The Process of Motivation:
a meditation on our paths to happiness

“We ought to know before we die,
What are we running to and ‘fro and why.”

There is a classical idea which states, that we do all that we do, always, as a means towards happiness. (whether or not we are conscious of this process)
Another way of stating this is our ‘motivation’ is essentially the process that we have in place for what is to bring us to happiness.
This idea is critical and is one of the most significant realizations in the history of mankind.
For over a decade I’ve wrestled with this idea and the implication of this is staggering. 
For if we do all that we do as a means towards happiness – naturally we should be careful to consider, just what do we think will get us there.
Furthermore, once we understand how deep this idea plays out in our life, we begin to get a solid handle on the most difficult project in our lives – i.e. how do we get ourselves to do the good that we know we should do.
After all, it is this idea that’s at the heart of contemporary democratic structures too. This was most eloquently captured in writing by Thomas Jefferson, in the American Declaration of Independence document of 1776, where…

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Our democratic structures – where America served as a prototype for others to follow – were fundamentally based upon the ‘Pursuit of Happiness’. It is the corner-stone, self-evident truth, for what’s to be the justest, the freest means for realizing an organic democracy.
And this wasn’t just Thomas Jefferson being merely poetic or presenting a novel idea for the time… (He was just a young man in his 30s when he wrote those famous ideals.)
Jefferson was simply putting into political practice, the same one ideal that the heart of the greatest philosophical schools in our history advocated for. 
For instance, the ancient Greek wisdom schools placed the pursuit of happiness at the very heart of their teachings – beginning with the wisdom of Socrates and Plato, and culminating with Plato’s best student, Aristotle.
Aristotle was to say in his key text Nicomachean Ethics that, 

“Happiness is the meaning and purpose of life; the whole aim and end of human existence.”

