Passion and Happiness

Yesterday’s discussion of ambition got me thinking about similar topics and led me down a rabbit hole of various ideas around the subject of passion – the topic of today’s post. For our present purposes we are discussing passion as love or joy for some form of art, leisure, activity, vocation, career or such rather than in romantic or amorous sense.

As we defined ambition, so too must we define passion for purposes of today’s passage. The OED defines passion as “an intense desire or enthusiasm for something.” Passion is important because it is the fuel that feeds the flame of human emotion, behavior, and activity without which we would be more akin to mindless drones rather than animated beings.

Yesterday’s discussion on ambition got me thinking about passion because one could argue that the most ideal form of ambition for any individual is an ambition to achieve or improve in some way that directly correlates to that for which they are highly passionate. You don’t have to think hard to think of individuals who are ambitions for all the wrong reasons, lending their efforts and their ambition towards some sort of aim for which they are not passionate. Picture a young adult hell bent on earning a college scholarship for a sport about which they have little love, but are pursuing all the same more to win the approval of an overbearing parent rather than enjoyment for the game. Picture the middle-aged professional determined to impress their bullying high-school classmates by achieving wealth and recognition within their career even though they’d rather be doing something lesser-paying though more rewarding. The world is full of such people and its possible that we ourselves have fallen into such traps before. I can remember multiple times in my life where I had ambition but only fickle amounts of drive because there was no passion in what I was doing. (Interestingly enough, I looked up the definition of discipline to see in what ways if any it opposed the definition of passion and came up with the following: the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience – more than one definition included the word punishment – what sort of way to be is a punishing existence??)

Maria Popova, who runs the amazing Marginalian website (formerly Brain Pickings) had this to say on the subject: “if you’re looking for a formula for greatness, the closest we’ll ever get is consistency driven by a deep love of work.” Naval Rakivant would share similar sentiments, saying: “If you’re not 100 percent into it, somebody else who is 100 percent into it will outperform you. And they won’t just outperform you by a little bit—they’ll outperform you by a lot because now we’re operating the domain of ideas, compound interest really applies and leverage really applies.”

The point that both of these far wiser and more accomplished individuals than myself are making is that discipline only gets you so far. I know there is a strong movement of equally successful individuals, not insignificant in number, who would argue that discipline will trump passion because discipline does not fail and it shows up without fail on good days and bad days. I am a big believer in the power of discipline, counting it among one of my most cherished values and having on many occasions realized great personal triumphs largely due to discipline. But discipline without passion will only fall short of the individual who can bring both discipline and more importantly passion to any endeavor.

If you have discipline for a goal but no passion, why are you doing what you do? It raises a paradox of sorts: if we are being disciplined in our aim for a goal but not passionate about that goal, why would the goal be worth pursuing to begin with? Not every goal will present the most wondrous or exciting opportunity but every goal worth having should invoke a feeling of passion. Take working a menial job for example, it isn’t fun but it allows us to care for our family – about whom we are passionate and whose care we passionately pursue ergo we approach our work without passion. If passion is absent then that should raise a red flag about why we do something.

The beauty of the matter is that when we apply ourselves towards something about which we are passionate, the effort seems to diminish while the results seem to come more easily. As Henry David Thoreau said: “the really efficient laborer will be found not to crowd his day with work but will saunter to his task surrounded by a wide halo of peace and leisure.” That which we do ought not to feel like a trip to get a cavity filled at the dentist, something we do because we must not because we want to, but instead something about which we are excited, something where we can spend hours without glancing at the clock or imagining ourselves elsewhere. Yes, there will be projects and deadlines that may sometimes rouse us to action when we are not in the mood but often enough when we apply ourselves towards our passions, that love of our work finds us diligently going about our task and the quality of our work and our lives is enriched thereby. The quality of work done by a disciplined but dispassionate person will drip with resentment and a lack of quality compared to the efforts of one who is passionate.

