As someone who has always been curious, one question that seems to become stronger as we get older is ‘why are we here and what makes us happy’?
In youth we chase the items of our affection. We all have job titles or possessions we crave and we work hard to achieve them. This brings a peak in dopamine as we cherish the achievement, but inevitably as with all things in life, the human brain resets to baseline and six months later our overall happiness is at the same point it was before. I wrote about this in a previous article (click here). It is a cruel trick of evolution to make the human mind always want more as a way to drive progress. It is hard wired and it is not your fault.
So what makes us happy?
From reading around the topic, many find happiness and direction in life from feeling their life has a greater calling. An example given in the book Sapiens are parents when asked about specifics of parenting, when describing the day to day reality of particular tasks they viewed these as individually negative, yet the overall experience of being a parent as giving meaning to their lives and the best thing they have ever done. Likewise through the ages of human history, often religion would give hope to people living with little or nothing, that it would be in death not in life that they would achieve their divine meaning when joining the Kingdom of Heaven.
From personal experience I have also found my own personal drivers changing over time. With life comes experience and things I craved are no longer important, and things which were not even on my radar are now truly cherished. It is not that the aims and desires of the twenty-something me were not valid, but my lens at which I look at the world has changed. When you truly understand what makes you happy it can really sharpen your focus, bringing certain things closer in your life and allowing you to cut other things away.
There is so much known about the world and thousands of books on the topic, yet there are no obvious rules to achieving something which is extremely personal for seven and a half billion people on the planet.
Most common thinking is to chase happiness. We want more happiness and less sadness! Most would agree that makes sense, yet from experience we know that before long we will reset to baseline. Everyone's baseline is different. Some will vary between a 6 and a 10, but live most of their life at a 8 as eternally happy almost regardless of what happens to them; whilst others will see themselves between a 2 and a 6 and no amount of success or good fortune will allow them to escape their overhead cloud. It is this struggle between our expectations from life and our actual results (and how we feel about them) which causes great anguish and mental struggle for many in modern society.
Acknowledging that feelings come and go, a quote taken from Sapiens brought much of this thinking together in a way I had never read before and thought was worth sharing…
“It is like a man standing for decades on the seashore, embracing certain ‘good’ waves and trying to prevent them from disintegrating, whilst simultaneously pushing back ‘bad’ waves to prevent them from getting near him. Day in, day out, the man stands on the beach driving himself crazy with this fruitless exercise. Eventually, he sits down on the sand and just allows the waves to come and go as they please.”
Different practises including meditation and yoga talk about living in the moment, "being present". If we eternally chase something we can not keep, we are damning ourselves to a struggle we can never win. Instead, rather than try and control the waves, just accept that they are going to happen and retain your focus on things which really matter. This is what they mean by being present.
For me contentment is the real aim. Knowing when you have ‘enough’ and being appreciative. We can all still fight to make a difference in the world and derive greater meaning, but achieving this through not immediately seeking the short-term highs or letting the lows drag us down, no matter how painful, will actually leave us all in a much happier place.
Throughout our days we will all see many waves wash over us, some good and some bad. Many will disappear before we know it, never to be remembered again, but some will linger. It is only right that we chase our dreams and aspirations and do everything we can to achieve them, but hopefully if you do find yourself in a low place waiting for the tide to change, think back about the waves example and remember they will change before you know it.
9 October 2019