The term “happy” was traditionally synonymous with good fortune.
It found its way into the English language around the 14th century, and it wasn’t something that people actively pursued. It was thought that you either stumbled onto it or you didn’t. It wasn’t until the 17th century that the word began its association with pleasure and contentment.
Even the Greeks and the Romans who introduced us to Classical philosophy would have shrugged at the modern notion of happiness. To them, happiness was indeed the chief aim in life, but they had a very different definition of what the term actually meant. Rather than seeing it as an emotional state, their idea of a happy life was built on something more. It wasn’t an event. It was about a life lived in harmony with our own nature, including the acceptance of suffering and discomfort.
If you ask the average person today what they want out of life, the majority will tell you that they want to be happy. If you dig deeper into what they mean, they’ll tell that they want to feel good and comfortable and be at ease. On the surface, that sounds innocent enough, but the reality is that this pursuit of happiness is actually the cause of much of our misery. The notion that pleasure and contentment are the solution to all of life’s problems, and that once you acquire these states you have everything you need, is misguided at best and dangerous at worst.
There is more to life than happiness.
I consider myself a reasonably happy person. On most days, there is a general baseline that I don’t deviate too far away from for too long. I’m quite fortunate in many ways, and I’m more than grateful for that. I have enough. I don’t need to be filthy rich. I don’t care for fame. I’ve come to terms with the fact that comparing myself to others is a waste of time, and I don’t want to get stuck chasing hedonistic temptations for the rest of my life. There is nothing more that I realistically need.
Yet, I write. And when I write, I want it to be good, and I want people to read it. I have my general ambitions, and there are things I want to accomplish. I work quite hard, and it’s not always fun. But if I’m already content, why? Because I know that if I didn’t have any sort of desire for something more, then I would cease to feel content.
The reason is simple. The cause of my happiness isn’t that I have enough, but it’s that I have worked to get to a point where I have enough. It’s not that I woke one morning not caring what someone thinks or deciding that hedonistic pleasures weren’t important, it’s that I spent a lot of time thinking those things were important, suffered for it, and then worked to make them unimportant. The difference is subtle, but critical.
My happiness isn’t a product of me getting what I want. It’s the byproduct of the different challenges I have proactively overcome to earn what I want. It’s the expectations I have met or readjusted over time. I need something to work at to get it. If I stopped pursing things tomorrow, my lingering happiness would escape. Over time, it would cease to mean anything, and I wouldn’t be able to refuel it by simply wishing for more.
Due to its fleeting nature, happiness alone isn’t enough.
In many ways, humans can be characterized as biological algorithms. It’s not an entirely perfect analogy, but it works quite well to explain our behavior. We respond to stressors in our environment, which is the input, by manipulating ourselves through a process as to give us an edge that presents itself in the form of an output. Over the long-term, how well we do this determines our ability to thrive.
In the modern world, we have a lot of choice in terms of the exposure that we want to give ourselves to these stressors. Most of us could easily go through life trying to avoid significant challenges that arise in our environment, but that requires a form of escapism, and it’s not necessarily a healthy thing. You may be able to temporarily avoid a fight with your partner or to remove yourself from the desire to work towards a goal, but eventually, something will give. At some point, discomfort invites itself.
While happiness is best defined as a state of being content, we didn’t actually evolve to be content. We evolved to strive and to struggle and to compete, so by nature, we don’t get rewarded for being consistently happy.
Although some parts of society have taken these characteristics to their extreme in how they incentivize the systems and corporations around us, this intrinsic want for more isn’t something we can just shut off. We need to be better and to make progress and to feel more than just enough. This means chasing some ambition, taking on pain, and exposing ourselves to slight variances in emotional states. Doing these things in extremes isn’t the solution, but deviating away from a comfortable median is what actually allows us to maintain a baseline that we can refer to as happiness.
Without struggling against something, enough would cease to be enough.
Happiness isn’t obtained. It’s earned. It’s not the product. It’s the byproduct. For this reason, the idea that some serene state of bliss can be sustained with pleasure and contentment, although seductive, is misguided. Over the long-term, it takes more than that. It takes a sense of striving. Gratitude is important, to be sure, and so is being well-adjusted enough to not seek out extrinsic motivators to provide a solution, but these things alone will only take you so far. The real secret is to live a story.
It’s to create a narrative that appropriately incentivizes you to choose a level of discomfort and suffering necessary for sustaining a deeper fulfillment. That will actually keep you in motion. That’s what makes the difference.
In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche wrote:
“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
For the painter, it’s the 10 years spent in front of the canvas practicing without any hope of a making a dime because she knows what it’s like to look at a Van Gogh painting and feel something that can’t be described.
For the entrepreneur, it’s the sleepless nights and the gut-wrenching risks taken to bring a product to market because that’s the kind of challenge and uncertainty that makes him better today than he was yesterday.
The narrative you tell will determine the kind of hurdles your life invites, and clearing these hurdles is ultimately what gives the emotions you feel any sort of real meaning. That’s how their value is earned.
If you take care of the story, happiness doesn’t need to be enough. You get something better. You get sustained fulfillment.
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