Three years ago, I went through a period fraught with personal difficulties. A relationship I was deeply invested in broke apart, my wrist got fractured playing handball, and my mom lost her job amidst the natural state of depression that defined my life at the time.
Something interested emerged from the chaos, however. Forced to acknowledge that happiness was impossible (whatever the ever optimist marketers might be saying…), I had to ask myself if there was a life beyond it. At the time, I felt that If life was all about happiness, mine was pretty much over. But maybe, there was another way to live in which experiencing suffering and pain was not synonymous with failure.
As it happened, I spent Christmas and New Years Eve alone in Oxford, far away from friends and family. This period offered me much needed solitude to think about the question above. I slowly came to realize that the suffering was fine as long as I was growing as a person. If only I could just get to the end of the academic year successfully, without giving up and without adopting useless identities (such as “mentally ill”, “depressed”, etc.; fortunately I only needed to think about this just thought in order to dispel it). If only I survived and managed to thrive despite (thanks to?) the suffering, then I would be content.
Thus, I spent the evening of New Years Eve writing about the inherent contradiction I saw between seeking happiness and seeking growth. To be happy was to look into the present (or the past) and stay still in perception. It was essentially a passive yet conscious meditative state. On the other hand, to grow was to struggle against reality and either win or learn from the mistakes. It was at times painful, at times not, but always active and subject to a purpose.
The contradiction was in the opposite directions the two ideals were pulling. Action vs non-action, acceptance vs change, non-purpose vs purpose. As everybody knows intuitively, to truly grow in anything requires many sacrifices of pleasure and present joy. And conversely, to be truly happy, one cannot be too preoccupied with making progress; one must let go.
In a moment of epiphany, I consciously realized this deep truth and set go to explore the consequences. What if I embraced my pain and used it to grow instead of wallowing that happiness was being unfairly taken away from me? Both points of view were on the table, but only one really kept me truly alive. If nothing else, adopting a growth-based mindset was the most practical solution to my problems at the time.
In any case, while in Oxford I made my choice to pursue growth and live with the blues if necessary. It worked well — I matured significantly over this period and became more resilient to life’s downs. Crucially, I confirmed my doubt that happiness was overhyped. A great life wasn’t necessarily based around a pursuit of happiness (although it’d be a shame not to enjoy it from time to time). I saw that one could well be more than content with pursuing his/her ambitions and let happiness happen if it should or not if it shouldn’t.
As time went on, I nevertheless kept thinking about happiness. After all, even if not fit to be life’s ultimate goal, it still had a lot to offer as an experience.
One thing that quickly becomes clear when you try to pursue happiness directly is that life just doesn’t work like that. In other words, happiness seems to be a goal one can achieve only by not having it be the goal in the first place. Trying to be happy (and obsessing over it) is bound to lead to disappointment. Life is already filled with its own naturally-occuring pains — and there is no need to add the additional pain of not being happy enough to them.
The truth is, chasing happiness is perhaps the worst possible goal one can have. Not only because to chase happiness is not to chase it at all, but also because any conscious chase and effort will naturally invite struggle and lead to difficulties. Normally, such hardships are not too great of a problem. With happiness, however, they are the definition of failure. So, at least in some sense, happiness is unique among goals in that it demands near perfection (or lots of resilience against failure?) to achieve it. And even when performs the chase perfectly, happiness is still nowhere to be found. (yet, once you give up on it, it is certain to come back!)
All of this then suggests that asking for happiness is wrongheaded. It might be better to think of happiness not as a singular abstract concept, but in terms of all the ways it could be achieved. For example, the happiness of friends, the happiness of sex, the happiness of reading a great book, the happiness of exercise etc. Rephrasing happiness this way makes it obvious that the goal is not being happy per se, but rather doing something else and experiencing happiness (or better yet, joy) as a fortunate result.
If happiness is not a wise goal to have in life, then what is?
I already suggested that my intuition led me to think of the alternative as “growth”. Yet, growth of what and towards what? And for what purpose?
