• Ciaran Burks

On Happiness I: Un-Knowing

There are four types of knowledge, broadly speaking. There are things you know that you know – which I’ll refer to as the “known knowns”. I know why eating well is a great idea, how to ride a bike and that I’m a horrendous singer. When I take a shower my wife sticks knives in her ears to save herself. I don’t need to learn much about these things, they are largely solved mysteries, closed cases.

The second group of knowledge refers to the things I know that I don’t know – the “known unknowns”. I am aware that I don’t have the slightest grasp of quantum physics (or really any other type). I know that computer programming isn’t one of my fortes, or that I don’t get the appeal of supporting Liverpool FC. And that’s OK, these are my known unknowns, the things that I could learn about, but choose not to. If a situation arose when I needed to understand these things, I could make the effort and, at least partially, limit the damage of not knowing.

The third group of knowledge refers to the “unknown unknowns”. You simply don’t know what you don’t know and can’t rectify the situation because you don’t know what knowledge to seek. Nobody in ancient Athens – no not even any of those damn philosophers – was thinking “hm I really don’t get Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity. Oh, by the way, what the heck is an atom anyway?” The development of mankind is characterised by the movement from the unknown unknowns to the known unknowns. When we’re born, everything is unknown unknowns. As we age, our personal development is often driven by our desire to search for these pieces of knowledge and turn them into known unknowns. Then we can start to learn and develop our understanding of the world.

The fourth group of knowledge is well described by “black swan” events in the world. We will refer to these as the “unknown knowns”. These are the things that we think we know but are wrong about. The term “unknown knowns” is a bit silly, really, since we may as well call them unknowns, period. However, for the sake of having a model of knowledge that combines the words “unknown” and “known” in all 4 possible configurations, I am going to leave it as is. Black swan events illustrate this type of so-called knowledge. Before 1697, all swans were thought to be white by people in Europe. Every swan ever seen by a European up until that point had been white. Imagine the surprise of the Dutch explorers who sailed to Western Australia and saw the first black swan.

“Crikey!” they would certainly not have exclaimed, the word not yet being invented and modern Australians non-existent,

“What a beauty! But what did you put in my rum Willem? I mean, a black swan, are you sure it isn’t a confused chicken?”

I may have mistranslated the exact words that were exchanged between those explorers, but I’m sure it was something like that. In honour of that surprise, we now refer to events that seem impossible as “black swan” events. This type of knowledge is particularly dangerous because we don’t actively try to un-know what we already know. If you already know how to swim, you don’t break out your armbands and start over. If you think you know the truth, then you don’t try to update your beliefs in the face of new information.

Why have I delved into Epistemology here? Well, I have been wanting to watch the Sound of Music recently, and it occurred to me that Julie Andrews was right. The very beginning is a good place to start. When it comes to happiness, the very beginning happens to be a thousand lies which we believe about happiness. It’s not our fault, though, and I am not blaming you (or me) for having such a dreadful idea about what makes us happy. For one thing, our intuition seems to be wrong when it comes to happiness. I am not sure it matters why it is so woefully off the mark, but I assure you it is. When it comes to predicting what we think makes us happy, we miss the target worse than a drunken, blind, paraplegic lumberjack in an axe throwing contest. Quite simply, we suck at predicting what makes us happy. The trouble is, we never really examine these predictions because we assume, we already know what makes us happy. What we know about happiness is a lie, it falls into the category of knowledge I have dubbed the “unknown knowns”.

In the next post on happiness, I will delve into the research illustrating our poor predictive powers and practical ways of remedying this. The goal? To Un-know what we think we know and move towards happiness by relying on the Science of Happiness.

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© 2020 by Ciaran Burks