Via Negativa – The (un) Happiness Hack

April 10, 2016

by Ravi Raman

What makes you happy?

Like many things, you know when you have found happiness but it takes some trial and error. Pin-pointing happiness is like trying to describe what honey tastes like; it’s tricky.

It’s also like buying the perfect pair of pants.

I am currently in the market for a new pair of pants. I don’t have a firm idea of what to get. However, I know that I don’t want jeans. I know that I don’t want cargo-pants. I know that I don’t want sweatpants. I know that I don’t want khakis. I still haven’t found the ideal pair of pants yet, but knowing what I don’t want has helped to narrow down the search. I think my trip to REI tomorrow will be fruitful! I’ll know what the perfect pair of pants are when I see them.

Back to happiness…

What makes you happy?

It’s a tricky question and one that I find impossible to answer with any sort of precision. There are lots of things that create happiness, sometimes, but not always. Ice cream. Taking Duke (my dog) for a walk. Running (slowly) on trails. Coffee. House of Cards. They all spark joy at times. Other times they don’t. Therefore, I enjoy those things but don’t consider them consistent sources of happiness (though spending time with Duke is almost always the one exception).

It’s easier for me to identify the few things that make me consistently unhappy, and by eradicating those things from my daily, bring about happiness in a reductionist sort of way.

For example, eliminating the following from my life brings me joy – guaranteed:

  • Obnoxious people
  • Long commutes
  • Pollution
  • Expensive restaurants with small portions
  • Smoke
  • Weekly status meetings
  • Unnecessarily fast group social runs
  • Alarms
  • Dinner meetings
  • Mandated work travel
  • Business casual clothing
  • Inferior technology (that I’m compelled to use)
  • Arguments
  • Treadmills
  • Coors Beer (I live next to their factory in Colorado 🙂
  • 9–5 (or 8–6 or 6–8) regimented daily working hours
  • Working on Fridays
  • Skipping breakfast
  • Worrying about deadlines
  • Waiting (hoping, wishing…) for Boss’s approval

I could keep going but I will stop so as not to bore you 🙂 .

It’s pretty obvious that my life is happier without certain things. I don’t know what specific additions will create the perfect state of happiness in my life, but I do know without a doubt that subtracting some things will absolutely improve my state of affairs.

It’s addition by subtraction.

This phenomenon was first introduced to me in my study of Vedanta, which forms the underpinnings of Hindu theology. In Vedanta, “God” is referred to as “Brahman” which can be best summarized as the all-pervasive and all-knowing “stuff” that comprises this world and other forms of reality that we cannot comprehend with our human mind.

In Vedic teaching, Brahman is often described using negative theology, where it is illustrated as “neti-neti”, or “neither this, or that.” This approach uses a process of negating any comparison to entice students to contemplate the real meaning in a deeper manner than a limited language-based definition could ascertain.

Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism and Islam all use forms of negation in certain cases to illustrate the divine in an oblique manner. Apparently this teaching has a deep root in Ancient Greek Apophatic teaching from thousands of years ago. Instead of saying what the divine is, it is illuminated by describing what it is not.

This makes sense. After all, how can our modern language, fraught with limitations, possibly grasp and render a valid description for the infinite?

More recently, Nassim Taleb featured a chapter in “Antifragile” on the concept of “via negativa” (Latin for negative way, or by way of denial) to illustrate how the concept can apply to living a happier life. I recently read the book. Taleb’s discussion of via negativa was so intriguing that I read this chapter twice! It also motivated me to type up my thoughts in this blog post.

In Antifragility, Taleb notes:

“In practice it is the negative that’s used by the pros, those selected by evolution: chess grandmasters usually win by not losing; people become rich by not going bust (particularly when others do); religions are mostly about interdicts; the learning of life is about what to avoid. You reduce most of your personal risks of accident thanks to a small number of measures.” – Nassim Taleb

Via Negativa can be boiled down to the practice of not doing obviously dumb things! If you can avoid doing things that are blatantly detrimental to your happiness (or health, or finances, or relationships, or all of the above) you will surreptitiously stumble upon greater levels of happiness as a result.

It’s applying the concept of negation that has been used to describe the unknowable, the Divine, as the ultimate self-improvement hack.

Charlie Munger, the legendary investor, and luminary side-kick to Warren Buffet is famous for stressing the value of via negativa (in different words of course):

“It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.” – Charlie Munger

Steve Jobs is also known for his subtractive thinking, that I referenced in my last post on How To Say No Gracefully:

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.” – Steve Jobs

Taleb also referenced the great sculpture Michelangelo’s use of via negative to create some of finest works of art we have ever witnessed:

“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it. I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”  – Michelangelo

What this means for you is that if you want to be happier, but aren’t sure what to do, don’t “do” anything!

Instead, use “via negative”, a subtractive way of thinking. Eliminate the few things you know are guaranteed not to bring happiness. Don’t worry about being the happiest person on the planet. Just get rid of the things dragging you down. Then watch your spirits soar!

Further reading 📚

How to make your work more joyful and less miserable today 

You know the feeling, sleeping walking your way from meeting to meeting. Getting lost in your phone instead of working on that document. Retyping your to-do's instead of actually doing them. The problem is rampant.  While this is clearly an issue for owners and...

Quitting Twitter and getting on with my life

I quit Twitter the other day. It has nothing (really!) to do with Elon and everything to do with how social technology seems designed to fracture, divide and capture attention at the cost of well-being and personal (and group) performance. Moderation was not working...

What I’ve learned this year (2022 edition)

John Dewey, an education reformer and philosopher, is well-known for his understanding that learning doesn't come from experience. It comes from reflecting on experience. Being December as I write this, there is a certain nostalgia in the air as the year comes to a...

It’s time to step off the time management treadmill from hell

There once lived a King in a faraway land. A tyrant who was ruthless though successful in the eyes of the world. Commerce flourished even if heads rolled under his heavy-handed reign. Whatever he wanted was had at any price. Eventually the King was challenged to a...

Bad news and the power of suspending judgment

Michael slipped on a patch of ice getting into a friends car and fell. A self-proclaimed "klutz," taking a tumble wasn't out of the ordinary. This time, embarrassment wasn't the problem. A lingering pain in his wrist meant something serious was going on. An MRI would...