- Yuval Noah Harari
I just finished reading the book Sapiens, (I'm a bit behind because the author has now published another book, Homo Deus). The book is a fascinating conglomeration of every imaginable academic discipline, but the part I found most interesting was the discussion of happiness (surprise surprise). The above quote stood out to me in particular, because it shows how subjective happiness is, how much we can manipulate it. Here are some of the questions I reflected on, and some thoughts, in a not particularly organized order:
If happiness is based on feeling that life is meaningful, where does meaning come from?
- We can find meaning through work, if our work is something we’re passionate about.
- We can find meaning in a particular skill that we’re committed to mastering. Maybe we can be musicians or athletes, and devote as much time as we can to improving every day.
- We can find meaning in travel, in experiencing different cultures and ways of living, and expanding our worldview.
- We can find meaning in relationships, in building a connection with someone and building a life together, maybe in raising kids who share our values.
- We can find meaning through being a helpful person - making a habit of trying to understand and help everyone we meet.
- We can find meaning in building communities and bringing people together.
- And probably many other ways...
What Harari means by "deluding ourselves more effectively" is that we can manipulate the primary source of meaning in our lives. Which one do we choose? Usually it’s the one that most of the people around us choose. If we mostly associate with ambitious entrepreneurs in San Francisco, then we probably end up hoping to find meaning through our career. Maybe building a business that helps a lot of people and makes us feel “successful.” But is that really what we want, or what other people say we should want? I guess this question is closely tied to question of who we see as successful. I listen to the Tim Ferriss show a lot, and the people interviewed tend to be successful in certain ways. They’re entrepreneurs, writers, researchers, athletes, entertainers. I’m probably being taught that if I want to feel successful, and to feel like my life is meaningful and worthwhile, then I need to become one of those people too. What do we really want, and do we really want what we want, or do we just want it because someone else is telling us we should want it?
What about if happiness is based on feeling pleasurable sensations?
Well in that case I guess I should just go surfing every day, because if I had to point to one particular moment this year when I felt happiest, it was the first time I went surfing! Flow, peak experiences, and other altered states of consciousness would be something to chase after. If that's what happiness is, then it really is "hackable."
Should we even be pursuing happiness as a goal in the first place?
One of the most insightful ideas I took away from the book is that humans aren't genetically wired to be happy all the time. If we were always in a state of bliss we wouldn't reproduce and pass on our genes, so constant happiness doesn't make any evolutionary sense. The genes that do get passed down are those of anxious parents and people who enjoy sex but are always left wanting more. The "pursuit of happiness" seems such an obvious part of our culture, (heck, it's even in our constitution), but why are we always chasing something so transient? Happiness based on meaningfulness rather than sensations seems more sustainable at first, but as we become more successful we still have good days and bad days. We appreciate what we've accomplished (hopefully), but we also strive for bigger goals and keep finding things we want to change.
If happiness isn’t the goal, then what is?
Acceptance? Consciousness? Awareness? Connection? Contribution? Aliveness?
Harari briefly discusses how Buddhist philosophy might offer a third option - accepting how things are in the present as a way to end suffering. Acceptance doesn’t mean you should stop having goals. It just means that not having accomplished your goals shouldn’t stop you from being happy now. I've been thinking about this at work recently, when I find myself pushing to get as much done as possible in a day. What am I rushing towards? What am I chasing after? Why should I work in an unsustainable way for an undetermined amount of time? I need to enjoy the process, and at the same time feel inspired by big giant goals that I’m working towards. (How's that for a conflicting perspective... which is exactly the point).
I also really like this quote (not from the book):
"Don’t ask what the world needs, ask what makes you come alive.... Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."
- Howard Thurman
Maybe instead of seeking to be happy, we should seek to feel alive. To me that means connecting authentically with others, and experiencing all life has to offer. Life is amazing and diverse and beautiful and joyful, and it’s also devastating and frustrating and ugly and cruel. But the bad parts just make the good parts all the more pronounced. Happiness never lasts forever, relationships never last forever, we don't last forever. All we can do is be present and experience the moment.
Well, this turned out to be a very rambling and philosophical post, which probably means I'm spending too much time in my head and thinking too much. Time to go practice some back tucks!