It isn’t about comparing the work of a disciplined individual to a passionate one, the root of suffering is comparison of oneself to others, but it is about comparing what your life can be to what it is. If your life lacks passion you owe it to yourself to discover that passion or to live a life fulfilling your passion rather than to toil away at something that goes against yourself, for that is the definition of unnatural behavior. To thine own self be true.

Thoughts on Ambition and Happiness

Today I will be writing about ambition. Though not a trained psychologist, sociologist or any other type of -ogist, except for exercise physiologist, I will attempt do discuss why humans experience the drive for ambition, how it can be both a negative and positive state, and the various ways upon which it affects our happiness.

To begin with, I suppose we should define ambition such that are all aware of what exactly it is being discussed here. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ambition as: “(n) a strong desire to do or to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work.” Most of us probably experience ambition as our drive to reach a goal, to smash a record, to do something memorable. On some level we are probably all aware of ambition and what it is but how does it affect us?

Ambition is tricky because it can be both a positive and a negative. Positive ambition is when we have a strong desire to achieve some type of goal and our desire for that achievement is strong enough that it compels us to action. In so being compelled we theoretically become “better” in some sense. We may become a more skilled artist in our ambition to learn how to paint; we may be promoted at work- earning more money, recognition and handling more responsibility – something that allows us to affect greater changes; in our ambition to lose weight we become healthier and stronger. As we experience this ambitious drive we discover things about ourselves, either realizing hidden talents or developing new skills or powerful positive traits like discipline and determination along the way.

In “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Viktor Frankl states that having a purpose in life is the very reason for existence, having observed in his own horrific experiences that those of his fellow concentration camp prisoners who had a purpose for living, that is some form of ambition, were those who survived, quoting Nietzsche often by saying “he who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” What is your why for living? What is it that you strive for? American Author Robert Byrne famously stated that “the purpose of life is a life of purpose.” I can’t say that I disagree with either of them. Having experienced nothing remotely similar to Frankl, I can still attest to the discovery of purpose within my own life as a major factor in my happiness.

In the aforementioned sense ambition is good. This of course operates under the assumption that what we experience ambition for is good for us and for others. An important exercise here for those of you reading this is to consider what goals and ambitions you presently have and to consider WHY? Why is this goal worth achieving? Why is worth what will likely be days, weeks, months, or even years of struggling towards. What does the achievement of this goal look like? Are you going to be a better person because of this? What sacrifices will you be making in order to fulfill your ambition? Is your ambition for this goal worth those sacrifices? Does what you are trying to achieve harm others either directly or indirectly? And last in my list, perhaps most importantly is: how will you handle yourself if you do not achieve this goal? Naval Rakivant, one of my favorite modern thinkers of late said this on desire which I think we can reasonably use as a synonym of ambition for our purpose: “Desire is a contract that you make with yourself to be unhappy until you get what you want.”

Consider what Rakivant, somebody who has achieved a great level of success across multiple metrics and reached a plethora of personal goals along the way, is saying here. The inherent nature of desire or ambition is that it stems from a notion that what we are or we are today is insufficient and that we will not be happy until or that we will be happier once we achieve that for which we are ambitious. Does this mean that we should have no ambition at all, that we should sacrifice all desire for change or progress for happiness and contentment now, foregoing the risk of struggle and strife down the line?

That would depend on who you ask. The Taoists, to the best of my admittedly limited understanding, preach contentment and a state of being as opposed to a state of doing. At the core of Taoism is taking whatever may come our way, being pliable and non-resistant like water, and to recognize both the ephemeral nature of all things as well as the inseparable unity that all living and non-living things share. A Taoist may only have ambition for living in harmony and peace and those who truly understand the way would likely tell you that the harder one tries to reach this goal, or any goal, the less you truly grasp it – especially in matters of the Tao. Thus it could be said that the Taoist philosophy is generally opposed to most ambition. This is difficult for most people to grasp especially for those of us not raised in the traditions of East Asian societies.

