The other kind of happiness
Tokyo has ~14M people, making it the largest city on Earth. It has thousands of unique stores, like Ma-suya Azabu-Juban—a shop that only sells salt. A store like this couldn’t exist in an average city (like my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan) because the place wouldn’t get enough foot traffic to find customers interested in its niche. When a business in Tokyo has 40 million people within a short train ride, there’s a good chance a few thousand of them will be customers.
The Internet is like Tokyo. All users can walk by your storefront on the Internet—even if you’re only peddling collectible lawn gnomes, manual nose hair trimmers, or bespoke Lego bricks.
The “niche at scale” is a fundamental change for 21st-century business: A shift from the general to the specific. Opportunity abounds for niche creation and dominance—everyone can be the best in the world in their narrow domain.
To impress Empress Catherine II during her journey to Crimea in 1787, Grigory Potemkin supposedly built fake, portable villages along her route. His people would disassemble the structures after she passed and re-assemble them farther along her path, making his village appear larger than it was.
A “Potemkin village” is a vanity display to make something look better than it is. Vanity villages can come in many forms—impressive logos to compensate for unimpressive products, vanity metrics that make a project look good but ultimately mean nothing, fancy watches to make you look wealthy when you’re drowning in debt.
I’ve made my fair share of Potemkin villages to impress others or—more often—delude myself. I’ll make elaborate, beautiful plans to create something but take no action to manifest those plans into reality. I’ll feel successful looking at two-dimensional storefronts, imagining the fictitious rooms behind them.
In what ways do you create Potemkin villages to appear better, smarter, happier, or more successful than you are?
Language constrains our range of expression. It isn’t easy to express a thought or a feeling with words when the language doesn’t have a matching concept. We resort to other forms of expression—paintings, dance, music, stories—to express the things we cannot name. That exploration is beautiful and results in art that can move us. But some things need a word.
Happiness is one such concept. As a word, “happiness” has loaded connotations—something that’s come under psychological scrutiny and spurred entire industries of scam artists peddling products to sell you this squishy, intangible feeling. Part of the problem, I believe, is the erosion of vocabulary. The Greeks had two concepts for happiness. One is how we (a modern, English-speaking culture) traditionally think about happiness—daily feelings of joy, what I call “short-term” happiness. The second concept is less concerned with day-to-day feelings but with a sense of directional satisfaction or “long-term” happiness. The Greeks called this second concept “eudaimonia.”
It’s tempting to optimize for daily happiness, as we’re rewarded with instant gratification—feelings of joy and pleasure. A meaningful life needs daily delight, but should it come at the cost of eudaimonia? This directional happiness prioritizes long-term satisfaction and fulfillment—which does not reward daily—and can only arrive after continual investment. Could scratching the itch for eudaimonia address some concerns and anxieties that plague us?
Upfront the sacrifice for a life trajectory that maximizes joy over the long run.
“Easy choices, hard life. Hard choices, easy life.”