Framework for the good life (core)
My exploration of understanding the meaning of life was a precursor to finding the answer to what makes a good life—what are the things that matter and what should we optimise for.
There were three major takeaways from that exercise:
- There is no intrinsic meaning in life and we are irrelevant in the grand scheme of things but we matter in our reality. Our emotions, actions and interactions are important.
- We should find meaning in life through our relationships, work and suffering as this helps in getting through whatever life throws at us.
- Everything ultimately leads to nothingness. Long-term legacy is overrated.
With this premise in place, I divided life into three constituents based on how we spend our time.
Core – It is what consumes most of our time. For a student this might be academics or sports, for most of us it is our jobs and for a stay at home mom or dad, it is housework. The core might change depending on the stage of life that we are in but it is typically the highest priority item on our to-do list at that point in time. In a lot of ways, it is what gives us our identity.
Sleep – Given that we spend almost a third of our lives sleeping, it is pretty important to treat this aspect with a degree of respect that it deserves but is not usually given.
Auxiliary – Everything else that we do apart from the core and sleep comes under auxiliary. We can think of it as primarily consisting of personal well-being, relationships, hobbies, things we do for recreation etc.
The arrows signify the interdependence of each of these aspects on one another.
What should we continuously optimise for?
I have come to realise that happiness is an emotion that forms the best proxy for a good life.
Different people have different goals. But whatever be the goal, the desired outcome is in some way related to happiness. For instance, love, recognition, good health, excitement, accomplishment are some things that we strive for and if there is one positive emotion that connects them all, it is happiness. A life infused with it can be considered a good life for a vast majority of people.
As described above, core is usually the primary focus in our lives. We spend most of our time being engaged in it so it becomes essential that we put in a great deal of thought in choosing what we define as core for ourselves.
The starting point for thinking about the core should be defining context. Context symbolises things that were handed to us as a part of our fate—things that are beyond our control.
In my case, I consider myself lucky to be born to middle-class parents in a developing country like India because I have my destiny in my hands to a large extent. While some things like a loving home, good education and decent support were handed to me on a platter, there are other things that I have had to work for. This context has led to the development of a predisposition for practicality. It means that I believe in choosing a path that has relatively lower risk and comes with guaranteed returns.
This is an important assumption to state because a change in context would mean a change in approach. My life would have been very different had I been born in Silicon Valley or Sub-Saharan Africa. The former would have probably meant more freedom, security and better access to resources while the latter would have made even bare survival a task.
Irrespective of the context that one finds themselves in, I find the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to be a good framework for approaching life. It is not scientific and there are some criticisms of it as well. But since I am employing it to just provide structure to this complex analysis, I think that it is a good starting point.
The premise is quite simple to understand. The different levels here represent different needs. It is a priority based pyramid where the things at the bottom are more fundamental to human living and they start becoming aspirational as we go up. The needs on a particular level should be satisfied to a certain extent before we graduate on to the next higher level.
Physiological and safety needs
For a decent number of people on this planet, the physiological needs are almost completely satisfied. The safety needs, on the other hand, might be satisfied to a large extent but not completely. The goal should be to reach a certain threshold of safety before aiming for anything else.
There are two things that determine your level of safety—where you live and what your personal situation is.
If you find yourself living in a stable society that is free of conflict, has a low probability of natural disasters or of the economy going haywire—consider yourself to be lucky. But for someone stuck in places like the war zones of the Middle-East or the crippling Venezuela, the only option through which the need for safety can be satisfied is emigration—as we see a lot of people doing.
On the personal front, for people doing okay in terms of having their basic needs met through favourable external circumstances and other specific factors such as a fixed flow of income, the aspiration should be to build a backup and prepare for the worst case scenarios in case there is some threat. It means focusing on aspects like savings and insurance. For us, fathoming the worst is a very difficult instinct and hence preparedness is usually low but this step is extremely essential as it has a bearing on our level of happiness.
Money is a facilitator for the satisfaction of the two most basic needs and plays a very important role in our lives. But this is only up to an extent. If you feel that earning a lot of money will solve all your problems then you are a little disillusioned.