My take on the matter is that ambition is a good thing provided one makes an attempt to guide and understand their ambition such as by addressing the questions posed in previous paragraphs. As i reflect on the positive effect of ambition in my own life, I can recall periods of my life where I felt as if I truly lacked any sort of meaningful goals or ambition at all. There were times where my life, the majority of my 20s, revolved primarily around hedonism and the thrills of sex, drugs, alcohol and forgetting all sense of responsibility or purpose. Eventually I realized that I was depressed and that I was using pleasure to distract myself from my profound lack of self understanding or the apparent lack of meaning to my existence. Eventually I would address these problems and while my ambitions have changed over the years, I can confidently state that having ambition in general gave my life a sense of meaning and very likely saved myself from taking an early exit from what at times felt like a meaningless existence.

If you want to utilize ambition to the best possible outcomes make sure you start with why, specifically why this goal matters. Is it selfish? What does my life look like after I realize this. Do I become better through this ambition. Then consider how. Not just how will this goal be reached – setting micro goals and milestones along the way, but how will the striving towards this ambition affect me and how will it affect others in my life or other parts of my life. What sacrifices must be made and are they worth it. You may come to realize that certain goals require sacrifices that you are unwilling to make. Work ambition comes to mind here: yes as a senior partner you would make more money and provide more for your family, and you would be able to use your judgement to make meaningful changes in the way your company affects others – thus making the world better, BUT – if it comes from being an absentee parent and spouse – it may not be worth it. There is no reason that you can’t get that promotion and continue to be an involved parent, and there is no inherent reason that your ambition will cause you to fail in other parts of your life but it can. Thus it is in your best interest to at least be aware of the potential sacrifices such that you can ensure proper time management is utilized and to be cognizant of potential pain points along the way.

One of the most important considerations in ambition is: can I live with myself, or can I still be happy even if I fail to reach this goal? Sometimes, often through no fault of our own, we can completely throw ourselves into the pursuit of our ambition only to not achieve our desired outcome. We have all probably felt this way so I need not tell you that this feeling simply sucks. How do we reconcile this with our sense of happiness? I would say we reconcile this by shifting our perspective not towards the final goal or the end-result we envisioned, but towards the process itself of achieving that goal. We need to not consider out goals as zero-sum games wherein we either wholly succeed or we fail miserably. Life is rarely a zero-sum game. If we can look back at who we were before making our attempt and compare that person to who we are now, whether we met our goals or not, I imagine we would see a better person. We are better for having dared to make an attempt in the first place. We are better because we tried and in so trying we hardened our own resolve, boosted our own capabilities, and made the world better by caring enough to even attempt to fight to make ourselves better.

Ambition can crush our spirit when we fail to meet it, or drive us insane with want and desire. But a life without any sort of ambition is a hollow existence. Without ambition there is no impetus for change and we might as well live on the couch watching whatever may happen and taking no part in the participation of life. You may make a compelling argument that free-will is an illusion and that everything that ever will happen is already laid out – and that very well may be. But why should that pre-determined since of the world not include you being the best version of yourself. Why shouldn’t you make the world better? Not because the world needs to be made better but because it CAN be better. So what if our existence is essentially meaningless and everything we do becomes forgotten in a few generations’ time? What matters is the present, this moment belongs to us, and in this moment we can choose to direct our energy and our selves towards meaningful activity and fulfill our ambition.

One Year of Happy Together

One year ago today I wrote my first entry on the happy together blog.

Today’s post is a moment of reflection. The intent is to reflect upon what I have learned about the subject of happiness and how to create happiness in my life, but more importantly to review the best and most wonderful ideas shared throughout this blog, ideas that, I sincerely hope, have made the lives of any of Happy Together’s readers better. The very act of writing a blog about happiness has profoundly improved my state of happiness and if even one single person out there has been moved similarly, than this endeavor has already been worthwhile.

What we learned from 1-year of Happy Together

This section will highlight the key ideas of happiness discussed over the past year.

