“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
Our lives consist of tiny moments, and the habitual actions that we fill them with. When we resolve to improve our lives, what we’re really doing is resolving to improve our habits, to vanquish the bad habits that build to a poisonous swarm, sowing dissatisfaction and scuppering our long-term happiness, and replacing them with good habits that fill us with blissful contentment.
Any attempt to improve our lives must start with an examination of our habits. This isn’t an easy task. We aren’t usually motivated to do something for just one reason, but are instead compelled to act because of a range of reasons that can be difficult to determine. Examining our habits therefore requires a meticulous, structured scrutiny—a deep examination of your behaviour, with the opportunity to expel the habits that sabotage your happiness.
Here’s how it’s done. If you want to get some practical value out of this article, open up a text editor and try it yourself.
1. Decide which habit you want to examine
Any single habit will do. Maybe you want to better understand why you use Instagram, or go the gym five times a week.
2. Write down your reasons for completing the habit
Take your time, be honest, and try to list as many reasons as you can for completing your habit.
If I were to examine my habit for writing, I might list the following reasons:
I want people to think that I’m smart and capable, because I’m insecure about my intelligence.
I think I’m a naturally good writer, so writing makes me feel competent and improves my self-esteem.
It brings order and structure to the chaos of my thoughts.
I enjoy the English language.
It earns me a little extra money.
I love stories and narrative-style writing.
3. Order them by strength
Order your reasons by whatever produces the strongest motivation for you; by whichever rings the most true. If you’re using bullets, make them a numbered list.
Here’s my list:
I think I’m a naturally good writer, so writing makes me feel competent and improves my self-esteem.
I want people to think that I’m smart and capable, because I’m a little insecure about my intelligence.
It brings order and structure to the chaos of my thoughts.
I love stories and narrative-style writing.
I enjoy the English language.
It earns me a little extra money.
4. Try to understand whether each reason is worth it
Go through each reason, one-by-one, and consider whether it’s genuinely helping to improve your life. Do you think it’s giving you long-term happiness or contentment, or just a quick thrill that disappears faster than a Machiavellian con man? It’s difficult to identify whether something makes us happy, or will lead to a happy outcome, so this step requires much patience and reflection.
To continue with my writing examples:
I think I’m a naturally good writer, so writing makes me feel competent and improves my self-esteem
When I produce a good piece of writing that resonates with my audience, I feel a wonderful sense of confidence and achievement, and it encourages me to write again. It improves my self-esteem and makes me feel good about myself. I still find writing to be tough, and it requires perserverance to get through. But I always finish with a deep sense of satisfaction, making this reason a worthy one.
I want people to think that I’m smart and capable, because I’m a little insecure about my intelligence
This reason is similar to the above—a desire to improve my self-esteem, but considered from a difficult angle. I enjoy writing because it can make me appear smart and insightful to others, which I crave. The issue with this is that I’m placing my confidence in the hands of other people, who can’t always be relied on. Maybe they’ll like my article, or maybe they’ll hate it, and their votes have the power to make me gratified or disappointed.
As social animals who crave approval, this reason is difficult to avoid. So much of what we do is for the sake of other people (this is the foundation of social media), but it’s a whimisical, precarious form of happiness. I don’t believe that this reason is helping to improve my life.
Writing brings order and structure to the chaos of my thoughts
“Sentences are only an approximation, a net one flings over some sea pearl which may vanish.”
Virginia Woolf was one of the first authors to convey the chaos of our conscious minds, which rather than running as an ordered process, with one logical thought after another, is more like a bombardment of randomness without narrative or construct. I seem to have a million thoughts a day, most of which I don’t know what to do with. Writing allows me to channel the chaos into a single focused stream, producing words that attempt to clarify a particular idea or a problem, which once developed, create a long-lasting narrative that my anarchic mind can refer back to. A tiny slice of chaos has been simplified, and I feel that I better understand myself and the world, even if a little. This gives me a refreshing sense of peace and contentment: I’m not just a confused and overwhelmed ape, thrown into the world without his permission, but a temporary master of my own thoughts and destiny.
I believe that this reason helps me to improve my life.
I love stories and narrative-style writing
Life is fundamentally meaningless. The universe is a place where stuff just happens without rhyme or reason, and stories are a way for us to give meaning to these happenings. For me, writing about a particular experience is making sense of it by deciding why it must have been that way, which reduces its uncertainty, randomness, and meaninglessness. In the absence of an omnipotent god to tell me what my life means, I choose the words that come out of my head, instead.
This reason seems a worthy one.
I enjoy the English language
The English language is a fascinating mishmash of weirdness. I love the fact that I can draw from a dictionary of over a million words to make sense of the world. I can describe a toilet-roll brouhaha at the local supermarket—the kerfuffle of the virus-fearing citizens, who need to calm down unless they want to spend a night in the local hoosegow. Or I can tell you about the disconcerting collywobbles that rubble my abdomen after last night’s hot wing challenge. Such words entertain me to the core, and I love this aspect of writing.
Writing earns me a little extra money
As much as I need and sometimes crave more money, studies show that once you have your basic needs met, more money doesn’t tend to increase your long-term happiness. I’ve never been particularly ambitious for this reason. When I write a popular article, it’s nice to get a paycheck bump from Medium. But would I miss it? Not really.
As long as a I have a full-time, steady job, this reason doesn’t seem worth it.
5. Decide whether to give up the habit
Once you’ve been through each reason, spending a good deal of time reflecting on whether they help to improve your life, you should be able to tell whether the habit is good or bad for you on balance. I believe writing to be a positive force in my life, and I wouldn’t give it up for the world, but if I completed this exercise for my social media use, I know what my conclusion would be.
