The Meaning Of Life And The Secret To Happiness

Neil StraussNeil

In the spirit of the times, I wanted to share with you all the most pretentiously titled post I’ve ever written. A few of you may have seen a draft of it on my website-in-progress.

What I enjoy about this list is that it’s a way for me to speak directly to you. It’s something I’ve never gotten to do before. Because whether writing for Rolling Stone or completing a book, I’ve always been forced to cleave closely to a defined structure and to carefully iron every idea, paragraph, phrase, word.

The following has no structure.

It has not been ironed.

You’ve been warned…

The Meaning of Life and the Secret to Happiness

When I was in high school, I had a teacher who gave us a reading list of the best works of literature in the world. Number one on that list was the Bible. So during summer break, I decided to read the good book as literature. And one small section really struck me at the time: The Book Of Ecclesiastes.

It is the famous book in the Bible that begins “vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” something that should be posted over the entranceway to all L.A. clubs. It’s been heavily quoted in timeless songs, such as “Turn Turn Turn.”

And it’s basic philosophy is this, at least in my interpretation:

Work hard at your life and yourself. Be a good person, and enjoy everything there is under the sun. The author writes: “I searched in my heart how to gratify my flesh with wine, while guiding my heart with wisdom…I made my works great, I built myself houses… I became great and excelled.”

But, in his old age, he surveys his labors: “I looked on all the works that my hands had done and on the labor in which I had toiled, and indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind.”

No, this is not a sermon. Keep reading. Neither is this a Buddhist message about renouncing the material world. Because, in the end, the speaker in the Book of Ecclesiastes decides: “Eat your bread with joy and drink your wine with a merry heart… Let your garments always be white and let your head lack no oil… Live joyfully with the wife whom you love…Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for there is no work or device or wisdom in the grave where you are going.”

So what God is saying here is get drunk. It’s totally cool. Just clean up afterward.

Actually, the message is this (in my crude non-scholarly analysis):

Find a life to live, find a woman to love, find a place to work–and live to your fullest, love to your greatest capacity, work your hardest, and be a good person. Then die knowing nothing will have really made a difference in the overall scheme of things.

This may not necessarily be my belief, or yours, but here’s the takeaway: if all is vanity, then stop making yourself miserable – just keep busy and be happy.

That, of course, leaves the question: What should we be doing with this time, and how do we stay happy?

So let’s leave the Bible and return to the present age.

First of all, don’t expect to be happy all the time. If you’ve ever had a pet, you’ll notice that the pet doesn’t complain when it’s hurt or in pain. The human animal is the only one that says, “Why me?” — as if it is our birthright to be happy all the time.

Sometimes we’re sad or angry or depressed. But if rather than fighting against it, like it’s wrong and some kind of disorder, you just relax into the emotion and ride it through until it’s over, it doesn’t have to be a gut-wrenching experience. It’s good to experience these extreme emotions: it let’s you know you’re alive and feeling.

Of course, we’d all like to stay positive and happy and content as much as possible. It’s especially useful to be in this state when interacting socially, because it’s the best way to attract other people to you.

So how does one stay in this state?

My secret: Balance.

Even if you love your work, you can’t spend the entirety of every day working. You can’t spend it partying or sarging either, as fun as that may be. However, you’ll find that if each day, you productively do something in each of the following areas, your mood and confidence and charisma and happiness and inner game will skyrocket:

  1. Work
  2. Physical (exercise, running, swimming, a sport)
  3. Social (and, yes, that can include Rules Of The Game missions)
  4. Creativity or Education (whether it’s writing, making music, cooking, programming, taking classes, or learning another language)
  5. Relaxation, whether it’s reading a book or watching TV or playing Wii Tennis or staring at the wall and contemplating life or lying in the sun and thinking about nothing.

So, your mission:

Make a list of the specific things that make you happy and balanced in each of these categories, and then make an effort to comfortably fit them all into your schedule at least five days a week. Most of these areas don’t need to take more than half an hour each day. And chances are you’re doing at least two of them a day anyway.

If you find that days are passing by and you’re not exercising or socializing, for example, you may need to actually write out a daily schedule for yourself and then stick to it.

And, finally, if you’re one of those people who says they have no time, chances are that the problem may not be time but time management. Start keeping track of exactly what you do each day and for how long. Actually write it down on a sheet of paper: how much time you spend eating breakfast, how much time you spend checking emails, what you’re doing with your time at work. Then see where the inefficiencies are and eliminate them.

And then, of course, die. It’s all vanity anyway. But it’s fun, you get one chance, and you might as well start making the most of it right now, before it’s too late.

Neil Strauss