How to do what you love, and why it’s so fucking hard.

“Choose not to be harmed, and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed, and you haven’t been.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations


How do you become happy? Is it a choice that you make, simply to take life as it comes, screw on your head straight, and just be happy? Or is happiness a by-product of success – an after “oh, well look at that, I’m happy” phenomenon? What does a consistently happy and peaceful person actually look like? Do I live among them? Is it even possible to be happy, consistently, given the day to day sufferings inherent to life – the fact that we get sick, break our bones and our hearts, all the while loved ones are dying around us, and in but a blink of the timescale of man, we too will soon join them death? School didn’t teach us how to become happy and well adjusted – it taught us to work – so where next does one look for these answers?

These are the sorts of “perennial questions” one asks themselves in the middle of an ego-filled existential crisis, particularly one which comes during one of life’s pivotal transition periods. As Carl Rogers mused in On Becoming A Person, “I cannot help but puzzle over the meaning of what I observe.”[1] To ask the great philosophical questions – “What is my goal in life?” “What do I strive for?” “What is the meaning of my life?” – that’s just what I do. It’s just the way my brain is wired, so I play along, and try to ride out each crisis as it comes, and I hope to learn something along the way.

As I write this I’m on the tail end of my latest such crisis. For context: I am a twenty-one year old white male, of the upper-middle class variety. I went to a good expensive school and got a higher end education.

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Navigating an existential crisis can often leave one feeling meaningless.

I have a Bachelor’s degree, and what I believe to be a considerable amount of life experience for someone my age, but I’m still stuck. The education that I’ve received so far in life hasn’t prepared me for any sort of employment opportunity in the traditional workforce, nor has it given me any sort of the education I believe most important to growing teenagers in the modern world. Indeed, it seems that all I’ve achieved by trying to become a more intelligent person is an alienation and dissatisfaction of popular culture – the Western Ideal.

Émile Durkheim described this condition in detail, calling it anomie: a condition in which society provides little moral and emotional guidance to individuals, no deeper level of education about life beyond the bare essentials. I would argue that in more traditional societies, and among many of our ancestors, the individual would have received this education from his tribe, which he was never detached from. The individual was at his core, a social member of his tribe, with whom he lived in harmony shared almost everything. The tribe was essential to survival, and so it was tight knit. Children were educated by elders in the community, taught to hunt by their dads, and put to work. No doubt there would have been an amazing degree of banter in these sorts of tight knit communities, but I imagine there would have been at least some sort of moral, existential, or otherwise philosophical guidance given too.

Charles Morris argued for a life which centred around earthly and personal goals, namely:

1). “A responsible, moral, self-restrained participation in life, appreciating and conserving what man has attained.”

2). “Delight in vigorous action for the overcoming of obstacles … a confident initiation of change, either in resolving personal and social problems, or in overcoming obstacles in the natural world.”

3). “A self-sufficient inner life with a rich and heightened self-awareness. Control over persons and things is rejected in favour of a deep and sympathetic insight into self and others.”

4). “A receptivity to persons and to nature. Inspiration is seen as coming from a source outside the self, and the person lives and develops in responsiveness to this source.”

5). “Sensuous enjoyment, self-enjoyment. The simple pleasures of life, an abandonment to the moment, a relaxed openness to life, are valued.”

That all sounds lovely, but what does it mean to be a “responsible, moral, self-restrained participant in life”? How can I take “delight in the vigorous action for the overcoming of obstacles” if I cannot overcome them? Or haven’t yet figured out how? When the going gets tough, people can’t just flick a switch and revert back into a state of sensuous self-enjoyment of the simple pleasures of life, open to the beauty in nature, and sympathetic insight into the self and others. Wait a minute, that’s sounds suspiciously similar to a description of the psychedelic experience.

Ever more, my perception of psychedelics as tools of spiritual and moral awakening is hardening. Under the influence of psychedelics, one encounters states so imperceptible to normal waking consciousness that they are unable to be ignored. The characteristic first state is self-transcendence, a literal immersion in the present moment, often perceived as a “oneness” with the Universe. The second is one of deep, unavoidable introspection. One sees clearly the way they play their life. The loosening of the boundaries of the ego allows for a perspective of ourselves that is often enlightening, but also terrifying.