Our actions are motivated by a range of reasons that can be difficult to determine. By breaking each of them down into their underlying reasons, we can examine them more closely, and better understand whether they’re helping to improve our lives. Putting our habits under the microscope can help us to appreciate the good a little more, and give us the motivation needed to quit the bad.
By the year 2050, 70% of humanity is expected to live in cities across the globe1. Our already gargantuan concrete jungles will continue to grow, swollen with millions of ambitious jostlers, immersed in the higgledy-piggledy game of life.
The sheer scale of our cities can quickly become tiring; their excitement a jangle on our overstimulated nerves, as though being repeatedly zapped with a cattle prod. While there’s much to love and appreciate—delicious coffee; bars awash with friendly, tipsy faces; the soft twinkling of densely-packed skyscrapers—cities can quickly become overbearing, creating a longing for the soothing calm of the wide outdoors: an expansive wood with zigzag walking paths; a serene national park, echoing with the warbles of luminous, tippy-tappy tropical birds; or a soaring, snow-tipped mountain, so utterly glorious that it appears to have been designed with the purpose of taking your breath away.
Spending time in nature can be a formidable conqueror of stress. A plodding amble beside a bubbling stream, away from the merciless chaos of modern civilisation, can do wonders for the soul—cortisol levels dampened, ruminations hushed2, and contentment heightened, as though everything is just as it should be. The smokey topaz hue of a soaring redwood, the millions of blades of fulgent grass that encroach upon it, and the red-tailed hawks that float on the overhead airwaves, are all unquestionably perfect. Their flawlessness bathes us in appreciation, and though it’s tragically difficult for us to realise, we’re an expression of the very same universe, and share their perfection. What’s to achieve, if everything is already sublime? Nature’s sole ambition is to perpetuate into the future—a bespeckled leaf-toed gecko doesn’t dream of sitting in the boss’ chair one day, head swollen with status, nor does a mountain assume that it’ll be more attractive if it attains a gym membership, in an effort to enlarge its craggy north face for the ladies. Everything is already exactly as it should be.
“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”
“Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
For entry into its realm, nature demands our ambition as payment, returned a little lighter upon exit. With our opportunism all but vanquished, there’s nothing to do but open up our senses to the majesty that we’ve gained access to—basking in the tranquility of a tulip-strewn meadow, bobbing in the gentle waves of the Spanish blue Mediterranean ocean, or doggedly trudging up the gruelling slopes of a serrated limestone mountain, offering views that would melt the heart of the most ardent industrialist.
“This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.”
The inconceivable grandeur of nature can have a powerful diminishing effect, reducing us to tiny specks lost in a vast landscape, and inviting us into a perspective that fills us with humility. There’s nothing quite as humbling as standing before a colossal thousand-foot granite mountain, or watching as a skyscraper-sized chunk of ice detaches itself from a glacier, slamming into the ocean and throwing up a wall of formidable water. Such things are mightier than us, and we must prostrate ourselves before them. Worthier gods couldn’t be found in all the galaxies of the universe.
“Nature is not vying for our attention or demanding anything from us (unlike the media, advertisement and the entertainment industry) but instead always remains in the background, awaiting like a long lost friend, our attention to reignite the friendship once again—for free.”
The term “humility” is derived from the Latin word humilitas, in turn related to humilis, which can be translated as “grounded” or “from the earth”4. To be humble is to return to the place from which we came—a homecoming that instills us with a contented sense of belonging. The vast majority of our evolutionary past was spent in the wild, rustling through swathes of elephant grass on the African plains, or darkened by the shadows of oak trees, immersed in a murky deciduous forest. It’s no wonder that we feel so at home among nature—homo sapiens have spent 98% of their history in it. There’s no denying the magnificence of modern living, with its glistening, expansive cities, but in the depths of our soul, some of us feel most at home in the wild. Our desire to “get away from it all” might be translated as a longing to return to the peace and solitude of a wide-set mountain valley, echoing with the hungry cries of circling golden eagles. We feel a profound affinity with nature not just because of our dependence on it, but because we are it. Our tendency to think of ourselves as separate from nature is a grave error. Humans are the universe expressing itself in a unique way—one single form of expression among billions.
“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
For those of us lacking in the faith of an almighty, monotheistic god, or struggling to identify what gives voice to our hearts, nature can provide us with the meaning that we so desperately crave. When gazing upon the rouge-painted slopes of a rolling autumn hill, reflected in the stillness of a shimmering lake, the beauty of what you’re observing is the point of everything, pacifying the need for any kind of ultimate purpose. The soaring significance of nature is often achieved in the most beautifully simple way—not an embellishment in sight, nor any need for bells and whistles, just a torrent of water suddenly suspended in mid-air, then cascading downwards in glad acquiesce to gravity, quietly dissipating until there’s nothing left but fine mist.
“Millions of eyes, I knew, had gazed at this landscape, and for me it was like the first smile of the sky. It took me out of myself in the deepest sense of the word. It assured me that but for my love and the wondrous cry of these stones, there was no meaning in anything. The world is beautiful, and outside it there is no salvation.”
The immobilising awe that we can feel as we gaze through a vista in a sun-kissed coastal town, blue sea twinkling in the distance, is a connection to an astonishing universe that requires no point other than its own existence. Awe entwines us with the natural world, strengthening our affinity with this effortlessly ravishing planet that we’re so incredibly fortunate to be a part of. Spending time in nature allows us to experience this awe.
“Everything seems futile here except the sun, our kisses, and the wild scents of the earth.”
