I was having dinner one evening with a musician who played keyboards in a beat group for a living. We were talking about writing music and so on. I told him that one of my favourite songs of theirs was entitled ‘What Do You Want From Life?’ This is the final verse: ‘What do you want from life – someone to love and somebody that you can trust? What do you want from life – to try and be happy while you do the nasty things you must?’ This song also has the funniest last line of any ever written; but we’ll not go there until we get to know each other better . . .
Happiness or contentment – what do you want from life?
So, what do you want from life? I never really knew myself – not for the first 35 years anyhow. Then things got a little clearer, but not so as I truly understood my intuited, yet still opaque goal. At the time I was in business, but weirdly, it wasn’t to make pots of money; which was just as well. I sort of stumbled, through chance and necessity, into the commercial world. It was almost as if by accident, more than by intelligent design on my part. Thinking back, it was a bit like Eccles sense of things when Seagoon asked of him ‘What are you doing here?’ Eccles replied: ‘Everybody’s got to be somewhere’.
It seems that when asked what it is that we want from life, most of us end up including the notion of happiness in our response. That is, if we’re not merely content, as Eccles apparently was, to simply ‘be somewhere’. Happiness is a perfectly reasonable, pretty desirable objective – it would be perverse to reject it were it to be readily attainable. And it frequently is of course, even if only in glimpses – the smile of our children, a canopy of a brilliant blue sky, laughter amongst friends, a fulfilling relationship, or the accomplishment of some important objective perhaps. Yes, we all want some happiness from life.
So what’s the problem with happiness; isn’t it all we need?
Happiness has an aspect of pleasure within it, an aspect of gratification, of joy and a partial if fleeting sense of contentment. In so far as it goes – meaning in so long as it endures – there’s little more we could want in terms of a felt emotion, a felt reality. So what’s the problem with thinking happiness is all we need; why would we want anything more from life? Because it ends. Happiness is transient; it’s also a little dubious in terms of its subjective appreciation. Am I happy? – ‘well, fairly, yes, I think so, pretty happy overall; can’t complain’. You see what I mean? It’s not so obvious an emotion; it has levels to it; we want it, but even when we have it we don’t want it to end; yet it always does.
So my take on things, and the reason I work on this site and write elsewhere, is because this answer isn’t really sufficient, accurate or revealing – my take on things is that what we want from life is something beyond a transient and constrained feeling of happiness. What we want, beyond as the song suggested, someone to love and somebody that we can trust, and beyond trying to be happy while we ‘do the nasty things’ we must, is this: What we want from life is to be free of want altogether, to be free of a constant struggle for all transient and ephemeral forms of reward.
To be free of striving and want is fulfilment itself; it’s to rest content
Behind all the self-interested striving, and the vaguely conceived, frequently misguided ambitions for fulfilment, what we want is to rest content in what is. It’s that simple. We want to be free of striving and to rest in acceptance of things just as they are, in a full appreciation that this too will change regardless of our needs, our egocentric desires and aversions. This isn’t giving up; it isn’t a surrendering into a submissive acquiescence. It’s just our own innate wisdom knowing that all the narrow and self-interested fabrications of our minds are never going to prove fulfilling in any ultimate sense.
Perhaps you disagree? If so, post a comment and tell me how my analysis is incomplete. I’m open to persuasion, but only if I can validate matters in my own life, from personal, direct experience. My own take on these things was formed after decades of enquiring into this question. This doesn’t mean I regard those views as unimpeachable; so feel free to question and to respectfully criticise; perhaps together we can learn from each other? There’s no absolute authority presumed on my part whatsoever; I’ve no desire for that in the least. What would be good though is discussion; polite exchange – because this question is very important when you think about it.
When life shakes us up, we’re forced to ask the vital questions
I left the restaurant with the musician, and we drove off to a factory in Sunnyvale near San Jose. We were going to look at a new keyboard synthesiser that a friend had designed and was about to go into production with. It was a bright and sunny day, the mood was carefree and we chatted idly. Amongst the back and forth I was asked, somewhat predictably ‘so, what do you want from life Hariod?’ It felt like a tremor deep within me; it was obvious I hadn’t a clue. As we arrived at our friend’s place, a powerful earthquake struck. It was centred at Livermore some 30 miles away to the North-East, yet it made the telegraph poles sway alarmingly around us. I felt queasy for the rest of the afternoon. The ground I stood upon had shifted; it wasn’t as firm as I’d thought . . .