I’ve been thinking about writing this for a while… my thoughts are admittedly unorganized…

I’ve noticed that most humans, including myself, tend to never really live in the present; we’re always thinking about some event coming up or what we need to do tomorrow. We’re filled with plans. Everything we do is for some goal we’re trying to achieve. I think even at the millisecond level, our brains are focused on what to expect sensing milliseconds in the future. It’s extremely hard, perhaps impossible, to truly live in the present.

So my question is… is that good or bad?

Sometimes it seems good. If you had no plans, you’d just by lying there like a dog, staring at the world. Or maybe a couch potato. One might say it’s morally wrong to have no goals.

But then… what’s the point of goals? Or what’s the ultimate goal of goals? Sometimes it seems like some people don’t really know.

I think there are only two things that people want for their own sake: pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Everything else done is for the sake of one of those.

Or at least should be. But I think some people instead seek the idea of pleasure. They seek something they think will give them pleasure. But then they spend so much time on this idea that some certain thing will bring them pleasure that they make themselves suffer for it. It’s like this video

Some examples might be a wedding or a party or a vacation that people stress about and plan every detail of to the point of making themselves miserable because everything has to be perfect for it. What I think is especially dangerous is when people start daydreaming what the wedding or party of vacation will be like. They imagine scenes in their heads: “I’ll be smiling over there, and these people will be laughing over here, and we’ll all be happy” or “he’ll be driving and listening to good music and I’ll be half asleep reading my book, and we’ll be happy” … stop it! You have no idea what the future is going to be like! You really can’t plan happiness like that, and you’re most likely just setting yourself up for disappointment. (Not that such events can’t be fun; I just think it’s stupid when people obsess over their planned future happiness so much that they make themselves suffer in the present.)

Weddings and parties and vacations, though, are all things that could be planned and accomplished within a year. I think the process becomes even more dangerous and stupid when people start daydreaming huge life goals to the point where they’re subconsciously expecting them to come true. I will be rich. I will be famous. It seems to be obvious to way too many people.

Or there’s the parent or teacher having expectations for their children or students. They want them to be “successful” but they don’t really describe what exactly that means. Just as much $$$$ and power as possible? What should be the child’s ultimate goal? I guess what comes to my mind is to have a job you’re happy with and to make enough $$$$ to support yourself (and family if you choose to have one (and it is a choice… I hate when people who hardly have enough money to support themselves start raising a family and then kind of romanticize it as if they had no control over when babies would come along… “oh, we’re struggling with our five children, working so many jobs to make ends meet!” … that was a choice)).

But some parents I’ve met (and thankfully I don’t have these kinds of parents) seem to define success as something that can never really be achieved. You must just become as rich as possible, as successful as possible. You must get your foot in the door of some company and keep rising through the ranks until you own the company, and then own all the competition, and then eventually own the world I guess. Or you must become famous, and then more famous, and then more famous. And some parents believe their children are amazing geniuses and they firmly believe, or expect their children to be successful. Unfortunately, every day there are way too many children born for each one to become rich or famous. Only so many people can be rich and famous at a time. These parents’ definition of success depends on their comparing their children to other people, which has always been a stupid way to define success. (Part of me thinks some parents only want their children to succeed so they can brag about them to other parents. “My little Bobby is doing so well, he’s the vice-president of Boring Old Company X, and making a lot of money!” “Oh really? My little Billy still works at the grocery store, but he’s happy gosh darn it!”) And if their children don’t “succeed” then that means they are normal mediocrities…

It’s like your job and wealth determine whether or not you are mediocre. Rich = good, successful, better. Not rich = bad, normal, mediocre. That’s stupid. There are plenty of rich idiots and many brilliant non-rich folk. Shouldn’t the end goal be just to be happy?  (But some people say: “Being a poor struggling artist is not romantic!  It’s stupid!”  It’s not stupid to be poor, it’s stupid to be miserable.)

And then what if you are happy? What if you’re supporting yourself and you’re happy? Does that mean no more goals? You’re done? You’ve reached your life’s ambition? Is that bad? Is that morally wrong? Shouldn’t you always be dreaming some impossible dream?

This video comes to mind… You can have whatever goals you want! You don’t have to constantly want more. You don’t have to always be improving yourself to something you can’t even imagine. “I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m getting there!” How do you know?

Just make enough money to support yourself and try to find a job you’re happy with. Whether or not you want to give yourself any goals after that is up to you. You don’t have to be rich or famous or anything. So there.

