I think we all must have a philosophy of life – a set of ideas that guides us through all the complex decisions required by an animal endowed with more freedom than most. But how often do we really try to articulate them? The following is my attempt to write it down. Take it with the huge grain of salt that this is just my perspective, and is what works for me. Everyone is different, and I don’t expect you to agree with everything I say or to necessarily find meaning in it for your own life. But maybe in reading my philosophy of life, your own philosophy will come into clearer focus, and you can try to live your life more in tune with its melody.
Science is the last philosophy left standing
Philosophers aren’t the rock stars they used to be. Socrates, Plato, Descartes, Nietzsche, Marx – these idea shapers had profound impacts on their societies, often overturning the established order in bloody and dramatic convulsions. They were feared and revered in equal measure. Just look at the above portrait of philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, a 19th century Danish rock star if there ever was one.
Yet all that came to a crashing halt in the last century or two. Maybe it was the rise of those who used to be called “natural philosophers” – now known as scientists – that spelled the end for the other philosophers’ glory days. We lost the belief that truth could be arrived at through the brain of one super-smart individual thinking long and hard about a particular subject. Through the unglamourous and repetitive teamwork of observation and experimentation, the scientific method proved itself able to deliver understandings of the natural world, as well as technological wonders, well beyond the capacity of one brain to imagine, no matter how clever. (Perhaps physics is the modern incarnation of the old kind of solitary inquiry; physicists use math instead of logic to build their theories, and sometimes their theories can be tested through experimentation, but most of the progress in physics is still accomplished through the exertions of single brains.) Philosophy became relegated to dusty and underfunded university departments, populated by students better at winning arguments than job interviews.
And yet science, for all its triumph, has little to say about the fundamental philosophical questions: What is the point or meaning of existence? What is a good life? Why are we here?
Science offers some facts, which could be seen as more of a hindrance than a help. It tells us that we are animals, evolved some 200,000 years ago from other animals, themselves evolved, ultimately, from some primordial single-celled organism in the Earth’s oceans 3.7 billion years ago. Before that, it says, the Earth coalesced 4.5 billion years ago from the universe-spanning debris of a Big Bang 14 billion years ago. We now know that the Earth is one of eight planets orbiting a star we call the Sun, which is one of at least 100 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy, which itself is just one of something like two trillion galaxies in the known universe. So mostly, it tells us that we’re really, really, really small. And that we haven’t been around for very long.
This gradually dawning realization, self-inflicted most notably by the twin blows of Copernican heliocentrism and Darwinian evolution, understandably struck many people hard. In a relatively short span of time, humanity was cast from a cosy world in which the Earth, just 6000 years old, was the centre of the universe, and people the chosen creation of God, to one where our planet was a mere mote of dust in the vastness of space, and humans just the latest species to evolve from a multi-billion year terrestrial process that has produced over five billion other species – more than 99% of them already having come and gone into the oblivion of extinction. And should we somehow manage to avoid those terrible odds and not go extinct too, we can look forward with certainty to the Sun, in its death throws, consuming the Earth in a fiery cremation in another 7.5 billion years.
It’s easy to see our utter insignificance and the seeming indifference of the universe to our existence and think, “Well, what’s the point, then?” But that wasn’t my reaction back when I first realized this as a child. It was Canadian Terrance Dickinson’s popular backyard astronomy book, NightWatch, that first brought home for me the enormity of the universe – and consequently the reality of our Lilliputian condition. I can distinctly remember staring up into the night sky and becoming overwhelmed at the scale of it all. Yet far from feeling depressed, I was thrilled. The universe seemed infinitely more wondrous than anything dreamed up in the Bible. I discovered that I could induce this bedazzled feeling in myself almost at will by taking a moment to gaze into that star-splayed dome, and I did so often. I think the word “awe” is appropriate, and I imagine it quite similar to the feeling of a religiously-minded person staring into the face of God. I would try to contemplate infinity, and my head would explode.
Monty Python, in all their wisdom, captures this well in their Galaxy Song from the Meaning of Life.
Perhaps what made this feeling so thrilling was the tension between my new understanding of myself as but a grain of sand on a beach stretching forever, and the feeling that every sentient creature has of themselves as the centre of the universe, the consciousness for which everything else exists. I could see myself as both incredibly large – to the 30 trillion cells within my body, and the countless atoms comprising those cells, for whom I am a sprawling universe – and infinitesimally small. I was just one Russian doll within many layers going up and down in scale.
