Our modern culture is really bad at portraying a realistic philosophy of happiness. The picture it paints is founded on consumer-driven advertising and fictional movie portrayals of life. It tells us that happiness is hedonistic: becoming a multi-millionaire mega-consumer, having a private jet, living on a tropical beach with a cocktail in hand, and having zero life stress to upset the apple cart.
What utter crap.
After one month of living on a beach with a steady flow of Margaritas, you wouldn’t be happy. You’d be an alcoholic. Meanwhile all your friends would be running their busy lives back in the real world, oblivious to your sense of emotional isolation. Your days would become hollow and pointless, and you’d have nothing to talk about with your equally bored spouse.
That sounds like a recipe for depression to me. Aristotle knew this: pleasure isn’t the path to happiness. Pleasure could certainly form part of the picture, but it can’t meet all your physical and emotional needs.
Here’s Aristotle’s complete map to happiness:
So lavish consumption is not the single-minded answer to happiness. But what are these concepts of virtue and wisdom? Why are they so important in the pursuit of happiness? And how do we apply them today?
The big picture is really cool, but first we need to do a bit of modern day re-framing.
Consuming vs Producing
Every conscious activity you perform is either one of two things: consumption or production. You probably do a fair amount both every day to varying degrees, without defining them as such. But recognising when you’re producing and when you’re consuming is key to finding happiness.
Let’s examine daily life under this lens and you’ll see what I mean.
In Consumer Mode, you’re either shopping, or eating a meal, or watching TV, or generally doing little to improve the world around you. You’re taking.
We’re all consumers to some degree, there’s no doubt about that. We all buy essential items like food, clothes and housing, as well as luxury items like electronics, meals out and vacations. It makes the world go around because we live in a consumer economy. But the mode of luxury living is fundamentally hedonistic, capable of creating only temporary bursts of happiness (or if you’re really numb, temporary bursts of distraction from the background noise of life).
Once you’ve devoured the burger, or drained the box of beer, or returned from vacation, it’s all over. There’s no way for the satisfaction to survive in a visceral way, or contribute meaningfully to your long-term happiness. You have to do it again, and again, and again.
Yet our irrational culture has taught us to covet the all-consumer lifestyle, where the responsibilities of producing are left far behind. It tells us that consumption should be the totality of our life goals: that consuming alone will make us happy.
We know that’s not the solution. So let’s flip that coin and see what’s on the other side.
In Producer Mode, you’re either working on a project, or engaged in a creative hobby, or nurturing children, or volunteering to charity, or generally adding value to the world around you. You’re giving.
To fully appreciate the power of producing, let’s put aside crappy jobs for the moment. If you hate your job, you’re not going to see the benefits of being a producer. Instead, imagine a job you’d actually like to go do every day. Or if there’s no such thing in your mind, imagine a creative hobby and let’s pretend you get paid for that. Producing doesn’t necessarily mean you get paid for it – but when it does, that money empowers you to spend more time producing more value in the world.
Production is active, positive, and has long-lasting effects because it contributes value to the world, enriches you as an individual, and develops your sense of self simultaneously. Productivity, though physically tiring, leaves you feeling mentally empowered and purpose-driven. The scale of production can be small, like deciding to go for a long walk every Wednesday and pick up litter in the park. Or the scale may be huge, like being a successful musical composer and having millions of fans appreciate your intermittent silence.
You have different production capacities at different stages in your life. For instance, a 25-year-old likely has more mental and physical energy to channel than an 85-year-old. But that doesn’t mean the production capacity of an 85-year-old is zero. Retirees have an abundance of wisdom and passion to offer the world. It’s an extraordinary example, but it’s real: David Attenborough is still working, travelling, presenting and inspiring millions of people at the ripe old age of 92 years old. Age is no barrier.
The point I want to emphasise is that any level of production adds value to the world, and that inherently gives your life greater meaning. The more you put in, the more you get out.
Perhaps the most rewarding kind of production is something self-directed. That is, something you choose to create. Getting paid to do it is a practical advantage, because now you can do it all week long and not worry about income. That’s why if you’re bored by your job you should do everything in your power to seek a more fulfilling career. It’s not just a matter of how you spend your working week; it’s a matter of how you plan to create your working legacy. Your career can starve you – or it can nourish you. Many people have way more choice in this matter than they dare to believe.
But What About The Ratios?
Let’s toggle the ratios and see what happens:
Consumption is Greater Than Production (you’re in debt to the world)
Some people find ways (like credit cards or human enablers) to consume far more than they produce. Not only is this a route into debt, or exploitation of whoever’s fuelling your excessive consumption, but it’s no pathway to happiness. A hedonistic lifestyle cries out to misery and psychological lacking in the long run. It’s a failure to engage with the world, to contribute to society – even to humanity.
Now there are exceptions, like the chronically ill, who may be physically unable to be productive and so consumption dominates. But I’m talking about anyone who has a glimmer of choice in the matter, even if it means overcoming acute fear or addiction.
Consumption Equals Production (it’s a neutral knife-edge)
I’m not going to say you need to strike a balance between consumption and production, either. That would leave you neutral. Most people fall in this realm, where their lifestyle extends to meet their resources. Whether you earn $20,000, or $40,000, or $80,000, your level of consumerism tends to rise too, until you’re in a net-neutral position overall. The good thing to say here is you’re producing and adding value to the world. The presence of any downside depends on your job: hate it, and you’re merely forcing yourself to chase the carrot to keep up with your lifestyle. Love it, and you’re in a reasonably happy place.
