The Only Way to Guarantee Happiness
There are hundred different ways to define the word happiness.
To Plato, for example, happiness was deeply connected to morality, and in order to achieve it, he believed that we would have to uphold four different virtues: wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice.
To Aristotle, morality and happiness did indeed connect, but he went a step further. He saw happiness as a product of habit and practice, and he argued that it was acquired over time just like anything else.
Marcus Aurelius, the great Stoic, simplified it a little further. In his own words, “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”
The modern definition is closer to that of pleasure. Maybe it’s the influence of advertising, or maybe it’s just a more interconnected world, but we seem to have slipped away from the association of happiness to personal growth to one which is more heavily influenced by external factors.
The truth is, of course, that it is largely subjective. It’s all of these things and none of these things. Personally, to me, happiness is about being content — however I achieve that — over a long and sustained period of time.
Regardless of the exact definition, however, if we look a little harder, it becomes evident that all of these associations connotate a life well lived.
The specific details of that will vary among different people, but I think the general conditions required are pretty similar for all of us.
Let’s take a slightly deeper dive.
The Need for a Life of More
If you’ve followed my work for a while, you’ll likely have picked up on my belief that life is best lived in harmony with our nature (e.g. evolution).
On a basic level, we need to strive and to struggle, which we are biologically predisposed to, and pain is good if you know how to interpret it and react to it. There is strength and power in overcoming a fall or a defeat.
While it’s becoming increasingly fashionable to ridicule people who like to work and to see life as a series of moments to always be enjoyed, the truth is that we need aspirations. We need something to evolve towards.
Now, naturally, this doesn’t mean that an aspiration can’t be anything other than wanting to make a billion dollars or have your face plastered in places where people can see it. I personally couldn’t care less.
Aspiring towards wisdom is just as legitimate as aspiring for money. Aspiring to be a kinder person is just as real as aspiring for power.
A Buddhist monk aspires just as much as a Fortune 500 CEO.
The only thread that connects the two, and the rest of us who want to live a fulfilling life, is that there is something worth working towards.
Life as a continual and evolving process of reaching for more is an inherent requirement in our internal operation. Without this kind of orientation, over a long period of time, it’s practically impossible for us not end up in a state of misery caused by a mixture of boredom, anxiety, and inaction.
That said, there is one major caveat.
The Importance of Detachment
There is actually a good reason why people are rebelling against work.
In the west, at least, we live in an overly materialistic society. There are signs that this trend is slowing down, but overall — like our hunt for pleasure — we seem to have attached the idea of work to external rewards.
Rather than most of our goals being about the journey of growth that motivates an aspiration like making X amount of money, or getting this or that position, we have turned the aspiration into the purpose.
Peter Drucker once famously wrote, “What gets measured gets managed.”
The problem is that the goal, which was only supposed to exist for measurement purposes, has become the actual reward. In the process of this happening, we’ve detached ourselves from the real value of things.
That’s how you end being someone who works 100 hours a week at the expense of seeing your children grow up. It’s how you don’t realize that you’re losing touch with people that matter to you until it’s too late.
We seem to have forgotten that the attempt of trying and working and struggling is not only enough, but that it is the reward, and that this reward is severely abused when we develop an obsession with the outcome.
While it would be nice to make millions of dollars or to be the kindest person everybody knows or to save humanity from itself, that’s not the point.
For you to strive successfully, you also need to have a healthy detachment from whatever it is that you are striving towards.
The alternative is a trap you don’t realize you’re in until you’re stuck.
The Only True Thing
In many ways, life is a constant battle of balancing opposites.
Both Plato and Aristotle saw that, and they wrote at length about it. It’s also something that’s been talked about by other thinkers since.
The important thing to note here is that just because something appears at first glance to conflict with another thing doesn’t necessarily mean that they are at odds with each other.
While it’s mostly true that we need some form of work that pushes us beyond comfort, it’s also true that developing an obsession with the outcome of that work can lead us into a dangerous and unhealthy territory of life.
The real magic is found in growth without needless expectations, work without self-imposed necessity, and purpose without the curse of reliance.
It seems fitting to end this with a tribute that Kurt Vonnegut once wrote to an old friend in the New Yorker. It captures the only thing you really need.
True story, Word of Honor:
Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer
and I were at a party given by a billionaire
on Shelter Island.
I said, “Joe, how does it make you feel
to know that our host only yesterday
may have made more money
than your novel ‘Catch-22’
has earned in its entire history?”
And Joe said, “I’ve got something he can never have.”
And I said, “What on earth could that be, Joe?”
And Joe said, “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”