“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”
Nature’s cadence is one of easy-going plodding—the sweeping Himalayas took 50 million years to form5, and here we are dashing about like industrious mice, busy busy busy, hoping to achieve even the tiniest thing of significance. It’s impossible to savour something when possessed by a speed demon, hell-bent on achievement, forgoing the joy of peaceful dawdling—doing nothing more than luxuriating in the moment. When we find ourselves gawping at the sun-blistered chasm of the Grand Canyon, the sheer spectacle transforms us from madcap hares into attentive tortoises, forcing us to appreciate its majesty at a more fortuitous pace, one in which we’re less likely to become the victims of a premature heart-attack.
“Nature is a labyrinth in which the very haste you move with will make you lose your way.”
Nature applies a much-needed brake on our ever-increasing acceleration, led astray by the belief that status-fuelled achievement can somehow offer us contentment. All of that nonsense is quickly forgotten when we find ourselves ambling down a countryside-lane, tasting berries as we go, happy with nothing more than the natural delights of the earth.
“Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
“How many hours have I spent crushing absinthe leaves, caressing ruins, trying to match my breathing with the world’s tumultuous sighs! Deep among wild scents and concerts of somnolent insects, I open my eyes and heart to the unbearable grandeur of this heat-soaked sky.”
Our world is truly magnificent, with so much goodness to offer us. And yet, much of this beauty is in danger of being lost to the ravages of global warming, fuelled by humanity’s unrelenting greed. It’s a tale of incomparable tragedy—as we choke the earth, we choke ourselves. We must do everything in our power to protect our planet, lest we destroy its irreplaceable delights.
It isn’t too late for us to slow the damage, but we must do our part. With collective action, we can help to protect the pristine solace of our natural world, so that we may continue to become willingly bewitched by its abundant enchantments. Our planet can only take so much abuse—the danger that we face cannot be understated.
Never before has something been this urgent. This spectacular world of ours can endure into the everlasting future, its breathtaking magnificence open for all, but only if we become fully conscious of the significance of the problem, accept that the responsibility for change lies with us, and take repeated and consistent action. If we work together, we can save this fantastic world of ours.
If you’d like to learn more about the devastating effects that global warming is having on our planet, check out these awesome shows on Netflix:
The pursuit of happiness might be considered the biggest scam in modern history—an endeavour undertaken by millions of people worldwide, straining and toiling to get as much happiness as possible before their inevitable demise.
The idea was first made popular by 17th century philosopher John Locke, gained further fashion after being added to the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson, and since then, has been considered a worthy quest for people all over the globe. It makes intuitive sense—what could be more desirable than living a life of happiness, and as such, why not make it our primary goal?
If there’s a halo-wearing God watching, he must surely be stifling a laugh at the farcical irony of the situation, fully aware that happiness cannot be obtained by aiming for it—a phenomenon known as the paradox of hedonism. If he had a shred of his famed benevolence, he might poke his furry face through a gap in the sky and warn us of our ignorance, followed by a simple explanation of how we canlive a happy, contented life—by seeking meaning, not happiness.
The pursuit of happiness is often sought through typical avenues such as high-paying jobs—bank account stuffed to the brim with crisp, hard-won notes—careers of admirable status, fawned over by the insufferable sycophants of the world, or wiry Instagram-model girlfriends who have the “perfect” figures, but personalities akin to a group of confused, one-footed pigeons. Such ambitions are tragically misguided. If we want to live a fulfilling life, brimming with long-lasting contentment, the pursuit of meaningis the adventure that’ll get us there. In the words of concentration camp survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl—“happiness cannot be pursued, it must ensue”—and it proceeds from a devoted, impassioned pursuit of what we find personally meaningful.
What is it that you consider to have intrinsic value, not for its high-esteem within society, or prized for its rarity, but because it occupies a little corner of your heart—a treasure without the glitter of gold or diamonds, but priceless nonetheless? This is where your happiness lies, and its discovery might be the most important task of your life.
Once we hurl the erroneous pursuit of happinessinto the trash where it belongs, we can strap on our boots and get started on the more commendable pursuit of meaning. But how do we discover what’s subjectively meaningful to us, to be commissioned in perpetual glory as our North Star—a luminous, unmistakable heading that can determine our life’s direction?
Below is an extensive list of suggestions that serves as a instructional guide, each with their own merits.
Ways to discover meaning
1. Figure out your core values
Our core values typically define our true character—the person who we want to be, as opposed to the person who society wants us to be. When we’re living in accordance with our values, we feel a peaceful, blissful sense of authenticity, able to navigate the world wholeheartedly, with fervent confidence and commitment. In contrast, going against our values feels inherently wrong, as though our soul is in a state of revolt, being coerced into an action that we have no desire to take. It’s how a benevolent charity-worker might feel when being forced to shut the doors of a soup kitchen, with a queue of hungry people still wanting to eat. Everything about the action feels fallacious.
When it comes to your own values, maybe making people laugh is what you love the most, basking in the glow of squinted eyes and rumbling chortles. Perhaps compassion is your forte, and you find yourself flooded with surges of motivation in the face of unnecessary suffering. Maybe it’s relentless kindness—even towards the most spiteful, cantankerous of characters—that fuels your behaviour.
Identifying the core values that motivate you are an effective way to discover personal meaning. One way to achieve this is to browse through James Clear’s list of core values, select five that have resonating appeal for you, and then consider what actions you might be able to take for each value. For example, if you have a burning aspiration for fairness, you might want to consider a career as a slick-haired, hotshot lawyer, or perhaps march for the awareness of an intolerable social injustice. If wisdom is your thing, you might nip down to the local library and borrow a copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, to absorb the emperor’s extensive stockpile of smarts. If it’s friendship, make a concerted, ongoing effort to socialise with your buddies, old and new. Write all of this down, so that you can refer back to it if you’re ever feeling aimless. If you’d prefer a more guided approach to discovering your values, you might consider taking this free values assessment.
