The Pursuit of Happiness(es)

We’ve heard it said that “life is like a marathon”. In both cases, you have goals. Also, in both cases, you need energy to get to those goals, so you need some way of producing that energy. In marathon running, runners switch between two types of respiration; in life, people switch between two ways of pursuing happiness.

Gratified or Fulfilled?

Let’s consider two types of happiness as discussed by Greek philosophers. The first is hedonia, the root term for hedonism. Basically it’s the happiness associated with more immediate self-satisfaction and gratification, with little regard for long-reaching consequences and with a priority on minimizing pain. Want to engage in retail therapy? Want to party till the sun comes up? Want to make the most of the night like we’re gonna die young? Find yourself wanting to indulge in the excesses similar to popular musicians like David Bowie, P Diddy, and Steven Tyler? That’s hedonia, baby.

Life is like a box of chocolates: onnomnomnomnomnomnom.
Life is like a box of chocolates: nonnomnom.

Eudaimonia, on the other hand, is a more long-term kind of happiness. It’s happiness that is associated with fulfillment, with self-actualization, with getting to your highest level of potential. It’s the kind of happiness that accepts the possibility of taking a few licks along the way, and you don’t have to really “feel good” all the time to be happy. Just getting back up when you’re down and making yourself a little tougher as you go on your way  to becoming the best “you” can make everything worth it, and much more. Eudaimonia involves more self-building habits: the satisfaction from making or fixing things yourself; the joy of learning things; the empowerment that comes from acting to change yourself or your circumstances for the better.

“Lord don’t move that mountain; just give me the strength to climb it.”

The thing about eudaimonia, though, is that it relies on inspiration. You need to care about your self-fulfillment in order for that mode of happiness to matter to you, and that can be hard to do when times get tough, when you keep failing over and over again, and when it seems like the values you hold most dear don’t hold any worth in the moral or ethical economy that you are having to transact in. In those cases, you need something to pick you up. When your inspirational beacon seems to fail in those hours of darkness, you need a little short-term, doesn’t-really-matter light. And for those times, I can see the value in hedonism.

Oooh, pretty!

So, conventional wisdom holds that people can approach happiness in only one way or the other. There’s one side, which favors pleasures enjoyed by yourself or with someone else; and there’s the other, which favors personal fulfillment over short-term satisfaction. But in reality, you’ll most likely need to switch from one mode to the other as you go through life’s ups and downs.

What’s Your Mix?

So here’s the kicker question: how should you mix your happiness? What proportion of your life should you devote to eudaimonia, and what should be left over for hedonia?

The answer, of course, is that there is no one answer. People are all different from one another. Some people may get more out of the partying, getting-high, intense-stimulation or heavy-escapism lifestyle, while others may look for the more calm, placid, chill contentment that comes from a purpose-driven life. Don’t expect all people to fall within these two categories, however; we’re more likely to fall within a spectrum of these things. To get to your way of happiness, you have to find your own blend. For those who want that put in a psychology-meets-economics kind of way, here’s a blog post with a chart and a scholarly reference.

What kind of happiness do you think works for you? Why does it work? Do you think your preference will change anytime soon? Let me know in the comments!

5 Reasons to Try Not to Be a Jerk

People can be jerks. This we know. Whether it’s bullying, pollution, theft, vandalism, gossiping, or just simply the feeling of schadenfreude, we know that people can all get a little mean. Nobody’s perfect; we all have our weaknesses that hold us back, appetites that we have to satisfy, and blind spots that can make us a little insensitive. Even the most decent person has bad days, when steam just builds up and he unfortunately has to unload or vent on the nearest person. We all understand.

That doesn’t make it right, though. Even though people can be jerks, they shouldn’t, and I think people, by and large, don’t try hard enough to be decent. Label me a bore, call me a square, or say whatever it is people say to mean “being good isn’t cool”, I really think everyone should exercise a bigger effort to be a good person. And I think everyone knows this; they just need to be reminded of the reasons once in a while.

1. We’re All Connected (Whether We Like It or Not)

“What goes around comes around”. “Pay it forward”. “Karma’s going to catch up with you”. There are plenty of cliches, usually spun off from religions and new-age philosophies, that suggest we’re all part of some moral economic system, where good deeds and bad deeds are somehow counted, good people and bad people sorted, and sometime, somehow, everyone gets what they deserve. Whatever narrative they use to justify it, the bottom line is always the same; you have to be a good person to others, and they have to act the same to you, because we’re all connected. “We’ve got to love others as we love ourelves”, “we’re all children of (preferred deity/religious icon)”, and so on.

But let’s say you don’t buy into that. Let’s say you don’t let yourself be governed by the rules in some book, or the words of some “holy” man, and you don’t see how coming from the same spiritual source means that you should act straight-laced and not be selfish. You don’t believe in the afterlife, or some sort of moral reckoning at the end. Maybe you think there’s no justice; there’s just us.

