What is happiness? It turns out, we’re not meant to be happy all the time, at least not if we mean joy, pleasure, positivity, and satisfaction.
As I learned from John Daniels’ great book Rogue River Journal, “Happy” has the same linguistic root as “happen” — “Haps are what happen, and so happiness amounts to a shortened form of the very happenings of the world. The nature of happiness, in other words, is the happiness of Nature.” Happiness is the flow of things happening. From this, we can see that if the flow is blocked (in general, or inside of us), we cannot be happy, because things cannot happen.
Buddhism illustrates well that even if we have all the things and achievements that we desire, we will still have that very human sense of dukkha, the ‘unsatisfactoriness’ that pushes us to strive for better, and therefore we are still unhappy. The first steps towards something like happiness are to become aware of your striving and less attached to making “you” happier. Beyond that we can get even further by focusing less on ourselves and more on ren—on doing good in the world. Certainly we can be sure that doing good will make us, all of us, happier. Finally, we should aim to simply be ourselves as much as possible. What is our purpose here? First of all, as humans, to be as human as we can be. And to be is to express oneself, to be the fullest expression of yourself that you can possibly be. To be fully, you must be free, and to be free, you must be fully.
Stoicism has the same lesson for us—that the path to tranquility (not “happiness”) is to “strive to become an excellent human being” (A Guide to the Good Life). In short, our goal is to live as well as we can. If we are living well, we will do well by ourselves and our fellows.
To do any of this though, we must be free enough to act. If we are bound by constants and commitments, duties and debts, we are limited in how we can live. Nassim Taleb lays it out for us in Antifragile: first of all, “make sure that the probability of the unacceptable is nil” and then create freedom by ensuring that we have options. A lack of options is both fragile and profoundly unfree.
Lastly, and first of all, we have to choose freedom. While we all have constraints imposed by the world around us, by our circumstances, history, family, culture, and where we live, we all make choices about our own freedom every day.
What are you bound by?
Are your commitments and habits serving your ability to be yourself as much as possible?
How free are you?
How could you be more free?
How could you be more yourself?