How Do The ‘Wise’ Choose Their Path — Or Does It Choose You?

Photo by Seth Macey on Unsplash
“Emotion and instinct were the basis of all our decisions, our actions, everything we valued, the way we saw the world. Reason and rationality were a thin coat of paint on a ragged surface.” 
Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Mark Manson pointed me to an article by German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Which by some obscure path led me to Peter Singer. And now I’m here, wanting to describe what these wise minds helped me discover:

  • That wisdom is found in the collective knowing, and
  • That all has gone before, offering a soft-lit pathway to the most important journey you or I will ever take.

In summary, it’s not what you seek — it’s the intent behind it that opens wisdom.

A discussion around ethics and morals can feel hard-core. Uncomfortable in the way these hard-to-pin-down concepts shift the modern-day focus from ourselves: of having more and doing whatever we want, to honoring decisions and having the will to follow them through.

Never before in our social history has choice required so many decisions just to get through a day. Sheena Iyengar, director of the global leadership program at Columbia Business School and author of The Art of Choosing, says the average American makes around 70 conscious decisions a day.

There’s even an app to help take the stress out of everyday decisions.

In this space, the time for thinking is pixelated to micro-seconds with the ethics and morals of the decision sent to the back of the queue.

I wonder if the ethics of a decision has shrunk to no more than a nod towards a sense of ‘duty’ — homage to their necessity for the greater good, yet with no idea of what role they play in our life. The ‘ought to’, ‘should do’ and ‘must do’ wrestling with our inner desire of ‘have now’ regardless of the long-term cost that’s slowly crippling our will to see the long-term picture.

And if research is right, we’re paying the price for it with stress and anxiety on the rise, more relationships breaking down and a general sense of discontent with our lot that’s leaning hard and fast towards dissatisfaction.

The ‘now’ has never felt more absent. Placing it on hold for a promise of tomorrow that may take years if not decades to achieve — a shadow mocking the horizon like a mirage beckoning us forward.

The success mindset of ‘be more, do more, have more’ is driving people to fear taking risks because ultimately falling means blaming oneself for not living up to social expectations of what success means.

Peter Singer describes it like this:

We must free ourselves from this absurd conception of success. Not only does it fail to bring happiness … it also sets a social standard that is a recipe for global injustice and environmental disaster. We cannot continue to see our goal as acquiring more and more wealth, or as consuming more and more goodies, and leaving behind us an even larger heap of waste. — Peter Singer

The Endless Competitive Struggle

Be more. Do more. Have more. A relentless cycle so counter-intuitive to wellbeing that most subscribing to success mindsets find themselves running faster on the rat wheel they’re trying to free themselves from.

Distraction has become the new norm.

Distraction from values.

Distraction from relationships that matter.

Distraction from making choices based on ethics and morals.

Ultimately, distraction from the one pursuit all humanity aches for: happiness. A word so over-used it’s lost meaning. A word hi-jacked by positivity movements.

Even to write this word feels trite. Its meaning buried under layers of external ‘success’ masquerading as internal ‘happiness’. Who wouldn’t be happy with a big home, exotic travel destinations, branded clothing and fast cars?

It turns out many.

To Reach A State Of Happiness Is Easy.

Buy a pair of shoes. Eat a meal in a restaurant that treats you nice. Find the smell of love. Drive a cool car.

And if you’ve ‘been there done that’, then you’ll know how transitory the ‘happiness’ experience the human psyche aches for is.

Happiness cannot be found in an external event. It’s a deeper state of being, of feeling, of sensing — not a state of ‘having’. When all the ‘having’ is done and you’re alone with yourself and your thoughts — who are you, what do you sense? An anxious shrill of yearning for something you can’t describe? Can’t quite pin down? Something you hope to find — or otherwise, what’s the point? Or do you skip this beat and simply feel so bored with yourself that distraction through social media, alcohol and television pushes the scent of disillusion away if even for a few hours?

Russ Harris describes this as: The Happiness Trap. “This is not some fleeting feeling,” he says. “It is a profound sense of a life well lived.”

A life well lived means orienteering towards a deeper sense of what a this life could look like.

And while we hope the core of this is ‘happiness’, it’s not. Not even close. The core is our morality, and what we will choose to ignore or give-up to satisfy this deep craving for an elusive and fleeting moment with promise of what elusive ‘happiness’ brings. It’s Catch-22 all over again.

Immanuel Kant, (1724–1804) argues that the human mind creates the human experience. He asks an uncomfortable question: “Who of us can claim our actions are based on honest intent without any hint of foreign motive?”

I can’t. I once would have defended that I could. But as I take a self-scored honesty test, most of my actions stem from selfish desire.

