The Path to Happiness, a Journey to the Self
“Become the person you are” – the secret to happiness we all carry inside. Knowing yourself better gives you more freedom to make choices and make your life so much happier. Philosophical self-reflection can help you get there. Read More
What is good for me?
Are you happy at this very moment? What is happiness anyway? Sometimes it is hidden in those tiny coincidences and surprises we experience every day: walking through your front door right as it is starting to rain; an unexpected smile from a stranger; finding some forgotten cash in the pocket of your jacket. We have no control over these little happy moments and cannot simply will them to happen. Then there is the larger kind of happiness, a sense of deep satisfaction with yourself and your life. Sometimes you meet people who are truly content with themselves and the world around them, like nothing could throw them off balance very easily.
Happiness always takes place in the mind, in our consciousness. There is so much more to it than just neurotransmitters like serotonin, noradrenalin, dopamine and endorphins swirling around our brains. It is a feeling we all experience individually; happiness and satisfaction are very personal. And even our own personal definition of happiness, our wishes and desires, continue to shift and change over time.
Yet we tend not to think about our own happiness and our inner selves very much. Questions like: what is good for me? what do I want to do with my life? and what brings me satisfaction? are often hard to answer without a little thought. Oddly, we often find it easier to list all the things that bother us or make us unhappy rather than what gives us pleasure.
Assuming we do carry the secret to our own happiness inside ourselves, then what exactly is this ‘self’ when it’s at home? And how can the self find its place in the world, so it can experience happiness?
Philosophical journey to finding happiness
"Gnothi Seautón" - "Know thyself"
Oracle in the Temple of Apollo at Delphi – the centre of the world for the ancient Greeks
The idea of self-awareness as the key to living a good life is shared by many cultures around the world. It is a tenant of the ancient Indian philosophy of Buddhism, and included the philosophical treaties of many scholars from the Occident as well. Socrates, (Lucius Annaeus) Seneca, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer, to name just a few, explored the inner workings of their own minds in one direction or another in search of the true self. In the ancient world, self-awareness was a practical and practiced philosophy, and was seen as the culmination of philosophical thought. Today it has been almost completely forgotten.
Yet in today’s world, the journey to self-awareness is more important than ever before. The message to just “be yourself” is everywhere you look, yet it is harder today than it has ever been before. The constant flood of information and ideas from outside, the endless interactions, don’t make it easy to simply focus on who we are. The world has grown closer together, making our individual spheres much larger. Our range of choices has expanded, as has what we know about the lives of others and what we want from our own lives. Somewhere in the midst of seemingly endless possibilities, with everything we could and have to do, we tend to forget what we really want for ourselves. Finding our source of happiness and satisfaction requires figuring out where the outside world leaves off and we begin.
The goal of self-awareness is to form an authentic, autonomous person based on the true self. Exploring our own inner personality helps us to resolve our individual problems and questions. Recognising our own “inner world” is useful in accessing solutions to problems in the “outer world” and helps us shape our lives more freely.
Inner happiness: exploring the source of feelings
A good starting point for identifying the self and asking questions about what makes you happy is to ask: when do I overlook myself and my needs? Who hasn’t felt annoyed with themselves for wasting time messing about with unimportant things and ignoring the things that really count? Maybe you didn’t get to every item on your to-do list. Or you were rude to someone and could hardly recognise the words coming out of your own mouth. When you find yourself going through the same internal struggle time and time again, it can be helpful to reflect on why. Observing your behaviour, questioning your motives, can help you understand what is really taking place inside.
“Self-awareness is not just becoming aware of what we do, but becoming aware of what is hidden from our consciousness, of what we don’t know.”
Erich Fromm – The Art of Listening. Therapeutic Aspects of Psychoanalysis
To uncover the reasons for our own behaviour, we need to look back on our lives and our stories. The inner self does not exist in isolation, free from any outside influence. We can explore these influences, even those anchored in our subconscious. By recognizing our fears and what has shaped us, we can sometimes come to understand why we behave in ways we don’t like, or don’t do the things we should. This helps us access the beauty in our lives as well. Ask yourself: what did I enjoy doing as a child and why don’t I take the time to do it anymore? These insights can help us understand what shaped our lives to be the way they are now.
Desire vs. reality
It is hard to be entirely honest with yourself. It can be hard to ask: what do I want? what is important to me?
Exploring and questioning our values can help us make decisions, and life presents us with decisions every day. Understanding my inner self can keep me from heading in the wrong direction. Accepting a job that is not exactly what I want can be a good choice, depending on what I value most. If I know, for example, that having a job is more important to me than waiting for the perfect job, then it is the right decision. But if I am the kind of person who closely identifies with my work, the wrong job could turn out to be absolute torture every day. By recognizing my inner values, I can more easily recognise what I really need.
Schopenhauer called on us to pay very close attention to the self, for he saw it as the “general and fundamental” motivation behind all our actions. Self-awareness provides insight into what we want. Exploring our own individuality, our talents, skills and preferences, but also our weaknesses, allows us to live a life more attuned to our goals. Although Schopenhauer believed character was ultimately unalterable, it is still easier to live a good life in this world if we know the nature of our selves. Once the self has been identified and we know what we can and cannot expect, self-actualisation becomes much easier. Happiness and satisfaction lie in our ability to determine our lives and our paths freely.
Exploring the self: practice makes perfect
The man who does not wish to belong to the mass needs only to cease taking himself easily; let him follow his conscience, which calls to him: “be your self! All you are now doing, thinking, desiring, is not you yourself.”
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
Getting to know the self better takes time and patience. When philosophers of the ancient world spoke of asceticism, they referred to its original meaning – practice. As with most things, the more we practice, the better we get. Understanding alone is not enough. We need to repeat the process, repeatedly inquire into the self, call our needs, tendencies and skills to mind again and again, if only because life around us continues to change and evolve.
Initially, exploring the self might feel awkward. Keeping a diary and consciously going over the little things that pass by so fast in everyday life can help. The longer we dig, the more precise our questions become. Every additional question leads to new insights. Asking others how they view us can help when we get stuck. We have achieved understanding when we can begin to fully express our insights, when self-awareness becomes the philosophy we live by.
without others, we’d have nothing to laugh about
Once you have recognized your self, you can begin to operate from a solid identity. I can achieve serenity when I feel secure about my self with all my values and potential. No matter what may come my way, it won’t throw me for a curve very easily. I am now able to identify new perspectives or solutions for old problems more quickly. This new self-awareness gives me the courage to try new things, face new experiences. I might even surprise myself and those around me. It becomes easier to fulfil my own needs without going overboard or ignoring other areas of my life.
The greatest insight we can achieve is our ability to actively shape the world. Every moment of happiness, small and large, arises because we are not alone on this earth. Without our fellow human being, we could not experience happiness, a smile, a surprise. There would be no one to challenge us, and no one to share our successes with. Ultimately, there would be no self.
Once I begin to understand myself better, I also begin to understand others. This not only makes it easier to relate to others, it is also easier to understand the self in relation to others. This allows us to shape our relationships with our fellow human beings, targeting them to meet need in the most positive way possible. The identified self is free to develop and grow and live a good life with the people around us.
This is the source of satisfaction. And happiness, even in those little things that no longer simply pass us by.