“Blessed is the man who is not looking for a soft snap, for he is the only one who shall find it.” (Elbert Hubbard)
A few words before you dive in…
I had intended to write a few caustic words on the insufferable narcissism that prevails in our modern society, but have ended up with a longish article instead, that, I realise, may prove hard to digest for many readers.
This is because many other themes happen to interconnect with the main concept – but also because I have an innate tendency to ramble.
This is also a pity because this article is packed with many insights that, when taken to heart and fully understood, have the potential to awaken the reader to a new and deeper level of awareness about their own life and their role in this world.
There’s a solution though. I would recommend making a printout, or a PDF, of the whole thing, and then reading it comfortably with enough time and a relaxed state of mind when the chance arises.
That elusive happiness
Let me start by asking a simple question. Why are we, as a society, such a miserable bunch? And why is it so in the face of all the advantages that we enjoy by the sole fact of living in the first world?
It so appears that by getting richer and more technologically advanced all we stand to gain, in our modern advanced society, are new lows of collective misery, as testified by the increasing depression and suicide rates – should the underwhelming human landscape that’s before everyone’s eyes on an average day not be proof enough.
The geniuses among us seem to have figured out an answer to that question by suggesting what was unthinkable until not long ago: the weird, mind-boggling notion that we may have been focusing all these years on the wrong goals, after all.
The new revelation is that maybe our happiness itself ought to be our final goal, the true guidance of our actions, choices, and perhaps – who can tell? – even public policies. Which is why today we hear everyone talk some happiness drivel at some point or other.
But I’m not impressed.
It dawned on me that the true answer lies instead in the essentially selfish nature of each and every one of our pursuits, quest for happiness included. This latter in fact betrays our true selfish motives when contemplated in a I-only-pursue-my-own-happiness-who-cares-about-others’ kind of way, which is the norm.
In our twisted world, we often even come to see others’ good fortunes as an affront, should ours happen not to be equally good. We positively resent someone else’s happiness, and envy those who seem to have their act together, because – as we all know – misery is a lot more palatable when shared with everyone else around you.
That, in a nutshell, is the root of our troubles as I mean to point it out in this writing.
I can hardly find anything in our modern way of living that doesn’t amount to sheer drooling lunacy, and, unfortunately, our latest faddish obsession with happiness, and its close cousin, the quest for life satisfaction, are no exception to the rule. It all rather seems to fit squarely into the familiar sad picture. Such quest for a happy life is, in my eyes, nothing more than a novel way of persevering in the same old flawed behaviour.
But, since many view this change as an important step forward from the pervasive materialism of our society, let me fully explain why I think it really isn’t.
Nothing new, really
The deadly obsession that taints everything we think or do here in the rich West can be tracked down to a simple yet treacherous two letter word, the word ME. ‘Me’ seems to be the only and all-important final concern that anyone may have on any matters about which they may be busying themselves.
The result of this general attitude is the sort of society we live in today, a place peopled by isolated, or weakly connected, individuals, each pursuing their own personal agenda. Such an agenda, in fact, invariably collides with that of others around them, who, not surprisingly, are driven by just the same sort of selfish desires.
I have no qualms in classifying this trademark Western culture of blind individualism as a devastating contagious disease. Something akin to a plague of the mind.
In modern times we have shifted our focus substantially from the collectivity to the individual. It hasn’t always been so, and the change hasn’t exactly brought us a great deal of solace.
That change has rather produces a society of fearful, mistrusting, often hostile people who essentially care only about their own welfare and personal gain. If one looks at the US in particular, nothing like their culture of suing each other’s asses on a whim can better exemplify the absurdity of this situation.
It is also ironic that the more keenly we pursue our own selfish agenda, and the more blindly we focus on our personal gain, the more hopelessly we end up feeling empty, fearful and miserable.
Even those who actually manage to achieve the worldly success they’ve been chasing so eagerly eventually find themselves just as despondent as those who never made it.
At best, what everyone does is drowning themselves in various distractions and addictions – cheap or expensive ones, according to the cash available. Modern life has come to be a life of quite desperation for most of us.
We are now finally waking up to this grim reality – the collective misery is just too obvious to ignore. Hence this rekindled focus on happiness. Unfortunately, like I said, the underlining fallacy remains the same.
Let’s take a closer look at what’s actually going on.
Now that the more open-minded (or, should I say, fad-minded) among us have acknowledged that material success isn’t bringing them any joy, they’ve decided to chase something else instead – now they’re chasing this elusive happiness. But, guess what, their frame of mind hasn’t changed at all.