Recently (well, over the past year and a half really), I have been listening to many lectures and talks by Jordan Peterson. And the more I listened about his worldview, the more it struck me not just as intuitively right, but also as revealing a deeper structure underneath my happiness/growth divide.
Like me, Peterson is one fond of the idea of happiness as the highest ideal. His worldview doesn’t portray the world as a place to seek happiness, but rather as a place in which one struggles to to do the right and meaningful actions.
Underneath his worldview seems to me to lie the simple idea: happiness is not the goal; meaning is.
In many ways, this insight already goes a long way in answering my questions about growth. One shouldn’t just “grow” in whatever direction. Rather, one should only grow in the areas that bring meaning.
In some sense, chasing meaning is a natural process for humans. Yet, it can easily go astray if one approaches life in a rationalistic pros-vs-cons way. One could say that the common life advice of “follow your gut” is basically just a restatement of “seek meaning instead of what is best on paper”. This is why traveling appeals to many while a corporate job does not. The story of experiencing the world is inherently more powerful and sexy than the story of, well, being a powerless clog in the machine.
If one starts looking at the world this way, it becomes obvious why many seemingly successful people experience frequent burnouts. They are simply following the wrong path — the one that we would describe as successful, but equally, the one that hardly excites or brings meaning (or if it does, it does so for a few).
Yet, the more I think about it, there seems to be more to the story. In a way, the useful distinction is not whether burnouts happen, but rather how quickly they fade away. After all, it’s a natural reaction for everyone who follows their passion to start working non-stop. In this process, struggle and pain are frequently present. So, happiness is simply not of much concern at this point. Meaning is. Yet, the more intensely one pushes, the less meaning one ultimately finds. This is why even those who follow their gut sometimes burnout. But their burnout is rare and short-lived — it goes away after a short break. Not so when you have arranged your life around your CV instead of your passions…
Of course, there are some natural complications to this picture. For example, we are all tempted to seek social status so at least some part of us sees meaning in doing what successful people do. However, this approach is hardly sustainable and even when it is, there is a price to pay. (health-wise, relationship-wise, etc.)
Another complication is that one can fall in love with the whole abstract idea of growth itself and seek meaning in it. The upshot is that one then risks wandering life aimless, looking to grow without stopping to think what in. As a more analytical and abstract thinker, I was naturally primed to walk this path. I guess this is why I found “growth” to be enough of a counterpoint to “happiness”. The truth is, one should think hard about the area of growth just as well as the fact of growth itself.
In any case, meaning seems to be what we are after in life much more than mere happiness. And honestly, at every single downturn in my life, I am reminded of the wisdom of this insight. If meaning is what the goal is, then pain and suffering are tolerable. If, instead, it is happiness that is the goal, then pain and suffering can be worse than hell.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about meaning once more, but came at it from a different direction: should we look for truth or should we truth for meaning first? It is incredible how this concept keeps popping up everywhere in the most fundamental questions in life — truth, happiness, faith, etc..
In this light, it is useful to have some idea of how meaning comes about.
To be honest, it doesn’t have to be any more complicated than: follow your gut / let your heart guide you / follow the Tao / submit to God’s will. As long as one is not stupid and too impulsive about the process, these heuristics capture the essence of how meaning is obtained.
Nevertheless, I think that, here too, Jordan Peterson has something insightful to add. He often remarks that he sees meaning as the result of standing at the border between order and chaos. Unpacking this phrase takes quite a few careful listenings, but it essentially expressed the idea of going beyond your comfort zone just the right amount. In other words, order is that which makes you comfortable and chaos — that which doesn’t. Going out of your comfort zone is great and meaningful, but only if it doesn’t devolve into a full-on plunge into the chaos. What brings meaning is nothing more than recognizing your limits and reaching carefully just beyond them.
All of this, of course, is just a prelude to many more worthwhile questions: is there objective meaning to life (and if so, is it universal for all), is meaning something we all create for ourselves (and if so, according to what moral rules and restrictions?)… In any case, it is worth noting that none of these questions promise happiness. Quite the contrary. They often promise a meaningful struggle (yet struggle nonetheless) towards an ideal worth living (and sometimes, dying) for.
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