Antifragile Happiness and the Three Little Pig Problem
How fragile is your happiness?
Is your happiness “antifragile”?
Or is your happiness “fragile”?
Do you think your current state of happiness – whatever that might look like – will grow stronger as it goes through life, or will it crumble?
These might be hard questions for any of us to answer. But it would especially be a good one, most likely, for young folks to noodle on. Why? Because they’re often making major life decisions that could potentially build, one step at a time, toward a happiness that’s either more ultra-crumbly or Rock of Gibraltar-esque.
But speaking of what your happiness might look like, let’s ask this a little differently.
Let’s imagine that our happiness could take on the form of a cute Little Pig.
There it is, oinking happily away, grinning in the slop.
Could it withstand the Big Bad Wolves of life?
(We probably don’t need a recap of the story of The Three Little Pigs, and how they each pig wanted his or her own pad, and so one built a house of straw, another built one of sticks, and the other of bricks, and then the Big Bad Wolf came around and blew the straw house down, then blew the house of sticks down, then tried to blow the brick house down, but couldn’t, and so all three pigs decide to just crash there, safely inside, and lived happily ever after. So we won’t.)
So we can ask this yet another way: is your happiness based on straw? Or sticks? Or bricks?
All this raises questions – or really, a question – that can’t be answered with any depth within the scope of one small article. (Not this one, at least.) But even if we can at least make some progress – even articulate the problem somewhat clearly – well, that’s progress.
So let’s back up a few steps and start from the beginning.
Nassim Taleb coined the term “antifragile” around 2012.
He explored it in his book, aptly titled, AntiFragile: Things That Gain From Disorder. He defined “antifragile” like this:
"Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better."
As he notes in the first sentence, “wind extinguishes a candle and energizes fire.”
“You want to be the fire and wish for the wind.”
The idea of the “antifragile,” up to this point, has largely been applied to things like risk analysis, stock markets, economies, engineering, computer science and so on.
But the idea here is this: let’s apply antifragility to human happiness.
Can we do that?
Taleb himself didn’t seem to have this in mind when he originated the idea. As he said, “The relation of fragility, convexity and sensitivity to disorder is thus mathematical and not derived from empirical data.” (Nature. 494 (7438): 430.)
But hopefully he wouldn’t mind us testing the idea a bit, and possibly stretching it beyond its original intent – dare we say, exposing it to a bit of randomness and disorder by applying it to new and uncharted realms. (And who knows? This might actually strengthen the idea, and widen its reach. Not to mention our own happiness. We’ve explored worse leads.)
After all, the concept is compelling: don’t we all want a kind of happiness that grows stronger through life’s trials, instead of being weakened or destroyed by them? Don’t we all want a happiness that’s a fire instead of a candle, that grows with the experience of life’s winds instead of being extinguished by them?
Does such a thing even exist?
Is there a certain breed of happiness – some hearty, perhaps rare and exotic strain – that can withstand the slings and arrows life can throw at it…and even grow stronger, because of it?
Well, this phenomenon does exist in the financial, engineering, biological world, as Taleb and others have demonstrated.
Is it so crazy to think that it might also exist in the psychological or existential realms as well?
Usually, of course, it’s exactly the opposite.
We typically start out young and naïve and assuming we’re immortal and invincible. (For evidence here, consult any two or three year-old.)
Then we grow up and experience a bit more of life.
And in the normal course of that, we get disillusioned. Our naiveté gets hammered out of us by life’s blows (assuming we actually get out and experience life, that is), and we often quite literally lose our illusions. And if we last long enough, we often wind up jaded.
Some folks, in fact, seem determined to speed through this entire process at maximum velocity, to sprint from naïve to jaded as quickly as possible.
But all this raises the question:
Is there a way to journey from naïve youth (Stage 1), through the disillusionment of life experiences (Stage 2), without getting merely and thoroughly jaded (Stage 3)?
(And to clarify: clinging desperately to State 1 (naïve youth) doesn’t count as a “solution.”)
Is there a way to somehow arrive at the seemingly paradoxical condition of being as wise as serpents (old and jaded) but innocent as doves (young and naïve) at the same time?
Usually we wind up with either one or the other, but not both. They typically seem to cancel each other out. But is there actually some little-known, mysterious path we can walk that achieves both?
This would require one of the most compelling aspects of the antifragile idea.
Something that’s antifragile doesn’t merely survive trials. (That’s “resilience.”)
It gets stronger, because of them.
So to clarify what we’re after here: we aren’t after a kind of happiness that merely survives the tests of life, but gets stronger through the (often brutal) trials and challenges it serves up.
In this sense, the “brick house” of the Three Pigs isn’t a perfect metaphor. If that house was truly antifragile, it wouldn’t merely withstand the hot breath of the Big Bad Wolf. It would adapt and re-fortify. When the wolf huffed and puffed and so on, it would transform from a nice brick house into Fort Knox.
