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How I see the laws of happiness, with some help from Confucius and the New York Times

August 12, 2010

Five days after being first published, this article still tops the New York Times’ most-emailed list. Why? Because the happiness question is a fascinating one, one that interested ancient Chinese philosophers like Confucius and Zhuangzi thousands of years ago, and still interests millions of web-surfers today. What makes people happy? It’s puzzled for ages.

What Confucius and the New York Times article have in common is they both understand that the happiness is rooted in relationships and experiences, not in material wealth or status.

Confucius believed that human interaction was the basis for basically everything that mattered. He brushed off heaven and some greater moral absolute. Meaning, honor, and self-cultivation could be found through human relationships and cultural ritual. He knew that merely pursuing material things, status, and monetary wealth would often leave a person morally bankrupt. (Jesus would agree.)

“But Does it Make you Happy?” agrees here. We should invest our money in experiences, not in things; in building memories, not building a wardrobe. Bottom line, relationships and experiences It seems so obvious to type this – people have understood this basic truth for ages – but somehow it still manages to allude so many of us. Why is that?

Well, here’s where Zhuangzi comes in. Zhuangzi, a Daoist philosopher, understood that everything is relative. Every experience, every truth, everything is relative. You yourself are relative, a perception.  The boundaries are all unclear.

This again may seem obvious, but it’s amazing how often we tend to revert back to believing in absolutes. I think most educated adults tend to think of right and wrong, success and failure, happiness and sadness, wealth and poverty, and so forth as absolutes. And themselves. We love to see our characteristics, and those of others, as absolutes. But we ourselves can only be defined relative to those around us.

So why do we harp on having so much stuff, so much wealth? Because we measure wealth, success, and often happiness, especially when we look at other people, in relative terms. We see what they have, and we want it. We think we’ll only be happy when we reach this imaginary standard we’ve set, by percieving someone else’s state as better than ours.

Relativity created poverty. Poverty is a mere construction. You can have so much, but if your neighbors all have even more, you’ll likely feel poor. What is comfort? When I arrived in Beijing, I thought my room was sort of ugly and uncomfortable. After a week at the Shaolin Temple, my room in Beijing felt like paradise. Relative experiences.

But this all gets way more complicated when you add in the relativity of your own imagination. We gauge our success by comparing an experience to how we imagined it would be. So you have to watch yourself.

I guess what I’m getting at here is that this is all very, very complicated, but there are important lessons to draw from this. There is much wisdom out there, and this New York Times article is really just restating what philosophers have understood for ages.

My rules of thumb for happiness are the following:

1. People and relationships are the key to happiness and fulfillment. Never forget it. Nothing else compares – no career, no wealth, no status or reputation. Money can’t buy you love. It’s cliche because it’s true.

2. Constantly giving yourself new experiences, while also remaining loyal to your traditions and rituals is the balanced path to happiness. This is a bit trickier, but Confucius really understood the importance of ritual, and it’s something we often forget when we chase new experiences. For me, it’s Christmas and Sunday Brunch. But you can’t get bogged down by routine. Balance the comfortable with the novel and you’ll continue to surprise yourself with how happy you can be.

3. Think about the big picture and appreciate the good things in your life, remember what matters. Everything we experience is relative, which is why it’s so easy to feel bad about things. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in one experience and forget that, relative to so many other experiences, this one is unimportant. That paper grade doesn’t really matter. Use relativity to your advantage as well. If you have the internet access to read this blog, you’re already luckier than a lot of others.

Do I have the right to dispense this advice? Maybe not. I’m a recent college grad who’s lived a very comfortable life. But sometimes I feel very lucky to have figured out what my big picture is so early in my life. And it’s kept me happy and relatively low-stress. It’s a mind-set, and it’s an understanding of priorities, and it keeps me smiling.

I love you, mom, dad, Mason, Taylor, Rick, Michelle, all my friends, family, and teachers. Thanks for making me happy.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Mom permalink
    August 13, 2010 12:58 am

    That was such a great blog entry, Mo! I love you, too, and thank YOU for making ME happy!

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