Saturday. The shrill clanging of my analog alarm clock cut through my dreams. My eyes creaked open to see the short hand on the clock pointing to 12 p.m, and I groaned. The hangover was worse than I had predicted. I stumbled out of bed and fumbled with the alarm. The battery fell out and rolled underneath my cabinet. The rest of the day followed suit. I felt like a disgrace.
The next day, I arose before dawn to work eight hours at a fast-food restaurant. It was hot, greasy, mind-numbing work, and I fell into bed when I got home. Yet I felt wonderful, and I knew I would. But why did the greasy, mind-numbing work on Sunday inspire so much more happiness than a day of rest?
It is my personal belief that productivity is the root of happiness. For many, this is intuitive. Finishing an assignment or a sweat-soaked workout leaves most people feeling accomplished. Conversely, puttering around the house all day and ignoring responsibilities can leave a bad taste in your mouth. But why? Is this due to the natural rush of endorphins that comes during physical activity, or relief at having removed the looming threat of a term paper? Maybe, but I think the reason we derive such happiness from productivity is much more basic.
Our unconscious addiction to productivity is rooted in our species’ biological imperatives: surviving and reproducing. At the risk of doing a disservice to my thoughts by virtue of my word count constraint, let’s exclude reproduction from the discussion and focus on the former. As with many components of human nature, like our instincts to consume sugar or conserve energy, the society which we have painstakingly constructed around us has fundamentally altered our imperative to survive.
As recently as 12,000 years ago, to succeed in life meant fulfilling our biological imperatives. If our ancestors were able to find food and shelter and survive, then they were successful and happy. This is not the case for many people in our modern world. For many in Western societies, it is simple to survive. In the United States, for example, food stamps are an entitlement program (not to say that food stamps solve hunger, but in theory, no one should starve to death in the United States). Housing is not yet included in any entitlement program, which is why I included the caveat that survival is simple for “many.”
Therefore, success in the modern world no longer stipulates mere survival. Fulfilling our biological imperative of survival is not enough to induce satisfaction in one’s existence. In today’s world, many must go a step further to achieve the happiness that our ancestors were able to find in the arduous act of survival. Specifically, we must set new goals. I believe that happiness is derived from being productive in our pursuit of those new goals.
New goals that stretch our biological imperative beyond simple survival are all around us. You set them in your New Year’s resolutions and in murky career conversations with your parents. They can be simple, like losing five pounds by the summer, or more difficult, like obtaining a job at Tesla after graduation. There may be many of these goals over different time horizons, but they must be meaningful. They replace our biological imperative to survive, made simple by the crutches of society, in our achievement of happiness. Regardless of one’s objective, the key to happiness is being productive in our advancement towards our chosen goals.
As with any theory, there are caveats to this one. If our goals are out of reach, we are at risk of not achieving satisfaction by failing to meet our artificially-constructed biological imperative. Conversely, if we set our sights too low, we are, paradoxically, at risk of failing to succeed to achieve happiness, even if we do accomplish our goal. Our spirit easily recognizes meaningless accomplishments — goals that sell ourselves short. Although mindless productivity towards a goal can beget short-term happiness, this satisfaction is similar to that found in the enjoyment of a doughnut: it does not last. Goal-oriented productivity is essential for lasting contentment.
Despite the ostensibly restrictive nature of these caveats, we can side-step them by reorienting our goals. If we set our goals too high and fail, we can reframe our goals and achieve happiness by working productively towards them (after a short period of unhappiness, an inevitable result of failure). If we set our goals too low, we again can reorient them to loftier heights. Goal-orientation can turn even the most mindless activity into one that can inspire happiness, as long as the goal is meaningful. By shifting our perspective, scrubbing the sink after dinner evolves from a chore to a productive exercise to achieve a better living space and become more disciplined, responsible people. Working on a paper for a boring class can become a rung in the ladder toward growing into a more dedicated, intelligent individual.
Try as we might, we cannot escape our nature. The ease in which many accomplish their biological imperative of survival has pushed us to construct new, artificial ones. Many set those goals in relation to others, which was the structure of our ancestors’ imperative of survival. The benchmark for survival was the same for everyone. But unlike our base imperative of survival, the substance of our new artificial imperatives doesn’t matter in our achievement of happiness.
Instead, what matters is that we work productively towards meaningful goals which we set. And therein lies the beauty of this theory: there is no need to compare our goals to those of anyone else’s. The static benchmark of the survival imperative has disappeared. The benchmarks for our individual goals are completely context-dependent. I was fulfilled after my shift at a fast-food restaurant because I had worked productively to make a little more money that I put towards the meaningful goal of a fun spring break trip with my friends. That goal cannot be compared to my mother’s goal of growing her medical practice or my neighbor’s goal of learning to build his own deck on his house.
So, think about the goals that are meaningful to you, and only you, and plan to work productively towards them. Don’t look to your right or your left at your peers’ goals, and find lasting happiness in the act.
Christian Baran is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Honestly runs every other Friday this semester.