But pigs and bricks aside: how might this actually, practically apply in the real world?
Let’s take a hard look at how happiness seems to work.
Happiness is based on something.
Let’s imagine a rich guy whose happiness is based on his wealth.
Or, let’s imagine a celebrity whose happiness is based on his or her fame.
Or a beauty queen or jock whose happiness is based on his or her physical qualities.
Or a socialite whose happiness is based on status, or being liked by others.
Or a social media junkie whose happiness is based on Likes or followers or reTweets or whatever.
Or, mentioned earlier, a young person whose happiness is based largely on youth and naiveté about life.
These are all caricatures, of course, but they’re helping us illustrate a point.
In all of these cases, that happiness is based on something fragile.
Wealth can be lost.
In such a case, if someone bases their happiness on wealth, and they lose that wealth, then they lose their happiness as well. If A = B and B = C, then A = C. We’ve all probably heard stories of folks who commit suicide after a stock market crash.
This applies in the rest of these examples as well. And it can get brutal. To touch on just a few:
Fame is fleeting. Audiences are fickle. Bodies age. Social media followers and “likers” aren’t exactly famous for their “I’ll be there for you! Whenever you need me! No matter the cost!” loyalty. And basing your happiness on youth – the default setting of human nature – is a strategy with guaranteed fragility baked-in. Because (spoiler alert) time passes, youth fades, and most pleasures lose the thrill with enough repetition.
All of this translates not just into a loss of happiness, but an inevitable loss of happiness.
So if happiness is based on these kinds of things, its failure is guaranteed. The only question is when.
Which, of course, can be a depressing thought.
So where does this leave us?
Does this mean that the opposite – avoiding wealth, and fame, and status and so on – is the answer?
Simply avoiding wealth, fame, status, etc. doesn’t work either.
We aren’t championing asceticism here. (“Asceticism Champion” doesn’t seem to be a huge resume-booster.)
After all, from what we can tell, at least, all of these things can be totally fine, in the right circumstances, with the right attitude.
Having some money, as we can probably agree, generally speaking, is better than utter poverty. Being known by at least a few folks is generally better than being completely invisible to the rest of humanity. Being liked is generally better than being hated (assuming it’s for the right reasons.) And nothing wrong with being young. (We’ve all done it.) And so on.
Beyond there, it’s just a matter of where you draw the line. Meaning, the key doesn’t seem to lie in merely “having it” or “not having it.” As Buddha pointed out (as the “Middle Way), either set of conditions could work. They’re ultimately neutral.
The key seems to be whether you base your happiness on these things or not.
The trouble seems to happen when these pleasures become the main course instead of side dishes. They’re fine as side dishes. Terrible as the main course.
It seems to be only when we find ourselves with fame, wealth, status and so on as the basis for our happiness, that’s when we seem to be setting ourselves up for trouble. That’s when, in a way, we’re asking those things to do things they just weren’t built to do. When we seek the ultimate in the mundane, the infinite in the finite, the priceless in the realm of the merely valuable, then disappointment and disillusionment becomes a matter of time. We’re looking for love in all the wrong places. (Or, in this case, happiness.)
So, how do you base happiness on something that isn’t fragile?
What would antifragile happiness actually look like? Again, does such a thing even exist?
Well, at least one thing seems pretty clear: some things are more fragile than others.
If we really keep our eyes open and pay attention, we can start seeing fragile foundations-of-happiness pop out everywhere. And once they become visible, it becomes easy to predict the future. (Not necessarily a fun job.)
If someone is basing their happiness on a heroin habit, that’s a fragile foundation, and some sort of future isn’t all that hard to guess. If someone bases their happiness on a Ferrari, it’s only a matter of time before that Ferrari gets a scratch. If someone thinks becoming Scrooge McDuck-rich or Cleopatra famous is “IT,” well, we aren’t exactly sailing in uncharted waters there. It’s a fairly simple bit of research to hunt down folks who actually achieved that condition a few years ago, and see if that still seems to be The Answer To It All.
Life throws us challenges that tend to wreck things that are fragile.
We don’t need to list them all. They can range from a mild insult to a car crash, a bad hair day to an existential crisis, a mild traffic jam to the death of a loved one to our own death. There’s no shortage of winds we face with the potential to blow out, at least temporarily, our happiness.
Knowing this, we might naturally think that if we could just avoid the trials and struggles that wreck our happiness, then we could be happy. In other words, we might decide that yes, our happiness is fragile and is based on fragility, and we need to protect it. That approach seems entirely reasonable.
But what we’re after here is essentially the opposite of that.
What we’re after here is a happiness that faces, head-on, all of the trials and struggles that the world can throw at you, and endures through all of them.
And not only endures, but gets stronger.
We can look for cases where folks have endured what could seem like the worst life has to offer, and come out the other side.
