I've said it before, but I'll say it again: I wouldn't give a rat's moustache about finding love if I didn't think it would lead me to happiness and contentment. And yet, at the beginning of this year, I began to question that assumption. How is any other human being going to suddenly snap his fingers and make me happy, if, in the darkest depths of my soul, I feel sad? How is any one else going to reach me there? Since then, I've been spending a lot less time looking for a relationship, and a lot more time trying to make myself happier. (Admittedly, I haven't been working on the darkest depths of my soul so much as on home decor: The biggest step I've taken toward making myself happier was moving to a new apartment in a great part of town on the first of the month. It was a very good thing.)
Given all this, I was intrigued when I read about a new book, Podcasts: The Ancients' Guide to Modern Living. Written by Mark Vernon, it's about how the philosophy of the ancient wise guys can help us live happier, more fulfilling lives in the here and now. I got in touch with Mark and asked him if he'd channel Plato to give us 5 guidelines for life.
Here's what he had to say:
1. Don't focus on your "happiness." Instead, pursue what is most meaningful to you.
Fair enough. Because what the heck is happiness, any way? A warm, er, gun? A John Lennon song? A good meal? Pursuing pleasure all the time won't lead to happiness. What will, according to Mark, is focusing on activities that cause us to connect with other people; that help us feel we are progressing as individuals (and maybe even helping society move forward); and that help us to have a better understanding of who we are and what is most important and enjoyable to us. If you need more help determining what is meaningful to you, Mark has further advice: "Ask yourself ethical questions. Am I flourishing--and are others flourishing--because of what I'm doing with my life? What values are involved in the life I'm living? In what ways can my life be said to be good? These are tricky questions for us today, but according to Plato, there's no happiness unless you face them and come up with satisfactory answers."
2. Truly prioritize your life around what and who you love.
That means that if you're holding on to a job just because it pays you so much, but you hate what you're doing day in and day out ... maybe you should think twice about it. I'm not advising you to do anything rash, but I think people who take risks in order to do what they feel most passionate about are generally much happier than people who are brooding every day, thinking about what kind of life might be had beyond the cave or, um, cubicle walls. (I myself worry about money from time to time--i.e. from one morning to the next to the next!--but I am so much happier being a freelance writer than I was when I was chained to a desk every day that I might just move to Mexico, if I run out of money, before signing up for another 9-to-5.) All the same, as Mark points out: "Many people would say their friends are the most important thing to them, even as they move to the other side of the world to take up a better-paying job." So, you know, if your job enables you to enjoy the time you have with your family, or to provide for them; if it enables you to work with interesting, smart, caring people ... maybe you should think twice about giving it up.
3. Even if you aren't religious, seek out the spiritual in art, music, literature and architecture.
Mark points out: "Art and literature can be called spiritual because they are about stories and narratives--which speak to our humanity and enlarge it." I'd agree with that--and add that stories not only remind us that other people might be going through some of the same things we're going through; they also can broaden our understanding of other people, and of experiences we haven't yet lived. What's more, things of beauty--including the paintings of Van Gogh, the music of Arcade Fire, oceans, and great feats of architecture from the Brooklyn Bridge to the Parthenon in Athens--can remind us of the majesty of the world we live in. In a way that is emotional rather than intellectual, they can give us hope.
(I can't tell you how much my quality of life--and my spirit--has improved now that, thanks to my new location, I can jog along the Brooklyn waterfront every evening, and catch the sunset!)
4. Pain and struggle are not necessarily bad--and might be very good.
"Ask any parent: the agony of raising children is usually, at base, meaningful agony," says Mark. And I'd paraphrase Nietzsche here, by saying that which does not kill you could make for a very interesting memoir. So, you know: It's the toughest experiences that help us learn the most about ourselves, the world and how to survive.
Hang in there, folks.
And let me know if you like these tips. Do you feel like it's all a lot easier said than done?