“Tell me what you pay attention to and I will tell you who you are.”
José Ortega y Gasset
Contemplating the traits of your personal heroes can also help to identify your values. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has recently been thrust into the limelight after the terrorist incident in Christchurch, and though she was already well-known for her progressive, liberal stance, her composed handling of the tragedy has won the hearts of people around the world. What we admire in others, we also admire in ourselves. The traits of our heroes provide strong clues as to our own values, whether it’s the authenticity and kindness of Jacinda Ardern, the humor and optimism of Winston Churchill, or the creativity and determination of Albert Einstein. When we live by our values, we channel the spirits of our personal heroes.
Living in accordance with your core values is one of the most effective ways to have an honest, meaningful, and happy life.
“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
2. Experiment as much as possible
The old adage “you don’t know what you don’t know”tells us that we need to experiment in order to find meaningful pursuits. You’ll never know that you’re a veritable speed demon capable of smashing Nürburgring lap records until you strap on your helmet, climb into the racing seat, and slam your foot on the throttle. Curious experimentation is a snow-covered sherpa that leads you to momentous places. With willingness comes discovery, and the capacity to unearth life-changing interests, altering your course in drastic and thrilling new directions.
Roman Krznaric—author of How To Find Fulfilling Work—believes that experimentation is one of the most effective ways for us to find meaningful employment. Theory only gets us so far—all of the books or conversations in the world can’t tell us what it’s actually liketo work in a particular role. We need to get our hands dirty, going so far as taking a sabbatical and trying to get some unpaid work in our desired roles. This is obviously impossible for careers that require specialised training (such as nursing), for which conversation and research are the only real methods. But for many jobs and hobbies, experience is the best educator, offering tangible and extensive real-world understanding.
“Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.”
Fresh experiences help to broaden our view of the world, uncovering exciting new aspects for us to explore. Birthday coming up? Ask for an experience instead of a product. Not only will you get to do something strange and unfamiliar, but your personal well-being will be kept safe from the corruption of excessive materialism. An evening spent in front of a pottery wheel—softly humming Unchained Melody while your teacher observes your archaic technique—can be infinitely more valuable than the latest electronic contraption that repeatedly steals your attention.
“Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you.”
Books can also be potent primers for new interests—piquing our curiosity by offering the perspectives of fresh and compelling minds, opening up entirely new avenues for us to explore. This is something that makes Medium such a wealth of information—we’re able to experience the world through the stories of ordinary, everyday people, each with their own captivating tales to tell.
“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born, and the day you find out why.”
3. Look back to your childhood
Kids are the masters of existence—they know what they want, and they pursue it emphatically, not stopping to worry about whether it’s the right thing. The immeasurably wise Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed that “time is a game played beautifully by children”, whose unerring mindfulness and focused attention on the present could put even the mighty Buddha to shame.
“The soul is healed by being with children.”
If you enjoyed something as a kid, chances are you’ll enjoy it as an adult. Our motivations are warped by maturity—we start to ask ourselves why we’re painting a goofy-looking giraffe in luminous acrylic shades of orange and cream, as if there must be some underlying reason for it. This absurd argument can be extended to our entire lives: why do anything? Painting a necky mammal can be just as rewarding and pleasurable as a night in a 5-star luxury hotel. It doesn’t have to have to be sold for hoards of cash, or posted on Instagram for surges of feel-good chemicals. We can just paint for the sake of painting, for nothing more than the process itself. Age can introduce an unnecessary focus on the end result, with fantasies of status and glory fogging our brains, masking what’s trulyvaluable—doing something that you love, just because you love it.
As children, there was no need to dredge up reasons for doing something—we did it purely because it resonated with us, holding our attention for an extended period of time until we were ready to move onto another glorious mini-adventure. Our expertise was never a concern; the perplexing limbs of our physically-deranged giraffe never bothered us. We just loved painting, because it was meaningful to us.
When you find something that naturally energises you—an activity that repeatedly draws you back into its clutches—procrastination becomes much less of a problem. Though it may be bursting with difficulty, accompanied by an uncomfortable skepticism about our own ability, we still harbour an unusual, pulling urge to keep at it, because for whatever mysterious reason, we’ve found something that is meaningful to us; something that charges our souls with driving energy. It might be a natural fascination with taking apart greasy old car engines, meticulously cleaning the parts and then putting them back together again. Perhaps you find yourself girding your proverbial loins before starting a thousand-page book on advanced economics, excited at the prospect of becoming a stock-market genius, but nervous about the bewildering mathematics. Whatever your jam, it belongs to you and you alone, and it energises your spirit through meaning.
“A great fire burns within me, but no one stops to warm themselves at it, and passers-by only see a wisp of smoke”
Vincent Van Gogh
5. Figure out your motivators
There’s two types of motivation—extrinsic, and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is when you’re driven by an external factor, such as money or social status. Though this type of motivation can be strong for some people (money can be an intense driver), it isn’t something that we really wantto do. The behaviour can be provoked with a juicy dangling carrot, but when the carrot is removed, the behaviour stops. Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is doing something for its own sake, because it’s personally meaningful to you. These activities are naturally vitalising, forging an innate desire to complete them. You’re much more likely to return to intrinsically motivating tasks.
