The equilibrium model for happiness
Finding happiness and enjoyment in our day to day lives seems to be the universal quest of most humans. This quest leads us into our relationships, careers, hobbies and probably fuels most of our behavior. Happiness becomes a kind of phantom reward we hope for in anything we do.
This sense is further validated when we succeed in our various pursuits and consequently feel good about those little triumphs. Despite meeting a partner we truly connect with or having a job that pays well, the resulting happiness still remains somewhat fleeting. The satisfaction of success just never seems to last.
Why is that?
Looking back, I see that I’ve spent the last half of my life thinking there are a finite number of challenges I have to conquer, and with each victory, I move closer to that perfect equilibrium where everything is just smooth and easy and a deep sense of contentment can finally saturate all aspects of my life.
Writing this I realize how naive it sounds, and perhaps it’s just with age that the wisdom to question this has dawned on me, but if you, dear reader, would take a moment to reflect on your own aspirations and where you hope to be 5 years from now – doesn’t the above logic somehow reveal itself still?
I’m not judging. I also thought I was smarter than that…
At my still rather young age of 32, for the very first time ever, I think I’m coming to terms with the fact that maybe life just isn’t about that type of perfection.
If evolution was aiming for a solution, I’m sure that by now it would have figured it out. Heck, if there was a solution of this kind, I’m sure we would have figured it out by now.
The Tetris model for happiness
Tetris, the addictive block stacking game from the 80s, holds an uncanny analogy to life.
First, there is no way to win the game. Let’s allow a moment to truly take this in. What will you aim for if all you can ultimately do is loose? You try for the highest score.
Block by block you try your best to stack them up, converting full rows into points, until the ever-increasing speed and intensity finally short circuits the communication between your fingers and brain.
You didn’t win, you just lost with glory.
The one with the most crap wins
Obviously death is inevitable, so how can there be permanent happiness if life itself is not permanent?
That’s pretty deep actually.
Most of us know that, right – so what do we aim for when ultimately we all just die? Perhaps for the highest score?
Accumulation is arguably the most commonly prescribed remedy to the pain of our insatiable appetite for happiness.
Hoarding of money, relationships, knowledge, clothing, gadgets, Instagram followers, Tetris scores, [insert never-ending list], is how most of us know how to at least somewhat sustain a feeling of happiness within ourselves.
Since there’s no way to win, as we’re all equally dead in the end, then what’s the point?
Attempts at finding tangible answers to this question have undoubtedly given rise to some of the weirdest behaviors this planet has ever seen in it’s 4.5 billion year history.
The incredible poetry of social metaphors that we use to define human worth and value, and have done so through the ages, is astonishing. From whack looking attire to bizarre cultures and belief systems, pyramids, skyscrapers, all the way up to Facebook likes and YouTube subscribers… seriously?
The desperate attempts at giving life ANY kind of meaning is a testament to our immense creativity.
All the while, the deer in the meadow are just enjoying the sun, chewing on some grass and watching this shenanigan take place.
Perhaps we feel a need to destroy nature and torture animals just because they seem so annoyingly content with being alive? How dare they…
The social metaphors we use to blow meaning into the balloons of society are in fact so meaningless that the only way we can feel good about them is by trying to have as much as we can – ideally more than anyone, but at least more than our neighbor!
The problem with the accumulation logic is that it never ends. There’s never enough because all that counts is the one we don’t yet have. The jewel of today is the crap of tomorrow. Accumulation just leads to piles and piles of meaningless stuff bulging out of our cupboards.
I often turn to observe parallels in nature to find signs of validation for some of my ideas and nature offers a wonderfully clear message about the accumulation fallacy. Check this out…
No matter if your dinner was a $100 meal prepared by a celebrity chef or 100% organic, home-made with love, the following day it will always 100% inedible. And if you think that eating more is going to make anything better, it’s not. It’ll just make you fat and probably die faster.
Less is more.
The avoidance model for happiness
In my experience, challenges in life become overwhelming when I bundle them together into a big entangled mess. Once I don’t even know where to begin unraveling the resulting mess, my first reaction is to try avoid it.
Avoidance is a painful strategy. Luckily this strategy is so widespread that we’ve invented a myriad of artificial means for stimulating the happiness reaction in our brains without actually resolving anything.
Drugs, sex, junk food, and entertainment are all great ways to avoid taking responsibility for ourselves, yet still making us feel good. All of these short-lived avoidance methods are however just as useless at providing any sustained feeling of happiness as the accumulation methods.
In fact, the only way any of these avoidance techniques can sustain a feeling of happiness beyond a few minutes or a couple of hours at best is to combine them with the accumulation model.