As an adult, I often wish I could recapture that sense of awestruck wonder, but it is as rare as it is fleeting. Experience has the unfortunate tendency of numbing us to the astounding reality of the world. Yet I think this early posture towards the world has informed the way I see and approach it to this day. In other words, it has shaped my personal philosophy of life.
A sign from another world
A sign I once saw outside a evangelical church brings this philosophy into sharp focus. It featured a full-colour photo of a person, arms outstretched, standing atop a peak, with a glorious mountain vista stretched out before them. Across the top of the photo was the rhetorical question:
“Is this all there is?”
YES!!! This magnificent, throbbing miracle of life that is Earth, spinning through a universe of unimaginable complexity – that’s all there is. What more do you want? Any other world we can possibly imagine would come up pale beside the real world that is right in front of our noses every day, because nature in its totality is infinitely more wondrous than even the prodigious creativity of our species. As the French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne put it, “Man is quite insane. He wouldn’t know how to create a maggot, and he creates Gods by the dozen.”
And yet the insinuation of that sign was obvious: somehow this world, even a world full of spectacular mountain vistas, is not enough. What kind of impoverished vision of the world makes people see it as somehow insufficient? It is as if we walk through this world with hoods drawn over our heads, eyes fixed on the ground, muttering to ourselves about our petty human preoccupations (“But what is it all for?”), while beauty bursts unheeded around us.
This idea goes back at least as far as Plato, who believed that the world we could see was less real than an ideal world of forms. The idea of a Christian heaven is an extension of this. It is a common concept in many religions and spiritualities that the physical world is inferior to another, metaphysical world. This world in front of our faces is but an illusion, or a shadow cast by a much better world that exists on another plane, and it is the highest mission of our lives to somehow ascend to this plane. It is the job of religion to tell us what to do to get into this heaven.
In our modern, more secular world, this approach to life manifests in different ways. Often at takes the form of: my life right now is incomplete, but if I can achieve x, y, and z, then it will be great. We still imagine an idealized alternate reality, one where we are beautiful, happy, and loved by all. And the self-help industry is there to guide us to self-fulfilment nirvana.
But what if we started from the premise that to simply be alive and conscious in this house of wonders we call the universe is already so mind-blowingly fulfilling that to ask for more would be literally insane? What if we thanked the universe every day for granting us the chance to live a life so astronomically improbable as to border on impossible? What if, instead of disparaging the corporeal, we celebrated it and all the countless pleasures it can bring? What if we rejoiced in humans’ exceptional cognitive abilities, and the explosion of information and understanding about our world that marks the time in human history we get to be alive in? What if, in other words, we simply practiced some thankfulness for what is, rather than constantly grumbling about what we think could be? “The preoccupation with what should be,” wrote Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, “is estimable only when the respect for what is has been exhausted.”
Well, if we did that, I think we would be happier. And that is the point, right?
The tao of happiness
For centuries, the religious guidance was to be righteous – and receive your reward in the afterlife. But what was the point of getting into heaven? Clearly, it was that we would be happy in heaven. So happiness was the end goal. Nowadays, a secular altruist might say that the point of life is to leave the world better than when you came into it. But what is better? More people happier, I would assume. My point is that no one is really striving for sadness. Everyone wants to feel good, and the generously inclined want others to feel good too – even sometimes at the expense of their own happiness. We are all just following different directions we believe will lead us and others to happiness.
There’s a thought experiment that argues that happiness can’t be “the be all and end all” of human existence, and it goes like this: imagine that the technology existed to strap you into a chair, don virtual reality goggles, and simulate any experience you wanted in total realism. You could do anything you wanted, live the exact life of your dreams. Would you be happy? Most people would answer no. It would be too inauthentic, too unearned. The drug soma in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is a similar imagined technology. Or think of the character Cypher in the movie The Matrix, who consciously chooses an unreal life of luxury over an ugly reality (and betrays his compatriots in an attempt to get there). This argument is usually presented as a slam dunk against the idea that existence should be aimed towards happiness. But, to my mind, it does nothing of the sort. All it does is argue that being strapped into a virtual reality chair is not the road to happiness for most people. People would reject this kind of technology precisely because it wouldn’t make them happy.
But it does highlight the fact that for most people happiness is more complex than just doing things you enjoy. They would say that, no, there must be more to existence than just enjoying life. “My life needs to mean something.” But if science has shown us anything, it has revealed to us the utter meaninglessness of our existence. Instead of despairing about this, I would say, “Chill out. Sit back. Relax. Enjoy the ride. You have a front seat for the greatest show on Earth.”