Well, sorry, but even if it’s not by spiritual means, we’re connected, for the simple reason that resources are limited and shared. No matter who you are, you partake of money, food, water, electricity, and a million other resources that come from a common source. We’ve got just one planet, and there’s only so much of it to go around. Even the simple problem of overpopulation is causing all kinds of problems with living space and strained public services which, especially if you live in a poor neighborhood, can lead to a lot of friction and frustration. And since we don’t know how to go to other planets and make them livable, this situation will continue.

2. What You Do DOES Matter

There are some people who think that it’s okay for them to be jerks, because in the big scheme of things, they’re not the biggest jerks. “I may have flushed some kid’s head down the toilet the other day, but hey, I’m not Hitler, so I must be doing something right”. A variation of this is people telling themselves that there are figures who have more influence, more power, and more authority than they will ever have, and those figures get to be jerks; “My being a jerk affects the world on a much smaller scale, so don’t talk to me about my being a jerk until those bigger jerks are dealt with”.

Sherlock Holmes has better things to do than catch the guy who farted in the elevator, right?
Sherlock Holmes has better things to do than catch the person who stole one guy’s office lunch, right?

There are a lot of reasons why people would feel like this. They may feel like they don’t matter. They may be feeling some sort of insecurity. They may not be getting a lot of love, and you may have decided that attention is the next best thing, no matter how you get it. So you put others down to build yourself up.

To those people, I’ve got one bit of advice: GET OVER IT. You’re better than that, no matter what you think. You count. Don’t think that a little teasing or a little offense is excusable because you’re too small to make a big difference. That’s the gateway philosophy that leads to things like “History won’t remember that I beat this kid up” or “Civilization won’t crumble just because I called this person a moron”. And even if you say that you won’t let yourself get any worse, that you only need to allow yourself a little malice every day, it’s still not a good reason, really. Because…

3. There’s an Oversupply of Jerks

As I mentioned above, there’s a problem of overpopulation in many places. Hell, the human population is expanding at an increasing rate; some may compare it with a cancer or a virus, while others may just snigger at the degree to which the human race seems to enjoy “getting some”, am I right?

Well, with an increase in population comes an increase in the number of jerks. Especially in a world with limited resources, it’s much too easy to justify being selfish, much too difficult to disregard others’ feelings and circumstances. Entitlement mentality abounds. They say that it’s okay to be selfish, because under the “invisible hand” model advocated by old-timey economist Adam Smith, it evens out in the end; everyone’s pursuit of their own selfish ends averages out into one common good.

I'm showing a greedy woman here because I believe in gender equality.
Gender equality: accepting that women can be greedy, too.

What a lot of people don’t realize is that this interpretation of the “invisible hand” only works if people are equally selfish and equally enabled and empowered to act on their selfishness. Let’s talk basic economics for a bit: you have a market, filled with many small players, each of which do what they do to maximize their own share. Each player has only a small degree of influence, so they can’t get more than they deserve. Now, think about the real world, and how there is only one or a few big players in practically every industry that matters. Think smaller; think about how many people in the world are poorer or less able than you, but want and arguably deserve the same things. Still think the “invisible hand” theory works?

But not many people think about that, so they blissfully go through life acting on only their own interests, and their individual actions add up. I think this mentality is too prevalent nowadays, so if your life’s calling is to be a selfish jerk, you’re out of luck. There really is no vacancy, and there are way too many of you already. I admit, I have no solid basis for that assertion; to my knowledge, there is no census counting the number of terrible people in the world. But frankly, I don’t want to be the guy to start the tally.

"Hello! I'd like to ask you a few questions to determine if you fall within the 90th percentile of terrible people in the world."
“Hello! Are you a pitiful excuse for a human being?”

4. Life Can Be Terrible Enough

Life can suck. People die, people get sick, children don’t get an education, families starve, and cities are devastated by storms, earthquakes, or tsunamis. It’s a big, steaming pile of unfairness, sure. But a lot of it is just random. Natural calamities and tragedies are not mustache-twirling villains wearing capes and stovepipe hats; they just strike, and they have no judgment over whom they affect.

So we can all agree that life has plenty of levers and tools at its disposal to blindly bring people to their knees. Given that, we can also probably agree that there’s no need to add to the frustration by being emotional vampires or unfeeling, uncaring robots in human form. People have bad days; bad days can sometimes lead to bad months or bad years. Does anybody really want to be that guy who kicks someone who’s down?

I’m not saying everybody has to be loving. Nobody has to really care about anybody they don’t care about, because some people just aren’t built for it. Some people are just born with a limited ability to accommodate and dispense compassion, and that’s fine, I suppose. So in consideration for those people, I think the only minimum requirement for this world to be a good place is for people to not be a jerk.

