As I said in an earlier post, you can look at life as being at its essence a pursuit of happiness. Reaching this goal involves becoming “what we are constituted to be”. That is, happiness comes from aligning our inner nature and our actual life. The plant-eating happiness of a deer is different from the deer-eating happiness of a wolf. The subterranean happiness of a mole different from the soaring happiness of a bird. What happiness an amoeba might find is in being able to nourish itself and divide.
All beings have innate propensities and strivings and flourishing means successfully expressing them through your living. Doing this produces the feelings that we call happiness. I think this is probably true of all creatures, to whatever extent that they are wired to have these feelings.
For other animals, their happiness options are very limited. While by nature they’ll strive to live the best lives they can, their ultimate happiness will be mostly a function of the environment. Since animals are evolved for their environment, it is natural for them to realize themselves within their world.
Because their lives are symmetrical with their environment their lives should be a satisfactory expression of their inner nature. Therefore it would be expected that they should typically experience a relative happiness in their lives. That is unless the enviornment shifts or if they just find themselves in the wrong spot of it at the wrong time.
We humans come with a much more complex set of innate propensities and strivings and these confront an incredibly elaborate possibility space compared to our fellow creatures. Also, as Eduardo Punset points out in The Happiness Trip, our increasing lifespans gives us a lot more opportunity for things other than surviving and raising a family.
As I said in the Pursuit of Happiness post, the expanded range of being human changes the nature of the happiness pursuit. While it opens up vistas of happiness possibilities, it also makes the pursuit more urgent and more critical, more central to our being. It also makes it a lot more complicated, more ambigous, and more uncertain.
The drive towards happiness intersects with the field of the world, the realm where happiness must be sought. The world as it is presents us with constraints and possiblities, the boundary conditions and opportunity structures for our happiness pursuit.
Unlike other creatures, our life world isn’t the world we evolved into, it’s a world of our own making, human shaped world, a world evolved out of us. Humans have broken the symmetry between being and world that exists for other creatures. Our world doesn’t automatically provide a good fit. Rather, it is up to us to do the tailoring.
Not being born with an owner’s manual. we’re forced to puzzle our way through the world, making our way as best we can. Of course, there are some old manuals out there that profess to speak for everyone, and while they contain some worthy advice, they can seem outdated and obsolete in the light that science casts.
The world courts us with a vast array of alluring possibilities, like fireflies sparkling on a summer night in the country. There are a number of strategies available to us, again as I talked about in The Pursuit of Happiness post. We usually end up with a strategy that mixes pleasure and comfort with fulfillment and realization.
Generally, happiness is understood to be strictly about our individual being. In terms of pleasures and comforts, it is about our personal sensations, feelings and experiences. In terms of fulfillment it is about what Western philosophy calls our projects or interests, the long term pursuits that we embrace.
As discussed in the book Drive by Daniel Pink recent studies in areas like Positive Psychology and the Motivational Psychology show that people are intrinsically motivated to want autonomy, control and mastery. They’re shown to create more actual fulfillment than the conventional trio of power, privilege and prestige.
And these academic studies seem to hold up in the real-life world of business when they’ve been applied. These intrinsic motivations are essential elements for human flourishing. Self-actualization, I think of as mastery that fully expresses your inherent capabilities.
Sometimes mastery and self-actualization are perceived as the endgame of human fulfillment. But I think that it’s important to consider another aspect of flourishing. That is, how our personal projects and interests link up with the world.
In The Pursuit of Happiness post, I talked about poker whiz Greg Merson. He’s an example of mastery or actualization purely for its own sake. Being a commodity trader, a wine connoisseur or a mountain climber, woodworking, sewing, reading novels, writing limericks, and travelling the world are just a few other examples.
While all of these things and their many kin might be rewarding in themselves, and might give us the opportunity to develop mastery, they are all undertakings that have to do with your personal experience. They’re confined to the inner world of the self and unconnected to the world at large.
That’s not saying that there’s anything wrong with any of these. I’m not interested in squelching anyone else’s happiness as long as it doesn’t harm someone else.
But I am proposing that a different approach to happiness might offer greater rewards. If you take the possibility of giving seriously, that is if you’re willing to consider that it might really be better to give than to receive in some fundamental way, and if you also accept that actualization is essential to fulfillment in this modern world, where does that lead?
