One way to happiness is not to seek it, but to simply find it. To decide that what you have is actually good and well enough, but maybe even that there is nothing you can change, so you’d better eat, drink, and be merry. It may be better than the constant striving for better that got derailed into incessant consumption, hunting after the allure of the next new thing, the greater experience, without ever stopping to consider if that hunt is just a run in the hamster wheel of the hedonic treadmill.
Typically, though, we humans are made to look for something more, to want to make our life better. We want to feel that we ourselves have some control, are doing good and getting somewhere. In all the many ways this can materialize – with learning or things, accomplishments of one’s children or success in one’s personal career, with sex, money and power, or with caring, community standing, and familial harmony – there is the good feeling of accomplishment in its background. Achieving a goal, setting and getting to an aim, passing a popularly acknowledged milestone in life…
“An aim is the only fortune worth the finding; and it is not to be found in foreign lands but in the heart itself.” — Robert Louis Stevenson, Essays of Travel
The thing about it, as per the usual, is that a certain balance is required. Maybe “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,” indeed (that’s how you get progress rather than stagnancy). However, if your aspirations exceed any and all of your possibilities, they are probably going to lead to disappointment.
Nowadays, we are getting to a related dead-end only too often: you can make it on your own, or so it seems – but many also want it easy. And so, an admiration for simple aims and easy paths to that supposed success has been on the rise. Even as some call out the wrongness of corporate greed and rigged economic power taking away chances, there are many drawn in by the continuing (if not larger) allure of fame and fortune, the idea of just being discovered as the next amazing talent and having money and fans thrown your way.
These are not goals, they are vapid dreams – and all the more so as they are shown time and again to be as likely to lead to depression as to a semblance of happiness (not to forget that they would not be a good life most of us could have).
As Ken Rapoza wrote on Forbes :
“We hold up the improbable and near-impossible achievements of the 1% as if they are doable just by hard work, a good attitude, and the right friends. … Like a pre-tween Disney Channel sitcom where everyone’s got their own dance show or are exceptional students (possibly even with wizard powers), this is the life we actually have come to believe we can live. The truth is, it is probably just healthier to believe we can’t.”
(“Bankrupt and Broke, Americans Still Want It All“)
Of course, there is a positive side to aims, nonetheless: Whether you are looking to work towards solutions for complex problems, or simply to have a bit more happiness in life, setting goals to achieve helps with both. And, the goals don’t have to be grand and glamorous. (For complex issues, it even helps to break them down.)
Looking at the ecology – the connections – of things that make happy, getting things done is another one of those, well, things that don’t necessarily require many resources and (their) consumption, but rather an attitude of mindfulness, the willingness to take risks, and – above all – their doing. Preferably, the doing not of lists of items to do and check off -although these, too, will be small victories to feel good about – but of aims related to other things that make happy: to go for a walk a day, succeed in an athletic endeavor, finish a work project, save up for a vaunted purchase, build a skill (having some way of recognizing progress in it), as well as find a job, get married, have a child… these can all be recognized as goals. We just have to notice them to make them effective.
The achievements that are of the strongest effect on our overall view of our lives are those that *we* achieved; and as often as success is measured in terms of things, it is in the achievement of personal growth and the successful completion of projects full of experiences that the greatest happiness can be found.
It can be found first in the flow and intrinsic satisfaction of working on steps towards an aim (even forgetting about the aim while doing just that, at that time), in the good feeling of completing yet another step towards an aim, and in the memory of actively having done and achieved.
Even if you fail to achieve the end goal, your memory can still create happiness out of it – if you know you really gave it your best and learned from it. With the doing, with a truly satisfying aim that is neither too low, nor too high, there is a good chance for a better life.
Just aim for the right balance: not just a better life without definition, nor house and car and all those accoutrements of supposed success that end up just binding resources, financial and psychological, and take away from the range of other things that make happy.