Is life about happiness?

I’m not sure why, but I have never seen happiness as a necessary outcome of my life. Indeed, for large portions of my life, I haven’t even seen my own happiness as desirable. I don’t know whether that is, in itself, good or bad but I do know that at many times I have lacked a way of clearly orienting myself in the world. I am still not able to do so all the time but I certainly have a much clearer idea about which direction I am travelling in.

My sense is that many people of all backgrounds struggle with this. How do you properly orient yourself in life? How do you know in which direction to travel? How do you decide where to put your energies?

I read an enormous amount about this when I was younger. At university I read endless books on philosophy, trying to get some understanding of how to place myself in the world. Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Kant, Freud, Jung, Wittgenstein, Scruton, Russell… I’m not at all sure that what I took from them was even accurate – I certainly wasn’t capable of understanding fully the nuance and detail of their writing.

I also read widely about the lives and thoughts of composers, convinced at the time that being a musician would deliver meaning to me. I was obsessed with the most philosophical and provocative composers – those who questioned music’s place in our world or who, unintentionally through their own innate creativity, transformed music and its communicative power. Cage, Berlioz, Ives fall into the first category; Mozart, Debussy, Janaček lie in the second.

At the time, I thought that these minds had access to knowledge that was beyond me and that through being near their thoughts, some of it would pass through to me and I too would be allowed into their golden world.

The truth, as I now know, is much dirtier and more complex. None of these had any kind of divine understanding of the purpose of life; indeed, many of them struggled enormously with that very question themselves just as I still do.

I find myself, now, returning to many of these writers and musicians with a considerably wider perspective and a great deal more capacity for understanding nuance. Simultaneously, they offer more information but fewer answers than I was aware of 20 years ago.

My own ability to orient myself in the world was, for a long time, deeply bound to a perceived value of ‘success’. I didn’t know what ‘success’ was, but I felt sure that I would know it when it arrived; and that if I was determined enough, then it would – eventually – arrive. That the definition of ‘success’ morphed over time almost goes without saying. That I was unable to discern or define what ‘success’ meant is without doubt one of the key reasons I became unable to manage my own emotions. Indeed, I was convinced that my success only existed in the eyes of others. I needed external affirmation of my value to feel stable, let alone happy.

I suppose that this begs the question, ‘what is the definition of success?’ rather than ‘is life about the pursuit of happiness?’. I tend to think, now, that they are almost the same question. Without wishing to enter a discussion about exactly what happiness is, I think that it is a reasonable shorthand to say that it is a temporary chemical state which is unsustainable in anything except the short term. In fact, remaining in a state of euphoric happiness would very likely make life extremely difficult.

For me, answering the question ‘what is the definition of success?’ proved to be transformative. I realised that what I was after was fulfilment, and that there were clear goals I could set in pursuit of that. I am increasingly persuaded that we find meaning in life through pursuit and achievement of goals. Jordan Peterson, though often maligned in the mainstream press, has written eloquently on this topic and his viewpoint is backed up with more than 20 years of clinical psychological practice.

What made the difference for me was working out what I wanted and chucking out what I thought other people wanted of me. When the goals were my own, pursuing them was achievable – most of all because I could tell what they were and actively take steps towards them.

For example, two years ago I decided to lose weight. Each day I was able to do something that I was sure would contribute to that goal. Whether that be eating less, exercising more, changing my exercise plan, adding different exercises, getting equipment to help me run… I could use discipline, willpower, dedication, strategy, understanding, knowledge to my own benefit. And I could see the results. That realisation through the process of weight-loss was hugely powerful and I have been able to find it in other areas of my life as well.

What I have found is not that this makes me happy but that it gives me a great sense of achievement in all time frames – short, medium, and long. And that achievement gives me pride in myself which is in turn motivational; it makes me want to continue and to use the same strategy in other areas of my life.

Happiness has never been important for me and I am convinced that pursuing happiness for its own sake it hazardous. It shares many of the dangers of pursuing other chemical highs: the effects are transient and making them happen again necessitates increasingly excessive behaviours.

The difficulty for me was understanding that what I wanted for myself and those that I love was enough. That those things alone would create satisfaction and challenge, and – through them – strong meaning, was surprising and brought relief from the burden of constantly trying to fulfil unclear (and probably non-existent) demands from other people.

Ultimately, my discovery has been that happiness and success are byproducts of living a life that has meaning. That meaning is found in the smallest of activities to the largest, from cleaning your room to changing someone’s life. What matters is that it comes from goals you set for yourself because they matter to you. If you do something, no matter how challenging, because it has value for you then that something will carry meaning. And that will give you strength to move forward.

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