What Makes Us Happy? Part 1 - The Self-Made Man's View
Over a period of just a few hours during the course of my normal business day last week, I had two interactions that surfaced two different versions of what it means to be happy and what life’s purpose is. These sound like weighty matters not normally discussed in social contexts let alone business ones, and they are, but whether we talk about them or not, all of us have assumptions about what is important in life. Whether we are aware of them or not, these sorts of assumptions undergird the choices we make about how we spend our time, who we spend it with and how we treat ourselves. The two people I spoke with were a little different from most of us in two respects. The first is that they are both people who have experienced extraordinary success in their entrepreneurial ventures. Secondly, they were both explicit on their assumptions about happiness or the meaning of life.
As they laid out their world view, I found that each of them had a compelling logic that resonated with me. I also saw that they had a fervent and committed belief of the correctness of their philosophy. Since then I have been turning these conversations over in my mind, recalling some of my own intellectual investigations down similar paths as well as comparing them to the teachings of ancient masters and to more recent discoveries in modern neuroscience. So, this is the first of a three part blog post covering these three perspectives. I’ll go through the view of the ancient masters in my next post and what modern neuroscience has to say in the third post of this series, and for the rest of this post I want to unpack these two men’s positions.
The first conversation I had was with an entrepreneur who is very much still in the game. Despite his repeated success, he was already working on his next big idea. And as though that weren’t enough, he is also an extreme athlete, currently focusing on Iron Man racing. We were discussing someone we both knew – also a successful entrepreneur - and suddenly the pace of the conversation changed, and he became reflective for a few moments (which is not his normal mode by a long stretch). He then told me his story of working with this mutual colleague.
It had been a really tough week, he began. They were in business together in a start-up and things were not going well. Despite giving everything they had to build the business, working day and night, it seemed that whatever could go wrong, did. Until one particular Friday came along. Suddenly, events started going well and in a big way. He didn’t go into the detail but whether they won a big deal or closed on a great round of financing or signed a marquee customer or whatever, they finished work up and headed to the pub for a few beers to celebrate the day and wind down from the week.
As they relaxed and chatted things over, his colleague said to him “You know, weeks like this one are what it is all about. This is why we do this. We work hard. When things get tough, we don’t give up. We may suffer along the way. We may feel fear. We may stumble or get knocked down. But we get back up. We keep going. We’re good at what we do. And eventually the world reflects this back on us with the success we’re showered with. It’s moments like these that make it all worth it.” My friend compared that feeling to his training for the Iron Man and other longer distance races. It may be exhausting training 10 or even 20 hours a week but when you cross the finish line on race day, that feeling you get right then makes it all worth it.
As he talked, I was reminded of Nietzsche’s philosophy around "will to power." Nietzsche’s idea (beautifully summarized in Stephen West's second episode on Nietzsche in his "Philosophize This" podcast) is that the purpose of life is to maximize our potential as humans. Just because we can't control every element of our life that doesn't mean we should just give up and let the world happen to us. The lazy or stupid or fearful or mediocre among us may do that. But the great ones will rise above all these lesser motives, face their fears and make the most of what is possible. They will rule and possess and conquer and win. For Nietzsche, the only way we grow as people is to face and overcome pain, suffering and fear. That is the true source of true fulfillment and the highest level of happiness. He famously writes:
“For believe me! — the secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is: to live dangerously! Build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius! Send your ships into uncharted seas! Live at war with your peers and yourselves! Be robbers and conquerors as long as you cannot be rulers and possessors, you seekers of knowledge! Soon the age will be past when you could be content to live hidden in forests like shy deer! At long last the search for knowledge will reach out for its due: — it will want to rule and possess, and you with it!”
― Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science
For many years, I was a Nietzschean. His was an explanation I could relate to and I lived accordingly. I am a serial entrepreneur and a VC. I was into climbing mountains and I scaled some of the tallest vertical walls of rock and ice to be found; I was taking extreme risks mountain biking inhospitable trails, and I honed my survival skills spending weeks in desert environments with little more than a knife and sometimes a blanket. So, I very much understood where my friend was coming from. You work hard, you have success. You see the one as the cause of the other and you congratulate yourself for all your hard work. You look around and see, at least for the moment, that you’re the big dog, the one that other people envy. You’ve secured your reputation and comfort and success not just for yourself but for your family, too. You feel that all is good in the world.
