All the different things that make happy can, well, make you happy.
If you are only looking for quick pleasure, though, there are better – read: easier but actually worse – things you can do.
They are worse because a life, even if it was filled with pleasures, would not add up to a good life. For example, experiences are a lot better than material possessions in that regard, at least, but both are vacuous if they are only consumed.
It is necessary to learn to appreciate the harder activities of creation and constancy, done with an eye towards their future value, and to take pleasure now in exactly this value they have for the future. After all, pleasure is not bad, but maybe you do want to take pleasure not just in parties and fun, but also in learning, being good, staying healthy and acting responsibly, and living really better.
What we need to do is to consider both our present, and the view from the future. It is this combined view that motivates the truly good life.
After all, whereas the present self has to get its needs met, but also wants its whims followed, the future self is the point of view from which we consider the repercussions of those decisions.
“Do I go out and party now, or do I learn something more? Will I regret it if I missed an opportunity to socialize and have fun, or will I regret it if I fail the test because I didn’t use my time productively? Do I get up and get fitter, or do I wait until the weather is nicer? Am I doing something I really think of as the life I can and want to have (and seek to be content with that), or do I see myself as someone who will rather take a jab at aiming for better?”
It is out of this perspective that you can come to understand the present “performance of skillful living” that the good life is, as the story of your life.
How you have lived so far is the story of your life to date, and it probably had its ups and downs, it may have been better or worse, it was probably quite normal in some respects and quite extraordinary in others, and it probably satisfies you in some parts, and leaves you wanting in others.
Same with the consideration of the future past, the things you will do from now on, as imagined from the perspective of your future self. There will still be ups and downs, plans that worked out and others that didn’t. It’s still necessary not to dwell on what you want and forget to do something now (same as it is necessary with the actual past).
Hopefully, though, you will notice that a story – and a life – needs not just a what, but also a why. Maybe that sounds too grandiose, so let’s call it a what-for.
At the very least, if you want to get existentialist about it (and even though they seem to have a bleak view of there not being any deeper purpose), you live because you now do, there is nothing you can do about it (unless you want to end it), so why not make the best of it?
Looking at biological science rather than existentialist philosophy, there is no deep purpose, either. Life is. Then again, that may be what has become the purpose as soon as life emerged: to keep it going.
It can actually be thought of as something beautiful and purposeful, if in an ecological sense, that life is there just to continue. Just consider what great diversity in how it goes on and spreads is there, from archae-bacteria existing in the most extreme of environments, to human beings who create extremes of culture, with philosophy and technology, and may eventually be able to spread the life that is still bound to this one planet Earth into the universe.
Cultures and societies have their answers, too – again, at the very least in promoting what keeps them continuing, as in the form of religions and ideologies.
Finally, not to forget: We are creatures that can be of rational thought as well as emotions, of social learning that likes to take the shortcut of copying what others have done and seemed successful, but also of the sense and sensibility to think ahead and create better lives that take our needs and wants as well as their ecological embeddedness into account. As much as we are bound by our natures and our socializations, we can also learn and invent new ways, create better lives for us.
“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.
To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?”
Answer: that you are here; that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?” (John Keating)
No matter what purpose – though some are rather better than others in what implications they have for yourself, others, and the future – there is sure to be more happiness in your life when you don’t just exist, but live for and contribute to something that is greater than yourself. Just choose wisely, please, for a purpose is a terrible thing of beauty.