“Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.” ~John Stuart Mill
The pursuit of happiness is overrated. As it turns out, the key to happiness is focusing on something other than happiness. But what does happiness look like in a secular age? In an age where the common intellectual understanding is that the universe is inherently meaningless, what does meaning even mean?
To the extent that happiness and meaning are both human-created concepts, it stands to reason that it is the responsibility of the individual to figure out what makes them happy. It just so happens that what tends to make people happy is focusing on meaningful experiences rather than happiness itself.
Indeed. In the end, the meaning of life is whatever you want your life to mean. This meaning you bring to life will bring happiness “by the way.” Especially as it applies to the following four focal points for leveraging meaning into a meaningless universe: autonomy and curiosity, competence and creativity, relatedness and benevolence, and nonattachment and a good sense of humor. Let’s break it down…
1.) Focus on autonomy and curiosity:
“I don’t want to survive. I want to live.” ~Solomon Northup
What makes your life meaningful? To answer this question, you need both autonomy and curiosity. Autonomy is about being the author of your own story. Curiosity is about the joy of discovering what to write about.
It begins with volition. You must be free to make individual choices. You must be free to practice your own value system and to pursue goals that you find worthy.
This might mean asking yourself deeply upsetting questions (self-interrogation). It might mean thinking outside the box, reconditioning cultural conditioning, or taking a leap of courage out of your comfort zone. It will most certainly mean coming to terms with your unique psychological, genetic, and social predisposition.
Autonomy and curiosity will leverage courage into discovering the meaning of your journey. Happiness becomes a side effect of allowing the journey to be the thing despite the destination of happiness. In short: self-discovery creates meaningful happiness despite happiness itself.
2.) Focus on competence and creativity:
“Don’t be too timid and squeamish about your actions, all life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson
Rather than happiness, seek competence and creativity. By focusing on a skillset, a domain of knowledge, or an artform—and by proactively increasing your competence—happiness will arise from having a sense of mastery and commitment to a worthy endeavor.
If you’re having difficulty discovering a skillset or an artform to devote yourself to, simply go back to phase one and focus on what makes you feel autonomous and curious. You’re sense of freedom and deep curiosity will guide you toward a worthy endeavor.
Creativity and competence will take your competence to the next level, as well as increase your happiness. Focusing on creativity will reinforce your uniqueness while giving your art an aesthetic quality and a sense of beauty.
Happiness arises when you focus on competence and creativity because you are living in the moment, creating art and beauty which can lead to more flow states. When you are committed to increasing creative competence, you are happy despite happiness. In short: self-improvement creates meaningful happiness despite happiness itself.
3.) Focus on relatedness and benevolence:
“The ultimate source of happiness is not money and power, but warm-heartedness.” ~Dalai Lama
If you want happiness and a more meaningful life, then increase your level of relatedness and benevolence. Nothing will make you happier than bringing happiness to others.
Relatedness is a sense of being connected to and caring for others. Benevolence is a desire to have a positive influence in people’s lives while improving mankind and the world. If you put the two together, and then put them into action, you will be a force of happiness to be reckoned with.
Bringing happiness to others can take the form of small or large acts of kindness: writing an influential article or novel, or sacrificing time and money toward a social cause, or using your competence and creativity to bring joy to others. The list goes on.
It could even be as simple as making someone laugh or smile. When you feel like you are having a healthy impact on the lives of others, your sense of meaningfulness increases because you feel like your life matters. Your sense of belonging to something greater than yourself increases both meaning and happiness.
Happiness arises when you focus on relatedness and acts of benevolence because a deep sense of community and interdependence will make you feel more connected to others. When you focus on the happiness of others, you will be happy despite happiness. In short: interconnectedness creates meaningful happiness despite happiness itself.
4.) Focus on nonattachment and a good sense of humor:
“The human race has only one effective weapon, and that’s laughter.” ~Mark Twain
When it’s all said and done, you have to be able to let go. After autonomy and curiosity, after competence and creativity, after relatedness and benevolence, detach from the result.
Take a deep breath. Have a laugh. Your defeats won’t last, but neither will your victories. Celebrate your successes and learn from your failures, then let it all go with a carefree attitude. Remember: the journey is the thing.
Ironically, you are more likely to live a well-lived life if you are able to detach yourself from the need to live a well-lived life. And the only proper response to irony is a good sense of humor. The ability to laugh at yourself, as well as at the cosmic joke, is priceless.
Practicing healthy nonattachment and a good sense of humor will prevent you from taking yourself too seriously. It will prevent you from clinging to a particular outcome, certainty, or belief. It will help you “go Meta,” giving you a bird’s-eye-view perspective over your life, which can help you reprogram outdated programing and recondition unhealthy conditioning.
Happiness arises from practicing nonattachment and a good sense of humor because you are able to gain a healthy perspective, which will help you become more adaptable to unexpected change. In short: going Meta through nonattachment and a good sense of humor creates meaningful happiness despite happiness itself.
At the end of the day, the greatest irony is that by using these four focusing tools, you could actually live a happy life without ever actually “being happy.”
About the Author:
Gary Z McGee, a former Navy Intelligence Specialist turned philosopher, is the author of Birthday Suit of God and The Looking Glass Man. His works are inspired by the great philosophers of the ages and his wide-awake view of the modern world.
This article (How To Be Happy Despite Happiness) was originally created and published by Self-inflicted Philosophy and is printed here under a Creative Commons license with attribution to Gary Z McGee and self-inflictedphilosophy.com. It may be re-posted freely with proper attribution, author bio, and this statement of copyright.