I am reminded of the sort of Shamanic tribes visited by Author Daniel Pinchbeck throughout his epic Breaking Open the Head, who revered psychedelics as spiritual teachers, and spoke to these Gods through the Shamanic reverie elicited by these chemicals. As you may know, the deep states of the psychedelic experience accessed through popular shamanic sacraments – DMT, ayahuasca, and Iboga, to name a few – produce a so called “mystical” experience. This is a state of egoless bliss, or ego-dissolution, which, to quote Max Müller just a little out of context, is described as “the Divine Spirit becoming conscious of himself through the finite spirit”. Individuals of a shamanic intuition were described as healers, teachers, and often great thinkers, and no doubt provided at least some form of spiritual guidance to those in their tribe.

Carl Rogers, an influential humanistic psychotherapist, noticed a trend among his patients anchored in the words of philosopher Søren Kierkegaard – “to be that self which one truly is.”[1] This seems trivial, even whimsical, at first, but good philosophy often does, because it succeeds in pointing things out that seem so obvious, yet that we all fail to achieve. Even lacking an understanding of where they want to go in life, Rogers notices that his clients underwent a process of trying to define their “true” self, however negatively, by moving away from doing the things which do not truly represent them. His clients dropped the acts they had being playing, tentatively, and developed a public persona, even a private one, which was a more accurate portrayal of their true self.

“Gradually clients learn that experiencing is a friendly resource, not a frightening enemy”, argued Rogers. A similar notion is noted by Maslow in self-actualizers who display an “ease of penetration to reality”; a greater awareness and acceptance of child/animal-like urges, opinions and subjective reactions. This inner openness to experience often begins to manifest outwards towards the external environment, embellishing clients with the “wonderful capacity to appreciate again and again, freshly and naively, the basic goods of life with awe, pleasure, wonder, and even ecstasy.”

***

Where Is All The Wisdom?

As it stands, I see that pursuing higher education, a Master’s degree or beyond, is the logical course of action in my current predicament. I know that I do not want to toil the rest of my life away for an organization or institute which I am existentially detached from. I want to believe in the meaning of my work, if not for others as least for myself, and my own happiness, and so I am drawn to look for a career among my passions in life. But to ask myself what brings me enjoyment in my spare time is not to ask me what I want to devote the rest of my life to.

No doubt many would argue that working doesn’t involve any sort of devotion like that, it’s just something that humans have to do. This is the sort of stoic philosophy encapsulated in Meditations, the journal of one of Rome’s greatest emperors, Marcus Aurelius. It is empowering to peer into the mind of one of history’s most powerful men, to see it coloured by an insight into the human condition that far exceeds most “educated” men today.

Maria Popova introduced me to the idea of a knowledge pyramid, much like the food pyramid, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, or other pyramid based metaphors you may know.

“I often think about the architecture of knowledge as a pyramid of sorts — at the base of it, there is all the information available to us; from it, we can generate some form of insight, which we then consolidate into knowledge; at our most optimal, at the top of the pyramid, we’re then able to glean from that knowledge some sort of wisdom about the world, and our place in it, and what matters in it and why.” – Maria Popova via Brain Pickings

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Image via Brain Pickings

The most obvious resource for knowledge at any level of the pyramid is the Internet. For most things you will ever need to learn there is a Wikipedia page with more information then you will ever need. But books, too, are still a heavyweight contender. Indeed, I believe that among a number of blogs and podcasts which stand out from the crowd, books are the main sources of insight, knowledge, and wisdom we have access too. In my quest for insight into the human condition I turned to Meditations, and I found an abundance of it.

“Concentrate every minute like a Roman— like a man— on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. Yes, you can— if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable. You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life?”

[…]

“Your ability to control your thoughts— treat it with respect. It’s all that protects your mind from false perceptions— false to your nature, and that of all rational beings. It’s what makes thoughtfulness possible, and affection for other people, and submission to the divine.”

[…]

“People try to get away from it all— to the country, to the beach, to the mountains. You always wish that you could too. Which is idiotic: you can get away from it anytime you like. By going within. Nowhere you can go is more peaceful— more free of interruptions— than your own soul. Especially if you have other things to rely on. An instant’s recollection and there it is: complete tranquillity. And by tranquillity I mean a kind of harmony. So keep getting away from it all— like that. Renew yourself. But keep it brief and basic. A quick visit should be enough to ward off all <… > and send you back ready to face what awaits you. What’s there to complain about? People’s misbehavior? But take into consideration: that rational beings exist for one another; that doing what’s right sometimes requires patience; that no one does the wrong thing deliberately; and the number of people who have feuded and envied and hated and fought and died and been buried. … and keep your mouth shut. Or are you complaining about the things the world assigns you? But consider the two options: Providence or atoms. And all the arguments for seeing the world as a city. Or is it your body? Keep in mind that when the mind detaches itself and realizes its own nature, it no longer has anything to do with ordinary life— the rough and the smooth, either one. And remember all you’ve been taught— and accepted— about pain and pleasure. Or is it your reputation that’s bothering you? But look at how soon we’re all forgotten. The abyss of endless time that swallows it all. The emptiness of all those applauding hands. The people who praise us— how capricious they are, how arbitrary. And the tiny region in which it all takes place. The whole earth a point in space— and most of it uninhabited. How many people there will be to admire you, and who they are. So keep this refuge in mind: the back roads of your self. Above all, no strain and no stress. Be straightforward. Look at things like a man, like a human being, like a citizen, like a mortal. And among the things you turn to, these two: i. That things have no hold on the soul. They stand there unmoving, outside it. Disturbance comes only from within— from our own perceptions. ii. That everything you see will soon alter and cease to exist. Think of how many changes you’ve already seen. ‘The world is nothing but change. Our life is only perception.’”