Again, what they want is THEIR happiness, as they couldn’t care less about anyone else’s. Which is why happiness, again, eludes them. Only rightly so, given that all selfish thinking and behaviour duly begets a well deserved platter of misery at the end of the day.
Clearly, a predominantly egocentric focus undermines even our renewed best efforts. That, and that alone, is the true curse of the modern Western man.
Copernicus showed us many centuries ago that the earth isn’t the centre of the universe like people thought back then. We badly need a modern-day Copernicus who showed us that ME needn’t be the centre of our universe either.
Our obsession with seeing everything as though revolving around our petty, insignificant lives represents, in fact, the fundamental fallacy of our day, one that persistently leads us astray, making us live as isolated, deluded egomaniacs, in open conflict with our deeply human need for love and connection and a purpose that extends beyond ourselves.
If you truly want to experience happiness in this life the recipe is as extraordinarily simple as it is blatantly ignored by all. It is thus: forget your sorry and useless self, and instead go and make someone else happy. Not someone you know or someone you have some bond with, but someone who has no special relevance to your life. In other words: go and do some good in this world expecting no return whatever from your actions. Just do it for the sheer joy of seeing someone happy.
It is as simple as that.
This runs so contrary to the common thinking as to seem to border with sheer lunacy. But the only real insanity is in the way we ordinarily live our lives: openly ignoring each other, cunningly deceiving each other, and caring for no one but our pitiable selves and the few that have a stake in our lives. THAT is insanity! And we are today abundantly reaping the collective despair that we have consistently sown with our very hands.
So, how to move on from here?
What you really want
Whenever you assume that everything around you, and about you, is an illusion you’re never far from the truth. You may think that you want some pleasurable experiences, or you may think that you want to avoid the painful ones, but that’s not what you want. What you THINK you want is an illusion. Likewise, when you think that to be happy is what you want in your life you’re again deluding yourself.
Take a look at a little child that keeps pestering everyone for more sweets, more toys, more TV time and so forth. He is in constant need to be reined in for the sake of his own safety and well-being. You should consider that each of us is not fundamentally different from that child. If given enough free rein many of us would soon plunge into an orgy of self-indulgence that would quickly lead to nausea and self-hatred.
External circumstances usually provide the necessary rein, should our own capacity for self-restraint prove unequal to the challenge. Usually – but not necessarily.
In fact, it is apparent that today, with improved living standards, many of those external constraints have lost their traditional strength. And – yes, you guessed it – what’s right now in my mind is the current global obesity epidemic. Things have gotten out of control in that department precisely because, for the first time in human history, food is truly no longer a scarce resource. At least, it isn’t for us, in the rich, spoiled, wasteful West.
You can also easily see what happens when ALL constraints are removed. There’s a class of people who can actually afford to let their inner child run wild – they are the rich and powerful. You can often hear in the news of the creative ways they manage to disgrace themselves, or drive themselves to ruin. And you may have sometimes found yourself musing on how having it all still never seems to be enough for such people.
I therefore ask, are they really any the better for those privileges that set them apart from us common folks? The closer I look, the less I think so. Actually, rather than casting too hasty a judgement on them, I believe we ought not to forget that we – most of us, at least – are no different. To the extent that we can afford it, or can get away with it, we too self-indulge any chance we get. We are one under the skin.
Though most of us could muster enough sense to concede, in theory at least, that lack of restrain equates to self-harm, that is not the sort of sense we then pay any heed to in our actual life. We still go for the easy, complacent life as soon, and as far, as we can. No real surprise there – just human nature as we know it.
Yet, again, the truth is that you don’t want an easy life. Nobody wants an easy life, no matter how much they may feel inclined to protest that they actually wouldn’t mind having one. An easy life is often a boring, pointless one, one that easily leads to depression, alcoholism, addiction and sundry other destructive behaviours.
If you are currently struggling in your life, I can predict that you’ll likely be craving an easy life, just like people chronically short of cash often fantasize about winning the lottery as the panacea that’ll miraculously cure all their ills. But, make no mistake, it’s all an illusion. Just go and look at those people who are actually ‘enjoying’ the easy ride. Go and see for yourself how happy they really are with their ‘privileged’ life.
Which is why I look at being born into money as some kind of deep misfortune. When you’re ‘lucky’ enough that everything you may desire just falls right onto your lap, then everything quickly loses all appeal and desirability. THAT is when you get a fat chance to see how it really is all an illusion. The same sort of bitter reckoning, by the way, is also what eventually befalls lottery winners. Just go and read the research.
But then, you’ll ask, is there anything at all that’s truly worth contemplating in this life?
Sure is! And it’ll become apparent to us as soon as we stop demeaning ourselves by acting as a mere bundle of Pavlovian reflexes.
