This is probably the most pervasive question that has emerged during my journey towards happiness. How much of happiness really comes from within and how much of it comes from our current circumstances? Which aspect do we have more control over and which one is easier to change? Seasoned readers of philosophy might find this question trivial and say “of course happiness comes from within, all major contemplatives say that.” They might point to Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and eminent Stoic philosopher, who, according to the internet, has stated that “very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.” Similarly, the Buddha teaches that “Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.” And finally, another Asian luminary, Bruce Lee, urges us: “Do not pray for an easy life; pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.” I used to share their sentiments wholeheartedly, but I’m not so sure anymore. Let’s explore why!
First, why do most big philosophers emphasize that true happiness should be sought and cultivated within ourselves? Well, we have a lot more control over our inner world than the outer one. I’ll let Epictetus, another big name in Stoicism, do the work of giving examples: “Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.” So, according to him, we have (surely not perfect) control over things like which career we pursue, which partner we choose, and which healthy habits we build. We do not, however, have control over whether our chosen career will make us rich and respected, whether our partner will fulfill our needs, and whether our healthy habits will protect us from ever getting cancer. We surely have better chances of achieving our goals if we do the right things, but success is never guaranteed. Therefore, one should manage one’s expectations and be happy without the achievements in the outside world. As I wrote in my last entry on meditation, one should strive to be happy before anything happens.
Another big advantage, which many big contemplatives point out, is that the work you invested in developing your own character can hardly be taken away from you. With the exception of brain damage, the happy personality that you’ve built is yours and stays with you, no matter where you go. Worldly things on the other hand might not: Careers can end, beloved ones can leave you or die, one’s own body can get sick, reputations can be ruined, and houses burned down. One cannot count on them. One shouldn’t build one’s happiness on them. Especially, since our desires are bottomless pits. We’ll always find something to want and too often forget to appreciate what we already have (which for most people reading this is more than most other people on the planet have). I’ve described how the greatest achievements and most exciting experiences can leave one somewhat underwhelmed, if one isn’t able to truly focus on them and be there. And even if one is able to truly savor them, the joy will fade and one will be hungry for new pleasure. Like this, nothing will ever be good enough. And I know I’m not alone with this, because already Goethe’s Faust has experienced this fundamental conundrum. So, yeah, being that great sage, peaceful and content wherever he or she goes, would be great.
Why then have I started doubting this apparently obvious truth that happiness has to come from within (apart from skepticism being one of my two highest values, which, in conjunction with the other one, moderation, has never let me down)? Well, for one, changing oneself is pretty hard and takes a lot of time and energy. Should I really focus all my efforts inwards to develop a truly resilient and happy personality in what could take 10, 20, or 50 years? Also, our circumstances aren’t as brittle as some writers would want us to believe. Of course, great tragedies wait for all of us at some points in our lives, but they’re relatively rare. Beloved one’s don’t die every other week and houses don’t burn down on a regular basis. One could argue that it is much easier and safe enough to derive happiness from a meaningful job, loving relationships, and a comfy home than from tedious inward-focused wisdom work. This path, too, will take effort, time, and luck, but maybe they are better invested here. Additionally, in the case of a tragedy, we usually can cope. It may take months and years to recover from a major blow, but it rarely throws us completely off track.
So, eventually, what should we do with our lives: Change ourselves, as the philosophers advise, or change the world, as TED-talks and advertisements want us to? Luckily, we don’t have to pick a side. We have time and energy for both. But we don’t have the time and energy to fully engage in both. After all, every day has only 24 hours and every hour spent on meditation or on internalizing the Stoics will not be spent on our careers, on our health, or with our friends and family. But which ratio of sage to householder works best?
Frankly, I don’t know, but my best estimation would be two thirds sage and one third householder. I place higher emphasis on the sage side, because I do find the philosophers’ arguments very convincing and they came to their respective conclusions independently of each other. To me, their approach is like building a house with a very strong foundation, state-of-the-art insulation, and high energy efficiency. Yet, to make it a cozy home and not all about function and reason, there will be some cushions too many on the sofa, some nostalgic decoration here and there, and some ice cream in the freezer. After all, we’re human and we only live once. The pleasures of the householder have their place. The indulgences in work, relationships, sex, and play often give the energy to go to the next level in terms of self-improvement and wisdom. And if our co-workers and loved ones are on a similar path to happiness, one can share one’s insights, practice together, and remind each other of which lesson applies to the current situation. Similarly, the inward-focused wisdom work will benefit every aspect of our householder life by making us more kind, patient, loving, calm, focused, and confident.
In conclusion, changing ourselves towards happier and wiser personalities should be a priority in our lives. After all, it is much easier to change ourselves than to change everything and everyone around us. Additionally, the changes made stay with us wherever we go and enrich every aspect of our lives. Yet, I’m not entirely on board with Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, the Buddha, and Bruce Lee, and I would advise them to a little bit of moderation (I am aware of my hubris). A lot of happiness can be found outside of us and it’s worth investing in choosing and shaping our little corner of the world: At work, with friends and family, in romantic relationships, and on sofas with too many cushions and some ice cream.