Did school teach you any of that? Did it teach you how to be a rational man? How to be happy? School didn’t teach you how to meditate, sleep well, or maintain a healthy and sustainable lifestyle. It didn’t even teach you how to write a resume or get a job. There was no life guidance, not even career guidance, just facts and numbers. The closest that the schooling system ever got to a working form of ethical and moral education was the study of literature, but of course writing essays about the “narrative conventions” used in “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”, or “1984” was so boring that it achieved nothing more than teaching most of us to hate reading.

As a child, I never read less than when I had to. Reading was a form of self-exploration and self-directed learning, that’s what made it fun. So when I was tied down and forced to read a book, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Unless of course, that book was Fight Club. I can say that the weeks I spent studying themes of anti-consumption, anarchism, and alienation/depersonalization presented in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club shaped my world view more than five years of high school combined.

“Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. Not Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives” – Tyler Durden in Fight Club

But school was, in a way, simply a diluted form of work, that dreary thing that adults had to do and seemed to complain about a lot, but that we didn’t quite understand as kids. Boring math classes and critical analysis of dusty old books, taught by teachers who, in most cases, seemed to be more unhappy than we were, only seemed to emphasize one harsh truism: in life, sometimes you just can’t do what you want. You have to work.

And I still don’t understand to concept of work. The way I see the world there are two great resources, great because they are unrenewable. These are my time and my attention. I do not sacrifice my time and my body slaving away on some menial task which I know is not capturing my capabilities, but that is exactly what work has always been for me, and I see no freedom from it. I believe that the future of employment is trending towards the creation of individual brands and self-advertising; using online personas to sell our trade; be it journalism, data-mining, web-design, venture capital, or lawn-mowing, but starting along this road is much easier blogged than done. But being the rational millennial that I am, it would make sense to pursue down this road anyway, and play the long game. Correct? But who’s to say that I’m not just a lazy book worm?

What Exactly Is Happiness?

What do we know about happiness, and how do we play the game to get it? We know that happiness can be illusive, even at the best of times, and that we tend to overestimate the impact that future events will have on our level of happiness. We need to keep in mind the hedonic treadmill, or hedonic adaptation, the fact that no matter how much something initially brings you happiness or suffering, you will inevitably return to a relatively stable level of happiness.[2]

Is happiness, then, just the avoidance of suffering, so that we maintain this stable state more often? Sam Harris would argue that we are missing the point: that happiness comes from a deeper, boundless source which exists inside each and every one of us.[3] Access to it is independent of external factors, the transitory pleasures upon which our happiness usually rests. But our faith is misplaced for the simple fact that “ceaseless change is an unreliable basis for lasting fulfillment”. Our pleasures are by their very nature fleeting, and thus disillusioned, “many people begin to wonder whether a deeper source of well-being exists”.

Marcus Aurelius stressed the importance of working with and for others, calling it the defining characteristic of our human-beingness. Because of our connection with others, we are encouraged to live our life responsibly, as a philosopher. Do not wish for what you do not have. In effect such things don’t even exist. Look simply at what you do have with gratitude, but be careful not to value them so much that you would be upset to lose them. Remember that you are a part of the logos, the infinite change of the universe.

“All of us are working on the same project. Some consciously, with understanding; some without knowing it. […] So make up your mind who you’ll choose to work with. The force that directs all things will make use of you regardless – will put you on its payroll and set you to work.”