There are stories of folks who have endured horrific circumstances, yet seemed to come out stronger.
To look at just a few: there are stories of those who were suddenly ripped away from their lives, thrown in prison, gulags or concentration camps, and forced to live under torturous conditions for months or even years on end, with death and injustice all around them. (Viktor Frankl, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Alexander Solzhenitsyn are famous cases that come to mind.) Yet each of them went on to live what seem to be profound and fruitful lives.
Were they “happy”? Of course, much of this depends on how we define “happiness” (something also beyond the scope of one article.) But one thing we can say is that this kind of happiness is no superficial, grinning-all-the-time, “don’t worry be happy” Pollyanna act. And whatever else it might be, it doesn’t lie in avoiding suffering. It’s something deeper down, that includes, faces, and even accepts suffering, as squarely and unflinchingly as possible, and is able to rise up, walk, and carry on with more strength in spite of it.
Or maybe even because of it.
That, it seems, would cut the mustard as being legitimately “antifragile.”
We still haven’t determined whether such a thing – essentially, unconditional happiness – definitely exists.
But there’s clearly something there. Even if there’s something that isn’t fully 100% unconditional, but 98% - or heck, even something that moves the bar from 20 to 25 - well, that’s still progress. A happiness that’s no longer based on heroin isn’t 100% antifragile, but it’s less fragile than it was before.
Which is worth looking into. And studying. And even working on.
But of course, we aren’t the first ones here to work on this problem.
And when we start really taking this investigation seriously, we start discovering others who have worked on, or are working on, the same basic set of questions.
Historically, it seems that most of these folks have generally been found working within a certain framework or category.
Meaning, all roads here seem to lead to some form of what we could describe as, for lack of better words, “legitimate spirituality.”
Which is to say, a form of spirituality that’s authentic, genuine, valid, real.
Obviously, this kind of thing has little to do with wearing robes and mumbling halfheartedly from hymnbooks and such. There’s plenty of muddle-headed nonsense that trumpets itself as spirituality and religion these days, and apparently, there always has been. And a great deal of that fails utterly in helping us solve the problem we’re confronting here.
Antifragile happiness, if such a thing exists (and there does seem to be something there, even if it’s barely a science, perhaps one that’s barely been born) – requires a key element of rigor and discernment. It seems to require more sanity than craziness, more clarity than confusion, more inquiry into unknowns than merely declaring imagined certainties. It isn’t based on wild speculations. It withstands thinking and questioning, and even encourages it. And even requires it.
It isn’t fragile.
The kind of happiness that can pass the kinds of tests we’ve put forward here has usually, through the course of history, has usually been touched on, for better and worse, by religions and spiritual movements throughout history. Of course, many of them seem to make a mess of it. But of course, they sometimes seem to hit on things that are truly valuable.
But this, of course, here we can look up and glimpse a panoramic expanse of a long and difficult path across rugged terrain that involves sorting through the landscape of spirituality – modern and historical – and separating the valuable from the phony, the bogus from the real.
Which, of course, might be a path very much worth embarking on.
But not in one short article here.
In the meantime: is there anything more…well, simple and practical that we could take up, here and now?
A simple rule of thumb might do the trick.
It’s something like this:
Avoid basing your happiness on anything fragile.
This is the “via negativa” route to happiness.
The “via positiva" route – finding and articulating some specific “thing” (idea, philosophy, system, etc) to base your happiness on – would be no small project. Worth exploring, no doubt. But not easy. That’s an expedition to an existential Everest.
But in the meantime, this might do.
Just avoid basing your happiness on something you know to be fragile.
Simply asking yourself “What is my happiness is based on?” might yield some good fruit.
And if you discover that it’s based on something highly fragile (heroin, alcohol, partying, and Twitter followers are examples that come to mind immediately), well, you can start figuring out how to base it instead on something less fragile.
We have options here. Yes, it’s incredibly easy to lose perspective, especially with all the madness and mayhem these days, and ascribe ultimate importance to things that truly don’t matter.
But if that happens, we can correct it. Which means working, deliberately, to remember the Big Picture, and avoid things that make us forget about what really matters in life.
And if you can’t seem to find anything that isn’t fragile, well, maybe that’s a good frame of mind to truly and fully appreciate the fragile, beautiful, temporary moment that’s right here, right now.
And maybe that’s also a good way to, at the same time, embark on a search to find something that isn’t fragile.
Some kind of existential brick house for those cute little pigs, so to speak.
Maybe that’s enough for now.
All this can obviously be explored a great deal further. And probably should be.
And we intend to.
So, let's build with bricks!
And let's keep those cute little pigs safe and happy.
And stay tuned.
If you enjoyed this, consider supporting LiveReal by joining for less than $8/month.
To learn more about the antifragile, read Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder by Nassim Taleb.