Of the many things I experienced as a founder, the most despairing is the loneliness and hopelessness. There are often times when out of extreme exhaustion (mostly mental), all my conscious thought goes numb. At times like these, I have often found myself drifting into the philosophical inquiry of things like meaning of life and the purpose of our existence.
I believe all of us have had those sleepless nights in our childhood pondering about questions like who are we, why are we here and what’s the purpose of life. As we grow, more structure gets created in our life, first it’s school, then college, then the rat-race of a job and the meaningless pursuit of a lifestyle that we have been duped to believe is the only real way of life. This leaves little time for us to introspect about these things. Though it may sound counter-intuitive a founder’s life often has these blank spaces that give ample time for such mental excursions.
From these musings and a fair bit of reading, I have to come to realize that the question about life can be divided into two parts — the first is the purpose of whole of humankind. Why do we exist, why are we the only species to develop such complex conscious thought, is there a larger purpose to our existence or are we merely here by chance. The second is the purpose of an individual, what should a human seek in life — what can be a fulfilling way of life. The former has mostly been in the realm of science and the latter of philosophy and religion.
Though we haven’t made any significant progress in answering the first question, we have scores of institutes that have attempted to answer the latter. From the western philosophies of Socrates and Kant to eastern mysticism of Confucius and Buddha, there are many who advocate a way of life. And of course there are religions, most of which started with the benevolent intent of helping one lead a better life but have ended up being political institutes with a propaganda.
I haven’t studied these literature in detail but I have been exposed to some of their teachings here and there. And though most of these texts are divergent in their doctrines almost all of them define the ultimate goal to reach an idyllic state of happiness or joy. A state of being which is in some sense liberating.
I wouldn’t say I am a liberated soul, but there have been instances in my life where I have felt a feeling of joy that is completely intrinsic, a feeling of happiness that doesn’t seem to have an underlying cause.
Happiness can be defined as a collections of emotions that make us feel good. The neurological study of body shows that these emotions (hence happiness) are essentially biochemical processes. There are a 7 neuro-chemicals that make us feel good, 3 of them are:
- Dopamine — the Reward Molecule is responsible for reward-driven behavior and pleasure seeking. This has been significantly exploited by the capitalist economy to create a cyclic loop of reward seeking behavior, and it has been epitomized the viral loops created by social platforms.
- Endorphin — the Pain-killing Molecule, typically produced during physical exercises and sexual intercourse.
- Serotonin — the Confidence Molecule, imbalance of which has been often linked to depression.
This begets a question if happiness is purely neuro-chemical, can we lead a lifestyle (natural or assisted) that produces these chemicals in optimum quantity such that we are in a perpetually happy state? The answer is NO. That’s because this definition of happiness considers only the physical/neural aspects of our body, it doesn’t take into account our consciousness. It looks at happiness from the lens of our physical body with no consideration of inner self.
The other challenge with seeking happiness this way is that the potency of the same activity reduces over a period of time (as the dopamine releasing affect reduces). As a result, something that’s more pleasurable in the beginning gradually looses it affect. And hence a person goes from one pleasure-seeking activity to another and another.
So what is that gives us the feeling of joy — the one that we seek or the one that comes to us?
I looked back at some of my happiest moments. And I tried to understand the life of people who I thought were in general leading a happy life. I found an underlying pattern, people who were content were generally quite happy. Contentment meant at those times, those people were in state of peace with their life. There was no conflict about the future or the past and they were living in their present moment.
Contentment is purely a mental state which has little dependence or none, on your external conditions. You could be the richest person on this planet and you could be content and you could be in extreme destitution, and still be content. Contentment occurs when we stop being in conflict with ourselves, when we willingly align expectations with reality and we focus inward rather than outward.
But contentment here is not be confused with apathy or fatalism. It’s not about giving in without questioning. It’s not about accepting everything in life as it is. If that happens then we have no reason or purpose in life. Seeking contentment alone cannot drive a meaningful life but combine the quest for contentment with a purpose in life and we have a way of life that can be quite rewarding.
Purpose means that we have a larger goal in life — there is something that we work towards and it constantly challenges it. There doesn’t need to be a strict definition of purpose. One could be a factory worker and can find challenge and purpose in what all others find dull and boorish. Their purpose could be to incrementally do their work better and more efficiently. Or one could be a experimental physicist trying to prove the existence of hidden particles in quantum world. The intellectual complexity of the task has little relevance. Purpose could be a single large goal that spans over years, like scaling the Mount Everest or it could a short-term objective like learning to salsa. The nature, frequency and duration of the purpose has little do with the attainment of happiness. What matters is the flow that one gets out of the purpose — how we channelize our energy and how we are constantly challenged. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi the renowned author of the book Flow talks about how our mind is in the constant state of entropy, if left ideal there is bound to be chaos and despair, but having a purpose in life lets us channelize our surplus energy in a manner that not only reduces chaos but also adds enjoyment.
A lot of people intrinsically understand the need for purpose. They start with a goal in life and experience the happiness that comes from its pursuit. But often they start focusing on the outcome rather than enjoying the journey. We don’t understand that it’s as much fun to scale the Mount Everest as it is to train for it. It is as much satisfying to be the best employee in your organization as much as it to passionately do your work everyday. The outcome and the journey are indistinguishable from each other. If you only focus on the outcome then you are bound to be miserable because no matter how hard you try, the outcome is uncertain, its in the future and it is not what you are today. Which means your happiness will always be uncertain, it will be in future and there will always be an expectation mismatch.
However, if you combine your pursuit of a goal with the quest of contentment, you can attain a state of happiness that is fabulously rewarding. Combining the challenge of a purpose with the calm of contentment means you are constantly utilizing your mental energy to derive an optimal experience from what you do. It means you are not perturbed by the chaos that exists outside, instead you are able to create a reward system internally that is not overbearing, but still at the same time it continuously nudges you to challenge yourself. Adopting such a thought process gives a purposeful meaning to live while getting happiness from every little thing you do in the present.
I believe that having a larger purpose while seeking to be content creates a life experience that’s intrinsically rewarding and happy.