Much of what we do contains a mixture of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. Writing down your honest reasons for undergoing an activity can help to determine their motivational makeup, in order to determine whether they’re genuinely meaningful to you. These are my reasons for writing:
I want people to benefit from my ideas, so that they can live better lives (intrinsic)
I enjoy writing in an entertaining, descriptive way (intrinsic)
The positive feedback that I get from other people makes me feel good about myself (extrinsic)
If most of your reasons for doing something are extrinsic, and unless you’re happy coasting through the process without any realpassion for it, or without the desire to become a true master, you might want to focus your efforts elsewhere. It’s possible for an extrinsically motivating task to turn into something intrinsic, and for this reason remains valuable for broadening your range of hobbies, but if the majority of your reasons remain extrinsic after a decent period of time, you should consider moving onto something that makes your heart sing. Extrinsically motivating tasks are somebody else’s obsession, not yours.
“To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself. She has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances.”
6. What are you willing to suffer for?
You may have a burning desire to be a glorified rockstar, assaulting the strings of your electric guitar while a thousand starry-eyed fans sing along to your lyrics. But are you willing to spend endless hours alone, strumming away at your instrument, until your brain is frazzled and fingers red raw? Are you willing to endure the drudgery of long-distance travel, arse squashed into the padding-shy seat of a minivan, driving towards another tiring, late-night gig? Are you willing to undergo the pain, frustration and risk required to become a master of your art?
Often, we’re more in love with the ideaof something than the actual reality. Successful people may seem like fortunately gifted individuals who have sailed to the top of their profession with ease, but their path has been paved with grit, determination, and a ton of hard work. They’re successful because they find such a depth of meaning to their craft that they’re willing to suffer for it; to display the tenacity needed to struggle through the difficult times, when it’s much easier to just give up.
“Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.”
“Everyone has talent. What’s rare is the courage to follow it to the dark places where it leads.”
When we find something truly meaningful, the negative aspects become endurable. We’re fully aware that our chosen pursuit carries just as much tedium and pain as anything else, but it’s valuable to us nonetheless, and we’ll tolerate it over and over, because we’ve found something that puts a dazzling glint in our eye; something for which we’ll happily rise from our soft, warm beds in the morning, to spend the day toiling and cursing in order to become masters of our craft.
“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but — I hope — into a better shape.”
These are the immortal words of philosophical entertainer Alan Watts, who helped to popularise Eastern philosophy in the West. Money is the ultimate extrinsic motivator, and though we need it to survive, we certainly don’t need to spend our lives glued to our office desk for exhausting 12-hour shifts. Research shows that once we have enough money to do the things we want, greater quantities do little to improve our emotional well-being. So why do persist with the ludicrous and stressful rat-race—elbowing and biting our way to the front of pack—when there’s solid and extensive scientific evidence to suggest that we only need to earn just enough in order to be content? With this mindset in place, we can begin our search for an intrinsically, fulfilling career, as opposed to a career driven by the bewitching glitter of gold. A better question to ask yourself would be “what would you do if money were less important?“
Though it’s a foolish, utopian notion to assume that everyone can have their dream job, it’s perfectly realistic and achievable to aim for jobs that are good enough;for a career that motivates us intrinsically for the most part,yielding an appropriate wage for our life’s desires. There’ll always be aspects that we dislike — searching for the “perfect” job is folly, a consequence of unrealistic and unachievable expectations. But a career that motivates and challenges us, while still being a bit shit from time to time? That’s a worthy goal.
“It is impossible to escape the impression that people commonly use false standards of measurement — that they seek power, success and wealth for themselves and admire them in others, and that they underestimate what is of true value in life.”
Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is credited with discovering the fascinating concept of “flow“—the sensation of losing yourself in an activity, productivity maximised, and all sense of time lost. When we’re in this state, we think of nothing else but the task at hand—it’s pure, unadulterated focus, often referred to as being “in the zone”, and considered by Csikszentmihalyi to be the optimal experience that one can have. Moments of flowhave the potential to give birth to our greatest work. Some artists become so immersed in flowthat they disregard basic needs such as water, food and sleep.
Have you ever found yourself in a state of pristine concentration, so immersed in the activity that all else ceased to exist; chatter of your internal monologue temporarily repressed, and equipped with a razor-sharp sense of awareness? This is the experience of flow— an intrinsically motivating, meaningful enterprise where you should probably be devoting your time.
9. What would you do if you couldn’t fail?
Fear of failure can prevent us from participating in difficult, meaningful activities, paralysing us until the opportunity passes, and we’re made comfortably safe again. Failure can be characterised by feelings of intense embarrassment, frustration, regret, powerlessness, and most importantly, a strong sense of shame, leaving us feeling bad about who we are. These are vigorous motivators againstdoing what we find to be personally meaningful. Using your imagination to expel the prospect of failure can help to make valuable pursuits seem more encouraging, with less reluctance to participate.
“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”
Robert F. Kennedy
The fact of the matter is, you’re going to fail repeatedly, especiallyfor something difficult and worthwhile. What’s the worst that could happen? It’s better to fail, than to have never tried. Those who regularly fail are the most courageous among us. Imagining failure as a non-entity can offer the heroism needed to identify and undergo meaningful endeavours.
“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
10. What would you do if you only had six months to live?
Death can feel like a faraway, dreamlike concept, best kept locked in the dark corners of our minds where it can be ignored, until the day that it bursts into view, fierce and unrelenting. At this point, the wasted hours of our lives come into sharp focus, and we might start questioning what we want to do for the final stretch of our life. Are you happy to keep on doing your 9-to-5—commuting to the office for another six months of depressing drudgery—or would you prefer to stay at home with a captivating novel? Perhaps you’d like to spend the time reconnecting with long-forgotten family or friends, the company of whom lit up your life in days gone by, but tragically fell by the wayside? Maybe it’s finally time to fill the spare room with an expansive train set, with multi-platformed stations, chubby conductors, and freshly-painted townspeople?
