Should we live a short, carefree life on full speed or a long, mature and balanced life? On a recent vacation, this was a rather lengthy topic of conversation between a friend and I. Is life a test match or a T20? The arguments on both sides are strong. On the one hand, life is unpredictable and short. Why not give into your impulses and live life fully each day? Young people these days get heart attacks, die of car accidents or perhaps, equally tragically, get stuck in the routine of everyday life, pleasing others and keeping appearances, while not finding the time to do the things they really want to pursue.
There’s no problem with living each day as if it’s your last. Unless you wake up the next morning and find yourself having to re-make this decision again, every day. You can’t develop meaningful relationships or make a significant contribution to society if you’re just trying to make the most of your day. Ultimately, in the long-term, it’s these relationships and contribution to society that become our most important drivers of happiness. How do we reconcile the conflict between what we want today and the real drivers of our long-term happiness? Is there a secret formula for a golden middle which allows us to do both simultaneously?
The current framework society gives us, to think about this dilemma, a binary choice between immaturity and maturity. Immature people only think about today. They are impulsive, chasing highs and crashing out of life in the long-term. Mature people are the gold standard in a society which thrives on conformity; the cost of living mundane, cookie cutter lives is worth its weight in gold as it provides stability and balance. Is stability overrated or is it impulse which is overrated? The people who change the world are often impulsive but the people who hold the world from falling apart live very stable lives. Which life should we aim to live?
Is it possible to live each day maximising the long-term drivers of our happiness without giving into temptations in the short-term? Or is it possible to pick and choose temptations; almost titer them to the correct level so they allow you to enjoy every day without getting in the way of your long-term happiness? Or can the door to temptations — once open — never be closed again? The traditional answers to these questions lie in phases of your life. When you’re in school or university, it’s okay to live each day to the fullest. But when you become an adult or get married, we need to fall in line and pursue long-term happiness. Does life work in such linear, cleanly demarcated ways?
Perhaps, the answer lies outside the binary paradigm of maturity and immaturity. Perhaps, the answer lies in a different paradigm i.e., wisdom. We usually look at the short-term and long-term choices in terms of opportunity cost; choosing one means giving up another. This causes heartburn and anxiety. Are we making the right choice? How do we know the right choice is right? How do we choose between two options that look good? Or two life options that look equally bad?
Wisdom helps us navigate these choices in a completely different paradigm. The binary choice itself is false. We don’t necessarily need to choose between the short-term and long-term as much as we need to prioritise the real drivers of happiness regardless of the time frame in which they give us joy. This brings unexpected rather than premediated clarity in moments of truth. This also requires discipline, wisdom and follow through in decision-making. For most of us, despite all our differences, the real drivers of happiness remain remarkably the same: relationships, spirituality or meaning and contribution to society, finding joy in everyday moments and sprinkling in an adrenalin chase once in a while.
If you study these closely, the short-term and long-term tradeoffs are not as divorced as they appear in everyday choices where their differences are thrown into sharp contrast. However, they require us to construct a different type of life. A life of wisdom allows us to surface these long-term drivers of happiness everyday as a journey rather than a destination. In an age where millennials want everything in a single click, we must find a way to express gratitude for our real drivers of happiness rather than chase fleeting moments of joy in search of a mirage. In real life, the only miracles which come true are the ones we shape through our own choices, wisdom and hard work.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 7th, 2016.
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