  • Happiness is not found; it is made and experienced
    • Recall from the research of renowned scientists like Dr. Dan Gilbert or Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky that we have the power to create happiness. It is not hidden under a rock or on a beach across an ocean, the potential for happiness is within you right now and is realized upon the adaptation of certain revelations, behaviors, habits, and decisions that allow the synthesis of happiness. Many things are and will remain out of our control but, as the Stoics are fond of reminding us, the one thing we can control is our mind and our thoughts and it is precisely within that mind that happiness resides.
  • Mindset is EVERYTHING
    • Do not count on life to make you happy. It is up to you to BE happy regardless of what the circumstances of your life may be. Suffering is omnipresent and we all experience it on some level. None of us experience it equally and it isn’t distributed fairly. No amount of wailing, raging, complaining or praying will directly alter your life’s circumstances and alleviate your suffering, and there is no magic roll of the dice to start life from the start but this time with loving parents and a million dollars in the bank. We are all born into circumstances but those circumstances are ultimately meaningless (or at least less meaningful than we often make them out to be) when it comes to happiness.
    • No, life is not fair, but holding on to a victim of circumstance or fate mindset will prevent you from being happy. Here we must look no further than Dr. Viktor Frankl. Dr. Frankl was interned in a Nazi concentration camp for years, enduring indescribable pain, anguish, and suffering of every variety as his life was upended, his friends and loved ones were murdered and there was no hope in sight. Through his book, Man’s Search for Meaning he describes how finding a purpose, a reason to live, and the mindset that he would not let his circumstances deter him – he endured his hell on earth and went on to live a happy life. May none of you ever experience what he did, but let his bravery, courage, and resolve be an example to us all of the power of the mind in creating happiness.
  • Gratitude and compassion lead to happiness
    • One of the most exciting revelations of the past year has been discovering the continuity and prevalence of certain notions of happiness that exist in cultures that are separated by thousands of years and/or thousands of miles – still holding common ground. The recurrence of gratitude and compassion as cultural values, religious tenants, and known pillars of happiness is perhaps the greatest example of this.
    • In previous posts covering major world religions, we noted that compassion – specifically charity is listed as perhaps the single most esteemed value amongst Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism, and in my limited but growing knowledge of the subject I can now confirm is evident in Taoism as well. The proper way to exist, according to these cultures, begins with charity and compassion for others.
    • We also know that gratitude leads to happiness. A common misconception is that grateful people are grateful because they are so happy and that gratitude is a natural consequence of happiness. The opposite is true. Gratitude has been linked to the formation of happiness rather than happiness leading to gratitude. Gratitude can be expressed in a number of ways including: keeping a gratitude journal, giving thanks, recalling a moment where you helped someone, recalling a time where you yourself were helped. The possibilities are limitless but the point is certain: gratitude leads to happiness. If you would be happy, first be grateful.
  • You are responsible for your own happiness – nobody else can be happy for you or make you happy
    • Any person who trusts the outcome of their happiness to other people or to any external events is doomed for unhappiness. The stoics constantly remind us that happiness is in knowing what is within your control and what is without, and by focusing strictly on that which is within control. They also note that for the most part, that which is within our control is almost exclusively our own mind, our thoughts, our habits, actions, reactions, and notions – nothing else.
    • Being responsible for one’s own happiness, and one’s self at large is no small responsibility. Nor is it selfish. What is selfish is not taking care of yourself such that you either become a burden of sorts in requiring others to care for you, or you become a drain by not living up to your potential and offering the best version of yourself to the world. Dr. Jordan Peterson is fond of saying: “care for yourself the way you care for someone you love.” And why shouldn’t we love ourselves? Many of us don’t. But we should and we must. To love yourself is to be happy. To love yourself is to be your best self which is a boon to society. Paulo Coelho writes about the spirit of the world being nurtured when we follow our own personal legend – to care for ourselves if you will – noting that the soul of the world (that is to say all of us living in the world) are made better when any one part (an individual) of the whole makes itself better. Take care of yourself.
    • The final part of being responsible for your own happiness is that only YOU can decide what happiness looks like for YOU. Happiness may look and feel different for various people – we all have different personalities, circumstances, goals, wants, needs, etc. Therefore the only person who can decide HOW you can be happy and what it looks like is you.
  • Happiness is built, sustained, and measured by the quality of relationships in our lives
    • Numerous scientific experimental studies have noted that people who have at least one quality relationship are happier regardless of age, sex, race, nationality, or any other variable or circumstance.
    • This relationship can be in any form: romantic partner, spouse, friend, a close family member or other. The nature of the relationship is irrelevant. The happiest people on earth have someone close with whom they can do life together.
    • Human’s are social creatures. Life is hard and trying to go-it alone can be miserable. Look at the increased incidence of depression and anxiety worldwide as a consequence of reduced social interactions due to Covid restrictions. Human’s need to feel intimately connected with other humans in order to thrive and be happy.

