“Feelings are the currency of the human experience.”
…You could say that the pursuit of happiness ultimately drives everything we do, no matter how dumb those things are. This is a peculiar fact of life for our species: well-being is what we all want and need, yet it’s so delicate and fickle and overall we are embarassingly bad at achieving it.
At first thought it may be hard to believe that people can do terrible and self-destructive things in the name of happiness. Nearly everything we do can be attributed to a desire for feelings of either security, power, or sense gratification, all of which our bodies and minds tell us are the ingredients to happiness.
These three motives stem from the most basic and ancient parts of our brains — they are what promises a creature its best chance of survival and prosperity. They tend to trump everything else, and the behavior it creates is often so unconscious that we don’t realize quite what it is we’re after. Logic can’t compete with these drives, not without some serious internal work — self examination and practice, which are both still bafflingly underrated as tools for cultivating a richer life.
And so people do the stupidest things in the pursuit of happiness. Buy homes they can’t afford. Get into dangerous relationships. Spend thousands at Starbucks. Hoard so much useless junk in their garage that that can’t even put their car inside. Rob convenience stores. Blow up synagogues. Go to law school when they don’t want to. Drink and drive. Order the same thing on the menu every time. Fight people at drinking establishments. Go on Dr Phil. Let talents stagnate and dry up. Amass insurmountible debt. Live exactly like their parents did, and shame others for being different.
It’s so bizarre that we all have this single common interest, to find well-being, and that we spend so little time actually talking about it. You would think our schools would teach it.
We don’t, and it’s probably because we think we already know how to find happiness, which usually involves acquiring something we don’t have. More money, better security, more affection. In other words, we think happiness is created by making some kind of change in the material world. Putting something into our possession, eliminating a threat, seizing control of something.
The mistake we make is that we confuse what we want with symbols of what we want. We human beings seem to be the first animal capable of abstraction, and we make great use of symbols. Certain events come to promise feelings of freedom, like when you leave the office on a Friday, or when someone else says they’ll take a project off your hands. Some events represent feelings of worth, like when everyone laughs at your joke, or when your crush flirts with you.
We have a way of evaluating everything that happens, and every possession we acquire, in terms of what feelings we believe are promised by a given thing or event. The material event and the feelings that event represents are not the same thing. But we forget that all the time.
All we ever seek, and all we ever avoid are feelings. Feelings run the world. They constitute the only useful product of all material transactions between humans and their environment. Just like your body can’t use the food it eats for energy until it’s turned to glucose, we can’t really make use of the things we seek until they deliver certain feelings. Feelings are the currency of human experience. They are the only real incentive.
I seek money, because some part of me knows that with it I can buy things and do things that will deliver feelings of joy, security, wonder, or freedom. I want those feelings and so I often think it is actually the money that I want.
I avoid traffic jams, because some part of me knows that they will deliver feelings of frustration. It’s really feelings of frustration I want to avoid, but often think that a big expanse of slowly moving cars is itself a terrible thing.
If I’m not conscious of what material thing is symbolizing what feeling in my mind, then I run the risk of mistaking the material thing to be what I actually want, or what I want to avoid.