When time becomes more limited, it also becomes more precious, and we’re left wondering how we reallywant to spend it. If you only have six months to live, what are the most personally meaningful things that you’ve do?
“I’m the one that’s got to die when it’s time for me to die, so let me live my life the way I want to.”
A sense of comfortable gratification washes over us when we’re exercising our natural talents. The activity can feel instinctive, almost second-nature, and we’re encouraged to push harder to advance our skill. Most of us want to achieve mastery over the world—a Nietzschean will to power—so our natural talents can be particularly enticing, boosting our treasured sense of autonomy and self-confidence.
“The person born with a talent they are meant to use will find their greatest happiness in using it. ”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
There isn’t much point in struggling through something for which you have little natural skill, because there’s a good chance you’ll give up anyway. Only those with iron grit who are backed by a strong extrinsic motivator can muster the determination to become masters at such things. Most people get frustrated, give up, and move onto something more befitting of their abilities. There’s nothing wrong with this—why waste your time on something that doesn’t suit your particular type of intelligence? Our natural talents, and the innate desire to exercise them, can be valuable sources of personal meaning.
“Hide not your talents, they for use were made, What’s a sundial in the shade?”
12. Listen to what others say about you
Your friends, family and colleagues probably know a great deal about you—perhaps more than you’d like. The words that you choose and the tone used to deliver them; the body language that you adopt; your unique way of solving problems—all these things construct a unique personality that the people close to you can readily identify, making them a valuable source of information about yourself.
That comment from your overly-enthusiastic colleague about your instinctive eye for design is a hint at your natural talents, as is the constructive criticism from your boss about your poor lack of planning. The raised eyebrows of your friends as you perform a self-composed guitar solo is strong evidence of your burgeoning musical skill, to be sustained if you have the appetite for it.
Other people provide constant clues of our natural talents, which can be registered if we‘re mindfully attentive. There’ll likely be sycophants and phonies along the way who’ll distort your self-estimations, but these are usually spotted easily—insincerity exudes the most pungent of smells. Generally, listening to what others say about you can yield valuable clues to your meaningful pursuits.
13. Talk to people
The unique preferences of every person who you interact with makes them a goldmine of information. A career in air traffic control may have never been a consideration, until being regaled with tales of the tarmac tower by your wife’s spirited, distant relative. The casual kitchen chat you had with your co-worker about the revived therapeutic studies of psilocybin could ignite a passion for learning about magic mushrooms. The lives of other people can be fascinating and remarkably educational, if you ask the right questions. Most people love talking about themselves, and they’ll spill their soul if you exhibit a genuine curiosity about them. Even more so if you ply them with red wine.
Our mobile phones are destroying these lovely little moments that we have with people, by offering a temporary reprieve from the inevitable awkwardness that arises during conversation. A second or two of silence, and our phone becomes more appealing than a freshly baked, crack-like Krispy Kreme. Taking our phone out in the middle of a chat is a death knell to the conversation—an announcement that we can’t handle a little bit of discomfort, so we’re reverting to our phones instead, where there’s no chance of social awkwardness, but also little chance of discovering something meaningful through honest, open conversation.
14. Consider something civil
It doesn’t just have to be about ourselves—deeply fulfilling meaning can be found through helping other people. Altruistic behaviour bathes us in a warm and contented glow, reinforcing our psychological need to relate, and encouraging us to repeat our act. Benevolent prosocial behaviour can provide us with long-lasting, joyful satisfaction.
“For it is in the giving that we receive”
Saint Francis of Assisi
A study from Florida State University found that the “giver” in a relationship had a greater sense of purpose in their life. Our subjective existence instills us with selfishness, but when we shift our focus to other people and act selflessly, without any thought of reciprocation, we often feel wonderful. It’s a win-win situation, creating positive vibes for both parties.
There’s a ton of ways to be prosocial: charity work; helping an old lady cross the street; unexpectedly cleaning the apartment for your partner; making the effort to talk to your often-ignored office cleaners, and much more. These little acts of kindness can provide you with a deep and valuable sense of meaning.
15. What social injustice bothers you?
Social injustice can stir up intense, morally-driven feelings of unfairness, followed by a powerful motivation to set things straight. Are you bothered by the fact that the American justice system is skewed towards punishing young black men? Consider doing something about it—raise awareness for the injustice through social media; integrate yourself into the Black Lives Matter movement, or learn about the intricacies of filmmaking so that you make your own documentary about the corruption and greed that fuels the American prison system.
Social injustice can light a fire in our soul, and though often accompanied by feelings of anger and distress, there’s also a formidable sense of meaning. What could be more meaningful than helping to battle an immoral discrimination, in order to make the world a kinder, fairer place?
“As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways in which I could respond to my situation — either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course.”
Martin Luther King Jr.
The pursuit of happiness is a fool’s game—a critically-acclaimed tale of tragedy penned by the world’s finest author, woven with threads of gloomy irony, with the pursuit itself being the saboteur of our happiness. Thankfully, there’s a laudable alternative: the pursuit of meaning. Our lives are but a tiny flicker of flame, lost in the darkness of untold millennia, until we discover the fuel that intensifies the blaze, unapologetically radiating our little corner of the world with dazzling luminosity.
Only through meaning can our light shine at its fullest, bestowing us with lasting, joyful happiness.
“Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer”
One of the most stinging ironies of our species is the pursuit of happiness, an idea that is tragically self-defeating. Like the donkey being pushed forward by a glistening carrot that will forever elude him, pursuing happiness will position it just out of reach, but close enough for us to continue striving. It’s right there to be taken—so near and yet so far—if our grasping mitts were just a little longer.