Conclusion

Happiness will look and feel different for everyone. One of your chief aims in life should be finding out what makes you happy and how to live the happiest life possible. You owe it to yourself, because life does not have to be unhappy. Nobody else can define or experience happiness for you. No philosophy or philosopher, religion or holy figure, book or wise scientist can definitively lead you to happiness. What works for some may fail for others, and what happiness will look or feel like will be as different as one individual to another. This blog can only point out what has worked for others in hopes that it may work for you. Certain notions will contradict one another. The point has never been about finding the definitive path to happiness, because there isn’t one. The point has only been to share thoughts and ideas, and to inspire others to a life dedicated towards enriching happiness. Happy people make the world a better place and can infect others with happiness of their own such that all people may become happy together.

I hope those of you who have been a part of this journey have found this blog helpful. I look forward to seeing what we will learn together in the next year!

Laboring for Happiness

Any result worth achieving takes focus, discipline, and sustained concentration toward the desired end. How many goals are met without determination, dedication, and devotion of time? Think of the effort that goes into becoming fit, getting a degree, buying a house, being promoted, starting a business, painting a masterpiece, learning a new skill. These are not accomplishments that are met with a few brief moments of casual participation or by simply going through the motions and nor do they happen over night.

These are goals that become successful by applying ourselves constantly day after day, week after week, year after year. Along the path to such success we meet setbacks, we deal with discouragement – possibly even abandoning our pursuit for a brief moment, we doubt ourselves, we reevaluate our strategies and sometimes even reevaluate our goals. But in the end we come to understand that by maintaining our desire, our commitment to our goal, and by being adaptable – we finally achieve that for which we set out.

Furthermore, these goals we receive do not persist for eternity. They are fully revocable if we do not strive to continuously maintain our place. Sound a bit frustrating doesn’t it? It is. There are times where I wish my life was like a video game and I could simply reach a check point and know that no matter what happens thereafter, I cannot regress beyond a certain point. This is not the case, as the universe is, always has, and always will be subject to change. But why should we let that deter us from dedicating ourselves towards the pursuit of higher aims?

Why should the amount of effort, labor, focus, and determination required for any worthy goal be any different for happiness – perhaps the most worthwhile goal of all. I am of the opinion that happiness is or at least should be the greatest focus in all of one’s life. Happiness is the event horizon from which all other goals or pursuits are born. When one focuses on and obtains happiness – all else that arises is good, pleasing, and beneficial for not just the individual but for all that are impacted by the individual – that is to say the whole world.

The biggest gap in this argument I present is the notion that happiness is a state of being rather than a state of doing. This understanding is prevalent in Eastern religions and philosophies such as Taoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism where the state of happiness is described more as a something that one learns to experience rather than the dominant idea in Western ideology where happiness is a state to be attained through effort, struggle, and achievement.

This is not the first nor will it be the last time this blog raises self-contradicting notions or appears hypocritical. Creating a universally accepted definition of happiness is near impossible, and even more impossible is creating a uniform plan of how it ought to be found, attained, realized, or experienced. Ultimately every individual is responsible for coming to know what happiness is to them, and thus it is the individual who is also responsible for discovering how they may experience happiness as they understand it. This blog has never been about giving definitive answers but merely aims to share knowledge, research, information, and ideas – giving people the tools they need to become happier. The notion that happiness is something to be relentlessly pursued, as this particular post suggest, naturally contradicts other posts focusing on far-Eastern philosophical suggestions, but given the indefinable nature of happiness – this particular concept presented here may find greater resonance with certain individuals, especially those raised in Western Judeo-Christian cultures.