But humans, with our inflated egos, like to feel important, and we will gladly tell grand cosmic narratives, with ourselves or our group cast in the central role of the drama, as we fight to attain our ultimate goal. But goals can be a slippery slope to climb. What happens when we reach a goal? Usually we find it unsatisfying, and go searching for a new one. Better to never quite grasp it, and find meaning instead in the endless search. The stories we tell ourselves on paper and stage and screen are an endless series of struggles, usually with a “happily-ever-after” ending. We are not interested in the happily-ever-after, only in the exertion it took to get there. Vanishingly rare are the stories that simply follow a character through a relatively normal slice of their life.
Even the quest to be happy can easily turn into a hero’s journey without end. This is, in fact, the trap that our society has largely fallen into; we elevate personal happiness above all other missions in life, but we assume that it will take lots of work to get there. Yet Dostoevsky saw things differently, as he wrote in The Brothers Karamazov: “…we don’t understand that life is heaven, for we only have to understand that and it will at once be fulfilled in all its beauty…” What if happiness, like the beauty of the world, is right there, and we only need to choose it?
Kids get this without question. The ability of children to turn nearly any situation into something playful and enjoyable is truly inspiring. The idea to them that we need to suffer in order to achieve happiness is absurd. Their minds and bodies, and perhaps whatever object or person is close at hand, are the only toys they need to create endlessly entertaining fun. Schools should be places where adults go to learn from kids how to play again.
Unfortunately, we beat this playfulness out of most of them, in a thousand subtle cultural ways. A big one is the omnipresent idea that we all must “achieve something” in order to justify our existence. In one of my favourite books of all time, The One Straw Revolution, Masanobu Fukuoka, who was more of a Taoist philosopher than a farmer, wrote, “There is no one so great as the one who does not try to accomplish anything.” (The Tao of Pooh is a great window into the Taoist worldview through the stories of Winnie the Pooh.) Unsurprisingly, he developed a “do-nothing farming” method that eschewed tillage, fertilization, weeding, spraying pesticides, and pruning, instead letting nature do most of the work. He is now regarded as one of the five fathers of the modern organic agriculture movement, so I suppose he did achieve something. But perhaps he managed that without trying. I would be remiss at this point if I did not quote the immortal Yoda: “Do or do not. There is no try.”
Another way we lose the natural happiness of childhood seems to be the very human condition of self-consciousness. We were cast out of the Biblical Eden when we ate from the tree of knowledge and became conscious of ourselves (and our nudity). As children grow up, they gain more and more self-consciousness (at a certain point no longer comfortable running around the yard buck naked), and the easy happiness of their younger years becomes harder and harder to connect with. The more that an inward consciousness of our own selves obscures an outward consciousness of the world around us, the further afield strays happiness.
Science is now beginning to learn (though earlier systems of knowledge already had this figured out) of the power of psychedelics to combat depression, and it could be their ability to allow adults to reconnect with the ego-dissolving oneness and wonder of the young child that grants them this ability. I experienced this once at a trippy outdoor electronic music festival in the Maritimes countryside; a dose of psilocybin in my belly, I wandered away from the pulsing music and dazzling lights to lie on my back in a quiet field of tall grass and once again stare into the depths of space. I encountered a revelation, impossible to rationally justify after the fact, yet so compelling that I remain convinced of its veracity to this day, that life is essentially absurd, and that the clown is the one who sees this most clearly. And I see this absurdity not as something to cry about, but something to laugh at (though the ease with which clowns can become sad or even scary shows the fragility of this laughter in the face of absurdity). I suppose this makes me a sort of happy-go-lucky existentialist. My reverie was disturbed that night by a security guard with a Maglite finding me in the grass and shouting to his partner, “Here’s another one!” I wasn’t the only one receiving wisdom from the fungal kingdom that night. The interruption offered immediate confirmation for my absurdity hypothesis.
Ever since this insight, I’ve had an appreciation for comics. Whatever their many faults – and anecdotal evidence leads me to suspect that as a group they may have more neuroses than the average person – they seem, at least a bit, to have held onto the child’s playfulness. Many other people I admire – daring adventurers, inquisitive scientists, inspired artists, inventive entrepreneurs – also have never quite “grown up”. Many of them did badly in school, which makes sense – school being one of the primary instruments by which society instills the self-conscious, ego-achievement orientation that often strip mines our innate happiness.
