What’s the goal of life? Every one of us is an expert at answering this innocuous question. Some say life is all about compassion for other beings; some say it is about achieving greatness; some say it is about being a good father/mother/brother/sister, and yet some (like me) say there’s no goal in life and it is inherently meaningless. Who’s right, who’s wrong? We can do an endless debate about it, yet people’s opinion about what life is about seldom change. Opinions on life are not formed on an intellectual level, rather they arise from within and then we search for its justification.
No matter how much we disagree about meaning (or lack of it) in life, there’s one obvious fundamental fact that everyone will agree with. It’s almost a tautology, but while we’re alive, we exist, and this existence should rather be pleasant than be disgusting. So, every one of us in our respective ways, seek to be happy. Even for people who suffer tremendously because they believe in a difficult cause (say reporting from a warzone) do so because feel happiness at a deep, emotional level.
Happiness in life may come from passions, relationships, experiences, creative expression or achieving greatness. So even if we disagree on the goal of life, we can at least agree that ultimately it is happiness that we seek.
The key question for life then becomes: how to be happy?
There are two obvious ways: a) we all have our intuitions and ideas on what we think will make us happy; b) we can read books like Stumbling on Happiness or embrace movements like Positive Psychology to understand what scientific research says about happiness. For example, research says that people who are married are generally happier. Research also says that additional money, as long as you are living in poverty, actually increases happiness but once past the milestone of middle class living, the difference between making $50,000 a year and $50 million a year has hardly any impact on happiness.
So, from intuition or scientific research, we develop a number of hypotheses on what’s going to make us happier. Maybe a few additional friends will make us happier, or maybe cultivating a passion will do the job, or maybe entering into an intimate relationship is the best thing to do. All these plans for being happier sound too good to be true, but where’s the catch? If being joyful is so straightforward, why is only one quarter of population say they’re “very happy”? What about the rest? Are they not happy enough?
The pursuit of happiness: external v/s internal factors
In the pursuit of happiness, many of our activities involve depending on external factors, some of which may be beyond our control or influence. If we solely depend on such external factors for being happy, we risk facing rejection and failure, and hence negatively impacting our current happiness and limiting our potential future happiness. An example would be the scientific result that married people are happier. Now if the right person comes along, and you get married and thereby become happier, nothing like it! In pursuit of this goal, you can, of course, socialize and try increasing your chances of finding the right person. But what if that right person never comes and you never get married? Life is full of uncertainties and this is surely a possibility (however remote). Another example would be passions that are seeped in external factors. Suppose someone watches a lot of National Geographic Channel and is fascinated with the variety of experiences this world offers. He develops an internal idea that travelling the world would give him immense happiness, but if his life situations (maybe he is poor, married or bedridden, or maybe he is all) don’t allow him to travel, should he be less happy because of this fact?
Am I advocating resigning to one’s fate? Yes, and no. As long as you are happy, what’s wrong with resigning to fate? Though I’m not saying we shouldn’t try changing our external circumstances. What I am saying is that we cannot factors beyond our control, so it is foolish to rely on them to bring us happiness. Of course, we can (and should) always try to change external circumstances but we cannot put our happiness in jeopardy for that. If that external circumstance changes (by luck or effort), nothing like it and we should enjoy the happiness that comes along with it. But getting frustrated because you couldn’t move that rock which stands between you and happiness is quite childish. If the rock doesn’t seem like moving even after a great deal of effort, simply move on. You cannot blame yourself and feel frustrated because you couldn’t change the world or your circumstances.
Even better is the situation where you don’t need to move any rocks to be happy. There are many internal factors for happiness that solely depend on your own ideas, thoughts and emotions. One of the most important factors that impact your happiness is your outlook in life. For example, if you idolize greatness, yet are not able to achieve it, simply change your outlook. Look at happy people around you who have achieved nothing significant in life. Is their life any worse than those who have won Nobel prizes or founded billion dollar companies? Another factor you can control is being at ease with yourself. If you crave for external validation of your life, work and actions, you set yourself for disappointment and unhappiness. Similarly, if you crave for people’s company and don’t seem to get enough of it, you are setting yourself up for unhappiness.
I realize that evolution has constructed humans as social creatures who seek approval and company of fellow beings. But evolution never really cared about an individual’s happiness. It’s blind to my happiness as long as I reproduce. So, even though evolution makes it hard for us to being happy by ourselves alone, doing so is still preferable to the harder job of changing the world. Demanding the world that it should give you happiness is an act doomed for failure.
Tricks I use to be happy
One of the tricks I personally use (and still trying to get better at it) is to cultivate passions that do not depend on external world. I feel happy whenever I’m writing, so I try to write as much as I can (this post is an example of it). I’m a curious person and like learning about different fields (these days, it is psychology, philosophy, brain and mind), so I keep reading books (GoodReads.com is an excellent resource for suggestions) and articles on Wikipedia. I also like to constantly improve upon different aspects related to my startup Wingify (things like product features, user experience, customer support mechanisms, marketing tactics, etc.). Just making Wingify better than what it was yesterday gives me joy and, as opposed to something external like IPO or acquisition, improving Wingify is something that depends entirely on me.
My outlook that there’s no grand purpose in life and it is essentially meaningless make me not crave for possessions, wealth and greatness. Rather than depressing, my Nihilistic outlook is liberating and opens up easy paths for happiness. And my passions for writing and reading keep my busy and happy. My aim is to rely on myself to be happy and essentially detach my happiness from external factors that I cannot control. Note that this is not to say that I dislike wealth or greatness. I have respect for people who do great things, but I simply don’t want these things to impact my happiness levels. Similarly, it is not that I dislike socializing or don’t have friends. Far from it, I tremendously enjoy being with people. But I don’t want my friends or family to be sole determiners of my happiness.
The key to a happy life is to admire windfall of happiness but in absence and in spite of it, we should prepare ourselves to be happy even in a situation where all we have with us is ourselves.
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