This quote hints at the almost vicious nature of the game we play; that no matter how much you try to hide, or live alternatively, or “turn on, tune in, or drop out“, you will be enculturated. Many a psychonaut, for example, may have had a cruelly profound moment as they stared in amazement at the dirty paper which holds the world in its trance. Somehow, this arbitrary creation, the economic system, rules the way humans live, and the fact of the matter is that we need money to survive. There’s just no getting around that. But there is freedom in that acceptance. That by choosing to be aware of our mental state, familiarizing ourselves with its patterns of thought and neurotic tendencies, then we have the power to alter our experience for the better.

Or maybe, just maybe, I have it all wrong. I mean, my parents claim to be happy with the work they do. My Dad used to say to me of his work as a consultant for a business training organization: “I never work a day in my life”. But I see the way that they stress, drink, and live outside of work and I wonder, is that really happiness? Is that the American dream or Australian dream or anyone’s dream? I think I’m onto something when I say that the key’s to happiness lies in a combination of not attributing one’s sense of well-being to external factors, meditation, and learning to live in the present moment.

I believe that happiness stems from finding meaning in our lot in life, whether through our work, our love, or our suffering. But surely it also comes from not trying too hard. Happiness is a by-product of living well, not the end product, and it is astoundingly elusive when made the subject of all our ambitions. But there is no change in oneself that goes unnoticed by the world. Just as “Sick people are made by a sick culture; healthy people are made possible by a healthy culture” said Maslow: “it is just as true that sick individuals make their culture more sick and that healthy individuals make their culture more healthy. Improving individual health is one approach to making a better world”.[4]

life

Stop Trying Too Hard

“Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult-once we truly understand and accept it-then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.” – Morgan Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled

Life is difficult. It’s a strange sentence to admit out loud, but we’ve all thought it. Human suffering comes in all shapes and sizes, and the simple truth is that it is unavoidable. We will all, many times in our lives, come face to face with this reality. In Buddhism suffering is often referred to as unsatisfactoriness¸ that pervasive, niggling sort of unpleasantness that we all experience every day – the difficulty getting out of bed to an offensive sounding alarm, or some uneasy bowel movements after a particularly spicy curry. Human troubles, you all know them. But there is also the suffering that comes with the knowledge that everything everywhere is falling apart, and everyone everywhere is dying, and that you will too very soon join the dead.

The fact is that suffering is ubiquitous, and rampant. It needn’t be, but without a certain amount of turmoil and uncertainty, there is no growth. A little bit of existential angst goes a long when it comes to finding lasting happiness, because it causes you to ask the right questions. And when there is psychic friction, listen to it. No good will come from ignoring negative opinions held in the back of the mind. That is where they grow stronger, as they pollute slowly pollute and darken your mind. Rumination may in fact be an evolutionary strategy, forcing one to chew over all of the moves available to him, and reconsider what he truly wants in life. Psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl said something similar of a patient who complained of life dissatisfaction:[5]

“Not every conflict is necessarily neurotic; some amount of conflict is normal and healthy. In a similar sense suffering is not always a pathological phenomenon; rather than being a symptom of neurosis, suffering may well be a human achievement, especially if the suffering grows out of existential frustration. I would strictly deny that one’s search for a meaning to his existence, or even his doubt of it, in every case is derived from, or results in, any disease. Existential frustration is in itself neither pathological nor pathogenic. A man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease. It may well be that interpreting the first in terms of the latter motivates a doctor to bury his patient’s existential despair under a heap of tranquilizing drugs. It is his task, rather, to pilot the patient through his existential crisis of growth and development.” – Viktor Frankl, Mans Search For Meaning

That said, human beings were not designed to be happiness machines. Happiness is, and was, an evolutionary by product of success. A reward for doing things well. Thus our mental health balances on a scale. On one side lies what we have already achieved, and on the other side what ought to still to be accomplished. According to Frankyl, this sort of psychic tension is indispensable to mental well-being. To assume that what we need is a state of peaceful equilibrium, or “homeostasis”, is a dangerous failure of proper mental hygiene. Carl Rogers mirrored such ideas when he proposed the idea of “the good life”, not as a fixed state of nirvana, contentment, or happiness, in which the individual is adjusted, or fulfilled, or actualized, but “the process of movement in a direction which the human organism selects when it is inwardly free to move in any direction.”

“One way of expressing the fluidity which is present in such existential living is to say that the self and personality emerge from experience, rather than experience being translated or twisted to fit preconceived self-structure. It means that one becomes a participant in and an observer of the ongoing process of organismic experience, rather than being in control of it.” – Carl Rogers, A Therapists View of the Good Life

Nevertheless, Western culture becomes more infatuated with self-help every day. We are each, as animals, equipped with the innate tendency to survive, and as a human being surviving means thriving. It means trying to be successful, and the pursuit of the American dream. It is no wonder then, than everyone is so in love with self-help. No creature has ever had so much advice when it comes to “living well” – bookstores have entire bookshelves devoted to the idea of self-help, and ever growing collection of spiritual, medical, psychological, or folk-inspired wisdom designed to serve the singular purpose of making us happier.

