Living a meaningful and happy life seems like a lifelong struggle. Not only is it hard to define (What is happiness? When can we say we have become “happy?” Is it a constant state or a fleeting moment?) but once we have even the tiniest hint of what direction we should follow, the road there seems treacherous and very “unhappy-like.”
How can we take the reigns on the subject and really dig into what it means to live meaningfully?
By focusing on the medium by which we live: Experience.
“I’m sorry, we are just looking for someone with more experience in this industry.”
How many times have you heard that line or something like it, or even heard stories from friends that had to deal with it?
When we typically think of “experience” we think of it in this way: Experience as related to knowledge regarding some topic or area. We want more experience in our field and want to gain the expertise to handle all the tough situations that may come our way.
In short, we tend to think of experience as being gathered up, like points in a video game and once we reach enough experience we gain that level needed to progress to the next level (that managerial position).
While thinking of experience this way isn’t wrong, another aspect of experience is forgotten or ignored: Experience as a medium.
Swimming Through Daily Life
“Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as ‘chain’ or ‘train’ do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows. A ‘river’ or a ‘stream’ are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life.” ~ William James, The Principles of Psychology
Experiencing the world is an ongoing process, occurring when we are conscious. We don’t tend to think of sleeping as experiencing the world. It’s an active movement throughout daily life.
Our mind is constantly working to make sense of what is going on around us, solve problems, plan ahead, reflect, along with a multitude of other things.
What James’ point in this passage was that even if what is really going on is something else, it seems to us that things are moving along in this fashion. This seeming movement that we are conscious of is the medium of experience.
The seeming part is very important. What is happening around us and what we are experiencing can be two different things. If I misunderstand what someone says, my experience of the situation is skewed, just like if I have a debilitating mental illness it may interfere with my ability to see things in a correct manner.
Therefore, any talk of meaningful living and happiness must include a view of experience that allows for such things to exist.
If your view of the medium by which you live is lacking, your ability to live meaningfully is hindered.
Focusing On The Right Kinds Of Experience
According to this Scientific American article from Jun 11, 2015, people who tend to focus on using their money to seek experiences are happier than those who only seek out goods or items to buy.
This does tend to be an intuition of ours already. Travel sounds much more exotic and adventurous than buying the newest season of Game of Thrones off of Amazon, no matter how good the show it. But why is this so? Travel can cause such anxiety. Concerts are so loud. Going to a great dinner with friends really cuts into Netflix time.
The article hits the nail right on the head I think, right here:
Thomas D. Gilovich and his colleagues posits that the benefits may derive from the fact that experiences inherently involve more social relationships and tend to be more entwined with a person’s identity—there may a satisfaction in defining ourselves through doing.
Experiences are like a mirror sometimes. They show us our true selves, good or bad. Turns out I wasn’t quite as good at singing as I thought, a hard lesson taught by Karaoke Night.
They can show us just how unprepared we are to take some things on; just how much more we need to learn. But they also teach us great things about who we are. How we learn, how we think, how we feel about certain things and what kind of person we like being.
The really great experiences provide us with the emotional content necessary to connect who we are to the life we are living. Sometimes that identity doesn’t match up with what we are doing, but the light has been shed on the issue and we are more capable than before of making a change for the good.
While the article at SciAm focuses on money as the tool by which to gain some experiences, it’s not the only one we have.
Personal projects can also set you up for these kinds of great experiences, and money is not always a big issue with them. If you want to draw better grab some paper and pencils and get to work. Keep at it long enough and you will end up with something you can be proud of, the experience of creating something wonderful.
Experience is the medium by which we consciously move throughout the day and in the gathering of great experiences our identity is shaped. We find out who we are by getting out in the world and doing things. Merely gathering things does nothing for us in the long run, unless these things are the means by which greater experiences can be attained.
Don’t get me wrong, though. Merely going out and jumping at the chance to do everything without really digging into it is pointless. Sometimes you have to dive deep into the pool and hang out there for a bit, even if the pressure is causing your head to feel like its being smashed. Some of the greatest experiences are years in the making, small steps here and there. Bigger steps every once in a while.
Sprinkling in smaller experiences around truly great ones makes for great living, and while happiness might still be a muddled topic, at least we have a place to start.