or "As long as you think positive, positive things will come."

          However, if you are like me and are in constant existential crisis (due to the actual state of the world) you find happiness in knowing people would be better if they were given the opportunity. So I stopped blaming humanity and others (cultures, religions and/or traditions), and I began to blame education systems and how we teach people. And it allows me to misdirect all the angst I would have for life and drive it towards learning how to better educate children (or anyone else). Another outlet is writing and social networks in order to get some thoughts shared.

          In short: Finding a series of procedures, methods and/or interest to benefit others in manners which make you a more well-rounded individual.

          Society (at least Euro-Americana) is not set up to be altruistic - we have designed economies and politics to be lead by capitalism, which is designed to let the winners keep winning (money makes more money). We have chances to develop financially, but the chances of a middle class citizen rising in class status is near impossible - the system is not meant for that to happen, hence 'middle class'.

          A true way to help?

          Start businesses in third world countries. Schools. Factories. Employ the people. Provide products they would not normally get in their areas (nutritionally). Be a social entrepreneur; a mentality where the money you make isn't necessarily 'not for profit' but for profits to allow more people to make profits.

          Your business in Peru or Ecuador won't make you "rich" by first world standards, but, you will be 'rich' by that countries standards. With more ability to help.

          Seeing the world as open-sourced is the key.
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        Apr 28 2014: well, Nicholas, I maintain that most people get some happiness out of life and it is already partly based on helping others. I mean, do you not think a lawyer helps other people? A doctor? A farmer? Do you not think you and I are helping each other by participating in this TED conversation? I don't see why it has to be third world people that we help.

        By the way, what is an "existential" crisis as opposed to just a crisis?

        In your intro, did you claim that our happiness comes from small aesthetic pleasures? Surely you can't think that's the only source of happiness? Happiness comes from a thousand substantial things, how you conduct yourself, who you meet, what you say to them, what you do for them, what they do for you. What is your bio, anyway? What do you fill your time with? I hope that is a source of substantial happiness to you?
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          Apr 28 2014: It must be a situation of 'speaking past one another'

          It's all relative of course and we are speaking in generalities. However, if I were to be a skeptic - no, all lawyers are not helping others unless they are paid. Doctors do not always help others who are high risk and low reward - "health insurance?". A farmer does not necessarily produce to 'help' others, but to provide services for others, they would not have otherwise. Same goes for doctor and lawyer. A job position does not denote their innate desire to help others. While I agree that is in our natural to be altruistic, i does not mean that is the measure of our culture as it exist today.

          Substantial happiness, at least what you made example of, is momentary happiness.

          Indeed I will be happy when I meet a like minded person, but does not mean they will create a platform for me to be happy for the rest of my life - that is up to me ultimately.

          Happiness is both an external and internal dilemma, both a momentary and lifelong concern. At which points and dimensions are we better off being happy than others? When is that happiness biased or misguided?

          These questions are the reason for my conversation. As a person, and what is my own personal happiness, would that not be further biased to add into a conversation about happiness? How can we fairly discuss emotion if we have emotions about the topic?

          I think the knowledge of happiness haphazardly (by being the opposite of sadness, created by fear in ignorance) is what causes some of the most destructive forces in humanity. Involving topics of religious fundamentalism and nationalism - via wars, crusades and politics.

          While I also think knowledge of happiness is what we should all struggle to question and find for ourselves to aid others to do the same.

          While we are naturally designed to be altruistic (social altruism) I argue we do not act on that nature as often as we should. Making a job-choice no more than any other choice we make.
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        Apr 29 2014: well, why does it have to be either/or, Nicholas? Why can't a doctor or lawyer be well-compensated financially and be partially motivated by making money, yet also feel good about and be dedicated to helping people?

        If you are happy in your career, how is that momentary happiness, you are happy 40 hours a week, for 30 or 40 years, why momentary?

        Yeah, the religion question you raise is interesting, I'm afraid at this moment I can't think what to say about it but feel pressure as the convo is slowly closing. I don't understand religion myself, in theory it is ridiculous and yet it seems to give genuine, practical benefit to people. Are you religious?

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