Taking Happiness En Passant

by Luke Muehlhauser on November 20, 2010 in How-To,Quotes

Those familiar with chess will probably enjoy this quote from John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography:

Those only are happy… who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of man-kind… Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way. The enjoyments of life… are sufficient to make it a pleasant thing, when they are taken en passant, without being made a principal object.

It is a lovely image. Moreover, I think the last 40 years of happiness research defends Mill on this point rather firmly. So does the anecdotal evidence of my own life.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

matth November 21, 2010 at 11:39 am

Great quote. Hard to disagree with that. Always like it when chess is mentioned somewhere unexpected as well. I am not an avid chess puzzle creator, but a long time back, on a whim I created several puzzles. Strangely enough the one that brought me the most joy in its creation was actually one that involves an en passant capture. Here it is if anyone is interested in solving a quick mate in 2. (its of about moderate difficulty)



TaiChi November 21, 2010 at 8:46 pm



Sabio Lantz November 22, 2010 at 5:53 am

I’d love a briefly annotated list of research articles supporting this.
My intuition is that this is absolutely true. In fact, the following confirmatory phrase came to my mind yesterday:

“As self dissolves, God appears”
– on of Sabios many inner voices

Translation for atheists (myself being one):
“As one stops clamoring for happiness focused on one’s fears and greed, a deep happiness has room to grow.”
It is in this way that theists and atheists can feel the same, act the same, but use different language. We need to try and see if we share deep intuitions rather than merely fighting about language.

Speaking of Chess: WeiQi, a strategy game more complex than Chess, has pieces and empty spaces. Chess focuses on the pieces but focusing on empty space wins the game in WeiQi. Being tricked to just see only your own pieces is a nasty habit of mind.


xm November 23, 2010 at 4:13 pm

As an overall life strategy, you’re probably right, but I suspect there’s some truth to both the ‘happiness by the way’ as well as the ‘intentional cultivation of happiness’ approaches. I’m curious where you get your “40 years of happiness research.” Off the top of my head, thinking of prominent scientists who are studying happiness/well-being, I can think of one who explicitly endorses the ‘by the way’ approach — Todd Kashdan (one of my favorites) — and a whole bunch who seem to endorse the intentional cultivation of happiness — Martin Seligman, Sonja Lyubomirsky, Barbara Fredrickson, Robert Biswas-Diener, Micheal Frisch….


Lenoxuss November 24, 2010 at 10:58 am

I wonder whether the surest way to unhappiness is to deliberately strive for it…

In seriousness, it does seem that “trying” to be happy will work if one understands what truly makes one happy — not just what the surrounding culture thinks you should like.

I don’t get the sense that people are unhappy because they made happiness a priority, but because they made something-they-don’t-really-want a priority. (Or because reality made it one, by giving you a sick child or something.)


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