As it turns out, happiness is incidental. It cannot be obtained by striving, and by doing so you’re making an ass of yourself. This is known as the paradox of hedonism, the idea that seeking happiness only serves to hinder it, and in fact, you’re more likely to be happier if you quit your foolish efforts.
An example from Wikipedia illustrates the concept perfectly:
“Suppose Paul likes to collect stamps. According to most models of behaviour, including not only utilitarianism, but most economic, psychological and social conceptions of behaviour, it is believed that Paul collects stamps because he gets pleasure from it. Stamp collecting is an avenue towards acquiring pleasure. However, if you tell Paul this, he will likely disagree. He does get pleasure from collecting stamps, but this is not the process that explains why he collects stamps. It is not as though he says, “I must collect stamps so I, Paul, can obtain pleasure”. Collecting stamps is not just a means toward pleasure. He simply likes collecting stamps, therefore acquiring pleasure indirectly.
This paradox is often spun around backwards, to illustrate that pleasure and happiness cannot be reverse-engineered. If for example you heard that collecting stamps was very pleasurable, and began a stamp collection as a means towards this happiness, it would inevitably be in vain. To achieve happiness, you must not seek happiness directly, you must strangely motivate yourself towards things unrelated to happiness, like the collection of stamps.”
Social psychologist Daniel Gilbert discovered that we’re notoriously bad at predicting what will make us happy—a term known as affective forecasting. Our ability to perform these projections is significant because it shapes our decisions, including those concerning our happiness. We’re like incompetent gamblers, hoping to hit the happiness jackpot, but ending up disappointed and in debt. We cannot attain this state of mind by aiming for it, making the pursuit of happiness a fool’s game.
“Happiness is like a cat, if you try to coax it or call it, it will avoid you; it will never come. But if you pay no attention to it and go about your business, you’ll find it rubbing against your legs and jumping into your lap”
Some experts go even further to claim that chasing happiness can actually make you depressed. Brock Bastian—a social psychologist based in Melbourne—identified higher depression rates in countries that place a premium on happiness, a effect created by the damaging idea that negative emotion can be forever evaded. When such feelings occur, a person might feel that there’s something wrong with them. This is exacerbated by the nauseating look at me I’m always happyillusion of social media, in which everybody appears to be better off than you, but in reality are suffering just as much.
It’s critical to understand that happiness is not our birthright, despite the bleatings of Thomas Jefferson. Our emotional range is to be fully traversed—end to end. It’s an unbreakable scale in which sacrificing sadness would mean doing the same for happiness – their existence is only possible because of the contrast between them. There’s no happiness without sadness; no light without dark; no up without down.
“What if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other — that whoever wanted to learn to ‘jubilate up to the heavens’ would also have to be prepared for ‘depression unto death?’
“Sadness isn’t a disorder that needs to be cured.”
Alain De Botton
In addition to being naturally varied, our emotions are also fleeting. Happiness cannot be purchased and battened down to prevent its escape, but instead enters our emotional fray, hugs us for a little while, and then leaves without warning. Our emotional state is in a constant state of flux, and ironically, the sooner we realise that joy cannot be coveted through the pursuit of happiness, the happier we’ll be.
“Most people think that happiness is something we attain, like a possession, and that once we have it, we get to keep it. But happiness is not a place we can live. It is a place we can visit”
We’re not the only one’s suffering—our planet is having a bad time too, being pushed to its limits in part by our greedy, rapacious materialism. Irony strikes once again— amassing mountains of stuff does nothing to increase our happiness or well-being. As we suffocate the world, we’re also suffocating ourselves.
So what should you focus on, if not happiness? How can we obtain happiness indirectly?
The answer lies in our estimation of what is meaningful; the parts of our lives that we personally deem to be valuable. For Paul, this was stamp collecting, a simple hobby in which he unearthed happiness; a hobby that others might find insufferably boring. We are the authors of our own fate, with a selection of tastes and values that are unique. Our personal sense of meaning will be different to someone else’s, and we’re blessed with the freedom to pursue our values. This is one of the most beautiful aspects of Liberalism – the idea that each of us is unique, which should be recognised, celebrated, and encouraged.
In Emily Esfahani Smith’s book The Power of Meaning, she analysed hundreds of scientific studies on meaningfulness, concluding that the characteristic features of a meaningful life are connecting to something greater than yourself, rather than a misplaced notion of hunting happiness. What we consider to be worthy can make us happy.
“Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”
Viktor Frankl, on the pursuit of happiness
“Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.”
In addition to offering happiness, research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life can enhance your mental and physical health, resiliency, self-esteem, and reduce the possibility of depression. Meaning is a solid, long-lasting base on which to build your life. Happiness, by contrast, vanishes quicker than a genie after a third wish.
“You don’t become happy by pursuing happiness. You become happy by living a life that means something”
Harold S. Kushner
“You use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.”
Martin E. P. Seligman
What is it that you personally value; that you find meaningful? What is it that draws you in, not because you assume it’ll make you happy, but because you consider it to be worthwhile?
Most people are repulsed by maliciousness. Being unkind to another human being is unnecessary, and so we want the ghastly offender away from us, preferably in shark-infested waters. There’s something about nastiness that makes our skin crawl; it’s worthless, and the culprit is clearly capable of personally targeting us too. Acting in a cruel way isn’t the best method for making friends either, unless the friends you want to make are equally as cunty, in which case you’re perfect for each other.
