I’m continuing to update my thinking about the philosophy / social change project I’ve been writing and talking to people about. I just finished re-articulating to myself what I’m trying to do, and I’d like to share it:
I want to increase the amount of joy in the universe. That is the goal of this project. More specifically, I want to develop a practical understanding of how to help people achieve a state of bliss, and moreover a scalable understanding: I want a series of techniques that can create exponential growth of happiness across the world. My vision is a universe where a life of fulfillment and joy is the status quo for a new person being born, anywhere in the world.
I see this project as falling under the discipline of engineering. I am interested in psychological or cognitive research insofar as accurate understanding of the world is important to the project’s success, but I’m more interested in achieving results than I am in obtaining knowledge. If I find something that works, and I can’t quite explain why it works, so be it. I also see this project as somewhat philosophical, because I believe that achieving the goal will require a strong theory of what happiness is: but again, the point of the theory is to yield results, not the other way around.
Here’s what I mean by joy: an intense gratitude to be alive, combined with a heightened awareness of experience. When I think of joy, I imagine myself 80 years old on my death bed, looking back on my life and facing death with perfect calm because I know that I lived my life to the fullest and I don’t have any regrets or unfinished business. In fact, I don’t even need to pretend I’m 80: right now, in this moment, if I died, would I be thinking “wait wait no I didn’t…” or would I be full of positive emotion, appreciative for the time I’ve had even though there’s more stuff I could do with more time.
I believe joy is a process of continually emptying ourselves of our desires, externalizing them into the world. It is a stream of wanting, acting, and experiencing the results, wanting more, acting further, and again experiencing. We fill with desire; we flush ourselves of it by courageously pursuing it; we experience the blissful calm of emptiness, and into that void we fill with desire once again. Each time through the loop, we grow as people, losing our old selves and gaining ourselves anew.
The fundamental prerequisite for joy is the belief that there is effective action we can take to realize our desires. I think that most unhappiness in the world comes from believing the opposite, that we are powerless to take effective action. This powerlessness creates a stagnation in the process of emptying ourselves of desire: unfulfilled dreams curdle inside of us, and we lose touch with basic experience because our minds are full of stale thoughts. We imagine fantasies, but because we never experience them, we don’t grow past them, but keep experiencing the same mental movies over and over. Instead of feeding ourselves on the richness of new experience, we gnaw on sawdust.
For much of human history, and still today in many parts of the world, the objective circumstances were such that for most people, only extraordinary skill could yield effective results: most people were lucky to eke by and survive. A sense of powerlessness was in fact realistic for most people. I suspect that the Eastern tradition of viewing the goal of life to be emptying oneself of desire arose as a synthesis of two recognitions: that the source of all misery was unrealized desire, and that for the average person, realization of desire was impossible.
I believe that for the industrialized world, we are in a historical position to move beyond that compromise philosophy. Although we still live with pain, sickness, and loss, we do live in a world where the potential for positive experience is such that the ups can match the downs. There’s enough adventure, pleasure, love and beauty to be had in the world that a life of seeking fulfillment isn’t doomed to perpetual frustration.
I see the biggest obstacles today as psychological rather than material. We have material freedom: for most of us, having a roof over our heads and food on the table may sometimes be a struggle but is by and large achievable. However, we don’t always have psychological freedom: we don’t always believe in our ability to get what we want, or even always know what we want. Even though our objective circumstances are those of safety and material wealth, our minds are often still run by fear.
To some degree, this is a result of the process of industrialization itself. Although it achieved massive material wealth, it isn’t conducive to psychological freedom. Rather, the logic of mass production runs to uniformity: the more elements in a system are the same, the easier it is. We can see the results of that thinking in our educational system, which marches students forward through the grades like widgets on a conveyor belt, testing them at regular intervals to establish quality and then shipping them off to appropriate destinations. We can also see that thinking in the 9 – 5 treadmill of ranks, promotions, three weeks of vacation a year and eventual retirement and pension.
Freedom and joy, on the other hand, are individual. We all want different things: free-minded, joyful people explode in their diversity. The essence of freedom is lack of fear, the knowledge that you can take risks and do what you want without getting kicked out of the system. Happy people don’t all wear the exact same tie.
The truly great gift we have, which I am personally very grateful for, is that the economic imperative in our society is transitioning from uniformity to creative diversity. The biggest business challenges are no longer “how do we produce more stuff”, but “what kind of stuff should we produce”? Design, innovative research, and entrepreneurship are becoming increasingly important. The new millionaires are people like Steve Jobs: people who can work with desire and bring a vision to life. We are a fortuitious moment in history where I believe what is needed for joy aligns well with what is needed for economic prosperity. This is the time to create a world where people are happy: we are in a place where I think a society based on happiness can actually work.
So, my vision is a world where joy is a birthright, not a rare occurence. My guiding assumption is that building this world is a practical goal. My hypothesis is that the biggest current obstacle is that society still trains people counterproductively, and that working together we can re-train ourselves to become proficient at achieving our desires, to believe we’re capable of getting what we want out of life and to take effective action to make it happen.