Happiness. It’s what we all want. But it feels as elusive as water; you can’t grab it and hold on to it forever—and you always need more. Is there a way to truly be happy at work, at home, and with ourselves?
By all accounts, this is a common experience for everyone: welcome to the human family. Personally, I love reading the old books. The really old books. Like, thousands of years ago—B.C. (Before Computers) kind of books. And you know what? The really old, dead people struggled with the same things.
Happiness and the good life are the main topics in Plato’s book Gorgias. It’s a mercifully short book that I recommend to anyone interested in living well. The entire book is a conversation between Socrates, Polus, and Callicles. If you remember hearing about the “Socratic Dialogue” or the “Socratic Method” in school, this is where it comes from.
Basically, Socrates claims that “it takes true goodness to make a man or a woman happy, and an immoral, wicked person is unhappy.” The idea of good and evil brings a host of other questions to the modern mind, which I won’t get to here—you’ll have to read it yourself. But here are Socrates’ ideas fleshed out in terms we can more easily relate to.
First, here are some mistakes we think of happiness and how to pursue it.
Mistake #1: We think happiness is transactional
We tend to think happiness is a result of getting or doing everything that we want. But when our desires are finally fulfilled, a feeling of disappointment starts to creep in. According to Socrates, the problem is we can deceive ourselves into thinking we want something when we really don’t.
The truth is happiness is not a result. It’s something more than anyone object or material thing can give us. Nonetheless, there’s always the temptation to think we’d be happy that if we could just get that
- New gadget
- Life partner
Now, all those things are good. However, getting stuff is more related to satisfaction than happiness. Satisfaction is the end result of getting what you want or completing a project. We judge satisfaction based on how well a product or service meets our expectations.
And even satisfaction doesn’t last because there are new things to get. As the Rolling Stones sing, “I can’t get no satisfaction.” But happiness is more than this.
Mistake #2: We think happiness is about pleasure
Feeling good and performing good actions are two different things. That may be the simplest way to describe the conclusion to Socrates’ conversation with Callicles on pleasure. Callicles bursts in the middle of the story after Socrates claims that it’s better to suffer wrong than to do wrong.
Callicles philosophy foreshadows every great dictator in history. He gives a rather chilling and straightforward explanation of how a person of power thinks. He says the secret to happiness is to indulge and expand your desires. Anyone talking about self-mastery and pursuing good actions (which requires us to practice delayed gratification and set aside our own wants) is trying to gain control over people who are stronger than they are and who have the power to get what they want.
Socrates admits that putting others ahead of ourselves often means delaying getting what we want. However, by making good actions our goal, we do end up being happy in the long-term. There is, then, a hierarchy of pleasures. Some pleasures are better than others. Some lead to misery. Some lead to happiness. Pursuing every pleasure will not lead to happiness.
Mistake #3: We think happiness is about power
Only people who have power can indulge their desires, therefore the key to happiness is to pursue power. We can put it another, happiness is about success. As the saying goes, whoever says money can’t buy you happiness is shopping at the wrong store.
The truth is success can breed new problems. If you succeed too soon, it must mean your goals were too easy. It’s pretty lonely at the top—so I’m told. Socrates says that even success and power are not the keys to a happy life.
Living the good life
If we follow Plato’s book closely, two ways of life begin to present themselves to us: the life of pursuing one’s own desires, even over other people’s wants; and the life of self-discipline, restraint, and putting others’ interests before our own, which means controlling your desires. What do you think? Which is more appealing?
Plato’s not alone in thinking the former way of life is the key to happiness. The Chinese philosopher, Confucius, is also quoted as saying, “he who conquers himself is the mightiest warrior.”
To bring it all together, pursuing work life balance in and of itself won’t bring happiness. Life will always be in a state of flux. Suppose you get the perfect 9-5 or Timothy Ferris’ “Four Hour Work Week” lifestyle, then what?
Want Plato’s advice? Don’t think the particulars of your work life situation will bring you the happiness you’re seeking. Think about what is the Good and pursue that. Put yourself in order, and life may follow. Balance will come, and with it, happiness.
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Cameron Wilkinson is a writer and editor based in Dallas, TX. His writing for the events industry pairs with his interests in sales and marketing. He also holds a B.A. in English Literature from the University of North Texas.
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