How to Maximize Your Happiness
A king encounters a peasant who has an empty bowl. Being the generous and gracious King that he is, he wants to help and asks the peasant what he desires.
The king is taken aback when the peasant doesn’t make a request. Instead, he makes a statement that shocks the king.
“There’s nothing you can do to fulfill my desires.”
Of course, the king knows this is wrong. He’s the king after all. With more resources than anybody in the entire kingdom, surely he can satisfy the wants of a lowly beggar. Already a big aggravated by the mere suggestions that he’s unable to satisfy the beggar, he presents a challenge.
“Nonsense! Wish for it and I will give it to you.”
The peasant tells the king to think twice about his decision. The confident King ignores his warning and orders the peasant to ask for what he wants.
The beggar has a simple request — fill the bowl.
First, the king has one of his assistants to fill the bowl with money. The money disappears and the bowl remains empty. The king orders the assistant to fill it with more…and more…and more…
Eventually, a crowd starts to form around the king and the peasant. Now the King is in front of a large crowd with his reputation on the line. The king throws more treasures into the bowl — jewels, golden coins, diamonds, everything.
Blinded by pride, the king eventually throws everything he owns into the bowl, to find it remains empty.
In a matter of moments, the King has thrown away everything he ever accumulated to build his kingdom. All his riches are gone. Demoralizes, he asks the peasant the secret behind this magical bowl.
The peasant replies:
“Simple. It’s filled with human desire.”
A rich entrepreneur is on vacation on an island. He sees this fisherman every single day who spends his days fishing for a few hours, then enjoys the rest of his day playing his guitar around a campfire and spending time with friends and family.
He sees this man fishing day after day. The fisherman is skilled. He catches a large batch almost every day, enough to feed the people in his village. The entrepreneur sees an opportunity and shares his idea with the fisherman.
He tells him that a few tweaks to his process could dramatically increase the amount of fish he catches. He tells him how he could grow his operation to procure more boats, hire more fishermen to work for him, and build an entire empire by bringing the fish to various markets, eventually being able to sell the operation for millions of dollars.
The fisherman asks him why he should want to do that. The entrepreneur explains to him just how lucrative the operation could be and all the benefits it can provide.
The fisherman asks “what’s next after that?”
He says “Then you would have all the free time you want to fish and spend time with your friends and family!”
I think of stories like these when ambition gets the best of me. Warren Buffet has a saying. “The key to a great marriage is low expectations.” He’s being a bit tongue and cheek, but there’s an underlying point he’s trying to make that’s true to the core.
Happiness is essentially your results minus your expectations. Maintaining a happy state of mind involves walking that tight rope between improving your life because it’s worthwhile and overexerting yourself for meaningless goals.
If you continue to accomplish more, but your expectations always rise, you’ll run on a treadmill of always needing more. This reminds me of another story about the authors Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller who were at a party in a mansion owned by some super-wealthy individual. Vonnegut tells Heller that the owner of the mansion made more money in one day than Heller made in this entire lifetime of his classic book Catch 22.
“Yes, but I have something he will never have — ENOUGH.”
How do you know when you have enough? How can you reach the point where you’re satisfied with your accomplishments?
It requires a delicate balance. I spend a bunch of time talking about ambition, desire, improvement, and productivity because you do derive a deep sense of meaning from going through the self-improvement process.
You get to scratch that itch and you no longer have to wonder what could’ve been. But, the accomplishments themselves won’t make you happy.
Money gets rid of your money problems, but it doesn’t solve your meaning problems. Status and validation feel good, but they’re fleeting feelings. Conquering the world gives you a brief bit of euphoria, but then you realize you either have nothing left to conquer or that you’ll have to go to even further lengths to conquer, entering territories that will cause you to have a pyrrhic victory — in the process of trying to acquire everything, you’ll lose everything.
The answer isn’t to have zero goals but to reframe the way you see those goals and keep them from fully attaching themselves to your identity.
“Ambition means tying your well-being to what other people say or do. Self-indulgence means tying it to the things that happen to you. Sanity means tying it to your own actions.” ― Marcus Aurelius.
I admit, I still find myself attached to outcomes, because I’m human, but I try to revert back to the things I value most like:
- Creativity — Any day I get to create something is a great day. When I write an article, shoot a video, give a talk, or sit alone with my notebook to come up with ideas, I feel most alive.
- Impact — I feel great when I’m able to have an impact on others. When people reach out to me and tell me how something I wrote or said in a speech inspired them, the feeling I get from it is irreplaceable.
- Knowing — Knowing that I followed through makes me happy regardless of the results. I crossed writing books off my bucket list. I’ve spoken on stage in front of 1,000 + people. I pushed past my comfort zone. There’s so much peace in not having to wonder “what if.”
The overarching theme I use to maximize my happiness is tying my well being to my effort, not the results.
Happiness comes from meeting expectations. If your expectations are about things you can’t control, you’ll suffer. I do suffer from this at times. If your expectations involve things you can control, you have control over your happiness.
Humans have both types of expectations. Unless you’re a hardcore Buddhist, you’re not going to remove your desire for the external completely.
Do your best to tip the scales toward expectations involving your actions, and the external outcomes you want usually come anyway as a result.
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