In a world where a disgusting, offensive narcissist sits atop the American empire, it’s more important than ever to be kind. Trump has become a global news sensation, his supporters delight in every one of his ludicrous words, despite their nastiness. Perhaps because of their nastiness. Sexual assault victim Christine Blake Ford is a “horseface,” Mexicans are rapists, and Hillary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband. If one of the most powerful men in the world speaks confidently in this way without batting an eyelid, what kind of message does that send to his followers? Gradually, being vile and obnoxious becomes acceptable. But every extreme situation can be countered with something equally intense from its opponents, and in this case, the counterpunch is to kill them with kindness; to be relentlessly and unequivocally courteous to everyone that we meet, regardless of whether they’re showing you the same gratitude. Love conquers hate—the Indian Independence and American Civil Rights movements proved this in the most sublime way imaginable. They decided that love and kindness, not hate and hostility, was the only way to correct their dire situation, with unprecedented success. They decided to kill them with kindness, and it worked wonderfully, producing two of the most heart-wrenchingly beautiful victories ever witnessed.
“When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it – always.”
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
Martin Luther King Jr.
Being unkind can be dangerously insidious, particularly when dealing with situations in which the other person is displaying incompetence. Scolding them is effortless and often depressingly efficient. The result is that you’ve probably ruined their day. But hey, you got what you wanted. It can be difficult to keep cool in such situations, especially when you feel that your precious time is being wasted, but to kill them with kindness isn’t easy. There’s often a choice to make: efficient reproach, or less effective, patient kindness. By choosing the latter, it might take you longer to fulfill your objectives, but you’ve made the world a slightly better place in the process. Life can be a gruelling slog, and everyone is just trying their best to drag themselves through it, day by day. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you’re the only person struggling.
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.”
Unkind people are to be pitied, as their behaviour is often a result of their gloomy opinion of themselves. If you hate the world, there’s a good chance that you hate yourself too. A vicious stream of bilious words isn’t going to improve your deflated self-esteem; it just make things worse. It’s a motivation fueled by insecurity—by being malicious to another person, you’re attempting to position yourself above them in order to feel better about yourself. It’s a pathetic illusion of grandeur, and can be shattered by acting as a dogged exemplar of kindness, regardless of whether you get sniggered at.
“How people treat other people is a direct reflection of how they feel about themselves.”
Kindness, by contrast, is inextricably linked to happiness. Japanese researchers found that happy people are kinder than unhappy people, and that one’s sense of happiness rises when considering your acts of kindness. Being gracious releases neurochemicals that suffuse us with “helper’s high”, the very same circuits activated from recreational drugs such as MDMA or cocaine. It can also reduce your pain levels, and enhances both your physical and mental health. Being kind is incredibly good for you, and the most beautiful thing about it is that it doesn’t cost you anything at all. The investment that you make by putting a heartwarming smile onto someone’s face is returned back to you with interest. A single modest act of kindness can result in a huge chain of positive effects; it’s contagious, and spreads like angelic wildfire.
Treat others how you want to be treated, and kill them with kindness.
Most of us spend our lives fruitlessly chasing happiness, to our everlasting detriment.
It seems the natural thing to do; why on earth would we seek pain? Wouldn’t that make us debased masochists, delightfully sweating in anticipation of a jolly good bit of suffering?
Only pursuing positive experiences, it turns out, is a foolish endeavour. We’re robbing our lives of depth, because most things worth doing involve some degree of pain. It’s tempting to spend our days scrolling through social media like zombie consumers, safely protected from the possibility of a negative emotion emerging in our heads. But nothing is achieved by doing so; no sense of fulfilment will ever arise.
Alain De Botton says it better than anyone else:
The most fulfilling human projects appear inseparable from a degree of torment, the sources of our greatest joys lying awkwardly close to those of our greatest pains…
Why? Because no one is able to produce a great work of art without experience, nor achieve a worldly position immediately, nor be a great lover at the first attempt; and in the interval between initial failure and subsequent success, in the gap between who we wish one day to be and who we are at present, must come pain, anxiety, envy and humiliation. We suffer because we cannot spontaneously master the ingredients of fulfilment.
Nietzsche was striving to correct the belief that fulfilment must come easily or not at all, a belief ruinous in its effects, for it leads us to withdraw prematurely from challenges that might have been overcome if only we had been prepared for the savagery legitimately demanded by almost everything valuable.
– Alain De Botton
We must have the grit and fortitude to battle through pain if we want to achieve anything worthwhile. Sadness is not a disorder to be cured, it’s the path to a more fulfilling life.
The daily struggles that we have with our negative emotions only serve to exacerbate the very problem that we’re trying to solve. Pushing against unfavourable emotion, rather than accepting it, simply makes us feel worse. It’s as though we’re desperate to split ourselves in two: remove the undesirable, sickly sides of ourselves with a rusty blade. Trying to cut it away just poisons us.
It isn’t possible to be half-human. We must accept the parts of ourselves that we loathe; stop resisting the so-called negative aspects of our being. We cannot remove the bad. It’s useless to even try. We’ll live with embarrassment, shame, fear, unwanted desire, sickness, anxiety and every other despicable thought or feeling that we can imagine. The great George Orwell once said:
“Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or very foolish imagine otherwise.”
– George Orwell
What makes us so arrogant to think that we can dispel unhappiness from our lives? This misguided quest of attempting to make every single moment the happiest it can possibly be only results in inevitable disappointment; a bad taste in our mouths that we’ve been trying to wash out since adolescence. We’re destined for a rollercoaster of emotions:
“Fate guides the willing, drags the unwilling.”
We can battle fate and exacerbate the pain, or instead make the choice to spend our lives with an attitude of acceptance. Only by embracing the latter can we truly be happier.
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