Embracing the paradox of Goodness and Greatness

“Everything we do is for the purpose of altering consciousness. We form friendships so that we can feel certain emotions, like love, and avoid others, like loneliness. We eat specific foods to enjoy their fleeting presence on our tongues. We read for the pleasure of thinking another person’s thoughts. Every waking moment—and even in our dreams—we struggle to direct the flow of sensation, emotion, and cognition toward states of consciousness that we value.” Sam Harris

Summarising many hours of thinking and reading in my life, I wanted to write an article about what is perhaps one of the greatest sources of pensive thought for me in a kind of “brief meta-analysis”:

The paradox of goodness and greatness, and their nuanced relationship with happiness. 

Goodness, Gratitude, Satisfaction and Happiness

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.” Melody Beattie

“The key to the happy life, it seems, is the good life: a life with sustained relationships, challenging work, and connections to community.” Paul Bloom

One of the great features and insights in Buddhism is that craving is the source of our greatest suffering.

  • When we are happy, we crave for the feeling of happiness to linger longer.
  • When we are unhappy, we crave for the feeling of unhappiness to go away.

There is a significant amount of literature on the topics of goodness, gratitude, craving and happiness. We won’t go into any of that here except to say that it’s a “well-known fact” that gratitude and being satisfied with what we have and not constantly craving for things to be different is an essential component of happiness.

Moving on.

Greatness, Dissatisfaction, Improvement of the Human Condition and Happiness.

Good is the enemy of great. And that is one of the key reasons why we have so little that becomes great. We don’t have great schools, principally because we have good schools. We don’t have great government, principally because we have good government. Few people attain great lives, in large part because it is just so easy to settle for a good life.” Jim Collins

“Good enough never is.” Debbi Fields

In direct contradiction to the concepts above about goodness, there remains the fact:

It’s the people who were dissatisfied with the current human condition who worked their butts off to make the world a happier and better place, alleviating suffering, creating medicine to heal and prevent disease , creating science and education to overcome our ignorance, creating welfare to care for the poor.

Behind all of the great progress we have made as human kind were people who were judgemental of mere goodness, dissatisfied with the status quo, and driven (and craving) to make a better world.

Embracing the paradox: Goodness, Greatness and happiness

“Unlike the laws of physics, which are free of inconsistencies, every man-made order is packed with internal contradictions. Cultures are constantly trying to reconcile these contradictions, and this process fuels change.” Yuval Noah Harari (Sapiens)

I think both Goodness (with it’s “satisfaction” and “gratitude”) AND Greatness (with it’s “dissatisfaction”, “ingratitude” and “judgement”) are key features in the overall mosaic of leading a fully happy and fulfilled life.

Anecdote to illustrate; being sick and suffering

You’re sick at home. You feel miserable.

“Goodness”, in its pure form, would have you:

  1. Don’t crave to be well; embrace the feelings you are experiencing at this very moment.
  2. Be grateful that you are alive, be grateful that you have a home. Be grateful that you can take sick leave from your work. You have so much to be grateful for, and practicing gratitude will lead to more happiness.

“Greatness”, in its pure form, would have you:

  1. Seek out for, and crave to be well again. Don’t be satisfied with being ill.
  2. As a result of #1: Go see a doctor! Go take some medicine! Take action and improve your circumstances.

But how do those relate to happiness?

  • If you follow “goodness”, yeah sure maybe embracing gratitude etc. will help you experience more happiness, but you’re still sick and suffering. Perhaps by just following this you’d be sick for longer than necessary, experiencing more unnecessary suffering.
  • If you follow “greatness”, yeah sure maybe seeing a doctor and getting medicine etc. will help you recover sooner (and alleviate your suffering), but you’re still sick in this moment and craving to change that leads to suffering. 

Hence you need to both accept, as well as not accept, that you are sick.

  • Accepting it leads to happiness: because you stop craving for something different.
  • AND not accepting it (*and taking action) leads to happiness: because you take action and recover.

Hence the greatest happiness and well-being lies in embracing the paradox. 

Anecdote to illustrate; How much money do you want?

Do you have enough money? Do you want more money?

The desire to earn more money is a compelling force that drives many people. It is also an interesting topic to analyse with regards to its relationship with happiness.

“Goodness”, in its pure form, would have you:

  • Be grateful for the money that you have. Realise that what you have is “enough”.
  • Don’t crave to have more money.

“Greatness”, in its pure form, would have you:

  • Don’t be satisfied with how much you earn! Work more, work harder, work smarter, have a growth mindset.
  • Earn more. Change your life. Set your eyes on the horizon.

But how do those relate to happiness?

  • If you follow “goodness”, yeah sure having gratitude for what you money you have is an important part of life and being happy etc. but you could earn more. You could have more well-being with better financial circumstances; you could donate to that charity you’ve been wanting to support, you could buy that bigger car or bigger house that you’ve been looking for. You could provide a better lifestyle for your family.
  • If you follow “greatness”, yeah sure working harder and smarter etc. will help you get more money (and get you that car and that house and support that charity), but will it ever be enough? When do you turn around and say that you are satisfied? 

Hence you need to both accept, as well as not accept, how much money you earn.

  • Accepting it leads to happiness: because you stop craving for more, you realise that you have enough.
  • AND not accepting it (*and taking action) leads to happiness: because you work harder and smarter etc. to earn more money and provide for yourself better.

Hence the greatest happiness and well-being lies in embracing the paradox. 

The genius of the AND; embracing paradox

I previously wrote an article about Jim Collin’s The Genius of AND — the liberation of ourselves from non-paradoxical thinking.

Coupling that with Yuval Harari’s quote; “Unlike the laws of physics, which are free of inconsistencies, every man-made order is packed with internal contradictions. Cultures are constantly trying to reconcile these contradictions, and this process fuels change.”

Contradiction and paradox is a essential features of human culture and ideas. One day you want novelty, the next day you want stability. We are contradictory creatures, and our ideas do not all perfectly avoid contradiction.

So what is one way we can maximise human well-being? By embracing the contradiction of goodness AND greatness; embracing them both fully.

Shawn 09-07-2017

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