It’s not even necessary to elaborate on what happens if one applies the accumulation model to the avoidance model. Our human world is riddled with real-life examples that colorfully demonstrate the results of the merging of these two vices.
Exponentially, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Ouch.
The victim strategy. Deflective avoidance.
Whilst the suppressive avoidance through substances and entertainment is fairly easy to see and understand, the deflective strategies for avoidance are much more manipulative and cunning.
Positioning oneself as a victim of life is a great shield that diverts all responsibility elsewhere. However, as the problems in life go unattended and grow, so must the shield, and soon the person with this tendency becomes a victim of nothing else but themselves. They do not see beyond it anymore and holding up the weight of the shield consumes most of their energy.
There are two deflective behaviors that I’ve observed.
First, the ones that point fingers. These people are very adept at noticing and emphasizing the problems of everyone but themselves.
Second, the ones that blame. These people will emphasize the external circumstances as the main cause of their problems.
Both of these patterns are extremely self-destructive because they paralyze the person. By positioning oneself as a victim of life, one becomes a victim of themselves.
Even if they are too proud or too hurt to admit it, all they really want is someone to truly listen and understand. Their pain comes from the fear of being judged for their weaknesses.
Just remember that our greatest weakness holds our greatest strength.
The upward spiral model for happiness
Despite the futility and even destructiveness of ceaseless accumulation and artificial avoidance, there still seems to be something to it, no? Let’s explore this.
The never-ending stream of problems in life can sometimes be very overwhelming but as we push through it, we are also constantly rewarded with a deep sense of satisfaction.
Think about it: Problem-solving is addictive. Overcoming a personal hurdle, resolving a conflict with our loved ones, beating an addiction, cleaning the kitchen or giving useful advice to someone – it just feels so good!
It feels progressive, it feels meaningful. Overcoming adversity makes us feel alive!
This myth of a paradise where all our problems cease to exist could never last. If I woke up tomorrow morning, and I had nothing to worry about, not a single problem in sight, what would be the first thing I would do?
I would probably create a problem of some kind. What would you do?
Ask yourself this: If tomorrow I didn’t have anything to worry about – no responsibilities, no money that needs earning, no children that need raising, no world that needs saving… what would I do?
My first thought is that perhaps I would just play music all day and go on adventures with my friends and family. That could be fun… for a while.
But when truly contemplating this thought, a very uncomfortable feeling starts to surface. This paradise sucks!
The way I currently experience myself as a human being, I realize that as unrealistic as achieving such a paradise truly seems, my actual ability to feel content and happy within such a paradise is equally as unrealistic. There’s a peculiar paradox within this.
I need a purpose, and for a purpose, I need a problem.
Problems give me something to do and solving them makes me happy.
Sheesh, ponder this… I don’t need more things in my life, I need more problems!
If God suddenly took all of my problems away, the first thing I would do is go all Mission Impossible and get my problems back!
Is this really where I’m at in my spiritual evolution? Seriously?
I hereby conclude that: Happiness isn’t the absence of problems in our lives, but our ability to actually solve them.
Why is that? Why would I want my problems back?
I want them back because I’m not ready to live without them. Despite the intensity and gruesome reality of the challenges life throws at us sometimes, each challenge is a candy wrapped opportunity to learn, grow and refine ourselves. This is evolution.
Let’s go far out for a bit and imagine that:
The human intellect is unique because somewhere, somehow the evolutionary process of the entire universe made itself known to us. Or perhaps more accurately, it recognized itself within us?
Evolution woke up as the conscious capacity of our intellect, thus making us the self-aware pinnacle of itself.
Speculating like this is a wonderful form of problem-solving to tackle. I think it’s because there truly isn’t anything I could ever write, ponder or discuss that would solve questions of this kind to any satisfactory degree.
There’s this interesting wiring in our brains that I once read about, where the anticipation of a positive outcome is primarily what stimulates dopamine release in the pleasure center of our brain (nucleus accumbens), and not so much the successful outcome itself.
Whoever came up with this quirky little programming was very clever. It basically ensures that no earthly pleasure will ever be enough. Only the anticipation for something greater will satisfy us and we can never rest until we figure it out. Pure genius!
So what’s the masterplan?
Challenges in this light could be seen as evolutionary sign-posts, showing us the way. All that’s asked of us is to give it our best and enjoy the journey.
After all, we are generously rewarded with immense joy and pleasure, each time we triumph. Even if it’s just over a sink full of dirty dishes. It’s amazing!
You may say: That’s all pretty cool, but why?
I don’t think I can accurately say “why” but I can shoot in the dark and speculate – just because it’s fun and I already took it this far.