But I’d also suggest that, even once in a while, we try to go the extra mile and be good as opposed to just being decent or civil. Because…

5. Being Good Just Might Feel Good

Let me tell you something: one of my favorite movies is “It Could Happen To You”, starring Nicolas Cage and Bridget Fonda. The basic setup is that Cage is a small-time New York city cop, while Fonda is a waitress. Cage buys a lottery ticket for himself and his wife; finding himself short of money to give Fonda a tip, he offers instead to give her half of what the ticket would win in the lottery. Fonda, on a lark, accepts the offer. My favorite sequence in the movie is shown in the video below (it’s around 13 minutes long):

When Cage has to decide whether he should go back on his promise to  Fonda, he says that “it’s not the right thing”. His wife is understandably unhappy, and doesn’t want to split the money with a stranger, even though it was promised. Cage does all he honestly can to get out of his bargain with Fonda, but when he realizes that there’s no way he can get out of making good, he actually seems relieved to be doing what he believes to be the right thing–crazy, but right. That part gets me every time.

Now, I know it’s just a movie, and not the most realistic movie at that. It’s idealistic and sappy, and even though it’s based on a true story, it’s not what really happened. Even if it were, the chances of the same thing happening to anybody is infinitesimally small. So if it happened to me, I don’t know if I will ever have the strength to make that kind of decision, and make it happily.

But what if I could? What if there were some way that I could do something amazing for another person by making an unconventional choice? What if I could prove that I could think and act beyond my own interests? I think if I had the chance to be that kind of different, I’d feel tons better about myself as a person. And I think a lot of people would feel the same.

"Not an ass! Thank God almighty, I'm not an ass!"
“Not an ass! Thank God almighty; I’m not an ass!”

What are some of the reasons/excuses/stories you tell yourself to refrain from being a jerk? What are some of your most hated examples of jerkitude? What are some of your favorite examples (factual or fictional) of being a good person? Feel free to share by commenting below.

Action vs. Caution

A lot of the time, I think about opportunity cost. But I don’t think of it in the context of “What am I doing now, and what else could I be doing now that would be better?” I think of it in the context of “What am I doing now, and how could I best do it so that my future self experiences as little stress as possible?”

Case in point: recently, there have been heavy rains every night in Metro Manila. This has led to extremely heavy traffic. How heavy? Well, during the week from September 29 to October 3, it was difficult to get a ride for three nights. Three nights ago was the worst; I normally take one jeepney ride and one bus ride to get to my job on the night shift. That night, though, it was impossible. I started walking from my house, and I just kept walking, hoping to find a chance to get a ride along the way.

Not one chance presented itself. The only things I saw were people desperately waiting for a ride or lining up to get a train.

Next thing I knew, I had walked all the way from my house to my office, sixteen minutes late. If I’d waited for a ride, the trip would probably have taken four or five hours, one or two hours late for my shift.

So on Saturday night, it was raining heavily again. Early Sunday morning, I was due to join a half-marathon run, one that I’d been looking forward to for a couple of months.

The last few nights played over and over in my head. Rain, traffic, a mass of humanity cursing, vehicles stuck on roads and in floods. The possibility of those same scenes recurring crossed my mind, did a one-eighty turn, came back, and struck a pose, staying in the limelight, like those models on those fashion shows working the runway. The possible repercussions–missing the gun start due to traffic, or getting sick from running in the rain–followed, like models wearing different outfits with the same basic concept. Remember that scene from Zoolander, where Mugatu was presenting his “Derelicte” line of clothing? I’m thinking the theme here was “Pessimiste” or “Floodstruck” or something.

The outfits were made from debris sifted from Metro Manila floodwaters. Rags 2 Riches has some competition, it seems.

So I texted my girlfriend saying I might not run the race the next day. I was seeing the past nights’ apocalypse pulling an encore, and I didn’t want to risk it. Reasonably, she said that there were hours to go, and the floods and traffic would probably have subsided by then.

This isn’t the first time I’ve played Negative Neville to her Positive Patricia. But this was different. This was a situation where, in the very back of my mind, I knew what I really wanted: I wanted to run. I wanted to pit myself against myself. I wanted to go the distance, and see how hard I could push myself doing it. I was no masochist, but I wanted to hear my body screaming at me, saying that it had nothing left, and hear my mind negotiate for it to pull out a little more, burning every possible fuel to get to the end. I wanted to get the medal. Heck, I even wanted the drawstring knapsack that I probably will never use more than twice a year.

I wanted all of it. And for me to get it, I had to think positive.

So I was torn; should I stick to my defensively pessimistic default? Or should I take the old positivity out of the psychological closet, shake the dust off it, and try it on for size?

I always put on a suit when I weigh alternatives. Businessmen make better decisions than normal folk, right?

And that’s when it hit me: to be safe, I always erred on the side of caution. But no matter how you slice it or dress it up, an error is still an error. If I made the call not to go, I could miss a chance I desperately wanted to seize… a chance that, at the moment, was not totally inaccessible to me. It was just my brain in the way, painting a grim future that wasn’t determined yet.

So I texted back, told her that she was right, and started preparing for the race.


Epilogue: Things weren’t as bad as I thought they’d be on race day; no rain, no floods, no heavy traffic or gridlock. The grounds we had to go to to get freebies and take photos after the run were a little muddy, but it was fine. I didn’t get a new record (it was only my second official half-marathon, to be fair), but I was satisfied. And I am excited for my next official run. 🙂