Solve for freedom, and happiness will follow

Photo by Alex Wigan on Unsplash

The single most powerful factor that determines happiness is whether we can choose our actions voluntarily. All the comforts in the world cannot cure the restlessness that comes from knowing you can’t do what you want to, when you want to.

So why do we do things we don’t want to do?

One word: conformity.

The need to be part of a larger group is so intense that we are perfectly willing to forget our own interests and wishes just to be part of one.

‘Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.’ — John Maynard Keynes

Conformity is a default setting for humans because the fear of uncertainty is a bigger motivator than the desire to stand out.

Fitting in serves two important purposes in a highly complex world. First, it saves us time because we don’t have to figure everything out ourselves. We can just follow those who have gone before us.

Second, conformity signals our loyalty to a group, which is a critical need for survival. Exclusion from a group is one of the most dreadful feelings a human can experience and it literally feels like physical pain, as multiple studies have shown.

In sum, conformity helps us understand the rules of the game so that our life can proceed without major surprises. Conformity also enables us to work with others and get our share of the progress that joint human effort makes possible.

Conformity is in opposition to another, more deeper drive: the drive to stand apart from others, to be seen as an individual rather than just a member of a group.

A full life is where you can find the right balance between these two opposing forces. However, the vast majority of people stay embedded in a group all their lives, with any embers of individuality either completely dead or staying alive, but barely so.

On the face of it, the safety of conformity feels like it comes cheap but it doesn’t. The epidemic of stress is testament to that. Unlike what most people feel, stress isn’t the same as overwork. Stress is actually a lack of control. Not having control over your time, not having a say in what you work on, or how to shape your career: these are the ingredients for stress, not long hours.

We all know people who love their work so much that they can go on for hours upon hours without rest or food. Hard and seemingly unpleasant things become bearable when done of our own volition. You can’t climb mountains or cycle across the country if you don’t feel like doing it in the first place.

On the flip side, even simple tasks that you have no inherent desire to do can feel like insurmountable hurdles. Procrastination is nothing but a signal that you would rather be doing something else than the task at hand.

Autonomy is closely linked to the act of creating. An artist, craftsman or entrepreneur is in touch with his impulses and looks to transform them into something concrete in the world. The act of creating is to change the world in a little way, and it is this ability to affect reality that is the source of freedom. A free person is much better equipped to meet the challenges he is faced with because he can use his experience and skills to reframe reality through his creations.

An unfree person, on the other hand, not only has to worry about the problem but also whether the solution is appropriate or not. For instance, in a large company what matters is not whether you solved a problem but how you solved it. When the range of solutions is limited by their acceptability, you have no choice but to conserve some of your energy for keeping up appearances.

This is beginning of anxiety, because as American psychologist Rollo May wrote, anxiety is essentially confusion about who we are and what we should do. These two confusions are closely tied together because knowing what to do depends on what your estimation of yourself is.

Take a personal problem. You don’t try to play any other role except that of a parent when your child is sick. You are free in the personal domain, and that freedom ensures you don’t have to answer the question of who you are expected to be. Your sole aim is to find the most optimal solution for the problem at hand. You simply know what to do and you go do it.

But in domains where you have little autonomy, you just cannot throw your whole being at a problem because deep down you know it’s not your personal problem. Your primary motivation for solving such problems is to maintain your position in the tribe. So you might end up with a solution that is optimal not for the problem at hand, but for your own standing in the group.

Remember: Problems are not the problem. The type of problem is the problem.

So maybe we need to redefine happiness as the freedom to solve problems that matter to us. A problem-free existence is a myth because there just too many unknown variables at play in life.

What matters then, is not just how we respond to the questions life poses us, but which of those questions we even choose to respond to.

And to choose your question, you must be free.

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