15 Ways to Discover Meaning, and Steer Your Way to Happiness

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Photo by Huyen Nguyen on Unsplash

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 can live 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 meaning is 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 happiness into 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.

Guiding values can also make our lives easier, offering straightforward answers to the relentless and difficult decisions that befall us, endowing us with the strength we need to battle through adversity. Ambiguity vanishes with a strong sense of personal meaning—we know what’s important, and we know what do. Through meaning we find courage.

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.” 

Friedrich Nietzsche

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 Workbelieves 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 like to 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.”

Andre Gide

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.”

Thomas Jefferson

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.” 

Mark Twain

3. Look back to your childhood

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Photo by Robert Collins on Unsplash

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.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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 truly valuable—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.

4. Figure out what energises you

On Monday morning of every work week, a million defeated groans are released into the earth’s atmosphere, with the prospect of another day at work. Motivation can be an incredibly tough thing to muster, particularly for things that you don’t enjoy. Money has limited impetus, with the remainder of a work day spent fighting an internal battle to procrastinate, whether it’s flicking through the tripe on your Facebook feed, the vainglorious bullshit on Instagram, or the endless but often insipid entertainment on Reddit.

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 want to 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)
  • I want to improve my writing skills, in order to become a freelance writer (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 real passion 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.” 

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

6. What are you willing to suffer for?

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Photo by Alen Rojnic on Unsplash

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 idea of 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.”

Stephen King

“Everyone has talent. What’s rare is the courage to follow it to the dark places where it leads.”

Erica Jong

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.”

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

7. What would you do if money were no object?

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.” 

Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents

8. What do you lose yourself in?

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 flow have the potential to give birth to our greatest work. Some artists become so immersed in flow that 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 flowan 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 against doing 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, especially for 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.”

Michael Jordan

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 really want 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.”

Jimi Hendrix, Axis: Bold as Love

11. What are your natural talents?

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Photo by Pok Rie from Pexels

Intelligence is a multi-varied concept, with nine different types that we can exhibit. Some people are able to run their eyes over a page of matrix-like programming code and instantly understand what it does. Others are implausibly agile, able to leap effortlessly between buildings as though equipped with the limbs of an acrobatic spider monkey. Some can string complex but coherent sentences together with ease.

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?”

Benjamin Franklin

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”

Joseph Campbell

Why Longing For The Weekend Can Make You Unhappy

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It’s almost the weekend.

Those words can be heard from legions of employees across the globe, from colourless, drab offices, to arse-crack abundant construction sites. They’re often responded to with nodding, relieved heads, as though this week of miserable servitude has been more torturous than a spell at Auschwitz. Just one more day of the unassailable grind, and we’ll be blessed with meadow-prancing freedom.

It’s almost the weekend is another way of saying our lives are tough, and we need a break; a declaration that resonates for many people. Adult human life – with obligations to shelter, clothe and feed ourselves – can feel depressingly arduous, so the weekend becomes a highly anticipated hiatus in which we massage away the stresses of full-time employment. Weekends were invented for this reason, and help to keep us an acceptable amount of sane.

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the respite of Saturday and Sunday, but the commonplace utterance of it’s almost the weekend, while seemingly innocuous, is a damaging attitude to take. Whenever we make this proclamation, or find ourselves on its receiving end, we’re openly stating that we’re displeased about the time we spend at work, and that we cannot wait for it to be over. While this may be true, it’s reinforcing the idea that employment is something to be avoided at all costs, further tarnishing our attitude towards a mandatory practice in which we’ll spend the majority of our time on Earth. The more we whine about something, the worse it becomes in our minds. It’s almost the weekend is just a sorrowful, victim-like whinge, which serves to strengthen the idea that employment is an abomination, and that we should all be able to live in the woods like daisy-wielding, unwashed hippies. Until the boffins of this world construct super-robots who can safely do our bidding, or unless you’ve decided to spend your life shamelessly sponging off the government, work isn’t going anywhere soon. The woeful sufferer who oozes it’s almost the weekend commands respect from nobody, themselves least of all. It’s a defensive, miserable attitude in which life just isn’t fair.

