Seven years ago, I wrote a post called “How to Be Happy. Always.” It’s pretty poorly written, but starts off with an important concept– we live in a society where happiness is the number one priority. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. No one really questions that, but maybe we should. Is happiness really the best goal we can come up with?
In the time that’s elapsed between when I wrote that post and now, I’ve thought a lot about happiness, and I still think that maximizing it is a bad idea. But before I get into that, let’s talk a little bit about what happiness is.
Happiness is an good state of mind. It allows you to be optimistic, to see the good in people, and to be productive. On the other end of the spectrum, when you’re very unhappy, you have a lot of barriers between things like productivity and socialization. Clearly, being happy is much better than being unhappy. It’s important to be happy. Is there such a thing as being too happy? I don’t think so. I’ve never seen someone make a mistake because he was just too happy.
So what’s my problem with maximizing happiness, then? Well, it’s the method, mostly.
The problem with the maximization of happiness is that it comes at a cost. If you’re maximizing for happiness, you’re taking focus away from other goals. I see happiness much like I see eating. If you don’t have enough food, you are not going to get the most out of life, and you’re not going to give the most to the world that you could, either. You’ll be in survival mode. If you don’t have enough happiness, the same is true.
But on the other hand, after a certain point of getting optimal nutrition, additional food you eat doesn’t really do much good. People who dedicate their lives to enjoying food have always been a bit of a mystery to me– is it really so important that fancy food passes through your digestive tract before you die? Sebastian Marshall has a really good quote on this same concept applied to happiness:
“And – so what? You’ve got more happiness chemicals in your brain so you bliss out? How could anyone in their right mind think this is the meaning of life?”
Happiness, like food, is an important part of life, but not the purpose of life. Just as you want to avoid being starving, you also want to avoid being unhappy. So what’s the purpose of life? There isn’t a universal one, but I’ve found that a good one is to try to make the world a better place for humans. I like this purpose because it extends past my lifetime, and because if that was everyone’s purpose in life, the world would advance faster. On the other hand, your personal happiness dies with you, and I’m not sure that everyone optimizing for personal happiness would really be a good thing for the world.
The interesting thing about happiness is that it CAN be one hundred percent self generated. We all agree, or at least parrot back, the axiom that money doesn’t buy happiness. I’ll extend that further and say that experiences don’t buy happiness. This makes logical sense if you think about it– when I went through the ghettos of Haiti, the poorest country in this hemisphere, I met a lot of genuinely happy people. They don’t have running water, don’t have electricity most of the time, and many never leave their city, let alone their country. They’re happy. On the other hand, we all know rich people who travel the world and enjoy the finest things in life, yet are still miserable.
What buys happiness? Gratitude. When something good happens to you, you’re grateful for it. When something bad happens to you, you’re grateful for the challenge, and you’re able to see the silver lining. When nothing happens to you, you’re grateful to be alive. Cultivating this attitude takes a few month of practice– just think of a good aspect to anything “bad” that happens to you. When you go through it, you will never be unhappy again. I’m not saying this will definitely work for everyone, but I am saying that I’ve recommended it to a lot of people, and everyone who actually follows through becomes happy all the time.
Are there other ways to become happy? Sure. Do drugs. Happiness is just a combination of chemicals in your brain, and drugs can certainly get them there. But that sort of happiness is fleeting. Or you can have a really fun experience, but that happiness leaves, too. You can derive happiness from the people around you, but even that is a fickle happiness. The only happiness that is permanent and immobile is happiness that you generate yourself.
When you install within yourself this permanent happiness, you have no desire for stimulation to make you happy. You know that you’ll be happy no matter what. You stop chasing superficial things, but you still enjoy them when they cross your path. This happiness enables you to be truly independent, widening your range of possible activities to include things that don’t involve stimulation.
So if you’re always happy, why do anything? Well, if you want to make an impact on the world, you need to understand it at a visceral level. That means experiencing great things and experiencing difficult things. Breadth of experience is an incredibly valuable asset. Don’t travel because you think it will make you happy, travel because the range of experiences you’ll gain through it will help you understand the world and thus put you in a better position to do something good for it. Have people in your life not to make you happy, but to collaborate and learn together, to see different perspectives, and to experience the range of human emotions.
Choose your pursuits with the aim to either gain perspective on the world or to positively impact it. There’s an ebb and flow to the process, where you spend time absorbing the world, and then you spend time putting that experience to work and producing. Throughout both of these phases, be happy. When you’re experiencing the world, feel the joy in the high points and appreciate the struggle in the low points. When you’re producing, take pleasure in your successes, and be thankful for the challenges you face. Be happy all the time.
Happiness is something to maintain and enjoy, but satisfaction is something to strive for. Happiness is simply a mixture of chemicals, but satisfaction comes only through positive action. I’d define satisfaction as a feeling of well being derived through setting worthy goals and reaching them. Satisfaction isn’t ephemeral, like happiness, because the achievement of goals isn’t something that fades away. It also can’t be tricked– you can’t feel satisfied through drugs or stimulation, or even through positive though.
Satisfaction is a good indicator of your execution, and is a carrot that pulls you towards doing good things. The actual feeling of satisfaction isn’t that important (although it does feel good), but the pursuit of it will drive your life in a good direction. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of satisfaction. Sounds pretty good to me.
Ironically, I’m posting this from a resort in Mexico that is basically built to promote happiness.