(Disclosure: I do not yet make enough money to support myself yet, so I guess I’m a failure. But at least I don’t have a job I hate!)

Categories: Philosophy


LanthonyS · August 13, 2009 at 10:09 PM

I think it’s fairly well-known to the sensible that avarice is a vice, that wealth stops correlating positively with “consistent happiness” after a plateau pretty much of necessities/niceties, and that fame seems often accompanied by horrendous personal lives. Or maybe that’s all just the sceptical cynicism of the shiftless poor nobodies! 😛

As for living in the “now”, I’m reminded immediately of interesting philosopher and crackpot theologian Eckhardt Tolle. (Don’t bother reading his views on Jesus; his editor seems to have forgotten that quotes from the Bible must first exist in the Bible.) He said about the present that we are physically there but mentally displacing ourselves, which is a weak collaboration. He said (much like you) that our expectations devalue the realities when they turn out different. It develops not only a pessimism that results naturally from our notions being proven inaccurate, but also impatience. He demonstrated the “constant expectation” on stage amusingly: he picked up his glass of water and said, “I’m not doing this for the sake of picking up a glass, I’m doing it for the taste of water that will come. Picking up the glass is just a means to an end, and as such divides the ‘drink of water’ in two parts: the work and the reward. This is not a particularly fun way to look at taking a sip of water.” My paraphrasing, of course, as I can’t be bothered to look for the video and check it 100%.

Anyway, I thought that was both true and intriguing. What else do we discard as “a means to an end”? If I walk upstairs to get a cookie, I see walking upstairs as a hassle and stay at my computer; what if I wanted to, for some reason, get to the stairs? It’s the same task, but this time it’s the reward… Does it mean we have to fake-enjoy all the states between rewards? If course not… If I moved the cookies so they’re right beside the computer whenever I want them, have I improved my life? I doubt it – sometimes the stairs that I just cut out of the picture played the reward…

I also think it’s a bad idea, from the Christian (or any purpose-driven) viewpoint, to consider there to be a goalless zone. Of course, achieving earthly or personal or pleasurable goals for oneself isn’t the solution. I’m positive that we weren’t put here to enjoy ourselves and become rich and famous. I think working for others – of which there will be no end (“The poor will always be among you”, even if we must “care for the poor among you”) – is a better goal and closer to our intended sights, though achieving personal goals for anyone for the sake of those goals alone is going to lead to disappointment.

S P Hannifin · August 14, 2009 at 7:55 PM

Thanks for the comment!

The glass of water quote is very interesting… and true I think. Fortunately I don’t think we often think much about drinking a glass of water… picking up a glass to get a sip is usually not a big deal. But when the goal is something that’s perhaps months or years away, it can be much harder. For example, writing a novel… the goal is: a finished novel. But that makes all the work that goes into it even harder. You keep focusing on all the work ahead, and it’s a lot of work. If you don’t enjoy the act of writing itself, it might seem not worthwhile.

So you don’t necessarily have to fake-enjoy the in-between states, but you’ll probably have to decide for yourself whether or not the trouble is worth it. However, if you can find something about the in-between states to enjoy (not fake-enjoy, but real-enjoy), that’s surely helpful.

I didn’t mention religion at all in the post, which, I think by definition, includes some sort of goal…

What is the ultimate goal of helping people? Or wanting to be closer to God? Isn’t it happiness?

And I think religious goals can be very difficult because there’s no certain way to achieve them. We might have a goal of helping others, but… which ones? How many? How much of our time? Are these personal decisions? Is there an objectively wrong answer? Even Jesus didn’t save the world… at least not in a worldly materialistic way… he didn’t end all suffering and poverty and equally distribute wealth.

(Not that I really know the answers… just thinking out loud…)

S P Hannifin · August 15, 2009 at 1:02 AM

I’ve also noticed some people cling to goals just for the sake of having them… there’s something about human psychology that makes people really want to have goals, perhaps “something to live for” or the “need to be needed” that’s ingrained in everyone. We tend to get bored or depressed, I think, if we don’t often have some larger goal in mind beyond the simple day to day goals, like eating and sleeping and going to work. We’re always daydreaming of being in some other state.

Not that that’s bad in and of itself; I have the large goals of writing a book and completing and album and a bunch of other stuff. But maybe they can be harmful if they become too important and displace other psychological or physical needs, or if they are depended upon too much.

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