This post has been rattling around in my head for some weeks now, not quite formed. I had this sense that something wasn’t right, or I didn’t like something about the world, but couldn’t fully articulate it or pose any realistic alternatives. It’s frustrating when a thought like that sticks in your head.
We’re encouraged to pursue happiness, almost relentlessly, but it seems like an empty and hollow pursuit, to me. Happiness is an ephemeral emotional state and without unhappiness, to contrast against it, it begins to lose its bite pretty quickly and becomes just so much bland life-wallpaper. The pursuit of happiness can actually thwart your happiness. So what if you accomplish every hedonistic goal on your bucket list? And? What of it? Now you can die? Is that it? What’s your legacy? What good did it do anybody else? It seems very self-centred and narcissistic to pursue one’s own happiness at all costs, irrespective of others. Maybe I am out of step with the zeitgeist, on this matter, but it’s definitely where I prefer to be.
We even suffer peer pressure to be happy all the time and experience social sanctions, if we display any other emotion. People shun you or chastise you. We can become anxious about not appearing to be happy enough. Isn’t that taking the pursuit of happiness to insane lengths?
It seems to me that the pursuit of meaning is the far better goal, yet so many spend their days endlessly pursuing meaninglessness, in a meaningless pursuit of nothing very substantial. You see it all the time. People are simply taking and not giving. They want to be satiated in their happiness and demand to be, the whole time, so they don’t participate in or even notice that there is important, meaningful work that needs to be done and which they might be uniquely able to do.
I don’t know why it has become fashionable to eschew a life of meaning, but it seems to be the case. People increasingly seek to live vacuous, insubstantial, shallow, self-satisfied lives, lined with ephemeral, temporary, material trinkets or gone and soon forgotten personal (rather than shared) experiences, in preference to making a genuine, important and lasting contribution to humanity, as testament to their all too brief time on earth.
In contrast, it has been repeatedly shown that those who find meaning, even in the most horrendous circumstances, are far more resilient to suffering than those who do not. He who has a “why” to live can bear almost any “how”. It’s a feature of our humanity that when we set aside the pursuit of personal happiness, in the pursuit of meaning and purpose, we might encounter more unhappiness, but we also increase our satisfaction with life and improve the happiness of those to whom we give.
If you lose the self-centred, narcissistic pursuit of personal happiness, you can begin to believe, instead, that life is still expecting something from you; something in the future is expected of you. You find ways to give, and to experience gratitude, even when you have nothing. That’s a much more motivating thought than accomplishing item fifteen on your bucket list, at least to me. It might be that you need to finish a series of books, or make a record, or produce a particular set of paintings. You might need to reach some level of accomplishment in your chosen field, so that you can share important ideas and thoughts with humanity. Maybe your purpose is to think through some complex question and make it clear to others. Alternatively, you could find meaning through teaching and mentoring, or helping to bring your children or grandchildren up as best you can. There are endless opportunities to find meaning and purpose in your life.
When you try to do something that has lasting meaning, it has to be said that you will encounter really bad days, when nothing seems to go your way and you feel unable to cope. You might try to dredge up some of your remaining, tattered confidence and competence from the pit of your despairing inadequacy and insufficiency, but it never seems like it’s enough. You feel that you come up short and it can be dispiriting, exhausting and disheartening. Bad days can join up to become bad weeks, months or even bad years. Your energy drains away, your enthusiasm wanes and nothing feels like very much fun, anymore. The only thing left to cling to, when that happens, is that only you can put your unique contribution into the world, the world needs it and it’s your responsibility to put it there. If you quit, it will never happen and that lets everybody down. It will be lost forever.
To quote the psychiatrist, neuroscientist and holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, “This uniqueness and singleness, which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence, has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how”. It is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.'”
Psychological research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression. Beyond that, the single-minded pursuit of happiness is, ironically, leaving people less happy, according to recent research.
You would think more people would realise that it’s all about finding purpose and meaning, but the evidence suggests that they don’t. According to the Centre for Disease Control, about 4 out of 10 Americans have not discovered a satisfying life purpose. Forty percent either do not think their lives have a clear sense of purpose or are neutral about whether their lives have purpose. Nearly 25% of all Americans feel neutral or do not have a strong sense of what makes their lives meaningful. That’s an astonishing statistic, when you stop to think about it.
Through the pursuit of happiness, all you get is a sense of joy when you get what you want. When your desires and drives are satisfied, you feel happy. However, the pursuit of meaning allows you to transcend yourself and gain joy and happiness from giving. This, to me, seems like an altogether more authentic way to live. As an artist, making things for others, or which convey meaning, seems more satisfactory than taking one more overseas holiday, getting a new car or buying a bigger house.
