Are we happiest when we achieve our goals, or when we’re striving towards them? Not that we can work indefinitely without rewards for our efforts, but I’ve come to the conclusion something deep within human nature thrives on working toward something, much more than it enjoys its achievement. Indeed, the checking-off of a long-held goal can often leave it’s holder almost mourning the loss of the driving force. Quiz any Olympian in a few months and I imagine they’d tell you much as they enjoy the medal, they’ve already set another incredibly challenging goal to work toward. This idea solidified as I was reading a passage from Letters on Life, a collection of correspondence from my favorite poet philosopher, Rainer Maria Rilke. In his introduction, Ulrich Baer notes that,
“To transcend the ego does not mean, for Rilke, to enter into a spiral of radical self-doubt and philosophical skepticism or to open the floodgates of unconscious desire and irrationality. It means to be swept up by the movement of one’s own heart (or soul, if you like, or seratonin levels) without ever reaching a state where this movement will lose its purpose and desire by being fulfilled.“
Practically, this means that those goals and resolutions that carry the most weight for me are those I intend to still be striving towards with my last breath. Each line of my Happiness Manifesto (Choose Happiness, Be Authentic, Love Boldly, et al) represents an idea that I will never cross of the list with satisfaction. Similarly, I think in love the deepest happiness is found when the wish in the heart of each moves beyond daily attainable resolutions (I will give daily expressions of love, like a kiss every morning) and instead grows into a higher, less concrete ideal (I wish to act in a way to bring them joy whenever I can). Yet so many times we set for ourselver these concrete goals that seem to take our eye off our highest potential and focus on our best today. Perhaps “lose 5 pounds” could be translated into “live a healthy life:” “learn French” might actually become “never stop learning something new.” Those concrete goals become milestones along the way, milestones to celebrate and enjoy, but not permission to let up one whit in our dogged pursuit of the higher goal and our best selves.