The Spider and the Secret of Happiness
What is the purpose of life? This is one of those perennial philosophical questions that apparently no-one has been able to answer satisfactorily. I have an answer that I am more than satisfied with, and you should be too.
The purpose of life is to be as happy as you can possibly be.
I’m satisfied with this answer because I am 100% certain that it is absolutely true and I live by it. It is quite obvious when you think about it. When you examine closely every single thing that you do, all of your actions and behaviours each day, big and small, all the goals that you strive for, all the things that you dream about, the one thing underlying all of them is your desire to be happy. Everything we do is intended to maximise our wellbeing or minimise our suffering. If you think it is otherwise you aren’t looking hard enough.
Imagine that you are 100 years old, lying on your deathbed, about to depart this life forever, and you are looking back over the course of your life. Will you be able to say that you had a good life and made the most of the time you had? At the point of death the only thing that will matter a jot is the extent to which you appreciated your time being alive. Did you even notice that you were alive or were you too busy distracting yourself from the fact that your life wasn’t good enough? What were the things that seemed worthwhile and made life worth living? The simple answer is happiness, and the things that brought you happiness.
Living the best life is all about being happy. It is best to assume that we will have only the one go at this and that it would be a sin to waste it. But it is a rare thing to meet anyone that is actively and consciously pursuing happiness. To the contrary, we tend to pursue only the vaguest ideas of happiness without even noticing. Before we leave school we have soaked up social notions about happiness much in the same way that we believed in Santa Claus. We imagine happiness is about fitting in, achieving status and the approval of the people around us, especially family and friends. We achieve this by trying to get good jobs with good incomes, having the things that everyone else has, and meeting an acceptable partner and having children. The high points of our lives are weekends, nights out, holidays, special occasions, favourite tv programmes and sporting events. Life in between is spent waiting for these brief distractions from an otherwise dull and purposeless experience, distractions that pass all too quickly, leaving us with a sense of anticlimax and emptiness when they are over. We don’t appreciate the time we live. We act as if most of life is something to just ‘get through’, and ‘get out of the way’, while waiting for something better to happen. For many of us our idea of wellbeing is defined by only by those short periods when our stress and unhappiness is temporarily reduced.
All of us strive for happiness with everything we do each day but we don’t get anywhere because the ideas we have about happiness are completely wrong. 70% of clients with mental health problems have achieved all that they were supposed to, but it brought them no sense of achievement, peace of mind or wellbeing. That is because happiness is about something else entirely. Happiness is something the brain does and it has a lot less to do with the things in the external world than we imagine.
Our lives are littered with clues about what happiness really is. There are times when we feel genuinely happy but because our beliefs and ideas tell us that happiness looks like something else entirely we barely notice it, and when we do we dismiss it as something that has no real value.
Let me explain how this works. 30 years ago, at the beginning of my own journey to a better life, I was crossing my cheap rented room in Rathmines, Dublin, when I walked into a spider hanging down from the ceiling. It bounced off my face and I recoiled, as most of us might. I had much the same idea of spiders as everyone else. Spiders were “creepy crawlies” that weren’t really important enough to let live and I had killed 100s of them in my time, mostly in bedrooms, because I had the idea that they might crawl into my mouth when I slept. It’s clear to me now that they would have no interest in doing that.
I was carrying a book and I was about to crush this creature between the covers but for some reason I decided to look at him for a moment. He was just hanging there at my eye level so I could see him clearly. I could see his jointed legs, his weird eyes, the strange body, and I was soon struck by how ‘interesting’ he looked. And I kept looking and the more I watched him and studied him the more interesting and less ‘creepy’ he became. Within a few minutes it seemed clear to me that there was something utterly perfect about this creature. His construction was perfect and he was alive in the same way I was, and having his very own experience of living. At this point in my life I was a committed atheist but I was suddenly seeing something miraculous about this spider.
I didn’t understand it then but I was seeing the real spider for the very first time. Prior to this I saw only my ‘idea of the spider’, an idea that I had learned from everyone else as I was growing up. Most people treated spiders with distaste. Some were terrified of them and might run from the room screaming at the mere hint of a spider’s presence. When I saw a spider I saw only the idea of a creepy crawly that had no business being in the world, but when I paused and took the time to look, that idea vanished and I saw something that gave me a sense of awe. This is something that anyone can do for themselves.
Another good example of this is the grown man who runs from a room at the sight of a mouse. He sees a child’s idea of a mouse and feels a child’s emotions that are connected to that idea. He doesn’t see the reality of the small and harmless mouse itself, and never will until he allows himself to look at it closely. Similarly, think of all of the men, and women, in modern society who still ‘know’ that women are in some way ‘less’, less important, and having less value or having less entitlements, because they see only their idea of men and women, ideas learned in their own homes and communities, and not the reality of the persons. It is unexamined ideas that underlies bigotry in all its forms. It is unexamined and unnoticed ideas, ‘locked in’ by trauma and resistant to change, that underlie most so-called mental ‘illnesses’.