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Image via The Guardian

There is a perverse paradox here, however, as author Jonathan Rottenberg argues in The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic. That is that our predominant cultural imperatives about mood and happiness, although well intentioned, are actually counterproductive. More than ever, young adults are conforming to the typical ideal of the American dream. University students today are more likely than ever to be motivated predominantly by money, and the potential for better jobs, rather than curiosity and a passion for learning.[6] The American Dream is so tightly entwined with the collective conscious of the West that happiness has become one of the primary motivators of Western culture. But the garden variety Western construct of happiness is only one specific form of happiness.

Cross cultural researchers tell us that European Americans place the highest value on a specific form of happiness, termed the high arousal positive state, valuing exuberance and excitement.[7] By contrast, typical Eastern societies place more value in low arousal positive states, characterized by calmness and serenity. This two dimensional view of happiness, known as Emotional Granularity, goes a long way towards defining what we traditionally think of as happiness, but does it give us any indication of how to achieve either states?

Cultural differences aside, one would expect that East of West, the amount of time and energy one devotes to the goal of achieving happiness, the better off they are likely to be, right? Wrong. Research suggests that people who place more value in happiness are actually less likely to achieve their goal of feeling happy.[8] As it turns out, the more value one places in being happy, the more anguish they experience when they aren’t happy. The American dreamers are more likely to be plagued by negative thoughts like “If I don’t feel happy, maybe there is something wrong with me”; or “To have a meaningful life, I need to feel happy most of the time.” These same people are, perversely, more likely to report an overall feeling of dissatisfaction with their lives and be more bothered by symptoms of depression.

What causes this discrepancy? It’s all a matter of perspective. People who idealize happiness as the ultimate state to be sought after have a strong positive ideal, an almost utopian view of what their life should be like. The problem is, however, that life is not a utopia. You cannot control all of the variables, and difficulties and disappointments are bound to come up eventually. Strong positive ideals create a rift between desire and actual experience, the size of which is thought to influence wellbeing – the smaller the gap, the happier you are. The larger the gap – the more incongruence between reality and desire, the less likely you are to be happy.

What is there to take from this? This is a hard topic to summarize, because I’m still trying to figure it out myself.

If you want to be happy:

  • Prioritize happiness like a goal to be worked on. To an extent, true inner happiness can be found at any moment with a certain amount of meditative experience, but on a longer timeline happiness seems to be the by-product of a life well lived.
  • Don’t try too hard, though. The more you value happiness, the more utopian your view of life will become.
  • Find your niche, find your people, and express yourself.
  • Live responsibly. Do what you do, and do it well. Exercise, eat well, and keep healthy. Educate yourself to the best of your abilities, but do not ignore your commitments and responsibilities.
  • Learn to meditate, and do it regularly. Recognizing destructive patterns of thought before they are able to wreak too much havoc on your mental state goes a long way towards equanimity. Meditation will also help you to maintain a higher level of self-awareness throughout life, so you can acknowledge your thoughts, and gain a deeper level of self-knowledge.
  • Try a psychedelic, at least once. More on that here.
  • Live in the moment, and never leave it.
  • Read! I cannot emphasize this enough. Plenty of people have dealt with the exact same issues as you and I. Some of them have been kind enough to write about them.

Footnotes

  1. Carl Rogers, A Therapists View of the Good Life
  2. Stephanie Rosenbloom, But Will It Make You Happy?
  3. Sam Harris, Waking Up: A Guide To Spirituality Without Religion
  4. Abraham Maslow, Towards A Psychology of Being
  5. Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning
  6. Jean M. Twenge & Kristin Donnelly, Generational differences in American students’ reasons for going to college, 1971–2014: The rise of extrinsic motives
  7. Tsai JL1, Knutson B, Fung HH. Cultural variation in affect valuation.

Selected Links

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Published by

Jack

I am a science graduate, wannabe freelance writer and newly converted blogger. A nomad at heart, I travel as much as I can whilst treating my mind and body like some kind of twisted laboratory, often testing the mental boundaries of sanity and mental health. I write at theneocortex.wordpress.com, an exploration into the human condition and well-being through the lens of neuroscience, psychology and practical philosophy. I consider myself a humanist, albeit a highly flawed one. Peace Out.

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