Happiness and The Adventure Life

"People are strongly, perhaps primarily, perhaps even single-mindedly, motivated to feel happy." - Dan Gilbert (Author of Stumbling On Happiness)

What is Happiness?

Since the beginning of time, maybe even earlier, many extremely intelligent human beings have been trying to figure out how to answer this question. To Socrates, happiness was what all people desire: “since it is always the end goal of our activities, it is an unconditional good.” William James believed “happiness is created as a result of our being active participants in the game of life.” And Aristotle said - "Happiness is a state of activity."

Basically, Socrates was saying that the reason behind everything we do can be broken down to the goal of achieving the feeling of happiness.

“When you see someone who is genuinely excited, look at the expression on their face and what do you see. Most likely you see the look of happiness.”

Happiness Is Not a Place

I think most of us have been raised to believe that once we clear enough of life’s pre-determined hurdles, then we will be “happy”.

We graduate high school, get into a good college or get a good job, graduate into a good, well-paying career, get married, have kids, get them to adulthood and off to college, start getting some grandkids, retire on our comfortable nest egg and move to a house on a golf course, or travel the world, then after we have lived this idyllic life, we die comfortably in peace at a ripe old age.

Unfortunately, this is the rare exception. Most of those hurdles are far more daunting and come with way more unintended consequences, then our eighteen year old selves could have ever imagined. Fast forward a few decades, and many of us find ourselves pretty far down this path, before we start to get suspicious about the existence of this destination called “happy”. We even start to suspect that we have been duped and this destination that we have been seeking is just a fairy tale.

Well, it is (Sort of). Most of us have suspended doing the things that would make us happy today, in the false belief that it will allow us to achieve a permanent state of “happiness” tomorrow. Instead of thinking of happiness as a place, we need to think of happiness as a temporary feeling, and experience. And as we experience more of these feelings, they will build on each other and help us develop into happiness seeking machine.

“During the first few years of life every child is a “learning machine” trying out new movements, new words daily. And each instance of enjoyable learning adds to the complexity of the child’s developing self. Unfortunately, this natural connection between growth and enjoyment tends to disappear with time.” - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Happiness Is Excitement

The perfect synonym for happiness is excitement. I am sure we can come up with many instances where we were feeling happiness and it didn’t necessarily come about during a moment of excitement. There are other emotions that are similar to happiness, like pleasure and even enjoyment, and while these are great feelings, and they are ones that we should try to have as much as possible. But they are feelings that we should be very careful not to substitute for happiness.

Personally, the moments where I feel the greatest amounts of happiness (i.e. the most exciting moments), are those where I am doing the things, that upon a bit of reflection, are identical to the things that I used to do as kid. Jumping off stuff, climbing up and down things, running and riding freely, basically doing things that really have no point other than to just experience the feeling of doing them. Even better if you can gain a physiological benefit as well as an emotional one.

Ideally, when we have an experience that is truly exciting, we will have achieved something, learned something about ourselves, or proven something to ourselves. And that moment, upon reflection, will prove itself to be moment of personal growth. And that moment is what many would define as a true experience of happiness (see Maslow on peak experiences).

“The opposite of love is indifference, and the opposite of happiness is - here is the clincher - boredom!” - Tim Ferris

State of Flow

According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the key to happiness consists in how we invest our psychic energy. When we focus our attention on a consciously chosen goal, our psychic energy literally “flows” in the direction of that goal, resulting in a reordering and harmony within consciousness.

My Notes From Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (doc) - these notes are raw and were not originally intended to be shared.

Flow is “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”

Csikszentmihalyi further describes the state of flow as follows:
  • There are clear goals every step of the way.
  • There is immediate feedback to one’s actions.
  • There is a balance between challenges and skills.
  • Action and awareness are merged.
  • Distractions are excluded from consciousness.
  • There is no worry of failure.
  • Self-consciousness disappears.
  • The sense of time becomes distorted.
  • The activity becomes an end in itself (see Socrates on happiness).

When this event has passed we are left with a feeling of excitement. That feeling of excitement is what’s called a peak experience (see Maslow). And that, my friends is happiness!

“If you are pained by external things it is not they that disturb you, but your own judgment of them. And it is in your power to wipe out that power now.” - Marcus Aurelius

Converting Happy Moments Into a Happy Life

If the feeling of happiness is only temporary and not something that we can achieve long-term, then does that mean that we are running on this neverending, excitement seeking treadmill in the ultimate pursuit of a life of happiness? That sounds kinda tiring to say the least.

But I would like to think about this a little differently. Instead of seeking a life of happiness, I believe we are seeking a life of contentment. Instead of a happiness scale where our “happiness” climbs steadily as we age, I picture it as a “contentment” scale where each happy experience, even with its accompanying down period, raises our overall contentment in life.

If we can personally grow from every happy experience we have, then those experiences will have an additive effect on our outlook on life, and we can visualize our own rising contentment scale like the one above.

"The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen." - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

So, understand that we are not on this Earth to just live, but to live an exciting, fulfilling life, where the only boundaries are the ones we set for ourselves. And maybe the ones dictated by biology and physics. But that’s it! Well, and maybe chemistry.

So let’s get out and have a peak experience or two!

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