I’m not saying that school can’t be good for some people, nor that we should live in a constant now of childish pleasure. We need to be responsible and make some provision for the future. Obviously we can’t indulge in every present enjoyment at the expense of the future. But we could tilt away from our obsession with possibility, and embrace more often what is. And we should always keep in mind that the whole reason why we need to think about the future is so that we can continue enjoying life into that future.
We’re all on this merry-go-round together
But isn’t this a selfish philosophy, bent solely on personal happiness? To that I would say that the point of life is not just to be happy, but to try to help others to be happy too. And I define “others” as any lifeform capable of feeling any emotions or sensations that it would identify as positive or negative. We don’t really know if plants feel, but I think we should operate under the assumption that they can, and treat them accordingly. This doesn’t mean we should all become fruitarians, but we should try to give all lifeforms the best lives and the quickest, most painless deaths possible. Killing is part of eating, just as death is part of life. One day we too will die and our bodies will cycle back to nourish new life. That is part of the absurdity of our world.
I cannot think of any moral absolutes beyond feeling good or bad. I think we can all agree that feeling good is absolutely “good”, and feeling bad is absolutely “bad”. Everything else is relative. Some people may inflict pain on themselves or others, but only because it makes them feel good. Sometimes we inflict guilt on ourselves or others, but we do so to try to incite an improvement in future behaviour, which will hopefully lead to better feelings (usually in people interacting with the guilty party). Often we put ourselves or others through great trials and tribulations in the belief that it will make us/them better people; we will grow to become more trustworthy, reliable, hard-working, generous, compassionate, and all the myriad qualities we generally define as good. But we want to be all these virtuous adjectives because we think such people will feel good and make others feel good too. (Sometimes this strategy works and, as Nietzsche wrote, “Was mich nicht umbringt macht mich stärker – That which does not kill us makes us stronger,” but I fear that all too often it backfires and actually makes people more miserable.) Maybe we aggrandize ourselves with wealth or achievements, but we do so because the admiration of others feels good (also usually a failing strategy in the long run).
I will not here make the argument that we only help others because it feels good. Nor will I make the case that your personal happiness is at least partly dependent on the happiness of others. Both of these claims are probably true much of the time, but I believe that helping others to be happy is an intrinsic good unto itself, something we should simply do because it’s the right thing to do; in other words, a duty. And here’s why: we know literally on a personal, felt level that we are highly capable of both positive and negative feelings. We even know the precise hormones secreted by our bodies that induce these feelings. And we know without a doubt that all animals, at least, and possibly plants and fungi and all of life, are also highly capable of sharing these feelings. So it would be the height of willful blindness to ignore the felt experiences of others. We would have to turn our backs on our innate human ability to empathize (and a small percentage of people are capable of this – we call them psychopaths) if we only focussed on our own happiness. So altruism may not be as morally absolute as feeling good or bad is, but it is essential to our human natures.
This is one reason why I am very much in favour of structuring our social and economic relations as locally as possible. We are shockingly good at ignoring the felt experiences of others we cannot see. The internet, stock exchange, and global supply chains pushes us all into this unempathetic realm, with disastrous results. The more direct, personal contact we have with others, the more empathic we become.
One could also argue that helping others be happier adds to the net happiness in the world, and that a world in which more of its creatures experience more positive feelings more of the time is an objectively better world. This is what’s known in philosophy circles as utilitarianism, most often associated with the 19th century British philosophers Jeremy Bentham and his follower, John Stuart Mill. A critique of this “greatest good for the greatest many” philosophy is presented in Ursula le Guin’s short story, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, which imagines a utopia of extraordinary happiness, contingent, unfortunately, on the perpetual misery of a single child kept in filth and darkness. Presented with such a society, I like to think that I would be one of those “who walk away” from it. But I don’t think this stark example invalidates all that utilitarianism has to offer – most philosophies break down at the extremes. Maximizing good across society (and indeed the biosphere) seems a generally sensible way to approach life, especially for governments who are often forced to make decisions that might negatively impact one group in the short term, while positively impacting a larger group. I think it is reasonable to occasionally ask ourselves or others to make sacrifices for a greater good, but never to the extent that a person or group truly suffers (unless the “greater good” is to prevent the suffering of a larger group of people – I’m thinking how soldiers might lay down their lives to protect their society from a hostile invasion or to free an oppressed group – but that kind of sacrifice should be entirely voluntary). If happiness is the only goal in life that makes any sense, then let’s try to spread that happiness around as evenly, and thickly, as possible!
