Rise above your instincts to begin the life you were meant to live.
The unalienable right to the “pursuit of Happiness” is burned into the DNA of every American. Many believe it was instrumental in creating the wealthiest and most powerful nation on the planet; others blame it for the materialistic excesses of a people who have lost their way.
How should this “pursuit of Happiness” influence your personal journey? Should it inspire you to work your way to the top, making whatever sacrifices are necessary to achieve your fortune? Or does it suggest that you should slow down and savor every pleasure, drinking deeply from the well of life? These are the questions of our age for any talented and thoughtful person.
Except that they present a false choice. A choice which will almost certainly lead you on a fool’s errand that could waste much of your life, talents and treasure.
This note is designed to help you rise above your instincts and urges to begin a search for the life you were meant to live. Once you have abandoned a foolish quest for the ephemeral rewards of happiness, wealth and power, you can begin to look for your true calling on this earth – a Hero’s Journey. To do this, you must first learn to lose yourself. Unbundling this paradox will require you to accomplish three tasks:
Task One: Understanding the Difference between Happiness, Satisfaction and Fulfillment
The old saying that “money will not buy you happiness” turns out to be supported by all the latest scientific research. Once your basic needs are satisfied, chasing more money, power, fame, beauty or sex will not lead to a happier life.
So, what is the secret of happiness? It’s that most of us are already quite happy. Not only are we reasonably happy, but we seem to have a genetically determined “happiness thermostat” that is largely set at birth. Despite attempts to chase happiness, most of us will spend all our lives oscillating around our pre-set level of happiness.
The key to moving from happiness to satisfaction is relationships. Deep, loving relationships have the capacity for gratitude, forgiveness and sharing in ways that are far more important than any accomplishments; a good marriage has far more impact on lifelong satisfaction than good health; and continuing to seek challenges and having friends of all ages is much more important than income.
Ultimately, you will likely end your life happy and quite satisfied, but not necessarily fulfilled. The greatest threat to leading a fulfilling life is a misguided pursuit of happiness that blinds us to the possibility of a more meaningful Hero’s Journey.
What is it about our nature that distracts us from a noble quest to find meaning and significance, converting it instead to a meaningless, addictive and ultimately hollow grab for money, power and pleasure? Three mistakes consistently distract and mislead us:
- We pursue sensual pleasures and material success for the wrong reasons.
- We misjudge how near-term events will affect our long-term happiness.
- We all too often allow our addictive natures and lack of perspective to transform healthy self-interest into a corrosive self-centeredness.
So, what is the alternative to a fruitless search for happiness, power or money, a life driven by impulses and urges that inevitably will collapse into a failed tangle of self-centered illusions?
Task Two: Losing Yourself in a Hero’s Journey
Throughout history, wise men have offered the Hero’s Journey as an alternative. A Hero’s Journey requires you to find your most precious gifts, then use them doing something you enjoy in the service of something larger than yourself.
A Hero’s Journey does not promise a life full of happiness. On the contrary, it means facing “dragons and giants,” challenges that stretch you to your limits—and sometimes beyond. The lessons are in the journey, lessons learned alongside trusted traveling companions and guides. By the end of the journey, you will see the world differently and have a deeper understanding of your purpose on the planet, as well as a much stronger connection with the transcendent.
Finding the Hero’s Journey you were meant to live requires you to lose your preoccupation with self by overcoming challenges, strengthening relationships, expressing gratitude and connecting to the transcendent.
- Flow: Losing Yourself in a Worthy Challenge Have you ever been so engrossed in a challenge or activity that you lost track of time? If so, you have experienced what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as “flow,” the feeling that comes when “your mind or body is stretched to the limit in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
- Love: Losing Yourself in Relationship Long-term studies of satisfaction and fulfillment show that relationships are critical to satisfaction and fulfillment. We live in relationship with others and we need to belong. We need others to complete us.
- Gratitude: Losing Yourself in Thanks and Generosity Nurturing a sense of gratitude may be the most powerful step you can take towards a more fulfilling life. Those who do are more likely to recognize and seize an opportunity when it presents itself. By seeing the world through a different lens, they are happier, more satisfied and more fulfilled.
- Spirituality: Losing Yourself Through a Connection with the Transcendental While religious belief will always be a personal choice, scientific studies show that belief in the transcendental leads to more personal happiness, satisfaction and fulfillment.
Task Three: Getting Started on Your Own Quest
A hero’s journey begins with knowing yourself. From there, you can begin the transition from flow to the mastery of a discipline to a Hero’s Journey. To do that, it’s important to know the difference between a job, a career and a calling.
A job is something you do from 9 to 5 to pay the bills, as a way of affording the necessities of life and an occasional pleasure once the workday has ended. People with jobs watch the clock, waiting for the end of their work days.
By contrast, a career is a climb up a predetermined ladder to success at the top. People with careers work long hours for the promise of money, power and security to come. All too often they arrive only to find that it really is lonely at the top.
A calling, on the other hand, is finding that special place where your most precious gifts allow you to do something you love, in service to others, in a way that changes the world.
As you begin your own journey, focus on past flow experiences and your strengths. Note how you feel at different times. When does flow occur for you? How would you describe your past flow experiences? What do they have in common? What do you do better than anyone else?
It’s time to start. Find your calling. Write your own Hero story. Explore your strengths to discover flow experiences that will lead to mastery. Let your mastery attract opportunities in a way that serves others and changes you. “How can I be happy?” is the wrong question. “How can I create something meaningful for others?” is the right question because it helps others and will change you in a profound way.
Savor sensual pleasures. Spread them out. Enjoy them but make them a conscious choice. Do not let them become your master. Seize the moment. Let go. Keep life simple and your pleasures even simpler. Truth and beauty don’t diminish with repetition.
Develop loving lifelong relationships with your spouse and your friends. Reach out to those younger for energy and inspiration, those your age for support and those older for perspective.
Be grateful. You have extraordinary gifts. Don’t take things for granted. Be generous with your time and money. Choose life. Choose it now.
You may think you have heard all this before. You have. Wisdom literature (religious and philosophical writings), the latest science (behavioral economics, experimental psychology and neuropsychology) and common sense all agree, as do wise people who have gone before. It’s just that we do not practice what we know to be true.
You didn’t listen before. If you are lucky, you will this time. If you are fortunate to live to a ripe old age, a lifetime of struggling with human nature will teach you these lessons. You will finally see that it’s only by losing yourself in a quest to serve others that you find your true self—and that only by finding your rightful place in the world and recognizing your true nature are you likely to connect with the transcendent.