Composition date: 7/17/2002, 4:45pm
Author: B. Russell
TItle: THOUGHTS ON THE PATHS TO HAPPINESS
(Please excuse the somewhat dry and abstract style I write in now, it is the best way I can find to clearly present my thoughts to you while still helping my own self-understanding. As is the case of many of my texts, I write this as much for me as for you.)
To find true happiness is my utmost wish. Though my physical needs are well taken care of, I feel heavily burdened by unfulfilled desires. I believe that one's happiness is related to our ability to deal with our innermost desires, and my approach to finding happiness has centered around that basic approach. Whether by finding a way to fulfill these desires, eliminating the need to fulfill them, or by some synthesis of the two, I have sought to attain a higher state of life. This article is a discussion of various routes I have explored in my quest to find my own happiness, as well as my thoughts regarding the advantages and disadvantages of each.
The first basic route, the direct fulfillment of human desire, meets resistance in the real world. All desires relate to the state of the world or my relationship to it. My ability to be happy depends on my ability to find what I want in the world, or to exert my influence upon the world to change it into what I desire. In my experiences, I have found that I have a limited ability to impact the world, but on a small scale my actions have a significant impact on those things that immediately affect me. However, I am just as affected by factors beyond my control, and those factors bring about states of the world I do not desire. In addition, I have found that many of my desires are often irrational, unrealistic and sometimes contradictory, and therefore cannot be found or created in the world. Therefore, this route can only lead to a partial fulfillment of desire, and will inevitably lead to a certain level of frustration and unhappiness. In its purest unmoderated form, the active pursuance of wish-fulfillment cannot lead to true happiness, and will more likely lead to ultimate frustration and disappointment.
The second basic route, the elimination of human desire, meets resistance within my own mind. In theory, eliminating all desire would eliminate the possibility of unfulfillment, which is seen as the cause of unhappiness. The challenge in this route is psychological, rather than physical, but it is in many ways more difficult because it involves changing the very root of my own behavior. In my experience I have found that I have even less changing influence over my own desires than I do on the external world. What small influence I do have makes a big impact on my happiness, though. However, it should be noted that my own conscious influence over my own desires has tended to be temporary, my desires inevitably reverting to their earlier state, leading me to believe that for the most part, personal desires cannot be eliminated. Furthermore, I have not found in those limited successful cases that elimination of desire leads to happiness, though it does lead to the absence of unhappiness. Elimination of desire seems to lead to an absence of feeling, and oddly, the desire for desire. In its extreme form this route, while it may eliminate unhappiness, leads to a life filled with a quiet emptiness and longing, and a life devoid of the happiness that one sought to find in the first place.
Neither of these routes need to be followed in their extreme form: indeed, most advocate taking a middle road. One such synthesis I find particularly helpful is that of the worldly compromiser. This can only be done later in life when one has a stronger understanding about the nature and limits of oneself and the world: after all, how can one make a compromise with a world one does not know? In this method, I find out what my general desires are, and then develop less ambitious forms of these desires that lead to partial fulfillment. Since my goals are more realistic, it is more within my power to find them, so I am more likely to find some amount of happiness. The limits to this approach are that first, one has to accept that one's actual desires will not be fulfilled, which is very hard to do. Second, there is the risk of selling oneself short, setting goals that, while easy to come by, shortchanges one of their true potential for happiness. It is good to moderate your desires, but foolish to only pursue the easiest of goals. This is the approach I currently live by, and though I find myself often overcompromising my desires, I do find myself happier than before. I have certainly not reached an ideal state, however, nor do I feel that a state of worldly compromise is the best state I will find.
Another approach is that of the moderate ascetic. In this approach, one eliminates some but not all desires, elevating certain desires in importance because the others have been taken out of the equation. The desires to be elevated are ones that are attainable, and often they are more attainable because of the elimination of other influential or contradictory desires. In a sense, this is an ultimate compromise because one has given up on certain desires and elevated desires that are easily attainable. However, it avoids the problem of spiritual vacancy because some desires have been kept and cultivated, and when they are fulfilled their elevation in the person's mind means that they will yield the happiness one thought they could only attain through the fulfillment of many different desires. Often this approach takes on a certain religious element to it, though for me it is a very practical exercise. I find this approach very appealing, but also very difficult to pursue. First, it requires that one choose and elevate certain desires and eliminate others, and I have found the elimination of any innate desire to be an impossible task. Also, I have a great difficulty choosing one desire to be more valuable than another, for in my mind I find them equally valuable, and I do not wish to make an arbitrary judgement, nor do I wish to choose the value of a desire based on its attainability alone. However, I keep this approach in mind for the future, because it offers a greater potential for ultimate happiness than the perhaps-safer and more common route of the worldly compromiser.
An approach I find most interesting is that of the fantasizer. One uses one's imagination to create a dreamworld where one's true desires are fulfilled, subverting the world itself rather than the conditions of fulfillment or the desires themselves. For many, the dreamworld is almost as vivid and real as the real world, so that there is little difference in fulfilling desires for real as in the imagination. This approach has boundless negative repercussions when taken to its extreme form, because it can cause complete neglect of the fulfillment of basic needs, and substitutes fake fulfillment for the possibility of real fulfillment, which in most cases creates greater happiness than fulfillment in which the person is aware of it not being real. However, if the person cannot tell it is not real, and the fantasy does no real damage to their ability to live in the real world, it might be considered the ultimate way to fulfill desire. The best way to pursue this path, I think, is in tandem with the route of the worldly compromiser. On those desires that are unrealistic to fulfill, one can cultivate a healthy fantasy life that fulfills it. And for those desires that are attainable, one attains in the real world. This is a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too approach. The limitations of this is that ultimately it cannot be completely effective. The person must know their fantasy isn't real, otherwise they will negatively impact their real lives, but if they know it isn't real they can never be as fulfilled as if they were certain the fantasy was actually happening. Also, it may be ideologically objectionable to treat fantasy and reality as equals: as someone who finds the search for truth to be valuable, this is a tough pill to swallow. I pursue this path to a certain extent, but I am hesitant for fantasy to take more than a fringe role in my happiness. I admit, though, that my emphasis on being strictly realistic can go too far at times, and I admit it may be healthier in certain situations to indulge one's imagination.
So ends this discussion on the burden of desire and the paths to happiness. It is by no means comprehensive, but I think it has helped clarify in my mind the various ways to combat dissatisfaction and yearning, and perhaps it will be food for thought to you as well. On a closing note, a most useful notion underlying this discussion, perhaps, is the assertion that one has the ability to choose one's route to happiness. I believe that one does have a choice, so it is possible to weigh the advantages and disadvantages and choose an approach wisely in their personal quest for happiness.