Stop chasing goals, happiness and labels.
“The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction, not a destination.” — Carl Rogers
Improve What You Spend Most Time On
Home field. Pressure. I had run a solid race for the first eight checkpoints, and I was fighting for the lead. But somewhere along to the ninth, I lost control. My navigation failed, and when I finally found the checkpoint I had lost over a minute. With four checkpoints left, I never caught up to the lead.
The sport I’m describing is orienteering. It’s a sport where you, by a map, navigate a course with several checkpoints before you get to the finish-line. And the point is to do this in the fastest way possible.
Although a course is visibly made up of checkpoints, punching in at them takes only about a second. It’s not what matters. What matters is the process of navigating from one checkpoint to another. That’s where you’ll spend most of your time.
The same can be said for life as a whole. The finish-line is death. The goals we set are checkpoints along the way. And the process is living it. If you wanted to improve your life, then focusing on the process would yield the best outcomes.
It’s what you would spend most of your time on, mattering most for your total well-being. Here’s 3 powerful outcomes when you live your life as a process:
I’m not expecting anyone to understand this, but here’s what a real-life example of an orienteering course looks like.
1. You Get off the Treadmill
Goals are limiting. They’re amazing tools in helping you achieve what you want, but beyond that, they do little for your total well-being. They’re limits, by nature, because they help you fixate on one specific thing while disregarding the rest.
Having them, in and of itself, isn’t really a problem though. It’s when you expect their outcomes to make your life better that the issues begin. Because when you set a goal, it’s not the achievement that does it for you. It’s the process by which you attain it.
Let’s say you’re a creative person, and you would like to find an outlet for your creativity. The first thing you try is writing, and you start off by setting a goal of selling one million copies of your book.
While achieving that would feel amazing, the rush of happiness would eventually fade; and your life would return to normal. If you expected life to be better because of it, you would likely feel a bit empty in the aftermath.
“The hedonic treadmill is a theory positing that people repeatedly return to their baseline level of happiness, regardless of what happens to them.”
If, as a writer, you also focused on a process, you would combat this hedonic treadmill effect. Instead of a goal of selling books, you could have a process of constantly improving your writing and sharing it with the world.
And because such a thing can be worked on forever, it doesn’t leave you feeling empty. A goal is a single moment; the process is forever. You can have goals, of course. But they should be set under an umbrella of a larger process.
This way, your goals wouldn’t be endpoints, but rather, checkpoints. That’s the outcome you learn from being a writer.
2. You Feel Meaning Instead of Happiness
Among others, the neurotransmitter dopamine is responsible for making you feel good when you approach something you want. That means, not only is there happiness in achieving a goal, but there’s also happiness along the way to it.
It’s not always possible to move closer to your goals, however. You face setbacks, difficulties, and challenges of various nature. These things disrupt your journey towards your goal. And with that, your sense of happiness too.
If, on the other hand, you think of your life as a process, you have already come to terms with the ups and downs of living.
You know there will be setbacks, but you also know there will be more good things to come. As a result, you don’t get effected as much. Sure, you appreciate the happiness you feel, but you also realize you got something better: meaningfulness.
While happiness only accounts for positive feelings, a meaningful process does that while including a lot of other feelings too.
It can even include suffering. Although happiness, not surprisingly, is a major contributor to feeling meaning, the meaningful process doesn’t have to include it. Through pain and suffering, it can still be meaningful. And the reason is because a process stretches beyond the singular goal.
It’s enduring, and helps you see life in a bigger perspective — as part of a bigger purpose. When you live your life as a process, you transcend happiness and go beyond it. As Michael F. Steger, one of the leading researchers on meaning explained:
“Meaning finds its highest expression in the transcendence of actions driven by a faulty view that stops at one’s own skin and extends only to the next moment. It is through rising above what I want right now, for my own sake, that I find meaning.” (paraphrased)
Let’s say you tried writing for a while, but then you wanted to become a singer instead. At once, you’re offered to entertain people in a long-term care facility. If then, you’re mostly concerned about happiness, you would seek to gratify your immediate, self-centered desires, which would be getting to sing in front of an audience.
If you were more concerned with meaning, however, you would seek to make a contribution to others through your singing, as well as appreciating what it does to yourself.
Meaning is better than happiness because it touches the better parts of human nature. That’s the outcome you learn from being a singer.
3. You Accept the Totality of Who You Are
Just as goals are limiting, your identity can be limiting as well. Take all the Instagram bios, for example, where a whole life is boxed into a few distinctive labels. “I’m a Gemini. INTP-personality. Solopreneur.” Do these things liberate people? Or do they limit them?
While labels have utility when expressing who you are to others, it’s not as helpful to yourself. Sure, there’s safety in having a set identity, but being too concerned with labeling who you are can limit you from experiencing all that you are.
The best in life happens when you transcend these labels. Going beyond them allows you to explore the totality of who you are, and accept yourself — for everything you are now, have been, and ever hope to become.
Carl Rogers, the founder of humanistic psychology, had some reassuring words for people who wanted to accept themselves. Here are two examples of what he believed:
- There’s no fixed state you have to achieve. You can be different from day to day, hold different emotions toward the same things, and even contradict yourself. You’re a process; something that changes.
- You can trust the process that is you — your creativity, your feelings, your values, and your uniqueness. Everything inside you, good or bad, is part of your totality. And you accept it enough to trust it.
First, you left your writings to become a singer, but now you feel your creative urges lead you toward painting. You buy the supply and make a few paintings, but you’re having trouble accepting them as art. You look at them and think “this is not how good artists paint.”
To look at history, Van Gogh, too, realized that no great painter painted like him. Still, he accepted his inner process of himself and continued to express his uniqueness. It is as though he said, “Good artists don’t paint like this, but I paint like this.”
Although he was never understood in his lifetime, today we look to his work in amazement. That’s the outcome you learn from being a painter. But more than that, you also learn you can express your creativity in three different fields, because there are no limits to who you are.
When you live your life as a process, you start to see yourself as a process as well. Instead of limiting yourself by a fixed identity, you realize the complex process of who you are. You’re fluid. Changing.
Not one person, not one thing. You’re as many things as there are possibilities to living. In the bigger picture — when you step back and look at your life as a whole — you realize the labels don’t matter. What matters is embracing the process called life; and living it to the best of your abilities.
When you think of arriving at life’s finish-line, what will you look back on as the source of your well-being?
Would it be the goals, happiness, and labels? Or would it be getting off the treadmill, meaningfulness, and accepting the totality of who you are? It’s up to you to decide.