Monday, June 29, 2009

On the Meaning of Life: Happiness and How I Define It

We humans may differ vastly in our personalities, ideologies, culture, hobbies, and a broad range of other traits BUT if there is one thing uniting us, it’s the desire to be happy. Simple enough in concept, but the problem is that there’s no agreed-upon definition of what “happiness” really is. For what it’s worth, here’s my own view of it.

In the end, happiness is the only thing worth living for. Pursuing any and all other things is just the means to that end. That includes pursuing money, power, prestige, love, children, career, hobbies, contributing to society, etc. If this sounds selfish to you, then I ask “Would you volunteer your time and labor at a food bank if it didn’t supply you with happiness on some level?” Even if the volunteer is genuinely passionate about working to feed the hungry, satisfying their empathy and desire to help still qualifies as seeking to achieve happiness. Don’t get the wrong idea – I’m not saying even volunteer work is mere self-interest. However, it is altruistic self-interest - one that not only does no harm to others, but actually helps people truly in need. Self-interest in the conventional sense often includes a certain element of desire to benefit one’s self; which may or may not include concern for others’ well-being or interests. Selfishness is Therefore, if you interpret self-interest this broadly the issue of selfish or selfless it’s more semantics than anything else. But that issue is ultimately way off topic.

As for the importance of happiness – I would rate it above all other needs -even above breathing oxygen (although this also is as much a judgment call as the above “selfish or not” issue, but at least it’s closer to the topic). To me, if you have adequate food, clothing, shelter, and activities and interests with which to emotionally satisfy you, you don’t really need anything else in life: not even friends and sex, believe it or not. If you doubt this, then I ask you why so many people say “You’re better off alone than you are with that asshole/bitch” and “With friends like that, you don’t need enemies”. These two statements prove to my satisfaction that - while love, sex, friends, and other human interactions are desirable on some level – these things and people should NEVER be needs; otherwise you’ll end up being needy.

In the end, it doesn’t matter how popular you are, how romantically or sexually appealing you are, how intelligent you are, how much money you have or don’t have, what your social status is. None of that will give you happiness, except perhaps in the very short run. All I mentioned can be taken away from you! If you base your self-esteem on these things, you are taking a serious risk with your psychological health; you can lose these things, after all. The long list of celebrities or other successful people who committed or attempted suicide is all the proof you need.

It seems to me that the many people base source their happiness on weak foundations because they have a fundamental misunderstanding of what true happiness is. Their misunderstanding is based on the assumption that happiness is a feel-good emotional glows, excitement or, energizing “rushes” (I put much of the blame for this on the media and especially the entertainment industry). Sure, these things feel good, but only because neurochemicals like endorphin and adrenaline flood your brain. In effect, you’re on drugs when you feel emotional highs, “warm fuzzy glows”, and thrilling energizing surges coursing through your soul; drugs naturally produced by the body, to be sure, but still drugs nevertheless (what is a drug but a mind or body altering chemical, after all? Never mind if it’s produced in a lab or by your body).

I’m not saying to throw away opportunities to make new friends or find new lovers; nor am I saying to throw aside your current social relationships based merely on what I just said (that would be misguided, not to mention unhealthy and unfair to your friends and lovers -providing they are good, decent people who genuinely respect you). Still, friends, social relationships, love, and sex are good for you only to the extent that these things and people are good for your well-being and/or self-respect – or at least don’t shower disrespect or other kinds of hurt upon you.

Don’t get the wrong idea - I don’t have a social phobia, nor am I either shy, averse to social relationships, or unappreciative of the people in my life.It’s just that I have an emotionally-neutral attitude toward them, meaning “If I have friends, that’s fine; if I don’t have friends, that’s fine”. I can be indifferent-but-not-averse about social relationships because I found a source of happiness independent of what others think of me and independent of my circumstances. For me, it’s as simple as finding emotionally enriching activities that I enjoy; as in “I didn’t choose this hobby or interest; this hobby or interest chose me”.

So what IS true happiness? As far as I know, true happiness is sustainable, meaning that it won’t “run out of gas” if your life’s circumstances change - characterized by this kind of feeling: a steady, sober, emotionally-neutral satisfaction with yourself and your cirucumstances, explicitly without the emotional highs and lows.Therefore, sustainable happiness is an independent happiness.  This may not be the most exciting way to live, but in the long run it is MUCH more mentally healthy, in my opinion.

In my case, I base my happiness not on people or how well I may or may not be doing in financially, romantically, socially, career-wise, and so forth. I base my happiness on the following:

1)Having hobbies and interests that make ME happy, regardless of what other people think of them.

2)Being able to form my own opinions – no, not just that, but by realizing that the best and truly greatest of ideas are NOT created in mainstream society’s spotlight (in fact, the spotlight often hampers creativity and independent though). Related to this...

3)Mainstream notions of "normal behavior" and "respect-worthy person" are far too often some "cultural bureaucracy" that discourages creativity, independent thought, free self-expression, and all-around personal flexibility; just like real-world government bureaucracies can so often discourage entrepreneurship, initiative, and flexibility. (seen in this light, is it any wonder that weirdo/wacko San Francisco is the birthplace of "tomorrow's technology today" while communities dominated by a firm faith in convention and tradition are not?)

4) Realizing the desire for social relationships is so often based on cravings for the feel-good emotionalism caused by brain chemicals (endorphins, among others).

5) Like any mind altering chemical, endorphin and adrenaline often cloud your judgement so badly that the associated feel-good emotional highs and intense adrenaline rushes can make you do or say things you regret just as easily as alcohol, pot, and harder drugs can (in fact, the emotional highs are not so much happiness as they are “theraputic devices”, or “natural drugs”, whichever you prefer. As with alcohol and illicit drugs, seeking out these “natural highs” do not solve your problems and/or show you the route to true happiness – they simply sweep your troubles under the rug or drown them in a counterfeit joy; thereby merely postponing your day of reckoning.

There’s much more detail I can go into about this, but I wanted to get straight to the relevant points of how I discovered a way to be a much happier person.

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