There are many immortal words in the U.S. constitution. This country was formed on the bedrock principles of guaranteeing all its people life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Any civil society or even the most progressive government can only guarantee life and liberty but not happiness.
Happiness is an entirely personal and internal feeling, integral to satisfactory human life. It does not have a guaranteed correlation to external factors, or to all liberties that a nation can provide its citizenry. You see, the framers of U.S. constitution were smart. They only guaranteed the freedom to pursue happiness, not happiness itself.
The pursuit is where the fun and the misery both reside.
True happiness is so elusive that over centuries of human existence, philosophers mused over it, authors of poetry and prose eulogized it, rulers tried to capture it by force, rich people tried to buy it, philanthropists tried to find it in charity, and lovers tried to find it in their paramours.
None of that gave permanent happiness, and many such pursuits came with huge human and financial costs.
Then came the realization to look inward. This is the direction the world’s Eastern philosophies went and struck spiritual “gold”.
The true saints, mystics and philosophers of the world realized that real, lasting happiness does not come from material objects or even relationships (beyond a point). All material objects and even human relationships are expectation-dependent. In other words, there is an expectation (either clear or subtle) from you – in the form of either a financial or emotional payback. These expectations also suffer from the curse of marginal utility.
True happiness, as the Eastern spiritualists discovered, is independent of external factors and even inter-personal relationships. It is a sublime state of being, an existential sanctuary that derives its permanency because of inner strength and deep consciousness. It doesn’t judge, it doesn’t wane and it doesn’t place expectations on things or people around you. Even charitable giving, while it can lead to happiness to the giver, is still ephemeral as nobody can continuously remain charitable every waking moment of their lives.
This kind of happiness is the purest form in my view. It takes years of honest self-reflection, a healthy detachment from material things and even relationships. This doesn’t mean you leave the people around you! Rather, you detach yourself from your own expectations of people around you, including those you love. It is a subtler form of self-realization that keeps you happy at the core, amidst the cacophony of modern life and all its trappings.
Such an innate happiness remains constant regardless of whether you had your favorite cafe latte yesterday but could only get a glass of water today. It is a happiness that remains whether you were able to run for a mile under 4 minutes yesterday but you are struggling to even stand up today, after a sudden bout of disease. It is a happiness that remains whether your investment portfolio zoomed 30% last year or went down 40% this year. This is the type of happiness that truly makes you appreciate the concept of ENOUGH.
True happiness is not to be confused with pride that comes with professional success, and even achievement of financial independence. These markers of financial success come with their own trappings, sowing the seeds of future discontent. Professional success is also subject to the same concept of marginal utility. Being promoted as a manager feels good only for a short while as you angle the corner office of your boss sitting in as a director.
The kind of true happiness I am talking about here comes after pondering that we are all here on a temporary journey that is sure to end one day. So, in the ultimate analysis, our material possessions, wealth or even our multitude of relationships don’t matter. What matters is how happy you are regardless of what life throws at you. This can come from accomplishing a life’s work that is beyond your self.
This isn’t some esoteric philosophy. This is entirely practical because financial independence and early retirement (FIRE), which this website and several others like me cover, is ultimately about what gives us happiness. To the extent that we make our happiness less dependent on the wide swings in financial, health, life and relationship issues that most of us have to deal with, better our life will be.
Spirituality offers a pathway to this kind of happiness, but beware! Even spirituality has its share of charlatans. The spirituality ‘industry’ that touts happiness as its main product exploits human vulnerabilities at challenging moments of life for their selfish material profits. They promise so much happiness, and yet they deliver so little. Besides, they are also slaves to the material things they expect from you, in return for so-called spiritual guidance they offer. True happiness is, therefore, not to be expected from the preachers or priests, as they are living in the same world that you and I are living in, exposed to all of life’s challenges and temptations.
We cannot control what life throws at us. But what we can control is how we react to it. That’s what true happiness is all about. Nothing external should disturb who we are and how happy we choose to feel. We all need to realize this truth at our very core of our being. That’s the journey and the destination.
The pursuit ends here.
Raman Venkatesh is the founder of Ten Factorial Rocks. Raman is a ‘Gen X’ corporate executive in his mid 40’s. In addition to having a Ph.D. in engineering, he has worked in almost all continents of the world. Ten Factorial Rocks (TFR) was created to chronicle his journey towards retirement while sharing his views on the absurdities and pitfalls along the way. The name was taken from the mathematical function 10! (ten factorial) which is equal to 10 x 9 x 8 x 7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 = 3,628,800.