All of us experience ourselves and the world around us through the lens of our particular ideas, ideas we don’t even know we have, and a great many of them are complete nonsense. This is especially true about our ideas about happiness. These ideas fail us and they are strong enough to prevent us from noticing real happiness when we experience it.
My spider incident was a truly exhilarating life-changing moment for me but I didn’t value it at the time. In those days I believed that happiness had something to do with money, beer, avoiding loneliness and finding a girl, any girl, who found me attractive. It was only when I started to realise consciously that happiness itself was so vital, and I began to notice what truly made me feel happy, and what didn’t, that I remembered my spider moment and saw it for what it was.
A common experience of unregarded happiness in rain-soaked Ireland often occurs on a sunny spring morning. When we wake up to it, and leave our houses on our way to work, we might pause and notice the joy that it brings us, and it lifts our mood temporarily. We all feel it and we have the urge to share it with each other, to express that good feeling, to hold onto it for a while before it vanishes. But it doesn’t fit into our idea of what real happiness is about so we dismiss it as incidental and irrelevant to our larger purpose. Our larger purpose is to achieve happiness in ways that can never work. This is not unlike the donkey chasing a carrot.
The trail of breadcrumbs are those moments when we notice beauty in a grey world, when we feel curious, interested, inspired or awed. When we feel these things we feel alive inside, and we should notice this and chase this feeling with everything we have.
There are few things about 21st century living that make us feel alive. They seem like small things, like good weather, sunrises and sunsets, or being in the countryside and seeing something you haven’t seen before. For some it is walking, running or cycling, and for others it might be reading a book that inspires new thinking. We feel more alive when we meditate, properly. We feel alive when we notice the beauty, and the real nature, of other living things. We feel more alive when we make a real connection with a new person through ‘meaningful’ conversation, by sharing something of our real selves that we normally keep hidden. Most of us experience this in a big way at the beginning of a new romantic involvement, when we present ourselves and describe ourselves to another and see ourselves reflected through the eyes of someone we value, and like what we see. We call this ‘love’. It is a powerful yet temporary feeling that fades, and transforms into something else, sometimes something good and sometimes not.
All of the things that make us feel alive inside have one single thing in common. We feel alive when our brains come to life, usually when we are shaken out of our mundane daily routines by something different, by something that allows our ideas to change.
We could spend our lives looking for new things outside of ourselves to kick our brain into life, and many actually do, or imagine they do. But there is a simple principle about brain function that we should all know about that would save us time, money and wasted decades of ‘craic chasing’. When all of our basic survival needs are met, the brain requires only one thing to be completely alive and to allow us to feel happy, fulfilled and purposeful. It needs mind space. This is space in the mind in which the brain can breathe and do the work it needs to do. Mind space is the precise opposite of being absorbed in TV and radio programmes, computer games, the internet and social media, working life and household chores, or mundane conversation about things that don’t matter, because these are things that continually occupy the mind during each moment of our waking lives. The modern brain has no space to do the work it needs to do and becomes psychologically asphyxiated.
Mind space means spending time alone, without undue distraction, with only your thoughts for company, letting them come as they may. It means giving our brains time to breathe, to reflect and to learn from our day to day experience, which allows our ideas to change and change again.
Sounds preposterous, doesn’t it? This contravenes the most rigid social rules that we have and virtually no-one breaks those rules. Don’t spend too much time alone, don’t allow the mind to be idle, don’t think too much because you’ll go mental and be rejected by everyone, and above all else, avoid boredom at all costs!
This simple fact about the brain and mind challenges so many assumptions that we take for granted. Spending time in silence, alone and reflecting seems utterly unnatural and just plain wrong to us today, and yet this is how humanity has lived for over 99.99% of its time on this planet. It is only in the last 7 or 8 decades that we have so many technological ways to capture our attention, which deprives us of the essential time to be with our thoughts. This is why mental health problems have increased so much over those years to the virtual epidemic we are witnessing today. It is because this basic mind/brain relationship has not yet been noticed by mental health science that our conventional understanding of mind and mind disorders remains so unsophisticated.
If you want to experience happiness, fulfilment, and a life with real purpose and meaning, give your brain the space in mind to be fully alive. Turn off the TV and the computer. Drive without the car radio.
Spend a few hours alone with your thoughts and you might notice that you feel more vital. You might not feel better, because the painful bits of your history that you have been avoiding must emerge and be faced, but you will feel more alive.
Spend a day alone with your thoughts and some of the ideas that limit your perceptions will fall away, and the world will seem a warmer and more enriching place.
Spend three days alone with your thoughts and you might feel reborn and connected to the world in the way that mystics describe.
Spend 3 weeks alone in a cave each year, 40 days in the desert, or 49 days under a Bohdi Tree, and you might start a religion.
Michael L. Fox