May 17, 2004

Peaks and Valleys

I want to talk about the most important misunderstanding most people have: Most people think that happiness is a peak experience. A peak experience, as I mean it, is an experience that gives rise to strong emotions, whether positive or negative – the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, danger, falling in love, etc. People who are not happy (this, I think, includes most westerners) assume that happiness should be the ultimate peak experience. Many of them feel this way because they find their lives boring, which seems like the opposite of a peak experience. The impression is reinforced by the media, which has trouble depicting happiness, but no trouble depicting peak experiences. (Indeed, a characteristic of the evolution of the media, even during my own lifetime, is an increasing emphasis on increasingly extreme peak experiences.)

Happiness, however, is a valley experience. It is not a feeling of euphoria, but more like a feeling of peace. In fact, I might characterize it even more mundanely as a feeling of at-home-ness. To one who has never experienced it, it sounds like happiness is demotivating, but the opposite is true. It is a kind of flavor-enhancer to life. It enables you to feel peak experiences all the more. Unhappy people often seek out increasingly extreme peak experiences – because they can’t fully feel their peaks (this, I believe, is origin of bizarre sex practices, for instance), and don’t really enjoy their experiences.

The way to achieve happiness is to feel with certainty that your life has meaning. In our tribal past this was easy – your life was dedicated to the tribe, and this gave meaning to your life. In the modern world, you have to work harder. For some people, their family is enough – a kind of minimalist tribe. Others dedicate their lives to their country, or a good cause, or their job. All of these are worth something. Probably the more causes you have, the happier you will be – as long as they’re not cosmetic, i.e. they really are meaningful to you. However, in my opinion, while all well and good, these causes are but stepping-stones to the ultimate cause, and the source of meaning.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at May 17, 2004 04:31 PM
Comments & Trackbacks

I think you've overlooked something in your ideas on human happiness, focussing on what may be common to all people in terms of the spiritual wellbeing to be gained in belonging to something greater than oneself. Individual personality must be reckoned with as well: if you don't come to know your own exhilarating strengths, you will continually feel half-asleep, or worse. I have for years been steering away from fields like "interior decorator" because it doesn't jive with my value on doing something of spiritual significance, or at least of strong contribution to society. (The two are very close in my book.) There's a real snobbery issue here. The Ba'al Shem Tov says that when one is working at an occupation that G-d intended him for, in his uniqueness, then he is happy.

Posted by: admirer at May 21, 2004 06:11 AM Permalink

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