“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” ~ Viktor Frankl
There are a plethora of get-happy-quick schemes out there. As a culture, we seem to be obsessed with being happy at all costs. And yet, with all our creature comforts; with all our gadgets and toys and things-things-things designed to make us happy, we are generally a miserably unhealthy people living in an unsustainably lost culture.
We smother ourselves, we smother each other, and we smother our environment with our human waste; mostly because we selfishly seek happiness at the detriment of healthy order itself. Sometimes in order to get the horse back in front of the cart, we need to make happiness secondary instead of primary to other things. Here are five things we ought to make primary over happiness in order to achieve an optimal healthy evolution for our species.
1) Healthiness, then happiness
“One valuable insight to emerge from modern psychology is that unconscious motivations can cause an individual to engage repeatedly in unhealthy and counterproductive behavior. Such a cycle is ordinarily not broken unless the individual somehow becomes aware of the underlying mechanism that is driving his or her behavior; only then can a person initiate corrective action.” ~ Leonard Shlain
The pleasure-pain dilemma is a quagmire for the human condition. It always has been and it probably always will be. One way out of the quagmire and onto at least some reasonably firm footing, is to use the scale of healthy-unhealthy, which is dictated by nature.
The degree to which we become self-actualized, is the degree to which we gain the ability to adapt to and overcome each moment in a healthier way. The primary goal should be a healthy process, not a good quarterly statement.
When we’re healthy (mind, body, and soul), we are fine-tuned for happiness. We may get some happiness out of a good quarterly statement, but if we are not healthy then the happiness gained is marginal. True happiness comes from healthiness. Like Aristotle said, “Happiness, whether consisting in pleasure or virtue, or both, is more often found with those who are highly cultivated in their minds and in their character, and have only a moderate share of external goods.”
The question of our culture being unsustainable is the question of where to draw the line between scarcity and abundance. The problem isn’t comfort; it’s too much comfort. The problem isn’t cities; it’s too many cities. The problem isn’t roads; it’s too many roads. The problem is if you have too many unhealthy people it makes the world unhealthy for healthy people to live in.
Extremism is the bane of health. The healthy way has always been through moderation, balance, equilibrium, and the Middle Way; to live compassionately so that others can compassionately live. The solution is sacrificing comfort and extremism, which means making healthiness primary to happiness.
Some people might ask: what’s the point? The point is to have a healthy process so that one is able to ask: what’s the point. A healthier process might “hurt” more in the short run, but in the long run the happiness gained is not only more abundant but more rewarding.
Like Alexander Lowen said, “People living closer to a survival level may experience more discomfort, but they also know the greater pleasure of fulfillment when their basic needs are met.” Or Henry David Thoreau: “The man is richest whose pleasures are cheapest.”
2) Meaning, then happiness
“There are more ways of being a person than meets the I.” ~ Julian Baggini
The pursuit of meaning is unique to humans in the animal kingdom. It’s what sets us apart from other animals. So it stands to reason that in order to be better, healthier humans it behooves us to discover our own meaning. Even despite meaninglessness. One could even say that the meaning of life is about making life meaningful.
But within the “Society of the Spectacle” there is an addiction to immediate gratification: so great is people’s fear of unhappiness, they flock to the slightest distraction. But the problem with distraction is that it obeys a diminishing law of returns.
Better to face unhappiness full-on. Let it pull you into the abyss. Allow it to fill you with emptiness. But it’s an emptiness that you can then fill with your own meaning. It’s a painful process, but a necessary one. Like Viktor Frankl said, “If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering.”
Who we are is a cosmic gift to us; who we become is our gift to the cosmos. Discovering our own meaning, especially in the face of meaninglessness, is the act of un-wrapping our gift for the cosmos. When we un-wrap this gift we are revealing our soul-signature, our life’s purpose. We are proving to the world that being a free, independent person who struggles is far superior than being an unfree, codependent person who is comfortable.
In other words, we are declaring to the world that meaning (purpose, no matter how painful) is primary to happiness (comfort, no matter how pleasurable). True meaning can only be discovered through freedom. And so it is always preferable to be an unsatisfied free person than a satisfied slave. The satisfied (happy) free person is the one who has discovered their purpose and brought meaning to the meaninglessness.
3.) Art, then happiness
“One of the unexpectedly important things that art can do for us is to teach us how to suffer more successfully.” ~ Alain de Botton
One of the most empowering ways we have to bring meaning (and as a result, happiness) into our lives is to create art, especially art imprinted with our own soul-signature. Art transubstantiates the world. It brings nature to life in a human way.
It is a human-nature/cosmic-nature union creating a seismic synergy that can stand the test of time. Objectively, art is alive in a way forbidden natural objects and, subjectively, in a way subsuming the subjects who create them. Indeed, Art is a species-wide immortality project that trumps, no tramples, happiness under its never-ending hooves of creativity.