I think that the joy we feel when overcoming adversity, is the secret itself.
Because it’s that resulting joyousness that we wish to perpetuate, thus driving us to always seek for more.
Joy and happiness are very high-frequency feelings. To many of us, it’s becoming increasingly clear that doing good, feels better than doing harm. Giving is more fulfilling than taking. Being loving and gentle feels much better than being selfish and arrogant.
Giving, sharing, helping and nurturing are all high-frequency behaviors. When a deep realization dawns on us with such clarity that it reshapes our behavior – that’s evolution, and evolution feels incredible.
In this light, perhaps it would be lovely to look at life as an upward spiral of purification. Every challenge in life is a step along this spiral, inviting us to make choices from our hearts. The same heart that shines each time we put in the effort to take another step upward.
This upward climb can seem tough at first. Fitness needs to be built up. But what initially feels like an arduous climb, becomes a casual jog and will eventually become an elevator ride. Where? I can’t really say for sure.
Every time we are faced with adversity, we are given an opportunity to reveal a little more of the light that shines from within.
One day, that light may be so bright that all problems do indeed disappear. But I have a feeling that along with my problems, I too will disappear.
If the questions of “who am I” and “why am I” are no more, then what is truly left?
The responsibility model for happiness
Let’s come back into our relative, yet deeply real feeling human experience now. Yes, the one that is actually stupid enough to steal their problems back from God should she ever take them from us.
The responsibility model is really just a suggestion for the practical application of the upward spiral model. An encouragement strategy for taking the leap from where I am right now, to the upward spiral, and to continue climbing.
Problem-solving is fun and it feels good. Dopamine released in our brains feels good. This design works in our favor and can be leveraged for improving our lives and finding meaning and purpose for sustained fulfillment and happiness.
I don’t really know why, but somehow at some point, maybe in our early adolescence, we have begun to be afraid of facing certain challenges. Perhaps it’s because our natural, biological reward mechanism for overcoming challenges is overshadowed by a much less forgiving social mechanism of pressure and punishment.
Consequently, we become increasingly afraid of failure. This fear, in some individuals, can become so overwhelmingly strong that aiming to tackle issues outside of our safety zone becomes very daunting.
Our safety zone is usually defined by the problems we’ve solved and received social rewards for – either from our parents, teachers or our peers. This can be sports, a particular subject we excelled in at school, musical or creative expression, or even playing video games.
Video games in fact are a really interesting phenomenon I wish to pause on for a minute. Essentially all video games are interactive, high-intensity problem-solving challenges. And we love it!
Think about it: Those who are into video games, can easily sit 2-6 hours just battling their way through the most intense problems we could ever imagine. These challenges often require intense mental focus, physical reaction speed, rapid decision making, challenging our fears and confidence. And we absolutely love it, so much that it’s actually highly addictive. Some kids have to go to video game rehab, just to stop this!
To me, this shows just how addicted we can get to high-performance problem-solving.
In fact, often when real-life challenges become overwhelming, some of us would actually begin to tackle much more intense problems in the virtual world instead.
Why? Because in that world, we are not afraid of failing.
For most of us, our real life is nowhere near as intense as the video games that are available these days but our fear of confronting and “leveling up” within the game of our own lives is grappling.
The challenge I invite myself, and you dear reader to take on – is trying to redefine our lives, and the adversities we face as a game of personal growth for the greater good of all and approach it much more playfully.
Truly, there’s no way to win this game of life. But you can loose with Glory.
I want my score to be defined not by what I own, but by knowing that I have done my best, met some wonderful people, touched a few special hearts along the way and overall even if the world isn’t left a magnificently better place by the time I’m gone, I know that it’s certainly no worse either.
I suggest we begin with this basic standard of glory. It’s not too much to ask.
No matter where you’re at in life right now, with relative ease and playfulness, I’m sure you can quickly realign your life so you will at least finish with this measure of success.
However with a bit more playfulness, courage and inspired enthusiasm, I’m sure we will all reach this basic standard of glory way before our inevitable death even appears on the horizon.
I am also certain, that as we collectively begin this playful journey through life, the bar for “basic glory” will rapidly rise.
There is a magnificent story woven into our genetic structure, just waiting to be unraveled into the world, and the challenges we face in life show us the way.
The greater the challenge, the greater the reward. Magnificent triumphs will absorb smaller challenges, and small triumphs will compound to magnificent victories.
There’s no way to loose as long as we play the game. There really isn’t anything to fear.
May this unraveling be a playful cosmic choreography of your innermost beauty, and remember:
You truly are a gift to this world!
Thank you for reading.