Happiness then is the best, noblest, and most pleasant thing in the world.
— Aristotle

If you ask anyone what they want most out of life, their answer will almost always return to one word: happiness. This can come in many shapes and forms, but underlying all of them are certain principles that separate true happiness from the mere illusion of it.

The problem is that many people don’t really know what will make them happy. They believe that true happiness is the ability to sit on a beach all year sipping cocktails. However, in reality this will not make them happy. You can do it for a bit before the inner workings of your brain come in and make you miserable again.

Ancient philosophers pondered a great deal on the subject of happiness, looking at it from different angles, but the most powerful answers to this conundrum always involved something counter-intuitive: challenges.

Many of their myths and legends exemplified this idea of struggle as the road to happiness.

Hercules chose virtue over vice

Hercules (Heracles in Greek) was one of the most famous mythical heroes, worshiped in Greece and Rome as the man who became a god.

His life was used as an example to teach moral lessons. For the Stoics, but also for some other philosophical schools, Hercules was the model that they pointed at, when asked how you should live your life.

Ancient mythology contains many stories of his exploits, but in terms of the power of its message, one story stands above the rest.

It is the Choice of Hercules.

According to the legend, as a young man, Hercules was walking on a road, when at one point he reached a crossroads.

There is strong symbolism in that beginning. As humans, at various periods of our lives, we also reach a point where we need to take a choice on which direction to take.

These things happen not only to us mere mortals, but also to heroes, and even the gods themselves. So it was with Hercules.

The young Hercules sat down and pondered whether he should go left or go right. In that instant, as he was deliberating on the choice in his head, two goddesses appeared out of the sky.

The first one came up, and gave him a sweet sounding offer. If Hercules, went in her direction, he would live an easy life, full of luxury and pleasure. He would not have to lift a finger, and everything would be provided for him by others. It was a life of lavish dinners, drugs and alcohol, and constant parties that she proposed.

After the first lady spoke, the second one outlined her own proposal. What she said was totally different. She offered Hercules a life of struggle, where he would be tested by many hardships. It was to be a very long and arduous journey.

However, that journey would be full of honor, and require virtue, hard work, and discipline to finish. Hercules would face adversity, and many obstacles, but could show courage, willpower, and determination in order to overcome them.

Hercules realized that anything that is really valuable has to be gotten through hard work. This was also the road to pride, and real happiness. For what you get easily, you never value, but what you struggle to earn, you treasure.

Hercules didn’t hesitate. He chose the second path. He chose the road of virtue, over that of vice.

Don’t choose the easy road

It is self-discipline, above all things, that causes pleasure.
— Socrates

The moral of this allegory rings true in many ways. While many people in today’s world choose the easy road, one of instant gratification, never challenging themselves, never testing themselves, it doesn’t give them happiness at the end.

They end up always chasing cheap thrills, and vain things like fame, flashy cars, or expensive handbags. This leaves them feeling hollow and empty inside, and devoid of empathy for other people.

This leads to depression.

They don’t realize that the true road to happiness doesn’t lie in doing easy things, but in doing hard things, in having accomplishments to be proud of.

In a Ted Talk given at Rio de la Plata, behavioral psychologist Dan Ariely, explained how overcoming challenges actually leads to true happiness.

He uses the example of mountain climbing in order to illustrate how this happens. “And if you think about mountain climbing as an example, it suggests all kinds of things,” says Ariely.

He then continues, “It suggests that we care about reaching the end, a peak. It suggests that we care about the fight, about the challenge. It suggests that there’s all kinds of other things that motivate us to work or behave in all kinds of ways.

This example speaks to my heart. This is exactly what I discovered when I started climbing mountains. It’s a horrible experience when you are doing it, full of pain.

It makes you feel sick, tired, and sometimes even injured, but at the same time, you get a certain thrill of doing something hard, of doing something that most people would never even consider doing.

The sense of accomplishment that you get after you reach the peak, and then safely reach the bottom (for you have to remember that reaching the top is only half the journey), is indescribable.

And the thing is that the feeling of having achieved something extraordinary, of having overcome something difficult, stays with you forever.

Years later, you still remember what you have done. In those instances pain is only temporary, but the glory lasts forever.

And unlike those people who have spent their entire lives being fake, drinking, and partying, you actually have something to look back at and feel a sense of pride.

These people might laugh at you, call you weird, and disparage your choices, but the joke is on them.

You have done something real. You have done something hard. You have done something extra-ordinary.

They haven’t.

Making things with your hands gives you much more satisfaction than simply buying them

Do you exist then to take your pleasure, and not at all for action or exertion? Do you not see the little plants, the little birds, the ants, the spiders, the bees working together to put in order their several parts of the universe?
— Marcus Aurelius

The thing about happiness is that it lies in intrinsic motivation, in doing things that you enjoy doing, and that are above all, real.

Psychologists doing experiments with people have even discovered a weird effect to illustrate this. They dubbed it the Ikea effect.

They found that the people who bought products from Ikea and assembled them themselves, felt much more pride in their furniture and treasured it over the furniture that they bought and just brought home without doing anything.

The mechanism behind this effect is the same one as why you might still keep that crappy drawing you did back in elementary school, or the crooked piece of pottery that you kept after having tried pottery class once.

People who have constructed something with their hands show much more pride in their work, than ones who don’t.

Just like the little bees, ants, and spiders go about their ways, building their little spaces, you also need to create your own little part of the universe.

How to be truly happy

Man conquers the world by conquering himself.
— Zeno of Citium

The secret to true happiness is to do things. It is to do things that are hard, that challenge you, that give you a sense of accomplishment.

In this way, you also take matters into your own hands.

The ancient Stoics used to say that you need to separate things that you can control, from the ones that you don’t.

You cannot control things like fame. It is dependent on other people.

Much of our life, day in and day out, the actions of other people affect how we feel.

Our moods change based on what other people do, or think. The problem is that most people only care about themselves.

A lot of times, they will try to trip you up for no reason. They will tell you that you are ugly, stupid, or useless.

That kills your mood. However, ancient Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius reminded himself every morning of the way people are. He accepted it, and it didn’t bother him.

Instead, he focused on doing other things. Things that depended on him, and things that were hard.

He knew this is how you reach true happiness.

For by doing things by yourself, you gain control over your life.

Doing that martial arts class, painting that picture, or climbing mountains are things that no one can take away from you. They are your wins. You struggled to attain them, and you did at the end.

The victory was yours.

What do we want from life? Most people think that it is the first road, the one of partying and pleasure. The one that Hercules didn’t take.

However, those of us in the know, we know the secret. We know that the real road to happiness, is the second one. The one that Hercules took.


Note: I first published this post here.
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