As I get further into the physics program and find myself closer to graduation, I’m being asked to focus my studies in a particular area and choose which area of research I want to focus on. All of that has got me thinking about happiness and fulfillment. The road isn’t laid out for me and everything is branching into this large tree of possibilities. Naturally I’ve found myself asking what path I’d be most happy with. I’ve got a good idea, but I’m still not completely sure.
Happiness and fulfillment in life is a complicated thing. I can’t say that I’ve mastered it, but I have a lot better conception of what a fulfilling life is than I did say ten years ago. I’ll try to paint a simple picture of my best conception of it, and then elaborate.
There are some things everyone needs. We all need access to food, shelter, clean water, clean air, and other basic necessities. We also need security, a roof over our head, good health, physical safety, money, and employment. Without any of these things, it’s going to be really hard to feel at home in this world.
Many people feel that if they can get a “good” job that pays well, and find themselves a romantic partner, they’re “done”. I used to have a friend in high school who’d tell me that. “Jason, you’re earning really good money. You’re done.” When I’m around college students, such as students I often tutor in physics, that seems to be the way they view the world. Once they graduate college and get that magic job, fulfillment, happiness, and bliss will come their way. I think a good job will help them, but they’ll just have to learn on their own that there’s still a lot more to happiness and fulfillment in life.
As for love and romance, most all of us, outside of asexuals, have romantic and sexual desires. Finding a loving partner, establishing a family, and building a place we call home is very important to most. Not all, but most. I often feel our society places too much emphasis on love and romance, as if it’s the end all of happiness. I don’t think that’s true, but it can play an important part, and if you find the right person, your life can be made a lot better and easier.
But I think we all want to have relationships not just with a special someone, but also with the community around us. It’s deeply fulfilling to enter a giant room filled with people just like you.
To give an example, as a hobby I enjoy playing video games. It’s really special to go to something like the E3 gaming conference and enter this giant stadium filled with the things I love. I love Nintendo and the Mario games in particular, and when I see the Nintendo booth I get joy seeing people dressed up in Mario and Luigi costumes, and am slightly mesmerized by the big screens airing the latest Mario and Mariokart games. That’s really neat. The whole room is filled with people just like me, checking out the latest gaming titles I’m wanting to play. The same feeling comes over me when attending talks by physicists on topics I’m interested in, and the whole crowd is filled with people just like me.
It’s a lonely experience to be surrounded by people who are not like you. It’s frustrating when any time you share your points of view, everyone around you disagrees. Even worse, you may receive scorn and ridicule. That’s painful. You form this insulated bubble around yourself, shutting in, and instead of feeling connected with the world and society around you, you instead isolate yourself from it. It’s difficult to feel happy and fulfilled when you’re surrounded by a world you feel alien in.
This bring us to intimacy. It’s important to have people in your life who share your interests and views on life. People who can help you, encourage you, and be there for you. People who see the world the way you do, and who challenge you, better you, and take you to a higher place. These sorts of people typically include your spouse and close friends. This isn’t something where the more you have, the better off you are. Humans can only handle a handful of close intimate relationships. To really get to know people requires a large time commitment.
But even if you have all of that, you’re still far from done. Now we get into self-esteem, confidence, respect for others, and respect by others. We humans want to belong and play an important role in the world around us. We want to feel like we have a part to play, that our actions are meaningful, and that we’re making progress. We want to be accepted by our peers and to feel valued.
We also desire self-respect. We have a desire to excel at something. We have to exhibit mastery and competence in our “thing”, whatever that may be. This gets into creativity, spontaneity, and being challenged. In truth, we never want to be “done”. That’s like being forced to keep playing a video game which you’ve beaten and there’s no quests left to work on. You just wander around aimlessly, with nothing to do.
I would argue that people also have something which, for lack of a better word, I’ll call “spiritual” needs. We want our lives to have meaning, even beyond our own lives. We want a life project, a life work. We want to leave something behind for future generations to let them know, “I was here and my life mattered.”
We also desire to feel connected to the cosmos. To feel the mystery and awe of life. To feel interested. Inspired. We want to be passionate about something. To feel emotion swirling inside of us. We want to feel we have a special quest to do in this life which only we can accomplish. We want to believe we’re the only one who could ever do it and to feel special and unique in this universe.
It’s also important feel at home and accept this universe as it is right now. We can’t be caught up in some future utopia, or some past golden age, but we must find what’s beautiful and wonderful in the world right now. I think any hopes for fulfillment in the afterlife take away from the joy you should be having in your life right here and right now. True happiness and fulfillment can’t be something you perpetually delay.
All of these things I mentioned could be greatly elaborated on, but I think that gives a general picture of the sorts of things which need to be addressed when talking about happiness and fulfillment. So how does this apply to me looking at employment opportunities?
Sometimes I wonder if I’m way too idealistic and am looking for something that could never possibly exist, but what I really want is to be a part of some elite group who’s working on something really beneficial to humanity, which will move our species forward into the future and really change people’s lives. I want to be around passionate people who love what they do, and work hard. I want to work with people who view the work not as a burden, but as a blessing to bring something beautiful into the world. I look for the ability to be creative and to be offered the opportunity to exercise freedom within this group. I desire access to state of the art equipment and the best minds to really do something special.
Ambitious? I guess. The thing is, when I was in my early twenties, I had this really cushy job as a network administrator making really good money. But you know what? I was miserable. I didn’t understand it back then, but now I realize that if you take that job and then compare it to all the things I listed, it barely had any of things I mentioned. There was no real creativity or freedom. There wasn’t any goal or mission. There was no higher purpose. There was no challenge. There was little feeling of being part of a team of people who loved their work. I had no way develop self-actualization, and while there was room for mastery, it was far too simple. There was also no connection to the community. I didn’t feel celebrated and valued. There certainly wasn’t any deep connection to the cosmos or any mystery and inspiring awe of the universe. It was completely reactionary, just fixing things that break. I’d spend days just sitting in my office, bored out of my mind.
See what I mean when I say that having a job which earns good money is far from being “done”? When I left that and was more focused on entrepreneurial efforts developing software, I felt more fulfilled, even if it didn’t have the same degree of security. Having creative control and freedom was liberating. When I was designing software from scratch, trying to solve problems in clever and creative ways, I felt like I was getting closer to something I was searching for. Even still, the software I was forced to work on to earn money was lame. Business software is lame. Reports and accounting is lame. That world lacked higher purpose as well. I wasn’t happy there, and while it could be challenging at times, I didn’t feel like I was on a sacred quest. I didn’t feel like I was solving a great mystery of life and the universe. There was no adventure. It was mostly tedious, unfulfilling grunt work.
I’ve had enough experiences by my age to know what I do and do not want from a job. Still, I worry I can be too idealistic, looking for something that doesn’t exist. Does the inspiring workplace, where everyone’s passionate, working on something worthwhile, changing the world actually exist? I honestly don’t know. Even if it doesn’t, should I ever stop searching for it? And if I can’t find it, shouldn’t I do everything I can to create it myself?
When you think about these things, it really makes you admire someone like Steve Jobs, the late CEO of Apple. He really inspired the people working at his company. He made them feel that they were involved in something that was going to change the world. He demanded excellence and was always striving to be the best. I really liked that aspect of him. I’m drawn to work for organizations like that.