In the ancient East just the same, it is this same ‘happiness idea’ that’s at the heart of Buddha’s teachings and his 8 fold prescription for how to make the shift away from suffering.
This is the aim that’s affirmed in the monastic practices of the Theravada Buddhist tradition, as well as the central message that was brought to the general public about Buddhism, through disciples Nagarjuna and Asanga.
Just the same, this essential idea is at the heart of Christianity. This was articulated in the very first sentences of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mound teachings.
In his beatitudes speech, he laid out a promise for how to have a ‘beatific’, or a happy life … This idea was then argued in detail by one of the principal doctors of the Christian church, Saint Augustine, which was in turn systematically organized by one of history’s greatest theologian-philosophers, Thomas Aquinas.
This is why we say that the pursuit of happiness is a very deep idea. As such, we ought to understand exactly why.
For if this idea is true, then we have a profound understanding for how we can ‘motivate’ ourselves. With this insight, we can hope to gain greater control of our actions, thoughts, and emotions…
After all, we cannot change what we don’t understand.
Unfortunately, in our times we have lost sight of this insight, or else, we have vastly simplified and bastardized what this idea stands for.
In actuality, there’s a great controversy brewing regarding our “happiness pursuit” at the moment…
For, on one hand, today we have a major movement in the field of psychology, towards the study of happiness.
This movement was popularized by psychologist Abraham Maslow in the 1970s – who shifted the focus of psychology away from the exclusively ‘dysfunctional’, and towards the study of the ‘positive’… i.e. positive psychology.
Since then, happiness studies have been brought to the forefront of scientific inquiry, through many leading psychologists, like Martin Seligman, Ed Diener, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi … to name just a few.
There are new scientific journals set up to investigate exclusively the basis of happiness and well-being, like with “The Journal of Happiness Studies”, as well as many global conferences dedicated to happiness dialogues – like the one in Australia, “Happiness and its Causes”…
And when we look in the psychology and self-help sections of most bookstores, we cannot help but to notice how much positive psychology and the pursuit of happiness is at the forefront of public attention.
On the other hand, this emergent interest in happiness also has its share of powerful critics.
Most recently, one of the most talked-about professors of the decade, clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson, vehemently attacked this “happiness focus”.
He effectively dismisses happiness as the foundation of sound psychology.
Below I transcribed just a portion of his statements on the matter from one of his talks. His criticisms highlight the controversy very well:
“Some people will tell you that the purpose of life is to be happy and those people are idiots. 
Happiness is something that’s done in, by the first harsh blow that reality deals you. There are many circumstances in life where the expectation of happiness as a response, will put you in absolutely the worst psychological state to be prepared for what must be done.
The healthy and well-adapted person has a very wide range of finely differentiated responses, which cannot be boiled down to a single dimension per se – happiness vs unhappiness.
 Life’s not that simple. Life is complex and tragic and difficult.
And the problem with the public portrait of the ideal state of human as happiness is that it makes all of these young people feel ashamed of their own suffering. They feel if they’re suffering, if they find their life tragic in its essence, that means there’s something wrong with them and instantly that makes it impossible for them to communicate anything real about their own tragedy.
If you’re constantly in a state of satisfaction and happiness, then nothing is going to affect you deeply enough so that you’ll become deep. And life without depth is by definition shallow and meaningless.
In order to regard anything as truly important, you also have to regard its loss as truly meaningful. And that means to open yourself up to experiences of deep meaning, also simultaneously means you have to open yourself up to the possibility of experiences of deep and sorrow. 
And you do that anytime for example that you make a relationship profound. You put your emotions on the line and that has to be real or the relationship can’t be real.
You might compare the difference between elevator music and a Beethoven symphony. It’s not that the symphony is in any sense happier than the Muzak – in fact, quite the contrary. But it’s deeper and more profound and richer and incorporates more and justifies itself more. 
And that’s the right metaphor for life. Not happiness, but depth and the differentiated quality and profundity, to match the profundity of the necessity of suffering.”
Dr. Peterson was made aware of how problematic happiness is as the basis of one’s life orientation, by the great author, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Aleksandr lived through the disastrous Soviet Communist experiment during the mid 20th century, and wrote one of the most devastating critiques about the communist system, in his Nobel prize-winning work, “The Gulag Archipelago”.
Alexandr experienced first hand the problems behind the communism, which would make the propagandist claim that its way of doing things, would bring about ‘the greatest happiness to the greatest numbers’.
But when the boots of communism came crashing through his own front door, and he was unjustly sent to the hell-on-earth that was the Siberian gulag prison, his ‘pursuit of happiness’ perspective shattered.
From his experience and those of his fellow inmates, Alexandr would conclude that happiness is the entirely wrong orientation to have in mind as your life purpose.
For if you were in a likewise position, and you were to believe that happiness was the very purpose of your life – how could you justify to yourself living in something like a ‘Soviet Gulag’?
How could you cope with that” happiness ideal”, when daily torture through brutal work was the norm? In fact, if this was your life purpose, you would not only be wretchedly miserable, and you would not live for long. Many kill themselves when faced with this reality.
This was also the identical argument and criticism that psychiatrist Victor Frankl made in his classic book, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’.
When Frankl too was sent to the hell-on-earth that was the Auschwitz prison camp during the reign of the Nazis (simply because he was Jewish), from his first-hand observations he too saw that those who saw happiness as their purpose in life, they were usually dead within a few months of arriving. 
Under Auschwitz’s conditions, they just gave up…
So we have a major dilemma… How do we reconcile this idea and criticism, with the idea that we began with? 
For some of the most astute minds of modern times make the exact opposite claim.
How do we come to terms with Aristotle, arguably the world’s greatest philosopher, who was to say that, “happiness is the meaning and purpose of life – the whole aim and end of human existence”? 
Was he wrong? What about Jesus? Or Buddha for that matter?
Is the pursuit of happiness, “bound by situations” perhaps?
As in, if you’re free and living in a good and prosperous society, happiness is a good basis for a purpose in life, but when your conditions are hellish, then ought we to change our purpose?
What about that comment that Jordan Peterson made earlier, that compared the pursuit of happiness to be like ‘Muzak Music’, in contrast to what our purpose could be, a “Beethoven Symphony’? 
There’s also something intuitively right about that idea isn’t there?
During your time here with us at Jonah’s Club, we will explore these ideas and see how these jigsaw pieces fit together.
We lay the foundations with the essential documentary series, “Secret Meanings”, and you can get started right here with the first part.
But if you really want to dive deep into this idea, begin your journey with membership into Jonah’s Club.
In the very first month, we unpack this very debate. Here we look at the happiness pursuit from the perspective of a philosopher who also lived through a hell-on-earth prison. 
He wrote a classic text while under arrest for a crime he did not commit, and was sentenced to execution. Yet from this darkest of life moments, he wrote a most profound book, which had a momentous influence throughout the ages.
Today this book is almost all but forgotten. The self-assessment that you just completed, was based upon certain questions he might have asked us.
In the first-month we’ll explore how he came to grips with his tragic life condition, how the pursuit of happiness fitted into this picture, and what wisdom he would share with us today.
Carpe Diem,

© 2023 Jonah's Club by Center for Meaningful Leadership Inc - A Non-Profit Organization


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