Consumption is Less Than Production (you’re improving the world)
This is the best mode to aim for: producing more than you consume. Not only are you putting lots of goodness into the world, but you have excess resources to invest in your enrichment program. Now you can start a business and scale up your value to society. Or launch a charity and pay employees to multiply your contribution. Or offer free educational resources to help others bootstrap their own productivity. High level producers are usually self-made entrepreneurs or artists who relish the challenges they’ve set for themselves and are motivated by the sense of fulfilment that creates.
A Modern Philosophy of Happiness
Here’s a quick overview of Aristotle’s philosophy of happiness we saw earlier:
What do these labels really mean?
Pleasure. Pleasure-seeking is good but not to the exclusion of all other aspects, else you’ll find yourself living a life devoid of meaning. Pleasure can be found in many places and can be sought out daily in significant and in small ways.
Wealth and Health. These are best considered as necessary means. You can be productive as hell, but if you’re too poor to afford housing, or suffer from chronic pain, long term happiness may be elusive.
Honour. This is the olde worlde notion of commanding respect from your community. As a social species, we spend an awful lot of time trying convincing people to like us – see my Psychology of Facebook. It’s something we’ve evolved to value a great deal, so it’s important to feel respected by your community; to fit in with society.
Virtue. There’s a whole philosophy of ethics based on being virtuous, and it’s hard to fault. Aristotle called this the active life, meaning happiness is found in going out into your community and behaving in ways that are moral, courageous and kind. Behave honourably – and don’t let personal fears hold you back.
Wisdom. Our ability to acquire and assimilate abstract knowledge is one thing that makes us human. Aristotle’s contemplative life means happiness is found in pursuing self-directed learning and quiet introspection. This is the nuts and bolts of personal growth and is built on self-awareness which allows us to continually recalibrate ourselves to reality.
Now let’s smash all these ideas together. We can actually fold in the ideas of consumption and production into Aristotle’s philosophy for a modern synthesis of happiness:
In this view, consumption and production are necessary to happiness, but we have to get that ratio correct, or risk plummeting into our own personal hell.
Consume, Produce, Flow
So here’s the fallacy. Many people simply tolerate their 40-hour work week, with a secret desire to quit and live a zero-responsibility lifestyle as a full-time consumer: eating, drinking, travelling, and becoming a sloth on a beach somewhere. As wonderful as this might sound, it’s a short-term, superficial kind of existance with hard limits. It’s no solution for living.
Here’s a better way to run your show. Realise that consuming is a necessary part of living, but we should only really pursue the minimum amount needed to live a comfortable life. Have a warm house. Eat good food. Listen to music. But that should only be a fraction of your big-picture concerns. The rest of your energy should go towards being a prolific producer.
Because what else are you for?
If you need to earn money, most of your producing hours are inevitably spent at work. Does your day-to-day work bring you happiness? If not, it’s in your best interest to pursue a promotion or research a new career. Upskill. Retrain. Move town. Take a pay cut. Go freelance. Start a business. Assume that your future happiness directly depends on the career decisions you make (or don’t make) this year. This is how you’ll become a happy producer.
If you don’t need to earn money, because you’re retired or disabled or a trophy wife, you probably have an insane amount of freedom compared to most people. You’re incredibly lucky. Don’t accept a life of full-time consumerism, but take action to become a producer as if your life depended on it. Find an all-engrossing hobby. Volunteer for charity. Write a book. Learn to draw. Give yourself a purpose, no matter how trivial or grand, and pursue it with enthusiasm.
What About The Flow Part?
The flow is the icing on the cake. It comes when you’re an avid producer.
The flow state – aka being in the zone – is a mental mode in which you’re fully engrossed and engaged, motivated and mesmerised, prolific and productive.
You can’t access the flow state while consuming. It’s for producers only. It’s a timeless state of being that can go for hours and, while exhausting, you can still feel invigorated afterwards. People access the flow state in different ways depending on their natural abilities and interests, as long as the activity is intrinsically motivated (not motivated by someone else). You have to do it for you.
Examples include creative writing, playing music, computer programming, designing, running, swimming, meditating, drawing, hiking and basically any energising activity that focuses you mentally and/or physically. It’s creative. It’s expressive. It’s productive.
The flow state – which was formally recognised by Western science in 1975 by Csikszentmihalyi Mihaly – has been observed in different cultures for millennia. But Mihaly identified, among other things, that the flow state creates a loss of reflective self-consciousness.
This is huge. For busy human brains which go crazy doing nothing, the flow state allows you to switch off the constant background chatter and focus on something creative and meaningful in the moment. The flow is life affirming.
You Flow, You Grow
Regular access to the flow state is so powerful, it can even draw people out of long term depression. I consider myself an example. Having a meaningful production goal for yourself creates profound enrichment, whatever form it takes, and however big you can possibly make it. What you produce comes to define you as an individual, and channels your direction of growth.
Next time you dream of winning the lottery and think about all the rampant consuming you’d do, take a step back. See through the shiny Hollywood portrayal of happiness and recognise the consumerist messages you’ve been fed all your life. Lasting happiness lies not in hedonism but in our inherent ability to produce, to seek out the seeds of passion, and to grow them into trees.