You might have a truly dreadful job, or work in a toxic environment with psychotic, scarlett-faced managers who would remedy you with a cane if they could. If you’re in fortunate enough circumstances, dusting off your CV is an obvious response to hating your work. It’s certainly easier to be a forlorn coward, continuing on with your sorrowful employment while meekly declaring that it’s almost the weekend, but this does nothing to better your situation.

If you have responsibilities that forbid you from finding superior employment, or are restricted to a tiny pool of jobs, then for the time being the situation is out of your control. Similarly to those with fewer restrictions, dismal utterances of it’s almost the weekend are doing nothing but reinforcing your role as a deplorable victim, whose sufferings are worsened by the role you’ve assumed.

It’s almost the weekend is a desire to escape from your life, to flee from an uncomfortable situation instead of valiantly confronting it. We can learn a great deal from pain and discomfort; taking flight the moment it appears is relinquishing an opportunity for personal growth, in which valuable lessons may be unearthed. Railing against wretched situations (such as abuse) is required in order to effect change, but most of the time it’s better to say yes to the happenings of our lives. Escapism is an outright rejection of the present moment, the eternally ongoing instant in which we all live. It’s almost the weekend is a futile attempt to break away from the inescapable now, into a future that only exists as an ethereal concept in our brains. While there’s nothing wrong with occasionally looking forward to something, consistent mental projections of the future, and how grand it would be when we finally have some relief from the difficulties of the present, is no existence at all. It’s wishing our lives away until we finally reach our expiration date, at which point we might wonder why the hell we didn’t actually live.

“Tomorrow and plans for tomorrow can have no significance at all unless you are in full contact with the reality of the present, since it is in the present and only in the present that you live. There is no other reality than present reality, so that, even if one were to live for endless ages, to live for the future would be to miss the point everlastingly.” —Alan Watts

In addition to dragging you downwards, it’s almost the weekend is dreadfully boring. You could be asking your colleagues about their weekend away with their family, or harmlessly teasing them about their obvious coffee addiction. Whining about the fact that it’s almost the weekend will earn you few friends, which are a commodity more valuable than gold.

Surviving can be tough; we all have to earn our keep. There’s a choice to make when it comes to our mandatory employment – bristle and complain about it with utterances of it’s almost the weekend, escaping into a future that doesn’t technically exist, or face your hardships head on with heroic courage and fortitude. Only the latter can bolster your chances of happiness and fulfilment.

The hero – the ultimate weapon against suffering

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“Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or the very foolish imagine otherwise.” —George Orwell

If every experience, thought and emotion of a person were to be compiled into an extensive catalogue of their life, a large portion of it would probably be tagged with the word suffering. It’s an indelibly human experience – frequent, painful, and inescapable. Our brows are often knitted in frustration, mouths curled into a grimace, and muscles uncomfortably tense, as if preparing for an attack.

Your narcissistic, impish boss might be the source of your suffering, as his eyes slowly narrow into contemptuous slits during conversation. Perhaps you’re hopelessly fastened to a blob-like lifestyle, in which fried potato comfortably and regularly defeats fibrous vegetables. Maybe you’re slowly and reluctantly realising that you married the wrong person.

Unless you want to renounce your life and introduce your neck to a homemade noose, suffering is here to stay. And if it can’t be expelled, we’d better learn how to handle it.

As it turns out, suffering itself isn’t the problem, but our judgment of it. We suffer, and then we suffer some more because we can’t help but bitch and whine about it, exacerbating the original problem. This preposterous, habitual reaction to suffering is attributed to much of the world’s emotional pain – a form of insidious, repetitive self-harm. It’s like accidentally cutting yourself in the kitchen and then intentionally wedging the knife into the wound afterwards. A witness to this behaviour would swiftly sit you down for a chat about the demons inhabiting your soul.

