Why we do the things we do

I recall listening to a podcast with Naval Ravikant. He struck me as a super intelligent guy. He spoke about fear a lot – how so many seemingly diverse emotions are all just different forms of fear. I have come to agree with that view wholeheartedly. Anger is a form of fear – someone is breaching your borders and rules. Sadness is a form of fear – that something this good will never happen again. Anxiety is pretty close to being the same thing as fear. Then there’s the fundamental fear of not being good enough or deserving of a place in other people’s lives.

what-happiness-is-mindfulness

He also said: “Desire is a contract you make with yourself to be unhappy until you get what you want.”

At first, it seemed to make a lot of sense. It’s quite a mechanical definition: we couple outcomes with feelings and manipulate ourselves to accomplish the outcome with the nicest feelings. It is pretty obvious to me at this point that we are always after an emotion we will enjoy.

I don’t like the way he used the word “unhappy.” Maybe that’s not the best word to express his actual sentiment – after all it was a podcast and you don’t really have time to craft the exact sentence you want when you are talking. He didn’t strike me as a happy guy, neither does Tim, the host of the show. I think that betting your sense of happiness on outcomes is a bad strategy. In theory, it will make you work harder. However, if you look at yourself in the mirror and – regardless of what you actually look like – tell yourself that you are a fat bast*rd and the only way to not feel this bad about yourself is to exercise – then you’re not going to exercise, are you? If you promise yourself chocolate cake after a session in the gym, you are more likely to exercise – a bit of operant conditioning works wonders and has little to do with feeling bad. So it’s not putting yourself in an unhappy state with a promise to be happy given that you fulfil a condition one day, it is something else.

Naval also said this: “I actually think happiness is the absence of suffering. It comes from peace. That comes from being careful about desire, judgment, and reaction.” This makes more sense, supporting the hypothesis that he wasn’t very careful about his choice of words in the first quotation. Aristotle, Epictetus, Seneca, Confucius, Aldous Huxley, Victor Frankl, to name but a few, agree on one thing: that your emotions should not be directly dependent on what happens to you. Emotion, the word, means something that stimulates action. So these clever men tell us not to leave ourselves at the will of circumstance and stand for something independent of that. On a practical note, of the best books I’ve ever read in the business genre, What they don’t teach in Harvard Business School”, postulated that one of the most important things was to act, not react. Obviously, there is a time and a place for being reactive – mostly in survival situations. Fear is our friend here. However, while our brain constantly scans for these situations, they aren’t all that common, thankfully!

So the question arises: Why do we do the things we do? If we are happy already – because we chose to be – why should we bother putting in effort to strive towards things that are currently outside our reach? The only explanation is that happiness should have nothing to do with it. Everyone is motivated by slightly different things, but it is ultimately down to meaning. For some, a happy undisturbed life is meaningful. For some, it is a life of service – to their family, nation – or whomever they identify with most. Meaning is hard to measure because it is internal. I am sure there lived many a housewife who brought up 2 kids and probably felt as much or even more meaning than a military general who made it into history books. I think that’s why we do the things we do – we don’t chase after happiness, we chase after meaning.