I have some idea of what I want from life, at least in general terms. It is, however, one thing to have a thought, and another entirely to describe that vision to others. What follows is my best attempt. There will be lists, there must be buzzwords, and it shan’t be short.
It is worth noting, before continuing, that I am not a psychologist, nor a sociologist, nor an individual of particularly noteworthy intelligence. I am just a guy who, clichéd as it may be, wants to make the world a little better while I’m here.
In thinking through what you want to contribute to or change in the world, a good place to start is with a problem that you see. Hopefully I can convincingly work my way up from there. Here goes.
A Glimpse of My Tertiary Education and the State of Society
A deep dive into the recesses of my brain yields a few concepts recalled from Psych 101:
- The theory that, from the perspective of an infant, any person that leaves their sight ceases to exist. A horrifying thought.
- Researchers have unfair expectations vis-à-vis distributing free snacks.
- This little diagram:
Or the updated version.
I can’t recall the source, regrettably, but I have heard the bottom rungs of Maslow’s Hierarchy referred to as “living”, in contrast with the top levels, which are “living a good life”. This is the distinction I want to make the focus of this post, as well as how I live my life.
By many metrics, the world is better off than ever: violence is down, literacy is up, and ice cream is widely available. There are, of course, many people around the world struggling to have these lowest needs met, and we must do everything in our power to eliminate this. But for many, if not most of us, our basic needs our secured, and we have the ability to move onto that next stage.
So why do many of us feel unhappy, overwhelmed and unfulfilled? Being from the United States, I’ve heard a great many theories, but I have an unsubstantiated hot take, if you’re looking for one.
From Feeling Full to Feeling Fulfilled
Life is, at once, the greatest and most bewildering gift we will ever receive. We have no idea why it was given to us or what to do with it. I believe this goes for everyone, regardless of religion or lack thereof. Philosophical and religious texts cover the big picture and ethics more than the day to day. At best, we have a treasure map with an “X”, but no landmarks for reference. At worst, “What map?” We are given the heavy machinery necessary to build a good life, but not the user’s manual to operate it. So where do we look for those answers?
Well, we figured out the base needs pretty quickly:
Rumbly in my tumbly. Eat this thing in the water – I’ll call it a fish. Done.
Why am I shivering? What if I cover myself in dirt? No dice. Furs? Now we’re cooking with twigs.
As time went on, we developed tools, and agriculture, and medicine. The more we progressed, the fewer people stuck in the lower rungs. But then we get hit with an existential question: Now what? When we have everything we need to survive what comes next? We know where to look to be filled but not fulfilled (Do you see it, what I did there?). So, naturally, we try to find it in different places.
We apply the same corporeal logic as we did with survival. We do what’s easy. Eating made me feel good, so I will eat until I’m stuffed. Sex feels great, I think I’ll have more of that. Alcohol, gambling, marathoning online cat videos, whatever your jam is. But then we realize these things are fleeting. The fires of ephemeral joy require unending stoking.
We use social metrics, specifically money, prestige, and power. Not the pleasure itself, but indirect measurements of our ability to pursue and acquire those pleasures. Have more, be more. But at a certain point we recognize that these are just proxies for fulfillment, and poor ones, at that. They might bring us marginal satisfaction, but the pursuit was hardly worth the trouble.
We look to others. Henry seems to be quite content, he’s got this life thing figured out. I’ll do exactly what Henry does. Henry likes to wear extravagant outfits and attend lavish parties, so I’ll give it a go. Turns out, I don’t much care for those things. Come to think of it, does he?
I don’t think this is particularly groundbreaking or controversial, just a bit of a bummer. I think if we considered it honestly, we’d admit that we have an obsession with acquiring stuff and comparing ourselves to others that has become a bit of a problem. This is not a complete denouncement of hedonistic pursuits or a “Down with capitalism!” rant. I take no issue with having nice things, and it is certainly acceptable to look to others for guidance on how to live. But how do we know when we have enough, and what do we do then? My point, and my theory, is that we are stuck in the mindset of “living a life”, not “living a good life”. We are using the basic needs approach for a higher needs pursuit, and it isn’t working.
Those base needs are universally satisfied. An apple satiates your hunger and mine. A fire warms us both. But the same aspects of life don’t bring us the same level of satisfaction. I love a good jigsaw puzzle, but the next person prefers to be at dance club. I’m a small town kind of guy, but you like big cities. Therein lies the rub; to move onto those higher needs, we have to throw out the playbook for the basic ones.
There is, perhaps, a best way to survive, but there is no one right way to live.
This was a long, roundabout way of saying that we are all looking for The Good Life, but sometimes our approach is less than ideal. We often pursue what is easy but temporary, or indirect and inauthentic. And, in our defense, that’s because the world isn’t really set up for us to go after that higher level. Fulfilling our basic needs is fairly obvious but our higher needs less so.
What to do, then?
We fall short of The Good Life because the world is just organized to keep us alive, not tell us how to live. So, obvious as it may sound, to fulfill this new level of needs, it falls on us to make our own manuals, and it’s going to take some work.