A key part of happiness is understanding the role and nature of problem-solving in life.

We are always solving problems. A problem can be defined as a conflict between ideas. The process of solving it requires the creation (and testing) of new ideas. Here are examples of problems:

  • how do I relieve this back pain?
  • how do we enable knowledge workers to collaborate more effectively?
  • how do we reduce poverty?
  • how do we resolve the incompatibility between quantum physics and general relativity?
  • how do we build general intelligence?
  • how does consciousness arise from matter?

All of these problems arise from the following: (1) a pre-existing collection of ideas, pertaining to the world, ourselves, and our desires; (2) a conflict between two or more of those ideas. The pre-existing ideas can take all kinds of forms, e.g. scientific theories, moral claims, subjective experiences.

Progress occurs when a new idea is created that resolves the existing conflict. That new idea will generally replace the pre-existing ideas that conflicted with each other.

Of course, the new idea will give rise to yet more conflicts with other ideas, constituting new problems. But we think of these as better problems, because they entail knowledge about previously solved problems. The problem of “how to create buildings taller than 100 feet” has been solved; the better problem of “how to create buildings taller than 10,000 feet” entails knowledge about the previous problem.

Humans are happy when they are making creative progress towards solving their problems. They are happy when they’re given the freedom and resources to work on the problems they’re most interested in, and when they have the tools needed to make progress (e.g. a healthy brain, a safe environment, sustenance).

A few common mistakes, and the ways they manifest:

  • Imagining that you will reach a state in which you no longer have problems. This never happens, causing misguided expectations. (frustration, anxiety)
  • Working on problems that are not interesting to you. (boredom, frustration)
  • Fixating on specific problems as “needing to be solved” before getting to any other problems (e.g. “first I need to get my degree and then I’ll do what I want”). (boredom, frustration)
  • Identifying a problem (consciously or subconsciously) but not making any attempt to solve it. Relatedly, believing you cannot solve your problems. (anxiety, depression)

Sometimes, the best solution to a problem is to reframe the context so as to no longer consider it a problem (often via mindfulness). This in itself is a kind of solution, because you’re creating new ideas about what you want and expect. Along the same lines, one can train oneself at facing problems with curiosity, equanimity, and poise. One can also get better at identifying the problems they’re interested in, and not wasting attention and energy on problems they don’t want to solve.

We’re supposed to be happily working on our problems, not suffering through one problem after another. This isn’t to say we should never experience suffering, just that we should be able to say, “I am glad to be working on this problem.” We should feel like our life and our endeavors are worthwhile. We are not consigned to miserably pushing a boulder up the same hill again and again.