This research by Nobel laureates Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton has made some interesting observations. The main takeaway is that although happiness increases with increase in income, it satiates at the $75000 per/year (~₹15 lakhs PPP) mark. More money doesn’t necessarily buy more happiness beyond this point because this amount gives people the freedom to control the different aspects of emotional well being such as spending time with your loved ones, avoiding pain and disease, and investing in recreation.
A caveat regarding the above-mentioned study—it was done in the US and involved participants with low to above-average incomes, which represents the majority but excludes the outliers such as millionaires (refer this research for the connection between millionaire incomes and happiness). Despite that, I don’t feel that the point that I am trying to make around money being inconsequential beyond a threshold is undermined.
The derived insight from this is that if you are constantly optimising for earning more and more money even when the pursuit in itself is not bringing you happiness then you should probably pause and think about your life and how can you change things to ensure that it is no longer the case.
Beyond the threshold, money should ideally not be the goal but the outcome of the other more meaningful goals that you have. In that regard, I feel that doing anything that you enjoy and that pays you proportionally with respect to the time you invest and value that you generate is a good enough option. It can be a salaried job, an entrepreneurial venture or a creative pursuit.
Moving up the pyramid
Once the basic needs are secured, the pursuit now shifts to the more evolved and intricate ones. Since belongingness and love are better suited to be described along with the auxiliary aspects of life, I’ll consider esteem and self-actualisation here. Given their inter-relatedness and the importance that they hold in deciding what the core should be, they need to treated together.
When it comes to the esteem needs, Maslow classified them into two parts:
- The desire for strength, for achievement, for adequacy, for confidence in the face of the world, and for independence and freedom.
- The desire for reputation or prestige (defining it as respect or esteem from other people), recognition, attention, importance or appreciation.
Maslow is very accurate in describing the esteem needs. While these are very prevalent human desires, how we position our outlook towards them can make a significant difference to our lives.
The desire for strength, achievement and confidence is something that can be intrinsically controlled. It is a byproduct of working on one’s craft and being good at it. This becomes a fairly positive and challenging pursuit that makes life interesting and gives it a purpose—of getting better each day.
The desire for reputation, attention or prestige, on the other hand, are dependent on extrinsic factors beyond our control. We can’t control how the world will perceive us or what we do and hence it is a futile chase. Just like money, these should never be the driving force of one’s actions. It is great if it comes as a consequence of what you do but obsessing over it is a perfect recipe for an unfulfilled and unhappy life.
The progression from self-esteem leads to self-actualisation which he described as follows:
It refers to the desire for self-fulfilment, namely, to the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.
The specific form that these needs will take will of course vary greatly from person to person. In one individual it may take the form of the desire to be an ideal mother, in another it may be expressed athletically, and in still another it may be expressed in painting pictures or in inventions. It is not necessarily a creative urge although in people who have any capacities for creation it will take this form.
~ Maslow, Abraham H. – A Theory of Human Motivation
Self-actualisation can be achieved only when you go through the process of self-discovery to first identify the right core for yourself. It is a seemingly difficult process that requires some degree of introspection and experimentation.
At times, there can be a strong calling where the inner-voice just tells you what you ought to do. It could be because you attain a state of flow while performing a certain task and you don’t want to do anything else. You choose to focus on it and pursue it with full vigour. Or some emotion might overpower you to a great extent and help you realise that the chosen core is the most important thing for you at the moment. For instance, the love for a newborn child might lead to a change in priorities for an otherwise ambitious professional mother.
This happens often and when it does, it makes life easier. But in case it doesn’t, what we need is a more thoughtful and structured approach to analysing our stance towards our core. I feel that satisfying cores can be found at the intersection of passion, stage and people fit.
Passion has two broad aspects and the search for the core begins by identifying something where you have:
- Passion for the cause
- Passion for the day-to-day work
Passion for the cause is about being able to connect your core to a larger and higher purpose. It should feel meaningful and it should engender the feeling that you’re having an impact or making a difference.
Not all of us work for glamorous causes and the scale of our impact might differ but as long as our core helps to do things that fulfill our potential, I feel that it can help us lead a satisfied and happy life. What is important to note is that when evaluating passion for the cause, one should not limit it to the tangible external purposes that are being served. For instance, even if you don’t consider your work to be fun but it enables you to pay the bills, helps you provide for your family or makes someone else’s life easier, it still serves a meaningful purpose that transcends you.
