This is a really interesting question because many of us really haven’t got the faintest idea as to what it is. And if we do, we don’t know why that’s what we want. We may also think the answer is up for interpretation but my theory is that there’s only a single answer. Let’s first explore some of the popular answers.
Success! We always hear about people wanting to be “successful” in life. What does this even mean? What justifies success? I guess it’s up for interpretation. But it seems that many people have this idea of success being directly proportional to wealth. People want a lot of money or at the very least want a stable “above average” job to allow them to buy nice things.
If you dig deeper into this, we can ask why. Why do people want nice things? Why do millionaires buy Lamborghinis? Fun is the obvious answer but there’s likely more to it. It’s a statement. It’s saying “I win” or “I’m better than you”. Success in its own definition means to accomplish. We seek to succeed over those around us. So for some percentage of us who seek success, what we’re actually looking for is conquest.
This isn’t actually a display of vanity. We’re primates and we are biologically programmed to strive to be the alpha male. If we were any primate other than humans, having this drive for dominance would be useful. But in a human society, it’s value dwindles to where it’s almost obsolete.
So if you answered “success” for the purpose of flaunting your success over those below you, it may be in vein. Don’t worry though, you have plenty of time to reconsider your answer.
The other answer, the most popular answer, is happiness. Happiness is a concept that has been strangled with ambiguity and can be very difficult to define. But I think it’s the right answer if you commit to it. What do I mean by that? Well I don’t mean part-time happiness. Or happiness and sacrifice. Or happiness in moderation. I mean relentless, extreme happiness. Rapture.
I want to take a quick detour here to talk about polarity. It’s common to believe that you can’t have light without dark, foreground without background, and also happiness without sadness. People always say they have their “ups and downs”. And it makes sense, in theory, that without sadness, the best you could hope for would be a perpetual state of melancholy.
But that’s wrong. It’s entirely possible to be in a constant state of ebullience. We can experience rapture every day. And we can be happy constantly. We can raise our baseline from neutral to happy. And then we can swing between happy and extremely happy. This is very, very possible.
Then why aren’t we? Why don’t we do this? There are plenty of contributing reasons. For one, the society we live in isn’t designed for sustained happiness. I’m not going to go into it in this post because it’s a little out of the scope, but I do intend on writing about it in the future.
So far, we have two answers to the question of what we want in life. We’ve somewhat ruled out “success” in itself being a bad choice of answer. Let me explain to you why happiness is superior to success by presenting a third answer.
Legacy. People absolutely hate the idea of coming into this world, dawdling through life, and dying not having changed anything. People are sickened by this thought. We all want to make the world a better place and we all want to be remembered once we’re gone. Because it’s a nice thought, isn’t it? To think that somewhere, at some stage, someone is thinking about you, the things you did, or is living a better life because of your actions.
You see success and legacy are mutually inclusive. You cannot be unsuccessful and change the world for the better. If you make the world a better place, you’ll generally think of yourself as successful unless your ego refuses that notion.
I want to offer a thought as to why legacy is a waste of time. Now, many of you are probably thinking that’s a huge call to make, but hear me out. I used to be all about legacy. I really wanted to be somewhere in the history books. I wanted to make the world a better place. And don’t get me wrong, it’s a great thing to want to make the world better, but there’s a difference between what we want and why we want it.
Why do we want to change the world or be remembered for what we did, the mark we made? Firstly, because we enjoy helping other people and we’d rather do good than bad. That’s obvious.
But the second and less obvious answer, is the fear of mortality. Humans hate the idea that once we die, it’s over forever. We hate being mortal even if it seems stupid to admit. By changing the world, by making history, we can somehow avoid mortality and live forever in the history books or in the memories of those who live after us.
If you really get with the idea of death, and I mean really get with it, you’ll realise that you’ll actually never be in a position to experience the pleasantries of your legacy. After all, you’ll be dead. If your consciousness evaporates after death, then you cannot experience what it would be like to be proud of all that you achieved. What’s more is you cannot even comprehend that there are people still living (friends, family, and others) who were changed or are better off because of you. That’s a somewhat gruesome thought but in actuality is one of the most liberating thoughts one can have.
When you hear someone say, “nothing really matters”, you can’t help but think they have a truly bleak outlook on life and are incapable of caring for anyone or having aspirations in life. But if you come to the conclusion that this is absolutely true, it’s not a sad thought at all. It’s a very freeing thought. And once you have this thought, your life immediately improves. If you’re interested in reading more about this, I’ve just written an article on the liberation one will experience when fully realising nothing really matters.
To summarise those few paragraphs, legacy is of no use to you when you’re dead. Your counterargument might be, “yes, but the people around be will be better off because of what I did and the legacy I left”. This is also false. Only you can experience the people around you right now. Them being better off is only of value to you if you’re able to interpret that in relation to yourself. Without you, these people have no significance because they only exist in relation to you. Just like the sun only appears in relation to how our eyes see it. In fact, if you don’t exist to perceive the existence of these people, then they don’t exist either!
I will unpack this idea further in a future post.
And so I’m making an argument for happiness. It’s the selfish argument but it’s the right one. So what do we really want in life? The answer is “maximum happiness”. Because no doubt a life comprised of 100 units of happiness will be a better life than a life comprised of 20 units of happiness. So we should seek maximum happiness in life. This is the best possible life. And it’s pretty difficult to argue against.
How do we go about maximizing happiness? It’s two-fold. We remove that which is mutually exclusive to happiness and amp up the existing happiness. More on this to come.