Some people might argue that one must be happy before one can create art, but this simply is not true. Art can come from happiness, yes. But some of the most profound art comes from anger, jealousy, grief, and pain. This is because the artistic process is also a cathartic process. When we are in the throes of our creativity we become Zen-like emotional alchemists.
We’re able to sing our anger into song, paint our pain into a painting, sculpt our jealousy into a sculpture, and write our grief into poetry. The result: happiness that transcends the pain, jealousy, anger, or grief, precisely because we have taught ourselves how to turn the tables on our feelings, we have picked the lock of our emotional prisons and broken free into a new way of being human: becoming a hero in the world instead of a victim of it.
4) Gifting, then happiness
“No one seems to truly accept that the joy of giving goes to the gift-giver. We eat the “vegetable” of kindness grudgingly, mainly believing that it’s really impossible to enjoy it as much as the sweets of possession and power.
This could be, of course, because the highly stratified and market-driven world we now live in makes us all a little less able to take pleasure in connection. Like the pups of the low-licking rats, maybe our dopamine hasn’t been properly wired to our oxytocin.
But such diminution is obviously a warning sign, a harbinger of possibly increased relational emptiness and further decreased empathy to come.” ~ Maia Szalavitz
It feels good to give; really good. And radical generosity is even more profound. We each have a connection to the universe that is unique to us. We each have the capacity to learn from this connection: a particular flavor of knowledge that cannot be gained in any other way than through us. As such, it behooves us all to discover what that knowledge is.
And like Prometheus, stealing fire from the gods and gifting it to mortals, we must gift our fire to the world. Such gifting goes beyond happiness and sadness. Even if the journey taken to discover the fire is a painfully sad one, the fact that we have “fire” to gift to others is a boon that surpasses such petty notions as comfort, happiness, and security. Like David Whyte said, “To become human is to become visible while carrying what is hidden as a gift to others.”
The market-driven world has us chasing cars we don’t need so we can drive on roads we don’t need so we can get to jobs we don’t need in order to pay for food which we DO need. Gifting eliminates all the unneeded middlemen. Don’t chase cars. Gift people things they need instead. The happiness gained from giving what’s needed -as opposed to what’s wanted- is happiness unlike any other: a prestigious happiness, a righteous happiness, a sacred and divine happiness that feels good in the bones of the soul.
Like Lewis Hyde said, “In a gift-giving society, an individual gains prestige and satisfaction by receiving, then adding to what has been received and passing it on. In a consumer society, prestige and satisfaction are gained through accumulation and acquisition. Nothing is given. Nothing is passed on.” And there is perhaps no greater gift than the personal development of our own soul.
If everyone gave the gift of personal development, personal flourishing, personal health, personal awareness of how everything is connected, it would change the world more profoundly than any other gift could. Like Jim Rohn said, “The greatest gift you can give to somebody is your own personal development. I used to say, ‘If you will take care of me I will take care of you.’ Now I say, ‘I will take care of me for you, if you will take care of you for me.’”
5) Wholeness, then happiness
“Meditation is nothing but withdrawing all the barriers; thoughts, emotions, sentiments, everything that builds a wall between you and existence. The moment they drop, you suddenly find yourself in tune with the whole; not only in tune, you really find you are the whole.” ~ Osho
The joy of being human goes beyond the conditioned walls of culture. It goes beyond what we’re indoctrinated into believing is the case. It goes beyond right and wrong, good and evil, happy or sad.
Human joy cannot be contained, except in the sense that it can be felt and then let go of. It can be found within the most excruciatingly painful ordeals. It can be found in the darkest places. It can even be taught by the shadow. The human spirit cannot be bound except by the individual who allows it to be bound.
The entire cosmos is a continuous process of initiation. Like Alan Watts said, “Existence is relationship and you are smack in the middle of it.” Indeed, but is your relationship one of programming or one of purpose? Are you a codependent aspect, or an interdependent whole? Does culture have a stranglehold on your perception of reality, or have you torn through the blindfold and witnessed the interconnected wholeness of all things? Like Rumi said, “We should split the sack of this culture and stick our heads out.”
Splitting the sack of culture and sticking our heads out is precisely an act of independence that has the potential to lead to an enlightened state of interdependence. So what if you’re “happier” in the “comfort” of your “home.” So what if your job is keeping you “safe” and “secure.” So what if your friends will “disapprove” of you if you are “irresponsible” according to their outdated, culturally-prescribed notions of right and wrong.
Leave home anyway. Quit your job anyway. Disappoint your friends anyway. Get out into nature. Discover a spiritual adventure. Discover a journey of the most high. Become holistic. Meditate. Witness the world with “over-eyes.” See beyond your preconditioned state. Reach beyond your comfort zone. Shatter the all-too-precious glasshouse paradigm where your Codependency lies curled-up in abject fear and cowardice of being “unhappy.”
Break “the rules” in order to discover Cosmic Law. Like Shakespeare said, “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.” The Brothers and Sisters of Interdependence await you, out in the Garden Where All Things Connect. You are not a victim of the world, you are the world! Now is the time to prove it.