I’ve never thought about happiness for most of my life. I know what pleasure is; I know what excitement and joy are. Is happiness something of a mix of these things? If so, where does it come from? How is it created? The absence of happiness might be clearer (maybe): in sadness, in depression, in pain; surely happiness cannot exist among these?
While there may be significant subjectivity as to how we individually define happiness, I think it is safe to assume that most of us would accept the following: happiness is the feeling that we’re getting the best that life has to offer.
But I ask you this: how many of us feel that we are getting the best that life has to offer?
Greek philosopher Plato thought a lot about how man(kind) would genuinely succeed in life. He posited that the true way for man to be happy was from what he called eudaimonia (fulfilment).
One of Plato’s key approaches for man to reach this fulfilment was by thinking more.
By thinking more, Plato wanted man to combat the false pursuit of popular opinions as destinations of happiness: that fame is great; that money is the key to a good life. Plato recognised and expressed across his many books that these popular opinions entrain us with the wrong values, careers, and relationships.
His solution? Know yourself.
Plato wanted us to subject our thinking to deeper, higher questioning, termed a Socratic discussion. He wanted us to have these conversations with friends and with ourselves so as to unchain us from our emotional impulses to run our entire lives pursuing popular things that falsely advertise to contain happiness. These things that may not only prove difficult to find but, if indeed found, would not create the happiness that was expected.
I once asked a friend of mine: ‘How much money do you want to make in your career?’ His answer: ‘Plenty.’ I suspect that many of us are on mindless pursuits that we believe will bring us eventual happiness. It’s a never-ending pursuit. We ought to instead ask the hard questions: do you really need to push to an unknown amount of wealth? What would you do with it if it comes at the expense of limited time and energy? Wouldn’t you rather start creating those experiences today with a little bit of courage or creativity? Does saying ‘no’ mean I am downplaying his response? The point is are we asking the hard questions before jumping in the water?
I believe Plato had a point in bringing our judgements and plans for happiness closer to what is in fact reality – our reality – versus that created by savvy marketing.
Modern-day neuroscience and psychological evidence show that we are actually terrible at predicting the self-value or self-appreciation of future events. You see, the most recent step in our evolutionary growth – the development of our brain’s frontal cortex where much of our ‘thinking into the future’ comes from – is in fact not a very good predictor of how happy a certain future outcome will make you. Psychologists refer to this as impact bias. This is not to say that we are horrible at placing pleasurable value on everything; middle-class is certainly going to be a better life than poverty, but we must question our predictions that happiness in the upper-middle-class is not as great as that of a billionaire. In fact, there’s data that proves it.
So, if we shouldn’t focus on future outcomes of happiness, how do you best get there?
You get there by building a character. A character that welcomes happiness, rather than one that asserts and chases happiness from future events.
What kind of character am I talking about?
A character that continuously develops gratefulness for the smallest things in life; that connects deeply with people; that finds joy in the smallest of pleasures so as to experience them frequently; that grows in skills to experience the pride of development; a character that makes incremental aspirations–of-
The focus on character is a daily one. Its growth isn’t dependent on a future event five years from now. It’s a daily chisel toward a finer sculpture than yesterday’s.
I think it is this kind of character upon which happiness eventually descends.
The path to happiness isn’t about non-materialism; it is instead about pulling back on predictions of future outcomes as sources of happiness. You get to happiness by always questioning whether the basis of your longing for the things you believe will contribute to your happiness holds truth. And the fact is that the further off this predicted event of happiness is, the more likely your judgement is erroneous.
Adam Smith said it best from his The Theory of Moral Sentiments: ‘The great source of both the misery and disorders of human life seems to arise from over-rating the difference between one permanent situation and another. The person under the influence of any of those extravagant passions is not only miserable in his actual situation, but is often disposed to disturb the peace of society, in order to arrive at that which he so foolishly admires. Some of those situations may, no doubt, deserve to be preferred to others: but none of them can deserve to be pursued with that passionate ardour which drives us to violate the rules either of prudence or of justice; or to corrupt the future tranquillity of our minds, either by shame from the remembrance of our own folly or by remorse from the horror of our own injustice.’
In other words, if you do not re-direct the path to happiness inwardly (character) and focus on your todays, your journey to whatever destination you allocate to bring you happiness may be filled with pain and struggle only to come to an eventual place of unsatisfaction, frailty, or exhaustion that brings you nowhere closer to said goal.
Friends, the good news is you do not need to pursue happiness. You do not need to make grand, arduous plans to get it. You just need to wake up every day with the goal of building a character that loves the world you woke up in, that helps people, and works toward the purpose of your making. If you continue the growth of such a character over time, it will compound in value. With the continuous growth of such a character, is there any doubt your future would be anything but happy?
An earlier version of this article was first published in The Overman Letter.
Ankur Patel, PhD, is a neuroscientist, innovator, and philosopher. Follow him on Twitter @dopa1120 for daily quotes of wisdom and sign-up for his wisdom newsletter, The Overman Letter.