Happiness and Goals, and the Paradox of Striving
About a year ago, I happened upon a video by David Lindberg called ‘Why Your Life is not a Journey', and it featured a moving speech given by famed British philosopher, Alan Watts. The video and the music/vocals of Ryan O-Neal (of ‘Sleeping at Last') had such an impact, it completely altered my thinking about our journey through life and the meaning we ascribe to it.
Since then, I've actively sought out lectures and interviews by Watts, where he explains the meaning behind a range of Eastern philosophies. Far from being dry lectures that only academics would enjoy, his words and the way he delivers them are thought-provoking and entertaining.
I've also purchased Ryan's incredible album, Atlas, and it makes a daily appearance at my desk alongside Roger Waters, Zero 7 and Coldplay.
Today, as I waited for son's class to be dismissed, I looked around at the other parents. Many looked stressed; anxious, distracted, and it reminded me of Lindberg's video. I could feel their restlessness – I've been there many times myself – the worries, disappointments and an ever-present but unspoken quest for ‘more'.
Some were in buried (as always) in their phones. Others looked furtively about the assembled crowd like field rabbits on edge. Men tapped their feet as if seeking to telegraph their anxiety directly to earth, while young mothers behind designer shades feigned laughter at vapid sound bites coming from their shaded counterparts.
Everywhere, toddlers ran amuck in and out of garden beds. I saw 3-year olds wearing head-to-toe Nike, and mothers with branded Italian bags; luxury European key fobs dangling from manicured fingers. A middle-aged man puffed out his chest through a Versace T-shirt (with a huge logo) tucked neatly into his Versace jeans held up by a thick belt. A Versace one, of course.
The scene reminded me of our city skyline at night; an outline of lonely silhouettes with red beacons on top, all flashing in unison. Over time, the once tall buildings are replaced by even taller ones; and their beacons, deemed no longer necessary, disabled.
Addicted to Striving
This microcosm of humanity reminded me how addicted we are to striving; to exemplifying ‘the good life' – and how insidious and damaging it can be. Parents infect their kids with it from the time they can walk – teaching them by example that it's normal and expected behaviour.
By the time we're 12, most of us live under its spell, and we frame our lives according to this strange doctrine.
I looked at these people and I saw myself. Not the present day me, but the person I used to be so very recently.
I once believed happiness could be bought. I actively sought it out, I worked my arse off for it and I tried to buy it over and over again. And yet, I was never satisfied. There was always another level. There was always more.
In the end, it all points to a single affliction. We're living in the future. We're treating life as a quest.
In this game of delayed gratification, we are, paradoxically, delaying our happiness. We've decided that the acquisition of stuff – which we hope will make us happy – is more important.
In other words, we have this simple equation backwards.
We believe the next thing (promotion, pay raise, car, house, iPhone) will make us happy, and so we strive to get it as if our lives depend on it. Then, we surmise, we'll finally be satisfied.
But we know it's a lie. We've done it often enough to know it doesn't work – not for long. The happiness is fleeting; sometimes non-existent. Yet still, we do it.
It's Not a Quest
What Alan Watts suggested was that life is best described by analogy with music. We don't play music to reach the end of the composition; otherwise, the most successful composers would be those who only wrote finales. It's the same with dancing. The point of dancing is not to arrive at a particular spot on the dance floor. The whole point of dancing is the dance.
It's to dance while the music is playing.
We're not on a pilgrimage, where the end – the destination – is what we seek. Because the end, by definition, is incredibly brief. It's the end. How long do you think you can enjoy the end of something?
The whole point of life is to live it while the music is playing. Because when it stops, it stops forever.
Think about this as deeply as you can. For if you grasp it, you'll realise you're already successful. You're already living your dream right here, right now. You're probably living the life you once dreamed about – at least parts of it. And if you're not, I guarantee you're living a life others dream about.
Your life isn't perfect and it never will be. Nothing ever is. Believing otherwise is the ultimate lie we tell ourselves – that one day, each of us can have the ‘perfect life'. Not today, but one day.
My advice to you (and myself) is this. Strive to grow, strive to achieve; even set goals if you feel you must – but don't do any of them at the expense of this miraculous experience you're having right now.
You're alive, and the music is playing.
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