No work is insignificant. We all are parts of complex systems and for these systems to function properly, the constituents must perform their individual tasks diligently. While some kinds of cores might offer more recognition or enable the person to have a more far-reaching impact, comparison between cores is futile because the mere existence of such people who gather more of the limelight might not be possible without the support of a whole bunch of people with a not so impactful core.
While this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to achieve your full potential and strive to do different and more challenging things, it is just a simple unrealised truth that should ensue humility in those in the privileged positions and pride in those who feel that their core is not so glamorous.
Then comes the part of finding something that you enjoy doing on a day-to-day basis. This passion can be innate or it can be developed.
Innate passion means something that you have always loved doing and there could be a lot of reasons for that such as your unique upbringing or some kind of early inspiration.
Developed passion, on the other hand, is a byproduct of a process. A process that is enjoyable yet challenging. The skills required are such that you are somewhat good at them while there is also a scope for you to improve.
The next thing to account for when choosing a core is the stage. Primarily, two things need to be examined:
- The stage of your life
- The stage of your desired and available core options
At different stages of our lives, our priorities change and evaluating options with the perspective of what is more important at the moment is critical.
This needs to be matched with the stage of core options that you have in front of you. The core should have the basics in place in terms of being something that makes you happy, fulfills you and helps you grow. But beyond that, the stage of core can help you choose one over the other.
For instance, at the start of your career if learning and growing rapidly is what you want, working at a high-growth startup can be a more prudent choice than taking a comfortable job at a mature company.
This also holds true for deciding between courses to pursue, industries to choose or skills to master. Being a part of a wave that is rising rapidly can help hasten the process of your development and leave you better off. So this can mean pursuing computer science instead of say civil engineering (if you are not particularly inclined towards the latter), working in tech over other industries and mastering Adobe Illustrator in addition to your traditional brush and paint creativity if you are an artist.
The stage of your kids’ development or your dependent parents’ aging can also have a bearing on the core you choose and how you prioritise things. Since you don’t pursue your core in isolation and all other aspects have an influence on it, it is imperative to holistically think about in what stages these things are and then make a decision.
Life is ultimately all about the people you spend it with. Whether it be at a job, outside of your work or at home with your family, people tend to have a great deal of impact on your happiness as well as growth.
A knowledge worker should choose the domain/industry/company where the smartest people work. An athlete should find the people who set the highest standards for themselves and back it up with immense self-discipline/work-ethic. A creative person should find the company of other talented creatives. But more importantly, you should be around morally good people who fit in well with you—people whose company you enjoy, whom you learn from and who push you to be a better version of yourself.
If a core offers you the possibility of working with such people, you should give this factor the utmost precedence.
Your personal relationships should have a weight attached to them whenever you’re making any decision about your core. You need to ask yourself what matters more to you if choosing your core means making a tough choice—whether you’re prepared to stay alone, break-up a long relationship, leave your kid under the supervision of a nanny or move halfway across the world.
Once you identify your core, you should pursue it with the motive of being the best at it. All things aside, the pursuit of getting better at your craft is the most rewarding pursuits of all in my opinion. It gives you a purpose, it engages you in a meaningful way and the process in itself plays a pivotal role in your growth as an individual.
When you take each day as it comes with the sole aim of being better than you were yesterday, you start a compounding activity that culminates into great rewards—the feeling of accomplishment, conventional success and recognition being some of them. This mindset involves focusing on the intrinsics—the controllables. The outcomes lead to moving up in the Maslow’s pyramid as this process helps build self-esteem in the short-term and leads to self-actualisation in the long term if you are truly committed to your core and work sincerely towards improving each day.
If you spend enough time in picking the right core for yourself, it will become a constant source of happiness for you. In most cases though, achieving mastery in your core leads to an increase in responsibilities, a packed calendar, more limelight and hence less freedom. Some people relish that but it usually catches up to you. The law of diminishing marginal utility kicks in and it starts affecting your happiness.
As a living being, our most basic craving is that for freedom. The freedom to do whatever you want, whenever you want and with the people you want to is the purest form of success that you can achieve. Many people don’t realise it but when I first came across this idea, I was perplexed at its simplicity and profundity. You should use your conventional success to optimise for your freedom and not keep chasing more of it when it has started to affect your happiness.
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