He definitely thought nobody was around, but the four of us could see his self-consciousness from across the lot even before he parked. He pulled up, popped the trunk, and left the engine running.
He was about five feet tall. From our distance he looked like a sweater with a beard. Using a plastic snowshovel he produced from somewhere, he started to scoop into his trunk fresh topsoil from the bathtub-sized planters on the boulevard.
It took me a moment to realize that what we were watching unfold was the premeditated theft of quality dirt. The planters had been topped up by the community centre maintenence guy earlier in the day. He had waited until it was dark.
“Who steals dirt?” my friend asked loudly to nobody in particular.
The bearded man paused, then with a conspicuous absence of haste, placed the shovel in the trunk and slowly drove away as if nothing had happened, even though the trunk was still open. We watched him continue down the block away from us, trunk gaping. He made a complete stop at the stop sign — a rare thing to see, at any time — making full use of his turn signals, and disappeared while we laughed.
For a moment I felt an odd hit of guilt, because we had spoiled his plan. Even though it was a stupid, selfish plan, I recognized that he was just trying to improve his position in life in some tiny way, and that’s what he came up with. Driving away like a fool with the trunk open while we laughed at him was a byproduct of a tiny thread of his overall life’s work — his own personal pursuit of happiness.
You could say that the pursuit of happiness ultimately drives everything we do, no matter how dumb those things are. This is a peculiar fact of life for our species: well-being is what we all want and need, yet it’s so delicate and fickle and overall we are embarassingly bad at achieving it.
At first thought it may be hard to believe that people can do terrible and self-destructive things in the name of happiness. Nearly everything we do can be attributed to a desire for feelings of either security, power, or sense gratification, all of which our bodies and minds tell us are the ingredients to happiness.
These three motives stem from the most basic and ancient parts of our brains — they are what promises a creature its best chance of survival and prosperity. They tend to trump everything else, and the behavior it creates is often so unconscious that we don’t realize quite what it is we’re after. Logic can’t compete with these drives, not without some serious internal work — self examination and practice, which are both still bafflingly underrated as tools for cultivating a richer life.
And so people do the stupidest things in the pursuit of happiness. Buy homes they can’t afford. Get into dangerous relationships. Spend thousands at Starbucks. Hoard so much useless junk in their garage that that can’t even put their car inside. Rob convenience stores. Blow up synagogues. Go to law school when they don’t want to. Drink and drive. Order the same thing on the menu every time. Fight people at drinking establishments. Go on Dr Phil. Let talents stagnate and dry up. Amass insurmountible debt. Live exactly like their parents did, and shame others for being different.
It’s so bizarre that we all have this single common interest, to find well-being, and that we spend so little time actually talking about it. You would think our schools would teach it.
We don’t, and it’s probably because we think we already know how to find happiness, which usually involves acquiring something we don’t have. More money, better security, more affection. In other words, we think happiness is created by making some kind of change in the material world. Putting something into our possession, eliminating a threat, seizing control of something.
The mistake we make is that we confuse what we want with symbols of what we want. We human beings seem to be the first animal capable of abstraction, and we make great use of symbols. Certain events come to promise feelings of freedom, like when you leave the office on a Friday, or when someone else says they’ll take a project off your hands. Some events represent feelings of worth, like when everyone laughs at your joke, or when your crush flirts with you.
We have a way of evaluating everything that happens, and every possession we acquire, in terms of what feelings we believe are promised by a given thing or event. The material event and the feelings that event represents are not the same thing. But we forget that all the time.
All we ever seek, and all we ever avoid are feelings. Feelings run the world. They constitute the only useful product of all material transactions between humans and their environment. Just like your body can’t use the food it eats for energy until it’s turned to glucose, we can’t really make use of the things we seek until they deliver certain feelings. Feelings are the currency of human experience. They are the only real incentive.
I seek money, because some part of me knows that with it I can buy things and do things that will deliver feelings of joy, security, wonder, or freedom. I want those feelings and so I often think it is actually the money that I want.
I avoid traffic jams, because some part of me knows that they will deliver feelings of frustration. It’s really feelings of frustration I want to avoid, but often think that a big expanse of slowly moving cars is itself a terrible thing.
If I’m not conscious of what material thing is symbolizing what feeling in my mind, then I run the risk of mistaking the material thing to be what I actually want, or what I want to avoid.
The dysfunctional hoarder you see on television has lost track of what she wants. She’s trying to hoard feelings of safety from the guilt she feels when she wastes things. Her stuff symbolizes that feeling of security to her, and so she sleeps on a patch of futon that she clears magazines from each night.
The terrorist who bombs the synagogue is trying to blow up his feelings of frustration and powerlessness over living in an occupied territory. He believes he’ll find the catharsis he needs by doing this.
The overextended husband who buys too much house thinks he is actually buying relief from the shame he feels about having grown up poor. He won’t get that relief, and he will pay dearly for trying. He thinks the house is what he wants.
All terrible decisions, made ultimately in the pursuit of happiness.
Every horrible story in your newspaper is somebody seeking a feeling they think will bring them closer to happiness — or more often, take them farther from unhappiness. They don’t realize it’s feelings they’re seeking though. They believe that a particular change in the material world is what they want. A bigger car. A life insurance settlement. A law degree. A dead mistress. A trunkful of free topsoil.
Why are we so prone to this mistake? Because we’ve been given a powerful tool that we don’t know how to use yet. We’re millions of years of reptile brain wrapped in a thin layer of abstraction and intuition and reason. It’s a poweful setup but we’re still working out techniques. That’s why there’s never been a shortage of philosophers trying to break it all down, arguing about the best way to live.
Some ways are better than others, definitely. We can’t help but stumble upon a few of them while we’re out and about in the world, even if we have no plan at all. But in the mean time you’ll be doing better than 90% of the pack if you make a habit of thinking about what feelings you’re actually seeking when you feel like you want a thing. What you want is never a thing.