It took me some time to fully realise it, but now I’m convinced that the playing field is actually fairly level for all, in spite of the apparent gross inequalities we see in our society. I no longer think any one is really better placed in this world, in a profound, meaningful sense, just because they’re born with a silver spoon in their mouth. Ultimately, what really makes the difference, I believe, rests fully in our hands – it’s our attitude to life.
Which brings us closer to the answer we are looking for, having thus mercilessly disposed of a good deal of the most common delusional pursuits.
As it happens, we are equipped with a reward system – pleasure and pain – that makes sense in terms of immediate survival, but which is also fairly basic, and can easily lead us astray, as I’ve endeavoured to point out above. Which is why we have also evolved superior layers of feedback upon this reward system, that are specifically human in their complexity, and that serve us as a more accurate guide through life.
They are our complex emotions of joy, sadness, pride, love, contempt, anger, guilt, and so on. It’s a vast and fascinating tapestry that’s been tapped by artists and writers of all ages, and that only makes sense at a higher level than that of the brutish beast.
There’s a very real danger, though, that people may find themselves enslaved to the basic, brutish level of the pyramid, and therefore that very little of what is so uniquely human ever comes out of them. I say that this is a real danger because that’s what I actually see all over the place. Many people never seem to manage to rise from said brutish level, and never even suspect the existence of something else that goes beyond the satisfaction of their basest instincts. That, like it or not, is the unflattering picture that emerges from a critical, unbiased look at the condition of man in our modern world.
It is worth noting that one can be equally enslaved to lower emotions like envy or greed, which can never be on a par with the likes of love and compassion (this latter being fairly close to the top). Not all emotions are born equal. There’s a whole fine, hierarchical structure within our very system of complex emotions.
You can probably see that at this point we are closing in on our final answer. You can now see that what you really want is, plain and simple, aiming at the top, the very top of the human experiential pyramid. You want to be in the place where human life can find its highest expression and full potential.
That ultimate pinnacle is the level of meaning.
What that meaning might be is not for me to say. It is personal and exclusive to each of us. It is the very reason we exist. And it is the one and only personal obligation towards which each of us is ultimately going to be held accountable.
All that lies below, in the lowlands of pain and pleasure and joy and sorrow, has its place in our human experience, but only ever serves a purpose of guidance. It can never be an end in itself.
When you start seeking pleasure, or happiness, for their own sake you’re then falling into a trap that shall ultimately deprive you of the amazing privilege you were granted at birth – the chance to express your full human potential. Such a fatal mistake quickly turns you into a hedonistic failure, something that’s no longer needed for anything of any significance in the grand scheme of things. And that, sadly, is the path of most.
There is no greater life than the life expended on a purpose larger than yourself. When your life has a meaning that extends beyond yourself, then any joy and sorrow that may happen to accompany you along the way don’t matter anymore. They’ll be pleasant or annoying companions, according to circumstances, but your focus will be on what really matters to you, and they won’t have the power to affect you, or distract you from your journey.
Think about that. When you finally expose yourself, accept your destiny, and open your arms to all that may come of it, then you become kind of invulnerable: nothing really affects you anymore. You become but a tool in the hands of destiny, an instrument for a greater purpose, and moreover – pay attention to this – your perception of yourself as a separate, antagonist entity confronting the rest of world starts melting away. You’re no longer slave to the lure of a delusional ME tyrannically seeking to hijack your life – you’re now one with the whole universe.
And, what’s more, once you are there, you wouldn’t want it any other way.
A parting thought
So there you have it. Just like millions of spermatozoa are needed for at least one of them to reach its target, so millions of humans are thrown into existence so that at least a handful of them can reach their full potential.
Who’s to say that you shouldn’t be among the select few? Really, no one but you. You set the limits of your own existence: no one else can do it for you. No one else can impose their limits on you. Of course, there will be influences all around pushing you in all sorts of directions, but ultimately, the final choice is yours and only yours.
It is sad and poignant that so many among us stop and stagnate so early on in their life’s journey because of their fears, ultimately only to meet with discomforts far worse than those they where so eager to circumvent.
It is also equally sad and poignant that the word of our philosophers and thinkers, that through the ages have shed precious light on the human condition, keeps going unheeded and vilified, as though it didn’t matter, or it never existed.
It is curious – I’m deliberately picking that word, curious – that we humans only ever seem to care to build on our technological advances, but never on our human achievements.
Every newborn today finds a world filled with fantastic technology that the previous generation never dreamed of. But as a human being he has to start from scratch, as though no other generations had lived before – and, time and again, figure everything out for himself.
Any wonder, then, we are in such a mess? But that, I realise, is an entirely new story.