The Root Of Morality

Mark Manson has an insightful view:

… for Kant, the root of morality is not the soul or happiness or pleasure, but rationality. Rationality, to Kant, is sacred because it is, as far as he can tell, the only thing that is truly unique to the human condition. A mosquito feels pleasure and pain, yet we care little about it. An amoeba can grow and evolve and discover new ways of being. But it’s rationality and the consciousness that arises as a result of rationality that is its own special engine within the universe, capable of creating and inventing new meaning where there was none before. This must be cherished at all costs.

Cherished, yes. Being conscious to creating and inventing new meaning, yes. Unfortunately from my view of the world, app-based decision making is dumbing us down.

I wonder if rationality now equates with consumerism, a justification to taste life’s pleasures with abandon — and in doing so choose a placebo for creative invention. A stand in for true happiness.

Instead of finding happiness, rather we discover self-deceit. Realising too late we’ve bought into the ‘con’ which causes our moral compass to be led astray for short-term gain.

As Peter Singer says, we’re jaded by the constant call for donations for swollen bellied infants living in war-torn countries or lands shivering under nature’s erupting power. Convincing ourselves the money goes to admin costs and people who don’t need it. Yet the few cents that do get through could make more of a difference than the latest shoes you’ve bought at this year’s sales.

Does seeking personal happiness, knowing it’s only momentary, deny humanity’s need for collective care?

Innocence and Wisdom Earned

Innocence is transitory, easily seduced.

Wisdom is earned, grounded in moral choice and ethical frameworks for decision making.

The innocent seek happiness. Seduced into accepting a stand-in for the happiness Russ Harris believes in. The wise know happiness lives in the tension between personal will and moral principles.

I believe happiness is a verb, not a noun. Happiness is giving. Offering your free will to choose an act that will bring joy to another. Rationality becomes a place to raise consciousness and creative insight into what makes a difference.

“Whoever wills the end, wills the means which are in his power.” Kant

Our will. Our want. Our power to choose.

And in this place of rationality — the decision to choose to think consciously, to create consciously, to refine what our lives mean within an ethical framework, comes a simple question: Who of us can define happiness?

It’s a sense. You know it when you feel it. Yet defining it is slippery, because in its definition lays our desire. And our desires cannot be divorced from moral choices — to choose, or to ignore.

We cannot be certain that any course of action taken will inevitably lead to happiness. As Kant suggests, what would wishing for a long life mean without the health to enjoy it? What good is wealth if all it leads to are corrupt choices? What good is wisdom if all that comes to pass is greater ability to recognize evil?

“Happiness is an ideal of imagination.” wrote Kant. Perhaps balanced by the fear of disgrace, of being exposed as a fraud — of our true intentions not being of a pure nature. Of our desire for success not being of an altruistic nature.

How can happiness be found with a constant search beyond self?

Kant poses an ethical problem: Imagine you have a talent — one you can use, but choose not to. Perhaps because you’re in a comfortable place, enjoying the life that’s come your way rather than working at improving the natural capacity of your talent. Maybe you write naturally, yet never express your thoughts for others to see. Perhaps you have a tuneful voice, yet never sing. You may even have a talent for spreading ideas, yet choose to keep them to yourself — fearful of being ignored.

Neglect of a natural gift is like treating happiness as a bad dinner guest — one you’re longing to have leave your table because its silence says more than your prattle does.

Natural gifts are within each of us. Elevating them to their natural capacity — not for our own benefit, but for those who experience them tilts towards our ethics of valuing that which we have in abundance and freeing them to grow into what they could become.

The Problem: Attachment To An Idea

Most of our problems stem from the idea of attachment to things beyond our control. As if having a certain person in your life would mean happiness and contentment in a relationship. As if securing a certain career and status would deliver a continuous flow of joy and engagement.

We cannot ever ‘have’ or be ‘secure’ in anything beyond ourselves, our moral code and our will. Most emotional pain stems from this attachment to secure, lock-up and control that which was never ours to own. If we can’t manage ourselves, and often let ourselves down by not living up to our own moral code — what right do we have to put a halo over others and expect them to live up to it?

Choosing happiness as a life principle means having a higher value system in place that doesn’t act on whimsical feelings, chaotic impulses or entertaining the latest inclination that calls forth our short-term attention span.

Choosing happiness is an end in itself. It is a decision. We have the free will to give happiness to others without reserve, to receive happiness and in so doing, set happiness free.

We can have a relationship with happiness. We can dance with it, entertain it.

It is a ‘thing’ — an entity as light as a bird — as easily frightened as a sparrow — as bold as an eagle swooping on its prey.

To control it. To own it. To place an expectation or a right around it is to cage it. Happiness is not a destination. A thing to be kept in a box until chosen. An energy. It does not do ‘duty’. It is not actioned through will power. It is released through discovery.

It is a gift. Received by those following the universal laws of nature, autonomy and the freedom to choose.

This is the one relationship worth seeking. The one within you.

All change starts with new ways of being. I invite you to: Download The FREE Habits of Creative Thinkers Here.