There’s two fundamental roles that can be assumed in relation to suffering – two standpoints that we can assume. The first is the victim.

The victim

The victim is a doleful character for which life just isn’t fair. Nobody deserves the pain that they experience – them least of all. A disproportionate share of misery has wound a path to them; all signposts for anguish point in their direction. If they picked winning lottery numbers, they’d probably put their ticket through the wash.

Life as a victim is tragically debilitating – every ounce of energy is wasted on complaint, with feeble weakness as the result. Exertion is taxing and undesirable. It’s much easier to complain about something than it is to actually change it. The voice of a victim has an unmistakable whiney quality, as though all traces of bassy substance has been filtered out, resulting in a spiritless, barely noticeable, irritating noise.

If faith in the almighty is their thing, they might be left wondering why they’re being so woefully punished. Even Jesus himself couldn’t have been the recipient of such devlish torment. Perhaps a visit to the local church will do the trick.

The victim’s lengthy role has instilled them with an unshakeable hostility towards life, which has treated them appallingly and must be responded to in a similar fashion. They’re as hostile as rabid hounds, and as bitter as raw coffee beans.

“He who fears he shall suffer, already suffers what he fears.” — Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays

If being a victim sounds horrible to you, then you might consider strapping on your armour, unsheathing your glistening sword, and assuming the role of a much more agreeable character: the hero.

The hero

The hero suffers the same amount as the victim, but chooses a much more advantageous stance. They understand that pain is inevitable, to be faced head-on with jutted chest, wide-set feet, and hands on hips. Suffering is still unsavoury and arduous, yet tolerated with admirable courage and hulk-like strength.

Fortitude is a chief characteristic of the hero, forged from years of leaning into suffering. Unlike the victim, for which suffering is cruel and undeserved, the hero understands that pain is a great teacher; an alchemist for an enlightened soul.

“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” —Kahlil Gibran

“Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?”— John Keats

The hero wouldn’t be caught dead casting aspersions on life, like pitiful martyrs. They know that suffering has the potential to mould them into something better, something durable, superbly tenacious, and with a shadow that darkens entire neighbourhoods.

“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.” —Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

Like the hero of Dante’s Inferno, they recognise that the way out of hell lies at its centre – only by fully experiencing pain can we escape it. Complaining only strengthens the potency of suffering. Life is a rip-roaring adventure, bursting with colourful jubilation and dreary sorrow, with all of it valuable.

**

Life is suffering, but the intensity and duration is defined by the stance that we choose to take. We can be helpless victims, whining our way through life with shrivelled voices, suffused with crippling anxiety. Or we can be courageous heroes, standing Hercules-like against our pain, with every laceration amplifying the robustness of our character.

The choice is yours.

“The fact is that we’ve all been hurt, and we’re all wounded, but not all of us are mean. Why not? Because some people realize that their history of suffering can be a hero’s saga rather than a victim’s whine” —Martha Beck

The Failure of the Pursuit of Happiness

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The pursuit of happiness is a fool’s game—Photo by Peter Lloyd on Unsplash

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.”

Wikipedia, The Paradox of Hedonism

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”

William Bennett

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 happy illusion 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?’

Friedrich Nietzsche

“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”

Daniel Gilbert

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.”

 Helen Keller

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?

Figuring this out might be the most important thing you ever do.

Personal Control Should Be Your Focus

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Stoic philsopher Seneca understood the importance of personal control

Philosophy has a tendency to be dry, complex, and abstract. For a heterosexual male who has little experience of philosophy, reading Nietzsche is tantamount to being faced with Helen of Troy sporting a penis. An unbounded amount of confusion ensues.

Thankfully, there’s an exception. When you consider the company that it keeps, Stoicism is remarkably clear and practical. Its most famous proponents use straightforward language, and simple logic. Many of its core tenets seem desperately needed in today’s society, whose people appear riddled with anxiety and doubt.