Adopting for this post at least the notion that happiness is a state obtained through pursuit and effort, and that once created is one worth fighting to maintain, we must remain conscious of the fact that the obtainment of happiness will not be easy. Just as you can lose 20 pounds through proper discipline around eating, training, and more – you can just as easily gain the 20 pounds back and then some if you abandon the habits that found you success in the first place. The same is true of our goal for happiness. It can be a major pain in the ass to adopt habits, lifestyle modifications, behaviors, and thoughts that promote happiness. There will be times when it feels futile, where you get frustrated by your apparent lack of progress – I had such a moment just the other night. But our past success in other areas has taught us: 1) the desired result is just over the horizon if we keep pushing forward and 2) the pursuit of a noble aim is in of itself a goal worth attaining.

Understand the value of happiness as a goal worth dedicating oneself towards. Know that you will face countless setbacks, that your path will rarely be straight and easy, that you will struggle, and that it will seem at times hopeless. But also remember that just as anything worth achieving in life requires effort – so too does happiness, and that if you can remain steadfast in your aim, you will realize for what you long.

Keep chopping away at your goals

Leveraging Stress for Happiness

Life is full of stress.

Many of us spend a considerable amount of our lives trying to overcome, mitigate, or avoid stress. Often times, the very stress we experience in dealing with stress becomes itself the greatest stress in our life.

This is a perfect example of the type of situation where we must be cognizant of what lies within our control and what lies without. To understand your stress, you must first reflect upon WHAT is stressing you, and WHY. What and why will tell you IF something can be done. If something truly lies outside of your power to influence or alter then you must learn to accept it and let it go. How much time must we waste stressing over matters which will never be improved through such worry. Let them go.

For those stresses that we can influence – devote yourself to improving those situations, however that may be. Understand that many scenarios will take time, perhaps several years, to truly improve, but approach it with an optimistic mindset and relish the fact that the journey towards progress and improvement is nourishment for your soul and your life.

A podcast I listened to recently, The Huberman Lab (which I highly recommend to everyone), involved a discussion between Dr. Andrew Huberman – a Biologist, and Dr. Alia Crum – a Psychologist, discussed ways in which we can leverage stress into personal growth. Despite lacking their education, expertise, and qualifications, I was able to infer that one could apply the same attitudes they described about dealing with stress and how to leverage those behaviors into generating happiness.

The most important part of Dr. Humerman’s and Dr. Crum’s discussion was that the attitude we have towards stress largely determines our outcomes we experience through dealing with stress. Studies they discussed indicated that those who view stress negatively, that is as an obstacle or an inconvenience will generally have less successful outcomes (however mentioned) in dealing with their stress or will simply succumb to stress and fail to meet their desired result. Comparatively, those who viewed stress positively, as an opportunity for growth, as a metaphorical stone upon which to sharpen themselves and their skills, were more successful in achieving desired results and had more positive outcomes whether measured as career or relationship success or in physical or mental health results.

These findings demonstrate the necessity of positive psychology in facing adversity. Suffering is inevitable. Stress is inevitable. The presence of stress and suffering will persist regardless of our attempts to remove them, thus making their avoidance futile. Rather than toil aimlessly to simply eradicate such feelings, the better approach is to face them head on, lean into the struggles, and to use them as tools to forging a better version of ourselves and a happier life.

Happiness is not something we find hidden behind stress. Happiness is something we forge through dealing with our stress and embracing the struggles that life has provided. Do not seek to become happy by avoiding stress at all costs. Learn to become happy by accepting the natural existence of stress in life and by leveraging that stress to channel adversity into a positive outcome.

Just as a blacksmith uses heat and blunt force to forge his art, we can use the heat and force of our stress to forge a happier life for ourselves.
%d bloggers like this: