What makes you happy?
It’s not an easy question.
Ask people if they’re happy and most will say yes.
But think about it for a few moments. What is it that makes you happy?
Your kids? Your new phone? The prospect of binge watching Altered Carbon tonight?
A relaxing Saturday of sleeping in? Some future vacation? An interesting hobby?
What about at work? What makes you happy there?
Being busy? Getting things done? Helping others?
Accomplishments? Accolades? Solving fun problems?
There’s no wrong answer. There’s no universal definition of happiness. But there’s one more important question.
Of the things that make you happy today, which ones are going to give you a happy life?
Or, better put, if today’s actions defined your life, would you consider it a good life?
And if not, are those things really in your best interest? Are they really making you happy? Or are they just making you distracted?
Is Happiness the Goal?
“‘And that,’ put in the Director sententiously, ‘that is the secret of happiness and virtue—liking what you’ve got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their unescapable social destiny.’” – Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
Imagine a world where everything you want is available at a moment’s grasp. A world where all of your expectations match the exact reality you’ll face in life.
In his 1931 novel, Brave New World, Aldous Huxley paints this very picture. A world where everyone’s always happy. Through advanced biotechnology and social engineering, people are kept in frequent states of pleasure and raised for the express purpose of appreciating the life they’ll have.
Not if you read the book. Personally, it shook me to my core.
While Orwell’s 1984 demonstrates control through fear and violence, Huxley’s genius is to show how this same feat can be accomplished much more effectively through pleasure and short-term happiness.
People exist in a state of drug-induced bliss and are bio-chemically managed to be “happy.” And stable. And anything that could jeopardize that stability, such as personal connections, spirituality, independent thinking, is vilified and culled.
Seeing it, you can’t help but be overcome by a sick sense that things are terribly wrong. That in this pursuit of happiness, life has gone from fulfilling to incredibly hollow.
Even more disturbing? The continued parallels to our own world.
Balance the Short-term with the Long-term.
“Anything for a quiet life. We’ve gone on controlling ever since. It hasn’t been very good for truth, of course. But it’s been very good for happiness.” – Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
Last week I spent two nights re-watching old Star Wars movies. It was fantastic.
A day spent relaxing in front of the tv is a good respite. And it’s occasionally a good day. But a life spent doing the same is unlikely to be considered as highly.
What makes us happy in the short-term is rarely what makes us happy in the long-term.
And we need both. No one’s advocating a life without pleasure. Just in moderation.
Ice cream once in a while is a great treat. Ice cream for every meal would quickly become a problem.
Without balance, our focus on short-term happiness sacrifices our ability for success in the long-term.
As Huxley’s world shows, short-term happiness and the pleasure of this moment don’t coincide with a meaningful life. So when we’re thinking about happiness, it needs to go beyond the ratio of pleasant to unpleasant moments.
Our own world continues this push. We’re surrounded by distractions. An unlimited supply of instant gratifications and opportunities to avoid any real challenge.
For anyone who wants to prioritize short-term happiness over long-term fulfillment, the world has never been more supportive.
But long-term success isn’t associated with these distractions. It can’t be achieved with momentary pleasures.
Long-term fulfillment resides in seeing our lives as meaningful and worthwhile.
Stoic philosophy suggests that the key to having a good life is recognizing the difference between the valuable and the meaningless. In modern Stoic William B. Irvine’s words,
“People are unhappy, the Stoics argue, in large part because they are confused about what is valuable. Because of their confusion, they spend their days pursuing things that, rather than making them happy, make them anxious and miserable.”
We need to consider just what experiences are making us happy. And recognize whether they’re designed to give us a pleasurable day or a happy life.
Pursue More to Achieve More.
“Happiness is a hard master—particularly other people’s happiness. A much harder master, if one isn’t conditioned to accept it unquestioningly, than truth.” – Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
Speaking to the graduating class at San Jose State University in 2013, Debbie Millman memorably said,
“If you imagine less, less will be what you undoubtedly deserve.”
When you set out to achieve short-term happiness, you’ll do it. It’s not a high bar to cross.
But this doesn’t bring a meaningful life. And it doesn’t bring long-term success.
For that, you really only need one thing.
Citing another great graduation speech, when Oprah spoke to Harvard graduates in the same year, she spoke of the one thing critical for a meaningful life,
“No matter what challenges or setbacks or disappointments you may encounter along the way, you will find true success and happiness if you have only one goal — there really is only one, and that is this: To fulfill the highest, most truthful expression of yourself as a human being. You wanna max out your humanity by using your energy to lift yourself up, your family, and the people around you.”
The people of Brave New World were content. They were happy. But would any of us consider a life of drug-induced stupor to be a good life? Would anyone choose to live a life that’s mindlessly drifting from one distraction to the next? Treating life as a chore to be endured rather than a gift to be treasured.
When President John F. Kennedy was visiting the NASA space center in 1962, he introduced himself to a janitor and asked what he was doing.
To which the janitor responded, “Well, Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon.”
The janitor was part of a team to change the course of history. Is there any doubt that he took pride in his work? That he valued the service he provided every day?
We all need a purpose. We all need a mission. It doesn’t need to change the world, but it does need to change something. Otherwise, what’s the point of our being here?
“‘All right then,’ said the Savage defiantly, ‘I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.’” – Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
Let’s all acknowledge that pursuing a purpose isn’t easy. When we’re all free to strive and struggle on our chosen paths, not all of us will win.
But when we’re engaged in work that we consider meaningful, our happiness isn’t defined by the finish line.
We find happiness in the striving. In the challenge. In the pursuit of a prize that we may never actually find.
Think back on the most important moments in your life. Rarely are these times when we’re happy. It’s usually a struggle, pushing towards a purpose bigger than ourselves. One we don’t always achieve.
As Seth Godin wrote, “Trying and failing is better than merely failing, because trying makes you an artist and gives you the right to try again.”
The alternative is to avoid the pain. Avoid the discomfort. Avoid the risk.
Numb the negative side of life.
But we cannot selectively number our emotions. Paraphrasing from Brene Brown’s tremendous TED talk on vulnerability,
“We are the most in-debt, obese, addicted, and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history. You cannot selectively numb emotion. When we numb sadness and grief, we also numb happiness, joy, and gratitude.”
So claim the challenges. And the disappointments. The struggles and the letdowns. The frustration, the grief, and the pain. Because they all go hand-in-hand with pursuing a calling that’s actually worth pursuing.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Claim Your Meaning
“After those weeks of idleness in London, with nothing to do, whenever he wanted anything, but to press a switch or turn a handle, it was pure delight to be doing something that demanded skill and patience.” – Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
Remember when you were a kid and would spend all day playing outside, absorbed in that day’s pursuit. Not realizing the time until you heard your mom’s voice yelling “Dinnertime!”
When was the last time you were so engaged in an activity that you lost all account of time? When the hours flew by just as they did when we were young and chasing those youthful visions?
Remember that time you felt connected with life. Those days spent in service to a goal far greater than yourself. What’s that story?
Tell it. Remember it. That’s meaning. That’s fulfillment.
As stronger distractions and newer addictions continue to apply more pressure, remember that it’s always in our power to pursue things that are meaningful.
As Huxley cautioned us in a 1958 interview with Mike Wallace,
“We can foresee, and we can do a great deal to forestall. After all, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”
Stay vigilant. Choose meaning.