The Philosophy of Happiness

"...nothing is good for man except what makes him just and temperate, brave and free, and nothing is bad except what gives rise to the opposing vices." -Marcus Aurelius

Freedom is an interesting thing. It's one of the gifts of living that we most take for granted, yet simultaneously that thing we long for most. Freedom is our most constant striving, yet everyone will tell you that what we ultimately want is "happiness.” 10 Ways to Be More Happy! 12 Hacks to Increase Your Happiness NOW!

The word happiness has become so ambiguous that all attempts to define it today just seem futile. Happiness is now too subjective to assume a singular definition. We’re each uniquely evolved enough to know that one size, indeed, does not fit all. It’s immeasurable and inconsistent. Daniel Gilbert captures this vulnerability in his book, Stumbling On Happiness, by depicting a man who’s given a glass of water in the desert. In this moment, the man would undoubtedly describe his state as overwhelmingly happy. But would the same drink of water give him that same happiness a year later when he’s out of the desert? If he’s like most of us who are unable to immediately contextualize the meaning of something so often taken for granted, it probably won’t. Happiness isn’t just subjective across individuals—it’s subjective for that same individual, for the same experiences, at different times. The divorcee was likely, at one point, “happily” married.

Try asking someone if they're “happy," and then prepare yourself for an awkward pause in which they contrive a socially acceptable answer while simultaneously scanning for reasons why they’re actually not. The vagueness and vastness of this word makes the question almost unanswerable. We, by virtue of being humans in an overstimulated world, have been conditioned to magnify the things we lack, and minimize the things we have. This is why our instinct, when asked if we’re happy, isn’t to immediately say, “Yes! I’m alive and breathing. I have a roof over my head and I never have to think about where my next drop of water will come from,” but rather, “Um, well I’m not quite where I want to be... [insert all the things you lack here—spouse, desired salary, better body, etc.]. Should we have goals? Yes! Should one of those goals be happiness? No. Because we’ll never find it, nor do we ever seem to know what it actually is. Only hindsight gives us the illusion that we experienced it.

Play back that reel of your college memories.

Notice what you don’t remember: the occasional stress of expenses, the aching dread of the unprepared presentation you had to give the next day, or the friends you felt betrayed by. Our minds are a funny thing—choosing to only acknowledge the good of the past, yet the bad of the present.

"...nothing is good for man except what makes him just and temperate, brave and free," Marcus Aurelius says. This quote from his personal journal-turned staple text of stoic philosophy, Meditations, should stop us in our tracks. Nothing is good for man except that what makes him...free.

So, what I’m going to do is argue that what we want isn’t happiness, but freedom. Freedom in our pursuits, from our hurts, over our identities… Freedom to be our utmost and truest selves. The reason we want to be continually notching up in life is because we believe each notch will make us, in some way, freer. That raise. That business pursuit. That unique opportunity. The key is knowing when those desires are truly an outpouring of our very human need for freedom, or a shallow image wholly engineered by someone else. If it’s of the former, pursue it with all your might. If it’s of the latter, it’s likely not making you just, temperate, brave, or free.

Now, I understand you may not have heard it this way—this idea of our deepest human longing not actually being happiness, but freedom. People try to manufacture happiness all the time. There’s a reason why there’s dozens of articles published daily on how to be happy, but rarely any on how to be free. It’s easy to tell someone how to be happy—give them a carbon copy list of daily practices and affirmations, and they’re inspired to churn through another day. Exercise! Meditate! Wake up early! Tell yourself the day is yours! While each of these things is good, healthy, and even personally recommended, if you’re living a life incongruent with what truly makes you feel free, they help us to merely endure at best.

We want more than to just endure. We want to enjoy.

Our desire for freedom manifests itself in countless ways on a daily basis—from the superficial wants to the essential needs. We want financial security because we want options—the ability to choose what we do, where we do it, and when. We want to do what we enjoy for a living because it allows us to feel like our truest selves as often as possible. We want to live in flow. We want companionship because we want the freedom of expressing the love that lies deep within each of us. Because, what is love without an object? Think of the people who know you best—your closest friends, your family (if you're lucky), the person you're in love with. How would you describe how you feel around them?

Free. Free to be your absolute best or your absolute worst.

Freedom is also why we love the evenings, the weekends, alcohol, games, music, or anything that allows us to enter a state of seeming “mindlessness.” For argument’s sake, we’re going to define mindless as anything pursued without some specific, grand purpose (i.e. watching Netflix simply because you want to watch Netflix). Relaxing your mind, unwinding, going out—these things are all okay. They only become problematic when these activities become our only means of satisfaction, and then suddenly we reflect on all the nights of Netflix and drinking and wonder why we’re not happy.

"The mind has to be given some time off, but in such a way that it may be refreshed, not relaxed till it goes to pieces." -Seneca

I’m going to do something wild here and tell you what no one else will—the problem isn’t the Netflix or drinking. The problem is in your intention and expectation when you do these things. Or anything. I thought they’d make me happy, we think in retrospect as we reflect on our low account balances and dulled minds. But instead of stealing moments of joy from ourselves via regret, all we need-realize is that the happiness we sought was never there to be found. Rather, what we want in these experiences is to both assert freedom and feel freed. With this perspective, life becomes a series of experiments in which we identify the combinations of experiences that best achieve this, versus living in a perpetual lamentation of why you’re still not satisfied.

Our satisfaction lies in knowing that freedom is what we’re after—in work, in leisure, in life as a whole. We position ourselves for disappointment when our expectation of an event or activity is happiness, when what we really wanted is an expression and experience of freedom. This means we don't need to get upset when the expectation goes unfulfilled, as we can just recalibrate accordingly next time. Am I free to make this decision, and does it have the potential to make me just, temperate, brave and free? 

We achieve freedom in choosing the action, and freed-ness by experiencing our favorite parts of our human existence—laughter, deep work, relaxation, enjoyment, community. When we realize that freedom is what we want, we've availed ourselves to how accessible it actually is. Happiness, oppositely, is a mirage that we exhaust ourselves chasing after. Seek not what you think will make you happy, but seek to know what makes you feel free, and do just that. Strive to be so deeply self-aware that what incites this sensation is obvious to you. This is our responsibility and our peace.

"To win true freedom you must be a slave to philosophy. A person who surrenders himself to [philosophy] doesn't have its application deferred...he's [freed] on the spot, the very service of philosophy being freedom." -Seneca