It’s not what we get but what we give to life
We all want to be happy in life. But what does that really mean? And is it really something that can be pursued, constructed, or discovered?
According to Martin Seligman, the eminent Positive Psychologist, there are three types of happiness:
A pleasurable life
A meaningful life
An engaged life
Modern western society tends to revolve around the pursuit of pleasure. We fill our lives with as many activities that activate the pleasure centres of our minds as we can, from Netflix to Uber Eats to tequila slammers. It’s about short hits of happy, now.
Many careers are simply constructed to acquire the wealth that will allow us to buy pleasure (ironically neglecting to notice that we thereby sacrifice the time in which we can experience it). But most of us, intuitively, understand that there is more to life than this. This may mean finding a career which focuses specifically on fixing a social issue, but is not limited to the workplace, let alone to ‘impact careers’.
But as any ‘do-gooder knows’, this existence can be exhausting and unrewarding too. We can do the ‘right thing’ at every turn, feeling we deserve some payoff from the universe in return, but the more we strain the worse we feel. This causes many to burn out and give up on their higher principles. Because when we consistently feel bad doing something, we naturally lack the desire to continue doing it.
What they are lacking, even when they have meaning and pleasure in their lives, is engagement.
What is engagement and why do we need it?
This is where joy comes in. When we are fully engaged, this naturally begets a joyful state. I interpret joy here as meaning the automatic positive emotions we feel when we are connected to our experience, made up of the world around us, the people we are with, and us ourselves.
Engagement allows us to feel joy because when we are connected to experience itself, as opposed to our own analysis and interpretation of it, the thinking mind drops away. We are freed of the stories it tells us as to how things should or shouldn’t be.
That is, we are freed of expectation.
This is so critical because it is only our expectation of how an event should or shouldn’t be which gets in the way of us actually enjoying it, which can occur in numerous ways.
The obvious sense in which expectation harms our ability to actually enjoy something is that, by interminably looking forward, we inevitably do not fully experience the fruits of the present, either not noticing them, or holding them up against some idealised image of how they should be in our heads. Pain is rendered less bearable because we rail against it, unable to accept it because it shouldn’t be happening. Pleasure is rendered less pleasurable, because we are constantly preoccupied with its cessation, focusing on clinging to it rather than experiencing it.
There is a subtler and more pernicious way expectation harms us. And this is the sense whereby we are waiting for the experience to give us something. It is the sense, when approaching events perceived as happiness-generating, of having earned some happiness: I’ve worked very hard for this, and now the world owes me something.
This, however, is not how the world works. Perhaps the world will give us what we want. Perhaps it won’t. But when we focus on externals we are bound to disappointment, either because we fail to achieve our desired outcome, or because we do, only to find that now we want more. That our expectations from the world have only increased in fact.
Both of these forms of expectation are so harmful because they derive from a common problem: we cannot reliably — which is to say without fail — negotiate with external reality. It is a shared space being manipulated by all of us — we cannot all control it to fit our exact desires all of the time. And so we are doomed to disappointment when we build our lives around doing so.
The final sense in which expectation is so dangerous is that however we expect the world to be is destined to be how we perceive it to be, and to a certain extent how it is. If I am cautious and mistrustful, it is likely the world will act in kind to me. If I perceive others as selfish, I am more likely to act selfishly in turn, protecting my own self-interests against an apparently hostile and dangerous world.
These ideas can be seen as a take on the basic observations and conclusions of Buddhism: the outside world is ultimately beyond our grasp and thus unsatisfactory. Moreover we generate a lot of unhappiness through clinging to perceptions which are false.
The conclusion is that we should attend to our own sense of dissatisfaction, rather than the thing which by its nature gives rise to it. Aside from engaging in spiritual practices that help us detatch from our expecations though, what are other, more accessible solutions?
If you’ll allow me to elaborate on what sounds like a platitude, the revelation I have recently had is that it is all about giving. Not money or anything material. Not even your time. Rather it is about giving energy. And I don’t mean anything spiritual or esoteric here. I’m not talking about a little wizard’s box of manna you sprinkle onto the people around you or some forcefield you generate with your pixie wand. I’m talking very simply about the attitude that you bring to each moment and how this demonstrably influences your experience and the experience of those around you.
The energy or attitude inherent in giving is that it is other-, rather than self-, focused. When we decide to focus on those around us, on how we can make help them feel more comfortable and happy, we get out of our own heads and naturally begin to feel better ourselves.
I believe that what holds so many of us back from engaging in the open exchange of love and kindness that we all feel we want and even deserve is the fear of judgement. We wait for social cues to tell us what is an appropriate level of care and attention to show each other and, discovering a world in which everyone else is doing the same, we fail to find encouragement and thus play it safe, keeping in our own little bubbles. That is, there is an expectation of judgement from the world which paralyses us into inaction.
Giving is antithetical to expectation because it does not wait for experience to fulfil some prior condition which would make such giving acceptable. And the experience of giving is joyful because it is creative, initating a process which builds a world that is actually one we want to engage in. And this joy is crucial because it is the deeper felt sense behind what we are doing which motivates us to continue to do so.
Even if there is no cosmic significance or grand unifying reason behind our brief visits to this lonely little sphere, all we can be sure of is that we are here together. When we engage in the process of making all of us feel welcome, we begin to feel welcome ourselves, and the meaning of our own private melodramas begins gradually to dissolve.
Joy is the core which sits at the heart of this process, because it is that feeling we experience when connecting to those around us, which tells us in a language deeper than words: this is why we are here.