One of Stoicism’s main ideas is to let go of what you can’t control. In other words, if something that is outside of your control upsets you, then you’re suffering needlessly. It’s like wailing in self-pity every time the sun rises; howl all you want, it’s still going to rise. This knowledge is so common as to be a cliche, and it’s the very reason that we need to examine the idea more closely, in order to realise its power.

To be more precise, the idea can be broken into three distinct categories:

  1. What’s entirely in your control
  2. What’s partially in your control (the Stoics call these indifferents)
  3. What’s outside of your control.

The vast majority of your efforts should be based on what’s entirely in your personal control, some of your effort might be put into what’s partially in your control (i.e. what you can influence), and no thought at all should be given to what’s outside of your control.

What does this look like in the real world?

Entirely in your personal control

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl is a psychologist and concentration camp survivor. What he experienced is more horrific than anything we can imagine, and yet he was able to maintain a calm and heroic attitude. He chose not to despair, and was an inspiration to his fellow prisoners.

In a more familiar world, if a colleague says something to intentionally piss you off, what could be worse than reacting negatively? They’ve got the result that they wanted, and you’ve become a little unhappier.

“The best revenge is not to be like your enemy.”

Marcus Aurelius

You certainly can’t control your emotions, but you can control your attitude. And each time that you do, you’re training yourself to be a calmer, happier person. Our habits are what make us.

The values that you choose to live by are just as important. This earth that we’re lucky enough to live on didn’t come with pre-written values. It’s up to each and every one of us to look into our souls and discover which values are important to us, and then to live them as best we can. Existing in this state is the most honest and fulfilling way to be.

Partially in your control

This category might be thought of as “nice to have.” If you can get whatever is in here, good for you. But if you don’t, it has slipped into the “outside of your personal control” category, and so should fail to perturb you. It’s packed with what most people strive for in their lives—being attractive, wealthy, successful, and smart; a person who people gravitate to during parties because they’re so funny and captivating. A person who other people want to be.

To the Stoics, these are welcome, but ultimately inconsequential. If you lose them, you can choose whether to bitch about it, or handle it with cool-headed equanimity. Gas leak blew your French chateau to smithereens? No big deal—it’s already happened and there’s nothing you can do about it now. Wife ran away with a Brad Pitt-looking motherfucker? Screw it, it’s her decision, and her loss. Happen to be a Jew living in Warsaw in the 1940’s? Your luck is awful, but you can still choose your attitude.

Outside of your control

Nothing in this category is worth getting emotional about. Instead of whinging, it’s best to just shut up and accept what’s happening. This includes any negative emotion—being sad, frustrated, or confused. Our first instinct is to escape, and by doing so we often intensify the feelings.

“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”

Seneca

We must train ourselves as masters of composure; unflappable black belts. Adversity? Hah! We laugh in its ludicrous face.

This training can only occur by encountering problems, and being mindful of yourself. Each problem that comes your way should be considered a blessing; an opportunity to fortify an iron will. Even sufferers of chronic pain can teach themselves to choose their attitude towards their illness. They’re mindful of the pain and experience it fully, but they realise that it’s wholly outside of their personal control, and that puffing themselves up about it only serves to make it more potent.

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“What did he trust in? Not in reputation, or riches, or office, but in his own strength, that is to say, in his judgments about what things are in our power and what are not. For these judgments alone are what make us free, make us immune from hindrance, raise the head of the humiliated, and make them look into the faces of the rich with unaverted eyes, and into the faces of tyrants. And this is what the philosopher could give; but you will not be departing with confidence, will you, but trembling about such trifles as clothes and silver plate? Wretch! Is that how you have wasted your time up until now?”

Epictetus

During a time when surviving were unquestionably harder, the Stoics knew how to live a good life. We’re fortunate to have access to their wisdom. So the next time you’re bristling with rage due to some external event, act as a Stoic would, and let go of what you can’t control.

Chasing happiness

1_VWcdxFLzSx2VvoEkMevAdQPhoto by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

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.”

– Seneca

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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