There are a couple of problems with this approach. The first is that the feeling of ‘all is good in the world’ is short-lived. The high of reaching those lofty ambitions never lasts. And then you are stuck trying to outdo your last win or the win of the people you compare yourself to. And as you get older, this gets harder and harder to do. Many a great achiever has lived out their sunset years with an unhappy mixture of feelings like shame, confusion, impotence and regret. I have seen this unfold firsthand on more than one occasion with some of the greatest men of our times.
The second problem is that technically there is no way to demonstrate causation here; it is an unproven and unprovable assumption that all that hard work is the reason you had all that success. I know far more people who work super hard at investing in or starting tech companies who fail than those who succeed. Did the ones that succeed work harder? Were they smarter? Were they just better people? Of course not! What about the extreme athletes? Do they owe their success at completing the races or physical challenges, or completing them in a certain time, to all their hard work? Not really. I also know lots of people who train for these sorts of competitions or who put in similar or greater levels of effort to climb mountains or traverse icecaps or deserts who end up becoming injured or lost or even dying. Was their effort, or lack thereof perhaps, the cause of their horrible injury or death? Again, not really. Does the cause-effect not apply there but does only when things go well? And I know other people who love the idea of pursuing these sorts of adventures and would put in the effort but who have a mental or physical disability that prevents them from doing so. Or others who just don’t have the personality for it and aren’t interested or don’t care. Is their psychological or genetic predisposition something we can blame them for? If not, then why do the people who do have the psychological or genetic predisposition to achieve these sorts of extraordinary feats of athleticism deserve the credit for achieving them? We have here not a case of hard work resulting in great success for which the hard worker can be credited. We have instead a case of correlations without a proximate causation.
It turns out that the other person that day with whom I had this unexpected conversation about the meaning of life had a similar story about life’s purpose, albeit with a very different conclusion. Yes, we have the same situation of a person who need never work again but in this instance, he was a bit older and had found the ‘keep conquering the next mountain’ strategy of the other guy ineffectual. He had tried the ‘climb the next mountain’ thing and found that he wasn’t any happier, his struggles weren’t any easier, his life wasn’t getting any better.
So, he spent many years searching for the answer in all the places you would expect and ultimately concluded that meaning and fulfillment if not sustained happiness, was about our interactions with other people. Creating and sustaining healthy and stable relationships with the people we care about the most was the secret to a life well lived. I would restate this belief as happiness is an illusion and relationships are the things that bring more of the fleeting times that are "happy" and allow us to endure the greater amount of time we all spend struggling with one thing or another. He pointed to Professor George Valient at Harvard Medical school and a book he published about the results of a 75-year study of hundreds of American men. Their main conclusion after all those decades tracking all those people was that the “warmth of relationships throughout life has the greatest positive impact on 'life satisfaction'”. More than any other factor they could find, by far, the one thing that determined ‘life satisfaction’ in their surveys is the people the study participants spent time with and the health of those relationships.
This also made sense to me. At first glance, that is. Our emotional life always seems to be in flux but having close, stable and loving relationships increases the amount of good times and helps us weather the inevitable difficult periods. And as anyone who has lost a loved one or experienced a divorce or travelled away from home for long stretches knows, when those relationships are frayed or suddenly gone, the world feels like it is ending. So, who could argue with this perspective?
For me it all depends on how you approach the relationship. Are you in a position of giving love, or getting something out of it? Are you approaching the relationship from a state of lack and therefore treating emotions as your currency? All relationships involve a give and take, but are you loving the one you are in a relationship with unconditionally? If not (and let’s face it, most of us find that truly being able to love unconditionally is deeply challenging) here is the problem with putting responsibility for your happiness on relationships: the underlying assumption is that your happiness is dependent on something outside of yourself, something that is determined by other people. I will explore the neuroscience that belies this assumption but for now I only want to make the point that it is we who are responsible for how we feel, that it is a mistake to depend on other people for our happiness.
Of course I am not arguing that warm relationships with other people is a bad thing. But the joys that these relationships "bring" us will be fleeting and capped when we view them as transactional in this way. The sustained warmth and joy that we associate with good relationships are a product of a mindset of abundance and unconditionality going in. Paradoxically, the less we seek from and the more we give to a relationship, the more we get in return. The more we take responsibility for our own emotional well being, the better the relationship will be.
In this post I have explored the views of two thoughtful people on the nature of happiness or the good life. Both of them are right in their own way, but their methods are limited in their ability to deliver sustained happiness and fulfillment and are too easy to misconstrue. Both views have echoes throughout the history of philosophy and spirituality so it isn't that they aren't good ideas by any means. It is just that they both fall short of the human potential for experiencing sustained bliss. At least, that is what the happiest people to have lived tell us. In the next post I will take a look at what these ancient masters have to say on the secret to happiness.
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