Whereas happiness is felt in the here and now and soon fades away into oblivion, like all emotions do, meaning has an eternal quality about it. It’s a way of connecting now with the future. It’s about building something important, that lasts and hence, carries with it a sort of longer-than-a- lifetime immortality (though probably not true immortality, as everything we make ultimately decays).
Another study from 2011 confirmed that people who have meaning in their lives, in the form of a clearly defined purpose, rate their satisfaction with life higher, even when they were feeling bad, than those who did not have a clearly defined purpose. In other words, life is still good, even when it sucks, if you have a clearly defined purpose in life.
Of course, in the depths of your personal pit of despair, where you find yourself on a very, very bad day, as somebody doing something worthwhile, hard and risky, it’s difficult to imagine that your contribution, unique as it might be, will be missed at all. Some days, it feels like nobody cares about your unique contribution and wouldn’t miss it a bit, if it didn’t exist. What gets you through those days is a belief in the quality of what you make and do, or what you have to say. If it truly is important, then that will be recognised eventually. Making it worth noticing, even if noticed belatedly, can become a significant part of your life’s mission.
Meanwhile, we have jerks like the CEO of Google predicting the inevitability of computers taking all of our jobs, in the name of efficiency, as if that’s a good and acceptable thing, with nary a thought about what that means for people who find purpose and meaning in their work. Doesn’t that factor into his calculus at all? To people like this, they see a job as a mere obligation, not as a vocational calling to contribute meaning to humanity. They happen to be short-sighted, these people. They would have us idle, dumb and happy, completely dependent on computers to provide our every want and need, but without a way to find meaning or purpose in life and still consider it a positive contribution to humanity. Alarmingly, these people seem to be calling the shots for the rest of us, at present.
Larry Page is quoted as saying they “have all these billions we should be investing to make people’s lives better”. Sounds fluffy and noble, doesn’t it? What self-selected people in his position frequently mean, though, is that transhuman or superhuman capabilities will soon be made available, provided by private interests to those that can already pay for them, but those that were on the wrong side of wealth distribution, throughout this latest round of the reign of latter-day capitalist robber barons, will have to make their own arrangements. From the point of view of the well-endowed and the fortunate, who are developing technologies to have computers produce their every demand, efficiently, and who are also working feverishly on technologies to make themselves a-mortal, or able to live forever (or for extended periods), so long as no fatal accident befalls them, the rest of us won’t be entitled to or granted access to these technologies, because we can’t afford them. We should have been rich, to prove our worthiness. Our alternative is to quietly, conveniently, passively go to hell. Excluded from immortality.
It is the ultimate taker’s charter, transhumanism and it is interesting that Google has reinvented itself as the primary driver and deliverer of this movement, since details of this agenda were allegedly leaked from last year’s Bilderberg meeting, quite recently. It’s a project to destroy meaning and purpose in human lives. As a narcissistic, self-centred, egotistical, selfish project, driven wholly by the profit motive, that gives nothing back simply for the sake of giving, it can’t be bettered.
People like Larry Page lack wisdom, insight and basic humanity. They also lack imagination, because they can’t think of any other way of distributing advancements or improvements pertinent to the human condition other than via the for-profit, capitalist mechanism, which results in inevitable and wholly unjustifiable and illegitimate gross inequities. It never enters their heads to give away the means of allowing people to survive without having to work, as a way of finding personal meaning in their own lives. Even the seemingly “free” Google search is actually paid for by government surveillance programmes (i.e. by us) and through selling our data to private interests for profit. People like Google’s CEO shouldn’t be left in charge of the fate of humanity and our capacity to create meaning, simply because they are rich. It’s not an adequate or sufficient qualification.
One of the most sure fire ways to create meaning in life is to pursue a creative life. Being able to imagine something and then bring it into being is one of our greatest gifts, as a species. If we find ways to survive, satisfying our material needs, while creating things for the benefit of all, then we create the most meaning per capita. Why don’t we? Are we hampered simply because the already rich wish to remain so and wish to increase the gap between themselves and the rest of us, in the pursuit of their personal happiness? Their ambition lacks meaning, really and those of us that wish to create and create meaning shouldn’t have to tolerate it.
To quote Frankl once again: “Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself – be it a meaning to fulfil or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is.”
There is much more to a good life than the simple pursuit of happiness. In truth, profit doesn’t matter at all, if you find your purpose. No matter how hard they make it to pursue a life dedicated to creating and communicating meaning, don’t give up. We need your love.