I think I’ve already made my views on the Protestant work ethic clear, but what about the Buddhist idea that we just need to rid ourselves of all desire in order to banish suffering? Sorry, Buddhists, but I just can’t get on board with that program. First off, why aim so low? The absence of suffering is a nice start, but it doesn’t equal happiness. Secondly, desire is often the catalyst for enjoyment; it’s harder to enjoy things that we never wanted in the first place. A meal is so much more enjoyable when we’re hungry, and I’ll suffer some pangs of hunger if I get to satisfy them regularly. And lastly, the detachment from the world that Buddhism promotes is precisely the opposite of how I try to live my life. I’m cognizant of the fact that, as the Canadian rock stars (and modern philosophers) Trooper put it, “We’re here for a good time, not a long time,” and I want to try to enjoy all that this worldly, corporeal life has to offer while I’m here. If desire and suffering, just as sun and thunderstorms, are what this world is about, then bring them on.
Suffering and pain, in varying degrees, will inevitably find their way into every person’s life. But let’s not invite them in unnecessarily. Let’s not set ourselves up for unhappiness by looking down upon the world or ourselves, or focussing on inadequacies. With the world offering us so much, our default could be happiness, with unhappiness being the exception, not the rule.
I know this is easier said than done. I should point out that this philosophy of mine I have been trying to articulate is more aspirational than realized; it is a work in progress. I get too caught up in my daily to-do list on a regular basis, and rarely pause to enjoy passing moments like I should. I don’t look for the humour in situations enough, and I sometimes forget that the whole point of life is not to get this particular thing done, but to enjoy myself. Our society has devised a thousand ways to keep prodding us forward, distracted from our physical natures in physical reality. I need to constantly remind myself to slow down, open my eyes, look around me, and into the eyes of the person in front of me. Connect. Focus. Open. Accept. Live in joy.
In every moment hides the possibility of laughter and play and enjoyment. The comics among us are particularly adept at splitting open that momentary atom and releasing it’s incredible stored power. This power is so resilient that people can suffer every hardship in life and yet still crack a joke. We come into this world with this ability built into us; we’re hardwired to seek fun in every situation. Beauty can always be found, even if it’s just in the tiniest insect. Look, and you shall see.
Don’t get me wrong – I think how you choose to spend your time on this Earth does still matter. If enjoyment is the goal, then working 40 hours a week on something you enjoy is obviously preferable. An example for me of a person who is living his best life is a man I met in the tiny Gaspésie village of Mont. St. Pierre – a giant of a man with long curly red hair and a flashing smile, named Yvon Ouellet. He had the good fortune to be born in this gliding mecca of Eastern Canada, and when I met him he was taking tourists on tandem paragliding flights off the cliff that towers over this seaside cluster of homes and shops. He told me at the time, in broken English, “About eight year ago, I made the decision to wing my life away, like a bird. Since that time, I never have regret.” He then opened his long, bird-like wings in a universe-encompassing embrace, and cried joyously to the sky, “Thank you, Cosmos!” He did this often. He wintered in Mexico and Guatemala, so he could continue flying and sharing with others his great passion. This was over 20 years ago that I crossed paths with him, but his memory has stayed with me. I just did an internet search for him, and see that he is still going strong, with “no regret”. He’s probably enjoying life too much to bother maintaining much of a website, but this video gives you a little taste. (You can read more about my experience in Mont St. Pierre in this earlier post of mine.) I see that he has since adopted the superhero persona of Yvon Volé, which is perfect.
It’s sometimes hard to find something that makes you happy, but that’s why you need to be a good scientist and keep experimenting on yourself until you find what it is. No one else can tell you what it is, and only experience can guide you. It took me until my mid-thirties before I realized how the calming and being-my-own-boss work of labouring outside with my body, cultivating plants and animals into delicious and nutritious foods while stewarding a bit of land into ecological vitality, and offering this food to my community, was what made me happy. I went down several dead ends before then. And who’s to say I won’t find something else I prefer further down the road? Life’s an adventure with no final destination but the grave.
But even if you’re not living your dream life quite yet, or if your dream life still has bad days (which it always does), happiness should always still be accessible to us if we just take the time to look around and appreciate all that is good about what is.
I’ll part with some philosophical lyrics from Trooper’s We’re Here for a Good Time (Not a Long Time):
“Folks are always dreaming about what they like to do
But I like to do just what I like
I’ll take the chance, dance the dance
It might be wrong but then again it might be right
There’s no way of knowing what tomorrow brings
Life’s too short to waste it, I say bring on anything”