Friday, October 8, 2010

Happiness and the Anna Karenina Principle

Friday, October 8, 2010

Sixty-four pages to go and I’m done with Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1999), a book that sought to—and actually did--answer  questions like "why weren't Native Americans, Africans, and Aboriginal Australians the ones who decimated, subjugated, or exterminated Europeans and Asians?" and "why did wealth and power become distribute as they now are, rather than in some other way?" Among his controversial claims and interdisciplinary arguments, one of the things that struck me was his use of the famous first line of Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece, Anna Karenina:

“Happy families are all alike: every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

By that opening sentence, when viewed in the context of the entire story, Tolstoy probably meant that for a family to be happy, many different things need to work out, while only one of those things need to fail in order for a family to be unhappy. Diamond extended this idea beyond families and used it to explain why many seemingly suitable big wild animals species have never been domesticated: "to be domesticable, a candidate wild species must possess many different characteristics. Lack of any single required characteristic dooms efforts at domestication, just as it dooms efforts at building a happy marriage."

The Anna Karenina principle, according to Diamond, “can be extended to understanding much else about life besides marriage. We tend to seek easy, single-factor explanations of success. For most important things, though, success actually requires avoiding separate possible causes of failure.” Thus, any one factor can cause the failure of a marriage, a business, a relationship, a system, a country, anything; and if that thing does indeed work, then it intrinsically possesses all of those factors that made it work.

I wonder if the Anna Karenina principle can, as Diamond suggested, be extended to understanding personal happiness and contentment. If we are to follow the principle, for a person to be happy and content with his or her life, he or she must possess many different things, but if any single thing is lacking, all attempts at attaining happiness and contentment are bound to fail. It does sound right, or doesn’t it?

I still cannot understand why there are people who seem to have it all but remain unhappy and dissatisfied with their lives. Does it mean that something is lacking still? And if something is missing in one’s life, does that preclude any chance at happiness? There are those who have nothing and simply settle and make do with what they have yet are happy and content (although others see that as complacency or lack of ambition). What makes one happy doesn’t necessarily make another person happy.

What are the exact ingredients needed for contentment and happiness, anyway? Does anybody know?  


Arti said...

The idea of happiness differs from person to person, I feel. My idea of happiness might not be yours and vice versa...
A very good post with a lot to ponder on!!
Have a happy day:)

Arti said...

And yes congrats on completing three years...

Angeli said...

thanks, arti. :)

Amelia said...

for me, happiness is an inside job... and happiness is a choice! :)

Angeli said...

as said by the dalai lama:

“I believe that the very purpose of life is to be happy. From the very core of our being, we desire contentment. In my own limited experience I have found that the more we care for the happiness of others, the greater is our own sense of well-being. Cultivating a close, warmhearted feeling for others automatically puts the mind at ease. It helps remove whatever fears or insecurities we may have and gives us the strength to cope with any obstacles we encounter. It is the principal source of success in life. Since we are not solely material creatures, it is a mistake to place all our hopes for happiness on external development alone. The key is to develop inner peace.”

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