Happiness is a Compass, Not a Destination

Shift your perceptions, articulate your goals, and find happiness in all possible worlds

“Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be.” 
Abraham Lincoln

I’ve recently discovered a powerful set of ideas concerning happiness. More importantly, by acting in accordance with these ideas I’ve brought more happiness into my life than ever before. Given we all seek happiness— now more than ever — I feel it’s my duty to spread these ideas as widely as possible. But to do so I must first introduce our flawed but brilliant hero, Sisyphus, as his story serves to illuminate both the nature of happiness and how we may bring more of it into our lives.

Most are familiar with the story of Sisyphus. As the parable goes, the Gods of Olympus punished Sisyphus for using his capable mind and technological prowess to undermine their dominion over humanity. Less admirable was the pleasure Sisyphus took in building with one hand while using the other to give the Gods the middle finger. In this way our would-be hero found himself condemned to forever push a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back to the bottom once he’d finished the task, beginning the cycle anew. The implication being — typically — that most human activities resemble such eternal toil: we are damned to inescapable Sisyphean struggle in this mortal realm.

Luckily this nihilistic conclusion isn’t the end of our story. As it turns out, philosophers and scientists have proposed some alternative — and more hopeful — perspectives. But before we discuss answers, let’s properly state the question: given his predicament, can Sisyphus feel happiness? This question spotlights the relationship between circumstance, one’s limited control over circumstance, and one’s subjective experience given the prior constraints. As Albert Camus articulates in his analysis of the Sisyphean narrative:

“I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain. One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Let’s unpack Camus’s quote. Through close examination, we may tease out some useful conceptual tools to help clarify that state of human existence we call “happiness”:

  • One always finds one’s burden again: Here we glimpse the inescapable paradox facing problem solvers. By solving a problem we’re left with at least one new problem: “what now?” Beyond this, solutions invariably contain the seeds of new problems. And so we must consider that by solving a problem in the present we expand the domain of future possible problems.
  • Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well: The “higher fidelity” in question lies in Sisyphus’s recognition and embrace of his circumstances as a generative process. And it’s this fidelity to the process itself, to the generative element within inescapable immortal toil, that develops one’s own Godly nature and persists Order in the face of Chaos. Sisyphus commits to this Truth despite knowledge of the ceaselessly rejuvenating cycle of problems to come.
  • This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world: Channeling Nietzsche, Camus grapples with the capacity for meaning in a society that has relegated its mythological foundations to the ash heap of history. Absent acceptance of divinity’s concrete reality, Sisyphus must find that which is most God-like within his own realm of experience.
  • The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy: To bridge the divide between Sisyphus’s subjective experience and the happiness that fills hearts, Camus implies that the power to fill the gap between his subjective experience and a full heart lies within Sisyphus’s mind. And beyond this, we see that struggle and happiness may be counterintuitively but inextricably linked.

But why must one imagine Sisyphus happy? It feels like we’re still missing a piece of this puzzle. Before searching for it, though, let’s lay out the cognitive tools we’ve discovered so far. Acting out these patterns of thought will render your perceptions compatible with happiness and allow you to transform your frustrations and woes into the fertile soil from which happiness may grow:

  1. Acknowledge that you will never rid yourself, or the world, of problems.
  2. Fully embrace #1 as a necessary precondition for personal development and growth.
  3. Solve problems anyway. Take responsibility for the continuous renewal of Order in the face of Chaos, and know that doing so will generate an unending stream of opportunities to improve both yourself and the world around you.
  4. Start small. Begin by solving problems in an environment over which you actually have control. If “each mineral-flake of that night-filled mountain forms a world”, you don’t want too many such flakes littering your own world. Perhaps begin by cleaning your room.

Now that we’ve shifted our perceptions and prepared ourselves for the physical sensation of being happy, why aren’t we happy? Why aren’t we there yet? Is a there even there, and if so, where? Our bags are packed and we’re ready for the journey ahead, but we have no destination. And though we might experience a sense of anticipation, that’s not the same as happiness.

In this search for a destination lies the key insight and final puzzle piece: the feeling of happiness is not an endpoint of being at which one might arrive, it’s an indicator that one is moving — successfully — toward a meaningful goal. In other words, happiness is a compass, not a destination. It’s a psychological tool for aligning our goals and actions over time, not an address at which one might reside.

Imagine attaching a lightbulb to a digital compass. First you must choose a destination, or goal. Now begin walking. If you’re walking toward your destination, the lightbulb will remain aglow. As you deviate from that path, however, the energy powering the lightbulb will slowly dissipate. The bulb will go dark. That’s how happiness works. To keep your happiness bulb lit you must keep moving toward your goal. You might note that it’s handy to have another goal in mind as you near your destination, for if you arrive without one your happiness lightbulb will begin to fade. In addition to mythology and philosophy, modern psychology and neuroscience also point to this deep truth. Happiness shines forth most brightly in pursuit of meaningful goals.

Though seemingly simple, acting this philosophy out in the world is anything but. Pitfalls abound and come in many forms. The world teems with gurus preaching quick fixes, and presents endless temptations along the path toward one’s goals. For example, contra Alan Watts’ new age advice, a happy life is not a dance: it’s a series of goal-directed journeys. Of course one may dance along the way, but to think that simply living in the moment will result in happiness is a dangerous trap. Ensnared by this lie, one repeatedly grasps at ephemeral moments and prays unanswered prayers for life to stand still long enough for one to extract meaning. Nihilism soon follows.

In addition to the scourge of nihilism, resentment salts the psychological and emotional soil from which happiness may grow. The desire to blame others for one’s circumstances provides relief from one’s own responsibilities. Over time this blame concentrates into the toxic distillate of resentment, and purges from one’s mind its capacity for happiness. Perhaps the Gods deserved the middle finger Sisyphus held high, perhaps not, but it was his resentment and arrogance that opened the door through which cosmic retribution entered. As Milton wrote in Paradise Lost:

The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.

Yielding to resentment erodes one’s capacity to perceive the beauty of continuous creation, and leaves only that which perceives eternal toil. It transforms one’s own mind and heart into a personal Hell on Earth, and drives one to pull the world around them into the flames.

Knowing this, you’re now prepared for the responsibility of happiness. And make no mistake, it’s a responsibility. To know that happiness is a compass is to understand your obligation both to yourself and to humanity. It is to champion Life itself. It is to align your actions with the Good and to move toward it ceaselessly. It is to know that while traveling you must remain vigilant of the ever-present human tendency toward nihilism and resentment.

To succeed in this endeavor you must have goals. These goals must balance the needs of your heart and your mind; they must remain true to your vision for yourself and for the world. They are your waypoints. Your goals are the order you wish to bring into this world, despite its endless Chaos. And to the degree you take aim forthrightly in your pursuits and remain devoted to your causes, you will experience that emotion we call happiness. You will know you’re struggling ever closer to your True North.

And perhaps when you arrive, you too may be as happy as Sisyphus.


This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s leading publication for entrepreneurs and startups.

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