Meaningful goals

The path to true and lasting happiness


We are continually converging towards the ends we desire through imagination and action. Every action we perform, from sipping our morning tea to reading the words right here on this page, is charted first on the mind’s whiteboard and then enacted by the body. So, wilfully or not, we are always working through the teleology of goals in our most fundamental level of being. But when we think about goals, we specifically mean those far-reaching ideals or lofty aspirations—nice to have, but all right to forgo. And so, little by little, we give up the hope of changing our world or shaping our lives and accept our “fate”. We have to remind ourselves that our lives aren’t written in stone; that we aren’t mere cogs in a huge clockwork mechanism, immutability interlocked with and subordinate to its every movement, right down to the tiny escapement that is beating in our own heart. For in this life, the only certainties are ageing and death. Ageing brings sickness and infirmity, so we are given only so much time to prepare for death. It is only normal then that even in our noblest intentions, we want for something and we intend to get it. Every waking moment we are engaged in deconstructing and reassembling our world so that it fits within our meaning structure. We are willing our way towards a better life, better health, communion with God, or some other sort of personal or spiritual improvement. Yet this forceful intending is the paradoxical block in the getting. We want to take control of our lives and actively transcend the limitations of our existence by formulating and pursuing the goals that we choose. But insofar as we attempt to will our plans into being, we condemn them to die on the vine. A goal is won only when there is a certain spontaneity in our movement towards it. Life is a doing and this spontaneity cannot be an inner, abstract imagining, but rather real and tangible actions that involve the whole of our being, such that this spontaneity is realised and the end is achieved. So before you throw yourself into a such an endeavour, make sure it is a worthwhile aim that you can pursue with the whole of your being. One of the best ways to ascertain worthwhile aims is to determine if they will give you what you are missing in your life. So ask yourself if you are ready for death, and if not, what would complete your existence? What is lacking right now? When you ask yourself such questions you realise how your mind is drawn towards quick fixes and easy, cunning ploys. The mind finds its pleasure in little places and things that gain it no real fulfilment. Goals that are aimed at securing pleasure and possessions are mere delusions of the mind, for after all pleasure is fleeting and possessions only weigh you down; they are usually acquired at the cost to another, and in the end, you cannot take them away with when you die. So isn't it better to instead aim for a peaceful state of being rather than the reactionary states of lust, anger, fear, and other strong feelings that you are so easily led into by hubris and temptation? You cannot achieve peace or freedom when you pursue material wealth—the opulent house, the high profile job, the exclusive holiday so that you can get away from your work and responsibilities—things that you cannot take with you when you die and hollow experiences that fade away with age. You're going to need to frame worthy goals: ones that push you not too little and not too much. You need to aim for something that is outside your realm; outside of your ordinary and habitual world. You're going to have to use your imagination to see your goal and adjust it until it feels right, then you need to determine the actions that will get you there, and finally you're going to need determination and concentration to carry you through. Great personal change brings with it the frustration of failure and you may be advised that to avoid dissatisfaction and failure you should lower your standards and humbly accept who and what you are. There are people who are so averse to defeat and failure that they form no goals or plans and keep themselves from ever doing anything. When life is devoid of any goals, man has nothing to look forward to and must instead seek fulfilment in the present by indulging in sensual pleasures and giving free rein to the impulses of the moment. But nobody would ever consider such wanton, heedless, and capricious indulgence an achievement of any sort or an exercise of free will. So we need to dream big.

As we have seen earlier, a good goal leads to true and lasting happiness. Notice that the goal itself is an emotion—happiness—which has particular meaning within your emotion spectrum. Your emotion spectrum is the range and degrees by which you distinguish between closely related, but subtly different feelings that hover around a central locus. Happiness is a spectrum, ranging from being "satisfied", "content", "glad", "pleased", "blissful", "cheerful", to being, "delighted", "joyful", "rapturous", "ecstatic", "euphoric", "jubilant". In general, someone who is able to distinguish between different feelings using different words exhibits emotional granularity. They do this by paying attention to their physical cues or reactions for each emotion and interpreting their degree using roughly synonymous but subtly different feeling-words. Such sommeliers of emotion have a deep and nuanced lexicon to identify an emotion as they encounter it in the wild. On the other hand, people who assess experiences with a lower emotional granularity use a handful of words interchangeably to represent their reactions at the locus of the emotion. Remember that emotions are consciously felt responses to situations, and our goals at the highest level are to seek favourable outcomes in any situation. They are the responses to such questions (or aims) as how can I feel less frustrated by events? How can I feel less disgruntled in my job? As you tackle these baser requirements for happiness, you can ascend to more complex goals like "How can I find a more dependable form of happiness?" Of course, in the course of our practice, we will encounter reactionary emotions like "sadness", "fear", "disgust", and even "excitement". English and many other languages (stemming from its antecedents) construe emotional concepts as internal feelings rather than as a means to describe the situation. So we need to acknowledge that words have an inner life and understand how they affect us, while seeking greater situational awareness when feelings do arise. For such emotional dexterity, we can see how important it is to gain real self-knowledge. We want a sophisticated verbal grab-bag so that we don't conflate our aims and also so that we can accurately check the validity of concerning instances of "guilt", "shame", "pride", "contempt", "embarrassment", and other caustic emotions, and choose to replace them with more constructive emotions like "gratitude" and "love". The emotion spectrum of love is diverse and encompasses such platonic tones as "close-friendship", "comfort", "well-being" and so on. Caustic emotions on the other hand result in chronic priming of the nervous system: the heartbeat speeds up, adrenaline courses through the system, the breathing gets more laboured, all of which flood the system with toxins, before the emotion itself disappears. But the physical reactions themselves may take a while to recede. Once you have identified, very specifically, negative feelings that are attached to your experiences, past, present, and future, you can frame new goals that give you better results.

Finally, when you have figured out worthy goals, you need to move swiftly through the actions that will get you to your results. It's easy to do the things that we like to do that give good results and and avoid the things that we don't like to do that give bad results. But the true test of your determination and commitment to your goals as well as your wisdom and sagacity is how you discern between the things you like to do that give bad results and the things you don't like to do that give good results; for we know that the actions that truly make a difference are these hard-fought ones. These actions are difficult for everybody, but wise and successful people learn to navigate around the mind's habitual lethargy by experimenting with different approaches and alternatives. Remember that your mind is a product of the structured flow of external impulses, and it is only through a concerted effort that you can stem the tide, or else, allow yourself to be swept along with the suggestions and solicitations from without. The best way to motivate yourself to stay the course is to make your tasks more enjoyable. Have you noticed how you naturally begin to do something when it is enjoyable? Learn to give yourself encouragement when you make a breakthrough. Celebrate the small wins with a kind and encouraging word and challenge yourself to do better. When you are habitually lazy about making real goals or procrastinating over the tasks you set yourself, you begin to see yourself as lazy. So avoid the trap of identifying strongly with your past actions and encourage yourself back onto your path when you stray. Remember that it is, as Simone de Beauvoir said, only in "laziness, heedlessness, capriciousness, cowardice, impatience, [that] one wills onsself not free."