I’d like to suggest that if you take giving and knead it together with actualization and then roll them into a way of life, you end up baking something I call being for the world. Being for the world involves living less for what one can do for oneself and more for what one can do for the world.
It doesn’t mean abandoning one’s own happiness, but rather pursuing one’s actualization in a way that benefits the world. It is to see one’s life as not just as a fulcrum of experience, but also as a vehicle to contribute to the well-being of the world.
Thinking of oneself as a vehicle is seeing oneself as a cause, as being able to make a difference. It comes from understanding that human reality isn’t a given but is a becoming, a might-be that we can have a hand in shaping. That our pilgrimage through this world can enhance the lives of others now and in the future.
It’s become common for corporations and other organizations to talk about having a purpose and a mission. Purpose refers to a central underlying reason with mission representing the broader approach to acheiving the purpose. Martin Seligman, the originator of Positive Psychology discusses the importance of purpose in our individual lives in his book Flourish.
Being for the world is about rooting purpose in the center of your life, it’s about living on purpose. But more specifically, it’s about purpose in terms of service to the world. It involves living the purpose of benefitting the world.
Being for the world means seeing one’s life as an opportunity to serve the world. Buddhist encourage us to see that while all life is to be cherished, that human life is special because it grants us abilities that other creatures don’t have. Truly appreciating one’s precious human life makes you want make good use of it.
The great advances in science over the last 200 years have allowed us to realize some sense of how we’ve come to the point we are at today. This has allowed us to get a glimmer of our capabilities and to start to understand that to be human is to exist at the edge of an ongoing wave of human unfolding.
These understandings might allow us an even deeper feeling for this preciousness of human life. While at the same time, as Seligman points out in Flourish, the material prosperity of the West that science enabled hasn’t led to an equivalent increase in human flourishing, noting that perceived happiness has improved little and rates of depression increased greatly over the last 50 years.
Life gives us each an unknown quantity of time to spend. To be for the world is to invest your life where it pays a dividend, to use it to cultivate the flourishing of humanity and the world. It allows us to to It allows us to extend the value of our life into the fourth dimension of time.
Any urge to be for the world would likely find a wish at its heart, a wish for the happiness of the world. As Buddhists remind us, all beings wish to be happy and avoid suffering. Inside us lies a sensitivity to the longings of other beings, a wish that they do find their happiness. And we also have a susceptibility to feel troubled when in their suffering and sympathetic joy in their pleasure.
I think that this concern for the well-being of others is what motivates those special people who have lit up the world. This includes the famous examples like the Florence Nightingale’s and Gandhi’s and Martin Luther King’s of the world. But includes vast numbers of others, some lesser known, some little known, and most just anonymously going about the business of caring for the world.
Being for the world doesn’t have to be an all or nothing affair, and it’s probably better that if it isn’t. To be for the world you have to simultaneously be for yourself. Being for the world isn’t about sacrifice, it shouldn’t come from a feeling of duty or obligation. It should arise from a felt desire to contribute to the collective happiness of the world. As psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi said (as quoted by Daniel Pink in Drive),’I think that evolution has had a hand in selecting people who had a sense of doing something beyond themselves.”
The possibility of giving being preferable to taking is at the core of the thought of being for the world. The most significant thing we have to offer is our time, the material of our life. Social psychologist Elizabeth Dunn, in talking about the feeling of being pressed for time that studies show that “one of the best things we can do to reduce this sense of pressure may be to give our time away.” She believes this works because it makes our time seem less scarce.
But while that’s likely true, I think the reasons go beyond that. The blog Give Our Time gives several reasons why giving our time is good for us. It lets us “build meaningful purpose into our lives” by acting to make a difference in the world. And it fuels our happiness because: “Serving ourselves is limiting. Serving others is empowering.”
My notion of being for the world goes beyond the thought of donating our time, though that surely can be one admirable approach to it. If giving our time is a good thing, good for us and good for the world, then maybe we should consider extrapolating it to our whole life.
Being for the world means focusing on how to serve instead of how to gain, acting from the desire to to contribute, wishing for the happiness of others. In essence, it’s gifting yourself to the world.
While there is a lot that is wonderful in the world, the world is also full of need. Our pursuit of happiness might lead us to answer this calling of the world. It might stir us to use our lives to help actualize the unrealized possibilities of the world, to give life to the dreams of an unfolding world, to its wishing to become.
- The Possibility of Giving
- The Purpose of Service